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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Assignment in Brittany ( 1943 )

"Every second throbs with suspense and danger!" 

For once, those exclamatory theatrical heralds were right: Assignment in Brittany is packed to the brim with non-stop adventure. There is so much fast-paced excitement that if you do not have your ears peeled, you may lose some of the plot line. 

French heart-throb Jean-Pierre Aumont plays Pierre Matard, a captain in the Free French forces, who is sent to a small village in France disguised as Bertrand Corlay ( also Aumont ), a suspected Nazi collaborator. Since Pierre bears such a striking resemblance to this man, his task is to weasel out information about the location of a U-Boat base that the British believe is in the vicinity. For the audiences benefit, he accomplishes this mission in one and one-half hours filled with exciting moments of danger. 

Of course, all good resistance fighters end up falling in love on their missions and, in this case, Captain Pierre falls for the fiancee of his look-a-like Bertrand: Anne Pinot ( portrayed by the lovely Susan Peters ). 

Director Jack Conway was a veteran of silent films and numerous MGM "A" pictures ( A Tale of Two Cities, Libeled Lady, Boom Town, The Hucksters ). He was an excellent director and was capable of handling comedies, dramas, and action films with equal ease. Unfortunately, this was the only war/espionage film that he directed. The final scene of the destruction of the U-boat base is especially well-filmed and really caps off the picture with a bang. 

Like many films that were made in the midst of the war, the brutality of war is not softened to appeal to audience tastes. In one scene, many of the friends that Aumont's character comes to know are executed in front of his eyes. The Nazis are portrayed as the fiendish brutes that they were.

Assignment in Brittany ( 1943 ) marked the debut of Jean-Pierre Aumont, who had arrived in Hollywood just a year earlier and could barely speak English. It was stage actress Katharine Cornell who discovered the handsome Jean Gabin-esque actor and cast him in her play "Rose Burke". Shortly after he was signed to an MGM contract and made this film and another war drama, The Cross of Lorraine, that same year. Aumont himself had earned the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre medals for his service in North Africa with the Free French Forces from 1939-1940. While in Hollywood, he helped raise funds for the Resistance and returned to fight in 1944.  

Also making her American debut was Swedish actress Signe Hasso. She made a number of excellent war films, usually playing a heroine but, in this film, she is quite the vixen.

Like most MGM pictures, the production values on Assignment in Brittany are top-notch with great sets by Cedric Gibbons and Edwin Willis, costumes by Gile Steele, music by Lennie Hayton, and excellent cinematography by Charles Rosher ( Annie Get Your Gun ). The script to the film was based on a Helen MacInnes novel that was serialized in 1942 in "The Saturday Evening Post". MacInnes was a prolific author of espionage novels and, in 1943, MGM had turned another one of her books into a box-office hit - Above Suspicion
Assignment in Brittany has the usual elements that you would hope to find in an espionage film: suspicious double-face characters, secret codes, danger behind every corner, plenty of Gestapo agents, and the classic escape-in-disguise ( this time taking place within a church in France ).

The movie also boasts a strong supporting cast of MGM stock actors such as Margaret Wycherly, Richard Whorf, Reginald Owen, Alan Napier, Miles Mander, and John Emery. A young Darryl Hickman is given a meaty role as a little French freedom fighter. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

Get a load of these two salty seamen with their mustaches and pipes. What could they be staring at? A giant sea monster? A ghost ship? Or perhaps a lifeboat drifting towards their boat? Don't let us throw you off course. If you've seen the film this screenshot is from, then you'll know what they are looking at. If you have no idea which movie this is from then take a guess anyway - all guesses are free!

As always, if you are not familiar with the rules to the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game or the prize, click here!


Congratulations to Damsbo for correctly identifying this screenshot as coming from "A Dispatch from Reuters" ( 1940 ) starring the wonderful Edward G. Robinson and Edna Best. In this scene, which takes place near the last 20 minutes of the movie, these two seamen from the mailboat spot the signal from Reuters telling them to drop the latest news off in a water-tight carrier. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Nor the Moon by Night ( 1958 )

"The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night." - Psalm 121:6 

After years of caring for her mother, gentle nurse Alice Lang ( Belinda Lee ) decides to fly out to Kenya to marry gamekeeper Andrew Miller ( Patrick McGoohan ). Alice has never met Andrew but they have been corresponding with each other by mail for years and she feels she knows him inside and out. She picks an inopportune time to come to Kenya, for a vicious game poacher ( Eric Pohlmann ) is stirring up trouble on the reserve and Andrew is out on the job trying to catch the culprit. Since he will not return for several weeks, his younger brother ( Michael Craig ) decides to be host to Andrew's mail-order bride and falls in love with her himself.

After Andrew is attacked by a lion, Alice nurses him back to health and then must decide whether to marry him out of loyalty or choose his brother, whom she now loves.....

Nor the Moon by Night was based upon Joy Parker's novel of the same name which was originally serialized in a woman's magazine in the 1950s. As a pulp fiction romance adventure, it is a witchdoctor's brew of all of the elements one would expect to find in such a story: elephant stampedes, cobra attacks, a romantic quadrangle, jealousy, dangerous villains, jungle fever, bush fires, and, of course, native superstitions. 
Director Ken Annakin, who had a success with the similarly themed The Planter's Wife ( 1952 ), never lets the 90-minute film get dull and follows each exciting event with something new and different. It was sumptuously filmed on location ( by cinematographer Harry Waxman ) in the beautiful Valley of the Thousand Hills in Natal, South Africa and also within Kruger National Park. Unlike many jungle films of the era, Nor the Moon By Night has no stock footage of crocodiles scurrying into the lake or blurry hippopotamuses fording a river. All of the animal scenes was clearly shot with the cast and crew on location.

Behind the camera, events were just as exciting as on-screen with Belinda Lee attempting suicide, Patrick McGoohan incurring a concussion, Michael Craig nearly drowning, Anna Gaylor falling ill with dysentery and the crew being constantly bitten by snakes and spiders. 
"Most people think Africa's a zoo, where you chuck a monkey under the chin and then go off for a martini."

The principal players of Nor the Moon By Night all give very good performances, especially Michael Craig and Belinda Lee, two extremely popular actors of the 1950s who are underrated today. Also in the cast is Anna Gaylor, a lovely French actress, Joan Brickhill, and Lionel Ngakane.

This post is our contribution to the 6th Annual Rule Brittania Blogathon being hosted by Terence Canote on his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts. Click here to read more reviews of classic British films!

Saturday, August 3, 2019

20 Great Little-Known British Films of the 1940s-1960s

The great film studios of England ( Rank Pictures, London Films, Gainsborough Pictures, Ealing Studios, Janus Films ) made so many wonderful pictures that have fallen into obscurity over the years - not so much in England, but certainly here in the States. So to help remedy that situation and expose classic film lovers to some of these hidden gems, here is our selection of twenty great little-known British films of the 1940s-1960s. Most of these films are available on DVD or through streaming services such as Amazon Prime. 

Plot descriptions courtesy of, Network DVD, and Renown Pictures. Our comments about the film then follow. 

An Ideal Husband ( 1947 )

A prominent politician is preparing to expose a financial scandal. But then a woman who has invested heavily in the shady venture threatens to uncover a damaging secret in the politician's past if he exposes the speculation as a fraud. His problem is compounded by his wife's intolerance of the slightest character flaws.

"If we men married the women we deserved....we should have a very bad time of it."

Oscar Wilde's sparkling comedy comes alive in this delightful film adaption from Alexander Korda. Paulette Goddard is especially charming as the high-society snake-in-the-grass and the color photography is beautiful. 

While I Live ( 1947 ) 

A young composer and pianist Olwen Trevelyan, troubled and sleepless over her inability to finish the final notes of her composition, falls to her death from the cliffs of Cornwall. As the years pass, Olwen’s sister Julia obsessively keeps her memory alive. The young composer gains posthumous fame because of her tragic death and her haunting, unfinished composition, “The Dream of Olwen.” 25 years later, still mourning the death of her composer sister Julia believes she has returned, reincarnated, in an amnesiac woman who chances upon her house seeking help… Contains the haunting music “The Dream of Olwen” composed by Charles Williams.

This one is indeed haunting, primarily because of its beautiful theme song and its spiritual plot. Sonja Dresdel, who stars as Julia, was a very talented actress who had a great career in films, television, and in theatre in England. 

The Glass Mountain ( 1949 ) 

Featuring the peerless voice of legendary baritone Tito Gobbi, The Glass Mountain is a classic British film romance enriched with the sublime music of Italian opera.

Shot down and badly injured over the Italian alps during the second world war, RAF pilot Richard Wilder (Michael Dennison) is rescued and nursed back to health by Alida (Valentina Cortese), a beautiful young Italian girl. As she shares with him the local fables of the Glass Mountain, they begin to fall in love.

This is another film that benefits greatly from its musical score. This one is written by Nino Rota who is most famous today for his love theme for Romeo and Juliet ( 1968 ). Michael Dennison ( The Importance of Being Earnest ) plays an earnest lover here and the setting of the picture is ideal. 

The Passionate Friends ( 1949 ) 

The Passionate Friends were in love when young but then separated. Mary Justin ( Ann Todd ) later married an older man. Then Mary meets Steven Stratton ( Trevor Howard ) again and they have one last fling together in the Alps.

This is your classic British melodrama weepie. It plays out a lot like Brief Encounter ( 1946 ) only with the added presence of Claude Rains as a jealous/suspicious husband. In this case, he has every right to be suspicious as Mary really is carrying on an affair with her old lover. 

Beautiful cinematography and location filming are an additional plus to this lesser-known classic. 

The Small Back Room ( 1949 ) 

The best bomb disposal officer during World War II was badly injured and is in frequent pain. He finds solace and relief from his pain in the whiskey bottle & the pills that are never far away. A new type of booby-trapped Nazi bomb pushes his nerves & resolution to the limit.

The directing/screenwriting team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are famous on both sides of the pond but this little gem seems to elude most critics. David Farrar and Kathleen Byron both give excellent performances. You can read our full review of this classic here

Ha'Penny Breeze ( 1950 ) 

At the end of the Second World War, David and his Australian friend Johnny return to David's Suffolk village to find the community spent and demoralized. Gradually, however, they gather support for David's scheme to enter a yachting race with a converted fishing smack. Winning it could prove to be a lifeline for the village...

Associated British Pathe made some excellent minor "B" films in the late 1940s-1950s and Ha'Penny Breeze is one of them. This was only the second film that Edwin Richfield had starred in at the time, but he would go on to become a popular character actor in British television appearing in numerous episodes of The Avengers, The Champions, and Doctor Who. 
Philip Green composed a lovely theme for this film which you can hear by clicking on this link.

Last Holiday ( 1950 )

George Bird's rather lonely, anonymous existence as an underappreciated seller of farm machinery is jarred when his physician informs him that he is suffering from the rare malady Lampington's Disease, and only has a few weeks to live. Believing he has nothing to lose, Bird resigns his position and withdraws his modest life savings in order to spend his remaining time in a "posh" seaside resort. There he keeps his own counsel about his condition and meets people who live in a world he could never have imagined existed. Incredibly, he finds personal and professional opportunities now open to him that that he never dreamed would be his, but unfortunately, he is no position to take advantage of them, until fate lends a hand.

Last Holiday features one of Alec Guinness' best performances. It is such a touching story sprinkled with lessons about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Trio ( 1950 ) 

Three short stories are introduced by author W. Somerset Maugham in the second of his anthology film trilogy. In "The Verger," a church verger of seventeen years is fired by his new straight-laced vicar when it's discovered that he cannot read or write. Forced to make life-altering decisions, the life-long bachelor proposes to his landlady and becomes an entrepreneur. In "Mr. Know-All" an obnoxiously pushy and irrepressibly boorish dealer in jewelry alienates all his fellow passengers on an ocean cruise despite his cheerful nature and generosity, but later is sensitive enough to realize that sacrificing his ego at a key moment is important to a woman's happiness. "The Sanatorium" revolves around the lives of tuberculosis patients at an exclusive Scottish sanatorium including a pair of doomed lovers who choose quality over quantity of life.

William Somerset Maugham's short stories were spotlighted in three entertaining films - Quartet ( 1948 ), this film, and Encore ( 1951 ). Each has their highlights, but we enjoy Trio the best because it features one of our favorite stories, "The Sanatorium", which you can read more about here. 

Street Corner ( 1953 ) 

A pseudo-documentary in style with an emphasis on the daily work and routine of women police built around three different storylines. The first involves 18-year-old Bridget Foster (Peggy Cummins) who is picked up for shoplifting but let off lightly. She has a small child, an often-absent husband and mother-in-law trouble. To compound that she takes up with a petty hoodlum who commits a jewel robbery. The second story tells of a young girl who deserts the Army to marry a boy who needs her and commits bigamy in the process, but it all works out. The third story is about a baby who is mistreated by its father and step-mother, but is reunited, through police work, with its real mother.

Police dramas are always interesting but this one is rare because it focuses on policewomen. Back in the 1950s, they were more popular in England than they were in the United States. Anne Crawford gives a very good usual. She was an excellent actress. 

Turn the Key Softly ( 1953 ) 

Three women are released from Holloway prison on the same morning into the bustle of post-war London with its trolleybuses and rationing. They meet for a meal in the West End in the evening after a day trying to pick up their lives, and with at least two of them needing to decide whether it is time to start afresh.

From the good ones ( the policewomen of Street Corner ) we turn to the "baddies" - three women who have just been let out of prison. None of them are really bad and all of them have intriguing stories. British cinema featured a number of films with the "tableau" style story plot. You can read our full review of this gem by clicking here. 

The Divided Heart ( 1954 ) 

The Divided Heart engages in a different and movingly direct way with the aftermath of the war, tracing the struggle between two mothers for custody of a boy. Smuggled out of Yugoslavia for safety, and adopted by a German couple, he is reclaimed years later by his birth mother, a survivor of Auschwitz. The play of emotion is delicately handled so that it’s hard not to sympathize equally with the ‘good German’ adoptive parents and with the Yugoslav mother – and indeed with the trio of judges who have to decide. Both Michael Balcon and his wife had a special commitment to this project, and regretted its relative failure at the time, despite good reviews. Sixty years on, it is one of the Ealing films that comes up very fresh and prompts a reassessment of its director Charles Crichton, best known for comedy ( The Lavender Hill Mob, The Titfield Thunderbolt ) but here doing admirable work of a different kind. 

Lease of Life ( 1954 ) 

The parson of a small rural community knows he is dying and this makes him reconsider his life so far and what he can still do to help the community. 
Lease of Life is among the least dramatic of film titles, and the film itself is one of the most modest of Ealing productions; in his index to ‘British Sound Films’ David Quinlan calls it a ‘sincere, quiet, close-to-dull drama.’ But it is far from dull, if you give it a chance. 

Lease of Life is indeed a very engaging film to watch and Robert Donat gives an excellent performance as the rural parson. It also features a wonderful supporting cast with Kay Walsh and Adrienne Corri. 

The Admirable Crichton ( 1957 )

Lord Loam has modern ideas about his household; he believes in treating his servants as his equals - at least sometimes. His butler, Crichton, still believes that members of the serving class should know their place and be happy there. But when the Loam family are shipwrecked on a desert island with the self-reliant Crichton and between maid Tweeny, the class system is put to the test.

The story premise of a group of individuals stranded on a desert island is not a new one, but The Admirable Crichton is a fresh take on this old idea. It was based on a popular play by J.M Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan", and this film adaptation boasts a wonderful cast which includes Kenneth More as Crichton, Sally Anne Howes, Cecil Parker and Diane Cilento. You can read more about the film here. 

Ice Cold in Alex ( 1958 ) 

A group of Army personnel and nurses attempt a dangerous and arduous trek across the desert of North Africa during World War II. The leader of the team dreams of his ice-cold beer when he reaches Alexandria, but the problems just won't go away.

Ice Cold in Alex is the 1950s version of Humphrey Bogart's Sahara. Sylvia Syms and John Mills were probably two of the biggest box-office stars of the 1950s in England and it was great to see them teamed up in this adventure classic. Also in the cast is Anthony Quayle who not only made six films with Syms but starred with her in a number of television episodes as well ( including one from his own show The Strange Report ). 

Passionate Summer ( 1958 ) 

Set in Jamaica, an island paradise…where human emotions are laid bare under the tropical sun! Douglas Lockwood, (Bill Travers) is a gifted teacher at Leonard Pawley’s experimental school situated in Jamaica. During one summer, a private plane crashes into the mountains a short distance from the school. Lockwood helps rescue passenger Judy Waring (Virginia McKenna) and quickly develops a romantic interest in her while she convalesces at the school. Meanwhile, Leonard Pawley’s wife (Yvonne Mitchell) has her own romantic interest in Lockwood and a love triangle quickly develops. The love interest of the adults and the behavior of the school children see temperatures rise under the burning summer sun.

Passionate Summer certainly brims with passion! The hot locales make all of our leading characters drip in sweat and naturally, this oppressive heat causes their emotions to heat up as well. It is a soap opera alright, but a highly entertaining one. 

Conspiracy of Hearts ( 1960 ) 

In wartime Italy nuns in a convent regularly smuggle Jewish children out of a nearby internment camp. The Italian army officer in charge suspects what may be going on but deliberately turns a blind eye. When the Germans take over the camp security the nuns' activities become far more dangerous.

Betty Box is not a familiar name to American audiences but she - and her husband - were prolific producers and some of the best British films of the 1960s were Box productions. Conspiracy of Hearts is a difficult film to watch because it does not mask the prickly situation these nuns were in and show quite plainly what they had to contend with in getting the youngsters to safety. As you have probably guessed, Yvonne Mitchell is one of our favorite actresses, and she is in this film as well, but it is Lilli Palmer and Slyvia Syms who are the main attractions. Incidentally, this film reunited Mitchell and Syms who starred together in the box-office hit Woman in a Dressing Gown ( 1958 ). 

The Barber of Stamford Hill ( 1962 ) 

Mr. Figg, the barber, is fond of telling customers about his family, but he hasn't really got one - he's a bachelor quite alone in the world. He wants this status to change and soon makes up his mind that he will be a bachelor no longer. 

The Barber of Stamford Hill was originally a half-hour television play that became so popular that its screenwriter stretched it into this marvelous one-hour long film. There are only three principal players in the cast ( John Bennett, Megs Jenkins, Maxwell Shaw ) and each gives a tender performance in this very entertaining film all about character. 

The Fast Lady ( 1962 ) 

Murdoch Troon (Stanley Baxter), a naive Scotsman, puts away his bicycle and attempts to woe the daughter (Julie Christie) of wealthy businessman Charles Chingford (James Robertson Justice) by way of impressing her with a vintage Bentley - The Fast Lady of the title.

The Fast Lady is a fun comedy with a great cast. Stanley Baxter made a number of films but none so entertaining as this one ( although the follow-up, And Father Came Too is quite enjoyable ).

Want to read more? We reviewed this film several years ago and you can read about it here.

Young and Willing ( 1962 ) 

Harry Brown ( Ian McShane ) is a somewhat rough student (the wild) at Kilminster University, who has the ability to win friends, especially the underdogs like Phil ( Sir John Hurt in his introductory movie role ) who doesn't play "rugger", and can't sink a whole pint of beer, and African student Reggie ( Johnny Sekka ). He also has a way with the girls ( the willing ), one of whom is his professor's wife ( Virginia Maskell ), who likes the students, but also her comfortable life with her boring husband more. After Harry is rebuffed, he takes up the challenge to hang a banner from the dangerously crumbling University tower. The rather weak Phil insists on being part of this escapade.

Ian McShane makes an impressive film debut as the young Harry Brown. Young and Willing ( also released under the title The Wild and the Willing ) is not a cheerful picture of university life ( if you want to see a more light-hearted film take a peek at Bachelor of Hearts with Hardy Kruger ) but it is very engrossing. Virginia Maskell was a fine actress of the 1960s who died much too young. She gives an impressive understated performance here as the prof's wife. Also in the cast is a young Samantha Eggar. 

Nobody Runs Forever ( 1968 )

Scobie Malone ( Rod Taylor ), an Australian outback police detective is sent on a special assignment to the UK, to return an Australian citizen ( Christopher Plummer ) accused of murder. Only this is not an ordinary man, he is a UN high commissioner for peace talks taking place in London.

Nobody Runs Forever ( also released as The High Commissioner ) is one of many espionage/thrillers that were released in the wake of James Bond's popularity. Rod Taylor's tough-talking Australian character is quite endearing and this could have been a great start to a series of Scobie Malone pictures. Also in the cast is Franchot Tone in his last screen appearance. The wonderful opening theme was written by Georges Delerue. This is another great Betty Box production. 

To read more about the film, check out our review here

This post is our contribution to the 6th Annual Rule Britannia blogathon being hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on this link to read more posts about British actors and films from the 1920s-2000s. Be sure to search "Rule Britannia" to also read prior entries from this great blogathon. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Gun Glory ( 1957 )

Philip Yordan's western novel "Man of the West" was brought to the screen in beautiful Cinemascope as Gun Glory ( 1957 ) with the great Stewart Granger taking on the lead role of Tom Early. 

It is 1880s Wyoming, and Early has just returned to the town he calls home after spending years away attempting to win a fortune gambling. He has gained an unwarranted reputation of being a gunslinger and is known in town as the man who "enjoys killing". Early is surprised when he goes to his homestead and discovers that his wife has died and his 17-year-old son ( Steve Rowland ) blames him for her death. 

Early wants to put away his guns, patch up his relationship with his son and return to ranching, but a local cattle baron named Grimsell ( James Gregory ) is bent on stirring up trouble instead. He wants to pass his herd of 20,000 cattle roughshod through the town's valley which will destroy many of the settlers' lands. Early warns the townspeople that they have the right to refuse him access to cross the valley but that Grimsell will not settle the dispute without a fight. After Grimsell attacks the preacher ( Chill Wills ) and his posse, Early decides to strap on his guns again and take on Grimsell single-handedly. 

"Men who live by the gun, die by the gun" - Preacher

"That depends on what kind of shot you are" - Early

Stewart Granger, in spite of being an Englishman, was well-suited to the western genre. He looked good on a horse and had that rugged come-and-tackle-me appearance. Granger himself loved the American west and, several years prior to making Gun Glory, had purchased a 5,280 acre ranch near Nogales, Arizona to breed cattle. 

He gives a solid performance as Tom Early, making him out to be quite a noble character even though he deserted his wife and son years ago. 

On its surface, Gun Glory appears to be a run-of-the-mill western, but there is a lot of depth to the characters and the relationships between them which gives the film its added appeal. The romantic angle is provided by the beautiful Rhonda Fleming who plays Jo, a young woman whom Early rescues from the leering eyes of storekeeper Sam Winscott ( James Aubuchon ). She needs a job and gladly accepts the task of being Early's "live-in" housekeeper. Naturally, in the seclusion of his homestead, love blossoms between the two.
Steve Rowland also gives a good performance as Tom's handsome son. He has to wrestle with his resentment toward his father and also his romantic feelings for Jo. Steve Rowland is the son of Roy Rowland, the director of Gun Glory. 

James Gregory is delightful as the brutish baddie and the lovable Chill Wills gets an especially meaty part as the gentle but courageous preacher. 

Also in the cast is Arch Johnson, Rayford Barnes, William Fawcett, Bud Osbourne, and an uncredited May McAvoy, a leading lady of the silent era. 

"There weren't any people here the last time I drove cattle through, too bad they're here now, but they're in my way..." - Grimsell
Philip Yordan had a reputation for being one of the best "script-doctors" in Tinsel Town. He himself worked uncredited on numerous films, patching up story plots and dialogue to make them play out better. He had an special knack for film noirs and westerns. Johnny Guitar ( 1954 ), Broken Lance ( 1954 ), The Man from Laramie ( 1955 ), The Last Frontier ( 1955 ) and The Bravados ( 1958 ) were all Yordan stories/scripts. Surprisingly, he did not write the screenplay to Gun Glory. Instead, William Ludwig got screen credit for the film even though it was written by screenwriter Ben Maddow, a talented writer who was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist.

Gun Glory is not one of the legendary westerns of the 1950s, but it ranks above many others for its fine script, great acting, beautiful color photography, and its entertaining ballad theme "The Ninety and Nine" sung by Burl Ives. 

This post is our contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week being hosted by Along the Brandywine, Hamlette's Soliloquy and Meanwhile, in Rivendell. Be sure to click on this link to check out more reviews of films and actors of the western genre. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Tribute to a Bad Man ( 1956 )

"I was a boy when I entered Mr. Rodock's valley but when I left I wasn't a boy anymore. I had picked up a few pointers about how men died quickly and how they kept from dying quickly; how to be cruel and how not to be cruel; and what love isn't, and what it is."

Steve Miller ( Don Dubbins ), a Pennsylvania grocery boy, is heading west to carve out a new life for himself when he ventures into a Colorado valley in 1875 and rescues a horse rancher who was ambushed. This man is Jeremy Rodock ( James Cagney ), who not only owns the valley but all of the horses in it. 
In gratitude for saving his life, he takes Steve to his ranch and offers him a job as a wrangler. It is here, in Rodock's valley, that Steve grows into manhood, learning new skills, falling in love for the first time, and witnessing torture and the hanging of a man. 

Tribute to a Bad Man is an underrated western that has been passed by many a stagecoach over the years. It was based on the short story "Hanging's for the Lucky" by Jack Schaefer, an excellent western author who is most famous for penning the novel "Shane" in 1949. 

Spencer Tracy was initially cast in the role of Rodock but balked at working on a set built at such a high altitude ( it was filmed on location in Montrose, Colorado ) and generally proved to be such a nuisance to the director and cast that MGM fired him four days after shooting began. James Cagney was called away from his beloved Martha's Vineyard as a replacement and - as Robert Wise recalls - "couldn't have been any more different in terms of attitude than Tracy...taking Don Dubbins under his wing and was very helpful to Irene Papas."
Cagney had made only two westerns prior to this invitation but the genre, and this particular role, was a glove-fit for him. It is a tribute to Cagney's versatility as an actor that he was able to perform such a diverse array of characters throughout his career. He truly becomes Rodock and infuses the character with a tenderness under his crusty exterior that I doubt Tracy could have brought to the part. 

In spite of his bursts of cruelty, Rodock is never an unlikable figure. Jeremy is not really a "bad man" as the title implies. Cagney shows us that his goodness is always just beneath the surface. He is a fearful man; and in his acts of fear he has gained a reputation for being merciless, but as he puts it,

"We're living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order, except for what I built myself. Ever since I started - and this you don't know - I've been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men's been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him."

Rodock is constantly bothered by horse thieves. Most of them are in league with his old partner Peterson ( James Bell ) who lives nearby with his wife ( Jeanette Nolan ) and son Lars ( Vic Morrow ). Peterson failed at ranching and, despising Rodock's determination and success, steals his plentiful horses. 

When injustice is done in his land, Rodock makes the men who threaten his territory pay the price of death - a death by hanging. But this act of vengeance costs the range baron dearly. "Hanging fever" could take hold of a man's soul and corrupt him for life. 

"If you'd only see what it does to you, Jeremy. It changes you."
Rodock is also threatened by his foreman McNulty ( Stephen McNally ) who has eyes for Jocasta "Jo" Constantine ( Irene Papas ) a young Greek immigrant whom Rodock rescued from a Cheyenne bawdy house where she was playing the piano. They have a living arrangement and a relationship agreement..... "I'm here as long as you'll have me."

Jo has no desire to leave Jeremy but in spite of her affirmations, he feels insecure and worried that she will desert him for any young man that wanders into the ranch...including Steve. 

Jeremy wants to have something or someone belong to him, fully. "A man oughta be able to have somethin', and believe he's got it. That it's his, that he ain't gonna lose it ever!" He lives in constant fear of knowing a rustler may take away his horses or that Jo will leave him. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he is slow to trust. But "how can you invest your heart in someone if you don't trust?", Jo asks.

Tribute to a Bad Man is not your traditional western because the story of the horse thieves and Rodock's thirst for justice are merely side plots to the true focus of the film - Rodock's inner desire for security. He clearly wants to tear down his personal barriers when he is with Jo but that nagging insecurity holds him back. Little does he realize how much Jo loves him. This romantic angle to the story is what makes it so endearing to me. 

Western films have long had a tradition of featuring gentle romances, a slow blossoming of love between a hardened cowboy and a soft-spoken schoolteacher or minister's daughter. There is no sudden fierce outburst of emotion. There are no long courtship sequences. There is just an understanding look, a glance of sympathy, a touch of the hand. Robert Wise quickly establishes to the audience that Jeremy and Jo are in love with each other but he adds anticipation to the story by letting us witness the characters discover this for themselves. 

Irene Papas, a beautiful actress with striking classical Greek features, gives a strong performance in her Hollywood debut. Jocasta is an independent woman, an ex-saloon entertainer who likes to sass back at men, but Papas lends her character old-world understanding and soulfulness that makes her so very appealing. 
All-around the casting was excellent. Don Dubbins gives a wonderful performance as the gentle young Steve. James Cagney took such a liking to the lad that he was featured in Cagney's next picture, These Wilder Years ( 1956 ). McNally and Morrow are good as the bitter villains who would clearly like to shoot Rodock in the back, and a gathering of familiar western character actors were also rounded-up for support: Lee Van Cleef, Royal Dano, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith. 

"Maybe I ain't hard, maybe that's why. But Mr. Rodock, you didn't have to hang him."

Tribute to a Bad Man was filmed in Cinemascope by cinematographer Robert Surtees who beautifully captured the magnificence of the Colorado landscape. The film also features an expressive score by Miklos Rozsa which was woven throughout with Greek-inspired motifs. 
Robert Wise made only three westerns ( Two Flags West, So Big ) which leaves one to wonder how many fantastic westerns could have been added to the genre had he made them a focus of his career. Wise was such a professional director and Tribute to a Bad Man is evidence of the sure-hand that was holding on to the reins of the production. He structures the scenes in short sequences that play out naturally and are never overstuffed with emotion or action. The emphasis is always on visuals, which conveys the underlying message of the story so much more effectively. This is especially evident in the final sequence. In the hands of another director, this ending may have come off as schmaltzy, but instead it unfolds as one of the most satisfying - and beautifully photographed - conclusions to a western that I have ever watched. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Favorite Western Films - A Photo Collection

Legends of Western Cinema Week is taking place right now and since we love westerns, it was very difficult to decide which film/actor to write about for the event. We'll be taking part by contributing western reviews of two favorites: Tribute to a Bad Man ( 1956 ) and Gun Glory ( 1956 ).....but, since these two films are only a tiny, tiny, tip of the wealth to be mined in the western genre, we wanted to cover a broader range of films. Hence, a photo collection! 

Below you will find some of our favorite classic western films which, if you are unfamiliar with the genre, will aid you in mapping your way around the terrain or at least introduce you to a few new titles. 

The Big Trail ( 1930 ) 

John Wayne, Tyrone Power Sr, Marguerite Churchill

Jesse James ( 1939 ) 

Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott

Stagecoach ( 1939 ) 

John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine

Tall in the Saddle ( 1944 ) 

John Wayne, Ella Raines, Ward Bond

West of the Pecos ( 1945 )

Robert Mitchum, Barbara Hale, Thurston Hall

Canyon Passage ( 1946 )

Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, Brian Donlevy

My Darling Clementine ( 1946 ) 

Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan

Angel and the Badman ( 1947 ) 

John Wayne, Gail Russell

Four Faces West ( 1948 )

Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford

Broken Arrow ( 1950 )

James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, Debra Paget

The Outriders ( 1950 )

Joel McCrea, Arlene Dahl, Barry Sullivan

Rio Grande ( 1950 )

John Wayne, Victor MacLagen, Maureen O'Hara, Claude Jarmin Jr.

Rawhide ( 1951 ) 

Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Dean Jagger, Hugh Marlowe

Bend of the River ( 1952 )

James Stewart, Julie Adams, Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy

Hondo ( 1953 )

John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Ward Bond

The Man from the Alamo ( 1953 )

Glenn Ford, Julie Adams, Chill Wills

The Naked Spur ( 1953 )

James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh

Shane ( 1953 )

Alan Ladd, Ven Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon deWilde

River of No Return ( 1954 ) 

Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun

The Man from Laramie ( 1955 )

James Stewart, Cathy O'Donnell, Donald Crisp, Alex Nicol

The Tall Men ( 1955 ) 

Clark Gable, Robert Ryan, Jane Russell

Tribute to a Bad Man ( 1956 )

James Cagney, Don Dubbins, Irene Papas, Stephen McNally

Gun Glory ( 1957 ) 

Stewart Granger, Rhonda Fleming, Chill Wills

Cowboy ( 1958 )

Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Dick York, Brian Donlevy

Fort Dobbs ( 1958 )

Clint Walker, Virginia Mayo, Richard Eyer

The Big Country ( 1958 ) 

Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker

How the West Was Won ( 1962 ) 

Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Robert Preston, Carroll Baker

Ride the High Country ( 1962 ) 

Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley

Lonely are the Brave ( 1962 )

Kirk Douglas, George Kennedy, Walter Matthau

Putting together this post made us realize that there are still hundreds of westerns for us yet to see ( and many more forgotten films from our past to revisit ), so it is certainly not complete! But that's the fun part about watching movies....there are so many films to explore. It's an endless form of entertainment! 

This post is our contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week hosted by Along the Brandywine, Hamlette's Soliloquy and Meanwhile, in Rivendell. Be sure to stop by any of these blogs for a chance to win some western-themed prizes, participate in a tag, and read reviews of favorite westerns and western stars.