More Hot Movie Takes
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
These riffs are about some very different cinema currents but they’re all inspired by recent screen discoveries I made once I put my movie snobbery in check.
My first riff concerns an actor from Old Hollywood I was almost entirely unfamiliar with and therefore I never thought to seek out his work: Dennis O’Keefe. I discovered O’Keefe only because I finally made an effort to watch some of Anthony Mann’s stellar film noirs from the 1940s. O’Keefe stars in two of them – T-Men” (1947) and “Raw Deal” (1948). Neither is a great film but the former has a very strong script and the latter is like an encyclopedia of noir and they both feature great cinematography by John Alton and good performances across the board. These are riveting films that stand up well against better known noirs, crime and police pics.
Whatever restrictions the filmmakers faced making these movies for small poverty eow studios they more than made up for with their inventiveness and passion.
As wildly atmospheric and evocative as Alton’s use of darkness, light and shadow is in these works, it’s O’Keefe’s ability to carry these films that’s the real revelation for me. I find him to be every bit as charismatic and complex as Humphrey Bogart. James Cagney, Robert Mitchum and other bigger name tough guys of the era were, and I’m certain he would have carried the best noirs they helped make famous. O’Keefe reminds me of a blend between Bogart and Cagney, with a touch of another noir stalwart, William Holden, thrown in. Until seeing him in these two pictures along with another even better pic, “Chicago Syndicate” (1955) directed by the underrated Fred F. Sears, who is yet another of the discoveries I’m opining about here, I had no idea O’Keefe delivered performances on par with the most iconic names from the classic studio system era. It just goes to show you that you don’t know what you don’t know. Before seeing it for myself – if you’d tried to tell me that O’Keefe was in these other actors’ league I would have scoffed at the notion because I would have assumed if this were so he’d have come to my attention by now. Why O’Keefe never broke through from B movies to A movies I’ll never know, but as any film buff will tell you those categories don’t mean much when it comes to quality or staying power. For example, the great noir film by Orson Welles Touch of Evil was a B movie all the way in terms of budget, source material, theme and perception but in reality it was a bold work of art by a master at the top of his game. It even won an international film prize in its time, though it took years for it to get the respect it deserved in America.
Like all good actors, O’Keefe emphatically yet subtly projects on screen what he’s thinking and feeling at any given moment. He embodies that winning combination of intelligence and intuition that makes you feel like he’s the smartest guy in the room, even if he’s in a bad fix.
My admittedly simplistic theory about acting for the screen is that the best film/TV actors convey an uncanny and unwavering confidence and veracity to the camera that we as the audience connect to and invest in with our own intellect and emotion. That doesn’t mean the actor is personally confident or needs to play someone confident in order to hook us, only that within the confines of playing characters they make it seem as though they believe every word they say and every emotion they express. Well, O’Keefe had this in spades.
Now that O’Keefe is squarely on my radar, I will search for of his work. I recommend you do the same.
By the way, another fine noir photographed by John Alton, “He Walks by Night,” starring Richard Basehart, may have been directed, at least in part, by Mann. Alton’s work here may be even more impressive than in the other films. The climactic scene is reminiscent of “The Third Man,” only instead of the post-war Vienna streets and canals, the action takes place in the Los Angeles streets and sewers. I must admit I was not familiar with Alton’s name even though I’d seen movies he photographed before I ever come upon the Mann trilogy. For example, Alton’s last major feature credit is “Elmer Gantry,” a film I’ve seen a few times and always admired. He also did the great noir pic “The Big Combo” directed by Joseph E. Lewis. And he lit the great dream sequence ballet in “”An American in Paris,” for which he won an Oscar. Now I will look at those films even more closely with respect to the photography, though I actually do remember being impressed by the photography in “Big Combo” and, of course, the dream sequence in “Paris.”
Alton was an outlier in going against prevailing studio practices of over-lighting sets. He believed in under-lighting and letting the blacks and greasy help set mood. The films he did are much darker, especially the night scenes, than any Hollywood films of that time. He studied the work of master painters to learn how they controlled light and he applied his lessons to the screen.
It turns out that Alton left Hollywood at the peak of his powers because he got fed up with the long hours and the many fights he had with producers and directors, many of whom insisted on more light and brighter exposures. Alton usually got his way because he knew his stuff, he worked very fast and he produced images that stood out from the pack. Apparently he just walked away from his very fine career sometime in the early 1960s to lead a completely distant but fulfilling life away from the movies.
Alton setting up a shot in “Raw Deal”
With actress Leslie Caron – “An American In Paris
Regarding the aforementioned “Chicago Syndicate,” it’s a surprisingly ambitious and labyrinthian story told with great verve and conviction by Fred Sears. It’s a neat bridge film between the very composed studio bound tradition and the freer practical location tradition. Sears was another in a long line of B movie directors with great skill who worked across genres in the 1930s through 1950s period. I watched a bit of a western he did and it too featured a real flair for framing and storytelling. His work has some of the great energy and dynamic tension of Sam Fuller and Budd Boetticher from that same period. I can’t wait to discover more films by Sears.
My love of film and writing about film finds me looking for opportunities to wax poetic, or my clumsy approximation of such, about cinema. An example is this story from a few years ago about a Turner Classic Movies Western film festival. I am a big fan of the Western. When I was a film programmer I organized two major Western film fests, and so when I caught wind of the TCM series, I finagled an assignment from my editor at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to write this preview piece. Although the TCM fest long ago aired, the channel regularly screens many of the great Westerns I mention in the article.
This blog also contains articles about two of the best John Ford-John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The blog also contains dozens of other stories about cinema classics, stars, and filmmakers. Check them out.
The Celluloid West
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On select nights in November Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to the Western with a lineup TCM bills as “ALL the greatest Westerns ever made, except for Shane,” — the omission of the George Stevens’ classic probably owing to a rights issue.
At first glance, the Western may seem a rather dry form, but to this film buff’s thinking, anyway, it may just be the richest of all genres. The best Westerns, like the best dramas, speak to universal passions. They explore the human quest for power, freedom, independence and wealth and they examine the conflicts that arise when these desires collide with the equally strong needs for home, family, community and civilization. They reveal the struggle of men and women at odds with not only the natural elements but their own human nature as well. Because of all that it encompasses — from the settling of the West to empire building to the genocide of native peoples — the Western covers a landscape that is at once epic, mythic, historical, political, sociological, psychological and geographic.
If there is one Western that is the nexus of the genre, it is John Ford’s cinematic tone poem, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a memory saga about how what is known about the past is a function of what is told us and what we wish to believe. Near the end of the film a sardonic newspaperman, upon hearing how a celebrated taming of the West episode came down very differently from the way stories purported it to be, utters an aphorism — “This is the West, sir — when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — that neatly explains how the mechanisms of popular culture make even outlandish lore the gospel truth.
In this same way, Hollywood Westerns through the mid-1950s were like dime novels in their avoidance of historical accuracy for heroic depictions of a fabulous frontier where hard men delivered justice, vengeance and temperance. All the conventions of the Western were in place by the end of the silent era and the first three decades of the talkies only served to reinforce its constructs: the lone rider finding trouble in some town; the corrupt cattle baron protecting his interests with hired guns; the golden-hearted “saloon girl” aiding the Westerner; and Indians laying siege to homesteads and army outposts.
For most of us, our mental picture of the Old West is derived from the images Hollywood has provided of its epochal events — range wars, cattle drives, wagon trains, cavalry campaigns — and its infamous legends — Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid. All most of us know about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what the movies tell us.
Early Westerns were simplistic, but occasionally a picture surfaced, like Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, that both defined and transcended the genre or, as in the case of William Wyler’s 1940The Westerner, that took delight in sending it up. Some Westerns, including Howard Hawks’ Red River and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), are practically Shakespearean in the scale and scope of their conflict and intrigue.
The Western milieu often has been used as a forum for examining social issues, from William Wellman’s 1943 The Oxbow Incident, which condemned intolerance with its attack on lynching, to the Fred Zinneman directed and Carl Foreman scripted High Noon (1951), which championed integrity in a thinly veiled reference to the ‘50s’ witch hunts, blacklists and informants. Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar are a carnival of Freudian symbols writ large. Anthony Mann’s The Furies is a Greek Tragedy on the prairie.
By the time Ford, the great interpreter of the Western, completed his early cavalry cycle (Rio Grande, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) and got around to The Searchers, filmmakers were reinterpreting their vision of the West. In The Searchers the Western protagonist — John Wayne as Confederate veteran and Indian killer Ethan Edwards — is presented as an anti–hero whose society-building impulses have been usurped by baser instincts and blinded by racist feelings.
In Wayne, Ford found the icon for the latter-day Westerner. Estranged from society, but not averse to aiding it — for a price — he is a stabilizing force who adheres to a personal code of conduct that allows him to straddle either side of the law when it suits him. At the end of the trail, the Westerner dies or rides off alone, unwilling or unable to bend to community strictures. He is the original American rebel.
This same anti-heroic thread runs through two key series of Westerns in the ‘50s, each pairing an inspired director with a perfectly matched star. Much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his suspense films with Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Mann explored the darker more cynical side of Stewart in Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.
Similarly, Budd Boetticher found, in Randolph Scott, the embodiment of the laconic drifter in The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. By the 1960s, the Westerner was forever recast as an enigmatic, alienated and even anachronistic figure — a man of fierce independence and great competence whose temper and skill have been forged by years as a mercenary in the service of top dollar.
Not surprisingly, the Westerner is the precursor of today’s action hero — a rough-hewn rogue possessing extraordinary skills of horsemanship, gunplay and physical combat. He is strong, smart, brave and over-the-edge. The Westerns of Howard Hawks made a great point of portraying the Westerner as a professional called on by ordinary citizens to help rid them of some menace. The role of the professional is the theme of his late trilogy — Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Taking this theme even farther was director John Sturges, who transposed the samurai warrior philosophy to the professional gunslinger code by drawing on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the inspiration for his hugely popular Western The Magnificent Seven.
The great purveyors of the newer, harsher, de-romanticized Western were neoclassical filmmakers Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West).
Peckinpah, who despite the later violence in his films was a storyteller from the old school, seemed to invest the anxiety, anger and alienation of the ‘60s into his work. He developed a lyrical, folkloric, yet ironic approach that subverted many old conventions and exposed the hypocritical forces operating in the West. Leone was also a visual poet, but on a grander, more stylized scale. He staged the Western as if it were an opera, building elaborate sets, scenes and sequences that heightened the Western motifs and then undercut those very same motifs through such obvious but gorgeous artifice that his gaze on the Western landscape became at once reverential and winking.
Leone gave birth to a character, The Man with No Name, and to the actor who portrayed him, Clint Eastwood, that became identified with the revisionist Westerns of the late ‘60s through today. Eastwood’s Westerner is a remote and bitter figure who casts a jaundiced eye on everyone and everything around him. In much the same way John Wayne’s later characterizations were informed by his five-decade body of work and revealed the nuances of an older, grizzled, embittered and, finally in The Shootist, dying gunman unable to escape his past, Eastwood draws on his cinema legacy to create, in Unforgiven, a figure haunted by his violent legacy.
To fully appreciate the richness of the Western, one must be steeped in a wide range of examples of the genre from different eras. For what it’s worth, here is one film buff’s partial must-see inventory, listed roughly chronologically, of essential Westerns:
Stagecoach (Ford’s 1939 version, not the dreadful 1966 remake); The Oxbow Incident; My Darling Clementine; Red River; The Gunfighter; High Noon; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon;Wagonmaster; Winchester 73; The Naked Spur; Shane; The Searchers; Forty Guns; The Tin Star; The Unforgiven (the 1960 John Huston classic, not the Eastwood film); Rio Bravo; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Lonely are the Brave; Ride the High Country; One-Eyed Jacks; The Wild Bunch; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Ballad of Cable Hogue; Will Penny; The Cheyenne Social Club; The Stalking Moon; McCabe and Mrs Miller; Ulzana’s Raid; The Cowboys; The Shootist; Barbarosa; and The Grey Fox.
Enjoy ‘em, pardners.
- John Wayne: one last shot before the final farewell (telegraph.co.uk)
- What’s the Big Deal?: Stagecoach (1939) (seattlepi.com)
- The relevance of Westerns within today’s society. (smiffy1994.wordpress.com)
- “Sam Peckinpah’s Long-Lost Script for ‘The Texans’ Unearthed” (gointothestory.com)
- Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West (thesilvermirror.wordpress.com)