The Far Country (1954)

the far country 1.png

“I don’t need help. I don’t need people. I can take care of me.” ~ James Stewart as Jeff Webster

This Alaskan Northwestern opens and it’s almost like we’ve missed something. Jeff Webster (James Stewart) rides into a town with two men and promptly gives them back their guns and dares them to draw on him. They relent and say they’ll be back for him. To my recollection, we never see them again or if we do it doesn’t matter because for all intent and purposes this little tiff sets up all we need to know about our main character.

James Stewart continues carving out a diverging path for his screen persona thanks in part to the work of Anthony Mann and screenwriter Borden Chase. We are also treated to late period Walter Brennan playing up his future Real McCoys persona constantly yammering away idly about everything. But he’s loyal and if Webster has anything close to a friend in the whole entire world it would be Ben. He’s a good buddy.

Soon the two cattlemen are Skagway bound but this is no Hope & Crosby Road Picture as they look to make bank on their choice beef. Already Webster is a wanted man and he conveniently is given berth to hide from his pursuers. It yields a rather risque character introduction as Jimmy Stewart gets some assistance from a lovely lady (Ruth Roman) who covers for him — hiding under her sheets — spurs and all.

His next biggest faux pas is breaking up a local hanging with his herd of cattle barreling through town past the flimsy scaffolding. As he has unwittingly made a mockery of justice, Webster soon finds himself brought to court. It just so happens that the local purveyor of law and order holds court with his gavel in the local saloon. Devious and rugged-faced Judge Gannon (John McIntyre) is both chief judge and executioner. He has the clout to snatch the stock away from the perpetrator for his minor offense which he proceeds to do right quick.

As an alternative Webster is hired on to ride point for the proprietress of the Skagway Castle. They’ve already been acquainted and Rhonda’s quite the businesswoman as it turns out. She leverages her allegiance with Gannon to set up outposts in the two largest outposts in the territory. Though Webster is no less opportunistic, using this chance to round up his cattle to drive them to Dawson City for a pretty penny.

More than anyone, the plucky and pouting young red-capped Renee gives Stewart a chance to be a tease with his iconic jocularity but he’s always more condescending toward her. He makes it painfully obvious that he’s not going to fall for her nor does he feel the need for any friends.

He’s the epitome of a Lone Wolf character. The stark majesty of the icy backdrop behind him is an impeccable extension of who he is and he seems very much in his element. He’s willing to traverse roads others will not and predicts an avalanche before it hits. All with calculated detachment. He doesn’t make a habit of worrying about others.

But Gannon will not let up and he looks to muscle his way into Dawson as well seeing as he already has a major stake in Skagway. The formerly tame territory gets wilder by the hour. This sanctioned hike in lawlessness calls for a response from the peacekeepers but any of the men subsequently sworn in as Marshall have little leverage against the Judge’s guns. Their best bet is to wait until real law and order comes. Until then Gannon keeps on confiscating their stakes.

The only man who can do anything to stop them isn’t about to make the town’s problems his own. He’s made a habit of not getting involved. But there comes a point where his hand is forced and there’s no way to separate the town’s affairs and his own agenda. He must act.

Jeff rides his steed down the main street for the final showdown which looks more like an ambush. They underestimate him. To his credit, Mann strips away any final notion of the heroic mythos of the frontier with a gunfight that finds itself in the muck and the mire under a porch. True, Dawson City gets their happy ending and a renewed reputation but the film resonates far more for its besmirched brand of tenacity than for any amount of heroism. James Stewart gave up being a stereotypical protagonist years before and it pays heavy dividends once again.

4/5 Stars

 

The Window (1949)

The_window_1949.jpg
The main conceit is just too delightful to ignore. It posits the following dramatic question: What if the boy who cried wolf saw a murder being committed immediately afterward? Because that’s precisely what happens to little Tommy Woodry.

He’s one of those imaginative little boys who likes playing Cowboys and Indians while telling his contemporaries that his family has a large ranch out west where they raise horses. It all seems perfectly innocent except in close confines such stories take on a life of their own. Soon the landlord assumes that the Woodrys will be moving out shortly.

It’s not just this incident either but Tommy has a history of dreaming up all sorts of stories and wanting to teach their son good old-fashioned American values and honesty, his parents say there will be consequences if he lies again.

What happens next is so absurd and outrageous Tommy is sunk even before he’s begun. He spies the upstairs neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) take part in a grisly murder. He does the fairly logical thing and goes to wake up his mother to let her know what he witnessed. But it’s not so logical based on what has already happened.

First, she dismisses his stories as a bad dream but after he goes down to the police station to get them involved, his mother is even more alarmed. Mr. Woodry comes back home from the night shift to hear about his son’s behavior and as much as he doesn’t like to do it, he does the fatherly thing and punishes the boy.

He’s meant to stay in his room and that wouldn’t be so bad if his father didn’t work nights and his mother wasn’t called away to take care of her ailing kinfolk. Because the Kellersons know he’s been snooping around and they’re not about to be found out — especially not by an inquisitive kid. When they figure out what he knows, he’s little better than a sitting duck.

If it wasn’t obvious from the outset the picture sets itself up for a claustrophobic finale that’s quite the piece of entertainment. Rear Window is one of my favorite films and it’s hard not to draw up comparisons between the two pictures because they both utilize their limited space well and allow us to get inside the plight of our protagonist in a way that’s excruciatingly disconcerting.

For L.B. Jeffries it’s the fact that he’s trapped in a wheelchair with a purported murderer living right across the courtyard from him. In this picture, it’s that little Tommy has his freedom revoked and finds himself made prisoner in his own home with his parent’s gone because they are angry with his constant fits of fibbing.

But more so than Rear Window which is a fairly opulent picture, The Window suggest the impoverished state of the characters at the fore, living on the Lower East Side as they do. Their lives are not glamorous at home or at work. They have a tough time scraping by and it shows in their dress and how they present themselves every day.

Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale do a fine job as Tommy’s parents because they feel like decent folks, generally humble and wanting to raise their son the best way. That doesn’t make their immune to parental blunders but, nevertheless, they love their boy.

Likewise, Paul Stewart is a bit menacing and thuggish veiling it with a good-natured facade while Ruth Roman normally remembered for fairly upright roles is cast as a wife who seems more frightened by her circumstances than anything else. She’s hardly a villain but that doesn’t make her any less complicit in this whole affair.

Bobby Driscoll was on loan out from Disney and he embodies the precocious nature of a boy in a way that’s completely believable and at the very least compelling.  It’s a wonderful live-action performance to fit right alongside his voice work before his life took a tragic dive into drug addiction.

It might be an unnecessary connection to make but director Ted Tetzlaff was formerly a cinematographer and one of the films attributed to him was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from only a few years before. Hitch would come out with his home thriller in 1954. I’m still partial to the later film — it’s one of my personal favorites — but there’s no doubt The Window proves itself as a harrowing family thriller in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Strangers on the Train (1951)

Strangers_on_a_Train_-_In_the_dining_car.png

Strangers on the Train is conceived in its first few minutes of dialogue when the charismatic bon vivant Bruno (Robert Walker) ingratiates himself on tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno is a big idea-man, constantly talking and thinking and wheedling his way into other people’s lives because he does have a way about him. He makes it easy for others to like him and then they let their guard down after a row of trivial jokes and he’s got them. That is until they begin to see something else entirely in him.

In this particular instance, he schmoozes Guy’s ego. He’s a big tennis star. Bruno has read up on him and knows all about him. At first, it’s mere flattery but as the conversation continues it gets more and more unnerving. Bruno seems to know a little too much almost to the point of obsession.

Still, he manages to keep the other man’s attention just long enough to share his greatest idea — imagine for a second that two men who meet quite by chance (on a train for instance) were to trade murders — leaving no motives or connections for the authorities to trace back to the culprit. Of course, the whole idea soon falls apart if not everyone is equally invested. It doesn’t work if only one individual takes such a ludicrous idea seriously.  That’s where uneasiness begins to set in.

Robert Walker’s performance might rightly be one of the greatest performances in a Hitchcock film in terms of the sheer chill factor. He’s a psychopath, somehow misguided and tortured by issues that never truly get resolved. A great talent with so much promise was lost far too young when he died tragically the same year this film was released.

But equally important is Farley Granger’s more subdued performance, that quiet sensibility that makes him an easy target for someone as magnetic as Bruno. With another actor such as William Holden (initially considered for the part), the dynamic falls apart for sheer implausibility and as a result, the film would not function so effectively. We soon believe that a relationship such as Guy’s and Bruno’s could actually exist and that shred of reality makes the tension all the more unnerving.

Due to its foreboding cinematography courtesy of longtime Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks and Bruno hanging over Guy constantly like an expectant specter, it`s easy to trace the line of film noir sensibilities here as the darkness seeps into Guy’s picture-perfect life.

But what’s fascinating is that Bruno initially aids his newfound friend — he assists him in getting the life that he’s wanted for a long time, an existence that is respectable, complete with a beautiful woman. Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) is the daughter of a respected Senator (Leo G. Carroll) and her upbringing and general concern reflects a stark improvement in Guy’s social standing.

Is it safe to say that it’s fairly easy to harbor a crush for Roman who exudes a refined decency, even if she’s not quite Hitchcock’s icy blonde? Place her up against Guy’s opportunistic and cavorting wife and Bruno’s action could almost be considered a service. Almost… Still, Bruno spins his charisma into a deadly threat, ultimately evolving into Guy’s worst nightmare.

Meanwhile, Patricia Hitchcock sometimes feels like she is used as a plot device but nevertheless even in that aspect alone she is crucial to this story. She also doesn’t quite fit into the Morton family but her very characterization reinforces many of the themes her father is playing with often using visual language.

The most acclaimed shot for its sheer stylized perspective is the scene of Bruno’s act of murder. It’s done in only a moment, silently, and without much fanfare. The woman’s glasses fall to the ground cracked and we see the reflection of the events at hand. It’s pure Hitchcock but the entire sequence is a masterstroke in buildup.

Bruno is tracking his unsuspecting prey. He follows her into a carnival. Past the booths and the rides, by popcorn vendors, into the tunnel love and finally to a darkly lit meadow where the deed is done. But without the buildup, this continuous cutting between the man and the woman, the scene has little impact. Hitchcock gave it increased stakes bolstered by true suspense.

But what he does equally well is cross-cutting not only his two main characters but their very actions. The opening introduction showcases this contrast of personalities with Bruno and Guy. It never ceases. They’re constantly placed opposite each other intersecting and crossing each other. Yet Hitch emphasizes these conflicts visually on multiple occasions which completely justifies why his main hero was written as a tennis player.

The fact that Guy is in the thick of a match during one of the tensest segments is magnified in how the camera cuts between Guy and his opponent back and forth with the audience, line judges, and everyone else spliced in for good measure. It mirrors the very same conflict he’s still tied up in with Bruno just as the gradation of black and white reflects the good and evil that separates and at the same time connects the two men.

You can always count on Hitch to bring the goods and yet again Strangers on the Train ends with a whirling, whizzing, shrieking bit of pandemonium — a real slam-bang finish courtesy of the Master of Suspense. Over 65 years later it hasn’t lost much of its impact blending a sense of real-life spectacle with genuine thrills. And like Hitchcock’s greatest films this one works on multiple planes visually, psychologically, metaphorically, narratively, and that frees us up to enjoy it in whatever way we please. That’s the sign of a quality movie from the foremost of creators.

5/5 Stars

Champion (1949)

Champion1949filmA premier boxing film and Kirk Douglas‘s big break, Champion is in the company of other Noir such as The Killers, Body and Soul, and The Set-Up. This story is about one man’s rise to the top of the business and in his business, the blood and corruption actually show.

Douglas is Midge Kelly, a fiery nobody who is trying to make ends meet with his crippled brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy). When work at a hot dog joint falls through, Midge willingly takes some quick money sparring in the boxing ring. He’s got guts, but no skill, so he thinks that’s the end of his chances. Back to working at a Diner it is, and Midge has his eyes on the proprietor’s daughter (Ruth Roman), but then he’s forced into a shotgun wedding that he’s not too fond about.

Fed up with this kind of life, he searches out a manager so he can begin the long hard odyssey to make a name for himself as a boxer. His faithful brother Connie sticks by his side as does his manager Tom Kelly. City after city, Midge keeps knocking them out rising up the ranks until he is called on to throw a match. It’s all set, but in a brief instant, the reluctant slugger splits with the program. It’s a turning point that gets him in trouble with the big boys and yet makes him a media darling with the press. The opportunistic platinum blonde Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) realizes the tides are shifting and begins pursuing Midge.

It’s at this crossroads that Midge’s relationships begin to splinter since Diamond convinces him to take on the bigger fight manager Mr. Harris who can help catapult him to the top. The one thing Midge always had going for him was his loyalty to brother and manager, but in the pursuit of “happiness,” he lost both.

Connie returns to the home of his mother and pleads with Emma to come back with him. Their romance quietly builds as Midge’s star continues to rise. His infidelity also ascends with it. His next object after Diamond is the beautiful and more cultured Palmer Harris (Lola Albright), who also happens to be the young wife of Jerome Harris. However, he soon ditches the genuinely lovestruck girl when Harris gives him a wad a money to lay off of her. That’s the kind of man he’s become, but at least he’s Champion.

In one final effort, he tries to patch things up with Connie and Emma following the death of his mother. A rematch with Johnny Dunne is coming up and Midge hints at retirement, while also bringing Tommy back for one last hurrah. In rather predictable fashion, the fight plays out as we expect and yet as with any good noir their needs to be a little wrinkle and there is.

This film is by no means Citizen Kane, but in a sense, it is Kirk Douglas’s version of it.  Because he got the opportunity to play a character following the mold of the American Dream. He rose from the depths of poverty to become the champion of the world! And yet along the way, he became a cold-blooded, money-grubbing, scumbag who lost connection with all the people who actually cared about him. It’s the inverted American Dream — a cautionary tale on the most archetypal level. He plays Midge with the same tenacity of some of his earlier roles where he balances cold-hearted corruption with a nevertheless infectious charm.

Something else it has is a Cain and Abel type complex  — much like Force of Evil. There are the two brothers at odds, except instead of murder, there’s more of a self-destruct going on. In this respect, Connie is far from the most important character, but he is an interesting character thanks to the earnestness of Arthur Kennedy.

Also, I find it particularly interesting in terms of the women in Midge’s life. Thanks to posters I assumed Marilyn Maxwell was the main love interest, but in the film, he’s actually married to Ruth Roman’s character almost the entire film, and it seems to be Lola Albright’s character who is the only one who actually loves him. It makes for an interesting dynamic because these women are drifting in and out of his life. And he doesn’t end up with any of them. That’s the life of a Champion sometimes.

4/5 Stars

Strangers on a Train (1951) – Alfred Hitchcock

a7d8f-strangers_on_a_train_28film29In one of Hitchcock’s most intriguing thrillers, we watch events unfold as two distinctly different men meet each other. One is an unassuming tennis player and the other a wild-living rich kid. They both have the same desire though, to have someone out of their lives. With this in mind, Bruno proposes swapping murders. He will kill the tennis player’s unfaithful wife and Guy in turn will murder Bruno’s domineering father. Bruno goes ahead with the plan while Guy brushes it off and soon forgets it. Only too late does Guy find out what has happened and he is suddenly faced with a great dilemma . He does not want to commit murder but Bruno relentlessly shadows him expecting it to be done. In the final showdown the two men face off and Bruno is still adamant that he and Guy were always in it together. This film is great for many reasons, including the often unconventional cinematography, the intriguing characters who blur the line between good and evil, and of course the carousel scene at the end is always memorable. Farley Granger and Robert Walker both deliver very good performances that are probably the best of their careers.

5/5 Stars