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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

Rawhide (1951): Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward

220px-Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film).jpgThough it’s easy for this film to be overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, in retrospect, Rawhide is a spare outpost western nevertheless loaded with tension and talent. It is set against the backdrop of a network of stagecoaches transporting mail across the continental United States.

Rawhide Station is one such spot looked after by old-hand stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchannan). He has been entrusted with training up young Easterner Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), whose father is division manager of the overland mail. This is a bit of on-the-job training before he moves back to the comfort of the East.

Power is slightly past his matinee idol prime, but he can still pretty nearly fake it with his dashingly handsome good looks. Meanwhile, Buchannan is always ready to be called upon, in a pinch, to play such a scraggly type, aided by his gravel-filled throat. It gives him instant credibility.

For whatever reason, Henry Hathaway is rarely remembered as a director, but when you take stock of his work, both in westerns and noir films, he really does have quite the catalog to his name over a very prodigious career spanning decades. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols had a prominent career of us own as did cinematographer Milton Krasner. Thus, the technical credentials on the film are quite an impressive array.

But what makes Rawhide actually take as a contentious tale of the West is the rest of the cast. My, oh my, is the cast good. It’s stacked with a steady, reliable group who know their parts and play them handily. It’s tough to choose a standout.

Because Owens finds himself being held hostage by a pack of escaped convicts on the trail for gold. It just so happens a feisty young woman (Susan Hayward), toting a child back east, also has the unpleasant fortune of getting caught in their crosshairs.

This man, still fresh-behind-the-ears, is forced to grow up right quick in the face of such a dubious bunch. Hugh Marlowe plays an exceptionally perceptive bandit calling the shots, saddled by the trio of incompetents he broke out of prison with.

Jack Elam, with that wall-eyed stare of his, made a living for himself as one of the great heavies of all time, right up there with Lee Van Cleef. Because their eyes say it all. He’s the most lascivious of the bunch, prone to violent acts and leering at pretty women. Zimmerman has his hands full because while his other two cronies are older and more obedient, they’re no less dumb. Dean Jagger plays a near grandfatherly old coot while George Tobias is the scruffy foreigner Gratz.

As we settle in for the long hall, Rawhide becomes a game of survival in pursuit of incremental victories like trying to sneak S.O.S. notes to incoming travelers. Then, they manage to swipe a knife from the kitchen to begin chiseling an exit out of their room on the road to escape. All the while, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about staying alive so they can find the gun dropped out by the corrals. It’s the faintest of hopes

They are further concerned with protecting the young progeny Vinnie has vowed to take care of ever since the passing of her sister in California. It all matters because each individual piece is a single entity in this entire patchwork of cat and mouse — a chess match playing out on all sides. What hangs in the balance are the lives of all those involved. When those are the constant stakes, it’s extremely difficult to have a tedious story.

In a single instance, the tripwires start going off, and the bodies start tumbling. We hold our breath to see who will make it out alive in such a precarious showdown. It plays its hand well. Power readily accepts the challenge at hand with grit and determination, while Susan Hayward has nerves of iron packing a shotgun to finish the job.  The harrowing adventure gives us two stalwart heroes in the end.

In considering our leads, it does feel as if Power is making a concerted effort to maintain his box office pull, while Rawhide feels more like a stepping stone for Susan Hayward as her career progressed to continually more interesting parts in the 50s. But in neither case does it feel like we’re dealing with preening stars. They ably claw and fight for survival with the pack of criminals in their stead.

I will admit the way the story is bookended as just another tale along the “jackass mail” line from San Francisco to St. Louis, “Oh Susannah” playing in the background, somehow cheapens what we’ve witnessed. It seems to momentarily lose its credibility as a grind-it-out western. Maybe we can just say it’s faulty advertising and leave it at that. Otherwise, Rawhide has more in common with the lean constructions of Budd Boetticher than any kind of superficial high-adventure cowboy picture. It comes with real guts.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

 

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

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

I Want to Live! (1958): The Anomaly of Barbara Graham

220px-I_Want_to_Live!I Want to Live! calls upon the words of two men of repute to make an ethos appeal to the audience. The first quotation is plucked from Albert Camus. I’m not sure what the context actually was but the excerpt reads, “What good are films if they do not make us face the realities of our time.” This is followed up by some very official-looking script signed by Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize winner, who confirms this is a factual story based on his own journalism and the personal letters of one Barbara Graham.

So the film asserts its authenticity right off the bat before even showing an image. It’s obviously hewn out of the tradition of the real crime docudramas popular at the time. And yet with any type of project, perhaps especially those that make such a claim, we must still call details into question and take them with a grain of salt.

Director Robert Wise is at it again handily developing an environment that feels lived in, opening with dutch angles to give us a slightly disconcerting introduction to a jazzy hole-in-the-wall joint. The crime maestro is at his best when he is working with locales he can play around with and in this case, the world gives way to character.

Meeting Susan Hayward in this picture is reminiscent of meeting Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers. They’re in an upper room, a bedroom, cloaked in shadow and we know they have a tragic end in sight. Where we find them is almost as important as the characters themselves because it acts as an extension of who they are.

Graham is a different type of flawed figure who we find not in a lover’s room but some random bimbo. Though the word is never said outright, she’s undoubtedly a prostitute with police looking to nab her. This is our initial image of her, and it is telling.

However, the rest of her story is sutured together with whirling whip pans and mementos from photos to newspaper clippings to TV coverage, providing snapshots of a life through intermittent scenes. What we are given is admittedly jarring and not altogether cohesive, though one could easily concede no life is ever straightforward to piece together. So it is with this one.

Before seeing either film, I always mentally confused Caged and I Want to Live! because of the superficial similarity of women criminals behind bars. However, there is a substantial difference in Eleanor Parker who is able to lead her character through a visible transformation. With Hayward its more about reconciling and portraying the varying entities of this befuddling human being: Barbara Graham.

Soon she is styled as “Bloody Babs” by the media, initially lambasting her as a brazen killer with a past full of criminal activity and impropriety. But at least one man, Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), begins to change his tune and crusades tirelessly for her innocence. His help, along with the support of a benevolent psychologist (Theodore Bikel), just might turn the tide. Maybe…

Again, the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the mimetic world that has been evoked because to recall the Camus quote, “Here is the reality of our time, and we have no right to be ignorant of it. The day will come when such documents will seem to us to refer to prehistoric times.”

The people (including a young Gavin MacLeod), their clothing, the interiors of rooms, the press, and the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, are all touchstones of some kind. There’s always something we can learn from each even as we must be suspect of how authentic they really are.

Thus, the real star is the direction, featuring some of the most visual flourishes I recall in a Wise picture, further complemented by the jazzy scoring of Johnny Mandel. But its all elemental in creating a backdrop for the story.  Black & White serves Wise particularly well.

The final act initially stalls because the story is played from a waiting game angle, trying to ratchet the tension, although the ending is an already foregone conclusion. Everyone is waiting around. I would have thought the ending would go to Susan Hayward. Because until those foreboding final moments, her character hardly feels established even after all we have witnessed. But sometimes one scene can be galvanizing and emblematic of an entire picture.

However, this is not a boisterous exclamation point but an oddly entrancing death scene and this seemingly purposeful decision proves consistent with most of the picture. It foregoes dramatic and visual hyperbole for leaner more understated beats that bear markers of truthfulness. In the end, life doesn’t go out with an explosion but a drop off into somber nothingness.

With such a conclusion we certainly feel sorry for Barbara Graham. However, I’m not sure if we can completely empathize with her. Nevertheless, like any such high stakes story, I Want to Live! calls into question the American justice system, the death penalty, and our understanding of guilt in this country. So was Graham guilty or innocent? I would have to do more outside research to corroborate the facts though the film implies its own position quite overtly.

Regardless, maybe the picture is about larger themes altogether. Issues that go deeper still into the very fabric of how we enact justice, how we perceive it in the media, and even socially, how certain people seem to get raked over the coals.

Why Barbara Graham? Why not someone else? Why like this? It’s an issue that goes beyond superficial terms like good or bad. As a people, I think we are fascinated by individuals who are layered anomalies not to be understood with a cursory glance. Barbara Graham seems like such a person. We cannot write her off with a convenient stereotype.

3.5/5 Stars

Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

House of Strangers (1949)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.

It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.

Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.

As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.

Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.

Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.

In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.

If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.

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Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.

The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.

Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).

On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…

However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.

Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.

The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.

Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.

3.5/5 Stars

They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

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We open in a courtroom and with a flashback but what’s stunning is that the man relating the information is on the witness stand and also the defendant in a murder trial. So much hangs in the balance of the perspective he’s about to disclose and that’s how the picture nabs us. Often there’s no import to the use of voiceover. It’s only a stylistic choice or a bit of lazy storytelling utilized without a great deal of forethought. This testimony actually matters.

The man in question is one Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). His Saturday afternoons most recently have been spent in the company of his “Skipper” Janice Bell (Jane Greer) and their relationship is full of good humor. You can see it on their faces that they enjoy each other’s company tremendously. But he has a wife of 5 years. It’s the old story. He’s only realizing now when another woman comes into the picture that he never really loved Helen (Rita Johnson), marrying her instead for her healthy endowment. She’s quite rich.

We can discern already a tale of adultery is in the works as Larry plans to break the news to his wife and leave with Janice for Montreal though the other woman wants no part of being a homewrecker. Still, Helen loves him dearly and tries to do everything to salvage their marriage so Larry relents and vows to stay with her. He ditches Janice without even a word of goodbye.

But he’s a man with a pathological problem and although his wife has set him up with a cushy job, he’s already up to his philandering ways again. One day his alluring secretary (Susan Hayward) saves his neck with the boss and starts to flirt with him. It begins again. Secluded cafes. Hidden spots — a game of “hide and seek with fate” as Larry so aptly puts it. He’s hardly phased by Virna’s admission to being a gold digger and while Helen vows never to divorce him, he plans to clean out their joint checking account and run off with Virna.

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Up to this point, They Won’t Believe Me is an engaging albeit straightforward tale of infidelity but then it goes wildly out of control as Larry’s life careens off the tracks. He leaves his wife a note with no forwarding address as he goes off with his latest gal toward fateful consequences. Later, he winds up meeting an understandably aloof Janice again in Jamaica of all places. He is clearing his head. It’s unclear how she got there. But it’s yet another prime example, to evoke Detour (1945), of how so often fate can put the finger on you. There’s no chance of getting away from it.

There’s also the sense this is a picture and a version of film noir that is akin to the common everyday circumstances of James M. Cain’s crime novels. But this is spun in such a way where we still have empathy for our perpetrator. The same can hardly be said of Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

However, the moral ambiguity is still very much apparent to the final moment when an explosive action twists up the narrative threads in such a way that’s meant to evoke some form of cognitive dissonance. How are we suppose to respond to it all?

Because the film’s title is almost beside the point. It’s one of those lurid melodramatic billboard toppers meant to make you look up and take notice. But as per usual, it doesn’t actually get to the core themes of the film nor does it really matter. Whether or not he is believed is an arbitrary issue. Larry might as well have been a killer. This is the quintessential role (aside from The Mortal Storm) if you are looking for something to subvert your view of Robert Young as the world’s perfect father. Here he’s the perfect cad.

They Won’t Believe Me also deserves note for its producer Joan Harrison who began as Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary and eventual co-screenwriter before she became one of the pioneering female producers in Hollywood and a great one at that.

This picture can be added to an illustrious list of noirs including The Phantom Lady (1943) and Ride The Pink Horse (1947). Perhaps her influence is most obviously felt in the fact that our female characters have a rather refreshing resonance. Though they might be unfairly used and manipulated there’s a certain traction to the roles that give them an extra dimension often lacking in other works. Each performance adds something of value to the picture.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: The reissued version of They Won’t Believe Me put out in 1957 was cut down to 80 minutes.