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Tag Archives: Karl Malden

Halls of Montezuma (Jan. 4, 1951)

Halls of Montezuma
Halls of Montezuma (1951)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

The American public never really loses its appetite for war movies, it just gets full sometimes and needs to take a nap. That was the situation in 1950. After a few impressive World War II movies were released in 1949, like Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, the only World War II movie I can think of from 1950 that wasn’t a comedy, or a postwar drama like Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, was Fritz Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines.

But the beginning of 1951 saw several war movies hit American movie theaters. Within a month of the premiere of Halls of Montezuma, at least two more war films were released; Operation Pacific, a film about World War II submarine warfare starring John Wayne, and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, the first film about the Korean War.

No matter which war a film depicts, it’s always going to reflect the time when it was made. So while The Steel Helmet might have been the first film to explicitly depict the Korean conflict, the specter of that war hangs over Halls of Montezuma.

Like Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, Halls of Montezuma is largely about the terrible toll of combat — what used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and what is commonly called “PTSD” today.

Widmark

Halls of Montezuma stars Richard Widmark as Anderson, a former schoolteacher who is now a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He suffers from crippling psychosomatic migraines, and his only relief comes when he gets another little white pill from Doc (Karl Malden).

When the film begins, Lt. Anderson is tired of death. He led a company of Marines through the bloody battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima, and only seven men in his original command are still alive. (Halls of Montezuma might be meant to depict the battle on Okinawa, but I don’t think it’s ever directly stated where it takes place.)

Just like Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Halls of Montezuma integrates real footage of the war. Unlike Sands of Iwo Jima, the documentary footage in Halls of Montezuma is in color to match the Technicolor of the film, and while it often looks spectacular, it always took me out of the narrative, which is the same problem I had with Sands of Iwo Jima.

For instance, early in the film there’s a scene where the Marines are blasting Japanese sniper’s nests and pillboxes with tank-mounted flamethrowers. Lt. Anderson gives a command into his radio, “Spray the whole hill, it’s lousy with Nips.” We see huge arcs of fire hitting a ridge, then real footage of a (presumably Japanese) soldier running, his body on fire. Halls of Montezuma is an impressively staged film, but nothing in it can quite pass for reality when laid side-by-side with documentary footage.

I’m sure that some of my recognition of the fakery of the film is based on the passage of time. In Bosley Crowther’s review of Halls of Montezuma in the January 6, 1951, issue of The New York Times, he praised the film’s documentary realism and called it “A remarkably real and agonizing demonstration of the horribleness of war, with particular reference to its impact upon the men who have to fight it on the ground.” After enough time passes it’s easier to see how a movie has been constructed. No matter how “agonizingly real” a film might look at the time of its release, it just won’t fool anyone 64 years later.

Brand and Webb

Lewis Milestone also directed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), about the First World War, and A Walk in the Sun (1945), about American soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II. Halls of Montezuma is similar in some ways to A Walk in the Sun, including the use of occasional voiceover narration to tell the audience what various characters are thinking.

Halls of Montezuma is an earnest and well-made war movie, but it had too many clichés and inauthentic moments for me to call it a great war movie.

The interior sets look like sets, too many of the exteriors look like Southern California (which they are), the Japanese soldiers don’t look Japanese, and too many of the characters seem like “types” rather than real people, like the British interpreter played by Reginald Gardiner or the sadistic and gun-crazy punk “Pretty Boy,” played by Skip Homeier.

There are some great performances in Halls of Montezuma, though. Widmark is completely convincing as a battle-weary officer, and Richard Boone (in his first feature film role) is brilliant as Lt. Col. Gilfillan. When he asks combat correspondent Dickerman (Jack Webb) if he can fire an M1 Garand and then sends him out on a mission to take Japanese prisoners, Boone says with resignation, “I suppose I’ll be the villain of your great American war novel.” It’s one of those moments that would seem too “written” coming from another actor, but Boone sells it.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends (July 7, 1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Directed by Otto Preminger
20th Century-Fox

What a difference six years makes. Where the Sidewalk Ends reunited Otto Preminger, the director of Laura (1944), with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the two stars of Laura.

This reunion between director and actors was nothing earthshaking. In the years between Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger had worked with both Andrews and Tierney again separately, and Tierney and Andrews had appeared together in the film The Iron Curtain (1948), which Preminger didn’t direct.

But comparing Laura with Where the Sidewalk Ends tells us a lot about where the genre we now know as “noir” went after World War II.

Andrews and Tierney

Laura is a glamorous mystery set in Manhattan high society; Where the Sidewalk Ends is a down-and-dirty drama set in the streets of New York, where ordinary people live, work, and die. In Laura, Gene Tierney is an untouchable and barely real object of desire; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, she’s a beautiful but otherwise average young woman with a job who lives with her father. In Laura, Dana Andrews is a tough but decent police detective; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, he’s a police detective whose desire to be nothing like his criminal father leads him to engage in all manner of brutality and occasionally even criminal conduct.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great movie about a troubled man finally forced to come to terms with himself. Andrews is excellent in the lead role, as is Tierney, and the supporting cast are wonderful, too, especially Karl Malden as a no-nonsense police lieutenant and Gary Merrill as a mean, sweaty crime boss addicted to nasal spray.

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:

Boomerang (March 5, 1947)

Boomerang is another fact-based drama produced by Louis de Rochemont, the maker of the “March of Time” series of newsreels. Like de Rochemont’s other films, The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), it features stentorian, “newsreel”-style narration by Reed Hadley, a number of the actual participants in the case playing themselves in minor roles, and a commitment to verisimilitude that is less cut-and-dried than the filmmakers would have the audience believe.

For my money, Boomerang (or Boomerang!, as it appears on the cover of a notebook in the opening credits) is far and away the best of the first three films de Rochemont produced. A great deal of that is due to the direction by Elia Kazan.

Kazan was coming off the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), but he was still better known for his work in the theater than in Hollywood. I think that Kazan’s enormous talent as a film director and his strong visual sense are often underestimated, but there’s no denying that he was an actor’s director. The actors in Boomerang all turn in powerful, fully realized performances, and I think a lot of that is due to Kazan’s experience directing for the stage.

Boomerang is based on a real case that took place in 1924 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (To sidestep raw feelings, the production was filmed in Stamford.)

A beloved priest named Father Lambert (Wyrley Birch) is killed by a single .32 caliber bullet fired point blank into the back of his head on Main Street one evening. When a prime suspect does not immediately materialize, the reform party newly in power is lambasted in the press, which leads to overzealous police tactics, which means plenty of round-ups and arrests, but not much else. Finally, a drifter named John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) is picked up by police in Ohio. Waldron has a .32 revolver in his pocket, was passing through Connecticut at the time of the murder, and is identified by numerous eyewitnesses as the shooter.

Waldron also makes a signed confession, but only after he’s subjected to days of intense grilling by police chief Harold F. “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) and Detective Lt. White (Karl Malden), as well as a parade of other police officers and a psychiatrist, Dr. William Rainsford (Dudley Sadler).

It seems like an open-and-shut case, and a slam-dunk for State’s Attorney Henry L. Harvey (Dana Andrews), but after talking to Waldron, Harvey has doubts about his guilt, which he shares with his wife, Madge Harvey (Jane Wyatt), before doing some investigating of his own.

When called upon to make his case in court, Harvey says, “I thought I had the case going perfectly straight and then all of a sudden it comes back and hits me right between the eyes.”

Boomerang brilliantly depicts a number of concepts that were fairly new to the public at the time of its release — the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, especially a large group of eyewitnesses, and the idea that a man who was not guilty of a crime might still make a full confession to police under duress.

Kazan also shows exactly what abuse of power looks like. It’s not committed by scheming men of pure evil, it’s committed by police officers like the one played by Lee J. Cobb — decent men with a strong moral code who are desperate to make a conviction, and are absolutely sure that they have the right man. Kazan also does a good job of weaving a story of petty, venal, small-town politics into the larger crime story and courtroom drama.

The character Dana Andrews plays is based on Homer Cummings, who would go on to be the U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it’s not a biopic. It’s also not a wholly nonfictional telling of the real case, since there’s a character created from whole cloth named Jim Crossman (Philip Coolidge), who may or may not have murdered the priest, and who seems to have been created purely to satisfy audience members who need to see some sort of justice done.

Luckily, false notes like the Crossman character are few and far between in Boomerang.