Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Spencer Tracy and Small-Town Bigotry

Review: Bad Day at Black Rock: Japanese-Americans and Small-Town Bigotry

In its theatrical cut, Bad Day at Black Rock opens furiously, charging forward with the momentum of a freight train as the credits roll and Andre Previn’s score thrashes in the film’s most manic moment.

From thenceforward, its greatest strength is restraint. The whole town cowers around watching the train arrive with a mysterious one-arm man named Macreedy aboard. If the mysterious out-of-towner isn’t enough, it might also be the fact they haven’t had a visitor for well-nigh four years. This is big news but they aren’t looking to be neighborly. The local observation from the train conductor is telling:

“Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

“I’ll only be here 24 hours.”

“In a place like this, that can be a lifetime.”

The opening minutes not only set up our character but this impeccable environment for accentuating the underlying unfriendliness. The wide-open spaces of Lone Pine, CA are as much about the vast planes created between people as it merely breathtaking landscape. Because it’s gloriously austere, and it’s completely evident we really are off the beaten track.

Spencer Tracy might seem an odd choice, given the traits of his character; he seems too old and overweight to be a recently discharged veteran of WWII, especially since the year is 1945. And he’s hardly a western hero or an action star in the commonly accepted sense. A film like this would normally call for a hybrid between Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, or Clint Eastwood.

It borrows from westerns and noir, but I hesitate to label it as either. Because it has near revisionist outcomes and a palette more akin to large-scale epics than B-level entertainment. There’s really nothing else I can think of with such a fascinating and simultaneously confounding pedigree.

Macreedy is intent on visiting Adobe Flat, but he seems like a genial fellow. It’s everyone else who loiter around menacingly. They’re either outright brusque like, the local hotel clerk, or pushy folks who ask him straightforward-like what he wants around their town.

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In certain terms, Black Rock is the epitome of rural America — with a sinister twist. It’s smaller than small. Everyone knows the business of everyone else. But these folks are about as tight-lipped and inhospitable as anyone ever in the history of humanity when it comes to outsiders. What’s more, they have little reason to be unless they have something to hide. Of course, they must be covering some secret, but we don’t know quite what it is. There we have our movie.

The beauty of the story is how it plays close to the vest on both accounts. Because Macreedy seems to be in no hurry to broadcast his news all around. Simply the fact he has come to town at all seems like enough. He finally does let his business come out talking to the local sheriff (Dean Jagger), another very gracious fellow in line with all the others. Macreedy is there to see a man named Komoko. The name is a tip-off for some. He is Japanese and we are sitting on the tail-end of WWII.

It recalls the quote always attributed to Hitchcock: “The thrill is not in the bang but the anticipation of it.” John Sturges, while known for action films, does such a measured job of stretching out of the tension of this picture. It gets to this unbearable high deserving some sort of release.

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One could say it happens in the diner. Spencer Tracy is working on a bowl of chili, only to get needled by Ernest Borgnine. First it’s a squabble over a chair, then it’s a bottle of ketchup being poured into a bowl of chili. It’s a maddening scene of belittling, but Spencer Tracy takes everything in stride with the finest brand of mild amusement. Everything slides off his back. The following interchange is representative:

“You’re a yellow-belly Jap lover, am I right or wrong?” – Coley Tremble
“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” – Macreedy

Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin are lounging around to watch the show. Up until this point Macreedy has kept his cool and one might say he walks out as calmly as he came in, but he also exerts himself like he has yet to do. It’s a cathartic moment and as an audience, it gives us an unalienable belief in our hero. We wanted to believe he could hold his own implacably and he can. But the forces against him are nevertheless stifling.

We get the final piece of vital information. Macreedy came to town because of Joe Komoko, who died in Italy saving the life of his brother-in-arms. Forever in his debt, he thought the least he could do was pass on a medal and his condolences. It’s gratifying to have it spelled out, but the bottom line is still the same. Tracy is all but trapped without any outside assistance.

His only chance is some inside help — someone who is willing to do something right for a change, instead of turning a blind eye. The closest he finds is in the local doctor/undertaker (Walter Brennan) who gives his best half-hearted attempt to help the stranger.

Meanwhile, the town’s poor excuse for a sheriff (Dean Jagger), who spends his days nursing the bottle and his nights sleeping in his own jail cell, finally feels compelled to take a stand. His behavior strips him of his badge. The final reluctant players are the tight-lipped hotel clerk and his young sister (Anne Francis), who both aid Macreedy begrudgingly. In a town like this, each action seems nearly monumental. One questions if it is enough.

I challenge anyone to stack the movie up against most any cast of the 1950s, especially because this is not some grandiose epic. This film clocks in at a mere 81 minutes of film, but it has more than enough to go around. Robert Ryan, in particular, is a crucial piece. He always gets these roles as militant bigots and in one sense you feel bad for him and in the other, he’s so convincing at it you can understand why.

His blatant malevolence briefly hidden under a thin exterior is the perfect foil for Tracy to bounce off of. Because they share conversation civilly enough, but it all draws out how diametrically opposed they are. Macreedy got it in Italy. Smith tried enlisting straight after Pearl Harbor but wasn’t accepted.

We come to understand his view of humanity is cut-and-dry. Komoko was a lousy Jap farmer. Pearl Harbor and Corregidor. They’re all the same. There’s no such thing as a loyal Japanese-American. Its this type of rhetoric we must immediately be wary of. For it is pernicious.

At his first chance, Macreedy decides he should get out of town since he’s hit a dead-en, attempting to notify the state police on his way out. He bumps into another bystander, the squeamish telegraph officer Hastings, who excuses himself by saying, “I’m just a good neighbor.”

Of course, as Macreedy suspects, his definition only stretches to those who share his skin tone. He is yet another problem character. Because he has no guts and if I indict him then I am indicting myself as well. There is no place for wishy-washiness with such issues.

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Bad Day at Black Rock, personally, is an important film for me because, like Daisy Kenyon or The Steel Helmet, it stands as a record of Japanese-Americans place in a polarized society. There was injustice done, and it’s not something we should try and forget. The acknowledgment alone is a victory and yet another important record in the annals of visual history.

However, getting beyond, this thriller is ultimately about a hero who is doing his best to honor another man — of course, he happens to be Japanese-American — but most importantly he is given the dignity and the respect of a human being. Because there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friends. Even if we never see Motoko, or his deceased son in person, their presence over the film is still felt, and it’s meaningful for me. The implications are that he matters as not merely an innocent citizen but a sacrificial hero for the sake of our country.

It manages to be universal. Because Black Rock could be the stand-in for any such towns. In this particular instance, it’s about a Japanese man. But in other stories, he could be any marginalized individual. The hateful frenzy of The Red Scare is too fresh to disregard any type of allegory in that context.

This type of bigotry and incensed racial (or political) hatred is not a thing of the past. It disadvantages many types of people by conveniently terming them “other” from the accepted subset of society.

What always fascinates me in history and in the stories we excavate is finding the people who faced this abhorrent reality and willingly pushed against it. Still, others initially accept it with apathy. It’s the path of least resistance. However, even they are forced to make a stand, lest they continually bury their conscience and grow miserable.

Bad Day at Bad Rock is about precisely these types of people, and it takes all sorts. So the beauty of it is that we can enjoy its utter intensity and the mystery at its core. It keeps its secrets close and only divulges them at opportune moments. The dialogue too is sparse and measured.

But seething under the surface is a commentary framed by a none too flattering portrait of America. It stands as a testament to fear leading to hate and hate leading to violence. There’s this sense of full-blown conspiracy and holding onto each other’s secrets because we’re all implicated.

If we are to break the chain, it’s imperative to band together in opposition and bring all those dirty secrets into the light. The greatest gift Spencer Tracy gives to this picture is not brawn but the unwavering sense of integrity — in his acting and in that iconic face of his. In a world of shady two-timers, his candor is something we can trust.

4/5 Stars

Come and Get It (1936): Frances Farmer The Hawksian Archetype

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Author Edna Ferber in both her plays and novels had a penchant for sprawling familial tales of Americana which were indubitably fortified by social issues. Come and Get It gives the initial impression of another Howard Hawks movie released the same year, Barbary Coast (1936). In fact, that’s part of the reason producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted the director, even desiring Miriam Hopkins to play opposite Spencer Tracy. Both Walter Brennan and Joel McCrea were kept from the previous project.

But the other fact of the matter was, Hawks, hailing from affluent American stock,  was purportedly related to the real-life protagonist Barney Glasgow. He was supposed to be Hawks’ grandfather. This background is another fascinating tie-in though it was the behind the scenes antics that were almost more pronounced than the film itself.

Hawks took advantage of Goldwyn’s extended leave of absence, due to ailments, to take the picture in his desired direction, centering it around masculine adventure and love. In a satisfying casting decision, Edward Arnold is given a starring turn as ambitious lumberjack foreman Barney Glasgow. His most faithful pal is the affable Swede, Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan), ever ready with his catchphrase, “Yumpin Yiminy.”

The world they inhabit is glorious, set against the snow-capped woodlands of Northern Wisconsin circa 1884. The timber trade is ripe and profitable. Even if the work is hard the resident workforce seems generally content.

The imagery alone is breathtaking to such a degree it feels like we are enveloped in a documentary as the trees come tumbling down and logs go shooting down the river with the furious forces of nature behind them. It is a life for those who relish the fresh air of the great outdoors and laboring with their hands. Like many Hawks films, a joint vocation is the source of camaraderie with men banding together over honest toil.

Following their final push to get the job done, Glasgow is the first to reward them with a Jamboree. The drinks are on him and everyone is in a jovial spirit. Again, we have an obvious hallmark of a Hawks picture with a communal environment we cannot help but want to be a part of. It’s infectious.

It is here where assured, husky-voiced barmaid Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer) makes her striking debut. Full of moxie and capable of a captivating rendition of “Aura Lee,” she brings a boisterous bar to a standstill while captivating Glasgow from the first moment he ever sets eyes on her. Her song will remain a motif playing throughout the story even as the memory of her presence holds indelible weight over everyone.

The ever dubious shell game takes place but grander still is the subsequent sequence when the barroom is decimated during a brawl, not by flying fists and bodies but imminently more destructive beer trays doubling up as deadly metal frisbees. It’s in these raucous moments that love and kinship are galvanized between characters and we can understand why.

Except most of what feels Hawksian in content gives way to something else altogether; Barney forgoes the romance of a lifetime to pursue his one true love: the pursuit of wealth and power.

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The latter half of the narrative picks up in 1907. Barney Glasgow is now wealthy and successful with two grown children of his own. His son, played by Joel McCrea (once more horribly underused), is generally resentful of his father’s controlling attitude in both business and life.

Meanwhile, his daughter (Andrea Leeds) embodies a precociousness all her own, making a fine second female lead though her screentime seems minimal. She has an ongoing patter going with her father rivaling any of the chemistry found throughout the film because she brings out his most benevolent side.

But we must also talk about Lotta (Frances Farmer once more) the daughter of Swan and the now deceased barmaid. Because she immediately captivates Barney as her mother did before her. Though I relish Arnold in a leading role as he was far too often relegated to supporting authoritative figures, he does get a bit cringe-worthy by the film’s latter half.

Because the context has changed. He’s an older man now completely taken with his buddy’s daughter because she’s the spitting image of her deceased mother, the woman they both loved once upon a time. The aberrant shades of Vertigo (1959) become increasingly evident even as they try and hide under the guise of generosity and general gaiety.

He’s old enough to be her father. In fact, his son is taken with her too. They don’t get much time to forge any chemistry between them but a taffy pulling sequence facilitates the environment to muck about making a mess and trading repartee long enough for sparks to fly.

The behind-the-scenes turmoil between Hawks and Goldwyn and then Ferber’s own disappointment with the reworking of the storyline meant William Wyler was all but forced to finish up the picture. A task he hardly relished, even looking to distance himself as far as possible from the picture later on.

It’s true that his style and that of Hawks do feel diametrically opposed but it does make for a fascinating case study because it feels like there is a fairly clean break where we see one man’s influence on the story end and another man’s, meticulous and more restrained tendencies, beginning.

As such, the most boisterous and thematic elements give way to wistful and tense emotions that ironically are not too far removed from Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936), also made the same year.

If Hawks had stayed on the picture, you get the sense it would have erred more on the side of bravado and comedy. We have fist fights and a strange love triangle that can easily be seen as some kind of father-son precursor to Red River (1948).

But Wyler sets the scene in a drawing room between father and son commencing in a fist fight with a tinge of melodrama. It seems a far cry from our point of entry and even as the film winds down to come to some sort of conclusion, there is a mild tinge of regret Hawks was not able to see the film to completion. But he was a singular mind not willing for a great deal of compromise.

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One could contend not only the film but France Farmer, his latest muse who he had groomed for the part, suffered dearly. Of course, McCrea, Brennan, and even Arnold would have fruitful careers in Hollywood for years to come. It is not that this film sunk Farmer by any means but what could have been a shining achievement was slightly neutered due to the last minute personnel shuffling.

Of course, her career would take another hit when she was wrongfully interned within a mental institution in 1942 following a tumultuous episode. Indubitably her story was laced with tragedy upon tragedy and yet this film gives glimpses of her quality as an actress.

It’s this whole slew of elements compounded together making Come and Get It feel like a dark horse. It shouldn’t be good. The flaws and inconsistencies are evident and yet through some curious means, it manages to be an endearing picture channeling both pathos and virile liveliness. Those can be attributed to the directors at its core.

True, the social implications involving nature conservation aren’t resounding but it still manages to suggest the need to care for our environment in the stead of money-grubbing business. Even people who seem generous like Arnold are, nevertheless, beholden to an old way of life.

Above all, the talent comes out in spades making for a compelling portrait of the Hollywood machine at its height during the 1930s — warts and all. If there are many familiar talents, then the showcase we can be most appreciative of is Frances Farmers.

Rather than rue the fact her star never shined as brightly as it might have, we can be thankful for the visibly incandescent qualities on display, even just this once. Because, really, it only takes one picture to immortalize someone for cinematic posterity.

She is the Hawksian heroine you’ve never seen before and would never get another chance to witness. From her descend the Lauren Bacall and the Ella Raines archetypes, along with many others. It is no small wonder Hawks himself claimed her to be the best actress he ever worked with. High praise indeed.

4/5 Stars

Barbary Coast (1936)

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The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

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Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

The Far Country (1954)

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“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

 

Fury (1936)

spencer_tracy_furyYou could say that Fritz Lang was fascinated, even preoccupied with issues of justice. M, Fury, and You Only Live Once all take a particular interest in crime in relation to systems of justice while still functioning as tense thrillers. Although Fury was his first film across the pond in Hollywood, Lang maintained his fine form in a potent debut.

Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), is an average stiff. He’s got his name for a reason. He’s got a lovely girl (Sylvia Sidney) and they’re madly in love but he’s also hardly scraping by and the same goes for his two brothers. Still, he believes in his country and the fact that if he goes about his life honestly, he will ultimately be rewarded. But in truth, his idealistic convictions are soon put into question when he finds himself caught up in some unfortunate circumstances.

He’s arrested for the kidnapping of a small child, a crime that he’s innocent of no thanks to some circumstantial evidence and the suspicious local law enforcement. Soon a chain of “Telephone” spreads the juicy gossip like wildfire through the town of Strand. Everyone’s writing his confession of guilt for him and they rather enjoy it.

In the meantime, the excitable, uneducated masses aren’t about to wait for the district attorney and when the higher ups in the state government balk at sending in the national guard, the locals take justice into their own hands. It’s a bit like the storming of the Bastille — a tumultuous revolution of sorts — and yet this is Middle American in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Still, the sheriff’s jail is soon seized. It’s a barrage of brawling fists, chaos, and general mayhem that adds a noticeable edge to the drama. This is no joke. They want Joe’s hide and they’re willing to raze the jail to the ground if they have to.

The ensuing court case puts 22 men on trial for the senseless murder of Joe Wilson. But from the grave, he looks to get his sweet revenge as his killers get their due. Newsreel footage is brought in as evidence when the entire line of witnesses are all conveniently town locals not wanting to cause a stir. But there’s very little disputing images. They hardly lie. On the other hand, man is very prone to deceit and that’s a great deal of what Fury hinges on. Lies from defendants and witness, even from our protagonists. A couple of Joe’s personal traits serve an important purpose to the plot including his love for peanuts and a penchant for misspelling the word ‘memento.’ And it’s when the truth is finally settled on that real justice is able to be enacted.

I am not sure if I quite buy Tracy’s progression towards a raging vendetta completely but either way, it sets up a troublesome moral dilemma. The kindly and bright-eyed Sylvia Sidney as his girl ultimately acts as his compass. He is looking at trading justice, what is fair with what is not. That’s what he expects and not what he gets. The American justice system was and still is a flawed system but there’s still so much to it that champions justice for all (and liberty for that matter). That’s what Fury is really about — both sides of the coin.

The ending is obviously a Hollywood cop-out but if nothing else it highlights what we are called to do as citizens and more universally as human beings. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the world is not always fair nor will it ever be completely so. All we can hope to do is keep short accounts and forgive others with graciousness (God forgive him and our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us). It’s at its most difficult in a situation such as this with such a horrendous wrong being committed.

But then, grace is a scandalous thing. When someone’s actions result in others obviously in the wrong getting what they do not deserve that rubs us the wrong way. That’s why justice, as well as grace, are so powerful when paired with wisdom. Everyone under the sun is at fault at one time or another. Joe lets vengeance guide his decisions rather than righteous anger. Fury envelops him. But he turns from that — however reluctantly — he still does.

4/5 Stars

-Let them know what it means to be lynched.
-Don’t you think they know by now?
– No.
-What you’ve felt for a few hours, they’ve had to face for days and weeks! Wishing, with all their souls, they could have that one day to live over again. Joe…don’t you see?

~ Joe and Katherine

Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

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During the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hawks was an unstoppable force of nature churning out a string of classics year after year: Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Balls of Fire, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River. All these titles stand as a collective testament to his prowess.

Over a decade later, Rio Bravo is a film that reflects something of the mastery Howard Hawks still held as a filmmaker making his way through every interlude with impeccable skill. It showcases his ability to string together scenes in a perfect rhythm, balancing humor with tension, romance with conflict, and making the western into a thoroughly entertaining experience once more. To say Rio Bravo is Hawks’ greatest films is not too far off the truth. He makes it so easy, the way he constantly tracks with his characters in space — often just talking — sometimes serious others times not, and it’s all so fluid, natural, and fun. It’s what makes the film, that’s over two hours, run seamlessly like the sweetest of liqueurs.

The script courtesy of Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman is a bounty of inspiration and amusement. One such moment includes the perfect meet-cute between John T. Chance (John Wayne) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) when she catches him in a compromising position with a pair of red bloomers. From that point on their dynamic is constantly churning with energy.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s score takes some cues from his earlier work Red River (also with Hawks) including the addition of the hauntingly sorrowful notes of “El Deguello.” With such talent as Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, it also makes the prospect of a song a rich opportunity and Hawks finds ways to weave a musical aside into his film, showcasing the especially memorable tune, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.”

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Meanwhile, Hawks builds on this almost cartoonish mythology of the West where every person of interest lives life with a nickname spending as much time jawing and bickering as they do gunslinging. A great deal of that vibrancy is provided by the actors themselves with John Wayne as our anchor. Walter Brennan and Ward Bond prove to be his wizened counterparts while Dean Martin, as well as newcomers Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson, hold their own against the old vets.  It’s great fun to watch Dickinson spar with Wayne and Nelson lends his matinee idol looks to a laconic role as young gun “Colorado.” In an inspired bit of casting, Dean Martin plays a drunk and Brennan takes up his post in the jailhouse as a crotchety old man. It all fits nicely together.

But the question many engaged viewers might ask is whether or not Rio Bravo is a response to the earlier western High Noon. The concise answer is “yes” but that probably is not enough. It’s up to the viewer to discern which example is more truthful and honest in its portrayal of humanity. And High Noon certainly is a somber portrait full of doubt and inner turmoil. However, Rio Bravo is probably just as compelling because of its relational dynamics. John Chance is the sheriff, and as sheriff, he has a certain obligation to uphold the law. That means keeping murderer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) behind bars. He’s the no-nonsense harbinger of justice that we expect and because he’s John Wayne he’s also tough as nails.

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But that’s what makes the first scene of the film so crucial. It’s notable because it begins with no dialogue, opening up on the town drunk in a saloon that also gets a visit from sheriff John T. Chance. Whether it’s an act of charity or disdain Chance saves El Borrachon’s self-respect only to get bashed over the head in return.

However, this moment is vital in how it sets up Chance’s character. Yes, he maintains a rough even grouchy exterior but looking closer, you see something else. He holds onto his friendships pretty tightly, namely old reliable Stumpy (Brennan) who he bickers with like an old married couple. Then his pal Wheeler (Bond) who comes into the bottled up Texas town with a load of supplies.

And they’re not the only ones. Chance looks to turn away a woman who’s got her face plastered on wanted posters, but slowly shows an affinity towards her. He certainly would not admit it at first but he ultimately does care for her deeply. Also, one of his most faithful allies is the spirited hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) who is always ready to come to the sheriff’s aid while simultaneously talking his ear off.

Lastly, we go back to the Borrachon who was once Chance’s deputy but lost his sobriety in pursuit of a girl. Honestly, many people would not blame Chance for giving up on this man as a lost cause, and at several junctures, it looks like he has. But the bottom line is that he never does and in his own ornery way, he sticks by his old compadre — never deserting him or doubting him in crucial moments.

Thus, when we put High Noon up against Rio Bravo it’s not a weak sheriff versus a stalwart sheriff in the conventional sense as Hawks and Wayne might have supposed. However, what makes Chance strong are the people he surrounds himself with. In a way, when he is weak, then he is strong because he’s surrounded by people who are faithful and beholden to him. Yes, he’s still John Wayne and he’s one deadly man to cross, but he’s a lot more lethal with friends guarding his back. And that’s a testament to the people he surrounds himself with and also the ones who gravitate towards him. You get the sense that these are not fickle relationships — even in the cinematic sense. The characters can spend as much time ribbing each other as they do toting a gun through town. And perhaps the most telling part is that as an audience we grow to cherish these characters in a similar way. They’re fun to spend time with and that makes Rio Bravo a true gem.

5/5 Stars

Review: Red River (1948)

redriver1Any conversation on quintessential American Westerns certainly has to at least consider Red River. It has genre mainstay John Wayne in one of his most stirring performances, a moody precursor to The Searchers. It boasts the debut of the often criminally under-appreciated method actor Monty Clift. Moreover, it’s cinematic space is filled out by a colorful array of prominent Western stock players. You have the always ornery Walter Brennan, pudgy Noah Beery Jr., Harey Carey Jr., Hank Worden, and numerous others. For a second you can even forget that this isn’t a John Ford film, but instead, the story is placed in the ever-adept hands of Howard Hawks, who knows how to craft compelling stories no matter the genre he’s working in.

In 1851, before Tom Dunson (Wayne) settles on a new plot of land near the Rio Grande and begins to raise his cattle with the brand of the Red River D, he loses the love of his life to an Indian raid, while also picking up an orphaned boy in the aftermath. That young man, Matt Garth (Clift), would become like Dunson’s adopted son and his right-hand man when it comes to running his ranch. The rest of Red River is essentially a road film that chronicles the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail. It’s bound to be a gritty, sweaty, and undoubtedly smelly road ahead as Wayne and Clift take the reins on this journey. The intrigue comes with power dynamics because when you put two or more people in a confined space sparks are bound to fly at some point.

redriver2When Dunson begins the massive journey to sell his cattle in Missouri, many wranglers sign on for prospects ahead, but they don’t quite know the degree of hardship that they will face. Soon enough, a stampede leaves one man dead and the company without one of their chuck wagons of provisions. Dunson is a hard taskmaster, who expects his hired hands to finish their job. Morale in the band begins to sink from lack of food and fierce downpours that leave most everyone dejected and distraught.

Then, when Dunson prepares to hang two deserters to make an example out of them, Matt must finally step in. He’s always the subservient one, always backing Dunson with his gun, but for the first time in his life, he crosses the will of his mentor. All the wranglers are quick to continue the journey as they change course for Abilene Kansans and the prospect of the railroad. But Garth leaves a brooding Dunson behind, vowing to kill Matt if it’s the last thing he does. It’s this act of the story which brings to mind the Biblical vendetta of Esau as he pursues his kin for stealing his birthright.

redriver6Garth and his contingent do end up getting to Abilene and are met with open arms by the kindly Mr. Melville, however, perhaps, more importantly, Matt falls in love with a fiery beauty (Joanne Dru) and must leave her behind. Days later Tess Millay also meets Tom Dunson, the man she has heard so much about, and he’s far from being dissuaded from his mission.

Thus, the expected showdown comes with Dunson riding into town with his hired guns, the alarm being sounded, and Garth waiting for him. Dunson draws and Garth will not. It’s a fitting moment, but Howard Hawks develops it in a fabulous way. He fills it with tension and ultimately a hint of humor. The addition of Joanne Dru shifts the power dynamic and she says what everyone else is thinking while angrily packing a pistol.

redriver4Because if Red River was story alone, it would not be the preeminent Western that it is, and I think I made that mistake before. Hawks is a master at using all his actors to perfection in not simply the climactic moments, but also the lulls. With such a substantial ensemble, even the way he positions all his players in the scene holds importance. His scenes are continually interesting from talk of Walter Brennan’s false teeth to complaints about the abysmal quality of the coffee.

My only qualm with the film is the rather shoddy transitions, and so I am interested in getting a look at the theatrical cut with narration from Brennan. John Ford famously quipped that he never knew that Wayne could act until this film, and it’s true that he gives a darkly vengeful performance. But in many ways, Clift proves himself as a worthy co-star. There’s always a tightness, a lilt to his voice, that signals an earnestness and vulnerability. It starts coming out in this film right when he knows that he’s no longer going to follow Dunson. It took two starkly different actors to make the narrative work as well as it did, and Hawks added yet another classic to his catalog. On a side note, the music of Dimitri Tiomkin was noticeable, because the refrains can be heard verbatim in Rio Bravo. If something’s good why change it, right?

4.5/5 Stars

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Hangmen_Also_Die_1943There are some fine pieces of intrigue in this modest WWII period film from Fritz Lang. The plot is based off real events in Czechoslovakia surrounding the assassination of Nazi Holocaust proponent Reinhold Heydrich. Mascha (Anna Lee) finds herself admidst a web of trouble when she helps a member of the underground after he commits the killing. But the Nazis are soon hounding her and it brings danger to her father’s household (Walter Brennan) . Ultimately she is forced to choose where her greatest allegiance stands.The film features Gene Lockhart playing the Nazi collaborator Czaka. Perhaps this film is not all that realistic and the casting is not perfect (although I did enjoy seeing Anna Lee in a leading role). At the time it came out this movie functioned as an anti-Nazi film and it still packs a decent punch from that perspective. It deserves some acknowledgement at the very least.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

b9d42-prideofthe3Before superheroes headlined any Marvel or DC blockbuster, it was real life heroes that audiences wanted to see. No pastime was quite as popular as baseball and in that era Lou Gehrig was one of the titans along with Babe Ruth and the rest of the Yankees. You see this film is less of a biography (It certainly is not completely accurate), and more of a visual eulogy to a contemporary hero. The prologue explains as much:

“This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on the far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig” ~ Damon Runyon

As a modern viewer, I am just happy I can recognize baseball names like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, and of course, Babe Ruth. When audiences went out to see this film starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright back in the day, they were practically living it. World War II had already heated up and one of the great American heroes had died the previous year. Lou Gehrig was all those things in the prologue and more making it hard to get it all into a film.
Like any other superhero, he has an origin story beginning with his childhood in Manhattan, living with his poor German immigrant parents. His domineering mother convinces him to go to Columbia for engineering, but he soon ends up in the big leagues because of his tremendous skill with a bat. He is often a shy and even awkward young man, but he loves his parents and he can sure play ball. It’s that last point that gains him a lot of respect after a less than graceful start as “Tanglefoot.”
He soon becomes a lethal one-two punch with Babe Ruth, after initially being dismissed as the rookie and a boob. Journalist Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) has a major influence in Gehrig’s life and never loses faith in the young man’s abilities. He also does Lou a favor by introducing him to an attractive young Chicago socialite named Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), who finds Gehrig quite ridiculous at first. Soon, however, a budding romance begins with the often reserved Gehrig falling for the vibrant and vivacious young Eleanor. He gets engaged, married, hits two home runs for a little boy, and wins a world series. A lot of his other exploits are laid out for us too and the trophies and accolades start stacking up. All of this happens during the happy times when Gehrig is on top of the world, first with Murder Row and then The Bronx Bombers.
But all fairy tales must come to an end, and Lou Gehrig’s is especially tragic. He plays an, at that time, unheard of 2,000 consecutive games, but he also falls into a rapid decline. Eleanor looks on helplessly as her husband begins to deteriorate in front of her eyes, and the fans know something is not right. Gehrig gets examined and learns he has ALS, but very little is known about it. Much less can be done to treat it.
His final appearance at Yankee Stadium came on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. That day he gave his “Luckiest Man Speech,” and he walked off the field for good. Gary Cooper delivers the partially revised dialogue with a calm and clear delivery that seems to truly epitomize Gehrig. Although he is playing the man, it is almost as if he is giving a eulogy.
That’s a fitting ending because we do not need to see the suffering or the death. What we remember is the wonderfully full life he led. Perhaps this film had more cultural relevance back in 1942, but I would argue that it is still a stirring, heart-wrenching film. You have a small heart if you cannot find a place in it for this one.
Although he was not too good at baseball, in the other sequences Cooper seems like the perfect man to embody Gehrig. He is distinctly American, strong, quiet and he also has a pleasant charm with a comical streak in him. The look on his face when he realizes his weakness tears the heart. Teresa Wright had many fine performances early on in her career, but I will step out on a limb and say that this is probably the best one. She has so much spirit and at the same time, she is funny with a noticeable tenderness. She is the perfect wife and a wonderful actress to embody Eleanor Gehrig.
In a society that places so much interest in make-believe superheroes, I don’t mind taking some time to acknowledge a real one. We were the lucky ones Lou, thanks. Let anyone and everyone who does the Ice Bucket Challenge know who you are. You deserve to be remembered. Always.
4.5/5 Stars