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Knuckling Down


In 1975, Walter Hill’s austere “Hard Times” bucked the zoom-happy excesses of that chaotic decade with a combination of rock-solid mise-en-scene and a brilliantly laconic performance by Charles Bronson — one of the few times this major star appeared in a major film. Reissued in a fine new Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, it’s the subject of my review this week in the New York Times.

I’m back from Bologna and “Il Cinema Ritrovato,” a bit late thanks to a bad transfer on Lufthansa that gave me the bonus experience of spending the night in a barracks-like hotel in a suburb of Frankfurt.

I’d like to express my deep appreciation to Antti Alanen for keeping me posted on what was happening on the blog when it proved to be impossible to get a sustained internet connection in my hotel in Bologna (Italy is a wonderful country but you don’t go there for the WiFi), and I was gratified to find that it took at least a week for the conversation to lumber back around to John Ford, as opposed to the usual 24 hours. The audiences in Bologna — a mixture of professionals, visiting cinephiles and students from the area’s many universities — are truly amazing; the Allan Dwan series I helped to organize attracted audiences of two to three hundred for even the most esoteric films on the program, and the atmosphere was one of respect and open-mindedness.

Even the difficult “Most Dangerous Man Alive” — Dwan’s last film (released in 1961) and saddled with its share of awkward lines and amateurish performances — played without a single bad laugh, something that would never happen in the United States. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there was the pleasure of seeing “Up in Mabel’s Room” unleash its impeccably timed waves of hilarity in a full house — the sort of experience seldom available in this age of isolated video viewings. Kevin Brownlow offered a program of clips and personal reminiscences of Dwan, as well as screenings of his personal prints of “Manhandled” (a new digitalization of Kevin’s unique 16-millimeter print), “The Iron Mask” and the one-reeler “The Mormons” from 1912. My profound thanks to Peter von Bagh and Guy Borlee for making it all possible.

270 comments to Knuckling Down

  • Surprised no-one’s mentioned the superhero genre yet, with its eternally youthful characters (even, from time to time, resorting to outright resurrection) and continual resetting of story continuity, ongoing since Action Comics #1 in 1938. And it’s surely no coincidence that the single most significant exception to this ‘immortality’, Marvel Comics’ prolific output in the 60s — which aged its baby-boomer heroes in approximately real time — came to an end when the company suffered a corporate buy-out that minimised the role of writer/editor (auteur?) Stan Lee.

  • Barry Putterman

    And just to follow along from what I was saying to what D.K. is citing from Stewart; you can break network prime time series down into four parts because there are the three commercial breaks built into the structure.

    And Johan, that is primarily how you can tell the difference between a network or cable series. If the episodes have these three climaxes followed by pauses tropes within them, they are network series and those are where the blocks of commercials were placed.

  • Older or more traditional television shows are designed almost to be background music. You can drop in anytime, skip a few episodes, and not really miss anything. Shows such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men require concentration. A friend of mine was knitting during the last episode of the Gus BB arc and missed the visual punch line to the series.

  • jbryant

    Louis C.K. does structurally interesting things on his FX show LOUIE. Most episodes are half an hour, but may be broken into discrete parts, in effect connecting two short films. Continuity is rather fluid, too–characters pop up as needed, with a brother or sister who may never be seen again after an appearance or two. Famously, Louie’s ex-wife was mentioned without being seen for a season or two, and then was added to the cast with a black woman in the role. Much was made of the fact that Louie’s daughters, who were already regulars on the series, were clearly not mixed-race kids. This confuses some people, but the show is so deliberately cavalier about continuity and so stylistically adventurous for TV, most of us fans just go with the flow.

  • Brian Dauth

    There is also the issue of not knowing whether or not a series will continue (DEADWOOD and BOSS being good examples. In both cases a season-ending episode became an unintended series finale). Working under such production conditions most probably leads to some haphazardness in the writing and construction of these series since some questions are always present a) will there be another season; b) will all cast members want to come back (or be invited to return).

    BORGEN is an interesting (and to my mind successful) example of such a series: each episode consists of both a self-contained story and continuing story arcs. Also, often considerable time is allowed to elapse (in terms of narrative) between each episode and also between the seasons themselves. I found that this mix worked quite effectively, more so than series where each epsiode (again in terms of narrative) directly follows the previous one. For me, the writing in such series can become formulaic since each episode is devoted to furthering story arcs (to a set degree) which will not conclude until the end of the season — some episodes end up feeling like filler — enough plot advancement doled out to keep a spectator interested, but not enough to make a satisfying aesthetic experience. An exception is SCANDAL where each episode is chock-full of incident — melodrama on steroids if you will. The series explores culture and society and achieves realism not through retraint, but by being shamelessly and enjoyably over-the-top and flamboyant.

    An earlier example of a series which operated the way BORGEN does would be STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (the first television show that I can remember working in this way). I also think that comedy series can work this way with THE BIG BANG THEORY being the best current example, where each episode feels like a short play that both resolves its own story while furthering the narrative arcs of the lives of its characters.

  • BORGEN is on my computer.

    I am pleased that so for THE BRIDGE is not a betrayal of its Scandanavian inspiration.

    I started reading the first LONGMIER novel today and so far … It is great! And yes, it seems that at least some of the episodes are based on the plots from Craig Jognson’s novels. The show is faithful to the books, except that the novels are in first person, so Walt is loquacious in the books.

    Rachel Kushner’s THE FLAMETHROWERS is filled with interesting and sometimes obscure movie lore.

    And yes, I also watch movies.

  • Not mentioned so far are the hybrid movie-TV works like “Scenes from A Marriage”, “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, “Out One” and “La Commune” all of which have shortened theatrical versions (except for “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”)

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, I think you and maybe some of our other colleagues here are a bit too sanquine about “Save the Cat” and what it represents: a cinema written by copy-and-paste jockeys. Give me the good ol’ days of hacks as portrayed by Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West at their most sour. I wonder how anyone can take, say, Christopher Nolan seriously as an artist anymore once word spreads how his BATMAN opus uses the same template down to the page number as MONSTERS UNIVERSITY or the most recent STAR TREK. (Well, I guess you take an auteurist route and only talk about Nolan’s mise-en-scene…. which is like a modern skyscraper mall, dreary, brutal, metallic, full of sharp edges and with no place to sit.)

    Brian, speaking of STAR TREK, perhaps you agree with me that DEEP SPACE NINE was quite the best TREK tv spinoff. I’ve heard good things about BORGEN and will try to check it out; I like some of the Swedish/Danish/Norwegian (and Italian and German and French) cop shows I used to be able to watch via a cable outfit called MHz. X, I’ve stayed away here from talking about the foreign tv shows I’ve seen, as talking about a masterwork like BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, say, isn’t fair to ANY American show. Even British tv shows would be too off topic from the “redneck noir” shows I was concentrating on.

    Johan and jbryant, thanks esp. for the comments on series structure. DK, the tv Longmire is far from talkative, as Robert Taylor plays him as the classic strong silent type (his vulnerabilty comes from his fairly advanced age, a nice touch).

    Last but not least, Frederic, thanks for your interpolated comments on Dwan. Hope you stick around on the site. Had a chance to pick up your book today, as it was for sale at the SF Silent Film Festival, which screened THE HALF-BREED. An initial look indicates a solidly researched volume full of revelations. (Re THE HALF-BREED: it ties in with our discussion here of DEADWOOD, given its unsentimental portrayal of a nasty western village, with a corrupt sheriff, hypocritical minister, dance hall prostitutes, and openly racist characters — portrayed negatively, I should add. A lot of westerns from the teens would qualify as revisionist anti-westerns if they’d come out in the 1970s, as I’m sure many here already know. Interestingly, however, Ford’s 1910s westerns are not in this group, the three or four that I’ve seen not even as dark as a William Hart film.)

  • jbryant

    D.K. Holm: I haven’t seen the Scandinavian original of THE BRIDGE, but the U.S. version has hooked me good. The first episode was directed by Gerardo Naranjo, a Mexican feature director whose MISS BALA was at Cannes a couple of years ago. First I’ve seen from him, and it bodes well.

    DEEP SPACE NINE fans: Forgive the name-dropping, but I’ve met Armin Shimerman, who played Quark, a couple of times, and he has a great story about the 1994 Northridge earthquake hitting while he was in full make-up. Not wanting to take the time to remove the prosthetics before checking on his family, he drove home as Quark, to the reactions you would expect.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I wouldn’t call my attitude towards Save the Cat (which is a book that I happened to leaf through at Barnes & Noble yesterday) sanguine, rather merely contextualized. My first point being that the exact same argument has been made since the beginning of recorded time. One thing which as stuck in my mind from early childhood was seeing a one panel newspaper cartoon showing a man stamping text from one manuscript to another with the caption showing us what the second man in the picture is telling the third man; “He’s writing a western.”

    That was the Save the Cat complaint from the time period when westerns were dominating the movie theaters and TV screens and it was what prompted a critic like Sarris to reply that the complainers wouldn’t be able to distinguish a Boetticher western from a Selander western. Which is to say that is it is one thing for Beotticher and Selander to use the same template, and quite another to assume that they are filling it with the same content.

    There are standard structures to practically every artistic form. American popular songs of the 20th century have a standard structure and so do European symphonies of the 18th and 19th centuries. If you want to say that you can’t take Beethoven or Berlin seriously as artists because they used the same template as a bunch of hacks you are welcome to do so, but I’m pretty sure that you wouldn’t want to do so.

    Which is not to say that I embrace Save the Cat (although I personally would grab at anything which would help my own cancer and diabetes infected feline roommate). As I said, I have simply lost interest in current American cinema, and it would be convenient for me to chalk that all up to Save the Cat. But it is also true that I am no longer in synch with the rhythms of present day popular culture and that makes me less tolerant of Save the Cat than I had been of those stamped out westerns. So I think it better to keep Save the Cat contextualized lest I become just another viewer who couldn’t tell a present day Boetticher from a present day Selander.

  • Whether it’s Save the Cat or its equally-overused visual companion Orange and Teal, Hollywood formulae are proving fallible this summer. After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D., White House Down — all either major disappointments or outright flops, and blockbuster season isn’t over yet.

  • Barry Putterman

    “I’m no genius. I didn’t hang on to my father’s money by backing my own judgement you know. I make mistakes every day. Sometimes several times a day. I’ve got a whole warehouse full of mistakes.

    You see, I THINK your ideas are good because they sound good to me. But I KNOW your ideas are good because you won this contest over millions of aspirants. It’s what you might call commercial insurance. As when a horse wins the Derby, you back him for the Preakness.”

    —Ernest Truex as Mr. Baxter in CHRISTMAS IN JULY

  • Brian Dauth

    Gregg: I do agree that DEEP SPACE NINE is the best of the Star Trek series. VOYAGER felt like a step back to the separate episodes style; ENTERPRISE I will remain silent about.

    As for BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ — it deserves a thread of its own (maybe we will speak of Fassbinder when the Eclipse box set is released).

  • alex

    So, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ aside, are there other EU shows that are beyond comparison with THE WIRE, BROKEN TRAIL and the like? OR are we just expanding the competition? (Indeed, is BA really off the charts?)

  • To add some historical context, in Sweden in the end of the 80s there was a heated debate as to whether the “Ola Olsson model” was destroying Swedish TV and cinema or not. Olsson was a dramaturgist who believed in the same kind of rigid storytelling as apparently does “Save the Cat!” and his model consisted of six parts, from start-up to fade out. This was not appreciated by artists and intellectuals (i.e. people like us).

    When I saw STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS I was startled by the scene in the beginning when young Kirk gets his dressing down. “What kind of superfluous clichéd nonsense was that?” I said to myself. But apparently it’s part of the rules. It’s still a curious thing though, these very specific rules. Are they based on proper research into audiences behaviour and brain activity while watching films, or is it based on studying the structures of the films that has been most successful at the box office? Or is there no scientific research involved at all but just “common sense”?

  • I’d like to welcome Frederic Lombardi too! Hope you comment more in the future.

    Your remarks on Allan Dwan’s last film Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) are most interesting. Your research shows this film was made shortly before its release date, rather than in 1958 as Dwan said in interviews.

    This makes sense in terms of film history, too.
    In the early 1960’s, there were a flood of good gangster films suddenly made in Hollywood:
    The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Budd Boetticher, 1960)
    Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961)
    King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein (Joseph M. Newman, 1961)

    The gangster film elements in Most Dangerous Man Alive fit right in to that trend.

  • This thread and its link are my introduction to SAVE THE CAT.
    First impression: It is centered around films where the “hero fights the bad guys”.
    Actually lots of films do not fall into this pattern: detective stories, melodramas, biopics, inspirational tales, etc.

    This SAVE THE CAT formula seems to promote fighting and glorify violence as the way to solve problems.
    It sounds very right wing.

    Detective stories have a very different paradigm:

    “The [detective]story is the man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.”
    The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler

  • jbryant

    Is it possible that Dwan fibbed about THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE’s shooting schedule to deflect criticism? For a five-week schedule, it’s pretty lame–for a one-week schedule, it’s a minor miracle. 🙂

  • Johan Andreasson

    ”… are there other EU shows that are beyond comparison with THE WIRE, BROKEN TRAIL and the like?”

    The German HEIMAT would to me be one of the top five or ten TV series of all time. I revisited the first season fairly recently, and it was even better than I remembered it from the 80s.

    I hadn’t heard about the book Save the Cat before, but I vividly remember the rise of the “Ola Olsson model” that Fredrik describes, and which seems to amount to pretty much the same thing. I even took one of those classes myself in the late 80s – not by Mr. Olsson himself but one of his disciples (this was a lucrative business at the time), arranged by the Society of Swedish Illustrators. By now I’ve forgotten most of it, but one thing I remember is the lecturers’ insistence that all stories had to be centered on a conflict. I especially recall him telling us not to bother too much about the love story in Romeo and Juliet, but rather see it as a conflict between two families.

    In hindsight I think some kind of set of rules can be useful both as a starting point to get your imagination working and as a checklist after you’ve written your story to cut out the dead meat. But to think that you can invent a formula to tell a story that automatically will be interesting just seems ridiculous.

    I think my first post in this by now very long thread was about the blues music in CROSSROADS. You would think that a blues song should stick to a very simple formula: Three chords played in 4/4 tempo over 12 bars. I don’t think John Lee Hooker stuck by any of those rules. It would also be interesting to know what the Save the Cat rules makes of Howard Hawks’ HATARI.

  • Daniel F.

    Well, as for EU shows that might compare — or perhaps even set some sort of early precedent — one could add the late-’70s British TV miniseries OUT written by Trevor Preston for Euston Films (not to be confused, of course, with Rivette’s formidable film OUT 1, which incidentally has a longer run time than the British TV series).

    In no particular order, I’m very pleased to see Imamura’s VENGEANCE IS MINE; DEEP SPACE NINE, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ and HEIMAT all receive due appreciation. I might add Fassbinder’s recently exhumed WORLD ON A WIRE was also a Western German television production in 1973; both German and French television have supported directors developing longer-form material over the years. Even something as recent as Assayas’ CARLOS was co-developed in part by French and German television, and aired as a miniseries.

  • SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE and FANNY AND ALEXANDER were tv miniseries and theatrical movies; the tv versions are superior and definitive for both.

    What is for many the best Finnish movie, Mikko Niskanen’s EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS, was a tv miniseries that was also released theatrically in a short version. Only the full tv version is a masterpiece.

  • x359394

    “SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE and FANNY AND ALEXANDER were tv miniseries and theatrical movies; the tv versions are superior and definitive for both.”

    Thanks for reminding us about “Fanny and Alexander” Antti. I forgot that it was originally a TV series; although “Scenes from a Marriage” has been screened in its entirety in Los Angeles least once, I don’t recall any screenings of the complete “Fanny and Alexander.”

    “La Commune” and “Berlin Alexandeplatz” both received complete screenings here.

  • Peter Hogue

    Other long-form TV/cinema worthy of special attention:
    DEKALOG (Poland, 1988)
    BEST OF YOUTH (Italy, 2003)
    RED RIDING (UK, 2009)
    MYSTERIES OF LISBON (Portugal/France, 2010)

  • Robert Garrick

    Back at 5:12 Mike Grost points out that quite a few high-quality gangster films were released right around the early 1960s. Besides the three he mentions, we had “The Joker is Wild” (Charles Vidor, 1957), “Baby Face Nelson” (Siegel, 1957), “The Brothers Rico” (Karlson, 1957), “Machine-Gun Kelly” (Corman, 1958), “Party Girl” (Ray, 1958), “Al Capone” (Richard Wilson, 1959), “The FBI Story” (Leroy, 1959), “Some Like it Hot” (Wilder, 1959), and “Murder, Inc.” (Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg, 1960), among others. Also from 1959-1963, the TV show “The Untouchables” was popular. Most of these shows were set in the 1920s or early 1930s, during Prohibition.

    Gary Giddins had a theory that nostalgia (for anything) would peak 35 years after the event. Subtract 35 from 1960 and–voila!–you get 1925, the Roaring Twenties and the heart of the glamorous gangster era.

    To be sure, gangster movies have always been with us, and this wave, which might have peaked with “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, and didn’t fully die until the mid-1970s, which also encompasses the “Godfather” films. But when I see popular culture begin to obsess on a particular period in the fairly recent past, I always think of Giddins’s comment and I start doing the math. For nostalgia to be work commercially, you need some kind of a historical memory–you need living people who still remember. But the time in question also has to be sufficiently distant to have acquired a kind of a glow.

  • Robert Garrick

    The “Save the Cat” discussion is a variation of something Dave Kehr says in his recent interview with Michael Guillén for “Film International.” Kehr laments that “movies have succumbed to a process of normalization,” and that commercial movies are now so much a product of “demographics . . .focus groups and marketing studies” that they have become a “useless product” with “no personality.”

    This is a tricky area, because there has always been structure in art; there have always been rules; and there has always been a profit motive. But I do think we’ve passed some kind of a tipping point, at least when it comes to major commercial films (and television). Movies are so expensive to make now, and they are such big business internationally, that there’s not much room for individual, quirky input. Talent still matters, but movies are far less personal than they were, not so long ago.

    All of those critics who used to write books about “collaborative art” should be rejoicing. But I’m not rejoicing. I consider the words “collaborative art” to be something of an oxymoron, because ultimately great art has to be the brilliantly expressed vision of a single artist. Committees don’t produce great art.

  • Moderately long form European TV:
    The Age of the Medici (Roberto Rossellini) is outstanding.

    Flickers (Cyril Coke, 1980) British TV miniseries about the early days of the British film industry, and the attempt of two outsiders, a poor Cockney (Bob Hoskins) and a middle class businesswoman (Frances De La Tour) to run their own production company. Characterizations so rich they seem four dimensional, and brilliant acting by the entire troupe, especially the two leads. Comic, upbeat.

    The Nine Tailors (Raymond Menmuir, 1974) Based on the Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel.

  • Alex

    “Gary Giddins had a theory that nostalgia (for anything) would peak 35 years after the event.”

    Hmmm, I’ve long thought that nostalgia focusses on the world of our earliest remembered youth. That should correcpond in the aggregate to about the median age plus a few years, i.e., to 35-40 years. So perhaps I’ve the beginnings of a theoretical rationale for Gary’s hypothesis….

    I assume that gary is talking about the collective culture, and thus, the aggregate.

    Individually, each of our peak nostalgia eras seems to me likely to receed further and further into the past.

    In these terms my sense of the dearest (and, I think, the “most real” time is for the late 1940s, perhaps a reason why –at the level of the genre– I vastly prefer film noir to the Western, perhaps even by some further, more elbaorate logic why my favorite Westerns are CELEMENTINE and RED RIVER.

    H,,, what would the confidence interval about out nostalgic enter of gravity be like, would it extend back before birth (Romantic Comedy era!) as well as forward into one’s more mature years?

  • Foster Grimm

    Interesting that a group of “save the cat” blockbusters this summer are regarded as costly flops.
    Let me put in a good word for the French series “Spiral.”

  • Besides Bergman, Jan Troell also worked for Swedish Television, making THE EMIGRANTS for example. From the UK there are the TV-series written by Dennis Potter and those based on the novels of John Le Carré. But they’re not perhaps comparable to the US series that has been discussed here because they’re mini-series, of six to ten episodes at most. More comparable in length is LA PIOVRA, a late 80s Italian TV-series which was very popular on this side of the Atlantic. It was a crime drama about the battle against the Mafia with Michele Placido playing Commissario Corrado Cattani.

    John Cleese’s brilliant FAWLTY TOWERS (“Don’t mention the war!”) from the 70s must always be mentioned when discussing European TV.

  • It goes without saying that LA PIOVRA had music by Ennio Morricone.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Before TV is blasted away by the new feature of the week, I’d like to acknowledge the as-yet-unmentioned and elsewhere much derided The Killing. I haven’t seen the Danish original and don’t propose to get into the seasons-one-and-two brouhaha, but just want to note that season three has been spellbinding: storyline and atmosphere haunting and the cinematography cinemaworthy–amazingly layered and subtle at times. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman have reached still deeper into their characters and their relationship (the only carryover from previous seasons). And to be auteurish about it, there’s been stunning direction by Lodge Kerrigan and, just last night, Jonathan Demme. This is the show I’m currently highest on.

  • Emily Nussbaum has a spirited defense of Sex and the City in this week’s New Yorker:

  • jbryant

    Richard: Stunned to hear that THE KILLING has rebounded. I was one of the many who bailed after Season 1. Now you’ve piqued my interest. I may still skip Season 2, but will keep an eye out for 3 when it’s marathoned or shows up on Netflix.

    FYI: Lodge Kerrigan also did a smashing job with a recent second-season episode of A&E’s LONGMIRE, mentioned earlier in this thread.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Yep, jb, I agree about Kerrigan’s LONGMIRE episode. And as a Seattleite I endorse season three of THE KILLING as superior regional mythmaking. This time they’re closer to having the rain under control.

  • Alex

    Speaking of great TV, yesterday’s (07-21) Episode 9, “Reckoning,” of Season 3 of the grave and extraordinarily compassionate “The Killing” is directed by Jonathan Demme.

  • Frederic Lombardi

    I’d like to thank Mike Grost, Antti Alanen, Gregg Rickman and J Bryant for their comments. I think that Gregg has an interesting point about some similarities THE HALF-BREED has to DEADWOOD. I wonder if THE HALF-BREED had been a big hit at the box-office how it would have affected the evolution of the Western.

    In my book I contrasted THE HALF-BREED to William S. Hart’s THE ARYAN which was released the same year (1916) and showed a far different attitude toward half-breeds. I’ve heard that when the virtually complete METROPOLIS was discovered in Argentina a print of THE ARYAN, heretofore considered lost, was also found. I hope that at some point a print of THE ARYAN will be available for screening and can be viewed in tandem with THE HALF-BREED.
    I have been working on getting an Allan Dwan retrospective going in Los Angeles and we are aiming for it to appear in the fall. It will unfortunately be far briefer than the Dwan retro at MOMA but we hope to have the recently restored version of THE HALF-BREED included.

    As for MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE, while it was not shot in one week, it was still a very difficult shoot thanks to the very low budget provided by producer Benedict Bogeaus. There are no sets in the movie which was filmed in Mexico. Everything had to be shot on location. For interiors they would use a hotel lobby or hotel room or for other scenes the location manager would find part of a building that he could rent. Many of the actors had to wear their own clothes and worked overtime though for some time Bogeaus resisted paying them for their OT. Gregg Palmer and Morris Ankrum played a team of police officers but for a time Ankrum’s character mysteriously disappears from the movie. Ankrum had succumbed to the Mexican water and for one scene Dwan remedied the problem by having Gregg Palmer speak both his own lines and those originally attributed to Ankrum.

    MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE has a graceful musical theme composed by Dwan/Bogeaus regular Louis Forbes. However, Forbes didn’t compose the theme for this film. Bogeaus simply lifted it from another of his productions, the Jules Verne adaptation FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (directed by Byron Haskin).

    Dwan was clearly embarrassed by all this and his two tall tales about its making reflected a desire on his part both to put down the movie and exaggerate the very real struggle to make the film.

    Despite all its problems and obvious weaknesses, Dwan’s direction helps make MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE well worth watching. I will not belabor this post by listing my whole defense of the film that is available in my book. But I would point out that one of the strongest elements is a performance that needs no apologizing, that of Elaine Stewart as Carla. The strength and intensity of her character is pivotal in making the case that Eddie Candell is worth saving and the unfairness of both the gangsters and police in hunting him down. Indeed much of the struggle of Eddie to restore his diminishing human feelings is depicted in sensuous terms.
    Dwan’s mingling of the science-fiction and gangster genres is wonderfully balanced; the sci-fi metaphor elucidates the plight of a gangster potentate who wants to regain his lost humanity while torn by his own desire for revenge.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Thanks for your comments, Frederic. And thanks again for the labors involved in your outstanding book.

    I’m sure I’m not the only person here who’s an Elaine Stewart fan! Would love to see MOST DANGEROUS again… it’s been decades.

  • jbryant

    Frederic: We can certainly agree on Elaine Stewart. I actually had never noticed her that much before, but she was my favorite aspect of MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE. Quite a feat in a film co-starring Debra Paget (it may have helped that Ms. Paget didn’t have any barely-clad dance numbers in this one). Stewart’s sincere performance did indeed help us sympathize with Ron Randell’s character, something his own performance had trouble achieving. At any rate, I have no doubt that Dwan made more of the film than most could have under the circumstances. Congrats on your book–sounds like a must-read!

  • May I suggest that mise-en-scene on this level is even more impressive than Elaine Stewart?




  • How come we don’t get to post pix? 🙂

  • John Heath

    Those caps are wonderful. It’s amazing isn’t it? If one needs proof of Dwan as a visual artist –there it is. In a film he seemingly felt the need to apologize for, no less. The more I hear (and see) of THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE, the more I’m dying to experience it.

  • jbryant

    May I suggest that stills (or dialogue-free clips) of this film do indeed help show that Dwan was much better than the material. 🙂

    My problems with the film are most all at the script level (along with some of the acting). I certainly don’t mean to imply that the film is not worthy of an auteurist’s time.

  • I had a suspicion that that was the answer. Thanks, Dave.

  • Frederic Lombardi

    Thanks to Dave for his screen caps and for again demonstrating the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words or in this case 3,000 words.

    The first shot comes from what is one of the best sequences in the MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE and the scene that unfolds is very sensitively and adroitly edited (and acted). Although this is a semi-gangster movie it is also one of the relatively rare uses of noir imagery in the film and as with a shot in Dwan’s comedy RENDEZVOUS WITH ANNIE the noir images paradoxically lead to a compelling sense of romantic affirmation.

    Some of Dwan’s most beautifully composed and even painterly shots are often part of a sequence providing an important dramatic transformation. For example, the stunning funeral shot near the end of TENNESEE’S PARTNER not only renders superfluous some of the dialogue in the original script but provides a transition from tragedy to happy ending.

    It appears that the last of the screen caps was probably shot in a hotel lobby so that without art direction Dwan’s keen eye could still spot a mural that would make for a memorable background.

    Finally, I would like to express my sympathy for Barry Putterman and his cancer-ridden cat. In the last two years three people close to me have lost cats who have been their longtime pets and I understand how painful that can be.

  • I’ve only seen MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE once, and don’t always remember these scenes from the screen caps. But will make a try at thinking about the splendid mise-en-scène. These notes just scratch the surface, and do not “explain” everything in these beautiful shots.

    !) This looks like one of Dwan’s mirror shots. They recur throughout his films, from at least as early as the knife used as mirror in A Modern Musketeer (1917). This is beautifully composed, in geometric patterns. It reminds one a bit of the mirror at corridor end in Suez.

    2) Dwan liked scenes with powerful circular forms. This shot has the men sitting in a circle around a circular table. The table has a series of curving legs. There are two circular table lamps, and a curving light fixture on the wall.
    time clock at department store: Manhandled,
    keg at fiesta: Tide of Empire,
    bar at start: Chances,
    arches in staircase hall, kitchen table, lights: The Gorilla,
    the well, portholes: Abroad with Two Yanks,
    hero’s office furniture: Brewster’s Millions,
    bank vault door: The Inside Story,
    wheel of fortune in casino: Montana Belle,
    arches on porch: Cattle Queen of Montana,
    ship deck at start: Pearl of the South Pacific

    The round table and lights here especially recall scenes in The Gorilla.
    By contrast, the women are standing and form strong verticals.

    3) There are occasionally other murals in Dwan. Randolph Scott’s radio ad-man in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm has a spectacular mural behind his office desk. It is full of planes, radio antenna, gears and other technology symbols of the era. Kids make a wall painting of a ship in Pearl of the South Pacific.

    There is a sculptor in Manhandled, and painters in Chances, Calendar Girl, The Inside Story. Dwan is very sympathetic to young people with ambitions in the arts.

    It is unusual to see a Hollywood film, with the hero mainly in a black leather jacket. A man gets married in a black leather jacket in Dwan’s It’s Always Sunday. One suspects Dwan liked this look, and wanted to use it.

    PS. We are all pulling for Casey, the cat friend of Barry!

  • Johan mentioned how he admires the creativity of “detective stories and comic books from the 1940s”. I do too!

    In the science fiction plot in MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE, the blast converts the hero’s body, so that it absorbs metal. He becomes a “man of steel”. This recalls the comic book superhero Steel Sterling, and how his body was transformed by a vat of boiling chemicals. See Steel Sterling’s origin story “The Man of Steel” (Zip Comics #1, February 1940). Later, the phrase “The Man of Steel” would be taken over and applied to Superman. But it was used for Steel Sterling first.

  • Robert Garrick

    Those frames from “The Most Dangerous Man Alive” are even more impressive when one realizes that the film was shot entirely on location and in existing buildings. Dwan would not have been able to remove walls or ceilings or floors to allow for special lighting, camera placement, or camera moves. These were, to a large degree, student film conditions.

    That last shot, with the insane wallpaper enveloping the scene, almost recalls Caligari. At the very least, it brings to mind things like the carnival sequence that ends “Some Came Running” (1958), or the aquarium scene in “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947). As a still, it’s extremely expressive, and more so when you realize that the wallpaper is a found object.

    I have not seen this film, and it’s possible that it’s a lot less impressive when viewed in real time. But based on Dave’s implied defense here I’m guessing that it’s something to behold. And . . . let me add my voice to those who have already thanked Mr. Lombardi for his participation in this thread. There are not a lot of Dwan experts here, yet, but maybe with his help we can get there.

  • Barry Putterman

    Frederic, I didn’t add my welcoming for you to the discussion here before, so let me do so now. And I hope that you stay with us even after we have returned to John Ford. It is a pleasure to hear new voices in the mix such as yours and John Heath’s. Equally pleasurable is hearing more from old friends such as Vivian and D.K. who have not visited here often in the recent past. There are other out there who used to contribute regularly whom we all hope to hear from more frequently as well. You know who you are.

    Casey also appreciates the well wishes from Frederic and Mike. He first appeared here when he was still in the diagnosis stage about a year and a half ago and he still remembers with affection all of the support he received from the cast at that time. He understands that in his condition, the objective of treatment is to prolong life rather than to cure, and that at age 12 1/2 he has lived an almost full and happy life. And so he thanks you one and all and says that he doesn’t mean to play on your sympathies, but if they are going to call that cockamamie thing “Save the Cat,” they are going to have to expect responses like that every once in a while.

  • Junko Yasutani

    I have wondered about health of your cat Barry. I am glad he is still with you. Pet can give love that human cannot.