Month: August 2017

Concerning Robert N. Bradbury, Who Made Westerns

This is an ongoing, slowly expanding post concerning my admiration for the director Robert N. Bradbury, who is not a major artist, and perhaps not even a minor one. I’ll add some more thoughts on the man and his work, as I continue, and I wish to continue.


Wild horses wouldn’t be enough to pull the name of Robert N. Bradbury out of near-total obscurity and into anyone’s idea of a director’s pantheon. Career-wise, his moment of glory begins and ends with the 13 westerns he made with then-rising-star John Wayne, between 1933 and 1935. When you watch one of these films – when you watch the first minute or two of any of them – you are seized by the almost total deficiency of resources. Like most western directors on poverty row, Bradbury shot outside when he could, and didn’t make a big fuss over interior decoration when he went inside. (Across three or four pictures, you will notice that they keep using the same big tree.) These are movies that people slept through. In the B-movie class, they don’t get much B-er.

Having cleared all that up, I have now watched six of the 13, and I will stake that Bradbury was skilled at what he did, with what he had. All six thus far have been enjoyable in almost exactly the same way, with few distinctions. One of the ones from 1934, ill-named The Star Packer, begins with many evocative grace notes, culminating in a “secret knock” and “man in the shadows beyond the wall” sequence that’s straight out of Fritz Lang; there’s also a shoot-out by night that’s creepy at first but ends comically. Always nice to see a smart girl handling a gun.

At this point in my (more or less accidental) journey through the Bradbury/Wayne 13, I watched The Lawless Frontier (1934), and I couldn’t recall if I’d seen it already. The first 10 minutes set me at ease. This one uses the plot of the powerful Mexican bandit, roaming and stealing and killing with impunity, which was time-honored by 1934 and would endure through Peckinpah and The Rifleman. (In a 1958 episode of the latter, the great character actor Akim Tamiroff, born in Georgia – the USSR republic, not the US state – played just such a kingpin.) Somehow the obligations of the plot’s early disclosures (Wayne’s parents are killed in the opening, an indeterminate amount of time passes, we meet the bandits, we meet their next quarry, etc) stunts the pace of The Lawless Frontier‘s momentum. At moments it acquires the stark qualities of an Andre de Toth western. Wayne’s character, immediately beset by tragedy, is denied a life in town and even a sidekick. In short, the film’s front half feels heavy but harsh and dry.

This is a screen capture taken near the end of The Lawless Frontier. I found the shot oddly moving, and it reminded me of the opening line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

The Lawless Frontier – it’s worth noting, and should come as no surprise even if your only exposure to these movies is through the words I’m putting down here, that these titles are often totally unrelated to a given film’s plot or theme (or, alternatively, each title is vague enough that it could apply to any other film without a serious challenge) – is a little more diffuse than the other Bradbury westerns I’ve seen. It comes to pass that the malevolent bandit villain is only one of two antagonists, as the Wayne character comes to be falsely accused of murdering his friend, and must escape and… well you can probably paint the rest of the picture on your own.

I watch or (more commonly) sample many B-pictures – there are countless titles available online, chiefly on Amazon Prime and Youtube. (Netflix doesn’t really give a shit about movies made before their incorporation, and Hulu mainly serves the next-day TV crowd. FilmStruck is the Criterion surrogate, with some added dressing.) Any cinephile afflicted with the “if I start the movie, I must finish it” discipline will find B-movie spelunking arduous – and just as likely, impossible. If you have a 61-minute western or whodunnit from 1942 or 1932, you can wager with confidence that the quality on display during the first three or four minutes after the opening titles will accurately predict the quality of the rest of the movie. I turned 40 earlier this year. I think often of death. I have no compunction quitting on a movie that isn’t giving me the goods.

In fairness, I will often power through a bad B-movie if the spirit moves me. Which is why, when these movies are good, or aren’t precisely good but are shot and edited with a modicum of urgency and contain unexpected moments of beauty or strangeness, I take notice. Within me there’s a tripwire that lets me distinguish when I’m having a good time watching a film, and when I’m not. The Bradbury westerns trip the wire frequently.


The Trail Beyond – again with the titles, there’s no reliable meaning behind them – has an extraordinary first act that I think of often.

It begins with non-incident, as Wayne’s character rides up to his friend’s ranch, and his friend says something along the lines of “I want you to find my estranged niece who’s somewhere up in Canada” and you just know she’s the one Wayne’s going to marry at the end.

Following that, we see Wayne relaxing in a train compartment, dressed not in dude clothes but in city finery. A younger friend of Wayne’s happens by, they exchange kind words, and the friend is next seen trying his luck at a rigged poker game a few drawing room compartments down the way. One of the sharps is killed, it looks bad for the friend, but Wayne intervenes.

 Wayne incapacitates the other two sharps and the pair make their escape.

By jumping from the train.

Into the river.

So far, nothing to write home about. The action is enjoyably brisk: the friend adjourning to the card game, the card game going south, the cheat getting a bullet in his belly, his two accomplices holding the kid, Wayne busting in and taking out the two sharps, the escape. I timed it – I’m not fooling, from the kid sitting down to play poker to the river jump, 60 seconds flat.

But forget that. A jump in the river, no big deal. What amazed me was that, hardly two minutes later, the following sequence plays out:

  • After catching their breath on the riverbank, the two walk to the nearest town;
  • They rent a pair of horses;
  • The sheriff of the town where they rent the horses gets a telegram describing the previous scene – the murder and all;
  • Putting two and two together, the sheriff rounds up his posse and they give chase;
  • Knowing they’re once again being pursued, Wayne and his friend ride into the woods;
  • They come to a river. The posse is fast on their heels. They’re boxed in. There’s only one way out. You guessed it:

That’s about three and a half minutes for opening business, and another four minutes to justify and depict two death-defying leaps into the river. I cannot conceive of a mind unwilling or unable to enjoy such lunacy.


 

City Beneath the Sea (Budd Boetticher, 1953)

 

Not to be confused with:

  • City Beneath the Sea (Irwin Allen, 1971)
  • City in the Sea (aka War Gods of the Deep) (Jacques Tourneur, 1965)
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Irwin Allen, 1961)
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (TV series created by Irwin Allen, 1964-1968)
  • City That Never Sleeps (John H. Auer, 1953) – also starring Mala Powers!
  • The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953)
  • The Unchanging Sea (D.W. Griffith, 1910)

Unlike many similarly-named adventure movies, this 1953 Budd Boetticher-directed adventure movie is largely free of any mystical overtones – at least, until the end. (Even then, it’s not explicit.) No, this is nine tenths a macho diving and treasure-hunting story in which Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn, pals in a freelance salvage outfit, are hired by wealthy Karel Stepanek to locate a sunken ship containing a million dollars in gold bullion. Both are given to drinking, chasing women, and getting into bar brawls, but Quinn plays the one more likely to have his hand caught in the till, and that’s part of the reason the drama gets whipped into a froth.

The pro forma story could easily have been refitted as a western or a space opera, with only cosmetic alterations. The script is credited to two writers, neither of whom seemed to have been in their prime in 1953. I make the suggestion that the script was rescued from a long unopened file drawer.

The high point of this likable film is not the diving sequences, which take too long and seem to have been filmed entirely using the same lighting setup, in the studio pool, but a terrific bar fight at about the halfway mark. Drinks and fists and tiki torches fly in every direction. Lots of cutaways to different spectators, like the owner, cowering behind a chair, and the pianist, not looking particularly interested in the outcome.

As I see many films by the same director, I’m reluctant to look for consistent themes, because I don’t think the activity is conducive to promoting auteurism as I practice it. City Beneath the Sea lacks some of the moral and spatial geometry that Boetticher would come to practice in his more universally-celebrated westerns. But it has more in common with his lifelong obsession with bullfighting than an early joke on the subject. Many of Boetticher’s movies, from Behind Locked Doors to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, portray their heroes not simply getting into predicaments at the climactic moments, but living their day-to-day lives getting into scrapes and behaving dismissively at the suggestion that their lives may be at risk. Ungainly as the metaphor may be, it’s not hard to apply the image of the bullfighter, eternally dancing around the charging bull, to the heroes of many of his non-bullfighting-themed films, including this one.

The Woody Allen Project: Take the Money and Run


You’re free to write off What’s Up, Tiger Lily? as a botched stunt (not without a few yuks) and declare that Take the Money and Run is Woody Allen’s directorial debut. It’s front-loaded with the best gags; it’s not a long film but after the amazing bank robbery sequence (the one where the entire bank, staff and customers alike, takes Virgil to task over his typos), the romance plot cuts the film’s momentum by about 60 percent, and callbacks dilute the joke-per-minute density even further. Jokes like an irate Fritz Lang impersonator and a contemptuous psychiatrist don’t really land. That having been said, the first twenty minutes are full of energy and inventive camerawork. And the above image, pure genius.

The Woody Allen Project: What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

The premise is so light, you can transmit it to someone by breathing on their skin: A Japanese action picture is dubbed over by nonsensical comic dialogue written and performed by Allen and his confederates. In the spoof genre, it was a total original. Not long afterward, it was completely subsumed by the surreal irreverence of the Police Squad! series, the 1980 movie Airplane!, and others.

This would be a downright avant-garde pick for someone’s favorite Woody Allen picture, like declaring loudly that you prefer Tonight for Sure to The Godfather, Part II. The most inventive part of the film is the title sequence, a hybrid of the Pink Panther-inspired trend of animating caricatures into Duck Amuck-style contortions, and the still-relevant trend in the James Bond franchise to put pictures of naked ladies through a storm of graphic design effects.

The source movie, Key of Keys (an installment in the International Secret Police series, led by Japanese action star Tatsuya Mihashi), is suitably corny, adventure/suspense serial fodder, most of it taking place on stationary ships.It’s not unreasonable to conclude that What’s Up, Tiger Lily? wouldn’t be as much fun if Key of Keys wasn’t any good; the direction and editing clears an acceptable minimum of crisp competence, and the movie has that sweaty, sun-baked charm of a thousand 007 knock-offs.

The main conceit, of course, is the dubbing. Talking over movies is now largely out of fashion with the advent of smartphones; clowns in the audience are more likely to text or tweet or Snapchat their jokes to absent friends. (The legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 also casts a long shadow.) Concerning Allen and company’s proto-RiffTrax job on Key of Keys, picture a job of ad-libbing that would normally fall to idle teens in the balcony rows now carried out by a crack squad of Borscht Belt comedy writers. Provided you’re in the mood, there’s lots of funny stuff – for me, the ideal state was achieved during the safecracking sequence, where we see no faces, and hear only Allen’s cabal rendering an absurdist play-by-play with a perfect punchline.

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