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May 19th, 2009

NORTH TO ALASKA (1960) [May. 19th, 2009|10:34 pm]
I spent five days with my parents a couple of weeks ago because my dad's birthday and Mother's Day were close together. During my time at home I unintentionally did a double feature of what I call "Big Stars in Little Westerns". I grew up knowing my dad didn't like John Wayne (and Bogart). Lately he's come around and been on a John Wayne kick. That's one reason he bought this obscure title from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. The other reason is that the title song was a hit in Taiwan back in the day. My dad had never seen the movie though.

I centered my interest on the fact that Henry Hathaway was the director. Hathaway's one of those solid, studio-stable directors who specialized in mid-budget genre pics. (John Sturges, director of Last Train from Gun HIll, the second half of this double feature, was another.) Hathaway was an exemplary action director; he shot my favorite part of How the West Was Won, a white-knuckle sequence involving a train that is more effective than nearly anything being made today.

The general gist of North to Alaska is that two buddies Sam (Wayne) and George (Stewart Granger) have struck it rich with their Alaskan gold mine. George has a fiance in Seattle but he needs to stay with the mine. He asks Sam to fetch her with the news that George is now a millionaire. When Sam finds her, she's already married and long forgotten about George. That night, Sam meets a beautiful French prostitute named Angel (the lovely Capucine) and decides to take her back to George instead. Meanwhile there's a sniveling grifter who keeps trying to weasal the mine away from Sam and George.

The film starts promising enough. We get the aforementioned theme song which segues almost immediately into a massive bar brawl. Here's where Hathaway shows his strengths as an action director: geography is clear, the characters are kept distinct, little gags here and there accompany the action, and the environment is used to full effect. Unfortunately, this is the only scene in the film where Hathaway seems to be paying attention. But even this scene is tonally off with the rest of the film. This scene is like the Keystone Kops or Looney Tunes, replete with a machine that bangs out carnival music, goofy sound effects and John Wayne mugging it cross-eyed. The rest of North to Alaska, meanwhile, is a mix of situational comedy and drama.

The script is unceasingly uneven, as if the writer had been drinking as hard as John Wayne's character while he was outlining. It really feels like they shot the first draft. More time and more ideas could have given each character a goal (only the grifter has one). The actual characterization seems to have been left entirely to the actors. There is an hour's worth of plot padded out to two hours so what we get are some painfully lame scenes. (Though I don't complain about Capucine's bath, during which I detected a nipple. Alert the Breen Office!) Once Angel arrives in Alaska, all that's needed are a few sequences of dramatic irony before things should get tied up neatly. Those ideal few scenes last about an hour. Then about ten minutes from the end, the grifter is reintroduced. In quick succession, the whole town breaks out in fistfights until our leads laugh away their problems and the grifter gets yanked off to jail. Huh? And those are all the problems before the more serious issue of male chauvinism can be thrown down.

North to Alaska
is for Wayne, Capucine and Hathaway purists only. The first third is tolerable, promising even, but the wheels really fall off when Sam and Angel arrive in Alaska with a whole lot of luggage and no story.
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LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL (1959) [May. 19th, 2009|11:32 pm]
Now THIS is a western! I had never heard of this until I found it for sale for $3.99 at Blockbuster and thought, Why not? It's got Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn and it's directed by His Badassness John Sturges. Sturges is an exemplar in lean and mean storytelling, mostly westerns and war films. His action was always clean and unintrusive, always economical and servicing the story. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape are classics; I think Last Train from Gun Hill is right behind them.

When the wife of Deputy Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is killed, he follows the only clue he has (a saddle) back to the sprawling ranch of his one-time best friend, Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Belden and Morgan are happy to see one another but the temperature cools immediately when both men realize that the murderer is Belden's only son. Morgan vows to take Rick Belden back to town for trial. The problem is, Morgan is now in Belden's town. He's surrounded on all sides by hired guns waiting to kill him and the last train isn't arriving for eight more hours...

Sturges pulls no punches. The film starts with the rape and murder of Morgan's wife. It's done off-screen of course, but the pan across the forest while she screams is even more disturbing. It jangles the viewer and expertly sets the stakes. We haven't even seen Morgan's character but we're already rooting for him to avenge her death. While my mom's correct in pointing out that Douglas isn't the greatest actor (his mourning for his wife is super short and then he's business as usual) the cowboy grit is second nature to him and it's that attitude that carries the film.

I don't remember seeing a full Anthony Quinn performance until this film. He's fantastic: dangerous, coiled, yet so vulnerable at the same time, Quinn demands to be watched. There is great subtlety and range in his acting, he's ferocious one moment and soft-spoken the next. I got goosebumps when he and Douglas sparred with their dialogue.

Speaking of the dialogue, James Poe's screenplay is the real deal. The pacing is expert. The scenes build and release in tension so well that you don't notice: the true sign of an expert. Characters are introduced in economical fashion and they all have personalities. Most manage to continually appear to serve some purpose to the story. Though Douglas and Quinn are most remembered, Poe's script makes this an ensemble piece. And of course, the dialogue is super sharp. Nearly every line serves to advance story and/or character, all the while dripping with a dry wit that recalls Wilder-esque noir. ("Isn't there anyone in this town who'll stand up to Belden?" Morgan asks. "Sure," the bartender replies. "Cemetery's full of 'em.")

Sturges adds suspense with his usual unobtrusive yet wholly effective filmmaking style. His compositions maximize the VistaVision frame. His action is expectedly great. He never glorifies death; it's awful even when it befalls villains. Every gunshot made me recoil; I was genuinely afraid for Morgan and the innocent townspeople. It's not an action-packed film so it's all the more suspenseful when violence threatens to erupt.

I can't recommend this movie enough. This is one of my favorite "finds", an utter and wonderful surprise that delivers in every way and also deepens my already-high esteem of John Sturges.
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