Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Blue Angel (1959)

Edward Dmytryk's The Blue Angel (1959) is a typically worthless remake. Josef Von Sternberg's 1930 original is a hoary melodrama bolstered by good direction and Marlene Dietrich's sizzling star turn. Lacking both, Dymtryk's version flops.

Stuffy Professor Rath (Curt Jurgens) teaches biology and bores his students. At the Blue Angel nightclub, he falls for singer Lola Lola (May Britt). The two strike up an unlikely romance, with Rath resigning his post to be with Lola. The two marry, but Rath can't find work, becoming dependent on his mercurial wife. Lola's manager (Theodore Bikel) dragoons Rath into becoming a clown, a degrading affair which drives Rath to despair.

Lavishly mounted, The Blue Angel filmed on location in Germany and features European stars. Yet Dmytryk's pedestrian direction makes it a bore. Heinrich Mann's novel shows an intellectual destroyed by sensual womanhood: in other words, a problematic tale requiring an artist's touch that Dmytryk lacks. Updating the story adds little, even if Rath encounters American servicemen or muses over economic trouble. Angel doesn't play as well in scenic postwar Bavaria as smoky, decadent Weimar.

Nigel Balchin's script crushes the flimsy material. This Lola isn't a carnal force of nature, rather a sweet girl who repeatedly warns Rath theirs isn't an ideal match. Scenes with her ex-lover (Fabrizio Mioni) play too forced to humanize her. Similarly, Rath's understanding principal (John Banner) repeatedly offers an escape back into teaching. This makes Rath seem less tragic than stupid, since respectability's a phone call away. The finale mangles the story's power, ending on a bittersweet note that's completely false. 

May Britt is a decent singer but can't really act, offering mere generic prettiness. Curt Jurgens's pinched performance allows little range: he's always mumbling and indignant, muting Rath's character development. Theodore Bikel's unctuous impresario steals the show, providing much needed humor and charisma. John Banner gives a dignified straight performance, far removed from Hogan's Heroes.

Supposedly, The Blue Angel was conceived for Marilyn Monroe, who backed out at the last moment. This explains one failing of Dmytryk's film: it's a star vehicle without a star. But lacking Marilyn or Marlene is merely the most glaring shortcoming of an utterly misguided movie.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Blackboard Jungle

"Kids are people, and people are worthwhile."
Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955) tackled the hot issue of juvenile delinquency. Its storyline and edgy content initiated cries for censorship; the movie was a hit regardless, thanks in part to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Its grittiness aged far better than the same year's Rebel Without a Cause.

Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) becomes English teacher at inner city North Manual High School. He finds class a war zone: the students are insolent, the teachers indifferent or terrified. Dadier endures mockery, threats and actual violence while trying to teach. He finally connects with Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), a tough but gifted teen, but can't reach punk Artie (Vic Morrow). Despite his wife's (Anne Francis) insistence he quit, Dadier grows increasingly determined to succeed.

Blackboard Jungle marries an inspirational teacher story to a social message picture. Teachers make position speeches about poor salaries and glutted job markets; Dadier's colleague Jim (Louis Calhern) views kids as unruly, mindless monsters. Math teacher Joshua Edwards (Richard Kiley) loses his jazz records to unruly students; Artie's gang beats Dadier and frightens his wife with lewd phone calls. Their pranks are anything but harmless and troubled backgrounds don't excuse criminal behavior.

The social message format allows for uncommonly coarse content. A music teacher (Margaret Hayes) suffers attempted rape; one student gets a face full of glass. Brooks laces dialogue with profanity and racial slurs, with Artie targeting Puerto Rican boy Morales (Rafael Campos) for particular abuse. There's a palpable, pervasive sense of menace, making North Manual less school than prison.
Brooks shows that active teaching can engage even the rowdiest students. Dadier connects with his students through a cartoon; he finds Gregory is a talented singer, and enlists him in the school play. Their relationship gives Blackboard credibility, with Dadier encouraging his pupil to become a mechanic. Only Artie can't be reached, forcing Dadier into a violent classroom confrontation.

Blackboard Jungle would seem sensationalist if not for Brooks' steady, professional hand. He emphasizes New York's steaminess, with beatings in the shadows, a street robbery filmed through fog and relentlessly oppressive classrooms. He scores key scenes to rock and jazz music, punctuating disastrous lessons with jackhammer noise. Only later scenes clunk: Dadier's wife gives birth, a goon is dispatched with an American flag! Even this and a preachy monologue can't damage Blackboard's effectiveness.

Glenn Ford puts his natural rectitude to perfect use: grimly idealistic and self-doubting, it's among Ford's best roles. Sidney Poitier gives an intense, layered performance, even if it's hard to buy him as a teenager five years after No Way Out. Vic Morrow's punk is more predictably evil. Louis Calhern's hardened cynic and Richard Kiley's crushed idealist provide strong support, though Anne Francis is restricted to nagging wife duty.

Blackboard Jungle's basic format inspired a million urban teacher dramas, from Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, which often founder from condescension and stereotypes. Brooks crafted a powerful drama whose urgency transcends not only its peers but its successors.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Sheepman

The Sheepman (1958) offers Glenn Ford an unusual vehicle. George Marshall allows Ford a self-parodying turn in this seriocomic Western.

Jason Sweet (Glenn Ford) arrives in a Western cattle town with a flock of sheep and a chip on his shoulder. The townspeople view him with suspicion, especially cattle baron Steven Bedford (Leslie Nielsen), a retired gunslinger who knows Jason. Jason romances Dell (Shirley Maclaine), Bedford's fiancée, while uncovering Bedford's corrupt dealings. With his power slipping away, Bedford hires outlaw Choctaw (Pernell Roberts) to eradicate his rival.

Marshall helmed Destry Rides Again (1939), one of the great Western comedies, and his light touch works wonders here. The Sheepman opens with Jason insulting bystanders, swindling shopkeepers and decking the town bully (Mickey Shaughnessy). Nonetheless, this "natural-born pessimist" seems fully justified. Bedford is a crook, the town Marshal (Slim Pickens) a coward and Dell violently hostile. Eventually they win each other over through plain talk and a town dance, that most Western of bonding measures.

Writers William Bowers and James Edward Grant provide a fine tonal balance. Sheepman's comedic but never becomes silly, with restrained jokes and romance balanced against bar brawls and shootouts. Bedford and his goons are a serious threat, murdering shepherds and slaughtering Jason's flock. Choctaw goads him into a rigged showdown, until he's rescued by quick thinking Dell. The last act feels somewhat rushed, hurrying into a duel with Bedford and a pinched happy ending.

Glenn Ford enjoys sending up his tough guy image, disarming his costars with punches and a smile. Shirley Maclaine hits Jason with barbs and a riding crop while falling for him. Leslie Nielsen and Mickey Shaughnessy aren't very menacing; Pernell Roberts' ruthless gun-for-hire is more memorable. Edgar Buchanan shines as Jason's grumpy sidekick, with Willis Bouchey and Slim Pickens in ancillary roles.

The Sheepman provides an engaging blend of action and humor. Audiences who prefer their Westerns lighthearted will enjoy it; Glenn Ford fans can see their hero in playful form.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cowboy (1958)

"A man has to have something besides a gun and a saddle."
Few list Delmer Daves among the great Western directors, but he spent the '50s making interesting, off-beat oaters: Broken Arrow, 3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree. Cowboy (1958) suffers from a bland title and scattershot story, but transcends the unpromising premise.

Chicago hotel clerk Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) joins a cattle drive captained by Tom Reece (Glenn Ford). Harris dreams of seeing the Old West, though he also holds a torch for Maria (Anna Kashfi), daughter of a cattle baron. Harris's romantic illusions vanish; trail life proves tough, Reece uncompromising, and Maria marries another man (Eugene Iglesias). The tenderfoot hardens himself while drifting apart from Reece, threatening to go his own way.

Based on writer-adventurer Frank Harris's real experiences, Cowboy offers a jerky narrative bolstered by set pieces. Like the later (though far grimmer) The Culpepper Cattle Co., it's more interested in deconstructing range life than storytelling. Individualism acts as a callous, with Reece tersely burying a dead cowhand and moving on. Rattlesnakes, Indians, rowdy cows and internal dissension prove equally dangerous. An aged cowhand (Brian Donlevy) departs bemoaning the trail's spiritual emptiness.

Writers Edmund H. North and Dalton Trumbo fare best exploring Harris and Reece's interplay. Harris accuses Reece of heartlessness; Reece stops Harris from rescuing a friend or pursuing Maria, unhappily married to a Mexican cowhand. Naturally, Reece is more pragmatic than unfeeling; Harris, hurting from rejection, becomes detached and cold, until Reece mentors him into sense. It's a familiar dude-goes-west narrative with unusual bite.

Daves made the most of modest budgets, and Cowboy feels far more expansive than its 92 minute runtime suggests. The centerpiece is a simultaneous stampede and gunfight, where Reece and his men rescue Harris from hostile Indians. There's a long interlude at Maria's ranch with bull stunts and Harris staring down a quartet of suspicious vaqueros. Charles Lawton Jr.'s handsome photography gives Cowboy commendable energy, even in its weaker passages.

Glenn Ford proves perfect casting as the tough, fatherly old boot with a weakness for gambling and a soft spot for opera. Jack Lemmon's an odd sight in a Western, but outside the comic bookends he restrains himself for a tough, focused performance. Brian Donlevy and Victor Manuel Mendoza have memorable turns as Reece's right-hand men; Dick York is a younger, pricklier cowboy. Strother Martin features as an ill-fated cowboy.

One strength of the Western is that familiar tropes and story elements can be reused in interesting way. On its surface, Cowboy isn't drastically different than Red River or other cattle epics, but tough, efficient storytelling makes it worthwhile.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Nevada Smith

Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers inspired a monstrously successful film, which in turn inspired a Western prequel. Nevada Smith (1966) boasts veteran director Henry Hathaway and an excellent cast, but winds up a disappointment.

Max Sand (Steve McQueen) watches his parents murdered by three outlaws. Swearing vengeance, he comes under the tutelage of gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) and seeks out his foes. After several years he kills Jesse (Martin Landau) in a saloon and Bill (Arthur Kennedy) in a Louisiana swamp, becoming a hardened criminal. When he finally finds Tom Fitch (Karl Malden), Max wonders whether he's still game for revenge.

Nevada Smith is a ramshackle contraption. After a gruesome opening atrocity, John Michael Hayes' script crams familiar tropes together haphazardly. Max is half-Indian and faces token racism, but this carries less importance than his apprenticeship with Jonas. The movie mixes gunplay and scenery with digressive lacunas, as Max spends time in a Louisiana prison camp, a Western cow town and a Catholic sanctuary. At 128 minutes, Nevada Smith seems hopelessly overstuffed.

Worse, Smith injects pious moral lessons, with Max growing to doubt his mission. He romances an Indian saloon girl (Janet Margolin) and the Cajun woman (Suzanne Pleshette) who helps him escape prison. Kindly Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) urges him to renounce violence, a subplot rehashed from a hundred Warner Bros. gangster films. Max's moral dilemma provides a cheap complication, lacking the weight to offset the B Movie thrills.

Hathaway's direction makes the film watchable. Lucien Ballard's beautiful photography and Alfred Newman's score grant Smith an epic sweep its story rarely matches. An old hand at Westerns, Hathaway presents effective action scenes: the opening is muted yet grisly, while Max's duel with Jesse is tense and well-staged. The Louisiana scenes drip with hot, sticky atmosphere even if they run too long. Only the climax is underwhelming, undercut by plot demands.

Steve McQueen is embarrassingly miscast as a callow, wide-eyed teen, nor is he a convincing half-Kiowa. Once Max matures to grim adulthood, McQueen fares better. Brian Keith invests his stock role with weary humor, while Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau make a savage villain trio. Suzanne Pleshette gets high billing but Janet Margolin makes a stronger impression. Paul Fix, Pat Hingle and Strother Martin fill minor roles.

Nevada Smith shows the perils of spinoffs inspired by minor characters in trashy novels. Not a bad watch on a slow summer afternoon, its overachieving laziness squanders an impressive array of talent.