(Obsessed with) Vertigo (1958)

As a family we’ve got into the habit of watching a ‘quality’ film on Saturday nights. It can be new, old, critically acclaimed, a cult classic or something we have watched and enjoyed in the past. The broad idea is to give The Boy a sort of education in cinema, and on most occasions titles he might ordinarily have scorned instead become sources of delight. A great success recently was Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, the sort of film in which things are happening all the time, often at a rapid fire pace, and it’s good fun throughout. 12 Angry Men – loved it. Who doesn’t? Of the more recent offerings, we tried Point Break, which is showing its age a bit now but still holds up as an action spectacular.

This weekend it was the turn of Vertigo, my son’s choice having sampled two previous Hitchcock winners in Strangers on a Train and Psycho (the latter, once we got past that scene, which everyone has seen often out of context, ramps up the tension afterwards and found him helplessly caught in the suspenseful mastery). Vertigo is a tougher nut, of course. It divides this house. I adore it. Mrs Mike finds it a bit boring, and it’s quite permissible to have that kind of reaction. On this occasion, the magic didn’t happen. The Boy lasted for about half the film before conceding defeat and walking away, a reaction I thought could happen as it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Vertigo is saddled with the tag of being in many quarters the greatest film of all time. Personally I’m not even sure it’s Hitchcock’s best, though it’s certainly one of a select number of titles that could qualify, but all said whilst a masterpiece it is of the slightly flawed vintage. There are moments, notably the film’s climax, which for me come across as a little on the clunky side, and remain reasons why some critics think it doesn’t quite deserve the exalted status it’s achieved. And yet, when The Boy announced last week that he was selecting Vertigo for our Saturday night movie I admit that I looked forward very much to seeing it again. In the build-up, I listened to Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing score several times. It’s possibly my favourite of them all, of any film soundtrack. Watching it, on my own for the film’s second half, I wallowed in it, the colours brought to vibrant life in its HD transfer. The restoration was so good that it looked as though it could have been released a month ago, rather than sixty years in the past. When I was done I was tempted to go back to the start and catch it all over again, and I can easily picture myself not finishing this piece without another viewing.

It’s a film that I have often wanted to talk about on these pages but at the same time am apprehensive. I would like to find the words that do it justice, capturing what it is about Vertigo that holds an endless fascination for me, and it’s possible I’m not up to the task. It holds the sort of allure that tempts me into booking a ticket to San Francisco so that I can do a pilgrimage of the city, wander in the footsteps of Scotty and Madeleine around its old haunts, like the former do it at five in the morning in the hope of capturing some of its lonely, dreamlike quality, and obviously there would be little point. It’s a different city to the one shown in the film, and many of the locations simply don’t exist now. But I don’t need to do any of that to appreciate and love the picture, one that has every bit as troubled a history as the events it depicts. As bizarre as it seems for such a critically acclaimed work, it’s  worth bearing in mind that contemporary minds did not feel the same way about it, citing Vertigo as indulgent, all over the place, carrying an elusive message that was not realised successfully. Too long. Too slow. Critics had a problem with the film’s twist being explained with a third of it still to run, apparently not ‘getting it’ that its murder mystery elements weren’t really the point. For some years, it wasn’t possible to see Vertigo at all. While not a commercial failure it wasn’t a success, and along with several other titles it was held by the Hitchcock estate until after his death, and even then it was another chunk of time before the film was restored to its present glory.

For my part, I had a similar reaction to The Boy upon my first experience of Vertigo. Screened by Channel 4 in the 1980s as part of a lengthy season of Hitchcock films, back when they still had seasons, it lacked the obvious qualities of other entries that came loaded and taut with sweet suspense. It has since risen to become one of those movies I dust off broadly once per year, and oddly enough I enjoy it more with each watch. Explaining why is a tougher prospect. There are of course the traditional elements, the happy coincidence of director, cast and crew all working at the top of their respective games, and when you’re talking about the Hollywood gold that contributed to Vertigo that’s some game. You can start with thinking that the music makes it, especially because Herrmann’s prelude and the musical accompaniment to the rooftop scene are so strong. The photography is ravishing, another Hitchcock regular Robert Burks on top form and utterly eclipsing the Oscar winning work he put in for To Catch a Thief. He wasn’t nominated for Vertigo, which in hindsight seems like a criminal act because it really doesn’t get any better than this. Whether shooting James Stewart in centre frame sat in his car, then switching to the actor’s perspective as he tracks the languorous progress of Kim Novak’s iconic green Jaguar, or the riot of colour that explodes with the visit to the flower store, it’s a thing of staggering beauty. I would love to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, but I fully expect that seeing it in real life wouldn’t capture the otherworldly romanticism with which Burks shot it in the film.

Hitchcock felt that Stewart’s advancing years made him a less than convincing love interest for the much younger Novak, yet it’s in retrospect that we can appreciate it’s exactly this quality that makes his character’s story so tragic – all those wasted years, the ‘make do’ option of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the chance of happiness with Novak’s Madeleine that’s snatched, brief and elusive, and will haunt him forever, the startling ice blue in his eyes that adds a maniacal aspect to his obsessive, doomed pursuit. As for Novak, I remember writing a piece some time ago about Strangers When We Meet (that I have since lost, because I’m good like that), which turned into something of a worship at her feet. No doubt a hard hitting title by 1960 standards, Novak stood out amidst a distinguished cast as the woman trapped by her own beauty, doomed to be hit upon and defined by her sexuality forever. The actor and director Richard Quine were frequent collaborators, so you would imagine he knew how to use her to best effect by this stage, but Hitchcock had one attempt and coaxed this performance out of her. While you can interpret the Hitchcockian motive behind Stewart’s efforts to reproduce his lost bleached blonde love before he will love her however you want, the truth is she’s every bit as transfixing as Scottie finds her. The camera loves watching Novak, with her (apparently not feigned) physical awkwardness, the inner turmoil, her vulnerability. And she wasn’t even the first choice, Vera Miles having dropped out when she became pregnant. What a break. I’m genuinely not sure if I have ever seen a better job of acting than the one Novak produced here. It seems so natural, perhaps an innate quality that Hitchcock was able to tap into.

As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it’s a perfect movie. The standard’s so high that the false notes tend to stick out, though they’re few and far between. I do happen to believe it’s almost as good as the moving image ever tends to get, however. Sure there are pacier films, where stuff happens more quickly so that you don’t get bored, but for me there are few things better than watching beautifully constructed sequences of shots, dependably transferred from the storyboard to the screen, Scottie trailing Madeleine as Herrmann’s melancholic score drifts lazily along, an unsettling undertone to suggest the trap he’s falling into, the luxuriant quality heightening the sense of romance, the cossetted world this pair enter where there’s just each other. The music even keeps on playing when Madeleine drops into the San Francisco Bay, suddenly chaotic as if the score, like Scottie, can’t quite believe what it’s seeing.

A very famous Hitchcock quote goes ‘What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?‘ and I don’t think it was ever more apt than in the case of Vertigo.  Just about every frame contains some visual clue about where the story’s going, showing the sheer level of care and attention that went into the film. Unlike many films that are considered up there with the best, it’s all very accessible and easy enough to follow, even if it takes a few viewings to get everything that’s happening. And best of all, and I can’t emphasise this enough, it’s just so rapturously gorgeous, from its actors to the production values, among the very highest of their time. It’s all so good that you end up wanting these tortured souls to find a morsel of happiness, even though the note of impending doom, the spiral towards destruction that featured on much of Vertigo’s artwork, informs you at every stage that it’s heading in the opposite direction. For little over two hours, Vertigo holds you in a kind of grip, I think a trancelike state, where you’re in something close to a dream, and at the very end real life – with all its troubled history – comes crashing in, as if calling time. But getting there is one of cinema’s greatest joys, and I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.

How the West was Won (1962)

When it’s on: Friday, 2 January (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s a neat comparison to suggest that Cinerama was the IMAX of its day. The latter, those colossal cinema experiences, are quite special in their own way, but with home cinema easily available and many big new releases available on IMAX, it can’t replicate the extent to to which Cinerama really was a big deal.

From 1949 to 1952, cinema audiences dwindled dangerously with the advent of television. As more American homes welcomed an ‘idiot’s lantern’, the number of people up for a night at the movies dropped by nearly a half, and Hollywood moguls scratched their heads over what to do about this crisis. The answer, inevitably, was spectacle. TVs invariably were 9″ screens, capable of producing black and white images, so the solution was to serve up something in theatres that the goggle box just couldn’t show you – sprawling films, featuring casts of thousands, made on a massive scale and in full, glorious colour. Little surprise, perhaps, that this was the era of the swords and sandals epic, the likes of Quo Vadis wowing the masses with expensively made feasts for the eyes. But it didn’t stop there. Ever earnest to undermine television, Hollywood came up with filming processes that widened the screen, given grandiose names like Vistavision and Cinemascope and offering more and more detail to awestruck audiences. ‘Widescreen’ was nothing new; as early as 1927, Abel Gance took advantage of a three-panel process called Polyvision to increase the scope of Napoleon and showed all those extras having at each other in contemporary military uniforms.

But even by these standards, Cinerama offered something unique. Fred Waller, who previously had attempted a logistically ludicrous process that used eleven projectors casting their images onto a dome, developed a system in which three cameras recorded simultaneously. The results would then be projected separately onto the left, central and right panels of a huge curved screen, done in such a way to produce a single, seamless image. A seven-channel sound system was an accompanying innovation, all designed to give audiences the feeling of being virtually immersed in what was being shown on the screen. Early exhibitions of the process, the wildly successful This is Cinerama (1952) was a showcase of what it could do, opening with a Roller Coaster ride that was shown from the perspective of someone sitting in the front car. The experience for viewers must have been amazing; This is Cinerama was a huge hit, more so for the limited number of screens that could support it.

Travelogues that took cameras to parts of the world previously inaccessible to the public made up much of Cinerama’s output through the rest of the 1950s, until it was decided to make dramatic films specifically for the process. The first was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. The second, and perhaps the ultimate expression of what Cinerama could create, was How the West was Won. It cost $15 million, a vast investment for the time, employed a cast of thousands to rub shoulders with some very big stars, took in the work of three prestigious directors, and created a sprawling saga that ran for more than two and a half hours.

It’s difficult watching How the West was Won on a small screen to appreciate the impact it must have made on Cinemara audiences. The film was designed for those looming curved screens, so something is inevitably lost on an ordinary television, even on a modern LED. For certain, there are better Westerns. The tight plotting of the very finest the genre has to offer goes out of the window in favour of a smash and grab from classic Western stories – castle rustling, showdowns with Native Americans, train heists, gunfights. It’s all in here, stringing together a loosely arching plot that tracks the Prescott family over half a century as they emigrate westward. The story takes in their experience as pioneering emigrants, the impact of the Civil war on their fortunes, along with that of the railroad, and the brief period of lawlessness before civilisation catches up with the mass migration of humans across the continent.

The conversion of a film intended for Cinerama onto a flat widescreen format presents further problems. At times, it’s possible to see the ‘joins’ on the screen, particularly when the shot is filled with blue skies. Added to that is the strange sense of perspective; it’s a little like watching the film on a cylinder, objects moving horizontally towards the screen from the right background before appearing to veer off towards the left rather than simply straight across it. To compensate for perspective issues, directors made actors stand in the dead centre of the screen and could never favour close-up shots. When two people converse, they were unable to look at each other in order for the illusion to work on Cinerama, yet on a ‘normal’ screen the problem returns and characters talk whilst peering off into some middle distance.

These, however, are minor issues and never really ruin the film, rather it’s possible to sit back and luxuriate in some quite gorgeous photography. One of the enormous benefits of Cinerama was its ability to show off the American landscape in beautiful, crystal clear images, and How the West was Won features the west at its most brilliant, natural and barren, indeed much of the intention was to illustrate a land untouched by the footsteps of modern man. It’s a thing of staggering visual pleasure.

The show is helped by the presence of an excellent cast of actors, a compendium of some the Western genre’s leading lights. Some, like John Wayne and Harry Morgan as jaded Generals Sherman and Grant, are little more than high profile cameo appearances. Gregory Peck is fine as a card playing rogue who also possesses a heart. There’s James Stewart, too old to be the fur tracker who captures Carroll Baker’s heart, but bringing class to the screen, and he’s involved in one of the film’s best action scenes when he helps the Prescotts beat off river pirates led by Water Brennan (and including in their ranks Lee Van Cleef). The film’s second half focuses strongly on George Peppard’s Zeb, the son of Baker and Stewart, who fights in the Civil War before helping the security of the railroad’s building and coming across Henry Fonda as a cynical and grizzled frontiersman. Zeb also has moral struggles with that classic Western anti-hero, Richard Widmark, who oversees the railtrack’s construction at any cost and whoever it affects, and later fights physically against Eli Wallach’s train robber, Charlie Gant.

There’s a lot going on, so much that the film was split into five segments, three of which were directed by Henry Hathaway, with George Marshall taking on the railroad story and John Ford covering the Civil War. All three experienced frustration with the Cinerama filming, the needs of the camera taking precedence over their normal shooting style, and they all wound up using objects like tree trunks to cover up the bits where audiences might see the ‘joins’.

How the West was Won is far from the best Western, but equally there’s nothing quite like it. Apart from the Cinerama aspects, it’s possible to see the film as marking the end of an era, a sort of compendium of the genre’s best bits from its classic era, before it moved into darker and grittier territory with the advent of the ‘Spaghetti’ films and Clint Eastwood.

How the West was Won: ****

And with that, readers, we’ve reached the end of the holiday fortnight. It’s been a blast writing these pieces, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them, perhaps one or two have even inspired you to watch a film you might otherwise have ignored. The bad news is that I can’t sustain this pace over a normal working week, however I have had too much of a good time to simply stop, and will be keeping FOTB going, probably on a reduced, two-three reviews per week basis. It’s your readership and support that has kept it going, so thanks for all the Follows, Likes and Comments, and I hope to see you throughout 2015!

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

When it’s on: Monday, 29 December (12.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I’m not ashamed to admit that there are entire passages of The Glenn Miller Story that leave me with a big smile on my face, the whole sequence that runs from Miller ‘discovering’ his sound through to the beginning of the climactic war segment. The film focuses on the songs, those immortal big band tunes, and by this stage has established Miller as such a likeable presence that the sight of him finally making it and giving joy to the masses through his music is just an enormous pleasure.

The Glenn Miller story follows Miller (James Stewart) from his early days as a struggling trombonist, working from band to band whilst attempting to get his own arrangements noticed. His instrument moves in and out of pawn shops as his fortunes fluctuate, and whilst his talent as a musician is never in doubt his attempts to get recognised for his compositions fare less well. Miller has faith in himself, but knows he hasn’t yet hit upon the right sound and this eventually comes about as a combination of hard, painstaking work at the piano and a turn of fortune. In the meantime, he courts and marries Helen Burger (June Allyson), almost the perfect American wife – loving, endlessly supportive, the practical, financially savvy partner to his artist – and much of the film tracks their idealised relationship, and his use of her as a muse for such famous tracks as Pennsylvania 6-5000 and Little Brown Jug, whilst Helen herself comes up for the title of what will emerge as Moonlight Serenade. Incidentally, the film was nearly called Moonlight Serenade, and indeed carried this title in certain countries.

It’s lovely stuff, with the almost complete absence of tension compensated for with good music (I’m listening to Miller whilst writing these words) and Stewart’s heartwarming chemistry with Allyson. As a directorial project for Anthony Mann, it’s a departure. At the time, his collaboration with Stewart in a string of brilliant and gritty (for the time) Westerns was extremely fruitful, and it was the actor who persuaded him to sign up for The Glenn Miller Story, which turned into a major hit for Universal. Mann brought to the project his usual sense of economy, the film never dragging as the narrative moves seamlessly through Miller’s career. There are also some great moments. My favourite has Miller and his band playing In the Mood for injured American soldiers in Britain. It’s wartime; the bombs are still dropping and whilst the song plays a V-2 rocket soars overhead, then the engine cuts out, which means it’s about to drop. GIs duck or rush for cover, but Miller makes the band play on as the bomb explodes nearby, making a triumph of the music over destruction.

Visually, it’s as good as one might expect from a Mann film. It features fine use of Technicolor, most prominently in a scene where Miller and Helen go to see Louis Armstrong (appearing as himself, along with various other musicians from the big band era) play in a jazz club, a projector turning the performers into a kaleidoscope of colours to go with the freeform music.

Harry Morgan, in real life a good friend of Miller’s, co-stars as his best mate and pianist, Chummy. It’s Stewart’s film, though. Having the benefit of actually looking like Miller (a fact nicely teased out by the poster I chose for this entry), he went to the trouble of learning to play the trombone for his performance, although he was never skilled enough for the film and his scenes were dubbed by Joe Yukl, who would perform off-camera whilst Stewart’s correct hand movements gave the impression of authenticity.

The film builds to a poignant close, with its gentle scene of a heart quietly breaking, but music emerges as the triumph. It’s a really great picture.

The Glenn Miller Story: ****

Let It Go

A mazy and disjointed ramble through Christmas films…

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, well apart from me as I still have some sort of bloody virus that’s stopping me from those little holiday luxuries like a good sleep. In fairness, being ill – not really ill, as in ‘sorry, I can’t make it in today’ proper sickness, more what we refer to as being ‘a bit under the weather’ – has driven this site’s churn of watching and writing about films. The Glenn Miller Story is currently cued up, ready to go, and, let’s be honest, there’s never a bad time to see it, is there?

A cursory glance through the schedules reveals to me that Frozen is Sky’s big Christmas Day premiere. It’s a sound choice, obvious even. Doing my present buying in recent weeks, I’ve been confronted with endless merchandise, image after image from the Disney flick that has bucked tradition by becoming increasingly popular long after its initial release, so that it’s now a juggernaut with faulty brakes, gaining a kind of snowball effect with viewers. Generally, I have little to say about it that disagrees with Badblokebob’s excellent review; like Bob I quite enjoyed Frozen, though I saw nothing that really made it stand out for me, and in true middle-aged man style my Dreyfus tic kicks in whenever I sense a song on the horizon. If I remember rightly, it isn’t even a Christmas film per se, in the same way Jingle Bells was never in fact written for Christmas, but it’s become part of the season thanks to its snowy subject matter and Disney’s canny alignment with all things Yule. Look, if you really want to know, I thought Maleficent was a far better picture.

As for genuine Christmas movies, Mrs Mike and I went to the delightful Picture House in Hebden Bridge yesterday afternoon to catch It’s a Wonderful Life. I know, I know, it’s an obvious choice, and somewhere down the line it became the archetypal film of the season. My father was a fan of classic cinema and sat me down before it back when I was a kid because ‘it’s good and you might learn something’, and I’m sure in those days it didn’t hold the special place in peoples’ hearts that it currently occupies. And it remains a disturbing watch, the grim tale of an essentially decent man driven towards such untold levels of despair that a guardian angel is sent to show him what his hometown and its citizens would be like if he had never been born. The film’s final few minutes are unashamedly sentimental, but that’s just a payoff for the main character’s nightmarish vision of coming across dear old friends and a wife with no idea who he is, their lives and outlooks hard and cynical because he was never there to provide the friendship and optimism we all need in order to carry on. At the heart is James Stewart’s George Bailey, a note-perfect performance from someone keen to subvert his wholesome image as a man who seems to visibly carry the worries of the world on his shoulders. The film is marketed as heartwarming, ‘the most loved Christmas film of all time’ goes the tagline, yet the image that stays with me is Bailey before he gets his vision, bags under his eyes, grey in his hair, all slumped posture, a picture of utter defeat. It might very well be wonderful, but it isn’t light viewing.

And yet it’s a million miles removed from most Christmas films, loaded with sentiment and a bit like being tied down while someone straddles you and pours syrup down your forced open mouth, sugarboarding if you like. Heck, there are entire Cable channels that show nothing but Christmas movies. Most of them I don’t like. Elf? Nope. The Santa Clause? No thank you. Those interminable Disney films where dogs are the heroes? Someone must like that sort of nonsense, but not for me. I will admit to a fondness for Robert Zemeckis’s animated take on A Christmas Carol from 2009, largely because no one can make a camera do those impossible swoops and dives through computer generated scenes quite like Zemeckis, but the source material has become so familiar and readapted that watching any version is like an easy wander down some local path that I’ve taken many times beforehand. The best, again handed down from my dad, is the 1951 vintage directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim, though its by no means Sim’s finest performance (without thinking hard about it, I have nothing but love for his professional bounder in School for Scoundrels) and, perhaps because it’s the one that was circulated most frequently when I was young, the musical Scrooge from 1970 remains close to my heart.

Perhaps my favourite Scrooge film isn’t even an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at all, but is instead Hammer’s Cash on Demand, in which the old curmudgeon is reimagined as a stuffy bank manager, played by Peter Cushing. The story takes place on 23 December. Harry Fordyce runs his provincial branch on a short leash, setting impossible standards for the staff, especially Richard Vernon’s hangdog underling. The bank’s workers prepare for their Christmas party in the full and sure knowledge that Mr Fordyce will not wish to be involved. Into his world strides Colonel Gore-Hepburn (Andre Morell), a bogus investigator from ‘Head Office’ who turns out to be a bank robber with the perfect plan to empty the branch’s vaults and somehow co-opt Fordyce as his willing accomplice. It’s brilliant, tense viewing, running a breathless 80 minutes as, steadily, Fordyce’s stiff veneer is undermined until the desperate and emotional core is on full display. Cushing has been in many bigger films but he’s rarely been better, entirely convincing as his entire raison d’etre is stripped away. Morell is like all three Christmas ghosts rolled into one, an effortlessly charming criminal who is far more likeable and personable than the austere and remote Fordyce. It’s fortunate that Sony cleaned up and released the film on its Icons of Suspense boxset several years ago; previously, it was a forgotten footnote in the Hammer back catalogue, rarely screened and largely unavailable.

Otherwise, I submit for your approval Millions, the little Danny Boyle film from 2004 that I see as completely charming without resorting to cheap sentiment. Reviewed on these pages here, it was made for very little money and raked in enough to be considered a minor success, though its impact on the box office was minimal compared to the juggernauts of the time. That said, its release was an exercise in mishandling. It’s a Christmas film that came out in April, and its semi-regular appearances on network television have it bouncing around the calendar, as though no one knows quite what to make of it. The barebones plot is that of two young boys who come across a suitcase full of money, the classic MacGuffin plot device that served Boyle previously in Shallow Grave. Unlike that earlier film, in which the characters attempt to cheat and harm each other in an effort to gain all the cash, Millions’ kids are cute with their newfound wealth. The older one, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), is savvy and uses it to gain status with his peers; his younger brother Damian (Alex Etel) wants to give it to the poor. Damian’s knowledge of and conversations with real-life saints is both a reflection of the wonder of children, whilst also serving as a reaction to the boys’ recent loss of their mother. Clearly affected, Damian’s mourning is shown in his inquiring of the saints whether they’ve come across Saint Maureen; as he explains, she’s new in Heaven.

Their dad is played by the ever-underrated James Nesbitt, obviously just about holding it together despite his grieving. There’s a rubbish nativity play, a series of televised adverts about Britain’s imminent conversion to the Euro that star Leslie Phillips, and the film’s villain, the ‘poor man’ played by Christopher Fulford whose search for the suitcase turns him into an understated yet deeply sinister character, like Death itself ever on the fringes of the action. Set in a modern and very real Widnes, it never pushes its morality too hard whilst charming the socks off its viewers with its really big heart. Damian is an adorable character without ever trying to be; he’s entirely relatable. Such a shame that Millions remains in semi-obscurity; take this as a plea from me to check it out.

So anyway, it’s (Glenn) Miller time, to be accompanied with coffee and York Fruits (the supermarkets had been cleared of Celebrations and Quality Street by the time we arrived, so some improvisation was required). Please enjoy your Christmas, whatever you choose to watch, though I heartily recommend The Lady Vanishes, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 23 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Destry Rides Again came out in 1939, the same year as Stagecoach, and it seems that it will go down with the epitaph ‘The One that wasn’t Stagecoach.’ 1939 was the year that also brought us Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the tale of an idealistic young Senator played with such conviction by James Stewart, at this stage a star on the rise. Stewart was suddenly hot property, and ensured Destry Rides Again would be pumped out quickly to capitalise on his winning ‘Aw shucks’ charisma. In the years that followed, especially after his experiences in World War Two, Stewart’s range would broaden and become far more complicated, but for now it was easy to see him as the idealistic young American, with his provincial, awkward manner of speaking, his steadfast resoluteness and offbeat appeal.

The real star of the show at the time, however, was Marlene Dietrich, the Berliner who was approaching 40 and presumably nearing the tail end of her long, glittering career. As Frenchy, the owner of lawless Bottleneck’s rowdy saloon, she’s a jaded singer who’s seen it all, betting the pants off other barflies over card games and being embroiled by association with the schemes of the town’s unofficial boss, Kent (Brian Dunlevy). She knows all the twists and angles, and she also sings for the bar’s denizens, her tunes lampooned mercilessly in the later Blazing Saddles (fascinating for viewers like me who saw Saddles first and had no idea Madeline Kahn was satirising Dietrich throughout the film).

Like the rest of Bottleneck, she is at first optimistic when former soak and new, ‘tame’ Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) declares he will clean up the town by hiring as his deputy the son of famous lawman Tom Destry, and then falls into jaded cynicism when young Destry (Stewart) turns up and shows he’s far from the action hero she thinks is needed. Destry Jr doesn’t carry guns. He orders a cup of tea at the bar. He talks of resolving problems without shooting, which sends everyone into confusion and makes him appear at first ridiculous. And Frenchy, the one who seems to have had her hopes dashed hardest, turns to the bottle and enters into a no holds barred catfight with another woman.

Destry might indeed abhor violence, but he has steel. Resolving as much as he can without resorting to reaching for ’em, he nonetheless shows he knows how to shoot in one bravura scene, and only dons the pistols when there’s no other way. The parallels with America itself are clear enough. Fashioned as the peace loving, pacifist nation that only entered conflict when the bloodletting became too great, the USA was wavering over whether to enter the brewing conflict that would escalate into the Second World War and provided decisive when it finally flexed its mighty muscles. The same with Destry, who resorts to action when Dimsdale is gunned down senselessly, the shameful result of a town that uses violence cheaply.

For Stewart, this and Mr Smith were career making turns, transforming a jobbing actor into one of Hollywood’s major stars, though the juxtaposition between Destry and the characters he played in his 1950s Westerns are stark. Dietrich worked hard on the film, at turns tragic and comic, retaining her beauty whilst looking lived in and with sad stories to tell.

The film’s part comedy, but one with dark overtones as the situation in which Bottleneck finds itself in is all too credible. Credit goes to Donlevy as the oily Kent, his eyes on everyone whilst remaining a credible low key villain. It’s good stuff, and alongside Stagecoach helped to revitalise the Western genre.

Destry Rides Again: ****

The Far Country (1955)

The Far Country

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Today’s screening of The Far Country reflects the fact it’s last of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborative Westerns that I’ve seen. Before moving onto the specific title, I thought I may take some time to discuss the partnership in general terms, particularly considering it produced such rich viewing.

I’m reasonably new to the Western. For years, it seemed to me a genre that ‘your Grandad watched’, but it never felt like it would mean anything to me. It’s an established assumption that the Western had its Golden Age in the 1950s, many years after it had first appeared in American cinemas and ebbed and flowed in popularity since the earliest days of the form. But the fifites were a long time ago, even when I was a child, and the Western has muddled along ever since, relegated to niche or novelty projects while other subjects have long since taken over domination of our screens. In short, it felt old hat.

But times and attitudes change, and I don’t know if it was a viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that did it, but there was a certain point when I realised I’d missed something pretty damn good and started to catch up with Westerns. Over the last few years, I know I’ve watched more films set in the Old West than any other; not just that, but the DVDs have dominated my shopping basket as my tastes have reverted with increasing frequency to classic cinema, indeed my Christmas list (we still write them in my house – get over it) was a series of titles almost wholly from the 1940s and 1950s, along with The Artist, which itself is a hark back to simpler times. It’s fortunate that some very fine bloggers are also big Western fans. Their recommendations and sheer enthusiasm have helped to guide me, though it’s been just as much fun to stumble across something like The Last Train to Gun Hill (because it was available on LoveFILM Instant) and lose myself to its virtuosity.

Randolph Scott in Badman's Territory

I’ve watched an awful lot of Westerns over the last few years, making a point of catching the titles that routinely make up the ‘Best of’ lists but delving deeper still, realising of course that the genre was as capable as any other of churning out generic offerings (‘oaters’, I suppose) yet throwing up the odd nice surprise at the same time. An instance of the latter came with Badman’s Territory, screened by the BBC over the holiday and, in retrospect, doing little more than providing a footnote in Randolph Scott’s development as the tall, dark, handsome, and often barely speaking, hero of the frontier. In reality, it’s matinee fluff, condescending its audience with some blarney about a lawless oblong of pre-Oklahoma land that served as an excuse to shoehorn together a number of real-life Western legends who could never have actually rubbed shoulders. But there came a point that I started to really enjoy it, in particular Scott’s sheer presence commanding the screen as the plot unfolds.

Badman’s Territory is no one’s idea of an essential title, though I’m glad I watched it. There’s no comparison with the best of John Ford, though one man’s work in the genre that stands up to scrutiny is that of Anthony Mann, especially the films he made with James Stewart in a starring role. I think one of the things I like best about the Mann-Stewart pentology (sorry) is its brevity. Without checking this for accuracy, I don’t remember any of their movies running far past the 90-minute mark, and under someone else’s guidance it probably would have been a different story. Had, say, Bend of the River been a John Ford film, I might have expected an extra thirty minutes, allowing for further ‘sprawl’ and the development of certain sub-plots. Hey, it might have worked just as well, having more to say about American values as supporting characters are teased into metaphors for moral codes or contemporary attitudes. Yet Mann’s approach allows instead for really tight plotting, a gift to viewers as his films are often packed with lots happening and consequently I finish them almost out of breath, barely able to believe so much was covered in an hour and a half. Credit here goes to Borden Chase, the former gangster’s chauffeur who made the unlikely step from driving Frankie Yale around to writing the marvelous scripts of three Mann-Stewart Westerns and stuffing them with dense plotting, focusing on the ratcheted-up tension of human drama borne out of difficult situations. Yet it couldn’t have worked without good direction, and happily these films were knocked up by one of the best, albeit one of the most underrated, in the business.

Perhaps it’s Mann’s love of silent cinema that made the difference. Whilst his films contain a regular amount of dialogue, the director captured the language of bodies, facial expressions, interior sets and locations. The latter makes for some incredible viewing, barren landscapes that continually mirror the often brutal action and tension taking place among the characters. Make no mistake, his films seem to say, this is a harsh, dog eat dog world where no one can be trusted and each time you rely on another person remains a considerable gamble. The success of his work depended on good acting talent, and it’s our good fortune as viewers that he struck up a fruitful working partnership with James Stewart.

James Stewart in The Man from Laramie

There’s a clear line drawn between Stewart’s work before and after his war service. The idealistic, young man’s roles in which he excelled prior to his years in the US Air Force gave way to increasingly cynical and world weary character sketches, notably for Alfred Hitchcock but no less significantly in the Westerns he made with Mann. Taking advantage of his maturity (Stewart was in his forties during this period), the actor looked as though he’d barely been made up, appearing to have a good few years behind him, his face bearing the wrinkles and marks of a life that had been eventfully lived. Given that life expectancy on the frontier can’t have been at all high, the suggestion is of a man who’s seen and done a lot, and sure enough Stewart’s hallmark character arrives on the screen with a rounded back story. Often enough, his past has contained disreputable deeds, followed by a lengthy period of atonement that has left him older, wiser, skilled in gunmanship but most of all wishing to settle down for his waning years and appreciating similar desires in others. It’s a character trait that’s been copied often down the years, most successfully perhaps by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and like Will Munny the men Stewart plays have killed just about everything that walks or crawls and want nothing more than to walk away from that kind of living. Of course, that just isn’t going to happen and naturally, his old skills will be called upon, usually to devastating effect. What boils to the surface here are Stewart’s skills as a physical performer. Often, he undergoes some sort of ordeal in the course of his films, or needs to express extreme anger or pain, and Mann captures superbly the reactions on his careworn face. There’s a moment in The Man from Laramie (probably my favourite of the series, but not by a long chalk) when his character, Will Lockhart, is held down and gets shot in his hand. You might expect the picture’s hero to take it with a steely grimace, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Stewart whimpers, grimaces, clutches his mutilated hand, every nuance of the pain, the loss of dignity and power sprawled across his features. Or how about the explosion of rage when he overpowers a man in Winchester ’73? Or the look of naked hate he fixes on Arthur Kennedy’s traitor in Bend of the River as he tells him that ‘every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there.’ It’s powerful stuff, explicitly laid bare by Stewart and loaded with significance by Mann’s direction. The effect overall is to establish Stewart as an outstanding contributor to the genre, and Mann as a director straight out of the top drawer. And it seemed to work best when the pair collaborated. Neither Night Passage, Stewart’s first Western after the partnership ended, nor The Tin Star, Mann’s following film with Henry Fonda taking the ‘Stewart’ role against an underpowered Anthony Perkins, were in the same league.

The eponymous far country in this, the fourth entry in the partnership, is the Yukon,  the scene of the Klondike Gold Rush that had would-be prospectors flooding into north-western Canada at the close of the nineteenth century. Stewart plays Jeff Webster, an opportunist who drives a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Dawson because he knows the mining community will pay through the nose for good beef. But it’s a perilous journey. The film opens with Webster making the boat trip from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, the intention from here being to cross the difficult terrain into Canada and Dawson. But before he can take this step he’s apprehended in Skagway by the corrupt town boss, Gannon (John McIntire), who makes an attempt to confiscate his livestock unscrupulously. It turns out that Gannon exploits the window of opportunity opened by the gold rush far more ruthlessly than Webster. Whilst appearing more likeable and charismatic than the notably sullen hero, his aim is nothing less than to control all areas of potential profit within the region, hiring gangs to kill anyone who stands in his way.

Webster gets his chance to escape Gannon’s clutches when he agrees to accompany businesswoman Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and her supplies to Dawson, even managing to reclaim his cattle and eventually get his windfall. Yet once in Dawson, his conscience is increasingly pricked by the plight of the prospecting community, which is being decimated by Gannon’s greed, as the plot builds towards a climactic showdown between the pair.

Whilst Stewart specialised in playing morally complex characters for Mann, there are probably none more conflicted than Jeff Webster, who makes it clear from the outset that he isn’t interested in getting involved in anything more noble than making money and even rejects Dawson’s offer of the sheriff’s badge. He opts for the equally self-motivated Ronda over the romantic attentions of Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), the adorable french-Canadian girl who scratches a living from collecting gold dust in order to send her father to medical school in Vienna. He barely seems able to stand Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), the ageing sidekick who never leaves his side despite Webster’s brusque attitude. There’s a well conceived contrast between Webster and Gannon, with the latter presented initially as the better guy and almost persuading viewers to like him more. And as usual, Webster emerges into The Far Country as a fully rounded character, complete with a murderous past and desire to earn just enough to buy his dream ranch. Over the course of the film, he’s continually forced to re-examine his self-interested motives, as the bodies of people who aren’t ‘owned’ by Gannon pile up and it’s the death of a close friend that ultimately places him in heroic opposition.

The complicated, sprawling plot, with its various characters and issues made explicit, still make for a film that clocks in beneath the 100-minute mark, with room allowed for Henry Mancini’s fine score and some stunning photography by cinematographer William Daniels. The Far Country was filmed in the Canadian Rockies, allowing for a string of picture postcard images, particularly of  Saskatchewan Glacier, which both emphasise the remoteness of the film’s happenings and reflect Webster’s own, loner’s sensibilities.

The Far Country: ****

Call Northside 777 (1948)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 14 August (11.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Apologies for both the lateness of this piece, and for the fact it’s going to be a bit rougher around the edges than normal. I should be doing a lot more justice to Call Northside 777, a film very much in the mould of The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang! thanks to its documentary style and factual basis. It was however my birthday yesterday – 40, if you must pry – and I wasn’t allowed not to celebrate – part of that involved going to the IMAX to see The Dark Knight Rises, one of those over-hyped, breathlessly well reviewed releases that fortunately lives up to the praise.

In any case, back to the 1940s and a piece that takes as its inspiration another true story, that of the imprisonment of two men of Polish descent, James Mazczek and Theodore Marcinkewicz for murdering a police officer in Chicago in 1933. Part of the Prohibition crime wave, the men were convicted quickly following the testimony of Vera Walush, the speakeasy owner in whose store the killing took place. Eleven years later, an advert placed in the Chicago Times for information about the real gunmen put reporter James McGuire on the case, which after much investigation into police corruption and the need to get a result led to Mazczek’s exoneration in 1945. Marcinkewicz was released five years later.

Louis De Rochemont may not have been credited for Call Northside 777, but the legendary producer’s fingerprints are all over its tone and style. Truman Bradley’s narration adds a note of authenticity, as does the shooting on location in Chicago and the rounded performance of James Stewart as PJ McNeal, the cynical reporter who nonetheless senses a story and develops it. Stewart got involved after his war service, which found the actor seeking tougher roles based less on idealism and more on hardened experience leavened by conscience.

The story follows McNeal as he attempts to gain a pardon for one of the killers, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). There’s a sense throughout the film that this will be no easy feat. More than a decade after Wiecek’s incarceration, it’s clear people would rather forget about him and move on, leaving the man an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Conte is brilliant as Wiecek. Whilst protesting his innocence, he carries a streak of fatalism that comes with serving so much jail time and knowing that at least he gained a fresh start for his wife and baby. Seeing the actor impress so strongly as the villainous Mr Brown in The Big Combo (reviewed excellently over at Riding the High Country), it’s great to see him play a more sympathetic role and fall in with the film’s gritty tone. In one of his standout scenes, he takes a lie detector test. It’s an important moment because it’s appreciated the audience may have no idea how such an exercise works, so time is taken to explain the process and show Wiecek in the chair, smoking and trying not to break the examiner’s request to answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to leading questions that demand more explanation. To add that final element of realism, the man playing the lie detector examiner was Leonarde Keeler, none other than the co-inventor of the actual polygraph.

Call Northside 777 was directed by Henry Hathaway, a reliable hand on such a project and someone who wouldn’t over-burden the narrative with melodrama or swamp the film in stylistic touches. It could be argued that Hathaway didn’t have to add much personality to what is a cracking, investigative story, and that he was able to get much of the tone he wanted simply through the use of location filming. Much of Polish Chicago looks dark and foreboding, never more so than when McNeal finally tracks down key witness Wanda Skutnik (based on Vera Walush) in a run-down part of town, a dimly lit apartment that reflects entirely the mentality of the hard-bitten character. Betty Garde is, incidentally, a study in nastiness as the skin preserving survivalist, Skutnik. Possibly better still is the scene in the Chicago prison McNeal visits, the long shot of the building’s cylindrical structure, pockmarked by hundreds of cells, which not only gives an impression of his ‘needle in a haystack’ chance of proving Wiecek’s innocence but also the hint of all those other stories hidden behind each austere cell door.

The film loses the human tension that came in spades with Boomerang! by never taking place in a courtroom. It’s the more administrative Court of Appeal for McNeal and his hard won evidence, within a piece that never lets pace get in the way of the tough and often frustrating investigation he undertakes. In the end, it relies on modern technology for its result. The polygraph is one example of this; the other is the photo enlargement process that ultimately turns out the best bit of evidence McNeal can find. Like the lie detector, it’s explained in detail and there’s something  almost comedic about the entire Court of Appeal waiting by the ink drum of the wire service for the picture that may or may not free Wiecek.

A good picture, not to mention a bold piece of work that has many negative things to say about the police force’s desperation to get a result after the killing of one of their own, a murder mired in a number of similar, unsolved cases. The lack of an orchestral score (Alfred Newman’s work, as I recall, only appears on the film over the opening and closing credits) shows its faith in the strength of the material and the people who put it on the screen.

Call Northside 777: ****

The Man from Laramie (1955)

When it’s on: Sunday, 29 July (1.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The more I watch James Stewart’s post-war output, most pertinently the work he did in the 1950s, the less doubt I’m in that this was a really fascinating and fertile period for him. A couple of well known Hitchcock films aside, his collaboration with Anthony Mann in a series of eight productions between 1950 and 1955 produced some amazing results. Of these, we can probably discount The Glenn Miller Story, a charming yarn that chimed more with the easy going Stewart from before World War II. The Westerns are the real draw. Stewart was stretched, with each entry going to greater lengths to subvert the wholesome image built up for him in previous decades. By The Man from Laramie, his last Mann Western, Stewart could enter as a blank page, a character with a shaded past, and it was never clear whether he would turn out to be good or bad.

As for Mann, the genre allowed him to take his noir sensibilities to the Old West. Whereas some directors created Westerns on grand canvases, all sprawling tales and noble deeds, Mann brought a tight storytelling mood to the table. The Man from Laramie is about complicated people struggling with moral dilemmas, often omitting right and wrong from their thinking. It’s set in New Mexico, a harsh and rocky landscape that seems to reflect the bleak outlooks of the characters. Neither does Mann show his narrative hand too early. We know Stewart’s character, Will Lockhart, is in Coronado for a reason, but it isn’t clear for a long time what that reason is, neither do we appreciate why he doesn’t heed the advice of almost every other character and high-tail it out of there.

Lockhart is the man from Laramie. He’s carrying supplies through Apache territory to Coronado and, on his way, comes across the decimated remains of a cavalry troop. The music and Lockhart’s desolate expression are the only clues that this means more to him than an anonymous group of dead horsemen, presumably a not uncommon sight at the time. Entering the town, he quickly falls foul of Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) when he’s caught taking salt from the Waggoman lands. It’s an innocent mistake, but nobody’s prepared for Dave’s violent punishment, killing Lockhart’s mules, torching his wagons and for good measure lassoing and dragging him through a fire.

Stewart performed the stunt himself, allowing Mann to film the ordeal in close-up, and the pain on the actor’s face looks real enough. It isn’t the first time in the film that Lockhart is treated brutally by Dave. Later, he’ll have a bullet put through his hand from point blank range. In both instances, Stewart goes for an authentic reaction, whimpering and grimacing after his hand is mutilated. It’s a far cry from the ‘manly’ response to pain one found in earlier pictures, where such treatments were usually shrugged off. The effect is to show us the consequences of Dave’s sadism in as much detail as the censors would allow. Chillingly, Stewart’s war record suggests he might very well have based his acting on the real life horrors he witnessed.

Dave’s psychotic, the unworthy son and heir to Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). Alec’s going blind, a neat metaphor to his attitude towards the nasty excesses of his offspring and the underhand trade of guns to Indians in which he’s involved. The real wildcard is Alec’s foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). At first, we think Vic’s a good guy. He reins in Dave’s sadism, saving Lockhart from worse than his lasso punishment, and shows an unswerving loyalty to Alec. But his are murky morals. He’s loyal because he think Alec will favour him over Dave. When he eventually shoots Dave, he lets Alec believe Lockhart is responsible, though it’s a dilemma that plagues him. By the end, Vic’s in too deep, through a muddy mixture of avarice, chance and trying to do the right thing.

The dense plotting suggests a much longer film than The Man from Laramie’s 96 minutes, but it’s a testament to economic plotting and the quality of the acting. Mann lets his characters’ faces do the talking often, cutting away the layers of exposition that would emerge otherwise. It’s a great film, and a real shame that this was the last time Stewart and Mann worked together. Their relationship broke down over Mann’s refusal to direct Stewart in Night Passage, citing the film’s weak script and opting instead for Henry Fonda and The Tin Star.

The Man from Laramie: ****

Broken Arrow (1950)

When it’s on: Friday, 18 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This is the story of a land, of the people who lived on it in the year 1870, and of a man whose name was Cochise. He was an Indian – leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it – the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language. What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.

Remembered for its trailblazing portrayal of Native Americans as something other than mindless savages, Broken Arrow throws in an intelligent narrative of the Frontier’s troubled relationship with Indians that makes it worth a second watch. This isn’t a forerunner of Dances with Wolves. The people with which our hero interacts aren’t open and essentially fine, neither are the Americans cardboard cut-out nasties. Delmer Daves offers a real sense of two societies living on the edge – the threatened Apache tribe and the settlers trying to scratch out a life in the western-rolling big country. The two sides have been at war for about as long as they’ve known each other. The Apache leader, Cochise, once accepted peace terms but this was betrayed, leading to more bloodshed. Now the town of Tucson struggles to grow as long as the shadow of the Indians looms over it. Nothing gets through – no mail or supplies, without being ambushed en route.

Enter Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), who narrates the story (the above quote is his opening delivery) and is first seen nursing an Apache boy back to health whilst prospecting in contested territory. Through the child and the Indians who come to take him away, Jeffords realises the natives have families, cares and dreams, just like he has. Spotting an opportunity, he brokers a treaty whereby the mail service will be left alone, doing so with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) himself after he enters the Apache camp, along the way falling for a young squaw named Sonseeahary (Debra Paget). Whilst nothing else makes it through the road to and from Tucson unmolested, the US Mail rider is left alone. This success leads General Oliver Howard (Basil Ruysdael), known as the Christian General, to partner Jeffords in forging a more permanent, extensive peace. Steadily, Jeffords works himself deeper into Apache society, and into Sonseeahary’s arms…

Broken Arrow is based on a true story. Jeffords and Cochise both existed in real life, though the film’s inter-racial love is tossed into the mix and the Apache leader didn’t look like a white man. All the same, this is Chandler’s movie. A big, imposing actor, he brings a steady, statesmanlike quality to the role and dominates as one of the few people on either side who sees the potential in keeping peace. Even when members of his tribe (including Geronimo, who undermines the settlement by continuing to harass American wagons) depart because they don’t believe in his cause, most stay and Chandler’s performance contains the sort of charisma that would make it possible.

Stewart’s fine also, in one of his early western vehicles and before his partnership with Anthony Mann made their films together such standout fixtures across the decade. This kind of part is a Stewart staple, of course, but coming with it is a hard edge, which is teased out more during the film’s devastating closing acts and precurses some brilliant, morally muddled roles he took on during the fifties.

But what lingers most is the portrayal of the Indians as a group. It’s made clear early in the film that they aren’t nice guys just waiting for some fork-tongued white men to rip their ground out from beneath them and shove them onto a reservation. They’re harsh, vindictive and, most importantly, level headed. Theirs is a real world view, formed by double dealings with the duplicitous Americans. Whilst the film urges us to connect with the visionary Cochise, there’s a definite sense of melancholy to his character, a feeling that he knows no matter the path he chooses, his way of life is drawing to a close. Given that, who do we feel more empathy for? Cochise? Or Geronimo, as played by Jay Silverheels, who at least chooses to fight for his very right to exist? Either way, the optimistic note delivered at the somewhat abrupt close, whilst sitting well within the film’s scope, says nothing of the Apache defeat that followed.

Broken Arrow: ***