Celebrity Hound: Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (20th Century-Fox 1950)


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By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (9149) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.

Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

A Movie A Day #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)


When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.

 

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)


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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood , Karl Malden , Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired…

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The Films of Dario Argento: The Cat o’Nine Tails


(I’m using this year’s horrorthon as an excuse to watch and review all of the films of Dario Argento.  Yesterday, I reviewed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.  Today, I take a look at The Cat o’Nine Tails.)

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In 1971, Dario Argento followed up the massive success of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage with his second film as a director, The Cat o’Nine Tails.  While The Cat o’Nine Tails was another huge financial success, it’s never been as a critically acclaimed as Argento’s first film.  Argento, himself, regularly cites The Cat o’Nine Tails as being his least favorite of all of the films that he’s directed.

Much like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’Nine Tails is a giallo that uses it’s rather complicated mystery as an excuse (a MacGuffin, to quote Hitchcock) for several suspenseful set pieces, the majority of which end with someone suffering some sort of terrible fate.  In this case, a series of murders are taking place around a mysterious medical complex, the Terzi Institute.  The murders are connected to some research being done at the institute.  I’m not going to spoil things by revealing what exactly is being researched but I will say that the key to the mystery is vaguely ludicrous, even by the typically flamboyant standards of the giallo genre.

But, then again, so what?  The fact that the genre’s mysteries are often overly complex and feature solutions that don’t always make sense is actually one of the appeals of the giallo film.  You don’t really watch a giallo for the mystery.  You watch it to see how the story will be told.  Perhaps more than any other genre, giallo requires a director with a strong vision.

And, if nothing else, Argento has always had a strong directorial vision.  Even when you may disagree with the choices that he makes (and I’m sure we all wonder why, in his later films, Argento grew so obsessed with telepathic insects), you can’t deny that they’re always uniquely Argento.  Though the film never reaches the delirious heights of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’Nine Tails still has several strong set pieces.  There’s a sequence involving a poisoned glass of milk that I particularly appreciate.  And then there’s the long scene at the crypt, in which our two protagonists realize that they don’t really trust each other all that much.  And, of course, there’s the ending.  For a film that’s often dismissed as being lesser Argento, The Cat o’Nine Tails features one of Argento’s darkest endings.

The Cat o’Nine Tails is unique as being one of the only Argento films to regularly show up on TCM.  A lot of that is because The Cat o’Nine Tails is perhaps the least gory of all the films that Argento has made.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of death and mayhem.  There is.  Blood is spilled but it never exactly flows.  The Cat o’Nine Tails is an Argento film that you could probably safely watch with an elderly relative.  That’s not necessarily meant as a complaint.  It’s just an observation that, when compared to the panty murder in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage or the skewering in The Mother of Tears, Cat o’Nine Tails is definitely a toned down Argento film.

The other reason why The Cat o’Nine Tails is popular on TCM is because it stars none other than that classic film mainstay, Karl Malden.  Continuing the Argento tradition of featuring protagonists who aren’t sure what they’ve witnessed, Malden plays a former newspaper reporter who is now blind.  He teams up with another reporter (played by James Franciscus, who may not have been a great actor but who did have perfect hair) to solve the murders.  Franciscus has the eyes.  Malden has the brains.  And Malden’s niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), is largely present to provide the film with its final ironic twist.

Malden does a pretty good job in the role, too.  I’ve read some reviews that have complained that Malden overacts but actually, he gives the perfect performance for the material.  In fact, Malden’s unapologetically hammy performance contrasts nicely with the work of James Franciscus, which could  charitably be called subdued.  (Perhaps a better description would be dull…)

Cat o’Nine Tails may not be Argento’s best but I still like it.  If for no other reason, watch it for Malden and that wonderfully dark ending.

 

Darkness on the Edge of Town: WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (20th Century Fox 1950)


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I recorded WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS way back in June, and haven’t watched it until just recently. It was well worth the wait, for this is one of the finest noirs I’ve seen yet. Director Otto Preminger reunited with the stars of his film LAURA, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, to give us a bleak crime drama that more than holds its own with the best films noir of the era.

Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews) is a proto-Dirty Harry cop, a tough SOB not above laying the smackdown on New York City’s criminal element. Another assault charge leads to Mark being demoted by his superiors. Mark’s got a reason for his brutality tactics, though: his father was a criminal, and he’s psychologically compelled to clean up the corruption in his city.

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He’s particularly got a hair across his ass about gambling czar Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), who was set up in…

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Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Winner For Labor Day: On The Waterfront (dir by Elia Kazan)


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I like On The Waterfront.

Nowadays, that can be a dangerous thing to admit.  On The Waterfront won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1954 and Marlon Brando’s lead performance as boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Malloy is still regularly cited as one of the best of all time.  The scene where he tells his brother (played by Rod Steiger) that he “could have been a contender” is so iconic that other films still continue to either parody or pay homage to it.  On The Waterfront is one of those films that regularly shows up on TCM and on lists of the greatest films ever made.

And yet, despite all that, it’s become fashionable to criticize On The Waterfront or to cite it as an unworthy Oscar winner.  Certain film bloggers wear their disdain for On The Waterfront like a badge of honor.  Ask them and they’ll spend hours telling you exactly why they dislike On The Waterfront and, not surprisingly, it all gets tedious pretty quickly.

Like all tedious things, the answer ultimately comes down to politics.  In the early 50s, as the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee conducted its search for communists in Hollywood, hundreds of actors, writers, and directors were called before the committee.  They were asked if they were currently or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.  It was demanded that they name names.  Refusing to take part was career suicide and yet, many witnesses did just that.  They refused to testify, apologize, or name names.

And then there was the case of Elia Kazan.  When he was called in front of HUAC, he not only testified about his communist past but he named names as well.  Many of his past associates felt that Kazan had betrayed them in order to protect his own career.  On The Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to his critics.

In On The Waterfront, Terry Malloy’s dilemma is whether or not to voluntarily testify before a commission that is investigating union corruption on the waterfront.  Encouraging him to testify is the crusading priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the saintly girl who Terry loves.  Discouraging Terry from testifying is literally every one else on the waterfront, including Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger).  Charlie is the right-hand man of gangster Johnny Friendly (a crudely intimidating Lee J. Cobb), who is the same man who earlier ordered Terry to throw a big fight.

At first, Terry is content to follow the waterfront of code of playing “D and D” (deaf and dumb) when it comes to union corruption.  However, when Johnny uses Terry to lure Edie’s brother into an ambush, Terry is forced to reconsider his previous apathy.  As Terry gets closer and closer to deciding to testify, Johnny order Charlie to kill his brother…

The issue that many contemporary critics have with On The Waterfront is that they view it as being essentially a “pro-snitch” film.  It’s easy to see that Elia Kazan viewed himself as being the damaged but noble Terry Malloy while Johnny Friendly was meant to be a stand-in for Hollywood communism.  They see the film as being both anti-union and Kazan’s attempt to defend naming names.

And maybe they’re right.

But, ultimately, that doesn’t make the film any less effective.  Judging On The Waterfront solely by its backstory ignores just how well-made, well-acted, well-photographed, well-directed, and well-written this film truly is.  Elia Kazan may (or may not) have been a lousy human being but, watching this film, you can’t deny his skill as a director.  There’s a thrilling grittiness to the film’s style that allows it to feel authentic even when it’s being totally heavy-handed.

And the performances hold up amazingly well.  Marlon Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy gets so much attention that it’s easy to forget that the entire cast is just as great.  Rod Steiger makes Charlie’s regret and guilt poignantly real.  Karl Malden, who gets stuck with the film’s more pedantic dialogue, is the perfect crusader.  Eva Marie Saint is beautiful and saintly.  And then you’ve got Lee J. Cobb, playing one of the great screen villains.

The motives behind On The Waterfront may not be the best.  But, occasionally, a great film does emerge from less than pure motives.  (Just as often, truly good intentions lead to truly bad cinema.)  Regardless of what one thinks of Elia Kazan, On The Waterfront is a great work of cinema and it’s on that basis that it should be judged.

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