Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal-International 1952)

BEND OF THE RIVER, the second of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns, isn’t quite as good as the first, WINCHESTER ’73 . That’s not to say it isn’t a good film; it’s just hard to top that bona fide sagebrush classic. Stewart continues his post-war, harder edged characterizations as a man determined to change his ways, and is supported by a strong cast that includes a villainous turn by the underrated Arthur Kennedy .

Jimmy plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw now riding as trail boss for a group of farmers heading to Oregon to begin a new life. He encounters Kennedy as Emerson Cole, a horse thief about to be hanged, and enlists his help on the trail west. Both men know each other’s reputations; they were both once raiders along the Missouri/Kansas border. The wagons are attacked at night by Shoshone, an arrow piercing young Laura Baile, daughter of farmer Jeremy. The pilgrims arrive in Portland, where Laura must stay behind to mend, buying supplies and meeting up with “gambling man” Trey Wilson. Jeremy’s other daughter Marji is sweet on him, but the gambler prefers to stay put; the farming life is not for him.

A local recognizes Cole from his outlaw days (though no one, including Jeremy and the farmers, is aware of Glyn’s past), and a shootout ends with Trey assisting Cole. The settlers take the steamboat River Queen upriver to get to their new home, but after months of waiting their supplies start dwindling. Glyn and Jeremy ride back to Portland to find what the holdup is, only to discover gold fever has turned Portland into a boom town, and boss Hendricks has raised the prices of all supplies. Cole and Trey and now working in Hendricks’s gambling emporium, as is Laura. When Glyn confronts him, a fracas ensues, with Cole and Trey choosing to side with Glyn. They escape on the River Queen, with Hendricks’s men in hot pursuit. Glyn has a plan to get to the settlement by finding a mountain crossing, a plan with peril and treachery behind every bend…

Mann’s taut direction and Borden Chase’s screenplay turn BEND OF THE RIVER into Western noir in theme if not in style. The characters of Stewart, a man with a past and something to prove, and Kennedy, whose greed drives him to desperate measures, could fit into any shadowy crime drama of the era. Though it’s Stewart’s film all the way, Kennedy’s role is the showier of the two, and his performance made the movie for me. Jay C. Flippen as Jeremy Baile is always a welcome presence, and a trio of Universal contract players round out the main cast: Julie Adams (Laura), Lori Nelson (Marji), and Rock Hudson (Trey), a young actor on his way up. Familiar Faces dotting the Oregon landscape include Frances Bavier , Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Chubby Johnson (as the River Queen’s Cap’n Mello), Donald Kerr , Jack Lambert , Dallas McKinnon, Harry Morgan (still being billed as Henry), Howard Petrie, and Lillian Randolph.

Also in the cast is Stepin Fetchit, the black actor whose lazy and shiftless characters causes modern-day audiences to cringe. Yet here Fetchit is Cap’n Jack’s right hand man as Adam, the two sharing an obvious friendship. Fetchit (1902-1985), Jamaican by birth, was a vaudevillian who parlayed his comic persona as “The Laziest Man On Earth” into a film career that three decades later was denounced by civil rights activists as derogatory to African-Americans. Fetchit’s slow-drawling, slow-moving parts in movies found him playing opposite Will Rogers (a personal friend from their vaudeville days) in four films, two with Shirley Temple (THE LITTLEST REBEL, DIMPLES), the 1929 SHOW BOAT, ON THE AVENUE, and many others. Fetchit was the first black actor in Hollywood to make over a million dollars, though he later declared bankruptcy in 1947. Yes, his stereotyped roles are indeed cringeworthy today, but he is an important figure in Hollywood history, and should not be shuffled off to its dustbins.

BEND OF THE RIVER is important as Stewart and Mann’s first Technicolor Western, its noirish elements, and the continued maturing of the team as forces to be reckoned with in the genre. Next up was THE NAKED SPUR , which further honed Stewart’s darker screen persona. More than just another oater, BEND OF THE RIVER is a film that gets better with repeated viewings.

 

Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)

Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He also hires a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey ) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to create diversions in order to insure the heist’s success.

And indeed the robbery does go off without a hitch… but there’s a proverbial fly in the ointment. Seems timid Cook has a bitchy wife (Marie Windsor ) who constantly berates him for being such a loser, so he spills the beans to her about his upcoming good fortune. She in turn gives the info to her young stud lover (Vince Edwards ), who gets ideas of his own. I won’t say anymore for those of you who haven’t seen this marvelously malevolent movie, among the finest films noir you’ll ever see, with an unforgettable final line delivered to perfection by Hayden.

Kubrick’s photographic eye captures every detail, from the mundane day-to-day lives of these people to the audacity of the crime itself. He sometimes repeats scenes to show them from different character perspectives, giving them added depth. Kubrick began as a photographer for LOOK Magazine, and then got into films directing several documentary shorts. He wanted to be his own cinematographer for this film, but the union wouldn’t have it, and the veteran Lucian Ballard was hired, but make no mistake, every shot in THE KILLING is pure, unadulterated Kubrick!

The cast is perfect, but Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor absolutely steal the show as the weak, mousey husband and his unfaithful wife. Cook, unquestionably the Crown Prince of Film Noir, adds to his Rogue’s Gallery of weaselly types as a schlemiel who only wants to please his rotten wife. And Windsor is rotten indeed, the ultimate Queen of Mean, a beautiful package on the outside that masks an ugly black soul. Their scenes together are sheer dynamite, and Kubrick allows both actors to shine.

The oddball Timothy Carey gives yet another oddball performance here, but it’s brief and it works. Kubrick’s chess playing friend from New York Kola Kwarianai, a real-life professional wrestler and promoter, plays the goon hired to create a distraction. Under Kubrick’s watchful eye, Kwarianai does well with his dialog, and excels in the wrestling-inspired scene at the track. There’s so much going on in THE KILLING at all times (something that definitely caught my eye: a poster for a Burlesque show MC’d by Lenny Bruce) it takes more than one viewing to take it all in. And I’m OK with that; THE KILLING is worth watching over and over again.

Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)

James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the event, only to be jumped at his hotel by Dutch Henry, who steals the prized “One of a Thousand” Winchester and rides off with his gang to Riker’s Bar, a lonely outpost saloon. It’s there Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game to gun-runner Joe Lamont (a very good John McIntire ). Lamont sells his wares to renegade Indians, all riled up after the Sioux massacre Custer at Little Big Horn.

But Indian warrior Young Bull (played by a young Rock Hudson !) covets the new repeater, and Lamont pays a heavy price, losing his scalp in the process. The renegades chase Lola Manners (pretty Shelley Winters ), a “dance hall girl” run out of Dodge by Earp, and her fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake) into an encampment of soldiers led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen ), then Lin and High Spade are also corralled, and a battle at dawn between the soldiers and renegades ensues, with marksman Lin picking off Young Bull. The two men ride off, and a young recruit (young Tony Curtis!) finds the rifle. The sergeant hands it over to Miller, who rides away with Lola to meet Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco Johnnie is played by Dan Duryea at his psychotic best, a thoroughly nasty character if there ever was one. Waco kills Miller and steals both his rifle and Lola, sends his men out to their doom in a fierce gunfight with the local marshal and his posse, then rides away with Lola as a shield to meet up with… you guessed it, Dutch Henry, who takes possession of the Winchester. Waco and Dutch plot to rob a gold shipment in Tascosa. But Lin and High Spade are still tracking Dutch (who, it turns out, is Lin’s brother), and manage to foil the robbery, leading up to a memorable mano y mano shootout between Lin and Dutch among the high rocks.

The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards is filled with tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of his (or her) seat. William H. Daniels’ B&W cinematography beautifully captures the Arizona locations, and matches them well with the studio-shot footage. The other cast members are all Familiar Faces on the sagebrush trail: John Alexander, James Best Abner Biberman Steve Brodie John Doucette , Chuck Roberson, Ray Teal, Chief Yowlachie, and John War Eagle.

James Stewart gives a us a brooding, deeply shaded performance, guided through the darkness by film noir vet Anthony Mann. Out of all the Stewart/Mann Western collaborations, WINCHESTER ’73 remains my favorite, a gritty saga of revenge that gave new screen life to both the actor and director, aided and abetted by a superb cast of character actors. It’s a must-see oater for film fans in general, and Western buffs in particular.

 

Tough As Nails: BRUTE FORCE (Universal-International, 1947)

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The prison movie has long been one of the most popular of the crime genre. Beginning with 1930’s THE BIG HOUSE, to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and beyond, audiences flock to get a forbidden glimpse behind the walls. Newspaper columnist turned film producer Mark Hellinger gave us one of the starkest, most realistic looks at prison life in  BRUTE FORCE, as relevant now as it was back in 1947.

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Westgate Penitentiary is a walled island facility much like Alcatraz, ruled with an iron hand by Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). The warden (Roman Bohenen) is weak and inefficient, and the prison doctor (Art Baker) a drunk. Inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), just back from solitary thanks to having a shiv planted on him by one of Munsey’s stoolies, is desperate enough to plan a jailbreak with his cellies in R17. They stage a fight in the machine shop and drive the rat to his death while Joe visits with the doctor, making sure he has an airtight alibi. The politicians are in an uproar about the prison’s lack of discipline, and threaten the warden that changes will be made if things aren’t straightened out. Joe makes a proposition to Gallagher (Charles Bickford), a veteran con, to break out. Gallagher declines, stating he’s up for parole soon, and has it pretty easy playing both sides of the fence.

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Flashbacks are used throughout the movie to humanize the cons in R17, as we see them on the outside with their women. Joe’s girl Ruth (Ann Blyth) is a cripple with cancer. His lawyer tells him she refuses to have a life-saving operation until he returns. Joe doen’t want her to know where he is, as he’s shielded her from his criminal life. Joe gets a message to visit a con in the infirmary, who tells him the drainpipe is the answer to his way out. A cryptic reference to “Hill 633” provides Joe with the means to carry things out. Munsey causes one of the cellmates (Whit Bissell) to hang himself, and the warden, under more pressure, revokes all convict privileges. All scheduled paroles are cancelled, and Gallagher now agrees to go along with Joe’s escape plan. Munsey sends the men to work in the drainpipe, but what they don’t know is there’s a rat among them, and Munsey’s on to their scheme. Just before setting things into play, the warden is forced to resign, and Munsey is put in charge. The cons riot while the breakout is on, culminating in a death struggle between Joe and Munsey in a gory ending inside a flaming guard tower.

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Burt Lancaster’s Joe Collins is the ultimate anti-hero, clearly a criminal, but we sympathize with him. His love for Ruth shows us his softer side, and though he’s on the wrong side of the law, we cheer him on, rather than the corrupt Captain Munsey. Cronyn’s Munsey is vain, sadistic, and tyrannical. His methods of intimidation and brutality make him as bad (if not worse) than even the hardest con. It’s a subtle, well drawn portrait, and I think it’s Cronyn’s best screen performance, which is saying a lot considering his long body of work. The rest of the cast is a testosterone fueled bunch, including Howard Duff (billed as “Radio’s Sam Spade in his first screen role”), Jeff Corey, Sam Levene, Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Jay C. Flippen, and Gene Roth. The ladies are represented by Blyth, Yvonne DeCarlo, Ella Raines, and Anita Colby. Black actor Sir Lancelot plays Calypso, who serves as a sort of Greek chorus for the film, much like he did in Val Lewton’s 1943 I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

The screenplay by Richard Brooks is tough as nails. Brooks wrote another Hellinger movie, THE KILLERS, and worked on John Huston’s KEY LARGO, before becoming an acclaimed writer/director of his own with THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD, and LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. Director Jules Dassin came up through the ranks of b-movies before scoring with THE CANTERVILLE GHOST. He collaborated with Hellinger again on THE NAKED CITY , and made NIGHT AND THE CITY before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Moving to Europe, Dassin continued his fine work in films like RIFIFI, TOPKAPI, and NEVER ON SUNDAY with his wife, Greek actress/activist Melina Mercouri.

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BRUTE FORCE is a violent, gritty movie that was way ahead of its time. It’s a no holds barred look at a hard life, and retains its punch even today. Well worth watching for its realism, and particularly for Hume Cronyn’s chilling performance as Captain Munsey.  A true classic!