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Colorado Territory (1949) A Western Remake of High Sierra

images (1)I’ve written the words “I don’t usually like Westerns, but…” so often that I am beginning the rethink my long-stated aversion to the genre. I thought I didn’t like Westerns because when I set out to watch the classics, they never seemed to do anything for me. But there are a few Westerns I do enjoy, often by directors like William Wellman and Raoul Walsh (or sometimes Anthony Mann), though they rarely make anybody’s top ten list. But I really liked Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory. It might perhaps be the Western I have most enjoyed (with stiff competition from Winchester ’73).

Colorado Territory was directed by Raoul Walsh in 1949 and is a Western remake of Walsh’s gangster classic High Sierra, from 1941. High Sierra was based on a novel by W.R. Burnett (who also wrote the novel Little Caesar) and is the movie that really boosted Humphrey Bogart’s career and gave him his first good shot at being a leading man. Possibly because of the presence of Bogart, High Sierra remains the most known of the three manifestations of Burnett’s novel (there was a 1955 version with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters), however, I think Colorado Territory is the stronger film.

Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is an outlaw who escapes from prison and heads for the Colorado Territory where Rickard (Basil Ruysdael), the man who arranged for his escape, has another job for him to do. Wes is tired of the life and wants to settle down and buy a farm, but he agrees to do this one last job out of gratitude and so he can finance the land he wants to buy. He does not, however, trust the men he will be working with. Duke (James Mitchell) is a young would-be philosopher who thinks he’s smarter than he really is and Reno (John Archer) is a bully without much brains. Also along for the ride is Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a woman who is part Native American with a colorful past who’s been hanging out with Duke and Reno as an alternative to working at the dance hall (code for brothel). They are all hiding together in an abandoned Spanish city and tensions run high, with Duke and Reno fighting over Colorado while she falls for Wes.

Reno, Colorado, Wes and Duke

Reno, Colorado, Wes and Duke

But McQueen doesn’t want her. He wants Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone), who reminds him of the woman he loved and lost (she died). Julie Ann is out west with her father, Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) to start a new life on a ranch. But Julie Ann is not exactly the sweet woman Wes thinks she is. Meanwhile, Duke and Reno are plotting with an ex-detective named Pluthner (Harry Woods) – who also works for Rickard – to kill Wes and make off with all the money they get from the train heist Rickard has planned, though Wes smells a rat (or rats) and is on to them, while Colorado continues to stand by his side through everything.

The train heist is quite exciting – I’ve always had a thing for train heists and trains in general. Put a train in a Western or in any movie, really, and the movie automatically gets a few extra points from me. The scenery is also impressive, with the wide expanses, grand hills and stark mountains where Wes flees at the end.

And in many ways, I think the story of High Sierra works better as a Western instead of a gangster film. One reason is because it is not focused, like High Sierra is, on the end of gangsters as a breed of men, which makes for a more personal focus on Wes and Colorado, their romance, his weariness with running and robbing and his desire to have land of his own, Colorado’s desire to be loved and belong and her utter loyalty to him. Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo have good chemistry and it’s a more satisfying romance than Bogart and Ida Lupino, as much as I love both actors, but Lupino seemed more like a kid with an extreme case of hero worship. There’s a rightness between McCrea and Mayo, as if the two belong together, even when Wes does not initially realize it.

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Virginia Mayo and Joel McCrea

Spoilers! Joel McCrea almost always played a man of principle, especially in his Westerns. He seemed to radiate integrity, so even when he plays an outlaw, as he does here, somehow you still feel like he’s the most principled man around. It’s hard to root for the men who represent the law. Their just doing their duty, but it’s a rough justice they administer, going as far as lynching Duke and Reno. The Marshal (Morris Ankrum) is a cunning man, though, and a combination of betrayal, greed and just plain good planning by the Marshall and his posse, cause the downfall of Wes McQueen.

The ending I also found to be more satisfying in Colorado Territory than High Sierra. He is driven up into the mountains and makes an epic last stand, but once again the personal touch is more in evidence. He is concerned, while alone in an abandoned Indian city carved into the mountain, of leaving a written confession exonerating Colorado, while she is at the foot of the mountain, trying everything she can to save him, only to have the Marshall use her love for Wes to lay a trap. There is something very fitting in how the two of them end up dying together at the last in a blazing shootout. It’s almost poetic.

The acting is top notch. My first introduction to Virginia Mayo was through comedies with Danny Kaye and Bob Hope, but after seeing her in White Heat (also directed by Raoul Walsh – Mayo said she had her best roles in his movies) and now Colorado Territory, I’ve come to appreciate her more. Dorothy Malone is also good as Julie Ann and I find the idea that Wes would fall for her much more plausible then Bogart’s character falling for the teenage Joan Leslie. The script also feels tighter, more streamlined. Colorado Territory really deserves to be better known for its own sake and not just as a remake.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2015 in Movies

 

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When You Don’t Like a Great Classic Film and Introducing Others to Classic Movies

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

I always feel embarrassed and slightly apologetic when I don’t love a great classic movie. My Man Godfrey? When the subject comes up, I smile sheepishly and fidget. Dare I admit it? I didn’t like My Man Godfrey. I couldn’t take it. Carole Lombard drove me up the wall and for years I was convinced that I did not like screwball comedies. If My Man Godfrey was the quintessence of the screwball comedy, then there was no hope for me. But then I saw The Lady Eve and suddenly the screwball comedy genre opened its arms towards me and I embraced it…though I still don’t particularly like My Man Godrey. I love the actors, but not the movie.

My Man Godfrey also put me off from watching Carole Lombard’s movies and it was not until Hands Across the Table that I realized that she was actually very funny.

I suppose the lesson here is that just because you don’t like the banner title of a genre it does not follow that you won’t like the genre (or the actor) and that is why I am always leery of recommending movies. Sometimes the banner movie can actually scare people away from the genre (or actor). If you don’t like the acknowledged best, why would you like any of the others? My Man Godfrey frequently makes lists as a good movie to introduce non-classic movie lovers to classic movies, but because of my experience I wonder. Does it really appeal to non-classic movie lovers and I am just the exception or would another movie be better to recommend generally?

But people are so idiosyncratic in their tastes. Perhaps it would be better to simply suggest a movie you had fun with, regardless of its actual merit or the importance it had in movie history. I have a theory that the list of important classics has been partly predetermined by TV and what was available for the last fifty years: The Wizard of OzIt’s a Wonderful Life, etc. My eye doctor told me that he found classic movie acting to be over-the-top, but I wonder what movies form the basis of that assessment. It’s like when people see Douglas Fairbanks in a silent film and assume all silent acting was like him, when he represents one unique style among many.

The way I actually became interested in classic movies was not by targeting specific recommended films, but by picking an actor I liked and watching all their movies I could find: Myrna Loy and William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire. As a result, I saw their best films, mediocre films and even some bad films, but it gave me a  sense of the different genres and eras (pre-code, 1930s, WWII movies, 1940s, 1950s, musicals, melodramas, comedies).

Orson Welles

Orson Welles from Citizen Kane

But I still feel embarrassed when I don’t like a great classic. Another secret shame is the fact that I have not yet seen a film directed by Orson Welles that I have enjoyed: The Magnificent AmbersonsThe StrangerTouch of Evil. It’s almost tantamount to admitting intellectual inferiority to say that I didn’t appreciate Welles’ genius. The movies were interesting, well acted and completely failed to engage me emotionally (I enjoyed The Stranger the most, partially because it had Edward G. Robinson and I love him in anything). I haven’t dared watch Citizen Kane. It’s long been hailed as the greatest American movie ever made and what happens to your credibility when you don’t like the greatest movie ever made? It makes you a cultural philistine.

Though there is a vast difference between liking a movie and appreciating or understanding it.

A movie that I have never read a negative review of but can hardly stand to watch is Only Angels Have Wings. It’s not because it’s a bad movie – it’s a very good movie – but it frustrates me at every turn. A greater bunch of immature boy/men it would be impossible to find. And when Cary Grant gets mad at Rita Hayworth because she does not blindly stand by her disgraced husband (because she does not know he’s disgraced because he has not told her, even though she can tell something is wrong by the way the men are treating him) I couldn’t help wondering what he thinks marriage is, anyway. It is not ignorant trust. Women, apparently, are only good for supporting their men while their men figure out their problems in relation to other men and do their manly things while the women sit at home and worry.

Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings

Sometimes, movies just hit on a pet peeve for you and it becomes difficult to overlook the peeve to see the merits of rest of the film. And sometimes movies simply fail to engage you emotionally, the cause of which I find unfathomable. And sometimes, I am willing to overlook everything for the sake of an aspect I really enjoy. I have forgiven many a shaky musical plot for the sake of the dancing I love.

My policy now is to never recommend a movie, but instead talk enthusiastically about all the movies I have been watching. I talk partially because I love old movies and you talk about what you love and also because it gives friends and family the opportunity to decide if a movie sounds interesting to them or not. When I talk about enough movies, eventually something will pique their interest and they want to see it. And when they chose the movie, it gives them the initiative. I don’t have to urge it on them and they are now predisposed to like the movie.

What classic movies do you dislike, even in the face of universal acclaim? Have you ever had any luck recommending movies to others?

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Movie Thoughts

 

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No Way Out (1950) – Sidney Poitier’s Movie Debut

Poster - No Way Out (1950)_01Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.

Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.

After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.

But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.

But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.

Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.

No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.

1083_019851.jpgRichard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.

Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.

No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.

In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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