Short Takes: Elvis on Tour (1972) & No Name on the Bullet (1959)

Elvis on Tour (Malcolm Leo and Andrew Salt)*** By the time this film came out the fat Elvis was still in its incubation stage, here he is not fat but there is a puffiness in his face and a bit of a double chin that reveals to us a sign of what’s soon to come. In the concert footage what has disappeared is any sign of the youthful rockin’ rebel who changed the music world. By this time his shows were fully staged with the King dressed in his Liberace sequined outfits and on his way to becoming a Las Vegas icon. Any signs of youthful rebellion have been drained from his body as surely as Dracula sucked the blood out of his victims. Yet the fans and audience remain faithful, screaming, fighting for a tossed scarf or the thrill of wiping some sweat from his brow. As for the music he sings most sincere when he does anything but the rock and roll tunes that made him famous. They are rushed through like unimportant throwaways, even his latest single at the time “Burning Love” he has to read the lyrics from a piece of paper.  Yet there are glimpse  of what once was, a montage sequence of old clips from the Ed Sullivan shows among others show the young Elvis and his impact.

It is not a bad film, in fact it won a Golden Globe for Best Documentary (tied with another film). What I found sad is the direction that he took in his career becoming almost a joke of what he once was and what he could have been. FYI – Martin Scorsese  was the montage supervisor on the film.

No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold)***1/2 By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Audie Murphy’s film career mainly consisted of low budget westerns destined to be the bottom half of a double feature. Most of them were ordinary films that served their purpose without standing out from the crowd. “No Name on the Bullet” was made and released in the same pattern as all the others. Reviewers at the time noticed nothing special and the film came and went without a ripple.

Examining this film a little more closely one finds an intelligent story of good and evil. Here we have a town full of “good” folks many who  seem to have something to hide. When John Gant (Murphy) a well known gunfighter comes to town everyone knows someone is going to die. Half the town seems to fear they are his intended victim.

Audie Murphy is the most decorated soldier from World War 2 and yet to look at him you would think that is impossible. Small in stature with delicate features he does not appear to be the gunfighter type. I personally kept seeing Clint Eastwood in this role (shades of High Plains Drifter). That said, Murphy does bring a quiet intensity to the part. Directed by Jack Arnold best known for some of the 1950’s best science fiction films (Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man) Arnold directs the impressive script with an unobtrusive style letting the characters  tell the story. Unlike most of Murphy’s westerns, this film is a psychological study of a outwardly peaceful town  filled with decent people but as the film moves along we discover many have dark secrets that they fear will be revealed. Arguably this is Murphy’s most impressive film.

Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) Robert Aldrich

This review contains spoilers

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is a dark tragedy examining the underbelly of Hollywood in the tradition of films like “Sunset Blvd” or “Day of the Locust” wrapped up in a psychopathic thriller/horror film which it is generally lumped in with so often. Here are the outcasts, the losers, the has-beens and never was still clinging on to the hope that a chance of comeback is in the making. It is also a story of sibling rivalry, jealousy, resentment and love all rolled up into a gothic nightmare that unravels into insanity and death.

The film brings together two icons of the Golden Age of Film, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the queens of MGM and Warner Brothers respectively, in their only big screen appearance together. Like the film itself, how the pairing of these two legends coming together is filled with drama, rivalry and jealousy.

How the two stars and the director came together is a demonstration of egos, vanity and maybe time playing tricks with the truth. Director Robert Aldrich claims he first had the idea of bringing these two stars together after reading the Henry Farrell novel while in Italy filming “Sodom and Gomorrah.”  He soon after acquired the rights to the book. Crawford’s version goes that she told Aldrich she wanted to work with him again (They previously did Autumn Leaves) and also wanted to work with Bette Davis. She went to see Davis, who was appearing on Broadway in Tennessee Williams “The Night of the Iguana,” and after the show went backstage to offer congratulations, also telling Bette about the idea of the two of them working together. Davis, on the other hand, originally stated she read the novel a few years earlier and wanted Hitchcock to direct, but he was already committed to other projects. She later recanted this statement, finally claiming Joan’s version was closer to the truth. Then there is the version told by Bill Frye, producer of the TV show “Thriller” who states he discovered the novel while doing research for the show. Realizing it was too intricate for a half hour show he gave copies to Davis and Olivia DeHavilland with a mention that Ida Lupino would direct. The project was turned down by Universal head Lew Wasserman who did not want to work with Davis. Where and how the actual order of events happened is anyone’s guess, however after looking at multiple biographies of the two actresses and interviews with Aldrich  it seems reasonable that the truth is buried somewhere between the Crawford and Aldrich versions (on the DVD it is said Aldrich initiated the project). The end result was these two volatile stars whose professional and personal lives clashed agreed to make this film.

The story begins in 1917 and Baby Jane Hudson is a big vaudeville stage star, singing her crowd pleasing song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy Whose Address is Heaven Above.” Offstage sweet Jane is an obnoxious spoiled brat who wants things her way because she is the one bringing in the money! When shortly after, Sister Blanche gets yelled at by their father, though she did nothing wrong, mother tells Blanche that someday she will be a big star and she wants her to be kinder to Baby Jane and father than they have been to her. Grimacing, Blanche swears she won’t forget!

As the years go by Blanche becomes a major 1930’s film star supporting Jane’s fading career by having a stipulation in her studio contract that for every film she makes Jane gets to make a film too. A mysterious car accident involving the two sisters leaves Blanche wheelchair bound.

It is now the present time (1962) and the two sisters live together in a gothic mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood with crazy Janie taking care of her invalid sister. When Blanche decides she wants a fuller life she elects to sell the house and plans to commit Jane to a home. Learning of her plans Jane seeks revenge by terrorizing Blanche; cutting her off from the outside world. Jane also makes a feeble attempt to revive her own career by hiring obese out of work mama’s boy  Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a composer, to help her musically with her comeback.

Bette Davis gives an appropriately over the top vicious performance as the mentality deteriorating Jane. Alcoholic, prone to fits of raging jealousy,  dressing  as if she were still ten years old, applying too much makeup, a deliriously hideous caricature of her former child star self. Davis would continue to apply more and more makeup to her face making herself more repulsive as the film progressed.

Davis who loved to give high energy performances takes full advantage of her role here. Crawford, on the other hand, gives a subtle low key controlled performance of a self sacrificing woman, a role type she knew so well (Mildred Pierce), held helplessly hostage, in dire need of rescue from her out of control sister.

The casting of Davis and Crawford brought real life conflict on to the screen. Sure other older actresses could have played the two roles, but none would have supplied the natural tension that existed between these two women; Davis the high wired actress and Crawford the ultimate movie star. Nor would they deliver the personas that these two legends cultivated over the years. On the set, each in their own way, Davis and Crawford antagonized, criticized, were cattie and snide toward each other. They both looked to collect allies and find devious ways to antagonize the other.

On the set, Aldrich had to contend with Crawford the MOVIE STAR and Davis the ACTRESS. Davis would get into her part of a raging maniacal out of control bitch, while Crawford ever thinking of her image would attempt to slow the pace down. In 1988, author Shaun Considine interviewed “Baby Jane” screenwriter Lukas Heller who said, “Crawford never reacted to anything, she sat in her wheelchair or bed waiting for her close ups. As the camera got closer, she would widen those enormous eyes of hers. She considered that acting.”  It was not all vanity for Crawford, she actually lost weight during the production to give herself a more gaunt look, though various sources have recorded how her breasts size actually changed all the time including the beach scene where she dies at the end.

Still, Aldrich states in an interview with Charles Higham in “The Celluloid Muse” that both ladies were profession during the shoot. He says, “The two stars didn’t fight at all on Baby Jane. I think it is proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.”    They may have, but according to various biographies there were many snide remarks and some questionable actions by both.  When Crawford wasn’t feeling well one day she asked if they could take a break and Davis replied “after all these years I thought we’d all be troupers.” Davis also accused Joan to others of spiking her Pepsi. As for Crawford, one story has it that in one of the final scenes Davis had to lift Crawford out of bed and carry her across the room. Davis had back problems and asked Joan not to make herself dead weight. After the one long scene, Davis screamed out in pain while Joan looking a bit heavier nonchalantly walked off the set to her dressing room.  It is said Crawford added weights under her costume. Crawford refutes this story. Both actresses knew that the publicity of a feud between them was, if nothing else, good for the film.  Prior to working together the two were probably professional rivals and not really personally feuding. By the end of the film the two really hated each other.

Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the obvious showy role of Jane while Crawford did not get a nod for her more restrained but equally effective role as Blanche. Far be it from me to make excuses for the Academy, but the Best Actress category for 1962 was a jammed pack group filled with superb performances. Along with Davis there were Lee Remick for “The Day of Wine and Roses”, Katherine Hepburn for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, Geraldine Page for “Sweet Bird of Youth” and Anne Bancroft for “The Miracle Worker.” Still, Crawford’s performance was extremely effective and deserved some recognition and she was not about to let her lack of a nomination stop her from outshining Davis on the night of the ceremony.

Bette Davis was positive she was going to win, adding a third statue to the two she already had. Crawford meanwhile had called all the other nominees mentioning to them that she would be available, on the chance they could not attend the gala, to accept the Oscar on their behalf. As it turned out, Anne Bancroft was unable to attend. When it was time to announce the Best Actress award, Davis was about to receive not one but two shocks. Anne Bancroft was announced the winner and accepting the award for her would be Joan Crawford! Crawford slid by Davis mumbling excuse me and walked up to receive the award basking in the limelight and attention. In Witney Stine’s book “I’d Love to Kiss You…Conversations with Bette Davis,” Davis says, “She pushed me aside backstage, and the triumphant look she gave me as she pranced around out on the stage, I’ll never forget…” She then adds, “She carted that Oscar around for a long time on her Pepsi tour, before she finally gave it to Bancroft.” Charlotte Chandler in her Joan Crawford biography, “Not The Girl Next Door” plays down the Oscar event calling Joan’s arranging to receive Bancroft’s Oscar, “a constructive approach.”

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is a surprisingly violent and gruesome film for two Golden Age stars to have appeared in back in those days. Many people were upset watching Davis as Jane serve Crawford a rat on a plate (from what I have read Crawford was not aware the rodent would be on the plate), and seeing her kick Crawford in the stomach while she lies helplessly on the floor. In another scene she drags poor Joan across the floor, and then just before Bette plunges a hammer into Elvira (Maidie Norman) the maid’s head, we find Joan gagged and her hands bound hanging in bed. This wasn’t some teenage slasher flick starring unknown kids; this was Davis and Crawford, Hollywood royalty.

There are two notable supporting characters in the film, Edwin Flagg, played wonderfully by Victor Buono, in his film debut. Aldrich saw Buono in an episode of the TV series “The Untouchables” which impressed him greatly and signed him on.  Buono received an Oscar nomination for his role. As Elvira the maid, Maidie Norman is a sympathetic soul who would not put up with Jane’s crap and became a victim of a violent death for her concern.

The film was the biggest financial shocker to come out since “Psycho”, just two years earlier, easily earning back it approximate $1M budget. Speaking of the Hitchcock masterpiece, coincidently enough, the Hudson sisters’ next door neighbor is named Mrs. Bates. This Mrs. Bates though did not have a son named Norman, she had a daughter who was played by B.D. Merrill, Bette Davis’ real life daughter who would years later write her own tell all book about mom. While the film is a classy thriller Aldrich missed some opportunities to make this film more intense than it already is. For example, when Jane leaves the house and Blanche makes her way down stairs to reach a working telephone, the cross editing lacks any build up failing to register as much tension as a more effective editing style would have accomplished. On the other hand there is some nice editing work in the sequence where Jane is kicking and stomping on poor Blanche. You really feel the pain of the swift kicks though you never really see on screen any of the kicks make contact. Like the shower sequence in “Psycho” where you never see the knife enter the body but swear you do.

Davis went on a personal appearance tour when the film opened nationally in November. Apparently Crawford was supposed to have joined in but backed out just before the tour was scheduled to begin. At one theater a fan yelled out, “where’s your sister?” Davis responded, ‘She’s dead on the beach” getting a big laugh.

Davis, Crawford and Aldrich reteamed again for “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” however, deep filtered conflict, hatred, jealousy and illness pushed the production into turmoil. After weeks of production, Crawford was out and replaced by Olivia De Havilland. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” was the beginning of a subgenre in horror films starring older actresses of the Golden Age, reviving their  careers, at least temporarily, by appearing in these thrillers. In addition to Bette Davis (“The Nanny”, “The Anniversary”, “Dead Ringer”, Burnt Offerings) and Joan Crawford (“Strait-Jacket”, “I Saw What You Did”, “Berserk”, “Trog”) there was Olivia DeHavilland again in “Lady in a Cage,” Barbara Stanwyck in “The Night Walker” and a late entry, “What’s The Matter With Helen?” starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.

****1/2

Sources:

Bette and Joan – Shaun Considine

The Celluloid Muse – Charles Higham

Joan Crawford:  Hollywood Martyr – David Brett

This ‘n’ That – Bette Davis

More Than A Woman – James Spada

Dark Victory – Ed Sikov

Conversations With Bette Davis – Witney Stine

Not The Girl Next Door – Charlotte Chandler

Short Takes: The Hard Way (1943) and The Westerner (1940)

 

The Hard Way – Vincent Sherman (***1/2) – The Hard Way is centered by a strong iron clad performance by Ida Lupino who won the New York Film Critics Award for her role as the determined, tough, hard driven older sister willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to ensure her sister’s rise to the top of Broadway’s bright lights.  Lupino’s character is tagged as evil but is she really? The sisters were raised in a small polluted industrial town, both women looking to get out using any means necessary to accomplish their goal. The kid sister, played by Joan Leslie has talent and gets a few “breaks”, mostly amoral breaks promoted by big sister Lupino. When little sister is part of the chorus of a Broadway show Lupino gets the bitter star, played by Gladys George, drunk enough that she storms out of the rehearsal, Lupino then pushes her sister on the producers giving her the opportunity of a life time. It works and she becomes a star! Directed by Vincent Sherman with male supporting roles provided by Dennis Morgan and an excellent Jack Carson. Behind the scene credits also include cinematography by James Wong Howe and montage by future director Don Siegel. Leslie’s performance is debatably the weak link here. Her song and dance number that represents her big break is actually pretty bad making it hard to swallow that it was this routine that impressed the director and producers of the play to give her the lead.

The Westerner (William Wyler) ***1/2 Except for an overly sentimental ending this western duel between Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan holds up very well. Brennan gives one of his best performances as Judge Roy Bean, a law unto himself with a big weakness for the beautiful actress Lily Langtry whom he would never meet. Brennan deservedly won one of his three Best Supporting Actor awards for his role. While on the surface it seems that Brennan steals the movie, Cooper’s subtle performance adds much to the proceedings though it is a secondary part. Cooper is a wandering cowboy who stops in the town of Vinegroon where the only law west of the Pecos is the hanging Judge Roy Bean. Cooper as Cole Hardin, is quickly put on trial for horse thief but manages to save himself through a series of long comical tales about knowing Lily Langtry the actress with whom the Judge is in love from afar. The meat of the film is the relationship between the Judge and Hardin. Whenever the film moves on to other storylines such as the growing war between the homesteaders and cattlemen and a bland love story between Hardin and homesteader Jane Mathews (Doris Davenport) the film slides in clichés ridden tedium.

According to author Jeff Myers (Gray Cooper: American Hero) at the Dallas premiere Coop rode down Main Street during a parade fully dressed in a cowboy outfit on  horseback.  This film also marked the film debuts of Dana Andrews and Forest Tucker.

The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

May Contain Spoilers!

What I have always liked about this film is its sense of unrelenting fear and randomness that it could happen to anyone. That is what still makes this film work well. Wyler is an archetypal style Hollywood filmmaker in the best sense of the word. He never lets the camera intrude on the story.
Three convicts escape from prison and take cover in the home of the Hilliard’s, a “typical” American family of four living in a middle class neighborhood. Holding the family hostage the escaped cons are waiting for the girlfriend of Glenn Griffin (Bogart) to deliver a money package to help with their escape.


This was Bogart’s final role as a gangster and his next to last film before succumbing to cancer two years after the film was made. Bogart once said, his role here was Duke Mantee, referring to his star making part in “The Petrified Forest”, all grown up. It is a good point, in both films the Bogart character and his cronies are holding a group of innocent hostages. Griffin is a sneering, arrogant menace easily willing to lie, cheat and kill to get what he wants just like Mantee. Bogart growls with a viciousness in a perfect career ending role for the man who created some of the most memorable sleaze ball gangsters in cinema history.


As Dan Hilliard the head of the invaded household Fredric March is steadfast, determined to protect his family, capable of battling Griffin in a psychological battle to save his home. He not only has to stand up to the three convicts on the run but later toward the climatic end has to fend off the various law enforcement agencies including a local sheriff who wants to rush in with guns blazing taking down anyone in their path mostly because it would not be good for his career if these criminals got away.
The remainder of the cast does a capable job with Arthur Kennedy as Deputy Sheriff, Martha Scott as Ellie Hilliard, the wife, Dewey Martin as Hal, the younger of the Griffin brothers and Robert Middleton as Kobish the bear like uncontrollable third convict. Mary Murphy as the older of the two Griffin kids is somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the cast. You may remember her as the nice local town girl in “The Wild One.” The one cast member I found wanting was Gig Young who plays Murphy’s much older lawyer boyfriend, older by about twenty years. Except for his performance in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I have always found Young a rather bland actor. He does nothing to alter those feelings here.


The source story began as a bestselling novel in 1954 written by Joseph Hayes. The following year Hayes adapted the novel into a play that made its way to Broadway in 1955 (winning a Tony Award) with Paul Newman as Glenn Griffin and Karl Malden as the head of the Hilliard family. The story was inspired by several real life incidents. The film was actually completed before the play even opened on Broadway, subsequently it was held back from release until the play unexpectedly closed after Karl Malden left the production after 212 performances.
The change in casting from a young and still relative newcomer like Paul Newman to the iconic Bogart caused an obvious age difference between the convict Glen Griffin and his young brother Hal portrayed by Dewey Martin. Hayes willingly changed the script to accommodate the age difference in the actors. That said it does in no way distract from the story.
Wyler originally wanted Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda for the role of the father with Marlon Brando or James Dean in the role of Glenn Griffin. Later he sought Spencer Tracy as the family head but no agreement could be reached between Bogart and Tracy on who would receive top billing, subsequently Tracy bowed out. Also look for two well known “B” actors in small roles, science fiction favorite Beverly Garland and Joe Flynn of “McHale’s Navy” fame, who plays a motorist whose car is hijacked by Kobish.
As previously mentioned the novel is based on an actual incident which took place in Pennsylvania in 1952 when James and Elizabeth Hill were held hostage in their home by escaped federal convicts. In 1955 to coincide with the opening of the play, Life Magazine ran an article and photographs with the original stage stars (Newman and Malden) recreating some scenes in the actual home where the Hill’s lived (they had since moved away). The Hill’s sued the author, Paramount Pictures and Random House the publisher for $300,000 claiming invasion of privacy. The case was eventually dismissed.


As a director Wyler was well known for being relentless in pursuing the performances he wanted from his actors, many times by intimidation. There was one time he made Bogart work overtime (he and Bogart had an agreement that the actor would quit every day at five). By the time it got to six o’clock Bogart was pissed and put all his frustration and anger into the scene which was just what Wyler wanted. Another time, there was a simple scene where March was to kiss Martha Scott and leave for work. After more than thirty takes Scott asked Wyler what it was she was doing wrong. Wyler said, “It’s not you, I want March to look tired.” He was “acting” too much, his character was supposed to be worn out and upset. The scene took over a day to shoot but Wyler got his shot.


The film received mostly good reviews, one exception was from the ever odd Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who called it “a mere exercise in melodramatic hocus pocus.” Surprisingly the film did not do well at the box office. Part of the reason may have to do with the hold up in releasing the film until after the play closed. “The Desperate Hours” opened in October however, in July a film with a similar theme called “The Night Holds Terror” opened. It is possible the public did not want to see another family held hostage drama and opted out .
A 1990 remake by Michael Cimino with Mickey Roarke is best just left on the video shelf.

The Movie Projector presents the William Wyler blogathon running through June 29th. Click here for more great reviews.

Devil’s Doorway (1950) Anthony Mann

 

This article may contain Spoilers

From his very first western Anthony Mann gave us complex adult narratives. Mann’s characters are too complicated to be just good or bad, like real people there are all shades of gray in between.  Released the same year as Delmar Daves “Broken Arrow”, “Devil’s Doorway” tells us a story or proud people who through laws, white man’s laws lose their land, their dignity and ultimately their lives.    

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a Shoshone Indian returns home from serving in the Union Army during the Civil War where he rose to the rank of  a Sergeant Major and more importantly, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. He comes home believing the world has changed and that and he and his fellow Indians will be treated fairly no longer subject to prejudice. Five years later Lance has built a big cattle ranch in a water abundant area and has become a rich man which we soon find out some local white folks resent.  With the new Homestead Act coming into force, under the law an Indian is not considered an American citizen but rather a ward of the federal government, subsequently as a non-citizen Lance is not entitled to file a claim on the land that is his own. He will lose everything. Lance seeks the help of a female lawyer (Paula Raymond) but each of their attempts to secure his land or keep the peace between incoming sheepherders and the Indians is instigated by Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), a shyster lawyer with big aspirations in his head and racism in his heart. It all leads to a climactic battle where there are no winners.

Along with “Broken Arrow”, “Devil’s Doorway” was a major change in how Native-Americans were portrayed on the screen. Instead of the stereotypical savage whooping it up, Mann and his screenwriters, portray  Lance Poole as a three dimensional character with dignity and pride. As with most of Mann’s characters Lance is a complicated individual, a good man who wants justice but can be unjust at the same time, for example when he is not willing to share the land with the sheepherders becoming almost as responsible as the others for the forthcoming  violence.

Like most of Mann’s westerns this is a dark film, one in particular that retains the  film noir characteristics of his earlier works. The DP was John Alton who worked with Mann on many of his earlier atmospheric film noirs in the 1940’s (Border Incident, Raw Deal, T-Men). Alton’s camera and lighting are evident in many scenes including a harshly lit barroom brawl between Lance and one of lawyer Verne Coolan’s thugs.  This scene is filled with tight close-ups, dramatically effective lighting, including lightning and thunder, all contributing to the noirish quality. Also note the exquisite black and white landscape photography shot on location in Colorado. This is one of the most beautifully photographed westerns made, visually stunning reminding me of Ansel Adams photographs. Sadly, this would be the last collaboration between these two men.

One of the stumbling blocks in the film is the need to get over Robert Taylor portraying an Indian. His facial structure just looks different from the other Indian characters in the film (some actors were actually Native-Americans) whereas Taylor just seems to have an overly sunburned face. That said, he handles the role admirably for an actor I have always considered limited in his abilities.

Like the female lawyer who attempts to help Lance keep his land, both are outsiders, he an Indian and she a female in a man’s profession out west trying to hide her identity by hanging a sign that reads A. Masters. Lance exposes his own prejudice when he first enters her office and realizes she is a woman. He practically runs out, then suddenly stops and returns, a telling moment. Masters on the other hand is concerned on how handling an Indian’s case will affect her already shaky standing in the community. They slowly come to “trust” each other. When she helps fill out the form so Lance can file a claim she discovers he fought in three major battles during the war and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Little do both realize at the time his biggest battle was still to come.

Mann is also more daring in attempting to reflect a sexual attraction between the two outsiders. When Lance wants to know how much she really trusts and likes him, he puts his arms around her and pulls her close daring her to kiss him. The desire is there but she holds back from going “all the way.” The sexual frustration is evident on her face.  After the final battle is lost, a badly wounded Lance surrenders to the soldiers, he gives up wearing his Army uniform with the Medal of Honor on his chest. He receives a salute from the Captain. He salutes back and falls forward dead.  

Though the treatment of Native-American’s was dealt with more respect in “Broken Arrow” than earlier films it remained a traditional western and became a major hit. The James Stewart character is himself attracted to the Indian Squaw (played by Debra Paget) this certainly would reflect a more acceptable romance for the masses than a white woman’s attraction to a male Indian as portrayed in Mann’s more risky film. “Devil’s Doorway” was released later in the year, a less traditional film it died a quick box office death.

****1/2

Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

This review contains Spoilers!

Was it his personal war experiences that changed James Stewart? Did he come back a changed manl; most men do.  Many of Stewart’s post World War II roles began to take on a darker side with haunted ambiguous characters motivated by revenge or other desires. Maybe a steady diet of Frank Capra’s Capra-corn did not have enough substance anymore, after all life was not that simple (Stewart’s darker side was touched upon slightly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but he was soon back to his sweet genteel self).  “Winchester ’73” was the first Mann/Stewart collaboration, a joint effort that would produce some of the most mature westerns ever made.

Fritz Lang was originally on board to make this film, however soon bowed out. After a screening of Devil’s Doorway Mann’s first western starring Robert Taylor, Stewart agreed to work with Mann.   The Winchester of the title was a special, “one of a thousand” type made in 1873. President Grant owned one, so did Buffalo Bill, and now Lin McAdams (Stewart), He wins one in a 4th of July celebration shoot out exhibition in Dodge City. His closest competitor is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), his brother who shot their father in the back, though we do not find this out until toward the end of the film. For most of the story we never understand why Lin is so determined in going after Dutch.

The rifle itself gets passed around throughout the film becoming almost a character, or a link, in the film as it moves on from Lin, who won it in the shooting contest, to Dutch who steals it in a fight with Lin, to  an Indian gun runner, to an Indian Chief (Rock Hudson) to the cowardly fiancé (Charles Drake) of Lola (Shelley Winters) the only female in the cast, to gunfighter Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) then back to Dutch and finally back to Lin.

Just about every male character in the film drools over the perfect piece of equipment, an obvious symbol of virile masculinity. The men who possess it show it off, and the men who want it are envious. Guns in general are seen as phallic symbols. Later after successfully fending an attack by Indians, Lola returns to Lin a pistol he gave her to defend herself during the attack  with the understanding that the last bullet she should use on herself rather than fall into the hands of the Indians. Returning the gun and the bullet Lin suggest she may want to  keep the bullet. Without hesitation she says “I want it!” leaving no  uncertainty in her tone and look that she is talking more about sex and a life with Lin than just an old bullet.

Though the story is fiction, original screenwriter Robert L. Richards, later Mann brought in Borden Chase to do a rewrite in the first of their collaborative efforts, surrounds the story in real western mythology; Dodge City where an elderly though respected Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Doc Holiday and company run a tight ship allowing no one to carry guns while in town. The Civil War has recently ended and General George Armstrong Custer was most recently overrun at Little Big Horn all of this invoking a strong sense of time and place in history.

This was the only western collaboration of Mann and Stewart filmed in black and white which may account for some of the noirish lighting in a few scenes, particularly in the fight between the two brothers in the hotel room where Dutch and his boys take the Winchester from Lin and beat it out of town.

As with “The Naked Spur” the theme of revenge is significant in this film as it motivates Lin in going after his brother. Family or the sense of family is also important here, the two brothers whose family was destroyed by the actions of one. Also between the prostitute Lola who is thrown out of town by Wyatt Earp, and the cowardly Steve. Both are outcasts who attempt to have a life together. Finally, and most prominently in Dodge City where an older Wyatt Earp is the friendly but strong willed patriarch (no guns allowed in town) who oversees the family friendly 4th of July celebration where the shooting contest is held with the winner getting the Winchester ’73.

This western is far from the type generally made at the time, more psychological, character driven with a conflicted dark hero. An excellent example occurs early in the film in Dodge City, after Lin surrenders his gun to Wyatt Earp, he enters a bar and finds his nemeses and brother at a card table. The reaction of both brothers to seeing each other is to crouch down and draw their guns. Thanks to Earp neither man has a weapon and a shooting is adverted but it is a disturbing scene as we watch the “hero” react in a way no better than the villain. Still, there is plenty of the standard action audiences would expect, Indian attack on the Calvary, cheating at cards, gunfights, Indian gun trader, a planned bank robbery and a woman in distress.

With this film Anthony Mann found his own John Wayne in James Stewart. Stewart collaborated with other directors (Hitchcock and Capra notably) but in Mann he found his alternate mantra that of an ambiguous hero verging on obsessed, unhinged, psychologically driven behavior.  Ford’s heroes were generally more straight forward white hat types though late in his career Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and to a lesser extent Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are certainly characters who struggle with life’s complexities and Edwards specifically is a man driven by traits that are both good and bad.

Stephen McNally as Lin’s evil brother is convincingly evil and just about as driven as his sibling. Noir favorite Dan Duryea also is adept at playing a malicious outlaw who hooks up with McNally for a bank robbery.   Look for newcomers Rock Hudson as the Indian chief who for a while is in possession of the Winchester and another unknown actor at the time , one Anthony “Tony” Curtis who has a small role as a Calvary solider prominently seen during the Indian raid scenes. James Best also has a small role.

*****

You’re A Big Boy Now (1967) Francis Ford Coppola

“You’re a Big Boy Now” was Francis Ford Coppola’s first film for a major studio. He had previously made “Dementia 13” for Roger Corman and a couple of nudies (Tonight for Sure).  Coppola wrote the screenplay which was based on a novel by David Beneditus. Having had his first big success as a screenwriter (Is Paris Burning, This Property is Condemned, Reflection in a Golden Eye) he was able to make a deal with Warner/Seven Arts to direct as long as the cost remained low.

The film is a coming of age story of a klutzy sexually inexperienced nineteen year old boy named Bernard (Peter Kastner) who works as a book retriever (for lack of a better term) at the massive 42nd Street/Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library where he and co-workers, like Raef (Tony Bill) retrieve books for patrons traveling the long rows of books on roller skates. Coppola was so fascinated by this real life  job function that he changed Bernard’s job from shoe clerk in the book. Bernard’s father works in the same library, in charge of rare books, his prize possession a Guttenberg Bible.

Bernard whose entire life has been controlled by his parents experiences his first taste of freedom, though his parents still attempt to control his life by having Miss Thing, his landlady, spy for them. On one hand Bernard is lured toward the freedom of the porn shops along 42nd street and the freaky and sexually free Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman), a go-go dancer and Off Broadway actress. On the other hand, we get the notion Bernard is uncomfortable with the “wild” life and prefers a real relationship and honest love with the fresh-faced Amy rather than a walk on the wild side. What Bernard cherishes the most is his freedom from his parents, the ability to be in control of his own life.

Barbara Darling who the innocent Bernard falls for responds to a fan letter he wrote while dictating her memoirs to her close friend and dwarf, Richard (Michael Dunn). It turns out Barbara has a hatred of men that stems back to a time she was once attacked by a one legged albino hypnotherapist whose wooden leg she steals and kept as a souvenir. Barbara views the virginal and innocent Bernard as a potential victim enticing him into moving in with her, then quickly tossing him out only to entice him to come back, eventually dumping him again for the more attractive Raef (Tony Bill), Bernard’s co-worker.

Coppola could not afford any big names so he managed to fill the cast with quality known names. For the role of Bernard, Coppola hired Peter Kastner who had one film to his credit, a small well received Canadian movie called “Nobody Waved Goodbye.” The role of Amy went to then newcomer Karen Black in her first film. He then the hired the great Julie Harris to play the spinterish Miss Thing, Rip Torn and Geraldine Page as Bernard’s parents, Tony Bill as Bernard’s antagonistic co-worker at the library. For the role of the cruel but sexy Barbara Darling he got Elizabeth Hartman whose parts up to that point consisted of reserved or timid roles like the blind girl in “A Patch of Blue.” All of this casting was pretty much going against type. Hartman, a thin waif like woman is not your typical looking sexy wild child. Filling out the cast was Dolph Sweet as Francis, a cop and another tenant at Miss Thing’s apartment house, who views Bernard as an agitator and has the hots for the sexually repressed landlady.  The fragile life of Elizabeth Hartman would be a short one, in 1987 despondent over her career and a failed marriage she committed suicide by jumping out of a window.

The film was shot all over New York, in Central Park, the Village, 42nd Street, Times Square and May’s department store. Much of the exterior filmmaking was shot in cinema verite style. One of the film’s highlights takes place in May’s department store. It was a weekday morning and suddenly these actors started chasing each other through the store amongst the bewildered everyday shoppers. The cameras hidden from view. Most prominent though is the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th Avenue. Coppola received permission to film inside the library, a feat that had rarely happened especially since the library did not like the idea in the script that they had a secret pornography collection within its doors. Permission was eventually granted with the assistance of then Mayor John Lindsay who was attempting to lure Hollywood filmmakers to come to the Big Apple, that and the fact that scenes with the secret “porn” vault were filmed somewhere else. 

The film was released in March 1967 (in New York at the Baronet Theater where I first saw it) nine months prior to “The Graduate.” I mention this only to note that Coppola’s film is the first in its use of a rock music soundtrack. Before “The Graduate” and way before ‘Easy Rider”, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote the songs which included the title tune, “Amy’s Theme” and the hit song “Darling’ Be Home Soon” all integrated into the film fitting Coppola’s frantic camera and editing which is especially nicely done during the discotheque scene where among other objects and blinking lights we see quick visuals of Coppola’s “Dementia 13” flashing on the wall.

“You’re a Big Boy Now” is a frenetic absurdist sometimes surrealistic romp that encompasses the craziness of the 60’s. Coppola admits that his style here was influenced by Richard Lester’s work in “A Hard Day’s Night.”  As a result the film is somewhat stuck in a time capsule, still the film is nothing more than a coming of age story, a tale of a young boy obsessed with sex and getting laid. The film contains elements that we will see in greater detail in later Coppola films like the conflicts that occur with family, a theme more fully explored in The Godfather films.

“You’re A Big Boy Now” was selected to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year eventually opening up to the public in March 1967. The film was only given a limited distribution and was not a financial success but it did give Coppola another notch on his belt with the film studios.

***1/2