Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Below the Mexican border, during Antebellum days, a diverse array of Americans find themselves in the middle of the fight against Maximillian of France. Vera Cruz is far from a history lesson, however. It need not be. Still, it plays as an important footnote in a different type of history altogether, that of the classic western genre in a current state of evolution, jutting ahead into the 60s.

The script is not always phenomenal, but what it does have is an Aldrich-like penchant for the cynicism of noir. It starts to make even more sense when you consider Borden Chase’s pedigree: a fine row of Anthony Mann westerns. And yet the good sense of amusement overshadows everything else. This is how it still manages to remain a product of the 50s (which isn’t necessarily bad).

Its other readily available and beneficial assets are star power: the pairing of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster fits the bill. Then, the on-location shooting does so much to elevate the environmental credibility. There is no other way to make this picture feel truly robust aside from actually finding your way down to Mexico. It’s not that it’s a wholly authentic experience, but at least something in these locales breathes of some form of reality.

Lancaster has the beefier, more intriguing part as Joe Erin, but Gary Cooper (Ben Trane) is able to bring his even-keeled strength to a new generation of westerns, and it serves the picture splendidly. It’s paramount that the two stars act as the utter antitheses of one another while still managing to be opposite sides of the same archetype.

Their garbs still plant them squarely in the traditions of olds, Cooper in the light colors of an undisputed hero and Lancaster game to wear the pitch-black clothes of a two-bit bandit, who would shoot a man in the back and hold children hostage.

Due to Coop’s presence, I couldn’t help but feel Vera Cruz is somehow reminiscent of the adventure films of old like Lives of a Bengal Lancer. There is a similar sense of camaraderie here and our main characters are able to blow through their mission on their own personal valor, even as the locals only purpose seems to be that of collateral damage.

As hinted at before, Vera Cruz is also an early forerunner to a future generation of westerns, all but losing the luster of the mythologized west for something grittier, more graphic, and in some ways, more stylized.

This is the lineage that will lead us to The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, and The Wild Bunch Et al. The presence of Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine in a pair of minor thuggish roles are a convenient nod to their future counterparts. For that matter, even Jack Elam would get into Once Upon a Time in the West.

The picture can generally be characterized by two distinct tones: giddy in one moment and equally tense and unsentimental in the next. If you mentally draw up any partnerships or rivalries in the picture, you’re probably apt to see it. It’s incredibly fluid. This precedent is effectively established when Erin growls at his pack of thugs that they aren’t even his friends. Instead of ganging up on Trane, he welcomes him aboard into their merry company.

In other words, he doesn’t show favoritism, nor does he harbor any kind of sentimentality. It’s both an asset and a curse. Always game for a new gun to come around, but equally intent upon looking after number one. His sole allegiance is to himself.

In their attempts to sell themselves out as mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War — potentially to Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) — they find themselves trapped. Rebels poke their heads over the side of mission walls, guns pointed menacingly down on them.

One must only dip back into the memory bank to remember a similar visual in Butch Cassidy. But of course, in this picture Coop is still infallible and by most accounts, indestructible. Talking his way out of predicament with casual diplomacy and whipping out his six-shooter only upon provocation. He’s entered the grimy, blood-spattered world full of its ambiguous tones, and yet he still remains stalwart. One of the last remaining bastions of the archetypal western hero.

If anything, Vera Cruz signals the decline of his reign over the West, even as it manages to have a wagon full of fun. They show their prowess with a Winchester rifle in the courts of Emperor Maximillian, only to be entrusted with a tenuous mission to escort a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Veracruz. Their valuable cargo winds up being more precious than they first envisioned when they discover it’s loaded up with gold bullion.

The gold becomes the driving force worthy of all sorts of double-crosses and easily rearranged allegiances. There are those driven by greed, others who want the kingdom, and still others, the most noble of all, who want to return the nation to its rightful rulers.

In this last act, the patriotic Juarista and the French forces face off with all the fervor you can imagine. The editing feels surprisingly quick for a day and age when breaking 10 seconds on an individual shot was not altogether uncommon.

Aldrich, in his first big production, fused with the talents of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, boasts a picture with a lot of frenetic energy to offer. It is an imperfect, at times, disjointed effort, but it willingly takes hold of the bridle and rides the story to a worthwhile conclusion.

There are ample visually striking moments to reference, from a column of men on horseback fleeing across the plains and then, in the climactic moments, gattling guns rattling the terrain with bullets. Cannon volleys follow in earnest as a charging onslaught of men look to take the Bastille, as it were. Clouds of gunpowder and smoke hang in the already dusty air.

This is purely on the macro level. Overlaid with Erin’s relentless ambitions to acquire the gold for his own, and Trane looking to do anything in his power to keep him at bay. It comes down to the fated face-off, all but bubbling under the surface from the first time they ever laid eyes on one another. Do you really need to guess the outcome? See it for yourself.

The final emblematic images are of a ravaged battleground strewn with dead bodies. Widows and orphans scurrying to find loved ones and survey the damage. Who ends up with the gold at this point feels inconsequential. The conclusions drawn might as well be the cataclysmic effects of avarice and war. Though Vera Cruz has enough wherewithal to manage a decently good time going about it. This might be an unfeeling observation to make but, once again, it also remains a fitting portent for the future.

3.5/5 Stars

Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of the Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Love in The Afternoon (1957): The Wilder Touch

220px-Love_in_the_afternoon_(1957)_-_movie_poster.jpgBilly Wilder, more than any screenwriter I’ve ever known, has a knack for voiceover narration. What other novices consider a crutch to feed us information, he uses as an asset to set tone, story, and location, while offsetting the image with the spoken word.

Take the beginning of Love in The Afternoon, for instance. The voice is unmistakable. The place too. The tone, typical Wilder. We are given a tour of the Left Bank, The Right Bank, and in the in-between, where men and women can be seen in the throes of “amour,” as it were.

The presence of Maurice Chevalier is unquestionably a nod to Wilder’s hero Ernst Lubitsch who utilized the dashing Frenchmen in many of his most successful operettas. Now, although graduating to a more mature part, he nevertheless maintains a similar persona. He is suave, charming, and still embroiled in romantic trysts, albeit on the outside looking in, literally — as a highly adept private investigator.

Already in the opening sequence, although this might be the closest Wilder ever got to his idol in content, it becomes obvious their definitive styles could not be more diametrically opposed. “The Lubitsch Touch” was very much trying to put a name to an impeccable sense of visualizing comic situations with a kind of shorthand, provided the audience is in on the joke as well. Not that Lubitsch’s work with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson lacked verbal wit or that the younger filmmaker’s oeuvre lacked visual flair. Far from it.

However, Wilder’s style is predominantly devoted to the written word, imbuing the comic situations with a bite and wittiness, which under other circumstances might be stale. The beauty is one approach is not inherently better than the other and as time has been fairly good to both men, it’s needless to pick favorites (though I do love Wilder).

John McGiver, by all accounts, is in his debut, but he’s got the flustered British husband down, fully intent on finishing off his rival who has stolen away his wife from him. He called on the services of Claude Chavasse (Chevalier), and the man’s almost too successful.

Legendary international playboy extraordinaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) almost ends up shot to bits, if not for Chavasse’s own daughter. His pride and joy, Arianne (Audrey Hepburn), is currently attending a music conservatory, and her father has kept her shielded from his sordid work life. This has hardly kept her from sneaking into his files and being enraptured by the romantic trysts and fairytale romances found within his records.

The cream of the crop is Flannagan who is experienced in the ways of the world and romancing — an attractive existence she can only dream of. It tickles her fancy and so she goes to save him. It’s her good deed, to allow his life to continue as is.

One invaluable component of his seduction is the four-piece ensemble “The Gypsies” and their tune “Fascination” becomes a bit of a code word for the certain je ne sais quoi that happens between two people caught up in passion.

Billy Wilder has an equally astute ability in using music to punctuate his comedy through frenzied strings, featured in everything from Love in The Afternoon to Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. If those tactics don’t quite pan out, he inserts a handy bit of Americana like Mickey Mantle’s batting average.

The greatest development in this rom-com occurs when Flannagan finds himself enthralled by the peculiar girl who wound up on his balcony and saved his neck. She is so sensitive, a wisp of a girl, so different than the women he has known before. He also knows very little about her but desires to entertain her along with his other conquests.

Not to be outdone, Ariane strives to play a part worthy of his reputation. She takes on the facade of a femme fatale with rows of lovers of her own to rattle off in her dictaphone for his bemusement — completely turning the tables on him. Truthfully, she couldn’t be more in love with him, but she suspects a man of his reputation is not quick to change his womanizing ways.

Before getting to the goods, it seems necessary to mention the elephant in the room. Gary Cooper was about 56 years old when this picture came out, and Audrey Hepburn was 28. Just looking at the numbers makes one cringe a bit, and the most uncomfortable thing is how it shows up onscreen.

I do adore Audrey Hepburn. She’s so innocently sweet with the same demure eloquence and pristine diction exhibited in every one of her pictures. Crawling around in her elegant attire looking for her lost shoe is as endearing as any moment she has. It makes us appreciate her all the more. Because she is so very lovable.  And Gary Cooper is usually fine — everyone knows him as the 20th-century representation of All-American manhood — but together it does feel a bit stiff and uninspired.

Our star does his best but he was never a romantic comedy lead in the manner Cary Grant was. There you have part of his problem. Because even the two Lubitsch comedies he appeared in — Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife — were hardly the preeminent offerings from either man.

In some cases, one plus one does not always add up sufficiently. Although it’s the greats who often transcend such equations to give us something of exponential worth. Unfortunately, Cooper plus Hepburn is fine but never enters any purely magical, uncharted territory. Like she did with Gregory Peck or maybe even Cary Grant. It’s not simply a matter of the uncomfortable age discrepancies. It has to do with out and out compatibility.

There is another major qualm too. Namely the mammoth length of the narrative seemingly dragging leaden in the middle. Because it relies on the chemistry of our leads more than any other element or supporting character, the subsequent weaknesses become all the more evident.

However, you might remember a few years after starring with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant had one of his first non-romantic rolls playing matchmaker in Walk, Don’t Run. Maybe it’s a thankless job, but without the piece (seen also from Charles Coburn on occasion) you would not have the glue to hold the movie together. Here Maurice Chevalier swoops in lithely again to bring the story to its closure.

He puts the ball in Cooper’s court, to evoke an American sporting metaphor, giving the man his daughter is in love with the license to play with the dramatic irony. Their relationship is only resolved in the last possible moment. In the nick of time, Frank Flannagan saves his reputation — maybe he’s not a bad sort after all — though the final kiss is still a bit disconcerting. (What I wouldn’t give for Jack Lemmon right about now.)

We can concede Love in The Afternoon comes in for a final landing tying everything together along those two lines, with the Parisian passion shrouded by the Wilder malaise and yet supplied a touch of tearful sentimentality. In the end, Ariane and Frank spend a life sentence together of the best sort. If you’ve been in love you know what it’s like. You don’t need this movie to show you.

3.5/5 Stars

Friendly Persuasion (1956): Gary Cooper’s Quaker Clan

220px-Poster_-_Friendly_Persuasion_01The when is 1862. The where is Southern Indiana. We find ourselves in the throes of Quaker country as envisioned by novelist Jessamyn West and brought to the screen by his eminence, William Wyler.

What follows is a lovely opening gambit with a goose about as anthropomorphic as they come without completely shattering the sense of movie realism. He nips our little narrator, a Quaker lad named Jess (Richard Eyer) in the seat of the pants to punctuate our mellow tale on a comical note.

Authenticity, historical, religious, or otherwise, is not what Friendly Persuasion is concerned with. We might call it into question on any number of accounts. Still, it is packed full with enough tweeness for every “thee” uttered by the kindly Quakers who exist within the frames.

The gentle satire is of a certain warmth and unassuming candor, we cannot help but smile at because unadulterated goodness leaves behind a luster. Indeed, it is one of the finest attributes of the picture. Their matriarch (Dorothy McGuire) is zealously religious and abhors violence, but we can hardly label her unkind. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Gary Cooper) is about as genial as they come.

As with most small-town communities, about the most exciting experience you can possibly partake in is a traveling carnival. Imagine you’re a Quaker and then every stray stimulus and forthcoming attraction becomes 10 times more novel.

The ascetic folks pushing the boundaries of their normal sensibilities is played for a bit of humor. It might be dancing a jig gaily with a handsome beau, trying a hand at a musical instrument a salesman is trying to peddle, or a young boy getting the itch for gambling in the form of the ever-dubious shell game.

Cooper winds up winning a pair of sleeve holders, which look eerily similar to a pair of garters, while a stocky Quaker boy gets caught up in a wrestling match only to back down as it begins to impinge on his beliefs. He has vowed like all his brethren never to hurt anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, it is perceived as weakness and worse yet a dereliction of duty when it comes to fighting for your country. Because the Civil War is on everyone’s mind.

Friendly Persuasion becomes a diluted effort due to its length, which, while giving adequate time for many asides and quaint observations, takes away from the import of the material. It’s not quite capable of navigating the straights between social issues and jocularity — it’s never quite assured — settling for a rocky path.

The young soldier, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), is the force tying the family to the war directly as he has eyes for their daughter, while still maintaining his duty toward the Union Army. It stays in the periphery for a time. However, it’s inevitable, with the extent the war is spreading, they must make decisions of their own. This is what is being set up for each individual character, and they must react accordingly.

However, this is not solely about a message of pacifism, but in a society split up of many religious sects and political factions, it is a film with some sense of continued relevance. It even dabbles with the same dichotomy as Sergeant York (1941), having to do with the commandment entreating the adherents not to murder. The question remains: is there a semantic difference between murder and killing? More important still, is there a difference in the hearts of men. The film has to forge its own path.

Separately, Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire appear suited for the material as they both bring a certain sensibility and ingrained honesty to nearly every part. Side by side, the chemistry between the two of them seems relatively absent and not simply because of their mundane temperaments. It could do with the fact Coop never wanted the actress to play opposite him, to begin with. Ingrid Bergman was his choice, but she passed on it.

Anthony Perkins’ role is slight in the way all his performances seem to be, and yet their unassuming skittishness somehow imbues them with their own brand of resonance. It’s true, after only his second film, the writing on the wall said he was destined to be a great star. They weren’t wrong; his career just didn’t end up quite as people might have expected. Of course, Norman Bates was a jarring subversion of his image, simultaneously redefining (and typecasting) it for all posterity.

While it’s easy enough to think of them as being on different strata, Perkins feels like he could easily be an earlier version of Tommy Kirk from Old Yeller (1957). Where a boy is put through the gauntlet and must come to terms with harsh realities of life. Of course, McGuire would again play the maternal figure in the latter Disney production.

In this picture, she gets her moment with the homestead being overrun with Rebs. Doing her best to keep her composure through hospitality, she nevertheless lets one of them have it over the head with a broom for going after the family goose. Cooper’s own confrontation with a Rebel soldier occurs in an open clearing, serving as his final test and a bit of a case study the film puts in front of us.

He passes, and it’s not what we usually expect from Cooper. Not only were audience expectations undone, but Cooper himself seemed to think the hero he was, and played on-screen, would have normally acted differently. We can make a judgment call on whether or not he was right.

One is reminded High Noon (1952) succeeded in its storytelling with a lean running time featuring a very concrete progression of scenes. Coop was an archetypal hero, even one of the western greats in Will Kane, but we also know where we will be going when the clock strikes 12. There is not the same urgency to Friendly Persuasion — it’s much looser  — ultimately too good-natured to hammer home its themes with any amount of authority. There’s no fault in a lighter tone per se, but it could have amounted to a whole lot more providing there was tauter plotting.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Teresa Wright

We continue our series chronicling the career of classic Hollywood stars with 4 films. This week our subject is Teresa Wright a genial actress with a high degree of success throughout the 1940s at MGM.

If memory serves, she remains the only performer to have received Oscar nominations for her first three roles. Her later career stalled mostly impart to her willingness to challenge the rigid structures of the studio system.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the often unsung talent of Teresa Wright!

The Little Foxes (1941)

What an auspicious way to begin a film career not only playing opposite Bette Davis but being directed by William Wyler in a spectacular ensemble including Herbert Marshall and Dan Duryea. Wright more than substantiates her reputation as a wholesome ingenue amid an otherwise treacherous menagerie. Mrs. Miniver would do much the same to uphold her image.

The Pride of The Yankees (1942)

There’s not a better choice to play Eleanor the wife of the Iron Horse, Yankee legend, and ALS casualty Lou Gehrig. The chemistry between Wright and Gary Cooper is genial and playful from the beginning. This is what makes the hardship even more devastating. In her lady years, I heard Wright was quite the avid Yankees fan, and after this film you can see why.

The Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

This is arguably the pinnacle of Teresa Wright’s career pairing her with Alfred Hitchcock and giving her top billing across from Joseph Cotten as her treacherous uncle and namesake Charlie. It’s the height of rural noir where the darkness of the outside world seeps into idyllic Santa Rosa as the wanted widow murderer seeks refuge. Her own is quickly thrown into jeopardy when he begins to suspect she knows…

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If I’m correct, this is the film that first introduced me to Teresa Wright, and I was immediately smitten with her charms as the grown daughter of Myrna Loy and Frederic March. She finds herself caught up in a romance with a returning G.I. stuck in a loveless marriage (Dana Andrews). What makes it so powerful is the fact this is only one relationship in the patchwork William Wyler creates out of the Boone City community.

Worth Watching:

Mrs. Miniver, Pursued, The Men

The Westerner (1940): Made by Walter Brenna and Gary Cooper

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I do appreciate older films running their credits at the beginning, and I make a habit of perusing them for familiar names. More often than not, I’m rewarded in some small regard. However, The Westerner features a rather unusual notice:  “This story is legend founded on fact and, with the exception of “Judge” Roy Bean and Lily Langtry, all the characters are fictional.”

It seems a curious statement to make, but upon actually viewing this western, it makes complete sense. Not simply because the genre thrives off of myths, legends, and larger-than-life heroes, but the story is as much a testament to its characters than the offbeat movements of its plot. To a varying degree, it precedes thematic elements found in pictures like Shane (1953), The Far Country (1954), and Day of The Outlaw (1959).

Judge Roy Bean is one of the eccentric and notorious “hanging” judges of the Old West who supposedly lorded over the Texas territories. It’s difficult to think of a better man to play the ornery son of a gun than Walter Brennan. It’s even harder to think of a better part for Brennan. He’s got his name all over it.

Because he’s part of the local crowd of cattlers who are ready to do everything in their power to get the miserable sodbusters off the land they deem to be rightfully theirs. After all, they got to the land “first” so dibs should obviously go to them, no matter how much land is available.

The animosity is already fierce when the film opens with the cattle ranchers looking to scare off and gun down any of the opposition. Meanwhile, the homesteaders are intent on protecting their own with guns if they have to, continuing to grow their crops and fence off their territory.

But one brazen individual isn’t so lucky as he’s tracked down and brought before the “Judge” who holds court in his own bar and sentences the man be “hung.” It’s one of the grimmer moments in a western offering otherwise ripe with jocular even humorous interludes.

Because the inevitable occurs and the prototypical saddle tramp, Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is drifting his way to California. It wouldn’t mean much except for the fact he’s accused of riding a stolen horse belonging to one of the cattlemen.

As is typical in the territory, he’s about to be tried and strung up right there in the bar. The Judge is all ready to throw the book at him. But Gary Cooper is not your typical man. Normally we would say he’s a stellar gunfighter or a fierce personality, but what he’s armed with, in this picture, is a quick wit.

We see his eyes gazing up at the wall above him as his mind works coolly to make up a story to save his own skin. It’s quite obvious that Bean has a special admiration for one dancehall performer Lilly Langtry and so, of course, Cole’s story goes something like this…

He once met Ms. Langtry while she was touring the states and struck up a friendship with her. Why he even asked for a lock of hair to hold onto as a keepsake. And of course, he doesn’t have it on his person. He would have to call for it. By this point, Bean is licking his lips with relish; the jury concurrently convening on whether or not the out-of-towner should be strung up.

We see Harden has gained a very influential admirer and he and the Judge strike up an uneasy partnership that we might tentatively call friendship. Conveniently, another horse thief — the real one — is found to take his place. Thereafter, the story is injected with subsequent comic undertones following a real bender, leading into a chase on horseback as Brennan tries to catch up to Cooper. He really wants that lock of hair for himself!

They both end up rolling around in the dirt conducting a meeting of the minds to decide if he will stay. In a perfect follow-up, the camera switches angles with Brennan’s back to the camera as they continue to converse and Cooper nonchalantly slips the other man’s gun into his boot.

It’s interludes like these that continually assert the film as a wholly idiosyncratic take on the western genre, which, by all accounts, wasn’t much to Gary Cooper’s liking. Because The Westerner lacks the classical elements we’ve come to expect, and there you have part of what makes it a good-humored time.

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But this blissful note strikes too soon. There is an inferno of drama ready to envelop the film leaving behind charred remains and pained relationships. One of the most integral people is plucky Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport) who spoke up on behalf of Cole and subsequently castigated the judge for his corruption.

In the end, she feels betrayed by Harden in his attempts to play mediator between both sides. One questions whether or not this is the last straw. Surely he will ride on to leave behind all the trouble at hand.

Still, with any Gary Cooper hero, there must be an inherent decency to be abided by. It’s little surprise he sticks around to cross wills with Bean one last time. They meet indoors waiting for Ms. Langtry’s stunning debut at a local theater. For some reason, it feels like we are sitting in on Ford’s Theater with some unnamed tragedy about to occur.

What goes down thereafter feels a bit like an anti-payoff after all we have gone through. Although it does come with a wide array of bullet holes. There must be more to this story. Then again, maybe it is just the right resolution for a rare oater such as this. At any rate, the film is at its best not as a wide-ranging epic but on a micro-scale. This is a story owned first and foremost by our two leading men.

Taken as it is, the story is uneven even subpar, but it gives us enough that is unorthodox and set alongside the incandescent performances of Cooper and Brennan with Gregg Toland’s ever superb compositions, there’s too much to like here to disregard it outrightly.

While William Wyler was never synonymous with the West like a John Ford, he nevertheless delivered on several occasions. The Westerner was one and The Big Country another. It comes from stellar character dynamics and cinematography more than anything else. However, when put together compellingly, they do make a sterling combination. For this one, we could not envision the West without the likes of Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan.

Walter Brennan leverages his role to become one of the most endearing of antagonists. And if it’s pushing it to say he’s lovable, then at least there’s something tragically inane about him so agog over a lady, even to the point of renaming his town after her. Since actors like Chill Wills and Dana Andrews are mere blips on the screen, Cooper is the only character coming close to his equal.

There’s only one final thought left. It really is a shame Gregg Toland never shot more westerns, especially with John Ford (his collaborator on two contemporary pictures). Some of the most captivating images in The Westerner come from sunlight glistening through the cornfields as the homesteaders thank the Lord for their bounty. What could he have done with Monument Valley as his playground?

4/5 Stars

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lives of Bengal Lancers (1935): Colonial Comaderie Sullied by Hitler

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In the imperialist traditions of the likes of Tarzan The Ape Man (1932), Gunga Din (1939) and even Lawrence of Arabia (1962) comes The Lives of Bengal Lancers. We cannot take the era or the colonial sentiments for granted like the contemporary viewer did since we must reconcile with the complicated filter hindsight lends.

It’s a bit like an old Cowboy and Indians picture except instead we have lancers and Indians. In theory, our allegiances lie solely with the dominant sides, and the rebels have our ire because revisionist filmmaking had yet to be created. This is the victor’s myth.

Director Henry Hathaway in later years would be remembered as a veteran of both crime pictures and classic John Wayne westerns including True Grit. The Lives of Bengal Lancers was his first formidable success, and the action and adventure itself are frankly quite thrilling.

Gary Cooper, as one of American’s dashing action heroes of the day, plays our protagonist MacGregor, a rough-edged soldier who nevertheless conceals the age-old heart of gold. A prime example comes when he makes up some excuse to send a new recruit to call on his father so they can talk in confidence. The boy has yet to see his flesh and blood face-to-face without constant rules and regulations getting between them.

Actually, we have two new recruits who come aboard: Forsythe (Franchot Tone) a glib sportsman who finds great relish in crossing wills with MacGregor and then dashing Lieutenant Stone (Richard Cromwell) still wet behind the ears. His father is the commander of the entire outpost. A journeyman soldier, “Old Ramrod” Stone (Guy Stander) is an incorrigible stickler for duty and discipline.

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But the task at hand is the apprehending of a charismatic gunrunner and local outlaw Ahmad Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), who subsequently holds great power over the territory. The favored sport of “Pig Sticking” provides a handy cover for snooping around.

Most delightful of all is the one-upmanship fostered between our two manly specimens played by Cooper and Tone. The constant friendly competition between the blunt Canadian straight-arrow and the more polished and tempered “Blues Man” brought up in Britain is one of the film’s finer assets.

But of course, the inevitable happens and our heroes get captured by Khan. The famed line misstated on numerous occasions is actually, “We have ways to make men talk.” However, it feels anticlimactic considering.

It’s also difficult to decide if it’s to the film’s credit or not, but the villain, played by the white actor Douglas Dumbrille, is not trying to hide it. He is educated and resists playing up some savage image. He leaves that to all his underlings who do his every bidding.

While imprisoned, our heroes spend their idle time, outside of being tortured, playing at cockroach races and letting their stubble grow out. Once again, it represents the very best of the film instilled by the performances of Cooper and Tone opposite one other. Because everyone else we can easily see in any of these old adventure epics. It feels like standard stuff. They are not.

Certainly, the story teases out this issue between the duties of a soldier and the scruples of a man with inbred common decency. Should the family be sacrificed for the sake of the outfit? Is a man who has poured everything into his military career because he believes in regulation fit to be praised and venerated? The commander’s appreciative colleague (C. Aubrey Smith) lauds his actions acknowledging, “Love or death won’t get in the way of his duty.” Whether that is an entirely good thing remains to be seen.

Of course, we see analogous themes in even some of John Ford’s pictures like Fort Apache and specifically Rio Grande. The latter film has the same father-son dynamic playing out, except inside of conveniently killing off the spouse to streamline the conflict, that film actually digs into the themes more definitively. Anyone who has seen the film will agree Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s relationship is the most interesting dynamic. A close second is the camaraderie of the soldiers.

In The Lives of Bengal Lancers, again, we have no such relationship, so the film is at its best with the soldiers sharing their lives together. One must note while the western might be dead, these old adventure yarns feel even more archaic. This brings up a host of other issues to parse through.

Watching the film unfold we cannot know for sure if we are on the right side of a righteous or unjust war; the underlying problem is the film does not leave it open. It’s already accepted who the conquers and heroes will be. I have nothing against the likes of Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone. I rather like them. But I can’t help but feel their team is playing a bit unfairly. The deck is stacked in their favor.

This ties into another notable caveat to make the viewer wary because Lives of a Bengal Lancer was purportedly a favorite of Hitler. In its digressions, he saw agreeable conclusions to inspire his own empire — the Third Reich — namely an unswerving duty to country along with elements of racial superiority.

Because it is these Brits with their bravery and know-how who are able to hold off the hordes of enemies. Their valor in itself is not an issue but placed up against their enemy, it is slightly troubling. The fact Hitler made it compulsory viewing to members of the SS is another level of bone-chilling. It’s hard to look at the picture in the same light after such a revelation.

3.5/5 Stars

Design For Living (1933): An Atypical Lubitsch Comedy

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“Immorality may be fun but it’s not fun enough to take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.” 

All director Ernst Lubitsch has at his disposal is a train compartment and three actors. Yet the opening scene of Design for Living positions itself as one of the most delightful moments in this entire picture. It’s a pure testament to bold visual filmmaking with nary a word spoken for at least 4 or 5 minutes. Few modern filmmakers would have the gumption to attempt it.

Lubitsch knows exactly what to do with such situations, and he was bred not only in sophistication but silent comedy. Because you see, the ultimate joke is when they actually start conversing with one another these three very familiar faces open their mouths and French comes out (Gary Cooper apparently was fluent).

Simultaneously, the director has also set up the relational dynamic of the film without a peep of dialogue. It really is a superb opener. However, this opening scene is almost too delectable for its own good. The film cannot possibly sustain such a  level of perfection. But more on that later.

When the three expatriates finally switch over to their native tongue, we have an uproarious discussion on art versus commercialism, Napoleon wearing a coat, and Lady Godiva riding a bicycle. Don’t ask for any explanation. In the parry and thrust of their conversation, we find out one is a painter (Cooper), the other is a playwright (Fredric March), and both are failures for the time being.

We are instantly reminded by a certain level of sauciness this is the Pre-Code era, though we are on the cusp of harsher censoring to come. For now, the picture is able to nonchalantly hang its hat on a central plot point involving our leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) and her two men embroiled in a menage a trois — a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Her conundrum is very male and libertine in nature. She has different men to try and she likens them to hats she wants to put on.

Yes, there is innuendo and some contemporary audiences might have shuddered at the admission they mention the word “sex” out loud on multiple occasions. And yet none of this titillating attraction speaks to much of the underlying allure of this picture.

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Look at who we have assembled on top of the acting talent. It sounds too good to be true. If the name Noel Coward doesn’t carry emphatic weight in your life, you might as well cross it out and consider this a Ben Hecht picture. He was, of course, one of the great purveyors of Americana through aphorisms and pervasive wit.

He famously scrapped all of Coward’s play aside from a single line of dialogue. Leaving a mark on the material in a way that was far more suitable to not only Lubitsch but an American audience.

All the gloriously tantalizing pieces are in place but the question remains, Is comedic cohesion possible? Understandably, Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton take up their allotted positions with ease invariably suiting them. Though their own personas aren’t on par with Chevalier or Herbert Marshall, the two American lads do their darnedest. The fact Cooper always feels so awkward in comedy somehow even plays a bit to his favor.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take. Again, we are putting it up rather unfairly against the likes of Trouble in Paradise or even The Smiling Lieutenant. Those are high benchmarks indeed. Put simply, the buoyancy is not there frequently enough.

Instead, we have a residual wistful melancholy that feels atypical for your usual Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. Cooper and March become a pair of “Gloomy Gusses” as Hopkins winds up marrying Horton to save them all grief. Even before that, the trio has their share of disagreements simply sorting out their inevitably complicated relationship.

If anything, it suggests in more rational terms that such an existence, as bohemian and open-minded as it may be, also becomes one of the most emotionally taxing. Not to mention relationally murky. In real life that is.

But when you expect something effervescent and gay, Design for Living is a bit of a letdown as a movie. After such a strong charge out of the starting gates, the storyline feels wanting in the middle, sluggishly rolling into the final act. One could wager whether or not plucking more out of Coward’s play might have been the most prudent choice. It’s possible it might have made the setup even droller. I can’t say.

Then again, maybe my own comic proclivities range toward screwball and the overtly visual far too much. It is true it often takes finer sensibilities to appreciate ironies and an astute sense of perception to read between the lines. An appreciation for wit and not solely physical comedy is key.

At least in my estimation, the movie is aided by a final party crashing in an attempt to get their girl. These bookends at the front and back half of the picture are vitalized by our stars being brought together. In such close quarters, there’s this inherent possibility for inspiration.

Lubitsch or not, if you have Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Edward Everett Horton together in a room, it’s infinitely better than watching grass grow. The same might be said of Design for Living because if it speaks to anything, the final notes impart a lightness of camaraderie and lithe romance rather than any morose confusions. As it should be. Though it winds up being too little too late.

3.5/5 Stars

Man of the West (1958)

220px-Motw1958The proverbial stranger rides into town looking for a place to wash up and grab a bite to eat. We get the sense he might be sticking around. Except, soon enough, he turns right back around and buys a ticket on the first train out of town. Because he has business to attend to.

The train gets ambushed but subverts expectations again by evading the bandits in time; one of the outlaws gets winged as the rest ride off to live another day. The only people left are three travelers thrown together by circumstance. We have reformed gunman Link Jones (Gary Cooper), the incessant chatterbox Sam Beasley (Arthur OConnell), and saloon songstress Billie Ellis (Julie London).

They must make it by foot and find some way to subsist off the land. But it’s precisely this predicament that causes our protagonist to fully revisit his past in the most direct way possible.

We get some hint of it the way a man at the train station looks him over and asks if they’ve ever met before. We receive our confirmation when he walks into an old cabin only to be confronted with the same outlaws who held up the train. Their leader, a veteran rogue named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), walks in and so begins the family reunion.

This used to be the place Jones called home working under his uncle and training to be a killer and a thief. He gave up that life long ago. But now he’s back out of necessity pretending he sought out his uncle purposefully. Meanwhile, the old man bemoans the fact nothing has been the same since Link left.

Lee J. Cobb, God bless him, is poorly cast. He is probably too young in spite of the makeup job. Just as Coop is slightly too old, in the final stages of his illustrious career, to be playing such a character. And yet with those minor qualms aside, their performances in most other aspects could not be better. Because they both remain fine talents who elevate the picture.

The cronies are played by a scruffy gun-crazed Jack Lord with Royal Dano as a mute sidekick, and prolific television actor John Dehner as Link’s cousin who warns him he should have never come back. London is our lone female character and her position is perfectly encapsulated by a single line, “Every man thinks he has the right to put their hands on me. All those lonely people looking for some special thrill.”

The prominence of the mise en scene becomes strikingly evident first in the interiors of the cabin in one particular sequence when a knife is held to Link’s throat as his girl is forced to undress. Then, the outdoor scenes are interspersed with close-ups bursting with color set against the backdrop of the prairie at large with deep blue skies. No more boldly then when Cooper and Lord go at each other’s throats and he returns the favor to the sniveling thug by stripping off his clothes as they both flail around bruised and bloodied.

Dock’s ultimate job to rob the bank in Lassoo is our obvious objective and Link agrees to be the one to ride in first to case the area. But imagine our surprise when the town and its bank turns out to be nothing more than an abandoned outpost with next to nothing to suggest civilization. In our heart of hearts, we knew this was never about a bank robbery or the heist. It’s no mistake the opening attempt is botched and the final outing is a far cry from what was expected. Lassoo is a bank robber’s Mecca that never existed. Maybe in the old days but alas not anymore.

Both these outcomes allow the action to be funneled right back to our characters. Because it is the events in question rousing our hero to act, even if it is against his wishes. To put people in danger and resort to violence become necessary choices. It leads to a resoundingly well-executed shootout on par with the best of the genre, both stylish and jolted with trademark tension from Mann. An obvious precursor to some of Leone’s finest rendered gunfights.

But once more, like The Far Country (1954), the western has been rewritten yet again to dwell in the dirt and the dust of the noonday sun. Violence is only an outcropping of some psychological turmoil that must be dealt with and met with some form of resolution.

What becomes crystal clear with Man of the West is how isolating the frontier is as an entity. Though we start in a big city, aboard trains, and look to end in what’s purported to be a bustling bank town, we are slowly diverted away from those spaces.

The film plays out with a small band of figures caught in interplay fraught with an undercurrent of volatility. The fact there are fewer people only seems to magnify this conflict. Because it is man-to-man they must face each other. There’s little white noise or distraction and Mann has staged everything so it’s clear and boldly laid out before us.

Certainly, if it’s about a handful of characters then at its core is a protagonist who must grapple with something crucial to this entire narrative of regression and decay. Where a man must resort to his old ways — dive back into the hell fury of his past — only to come out on the other side of the maelstrom to prove to himself he is no longer that man. In one sense, it’s playing with fire but it’s also a story that calls for a secondary redemption.

Cooper proves himself in the Town of Good Hope, a town we will never see and a town that acts more like an idea than a tangible place. Lassoo is very much the same — this ghost town that manifests itself as an open-air graveyard — an arena for our climactic showdown. They are points of departure imbued with thematic meaning just as the rundown homestead Jones used to frequent represents a part of his old life. He must throw them off once and for all.

Thus, the final wagon ride off into the wild blue yonder is not just a pretty picture. Yes, Anthony Mann has demonstrated a mastery for capturing the scope of the West here yet again but moreover, his hero is riding back toward the straight and narrow leading to redemption. He has seen the other side and comes back out a man of integrity again.

Whereas High Noon (1952) is a picture easy to admire and enjoy thoroughly straight away, Man of The West is arguably no less brilliant, especially rewarding for those who linger over it. Though strained relations meant James Stewart lost out on working with Anthony Mann again, there’s little doubt Gary Cooper was one of the great western heroes and it’s providential he was furnished this opportunity to ride tall in the saddle once more.

4/5 Stars