"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Misfits (UA, 1961)


Angst - on screen and off




 
 
The other day we reviewed two black & white pictures released by United Artists in 1961, Gun Fight and Gun Street. They were definitely B-movies but that year the same studio released what was very much an A-picture, though still in monochrome, a John Huston-produced and -directed film written by Arthur Miller and starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Is The Misfits a Western? Ah, there’s the rub. When is a Western not a Western? When it is ajar, I hear you respond. But don’t be silly. One thing we can say: even if it is set in the (then) present day and contains trucks and planes, it is very much a treatment of the classic theme of ‘the end of the West’.

This notion, that the Old West was dead or dying, that the freedoms and man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do qualities of the frontier were no more, that they had been submerged by the modern world, fences and ‘civilization’, was especially popular in the 1960s, when it was paralleled by the decline of the Western movie as genre. After all, the decade opened with The Magnificent Seven, about gunfighters as dinosaurs, out of place in a modern world with nothing to expect but a dusty death, and ended with The Wild Bunch, about gunfighters as dinosaurs, out of place in a modern world with nothing to expect but a dusty death. Sam Peckinpah was especially fond of this theme – watch Ride the High Country or The Ballad of Cable Hogue and you’ll see.

In fact of course this theme had been an essential element of the Western myth from its very inception. The first great Western novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, was about nothing else. Frederic Remington’s paintings were often nostalgic and elegiac about a time that had passed - look at The Fall of the Cowboy as an example.

The last cowboys

William S Hart stressed this aspect, especially in Tumbleweeds. Zane Grey often waxed romantically lyrical about the passing of the great days of the West. Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the closing of the frontier, universally accepted in its day, reinforced the notion. And the idea continued throughout. Read Glendon Swarthout’s The Shootist (1975). In a way, the ‘end of the West’ has always been an integral part of the myth.

But nowhere will you find a bitterer and sourer treatment of that theme than in The Misfits.

Central to the character of Gay Langland (Gable) is the view he often expresses that “they’ve changed everything around”. There are no more ‘Western’ certainties. He’s a shiftless cowboy with nowhere to go. He has lost his wife. His children hardly ever visit him anymore. Anything is “better than wages” so he loafs about doing this and that, occasionally “mustanging”, that is rounding up some of the few wild horses that are left and selling them to a dealer for dog meat. He renounces even that at the end.

Gable never better

I must say that though I am not a fan of Clark Gable, a rather mechanical actor, and I think he was especially weak in Westerns, he is absolutely superb here as the aging Westerner with roguish charm. His performance is by turns sympathetic, moving and sad. This was his last film: he died shortly after it was wrapped. Robert Mitchum was first choice but he didn’t like the script and turned it down. Or maybe he had unhappy memories of River of No Return with Monroe a few years before, another picture beset by problems with cast and crew.

Great directors can coax good performances out of mediocre actors and great performances out of good ones. Huston did exactly that. But it wasn’t easy.

It was of course also Marilyn Monroe’s last feature. During filming in 1960 her marriage to Miller was on the rocks. They divorced in January 1961, the month the movie was released. This script, which on one level portrayed a woman recently divorced finding a new man and a future, seemed to be almost a farewell gift to her. But she was already in thrall to barbiturates, unstable, and in a decline. She would die the following August.

Monroe tragic

The shooting was beset with Monroe’s absences in detox and her disastrous condition when she was present. She often didn’t know her lines (and the scene where she fails to remember what she was supposed to say at the divorce hearing is telling). Gable was feeling his age and slowing down, and was exhausted and exasperated by his co-star.

And Montgomery Clift, too, as the punch-drunk rodeo star Perce Howland, really a younger version of Langland and ineluctably destined to the same later life, definitely shows signs of the depression, drug abuse and alcoholism that was afflicting him, as well as the results of the terrible car crash he had had in 1956. It was hardly more than a decade since his youthful Matt in Red River (the only other Western he did) and he was only just 40 yet here he looks like a half-crazed middle-aged man.

Clift in a bad way

Gable told friends he was working with a bunch of loonies. Huston sometimes arrived drunk on the set – and little wonder, you may say.

Eli Wallach, as the pilot Guido, looking much younger than when he was Calvera in The Magnificent Seven the year before, is one of the best actors on the set. But his character too is a dislocated person, an unhappy widower, mentally scarred by his wartime experiences, pretending to feel what he does not and secretly lusting after the Monroe character.

Wallach always good

The nearest to a happy and ‘normal’ person in the story is Isabelle (Thelma Ritter, a great actress) but even she is a divorcée who helps others with their divorces, and a person almost camping out in Reno rather than truly living there.

Ritter very fine

They are not a well-adjusted bunch…

Justin Kwedi on the site DVD Classik suggests that “Le western crépusculaire et post-moderne naît en partie ici” (the crepuscular post-modern Western really starts here) and he has a point. The following year we would get the splendid Lonely Are the Brave which had some similarities – though was perhaps more obviously ‘Western’. It was a superior picture in my view. Monsieur Kwedi adds, of The Misfits: “L’Ouest est un cimetière, un mirage dont les héros doivent s’échapper s’ils veulent renaître ; et après l’ouverture idéalisée, Huston capture cet espace d’une façon funèbre à travers les nuances noires ténébreuses de la photo de Russel Metty.” (The West is a cemetery, a mirage which the heroes must escape from if they want to be reborn; and after the idealized opening scenes Huston captures this space in a funereal way with the dark shadows of Russell Metty’s photography).

Marilyn's charater is actually right: it is insufferably cruel

Actually, Metty’s cinematography is very fine, and the visual is one of the film’s great strengths. Metty had been filming Westerns since 1931 but many of them were B-pictures and it could be that The Misfists was the best Western he ever did – if Western it be. The black & white was perhaps a curious choice for an A-picture like this in the early 60s but it is certainly very beautiful.

Russ Metty

The Alex North music is good, too, haunting and atmospheric.

I’m not sure about the Arthur Miller screenplay, though. Writing for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann said that Miller “has done some representative worrying for all of us about certain defects and defeats in contemporary life” but the writing was always theatrical. Here, the characters are supposed to be ‘ordinary’ people, not especially educated, yet Miller makes them super-articulate and even philosophical in their dialectical speeches. What Kauffmann calls “these uncommonly loquacious Westerners” express their neuroses at some length, as if they were Sartre readers on Broadway. At one point Guido says "We're all blind bombardiers . . . Droppin' a bomb is like tellin' a lie - makes everything so quiet afterwards." It just doesn’t ring true. And the suddenly upbeat ending after all this angst does not ring true either.

Miller and Huston on the set

The picture premièred in New York (not Nevada) and received a lukewarm reception from the critics. Still, The Misfits is in many ways a fine film, and Huston was a master at using wide open spaces to highlight the vulnerability and loneliness of Western characters – though of course he was not the first to do this. The movie was not even nominated for the Osars. I've given it three revolvers as a Western rather than as a piece of American cinema.

 

 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Gun Street (UA, 1961)


Disappointing




 
 
Gun Street is a low-budget black & white B-Western with an unstellar cast and all the appearance of a TV show. It’s disappointing.

The taglines, All The Terror Of A 'Killer Hunt'... All The Fury Of The Old West... All The Cold-Steel Courage Of One-Man Law!, were frankly misleading.

It was a Robert E Kent production. As I said the other day when reviewing this movie's companion piece, Gun Fight, released earlier the same year, Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Street will be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

It stars James Brown (no, not that one) as a sheriff trying to be Matt Dillon. Brown was an athlete who made his name in war movies and then in 1954 became Lt. Rip Masters in the very popular TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. After that his career didn’t exactly skyrocket. Apart from these two two Kent Westerns in 1961, it was largely occasional appearances in TV shows.

Trying to be Marshal of Dodge

He has a deputy, played by John Clarke, a forgettable TV actor; this was one of only two big-screen Westerns he appeared in.

Upholdin' the law with deputy Sam Freed

They learn that a townsman who had been jailed for life (Warren Kemmerling) has broken out of the state pen, killing a guard, and is heading for town. There, his ex-wife (Peggy Stewart) is now married to the local doc (John Pickard), who has adopted the killer’s son. There is supposed to be a sense of threat but it’s all rather bland.

Tension is supposed to build in the final reel as a posse pursues the killer into the Californian rocks but viewers hoping for a Winchester ’73-style shoot-out will be sorely disappointed. The ending might be described as bathos, if you were being polite. Weak and trite would be other words.

The sheriff has to deal with a complaining and critical mayor (Nesdon Booth)

It was written by Sam Freedle, who had been a ‘script clerk’ on High Noon but that really was the height of his Western fame. The screenplay of Gun Street is ponderous, not helped by the actors stodgily delivering the lines. Sam Freedle allowed himself the joke of having the deputy named Sam Freed.

Edward L Cahn (right) directed. Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the very fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. he never did anything as good again. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director. He looks rather serious in the photo, doesn't he? As if pondering the philosophical weight of his B-Westerns. Sadly, there wasn't any.

You could watch Gun Street, if you absolutely had to. But with the best will in the world (and anyone will tell you I have that, hem hem) I couldn't bump it up to two revolvers.

 

 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gun Fight (UA, 1961)


Dull






In 1961 producer Robert E Kent put together two B-Westerns released by United Artists and starring James Brown: Gun Fight, released in May, and Gun Street, which came out in November. Gun Street will be our next review. Bet you can’t wait.

I’m sorry to tell you right away that neither is very good. They are low-budget black & white affairs, cheaply staged with interior sets that a local amateur dramatics troupe might have been satisfied with and unconvincing studio ‘exteriors’ that remind us of those old 1940s programmers. There are plastic logs and fake snow. The writing and acting is also plodding and ponderous.

Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Fight and Gun Street will both be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

Both were directed by Edward L Cahn (left). Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started very well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. He never did a Western as good as that again and we certainly don't count Cahn among the élite of Western directors. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director.

Brown had started as an athlete, got picked for war movies and then made his name as Lt. Rip Masters in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The show ran on ABC on Friday evenings from October 1954 to May 1959, for no fewer than 164 episodes, and was enormously popular, so Brown, though rather a wooden actor, was a well-known character in uniform.

The best actor is in the middle. Actually, that's not quite fair: Lee Aaker was very good too.
 
However, Brown seems to have been demoted because in Gun Fight he is a sergeant, mustering out (and changing into buckskins) after serving with Benteen on the Little Big Horn and going to Wyoming to join up with his brother Brad (Gregg Palmer) who has a cattle ranch. Or so he thinks. Actually Brad is a low-down rustler and stage robber with a mean gang which includes vicious half-breed known as Pawnee (Ron Soble).

In fact the gang hold up the very stage Sgt. Brown is on, riding with his girlfriend Nora (Joan Staley) and an oily gambler, Cole Fender (Charles Cooper). The skunk Fender bonks the sergeant on the head with a pistol, to stop him shooting at the outlaws. Naturally, because Fender is a slick gambler in a frock coat, this gun is a derringer, so that sent the movie up in my estimation (you know who besotted I am with derringers). The interior of the stagecoach, by the way, is one of the most laughably bad studio sets I have ever seen in a Western.

 
Palmer, you will certainly know, did dozens and dozens of B- and TV-Westerns, becoming a regular member of John Wayne’s stock company of actors. He started as Grat Dalton in the Audie Murphy picture The Cimarron Kid, and among many other appearances was an Army captain in both Taza, Son of Cochise and Revolt at Fort Laramie. He was Jack Slade in the Stories of the Century episode, and the same year as Gun Fight he was one of the duelists in Wayne’s The Comancheros. He was always reliable, and quite good as heavy. This time he’s a heavy with a heart of gold, though.

Bad guy Gregg (obviously bad because unshaven) with goody bro
 
Soble takes the acting honors (such as they are) as the nasty and treacherous Pawnee who hates our hero. He was a regular as bad guy on any number of Western TV shows but only did a handful of big-screen oaters. He had small parts in True Grit and Chisum, so that’s something.
 
Soble is the really bad guy though
 
Gun Fight was written by Gerald Drayson Adams, so really the screenplay should have been better. But much of it is lurid melodrama. There’s a very vague attempt at a Cain-and-Abel theme but as Cain doesn’t kill Abel it doesn’t really come off.
 
Both pictures were photographed by Walter Stenge, later to become President of the ASC. Unfortunately, there is so little location shooting and the studio sets are so basic that Stenge hardly got a chance to shine. You get the impression that such shots of Wyoming as there are were intercut from footage of other movies.
 
If I had to choose, I’d go for Gun Fight over Gun Street, but to be brutally frank (and when, dear e-pards, am I anything else?), they both pretty well suck. Oh, that's unkind. Let's say they aren't terribly good.

 

 
 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stagecoach to Fury (Fox, 1956)


Hostages at the stage station




 
 
William F Claxton (left) was principally a director of TV Westerns, doing especially Yancey Derringer episodes and later working a lot with Michael Landon, on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. But he did some big-screen oaters too, and in 1956 and ’57 he made two for Regal Pictures, released by Fox, which starred the excellent Forrest Tucker – a fine Western actor. They were low-budget black & white B-pictures really but they had some merit, especially the second one, The Quiet Gun, which we reviewed the other day (click the link to read that). Claxton (billed on this one without the middle F) managed to bring some pace and tension into what is essentially a static story. It’s a ‘siege Western’ in which bandits take over a stage relay station and hold the passengers of the incoming coach, which they believe to be carrying gold, hostage.
 
Fury is the destination town but also, obviously, has a double meaning. In some ways it reminded me of Fox’s earlier picture, Rawhide, a superb, gripping (though largely forgotten) noir which has a similar plot. And when stage driver Paul Fix says to his friend the shotgun messenger Forrest Tucker that he wonders what happened to the people who ran the stage station and Tucker replies that maybe he wouldn’t want to know, it also reminded me of The Tall T, released earlier the same year, where the grisly fate is more graphically described.

Static siege stories like this one are cheap to stage, so are good for a low-budget picture, but can be hard to do well. They risk becoming slow and over-talky. But this one does have excitement as the passengers plot to outwit the bandits.

It’s a flashback-movie: each of the passengers has a story and we go back with them as they remember. There is a manipulative and duplicitous woman (Western vet Mari Blanchard) on the run with a small bag of cash, very like the banker Gatewood in Stagecoach. There is a judge (the even more experienced Wallace Ford) who is a serial coward, running from threats in town after town. And there is a two-gun quick-draw artist (Wright King, from The Gabby Hayes Show) who, it is revealed, has shot down a decent sheriff (Ian MacDonald) for no other reason than to make a name for himself as a gunfighter. All three are lowlifes but only the judge comes up trumps and finally finds some courage.

One of the bandits (Rico Alaniz) has designs on Mari

The robbers are led by Rodolfo Hoyos Jr. in his first big-screen Western – he did mostly TV shows, though he would be Villa! in 1958. He is satisfactory as the gentleman bandit with a heart of stone. Of course he will be thwarted by brave Forrest Tucker, as we all know. He must have guessed, surely?

Rodolfo bosses the bandits

Eric Norden wrote both pictures. This one has fewer improbable plot twists than The Quiet Gun and the occasional classy line. Paul Dunlap did the music for both, and it’s pleasant enough. It is said to have been shot in Montana, though looks more like Utah to me.

Widescreen

The cinematographer was Walter Strenge (soon to be President of the American Society of Cinematographers) and rather surprisingly, considering how few exterior shots there are, this picture, Strenge’s first Western, was nominated for ‘best black and white photography’, this being one of the last movies to be considered in that category because the Academy dropped it shortly thereafter. It was in CinemaScope, so maybe it was that.

Margia Dean as Forrest's wife Ruth has surprisingly little to say or do

There’s quite a good final shoot-out and a Tucker/Hoyos showdown horseback duel with rifles.

Definitely watchable. It doesn’t, perhaps, have quite the quality of The Quiet Gun but it certainly has merit.



Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Quiet Gun (Fox, 1957)


An interesting B-Western




 
 
I really like The Quiet Gun. On one level just a minor black & white B-Western made on a modest budget by Regal Pictures (in “Regalscope”!), it is lifted by the quality of the acting into an interesting, rather dark psychological Western of some quality.
 

The stand-out is Forrest Tucker as Carl Brandon, the decent sheriff of Rock River, a small Western town. Tucker was a much better Western actor than many have allowed and this was one of his best performances, B-movie or no. He manages to convey decency and courage while at the same time being conflicted and far from certain of himself. He reminds us of Gary Cooper, even, and indeed, there are similarities to High Noon in the plot as the lawman of a Western town (most is shot on sound stages) is obliged because of pusillanimous townsfolk to stand alone against the bad guys - though of course The Quiet Gun is far from High Noon in quality.

Decent Sheriff Tucker looks askance at henchman Van Cleef

It’s an indictment of small-town morality. Pompous and judgmental attorney Steven Hardy (Lewis Martin, a regular on TV Westerns) rails against local rancher Ralph Carpenter (Jim Davis in his umpteenth Western; he’d been at it since 1942, and was well known at the time because of Stories of the Century on TV) because he has separated from his wife and is apparently living with a young Indian woman (Mara Corday, from A Day of Fury). Hardy gets the town council to issue a formal complaint and rides out to serve it. Carpenter is angry. Hot words are exchanged. The attorney grabs a rifle and in self-defense Carpenter shoots him. Now Carpenter is wanted for murder and an undeputized posse – in fact a lynch mob – is out after him.

Jim offends the busybodies by having an Indian mistress

Sheriff Brandon is a good friend of Carpenter’s but he is in love with Carpenter’s estranged wife Teresa (Kathleen Crowley from The Silver Whip). In one way it would be convenient if Carpenter were to fall. But the sheriff will do his duty, and he does all in his power to convince Carpenter to turn himself in. But the lynchers overpower the lawman and hang the rancher.

Oh dear

Now the sheriff sets out to arrest and bring to trial the murderers of Carpenter but the townsfolk want the men free…

Behind the scenes there is a classic slimy saloon owner, Reilly (Tom Brown, often that rancher on Gunsmoke) who wants Carpenter’s ranch and he has a sadistic henchman all in black, in the shape of Lee Van Cleef, in a classic performance. There will of course be a last-reel showdown, quite interestingly staged in fact, between the sheriff and these two crooks.

Slimy saloon owner and henchman

Hank Worden is a simple-minded liveryman who is bullied by Van Cleef, defended by the sheriff and who becomes a loyal deputy. Worden of course specialized in these simpletons and there are (very) faint echoes of the previous year's The Searchers in his role. Normally the bad guy would mistreat a child or animal in the first reel to establish his badness but here he had to make do with Hank.
 
Good old Hank

There is also an entertaining undertaker played by Vince Barnett, that professional insulter and prankster of a comic.

There are some improbable plot twists, it must be said, but they don’t detract too much from the quality. The title is also a bit odd, neither the firearm nor the character of the sheriff being all that silent.

Tough sheriff deals with henchperson

It was directed by William F Claxton (below), a Michael Landon pal who did a lot of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie epsiodes, who had started as an editor on the 1939 Frontier Marshal and who had directed another black & white B-Western with Tucker the year before, Stagecoach to Fury (click the link to read about that one).


Worth a look.