Thundering Beef

vlcsnap-2015-03-31-08h35m12s220

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.

vlcsnap-2015-03-31-08h24m15s26

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.

vlcsnap-2015-03-31-08h33m46s106

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.

vlcsnap-2015-03-31-08h25m06s18

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.

vlcsnap-2015-03-31-08h31m24s229

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.

Ramrod [DVD]

Advertisements

5 Responses to “Thundering Beef”

  1. Regarding religious mottos, the Western McCrea undoubtedly preferred was Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown, a really great film that doomed the director’s career because he cut his price in order to do it. As a result he was doomed to “B’s” for life.

  2. It’s a lovely film. Tourneur arguably had better luck with smaller films than big ones anyway, but there was a marked shift in B-movie culture a few years later which propelled him towards TV and United International and so on.

    Stars in my Crown is extraordinary, and one of the key films in showing McCrea’s magical ability to take the curse of potentially schmaltzy material — which combines well with Tourneur’s gift for exactly the same thing.

  3. And then there’s this, which I tracked down 30+ years ago (and I have never forgotten my original jaw-dropping response to that first, er, exposure.)

  4. … and even more interesting for chaps like me who prefer California Boys, and who, also perhaps like me, have been fascinated by Bobby B since the late 60s and Invocation of My Demon Brother:

  5. What a weird thing. I like to walk around to Bobby B’s soundtrack work. He had talent.

    Kenneth Anger voices complete perplexity that such an intelligent young man could fall under the spell of Manson, whom he dismisses as unattractive and uncompelling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: