Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #40

Yesterday was Donna Reed’s birthday, and Turner Classic Movies showered everybody’s favorite TV mom with a not-too-shabby tribute including a pair of westerns—one of which I had not seen and the other I revisited. Later that evening, however, TCM had other fish to fry—a nod to Mia Farrow which contained a suspense thriller that I had not seen since my halcyon days at working at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video. As always, the chance of spoilers remains high so be forewarned!

Hangman's Knot (1952) – This entertaining oater—written and directed by TDOY icon Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files)—opens with an interesting establishing shot that introduces the members of an elite squad of Confederate soldiers about to pull off a gold heist, led by none other than Randolph Scott. (The credits then begin; with Randy’s name nearly ten feet tall…and I swear I could hear the chorus from Blazing Saddles singing “Randolph Scott!”) Yes, it’s the A-Team out west—Scott being assisted not by Mr. T or Dirk Benedict, but by Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen (apparently William Demarest wasn’t available), John Call and Lee Marvin, who gives Scott nearly as much grief as he does in Seven Men from Now (1956). The swiping of the gold proves to be a success, but there’s just one tiny snag—Scott and Company learn from a dying officer that the war’s been over for a month now, and so they high-tail it back in the direction of the South (to avoid facing criminal charges) only to be pursued by a gang of “deputies” that includes Ray Teal, Monte Blue and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Scott and his men stop a stagecoach along the way and join Union Army nurse Donna Reed and “fiancé” Richard Denning on their flight to escape, but they end up trapped in a way station run by Clem Bevans and his daughter, Jeanette Nolan—with the “deputies” determined to smoke them out (and I mean that literally).

Knot is a good ol’ fashioned slam-bang western with an interesting plot and a surprising amount of dry humor (sort of a Huggins trademark); most of which emanates from Faylen’s character—particularly in this scene where he’s just been rescued by Scott (he was being held prisoner outside by the “deputies”) and wants to know what the game plan is:

STEWART (Scott): After you get cleaned up, you and Jamie get some sleep…you can relieve Rolph and me in a couple of hours…

CASS (Faylen): Yes, sir…I guess I don’t have to tell you that them ain’t deputies out there…just a bunch of drifters…

STEWART: Do they…do they know the gold’s in here?

CASS (smiling): You got ‘em confused… (Chuckling) If they ever find out, though, and get their hands on it…there ain’t gonna be nobody left alive in here to tell…you got any plans?

STEWART: Mm-hmm…we go out shooting…sometime tomorrow…

CASS (after a pause): Wish I hadn’t asked

What I found most fascinating about Knot is how Reed’s hair and makeup remains impeccable even though she’s kept pretty busy tending to the wounds of gang member Call—okay, I am kidding a bit; overall the film is pretty solid (there’s an impressive runaway stagecoach sequence that’s nicely handled by Huggins), with no loftier ambition other than to be enjoyable. The producer of this film was none other than Harry Brown, who, as you well know, was part of the team that cranked out the memorable Randolph Scott westerns directed by Budd Boetticher in the latter part of the 1950s. Without giving too much away, let me warn you that Denning’s character turns out to be a real piece of work; the actor may have been a good husband to both Lucille Ball (My Favorite Husband) and Barbara Britton (Mr. and Mrs. North) but he played his fair share of silver screen bastards, as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) will readily attest.

Gun Fury (1953) – After a repeat showing of Scandal Sheet (1952), which was discussed here on Saturday, we find our gal Donna back in the saddle in another western (this one co-written by Huggins, adapted from the novel Ten Against Caesar) as Jennifer Ballard, a woman who’s been journeying westward to join up with her fiancé, ex-Confederate soldier Ben Warren (Rock Hudson), who owns a ranch in California. On the stagecoach trip in, she makes the acquaintance of a courtly Southern gentleman named Hampton (Philip Carey) and his sidekick, Tom “Jess” Burgess (Leo Gordon). Hampton takes a shine to Jennifer almost from the get-go, and his plans to get better acquainted are interrupted when Ben surprises Jennifer by showing up at the stagecoach stop. But it’s really the young couple who get a surprise—when the stagecoach continues on its way it’s held up by the soldiers accompanying the coach (as you’ve probably guessed, there was a gold shipment on board), and Hampton reveals himself to be none other than outlaw Frank Slayton—one of those Southerners who just isn’t comfortable with the fact that his side lost the war, despite it being in all the papers. Slayton abducts Jennifer for his own evil purposes and leaves Warren for dead; however the very-much-alive Ben soon comes after the outlaw, with some help from Burgess; an Indian named Johash (Pat Hogan), seeking out vengeance on Slayton for the death of his sister; and hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes)—an old girlfriend of Frank’s who doesn’t take the news that he’s now going around with Jennifer too well.

Normally, I try not to read too much of this sort of thing into movies but Gun Fury is sort of fascinating because of its none-too-subtle gay subtext—and I’m not just saying this because Rock Hudson’s in the movie…even though he does struggle valiantly to remain butch throughout the proceedings. What I’m referring to is the relationship between the Slayton and Burgess characters; from the moment Slayton meets Jennifer the jealousy displayed by Burgess is simply too hard to ignore. When Frank invites Jennifer to dinner and is soundly rebuffed Jess remarks: “Don’t worry about it, Mr. Hampton—I’ll eat with you.” “If I had known that, Mr. Burgess, I wouldn’t have asked the lady,” is Slayton’s terse reply. Later, as the two men freshen up in their hotel room:

SLAYTON: She’s quite a woman, isn’t she?

BURGESS: As far as I’m concerned, all women are alike…they just got different faces so you can tell them apart…

SLAYTON: To a man without taste, I suppose all women are alike…she’s as different from other women as cognac is from corn licker

BURGESS: You get the same kind of headache from either one…

Burgess makes it a point to warn Slayton to stay away from Jennifer—and even tells Jennifer in a scene where the two of them are tripping the light fantastic not to get back on the stagecoach in the morning (it’s later explained that he did this because he knew the stage would be held up, but I’m not so sure of this). Later in the film, Jess and Frank have a disagreement (a ‘tiff’?) regarding Jennifer’s abduction—which leads Slayton to tying Jess to a stake as buzzard bait (“I told you before there couldn’t be two generals,” he warns his partner). Jess is rescued by Ben, and agrees to partner up with him in going after Slayton—his motivation is revenge, of course, but toward the end of the movie Slayton offers to trade Jennifer for Jess, telling Ben, ”I made a mistake—I’m willing to admit it…”

When I started, it was just Jess and me…now that he’s not with me, I know how much I need him…to keep the men in line, help me work out our plans…without Jess, I’m like a man with only one arm…

Jess’ reaction? He’s amenable to the deal…though he rationalizes this by stating that his only motivation is his share of the gold that Slayton and Company stole. (Speaking only for myself, if someone had tied me to a stake and left me there as a potential buffet for scavenger birds I wouldn’t be all that anxious to cut any deals with him.)

Carey makes for a formidable villain, and the members in his gang include Lee Marvin (as “Blinky”—is there a 1950s Western Marvin doesn’t appear in?) and his future Laredo co-star Neville Brand (I’m sure Scott would enjoy this)…but of course, the great thing about these movies are the wondering supporting players: OTR veteran Forrest Lewis plays the gentleman who chats up Reed on the stagecoach, and there are also bits contributed by John Dierkes, Maudie Prickett and Mel Welles. If you’re curious why people are shooting and throwing things at the camera, it’s because this film was originally released in 3-D (with a one-eyed Raoul Walsh directing!).

See No Evil (1971) – During my brief stint working at a Blockbuster Video franchise in Savannah, GA, I had a customer ask me to recommend a suitable horror film to show for a Halloween party—the stipulation being that since the guest list was made up of impressionable young teens, she didn’t want any of the Friday the 13th or Freddy Krueger movies on the menu. Having just watched Evil (originally released in the U.K. as Blind Terror), I told her that this nifty suspenser starring Mia Farrow as a blind woman who discovers that the family she’s staying with in her period of adjustment have been killed off by a psychopath would be a good choice, and she accepted my recommendation. (Whether or not it paid off is a question I can’t answer, since I never saw her again. I guess this wasn’t as interesting a story as I had hoped.)

But I watched it again last night and was pleased to find that it still holds up pretty well, as well as providing further evidence that director Richard Fleischer could still deliver the goods after years of big-budget prestige films (he also directed 10 Rillington Place that same year, which I’m considering as next week’s Region 2 Cinema pick). Farrow is pretty good as the blind girl in peril, and I recognized Lila Kaye (An American Werewolf in London), Paul Nicholas, Michael Elphick and Norman Eshley (as Mia’s boyfriend) among the cast; Eshley is a familiar face because he played the snooty next-door neighbor Jeffrey Fourmile on George and Mildred (he was also on George’s predecessor, Man About the House, as Richard O’Sullivan’s brother—who comes out of nowhere to win and woo the lovely Paula Wilcox…lucky bastard) and Elphick co-starred in an entertaining sitcom Three Up, Two Down about two bickering in-laws (Angela Thorne, Ray Burdis) forced to share a flat (Elphick was Burdis’ son, married to Thorne’s daughter, played by Lisette Anthony). Nicholas was the co-star of the John Sullivan-created Britcom Just Good Friends—but he’s achieved immortality at Rancho Yesteryear for his 1978 Top Ten pop smash Heaven on the Seventh Floor.

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1 comment:

Samuel Wilson said...

I saw Hangman's Knot yesterday as well and I was impressed by how much it anticipated many of the situations from the Boetticher films: the hero under siege and the female lead's weasely boyfriend in particular. The landscape in the early scenes looked pretty familiar, too. Since this was a Scott-Brown film it makes a good case for the importance of Scott and Brown's input in the Boettichers. Hangman's Knot is perhaps a little too busy with too many characters by Boetticher standards but it's still a decent Western in its own right.