Rachel and The Stranger (1948): Indentured Servitude

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It becomes increasingly apparent Rachel and The Stranger is a peculiar little movie that would have no place in the modern landscape, and not simply because RKO Studios is no longer in existence. It feels like arguably its biggest star is off-screen more than he is on because he was probably in at least 3 or 4 other pictures in the same year. When he is present, Robert Mitchum is altogether jolly, always wandering into the story with a guitar and a song on his lips. It’s a slightly different iteration from the rogues he was normally called on to play.

Likewise, Loretta Young isn’t her usual effervescent self for much of the picture, made to look dowdy and such given the territory. These were the days before William Holden had yet to come into his own. He’s likable in a movie like Apartment for Peggy or here, but he hardly has a voice. There’s nothing alive and individual about what he brings to the part. He’s not yet a romantic heartthrob, and he doesn’t have his cultivated sardonic edge.

Mind you, this is all before even getting to the content at hand. Because Rachel and the Stranger concerns itself with subject matter we rarely see in Hollywood either. Rather than consider it a conventional western, it’s more of a colonial drama taking on the pioneering days of the likes of Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett.

David Harvey has just recently lost his wife to some unnamed affliction. He is comforted by his friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum), even as he is faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of raising his son Davy (Gary Gray) on the harsh frontier with some element of civility. To uphold the honor of his wife, he wants to impress upon his boy the importance of education, praying before meals, and such puritan disciplines.

He knows he’s not able to give that to the boy as his own know-how is all of a practical nature, about survival out in the wilderness. The only alternative is to find a suitable wife, not a romantic partner, but someone who might be a good maternal presence in young Davy’s life. As women are scarce, David finds the next best thing in Rachel.

Historically, a step before mail order brides, there was something even more archaic: indentured servitude. This is before the chattel system of African slaves when we had another outdated economy where people were beholden to others to pay off debts. So David buys Rachel from her previous owner so she might fulfill the surrogate duties of a mother. One is led to inquire, “How in the world did Loretta Young end up as a bondservant, to begin with?”

As is all but expected, there are growing pains and chafing as Davy is unimpressed by this woman who is a shadow of his own mother’s talents when it comes to shooting guns and running a home. But Rachel has a will to prove herself and earn their undying respect.

In one sense, it’s somewhat difficult to consider the story soberly, given how the material plays, but Susan is quite a unique character, especially given the time period. Her point of view is typically unsung and unseen. For this reason alone it’s a slightly intriguing proposition.

The story escalates gradually with the men fighting over the woman. Because when Jim drifts back into their lives as he has a habit of doing, he brings out contours of Rachel they have never seen before. Her love of music. The warmth of her smile. Laughter. David realizes she is far more than he gave her credit for, and her personality is far more intricate than he ever took the time to find out.

However, this ensuing battle also asks the implicit question, “What say does she have in the turn of events?” If we wanted to use more current vernacular, we would need to consider her personal agency. Thankfully, she has a moment to fight back with a few choice words of her own.

The tone changes completely with a midnight onslaught by some militant Shawnee out on the warpath. It’s as if we needed a reminder of where our setting is. It does its job by blowing over the tiff between friends. It puts it in perspective so they can start afresh with a new lease on life. For once, this is a story about husband and wife — not man and servant.

True, there’s a controversial verse from the Old Book that reads, “Wives submit to your husbands” just as another entreats, “slaves obey your masters.” But there is a flip side to these seemingly patriarchal ordinances. Husbands are told to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Then, “masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

David Harvey without question is familiar with these words. This movie is an exercise of him grappling with the weight of their meaning, just as it is a tale of a woman coming into her own as a beautiful, unique individual.

3/5 Stars

Man With The Gun (1955): Mitchum The Town Tamer

man with the gun 1.png“I’ve seen some cures worse than the disease.” – The Doctor

The opening images set the tone. It’s a sleepy afternoon in a ghost town. There’s a boy with his dog. The dog starts yipping at the boots of a rider cutting through town. In an instance, the merciless killer shoots the dog and rides on unperturbed. His calling card: a shoulder holster.

His actions go off quite literally like a gunshot, causing the whole town to stir and jump to their windowsills. It’s got them frightened and for the time being, there is no obvious solution aside from letting the gunman, looking for a local tyrant named Holman ride on unimpeded.

Almost in response, soon another man (Robert Mitchum) rides into town, and in his wake is a much different temperament. He too makes his living with a gun — not a marshall or a sheriff — he’s what they call a Town Tamer. He works fast and demands free reign, such that he’s not beholden to anyone. It’s how he manages to run the scum out of town and make towns worth living in. However, to get the result, it requires fighting fire with fire.

Of course, it takes us a while to learn all about him. For a time he’s just a new face making the rounds, getting to know people including the town’s blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer) while still keeping a tight lid on his private affairs.

In this regard, Man With the Gun is reminiscent of Wichita in how it unfolds. Although, in all manners of atmosphere, plotting, and thematic ideas, the other picture comes out looking far superior. This says more to the praise of the Tourneur-directed Joel McCrea vehicle because Man with The Gun still manages a few moments of flair in its own right.

What it might be best at is building up its regimen of stock characters and places. The world itself is just another riff on noted conventions, but familiar faces make it a quality retreading all the same.

Emile Meyer is their undisputed leader — a workhorse character actor in all sorts of roles — but I also relish spotting the likes of Jay Adler, Claude Akins, even the ever-reliable Burt Mustin manning the hotel desk. And of course, the scarred visage of Leo Gordon deserves to be canonized with the mugs of Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and a handful of others in the pantheon of 1950s reprobates.

Meanwhile, the local Palace, a steamy saloon run by a Frenchman (Ted de Corsia), gets their supply of pretty girls from a local businesswoman (Jan Sterling). She’s precisely the kind of strait-laced personality you wouldn’t expect to get tied up in such a line of work. It takes all kinds. Her troop includes the noticeably ditzy Barbara Lawrence, while a youthful Angie Dickinson gets to play one of her wry counterparts.

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This is all mere groundwork for the coming attractions. Tollinger is installed, rather uneasily, by the local governing body, headed by the disgruntled blacksmith and family man. Somehow, despite his self-assured nature and a pedigree to back it up, the town is wary about backing one man against many. They aren’t so much assuaged as they are perturbed when he proceeds to gun down two thugs, who are running with the unseen, iron-fisted Holman.

Likewise, a proud young man, who’s been threatened, isn’t about to let someone else fight his battles, even as his plucky bride-to-be, Stella (Karen Sharpe), asks Mr. Tollinger to keep an eye on her beau. His response is noncommital, and Jeff Castle gets taken after already sustaining a gunshot wound.

The dynamic is not explored fully, aside from a community dance, but there is a hint of some romantic feelings between the older man and Stella. Because he is a full-fledged man, even as her fiancee is still growing into his masculinity. She still sees him as the boy she’s grown up with. Tollinger also happens to have another relationship in his past to seek out…

That, and cleaning up the streets, keep him more than busy. He gets the young upstart back in a trade while enforcing new gun laws, then a curfew. The townsfolk are grumbling all the time at these infractions on their rights. Another very calculated decision follows when Tollinger sets fire to the local house of sin, coaxing the enraged proprietor, Frenchy Lescaux (De Corsia), to come at him. This comes to fruition although his relationship with an old flame starts nipping into previous unresolved wounds.

All the while a bright-eyed out-of-towner is watching everything with interest, twiddling his thumbs, capped with a bowler and feet propped up lazily. His demeanor is far from hostile, but there’s something disconcerting behind his eyes. He’s too amiable to not have an angle.

True enough, Holman is looking for retaliation on the town tamer, exploiting his greatest weakness, which seems to be a gentlemanly soft-spot for women. After all, this feels like one of the prerequisites for a western hero. They must be a strong and silent type. So it is with Mitchum.

The cathartic shootout comes, and the town is “tamed” as much as it can be. Man with The Gun settles into a happy ending that arrives all too easily. For all the interesting dilemmas, either implied or touched on, there is not enough attention given to make them resonate fully.

It becomes necessary to take this sagebrusher at face value, and given all the alternatives, it’s probably too derivative to be a totally gratifying experience. However, if you’re fond of Robert Mitchum, give it a watch because he is and always will be the same. It’s to his credit. I will stop short of saying he makes a mediocre picture great, but without him, there’s not any point connection.

3/5 Stars

River of No Return (1954): Mitchum and Monroe on a Raft

River of No Return is nearly worthwhile for its opening visuals alone. There stands the vestige of American manhood: Robert Mitchum — unmistakably himself — felling a tree. He pulls off his hat, wipes his brow, and we get a gorgeous lingering look at his backyard. God’s majesty as far as the eye can see. Absolutely breathtaking stuff.

After the credits roll, he enters a much livelier environment. It feels a bit like a choreographed dance as his horse trots through the hubbub of the newly erected tent town bitten by the gold bug. At the hitching posts, he has a momentary encounter with a padre, the religious man came for the Indians but having a look around, he notes he might need to stay in the hell-hole for the sake of the white men.

It’s in such a seedy world Matt Calder (Mitchum) goes hunting for the son he doesn’t know. He finds him soon enough, shielding the young boy (Tommy Rettig) from some drunken bullies. The only question remains, where is Marilyn Monroe? She’s set up in one of the many tents as a bright and sultry nightclub singer, who cuts through the otherwise scuzzy world around her with a voice and a guitar. Her silver dollar song catches the eye of Calder, but their real connection is little Mark. She’s been keeping an eye on him and doesn’t take kindly to the father’s malfeasance.

If this were the only interaction, we wouldn’t have a movie. Because they are on divergent paths. Matt and Mark look to build up a life for themselves in a cabin, living off the land earning an honest day’s wage far away from the lottery-style debauchery of the gold mines.

Meanwhile, Kay’s man, an unreliable big-stakes gambler (Rory Calhoun) has a promising claim to track down. He, no doubt, won it off some unsuspecting sucker. Whether it was legitimate or not remains to be seen.  They plan to go by riverboat to the distant territory; he wasn’t counting on the perilous waters. Instead, he forcibly takes Calder’s horse and gun as a bit of a “loan.” His scruples (or lack thereof) are all too clear.

The local Indians make their presence known through drums and smoke emanating up from the mountains. They also conveniently force the next move. With no horse and no gun, Calder goes with his boy and Kay (who stayed behind out of sympathy) aboard the raft. It is the river already warned against for its many perils. But in their present circumstances, they now have no recourse but to take it.

It’s hardly The African Queen. It’s not even Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (both directed by Huston). The movie falters in its most expositionally-heavy scenes. Is this the fault of Monroe for not masking the lines better or the script for laying it on too thick? I’m not sure.

It’s also a bit of nausea-inducing sequence, even as the interior studio shots with water splashing look immediately tacky. They take away from the import of any long shots actually out on the choppy rapids. Nor are they as interesting as Preminger’s staging of the previous town or the vast landscapes away from the river. In such moments, he exhibits an attuned eye for the width of Cinemascope all but undermined by these talky static shots inside a studio.

However, Mitchum and Monroe do manage a mild distaste for one another, playing quite well, especially when they’re stranded out in the forest with little prospect of survival. But perhaps, most telling of all, you see Monroe’s ability with children.

There’s a quality to her that while partially maternal almost tacitly understands their innocence and vulnerability. Wanting to keep the naivete precious and maintained in a world that can often be so very uncaring. You might hazard a guess similar qualities might be found in her.

Adulation might be aimed at Mitchum’s meaningful interactions with his son as well for altogether different reasons. He says it straight and honest and doesn’t pander when the questions come his way. There is a certain amount of buy-in when you see him give his son the unadorned truth as he sees it.

In one candid encounter, he tries to articulate how men make laws to live by. And when you break them, there must be some form of justice, some consequence. But we might go a step further. Laws of this nature — deep, universal human laws — are almost innate in us. He wants to help his son understand his rationale. It remains a work in progress.

The perceptive son is continually probing him with candid questions in order to understand the inconsistencies of the world around him, whether it is his father’s own past or their plan to catch the man who stole from them.

It enters its most uncomfortable territory when Mitchum all but assaults his co-star in the forest. What’s more, apart from being totally disconcerting, as a more callous observation, it simply does not fit the continuity of the scenes around it. The only true purpose seems to be shock value; not providing any amount of exposition or even logical progressions of character. That makes it even more flagrant.

Purportedly this was one of a handful of scenes commissioned by Daryl Zanuck and shot by Jean Negulesco after primary photography, to make the relationship more clearly defined. To a modern viewer, it undermines everything our actors have managed thus far.

Fortuitously, a cougar comes along and poses a more suitable threat, making it easy to forget what has just come to pass. Then, a pair of conveniently placed prospectors arrive and one happens to be a dandy shot with a rifle in close quarters.

Meanwhile, the Indians exert their force on the story once again in a portrayal that is a lame use of them and frankly, a shoddy excuse for storytelling on top of the inherently trivial portrayal. In other words, they are only a mechanism for storytelling, and it does not even manage a gripping outcome.

The revenge narrative gets its inevitable ending in a town. Not unlike the boy (Ron Howard) in The Shootist, Mark gains a new understanding of violence and a renewed appreciation for his father.

Surveying the results, River of No Return is saddled with flaws, though its star power and intermittently marvelous imagery, courtesy of Otto Preminger, serve as a decent distraction. Mitchum and Monroe aficionados might well find themselves treated to an average piece of entertainment.  Take from it what you will.

3/5 Stars

AFI Corner: Alternative Picks Vol. 1

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The AFI Corner column is in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

I hinted at several things in my Introduction to this column. Namely, the AFI lists are great but hardly comprehensive. There are numerous blind spots. It’s folly to think 100 titles (or even a couple hundred) can encompass every good movie.

However, they triggered so many rabbit holes for me — to different directors, actors even foreign cinema — and I’m glad for these asides. In no particular order, I want to point out some titles you won’t find on the AFI Lists. It’s not in an effort to be contrarian, mind you. On the contrary, I want to shine a light on more great movies!

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Leo McCarey is represented on 100 Laughs with The Awful Truth, but it is Make Way for Tomorrow that remains his other often unsung masterpiece. Among many other accolades, it served as the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story focusing on an elderly couple slowly forgotten by their grown children. It’s a surprising sensitive picture for the day and age. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore couldn’t be better.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Hitchcock obviously gets a lot of visibility on the AFI lists and rightly so. However, if we want to toss out another film that he often considered his personal favorite (featuring one of my personal favorites: Teresa Wright), Shadow of a Doubt is a worthy thriller to include. Having spent time in Santa Rosa, California, I’m equally fascinated by its portrait of idyllic Americana in the face of a merry widow murderer (Joseph Cotten).

Out of The Past (1947)

It’s hard to believe there wasn’t much love for Out of The Past on the AFI lists. After all, it’s prime Robert Mitchum (#23 on AFI Stars) an up-and-coming Kirk Douglas (#17), and an inscrutable Jane Greer. However, from my own explorations, its director Jacques Tourneur is one of the unsung masters of genre pictures in Hollywood ranging from Cat People to Joel McCrea westerns.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Howard Hawks is another fairly well-represented figure across AFI’s filmography. This aviation-adventure picture is one of the missing treasures featuring a bountiful cast headed by Cary Grant (#2 Stars), Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth (#19). It exemplifies Hawks’s wonderful sense of atmosphere and rowdy, fun-loving camaraderie.

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Likewise, Preston Sturges is no slouch when it comes to AFI, whether by merit of Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, or The Palm Beach Story. However, one of my personal favorites is Hail The Conquering Hero. I find it to be such a pointed war picture, taking hilarious aim at a genre that was quick to lean on schmaltz and propaganda, especially during an event as cataclysmic as WWII.

What are some other alternative movies to add to AFI’s lists?

Home from The Hill (1960): Underrated Vincente Minnelli Family Drama

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“They just live in the same house and kill each other a little at a time, and I’m in the middle.” – George Hamilton

The beauty of Home from The Hill is how it systematically works against our preconceived notions of what it will be, repeatedly asserting itself in new and dynamic ways. In the opening moments, Wade Hunnicut (Robert Mitchum), a local with major sway in the community, is out hunting with his entourage only to have someone take a shot at him.

The culprit is dragged out into the open. We expect it’s part of a feud, and it is, but he’s a jealous husband fighting for the honor of his wife. The implications are Hunnicut slept with her, and he in no way denies the accusations. Instead of doing anything rough to the boy, he simply sends him away with his rifle. There’s really nothing else to be done.

We already have a line on our main character. He is a hunter of animals and women with a blatant disregard for property lines where either is concerned. It’s an open secret in the community, and his wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) certainly knows his reputation, so he hardly tries to lie about his “hunting accident.” She knows him too well for there to be any kind of pretense.

The script is another impeccable early offering from writing duo Irving Ravetch and Harriet Jacobs, so well remembered for their lifelong collaboration with director Marty Ritt. Their works are instilled with an appealing plainness — in every way American and in a manner that continues in the traditions of The Long Hot Summer. Mitchum and Orson Welles are different figures, but they both ably play gargantuan men with far-ranging celebrity.

The cadence and rhythm of the southern patois play to a vaguely familiar tune capturing the essence of authenticity. And mind you, these are before the days of Hud and yet somewhere in between Hunnicut and his right-hand Rafe (George Peppard), we find some of the rough shapes and edges of Newman’s later character.

As Home from The Hill comes into its own, the story progresses as a sprawling melodrama with a husband and wife battling over the future of their son Theron (George Hamilton). The only reason Hannah’s stayed in his house was the solemn word of honor that their son would be hers.

She has sheltered him from the ways of his father and as a result, he’s unquestionably a mama’s boy. It’s a territorial war as Wade suddenly takes an interest in him. Father and son forge a relationship founded on imparting his image of masculinity. Is it mixing metaphors horribly to say it’s part Shakespearian with Machiavellian strains?

Because Hunnicut wants a hand at sculpting his boy into a real man who can maintain his legacy. The first test he passes along as a rite of passage into manhood is the killing of a wild boar terrorizing his tenants. It’s a harrowing hunt taking him through briar and bramble with his pack of dogs. But his hand is sure and his grit resolute.

Soon the Hunnicut grounds are packed out with a large scale gathering, the delectable centerpiece amid the clamor and gaiety is a roast boar on a spit. Hunnicut is making strides to gain back his wife’s affections, which she has kept locked away from him. Meanwhile, their poor boy gets rejected by the father of his date (an unrecognizable Everett Sloane). We have an inkling it has something to do with the notoriety of Theron’s own father.

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As George Hamilton goes through the arc of his story, I couldn’t help but compare him to Anthony Perkins. They not only share nominally similar boyish features, but Hamilton is also able to pull off a certain flightiness around women and an insecurity around everyone else.

One of the most curious scenes comes by way of the cemetery where all the locals are very merrily cleaning up the grounds of their kin. These are the burial grounds for the “Good Christians”, and then hidden away overgrown at “Reprobates Field,” Rafe cares for his own.

It hints at something only revealed in one of the film’s few scenes that fully oversteps its boundaries. Parker and Hamilton have it out in an impassioned back and forth that can only be described as histrionic. Even as he grows into manhood, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the family of privilege he has been born into.

He thinks he loves Libby (Luana Patten), but how is he suppose to progress knowing the past indiscretions of his own flesh and blood? It crushes him.  The second overt moment of theatrics comes when his beau’s father comes to call on Mitchum trying to churn up a shotgun wedding. It feels peculiar within the sequence of events thus far. Still, it’s all part of small-town protocol, whether or not it relies on truth or merely local gossip.

Mitchum is hardly ever caught in such a state, nor George Peppard for that matter. The veteran actor is low with grounded core strength in every interaction, while Peppard is self-possessed in his own right. To their credit, they remain tempered and really stay ever steady in their roles. The patriarch exhibiting his unabashed egotism and the latter character embodying a necessary pathos in the film. He keeps it from cycling into a downward spiral of pure despondency.

While I have to admit it does feel like on a few crucial occasions Eleanor Parker overdoes her performance, most of her scenes opposite Mitchum are equally measured and beautifully layered with feeling. The history between them is rich even as their present is so resentful. However, the greatest accomplishment of the picture is how they hardly steal the movie.

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As events progress, the brunt of the family drama falls equally on the shoulders of George Hamilton and George Peppard who capably carry the load placed on them. In fact, considering the trajectory of Peppard’s career, in particular, it amazes me his clout as a film star was never larger. Perhaps he arrived on the scene half a generation too late after the likes of Clift and Newman.

When we think of Vincente Minnelli at his most quintessential, it always entails musicals with lavish set designs and costumes. But more generally, he was fully adept at examining familial relationships and two of his best, and subsequently underrated efforts, are Some Came Running and Home from the Hill. What becomes apparent in this one is a sensitivity pervading even the potentially callous material.

Rafe is one vehicle, so pleasant and loyal — completely void of the malice or entitlement others are clouded with. His life is never defined by his bad breaks, but by the contentment he finds in his current reality, gradually carving out a fine life for himself.

Minnelli takes care with all his characters cultivating their romances on the screen into quantifiable entities even as it ties your guts in knots by the end. Because it goes out with some sense of family and a reaffirmation of relationship even on the rocky Texas soil of this picture.

There are so many avenues of rancor cropping up on all sides, it almost seems unbearable. Yet when it’s all said and done, with the drama and hate and killing, Home from The Hill hints at some semblance of peace.

4/5 Stars

Blood on the Moon (1948): A Robert Mitchum Horse Noir

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This is admittedly nitpicky, but the title cards of Blood on the Moon are a bit jarring as the white-lettered names all but disappear into the sliver of light stretching across the otherwise black canvas of the screen. Thus, I missed out on about a fourth of the names in the cast.

Opening credits aside, entering the world itself is an unmitigated pleasure as we are submerged straight into a rainstorm meeting us with a near tactile sense of tone. Against the dark slopes, a solitary rider sits aloft in wet hat and poncho. He’s seeking cover from the downpour.

Though he finds it,  his nice, warming fire essentially gets stampeded by a pack of steers, and a man with a gun comes to oust him. He comes in contact with a not too neighborly outfit led by a man name Lufton who is a part of a longstanding feud between two factions. The age-old animosity kicked up between cattlemen and homesteaders. Lufton is on the side of the cattle.

However, we have yet to know where this stranger — Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) — falls along the gradient, if anywhere. He has his first run-in with a lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) and sends her packing into the adjoining stream with some nifty shooting. Then, he drifts into a town, which seems cloaked in a dubious conspiracy of its own.

A host of characters sit around a poker table — among them Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw — shooting the bull about the new man. They want to get a read on him through a bit of deception. He reads them like a book, and it still seems like all the thugs are coming out of the woodwork just to take a shot at him.

Finally, he reconnects with his old comrade Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Their past is all but unspoken yet we understand they’ve been through some times together. Thus, it’s no less jolting to learn this man Tate is on the other side of the feud. He has sided with the local ranches and a government agent (Frank Faylen) to push Lufton’s cattle off the land. An awfully crooked Preston is girded by that age-old charisma of his. He somehow still gives off an aura of likability in a not too trustworthy sort of way.

So Garry has been unwittingly been called upon as a de facto gunman to help make the transition stick. He initially goes along with it, because Tate used to be his pal. What makes the story an interesting one relies on the fact Garry has that age-old deficiency — a human conscience.

The plucky rancher he shot at before was one of Lufton’s daughters, Amy, who though sore at him, eventually warms up when his integrity becomes apparent. She realizes he is a different breed than the rest. However, her sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), as fearful as Amy is fierce, falls for another man, making for the most intriguing foil in the movie.

Walter Brennan’s place as one of the ranchers taken in by Tate’s promises remains relatively understated and minor next to all the greats he’s played (especially given my last picture of his was The Westerner). Likewise, Charles McGraw isn’t given much to do aside from being gruff though he was still in the nascent stages of his career.

The stakes have been set for a surprisingly complicated interplay even as the cursory beats of Lillie Hayward’s script look all too familiar. It seems Robert Wise has the right pedigree for the material as does cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca because whether deliberate or not, this 40s oater is cloaked by film noir sensibilities through and through.

While not the cleanest of prints, there’s no denying the scope of the terrain nor the layers of atmosphere they’re able to draw out of the scenery, between shadows and light. If it sounds familiar, these are the shades of noir embodied as much in the character of Robert Mitchum as any of the mise en scène. The iconic lazy-eyed indifference of Mitchum transfers seamlessly from Out of the Past (1947) — coincidentally, also photographed by Musuraca.

Again and again, we must fall back on Mitchum and in all the RKO pictures he made, the onus usually landed on him because fewer resources meant more was asked of him. Aside from being a workhorse, Mitchum has the gumption and the unflinching enigmatic cool to bear the story upon his shoulders. It relies on precisely this quality dwelling within him, shifting so easily between attributes of self-service and integrity.

As far as psychological westerns go, I find the compact punchiness of Blood on the Moon far more appealing than Pursued (1947), starring Mitchum and Teresa Wright whom I adore. However, this story is not simply an excuse for deep-suited psychological issues. What the picture doesn’t skimp on are fairly complicated human relationships. There it finds a heady weight to carry it through to the end even if it does falter a little.

Mitchum has it out with his old pal in a deserted bar with near Anthony Mann level fighting, verging on the fanatically crazed. It’s a beautiful piece of stylized brutality. There’s disheveled and then there’s Robert Mitchum’s appearance after the altercation.

He was never one to be an untouchable white knight, preferring shades of gray. It’s a brilliant moment of pitch dark adrenaline. The film never quite regains this same energy, but there is still work to be done.

Garry, Amy, and the rancher Kris Barden all have a personal reason for wanting to get rid of Tate for good. The inevitable showdown occurs after a snowcapped chase, leading to a shootout in a forest with a wounded Mitchum and his two compatriots looking to hold down the fort.

I already mentioned this picture heavily relies on Mitchum so what would the final moments be without him going after his adversary systematically, injured though he may be, to finish this business for good? A happy ending lightens the impact, but it’s a small price to pay for this underrated horse noir from Robert Wise. He surely could make a gripping movie.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lusty Men (1952): Nicholas Ray Transcends His Material Again

TheLustyMen7.jpgThe connotation of the film’s lurid title feels slightly deceptive. Because The Lusty Men might have basic elements of men who desire after women but it’s fairly restrained in this regard. At least more than I initially conceived. However, it is a film characterized by a zeal or a lust for life. The male protagonists are intent or were formerly driven in the pursuit of high living with all the benefit such a life affords.

We recognize this outright from a parade rolling down main street and then “The Wildest Show on Earth” that features the finest rodeo entertainment the world over. It’s high stakes and highly dangerous but also invariably lucrative. Many men are drawn to it greedily like moths to a flame.

Nicholas Ray sets up a high-octane environment of thrills that proves hardly as straightforward as one might imagine. Because the first man we meet is Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a lifelong rodeo man who, after his latest throw, has decided to take a break and leave the tantalizing life behind while he’s ahead. It’s a young man’s dream, but only the veterans live to make it a profession.

Coming from restless stock, he returns to his dilapidated childhood home now owned by an old homesteader (Burt Mustin) only to find the old tin can he buried two coins in when he was a kid. They’re still there and they’re also the only true assets he has to his name. Instantly we have a read on him. He has no possessions, a drifter, laconic in speech. You know the type and better yet you know exactly who he is with Robert Mitchum playing him — his true bread and butter.

He meets a pair of newlyweds, the Merritts, and manages to grab a job as a ranch hand. The husband Wes (Arthur Kennedy) is taken with the aura of the older man who has quite the reputation. For the time, Jeff takes it in stride.

It seems every film I see Susan Hayward in has managed to slip past me for a long time. But she fills the screen with an undoubted strength of her own. There’s something about her upper lip that I can’t quite put my finger on, but together with her near imperious gaze, you have a face capable of supreme expressiveness. She and McCloud both latched on to something. For her its a husband striving after what she wants. For him, its a man who can help him. It’s reciprocal.

This dynamic makes Kennedy’s character the most obvious and least interesting though, like Rancho Notorious, he’s meant to be playing a young man and manages to imbue the part with a cocky ebullience. He’s intent on a certain life and even if he seems a straight enough arrow, his way gets clouded by these aspirations.

We received glimpses early on, but The Lusty Men is also the most visceral and intensive rodeo movie I can recall. What follows is an ugly evolution in our characters; Wes most obviously. The distinction being, everything he is happens right before our eyes as he calls on the expertise of McCloud to help him conquer the rodeo circuit.

Everything Jeff exists as finds its origins outside of the frame, based on years and years as a rider with an unspoken history we can never completely comprehend. Mitchum carries the onus of time well, and it makes him continually intriguing.

We can’t quite get a line on him. He seems to go around as nice as you please. Maybe a fresh word or two but that’s just his personality (Hasta Luego. That’s Spanish for, “If the shower don’t work call McCloud”). There’s hardly an advance and yet you half expect him to be working a David & Bathsheba angle, except a battlefield has become a rodeo. He keeps the cards close until the last possible moment.

There’s a pool of weathered supporting players he reunites with including the broken but resolutely chipper Arthur Hunnicut, who maintains a taste for the rodeo even though he’s long since left the corral behind. Then, you have the likes of Al (Frank Faylen) and Rosemary, a match made in heaven, as they have all but resigned themselves to the life. It might as well be in their blood. The beauty is how their characters are almost contours but we want to know them more than we have the chance to.

Whenever you have a group of people who have bought into some sort of madness whether the stage, aviation, rodeo, or anything else, there is a near-insane amount of devotion put into the lifestyle. Look at Stage Door, Only Angels Have Ways, or West Side Story to see have a certain mentality easily pervades the world to create a collective consciousness of sorts.

This lifestyle becomes the status quo, and they have become so used to it and callous to the hardship, any trauma can hardly shake them out of it. Not unsurprisingly, such a dangerous profession comes with deadly repercussions. These hardships are what shake a person out of their reverie to decry the hazards at hand. It seems inconsequential to document them here because you can probably imagine them already.

With every person, it becomes a matter of weighing the pros and cons. There’s the choice of getting out of the cycle and ridding yourself of the dangers or otherwise willingly submitting yourself to the consequences.  Mitchum is such a curious individual because he seems to have made his peace and yet a woman he’s only pursuing half-heartedly leads him to take uncharacteristic risks.

But far from being regretful, in the end, he takes the tragedy thrust upon him with his usual coolness and casual indifference. Bitterness is not in his vocabulary, and he goes out just as he came into the film, aloof and yet somehow still showing a certain vulnerability. Because he allows affection to best him. There’s nothing shameful in that.

Rather than let the same lifestyle savage their souls, the Merritts get away too. Wes is shaken free of his bull-headedness, realizing in an instant there are far more important things than fast cash. What springs to mind are the care of a loving wife and the ability to grow old and gray together without the fear of constant peril.

The resolution is almost expected, but the actors shine as Nicholas Ray guides us through yet another outsider’s tale infused with authentic emotional longing. The film is constantly shifting between what we might easily call tropes or commonalities until it comes away with something different. It helps when you have three leading stars more than capable of playing the scenes with resonance, emoting when its called for and providing their characters with a greater tangibility.  Ray is one of those directors who continually manages to transcend his material.

The Lusty Men predates many similar films that spring to mind from Giant (1956) to The Misfits (1961) and even Hud (1963). Each one details a modern depiction of the West — having totally relinquished its glorious image and succumbed to real-world issues of aging, isolation, and decay. If you can believe it, The Lusty Men just might be the least ostentatious of them all, but it’s equally ripe for rediscovery.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

A Film Noir Icon Turns 75 - WSJ

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff. It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation. What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic. 

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

Review: Holiday Affair (1949)

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Holiday Affair might be a bit of an oxymoron as far as Christmas movies go. It’s not too far off the truth to christen it an old-modern Christmas classic, at least depending on how you define your terms.

It’s a Christmas picture that has all but sailed under the radar since its original release in 1949 though it has, rather recently, gained some modest recognition around Christmastime. Given Robert Mitchum’s normal workload for RKO, it feels like an outlier in comparison with most of the dramatic or noirish crime fare he was usually expected to star in. And part of this might have been due to circumstance — circumstance that might also explain why this picture wasn’t such a big hit.

Mitchum was fresh off his famed drug bust for narcotics possession which ironically, far from killing his career, managed to project his image as a bad boy and a major box office draw. But Howard Hughes wanted to try and soften his image and the picture in the pipeline was Holiday Affair. It’s certainly not what we are normally accustomed to for a Mitchum vehicle. Contemporary audiences might have concluded the same.

In earlier iterations, the film was slated to star the intriguing cast of Montgomery Clift, James Stewart, and Teresa Wright. In fact, it’s interesting to note Wright could have been in the Christmas classic of two years prior, The Bishop’s Wife (1947) as well. Alas, she did not end up in either picture. Still, that should in no way dismiss what we actually received.

Although visibly quite young for the role of the widowed mother Mrs. Dennis, Janet Leigh makes it work due to a pluckiness and genuine chemistry that buoys her relationships with her on-screen son (Gordon Gebert) and both of her male counterparts (Mitchum and Wendell Corey).

What brings them all into the most curious of love triangles is a momentary interaction at the toy store. Connie Ennis is a comparative shopper a little too eager to purchase a model train and Steve Mason (Mitchum) is the employee on the other side of the counter.

Though he doesn’t say anything, he’s got her pegged. Sure enough, she comes back to return the gift but instead of reporting her he lets it slide — only asking her never to come to his department again. He subsequently gets fired and is back on the streets, biding his time in order to realize his dreams of becoming a shipbuilder in California.

Meanwhile, Connie doesn’t have an affluent lifestyle but perhaps more important than that, it’s a generally happy existence. Her husband was killed in the war, yes, but she and her son Timmy have a tight-knit relationship. They’re truly there for one another. It’s no fluke she constantly calls her pint-sized man of the house, Mr. Ennis. Because it’s true. He is the most important man in her life.

Although there is another man who is hoping for the privilege to become a part of their family. Carl (Corey) is a divorced lawyer who has long made his intentions plain to Connie. It’s just a matter of figuring out if she’s ready for marriage. And he seems like a good practical man to go through life with. Still, that isn’t everything.

Because Robert Mitchum is added to the equation and between both men, Timmy finds Steve a lot more fun and I think it’s reflected particularly well in the relaxed performance that Mitchum gives.

He’s surprisingly compelling in his scenes with the child because, again, he may have the image of a tough guy but when you watch him speak there’s no pretense. He’s not talking down to the kid. He nearly treats him as an equal or at least not in the condescending manner that adults often have. That’s the key.

The rest of the story, including the final act, doesn’t need spelling out. You probably already can gather some sense of what will unfold. But this film is a reminder that predictability isn’t king. Sure, it’s present but there are also a plethora of idiosyncratically enjoyable moments to be relished.

Among other things, they involve gaudy neckties, hobos, salt and pepper shakers, feeding orphan squirrels, and eating with the seals in the park. A delightfully ornery Henry ‘Harry’ Morgan provides a cameo at the Police Precinct that helps draw out some of the film’s more absurd digressions.

There’s a lovely marital toast and an equally awkward confession. But more than any of this there’s the realization of what family might be and what true happiness looks like during the holidays.

In an earlier moment, in typical Mitchum fashion, he taps the lady of the house on the shoulder and proceeds to kiss the surprised Connie before proclaiming “Merry Christmas.” End scene. Or on Christmas morning little Timmy springs in on his mother to wish her a “Merry Christmas” of his own. It’s these little trifles that make this a congenial outing for those craving a bit of nostalgic yuletide cheer.

3.5/5 Stars

His Kind of Woman (1951)

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A real disaster. That’s what His Kind of Woman could have easily been because with Howard Hughes meddling in any production it was very likely that something would get dragged out, lopped off, or in some way switched around.

In this case, the whole film was shot by John Farrow only for Hughes to bring in Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin) to reshoot some material as well as calling on the services of Earl Fenton for some script doctoring. Not only that, but the picture sat on shelves unreleased for at least a year. Despite Hughes’ best efforts even unintentionally, His Kind of Woman somehow still succeeds for the very fact that it is so different from many of its contemporaries.

There are moments in hindsight where you see where one thread was tied to another or one scene was inserted to make the story comprehensible. However, in its essence, this picture is not so much a product of its plot but of its characters and the tone it deems germane in any given situation.

The chemistry is sizzling hot down to the last clothes iron between Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. It’s also a contest of the sidelong glances as they both case each other’s faces with their pair of iconic eyes. One pair indifferently cool as Mitchum always was and Russell as her playfully seductive self. But this venture is as much of a farce as it a true blue film noir. More on that momentarily.

It opens in Italy where a gangster (Raymond Burr) is on the lamb still trying to figure out how to get back into the U.S. to protect his interests. Our narrator (Charles McGraw) relates the action from Italy to Mexico and then Los Angeles where we finally get a line of one of our stars. Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) is a detached gambler with few things tying him down when he receives a house call.

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The premise, on the whole, is an odd one. Mitchum goes to Morro Lodge on assignment. His orders are to wait and he gets $15,000 in advance for doing so and $50,000 total. We don’t know why he’s there but it gives us time to feel out the people who inhabit this curious getaway on a hidden inlet below the Mexican border. And it’s quite the crew aside from those already mentioned. It’s the same story for about an hour and the good news is it’s actually quite a diverting place to be.

We find out that Mitchum does have a noble side pulling a parlor trick in a game of poker that feels rather like Rick’s roulette wheel in Casablanca (1942). Then, a swacked pilot drops down at the nearby airfield. At first, it’s easy to surmise he’s a Howard Hughes caricature until you realize he’s actually a Federal Agent. Otherwise, we don’t know what we’re waiting for or even really why we’re waiting at all but in the meantime, we have some quality entertainment — a real first-rate floorshow from the stock company.

Jim Bachus is a wise-cracking real estate man who constantly searches out his latest gin rummy partner while trying to relive his old glory days out on the football field to impress the wife of another vacationer. His flabby physique and general manner do not do much to win her over. Still, he’s not a bad sort of fellow though he thinks the love life of a real estate man might make a good motion picture.

Anyways, the true attraction and the figure who causes us to stick around and truly relish the back end of His Kind of Woman is Vincent Price. He provides one of his most brilliantly wacky performances to offset any moments in the film that might give the pretense of being serious.

Mark Cardigan is batty about hunting and so enraptured with his own performances on the screen. One night he’s cooking up his duck for a nice dinner for three only to get his party disrupted by his publicity agent who also brought his estranged wife. Finally, he goes into battle spouting off Hamlet just as the film starts getting tense and someone must be spurred to action.

He’s a gung-ho hero both on the screen and off gathering the most delightfully mismatched band for his counterattack on the enemy fleet parked nearby. But to say they’re sunk before they’ve started proves too true.

What follows is a perfect collision of tones as has probably never before been captured in film noir. Though I must admit it’s a bit of a shame that Jane Russell is conceivably trapped in a closet for much of the film’s prolonged finale. She did so much to bolster the opening moments but alas Robert Mitchum is at it alone fleeing his adversary aboard a clandestine barge.

In fact, everything takes a turn toward a brutal course that feels much more like prototypical noir. However, this cannot outlast the vein of light humor and sensual chemistry that comes with the onslaught of Vincent Price and his seafaring battalion followed by a romantic reunion. Russell gets out of the closet just long enough for another sweltering exchange with Mitchum that reminds us just why she was missed.

3.5/5 Stars

Russell: What’s Out There?

Mitchum: Islands. 

Russell: Samoa and Tahiti

Mitchum: Bikini

Russell: You’re such a wise guy.