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 have mixed feelings about I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016), Again I came to this having read a short interview with Christopher Lloyd and the trailer for the film which really was selling me a very different film. Like anything you’re sold, you want to believe the advert or promotion portrays a positive and accurate spin on what you have bought into. Which was a disturbed teenager who sees a few murders and becomes fascinated by them, and becomes inspired to follow in the serial killers footsteps, were we seeing his victims as the trailer progressed. I was miss-sold this film. Even the small role that Lloyd was supposed to be playing.
Moving on from my initial complaint I need to lay down a few points as to what I received in the full film. I came to this film bringing my thoughts from having recently revisited Shadow of a Doubt (1943) which I can only draw minor comparisons too. Looking at the dark conversations between our disturbed teenager John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) and Max (Raymond Brandstrom). (I’m wondering if the lead characters names inspired by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy) There was a relationship based on the dark murderous content of their conversations. Reminiscent of father Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) and his neighbour Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) which begins as playful, a way to unwind and let the imagination run wild, Which disturbs Josephs daughter Charlie (Teresa Wright) whose very concerned about her Uncle Charlie’s (Joseph Cotten) motives for staying with them. That dynamic is not really developed further than a few scenes at the start of the film. Probably to tell us that John has serial killer tendencies trying to lead a normal teenage life, that’s against the backdrop of all the murders.
The Hitchcock connections don’t stop there, from the trailer we could be looking at a Norman Bates type, the quiet boy next door who doesn’t get out much. Yet this one does, spending his free time helping his mother April (Laura Fraser) at the funeral home. An early joke about the home not going out of business anytime soon, two bodies in a week. We are however allowed to see the start of the embalming process, with a focus on the blood-letting process, it’s not properly explained but filmed with a fascination that stays with you – there’s a small positive to take away from the film. It’s the first time we are given no real explanation of whats going on – that’s the main fault of this film.
Moving away from the master of suspense to look at the John himself, we’re told he has all the makings of a serial killer, so already we are looking to him to potentially kill someone, he likes to hang around with his mum at the family business. His social skills are limited to alienating bullies who find him to be an outsider who they spend very little time on. I see a young man who is deeply troubled yet fascinated with death and human anatomy. Spending so much time with the dead has a turned him into an anti-social loner who is trying to function among his peers. Being presented with a possible future that he’s trying to prevent. Yet the events of the present could easily mold him into a different more dangerous person complete with murderous tendencies which are simmering on the surface.
The murders at first are mysterious, the victims arrive at the funeral home, usually already open and a few organs missing, soon its arms too. John’s fascinated by the freshly delivered corpses, wanting to explore them in more detail. The closest he gets a first to the killer, to understand his methods, exploring them like a child would their food, in short he’s a disturbed guy. However we learn far too early on who the serial killer is – it’s the old guy living across the street – Mr Crowley, but that still doesn’t explain the black oily gloop that can be found at the scenes of the killings. If only we could wait a little longer to discover the killer. It’s the curiosity of John the drives him to keep looking, spotting odd behaviour and following him from a distance to what is grisly end in the snow. Taking us out of straight forward crime thriller into I don;t know what – supernatural bizarre maybe. The killing is over in a flash, like a poorly shot YouTube video, I couldn’t believe my eyes
We go into a the second half of the film to a game of innocent chasing the guilty, trying to catch him out and get him arrested, it’s not as easy as he hopes it would be. A could be killer following a killer in action. The danger of finding and understanding him is too much to pass-up, just as he wants to control and prevent that future happening to himself. It’s like a Luke Skywalker constantly being tempted by Palpatine to join the dark side, yet his humanity and the lighter side of the force sees him resist the temptation.
Admittedly there are moments of real dread, from the imagined death that’s described to John lashing out at his mum. However it’s when he almost crosses the line from his potential to certain future, trying to understand the psychology of a serial killer he tests a theory out that forces emotions that could see him enter a darker part of his life. For a few moments such as this we are given some real thrills, its too far and between to really make it worthwhile. The deaths and danger gets closer to home, then we reach the really weird ending which at first is shocking, we see John taking control, clear headed as we’ve ever seen him. He’s saved his mum but at the cost of revealing the killer and what is actually going on. I’m left scratching my head, wondering what the hell just happened. The final images stay with you, but given no real explanation for them, which is frustrating beyond the fact that the beast inside Crowley has been harvesting organs because he is dying. Nothing more is given, the loose ends aren’t tied up, we’re left with more questions and leaving us with The Spirit in the Sky to play out the film.
There’s some potential in the film, as much as there is for John to go either side of being a serial killer, exploring a future that’s being played out before him. It’s pure temptation, it’s just a shame we see little of that after the reveal, going into hunting him down, trying to understand him, which we don’t get to. It’s frustrating really and little time is given to explore other characters and how they are affected by the murders. I wish more time was given to his friendship with Max which is just 4 short scenes, his only link to the real world – or normality. It’s dark at times, and very flawed trying to be more than it is with so much there to work with. I have to admit that the cast of Lloyd in the villianous role is something I have forgotten he does so well. He’ll be forever associated with Doc Emmett Brown, however he has before and since played the weird and wonderful and the bad-guy so well so long. His height and face have allowed him to to produce some memorable roles, I can safely say this role can be added to the list, its the film that lets him down.
Just over a year ago I reviewed The Big Country (1958) writing it in response to having just read Five Came Back by Mark Harris which focused on five directors including William Wyler who documented the WWII from the skies, most memorably – The Memphis Belle (1944). The book has just been turned into a 3-part documentary series now. I left my review wanting to watch his first film coming back home to Hollywood, wanting to consider those veterans who were all starting to come home, not all in the same shape that families last saw them go off in. These were the lucky ones, countless men were lost in action and the line of duty but not in vain. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was Wyler’s tribute to these men, America’s veterans from the world’s most deadly brutal conflict. It was also a massive eye-opener to the public that their veterans were coming home, whilst some were adapting well to civilian life there were of course many who weren’t.
There aren’t many films from the 1940s that run to almost 3 hours in length, yet those don’t have such an important heart-felt message to deliver. It has to run at a leisurely pace to feel like real life, no stylish editing to take away from the documentary style aesthetic that combined actors and amateurs who really brought home what civilian life meant for these veterans. We follow three ex-servicemen who are trying to get home. Taking one from the three main arms of the forces – Navy, Army and the Air force we see three very different men return home. The first hour is full of emotion as we follow them first meeting to the taxi they share. Each optimistic and uncertain of what lays beyond that door to their past lives.
First we meet Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) as he wants to get a flight home, none are going his way for now. Whilst civilians find it so easy, as one passenger literally is just handed his pre-booked tickets. He has to return to his own kind to get a trip home, in a bomber that no longer carries bombs, just passengers where he meets the other two veterans – Al Stephenson (Fredric March) a sergeant who fought the ground war and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) a navy officer who has lost his arms to below the elbow, leaving him with hooks, a lasting reminder of the warm and its personal cost to him. Having him on-screen is as reminder of the real sacrifices, Russell a non-professional actor who can really bring home what went on at sea, on the land and in the skies of war. He came close to paying the ultimate cost. It’s a shock to see him, yet we quickly accept him and his situation. He can cope with them why can’t we. I was amazed how he could operate these complex hooks which allow him to function. There’s an underlying fear – will he be accepted by his family and ultimately his fiance Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) who he has to reconnect with.
At this point we don’t know how the war has really affected the other two who have come back pretty much intact – on the surface anyway. It’s when as I keep mentioning they get home do we start to understand what they are coming back to. For Al the banker he’s has changed emotionally, more assertive and sure of himself. His family isn’t yet ready to receive this man back into their lives. Taking his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) on a bender. They clearly haven’t seen this side of their father and husband who has really come of what was a very conservative life of a comfortable job in a bank that assured his families future.
Whilst Fred takes a bit longer to work out. After learning his wife (of only 20 days when he last saw her) had moved out and becoming a club singer. Not the life he was expecting to come back to. He represents all those men who fell in love and got married before their leave was up. Understandably so, no one knew if they would return and wanted to make the most of what time they had. He’s one of the average Joe’s (yes Dana Andrews) who we see again at Butch’s (Hoagy Carmichael) drugstore where we also find Al and Homer who have formed a bond that would never have happened at war, three division of the armed forces have come together. Alcohol fueled and very emotional. It’s at Butch’s that they are all able to open up, start to see their futures.
You could see this as just another standard film of the era, yet there’s something very different in the characterisations, we have more realism, sure they are all well acted, with a nod in Harold Russell, one of the few men in the film who saw action validating what this film is about. He has nothing to lose from his role. You could say the film relies on him which would be unfair, the trained actors/actresses.
Turning away from Homer we have Fred who gives us the first glimpse at what P.T.S.D. really is, of course it’s only fleeting, a nightmare of his time on a bombing mission. Not able to properly process what has happened, to grieve for those he has lost and the scenes he has seen whilst at war. He has it probably just as hard as Homer adapting to civilian life, having to find a job, not wanting to return to his past to support him. A wife whose not the person he married, the woman he knew was in the photo he held onto for 3 years, not the woman who wants the uniform, the image of his past. Both are looking for something in each other that no longer or never really existed, an ideal version. Whilst Homer is unsure that he will be accepted by his family and fiance, not the man they saw leave to fight. It’s one that so many others returning home were facing at the time.
The film drives home what had changed at home in America, that it hadn’t stood still. It’s not like going on a holiday only to see the house is still standing and everyone around you is still there. There was a financial boom during the period, massive change at home, a word I am not afraid to repeat over and over now. Home is what the film is all about, what it means to so many when away for so long. The expectations of the veterans, the civilians who welcome them back and adapt to these changed men to a life they had all but forgotten. No longer giving or carrying out orders, running for or fighting the enemy, all that is over. Going back to where they had always wanted to be. Society at the time was going through a state of mass readjustment, making room and accepting these men back into daily life, a whole other battle. The Best Years of Our Lives went a long way to making it easier for veterans to be accepted back home after they had longed for it ever-since they left.
Lastly I want to find a connection between this film and The Big Country which saw a man out-of-place, adapting to an alien world that spoke his own language yet he had to prove himself to those around him. A war of his own you could say. It’s nothing like Years of Our Lives which was a much-needed film for its time. Much as Wyler’s last film before leaving for war himself Mrs. Miniver (1942) encouraged his own country to get behind the war in Europe. Two films that captured the spirit of the war. Looking at the Western it’s so far away from this time it’s something else entirely, a look back at the war, maybe another look is needed, I know I’ll be taking in Mrs. Miniver soon.