The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) William Wyler

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This essay is Twenty Four Frames contribution to the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch’s The Movie Projector. Click here to visit other great contributors to this event.

One of the most moving scenes in William Wyler’s epic film about returning war veterans appears only minutes into the start of the film when Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a disabled Navy veteran who lost both hands in the war, is dropped off at his parents’ home by the two other vets from his hometown he just met at the airport.  The two others, Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) remain in their taxi watching Homer as he approaches the house. He halts on the front lawn, feeling a sense of unease about what waits inside. It’s quiet, nothing happens for a moment, suddenly his kid sister Louella appears at the door, sees him, and excitedly runs out to greet her big brother. Homer’s parents are not far behind. They greet him, hesitant at first, his father then hugs him, his mother sobs, both tears of joy and sadness. They are soon joined by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), Homer’s girl who lives next door. Their eyes meet, they stand still for a second and then she hugs him. Significantly, Homer does not hug her back. Continue reading

The Man From Laramie (1955) Anthony Mann

This review contains spoilers

The 1950’s is arguably the finest decade for western films with not only the work of Anthony Mann, but fine work from John Ford (The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande) , Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) , Fred  Zinnemann (High Noon)  and Delmar Daves  (3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Cowboy) among some lesser known works. “The Man from Laramie” was the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart and the first in Cinemascope culminating a brilliant artistic partnership with one the finest westerns of all time.

James Stewart gives another mesmeric performance as Will Lockhart, one more in the line of Mann obsessed cowboys on a revenge seeking mission. Here Stewart’s character is looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death, a soldier in the Calvary whose unit was wiped out by repeating rifle toting Apaches purchased from white men. Three men become Lockhart’s prime suspects, land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), his hot headed insecure son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the head ranch foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy).

Like past Mann/Stewart characters Will Lockhart is not your typical machismo cowboy, he’s unsure and remains vulnerable at times, similar to lead characters in “Winchester ’73” and “The Naked Spur.” Mann’s other male characters in this film display signs of stunted masculinity. Papa Alec overly protective of his uncontrollable son Dave (who reminds me of the John Cassavetes role in the 1958 film “Saddle the Wind”) struggling to meet the stature of his father, acting more like a spoiled child who cannot get his way than an adult, and then there is Vic the foreman who has been like the son Alec never had. Vic will come to realize that no matter what Alec has promised him he will get when he dies; Dave is his blood and will get everything. A sense of tragedy hangs over Alec who was once the most ruthless and powerful man is now forced to face his own vulnerability, he is going blind and with it goes his strength.

Unlike other Mann westerns I have written about so far this film has two female characters instead of one. First there is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece who runs the General Store. Barbara has no love for her callous Uncle Alec as she watched him cheat his brother, and her now dead father, out of his share of land. Like other Mann heroines she is in love, at least in the beginning, with the “bad” guy in the story, in this case Vic. The other main female, and the more important role, is Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), the only rancher not afraid to stand up to the Waggoman’s greed, though she does shares a secret with Lockhart, that she has been in love with old Alec for years. With his oncoming blindness and sense of helplessness she will finally get her man.

“The Man from Laramie” struck me as one of the more sadistic westerns I have come across, two scenes in particular stand out, first during Lockhart’s first altercation with the Waggoman empire when he and his men are surrounded by Dave and some ranch hands for “stealing” salt from the Waggonman’s flats. Lockhart was told by Barbara Waggoman he could take the salt claiming nobody cared. Lockhart discovers otherwise when he quickly finds a rope around his waist and is dragged across the flats. Dave then orders Lockhart’s wagons burned and his mules shot. The second scene is even more unsettling. After being wounded with a gunshot in his hand in an earlier shootout with Lockhart, Dave gets his revenge when his boys capture Will. They hold Lockhart down and with Mann’s camera up close in Lockhart’s face Dave puts a bullet in Lockhart’s shooting hand. While you do not see the gun shot on screen, the scene is so powerful you wince more than once feeling the pain.

Another interesting aspect of this film are the dreams land Baron Alec Waggoman suffers. He wants Lockhart out of town and is even willing to pay to get him out. We find out the this is due to a fear from  a continuous dream Alec has experienced two or three times a week for a long time where a tall, lean stranger is going to come to town and kill his boy. The old man wants Lockhart out. In the end the old man’s dream is deadly to his son as anticipated but only partially correct.

The film is based on a short story by Thomas T. Flynn that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. One problem I had with the film is the lack of motive given to the son Dave for selling rifles to the Indians. It does not do him or his family any good, in fact it is probably was a dangerous move since the Apaches it is assumed would use the weapons against them. One other minor thing is that the film’s title is a misnomer. While he came from Laramie with goods that he initially was delivering in the wagons, Lockhart states later in a conversation with Barbara Waggoman that he has no home and is basically a drifter.  

*****

They Live By Night (1948) Nicholas Ray

They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people. That was the tag line for Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde” and it could have been equally appropriate some eighteen years earlier in Nick Ray’s first film “They Live By Night.” Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel “Thieves Like Us” (Anderson only wrote two novels of which this was his second ), and one of the earliest of a loosely banded group of films about young fugitive lovers on the run from the law (You Only Live Once, Gun Crazy, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde ).

Made in 1948, the film remained on RKO’s shelf for almost two years before new owner Howard Hughes decided to release it (It’s U.S. release was in November 1949). Various producers attempted to get a good screenplay written, however it was not until John Houseman came on board as producer and showed the depression era novel to Nick Ray, who loved the book, wanted to make the film and wrote an adaptation. Houseman had considerable clout as a producer at the time and was able to get first time director Ray an okay to direct the film.

Three men escape from prison, two seasoned bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) along with young Bowie (Farley Granger) who was innocently convicted of murder.  The three men rob a bank. When Bowie is injured he is brought to Chickamaw’s brother’s place where he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s tomboyish niece. After another bank job, the young lovers take off to get away from Bowie’s two thug partners and a life of crime. Unlike Bowie, his two cohorts quickly blow their share of the money and want Bowie for another bank job which goes bad resulting in T-Dub’s death. Bowie and Keechie are again running only this time instead of running to a new life they are running from the law and straight toward a tragic end.

Like many of Ray’s films, the sympathy lies with those living outside of society, outlaws doomed to a tragic end; in this case an ambush  that foresees Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Like “Bonnie and Clyde”, the young couple are also betrayed to the police by someone they thought they could trust, in this case, Chickamaw’s sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) who Bowie pleads to for help late in the film. During the filming Ray continually worked on the screenplay, written by Charles Schnee, making sure his vision would remain intact. Ray reflects a world with few honest people, even the justice of the peace is corrupt, everyone “are thieves like us”, as Bowie tells Mattie toward the end of the film.

The critics at the time were generally dismissive, Bosley Crowther called it, “a common little story about a young escaped convict” and later on states the film “is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook.” He lthen addsh”They Live By Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime.” To be honest, the ever straight laced Crowthers does give the film credit for “good production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray.”

The film’s beginning is unique in two aspects; first we see Bowie and Keechie in close up kissing as the opening credits come on. When the film proper begins we are in an open field, the three prison escapees are in a car on the run. This is all viewed from a helicopter shot high above. I believe this to be the first, or at least one of the first times this technique was used in an action scene giving  the film a fresh documentary touch. We also see the owner of the car taken prisoner by the three fugitives and severely beaten by Chickamaw.

“They Live By Night” (released in England as The Twisted Road) is an astonishing directorial debut, a dark lyrical poetic love story, it has been called a weepy noir, and like their counterparts in “Gun Crazy”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and even “Romeo and Juliet” the lovers are doomed to a poignant fate.  Ray’s background prepared him for the details of this depression era drama. He was a devotee of Southern folk music and worked with Alan Lomax and knew many folks singer of the era like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, he even had a weekly radio show. He met John Houseman during this period who was influential enough to get Ray his first gig as a director. Ray was also associated with the Group Theater as an actor where he met and befriended Elia Kazan who would invite Ray to study his filmmaking style during the production of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

The cast consist of one superb performance after another from Farley Granger as the sensitive unlucky Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell as the melancholy rural Keechie looking for an escape from nowhere, to character actors Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva as Bowie’s two hardened partners. Granger was at a party when he met Ray who took a liking to him; both he and O’Donnell were under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time. Robert Mitchum was interested in playing Chickamaw but was deemed a rising star at the time and the role too limited for his newly found status, as a result Jay C. Flippen got the part.

A few aspects of the film have dated somewhat; Bowie admitting his virginal inexperience with kissing and Keechie saying things like “a good woman is like a dog” (they are loyal). Still, these bits aside, the film’s tug and pull between romance and violence continues to work. T-Dub and Chickasaw remain two vivid characters given some nice touches especially when Chickamaw reappears in Bowie and Keechie’s lives destroying a Christmas ornament and in the process their dream of a regular life.

In 1974, Robert Altman made a new version of the film under its original source material’s name, and remained closer “in tone”, as Pauline Kael states in her review, than Ray’s more sympathetic view. Kael called the seventies film “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films – a masterpiece.

****1/2