Archive for Anthony Mann Week

Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Continuing my trawl through past glories — I did an “Anthony Mann Week” some years back — Fiona complained bitterly that it was all too Mannly, but she did like WINCHESTER 73 a lot. In general, she’s had bad luck for these themed weeks, dropping in on films she couldn’t get along with (eg Losey’s BOOM!) and missing a few she would probably have loved (Mann’s A DANDY IN ASPIC, MAN OF THE WEST). She does like THE TALL TARGET, TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (screwball noir!) and REIGN OF TERROR, but I haven’t ever gotten around to writing about the first two.

I never got around to EL CID, i think because I didn’t have a widescreen copy. It’s a film I’d glimpsed over the years in pan-and-scan abomination form, and like most widesecreen epics, it seemed dull on TV. That’s because the composition of the shots is the whole show — it’s very dynamic in its framing, and the storytelling obeys a visual logic of shape and movement and cutting that’s quite unreal, rather comic book, and wholly glorious. And it’s almost totally dead on a human level, despite having Sophia Loren, a magnificent actress when cast in something human. here she’s used more as a shape, like Chuckles Heston himself, an impressive piece of sculpture.

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Terry Jones said that in preparing LIFE OF BRIAN he looked at epics and they all seemed to have something that might be called “epic acting,” which he then impersonated by putting on a declamatory, Sam the American Eagle voice — pure Heston. And if that’s what the film is, Heston is your man. Co-star Douglas Wilmer told him he was “a great journeyman actor” and Heston got all offended and Wilmer smoother his eagle feathers by saying that “journeyman” wasn’t an insult and that Olivier was also a great journeyman. Heston was happy to be named in that company.

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He was called an “axiom of the cinema” too, but maybe he’s more of an axis — a sturdy compositional element around whom a shot can pivot. He’s like a pillar, but poseable. The strongest emotion he can project is STRAIN, strenuous seriousness or a dynamic tension of the emotions in which he’s simultaneously holding back and putting it all out there. Wyler got a great effect from him in THE BIG COUNTRY, by telling Carroll Baker to pull her wrists free from his great ham-hand which held her, and telling Cheston not to let go. Her wrists got red raw, and the agony of hurting a lady brought him to life — you saw the strain turn inwards and sort of ripple out across the veins in his head and the sinews in his arms.

For this kind of thing, if you’re going to make it and I’m not saying you should — he’s somehow perfect. An advance on the he-men of German epic cinema, the “bounding idiots” of DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS. Chiseled beefcake with more visible bone than the bodybuilders of Italy, and a far more convincing ability to move about.

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Spain! Where the diopters are as plentiful as paella. For some reason, the Samuel Bronston sword-and-sandal sagas reach for the split-focus lens more than any other films. Though Nick Ray’s pair of bloaters deploy the effect self-consciously, daring you to notice that while the foreground and background are sharp, the midground is a blur, an effect impossible to achieve with the naked eye. Mann disguises the joins so well you often aren’t quite sure there’s hanky-panky afoot.

Mann’s epic phase saw him work with both stars of BEN-HUR, and feels quite reactive to that blockbuster. SPARTACUS, which he shot the opening scenes for before Kirk Douglas fired him, was also a response to BH, an attempt to show you could make that kind of thing on US soil without taking advantage of cheap labour and tax breaks on the continent. The Samuel Bronston films (this and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) arose from the bizarre historical accident that the Hollywood studios were making a lot of money at the Spanish box office but were unable to take that money out of the country, so they had to invent films to shoot in Spain as an excuse to spend money. EMPIRE and 55 DAYS AT PEKING are surreal at times (especially the latter) because they have no sane reason to be Spanish films, and because they’re throwing money at scenes that don’t matter, with colossal overblown sets which dwarf the actors — in fact, “dwarf” is too weak a word. They ANT the actors.

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Here, at least the Spanish castles are real, so it’s only the dementedly huge crowd scenes that beggar belief, fancy dress extras staked out in the sun to bake, contributing nothing save slight distraction, swelling scenes already overstuffed with Herbert Lom or Frank Thring. Despite the authentic setting and the constant twirlings of Miklos Rosza’s score, the world of the film never feels remotely Spanish, because look at who’s in it. The Spanish are Americans and Italians and English and Scots. The Moors are Czech and English and Australian.

A good thing about EL CID is that although it’s all broadswords and bluster, it has bits that are western and bits that are noir, the two genres at which Mann excelled (I’ve never see his two musicals. Anyone?) When a patrol of Spaniards is ambushed by dusky (painted) archers, we’re a stone’s throw from THE LAST FRONTIER. The early part of the story where Sophia is betrothed to Charlton and wants him dead is good doom-laden romance. The wedding night is a symphony of expressionist angst — alone at the dinner table, Heston paces like Garbo memorizing her room in QUEEN CHRISTINA, only clutching frustratedly at every phallic object in reach except himself.

Mann said that the ending of the film was his sole reason for doing it, that with an ending like that you could get away with almost anything. He’s sort of right — but even he, using the highly stylised approach he’s established, and a leading man whose natural destiny might seem to be as a carry-on prop, can’t entirely stifle the giggles as Heston is mounted on his horse, dead, a wooden framework holding him in position like a fake house in a western street. It’s too hideously apt as a piece of satire.

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“Please tell me this was a colossal flop,” groaned Fiona, wearied by the length and annoyed by Sophia’s headgear. Afraid not: the world has bad taste. But I dug it on a shot-by-shot basis.

The Sunday Intertitle: Rise of the Footsoldier

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by dcairns

Not easy finding an intertitle in Anthony Mann’s oeuvre. Lots of opening titles thanking the people of New Mexico etc, and lots declaring the factual nature of the story we are about to see — although Mann seems to have preferred VO for such direct announcement. But this card, from MEN IN WAR (1957), just about satisfies my stringent requirements, even if it’s only “inter” the main titles and the film.

It does neatly tie the story, an Korean war existentialist crisis drama, into the historical record, connecting it to other Philip Yordan scripts filmed by Mann — EL CID and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Yordan seems to embrace both the mythic and universal properties of the western and other period subjects, and the more specific, historically-rooted possibilities.

I’m a little wary of generalizing about Yordan as an artist though, since he fronted for so many blacklisted writers (taking a healthy cut of their fees). When it cam time to restore the names of the true authors to the films’ credits, Yordan had apparently fallen out with some of his “collaborators” and refused to confirm their involvement. This strikes me as rather improper. And since Yordan was working as producer on the Bronston epics his name is attached to as writer, I have some concerns as to whether he actually did any writing. Bernard Gordon’s memoir, Hollywood Exile, makes no mention of Yordan doing any real writing on 55 DAYS AT PEKING (great stuff about Nick Ray though).

— EXCEPT —  a viewing of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE shows so many thematic concerns and character scenarios in common with TFOTRE that it becomes inconceivable that Yordan wasn’t a prime mover on that script.

In a weird way, Yordan’s name is still quite a good badge of quality on a film’s credits though, since he chose to work with talented blacklistees whose approach was sympatico to his own. So there’s a kind of pseudo-authorial style detectable anyhow.

As both the uber-generic title and the intertitle suggest, MEN IN WAR is a microcosm of the whole history of armed conflict. At times it almost feels like this dwindling platoon are on their way back to caveman times. Characterisation is briskly confined to what we can see and hear of the men’s behaviour — large numbers of them are left largely blank, with only Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Victor Mature, James Edwards (above) and Robert Keith making strong impressions: but those impressions are VERY strong. But I can never work out which one is Anthony Ray, and the normally distinctive LQ Jones is hard to recognise.

The conflict between Robert and Aldo is very interesting because it flies in the face of traditional war movie dynamics. Not just because Ray is looking out for himself and his Colonel, having counted himself out of the war. In most war films, there’s a character who’s right and a character who’s wrong. In this movie, Ray is consistently right, in the sense of acting in a way that ensures his survival. But it’s far from certain that Ryan is wrong. Most of the time he’s an effective officer, though given to self-doubt. Many of the personal clashes arise from the fact that he’s intent on contributing to the war, and Ray just wants to get out of it alive (I’m on Ray’s side).

On a first viewing, the ending, where Ryan reads out the names of his fallen men so Ray can award them posthumous silver stars, seemed like the movie was backing into more conventional patriotic territory. But the fact that Ray is tossing the medals into the dust rather disproves me. Each man is being true to the character he’s shown throughout the story. Only the tiresome song on the soundtrack attempts uplift (Mann seems PLAGUED by rancid balladry — GOD’S LITTLE ACRE has one of the more listenable ones, which isn’t saying much, but THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE’s title tracks could be used in aversion therapy to put people off fifties movies for life).

MEN IN WAR is a really great work, I think, in a genre I have no naturally sympathy for (supposedly Robert Ryan, a former soldier himself, shared my contempt for the glamorizing of armed conflict — but I suspect he dug this movie). As with all Mann’s best movies, the tactile/visceral strengths are inseparable from what might seem to be the contrasting quality of thoughtfulness.

UK buyers —

Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (Texas Film & Media Studies Series)

US —

Men in War

END of Anthony Mann Week. Tomorrow: something else! Tuesday: The Shadowplay August Impossible Film Quiz.

The Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by dcairns

PAIN

James Stewart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE.

James Mason in THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.

One could of course go on… Stewart suffers considerably in Mann’s westerns, being shot through the hand in both LARAMIE and THE FAR COUNTRY (like Robert Ryan in MEN IN WAR), while Mason’s hand-burning ordeal in TFOTRE seems like a direct reprise of LARAMIE. Both are co-written by Philip Yordan, and in fact both feature a recognisable trio of characters — an ailing patriarch (Donald Crisp in LARAMIE, Alec Guinness in TFOTRE), his stupid and vicious son (Alex Nicol and Christopher Plummer) and the devoted friend and almost-adopted son who should inherit by right of being the competent one (Arthur Kennedy and Stephen Boyd). See also Yordan’s MEN IN WAR script for another ailing surrogate father.

Mann’s films pair up in interesting ways, often via casting — he was fond of reusing actors he liked, often in wildly contrasting roles: there’s very little of the stability one finds in Hawks or Ford’s use of their stock company. Of course, Jimmy Stewart is always the leading man when he’s around, but his roles vary considerably in amicability — as has often been noted, Mann’s pushing of the Stewart persona into neurotic and obsessive territory prefigures and prepares for Hitchcock’s use of the star in VERTIGO.

THE FAR COUNTRY and BEND OF THE RIVER, which I watched back-to-back, very nearly blur together due to the similar gold rush background and the repeat casting of and Harry Morgan and Royal Dano and Jay C Flippen (Manny Farber is amusingly horrified by this guy: “Probably the worst actor that ever moved into a movie.” My friend Comrade K semi-concurs: “He has a face like a tick”).

STENTORIA

“Only a trained investigator would have attached any significance to those two words: steam baths.”

After making twelve movies, including DESPERATE and RAILROADED which feel pretty mature and Mann-like — Mann entered the realms of the strident voice-over: known as STENTORIA.

In Stentoria, all the stories are factual, and only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent. Stentoria encompasses T-MEN (above and below images) and HE WALKED BY NIGHT and SIDE STREET and BORDER INCIDENT, but the voice-over diminishes in prominence and increases in subtlety as Mann develops. The VO guy in T-MEN sounds like he has a bad cold (as does Robert “terror of Salzburg”  Cummings in REIGN OF TERROR), and he talks for HALF THE FILM. I protested against this, until my friend Comrade K pointed out how scary the film gets when the VO suddenly and unaccountably GOES AWAY (“From here on you’re on your own!”) and leaves us in the meaty hands of Charles McGraw. By the time Knox Manning opens and closes BORDER INCIDENT with a few reassuring words, we have a guy who seems to be impersonating Mark Hellinger’s famous VO in THE NAKED CITY: much more laid-back and mellifluous. And as previously noted, VO guy Robert Rietty in FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE sounds like Mann himself.

T-MEN: John Alton, photographer:

A DANDY IN ASPIC, photographed by Christopher Challis.

Thinking about Charles McGraw — as I do — I realize that not only must Mann be responsible for McGraw being in SPARTACUS, but that the Mann scenes in that movie are not only the best scenes, but also the most Kubrickian! All the gladiator training stuff which so neatly prefigures FULL METAL JACKET… and MEN IN WAR is clearly the movie that Kubrick’s tyro effort FEAR AND DESIRE wants to be…

“Freedom isn’t a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should’ve been born with.” An impressive line delivered by Ruby Dee in the equally impressive THE TALL TARGET.

DELICIOUS HOT

A fellow film blogger in New York admitted to limited experience of Mann and wondered if he wasn’t perhaps a cold filmmaker — I wouldn’t agree, although in their different ways T-MEN, TFOTRE and A DANDY IN ASPIC either avoid or miss the warmer emotions. Certainly the gentler passions are less likely to figure prominently in Mann’s work, but nobody can make cold movies with Jimmy Stewart. I’d point to Aline McMahon’s abiding love for Donald Crisp in LARAMIE as a good example of the powerful feeling Mann can evoke without seeming to try too hard, and the affection of Stewart for Walter Brennan in THE FAR COUNTRY is a similar example.

Here’s my shortlist of Mann favourites, all of which have tender moments as well as angry ones —

RAW DEAL — a great “women’s noir” with a groovy theremin theme. I like Marsha Hunt a lot, but Claire Trevor steals the show.

WINCHESTER ’73 — just about my fave of the Stewart westerns. Borden Chase (I heard he took his name from Lizzie Borden and Chase Manhattan Bank, figuring the combo would be memorable) had a real flair for rambling structures which somehow achieve a feeling of tightness — maybe just because they’re so action-packed, maybe also because they’re tied to strong characterisations for Stewart each time.

THE TALL TARGET — beautiful train thriller to compare with Fleischer’s THE NARROW MARGIN, and it uses its little scrap of history (heavily embroidered, no doubt) to tackle some actual politics.

THE NAKED SPUR — Stewart’s most driven performance for Mann, with fine support from Ryan and Meeker.

THE LAST FRONTIER — well, *I* like it anyway. Apart from the tacked-on ending, this is another study in the exercise of power by the inadequate (a big Mann theme — well, he did work under the studio system!) and the taking of power by the better suited.

MEN IN WAR — maybe the best Korean War movie? Hearing Robert Ryan deny the existence of the USA carries a blasphemous thrill.

MAN OF THE WEST — the best, because the darkest, of all Mann’s westerns. The abuse of Julie London’s sympathetic Billie borders on the gloating, and the fact that her character is virtually abandoned at the “happy ending”, while disturbing, is what makes this so powerful. For once, too much has happened for a Hollywood ending to mean what it should.

The only “cold” film on the list of real greats might be REIGN OF TERROR, but I’m not sure “cold” really applies to such a blazing, apocalyptic yarn.

NOIR AWAY SO CLOSE

I’ve been alert, hopefully, to the transition of Mann’s noir sensibility to westerns and epics, and find it really invigorates some traditional-looking oaters: THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is a proper detective story, with Stewart being constantly warned to stay off the case, being framed for murder, etc. (It also has a weird, mythic/biblical side, with prophetic dreams that influence a major character’s actions.) The romantic triangle of RAW DEAL is reconfigured in later epics like TFOTRE and, I seem to recall, maybe EL CID too. Certainly HEROES OF TELEMARK has it, and Mann says in the DVD extra interview that this was part of what attracted him.

Think of it: Mann made noirs in the ’40s, westerns in the ’50s and epics in the ’60s. At the end, he made an espionage movie, and that might well have been the next phase of his career had he lived longer (REIGN OF TERROR is basically a Hitchcockoan spy thriller set in the past). Mann was Mr. Fashionable.

T-MEN and A DANDY IN ASPIC.

COUNTRY LIFE

“Help me, Ty Ty!”

“Where are you, Pluto?”

“Ah fell in a hole!”

“Well, which hole you in?”

“This very, very deep one!”

The “comedy” of GOD’S LITTLE ACRE is only occasionally funny, despite the presence of Buddy Hackett, whose face is funny even in repose (and it’s never really in repose). Buddy Hackett is known in the UK as “that fat guy in the back of Herbie.” All in all, the movie is like the unsuccessful comedy cousin of THE FURIES, and while Robert Ryan might have been able to play Huston’s role, he’s not ideally suited to his own — much as I love him, he doesn’t have funny bones.

THE FURIES is striking for many reasons, one being the flaunting of the Production Code — apart from the scissors flung in Judith Anderson’s face, there’s the fact that morality has little to do with which characters are sympathetic in this movie, and it fails to determine which are alive at the end.

YOU NEED HANDS

In the edition of the BBC’s The Movies featured as an extra on Criterion’s lovely disc of THE FURIES, Mann cites Murnau as an influence (he seems about to name a couple more directors, but the piece seems to have been edited to exclude them — Welles would seem like a plausible name to drop though, wouldn’t he? Incidentally, the BBC seems to have hung onto outtakes from several Movies interviews, so it’s not impossible a diligent researcher might find what else Mann said…). He talks with enthusiasm about the way figures grow from small and distant to large and close in Murnau, and the dramatic force this imparts, and reminisces about the climax of TABU —

Mann certainly shows skill in his use of size… the way his compositions bristle with repressed, barely contained energy, and the way each edit snaps the tension into a new configuration is one of his key qualities. This single shot from REIGN OF TERROR maybe shows the influence of Murnau —

The Terror of Strasburg checks his teeth in the mirror —

Then adjusts his wig, at which point Robert Cummings POUNCES LIKE A TIGER —

In the struggle, the mirror is tilted downwards so it now reflects the T of S’s hand as it clutches the dresser, and then Cummings comes in with a dagger — Cummings is apparently NUDE, it seems — all ready to steal the T of S’s clothing and identity.

The clutching hand spasms and falls from view after the dagger descends.

In a purely whimsical touch (grim whimsy), the naked hand reaches up and post-coitally snuffs the T of S’s candle.

BEHIND THE DOOR

Just watched THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY. Robert Taylor as an Indian is one of the silliest bits of casting I can imagine, and he always bored me as a star, but if you can get past the shoe polish he actually gives a good perf. The pro-Indian stance is commendable, and John Alton’s inky photography, Mann’s dynamism, and Guy Trosper’s script, which gives all the poetic lines to repellant-yet-suave villain Louis “Ambassador Trentino” Calhern, stop it being anything like a PC snooze.

Mann’s westerns nearly always centre around a powerful injustice — count the minutes until Jimmy Stewart gets robbed in each one — and DEVIL’S D politicizes this. It’s an incredibly strong hook, the theme of injustice, which communicates to everybody: “When a child says, ‘It’s not fair!’ the child can be believed,” says Tom Stoppard’s script for SQUARING THE CIRCLE. Even those who are regularly unjust themselves usually got that way because they suffered injustice and decided life wasn’t fair. Yet this universally powerful theme is largely avoided in modern movies — I have a theory audience testing may be reponsible — when they ask the mob, “What was your least favourite scene?” the mob are going to say, “I didn’t like it when they burned Jimmy Stewart’s wagons / shot him in the hand.” Of course, you’re not meant to like them! So those scenes don’t get made nowadays, and the films stop being about anything. The heroes in modern action movies seem to spend the whole films WINNING.

THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY has the bleakest ending of any Mann, I think. He was apparently very pleased with it.

FINAL FRONTIER

In THE LAST FRONTIER, Victor Mature plays Cooper, a scout who laughs at danger! Ah-ha-ha-ha! Despite using rather urban types in its cast — Anne Bancroft and Stuart Whitman offer strong support — the movie still evokes a convincing atmosphere of Civil War era Indian fighting, perhaps because it avoids cliched behaviour so thoroughly. In scene 1, Big Victor and his trapper pals are surrounded by hostile Indians. They sit down and eat lunch. You don’t see that every day.

If filmmakers avoid cliche (big if) and if they believe in the anti-cliched behaviour they present (as someone like Hawks clearly did), it seems they have a good chance at presenting interesting situations.

For all that it presents maybe the first thoroughly bad cavalry officers in western movie history (a very good Robert Preston, snagging moments of sympathy when the script exposes his underlying insecurity), the heart of the film is primitive Victor’s relationship with Bancroft, the officer’s wife, which is painfully convincing. The adulterous triangle leads us into strong noir territory, as do the covert liaisons in EL CID and ROMAN EMPIRE, which were also co-scripted by Philip Yordan, whose keen interest in military life is also displayed in a Mann masterpiece, MEN IN WAR.

And with its widescreen photography, the movie is perhaps Mann’s most handsome colour western.

FILMS I HAVEN’T WATCHED

Couldn’t get EL CID or DOCTOR BROADWAY in time, but hope to see them soon.

Wasn’t sure if THE BAMBOO BLONDE was worth it.

Didn’t bother with THE GLENN MILLER STORY yet, despite Fiona’s vivid memory of being frightened by the iron lung.

THUNDER BAY was in a sense topical, with it’s oil men versus fishermen plot, but the solution, suggesting that the oil biz would be good for fishing, sounded like it might come off as embarrassingly dated. Still, I bet the movie’s at least interesting.

The former Anthony Bundsmann is a somewhat mysterious figure, little being known about his past. I’m frustrated by not knowing any films he wanted to make but was unable to — these unmade films are often most revealing. I’ll offer one up — with his obsession with determined men whose refusal to compromise has fatal consequences, he’d have been the perfect man to film Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. Instead, Milos Forman made it as part of RAGTIME and John Badham made it as THE JACK BULL.

The End… almost.

Buy: Man of the West

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