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.


D Cairns said...

Very lovely! I will attach it to The Late Show with pride tomorrow.

Jeff Duncanson said...

Good job, Drew

In looking at his resume, I can only say for sure I have seen him in the Mann stuff (Winchester 73 and The Man From Laramie). I will likely check this one out. To me, it reads kinds like a Noir western, which perks my interest.

I wish I had known about this bogathon. Interesting theme.

Drew McIntosh said...

David - Thanks so much! A more punctual effort shall be made next year :)

Jeff - That's interesting that it reads like a noir western to you. I can't say that it plays like one at all. Perhaps I overemphasized a sense of fatalism here.

I've seen the darn thing so many times by now, and that immersion can reach a weird point where you're unsure whether you're pulling more out or cramming it in. In any event, and I hope this goes without saying, I still recommend the movie highly.

Jeff Duncanson said...

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