Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Four – Westerns


We’re a year away from Rio Bravo and not quite in revisionism territory (tinkering though, sure). Another genre in transition. These may look and feel like Westerns, but whether benign or brutal, these films poke at and/or undermine the established codes. On the left end of the spectrum, there’s William Wyler’s The Big Country, a 165 minute epic A-picture that uses its sprawl to debunk Western myths with Gregory Peck’s pacifist James McKay. On the right is paltry-budget extraordinaire Joseph H. Lewis’s last film Terror in a Texas Town, a bare bones outlier oddity that would go down nicely paired with Murder by Contract from the same year. In the middle is easily the best and most enduring of the three; Anthony Mann’s endlessly unforgiving Man of the West. Here, all that’s left of the Western are deserted ghost towns, the constant threat of explicit violence, and the inconsolable gap left in the wake of wasted blood.

The-Big-Country
The Big Country
(1958, Wyler) (US)

A joint project with Gregory Peck (he and William Wyler produced) about what happens when a man challenges, through refusal to kowtow, the social norms of his environment. The two families-in-a-long-standing-feud story carries the kind of history stewing that befits a film of this scope. And what a scope. Shot in CinemaScope, Franz F. Planer drowns the characters in vista without, critically, losing the human intimacy that often evaporates when working in widescreen framing. Lots of Westerns showcase beautiful landscape photography, but strong depth of field here that one wonders how all this land fits on the screen at all. That may sound like Wyler and company squished the land into the frame, like an overflowing suitcase being shoved down down down so it can just barely close. But no, it’s simply majestic, emphasizing the irony of two families unable to cohabit in all that space.

The essence of Gregory Peck is one of surface passivity masking action through dignity and an unwavering moral compass. His James McKay is seen by others as a pushover, a coward. But he isn’t. He just lives by his own mostly pacifist code, refusing to succumb to what is expected of him just because proving oneself as the new kid on the ranch is what one inevitably does. When he does prove himself, it is to himself, on his own time and his own terms. He wants no fanfare, and he certainly feels no need to tell his disappointed fiancee (Carroll Baker) that he did ride that horse, or that he did defend himself in the blue of the night.

For its swiftness and Burl Ives-ness (it was for this, and not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from the same year, that he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Big Country suffers from that ever-familiar trap of narrative over-inflation. Everything carries on a few beats too long. Gregory Peck challenges the explicitly-presented-as-such outmoded Western. Since Peck doesn’t want to fight, this is short on action and long on talking. Everything is over-expressed and drained of emotional resonance. It’s all just a mite too square.

Two highlights are the fistfight between Charlton Heston and Peck that switches between extreme long shot to medium shot. The emphasis is on the act of having it out, not on claiming a victor. Second is when Jean Simmons tells Peck a story. The music randomly swells, gradually drowning out her voice, and he eventually feigns fainting. It’s such an anomalous moment in the middle of a traditional film, and I really appreciated that little touch.

man of the west mann
Man of the West
(1958, Mann)
(US)
“When you were a boy?”
“I don’t know what I was”

I was considerably unprepared for Man of the West, the Straw Dogs of studio westerns — that is, if you replace the invaded home with a derelict barn that symbolizes a tense union between past and present. Twenty minutes in, Gary Cooper’s reformed criminal, Arthur O’Connell’s gambler, and Julie London’s dance hall girl wander off together after an unfortunately timed train robbery. I thought ‘oh lovely; it’ll be about the adventures of this ragtag trio’. Oh, how very wrong I was.

This is a volatile, sickening and almost unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. We are soon trapped in this barn with Lee J. Cobb and his underlings, as Link (Cooper) comes face-to-grizzly-face with the life he left behind so many years ago. Reform is too abstract to hold in this world. Cooper is, after all these years, forced back into this fold in order to protect London and O’Connell. But his fake re-alliance doesn’t ensure their safety at all. Nothing he does gives him leverage. Nothing he does matters. Link, in a desperate effort to protect Billie (London) proclaims “she’s mine”. And again, it changes nothing.

Man of the West operates as a vice grip, a gradual tightening of the fists. Its chamber piece setting (three acts, taking place on a train, a barn, and a ghost town) and warped use of lenses tighten the unbearable suspense, as does the constant threat and/or follow through, of violence. There is nobody to run to. The planned bank robbery of the third act is a bust because it turns out Lassoo is a ghost town. The characters are isolated with one another, and the audience with them. At a certain point Man of the West feels something akin to hell. Nowhere is this more definitive than an agonizing scene where Billie is forced to strip while Cooper looks on, powerless at knifepoint. Billie is the broken heart of the film, consistently sidelined except when serving as an example of the world’s brutality. But I’m really fond of Julie London’s efforts to imbue Billie with an inner life; there is depth to her terror and unrequited desire that is not on the page.

Something I’m seeing in these 1958 films is the acting clash of the old studio era and the new Method actors who were then infiltrating the cineplex. This was one of Gary Cooper’s last films; he would die in 1961. We never buy Link’s past when looking at Cooper, nor do we buy his ‘act’ of returning to the fold. His age and unconvincing criminal ‘persona’ make Link vulnerable at every checkpoint, his efforts to protect aren’t reassuring, and when they succeed, it’s just plain ugly. There is no triumph to be found in Man of the West. Sidling up against Cooper is Lee J. Cobb as the lecherous Dock Tobin. Even the name suggests a weight; it’s a name we don’t want to hear. Dock Tobin. The distractions of overacting often yield back to potency and that’s the case with Cobb. He slobbers and mutters, his decaying mind still protecting his immoral instincts. He is downright scary. All that rampant dirtiness that the Code can’t be direct about, it’s all there on his grubby visage.

All in all I’m pretty unfamiliar with Anthony Mann’s work in general, although The Furies is a favorite of mine and the only other I’ve seen of his, so seeking out his work is probably an excellent idea.

terror in a texas town
Terror in a Texas Town
(1958, Lewis)

Joseph H. Lewis, expert in the art of B-noirs and westerns, kicked off his retirement with this unusual and self-consciously artificial coda populated by blacklisted participants (Dalton Trumbo scripted this under a pseudonym). That this one’s a bit different is immediately apparent. For one thing, it starts in media res…with Sterling Hayden…clenching a harpoon! Then the credits kick in and we backtrack to the beginning, which isn’t as much about Sterling Hayden (and thank goodness, because his naive do-gooder bit reads like a slab of mayonnaise despite an endearingly awful Swedish accent) as it is about Nedrick Young’s hit man Johnny Crale, a villain-identified-by-dark-wardrobe type who nevertheless shoulders existential, but not humane, shading. Notably, the most humanistic, and the most involving, character is a Mexican-American farmer named Jose (Victor Millan) (lo and behold, here lies actual Mexican-American representation here!) who struggles with whether or not to get him and his family involved in the dangerous proceedings by divulging pertinent information to Hayden.

The formal quirks (and Hayden’s accent) make this more an idiosyncrasy than something that truly engages. As it chugs along, it becomes apparent that Terror in a Texas Town exists in a sort of suspended space. Lurking extras are a rarity. A saloon confrontation has mere stragglers on the sidelines, nobody to really stare in intimidation and watch two cowboys have at it. The majority of the scenes are shot in long takes that reframe the action. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane with Kane as a child, playing in the snow while the adults decide his fate indoors? It’s a famous long take, not flashy, but readjusting the composition in meaningful ways as the blocking evolves. Well, that technique shows up a lot here, again emphasizing this suspended space, a dislocation dressed in cheap sets that may be motivated by budget, but ends up reading not quite of this world. It’s minor cult status can be largely attributed to the cumulative vibe.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Two Faces of January (2014, Amini): **1/2
What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971, Harrington) ****
35 Shots of Rum (2009, Denis): ****
See No Evil 2 (2014, Soska Sisters) 1/2

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Three – Horror


Approaching the halfway point of 1958 Watchlist and finding myself largely distanced from the content so far. My appreciation for individual films is defined by larger contexts i.e considering where cinema was at this point in time, tracking formal and narrative emergence, established modes and the increasingly outdated. I’ve a long way to go, but true immersion in the cinematic universe of 1958 is, as of right now, a rarity.

attack of the 50ft womanAttack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958, Juran) (US)
“HAARRRYYY!!!”
Starting off with a brief trip into sci-fi. Equivalent to an average albeit stretched out “Twilight Zone” episode (every one of its 60 some odd minutes are felt) with its hearty helpings of melodrama and noir. A peculiar little item that never becomes much of anything, but the effects transcend bad to become simultaneously riotous, nonsensical, and even haunting.

the-blob-1958-steve-mcqueen-girl-doctor
The Blob
(1958, Yeaworth Jr.) (US)

Youth: the newly favored benefit-of-the-doubt perspective of 50’s American cinema. The Blob is a very early example of teens taking center stage in horror. Of course, we now recognize them as a predominant demographic for both onscreen slaughter and off-screen viewership. And try as I might, it’s difficult to think of earlier examples of growing pains and pleasures at the center of horror. Scientists, fully formed mad men, and unsuspecting women held the reins in decades previous. This fusion between sci-fi/horror and the new teen cinema of the 50’s sounds far more promising than it is. Essentially a feature length reminder of the communication gap and inherent distrust between adults and kids, The Blob is a ‘but you gotta believe me’ story of supposed troublemakers crying wolf and a bunch of adults and idiot cops that just won’t listen. Perhaps it would have been more engaging if the supposed troublemakers in question actually had a renegade streak running through their veins. Instead, age and bad situational timing are the sole markers of invalidation.

The Blob is one of three films in this post that help introduce Technicolor to the horror world. Until this point its visual language was exclusively expressed in blacks, whites, grays; the unknowable shadows. Hammer Horror in the UK changed that, splattering untapped possibilities of color to the genre with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. The immediate impact in America can be seen with both this and The Fly (which takes things one step further, being shot in CinemaScope). The crimson red of blood is replaced with the crimson red of the blob itself, a gelatinous being with no rationale or character, only the patient drive for sustenance.

The Blob peaks early with its kooky title song and the first scene between Steve McQueen and his lady friend in a car with an entirely black background, dislodged from visible surroundings.

The Fly 1958The Fly (1958, Neumann) (US)
A standard 50’s don’t fuck with nature B-story, but not a B-movie, as illustrated by the atypical presentational pairing of lux Cinemascope. Also atypical is its structure, starting as a domestic murder mystery and segueing into a lengthy cautionary tale flashback. The Fly misuses its time in some pretty egregious ways (ten minutes are spent trying to catch a fly), but the moments of screechy pleas and kaleidoscopic perspectives break through the dryness in ways that elicit shivers.

No doubt about it, body horror is the most unnerving kind out there. While David Cronenberg’s far superior take details the vile minutiae of bodily transformation, the emphasis here, when it strives to be, is on change after the fact, particularly the sudden loss of will and the self. But since Andre (David Hedison) is and remains a remote presence (to us and the film) married to science, his wife’s (Patricia Owens) experience is foregrounded, the aforementioned will and self taking a back seat. The real tragedy is that Andre’s mistake doesn’t alter the household’s norm. He’s still always in the basement, still closed off to the world. By the end, Helene never seems quite appropriately saddened by the loss of her husband, because, well, Andre never contributed much to his family in the first place. His commitment to scientific breakthrough is so absolute that he doesn’t even have the time to be the protagonist of his own story. Once the flashback begins, that honor is, thankfully (in the sense that Hedison is a wet blanket), handed off to Patricia Owens by the irreplaceable Vincent Price as brother-in-law. Her marital commitment ensures that shock gives way to pragmatism, and she does what needs to be done. Once he transforms and loses himself, she sees him as being already gone, 100% Other. The loss of Andre’s identifiable features such as voice and face gradually overpower his ability to still communicate through knocks, typed letters, and increasingly scrawled chalkboard writing.

haunted stranglerThe Haunted Strangler (1958, Day) (UK)
A stuffy affair with Boris Karloff is its sole partially saving grace (even the unnerving face contortions are all his). Shows its hand halfway through when it repositions into a Jekyll and Hyde take that soon finds its own static mold. An intrusively shot hanging at the start contains a tangible dirty perversity that sadly isn’t approached again. This is the second 1958 film I’ve seen (the other being Cairo Station) that uses soaked breasts as a censor-pushing weapon. Unexpectedly contains perhaps the highest ratio of can-can dancing (due to the film’s short length) I’ve ever seen.

horror of draculaHorror of Dracula (1958, Fisher) (UK)
Since this is a go-to exemplary representative of Hammer Horror by many, I question if Hammer is for me. A transitional marker for horror, it arrives after a primary focus on atmospherics and the unseen, during censorship testing, but before transgressions that endure as transgressions on the screen today (this caused quite the stir in the UK upon release but doesn’t retain that sense). Hammer became a 50’s equivalent of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the 40’s in the UK, but not as salacious or intriguing, at least to my eyes.

Of the films in this post, Horror of Dracula makes the most effective use of color, favoring admittedly overlit compositions that nevertheless embellish and flaunt the aristocratic digs. Giallo would eventually run with the horror/color combo, but Terence Fisher lays the foundation for what would become the expressive status quo.

Most admirable are the audacious ways the source material is toyed with, shredded, and effectively pared down. Bram Stoker’s novel becomes enticing mincemeat in the clutches of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. For example; when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) meets Dracula (Christopher Lee) in the opening minutes, I was thinking about Harker’s unavoidable dopiness. For audiences, Dracula is synonymous with vampire, so we can’t help but unfairly resent him for not knowing the mythos he’s stepped into. Unfair, but true. Just as I think this, it is revealed that Harker already knows who Dracula is, and has willfully entered his headquarters in order to stealthily conquer him! Putting aside the largely dry investigative elements (helped greatly by the velvety dapper presence of Peter Cushing), there is a fixation on what people do in solitude. Harker writes in his journal, Lucy waits for Dracula to ravish her at night, Van Helsing stews in his own thoughts, etc. For a film this short, considerable time is spent showing characters in rooms by themselves.

Christopher Lee’s take on the titular character is widely accepted as iconic. There is a truly frightening use of close-ups starring bloody eye contacts posing as jump scares and the smart use of Lee as a silent-but-growling manifestation (all of his dialogue comes in the first act). But Lee has always come across as a strictly hackneyed presence. Miles above Bela Lugosi whose theatrical stiffness is much worse, he nevertheless lacks the charm, sexuality or danger that supposedly so appalled censors. For all that, one only has to look slightly stage right to Carol Marsh as Lucy, whose brief appearance of clear-eyed sexual menace wafts over everything. Fear bleeds into desire and her anticipatory bedroom stares tell us everything we need to know.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Zero Theorem (2014, Gilliam) ***
L’Intrus (2004, Denis) ***
God Help the Girl (2014, Murdoch) * ½
The Double (2014, Ayoade) ***
Neighbors (2014, Stoller) ** ½
Raze (2014, Waller) *
Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) **** ½
The Boxtrolls (2014, Annable, Stacchi) ****
White Bird in a Blizzard (2014, Araki) ****
Manhunter (1986, Mann) ****
Body Bags (1993, Carpenter/Hooper) ***