The Naked Spur (1953)

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James Stewart carries over his persona from Bend of the River (1952) to continually redefine his career in the post-war years. He is a man under a different name who nevertheless is seething with the same raw fury.

In this regard, there are numerous parallel themes in this subsequent collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann culling the recesses of one man’s mind to showcase his unswerving resentment. There’s not an ounce of amiability in the performance which is almost unheard of.

It winds up being a bit of an open-air paradox with gorgeous Colorado visuals which are nevertheless infused with the tension of a near suffocating chamber piece. Because it proves that such an incongruity is possible. Freedom of movement does not necessarily prohibit continually duress of another nature.

The cast is compact but a mighty group of talent with five individuals that you cannot help but remember. Stewart is the leader in all regards as Howard Kemp who has been tracking Ben Vandergroat for some time now since the other man murdered a Marshall in Kansas.

Millard Mitchell is the crusty prospector, the first man that Kemp runs into, and they form an uneasy partnership with Jesse Tate believing the other man to be a Marshall. It’s true that Kemp is always barking orders at everyone. It continues when a Union soldier helps them scale a rock face and close in on Kemp’s target.

Ralph Meeker always gives the impression that he’s ogling and that distinctive voice that would serve him well as Mike Hammer instantly labels him as a tough customer. His tattered military record suggests something else. He’s not exactly to be trusted as a soldier recently discharged for being “morally unstable,” whatever that means.

Janet Leigh despite her undeniable beauty does well to drop her ingenue image and play a tougher, earthier role as the doting girlfriend of the wanted Marshall-killer. But in her you see much the same conflict as all the other characters. Something is driving them to continue down the road they are traveling. It’s simply a matter of deciphering just what it is.

Arguably most important of all is chortling Robert Ryan as Vandergroat egging Stewart on with continuous catcalls of “Howie” as he commences the mind games that comprise most of the meat of the story. He dispels any misconceptions the other two might have about Kemp. He’s no Marshall and he’s hardly doing this out of the kindness of his heart. There’s a $5,000 reward for the wanted man.

Whether he read his Bible or not, Ben knows enough about human nature and the reality that a house divided against itself cannot stand and he’s looking for any way to pit his captors against each other. Chatting them up constantly and using his girl to try and soften up the other two while scheming here and dropping little remarks there to wheedle under Howard’s skin.

It’s a long stretch of country ahead. Final destination: Abilene, Kansas. He knows as well as they do that a lot can happen in that length of territory. He’s aiming to get himself out from under a hanging tree and so he’s mighty keen to chip away at them as much as possible.

Though he’s very much an instigator, there’s little question that Vandergroat gets some unsolicited help. Anderson’s shady past with a Native American princess means he’s soon caught up in a skirmish with a pack of warriors bent on some form of justice. While initially keeping their noses clean of the whole squabble, there’s finally no recourse but for Kemp and the prospector to get involved. Howard winds up with lead lodged in his leg and he’s hobbling feebly for the rest of the trip.

One must note that the American Indians are utilized solely for their agency to the story. They are not human as our leads are human and that is a shame. Because aside from that major oversight, The Naked Spur is a splendid Western that takes a scenario deeply-rooted in the tradition and yet uses it to more closely still examine the human psyche. Most specifically we see in each character the things that drive them and how men can so easily be weaponized against one another.

Tate immediately gets a renewed hankering for gold when Vandergroat lets him in on a little secret. He happens to be sitting on a gold mine. But only he knows where it is. Then of course, the soldier has a thing for the ladies and is looking to earn some money as much as the next fellow. For Howard, it’s his unbending sense of revenge that he must complete at all costs.

He’s practically dying, plagued by cold sweats and hallucinations but there’s a doggedly resilient quality about him. Proposing cave shoot-outs and fording rivers relentlessly. In a textbook Mann shot of brutality, his anti-hero is getting choked to death rolling around in the dirt only to live to fight another day. That is the ongoing motif that Stewart never allows us to forget for a minute up until the film’s pinnacle.

While not as heralded as a Ford and Wayne type partnership one could argue that Stewart and Mann was a no less important or formative collaboration. The Naked Spur and a slew of other pictures stand as cogent proof.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Gunfighter (1950)

thegunfighter1“Ringo don’t look so tough to me.”

Those are the words that propagate a legend and simultaneously follow notorious gunman Jimmy Ringo wherever he goes. There’s always some impetuous kid looking to have it out with him and every time it’s the same result. The kid never listens and Ringo rides off to the next town, wearier than he was the last time.

The Gunfighter has a surprisingly vibrant script with numerous names attached to it at different times including William Bowers, Nunnally Johnson, and Andre de Toth.  It evolves into a sort of chamber piece made into a carnival show when Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) comes to the town of Cayenne.Kids milling about peering in and catcalling as this “murderer” sits in the saloon like a sideshow attraction.

It’s an oddly compelling commentary on celebrity, and in this case, notoriety as everyone far and wide knows the name Jimmy Ringo and is either in awe of it or ready to prove they’ve got the guts to take him down. He’s constantly being sized up, continually being gawked at, or gossipped about. That’s the price of such fame.

But on the opposite side of the coin, and incidentally, the side no one much cares to think about, there’s a jaded man who’s made a life out of gunning down other men and moving from one town to the next to the next. There’s something very human about growing old and that’s what Jimmy Ringo has done. Because as the years march ever onward your whole mindset shifts along with your priorities. A life on the run doesn’t have the same luster. You want to be able to settle down, to be happy, to be at peace. But old vendettas take a long time to die, continuing just as long as the legends that they follow.

the gunfighter 2Of all men to understand Ringo, you would think that the local Marshall (Millard Mitchell) would be the last, but he happens to be an old friend of the gunman. They used to run in the same circles before Mark softened up. His life mellowed out, while Ringo’s reputation continued to build.

The subsequent sequence in the jailhouse illustrates just how much weight a simple name can carry. When the well-to-do ladies of the town come to the sheriff with their petition for justice, they think little of the stranger who tries to shed a little light on Ringo’s point of view. However, the moment they hear his name uttered, everyone is in a tizzy, rushing out of the jail lickety-split. It reflects just how hypocritical their form of morality is.

the gunfighter 3The main reason Ringo stays in a town that doesn’t want him is all because of a girl (Helen Westcott). He waits and waits, biding his time, for any word from her, and finally, it comes. He gets his wish to see her and his son in private. These scenes behind closed doors are surprisingly intimate, casting the old gunman in an utterly different light.

Of course, none of that saves him when he walks out that door back into the limelight, living the life of Jimmy Ringo, whether he likes it or not. If the three vengeful brothers don’t get him, there’s someone waiting for him up in a second story window or hiding behind a corner. A man like that can never win in the end.

It struck me that this film has some thematic similarities to another film of the same year, All About Eve. Aside from the fact that I personally enjoy Gregory Peck a great deal more than Bette Davis, both films focus on aging icons. While Ringo is not so much manipulated as undermined by his own legacy, his story ends with a young man much like himself riding off into the distance, to take up the life that Ringo led for so long. The specters of such notoriety will haunt the boy until the day he dies, and much like Eve, the deadly cycle begins again. Henry King made an unprecedented 6 films with Peck and this is probably the hallmark for both of them, certainly their most prolific western respectively.

4.5/5 Stars

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

KCConfidential.jpgSaying that Phil Karlson has a penchant for gritty crime dramas is a gross understatement. And yet here again is one of those real tough-guy numbers he was known for, where all you have to do is follow the trail of cigarette smoke and every punch is palpable–coming right off the screen and practically walloping you across the face.

Like all heist films, there must be a point of inception, however, Kansas City Confidential finds its story after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have split up without a hitch. The man who takes the heat, their fall guy and the unsuspecting stooge is Joe Rolfe (John Payne who is adept at playing such roles) a nobody truck driver and a convict once upon a time.

It seems like the perfect crime as the three hired hands all wore masks and had no connection to each other, except for the stocky and demonstrative Mr. Big, the mastermind behind the whole operation and the one calling the shots. He sends each man off with enough money to tide themselves over until he contacts them to reconvene for their big payoff. Whether or not he will actually cough up the 300,000 clams he owes each of them is quite another story.

Still, each man heads his own way and Joe is getting grilled by the cops day after day in the hopes that he will crack. Finally, he is released, but with no prospects and no job, he sits in a bar stewing in his anger. The story takes it’s next big turn when he follows a lead down to Mexico to tail one of the hoods in on the job Peter Harris (Jack Elam). And although Joe is going in blind, he soon catches wind of the impending rendezvous in Barados and decides he’ll just show up as well, to get to the bottom of the entire mess.

It’s there where he first crosses paths with two other leering hoods, the beady-eyed Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and the silently brooding Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). However, while keeping tabs on these cronies, he keeps company with a budding lawyer Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), who has come to call upon her protective father, the former policeman Tim Foster. If this set up isn’t plain enough already, it certainly becomes increasingly interesting as the gears continue to turn towards the story’s inevitable climax.

Most certainly Kansas City Confidential boasts jarring close-ups, low budget facades and perpetually sweaty faces that accentuate its unsentimental noirish qualities. However, Coleen Gray acts as a more enlightened noir heroine, who does not grovel for her man or weep incessantly at the thought of danger. Instead, she’s training to be a lawyer, and rational but still unequivocally kind. Despite not having a proper meet cute, the chemistry between Gray and Payne still works surprisingly well.

What makes the film inherently more interesting is how the crime is embroiled with family issues. Because, as an audience, we know Mr. Big’s identity: a corrupted cop who got a bum steer and now is going to reap the benefits of setting up some real losers. Still, that doesn’t excuse what he did and Joe got dealt a similarly sorry hand. The fact that Foster’s daughter is involved sheds him in a more humane light and in the same instance makes Joe a more likable figure. In many ways, she brings out the best qualities of both these characters. It’s the darker recesses that lurk behind their characters. Those are made more evident by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand, a real rogues gallery of baddies if there ever was one.

4/5 Stars

Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

f7d3a-singin_rain I always seem to get goosebumps during Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number, because each time I see and hear it, there is still a new magic to it every time. You see when I was young, before I knew all the classics, first and foremost, I knew this gem of a film. It is such a wonderful buildup to that moment with such personal favorites as “Make em’ Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.” Then you have the always popular “Good Morning” with not only Kelly but Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds performing. Great stuff! There’s tireless choreography that goes into many of those sequences but it comes off so effortlessly and it brings us into the moment. There those wonderful, brief instances when you lose yourself in the music, the magic, and so on.

As the story goes, the three friends save the failing “Dueling Cavalier” by losing the simple “talkie” gimmick and making it a musical by dubbing the squeaky-voiced Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Cathy (Reynolds) no longer is a bit player, and she gains the acknowledgment that she deserves. Then Don Lockwood (Kelly) gets the girl who burst out of a cake. Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) is along for the ride staying with Don through thick and through thin, even calling him a cab when necessary. He’s a true friend in a million.

Although Kelly had a career with other high points (arguably never as high as this one), I am always slightly saddened that O’Connor and Reynolds never reached another apex like this in their subsequent careers. But they were both so great here, we must simply cherish this film for what it is.

Even to this day, the film holds up, and that is a tribute to the writing of Betty Comden and Adolph Green highlighting the infant Hollywood and the advent of talkies. In the same breath, it’s both a satire of the movie star culture and still a love letter to that same cottage industry. The only film with a similar dissection of Hollywood’s Golden Age is another 50s classic in Sunset Boulevard. The big difference is that Wilder’s film is chock full of drama and darkness. Singin’ in the Rain will always and forever be a light, fun musical with a lot of laughs.  It is constantly quotable whether it is “dignity, always dignity” or “I CAN’T stand it!”

Jean Hagen is always the butt of everyone’s jokes, but she is indeed very funny with the most annoying voice in the history of cinema (She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. Triple threat). You also have other fine performers like Millard Mitchell as studio head R.F., and then appearances by Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno who made a name for themselves as dancers in the ensuing years. And is it just me or does Donald O’Connor remind others of Danny Kaye? He not only cracks the jokes, but he is a wonderful all-around performer. Although O’Connor was undoubtedly a better dancer.

All in all, this is a timeless classic and it will undoubtedly keep that title for as long as people watch movies. Now I hope it starts pouring buckets of rain so I can go outside and stomp around in the puddles. I will let you know if I come down with pneumonia. But until that happens I’ll enjoy every minute of it. I entreat you to do the same.

5/5 Stars