End of the Trail: James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (Columbia 1955)


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I’ve covered several of the  Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western collaborations here. Their final sagebrush outing together THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was shot in Cinemascope and gorgeous Technicolor, features a bunch of solid character actors, has beautiful New Mexico scenery… yet felt like a letdown to me. Maybe it’s because Mann and Stewart set the bar so high in their previous Westerns, but THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is an anti-climactic climax to the director/star duo’s pairings.

Stewart’s good as always, playing bitter Will Lockhart, whose brother was killed by Apaches and whose mission is to find out who’s selling the guns to them. But the film came off flat, feeling like just another routine Western – good, but not in the same category as WINCHESTER ’73 or BEND OF THE RIVER. Those Mann film noir touches are nowhere to be found, replaced by (dare I say it!)… soap opera elements!

Cathy…

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Film Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir by Anthony Mann)


Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Well, historically, there were several reasons but they can all basically be boiled down to the fact that the Empire got too big to manage and that having two separate capitols certainly didn’t help matters.  The Empire got so large and overextended that the once fabled Roman army was no match for the barbarians.

Of course, if you’ve ever watched a movie about the Roman period, you know exactly why the Empire fell.  It all had to do with decadence, gladiators, human sacrifices, and crazed emperors with unfortunate names like Caligula and Commodus.  The Roman Empire fell because the imperial government descended into soap opera, complete with love triangles, betrayals, and whispered plotting inside the Senate.

Another thing that we’ve learned from the movies is that the fall of the Roman Empire was damn entertaining.  Between the orgies and the men wearing those weird helmets with the brushes on top of them, there’s nothing more fun that watching the Roman Empire fall.

Case in point: the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This three and a half hour epic begins with the last of the good Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness), battling to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading the empire.  Marcus is a wise man and a great leader but he knows that his time is coming to an end and he needs to name a successor.  His daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), is an intelligent and compassionate philosopher but, on the basis of her sex, is not eligible to succeed him.  His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), may be a great and charismatic warrior but he’s also immature and given to instability.  Marcus’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason), would never be accepted as a successor because of his Greek birth and background as a former slave.  (Add to that, Timonides is secretly a Christian.)

That leaves Livius (Stephen Boyd).  Livius is one of Marcus’s generals, a man who is not only renowned for his honesty and integrity but one who is also close to the royal family.  Not only is he a former lover of Lucilla’s but he’s also been a longtime friend to Commodus.  Unfortunately, before Marcus can officially name Livius as his heir, the emperor is poisoned.  Commodus is named emperor and things quickly go downhill.  Whereas Marcus ruled with wisdom and compassion, Commodus is a tyrant who crushes anyone who he views as being a potential threat.  Lucilla is married off to a distant king (Omar Sharif).  Timonides is declared an enemy after he suggests that the conquered Germans should be allowed to peacefully farm on Italian land.  Rebellion starts to ferment in every corner of the Empire and Livius finds himself trapped in the middle.  Which side will he join?

Despite all the drama, Commodus is not necessarily an unpopular emperor.  One of the more interesting things about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that Commodus’s popularity grows with his insanity.  The crueler that he is, the more the people seem to love him.  Soon, Commodus is fighting as a gladiator and having people burned at the stake.  While some Romans are horrified, many more love their emperor no matter what.  People love power, regardless of what it’s used for.  Perhaps that’s the main lesson and the main warning that the final centuries of the Roman Empire have to give us.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is surprisingly intimate historical epic.  While there’s all the grandeur that one would normally expect to see in a film about the Roman Empire, the film works best when it concentrates on the characters.  While Boyd and Loren do their best with their thinly drawn roles, the film is stolen by great character actors like Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer.  Plummer, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing the flamboyantly evil yet undeniably charismatic Commodus.  Even with the Empire collapsing around then, both Plummer as an actor and Commodus as a character seems to be having a blast.  Add to that, there’s all of the usual battles and ancient decadence that you would expect to find in a film about the Roman Empire and the end result is a truly enjoyable epic.

As I watched The Fall of the Roman Empire, it was hard for me not to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  That’s because they’re both basically the same damn movie.  The main difference is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is far more entertaining.  The Fall of the Roman Empire, made in the days before CGI and featuring real people in the streets of Rome as opposed to animated cells, feels real in a way that Gladiator never does.  If Gladiator felt like a big-budget video game, The Fall of the Roman Empire feels like a trip in a time machine.  If I ever do go back to 180 A.D., I fully expect to discover James Mason giving a speech to the Roman Senate while Christopher Plummer struts his way through the gladiatorial arena.

Finally, to answer the question that started this review, why did the Roman Empire fall?

It was all Christopher Plummer’s fault, but at least he had a good time.

30 Days of Noir #20: He Walked By Night (dir by Alfred L. Werker and Anthony Mann)


The 1948 film noir, He Walked By Night, opens with a policeman named Rawlins on his way home from work.  As he drives down the street, he sees a man walking alone at night.  Because there’s been a number of recent burglaries in the area and the man’s a stranger, Rawlins decides to pull over and ask the man for his ID.

What Rawlins doesn’t realize is that the man is Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) and yes, Roy is indeed the burglar.  Roy is something of a mystery man.  (Needless to say, Morgan is not his real last name.)  In the pre-Internet age, he has very carefully and very meticulously avoided leaving any sort of paper trail.  He lives, by himself, in a small apartment, his only companion being an adorable dog and the police scanner that Roy uses to always stay a few steps ahead of the cops.  When Rawlins pulls him over, it’s the closest that Roy has ever come to being caught.  Roy get out of the situation by shooting the cop and then running into the night.

The rest of the film deals with the efforts of two police detectives (played by Scott Brady and James Cardwell) and their captain (Roy Roberts) to discover who shot Rawlins and bring him to justice.  It’s not easy because not only has Roy done a good job of obscuring his very existence but his police scanner always gives him advanced warning whenever they cops start to close in on him.  The only lead that the cops have is a salesman named Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell).  Reeves has been buying and reselling the electronic equipment that Roy’s been stealing from houses all over Hollywood.  When Reeves tells the cops that he had no idea the stuff was stolen, the cops all share a weary roll of the eye.  No matter whether Reeves is telling the truth or not, he’s now the key to tracking down a cop killer….

He Walked By Night is a police procedural and, while the plot may sound familiar, the film is elevated by the atmospheric direction of Alfred Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann.  As visualized by Werker and Mann, the streets of Los Angeles have never been darker and more menacing.  Roy emerges from the fog to commit his crimes and then disappears back into the mist, like some sort of paranormal spirit.  The film reaches its high point when the police chase their quarry through the sewers of Los Angeles, a scene that will remind many of the famous finale of The Third Man.

Though the film offers up clues to Roy Morgan’s motivation, he remains an enigma for much of the film.  Richard Basehart plays him as a paranoid man who only seems to be confident and happy when he’s stealing or when he’s outsmarting the police.  In many ways, regardless of whether he escapes the police or not, Roy’s destined to spend his life trapped in a prison of his own design.  Even hiding out on the fringes of society, Roy knows that his time is limited.  There’s only so many times one person can escape their fate.  Until he’s either captured or killed, Roy is destined to always walk the night, alone.

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


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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…

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Cold in Them Thar Hills: THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal-International 1955)


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James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s  fourth Western together, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, takes them due North to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1896. It’s a bit more formulaic than other Stewart/Mann collaborations, but a strong cast and some gorgeous Technicolor photography by William H. Daniels more than make up for it. The film is definitely worth watching for Western fans, but I’d rank it lowest on the Stewart/Mann totem pole.

Jimmy is Jeff Webster, a headstrong cattleman who drives his herd from Wyoming to Seattle to ship up north to the beef-starved gold miners for a huge profit. Webster killed two men along the way who tried to desert the drive, and barely escapes Seattle before arriving in Skagway, Alaska. There, he unintentionally interrupts a hanging being conducted by crooked town boss ‘Judge’ Gannon, who confiscates Webster’s herd as a fine for spoiling his fun. Webster and his two…

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Rocky Mountain High: THE NAKED SPUR (MGM 1953)


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(By sheer coincidence, this post coincides with the birthday of character actor Millard Mitchell (1903-1953), who plays Tate in the film. Happy birthday, Millard! This one’s for you!)  

James Stewart and Anthony Mann  moved from Universal-International to MGM, and from black & white to Technicolor, for THE NAKED SPUR, the third of their quintet of Westerns together. The ensemble cast of five superb actors all get a chance to shine, collectively and individually, creating fully fleshed out characters against the natural beauty of the Colorado backdrop.

Bitter Howard Kemp, whose wife sold their ranch and ran off while he was serving in the war, is hunting down killer Ben Vandergroat for the $5,000 bounty in hopes of rebuilding his life. Along the trail he meets old prospector Jesse Tate and recently discharged (dishonorably) Lt. Roy Anderson. The trio manages to capture Vandergroat, but he’s not alone… he’s accompanied by pretty wildcat Lina…

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


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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)…

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