Wagon Master (1950)

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“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers

Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Train still bears the irrefutable mark of John Ford. Together with producer Meridian C. Cooper, he crafts a piece of work as near to a fully realized articulation of his vision as he probably ever achieved; this made it one of his personal favorites.

Because there is no one to answer to except for himself and if anything, in contrast to his career prior, it’s a freeing proposition. Wagon Train contentedly meanders along ever toward its destination with time enough to stop and visions enough to keep an audience engrossed.

Without John Wayne, the story instead finds able space for other worthy stalwarts of the Ford stock company and in this aspect alone it’s a fine showing. Ben Johnson’s athleticism on horseback is matched by a plain-speaking integrity proving both steady and unperturbed.

The beauty of the casting is the very authenticity of it. He’s the real deal as a one-time rodeo hand, stunt double for the biggest stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, and a certified roping champion. He performed all his own stunts in the picture including the well-remembered scene where he weathers a bucking bronco after Joanne Dru dumps bath water out of the rear her wagon spooking his horse. He stayed on for 10 bucks before getting thrown. That was only after a previous take had to be reshot.

Furthermore, Ford gives the other prominent roles to young Harry Carey Jr. who is Johnson’s trail companion and the more spirited of the two. While Travis and Sandy are intent on selling their stock and nothing else, they eventually agree to come aboard as wagon masters for a caravan of Mormons heading out West. The Elder, played by the venerable Ward Bond, is a man of faith who nevertheless has the raw courage and determination to lead his people on their journey. And he has his usual bearing which only blesses the story. In truth, it’s an obvious precursor to the heralded TV western, Wagon Train, also starring Bond for its first few seasons.

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Even as the search for the Promise Land subsists, lead by Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) and the sounding of her horn, it is Bond who has decency enough to stop for those in need. They end up running across a hoochie-coochie show made up of a swacked trio (Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, and Joanne Dru) who, without any water left, tried to survive off spirits.

Though a group of social outcasts and equally proud, the Elder obliges to help them out even as their own resources are dwindling. Thus, the procession exuberantly races toward the first sign of water. Jumping off horses, dipping their hats in it, taking a nice cool drink for the first time in far too long.

Our two heroes, also begin to call on their lady friends. Travis tries to extend a gentlemanly hand to Denver (Dru), who defiantly rebuffs his advances and simultaneously Sandy starts eyeing a Mormon girl who already has a beau. In another interlude, a fist-fight erupts between the two young men which the Elder handily breaks up, only to wind up with his pants torn to pieces by a feisty dog.

What becomes evident in the stages of this story is how it is never truly about one individual but an entire community. Part of that comes with the absence of a marketable star like John Wayne or Henry Fonda — two regulars in Ford pictures. However, like My Darling Clementine (sans Fonda), there is this sense of the communal nature of civilization. This western on wheels brings together religious pilgrims, medicine show performers, and Navajo Indians who are all able to find a certain amount of common ground.

Dances become something not only proving to be a form of gaiety and lively human interaction; they might very well be a mechanism for how a bit of home is brought to new territories as a means of making them more habitable. It’s a sign of kinship.

Of course, every society has its outside stressors and in this case, the caravan is paid a visit by a band of glowering men led by a crotchety old-timer (Charles Kemper) winged in the arm. It’s a tenuous partnership at best as his “boys,” including James Arness and Hank Worden, are a testy and trigger-happy bunch. Even as he knows how dangerous they are, The Elder agrees to extend the olive branch, while Travis bides his time knowing now isn’t the time to act. Sandy can’t quite fathom this initial passivity but their forbearance is rewarded in the end.

A John Ford gunfight ensues and not unlike its brethren in My Darling Clementine, the exchange of bullets is efficient and to the point; it’s not meant to bear the entire weight of the picture. Instead, Ford settles back into a broader perspective, reinforcing the lyrical quality of his imagery with the vocalization of The Sons of the Pioneers.

I remember them most vividly from my days watching Roy Rogers serials, hearing the group sing their harmonies, and I do miss the throaty vocals of old folk western tunes like “Song of the Wagonmaster” and “Wagon’s West.” Though I hesitate to call Wagon Master, an all-out musical because that would probably give the wrong impression, it is indebted to its music much in the same manner of a High Noon (1952) or a Rio Bravo (1959). You cannot begin to separate the two.

4/5 Stars

3 Godfathers (1948)

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3 Godfathers is a Christmas western if there ever was one and it’s probably the most sensitive picture that John Ford ever made. Anyone familiar with Don Siegel’s short film Star in the Night (1945) might recognize basic similarities with this picture based on the same biblical motif of the three wise men.

Ford honors his dear friend, the late, great Harry Carey even christening him the “Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky” and it’s very true. In fact, the director probably would have never remade the film if Carey had not passed away in 1947. The reason being that he had worked on an earlier version called The Three Godfathers way back in 1916 and the Ford-helmed silent Marked Men (1929). Not satisfied with just that, the director subsequently cast Harry Carey Jr. as The Abilene Kid alongside John Wayne and  Pedro Armendáriz. Although a big star in Mexico by this point, Armendáriz garnered little respect from Ford as you might expect.

The script penned by film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent with Laurence Stallings and Robert Nathan, takes the story of three lawless bank robbers and turns them into modern-day incarnations of the trio of kings from the advent story.

The heady combination of some on-location photography in Death Valley, as well as early Technicolor, gives Ford’s picture an impressive composition even as it can’t quite stand up to his most iconic images. The story as well is a mild even maudlin affair at times but for the very fact that Ford rarely seemed to inch into such territory — or Wayne either for that matter — it does come as somewhat of a treat to behold.

Because here we have three hoodlums, men of ill-repute who have robbed a bank and are on the lamb running for their lives. Ward Bond as the local sheriff — a decent man who also happens to be pretty shrewd — chases after our antiheroes with his hapless deputy (Hank Worden). Though they ride off, he cripples their water supply and looks to cut them off from any of the wells scattered across the territory. The lack of water could prove to be their downfall.

However, the story takes its most obvious turn when they happen upon a wagon. It turns out to not be completely abandoned as a one lies isolated and about ready to give birth to an infant son. Though she is too weak to continue she makes a vow with them that they protect her boy and make sure he grows up healthy and strong.

She doesn’t know their previous actions only the character that they exhibit in front of her and maybe it is even her angelic trust in them that causes each man to agree to this promise. All of the sudden they throw of the shells of their former selves and take on this seemingly virtuous task.

However, that does not make survival any easier living off the drippings of barrel cacti and traipsing across the salt flats with the noonday sun beating down. First, losing their horses in a ferocious maelstrom and with water scarce, they do everything in their power to take care of the child. Reading a baby book on how to look after an infant and bathing and feeding him. His Uncle William sings him “Gather at the River” as a lullaby. And all three men agree their godson will share their three names. Robert Hightower (Wayne) bickers with Pete about using Spanish around the baby. They want him to grow up American.

The Bible passage about finding a donkey to ride into Jerusalem gives some guidance fittingly as the child makes his pilgrimage to the town of New Jerusalem. We know that a miracle just might be in order.

The inevitable happens and Wayne must face off against Bond but what makes that dynamic far more meaningful is the child in their midst. Because Hightower’s care and concern for the child’s well-being reveals a side of him that is the complete antithesis of his outlaw persona. It’s a reflection that he is a redeemable figure and the film strikes a compromise between a really saccharine ending and cold hard reality. While no one will concede that it’s Ford’s best work, it’s nevertheless a fine vehicle for the talent and a thoroughly unique take on yuletide moviemaking.

3.5/5 Stars

Searching (2018)

Searching.pngSearching is a film promoting a certain plotting device in this social media age of ours. An Up-like introduction played through old computer memories and hard drive data is surprisingly poignant. It provides the backstory for a parent-child relationship to play out, albeit with the mechanisms of a thriller.

The opportunity to see an Asian-American family front and center in a film like this is too much to pass up. Once more, after Columbus, John Cho proves — not surprisingly — he’s more than capable of anchoring a movie with a lot of intriguing potential.

Because this is a story of a father who thinks everything is normal — aside from his wife no longer being with them. So when his daughter doesn’t message him one evening and forgets to take out the trash, he shrugs it off as the usual. But the hours continue to tick away and still no response from Margo.  He’s getting annoyed and finally very, very worried.

It reaches the point his daughter is pronounced missing, an investigator named Rosemary Vick comes on the case, and David starts seeing a side of his daughter he never knew existed — namely because in the aftermath of his wife’s death (her mother) — they have never found the time to talk about it.

Instead, like many good conservative families, all put together and everything, they keep on living life like nothing’s wrong while loneliness and different types of rancor take hold. It hits a fever pitch when his daughter Margot is simply not responding and none of her “friends” have seen her in a couple days.

A story about a disconnected father and daughter all of a sudden becomes fodder for our thriller with more heady implications. There are compelling aspects to this film beyond the taut pulses of tension stretched for all they’re worth. I won’t make any claim this is an Ozu-like examination of familial relationships — the palette is not nearly as meticulous — but it’s trying, even going so far as to tackle the aftermath of grief.

More so, Aneesh Chaganty’s movie is made for The Internet Age. We exist in a world full of “catfishing” on the internet. So much gets promoted, lied about, and falsified in this identity theft, fake news, self-promotion era that we now live in. Where we share our condolences and show our grief to gain likes and follows but it feels like there’s no true investment — no authentic concern for loved ones and others being affected.

All these elements could not be more pertinent than right now and Searching makes the point of reminding us how much of this technology has blown up during our very lifetime. In some regards, the course this story takes as far as computer advances and windows desktops are concerned are akin to my life.

There is a chill factor that has the titillating tinge of Gone Girl but unfortunately, it is not capable of paying off in the same bone-chilling manner. The final twist — because there most assuredly is one — feels too much like the conclusion to a movie trying to find the perfect bow to tie everything together. The logic is not quite right as it fits the clean contours of a screenplay more than reality and as a result, it does not feel nearly risky enough.

The underlying problem begins with the concept, because such a conceit as this, playing out over social media, video, and with the always dubious screens on screens approach, runs the risk of feeling like a gimmick. Searching does well to use its assets in the opening minutes, setting up this family and this life and dropping hints of things that don’t seem quite right.

However, it becomes a slave to its own storytelling devices which hinders the scenario instead of aiding in the resolution. Because it is never willing to break out of this perspective even once and resultingly, the narrative does feel quite limiting, even cold.

Surely, technology does this to us — we could easily make this argument — but for the sake of the story, it starts feeling stagnant and repetitive, verging into seemingly more unrealistic territory as time goes on. The gimmick becomes a weakness instead of a powerful tool for creating a world itself. Unfortunately, the film suffers, no fault of Cho who does a valiant job.

Even with technology being so prevalent as a narrative device, it leads to more chinks in the armor so to speak. Because what begins as something fairly authentic and relatable starts to show more and more aspects that don’t feel like our lives anymore. Not simply someone going missing but how technology is utilized even in the everyday. These subsequent scenes feel slightly unnatural whereas the opening interludes where full of recognition with moments we all probably relate to.

The core issue is the human aspect being gone. It loses a heartbeat on its characters who are meant to make this thriller something to really get invested in. Searching never quite got me there, where I felt an innate connection. Again, noting the obvious irony, the screens got in the way.

3/5 Stars

Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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We know the score. Two drifters ride into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Their faces are equally familiar to anyone who has ever seen even a few of the old oaters. Feisty Henry Fonda as Gil Carter and his more even-keeled pal Art (Henry Morgan). Though folks question what they’re doing around, it comes to nothing except an exuberant fist fight for Fonda just itching for some thrills. He’s not disappointed.

Soon the community catches wind of the death of a beloved local named Kincaid at the hands of cattle rustlers. The wheels are set in motion as the sleepy town awakens and a lynching mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff out of town doing his duty and the local judge incapable of stopping them, they ride off looking for vengeance and some excitement to liven up their one-horse town. As the deputy illegally swears in the entire crowd as temporary deputies, our boys Gil and Art reluctantly sign on as not to draw more suspicion to themselves.

A Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) tries to take charge forcing his callow son (William Eythe) to join in as they begin their hunt. The two most reluctant and subsequently the most interesting additions to their party are the African-American preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper), whose own brother was lynched when he was a boy, and then the rational-minded Old Man Davies (Harry Davenport) who desires for true justice to be upheld. He is wary of the repercussions of a mob mentality.

Ultimately, they happen upon three strangers and circle them like ravenous wolves practically willing them to be guilty. In these crucial interludes, Wellman deliberately focuses on close-ups instead of scenery to ratchet the tension. It’s evident the bread and butter of this picture are within the characters themselves.

The crowd begins peppering the suspects with questions though they’ve already drawn up their answers for them. It doesn’t help that the trio’s leader (Dana Andrews) must try and explain some extenuating circumstances, namely how he acquired some of Kinkaid’s stock, which he purportedly bought off the murdered man without a bill of sale.

True, the posse doesn’t go off absolutely nothing but the integrity of democratic justice, as flawed as it might be, in the day-to-day, still maintains people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s not the other way around. That’s key. It also calls for not dealing in emotions like anger and hatred but impartial wisdom. Again, that might be impossible to attain but we must try our best. Otherwise, the consequences are potentially dire.

William A. Wellman was so eager to adapt Walter van Tilburg Clark’s original novel he agreed with Daryl Zanuck to direct two other pictures that are now all but forgotten. The Ox-Bow Incident might be small but it’s no less mighty thanks to the teaming of Wellman and Lamar Trotti. In fact, its volatility was so great no one knew how to market it during the war years. How do you try and redeem the debasement of humanity originating out of our own traditions, even as we try and reconcile that with the evil going on overseas? It’s a tall order.

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The equally horrifying thing is the fact lynchings had yet to be exterminated from American society and the blood of such injustice still soaked American soil. Though this is a showing of three men getting hung, one white (Andrews), one old (Francis Ford), one Mexican (a defiant Anthony Quinn), this could have just as easily been racially charged with African-American victims.

Regardless of guilt or innocence, justice was never meant to function in this fashion where lawlessness is masked by perceived legitimacy. Nothing good can come of it. Fonda’s own memories drew him to the material as he supposedly witnessed the lynching of a man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919. You can only imagine how the images scalded him for life. 12 Angry Men (1957) is indubitably another film which dealt with comparable themes very close to his heart.

His part, along with Morgan by his side, remains crucial because they essentially act as impartial bystanders and their choice is faced by anyone at the crossroads of such an issue. Because good can be quantified by commission and omission just as evil can be perpetrated through action and inaction.

The final wallop of the film is, of course, finding out what the actuality of the matter is — knowing full well they acted in error. To cap off the most moving showing of his generally hardboiled career, as the dying family man, Dana Andrews touches them from the grave with his words one last time:

“A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”

Even if his words serve the film more than they are the authentic words of a husband, their affecting nature is undebatable. Every man standing around the bar sullenly has been given a costly lesson — a lesson requiring the lives of three men. It’s fitting for our two drifters to ride out of town just as they came in the same hound dog sulking across the road. And yet so much has changed. If anything our hero has found his conscience in a sea of injustice.

4/5 Stars

Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

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Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

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We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

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But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

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We lost the inimitable Milos Forman not too long ago and it was a minor embarrassment I had yet to watch one of his earlier works from his native Czechoslovakia where he was an integral member of what is now termed The Czech New Wave.

He was, of course, best remembered in the U.S. for a pair of films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). However, looking at a picture like Loves of a Blonde oftentimes proves more elucidating because with smaller more intimate stories you sometimes are able to glean more about the director and gain a better sense of who they are.

True, those in the mainstream might find Loves of a Blonde‘s plot too featherweight and arthouse aficionados might be surprised to find how humorous it is. It’s hardly self-absorbed with its own importance. But if the right viewer finds it, they’ll surely be delighted.

The title track is the Czech equivalent to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, signifying a story that took full advantage of the temporary thawing of censorship behind the Iron Curtain. In this regard alone Loves of a Blonde is a remarkable relic.

In the opening moments, a girl in a dormitory tells her friend about an encounter she once had with a soldier. They shared talk of deer and how animals don’t have obligations like people. They only come together during mating season. There you apparently have nature’s argument for free love. Except for geese. They sometimes stay together for upwards of 120 years.

Simultaneously, a local factory supervisor — an older gentleman — looking to somehow boost the morale of the local female population, because all the resident males have been conscripted, strikes up a deal with a military man to ship in some men.

The People’s Army is welcomed into the town with all the trimmings. It’s the scene straight out of Hail The Conquering Hero (1944), albeit played realistically with men piling off the train to the sound of a brass band and fanfare. Girls waiting to view the smartly dressed men wander by in their uniforms. The destination in question: A dance.

Forman in such a document is willing to take his time on people who normally would not carry the screen, at least in a Hollywood picture. That in itself is refreshing and brazenly real or at least as real as it can be creating this lovely blending of professional and untrained actors all together.

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We settle in on a scenario that is reminiscent of a Middle School dance in America. Totally inept and awkward, as a trio of older men looks to catch the eye of three young gals — except these fellows are no Don Juans. Even the one who fancies himself the leader doesn’t know what he’s doing.

First, the waiter botches it all by dropping the expensive bottle of wine they bought off at the wrong table. They receive the inquisitive gazes of the women on the receiving end. It only gets worse when the waiter proceeds to remove said bottle and take it to the next table to rectify his error. They have made contact but it’s the ugliest of executions. Meanwhile, the girls who’ve caught them looking, again and again, aren’t quite sure if they’re flattered or not.

Then the normative rituals commence with the men bringing the girls over for a drink and the girls oblige almost as a nicety rather than for any want or desire. A ring rolls under the table which one of the bespectacled bumblers struggles to recover. The whole extended mishap features some of the most cringe-worthy comedic moments that I can recently recall. Only for bickering to ensue as the evening falls apart entirely. First, one man decides to go to bed and then the girls follow suit.

Andulla (Hana Brejchova) goes up to the room of a pianist warily, where he tries to teach her self-defense tactics. The inevitable happens and they wind up in bed together though he struggles to get the blinds in his hotel room down.

Afterward, he gives her the most peculiar compliment. She’s angular like a Piccaso guitar. And he’s generally kind but we know this is just a minor thing to him. Not that he’s trying to take advantage of the girl per se but it doesn’t carry much weight for him. There were other girls in other places. And yet for her, it’s possible that she’s never felt so close to someone before. For her, this is love or at least something close to what she is searching for. He vaguely invites her to come see him sometime and she resolves to take him up on the offer.

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There are these moments that follow where it feels like we are watching a screwball comedy. She meets the parents, suitcase in hand, asking for their son. And they have no good answer for where he is. They’re even more confused about what she’s doing there and why.

Father just wants to watch TV and mind his own business. He thinks his nagging wife is nuts but not as nuts as his son. Bless her soul, but the mother is a certified worrywart thrown in a tizzy about just about everything. I’m sure most of us know the type played to the extreme here.

Son arrives home and his disapproving mother makes him join the parents in bed. She’s not about to let him sleep in the same room as the girl. They’re like the three bears crammed into a bed together, bickering and saying that the girl should have never come in the first place.

It fascinates me how one seemingly ephemeral idea that might only be a quick flash of an image or a concept can lay the foundation for an entire picture. Forman was himself a child forced into migration at an early age by the Holocaust and in his young adult days witnessed a girl lugging her suitcase around the big city without anywhere to go. He gave her a lift and heard her story.  She had been invited by a man she’d met who really had no intention of having her at all. It’s just what you say. It’s the etiquette of it all but it doesn’t really mean anything. At least not to most people. There we have the story’s defining motif.

There’s an innocence that radiates from Hana Brejchova’s eyes; she’s so very youthful and still trying to figure out her life. In dismissive terms, we’d call her a dumb blonde but this film suggests something more — a person who is trusting and wants real love.

So due to a temporary relaxation of censorship, Forman’s film could be broken down to frank depictions of romance and free love but that is not its end goal. Because even in those forms of expression, we find a surprising amount of, not only astute observational humor about humanity but an equally telling melancholy. Loves of a Blonde is a testament to both.

4/5 Stars

Decoy (1946)

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THIS IS MY VERY LATE ENTRY IN THE CMBA SPRING BLOGATHON: FEMME/HOMME FATALES OF FILM NOIR! 

Like any self-respecting noir, this one chooses to open in a grungy gas station bathroom with a hero (Herbert Rudley) disheveled, hobbling, and covered with grime. We can gather he’s been through hell. Better yet, Decoy begins at the end of the story with murder!

He hobbles past a gas station attendant, stands at the side of the road to hitch a ride to San Fransisco. Mind you, this is without saying a single word. Upon arriving, he wanders into a hotel. He takes the elevator up, pushes open the front door, sees an attractive woman packing and proceeds to fill her with lead! What’s even stranger is the cop who follows close at hand as if he knows exactly what’s about to happen. He plods in to find the shooter dead and the lady dying.

Here’s this pretty dame, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie), in the arms of a hardboiled flat foot (Sheldon Leonard) recounting her indiscretions on her deathbed. Really all she’s doing is helping him pick up the stray pieces he already knew but for the audience, it’s all news. To get a line on the story, we must start back with an incarcerated gangster named Frankie Ollins (Robert Armstrong).

He is in line for the gas chamber and Margot has long been his girl. She assuages him, saying they’re lining up money to get him out of his jam — but she also is concerned about security — he has promised to keep her sitting pretty. And he has the resources to do it with $400,000 waiting out there for her somewhere. He just needs to give the word. We get the sense foul play might be a central component of our story.

From thenceforward she goes to work efficiently. She exerts her feminine charms on a local clinician who also regularly gives his services to the local prison. You see, he is pegged to do the autopsy on Frankie’s body just to make sure everything’s on the level. Except Margot’s got his head spinning — most of it happens off camera —  but we believe he’s fallen for her, like putty in her manicured, greedy little fingers.

And Margot goes all in, playing it up. The love angle is seemingly candid even as she tells him the plan to revive the “dead” gangster with Methylene Blue. We witness the gas chamber in a groggy POV shot. In another picture about regenerate gangsters, this would be the end. For Decoy it is merely the beginning.

Because Margot is the film’s greatest force as a notable apex in the gallery of B noir femmes. She keeps gangsters madly jealous, twisted around her fingers, and then righteous men start caving, relinquishing their high ideals just to be with her.

Two of the most oddball supporting characters in the pictures are the morgue attendants who distract themselves with solitaire and reading words out of the dictionary — a real hoot — but they are plain folk who don’t ask questions when the good doctor skips out on the normal autopsy.

They go on obliviously as the body gets carted off to the “oven” only to get picked up by waiting gangsters. By now, there’s little doubting it. Owens is to be resurrected and yet it’s the devil incarnate doing it! But someone like Margot is only operating in viable currency. People are only needed for their immediate value to her.

Frankie is out of the picture when he’s not needed, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) is just a handy thug to have around, and of course, Dr. Craig’s expertise made him invaluable (although he does smoke cigs which always leaves me scratching my head).

Everyone else is under the illusion that she actually wants them. Her intentions surely cannot be completely self-serving? Can they? And yet she can be found jamming the accelerator to get rid of people and gunning down hapless accomplices with waves of giddy relish. Even on her deathbed, she gets the last laugh on a cop who falls momentarily under her spell. But for all her trouble she got absolute zilch. A creature of crazed avariciousness will ultimately be met with total destruction.

Jean Gillie’s accent somehow elevates her performance with an edge of refinement and respectability the British seem to have and yet her actions and words are like vicious daggers of selfishness. There is no other way to see her vindictiveness but within the context of film noir; it’s a pulpy delight. Detour is still the standard bearer and the pinnacle of Poverty Row, throw ’em together noir gems, but Gillie is a preeminent femme fatale, especially for such an unassuming picture.

3/5 Stars

 

Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 Stars

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Few figures in the West have the mystique in western lore as Billy the Kid, aside from a few prominent names like Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, etc. Billy Joel even famously penned a tune chronicling the life of the outlaw.

Part of the allure, no doubt, has to do with his youth and the casting of the man as a Robin Hood type anti-hero who only robbed those with excess. Inspired by a teleplay by Gore Vidal (who for the record disliked the picture), television-turned-film-director Arthur Penn makes a conscious decision to focus his story on other facets of the character.

Although slightly older, Paul Newman came into acting about the same time as James Dean and in some respects they were cut out of the same mold. At any rate, they came from a similar school of actors training in the 1950s. Though Newman was no Dean, he does a fine facsimile here. He gives a, at times, disconcerting but overwhelmingly giddy performance as Billy the Kid and somehow his age of 33 doesn’t seem to distract from the part too much. Because he’s still holding onto a decent amount of his boyish charm and good looks.

Leslie Stevens’ script features terse often tiresome colloquial dialogue in a downright peculiarly paced western. However, this is not the main point of interest anyway. For the record, William Bonney (Paul Newman) drifts onto a ranch and is taken on by a trusting cattle rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston). But that same penchant for trust winds up getting him killed in an ambush.

Though he only knew the man for a short period, Billy carries a fierce loyalty and resolves to go after the four men who conspired in killing his boss pulling, his reluctant partners Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard into it with him. Allusions to “Through a glass darkly” from Corinthians suggests a bit of the muddled kaleidoscope that the man envisions the world through.

One morning he’s howling with his boys on a wagon heaped with flour, caked in white and the next minute he’s provoking another man to draw on him just so he can blow him away. His old friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has trouble knowing what to do in the face of William’s lighting-hot personality.

The newly minted amnesty in the territory means a temporary peace, instantly obliterated by a moment of stupidity among Billy’s buddies. Though the novels back east have cast him as some fictionalized larger-than-life figure, he’s really nothing like that at all.

His buddies get it and then as the final straw, Pat vows to hunt down his estranged friend, putting on the badge of the local sheriff, after an unwanted blowup at his own wedding. Billy has alienated the one man who will make him pay. First, he brings him in to be hung and then after the kid escapes, Garrett heads out again to finish things off once.  It’s a pitiful character arc and that’s the key.

While it might be overshooting its influence to say that the Left Handed Gun singlehandedly erected a new brand of western, at the very least, it suggested a new age of the West as we knew it. Beyond this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Penn’s later work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which The Left Handed Gun is an obvious precursor to in the depiction of the outsider who uses violence almost indiscriminately.

One scene that leaves an impression involves a blurred image as Billy taunts a deputy from up above, toting a shotgun and blowing him away as he squints through the sunlight. Not only is it composed as a slo-mo killing but as his body lies in the street and people run toward him, instead of screaming, a little girl looks at his solitary boot just sitting there and proceeds to point and laugh. Her mother smacks her but the damage has been done. His death is a joke. There’s no point to it. People fail to react as they have been coached to since the dawning of the cinematic western.

There’s a senselessness to the killing which explodes with an almost haphazard vengeance. In no accordance with reason or morals nor in the end by perceived good or evil. Each bullet is yet another indication of all that is idiosyncratic in the subject matter. Not a hero, not a villain, but a perplexingly near neurotic gunslinger.

Whether it’s to everyone’s taste is another question entirely. It’s more character study than drama and in this close observation, it’s the distillation of a new kind of western hero — the anti-hero, or lack thereof, that is most notable. Today it’s less interesting because we have Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

But as a picture going against the grain, an artifact from a certain moment in time, there’s still something burning within its frames. Even if it’s not a fully cohesive effort, The Left Handed Gun is not without its flashes of artfulness and intriguing volatility. It began the work of reconstructing the mythos of the West that had been forged in the movies though there was still a great deal more to come. In fact, Arthur Penn would return to western revisioning with Little Big Man (1970) over a decade later.

3/5 Stars