Stagecoach (Criterion) DVD and Blu-ray
John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the westâ€”from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the westâ€”board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.
Claire Trevor is marvelous as Dallas, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks surviving the only way available to her (was she ever again this good?), and John Carradine brings a convincing sense of nobility and soiled chivalry to his role as a fallen Southern Gentleman turned gambler, a trade he puts behind him when he chooses to escort the Lady to see her officer husband. Thomas Mitchell can overdo the boozy intellectual and social commentator, but with such personality that it’s forgivable. But it’s not simply about colorful character in the west. It’s how Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols take the conventions and stir themâ€”and the charactersâ€”together and watch the relationships form and the mutual respect develop across class lines and cultural divides. The action scenes are thrilling, a blueprint of master moviemaking that Orson Welles studied relentlessly as he prepared to direct Citizen Kane, but it’s Ford’s portrait of strangers who rise to the challenge under pressure that makes the story so stirring. And for all its timelessness, the thieving fat-cat banker (Berton Churchill) offers a timely villain, decrying government regulation while he runs off with the deposits.
Previously available on DVD from Warner, Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray release is newly mastered from a 1942 nitrate duplicate negative (the original negative is believed lost) and, while exceedingly crisp and vivid, it shows serious wear and emulsion scratches in many spots, notably the opening minutes. Criterion also offers all-new supplements: commentary by western scholar Jim Kitses, an archival video interview with Ford from 1968, new video interviews with Dan Ford (biographer and grandson of the director), Peter Bogdanovich and respected stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong (discussing the legacy and achievements of stuntman Yakima Canutt), a video essay by Tag Gallagher on Ford’s visual style, a 1949 radio adaptation and the recently restored silent feature Bucking Broadway, directed by John Ford in 1917 and presented with a new score Donald Sosin. Also includes a booklet with an essay on the film and the complete original short story by Ernest Haycox.
Silver Lode (VCI)
The usually inexpressive John Payne is excellent as the tarnished hero Allan Dwan’s sturdy 1954 western that twists into a nightmare of victimization and mob hysteria. He’s a small town rancher loved by all until his reputation is chipped away when scruffy, trail worn Dan Duryea (a wonderfully sneering, smarmy performance) rides in with an arrest warrant in his pocket and vengeance in his heart. Allan Dwanâ€™s first collaboration with producer Benedict Bogeaus may look on the surface to be a routine 1950s western, but this unusual revenge picture picks up momentum as circumstances and a vicious whispering campaign turn the town against their adopted favorite son. As they transform from friends to bloodthirsty mob, the film turns dark and desperate. The real time countdown (it plays out in just a few hours) helps intensify Payne’s nightmarish flight as he dodges the mob while seeking evidence to prove his innocence.
For a modestly budgeted western, it sports some classy collaborators, including the great cinematographer John Alton (his third act tracking shot makes Payneâ€™s run across town in search of sanctuary a gripping highlight) and art director Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane). In hindsight it’s one of the more evocative metaphors for the panic of McCarthy-ism. Lizabeth Scott co-stars as the loyal good girl and Dolores Moran is the no-less loyal (and far more fun) â€œbad girl,â€ whose directness makes for an obvious but undeniably satisfying contrast to the hypocrisy of the townâ€™s so-called leading citizens. This new DVD edition includes new featurettes on director Allan Dwan and star John Payne, but it’s unfortunate that VCI did not remaster the film as well. While watchable, the colors are dull, image is unstable and unsteady and there is a distracting inconsistency in the motion, likely the result of an unconverted PAL source rather than a fresh NTSC master. There is significant room for improvement.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (VCI)
Notorious in its day, this 1948 British adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel is a noir-tinged crime drama with lurid edges and an American setting that never quite comes off, thanks to studio-bound shooting and sometimes awkward attempts at American accents and gangster talk. Jack La Rue, who looks like a poor man’s Humphrey Bogart, is given a terrific entrance that establishes him as the cock of the walk and is just fine (if never genuinely commanding) as the tough guy with a sop of a heart under his ruthless front. He’s the nightclub impresario and gangster who kidnaps a jaded heiress (Linden Travers) and falls in love with her, much to the frustration of his partners. Their illicit affair is ostensibly at the heart of the condemnation of the film but their chemistry isn’t all that convincing (or is that neither of them is able to convincingly exude passion for anything?) and the direction by St. John Legh Clowes (who also adapted the novel) never manages to bring a snap to the underworld milieu, a passion to the supposedly mad love, or a savage edge to the mercenary twists.
There’s more fun to be found around the details at the edges of the story: a reporter (Hugh McDermott) who repeatedly pulls a gun while he pursues his story and peeps on a showgirl getting undressed, gang members shacking up with their latest conquest, and (my favorite) a cigarette girl whose outfit includes a zipper that goes right down the front (and gets tested by more than one customer). The novel was remade a number of time, quite memorably by Robert Aldrich as The Grissom Gang. This original screen effort is a strange and somewhat unsatisfying piece of crime cinema but it has its oddball attractions. The image quality is fine, if not particularly noteworthy, and the disc features a video interview with American distributor Richard Gordon and actor Richard Nielson and an additional audio interview with Richard Gordon, each over 30 minutes.