Big Bad Bob: Robert Mitchum in MAN WITH THE GUN (United Artists 1955)

Rugged Robert Mitchum is pretty much the whole show in MAN WITH THE GUN, a film by first  time director (and Orson Welles protege) Richard Wilson. It seems a strange choice at this juncture of Mitchum’s career. He was just coming off four big films in a row (RIVER OF NO RETURN, TRACK OF THE CAT, NOT AS A STRANGER, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER ), then makes a low budget Western that harkens back to his days making ‘B’ Zane Grey Westerns at RKO. But that was Mitchum; always the maverick who did things his way.

The film itself isn’t bad: Mitchum plays a notorious gunslinger, a “town tamer” hired by Sheridan City to clean things up from the clutches of boss ‘Dade Holman’ (who isn’t seen til the end, but whose influence is everywhere). There’s a subplot with his ex-wife Jan Sterling, now running the dance hall girls at The Palace, and the whereabouts of their five year old daughter. Another subplot involves Karen Sharpe, daughter of town council leader Emile Meyer, catching feelings for Mitchum, to the chagrin of her young, headstrong fiance  John Lupton. But don’t let the soap opera elements fool you: MAN WITH THE GUN is an exercise in violence, with Mitchum a killing machine who has no problem mowing down bad guys. Wilson and N.B. Stone Jr’s script dips briefly into the psychological reasons Mitchum’s character does what he does, making him more than just a one-dimensional gun-for-hire.

Wilson had helped stage plays for Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air, and worked as Welles’ assistant on CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and associate producer on LADY FROM SHANGHAI and MACBETH. He completed the documentary IT’S ALL TRUE: BASED ON AN UNFINISHED FILM BY ORSON WELLES shortly before his death in 1991, and appears posthumously in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . While he’s no Welles, Wilson manages to create some moody, almost film noir-ish scenes with the help of ace cinematographer Lee Garmes (the burning down of The Palace in particular is well staged). His directorial filmography is skimpy, but includes some interesting vehicles, like THE BIG BOODLE (starring a dissipated Errol Flynn), AL CAPONE (with Rod Steiger as Scarface), the well-regarded noir PAY OR DIE, and the AIP sex romp THREE IN THE ATTIC.

MAN WITH THE GUN also benefits from a supporting cast of Familiar Faces, including veteran Henry Hull as the ineffective town marshal, Ted de Corsia as the Palace’s manager (complete with bad French accent!), Leo Gordon and Claude Akins as heavies, young Angie Dickinson as a saloon girl, and Jay Adler, Barbara Lawrence (as a dizzy blonde), Burt Mustin, Maidie Norman, Maudie Prickett, Stafford Repp, Buddy Roosevelt, Amzie Strickland, and James Westerfield (who sets up the film’s finale). The film’s no classic, but will satisfy fans of both Westerns in general, and Robert Mitchum in particular. I fall into both categories, so of course I liked it; the rest of you will have to watch and judge for yourselves!

 

 

Rage in the Cage: CAGED (Warner Brothers 1950)

“In this cage, you get tough or you get killed” – Kitty Stark (played by Betty Garde) in CAGED

 

The Grandmother of all “Women in Prison” films, CAGED still packs a wallop, nearly seventy years after it’s release. This stark, brutal look at life inside a women’s penitentiary was pretty bold for its time, with its savage sadism and heavy lesbian overtones, and matches up well with BRUTE FORCE as an example of film noir prison flicks. Everything about this film clicks, from its taut direction by John Cromwell to the use of sound to create mood by Stanley Jones, plus a powerhouse mostly female cast led by Eleanor Parker .

The 28-year-old Parker convincingly plays 19-year-old Marie Allen, given a one-to-fifteen year sentence for accessory to an armed robbery during which her husband was killed. The mousey Marie is indoctrinated, given a number (Prisoner #93850), and poked and prodded by staff, who discover Marie’s two months pregnant. Marie is given light duty by the prison-reform minded superintendent Ruth Barton, but sadistic old-school ward matron Evelyn Harper has other plans.

Marie’s first night inside the walls is a frightening experience for the youngster. She’s befriended by three tough street chicks led by Kitty Stark, boss of a shoplifting gang who wants to recruit the kid when she gets out of stir. When fellow inmate June is denied parole, it’s Marie who finds her hanging during the night, causing her to go into shock and give birth  prematurely. Her mom refuses to take the baby, then she’s denied parole, and a switch flips inside Marie’s head, turning her as hard as the veteran cons.

Tensions flare when Marie finds a kitten outside the prison laundry and takes it in, and a catfight over the cat between Marie and Harper escalates into a full-scale riot! Marie is given three days in solitary by Barton, but before serving the cruel Harper shaves her head. Kitty, who’s spent a month in solitary enduring beatings from Harper, gains justice of her own in a swift and vicious stabbing of the matron in the cafeteria, as Marie cheers her on, yelling, “Kill her, kill her”. Prison life has changed Marie, but not for the better, and the final scene has Barton resigned to the fact that she’s failed, and Marie will be back.

Parker was justly nominated for an Oscar for her performance, as she transforms from young innocent into hardened criminal during the course of the film. Also nominated was Hope Emerson as the sadistic Harper. Emerson’s 6’2″, 200+ pound frame make her an imposing physical presence, and she’s about as mean as a prison screw can get. Neither actress won – Judy Holliday picked up the statuette that year for BORN YESTERDAY, while Josephine Hutchinson won for HARVEY – but a case could certainly be made for them.

Agnes Moorehead’s  part of reform warden Ruth Barton also deserved Oscar consideration. Her battles with bureaucrats and the disrespectful Harper (who treats the inmates like pond scum and constantly refers to them as “ya tramps”) highlight the differences between rehabilitation and punishment, battles that are still going on today (and as someone who once worked inside the prison system, trust me on that). The film gives an impressive cast of women the chance to shine: Betty Garde is the hard-bitten Kitty, Lee Patrick her rival “Vice Queen” Elvira Powell, Jan Sterling the CP (that’s Common Prostitute) Smoochie, Ellen Corby a nutty husband killer, Gertrude W. Hoffman the wise old lifer Millie, Olive Deering the doomed June, and the tragic former star Gertrude Michael as the haughty Georgia. Other Familiar Faces behind the walls include Don Beddoe (as the political hack prison commissioner), Jane Darwell , Marlo Dwyer, Sandra Gould, Esther Howard , Sheila MacRae (billed as Sheila Stevens), Queenie Smith (as Marie’s mom), Amzie Strickland, Nita Talbot, and Ann Tyrell.

CAGED’s tougher-than-the-soles-on-a-streetwalker’s-feet screenplay is by Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the story with Bernard Schoenfeld (both were Oscar nominated). Kellogg, who wrote the stories for the tough films noir T-MEN and WHITE HEAT , was a former reporter who used her contacts to go undercover as an inmate in four different prisons to do research on the subject. The result was this knockout of a movie, as realistic a look at prison life as was possible for the time. The bleakness of doing a bid behind bars, the corruption that still goes on, and the dehumanization of people contributes to the high recidivism rate experienced even today. The women of CAGED are no saints, not by a long shot, but their treatment here offers no hope for redemption, just a revolving door for those tagged as social outcasts. It’s a film that is still relevant today, and a film noir you don’t want to miss.


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