Monday, August 28, 2023

Major Dundee (1965)

Even Sam Peckinpah fans are rather divided over the merits of his 1965 western Major Dundee. It was a commercial flop and critics at the time were uncomplimentary. The legend became established that the movie would have been a masterpiece had it not been for studio interference although there is a dissenting view that Peckinpah found himself hopelessly out of his depth directing his first big-budget film and was himself responsible for its flaws. And it does have flaws.

In the later stages of the Civil War a US Cavalry troop and numerous civilians are massacred by Apaches led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate). Three young boys are taken away by the Apaches. In accordance with tribal customs they will be reared as Apache warriors.

Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) is in charge of a military prison. He is determined to rescue the boys and take revenge on Sierra Charriba. He will need a much larger force than the handful of men at his disposal. He raises a private army composed of cowboys, thieves and drunks. What he really needs are more real soldiers. Confederate prisoners would be ideal and he has lots of those but they are not going to join him without their commander, Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). That’s awkward because Dundee is just about to hang Tyreen.

Dundee and Tyreen were once friends. Tyreen blames Dundee for getting him cashiered from the regular army and Dundee considers Tyreen to be a traitor. Eventually Dundee’s private army is assembled, including the Confederate prisoners under Tyreen.

Dundee pursues Sierra Charriba deep into Mexico. Of course he has no authority to enter Mexico. Things start to go wrong. Heavy losses are suffered in an ambush. And most of their supplies are lost.

Dundee’s command is now short of almost everything. But there are French troops stationed in Mexico. Why not steal what they need from the French? This is obviously a crazy idea but the whole mission is getting increasingly crazy and Dundee is so obsessed that he’s willing to do anything rather than give up the whole mad scheme.

Dundee’s command is increasingly torn by dissension. The loyalty of the Confederate prisoners was dubious right from the start and it’s getting steadily more dubious. And Major Dundee is starting to unravel as well.

The real focus of the film is on Dundee’s obsession and on the uneasy relationship between Dundee and Tyreen. Both men have tangled motivations that are not entirely rational. Both men are to some extent deluded about themselves.

Tyreen sees himself as a southern gentleman but as Dundee points out to him he’s fighting a war on behalf of rich plantation owners but he doesn’t belong to that privileged class. He doesn’t own a plantation and he never will. His loyalty to the South is based on delusions. And Tyreen knows that he is fighting for a lost cause (the story begins in November 1864 by which time the South’s prospects were very grim indeed).

Dundee is driven by ambition and by dreams of glory. His plan to track down Sierra Charriba is unrealistic. He lacks the necessary resources and the mission (which was from the start a personal project with no official backing) is beyond his abilities. Dundee possesses some of the qualities of a good commander. He is prepared to make tough decisions and stand by them. He is energetic. His strategic and tactical abilities are however not as well developed as he thinks. Turning his motley command into an efficient reliable fighting force would require outstanding qualities as a leader and an ability to inspire loyalty which he doesn’t quite possess. He never does solve the problem of inspiring the necessary loyalty on the part of the Confederate prisoners. Dundee just isn’t the hero and military genius of his own fantasies. He’s ludicrously out of his depth and he makes terrible mistakes and he insists on pressing on regardless. He’s an extraordinary man but he’s a failure.

Charlton Heston gives one of his finest performances as the arrogant deluded obsessive Dundee. Richard Harris is excellent as the proud but equally deluded Tyreen. James Coburn as the scout Samuel Potts and Jim Hutton as the prim do-it-by-the-book Lieutenant Graham also give fine performances with Hutton being especially impressive.

Both Dundee and Tyreen are deeply conflicted characters. Their internal conflicts mirror the conflicts within the command.

This is certainly a flawed movie and most of its flaws were the result of two unfortunate decisions by Peckinpah. Firstly, due to his inexperience at making really large-scale productions, the locations he picked were widely scattered which led to logistical nightmares, chewed up unnecessary time and money and made the shoot more difficult and more exhausting than it needed to be. This exacerbated the other mistake, which was to begin shooting without a completed script. Peckinpah hoped to be able to complete the script on the fly but inevitably the movie ended up losing direction and focus.

There was also the studio’s insistence on having a romantic sub-plot. That sub-plot feels wrong and out of place and just makes an overlong movie even longer.

The first half of the movie is great. It totally falls apart in the second half. There are still superb moments in the second half. The fact that Dundee’s command ends up fighting a full-scale battle against the French adds a pleasingly crazed touch.

Visually it’s brilliant at times and it has a grittiness and grunginess that hadn’t really been seen before in westerns.

That legend that the movie would have been a masterpiece without the interference of the studio and producer Jerry Bresler seems to be just that - a legend. It seems more likely that Peckinpah, like Major Dundee, lost his grip as a result of inexperience and excessive ambition.

Major Dundee might be a failure but it’s an interesting and strangely impressive failure. It’s worth seeing in spite of its huge flaws.

Sony's DVD release offers the original extended cut of the movie.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Rancho Notorious (1952)

The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was the golden age of the Hollywood western, an age of westerns that were more than just horse operas. Intelligent, emotionally and morally complex grown-up westerns. But parallel to this was the flowering of a much smaller crop of slightly offbeat westerns - overheated western melodramas and westerns that were defiantly unconventional. It started with Duel in the Sun and continued with movies like The Furies, Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns. Another western that seems to belong in this oddball category is Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952).

Rancho Notorious gives us the initial impression that it’s going to a straightforward revenge western. Ranch hand Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is looking forward to marrying his sweetheart in eight days’ time but while he’s out riding the range outlaws arrive in town and rob the assayers’ office where Vern’s fiancée works. She is killed, but before she is killed she is raped (something that is made surprisingly explicit for 1952 Hollywood).

A posse is formed but they are forced to give up the chase. Vern however is determined on revenge even if he has to go it alone. He has one clue, picked up from a dying outlaw. The word chuck-a-luck. Vern knows that this is the name of a popular gambling game but he knows that the outlaw used the term in a more specialised sense. It has to refer to a place, maybe a saloon somewhere, or maybe it refers in some way to a person. He can unravel that clue he’ll find the man who killed his bride-to-be.

He finds some other possible clues. If he can find a woman named Altar Keane and an outlaw named Frenchy Fairmont he may find the answers he seeks. We get a series of flashbacks through the eyes of several different people all of whom have vivid memories of the outrageous Altar Keane.

He finds Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) and helps him break out of gaol and he finds Chuck-a-Luck. It’s an isolated ranch, and it’s run by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Chuck-a-Luck isn’t so much a ranch as a haven for outlaws. It’s a place they can hide out when they need to. Altar gets a cut of the proceeds of their robberies. There are nearly a dozen outlaws holed up there when Vern arrives. He thinks one of them is his fiancée’s killer but he doesn’t know which one. If he stays long enough he might figure it out.

Complications arise due to a mutual attraction between Vern and Altar. Altar is Frenchy’s girl. Frenchy likes Vern but he has no intention of allowing anyone to take Altar away from him.

The revenge theme and the lust theme (the romantic triangle between Vern, Frenchy and Altar) never lets up in this movie.

Due to budgetary constraints this movie was shot entirely in the studio apart from a few scenes on the backlot. There’s none of the location shooting that was beginning to be seen as absolutely essential in the western genre. This not only makes the film claustrophobic it also makes it seem very artificial. As someone who despises the cult of realism that’s one of the things I love about this movie.

Lang conceived this movie right from the start entirely as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich.It didn’t work out the way he’d hoped. By the time the movie was finished they weren’t speaking to each other. But Dietrich still dominates the movie and her charisma makes her performance work.

This is a very unusual western. There’s no straightforward hero and no straightforward heroine. Vern seems initially to be set up as a conventional outlaw but he turns outlaw and he isn’t just pretending in order to catch that killer. He happily participates in robberies. His response to the murder of his girl is to reject all the social norms in which he once believed.

Frenchy is an unrepentant outlaw. Altar is a crook as well.

In spite of this all three are thoroughly sympathetic characters and the movie encourages us to take their side. The message seems to be that being an outlaw is a perfectly respectable lifestyle option. Thieves can be really nice people. And here we have a hero who starts out good and comes to realise he can never return to his old life. But being an outlaw isn’t so bad. And there’s no suggestion that we should condemn him for this.

I have no idea how this got past the Production Code Authority. I can only assume that somehow they simply didn’t notice that a movie that is unapologetically on the side of law-breakers was being slipped past them. And in this movie law-breakers don’t necessarily pay for their crimes. Some do, some don’t.

The plot is pretty straightforward but the plot doesn’t matter too much and the movie ends up being a strange very stylised western that makes no concessions to realism. In its own way it’s as bizarre and unusual as Forty Guns (which is pretty much the gold standard for bizarre westerns).

Rancho Notorious wasn’t liked by critics at the time and it’s still generally dismissed as one of Lang’s weakest films but it’s actually a totally fascinating mesmerising movie and I loved it. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Midnight Lace (1960)

Midnight Lace is a 1960 American crime thriller set in London (and shot in London). It was co-produced by Ross Hunter and directed by David Miller. The film gave Doris Day her last, and best, serious dramatic rôle.

Doris Day plays Kit Preston, an American heiress living in London. Her husband Tony (Rex Harrison) is a financier.

Walking home through the park in the middle of one of London’s celebrated pea-souper fogs (which were a big thing in the 50s although now they’re largely a thing of the past) she hears an oddly distorted male voice threatening to kill her. She makes it home safely, only to have Tony dismiss the whole thing as some kind of practical joke played on her by some unknown person.

Later she gets an obscene phone call, and it’s the same voice. Later there’s another similar phone call.

Inspector Byrnes (John Williams) of Scotland Yard is sympathetic but he has to deal with a lot of cases in which people are either falling prey to overactive imaginations or they’re making up threats in order to get attention. It’s obvious that it has crossed his mind that this might be such a case. Kit Preston is the only one who has actually heard the voice, which increases the inspector’s suspicions.

There is some tension in the marriage between Kit and Tony. Tony is always busy in the world of high finance and Kit feels neglected.

Other frightening events follow but unfortunately for Kit there are never any witnesses and never any solid evidence that someone really is out to kill her. She becomes convinced that neither the inspector nor Tony nor her Aunt Bea (recently arrived from America) believes her.

The mystery angle is handled well. There are four plausible suspects all of whom at some stage do things that could be open to sinister interpretations or to perfectly innocent interpretations. All four could have motives. And then a fifth possible suspect enters the picture.

The real focus however is on the psychological horror of Kit’s position, a woman convinced she is in danger and convinced that no-one takes her danger seriously. She starts to come apart at the seams.

There’s an extra dimension to Kit’s terror. If she can’t convince those around her that her danger is real she could find herself locked up in a mental hospital. Even worse, she could start to think that she might be mad.

Doris Day gives a marvellous well-judged performance. Her terror is palpable. Rex Harrison is good as her sceptical husband. Roddy McDowall gives a typically unsettling performance as Malcolm, the spoilt scheming son of Kit’s maid. John Gavin is a bit overshadowed but he’s quite solid as Brian Younger, the manager of a construction site next to the Prestons’ flat. He’s taken a shine to Kit. Myrna Loy is amusing as Aunt Bea.

1960 was an incredibly interesting year for the thriller and horror genres. Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom were released. These movies not only upped the ante in visceral movie terror and added hints of unhealthy eroticism they also began the process which saw the horror and thriller genres merge. Eventually this merging would produce new hybrid genres such as the Italian giallo, the American slasher movie and the erotic thriller. And at about this time Britain’s Hammer Films were beginning their series of dark twisted psychological thrillers.

Midnight Lace was part of this process.

This movie does remind me a little of that very interesting period in the development of the giallo in 1968 and 1969. It might be called the pre-Argento period. Movies like Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet…So Perverse (1969) and Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969). Like Midnight Lace they deal with murder and depravity among the rich and glamorous and powerful. As in Midnight Lace there’s an ambiguity to the menaces and the possibility that one (or even perhaps more than one) major character might be mad.

There’s an atmosphere of wealth and luxury and glamour, as you would expect in a movie in which Ross Hunter was involved. Ross Hunter was obsessed by the idea that the classic Hollywood woman’s picture had gone out of fashion somewhat and he wanted to revive it. So it’s not surprising that this movie is so totally focused on the central female character.

This is also an exceptionally well-crafted movie with some nice visual set-pieces and lots of inventive and tense moments. There’s glamour but there are also scenes that are very moody and subtly sinister.

Midnight Lace is a top-notch mystery/suspense/psychological thriller and it’s highly recommended.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray offers a good transfer. It includes an excellent commentary track by Kat Ellinger in which she has some fascinating things to say about the influence of this film on the giallo.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Duel at Silver Creek (1952)

I’ve become a keen fan of Audie Murphy’s westerns. The Duel at Silver Creek is a fairly early one (from 1952) and it’s directed by Don Siegel which makes it sound promising.

To begin with it seems like very much a stock-standard B-western. Claim jumpers are not just forcing miners to relinquish their claims, they’re murdering them afterwards so there will be no witnesses. One of their victims is Luke Cromwell’s dad and since Luke is played by Audie Murphy we can be pretty sure that the young man is going to do something about this. In fact he’s already started on the project, killing three of the claim jumpers before they make their escape.

So this is a standard revenge western set-up.

We also know that Luke has a taste for poker, which will be important later.

What has to be said in the movie’s favour right from the start is that it packs an extraordinary amount of action into the first ten minutes or so. And the body count is already climbing (it will climb a good deal higher).

Audie then disappears for a while and the focus shifts to Silver City’s marshal, Lightning Tyrone (Stephen McNally). He’s put together a posse to go after the claim jumpers, leaving his dad in charge of the town as a deputy.

Since he’s leaving his lady love Dusty (Susan Cabot) behind and the sinister sleazy Johnny Sombrero (Eugene Iglesias) is taking an unhealthy interest in the young lady we have to wonder if it’s a wise move on Lightning’s part to leave the town with only an old man to keep order. We know what always happens in westerns when such a situation occurs.

The posse finds the jumpers but Lightning manages to get himself shot straight away and the jumpers escape. Lightning is taken to a nearby Army post to recover from a fairly minor wound. While he’s there the claim jumpers’ latest victim is brought in and he’s still alive. Finally it looks like the marshal has a living witness.

Then things start to get more interesting. An angel of mercy appears on the scene, a pretty young woman with nursing experience to volunteers to help care for the wounded miner.

But she’s no angel of mercy. Opal Lacy is a bad girl. In fact she’s a really bad girl. The arrival of a bad girl in any movie is always guaranteed to spark my interest. Even better, the bad girl is played by Faith Domergue, in my opinion a very fine actress who deserved a much better career.

Lightning arrives back in town and he’s out to find a killer. There are two obvious suspects - Johnny Sombrero and a stranger who just recently rode into town. The stranger is a young punk of a poker player who is also incredibly fast with a gun. He goes by the name of the Silver Kid. And the Silver Kid is none other than Audie Murphy. Luke Cromwell has undergone a bit of a transformation.

To our surprise, and to his even greater surprise, the Kid soon finds himself wearing a deputy’s badge.

And Opal Lacy has turned up in Silver City. Lightning had taken a shine to her at the Army post and now he’s even more interested. Lightning still doesn’t know the identity of the killer he’s after and he has a bigger problem than that. That bullet wound in the shoulder means he can still draw as fast as ever but he can’t squeeze the trigger.

Lightning is an experienced lawman but he jumps to conclusions and he has a mind that can best be described as plodding. The Silver Kid might seem like he’s still wet behind the ears but he’s much smarter than the marshal and he has the kind of suspicious mind that a good lawman needs. Poor Lightning just gets led by the nose and his lack of perceptiveness is likely to get him into a world of trouble.

Don’t expect any complex characterisation in this movie. Every character is a standard western type. Stephen McNally is fine as the marshal. Susan Cabot is very good. Lee Marvin has a small rôle as a rambunctious gambler. A year later Marvin would attract a lot more attention in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat and he’d go on to make appearances in western classics like 7 Men From Now (1956). It’s not a complex rôle for Audie Murphy but he has that characteristic Audie Murphy brand of charisma going for him. Faith Domergue makes a most satisfactory femme fatale type. And she has one absolutely chilling scene. The cast have little to work with but they do what they can.

This movie really does turn out to be very much a routine B-western. On the plus side Don Siegel handles the action scenes competently. The secret to making successful B-movies is to keep things moving along so quickly that the audience doesn’t have time to notice dodgy production values or a threadbare script. In this case the script is very threadbare and very clichéd indeed but Siegel maintains a frantic pace and throws in lots of action.

The Duel at Silver Creek is not by any stretch of the imagination a top-tier western. It’s not even a top-tier B-western. But it looks good and it can be fun waiting to see which western cliché the script will offer up next. It’s a movie version of junk food. No nutritional value but you’ll get the desired sugar rush. And there are times when one really craves junk food, and if you’re having such a craving then The Duel at Silver Creek is recommended.

This is one of three movies in the recent Kino Lorber Audie Murphy western Blu-Ray boxed set. The set also includes the superb No Name on the Bullet (1959) and the very good Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). This is a set very much worth buying. The Duel at Silver Creek gets an excellent transfer.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Torch Singer (1933)

Torch Singer is a 1933 pre-code offering from Paramount starring Claudette Colbert.

Sally Trent (Colbert) is an out-of-work aspiring singer. She’s broke and pregnant and she has her baby in a charity hospital. She tries to make a go of raising her daughter on her own but it’s to no avail. With a baby to care for she can’t find any way to earn a living and she can’t pay the rent and her attempt to persuade the family of the baby’s father to take responsibility fails as well. She has no choice. She puts the baby, whom she has named Sally, up for adoption.

Then she tries to get work as a singer. It takes a while but eventually she starts to enjoy some success, using the professional name Mimi Benton. And that success steadily builds. While her success grows her notoriety grows even faster. Mimi Benton is known for her wild living and her immorality.

Then fate plays a strange trick. Mimi is at a radio station and a kids’ show is about to go on the air for the first time. The show will feature a 15-minute segment by Aunt Jennie. Aunt Jennie will tell the children a story and then sing them a song. But the woman who is to pay Aunt Jennie, a nice middle-aged lady, freezes completely at the last minute. It’s every radio station program director’s worst nightmare. Seized by a whim Mimi grabs the microphone. She throws the script away and improvises a story. Her story is much more exciting than the scripted story.

The broadcast is a huge success. Mimi is a natural. Children throughout the nation instantly love her. Of course it was just a crazy whim and it was just a one-off. The show’s sponsors and the show’s producer, Tony Cummings (Ricardo Cortez), realise however that somehow they must persuade Mimi to continue. They must get her to sign a contract. Mimi of course has an emotional thing about children, having given up her own child for adoption. Playing Aunt Jennie is strangely satisfying. She signs the contract.

The broadcasts continue to be immensely popular. The one worry is that someone might reveal the truth, that Aunt Jennie is really the infamous torch singer Mimi Benton, widely considered to be the most brazen hussy in the city. This is a secret that must be kept.

Inevitably Mimi starts to think about her own daughter. Maybe little Sally is one of her listeners. Mimi becomes obsessed with finding her little girl.

What Mimi doesn’t know is that while she is searching for little Sally someone else is searching too, and that someone is searching for the woman once known as Sally Trent.

The stage is set for lots of emotional dramas.

This is an odd movie. It has two natures - it veers between soggy sentimentality and breezy sexy fun. Of course the character played by Claudette Colbert has two natures as well, the loving mother desperate to find her child and the wild good time girl Mimi Benton. Colbert manages to switch effortlessly between these two sides of the same woman. In the early 1930s Claudette Colbert truly could do no wrong and it’s her performance that carries the movie.

It’s fun seeing Ricardo Cortez playing a nice guy, and doing a pretty good job of it. David Manners plays a key role and he is as dull as always. Charley Grapewin provides some amusement as the radio show’s sponsor who is totally captivated by Mimi.

One of the most enjoyable things about pre-code movies is the stunning gowns worn by the female stars. Women’s fashions at this time really were wonderfully slinky and Claudette Colbert looks fabulous, and very sexy, wearing such clothes.

The script is of course a bit contrived but that’s to expected - this is a tugging at the heartstrings melodrama and every drop of emotion has to be squeezed from the story.

I like the fact that the screenplay zips along at breakneck pace and maintains a laser-sharp focus. It wastes no time whatsoever on extraneous subplots or secondary characters.  

How pre-code is it? It doesn’t have as much overtly racy content as some pre-code movies but it certainly doesn’t judge Sally/Mimi for being a unmarried mother and it certainly doesn’t take the view that such a woman deserves punishment. There’s also no suggestion that being a notorious night-club singer would make a woman an unsuitable mother. So in fact it is very pre-code.

Torch Singer isn’t the sort of movie I would normally enjoy but Claudette Colbert makes any movie worth watching. Recommended.

This movie is one of the six that make up the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that is a must-buy for pre-code fans. Torch Singer gets a very good transfer.

I’ve reviewed other movies from this DVD set including Hot Saturday (1932), the 1931 version of The Cheat, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Murder at the Vanities (1934)