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Tag Archives: Ellen Corby

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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Bedlam (May 10, 1946)

Bedlam,jpg
Bedlam (1946)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Mark Robson’s Bedlam, produced by the legendary Val Lewton, takes place in London in 1761. It was Lewton’s ninth and final horror film.

A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a master of suggestion and eerie ambience. His films were the antithesis of Universal’s horror offerings, which offered iconic monsters and more overt shocks. Lewton had phenomenal success with his first horror picture for RKO, Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), and his reputation continued to grow with a string of classic and near-classic horror pictures; I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, dir. Robert Wise), Isle of the Dead (1945, dir. Mark Robson), and Bedlam (1946, dir. Mark Robson).

The screenplay for Bedlam, which was written by Robson and Lewton (under the name “Carlos Keith”), was inspired by the William Hogarth engraving of Bethlehem Hospital (a.k.a. Bedlam); the final plate in his 1735 series “The Rake’s Progress,” which depicts in detail the journey of its hero, William Rakewell, from an inheritor of his father’s wealth and happy cad to a broken man locked up in an insane asylum.

Neither Rakewell nor anyone like him appears as a character in the film Bedlam. Rather, Lewton and Robson took the nightmarish images Hogarth created with such elaborate care in his depiction of Bedlam and shaped them into the window dressing of a film that, like The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Hogarth’s vision was of a morally bankrupt society, from the monarchy and the church all the way down to the commoners on the street. Lewton and Robson took this idea and shaped it to their own ends. The inmates of Bedlam may be strange and threatening, but it is the men who control them who are the real monsters.

This idea is exemplified in the first scene of the picture. A lunatic is attempting to escape St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum by scaling the wall. He is forced to jump to his death when a guard carrying a lantern grinds his boot down on the man’s hand.

The man who fell turns out to be an acquaintance of the grotesque Lord Mortimer (Billy House), who arrives at Bedlam that night for a spot of entertainment gawking at the loonies. “Everyone who goes to Bedlam expires from laughter,” he tells his companion, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). When he discovers that his acquaintance has fallen to his death, however, Lord Mortimer is upset. He had paid the man for poetry to be delivered at a later date, and he feels he is now owed a night of entertainment. Enter George Sims (Boris Karloff), the apothecary general of Bedlam. Master Sims promises Lord Mortimer a play performed by his lunatics.

Sims is a combination of the worst qualities of the characters Karloff played in his previous two collaborations with Lewton; the pure malevolence of cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher and the twisted abuser of power General Nikolas Pherides in Isle of the Dead.

Disturbed by what she sees at Bedlam, but not fully able to admit it, Lord Mortimer’s companion Nell returns to Bedlam alone and is taken on a tour by Sims. Leering, he tells her, “Ours is a human world, theirs is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals. Some are dogs; these, I beat. Some are pigs; those, I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers; these, I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.” (Students of script machinations, however, will want to keep an eye on that “dove,” a woman in white who stands immobile, not speaking or blinking.) Also, it should go without saying that Sims’s ability to have anyone he wants committed to Bedlam, regardless of their sanity, will put Nell in grave danger when she breaks with Lord Mortimer and publicly ridicules him.

The rhythm of speech and the language of the script is excellent, and evokes 18th century Britain in a way few of the hackneyed period pieces of the ’40s did. Even if it’s not a perfect replication of the time, it does a pretty good job, and all of the little details are a joy to pick out, such as the words “I love sweet Betty Careless” scrawled on the wall in Bedlam, a detail inspired by the man in the Hogarth plate who has scrawled the initials of his beloved, “Charming Betty Careless” — a famous prostitute of the day — on a banister.

Viewers looking for a straight horror picture might be disappointed by Bedlam, although its scenes within the insane asylum walls deliver plenty of chills. Like many of Lewton’s later horror pictures, it’s an ambitious film that uses the trappings of horror to deliver a deeper message about a sick society.

The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.