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Tag Archives: Coleen Gray

Red River (Aug. 26, 1948)

Red River
Red River (1948)
Directed by Howard Hawks
United Artists

Howard Hawks shot Red River in 1946, but its release was delayed due to legal difficulties. The eccentric Howard Hughes contended that parts of Red River were taken from his “lust in the dust” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her magnificent breasts.

Anyone who’s seen both Red River and The Outlaw can tell you that any claim of story infringement is spurious, but there was bad blood between Hughes and Hawks (Hawks had worked on The Outlaw as an uncredited co-director), and it took until August 26, 1948, before Red River finally had its premiere.

So while Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) was the film that introduced many moviegoers to Montgomery Clift, Red River was his first acting role in a feature film.

Clift was a born movie star. He was achingly handsome, rail-thin, and blessed with a uniquely vulnerable type of masculinity. On screen, he had a presence that seemed completely natural. Red River is a phenomenal western that works on a number of different levels, but one of its most important aspects is the relationship between Clift and the film’s star, John Wayne.

Wayne and Clift were on opposite ends of the spectrum in every way imaginable; politically, professionally, physically, and sexually. But it’s this contrast that makes Red River work so well.

Wayne and Clift

Red River is the story of a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail up from Texas. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a big, tough cattleman who took his land by force.

When Dunson was first establishing his grazing land with his best friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), the woman Dunson loved (Coleen Gray) was murdered by Comanches, and he never loved another.

The sole survivor of the massacre, a young man named Matt Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn) came wandering through the land, leading a cow. Dunson’s bull mated with Garth’s cow, and from this union eventually grew a herd of more than 10,000 longhorns.*

Fourteen years pass, and Garth grows up, now played by Montgomery Clift. The Civil War has ended, and Dunson is no longer able to sell beeves to the impoverished southern states. He decides that he’ll drive his entire herd north to Missouri, where they’ll fetch a fortune. He’s spent his life building his empire, and he wants to pass it down to Matt Garth, his protégé.

The only problem is that Dunson’s greatest strength — his unbending will — is also his greatest weakness, which eventually puts him at loggerheads with the more even-tempered and empathetic Garth.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift

Borden Chase, who wrote the Saturday Evening Post story on which Red River was based (as well as the screenplay for the film with Charles Schnee), drew liberally from Mutiny on the Bounty in crafting his story.

Despite the fact that his middle name was “Winchester,” this was Howard Hawks’s first directorial credit for a western, which is remarkable considering he’d been directing films since the 1920s and had more than one masterpiece under his belt.

In addition to his own estimable talents as a director, Hawks had some of the finest crew members who ever worked on a Hollywood western when he made Red River. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is epic. Editor Christian Nyby’s cutting drives the film forward with relentless intensity. And cinematographer Russell Harlan had toiled away for years working on B pictures (mostly westerns) before finally breaking into A pictures with Lewis Milestone’s war movie A Walk in the Sun (1945). He went on to become one of the best cinematographers in the business, and his work on Red River is proof.

Red River is one of the greatest westerns ever made. As I said above, it works on a number of different levels. At its most basic level, Red River is a rousing adventure film about men on a dangerous mission, struggling against the elements and against each other. But on a deeper level, it’s a timeless myth about fathers and sons.

Red River will be shown on TCM this Friday, March 1, 2013, at 10:15 PM ET.

*If you’re a fan of sexual innuendo in old movies, the scene in Red River in which Matt Garth and gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) compare revolvers is a classic. Many see a gay subtext, which could be there, but gay men hardly have a monopoly on comparing phalluses to see whose is bigger. I think the sexual bonding between men in Red River goes much deeper. Remember that the herd being driven up the Chisholm Trail in Red River are all descended from the union between John Wayne’s bull and Montgomery Clift’s cow. Even though Dunson and Garth are not blood relations, they are bound together.

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Fury at Furnace Creek (April 30, 1948)

Fury at Furnace Creek might not be a towering classic of western cinema, but I think I flat-out enjoyed it more than any other western I’ve seen recently.

I’ve never been a big fan of Victor Mature, but when he had good material to work with — My Darling Clementine (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947), for instance — he could be an engaging performer. I thought it made a lot of sense for him to play Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine as a drunk and a gambler, since Mature always looked more at home in a saloon than he did riding the range.

Fury at Furnace Creek allows Mature to stick with this formula, more or less. He plays Cash Blackwell, a fast-on-the-draw gambler who goes undercover to clear his father’s name.

His father, General Fletcher Blackwell (Robert Warwick), died of a stroke during court martial proceedings against him, and not because things we’re going well at his trial. In 1880, the Furnace Hills were still Apache territory, but rumors that the Apaches were using silver in their bullets led to a clamor for the region to be opened to mining. Gen. Blackwell stood accused of issuing an order that left a wagon train unprotected, and the prosecutor implied that this was done purposefully to draw the Apaches into an attack, which directly led to the opening of the area to white settlement.

The evidence is there, too. There is an order, signed by Gen. Blackwell, that supports the prosecution’s case. But even faced with this evidence, Gen. Blackwell still denied ever issuing the order, and he died with the shame of guilt hanging over him.

Enter Cash Blackwell, estranged from his family, but not estranged enough that he doesn’t care about his father’s good name. He goes undercover in Furnace Creek, now a boom town of 10,000 settlers, miners, and merchants. Calling himself “Tex Cameron,” Cash ingratiates himself to the local syndicate by saving the life of Capt. Grover A. Walsh (Reginald Gardiner) at the gambling tables. A gunman named Bird (Fred Clark) planted a card on Capt. Walsh so he could accuse him of cheating and shoot him dead, but Cash sees through the ploy, and puts a bullet in Bird’s gun hand.

“When a man can knock the knuckles off a moving hand at ten paces, I want him on Mr. Leverett’s side,” says Al Shanks (Roy Roberts).

Edward Leverett (Al Dekker) is the head of the Furnace Creek Mining and Development Syndicate, and it’s clear that he’s up to no good, but it’s not clear what his connection to Gen. Blackwell was.

In addition to his detective work, Cash finds time to romance the pretty Molly Baxter (Coleen Gray, who also starred with Mature in Kiss of Death). Molly’s father Bruce died in the massacre at Fort Furnace Creek, and she hates Gen. Blackwell with a passion, potentially complicating things.

And before long, Cash’s brother Capt. Rufe Blackwell (Glenn Langan) also shows up in Furnace Creek with his own plan to clear his father’s name.

Fury at Furnace Creek has a lot of moving parts, but the plot never feels crowded or confusing. Full of coincidences, sure, but not confusing. It’s genuinely suspenseful, and I wasn’t sure how things were going to resolve themselves. It’s a film that occupies the same basic physical space as John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), but it takes a completely different approach to the western genre. There’s no self-conscious myth-making or grand statements in Fury at Furnace Creek, it’s just a solid, grown-up western with good production values. The music nicely sets the scene, with strains of the cowboy ballad “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” popping up frequently in the score.

The director of Fury at Furnace Creek, Bruce Humberstone (sometimes credited as “H. Bruce Humberstone”), began his career in the silent era and ended up working in just about every genre Hollywood deigned to dip its toe in; musicals, film noir, westerns, war pictures, Charlie Chan mysteries, Tarzan adventures, sports comedies … the list goes on and on. Fury at Furnace Creek is not a great work of art, but it’s made with real flair and craftsmanship. It’s exciting, action-packed, and suspenseful. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot and recommend it to anyone who likes westerns from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

Nightmare Alley (Oct. 9, 1947)

Nightmare Alley is a harrowing tale of manipulation and degradation. It’s a journey through a night-lit carnival world in which everyone is out for themselves and no one cares who they chew up and spit out if it means climbing one more rung on the ladder.

It was Tyrone Power’s second film directed by Edmund Goulding, and it’s miles ahead of their first collaboration, The Razor’s Edge (1946).

While The Razor’s Edge was more acclaimed at the time of its release — four Oscar nominations and one win — it’s aged poorly, and the Eastern mysticism at its center is supposed to be profound but is really just high-minded hokum.

Power made The Razor’s Edge with Goulding as a deliberate attempt to break out of the mold he’d been cast in as a handsome swashbuckler with a limited range. His performance wasn’t bad, but at times it seemed forced.

In Nightmare Alley, however, he completely loses himself in his character. His performance as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle — a grasping, duplicitous carny who graduates to tony nightclub performances and fleecing the wealthy — is so natural that I think someone who’d never heard of Tyrone Power before seeing Nightmare Alley would never guess that he wasn’t always seen as a serious actor.

Stan is one of the most memorable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a drifter who joins a carnival and attaches himself to an aging mentalist named Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her husband, broken-down alcoholic Pete (Ian Keith), then throws both of them aside when he’s learned all he can from them.

He takes up with Molly (played by the stunningly beautiful Coleen Gray), much to the dismay of her boyfriend, the brutish, simple-minded carnival strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki). Using the techniques he learned from Pete and Zeena for cold reading a subject and conveying information through a spoken code, he and Molly take their mind-reading act to posh nightclubs, where they’re a sensation. Stan is more than just a quick study. He has an innate ability to see through people and glean their pasts, their innermost desires, and their secrets. The fact that he uses his talents to take people’s money doesn’t bother him, but it bothers Molly, who’s the only character in the film who’s essentially good and decent.

I love the scene in which Stan breaks down and finally uses the oldest trick in the book on Molly. He admits he’s a bad person and a hustler, but that he’s never lied to her. He may have used everyone else in his life, but he’s never used her.

This is, of course, also a lie, which becomes clear when he tosses Molly aside for Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), consulting psychologist to Chicago’s upper crust, and uses Lilith’s knowledge of the intimate details of the lives of the wealthy to take them for all they’re worth.

While The Razor’s Edge was about Power’s character’s spiritual awakening, Nightmare Alley is about his character’s use of spiritual tropes to lie, cheat, and steal. Maybe it’s just the cynical age in which we live, but I thought that The Razor’s Edge came off as disingenuous, while Nightmare Alley was utterly convincing.

Nightmare Alley is based on the best-selling novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Certain aspects of the novel had to be sanitized for the film version, but it’s still a kick to the stomach. Its story of degradation is so powerfully told that there are many people who saw the film a long time ago and claim that there was a horrifying scene that was deleted for the DVD release. The scene they remember never existed (even in the novel), but it’s easy to see why they think they saw it. Like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Nightmare Alley uses the power of suggestion to make you remember horrifying things that you never actually see. It’s a great film, and one that will stay with you a long time after the credits have rolled.

Kiss of Death (Aug. 27, 1947)

Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest film noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946).

The film begins with the following words: “All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story.”

Unlike The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, however, this commitment to veracity isn’t in service of a true-ish retelling of World War II-era espionage, but of a hard-boiled crime drama about a three-time loser facing 15 years in stir after being nabbed for a jewel robbery.

His name is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and if he wants to watch his two little girls grow up, he’s going to have to stool for the district attorney’s office.

Bianco has been in this position before, and he took the full four-year rap instead of squealing.

“I’m the same guy now I was then. Nothin’ has changed. Nothin’,” he tells Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

On his way up the river to Sing Sing, Nick meets a cackling, sociopathic hood named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Udo won’t show up again for awhile, but he’ll play a major role in Nick’s life when he does.

For awhile, Nick stays clammed up, but then his wife Maria commits suicide and he starts to rethink matters. When a pretty girl from his old neighborhood, Nettie (Coleen Gray), comes to visit him in Sing Sing and tells him that the driver on the jewelry job, a guy named Pete Rizzo, was responsible for Mrs. Bianco putting her head in the oven, Nick decides he wants to talk to the D.A. and secure his release in exchange for information. (In the original story, it was implied that Rizzo raped Nick’s wife, but that’s sidestepped in the final version, making it seem more as if she was having an affair with Rizzo.)

Nick trusts Assistant D.A. D’Angelo enough to tumble to a job in his past that he got away with — the Thompson Fur Company heist — to provide a cover for his trips to the D.A.’s office. D’Angelo promises that he’ll drop the charges later for insufficient evidence.

Things are looking up for Nick. He’s able to care for his daughters, and he’s eventually paroled, leaving him free to marry Nettie.

But as soon as Tommy Udo — Nick’s old pal from the trip up to Sing Sing — re-enters his life, things go very bad very quickly. Udo is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wrapping up an older wheelchair-bound woman (played by Mildred Dunnock) in electrical cord and pushing her down a long flight of stairs, in one of the most enduring scenes of cinematic sociopathy.

Kiss of Death was Richard Widmark’s film debut, and his balls-out crazy performance is something to behold. The filmmakers thought that Widmark’s high forehead made him look too intelligent, so they outfitted him with a low-browed hairpiece. Like Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Widmark’s performance as Tommy Udo straddles the line between gangster movie and monster movie. Director Hathaway had toyed with the idea of casting the manic Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who sang the 1944 druggie classic “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” as Udo, but it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Widmark in the role.

The screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from a story by Eleazar Lipsky originally called “Stoolpigeon.” Lipsky was a novelist who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. He was also legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Perhaps because of Lipsky’s day job, the realism of the setting of Kiss of Death is matched by the actions of its characters. Brian Donlevy, in the role of Assistant D.A. D’Angelo, is neither a hero nor a villain. When he tells Nick that he’s going to have to testify in court after all, and later that it was all for nothing, and that Tommy Udo was acquitted and is probably coming after Nick, the viewer gets the sense that D’Angelo genuinely cares for Nick, but that at the same time, putting Nick’s life in danger is just part of the job. D’Angelo might not like it, but he accepts it as a necessary evil.

Interestingly, the fictional Kiss of Death comes off as a more realistic film than either The House on 92nd Street (1945) or 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both of which touted the “true” stories that were their inspirations. Although not every scene in Kiss of Death was shot on the actual locale associated with the story, as the title card promises (some of the interiors were clearly shot in a studio), the use of real New York City and Upstate New York locations coupled with realistic dialogue, understated performances from all the cast besides Widmark, and extremely sparse use of background music makes for a powerful, engrossing drama. There are standout set pieces, like the jewel heist in the Chrysler Building that opens the film, and spectacular shots of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, and the Triborough Bridge from the Queens side of the East River, but there are also lots of little touches that give the film its sense of realism. When Nick watches his daughters during their music lesson at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the piano is slightly out of tune. When Nick sits in his cell at Sing Sing, the toilet in the cell is clearly visible, which is something you’d never see in a prison cell built on a Hollywood soundstage in the ’40s. (Incidentally, prior to shooting the scenes in Sing Sing, Hathaway had both Victor Mature and Richard Widmark processed through the system to give them a better sense of the characters they were playing.)

Kiss of Death isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands up to repeated viewings, and its use of music and location are both revolutionary. If you don’t believe me, take it from Walter Winchell…