Burt Lancaster. I was idly glancing at the TV when Apache (Robert Aldrich, 1954) came on, and there´s a love scene there with Jean Peters that´s as sensual and perhaps more deeply felt than the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Then, I saw the beginning of Jim Thorpe: All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951) where again he plays a native person, a natural athlete, where his very grace in movement is a reproach to the system: ´when they win it´s a great battle, when we win it´s written up as a massacre’. Then the acrobatics in The Flame and The Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) are as joyous and exhilarating as any musical number. these bits made me think that whilst we tend to emblematise US culture through cinema as Brando or Marilyn or James Dean, Burt Lancaster is the star who best evoked how America was seen at home and abroad in the middle of the last century: the strength, dynamism, beauty, the plenitude expressed by his figure, the freedom in his movement, the chiclets teeth that gleamed like a new Cadillac and the shock of wavy hair that evoked the wildness of ranges and forests and beaches. And that he evoked all of that — and one only has to see what Anna Magnani says about him in Bellisima (Luchino Visconti, 1951) to know that he did, whilst still condensing a critique, truly makes him stand out for me, though perhaps others will say the same of Monroe, Taylor, Holden, Brando et al. A morning thought.
I saw this episode of The Barbara Stanwyck show mainly to see what Jacques Tourneur could do in what is basically a twenty minute television format but became entranced by the way each episode started.
As you can see above Barbara Stanwyck turns her head, the camera pulls back, the name of the show appears and leaves us only with her silhouette. It then fades to black, starts with her silhouette and the camera moves in to reveal the new dress she’s wearing ending with a medium shot above the waist as Stanwyck recounts the plot and informs us of who the writer and the director is.
The show was clearly influenced by the Loretta Young so which had been running since 1953 and would enjoy its final season just as Barabara Stanwyck would start her new one. Loretta was famous for modelling a new dress each show. I assume that the producers of the Barbara Stanwyck show also imagined that female audiences would tune in to see what its star was wearing. Barbara, however, does not twirl. It’s an elegant and informative opening.
The producers have clearly taken care to provide the star with as many changes of outfit as possible and they manage to cram quite a few in twenty minutes (see below).
The format of this series is an anthology one, with different stories each week, which gives everyone involved more scope but is perhaps less satisfying for an audience. Here Barbara Stanwyck is a silk entrepreneur who goes to the see the US Vice Consul in Hong Kong (Ralph Bellamy) guest starring and bumps into Hong Kong waif who has already found adoptive parents but can´t find the papers necessary to prove who he is and has a deadline in which to get them. Needless to say Ralph and Barbara help, everything is resolved at the end and US services abroad get praised in Barbara´s concluding chat, a visual and structural rhyme to the beginning.
The format allows for little preparation, few set-up, little camera movement in the story itself. What I noticed is that Tourneur frames judiciously, often keeping the accent on the boy. Stock footage is used extraordinarily well to give the impression that all the action happens in Hong Kong, and the actors give extraordinarily accomplished performances given the material. It´s also worth noting that the potential for racism is extremely high and the show largely avoids it even though I did wonder if it had in any way inspired the character of Short Round in Spielberg´s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Stanwyck won an Emmy for her performance in the serious. As to Tourneur, he directed quite a lot of episodic television, and I will see some more, but…episodic television of this period is not a director´s medium.
Nightfalls offer many pleasures: the realisation of it’s influence on the Cohen Brothers’ Fargo; the sight of Aldo Ray, Frank Albertson, Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft; all looking so young; the gruff squeakyness of Aldo Ray’s voice; and much much more. One of the oddest of its pleasures is this clip below: Anne Bancroft modelling Jean Louis gowns whilst Brian Keith and his henchman use her as bait to catch Aldo Ray. The fashion show seems even more out of place than filming a noir amidst snowy mountains:
An atmospheric Western, almost a noir. Whilst watching it, I asked myself ‘is it still possible to watch Westerns today’? Here, ‘Indians’ are treated with more sympathy than usual. Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), with his lack of ethics and rampant desires, is the real villain of the piece. But we still see the natives as barbaric, anonymous, and vengefully mowing down beautiful blonde women with adorable babies. If one can put that to the side, and the film is unusual in giving the natives cause — this is a retaliation — or abstract it into symbolism that can stand for something else, Canyon Passage offers deep pleasures of composition and lighting, a world where the sublime natural beauty of Oregon’s mountains, forests and rivers is at the same time a shadowy backdrop to all-too human failings: doubt, desire, greed, want, weakness. Dana Andrews, looking like a sourer version of Mel Gibson in his youth, plays the hero, Logan Stuart. Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) is who he ends up with. Brian Donlevy plays George Camrose, the genial but morally weak friend who keeps getting the hero in trouble. I’d never seen Hoagy Carmichael in colour before and he looks unusually handsome warbling his tunes. A very blond Lloyd Bridges is surprisingly lithe and sexy as a moral anchor of dubious reliability. Patricia Roc is Susan Haward’s rival for Dana’s affections. They all play a game of ‘want vs should’ in beautiful world so wild and densely forested that even the light that manages to seep through is itself the source of a shadows. It’s a world filled with danger, death, and in which moral dilemmas get played out in turn by each of the protagonists in ways that shape their fate. ‘. This can now be seen in a glisteningly gorgeous print on MUBI.
In an incisive introduction to Chris Fujiwarara´s excellent Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (London: McFarlane and Compnay, 1998), Martin Scorcese writes,
Tourneur was an artist of atmospheres. For many directors, an atmosphere is something that is ‘established´, setting the stage for the action to follow. For Tourneur it is the movie, and each of his films boasts a distinctive atmosphere, with a profound sensitivity to light and shadows, and a very unusual relationship between characters and environment — the way people move through space in Tourneur movies, the way they simply handle objects, is always special, different from other films….Canyon Passage (is) an example of the short-lived but very interesting sub-genre of the ´noir western´and a picture that´s very special to me. It´s one of the most mysterious and exquisite examples of the the western genre ever made. When you think of ´westerns´you immediately picture the plains or the desert , vast spaces that stretch on and for miles. But this film, Tourneur´s first in color, is set in a small town in the mountains of Oregon, and it is lush, green, muted, and rainy (one of the first scenes in the movie shows the cramped main street of Portland turned into a muddy bog by a downpour). Even the open spaces in this movie are just small clearings. If you study Canyon Passage carefully you´ll see that Tourneur constantly composes diagonally into small spaces, showing people walking up or down inclines, and it gives you the feeling that this is a real settler´s town….There are some beautiful set pieces in Canyon Passage like the Indian attack and the barnraising, but the overall tone is so carefully controlled that every small variation or nuance has an impact. That´s what makes Tourneur´s films so unsettling, this strange undercurrent that runs through every scene but that somehow enhances the dramatic impact of the whole film.