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Tag Archives: Dimitri Tiomkin

Champion (April 9, 1949)

Champion
Champion (1949)
Directed by Mark Robson
United Artists

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Mark Robson’s Champion is not a film about a man destroyed by fame. It’s a film about a man whose resentment, anger, selfishness, and cruelty are given free rein by fame and fortune.

It’s not an uplifting film, but it’s an occasionally powerful one, since it depicts a man who stands up to everyone who tries to take advantage of him, mistreats everyone who ever cared about him, and becomes middleweight champion of the world and dies of a brain hemorrhage without ever showing an ounce of remorse.

It’s also a tremendous showcase for Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He played an uncharacteristically milquetoast character in that film, but his next role, in Out of the Past (1947), was more of an indication of what lay ahead for Douglas. His character “Dink” in Out of the Past is a vicious crime boss, as was the character he played opposite Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone (1948).

Not every character Douglas played in the 1940s was a strutting, snarling alpha male — his wonderful performance in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is a great example of his range — but he excelled at playing macho men, and Champion cemented that image. With his jutting cleft chin, puffed-out chest, intense eyes, and lean, muscular physique, Douglas dominates every scene in Champion.

If Kirk Douglas had a spirit animal, it would probably be a banty rooster.

Kirk Douglas in Champion

Douglas’s physical intensity carries him through Champion fairly well, which is good, because he’s not that convincing as a boxer. He looks the part, but he doesn’t move like a world-class middleweight. He lacks the right combination of speed and power.

Champion was based on a story by Ring Lardner and was nominated for six Academy Awards (best actor for Douglas, best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy, best screenplay for Carl Foreman, best score for Dimitri Tiomkin, best black & white cinematography for Franz Planer, and best editing for Harry Gerstad), and won one — the Oscar for editing.

But now that almost 70 years have passed, I think Champion compares really unfavorably to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), which was released around the same time and was nominated for zero Oscars. First of all, Robert Ryan boxed as an amateur heavyweight, so he was utterly convincing as a professional fighter who loses more often than he wins. (Asking us to accept Douglas as the world middleweight champion is too much, I think.)

Also, The Set-Up is a tightly coiled masterpiece from beginning to end, while Champion feels sloppy. Douglas’s training and his rise up the boxing rankings are both done as cheesy montages with a light tone. The film doesn’t really get going until more than a half hour has passed, when Douglas’s character, Michael “Midge” Kelly, refuses to throw a fight to Johnny Dunne (John Daheim). For the next hour, Champion is a good film. Not a great film, but a good one. The always-great Arthur Kennedy turns in a good performance as Midge’s sad-sack brother, Connie, and Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell are both good as the women Midge uses and abuses.

Kirk Douglas

I found the penultimate sequence of the film particularly harrowing, but modern-day viewers might miss its implications.

Ruth Roman’s character, Emma, is romanced by Midge early in the film, which leads to her father forcing them to marry at gunpoint. As soon as it’s official, however, Midge drops her like a bad habit, and she eventually finds love with his brother Connie.

Toward the end of the film, when Emma is preparing to get a divorce from Midge in Reno so she can marry Connie, Midge forces himself on her. He kisses her, says “It’s still there, isn’t it?” She walks away from him and says, “Leave me alone.” He walks toward her and says, “You’re my wife.” She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.

Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it’s significant that the fade-to-black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line “You’re my wife” strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It’s his legal right, and the concept of “marital rape” was not a criminal act in 1949. But it’s a rape, and it’s a violation of his brother’s trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother’s rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.

After Midge wins his final fight and collapses and dies in his dressing room, the press asks Connie for a statement. “He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end,” Connie says, because he can’t bring himself to say that Midge was a credit to humanity, or to anyone else.

Much like Midge Kelly himself, Champion was a hard film for me to like. It’s a good movie, but not nearly as good as some of its contemporaries, like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up.

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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.

The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné’s 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler’s rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné’s film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. “How can I explain when I don’t understand myself?” he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. “Class of ’34,” he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe as a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian’s actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian’s assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She’s in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It’s unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there’s plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of “poetic reality,” and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes’s long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.

Duel in the Sun (Dec. 31, 1946)

Producer David O. Selznick was never able to equal the success of Gone With the Wind (which received the Oscar for best picture in 1939), but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

His next film, Rebecca (1940), also won the Academy Award for best picture, and his films Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945) were both nominated. With the advent of the auteur theory, Rebecca and Spellbound are remembered primarily as Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but Selznick’s power and influence in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s can’t be underestimated.

Selznick spent two years making Duel in the Sun, at an unprecedented cost of $6 million. He spent another $2 million on promotion, which was equally unheard-of at the time. (Some of the more novel advertising methods were 5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing.)

The trailer for the film proclaimed that it was “the picture of a thousand memorable moments,” and that’s true. The problem is that one memorable moment after another doesn’t necessarily add up to a single memorable film. The cinematography by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan is occasionally breathtaking, and there are a few shots that are among the best I’ve ever seen on film, but there’s nothing to anchor them.

Like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun was credited to a single director, but there were more directors who worked on the film who never received credit. King Vidor is the man who got his name in the credits, but Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.

Duel in the Sun is a pretentious, overblown mess, but it’s worth seeing at least once in your life. Of course, you have to get through the “prelude” that opens the film. The word PRELUDE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunrise, accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. As if that wasn’t enough, the prelude is followed by an overture. The word OVERTURE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunset. The narrator (an uncredited Orson Welles) gives us a taste of what we’re about to see, but it’s still 12 minutes of nothing but Tiomkin’s music and two static images. Hell of a way to start a picture.

Anyway, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything, even an insane story about a “renegade Creole squaw-man” named Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who’s hanged for murdering his lusty Indian wife and her lover. Before his execution, Mr. Chavez arranges for his half-breed daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones), to live with his second cousin and old flame Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).

The kind-hearted Laura Belle welcomes Pearl with open arms, but her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), is less charitable. “I didn’t spend thirty years on this place to turn it into no Injun reservation,” he growls.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the two McCanles sons, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the brutish Lewt (Gregory Peck, in a rare role as a villain). Pearl is never really accepted into the family, and lives in servants’ quarters. Shortly after she arrives to stay, Lewt swaggers into her room one night and forces himself on her. She kisses him back savagely at the last second, so it’s not quite rape, but the implication is still there.

There are a lot of jump cuts in Duel in the Sun. Some are necessary — like when Cotten slaps Peck across the face and then the scene cuts to a closer shot in which Peck’s cheek is scratched and blood is pouring out of his mouth — but most seem like a byproduct of sloppy filmmaking, or a big-budget epic sprawling out of control.

Lewt promises to marry Pearl, but quickly backs out. When a kindly rancher named Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) proposes to her, however, Lewt murders him. Afterward, he tells Pearl, “Anybody who was my girl is still my girl. That’s the kind of guy I am. You know … loyal.”

Duel in the Sun came to be pejoratively known as Lust in the Dust, which is a more apt title. Jennifer Jones appears in all manner of undress and compromising positions, and looks great doing it. It’s sometimes called a “Freudian” western, but I didn’t see much that was Freudian about it, except for the stunning final 10 minutes. The finale is the most overwrought and ridiculous expression of the intertwined relationship between Eros and Thanatos that I’ve ever seen.

Duel in the Sun was never a hit with critics, but it was the second biggest box office success of 1947. It ran into more censorship trouble than any film since Howard Hughes’s “roll-in-the-hay” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her enormous breasts, and at least some of the notoriety of Duel in the Sun came from the very public knowledge that Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick were both cheating on their spouses with each other.

In 1948, Selznick retired from producing films. Duel in the Sun might not be the apotheosis of his 20 year-long career in terms of quality, but it’s probably the wildest, weirdest, sexiest, and campiest movie that the chain-smoking, amphetamine-popping Lothario ever produced. And it sure is pretty to look at.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m not alone. When I was a kid, not a Christmas went by that it wasn’t shown on television multiple times. For many families, it’s required holiday viewing.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the film in its entirety until I’d already seen bits and pieces over the years and seen it satirized and referred to in countless TV shows and movies.

My first memory of seeing part of it was on my grandmother’s 13″ black & white TV. The film was almost over, and I had no idea what it was about. George Bailey (James Stewart) is experiencing what life would have been like if he’d never been born. He’s disheveled and looks terrified. Police officer Bert (Ward Bond) and cab driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) watch as he explores the abandoned, ramshackle version of his own home. The scene is full of darkness and shadows. It has the look of a film noir, and I found it scary.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you might think it’s the exact opposite — sappy and sentimental — but that’s not the case. It’s a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. The most famous part of the film — George seeing what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, NY, if he’d never been born — occupies a relatively small amount of the total running time. Most of the film tells the story of an ordinary man who ended up living a very different life than he dreamed he would.

When he was young, George dreamed of going to college, traveling the world, and becoming a titan of industry. His life is an emotional game of tug. He puts off college, stays in Bedford Falls, and even gives away the money he and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) put aside for their honeymoon in order to save the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. George always does the right thing because he’s a decent person, but he’s a real person, too. Each little depredation eats away at him. He loves his wife and four children, but when the evil old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) spirits away $8,000 from his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George loses hope. It looks as if the family business might not only be ruined, but George might also be headed to prison.

George asks Potter for a loan, and Potter points out that while he needs $8,000, he carries a life insurance policy worth $15,000, which means he’s worth more dead than alive. The desperate George takes this cruel assessment to heart. He heads home, yells at his children, trashes part of the house, and goes out to get good and drunk. After getting punched in the face in the bar, he crashes his car, stumbles to a bridge, and contemplates killing himself. It’s at this point that a frumpy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has “the I.Q. of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” arrives to show him just how much he really is worth.

It’s a Wonderful Life works as well as it does because it earns every one of its emotional moments. Take, for instance, one of the pivotal moments of George Bailey’s boyhood. George (played by the wonderful Bobbie Anderson, later to be known professionally as Robert J. Anderson) has an after-school job in the local pharmacy, and stops old Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from making a fatal mistake. The audience knows that Gower has slipped up not only because he’s drunk, but because he’s distraught following the death of his son. When George returns, having failed to deliver the poisonous “medicine,” Gower beats him savagely. When Gower finally realizes the fatal mistake George has stopped him from making, he breaks down and embraces the boy in an outpouring of emotion.

I really meant to re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and write a review of it before Christmas. But one thing led to another and I got behind in my movie-watching schedule. I’m glad I didn’t get around to seeing it until now, though. It reminded me just what a great film it is. So many “holiday films” are unwatchable after December 25, but It’s a Wonderful Life was just as engaging and emotionally satisfying in mid-January as it is any other time of the year.