Monday, January 27, 2020

The Last Wagon (1956)

Directed by Delmer Daves; produced by William B. Hawks

On the run from the law, accused murderer ’Comanche’ Todd (Richard Widmark) is at last caught by his sadistic pursuer (George Mathews). His hanging will have to wait, however, as he becomes the only hope of the survivors of an Indian massacre as they try to slip unnoticed through the Apache-controlled ‘valley of death’, and on to safety.

With a promising start, showing Todd ambushing and shooting without mercy one of his hunters - establishing immediately and effectively the character’s anti-hero status -  The Last Wagon follows a route between good and indifferent as bumpy as the trail the wagon takes in the film. Widmark is capable and credible; his fatalistic, practical character embodies both cynicism and sympathy in a believable proportion. The other roles are either less interesting or less consistent, such as Murphy’s sheriff, who calls Todd ‘the bravest man I’ve ever hunted’ but shows him no respect otherwise. Felicia Farr plays the obligatory love-interest; her feelings for Todd are not unrealistic but her character, the hard-riding frontier girl who, for some reason, is going across country to marry a townsman, pulling her little brother along, is almost a stereotype.

The writing is inconsistent, as well. There are small points that cause a number of questions, usually beginning with the phrase, “Why didn’t they…?” Following a shoot-out that leaves him with no ammunition, Todd throws away his rifle, as if no other rounds in the world will fit that firearm. After killing one opponent, he is captured by another, who not only doesn’t bring back the other’s body (though probably his own brother, there may not have been much sentiment in the family) but leaves behind a horse, with saddle, accoutrements and weapons, all surely worth a tidy sum. When he complains that one of his party wastes half the ammunition they have on killing a snake, Todd then abandons an arrow that he fashioned, with a bow, for their defence, despite having only five or six arrows. These points may seem piddling, but they indicate sloppy writing.

On the other hand, a good scene is when Todd, raised by Comanches, goads a couple of Apaches into hand-to-hand combat by telling them it takes two of their tribe to fight one of his. When they approach, they see a blue-eyed, blond white man and ask if he is Comanche. When this is confirmed, they accept the answer, perhaps because they understand that white children were sometimes taken in by Indian tribes (at least in the movies) or because they wouldn’t think a white man would make such an untrue claim. In any case, I found the exchange more intriguing than any other in the film.

There are good points to mention. The action is exciting, the fight scenes convincing, and the climax, though not what one expects, is satisfying, while the denouement is less so. There is a moment when Todd is listening to Apache drums in the night; the drumming ceases, and this gives definite tension to the scene before the drums begin again. Also, the scenery is well-used, the cinematography showing its colour and scope to advantage.

As an indirectly related aside, The Last Wagon started me thinking about how Hollywood treated Indians in its movies. I have come to believe that the treatment was not as bad as commonly held. Certainly, Indian characters are usually marginalised in plots, often treated simplistically, and, while native Americans are often used as villains, white people are more frequently the evil ones. The villains in half of John Wayne’s westerns and most of Randolph Scott’s are white men. When Indians are the antagonists, they are usually given a credible motive for their actions, even in films in which historical accuracy is disregarded (eg. They Died with Their Boots On). In The Last Wagon, Todd learns that the Apaches are on the warpath because “some whites” attacked an Indian camp and slaughtered 110 people, including women and children. Though the killing of innocents is never forgivable, the actions of the Apaches are at least given a motive more sympathetic than mere bloodlust. Oddly, the action of the villainous whites in this movie are not so treated.

Racism is definitely a factor in The Last Wagon. As related by Widmark’s character, “no white jury is going to convict white men of killing Indians”. And the hatred of one woman (Stephanie Griffin) toward her half-sister (Susan Kohner), who is part Navaho, is shown to be both malevolent and corrosive. Even between Indians tribes, there is animosity, as is shown in the previously mentioned scene of Todd challenging the Apaches.

In the final analysis, The Last Wagon has enough going for it to make it a good western, though not a very good western. An entertaining time-filler, its principal asset is its highly watchable star, Widmark.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Directed by Richard Fleischer; produced by Stanley Rubin

A Los Angeles police detective (Charles McGraw) travels to Chicago to bring the widow of a mob boss to California, to testify against her late husband’s associates. The latter will do anything to stop her, anyone on the train to the west coast may be a killer, and the woman being escorted (Marie Windsor) would rather be anywhere else. The cop’s day started out bad and will probably get worse.

The Narrow Margin is the epitome of both a B-picture and a film noir, but is one of the best of both categories. In fact, only the low production values and the lack of big names make it a B, but the small budget is made to work for the movie, and the actors - actually well-known and respected by cinema aficianados - are as good as any high-paid star. The movie’s release was delayed for two years (it was produced in 1950) while studio boss Howard Hughes debated re-shooting the story with larger box-office draws, including Robert Mitchum in the lead.

The director takes the setting - most of it on a moving train - and uses it to advantage. The camera-work is close and claustrophobic. A fistfight in a compartment is not only realistic but almost physically involving for the viewer. Scenes outside of the train are restricted to station platforms, rear seats of taxi-cabs, staircases and tiny apartments; all tied to the principal setting or equally confining. The viewer almost longs for a breath of fresh air, only to be thrown back into the tense box of a railway carriage or corridor.

The actors handle their parts expertly. Fletcher directed McGraw in Armored Car Robbery (recently reviewed on this blog), and so knew how to work with him. McGraw’s character is very similar to that in the earlier film, but displays more personality, more emotion: he feels guilt over a colleague’s death, and softens considerably in the company of a fellow passenger (Jacqueline White, in her last role). Windsor, on the other hand, is the hardest of the hard, giving the impression of callous disregard for everyone but herself. McGraw, one of the toughest of movie tough guys, barely holds his own against her.

The leads’ relationship is reflected in the dialogue. There is going to be no romance between them, and it’s an open question whether the mob will kill Windsor or if McGraw will. When her apathy for others’ suffering becomes too much for him, McGraw barks, “You make me sick to my stomach,” to which Windsor retorts, “Well, use your own sink.” This is what the Charles’s marriage would have been like if Nick and Nora had hated each others’ guts.

Subsidiary characters are well-played, too, and one never knows which side they are on, if any. In particular, Paul Maxey, whose girth uses up precious space in train corridors, lends some possibly sinister mystery. Even when apprised of his stated purpose on the train, one isn’t sure whether he’s genuine.

The Narrow Margin works in pretty much every way, including the brief running time (71 minutes), which cuts out the fat and leaves a lean, brisk movie. How do you make an inexpensive film with largely unknown actors that people are still praising seventy years later? Watch The Narrow Margin and you’ll see.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Talvisota (a.k.a. The Winter War) (1989)

Directed by Pekka Parikka; produced by Marko Röhr

It’s 1939, the Soviet Union has attacked Finland, and the latter’s population mobilises to fight the invader. The men of Kauhava leave to join their regiment at the front, where they are attacked by infantry, bombed by airplanes, assaulted by tanks and pounded by artillery, against none of which they have adequate numbers or defences. Even so, they fight for their country or die trying.

The Winter War, though largely unknown around the globe, had a profound effect on Finland. With Europe preoccupied with the newly begun Second World War, the USSR hoped a swift and easy campaign would grant them strategic districts along their northwestern border, and turn Finland into a vassal state. But Moscow had not counted on the tenacity of their enemy; one in ten Finns served in uniform, and even the Finnish Communist Party put country ahead of ideology and fought the Russians. Further, the Red Army had been emasculated by Stalin’s purges, fifty per cent of the officer corps - and ninety per cent of its generals - being executed or sent to prison camps. Led by ignorance and riven by inefficiency, the Soviets suffered a third of a million casualties, half of them deaths. The Finns were eventually overwhelmed by numbers but such was the hammering they gave their opponents that Moscow didn’t try to occupy the country, though the terms of the peace treaty were onerous. But Finland remained free, and is to this day.

So much for the history lesson; what about the movie? At three and a quarter hours (the film covers the conflict from start to finish), one might think that it would drag; it doesn’t. The story concerns itself almost completely with the soldiers while they are at the front, though there are scenes of one (Konsta Mäkelä) going on leave, and of the regiment being moved to another location. This film is about ordinary infantry; there are no special operations, no elite units, so their combat is repetitive to them. For the viewer, however, the director and writer show a different aspect of combat, a different danger, a different response, each time, so the soldiers’ tedious and deadly routine becomes various for us.

The script, by Antti Tuuri, from his own novel, provides sparse dialogue, most of it dealing with battle situations. Much must be inferred, such as the Russians’ vast superiority in equipment being denoted by a Finnish joke, rather than a bald statistic, or by the need to rob Red Army dead not of money or watches, but of ammunition and machine guns. The relationships between the men are stoic, as are those between parents and children, and even between husbands and wives - when the main character (Taneli Mäkelä) leaves for war, he shakes his spouse’s hand, rather than kisses her; perhaps indicative of Finns, or of Finns in 1939. The stereotypes often found in war movies are largely avoided; you won’t find the band of misfits usually seen in Hollywood combat.

The acting is quiet, maybe reflecting Finnish character; fatalism is common. The performers are convincing, especially in portraying ordinary men, big and small, fit and fat, bespectacled and bookish, as civilians turned warriors. There are no false heroics, simply men doing what they must, almost every action being concluded without comment or praise. All the actors are credible.

Interest may be discovered in depictions of Finnish culture of the time. Electricity is common in Finnish homes, and rural communities live in clean and prosperous houses. An aspect of many war movies missing from Talvisota is scenes of training. Between the world wars, many European countries had compulsory service, whereby large numbers of men were basically-trained, then released back into civilian life, creating a huge pool of ready soldiers for emergencies. Finland does this still.

The end of this engrossing film comes suddenly, perhaps too suddenly for the viewer, but wars often end abruptly for the soldier, who is out of touch with everything but his own fight for survival. The viewer feels that he has been through a great deal with these men yet, ironically, will not feel bored or drained. Realistic and exciting, interesting and involving, Talvisota eschews the speechifying of Saving Private Ryan, and the almost sanitised symbolism of the recent Dunkirk. If you have a free day, and wish to know a melancholy slice of real history, see Talvisota.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Obsession (a.k.a. The Hidden Room) (1949)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk; produced by N. A. Bronsten

A psychiatrist (Robert Newton) has suffered the indignity of his wife’s infidelities too long to put up with them any longer. He devises a complicated plan, not only to kill his rival (Phil Brown) but to torment the cheating spouse (Sally Gray). In a cynical game of nerves among the trio, no one’s expectations are fulfilled, and the climax won’t be what any of them anticipates.

Simply one of the best British thrillers from the 1940s, Obsession has sometimes been mistaken for a film from Alfred Hitchcock’s middle years. Certainly, this movie’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was no less talented, if only almost as famous. Alec Coppel, who wrote the novel on which he based his own screenplay (and who, interestingly, was also Obsession’s dialogue director), was just as skilled in his own field, writing numerous critically-acclaimed and popular movies. The actors, especially the male leads, match the material.

As with many good scripts, Obsession’s has several layers, and in many directions. Initially, the viewer is uncertain as to what Newton intends to do. When that is learned, there is mystery as to how he plans to accomplish it. Then, not finished with the viewer yet, the script makes him wonder whether the criminal will get away with it. One of the fascinating aspects of the writing, very ably manifested by the performers, is the shift in sympathy it provides. At first, we can understand and, even if reluctantly, approve of Newton’s revenge. After all, injured beyond endurance by an uncaring wife, he can take only so much, and the viewer appreciates it. Then, his cold, remorseless drive suggests that he is undeserving of our feelings, while the fortitude of his victim, chosen for no better reason than that he is ‘the last straw’, raises him in our estimation. Even the wife, initially the perpetrator of the moral crime of adultery, improves her standing, though her superficiality and egocentrism remain.

The acting, as stated, is excellent. In particular, the ‘cold war’ or ‘war of nerves’ between Newton and Brown is depicted with a variety of emotions, all legitimately arising from the situation. Brown, whose movie roles were usually small and who turned to television in the ‘50s, is probably best known now for playing Luke Skywalker’s uncle in Star Wars (1977). Based on Obsession, however, he could have tackled any number of roles, though he probably would have been best suited for a very strong supporting part. He very capably fulfills his role here, portraying a man with a modest exterior but an inner toughness. His humour and despair, displayed at different moments, the loneliness of his captivity (so great that he even wants his tormentor to stay and talk to him, just for company) are all believable, as is the intelligence that he must pit against his captor’s.

Mention should be made of the police officer (Naunton Wayne), a deceptively obtuse detective, the sort of part that British movies seem to have cultivated, if not invented, and which became almost a stereotype in thrillers and ‘whodunnits’, reaching its most famous incarnation in television’s Columbo. Even a stereotype can be entertaining and interesting, perhaps because the role is often filled by an entertaining and interesting actor, and rarely fails to add something to a movie. Wayne is perfect here, his dry attitude and remarks displaying from the start that he knows something is amiss, and that he wants Newton to realise it. Such comments as ‘the only real professionals in murder are those who investigate it. You probably haven’t thought of that,’ uttered conversationally, is a warning both to the criminal and the viewer, and is priceless. (Also, watch for Stanley Baker in an uncredited and early part as a uniformed police constable, near the end of the film.)

From tense start to edge-of-the-seat finale, Obsession is a first rate psychological thriller, crime caper and character study, and deserves to be much better known than it is.