New DVDs 5-20-2008

This week in the New York Times, a look at the group of westerns recently released by MGM DVD, which includes two films of great stature — Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West” (1958) and Andre De Toth’s “Day of the Outlaw” (1959, and pictured above) — as well as some lesser but interesting titles like Joseph M. Newman’s “Gunfight at Dodge City” (1959), Richard Wilson’s “Man with the Gun” (1955) and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western “Navajo Joe” (1966), with Burt Reynolds as a proto-hippie Indian battling the forces of primitive capitalism.
On the Blu-ray front, our faithful informant Dr. Savaard  points out this disturbing post (under the 5/08/2008 header) on “The Digital Bits.”  Writes the site’s perspicacious editor, Bill Hunt,

“We’ve been getting a few e-mails a week (over the last month or so) from readers who are new to Blu-ray, who say they’re disappointed in the quality of older catalog titles on the format. They disappointed not so much the selection, but the actual video quality. One person said the colors weren’t as vibrant as they were expecting. Another thought the image looked too soft. Several have complained of “noise” on their TV screens when they watched certain older films. It actually took me a while at first to understand what they meant, but now I’ve figured it out… and as a serious film enthusiast, it’s troubling to say the least. That noise some are complaining about? It’s film grain! It seems that many people who came to home theater more recently via DVD, and so who may never have seen older films in an actual movie theater before, simply don’t understand what film grain is. They don’t realize that it’s SUPPOSED to be there.”

The rest of the post, well worth reading, is here.

104 comments to New DVDs 5-20-2008

  • As a Joseph M. Newman fan, was sad to see you thought “Gunfight at Dodge City” was so-so. Have never had a chance to see this.
    It sounds like there is a lot of great viewing here. Have never had the chance to see “Day of the Outlaw” letterboxed.

  • nicolas saada

    Very good film, disturbing, with Burl Ives in a similar rol as the one he had in Ray’s “Wind across the everglades” : talking about westerns, Wyler has never been as underrated as he is in France. No one has seen his movies but everybody has an opinion. I like “The Big country” very much too.

  • Yes! I live for Spaghetti Westerns! I will be seeing Navajo Joe as soon as possible.

  • Brian

    Just watched Day of the Outlaw — it’s a stunner. So tense, stark and brutal. Nobody did brooding anti-heroes like Robert Ryan. The snowbound atmosphere made it feel almost like a precursor to McCabe & Mrs Miller.

  • Not too westerns-related’y, but since this is the newest entry I’ll pose the question here… on (eternal return) the subject of Lola Montès/Montez!

    Can anyone speak about what the differences are between Stefan Droessler’s restoration of the film a few years back, and this new Marcel-sanctioned restoration that’s just bowed at Cannes? Dave?

    (Lots of past discussion on the Droessler resto vs. Marcel’s way-of-seeing-things here in past comments sections, which a search for two or three keywords might unearth.)

    craig.

  • Hi Craig,
    This is probably a question for Nicolas Saada (hey, Nick!) who is on the scene in Cannes. Predictably, the US coverage of the festival was hijacked by Indiana Jones, and I haven’t read a word about the retrospective section, which this year included restorations of Oliveira’s “Douro, Faina Fluvial” and Lester James Peries’ “The Changing Village” as well. (I guess the American press figured it had done its due diligence toward film history by covering Wong Kar-wai’s recut of one of his weakest films, “Ashes of Time.”) Looking at the festival website, I see that Marcel’s “Lola” has a running time of 115 minutes, which would make it the same length as Droessler’s and two minutes longer than the previous French version.

    Brian, glad you liked “Day of the Outlaw.” The snowbound setting adds an unsettling, dreamlike atmosphere to the film, as it does in a handful of other films that almost form a subgenre — snow westerns — unto themselves: Wellman’s “Track of the Cat,” Mann’s “Bend of the River,” Corbucci’s “The Great Silence,” etc.

  • I’ve thought that “Day of the Outlaw” was one of the great films of the 50s, too, since I saw it (open-matte) on TCM five or six years ago, for many of the same reasons cited above: Robert Ryan, and the amazing way that DeToth’s use of space & lighting in that snowy mountain valley give it a feel so unlike other westerns. (It may be one of the only westerns from before the revisionist wave of the 70s that David Milch cadged from the make up “Deadwood,” no?) I haven’t seen all of DeToth, but did he ever make a better movie?

  • Kent Jones

    Greetings from Cannes. Unfortunately, Saada is not here.

    LOLA MONTES was shown (digitally) the other night. It looked gorgeous. The principle difference between this and Droessler’s restoration is language. Beyond that I can not comment. The Lester James Peries film was absolutely beautiful. In the competition, I was very fond of the Desplechin, the Martel, the Garrel. The Eastwood is very good, and I liked CHE. Kurosawa’s TOKYO SONATA is beautiful, and there was a nice surprise in the Directors’ Fortnight, the new Skolimowski film.

  • Interesting. BTW, Burdeau at the Cahiers has the following to report (but no more info on this version v. the Droessler) —

    http://www.cahiersducinema.com/article1640.html

    For the record, I should retierate that Marcel had previously announced, at the time of the emergence of Droessler-et-al’s version, that the cut as had previously circulated for fifty years was more or less “precisely” his father’s “intended vision” of the film.

  • nicolas saada

    I’m not in Cannes as I’m doing adr on my first feature film. The Desplechin is gorgeous. One of my favorite de Toth films is “Riding Shotgun”. It’s extraordinary as a piece of “kammerspiel” western. It’s perhaps not as good as Boetticher’s films of the late fifties, but it’s truly impressive.

  • jbryant

    nicholas: your comment about “Riding Shotgun” may nudge me into a blind buy of the Randolph Scott triple feature DVD that includes that title along with Felix Feist’s “The Man Behind the Gun” and De Toth’s “Thunder Over the Plains” (anyone seen it?). The list price is only $14.98 and amazon.com has it for $12.99.

    De Toth has become one of my favorite directors in the last couple of years. I’d say his best are “None Shall Escape” and “Day of the Outlaw,” but I’m also high on “Carson City,” “Last of the Comanches,” “Crime Wave,” and “The Indian Fighter.” “Man in the Saddle” has lots of good stuff, and I’m overdue for a fresh look at “Slattery’s Hurricane” and “Pitfall” (speaking of the latter, it’s showing Sunday night as part of the Harvard Film Archive’s Unseen Noir series. Michael Atkinson’s review of it in The Phoenix is mostly favorable, but I was rather shocked by his assertion that De Toth was a “drone”!).

    I thought “Monkey on My Back” was a good try, but lacking. I have “Man on a String” recorded but unwatched. Dying to see “Play Dirty.”

    I suppose his most famous film is the 3-D “House of Wax,” which I’d say is more fun than great. His other 3-D feature, the Scott Western “The Stranger Wore a Gun” is unbelievably bad, at least when broadcast flat. Incredibly for a De Toth film, there’s scarcely an interesting shot in the entire 83 minutes, and I can’t imagine it would drastically improve in 3-D, especially since the story is also a mess.

    Shortly after De Toth died, I learned that he was a regular fixture at a coffee shop just across the street from where I work in Burbank, CA. I’m no coffee drinker, but if I’d known, I’d have been over there every day looking to chat up the old guy with the eye patch!

  • Jaime

    I heard a funny story about a journalist who was meeting De Toth at the airport for an interview…thing is, the journalist also had a condition requiring an eyepatch, so upon meeting De Toth she had to explain rather quickly that she wasn’t mocking him…

    PLAY DIRTY is phenomenal, and also available on widescreen DVD (needless to say it’s best seen on film, and was part of Lincoln Center’s ‘Scope series a few years back).

    Jaime

  • Michael Dempsey

    Here are a few notes on the Andre de Toth Westerns featured on the recent Randolph Scott triple-bill DVD.

    The title “Riding Shotgun” is a semi-misnomer. Only for the first sequences of this western does Larry Delong (Randolph Scott) perform that job on stagecoaches crisscrossing the West. As his narration promptly indicates, Larry has taken this job because he wants to lure murderous outlaw Dan Marady (James Millican) and his violent gang into attacking one of the stages so that Larry can have the chance to kill him. Somewhat later, we learn the reason why: during a holdup some years earlier, Marady and his mob killed Larry’s wife and child.

    This might suggest that Larry is cut from the Boetticher-Burt Kennedy cloth, as well he might be. But one weakness of “Riding Shotgun,” a skillful piece of craftsmanship, is that Larry never seems all that driven, let alone distorted by the pressures of his longing for vengeance. The narration seems to place what the film is going to show us in the realm of calm remembrance, even Larry’s assertion that Marady is the only man he has ever wanted to kill. Throughout the picture, Larry is always collected and thoughtful, never out of control, never grief-stricken, which makes the asserted motivation for his masquerade as a shotgun rider perfunctory, especially compared to what fuels the men in the Ranown westerns.

    The meat of the picture is a variation on “High Noon.” Instead of a town where everyone knows outlaws are preparing an attack, almost all the citizenry in “Riding Shotgun” is willing to believe that the thugs are on the way. Rather than a sheriff moving freely about the town seeking support, Larry, unable to persuade the locals that Marady shot up a stagecoach to lure the sheriff and a posse out of town, thereby leaving its gold-laden casino defenseless, is forced to hole up in a grungy cantina. As in both “High Noon” and its ostensible refutation, “Rio Bravo” (in which genuine heroes have no need for local assistance – they can do the job themselves), the locals come across as mostly nonentities who refuse to face plain reality.

    Larry’s sanctuary, the cantina, is owned by scurvy, self-pitying Fritz (Fritz Feld – was the character named after him?), who whines incessantly about the demands of his fat wife and their brood while babbling with idiotic pride over the new mirror he has just installed. In defiance of expectation for such a generic secondary figure rendered by an old-time Hollywood character actor, Feld’s characterization goes all the way with this pathetic slimeball’s sweaty selfishness; it’s a sharp piece of comic performing.

    Wayne Morris also provides admirable work as Deputy Sheriff Tub Murphy, the only remaining lawman in a town full of blowhards eager for a necktie party. Tub lives up to his name by repeatedly stepping away from the siege that traps Larry in the cantina to chow down, and at other times he seems prepared to entertain Larry’s story about the outlaws’ trickery while wanting to lock Larry up according to the book. Morris is canny about balancing the film’s continually shifting two-sided stance toward Tub: that he is a dull semi-coward who is in over his head trying to control the situation until the posse returns, and that he is a canny observer of human motivations under pressure who has the skill to prevent a precarious situation from exploding. By blending the two impressions with great skill, keeping the viewer off-balance over which one is true or will prove to be dominant, Morris etches a characterization that equals his entirely different treacherous officer in “Paths Of Glory.”

    As for Scott, the limitations of his part and the film’s approach confine him to straightforwardness, which he deploys effectively. Bronson makes his mark again as another incorrigible near-madman. Everyone else, including Joan Weldon, tall and elegant but bland as Larry’s love interest, hits the generic codes but leaves no more than a series of momentary impressions. But the chessboard movements of the antagonists and the best characterizations are lucid, and aside from a couple of heavy-handed inserts featuring onlooking women aflame with lust for violence, in the vein of Jane Darwell’s bitch in “The Ox-Bow Incident,” the portrait of readily aroused civic bloodlust is sharp.

    “Thunder Over The Plains” reshuffles the deck of B-Western genre elements into a craftsmanlike, modestly insightful consideration of conflicting loyalties. Randolph Scott is David Porter, a post-Civil War cavalry captain charged with defending carpetbaggers who have swarmed into Texas during Reconstruction to plunder the lands, homes, and cotton crops of the secessionist state’s residents, although many of them fought for the Union. With Texas yet re-admitted to the Union, martial law governs the region and requires defense of the carpetbaggers’ activities on the grounds that they are legal.

    Two complications arise. Local rebel Ben Westman (Charles McGraw) forms a private gang that harasses carpetbaggers, seizes their loads of cotton, and earns a reputation as a Robin Hood. The support that Westman receives undermines the efforts of the local Army commander, Lt. Col. Chandler (Henry Hull), to capture him or defeat his private force. Captain Porter internalizes the conflict by being both a loyal Union officer who fought at Gettysburgh and a Texan who perceives the evil of the carpetbaggers he is duty-bound to defend.

    Into the mixture comes a slightly forced subplot involving another, newly-arrived captain, complacent and arrogant Bill Hodges (Lex Barker, a former Tarzan crossing to the dark-ish side here) and Porter’s wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk). Hodges, somewhat predictably, is full of himself, scornful of his assignment and Texas, anxious to play with his shiny new pistol, and prone to charge into action without thinking things through. He also wrongly considers himself irresistible to Norah because, having known her previously, he arouses her nostalgia and mistakenly takes this for a sexual invitation.

    The plot involves steady pressure from Col. Chandler on Porter to bring Westman in, Hodges’s repeatedly botched involvement in these efforts, and a fake cotton shipment that lures Westman’s gang into a trap. Maintaining restraint and probity in the face of the gung-ho Hodges’s reckless carelessness,

    Scott is not playing a Boetticher-style man consumed with long-term obsession. Porter is upright but not prissy, simple in his devotion to military duty and his eye for injustice, slow to choose between them, but unafraid to do so when the choice becomes unavoidable. Scott brings lean forcefulness to the part, putting this character in the middle range between his Boetticher figures and his comparatively phoned-in figure in “The Man Behind The Gun.”

    Other actors also get opportunities to develop their salient traits and, in some cases, move into new territory. Because he so often played implacable psychopaths or equally implacable although honest cops, the sight of Charles McGraw provokes the expectation that Westman will prove to be another addition to this gallery. Instead, McGraw plays a genuinely selfless guerilla leader, bringing out another facet of this underrated actor’s talent that didn’t have many opportunities to emerge. Phyllis Kirk is vivacious and touching as the anguished but loyal Norah; in just a few moments (reacting to a spilled pot of dinner or to Hodges’s calculated reminiscences) she creates a paragon of warmth and intelligence; never for an instant is she tempted to betray her husband, and for once this stance is not moralistic Hollywood preachiness but a sign of emotional strength and honesty.

    Its overblown title aside, “Thunder Over The Plains” is an exemplary B.

  • Professor Echo

    RAMROD from 1947 is one of Toth’s finest westerns. It’s just been restored by UCLA and the print is simply awesome. I won’t reveal anything about the film itself as it should be experienced with as little intellectual/emotional foreplay as possible.

    Of course, I feel that way about almost every film and very often skip posts here that delineate too many specifics for any given title. God forbid someone should reveal an ending or denouement without a clearly stated -SPOILER- preceding it. That’s just not cricket.

    And, uh, er, ahem, that includes you too Dave! ;)

  • I like “Man on a String” quite a bit … saw it at LACMA a couple of years ago and was taken by its bullet-train pace and the fact that, although it’s not as sophisticated as the Lang film, the DeToth shares some of the prescient surveillance-paranoia of “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.” Which must be a coincidence, right, unless the two somehow crossed paths while DeToth was filming “Man on a String” in Germany?

  • edo

    Just watched “Day of the Outlaw” a couple nights ago. What can I say? It’s outstanding. The first De Toth film I’ve seen and I’m aching for more!

    FYI to any Chicagoans who are reading this, Doc Films will be showing “Slattery’s Hurricane” this summer on 35mm.

  • Alex Hicks

    “Crime Wave”/”Decoy” DVD is a an economical windfall and “Pitfall” is, indeed, worth a look. De Toth’s Westerns sound like major new DK.com revelations. Thanks.

  • Herman Scobie

    I have a Ramrod poster in my office. Its lovely, lurid copy reads, “They called it God’s country . . . until the devil put a woman there!” Doesn’t get any better than that. The woman is Mrs. DeToth, in her prime.

  • It’s great to see this outpouring of interest in De Toth, whose reputation has mysteriously dimmed these last two decades although he was one of the great auteurist causes of the 70s. In addition to the titles mentioned above, I’d add my plugs for “Dark Water,” a gothic thriller from 1944, “The Other Love” (1947), a Barbara Stanwyck melodrama that was De Toth’s other film for the leftist stuido Enterprise Productions (with “Ramrod”), and “The Indian Fighter,” a nicely conflicted Kirk Douglas western. And as the second unit director on “Lawrence of Arabia” and Richard Donner’s “Superman,” I suspect that De Toth was responsible for at least some of those films’ spectacular vistas. Film Forum dug up a 3-D print of “Stranger Wore a Gun” a few years ago, and indeed, it is no better in 3-Ds than 2 — brisk but impersonal.

  • edo

    Still in embryonic form, some thoughts on “Day of the Outlaw”: http://asperfectasitcanbe.blogspot.com/

  • Blake Lucas

    This was mostly written before several posts, like Dempsey on those two Scott Westerns and Professor Echo noting the same title “Ramrod” that I also admire. I had intended to add something, and have added a few lines at the end. (and now more de Toth posts, including Dave’s) So will just post as I already wrote it. Hope this explains why I
    seem to be introducing some titles already mentioned.
    ***
    Jbbryant–sounds like a good buy on three Scott pix at $12.99. I’ll go with Nicholas that “Riding Shotgun” is the best of these three, and it’s very good–one I myself want to see again. I also liked “Thunder Over the Plains” and if you like de Toth, you’ll want to see it. I found “Man Behind the Gun” (Felix Feist) relatively weak among Scott films. In any of these package deals not all the films are equally good. I personally like “Man in the Saddle” best of de Toth’s Scott Westerns, and “The Stranger Wore a Gun” least–you are right about 3-D, as I’ve seen it both ways and it doesn’t get better.

    I’m kind of a Randolph Scott completist (haven’t made it yet), at least for his postwar Westerns, and have learned one thing. The films for his own production company with Harry Joe Brown (several names for it, Ranown being last), all released for Columbia, are more even and on the whole better than his Warner Bros. and other releases, though as indicated above many of those are good too, like “Riding Shotgun.” The single greatest exception is “Seven Men from Now” (Batjac/Warners release) and of course it led to the rest of the Boetticher/Ranowns at Columbia so is more linked with those anyway. I have seen every Scott/Brown–the three I believe are especially good among these, and are all exceptionally fine, are “A Lawless Street” (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955), “Hangman’s Knot” (Roy Huggins, 1952), and “Man in the Saddle” (1951). (Please note: I’m not including “Ride the High Country” in this Scott overview—a great film which equally involving
    old friend Joel McCrea, who has his own postwar Western series—it was meant to be a film for them to kind of ride out together with).

    I also believe that Randolph Scott is revealed as an actor who, more than many others,
    got better and found his full power in his final round of films, those with Boetticher. I always liked him, and he’s fine and capable earlier in so many films and definitely one of the best leading man ever for Westerns, but that soul deep revelation of those Boetticher heroes that is so moving is something those films alone command—even when his earlier characters do have a dead wife to avenge (which is the case more than once), it’s more of
    a plot point than something deeply explored (Michael Dempsey seems to argue this in his
    his post too).

    As to de Toth, for me three of his films especially jump out, “Day of the Outlaw” along with another Western “Ramrod” and the film noir “Pitfall” which you mentioned. Fighting my natural tendency to like a Western best, I’d give the edge to “Pitfall”–a very unusual movie in which the woman (Lizabeth Scott) in an adultery story is not only the character to unfairly suffer but the one who gets all our sympathy. She’s no femme fatale, though very alluring, and I believe this was perhaps Lizabeth Scott’s best role. De Toth’s mise en scene at times benefits from subtlety and understatement rather than being flashy.

    “Ramrod” and “Day of the Outlaw”–his first and last Westerns–are not unalike in tone, and both have that rueful, bitter edge, though the snowscapes of the latter which everyone is rightly remarking on are one of its distinctive features and a tremendously expressive part of that film. These are his only black-and-white Westerns and were both photographed by the great Russell Harlan, who ranks quite high in the genre, notably for his Howard Hawks Westerns (“Red River,” “The Big Sky,” “Rio Bravo”).

    If I named one other de Toth that’s especially good, it would probably be “Slattery’s Hurricane.” Unusual, absorbing melodrama and it stars Richard Widmark as a characteristically ambivalent hero, along with Linda Darnell and de Toth’s then wife
    Veronica Lake, also in “Ramrod” in an uncharacteristic role of a heroine who drives
    the whole action with neurotic malevolence (and the wonderful McCrea is in that one)

    “Springfield Rifle” with Gary Cooper is another very good de Toth Western in my book.
    The backlot African adventure “Tanganyika” is kind of a minor de Toth, but little remarked is the fact that for all its modesty, the climax is basically modeled on Conrad’s
    ”Heart of Darkness.” Howard Duff discovers that his lost brother Jeff Morrow has gone bad and set himself up as a kind of outlaw king over the natives—and Morrow has a few memorable scenes as the Kurtz like figure explaining his now-heartless view of the world.

    The actor next to the right of Burl Ives (left in the frame), for those who might not have placed him, is Jack Lambert, one of the all time great villains, with one of his best roles in “Day of the Outlaw.” As I recall from my long lost copy of THE HEAVIES, he had been an English teacher or something. It must have been a wonderful experience to walk into class and see that guy, so great at being tough and mean, saying “And now we’ll read Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’

  • PWC

    I have fading memories of the comparison that Droessler did between his version and the standard longer version at Film Forum some years ago. I seem to remember there was a cut in the final track backward in the latter.

    The print he projected was 2.55:1–

  • seanflynn

    Does anyone know the backstory about De Toth’s apparent disdain for Hitchcock?

    TCM has a Hitchcock more of less tribute promo with lots of people saying great thing, then De Toth pops up with a very disparaging comment which indicated he held him personally in very low regard.

  • Correction, just for the record … that “Man on a String” screening was at UCLA’s James Bridges Theatre, not LACMA. And “24”‘s Jude Ciccolella was sitting behind me, to add a layer to the paranoia.

    I’ve missed screenings of them all in LA or NYC so it’s my own fault, but it sure would be nice to get a real DVD release of “Pitfall,” “Ramrod,” & “Slattery’s Hurricane” before I cave & seek out tapes of ‘em. You’d think “Slattery” would’ve had a shot in the Fox noir line ahead of any of the non-noirs they put out in the last round.

  • Kent Jones

    I think de Toth worked out the paticulars of the flying sequences in SUPERMAN.

  • DamienB

    Sean Flynn wrote, “Does anyone know the backstory about De Toth’s apparent disdain for Hitchcock?

    “TCM has a Hitchcock more of less tribute promo with lots of people saying great thing, then De Toth pops up with a very disparaging comment which indicated he held him personally in very low regard.”

    In De Toth on De Toth (edited by Tony Slide), De Toth says of Hitchcock, “Well. Except for a few of his early films, his productions are glossy, manufactured and well-manicured merchandise, with the great PR machines behind them necessary to sell the mass-produced crap, de luxe as it may be. He was a genius at publicity — I doff my hat to that. Unfortunately, early success and believing his self-created publicity made him fat, not only in body, but mentally, too; he became lazy, immobile and repetitious, which was more than establising a style.. He stopped growing, searching for new ways, experimenting. You can tell and feel that every shot was planned mechanically. Every set-up is identical and predictable.

    “Was he good? Of course he was good. But who knows how much better he could have been, how much he could have given to the art.”

    He added, “Hitchcock believed he was God. And that’s when you’re really in trouble.”

  • seanflynn

    Thanks for that DamienB.

    The funny thing is how much DeToth (whose films I admire) did not grasp one of Hitchcock’s great themes – the folly of men trying to be God (nowhere more than as a central theme of Vertigo).

    The tone of the filmclip, more so than the remarks above, made me think it was more personal than just a critical reaction.

  • DamienB

    I came fairly late to De Toth, just getting to appreciate him in the last few years, but now he’s in my pantheon of filmmakers, up there with Ford, Minnelli, Sirk, McCarey, Renoir, Rossellini and Edwards.

    I watched Day Of The Outlaw back in 2001 on the recommendation of a friend and because of Fred Camper’s impassioned writing about it. It’s an amazing achievement. I expected to like it and be impressed by it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how multi-textured, superbly formalized and darkly beautiful it would be, Thematically, it’s akin to later Ford, with an early man of the west/man of action helping to bring civilization to the frontier, making it safe for the next wave of more “refined” folks. It’s stunningly shot by Hawks stalwart Russell Harlan and what De Toth achieves so brilliantly is conveying the external natural world as mercilessly brutal (albeit starkly beautiful) with violent action the norm, and he often shots the characters at a distance to illustrate how they’re at the mercy of both Nature and their own human nature. The photography of these exteriors though is stunningly crisp and the bleakness is strangely gorgeous. The interior scenes, however, are filmed in a flat style: what De Toth is doing is showing his belief that the brutal external world is the “real,” identifiable one, the violence and treachery there are representative of man’s true character. At the same time, DeToth’s use of spacing and planes and distancing objects in the interiors is — to my great surprise at the time — reminiscent of Sirk’s. It is a highly complex, highly emphatic use of mise-en-scene.

    Last of the Comanches is My second favorite of De Toth’s films Everything in it is so pared down, so primal, that I think it essentially works as an abstract work of art. For instance, De Toth portrays a world that is almost completely devoid of “civilization.” The only glance we get of civilized society is a few seconds of the town at the beginning of the film – and that is soon completely destroyed, with only shells of buildings remaining. In the desert, the mission and trading port are also in ruins. This all is almost Antonioni-esque, except that it’s more subtle. It’s also a forerunner of the post-Apocalypric sub-genre.

    Moreover, Barbara Hale is made to change from her “fancy dress” into a more rugged and functional outfit. The stagecoach which is seen throughout the movie has a painting on its side, showing (if memory serves) a scene of lush vegetation that stands in contrast to the parched, lifeless desert – and, tellingly, the painting is hit by an Indian arrow, another reminder that we are now in a universe where such reassuring and pleasing scenes have no part. A a cross on a grave is set on fire and eventually is destroyed – an indication that the “enlightenment” of religion has no place in the world of the film, and, of course, a direct reference to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, there is very little connection among the members of the group – there’s none of the expected small talk or inklings of romance between Broderick Crawford and Barbara Hale. (It’s pretty amazing how gruff and unpleasant Crawford comes across, and I give him a lot of credit for not trying to soften his performance.) Each of the characters seem to be existing in his own world, lost in his or her own obsessions or thoughts, and the different accents (especially the New England voice of the scout and the New York-ese of the stage coach driver) also work to keep these people separate entities rather than parts of a unified community.

    Another example comes early on when Crawford and Lloyd Bridges are talking and they are presented to us in silhouette, against an intense red sky, so that they don’t even seem like people. I am so impressed with the way that De Toth stages the scenes and blocks the actors, further emphasizing this effect: in extremely subtle ways, persons are in different visual planes carrying on about their business. And they all seem scattered around the fort almost at random. Another thing I love, which emphasizes the abstract quality of the movie, is that critical events happen with no build-up. The film starts in the middle of the narrative, really, for the cavalry is already in the midst of fending off the Indians from the town. Other examples include the way that the liquor salesperson suddenly, and with no tip-off to the audience, turns heroic or a Comanche arrow finding its way into a man’s chest at the oddest moment, that one can scarcely get a handle on the narrative.

    And clearly having a character named Starbuck is no coincidence, but is a direct reference to the First Mate in Moby Dick, another examination of cold single-mindedness and apart-ness in the guise of an adventure story. Another odd aspect is the cinematography. I don’t understand enough about photography to know if it’s because of film speed or stock, but the look of the film is also pared down, and has the feel of a documentary or even home movies. I think the film actually borders on the avant-garde. It’s a beauty.

    Play Dirty strikes me as a completely convincing celebration of amorality, and it may be the bleak apogee of De Toth’s nihilistic world view. As in Ray’s Bitter Victor, the desert works perfectly metaphorically in a film analyzing the essence of human nature, as a landscape striped of everything extraneous. I appreciated the fact that in a film that was expressing the futility of war (a theme which, of course, was not unusual during the Vietnam era), there was no winking irony, and that De Toth presented actions in very brutal fashion. The attempted-rape of the German nurse is so extreme as to be – even four decades later – shocking (a reaction I rarely experience with films) I was also fascinated by the matter-of-factness with which De Toth handled the two Arab lovers, who seem to be in their own world, as if the only way to escape the barbarianism of life is to determinedly be oblivious to it. In fact, other than Michael Caine – and he learns as the film goes on – each of the characters survives by facing the world on his own, self-serving terms.

    Riding Shotgun is not quite up to these three, but I love De Toth’s compositions of the townspeople who are standing in rather arbitrarily pronounced arrangements so they become almost abstractions. There’s a great shot when Randolph Scott and James Millican are having their showdown, and De Toth’s camera is at floor level, taking in all the results of the destruction, both objects and human bodies – I can’t recall another shot that’s quite like it. The film’s a very interesting contrast to High Noon, since here the townspeople are actively against the hero rather than indifferent to his plight. It seems to me to be a much more pungent McCarthyism allegory than the Zinnemann (not simply in its cinematic excellence but in its treatment of themes).

  • Alex

    Now that DK has written “De Tothone of the great auteurist causes of the 70s” and the “A” word has been uttered, questiuon “A” arises. What succinct case is to be made for either or both of the forms of self-expression that (technical competence aside) define the auteur across her body of work: (1) personal style; and (2) thematic consistency/development?

    By the way, is anything to be made of the DeToth-Wells-Yordon dubbing of the catleman villian of “Day of the Outlaw” with the same sirname as the homesteader community icons of “Shane?”

  • Alex

    …and that name is Starrett.

  • Damien, thanks for the very interesting observations on “Last of the Comanches,” which I have never seen. It is, alas, a Columbia picture and does not seem to be part of the Columbia package on TCM; I can’t imagine Sony getting around to releasing it on DVD until they’ve finished with volume 43 of The Three Stooges collection.

  • Blake Lucas

    Dave-the Western Channel has shown “Last of the Comanches,” although it has been awhile now. I missed it before and am looking forward to it coming back there (hopefully it will–they plainly have an ongoing deal with Columbia too). TCM did show it too, once, so possibly it will be back there as well. I saw this years ago and don’t remember it now and was sorry I carelessly let these opportunities go by. It seems to be a highly regarded de Toth, not only by Damien, whose comments do suggest a striking movie.

    Your comments re Sony remind me that all of two years ago my highly-placed source at Columbia repertory assured me their five Boetticher/Ranown movies (“The Tall T” “Decision at Sundown” “Buchanan Rides Alone” “Ride Lonesome” and “Comanche Station”) were all going to be released on DVD within the coming year. No idea what happened with this unless it did happen and I’ve been unaware of it. But it seems to me I’ve been reading your DVD column through all of that time and you would have called attention to it. Do you know anything? The last two titles are ‘Scope of course so especially in need here.

    Alex, why do you describe Blaise Starrett/Robert Ryan in “Day of the Outlaw” as the “cattleman villain?” Yes, he is a cattleman, and he acts like the villains of “Shane” at the beginning of the film, similarly trying to intimidate the farmers (for personal reasons as well) and even making a similar self-justifying speech. But in 1959 Westerns, heroes were so often equivocal and ambivalent, not just good guys in white hats. In the case of this character, this is what you have someone like Robert Ryan for, isn’t it? Part of the thrust of “Day of the Outlaw” is toward Blaise’s spiritual renewal and

    SPOILER

    at the end he is a redeemed man and plainly the film’s hero. Interestingly, Ryan’s bitter detective in “On Dangerous Ground” (Ray, 1951) is similarly healed in action occurring in a snowy landscape.

  • Alex Hicks

    Blake,

    Dang! I defer utterly to your views here as my use of “villian,” like all my info on “DAY” (so far beyond my physicval or electronic access) comes out of shere hearsay and crude capsule synopses. (But that doesn’t invalidate the little “Starrett” puzzle.)

    I’m still not convinced that “Strangers When we Meet” is a melancholy masterpiecer even when viewed without the distractions of Scrabble, but going back to “Strangers” I can see how the film is rewarding viewed with less emphasis on its somewhat hackneyed literary/sociological perceptions of a Quine-Hunter film (at least to a nomnivore of 1950s and 60s A,merican fiction)than the rigorous beauties of a Quine-Lang one.

    Thank you, and thank you.

  • nicolas saada

    It’s not really De Toth related, but I watched Tourneur’s Nightfall again yesterday. I have a VHS recorded from tv in 1982 (!) and the image is 1:33. It looks good, especially the compositions. I have questions about the Universal and Columbia films of the late fifties. Should they be shown in 1:33 or 1:85 ? Another topic mentioned that the Touch of Evil DVD was released in 1:85 for good reasons, implying that most films were projected in their “matted” versions in the late fifties. Same was said about “Nightfall”. Is that true ? Or is it due to the tyranny of widescreen televisions and lcd or hd screens that seem to stretch films to fit in the letterbox or 1:85 format ?

  • Blake, I’ve heard from a filmmaker who’s been asked to record a commentary for a Boetticher box set, so it seems that the day is not long off when that is actually going to happen. It’s incredible that it’s taken this long, given that our friends Grover Crisp and Michael Schlesinger made beautiful 35mm prints of all the Ranowns years ago and Sony/Columbia has released half a dozen lesser Randolph Scott films in the meantime.

  • mark Johnson - London

    Dave and Blake , FYI, both,“Buchanan Rides Alone” and ,”The Tall T”, have, recently aired in HD over here in the UK. Both in the correct ratio, and both looking very nice as well.

  • Tim Bodzioney

    Both Columbia and Universal started using 1.85 as their aspect ratio in 1954. I often see ‘Shane’ kicked around in discussions regarding aspect ratio abuse – and it was at the time one of the few movies the studios were guilty of doing this with. But I think it sat on the shelf for a couple of years which would have spanned the period the studios adopted widescreen. But in Paramount’s defense, it has never been released on video in widescreen. Universal released one of the Mann/Stewart westerns in 1.85 when it was shot with 1.37 in mind. But there aren’t many such examples. The easiest way to check if a movie was intended to be projected in 1.85 is to check how the credits are centered on the frame. If there is a lot of room on the top and bottom of the frame, the movie was composed for 1.85. I don’t understand people who complain about ‘Touch of Evil’ or ‘Psycho’ being distorted by being shown in 1.85 – because they were both originally released in 1.85.

  • Blake Lucas

    Since you mentioned his name it was Schlesinger who told me the Boettichers were on their way to DVD two years ago. Yes, they had a weekend of all six films at American Cinematheque–must be six or seven years ago now–at which Columbia unveiled the restorations of their five. Three double bills in chronological order of the films, and the prospect of seeing them all together in 35 prints was too enticing to pass up so my wife and I made a weekend of it, and got a few friends to several of the films too. L.Q. Jones and H. M. Wynant showed up for the “Decision”/”Buchanan” double bill; Jones especially is quite a character. And the wonderful and still lovely Nancy Gates showed up for “Comanche Station”–visibly moved to see a beautiful print of it projected on the big Egyptian ‘Scope screen and talking about her fondness for the film, happy memories of making it, admiration of Budd Boetticher as a director, friendship with Claude Akins, and things like that. Good weekend–and that’s meant to be said with the understatement with which Scott said of Karen Steele “She ain’t ugly.”

    You really got me curious what filmmaker is doing that commentary (I know maybe you can’t say here who it is)–I’m trying to think of what contemporary director might have a real affinity for those films. I know Budd was good friends with Martha Coolidge, who he hoped would direct “When in Disgrace”…

    A footnote re Scott/Brown (originally Producers-Actors and finally Ranown). They made a few Westerns without Scott and one of these was “Last of the Comanches.” The other two were directed by Alfred Werker, very good in the genre in these last years of his career, “Three Hours to Kill” (1954) and “The Last Posse” (1953)–the second of these, in black-and-white, is conspicuously outstanding, and like “Comanches” stars Broderick Crawford, here as a veteran lawman, now used up and alcoholic, but he’s still got something left…

    Alex–I thought you had seen “Day of the Outlaw.” I hope you get to see it soon.

  • Professor Echo

    On the subject of good, gritty 50’s westerns, Robert Wise’s TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN from 1956 will play in a rare 35mm theatrical screening at LACMA in L.A. on the afternoon of June 3rd.

    Cagney only made three westerns in his career and two of them date from the genre’s most shadow cast era, the 1950’s. In addition to BAD MAN he also appeared in the beautifully wrought RUN FOR COVER directed by Nicholas Ray a year earlier.

    In his mid-50’s at the time and not quite as wing-footed as once was, Cagney embraced middle age by sharpening the psychological edge of his always flammable demeanor. It’s one of the most fascinating evolutions of any actor, to see the gradual ballet of his physical flit now simmering, occasionally boiling, as inner risk and ruthlessness. He replaced Spencer Tracy in BAD MAN, but never evokes any of the latter’s often misguided condescension. The older Tracy’s battles were usually against demons from without, while Cagney’s latter conflicts always waged within.

    This is a debate for probably another time, but it’s been fashionable for quite awhile to disregard Robert Wise, and at times with some reasonable contention. Still, he is not without talent and intelligence and TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN evokes both.

  • DamienB

    Dave, I have “Last of the Comanches” on VHS (taped from either TCM or the Western Channel, I forget which) and would be happy either to transfer it to DVD for you (if I can figure out how on the just-purchased machine I have) or lend you the tape.

  • Professor Echo

    Dave K, VCI is currently having a 40% off everything sale members through the weekend. Didn’t you recently recommend some of their Singing Cowboy DVD collections? They are only $4.99 with 40% off that, so am thinking of trying some out and just wanted to cross check with your recommendations, if you have any?

    Am also in for their JUNGLE GIRL serial which is supposed to be great and, according to trustworthy Gary Tooze, aka DVD BEAVER, a beautiful transfer.

  • Professor Echo

    Sigh, wish you had an EDIT feature here, Dave….

    Let me correct myself: I didn’t mean JUST the Singing Cowboy collections from VCI, but ANY of their B-Western collections. And, of course, I didn’t intend to just single out Dave for his recommendations. If anyone out there has any suggestions for good VCI DVDs please pass them along.

    The sale is on until May 27th and you may have to sign up to receive their free E mail newsletter in order to qualify, but if not, the sale code is: ANDNJ

  • That VCI sale is really something: 40 percent off on titles that already retail for as little as $7, as in the case of the excellent Allan Dwan double bill, “Cattle Queen of Montana” and “Tennessee’s Partner.” Just casting my eyes over what I’ve got here, I’d recommend “The Legendary Singing Cowboys,” four features including a William Witney Rex Allen and a Joe Kane Roy Rogers; “The Three Mequiteers Volume 10,” a Witney-Sherman double bill; “Bob Baker The Singing Cowboy” with four titles, two by Joseph H. Lewis; “Johnny Mack Brown Vol. 12,” with Lewis’s “The Silver Bullet” (one of William K. Everson’s favorites); and “Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection” with five films by the interesting William Nigh (misattributed to Witney on the packaging). In the serial department, there’s my pick for Republic’s all-time greatest, “Drums of Fu Manchu,” directed by Witney and English; and also by Witney and English, “King of the Royal Mounted,” “Jungle Girl,” the just-released “Dick Tracy Returns” and the box set of the three Zorro serials. On a completely different note, they’ve got the best version I’ve seen of the the wonderfully surreal Gene Autry serial, “Phantom Empire,” directed by Breezy Eason and Otto Brower.

    Where do we stop? They’ve got the only authorized version (widescreen yet!) of Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Hannibal,” Joseph Losey’s “King and Country,” Luis Bunuel’s “Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” Albert Lewin’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” several of the Allan Dwan-Benedict Bogeaus titles (including the great “Slightly Scarlet”), as well as couple gazillion programmers from the Lippert brothers. The link is http://www.vcientertainment.com.

  • Fascinating thread about Andre De Toth, remember during the last years, if he could he would show up at screenings of his films, to talk about them (he was one – Samuel Fuller was another – who relished the adoration of fans), he would.

    But wanted to comment on the article in The DigitalBits: yes, this is happening, so many people do not understand what films are supposed to look like, this happened years ago, when Paramount “restored” SUNSET BOULEVARD and ROMAN HOLIDAY. Now: ROMAN HOLIDAY was supposed to look grainy; it was shot in Rome, and Wyler hired a European crew to shoot the exteriors for that grainy/pseudo-documentary/neorealist look. (When in Rome, do as the Romans do.) The restored ROMAN HOLIDAY has been scrubbed of all film grain!

    And this is how people think that movies are supposed to look! It counters all the work that was actually done in those movies, the multivalent qualities of actual film photography. (When McCABE & MRS. MILLER was released on DVD, a number of the reviews complained that the film seemed muddy and excessively brown in the interiors… well, hello, that’s the way the film was designed to look!)

  • mark Johnson - London

    Following on with the scary thread – DVDs being technically adjusted, for the current home viewing set-up – I can add to this depressing line of thought. I have been in tele-cine suites, when the operator has decided that a particular scene looked ‘to dark’, ‘can’t see what is going on’ – and so in true tv fashion re: artificially over bright, decided to turn up the brightness! And yes, I have witnessed the elimination of film grain -‘that looks awful’! I have had big fights with these operators, over these kinds of things. Now, if you are just farming your work out to a facility house – and you are not sitting in with the operator… Don’t get me started on colour-correction, or even title re-building. Now who removed that blue filter, that should have been in that scene – what day for night!! Urgh. Unless you have seen the look of the original film, you have know idea what can go wrong!

  • nicolas saada

    so, to cut a long story short, 1:33 films get the 1:85 treatment just because they have to fit in that widescreen tv ? Is it that bad ?

  • edo

    Dave, thanks so much for this information! There’s a whole well of great stuff here that I’ve never been aware of.

  • seanflynn

    Nicolaas –
    Not sure what you are referring to – one thing that is happening almost universally is that people at home keep their TVs on widescreen all the time, so that 1.33 movies when shown are stretched to some wider ratio. I know of no cases where a 1.33 movie has been shown on TV or transferred to DVD at a wider ratio, although if I’m wrong, horrifying as it is, it would be good to know.

    What is happening is that filmmakers are regularly showing people either watching old movies widened by themselves on TV, or worse yet, presenting clips they choose to widen. I saw a movie recently of newsreels being show theatrically during WW2, and they were projected at 1.85. In another generation, viewers likely will reject 1.33 as a proper way to view films as much as many do b/w.

  • Professor Echo

    Thanks for all the recommendations, Dave! The good news as far as my wallet is concerned is that I already have some of the titles you mentioned in my collection, but there’s no way I’m passing up on the rest with this fantastic sale.

    Prior to your excellent writing about B Westerns I had solely relied upon the recommendations of an older security guard at the Gene Autry National Center in L.A. He saw most of the late 40’s-50’s titles NEW on Saturday Matinees when he was a kid and has been a great resource for introducing me to all sorts of western and serial heritage. His historical passion combined with your more academic perspective and the odd gamble I’ve taken myself with stuff on Encore Westerns has served as a wonderful inspiration for discovering this lost art.

  • There’s a Mack V. Wright film called “The Big Show” on the “Legendary Singing Cowboys” disc that offers a realistic glimpse behind the scenes of the making of a B western: a crew of maybe half a dozen, the equipment consisting of little more than a camera, a boom mike and a single reflector. It looks like a hell of a lot of fun, and the best of the Bs convey that sense of freedom and improvised adventure to the viewer — one of the many appealing aspects of this odd little corner of film history. If you haven’t read Scott Simmon’s “The Invention of the Western Film,” I highly recommend it for a number of reasons, among them Scott’s very interesting reading of the dual time frame that is such a distinctive part of the genre: In the city, it’s the 1930s and the Great Depression reigns, but in the country, its 1880 and the western fantasy of personal freedom and open land is there to solve our problems. Fascinating stuff.