The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

The Glenn Miller Story

My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

Advertisements

The Far Country (1954)

The Far Country theatrical.jpg

I don’t need other people. I don’t need help. I can take care of myself. Cowboy Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is bringing cattle from Wyoming to the Yukon but the corrupt sheriff in Skagway (John McIntire) steals the herd. Jeff joins forces with the saloon keeper (Ruth Roman) from a neighbouring town but they’re up against someone so tough he kills Jeff’s sidekick (Walter Brennan) and Jeff finally swears revenge for reasons other than his own. Great 50s western that has a political undertow – the journey from individual to collective responsibility. Somehow, director Anthony Mann’s construction and use of painted backdrops combine to undermine the film’s radical message while Stewart (in their fourth collaboration) adds another hue of psychopathy to his character palette. With Corinne Calvet as the young woman who must compete with Roman for Stewart’s affections, this is pretty fantastic entertainment and it looks wonderful (they knew colour then). Written by Borden Chase.

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur poster

What a change James Stewart’s rep took in the Fifties: in this, his third western collaboration with director Anthony Mann, he is perfectly neurotic, hysterical even, as the greed-driven bounty hunter. He teams up with an old-timer prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a former soldier (Ralph Meeker) to track down marshal-killer Robert Ryan (he made two other films with Mann: Men in War and God’s Little Acre). They think Stewart is a sheriff. Then when Ryan’s found, he tells them about the number on his head and he’s accompanied by his ward, Janet Leigh. Ryan pits them all against each other and the tensions play out against a tremendously photographed landscape:  Durango, the San Juan Mountains and Lone Pine, California (the Hollywood of the Rockies, as Stewart dedicated a monument during production). Stewart is tremendous, so too is Leigh. What is it about her that made so many great directors work with her? She did Touch of Evil with Welles;  Psycho with Hitchcock;  and The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer and looking far more spookily relevant the more we learn about insider politics in Washington and the Kennedy ‘lone assassins’. Her exchanges with Stewart here are wonderful. She can really carry a scene and she looks great. Mitchell died aged fifty soon after production was concluded. Stewart had two other films directed by Mann on release the same year: Thunder Bay and The Glenn Miller Story, both good (and good looking) in their way but nothing like as striking as this. It got an Academy Award for the screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom – something that rarely happens for a western.

The Black Book (1949)

The Black Book poster alt.jpgThe Black Book poster.jpg

Also known as Reign of Terror, this is an incredibly exciting tale of the French Revolution. For those more familiar with his 50s Westerns and 60s epics, it may come as a surprise that this noir film, which is widely seen as an allegory for the HUAC blacklisting, is from director Anthony Mann. Not so much when you learn one of the writers is Philip Yordan, beefing up the original script by Aeneas Mackenzie and you realise this is no ordinary action flick. (Yordan spent the blacklist era outside the USA, churning out his own work and fronting for others for whom his home served as a refuge.) Stunningly shot by John Alton, Robert Cummings is a serviceable hero opposite villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) and Arlene Dahl was never lovelier as the seemingly duplicitous Madelon. Arnold Moss is terrifying as Fouche, the police enforcer. William Cameron Menzies constructed the sets from the leftovers of Joan of Arc (1948) and the tension in the hunt for the eponymous list of Robespierre’s enemies is palpable. Masterful filmmaking.

T-Men (1947)

T-Men poster.jpg

The semi-documentary approach was in vogue in the immediate post-World War 2 era. Partly due to the war itself, the economics and the fashion for Italian neo-realist approaches. Director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton revelled in this pacy story about treasury agents going after a counterfeiting ring. What is lacking in star power and what irritates about the ‘official’ voiceover narration is made up for in action and tension. It’s also good to see Los Angeles in full flow in 1947. Alton’s work was truly extraordinary here and his book Painting With Light appeared two years later, explaining his aesthetic.  He and Mann made the beautiful The Black Book/Reign of Terror in 1949, a political allegory set around the French Revolution: that’s a film you simply have to see. They also collaborated on Raw Deal (again with Dennis O’Keeffe) in 1948 and Mann also worked uncredited that year with Alton on He Walked By Night, with some of the best cinematography you will ever see:  truly these men achieved great visuals together. Alton would move onto colour with An American In Paris; Mann would of course go on to direct some of the best westerns of the 1950s and he spent most of the 1960s working on epics like El Cid before dying aged just 60 in 1967.

Thunder Bay (1953)

Thunder Bay poster

Anthony Mann made some tough, taut films, some with his favourite star, James Stewart. In 1953 they collaborated on two wonderful actioners – one was the great Western, The Naked Spur;  the other was this, a packed story of two GIs, Stewart and Dan Duryea,  who take to oilcatting in the years just after World War 2 down in the Gulf of Texas. They come up against the local Louisiana shrimp fishermen.  Duryea falls for Francesca, daughter of local fisherman Dominique, whose older daughter, played by Joanne Dru, is cynical about his intentions. Her performance is at the emotional centre of the film and her growing relationship with Stewart is a pleasure to watch – she hadn’t had this good a role since Red River. Everything comes to a head on an oil rig with the conflict played out against a tense time between both sides of the war. As is usual with Mann, it’s beautifully shot and composed, with terrific dialogue presumably supplied by John Michael Hayes, the co-writer, who wrote so many great Hitchcock films of the era. Terrific.