This Western, directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur from a novel by the Western writer Oakley Hall, had been rather forgotten but has now been restored by Twentieth Century Fox. It’s a familiar story set-up found in several 1950s and 1960s Westerns – an isolated town is terrorised by a local rancher and his group of cowboys/’gunslingers’. The Deputy Sheriff is rarely in a position to resist the mayhem and the nearest lawman with real power is 50 miles away. At the end of their tether, the leading figures of the town decide to pay a significant salary in order to attract a notorious ‘enforcer’ who arrives with a business partner, a saloon owner. Henry Fonda, playing against type (well before Once Upon a Time in the West) is the enforcer with the ‘gold-handled colts’ and the snappy suits and a grey-haired Anthony Quinn is the saloon owner (with a limp). Later on a third new arrival, who clearly has history with the other two, arrives on the stagecoach in the form of Dorothy Malone – and the film gets a lot more interesting.
I did feel that this was a fairly pedestrian Western in some ways, but the casting is interesting and the script and dialogue are intelligent. There is something different about the Fonda-Quinn-Malone triangle. Equally, the ranks of the cowboys include Richard Widmark in an interesting role that plays with his good/bad star persona. Here he switches sides in the confrontation and becomes almost saint-like. More surprising still is DeForrest Kelley, aka ‘Bones’ in Star Trek as the most interesting of the cowboys. I didn’t know about his long TV career and many film roles in Westerns.
The film is unsurprisingly in CinemaScope, which is fine, but I thought that the DeLuxe Color had a rather yellow palette. I’m not sure if this was intentional or whether it was not a priority in the restoration. Overall, I didn’t think Dmytryk made the most of the location of the story in Utah. The extreme long shot in the opening looked like a model until the tiny figures moved. But clearly the film is about the characters. It’s a narrative in which characters actually seem to change in order to deliver the conventional resolution and along the way there is a hint that Quinn’s devotion to Fonda’s cause might be be based on more than just old times’ sake. In his paper on ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, David Lusted includes an analysis of Warlock. He places it as a ‘township Western’ and discusses it in terms of the split between romance and melodrama, bracketing it with similar films of the period which he describes as ” . . . clearly melodramas, disturbed and disturbing, at times hysterical in their character relations and fevered in their crises of male identity”.
Lusted identifies the ‘romance of the hero’ in the way that Widmark becomes decisive and eventually wins the day and the separate but related narrative in which Fonda makes a decision to finally reject his capitalist enterprise of ‘legalised crime’ (i.e. effectively extorting a high salary from the town via his gunfighting prowess) for the more acceptable bourgeois world embodied in a woman with capital in a mining operation. Quinn comes between these two and ignites the melodrama. Indeed Fonda’s ultimate response to Quinn’s action is almost operatic in its excess. I’m less convinced by Lusted’s class analysis, though I very much support his intent in trying to explore ways in which these 1950s Hollywood Westerns appealed to male British working-class audiences. Lusted sees both Fonda and Widmark as working-class characters (both are cowboys/gunfighters) who make attempts to operate as individuals in the new social structures offered by towns like Warlock. The image of Widmark above is misleading – he is in ‘Sunday best’ for a a meeting with Dorothy Malone – and most of the time he is in cowboy denim. My feeling is that David Lusted’s analysis fails to deal with the star personae of the leading players. Widmark is perhaps a little too old to be rebel cowboy who puts himself in danger (his younger brother in the film, who stays with the cowboys, is played by an actor 20 years younger). I know Fonda played the great working-class hero in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) but I can’t see the Fonda of 1959 as a working-class figure, or more pertinently, I can’t imagine him as having once been a working-class figure. This doesn’t mean I don’t value David Lusted’s analysis and his discussion of the ways in which interior and exterior locations are used for the ‘romance’ and melodrama scenes is very useful.
The main interest in the film is probably the homoerotic charge in the relationship between Quinn and Fonda and the balancing charge of revenge directed towards the pair by Dorothy Malone. This is a good 1950s Western and I love melodrama but I’m still glad that Peckinpah and Leone appeared in the early 1960s to shake up the Western genre.
On the audience angles of the film, I noted that although there were many grey heads at the Vue in Islington, there were a number of younger men and women – so perhaps the male melodrama will get some support in future.
Reference: Lusted, David (1996) ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, eds Ian Cameron & Douglas Pye, London: Studio Vista
Captain Lightfoot is a Hollywood film adapted from a story by the prolific W. R. Burnett. It is mainly interesting as an example of the genre films with A list casts and budgets released by the studios at the time when they were trying to assert film’s dominance in the face of television’s rapid rise. The two important ingredients were the location of the story – a ‘runaway’ production in Ireland – and the combination of Ross Hunter as producer, Douglas Sirk as director and his protegé Rock Hudson as leading man.
The film was shot completely on location – in County Louth and in various country houses around the country. Sirk, quoted in Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk (1997), remembered how much he loved Ireland and enjoyed the shoot despite some of the production difficulties. The story refers to attempts by Irish villagers to create a revolutionary ‘Society’ in 1815. Hotheaded local Michael Martin (Hudson) falls foul of the British and is hunted by dragoons before being rescued by a clergyman (Jeff Morrow) who turns out to be the notorious highwayman Captain Thunderbolt in disguise. Thunderbolt is the main funder of the rebels, stealing from the British in various ways, including the operation of an aristocratic gaming house in Dublin. Martin is soon inducted as Thunderbolt’s second in command and given the title ‘Lightfoot’. Lightfoot will cause various problems when he falls for Thunderbolt’s impetuous beautiful daughter (Barbara Rush).
Shot in Technicolor and early CinemaScope (2.55:1 with separate 4-track mag stereo) this is a vibrant and colourful action adventure with appropriate romance and historical/political elements. Sirk remembered that he and his cinematographer (Irving Glassberg) were required to work on early ‘Scope films in such a way that the film would work on both Scope and Academy ratio cinema screens. At this time many cinemas were still in the process of converting to widescreen – the same requirement would be made in the 1970s when most films expected to find their audience on 4:3 TV sets. Sirk also had to contend with Irish rain for many outdoor shots but he discovered an appropriate lens and he and Glassberg produced very fine outdoor action sequences. He also discovered that Rock Hudson was equipped for screen comedy to go with his dashing good looks and boyish charm.
The film offers good light entertainment and enjoyable performances. Films that see Irish resistance to British colonialism always went down well in parts of North America and I was amused to see a fist fight reminiscent of John Ford’s The Quiet Man made in the West of Ireland a few years earlier. Overall, however, I was most impressed with the confident staging and direction of actors from Douglas Sirk who was by 1955 established at Universal with Hunter’s backing and access to stars. Hudson’s performance here comes between two of his performances in Sirk’s melodramas – Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). The relationship between Morrow and Hudson was taken as the basis for the Michael Cimino film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (US 1974) with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.
Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk was one of the many filmmakers who left Germany in the mid-1930s for political and personal safety reasons, eventually ending up in Hollywood and beginning to work on American films in the early 1940s. He died in Switzerland in 1987 nearly thirty years after his final Hollywood film Imitation of Life. In his later years, Sirk was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films, attending the Retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and receiving writers such as Jon Halliday, whose book Sirk on Sirk (Secker & Warburg) first appeared in 1971 (a revised edition was published by faber & faber in 1997).
In Germany in the 1930s, Sierck had been a highly respected theatre and film director but at first in America he struggled to find the openings that would allow him to make the Hollywood A pictures that his German success and obvious talent suggested was his proper role. After a potential deal with Warner Bros. fell through, he found himself contracted as a writer at Columbia which gave him a platform to direct a number of small independent pictures released through United Artists. After briefly returning to Germany in the late 1940s he finally got a contract with Universal in 1950. Again he was mainly employed on ‘smaller’ films at Universal (like Columbia, a mini-major without much access to A list stars). However, he was able to work with long term collaborators (such as the cinematographer Russell Metty) on a range of genre films and to develop his own star, Rock Hudson. His major successes came with a series of melodramas, mainly produced in Technicolor and forms of widescreen, for the same producer Ross Hunter. These were generally seen as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ and as such were critically derided. But they were commercially very successful and it is these films which would be later re-evaluated by critics and film scholars in France, UK and US. These were also films seen around the world which would serve to inspire future auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki and Fatih Akin.
Sirk’s influence on younger directors is one aspect of his importance in global film. He also worked as a director in Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Ireland as well as in Germany and America. An avid reader with interests in theatre, cinema and other arts across cultures, Sirk is a major figure in film history associated primarily with the concept of melodrama, visual style and disguised social commentary. One of the most read posts on this blog is ‘What is Melodrama?’, a piece which uses Sirk’s 1954 picture All That Heaven Allows as a prime example. Many film students will know about Sirk from the revival in interest in his films in the 1970s, especially among feminist film scholars. But today it’s quite difficult to see Sirk’s films in cinemas and apart from the handful of films most often cited, the other titles don’t have much profile. To properly understand how Sirk’s later melodramas are constructed it’s important to look at the whole body of work. We’ll try therefore to discuss some of his films on the blog.
As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.
Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.
I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).
Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:
Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.
I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.
Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)
Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):