The Violent Men (1955) and Rockefellers on The Range

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The Violent Men is an age-old tale of cattle wars on the range. The local apothecary warns about Wilkerson a man from the long tradition of land eaters. There are only two choices: run or stand and fight.

Before we ever see him, his cronies are messing around town. In the town’s main street the Sheriff is gunned down in the back by a hotshot gunman (the always smirking Richard Jaeckel). Everyone either turns away or is in the coattails of the local tyrant. We learn so much about them from their inaction. This is a community that has acquiesced to a thug and conformed to a type of general passivity.

No one is willing to stand up or speak up or do anything involving gumption because it means sticking their neck out and being vulnerable to the consequences. Glenn Ford starts getting perturbed, realizing he is just as liable as everyone else.

He’s been stewing to the point of exasperation, even as his future in-laws and his girl coax him to mind his own business and think of their extended future happiness. Again, it’s this constant mentality of the individual over the common good. Maybe it’s a product of reading a book on the Red Scare, but I cannot help but see it as a parable of benevolent socialism versus the tenets of a particularly ruthless capitalism.

For well-nigh 20 minutes the name Wilkerson is all but mythologized and lifted up as one of the most ruthless, bloodthirsty names on the frontier; he is Rockefeller on the range. With such a build-up, there must be performances to hold up the bargain. Fortuitously the movie delivers with not only Edward G. Robinson but Barbara Stanwyck as well. Of course, Stanwyck is no stranger to the West, and she’s quite adept at exuding this certain balance of necessary toughness and femininity.

Robinson is hardly the image of a western cattle baron (he was, in fact, a late replacement for Broderick Crawford), but he still has the presence of Edward G. Robinson. The fact he is crippled with a pair of crutches and still so ornery makes for an intriguing character biography. He completely subverts conventional expectations.

Meanwhile, Dianne Foster feels a little like Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep — the first impression is important — and she leaves the audience wary of this family’s pedigree. They’re not allowed to have one normal member.

Next, comes the entrance that is of utmost importance. The hobbling old codger himself. He’s particularly boisterous and hard-nosed when it comes to land dealings and taking over the valley. Behind closed doors, his wife is equally cunning and calculating, along with his kid brother (Brian Keith). His main enforcer (Jaekcel) follows up murder in the streets with another grisly murder on the range as a message to the holdout, Parrish, and anyone else brazen enough to stand up to Wilkerson.

For the 1950s, it’s quite the brutal exhibition as they whip a man, rope him up, nearly choke him to death, before leaving him for dead. Words do not do it the justice it deserves.

If Wilkerson didn’t sanction these egregious actions, he gave Cole (Keith) free reign to enforce their presence on the territory in whatever manner he deems applicable. The crooked deputy, a seemingly obliging fellow, has the system conveniently tipped against anyone who dares stand in opposition. There’s no way to win.

The movie might easily end here if only our hero were to wash his hands of the situation and move back east. He loses his bride-to-be for the sake of his own private moral integrity. Whether it’s because this is Glenn Ford or his character, need not be important. He resolves to stay, playing the fool, only to draw in his foe and retaliate.

Soon he’s taken his army training and put it to good use, fighting a war against his neighbors who, by all accounts, seem more formidable. What he has are determination and tactical advantages. The distinction of who the actual foe is remains dicey.

Robinson is just the blustering frontman. Cole blasted the range open with his pack of thugs. Martha Wilkeson pulled the strings, working all the while in her husband’s shadow.

Cinemascope offers some expected monumental views of the west compete with all the trimmings of the great outdoors. Ironically, the actual montages of the stampedes, burnings, and killings are relatively uninteresting. It might as well be stock footage from other pictures, and it probably is. The most invaluable moments are delivered by the characters, served up just as much as psychological warfare than any physical grudge match.

As the Wilkerson girl perceptively berates the men in her climactic stand, at their core is this barbarism, causing men to constantly be driven by a senseless need to kill one another for a lousy piece of land. Merely to prove something to themselves and others. What makes it worth it?

There is the subsequent realization this is not wholly good versus wholly evil. There are corrupt people, selfish ones, yes, but even Ford, who is supposed to act as our moral center, has no qualms about retribution and annihilating his enemy, since they were first poised to kill him.

It makes for a volatile experience, and the leads are a worthy ensemble, capable enough to suggest these particular nuances and personal ambitions. The irony remains in the title. On a cursory glance, it’s a lurid eye-catcher, but it also happens to be an apt descriptor for a movie with a main conceit about the implications of such escalated violence. The Violent Men takes its most obvious attribute, only to turn it right on its head. The surprise punch is a much-appreciated admonition about violence in the guise of popular entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lineup (1958)

Thelineupmovieposter6nfIn style if not entirely in execution The Lineup exhibits some similarities to Murder by Contract from the same year. Both films choose to take hit men as their main characters and it becomes a surprisingly intriguing way to look at a crime. Because the killers are a certain brand of sociopath who make film criminals all the more compelling based on not only on the way they carry themselves or the actions they take but the very words that leave their lips.

For the modern viewer, it’s very possible to miss the fact that The Lineup was a Dragnet-like detective show of the 1950s and this film installment carried over some of the same hallmarks from the program.

The police lieutenant is played by a no-nonsense Warner Anderson who utters every word as if he has marbles crammed in his throat. The other man (Emille Meyer) is what you expect from a second fiddle, a bit more flabby, a rounder face, and a funny intonation to his voice. Still, together these two men represent the arm of the law in San Fransisco, only two hardworking men in a vast force of crimefighters.

Don Siegel does well in all facets of the film from the opening mayhem on the streets of San Francisco that set the groundwork for all the rest, guiding the plot through the rhythms of procedures, hits, crime scenes, and casings. The climatic scenes on the Embarcadero pack the type of gratifying wallop you would hope for.

Meanwhile, Stirling Silliphant’s script has an odd cadence to it that’s particularly entrancing. It’s not hardboiled patter and that’s perhaps signified best by the fact that we meet our two main villains mid conversation on an airplane. One lauds the use of proper grammar and diction while the other, an out of town killer only known as Dancer (Eli Wallach) reads a grammar book to improve himself. After all, who’s ever heard a killer who knows their subjunctives?

From one end we follow the police as they look into a few big payloads of heroin that are being shipped in from Asia using unsuspecting tourists. There are no solid leads but they have enough competency to know something is up. They do all the things that they’re supposed to in order to nab the wanted parties. But it’s not that simple.

Because we also see a bit of what’s going on with the other side of the law. Dancer and Julian (Robert Keith) are called in to retrieve the payloads for a shadowy Mr. Big orchestrating everything from the background. And these are two of the most peculiar criminals you’ve ever known.  Dancer’s a bit of a tough guy and he’s almost never caught without his trusty briefcase that carries his silent killer. He’s not about to take any flack from their chatty wheelman (Richard Jaeckel) either.

Except Dancer listens to Julian, an older fellow (obsessed with last words) who seems to serve little purpose except to be Dancer’s constant voice of reason and his coach giving him pep talks and guidance from every location. First, a Seamen’s club near the Bay, then a local residence, and finally an aquarium where they track down their last unsuspecting carrier, a young mother (Mary LaRoache) traveling with her little daughter.

But all great crime pictures must have some kind of twist, a wrench in the plans or an about face and The Lineup likewise begins to tear at the seams. Except it actually begins to mean something because in some ways we’ve built more of a connection with the criminals than the good guys.

With its surprisingly authentic images of San Francisco preserved from the 1950s, you can definitely trace a line between this film and Dirty Harry another Siegel picture that made extensive use of SF’s iconic terrain as well. Silliphant also graduated to several big crime films most notably In the Heat of the Night. But there should always be a place for smaller gems like this because they must differentiate themselves from the pack in the ways they draw up their characters and how they choose to rehash themes that have existed all throughout the tradition of gangster flicks and film-noir. That is the only chance they have to be remembered. The Lineup certainly stands out amid the fray.

3.5/5 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