Wichita (1955)

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The more and more I get to know Jacques Tourneur the more it seems that he was content in making films on his terms no matter the budget or restrictions. His ambitions were not to win awards or garner acclaim yet he was a master craftsman painting in shadows, intrigue, and vibrant strokes.

Known in his early days for his lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton on low budget horror movies that still stand the test of time as inspired works, the high watermark of his career is indubitably the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). By the 1950s he had settled into making westerns, swashbucklers, crime pictures, and pretty much anything else handed him.

The striking realization is that he never really moved up the Hollywood totem pole which makes me suspect it was partially by choice. He was content with a certain stratosphere of production and when you watch a picture like Wichita you can understand why.

It takes many of the mythical staples of The West and insets them within the contemporary Hollywood framework that generated a lore of its own.The lineage that gave us a plethora of television classics like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others that I either failed to mention or don’t know.

The tradition runs rich and deep. Where people address a hero like Wyatt Earp by his full name and there’s some sort of knowing comprehension. Where good and evil are unquestionable entities that we recognize outright. Where a final showdown is all but inevitable as is the town’s prettiest girl falling for our hero.

Wichita is such a picture and yet by some method of ingenuity and delight in his craft Tourneur makes it into something worth remembering. Part of that must be attributed to a script by Daniel B. Ullman which manages to have time for a big reversal and some social commentary in what otherwise could have been droll entertainment.

Meanwhile, though Joel McCrea might look a little decrepit and over the hill for such a role especially opposite a beaming Vera Miles, there’s still that same amiability and honesty that he was good for. James Stewart would look much the same opposite Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But like that picture, the themes add a depth of character to the western making it a transcendent medium since it’s as American a genre as they come and it provides the perfect breeding grounds for allegorical tales.

Because before we meet our hero we meet a group of cowboys who are driving their cattle toward the rapidly growing destination of Wichita, Kansas. With the railroad turning it into a pitstop, the city shows no signs of slowing down and turning into a ghost town. Instead it aspires to be the next big Mecca in the Midwest bringing all sorts of people — the Babylon on the Arkansas River without the hanging gardens.

One such traveler rides as a solitary figure toward the cattlemen in one of the film’s most canonical shots and they oblige by offering him a meal. However, two of their band are mighty eager to swipe their visitor’s saddlebags when he beds down for the night.

What follows is a preview of coming attractions and even as Earp (McCrea) goes on ahead to Wichita we know intuitively that there will be another confrontation. In the meantime, he rides into town under the banner reading: “Anything Goes in Wichita” and local floozies waving giddily as they pass in covered wagons.

As best as I can describe it the town is alive. Positively bustling with activity and it makes everything in the frame more interesting with this ever dynamic ambiance playing out in the background. I’d like to think that is what Tourneur is able to offer the material.

While we bide our time we watch Earp looking around for something to invest his talents in. He befriends the towns newsmakers a stodgy old veteran (Wallace Ford) and his ambitious understudy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).

Earp also ends up thwarting a bank raid raising the eyebrows of the local big whigs for his prowess with a six-shooter. Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) the man responsible for bringing the railroad to Wichita offers him the job of Marshall which Earp gently refuses on multiple occasions.

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Twice already we have seen him use his gun but he embodies the archetype, an agile marksman who is hesitant to use his firearms and only under extreme provocation. But the final trigger comes when the cowboys from before roll into town with a hearty welcome. However, when their merrymaking devolves into belligerent hooliganism that leaves a young boy as collateral damage, Earp is finally ready to pick up the badge.

It ends up being a battle between the business-minded community members with political clout and a man whose number one priority is public safety. Others like Doc Black (a wily Edgar Buchannan) and even McCoy are willing to make concessions for what is termed progress but Earp once he’s taken his post is a hardliner.

He won’t budge an inch which is an admirable trait even as it doesn’t buy him many supporters. But sometimes that’s what the great men do and it is what few men seem willing to do now. Conceding their popularity for the greater good. However, I can hardly criticize any man for such a stance unless I convict myself too. As McCrea asserts it’s, “Not a question of who’s right but what’s right.” That’s the bottom line and he sticks to it.

In the final shot of Wichita as husband and wife ride off in their carriage together the image is all too familiar evoking for me High Noon (1952) one of the first westerns that truly moved me on a human level. This picture did much of the same though on a lesser more inconsequential scale. It caused me to place a magnifying glass to issues that we still see the U.S. confronted with right at this very moment.

“If men aren’t carrying guns they cannot shoot each other.” This common sense comes straight from the film and yet you can easily see how it becomes clouded with personal ambitions and polarizing politics. There’s no denying that. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy to shock us into some form of action. The question remains what is the greater good? I feel like it comes into clearer focus when you get hit where you’re the most vulnerable.

4/5 Stars

“Serving God and serving the law are two different things.” ~ Bat Masterson

“To do either one, takes a dedicated man.” ~ Arthur Whiteside

 

 

 

 

Cat People (1942)

cat-peopleCat People has one of those sensationalized B-picture premises and there are moments when its meager aspects let slip that this is a low-budget effort, but within those restrictions, it moves with a certain purpose and chilliness. It’s true that producer Val Lewton had a B-movie renaissance going on at RKO Studios and Cat People is one of his treasures.

At its core is a streamlined love story between a Serbian artist/fashion designer and the local New Yorker who falls smitten for her in a whirlwind. Simon Simon is simultaneously sweet and bewitching as Irena Dubrovna who intrigues Oliver (Kent Smith) as much for her exotic mystery and feline figure as she does for her genial demeanor.

In several candid moments, Irena explains to her new admirer that she is a descendant from a long lineage of cursed individuals. The stories she tells of immense evil and witchcraft have the ring of gothic horror stories to Oliver and the audience.  Certainly nothing to be taken seriously. They’re legends, after all, except for Irena they are strikingly real.  And her palpable apprehension about such things allows an impending dread to set in and reach us.

With these strategic bits of exposition and foreshadowing, Cat People sets its story up well, revealing just enough to give some teeth to the impending doom as the narrative slowly descends deeper and deeper into the haunting darkness hinted at early on. But it’s the very fact, that that is not where it dwells all the time. It finds its plot in very mundane and ordinary things. The romance between two individuals. A young woman who is taken with walking through the Central Park Zoo to observe the animals.

cat-people-2At Oliver’s work, talk around the water cooler is made compelling in that his best pal and colleague is the sensible Alice (Jane Alexander) always ready to lend a listening ear. She’s genuine in accepting Irena for who she is because she can tell that Oliver earnestly loves her. But at the same time, she serves as a contrasting figure — someone who is completely different than this enigmatic creature.

But another thread involves Irena’s time spent in the counsel of the psychiatrist Dr. Judd at the behest of her love. And when she comes to him with her personal troubles it becomes evident that there is a great deal of trauma buried deep within her as there is with many of us I can imagine. The doctor rightly extrapolates that “childhood tragedies corrode the soul and leave a canker in the mind.”

It’s this that becomes the source of the horror. Because certainly, this is a fantasy on more levels than one– the man’s never been unhappy in his life until now (That’s a laugh) and the woman has unnatural impulses (You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again). But it’s rooted in some sort of fact, whether personal, mental, or spiritual.  And, ultimately, it is a harrowing amalgamation of psychological duress, sexuality, and spirituality that makes for a spooky outcome indeed.

It even taps into the apocalyptic biblical literature (Revelation 13:2) to lend a certain amount of ethos to its story. And even if the interpretation of the texts is broadened and pulled completely at of context, as a narrative device, it works wonders.

One of the film’s greatest and perhaps most obvious assets is its aesthetic with a crepuscular atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musurasca. He would partner with Jacques Tourneur later on in the decade with the much-revered film noir Out of the Past.  And what it truly adds is character, making the fears of these individuals actually legitimate and heightening the tension. Cat People does not pop out at you or repulse with gratuitous gore but it’s a completely unnerving picture all the same.

4/5 Stars

Out of the Past (1947) – Film-Noir

13659-outofthepastStarring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, this classic has every element of a good film noir.   Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) makes his living in a small town working at a gas station. He has an honest living and a girl. However, soon his past catches up with him when a man from his former life comes to see him, and he must explain it all to his innocent girlfriend.

Once he was a private investigator, who got mixed up with a powerful man named Whit (Douglas). He wanted some money found, but most importantly he wanted a deadly girl brought back to him. Pretty soon Jeff’s searching leads him down to Mexico. He has a chance meeting with the beautiful woman (Greer), and he understands why Whit wanted her back.

However, Kathie is not eager to go back, and they are attracted to each other. She and Jeff agree to run off together to San Francisco — away from the searching of Whit. They are nearly found out, but they get away. San Francisco is not a nice place, but they make do, until the day where Jeff is spotted by his old partner. He must split up with Kathie and they set a rendezvous. Only there is a hitch in the plan that Jeff did not foresee. He tries to deal with it in his own way, but Kathie takes more drastic measures. She left him there and went out of his life, or so Jeff thought. He had tried to forget his past dealings, and yet they creep back into his life. With a murder pinned on him, Bailey can do nothing but go along with Whit and Kathie. Soon he becomes embroiled in more treachery and backstabbing, which all has to do with the manipulative femme fatale.

With one last entreaty, she urges him to flee with her since they both have dark pasts. In the end, Kathie’s fanciful plan to escape is foiled by Bailey and it soon turns fatal. One last time she tried to control the situation, but this final time Jeff, or at least fate, got the best of her. After his violent death, Jeff’s girl wishes to know once and for all if he was running off with Kathie. A mute boy (Dickie Moore), who knew Jeff well lies so that the girl can continue her life. Because in Jeff’s case the past came back to haunt him. The kid goes back to the station, but not before looking up at Bailey’s name on the sign, because he did what Jeff would have wanted.

With its dialogue, extended flashback, voice over, and femme fatales played by Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming, there are not many noir experiences better than this one. Obviously, the chiaroscuro cinematography is a major aspect of this film. Except for the shots in Bridgeport, it seems like every scene is veiled in shadow whether it takes place in Acapulco or San Fran, at day, night, inside, or out. Shadows are perpetual and they seem to reflect not only these characters but also the story. They are not easy to figure and none of them can ever be fully trusted.

Mitchum is perfect in the role of Jeff Bailey, thanks to his demeanor, his fitting voice, and the constant attire of a trench coat and fedora, with a cigarette clenched in his teeth. He is a man who looks like a saint compared to his acquaintances, and yet he is a man who can show a complex set of traits ranging from avarice, cruelty, love, and sometimes heroism. Kirk Douglas is great in his role as the crooked Whit, who acts the nice guy only to be cruel at heart. Every character from the henchman Joe, to the mute boy, the accomplice Meta  Carson, and even the loyal taxi driver are all memorable in the scenes they show up in. Jane Greer stands out, however, because she is one of the most notorious femme fatales in any noir. I think she toys with the audience as much as she does with Jeff. We find ourselves starting to believe her, then we have our doubts, and then we go on believing her again. It is a fine performance.

5/5 Stars

“She can’t be all bad. No one is.”
“She comes the closest.”
~ Ann and Jeff talking about Kathie