#Noirvember Blu-ray: The rural noir of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ and ‘Road House’

ondangerousgroundOn Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.

Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.

It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.

Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in 'On Dangerous Ground'
Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’

On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?

This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”

road-house-48Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.

Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.

Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in 'Road House'
Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in ‘Road House’

Videophiled: ‘Day of the Outlaw’


Day of the Outlaw (Timeless, DVD), a 1959 western set in a snowbound mountain town on the high frontier, is one of the toughest, most tension-filled pictures from Andre de Toth, a studio filmmaker who could be counted on to bring a savage edge to his assignments. The town is already coiled like a spring thanks to the tensions between imperious ranch baron Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and a farmer (Alan Marshal) stringing barbed wire across the range—Blaise has come to town to either intimidate the proud farmer into back down or killing him to stop the wire—when an outlaw gang bursts in and essentially takes the town hostage. They’re on the run from the cavalry and their leader (Burl Ives) is bleeding out from a bullet wound, barely keeping his cutthroat gang in check.

The isolation of the town, a few building poking out of the muddy streets and surrounded by mountain ranges in the distance, feels even more adrift in the white blanket of snow cover and the wind howls through most every scene, enhancing the sense of desolation. It’s a spare visual design and de Toth leaves the dramatic compositions lean and simple and uncrowded. Ryan’s wound up stillness makes a great contrast to the increasingly jittery gang members, who pace and fiddle and keep moving toward the women. They look like they are about to fly apart like a bomb and start looting and raping, and the still intensity of Ives, who holds his gaze and his ground has he gives orders and watches over it all, is all that keeps it from combusting. A terrific, underappreciated western, it’s been on disc before in an edition now out of print. Timeless brings it back in a solid DVD edition at a bargain price. No supplements.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

Blu-ray: ‘Caught’

The American films of German-born filmmaker Max Ophuls have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films. That attitude is fed by a sense of ill-treatment by the studios. He dropped the “h” to become Max Opuls in the credits of his Hollywood movies, which can either be seen as an insult to his heritage or simply part of the American assimilation that his fellow immigrants also went through. More defining is Ophuls’ miserable experience on his first American project, Vendetta (1947), a production micromanaged by Howard Hughes, who ultimately fired Ophuls. That experience colored Ophuls’ entire American period to the point that he himself dismissed the films he made as compromised. I disagree with that assessment. His films haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. There is a great dignity in his best American movies, but where his European films present obstacles in the form of social “rules” versus emotion and desire, his American films frame the same issues in terms of economics, opportunity, and the lack of social and legal power to break out of circumstances.

Olive previously gave us the Blu-ray and DVD debut of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), the most continental of his American movies, a romantic tragedy set in an idealized past with a decadent, self-absorbed high society man and a dreamy poor girl briefly swept into his world. Caught shares the same elegant camerawork, evocative production design, and the meeting of high culture and working class society but imports it into contemporary (circa 1940s) United States. It’s the first truly “American” film of his American era and, for all the film’s over-enunciated social commentary, it is a powerful drama rooted in the dreams and anxieties and realities of American filmgoers.

Continue reading at Turner Classics Movies

Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings: Rebel With a Cause

Jeffrey Hunter: Intense serenity

King of Kings (MGM)

Nicholas Ray’s 1961 epic drama of the story of Christ (and ostensible remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent classic) has less spectacle than the other epics of its era but it remains one of the most interesting and perceptive Biblical epics of its era. Narration (by Orson Welles) takes us back to the Roman invasion of the Holy Land and the enslavement of the Jews, setting the historical and social backdrop against which the familiar stories—the Nativity, the baptism, the apostles, the betrayal, the crucifixion and resurrection—play out, with blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter as the calmly intense Jesus preaching peace with the passion of in his eyes and a gentleness in his carriage. Robert Ryan is a magnificent John the Baptist, a rough-hewn peasant touched by divine inspiration and following his faith to the end, and Rip Torn makes Judas a fiercely dedicated revolutionary fighting to free his people from Roman bondage at the side of Barabbas (Harry Guardino). In Jesus, he sees the man who will lead them, but he fails to hear his message of peace.

King of Kings is arguably the most revolutionary of any screen story of Christ (as least until The Last Temptation of Christ), putting Christ’s message of peaceful resistance next to the armed rebellion led by Barabbas and Judas, and offering Judas as a misguided apostle who believes his betrayal is part of Christ’s plan. He’s right, of course, but for the wrong reasons—he foresees an Old Testament showdown with Christ as a holy Samson or a modern Moses tearing down the walls as he faces down the enemy—which makes him more of a tragic figure than a villain. There are plenty of weaknesses in the film, from some awkward performances and risible dialogue to clumsy scenes (some of which can be attributed to interference). But whereas detractors dismissed the films as “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” it’s more accurate to describe it as “Rebel With a Cause.” The Blu-ray debut of this Samuel Bronston production, shot in Spain on 70mm, looks superb and includes the overture, entr’acte and exit music of the original roadshow presentation. The supplements are threadbare, consisting of a vintage featurette, newsreels of the premier and the trailer.

The Wild Bunch on TCM

The essays I write for the Turner Classic Movies website all come to me as assignments. I don’t get to the pick the films, which means I get a variety of titles coming my way, some of which I’ve seen and a few that I haven’t. But there is a real pleasure in revisiting classics that you think you know but haven’t seen in years, perhaps decades. Such is the case with The Wild Bunch (1969), which I last saw on the theatrical re-release of the restored cut. I hadn’t forgotten much in the way of story, but the rhythms and the characters seem fresh, or at least refreshed, seeing it again for this piece. This time through it became clear just how Pike Bishop’s pronouncements of a code were simply empty words that had lost all meaning to him. “This time we do it right” means something after he’s been getting it all wrong all along and trying to fool himself into thinking it wasn’t so. It’s not revenge, it’s atonement, and it feels right for this bunch.

This time they do it right

The film that branded Sam Peckinpah with the nickname “Bloody Sam,” The Wild Bunch (1969) exploded in the era when Bonnie and Clyde (1967) redefined the portrayal of screen violence in a major studio production with glamorous movie stars and brought a more cynical attitude and bloodthirsty spectacle to the landscape of American westerns. In fact the original screenplay by Roy N. Sickner (a stuntman in the westerns) and Walon Green was influenced by the violent Italian genre known as “the spaghetti Western.” In their story, a brutal gang is ambushed during a heist and chased to Mexico by a posse led by a former member of the gang. They agree to steal American rifles from a military transport for a Mexican General but end up facing the General and his entire regiment, fighting to the death in a hopeless attempt to rescue one of their own. The title was borrowed from the name of the gang led by real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but they had nothing on this bunch. The script was short on character and narrative development and big on violent set pieces. Lee Marvin was interested in playing Wild Bunch leader Pike Bishop — he had attached himself to the project even before it was sent to Peckinpah—and the studio saw the film as another macho action picture along the lines of previous Marvin pictures The Professionals (1966) or The Dirty Dozen (1967). Peckinpah saw something more and began rewriting the script, fleshing out the characters, enriching their stories with defining flashbacks and giving a dramatic foundation to the action and the spectacle of violence.

It’s not exactly a romantic portrait of the outlaws of the west — these men are killers and thieves who think nothing of using civilians for hostage or cover – yet Peckinpah favors these men over the ruthless, hypocritical forces of law and order such as the “gutter trash” bounty hunters who see dollar signs rather than people and fire on anyone who wanders into their gun sights: civilians, railroad employees and even American soldiers. His vision never denies the brutal reality of their lives or their actions, but it does recognize their humanity under the gristle, as well their faults. Pike is a man who professes a code — “When you side with a man, you stay with him,” he lectures his gang, “and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal!”; it’s a code he has failed to live up to with his own actions and by the end of the film, he faces his own hypocrisy and sets out to “get it right,” in his own words.

Read the complete feature on TCM here. It plays on Friday, August 13, as part of a Robert Ryan tribute, and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Men in War on TCM

Anthony Mann’s Men in War is one of the great war films, and one of the least known. Starring Robert Ryan as a platoon leader dedicated to saving his men, who are trapped behind enemy lines, and Aldo Ray as  a gruff, ferociously competent veteran who only cares about rescuing his shellshocked commanding officer, it’s a stark, intimate film set during the Korean War and stands with Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet as one of the greatest films about the soldier’s experience. I write about the film for the Turner Classic Movies website.

“Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars.” This quote opens the only war film by Anthony Mann, one of the great American directors of westerns and helmer of the most muscular epics of the 1960s. In contrast to his expansive costume epics, with their lavish historical recreations and grand presentations of armies of men battling on massive battlefields, or the more personal conflicts of the westerns played out against the majestic landscapes of the American West, Men in War (1957) is combat in close-up. While the story of a band of American soldiers trying to survive a mission behind enemy lines belongs to the familiar platoon genre of war movies, it is a maverick film in all other respects. Like Sam Fuller’s equally provocative 1951 Korean War drama The Steel Helmet, it eschews patriotism and sentimentality for a portrait of war from the grunt’s-eye view: the harrowing, grueling experience of survival in the hostile landscape of an enemy battlefield.

Read the complete feature on TCM here. The film plays on TCM on Thursday, June 24 and then again in August.