Warlock (1959): Fonda, Quinn, and Widmark

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There are three names emblazoned over the title credits engulfing the screen: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, and Anthony Quinn. Somehow they all figure into this story — into the war that we are about to be privy to. The question remains, how so and on what sides? It turns out, it’s far from a clearcut answer.

As Warlock progresses, I couldn’t help but think of that quote: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” Its variations have been attributed to individuals as diverse as Bertolt Brecht, Carl Sandburg, and the Vietnam-era Hippie movement. Regardless, the most overt sentiment remains the same. War is perpetuated by people who willingly show up to fight, whether it’s out of a sense of duty, an assertion of masculinity, personal advancement, or a desire to watch the world burn. 

The San Pablo gang frequents Warlock quite often, prepared to terrorize a town and demoralize all those who stand for law & order, even to the point of death. The incumbent deputy sheriff is sent out of town on an honor guard of emasculation. He’s the most recent casualty, yet another man who will have his name crossed out on the brick wall of the jail. Because everyone is keeping tally. The whole town observes the public humiliation with distaste and private shame behind curtains and tucked away on second-story balconies. 

Richard Widmark’s Gannon consorts with the rebels, but he doesn’t like it. He looks decidedly conflicted in their company. It’s his baby brother (a scrawny Frank Gorshin), who keeps him connected to the gang by association. We must come to decipher where his allegiances lie just as he does. 

 What a majestic pair Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn make together as they trot toward Warlock. They give off a sense of having traversed much of the world. Hank’s been installed as the new Marshall famed for his golden-handled colt revolvers.

From years of experience, he predicts the local community will be pleased with him until it grows into a general resentment as he maintains such a high degree of autonomy. But as their town has already given itself over to anarchy and murder, this is a form of salvation at a very high wage. It remains to be seen if it’s worth the price. 

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In this way, Warlock courts themes not unfamiliar to Wichita or Man with a Gun. Director Jacques Tourneur’s sense of the town somehow felt more atmospheric and real, and then Robert Mitchum in the latter film was a singular hero without peer, ready to go to war alone. In Warlock, the talent is more substantial and as such, we get something slightly more complex, if not always more compelling or artful than Wichita, in particular. 

One might be reminded that this is a Moab-shot western, and yet while there are some stunning exterior shots, what’s just as telling is how much of the movie takes place either in interiors or at the very least in the confines of the town. Director Edward Dmytryk finally ensconced again after the Hollywood Blacklist, looks far more engaged in the psychological underpinnings of his characters than he does in making the picture look pretty with sweeping grandstanding. The color schemes are bright if a bit gaudy, and the same might be said of the costuming. 

But what does it matter in comparison to his characters? Even someone like Deforest Kelley has a say as a delightfully thuggish heavy with a wicked sense of humor. Then, the stage brings Dorothy Malone. She’s not exactly an antagonist, but she owns a vindictive streak having it out with (Quinn) in back parlor rooms over past grievances.

In another scene, she lays flowers at the perfectly constructed Hollywood grave of the murdered Bob Nicholson. What’s curious is the scriptural epitaph: How long, oh Lord?” It’s the implicit question at the heart of the story.

If she is one surprise inserted into the storyline, another is Gannon volunteering to become Deputy Sheriff. It’s not out of any amount of duplicity or self-lobbying. There’s a sense he legitimately wants to pursue law and order — standing tall, knowing he’s committed to veracity for once in his life. It should be noted Fonda is a Marshall, and the film makes a distinction. He is not bound by the same strictures.  

Thus, Widmark becomes the fulcrum in the film’s dialogue covering all realms from law & order to the tenets of western masculinity. Where does Widmark get his teeth? Where does he get his sense of conscience? These questions might be up for debate, but to his credit, despite being the top-billed actor among a group of heavyweights, he’s brave enough in the role to come off as pitiful at times. It’s a deceptive performance, and I mean this as a compliment. 

Since this is a western, albeit set mostly in a specific locality, there are very few female characters — only two of note — and the leading ladies are both blondes, conveniently mirroring one another as they pair off with the leading men.  Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michael) is a creature of civility, who is surprised to find their hired gunman has a courteous manner. In his view, he practices with his pistols the way she practices the church organ. Their vocations are different, but as people, they have a surprising amount of common ground. 

Likewise, it is Lily (Malone) who rebuffs Morgan (Quinn) due to his undying allegiance to Blaisedel (Fonda) only to turn her affections to Gannon. Again, it feels like a curious pairing, but if the other couple functions, then so can they. 

If we are to analyze Warlock on a perfunctory level of criticism, the problem is that it has three climaxes, which means it possibly has none. However, there’s a nugget in here somewhere, and it’s couched in the ending. The whole movie is transmuted in the final visual summation. It’s announced by Henry Fonda with nary a word. If you want to call it a deconstruction of the West you can, a subversion of convention, that too, but what is it, if not a definitive statement?

Warlock is a talky western and perilously long, but in those final moments, it spits out our American genre back into the dust and leaves us to meditate on our corporate understanding of so many things. In Anthony Quinn, I see a character who is not willing to break with tradition. He is trapped in the habitual cycle of his ways, in a life that can never last, and out of preservation, he buries himself. It’s a tragedy, and not because he’s a cripple. Fonda has the whole town sing “Rock of Ages” out of deference to his lifelong companion.

Richard Widmark, time and time again, finds it within himself — this unexplainable compulsion to uphold the law — it’s as if once he pins on that badge, he’s devoted to his post. Whether it’s totally blind or not, he comes out of the picture with this peculiar kind of integrity we never would have expected. It’s not a flashy part, but it’s vital.

Finally, Hank Fonda. Good ol’ Hank. He feels like such an enigma for the entirety of the picture. He has that casual soft-spoken charm of his and yet he really is a vigilante; ironically, a symbol of chaos. It makes it all the more imperative to dwell on his final actions. I’m not sure if they’re warranted and from what we know of his character, I’m not sure they made sense. Maybe they do. But the image speaks volumes. It’s an ending to a western you won’t soon forget.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Wagon (1956): Morals Out On The Range

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We’re in the Arizona territories. The year is 1873. Glorious overhead shots give us a sense of the vast panorama of the terrain in CinemaScope as Richard Widmark gets hunted down and returns the fire of his pursuers.

The distinctive red rocks have the hint of John Ford and if nothing else, remain a stunning reminder of America’s glorious topography. We really live in a gorgeous place if we take the time to get out in it.

For Widmark, it’s life or death as he kills one assailant only to get winged and dragged behind a horse by the wrists. It’s hardly water skiing. This is the untidy, rough-and-tumble law of the wide-open land. The victors are those who survive, whether through chicanery, brute strength, or guns loaded with lead.

It feels like we’ve been privy to a whole short movie before our main storyline has even begun. This is to The Last Wagon’s credit. It has robust beginnings and makes Widmark out to be an intriguing enigma right from the outset.

We find him finally, dead beat, strung up in a tree for safekeeping in the custody of a sadistic sheriff (George Matthews) as a wagon train of women and children scuttle by. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but this is the entire premise of the movie right here.

It’s their leader (Douglas Kennedy) who welcomes the lawman into their company, wary of both prisoner and his executioner. It’s an uneasy partnership to be sure. He makes his moral stance quite clear when he blesses their evening meal, “Teach us to live with open hearts and share with our fellow man our values.” It falls on the deaf ears of Bull Harper and “Comanche” Todd, who is trussed up to a nearby wagon wheel.

The wanted criminal doesn’t help his case when he murderers yet another man in view of a whole wagon train of incredulous witnesses. They aren’t accustomed to such savagery. He comes back sharply, “I had a right to kill him, but I suppose my side of the story doesn’t interest you none.” It plays as another pointed comment on who he is: both a murderer and a “white” Comanche, and then who they are, naive Christian pilgrims.

There are two individuals in their ilk, in particular, who show him a dose of Christian compassion. The young boy Billy (Tommy Rettig) brings him food, with all the candor in the world, asking him honestly if he thinks he’ll go to heaven. It’s hardly out of a place of browbeating or scorn, but genuine concern. He’d like to go scouting with Todd up in Heaven because Billy aims to be there. He wants the other man to be there too. His older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr in an amiable and lucid performance) also extends him a certain benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, the movie’s attempt at commentary on prejudice is partially undermined in all its good intention. It begins with Widmark. Although it’s partially explained away through exposition, he’s certainly no Indian by birth. Likewise, in a precursor to her mixed-race role in Imitation for Life, Susan Kohner is given the role of a half-Navajo girl, who faces bigotry with a stolid resolve. It is her bratty half-sister (Stephanie Griffin), white by birth, who encapsulates all the malicious prejudices festering on the range. This is made plainly evident.

However, Delmer Daves does not constrict his movie into being a mere morality play. In fact, The Last Wagon is hard to pin down. There are all these potential narrative offshoots, and it supplies some genuine moments of surprise while still mixing its messages and becoming an entirely different narrative on multiple occasions. One prime example is how the movie is both indicting prejudices against American Indians and still somehow using them as a mechanistic trope of the West.

Gratefully, the movie splits off from the pack and hones in on the most intriguing characters. One drastic turning point comes when all the adolescents sneak off to go skinny-dipping, including the scandalized Valinda and the foxy Ridge (Nick Adams). They’re the story’s resident imbeciles. For the time they can frolic gaily only for the rapids to give them a scare, and then worse…

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They return to nothing — a camp totally decimated — Widmark is the only one left, cast aside on his wagon wheel. Valinda chastizes him, “You got no right to be alive when our people are dead!” Here we find the meat of our story. It settles into being a survival western with Richard Widmark anchoring the youthful contingent following his lead. Their objective is obvious, making their way through the aptly bone-chilling “Canyon of Death.” They have no other alternative. Widmark is the only one who knows what it takes to survive.

The Last Wagon has some downright bizarre moments — setting traps for food and Widmark makes it look like a breeze ambushing their dinner in a cave. In a matter of minutes, snake bites, apache ambushes, and they just keep on coming; it’s the kind of western melodrama not averse to tossing out all sorts of wrinkles, and why not? There’s a lot to work with. Either you laugh it off as absurd or you admire the commitment to making the story lively. The same goes for the dialogue. It’s not the most nuanced job, but it keeps the pulse going.

There are obligatory interludes too as he hacks off his handcuffs across from Farr while sharing his life story. We get something of his own spiritual belief system. His father was a circuit-riding preacher — he was even baptized — and his daddy looked to carry the word of his God to the whole world, that is until he died. The operative word is “his” God because Todd was adopted by a Comanche chief and never looked back. If this God wasn’t concerned with saving his father, then he wasn’t interested.

Still, they just might receive a providential intervention yet in the form of some horse soldiers. However, their saviors in Calvary uniforms turn out to be a reconnaissance unit, and with Indians on the warpath fast approaching, it becomes Todd’s time to rescue all of them. He knows the dilemma: Get them out of their hopeless predicament only to find himself on trial for murder.

It becomes a layman’s civil discourse. Law is law — Comanche or white — if it is just. The question remains who gets to decide Justice? Jenny comes to her man’s defense: The Good Book says something about taking life but what about giving life back? This is what he’s done for them — provided a lifeline in a hopeless scenario. Needless to say, whatever the parameters most human systems are flawed and infallible. They don’t always hold up.

In the end, there’s a kind of swelling sentiment as we watch redemption at work. The young men and women sitting before the courts as a testament to Todd’s decency. After such a treacherous journey, it’s convenient and painless. So be it. It feels equally grand to watch Widmark ride off with Farr and Rettig. It hits all the beats like a western such as this is supposed to. Nothing more is required.

Delmer Daves puts together an oater with a gorgeous sense of the Western vistas in its many earthy hues. Any ways in which it feels heavy-handed or derivative are mostly smoothed over by a typically stalwart performance by Widmark (and the fact I’m fond of Farr and Rettig). The Last Wagon is a pleasant surprise, and it need not be more.

3.5/5 Stars

Cheyenne Autumn (1964): John Ford’s Western Swan Song

If we had to provide a broad sense of Cheyenne Autumn, it would be all about the mass Exodus of the Cheyenne in 1878 as they journey from the arid land they’ve been subjugated to back to the land the white man had promised to return to them all along.

This is a Hollywood rendition so, obviously, it’s not expected to stick strictly to facts nor does it. The extras John Ford used throughout the picture were in fact Navajo, who spoke their native tongue. He also loaded up on a Hollywood cast headlined by Richard Widmark returning after Two Road Together, portraying an officer in the U.S. Army, Captain Thomas Archer, far more disillusioned in his post than his predecessor.

In the film’s opening grand gesture, the Cheyenne make the long trek hours early, in preparation for their meeting with the white man — a meeting that was supposed to come through on a wealth of promises. Everyone is there waiting anxiously at the military encampment. Among them, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) and her uncle have made it their life’s work to minister to the Native Americans as suggested by their benevolent Quaker faith.

The only people who don’t show up are the big wigs from Washington, offering yet another rejection and another sign of disrespect. As they leave the encampment, empty-handed once again, there’s in a sense of unease about it. Though the pompous blaggards back east have no concept of their egregious blunder, there’s no question reckoning will come in some form.

This is made apparent and for once in a Ford picture, beyond simply casting a sympathetic eye, the director finally seems to be acknowledging the grievances against the American Indians. Because they have to face arrogant, deceitful men who fatuously believe they have a right to everything they touch. They have no respect for the land, only what they can acquire from it. Soldiers who are supposed to be peacekeepers, as well as tacticians, are equally suspect.

In a fine bit of casting, Patrick Wayne plays a young upstart who has waited his whole life to have it out with the Cheyenne, and the circumstances make no difference to him, even if he has to create them himself. Other soldiers like Karl Malden’s commander espouse unprejudiced mentalities only to be frozen by the chain of command. It proves equally inimical, if not more so.

Under Archer’s command are also numerous steady, career soldiers like Mike Mazurki, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. To have the latter two in yet another Ford picture is certainly a fitting remembrance. They were as crucial to his work as any of the larger stars like John Wayne or James Stewart (more of him later).

Wagon Master and Rio Grande, from 1950, would be enough for many actors to build a reputation on. Even over a decade later, it’s a testament to this close-knit bunch that they still remained steadfast to the end. These are when the sentimentalities of the picture are most apparent.

In all candor, Cheyenne Autumn is long, at times arduous, but within that runtime, it speaks to so much, including Ford’s own legacy. This is what makes it such a fascinating final marker in his career. Again, it’s the side of the western movie he never truly showed before. It’s as if age has softened him to what he did not see before.

We’re in Monument Valley on the eve of a skirmish. We’ve seen this scene before but from the other side. Native Americans digging in to fight the cavalry on the other side of the canyon. This is not a battle between the heroes and villains but the victors and the victimized.

Whatever flaws come to the fore with a white director making a movie about Native Americans, so be it. They are present, but none of this can totally discount the interludes of natural beauty and deep affecting sympathy on display.

Initially, Ford had wanted to cast some version of Anthony Quinn, Richard Boone, or Woody Strode in the roles of the Indian chiefs. All men consequently had some Native American heritage. The parts of Little Wolf and Dull Knife ultimately were given to Mexican-American actors Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland. The addition of Dolores Del Rio and a wordless Sal Mineo also feel equally peculiar. Mind you, these are only caveats mentioned in passing.

Cheyenne Autumn feels like a glorious mess of a film. It’s as epic as they come and striking for all its splendor; it’s also all over the place in terms of narrative. Perhaps Ford’s not totally invested here. This was never his main concern nor his forte. And in his final western, he does us a service by coming through with what he does best.

What else can we mention now but Monument Valley — the locale most closely identified with him — and yet it could just as easily be turned around and commended as the place he most identified with. Again, we can almost speak in parables because it can represent so many things from beauty to ruggedness from life and then death.

Take, for instance, when the chief elder is finally laid to rest, and the rocks are dislodged to form his burial chambers — off in the distance more of his people ride across the plateaus — it says everything that needs to be said. It is a moment of closure on all the images Ford himself ever captured in his home away from home.

As a short respite, John Ford provides a highly comedic Dodge City intermission with Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and John Carradine among others. You’ve never seen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday quite this jocular as they play poker, ride around in a buggy, and help rescue a floozie (Elizabeth Allen) running around with a parasol and a ripped dress.

Now it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would be easy to cry foul for mixing disparate tones and totally flipping the script of the movie. This isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t fully take into account Ford’s intentions. He knows full well what he is doing, using the language of the moviegoing public bred on the epic. It injects brief levity into an otherwise dour picture. In fact, it might be too much levity, although it could make a fine comic western all its own.

Because I won’t pretend the drama doesn’t wear on. The beginning is far more compelling than the end, but the journey is of paramount importance and what it represents. Although Edward G. Robinson plays one voice of reason back east and Widmark plays another enlightened savior out in the field, not to mention Baker’s tireless quaker acting as a protector of the Cheyenne children, they are not all-powerful.

It’s as much a story of loss and failure as it is of tragedy and miscommunication. Again, this is not to say any of this is to be taken as truth and lines drawn in the sand when it comes to what the history books say. But Ford is working the only way he knows how, with the strokes of a painter on this canvas illuminating a story. He is making amends in an imperfect, fragile way. Do with it what you will.

While it’s not the glorious heights one might have guessed for John Ford’s final picture in Monument Valley and his final western, somehow it feels like a fitting capstone just the same. The tone says as much as anything else in the picture. It’s yet another elegy reminiscent of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and many of his earlier works. Except this would be the last one. It was the autumn of his career as well.

3.5/5 Stars

Two Rode Together (1961): The Community of a John Ford Western

With such a robust body of work, it’s no surprise John Ford often gravitated toward certain images to represent the West and Two Rode Together is little different with the director returning to familiar iconography. This time it’s Jimmy Stewart, not Henry Fonda, propped up against a railing with his feet kicked up casual-like.

As an aside, my mind wonders if it was Ford who made actors reputable because of his pictures, or were his pictures made better by the memorable actors — the John Waynes, Henry Fondas, and Jimmy Stewarts? Because it’s true they left an indelible mark on his filmography as he did on their movie careers. It’s not altogether surprising that the greats would get together — with their talents coalescing — since they were made greater through collaboration.

In this picture, Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is the town’s Marshall. He has a fairly cushy life to lead and his reputation does all the talking. Thus, he can live in relative peace. He has his drinks brought out to him on the veranda and the only grief he gets is from Belle (Annelle Hayes). The tough-talking, deeply perceptive proprietor runs the local saloon, which remains all but empty during its off-hours.

A group of Cavalrymen rolls into town done and dusted. McCabe welcomes them in and reconnects with one of his pals: Lt. Jim Garry (Richard Widmark). What becomes evident is how friendships exist outside the confines of the movie. This in itself is powerful. The reason they came to town was actually for McCabe. They have orders to take him on the 40-mile jaunt back to their outpost.

We still don’t have a point or a reason — an inciting incident for the movie — but by this point in this career, maybe Ford doesn’t have to explain himself. The secret to his success is making us revel in the experience, and I’m not just saying that.

There’s a camaraderie, a good humor, and a beauty in being thrust into his world. He obviously takes great care in photographing it, but he also cares deeply about his players. Hence the reason he always held onto his tight-knit stock company.

One of the defining moments plays out in an extended take with Widmark and Stewart sitting at the water’s edge. It’s the essence of the movie in a nutshell as they smoke cigars, chewing the fat, and enjoying one another’s company. The moment gained some notoriety as Ford, in his typically tyrannical manner, made his cast and crew work in the icy water all day rather than have a simpler set-up. However, the extended nature of the sequence adds to the relaxed atmosphere. Time slows down for even a few minutes.

The story arc itself isn’t much good or at least it pales in comparison to something as incisive as The Searchers that culls the depths of revenge and human vindictiveness. None of this is surprising. Stewart finds himself dealing with folks holding out that their loved ones, abducted years ago by the Comanche, are still alive and capable of being rescued.

In what feels like a holdover from his pictures with Mann, Stewart is individualistic and more cynical than some might initially recall. His explanation of what Comanche do to white men — a young woman’s little brother — is enough to make the girl squirm with grief, and there’s no tempered dose of sympathy in any of his words. He’s not aiming to assuage fears and play savior to a bunch of people.

Against this, you have the typical broad comedy. In this case, Ken Curtis and Harry Carey Jr. vie for the affections of Shirley Jones only for her to dump a liberal amount of flour in their faces. Widmark sets up an equally comical duel for the hand of his girl only to have Andy Devine come to his rescue, essentially bodyslamming the rivals into the drink with his substantial girth.

Still, it does revert back toward its dark and bitter inclinations. Stewart and Widmark make contact with the Native Americans, but completing their mission supplies only small comfort. They bring back one feral youth raised by Comanche and a timorous senorita (Linda Cristal) who was the wife of one of the buffalo warriors (Woody Strode).

Both become social pariahs to be gawked at for different reasons. For the woman, though her life was harsher, she was treated with more respect, and with more dignity, by the Comanche.

The showcase for all of this to play out is the typical affair cropping up in all Ford’s Cavalry pictures with a dance put on by the military at the outpost for all the soldiers and their wives. It’s a sumptuous event. However, Ford effectively subverts the usually sensible, civilized space creating the most traumatic of moods. Here even this kind of life-giving community has been sullied and soured by human bigotry.

There are few places to hide as prejudice is expressed so perniciously out in the open, between whispered gossip and disparaging looks. Meek Elena (Cristal) stews in it all under the weight of all their sidelong glances, cringing out of her skin. She knows she is unwanted, that she doesn’t fit in, and frankly, it becomes the most heartbreaking scene in the picture.

Oddly enough, the bookends of the story are probably for the best, consisting of the vistas and the world they help to accentuate — the journey and how we got there, opposed to the actual particulars. You wouldn’t be wrong in observing Stewart and Widmark are too old for their parts, but it’s easy enough to stop caring and drop it altogether. What they provide to the movie is something else.

Because even as Ford literally called the script “crap,” and it’s true the tale’s not exactly the most cohesive, taut foray in storytelling, between the actors and director, there is so much bounty to be appreciated. There are also some lingering questions. What will happen to Shirley Jones and Widmark? We hardly know if the Comanches have been satiated. Then, Belle Aragorn is back, and it feels like a whole different movie was going on with her and the deputy while we were away.

Still, we end up with Stewart propped up against that railing once again and my mind couldn’t help but drift back to my opening thought. Ford and his actors collectively made stories richer and more vibrant so they could add up to something more than fragments of narrative strung together. They operate on different levels, bringing together all these bits and pieces of pulchritude, relevance, and meaning.

Two Rode Together is downright venomous at times, but it never loses sight of its prevailing good-humor. With the likes of Andy Devine and Jimmy Stewart holding down the fort, how could you not? And all of this is very much in keeping with John Ford.

Ford was a paradox — the inexplicable cipher to the end — who played both the taskmaster and also deeply loyal friend to kith and kin. It’s that tension that holds this picture together. For all the hell he put his stock company through, he’s also the very same man who shut down production for a week so he could set up funeral arrangements for one of his dear friends: Ward Bond.

It’s quite simple, but really all you need to know about this picture and John Ford is in the title. It’s not about the individual so much as the collective unit. Only then do we get humor and progress and friendship. As much as he might have masked it, he desperately needed other people, and his films reinforce this.

3.5/5 Stars

Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Review: Night and The City (1950)

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I’m not sure why but like Tommy Udo, the name Harry Fabian always stays with me when I think of Richard Widmark. One is the apex of sadistic evil and the other an archetypical noir hero met with utter calamity.

It’s true that for those who know a bit of the oeuvre of American director Jules Dassin, Night and the City might be perceived as a new rendition of The Naked City (1947). However, instead of New York, the suburban jungle of a thousand stories captured in documentary-like realism, we are given instead London, in all of its seedy glory, warts and all.

It’s fitting we meet Harry Fabian on the run from some unseen pursuer and whether someone is there or not hardly matters because that’s just Harry. The life he leads means he’s always in a jam with someone and always looking for the next big scheme to get him out of the doghouse. One might say he knows the dives of London like the back of his hand. He frequents them often trying to drum up business.

Because Harry is Widmark certainly at his most charismatic, an artist without an art and a constant idea man floundering in hot water every minute of the day. Like all such figures, he aspires to be something more than what he is. We’ve seen it many times before. For no conceivable rational reason except love, Mary (Gene Tierney), a nightclub singer, has remained faithfully by his side, despite all his flaky tendencies.

The mad chemist cooking upstairs also proves to be a pretty nice guy who cares deeply about Mary’s well-being. Especially since it seems that she is so easily tossed around by Harry. He doesn’t seem to care for her well. In fact, if we can cast it as such Harry is the Homme Fatale, even a slightly sympathetic one, while Adam (Hugh Marlowe) is his utter contrast in every way — the man who seems to have nothing but Mary’s goodwill in mind, even if he is in love with her too.

“The Silver Fox” is an underground tavern with some small consequence to the plot. Because you see, under the grubby hands of portly Phil Nosseross and his opportunistic and manipulative wife (Googie Withers), Harry works a hustle.  He drums up business like an all-purpose promoter, fishing around for unsuspecting out-of-towners and worming his way into their confidence. Meanwhile, Mary remains the main attraction with a floor show. They do quite well. Mary has scrimped and saved a great deal but Harry is still unsatisfied. It’s all small potatoes.

He’s waiting for the next great lightning rod of inspiration to strike and of all places, it comes at the fights. A big-time promoter (Herbert Lom) tells him to keep away because he’s already profiled Fabian as a no-good scrounger who cannot be trusted. He’s not wrong. However, Harrys a quick wit when he needs to be, instantly gaining the favor of formerly renowned wrestler Gregorius.

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Not only is he disillusioned with the way that modern wrestling bouts are fought, he also has a young pupil named Nikolai who he deems can take on any man. What makes his stamp of approval stick is the very fact the old man happens to be Kristos’s dearly beloved father. If Harry has this formidable ally in his corner he’s got it made.

Soon all the cash he can lay his greasy paws on is sunk in Fabian’s Promotions, even coaxing the boss’s conniving wife for a bankroll. He’s got his angle; he’s got his shield to help him shoulder his way into the wrestling game. It’s a cinch. But he’s also got everything riding on this endeavor because that’s his game. Go big and risk the chance of falling flat on his face.

So with Kristos all but threatening his life and a scorned husband pulling out his backing unless Harry can land The Strangler (Mike Mazursky), a competitor Gregorius has little taste for, that’s the end. The utter elation is Harry pulling a miracle out of his hat for the fight of a lifetime but just as easily the rug gets pulled from under him. Fate is a cruel taskmaster.

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Now a price sits on his head which essentially means he’s a dead duck. His dreams of success evaporate instantly. In the latter stages of the film, Widmark scrambles around London down all the back alleyways and abandoned brickyards he can. But everything he does seems futile. He has no friends with that much money at stake. The irony is that even Harrys last foolproof scheme doesn’t take when he pretends Mary is turning him over to Kristos for the cash. It wasn’t to be. For their love or for Harry. Noir is nothing without a heavy dose of fatalistic tragedy to become its ultimate undoing. Night and the City is little different.

As the story goes, Jules Dassin would be blacklisted during the production of the picture and therefore had no hand in the editing or scoring, at least to his liking. Thus, we have two distinct cuts. Otherwise, after a rough patch stricken by the Blacklist, he got back to work in France with the deeply revered Riffifi (1955). His career would have a second life all throughout Europe, yes, but for all intent and purposes, his days of hardboiled American noirs were over for good. All in all, he left behind a stellar body of work during the late 1940s. Night and the City remains a testament to a perennially underrated director.

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the British version with a score by George Frankel opposed to a different American cut with slightly different footage and score by Franz Waxman.

Road House (1948)

Road House 1“Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?” ~ Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens

Jefty’s is quite the joint. Bowling, drinks, floorshows. In a one-horse town, it’s the place to go especially when the establishment’s proprietor (Richard Widmark) brings in the alluring nightclub singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) to liven up the bar. Although he hired her without much forethought following a trip to Chicago, Jefty’s convinced this girl is really something although his faithful right-hand man Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) has her pegged from the start.  Smoking and playing solitaire. It sums up her life. It’s true.

They don’t exactly hit it off because he thinks he already knows what type of girl she is and she’s not too happy about getting pushed out of this gig. But ultimately she stays, the general public starts coming in droves, Jefty’s happy, and Pete does his best to keep away from her. But she does exactly the opposite. She appreciates Jefty but really has eyes for Pete and she pursues him.

What the film hinges on is really a love diamond with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde at the points. She is the object of desire for Jefty who thinks he could finally tie the knot with a girl. He’s in love no question. But Pete warms to Lily as well and is the one looking to go away with her. There also must be some necessary credit given to Celeste Holm for her performance although she has the most thankless role as Susie, the cashier at the Road House who also has obvious feelings for Pete.

But everything is thrown for a loop when Jefty comes back from a week long hunting trip with big news to spring on Pete. He’s gotten a marriage license. He’s going to ask Lily to marry him. However, over that same week, Pete and Lily have gotten closer than ever. Obviously, when the truth comes out the old friends have it out and the two lovers look to leave town.

The whole film thus far, Jefty has been a bit of a loose cannon but a generally nice guy. Except on a dime, things turn. Soon Pete is being detained for some cash missing from the company’s safe that his old friend claims is missing. It’s Pete’s words (with Lily’s) against Jefty’s with the police in the middle. It seems like a small deal but in a whirlwind sequence of events, Pete is brought to court and convicted of grand larceny. However, in a diabolical turn of events, Jefty becomes Pete’s savior as well as his master following a talk with the judge who agrees to put the convicted man on probation at the Road House. It’s just like old times, the gang all back together again except this time Jefty has Pete in a bind. One false move, one thing that he doesn’t like and Pete goes back to fulfilling his prison sentence. Jefty’s got him on a string and everyone knows it.

It’s in these moments where the remnants of the maniacal cackle of Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death begin to rear their ugly mug. And the next hunting trip Jefty plans with everyone included fills liked forced fun. No one’s having it and Lily and her love look to take one final chance to run away because any life is better than a life under Jefty’s thumb. What follows is a race for the woods and the Canadian border with Susie fleeing after them pursued by the crazed man packing a gun a bit like A Dangerous Game. It’s bound to be a deadly finale. Someone has to lose.

Cornel Wilde always feels too much like cardboard or plastic, whichever you prefer especially when put up against Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. The latter pair is more at home in the worlds of film noir, Lupino being both alluring and assertive, boasting a gravelly voice perfect for rasping out “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” that is enhanced by her smoking habits.

Meanwhile, Widmark always had a handle on the sleazy and embittered characters who were in one moment grinning and in another seething with a cunning anger. There’s a volatile polarity that he taps into that makes most every character he plays enjoyable as we slowly watch their evil tendencies overwhelm any good that is in them (or vice versa). He also likes hitting the sauce. Cigarettes and booze have always been a hallmark with noir and so it is with this film. So if you’re looking for a good time and a bit of uncompromising filmmaking, look no further than the Road House.

3.5/5 Stars

Panic in the Streets (1950)

panic_in_the_streets_1950It disappoints me that I was not more taken with the material than I was but despite not being wholly engaged, there are still some fascinating aspects to Panic in the Streets. Though a somewhat simple picture, it seems possible that I might just need to give it a second viewing soon. Let’s begin with the reality.

This noir docudrama is somehow not as tense as some of Elia Kazan’s other works. In fact, it’s port locale anticipate the memorable atmosphere of On The Waterfront, although it’s hard to stand up to such a revered classic. Still, the film does have its own appeals.

It begins with a gritty setting full of grungy character and New Orleans charm that continues the trend of post-war films taking the movie cameras to the streets and to the people who actually dwell there. In this way, the film shares some similarities to The Naked City.

The acting talent is also a wonderful strength with Richard Widmark playing our lead, Lt. Commander Clint Reed, this time on the right side of the law as a Naval Doctor trying to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague before it spreads exponentially. His compatriot is played by the always enjoyable Paul Douglas a world-wearied police captain who must grin and bear joining forces with Reed.

The film is full of seedy undesirables and the most important and memorable one is Jack Palance (in his screen debut) showing off his tough as nails personality that was certainly no fluke. His right hand blubbering crony is the equally conniving Zero Mostel and together they make a slimy pair for the police to close in on. Because it’s one of their associates who ends up murdered but it’s only in the coroner’s office where they find out he was infected with something fierce.

This sets the sirens going off in Reed’s head and while not an alarmist, he wants everyone to consider the gravity of the situation. He has some trouble working with the police but he also seems to understand that this is not an isolated issue but it can affect his family — his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and his precocious boy (Tommy Rettig). But not just his immediate circle, but his entire community. And so he and Captain Warren race against the clock to not only to prevent an epidemic but solve a crime and apprehend the perpetrators. So this is undoubtedly your typical police procedural enlivened by New Orleans but there are also different layers to what is going on that have broader implications.

For instance, what do you tell the press? Do you keep it under wraps or let them shout it from the rooftops so the criminals get away scot-free — like rats fleeing the scene of the crime? Are you just looking for the murderers or are you considering the entire community at large? These questions deserve to be parsed through more thoroughly than I possibly can. So while Panic in the Streets is more methodical than a tense drama there are some very good things to it. Namely its location, its cast, and the universal nature of its central conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Don’t Bother Knocking (1952)

Don't_bother_to_knockYou’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other.” – Richard Widmark as Jed Powers

For a film so short, Don’t Bother Knocking is overflowing with wonderful talent from Richard Widmark to Anne Bancroft to a haunting performance from Marilyn Monroe. Then Elisha Cook Jr. shows up as the obliging doorman, Jim Bachus as a young girl’s father, and even the prolific Willis Bouchey takes a turn as the bartender. It’s one of those story’s that revels in the classical age of the Hollywood studio actor. The familiar faces carry with them a certain amount of depth that allows the characters to mean so much in only a few fractions of the time normally required.

Anne Bancroft’s nightclub singing (in her screen debut) sets the background mood for everything going on within the  McKinley Hotel — a seemingly upstanding establishment. It’s precisely this aloof demeanor established by the music that lends itself nicely to the strangely haunting aspects of the film.

All characters seem to lack passion, emotion, and most any type of energy except the bubbly camera gal who goes around trying to sell snapshots to patrons. Widmark is at his morose dirtbag best yet again as Jed Towers, a guy who can’t figure why his girl has dumped him.

It’s a chamber piece, and while not a man on a ledge story like Fourteen Hours, it still uses the corridors and diegetic street sounds to create a mildly intriguing environment for some minor noir thrills. You can see the lust in Widmark’s eyes when he looks out the window at Monroe prancing and swaying about seductively. Little does he know what her deal is. His frustration with life and love is right at the center of this film and he must rectify his situation one way or another.

For her part, she has some telltale signs of psychological distress aside from a constantly glazed expression. Namely, scars on her wrists. Strings of little white lies, compulsive fibs that trickle out and a flustered edge that slowly becomes more and more demented by the minute.Whether it’s Monroe’s best performance is up for interpretation but it’s certainly her most terrifyingly dramatic.

She becomes the lightning rod for all the drama, lashing out against the little girl put in her stead and distressing her uncle (Elisha Cook Jr.) who got her this gig, despite her utter lack of experience. Nell Forbes flutters so quickly between fear and hysteria, at first wary of Towers and fawning all over him the next moment — afraid that he will leave her.

It’s her histrionics that force a reaction out of Jed. He must choose what type of guy he wants to be, whether he chooses the tame or wild side of life. And as it turns out, there’s absolutely no contest in the end. He knows full well which girl is for him.

Unfortunately, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, because it is the relational and psychological dysfunction of the characters that becomes most rewarding and, in the end, most indicative of the noir malaise. A happy resolution, therefore, does not stay true to the heart and soul of this film. Stone cold and depraved. Still, this one’s a winner at 76 minutes.

3.5/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

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2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

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3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

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4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

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