Tag Archives: Charles Bickford

Jim Thorpe — All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951)

jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe — All American is one of three films Burt Lancaster did in the 1950s that explored discrimination against native peoples in the US and that in their modest way pushed the boundaries of representation in American popular culture. Apache (Richard Aldrich, 1954) and The Unforgiven (John Huston, made in 59 but released in 1960) are the others. ‘When white man lick Indian, he win battle’, one of Thorpe’s room-mates tells him, ‘Indian lick white man – ‘massacre’. The film’s very title harks back to Knute Rockne — All American (Lloyd Bacon, 1940), and the discrimination of native peoples, who should be equal by law, is the overt theme of the film, as indicated from the very first with Burt Lancaster’s star entrance (below):

 

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The film is a sports biopic of Jim Thorpe, an Algonquin from Oklahoma Territory who went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to keep a promise to his father. With the help of football coach Glen Scobey (“Pop”) Warner (Charles Bickford), Thorpe, whose native name is ‘Bright Path’, became one of the legendary athletes of the day, excelling in football, baseball and track, for which he won several medals at the Olympics. He was stripped of those medals for having played baseball ‘professionally’ during the summer, although he barely made enough to cover food and rent whilst playing, underlining the class underpinnings of ‘amateur.’ He recovers professionally, overcoming the debacle with the medals and racial discrimination, only to be brought low once more by the death of his only son and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage. Near the end of the film we see him in full cigar-store Indian drag, desultorily mc-ing a  dance marathon in 1930. Burton is great at expressing a deadness in the eyes that speaks of struggles to maintain dignity in the face of alienation and humiliation.

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Curtiz symbolises the break-up of Jim Thorpe’s marriage via the bed, and Burt, star that he is, manages to find the pin-lights with his eyes before collapsing in grief:

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Alex K. Rode, Cutiz’ biographer writes that ‘The picture received generally positive reviews and grossed nearly a million dollars over its cost. Jim Thorpe — All American was characteristic of Curtiz’ postwar Warner films: a well-made, profitable picture that quickly faded from the public’s memory’.

Curtiz was the top director at Warners in the classic period for a reason. The integration of stock footage into the banquet scenes that bookend the film and in the Olympics sequence are seamlessly integrated, and must have considerably cut down on the film’s budget. The editing of the sports sequence, often in mid-motion to give flow to Lancaster’s movement and whoever doubled for him, is also very fine. It has some lovely bits, such as here below with Burt, Phyllis Thaxter and the baby.

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The more emotional moments are in striking expressionist shadows that are very characteristic of the ‘shadow’ pay one sees throughout Curtiz’ oeuvre.

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…and the compositions, superbly filmed by Ernest Haller, are original and striking:

 

In spite of all the above, the film also feels emotionally crude, pat, everything beautifully directed as to image and pacing but lacking in depth, understanding or delicacy. It vividly conveys the outline of feeling, but it always feels like it’s walloping the main point at the expense of the subtler, more complex, more contradictory dimensions of character and story. Burt Lancaster, who’s never given the credit he deserves, is superb.

 

José Arroyo

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, USA, 1947)

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I’ve now seen Brute Force several times, hoping to be persuaded by the claims others make for it but I remain unconvinced. The story of prison inmates suffering through the sadistic actions of a quasi-Nazi prison official (Hume Cronyn) and attempting an escape which ends in failure is excitingly rendered visually by Jules Dassin and cinematographer William H. Daniels.

It’s got very striking compositions (see below):

Some exciting set-pieces, like the final mow-down in the prison yard, or when inmates force the squealer into the industrial press with blowtorches: (see below):

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Daniels’ low-key lighting is really beautiful and expressive:

Particularly good at lighting actor’s faces:

I always like seeing scenes of people watching movies, such as here when the inmates watch The Egg and I, with Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray:

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It’s also got an incredible cast of noir stalwarts, not only Lancaster and Charles Bickford but also Yvonne De Carlo, Anne Blyth and Ella Raines:

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The film also has the kind of gratuitous and extraneous chest baring I am also partial to:

 

And one which the film deployed to the market the film. The shot below was used in publicity but appears nowhere in the film:

 

So with all this going for it, why does it fail to convince? In the essay that accompanies the Arrow release, Frank Krutnik notes that the film was based on a botched escape attempt at Alcatraz in May 1946 and that producer Mark Hellinger, ‘enlisted the fiercely liberal novelist Richard Brooks, author of the sensational best-seller The Brick Foxhole (filmed y RKO in 1947 as Crossfire), who had crafted the original screen story for The Killers. Lik Hellinger Brooks was fascinated by Heminway’s tough, masculine ethos and, as a New York Times reviewer commented, his post-war screen work — Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo (1948) — consisted of ‘savage indictments of social wrong. melodramatic and hairy chested, they demonstrated the shock technique of the movie’s current approach to controversy.’

Brooks was praised for his ‘bristling and biting’ dialogue but the rest of his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The character of Calypso (Sir Lancelot), though in many ways a respectful representation of a black inmate (the lone one we see) is a ridiculous contrivance, embarrassingly singing every bit of action that he’s part of to a calypso beat.  The flashback structures to the women are also very poorly dramatised, the sections of the way in Italy being particularly embarrassing. And this ‘hairy chested’ and ‘tough, masculiine ethos’ also turns out to be very homophobic, not only making of Captain Munsey a Wagner-listening quasi Nazi, but also clearly coding him as homosexual. See the amount of ‘classic’ male nudes, pictures and statues, his prison office is furnished with:

and which help to explain glances like this in the film:

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According to Krutnik, the film was regarded as setting a new standard for screen brutality and Life magazine deemed it a ‘picture of almost unrelieved violence and gloom’ and by the ending scene, ‘the screen is drenched with blood and littered with corpses’. Standards for violence have now been raised, or lowered, depending on your point of view. A liberal denunciation of prison conditions, a great vehicle for Burt Lancaster, a huge hit in its day. But at best a mixed bag now, at least for this viewer.

 

The Arrow Academy edition is lovely to look at with a really interesting film in which Burt Lancaster biographer Kate Burford talks intriguingly of this noir period of Lancaster’s career.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir, USA, 1947)

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Scott (Robert Ryan) is a coastguard who’s boat was torpedoed during the war and is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend, Eve (Nan Leslie), and they’re planning to marry. But he´s not quite well and they decide to wait. Big mistake. One day he meets a woman on the beach, Peggy (Joan Bennett). She’s no good. She’s married to a blind painter, Tod (Charles Bickford) and has already cheated on him once before.  For Scott, meeting Peggy is like coming out of a fog and into a compulsion, and is beautifully visualised for us by Renoir (see below).

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For Peggy meeting Scott is… well who knows for sure. The film leaves it deliciously ambiguous. Sometimes the film indicates that he’s just some bit of juicy meat to her. Other times, a means out of an increasingly self destructive and interdependent relationship with her husband. As you can see below, she admits to cheating on her husband before: ‘I’m a tramp, say it. ‘And whilst she admits to being a tramp she certainly makes no apologies for it. Watching Bennett, perhaps the surliest female presence in all of American cinema, is a pleasure all film noir lovers will recognise.

In Jean Renoir: A Biography, Pascal Mérigeau writes that, ´Renoir knew  that he wouldn´t be able, as he´d confirm after the project, to attempt something that I´d wanted to do for a long time: a film about what you´d  call sex today..but envisioned from the point of view of the purely physical,¨and that it would be impossible ¨to tell a story about love in which the reasons for attraction between the different parties were purely physical, a story in which sentiment would play no part at all¨ (location 11636, Kindle edition).

The film has a discourse on art by someone who should know: Renoir fils learned  a thing or two about it from his father and his friends: the painter who can no longer see, who’s vision is entirely encapsulated in paintings increasingly gaining in value because he can no longer make them, who’s tied to the past in those works and thus also imprisons she whom he loves most, a woman who might only be staying with him for what those paintings are worth…it’s almost too much as a plot though Bickford is wonderful as the blind but still controlling husband, his gaze almost always in the right place so it rouses suspicions as to whether he really is blind.

The nightmare sequences at the beginning and end are wonderfully modernist. The first one, which  starts the film is below:

…and useful to compare to the one near the end:

 

Renoir is extraordinary in creating a mood, a sense of physical compulsion in which questions of morality are over-ridden by desires that can’t be fully comprehended. Mérigeau writes, ‘there´s  nothing to please a viewer who may have been attracted to the idea of seeing a film noir. Although it truly is a film noir, it contains no crime other than those that might exist in the minds of the characters, who need to get rid of their traumas, obsessions, and fantasies if they are ever  to escape their deep, adherent isolation’ (location 11738)

The ending makes no sense to me. It is perhaps arrived at too quickly and I plan on looking into the production history of the film at a later point (and due to the wonders of social media Adrian Martin has kindly pointed out to me that Janet Bergstrom has written a dossier on the troubled production, Janet Bergstrom, ‘Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the BeachFilm History 11 (1) (1999) 114-125) ..But I loved it in spite of that and plan to see it again.

The Woman on the Beach was Renoir’s last American film, one in which he says, ‘I wanted to proceed more by suggestion than by demonstration: a film of acts never carried out..This gives the film an ambiguity that well-complements its intensity: strong feelings not quite understood but carried on into actions, many of them later regretted.

 

It´s a film Renoir tried to forget, without ever quite disowning. It´s certainly imperfect. But it´s also a very beautiful film, a hypnotic presentation of a lulling into sexual desire and physical compulsion that deserves to be seen again and again in spite of its faults

 

José Arroyo

Bibliography:

R. B.Jones, The Lives of Robert Ryan

Pascal Mérigeau: Jean Renoir: A Biography, RatPac Press, 2016, translated by Bruce Benderson with a Foreword by Martin Scorsese.