James Stewart roughed up his all-American nice guy image in five westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the best of the seven films they made together in the 1950s, most of them for Universal Studios. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, was made for Columbia and it was the first film that Mann shot in the still novel CinemaScope anamorphic widescreen format, which debuted just a couple of years earlier. It was a natural for Mann’s kind of western filmmaking, where the landscape and environment is a defining part of the drama and an integral element of the film’s tone and sensibility. For The Man From Laramie, Mann shot in the high plains and the ribbons of ridges of New Mexico, stretched far across the widescreen canvas. It’s lovely but forbidding, a mix of inviting green and forbidding desert and rock, and it is far from any other settlement, right in the heart of Indian country.
Into this beautiful but isolated land rides Will Lockhart (Stewart) and the wagon train of his freight company. He also has personal business in the territory and it has something to do with the charred remains of a wagon train they pass along the way. Stewart eases up on the neurotic edge he brought to earlier Mann films Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur and is even quite charming when he first arrives in town and meets Barbara (Cathy Downs) with his wagonloads of freight. When she offers him tea, he smiles at the thought of so civilized a break from the trail and watches her bustle about with an appreciation for the feminine presence in his life, no matter how fleeting. But he’s a hard, driven man as the dark expression that passes over his face at the massacre graveyard communicates.
The Man From Laramie (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Anthony Mann’s seventh and final collaboration with James Stewart and his first widescreen film, is a frontier “King Lear” by way of Mann’s favorite themes of splintered families and filial betrayal. Stewart plays his usual brooding loner, a former army scout searching for the man responsible for his brother’s death. He rides into a town run by a cattle baron (Donald Crisp) with an irresponsible son (Alex Nicol) who despises him and a dutiful foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who desperately craves his father-figure’s affection and respect.
The complicated web of love, hate, and betrayal sprawls over the entire town and Stewart, less psychologically haunted than in previous Mann collaborations, becomes a catalyst that pitches the conflict into violence, usually directed at him. While the Apaches are the ostensible threat, Mann’s brutal violence reaches a new level of cruel glee in Nicol’s sadistic psychopath of a delinquent with a six shooter. At his direction, Stewart is dragged through a burning campfire, shot point-blank in the hand, beaten, ambushed, and generally made unwelcome. Kennedy provides the psychotic edge as the spurned son with a black secret. As usual Mann’s landscapes are magnificent in a country where beauty and danger lie in the same handsome wilderness. Also stars Cathy Downs as a Kennedy’s long-suffering fiancée, googly-eyed Jack Elam as shady informant, and Wallace Ford as a tracker who becomes Stewart’s ally.
Twilight Time offers a lovely widescreen transfer and offers the usual trademark extras: an isolated musical score and effects track and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
The Train (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) makes a timely arrival for anyone who was disappointed with Monuments Men. This too is a true story of the Nazi looting of Europe’s art treasures during their retreat and the efforts to stop them, but this is a tough, muscular war thriller that pits the stakes against one another: just what price are you willing to pay to protect your artistic legacy? Burt Lancaster is the proletariat resistance leader who bristles under orders to stop the art from being taken out of France – he’s more focused on killing Germans and saving civilians – and Paul Scofield is his nemesis, the aristocratic Nazi officer who oversees the mass looting of France’s greatest paintings.
John Frankenheimer (who replaced the film’s original helmer, Arthur Penn, at Lancaster’s request) directs with a muscular style that puts the themes into action and the crisp black and white photography captures the busy industrial detail of the train yard and the gritty war-torn atmosphere of France in the final days of the German occupation. The great Michel Simon is the burly engineer who sabotages the initial run and Suzanne Flon and Jeanne Moreau co-star.
This Twilight Time release features the original commentary recorded by Frankenheimer for the laserdisc release almost 20 years ago plus a new commentary track with Twilight Time founder and historian Nick Redman and film historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor, as well as the usual isolated score track and eight-page booklet. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
Screaming Mimi (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), directed by Gerd Oswald from a novel by Fredric Brown, is a real cult item in the film noir filmography, weird and lurid and kitschy, but fascinating all the same. Anita Ekberg stars as Yolanda, an exotic nightclub dancer who survives an attack from a serial killer and becomes much more than a story to “night beat” reporter Bill Sweeney (Philip Carey), a combination crime reporter and nightlife columnist who accepts free drinks from the clubs he plugs. Carey comes off as an oily Richard Carlson, a B-movie version of a second-tier performer, while Ekberg is pure sexual fantasy: voluptuous, scantily clad, dancing as if in a trance, and inviting the reporter’s advances with every glance. Or at least it seems to Sweeney, who clashes with Yolanda’s possessive manager (Harry Townes) as he traces the killer back to the Screaming Mimi of the title, a statue of hysterical woman.
A hothouse atmosphere of sex and obsession pervades this picture, as much due to the low-rent environs of the low budget sets as to the nightlife culture itself. Her manager is also her doctor (from when she was the best dressed patient in the asylum) and, we can assume, her lover, while the nightclub matron (Gypsy Rose Lee) shows an equally possessive interest in the petite cigarette girl (Linda Cherney), who she keeps around like a pet. I don’t know if “tea for two” was a cultural euphemism for female couples, but when Sweeney says it, it sure sounds like it. And when Yolanda runs out on the reporters and spends the night at Sweeney’s home, the two cigarettes burned to butts side by side in the ash tray says all you need to know about the sleeping arrangements, regardless of the fact that she emerges from a separate bedroom. Oswald knows how to cue the details of this dime novel world behind the restrictions of the production code. Even the deficiencies of the performances, from Ekberg’s breathy vacancy to Carey’s smugness to Gypsy Rose Lee’s overworked folksiness and sass to Red Norvo’s smart-aleck jazzbo comments, add to the weirdly off-key tone. The screenplay is largely faithful to Brown’s novel, except that it irons out his storytelling twists, dropping the detective story discoveries into the prologue. Curiously, it doesn’t affect the mystery much, it merely establishes the sordid attitude much earlier.
The disc is presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, approximating the original release aspect ratio just fine, and the image is solid, from a clean, well-kept black-and-white print.
The Big Night (MGM Limited Edition Collection), the final American film made by Joseph Losey before he fled Hollywood and the blacklist for Europe, has a title just generic enough to suggest anything from a musical extravaganza to a teen sex comedy. But vagueness aside, it’s really quite a provocative youth noir with John Drew Barrymore as an angry young man out to revenge the brutal beating of his old man (Preston Foster), a modest barkeep, by a bullying sports reporter with the marvelously ironic name of Al Judge (Howard St. John). Neither juvenile delinquent drama or a wild youth thriller, this is a portrait in rage and shame and disappointment in fathers and father figures. On this big night, as he arms himself with a handgun and hunts down the newsman, he is let down by one authority figure after another, from his father to a friendly but cowardly professor who takes him under his wing to a corrupt, predatory cop in the pocket of Judge. This is some coming of age as he discovers over this long night that his heroes and the authority figures he’s been taught to respect are not merely flawed, but often corrupt, petty, and unreliable.
Losey made this for an independent producer on a small budget but his direction is commanding, making his odyssey through the city at night into a journey through the heart of darkness. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore, Jr.) never really established himself as much of an actor (though I’ll always love him for his beat poetry history lesson in High School Confidential), but Losey pulls a vivid, tormented character out of him here, almost dizzy with hurt and fury and confusion as he pushes himself to follow through on his vengeance. There is a powerful undercurrent to this modest production.
The Black Book (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is another kind of cult noir: pure American urban film noir sensibility dropped into the Terror of the French Revolution, with guys and dames in flouncy costumes and flamboyant hats talking like gangsters and street thugs. It’s been available in some truly wretched PD editions, until VCI released a decent copy a couple of years ago. While it was fine, this edition is far superior, really providing an appropriate showcase to Anthony Mann’s shadowy scenes of death and double crosses in the alleys and dungeons of 18th century Paris as suggested on backlot sets. This is, in a word, formidable!
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The Missing Juror (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), one of the very first features helmed by westerns master Budd Boetticher (credited as Oscar Boetticher, Jr. early in his career), is a typical B-movie mystery about a glib newspaperman (Jim Bannon) chasing a story about members of a high-profile jury turning up dead. What should be an ominous thriller is knocked off-balance by outsized personalities and comic by-play, like a film trying to split the difference between crime movie, screwball romance, and snappy newspaper film, all played out on cheap backlot sets. Boetticher doesn’t bring much to the film beyond energy: this film moves along with a momentum that almost fools you into thinking there’s something going on.
Vice Raid (MGM Limited Edition Collection) gives top billing to Mamie Van Doren, playing a brassy working girl hired by mobster Brad Dexter (in smirking sleaze mode) to frame incorruptible cop Richard Coogan (a charisma-free stiff), who gets kicked off the force and goes rogue to take down the syndicate. Mamie is actually the classiest thing in this cheap little crime 1959 knock-off from Imperial Pictures, which isn’t really noir as much a noir by product. It never creates an appropriately sordid atmosphere to match the culture of corruption, just a general generic sleaziness. The disc is presented in the square 1.33:1 format (what was once called full frame, a term that has become rather confusing in the era of widescreen monitors), but was shot to be seen wider and is better watched zoomed to fill the 16×9 screen.
Sony Pictures Choice Collection: Screaming Mimi The Black Book The Missing Juror
Thursday, June 30, is the birthday of Emil Anton Bundsmann, who entered the world in 1906 at San Diego, California, and departed it April 29, 1967, in Berlin, Germany. In between he had streamlined his name to Anthony Mann, become a movie director, and acquired a passionate cult among connoisseurs of film style for having made some of the most lucidly and powerfully visualized films in American cinema. Few filmmakers have equaled his genius for fusing landscape and dramatic action, and his heroes—in the films noir of the late Forties and his majestic Westerns of the Fifties—are a compellingly conflicted lot.
He worked off-Broadway from 1925 and entered film in 1938 as director of screen tests for producer David O. Selznick (most famously, on Gone With the Wind). After serving as assistant director on Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, among others, he started directing in 1942 and languished for several years in B-movie assignments at mostly B-movie studios. But one of these was Eagle-Lion, an interesting operation under the enlightened executive producer Walter Wanger, and there Mann’s talent began to shine. Working with the brilliant, Hungarian-born cinematographer John Alton, he scored a personal triumph with T-Men (1947), a police-procedural thriller in the then-fashionable semidocumentary mode, but shot through with bold angles, stark contrasts, and dynamic deep-focus compositions. The team followed up with the pungent Raw Deal, He Walked by Night (credited to Alfred Werker, who had fallen ill), and The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror). Their remarkable inventiveness on limited budgets won them entree at Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.
The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.