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Tag Archives: Robert Taylor

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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High Wall (Dec. 17, 1947)

High Wall
High Wall (1947)
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall stars Robert Taylor as that most venerable of film noir archetypes — the amnesiac combat veteran who may or may not have committed murder.

Bernhardt was one of many German filmmakers who fled the Third Reich to work in Hollywood, and whose dark artistic sensibilities helped create what we now know as “film noir.” So far I’ve seen two other films he made, the excellent melodrama My Reputation (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, and the equally excellent psychodrama Possessed (1947), which starred Joan Crawford and Van Heflin.

High Wall lets Bernhardt flex his suspense-thriller muscles a little, and he’s more than up to the task.

At first glance, High Wall looks and feels like any number of similar dramas from RKO Radio Pictures — tight, well-made, black and white flicks designed for the bottom of a double bill — but it was actually produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a powerhouse of a studio that wasn’t usually in the “noir” business.

High Wall is a pretty lean thriller, but MGM production values are evident in a few scenes, particularly when the protagonist, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), is sent to Hamelin County Psychiatric Hospital. The sanitarium features a big cast of extras; there are legions of brusque, businesslike cops and hospital attendants, and dozens of hapless patients lolling around on beds in the open ward. If High Wall had been an on-the-cheap production for Monogram pictures, there probably would have been one night attendant, two other patients, and sets that looked like they were on loan from a theatrical production.

Most of High Wall is shot on sets, so the exteriors are pretty fake-looking, but not distractingly so. Shooting on a soundstage also allows Bernhardt and his cinematographer, Paul Vogel, to create a dramatic rain-swept finale full of rich textures that probably wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been shooting on location.

Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter

Also, with such a big cast of loonies, it’s more believable that Kenet has so much difficulty seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter).

Kenet, you see, looks like the most likely suspect for his wife’s murder. Her strangled corpse was sitting right next to him when he drove his car off a bridge in a daze, after all.

But after Kenet finally gets a few appointments with Dr. Lorrison, she starts to believe that he might be innocent. Lorrison is a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth gal. (This is evident early in the film when she turns down a male doctor’s offer of a date at the opera because she has Red Sox tickets.)

It’s not just Kenet’s good looks, tragic aura, six-year-old son, and Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star from World War II that attract Lorrison, it’s nagging evidence of his innocence, so she starts helping him escape from the asylum for periods of time so he can investigate upstanding citizen Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a middle-aged man who works for Brattle Press Religious Educational Text Books.

Marshall is the perfect villain for this type of melodrama. His bearing is patrician — and his voice is one of the smoothest and most charming you’ll ever hear — but there’s clearly something very wrong with him.

For a good portion of High Wall, it’s possible to be in doubt of the outcome. Kenet looks guilty, even to the viewer, and he suffers from fainting spells. He has a subdural hematoma in the left lobe that’s causing forgetfulness, irritability, and a possible proclivity toward murder and suicide.

High Wall is a fun movie. When it comes to the question of Audrey Totter’s charm and sexiness, I was a little on the fence after Lady in the Lake (1947), but she’s utterly charming in High Wall, and much more natural in High Wall than in Lady in the Lake. (It’s possible that not requiring her to stare into the camera the whole time might have let her deliver a more natural performance.)

I also really like the preview for High Wall. Its claims are actually accurate, too. “So tense. So taut.” That’s true. High Wall is a well-crafted suspense thriller. Also, when the preview says “Robert Taylor — more exciting than in Undercurrent,” that’s an understatement. Undercurrent is really pretty bad, and High Wall is really pretty good:

Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.