July 15, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford stars as Vienna in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray.

It’s rare to have a Western with a female lead, particularly in the 1950s. Joan Crawford’s Vienna is hardly just eye candy either. She owns the screen with a look and refuses to tread in the confines of her civilization. For that reason, Vienna is a threat to everyone in the local town. Accepting her claim to valuable real estate near the railroad makes Vienna an equal to the guys, and perhaps even superior to them. It’s a clever shift in gender dynamics, though Johnny Guitar doesn’t completely bypass those norms. The title reminds us that men still try to remain front and center. The love story must drive the plot, even if it’s the least interesting part of the story.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, who exists mostly to protect Vienna from the blood-thirsty townspeople. In a similar fashion to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in this year’s Wonder Woman, Guitar (whose real name is Johnny Logan) clearly plays second fiddle to the main character. He’s a past love that once lived a life of crime, but now his attention is all on Vienna. There’s an odd conflict between romance and self-determination in Vienna’s heart, and that fight exists within the film’s themes. Crawford’s Vienna is so focused that she hardly blinks, but then she falls into Logan’s arms multiple times. The script from Ben Maddow indicts McCarthyism yet can’t help but give the characters something beyond the ideological fight.

The standout among the forces of civilization is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who hates Vienna with all of her being. She’s jealous of Vienna’s relationship with “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), who’s hardly a kid and doesn’t dance. Brady was 30 when Johnny Guitar was released and looks even older. McCambridge and Crawford reportedly did not get along on the set, and that hatred emanates from the screen. It’s easy to believe that the characters want to kill each other, particularly Small. The look on McCambridge’s face when she burns down Vienna’s place is chilling. It’s a vision of evil from a villain technically on the side of the law.

Ward Bond’s John McIvers may believe he’s running the show, but it’s Small that’s driving the furor against Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid’s gang. It’s the crowd mentality that drives the push to not only drive them from the town, but to hang them. The dark middle act reveals how far bloodlust can take even normal people. It’s only after the first killing that it subsides, at least for most of them. It’s easy to draw parallels between the falsehoods that drive this mission and the evils of McCarthyism. Maddow had to use Phillip Yordan’s name on the script due to his past issues with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The final showdown is the only place where Johnny Guitar slips a bit. The shootout has power yet seems too conventional given the earlier scenes. It does include a quick stop that reminds me of the brief cease fire during Children of Men. Bond’s haunted face shows how quickly a quest for justice can get out of control. On the other hand, the last shot indicates that the love story is the driving narrative. That feels like an over-simplification given what we’ve witnessed up to that point. Vienna has lost her home and livelihood, but at least she has love. This moment ends the story on a hollow note; we root for Vienna but not in this way.

It’s easy to view Johnny Guitar as a revisionist western, but there are still parts that are genre norms. Its primary conflict is between the forces of civilization and the wilderness, order and freedom. Vienna wants the chance to go her own way, but the crowd wants to stop her because she’s an outsider. Her bright red lipstick and colorful outfits aren’t the typical garb for a woman in the “civilized” world. Crawford’s intensity sells the idea that Vienna is a singular individual that won’t cater to any societal norms. She falls for gunslingers and refuses to indict them for the behavior. It’s an entertaining twist on the conventional structure, though the end result doesn’t completely upend the typical narrative.

Johnny Guitar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. Johnny Guitar
3. They Live by Night
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. On Dangerous Ground

This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.

June 20, 2017

The Fourth Kingdom and the American Myth

The Fourth Kingdom depicts life at the "Sure We Can" redemption center.

Amid today’s onslaught of claims about illegal aliens and dangers to a blurry concept of traditional “America”, it’s easy to bypass the human side. We can hate the fearmongering by power-hungry leaders, but what about the people it impacts? Taking a breath and looking closer is hard to do sometimes. In their short film The Fourth Kingdom, Adán Aliaga and Àlex Lora accomplish that by depicting a small group of people at the Sure We Can recycling and community center in New York. They depict individuals of different races and backgrounds, and each one has a unique story.

It’s easy to tie everything to a discussion of Trump’s policies, but there’s no need to make it blatant. With the exception of a brief shot of the President on TV (before the channel changes), there’s no direct mention of him. Even so, his presence hangs over each scene. When a man speaks about the difference between labeling people as “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants”, it brings us right back to the hate speech. Hearing him speak about walking to the border without any planning is striking. A later shot of the guy going to bed in extremely cramped quarters says plenty. He came looking for the “American Dream”, but what he found instead was something less inspiring.

I shouldn’t focus too much on the political aspects; that’s more of a backdrop than the focus. The residents of this center largely seem content and aspire for a better life. One man spends his time chatting with a friend and wondering about theories like God's involvement in The Big Bang. It’s the type of conversation that you’d expect to hear among friends at a park or coffee shop. Another guy has a personal goal of acquiring 2,000 bottles, and the process makes him happy. He spent 3-4 years at one point living in the streets, so finding a purpose is so important.

Aliaga and Lora find inventive ways to avoid using just a fly-on-the-wall style. One slow-motion shot of a beer bottle opening is beautiful in its simplicity. They also use audio from a vintage promo about plastics throughout the film. That overly positive look at the artificial substance mirrors the way the dream has been diminished for some residents. Plastics took hold of our culture during the post-war era of the ‘50s and connect to the rise of the American myth. The bags of plastic have their own charms, but they also reveal the leftovers of a wasteful society.

While the narrator describes the “dream of the future”, shots of heaping bags of bottles and cans tell a different tale. Stories about alcoholism and homelessness drive home the point that we’re a long way from that idyllic dream. This kingdom of plastics offers respite for people that are barely hanging onto hope. They’re just living day to day and working tirelessly to stay afloat. The Fourth Kingdom finds peace in their efforts, despite the difficulties of each day. It’s a brief glimpse at a world on a separate plane from the grand claims of politicians. Those leaders are stuck in the fantasy described by the deceptive narrator while life continues in the world around them.

The Fourth Kingdom is currently playing the festival circuit, including the Palm Springs Film Festival on June 21. It also recently won the Best Short Documentary award at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Learn more at the official website.

June 19, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground.

For his seventh feature, Nicholas Ray ventured into the crime world that served him well in his debut They Live By Night. Released in 1951, On Dangerous Ground depicts a cynical cop that’s lost his way in the dark city. It’s the type of character that we still see today, particularly on prestige TV series. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a grim anti-hero with no interest in playing by the rules. There are even Dirty Harry-like moments where the Chief tells Wilson that he must tone down his behavior or risk losing his badge. He’s a loose cannon that must be controlled!

Robert Ryan (The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock) is the perfect choice to play this unhinged guy. His expressive face says plenty with limited dialogue. When Wilson mercilessly beats a suspect, the camera stays on Ryan’s face. It’s a frightening look inside a cop that has seen far too much. Screaming “You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!”, Ryan is quite believable. There is no doubt that Wilson is going to gather the info he needs no matter what it takes. The line between cop and criminal is razor thin, and Wilson might be worse because he’s acting with the arm of the law.

An effective opening sequence presents a series of nighttime calls to cops for an extensive search for suspects. The emphasis on the procedural aspects is surprising from a director like Ray, who often seems more interested in a story’s emotional context (that comes later). During the first act, there’s little sense that we aren’t going to stick with the cops. I knew little about the plot going into this viewing, and the fast-paced opening works well. Ray puts the camera inside the cars and gives us obstructed looks at the action in the city’s back alleys. This helps set the mood of a depressing crime world, and even the audience is likely on board to escape it.

What makes On Dangerous Ground stand out is its odd left turn during its second half. Sending a city cop to the country to investigate a murder isn’t that surprising. What makes the shift different is how little Ray and Co-writer A.I. Bezzerides seem to care about the case. It’s really just a set-up to bring Wilson into contact with Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). She’s blind and living mostly alone in the snowy wilderness. Lupino’s glassy stare helps make sure we get the point, even if Walter Brent (Ward Bond) can’t see that she’s blind for a while. His revenge-minded father of the victim is so blinded by rage that he almost clumsily burns down the cabin. The hard edges of the first act disappear, and we’ve shifted into a family melodrama and love story.

Before Wilson and Brent meet Malden, they join a town-wide manhunt for the killer. It’s the film’s most epic sequence and has a strange town mania for the chase. It’s the most exciting thing to happen in the town for quite a while! In this revenge-fueled setting, Wilson doesn’t seem like he’s out of line. In fact, his measured approach in the new setting is a contrast to the townspeople’s. Bond is dialed up to 11 as Brent, and Wilson seems eerily composed by comparison. Part of the change is this wide-open landscape plus an interest in Malden. The change of scenery pulls the darkness away from Wilson, and he’s comfortable here.

Lupino and Ryan do their best with the material, but the story grinds to a halt in the third act. It’s a surprising move to slow down so much in what’s essentially the movie’s climax. Even when Brent and Wilson chase down the suspect, the result seems more inevitable than thrilling. An exception is the one-on-one meeting between Wilson and the killer, which works because of the cop’s internal conflict. His interest in both Malden and this small-town life means more than catching the bad guy. The conflict appears mostly in Ryan’s facial expressions, which shift as his demeanor softens with Malden. Taking care of her gives him a much-needed mission.

Despite some awkward moments, On Dangerous Ground is a worthy noir because of Ray’s direction. He finds inventive places to put the camera, especially in driving sequences. One crash gives the sense that you’re inside the car as it tumbles over in the icy snow. This film also runs a brisk 82 minutes. A two-hour version of this film would be tedious. A slow Bernard Hermann score adds to the sleepy tone of the scenes inside the house. Wilson needs this quiet life to push back his demons, but it’s less inspiring to us. What clicks is the way his demeanor shifts back to depression when he drives back into the city. That world would eventually kill Wilson’s soul, and he must escape or risk falling prey to the worst parts of himself.

On Dangerous Ground is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available to rent through Amazon.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. They Live by Night
3. Rebel Without a Cause
4. On Dangerous Ground

This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.