Hell Bent for Vengeance: Randolph Scott in DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Columbia 1957)


cracked rear viewer

I seem to have gained some new channels along with my new DirecTV receiver. I’m not sure why, but I won’t argue…  at least until I see the bill! One of them is Sony Movie Channel, featuring the Columbia Pictures catalog, and I recently viewed DECISION AT SUNDOWN, the third of seven Western collaborations between star Randolph Scott  and director Budd Boetticher. The plot and setting are simple, yet within that framework we get a tense psychological drama about a man consumed by vengeance and hatred.

Scott, still cutting a dashing figure at age 59, plays Bart Allison, who along with his pal Sam, ride into the town of Sundown on the day of Tate Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy Summerton. Bart’s not there to offer his congratulations though; he announces his intention to kill town boss Tate. The reason: Bart holds Tate responsible for his wife’s suicide three years ago. Bart and Sam then hole up…

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The Fabulous Forties #17: Gung Ho! (dir by Ray Enright)


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The 17th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties Box Set was the 1943 war film, Gung Ho!

Gung Ho!, which is filmed in a documentary style and features a narrator, opens with a series of job interviews.  A tough lieutenant (J. Carrol Naish) is recruiting Marines to serves in a special unit, one which will only take on the most hazardous of assignments.  The narrator reminds us that the interviews are taking place just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and we listen as each interviewee is asked whether or not he is okay with killing members of the Japanese army.

Some of the interviewees hesitate and some don’t but ultimately, all of them are okay with killing.  One (Rod Cameron) explains that he’s already a murderer, having killed someone back in Kentucky.  Another says that he fought in the Spanish Civil War and that he sees his service as being a continuation of the fight against fascism.  Another Marine (Alvan Curtis) says that he’s an ordained minister but he’s willing to do what has to be done.  A Marine named Pig Iron shows up and, since he’s played by a young Robert Mitchum, we know that he’ll get things taken care of.

And then we get to the final interviewee.  He doesn’t have a big role in the film but his one line makes a big impression.  When asked why he doesn’t mind the idea of killing, he replies, “I just don’t like Japs.”

AGCK!

That’s a line that would definitely not make it into a modern version of Gung Ho!  Or, if it did, it would be followed by the interviewee being admonished and then kicked out of the office.  But Gung Ho! was made in 1943, at the height of World War II and in the shadow of Peal Harbor.  As uncomfortable as it may make us today, “I just don’t like Japs,” was probably Gung Ho‘s big applause line when it was originally released.

And really, that’s the main value of a film like Gung Ho!  It’s a well-made but predictable war film but ultimately, it’s most important as a time capsule.  If you want to know the truth about an era’s culture, as opposed to what you may want the truth to be, look at the art.  Read the books.  Watch the movies.  You may not always like what you find but you owe it to yourself to do so.

Anyway, as far the rest of Gung Ho!, it plays out exactly as you would expect.  Under the eye of Lt. Commander Thornwald (Randolph Scott), the men train for combat.  They visit Pearl Harbor and see the sunken remains of ships that are still smoking after being bombed.  And finally, the men fight the Japanese on an island.  Some survive.  Many more of them die.  And the fight continues.

Gung Ho! will probably be best appreciated by fans of war films, which admittedly I am not.  That said, it is an interesting time capsule of 1943 America.  Plus, it features Robert Mitchum!  Admittedly, it’s a small role but he does get two great scenes and … well, he’s Robert Mitchum!  How can you not enjoy watching Robert Mitchum?

And guess what?  You can watch Gung Ho! below!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sergeant York (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 1941 film Sergeant York was the American Sniper of its day.  A biopic of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, Sergeant York was not only a huge box office hit but it was a film that celebrated American patriotism in the type of unabashed fashion that you would never see in a film made today.  Though Sergeant York went into production at a time when the United States was officially pursuing a policy of international neutrality, it was released shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, whether intentionally or not, Sergeant York served as a strong recruiting tool.  According to Wikipedia (and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong), there were reports of young men going straight from the movie to the nearest military recruitment office.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours (and running at least 40 minutes too long), Sergeant York is two films in one.  The second half of the film deals with the military career of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a plain-spoken and honest Tennessee farmer who, because of his strong religious beliefs, unsuccessfully attempts to register as a conscientious objector.  Forced into the Army, York is, at first, dismissed as a simple-minded hillbilly.  (His fellow soldiers are amused to discover that York doesn’t know what a subway is.)  However, to the shock of his commanding officers, he proves himself to be an expert marksman.  As he explains it, being from the country means that he’s been shooting a rifle his entire life.

On the basis of his skills as a marksman, York is given a promotion but he still says that he refuses to kill.  It’s not until his superior officer reminds him of the sacrifices that past Americans have made that York starts to reconsider his position.  Then, a gust of wind opens York’s bible to a verse about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and York realizes that he can go to war and, if need be, he can kill.

And it’s a good thing that he can!  Because World War I is heating up and York may be the only guy around with the strength and confidence to single-handedly defeat and capture over 170 German soldiers.

The army section of Sergeant York is predictable but well-done.  As you’d expect from a film directed by Howard Hawks, a lot of emphasis is put on how the soldiers work together.  York is portrayed not as being super human but instead as just an honest man who is exceptionally good at his job.  There’s nothing surprising about the second half of Sergeant York but Hawks keeps the action moving and Cooper gives a good performance.

To be honest, I preferred the first half of the film, which examined York’s life before he joined the Army.  When we first meet Alvin York, he drinks too much, he fights too much, and he’s totally irresponsible.  It’s not until he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that York starts to change his ways.  The scenes of York in the backwoods of Tennessee had a lively feel to them and it was enjoyable to see Cooper play a somewhat disreputable character.  Cooper seemed to be having fun playing a ne’er-do-well and, in the scenes before York finds God, his bad behavior was a lot of fun to watch.

Considering its success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Sergeant York was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor, the award for Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #51: Walking Tall Part 2 (dir by Earl Bellamy)


Film_Poster_for_Walking_Tall_Part_2The 1975 southern melodrama Walking Tall Part 2 opens with a voice over telling us that we’re about to see more of the true of story Sheriff Buford Pusser, the Tennessee lawman who carried a big stick, battled the Dixie Mafia, and whose wife was killed in an ambush.  Pusser, we learn, died under suspicious circumstances shortly after the release of the film Walking Tall.

Mere hours before he died, Pusser had signed a contract to play himself in Walking Tall Part 2.  As a result of Pusser’s car “accident,” the film’s producers were forced to cast an actor as the lawman.  Now, it would have made sense to, once again, give the role to Joe Don Baker.  After all, he played the role in Walking Tall and I imagine that to most audiences at that time, he was Buford Pusser.  However, for whatever reason, Baker was not given the role for a second time.  Instead, the role was given to Bo Svenson and, while Svenson does not necessarily do a bad job in the role, he’s still no Joe Don Baker.  The difference between Baker and Svenson is the difference between someone being a redneck and someone just pretending.

The film opens almost immediately where Walking Tall ended.  Terribly wounded in the ambush that took his wife’s life, Buford is in the hospital and his face is covered in bandages.  Townspeople gather outside both his room and his farm and they wonder whether he’ll run for reelection as sheriff.  Someone else mentions that Buford has had massive facial reconstructive surgery.

Finally, the bandages are removed and we discover that Buford has turned into Bo Svenson.  Now, Svenson and Baker do have enough facial similarities that you can force yourself to believe that surgery could lead to Baker having Svenson’s features.  I mean, this isn’t like Mark Ruffalo taking over the role of Bruce Banner from Edward Norton.  At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how reconstructive surgery could have led to Buford Pusser becoming a blonde or, for that matter, apparently growing by 5 inches between Walking Tall and Walking Tall Part 2.

Anyway, Buford’s out of the hospital and, of course, he’s reelected as sheriff.  One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that everyone in the world totally loves Buford Pusser.  I lost track of how many characters specifically walked up to Buford to tell him that he was a great man and a great sheriff.  Nobody complains about Buford’s habit of ignoring civil liberties while enforcing the law.  Instead, everyone cheers for him.

(And, just in case the viewer is uncomfortable with the sight of the very white Buford taunting the mostly black moonshiners that he spends the film arresting, Buford’s black deputy constantly says stuff like, “Buford, you’re my kind of sheriff!”)

The only people who don’t like Buford are the local crime lords.  They still want Buford dead so they hire a race car driver (Richard Jaeckel) to kill him.  The race car driver’s girlfriend (Angel Tompkins) attempts to hit on Buford but Buford has no interest in her.  Buford’s about enforcing the law and avenging his wife…

Walking Tall Part 2 is a pretty standard film.  Whereas the original Walking Tall had a raw and unpredictable vibe to it, the sequel is predictable and boring.  On the plus side, the film was made on location in rural Tennesee and some of the countryside is nice to look at.

As for Buford Pusser, he died before Part Two was released but the character would return in Walking Tall — The Final Chapter.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #46: Walking Tall (dir by Phil Karlson)


Walking_Tall_(1973_film)About 50 minutes into the 1973 film Walking Tall (not to be confused with the 2005 version that starred Dwayne Johnson), there’s a scene in which newly elected sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives a speech to his deputies.  As the deputies stand at attention and as Pusser announces that he’s not going to tolerate any of his men taking bribes from the Dixie Mafia, the observant viewer will notice something out-of-place about the scene.

Hovering directly above Baker’s head is a big, black, almost phallic boom mic.  It stays up there throughout the entire scene, a sudden and unexpected reminder that — though the film opens with a message that we’re about to see the true story of “an American hero” and though it was filmed on location in rural Tennessee — Walking Tall is ultimately a movie.

And yet, somehow, that phallic boom mic feels oddly appropriate.  First off, Walking Tall is an almost deliberately messy film.  That boom mic tells us that Walking Tall was not a slick studio production.  Instead, much like Phil Karlson’s previous The Phenix City Story, it was a low-budget and violent film that was filmed on location in the south, miles away from the corrupting influence of mainstream, yankee-dominated Hollywood.  Secondly, the phallic implications of the boom mic erases any doubt that Walking Tall is a film about men doing manly things, like shooting each other and beating people up.  Buford does have a wife (Elizabeth Hartman) who begs him to avoid violence and set a good example of his children.  However, she eventually gets shot in the back of the head, which frees Buford up to kill.

As I said earlier, Walking Tall opens with a message telling us that we’re about to watch a true story.  Buford Pusser is a former football player and professional wrestler who, after retiring, returns to his hometown in Tennessee.  He quickly discovers that his town is controlled by criminals and moonshiners.  When he goes to a local bar called The Lucky Spot, he is unlucky enough to discover that the bar’s patrons cheat at cards.  Buford is nearly beaten to death and dumped on the side of the road.  As Buford begs for help, several motorists slow down to stare at him before then driving on.

Obviously, if anyone’s going to change this town, it’s going to have to be Buford Pusser.

Once he recovers from his beating, Buford makes himself a wooden club and then goes back to the Lucky Spot.  After beating everyone up with his club, Buford takes back the money that he lost while playing cards and $50.00 to cover his medical bills.  When Buford is put on trial for armed robbery, he takes the stand, rips off his shirt, and shows the jury his scars.  Buford is acquitted.

Over his wife’s objections, Buford decides to run for sheriff.  The old sheriff, not appreciating the competition, attempts to assassinate Buford but, instead, ends up dying himself.  Buford is charged with murder.  Buford is acquitted.  Buford is elected sheriff.  Buford sets out to clean up his little section of Tennessee.  Violence follows…

On the one hand, it’s easy to be snarky about a film like Walking Tall.  This is one of those films that operates on a strictly black-and-white world view.  Anyone who supports Buford is good.  Anyone who opposes Buford is totally evil.  Buford is a redneck saint.  It’s a film fueled by testosterone and it’s not at all subtle…

But dangit, I liked Walking Tall.  It’s a bit like a right-wing version of Billy Jack, in that it’s so sincere that you can forgive the film’s technical faults and frequent lapses in logic.  Walking Tall was filmed on location in Tennessee and director Phil Karlson makes good use of the rural locations.  And, most importantly, Joe Don Baker was the perfect actor to play Buford Pusser.  As played by Baker, Pusser is something of renaissance redneck.  He’s a smart family man who knows how to kick ass and how to make his own weapons.  What more could you ask for out of a small town sheriff?

In real life, Buford Pusser died in a mysterious car accident shortly after the release of Walking Tall.  Cinematically, the character of Buford Pusser went on to star in two more films.