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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

 

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Budd Boetticher: A Maverick Voice from the Past

It never occurred to me when I began working on my book Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, that it would take almost 20 years to get published. That may have proven to be a good thing as I was lucky enough to encounter many of the greats who worked with Marvin but, are no longer with us. Case in point, maverick director Budd Boetticher who passed away in 2001.

Sadly overlooked for many years by Hollywood, toward the end of his life cinephiles rediscovered his gritty brilliance. Filmmakers as diverse as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have paid homage to him (Michael Madsen’s character in Kill Bill is named Budd). Boetticher’s films, especially the Westerns, had a special sparse quality. Not as taut as Sam Fuller, nor as grandiose as John Ford, his style fit comfortably somewhere in between. His personal life would make a fascinating film itself as it included athletics, bullfighting, brushes with the law, and a self-imposed exile to Mexico. What is most amazing is that in spite of undeniable setbacks that would weaken a lesser man, Boetticher’s indefatigable spirit and optimism remained intact to the end of his life.

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I interviewed him by phonefor my book on October 30, 1994, and as will be seen, his anecdotes go beyond his work with Lee Marvin and are compelling in their own right. World Cinema Paradise thought so as well and agreed to run the interview here. It is intact, and, it is the first time it has ever seen the light of the day in its entirety.

Dwayne Epstein: Good morning, Mr. Boetticher.

Budd Boetticher: Hello, Dwayne. You’re up bright and early.

DE: Actually, I thought I was calling a little late.

BB: Sounds like you forgot to set your clock back.

DE: (Pause) Geez, I forgot all about it! I guess I’m on time, then [both laugh]

BB: You wanted to talk about Lee Marvin, right?

DE: Absolutely. You made two films with Lee Marvin, right? Seminole (1953) and 7 Men from Now (1956)?

BB: Yes, I did. The films I made with Randy (Scott), four or five are back in theaters, and not just on video. In Europe, they’ve been re-released on the big screen where they belong.

DE: Do you recall which ones?

BB: Sure. Ride Lonesome (1959), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), The Tall T (1957), and Comanche Station (1960). I haven’t seen them in a while and the Director’s Guild held a retrospective recently. I must say they’re pretty damn good.

DE: That’s terrific! Before we go any further, I just wanted to tell you that the gangster film you made is one of my favorites…

BB: Oh yeah, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). with Ray Danton. That also had a young Warren Oates and Dyan Cannon making their debuts.

DE: Very cool. So, the first picture you used Lee in was Seminole, right?

BB:  Right. He played Sgt. Magruder and he was very, very good. [Screenwriter] Burt Kennedy brought him in. He suggested Lee to play the second lead on my next picture with Randy [Scott]. Now Duke Wayne [as producer], and you can quote me on this, Duke was either a son-of-a-bitch or the best friend you ever had, depending on the mood he was in. Burt asked Duke, “Who should we use?” Duke said, “Let’s use Randy. He’s through.”

DE: [laughs] Well, that was nice of him.

BB: Yes, well in every Randolph Scott movie there was always a breakout star because Randy didn’t really care. But Duke…he was another story.

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DE: How was Lee Marvin to work with on 7 Men from Now?

BB: He was wonderful. He was an ex-Marine. He was one of the few actors who really knew how to handle a gun. I wanted to try something I had never seen in a Western before. I’ve never seen in a Western, while a gunfighter was urinating or whatever, I’ve never seen him practicing his draw. So, what I did was every chance I could, I had Lee draw and practice. His death was so dramatic when Randy shot him because of that. He just stood there for a minute and stared at his gun in his hand in disbelief. The audience loved it. The reaction, when we previewed it at the Pantages, was something I had never seen before. They stopped the film and reran the scene.

DE: Wow, I’ve never heard of that being done before.

BB: Yeah, the sneak preview — if you can believe it — it was a double bill with Serenade (1956) starring Mario Lanza. Nobody in the audience was under forty. The marquee outside the theater only mentioned Serenade. I turned to John Wayne and said, “Jesus Kee-rist, Duke!” People started to walk out when they saw it was a Western starring Randy. Once it started, and people started watching it, though, they stayed and really enjoyed it. Yeah, but Lee was great.

DE: Did you ever want to work with him after that?

BB: Actually, I wrote Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) with him in mind. What happened was I went and saw Lee in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and thought to myself that he was drunk. Be careful how you write this part. Anyway…

DE: Well, I spoke with Woody Strode who told me Lee was drunk.

BB: How’s Woody doing? I worked with him on City Beneath the Sea (1953).

DE: Well, he’s doing fine, considering. He’s a very sweet man and was forthcoming with a lot of information. He still lives in Glendora but he’s alone a lot now.

BB: Well, would you do me a favor and give him my number? I’d love to talk to him again.

DE:  I sure will. So you thought Lee was drunk in Liberty Valance?

BB: Well, that was the rumor. I asked around. I checked him out through others and they said he was. I thought he drank too much and couldn’t work with him.

DE: What happened to the script?

BB: Universal eventually made it and they screwed it up. I tell you, you can’t quote me, but Eastwood’s character has to be an idiot not to smell liquor and cigars on her breath. In my version she was a courtesan not a prostitute [Shirley MacLaine’s character is a prostitute disguised as a nun]. Anyway, I found out years later that Martin Scorsese was a big fan of my work and wanted some memorabilia. I found the original screenplay to Sister Sara. It was over twenty years old and falling apart. I had to Xerox it because it was falling apart. I sent the original and a copy to Scorsese and made a copy for myself. I read it again and thought it was just great. I’ll tell you a funny story about that. A few years back they were showing it on late night TV and I got a call about 1 a.m. This gruff voice asked me, “I missed all the credits. Did you direct this piece of shit Sister Sarah I just watched?” I said, “No, I only wrote screenplay…” The voice said, “Good!” and slammed down the phone. It was John Ford. [Both laugh]. Okay, what else do you want to know about Lee Marvin?

DE: You said you didn’t want to work with Marvin?

BB: Well, I heard he drank too much.

DE: [Stuntman] Tony Epper referred to him as a bottle actor. He thought he did his best work when he drank.

BB: I don’t believe that. You can work hard without drinking and then relax after five, like everyone else. Duke had a [screenwriter] friend named James Edward Grant. He wanted to direct but he believed that if he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t direct. That’s a lot of crap. No actor is better unless you catch him on the third drink. But he’s usually on the fifth drink and by then he can’t finish the picture.

DE: Did you ever consider him for anything else?

BB: No, not really. I’ve been working on this book about bullfighting called When, in Disgrace. You should read it sometime. I think it’s available at Samuel French or Larry Edmunds Bookstore. It’s all about bullfighting. See, I started in the business with a job most women would kill for. I had to show Tyrone Power how to move as a bullfighter for Blood and Sand (1941). When I started making westerns with Randy, I gave them what they wanted. If they wanted a movie to run an hour and 26 minutes, I brought it in at an hour and 27 minutes. It usually only took 18 days. The great things about those movies were the scripts. Burt Kennedy worked on most of them and we had Lucien Ballard as a cinematographer. Lucien did great work for us. They held a retrospective of my work in Dallas, recently, and they gave me some kind of pretentious award. I had not seen some of my films in years and was quite surprised they were so good. We didn’t have any dirty words. There was no open mouth kissing. The films they make today…I went to Mexico and stopped making films. I went to Mexico for seven years and worked on the book about [bullfighter Carlos] Arruza. I finally got a screenplay out of it and we’re going to filming it soon.

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DE: Well, I’m glad it paid off for you.

BB: See, the great thing about my career is that I never won an Academy Award, or an Emmy, or any of that shit. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave me the Career Achievement Award in 1992. That meant something because you can’t fool around with it. [Laughs] They can’t agree on anything but they voted unanimously on the Career Achievement Award.

DE: That’s quite an honor. Interesting how you weren’t appreciated before but now…

BB: Yeah, if you stick around long enough. It’s funny. I made 37 pictures and only ten were westerns, so they call me a western director. I made a couple of gangster pictures and they call me a gangster director.

DE: What made you stop directing?

BB: I don’t believe a lady should say “fuck” to establish a character. I didn’t want to be involved in that kind of filmmaking. But, I am working again. I just waited until the right project came along. I’m going to be directing A Horse for Mr. Barnum.

DE: What’s it about?

BB: It’s a true story about P.T. Barnum picking up several Andalusian horses and the cowboys he hires to bring them back.

DE: That sounds interesting. Is a cast lined up?

BB: Well, we got Robert Mitchum as Barnum and Jorge Rivero, who’s the biggest star in Mexico, as one of the cowboys. James Coburn is in it, too. We’ll be using Lippizans.

DE: I’ll be looking forward to it.

BB: I’m delighted you’re writing this book on Lee Marvin. He was a great actor. He gave more to a director than you could ask for.

DE: How did he get along with Randolph Scott?

BB: He got along with everybody.

DE: How did Scott get along with him? Did they establish a good rapport?

BB: Scott had very little report with anybody. He wasn’t the guy wearing white all the time type of hero.

DE: With the square jaw.

BB: Right. He just kept to himself. When Burt and I were having dinner one night, after shooting that day, he said, “What’s the kid in the red underwear?” I said, “James Coburn. He said, “He’s pretty good. Write him some more lyrics.” In six of the seven pictures I made with Randy, the second lead stole the show. If the second lead killed Randy, no one would care, not like in a John Wayne picture. The second lead often made it very big after working with Randy. We had Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn; a whole bunch of good actors.

DE: It sure sounds like it.

BB: I’ll tell you a funny story about Richard Boone. He was starring on the TV show Medic and I wanted to use him in the picture I was doing with Randy called The Tall T. Now, if Harry Cohn was still there, I wouldn’t have had a problem. But Sam Briskin was running Columbia, and he said to me, “You don’t want Boone. He’s got no sense of humor and he’s got all kinds of pock marks…” I had to find out for myself. I called Boone and told him I wanted him for a film. I said Briskin didn’t think he had a sense of humor. Boone said, “I guess he doesn’t think heart operations are pretty fucking funny.”

DE: [Laughing] Sounds like he had a sense humor, to me. You know, your career is a lot like Sam Fuller’s in that you both got recognition later in your career.

BB: My agent, who’s Jewish — that’s probably why he’s so good at it — he got me a three-picture deal. He told me, “You know, you’re the Gentile Sam Fuller.” I told him, “I’d rather be the Jewish John Ford.”