Monday, June 2, 2008

The sublime, the sanguine, and the verbose: three classic Fox westerns ride into town

Though only 35-years-old, Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck), the notorious killer with the unmatched quickdraw, seems to have outgrown what could be regarded as normal mortal existence. As he moves from town to town, an unassuming, solitary figure, his appearances are treated as apparitions. Hardly anyone actually sees Ringo, who is of course just an ordinary man. Rather, their eyes are betrayed by the grandiose abstraction of legend, blinded by the presence of some force they’re only heard of: a hero, a demon, a scapegoat, a target for every young punk looking to make a name for himself in the anarchy of the uncivilized West. But Ringo is preternaturally weary of this role and its trappings. He craves anonymity and domesticity. No longer wanting to live as a ghost, he explains, “I just want to be somewhere.”

The Gunfighter (1950), directed by Henry King, has been called the first adult western. It is indeed about the desires fostered by experience rather than innocence, and features an impressive line-up of characters that are each imbued with shadows, disappointments and inner conflicts, such as Marshall Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), the guardian of Cayenne, the town that flies into a frenzy of excitement when Ringo arrives to arrange a secret rendezvous with the family he abandoned years ago. Strett says little, and his features give away even less, but his explanation as to how he gave up outlawry is pointed and brutal, something about a little girl slain by accident. In many regards, this film can be seen as a natural precursor to Unforgiven (92).

But the gloomy nature of these attributes should not overshadow the fact that The Gunfighter is also immensely charming, suspenseful and beautifully crafted, most especially by Arthur Miller, the talented cinematographer whose prolific body of work includes How Green Was My Valley (41), Gentleman’s Agreement (47) and Whirlpool (49). Miller’s roaming camera continually gives us such a rich, layered sense of space, whether that space is the inside of a barroom, the main street of a frontier town, or a windswept mesa. He finds an ideal collaborator in the mustachioed visage of Peck, whose performance here is elegantly measured and genuinely tragic.

Something closer to pure genre entertainment can be found in Henry Hathaway’s Rawhide (51), about a desert stopover for the US mail service being laid siege by a quartet of bandits. Following the murder of its senior keep, the fate of the stopover, and of the valuable cargo coming its way, is left in the hands of the very green young Tom Owen (Tyrone Power) and the by contrast tough, determined and big-haired Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward), a young, unaccompanied waiting for transport with her niece in tow. Power was clearly too old for the role but his youthfulness goes a long way to correcting this, while Hayward, with her immaculate poker face, is perfectly cast as a guarded, highly capable woman of unflaunted inner fortitude. Stealing the show however is googly-eyed character actor Jack Elam as the lecherous, naïve and finally sadistic criminal Tevis, whose nadir of bad behaviour finds him taking potshots at a toddler. Fun stuff. 

When their California-bound ship falls into disrepair along the Mexican coast, gold-seekers Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark) and Daly (Cameron Mitchell), virtual strangers to one and other, amble into sleepy Puerto Miguel in the thick of siesta, the only locals on view being a barkeep, a few guys with moustaches and big hats, and a kittenish Rita Moreno purring out ‘La Negra Noche’ to the stirrings of a quiet guitar. The heat-addled calm is broken by the arrival of Leah Fuller (Hayward, again playing the tough cookie, with big, tough-looking hair), desperately searching for able bodies to accompany her on a long journey into the forbidding Apache-controlled territory where her husband lies, perhaps dying, in a collapsed mine. As much for something to do as for the hefty reward promised, the gringo soldiers of fortune take the bait, along with a good-hearted Mexican named Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza).

Also directed by Hathaway, Garden of Evil (54) is neither the sanguine good time of Rawhide nor the iconoclastic character-driven drama of The Gunfighter. Talky, decidedly unhurried and in its way weirdly mysterious, it strikes me as a story that, whatever its intentions might have been, above all concerns the unknowability of others. The set-up feels essentially random, recalling The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (48) but lacking that films focused, delirious greed and moral perdition. The deeper motivations of Hayward’s secretive character remain obscure, and trust is an ongoing issue for all, with characters swerving from redemption back to selfishness, and only Cooper’s wizened leader seems led by the best intentions at the best of times.

Shot in colour and Cinemascope, the film’s desert expanses and decrepit haciendas are wondrously spectacular, and the narrative thread never less than compelling despite its lack of urgency. It doesn’t hurt that Widmark especially is so watchable in the role most burdened with dialogue, nor that the pacing is marvelously anchored by Bernard Herrmann’s typically portentous, darting score. In a welcome departure from the norm, the audio commentary on Fox’s disc from Nick Redman, John Morgan, Steven Smith and William Stromberg focuses almost exclusively on Herrmann’s contribution and process and on the role of the composer in both classic and contemporary movies in general.

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