Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Grey Fox (1982)

Directed by Philip Borsos; produced by Peter O’Brian

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is at last released from prison, having served a long sentence for a series of successful stage-coach robberies. At a loss as to what to do, and feeling out-dated in the rapidly changing modern world, Miner is nonetheless curious about new things. Stopping to watch a moving picture - The Great Train Robbery - he is inspired to match his old skills to a novel environment. Following a first, failed railway hold-up in Washington, he flees to Canada, and there meets his criminal and personal destiny.

Almost immediately, the viewer sees a small mistake: narration cards explain that Miner started robbing in 1863, continued for eighteen years, and then went to prison, being let out in 1901, after thirty-three years behind bars. Either the total is an error, or he served his time intermittently, between crimes. A little flaw; if The Grey Fox has any more, they are just as insignificant. Based on the adventures of a real person, this is an excellent, almost lyrical movie, charming, if one can use the term when describing a western about thievery and lawlessness.

Most of the charm is attributable to the film’s star. Farnsworth started in movies as a stuntman; his first job was in the Marx Brothers’s A Day at the Races (1937). He acted in small bits; the roles growing, until he was nominated for an Oscar for Comes a Horseman. The Grey Fox was his first starring role.

Here he is extremely winning, a ‘gentleman bandit’, who uses firearms but has never killed anyone; tough as leather but sensitive; selfish enough to enjoy his crimes but empathetic enough to understand the crimes of others. In short, this all-rounded, well-written character is as well played.

It is easy to see how other characters become Miner’s friends, a feminist (Jackie Burroughs) in the small British Columbian town where Miner finds refuge, the local policeman (Timothy Webber), even the expression on the face of Miner’s ruthless, self-serving ally (Ken Pogue) in a courtroom scene shows how well-liked the robber is. These roles are filled by capable actors who, however, don’t have much screen-time without Farnsworth.

The direction fits the slow, easy-going atmosphere of The Grey Fox. This was Borsos’s directorial debut, made when he was 27; he, alas, died just fourteen years later. There are bursts of violence, startling in their suddenness, and their brevity, but the action is usually as methodical as Miner’s crimes.

The scene from the film most commented upon by others shows Miner watching The Great Train Robbery. But what isn’t always mentioned is how Farnsworth acts during it. There is a hint of a grin on his deeply lined face when he approves of what he sees the cinematic thieves doing; then, his mouth moves as if remarking to himself about how he would do things differently. It’s a wonderful scene, due to the direction and the acting. Also to be noted is the scene with a herd of horses pounding down a slope to avoid an oncoming train.

There is a beauty to the film, too, which isn’t surprising, as it was photographed by Frank Tidy, responsible for similar duties in The Duellists, reviewed on this blog in April. Borsos allows Tidy’s images to help set the mood, which is one of autumn, with browns and golds and dark yellows complimenting Miner’s age, the expansive fields and woods and mountains matching his energy.

The Grey Fox is not a western for those who must have gun-play, Indian attacks and show-downs at high noon. It is a character-driven western, the story of a man faced with a changing world who decides to change as well, but on his own terms, keeping to what he believes and is. It is slow in places, but never dull. The action is limited, but decisive. Whatever its characteristics, it is a lesser-known movie that deserves to be included in a list of the best of its genre.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Take One False Step (1949)

Directed and produced by Charles Erskine

A New York educator (William Powell), in Los Angeles to negotiate funding for a new university, meets a former girlfriend (Shelley Winters), hoping to re-start their brief romance. After ill-advisedly accepting her invitation to a party, the professor drives her home, after which she disappears. Left with a possible murder mystery, with himself as the man the police are seeking, the out-of-towner must follow the clues to make sure he isn’t the one falsely accused of a killing.

One of the most ingratiating actors in Hollywood of the 1930s and ‘40s was William Powell. Whether playing a detective or a crook, a millionaire or a servant, he was always likeable and watchable, and always added more than a touch of class to his characters. Though he continues that tradition in Take One False Step, and is not the only good thing in the movie, the film lets him down, and cannot be counted as one of his showcases.

The problems here are led by one of credibility. I didn’t believe that Powell’s character, erudite, educated, gently fired with the ambition of creating renaissance men through a new school, would ever have taken up with Winters’s character, a childish, self-centred, superficial person who is bored by the idea of a college without a football team. Even in the extraordinary conditions of war-time, under which they originally met, the notion that they could have enjoyed each other’s company – especially Powell enjoying Winters’s – is unrealistic. Both actors do a good job in their portrayals, but it is clear that Powell had much more in common with Winters’s friend (Marsha Hunt), and the little we see of his wife (Dorothy Hart) – married after his time with Winters – it is clear that Powell prefers intelligent, decisive women.

Another unrealistic aspect of the film – and one just as crucial as the principal relationship – is Powell’s pursuit of the truth. There is no compelling reason for him not to go to the police. He begins investigating with an implication of a fear of ruining his marriage and the prospects of the new university. Again, though, the professor’s personality as seen in the film suggests that he would have more credibly explained matters to the authorities, rather than taking on the role of detective himself. If Powell had been playing Nick Charles (from The Thin Man), the sleuthing would have been done almost as a lark, but his role here is much different. So too should have been his actions.

Lending good support are James Gleason and Sheldon Leonard, the cops on the case. While here, Gleason’s detective must surely be the oldest working policeman this side of Dixon of Dock Green, he and Leonard make an effective team and provide some levity. Humour is attempted at other points in the film, but with less success. Hunt is also good as the friend who rather pointlessly keeps Powell from going to the police in the first place. Despite her indefinite motivation, her role deserved a better story.

The writing is adequate, though no more. The story is not convoluted, but tries to throw a few twists at the viewer by unnecessary journeys between cities, and almost has a Cornell Woolrich-style ending, but doesn’t appear to have the nerve to go through with it. As well, there is the curious fact that when Winters disappears, neither Powell nor Hunt seems particularly upset by it, the need to find out what happened evidently more important than the actual happening.

The direction is pedestrian and never provides suspense or tension. There is a good dog-attack scene, and a moment when a man is faced with crossing railway tracks with two trains roaring at him from opposite directions, but the potential is not realised.

The last phrase, ‘potential not realised’, may in fact be the final judgement on Take One False Step. With a superb lead actor and the bones of a decent crime story, the film could have been much better. True to his talents, Powell went on to higher things, even at the end of his career. It would have been disappointing for him to have Take One False Step as his swan-song.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Directed by Frank Tuttle; produced by Richard Blumenthal (associate producer)

After a tense but relatively simple assignment, Raven (Alan Ladd), a hired assassin, meets with his employer’s representative (Laird Cregar) and is paid for his work. What Raven doesn’t know is that his money was stolen. He’s being set up to take the blame for the robbery, in the hopes that he will be killed by the police, thus eliminating any connection of his paymasters to the murders they bought. But the one thing the hitman values is a deal, and the breaking of a deal is something he takes personally.

A simple story is turned into an entertaining and deceptively simple movie, thanks to the star power of its two leads, and the characters they create. Hinging upon the coincidence of Raven encountering a singer (Veronica Lake) with a secret agenda, the tale is pretty straightforward. Yet the situations in which it places the main characters provide for excitement and suspense, and some mystery as to what will happen.

I am not of the opinion that Ladd was a deep or broad actor; his capacity for displaying emotions seems, paradoxically, to have been limited in many of his better films. But what he has works well here. Raven is not meant to be someone who shows what he is feeling. A quick glance, a movement of the eyes, a gesture toward a hidden weapon are enough to convey what needs to be seen. Though Ladd had acted in at least forty movies prior to This Gun for Hire – including, famously (in retrospection), a bit part in Citizen Kane – he is ‘introduced’ in the credits here, and, while billed fourth on the poster, is clearly the lead from the opening shot of the movie. Whatever his acting ability, he has presence. In cinema, as in real life, that trait can be decisive.

Ladd is matched perfectly by Lake, who also has – or, in her case, uses – a limited range of expressions; her tools are the feminine equivalent of Ladd’s: a touch, a pout, a drop in the tone of her smoky voice tell the audience more than dialogue.

The character of Raven as interpreted by Ladd and directed by Tuttle at first appears superficial. It seems there is not much to this young murderer (Ladd was but 29 at the time). Killing is just a job to him; he’s good at it, and he’s not restricted by morality. But when he makes a bargain, he expects it to be kept. The deal is his one constant, his one principle. Even when he himself breaks a deal he makes, his character and the events leading up to it make it clear that he acts because he must, and sees no other way. (And anyway, a man who likes cats cannot be entirely bad.)

Raven and the girl’s relationship begins, really, only when the two of them strike their bargain, late in the movie. Before that, each works with the other because it is expedient. At one point, Raven is about to kill her, as she is the only witness to his presence in a city. Later, he saves her life, because she has information he wants. In the isolated, perverse world Raven inhabits, she becomes his only friend, almost exclusively because she sticks to their deal.

There is an interesting scene in which Raven talks about his recurring dream. It is immediately apparent that he’s describing his past, his severely abused childhood, his first killing, his betrayal by the system. Yet his plea that talking about a recurring dream will end it shows that he is living his nightmare every day. His comment about wishing he could lie down and sleep, and another character’s observation that Raven ‘never sleeps’, demonstrate that whether or not these are hyperbole, the character doesn’t rest, and shows the dread of life Raven has. It is in small instances such as this that This Gun For Hire becomes much more intriguing than it could have been.

As for the remainder, the other cast members are very good: Cregar is always interesting to watch, and is almost amusing as the cowardly middle-man, someone who would be a marvelous villain – if he had the guts – while Robert Preston, the nominal male lead, provides a solid police foil for Raven. Due to the era – the United States had at last entered the World War, so the pretence that it wasn’t happening, common in American movies of 1940 to ’41, is thrown off – an espionage/fifth column device is inserted into the plot. This would be insignificant except for what it suggests about Raven’s character: despite his new friend’s insistence that he help the war-effort, Raven’s motives remain self-centred.

For the pairing of the stars, then, the unexpected depth of the characters and the story, and the good, old-fashioned action, This Gun For Hire is an essential part of a cinema fan’s viewing – and just a fun time at the movies.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Q (a.k.a. The Winged Serpent) (1982)

Directed and produced by Larry Cohen

A series of gruesome and inexplicable deaths in New York City, being investigated by a couple of detectives (David Carradine, Richard Roundtree), is linked to another series of gruesome and only slightly less inexplicable killings. It soon emerges that a giant winged serpent is flying about town, plucking people from roof-tops and construction sites, aided by a crazed would-be Aztec priest. In the middle of it all is a small time crook and piano-player (Michael Moriarty), who may hold the key to ending the killing spree.

I think I should preface my critique of this film by writing that of all the movies I’ve reviewed on this blog, Q is the worst. It’s true that I have stacked the deck in my favour, as all the films I watch are chosen with my personal enjoyment in mind, so I never select one thinking it will be abysmal; some I suspect may be stinkers (but am often pleasantly surprised), while of many others I have no notion beforehand. Q, I thought, might be fun. It was not.

I do enjoy a good monster movie – and I do mean ‘good’: 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Thing (the original version), and the like; even when they are bad, they can be entertaining. Q is a chore to watch. Story need not be a large component of the enjoyment of such films, but it should at least be a part of them. The inclusion of the maniac Aztec priest is a distraction at best. Carradine theorises that the villain “prayed his god into existence”, though this is not followed up, and the monster, despite its size and strength, is very mortal. As well, the hunt for the human killer is treated as a whodunit, though this fact comes as a surprise; the viewer may not have been aware that he should have cared about this element. Holes occupy more of the plot than does coherence. Evidence of this comes at such moments as when a character asks how another character knew where to find him, and the explanation doesn’t answer the question.

The script is ordinary at best. There is not one good line in the dialogue. A movie such as this benefits from a certain levity – not to the extent of creating a comedy, not even a black comedy – but something that fits the setting. The writing is far too lackluster to manage anything more than what might be found from a junior high schooler who fancies himself the class clown.

The acting ranges from non-existent to adequate. There is some entertainment value gleaned from watching Carradine and Moriarty, especially the latter, neither of whose acting style seems to involve following either script or direction. There is an abundance of under- and over-acting, and Roundtree in particular must have thought this a terrible drop in his career after his popularity and acclaim in Shaft. He thoroughly deserves any disappointment the viewer may feel, however, as his performance, displaying only scorn and anger, is embarrassing.

The direction is amateurish, though, to be honest, it appears from the results as if no one paid any attention to the director. Scenes go on too long, have little in connection with those before and after, are cut short, and are nonsensical. To be fair, some of this problem may come from the editing. But when the director may have had an influence on events, that influence is baleful. An example may be when a policeman, disguised as a mime-faced street-juggler (that’s right…), shows wonder and delight at seeing the monster for the first time, only to express sadness – not horror – when it carries off a colleague. There is no tension or excitement at any point, a kindergarten class’s rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” constituting edge-of-the-seat thrills when compared to Q.

There are aspects of the film for which blame undoubtedly needs to be assigned but the culprit cannot be clearly discerned. People are beheaded by the monster, their bodies left in place; this would be like a human using his teeth to nick a pea from a full dish of salad while driving by at speed. One woman, kidnapped by the creature from a roof-top, is, evidently, eaten by the huge beast, but her skeleton remains intact, not a bone broken. The remains of a victim (a willing victim, we learn) of the priest is found in his hotel-room bed, flayed. Yet, despite the bloody manner of death, there is no blood or gore on the white sheets. The list goes on.

As for the monster itself, it is neither realistic nor frightening. I am a fan of the ‘stop-action’ form of special effect, and probably should not have expected Ray Harryhausen-grade quality from Q. I do think it fair to have anticipated some quality. A comparison of Q with, say, Mighty Joe Young, from thirty-three years before, shows how technology can actually regress – drastically – in the hands of the inexpert. The monster is described repeated as the ‘plumed serpent’ of the Aztecs, yet looks like a plucked chicken; there is more aviarian pathos to the antagonist than reptilian menace.

The one positive element in Q might be the location filming, showing scenes of New York that are convincing and more interesting than what is going on in them – for that matter, the actors look odd and out of place in them. The monster builds its nest in the abandoned top floor of the Chrysler Building. Did not that structure’s owners object to it being shown as a half-destroyed junkyard?

While, in the past, I have stopped watching films in their midst due to their poor quality, the number suffering this fate has been small. I hesitate to do this simply because something in the unviewed portion may prove the movie’s salvation. After all, the climax of a monster flick could offer the excitement and thrills the rest lacked. This is not the case with Q. Almost without a positive note (oh, yes, the music is bad, too; jarring and almost tacky), this film is, as stated in the second paragraph, the worst movie I have reviewed thus far.