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Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Gunfighter (June 23, 1950)

The Gunfighter
The Gunfighter (1950)
Directed by Henry King
20th Century-Fox

The 1950s was the decade during which the western genre finally grew up. The Saturday-afternoon kiddie westerns didn’t go away, but the ’50s was when Hollywood started regularly turning out serious, adult dramas that happened to take place in the Old West.

Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) is regularly cited as the first “adult western.” In my recent review of that movie, I talked about why I disagree with that assessment. There were plenty of westerns aimed at adults before Winchester ’73, most notably the films of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and André De Toth.

Winchester ’73 is a good movie, and is a notable example of the “adult western.” But since it wasn’t really the first (I mean, John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, for crying out loud), if we’re going to anoint a single film as the one that ushered in a new era of realism and adult drama for the western at the dawn of the ’50s, I would like to propose Henry King’s The Gunfighter.

Gregory Peck

The Gunfighter stars Gregory Peck as an aging gunslinger named Jimmy Ringo. He has lived to the ripe old age of 35 by being a fast draw, but he’s tired.

In the opening scene of the film, we see that he avoids trouble as much as he can, but trouble finds him everywhere he goes, and he takes no pleasure in shooting young hotheads who want to test their skills against the fastest gun in the West. Ringo is a lonely man who drifts from town to town, never staying in one place for long. All he wants is to escape his reputation and settle down somewhere.

Like another great “adult” western that would come out a couple of years later — High Noon — much of The Gunfighter takes place more or less in real time. With three men on his trail who mean to kill him, Ringo rides into the little town of Cayenne, New Mexico, where his old friend Mark Strett is now a U.S. Marshal. (Strett is played by Millard Mitchell, who also had a major supporting role in Winchester ’73.)

The hands on the clock tick forward as Ringo waits in a saloon run by another of his old acquaintances, Mac (Karl Malden). Word quickly spreads through town, and a crowd gathers outside the saloon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Jimmy Ringo.

At the same time we count down the hours with the tired and worn-out Ringo, we see the making of his replacement, a reedy punk with a wisp of a mustache named Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier).

Ringo desperately wants to see his old love Peggy (Helen Westcott), and the young son they had together. Over the course of the film, we learn that Marshal Mark Strett was also a lawless gunslinger for a time, just like Ringo, but he settled down and found respectability before it was too late. Ringo desperately hopes it is not too late for him, either.

Peck and Westcott

This was the second film in a row that director Henry King made with star Gregory Peck. The first was Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and the two would go on to make a bunch more films together throughout the ’50s.

Like Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter is a character study of an impossibly tough and highly skilled man who is slowly humanized over the course of the film.

The Gunfighter contains most of the important tropes of the western, like the myth of the fast draw and the tension between community and lawlessness. The town of Cayenne is populated with fully realized characters and feels like a real community. It’s also grungier and more lived-in than the freshly painted communities in Winchester ’73, with gnarled trees and rivulets of water running down Main Street. And unlike the fresh-faced actors who populated Hollywood westerns, Peck’s bushy, drooping mustache is actually period-appropriate. (Incidentally, Darryl F. Zanuck hated Peck’s mustache in The Gunfighter, and blamed it for the the film’s mediocre performance at the box office.)

The Gunfighter is a classically structured tragedy set in the Old West. It’s a great film about public perception versus quiet, private reality, as well as the collision of our individual desires with inescapable fate.

I looked for a trailer on YouTube, and couldn’t find a trailer from 1950, but I found this fan edit, which is done in a modern style. I think it’s pretty well-done and effective:

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Tarzan and the Slave Girl (June 23, 1950)

Tarzan and the Slave Girl
Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950)
Directed by Lee Sholem
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Lex Barker’s second go-round as Tarzan made me miss Johnny Weissmuller just a little bit more than his first.

Part of it was that I just didn’t find Tarzan and the Slave Girl as entertaining as Barker’s first go-round as the character, Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), but I think it was also because the novelty was starting to wear off.

I’m not trying to dump on Barker, who’s fine in the role, and certainly a beautiful physical specimen. Saying that another actor isn’t as good as Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan is akin to lamenting that no one was a better James Bond than Sean Connery.

Some fans of the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs complain about Weissmuller’s pidgin English and monosyllabic dialogue, since the Tarzan of the original novels, Lord Greystoke, grew past his feral beginnings to become a cultured and well-spoken superhuman lord of the jungle. However, I think everything about Weissmuller’s interpretation of the character works in the movies. His difficulty with English emphasizes his magnificent physical qualities, and makes Maureen O’Sullivan (who played Jane in the first six Tarzan movies opposite Weissmuller) a better partner for him, since she has skills that her mate lacks.

Tarzan and the slave girls

The good news is that every Tarzan movie delivers a decent amount of entertainment, and Tarzan and the Slave Girl is no different. If you’re looking for lovely half-naked bodies, animal action, jungle stock footage, and drunken chimp antics, then this movie delivers.

The plot is the typical mishmash that Tarzan movie fans are used to. Deep in the jungles of an Africa that in no way resembles anyplace on the actual continent, a group of white men from a tribe called the “Lionians” are kidnapping young women from other tribes. The young women they kidnap are also white, and mostly look like a casting call for Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell types.

Tarzan (Lex Barker) and his mate Jane (played for the first and only time by Vanessa Brown) are embroiled in this plot when the Lionians kidnap Jane and a woman named Lola (Denise Darcel), and Tarzan must rush to their rescue.

Whatever else this film might lack, it’s certainly full of leering shots of its female stars. Not only do Jane and Lola engage in a catfight for no particular reason, soon afterward they are captured by the Lionian slavers, and the long, lingering closeup of Darcel and Brown both rubbing their feet and ankles when they are shackled together made me wonder if director Sholem was taking some inspiration from Irving Klaw’s fetish films.

In fact, the casting of Darcel, a French actress whom we last saw as the only female character in the war movie Battleground (1949), seems like a way to make sure every heterosexual male viewer’s taste is catered to. Vanessa Brown, who plays Jane, is very slender and youthful-looking, whereas Darcel is fleshy and sexy.

Darcel and Brown

At this point in time, Tarzan and the Slave Girl is probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. If you’ve never seen a Tarzan movie, you have tons to choose from. The best place to start is probably with the first two Weissmuller flicks; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), which is arguably the greatest Tarzan film of all time.

However, if you are a hardcore Tarzan fan and have seen all the Weissmuller films, the Barker films are not without their pleasures. They’re solid Saturday matinee viewing, and for my money that’s never a bad thing.

Armored Car Robbery (June 8, 1950)

Armored Car Robbery
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery was originally conceived and shot with the title “Code 3,” but RKO Radio Pictures opted for extreme truth in advertising. It’s a great example of the kind of tough, no-nonsense B-noir that RKO specialized in.

Fleischer had an extraordinarily long career in Hollywood. He directed his first short in 1943, and worked throughout the 1940s making short features and short documentaries, as well as low-budget features that no one remembers, like Child of Divorce (1946) and Banjo (1947).

Fleischer worked consistently throughout the decades, and went on to make huge movies that everyone remembers, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973). His directorial style is hard to pin down, as are any personal or authorial touches. Fleischer made movies in practically every genre; film noir, science fiction, war movies, horror flicks, and docudramas. He made trash classics like Mandingo (1975) and the remake The Jazz Singer (1980), which starred Neil Diamond. Toward the end of his career, Fleischer made entertainingly bad movies like Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1984).

Back in the 1940s, Fleischer was one of those competent, hard-working craftsmen who toiled away in the studio system and produced movies that were entertaining, but not particularly memorable. (He was the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, who created Popeye and Betty Boop, as well as the great Superman cartoons of the early 1940s.)

The last movie Richard Fleischer directed that I reviewed was Bodyguard (1948), which starred legendary tough guy Lawrence Tierney. Because there are always more movies to watch than I can possibly make time for, I missed Fleischer’s next few flicks, The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Make Mine Laughs (1949), and Trapped (1949).

McGuire and McGraw

I almost passed on Armored Car Robbery, but I decided to give it a watch for two reasons. First, it’s a heist movie that came close on the heels of one of the greatest and most game-changing heist movies of all time, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Second, it stars granite-jawed tough guy Charles McGraw, whom Fleischer would direct again in one of my favorite noir thrillers of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952).

So I wanted to see how Armored Car Robbery stacked up against The Asphalt Jungle, and I wanted to see what Fleischer and McGraw were getting up to before they made The Narrow Margin together.

Considering its small budget and tight shooting schedule, Armored Car Robbery stacks up pretty well against The Asphalt Jungle. The heist is not nearly as detailed, but it’s believable, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off.

Like Fleischer’s Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery features a lot of location shooting in Los Angeles. For instance, the heist takes place outside Wrigley Field. (I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that in Chicago, where the Cubs play?) In Los Angeles, Wrigley Field was a ballpark that was in operation from 1925 to 1965 and demolished in 1969. It was built by the same chewing-gum magnate who build the other Wrigley Field.

The leader of the heist crew, played by William Talman, calls in a series of false reports outside Wrigley Field, then observes police response times. He puts together a string of heavies, including dependable baby-faced heavy Steve Brodie and dependable haggard-looking heavy Gene Evans, along with an oily Lothario played by Douglas Fowley.

If you’ve seen a heist movie before, you’ll know that the best laid plans often go awry. Talman is shtupping Fowley’s girl on the side, which can’t possibly turn out well. Incidentally, Fowley’s girl is played by the lovely and talented B-pictures mainstay Adele Jergens, who gets to show off her gams as a burlesque dancer. Armored Car Robbery gives her a nastier, more fun role than the one she played as a dancer in Ladies of the Chorus (1948), in which the 30-year-old Jergens played Marilyn Monroe’s mother(!).

McGraw and Jergens

After the commission of the heist, Armored Car Robbery is a tightly paced cat and mouse thriller in which the robbery crew narrowly avoids capture by the police as McGraw and his new partner track down leads. A lot of it is shot quickly and unpretentiously, but the cinematography by Guy Roe is always excellent, especially in the nighttime set-ups and the paranoia-inducing low-angle shots when the crew is beginning to unravel.

Armored Car Robbery is great entertainment, and a wonderful showcase for its dependable cast. If you’ve never seen Charles McGraw in a movie before, Narrow Margin is a great place to start, but Armored Car Robbery isn’t a bad place to start either. And it contains the memorable moment when McGraw comforts a friend whose husband has just died with three words, “Tough break, Marsha.” In his book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, Alan K. Rode called it “the bluntest expression of bereavement in film history.”

Armored Car Robbery will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Friday, July 10, 2015, at 12:15 PM (ET).