Saturday, May 22, 2010

Movies and stuff I’ve stared at recently during my convalescence #7 ("Saddle up" edition)

Devil's Doorway (1950) – In an essay on this Anthony Mann-directed Western classic for his book Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery, film critic John DiLeo describes actor Robert Taylor as “the male version of Joan Crawford.” “It would be hard to make a case for either as a real acting talent,” DiLeo writes, “yet both developed enough stylish proficiency to remain long-standing favorites of the public. You rarely got any more from their sturdy performances than what was written on the pages of their scripts—no surprises, no contrasts, no depths—but they got the job done.”
I can’t think of any better way to explain why I’ve never been a huge fan of Taylor’s—I’ve seen him in a good many films and he always came across as being a bit of a mannequin. But I don’t mean to sell him short; he rose to the occasion in several movies—Johnny Eager (1941), High Wall (1947), Westward the Women (1951) and the cult classic Party Girl (1958) are a just a few that come to mind. Thursday night, as part of Turner Classic Movies’ month-long Race & Hollywood: Native American Images on Film festival, I got the opportunity to revisit what I feel is Taylor’s finest silver screen moment—his portrayal of an Indian war veteran fighting to hold onto his birthright land.
Taylor’s character answers to Lance Poole, and as a decorated Shoshone Indian soldier returning to his Wyoming home from fighting for the Union cause in the Civil War (where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor) he wants nothing more than to be able to raise cattle with his family on fifty thousand acres of land known as Sweet Meadows. But Wyoming has adopted new territorial land laws—and all of them pretty much dictate that Indians can’t own land, relegating them to second class citizenry as a group of moving-westward homesteaders is allowed first pick of Sweet Meadows’ fertile acres. Poole gets another taste of this new racism when a saloon that formerly and warmly welcomed him back now shuns his business—his old friend Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan), now the town marshal, has even hung a sign over the bar trumpeting that no liquor can be sold to Indians.
Looking for justice through the legal system, Poole is continually stymied by a racist anti-Indian shyster named Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern)—who at one point in the film has one of his goons (James Millican) provoke our hero into a barroom brawl. So Poole seeks legal council from a lawyer, A. Masters—who, in an interestingly progressive facet for the typically conservative western genre, is in actuality a woman (Paula Raymond). “Orrie” Masters files papers on Lance’s behalf—but it’s a futile gesture…his application is rejected due to his Native American status. With every legal remedy exhausted, Poole must resort to turning “renegade” and physically fighting to protect what’s his…a solution that produces tragic results.
Because Taylor was taking an incredible chance that he might come off as ridiculous in “redface,” he wisely chose to underplay the part of Poole…and he’s quite convincing as a man whose fruitless struggle against racism leaves him with precious few options by the film’s end. Bob’s not the only impressive presence in Doorway, however; Calhern is sensational as the sebaceous Coolan, finely modulating his performance so that his villainy doesn’t come across as cardboard. But what makes Doorway the superb oater it’s become is due to the first-rate direction by Mann, who treats the material as if it were one of his celebrated film noirs (T-Men, Border Incident)…and focuses on those incredible close-ups that became his directorial trademark. Scripted by Guy Trosper, Doorway’s standout supporting cast—Raymond, Buchanan, Millican, Marshall “Daktari” Thompson, Spring “December Bride” Byington, James Mitchell, Rhys Williams and Fritz Leiber—is the icing on the cake.
After the film, TCM’s own Bobby Osbo and his co-host, Hanay Geiogamah, mused about why Doorway remains a hidden treasure for classic movie buffs…but I noticed that neither of the two men mentioned that it was M-G-M’s timidity that was ultimately responsible for the film being largely forgotten. Nervous about the pro-Indian content of Doorway, the studio held back on its release…allowing 20th Century-Fox to grab all the thunder with Broken Arrow (1950; review here). But I cannot stress this enough—Devil’s Doorway is a must-see film for any Western and classic film fan.

Run of the Arrow (1957) – This entertaining if uneven Western was also scheduled as part of TCM’s Native American in Film salute—an oater that I originally watched many, many moons ago…and was glad to revisit in a letterboxed version. (Facebook chum Michael J. Weldon, author of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, made me curious to see it the first time when he commented: “I could explain how Rod Steiger manages to shoot Ralph Meeker twice with the same bullet, but you wouldn’t believe me.”) Star Steiger plays O’Meara, a private in the Confederate Army who decides to “go west, young man” at the end of the War of Nawthun Uh-greshun…he’s a bit peeved about the outcome, you see. He makes the acquaintance of a Sioux Army scout named Walking Coyote (TDOY fave Jay C. Flippen in redface), who teaches him the language and ways of the Sioux (Lakota); this comes in handy when the two men are captured by a band of Sioux and are subjected to the titular contest (an arrow is shot into the air and the individual must haul ass and elbows in escape from the point where it lands…if he’s caught, he’s skinned alive). O’Meara becomes the first man to survive the feat, becoming an honorary Sioux and wedding a fetching young maiden named Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel, with voice by Angie Dickinson) but his fealty to his new Sioux brethren and sistren is tested when he comes into conflict with cavalry officers Lt. Driscoll (Meeker) and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), who are overseeing the construction of an Army fort in Sioux territory.
As Arrow opens, we see Meeker’s Driscoll fall to the ground wounded…and Steiger’s O’Meara enjoying a brief “picnic lunch” on Driscoll’s unconscious form before taking the man in for medical treatment. Experienced classic film buffs will no doubt recognize this bizarre sequence as the work of Sam Fuller, and Arrow contains many of the cult director’s hallmarks: jarring bits of uncompromising violence (Keith’s character is hit with an arrow from out of nowhere while Meeker is haranguing him about whether or not they can trust the Sioux), a clash between two radically different cultures, and an “outsider” who is uncomfortable operating under the “norms” of society. Arrow has been compared to such later film classics as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dances with Wolves (1990), and provides solid Western action only if you don’t expect too much (Fuller sort of cops out at the film’s conclusion with one of his “The end of this story can only be written by you” wrap-ups…and suddenly I had the theme from TV’s The Rebel running through my head). Charles Bronson is also in this one, not to mention Olive Carey, H.M. Wynant, Frank “F Troop” DeKova and Colonel Tim McCoy. Produced at R-K-O, but released by Universal-International when the studio went belly up shortly after Arrow’s completion.

The Law and Jake Wade (1958) – This is another Robert Taylor vehicle I’m quite fond of…though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I enjoy it mostly for the presence of Richard Widmark (who’s at his rat bastard best). Taylor is the titular outlaw-turned-marshal who helps his old riding buddy Widmark escape from jail (and a hangman’s noose)—but this turns out to be a serious error in judgment because Dick shows up on Bob’s stomping grounds with his gang (Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley and Eddie “That Brewster Boy” Firestone), demanding that Taylor lead them to a cache of buried loot that Bob made off with from their last heist. (To make certain Taylor plays ball, Widmark arranges for his pal’s fiancée Patricia Owens to accompany them on their outing.) The party wind up in a ghost town (shades of Widmark’s Yellow Sky [1948]) and at the mercy of an Indian attack (those pesky cinematic savages) before the two men settle their respective scores in a memorable shootout.
The critic for Time Out Film Guide muses that Jake Wade may be director John Sturges’ best western (apparently this gentleman hasn’t gotten around to seeing Escape from Fort Bravo [1953], Last Train from Gun Hill [1959] or The Magnificent Seven [1960] yet) but that aside, it’s a first-rate saga written by screen veteran William Bowers (adapted from Marvin H. Albert’s novel), whose work includes The Gunfighter (1950), Cry Danger (1951), Split Second (1953) and Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), among many others. Widmark is great (I love how he delivers this one line: “You gonna shoot me down like a dirty dog?”) and Taylor matches him step-for-step (when Widmark complains about an unfair advantage leading up to their gunfight, Bob drawls: “Well…you like me a lot better than I like you”); the other cast members provide solid support even if they don’t get the opportunity to be as showy as the two leads (save for Silva, who plays the snot-nosed punk role that he could have done in his sleep by that point in his career). Breathtaking cinematography courtesy of the legendary Robert Surtees.

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Chase Kahn said...

I just caught "Devil's Doorway" recently, as well. As an Anthony Mann diehard, I found it perfectly adequate as a revisionist, pro-Native American western.

And I agree that Robert Taylor has an unspectacular aroma regarding many of his performances, but seeing him in stuff like "Johnny Eager" (nice call) and "Ambush" (a hidden gem), his value becomes more apparent.

And by the way, I really love John Sturges' Escape From Fort Bravo, another great western that serves as a precursor to Reconstruction.

fiftieswesterns said...

Glad to see someone hold up "Last Train From Gun Hill" as one of Sturges' best. It usually gets overshadowed by the inferior "Gunfight At The OK Corral."

The scene in "Gun Hill" where Kirk Douglas and Earl Holliman wrestle for the shotgun is masterfully shot and cut — and very tense. One of my favorite scenes in all of 50s Westerns.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Glad to see someone hold up "Last Train From Gun Hill" as one of Sturges' best.

The first time I saw Gun Hill was on the old TBS (before they became very funny) and I marveled at what an amazingly taut suspenser it was. Story by Les Crutchfield, who put pen to many a Gunsmoke radio script (among many others)...though I was too young to realize that at the time.