West-Teen Angst: GUNMAN’S WALK (Columbia 1958)

GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic Western like THE SEARCHERS or HIGH NOON, but it was entertaining enough to hold my interest. That’s due in large part to a change of pace performance by All-American 50’s Teen Idol Tab Hunter as a sort-of Rebel Without A Cause On The Range, an unlikable sociopath with daddy issues, aided and abetted by Phil Karlson’s taut direction and some gorgeous panoramic Cinemascope shots by DP Charles Lawton Jr.

Boisterous cattle rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is one of those Men-Who-Tamed-The-West types, a widower with two sons. Eldest Ed (Hunter) is a privileged, racist creep who’s obsessed with guns, while younger Davy (played by another 50’s Teen Idol, James Darren) is more reserved. The Hacketts are about to embark on a wild horse round-up, and enlist two half-breed Sioux, the brothers of pretty young Clee (Kathryn Grant,  young wife of crooner Bing Crosby).

Ed kills one of the brothers by riding him off a cliff as they vie to rope a beautiful white mare. The Indians call it murder, but a fellow white man (Ray Teal, later the sheriff on TV’s BONANZA) lies for the kid in order to gain favor with Lee, freeing Ed to carouse and cause trouble with abandon. The man is subsequently given his pick of ten horses, and when he picks that white mare, Ed guns him down in a rage, is arrested again, and escapes after killing a deputy. A posse is formed, including Lee, who must confront his wild child in a final showdown.

Hunter is very good indeed as the spoiled, antisocial Ed, a thoroughly unlikable punk who thinks he can get away with anything he wants… including murder. This was a total departure from Tab’s clean-cut image, and he delivers the acting goods under Karlson’s watchful eye. The underrated director cut his movie teeth directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram Pictures before reinventing himself as one of the premiere makers of films  noir during the 50’s, with titles like SCANDAL SHEET, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , 99 RIVER STREET , THE PHENIX CITY STORY, and THE BROTHERS RICO. Karlson was also responsible for one of the biggest hits of the early 70’s, WALKING TALL. I’ve praised Karlson’s work several times on this blog, and if you haven’t rediscovered his films yet, you should!

Equally good is Van Heflin as the hail-fellow-well-met dad, unable to grasp the changing times in the West (then again, Heflin’s always good, isn’t he?). James Darren doesn’t get much to do, but he’s one of my favorites (and for more on Mr. Darren, follow this link to my recent post on FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG ). Kathryn Grant doesn’t get much to do either except look pretty, and the supporting cast includes stalwarts such as Bert Convy (making his film debut) as the doomed half-breed, GET SMART’s Ed Platt (who was also in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) as a sympathetic Indian agent, Robert F. Simon as the town sheriff, and Mickey Shaughnessy as his deputy.

So while GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic in the John Ford mold, it’s worth watching for Hunter’s about-face as a heel, Karlson’s direction, and those beautiful vistas captured by Lawton. Now here’s Tab singing his #1 hit from 1957, “Young Love”. Adios, amigos!:

Hollywood History Lesson: Errol Flynn in SANTA FE TRAIL (Warner Brothers 1940)

A movie lover could get pretty spoiled living on a steady diet of Errol Flynn/Warner Brothers epics from the 30’s and 40’s. You’ve got Flynn, the personification of the classic “movie star”, performing heroic feats and romancing his leading lady (usually Olivia de Havilland ). A historical setting   serving as the backdrop to move the story along, expertly directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, a cast full of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, a majestic music score (mainly Max Steiner , but there were others equally as talented), action, drama, humor, conflict… what more could a film fan ask for?

SANTA FE TRAIL has all this and more, an energetic pre-Civil War tale guaranteed to hold your interest for its 110 minutes no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you live on. It’s characters are drawn from history, but historic accuracy be damned… these films were all about entertainment! Flynn plays West Point Cadet Jeb Stuart, and Ronald Reagan is his best bud George Custer, who, along with Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet, and George Hood (all later to become opposing generals), get into an altercation with Cadet Rader, a staunch supporter of violent abolitionist John Brown. Rader is given a dishonorable discharge for spreading subversive ideas, and Stuart and Custer are sent upon graduation (by West Point Commandant Robert E. Lee, no less!) to “the most dangerous branch of the United States Army”, Fort Leavenworth in the bloody Kansas Territory, a hotbed of violence and unrest fomented by Brown’s misguided reign of terror.

Both Stuart and Custer become enamored of fellow grad Bob Holliday’s sister Kit… and since Flynn plays Stuart and Kit is Olivia de Havilland, guess who wins? Papa Holliday is trying to get his railroad across Kansas to the Santa Fe Trail (hence the film’s title), but is having difficulties due to all the blood-soaked raids going on. Stuart and Custer are assigned to guard a shipment of Bibles, not knowing the crates are filled with rifles heading to Brown’s encampment (yep, the old “guns hidden in crates marked Bibles” routine!). When the weapons are accidentally discovered, Brown’s disciples reveal themselves… including Stuart’s old nemesis Rader!

Stuart goes undercover to find John Brown’s latest hideout, but he’s betrayed by the U.S. Army brand on his horse. Captured by Brown and his men, doomed to hang at dawn, our man Jeb attempts escape, becoming trapped in a burning barn until Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue! With John Brown seemingly vanquished and out of the territory, Stuart and Custer are reassigned to Washington, not knowing Brown is in the vicinity, and plotting his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry…

Errol Flynn doesn’t exactly sound like a Southerner, but he more than makes up for it with his courtly manners and dashing heroics. He could turn on the charm at the drop of a hat, and was at the peak of his popularity while making SANTA FE TRAIL. Released right after Christmas 1940, the film was a big success at the box office, and the team of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would hit it big again the next year in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, with Errol portraying Custer this time around at the Battle of Little Big Horn. That one would be their last screen pairing, and while Olivia went on to receive two Oscars, Errol continued doing what he did best, charming the pants off movie lovers onscreen… and young girls offscreen! (As for poor Ronald Reagan, once again he loses out to Flynn in the romance department. Oh well, he wound up doing okay for himself a few decades later!)

Raymond Massey  plays John Brown with religious fervor and a mad gleam in his eyes. Brown’s anti-slavery cause was just, though his methods touting violent revolution were extreme to say the least. Massey’s Brown feels he’s guided by God’s hand, and the actor portrays him as an unsympathetic zealot with a Messianic complex. The film itself is ambiguous about the question of slavery,  with both sides represented by Stuart and Custer, making it more an issue of State’s Rights vs Federal Power than a moral one, in order to appeal to the audiences both North and South. It’s a tricky balancing act, but somehow screenwriter Robert Buckner (who wrote five other Flynn vehicles) makes it work.

Van Heflin  is equally villainous as Rader, Brown’s military adviser, who later has a change of heart when Brown reneges on his payment. Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams , Flynn’s offscreen drinking buddies, are on hand for comic relief. The cast is huge, and among them you’ll find Alan Baxter , Ward Bond , David Bruce , Hobart Cavanaugh, Victor Kilian, John Litel, William Lundigan, Charles Middleton, Henry O’Neill, Moroni Olsen, Gene Reynolds, Frank Wilcox, and many others (if you’re really sharp, you’ll recognize Grace Stafford, the future voice of Woody Woodpecker!).

Curtiz delivers another gem in the director’s chair, guiding his large cast through their paces and proving once again he was a cinematic genius. His staging of the bloody battle at Harper’s Ferry is  a master class in how to film  an action scene, in collaboration with DP Sol Polito, editor George Amy, and special effects man Byron Haskin, with Max Steiner’s music roaring in the background. SANTA FE TRAIL may not be historically accurate, but it’s a stunning example of the Hollywood studio system at its apex, with talent before and behind the camera the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3

To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest DA who pumps the brakes when the politicians, fearing the wrath of the voters demanding action, pressure the police chief (Lee J. Cobb ) into arresting somebody – anybody – for the murder. But it’s Arthur Kennedy who steals the show as a down on his luck WWII veteran caught up in the hysteria, put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit so political hacks can save (as Mel Brooks would say ) their phoney-baloney jobs. The cast is loaded with marvelous actors, including Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ wife, Cara Williams as Kennedy’s bitter ex-girlfriend, Ed Begley as a shady pol, Sam Levene as a muckraking reporter, and a young Karl Malden as one of Cobb’s detectives. Cobb sums the whole thing up best: “Never did like politicians”. Amen to that, Lee J! BOOMERANG is a noir you won’t want to miss.

Director Nicholas Ray contributed a gem to the noir canon with IN A LONELY PLACE (Columbia 1950) . Noir icon Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a hat check girl. Steele has a violent history well-known to the police, but new neighbor Laurel Grey (another noir icon, Gloria Grahame ) provides him with an alibi. Bogart, as the obviously off-center writer who may or may not have killed the girl, goes deep into his dark side, giving one of his best screen performances – and that’s saying a lot! The viewer is never quite certain if Dixon Steele did the deed until the very end, as Bogart’s psycho scenarist keeps everyone off-balance.

Grahame is one cool customer at first, but as things progress and Bogart’s rage rises to the surface, she becomes more and more frightened of him. Grahame and Ray were married while making IN A LONELY PLACE, but the union was becoming unraveled by this time, and they would soon separate. Frank Lovejoy, whom I’ve always thought was a very underrated actor, plays Steele’s former Army buddy, now a cop on the case. I especially enjoyed Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman, the alcoholic former screen star who relies on Steele for handouts. Other Familiar Faces include Carl Benton Reid, Morris Ankrum , Jeff Donnell, and famous restaurateur ‘Prince’ Michael Romanoff, a friend of Bogie’s playing (what else?) a restaurateur. If you love movies about the dark side of Hollywood, IN A LONELY PLACE is for you!

Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER (United Artists 1951) gives us Van Heflin as an obsessed cop who falls for married Evelyn Keyes after responding to a peeping tom call. Heflin delivers a dynamite performance as the narcissistic ex-jock turned officer, unhappy with his lot in life, who has most everyone fooled he’s a “wonderful guy”. Keyes is alone most nights because her husband works the overnight shift as a disc jockey. After he tries (and fails) to put the make on her, he returns to apologize. The lonely housewife dances with him while the song “Baby” plays on the radio, cozying up cheek to cheek, and then… well, you know!

Heflin resorts to anything to get what he wants, including setting up Keyes’ hubby and shooting him. After being found innocent in a coroner’s inquiry, literally getting away with murder, he convinces her of his innocence and the two get married. Heflin buys a motel in Vegas, and is ready to live the American dream, but there’s a hitch to his plans when Keyes discovers she’s already four months pregnant, and her deceased hubby was impotent! Realizing questions will be re-raised regarding their relationship while she was married, the two take off to a deserted ‘ghost town’ in the desert to have the child, away from prying eyes. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it packs a wallop! THE PROWLER is essential viewing for film noir lovers, written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo under the name of “front” Hugo Butler (and as an inside joke, Losey hired Trumbo to provide the radio voice of Keyes’ disc jockey husband, without the knowledge of anyone involved!).

Last but certainly not least, we come to WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (RKO 1956), directed by the legendary Fritz Lang , who knew a thing or two about crafting film noir! Casey Robinson’s extremely cynical script shows us the power struggle at a New York newspaper, with whoever discovers the identity of “The Lipstick Killer” terrorizing the town being named Executive Director. The characters are sleazy and unlikable, with everyone sleeping with everyone else, and only the top-notch cast makes them palatable, led by Dana Andrews as a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV broadcaster, Thomas Mitchell as the sly old-school pro, George Sanders at his smarmy, sarcastic best, Vincent Price as the dilettante son who inherits a media empire, Rhonda Fleming as his slutty wife (who’s banging art director James Craig on the side), Sally Forrest as Sanders’ secretary in love with Andrews, Ida Lupino as a gossip columnist Sanders sics on Andrews to seduce him, and Howard Duff as the lead cop on the case. You can’t get much better than that cast!

As the sex-killer with mommy issues, John Drew Barrymore (billed a John Barrymore, Jr.) looks more like Elvis than he does his famous father. Barrymore’s career never reached the heights of his dad, mainly due to his excesses, and his was a tragic life. Towards the end, he was cared for by daughter Drew, who’s had quite a career of her own. WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS is arguably Lang’s last great film, with moody cinematography by the great Ernest Laszlo (DOA, KISS ME DEADLY ). With that cast, Robinson’s pessimistic script, and Lang’s deft direction, it’s another must-see for film noir fans. Oh yes, before I forget, if that stylized ‘K’ for Kyne, Inc. looks familiar, it’s because it’s leftover from another RKO film:

That’s right, CITIZEN KANE! Who says RKO didn’t get the most for their money?

More CLEANING OUT THE DVR:

Five Films From Five Decades

Five Films From Five Decades 2

Those Swingin’ Sixties!

B-Movie Roundup!

Fabulous 40’s Sleuths

All-Star Horror Edition!

Film Noir Festival

All-Star Comedy Break

Film Noir Festival Redux

Halloween Leftovers

Five From The Fifties

Too Much Crime On My Hands

All-Star Western Roundup!

Sex & Violence, 70’s Style!

Halloween Leftovers 2

Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

Happy 100th Birthday Glenn Ford: 3:10 TO YUMA (Columbia 1957)

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Actor Glenn Ford was born 100 years ago today in Sainte-Christine-d’Auergne, Quebec, Canada. Yes, the All-American star was actually Canadian, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1939. That same year, Ford signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and began a long, prosperous career with the studio. After getting noticed in films like HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE, SO ENDS OUR NIGHT, and TEXAS (his first Western), Ford took a break from acting and joined the Marine Corps to serve in World War II.

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After the war, Glenn Ford was one of Hollywood’s top leading men. He hit it big with 1946’s GILDA, co-starring Rita Hayworth in what may very well be the first true film noir. Soon he found himself the hero in a string of successes: FRAMED, MAN FROM THE ALAMO, THE BIG HEAT , BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, JUBAL, and TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But my favorite Ford role casts him as the villain, outlaw Ben Wade in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 TO YUMA.

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Based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard, 3:10 TO YUMA begins with cattle rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two young sons stumbling onto a stagecoach robbery by the notorious Ben Wade (Ford) and his gang. They witness the driver being killed, but Evans doesn’t get involved. He’s been beaten down by a harsh Arizona life, suffering through a severe drought, and needs money to survive. Wade and his crew ride to Bisbee, stopping at a saloon posing as cattle drivers, and alert the marshal to the killing. The town forms a posse and rides off, while Wade disperses his men so he can stay behind and dally with the local barmaid (Felicia Farr, wife of future Ford co-star Jack Lemmon).

Town drunk Alex Potter (Henry Jones in a good performance) arrives late to the posse, and tells them one of the strangers is still in town. They return, and Evans is used to trap Wade. The outlaw is captured, and the townsmen devise a plan to sneak Wade into Contention City by throwing the gang off the trail. Evans and Potter are the only men who volunteer to guard Wade at the hotel there while they await the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Now begins a psychological cat-and-mouse game between Wade and Evans as the gang rides into Contention, and Evans is left on his own to bring the killer Wade to justice.

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Ford exudes quiet menace as Ben Wade, by turns charming and coldly calculating. He plays head games as Evans’ prisoner, his sly smirk masking his evil intentions. Ford’s calm demeanor as Wade is just right for the character, in a role that might have caused a lesser actor to chew the scenery. Heflin is his equal as Evans, who’s doing his job not only for the money, but to gain the respect of his children. The two actors work nicely together, elevating the material above the standard horse opera.

The supporting cast features Richard Jaeckel in his patented “top henchman” role, and also includes Leora Dana, Robert Emhardt, and Ford Rainey. Director Delmer Daves was responsible for some fine films, like DARK PASSAGE, BROKEN ARROW, A SUMMER PLACE, and two others with Ford, JUBAL and COWBOY. The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who also did the theme from TV’s RAWHIDE, and Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES . 3:10 TO YUMA was remade fifty years later with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the Ford/Heflin roles, one of the few remakes of classic films that really works.

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Glenn Ford went on to make many more pictures. THE SHEEPMAN, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, and THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER were among the best. He did a series of lower budget Westerns in the late 60’s-early 70’s, and starred for a season in a modern-day TV Western, CADE’S COUNTY, with old Columbia cohort Edgar Buchanan. Later, he had a cameo as Pa Kent in 1978’s SUPERMAN, and even made a slasher film (1981’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). Glenn Ford passed away on August 30, 2006, leaving a legacy of fine film performances. 3:10 TO YUMA may be his best, a complete change of pace that the actor nails with ease. Happy birthday, Glenn, and thanks for the memories.

 

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