Lust For Gold (1949): Biography of a Deathtrap

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The movie opens with a score raging with dramatic tones fit for a title like Lust For Gold. The resulting narrative ploy is not a new one either, suggesting the details of this “unusual situation” were substantiated by historical records and legends of Arizona. It’s meant to provide this obvious sense of real-world ethos.

We find ourselves at Superstition Mountain. A severe voice, strung out with the same dramatic intensity of the music, paints a wild portrait of this horrible place — Satan’s art gallery in the rocks.

His name is Barry Storm (William Prince) — a real figure — and yet for all intent and purposes, conveniently fictionalized to narrate the tale for us. Unfortunately, the man isn’t able to pull off the voiceover like a Bogart or Mitchum. It lacks the hardboiled lip or the inherent sense of noir malaise.

It’s possible to mention noir, even when our prerequisites are more aligned with a western because we are dealing in terms of avarice and the greed found within the human heart. These are the building blocks for any respectful film noir of old where humanity runs amok with murder and deceit. In any regard, this is what the hope is.

Still, Prince comes off lacking from the outset because as an actor he’s a bit of an innocuous blank slate. Even if this is purely how he is meant to function, there’s nothing impressionable about him. But it also falls partially to the anatomy of a faulty story with dialogue practically regurgitated to us to get our pulses going. The effect is moot.

Still, this version of Barry Storm does serve one solitary purpose if only to toss us headlong into this narrative. He’s part unwitting victim, part fresh-faced raconteur and adventurer looking to dig up the famed treasure once belonging to his distant relation “The Dutchman.”

He crosses any number of people among them cocksure explorer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke) and two fellows who act as deputies under the local sheriff: a relaxed fellow named Covin (Will Geer) and the quietly observant Walter (Jay Silverheels).

To their credit, they are the first people who bring some color of any sort to the picture. However, even Geer’s own recounting of the Dutchman legend — delivered in a casual, conversational manner — isn’t able to rescue the dialogue which feels just as straightforward and didactic as before.

The real meat and potatoes of the movie come with a substantial flashback moving the action to 1880, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Because it’s at this juncture we are reminded Lust for Gold has a surprisingly stellar cast, and the best patches of drama come with the biggest stars. Regrettably, they’re never able to assemble in full force spread out across the years as they are.

Glenn Ford is reteamed with Edgar Buchannan from Framed, although this time they’re a bit more dubious and hardened, following the trail of a mythical gold mine. If you were to fashion an approximate reference point the movie, functions a bit like Treasure of The Sierra Madre Lite with everyone gold crazy and opportunistic.

Glenn Ford is not much of a Dutchman. His accent or lack thereof could have used some sharpening if he was really looking to commit, but perhaps, more importantly, he shows himself capable of some vindictive fury before the days of The Big Heat. This is what the story must rely on.

He’s the man who ends up the victor with all the gold to himself and no one else left alive to challenge him when he checks his wealth in the nearest outpost. The whole town’s envious of his cache, and the news spreads rather hilariously through the local gossips. They want a piece of the action because it’s far too much wealth for one man, but he clings to its with near-violent secrecy. There’s not one male or female who’s going to get him to open up about it.

That doesn’t keep them from trying. The best bet is one Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), an educated woman who nevertheless runs the local mercantile and doesn’t have much hope of going anywhere. Her useless husband (Gig Young), hasn’t done anything to alleviate their situation. So, much to his chagrin, she’s prepared to slip off her wedding ring and weasel her way into the miner’s affections.

It works quite well and as with any of these old star vehicles, the movie is most enjoyable when we have Ford and Lupino together. They were both seasoned performers in all the grungy corners of the genre pictures even if this is a hybrid. But what sets them apart is how they both have desires. Sometimes opposing, sometimes convening, and their feelings for one another do become complicated.

To her credit, Lupino plays a far more nuanced part than a simple seductress. She is tired of her life. She is tired of her husband. She’s ready to take things into her own hands, and yet there is some amount of feeling dwelling within her. The Dutchman, for one, is happy to find someone to hold, someone to share his native tongue with. It’s the human face slipped in with the pervading moments of avarice.

Because in the end all parties are pitted against each other in a testy competition for the goods — both in the past and present — weathering seismic avalanches and showdowns up in the rock crevices. Some of these moments, especially crammed within the middle of the story have the pulse of compelling action. It’s only a shame this hybrid noir offering must be so hampered by its own plotting device.

3/5 Stars

Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.

However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.

Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.

The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…

One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.

Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.

But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.

It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.

In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.

It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.

Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.

Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.

It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.

The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.

These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.

By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.

What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.

James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.

He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.

Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.

Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.

They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?

What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.

This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.

4.5/5 Stars