On Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.
Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.
Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.
In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it was ostensibly based, beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)
Before the 1950s, there were no teenagers in the movies, at least not as such. There were adults and children, and that awkward age in between was largely seen as, well, that awkward period in between. You had kids on the cusp, troubled young adults, and juvenile delinquents but the teenager, with his / her hormonal surges and anxieties and identity crises, was pretty much ignored.
In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. James Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal in East of Eden (1955), Eliza Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel (or rather, a small portion of it), and he became an overnight star. He’s basically a frustrated Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron and his performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.
Dean wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role – he wanted to cast Brando – but screenwriter Paul Osborne suggested Dean for the part after seeing him on Broadway. Dean came from the Actor’s Studio, where Kazan himself had been active and found Marlon Brando, and Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for at least some of his leads and instead cast out of the Actor’s Studio, notably Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past, and she took home the film’s sole Academy Award (out of four nominations) for Best Supporting Actress.
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.
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.
Nicholas Ray was one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood in the 1950s. He was fascinated by outcasts and orphans, father figures and struggling sons, broken people driven by anger and colliding with society, anxious teenagers and young adults looking for their identity and their place in a hostile world. By any measure, Run For Cover is second-tier Ray, a western with interesting colors in a familiar frame. Made between his cult western Johnny Guitar and his legendary Rebel Without a Cause, it in many ways anticipates the latter in the western mode of the former, though with a more conventional approach and an emphasis on the father figure over the symbolic son.
James Cagney didn’t make many westerns — he established himself as an urban guy, street smart and pugnacious, in the thirties, and this is his first western since The Oklahoma Kid in 1939 — but he is excellent here as Matt Dow. Tough as a coil of barbed wire, he’s a loner and a survivor riding through the Colorado frontier and targeted by a lynch mob for a crime he didn’t commit. John Derek co-starred in Ray’s 1949 social drama Knock on Any Door and plays a variation of the same role as Davey Bishop, a young man orphaned as a child and raised by the community, passed around among the families of his small town of Madison. Davey is shot and crippled by a reckless, cowardly sheriff who ambushes the “train robbers” without giving them a chance to surrender, and Matt (after angrily proving their innocence to the townsfolk) all but adopts Davey, feeling responsible for his injury because he made Davey ride in front of him along the trail.
There an angry young man angle to the story, a juvenile delinquent movie in the old west, with Derek’s Davey as the cocky kid who becomes bitter and angry at the world for its mistreatment of him. But he’s a supporting character in the primary story of Matt, a man who has suffered the same mistreatments (he served time for a crime he didn’t commit, a sentence that cost him his family) and emerged wary and self-sufficient, but steadfastly moral. Impressed with his strength of character and cool under pressure, the townsfolk ask Matt to be their new sheriff and he takes the job on the condition that there will be no more lynch mobs, and that Davey serve as his deputy. Cagney’s Matt offers a form of tough love with Davey, but it is love nonetheless, a commitment to the boy that no one else has provided. The film turns on their relationship and their choices, as Matt romances Swedish farmer’s daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) and joins the community and Davey slides into failure, self-pity, and moral compromise.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
September 30, 1976
Could you tell me what Kings of the Road is about and how you came to make it?
It’s a film about two men and they’re making a journey across, along the border of East Germany from the North to the South, which is about a thousand miles, in an old truck, and they are repairing the projection equipment in the small villages.
How did you choose the subject?
Well, that’s not an easy answer. There are different subjects in the film. It’s not only the journey of the two men, but it’s also the situation of cinema, small cinemas in Germany that are dying out. It’s a little bit about the end of cinema altogether. It’s about the situation of men who are 30 now, born after the war like me. It’s about Germany nowadays. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about music and it’s about rock’n’roll just as well as about cinema.
There’s quite a lot of rock’n’roll on the soundtrack. How did you pick what you used?
I picked some favorite things.
There’s a profound feeling of alienation in the film, emphasized by Bruno’s scream at the end. Are you trying to make any larger statement about men as a group being alienated, or do you limit this sense of alienation to these two men? .
It’s more or less Tarzan’s scream. Well, it’s not only the alienation of these two because in the film … As soon as you pick somebody as the hero of a film, it turns out to be statement, not only about him but about mankind. So it is, rather, a film about men than about these two men. In a way, it’s a film about men totally in an American tradition—the road movie tradition—but on the other hand, it’s just the opposite of all these films because it’s not dealing with men the way all these films used to deal. It’s not reassuring them. On the contrary.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Seek and thou shalt find … or not, as the case may be. There is by now a good deal of useful critical writing available in English on the work of every film buff’s favourite genius maudit, Nicholas Ray. But Ray experts fall curiously taciturn on the topic of King of Kings, the longest of the director’s films, his second-most-costly, and arguably his worst-received. The Time reviewer even accused the film of blasphemy; in Europe, critics were content to suggest that any film casting a drippy jeune premier like Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus Christ would have to be at best risible. Time revealed that the film’s trade nickname was I Was a Teenage Jesus, something Leslie Halliwell’s smug and deeply reactionary reference book The Filmgoer’s Companion reminds us of with each new edition.
One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.
The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.