The Devil’s Doorway (1950)

devil's doorway 1.png

Right here we see the precise genesis of Anthony Mann as a director of westerns. To consider the string of modest classics that followed is nearly staggering. But he was well-suited for the transition taking his acquired skills over the years and translating them easily to the West.

The Devil’s Doorway is shot like his most gripping noirs thanks in part to John Alton’s continued partnership. Thunder sounding off in the background, low lights, and even lower angles when working in close-ups. Visually he certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would care for the picture since I knew next to nothing about it. However, in the first few minutes of expositional action, we learn something that sets up a striking dissonance not only within our character’s identity but in the West itself.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) comes back from the Civil War as a man who proved himself on many a battlefield from Antitiem to Gettysburg achieving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics. Strikingly, for someone returning from such a divisive war, Poole has a fairly positive outlook. Except he’s rudely awakened when he comes home and finds that a different type of war is still raging.

This is the time to share the film’s major point and one that is crucial to getting into this narrative from screenwriter Guy Trosper. Poole is a Native American — a Shoshone by birth — but when he fought in the army no one judged him by the color of his skin. He shared food and quarters and fought alongside his fellow Americans.

And yet when he gets back to the land he calls his own, he finds that men have hardly changed even if the times have. White folk look at “Indians” with disdain and if not disdain then probably fear. There’s no sense of wanting to get to know them. Sure, there are a few who remain true to Poole from the old days like Zeke (Edgar Buchanan) and yet even they crumble under peer pressure. That means no drinks served to Indians in the saloon and certainly no owning property.

The Homestead Act is a grand proposition made for dreamers, rallying men to head out to the vast plains out west to stake claim to the territory and settle down. No such provision exists for the ones who have lived on the land all their lives.Under the law Poole’s not classified as an American citizen and what is he, you ask? Well, that’s very much what the picture is trying to address.

Even as desperate men surge toward Poole’s acreage of top land looking to move in, other Shoshone from a reservation, led by their chief (Chief John Big Tree) seek asylum because their current existence is a far cry from their former life of prosperity.

Poole knowing that the way of the white man worked for him during the war tries to seek out honest means of reclaiming his land. He forgoes the town’s crooked lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) and calls upon Orrie Master (Paula Raymond); she’s a woman, not a man, which in itself is a statement.

Though reluctant, she takes his case because they need each other. She plays by the book, holding to the assertion that if something’s the law, we have to abide by it. Her faith, her religion of sorts, is the law and she treats it as sacred. But as those roads seem to lead nowhere for a man like Poole just because of the color of his skin, she tries to make him seek compromise — some amount of mutual understanding.

But when you have a bigot like Coolan doing everything in his power to push Lance off his property, such an agreement seems out of the question. Such a diabolical fellow is intent on inciting opposition and manipulating folks so that peace and compromise are no longer viable options.

People such as this are far too prevalent in this world and their philosophies poison the world for everyone. There is no understanding. There is no empathy and Lance is not about to wait around for it. He’s going to defend what he deems to be rightfully his.

Ms. Masters in near desperation sends out a distress signal to Fort Laramie calling on the Cavalry. It is her last hope for any type of peaceable resolution — even if it only stops the bleeding which has already begun between the natives and the homesteaders. We too look on powerless to stop the bloodshed because we are only an audience interfacing with a film. The question becomes what will we do with our reality if we see a parallel issue?  If and when former Union Officer Poole perishes there will be no one to play him “Taps” now will there?

Such a downbeat ending and harsh portrait was not something Hollywood was ready for and it seems that generally, Devil’s Doorway gets a bit buried. I think it’s about time that we all took our medicine and while not a perfect film it might cause one to perceive the Wild West of Hollywood lore with a very different heart.

To say it’s completely undermined by its casting is somewhat missing the point because its intentions are all but honorable and the picture lays in hard to issues that are not simply western issues but are quite easily transposed to post-war WWII, 1950s pre-civil rights America and obviously the present as well.

In fact, it hardly feels like jumping the gun to call Devil’s Doorway cutting-edge because like Broken Arrow (1950) of the same year, it actually concerned itself with the plight of Native Americans. But whereas the other picture is somewhat forgettable now, there’s still an undeniable bite to Mann’s effort. Even the black and white imagery aids in the tone (as well as practically masking a bit of Taylor’s makeup).

Here is a western that stars an “Indian” and an independent working woman who are not even romantically attached to each other. Beyond that, it straddles this line of muddied morality that hardly chooses sides but settles in the gray area that leads us to make some heady considerations.

Far be it from me to strip away visions of glorious gunfights and all-conquering heroes. But if you watch this story unfold — a grim statement of tenacity from Anthony Mann — those myths will be trampled on. You would do well to watch your step and open up your heart just a little bit, hopefully, more than when you first entered in the corale.

4/5 Stars

 

 

 

Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

reign terror 1.png

Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

T-Men (1947)

fb214-tmen3T-Men looks like it could be a dated 1940s procedural right out of a stuffy newsreel. It’s complete with an omniscient narrator overlaying everything. He gives us all the juicy bits without relaying all the superfluous details because, after all, this is a composite case. Also, a lot of effort is made to bring up similarities with the Al Capone case.  So, in other words, it does feel like a heavy-handed newsreel at times.

However, thanks to director Anthony Mann and the pure cinematography of John Alton, T-Men sheds its shallow top layer and gets interesting.

We are given a bit of dry exposition to kick things off. We are following a couple T-Men named Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), complete with full personal bios, who are called on to infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. They get in with the Vantucci mob and make their way from Detroit to L.A. O’Brien aka Vannie Harrigan goes to all the steam baths across town and finally comes across a man named the Schemer. After putting his phony dough in circulation the plan is set in motion as he gets in with the thugs of L.A. too.

And that’s what the rest of the film entails, with O’Brien keeping his cover, while also staying in contact with his superiors and being joined by Tony, aka Tony Galvani from Detroit. It would be run-of-the-mill if not for a few scenes and Alton’s images as previously mentioned.

One day Toni runs into his wife in the most awkward and potentially deadly of circumstances. A well-meaning friend nearly blows his cover in front of a thug and Mary Genaro (June Lockhart) bravely protects her husband. It’s a painful moment.

All too soon Toni’s in trouble and O’Brien soon after, but he’s almost gotten to the top. The digging and prodding have nearly reached their apex. A bit of luck and some timely police support get to O’Brien soon enough so he survives. It’s a show of heroics and gutsy police work like we have undoubtedly seen many times before.

T-Men is kind of like The Departed without all the thrills and plot twists, and cursing if you want to see it that way. But the images are so moody and beautiful that it’s hard not to at least tip your hat if you had one. Do yourself a favor and see Raw Deal, a film with many of the same components and probably a slightly better payoff.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Combo (1955)

b456e-bigcombo1There is so much to the plot of The Big Combo, but the irony is that the story is not altogether extraordinary. Instead, highlights include David Raksin’s (Laura) jazzy score infused with brass which is somewhat unusual for the genre. Cinematographer John Alton also helped in making this film visually and stylistically engaging. There are some crazy, overstated shadows making this undeniably film-noir. There are very few better examples of so-called “dark” cinema with prototypical chiaroscuro and low key lighting.

Honestly, I have never been a huge fan of Cornel Wilde, and I can understand why he is not that popular or well known. He’s relatively beady-eyed, not particularly good looking, and his voice is not altogether memorable. Like Mr. Brown said in the film, “It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop.” Even Dick Powell has some wit but Wilde’s character is straitlaced and steady. There’s nothing of much repute about him. But enough about Wilde.

The story is your somewhat typical procedural with a righteous cop facing off against a big time mobster. Mr. Brown is practically untouchable with a large pool of money at his disposal and a group of faithful thugs ready to do his bidding. He has a girl, Susan Lowell, who is about fed up with him, but she sticks around.

Lt. Diamond (Wilde) is totally fed up with the corruption but himself is also infatuated with Lowell. His only lead is the name “Alicia” which leads to trouble with Brown and his thugs who rough him up and leave him drunk. However, he learns from a man named Betini that “Alicia” was Brown’s wife who was supposedly murdered and thrown overboard with an anchor.

Next on the beat is a tight-lipped Swedish antique dealer, and ultimately, Diamond comes up with proof that Brown’s wife is still alive. He’s getting too close so Mr. Brown sends out his thugs Fante and Mingo to shut him up for good. They get the wrong person.

Alicia finally turns up, a few more figures get mowed down in Mr. Brown’s wake including Diamond’s trusty colleague Sam (Jay Adler). All that’s left is a showdown at the airport that is like Casablanca‘s atmosphere on steroids. It truly is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis.

There is not a great deal of sympathy to be had for a lot of the characters who got it, and though she seemed to have little bearing on the plot, Rita’s demise was surprisingly difficult to take. She was the girl with the heart of gold. Brown’s heartlessness finally came back to bite him but honestly, I could have cared less if Diamond was the one to catch him or not. He couldn’t have done it without Susan anyways.

3.5/5 Stars

Raw Deal (1948)

5453f-rawdeal2Anthony Mann may be most widely known for his westerns often headlined by Jimmy Stewart, but he most definitely honed his craft earlier on. Raw Deal is everything you want and expect from film-noir. Our protagonist is a man who breaks out of the State Penitentiary, you have your potential femme fatale, the moral ambiguity, and most of the other necessary hallmarks.

As a lover of black and white cinematography, Raw Deal is highly appealing with its chiaroscuro, silhouettes, and framing of characters. But after all, that’s often part of the allure of noir.

Claire Trevor’s matter of fact voice-over backed by the theremin is highly effective in dictating the disconcerting mood for the entirety of the film. All our previous predispositions tell us the stage is set for a chilling ending but we can hardly imagine what it is at this point.

After Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) busts out of prison, we get much of what you would expect. A tense manhunt involving a dragnet crossing multiple state lines and a fugitive at large with accomplices. There is violence and melodrama galore as Joe dodges the police while also trying to reconnect with a crooked mob boss named Rick (Raymond Burr), who leveraged an escape attempt so Joe would get knocked off.

With the circumstances as they are, he’s not too keen on giving Joe the 50Gs that he is owed and so Rick wants the fugitive knocked off if the cops don’t get to him first. Put in this light, the film feels analogous to many other noir staples like White Heat, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy or The Big Heat to name a few. However, it has its own wrinkle that makes it interesting.

Joe has his femme fatale to be sure, but the kicker is that there are two dames pulling at his heart strings. Pat (Claire Trevor) is more the dame since she was born in a bad area and has been waiting around for Joe a long time. She’s faithful even to the point of helping him escape, but she’s not the most endearing of characters. Ann (Marsha Hunt) on the other hand is the tender social worker who has been trying to help Joe the legal way. When he breaks out she is taken as a sort of hostage and has difficulties reconciling her feelings for him with what she sees in front of her.

However, he’s certainly not all hardened criminal and so that is part of what makes the rest of the film so interesting. Each character walks the thin line of morality and each one crosses over to the other side even if its only for an instant.

For, Pat the clock continues to tick and her conscience ultimately catches up with her. As the drama reaches its near apex we see Joe’s true feelings, and in a sense, who he has become compared to who he was earlier. However, we cannot help feeling a tinge of remorse in the end. So you see, the film succeeded in doing the near impossible, making me sympathize for Claire Trevor’s character. She seemingly often plays undesirables, but they are never cookie cutter and the same can be said for Raw Deal.

4/5 Stars

“You’re something from under a rock” ~ Ann Martin