The Naked Spur (1953) Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur” is a dark western that ranks up there with Ford’s “The Searchers”, Hawks “Rio Bravo” and Zimmemann’s “High Noon”, an exquisite study of character relationships, cynicism, betrayal and redemption with the added scenic beauty of a master painting.

The plot is simple, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter running from his past is hell bent on bringing outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) in for reward money. Unwillingly he accepts the help of two men he meets along the way, an old out of luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and a dishonorably discharged unbalanced soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they catch Vandergroat, he has with him the pretty Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a pal who professes her love for him.  On the long road back Vandergroat makes multiple efforts to divide up the loyalty of the three men splitting them apart and turning them against each other, hopefully long enough so he can escape.

It is Robert Ryan’s twisted outlaw Ben Vandergroat who drives the film and Stewart’s Howie that reacts. Vandergroat’s divide and conquer policy is relentless, the men switching loyalties, shifting sides. He entices the old man Tate telling him how splitting the reward money two ways is better than three. Vandergroat continually attempts to pit the men against each other and displays an almost superior arrogance at  times, for example when he smugly instructs the lone female character to “do me Lina.” While it is meant to rub his shoulder, it comes across as a more overtly sexual demand especially considering the salivating Roy Anderson is standing by watching.  Mann’s westerns are dark conflicted works with characters whose seem to be at a crossroad in their life.

Stewart’s Howard Kemp is an unhinged anti-hero determined to get the $,5000 bounty money on Vandergroat’s head so he can buy back the ranch his fiancée sold from behind his back. Still he cannot do it without the help of his two untrustworthy partners. Early in the film his attempt to scale a rocky mountain where Vandergroat is held up fails, burning his hands as he falls. He succeeds in capturing Vandergroat only with the assistance of the unstable but younger Anderson.

There is very little typical western action in the film except for an Indian attack early on in the film, yet Mann and screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (who received an Oscar nomination) continuously keep the tension high through the characters interaction filled with mistrust and the constant threat for violence.  At one point Vandergroat get hold of a gun and Howard almost out of control faces him down telling him to come on and draw, knowing he can outshoot him. Vandergroat knows it too and does not take the bait, telling the enraged Howard he is going to have to shoot him in cold blood if he wants him dead.  Anderson yells out to kill him saying they’ll get the reward dead or alive.  The old prospector stops the mad chaos before a shot is fired.

All the men come to a violent end except for Howard. Greed does in the old prospector when he falls for Vandergroat’s story about sharing in a non-existent goldmine and is shot dead once he unties the outlaw’s hands. Anderson drowns trying to recover Vandergroat’s body in the wild river and the outlaw is deceived by Lina after she has come to grips that he is a murderer and gives Howard an assist in their final confrontation.

In the end Stewart redeems himself coming to grips with his demons after retrieving Vandergroat’s body from the river (dragging it like a beached whale); he breaks down realizing that the bitterness that has engulfed him has made him less of a person. We are left to assume he and Lina go off to California and start a new life together.

Mann magnificently uses the camera to isolate the partners depending on who is on whose side at the time. He also positions his camera in various scenes that guarantee you are certainly seeing the actors in the fight scenes and not stunt doubles. As with the black and white beauty of his film noirs this color production is beautifully scenic (mostly filmed in the Colorado Rockies), one of the most visually stunning westerns this side of John Ford. But the landscape is more than just scenic it becomes another character in the film. Mann’s west is a country of streams, mountains and wide open land. It is the landscape that determines the final destiny of Vandergroat and Anderson.

I love seeing James Stewart portraying such a multi dimensional character. Too often we think of Stewart as the guy next door yet later in his career he took on roles that challenged this perception with films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and especially in the films he made with Mann. Check out this overview of Stewart’s career that was written by R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector blog, he spells it all out for you a lot better than I can. Also check out at Wonders in the Dark Sam Juliano’s  wrap of the recent Anthony Mann festival at the Film Forum in New York.

*****

Where Are They? American Hot Wax

An occasional series on missing films. They are rarely, if ever, shown on TV and have never been released on video in any form. If anyone has any knowledge where these films have been shown, TV, a film festival or in a basement in your house please let me know.

Released in 1978 “American Hot Wax” has never seen the light of day on home video in any format. Based on the life of Alan Freed who started as a DJ in Cleveland and eventually moved to New York.

Tim McIntire’s portrayal of Freed is arguably the best performance of his career. McIntire would ironically die at almost the same age as Freed in 1986.

Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frankie Ford and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins perform and portray themselves.

The film also stars Lorraine Newman, Fran Drescher and Jay Leno.

Kenny Vance, original member of Jay and the Americans also appears with The Brooklyn Dreams as  The Planotones,  a fictional group. Later on Kenny Vance would use The Plantones name to perform and is still doing live shows as Kenny Vance and The Planotones.

Freed did appear in some early rock and roll films as himself.

Rock Around the Clock

Go, Johnny, Go

Mister Rock and Roll

Don’t Knock the Rock

You Gotta Have Hope…

….Bob Hope that is in this double feature review of two of his best. 

These two films, relatively early in Bob Hope’s film career and made only a year apart are similar in storyline yet show a growth in Hope’s screen persona that would cement his career for the next forty or so years.

The story of “The Cat and the Canary” has a long history dating back to a 1922 play written by John Willard. In 1927 Universal made a silent version. As directed by German Expressionist Paul Leni and starring Laura LaPlante the film is a moody, expressionistic work. Unlike most filmed plays of the time, Leni made this a visual delight. In 1930, Universal made an early sound version retitling it “The Cat Creeps.” Unfortunately, this film which predates Universal’s classic horrors is presumed lost with only clips remaining (despite someone’s claim, and a number of votes on IMDB to have seen the film. They may have it confused with a 1946 film with the same title.)

In 1939, Paramount purchased the rights from Universal and resurrected the story again for Bob Hope turning it into an old dark house thriller with laughs. This film which is finally seeing the light of day on DVD is one of Hope’s best. The script was rewritten tailored to Hope’s talent adding his now well known style for wise cracks yet retains the original thrills of the original.

No matter what version you look at, the plot is the same with only minor changes. Family members and friends are summoned to an old dark house in the Louisiana Bayou, owned by the deceased Cyrus Norman for the reading of his will (specified to be read at midnight ten years after his death). Of course, there is no way off the island until the next morning. Also on board is a housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) who would give Mrs. Danvers a fright along with secret passageways, hidden treasures, greedy relatives’ lights that mysteriously go on and off, a killer on the loose and plenty of eerie atmospheres. The Louisiana Bayou setting also adds to the sinister surroundings.

Paulette Goddard as Joyce Norman is both the fortunate and unfortunate inheritor of the estate. Hope is Wally Campbell, a ham actor and childhood friend of Joyce who helps her solve the strange goings on and saves her life. George Zucco plays Crosby the lawyer who does not make it through the night and Gale Sondergaard is the creepy housekeeper that assist in keeping the atmosphere sinister and also adding some comic fodder to the proceedings.  John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson and Douglass Montgomery fill out a fine cast.

Hope’s screen persona is just beginning to be evolve, his wicked wise cracking style was developed here for use in this film (“don’t empty houses scare you” he’s asked. “Not me, I worked in Vaudeville!”). Still, he is a bit more laid back and while cowardly it is not as prevalent at it would become later on just one year later in the first Hope/Crosby Road film and the second Hope/Goddard pairing in “The Ghost Breakers.”

If anything this second 1940 feature is spookier and funnier than the first pairing of Hope and Goddard. Again it is Goddard who inherits a spooky mansion, this time on a small bleak island just off the Cuban coast. Hope plays Lawrence L. Lawrence (the middle initial stands for Lawrence. As he says “My parents had no imagination.”). This time he is a radio broadcaster who mistakenly believes he shot and killed a close associate of a local gangster. This gives Larry purpose to stow away on the same ship Ms. Goddard’s character is leaving on. Goddard is warned that her life may be in danger if she continues on to the “haunted house.”

As in “The Cat and the Canary”, the film is filled with hands that reach out from behind secret panels, trap doors, sinister individuals, ghosts and a murder. The film provides a nice mixture of “old house” style horror, mystery and comedy, Hope style.

Black actor Willie Best is Hope’s servant and side kick and unfortunately, like in many films from this period the racial stereotyping is embarrassing and politically incorrect, however this takes nothing ways from Willie’s performance. John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson and Douglass Montgomery fill out a fine cast.

One other reason that these two films work so well is the distinctively eerie camerawork by Charles Lang whose excellent cinematography graced both of these films. Lang’s long career included such great movies as “The Big Heat, “The Uninvited’, “Ace in the Hole” and “Wait Until Dark” among many others.

After working with Goddard for the first time, Hope got to meet his idol, and Goddard’s husband, Charlie Chaplin. During the filming of “The Cat and the Canary”, Chaplin would watch the rushes every night and said to Hope one day that “you are one of the best timers I’ve ever seen.” Hope was obviously enthralled.

Together these two films make a great double feature. Hope was just entering the best period of film career which by the 1960’s would sadly deteriorate to films that were just plain embarrassing. If you are familiar with Bob Hope only from such late career horrors like “I’ll Take Sweden” or “Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number” give his forties and fifties filmography a try. You will see a comic actor at the top of his game and understand why Woody Allen considers him such an influence. The Woody Allen character is cowardly and a womanizer, at least in his own mind, traits he borrowed straight from Hope. You see this especially in his early films like “Bananas”, “Sleeper” and even in “Annie Hall.”

The Cat and the Canary ***1/2

The Ghost Breakers ****

Jeopardy (1953) John Sturges

“Jeopardy” is a terrific little thriller from MGM, cheaply made, did okay at the box office and disappeared without much fanfare. MGM known for its lavish and expensive musicals also had a small unit that produced low budget films, programmers, product to keep pumping out to theaters. With a small budget and stars who were no longer at the top of their career the studio was able to put out some decent films that turned a profit. “Jeopardy” falls nicely into this category.

A typical American family is driving down to Mexico for a vacation. Let’s remember this is 1953, post-war America, the Eisenhower years, folks were glad the war years were over and enjoying the open roads, the country’s super highways. Barbara Stanwyck’s narration in the film alludes to this as well as to the unknown trouble that lies ahead.  The destination is an isolated beach area her husband, Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) went fishing there years ago with former Army buddies.  The rest of  the family consists of wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker).

The first stop is Tijuana but from there it is a long ride to the isolated beach some 400 miles south on the Baja peninsula. When they first arrive young Bobby goes exploring on a pier that has been condemned (only the condemned sign is in Spanish and we do not find out the meaning of the word until it is too late). Bobby gets his foot stuck in between two boards and Dad has to go out on the pier and pry his son’s foot loose. On the way back one of the weaker boards gives way and Dad falls, a piling pinning his foot underneath. Unable to get him loose and with the tide beginning to come in, Helen, panic stricken, is forced to take the car and go for help hopefully getting back before the tide comes in drowning Doug.

Not knowing any Spanish, unfamiliar with the terrain and half hysterical Helen drives wildly searching for help. She meets some locals walking down the road but the language barrier prohibits any communication and she drives off frantically still in search of help.  She comes upon a roadside gas station but the place seems deserted. She breaks in looking for a heavy rope or some other material that would help free her husband.  Suddenly, a man appears standing by her car, he’s an American and she tells him her tale. He instantly agrees to help her; they jump into her car and take off. As they drive away, the camera,remaining behind at the gas station, slowly moves over revealing a dead body lying on the ground. The supposed good Samaritan is Lawson (Ralph Meeker) a half psychotic escaped prisoner.  He isn’t interested in helping Helen and her husband as much as using the car to get away from the Mexican police. To make Helen’s situation even more desperate he finds a pistol in the glove compartment, one Helen’s husband packed for shooting practice.

The remainder of this short (69 minutes) film becomes a duel between Helen, a woman determined and willing to do anything to save her husband and the crazed Lawson (the film hints that she agrees to a sexual encounter), who mocking her fears that her husband may die at one point tells her to “stop it, you’re making me cry, I’m a very sensitive guy.”

Stanwyck is always at her best when she combines vulnerability and toughness which she does so well here, but the real revelation is Ralph Meeker (who incidentally replaced Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway). Best known as Mike Hammer in the classic Robert Aldrich film “Kiss Me, Deadly,” here he just about steals the entire film in what has to be one of his best and juiciest roles. It was a good year for Meeker, he also had a role in Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur.”

As exciting as Meeker is in his role, Barry Sullivan is just as dull. He has the less fortunate part of the husband who for most of the film is stuck under the pile with the tide coming in, the waves crashing up against him harder and harder. Actually it is not so much Sullivan’s talent that is at fault as it is the role itself.  Lee Aaker who plays the young son Bobby is best remembered by baby boomers as Rusty in the TV series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” that began filming the following year and ran for five years.

Though the film was set in Mexico, the Yucca Valley and an area near Laguna Beach were substituted for the Baja Peninsula. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who wrote such fine thrillers as “The Spiral Staircase,” “Cause for Alarm,” “The Window” and “Beware, My Lovely.” Directed by John Sturges on a very small budget,  He would within two years go on to make his first great classic, “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Notice in both the poster and the insert how in the advertising of this film they allude to Stanwyck’s character having sex with the killer Lawson with phrases like “she did it…because her fear was greater than her shame!”  and “she did it…and no woman in the world would blame her”

“Jeopardy” is a fine thriller without ever reaching the level of greatness, but you will not be bored.

***1/2

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Anatole Litvak

“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”  is an odd little Warner’s film with Edward G. Robinson as a Park Avenue doctor who decides to do some research on criminal behavior by becoming a criminal himself. After stealing some expensive jewelry at a dinner party he seeks out a fence by the name of Joe Keller who turns out to be Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), a woman. Jo’s gang includes “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), a young Ward Bond, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Warner Brothers’ regular Allan Jenkins.

To continue his research the good doctor goes on “vacation” in Europe freeing him up from his practice to secretly join the gang in a series of daring robberies. This is a out of the ordinary film that manages at times to be suspenseful, funny, and sinister with a whiff of mad scientist thrown in for good measure. At times the actors seem to be in different films; Bogart in a straight gangster film with “Rocks” in the ranks of his greatest slime ball characters while Robinson acts as a scientifically aloof madman obsessed with his findings going to any length to save his breakthrough research.

In the final courtroom scene Clitterhouse is on trial for poisoning “Rocks” after he discovered the Doctor’s real identity and blackmails him forcing in to stay in the gang. Clitterhouse objects to testimony in court that he must be insane fearing all his research would be disregarded. Still the jury finds him innocent by reason of insanity leaving Clitterhouse not only confused but innocent of murder charges, an ending that was daring for its time when the production code was strictly enforced and criminals must pay for their sins.

The script was written by John Wexley and John Huston based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and was directed by the reliable Anatole Litvak. It was during the filming of this movie that Bogart and Huston met and became friends, a partnership that would lead to some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston, Robinson, Bogart and Trevor would reunite some ten years later in “Key Largo.”    

 ***

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1946) John Huston

Greed and the pursuit of power are major themes in John Huston’s films. They propel Gutman and Joel Cario to pursue the stuff that dreams are made of in “The Maltese Falcon,” only to find out their targeted prize is worthless. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” two soldiers attempt to become rulers of a country until greed and ego come between them. These themes are also plainly evident in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Kremlin Letter.” Similarly, these themes are at the center of what is considered Huston’s greatest work, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” You hear it in Howard, the old prospector’s voice when he explains the lust and fever that grows in men’s desire for gold and you see it in Fred C. Dobb’s eyes throughout the film as the potential increases for a larger prize with man’s morality all but disappearing.

Huston read the novel in 1936 and was interested in filming it; Warner Brothers owned the film rights, yet, it took ten years to get off the ground. After Huston returned from his World War II duty the green light was finally given. Huston had two major obstacles to overcome in adapting the screenplay. First was B. Traven’s beautifully unique, though unrealistic for the screen, writing style. Second was the book’s strong anti-capitalist sentiment and its blatant attack on materialism both of which had to be toned down. The novel also has a downbeat ending and the film’s star is not portraying a likable person, still the post war cynicism that gave rise to the popularity of film noir, also fit in here with the dark mood of the story.     

Two down on their luck Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) in 1920’s Mexico hook up with an old time prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and go searching for gold. The old-timer is skeptical, forewarning that trouble will lie ahead, still he agrees to go. They head for the Sierra Madre mountains, and soon are attacked by bandito’s during the train ride out there. Once in the dessert, and as they begin to mined the gold, the loyal friendship begins to disintegrate. Dobbs trust no one and is afraid his partners will kill him for his share. Another American, a man named Cody (Brue Bennett) follows Curtin back to the campsite when he went for supplies and tries to deal his way into the group’s fortune. As tensions mount the three begin to question each other and thier morals, as they considered whether let in the newscomer, letting him have a share or to just kill him. Before they decide, they are attacked by a gang of bandito’s and the fourth American is killed. Mexican Federale’s fortunately show up chasing the bandito’s away. For the three prospectors their rush for gold continues to go downhill, disintegrating into a tale of greed, paranoia, and lost dreams.

One of the keys scenes is when the old prospector Howard tells the other two men that the potential of gold to be mined is going to much more than they anticipated. At the beginning of their adventure, no one was looking to be greedy, but as the gold fever began to catch on, especially with Dobbs, not only is there greed in the air, but the distrust factor shows its face again specifically with Fred C. Dobbs who “suggest” they all hide their shares of gold dust from each other. Dobbs mistrust of his two partners will only escalate as the film progresses until it turns into delusional madness. In contrast to Dobb’s, Tim Holt’s character, Bob Curtin is portrayed as honest if a bit too naive and innocent, still Holt, a B-western actor handles the part well never letting it fall flat. Originally John Garfield was set for the role until he backed out. But the acting kudos belongs to Huston, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and to Bogart for one of the finest performances of his career. At the time it was a courageous move by Bogie to portray such a pathetic despicable character as Dobbs. Also worth noting is the performance of Alphonso Bedoya as Gold Hat the leader of the Mexican bandito’s. It is Bedoya who has the famous lines, often misstated, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Huston and Bogart are one of the great actor/director teams. Huston was a well respected screenwriter having written or co-written scripts like “Juarez”, “Jezebel”, “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” and “Sgt. York”, however it was his adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s “High Sierra” that opened the door to his directing career. Together, Huston and Bogie would go on to make six films including two certified masterpieces, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and four other films ranging in quality from decent to very good works. There is not one that I would consider bad. Huston was the Oscar for Best Screenplay adaptation making it the first time a father and son was the awards.

The film is notable for some interesting cameos beginning with John Huston who portrays a well-dressed American at the beginning of the film who Bogart’s Dobb’s keeps attempting to panhandle from. Also look for a very young Robert Blake as the Mexican boy who sells Dobbs a lottery ticket. Jack Holt, Tim’s father has a small role in the flophouse scene early in the film where Dobb’s and Curtin first meet Howard. And then there is Ann Sheridan…maybe. There is a scene where a prostitute walks passed Dobbs and is seen shortly later going up a flight of stairs. According to the extra in the DVD, “The Making of the Sierra Madre” the lady is Ann Sheridan. Some historians claim it is Sheridan while others do not. There seems to be no definitive answer or at least one I could find.   

Whether the woman in that scene is Sheridan or not, one thing for sure, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is one of the great American films, nominated for a best picture Oscar only to lose to Oliver’s “Hamlet.”

*****

Newspaper Movie Ads of Yesteryear # 3 – Revivals and Rereleases

Before Cable TV, before downloading,  before Blu-Ray, DVD’s VHS, Beta and all, there were revival movie houses, and theatrical rereleases.  Those days are mostly gone except for a few major cities where one or two theaters still show older films and a few other cities that have summer film festivals that generally consist of the standard Hollywood classics (Casablanca, Gone WIth the Wind, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and a Grease sing a long). This posting of Newspaper Ads focus’ on ads of not just revival houses but regular theatres that would show rereleases of older films, a more common site than we see today in the age of home video.