Lust For Gold (1949): Biography of a Deathtrap

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The movie opens with a score raging with dramatic tones fit for a title like Lust For Gold. The resulting narrative ploy is not a new one either, suggesting the details of this “unusual situation” were substantiated by historical records and legends of Arizona. It’s meant to provide this obvious sense of real-world ethos.

We find ourselves at Superstition Mountain. A severe voice, strung out with the same dramatic intensity of the music, paints a wild portrait of this horrible place — Satan’s art gallery in the rocks.

His name is Barry Storm (William Prince) — a real figure — and yet for all intent and purposes, conveniently fictionalized to narrate the tale for us. Unfortunately, the man isn’t able to pull off the voiceover like a Bogart or Mitchum. It lacks the hardboiled lip or the inherent sense of noir malaise.

It’s possible to mention noir, even when our prerequisites are more aligned with a western because we are dealing in terms of avarice and the greed found within the human heart. These are the building blocks for any respectful film noir of old where humanity runs amok with murder and deceit. In any regard, this is what the hope is.

Still, Prince comes off lacking from the outset because as an actor he’s a bit of an innocuous blank slate. Even if this is purely how he is meant to function, there’s nothing impressionable about him. But it also falls partially to the anatomy of a faulty story with dialogue practically regurgitated to us to get our pulses going. The effect is moot.

Still, this version of Barry Storm does serve one solitary purpose if only to toss us headlong into this narrative. He’s part unwitting victim, part fresh-faced raconteur and adventurer looking to dig up the famed treasure once belonging to his distant relation “The Dutchman.”

He crosses any number of people among them cocksure explorer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke) and two fellows who act as deputies under the local sheriff: a relaxed fellow named Covin (Will Geer) and the quietly observant Walter (Jay Silverheels).

To their credit, they are the first people who bring some color of any sort to the picture. However, even Geer’s own recounting of the Dutchman legend — delivered in a casual, conversational manner — isn’t able to rescue the dialogue which feels just as straightforward and didactic as before.

The real meat and potatoes of the movie come with a substantial flashback moving the action to 1880, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Because it’s at this juncture we are reminded Lust for Gold has a surprisingly stellar cast, and the best patches of drama come with the biggest stars. Regrettably, they’re never able to assemble in full force spread out across the years as they are.

Glenn Ford is reteamed with Edgar Buchannan from Framed, although this time they’re a bit more dubious and hardened, following the trail of a mythical gold mine. If you were to fashion an approximate reference point the movie, functions a bit like Treasure of The Sierra Madre Lite with everyone gold crazy and opportunistic.

Glenn Ford is not much of a Dutchman. His accent or lack thereof could have used some sharpening if he was really looking to commit, but perhaps, more importantly, he shows himself capable of some vindictive fury before the days of The Big Heat. This is what the story must rely on.

He’s the man who ends up the victor with all the gold to himself and no one else left alive to challenge him when he checks his wealth in the nearest outpost. The whole town’s envious of his cache, and the news spreads rather hilariously through the local gossips. They want a piece of the action because it’s far too much wealth for one man, but he clings to its with near-violent secrecy. There’s not one male or female who’s going to get him to open up about it.

That doesn’t keep them from trying. The best bet is one Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), an educated woman who nevertheless runs the local mercantile and doesn’t have much hope of going anywhere. Her useless husband (Gig Young), hasn’t done anything to alleviate their situation. So, much to his chagrin, she’s prepared to slip off her wedding ring and weasel her way into the miner’s affections.

It works quite well and as with any of these old star vehicles, the movie is most enjoyable when we have Ford and Lupino together. They were both seasoned performers in all the grungy corners of the genre pictures even if this is a hybrid. But what sets them apart is how they both have desires. Sometimes opposing, sometimes convening, and their feelings for one another do become complicated.

To her credit, Lupino plays a far more nuanced part than a simple seductress. She is tired of her life. She is tired of her husband. She’s ready to take things into her own hands, and yet there is some amount of feeling dwelling within her. The Dutchman, for one, is happy to find someone to hold, someone to share his native tongue with. It’s the human face slipped in with the pervading moments of avarice.

Because in the end all parties are pitted against each other in a testy competition for the goods — both in the past and present — weathering seismic avalanches and showdowns up in the rock crevices. Some of these moments, especially crammed within the middle of the story have the pulse of compelling action. It’s only a shame this hybrid noir offering must be so hampered by its own plotting device.

3/5 Stars

The Undercover Man (1949): Starring Glenn Ford

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The Undercover Man gives off an early vibe akin to Anthony Mann’s T-Men thanks to a disclaimer reading something like this: Behind the big headlines are stories of ordinary men and women with extraordinary courage. This picture concerns one of those men.

However, the title is a bit of a misnomer. It is about government treasury agents, among them Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) and George Pappas (James Whitmore in his debut), but the real “undercover man” is the stoolie looking to spill the dope on the Big Fella — a stylized, faceless take on Al Capone.

As is, Joseph H. Lewis’s picture plays as more of an updated (or out of date) riff on the Untouchables and the Capone story. Instead of guns constantly blazing, they’re trying to get to the mob kingpin another way: His taxes. Thus, it relies on the persistence of our protagonists to see the story to completion.

While the characterizations are worthwhile — Glenn Ford was born to play these types of stalwart tough guy roles — the documentary-styled drama itself feels mostly stodgy and uninspired. Especially given the B mavericks pedigree for punchy and rather unnerving material with unconventional flourishes, it’s rather disappointing to admit this one feels quite run-of-the-mill — at least content-wise.

Lewis still develops engaging scenes from the outset including the botched rendezvous staged at the train station. After their crackerjack chomping canary gets it unceremoniously, Warren finds himself back at square one and growing testy by the minute. Because the mob has a hand in everything, and they’re leaning on everyone.

It goes beyond police corruption or paying everyone off. Even as they run around looking for leads, there are tight lips all around, because everyone’s scared. They have good reason to be. They’re suspicious of authority as much as organized crime. What assurance do they have their lives will not be impinged upon.

One of the movie’s most inspired figures is lawyer Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley), a paunchy, beady-eyed besuited fellow who oozes sliminess from his generally sociable demeanor.

While he’s not an out-and-out criminal type, he also has no morals. One foot is planted in the good citizens league and the other gladly helps the gangsters keep their stranglehold by wheedling out of all signs of trouble. He seems to also glean great delight by watching the government agents stand down, their hands normally tied. He always has a smart response for them.

Still, Frank’s latest mark, Salvatore Rocco (Anthony Carus) — an AWOL husband who is currently courting a showgirl (Kay Medford) — looks like his exorbitant greed might provide a bite. He’s willing to squawk for adequate compensation. Purely a two-bit opportunist. There’s only one way to deal with him…It’s one of the movie’s best set pieces as the informant races off, his daughter, Warren, and his assailants, all sprinting after him through the midday crowds.

For Warren, the job always gets in the way of his lovely marriage, and he and his wife (Nina Foch) especially suffer for it. They barely get any time together, and the rest of the time he’s crammed in a lousy hotel room bickering with his colleagues. Back amid the tranquility of his home life, he resolves to give up the whole business because the safety of his wife seems like too high a price to pay in the pursuit of justice. The visual dichotomy between the two spheres is especially evident due to Burnett Guffey’s characteristically stark photography

His decision could be the unceremonious end to the picture, but we get a bit more — a nighttime visit. It is the obvious entreaty for him to consider the crusade. He’s not one to see evil and run away with his tail between his legs.

None of this is much of a surprise as we cycle through yet another bookkeeper, this time one Sydney Gordon (Leo Penn), who is on the lam with his newlywed wife (Patricia Barry). The question is whether or not they can convince him to talk and if he does agree, can they even protect him?

The last few minutes are worth seeing through to the end specifically because the action falls on the two most compelling characters in the whole story. For the first time, our hero has O’Rourke on the back foot forcing his hand. He really is the crucial piece since, with the sides drawn up between the good guys and bad, he plays like the wild card. The ending is a foregone conclusion, although, on the road, there are several tense confrontations predating the more action-dominated days of Robert Stack’s Untouchables.

3/5 Stars

Framed (1947): Janis Carter and Glenn Ford

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The opening scene of Framed is glorious. It’s the epitome of why these old B pictures have some much to offer audiences often bloated on cinematic glut. A runaway truck careens down a mountain road as the driver sweats it out trying to punch the breaks uselessly. Entering a busy town, he’s forced to make a wild maneuver the other way. Finally, his big rig dies down lazily plunking a truck backing out into the street.

In the ensuing altercation, we learn so much about the tightwad trucking foreman who won’t pay for the damages and our nameless hero who took the gig for the cash and proceeds to hand over what’s coming to him to pay for the damages of the victim (Edgar Buchanan).

We’re finally allowed a breather as he steps into the nearby La Paloma cafe and conveniently our whole story is laid out before us in tantalizing fashion. We’re on board for the ride.

The internal logic of the film noir malaise means everything that can be stacked up against a man will be. Mike Lambert’s not a bad fellow; he seems as honest and frank as any. True, he drinks too much, he’s prone to gambling, but he’s been given the bum steer. In a matter of minutes, he sits down at the bar only to get whisked off to court and sentenced for his misdeeds. In this regard, the crook of the law seems to be bent in favor of the unscrupulous.

However, this is only a starting point or a pretense because Lambert is pulled out of the clink by the dubious generosity of an amorous barmaid bombshell with a pair of bewitching eyes (Janis Carter). Why she would stick her neck out for a stranger and dish out $50 remains to be seen.

Except everyone in a picture like this has an angle to work. Soon enough, we find out hers. Because she and an accomplice are looking for the perfect stooge, the perfect patsy, the perfect man to be framed.

The movie is built out of what feels like a chainlink of romantic entanglements with people strung out in a line between one another. Glenn Ford is romanced by Janis Carter to keep him in town and at the same time oblivious. Her real accomplice is a man named Steve Price who has married into money; his wife remains utterly disillusioned with their loveless marriage.

It’s also a contrived story where everything is conveniently interconnected — at least in cinematic terms — so all the relationships, even if they feel circumstantial, fit together in just the right ways to tease out the dramatic situation.

Consider for a moment how Ford, a field engineer, reconnects with the straggly man Cunningham (Buchannan) who happens to be a miner in need of a loan. Then, consider how the man in charge of loans at the bank is none other than Mr. Price. It’s his refusal that keeps Lambert waiting around town looking for a break as Paula continues to run interference and ingratiate herself to him.

However, the logic never feels like a lynchpin because it all builds up to this near fatalistic helplessness of a man unknowingly walking straight into a trap. Perceptive viewers might recognize that this ensuing sense of powerlessness setting in is not unlike North by Northwest or more aptly Double Indemnity — albeit from the inside out.

It gives us a different kind of investment as this time our “hero” is not the perpetrator but the victim. Because Lambert, without his knowledge, is being dragged into a grand conspiracy rife with larceny, murder, and any number of things. Although in the end, the trap is sprung in a different manner than expected.

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Do you think Ford’s about to get bested in his own picture? Not likely. As a steady leading man, he’s always easy to like even when he verges on the brusque in a movie like this. The film sets him up as a straight arrow, hampered by his vices though he might be. Edgar Buchanan falls into his role like most any of them with a familiar aplomb. Whether the part is stretching at all seems beside the point, because he manages to fill it so seamlessly.

Another character veteran, Art Smith, has a bit part as the none too solicitous, solitaire-playing hotel clerk. If nothing else, while I always enjoy coming upon him in a picture, his presence is a marker of the times. He too, like so many others, would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era witch hunts, self-imposed by Hollywood. Included in this unfortunate club was the film’s screenwriter Ben Maddow as well as actress Karen Morley.

Barry Sullivan is unscrupulous but fairly straitlaced and bland while end-to-end Janis Carter is yet again the unsung hero of the picture. Like all the great conniving dames of yesteryear,  beauty is an asset with which to utterly bewitch the opposite sex. She uses it handily.

We watch her continually modulating between moments of self-serving opportunism and genuine showings of sentiment and fear — as the fairer sex — with the movie somehow casting her in this duplicitous mold of both temptress and victim.

There you have the heart and soul of the femme fatale right there. So when Paula looks out the back of that car and Mike drops his cigarette butt in disgust, we are borne into the tension. It’s the tension between doing the right thing and getting to have someone like that look at you that way. In such a disquieting world, there might be right or wrong, but somehow, it doesn’t make it any more agreeable on the other side. Frankly, it stinks.

3.5/5 Stars

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963): A Father and Son Story

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father gives off all the signs of a light and frothy romantic comedy. You might envision it already: a widower-about-town with his son playing matchmaker as he tries to navigate the plethora of pretty girls who just happen to orbit around him.

But we must make some distinctions. This is also a film about a little boy and his father after the death of someone very precious to both of them. A wife and a mother. You cannot easily laugh this plot point away, and the movie never does.

It’s equally important to note who our director is. No one would wager this is the artistic height of Vicente Minnelli, but it’s not a throwaway rom-com either; no matter what contemporary audiences might have been led to believe. I’m thinking most specifically of the scene early on where Ron Howard erupts, bawling over his pet goldfish now floating upside down in the tank. His father storms out of the room to go find his bottle and glass as his little boy is comforted by their neighbor from across the hall (Shirley Jones).

Does Minnelli dare include this scene? It risks feeling overwrought, and it absolutely kills any of the convivial feelings the movie looked to engender. But there are plenty more of those to come, and here we get something actually grasping for some kind of meaning; it’s an attempt to make sense of real-life issues, albeit through the Hollywood guise of gorgeous Panavision Metrocolor. This is Minnelli at his best with substance breaking through his usual lavish photography and expert set dressing.

And yet here is some of the quintessential essence of the picture, daring to be more than meets the eye. We are reminded grief is okay and it is natural — they will both miss “Mommy” — and instead of holding in their feelings, they must be open with one another. It’s the only way they can hope to cope. The whole film is a progression along this theme. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is really a father and son picture.

While I won’t say Glenn Ford is as obvious a father figure as Andy Griffith, he still manages the necessary rapport with Ron Howard, and I always do marvel at Howard’s poise for such a young actor. They often tell the stories of child actors who had an expiration date because once their cuteness wore off they didn’t have the acting chops to make it.

Although Howard has transitioned to the director’s chair, I watch him in individual episodes of Andy Griffith or a movie like this, and it does feel like he was capable of range beyond his years. Yes, he’s cute. That’s the easy part, but he also navigates his way through the more labored scenes where there are other emotions. The picture’s always able to fall back on that core relationship.

However, before I overcompensate, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father has plenty of the kind of goofy, at times cringe-worthy, rom-com moments of a certain era. It allows the movie to remain innocent at heart even as it courts other issues.

Take one evening where the two bachelors stop off at an arcade only to make the acquaintance of bodacious Dollye Daly (Stella Stevens). They meet when she asks to borrow Tom’s son for a couple of minutes to ward off the local mashers as she tries to build up her self-confidence. Then, there’s Ford’s colleague at work. Jerry Van Dyke’s flirty radio personality has a habit of proposing dinner dates on the air.

Dina Merrill is a career woman who knows what she wants, and her brand of quiet and mature sophistication is rightfully attractive to Tom. She’s looking for a man to love her on equal terms and despite what her aloof elegance might say against her, she’s another deeply sympathetic figure.

A movie that looks to be about a man and three women actually is at the same time simplified and made vastly more complicated. Dollye and Norman fall in together over bowling. So Eddie’s first choice of partners for his dad falls through. Now to the nitty-gritty. The main tension is between a boy’s feelings and his father’s.

Elizabeth is familiar and comfortable; both a good friend to their deceased mother/wife and an ever-present figure across the hall. She’s a cinematic creation and the kind of person brimming with well-meaning affection. Tom’s feelings for her are complicated. Eddie’s are simple. He feels safe in her presence. There’s a kind of maternal understanding and trust between them already.

Although it’s never stated explicitly, Rita, on the other hand, is attractive because she is so different. When Tom looks at her and spends time with her, he’s rarely reminded of his wife. With Elizabeth, he can’t help but see her. For his boy this is security and for him, it’s a kind of crippling torture. He cannot bear it.

Like any bright kid, Eddie’s extremely observant and precocious in many ways. He asks all the innocently probing questions about how babies are made etc. For him, differentiating cartoon villains from the good guys is a matter of round eyes and thin eyes (along with other salient features).

In one scene, he gives a comical appraisal of Ride the High Country. Meanwhile, for a few brief moments, his father falls asleep to Mogambo‘s screen passion playing out between Clark Gable and the much younger Grace Kelly. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious reflection of Tom’s own yearning to have the love and affection back in his life. If anything, it’s a striking portent.

His jovial housekeeper (Roberta Sherwood) warns him of such a woman looking to take advantage of what he has to offer. Graciously, there aren’t any such women found in the frames of this picture. A New Years’ party with Rita is lovely, and he comes home late at night in a mild euphoria only to bump into Elizabeth. She had a night out with the same old successful doctor; it’s hardly love.

Later, they hold a frenzied birthday party for Eddie that’s chaos personified with all the little kiddies running around. Elizabeth is right in the middle of the adolescent maelstrom and Rita is absent. Then, as his father grows more serious and Eddie has his heartbroken at summer camp, he makes an irrevocable decision. He runs away and seeks refuge with the one person who makes him feel safe — his maternal rock of Gibraltar. If you follow the dramatic arc, there’s only one place the romance can lead.

Yes, it’s rom-com wish-fulfillment, but I’d like to think there’s also a sense of clarity with the movie resorting back to where we needed it to go. What a lovely admission it is that the women are not the easily caricatured heroes and villains of Eddie’s comic book imagination, nor are they completely trivialized down to their appearance. If anything, we get past the superficiality promoted by marketing campaigns.

It’s a father and son movie, first and foremost, and yet we end up admiring all of them. What a lovely person Shirley Jones is. Stella Stevens brims with unparalleled intelligence, and Dina Merill is blessed with poise. Jerry Van Dyke’s not completely repulsive. If he’s the weakest link, then there are worse prices to pay.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gazebo (1959): The Other Hitchcock Movie Hitchcock Didn’t Make

If there’s any revelation from The Gazebo, it has to be the comic talents of Glenn Ford. Between his constant hypertension and exacerbated nerves, there’s a high-strung comic eccentricity present all but flying in the face of the persona Ford built his career on. The mind will quickly flash to a plethora of embittered noir and hardened westerns. Here he’s the epitome of a spineless worry-wort. He’s Average Joe incarnated, and it’s incessantly funny.

But to show how subjective performance (and comedy) is to this day, let me go ahead and cite the NY Times’ eminent Bosley Crowther who said of Ford, “Perhaps if Mr. Ford were a better or, at least, less wooden comedian than he is, some of this blundering and blathering would seem a little brighter than it does.” Do with it what you will.

Although she isn’t allotted too much to do, Debbie Reynolds scintilates in all her absolutely plucky, lovely delightfulness, with a devotion for her high-strung husband that remains irrepressible. It plays as a bit of a sad irony as she had recently been left by her husband Eddie Fisher for Liz Taylor. Ford had also divorced his longtime wife Eleanor Powell. The relational context cannot be totally lost on the audience.

The story itself throws us right into the action, stealing a trick from syndicated television with an opening murder! In fact, it is a television episode because our protagonist, Elliot Nash, is an overworked writer-director who’s at his wits end nearly every night as he tries to steady the ship behind the monitor. It seems like a curious occupation — a terribly high anxiety job — for someone of his temperament. From a narrative perspective, it all fits together impeccably.

Because he gets himself involved in murder; he even commits murder. But that’s a long story. In order for any of that to take, there must be the comic flourishes to disrupt the normal beats. One starting place is their home life. Elliot wants mightily to leave the home behind, going so far as to renovate his house to make it less appealing to his wife. It provides this Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or Green Acres kind of sensibility that’s just innately silly.

We must also mention Elliot’s pet pigeon, Herman, highlighting even more of his master’s kooky eccentricities. The other asset in the picture is the supporting cast including the wisecracking best friend Harlow (Carl Reiner), who always seems to find himself over after another day at the law firm so he can try and steal a kiss from Nell. He also proves useful as Elliot tries to formulate how one exactly goes about getting away with murder. It’s important to have a talking partner to bounce ideas off of.

Their housekeeper Matilda (Doro Merande) holds up her part of the bargain by yelling every line of dialogue with the sensitivity of a foghorn, partially because she takes care of her deaf mother by night. Then, there’s the always stately, if slightly oddball, John McGiver, who has the most delightful diction. How he says “Gaze-bo” just kills me. More on that subject momentarily.

Many folks consider Charade the greatest Hitchock picture that Hitchock didn’t make and rightfully so. You have the supernal acting talents and the main conceit about innocents on the run. There’s a suave comic elegance to go with genuine spy thrills. This plot is one side of the Hitchcockian coin if you will.

The other side is obsessed with the perfect murder and how to go about it. You need look no further than Rope or Strangers on a Train or even the more comic proclivities of The Trouble with Harry to see these prevailing themes at work.  Another element he becomes increasingly obsessed with is murder in the home. The famed director once quipped that this was its rightful place (Hence the success of his TV program). To this lineage, we might easily include Shadow of a Doubt or Dial M for Murder.

Here is where The Gazebo actually does do quite well to highlight an aspect of the genre that infatuated the director though we could probably stop short of calling this picture Hitchcockian in wit. It is anything but, and there is individual charm in that. It never quite sheds its out-and-out goofiness.

At this time, it seems important to note the film was based on a play. Apart from using this as an excuse to dismiss some of the more stagy moments, which feel relatively few, the play was actually written by Alec Coppel. He, coincidentally, penned a little doozy called Vertigo. You probably have heard about it. And subsequently, his hero winds up getting on the phone with Hitch on more than one occasion. Here is the hint of the autobiographical.

Otherwise, the movie leaves all of the Master’s sensibilities behind, and while I would never quite compare Ford to Cary Grant, he gives that kind of virtuoso performance, which feels simultaneously all over the place and perfectly suited for what the movie requires. Everything falls back on Ford’s continuously scattered protagonist as he flounders around every which way. It’s a black comedy but not in the usual way.

It works because of its hero’s complete bumbling collapse. He’s the perfect magic bullet for the film because in a send-up of a genre that requires premeditation, cunning, and nerves of steel, he lacks all of these things. He’s a generally sympathetic guy. But working in television, he obviously has an active imagination and he gets ideas.

Also, he’s being heftily blackmailed. Not from any dark secret from his past. On the contrary, his wife, an up-and-coming broadway talent, once modeled nude and now the cheesecake shots have gotten into some opportunistic hands. Martin Landau makes a late cameo as a heavy who looks to kidnap Mrs. Nash for leverage. No, he’s not the blackmailer, but he’s tied in with a different man, a man Elliot may have accidentally killed…

Soon the police are involved, a missing bullet, Herman the pigeon, and of course, the Gazebo. Particulars like these mean everything and at the same time nothing at all as we sit back and enjoy the ride. If the movie loses a bit of steam leading up to its pat ending, then it’s more than forgiven.

Otherwise, it’s thoroughly delightful — crazy and cockeyed in the most agreeable of ways. Nothing more, nothing less. Contrary to Mr. Crowther, Glenn Ford does the audience a service by lightening up. One wonders how Hitchcock might have used him.

3.5/5 Stars

The Violent Men (1955) and Rockefellers on The Range

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The Violent Men is an age-old tale of cattle wars on the range. The local apothecary warns about Wilkerson a man from the long tradition of land eaters. There are only two choices: run or stand and fight.

Before we ever see him, his cronies are messing around town. In the town’s main street the Sheriff is gunned down in the back by a hotshot gunman (the always smirking Richard Jaeckel). Everyone either turns away or is in the coattails of the local tyrant. We learn so much about them from their inaction. This is a community that has acquiesced to a thug and conformed to a type of general passivity.

No one is willing to stand up or speak up or do anything involving gumption because it means sticking their neck out and being vulnerable to the consequences. Glenn Ford starts getting perturbed, realizing he is just as liable as everyone else.

He’s been stewing to the point of exasperation, even as his future in-laws and his girl coax him to mind his own business and think of their extended future happiness. Again, it’s this constant mentality of the individual over the common good. Maybe it’s a product of reading a book on the Red Scare, but I cannot help but see it as a parable of benevolent socialism versus the tenets of a particularly ruthless capitalism.

For well-nigh 20 minutes the name Wilkerson is all but mythologized and lifted up as one of the most ruthless, bloodthirsty names on the frontier; he is Rockefeller on the range. With such a build-up, there must be performances to hold up the bargain. Fortuitously the movie delivers with not only Edward G. Robinson but Barbara Stanwyck as well. Of course, Stanwyck is no stranger to the West, and she’s quite adept at exuding this certain balance of necessary toughness and femininity.

Robinson is hardly the image of a western cattle baron (he was, in fact, a late replacement for Broderick Crawford), but he still has the presence of Edward G. Robinson. The fact he is crippled with a pair of crutches and still so ornery makes for an intriguing character biography. He completely subverts conventional expectations.

Meanwhile, Dianne Foster feels a little like Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep — the first impression is important — and she leaves the audience wary of this family’s pedigree. They’re not allowed to have one normal member.

Next, comes the entrance that is of utmost importance. The hobbling old codger himself. He’s particularly boisterous and hard-nosed when it comes to land dealings and taking over the valley. Behind closed doors, his wife is equally cunning and calculating, along with his kid brother (Brian Keith). His main enforcer (Jaekcel) follows up murder in the streets with another grisly murder on the range as a message to the holdout, Parrish, and anyone else brazen enough to stand up to Wilkerson.

For the 1950s, it’s quite the brutal exhibition as they whip a man, rope him up, nearly choke him to death, before leaving him for dead. Words do not do it the justice it deserves.

If Wilkerson didn’t sanction these egregious actions, he gave Cole (Keith) free reign to enforce their presence on the territory in whatever manner he deems applicable. The crooked deputy, a seemingly obliging fellow, has the system conveniently tipped against anyone who dares stand in opposition. There’s no way to win.

The movie might easily end here if only our hero were to wash his hands of the situation and move back east. He loses his bride-to-be for the sake of his own private moral integrity. Whether it’s because this is Glenn Ford or his character, need not be important. He resolves to stay, playing the fool, only to draw in his foe and retaliate.

Soon he’s taken his army training and put it to good use, fighting a war against his neighbors who, by all accounts, seem more formidable. What he has are determination and tactical advantages. The distinction of who the actual foe is remains dicey.

Robinson is just the blustering frontman. Cole blasted the range open with his pack of thugs. Martha Wilkeson pulled the strings, working all the while in her husband’s shadow.

Cinemascope offers some expected monumental views of the west compete with all the trimmings of the great outdoors. Ironically, the actual montages of the stampedes, burnings, and killings are relatively uninteresting. It might as well be stock footage from other pictures, and it probably is. The most invaluable moments are delivered by the characters, served up just as much as psychological warfare than any physical grudge match.

As the Wilkerson girl perceptively berates the men in her climactic stand, at their core is this barbarism, causing men to constantly be driven by a senseless need to kill one another for a lousy piece of land. Merely to prove something to themselves and others. What makes it worth it?

There is the subsequent realization this is not wholly good versus wholly evil. There are corrupt people, selfish ones, yes, but even Ford, who is supposed to act as our moral center, has no qualms about retribution and annihilating his enemy, since they were first poised to kill him.

It makes for a volatile experience, and the leads are a worthy ensemble, capable enough to suggest these particular nuances and personal ambitions. The irony remains in the title. On a cursory glance, it’s a lurid eye-catcher, but it also happens to be an apt descriptor for a movie with a main conceit about the implications of such escalated violence. The Violent Men takes its most obvious attribute, only to turn it right on its head. The surprise punch is a much-appreciated admonition about violence in the guise of popular entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) and Glenn Ford Eaten Up Inside

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“There’s always somebody faster.” – Walter Baldwin as a Blind Man

The Fastest Gun Alive chooses to reveal its threat before it offers up anything else. A hulking Broderick Crawford rides into a no-name town flanked by two cronies. He yells into the saloon for some man to come out and proceeds to gun him down in a quick draw. The only reason: Bragging rights. He wants to be known as the fastest gun, and now it seems he’s earned the title.

We now know the inevitable will happen. There’s always somebody else. In this case, it has to be Glenn Ford. Sure enough, the story takes us to another town. It seems like it’s made up of honest people trying to make a go of life on the frontier.

Among their ranks is George Temple (Ford), who runs the local general store with his devoted wife (Jeanne Crain), well along in her pregnancy. Per usual, Ford plays a variation on his grounded hero with a demon planted in his past. It’s not said explicitly — but his actions speak for him — his current life is eating him up inside.

So much so he hides his excursions out to shoot targets from his wife and buries his old firearm in the backroom where it can’t be found. Normally well-groomed for the West, Ford’s hair seems often stringy and plastered down on his face. A new look for him and he doesn’t have a hat to corral it. Because he has presumedly shed all aspects of that kind of life. Still, there’s little doubt it lingers in his past.

For now, there are happy times to be had. The high point is a town-wide shindig complete with some fancy stepping from a young Russ Tamblyn. His shovel stilts dance becomes a highly involved number showing off his physical prowess in what feels like a black & white extension of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In one solitary scene, The Fastest Gun Alive shows more technical verve than other less exuberant musicals.

However, soon thereafter, the stage brings news of the gunfight, and it has the whole town buzzing with excitement. It’s typical of simple folks. The pontificating old man McGovern keeps the town enraptured with his yarn-spinning about the event of the century, at least as he tells it.

Meanwhile, Temple continues to suffocate under the life in his store — where the games of customer service are driving him insane. Between insufferable customers with their petty requests and grubby children handling the confectionaries, he’s about had it. Except this is only a manifestation of his underlying problem. The news of the gunfight prods old wounds as does his conflicting issues of pride.

He starts falling back on old habits like whiskey drinking. The monkey on his back won’t leave him alone since he cares so deeply about how others perceive him, just as he cannot handle their unintentional derision. It’s what makes him the antithesis of Shane or Atticus Finch, for that matter.

George Temple is insecure. It goes back on the age-old tenets of manhood, being able to prove yourself, to be taken seriously in the ranks of your gender, whether through feats of strength, cunning, or sheer stupidity. However, the consequence is his greatest fear — making himself a whole lot more conspicuous — and sounding the call for anyone who wants to challenge him.

Echoing High Noon, the church becomes the town’s public forum, in this case, involving a man’s resolution to give up his gun and leave the town behind. The bottom line is no one wants him to leave, and he hasn’t committed any infractions. One by one they join in solidarity to keep the secret so no one will ever hear of Temple’s exploits.

It seems a rather strange scenario. But what it does is indicate just how close-knit this community remains. This alone is commendable and yet truthfully, the story stalls here. It opts to bide its time, milking the dramatic irony for all its worth. The inevitable feels like it’s continually being delayed in lieu of a debate.

Even if the townsfolk don’t know what’s coming, he knows that someone riding in to test out his skills is imminent. He doesn’t want to be around to meet them. That is, of course, unless they come to meet him…accidentally. Because it only takes one, in this case, a boy, to spill the beans.

There is no taking it back, and Crawford won’t rest until he’s proved himself the better shot, even with a posse on his trail. It’s these moments where not only Crawford comes into fuller relief but also his partners in crime, a pair of solid characters in Noah Beery Jr. and John Dehner. Two lesser men would have made this interim period far less agreeable.

Even then, it feels like the story’s fizzling out a bit, although it does maintain this one galvanizing strand of tension. It’s almost enough. The one crucial piece of information is finally revealed, and it’s not so much of a revelation as it turns our theme on its head.

Temple’s father was a famed lawman who taught his son everything he knew. He became an even faster man but he’s never drawn on another human being. It’s kept him scared out of his wits. He admits in the same scene, “I’m so afraid, I’m sick to my stomach.” So it’s no longer about pure bravado. True bravery is suggested to be doing something even when you are deathly afraid. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

This is arguably one of Ford’s better performances for the very fact he’s forced to shed his typically cool and robust exterior in favor of something far more tremulous and vulnerable. It relies on the unraveling of his purely masculine image. Otherwise, The Fastest Gun Alive deserves its place rightfully several rungs below the likes of The Gunfighter, High Noon, Shane, or even Day of The Outlaw. That is no criticism, only an honest assessment of a decent western with a unique perspective.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1950s Film Noir

We follow up last week’s guide to classic film noir of the 1940s by continuing into the 1950s with 4 more entries. With the new decade came new progressions in realism, location shooting, and heightened character psychology.

As Paul Schrader wrote, the noir hero started to “go bananas.” What remained were graft, corruption, and the depravity of the human heart. True, gumshoes and femme fatales were never cut-and-dry. Now they were even less so. Enjoy!

Gun Crazy (1950)

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B movies form the backbone of this often down and dirty genre. There are few better than Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy an exercise in inventive economy. It tells the tale of a romance-fueled crime spree with verve and violent passion. Although mostly forgotten today, John Dall and Peggy Cummins do a fine rendition as a latter-day incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde

The Big Heat (1953)

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It’s a cops and robbers procedural with Glenn Ford as the straight-arrow family man going against the local mob. What Fritz Lang does is boil it over with newfound vindictiveness. We soon find out the good guys aren’t always untarnished nor the noir dames (Gloria Grahame) always the villains. True to form, Lee Marvin plays an incorrigible heavy.

The Killing (1956)

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It’s early Stanley Kubrick so some might find it a stark contrast to his later works. Regardless, it’s one of the finest heist films of all-time. Because the best-laid plans — even the most meticulous — always have a habit of going awry. The set-up is gritty and no-nonsense with a cast headed by a fitting protagonist: Sterling Hayden. Likewise, it’s ending just about sums up film noir fatalism.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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It’s often cited as one of the final signposts of classic film noir. With its tale of below the border corruption instigated by a portly Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) against a Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh), it more than fits the parameters of the genre. The extended opening shot is just one stunning testament of Welles’ vision as a director.

Worth Watching:

Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, Night and The City, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Ace in The Hole, The Narrow Margin, Kansas City Confidential, Pickup on South Street, Night of The Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly, Bad Day at Black Rock, Murder by Contract, and so many more.

Human Desire (1954): Fritz Lang vs. Jean Renoir

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Edgar Buchanan always annoyed me endlessly on Green Acres reruns, and it’s affected me for a long time. Because only recently have I begun to realize just how broad and robust his body of film work is. He can be categorized with a breed of movie actor that is generally lost in today’s industry.

These were studio workhorses with filmographies so abundant it almost becomes second nature for them to don certain roles. It happens so easily and with such regularity, there’s rarely a need for explanation. It’s all right there in the character and the countless other pictures he’s popped up in before. His part is small but it doesn’t matter.

Because he is the kind of actor only Hollywood of a certain era would have utilized to his full potential. Why does any of this relate to the discussion of this film? My best explanation is the fact Human Desire is not a standalone entry. It comes from a lineage boasting Emile Zola and Jean Renoir’s Le Bete Humaine. And yet Human Desire can be viewed as nothing less than noir cranked out of the salt mines of Hollywood.

The traditions of Michel Carne and Jean Renoir, themselves in the late 30s, coalesced with the early works of Fritz Lang, like M (1931), to form a sturdy foundation to this American iteration of crime cinema. There’s no doubt Lang and Renoir were aware of each other. An obvious point of reference is the fact Lang would adapt La Chienne into a film of his own — Scarlet Street.

Human Desire is his second go at the eminent Frenchman’s filmography, albeit less to his liking. Lang’s railroad imagery isn’t quite on par with the evocative ever smoky grittiness of Renoir’s earlier effort and part of it must be chalked up to interiors which strip away much of the rail tie reality.

In even brief interludes there could be overlap with the work of the Frenchman’s father or other famed realist artists of generations before and there are quite a few lighter, brighter tones, although Le Bete Humaine is still a notable precursor to noir cinematography.

But then it gets dicey because Lang himself came out of the other tradition which all but berthed the dark genre, German Expression, with films like M or American pictures like Fury and You Only Live Once, unmistakable for their equally brooding imagery.

Renoir has an appreciation for the everyman’s daily life as it pertains to this world of grunge and brutality. There manages to be something real, this animal magnetism — a literal madness that somehow feels more authentic.

Lang picks up solely on the total bleakness of a canvas bathed in black. It’s suffocating in that sense. He also functions better within the facades and inherent artificiality of the Hollywood system. Renoir tried it too, and it proved more stifling than productive. Lang, perhaps out of necessity, used the resources more to his advantage.

After the stirring success of The Big Heat, he comes back with his two stars in Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to do it again. It’s unfairly overshadowed even as Grahame turns in a blistering, merciless performance as a conniving wife. But as with all black widows, the exterior begins demure and innocent enough. It only evolves and becomes more malevolently deadly as time marches on.

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The newfound lens of a returning soldier fits into the context of the era. Because Human Desire is a story revamped for 1950s America, and it translates itself easily enough. Jeff Warren (Ford) is coming home from the army with ideals of a steady job, fishing on weekends, and nights at the movies with a pretty girl. It presents this fresh exterior just waiting to be dragged through the mire.

Because the conventions of American-grade noir, in particular, make for a compelling tale of lust and sleaze. Not that they were entirely absent in Renoir’s picture but they have a different effect.

Human Desire throws together a femme fatale and a formerly clean-cut veteran whose eyes bulge out of his sockets the first time he snatches a glance at the girl. They are not perpetrators of murder by they are implicated in the following courtroom proceedings with Warren complicit in a cover-up. There is a streamlined love triangle between Ford, Grahame, and Broderick Crawford that rarely feels interesting on its own merits.

At its best, it lives out its existence on the screen as a low-grade railway riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are obvious antecedents in its French predecessor but somehow in this context, it seems applicable to canonize it as noir. Emile Zola never felt closer to James M. Cain.

I could only consider the very concrete plot points, not the literary styles themselves. Because Human Desire, of course, is not literary at all — or if it, it is only in the pulpy seediness such entertainment engendered.

Renoir could actually claim some basis in Zola’s literature, not simply by his pedigree but also by evoking the words themselves. Regardless, the two creatures have their distinct appeals for two diverse camps. There’s no question the two helmsmen were a pair of phenomenal craftsman deserving individual repute. The differences in them are as beguiling as the similarities. The same might be said of Human Desire and its forefather. Choose your poison and my guess is you won’t be disappointed either way.

3.5/5 Stars

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

310_to_Yuma_(1957_film).jpgThe picture showcases a parched landscape of cacti and dusty trails — the arid terrain accentuated by purposely tinted photography. It’s aided by that bleak black & white palette courtesy of Charles Lawton Jr., just as Delmer Dave’s earlier western, Jubal (1956), was made by its vibrant imagery around Jackson Hole. Each fits the mood called for impeccably.

Setting the scene, you have Frankie Laine belting out the epic title track with his usual gusto; the opening gambit with focused precision initiates a holdup and the repercussions of such an act. This coach headed for the Arizona outpost of Contention is robbed and the driver killed. The culprits are Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his band of thugs.

Felicia Farr is reteamed with Ford refilling the drinks of all the boys as they brazenly ditch the crime scene and head to a nearby saloon to drink it off.  The sparks fly between the pair as they’re both a little less saintly compared to the previous year’s Jubal (1956). Except their romancing isn’t the meat of the storyline. For that, we must turn to the other man who was indirectly affected by the robbery.

Dan Evans (Van Heflin) is a struggling rancher plagued by the local drought, but he and his two sons also witnessed the holdup go down. Pretty soon, Wade is captured and Evans signs on for $200 that will help him get by. Together he and another man, the town drunk, carry out the sheriff’s plan to transport Wade for safekeeping while they wait it out for the 3:10 to Yuma.

Lacking the edgier shoot ’em up qualities of its still thoroughly engaging remake starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, this original offering from Daves, with a story by Elmore Leonard, must be first and foremost a character study and it is an exemplary one.

It’s an assignment of such an intimate even personal nature although Evans only took it for the money. In one scene the outlaw sits around the family dinner table like a regular guest, except he’s handcuffed and the curious boy pipes up asking questions about him. Then Wade sits at the table and has a nice long talk with Mrs. Evans that almost makes him seem human. That’s just it. He’s done some bad things but it’s hard to get away from the fact he can be a rational, even decent person.

But the epitome of the picture comes near the end when the two men hold up together in a hotel room waiting for the minutes to pass, knowing full-well Wade’s men will be coming any minute to have it out. There’s a ticking clock plotting device in use like High Noon (1952) as one of his cronies (Richard Jaeckel) is milling about waiting for the reinforcements to come. But also everyone in town is anticipating the incoming train.

Glenn Ford evolves into the devil on the shoulder, constantly testing Evans through proposed bribery and parlor tricks that provide all sorts of distractions to wear down his captor. His coolness juxtaposes nicely with the antsy ranchhand with dynamics running analogous to The Naked Spur (1954). This time Glenn Ford is doing the continual psychological manipulation instead of Robert Ryan. Ryan is good but I think here Ford works far better across from Van Heflin.

As heroes, they are similar types (see Shane or Jubal) and that makes Ford’s corrupt turn still somehow mirror the other man. In a different life or maybe a different film, we could see how the roles might be reversed. For now, they must deal with claustrophobia that’s certainly exasperated by confined space but really exerts itself throughout the finale, even outdoors. It’s not so dependent simply on the physical location as it is the pressures bearing down on the character of Evans.

It’s a contentious proposition, no small coincidence that right there we have the name of the town but at least Dan is not standing alone… This quickly changes when the gang materializes and proves to be more formidable than initially suspected. Rapidly his backup, made of family men just like him, has quickly dissolved and it’s just him against a band of cold-blooded killers.

The final moments are an exhibition in heroism where it takes one man like Evans, bent in his personal resolve to see his job to completion, even as the deck’s stacked against him. Again, we have echoes of High Noon.

It’s true everyone continually hammers home the fact. By this time there’s no amount of obligation. The man who hired him on (Robert Emmhardt), his frantic wife (Leora Dana) rushes to get him to change his mind, even his prisoner tells him the same. And yet he sticks with it because one man has died — a man who granted might have been slightly misguided — yet he believed in some form of law and order enacted by the people for the people. That’s what makes Evans proceed with this near-suicidal mission. It has to do with moral rectitude and committing to what you deem to be right — even if there’s a cost.

Does the picture chicken out in the end? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Regardless, Van Heflin and Glenn Ford are in fine form and require the viewer to brace themselves for a tension-filled ride. One could argue 3:10 to Yuma is forged and won in their scenes together. Everything else is informed by this central relationship.

4/5 Stars