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)