Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.
The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.
I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.
I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?
Villa Rides is a would-be tribute to the Mexican revolutionary military leader Pancho Villa which somehow comes across as a Hollywood mish-mash of the Western and the war combat picture. I have wanted to see the film for many years since it represents a missing link in the writing career of Sam Peckinpah between Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In 1967 Peckinpah had been working in television after the disaster of Major Dundee and he was offered a job adapting a biography of Villa by William Douglas Lansford. Peckinpah was given an office at Paramount. He was told that Yul Brynner would star as Villa and that there had to be an American in the narrative. Peckinpah drew on Paramount’s research department and produced a script that played heavily in terms of the dichotomy expressed in Villa’s idealism for the cause of the revolution and his ruthlessness in terms of military action. Villa would become one of Peckinpah’s tortured characters. David Weddle’s 1994 Peckinpah biography (If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em) suggests that the script was flawed in several structural ways but presumably those could have been worked on. Much more problematic was Brynner’s rejection of the script because the complex personality that Peckinpah created was nowhere near the the heroic figure Brynner expected and he declared that his fans would never accept him in the role. Paramount sacked Peckinpah and Robert Towne was hired to rewrite the script.
Robert Towne would later become one of the most feted writers of the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ in the 1970s but in 1967 his career was not unlike Peckinpah’s, although Sam had already directed big features. They had both written for television and Towne had been an uncredited collaborator on Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever Towne did with the script it was accepted by Brynner and shooting commenced in Spain with Buzz Kulick directing. ‘The American’ as required by Paramount became a gun-runner played by Robert Mitchum who flies from El Paso to sell guns to the rebel army opposed to Villa and the Mexican President Madero. He then switches sides and joins Villa after the first skirmish in the script in which Villa is victorious. It is after this engagement that Villa’s ruthlessnes becomes apparent, although the agent of the killings of opposition soldiers is the Charles Bronson character, Villa’s second in command Fierro. The suggestion is that Villa has also secretly delayed his attack so that many local villagers are killed by the rebel army. This, it is argued, will make the remaining villagers hate their enemies and support Villa more vehemently.
I’m not sure how much of Peckinpah’s conception of Villa was changed by Towne. He does still seem to be conflicted or confused. Weddle does suggest some other examples of Villa’s behaviour that Towne changed to accommodate Brynner, but my main problem in this case is that Brynner simply appears miscast. With a wig and often a sombrero, he doesn’t resemble Brynner as the star of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and he doesn’t look much like the real Villa (a much photographed celebrity). Worse still, he is upstaged most of the time by Charles Bronson. Brynner and Bronson were Hollywood stars who often played different nationalities/ethnicities. But the major charges against this film are the casting and scripting of the American and the introduction of the aircraft. Much as with Brynner, there seems no connection between Robert Mitchum’s star persona and the role constructed as ‘Lee Arnold’. It’s worth pointing out here that Villa’s story does include the American journalist and socialist activist John Reed who rode with Villa in the period covered by the film, as a reporter on the Mexican Revolution in 1913. It is also the case that nearly every international film about the Mexican Revolution includes a foreign mercenary. In the two best films, sometimes referred to as ‘tortilla Westerns, A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, Italy 1967) and Duck You Sucker! (Sergio Leone, Italy-Spain 1971) the narrative involves a relationship between a Mexican bandit leader and, respectively, an American and an Irishman. Weddle suggests that Peckinpah’s cynical American character would have made a last minute embrace of the revolution’s ideals and that this conversion to the cause was rather contrived. On the other hand Peckinpah had learned a great deal from his research. Many American mercenaries rode with Villa and Peckinpah felt that the questions about why these Americans were there and what it meant to them would resonate with audiences responding to the US presence in Vietnam in 1967. It reminded Peckinpah himself of his time in the US Marines in China in 1945-6. As well as the American, the script includes a Mexican woman, involved with both Lee Arnold and Villa, played by the Italian actress Maria Grazia Buccella. She seems too old to be an unmarried village girl. I’m assuming her casting and that of several actors from Spain, including Fernando Rey, was just a part of the Spanish location shooting.
None of these ideas and certainly no sense of the historical events come across in the Kulick picture. Mitchum seems lost and in some of the closing stages like a whiney child – not something I ever thought I’d write about a Mitchum performance. And then there is the aircraft. I was sceptical about this but it does seem that there is evidence of aircraft flown by mercenaries operating in Mexico in 1913 and indeed that one was flown to support Villa. However, the aircraft in the film is a much later design. The other problem is that the film offers no sense of the timing of events. There are no on screen credits that give dates. Villa’s involvement in the war covers a period from 1911 to 1923 when he was assassinated. The film deals with events that took place in 1912 and the chief ‘villain’ appears to be General Huerta, played with some gusto by Herbert Lom who is always worth watching. But most audiences will struggle to understand who Huerta is, what his relationship is to President Madero and why he turns on Villa. Villa Rides doesn’t really care. The final insult is an onscreen tribute to Villa and the fact that Peckinpah’s name is still on the film as joint screenwriter (though the red typography makes it almost impossible to read). The film looks good as shot by British cinematographer Jack Hildyard (in a ‘Scope ratio but shot using Panavision lenses) and has a serviceable score by Maurice Jarre. It just seems a wasted opportunity. There are many other films about Pancho Villa and Peckinpah got his own, more successful Mexican adventure into cinemas a year later. Villa Rides was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV.
This film is available on BBC iPlayer for three weeks. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it might make a useful comparison with Ford’s They Were Expendable from a weeks ago. Although I hadn’t seen it, I thought I recognised the title and I think I’d assumed at first that it was a comedy, something also suggested by the still used by the BBC on iPlayer. It’s set during the early part of the Pacific War in 1942 and stars James Garner, then just turned 30 and a contract player at Warner Bros., who had already established himself as the lead in the TV comedy Western series Maverick (1957-62). What I didn’t know was that Garner had been a decorated soldier during the Korean War. This background throws a little light on what Warner Bros. might have hoped for with Up Periscope.
James Garner is Lieutenant J.G. Kenneth Braden who has been trained as a naval demolition engineer and as a Japanese language expert. The film opens with a romantic sub-plot which sees Braden secretly checked out by an attractive young woman from naval intelligence. Unaware he has passed a test, Braden is then shipped to Pearl Harbour and soon finds himself on board the Barracuda, a submarine under the command of Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). Braden’s mission seems ambitious and potentially dangerous for not just himself but also for the whole crew of the submarine – but only he and Stevenson know what it is. Stevenson has to get the sub close to a Japanese-occupied island so that Braden can get ashore unseen and carry out a daring spying operation – and then return undetected. If he succeeds he will have obtained vital information for a planned attack by US forces. If he fails many men will be killed in future action. What this narrative will then produce is a familiar underwater thriller in which the submarine faces Japanese aircraft and destroyers on its journey to the island and then a tense suspense thriller as Braden carries out his mission. The submarine drama is also driven by the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson as a ‘by the book’ captain whose actions are militarily ‘correct’ but perhaps not understood by his men. The light relief from the drama is provided by Alan Hale Jr., the son of the jovial character actor at Warners in the 1930s, who would later become famous for Gilligan’s Island on US TV (1964-1967).
Up Periscope! is a ‘WarnerScope’ and Technicolor presentation and it’s directed by Gordon Douglas who almost defines a ‘solid Hollywood studio director”. He made nearly 100 films and TV episodes/TV movies. Starting in the mid-1930s with shorts and then B pictures he came into the spotlight in the 1950s when he signed for Warner Bros, staying until 1965. He was probably best-known for Westerns/action pictures and crime thrillers and he made many well-known films during the 1960s. His last major picture was They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier. He retired at the end of the 1970s. Up Periscope! was in safe hands and I certainly found the film gripping. I even fast forwarded a couple of sequences because the tension as Braden is on the island and mustn’t be seen by the Japanese got to me. I can understand some of the more negative comments in the sense that there are only a couple of (very good) war combat action sequences when the submarine is under attack. Much more time is spent on the spying mission, also very effective but the romantic sub-plot rather detracts from the main narrative, even though it is used as something Braden thinks about while he is waiting for darkness on the island. At 112 minutes the film is arguably too long for its main genre purpose. On the other hand, we might argue that the context of Braden’s recruitment for the operation and the sense of community that is engendered by Ensign Malone (Alan Hale Jr.) are important in grounding this wartime action.
If we do compare this film with a wartime film made in late 1945 such as the Ford film, that sense of community is a key element. In some ways the films are similar. Ford also includes a romance element but it is much more powerful (and doesn’t show a happy ending). He also sends MTBs out on unlikely and ambitious missions and Braden is a Lieutenant J.G. like John Wayne. The submarine is a much more enclosed and ‘closed’ world than the MTBs of the Ford film which means the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson is more personal. Edmund O’Brien has quite a difficult role and pulls it off well. The argument usually is that the wartime films need the propaganda power and big statements that the 1950s war films don’t really need at all. Like the Ford film, Up Periscope! is based on a book, in this case a novel by Rob White. White was born in the Philippines and served in the US Navy. He became quite a prolific author of what are now considered ‘Young Adult’ novels and this includes Up Periscope (the film has a U certificate in the UK, the most accessible certification for ‘all audiences’). White did serve in submarines as well as in aircraft and naval ships. Whether there is any basis in actuality for the story of Up Periscope! is unclear.
James Garner appeared in many films but for UK audiences he may be better known as Brett Maverick in the various TV series or later as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. I hadn’t seen him this young before, but his later persona is already visible at times as the suave, cocky conman. His role as the intrepid frogman spy was one he felt forced into by Warner Bros. There is another connection to TV series besides Garner and Hale because the submarine’s pharmacy steward is played by Edd Byrnes who was also in Maverick but better known I think in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Warren Oates plays a submariner in what I think is the earliest of his performances I have seen. I don’t know if he played with Edmond O’Brien again before The Wild Bunch in 1969. Up Periscope! is well-made entertainment but not much more I think and catching sight of Warren Oates was one of its pleasures for me.
Gideon’s Day is now available in a 4 disc Blu-ray box set entitled ‘Ford at Columbia’. The other three titles are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Last Hurrah (1958). It’s an odd collection but each of the films is of interest and I like Gideon’s Day very much. It was very badly handled by Columbia back in Hollywood but the British arm of the studio made a very good job of the production in the UK, co-producing the film with Ford himself and using the MGM-British studio facilities. The film was beautifully photographed in Technicolor by Freddie Young. Gideon’s Day is a police procedural adapted from the first of a series of crime novels written by the prolific John Creasey under the pseudonym J.J. Maric. Creasey used 28 pseudonyms and wrote over 600 novels according to Wikipedia’s account. The film was initially released in the US under the title Gideon of Scotland Yard on black & white prints. Ford had a percentage of the potential profits so his treatment in the US was insulting. On the other hand, I’m not so surprised that the studio thought it wouldn’t do very well in the US since it is very ‘British’. Written by T.E.B. (‘Tibby’) Clarke, the writer of many Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob (1955), Gideon’s Day is delightful in many ways – even though it includes investigation of some very unpleasant crimes. It’s often described as a ‘comedy melodrama’. The Gideon novels (1955-76) also prompted a UK TV series known as Gideon’s Way (26 episodes of 50 minutes in 1965-6, tx on ITV and made by ITC on 35mm film). Ford appears to have been a fan of these kinds of stories and possibly of Creasey’s procedurals.
(The print broadcast on Talking Pictures TV in the UK uses the American title Gideon of Scotland Yard, but is in Technicolor and not cut.)
A typical Tibby Clarke script begins in the household of DCI Gideon (Jack Hawkins) during a frenetic family breakfast-time and proceeds to follow him through a day in which three different crimes are solved/averted with one involving police corruption, robbery, murder and attempted murder. The working day ends late at night with a repetition of a joke from the morning. Throughout the film Gideon’s bluff, authoritarian stance with an underlying warmth and humanity (a perfect role for Hawkins) is often undermined by comic moments. Tag Gallagher tells us that Ford remarked that Hawkins was the “best dramatic actor I worked with”.
This is a deft directing job by Ford. He moves swiftly through the interrogations and chases and keeps his own predilection for sentimental songs and bar-room brawls in check. Even so there is a genuinely funny pub saloon sequence and an almost slapstick fight. This was a period in British cinema when certain kinds of crime films and dramas were moving towards the greater realism that location shooting (usually in black and white) brought and at the same time films were starting to become ‘grittier’ in their representation of social issues. Gideon’s Day is poised between the Technicolor comedies which were so successful for Rank and the black and white crime dramas and procedurals which constituted the major dramatic genre. Jack Hawkins had already appeared as a Scotland Yard Superintendent in the Ealing film The Long Arm (1956) and as a reluctant would-be migrant to Australia in the Technicolor Ealing comedy Touch and Go (1955). In all three films mentioned here Jack Hawkins has a family and the family melodrama becomes part of the narrative. In Gideon’s Day the DCI’s long suffering wife is played by Anna Lee, one of Ford’s stock company and ‘family’. She had significant roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Fort Apache (1948) as well as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and two small parts in later Ford films. In the late 1940s she was mysteriously blacklisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood and Ford was keen to see her re-instated. Gideon’s daughter is played by Anna Massey, daughter of the Canadian actor Raymond Massey who had appeared for Ford in Hurricane (1937). Ms Massey was certainly lucky with her father’s friends. She must have known Michael Powell through her father and her next role would be in Peeping Tom (1959). The family melodrama is neatly tied into the police work of the day through a young PC played by Andrew Ray who had been a child actor and here adds comic touches to a series of incidents involving father and daughter.
Hawkins’ co-star on the film posters is Dianne Foster, a Canadian in US film and TV who also in 1958 appeared in Ford’s The Last Hurrah. I confess the name meant nothing to me before I looked her up and I assume that Columbia simply wanted a name alongside Hawkins that North American audiences would know. The UK cast is full of well-known supporting players and overall the cast list is extensive since Gideon deals with so many cases during the day as well as struggling with his interactions at home and imposing his authority in his office at the Yard. There are fifty speaking parts.
For me Gideon’s Day was a welcome surprise. I’d seen it many years ago but not fully appreciated Ford’s skill. He handles the shifts between humour and drama skilfully – the poster at the head of this blog entry represents the comedy tone very well. The London locations are used well without being too ‘touristy’. The narrative is exaggerated with Gideon ‘solving’ the three major crimes on the same day, though there is significant ‘collateral damage’ in each case. It’s almost as if several episodes of the later TV series had been compressed into a single narrative of 90 minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly there are some similarities to another Hollywood film made (partly) in London around the same time with Hitchcock’s re-working of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) for Paramount. I think Ford actually makes a better job of representing London by remaining faithful to the script and trusting his British cast. Dianne Foster is on screen only briefly (though it is a significant role) and the film is carried by the British leads.
The only significant error in the film from my point of view was the use of a copy of the Manchester Guardian as a ‘giveaway’ clue that leads to an arrest. The Manchester Guardian was indeed based in Manchester before it became the present day London-based Guardian in the 1960s, but it was also available in London as a leading ‘quality’ national newspaper. It could be used in the film to suggest the suspect was an intellectual criminal but as a clue a local Manchester paper was more likely to signify that the suspect had travelled down from Manchester. I suspect that the London-based crew didn’t read the Guardian and didn’t explain to Ford what the paper signified.
Tag Gallagher suggests that the lack of any Irish issues in the script meant that Ford could reign back his usual anti-Britishness and instead just enjoy presenting the wide range of characters with care. (However, the film was produced by Ford’s Irish pal Michael Killanin and there are several Irish actors in small parts.) It is possible to see Jack Hawkins as Gideon presenting a familiar Fordian hero with a loving family who are perhaps neglected because of the importance of his job, but just like the cavalry families that support John Wayne in Ford’s military pictures, the family still loves the heroic father figure. Ford completed the film efficiently and under budget (there is at least one continuity error which Ford didn’t re-shoot, following his usual practice). Both Gallagher and Joseph McBride recognise the merits of Gideon’s Day, but Lindsay Anderson gets in a bit of a tangle in About John Ford, his collection of interviews and critical pieces about Ford. At one point Anderson seems to be dismissing the film as old-fashioned and with no real artistry, writing at the moment in 1957 when he interviewed Ford during the shoot and took him to the NFT. Yet later in the collection he suggests that though 1957 was a critical low point for Ford, Gideon’s Day is actually “an engaging entertainment, an almost absurdist pastiche of its middle-class English genre”. He doesn’t seem to realise he had been down on the film earlier in the collection. Still, he redeems himself a little whereas Andrew Sarris is all at sea in The John Ford Movie Mystery. Sarris sees the film as “one of Ford’s most peculiar projects” and sees the film as a comedy about the bumbling English and their “tepid tea and beastly buns”. I don’t mind being insulted in a good cause but I think Sarris just misunderstands the film completely. On the other hand the inclusion of snatches of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ in the score by Douglas Gamley does underline the comic tone of many scenes. I heartily recommend the film as good entertainment and an example of what a great film artist can produce handling a simple genre film for a Hollywood studio.
I approached this film with some trepidation. I’m generally a Fritz Lang fan, but I know that he struggled in Hollywood with some of his 1940s pictures. I generally find the Hollywood ‘undercover’/’spy’ pictures made during the Second World War (that I’ve seen) to be unconvincing next to their British equivalents. I’m also wary of Gary Cooper as a star, though I know he has many supporters. I like some of the films in which he starred (Ball of Fire, Man of the West) but not the ones he is most famous for like the Capra films and High Noon. Given these three potential strikes I was intrigued to see if Lang could overcome the odds. A brace of Blu-ray releases in the US and the UK suggest that this is a film to be re-appraised.
Cloak and Dagger is both a topical secret agent film, focusing on the race to be first to produce the atomic bomb (and to stop the other side getting there at all), and a celebration of the US involvement through the OSS in occupied Europe. The OSS was a similar initiative to the British SOE, sending agents into Europe to gather intelligence, help the resistance and generally to disrupt the enemy’s war effort. The narrative begins with American agents discovering shipments of materials from Spain to Germany which could be part of a nuclear programme. Unfortunately, however, none of the available agents has enough scientific knowledge to compile really useful intelligence on the ground in Europe. OSS decides to try to recruit a nuclear scientist to travel incognito to neutral Switzerland in an attempt to find out more about German plans. Cooper plays Prof. Alvah Jesper, a nuclear scientist from a Mid-Western university who is eventually despatched to Europe. He is a novice agent and makes mistakes, losing his first contact but is then taken secretly to Italy to meet a scientist who is thought to be someone who could be ‘turned’ from working for the Nazis. Jesper may be a novice agent but he has an international reputation in his field and other scientists will talk to him.
I did find that the film moved up a gear with Jesper’s arrival in Italy, partly because of the introduction of Gina, an Italian partisan played by Lilli Palmer. A German Jewish actor who left Germany in 1933, Palmer had been effective in a range of British films since her arrival in the country via Paris, including a small part in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1935). In 1943 she had married Rex Harrison and accompanied him to Hollywood in 1945. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. and Cloak and Dagger became her first Hollywood film. Her introduction scene is striking. When Jesper arrives secretly in Italy Gina, played by Lilli Palmer is one of the partisans who meets him in the back of a truck to go through a German checkpoint. Taking off her disguise, Jesper is taken aback to see this beautiful young woman, almost glowing in the gloom because of her simple white chemise.
Jesper’s aim in Italy is to speak to a scientist named Polda who might be prepared to be ‘evacuated’ to the US. The partisans in Italy will be able to arrange for a night-time air pick-up. I thought the whole Italian adventure was quite well-planned and, of course, it gives Jesper and Gina time to get to know each other since Jesper can’t survive out in the open and Gina is meant to keep him safe. As several reviews point out there are occasional Langian touches. The most striking references come in a fight that Jesper is forced to have with a Fascist agent in a stairwell. It is a gruesome struggle with hands attempting to gouge eyes and some sickening sounds as joints are dislocated. I was intrigued to discover that the term ‘cloak and dagger’ actually describes a form of combat dating as far back as the 15th century in Europe. Lang references this when Jesper’s assailant approaches him with a flick-knife and Jesper tries to use his coat to blind his assailant. Finally, when the German goes limp, a child’s ball comes bouncing down the stairs to land by the man’s feet, reminding us of a similar scene in M (1931). Also referencing M, during the fight a trio of street musicians is playing a tune (which sounded at times like the British music hall song ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’!). I’m also reminded of the viciousness of Lee Marvin’s character who scalds Gloria Grahame’s face in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). The horror of this encounter undermines those comments about how this film is ‘hokum’ and only ‘generic spy stuff’.
There are some interesting responses to the film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, one of the leading newspaper critics in America at the time, goes down the ‘cloak and dagger spy cliché’ route but he confirms that it is “highly suspenseful in a slick cinematic style”. He finishes his review, advising his readers to go and see Rossellini’s Rome, Open City which has just reached New York. That’s a good call, even if there is a closer connection to Rossellini’s Paisa which had not yet reached America. Cloak and Dagger ends with the arrival of an (unconvincing) RAF plane as planned – something which matches aspects of Paisa with partisans and Americans working together and RAF flyers shot down. Crowther is right, Rossellini offers a corrective to any romantic notions that Cloak and Dagger might arouse.
As research for writing this post I used Patrick McGilligan’s book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (1997, faber & faber). McGilligan gives lots of detail about the production and it is significant that the original property was a fictionalised account of OSS operations acquired by Milton Sperling. A relatively young producer who had already written several scripts for earlier productions, Sperling decided to hire two sets of writers to create a story, one of those was Boris Ingster (the director of the proto-noir Third Floor in 1940). But after Lang came on board the story still seemed thin and Sperling recruited Ring Lardner Jr. (and then Albert Matz was thrust on him by Warners) to write the screenplay. That’s quite a few writers and and with Fritz Lang, notorious for blocking producers and banning them from the set, life for Sperling was not easy. Gary Cooper was paid much more than Lang and Lang treated Lilli Palmer very badly, even though he finally conceded that she gave a very good performance. Sperling was Harry Warner’s son-in-law and when Sperling returned from war service in a photography unit. He set up ‘United States Pictures’ with Warner Bros. to act as an independent production company creating product for the studio. Cloak and Dagger was the first of what would become 14 productions, many with war/military connections, over the next 20 years. For some of those involved who had some OSS connections, the film was a disappointment but for Warner Bros. it was a hit. For Lang it was a job he needed at the time and a chance as McGilligan suggests to hammer “a final nail in the fascist coffin”.
My own response is that after a poor opening, the film picked up the pace and I’m now more inclined to go back to Lang’s earlier attempts to make anti-fascist films in Hollywood. I’m also interested in comparing Lang and Hitchcock’s films about the wartime period. My views on Gary Cooper haven’t really changed. He is serious and sombre throughout with only the occasional lighter moment. Lilli Palmer was a revelation and for me the best thing about the film. The production featured Sol Polito as cinematographer, generally good and a Max Steiner score that at times I found irritating. Overall, however, I think it is a film worth reappraising and although I only saw a print on Talking Pictures TV, the stills on DVD Beaver from the Eureka Blu-ray look very good.
Without its production context this might appear as a fairly conventional war combat picture except for two factors: its celebration of survival masking a defeat is unusual for an American film and its length at 135 minutes is remarkable (and probably not necessary). Digging into that context, however, it becomes something else. John Ford spent the Second World War as head of the US Navy Field Photography Unit and director of several important documentaries for the US Military, two of which won Academy Awards. This film was his final action as a serving military officer in the Naval Reserve and he felt manipulated into making it at the behest of senior figures in the US Navy. The film was produced by MGM, the major studio with which Ford had most problems it seems. As part of the deal to make it, Ford insisted on an enormous fee, not for himself but as something he could use to set up a home for the veterans of his Field Photography Unit. He duly shot the film between February and June 1945 and it premiered at the end of December 1945. I’ve read the accounts in both the Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride books on Ford and I still don’t understand what the US Navy’s purpose was. There seems to have been a push to get the film made some two years earlier but even that seems odd to me (and impossible for Ford).
They Were Expendable is an adaptation of a book by William L White, a biographical account of a ‘real’ US Navy officer John Bulkeley who commanded a squadron of Motor Torpedo Boats in the Philippines in 1941 (known in the US as PT boats, though the official designation was MTB). The central character, ‘John Brinkley’ in the film, is played by Robert Montgomery, who had himself been an MTB Captain in the ‘Pacific War’, as it is known in the US and had served under Bulkeley. The film script had several contributors but appears to have been mostly the work of the retired Navy flyer Frank Wead, who would become the subject of John Ford’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles. The film narrative deals with a squadron of MTBs, a relatively under-rated form of naval power in 1941. In December 1941, Brinkley and his men, particularly his second in command, Lt. ‘Rusty’ Ryan (John Wayne) are disappointed that the Naval Commander in the Philippines doesn’t appear to rate the MTBs as an effective weapon, using them for ‘messaging’ and carrying important personnel. But when the Japanese attack cripples the US Navy in Pearl Harbour, the MTBs are thrust into the defence of the Philippines. Although distinguishing themselves in various conflicts the MTBs and their crews are finally forced to retreat to the last US stronghold in Bataan and Brinkley and Ryan are finally forced to abandon their men under orders, thus the ‘Expendable’ tag for the crews. The whole narrative reminds me of several British films from early in the war which were released as propaganda pictures with the message: “We have survived and we will return”. The turning point of the Second World War is usually taken to be the defence of Stalingrad in the East and the victory of the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in late 1942. At the same time the Americans were leading a North African landing and conducting an offensive in Guadalcanal. If They Were Expendable had been in cinemas around the end of 1942 it would have made sense. When it finally appeared, the American public was thinking about the aftermath of war and the film must have had a different reading. Ford himself is reported to have disowned the film, outraged by interference by MGM executives who recut parts of the film and added music Ford wouldn’t have chosen.
Lindsay Anderson, who met Ford on location in Ireland for the Quiet Man in 1950 and then at Elstree a couple of years later for Mogambo, was astonished by Ford’s view of They Were Expendable. Ford claimed to be ‘horrified’ by the experience of making the film and claimed to have not even watched the final version. Later he sent Anderson a telegram saying that having been persuaded to watch it, he agreed it might have merit, but several years later had reverted to arguing that it was no good. The mystery in this story is that Ford claimed some of his important scenes were cut but also that his intention was to produce a 100 minute film, which suggests that 40 minutes or more of the final film wasn’t intended to make it into the final cut. This is baffling, but Ford often made contradictory remarks, especially to interviewers. In Ford’s eyes, Anderson hadn’t yet made any significant films so he was just a critic/writer (but Ford still seems to have respected Anderson’s view that Expendable was a fine picture).
What is finally evident in the Warner Bros. restored print on the Blu-ray? There is a standout performance by Robert Montgomery. The black and white photography by Joseph H. August is excellent. August was a Lt Commander in Ford’s Photography Unit and had shot a couple of Ford’s pictures in the 1930s. Wayne is relatively subdued but rather petulant as Rusty Ryan, but he has the film’s only romance, with a nurse (an officer of similar rank) played by Donna Reed, also very good. Two other familiar Ford faces are Ward Bond and Jack Pennick and there is an important cameo by Russel Simpson (Pa Joad and other Ford characters) as a boat repairer. It is a recognisable Ford film in many ways. As a war combat film it is effective with exciting action (but probably unlikely action since US Navy torpedoes were not very reliable in 1941) but also a focus on the relationships between Montgomery and Wayne, Wayne and Reed and most importantly, Montgomery and all his crews. There is a reference to General MacArthur in the sequence in which the MTBs carry departing top brass and MacArthur’s famous phrase “We Shall Return” introduces the closing credits. The film was shot mainly in Florida, which is ironic since Ford himself loved the South Pacific. Several commentators refer to it as having a ‘documentary-style’. I think that is pushing it but there is certainly time spent on procedural issues and it is important that ‘verisimilitude’ is a key issue. Ford had spent so much time in different theatres of war and he knew how service personnel behaved, so the film had a sense of truth about many scenes.