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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Gunman's Walk' - An Underseen 1950s Western

Fans of tall, blond and dreamy 1950s movie star and singer Tab Hunter will want to approach Gunman's Walk (1958) with caution.  Here, Hunter is tall, gorgeous...and completely despicable.  The blackness of his character at times stretches credulity, but I'll bet you won't regret the experience of this underappreciated, thematically layered, and well-crafted western.

[This post is my contribution to the 'Underseen and Underrated' CMBA Spring Blogathon.  Go here to see all the posts this week, and take the road less traveled, film-wise.]

This western was made by Columbia Pictures and directed by Phil Karlson, better known for directing noirs such as 99 River St. and Kansas City Confidential, than westerns.  The story by Ric Hardman was converted to the screen by Frank Nugent, who over the prior decade had penned many scripts for John Ford, including The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Mister Roberts.  Getting top billing in the cast was veteran Van Heflin, followed by Hunter, and then James Darren and Kathryn Grant, at the time recently wed to Bing Crosby. Character actors Will Wright and Edward Platt, had small but memorable roles. 

The story revolves around a rancher, Lee Hackett (Heflin), who raised his two sons, Ed (Hunter) and Davy (Darren), to revere him, and instilled in them a sense of inferiority that manifested very differently in each son.  Ed is hotheaded, always wanting to equal or best his father, while Davy is introverted and generally compliant.  Lee, who the sons call by his first name, sees himself more in rambunctious Ed, and has trouble communicating with Davy.  However, Ed has developed a pathological streak, and Lee indulges him and protects him, which only frustrates the competitive son more.  Eventually Ed causes the death of a half-Indian ranch hand, the brother of a young woman (Grant) recently courted by Davy, by running him off a cliff while on horseback.  The only witnesses are two Indians who testify in court that the death was no accident.  However, a stranger appears and testifies the opposite, and Ed is let free.  This stranger, who was nowhere near the incident, expects payment from Hackett by in the form of ten of his best horses, including a white mare prized by Ed and Davy.  Lee relents, feeling he has no choice if he wants to protect Ed, but when word of this gets to Ed, a series of deadly confrontations ensue, leading up to the dramatic climax. 
James Darren (left) as Davy Hackett and Tab Hunter as Ed Hackett
Why Watch?
In 97 minutes, the film cleverly explores three themes in some depth. Credit screenwriter Nugent, whose script is economic and incredibly believable throughout.  The first, and most obvious theme, is family dysfunction, with an emphasis on the destructive side of masculinity. In the 1950s Hollywood 'discovered' the teenage/young adult market, and a great number of films explored topics of the generation gap, rebellious youth and clueless adults.  Think Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, to start. Gunman's Walk was very much of its time in this regard. 

The central male characters, father and two sons, compellingly play out the family drama.  Lee (Heflin) is essentially a good man, with a strong reputation in the community, but with his alternating competitive and indulgent treatment of his sons, has created a situation even he can't control. As Ed, Hunter himself was apparently very happy to get different sort of role and relished it. Early in the film we learn he's reckless with a gun--in a challenge to his father, he suggests each shoot a tin can that the other is holding in his hand, and while Lee decides the can needs to be positioned on a fence instead, and has just set it down, Ed shoots with no warning.  It goes downhill from there.  Ed reveals himself to be incredibly racist, boorish, and murderous. I had a mixed reaction to Hunter's performance. He did a great job of making me despise him, pulling out all the stops; yet he went so far on the black side that he lacked a nuance that would allow us to see some positive elements of his character. In a telling piece of film-making, a frustrated Ed throws a shot glass at his father's reflection in a barroom mirror. 
Davy Hackett is Ed's opposite - he's calm, sensitive, and respectful of his father, despite having reservations about the violence his father tacitly endorses. As a result, Lee can't relate to him and the son feels somewhat rejected.  Later in the movie Davy begins to stand up for himself--at one point during a confrontation with his father he says "Hey Lee, whadda ya know?  Without your boots on you aren't even as tall as I am!"  James Darren's portrayal of Davy is serviceable, if not remarkable.  Ultimately, the film leaves it to the audience to determine what was the cause of the family's downfall -- Lee's poor parenting, Ed's despicable character, circumstances, or all of the above.
The second theme is racism, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans. Here there isn't a doubt which side the film is on...while the white settler and local Sioux have come to an uneasy arrangement, the Indians are portrayed as victims of white supremacy. Viewers be cautioned, as there are constant slurs thrown at and about the Indians, 'half-breed' being the most common. As a modern viewer this grated on me, but I suspect this unfiltered dialogue was realistic of the time and place.  The Indian characters were never fully fleshed out, and the half-Sioux protagonist 'Clee' (Grant) didn't do much more than serve as a victim and love interest.  Yet the film clearly endorsed the legitimacy of Davy and Clee's relationship ... in an overt way that was in line with the trend of films of that era beginning to shed less than a favorable light on the country's racist past. 
The third theme is the evolution of the West and the role of law and order, moving from the early settlers who maintained open ranges for livestock and used guns to defend their territory, to the next generation of settlers establishing towns with laws and those elected to enforce them.  The film title draws attention to the danger of two men carrying guns, about to confront each other on the streets of the town, and makes it clear that guns are not welcome in the local town; much of the conflict stems from Lee's unwillingness to accept that his way of life, represented by his desire to always openly carry a gun, even when that is no longer accepted among the majority.  Lee himself is still well respected, and he's allowed a lot of latitude as a result, but even he respects the 'appropriate' use of a gun, which Ed clearly oversteps again and again. The gun is can be seen here as a symbol of masculinity gone amok, as Davy rejects gun violence, Ed relishes it, and Lee is somewhere in between.

For me the greatest pleasure of the film is Heflin's performance as Lee.  Those familiar with my blog know I'm a big Heflin fan, and this film is one I'd point to for evidence. He becomes Lee Hackett, using a physical swagger and gravelly voice to make him a presence to be reckoned with, and he's not afraid to be unlikeable, through his racism, or goading of his sons. Yet, he maintains a degree of our sympathy because we can see Lee engaging in a human struggle to maintain his status, while his society, and his family, are falling apart around him.  He lets down his guard enough that we can see the humanity underneath the hard exterior. 
Tab Hunter, who is still with us, in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential had great praise for Heflin: "To me, Van was the ultimate actor.  He completely disappeared into character, and everything he did was completely believable."  He also commented about how Heflin was committed to extra rehearsals at Hunter's request, to help him work out details of his scenes.  Heflin and Hunter were together on screen two other times, in Battle Cry (1955) and They Came to Cordura (1959), the latter which I reviewed here.

Director Karlson deserves credit for his clever stagings of the drama, as does cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., who captures the beauty of the Tucson, Arizona location, and the claustrophobia of the many indoor scenes.   It's a notably darker film than most of John Ford's, perhaps more 'noir-like', but at the time did significantly well at the box office, perhaps as result of Hunter's star power.  Ultimately, though, this film is little remembered, possibly crowded out by the western classics from Ford, Howard Hawks, made with bigger stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and the like.  Those interested in seeing the film today can find it on demand with a subscription to STARZ, which owns licenses for Columbia films through their relationship with Sony Pictures, or with an internationally produced DVD or Blu-Ray.  The trailer is linked below.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May 2017 Greater Boston Classic Film Screenings -- My Picks

May started joyfully and uproariously with The Freshman at the Coolidge, with live orchestral accompaniment from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  Brilliant is not too strong a word for the music; the entire experience epitomized the best of the art of film.  I had a grin on my face the entire evening.  The BSFO has been adding performances to their calendar, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June and in NYC later this month.

My picks for classic film fans in the Boston area are as follows:

Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland in Greed
May 14, 2 PM at the Somerville Theatre, 'Silents, Please'  series, is Greed (1924, d. Erich von Stroheim).  From the name of this film, and the picture to the right, you know it's not going to be a laugh-a-minute.  It's considered a (silent) masterpiece from the German maverick director, whose vision was such that the original cut of the film was a staggering, unsustainable eight hours long; the film was eventually debuted by MGM at about 2.5 hours.  Much of the original footage was lost.  Even at 2.5 hours, modern cinephiles rave about the film.  Roger Ebert has named it one of his 'Great Movies', and in his piece illustrates the twists and turns of its fascinating history.  I read and enjoyed the source novel, McTeague by Frank Norris, about a quack dentist in turn of the century San Francisco who is runs into significant trouble when his wife Trina come in possession of a $5,000 winning lottery ticket.  This silent film stars Zasu Pitts as Trina and Gibson Gowland as McTeague.  Von Stroheim shares screenwriting credits with June Mathis, a writer and early film executive who 'discovered' Rudolph Valentino.

Accompanying this screening will be Jeff Rapsis on the piano.  I've not seen this and can't wait.

The Brattle has an impressive May lineup of David Lynch films, as well as some classic comedies, with some Welles and Hitchcock thrown in.  If you're in the area at all this month, check out their calendar.  I'm particularly excited to see the classic comedy Playtime, by influential comedian Jacques Tati on Sunday, May 28th. I've not seen it before, but I enjoyed Mon Oncle last summer when it was on TCM, which also featured Tati's slightly befuddled 'Monsieur Hulot' character.  I need to see more of Tati.
Playtime (1967) from

I may camp out in Harvard Square for the weekend, as continuing the French film theme, also from 1967, is Le Samourai, d. Jean-Pierre Melville, which will screen twice in 35mm on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29th. In this one, hearthrob actor Alain Delon portrays a hit man caught in the web of his own weaving.  Another one of Ebert's 'Great Movies', it will be fun to see this, and compare it with Alan Ladd's hitman in This Gun For Hire from 1942, which, not entirely coincidentally, is screening that same day at the Brattle.

The Brattle is also screening the documentary Harold & Lillian -- A Hollywood Love Story (2015, d. Daniel Raim), multiple times in early May.  I plan to see it this Saturday, May 6. My friend Raquel of highly recommends this exploration of the story of Harold & Lillian Michelson, who contributed their talents behind the camera -- he a storyboard artist, she a film researcher, during Hollywood's golden age.  The documentary has gotten rave reviews, and currently owns a 8.7 user rating on IMDb.   Monica Castillo of the New York Times said "Like flipping through misplaced leaves in a photo book, the documentary maintains a free-flowing tone as it uncovers the work that went into creating some of the indelible scenes in Hollywood history."  Watch the trailer below:

À bientôt!