Sight and Sound ran an article on psychological Westerns, with a smaller side piece darker Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. I’ve been keeping a look out for these film, so far this year I’ve seen two – Track of the Cat (1954) and today Pursued (1947). I can’t begin the review without a brief look at Track of the Cat which just on a visual level is fascinating. The colour pallet restricted to black and white, with splashes of red, every other colour was muted down – unless you were Mitchum. He wasn’t even the overall focus of the film that saw a family restricted by the biting cold of the mountain snow. Even more so with the threat of a black cat that had been spotted. With a terrifying performance from Beulah Bondi as the matriarch who used the bible to keep her family in line. Not thinking about how the scriptures were doing more damage than good. Driving the husband and father Philip Tonge to drink, hiding a bottle of whiskey in every thinkable place, yes a serious look at alcoholism in the genre.
Coming back to the earlier film directed by a Western director Raoul Walsh in this black and white noiresque Western set again the barren landscape of Gallup, New Mexico, which mentions the Mexico Border war 1910-19, however the costume is very confusing as to the era it depicts until we return from the front lines. I’m reminded tonally of Ramrod (1947) which is more overt in it’s visual connection to noir, with Veronica Lake paired opposite Joel McCrea. I still find that film confusing even after a second watch a few years ago. Unlike the majority of of Pursued which as with most noirs that are told in flashback. With the arrival of Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) who rides into join a man in hiding with a burnt out wreck of a homestead. We find Jeb Rand (Mitchum) wounded, tired and scared.
Beginning the film where he began his short life as we fade into flashback. A young boy hiding in a basement is rescued by a woman Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson) who welcomes him to live with her two young children. Life is not safe for them as they are soon on the run themselves. It’s a film of great upheaval and change for everyone in the Callum family. It’s not just a time of change politically but also on a domestic level. With such a focus on the family the film leans more towards drama than action which the Western generally fits into. We meet the children who are able to hold more screen time, danger is slowly creeping into their lives when Jeb’s horse is shot dead from under him. My first reaction was that it’s pretty dark in any film to kill a child. Thankfully he lives to be filled with fear that he takes home to the family. A child who we know has been plagued with bad dreams which we see flash upon the screen throughout the film.
We also meet an embittered Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) who soon loses an arm, which doesn’t stop him trying to muddy Jeb’s family name. But why is he out to get Jeb, how can an innocent boy have incurred the anger of this man. The ex husband of Mrs Callum who is more than happy and capable to raise three children alone, shows little fear, aware of the reasons but these are not revealed to us. The audience is left in suspense for the films duration. Tensions introduced between brothers Jeb and Adam Callum (John Rodney) after Jeb returns home early from the border war. The vendetta against Jeb is about to enter a new adult phase of fateful violence that follows him like a curse. Pushing him away from his adoptive family and love Thor who for a long time shuns him for the hurt he causes.
The question of why looms heavy over the this film. Why is Grant Callum so determined to see Jeb outcast from those he loves, to get him alone and kill him. All whilst Jeb is tortured by his recurring dream that he struggles to understand he returns to to brotherly rivalry that ends in death. Leading to the a court case being heard with the dead body in the room. The pressure to do right by the deceased and the accused has never been so acute. Whatever the result Jeb is cast out by his family, trying to find a way back into their favor. Something made harder with the a new man in Thor’s life, which is manipulated by Grant who tries to further push Jeb into the line of fire.
Throughout the film I noticed that we were missing one key ingredient of the noir genre – the femme fatale which is revealed late on and maintained for a few minutes before we are drawn into the safety of a happy ending. The women save the day after the Callum en-masse close in on Jeb who was destined to meet the fate of the rest of his family. The ending allows the woman rarely to take control on-screen, unlike the man who is generally expected to. Where there is pretty much a happy ending here, I much prefer the bleakness of Track of the Cat that left a family forced to come together under extreme pressure after such heavy losses. The turmoil that the respective families go through can’t fairly be compared. It’s the intensity of the situations and how they are resolved and that makes for more dramatic ending. Maybe it’s due to more confidence in the director, the script or a combination of both and the times that the films are made in. Either way they are both very interesting and obscure Westerns that dare to push the boundaries of the genre as it blurs with another.
I’m going to try something new in this review – 3 films, well 2 films and a TV episode all titled – Cape Fear. For sometime I’ve been thinking about the relationship between these horror films. Having also read that the Martin Scorsese remake in 1991 was pointless really, I need to see this for myself to understand what is actually going on here. Has Scorsese wasted a cast and crews time and a film companies money, not to mention the audience who went to see etc. I’ll finish on a more comedic note with The Simpsons spoof Cape Feare which combines the best of both films. I’m one film in – the original which I shamefully saw in about 9 parts on YouTube whilst working at a summer camp a few years ago.
The 1962 original released as part of a cycle of horror films that attempted to emulate Psycho (1960) which reshaped the genre forever, what a was expected from the genre and its very form. What followed was a series of cheap knock-offs so to speak that tried to replicate that magic for the next few years. With time for the industry to react one of the first films out using A-list actors with well established careers, such as Deborah Kerr‘s The Innocents (1961), and the cult classic of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). However Cape Fear has more in common with film noir, or the first shoots of neo-noir after it ended a few years earlier with Touch of Evil (1959). Take some of the best bits of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and repackage it into a more audience friendly film that has also become a classic.
Taking the Charles Laughton noir of a preacher who works his way into a community, marrying a Jail birds widow, in order to get his hands on the money which the dead husband has hidden. Memorably played by Robert Mitchum, whose physical presence transformed the role and the film into that of almost folklore horror. Seeing America through the eyes of an English director who gave us his vision of a country deeply rooted in its religion that could be so easily be corrupted. The Mitchum character of Harry Powell becomes Max Cady, again not long released from prison has a one track mind, not money, he has plenty of that. Its more like a destiny that he has to fulfill coming to the home town of successful lawyer and family man Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who had to testify against him on an attack charge against an innocent woman. After first meeting Cady we know he’s not a family man, not meant to live around law-abiding people. He’s not a gentlemen who stops to pick up papers for woman on the stairs. He’s to be avoided, even before we learn his back story.
The Cady’s live in reasonable comfort, a small lawyer whose life is about to be turned upside down, about to take him and his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons with this to the remake, what were the new relationship that brings Cady to town. It’s more complex for sure in the remake. Back to this more straightforward film that doesn’t waste time establishing whose the good and bad guys. However it’s the law whose hands are tied, Cady’s being doing more than marking the days in his cell before being released. Reading up on the law and planning his revenge. Starting his war of terror against Bowden and his family, taking aim at the teenage daughter – Nancy whose awareness of the male gaze and sexual power is about to blow wide open.
Cady is not just a deranged criminal out for revenge he’s a sexual predator too, making Nancy his next victim. This could be where Scorsese got a bit of tunnel vision, along with changing taste and the loosening of censorship which allowed for a more adult version of the film. Nonetheless the original filmed in cheap/standard black and white adds another layer to this dark film that gets more intense scene by scene. Tying Sam in knots with nowhere to turn but to lead him into a trap on the houseboat along the Cape Fear river. The sexuality is all coming from Mitchum, even middle-aged has a decent body that added to his domineering on-screen presence. If anything I found the ending lackluster, instead of what the audience wants – and Scorsese gives us. We have the law winning out, the courts of justice putting Cady back behind bars before a swift and happy ending. It feels after all of that struggle the good and civilised in Bowden wins out, his primal desire and wishes earlier on in the film to shoot him are repressed to allow him to drag him to a prison cell before a having another trial. Hopefully leading to reform, something I really can’t see happening to Cady, whoever plays this disturbed character.
Onto the remake now, which after hearing it was pointless, I’m starting to see why after just finishing it. I first watched it at University, thinking it was a great thriller, I even used it as part of my research for thrillers and suspense. What the hell was I thinking, more to the point what was Martin Scorsese thinking. It wasn’t even a film he wanted to do, it was an assignment given to him by the Universal, for reasons I just don’t understand, I don’t think he does either. Probably hoping to get his next project The Age of Innocence (1993).
Lets take a look at the film on the face of it, a remake of the 1960’s classic thriller which saw the Bowden family being tormented by the deranged Max Cady that still remains at the core of this film. However 30 years have passed and the script admittedly needed altering in some respects. There’s far more sex on-screen, along with the usual depiction of Scorsese penchant for violence. Making it a good match, but then the same can be said of lots of directors. He’s a director for hire here. The main difference is Cady played by a hammy Robert De Niro whose clearly having a ball, glad to be working with his old pal Marty one more time. The crime committed now is, aggravated assault, essentially rape when you get to know the character. He’s come back to get revenge on his old lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who we learn buried evidence that could have allowed Cady to go free. That facts are made clear early on away from Cady who is beginning his campaign of fear.
Originally Bowden was a witness to an assault committed by Cady, now we see that the lawyer has used his professional power to alter the course of Cady’s life. I couldn’t have seen that working in 1962, only a few years from playing Atticus Finch (Peck) couldn’t betray that upstanding heroic image. Whilst Mitchum could’ve easily played that role to the extreme without getting as hammy as De Niro. We spend more time with the daughter now named Danielle (Juliette Lewis) who is more sexually aware. Whilst the wife is pretty much unchanged, reacting instead to the plot as it unfolds. If anything she is more traumatised by the films events. So the father and daughter get the thick of it.
A memorable addition or “nod” of approval to the remake, is the inclusion of three of the original cast Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam each having a few scenes. Was this more a ploy to bring in the older audience to see three older actors once more, or to say that the film is not being made without their blessing. I think its more the former with a bit of promotional casting. Mitchum first appears as the detective who wants to help but is forced to not suggest to seek alternatives. Whilst Peck is clearly having more fun in his cameo as Lee Heller who is Cady’s defence lawyer. Whilst a clearly bored Martin Balsam the original detective plays the judge who rules a restraining order in Cady’s favor. The aging actor clearly underused and wondering what the hell he is doing on set.
The law is clearly not in Bowden’s side throughout, doing all he can to protect his family, being screwed at every turn by a criminal who has read his books, including the Bible and Sexus (just for added smut). There are times when you are on the Bowden’s side, then you think, haven’t we been here before, only in black and white and not for as long. Drawing out the scenes and adding new ones that only drag out this practically scene for scene remake. The religious overtones are very heavy and clearly a directorial stroke, which makes the work his – overtly.
Ultimately it’s a hammy overreacted, waste of film that sees an accomplished director scraping the barrel with sacred material that shouldn’t have been touched. He should have looked back to Dead Calm (1989) which had the boat thriller in the bag in every way. We have actors who are doing their best, whilst some are just glad for the bigger paycheck and a few days work. Lastly Scorsese only makes you think about the original more overtly with the lazy use of the original score by Bernard Herrmann, conducted by Elmer Bernstein who simply conducted it for the “new” soundtrack. There’s no attempt to be really a unique film that is about the same basic premise, its the just the same just sexed up.
Now I want to watch the far superior Simpsons parody which focuses in the best elements. The second episode of season 5 – (yes it’s that old), a longtime favorite of mine. I remember getting it on video – the murder mysteries tape. Makes me feel old just thinking about it. It’s been a while since I last saw the episode until last night. It was still as fresh and spot on with the jokes that came thick and fast. Midway through the golden age of the now long running animated sitcom, which has now become the longest running of its kind too. Cape Feare was also the third time that Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) appears in this now iconic role. Assuming the Max Cady role directly from the Scorsese’s film gave us a year before. It’s a cheeky spoof that is more entertaining that the thriller which is 6 times as long.
I think the focus was on the more recent film still fresh in the public consciousness, which is understandable, leaving the original alone. Taking the best bits of a pointless film and making fun of the rest in 20 minutes of animation. We already know that Bob has it in for Bart (Nancy Cartwright) who has twice already found him out, once for robbery, and for attempted murder. Now it’s time for revenge. There’s no need to build up that history between the two except in a few short scenes. The blood written letters and the parole hearing before Bob’s released, using his charm to gain his freedom.
Already the Simpson family are on edge, the letters and now the cinema scene which is ensures we are in for a scene for scene spoof. Of course there’s more common sense at play, the harassments taken seriously by the police instead of going down the private detective route – which leads to the fishing wire and teddy bear set-up which isn’t taken seriously. Ultimately they’re referred to the FBI who put them into the Witness Relocation Program giving them a new identity and opening titles. It’s all played fast a loose. Yet the law is on the families side, moving the spoof quickly on, there’s no time to discuss the need to use a gun or to kill Bob, it’s about hiding.
The finale is more family friendly with a Gilbert and Sullivan homage, making the most of an earlier scene in the car journey. The houseboat is loose on the water, just not out of control as Bart uses the performance to buy him time. He’s too clever to result to deadly violence to see his enemy (not Moe Szyslak (Hank Azaria) and his panda’s). The episode delivers some of the finest moments not just of the season but a collection of jokes that are better than the expensive thriller that tries to outdo the original.
So ends my first 3 (2 and a spoof) film review, attempting to find a relationship and history. I’ve chosen an easier trilogy (of sorts) to begin with a film, a remake and a spoof. I can see how it a classic (before it was more common) to remake a film. Seeing that it was sexed up, add some violence and some cheeky cameos to draw in the audiences. Whilst a controversial cartoon plays fast and loose, appropriate the events of a recent film and make fun of it, so is the nature of a spoof which in the case of this film is more entertaining, than the remake.
On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.
Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capra’s Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.
Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.
With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves
It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.
All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about
‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?
“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.
“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10
A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.
I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.
The Haunted Past –
“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.
The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.
These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.
The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16
If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.
Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.
I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.
Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.
I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.
I still stand by the fact that El Dorado (1966) is a remake of Rio Bravo (1959) and to an extent an imitation. Then I think part of that is unfair when you think that John Huston remade The African Queen (1951) with Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957) so it’s not new to see directors of Howard Hawks generation remake a winning formula, you know the old phrase, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”. These two took that more seriously when it came to film making, of course I’m not saying that El Dorado and Rio Bravo are word for word, scene for scene the same film just made 7 years a part. There are subtle differences which I have picked up the second time around.
Of course you can’t forget that it was Rio Bravo that was originally set to be a reunion John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan, Only the older two returned from Red River (1948). Clift was unwilling after the friction between himself and The Duke, two very different men who didn’t get on behind the camera’s. Moving forward after Rio Bravo to find an older Wayne who was hitting a successful stride in the 1960’s, sustaining a record as one of the decades biggest draws, is only original to return for this film. Playing opposite contemporary Robert Mitchum, taking the drunken sheriff role, that was originally Dean Martin, to have both actors return would not be clever thinking. Here we have an actor who has more talent an experience to draw on for the darker roles, and even more time in the western genre. Whilst Brennan’s roles taken over by Arthur Hunnicutt who I have said before is an easy fit for the ageing law-man, and providing gentle comedy throughout.
The dynamic between these men alone is steady and very masculine, bouncing off each other. Enter the Ricky Nelson of the film played by James Caan, a very early role in his career as the young up-start, wanting to prove himself as a man to the elders. There is no longer that dynamic of Bravo which was more about getting the job done and male bonding. Dorado’s is more mature, with older men who are having to accept their physical problems. The main actors are all older, the original concept has grown up, whilst at the same time not taking it self seriously all the time. There is plenty of comedy, even at the expense of them all.
Instead of having a group of men who are the best, we find men who in someway handicapped. Early on gun for hire Cole Thornton (Wayne) is shot in the back, causing temporary paralysis throughout the film, impact on his performance. Still very much a man of his word, honest and true to his friend and sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) who turns into a drunk half way through the film. That’s I find the strongest similarity between Mitchum and Martin’s respective character, drunk lawmen who are assisted by Wayne’s in both films. Also both films are filmed in the same location and backlot, but so were a great number of Wayne’s later films.
Moving away from the compare and contrast that has dominated this review I turn to the plot which is pretty straight forward as two sides are pitted against each other, one the Macdonald’s who are fighting against Bart Jason (Edward Asner) and his men over water. It’s a man’s world that is broken by Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey) who shoves her way into help fend off Jason’s Men.
This time around I found El Dorado more enjoyable, I let myself see it with fresh eyes, not see the characters as replacing older characters, of course to an extent they were, tweaked just slightly to be out of their comfort zone in one respect or another. Having Mississippi (James Caan) a young man who is a dabb hand with a knife rather than a gun, making him different and dangerous, even more so with a gun, a weapon unfamiliar to him. Allowing for some comedic moments, which mainly comes from Wayne and Mitchum who have great on-screen chemistry. It will never the clever classic which Rio Bravo has, with it’s moments of male bonding and explosive action, not forgetting Angie Dickinson. The rest of the films formula is there and in tact, I just wonder how Rio Lobo (1970) fits into this loose trilogy of films.
I first saw this a few months ago, but the recording cut short of the ending that I discovered may have been a let down (which I’ll get to later). I held out to finally see The American (2010) in full which I was quite taken with, latching on to the thriller aspects and the lack of dialogue, which is rare in Hollywood films, something that obviously hasn’t put off its star George Clooney as the worn out assassin Jack/Edward who has lost his edge. Clooney has the clout now with his production company to make whatever he wants really as he uses this to his advantage. Going to Europe adopting the film-making style that makes this little film really stand out.
After Jack/Edward kills an innocent woman who he was staying with, which comes out of nowhere, we are not catching him at his best. Deciding to go into hiding, first meeting up with his boss Pavel (Johan Leysen), who is angry with the botched killings who gives him keys to a car and a house to hide out in. He takes the car and makes off to anywhere but the chosen location, throwing out all the kit he has been given, relying solely on himself.
Staying in the quiet Italian village of Castel del Monte where under the instructions to not make any friends he does the just the opposite in the local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) who can feel that Jack is carrying a heavy burden, having sinned many times. And a local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) who forms more than a client-prostitute relationship with. Both of these see him start to open up, yet always on the edge of breaking, he is reclusive even to these two.
He decides to take on one last job that would see him free of the assassin life that has begun to eat away at him. Much like Colin Farrell‘s character Ray in In Bruges again riddled with guilt but a far worse sin of killing an innocent child. In the assassin business there is no room for mistakes as we later learn. Concentrating on the tailor-made gun for his client Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) a woman who sees this as a transaction and a job, nothing more. Jack just gets on with the job the best he can, placed into awkward positions at times. More so when he finds a gun in the purse of Clara is everyone around him set on killing him. He feels his life is on the line as we learn and feel in the short running time that constantly knee jerks the tension in this quiet country town.
Moving onto the ending as the transaction is finalised and money is being handed over I felt as the double-crossing is happening you can imagine the dramatic ending is in sight. Instead we are given a quieter finale as he basically drives to his death. Did he get his just deserves or not? I’m not sure he did, he does the job and lives by his wits in order to escape his old life. I’m left frustrated by this ending that fails to really deliver what could have happened. Was director Anton Corbijn going for man goes to the woods to die in peace like an old dog? If that’s the case it doesn’t live up to what I expected. We all know that assassins never have an easy life so why make this death so easy?
I was left with one final thought after watching the behind the scenes of doc, which made the comparison to a western, which I can see. It’s very subtle here, a lone man does ride into town with a dark past. Befriending the preacher and local prostitute, only 50 years ago the Clooney ‘part would have been played by Gregory Peck or more suitable Robert Mitchum. Making this a neo-western only by coincidence really for me, its subtly done and well too. It’s a European thriller neo-western with an American lead, which allows for a bigger audience engage with this tight film, I just feel let down an ending that should have delivered more.
Towards the end if the Film noir cycle, it was still producing some classic piece of cinema. The war was over but there was still a need to see the darker side of life on the big screen in the heavily religious overtones in The Night of the Hunter (1955) which gave Robert Mitchum one of his most memorable roles as the crooked preacher man Harry Powell who would stop at nothing throughout. Set during the depression era when a father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank to give to the poor, on the run from the law, he hides the money, swearing his children John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Bruce) to absolute secrecy. Even the audience for a time has no knowledge of the money. Knowing more than his soon to be widowed wife Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) who believes the moneys list. In a god-fearing and tightly woven community, lead buy the likes of Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) who believes in traditional values and those set down by the bible.
When recently released ex-preacher Harry Powell arrives in their sleepy town, his poetic use of the scriptures has everyone under his spell. A man driven by evil, under the guise of the God, who he believes tells him to commit the awful crimes he has already committed. Having a flawed morality that allows him to go on, in the word of god-mighty. Mitchum injects him with a deadly presence that spell-bound’s everyone to see only a preacher whose interpretation of the bible that the Southern community understands, which has been lost in recent times. A dangerous predatory throw-back allowed to flourish.
Only the children, mainly young John Harper who sees right through his new father who has no intention of sticking around, driven by his negative interpretations of the bible. Wanting more than anything to break a secret that two children made with their father. A powerful bond that cannot easily be broken, John is far stronger than his younger sister Pearl who is more easily lead, thankfully remaining faithful to her older brother.
The films made up of three strong parts, all theatrical and deeply stylized by the lighting to produce a dark film where traditional American values are tested, the basic religious foundations of a country opposite the right to protect the family home. Strong performance throughout. Lillian Gish shows in the role of Rachel Cooper a spinster who takes in stray children that she still can hold her ground against the formidable Mitchum who owns the film without a doubt. It’s faultless in the making of a classic thriller in the hands of Charles Laughton who gives it his all.
It’s hard to ignore the symbolism, namely found within the book of Revelations that talks of the horsemen of the apocalypse. focusing on the white horse which can be pure, and still carry death on it’s back. Powell would’ve had interpreted this book of the bible in a way that allows the righteous to carry out evil acts.
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Unlike the pale horse which is death, ridden in film by the likes of Clint Eastwood‘s preacher in Pale Rider (1985) who kills only those who have deserve to be killed in the eyes of god. The abuse of power in the later film is more justified, to kill those who trespass on those who are good.
“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”
The white horse in film is seen usually as a symbol of purity or an unachievable object that cannot be tamed easily. Owned mainly by the enemy. Far rarer than other horses. Used in Night of the Hunter beautifully to illustrated the flawed righteousness of the Powell using the word of God as a reason for committing his terrible crimes, He knows he has left a trail of death in his wake. Blind to modern ethics. Whilst Winters Willa Harper wants to do right by her community and family before doing right by her new husband who puts God in the bedroom before his wife.
Gish’s spinster is the opposite of Powell, whose interpretation of the bible is all about love, taking in lost children. Even with her weary outlook on life, she doesn’t project this on those views onto the children, especially Ruby (Gloria Castillo) on the verge of adulthood, more understanding of her age and life. Life changes people, and love and understanding’s needed to do that, which the bible teaches.
A fascinating film that is rooted in religion, its power on society, and how we must use our own judgement, with an open mind to its teachings. Not being blinded by it, using it as a guide to living by the letter. An entertaining thriller that is the right length for its content, rooted in Americas fabric, yet so very of its time.
A charming frontier tale that sees a widower David Harvey (William Holden) having to take on a new wife out of circumstance to take on the chores of home and his son Davey (Gary Gray). There’s no love at first or for the most part of Rachel and the Stranger (1948) when Rachel Harvey (Loretta Young) moves in finding it hard to take over a house of a grieving son and father. The young boy finds it hard to see this new woman in his life, not wanting a replacement for his mother and rightly so.
Rachel carries out her chores, even educating the young boy dutifully out of obligation to her new husband who works the land and put food on the table for the frontier family.
However throw into this now makeshift and survive family, old friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum) who can clearly see no love between his friend David and Rachel taking his chance to move in on the woman who for now has just been thankful for a bed to lay in. Under normal circumstances and the time of release this film may not have been released under the Hays Code.
He notices no apparent love between the two he attempts to move in on the young but independent woman. Leading to rivalry between the two men, just before the Natives move in, calling for all hands to arms to fight them off.
An innocent film that explores issues of love and friendship in Frontier America, friendship sees them through to the end of the film, even when matters of the heart get in the way.
- Norman Foster (director) (en.wikipedia.org)
- ‘The Loretta Young Show: 100th Anniversary Edition’ Is Both Groundbreaking and Comforting (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Bob Mitchum Was Tough Guy on Both Sides of the Camera (bootslebaronsworld.wordpress.com)