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Movietone News 45

A Neglected Western: ‘Colorado Territory’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Colorado Territory, a remake of the High Sierra plot, is an early masterpiece of the pessimistic Western. It retains the High Sierra story and works variations on most of that film’s characters. But some significant changes are also made and the result, on the whole, is much more impressive. While High Sierra was set at the end of Dillinger-style gangsterism, Colorado Territory is given a setting that evokes the end of the Wild West. The Bogart figure is now Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), “just a big Kansas jay,” escaping from jail and getting involved in one last train robbery. The Joan Leslie character becomes Julie Ann Winslow (Dorothy Malone), who is sexier and nastier than Velma was and who thus becomes a key to this version’s darker psychology. Velma’s father moves West for a better life and so does Julie Ann’s, but the latter’s dream paradise turns out to be a desert. The sentimentally symbolic dog of High Sierra is absent here, while the geographical symbolism is developed much more fully. Colorado (Virginia Mayo) is a disillusioned refugee of “the dancehall,” like her High Sierra counterpart (Ida Lupino), but here she is much more than a highly emotional spectator. High Sierra‘s cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan) is understandably missing here, but it’s intriguing to think of Brother Tomas (Frank Puglia), who watches over an all but abandoned mission, as his replacement.

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‘He’s from back home’: Man and Myth in ‘High Sierra’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.

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“That’s the kind of hairpin I am”: ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Strawberry Blonde’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

In Gentleman Jim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Me and My Gal and The Bowery. Seen alongside The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.

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Boys at Work: ‘They Drive by Night’ and ‘Manpower’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

They Drive by Night and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.

They Drive by Night is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel Long Haul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown [1935], seems to have been the source for this section.)

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Big Shots: ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ ‘High Sierra,’ ‘White Heat’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

While The Roaring Twenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.

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Roughhouse Comedy: ‘The Cock-eyed World,’ ‘Me and My Gal,’ ‘The Bowery’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

The Cock-eyed World is a plodding, heavyhanded and rather entertaining sequel, with sound, to What Price Glory?. The Flagg-Quirt stuff is less than thrilling, partly because of Edmund Lowe’s mismatched assets and liabilities, partly because the repartee keeps reverting to the “Aw—sez you” tack. But there’s a good deal to savor at an agreeably crude level. An early bit of in-joke dialogue has Quirt lamenting the newfangled notions about how a soldier should talk—seems that it’s not right for a soldier to swear anymore. Quirt and Flagg quickly exchange insults about how the lack of swearing will reduce the other’s working vocabulary to practically nil. This sidelong reference to talking-picture taboos out of the way, Walsh, McLaglen, Lowe and friends go about the business of making a rowdy picture without benefit of its predecessor’s “silent” profanity.

Flagg keeps his pet monkey in a chamber pot; Quirt gets thumped by a jealous Russian strongman who seems to be named Sanavitch and who looses a truly Herculean spray of saliva at Quirt’s face from a range of about two feet; Quirt calls Flagg a horse’s neck and “You great big horse’s ancestor”; Flagg greets a ladyfriend with “How’s my Fanny?” and the comic stooge (El Brendel) introduces a map-bearing Latin girl as “the lay of the land” (“The what?” asks Flagg with a straight face and great interest); and yet another female strikes the stooge, a Swede, as “yoos my tripe.”

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Two Raucous Silents: ‘What Price Glory?,’ ‘Sadie Thompson’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

What Price Glory?, like the successful play from which it is drawn, works with some of the era’s anger is directed less toward war itself than toward some of the era’s topical themes—in particular, as the title implies, the disillusionment that had befallen many of the youthful participants in World War I. But especially as directed by Raoul Walsh, the film version thrives on comedy that is sometimes satirical and often ribald. And that comedy only occasionally intersects with the anti-war feeling implied in the title.

Eileen Bowser has written that the film is “the archetypal celebration of war as a game played by roistering comrades.” Certainly, the central Flagg-Quirt relationship, with combative friendship and devotion to duty as its key elements, seems to work in that direction. But while the film never approaches the radical disgust that Dos Passos, Hemingway, Céline and others expressed toward the war, it does evoke a more complex and less romanticized attitude than Bowser indicates. The warriors—some of them, anyway—are romanticized, but the war isn’t, one of the results of which is an interesting tension between personal flamboyance and public destruction.

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue (1974)

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Interviewer: One critic, Andrew Sarris, has said, “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.” Do you feel that’s too precious a criticism, or that it’s on the nail?

Raoul Walsh: I guess it’s so. Everyone has his own impression of things. Maybe the guy was drunk.

In Manpower, a movie about powerline repairmen, there’s a funny scene at a diner. Various workmen are ordering their meals. The counterman shouts each order back to the cook, but—in the time-honored tradition of the American greasy spoon—he translates each request into the surrealistic lingo of short-order chefs. A cup of coffee with cream is “a blackout, and blitz it!” A hamburger to go is a “cow and convoy”; a bowl of chili “with plenty of peppers”—”one Mexican heartburn.” A cut of beef, “juicy and with no fat” = “one impossible”; hash is “take a chance”; and a bowl of cherries, “one George Washington!” Some comedy involving a slot machine intervenes, but the camera returns to the counter where the head lineman, thinking of his wife, makes a request of his own: “Gimme a nice little bottle of wine—and giftwrap it.” The counterman turns toward the kitchen and, facing the camera in closeup, shouts, “The grapes of wrath—in a sport jacket!” End of scene.

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Review: ‘The Three Days of the Condor’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Even the most casual glancer at the credits is going to smirk at the fact that The Three Days of the Condor is taken from a book called The Six Days of the Condor; a certain suspense factor tied up with significantly designated slices of time is distinctly compromised before the action can get underway. That difficulty aside, the movie version is not only twice as fast-paced as the book but also approximately 600% improved. Literarily, James Grady’s novel is sufficient to make Frederick Forsyth look like Graham Greene by comparison, and Sydney Pollack and his screenwriters have wisely compressed the itinerary of Condor—the code name of a CIA-employed reader and analyst of spy, mystery, and adventure novels who goes out to lunch one rainy noon and returns to find his utterly innocuous section totally “damaged” (everybody has been machine-gunned) by, just maybe, another CIA faction. Indeed, Pollack jams the plot past so fast that I wonder whether nonreaders of the book will be able to follow its every turn, especially when (Altmania again) key clues and crucial awakenings on the part of one character or another are often thrown away in a stepped-on line of dialogue or murmured soliloquy.

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Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.

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Review: Rooster Cogburn

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Rooster Cogburn is a sitting duck for both moviemakers and movie reviewers. Given the prospect of a picture costarring John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, all Hal Wallis, Stuart Millar & co. had to do was to turn on the cameras and have them pointed in the generally right direction; and all the reviewers have to do is to note that they’ve done it. If you love Wayne and/or Hepburn you certainly won’t cease to love either as a result of this film. If you don’t love them you probably won’t start because of this film. It’s rather sad to see two axioms of the cinema turned into tautologies. For Rooster Cogburn does tend to sit and point and say Aren’t they wonderful?; and even as we admit They are! They are!, we can still fervently wish they’d been given something beautiful to do—which they do beautifully—instead of simply stroked and petted like a couple of senile Beautiful People whose bedtime is drawing nigh while the party threatens to drag on without them.

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Review: ‘92 in the Shade’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Anyone seeking evidence that more writers should turn director ought to consider Tom McGuane in quarantine. 92 in the Shade has about as much structure and consistency, not to say appeal, as an ice cream sandwich that has lain in the sun since last weekend. There is scarcely any evidence that someone directed it, although a manneristic and absolutely pointless derivation from some better movie—e.g., a drifting Long Goodbye–like coverage of a jailhouse interview between Peter Fonda and Warren Oates—suggests occasionally that someone thought he was directing. Perhaps the shade of Robert Altman also hangs over the non-readings one strains to make sense of (though I stopped straining before very long); McGuane must have assumed that mumbled, slurred speech—preferably delivered through a mouth full of food and/or drink—has some near-mystical value in the contemporary cinema, else why would he sabotage so much of his own dialogue? But even on that level, the screenplay sounds like someone else’s idea of McGuane dialogue more often than it approaches the real thing (as, delightfully, in Rancho Deluxe).

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Review: ‘Donkey Skin’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Jacques Demy’s best films—Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort—wave the silk scarf of an absurd romanticism so expertly over the abrasive realities of The World We Live In—unwanted pregnancies, painful, irrational separations, grotesquely violent death—that our appreciation of both textures is deeply enhanced in the delirious cinematic process. Donkey Skin, his 1970 retelling of the Perreault fairy tale, almost entirely lacks this sense of imaginative play and stylistic chance-taking. As such, it makes for a pre-afternoon-nap children’s story more elaborately visualized than most, but serves little other purpose.

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