The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:







Convoy (1978)

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Boy, these lonely long highways sure grind the souls of us cowboys. Trucker Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and his buddies Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) use their CB radios to warn one another of the presence of cops. But conniving Arizona Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) is hip to the truckers’ tactics, and begins tracking them via CB because of a longstanding issue with Rubber Duck. Facing constant harassment, Rubber Duck and his pals use their radios to coordinate a vast convoy and rule the road. En route Rubber Duck teams up with a photographer Melissa (Ali McGraw) driving to a job in her Jaguar XKE and she winds up hitching a ride ostensibly to the airport after a brouhaha in a diner which sees Wallace chained to a stool where Duck’s girlfriend Violet (Cassie Yates) sets him free after the truckers have left. The trucks set off to the state line heading into New Mexico but Wallace has an idea to use their one black driver as bait and more and more drivers join the convoy … Writer Bill (B.W.L.) Norton took his lead from the lyrics of the (literally) radio-friendly novelty country-pop song by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis to write this, which starred his Cisco Pike protagonist Kristofferson, with Sam Peckinpah (who had variously directed Kristofferson, McGraw and Borgnine) drafted in to helm. It seems an unlikely setup for Peckinpah but when you understand its anti-authoritarian drive, the idea that these guys are like modern cowboys pitted against the vile sheriff antagonist, and pair that with the director’s customary robust style (tongue firmly planted slo-mo in cheek) then this isn’t just another one of those late Seventies comic road movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose which I’ve always thought it must have been – it has a strangely operatic confidence and cadence embodied in Kristofferson’s fiercely independent trucker. That’s perhaps another way of saying you shouldn’t look at this too seriously for deep character or narrative sense but it has fantastically sensuous pleasures to enjoy – especially if you’re a fan of Mack Trucks and getting one over on The Man. Thing is, Peckinpah brought in his friend James Coburn (Pat Garrett to Kristofferson’s Billy the Kid) to take care of the second unit and due to Peckinpah’s various addictions Coburn wound up doing much of the movie. The director’s cut was four hours long and the studio took it away from him and put in a bunch of new music.  I have vague memories of this being trailed (inappropriately) before a Disney movie when I was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper and it’s quite bizarre to have finally seen it tonight, with McGraw’s horribly unflattering perm and unsuitable travel clothes ‘n’ all. The landscape of the American Southwest is stunningly captured by Harry Stradling Jr. and there’s a handful of country and western classics on the soundtrack. It’s populist politics put together by a rebel heart with an explosive conclusion and a happily twisted ending. Yee haw!

Pursued (1947)

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Came straight to this place just like I’d known the way. There was something in my life that ruined that house. That house was myself. It’s the 1880s. Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is an orphan raised by a foster family in New Mexico who remains tormented by dreams of  the traumatic murder of his parents when he was a child. He is treated well by his foster mother, Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), and her daughter, Thor (Teresa Wright), but he and foster brother Adam (John Rodney) have a tense relationship. When Jeb is shot at while riding his horse, he blames Adam  but Mrs. Callum knows that in fact it’s another member of the Callum clan who is out to get him, her brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger) out to avenge events of the past of which Jeb has only the most tenuous knowledge … This psychological revenge western is a film noir with Freudian aspects – obliterating the notion of family in a glassily emotional construction which has lots of weird nightmarish aftereffects to haunt the viewer making us feel like Mitchum’s sleepwalking protagonist. There is plenty to enjoy here beyond the immediacy of the character tensions – the stunning nocturnal landscapes (shot by James Wong Howe, edited by Christian Nyby), the oppressive interiors, the suspense of the revelations withheld until a crucial moment in the drama and Mitchum singing The Streets of Laredo in a score composed by Max Steiner Adapted by Niven Busch (Wright’s husband) from a story by Horace McCoy, this is one of the strangest and least logical films in that narrow sub-genre which lasted a few years after WW2.  It’s worth it for the contrasting performing styles of its fantastic stars engaged in this baroque clashing of generic components and the return of the repressed. Directed by Raoul Walsh. If that house was me what part of me was buried in those graves?

Ace in the Hole (1951)


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Aka The Big Carnival. I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time but you – you’re twenty minutes.  Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is the callous hard-drinking big city journo who’s been fired from every newspaper he ever worked for and finds himself in a small town in New Mexico on a reduced income desperate for a story to get him the Pulitzer. When treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in a mineshaft looking for Indian artifacts, Chuck colludes with an electioneering sheriff (Ray Teal) to keep the man down there in a delayed and protracted rescue effort in order to draw attention to his scoop which he uses to parlay his way back into his old job. Minosa’s wife Lorraine isn’t bothered one way or another. As played by the brilliant actress Jan Sterling she’s a brittle bottle-blonde broad who gives as good as she has to take from her violent new love interest, with Douglas as vicious as you’d imagine. This was an important film for director Billy Wilder, the first time he was out on his own as producer and writer without Charles Brackett. It was more or less inspired by the Floyd Collins cave-in story in 1925 which earned reporter William Burke Miller the Pulitzer. And a couple of years before this was made a child ended up dying in a well while thousands of people gathered to watch the failed rescue. Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman wrote the hard as nails screenplay which seems not the cynical exploitation picture it was accused of being upon release and more an accurate representation of the relationships around the press and the news they report. This gets more contemporary by the day.

Shalako (1968)

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What a potentially terrific project this was: a British western, made in Spain, shot by Edward Dmytryk and pairing the sex symbols of the era, Sean Connery (in between Bonds) and Brigitte Bardot. An adaptation of a 1962 novel by Louis L’Amour (c’mon, how many books did this genius write?!) it’s the story of an aristocratic European hunting party in New Mexico, led on a safari through an Apache reservation by unscrupulous guide, Stephen Boyd. Countess Irina (Bardot) finds herself separated from her companions and kills an Apache, at which point she encounters Shalako (Connery) who comes to her rescue.The natives are restless and Shalako warns everyone to leave this land, which is subject to treaty. Their refusal prompts an attack after Shalako goes for help. Meanwhile Bardot is left behind with the party and is a crack shot, while a dumb American senator underplays the danger and Honor Blackman (who co-starred with Connery in Goldfinger) does the dirty on debt-ridden husband Jack Hawkins when the going gets tough. Dmytryk doesn’t seem entirely at home with the genre’s mechanics and some of the landscape is photographed lazily. When Bardot and Connery finally have their moment it doesn’t fizz as it should:  whether it’s down to the writing, the lack of chemistry, the staging, is open to debate. Shot in Almeria, this doesn’t have the cojones or the contours of the era’s spaghetti westerns, but it’s a watchable curiosity, not least for the sight of Eric Sykes as a resourceful British butler. Adapted by JJ Griffith and Hal Hopper.

Contact (1997)


In between paying the bills, dealing with people, learning stuff, surviving illness, being distracted and getting through the day, everyone is trying to figure out what we are, why we are here and all that good stuff. There are many of us who would leap at the chance of getting off the Earth and into the galaxy for a bit. No?! Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has been trying to make contact with people since she was a kid and her father (David Morse – what an apposite name) supplied her first with radios then telescopes and now that she’s an orphaned adult she’s a hugely important research scientist with SETI battling for funding until she can finally make contact with extra-terrestrial life:  people on Earth are just not as fascinating, when you get down to it. And funding’s a bitch as far as getting the Government to back you. The publicity attaching to her private project when static is finally revealed to be the first ever TV pictures being beamed back to Earth (Hitler at the 1936 Olympics) – along with plans to build a bloody huge machine for goodness knows what purpose – elicits scepticism, terror and hostility, especially from the religious nuts. She argues with theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) about the differences between facts and articles of faith and the film is really a disquisition on the politics of belief. She misses out on the first supposed opportunity to travel to meet the alien life forms, in favour of her game-playing boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt); while the original project is actually being backed by a reclusive billionaire SR Hadden (John Hurt) who has his own very personal reasons. Science versus religion is the heart of this superior production from Carl Sagan’s novel which he based on a story devised with his wife Ann Druyan, originally a treatment for a film at Warners. It was adapted by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Foster is perfectly cast in this story of grim determination. If you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll wonder at the possibilities, as much as you laugh at the rockets and paraphernalia that seem to be made from egg boxes and tinfoil. But all it takes is a leap of faith … Marvellous, in every sense.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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Adapted by Nelson Gidding from Michael Crichton’s bestseller, this posits the idea that a satellite that has landed in Piedmont New Mexico was carrying an alien pathogen capable of causing mass casualties – everyone in the tiny township is dead. The scientists from Project Scoop are called in and find two people touched but still alive – a baby and an old man, who they remove to a lab. The researchers have to be decontaminated and then it’s a matter of identifying whether it is in fact an alien bacterium that is being launched on the earth’s population and it’s a race against time before a solution is found … Where you stand on this film’s success depends on your tolerance for old technology albeit with great effects for the era, devised by Douglas Trumbull who’d made his name doing 2001. The other issue is the uninteresting nature of the leads – perhaps casting Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne and Kate Reid (a man in the source novel) was to ensure that your attention was focused on the story so that the issues of government readiness for such a potential catastrophe or alien invasion, secret projects (the left hand scientist doesn’t know what the right hand scientist is working on) and the nature of the storytelling itself are foregrounded. It’s told documentary fashion, with several interesting split screen effects and a ticker telling us what happens each day. Each specialist brings something different to the Wildfire project with their foibles and strengths exposed as things become exponentially problematic and the clock is ticking on the nuclear device should there be a containment breach – and everyone now knows that whatever this is it’s airborne and is too big to be a virus. Robert Wise directed a film that is very much a product of its time but with some astute lessons about how to deal with foreign invasions, germ warfare and what to do when your chief researcher experiences absence epilepsy and makes the wrong finding.The kind of film that makes you want to go back to the books to look at how pH range functions.

Them! (1954)

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There’s been a series of mysterious deaths out in the desert. When little Sandy Descher is found wandering catatonic and clutching her doll all she can do when they put formic acid under her nose is scream, Them! And run in terror. Radioactivity has caused a mutation in the ant population and now they’re gigantic and killing people! This was the best giant bug movie and it’s pretty great, with James Whitmore as the brave cop on their trail, James Arness as an FBI agent and Edmund Gwenn as the venerable scientist tracing the effects of atomic explosions and his clever daughter, fellow scientist Joan Weldon coming face to face with the unleashed beasts. Time is running out and they need to get the army to help them kill the queens in their nest … which necessitates a chase through the storm drains of Los Angeles. Brilliant sci fi from a story by George Worthing Yates (who would write a lot more in the Fifties), developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes and directed by Gordon Douglas. There are good effects and a fantastically exciting score by Bronislau Kaper, adding enormously to the thrills.

Without Reservations (1946)


Claudette Colbert is the famous author of a political allegory that’s been snapped up by Hollywood. On the train while travelling to the studios she meets a Marine (John Wayne) who could play her hero now that Cary Grant’s dropped out but she conceals her identity – Wayne doesn’t like the book – and an array of misadventures ensue. He’s accompanied by best bud Don DeFore (two DeFore movies in one day, howzaboutthat?!) and they are both charmed by the cute little lady whose antics are clearly inspired by two of her previous train and road movies – The Palm Beach Story and It Happened One Night. They are both classic comedies. This is not, even if it is based on a novel written by two smart women, Jane Allen and Mae Livingston: I am presuming the acclaimed novel Colbert has written is Ayn Rand-lite.  They detour to New Mexico where their host advises her to write based on her experiences before chasing them off his property with a shotgun. In the end they take 80 minutes to get to LA by which time I was gnawing at my own arm in frustration. Louella Parsons issues some of her radio gossip and Cary Grant turns up but it’s not enough to save this, even with Colbert being her customarily lustrous self. Interestingly, however, given that this is a romantic comedy, it ends on a shot of a bed, with Colbert and Wayne being joyously reunited just offscreen … daring!

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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An extraordinary film in so many ways. A woman bewitches a man and ruins his life. Or does he destroy hers? She is Gene Tierney, a performer whose legacy is little recognised today but she had a great run in the 1940s. He is Cornel Wilde, a mild presence at best, perfectly suited as the mediocre writer who doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into by marrying a woman whose father he closely resembles. Or does he? She walks out on her fiance, she marries him instead, kills his crippled brother in a scene that remains one of the best ever filmed and then she kills their unborn child and THEN … frames him for her own murder after she discovers his love for her cousin, brought up as her adoptive sister and to whom he has dedicated his latest book. She might be one of the most evil women who ever lived in anyone’s imagination, or one of the most wronged. After all, didn’t he want her as a muse? And then dragged all manner of people into their domestic environment. She says early on, Every book’s a confession. And he is wanting for inspiration. Jo Swerling was enlisted by fabled producer Darryl F. Zanuck to adapt Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel which Tierney read and then petitioned for the role. Amazing houses, wonderful cinematography by Leon Shamroy, sublime costuming (Kay Nelson with a helping hand from Oleg Cassini) and effective direction by John M. Stahl, responsible for so many terrific melodramas. This is framed as a film noir with its flashback narration but really belongs in that genre. Tierney is genius.