Monday, December 8, 2014

Last Sunset

This post is:

1) A contribution to The Late Show Blogathon being hosted by David Cairns at his essential blog Shadowplay

 2) Dedicated to James Millican the actor (1910 - 1955) and James Millican the "material ghost" (1932 - 1956)


Born in New Jersey in early 1910, actor James Millican would first live onscreen in DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), an uncredited job that would be followed by 15 years of such anonymous background work primarily for Paramount, MGM and Columbia. His breakthrough would seem to come in the late 40s with a series of credited performances that lean heavily towards authority figure-types, as well as a slew of westerns. The western was the ideal fit for Millican, with his stiffened gait and easygoing nature, and though not much seems to exist in the way of biographical data about the actor, a consistent tidbit to be found is his friendship with cowboy star Wild Bill Elliott, along with his claim to have appeared in upwards of over 400 B oaters.

Indeed if Millican is remembered at all today, it is for his late career character actor work in various 1950s westerns for directors such as Anthony Mann and Andre De Toth who each cast him numerous times in some of their best films during that richest decade of the genre. Millican's tracks stop at Jack Arnold's Red Sundown (1956), a Universal-International production and Arnold's second of three westerns for the company. Millican would die of cancer in November of '55 shortly after the filming of Sundown ended and a solid few months before its release in March '56. This timeline tells us then that it's somewhat reasonable to assume Millican was aware of his dire health during the shoot, and his regretful, doomed character of Bud Purvis, consigned to and obliterated within the remarkable first act of this film, becomes heavily, even uneasily, tinged with the mournful flavor of a cinematic epitaph.

But first, a few unavoidable words devoted to Arnold's spare bone poetry, which provides the canvas. History and our eyes tell us that Universal-International was not always the most auteur-friendly studio. The snappy, punchy, Technicolor-driven house style could often seem resistant to ideas of personal expression (though certainly Sirk had something to say about that) and while many of their westerns are excellent or at least notable, and while many of those were helmed by excellent or at least notable directors, few directors in the genre actually did their best work for the studio (unheralded figures such as George Sherman and Richard Bartlett stand as the possible exceptions, while Boetticher is the clearest example of a unique voice hemmed in, only to burst forth fully formed instantaneously upon leaving.)  Jack Arnold, genre hopper, metteur en scene extraordinaire and longtime Universal hand, often found striking ways of nudging his assignments and the studio apparatus towards a slightly more contemplative, philosophical and even metaphysical space, traces of which can be found at least as early as the 1953 twosome of It Came from Outer Space and the slightly Langian The Glass Web (the latter utilizing its 3-D to paint some startling existential quandaries) and which culminate in the supreme achievements of 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, with its famously desolate ending that Arnold fought the studio tooth & nail for, and 1959's No Name on the Bullet, with its Audie Murphy-as-chess-playing-death-incarnate Bergman premonitions.

Two of the westerns that Arnold made for Universal-International, Red Sundown and The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955) - both shot in Conejo Valley, CA - display examples of his adaptability and temperamental leanings by using the expanse of the locations to play with various notions of perspective and space, snapping back and forth and up and down between extreme longshots and more intimate viewpoints with cosmic zeal as characters observe, ponder, and spy on one another across bare landscapes. The post-credits opening of Sundown is a haunting illustration of the idea in clear, somber, Wyeth-esque compositions  :


Gunslinger on-the-move Rory Calhoun spots what appears to be a bug skittering out in the distance which is quickly, thanks to one of these ice-shock Arnold cuts, whipped up into a desperate, stumbling, thirsty James Millican, having just escaped lockup and hanging on by a thread, announcing an eerie variety of dead-man-walking motions before Calhoun rides in for the rescue. And as so often happens when a classical western opens up with such a scenario, with two strangers crossing paths fortuitously on the edge of nothing, they are never really strangers and already know of each other through reputation: Millican, elder life gun hawk, has heard things about Calhoun's kickaroo draw and recently watched a former partner of Calhoun's older brother bite the big one. That older generation is hinted at as collapsing in on itself with death and capture, and Millican's purpose in the narrative swiftly comes into focus through his initial interactions with Calhoun: he will not so much preach but rather express, through a small series of laments prefiguring a sacrifice, the regrettable lot of the wasted life of a gun for hire, the very life Calhoun is on pace for.

I have to say here that the point of this post is not simply to excavate some lost, poignant death/art convergence from the mass tombs of the studio system; Millican was a fine actor who by this point had reached a kind of rarefied air of character actor pliability, and his performance here is striking in and of itself, rippled with organic melancholy and subtle, meaningful gesture, and deserves to be appreciated as such and discussed on those terms.  I wouldn't want to speculate on the wider knowledge base regarding Millican's health during the production because we simply can't know, nor would I want to harp too much on certain quotes from his character one might be tempted to call 'eerie' (they are not insignificant in number); all we have is the movie and the bare, chilling fact of the parallels.

The first time I watched Red Sundown, Millican was but a vaguely familiar face to me - I certainly had no idea this was his last role, or the reasons why, but I was startled by the immediacy and impact of his presence. Finding out the details later after another viewing, well, did click things into place a bit, is perhaps the best way of framing it. Millican's character Bud Purvis ultimately functions within the overall structure as little more than a transient, corrective influence on Calhoun, the embodiment of a second chance and a prologued tool for the plot proper to be set in motion, but the potent, grave integrity and force of emotion that Millican imbues Purvis with alongside the endgame air of apocalypse that Purvis saturates his surroundings with is almost unaccountably powerful within the context of the material, to the extent of rendering the "real meat" of the movie to follow as mere fallout from the true epoch. Which is to say that the opening act, while setting up and informing everything to come, also seems to swallow it all, and for the many possible reasons that a movie is occasionally unable to shake its earliest moments, this one seems to conform to none that aren't cast in the shade of Millican's shadow.


Purvis, forever composed in the key of regret, processes the bleakness he's been surrounded by of late with a moving, mannered wipe of the face that visually introduces the key symbol of his ring ("all I got left from being a big man" he'll claim later) but also inevitably brings Hawks to mind, whom Millican worked for on no less than three occasions that each resulted in a major masterpiece (Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Air Force.)

The pair ride on to a near town. The blood-tinted sun-setting theme of the first act - which applies not only literally to a movement from day to night and from life to death but also from past to present and future in the form of experience ingested and applied - finds stirring ripples in what at times seems like an index of life's small pleasures: Millican and Calhoun splashing their faces with cool water from a spigot after a long ride ("AH there's nothin' like it!") and later breaking bread and smearing it with jam in a last supper ("nothin' like strawberry!").

And now a few unavoidable words devoted to Calhoun, whose generous performance is a pivotal piece of the puzzle. In westerns at least, he was an interesting screen presence, with a minor in charisma and a major in low key, bug-eyed, sweat-glazed, loose canon potentials (Edward Luwig's 1963 The Gun Hawk being the key text.) In 1956 Calhoun was nothing close to a supporting player, but this is Millican's movie, for a time at least, and Calhoun seems more than game to oblige, patiently ceding the floor and developing a sensitive rhythm with Millican as the web of their brief relationship is weaved and the emotional batons are passed down, and striking art is made because of it. It's one of Calhoun's best roles, and it's hard to imagine any of Universal's other leading western men of the time doing it as much justice.


A fight breaks out in a saloon with a rowdy gang. Calhoun, in an act of rotten efficiency, spontaneous but written in stone, puts a bullet in one of the wild men and the pair beat it back to Calhoun's small shack a lengthy ride away. There, in the final daylight moments found in this section, Millican/Purvis delivers the first of two twilight mini-monologues expressing his regrets in a life that the film senses, and probably the character does too (let's still resist temptations to presume thoughts for the actor) is soon to end, one that's barely left him with "the makins' to show for it." At nightfall the rowdy gang catch up and hold siege; a gunfight leads to a quick slug in the belly for Purvis. Lying in bed, the romance of longing stripped away and urgency setting in, Purvis has an idea: Calhoun should dig himself a "grave" with a hidden pipe for a breathing hole, and after Purvis's distraction (aka immolation) they will think Calhoun has evaded them. But is it simply an idea? Purvis wants Calhoun's character to give up the gun if he survives: "A guy warned me once, like I'm trying to warn you..."; the propulsion of the drama seizes up and the prior ritualistic nips finally coalesce - this is a chain, a cycle, it is about to be broken, and Purvis is its last victim.

Fire is set to the shack, Purvis transfers his ring to Calhoun (like similar rings to be found in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lang's Moonfleet, it has the power to both affirm and negate identity and existence) and Calhoun crawls into his "grave" to wait out the game. Purvis makes a charge outside, giving himself to a spray of bullets against the backdrop of fiery hell, and the rebirth/Phoenix-intimations of Calhoun's predicament are brought to full visual fruition as he emerges unscathed from his ashy ground womb the following morning, taking stock a final time of Millican's body playing Purvis's corpse before a fade to black shifts the story events along their "proper" Calhoun-centric course. There is approximately an hour left of movie at this point; it's quite a good movie, and worth talking about. Maybe there's another post for that. This one ends when Purvis leaves the film, and when Millican leaves the cinema.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When It Rains #3 - Harikomi (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)


Also known in English as The Chase or Stakeout. It earns both titles. Stray Dog would have been a good one as well, and in fact the similarities with Kurosawa's masterwork pile up quickly: procedural structure, young male killer on the lam, old detective/young detective dynamic, devastating summer heat, emphasis on the physicality of an investigation. There's even heavy use of the all-purpose wipes that Kurosawa loved so much and was still employing regularly at this time. But for every apparent parallel, Harikomi frequently takes things down its own path, with a naturalist performance style that often extends to the dramaturgy (modest personal quandaries are prized over weighty philosophical stakes and any exaggerated sense of wisdom transmission between generations) and a thrilling approach to form that blends fluid camerawork/stamps of unity with a rhythmic, clipped editing style, sometimes to vaguely surreal effect - one late sequence with Minoru Oki's undercover protagonist trailing Hideko Takamine's secretive housewife for the nth time (among other things, the movie is a play in variations on the most basic of genre requirements) quickly escalates into a city-to-country down the rabbit hole scenario that reminded me somewhat of the more extreme and absurdist no man's land spinout that comes late in Naruse's Morning's Tree-Lined Street (1936).

The scene that provides the screens above are nothing of that sort, though. One of the shorter and more subtle of the aforementioned numerous trailings, Takamine simply breaks a shoe during a storm and hobbles over under some shelter, as her pursuer is put in the awkward position of unsuspiciously maintaining a pace. As a moment of vulnerability for Takamine, up to that point only little more than a cipher, it represents a bit of an eye opener for Oki, one that takes on significant thematic import (among other things, the movie is a string of male meditations on female unhappiness) - a beautifully wrought exercise in using simple elements to inscribe quiet dramatic value to a wispy relationship.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When It Rains #2 - Plunder Road (Hubert Cornfield, 1957)


Melville must have swooned. Nearly as much as in This Gun for Hire or The Asphalt Jungle, one can sense a wellspring for the great French director in the first 15 minutes of Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road. A nearly wordless, sartorially attentive and process oriented train heist taking place entirely in the rain and snipped at from a variety of viewpoints, this opening sequence (gobbling up roughly a quarter of the total running time) not only looks forward to the later abstract Melville's, but glances back a year as well; it's almost impossible to not be struck by protagonist Gene Raymond's Bob le Flambeur-like aura during his introduction: pensive, middle-aged, pale haired, a perfect gentleman with a "real hood's face". Actually, we can't ever know if Melville saw Road or not, but I'm not sure that it matters; this was 1957, and noir iconography at this point had already started to empty itself out and take a half step towards the kind of ghost imagery that Melville would shape to his own extreme and eccentric end. The spiritual union is there if nothing else.

Not that this opening is without its own eccentricity; indeed, part of its brilliance (and I would without any intended hyperbole deem it one of the great marvels of the 50s American B cinema) is the indefinable rhythm that it creates through a fundamental motional clash: fleet, exemplary action editing applied to images and movements of great physical weight. Cuts slam back and forth continuously between careful men, cumbersome machines and sensitive mechanisms; the object of the heist is a cache of gold bricks that can only be moved by crane and many guiding hands. And lording over all in this sequence is the rain, which sharpens the contrast in both directions: as a dynamic visual presence that adds an instant vivid force to the decoupage while simultaneously acting as yet another factor responsible for further weighing down of the bodies in frame.  Almost certainly a matter of budgetary restraint, the film's approach to depicting its rain actually doubles down on this central clash, very clearly using a rain machine at times, and clearly using some scratch or pencil technique committed directly to the emulsion at others. The difference between these two methods is the difference between a biting realism and a frenzied Brakhagian rush, or the difference between muddy bootstraps and the electric consciousness that carries them.





Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When It Rains #1 - Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)



Early Capra can have a heckuva way with space. Take for instance the running gag in 1931's Platinum Blonde with Robert Williams' repeated sarcastic bows to Jean Harlow's butler from various points across the gulf of her mansion; it registers not only as a soft jab towards upper crust convention, but also, in its own way, as an eloquent bursting of the awkward bubble of physically distanced communication via wit. There's something similar at play one year earlier in Ladies of Leisure with Barbara Stanwyck's introduction: after popping a flat, Ralph Graves pulls over to the side of the road on a bridge over water; Stanwyck, in deep space and fancy dress, having just escaped the clutches of an apparently nefarious party yacht (the scenario which has led to her jumping overboard remains unspoken) rows a small boat towards a rickety dock and gets out. "Can I do anything for you?" he shouts from on high. "Yeah, you can look the other way!" she sasses back from the depth of the unbroken shot.

The water theme is played to the hilt during the course of Ladies; like a myth Stanwyck emerges from it in the beginning and attempts to give herself back to it at the end. In between there are too many tears to count, and one remarkable sequence - the most pivotal in the film, I'd say - set against rain that also happens to provide her with the all too rare opportunity to keep dry. A storm forces the hand of Graves' surly painter; having been resistant to Stanwyck's sly charms up to this point, he grudgingly offers her a spare bed to sleep in after a modelling session so that she doesn't have to brave the downpour. Fade to the middle of the night: a restless Stanwyck lies awake, and then Graves, in a concise succession of shots that have the expressive integrity and sharp economy of the barely-in-the-rearview silent cinema, wordlessly exits his room and walks over to place a blanket on the faux-sleeping Stanwyck, leaving her marvelled at this first display of affection.

In addition to any purely ambient function, the rain in this sequence provides a particularly potent erotic charge, the fixed tempo of its patter playing counterpoint to the barely suppressed emotions in play. But then Capra has an extra trick up his sleeve: as the sequence fades to black and both the rain and Stanwyck trail off, we are met at fade in with a very Preston Sturges-esque egg frying in the pan, bubbling and alive in all the ways Stanwyck's visage was, with the frying sound almost a precise rhyme with the rain. The effect is mildly startling and fairly complex, with a pressure-and-release quality that at once preserves the abstract energy built up previously, while also finding for it a very particular expression by couching it in a reciprocal act of domestic ritual - Stanwyck, with an ostentatiously devotional touch, is preparing breakfast for Graves.



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

And Then There Were None



By sheer coincidence I watched two westerns recently that, while being very different from one another in many important ways, both happened to turn on the age-old plot strategy of establishing a group of characters in a dire situation, and then systematically whittling this group down to a lone scrappy party, whose survival functions both to crystallise a key thematic as well as to taper the narrative off with some degree of triumph. The history of this general premise in literature and genre cinema - my mind associates it most strongly with mystery in the former and horror in the latter - seems almost tied to the hip with the effect of suspense produced, but in the two westerns I watched, this wasn't really the case - events in both play out more as the logical outcome of dubious choices and suboptimal means. But it occurred to me in all of this that the western is a particularly apt canvas to play with this sort of approach: a more classically hermetic setting such as a mysterious old mansion or isolated island will inevitably plunge into a hotbed of hysteria and paranoia, whereas the expanse of the western landscape, loaded with eternal connotations, would seem to provide ample room for experimentation with throwing these dynamics into all sorts of relief.

The first western I watched was Posse from Hell (1961), a late Universal-International production directed by Hitchcock collaborator Herbert Coleman. It's almost proto-Peckinpah in the forcefulness of its violence and in the grim complexities flirted with in Audie Murphy's loner posse leader, and this is one of those darker roles that makes good use of Murphy's troubled intensity and low boil menace, one of those roles that Universal unfortunately only began throwing at Audie in the latter half of his career. Coleman seems to be a curious case, having only two directed features to his name, the other also starring Audie and also made in 1961, a war film for Fox called Battle at Bloody Beach. The second western I watched was Thomas Arslan's latest, Gold (2013). It seems that a lot of critics don't know quite what to do with this one, and that's not surprising considering that, like his previous film In the Shadows (2010) it is a deeply serious piece of genre filmmaking beholden to a deeply alien sensibility. Speaking strictly of those two, the only ones I've seen from him, Arslan is like Siegel mixed with Dumont: a terse, dynamic formal craftsman on one layer, and on the other a neo-Bressonian that uses his flat affect to play with audience expectation and build inexorable moods with swift, discomforting actions. Perhaps the crime film, by its very nature (socially "on the fringes") absorbs eccentricity more easily than the western (historically "on the front lines"), and that this may partly explain why Gold hasn't quite stuck its landing the way Shadows did. But I sense a deep regard invested by Arslan in both films, and the occasional awkwardness of Gold feels productive to me, as though its confronting us with the challenge of reconciling its earnestness with the various lines of tradition that pass through it. (Contrary to some of the fine pieces written, I'm not sure how much interest Arslan has in turning anything "inside out".) In any case, both westerns are recommended, and In the Shadows is recommended twice - a stunning, extremely great film.