Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sweat, blood and explosions: Most masculine movies from Fuller and Daves discovered on DVD

I came to the so-called masculine movie genres not as a kid, which I guess is normally the case, but as an adult movie addict, mainly out of interest in the work of certain stars and directors who churned them out during the studio era. Maybe this explains the sort of child-like glee I now feel when DVD distributors lure a few more such titles out of the vaults. From my current vantage point, I can survey the films for their glints of complexity, their often impressive craftsmanship, but I also retain a sort of delayed, innocent awe for their particular brand of high adventure, rugged romance and male camaraderie.

Hell and High Water (1954) is  part of Fox’s ongoing DVD revival of the films of Sam Fuller, the American director whose wildly dynamic camera style and bold-faced studies of desperation and moral murk have helped to maintain his cult status. In keeping with Fuller’s yanked-from-the-headlines, eruptive style, Hell and High Water actually opens with an atomic detonation, the gaudy red credits splashed across a towering Technicolor mushroom cloud. “This is the story of that explosion,” the voiceover explains.

“That explosion” was actually produced in the Arctic in 1953 by then-unknown authors. Thus
Hell and High Water is about an independent international group of scientists and politicos who arrange for a decorated WWII submarine captain (Richard Widmark) to lead a crew comprised of one male scientist, one female scientist (Bella Darvi) and a whole bunch of sweaty, shirtless, slobbering, chauvinist goofballs on a secret mission to find out who is behind the bomb, how they got it, and what their no-doubt devious plans are. But the film’s real highlights come from the details and bravura miniature set pieces: from sexual harassment to manual mutilation, from a China-centric rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In” to a brutal casualty suffered while interrogating a Chinese prisoner, Hell and High Water is well endowed in character, texture and audacity.

Widmark’s character this time out isn’t in keeping with the manic, hysterical losers he made his mark with in Kiss of Death (47) or Night and the City (50), but he’s cagey, conflicted and terrifically compelling in the film’s major turning points. The only significant supplement on the Hell and High Water disc is a typically hokey A&E Biography of Widmark, which shamelessly exploits his brother’s illness and death for cheap drama, but is fascinating nonetheless. Widmark is commonly known for being as clean-cut off-screen as he was deviant on, but it’s most curious to note that while still working as a schoolteacher in the Midwest, he took his summer holidays in Nazi Germany, trying to gather material for a documentary exposé on Hitler Youth camps.

I developed an admiration for the relatively forgotten director Delmer Daves after seeing
Dark Passage (47), a brilliantly bizarre noir based on a David Goodis novel, full of hallucinatory subjective camerawork and featuring a killer cast of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorhead and Tom D’Andrea. I then discovered Daves’s enormously appealing 3:10 to Yuma (57), based on an Elmore Leonard western and featuring a very seductive Glenn Ford as the baddie. I can’t reasonably expect to find anything else in Daves’s filmography to match this pair, but I’m sufficiently motivated to check out his other films.

Broken Arrow (50), however, is neither another crown jewel nor a total disappointment. Set in 1870, it’s one of the very first westerns to attempt to come to terms with the genre’s racist tendencies, a self-consciously liberal-minded picture in which a gold-hunting loner (James Stewart) is drawn out of his neutrality in the hostilities between American expansionists and Cochise’s Apaches after having his life saved by an Apache teen—while still bearing witness to Apache torture methods in a chilling nocturnal tableau.

The film carries a balance of respectful anthropological detail mixed with the usual awkward casting of whites in the major Apache roles. Stewart is as convincing as always playing the stubborn moral authority, and the film never succumbs to any overly whitewashed characterizations of the other side. In fact, the final shoot out between some whites and Geronimo’s renegade warriors ends quite brutally. Founded in a spirit of colonial apologetics that now feels a bit quaint, it’s very much a film of its time—but not one without a few teeth, and more than a few incredible vistas. 

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