West of Burbank

dawn at socorro small

Here’s another nice collection of hard-to-find Universal titles from the TCM Vault Collection: “Western Horizons,” a five disc set that features Raoul Walsh’s “Saskatchewan” (1954), Budd Boetticher’s “Horizons West” (1952), John Sturges’s “Backlash” (1956), George Marshall’s “Pillars of the Sky” (1956) and George Sherman’s “Dawn at Socorro” (1954). The Marshall is the only dog here, though one might prefer a stronger director than Sturges for “Backlash,” which features Richard Widmark and Donna Reed in a Borden Chase screenplay that feels like it might have been written for Anthony Mann and James Stewart. The Boetticher is one of his best westerns before he really found his voice with “Seven Men from Now,” and “Saskatchewan” is one of Walsh’s terrific “map movies,” where the goal is to get from Point A to Point B — in this case, by accompanying Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters across western Canada and some mighty fine location work.

The revelation for a lot of people is going to be George Sherman’s risk-taking “Dawn at Socorro,” an audacious re-framing of the OK Corral story that imagines the Doc Holliday character (Rory Calhoun) surviving the shoot-out with the Clantons and trying to get out of the game, only to find himself in a town that exactly resembles the one he just left. There’s some highly imaginative staging here: a lot of the action takes place in a crowded saloon, where the main characters warily keep an eye on each other while nothing much happens, and there’s a stylized showdown at the end that makes use of some striking high-angle compositions that suggest Hitchcock more than Ford.

Also out this week is “The Philo Vance Murder Mystery Collection,” a six-film set from Warner Archives that is mainly notable for featuring a good transfer of Michael Curtiz’s 1933 “The Kennel Murder Case” — a public domain title that has been circulating in hideous dupes for as long as I can remember. It’s crisply directed by Curtiz and shows off some early zoom work as well as a couple of ingeniously constructed sets. The film was a personal favorite of the venerable William K. Everson, who called it “one of the very best films of its genre,” and it’s good to have it back in such fine form.

My New York Times reviews are here.

65 comments to West of Burbank

  • “Horizons West” is always a film I enjoy watching – but don’t know how to justify this emotion rationally.
    As Blake says, it closely resembles “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”. Both star a genuinely charming and genuinely rotten gangster, who claws his way to the top of a dictatorial empire. Such dictatorial towns run through Boetticher: Decision at Sundown, the Maverick episodes War of the Silver Kings, and According to Hoyle, Buchanan Rides Alone.

    Ryan gets both a crooked lawman and crooked judge in his employ. The judge anticipates the judge in the Maverick episode War of the Silver Kings. Both men are under the influence of the trickster protagonist. In Horizons West this is corruption, pure and simple. In the comic War of the Silver Kings, the hero Maverick is a good guy trickster character, just as wily and any “bad” trickster, but on the side of social justice. His influence on the judge is more subtle, honest and complex than Ryan’s, but with an insidious side in both films.

    There are other ways in which Ryan resembles Maverick to come in War of the Silver Kings:

    Both men organize ordinary people, Ryan going to the veteran’s camp to do so.
    And both men get into high stake poker games with some of the town’s richest men, even though they don’t have much money and are playing over their head.
    ***
    On visual style in “Horizons West”:

    Robert Ryan and/or Julie Adams are in oddly shaped spaces, a Boetticher tradition:
    They meet on a slanting street in Austin: not an enclosed space, but perhaps related, due to its oddly emphatic tilted ground.
    Adams comes to warn Ryan in his hotel room. The room has a prominently tilted roof.
    Ryan crawls under a wire fence – although this is not a well-defined, box-like space.
    At the end, Adams is held at gunpoint underneath an outdoor staircase, in the triangular region beneath. (Perhaps the entire balcony-and-staircase construction should be considered as a large box, holding all the characters at the finale).
    The corral with the shoot-out near the end is also irregularly polygonal.

    Robert Ryan and Julie Adams meet in a room with corner book cases. While they are not actually enclosed, the bookcases give the corner a box-like feel. Corner book cases also appear in Escape in the Fog.

    Burr’s mansion exterior is one of the rectilinear buildings sometimes found in Boetticher. Its numerous brick columns, as rectilinear as the rest of the building, underscore the severe geometry.

  • jsh

    I want to apologize for two points in my earlier comment: 1) my unwarranted snark regarding Dave Kehr’s syntax, which in both his NYTimes piece and the corresponding blog entry here was, strictly speaking, in order; 2) my incorrect assertion that Walsh’s statement criticizing the
    work-ethic of Native Americans performing on-screen labor in Hollywood was issued under the aegis of Warner Bros – ‘Saskatchewan’, was, of course, a Universal production/product, and Walsh’s words were signed with that studio’s name, as well as his own.

    On point 2 my error was, I’m embarrassed to say, the result of sheer scholarly sloppiness on my part – a too-quick association of Walsh with Warner Bros, a failure to remember that the association had ended in 1951, and a complacent inertia in regards to double-checking the source I was drawing from.

    Mistakes/excuses I wouldn’t accept from any undergrad on work they’d submitted to me.

    My regrettable usage on point 1 is more complicated, in that ‘syntax’ there was my attempt at an acerbic shorthand indicating the vague, cliched, and (willfully?) blinkered view of history, film history, and the relation of these to each other on display in Dave Kehr’s work from his Chicago Reader pieces in the 1980s to his present-day writing for the NYTimes.

    One aspect of what I have in mind here is the way, in his Times article, the historical event that was the OK Corral turf-war is assimilated into a mythology – ‘one of the basic western myths’ – that bears resemblance neither to the event itself, nor to the genre of the western as it historically developed (see, for example, Scott Simmon, ‘The Invention of the Western Film’, Cambridge UP, and Nanna Verhoeff, ‘The West in Early Cinema’, Amsterdam UP).

    The implication from Dave Kehr’s article is that the basic western myths originate with the great auteur, John Ford.

    Now, I want to say that I know that Dave Kehr is too smart and historically informed as a critic to believe something so simplistic as this arguably strawman construct I’ve made of him, but his ‘historical’ writings don’t inspire confidence in this regard.

    We find, for example, in his 1981 piece on Carl Dreyer, ‘A Love That Caresses the Soul,’ the surprising news that ‘kammerspiel’ translates into English as ‘chamber music,’ a translation which, apart from perplexing any German speaker, would would have seemed especially bizarre to Max Reinhardt, who, inspired by, adapting, and furthering the work of August Strindberg, made the ‘chamber play’ into a staple of the German stage.

    After which, in film, it was taken up as early as 1921 by Lupu Pick, in ‘Scherben.’

    But, according to Dave Kehr, this key form of Wiemar cinema was ‘invented’ in 1924 with ‘Michael’ by Carl Th Dreyer: genius; auteur.

    Dave Kehr did write this in 1981, and we now have much more access to archival materials (and commentary thereon) than was the case 30 years ago, so it’s striking that in the introduction to the 2011 republication of his work, Kehr makes a point of the way he has corrected neither the infelicities of prose written under a deadline, nor factual errors he now knows to be errors.

    But what would those ‘corrections’ look like, if he’d taken the effort to make them?

    Would they have looked any different than did his NYTimes column today, in which he repeats the long-discredited story that Fritz Lang is responsible for the framing device in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (see Kristin Thompson’s ‘Dr. Caligari at the Folies-Bergere’, published 23 years ago!)?

    Jim Hurley
    University of Utrecht

  • Just re-read Dave Kehr’s article.
    He says that the story of Wyatt Earp has becomes a Hollywood “Western myth”.
    He does NOT say John Ford invented this myth. He merely suggests George Sherman’s film was influenced by Ford’s.

    There are at least 55 versions of Wyatt Earp in film and TV.
    A TV show is called “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” (1955-1961) and ran for 229 episodes.
    This sure sounds like a Hollywood “Western myth”.
    If TV can call the Earp story a “Legend”, we can all call it a myth, too.

    I don’t see anything wrong with Dave Kehr’s article.

    “Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp … brave, courageous and bold. Long live his name, and long live his glory, and long may his story be told.”

  • Michael Dempsey

    Most films about Wyatt Earp were influenced by Stuart Lake’s more or less discredited biography, which paints Earp and his brothers in a way that can charitably be called mythic.

    This doesn’t necessarily disqualify the films as cinema.

    “My Darling Clementine” is a lovely film, but by no means an accurate portrait of even the small part of Wyatt Earp’s life and career that it tries to portray, despite Ford’s statement that he knew Earp personally during later years of the lawman’s life.

    John Sturges’ “Hour of the Gun” actually claims in a title to be the Earp-Tombstone story “as it really happened,” but whatever this picture’s virtues, it falls a long way short of living up to this claim.

    Greater historical accuracy doesn’t, of course, guarantee good filmmaking, as Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp”, an ambitious but sadly lifeless three-hour attempt to encompass virtually the entire Earp story, is there to demonstrate.

    To compare film portrayals of Wyatt Earp with what the historical record shows (some of which may have been unavailable in Stuart Lake’s day), a wonderful book to read is “Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend” by Casey Tefertiller, which (among other revelations) details how small a slice of Earp’s life was devoted to his law enforcement activities in Tombstone and Dodge City.

  • Barry Lane

    I thought Tombstone captured the salient elements as well as their spirit. Certainly no glaring untruths on screen despite curious omissions.

  • Alex

    “I want to apologize for … 1) my unwarranted snark regarding Dave Kehr’s syntax, which in both his NYTimes piece and the corresponding blog entry here was, strictly speaking, in order…”

    The remark stating that DK implied that Doc Holliday actually died at OK Corral does not seemm to me to have been “strictly speaking, in order.” What DK wrote was consistent with either a Fordian survival or an actual death at OK Corral because, it seems to me, DK knew the facts, assumed others did, and reasonably felt no need to instruct on the actual situation. He simply constrasted Doc’s Fordian death with Doc’s survival in the Sherman film. In retrospect, DKs assumption of reader knowledge appears, though reasonable, to have been too generous –and his “syntax” less didactically refined than it might best have been.

    So the above quote doesn’t sound to me like the proffered apology.

    As for Walsh’s quoted Indian comment, the quote’s critical bite seems to me overwrought — the Warner Bros gaffe aside– if quote is understood without due regard for historical context.

    Got that, Mac?

    As for recourse to apparent 1981 insensitivity about the distinction between “chamber music” and “chamber play” to ground doubts about DKs 2013 knowledge of the distinction between Doc’s Fordian and historical fates at the OK Corrall, DK’s critic, having dug so deep for a trifle, appears to protest too much.

  • jbryant

    Encore Western recently started showing The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp on weekdays. I sampled one, but it didn’t do much for me (though I like Hugh O’Brien).

    Still haven’t seen HOUR OF THE GUN, but love James Garner’s reprise of the role in Blake Edwards’ SUNSET.

  • Gregg Rickman

    The subtext of Jim Hurley’s recent anti-auteurist posts can perhaps be briefly addressed. There are at least two large factions of anti-autuerists within the academy today: the remnants of the 1970s Screen generation, and a newer, more programatic set, inspired by Thomas Schatz among others, who attribute film authorship to the “genius” of the studio system. Jerome Christensen’s “America’s Corporate Art” (Stanford UP, 2012) is a example of this trend: pages and pages on THE BAND WAGON, and two passing mentions of Vincente Minnelli. Other academics don’t really care about the topic one way or the other, but there are at least a few who teach who care about Foucault’s ironic question, “Who’s speaking?” Some of them post on this board.

    Mr. Hurley may thus have a deeply considered anti-auteurist approach, and would be in respected company. Or he may just be sarcastic: thus, the implied scare quotes around “the great auteur, John Ford” and “Carl Th Dreyer: genius; auteur.” Just why he would go onto an auteurist board to slag the host is an open question. Perhaps he only wishes our improvement.

    Dave can speak for himself about the substance of Mr. Hurley’s comments, and doesn’t need my defense, but I have a few relevant comments.

    1) Robin Wood speaks eloquently in one of his revised versions of his seminal Hitchcock book about how critics grow and change, but should not continually go back and rewrite their older work. Dave is with Wood on this.

    2) I try to keep up with the literature but I too was not aware that Lang’s story of writing the wraparound story for CALIGARI had been discredited. Kristin Thompson’s essay “Dr. Caligari at the Folies-Bergere” was published in a 1990 anthology on CALIGARI edited by Michael Budd. Thompson and Budd are first class scholars, but the essay has not, I think, been reprinted since (I googled around to see if I could find it anywhere else). The story appears, iirc, in Lang’s interviews, in “From Caligari to Hitler” and perhaps as well in some post-1990 works about Lang; I’ll check around to see. My point is that what I assume are some very valuable insights from Thompson have not been widely disseminated.

    3) This is just a matter of opinion, but even if Dave has committed all the factual errors Mr. Hurley ascribes to him, it would still be just a matter of Mr. Hurley’s opinion that Dave Kehr’s lifetime of authorship is not penetrating and insightful, but something else again. Indeed, the sheer scholarly sloppiness of confusing factual errors with a failure to perceive a variety of works’ aesthetic value would comprise mistakes/excuses that I wouldn’t accept from any undergrad on work they’d submitted to me.

  • Robert Garrick

    I don’t have a problem with critical posts, and I’m sure Dave doesn’t either, as long as the criticisms are precisely stated and coherent. Jim Hurley cites two specific errors in Dave’s past work, and that’s fine; Dave can respond and I’m sure we’ll get into Fritz Lang and Caligari next week. Hurley cites a couple of specific errors of his own, too, made in the course of a few days. We all make errors, and Dave, who has been writing film criticism at an extraordinarily high level for more than a third of a century, has probably made a few.

    But, as Gregg Rickman suggests in his meticulous unpacking of Hurley’s post, we are not just talking about errors here. The key, I think, comes in Hurley’s suggestion that Dave has engaged for years in a “vague, cliched, and (willfully?) blinkered view of history, film history, and the relation of these to each other.” What are we talking about here, exactly? From where is Hurley coming? I was a history (and math) major in college; and a graduate cinema student after that; and a law student after that. I’ve never noticed what Hurley has noticed in Dave’s writing.

    I may be wrong, but this smells to me like ’70s style “Screen” criticism, where everything is political, and where art is viewed as a device through which history can be subverted (consciously or unconsciously) through signs and codes.

    Is this Hurley’s perspective, or is it something else? Or is this really just about factual errors? If the latter, then Hurley should simply note them and nobody would object to that.

  • I’m not familiar with Jim Hurley’s writings — and a Google search produces no results — so I have no idea why he’s conceived such a violent animus towards me that he’s taken to combing articles written over 30 years ago for mistranslated words. Alas, you don’t need to go back that far to find mistakes in my work! Even Mr. Hurley, apparently, makes them from time to time. Over the course of my professional life, I’ve become accustomed to these “gotcha” artists and I’ve found that the best course is to ignore them until they go away. Which, I sincerely hope, Mr. Hurley will waste no time doing.

    The Lang question is more interesting. Like Gregg, I was unfamiliar with Kristin’s article, though of course I have tremendous respect for her as a scholar and look forward to reading it. The editors of a more recent scholarly publication on Lang, the massive volume commissioned by the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, seem to be unaware of it as well. They write, simply, that “Lang is reputed to have added it (the framing story) to the script by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer,” and express some skepticism about Meyer’s claim, reported second hand by the critic Hans Feld, that the framing story was in the script but was cut by Erich Pommer. They then quote Lang from a 1970 interview (their translation):

    This is completely new to me, and knowing Erich Pommer as I did, seems quite incorrect. . . My only contribution — if you can call it that — was not a Rahmenhandlung (a framing story, or, as I like to call it, a kammerspiel –dk) — but to shoot a single scene in normal fashion [that where the two men are sitting on a bench tell each other the story]. The reason for this proposal was not to change any of the film’s ideas but to avoid alienating the audience with a completely new artistic idiom, and — through the contrast between the first “normal” scene and the one immediately following it — to give them a chance to grasp right from the outset that the expressionist style depicted the distorted world of the insane.

    They add: “The closing framing device is completely missing from the script. It must have been invented and added during shooting.”
    Needless to say, I would love to know what Kristin has found to correct or amplify this account.

  • Barry Putterman

    I want to apologize for suggesting that Mr. Hurley may be having difficulty understanding the meaning of everybody’s statements, when it is now clear that it is more a question of a willful commitment to misunderstanding Dave Kehr’s statements regarding MY DARLING CLEMENTINE up to the point of incoherence.

    Despite numerous people all but phonetically explaining what Dave actually said in his review, Mr. Hurley once again claims that he was implying that Ford is originating the basic myths regarding Wyatt Earp and the O.K. corral in that film. Yet in the previous paragraph he claims that the mythologizing in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE bears no resemblance to the western as it historically developed. Which, to my rudimentary understanding of syntax, would indicate that it is Mr. Hurley who is claiming that the Ford film is originating these myths.

    In point of fact, MY DARLING CLEEMENTINE is a remake of at least two previous Fox films, both titled FRONTIER MARSHAL. And the second of these films, directed by the great auteur Allan Dwan, told the story in almost the exact same way that the Ford film did.

    Of course, I have not read the books which Mr. Hurley cites regarding the historical events and the historical development of the western. But, since, all he cites about them is their titles, there is no evidence that he has read them either.

    But even if these books do carry all of the weight of a Warner Brothers — excuse me, Universal-International — press release; if Mr. Hurley’s understanding of Dave Kehr’s review is any indication of his interpretative powers, what would his summation of these books’ contents be worth to us?

  • Junko Yasutani

    About historical question and auteurist view, Japan is having longer history than America, and developed art forms adopted by cinema with themes and classical stories treated in new medium. Also characteristic of Japanese movies is frequent re-make of modern and classical story. From comparing different version of story even made in same decade difference is coming from director, difference is not because of historical moment or studio so much. That is what I believe.

    Maybe Japanese character closest to Wyatt Earp is Miyamoto Musashi 17th century samurai, artist and author of Go Rin No Sho with many biography, story, novel, play, movie and TV serial. Some difference is because of time and social situation but other is because of director, and auteur Japanese director is making movie about Miyamoto in his style.

    Also, many versions of 47 ronin story that many people here have probably seen more than one version.

    About Walsh statement, someone said maybe not by Walsh, or if said by him, movie shows opposite view. This reminded me of patriotic statement made by Japanese director during WWII even though their movie was not really patriotic movie. Sometime their statement was written by studio publicist under their name. Important point is what is movie like, not what director might say about in publicity release. Didn’t John Ford say one time ‘I made movie only for money’?

  • Alex Hicks

    Ah!,

    “When the Hurlyburly’s done
    When the battles lost and won.”

    Ah, the pleasure of bidding good riddance to ill-construed slurs against an esteemed scholar/writers’ historical and linguistic competence.

    Yet, this OK Corral/Indianphobe stream finally offered a bit more satisfaction than that pleasure. It also provided the stimulation of seeing the presumptive critique regarded AT SOME LENTH as an expression of both a “deeply considered anti-auteurist approach” and also what “smells” of “’70s style ‘Screen’ criticism” on little ground beyond a seemingly sarcastic –or to be more generous– ironic” dubbing of John Ford as “the great auteur, John Ford.”

    Although Screen approaches do not interest me, Schatz seems to me to have contributed – like the CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA” self-termed auteurist David Bordwell, to some rich explorations of the contributions of the Hollywood system to its films. And where possible complements to (as well as circumscriptions of) the fruits of the auteurist approach are concerned, Carringer’s THE MAKING OF CITIZEN KANE a deserves mention — indeed credit for it insight into the actual, subtle operations of auteur coordination of important collaborators. I refer particularly to the point on p. 83 of THE MAKING OF CITIZEN KANE where Carringer ties together his well documented historical analysis of how Welles utilized Toland’s experiments in deep-focus cinematography not only to realize this or that specific visualization but to provide Welles, above all, with “the technical means of adapting the Mercury Theater performance style” – both dependent on a playing space like that of a stage and heavy with theatrical gestures and mannerisms and inimical to the then prevailing extent of closeups and cross-cutting– to “the requirements of a new medium.”

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex, I wasn’t quite sure what Hurley’s game was, so was postulating he may be of the Screen school, or of the newer studio-as-auteur school exemplified by Schatz and Jerome Christensen, or perhaps just, as I also postulated, just a wisenheimer. (It’s been a while since I read Schatz, but Schatz does favorably blurb Christensen’s “America’s Corporate Art.”) Carringer’s two books on Welles’ RKO films are models of what I would call “thick auteurist” readings, as not just Welles’ but also Toland’s, and others’, contributions are anatomized. (I know that certain Wellesians have critiqued Carringer in turn, but that’s off my point.) I am all for assigning personal authorship generously, to screenwriters, to cinematographers, and other creative personnel, but “corporation-as-auteur” historians such as Christensen aren’t interested in doing that, or in individuals at all. For a critique of Christensen’s book, see Douglas Gomery at http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/book-reviews/americas-corporate-art-the-studio-authorship-of-hollywood-motion-pictures-by-jerome-christensen/

  • Alex

    Gregg Rickman,

    I was mainly putting in a plug Carringer’s first book, which some see as a case for the collective –as opposed to directorial–creation of film, though it strikes me as, formostely, a “thick” read booking of what’s goin on on the set.

    Don’t know Christensen’s “corporation-as-auteur” case — which I’ll look at– at all, but I do find Bordwell’s treatment of broad cultural forces (viewed in a structuralist/formalist mode) instructive, in particular the “individualistic, narrative-centered, tidy story told in unobstrusive style” of the Classical Hollywood Cinema.