Boredom and good fate may have caused travelers to thumb through the December 2013 issue of Magazine, the glossy monthly Air France stuffs in its seatback pouches to hawk duty-free perfume and canned caviar. They might have happened upon an article advertising another French commodity: the classical American Western. A brief interview that well-named Marie Aucouturier led with filmmaker and critic Bertrand Tavernier, frequent and welcome visitor to the Harvard Film Archive, informed readers of his undying love of the genre. So undying that in partnership with Actes Sud, currently France’s keenest publisher of creative and critical writing, he is reissuing a series of Western novels of bygone times under the title “L’Ouest, c’est vrai” [“The West, It’s True”]. Inspiring many feature films in the halcyon days of the studio era, sadly, few of the original novels can be found in Harvard’s Widener Library. It can be wagered that despite their elegant design and crisp translation these new editions will never make their way to our shores. Whether they do or not is less significant than what Tavernier’s project makes clear: that much of the American Western owes the recovery of its genius to what Gallic cinephiles have done with it.
As if he had been planning the current retrospective, Tavernier’s words tell us why. He corrects his interviewer in noting that the Western is hardly about cowboys and Indians. It is in fact “an immense genre that addresses everything: the conquest of America, the founding of law, racism, anti-racism…It even frays into film noir and be steeped in neurosis. Look at films like 3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or My Darling Clementine, and you’ll wonder who are the heroes and who are the villains. And in The Searchers the hero is one of the darkest characters in the history of American cinema, played no less by John Wayne!”
Tavernier adds three critical points that might inflect the viewings of the weeks ahead. First, and always tricky, the relation between the western novels (by Peter Field, W. O. Burnett and others far below the radar of those who think of Zane Gray) and their adaptations is a matter more of betrayal than translation. Like today’s impatient filmmakers who “can’t read their way out of a paper bag,” many directors of the post-war years preferred shooting film to carefully reading and adapting the novels for their storyboards. Such was Roy Rowland’s Bugles in the Afternoon (1952), a feature showing that the director and screenwriters (Daniel Mainwaring and Harry Brown) never paused to look closely at the writing of Ernest Haycox, prolific writer and also author of a story called “Stage to Lordsburg,” the toponym immediately recalling obese Andy Devine’s delightfully crackly voice when he puts the whip to the horses of Stagecoach (1939). Now reissued in French, Haycox’s novel does what Rowland’s film did not. “The tone is broad and epic, nature plays immensely on the characters’ destiny. We’re in the great tradition of Jack London. Daily life at the outpost is told in minute detail, and then we witness one of the greatest disasters in the history of the American Cavalry. Usually this disaster is magnified while here the approach is much darker and far more complex. It brings forward a multitude of contradictory viewpoints, and is extremely original.” By strong contrast to Rowland, adds Tavernier, Henry King, director of three taut masterpieces – Jesse James (1939), The Gunfighter (1950, which counts among the features in our retrospective) and the oft-overlooked Bravados (1958) – made meticulous use of the material with which he shaped his features. Gregory Peck once told Tavernier that in preparing his tale of Jimmy Ringo, when staging his existential masterpiece of 1950 King had studied more than 1500 photos from the late Western era in order to attend to details of clothing, gesture, stature, domestic architecture, even the consistency of mud.
Second, and not in the order of the interview, qualifying Aucouturier’s observation that the western is “making a comeback” in films by Eastwood, Tarentino, the Coen Brothers, the Deadwood series, and Ang Lee (whose overlooked Ride with the Devil he calls the “best I’ve seen on the Civil War”), Tavernier terms the western flageolant. It’s “wobbly”. Italian sequels to Sergio Leone decimated the genre when, one upon the other, in scenarios increasingly far-fetched and sensational, films were “shot often with abominable actors and horribly dubbed.” It may be that (the point not Tavernier’s but closer to ours in this retrospective), combined with the ambiance of the post-war years, the strictures of the studio system made for many masterpieces. In this state of things André Gide’s prescient words of 1899 still hold true: l’art naît de contrainte et meurt de liberté [art is born of constraint and dies of liberty]. Such is what viewers will remark about the spare and terse style of these so-called “minor” western directors in the program, some of whose names may not ring a bell: Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, Allen Dwan, Howard Hawks, Rudolph Maté, Phil Karlson, André de Toth, King Vidor, William Wyler.
Now, third, it may be that the Western wobbles because we no longer heed what Tavernier calls the art of filming space. Four (typically French) exceptions tell us that by and large today’s cinematographers haven’t really studied the Western. Two by Tavernier (It Begins Today and The Princess of Montpensier) and two by Bruno Dumont (Humanity and The Life of Jesus) aim the camera skyward, recording immense volumes of atmosphere that weigh on the terrain beneath, close to the lower edge of the frame, where humans move in trains or carriages or on horseback. “There’s always a space to film, and there’re always people to put into that space. (…) I’ve often been shocked by platitude of French historical films in their filming of space, nature…forests. Yet the Western and its great masters thought a great deal about space, seeing how characters were rooted their surroundings (…), whether a city, the inside of a ranch, a rocky landscape (…), the importance of hillsides, rivers, skies, characters bound to the landscapes suggesting that they are indeed the world in which they live." Hence the title of the interview, Filmer le ciel/Filming the Skies, offers another clue about the today’s wavering Westerns. Can a camera in the environs of Lone Pine follow characters riding over arid terrains in front of the jagged edges of the Sierras beyond that bite into the empyrean? Can they make the open spaces reduce characters to minuscule shapes in endless landscapes? The answer is no (1) because existential space may be of another age or (2) because, unless Photoshop or Final Cut Pro comes to the rescue, striations of contrails and congested air traffic proscribe filming of an unfettered sky.
Tavernier adds that he discovered the Western, notably Bugles in the Afternoon, in his childhood years when he and his father went to the movies together. Marxist Jacques Rancière relates that in his adolescence an untold erotic charge came at his sight of Colorado (Virginia Mayo), the half-breed beauty scampering after her ill-fated lover Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) in the unforgiving landscape of Colorado Territory. The moment caused him, before he returned to his senses, to forget class struggle and the gridlock of capital, or even, however fleetingly the very industry that afforded the bliss. Likewise, viewers of this retrospective who are “of a certain age” will probably retrieve fleeting images embedded in childhood memories of the movies. When, as Manohla Dargis recently related in The New York Times (1/12/13), wondering what is happening when a surfeit of mainstream and independent features is made available for viewing anytime, anywhere, and in any form, how do they replace the theatrical experience that the seventh art had offered for viewers who “went to the movies” (like us, we the public assembled in the HFA) to see Westerns projected on big screens? Made palpable by virtue of carbon-arc projectors running 35mm prints through their gates, the great sky and space of the genre cast children of the postwar years in the enthusing and unsettling bind of Pascal’s “two infinities” a cosmic non-place which, in the Western spaces before our eyes, we suddenly felt, then as we do now, frail, insignificant and for that reason, within the confines of the movie theater, fortuitously present to ourselves.
As Tavernier and Rancière have done, we can let our earliest Western memories seep through the viewings of the features in the weeks before us. This person recalls that the first Western he saw in a theater, alone, at age six, Winchester 73, required upon his return home in the late afternoon an oral report to be delivered to his cinephilic father who had bestowed upon him a quarter for admission to the matinée, plus a nickel to buy a box of Mason’s Black Crows. Too small to sit in the unfolded seat, I perched myself on its upper edge and witnessed – the memories are limpid – the battle of the men, whom I now know as Will McAdam (James Stewart) and Dutch Henry Brown (Steve McNally), blasting at each other with carbines in the midst of grainy rock. Gunshots echoed while a soft wind blew amidst the granite crags of the mountain. Thirty years later American critics told me how, based on the Sophoclean tragedy, Anthony Mann’s tale of enemy brothers proves that the post-war Western is something greater than a simple shoot-em-up. Ten years after that some snobbish intelligentsia of Lacanian extraction condescended to inform me that the film illustrated the concept of “the signification of the phallus” because the ’73 Winchester, a lever-action repeater (thee pious viewers couldn’t distinguish a bolt-action from a pump-gun), circulating among men who wanted to have it in their hands, was an objet-petit-a (why not, I whispered under my breath, get off your high horse and call it an appetite-object?) attesting to the inviolable law of castration. A decade after that Gilles Deleuze informed me that the film embodied (contrary to its counterpart, the “interstice” of the time-image), the Bergsonian concept of the interval, no doubt (Deleuze never elaborates) because evil Dutch Henry, high on the mountainside, hears McAdam below, who yells to remind him of the lesson of thrift their father had taught them when they were children. Dutch needs time to reload: hence the advent of the interval, the gap, which in this instance spells the villain’s demise. With all respect – due or not I don’t know – to the wisdom of Greek myth, the Lacanian phallus and the Bergsonian interval, every time I see Winchester ‘73 I tend to recall the delight of the first matinee on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1950.
By the time Winchester ’73 had come to France Paris was already the place, nec plus ultra, to see Westerns. No doubt because American export policies imposed its commodities upon the nation its armed forces had purportedly liberated, France was being bombarded with movies. Weaned on American celluloid, the enfants terribles who morphed into filmmakers of the New Wave counted among the most adept followers of the Western. Turning it from entertainment into an array of critical objects, without saying so they made its genre the equal of its auteurs. They fashioned repertories, engaged close readings, compared its signatures, returned to its sources and in the end wrote appreciations that are now an enduring hallmark. Such is Le Western: Approches, mythologies, auteurs-acteurs, filmographies [The Western: Approaches, Mythologies, Author-Actors, Filmographies] a multi-authored volume, dating to 1966, that Marxist publisher Christian Bourgois launched in cheap format, that Raymond Bellour (another friend of the HFA), in 1994 revised for publication by Éditions Gallimard. Written by twenty contributors, its entries are signed by then famous or emerging critics (Bellour, Jean-Louis Bory, Bernard Dort, Bernard Eisenschitz, Roger Tailleur, etc.), a future nouveau philosophe (André Glucksmann), other major filmmakers or artists (Robert Lapoujade, Tavernier himself), a great historian and theorist (Jean Mitry), a new novelist (Claude Ollier), and even, of a gender who brought fear to the men who were the architects of the New Wave, a woman (Monique Vernhes). Listing 599 films (yet in a Freudian slip omitting Stagecoach), elaborating on 58 auteurs or directors and 23 acteurs (nary a female), most of which are from the post-war era, the book presents a gazetteer of 57 “mythologies” (in line with Roland Barthes’ work under the same title) that are really topoi or topical places whose assemblage comprises a geography of the genre. Beginning with Alcoolique (Alcoholic – with words on Doc Holliday of My Darling Clementine), the list ends with Viol (Rape – an entry uncovering the traumatic underbelly of The Bravados and Rancho Notorious). In what amounts to deconstruction these “common places” offer a means of reading the Westerns transversally, diacritically, and thus spatially, with and against the grain of the narratives. For the authors these plot-points become points of reference for the mapping of the “auteurs” whose signatures are drawn in places that include Fistfights, Barbershops, Campfires, Sheriff’s Offices, Jails, and so on, and last but least, Woman (qualified as “theogony”). In addition to terse analyses the very selection of the places betrays the nature and the moment of the collective appreciation. Given what it does and how it works Le Western remains a viable user’s guide for crisscrossed readings of the seventeen films comprising the retrospective.
If Godard is correct in asserting that the histories of cinema that we fashion for ourselves are based less on narratives than indelible images or sequences with which we live our lives, many inhere in what might appear to be forgettable fare. The credits of The Gunfighter are set over a sequence of a solitary rider going who knows where on an infinitely rolling plain of sand and shrub under a darkened sky. In the style of a classical silent film (not a bar of music can be heard), in the sequences set in the town crisp pans follow characters going about their daily business all the while an atmosphere of vindictive menace prevails. At the beginning of Seven Men from Now rain pours uncannily in a dark night when, emerging from nowhere, Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) shares a cup of coffee (“much obliged”) with two men who cower by a campfire under an outcropping. Suddenly two horses are shown shocked at the sound of two gunshots. A close up of the icy face of Tex (Jack Lambert), frozen to death at the end of Day of the Outlaw, chills the happy end that follows. At the beginning of Jubal (in French as L’Homme de nulle part, or The Man from Nowhere), tumbling down a hillside, what seems to be a ball of detritus becomes the human form of hero Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford). Visual memory of two victims of random homicide, a boy and an elder tossed down a well come forward lugubriously in The Tall T when Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) forced to dress a deer carcass, cuts through the hind quarters hanging from a makeshift gibbet. In The Violent Men the map that burns in the fire that Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), malevolent and bitchy spouse of crippled cattle baron Lew Wilkinson (Edward G. Robinson) set to an elegant home collapsing in view of the vast spaces outside. Next to angelic Sally Maris (Joan Leslie), Kate Quantrill (Audrey Totter), hard-ass wench of ill repute and “dark mirror” to her counterpart, becomes the force of attraction in Woman They Almost Lynched. When, at the climax of Terror in a Texas Town George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) confronts his enemy with a harpoon in place of six-gun our recall of thousands of iterations of “the gunfight” flash before our eyes. In Red River, in harmony with Dmitri Tiomken’s epic refrains, unforgettable lap-dissolves superimpose the cursive of a daily journal over great vistas, each a serial punctuation anticipating the confrontation of Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) that Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) resolves. These other sequences and many others belong to our vivid memories of Westerns on which, finally, no nation or person has purchase. The backbone of the genre in a span of some of its greatest years, seen anew and afresh, show us that, simply put, these films are what makes the Western what it is.
For this retrospective thus the rules of the game: a nod has not been given to Westerns that have already colonized our imagination, notably Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach, Rancho Notorious, The Searchers, Johnny Guitar and others. Conspicuously absent is John Ford, and so also Anthony Mann, past master of the post-war Western with Devil’s Doorway (1950), Winchester ’73 (1950), The Furies (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), Man from Laramie (1955), The Last Frontier (1956), The Tin Star (1957), Man of the West (1958) and Cimarron (1960). And no less, Raoul Walsh, whose The Big Trail (1930), Wild Girl (1932), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Pursued (1947) and Colorado Territory (1949) delighted viewers last spring. Have had to skirt the great silent films from Griffith to Ince and from William S. Hart to Ford and Fairbanks. Pioneers like Tom Mix remain for further study, and so also pre-war sound cinema, forcing exclusion of In Old Arizona, The Virginia Kid, and many others. Left in the margins, too, are the serials and great B-line Monogram films featuring Johnny Mack Brown and Raymond Hatton. And alas, many, many more. But for starters we proudly present a magnificent set of sixteen epic Westerns on a screen just grand enough to fit them all. – Tom Conley, Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor, Departments of Romance Languages and Visual/Environmental Studies, Harvard University
Special thanks: Todd Wiener, Steven Hill – UCLA Film and Television Archive; Daniel Bish – George Eastman House.
Directed by Howard Hawks. With John Wayne, Montgomery Clift,
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 126 min
Red River plots bifurcating lines, splittings and divisions among cowhand that only a strong female can bring together. Dark and unforgiving hero, Tom Dunson (John Wayne), who would be father, lover and companion of Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) carries the trappings of a Melvillian character in the great space of a cattle drive that viewers of the landscapes will note goes practically nowhere. An epic equal to The Searchers, Hawks’ film binds the brief history of the cattle drive and the “cowboy” to a searing treatment of human force and fragility.
Directed by Delmer Daves. With Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden
US 1959, 35mm, color, 106 min
The Hanging Tree, the most unsettling of Delmer Daves’ three great Westerns – with Broken Arrow and Jubal – offers stunning takes of a magnificent landscape, as mountainous and jagged as the greed and madness of the characters who hardly exist within it. The panoramics of this noir Western study the sweeping force of mob violence in a plot rife with characters marked by trauma and blindness both figural and real. The landscapes of the troubled faces of characters at odds with each other counterpoint those of the mining town with which they are at war.
Directed by Samuel Fuller. With Rod Steiger, Sarita Montiel, Brian Keith
US 1957, 35mm, color, 86 min
Bearing resemblance to The Searchers and Dances with Wolves, Run of the Arrow tells the tale of a Confederate rebel who goes native when he marries a Sioux squaw. Bringing forward the plight of the Native American, the film bears analogy with the stories of displaced soldiers on the losing side of the Second World War who resort to dissimulation to survive. Director Sam Fuller appeals to the pastoral tradition in crafting a political aesthetic through the “visual emotion” that is his signature.
Directed by Delmer Daves. With Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine,
US 1956, 35mm, color, 100 min
Jubal is striking evidence of Delmer Daves’ consummate craftsmanship. A spatial contradiction: an endless plain under the cerulean sky that for which those confined to the nouveau-riche interior are longing; a seething conflict: between errant Jubal (Glenn Ford) and his well-named nemesis, Pinky (Rod Steiger), a lascivious scoundrel; two women, as usual, at opposite ends of the moral yardstick, are equally attractive in their excess, much also as the bumbling husband (Ernest Borgnine) who pays for his gullible ways. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Henry King. With Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott,
US 1950, 35mm, b/w, 84 min
The Gunfighter, spare and taut in its shooting style, bears witness to the great Westerns of the silent era. Uninflected by music, the terse and sparse dialogue reminds viewers of Bresson or Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. It suffices to follow the tight pans trailing people moving about in everyday life, and to heed the silence and spacing of the exchanges between Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) and Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck). If Stagecoach is the “classic” of American cinema of the pre-war era, the stylistic virtue of King’s film defines the post-war cinema of the 1950s. Inviting comparison too, with his Jesse James (1939) it anticipates the style of the oft-overlooked Bravados (1958).
Directed by William Wyler. With Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons,
US 1958, 35mm, color, 166 min
The Big Country carries an adjective that ties the feature to hundreds of variants (Big and the Bad, Big Jack, Big Land, Big Stampede, Big Sky, Big Trail, Big Trees…), but few films offer such epic takes of sky and land by virtue of William Wyler’s long takes, in deep focus, that we recall from The Best Years of Our Lives. Here (in Ione, California) the shots that follow inhabitants about and out of their dwellings – a great house under the sky, a remote canyon valley – we feel an astonishing pleasure of agoraphilia. In a film that has Gregory Peck – then the refugee of Moby Dick – and Burl Ives bringing social awareness to what was then, before Sergio Leone, the “surwestern.”
Directed by Budd Boetticher. With Randolph Scott, Karen Steele,
US 1959, 35mm, color, 74 min
As he had in Seven Men from Now, Budd Boetticher has leather-faced Randolph Scott cope with a traumatic past through the ruse of revenge. The equal of the horses they ride (one of the director’s signature traits), the characters travel across a dramatic landscape (near Lone Pine), defining it scenographically, ultimately causing it to become claustrophobically familiar. Dissimulation of the storyline bleeds into landscapes that are magnificently – and tautologically – what they are. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Wise. With Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 88 min
Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon, notes Melvin Carter, is “a Western for adults” predating Anthony Mann’s masterpieces, Devil’s Doorway (1950) and Winchester ’73 (1950), and his subsequent films built around charmingly evil personages. As he was in Pursued, Robert Mitchum as Jim Garry is in a welter of conflict in which deceivers become caught in the webbings of their desires. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Phil Karlson. With Van Heflin, Tab Hunter,
US 1958, 35mm, color, 97 min
Gunman’s Walk will unfortunately never be seen in a double – or better, a triple – bill with Rebel without a Cause or Saddle the Wind. A film that plays out oedipal scenarios as well as any in the canon, it portrays confrontation with unparalleled Freudian resonance. Director Phil Karlson makes two generations collide, father and widower Lee Hackett (Van Heflin – think of The Prowler) at odds with his blue-eyed boy Ed (Tab Hunter), rival of his good brother Davy (James Darren) for love-object Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant). An unparalleled period piece that defines what then was the classic virtue of the adult Western. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Budd Boetticher. With Randolph Scott, Gail Russell,
US 1956, 35mm, color, 78 min
Seven Men from Now, noted André Bazin when he saw it for the first time, turned a “B” film into a crystal gem. Few westerns share the same simplicity or economy; fewer meld the rocky and arid landscape with the obdurate character of the players among whom count horses that resemble the choir of a Sophoclean tragedy. A study of revenge, it tests the mettle of the inherited genre through clichés that become evidence of their own force: a treacherous villain wearing a green scarf, a henchman who wears suspenders and speaks with a stare, a woman whose desires are divided, a strongbox isolated on the rocky outcropping of a desert, and the hero taking shelter during a downpour in a cranny on a desert plain, drinking a cup of coffee and saying (as he does everywhere), “much obliged” before killing his frightened hosts. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funding provided by The Film Foundation & Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. With Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly
US 1958, 35mm, b/w, 80 min
Terror in a Texas Town, in the literal sense, is a throwback to the classical Western of the silent era. Joseph Lewis, another overlooked director whom auteurist cinephiles have resurrected, master of the B-genre (best known for Gun Crazy), engineers this low-budget feature (the production cost $80,000) in black-and-white, all the while carrying undercurrents of the impact of Hollywood’s blacklisting. Where there is oil there will be blood: the duel at the end of the film converts the commonplace of confrontation in the street into a peerless cinematic event worthy of Herman Melville. MGM print courtesy of Park Circus.
Directed by Budd Boetticher. With Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan
US 1957, 35mm, color, 78 min
The Tall T may be the most unsettling of Budd Boetticher’s Westerns. We wonder what we are looking at when we see that thugs have summarily dumped the bodies of the old man and the child they have murdered into an arid well; when we watch with disgust how the gang, under the aegis of Frank Usher – played by Richard Boone, then known as heroic “Paladin” in the TV series Have Gun Will Travel – lusts after out-of-place heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan); and then behold prisoner Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) contemplating destiny as he dresses the bloody flesh of a quartered deer. The sheer contrast of sequences in the dark of a cave – where desire throttles – and the light of day on a mesa – where sadism reigns – makes this short film a masterpiece. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by King Vidor. With Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten,
US 1947, 35mm, color, 136 min
King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun, another epic feature of political valence – many we know with Gregory Peck, including Yellow Sky, Only the Valiant, The Gunfighter, The Big Country, The Stalking Moon – can be read as “two in the one”: setting men good and bad upon a half-breed beauty; conflating drives of hate and desire within another father of oedipal character; bringing forward the bestiality of rape prior to Lang’s Rancho Notorious. As Jean-Luc Godard makes clear through allusion in Histoire(s) du cinéma the brutally erotic ending of 1946 becomes a paradigm for many films to come. Print courtesy of Disney.
Directed by Samuel Fuller. With Preston Foster, Barbara Britton,
US 1949, 35mm, color, 81 min
Sam Fuller’s first film belongs to an ensemble that includes Henry King (Jesse James, 1939), Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, 1940), and Nicholas Ray (The True Story of Jesse James, 1957). Countering the myth of a six-gun Robin Hood, closer to the grain of Shock Corridor, Fuller treats the robber as a psychopath, driven to die. Varying on the iterations of the “picture-hanging sequence” the director suggests that James almost invites his own demise. Fuller’s claim to make films of intense visual emotion finds its early expression in this masterwork.
Directed by Rudolph Maté. With Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck,
Edward G. Robinson
US 1955, 35mm, color, 96 min
The Violent Men rises to the top of director Rudolph Maté’s Westerns of the 1950s, for this film folds conjugal violence in the oneiric interior of a ranch with that of an implacable horizon of the high Sierra beyond the familiar lands about Lone Pine. Crippled Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), hardly little Caesar, is nearly immolated at the hands of his evil spouse Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), whose movement through the area of the ranch converts the Western into a reflection on the nature of the space it inherits and reinvents.
Directed by André DeToth. With Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise
US 1959, 35mm, b/w, 91 min
Day of the Outlaw remains one of the most unforgiving films of under-acclaimed Hungarian director André De Toth – like Raoul Walsh, one-eyed and magnificently drawn to scenarios of violence and treachery. After Ramrod (1947), Man in the Saddle (1951), Last of the Comanches (1953) and a host of other features, he caps his career with a taut and frigid drama of desperate hours spent in an isolated town on the plains below Oregon’s Mount Bachelor. Misguided Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) finds himself at odds with obese patriarch Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), whose gang of vicious thugs – including the horrendous Tex (Jack Lambert, who played “Dum-Dum” in The Killers) – hold the town hostage. Print from the collection of George Eastman House.
Directed by Allan Dwan. With John Lund, Brian Donlevy, Audrey Totter
US 1953, 35mm, color, 90 min
Woman They Almost Lynched stands strong among the 400 films under the direction of Allan Dwan from 1915 to 1961. A film almost forgotten, in the noir shadow of Johnny Guitar, of Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror, or perhaps the paired females in High Sierra (Joan Leslie and Ida Lupino) or Colorado Territory (Dorothy Malone and Virginia Mayo), Dwan’s feature ramps up spite and violence through the brilliant work of the late and lamented Audrey Totter.