A religious motto in the background establishes Joel McCrea’s righteousness — as if that were necessary! — as he opposes the villain’s hubris.
The title RAMROD was guaranteed to reduce my inner smutty schoolboy to helpless sniggering, but the re-teaming of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, with Lake’s husband Andre DeToth at the helm, merited more serious attention, clearly. Olive Films have released the picture on a good-looking Blu-ray so serious attention is perfectly possible for anyone with the cash to spare.
The movie begins with a clusterbombing of exposition, characters heaping up without much introduction, so that my sleepy self quickly started to despair of being able to follow things. Also, DeToth’s noir sensibility seemed to be inflecting everything with twistiness and ambivalence — black hats and white hats seemed apt to get swapped at any moment, and usually lovable or at any rate amicable actors were already sliding out of place into shadowy terrain — Veronica Lake seems spoilt and stroppy, Charlie Ruggles is severe and inhumane, Joel McCrea drinks too much, Donald Crisp is a vacillating lawman, Preston Foster is a power-hungry cattle baron and Lloyd Bridges… well, that guy always did a nice turn in psycho hoodlums, so it’s no surprise to find him sneering from the sidelines.
The exposition was so deep after a few minutes of in media res backbiting that I was expecting a noir flashback to give us a second go at understanding things, but this never happened. In other respects, though, this is far more noir than western. Moral certainty is filled full of lead early on and never rises from its sickbed.
Gradually I perceived the fault lines running through the town and family at the film’s centre — think Mann’s THE FURIES, another western by a noir specialist with ranchers as Borgia-gangsters, fraught father-daughter relationships, violent passions and murderous politicking. McCrea, despite a token alcohol problem and an inability to decide between the two leading ladies, does preserve his righteous image, but it takes a little more of a shaking up than usual.
Maybe that’s part of why McCrea disliked the film. He also didn’t care for DeToth either personally or professionally — he didn’t like all the beautiful elaborate tracking shots winding through it (“John Ford didn’t need that”) and felt DeToth’s relationship with Lake harmed his ability to direct her. He told Patrick McGilligan, “When you work with the director’s wife, this is for the birds. Because he’s not going to be tough with her, you know, or she’ll kick his ass when he gets home at night.”
Mind you, I saw DeToth in person, and though he was in his nineties at the time, it was hard to imagine anyone kicking this bullet-heated Hungarian cyclops’ ass.
Those snaky tracking shots and crane shots are very gorgeous, animating the scenery (DeToth always liked to seek out less familiar locations for his westerns) and making the environment more than just backdrop. He pulls off some punchy compositions too, frequently boxing Lake in as if he wanted to build a protective house around her.
It’s a really interesting role for Lake, maybe the only femme fatale she ever got to play? — and the outcome is interesting too, because she’s not punished for her various crimes and manipulations, other than not getting her man at the end. She wins everything else, with an outcome that’s almost a Revenger’s Tragedy until you reflect that a surprising number of nasty characters are still walking around, either partially redeemed or simply judged not important enough to be worthy of Stern Western Justice.
Early on, Lake blows her top at her father, who’s been trying to fix her up with the wealthy cattle king as husband. Her rebellion against him emerges in a startlingly bitter and aggressive tirade, which seems both utterly sympathetic and too real to be just acting. Lake, who had been pushed into movies by her mother, renamed and restyled and boxed in, lets rip at this parental figure who’s trying to plot out her entire life for her with a fury that’s surely authentic. DeToth reported that she hated movie acting, but it sure looks like she’s getting something out of this scene.
Oh, also, her character name, Connie, is her own real name. Veronica was her mother’s name.
So I loved the hell out of this. A western without the more clichéd visuals and without the cosy moral certainty. Particularly good work from Don DeFore as the most ambiguous character of all, the womanizing cowhand who is loyal yet a traitor, murderous but just, bad but noble. His schismatic nature is magnified across the whole movie. Amazing.