The Three Musketeers (1948)

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The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

Patterns (1956)

Patterns_FilmPosterPatterns has little right to be any good. It takes place almost exclusively in interiors. Boardrooms, offices, hallways, at desks, and in elevators. But thanks to a fantastic teleplay from Twilight Zone mastermind Rod Serling, this little picture exceeds the meager expectations placed on it. In fact, it was a major hit when it came out as a live television drama, so successful that it was performed a second time and subsequently developed into this film version.

The plot on its own is ridiculously simple. Ramsey and Co. is a major business corporation housed in a 40 story highrise in New York City with bellboys, secretaries, intercoms, and every convenience imaginable. Really the whole nine yards.

The company’s head is the ruthless Mr. Ramsey (Everett Sloane) who inherited the empire from his late father and has subsequently looked to increase the companies fortunes in the very growing and competitive market at hand. Impressed with the acumen of a small town but nevertheless, shrewd businessman named Staples, Ramsey has the up and comer brought in to bring fresh ideas to the table. Immediately he confirms his previous assumptions that Staples is intelligent, assertive, and a genuine asset.

However, after an initially warm welcome to the company with all the pleasantries exchanged and the like, Staples gets his taste of the companies board meetings. It’s a place where wars are waged and Ramsey looks to continually exert his dominance on the company in an effort towards ever increasing progress. But there’s one man who is constantly at odds with Ramsey or at the very least disillusioned. After all, he’s worked with Ramsey long enough. He knows what the man is capable of and what he will not allow.

Year after year he has brought suggestions and compromises before Ramsey on behalf of the welfare of their workers only to be quashed by Ramsey’s own ruthless initiative and unfeeling business practices that idolize a dollar over anything else. Although Briggs (Ed Begley) is still around and he’s aided by his faithful secretary Ms. Fleming, his health is failing and his home life with his young son has suffered greatly due to years of chronic workaholism.

There’s also an impending sense of doom that hangs over the plot. It’s hard to put a finger on just what it is exactly but there’s no doubting that something insidious is going on in the background. It’s that precise wrinkle that most overtly suggests that this is a story from Serling’s ever innovative mind. It’s far more than it’s simple face value.

And really the underlying tension of the film–the ensuing drama that leads to be verbal, interpersonal, and psychological torment, all falls on the film’s three main leads and they shoulder the weight capably. Everett Sloane, best remembered for Citizen Kane now has ice flooding his veins giving a near maniacal performance which he somehow still tempers with passing moments of goodwill and personability. Ed Begley could always be counted on in supporting roles and this is perhaps his most stirring and tragic performance as we watch him falter. Fielder Cook is an adequate if not remarkable director but in his most interesting shot, he chooses to allow the audience to see the world as Bill Briggs does in his most vulnerable moment.

Van Heflin,  also delivers another solid performance opposite his compatriots as our ambitious every man who nevertheless gets caught up in politics. Looking to keep his wife happy and especially Mr. Ramsey while still not losing grasp of his ideals. In many ways, he’s acting as the fulcrum with Ramsey and Briggs on either end seesawing back and forth on this corporate battlefield. It’s up to the audience to gather which way he’ll go. Still, by the end of the film, the verdict is still out on where he stands on this moral plane.

But it all goes back to Serling’s rousing dialogue because despite the stagnant nature of most every scene they still manage to be vibrant and impassioned. The closest approximation in recent memory is a script like Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. Patterns likewise showcases how quality screenwriting can bolster a film to great heights.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Prowler (1951)

the-prowler-1The whole thing turned on a freak accident. You’ve got to believe that Susan.

The Prowler doesn’t waste a moment of time with its opening credits as we are privy to a woman shrieking from within her bathroom. Why is fairly obvious. There’s a voyeuristic prowler on the loose and the police must be called on the scene. The men on call are Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) the discontent young gun and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) the genial veteran. They search the premises, meet the flustered gal (Evelyn Keyes) and leave her be with no signs of a prowler remaining.

In fact, from that moment onward the prowler is only a phantom, a figment of the imagination, a convenient scapegoat. But blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo also cleverly uses this “person” to move his story forward seamlessly. The stage has been set. Our young cop has his interest piqued. Here is a beautiful, seemingly lonely woman and he can be her knight in shining armor. He’s taken by her and drops in on her with the pretense of monitoring her safety. In such a way, the narrative progresses into a love affair and an adulterous one at that. Because Susan Gilvray is married to the man who is always on the other end of the radio (ironically voiced by Trumbo himself sneaking his way into the film). He talks to her from far off and rather like the eponymous prowler, he too seems an almost otherworldly phantom haunting both Webb and his girl in their deceit.

It becomes obvious soon enough that Webb is the most crooked cop on record as he sets up a scenario that is tragic and he casts himself as a victim of circumstance. But it’s all orchestrated in such a way that Susan is free of her marriage and Webb receives the sympathies of the general public in the ensuing court proceedings. Soon after the drama has subsided, the pair of clandestine lovebirds turn around and get hitched. The next stop on their journey together is out to the desert as the action gets transplanted. Webb is keen on running a hotel and seeing a bit of the desolate country his former partner was always touting.

It’s in this back half where director Joseph Losey is able to develop his second major locale the ghost town of Calico which becomes the stark backdrop for the final act. It’s in such a setting where the couple looks to flee their misdeeds but they’re already so far gone, caught up in a lie that they cannot hope to mitigate. And that’s the tragedy. Webb cannot help to give up the lie even even with the love that he has found. Worst of all, it never was love at all.

Van Heflin was mostly an earthy, rough-hewn sort of actor but in the Prowler he’s surprisingly slimy and it’s a joy to watch him in that kind of role. Meanwhile, Evelyn Keyes is quite pretty and evocative but there’s almost a weary gauntness to her that’s hard to pinpoint. It hints a little bit at the hollowness and fleeting aspect of this romance that initially enraptures her but leaves her disillusioned. Also, the fact that Webb is surrounded by chummy average Joes like Bud and the dead man’s brother (Emerson Treacy), it just becomes more obvious how corrupted he is. Because it’s these real square, true blue individuals who willingly vouch for his character when he has none. They trust him completely when there’s nothing but deceit within him.

Dalton Trumbo is certainly ripping a few pages out of the likes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he does a master class job to the glory of the B pictures. And he really only seems to falter once. Although it’s a major plot point, a turning point, it somehow hurts the film that we see Susan’s husband in the flesh. It’s only for an instance, but in that instance, he loses that phantom quality. He’s real and far from being haunting, the fact that we know him, makes this story sad really. In the end, we realize The Prowler in the expected sense, never existed. It was all an apparition, a figment of the imagination, simply utility for one man’s avarice.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Shane (1953)

shane1Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the looming Tetons lend the same iconic majesty to this western that Monument Valley does for many of Ford’s best pictures. But then again, George Stevens was another master and he too was changed by the war, coming back with a different tone and an “American Trilogy” that included some of his best work. Shot in Technicolor, this picture boasts more than wide open spaces and raw Midwestern imagery. Stevens has some wonderfully constructed sequences and there are a number of great characters to inhabit them.

Shane is the eponymous gunman who is content to linger in the background while others become the focal point. Namely, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a man who came to the untamed land due to the Homestead Act and won’t let the rancher Stryker muscle them off the land that he believes is rightfully theirs. Despite this being her final film — and a favor to her previous collaborator Stevens — Jean Arthur is as wonderful as ever. The character Marian is brimming with goodness and a sensitivity that is hard to discount. It’s a part very different than her earlier work and yet she plays it so wonderfully. As for newcomer Brandon De Wilde, he’s an astute little actor and we really see this world through his eyes, so he does wonders to hold the story together.

Grafton’s general store and saloon become a wonderful arena of conflict within the film because it is rather like Ryker’s stomping ground since he and his men can always be found lounging around there when they aren’t terrorizing some poor sodbuster. After he agrees to work for Starrett, Shane goes into town for new duds, leaving his gun behind, and he quickly learns what he’s in for. It’s in such a scene that we learn who this man really is. He’s not a hot-head and he initially takes the abuse of Stryker’s guns, who call him out for purchasing soda pop. It’s for the boy Joey, but he doesn’t have to say that, because he needs not prove himself, at least not yet. Also, the relationship between Shane and Marian might be troubling to some — will they fall for each other — but when Ryker makes insinuations about Starrett’s wife, Shane is quick to shut him up. He’s not that kind of man. When Shane does return to the store, he’s prepared this time for retaliation and although it might not have been the smartest thing, it sure is gratifying for him and for the audience. He and Starrett make a killer team, after all, beaten and bruised as they end up.

shane2What follows is retribution from Stryker as he tries to buy out, threaten, and continually lean on the sodbusters, but Starrett remains resolute in keeping his friends together. In fact, there’s still time to share a wonderful Fourth of July dance with all the neighbors and it shows signs of a brighter, happier time that could be possible. With neighbors joining together in simple community and sharing life together. Shane feels somewhat out of place in this type of environment, and maybe deep down he knows it too, but he seems oddly content.

This happy time is juxtaposed with the funeral of ornery “Stonewall” (Elisha Cook Jr.), who was gunned down near the saloon by hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). His death is making some of the others jumpy, but once again Starrett keeps his group together, by first giving their former friend a proper burial and banding together once more. But by this point, they’re barely hanging on. Stryker’s got them on the run and Joe knows he needs to have it out with his arch-nemesis once and for all if things are ever going to return to the status quo. His dreams of ending this whole thing are ludicrous because there is no way he can get out alive. His wife knows it. He knows it, but it doesn’t stop him and his American Dream.

shane3It’s interesting how Shane at first does not try to stop him, but then he gets tipped off to what awaits Joe, and he decides to go in his place. This is his arena after all. The gun we all fawn over is finally getting put to use as Shane rides into town for the final showdown to have it out with the men in the saloon. However, although the shootout is intense it ends very quickly. Thus, what is really interesting are the moments beforehand where friend is literally fighting friend. Both doing what they think is right. However, since Joey only thinks in absolutes, when he sees Shane hit his father over the back of the head, he initially reacts with hatred towards his fallen hero. He doesn’t understand why all this is necessary. But as time goes on and he sees events unfold, he gets it.

As Shane rides off into the night, Joey yells after him to come back, he cannot bear for this idolized man to ride off. It makes me wonder if young Joey grew up with the image of Shane, the hero of his childhood. The doer of good and the ultimate champion of the oppressed.

The cast was rounded out nicely by some solid supporting players like Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr., and down to Ellen Corby and even Nancy Kulp. It’s astounding to think that this film could have starred Monty Clift and William Holden potentially with Katharine Hepburn as well. Because, after all, the casting of Shane feels just right. Clift would have brought depth and emotional chops to the role, as a wonderfully impassioned actor. Just look at George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) for proof of that. However, what Alan Ladd has is a serenity and simple goodness that still somehow suggests something under the surface. It begs the question, how can someone so upright make a living packing a six-shooter? No doubt I like Holden better as an actor, but Heflin has the scruffy outdoors-man look, while still reflecting high ideals. Hepburn just does not seem to fit a western. This is one of the instances when all the pieces seemed to fit into place and we were blessed by a western classic that never seems to lose its luster. In a sense, we become boys again like Joey, completely in awe of Shane. Let us revel in that feeling, that moment of innocence once more.

5/5 Stars

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

strangelove4From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

310_to_Yuma_(2007_film)I must preface this by saying I still have yet to see the original film starring Glen Ford and Van Heflin, but I must say I was just as intrigued by the pairing of Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Bale plays against type as a one-legged war vet and rancher trying to make a living for his family.

Then there’s Crowe who takes a turn as notorious outlaw Ben Wade who has committed his fair share of crimes and bank jobs with his gang. It would appear they have very little in common, that is until Wade is captured by some local authorities and Dan Evans signs on to help take him to the train station since he’s in desperate need of money. So begins the dangerous undertaking, with Wade’s men looking for blood, Apaches waiting for them, and numerous other pitfalls. They are mistaken if Wade is going down without a fight, but he slowly bides his time getting under their skin.  Their plan to set a decoy also buys them little time after the bandits interrogate the stand in and let him burn.

Second in command Charlie Prince is not going to stop until he gets his boss back, and he proves that he will use any measures he deems necessary. Evans and the rest are held up in a town on the second story waiting for their assailants, but the odds get bad real quick. On a matter of principle, Evans decides to finish what he started while telling his son to leave the premises. The finale begins as Evans and Wade head to the train station with a barrage of bullets aimed in their direction. The old reliable 3:10 to Yuma is late, but in one final moment Wade willingly gets aboard the train probably knowing full well that he can escape a third time. There stands Dan Evans a man who did something extraordinary and will get the money he so desperately needs. But Wade and young William watch as Dan gets riddled with bullets from behind. But Wade and William are far from done.

Since the western is all but a dead genre nowadays, it’s always wonderful when a modern film is able to do justice to the lineage, and even as a remake this version can certainly stand alone. It fills a gritty, grimy, sweaty reality that in some instances feels a lot more realistic than early Hollywood westerns. In other words, it’s not bad, just different and aside from Bale and Crowe, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, and Alan Tudyk all are memorable. However, I lost Fonda under all that beard. Was that really him?

4/5 Stars

Act of Violence (1948)

ActofViolenceAct of Violence is an interesting post-war moral tale from director Fred Zinnemann. Frank (Van Heflin) returned home from war a hero. He now has a small child with his pretty young wife Edith (Janet Leigh) in the vibrant California town of Santa Lisa.

Little is known about his P.O.W. past and all his comrades were killed. Except one. His friend Joe (Robert Ryan) is still alive but he is plagued by a crippled leg now. He finds out about Frank’s whereabouts and it become his personal vendetta to straighten him out. The innocent Edith is in the dark about the whole ordeal and with the shadow of Joe constantly haunting him, Frank must family face the specter of his past.

He goes off on a business trip to escape and there out of desperation he winds up hiring a hit man to get Joe off his back. The two former buddies set up a meeting (which is really a trap), But as would be expected it does not work out as planned. Justice is dealt but there is still a strange sense of moral ambiguity. This is  certainly not Zinnemann’s best work, but it brings up some interesting questions about moral scruples and personal conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Shane (1953)

10788-shaneposterThere is often something special about westerns, and Shane is no different. Directed by George Stevens and starring Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, and other great character actors, Shane is simple yet charming. It has many of the qualities of a great movie, because of what it shows of mankind. Furthermore, it simply makes you feel good.

In the film Shane (Ladd) is a wandering ex-gunslinger, who decides to live with a frontier family as a hired hand. His presence makes everyone happy because he is quiet, humble, and fundamentally so good. However, there is trouble from a man named Riker and his gang. Heflin’s character is adamant he must face the foe and defend his home. Shane will not allow it knowing this is a job for him. The two friends fight it out with Shane winning and riding into town. In the end, he wins the shootout but more importantly he is reconciled with the family’s boy Joey. The time has come for him to move on and Shane rides off into the distance, a humble hero.

The first thing that always strikes me about this film is the brilliant scenery around Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the Tetons looming majestically behind a solitary cabin. In some sense, this is not just a western, but the archetypal story of a family taming the land.

The very next thing of importance is the eponymous and unassuming drifter Shane. He always seems so kind and good, but early on there are glimpses of another, perhaps darker past. And yet from the point of view of Joey, he is an idolized, almost mythological figure. What is so striking about Shane is that he is obviously handy with a gun and an excellent fighter, but he never flaunts it. Perhaps it is because he wishes to rely on it as his last possible resort, or maybe it is because he is just a humble man.

As an audience, much like Joey, we want him to fight back, and we are happy when he finally does. During the course of the film, Grafton’s mercantile and saloon is often the place of conflict, and here multiple times Shane ultimately uses violence. It is his fallback, but he uses it effectively even against his own friends if he sees fit. Then Shane drifts on and the cycle undoubtedly continues again.

Yes, he certainly could be called a hero, with no last name to speak of, but he is a man, who will always be on the move. This may not be because he wants to, but because he really has no other option. Shane foresaw what we did not want to see, and now he cannot come back even if he wants to, so he rides on. This is the middle of George Steven’s so-called “American Trilogy” and probably the hallmark of his illustrious career.

5/5 Stars