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Devil’s Doorway (Sept. 15, 1950)

Devil's Doorway

Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The great director Anthony Mann worked in a lot of different genres, but he’s most revered today for his noirs and his westerns.

Mann directed three westerns that were released in 1950. Winchester ’73 was the first one released in theaters, but he finished shooting both The Furies and Devil’s Doorway before starting work on Winchester ’73 with star James Stewart.

Winchester ’73 was far and away the most successful, and it’s still a favorite of western fans. (Mann and Stewart also went on to make several more highly regarded westerns together.) Devil’s Doorway remains the least widely seen.

There are a lot of reasons for film fans — particularly western fans — to see Devil’s Doorway. It breaks the traditional mold of the western by having heroes who are Native Americans and villains who are white settlers. It’s well written, tightly paced, and beautifully shot. It was also the last movie Mann made with cinematographer John Alton, who shot some of Mann’s greatest films, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).

Like he did in Border Incident, Alton turns wide open spaces, big skies, and towering western mountain ranges into dark, oppressive spaces that seem to be closing in on the tiny humans who inhabit them. Devil’s Doorway is one of the best-looking black & white westerns I’ve ever seen.

Robert Taylor

My one real problem with Devil’s Doorway, and it’s a big one, is the casting of Robert Taylor as “Broken Lance” Poole, a Shoshone who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Poole is a Medal of Honor winner who returns home to find that the land where he grazes his cattle is going to be overrun by homesteaders and sheepmen. Poole petitions to homestead his own land, but his petition is rejected because he is not an American citizen, but rather a “ward of the government.”

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play non-white characters, especially if they are the lead of a film. And in this respect Devil’s Doorway is no different from the other big western released in 1950 with Native American heroes, Broken Arrow, which starred Jeff Chandler as Cochise. But I found Robert Taylor especially bad. At the time of filming, Taylor was pushing 40, but he looks a decade older. He also looks not at all Native American. At least he doesn’t put on a goofy accent or speak in pidgin English, but he still looks completely wrong for the role. When I was watching him, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jon Lovitz playing Tonto on old episodes of Saturday Night Live.

Aside from the presence of a miscast and aging matinee idol as its protagonist, Devil’s Doorway is a powerful western drama with beautiful cinematography and some stunning battle sequences. It’s definitely worth seeing, along with Mann’s other westerns.

Rashomon (Aug. 25, 1950)

Rashomon
Rashomon (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Daiei Film Co., Ltd.

Rashomon was the breakout film not just for director Akira Kurosawa, but for Japanese cinema in general. It was awarded the prize for best film of the year at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and received the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1952.

It took me a few years to really “get” Rashomon. I was a big fan of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Seven Samurai (1954) from a young age (I saw both of them on the big screen when I was 12), but when I started exploring the rest of his filmography on VHS tapes I checked out of the library, Rashomon didn’t make much of an impression on me. I enjoyed both Yojimbo (1961) and Throne of Blood (1957), but I thought Rashomon was “boring.” (Forgive me! I was a teenager.)

I remember watching Rashomon for the first time and seeing it as a kind of “whodunnit.” I thought the different viewpoints were all leading up to some kind of pat conclusion. When it ended ambiguously, I was vaguely unsettled and a little bit angry. Perhaps, since it took place in 11th-century Japan, I was expecting more swordplay. And of course, seeing it on VHS wasn’t an ideal presentation.

Masayuki Mori

Flash forward maybe 10 years. Rashomon was playing at Film Forum in New York, so I went to see it. It was like seeing a completely different film. Not only had I grown more comfortable with ambiguity, but seeing a 35mm print on the big screen revealed what a deeply beautiful film Rashomon is. Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, shot Rashomon deep in virgin forests in the heat of midsummer. Searing flashes of sunlight wash across the characters, alternating with washes of darkness. Thickets of leaves tremble in the breeze, and look so close you could reach into the screen and touch them. Sweat pools on the actors’ faces, falling from their chins in heavy drops.

Rashomon is an uncomfortable meditation on the elusiveness of truth. It exposes the world as a kind of hell, because human beings cannot even be honest with themselves. But it is also a deeply sensuous experience, and an utterly beautiful film.

Sunset Boulevard (Aug. 10, 1950)

Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder
Paramount Pictures

I first saw Sunset Boulevard at Cornell Cinema a long, long time ago. I never attended Cornell University, but I grew up in Ithaca, NY, and I was spoiled by Cornell’s cinema program from a young age.

On Saturday afternoons I used to get dropped off and see “kid classics” like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Magic of Lassie (1978), Oliver Twist (1948), Captains Courageous (1937), and even silent movies like Peter Pan (1924) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), which I saw with my grandmother, who was a freshman in high school when The Kid was first released. I remember them showing a Laurel & Hardy short first, but I can’t remember which one. My grandma and I both laughed a lot that afternoon.

It’s no wonder I turned out how I turned out.

Anyway, I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Sunset Boulevard at Cornell Cinema, but I think it was some time when I was home from college, which means I was nominally an adult, but not really grown up yet.

sunset-boulevard-pool2a

I’ve seen a lot of movies as an adult (like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon) that resonated much more deeply for me than they did when I first saw them in my teens or 20s. But Sunset Boulevard wasn’t one of those movies. It was exactly as amazing as I remember it. I loved it when I was younger, and I love it just as much now.

Of course, there were things I contemplated in a slightly different way this time around — like what the larger meaning of a character like Norma Desmond in Hollywood is, or the interesting gender reversal of William Holden’s character exposing himself as a “kept man” to his sweetheart, which is roughly equivalent to the cliché of the “fallen woman” but much less common.

But for the most part, I was thrilled and captivated by all the same things; Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top but utterly human portrayal of a reclusive former superstar, William Holden’s relatable Everyman, Erich von Stroheim’s semi-autobiographical performance as “Max von Mayerling,” Norma Desmond’s devoted butler who used to play a very different role in her life, and the cameos by real silent film stars like Buster Keaton.

Holden and Swanson

Another thing I love about Sunset Boulevard is how it works on so many different levels. Billy Wilder is one of those rare directors (like Alfred Hitchcock) who made movies full of wit, style, and interesting ideas that can also be enjoyed strictly as popcorn entertainment. For instance, Sunset Boulevard frequently and shamelessly veers into horror-film territory. The scene early in the film where Norma Desmond and her butler Max conduct a nighttime funeral for her deceased pet chimpanzee looks eerily similar to the funeral that opens Dracula’s Daughter (1936), in which Gloria Holden and her manservant lay her father, Count Dracula, to rest. (In fact, there is probably an entire essay to be written about the connections between Dracula’s Daughter — and other Universal horror films — and Sunset Boulevard.)

Like every great classic film, Sunset Boulevard continues to speak to us while occupying its own unique place in history. (Hollywood is still a cruel place for older female actors, but Norma Desmond’s fall from the limelight is intrinsically linked with the transition from silent films to talkies.) It’s one of the greatest films about Hollywood every made.

Mystery Street (July 28, 1950)

Mystery Street
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.

To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.

But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.

Montalban and Bennett

In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.

Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)

Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)

Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.

According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?

The Furies (July 21, 1950)

The Furies
The Furies (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Paramount Pictures

It occurred to me at some point during The Furies that it might be a more realistic view of frontier life than I’m used to seeing in westerns.

This thought occurred to me while I was struggling to find something to connect with in the movie. Anthony Mann is a director I love, and the western has been one of my favorite genres since I was a child, so I was really looking forward to The Furies. Also, the fact that The Furies is the only Mann film to get the Criterion treatment led me to believe I might be treated to the apotheosis of his sagebrush sagas.

The Furies DVD

But I just couldn’t get into The Furies the first time I tried to watch it, and I had to turn it off after about 45 minutes.

The Furies is based on a 1948 novel by Niven Busch, which seems evident in Charles Schnee’s screenplay. Like a lot of movies based on mid-century historical novels, it’s packed to the gills with dialogue, and a lot of it is expository, referring back to deceased family members and past events.

With its multi-generational plotting and Freudian undertones, The Furies reminded me of a couple of movies that I didn’t much care for, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). But I love Anthony Mann, so after a day or two had passed, and with a little more fire in my belly, I sat down to watch The Furies from beginning to end. Even though I didn’t love the movie unreservedly, I found a lot to like about it, and would definitely recommend it to “serious” western fans, as well as any fans of ’50s dramas.

Huston and Stanwyck

Back to my first thought, that this might be a more “realistic” view of frontier life than I’m used to seeing in westerns.

Unlike the lonely desert landscapes and violent men of few words that we’re used to seeing in westerns, The Furies is a talky melodrama focused on a specific place — the Furies ranch — and the tension between a self-made man, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), and his fierce daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s clear from the beginning of the film that T.C.’s son, Clay (John Bromfield), is not the heir who will take over the sprawling Furies property, it’s Vance.

But why shouldn’t a western be packed with flowery language and dense plotting? Well, no reason at all. It’s merely generic conventions that make us think the Old West was a place mostly populated by drifters and outlaws, and where quick-draw shootouts were the order of the day.

The Furies is not a typical western, and I think that’s a good thing. I could definitely see this being a movie I come back to again and again, finding new things to like in it each time. Stanwyck gives a pretty amazing performance, and the film still offers plenty of the traditional pleasures we look for in westerns, like gorgeous cinematography of wide-open spaces and larger-than-life characters.

The only really sour note in the film — and something I doubt I’ll ever warm up to — is Rip Darrow, the character played by Wendell Corey. As an actor, Corey is bereft of charisma and the character he plays is despicable, and not in a way that’s fun to watch.

By the way, I didn’t realize until I finished writing this review and watched the trailer above that Niven Busch, who wrote the novel The Furies, also wrote the novel Duel in the Sun. That explains why they felt so similar.

Broken Arrow (July 21, 1950)

Broken Arrow
Broken Arrow (1950)
Directed by Delmer Daves
20th Century-Fox

1950 was an interesting year for the Hollywood western. It was also an interesting year for the movie career of James Stewart, who appeared in two significant westerns that were released that summer, Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow.

They’re both good films, and they presaged greater things on the horizon for Stewart, who was already a huge star, but was now on his way to becoming a bona fide western star, too. Broken Arrow and Winchester ’73 were also a sign of things to come, since the ’50s was the decade that the Hollywood western matured, opening itself to new possibilities and more complex storytelling, like The Gunfighter, released around the same time.

Broken Arrow and Winchester ’73 would make an entertaining double bill, but unless you’re one of those people who can’t stand to watch movies in black & white, I guarantee that you will find Winchester ’73 the more exciting and engaging film.

Broken Arrow is well-made and well-acted, but it’s more significant for its portrayal of American Indians than it is for being a cracking piece of entertainment, like Winchester ’73 is.

Stewart

Not only does Broken Arrow present a sympathetic view of the Apache and their leader, Cochise, but it acknowledges that the beginning of the war between the Apache and the US Army involved broken truces and wholesale slaughter on the part of the cavalry against the Apaches. The film does a good job of depicting the Arizona territory in the midst of war; both sides hate each other with a passion, and enough atrocities have been committed on both sides for peace to be a far-fetched hope.

Enter Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), a former cavalry scout who learns firsthand that the Apaches are far from the inhuman savages he always believed them to be. He desires to broker a peace deal between Cochise (Jeff Chandler) and the United States, so he learns everything he can about Apache customs, beliefs, and language, and sets off to meet Cochise.

Stewart and Chandler

Broken Arrow is based on the historical novel Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold. The screenplay was written by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz. (The writer listed in the credits of the film is Michael Blankfort, who acted as a front for Maltz.)

The main problem with the movie is that while there are a bunch of Native American actors employed as extras, most of the key players among the Apache are portrayed by white actors wearing makeup.

I have to give credit to Jeff Chandler, who delivers a great performance as Cochise. I listen to a lot of old radio shows, and at first it was weird to hear a voice I recognized so well coming out of the mouth of a supposed Apache. (Chandler played the science teacher, Mr. Boynton, on Our Miss Brooks, but I know him best as the radio version of private detective Michael Shayne, “that reckless, red-headed Irishman.”) But once I settled in, I enjoyed Chandler’s portrayal, which is nuanced and mostly free of stereotypical vocal inflections.

Stewart and Paget

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Debra Paget as “Sonseeahray,” Tom Jeffords’s historically nonexistent love interest. The 16-year-old Paget is cute as a button, but she’s about as convincing an American Indian as Disney’s Pocahontas.

The most significant Apache character in the film played by an actual Native American is Geronimo, who is played by Jay Silverheels (best known as the Lone Ranger’s best friend Tonto on the long-running TV series). Silverheels has one really good dramatic scene as Geronimo and then leaves the Apache tribe to continue waging war against the United States on his own.

Delmer Daves would go on to make one of my favorite westerns of the ’50s, the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Broken Arrow is also good, but I wouldn’t quite call it a classic. It’s incredibly progressive in a lot of ways, and a refreshing change from westerns in which American Indian tribes were faceless hordes, so if you can get past the cognitive dissonance of seeing Apache characters played by white actors, there’s a lot to recommend Broken Arrow.

The Men (July 20, 1950)

The Men
The Men (1950)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Stanley Kramer Productions / United Artists

The reason most people these days will watch The Men is to see Marlon Brando in his first film role. In fact, this is probably the only place to see Marlon Brando before he became “BRANDO,” since the next film he made was A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which cemented his status as an icon.

So it’s certainly worth seeing for fans of Brando, but it’s also a pretty solid movie about the aftermath of war, and about people coming to terms with disability.

Brando stars as a corporal named Ken who was wounded in World War II and lost the use of his legs. The Men takes place in a VA hospital where the gruff Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane) treats a group of combat veterans who will never walk again. Dr. Brock has the demeanor of a drill instructor, and works to disabuse the men in his care of the notion that there is a miracle cure around the corner. The sooner they accept their paraplegia, the sooner they can work toward healing their bodies and their minds.

Brando

In the hospital, Brando is just one man among many, and the cast includes actors like Jack Webb, but also actual veterans who lost the use of their legs in the war, like Arthur Jurado, a bodybuilder with a very impressive physique.

The director of The Men, Fred Zinnemann, is best known for making High Noon (1952), but he directed a lot of good movies, and this is one of them. I thought his last two films — The Search (1948) (which introduced another ’50s acting icon, Montgomery Clift, to film audiences) and Act of Violence (1948) — were both minor masterpieces.

The Men has a lot more in common with the European postwar drama The Search than it does with the noir potboiler Act of Violence. Like The Search, The Men could have easily been turned into a sentimental, overwrought mess in another director’s hands, but Zinnemann was an unsentimental and restrained director who trusted his actors.

It’s a dated film in plenty of ways, but it’s still a pretty well-made and moving story about the effects of catastrophic disability, as well as the disconnect between combat veterans and the well-meaning people back home who thank them for their service but can’t relate to what they’ve been through. It’s also a great showcase for Marlon Brando. As this film shows, he arrived onscreen with his persona fully formed.

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