Saturday 31 October 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare is in raptures over the arrival of a restoration of Jean Renoir's TONI (France, 1934)

Charles Blavette as Toni
(click on any image for a slide show of screen shots) 

When I was growing up a thousand years ago it was not uncommon for musicologists to discuss late Classical and Romantic era composers and their work in terms of "periods". While there was some merit in this approach the danger is to overlook the organic nature of an artist's career, unless of course there are radical or clearly distinctive changes in direction. Beethoven always fits the mould and it never really hindered appreciation because his work despite the deafness of his old age, was obviously a personal progression stylistically and formally within the same musical forms and genres.

In the movies the same temptation can arise through various critical schools and positions. The danger in applying it here to directors is to fragment their personalities in the process, assuming of course you buy auteurism generally. One director who, I believe can be fruitfully viewed in this approach is Renoir, with the geographical changes that mark what we can simply call his three periods. His first "period", from the late silent era films to 1939, the War and French Occupation; his few years in the USA from 1940 to 46 where he directed four unusually distinctive movies in both studio and independent regimes; the remarkable break after the war and the astonishing standalone masterpiece from his Indian sojourn, The River  from Rumer Godden's novel. Finally, there was the third period after he returned to France until his death (in Hollywood) in 1979.


His thirties oeuvre is surely one of the greatest bodies of work in cinema, from his first talkie, a stage adaptation of the farce On Purge Bébé  in 1931 to the 1939 closure on the dawn of War, La Règle du Jeu. The problem for us has always been continuing availability of these movies and even now, more than a couple are almost impossible to see, notable La Nuit du Carrefour and Le Tournoi, the latter of which exists only as a fragment. There have been other Renoirs meanwhile that have made a debut on home video or re-release but short of the monumentally complete Renoir retrospectives which were staged by MoMA and BFI in the late 70s and early 80s, the reputation of only a few well known titles holds the fort.


Among those "missing" in action was Toni, made on location in 1934 in Provence and in the studios run by Marcel Pagnol and his company, taken from a police record of a crime passionelle involving a ménage à trois and a tragic outcome. The movie resurfaced back in the 70s in our neck of the woods as I recall presumably from a French Embassy 16mm print, and made waves for the few of us who ever saw it. The estimable Masters of Cinema label licensed it from a then new Gaumont print in the late 90s and that DVD edition sold out. Since then it's been waiting in the twilight for a rescue. That finally happened through the graces of Pathé/Gaumont and the Bologna Cinetecas LImmagine Ritrovata which completed a superb restoration with funding from CNC in 2019. This 4K restoration debuted at the Ritrovato Festival the same year. 

Criterion have finally released this from Gaumont's 4K master to Blu-ray last month and I can only say it was worth the wait.


In complete stark opposition to the claims made for it as a seminal work of so-called "neo realism" the movie in fact presents Renoir shooting in plein air not for the first time (he does so extensively in Boudu three years earlier), and contrary to the claims of non-professionals taking parts, the four leads are indeed professional actors, not least Jenny Hélia as Marie and Charles Blavette in the lead. The latter reads his lines in a profoundly thick Southern Provençal accent which seems to have confounded the neo-realist apologists who may have thought he was faking an Italian accent (the character is a "guest worker" from Italy.) Renoir's driving force in this is the melodrama of the wrong people falling in love with the wrong people. The undertext to this is at the heart of Toni's own malcontent. He is that a victim of the 20th century’s heinous cruelty, he’s in effect a Refugee, without a home, and his malaise informs every twist and turn of the narrative and relationships. His "sacrifice" at the end which is effectively a suicide by default is taken out with his slow death in the arms of Fernand played by Edouard Delmont, his only friend and the only person who loves him. It's one of the most moving scenes in all of Renoir. 


The movie ends with another shot of the great suspension bridge that signals the march of industrialization over the region as another group of Spanish and Italian "guest workers" arrive on yet another train which has just crossed the same bridge, in symmetry to the opening of the movie and the arrival of Toni at the film's beginning. Most if not quite all of Renoir's thirties films include a killing. And much of the movie's tone is involved in explaining or regarding the death, in a profoundly socially interdependent milieu. 


In his next film, Le Crime de M. Lange with a Prevert screenplay he celebrates the communard and the hoped for liberation by the Front Popularie, which leads Lange to kill Batala, a murder which he seems to have made on behalf of the entire movement, represented by the the workers of the printing house. 


Renoir's absolute and profound understanding of character takes us to places very few directors have gone. One of the very few is Leo McCarey whom Renoir himself noted as the American director who most understood character. 


One of the greatest joys of this movie is Claude Renoir's sublime photography which is shown off to such clarity. Claude was Renoir's nephew and this was his first film fully credited as DP. The image quality is to die for. Claude uses extremely short lenses for the wide shots in depth so that only one focal point of the composition is "sharp" at any given time This serves to move and highlight groups or backgrounds with a kind of visual kineticism, and ethereality. The movie often looks like it was shot on orthochromatic stock, such is the degree of silver halide tinges of light. Renoir's own battery of technique runs from long take group shots, with characters in foreground of the quarry, to sharp Soviet style frontal montage for reactions and frozen action, including the killing of Albert. 


There's no doubt in my mind Toni  is one of the eight or nine masterpieces from Renoir's 30s period. The new disc is an essential purchase.

Friday 30 October 2020

The Film Censors Grilled at Senate Estimates - "animal torture, violent death and alcohol consumption" ...and what is "the Netflix tool"?

"animal torture, violent death and
alcohol consumption"

Editor's Note: This a complete and unabridged transcript of a part of proceedings at recent Senate Estmates hearings. It is the first I have ever heard of something called 'the Netflix tool', apparently some sort of application by which Netflix does its own classifying ad this is accepted by what a Polish film-maker once described to me as "the authorities".

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm wondering about a specific film on Netflix. It follows on quite well from the questioning that both Senator Urquhart and Senator Van have put to you already. I'm interested in whether you've had any complaints about the film Cats, produced in 2018, directed by Gary Wang. It's on Netflix animation. Have you received any complaints about Cats?

Ms Ryan : I'd have to take that on notice.

Mr O'Neill : Yes, we will have to take that on notice. I'm not aware of any complaints on that title. We usually keep fairly good tabs on titles.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If you could take that on notice, that would be good. The cartoon is rated PG but it shows animal torture, violent death and alcohol consumption. I'm asking this from both a general public perspective and as a mum. I can understand that sometimes when there is something in an animated form, the themes are perhaps, at times, seen through a different lens than if it was a live drama production. But I know for a fact that this film has actually created great distress amongst a number of small children. That's why I'm asking this; it's been put to me by a constituent.

I'm fascinated as to how we're going to manage these things going forward, considering more kids' content is going to be moving to the streaming services. The ABC has been a very good place to access good quality kids' TV, and I think it's right to say that parents would feel quite safe about putting their kids in front of ABC Kids. But our kids are accessing a lot of content on streaming services now, and I'm just not sure whether we're educating parents and families enough about what these different classification types are or how we monitor and ensure that, when they are put in front of a screen, that it is appropriate. Just because it's a cartoon doesn't necessarily mean it's safe. So, from a classification perspective, how do we manage this? More kids are going to be logging on to Netflix, on to Stan, on to other streaming services. The government is putting up money so that content can be made on these services. How do we ensure that there is a correct level of classification and knowledge from the consumer's perspective?

Mr O'Neill : With regards to your question about the correct level of classification, the acting director is properly better placed to respond to your query there.

Ms Ryan : For a Netflix decision on this particular title, we'd have to absolutely take that on notice and see whether there's been any other information that we've received or any complaints that we've received. In assessing impact of the classifiable elements, the board is required to apply the act, the code and the guidelines when making decisions, and that's no different for the Netflix tool as well. When assessing impact, our guidelines do talk about the fact that when things are more realistic rather than stylised that the impact could be higher. It's not always higher. It's a matter of assessing each film or computer game on its own merit and assessing the context around that. Our guidelines also tell us that context is crucial. So if we were trying to determine whether classifiable elements are justified by a particular story line or a particular theme, that would—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But what work is being done to ensure that consumers know that there is the same level of ability to complain about classification on streaming services? This is a bold, new world in many regards, so there has to be some type of effort being put in to ensure that parents would know, for example, in relation to Cats, if they have problem, it should be raised. I don't think people would have a problem with raising it with the ABC. It's their ABC. They know what to do. They can ring up and lodge a complaint. I'm not sure, not convinced, that consumers have the same level of awareness about what they do if there is a problem on Netflix.

CHAIR: In the interests of time, would you be happy with Ms Ryan to come back to you with an answer on notice about how to address that?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That would be helpful, but the acting director was about to respond with something.

Ms Ryan : The board shares your concerns about that. We feel that there hasn't been a lot of information made publicly available to people to know they can complain to the board, to the department about decisions of the Netflix tool.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Take on notice if there has been a complaint about Cats. It's called Cats—2018, Gary Wang. I'd like to know whether it's been reviewed for classification? Is it still on air? Obviously you'll look into that.

Cinema Reborn - Jean-Pierre Melville at the Ritz - Max Berghouse introduces LEON MORIN, PRIEST (France, 1961)


Editor's note: The notes below were used by Max Berghouse as his introduction to the film "Leon Morin, Priest" as part of the season of films by Jean-Pierre Melville shown at the Ritz Cinema Randwick in October and November in association with Cinema Reborn and StudioCanal. The original notes have been slightly amended to reflect very useful comments made by some members of the audience.


When I was first invited to introduce this film, certainly one of the maestro's mature films, it was on the basis that the Cinema Reborn Organising Committee thought I would be able to make something worthwhile of what might appear to be a "theological" film. I don't think I have the qualifications to do that but I shall mention this aspect of the film later. I decided I would speak directly from my own experience of this film and, hoping to clarify its meaning and purpose, to compare it with another film Brief Encounter (1945). I thought this was very clever on my part! Then I discovered that there were to be some truly experienced and highly regarded cinema critics amongst the other introducers which suggested to me that I should do some background research. It turns out that Brief Encounter was a favourite of Mr Melville.


Brief Encounter is the story of an intense but completely platonic relationship between a couple, married to others. In the film they renounce their relationship to return to their pre-existing life. This film is said to be the last English film in which a sense of obligation or duty trumps personal happiness and satisfaction. In this case the film purports to support the institution of marriage, I think partly at least as a matter of support of existing society. It's not as if the director, David Lean, particularly believed in the permanency of marriage: he was married six times and the storyline itself from Noel Coward is a story from the man who was albeit discreetly, a significantly promiscuous gay man. 

Although the expression wasn't used at this time, this public support of "institutions" even if one did not personally believe in them or practise them, is a hallmark of the "neo-Conservative movement". Melville was notoriously unfaithful to his long-suffering and patient wife. By the time of this film' s genesis, his political views had shifted from nebulous leftism to hard right radicalism, although to what extent this was an histrionic pose, I'm not sure. In any event he was certainly attracted to an authoritarian relatively right wing view of the world.


Leon Morin, Priest  follows a very similar logic. Personally, Mr Melville had tired of being an art film director and wanted to make commercial films with the attendant higher budgets and hopefully more "bums on seats". As a background, in 1958 the right wing conservative General de Gaulle returned to office as the president of the new Fifth Republic. The president was a known supporter of the Catholic Church and held very conservative views – although these views did not necessarily inhibit his political actions. There was a renewed interest in the Catholic Church because it was only shortly afterwards that the great revolutionary conclave, Vatican II, was held. The film is based upon a very highly regarded semiautobiographical work (Beatrice Beck, "The Passionate Heart") which was a bestseller in France, although forgotten today. So it seemed to have all the hallmarks of the requirements of the director: intellectual integrity and commercial success.


French films about the Occupation were initially, for about a decade after the end of the war, fairly uniform in their view as to the unified resistance of the French people to the Germans and support for the underground and the free French. Around this time (late 1950s – early 1960s) a more honest and nuanced perspective became public including in cinema. There were indeed the general "resistants" who were active in defiance of the Germans, there were the "attendants" who waited round trying to discern the lie of the land and there were those who actively supported the Germans. All these tendencies can be seen in the film. Since in my view French cinema has only been able to deal with this whole issue of the occupation with honesty in the 21st century (many will disagree with this I'm sure)  it was probably unwise to be so balanced in presentation. This illustrates a distinctive characteristic of the director in that he was defiant and quite prepared to do whatever he thought he wanted, unencumbered generally by studio pressures.


The film is a mix, as one would expect of interior/studio work and exterior filming. It doesn't fit in naturally to the current critical perception of the "hero' s journey" construction where the "protagonist" is faced with an "antagonist". 

Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva

The film stars Emmanuelle Riva  as Barny and John Paul Belmondo as Morin. Most of the exterior scenes feature Riva much more strongly. These are the scenes essentially of colour and vitality.They equate to the long French tradition of "quality cinema". Contrariwise the scenes in which Belmondo is more strongly featured are interior: the church, his presbytery, the confessional. All very spare, cool in terms of decoration and essentially devoid of humanity. All these scenes are clearly "noir" inspired. 

The priest' s behaviour is pretty much what one would expect of a priest at that time.  Belmondo who was superficially playing a role unlike his previous "exterior" and action driven performances, doesn't really come into his own until I think about halfway through the movie. Thereafter he is like his female star Miss Riva’s performance, faultless.  I think all these factors have helped some critics to view the film as one in which the female performer is the star and Belmondo is simply the co-star. I think this is a wrong inference. It is however a fair conclusion to come to because Morin, no matter how intense, is essentially unchanged throughout the film whereas Barny undergoes very profound changes. But to come to this as a final conclusion is to ignore the director' own deeply held perspectives on life.


Morin is clearly a very dedicated and highly intelligent priest. Anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church knows that a priest with these qualities is almost certainly rebellious and often sent "to the provinces" to pacify the rebellion in him. On top of that Morin is an "activist" – he assists and believes in the resistance. He is both a man of interior dedication and external action. He is the Catholic equivalent of the "muscular Christian" which is an essentially Protestant tradition


The consistent protagonist in all of Melville's films is a loner. He lives by a code which can be specifically religious or just generally quasi-religious. I mean religious in the sense that there is a clear demarcation between what should be done and what should not be done and that in the latter case punishment must ensue. Melville's heroes are all "samurais", obedient to a specific code to which they are attached by virtue of intellect rather than emotion. I should however note that Barny does get lots of "airtime" but I suggest that this is to show up her subjectivity whereas Morin always remains "objective. The competent professional Barny ultimately becomes obsessed with an unapproachable and unattainable object: the priest whom, whatever his loneliness, might be (shown particularly in terms of his austere surroundings, is never going to forsake his vows. 

Like other Melville protagonists he combines heroic masculinity with asexuality. Quite clearly the film identifies completely and overtly with the patriarchy represented by the church. Another aspect of the film to take note of (and this is entirely consistent with, it seems to me, all his other films) is a genuine appreciation of period. I can't comment obviously about the accuracy of village life, "dress and look" in south-west France in 1945, but it seems to me as accurate as all his other films. By this I mean that his creation of the period is accurate with the village folk commingling with outsiders who are essentially living out of a suitcase. In many of his other films, set in the then present day, reviewers all note characteristic features: the men wear hats, when this had long since ceased to be fashionable; they were trench coats and belted up ones at that whereas in reality this was part of the "Anglosphere". But the net effect is to create a sort of hyper- reality which over the long-term becomes more powerful than genuine reality!


I have been led to believe that I was asked to give this introduction because I could make some sensible references to theology. I'm not sure I can; in any event even though Melville employed an active priest as consultant, the "theology" is pretty much "cod theology" which is readily comprehensible regardless of the viewer' s prior background. It's not important in itself and is simply part of the mise-en-scène. Melville himself said that the film was not about religion. It is a pity then that many admirers of Melville's works dismiss this film because of its purported theological dimension. While this part of the film is accurate so far as it goes, it is only a device.


The copy of this film you will be seeing today is quite superb and what we see is I think exactly what cinema going audiences saw when the film was first released.

Thursday 29 October 2020

On French Television - John Baxter runs through A KING VIDOR RETROSPECTIVE.



         A born Texan, used to wide horizons, King Vidor wasn’t one to waste time on small subjects. Having almost single-handedly rescued MGM with his romantic take on War in The Big Parade, he was encouraged by Irving Thalberg to attempt the examination of Life which gave birth to The Crowd. Thereafter, from time to time and with varying degrees of success, he would turn his attention to Race (Hallelujah)Medicine (The Citadel), Steel (An American Romanceand Construction (The Fountainhead).

         As ideologues go, the mild-mannered Vidor had little in common with such tub-thumpers as DeMille. The urge to proselytise affected him only periodically, leaving him free between times to direct the more conventional productions that make up the bulk of a remarkably long career, numbering more than seventy films. The retrospective presently running on French television does him a disservice by juxtaposing his inspirational pieces with more pedestrian material.  It preceded The Citadel, for example, with the 1926 Bardelys the Magnificent,featuring a heavily bewigged John Gilbert in the kind of late silent costume piece parodied in Singin’ in the Rain. With such films, it’s not so much a case of Jove nodding as of the old boy falling into a coma.

An American Romance

         Vidor was on surer ground in the forties and fifties, when Hollywood became sufficiently prosperousto accommodate his grandiose visions and forgive his indifference to relationships. An American Romance documents Brian Donlevy’s transformation from illiterate immigrant to Detroit auto-maker but deals perfunctorily with his marriage to Anne Richards, one of Australia’s less distinguished gifts to Hollywood. The romance of the title is not with Richards but with Steel, and Vidor, a genuine enthusiast for industry, refuses to fob us off with montages of bulldozers and riveters, instead evoking the glamour of rolling mills and open-hearth furnaces, one of which, in the film’s most accomplished sequence, tries to douse Donlevy in molten metal. 

Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead

         Once one discounts the demagoguery of Ayn Rand, Vidor’s adaptation of her novel The Fountainhead is a tour de force, celebrating Construction at the expense of the complex links between architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), newspaper magnate Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey) and his wife Dominique (Patricia Neal). Cinematographer Robert Burks lights Edward Carrere’s doors, staircases, tables and armchairs at least as artfully as the characters, illustrating the observation of design guru Norman Bel Geddes (the true eminence grise of the film rather than the more widely advertised Frank Lloyd Wright) that furniture is meant as much to be looked at as used. Massey must surely have been cast less from any psychological authenticity than because his craggy profile resonates with the Cyclopean office from which he controls his empire, while Neal, the perfect consort, follows style by arriving at a party in formal gown but provocatively innocent of handbag or jewellery. Would you put earrings on a Brancusi? 

"...the final image of Cooper triumphantly tumescent at the
summit of his skyscraper, 
 The Fountainhead

         This vision coalesces in the final image of Cooper triumphantly tumescent at the summit of his skyscraper as the elevator carrying Neal soars to unite them. Vidor lived for such moments – and almost died for them. For a scene of New York’s canyons through the windows of an ambulance he replicated his own memory of watching the city in the same way as he was rushed to hospital following a heart attack.

Bette Davis, Beyond the Forest

Even in his lesser films, industry is never entirely absent, though more often as a hostile element that poisons relationships. Aside from the westward progress of the railroad in Duel in the Sun and the encroachment of barbed wire on the range in Man Without a Star – Kirk Douglas, incoherent with rage, trussed up in the stuff provides one of the iconic images of Vidor’s work -he illuminates Bette Davis’s lurid love life in Beyond the Forest with the glare of the blast furnaces that sustain her steel-town home – a community dismissed with her famous first line “What a dump!”  Davis is further and more dangerously reincarnated in the Jennifer Jones character of Ruby Gentry, where her eponymous white-trashnouveau richewidow brings onetime lover Charlton Heston to heel by flooding the plantations on which he lavishes the affection she regards as rightfully hers. Both women lose out. They could have learned from The Fountainhead that there’s no room for love between a man and his work. 

"...paean to collectivism", Our Daily Bread.

         Vidor’s urge for the Big Picture could well have been extinguished by one of his earliest attempts, the 1934 Our Daily Bread. (He referred to its theme as Wheat. That isn’t what the film’s amateur farmers plant, though one can understand his unwillingness to name it after their actual crop, Corn.) Despite the success of The Big Parade and the lesser, though respectable returns from The Crowd, Thalberg declined to back this story of dispossessed city folk who take over a bankrupt farm and run it as a commune. Militant Republican Louis B. Mayer despised it, nor were banks anxious to invest in a film where squatters highjack an auction and browbeat a sheriff into relinquishing a property for pocket change. 

"...imbued with superhuman strength by the
power of the collective,"
Our Daily Bread.

         The film concludes with a Stakhanovite hymn to labour as one-time pants-pressers, travelling salesmen and violin teachers, imbued with superhuman strength by the power of the collective, hack a channel overland from a reservoir to irrigate their failing crop. Other American films of the time advocate some form of co-operative as a partial solution to economic collapse, and the proposition became a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s New Deal, but Vidor takes the idea and runs with it. Debating the political system that will govern their enterprise, the refugees dismiss democracy and even socialism as proven failures, and give total power to the farm’s original tenants, John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene and Karen Morley). As monarchy supplants the American Republic, the assembled proletariat cheers. 

         Despite this paean to collectivism, Vidor escaped the forties anti-Communist witch-hunt – unlike Karen Morley, whose career would be destroyed by the blacklist. Morley and other leftists found Vidor a primitive populist, a conservative with a naive faith in the willingness of people to come together for the common good. Like Bertolt Brecht, whose smiling denial that he had ever been a communist was accepted at face value by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which permitted him to return to East Germany with its best wishes and thanks, Vidor’s innocent belief in man and his works disarmed even the most cynical. How could one think ill of a man who loved blast furnaces so much?  


Editor’s Note: John Baxter’s 1976 monograph on Vidor incorporates materials from his interviews with the director. 

KING VIDOR. Monarch Film Studies. Monarch/Simon & Schuster, New York, 1976. It can be purchased on Amazon

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Streaming and on DVD - Tom Ryan files a postscript to his study of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott WESTBOUND (USA, 1959)


The Ranown Cycle, Postscript  

“I think Randy might have ended up with most of the leading ladies [in the Ranown cycle], if they were available. Because if you don’t have that going for you, you’re a pretty stuffy guy. I thought the Scott character, before the pictures we made with him, was a pretty stuffy guy.” 

                                                                                    (Budd Boetticher, 1969(1)


Westbound was shot in September/October, 1957, between the filming of Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone. It was made for Warner Bros., which, 18 months earlier, had distributed the first film in the Ranown cycle, Seven Men from Now


Randolph Scott, apparently, wasn’t all that interested in making Westbound.  But, according to Robert Nott (2), his contract with Warners was hanging over his head. He’d extensively expanded his repertoire of Westerns under the company’s logo during the 1950s and now it required one final film from him. Director Budd Boetticher offered his services after the actor came to him for advice. 


Aside from Scott and Boetticher, though, neither Ranown nor any of the other key personnel who’d worked on the Ranown cycle were involved. Likewise, the Lone Pine locations that were central to the look of most of the other films were gone, replaced by the Warner Ranch at Calabasas in California. Still, numerous overviews include Westbound as part of the cycle.(3)


Indeed, the timing of the film’s production and release might suggest that it belongs with the other Ranown films. It was shot during the same time period that they were in production. Then, having sat on Warners’ shelves until March, 1959, it was released a month after the opening of Ride Lonesome (and almost a year before Comanche Station). 


Add to that the incongruity to which I alluded in the first of my essays about the Ranown cycle: if it’s called the Ranown cycle, shouldn’t all the films that are included in it have been made by Ranown Pictures Corp.? Seven Men from Now wasn’t, yet it’s generally seen as part of the cycle. So why not Westbound?

A not especially radical proposal to sort out the confusion: perhaps the whole idea of the Ranown cycle should be abandoned and the sequence of films simply re-labelled the Boetticher-Scott cycle, for the director-actor partnership is the single recurring factor for all of the films in the unofficial cycle. Thus redefined, the cycle could then include Westbound, even if it is, as is generally agreed, inferior to the other half dozen films Boetticher made with Scott, especially those written by Burt Kennedy and produced by Harry Joe Brown. 

Budd Boetticher




To Westbound. It might not belong in the same class as the films in the category which I’ll now refer to as “the so-called Ranown cycle” (4), but it is of interest: in particular, for the way the discord driving its tale of a divided town is effectively a displacement of the hostilities underpinning the Civil War raging elsewhere. 


The scars that the war left on the American landscape – and on its cultural mindset – is a recurring feature of the entire Western genre, including earlier Scott films, such as To the Last Man (1933), The Texans (1938), Virginia City (1940) and Belle Starr (1941). The actor also frequently played characters from the South who’d found themselves displaced after the surrender of General Lee, as in Santa Fe (1951), Hangman’s Knot (1952), The Man Behind the Gun (1952), The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) and Thunder Over the Plains (1952). 


Anyone interested in studying the ramifications of that war (1861 – 1865), where Americans took up arms against each other and more than 750,000 died, might find it useful to reflect on the various ways in which the Western grapples with it. Almost everywhere that cowboys roam, there’s evidence either of the national tensions that preceded the conflict on battlefields around the country or of the legacy that it left in its wake. 


In the form, for example, of renegade soldiers, who had, in the name of their cause (or simply because they’d been enabled by the lawlessness all around), taken it upon themselves to execute innocent civilians, fellow Americans. Long before such perpetrators were known as “domestic terrorists”. Or of the divisive differences between ordinary folks that not only led to the war but have also persisted through to the present day.


Randolph Scott

Westbound is set in 1864. Scott plays John Hayes, a captain in the Union army who used to be the line superintendent for the Overland Stage business. Under instruction from his superiors (in the scene pictured above), he’s returned to his post with the company. His task is to ensure the delivery of gold bullion from California, which is to be used by the Union to buy guns, ammunition and equipment. The opening scroll explains the importance of that mission to both sides: the war has arrived at a stalemate, gold is “the lifeblood of both armies”, and it has become vital for the Confederate forces to prevent its delivery to their enemy.


After being assigned to the Overland job, Hayes goes to Julesberg, in Colorado Territory, where he used to live before the war took him away. Once leaning towards the North, the locals’ sympathies have now shifted Southwards, and Hayes’s arrival, alongside Corporal Rod Miller (Michael Dante), a young soldier who’s lost his arm in the war, causes the simmering hostilities to boil over. 

Karen Steele, Michael Dante

Whereas most of the townspeople simply give them the cold shoulder, Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), an old friend of Hayes who appears to be the owner of the Palace Hotel, the town saloon, is actively plotting to sabotage the efforts to get the stage to run on time. He explains to the cold-blooded Mace (Michael Pate), his hired enforcer, that their methods can include anything “short of bloodshed”. 


But Mace operates according to his own agenda which makes Putnam something of a man caught in the middle, torn between his commitment to the Confederate cause and his antipathy to Mace’s methods. The enforcer’s crimes include cold-blooded murder (the shooting of Corporal Miller) and an attack on a stagecoach, which leads to the death of all the passengers on board, including a young girl and several other innocent civilians.


Michael Pate (centre)

Written by Berne Giler (Guns of DiabloMidas Run) and based on a story he wrote with Albert Shelby Le Vino (a veteran from the silent era), Westbound makes the workings of personal conscience its key issue, even if it never develops that as fully as it might have. Almost every scene pivots on a character making a choice and many of them are crucial pointers to personal moralities. 

This is clear in the case of Putnam. In part, his hostility towards Hayes stems from his misplaced jealousy about the former relationship between his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), and his old friend. And he’s clearly implicated in Mace’s villainy. But just as he’s made sympathetic by his idealism, so too are several of Mace’s henchmen in their expressed disapproval of their boss’s proposed attack on the doomed stagecoach. “What about the little girl?” one of them asks. They have a choice to make. And, along similar lines, the townspeople’s sympathies for the South lead them to vacillate about which side they should be on while Mace and his men do their dirty work unimpeded. 


Only Hayes and Mace remain uncomplicated, Hayes as morally righteous as Mace is evil incarnate. The latter explains to Putnam that he couldn’t care less about the Civil War and is just waiting for an opportunity to wreak havoc and turn the situation to his own advantage (he’s a variation on a carpetbagger). 

Unfortunately, none of the characters’ quandaries or relationships is given anything more than a perfunctory treatment, perhaps because of the production circumstances under which the film was made (in a rush, Warner Bros. attempting to cash in on the Boetticher-Scott partnership). And the film’s running time, a scant 72 minutes, suggests that any hope the studio might have had for the production was abandoned in the editing room. 


The result is that potentially interesting dramatic material is nipped in the bud. For example, like The Bounty Hunter, made four years earlier, and Decision at SundownWestbound echoes High Noon’s concern with the townspeople’s choices regarding whom they should support. But far too little is made of this and their eventual decision to side with Hayes seems to be simply laying some groundwork for their involvement in the final shoot-out in the streets of Julesberg rather than a result borne of conscientious thought about the principles at stake.

Virginia Mayo, Karen Steele

The two women in the film, Norma and Miller’s wife, Jeannie (Karen Steele), both end up as widows. Hayes remains properly aloof from Norma throughout, and is fatherly towards the Millers as he takes responsibility for their marriage by encouraging the disabled soldier not to seek pity but to make his own way in the world. He even provides him and Jeannie with work they can do together, running a stagecoach station after Mace and his gang’s rampage has led to the departure of Overland employees from the territory.


However, after Miller’s death – although not until the film’s closing scene – Jeannie emerges as a potential love interest for Hayes. After he has packed Norma into a stagecoach on her way back east, he turns to a now-interested Jeannie and tells her that, since she’s still in charge of an Overland station, “I’ll drop in on you from time to time, if you don’t mind.” “I don’t mind,” she replies as he rides off into the landscape. One might say, given the discomfort of Scott’s characters when confronted with the possibility of a romantic relationship, the relative safety of the landscape.


Boetticher’s film looks handsome, cinematographer John Peverell Marley’s impressive compositions using the outdoor locations to good effect to give a sense of the geography of the action and the characters’ relationships to each other in it. But David Buttolph’s score is, as Nott observes, “overly jaunty” (5) and seems to make a mockery of the melancholy aspects of the material in which decent Americans are pitted against other decent Americans and exploited by the villains amongst them.


For his part, Scott was looking his years – he was approaching 60 when the film was shot – and he simply seems to be going through the motions here. It’s not that he’s not up to the task: he’s carrying an iconic history with him. It’s just that he’s done everything that’s required of him here many times before and the strain is starting to show, especially given the pace at which the film was reportedly shot. Fortunately, there were still good times ahead.


(1)       Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, The Director’s Event, Signet, USA, 1969,            p. 58

(2)       Robert Nott, The Films of Randolph Scott, McFarland & Company, Inc., North Carolina, 2004, p. 210

(3)       Click on, for example, to an enthusiast's blog, this IMDb page & Emmanuel Levy’s entry on his website

(4)       For commentary on the films of “the Ranown cycle”, click on 

Seven Men from Now


The Tall T


Decision at Sundown


          Buchanan Rides Alone


Ride Lonesome


Comanche Station

(5)       Nott, op. cit., p. 210

Sunday 25 October 2020

CINEMA REBORN - Jean-Pierre Melville at the Randwick Ritz - ARMY OF SHADOWS (France, 1969) - Sunday 1st November at 4.00 pm

David Stratton will be introducing a superb 4K restoration at the screening at the Ritz Cinema Randwick. He writes to Cinema Reborn enthusiasts. 

“Much as I admire Jean-Pierre Melville’s hard-boiled thrillers, I think his best film is L’ARMÉE DES OMBRES, perhaps because it reflects his own experience in the French Resistance during World War II.  It’s one of those films where the direction seems effortless but its nail-biting depiction of a dangerous, tragic underground war is gripping from start to finish.”


Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura


“Bad memories, welcome… you are my long lost youth.” Often seen as a transposition of Melville’s beloved gangster genre to the underworld of the Resistance in wartime France, this unbearably moving reverie faithfully adapts Joseph Kessel’s seminal novel to the screen. The film’s dream-like, almost clandestine sense of geography, place and period is matched to the soulful, autumnal mood created by cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. Perhaps the greatest cinematic testament to the lived experience of the French Resistance. Featuring beautifully modulated performances by Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret.(Adrian Danks, Co-curator Melbourne Cinémathèque).


Click here to watch a trailer


ARMY OF SHADOWS is a film which has garnered much critical support since its premiere in 1969. Here are some samples:


Manohla Dargis,  New York Times

“…a thrilling story about a handful of French Resistance fighters that also happens to be a masterpiece.”

David Thomson, Have You Seen

It’s a world in which strangers or shadows come together under code names, in which brothers may not know that they follow the same bleak service, and in which you sometimes murder your own people to prevent the risk of their talking. The threat of torture and helpless betrayal, hangs over the whole enterprise, and part of the film’s grip, I find, comes from the certain understanding that even the Paris one loves and admires was once chilled by this terror.

Chris Peachment, Time Out Film Guide

“…the summit of both his own work and his collaboration with the actor Ventura…Melville’s style here has a quite outstanding hallucinatory quality entirely appropriate to its subject of lives and memories that are forced underground for too long.”