4 Film Noirs for National Classic Movie Day

I would love to get more well-versed in international film noir, and I already have a handful of films on my watchlist once I can get a hold of them. However, being a lover of classic American noir, I wanted to try to dig a little deeper for some recommendations.

Following are four films that I watched over the last few years. They all resonated with me while also exemplifying why film noir remains my favorite style/movement/genre, or whatever you wish to call it. Hopefully, you find them enjoyable!

Happy Classic Movie Day to all and thanks again to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having us!

The Locket (1946):

This might be the highest-profile film on my list. John Brahm had a noir pedigree worth adulation thanks to period delights like The Lodger and Hangover Square starring Laird Cregar. Although it’s brought into the modern arena, The Locket is little different in terms of thrills giving Laraine Day the most psychologically destructive performance of her career.

Her ebullient femme fatale with a fit of kleptomania effectively upturns the life of every man in her path with an unknowing banefulness. An up-and-coming Robert Mitchum gets tossed out of the picture unceremoniously in an uncharacteristic end while Brian Aherne’s good doctor also falls under her charms most unwittingly.

What’s so delicious about the film is how it leads with this veneer of a drawing-room comedy or a chipper rom-com only to take an unremitting dive into the dark pool of noir psychology as it slices through her shadowy past. True to form, Day leaves a path of destruction in her wake all while maintaining a perfectly scintillating smile over a fractured psyche.

The Well (1951)

Russell Rouse was a recent discovery for me and The Well felt like a quiet revelation of a film. It seems to fit the mold of 50s noir as the era breeds a greater attempt at post-war realism and a concern for the social issues at hand. The Well is one of the few films of the era to court a fairly groundbreaking dialogue on racial unrest and what’s more, it also showcases some fine performances.

When a little girl is lost in the titular well, it triggers the concerns of her parents. Her father is played by Ernest Anderson, who had a groundbreaking role in Bette Davis’s This is Our Life, although he rarely garnered much attention after that. It shows the dearth of space allocated in the industry for talented black actors. The Well feels like some small recompense.

Harry Morgan (a childhood favorite from MASH) also plays a crucial role as a man suspected in the girl’s disappearance. The movie’s core tension feels profoundly relevant over 70 years later, but the miraculous thing is how a powder keg of a noir becomes the foundation for solidarity. It evolves into an anti-Ace in The Hole — more balm than inflammatory indictment.

Crashout (1955)

If you want to survey a plethora of film noir’s finest malcontents, you only have to look over the cast of Crashout. The picture stars Arthur Kennedy and William Bendix with support from William Talman, Gene Evans, Luther Adler, and Marshall Thompson. Each is an escaped convict, and we watch their harrowing path, not simply breaking out of prison (that happens over the credits), but subsequently as they decide how to proceed.

They bide their time in a cave, resolve to recover a load of stolen money, and make their way out in the open as wanted fugitives. Any civilian who comes in contact with them is thrown into immediate danger, and yet it feels like a rather prescient picture because it puts us into the camp of the men who are normally framed as the antagonists.

There’s in-fighting and they have time to fall in love. Beverly Michaels turns up as a pretty hostage who they seek asylum with (It’s the complete antithesis of her image in Wicked Woman). But I was surprised by how merciless and unflinching the movie was for the 1950s. It caught me off guard on multiple occasions, and it feels like a truly unsung prison break noir.

The Burglar (1957)

As one of film noir’s preeminent cronies, it’s always a pleasure to watch Dan Duryea get more time in the limelight front and center. He did star in a bevy of minor classics in the dark genre like Black Angel, The Underworld Story, and Chicago Calling. The Burglar should be added to this list. He’s the leader of a pack of criminals who execute a tense heist on the vault of an opulent mansion in the dead of night. Nothing goes wrong per se, but much of the pervading drama comes with waiting out the aftermath.

There’s something always arresting and off-kilter about the visual geography of the film as conceived by director Paul Wendkos. It feels both grungy and deeply atmospheric with a myriad of human contours leading us all the way to the rickety boardwalks of Atlantic City.

Duryea is a fine protagonist joined by a fairly unadorned Jayne Mansfield still on the precipice of her success as a Hollywood bombshell. However, for noir enthusiasts, one of the most fascinating inclusions might be Martha Vickers playing a cultured more mature femme fatale a decade after The Big Sleep. Since the majority of her work in the 40s feels mostly innocuous, it was a welcomed discovery to see a return to form for her in a sense.

Honorable Mentions: Night Editor, Desperate, 711 Ocean Dr., Wicked Woman, Shield for Murder, The Crimson Kimono

Note: A previous version incorrectly mentioned the boardwalk of Coney Island, not Atlantic City, so I updated it. 

The Locket (1946): Laraine Day and Splintering Psychology

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“Have you ever done this before?” – Robert Mitchum as Norman Clyde

“No. I’ve never stolen anything in my life.” – Laraine Day as Nancy

We’re met by a wedding with all the trimmings. It’s a well-to-do affair and Laraine Day looks quite dazzling. Her groom (Gene Raymond) is high on his good fortune in finding such a spectacular bride, introducing her to the aunts and uncles. Taken at face value, it’s a suitable development for a drawing-room comedy.

However, the perceptive viewer will note the presence of two very telling names in the opening credits. They are director John Brahm (The Lodger & Hangover Square) along with Nicholas Musuraca, who helped define the shadowy compositions of RKO Studios all throughout the 40s.

If anything, it suggests that what we’ve seen up to this point is mere pretense, an ebullient calm before the storm, until the past comes crashing through to wreak havoc. Sure enough, a grim, well-spoken psychiatrist (Brian Aherne) walks into the man’s study for a quick word. He’s comes bearing some doom to drop on the deliriously happy groom’s lap.

It lends the injection of noir sentiment we’ve been waiting for with bated breath supplying a flashback to go with it. Dr. Harry Blair recounts how, in his distant more jovial past, he wound up crashing bicycles with Nancy (Day). From then on, they were all but destined to be lovers.

It’s in these interludes where it becomes apparent Nancy is not altogether unlike Laura (Gene Tierney’s character) not because of her mental state so much as this perfectly bewitching aura she is allowed to cast over the frames of the film. Although this makes it sound too manicured; still, it’s true between the scoring, photography, and Day’s own vibrant, fully alluring performance, it’s difficult not to be swayed by the captivating energy.

The cute buoyancy carrying the opening replicates itself in this prelude as Nancy and the good doctor plan a deliriously happy future together. And yet screenwriter Sheridan Gibney brazenly interrupts the gaiety again. This time it is none other than Robert Mitchum interrupting the matrimonial euphoria with his own futile warning — yet another couched deja vu moment to follow the others.

As a matter of fact, in a spectacular move, The Locket utilizes no less than three couched flashbacks involving the three men, layered on top of one another, and each making the same mistakes as the man before them, caught in a deadly cycle…I wouldn’t recommend it to budding screenwriters, but here the commitment’s rather impressive.

This is one of the first great Mitchum performances establishing his world-wearied embodiment of the noir hero — smoking a cigarette, coat upturned in the falling snow — and he’s only one of the supporting figureheads.

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Norman Clyde (Mitchum) is a fairly successful artist, not a sterling success but talented and proud; he’s not about to take flak from anyone. After he gets off on the wrong foot with a woman in his studio, he starts obsessing over the girl. He can’t get her out of his head and wouldn’t you know, she’s holed up in the same Italian restaurant he always frequents. They make amends, of course, and their resulting relationship looks eerily similar to the glimpses we’ve already been granted. Nancy’s deliriously happy with her man of choice. There are no visible blemishes in sight.

However, the fragments and wisps of story keep on fading into one another. It’s so exquisitely rendered by the camera, in particular, when Mitchum and Day go into the recesses of their own personal recollections.

The striking similarities with Laura or even Woman in the Window become even more obvious due to the art angle — the enchanting portrait of a woman — because it does create this meta sense of the woman in the art both painted and photographed on celluloid. It allows her this sense of being out of body — almost otherworldly to the viewer — existing in this illusory state we must come to terms with. In one sense, it’s hard to shake the image of her. Nancy is no different.

One turning point is at a fancy dinner party. Shots ring out and Clyde sees Nancy exit a room frantically. A maid comes, and they hide down the hallway slinking away. Musuruca captures the instantaneous decisions with a fluid ease. We don’t realize it at the time, but it’s a crucial moment teasing out a bit more about Nancy — about her past secrets — and who she is as a person.

My only qualm is with Mitchum’s exit. It serves the story best, otherwise, he would continue to steal the show, but it certainly does not gel with his soon-to-be cultivated image. Alas, it is what it is.

Next, remember the doctor also had his chance with Nancy. They go off to England to stay at a stately manor to get away from the intensity of the Blitz. However, the accusations he’s heard about his wife start to burrow into his mind, so much so he can’t get rid of them.

Surely the rumors can’t be true! Because Nancy is so warm and genial, hardly begrudging or showing malice toward any of her past suitors. In fact, she downplays every interaction she’s ever had with any of them. As if they were nothing. As if the man she’s with right now is the only man she’s ever loved.

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The extraordinary nature of Day’s character is how she is not a femme fatale — at least not in the traditional sense. They’re always two-timing and deceitful. With Nancy, at face value, you get none of that, and yet it’s not to say she’s not without her flaws. In a strange way, there are two sides to her as well.

She calls others out for being guarded, cynical, and suspicious, and yet she can often be found doubting everyone else’s motives even as she’s retroactively smoothing over her own. There’s the convenient compartmentalization of all the prior relationships into their individual spaces and the projecting of her issues onto others. It hints at something. Still, there must be a tipping point.

Then, we’re whipped back to the present. The wedding march in all its pomp becomes offset and infiltrated by the tinkling of a music box, like the memories slowly overtaking Nancy’s psyche. These latter moments turn into some of the most evocative sequences of montage in recent memory with all the weight of memory, trauma, and guilt flooding Nancy in the form of all the people she knew. There is no space to keep them apart and so they crush her under the weight, her mind totally fractured as she tumbles to the floor.

In a fit of irony, I couldn’t help but continually be reminded of the contemporary Frank Sinatra tune, “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” It’s a startling juxtaposition with what we’ve just witnessed, a swelling, unnerving, engrossing exhibition in splintering psychology.

Laraine Day gives an absolutely unforgettable performance — easily the best of her career — and Brahm continues his run of moody melodramas with suffocating environs. The Locket doesn’t hold an instant appeal from the outside looking in, but once you get inside, it’s a bedeviling little gem of a film — as tantalizing as the trinkets so enrapturing to Nancy. There’s one major difference: we can enjoy this one without debilitating consequences.

4/5 Stars

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): Robert Mitchum Shows His Chops

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Charles M. Schultz was one of the great memorializers of WWII in that he kept events like the D-Day invasion or the art of Bill Maudlin in the public forum for as long as Peanuts was syndicated. If I remember correctly, it was also through his strip I first became aware of the name Ernie Pyle.

It’s not too far of a stretch to think the former Sergeant Schultz (who saw action in Europe) eventually saw this movie because, before he ever penned a frame of Peanuts, this was the first homage, not necessarily just to Pyle, but also to the soldier that he chronicled for the folks at home.

We jump right in with a truck loaded with men being hauled to the front where the action is. Not only do they pick up a furry passenger, they take on a civilian as well because Pyle (Burgess Meredith) is intent on getting as close to the epicenter of the action as possible. He wants material bearing an authentic mark.

The man who agrees to let him aboard is none other than Robert Mitchum, their scraggily and sleepy-eyed leader, who never seems to be perturbed. As a related consideration, it becomes intriguing to chart his early career with all his bit parts as soldiers finally leading to a heftier role. These included his blink and you’ll miss it cameos only a couple years prior, in everything from The Human Comedy to Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. What followed were stepping stones like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and finally, The Story of G.I. Joe.

It doesn’t feel so much as we are seeing Mitchum transformed into his future persona. He appears unflappable as much off-screen as he is on. It’s more so a matter of Hollywood realizing who he was and what compelling qualities he brought to the lead. Certainly, he’s masculine; he has a handsome, distinctive face, but there is something more to him. It’s the suggestion of not caring about any of the distractions around him. This underlying coolness in any manner of situations. It all catered to his future stardom at RKO.

But back to the trenches. Although we get Artie Shaw out on the front, the production also ladles on the dramatic diegetic scoring a little too thickly when they experience their first casualty. We know the import of the moment only to get clubbed over the head with it just to make absolutely certain it didn’t escape us.

Otherwise, the film causes us to brush up against the elements in an immersive even dispiriting manner courtesy of cinematographer Russell Metty. You begin to live vicariously through the platoon and understand their daily struggles. This is The Story of G.I. Joe at its most effectual, succeeding in precisely what Pyle was striving to do. We get a tactile sense of his life’s work as a war correspondent.

Day after day, company C, 18th Infantry makes its way across Italy. All sorts of men, big and small, fill up their ranks. Freddie Steele, coming off his intriguing turn in Hail The Conquering Hero, is no less watchable here as a grizzled soldier intent on finding a victrola so he can hear his son’s voice. It’s the sole shred of home, keeping him sane in the chaotic world he’s subjected to day in and day out. Many of the others aren’t so lucky, more or less lacking his indefatigable brand of grit. The mental toll is high for all parties.

I know it’s set in a different country but with the rubble, bell tower, infantry, and tanks rolling across the grounds I couldn’t help thinking of the midsection of Saving Private Ryan because The Story of G.I. Joe, as one of its precursors, documents the life of the common man as well as the skirmishes he’s subjected to.

They systematically take down a pair of Germans lurking behind the debris to clear the area. Later, one of their company (John R. Reilly) has an impromptu wedding ceremony in the bombed-out premises — Pyle being tapped to give the bride away. A little over a decade later Stanley Kubrick would end up marrying his wife who appeared in his seminal war movie Paths of Glory. William Wellman cut out the middle man, so to speak, by having his wife (Dorothy Noonan Wellman) in an uncredited role as the nurse who weds the G.I.

Without resting on their laurels, they are tasked with taking a new position. It’s ruled over by a monastery — a religious relic the enemy have conveniently fashioned into an impregnable observation post; they won’t give up the ground. What’s worse, the hesitant allies won’t bomb the building. We’ve reached an impasse until human life finally takes precedence over maintaining ancient artifice. As it should.

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The holidays come, and it’s a drab affair, men clinging to dreams of the family and food back home — from turkey to cranberry sauce. Of course, they aren’t granted such amenities where they are so all they have are their private memories. In between the barrage of artillery fire, one of the company’s members (Wally Cassell) picks Pyle’s brain about his time in Hollywood. For a brief solitary moment, he drools over starlets like Carole Landis; it removes him from his current reality of muck and mire.

Christmas might be a complete wash if not for their commanding officer scrounging them up some turkey and a bit of wine as they slog through the perpetually miserable conditions. They manage a bit of yuletide cheer in spite of the bleak landscape around them.

It feels less like propaganda in the typical sense or at least it’s all the more effective as an empathy picture, putting us in the boots of the soldier so we get a feel for the lives they lead out on the front. You begin to realize how extraordinary they are in their very ordinariness.

Ernie Pyle winning the Pulitzer is like a drop in the can. It feels so inconsequential in the face of all they have gone through together, but the beauty is Pyle has gone through it with them. They have mutual solidarity in the thick of this continual absurdity.

On Christmas evening, after a typically long day, he sits down with the leader of the pack and pulls out one last turkey leg from under his jacket.  He picks off any fuzz and partakes in the delicacy. It’s a much-appreciated gesture. They trade off taking swigs of Italian moonshine scattered with conversation.

The most revealing revelation is the sergeant’s agitation of having to write the families of every young man who gives his life. In some queer way, he feels like a murderer, and it rankles him to see every new fresh-faced recruit who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. There’s a helplessness in him and yet it’s his job to keep them together, so he does the best he can under the deplorable conditions.

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This scene might be the most meaningful impression we get of Mitchum as a human being because he’s a believable G.I.b but here we see his honest chops as an actor. It’s no coincidence that this is the picture helping him transition to stardom.

The ending continues in this manner, offering up a melancholy denouement that feels like one of the more candid depictions of wartime reality. Where the war rolls on no matter what happens. It cannot wait up for the story of a film to catch up.

Of course, Ernie Pyle would never live to see the finished film, which he actually served as a technical advisor on. He was too busy continuing his work in Okinawa where he was killed by an enemy machine gun. It’s a tragic detail, but it makes The Story of G.I. Joe all the more pertinent. If anything, it gets the truth behind Ernie Pyle’s writing, both his life and his death, right. It is the ultimate tribute to the man who tried to get the stories out of everyday heroes back to the reading public sitting in their living rooms.

3.5/5 Stars

“I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That all together we will try out of the memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that a never great war can never again be possible and for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do but perhaps murmur: Thanks, pal. Thanks…”

~ Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): WWII Written by Dalton Trumbo

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“One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here.”

It’s easy enough to lump Air Force and Destination Tokyo with this subsequent film because we have the impediment of years between us. We have yet another cast rallied around a star; this time it’s Spencer Tracy leading the charge, as the pragmatic James Doolittle, on a highly confidential mission that would be known to future generations as the Doolittle Raids.

In the contemporary moment, if they had enough time and/or money an audience would possibly have a much easier time differentiating because each picture took on a slightly unique facet of the war. Air Force is all but a flying fortress in the days leading up to and directly following Pearl Harbor. Destination Tokyo is about the recon needed for the Doolittle Raid. 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is a bit like the triumphant exclamation point or at least the start of one.

The work wasn’t done for the Allies but it was a sign of forward progress. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can fill in the open-ended conclusion. We know V-J Day eventually happened only a year later. Consequently, it was also deemed one of the more accurate war pictures as far as military details go.

Much of Tracy’s time is spent as a no-nonsense observer of what is going on. The rest of his performance feels like it’s made up of monologues and yet, as is normally the case, he’s so candid and earnest when he delivers them. He quickly draws the moviegoer in just as he does with all the crew members under his command. It’s the magic he has over a rapt audience to the point you believe every word he says.

Otherwise, Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is pretty much our lead. I know he’s not much of an emoter, but he might as well be our stand-in for the American G.I. For the time being, he is surrounded by a bevy of compatriots including Robert Walker, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum, among others. They all raise their hands when it comes to volunteering for a top-secret mission.

There’s an electricity in the air as they prepare for news of their assignment even as they are warned that they will be pushed to the limit of their capabilities and then some. The utmost secrecy is maintained and their training is commenced in earnest. The work is hard and they play hard after.

One of the crowd is a goofy down-home caricature portrayed by John R. Reilly. He can be found pounding away to the rhythms of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the barracks, intent on any merriment he can muster during off-hours. Meanwhile, the crew of the self-proclaimed Ruptured Duck becomes proficient in their new skill set.

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In his free time, Lawson (Johnson) looks to get all the time in with his beaming wife as possible. Though Phyliss Thaxter glows with utter radiance in every scene, it does feel a bit overly twee at times.

Since a group of the fellas have their brides with them, they get together to dance, finding solidarity in songs like “Deep in The Heart of Texas” and a Hollywood mainstay, “Auld Lange Syne.” It’s especially effective for wringing out every last drop of emotion. Wives tearfully cling to their husbands for the last time, knowing that they will soon be separated for who knows how long.

Sure enough, the men get their assignment after coming aboard an aircraft carrier. They will be paying a visit to Tokyo by air and the anticipation sets in even as the flyers all look a bit like fish out of water (on the water). Regardless, it becomes a perfect excuse to play up the camaraderie between the army and the navy away from the football field. They’ve got a job to do, and they’ll do it together.

Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson share a most curious conversation lounging on the prow of the boat, staring off into the darkness. One can only imagine it is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo speaking — not in propaganda but humanity.

First, Johnson offers up how his mom had a Jap gardener once who seemed like a nice fellow. Mitchum says he doesn’t like ’em, but he doesn’t hate ’em either. They agree you get mixed up sometimes. Where are they going with this meandering interchange?

The answer: Trumbo’s brand of what might be most precisely termed “American progressivism.” Some rationale must be proposed for what is at hand and so he does his best. Though it foregoes demonizing the enemy, it takes an alternative path with the same conclusion. It’s the most rational progression. Drop a bomb on them or they’ll be dropping a bomb on Ellen or loved ones like her. It’s highly practical even as it remains problematic.

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Still, the gears are turning. They have their final briefing with Doolittle and agree to meet in Chungking for the biggest party they’ve ever seen. In reality, the moment of truth really does feel like little more than thirty seconds. When they hit the mainland a flurry of Japanese Zeroes fly over, only to pass them by without notice, moving on with their normal patrol. It’s a lucky break.

They end up dropping their loads on the designated targets with efficiency. It’s the aftermath where things get a bit dicier, not so much due to the enemy but weather conditions. The Ruptured Duck is forced to bail out, sustaining injuries, and rescued by Chinese locals under bleak conditions.

Though poorly resourced and kept on the run by impending Japanese, the Chinese are held aloft as loyal Allies ready to aid in this joint cause against the Japanese. It becomes so intriguing how they become such sympathetic figures. Two close-ups come to mind. The Chinese characters are not kept at arm’s length. We are given a chance to study their faces. It’s maybe not a lot, but it’s something. The juxtaposition between the Chinese station versus the Japanese is made supremely obvious.

So while Thirty 30 Over Tokyo has understandably been lauded for a certain level of historical accuracy, there is still a necessity to parse through its stances as a cultural artifact. Like any film, it is a product of its times and a tribute to the minds behind it, whether Mervyn LeRoy or Dalton Trumbo. Each man no doubt had his own agenda, be it bugetary or ideological.

To that point, the picture is framed by a corny romantic crescendo that’s difficult to take seriously. Otherwise, it an intermittently rewarding portrait of a specific time in WWII history. It’s difficult to remake a movie such as this without losing some of its inherent credibility.

3.5/5 Stars

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 ride on unimpeded as he prowls around for a local tyrant named Holman.

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. As added complication, 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 even as 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 with a dose of gallantry. 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 fully resonant.

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 of 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