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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Vanquished (Paramount, 1953)

Crooked town boss Lyle

I don’t mind John Payne Westerns. He was not maybe in the very top rank of Western actors, nor was he an especially charismatic actor; many will remember him most as The Restless Gun on TV. But he was solid and some of his big-screen efforts were perfectly creditable. Such a one is his 1953 outing, for Paramount, no less, The Vanquished.
Payne saves the town - and has a choice
I also like this picture because Lyle Bettger is the villain, and I am a bit of a Lyle fan on the quiet. This was in fact only his second feature-film Western (he had been Sterling Hayden’s smiling sidekick in Denver & Rio Grande the year before). Blond men make good villains, for some odd reason, and none better that Mr. Bettger, who villained his way from Western to Western all through the 1950s and 60s. The only trouble with The Vanquished, though, is that he doesn’t smile enough. He’s just a dead-straight out-and-out bad guy. Lyle was at his best when being charming. Like a snake.
Great villain
The Vanquished is no great classic. The studio brought out Shane that year and The Vanquished is certainly not in that class, nor can it really compete with Warner Bros’ Hondo or MGM’s The Naked Spur. But it can hold its head up among the likes of, say, Thunder over the Plains (a movie with which it has certain things in common), The Nebraskan or The Moonlighter, and it was a lot better than the clunky Pony Express or noxious Arrowhead (both the last two also Paramount).

It’s a Reconstruction story. Usually in Westerns (such as, indeed, Thunder over the Plains) this is an unmitigated Bad Thing. Reconstruction stories are always about evil and dishonest carpet-baggers, backed up by Union troops, oppressing the decent Southern folk with taxes and appropriations. No mention of the benefits of Reconstruction is ever made and if African-Americans appear at all they are referred to as darkies and are the object of derision. There is usually a courageous ex-soldier (Union or Confederate) who takes up the cause of the (white) locals and bests the crooked Northerners.

But The Vanquished is slightly more subtle than that. Yes, it does have an ex-soldier hero (Payne) thwarting the oppressor (Bettger) and true, there are no African-Americans to be seen except as silent servants. But the military authorities, in the shape first of General Hildebrandt (Charles Evans) and, when Bettger murders him, General Morris (John Dierkes, splendidly bearded) are full of integrity, and they are decently determined to stamp out corruption, which they do. And Bettger, and his mistress Rose (Jan Sterling), a former seamstress for the rich folk, are local people getting their own back, not Northerners.

Three people worked on the screenplay, including Winston Miller, who had collaborated with Selznick on the script of Gone with the Wind, but he said, “Westerns happened to be what I could do best. There are a lot of pictures I couldn't do, like a highly dramatic Bette Davis picture. I can only speak for myself, but you find your niche, you find that other people like it. I never took an assignment I didn't think I could make a good picture out of.” He did My Darling Clementine for John Ford, and wrote smaller but classy Westerns such as Fury at Furnace Creek and Station West. So that’s probably why the screenplay of The Vanquished is as interesting as it is.
A bit grainy but the only photo I could find of Winston Miller
The director was Edward Ludwig, who had been an actor in silent movies, then screenwriter, and had started directing in the 1930s. He made the successful war film The Fighting Seabees with John Wayne at Republic, and later directed a lot of Western TV shows, notably those Restless Gun ones with Payne. He didn’t do many big-screen Westerns, though. This was his fourth of only five.
It may have been Paramount but it was still a B-Western. You can tell it’s low-budget. There are few exteriors and most is done in the studio. Still, it is in Technicolor.

It’s 1866. In the first reel Payne rages to the military at the injustice of the corrupt administration of Roger Hale (Bettger) in his (unnamed) Southern home town, but as soon as he gets there he declares to the town notables in the saloon that he has no interest in opposing Hale, and indeed he goes to work for him, foreclosing and such. Of course we know that he is undercover, working to get the dirt on Hale, but the townsfolk don’t know that and they ostracize him. Well, Hale has personally hanged a citizen in the main street in the first reel so no wonder he and his henchpersons aren’t very popular. Willard Parker is one of those. He is the corrupt Army captain in on Hale’s nefarious schemes.

Lyle lords it over the town with his lady - I mean, woman, Jan Sterling
Apart from Rose, who, Hale says, will be a rich woman, but never a lady, there is the doctor’s glam daughter Jane (Coleen Gray) who used to love Payne before the war and now re-falls for him. She is demure and proper but plucky and determined. Ms. Gray was a former Fox starlet who had had the honor of being fifth-billed in Red River and then appeared in three B-Westerns. Jan Sterling, Rose, was an actress who specialized in the sulky pout and the year after The Vanquished would be Oscar-nominated for her part in The High and the Mighty with Wayne. Earlier in ’53 she had been ‘the other woman’ to Rhonda Fleming in the rather dire Pony Express.
Oh dear, these studio publicity stills...
There’s a good bit with some scissors which has a Hitchcockian tinge and also reminds you of The Furies.
Worth a look.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Track of the Cat (Warner Bros, 1954)

Wellman gets arty

Track of the Cat was a Robert Fellows/John Wayne production under the Batjac label. They got William A Wellman to direct, thus guaranteeing an arty, intense, interesting picture. Wellman went right back to the silent days (he directed three pictures with Buck Jones) and had later done such fine pictures as The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky and Westward the Women. He was admired by both Howard Hawks and John Ford. Track of the Cat was his most stylized film.
William A Wellman
But to counteract the artiness they got Robert Mitchum, whom Wayne admired, to star. Mitchum was hardly the producer’s friend but even when on auto-pilot (i.e. usually) he was superb, and this time he seemed to spark and was even better. He provided the Western grit to what might otherwise have been an overly talky theatrical piece. Track of the Cat was derived from the novel by Walter van Tilburg Clark, who had written the source novel of Ox-Bow, a picture Mitchum admired (he said he watched it every year).
Walter van Tilburg Clark
Talented novelist and screenwriter AI Bezzerides was engaged to adapt the Clark novel into a screenplay. “I finished the first draft of the script. And John Wayne called me in … and said how wonderful it was … I said it was just a first draft. It needs cutting … But Wellman didn’t want it changed. I said, ‘Bill, it needs cutting.’ … Wellman said, ‘No, it’s perfect.’ … And oh my God, that’s going too far. I’m not untouchable. But he wouldn’t listen.”

And indeed the finished film is rather overwrought. It is curiously cloven: on the one hand it is an action Western as men with rifles hunt a ‘painter’, as they call the cat, in the snowy wastes (these parts were shot in the Rainier National Park in Washington and the White Mountains in Arizona). This cat is a symbol of evil or hatred or an ancient curse. Or something. But on the other hand at least half the scenes are staged as interiors or on a sound-stage ‘exterior’ around the ranch, and here we have a family psychodrama, what seems for all the world like a Broadway play by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams: bitter and hateful people verbally claw at each other.
Gwen wears what little color is allowed
We are somewhere in northern California at the turn of the twentieth century (no date is given but a book figures which was inscribed in 1896). A family lives on a remote ranch that risks being snowbound. The parents are a dominant matriarch, a poisonous and manipulative Bible-reading old woman brilliantly played by Beulah Bondi, and a drunken and almost gaga father (Philip Tonge) who has given up all responsibility for anything.

Bondi brillaint as the poisonous old woman
They have three sons and a daughter. Mitchum is the eldest son Curt, supported in everything by his mother and a real swine. Mitchum handles this superbly. Art is more sensitive, a poetry reader and the only one in the family who is kind to the sinister centenarian Indian factotum Joe Sam (played by Carl ‘Alafalfa’ Switzer, the kid from Our Gang, who, amazingly, was only 26) who is abused, even hated by the others.

Tab Hunter plays Harold, much younger, perhaps an afterthought, who has a girlfriend who is staying in the house, Gwen (Diana Lynn, excellent) but who hasn’t the gumption even to kiss her, still less ask for her hand. He is completely cowed. Hunter was never the most charismatic of actors but that was exactly what was needed for this part.

And Teresa Wright, with whom Mitchum had acted in another dark Warners Western, Pursued, in 1947, is also very good as the disappointed spinster sister who loves Art but hates her mother. That’s it. It’s a small ensemble cast (which gets smaller when early on Art is killed by the cat) and as they are all (except Harold) articulate and passionate you can see it would have been ideal as a stage play in the theater.
Curt and Art
The Roy Webb music is cleverly symphonic, matching the different scenes, so by turns, dark, cold, raging.

The picture is fascinating visually. Wellman and Batjac had to extort widescreen color and expensive locations from Warners. Jack Warner was, however, furious when he found it had been used to produce a black & white picture: Wellman had all the characters wear black and white.

The scenery and props are monochrome too. Only Gwen, as an outsider, is allowed a flash of yellow under the black, and Mitchum has a blood-red mackinaw that stands out incredibly in the snow scenes. This jacket, however, figures in the plot and Mitchum’s character early trades it for Art’s black & white cowskin one, which he wears for the rest of the movie.

Even when they are laying out Art’s body, the mother says, “Wrap him in that black and white spread. He always loved it.” The coffin is painted black, as is the cross. DP William Clothier managed to attenuate the tints generally and saturate the rare flashes of color. Art director Al Ybarra also did a wonderful job and Clothier, Ybarra and Wellman were delighted with the result. The color-coding is as noticeable as it is in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, photographed by Harry Stradling Sr, which Republic had brought out six months before. Jack Warner said, “I’m spending five hundred thousand dollars more for color and there’s no color in the damn thing!” Wellman replied tersely, “If he doesn’t like it he can go shit in his hat.”
Splash of color
Andrew McLaglen, the assistant director, had to manage the snow scenes. On July 4th up on Mt Rainier they had a blizzard. After the storm it was perfect. Many of the long shots of ‘Mitchum’ are his stunt double, easily disguised in that hooded mackinaw, Mitch himself doing the close-up sound stage ones. But Mitchum did enough outside himself for him to say it was the toughest shoot he ever did.
Equally cold is Mitchum’s character Curt, “a cheap, dirtymouth bully”, the most unsympathetic role the actor had yet attempted. Bezzerides, on the set, later said, “Bob Mitchum was fantastic. He carried scenes that need to be polished [Bezzerides was still vainly hoping for rewrites] and his performance made some of it work. I got to know him very well and I thought he was a wonderful guy. But cynical, God is he cynical.”
Holed up in a cave
One problem is that Mitchum is alone, mostly, so the only way he can communicate his thoughts (easily done in the book) is to talk to his horse, or, once he has sent the nag home with his brother’s body, himself. The sight of Robert Mitchum wading through think snow or holed up in a cave muttering to himself is odd.
The ranch
The panther attacks are well handled. We never see the cat (it’s supposed to be an abstraction of evil, I suppose) and this works, just as those Westerns with threatening Indians that are never seen work. But the audience didn’t warm to the picture. Perhaps they wanted to see Mitchum torn to pieces by the cat at the end. ”The audience’s imagination failed to imagine,” said Wellman. It was a box-office flop and also panned by the critics, some of whom were more savage than the black panther.

Arty camera in the grave
It’s a very fine film, though, in my opinion anyway.



Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Westerns of John Sturges

A mixed bag but mostly good

John Sturges (left) made thirteen Westerns (depending on your definition of Western), between 1949 and 1973. Three of these were excellent, seven were good or goodish, and three lousy.

But if you like his pictures or don’t, there is no denying that he was an important figure in the history of the Western movie. Not, certainly, in the John Ford or Howard Hawks class, probably not even in the Anthony Mann or Delmer Daves class. But solid, and just occasionally better than that. Three of his Westerns were superb examples of the genre. He was awarded the Golden Boot award in 1992 for his lifetime contribution to Westerns.

He had a flair for action (not only in the Western genre) but could also handle interesting interplay between characters, especially male ones, and characters who develop.
John Sturges (1910 - 1992)
John Elliott Sturges (no relation to Preston) was born in Illinois in 1910. He began his Hollywood career as an editor in 1932. During the Second World War, he directed documentaries and training films for the Air Force. His career as director started in 1946 with the first in a series of crime-drama B-movies for Columbia.

In 1949 he directed a contemporary noir, The Walking Hills, which opens with John Ireland as a private eye in a modern city street but soon develops into a true Western. It was produced by Harry Joe Brown and the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, and it was written by Alan LeMay of The Searchers fame. There is no doubt that Warners' The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the year before influenced Sturges. Columbia got gold fever too and put out the excellent Lust for Gold and The Walking Hills with similar gold-hunting/skullduggery/tension plots. It’s an excellent picture – and Scott is superb.
Good contemporary Western noir
In 1953, now at MGM, Sturges made what is an underrated Western but in my view a very fine one. ’53 was a great year for the genre and Escape from Fort Bravo was overshadowed by the likes of Shane, The Naked Spur and Hondo. But it’s a tough, gritty, exciting picture with a superb William Holden, beautifully filmed by the great Robert Surtees in New Mexico and Death Valley locations. Sturges was beginning to show a real understanding of the genre.

And then, in 1955, came Bad Day at Black Rock, perhaps Sturges’s master work and a truly fine film. There are those who say it isn’t a Western, and I understand that (like The Walking Hills, it has a contemporary setting) but for me it is one because it addresses truly Western themes, and does so in an original, powerful and intense way. It’s a social-problem film, a noir, an existentialist play – but mostly it’s a Western.
It's a human chess game
The following year Sturges directed a rather sub-prime Western, produced by Aaron Rosenberg and released by Universal, Backlash. It starred Richard Widmark in his first Western as lead. It enjoyed a good performance from John McIntire (always excellent) and there’s some nice Irving Glassberg cinematography of Old Tucson locations but Donna Reed was unsuited and the Borden Chase screenplay had stiff dialogue and unsubtle characters. There’s a fairly basic revenge/hidden gold plot: Widmark is seeking the traitor who was responsible for the death of his father, who buried some gold. There is some action as the ’good guys’ fight off Apaches. All in all it wasn’t bad but it was a Western that didn’t spark.
Widmark in Backlash
However, in 1957 came one of my favorite Westerns, the classic late-50s Gunfight at the OK Corral. This was an unapologetic retelling of the Wyatt Earp town-taming-marshal myth, with Burt Lancaster, aided by Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, shooting down the Clantons and cleaning up Tombstone. It was pretty much historical hokum, just as all Wyatt Earp movies are, but that’s fine. We don’t watch Western movies for a history lesson, we watch them for excitement, action and drama. And Sturges gave us that in spades with an action Western without pretension and without self-doubt. The late 50s was really the last hurrah of this kind of ‘straight’ Western, before the 60s ushered in the more modern form, giving us ‘the end of the West’ themes, Westerns which dealt with gunfighters feeling out of time, out of date in an increasingly modern and civilized world – and these ideas mirrored the decline in the Western movie itself.
Truly classic 50s Western
But not yet. Sturges still had something to say in the traditional 50s Western mode. Two MGM pictures with Robert Taylor came out in 1958, Saddle the Wind, released in March, and The Law and Jake Wade (yet to be reviewed) which came out in June. Taylor was a good Western lead and suited the saddle and six-gun. The first was directed by Robert Parrish but Sturges directed some of the scenes, uncredited. The second, again with Widmark, was Sturges’s own. Jake Wade was a straight-down-the-line oater, a B-Western if you will, though with big star Taylor and MGM that would hardly be fair. I like both these pictures and in a way they are typical Sturges. Nothing fancy, just actionful Westerns with interesting relationships between the characters.
Jake Wade, with Widmark again
And the 50s ended back with Kirk Douglas when Sturges directed a pictured produced by Douglas’s own company and Hal Wallis, and re-using some of the locations, cast and crew of Gunfight at the OK Corral, Paramount’s Last Train from Gun Hill. This had something in common with the Delmer Daves-directed 3:10 to Yuma of two years before as far as plot was concerned but it has a different tone. In color and rather more shoot-‘em-up than Daves went for, it is perhaps a more trad Western, but it still has tension and character-clash. It’s a good picture.
Kirk again, this time as Earpishly tough marshal, in Gun Hill
Here endeth the 1950s.

I have adored The Magnificent Seven (1960) ever since I first saw it, aged 12, when I thought it the best motion picture made in all of human history and I was probably right. It’s a thrilling gun-fest. Like all the best Westerns, it has few arty pretensions (despite the Kurosawa DNA). It just concentrates on action. Actually, when Akiro Kurosawa told Sturges that he loved The Magnificent Seven, Sturges said that was the proudest moment of his life. I’ve seen The Seven Samurai and I find it overlong and turgid. Sturges’s picture was way better.
The Magnificent Seven, the best bit
So what happened? How come a director of a Western as fine as this could follow it with two absolutely dire clunkers? It is difficult to be even polite about Sergeants 3 (1962) (which I haven't reviewed because I refuse to buy it and it hasn't come on TV and isn't on YouTube) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965). They are excruciatingly bad. I can only think he was too busy with The Great Escape. Sergeants 3 wasn’t entirely Sturges’s fault because it was a rat-pack Western and Sinatra was famously sloppy, wouldn’t do retakes and just couldn’t care less. The WR Burnett script was dire (and an insult to Rudyard Kipling). The whole thing is trash. Brian Garfield in his fine guide Western Films called it “asinine and nauseating”. As for Hallelujah Trail, there are no words to describe its elephantine dreadfulness. And it was by the director of The Magnificent Seven! Amazing.
Elephantine dreadfulness
The two movies would be enough to make any director swear off Westerns for evermore but fortunately Sturges came back to the genre in 1967 and with a tidy little oater too, another go at the Earp myth, Hour of the Gun. It had a very solid Wyatt/Doc pairing in James Garner and Jason Robards, and it was (as most Sturges Westerns were) nicely shot, this time in Panavision by the talented Lucien Ballard. It featured the great Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton. It is interesting too in that it starts with the OK Corral fight rather than ending with it. Sturges himself liked the picture, and indeed it has many good points.

Its principal weakness is that it falls heavily into the trap of claiming to be historically factual. It needlessly shows a block-capital introduction reading THIS PICTURE IS BASED ON FACT. THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED. The movie may have been slightly more accurate than previous versions in a few respects but as it has some preposterous hokum about Wyatt and Doc going down to Nogales and having a showdown with Clanton, leaving him dead in the dust, it shouldn’t really have claimed so much. Nobody blames Western movies for a lack of veracity. Except when they claim veracity. Still, it was quite a good little picture, even if it has never had the acclaim meted out to Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Good Wyatt-Doc casting
Five years passed. But in 1972, when he was into his sixties, Sturges collaborated with Clint Eastwood on Joe Kidd. I rather admire this picture. For one thing it was based on a story by the master, Elmore Leonard. For another, it’s visually stunning, with Bruce Surtees (son of the Fort Bravo Surtees) shooting truly beautiful Lone Pine and Old Tucson locations. Eastwood was now emerging from his spaghetti-grunting phase and he was well supported by the excellent Robert Duvall as the bad guy. Though an early-70s Western, there are few signs of revisionism or cynicism. It’s pretty ‘straight’. Not everyone likes it, but I do.
Clint was Joe Kidd
It was nearly the end of John Sturges’s Western career. It probably would have been better if had been. But his last official credit as director of a Western was on the 1973 spaghetti Chino, filmed in Spain and starring Charles Bronson. When Sturges fell ill, producer De Laurentis called in Italian director Duilio Coletti to stand in and in most versions Sturges and Coletti were both credited. It’s rather doubtful how much we can consider this a Sturges Western at all but it was nominally (he is also billed as producer) so we have to count it (unlike Saddle the Wind, which we don’t count). Chino is very bad, whoever was to blame.
Sturges credited on poster
So there we are, the Western career of John Sturges. With a few (glaring) exceptions, his Westerns were at least watchable and sometimes very good indeed.

He is probably not now residing at the very peak of the Western Mount Parnassus (probably somewhere in the Rockies) but he’s definitely ridin’ around the lower slopes.

And if you’re wondering which Westerns were which, back there in the first paragraph, this is my categorization:

The Magnificent Seven
Bad Day at Black Rock
Gunfight at the OK Corral

Very good or goodish
Escape from Fort Bravo
The Walking Hills
Last Train from Gun Hill
The Law and Jake Wade
Hour of the Gun
Joe Kidd
(Saddle the Wind)

The Hallelujah Trail
Sergeants 3
John Sturges

Happy trails, e-pards.



Friday, August 11, 2017

Chino (IRC, 1976)

John Sturges? I don't think so.

Chino was a bad sub-spaghetti-western of the early 70s made by Dino De Laurentis, an associate producer of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Man Called Sledge and ‘presenter’ (whatever that means) of The Shootist, but also culpable of such trash as The Hills Run Red and Navajo Joe. In common with most of those involved with Chino, he had very little understanding of the Western indeed.
Sturges credited on poster
To be a spaghetti is already shame enough. To produce a sub-spaghetti is somewhere on the awfulness scale of crimes between cannibalism and matricide. It is sub-spaghetti because it has all the spag elements of bad acting, lousy writing, shocking music, crap dubbing, Spanish locations and so on, yet it also tries for a family-friendly vibe. It tries to be a schmaltzy heart-warming tale of a young boy and how he bonds with foals and a discriminated-against rancher. Oh, please.

It is only of moderate interest (not even that, really) because it is supposed to be the last Western of John Sturges. Now Mr. Sturges had directed some so-so Westerns, even some downright lousy ones (I am thinking of Sergeants 3 and The Hallelujah Trail) but he had also been responsible for some very good – even great ones like Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven. What on earth was he doing on the plane to Spain?
Sturges? Really?
But in fact the Sturges imprimatur is tenuous at best. He fell ill and De Laurentis called in Italian director Duilio Coletti, not even known for spaghettis, let alone proper Westerns. In its European releases, from 1973 (1974 in France), Coletti was the only credited director. In the US release (1976) Sturges was the only named director (more bankable). How much Sturges actually directed is debatable at best – probably close to zero judging by the quality of the movie. Sturges is also listed as co-producer. Don’t know how much producing he did.

It stars Mr. & Mrs. Buchinsky – Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland. Bronson had recently done Chato’s Land (Chato, Chino - tomato, tomino), an even worse ‘Western’ made by British restaurant critic Michael Winner, who had even less feel for the Western than did Mr. De Laurentis. Bronson had had smallish parts in many mainstream American Westerns since Vera Cruz in 1954 but had never really made it (he was always wooden) and had thrown in his lot with the Eurowestern. As part of his contract with De Laurentis he also made The White Buffalo, another bad Western (click the link to see how bad).
Half-breed rancher toughs it out
Surprisingly, Chino was written by Clair Huffaker, or at least so the credits say. He was a writer of TV Western shows, especially Lawman, who had occasionally done good work for the big screen, such as the very good Flaming Star in 1960 and the entertaining Audie Murphy oater Seven Ways from Sundown the same year. You wouldn’t know it by the dreary script of Chino.

And indeed dreary is the word because large stretches of this wretched movie are plain boring.
Male bonding
Bronson gets into fights. He loves a big rancher's sister (Ireland), Catherine in the print I saw but she was apparently Louise in Euro-releases. The rancher (Marcel Bozzuffi) hates homesteaders fencing off the open range (or was it the reverse, I forget, some cliché anyway).

The boy (Vincent van Patten) is good enough, as child actors go. Bronson only ever refers to him as Boy, which didn’t seem very polite to me. Ms Ireland goes for an English accent. Well, she was born in London.
It's lerve
Though the movie is designed as family-friendly the producer/director get the tone wrong with a 1970s glimpse of an Indian woman's bare breasts and a near-rape scene between Bronson and Ireland. Still, Bronson gets in a Christmas tree for the boy and they exchange presents. It’s right about now that you start to think this film is really boring.
The rancher’s henchmen hang Bronson from a rail and whip him. But he toughs it out. As the boy is watching this I was vaguely put in mind of Once Upon a Time in the West, another Bronson Eurowestern. But only vaguely. The bad guys kill the boy’s foal and shoot at the fine wild stallion, so they must be really bad. But don’t worry, Bronson shoots them down in large numbers at the end. Then the boy leaves, Bronson burns his house down and starts to drift. The End.

I’ve put the spoilers in for you so that you won’t have to watch it. I hope you’re properly grateful.