new pickin’s

Garden of Evil – 1954 Henry Hathaway Western that takes the Cinemascope-Technicolor combination and runs with it. Cooper, Widmark, and company agree to help stacked and starchy Susan Hayward rescue her husband from the gold mine he’s trapped in. Problem is, the mine’s located deep in an Apache-held section of the Mexican interior, and the pain-in-the-ass Hayward is keeping its exact location a secret. Naturally, the men do whatever they can to help, mostly by snapping at each other and growing evermore pussy- and gold-obsessed as they move along the trail. The inarticulate script blunders its way around the movie’s moral questions; it’s the kind of movie where even small talk is delivered contemptuously to convince us of the characters’ toughness, and everyone gets a turn to show off their explosiveness. (Except for Cameron Mitchell. When he starts acting the ass, Cooper throws him into the campfire—twice!—before falling in a third time on his own. That’s when he starts crying.) And yet it’s worth seeing. It’s a glory to look at, bearing comparison to Ballard’s work for Peckinpah, and Hathaway directs the action scenes like nobody’s business, rivaling the great Mann’s knack of actually using, instead of just photographing, his locations. The locations themselves are doozies: a cliffside trail that dwarfs, both in size and beauty, the one in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, and the main action takes place around a wall of black dried lava from Parícutin—a 40-foot tall ebony spine that runs out of both sides of the Cinemascope frame. Hayward may have been gorgeous but she could also be a terrible actor and an obnoxious presence; seeing this made me appreciate what Nick Ray got out of her in The Lusty Men.

Some other recent ones: Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen sports an unostentatious spiritual performance by Swedish actor Nils Asther, playing a Chinese warlord who develops a serious hook for the American missionary who turns up at his door. (The fact that’s she a 20-something Barbara Stanwyck might well have something to do with it.) Rather stiff in the early going, but once the film starts getting to where it wants to go, it has the most fully cinematic work I’ve ever seen by Capra (especially the stunning nighttime photography of fighting in what’s supposed to be the Chinese Civil War), and the psychological relationship between these terminally mismatched people is what Robert Frost would’ve called lovely, dark and deep. When Capra wanted to, he could make your blood run cold. He just didn’t want to often enough. Case in point: American Madness. Its completely bogus-ass ending doubles-down on the townspeople’s unbelievable rush to save George Bailey, but the bank run preceding it is something to see.

Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night opens with Stanwyck, playing a woman who’s seen some rotten luck and is now starting to feel her age, dispiritedly returning to the fishing town she fled as a youth—there’s a beautiful, perfect shot of a train coughing her up, dingy suitcase in hand, onto the corner of her old street. She’s barely gotten her legs back under her when she’s pressed into marriage by a well-meaning but paunchy and unexciting fisherman (Paul Douglas), and soon her main company consists of her new husband’s best friend, a two-bit cynic and sexual barracuda played by Robert Ryan. The odd thing about Clash by Night is that its focus slowly switches over, until the drippy husband has become its main character—it’s like experiencing The Postman Only Rings Twice from the Greek’s point of view. Still, the movie stirs up a lot of swirling emotions and has a lot of splendid moments. A sharply edited prologue shot at Monterey’s Cannery Row shows the fishing boats coming in from a night’s work, following their catch from net to sardine can—a more interesting, more visual, experience than you might imagine. Near the middle of the sequence we suddenly see a girl, presumably one of the locals, sit up in bed and let loose a yawn that stretches her jaw in an ungainly direction; a couple of minutes later and we spot her again, now at work, sorting fish on a conveyor belt. She looks like any good-looking girl working a crummy job, but it’s actually Marilyn Monroe, in her first above the title role.

Monroe’s not in the picture for long, and it’s said that she couldn’t remember her lines to save her life, but she gobbles up every scene she’s in, and it’s not just because she’s adorable in blue jeans that are a size too big for her. She has a couple of free and wholly unguarded moments—slurping up a candy-bar with one corner of her mouth, or roughhousing with her boyfriend and giving him a little sock that knocks a sloinking sound out of his jaw—that make Stanwyck and Ryan, with their squared-off postures and loaded recitations of Clifford Odets’ lines, look like the ones doing journeyman’s duty. The melodrama goes a little kudzu by the end of Clash by Night, but things like that shot of Stanwyck, and the deep sense of atmosphere in its roadhouse diners and weathered apartments, keep coming back, unbidden, to mind. They’re just the kind of things that American movies today are so sorely missing, and missing out on.

The Gay Desperado (Mamoulian 1936) has hoots both high and low. The notorious Mexican bandido Pablo Braganza, aka Leo Carrillo, is inspired by a night’s worth of American gangster flicks to reorganize his gang along the lines of the Mafia. This proves easier to say than do, of course, and his plan doesn’t really get much farther than his henchman finishing every sentence with “…or else!”, and even then they have wonder what the other alternative might be. Mischa Auer is on hand as a mute gang member who sits wrapped in his blanket, inscrutably studying the action around him; we find out what he’s thinking only with some five minutes left in the picture. The largely Anglo cast’s impersonation of Mexican bandits could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but Mamoulian had something more on his mind than a Bill Dana routine. The accents aren’t overcooked, the bandits don’t make any jokes about siesta time, and the movie is infused with a sublime (if staged) vision of Mexican deserts and haciendas. The Gay Desperado has ideas and images that beat out Sullivan’s Travels and The Wild Bunch by decades, and it’s marred only by the romantic subplot involving Ida Lupino (her British accent still in place) and Nino Martini, playing a tenor who’s recruited by the hapless brigands. By God, that Martini could sing, though.

 

Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951) – Follows the U.S. Army’s effort in late ’44 to recruit German POWs as spies and release them to the Fatherland to locate the Panzer divisions. It might’ve been ordinary if the studio hadn’t utilized the world’s biggest film set, and shot the film in Mannheim and other German cities that were still in ruins at the time. The movie spends most of its time mutely following Oskar Werner—a disillusioned Wehrmacht soldier who just wants the war to end so a decent Germany can get on its feet again—as he makes his way through a series of bombed-out cities. His various encounters are wisely cut off before they ossify into parables, and even his emotional reactions are often deliberately shrouded. This underplaying reaps huge dividends: after witnessing so much carnage as if from a cloud, we feel as disassociated as Werner by the movie’s end. There’s also a marvelous vignette involving Hildegarde Neff.

Murder, Inc. – This rather smelly little curio was co-directed by Burt Balaban (one of Bob’s cousins) and Stuart Rosenberg (who would go on to direct some of my least favorite films in the world), and though it’s set in the Thirties, its world looks an awful lot like 1960, which, as chance would have it, was the exact year the movie came out. It’s okay, though. Peter Falk, in his breakout role, gives a shaded portrait as Abe Reles, the notorious Mafia hitman who turned State’s evidence when it became expedient to do so, and who for his efforts was unceremoniously launched out of a seven-story Coney Island hotel window. Falk was nominated for an Oscar for this most un-Oscar-like piece of grubby storytelling. (The movie’s violence, though brief and rare, has a down and dirty twist when it does arrive—it’s scary, and it’s painful.) Falk’s Reles shares enough of Tony Soprano’s broodiness and tantrums to make one wonder whether David Chase tapped into this thing, and there’s also some decent work by May Britt when she was just short of marrying Sammy Davis, Jr. My favorite performance, though, doesn’t last more than two or three minutes, and comes courtesy of Morey Amsterdam, playing a third-string Borscht Belt comedian who’s fallen behind on his payments. A big man in his own mind, his last tangible emotion is confusion, as the pal who’s setting him up abandons him on a dusky street corner; even with his killers practically in his face, his instinct is to turn around and call out good-naturedly to his fast-disappearing friend. It’s a terrific little sketch of a born victim.

Scorsese had a hand in restoring Raoul Walsh’s 1947 Pursued, and it’s easy to see why he’d be drawn to it: it’s a florid Freudian Western/noir/psychological thriller/Gothic romance/Greek tragedy, with singing and lots of sister-kissing. Not as over the top as Johnny Guitar only because it doesn’t have a character named The Dancing Kid. Robert Mitchum is being hounded by a murderous clan for reasons we don’t understand, and he’s plagued by nightmares whose sources are shrouded in mystery, and his adopted relatives (Teresa Wright and Dame Judith Anderson) blow hot and cold towards him without rhyme or reason. (Example: Wright, his foster sister, agrees to marry him, just so she can murder him on their wedding night.) It was shot by James Wong Howe, in what looks like the Canyon de Chelly. Wherever it was shot, it looks absolutely magnificent—just like a florid Freudian Western/noir/etc. should. A marvelous moment occurs when Mitchum begins singing “Londonderry Air” and his foster kin lean forward to share in the chorus with him. Singing softly, their faces reflecting the lamplight, they seem to be basking in each other’s near presence, but if you look a little more closely you’ll see that this is a family that’s coming apart at the seams, and that they’re actually singing farewell to each other.

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