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Tag Archives: Walter Huston

The Furies (July 21, 1950)

The Furies
The Furies (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Paramount Pictures

It occurred to me at some point during The Furies that it might be a more realistic view of frontier life than I’m used to seeing in westerns.

This thought occurred to me while I was struggling to find something to connect with in the movie. Anthony Mann is a director I love, and the western has been one of my favorite genres since I was a child, so I was really looking forward to The Furies. Also, the fact that The Furies is the only Mann film to get the Criterion treatment led me to believe I might be treated to the apotheosis of his sagebrush sagas.

The Furies DVD

But I just couldn’t get into The Furies the first time I tried to watch it, and I had to turn it off after about 45 minutes.

The Furies is based on a 1948 novel by Niven Busch, which seems evident in Charles Schnee’s screenplay. Like a lot of movies based on mid-century historical novels, it’s packed to the gills with dialogue, and a lot of it is expository, referring back to deceased family members and past events.

With its multi-generational plotting and Freudian undertones, The Furies reminded me of a couple of movies that I didn’t much care for, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). But I love Anthony Mann, so after a day or two had passed, and with a little more fire in my belly, I sat down to watch The Furies from beginning to end. Even though I didn’t love the movie unreservedly, I found a lot to like about it, and would definitely recommend it to “serious” western fans, as well as any fans of ’50s dramas.

Huston and Stanwyck

Back to my first thought, that this might be a more “realistic” view of frontier life than I’m used to seeing in westerns.

Unlike the lonely desert landscapes and violent men of few words that we’re used to seeing in westerns, The Furies is a talky melodrama focused on a specific place — the Furies ranch — and the tension between a self-made man, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), and his fierce daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s clear from the beginning of the film that T.C.’s son, Clay (John Bromfield), is not the heir who will take over the sprawling Furies property, it’s Vance.

But why shouldn’t a western be packed with flowery language and dense plotting? Well, no reason at all. It’s merely generic conventions that make us think the Old West was a place mostly populated by drifters and outlaws, and where quick-draw shootouts were the order of the day.

The Furies is not a typical western, and I think that’s a good thing. I could definitely see this being a movie I come back to again and again, finding new things to like in it each time. Stanwyck gives a pretty amazing performance, and the film still offers plenty of the traditional pleasures we look for in westerns, like gorgeous cinematography of wide-open spaces and larger-than-life characters.

The only really sour note in the film — and something I doubt I’ll ever warm up to — is Rip Darrow, the character played by Wendell Corey. As an actor, Corey is bereft of charisma and the character he plays is despicable, and not in a way that’s fun to watch.

By the way, I didn’t realize until I finished writing this review and watched the trailer above that Niven Busch, who wrote the novel The Furies, also wrote the novel Duel in the Sun. That explains why they felt so similar.

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Jan. 24, 1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Bros.

In his review of Elmore Leonard’s 1995 novel Riding the Rap, Martin Amis wrote that “Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner’s Tales, in which Death roams the land — usually Miami or Detroit — disguised as money.”

The same could be said of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but instead of the duffel bags full of cash found in Leonard’s hard-boiled crime novels, money in this film takes the form of gold.

The gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t just a disguise for death, either; it’s the impetus for all manner of human striving and weakness, and brings out the best and the worst in the men who seek it.

As for the film itself, it mostly brings out the best in all of its actors. Neither Humphrey Bogart nor Tim Holt are completely able to shed their well-worn personas, but the same cannot be said of Walter Huston, the director’s father, who is pitch-perfect in his role. (Also, it’s likely that many people who watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre today will have never seen Tim Holt in any of his countless B westerns and therefore have little trouble accepting him in his role.)

Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, a man who finds himself penniless in Tampico, Mexico. He meets fellow American drifter Bob Curtin (Holt) and together they get jobs working in the oilfields, but their unscrupulous employer runs off without paying them, leaving them back where they started. However, luck smiles on them, and after winning a little money they hook up with an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and head for the Sierra Madre mountains to mine their fortune. Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin of the dangers of “gold fever,” but they both claim they’ll deal with their windfalls sensibly if they strike it rich.

No points will be awarded first-time viewers who correctly predict that the protagonists will both strike it rich and succumb to greed and paranoia.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on the 1927 novel by the mysterious author “B. Traven.” Little is known about the possibly German-born novelist who probably lived most of his life in Mexico, which is where most of his fiction is set. According to the February 2, 1948, issue of Time, Traven was paid $5,000 for the screen rights to his novel. Traven was such a mysterious figure that although director Huston frequently corresponded with him, when it came time to meet Traven, a nervous translator named “Hal Croves” showed up in his place, claiming to be a close friend of Traven’s. Huston hired Croves as a technical adviser on the film, paying him $150 a week. Huston strongly suspected (but could never conclusively determine) that “Croves” was really Traven.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was nominated for four Oscars — best picture, best director, best supporting actor for Walter Huston, and best screenplay. It won every Academy Award for which it was nominated except for best picture.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great film. It’s also one of those rare movies — like Casablanca — that even people who “don’t like old movies” will usually enjoy. It has excellent pacing, an involving story, and believable characters, but most importantly, it has authenticity. It was filmed mostly on location in Mexico, and the Mexican characters actually speak Spanish. It’s ironic that this is the movie that gave us the most enduringly stereotypical “Mexican” line — “I don’t have to show you any steenking batches!” — because it’s one of the few films from the ’40s in which Mexican characters actually speak Spanish, and without even subtitles to make things easier on a gringo audience.

Duel in the Sun (Dec. 31, 1946)

Producer David O. Selznick was never able to equal the success of Gone With the Wind (which received the Oscar for best picture in 1939), but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

His next film, Rebecca (1940), also won the Academy Award for best picture, and his films Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945) were both nominated. With the advent of the auteur theory, Rebecca and Spellbound are remembered primarily as Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but Selznick’s power and influence in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s can’t be underestimated.

Selznick spent two years making Duel in the Sun, at an unprecedented cost of $6 million. He spent another $2 million on promotion, which was equally unheard-of at the time. (Some of the more novel advertising methods were 5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing.)

The trailer for the film proclaimed that it was “the picture of a thousand memorable moments,” and that’s true. The problem is that one memorable moment after another doesn’t necessarily add up to a single memorable film. The cinematography by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan is occasionally breathtaking, and there are a few shots that are among the best I’ve ever seen on film, but there’s nothing to anchor them.

Like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun was credited to a single director, but there were more directors who worked on the film who never received credit. King Vidor is the man who got his name in the credits, but Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.

Duel in the Sun is a pretentious, overblown mess, but it’s worth seeing at least once in your life. Of course, you have to get through the “prelude” that opens the film. The word PRELUDE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunrise, accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. As if that wasn’t enough, the prelude is followed by an overture. The word OVERTURE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunset. The narrator (an uncredited Orson Welles) gives us a taste of what we’re about to see, but it’s still 12 minutes of nothing but Tiomkin’s music and two static images. Hell of a way to start a picture.

Anyway, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything, even an insane story about a “renegade Creole squaw-man” named Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who’s hanged for murdering his lusty Indian wife and her lover. Before his execution, Mr. Chavez arranges for his half-breed daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones), to live with his second cousin and old flame Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).

The kind-hearted Laura Belle welcomes Pearl with open arms, but her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), is less charitable. “I didn’t spend thirty years on this place to turn it into no Injun reservation,” he growls.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the two McCanles sons, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the brutish Lewt (Gregory Peck, in a rare role as a villain). Pearl is never really accepted into the family, and lives in servants’ quarters. Shortly after she arrives to stay, Lewt swaggers into her room one night and forces himself on her. She kisses him back savagely at the last second, so it’s not quite rape, but the implication is still there.

There are a lot of jump cuts in Duel in the Sun. Some are necessary — like when Cotten slaps Peck across the face and then the scene cuts to a closer shot in which Peck’s cheek is scratched and blood is pouring out of his mouth — but most seem like a byproduct of sloppy filmmaking, or a big-budget epic sprawling out of control.

Lewt promises to marry Pearl, but quickly backs out. When a kindly rancher named Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) proposes to her, however, Lewt murders him. Afterward, he tells Pearl, “Anybody who was my girl is still my girl. That’s the kind of guy I am. You know … loyal.”

Duel in the Sun came to be pejoratively known as Lust in the Dust, which is a more apt title. Jennifer Jones appears in all manner of undress and compromising positions, and looks great doing it. It’s sometimes called a “Freudian” western, but I didn’t see much that was Freudian about it, except for the stunning final 10 minutes. The finale is the most overwrought and ridiculous expression of the intertwined relationship between Eros and Thanatos that I’ve ever seen.

Duel in the Sun was never a hit with critics, but it was the second biggest box office success of 1947. It ran into more censorship trouble than any film since Howard Hughes’s “roll-in-the-hay” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her enormous breasts, and at least some of the notoriety of Duel in the Sun came from the very public knowledge that Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick were both cheating on their spouses with each other.

In 1948, Selznick retired from producing films. Duel in the Sun might not be the apotheosis of his 20 year-long career in terms of quality, but it’s probably the wildest, weirdest, sexiest, and campiest movie that the chain-smoking, amphetamine-popping Lothario ever produced. And it sure is pretty to look at.

Dragonwyck (April 10, 1946)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck was adapted from Anya Seton’s best-selling 1944 historical novel of the same name. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but I loved this film, and would like to dig into the book some day. Based on the description on the back cover, the introduction, and the first several pages that I leafed through, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation, as far as these things go. Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor Herman Melville make an appearance in the film, however, and the Astor Place massacre and steamboat racing both, sadly, fell outside the scope of the film.

But that’s par for the course in any 100-minute long adaptation of a 350-page novel. Taken purely as a cinematic experience, Dragonwyck is an engrossing Gothic melodrama that treads lightly the tricky boundary between romance and horror. As a Vincent Price fan, I especially loved his performance in this film. In my review of Shock, which was released earlier the same year, I mentioned that it was the first role I’d seen Vincent Price play in which there was a glimmering of the horror icon he would become. Well, he continued to blossom in this role. While never descending into outright horror territory, Dragonwyck gave Price an opportunity to exhibit more range than any role I’d seen him play previously, and the way his character changes drives the film; from coldly aristocratic to warmly romantic, and from a wielder of petty power to a broken drug addict.

The film begins in 1844. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is a bright, beautiful young woman who longs to see the world. She lives on a small New England farm with her younger siblings, her mother Abigail (Anne Revere), and her deeply religious and strait-laced father Ephraim (Walter Huston). The Wellses receive a letter from their distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), who wishes to take Miranda away from her simple surroundings and employ her as a governess and companion to his young daughter at his home, Dragonwyck Manor, on the Hudson River. After much deliberation, Ephraim assents, even though Van Ryn’s wealth and atheism distress him. Like everything else in the film, Huston’s portrayal is fully realized. The character could have been portrayed as a two-dimensional Bible-thumper, but Huston crafts a believable and sympathetic character.

Once Miranda arrives at Dragonwyck, the obvious touchstone is Jane Eyre, but instead of a madwoman locked in the attic, there is merely Van Ryn’s fussy, compulsively overeating wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne). Theirs is clearly a loveless marriage, and as soon as we learn that Van Ryn is not really Miranda’s cousin by blood, we can read the handwriting on the wall.

The story takes a lot of interesting turns, however, and I wasn’t ever quite sure what was going to happen next. While Van Ryn is portrayed sympathetically, he is also deeply flawed. A “patroon,” he forces his tenant farmers to pay tribute to him while he sits on a throne. It’s an anachronistic display of power, even for the mid-nineteenth century, and shows early in the film that all may not be well in Dragonwyck.

Dragonwyck also has an excellent sense of place. As Seton said in her introduction to the novel, “There was, on the Hudson, a way of life such as this, and there was a house not unlike Dragonwyck. All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations!”

And Then There Were None (Oct. 31, 1945)

Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, originally published in England in 1939 under the unfortunate title Ten Little Niggers, is tied with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the second best-selling novel of all time (only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold more copies). This makes it the most widely read mystery novel of all time, so hopefully nothing I say here will be giving much away. (But don’t worry … I’m not going to reveal “whodunnit.”)

In And Then There Were None, eight people are invited to an island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. “U.N. Owen.” (Get it?) When the guests arrive, they are informed that Mr. Owen is away, and that the guests will be attended to by servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers, bringing the cast of characters up to ten.

Even 70 years ago, the N-word was a more sensitive topic in America than it was in England. Presumably because of this, the novel was published in the U.S. as And Then There Were None in 1940, the name of the island was changed from “Nigger Island” to “Indian Island,” and the song that provides the structure of the story was changed from the original, which had been a standard of blackface minstrel shows since 1869, to “Ten Little Indians”:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

Each guest finds a framed copy of this gruesome little poem in his or her room, and is informed over dinner, via a phonograph record, that everyone on the island has gotten away with murder in one way or other, and that all are going to pay. Then the fun begins, as the characters are dispatched in the manner of the rhyme. The first guest drinks cyanide at dinner (choking), the second has an overdose of sleeping pills (oversleeping), the third declares that no one will leave the island and soon after is bludgeoned (one said he’d stay there), and so on.

The novel is a case of truth in advertising. At the end, all the characters are dead. The film is somewhat lighter, and allows a couple of them to escape unharmed. It follows Christie’s own 1943 stage adaptation of her novel, which softened the grim denouement. Given what’s come before, however, the happy ending feels like a bit of a cheat, and modern viewers might find themselves rolling their eyes at the finale.

And Then There Were None is still a great little mystery picture, though, and its cast of veteran character actors play their parts to the hilt. The film occasionally borders on farce, but never in a bad way. I especially enjoyed Walter Huston’s performance as the quietly maniacal Dr. Armstrong, but Louis Hayward as the cat-like Lombard and Barry Fitzgerald as the phlegmatic Judge Quinncannon are both memorable, as well.