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Tag Archives: Victor Mature

Fury at Furnace Creek (April 30, 1948)

Fury at Furnace Creek might not be a towering classic of western cinema, but I think I flat-out enjoyed it more than any other western I’ve seen recently.

I’ve never been a big fan of Victor Mature, but when he had good material to work with — My Darling Clementine (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947), for instance — he could be an engaging performer. I thought it made a lot of sense for him to play Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine as a drunk and a gambler, since Mature always looked more at home in a saloon than he did riding the range.

Fury at Furnace Creek allows Mature to stick with this formula, more or less. He plays Cash Blackwell, a fast-on-the-draw gambler who goes undercover to clear his father’s name.

His father, General Fletcher Blackwell (Robert Warwick), died of a stroke during court martial proceedings against him, and not because things we’re going well at his trial. In 1880, the Furnace Hills were still Apache territory, but rumors that the Apaches were using silver in their bullets led to a clamor for the region to be opened to mining. Gen. Blackwell stood accused of issuing an order that left a wagon train unprotected, and the prosecutor implied that this was done purposefully to draw the Apaches into an attack, which directly led to the opening of the area to white settlement.

The evidence is there, too. There is an order, signed by Gen. Blackwell, that supports the prosecution’s case. But even faced with this evidence, Gen. Blackwell still denied ever issuing the order, and he died with the shame of guilt hanging over him.

Enter Cash Blackwell, estranged from his family, but not estranged enough that he doesn’t care about his father’s good name. He goes undercover in Furnace Creek, now a boom town of 10,000 settlers, miners, and merchants. Calling himself “Tex Cameron,” Cash ingratiates himself to the local syndicate by saving the life of Capt. Grover A. Walsh (Reginald Gardiner) at the gambling tables. A gunman named Bird (Fred Clark) planted a card on Capt. Walsh so he could accuse him of cheating and shoot him dead, but Cash sees through the ploy, and puts a bullet in Bird’s gun hand.

“When a man can knock the knuckles off a moving hand at ten paces, I want him on Mr. Leverett’s side,” says Al Shanks (Roy Roberts).

Edward Leverett (Al Dekker) is the head of the Furnace Creek Mining and Development Syndicate, and it’s clear that he’s up to no good, but it’s not clear what his connection to Gen. Blackwell was.

In addition to his detective work, Cash finds time to romance the pretty Molly Baxter (Coleen Gray, who also starred with Mature in Kiss of Death). Molly’s father Bruce died in the massacre at Fort Furnace Creek, and she hates Gen. Blackwell with a passion, potentially complicating things.

And before long, Cash’s brother Capt. Rufe Blackwell (Glenn Langan) also shows up in Furnace Creek with his own plan to clear his father’s name.

Fury at Furnace Creek has a lot of moving parts, but the plot never feels crowded or confusing. Full of coincidences, sure, but not confusing. It’s genuinely suspenseful, and I wasn’t sure how things were going to resolve themselves. It’s a film that occupies the same basic physical space as John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), but it takes a completely different approach to the western genre. There’s no self-conscious myth-making or grand statements in Fury at Furnace Creek, it’s just a solid, grown-up western with good production values. The music nicely sets the scene, with strains of the cowboy ballad “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” popping up frequently in the score.

The director of Fury at Furnace Creek, Bruce Humberstone (sometimes credited as “H. Bruce Humberstone”), began his career in the silent era and ended up working in just about every genre Hollywood deigned to dip its toe in; musicals, film noir, westerns, war pictures, Charlie Chan mysteries, Tarzan adventures, sports comedies … the list goes on and on. Fury at Furnace Creek is not a great work of art, but it’s made with real flair and craftsmanship. It’s exciting, action-packed, and suspenseful. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot and recommend it to anyone who likes westerns from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

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Kiss of Death (Aug. 27, 1947)

Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest film noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946).

The film begins with the following words: “All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story.”

Unlike The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, however, this commitment to veracity isn’t in service of a true-ish retelling of World War II-era espionage, but of a hard-boiled crime drama about a three-time loser facing 15 years in stir after being nabbed for a jewel robbery.

His name is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and if he wants to watch his two little girls grow up, he’s going to have to stool for the district attorney’s office.

Bianco has been in this position before, and he took the full four-year rap instead of squealing.

“I’m the same guy now I was then. Nothin’ has changed. Nothin’,” he tells Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

On his way up the river to Sing Sing, Nick meets a cackling, sociopathic hood named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Udo won’t show up again for awhile, but he’ll play a major role in Nick’s life when he does.

For awhile, Nick stays clammed up, but then his wife Maria commits suicide and he starts to rethink matters. When a pretty girl from his old neighborhood, Nettie (Coleen Gray), comes to visit him in Sing Sing and tells him that the driver on the jewelry job, a guy named Pete Rizzo, was responsible for Mrs. Bianco putting her head in the oven, Nick decides he wants to talk to the D.A. and secure his release in exchange for information. (In the original story, it was implied that Rizzo raped Nick’s wife, but that’s sidestepped in the final version, making it seem more as if she was having an affair with Rizzo.)

Nick trusts Assistant D.A. D’Angelo enough to tumble to a job in his past that he got away with — the Thompson Fur Company heist — to provide a cover for his trips to the D.A.’s office. D’Angelo promises that he’ll drop the charges later for insufficient evidence.

Things are looking up for Nick. He’s able to care for his daughters, and he’s eventually paroled, leaving him free to marry Nettie.

But as soon as Tommy Udo — Nick’s old pal from the trip up to Sing Sing — re-enters his life, things go very bad very quickly. Udo is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wrapping up an older wheelchair-bound woman (played by Mildred Dunnock) in electrical cord and pushing her down a long flight of stairs, in one of the most enduring scenes of cinematic sociopathy.

Kiss of Death was Richard Widmark’s film debut, and his balls-out crazy performance is something to behold. The filmmakers thought that Widmark’s high forehead made him look too intelligent, so they outfitted him with a low-browed hairpiece. Like Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Widmark’s performance as Tommy Udo straddles the line between gangster movie and monster movie. Director Hathaway had toyed with the idea of casting the manic Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who sang the 1944 druggie classic “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” as Udo, but it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Widmark in the role.

The screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from a story by Eleazar Lipsky originally called “Stoolpigeon.” Lipsky was a novelist who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. He was also legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Perhaps because of Lipsky’s day job, the realism of the setting of Kiss of Death is matched by the actions of its characters. Brian Donlevy, in the role of Assistant D.A. D’Angelo, is neither a hero nor a villain. When he tells Nick that he’s going to have to testify in court after all, and later that it was all for nothing, and that Tommy Udo was acquitted and is probably coming after Nick, the viewer gets the sense that D’Angelo genuinely cares for Nick, but that at the same time, putting Nick’s life in danger is just part of the job. D’Angelo might not like it, but he accepts it as a necessary evil.

Interestingly, the fictional Kiss of Death comes off as a more realistic film than either The House on 92nd Street (1945) or 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both of which touted the “true” stories that were their inspirations. Although not every scene in Kiss of Death was shot on the actual locale associated with the story, as the title card promises (some of the interiors were clearly shot in a studio), the use of real New York City and Upstate New York locations coupled with realistic dialogue, understated performances from all the cast besides Widmark, and extremely sparse use of background music makes for a powerful, engrossing drama. There are standout set pieces, like the jewel heist in the Chrysler Building that opens the film, and spectacular shots of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, and the Triborough Bridge from the Queens side of the East River, but there are also lots of little touches that give the film its sense of realism. When Nick watches his daughters during their music lesson at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the piano is slightly out of tune. When Nick sits in his cell at Sing Sing, the toilet in the cell is clearly visible, which is something you’d never see in a prison cell built on a Hollywood soundstage in the ’40s. (Incidentally, prior to shooting the scenes in Sing Sing, Hathaway had both Victor Mature and Richard Widmark processed through the system to give them a better sense of the characters they were playing.)

Kiss of Death isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands up to repeated viewings, and its use of music and location are both revolutionary. If you don’t believe me, take it from Walter Winchell…

Moss Rose (May 30, 1947)

Gregory Ratoff’s Moss Rose is a murder mystery set in Victorian London. It stars Peggy Cummins — a beautiful blond actress who looks like a doll come to life — as Rose Lynton, a Cockney chorus girl. Rose works under the stage name “Belle Adair.” She may have grown up in Shoreditch, but she aspires to be a fine lady.

Margo Woode plays Rose’s friend Daisy Arrow, a fellow actress who has a mysterious boyfriend. He’s a handsome, well-dressed gentleman who Rose only catches glimpses of as he moves in and out of the shadows. Daisy only appears in a handful of scenes before Rose discovers her corpse in bed in the room they share, an open Bible lying on the bed next to her with a dried and pressed moss rose laid across its pages. Was it her suitor who killed her? Or someone else?

Vincent Price — always a welcome sight — plays Inspector Clinner, the Scotland Yard detective who investigates the case along with his lumpy little partner, Deputy Inspector Evans (Rhys Williams). Soon, the identity of Daisy’s suitor becomes clear. He’s a wealthy gentleman named Michael Drego, and he’s played by the always oily Victor Mature, whose lack of a British accent is explained away by the fact that his Canadian father took him away from England when he was very young.

Rose plays girl detective, and it’s not long before she seems to be two steps ahead of the police in identifying Michael as Daisy’s murderer. At first it’s unclear what she wants from him, or why she fails to identify him to the police. She initially blackmails him, but then gives the money back and tells him that all she wants is for him to take her with him to his home, Charmley Manor, for just two weeks. Michael denies that he is guilty of Daisy’s murder, but he tells Rose he’ll go along with her scheme because he’s desperate to keep his family’s name out of the spotlight.

Most of the film takes place at Charmley Manor, which is presided over by Michael’s mother, Lady Margaret (played by the grandest Hollywood dame of them all, Ethel Barrymore).

Lady Margaret keeps her son’s childhood room exactly as it was, because when he was taken away by his father, she knew it was the last time she’d ever see that little boy again. She doesn’t allow anyone in the room, not even the servants, but after her first flash of rage at Rose when she discovers her snooping around the room, she softens, and tells Rose that there’s nothing like a secret to bring two people together.

Complicating matters for Rose at Charmley Manor is the presence of Michael’s fiancée, the beautiful Audrey Ashton (Patricia Medina). Lady Margaret grows to accept Rose, even going so far as to tell people that she is her “companion,” but Audrey sees Rose as a threat to her impending nuptials, and rightly so.

Moss Rose is based on The Crime of Laura Saurelle, one of author Joseph Shearing’s many Gothic thrillers, which were quite popular at the time of the film’s release. (Shearing was one of several pseudonyms used by writer Marjorie Bowen.) It’s a decent whodunnit that will keep you guessing. Michael Drego is the prime suspect, but Inspector Clinner loves flowers — moss rose in particular — and he’s played by Vincent Price, so he always seems suspicious, especially when he’s cutting himself a piece of moss rose in Lady Margaret’s greenhouse and he has a maniacal gleam in his eye. There is also Lady Margaret’s intense-looking butler, Craxton (George Zucco), and as we all know, butlers are always under suspicion. The ladies aren’t exempt from suspicion, either. We learn that Audrey made a mysterious bulk purchase of three Bibles just like the one found next to Daisy Arrow’s corpse, and she’s obviously jealous of any woman in whom Michael shows an interest. And Lady Margaret is hard-headed and clear-eyed, but she seems like a different person whenever she speaks of her son.

Despite the wealth of suspects, Moss Rose turned out exactly how I thought it would, but it wasn’t a bad way to kill some time.

My Darling Clementine (Dec. 3, 1946)

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Directed by John Ford
20th Century-Fox

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.

Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.

So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.

And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed.

My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.

Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.

Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.

Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.

Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.