Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 18 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Footsteps in the Fog is one of those apparently British films that’s actually backed by American money and therefore plays up to elements of UK life and culture that has a particular fascination for US audiences, most particularly the class system. At one point in the film Stewart Granger tells Jean Simmons that there are no class differences in America, a bit of an eye-popping statement in truth but in the world of the story it’s the essential difference between upstairs folk and ‘them downstairs’ that drives the plot. Had this one been made in the States, it would undoubtedly have emerged as film noir. Transported to Victorian London, all the external action taking place through clouds of pea-souper fog (another tick in the box to meet viewers’ expectations), it becomes instead a slice of Gothic melodrama.

Granger and Simmons were established as major Hollywood stars when it was made, and also made for a real-life couple at the time. Homesick and wishing to take advantage of a trend for films being made in Europe, the pair was shown a script for Footsteps in the Fog. Based on a short story by W W Jacobs, the malevolent and duplicitous characters appealed to Granger and Simmons, who oversaw a string of rewrites before filming commenced. The couple felt less appreciation for the choice of director, Arthur Lubin, in the 1950s best known for directing a series of light comedies about a talking mule, the Francis series (he’d eventually transfer the format to television in the shape of Mister Ed), however Lubin was also a consummate professional with countless credits already to his name including a successful adaptation of Phantom of the Opera in 1943. It’s a combination of the director and cinematographer Christopher Challis we have to thank for some delicious shots, including the principal characters framed below the portrait of Granger’s murdered wife to serve up all the major plot points in one scene.

Granger plays Stephen Lowry, a London society gentleman who at the film’s opening attends the funeral of his wife. She’s passed away at the end of a long fight against illness, but what no one knows is that Lowry has in fact been slowly poisoning her in an effort to take over both her money and status… No one, that is, apart from the house’s maid, Lily (Simmons). At the film’s start, Lily is the lowliest of the house’s servants, according to Marjorie Rhodes’s awful Mrs Park a ‘guttersnipe’ who’s up to no good. Her fortunes improve when she confesses to Lowry that she knows what he did and uses this knowledge to get the rest of the staff sacked and herself installed as Housekeeper. Lily is fatally in love with Lowry. She happily becomes his bed partner as well as the sole member of his staff, believing her logical end to be the future Mrs Lowry. What she fails to come to terms with is her master’s complete absence of morals. As soon as he realises that Lily effectively holds him in her power, Lowry attempts a botched and very public murder against her that fails. Having killed the wrong woman, an innocent police constable’s wife, and been eyewitnessed at the scene of the crime, only Lily’s alibi saves him from further trouble. But Lowry sees himself getting married to the beautiful and eligible Elizabeth Travers (Belinda Lee) rather than Lily, wanting nothing further to do with his useful but redoubtedly working class servant, and plans further machinations to rid himself of her.

One of the fine aspects of the film noir style was the attempt to build characters into more than plot drivers, giving even the most fatale of femmes genuine motives for the dark deeds with which they became involved. Footsteps in the Fog attempts the same, with varying results. There comes a point when you as the viewer realises that Lowry and Lily are made for each other. Neither sees tricky concepts like right and wrong getting in the way of the things they want, which should make theirs the start of a beautiful friendship. The fatal flaw of class difference takes sway, though. To Lowry it’s an impassable barrier, ensuring Lily can never be anything more than a plaything, a distraction, whereas for her there’s a fleeting moment of happiness when she’s at her most intimate with her master, filmed in a post-coital glow having enjoyed his attentions. Despite the murder that kicks off the plot, you hope they can make it work – perhaps Lowry will journey with her to America where the class system (apparently) doesn’t matter, and these amoral yet attractive people can enjoy the fruits of their grubby labours. But of course that doesn’t happen. Lowry, who in a nice little irony ‘married up’ in becoming the member of society’s elite that he now is, simply can’t see beyond his trappings and Lily therefore is an obstacle to his fortunes.

The film varies as a success because there’s little depth to Granger’s character. He’s just not a very nice piece of work and thoroughly unworthy of the rapt Lily, who is guilty of loving him beyond any sense of reason. Her character’s tragedy is her willingness to become his accomplice, even when she makes the fateful testimony that acquits him of the murder she knows was intended for her, and all this is beautifully performed by Simmons. Her greatest noir role was as the eponymous Angel Face, for Otto Preminger playing a seemingly sweet and innocent young woman who is anything but when the surface is scratched away. Lily is not quite as evil but she’s dangerously amoral, which naturally leads to tragic consequences. One of the film’s great shames is that you come away barely remembering any characters beyond the main pair. To an extent that’s fair because Footsteps in the Fog was transparently a vehicle for Granger and Simmons, but everyone else in the film is two dimensional, existing solely to jog the story along. That said there’s a neat supporting role for William Hartnell as a Cockney grifter; Bill Travers on the other hand, who plays Lowry’s friend and his love rival for Elizabeth, isn’t very memorable.

Footsteps in the Fog regularly appears in Film4’s schedule, nearly always in its early slot reserved for throwaway classics and that’s probably about right. It isn’t especially significant and its stars are much better known for roles elsewhere, but it is entertaining.

Footsteps in the Fog: ***

The Big Country (1958)

The Big Country

When it’s on: Sunday, 30 December (4.40 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Something of a forgotten entry from the golden age of the Western, you will rarely find William Wyler’s The Big Country on Top Ten lists, and yet it remains one of my favourites. It’s unfashionably epic in scope, running twenty minutes short of the three-hour mark. It works either as the straightforward tale of two feuding families or as a parable of the Cold War, which was reaching its hottest point at the time. There’s no involvement with Native Americans, who are relegated to ‘mentioned anecdotally’ status. Its main character is an impossibly good fish out of water, constantly trying to comprehend the animosity raging around him, whilst the best performances arguably come from the film’s supporting players.

Wyler’s adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s short story, Ambush at Blanco Canyon, was his attempt to weave a classic tale related on the widest canvas. Together with cinematographer Franz Planer, his backdrop was the vast plains of some long tamed frontier land, endless grassland with blue skies that stretched forever, the idealised big country of the title, indeed the contrast between the two families is reflected stylistically in their locales – the wealthy Terrills live amidst lush greenery; bleached, stark limestone canyons mark the world of the redneck Hannasseys. The source of the factions’ tension is cattle, specifically grazing rights to the disputed Big Muddy and its vital water supply. This is owned by schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who wants no part in the strife and refuses to sell to either party.

The leaders of their respective clans are works of art, and with his considerable running time Wyler has adequate time to breathe life into these old school monsters. The Terrills are headed by Major Henry (Charles Bickford), all surface amiability yet perpetually looking down his nose at anyone who challenges his hegemony in his world. The main object of his ire is Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), an unrefined rancher who feels every glare of belittlement, whilst maintaining a raw nobility when it comes to resolving his own family matters. The Major’s daughter is Pat (Carroll Baker), his faithful foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), with sexual tension simmering between the pair as Steve aims to work his way into the Terrill’s fortunes.

It’s unfortunate for him that the film opens with Pat’s fiance arriving in town, a dapper, well-heeled gentleman who looks as though he belongs to the Old West as you or I might. This is James McKay (Gregory Peck), a retired naval captain with a completely defined set of values and plans for the troubled Big Muddy. Much is made of his genteel otherworldliness, especially by Leech, who sees him as entirely unworthy of at and does all he can to drive home the fact. McKay is ridiculed for refusing to take his turn on the volatile horse, Old Thunder, a kind of rite of passage for newcomers to the Terrill ranch, for wandering off alone for a couple of days and finally for backing down from a fight with Leech, who won’t accept his assertion that he hadn’t gotten himself lost. In turn, he steadily loses Pat’s respect, though she doesn’t learn until it’s too late that he’s not only tamed Thunder but also fought Leech to an exhausted stalemate, preferring to settle these matters privately due to having nothing to prove. By then, he’s already falling for Julie and in the thick of the hatred between both families as the Hannasseys try to match the teacher with Rufus’s errant son, Buck (Chuck Connors).

All this is filmed extravagantly, much of it enhanced by Jerome Moross’s sweeping score. How Moross lost out to Dimitri Tiomkin’s work on The Old Man and the Sea is anyone’s guess. It’s almost the perfect score, capturing virtuously the crackling tension and eulogising appropriately over those soaring shots of the big country. And yet one of the film’s best scenes – the dawn fistfight between McKay and Leech  – has no musical accompaniment, the soundtrack instead dominated by connecting fists, groans and bodies colliding with the dirt, Wyler directing beautifully the pair framed like ants against the landscape.

The Big Country has time and space to build steadily to its climax, a ‘worth waiting for’ escalation of trouble until all parties clash in Blanco Canyon. By now, the principal characters have been explored so thoroughly that it’s tough to tell the good from the bad, though it’s clear the ugly is represented by Buck, who attempts to rape Julie before turning ‘yeller’ in his climactic duel with McKay. Moross’s music is never better than in the scene where Major Terrill and his men are about to enter the Canyon. Leech refuses to follow his boss; he knows the canyon is guarded with guns behind every rock and they’d be walking into a deathtrap. The rest follow Leech’s lead, leaving the Major marching in alone. As the music rises, the camera tracks the Major, a lone rider approaching him from behind. It’s Leech, who’s joined in turn by the rest of the marching party. The moment’s all the better because it contains no words, just looks and a smile on the Major’s face, Leech’s more enigmatic expression suggesting the conflict underneath, emphasised by how much quieter and more reflective he’s been since his fight with McKay.

A difficult shoot punctuated by various conflicts between the cast and crew that of course worked in producing the tension-filled overtones of the film, The Big Country remains great viewing. Peck looks like he’s in training for his career-defining Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The chemistry between Simmons and himself is too transparent to ensure the characters’ eventual union is anything less than obvious,  particularly as Baker is called on to play the unsympathetic, spoiled Daddy’s girl as Pat. Burl Ives won an Academy Award for his role, and a towering performance his is, never less than in the scene where he gatecrashes the Terrill’s party to deliver some choice words to the Major. My pick is perhaps Heston, taking a supporting part so that he could work with Wyler and being rewarded with the starring role in the forthcoming Ben Hur. He’s too big, both physically and in terms of presence, for his own character, yet the contradiction works because he’s there, glowering in the background as McKay courts Pat, an ever present source of smouldering tautness that neither can ignore.

The Big Country: ****