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Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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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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Videophiled: John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’ on Criterion

MyDarlingClemMy Darling Clementine (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), John Ford’s sublime reinterpretation of the Wyatt Earp story and the Gunfight at OK Corral, rewrites history to become a mythic frontier legend and one of the most classically perfect westerns ever made.

Henry Fonda plays a hard, serious Wyatt Earp leading a cattle drive west with his brothers when a stopover in the wild town of Tombstone ends in the murder of his youngest brother. Wyatt takes up the badge he had turned down earlier and tames the wide open town with his brothers (Ward Bond and Tim Holt), waiting for the barbarous Clanton clan, led by a ruthless Walter Brennan (“When you pull a gun, kill a man!” is his motto), to give him an excuse to take them down. Victor Mature delivers perhaps his finest performance as gambler Doc Holliday, an alcoholic Eastern doctor escaping civilization in the Wild West and slowly coughing his life away from tuberculosis.

Ford takes great liberties with history, bending the story to fit his ideal of the west, a balance of social law and pioneer spirit. Though the film reaches its climax in the legendary gunfight between the Earps (with Doc Holliday) and the Clantons, the most powerful moment is the moving Sunday morning church social played out on the floor of the unfinished church. As Earp dances with Clementine (Cathy Downs), Fonda’s stiff, self-conscious movements showing a man unaccustomed to such social interaction, Ford’s camera frames them against the open sky: the town and the wilderness merge into the new Eden of the west for a brief moment. It’s a lyrical ode to the taming of the west when manifest destiny was an unambiguous rallying cry. Ford’s subsequent westerns became less idealistic.

Along with the 97-minute release version, Criterion has included a new HD transfer of the 103-minute pre-release version (which was also on the earlier DVD), which features footage cut from the release version as well as alternate scenes and other minor differences (such as alternate musical cues). The differences are illustrative of the differences between Ford’s artistry and love of communal atmosphere and 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s efficiency. Ford’s preview cut (which is not a director’s cut) is more open and lanky, always responsive to the community around him, and quieter (he resists burying scenes in orchestral scoring). The release version is tighter, more dramatically pointed, scored more emphatically, and features new shots inserted into Ford’s scenes. It’s a companion, not a replacement, for as we may mourn the loss of Ford’s sensitive and subtle moments, the release version is still the Ford masterpiece. It just got some help from Zanuck, who pared Ford’s loving background to strengthen the characters at the core.

my_darling_clementine_04_blu-ray__My Darling Clementine has been released in multiple editions on DVD by Fox. Criterion has created a new 4K digital master from the 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art for the Blu-ray debut and DVD upgrade. The previous DVD edition looked very good. Criterion’s release looks amazing, crisp and clean with a rich gray scale. The 103-minute pre-release version is an HD master which has not gone through the same digital restoration and shows scratches and grit but otherwise looks mighty fine in its own right.

Criterion has packed this edition with supplements. New to this release is informed and informative commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride (who provides historical and production background as well as critical observations), the 19-minute video essay “Lost and Gone Forever” by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher (one of the best practitioners of this relatively new form of critical analysis), and a new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp. Carried over from the Fox DVD is the 40-minute documentary “What Is the John Ford Cut?” with UCLA archivist Robert Gitt, comparing the versions, commenting of the differences, and filling in the gap with production details and studio records.

First among the collection of archival supplements is the 1916 silent western short A Bandit’s Wager, directed by Francis Ford (his brother) and starring John and Francis. This is not a restoration and shows a lot of wear and tear but this transfer is stable and shows great detail, and it features a bright piano score by Donald Sosin.

Also features excerpts from the TV programs David Brinkley Journal (on Tombstone, from 1963) and Today (on Monument Valley, from 1975), the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs, and a fold-out leaflet with an essay by critic David Jenkins.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Johnny Guitar’

Johnny Guitar, an operatic western centered around two powerful female characters who are more masculine than the men around them, is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter.

Joan Crawford as Vienna in ‘Johnny Guitar’

Dense with psychological conflicts and political suggestions, including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood, which both director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan have acknowledged was their intention, it is a rich, vivid film directed by an artist at the peak of his powers and one of the most expressive color westerns of all time. And it has been one of the most anticipated DVD releases since the inception of the format.

Made for Republic Pictures, the poor cousin to the dominant Hollywood studios, and designed as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, a once powerful screen superstar whose popularity was in decline but whose talent and business acumen was still in fine form, this is a western as baroque melodrama. Crawford is Vienna, the owner of a saloon and gambling house built on the outskirts of a frontier town. She’s staking her claim for her share of the American dream–she chose her location on a tip about the railroad line coming through the area–and the former saloon girl (western movie code for hooker) used the only path available to her to earn her own capital and build her own business without bowing to anyone. She’s not ashamed of the road she took but neither is she especially proud of it either. Not that anyone in this film has a particularly proud past. It is past, however, for the Vienna we meet is no saloon girl. She’s a businesswoman and a boss and she has the strength and stature to stand up for what is hers, materially and morally. It’s not just business, it’s her right to lay her stake on the future of the American west.

Vienna faces hostility from the local townsfolk, most of it whipped up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who co-owns the bank with her brother, and rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond). They are, not so coincidentally, the richest and most powerful people around. And when the local stagecoach is robbed and a passenger–Emma’s brother, in fact–is killed, a mob arrives at Vienna’s saloon and Emma accuses a group of miners led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) of the robbery and Vienna of sheltering the outlaws. There’s no evidence, just suspicion and vitriolic hatred. The repressed Emma is attracted to Dancin’ Kid (seriously, it isn’t just his nickname, it’s the only name anyone knows him by) and can’t decide if she’s more ashamed of her desire of the handsome bad boy or of the fact that Kid has the hots for her rival Vienna. Coupled with the fact that Vienna’s prime location positions her to make a fortune when the railroad comes through, it makes for a combustible mixture of animosity and aggression.

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MOD Movies: Budd Boetticher in the City

Despite the efforts of such fans as Clint Eastwood, who produced two documentaries on the director, and Martin Scorsese, Budd Boetticher is still a name known mainly to film historians and fans of classic westerns. Boetticher made some of the greatest, purest, most austere westerns of all time: Seven Men From Now (available from Paramount), The Tall T, Comanche Station, and Ride Lonesome (the latter three in a box set from Sony and Scorsese’s The Film Foundation). But like any successful director of the era, Boetticher made a lot more than just westerns. Yes, he did direct three bullfighting dramas (talk about a specialized niche), but he made war pictures, adventures, youth dramas, mysteries and crime pictures. Two of his best crime films arrived almost simultaneously via MOD earlier this.

Between his big studio breakthrough at Universal (where he made nine pictures in two years, most of them westerns) and his first of seven pictures with Randolph Scott, Boetticher directed The Killer Is Loose (MGM Limited), a 1956 crime drama starring Joseph Cotten as a police detective whose wife (Rhonda Fleming) is targeted by an escaped criminal looking for payback. Wendell Corey is superb as the soft-spoken bank teller turned robber who becomes twisted by revenge and pretty much slips over the edge of sanity. Boetticher’s biggest strength is efficiency and restraint, creating a camaraderie in the police squad room and a sense history between Cotten and his partner (Michael Pate), and he’s at his best building tension through dialogue and stillness that builds to a sudden burst of action. When Corey takes his former sergeant (John Larch) hostage, he never looses that quiet, deliberate composure, calmly reasoning his way to murder and executing his sacrifice without hesitation. Boetticher punctuates the gunshot with one of the great images of explosive violence: a shattered milk bottle. The sudden explosion shatters the tension of the deliberately measured scene and the burst of white milk against Larch’s black suit gives the sound a striking visual dimension.

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Warner Archive), Boetticher’s last film before he headed to Mexico for an eight-year odyssey, came out in the mini-boom of low-budget prohibition-era gangster films with second-tier stars of the mid-fifties to early-sixties, like Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone with Rod Steiger. Ray Danton stars in the 1960 production as the real life dancer turned urban thug and mob killer Jack “Legs” Diamond, who made his name terrorizing other criminals in New York City, essentially running a protection racket aimed at the disorganized crime in a city yet to get mobbed up. What Boetticher brings is a smoothness, charm and brazen arrogance to anti-hero, building a film around a brazen villain with nary a hero in sight. As presented in the film, he’s not so much fearless as a rabid dog of an opportunist, driven by pure cussedness and arrogance and protected only by the belief that “The bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me,” a mantra he comes to believe after surviving so many shoot-outs. You know that’s going to last in a gangster film with the phrase “rise and fall” in the title. Karen Steele is somewhat blank as Alice, his dancing partner turned oblivious lover who spends the film with a wide-eyed expression of gullibility and surprise and, once she tips to the truth, drowns her misery and guilt in bootleg liquor. Elaine Stewart is far more convincing and interesting in a smaller role as a sultry but soiled showgirl discarded by Legs. And then there’s Danton in perhaps the best role of his career. He oozes cheapness and insincerity even at his most charming but becomes pure rage and drive when he pulls out his guns and starts blasting his competitors, wading in with no hesitation like he’s got nothing to lose. That’s part of the obligatory irony of his fall: it’s only when he starts losing it that he loses his cool and his fearlessness. Released in a fine-looking “Remastered Edition” in an anamorphic master (the case claims it is 1.85:1 but it’s actually 1.77:1, a minor difference but one worth noting for purists).

The Halliday Brand (MGM Limited) is neither a crime picture nor a Budd Boetticher film but I shoehorn the inclusion of this 1957 western because of star Joseph Cotten, who plays the eldest son of frontier lawman Ward Bond, and the late fifties low-budget sensibility. Both Cotten and Bond are too old for their roles, at least for the flashback story that shows how Bond’s racist streak and brutality turn his son into an outlaw guerilla. It begins with the old man on his death bed trying to make peace with his past, but it turns out prejudice and retribution are thicker than blood. It was one of the final features by B-movie veteran Joseph H. Lewis, who made a couple of film noir classics (Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) but never made the leap to big studio assignments. Always one to find creative solutions to budgetary challenges, he effectively creates a lynch mob scene out of off-screen crowd sounds, shadows across set walls, feet clumping up a staircase, and even more evocatively tells the story of the aftermath with a simple, suggestive image loaded with emotional pain. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in the rest of the film. He dutifully plays out the hand this production deals him and cashes out with a draw.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Collection, from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Classic Movies Now and other web retailers:
The Killer Is Loose (MGM Limited)
The Halliday Brand (MGM Limited)

Available exclusive from the Warner Archive:
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Warner Archive)

Of Babies, Bones and Butterflies

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977. This essay on Bringing Up Baby is a chapter of the author’s University of Washington doctoral dissertation Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition.]

Bringing Up Baby‘s narrative and thematic directions have much in common with those of Shakespearean comedy. Positing the green world of the forest against the restrictive refuges of civilization, Hawks moves from a rigid and sterile old order into an arboreal milieu of enchantment and mistaken identity, and thence to a new order which synthesizes the best of both worlds. David Huxley is caught up in a midsummer night’s dream (or nightmare) in which identity, time, direction, and traditional modes of communication are lost or changed utterly. Hawks, like some cinematic Prospero, invokes the power of music and nature to effect the existential regeneration of comic hero and heroine.

Stasis

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is introduced in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” perched on a scaffold overlooking a brontosaurus skeleton that requires just one crucial bone to be complete. As a paleontologist, his “business” is a variation on taxidermy, the construction of bones into the shape of an extinct animal. He works in a museum where legacies of the past—nature’s and civilization’s—are displayed. As Hemingway said, “Chasing yesterdays is a bum show”: David is physically and intellectually immobilized by the weight of time into a sterile imitation of life. Momentarily stirred to joy by the promised arrival of the last brontosaurus bone, an intercostal clavicle, he spontaneously attempts to embrace his primly-coiffed and -suited fiancée, Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Repressed and repressing, she rebuffs him with “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Not only does she see “time and place” as inviolably absolute categories; it is also clear that those categories will always preclude sexual spontaneity. David’s work will leave “no time for a honeymoon” and Alice proudly gestures toward the brontosaurus skeleton, announcing “This will be our child!” Sexuality and procreation, ordinarily signs of life in motion in the here and now, are frozen into images of “no time” and an unfleshed casualty of past time.

David Huxley's baby

Rather than resenting and attempting’ to defy temporal realities, as do most Hawks and Hemingway code heroes, David Huxley is forced to worship time’s power to deaden and terminate life. Miss Swallow, a walking stopwatch, reminds David that “it’s time to play golf with Mr. Peabody,” whom he is to persuade to donate a million dollars to the museum. Almost in unconscious rebellion against her maternal discipline, he boyishly exclaims “I’ll show him! I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His fiancée predictably objects to the slang—language in playful motion—and cautions, “Remember who and what you are. And let Mr. Peabody win!” Who and what you are, for Miss Swallow, are further static classifications in contrast to the potential for professional and personal development, particularly in competitive play, that is always present in Hawks’ dramatic films, For David’s fiancée, nothing must be left to chance. As David departs, he absentmindedly confuses Alice with an elderly, male colleague, almost giving him a parting kiss; for as a result of her killing categorizing, Alice has managed to confound David’s ability to recognize or respond to her as a woman. He is as unmanned in his existential refrigerator as are Francis Macomber and Robert Cohn, Hemingway men trained and enervated by women.

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