Desert Fury (1947) directed by Lewis Allen, starring Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak, Mary Astor
Note: This is my entry in the Mary Astor Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. The desert town of Chuckawalla is a quiet, sleepy place on the surface but roiling with greed and sin underneath. And nobody understands it better than Fritzi Haller (Mary Astor), the tough, no-nonsense owner of the Purple Sage Bar and Casino. She may not be respectable but she's fought her way into wealth and power and nothing's going to change that. However, Fritzi's plans are derailed when the gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) rolls into town. He immediately catches the eye of Paula, Fritzi's rebellious young daughter. And it seems everyone's got a stake in keeping their rapid-fire romance from going anywhere. There's Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), the deputy, in love with Paula but too hesitant to plead his case. There's Johnny (Wendell Corey), Eddie's brooding partner, who burns with hatred at the thought of a woman coming between them. And of course, there's Fritzi, who wants her daughter to have a chance at a respectable, stable life. But nobody in this town is quite what they seem and it won't be long before Paula realizes the world is very different from what she imagined.
Desert Fury is a bizarre, colorful, and unsettling film, a pure example of Hollywood filmmaking at its most suggestive. The plot is actually pretty simple: a naive girl falls in love with a man who's no good for her. Of course, there's also a nice guy waiting on the sidelines for her and a mother who wants what's best for her daughter. But it's what's happening around the edges of those relationships that makes them interesting. Because in this movie, the girl's mother is no Stella Dallas, fighting valiantly through her tears. Instead she's a cool businesswoman with a butch haircut, cooing over her daughter's beauty like a possessive lover would. All while the daughter exults that she's finally found a man like her mother, except "bigger and better and stronger."
I mean, do you kiss your mother like this?
Or how about the dangerous gangster that the girl falls in love with? Who spends most of his time ordering around his ever-present partner while said partner tends to his every need and glares daggers at the woman who dares to intrude on their domestic bliss.
It's the weird little unspoken undercurrents that make Desert Fury such a memorable trip. I've never seen anything quite like it and I think anyone who's a fan of classic film should check it out at least once. That said, it's not really a good movie. At times, the script feels like a private bet on the part of screenwriter Robert Rossen to see if he could get away with making a movie that's essentially just one scene, repeated on an infinite loop. Said scene can be summed up in three steps:
Paula, the daughter, confronts someone who is trying to control or reject her.
Paula gets upset and leaves.
She reconciles with the person so that they can have the same argument all over again
After over an hour of this endless reshuffling, the movie finally picks up the pace for a climax that's genuinely disturbing and strange and satisfying. It's like the inverse of Gilda, another movie that brimmed with dark passions and subtext. But where that movie had a fierce, snappy pace and a lousy ending, Desert Fury has a strong ending but weak plotting. It's a lucky thing that the movie has a pretty talented cast to pull it off, including Lizabeth Scott, Mary Astor, and, in his film debut, Wendell Corey.
Lizabeth Scott was an actress made to order for film noir. Her deep, throaty voice suggested cigarette smoke and bar hopping and a lifetime of harsh experience. The haughty tilt to her chin and the flowing blonde hair gave her a touch of class. During her heyday, she was always compared to Lauren Bacall, but Scott was always more reserved, never as playful. Perhaps that's the reason she never became a big star; she always seemed to be holding something back.
In Desert Fury, she gets the full glam treatment, playing the woman that everyone wants and nobody understands. However, Paula isn't the femme fatale here but the protagonist. The entire movie is basically about her figuring out what she really wants, deciding whether she should tie her life to a controlling mother, a dangerous racketeer, or a friendly lawman. Her mother Fritzi is determined that she be respectable but Paula isn't having any of it."I'm like you, Fritzi, I'm getting more like you every day," she tells her. Scott's ambiguous style of acting helps in her portrayal of a character whose motivations don't really seem tethered to reality. I don't think most women would be turned on after hearing how much they resemble their lover's mysteriously dead wife. Nor do I think most women would look at Burt Lancaster, his magnificent tawny hair blowing in the wind, and then run after John Hodiak, who manages to look more uncomfortable here than he did starving to death in Lifeboat.
Out of all the main cast members, Burt Lancaster gets the least to do. Tom's just the straight arrow love interest, musing out loud over whether he should keep Paula on a short rope or a long. Actually, his methods of wooing his lady are oddly self-defeating. When Fritzi promises him money and a ranch if he'll marry Paula and make her respectable, Tom sarcastically repeats the offer in front of Paula. "Fritzi and I are cooking up a deal--how'd you like to marry me?" Sure he gets to put Fritzi in her place, but he must realize that by doing so, he's ensured that Paula won't go near him. In his review of Desert Fury, Randy Byers posits the theory that Tom might be impotent. It would certainly explain his passive-aggressive approach.
However, Burt Lancaster as the aloof, moody, mother-approved boyfriend is still more charismatic than John Hodiak as Eddie Bendix. Hodiak makes a convincing gangster, with his ink-smudge mustache and twitchy mannerisms. Everything he says sounds like an order, every time he turns around, it's like he expects a gun in his face. But he doesn't have the kind of dangerous allure that would naturally capture Paula's attention. The film even undercuts Hodiak visually, letting Lancaster and Corey loom over him in group shots. Maybe Lancaster and Hodiak should have switched roles. Still, to give the man his due, he's perfect in the film's climax, when Eddie is finally revealed to be something more pitiable and more monstrous than Paula could ever have imagined.
Unfortunately, Hodiak and Scott have zero chemistry, no matter how much the Miklós Rózsa score thrashes and wails when they're together. This is unfortunate since we have to spend a lot of time with these two. In Gilda, the ferocious sexual attraction between Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth was the plot. In Desert Fury, the most interesting relationships are the side ones. It's Mary Astor and Wendell Corey that bring the most passion to their roles. They're the ones with the most to lose.
I've been guilty of ragging on Wendell Corey in the past. Something about his smug, square face always grated on me. Which is unfair. For all I know, in real life Corey was the kind of man who adopts orphan puppies and donates to scholarship funds. But in movies, he always came off like a serious buzz-kill.
Desert Fury was a complete revelation to me. Here, Corey is icy and threatening and even kind of sympathetic as Johnny, Eddie's sworn companion and implied lover. Lord, do they imply it. When Eddie describes their first meeting to Paula, it sounds like a pick-up ("He ended up paying for my ham and eggs...I went home with him that night...we were together from then on"). In one scene, Eddie sunbathes shirtless while Johnny offers him coffee, smiling at him with tender concern. Johnny visibly bristles whenever Paula intrudes on him and Eddie, even as Eddie forces him to serve them food and make himself scarce. When Paula tries to understand Johnny, she's thrown back by the totality of his devotion. "There must be some of you apart from Eddie...two people can't fit into one life." Johnny looks back at her unsmiling. "Why would there be some of me apart from Eddie?" It's like the gangster equivalent to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
Wendell Corey delivers the most surprising performance but Mary Astor's is the best. Bitchy mothers are a dime a dozen in 40s films, but Astor had a way of digging beneath the cliche and keep you guessing. Even when she played shallow society snobs like in Midnight, greedy prostitutes like in Act of Violence, or dizzy nymphomaniacs like in The Palm Beach Story, her characters always had a weary intelligence about them that commanded respect. In Desert Fury, her character Fritzi Haller is the smartest one in the room. She strides around in flowing pants, clenching her cigarette holder as if she wants to bite clean through it. She resorts to harsh tactics in order to control Paula, including bribery and imprisonment. But when faced with the possibility of losing her daughter forever, Fritzi is devoid of self-pity. "Nineteen years, like that," she says, snapping her fingers, and the fond, rueful expression on Astor's face tells us everything we could know about loving a person who'll never understand you. Mary Astor would have made one hell of a Mildred Pierce.
The lesbian undertones to her character are just an added bonus of weirdness. Fritzi lights up in her daughter's presence and fawns over her like a mobster admiring the generous curves of his moll. "You look good to me, baby, even when you're tired," she tells Paula. "Give me a kiss, honey." She wants Paula to call her Fritzi, not Mother, and tries to settle her with shopping and presents. She calls her "baby" all the time and Astor snaps out the word like she's playing Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Without giving away the movie's ending, I'll just say that the resolution of their relationship is one of the most suggestively what-the-hell things I've ever seen, a truly memorable example of sneaking things under the Hays Code.
It's a surprise to me that Desert Fury doesn't garner much attention for its Technicolor visuals because it's a truly stunning film. Director Lewis Allen and cinematographer Charles Lang combine vivid color with stark noir compositions and the result is something shimmering and unreal, like a heat mirage. When Lizabeth Scott strolls through the Nevada sunshine, her blonde hair reflecting a thousand rays of light, it becomes achingly clear why everyone is obsessed with this naive girl. Even the frequent day-for-night shots look beautiful. Designer Edith Head also deserves a mention here for the way her eye-popping costumes fit the visual scheme. Scott is glamorous and stands out in each shot like a bolt of lightning. Astor is shifty, changing her style from matronly to garish to masculine as easily as she changes tactics.
Is it too soon to start making a case for Lewis Allen as an underrated auteur? Desert Fury is only the third Allen film I've seen and while it's not nearly as good as The Uninvited or So Evil My Love,
it shares some of the same hallmarks. Sharp, varied female characters
that actively drive the plot. Lavish but oppressive set design that
visually traps the actors. Suggestions of the strange or uncanny. In a
way, Allen's direction is even more interesting here than his other,
better films since he's stuck with a script that keeps repeating the
same confrontations over and over again. Allen compensates by flooding
each brilliantly-tinted shot with dense shadows. He keeps the framing
tight, even claustrophobic. It all gives Desert Fury a kind of hothouse atmosphere. It burns with contained neurosis and frustrated energy.
Desert Fury never reaches the heights of the truly great film noirs. It takes dark, tormented characters, gorgeous camerawork, and some inspired bits of strangeness and then lets them stew, like a sleek, freshly-painted sports car stuck in parking gear. But for all its weaknesses, it's still an incredibly memorable and worthwhile experience, a movie that's all the more interesting for what it's not saying.
"People think they're seeing Eddie and all these years, they've really been seeing me. I'm Eddie Bendix. Why is it women never fall in love with me?" Favorite Scene:
After getting her first kiss from Eddie, Paula returns home late, coldly brushing off Fritzi's questions. That night, she tosses and turns as a thunderstorm rages outside her window. A lightning flash wakes her up and after bolting up, Paula buries her head in her pillow and cries. Her sobs catch the attention of Fritzi, who comes into the room to comfort her, voice and movements more gentle than we've ever seen from her. "Even when you were a kid, you were afraid of storms, I used to have to sleep with you," Fritzi muses. "If you want to, I'll--?" "No," Paula cuts in, blinking back tears. She's confused and vulnerable, one moment refusing Fritzi's offer to take her shopping, the next begging her mother not to go. "I don't know what I mean," Paula whimpers, as Fritzi tucks her back into bed.
A simple scene but it's ripe with strange overtones. There's the way the two women are costumed and lit. Paula has her hair tied back with a purple bow and looks like a kid. Fritzi is in a gauzy peach nightgown, the perfect vision of maternal concern, and yet the sickly green scarf around her hair turns her into something unwholesome. There's the way Fritzi's rejected offer sounds a little too much like a come-on. There's the sexual implications of the storm raging outside after Paula has just had her first kiss, a storm that's interrupted by the arrival of her mother. It's a prime example of the weirdness and beauty of Desert Fury, a film that always seems to know more than it's telling. Final Six Words: So static yet so strangely mesmerizing
So a few weeks back, the delightful Karen at shadowsandsatin (a blog that all true fans of film noir should immediately bookmark) was kind enough to honor my blog with a Liebster Award.
The Liebster Award, for those of you that have never heard of it, is a blogging award. I assume the name means something about "beloved" but other than that, the Liebster is kind of a mystery to me. It's sort of the grande dame of blogging awards. Every nine months or so, it makes a splashy appearance in the blogosphere, popping up in glamorous locales like Mythical Monkey's place. And much like the stereotypical grande dame, every season it arrives with an expanded waistline. It used to be that the rules of the Liebster were that you had to nominate 5 other worthy blogs to receive the honor. Now, the rules of the Liebster are as follows:
1. Give 11 random facts about yourself. 2. Answer 11 questions from the blogger that nominated you. 3. Give the award to 11 other bloggers. 4. Give your nominees 11 new questions to answer.
Well, I finally have the space and time to tackle this one, so here it goes.
Come on, Oscar Liebster, let's you and me get drunk!
11 Random Facts About Me 1. My most treasured article of clothing is an embroidered Guatemalan vest that my mother bought in the States. As a kid, I was so in love with it that I insisted on posing for my second-grade school picture with it, despite the fact that it was several sizes bigger than I was. Still have it. 2. I have a framed copy of the first story I ever wrote. My mom caught me writing a few shaky sentences on yellow paper (I think I was about five) and saved it for me, in case I ever became a famous author.
3. I deeply, truly hate eating shrimp. 4. I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall more than Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.
5. My biggest spelling pet peeve is the misuse of compliment/complement.
6. I have an utter fascination with the Mitford sisters, royal marriages (but only the arranged historical ones, couldn't care less about William and Kate), mythology, personality and aptitude tests, Robin Hood adaptations, and Victorian gaslight thrillers.
7. I don't feel fully dressed without a dash of perfume.
8. I prefer dogs to cats.
9. Most of my friends refuse to play Scrabble with me. Or the rest of my family for that matter since we're all ruthless and inexorable when it comes to that game. 10. I'm the child of a lawyer and a teacher. So I'm always torn between the love of debate and the desire for everyone to get along. 11. Last book I read was A.S. Berg's biography of Sam Goldwyn and right now I'm feeling very fond of the abrasive, greedy old tyrant.
My Answers to Karen's Questions
1. What movie do you watch every time it comes on TV?
The Heiress is the first one that comes to mind. Not that it's ever on TV except for occasional showings on TCM, but it's posted on Youtube and there have been times I told myself, "Okay, I just want to see the proposal scene" and I always ended up watching the whole thing right through to Olivia de Havilland's stalk up the staircase. 2. What’s your favorite movie musical?
My Fair Lady.
3. What classic movie star would you have most liked to meet?
Orson Welles. There are others I love better, but I doubt many of them were as memorable in real life as Welles.
4. What’s your most treasured movie or TV-related possession? I suppose my copy of David Shipman's The Great Movie Stars-The Golden Years. Back in high school, I used to pour over the library copy of that one, staring in fascination at pictures of Norma Shearer, Ann Harding, and Joel McCrea. I didn't even know half the names, let alone the movies mentioned but that book enthralled me anyway. Like finding a door to Narnia. Then I went to college and forgot about Shipman until I discovered a copy of the book in a used bookstore. It was even better than I remembered. 5. If you could make a living doing whatever you wanted to do, what would that be?
Book editing. And if anybody wants to give me a job, they are welcome to leave a comment or drop me an e-mail.
6. What’s your favorite movie western?
The Magnificent Seven
7. Have you ever had an encounter with a movie or TV star? Nope. Although my uncle reportedly dated one of the Indiana Jones actresses.
8. If you could program a perfect day of movies on TCM, what would be the seven films on your schedule?
Oh, that's an interesting one. Do I go for the films I love, the films I'd love other people to discover, or the films I'd love to see for the first time? I guess I'll have to go for a combined approach:
Daughter of Shanghai: Not really said to be much good, but I've been dying for the chance to see Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn together, in a rare case of two Asian actors being given lead romantic parts in a 1930s Hollywood film.
Stage Door: Seen it twice but I love it so much. "Unfortunately I learned to speak English correctly." "That won't do you much good here, we all speak pig Latin."
Woman on the Beach: Because I love Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan and I've been wanting to see this one for ages.
Senso: Lush, operatic and so beautiful to look upon. The film that made me realize the greatness of Alida Valli.
Executive Suite: One of the few Barbara Stanwyck films to keep eluding me. Plus, it sounds like one to add to my list of "Movies that show Robert Wise deserves to be remembered for more than The Sound of Music and the endless debates on who killed the The Magnificent Ambersons."
They Live By Night: Another film noir that never seems to pop up on TV or online. And I very much want to see Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as doomed lovers.
The Band Wagon: To end the day on a high note.
9. Who are your top five favorite fictional characters?
I assume we're still talking about movies here? Well, at any rate, I'll just give the first five to pop into my head.
Stella from Rear Window. "He'd better get that trunk out of there before it starts to leak." Dorothy from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I guess I just have a thing for brunettes that can snap out one-liners like nobody's business. "Nobody chaperones the chaperone--that's why I'm so right for this job."
Ninotchka from well, Ninotchka. Could so easily have been a caricature but Garbo imbues her with such warmth and dignity and passion that it's impossible not to fall for her. Phil from Groundhog Day. One of the best and most perfectly calibrated depictions of a cynic finding out life's meaning that I've ever seen.
Harry Lime from The Third Man. He was my introduction to the idea that with fictional villains, less is more. 10. What movie have you seen more often than any other?
Annie (1982). I'd like to point out that movies seen during one's childhood have an unfair advantage here.
11. Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?
Bette Davis. I love Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, A Woman's Face, The Unknown, and Grand Hotel (where she pretty much steals the entire movie), but overall, I think Davis had the better career. And she was in The Letter, one of my all-time favorites.
My 11 Liebster Nominees
Now comes the hardest part, finding blogs to nominate. There are just too many fantastic ones to choose from! So I'll preface my nominations by saying that it's pretty much just a random selection of the many, many blogs that I cherish and admire. If I happen to nominate someone who's already been honored, consider yourself doubly appreciated! And if you're a nominee and you're eying that mountain of questions thinking, "Aww man, I don't have time for this," just stick your award on your blog and be done with it. These awards are meant for fun only. Now, let's get down to business.
All Danny Kenny (James Cagney) really wants from life is to settle down with his childhood sweetheart Peggy (Ann Sheridan) and to see his brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) finally complete that symphony he's been writing, a symphony of New York and all its ugliness and beauty. The trio have lived their whole lives scraping by in the slums of the Lower East Side, along with their friend the chronically criminal Googi (Elia Kazan). But while Eddie dreams of music, Peggy dreams of dancing, and Googi dreams of being a big shot, Danny refuses to climb higher. Even if his talent for boxing is more than enough to give him a chance at the limelight.
But when Peggy is lured away by a sleazy dancer (Anthony Quinn) and Eddie's music scholarship is taken away, Danny decides he has no choice but to fight his own way to success with his fists. Maybe then he can live up to Peggy's ambitions and give Eddie the chance to be heard. With the wise guidance of his manager Scotty (Donald Crisp), Danny does rise high, higher than he ever imagined. But what does it matter, if all he really wants is Peggy?
City for Conquest begins with a twinkly, omnipotent bum narrating the classic saga of New Yorkers that want too much. "This is my breakfast, talking up to the big town...seven million people fighting, biting, clawing away to get one foot on a ladder that'll take 'em to a penthouse." He tells all this to policeman Ward Bond, whose incredulous reaction is the funniest moment in the whole movie. Our self-appointed ringmaster moves on to weave his prophecies over a group of children, predicting that the twirling girl in the center will be a great dancer, that the boy punching a playmate in her defense will have to fight through life with his fists and so on. All through this introduction, my mind kept flashing to an image of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, wrapping her Brooklyn drawl around the line, "Brother, that's corn." I probably had Stanwyck on the brain thanks to a recent back-to-back viewing of Golden Boy and Clash by Night. But the reference has more relation to City for Conquest than you might think since since both films were adaptations of Clifford Odets plays. And City for Conquest feels so much like a movie that very badly wants to be Odets, specifically the Odets of Golden Boy. It wants to celebrate the poetry of the tenements and the scrabbling, hungry masses. It wants to explore their longings in high-flung metaphors. Danny Kenny's boxing becomes a stand-in for material ambition while his brother's desire to distill the essence of the American metropolis into melody is pure Gershwin and treated as a matter of near-celestial magnitude. It's easy to condescend to the pretentious sentimentality that floods City for Conquest (and Golden Boy for that matter) but at the time, this material had deep relevance for audiences fighting through the Depression. This was the struggle of the little guy, living in a world that seeks to bring him down.
The honest performances of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan are what save City for Conquest from sinking into a morass of dated pretension. The story is sentimental but they are not. They play two innocents, desperately in love but always failing to understand each other. Cagney's character Danny is utterly content with his lot in life, making him an unusual role for the actor. The Cagney canon is full of men reaching out to grasp for life with both hands. Here, the grasping is reserved for Ann Sheridan. Her character Peggy is even more naive than Danny but her powerful desire to be a great dancer is the undoing of them both.
The main problem with City for Conquest is that it wants to tell the story of people trying to conquer the world but centers on a protagonist who has no real ambition in life. How is Danny meant to encapsulate the dreams of the ordinary man when his pure selfless nobility and freedom from doubt make him about as extraordinary as they come? It's James Cagney that lifts Danny Kenny up from a metaphorical street angel into a true human being. As always, he feels too much but can't say it in words. His decision to box for the sake of his brother's musical career is told entirely through a shot of Cagney walking towards the piano, an affectionate smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. In another scene, he listens to Peggy argue with her mother. The mother takes exception to the way the couple sneak around back staircases instead of courting in the parlor and Peggy snaps back that there is no parlor, just a kitchen and a bedroom. The expression that flashes across Cagney's face tells us everything we need to know about Danny's embarrassment over the interruption, his discomfort at the reminder of their shared poverty, and his concern for Peggy.
Cagney's work here lacks the vibrant, unpredictable physicality of his best performances. I suspect that might be due to the direction of Anatole Litvak, who reportedly drove Cagney crazy with his insistence that the actor hit scores of chalk marks in every scene. There's a hint of constraint to his performance here that's suggestive of a man fighting down his own needs and wishes. Not very Cagney-like but wholly appropriate for the character. Cagney relies more on his eyes than his body here. It's an acting choice that becomes bitterly ironic by the movie's end.
City for Conquest was the third teaming of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan. Sheridan had shown scrappy charm in Angels With Dirty Faces and went on to blow everyone away in Torrid Zone, firing off one-liners with superb timing ("You push me one more time and you'll wear this suitcase as a necklace!") so another pairing with Cagney was only natural. They both had an unforced energy and warmth onscreen that always seemed rooted in the behavior of real people. When Sheridan gives Cagney a jab in the ribs or pulls his hat down around his ears, it feels more affectionate than an onscreen kiss. Sheridan's character here is a difficult one to play, a starstruck dancer whose constant flip-flopping over what she wants leads her into decisions that are naive at best and cowardly at their worst. Peggy could have been another monstrous ingenue along the lines of Priscilla Lane in The Roaring Twenties or Joan Leslie in High Sierra. Instead, she's sympathetic and ardent, a woman very clearly torn between love for Danny and the dawning realization that they want very different things from life. Sheridan also manages to subtly convey the effect that Peggy's controlling dance partner has on her, in the way she smiles too quickly and fiddles too much with her hands. In a way, Peggy might have been the more natural protagonist for City for Conquest since she's the more conflicted and ambitious character. The script however, gives her short shrift. With all the constant references to Danny's boxing name, "Young Samson," Peggy is very obviously meant to be Delilah, another corrupting female that saps the strength of her man and almost destroys him forever. The lesson is driven home further when Lee Patrick shows up late in the film. She's a wisecracking burlesque dancer who reminisces to Peggy about her own lost love and how she wishes she'd chosen the man over the career. Looking at the damage she's caused, Peggy is left with little choice but to agree.
Arthur Kennedy makes his film debut here, as Cagney's ambitious younger brother, the would-be composer. In fact, Kennedy was Cagney's own discovery; he'd spotted him onstage and convinced Warner Brothers to cast him. Kennedy would go on to join that strange class of character actors that included Van Heflin and Richard Widmark. Charismatic enough to be leads and too serious to be comic foils but still relegated to the edges. As he would in later roles, Kennedy brings a watchful intelligence to the part of Eddie Kenny, even if he's given some of the worst lines in the film. When he starts rambling about the music of Allen Street, "with all of its mounting, shrieking jungle-cries for life and sun," there's little to do but take in his reedy good looks and wait for the silent moments. When he looks at Cagney with mingled unease and love, you can see flashes of the actor he'll become.
Anthony Quinn also makes an impression as Murray Burns, the dancer who manipulates and abuses the hapless Peggy. Quinn's slick looks and black heart call to mind all the stereotypes of the time about male dancers, a profession that was often seen as one step away from being a gigolo. But Quinn is no lothario; when he calls Peggy "baby" he snaps it out like the recoil of a gun. He plays it for menace, not seduction. The movie hints many times about just how Murray keeps Peggy in line, including one scene that stops just short of implied rape.
While Anatole Litvak relies maybe a little too much on montage, there's no denying that his direction of City for Conquest is fluid and fast-paced, his camera gliding down the streets with a grace that echoes his characters and their need for constant movement. James Wong Howe's cinematography manages to convey more of the romance for New York and its denizens than any of the script's little curlicues. And there's a notable scene involving Elia Kazan (surprisingly not so bad as an actor), some thugs, and a tense confrontation in a car that must have suggested something to Kazan for On the Waterfront.
In the end, City for Conquest is a story that, like its characters, reaches too high. The movie's ultimate strength rests not in its stargazing speeches or strained metaphors but in the performances. When the camera just gives in to the struggles that play across the faces of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, then it becomes something real and moving. When Cagney gently asks Sheridan, "You still my girl?", it would take a pretty hardhearted moviegoer not to want to share in their dreams. If only for a little while.
"Boy was it crowded tonight on the subway. Talk about sardines. They got it easy. At least they're floating in olive oil."
The final boxing match between Danny Kenny and the opponent that ends up playing the dirtiest of tricks on him. Litvak and Wong Howe turn the scene into a precisely-melded sequence of montage, action shots, and closeups, letting you feel the weight of every blow, letting you see the emotions of every character that cares about Danny and watch their belief turn to horror. The outcome of the match is telegraphed from very early on but it only adds to the suspense. You keep waiting for somebody to realize what's going on but of course, help comes only too late.
Dodge City (1939) directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland
Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) is a soldier of fortune, a man who goes wherever the winds of chance and danger take him. Along with his faithful friend Rusty (Alan Hale), he accepts the job of helping the railroad come to the newly christened Dodge City. Its patron Colonel Dodge (Henry O'Neill) swears to the settlers that Dodge City will be a place of prosperity and civilization. But fast forward several years and it turns out that all those plans have gone awry. The ruthless Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) has taken control of the town; he and his gang cheat, steal, and murder with total impunity. The law is helpless.
If only they had a sheriff that wasn't afraid of Surrett, a man like Wade Hatton. But Wade isn't interested in a badge or in putting down roots. He just wants to finish up guiding a wagon train of settlers to Dodge City and he'll be on his way. An easy job that turns tragic when he ends up killing a drunken settler in self defense, a settler that happens to be the brother of beautiful Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland). But Abbie and Wade will have to join forces anyway when Surrett's evil becomes too much for the town to handle. He and his gang need to get the hell out of Dodge...
When I think of classic Westerns, I think about John Wayne standing in the doorway and looking at a life that will never be his and Gary Cooper staring down an empty and endless road. I think about Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, trying hopelessly to tell young toughs not to throw their lives away. James Stewart in The Naked Spur, dragging Robert Ryan's corpse behind him, crying out in anguish, "I'm going to sell him for money!" The little Mexican boys in The Magnificent Seven, putting flowers on the grave of the man who died for them. Regret is the shadow that dogs the steps of all great Western heroes and it's hard to think of a classic Western that doesn't end on a bittersweet note, mourning the slow death of the frontier even as it tries to reconcile the era's bloody hypocrisies. 1939 was the year that John Ford would redefine the Western for all time with Stagecoach. It was also the year of the uneven but important Destry Rides Again, the movie that stitched the template for future Western parodies like Blazing Saddles. In both films, happiness came to the protagonists in the end but it came quietly, after heartbreak and pain. In Stagecoach, the heroes can only be happy after they're freed "from the blessings of civilization." In Destry's case, the story's darkness ended up choking off all the comedy, with the pacifist hero taking up arms and sloughing off all memory of the woman that took a bullet for him.
And then you have Dodge City, a box-office-smashing 1939 Western that, despite sharing the same genre trappings as Stagecoach and Destry, doesn't even feel like part of the same species. The plot is pure Western, with Flynn's character called in to clean up a lawless town, held hostage by ruthless gunmen. And yet there's none of that bittersweet quality you get from other Westerns. No melancholy commentary on the toll of violence. No longing to escape the bounds of civilization. Most importantly of all, no sense of loneliness. Instead we have a bright-eyed tale of good and evil, two factions facing off against each other in the name of returning things to the natural order. Oh and comic sidekicks do things and beautiful people fall in love.Dodge City is essentially another Errol Flynn swashbuckler, albeit one that just happens to be set in the American frontier.
The great charm and the great weakness of this film
is that when it tries to be serious or heartfelt, it fails miserably. As in the scene where Random but Honorable Citizen has just been
murdered by the villain Surrett and his heartbroken moppet of a son pulls the
world's silliest crying face at the funeral:
On the flip side, when the movie gives up on drama and just embraces a spirit of fun, it can be quite enjoyable. I liked the comic interlude of Alan Hale (an underrated character actor who always seemed like pleasant company, no matter how dimwitted the role) falling into the clutches of the town's temperance league and vowing repentance. I liked the rowdy bar fight in the middle of the film that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. I liked watching Flynn stride around in neatly pressed, colorful Western wear, blithely explaining away the accent by calling himself a wandering Irishman.
I was reminded of Errol Flynn when I saw the unfairly-maligned John Carter last year. Watching Taylor Kitsch struggle to hit all the required character notes of dashing rogue, battle-scarred veteran, romantic lead, and compassionate hero made me think of just how effortless Flynn could make it all seem. I feel like I could stop a Flynn performance frame by frame and point out all the mechanics of it ("here comes the hearty laugh, now the noble frown") and yet somehow the magic remains. Watching him onscreen is an invitation to adventure. The greatest tribute to Flynn I can give is that over fifty years after his death, we're still looking for him. Kitsch by comparison just looks and sounds like any other earnest young actor, buffed up for his big break.
While Flynn took (and continues to take) plenty of knocks for being cinema's most courtly cowboy, Olivia de Havilland is hardly any more natural as a frontierswoman. In Dodge City, she's got the cutest little rolled-up sleeves you can imagine and the manners of a princess who's just had her luggage stolen. When Flynn tells her that out here men sometimes have to take the law into their own hands, de Havilland wrinkles her nose and responds with, "Oh yes, pioneering, I believe you call it." By all accounts, Dodge City was a rotten experience for de Havilland, who was completely fed up with being the decorative frosting in every Flynn movie. According to TCM, she would have preferred to play the sexy saloon girl, a part that went to Ann Sheridan. Looking at the film though, it's hard to see why since Sheridan gets absolutely nothing to do. That is, except to model the latest in Black Trash Bag and Fake Flower Couture:
And to lead the chorus of the Dancing Cupcake Liners:
I suspect something was left on the cutting room floor. That or de Havilland was just grasping for anything even slightly different from what Warners usually gave her. Actually, as Goatdog points out in his excellent run-down of Olivia de Havilland's action career, Dodge City gave the actress more to do than some of her other Flynn roles. Instead of being relegated to the parlor, she gets to work in a newspaper office, scowling at Flynn when he jokingly tells her to go find a man's buttons to sew back on.
What really saps her character of interest is the lack of a true emotional arc. There was potential for it, though. Wade Hatton is the man that killed Abbie's brother, which makes for a darker and more unsettling obstacle to the Flynn-de Havilland romance than most of their films. However, the impact is dulled because a) her brother is a complete tool, a man so obviously gunning for the pre-modern equivalent of a Darwin Award that his death is more comic than tragic and b) the death is treated as something Abbie's just got to get over, silly female emotions be damned. Come to think of it, isn't that how most Flynn films treat the romance, with Flynn alternately mocking de Havilland and waiting for her to realize that he was right all along? However, Dodge City's romancelacks the kinky energy of Captain Blood ("I look at you as the woman who owns me") or the sweetness of The Adventures of Robin Hood so it falls flat.
Still, we're left with the ever-powerful chemistry between the two performers and their incredible physical beauty, made even more mesmerizing by Technicolor. Watching them banter under sunny skies is just one of those classic cinematic pleasures that can't be taken away by bad writing and the knowledge that de Havilland was counting the hours until she could get off this set.
Michael Curtiz's direction keeps the film moving along briskly even if it's essentially a game of stalling until Wade Hatton finally decides to take down Surrett for good. Curtiz was an old hand at the swashbuckling genre by now and even in scenes where it's just people talking, the camerawork is alert but unobtrusive. His characters are in constant motion, but he knows how to keep an audience focused even as he dollies back through enormous crowds of extras. I'm sort of in love with the way Curtiz films always make the dialogue sound interesting. In the case of Dodge City, I never realized how pedestrian the wisecracks were until I tried to rummage through them for a favorite quote. And of course, when the action does pick up, Curtiz ratchets up the excitement for a hair-raising and fiery climax on a moving train.
One thing I notice about the old Flynn swashbucklers is that they almost always leave a sour aftertaste in regards to their theme of restoring the rights and privileges of white men. They Died with Their Boots On is the most obvious example of historical awkwardness, with General Custer burnished as a hero and the U.S. government absolved of any responsibility in the destruction of native lives and land. But there's also Santa Fe Trail, which practically ties itself into a Viennese pretzel trying to decry the fanatical actions of John Brown while hemming and hawing over just what he was so fanatical about. In that one, Flynn's character just kept repeating that slavery could not be destroyed so quickly. As opposed to Captain Blood in which he's leading a white slave rebellion. Dodge City smoothly elides the question of native rights by just ignoring them entirely, aside from a brief mention that Surrett is shooting buffalo that rightfully belong to the Native Americans. Ultimately, Dodge City remains a mildly enjoyable footnote in one of the greatest years for American cinema. The most interesting aspect of the film is how little relation it has to the Westerns that came after it. This is the Western reinvented for pure spectacle, a Technicolor adventure starring one of the most beloved screen teams of all time. It's an ice cream soda in a genre stocked with straight whiskey. Looking at Flynn and de Havilland, it's hard not to feel a pang that swashbucklers have died out. But it would be equally difficult not to sigh in relief that movie Westerns would follow a rockier and more complicated path in the decades to come.
"You're not suggesting that I'm a native?"
"No. The only real native of Kansas is the buffalo. He's got a very hard head, a very uncertain temper, and a very lonely future. Apart from that there's hardly any point of comparison between you." Favorite Scene:
In my recent review of Epstein's Lee Marvin biography, I mentioned the actor's open disdain for the smooth, harmless violence of typical movie brawls. "Tables and bottles go along with mirrors and bartenders, and you end up with that little trickle of blood down your cheek, and you're both pals and wasn't it a hell of a wonderful fight...that's phony." Marvin had a very good point, but I think the epic barroom brawl in Dodge City is so enjoyable that it deserves to be taken on its own terms. Michael Curtiz clearly decided to stage the fight in much the same way Busby Berkeley handles his musical set pieces. It's big, glorious, and defies you to make sense of it or its relation to the plot. Just about everything you could imagine in a Western saloon fight happens in this sequence. People are sent flying off of balconies. Chairs and tables are crashed over so many heads that the furniture is eventually whittled down to toothpicks. At one point, a cowboy tries to lasso his opponent into submission. What looks like hundreds of Warner Brothers extras are all there, swinging and hollering away. When the camera finally pans away, allowing the viewer to look at the full extent of the destruction, it's hard not to marvel.
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.
Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
Normally, I let my goodbyes on this blogpass without commentary but I can't let Roger Ebert's death go without sharing my favorite memory, out of countless moments spent in appreciation of the man's great mind and love of film. I was re-watching Citizen Kane, in preparation forwriting an essay on it. And I remember noticing Ebert's commentary track and thinking, "Well, I'll just listen to a few minutes of this for inspiration." I rarely have the patience for commentary tracks. Of course, I ended up listening to the whole thing, utterly enthralled as Ebert brought the film backto me in all its wonder, its strange wildness and glory.That to meis Ebert's great legacy as a critic. He never lost the ability to marvel, to be generous, and simply, to watch a film. And he saw more of them in his lifetime than most of us could ever hope to match. Goodbye, Mr. Ebert. You will be missed.