Archive for Reginald Rose

Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.

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“You’ve Outlived Your Time”: Man of the West

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Guest Shadowplayer Imogen Smith (a regular contributor to The Chiseler) on a late Gary Cooper movie which is also Anthony Mann’s last western ~

Elegy was always at the heart of the western, a genre born to celebrate a world already vanishing. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, this nostalgic mood was heightened both by the aging of Hollywood’s great western stars and by the radical, out-with-the-old changes that were reshaping architecture, technology, and pop culture. Movies like El Dorado (1966) and Ride the High Country (1962) draw attention to their heroes’ age, their gray hair, failing eyesight and creaking joints, but show them effortlessly outclassing callow, cocky youngsters—a put-down aimed at America’s exploding youth culture.

A far darker view of age, the burden of the past, and the west’s unbreakable cycle of violence appears in Anthony Mann’s harsh masterpiece Man of the West (1958). This was the third western in which Mann mined his obsession with King Lear (he contemplated but never produced a fourth, to be called The King). While Mann never made an outright adaptation of the Shakespeare play, he drew on its central figure, an all-powerful ruler beset by physical weakness and emotional blindness, and on the theme of greed, jealousy and infighting swirling around the declining monarch. In The Furies (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the Lear figures are cattle barons who have usurped huge territories over which their children fight for control. In Man of the West the decaying monument is instead the leader of a gang of bandits. While the plot elements of Mann’s last western owe less to Lear than those of the two earlier films, Man of the West captures best the overwhelming flavor of waste and ruin, of senseless destruction (Kurosawa rightly titled his Lear film Ran, “chaos”), and of irrevocable loss that suffuse the play. Mann’s vision holds true to some of the play’s most famous and most devastating lines: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire,” and, “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

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This mood would be diminished if a younger actor played the lead role. At 57, Gary Cooper was probably at least twenty years older than his character, Link Jones, is meant to be—for that matter, he was ten years older than Lee J. Cobb, who plays his foster father. Cooper already knew he had the cancer that would kill him three years later, and his gaunt, pain-wracked dignity gives moving depth to his portrayal of a reformed outlaw forced to relive the past he sought to escape. Cooper’s lambent beauty was already strangely expressive of some ingrown hurt in the silent western The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), and here his drawn, haggard face expresses just the right mute suffering. The part might have gone to James Stewart if he hadn’t had a falling out with Mann, but Cooper’s much more reticent presence, with none of Stewart’s effusiveness, suits the film’s austerity.

The opening scene contains the movie’s only light moments, as Link Jones boards a train for the first time in his life, on a mission to hire a schoolteacher for the newborn town of Good Hope. The bashful, taciturn Link is comically disconcerted by the jolting of the rails and the problem of how to fold his long legs into the cramped seats. But this innocent opening is soon shattered when the train is held up by bandits, and Link loses the money that was entrusted to him for the schoolmarm and finds himself stranded in the high plains, far from any town, with a saloon singer named Billie (Julie London) and an amiable, nervous, crooked gambler named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell).

He leads them to the only shelter he can find: a little grey farmhouse set in a valley of lush green grass. Lonely and sinister, it is also a haunting vision of long-lost Home. It’s the hideout of the gang who robbed the train, and Link knows this because he used to be one of them, before his conversion into a peace-loving family man. Inside, it’s dark and grimy like a cave, and there is a kind of primal horror laced with desire as Link re-enters it. In order to protect his companions, he pretends that he has come back to rejoin the gang, and claims that Billie is “his woman.” His dilemma is stark: if he kills the outlaws, he will sink to their level and return to the former self he wants to shed, but the vicious gang-members understand nothing except violence and the authority of their leader, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb).

Dock is crafty, and perhaps crazy; a blustery, infirm but still dangerous force of pure criminal mania. He raised Link, taught him to rob and kill, and still regards him as his favorite son. The past the film evokes for Link is of unspecified and unspeakable depravity. Dock Tobin and his boys revel in animalistic cruelty, yet they share a deep familial intimacy too, the fierce loyalty of outcasts who have no one else. (The screenplay, with its focus on group dynamics, honor, and the effects of violence, was by Reginald Rose, author of Crime in the Streets and Twelve Angry Men.)

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Scenes of torture and bizarre methods of murder are a trademark of Anthony Mann’s movies, but nothing he filmed is more upsetting than the scene in which one of Dock’s gang, a bestial young punk named Coaley (Jack Lord), forces Billie to strip for the men, holding a knife to Link’s throat that draws a smear of blood on his Adam’s apple as he witnesses the violation he’s helpless to prevent. Billie undresses in a numb, out-of-body trance; Coaley and the mute, half-witted Trout (Royal Dano) watch lustfully; and Dock Tobin sits, feigning aloofness but really controlling the whole scene, demonstrating his power both by allowing Link to be humiliated, and by stopping the exhibition before it goes too far.

Dock has never gotten over Link’s abandonment, and desperately wants to believe that his son has returned, even as he instinctively distrusts him. Link’s cousin Claude knows the prodigal-son act is a sham, and hates him for cheating the old man to whom he himself has remained blindly devoted. Claude is the man Link might have been. Unlike the crude young gang-members he’s strong, disciplined and quietly deadly; he’s sincere in his love for Dock, but he has the mindless amorality of a good soldier. Link grew up and learned to think for himself, while the others have rotted on the vine, and he fears being pulled back into his former life by his anger and hatred. He gets into a savage brawl with Coaley and avenges Billie’s honor by tearing her tormentor’s clothes off, leaving him so humiliated that he sobs with childish rage in his shabby long-johns.

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The film’s denouement is set appropriately in a ghost town, a dusty little strip of derelict houses in the desert. The gang has come there to rob a bank, not realizing it long ago closed when the mining town went bust, an irony that drives home Link’s final condemnation of Dock: “You’ve outlived your time.” The expedition devolves into a spree of pointless, wasteful violence, which ends with Link wiping out the whole gang, though not before they’ve unleashed cruelty and death on defenseless women. Another film could have presented this as a happy ending, but here there is no sense of purgation or new beginnings. Link has finally erased his past, but reaffirmed his identity as a killer, and lost any peace he achieved in the town of Good Hope. Billie must lose him as he returns to his family, leaving her loneliness and yearning for love unappeased. Mann’s best films all end this way; his heroes seem hollowed-out by their experiences, having been pushed to an extremity from which they can never make their way back.

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Man of the West is a grand, classical western, yet it also feels like the last western: by the end the elements of the genre have been so thoroughly stripped, spoiled and exhausted that it’s hard to imagine how they could be revived. Even the straightforward title becomes a troubling question: who is the “man of the west”? Is he the man who must destroy his past and wipe out his origins in order to move into the future? Or is he the man who has outlived his time, a decrepit remnant of a vanished world? One thing is certain: “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

Imogen Smith

UK DVD: Man Of The West [DVD]
US DVD: Man of the West
Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy
In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City