Tag Archives: James Stewart

Man Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Man Without a Star” (Mit stahlharter Faust)

 

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Tired of waiting for the Hollywood studios to release discs of your favorite ’50s Westerns? Look East, young man, about eight thousand miles to Germany, where the Western genre has traditionally been just as popular as here in America. Their pulp authors were grinding out Deutsche sagebrush tales almost before our own became popular. Excepting an operetta or two, they may have beaten the Italians in putting big money into their own films set in the American West.

 

The German Explosive Films label got going several years ago, concentrating at first on top Spaghetti Western titles. But they’ve just released some Blu-rays of vintage Hollywood product, sporting beautiful new HD transfers. The first up is one of Universal’s more interesting oaters of the decade, King Vidor’s hyperactive Man Without a Star (German title: Mit stahlharter Faust). At first glance the show comes across as a full-Testosterone showcase demonstrating the talents and virility of Kirk Douglas, who does his best to embody the title character as the most red-blooded, fair-minded, sharp shooting womanizer of the 19th century. Although the picture is scored with Universal library music (even I recognize cues from William Alland’s monster movies), it opens with a title tune crooned in fine form by Frankie Laine, the sure mark of a matinee winner. In the opening titles Laine’s screen credit is positioned right next to that of the producer and the director.

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The final screenplay by Borden Chase is almost as anarchic as his script for Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz: at least one anti-social, aggressive or violent act occurs at least every three minutes. Drifting cowpoke Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) rides the rails into a Wyoming town and tangles with the railroad bulls and deputies when they try to arrest him for a murder committed by a knife-wielding creep (Jack Elam). Rae befriends Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), a tinhorn kid desperate to become a cowboy. Using his fists, his personality and his musical talent on the banjo, Rae wins jobs for himself and Jeff on a huge ranch from the ramrod Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen). While teaching Jeff how to work cows and shoot, Rae learns that the neighbor ranchers have much smaller spreads and are worried that the big ranch’s new owner Reed Bowman will not honor the ‘share the range’ good neighbor policy of the past. It’s true — the new owner arrives and proves to be a calculating Eastern businesswoman (Jeanne Crain). Reed’s intention is to double or treble the size of her herd and push out the other ranchers. In two years the grass will be destroyed, but that’s when she’ll sell out, reap her profits and move into some other business. Admiring Dempsey Rae’s skill with a gun, Reed makes potential romance an unspoken part of her offer for him to take over as foreman. But she also hires the unscrupulous Steve Miles (Richard Boone) and his gunslingers to enforce her takeover of the free range. When fighting breaks out Rae doesn’t know which side he should be on. He hates Steve Miles’ brutality and doesn’t trust Reed. Worse, the little ranchers have resorted to using barbed wire – and Rae has a psychotic hatred of barbed wire.

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Man Without a Star is almost as psychotic in its appeal to violence as an ubiquitous ritual. Almost every petty dispute among good men and bad is an excuse for a beating or a quick-draw showdown. Corrupt deputies are as bad as the sleazy gunfighters. The green Jeff Jimson starts out as a loveable guy (and attracts the affection of a drop-dead cute rancher’s daughter, Myrna Hansen). But even he goes gun crazy at one point and must be subdued by Rae.

Writer Borden Chase invented neurotic and disturbed characters for James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s very profitable series of ’50s Westerns. But Stewart favored stories with lame Sunday School messages and mottoes: can a bad man change his ways? Does one bad apple (man) spoil the whole barrel? The closest Man Without a Star gets to such drivel is when Rae tells Jeff that every man must choose a star to follow. But he hasn’t done it himself. Dempsey Rae was once tortured with barbed wire, and has nasty scars all over his mighty chest (show us again, Kirk!) to prove it. Just hearing the words ‘barbed wire’ makes Rae goes nuts, like Steve Martin reacting to the phrase ‘cleaning woman’ in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Yet Rae finds eventually defends the downtrodden little ranchers who feel compelled to use barbed wire. Even a cowboy dedicated to the mantra of the wide-open range (read: unrestrained big-business piracy) yields to the fact that a West with people in it needs civilizing boundaries (lawful regulation?).

Man Without a Star has a knifing, several casual fistfights, two or three face-off gun-downs and one man torn up by barbed wire. Dempsey Rae is finally roped by Steve Miles in town and beaten to a pulp. In retaliation Rae “Learns To Stop Worrying And Love the Barbed Wire”: he sends one of Miles’ men back to Reed Bowman’s ranch tightly wrapped in the nasty stuff. The actual body count isn’t too terrible, but the movie’s overall message is that everyday life in America is a dog-eat-dog battle to make a buck.

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Although it may be hard to picture, most of the movie takes a lighthearted tone. The exuberant Rae jokes or sings his way out of average problems, giving Kirk Douglas a chance to show off the banjo tricks he learned during his stint with Walt Disney from the previous year. He makes merry with the town strumpet Moccasin Mary from Tucumcari (Mara Corday of Tarantula) and accepts plenty of favors from the hostess Idonee, an old flame (Claire Trevor). But Dempsey Rae flips over the slick chick boss lady Reed Bowman, who returns his leers with approving smiles and gives him a peek while she bathes in her so-modern-it’s-indecent indoor bathroom (Rae: “Right next to the bedroom — that’s kind of handy!”) Ms. Crain was always good playing demure farm girls and other upstanding femmes. She’s just as impressive as this film’s sexually devious and determined Alpha Female.

The director of note is the great King Vidor, a veteran artist who formulates shots, compositions and sequences that cut like butter. His angles are dynamic and his screen is always alive with action and personality. Vidor didn’t make Westerns often but they tend to be good ones: Billy the Kid with Johnny Mack Brown, and David O. Selznick’s delirious Duel in the Sun. That last title and Vidor’s weird Ruby Gentry both feature strong female characters that eventually engage their own lovers in murderous gun battles. The scenes are either operatically romantic/fatalistic or enjoyably ludicrous, depending on the individual viewer’s mental state.

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(Spoiler:) In Man Without a Star all the plot themes are wrapped up neatly but one: Dempsey Rae has settled scores with all his friends and enemies save for the intransigent Reed Bowman — unless one believes that he beats her at her own game, using sex to break her spirit. In terms of the sexual subjugation of women in the 1950s, this should work, but of course the movie can’t be explicit about it. So the curtain drops minus one showdown, leaving King Vidor and Kirk Douglas’s movie in sort of a funk. I mean, the woman has been sanctioning the killing of her neighbors, and she apparently exits poorer but with a full skin. I guess that means that Man Without a Star is sufficiently accurate about crime and punishment in lawless America to satisfy any European audience!


The packaging for Explosive Media and Alive’s Blu-ray of Man Without a Star (Mit stahlharter Faust) says it’s Region B only, but it’s really All-Region: both my review copy and a reader’s mail order disc play fine on standard U.S. equipment. The Amazon.de website says the disc is encoded with subtitles, which is sadly not true either.

The disc is a real beauty. Universal’s transfer department has put together a very handsome show. Some very minor color fringing appears now and then, especially on the left-hand side of the frame. Colors, granularity, and the richness of the image are uniformly excellent — Russell Metty’s cinematography is gloriously bright yet doesn’t make the screen look like the window of a candy store.

Explosive Media’s Ulrich Bruckner provides a handsome animated gallery of stills and ad artwork, an impressive string of trailers and an insert pamphlet with liner notes by Markus Tschiedert. They’re written in German, so I hope they don’t contradict too many of the opinions in my review.

Ulrich Bruckner is a published author on Italian westerns and can give an instant biography on the most arcane Spaghetti Western actor you never heard of. In that sense he’s the German equivalent of our Robert S. Birchard, who probably knows an equal amount about every one of the many familiar sagebrush actors playing ranch hands and gunslingers in this picture. Stuntman-turned actor Richard Farnsworth is said to be in there, although I wouldn’t recognize him without his retirement-age hair and mustache. Third-string bargirl “Boxcar Alice” is none other than pretty Millicent Patrick, who also worked in the Universal makeup department sculpting designs for, among other interesting creations, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Man Without a Star

Blu-ray

Explosive Media GmbH (Alive AG)

1955 / Color / 2:00 widescreen / 89 min. / Mit stahlharter Faust / Street Date March 7, 2014 / EUR 15,99

Supplements: Art gallery, trailer gallery, insert pamphlet essay by Markus Tschiedert.

Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
NO; Subtitles: None

Packaging: Keep case

Reviewed: April 6, 2014

Starring Kirk Douglas, Jeanne Crain, Claire Trevor, William Campbell, Richard Boone, Jay C. Flippen, Myrna Hansen, Mara Corday, Sheb Wooley, Paul Birch, Roy Barcroft, Jack Elam, Myron Healey, Milicent Patrick.

Cinematography Russell Metty

Film Editor Virgil Vogel

Original Music (library) Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, Henry Mancini

Written by Borden Chase, D.D. Beauchamp from a novel by Dee Linford

Produced by Aaron Rosenberg

Directed by King Vidor

 

FC Featured

Savant Blu-ray Review: “Foreign Correspondent” (1940)

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We’ve had our fill of tell-all biographies about Alfred Hitchcock’s alleged sexual obsessions with his leading actresses, a trend that came to a head a couple of seasons back with the shockingly fictitious movie Hitchcock. In the 1940s Hitch was being driven batty in a different way, putting up with David O. Selznick, the powerful producer and talent broker. Selznick brought England’s most entertaining director to Hollywood, where the creative possibilities within the massive studio factories seemed unlimited. Hitch had been on a roll with witty U.K. spy thrillers that put attractive amateurs into high jeopardy, fighting assassins on moving trains and fleeing enemy agents on the Scottish moors.

Selznick instead first assigned Hitchcock to help fashion a glamorous but overlong romantic thriller, Rebecca (1940). After a flaming finale the characters must continue talking for several minutes to clear away the story deadwood.

Selznick was so busy with his other films and with promoting Jennifer Jones that he loaned Hitchcock out several times during the run of his contract. Almost immediately came Foreign Correspondent (1940), a gutsy ‘spy’ chase given real bite by the international situation. England was already at war, and independent producer Walter Wanger was eager to strike a propaganda blow against Hitler. A committed leftist, Wanger had produced Fritz Lang’s critical crime picture You Only Live Once as well as the somewhat muddled anti-Franco drama Blockade, both starring Henry Fonda. In perhaps the most direct bit of revolutionary theater transferred to the screen, Fonda wails that the Great Democracies are doing nothing to stem the Fascist atrocities in Spain: “Where is the conscience of the World?!”

As it turned out, patriot Hitchcock was the tempering influence behind Foreign Correspondent. Wanger salted in dialogue lines referring to Hitler’s progress across Europe, but Hitch worked to keep the film’s tone as light and entertaining as possible. The movie turns to overt propaganda only at the end, in the brief but famous “The lights are going out all over Europe”.

Hitchcock critics are much better informed today, but there was a time when they debated the same rather narrow issue: is Hitch’s best work his clever ’30s spy chases The Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes? Or do his glossy, star-driven Hollywood thrillers show a maturity in his style: The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, Topaz?

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I’m of the opinion that Foreign Correspondent is the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s spy chase thrillers. While not blessed with top box office stars, its leading actors Joel McCrea and Laraine Day are intensely likeable, and Hitchcock puts them through a series of exciting, fresh adventures that never strain credibility, or go for cheap jokes. As with the earlier English classics, Hitchcock makes use of silent movie visual gags to involve the viewer in the action. The easiest of these is the bobbing forest of umbrellas in Holland, which both hide the assassin and reveal his escape path. Hitch also uses visual shorthand to add droll visual jokes, like the hotel sign that suddenly makes its own comment on anxious pre-war Europe. Some of these visual gags are so simple they remind us of the hand-drawn cartoons Hitch reportedly added to silent movie cards when he was just starting out.

Although filmed in Los Angeles, Foreign Correspondent is also the kind of fast moving travelogue that Hitchcock preferred. A few of his later VistaVision pictures take time out to observe flower markets, or just admire the countryside. After WW2, breaking countries down into simple references (like Switzerland = chocolate) would have been insulting. Hitch tried a ruthlessly unsentimental spy story in Topaz and nobody felt engaged in the story. The new lovers in Correspondent cuddle and kiss on the deck of a ship crossing the English Channel. He: “You see, I love you and I want to marry you.” She: “I love you and I want to marry you.” He: “Well, that cuts our love scene down quite a bit, doesn’t it?” For once every line of dialogue is a witty gem; there are no clunkers. That’s how it should be when talent like Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton and Robert Benchley are properly applied to a script.

With the bigger, glossier ’50s films name stars take a much bigger role. James Stewart and Doris Day’s marital relationship in the Man Who Knew Too Much remake is terribly dated. Day’s traumatized mother is sedated before being told that her son has been kidnapped; it’s assumed she can’t handle the pressure. The frightened couple also break Hitchcock’s rule by going to the police early and often. So we have to listen to the cops in scene after scene.

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Finally, career adapter Ernest Lehman turns North by NorthWest into a ‘best-of’ collection of Hitch’s Greatest Chase Hits. When not wowing us with extraordinary set-piece scenes like the Corn Field Crossroads, Lehman baldly repeats situations from earlier films. It’s a great movie with marvelous characters. As in most of the ’50s Hitchcocks, the bad guys are identified from the moment they’re introduced.

This by no means is a criticism of any of these Hitchcock pictures, almost all of which are superb entertainments. Foreign Correspondent quickly breaks free of thriller conventions. Its hero Johnny Jones is not a two-fisted adventurer but a crime reporter who loves his Mom, keeps losing his hat and punches out policemen. Half the time the tone is of a screwball comedy. Harry Davenport is Jones’ grinning, mischievous editor, and co-writer Robert Benchley is on hand as an alcoholic, slacker foreign correspondent that greets Johnny’s boat.

When the spy threat becomes more intense, the humor doesn’t depart, but instead morphs into proto- James Bond witticisms and caustic observations by George Sanders’ good-guy intelligence agent. Haughty and bored-looking in all but the most unpleasant situations, Sanders’ unflappable cool is highly entertaining — and impressively original.

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Finally, Foreign Correspondent has several bravura set piece scenes that for my money top anything before or since in similarly themed Hitchcock pictures. Walter Wanger secured for his director the best technical wizardry in Hollywood, starting with William Cameron Menzies, whose distinctive designs gave shape to many a shaky production. Johnny Jones’ escape out a high hotel window is only a refinement on standard matte painting techniques. But Menzies’ genius is fully realized in the Holland windmill scene. When he enters the noisy, dust-filled windmill Johnny Jones is trying to determine if the shooting of the beloved Peace advocate Van Meer (Albert Basserman) has been faked. The noise and the turning gears allow Johnny to hide, even when it seems certain that his presence will be discovered. Hitchcock and Menzies use every trick they can think of — a villain changing his sweaters give Johnny a chance to shift position, for instance. But then Johnny’s raincoat gets caught in the gears and is dangled practically in the faces of the bad guys. Every shot in this swift sequence is a complex beauty. What dialogue we do hear is irrelevant – the pictures tell the story, compelling us to share Johnny’s experience at a gut level.

Before CGI was used for everything, some of the best special film effects were little more than clever slight-of-hand-gags. To escape from the fourth or fifth floor of building under renovation, one of the heroes leaps from a window, rips through an awning and gently alights at sidewalk level. The shot looks like one take, an amazing feat. But closer examination shows the stunt to be constructed in two halves — the man making the big drop is a dummy, and the actor takes over for the drop through the awning. It always gets applause in theatrical showings.

The sequence that really wows ‘em is the crash of a flying boat in mid-Atlantic. Here Menzies uses everything he knows to inject realism (1940-style) into the spectacle of a passenger plane shot down by a warship. The ship interior tilts and hand-held cameras reflect the passengers’ panic as the cabin floods with real water. The actual moment of crash impact was an expensive “this better work” gag involving large water dump tanks — it’s better seen than explained. When the survivors climb out on the few pieces of the plane still floating, we see real water, rear-screen projected waves and other effects working that are much harder to analyze. The important thing is that the Foreign Correspondent plane crash is still one of the most effective, audience-engaging disaster scenes ever filmed.

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We’re told that Alfred Hitchcock resisted letting Foreign Correspondent become an outright attack on Hitler and the Nazis. One factor might have been that patriotic films being made in England were careful not to provoke the Germans too much, for fear of reprisals against Brits already in prison camps. Our Isolationist (read: pro- Bund) congress was censuring Hollywood to curb all propaganda movies. But Correspondent does mention Hitler by name. The epilogue in the BBC radio room as the air raid begins is a message for America to get active, now. It might be too late for England, leaving America as the world’s only hope. I think it’s one of the most stirring calls to battle ever made by a movie, and all the more effective because of Hitchcock’s breezy treatment.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray + DVD of Foreign Correspondent is quite a surprise. Remastered from its owner Westchester Film, the B&W HD image is gorgeous, far surpassing Warners’ earlier DVD and looking like something one might see on a screen in 1940. Alfred Newman’s great score (with an infectious little tune to represent the inexperienced Johnny Jones) comes through more strongly than ever. Shots that before were lost in darkness, leaving visual details difficult to assess, are now sharp as a tack. A photo-story Life magazine article arranged by Hitchcock shows how idle rumors hurt the war effort. Joseph Cotten appears in a 1946 radio adaptation, and the insert booklet carries an essay by James Naremore.

Effects spokesman Craig Barron provides a lengthy breakdown of the film’s wizardly camera tricks, while Mark Harris provides an absorbing visual opinion essay called Hollywood Propaganda and WWII. An episode of the Dick Cavett Show has Hitchcock as its coddled guest.

Criterion’s Dual-Edition release contains all extras on both Blu-ray and DVD. The In-House producer is Susan Arosteguy.

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