Silver Lode (1954): More Noir on The Range

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“It looks like Ballard’s past has come to town!”

A brood of leery guns lumbers into the town of Silver Lode. We have an instant clash of temperaments. Because this outside force is menacing and foreboding. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are getting everything together for their Fourth of July bash. They’re downright neighborly. They don’t hardly think twice when it comes to sharing the whereabouts of one of their locals: Dan Ballard (John Payne).

Though that’s not quite right because Ballard is a relatively recent addition to the community having arrived only two years prior and settled down as a pillar of Silver Lode’s community — well-liked by just about everyone. In fact, when the purported U.S. Marshall Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) starts asking for him, Dan is in the middle of his marriage ceremony to Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) who comes from a highly respected family.

There’s no doubting the gunfighters are out for blood though. Although they are stopped in their stride by the even-keeled, rational-minded sheriff (Emile Meyer), they nevertheless have enough pull to burst into the matrimonial bubble.

Because, of course, Ballard knows this man. He killed his brother in California. It was a fair fight; the other man drew first, but McCarty calls it murder. He’s out for his brand of justice, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The reverend fires right back with the prerogative to “turn the other cheek.”

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The thugs crash the ceremony regardless, the biggest wrinkle is the fact they represent law & order as marshals with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. Though Dan greatly suspects the validity of the man who knew only as a cattle rustler, he willfully gives himself up. After all, the town is still standing by him. However, that can change.

They begin a grim procession, sullying the cheery proceedings around town, as they make their way to the Judge’s quarters. Dan keeps his buddies at bay even as he voluntarily follows McCarty. The sheriff is put in an uncomfortable position and yet he agrees to form a posse to join the contingent to make sure Dan remains safe in protected custody.

However, things heat up as the decks stack against him. The telegraph lines are conveniently down so there’s no way to verify the marshal’s credentials. There’s also a dichotomy between the respectable, God-fearing hypocrites and other folks, which hasn’t dissipated since the dawning of time.

The saloon matron, Dolly (Dolores Moran), is ever ready to help Ballard — because they had a history once. He doesn’t know who else he can trust. Already the resident Pharisees, with their up-turned noses, are clamoring for Ballard’s removal due to his pedigree as a hardened criminal. They don’t trust him. Dolly’s best retort is aimed at the Reverend, “I think some of your flock needs delousing.”

So she runs interference as Ballard tries to seek a meeting with one of McCarty’s brood. Harry Carey Jr., ever the brittle westerner looks to play the stooge in return for $5,000 and protection. He’s willing to rat, of course. There is a momentary glimmer of light that McCarty promptly snuffs out.

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A barn standoff could conceivably tie up the film in a minute if the sheriff wasn’t conveniently gunned down and the stoolie Johnson follows suit. It seems like the whole town is present, witnessing the guns in Ballard’s hands, again, the obvious criminal. Though winged, McCarty lives to fight another day — maintaining his lie in the process — all but damning Ballard for good.

Twists of wicked fate just keep on coming and McCarty now can wield the townsfolk against their former neighbor, turning them against him outright. It gets so bad he feels no recourse but take on the mantle of the hunted fugitive in order to survive and vindicate himself. Circumstances certainly look dire.

One of John Alton’s best setups is probably when Ballard dashes across town crouching and then sprinting a bit further to reach his destination — pursuers scurrying after him as he returns fire — executed in one uninterrupted dolly shot sweeping left to right across the compound.

We also have the ticking clocks of High Noon, metaphorically speaking. If we mention that film, there is no way we cannot mention HUAC and The Hollywood Blacklist. Because the parallels in the allegory are too apparent. We have good men who are turned upon and likened to criminals for past sins or beliefs that diverge from the pack.

It gets ugly when mob-like hysteria takes over, and there is no wisdom to guide the ensuing actions. Everything is dictated by fear and hate.  Mob violence is the death of any town as McCarty (Joseph McCarthy anyone?) plays on the fears of the people.

Ballard ultimately seeks asylum in the church as the horde almost breaks the doors down. In the end, it’s a showdown between the two men who always had a beef to pick. One defenseless, the other armed and ready to get his revenge and if not revenge, then something even better. In the end, it’s another serendipitous moment, worthy of a Mythbusters episode, that closes the action and allows us to breathe again.

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With every passing movie, I am always astounded by the obvious overlaps between the West and film noir, and it starts with personnel. John Alton was already mentioned. He is nearly as accomplished in color as black & white. Then, John Payne, not usually a western hero, nevertheless spent plenty of time roughhousing in the underworld. Even Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea are given a bit of a reunion after Too Late for Tears.

Duryea unequivocally steals the show again with a blistering, continually conniving performance. He truly has a monopoly on these roles, since he pulls them off with such conviction. Unfortunately, Scott while a  dazzling, toxic femme fatale, has a fairly flat and monotone part to play here.

Both the western and noir are also both innately American genres. They have the opportunity to take elements that ring true about our society and really subject them to scrutiny. What are our ideals? How do we treat one another? What dictates our standards of truth and our sense of good versus evil?

There’s nothing that says you need to consider any of these themes to thoroughly enjoy Silver Lode as an incisive, high-intensity showdown, but it’s a testament to movies that work on multiple levels. It still boggles the mind Allan Dwan made as many films as he did. I haven’t seen many of them. Still, this one shows an indubitable competency in the craft. After all, he had a lot of practice.

3.5/5 Stars

Too Late for Tears (1949)

Too_Late_for_Tears_DVDA couple is driving along a desert highway when a bag loaded full of cash is tossed into the back of their convertible by a passing motorist. They’re a pair of everyday nobodies and yet this single act of fate throws their entire existence into chaos. Of course, it gets a little leg up thanks to Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) as she takes the wheel to get away with the cash, convincing her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) that they hold onto the payload for awhile. Finally, he relents and leaves the briefcase in a Union Station locker.

It’s a tad of an unbelievable scenario but that’s what makes it so exhilarating as Lizabeth Scott plays all parties involved using her doe eyes and feminine wiles to great effect like the foremost of femme fatatles that she is. And the fact that she does it both unwittingly and with willful intent is crucial to her turn for the very fact that it creates the seesaw of emotions.

There’s a certain sense of ambiguity because we begin to invest in her story and like her in one sense, while simultaneously distrusting her motives that seem mostly driven by avarice more than anything else. There’s also this extraordinary quality about her where she somehow manages to look young and feel old all at the same time thanks to her memorable baritone. It’s a bit unsettling.

The next important figure is Danny Fuller, Dan Duryea donning one of his sleazeball roles as a drunk who nevertheless has a bit of a sympathetic side at least put up against the acerbic poison of Lizabeth Scott. She’s the epitome of that long-held expression that greed is the root of all evil. If she didn’t write the book on it, she at least tore through its pages voraciously. Initially badgered by Danny for swiping the payoff he believes is rightfully his, she soon has him roped into her plan. It’s almost too much for the cad to bear. He calls her “Tiger” sardonically at first but he doesn’t realize how right he is.

But the most interesting setup in the narrative are the contrasting couples and they might not pair up the way you first expect with Arthur Kennedy getting the short end of the stick. He starts out happily married and winds up out of the picture.

There’s the rapacious Jane matched with Danny boy as they both feed into each other with their distrust and vices. Then you have the ever-present “Good Girl” or guardian angel,  Alan’s sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller), a sensible,  prepossessing young woman who only begins to distrust Jane as circumstances become more and more strained.

Meanwhile, Alan’s old war buddy (Don DeFore) comes a calling on his old pal and finds himself spending time with the man’s sister instead. But they become our necessary counterpoints to balance out the film’s more corrupt characters.

The final reveal that we’ve been waiting for arrives and it spells the end of Jane’s charade as she’s brought tumbling down. But as noir has a habit of doing, it manages to paint a bit of a happy ending against this dark backdrop with Kathy and Don winding up with each other and a shoulder to lean on. Still, that final image cannot quite downplay all the deceit and murder that has gone down up until now.

Too Late for Tears resonates thanks to a pair of incomparable sordid performances by Scott and Duryea. Miller and DeFore make a lovely couple but it’s the moneygrubbing ones who make this a true noir delight because they represent the incorrigible vices often found in humanity. That’s a lot more fun in the movies.

3.5/5 Stars

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars

Pitfall (1948)

4ac39-pitfall2In Italy Pitfall‘s title was translated to Tragedy in Santa Monica. And that it is, but it plays out as a typical, everyday tragedy. It is far from Shakespearian. John Forbes (Dick Powell) is sorely tired of the monotony of his life: A wheel within a wheel within a wheel so to speak. And he is tired of being the so-called “backbone of the country” employed at Olympic Mutual Insurance Company.

He has a steady job and all, a beautiful, loving wife (Jane Wyatt), and a cute little son Tommy. He’s your prototypical middle-class man from your typical middle-class family. That’s what’s wrong with his life. To put it plainly he’s in a rut and desperately wants to get out.

Pitfall is a  bit of a riff off of Double Indemnity. There is some of the same framework but very different variables and outcomes, so that’s enough comparison.

Things get interesting when Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) comes into the picture. She is a model with a boyfriend who was just recently put into prison for embezzlement. Now Forbes’ company is charged with getting back some valuables from Stevens and she gives them up willingly. Along the way, a hired private investigator named Mac (Raymond Burr) takes a liking for her, but the feelings are not reciprocated. That’s before she meets Forbes.

When they meet, Forbes is immediately struck by her and she takes a liking to his goodwill. Everything would be great in another world. Except in the real world, Forbes is married and Mac is jealous. After he gets accosted by Mac, Mona finds out about her fling’s home life. Surprisingly she lets him off the hook, but Mac won’t let her off.

Forbes’ overall demeanor changes and he feels reinvigorated, even back at home and in the office. But it’s never that simple, and things begin to get messy as Smiley finally gets his ticket out of the clink. Mac has been his constant visitor, filling the paranoid brute with ideas. He thinks Mona has been unfaithful, and he wants to get the guy she was with.

The ending of Pitfall is far more painful than a multitude of meaningless deaths in a monster movie. The reason being, these characters actually have some importance. There is a sense that human life is sacred and if anyone dies it is a big deal, whether they were “good” or “bad.”

Furthermore, there are hardly words enough to describe the look on Jane Wyatt’s face when she finds out the truth. This is one instance when the father did not know best, and their marriage was shaken to the core. It feels all too real. However, this film’s denouement is not quite as fatalistic as Double Indemnity. There still is a tinge of hope that these two individuals can salvage something out of a very difficult situation.

This is yet another feather in the cap of film-noir. So simple and yet so potently effective. I cannot wait for more with Dick Powell.

3.5/5 Stars