[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
Santee is a very unremarkable program western with a familiar plot complication: a former lawman, now bounty hunter, runs down and kills a bad fellow, only to have the man’s adolescent son swear vengeance on him; the bounty killer takes the boy under his wing, mainly to keep him where he can see him, and gradually (so tradition has it) the lad comes to love and respect him, and to assume the place of the son killed long ago.
The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.
Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.
Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.
Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).
It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.
The Visitor (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1979 Italian giallo-esque supernatural horror with an American cast and a former Fellini assistant taking the directorial reigns with more imagination than storytelling discipline, is not the first Exorcist knock-off to come out of the Italian genre factory. It may, however, be the least coherent. Opening on Franco Nero as a Django Jesus in a heaven with art direction out of Logan’s Run and populated with bald children, it quickly sends John Huston as a paternal emissary (or maybe a particularly grandfatherly God, who knows?) on mission to stop Santeen from taking over Earth through 8-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner, more creepy Bad Seed than possessed Linda Blair). There’s also a helping of The Omen, Carrie, The Birds, and the hall of mirrors of The Lady From Shanghai (among many other films), a basketball game with an exploding dunk shot, an abduction out of UFO lore, and Glenn Ford as a police detective who gets his eye pecked out by a falcon.
Giulio Paradisi (directing under the screen name Michael J. Paradise) came up with the story, which recasts the idea of a satanic thriller as a cosmic battle, and apparently keeps rewriting as it goes along. Katy has vaguely telekinetic powers and a strange sense of humor (in a game of tag at an ice rink she tosses a couple of teenage boys out of the rink and through a plate of glass) and somehow the evil corporate cabal’s mission to have Katy’s mommy (Joanne Nail) spawn even more devil children becomes a campaign of torture that lands her in a wheelchair and worse. The cast also drops in Shelley Winters as a cranky housekeeper, Mel Ferrer as the corporate devil, Sam Peckinpah as a doctor (completely dubbed into anonymity), and young Lance Henriksen as the Ted Turner of the Apocalypse. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it does actually take place in Atlanta (though most of it is shot in Rome).
Paradisi may not have a clue about directing actors (Glenn Ford walks through his performance in a daze, though in his defense he probably read the script and ended up more confused than ever) but he has picked up a few tricks from Argento on how to move a camera and from Fulci on how to stage a supernatural freak-out. It’s not particularly gory, mind you, and the cut-rate optical effects of the cosmic finale are so slapdash they become abstract, but that kind of works for this oddball trip.
I confess that this is the first time I’ve tried to review a Blu-ray release via streaming video. It may not have made that much of a difference, for despite the claims of being “restored” the print was filled with minor scuffs, scratches and abrasions and the picture looked a little soft. More likely this is a preservation rather than a restoration, an HD master of a high-quality print.
The press release insists that there are interviews with star Lance Henriksen, screenwriter Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, but only Henriksen and Comici were accessible to me. Both artists describe a production where no one had any idea what was going on with the script or the story, including the director, who dismissed all queries when asked to explain. Henriksen is marvelously good-natured about remembering the experience, which he found a delight even though the film is such a mess (his story about getting direction from co-star John Huston is priceless). I did not receive a copy of the booklet that accompanies the disc.
Delmer Daves was a Hollywood pro with a long career and an impressive filmography. He established himself as a screenwriter with a series of light comedies and romantic melodramas (including the original 1939 Love Affair) before stepping behind the camera with the World War II adventure Destination Tokyo. Like most directors of his era, he moved easily between all genres – war pictures, romances, melodrama, and a few noir-inflected dramas (The Red House and Dark Passage), but he proved his affinity for the western from his very first effort in the genre, the 1950 classic Broken Arrow. Along with his fine eye for imagery, Daves brought a psychological dimension and an adult sensibility to his westerns. In his best films, his characters had relationships and emotions that came out of real life.
Criterion’s stamp on two of his most interesting westerns may help bring a little more attention to the director. Jubal (Criterion) is the first of three westerns Daves made with actor Glenn Ford, already a seasoned western presence by 1956. Here he’s an itinerate cowhand and a wary loner hired by rancher Ernest Borgnine, a garrulous, generous guy who becomes both father figure and best friend to the emotionally bottled up cowhand. It’s been called “Othello” on the range, with Rod Steiger as the bitter ranch hand playing Iago to Borgnine’s Othello, but the Desdemona of this piece is no innocent victim but a dark, exotic beauty (she’s Canadian, apparently to explain away Valerie French’s accent) in a stifling marriage to the sincere but crude and boisterous cattleman. Young and deeply disenchanted, she sets her eyes on the simple, stoic cowboy.
This is less a Shakespeare western than a Hollywood melodrama in chaps and Daves was a seasoned hand at both genres. He favors suspense to action and violence, tightening the tension until Steiger (himself spurned by French) finally pushes his boss over the edge and the cycle of violence begins. Even then, the violence is brief and abrupt and Daves leaves the most brutal assault offscreen. Noah Beery Jr. and John Dierkes offer easy-going support as Ford’s friendly bunkmates and fellow cowhands and Charles Bronson takes a small but key role as a plain-speaking cowhand whose loyalty to Ford’s Jubal is unshakable even when Steiger turns the town against him. Daves brings out Bronson’s easy-going humor and understated style, a side so rarely tapped by other directors.
Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives)
Glenn Ford made his feature debut in this 1939 populist drama, a road movie about riding the rails across America in what would be the final years of the Depression. While he’s fourth billed (behind Jean Rogers, Raymond Walburn, and Marjorie Rambeau), he’s the star of the picture, a working class Joe from New York City who spends his entire savings on a ranch in Arizona (sight unseen but a gorgeous pamphlet!) and rides the rails to get to his too-good-to-be-true dream place. This is the tough, defiant Ford that became the grim, urban tough guy of Gilda and the calloused cowboy loner of numerous westerns in protean form, not even 25 years old but already with a chip on his shoulder and the obstinate attitude of a guy who has taken care of himself for so long he figures he knows it all.
The film is directed by Ricardo Cortez, longtime romantic leading man and character actor (and the first Sam Spade in the 1931 “The Maltese Falcon”), during a brief burst of filmmaking in the B-unit of 20th Century Fox when good roles were getting scarce, and written by Dalton Trumbo before he graduated to the top of the screenwriting ranks. But if it’s a B-movie by definition — it runs a mere 65 minutes and makes the most of minimal resources: New York is a stock street set surrounded by stock footage, hobo camps and rail-side meadows are tiny studio sets with painted backdrops, and the few location shots are surely just down the street from the studio lot — it’s a B-movie with ambition.
This slice-of-life story on the road is a piece of American populism with a different brand of optimism and pluck than the sentimental Capra-corn of “Meet John Doe.” Joe is a street-smart guy with a go-it-alone attitude tossed into a world he hasn’t the first clue how to navigate. A flop as a hitchhiker, he hops a boxcar and gets a quick education from veteran hobo Tony (Richard Conte, making his own film debut under his given name Nicholas Conte). Before he knows it he’s formed a family on the road with Anita (Jean Rogers), an illegal immigrant from Spain (though her contrived broken-English accent sounds more Dutch than Spanish), and The Professor (Raymond Walburn), a former academic on hard times with the patter of a con-man and the heart of a philanthropist. Along the way, they pass through a hobo camp (where Ward Bond has a bit as a brawny brute), a saloon that could have come from the old west, and a Russian Orthodox community that opens their arms and their culture to the crew. None of Capra’s corrupt fat cat industrialists or fast-talking reporters looking to rib the rubes here, just folk trying to get by.
And along with the melting pot of immigrant America and rural decency is a jab of international politics: Anita is an orphan of the Spanish Civil War, fleeing the Fascist forces that killed her parents and took her family farm. Just the kind of thing that Trumbo could slip in as long as he didn’t mention names or make a speech of it. As far as that goes, the term “Depression” is never uttered, which was surely not necessary for audiences who recognized the reality of hard times, scares jobs, and armies of homeless shown in screen.
This quartet navigates hunger and homelessness, railroad bulls and hobo bullies, a gunshot wound, an arrest warrant, and more, but for all the hardships and setbacks, “Heaven” maintains an optimistic sense of American generosity and acceptance in hard times. Joe can’t go it alone after all — what does a city boy know about ranching and farming in the southwest climes? — and he doesn’t need to. He’s got family.
The print is perfectly acceptable, not restored but decently preserved and mastered and as good as anything that 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives has debuted to date. There’s minimal wear on the print and the soundtrack and solid, stable image.
[May 9, 1972, program note for a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Fritz Lang in America”]
With the possible exceptions of Scarlet Street and parts of Fury, The Big Heat is the most corrosive of Fritz Lang’s films. Its very title sounds definitive of the darkly, sometimes loathsomely brilliant film noir, a class—if not precisely a genre—of American movie to evolve in the wake of the Second World War or, more accurately, after the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies: tortured imagings of a then-contemporary America, the high neurotic intensity of which would astound anyone who fancies the movies came of age this side of Stanley Kubrick. The film noir put out inky tendrils in many existent genres, forever altering even the Western (Anthony Mann, perhaps the most gifted director associated with the new vision, the new mode, also began his remarkable series of James Stewart Westerns in this era: Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, etc.); and certainly its temperamental affinities to the science-fiction film, a prime manifestation of the McCarthy era, are worth a nod. Basically, though, the film noir flourished in and reflected a contemporary milieu; films noirs tended to have to do with the world of crime, whether overtly (police and FBI stories, private-eye flicks, gangster stories) or by extension—that is, films in which “the world of crime” proved to be inseparable from the world of nightclubs and cabarets, offices and tenements, cars and homes where private citizens might become, by accident or design, guilty souls. The arrival of the film noir coincided with a new penchant, inspired by Italian neorealism, for moving out of the studio on occasion and onto the great rich set of the American city and its suburbs, a readily available set which became, sometimes with only minimal adjustment of light and shadow, fully as “Germanic” as anything constructed at Ufa in the Twenties. Of course many makers of films noirs were authentically Germanic: Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd.), Otto Preminger (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends), not to mention other directors and—just as important—designers and cameramen. But the most Germanic of all, Fritz Lang, clung to the resources of the soundstage. Still, part of the reason why The Big Heat looms large even in the incomparably rich spectrum of cinema that is film noir is its recognizability as a studio re-creation (specifically, mid-Fifties Columbia, as Man Hunt represents early-Forties Fox craftsmanship at its highest). The imagined milieu of The Big Heat may look less freaky than that of that earlier Lang picture of an earlier generation, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), but its distortions are (therefore?) more subtle, its ultimate force and effect more subversive.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
To make an uninvolving movie out of one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War may seem a dubious challenge, but there’s no denying Universal their full credit in meeting it. Midwayhas very little to recommend it. Persons who never subjected themselves to Sensurround with Earthquakehave their opportunity here (the closest I got was seeing—but scarcely experiencing—the sample sequence run for the benefit of the TV audience at last year’s Oscars, to the exclusion of film clips from the careers of Academy honorees Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks); the opening, tinted monochrome actuality footage of aircraft-carrier takeoffs and a long, riveting approach to a headland is vivid enough in its own right, and the roar and shudder of engines undeniably enhances it. But after that, Sensurround has pretty well shot its wad.