Wednesday, December 4, 2013


No one ever told me about this Walter Brennan. The one in Along the Great Divide. Is that why the movie shocked me so much? For a spell, at least, his is one of the most wicked constructs in any western I've ever seen. To be sure, there are characters in the genre's history who've committed grander atrocities than singing a song, but I'd be hard pressed to recall a dynamic as intimately discomfiting as the one between Brennan and Kirk Douglas here, one in which a psychic wound is located and assaulted with such relentless and gleeful surgical precision.

To clarify: Douglas is the marshall who is transporting Brennan's horse thief to face a murder charge properly in a courtroom, evading the father of the murdered man and his lynch mob who assume Brennan's guilt and seek his neck. Brennan, who sees this escort as merely (cruelly?) prolonging the same fate the mob intends to mete out, whiles away the hours with song, and stumbles onto the tune ("Down in the Valley"; more lovely = more menacing) which Douglas's father, killed years ago in a preventable lynching, used to sing to his son. Brennan hones in on the distress the song creates in Douglas and, against warnings, sings it loud and repeatedly, taunting the haunted lawman with invoked and mocked paternal parallels.

Towards what end? Presumably, Brennan aims to be set free in lieu of the madness he might provoke. (As played, a bullet in the head seems the more likely natural outcome). But Walsh and Brennan conspire to point at something more sinister: that this man is positively relishing in the torture he is inflicting, secretly thanking the stars that they have aligned to put him in such a position. The basic survival strategy of Brennan's character here is, as far as Hollywood logic extends, plausible - in an impossible situation, a person pounces on any scrap that may translate to power - but it does not account for the almost pathological grins of satisfaction and gut cackles of pure pleasure that inflect Brennan's performance. These interactions are so stinging, so stark in their single-minded pursuit of emotional damage, that they threaten to overwhelm practically every other development of drama and character in the film. That Brennan ultimately winds up some Frankenstein monster of victim, devilish antagonist, fool, ally, ghost, patsy, and benefactor of faith is just one source of the film's mystery. And when Walsh's sadistic streak (which doesn't begin and end with Brennan; Ray Teal's repeated delighting in the desperation and violent infighting of his prisoners is just as unaccountable) seems ready to tip over into the wearying, we get the remarkably tender scene of Douglas riding horseback with a dying John Agar, singing the forbidden song to comfort his friend as the life leaks out of his body while shots of Brennan, a tired and wholly impassive witness, are tossed out like a dare. The movie turns on such sequences where configurations, both mythic and immediate, of child/parent/death become fluid and interchangeable, with the residual guilt and grace momentarily assuming total command of the narrative. The dexterity with which the film bridges not just pure viciousness and utter humility, but such credible versions of each, is astonishing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Adorno and Eisler once argued that music in film often acts as an antidote against the picture, that rather than supplementing the emotions of an onscreen character it instead works towards helping the audience cope with fear and shock. The degree to which much modern horror cinema has fine tuned with awesome precision a hollow dependency on the loud shocking jolt for effect shows that an inverse of this hypothesis can also ring true: silence utilized not as a neutral, anchoring presence but instead as another manipulative tool that dulls its horrors by reducing them to a clinical play of crashing noise. It's easy to imagine practitioners of such faux-horror hunched behind their cameras with thought bubbles over their heads containing that quote from Zero Dark Thirty, co-opted as a mantra"Everyone breaks, it's biology."

Sinister doesn't exactly escape cheap shock-jump syndrome, but one of its subtle strengths is its carefully crafted Christopher Young score, an amorphous, ubiquitous dark churn that never sees fit to simply work in accordance with the jolts but instead often seems to exist independently of the specific screen actions, occupying a more elemental place within the emotional dimension of the film, dovetailing with the central themes of obsession and paranoia and amplifying them in a particularly bleak and subterranean manner. The film isn't a complete success, but it's strikingly naked in its despair and takes it seriously (in spirit it feels at times like something plucked from the 70s and slapped with a modern veneer) and its efforts to destabilize on both the aural and visual level (I can't think of many recent mainstream movies of any genre so willing to hang onto a disorienting, visual blackness) are effective more often than not. There's a modest lesson or two in small scale, unbombastic eeriness here that the James Wan's of the world would do well to take note of.

Monday, October 28, 2013


A bit of roundabout communication from D'arrast's Laughter (1930). The continental flavor and penchant for spicy intimation here have led some, in the small pile of writing I've been able find on the film, to invoke Lubitsch, which seems I suppose as perfectly reasonable a starting point as any in situating this rich, forgotten Paramount item. Likely not enough of D'arrasts's scant output circulates in any capacity today to parse out any kind of full bodied "touch", but to my eyes the real heart of the film pumping beneath Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay (one of his earliest, and it's a hoot; some acid religious sarcasm or class barb pounce out from every corner) is a physical, jubilant discursiveness that feels very much the product of a distinct sensibility: a potentially awkward situation early in the film is diffused by Frederic March banging out some jazzy number on a piano, opening the door for Nancy Carroll and Diane Ellis to launch into surely one of the most manic of all precode dance numbers; later on Carroll and March break into a home to avoid a rainstorm, and their mounting sexual tension naturally leads to them dressing in bearskin rugs and engaging in a bear battle. Narratively these tangents feel justified in their illustrations of the allure of the bohemian temperament (the source of the title), but the effect is of viewing a group of characters who continually seize any opening to wriggle free from the sway of plot and give into some primal impulse.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sarah / Mary

The Shepherd of the Hills (Henry Hathaway, 1941)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)


 Speaking of non-Ford Fordian movies (which Shepherd is most definitely; in addition to the above, Harry Carey plays Wayne's father (!), and Wayne and Ward Bond have an all-out brawl in front of everyone), I'll throw a quick plug in for another fine example that's found reason to be brought up in certain cinephile corners lately, George Marshall's Pillars of the Sky (1956). It's one of five films on the recently released TCM DVD box set Western Horizons: Universal Westerns of the 1950's, surely one of the essential home video releases of the year. I was initially attracted to the set due to the presence of George Sherman's Dawn at Socorro (1954) - I've been watching lately as much of Sherman's marvelous Universal-International output as I've been able to get my hands on and this was one of his most obscure and highly thought of from the period - but every one here is great, with maybe the biggest surprise for me being John Sturges' tough, taut, cerebral Backlash (1956), a truly incredible western. A highly recommended purchase.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Points of Contact (3/18/13)

Flaming Star (Don Siegel, 1960)

Flaming Star (Don Siegel, 1960)

Flaming Star (Don Siegel, 1960)

Flaming Star (Don Siegel, 1960)

Christina's World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Saddle Tramp

It's only little more than a month into 2013, and though there's still a lot of time to go in the year it'd surprise me if I came across many films better than Hugo Fregonese's brilliant Civil War western The Raid. Released in 1954, it came a few years after what is probably Fregonese's other best known western today, the very fine Apache Drums (1951), notable for being the last film produced by Val Lewton before his untimely death. Going back one year even further to the director's previous film Saddle Tramp (1950) gives an indication, in an early sequence, of what may have caught Lewton's eye.

Joel McCrea plays the drifting title character en route to visiting an old friend who, as it turns out, has lost a wife and gained a few sons in the years since McCrea has last seen him. That night McCrea and the boys fall asleep by the lantern light while his old friend rides a horse off into a raging storm. McCrea awakens and traces the missing man's path, arriving at a slain body splayed in a ditch. Not a terribly unique premise in and of itself, but the manner in which it is filmed - as a repeated series of mysterious actions captured at a remove, with acute attention paid to the unstable atmosphere and a strong sense menace lurking just beyond the frame - is particularly oneiric for a fifties western, and is absolutely in line with the brand of suggestive horror Lewton's name is normally associated with.

For better or worse, the promises inherent in that unusually moody setup are never allowed fruition, and so develops what is basically a gentle story about a drifter suddenly saddled with responsibility in the form of abandoned children, albeit a gentle story occasionally splashed with the unusually surreal or violent touch. (One scene where the children beat a defenseless man repeatedly in the head with shovels over a lighthearted musical theme is a prime, merged example of both.) In the midst of McCrea's attempts at negotiating his freewheeling ways with his newfound position helming a family unit, peripheral characters and storylines crop up on both sides threatening to make the movie their own (conflicts over stolen cattle, the hunt for a runaway.) But, similar to The Raid, the narrative of Saddle Tramp - grounded by Fregonese's sturdy visual touch and clear-headed sense of spatial arrangement (very reminiscent of Boetticher) - is essentially a straight line movement towards an all-in commitment, rippled with ambivalence and nudged in all directions but resolutely staying on course.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sharp ('34 - '13)

Saturated with blue-faced bedlam over the positively shocking occurrence of Rex Reed being a jackass, the daily discourse, at least if my Twitter feed is to be believed (my god those words), seemed all too content eliding over the death of writer Alan Sharp, whose small yet astonishingly high quality run of original screenplays in the early 70s produced three major wonders of the period: Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971), Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972), and Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975). (I've yet to see the Fleischer/Huston co-directed The Last Run, but I've heard it's very good.)

I would argue that, in the latter two examples at least, his tight and intricate hand brought out the best in those great directors. Unfortunately his career in films seemed to peter out in the following decades, with only a few theatrical features (Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend and the Liam Neeson swashbuckler Rob Roy being the most notable) and a modest slew of TV movies to his name. But that exciting mini-body of work from that most exciting time in Hollywood will remain and fascinate as long as cinema remains and fascinates, and even if I'm only kidding myself to think that this post, in which I've said basically nothing, could be the teeniest of correctives to the latest Dumb Critic Quote Swarmfest, then at least that brief, immortal exchange from Night Moves at top has excuse to grab a few more seconds.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Eve of St. Mark

Andrew Sarris' sole, brief comment on Stahl's The Eve of St. Mark (1944) in "The American Cinema" can seem a little odd in the specificity of its claim: "...revealed a profound comprehension of the emotional implications of two-shots as opposed to cross-cutting." Don't many of Stahl's films exhibit this very quality? To my eyes, the director regularly defaults towards an unusually detached and observational mode with his framing, and the presence and repeated use of a gentle, backwards track in his work feels almost designed towards substantiating a vivid, enveloping and essential atmosphere void of privilege (like Raoul Walsh, Stahl is a director whose films consistently play as a world its characters rather than the characters > their world). How else would one possibly describe the finale of When Tomorrow Comes (1939) if not as a supreme example of the "emotional implications of two-shots as opposed to cross-cutting"?

Watching the movie, it makes more sense why Sarris may have singled it out for this specific quality. Frequently in Stahl the melodrama arises from a secret or unspoken impediment in a romantic relationship (Gene Tierney's psychosis in Leaver Her to Heaven; the marriages of John Boles and Charles Boyer in, respectively, Back Street and When Tomorrow Comes; the deception of identity from Montey Woolley in Holy Matrimony), the drama being a natural outgrowth or endpoint of the way the data contained in this gulf is responded to; the distanced approach in these examples generally producing a bristling, private tension and a certain understatedness to the emotional charges (very powerful stuff, and a large reason why I value Stahl so much). The Eve of St. Mark reverses these terms; instead of an aberrant, intimate romantic relationship, it presents a homogeneous ensemble (of WWI soldiers), and instead of organic melodramatic development, its players are thrust into an extremity outside of their control (a losing battle in a dank cave of a malaria-ridden island somewhere in the Philippines); the result being here that the two-shots (or three or four; that is, the lack of cross-cutting during dialogue or drama intensive scenes, which is as predominant as ever) effectively act as the affirmation of a set of collective fears and anxieties which slowly begin to atomize as a climactic moral imperative comes into focus. The communal baseline in play here doesn't necessarily make the approach more potent, but it stands out, and is more concentrated and demonstrative than in any of the other Stahl I've watched.

When Tomorrow Comes (John M. Stahl, 1939)
The Eve of St. Mark (John M. Stahl, 1944)

The Eve of St. Mark (John M. Stahl, 1944)

The Eve of St. Mark (John M. Stahl, 1944)

All of that comes in the movie's latter half, which is pretty much as dark and dire and effective as it sounds, but the earlier sections are all pitched at a significantly lighter tone, reinforcing that Stahl and comedy are a pretty fascinating combination. The humor is never really subsumed into the solemnity, and vice versa; rather they exist alongside each other, are even placed in dialectical opposition by Stahl. A good example of this is the main character in Holy Matrimony, a world famous painter who fakes his own death to escape celebrity; the incorrigibility is played fairly broadly and often for chuckles by Woolley, but Stahl's camera retains a certain air of remove that underlines the pathos of the situation. The extended courtroom sequence which ends that film winds up hinging on the explicitly absurd importance of a pair of hairless collarbone moles, yet Stahl's courtroom looks like this and this. In Eve, the funniest sequence involves a few of the Army buddies sneaking out to meet a couple of girls at a pub. Their stumbling waiter ignores them, gets the order right anyway. Vincent Price woos a drunk girl eating a hamburger by locking eyes with her and reciting Shakespeare. But then a couple of the guys leave to pick up easier looking girls; Vincent Price tells his girls to go wait on him in a curtained booth then decides to leave, stopping by the booth to flash a smirk before abandoning, Stahl's camera lingering behind for a brief moment. It's kind of haunting, and is the first thing I thought of when I read that Maxwell Anderson, author of the original novel, hated the movie.

The Eve of St. Mark (John M. Stahl, 1944)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Images of the Day (2/7/13)

From Hell to Texas (Henry Hathaway, 1958)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Upperworld / R.D.R.

Early on in Roy Del Ruth's Upperworld (1934), Warren William, playing a character named Stream, saves a lady from drowning in a river, a beautiful blonde who he'll maybe fall in love with but who will die around the midway point of the film anyway. Matters of psychosexual obsession never rated terribly high on the agenda of these early thirties Warner Bros. pictures, so the Vertigo similarities mostly end there, but the direction the film winds up moving in is perhaps as peculiar and unconventional in its own way as in the Hitch.

After being struck down with loneliness by the absence of affection from his priggish socialite wife (Mary Astor), William begins an affair with the aforementioned blonde (Ginger Rogers), a sweet and charming burlesque dancer who is also in the grips of another malicious fellow intent on blackmailing the very wealthy William; things come to a head one night when Rogers and the blackmailer are both killed (she by the blackmailer's hands, him by William's) and William tries to cover up the entire thing, manipulating evidence to give the impression of a murder-suicide. But bad luck in the form of a cop William had previously used his social standing to banish to cheap street beats returns to bite him - his hand in the incident is discovered and William is put on trial. He's found not guilty (escaping blame for the murder he did commit as well as the one he didn't), and the movie ends on what could be seen as a sardonic note, with William and Astor on a cruise, love as strong as ever after William has explained away his affair ("Oh I was fond of her. She never took your place.")

The sneaky uneasiness of it all comes from the way that the earlier Rogers-William relationship was built up and worked through with such goofy earnestness; the heart of the film was in that direction, and though some late gestures are made towards reinstating the Astor character, it all feels done in the service of something rote, and the aftertaste is bitter. Rogers was an innocent, met with a horrible fate and with tears in her eyes, yet the film tosses off her memory with a cruel casualness, subordinating its most seemingly sincere moments to affirming the queasy marriage of this not terribly likable couple who, frighteningly enough, seem all too sincere themselves. There's a lot of Chabrol and Varda here, and Upperworld's spiritual cousins are as much La femme infidele and Le bonheur as anything else from the pre-code era.

William was of course one of the great screen scoundrels, but not talked about maybe quite as much is his striking nature as a physical presence. Many of his performances seem to emanate from a central bodily conception (a gravel-throated big man bark in Employees' Entrance; a boozy, swishy grifter slouch in The Mind Reader; a hands-to-the-hips wire stick posture here in Upperworld) and Roy Del Ruth in particular appeared to be sensitive to this in their collaborations together.

This, I think, is one place to look when discussing the more subtle yet still considerable talents of Del Ruth, one of those problematic auteur cases who had no obvious, definable style to his name - nobody watches A Roy Del Ruth Film - but yet whose very best work seems characterized by a remarkable lightness of touch and thoughtfulness in staging that seems to me to hover just above the notion of the "finely crafted workman studio picture." Add to the William examples above the graceful lilts of Cagney's smallest movements (Taxi, Blonde Crazy), Lee Tracy's walking incredulity (Blessed Event, probably my favorite) - none of it is lost on Del Ruth's watch, and indeed many times slices of the drama seem to be staged with preserving these qualities in all their degrees of oppositional expression and integrity in mind.

My thoughts are still rough, but if I had to point to one example that displays most what I value in Del Ruth's direction, it would be a great little sequence in the otherwise average Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), involving Glenda Farrell, Pat O'Brien, a diner, a steamboat horn, and a crash of condiments. All of the qualities are there: speed, distance, warmth, math, all in service of the careful construction of a modestly eloquent payoff.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Westward the Women

Time and again in Westward the Women we're reminded that for few directors does death visit as swiftly and brutally as it does in the films of William Wellman. (think: Maria Elena Marques in Across the Wide Missouri; Mitchum in Track of the Cat; multiple examples in The Ox-Bow Incident.) The open-ended hesitancy built into the title grows in significance with every corpse left on the trail  - westward may be the movement but the destination for each is far from certain.

Wellman's severe approach to capturing a body giving up its ghost may be a hangover from the pre-code era where the conditions of production practically guaranteed that such fleet and fateful depictions reigned supreme, but the most devastating passage in Westward occurs in the aftermath of an offscreen Indian massacre and draws its force from something far more sombre, while looking forward, in miniature, to the work of Roberto Bolaño, specifically "The Part about the Crimes" from 2666: "How many did we lose?" Robert Taylor's trail boss inquires as he surveys the carnage, and the sequence unfolds at some length as a rigorous account of each individual female casualty, a breathing woman beside the slain one chanting the dead's first and last name into the echoing desert air, the camera then shifting to a full visual of the victim, no unique details of her murder spared.

It's worth noting that despite the grim portrait I'm painting, Westward the Women is not only Wellman's finest western, but also one of his most purely humorous films - the bit with the "sting bat" is the hardest I've laughed at anything in some time (it's all about the silence), and the film's view of sexual attraction as something unaccountably idiosyncratic is a frequent source of amusement, such as the early scene where the women choose prospective husbands from photographs pinned to a board: "Face like a mackerel" mutters Hope Emerson's Patience to one photo with more than a hint of disdain, before claiming it for herself with a smirk.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Images of the Day (1/15/13)

A nos amours (Maurice Pialat, 1983)

"Perhaps, Pialat suggests, that's what being human is - and hence the hovering sadness of all his films - a series of links, tentative communications, relationships, just waiting to be severed."

- Molly Haskell "The Ties That Wound"