Pursued (1947)

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A film like the Searchers (1956) or even The Bravados (1958) frames the western as a tale of vengeance, where a vendetta is carried out from start to finish, only to get twisted up along the way across moral lines. Pursued is a psychological western that takes up the story from the opposite end of the barrel, as its name implies, though the way it goes about it isn’t altogether straightforward. Such stories very rarely are.

Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is hiding out in a cave as his love Thor (played by Teresa Wright) rides to him. We don’t know their history, why he is there, or who is coming after him. All we know through obvious inference is that all these things must be true.

It’s screenwriter Niven Busch’s ploy to draw us into our story and then he fades into a flashback that carries most of the picture’s weight. As many stories channeling Freudian theories must begin, this one is conceived in childhood.

A young boy remembers glimpses of a horrible event. Bullets flying. A body of a woman crawling towards him as he hides under a bed. And this woman (Judith Anderson) would become his adopted mother as her two own kids become rather like his siblings. Thor and Jeb get on well enough but from their boyhood, there has always been an unresolved conflict between Jeb and Adam. The animosity stems from the fact Adam will always see the other as not a true part of his family and Jeb lives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, understandable or not.

For the sake of their mother and their sister, they begrudgingly tolerate each other and that’s the extent of it. When the Spanish-American War erupts one of them must go and so they decide it in the most arbitrary way possible. With a coin flip. Jeb loses and goes off to be a war hero.

When the family finally reunites and gathers around to sing “Danny Boy” to the tune of Londonderry Aire, there is a sensitivity we feel unaccustomed to, since the rest of the story is brusque and distant nearly scene after scene.

While in its opening moments it began as a story of hospitality and family, Pursued really starts falling apart and allows its core themes to exert their full presence. It’s in these moments where we begin to see hints of a story playing out not unlike a crazed version of the prodigal son.

On another coin flip, Jeb loses out on his piece of the ranch and after having it out with Adam turns to his buddy (Alan Hale Sr.) at a gambling house. He is brought on as part of the operation. Meanwhile, the jealous older brother character begrudges the fact his mother will give Jeb an equal inheritance so he is looking to avenge this personal affront. It doesn’t end peaceably.

At his ensuing trial, Jeb’s life is on the line but even though he gets away scot-free, his relations with his surrogate family will never be the same. And it’s only made worse with every subsequent moment including a town dance where Thor’s latest beau (Harry Carey Jr.) is egged on to confront Jeb.

Dean Jagger makes a nuisance of himself hanging over the entire picture menacingly, but it does feel like his talents are generally wasted. Because when everyone else is gone, the most traumatized parties are Mitchum, Wright, and Anderson.

However, this noir western is a genre-bender blessed by the beautiful black and white imagery of James Wong Howe matched with the direction of that old Warner Bros. vet Raoul Walsh. Whether it’s the distant silhouette of Robert Mitchum illuminated in the doorway at night or the sheer magnitude of the cliffs and crags as they frame insignificant riders galloping by on their horses, the images are undeniably evocative.

There’s nothing all that surprising or thematically interesting about the film’s content initially. Still, this is not a full denunciation of the picture outright. Because the way it plays out does become marginally more intriguing as Mitchum comes under attack and finds himself becoming more abhorred by the minute.

I must admit it’s hard to buy sweet, innocent Teresa Wright could be vindictive at all. However, what the two stars breed is the most detached married life known to man. It’s a tribute to both of them. But they can’t stay that way forever.

What does remain is the fact Mitchum has been hounded his whole life by some unnameable specter hanging over him, and the picture has been hemming and hawing for a final showdown all along. It finally comes, though the ones who take a stand are not who we might expect.

The psychology puzzle of it all is up for debate — how memories come flooding back at just the right moment or how people can love someone and them turn around and hate them and then love them again almost on a dime.

But this does not completely neutralize Pursued which still deserves a reputation as a brooding and atmospheric take on the West. It’s not as mentally stimulating as might have been warranted but with the cast of Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, even ill-fit as they may seem, this oater still comes as a fairly easy recommendation.

3.5/5 Stars

The Enforcer (1951)

220px-The_Enforcer_1951.JPGNot that this should deter you completely but The Enforcer isn’t a particularly unique crime film by any stretch of the imagination. Still, we have Humphrey Bogart headlining the police procedural not unlike a Call Northside 777 (1948), The Naked City (1948), or Panic in the Streets (1950).

He’s the acting district attorney entrenched in the war against syndicated crime in the city. And the case he has topples like a house of cards when his one key witness is terminated. All the efforts behind four long years of tireless legwork go out the window.

They knew that it was an expansive operation with a multitude of contracts, a laundry list of hit men, and an undertaker on the payroll. They subsequently unearthed abandoned cars, drained marshes for the dead bodies, and questioned countless others who were purported to be involved. And yet it all seemed all for naught. No one knew enough or else they weren’t talking.

But Martin Ferguson (Bogart) is not about to let his case against the wanted crime boss Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) crumble that easily. There’s got to be another way to nab him. The script from Martin Rackin spends the majority of the time filling in all the details. In fact, he probably spends too much time before finally tacking on Bogart`s last-minute hunch almost as if it were an afterthought.

Ultimately, The Enforcer could almost be called a Raoul Walsh picture as the veteran director and friend of Humphrey Bogart took over the project when the incumbent Bretaigne Windust was taken seriously ill early in production.

No disrespect to Mr. Windust at all but the film got a leg up thanks to Raoul Walsh who directed many of the film’s more volatile sequences, capturing the action with bullets flying and fists flailing — brought to us with his usual dynamism. That counteracts some of the faulty storytelling that bogs the plot down.

The narrative structure is strikingly similar to aspects of The Killers (1946) but it’s hardly executed in the same gripping fashion. In fact, the layering of the flashbacks is hardly ideal even if it feels canonically very typical of what we often term noir. By the film’s end, whether or not the story gets told feels beside the point but nevertheless, Walsh manages to provide us with a decently tense climax that satiates some of our clamorings for a quality ending.

The film’s better assets are a few of the supporting cast members that help to add color to the procedural. We are treated to the typical menagerie of seedy characters including Ted de Corsia, Jack Lambert, and Zero Mostel. But the kingpin of them all is Everett Sloane. I can’t decide if it’s simply an uncharacteristic role for the actor or simply a poor bit of casting for the role of the boss of Murder Inc. But no matter, it is what it is.

There are also no femme fatales and very few female characters to speak of at all. For one moment, a woman is important: one Angela Vetto. Otherwise, it’s pretty bleak going. Even Bogart is not particularly interesting per se but he is still Bogart, making his scenes worth watching at the very least because he’s more than believable in any incarnation as a tough guy.

3/5 Stars

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

4/5 Stars

 

 

They Drive By Night (1940)

They_Drive_by_NightThis is a surprisingly nice little film-noir that follows two brothers (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) who make their meager living transporting loads of produce by night on a big rig. Despite the seemingly mundane topic, They Drive by Night has some juicy bits of drama as the brothers struggle to survive and make their way in life. Along the way there is disaster and treachery. Ida Lupino is absolutely psychotic in her role opposite George Raft and Alan Hale. Then Ann Sheridan plays the nice girl role. I wouldn’t say that this is a great Noir but it certainly is far from boring.

Raoul Walsh proves just how adept he was at making entertaining melodramas and Humphrey Bogart is yet one step closer to his breakthrough with The Maltese Falcon (1941).  The truck drivers can always be found at the local diner getting their burger, talking up the waitress and maybe playing some pinball. When there time is up, it’s a long night ahead hauling fruit crates. The film is a slice of Americana reflecting a bygone era, at least for most of us.

3.5/5 Stars

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

e08f7-the-roaring-twentiesHere is a retrospective gangster film reminiscing about the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties extending from the post WWI period  of prohibition to the election of FDR.
Two mainstays of the genre including the original gangster James Cagney and hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart star as two men in a group of three soldiers who meet during World War I. In the ensuing years Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) initially has difficulty getting back into society, but after meeting Speakeasy owner Panama Smith (Gladys George) he finds himself climbing the ranks in the bootlegging business. Soon through grit and a ruthless drive Eddie makes good racketeering by utilizing taxis with booze to make it big. 

Through it all Eddie becomes smitten with a young singer he used to know when she was a young girl (Priscilla Lane), except she does not share his affection. Pretty soon his ol’ buddy George (Bogart) comes back into the picture, with a some shifting dealings of his own. Eddie practically runs the town now but when the Crash happens he gets pushed out by George and now Jean is off and married to her lawyer beau. Eddie is a washed-up taxi driver still hanging around Panama and he has time to do one last favor for Jean.

This is one of the last great gangster films of the 1930s following in the wake of other Cagney classics like The Public Enemy and Angel with Dirty Faces. Raoul Walsh directs this film and it develops as another dynamic, action packed film with a lot of drama and heart thanks to Cagney and George. It is however different from previous gangster flicks in that it plays out as a history although it keeps the nitty-gritty look of the previous films. Like Angel with Dirty Faces especially, there are also some sentimental moments because Cagney is not a complete scoundrel, just mostly. Not wanting to continue being typecast Cagney took a break from the genre not coming back until White Heat in 1949. He did pretty well for himself during the 1940s though with performances in The Stawberry Blonde and Yankee Doodle Dandy. There was another fellow who did not do too bad in that interim period either, new found leading man Humphrey Bogart.

“What was his business?”
“He used to be a big shot.”
 
4/5 Stars

White Heat (1949) – Film-Noir

Starring James Cagney, Edmund O’Brien, and Virginia Mayo, once again Cagney does the gangster role. However, his Cody Jarret is older and more psychotic than ever as he leads his band of thugs. Although he has a beautiful wife, the main woman in Jarret’s life is his mom who watches over him. After an initial robbery, Jarret beats the rap by confessing to a smaller crime. While he is in jail the police plant one of their men (O’Brien). Eventually the pair and a crew of cronies break out and plan their next move. However, the undercover man cleverly tips off his colleagues and they follow in hot pursuit. Pretty soon the only one left is Jarret and he is isolated near high above near a gas storage tank. In a crazy fit, Jarret yells to his ma that he has made it to the top of the world as he goes up in flames. This movie has wonderful suspense in the end and Cagney is chilling yet again.

5/5 Stars