As a precursor to our film project, 12 Western Feature-Length Films in 12 Months, which Running Wild Films and 5J Media will start producing in 2016, director Travis Mills shares his thoughts on films from the genre as he studies Westerns in preparation for our own. Follow the project here on Facebook
This series of short blogs is titled “Western Impressions”.
It was more adventurous than the De Toth pictures I’ve seen, lacking that starkness. This is the first time to my recollection that I have seen a “spy Western”, though I must admit that this is just as much a war film as it is a western. In fact, it’s more of a war film in a Western setting.
Last impression: It shouldn’t have been called Springfield Rifle.
Perhaps a cap, but certainly not the end, to my recent fascination with Andre De Toth’s work, I give you some quotes taken from the interview book De Toth on De Toth. I find it amazing how many of these line up with the philosophies of the French New Wave and are ageless in their importance to cinema.
“I have no tolerance for anybody who doesn’t give his/her best. Dedicated people are giving their best and any son of a bitch who is taking advantage of that is robbing us of what’s most important: time.”
“Spielberg always had the talent, but no guts, only chutzpah. He lived audaciously, in children’s glossy and well-playing dreams.”
“I’d rather by lousy on my own than a brilliant second. I don’t want to be second anything.”
“They gave me the script; I told ’em it stank. They said, ‘Good. That’s what we think, too. You have seven days to shoot it. Go.'”
“Many of the people who now say they wanted to make a film noir are full of shit. Most of them hated making those short-schedule, low-budget B-pictures.”
“A true style develops unintentionally and unplanned.”
“It is always more exciting to be an unsuccessful pioneer, than a successful teller of old tales.”
“A film is nobody’s single achievement.”
“The electronic images, the ‘out of this world toys’, may overwhelm the audience with wonders for a while. But could they, would they, make them laugh from their hearts, or make them shed a sincere tear, without a human story? I bet on the latter; it has survived since lightning gave fire to our monkey-like ancestors who, sitting around the fire, told lies to each other… The birth of stories. And stories will survive.”
“Be yourself. Be free and lousy.”
Like Budd Boetticher, Andre De Toth was a frequent collaborator of Randolph Scott’s. The Westerns these two men made together may not rival the perfection of The Tall T (a pure Western, in the same way that Detour is pure Noir) but they are nevertheless strong entries in the genre.
Especially Riding Shotgun.
Riding Shotgun is a fast picture. It clocks in at 73 minutes (the right length for kind of gutsy cinema of old Hollywood). Somehow, whether intinially or not, it picks up on the paranoia of the Cold War era (McCarthyism in particular) with its portrayal of mob mentality and justice. I won’t say a lot about it because all I really need to say is SEE IT.
Having skimmed the surface of De Toth’s work, I find him one of the forgotten great directors of cinema.
Andre De Toth (left) showing Gary Cooper what’s up.
For a moviegoer, sometimes unfamiliar names become familiar. During the credits of the Andre De Toth directed Hidden Fear, the name John Hawkins struck a bell but I ignored it. I didn’t think about the name until I started Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose and there it was again in the opening credits.
The very first time I saw the name was months ago: another De Toth picture, Crime Wave. The link the between the three movies isn’t only a name; it’s a consistency in craft, in the tiny character details that elevate these three crime pictures above most others.
John Hawkins, of whom I can find little about, was a writer and producer. He produced Bonanza and other than the movies, wrote for such television shows as The Fugitive and The 87th Precinct series. Alongside his name is his brother’s: Ward Hawkins. They each collaborated on Crime Wave and The Killer is Loose. From what I can gather, both of these films where based on stories by the brothers (they were frequently published in the Saturday Evening Post).
Both films had a screenwriter other than the Hawkins (Harold Medford for The Killer is Loose and three writers for Crime Wave). Although sometimes it’s hard to pick out the parties responsible for the exceptional qualities in good work (perhaps it was the director with an idea on set, or the actor), the name Hawkins keeps repeating itself at the beginning and end of good crime pictures.
The Killer is Loose is an odd cop story. The lead, played by Joseph Cotten, accidentaly shoots the wife of a bank robber played by Wendell Correy. He’s no ordinary bank robber, and no ordinary killer as the poster suggests. He’s timid, introverted; in the army we learn that he was constantly made fun of. Still, he involves himself in crime and the punishment is not his own but his wife’s.
The outcome of the innocent murder: Cotten made a mistake and Correy goes to jail. But before he goes, he swears to take the life of Cotten’s wife and when he escapes sometime later, the picture really takes off. That’s all I’ll say about the plot. The picture, like many in the gallery of second-run crime movies, is fast, sharp, and much smarter than most A-pictures. The characters’ actions are fresh, unpredictable, and downright complex. Budd Boetticher was a great director, not only of Westerns. Whatever his strengths, I can’t help but credit the “story” men behind this one: the Hawkins brothers.
Crime Wave, which I focused on before in an article about its director, is a little crime gem too. A tale of the burden of being an ex-crook at its core, the movie comprises police-procedural, heist, and kidnapping in a killer plot. The cast highlights are Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey. Hayden plays a tough cop about as good as anyone could and Carey plays the ultimate scene-stealing psycho (he may have been the best scene-stealer ever). Again, De Toth was a terrific director but it’s not only the starkness of the pace and lighting that make Crime Wave a great picture; it’s the root of the movie, the core, where it came from.
Unlike the previous two, the movie Hidden Fear was not based on a story by Ward Hawkins. From the available information, it seems the screenplay was written by both Andre De Toth and John Hawkins. Like the other two, this is a tight little crime movie. The basic plot involves an American cop (John Payne) trying to clear his sister’s name after she gets mixed up with a murder in Denmark. Somewhere along the way, counterfeit and other such crimes become involved.
On one level, Hidden Fear feels like an early entry in the French New Wave. The lighting is almost all natural, the cutting abrupt and ragged but effectively so, the whole thing stripped of Hollywood exaggerations. It is a lean, mean picture but what really gives it guts are the characters and dialog. Payne’s American cop is Mickey-Spillane tough. In one great scene from Hawkins and De Toth, he slaps his sister around to find out the truth. The Danish cop enters the interrogation room and tells him, “This isn’t the way we do things here.” Payne, lacking all emotion, responds, “Sometimes it’s the only way.” He parades through the picture as a tall, strong statue, a perfect machine of pulp and Hawkins’ script is his backbone. Outlined with tons of great characters: a sultry blonde played by Anne Neyland and a backstabbing ruthless villain played by Alexander Knox. Hidden Fear climaxes with a great, minimal car chase and a harsh ending that conveys the same bizarre since of victory and tragedy as Hawkins’ ending for The Killer is Loose.
I’ll keep an eye out for John and Ward Hawkins from now on. And because their names were once unfamiliar to me and have now become synonymous with great crime writing, I’ll look for others like the Hawkins, buried in the credits of great forgotten cinema.
The “Men on a Mission” genre
Before there was Tarantino’s Basterds, we had a long history of “Men on a Mission” movies, enough probably to call it a genre. The most famous are The Dirty Dozen and The Guns Of Navarone. One of the best is Where Eagles Dare. Some of the more obscure like the Rod Taylor-acted Dark Of The Sun inspired Tarantino’s own entry. The genre has continued through every decade with the same rag-tag crews going on a task usually considered a “suicide mission”.
Near the end of their careers, American Primitives, Andre De Toth and Robert Aldrich, tried the genre in two little-talked about films: Play Dirty and Too Late The Hero.
Odd enough, both films star Michael Caine. In Play Dirty, he’s an expert in oil, a soldier who didn’t plan on firing a single shot and somehow gets roped into a scheme to join a group of true outcasts, gathered from all over, to blow up a Nazi oil reserve.
This is a cynical picture and that attitude doesn’t take long to kick in. From the beginning, we learn that our crew is just a decoy, a bunch of expendables meant only to be butchered as a group of “real” soldiers follows their trail to do the job right. The best scene comes when our outcasts watch as the “real” soldiers are ambushed by Nazis and massacred. Caine’s character tries to warn them but Nigel Hawthorne’s hard-as-nails Leech stops him. He doesn’t mind watching his own allies murdered as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Andre De Toth, who we wrote about earlier with his great crime picture Crime Wave, keeps up this hopeless tone till the very end. It sets in to the point that we laugh when the next bad thing happens and the film turns the “Mission” genre on its head. The mission doesn’t matter at all this time.
In Too Late the Hero, Cliff Roberston plays the reluctant soldier: an American who speaks Japanese and hides out from his commander (Henry Fonda) until he’s tracked down and brought in. A few days before his leave, he’s assigned to a group of British soldiers on another suicide mission: this time to destroy Japanese communications and send a false transmission to fool them. As usual, the soldiers have been collected from the bottom of the barrel. Michael Caine is among them, as the always-skeptical medic. Also in the ranks is the incompetent team leader played by Denholm Elliott and the crazy Irishman played by Ian Bannen.
Somehow with the same modus operandi as De Toth, Aldrich (director of greats like Kiss Me Deadly and the classic Mission movie The Dirty Dozen) misses the right tone for this picture. All the elements are present but the feel isn’t and the movie plays out as one jungle attack after another. Whereas De Toth’s cynicism refreshed the genre, Aldrich’s seems tired and uninspired.
Still, it’s curious to see these two directors try. We will write more, much more, about Robert Aldrich in later entries.
Andre De Toth
He called himself “a Hungarian born, one-eyed American cowboy from Texas.” He supposedly lost the eye in an anti-Nazi demonstration before he moved to America. He had seven wives and nineteen children.
His most famous directing gig might be the horror film House of Wax, starring Vincent Price: an amazing 3D achievement because of his handicap. He also made a ton of Westerns with Randolph Scott. The film of his we highlight this time is from 1954; it is called Crime Wave.
Not unadulterated Noir by our definition, but a police-procedural mixed with a heist film, Crime Wave, directed by De Toth is lean and mean. It was shot almost in its entirety on locations. He was offered a big budget and thirty days, but declined and said he could do it both faster and cheaper. So they gave him fifteen days; he finished it in thirteen.
Here is the opening scene from the film:
De Toth fought to cast Sterling Hayden as Detective Sims, the ruthless cop who pushes nice guy Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) to help him track down a trio of escaped convicts. The studio wanted Humphrey Bogart. They said, “Sterling can’t act.” De Toth said he didn’t have to, he was the genuine article.
Sterling quit smoking for the part just like his character Sims. The detective explains, “You know, it isn’t what a man wants to do, Lacey, but what he has to do. Now you take me, I love to smoke cigarettes, but the doctor says I can’t have them. So what do I do? I chew tooth picks, tons of them.” James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential, calls Hayden the “the film noir poet brute”. He’s spot on.
The picture plays out with not many surprises in terms of plot; it holds together through Hayden’s character. It’s not clear how far he will go to get what he wants. In many ways, he is scarier than the three ex-cons. He knows Lacey is a reformed criminal with a sweet wife who means no harm, but he has no problem putting both their lives in danger to catch the bad guys.
At the end, when we see a side of him we didn’t know was there, he leans against a wall on a street corner and pulls a cigarette out of his pocket. It’s bent, crooked like he’s had it there waiting for months, years maybe. He puts it in his mouth, lights it, realizes something and throws it away. He slides the toothpick back in his mouth. It’s the last shot of the picture and boy is it a beauty.
More on De Toth later.
-Most information scavenged from disreputable sources such as Wikipedia and the word of James Ellroy and Eddie Muller.