Monday, June 14, 2021

Colorado Territory (1949)

Directed by Raoul Walsh; produced by Anthony Veiller

Bank robber Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), awaiting transportation to a penitentiary, breaks out of jail in Missouri and rides off to the far west to meet up with his boss (Basil Ruysdael), who has another crime planned. But there’s no honour among thieves, and the gang that has been put together for the job is as much a danger to its success as is any lawman.

An entertaining western, Colorado Territory has a more complex plot than many of its genre, with changing loyalties and more than a few betrayals. As McQueen states in a good turn of phrase, there is “so much double-dealing from this deck, it’s dog-eared.” The film does not have an unusually long running time (94 minutes) but puts a lot of story into that hour and a half.

Colorado Territory is more than a little reminiscent of a film noir, which should come as no surprise as this is a re-make of High Sierra (1941), also directed by Walsh. The choice of setting – the American west of 1871 – is a good one, however, and the script does more than simply drop the plot into an earlier century; it is, for the most part, tailored for the world of cowboys and outlaws.

There is a problem with the script in that it contains words and phrases – slang, mostly – that just don’t ring true to the era. The robbers use the word ‘heist’, which, even if it had been used in that time-period, nonetheless comes off as too characteristic of the 1940s and later. In fact, here, ‘heist’ means ‘to raise’ – men are told to “heist ‘em” (put their hands up) – while ‘hoist’ is supposedly bandit-jargon for a robbery. A former Pinkerton detective is referred to as a ‘gumboots’, the equivalent of ‘gumshoe’ that I found far too early a usage.

This element aside, there is little to complain about in the film. Nothing looks like it was filmed on a stage, and some interesting locations are used, such as an abandoned Spanish settlement, the ruins of which become the outlaws’ hide-out, and an old Indian Pueblo, high on a cliff.

The characters are more than normally deep for a western; the genre often gives the protagonist a past, but a simple, one-incident past that defines his present. Here McQueen’s past is entangled with his new acquaintance of a settler’s daughter (Dorothy Malone), while his future may involve another woman (Virginia Mayo) with a strong personality of her own. The other actors are all very capable, notably Henry Hull (who was in High Sierra, as well), James Mitchell and John Archer (father of actress Anne Archer).

The direction is very good, as might be expected from the man behind the camera on White Heat and They Drive By Night. The action includes run-away stage-coaches, train robberies and shoot-outs, but also leans heavily on tension and revelation in conversations.

While its film noir origins are plain enough, Colorado Territory also makes a credible and creditable western, with McCrea on the wrong side of the law for once. Well-written, well-directed and well-acted, it is well worth a look.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

Directed by Michael Anderson; produced by Ivan Foxwell

In 1966, Berlin is at the centre of the Cold War and international intrigue. British intelligence operator Quiller (George Segal) is sent to the city to investigate a murderous organisation dedicated to the resurgence of Nazism. Two of his colleagues have already been killed in attempting to expose the group, and Quiller may have a difficult time completing their mission while not suffering their fate.

The 1960s saw a great number of ‘spy’ stories brought to the big and small screens. Some were comedic (eg. Get Smart and the original Casino Royale), others fun but not meant to be taken seriously (eg. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Our Man Flint), while still more were relatively realistic (eg. Danger Man and Callan). The Quiller Memorandum falls into the last category, featuring a credible threat and a believable protagonist. Unfortunately, neither the villains nor the hero strike the viewer as smart. In fact, no one in the movie comes across as particularly brainy.

I should mention that Segal makes an engaging lead. Just on this side of average-looking, his Quiller is no James Bond. He can take care of himself in a fight but isn’t a super-man; he charms ladies but won’t supplant Don Juan. His training is probably very good but he gives the impression that he has learned more from experience.

Recent films I’ve reviewed have included leading actors who, while portraying Englishmen, abandoned any attempt at English accents. Segal does, too, though in his case, it is just as well: someone who looks like he was born exactly where he was (New York City) could never convincingly impersonate an Englishman. But at no point did I think Quiller was British. It is not inconceivable that an American works for British intelligence, any more than it is for the reverse (as in the television series The Equalizer.) In other words, Segal was a good choice for the role.

The other players are satisfactory in their parts, as well. Alec Guinness portrays Quiller’s controller, Max von Sydow is the chief villain (with unconvincingly blond hair – despite his own blond hair in real life), and Senta Berger plays a possible love-interest.

The trouble with The Quiller Memorandum is the script. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, adapted from Adam Hall’s novel The Berlin Memorandum. The dialogue itself is good (but no more). What wrecks the film is the rather alarming stupidity of the characters. This may, to be fair, be present in the book, too; if so, it was not improved by the script.

Quiller presents himself in Berlin first as an entrepreneur, then as a swimming coach, and finally as a journalist for a yet to be published Philadelphia newspaper. How easy would it be for him to be tripped up as a fraud if two or more of his new acquaintances compare notes? He attaches himself, not unreasonably, to the beautiful Inge Lindt (Berger), who knew a man who had hanged himself after being exposed as a Nazi. At one point, after justifying his questions to her by claiming to be writing a story on the re-birth of Nazism in Germany, he dismisses this fiction by stating that he won’t be writing about Nazis because politics ‘aren’t his thing’.

Deliberately eschewing support from a fellow operator (Peter Carsten), Quiller is promptly kidnapped by his opponents. Despite an order for his death, he is spared. It wouldn’t take much thought on a viewer’s part to guess why. Later, pointless actions result in his re-capture. He doesn’t carry a firearm because without one he is ‘less likely to get killed’, yet he goes unarmed into a situation in which he should know that he will be murdered if he is caught.

In a long and boring sequence, Quiller is followed, quite openly, by criminals who had earlier released him, when it would have been easier for their purpose just to keep him incarcerated. A car is booby-trapped and meant to kill Quiller, though there is no evidence that the intention of the villains to keep him alive has changed.

But that’s not all. Quiller’s superiors use a phrase about cigarettes to identify one another. They use it three times over several days. Passwords are usually changed frequently, even after a single use, to prevent enemies from taking advantage of overhearing them. This is, apparently, no danger here. The opening scene of the film shows Quiller’s predecessor (Herbert Stass) being shot. Despite being obviously nervous of his surroundings (a dark, deserted lane at night) and wary of danger, he walks down the centre of the street and enters a well-lit telephone booth to make a call; there is, however, no discernible reason why he could not have waited until he reached his home or even a crowded cafĂ©.

One gets the feeling that the talent in front of the camera in The Quiller Memorandum was let down by that behind. Not having read anything Adam Hall wrote, I cannot comment on him. I have seen little of Pinter’s plays but have the impression that much comes from what people think they see rather than what is actually in them. This movie’s writing has a lot in the way of situations – clandestine meetings, painful interrogations, chases – but little thought put into them, either by the writer or by the characters. And in a story that relies heavily on plot, rather than action, that is disastrous. (I was also struck by similarities between The Quiller Memorandum and The Ipcress File, made the year before. Both films contain a cynical but capable operator, a brain-washing scene, and superiors who don’t appear to care much for their subordinates’ welfare.)

In short, The Quiller Memorandum ended up being the espionage-thriller equivalent of a slasher movie in which the viewer is always saying, “Why did he do that?” and “That was dumb.” And, really, the espionage-thriller is a genre in which those comments should be the last a viewer feels he must utter.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Love Letters (1945)

Directed by William Dieterle; produced by Hal B Wallis

Fighting in World War Two, Captain Alan Quinton (Joseph Cotten) finds the time to write love letters for his fellow officer, Roger Morland (Robert Sully). The trouble with this Cyrano-like situation is that Morland is a cad, and Quinton has fallen in love with his correspondent, Victoria, a woman living in England. When the war ends, Quinton learns that Morland has died and Victoria has vanished. Quinton tries to forget both of them when he falls in love with a mysterious stranger (Jennifer Jones). But he discovers that no one can escape their past entirely, especially when they didn’t know they had one.

Cotten appeared in four movies with Jones, in two of which they were romantically paired. Interestingly, in both of these, Jones’s character lends an ethereal quality to the production. Though this is more the case in Portrait of Jenny, Love Letters also has elements of the otherworldly; there is nothing supernatural about the story, but it does capture a kind of surrealism in its depiction of a disturbing amnesia.

Despite the title, which would have gone well with a Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire musical, Love Letters is a melodramatic mystery. It is adapted from a novel by Chris Massie, with a screenplay by Ayn Rand. It would be interesting to compare the two, and see how much of the dialogue comes from the latter. The words have a feel of the stage to them, and they don’t comprise very realistic dialogue. It is the kind of script in which everyone is lf-poetic, and very mysterious, without having to be, and in which people say things that sound cleverer than they really are.

Even for this quality, which may be considered contrivance, there is a lyrical element to the dialogue that works. As an example, Jones has a particularly good speech during a trial, when she talks of how everyone waits for something “great and wonderful” in their lives. Love Letters, as typified in the dialogue, is one of those movies that seems to take place in a world just a bit removed from the everyday. This isn’t John Osborne, after all.

The acting is very good, though there is a problem with Cotten’s performance in that, while Quinton is an Englishman, he has no kind of English accent. Neither does Sully, whose character serves in Cotten’s regiment; nor does Byron Barr, who portrays Cotten’s brother. Their characters’ parents, however, are clearly English. As with Franchot Tone’s similarly flawed performance in the recently reviewed Five Graves to Cairo, this problem is rather quickly forgotten. However, why Cotten could not have been made a Canadian (Canada’s troops took a prominent part in the fighting in Italy, where Quinton serves), I’ve no idea. This device was commonly used when placing an American actor in British settings (eg. Gary Cooper in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer).

Aside from that minor bump (Cotten himself said that he “couldn’t do any accents”), Cotten gives one of his best performances in Love Letters. He convincingly plays a man who is both cynical and hopeful, and his change when he inherits a relative’s property in rural Essex is smoothly achieved. He reveals much by his reaction to finding mementos of his childhood. (That’s Cotton as a boy in the old photograph.)

The other roles are filled very well. Jones is suitably childlike as the woman without a past, who is content not having one, due to the fears she has of remembering. Sully, in a small but important part, makes his character rather despicable through his apathy and selfishness. Anne Richards, as Quinton’s friend, gives an understated presentation; this actress, also a poetess, had a short cinematic career, usually in supporting roles. She was originally marked to play the lead in Love Letters, which would have made quite a different movie.

The direction is satisfying. Particularly well handled are the scenes in the country, after Quinton moves into his inherited house. Though undoubtedly a set, the performances and the direction give it a reality. Also, the mystery of Jones’s character, and the knowledge others have of her, is provided a suspense that is quiet, almost in the background. This creates an effective feeling of something ominous in the offing.

While definitely too melodramatic for some tastes, and too florid for others, the solid acting of Cotten keeps Love Letters grounded, making an entertaining and slightly fantastical movie.


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)

Directed by John Sturges; produced by Nicholas Nayfack

In the middle of the American Civil War, and in the middle of nowhere, a group of Confederate States soldiers plan to escape from the Union fort that is their prison. Their main obstacle – aside from being in the Arizona desert hundreds of miles from anywhere – is a ruthless cavalry troop commander, Captain Roper (William Holden), whose casual ferocity has never failed to capture escapees. But the prisoners have a secret weapon, a woman (Eleanor Parker) coming to the fort for a visit. In league with the Southerners, she, however, has her own difficulties, starting with her feelings for Roper.

Considering the stars, the director and the promising premise, Escape from Fort Bravo is a big disappointment. Holden does his usual fine job, playing a tough guy with dreams, and Parker is good as the woman confused by her emotions. Able support is loaned by other familiar names and faces: John Forsythe, William Demarest, William Campbell, Richard Anderson and Polly Bergen.

But the direction is bland, surprising since Struges also directed The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven; his final effort was the entertaining The Eagle Has Landed. Indeed, his next film after Escape from Fort Bravo was the excellent Bad Day at Black Rock. But here, much of the third reel comprises a stand-off between troopers and prisoners on the one hand and Indians on the other, and it is nowhere as tense as I suspect it was meant to be. It is, in fact, rather boring.

The real villains in Escape from Fort Bravo are the story and the script. The Confederates’ scheme to escape includes, as mentioned above, the use of an outside accomplice, who also serves to decoy Roper’s attentions. But how she was apprised of the plan and its details, we don’t know. By letter? None is mentioned. She shows up at the fort for the wedding of a friend, intending to return to Texas a day or two later. I found it incredible that someone would travel hundreds of miles by stage-coach, in the middle of a civil war, through hostile Indian country, just to stay a few days, like it was the bus-trip in It Happened One Night.

Inconsistencies abound: Anderson’s character marries Bergen’s; the former’s commanding officer hesitates to send him on an assignment because the new husband is on his honeymoon. Yet he is seen, on duty, taking a roll-call of prisoners minutes earlier. A shop-keeper visiting the fort is questioned as to why he is returning to town without cavalry escort, even though numbers of wedding guests did the same just before.

Also, when asked why the prisoners aren’t under guard (though we see guards on duty), Roper explains that there is nowhere for them to go if they escaped – even though they do try to escape. It was strange to me that, since we are told there are as many prisoners as there are Union soldiers, the Confederates don’t simply seize control of the fort; a Union station under Confederate control would not only give an excellent chance of genuine escape, and put a large supply of munitions in their hands, but surely disrupt Union communications in that region.

There is no explanation for the threatening behaviour of the Indians in the story. They are described as Mescalero, and “on their way” to join Cochise, presumably in his fight against the U.S. government, and whites in general. This is not elaborated upon, nor is it stated that the Mescalero are a tribe of Apaches, which may have clarified matters somewhat. The revolt of the Apaches seems to be general knowledge, yet a small train of four wagons loaded with rifles - surely a prize to anyone in rebellion - travels without escort through hostile districts. For their part, the Indians’ notion of attack appears limited initially to riding at speed past a well-armed enemy. They later exhibit some ingenuity in hitting targets with their arrows, but I can’t see the intelligent and imaginative Cochise thinking these countrymen would be a particularly bright addition to his cause.

There is, as well, the small detail and big coincidence of Roper apparently having been raised in Arizona, joining the U.S. Army and finding the Federal cavalry regiment to which he belongs posted back to his home territory, while a million Northern soldiers are needed far to the east in the Civil War. It would have been better to have had him an officer in a local Arizona volunteer unit, kept in the land they knew, to guard the frontier during the current war.

Add to this the behaviour of the characters, which I felt was more appropriate for the 1950s than the 1860s, and the fact that the man who seems the senior officer of the prisoners is seeking to escape before almost all the others (perhaps I think too much of the form and protocol of World War Two POW-escape films), and the movie becomes just a costume drama: modern characters in fancy-dress.

The story is so terribly inconsistent, and the script half-hearted, that any other qualities Escape from Fort Bravo may have are lost in a mire of silliness and muddle. Consider watching some of Holden and Sturges’s other works instead.