Archive for The Shakedown

The Sunday Intertitle: Prairie Poirot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2018 by dcairns

Such sloppy speech: clearly the intertitle of a desperado!

THE ORE RAIDERS (1927) is another “Worthless Willie” Wyler short of no particular ambition, doubtless churned out in a week, with a star, Fred Gilman, who’s better at staying on a horse in tricky situations than he is at expressing emotion or holding the eye.

From this historical distance, though, it’s quaint and charming to see a western hero who’s clean-cut, innocent, and shares affectionate banter with his horse (THE LONE RANGER recently attempted the clean-cut, innocent part, but didn’t give Silver enough of an active listening role).

Wyler is developing his craft. In a conversation between Gilman and a rancher who’s reluctantly in league with the bad guys, we cut from a close-up of the rancher reacting to something offscreen, to an optical POV insert of the Texas Ranger badge in Gilman’s pocket and back to the worried rancher, a quasi-Hitchcockian moment that renders psychology visible. Nothing too remarkable about this, but B-westerns typically just consist of wide-ish shots of people doing stuff, and some landscapes.

But THE ORE RAIDERS is a kind of frontier detective story, depending on the following of clues, and Wyler knows to present these signifying objects from his characters’ viewpoints rather than simply as close-ups.

The cigarettes match! Jake Petersen has been here!

Other evidence it’s a Wyler: cutting straight down the line into a scene, ignoring the 45-degree rule that angles are supposed to change. Sometimes, as when Monty Clift silently decides to ditch his lover in THE HEIRESS, this forward jolt can express a character point, dramatizing a reaction. When it just feels like the director popped a lens on because he couldn’t be bothered moving the camera round, it’s less satisfying. (Wyler was tireless in his retakes, but covered the action fairly minimally.)

Again, WW invents fresh ways to dismount his hero — at the climax, Gilman rides up to a bad guy and throws himself from the saddle before the horse has even stopped, knocking the bad guy down then dragging him to his feet and punching him out before the dust has even settled. He’s used himself as a projectile, before that was either popular or fashionable.

Wellman also has a very long lens for filming Gilman riding down steep hills, which he does A LOT. He doesn’t use it as extensively as Leni Riefenstahl or Akira Kurosawa but he does resort to it, proving this was a stylistic choice available before OLYMPIA and THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The bad guy is not only the target of Gilman’s investigations, but his rival for the girl, making this movie almost identical to last week’s Sunday short subject, THE TWO-FISTER. Perhaps the very lack of variety in these oaters drove Wyler to be more inventive and develop his skills, whereas other directors got stuck in a rut and would still be making the same stuff when TV came in. Not a bad life if you enjoy outdoorsmanship, but no way to be remembered. Wyler was already shooting features, and by 1929 would be breaking away from westerns with THE SHAKEDOWN and THE LOVE TRAP (a part-talkie). Finally he could photograph some rooms, and take his hat off.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Slinky Spills It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 22, 2018 by dcairns

William Wyler reported that, during his early days, shooting western two-reelers, he would lie awake at night thinking up new ways to shoot a man getting on and off a horse. So I was gratified to locate a copy, however ratty, of THE TWO-FISTER (1927), to get a sense of the master’s developing style during this period, and also to see if he really did expend that much imagination on mounting and dismounting.

He did! Leading man Edmund Cobb, playing a staunch Mounty, pulls that trick-riding gag of hanging to the side of his horse as it speeds along, then dropping his feet to the ground so that the force throws him into the air and thence into the saddle. So I guess that would count as an inventive bit of horseplay. He does it twice. He also dismounts and mounts in a more romantic scene by using a convenient fence. This is more impressive, in a way, as I’ve never seen it done.

We also see a bit of Wyler’s inventiveness in the punch-ups, partly filmed with a long lens so the camera must furiously pan as the antagonists dodge and weave. It makes the whole thing hectic, and anticipates the fast and furious boxing match Wyler would stage in THE SHAKEDOWN (1929).

The movie, written by movie serial specialist George Plympton (FLASH GORDON et al) is perfectly banal but perfectly satisfying. Wyler had fifteen shorts of this kind, plus five features, all released the same year. So he didn’t have a lot of time for grace notes. And the scripts were on the simplistic side, mostly. We do get a sympathetic Indian sidekick, a sort of proto-Tonto, if you will. And the ending is amusing.

Cobb has arrested the flight of the bad guy, stopping him at the border and administering the standard punitive drubbing. Then he commences the standard romantic clinch (not with the bad guy: there’s a girl along, Elsa Benham). The bad guy sees his chance and starts to sneak away, BUT! This is the image we fade out on ~

Don’t make any false moves while I’m making a move on Elsa.

The Sunday Intertitle: Home and Deranged

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by dcairns

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William Wyler, strangely for an acclaimed, Oscar-winning, AFI-certified master director (albeit one with shaky standing among highbrow cinephiles), suffers from a peculiar neglect of his early work. he cut his teeth doing tiny westerns, like Ford, but while Ford’s shorts are at least the object of some cinephile interest, and ripples of excitement are felt whenever one is rediscovered, Wyler’s juvenilia seems to inspire little curiosity and in any case there is no way to slake any if you have some.

“I used to lie awake at night trying to think of new ways to photograph a man getting off a horse,” recalled Wyler, who had been known as Worthless Willie, a Laemmle relative who had been handed a studio job based on genetics rather than merit, and made little splash apart from when he drove his motorbike off a friend’s diving board as a lark. His brother Robert was considered the promising one.

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Somewhere in between starting out on his sagebrush hackwork and making 1929’s THE SHAKEDOWN, the only pure silent of his I’ve been able to see, Wyler got good. The same year he made part-talkies THE LOVE TRAP and HELL’S HEROES, which are very good, once you get over the whole part-talkie thing. So the whole “learning his craft” part of the Wyler oeuvre is MIA. It might be very interesting, or totally uninteresting, but we don’t know until we see it, or at least until some reliable person sees it and reports back in detail.

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So I was chuffed to obtain THE STOLEN RANCH from 1926 — and then surprised to find it’s not a two-reel western but a fairly substantial piece of work, opening as it does in WWI — not a WINGS-scale super-epic version, admittedly, but a comparatively modest evocation of trench warfare with a few shell-bursts and squibs. We meet leading man Fred Humes (me neither) and his buddy, who has a breakdown under the strain, and then we flash forward to an unspecified postwar world, roughly contemporaneous…

A train passes and Fred covers his friend’s ears so he won’t be startled by the whistle — he still has shell-shock, we surmise. And Fred’s tenderness is touching. I’m immediately gripped. I want to know what happens to these fellows. I’ll let you know.