Angel and the Badman (1947)

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With John Wayne partnered with his longtime collaborator James Edward Grant (Hondo, McClintock!) it’s easy to see Angel and the Badman as an early vehicle for his conservative ideals but far from being heavy-handed, it goes down as a solid B-picture with a surprisingly unique perspective on the West.

In this instance, the western is used to construct a fairly simple parable that plays out over the frontier using figures that we know well from every cowboy picture we’ve ever seen.  The outlaws and the homesteaders, the sheriffs and the doctors, they’re all present.

But underlying their every interaction is a certain purpose. It’s not simply to entertain — though the film is adequate in that department and has it’s share of gunfights and showdowns. It foregoes most of the normal set pieces to carry out its main objective as a moral tale. Still, these established figures help draw up the themes by the very way they see the world.

Quirt Evans (John Wayne) has and always will be an outlaw as preordained by society until the fateful day when he finds sanctuary in the home of a Quaker family after incurring a wound. They take care of him and nurse him back to health but above all, they give him the benefit of the doubt — that he is not too far gone and he still has more than a fair chance to redeem his life if he so chooses.

The local apothecary functions as the main counterpoint to our angelic first family. He is very rational-minded, devoted to scientific thought and his cynicism leads him to begrudgingly patch up the outlaw all the while grumbling under his breath. It’s telling though that he holds this overtly religious family in high regard. But nevertheless, the parameters have been set. We must sit back and find out where John Wayne falls within the frames of this corral.

It’s true that he’s saddled with a past full of womanizing, guns, greed, and every other sin known to man. In fact, the local sheriff is bent on hanging a rope around his neck but the old veteran (Harry Carey) is a sly fellow ready to bide his time and let Quirk slip up somehow.

The main point of contention is a payload of gold that a band of glowering thugs is intent on getting a handle on. Quirt is all that stands between them and the prize but even in his injured state he still packs a gun — the bullets inside and his stellar marksmanship being the key deciding factors.

Playing against this very storyline is a parallel thread that bears equal importance if not more. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) is the daughter of this Quaker family and she is tasked with taking care of this formidable outlaw. In any other scenario, they would be oil and water. Their lives and personalities should never mix and yet in this romance, they ultimately do. True, his lawless lifestyle chafes against the worldview of these religious Quakers who promote an existence of good will and pacifism. Still, people can change.

John Wayne notably disliked High Noon (1952) and his most famous denouncement of the picture can be seen in Rio Bravo (1959), viewed by many as a cinematic answer to its predecessor. However, in this earlier film, you see in Wayne’s character a man who also falls for a Quaker much like Will Kane (Cooper) does in High Noon. But here he comes from the wrong side of the law. Still, she redeems his very nature and far from throwing off the perceived shackles of her beliefs or simply tolerating them to stick to what he knows best (namely gunplay and showdowns) he does the fairly brazen thing and wholeheartedly embraces her way of life. Because he loves her.

It begs the question, which outcome is more believable: The sheriff who went against his wife’s pleas so he could uphold his personal convictions or the outlaw who gave up his old way of life even in the face of death because he was transformed by the love and lifestyle of his woman? Rather than drawing up which one is better exactly, it might suffice to say that Angel and the Badman, while lesser known, is still a diverting western with its own moral dilemma because westerns are and always have been horse operas.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Moonrise (1948)

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It’s like being in a long dark tunnel…the way you look and act and talk. ~ Gail Russel as Gilly

From its very foreboding outset, there’s no question that Frank Borzage’s Moonrise could be characterized as film-noir. Everything suggests as much from the scoring to the stylized imagery and even the subject matter. We have hangings, brawls, fistfights, and murder all under 5 minutes of celluloid. But equally important, the film delves into the psychological depths of despair and more than any of Borzage’s films it seems invested in the mental well-being of its characters.

Dan’s personal narrative is brought to us early on. His father was hung for some inexplicable reason. The kids in school brutally tease him about the ignominious shame of his family which he has no control over and all throughout his life thereafter he carries a chip on his shoulder. We don’t quite understand him but at least we begin to empathize. We meet Dan (Dane Clark) again as an adult at a local dance.

That’s where the next chapter in his story begins as he tries to bridle his anger and keep the reins firmly in check. It doesn’t always work so well for him. After all, he is the man with a constant death wish driving cars on wet roads like it’s the Indy 500. He is the man who is prone to strong-arm tactics. He is the man who trusts no one to be his friend and expects very little from others. But he does have one thing going for him.

Her name is Gilly (Gail Russell), she’s the local schoolteacher, and if nothing else her very presence humanizes him. She formerly ran with the local hotshot (Lloyd Bridges) but she has found some quiet decency in Dan and if she sees it, maybe we can see more in him as well. In some ways, he’s still a little boy and she reads him like one of her students with thinly veiled observations. His frumpy Aunt Jessie pins him as a good boy but that doesn’t make up for the absence of his parents or the anger that he still harbors from boyhood.

But a small town setting and a purported crime prove to be an ever-intriguing synthesis of Americana and the ugly underbelly which if it doesn’t rear its head through gossip alone, then murder certainly fits the bill in a pinch. It’s summed up by dances, carnivals, and coon hunts with an undeniable undercurrent of darkness.

As far as I can tell Charles F. Haas had few other feature scripts to his name but his work in Moonrise offers up some interesting figures full of witticism and unique voices that help to differentiate each from the diverse pack.

The bullied mute Henry Morgan is at one time befriended and also berated by Dan. Rex Ingram proves to be a landmark African-American actor for the era, full of a quiet strength and wisdom. As local keeper of the bloodhounds, he addresses his canines as Mr. Dog surmising that everyone is entitled to a certain amount of dignity. Just as importantly, he rightfully asserts that man is a communal being (Man oughta have a woman. Man oughta live with other folks).

The Local Soda Jerk has the jive talk down pat and Lloyd Bridges and Harry Carey Jr. fill in for a couple relatively minor spots. Of course, Ethel Barrymore is in the coveted keynote cameo as Daniel’s  sagely Grandma. But aside from Ingram’s significant turn, Alyn Joslyn is one of the more entertaining characters as the sheriff who waxes philosophical. One of townsfolk even notes as much that he should have been a preacher man instead of a lawman.

Cinematically speaking, Moonrise proves that the finest places to meet your best gal seem to be darkened interiors and if nothing else it’s a feast for the eyes and a treat for the audience. And it’s true that with its quaint country backwoods and swamps, Borzage’s picture shares some of its world with Joseph L. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950). But for Borzage, in particular, this feels very much like a departure which is by no means a bad thing. Here the love story is still present but it seems to ultimately have a different functionality altogether from many of the director’s most remembered entries.

3.5/5 Stars

Seven Men From Now (1956)

220px-Poster_of_the_movie_Seven_Men_from_NowAlong with Detour, Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now is undoubtedly one of the greatest B-films I have seen to date. It rejuvenated the career of Randolph Scott who plays gruff sheriff Ben Stride. We are introduced to the often stoic man when he walks into a dimly lit cave during a torrential downpour. There he meets two strangers and demonstrates his skill with a gun for the first time.

For the rest of the film, he comes alongside a couple from the East, struggling to move westward with all their possessions carted on a wagon. The husband John Greer (Walter Reed), is a chipper man, but not a very adept pioneer. His kindly wife Annie (Gail Russell) loves him in spite of this ineptitude. He doesn’t say much, but Stride seems to like them both as well or at least, he knows they won’t make it very far without help. So after helping them get their wagon out of some thick mud, he sticks by their side.

They are eventually joined by Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his accomplice Clete, who look to make some money in the wake of Stride. He willfully explains to the Greers how Stride used to be the sheriff in the town of Silver Springs, before his wife was killed by a group of bandits when they were robbing a Wells Fargo shipment. He made it his mission to track down the seven men who took part in the act. And so as an opportunistic schemer Masters is content with riding along with Stride until the opportune moment to score a big payoff.

In this way, he helps the Greers and Stride fend off some Apache and even puts a bullet through a man before Stride gets it. If we didn’t know better, we might think that Lee Marvin has gone to the good side for once. But that’s not so. He’s full of insinuations, flirtations, and veiled threats that somehow feel more ominous than a Vince Stone or Liberty Valance. It’s not just physical brutality but he is playing perhaps an even deadlier game of mental warfare. Against not only Stride, but Mrs. Greer, and her husband.

It’s around this point that Masters and Clete make a move. They alert Stride’s nemesis to his plans and just like that two men go and ambush the veteran sheriff. He knocks them both off after receiving a wounded leg that leaves him unconscious out in the canyon. Luckily the Greers come across him and John decides to take responsibility for what he has unknowingly done. He goes into town to face the music for the role he has ignorantly taken in this whole deadly affair. After discounting Greer as weak and spineless, Masters is finally forced to recant his previous statement.

What’s left is Ben Stride out in the canyon with the Wells Fargo shipment, but with two new bandits and Masters and Clete, it looks to be a bloody finale. After a bit of backstabbing, Ben Stride stands alone in the aftermath. He has completed his odyssey and he says goodbye to Ms. Greer with a new resolve to take on the role of deputy sheriff in Silver Springs. But it’s doubtful if that is the end of his story.

4/5 Stars

 

Moonrise (1948)

MoonriseHere is a low budget yet artistic film from Frank Borzage. I will be honest that I had never heard of Borzage before a year or two ago and he seems to have lost some of the respect he had early on in the 20th century. The same can be said for his stars Dane Clark and Gail Russell who are unknowns to most unless you hailed from those times. I was saddened to find Russell struggled with alcoholism which contrasts with the surprisingly hopeful ending of this melodramatic noir.

Ultimately, Danny Hawkins (Clark) was able to let go of all his hatred and accept justice. Instead of throwing away his life he got the girl and came to terms with reality.

Perhaps the most striking moment of this film was the highly stylized and dark opening showing the hanging of Danny’s father and his early childhood afterwards. In only a few minutes Borzage told us so much about Danny. Thus, during the entire films those images stuck with us and we could still feel a sense of empathy for him.

Despite there small parts, I was excited to see Lloyd Bridges, a young Harry Morgan, and Harry Carey Jr. All in all this was an interesting film and it causes me to want to see more from Borzage.

3.5/5 Stars