Sage of the Sagebrush

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THE SCARF opens excitingly, with a fugitive on the run through the desert, the name ALCANTA emblazed across his back, marking him as a fugitive from a secure psychiatric hospital as clearly as the M on Peter Lorre’s shoulder marked him as murderer. The film is a late work by emigre E.A. Dupont, who had limited success in America after the triumphs of his German period and English excursion, VARIETE, MOULI ROUGE, ATLANTIK. He would be dead in five years, and his last projects, including the perverse THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, resound with the heavy tread of the somnambulist.

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Even for a German filmmaker, Dupont was always a very German filmmaker — I first encountered him in childhood, being mocked for the pregnant pauses of his Titanic movie (“The ship has less than ONE HOUR TO LIVE!”). Still, the portentous plod approach has a certain grandeur if you can suppress your giggles, and what we have here is a unique noir with amnesia, psychopathia sexualis, philosophy on a turkey ranch, and a crazy cast featuring John Ireland (he of the perfumed bullets), Mercedes McCambridge and Emlyn Williams, whose status as nutjob du jour is clinched immediately upon arrival by his habit of playing idly with a feather during every scene. A great scene-stealing idea I’m surprised I haven’t seen used elsewhere.

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The truly best stuff is early on, when grizzled recluse James Barton (equally grizzled and reclusive in YELLOW SKY) finds the fleeing asylum inmate Ireland and must decide whether to hand him over to the proper authorities. The same dilemma is faced later by singing waitress McCambridge (whose speaking voice, in those pre-EXORCIST days, smacks of Mickey Mouse, but turns out to carry a torch song rather effectively), and this leads to a moment of pure expressionism, as the neon sign of the sheriff’s office dissoves into $ signs. McCambridge first turns up as a windswept hitchhiker straight out of DETOUR, and like Tom Neal before him, the not very bright Ireland picks her up despite the fact that he’s on the lam and should really be keeping a low profile. But what man could resist that gurning face?

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It has shadowy photography by Franz Planer, whole shelves of dollar-book Freud (I yearned for a closeup of Emlyn Williams’ fruit-loop book-case), a pounding score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, and a script by Dupont that makes everybody a philosopher, from the turkey farming “sage of the sagebrush” to the lowliest bar-room brawler. I loved it. I thought it was swell.

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5 Responses to “Sage of the Sagebrush”

  1. How have I not seen this?

  2. I doesn’t turn up often. But the unusual cast alone would make it fascinating. In fact, it’s strikingly different all round.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    You certainly make me want to see it — with John Ireland and Mercedes McCambridge as stars, how could I not?

    I found an excerpt from a McCambridge bio which claimed that she insisted on singing the song herself, saying that anyone with a voice good enough to impress would’ve stopped working at that joint long ago. I would be more convinced by the biographer’s tale if he didn’t also identify the director as Anthony Mann …

  4. It seems likely, though. And in fact, I enjoyed her singing and it’s a nice, moody song. Is performed twice, once at the end as two male characters prepare to go off and live together on a turkey farm.

  5. […] I just posted my own first piece, on EA Dupont’s sagebrush psycho-noir, THE SCARF. […]

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