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Tag Archives: Edgar Buchanan

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.

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The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

Framed (March 7, 1947)

I’ve seen Janis Carter as the female lead in two of Columbia’s “Whistler” pictures, The Mark of the Whistler (1944) and The Power of the Whistler (1945), but I couldn’t have picked her out of a lineup of other glamorous B-movie blondes from the ’40s until I saw her as the death-obsessed femme fatale with a heart of ice in Henry Levin’s Night Editor (1946).

The part she plays in Richard Wallace’s Framed is more nuanced and less irredeemably evil than the role she played in Night Editor, but she’s still a nasty piece of work.

Framed starts out with a bang. We see Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford), his hat pushed back on his head, looking scared and exhausted, behind the wheel of a runaway truck. The first minute of the picture looks like an outtake from Thieves’ Highway (1949) or The Wages of Fear (1953). Mike careens around mountain passes, fighting the gears of the truck every inch of the way, and pumping the brakes to no avail.

It’s a great way to start the picture, and it’s fast-paced and suspenseful enough for the viewer never to stop and wonder why Mike doesn’t try to run the truck off the road just outside of town instead of driving straight down Main Street and smashing his front fender into a parked pickup truck.

Mike Lambert isn’t a guy who thinks things through before doing them. He’s a classic noir character — smart and resourceful, but bullheaded and cursed with a single fatal flaw. In Mike’s case, it’s his habit of getting blackout drunk at all the wrong times, a condition he accepts the way other men accept the weather. “I told you I never remember what I do after I’ve had a couple of drinks,” he says, as though it’s just another one of those things, like not being able to remember people’s names or biting your fingernails.

Mike is an out-of-work mining engineer. He took the job driving the truck with no brakes to make a few bucks, but the truck owner’s refusal to pay him and his citation for reckless driving leave him stranded in the little California town with no choice but to do some time in jail, since he’s flat broke and can’t pay the fine.

A beautiful guardian angel appears in the form of pretty blond waitress Paula Craig (Carter). She pays Mike’s fine for him and even lends him money to get a room in town. It’s not hard to see that she must have ulterior motives, but Carter plays her role well, and has good chemistry with Ford, so it’s easy to sit back and let yourself be lulled for a little while into feeling as though you’re watching a laid-back, romantic drama in which everyone will live happily ever after.

And for awhile, things seem to be going Mike’s way. He befriends the kindly, bedraggled old man (played by Edgar Buchanan) whose truck he hit, and who just happens to have a mining claim he needs help with. Mike also does a good job of keeping Paula at arm’s length with matter-of-fact statements like, “Don’t count on anything I said last night. Liquor blanks me out.”

Soon enough, Paula’s evil schemes become apparent to the viewer, if not to the booze-addled Mike. She’s only working in a greasy spoon to troll for a patsy that she and her boyfriend, Steve Price (Barry Sullivan), need for a scheme they’ve got cooked up. And Mike fits the bill.

Framed is a programmer that benefits greatly from having a rising star like Ford in the lead role. It’s a B movie that’s clearly cast in the same mold as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but I think it succeeds wonderfully on its own terms. The script by Ben Maddow (based on a story by John Patrick) evolves naturally as it chugs forward, and never seems too contrived. Shifting loyalties and the yearnings of the main characters drive the story forward, and it never felt as if plot points were being checked off.

Richard Wallace, the director of Framed, was a hard-working studio hack. His career as a director spanned from 1925 to 1949 (he died in 1951), during which he made 46 features and 15 shorts. Of the films he directed that I’ve seen, Framed is one of the best. It’s a brisk tale of love, lust, and betrayal that might not quite qualify as a classic, but it’s never boring.