Monday, September 28, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: Station West (1948)

Since I’ve been nursing a jones for some Dick Powell movies ever since TCM ran one of my all-time favorites, Murder, My Sweet (1944), last Wednesday, I chose this “Philip Marlowe Goes West” as this week’s Region 2 Cinema entry. As always, there may be a spoiler or two.

A stranger (Powell) rides into a small Western town and immediately makes his presence known by antagonizing some of the patrons of the local saloon, one of which is an Army lieutenant (Steve Brodie) who later meets up with him at a conference with Captain George Iles (Tom Powers), commander at the local Army post. The stranger is actually Lt. John Martin Haven, an undercover Army officer assigned to Iles to investigate the murders of two soldiers who had been assigned to protect a gold shipment (the two men died at the hands of a gang of unknown masked bandits). Haven manages to wangle a job managing the stagecoach line owned and operated by a woman named “Charlie” (Jane Greer), who has a finger in every financial pie in town. Haven convinces Iles’ fiancée, Mrs. Mary Caslon (Agnes Moorehead), to allow him to transport some of the gold from her mine as part of a “sting” operation—but his scheme goes sour when he and “shotgun rider” Jim Goddard (Regis Toomey) are ambushed by the gang and Goddard (in actuality an undercover Wells Fargo agent) is killed. Haven manages to make his way to a sawmill (run by Greer’s character), where he learns that Charlie’s right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) has plans to disguise a group of men as Army soldiers, allowing them to infiltrate Iles’ post and steal the gold that is stashed in the warehouse there. Haven manages to kill the individuals responsible, thus saving the day—but his romantic ardor for the seductive Charlie is dampened when she is felled by a bullet from Prince’s gun, and our hero must ride out of town alone.

Station West (1948) is an example of what might be called “western noir”; an appellation that is also applicable to films like Pursued (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948)—both of which star Robert Mitchum. A lot of noir elements are present in West: the sultry femme fatale (Greer); the laconic protagonist (Powell) prone to bluffing his way in and out of situations (and always with a wisecrack at the ready); and shifty characters who may or may not be on the side of the law (notably an unscrupulous lawyer named Mark Bristow, played by noir icon Raymond Burr). Written by Frank Fenton and Winston Miller (based on a novel by Luke Short), the film is jam-packed with snappy one-liners and hard-boiled dialogue (having injured his hand in a brawl, Powell tells Greer: “You can take my hand if you don’t squeeze it”); my favorite is this exchange between Powell and Brodie as they square off in the saloon:

STELLMAN: If I weren’t in uniform, I’d teach you a few manners…

HAVEN: If you could teach me anything, you wouldn’t be in uniform

While West’s plot isn’t anything we haven’t already witnessed before, it’s the dialogue and the performances that compensate; Powell is in his element as the jaded investigator who’s determined to administer justice but can’t help falling for the attractive Greer—and Jane resurrects her black-widow-like Kathie Moffatt demeanor as the worldly and amoral Charlie (a derivative of Charlene). (Station West is always the third film I mention when I’m ticking off a list of Greer’s movies, right after Out of the Past and They Won't Believe Me.) I really like Moorehead in this movie, too—she plays it perfectly straight and avoids the wealthy-old-dame stereotype to which a lesser actress might succumb. It’s also surprising to see Guinn “Big Boy” Williams—a character actor whom I usually associate as the dumb but lovable sidekick—play a real heavy (he’s still short-on-brains-but-big-on-brawn); as one of Greer’s goons he engages in a lively knuckleduster with Powell that is one of the movie’s highlights. Burl Ives also appears in this film (one of his earliest performances) as a desk clerk whose guitar picking and singing act as kind of a Greek chorus to Powell’s comings-and-goings—but while he received mention on the posters promoting the film he gets no acknowledgment in the opening credits.

West was directed by Sidney Lanfield, a 20th Century-Fox journeyman who held the reins on a few big-name pictures including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and You'll Never Get Rich (1941), but became more popularly associated with a lot of Bob Hope’s vehicles…notably My Favorite Blonde (1942), Where There's Life (1947; one of the most underrated of Hope’s comedies) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). (Lanfield also received credit for Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid [1951], though most of that film was directed by Frank Tashlin.) Lanfield later moved on to television work, directing a goodly number of McHale’s Navy and The Addams Family installments. Once again, Station West (La Cité de la peur) is one of the many DVDs available in The R-K-O Collection at editions montparnasse; I purchased my copy from Amazon.fr back in January 2008 to replace my home-recorded copy that I “liberated” from TCM. Definitely a film well worth catching, and if you want to save yourself the scratch it turns up regularly on what my friend Rick Brooks calls “The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.”

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1 comment:

Laura said...

Sounds great! It's fun to see Toomey pop up in Powell's films since they were good friends.

Best wishes,
Laura