The Walking Hills
The proximity to Ford’s Wagon Master suggests an inspiration, the refining fire of Death Valley has its way with pioneer gold.
The French dub Les Aventuriers du désert is a work of art.
By the same token, Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat are indicated.
Variety, “not fully successful due to a slightly hazy plot structure,” nevertheless praising “John Sturges’ controlled and modulated direction and standout performances.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office points out that it is a “contemporary Western”, finds it “melodramatic but intriguing” and warns against “moral muddlement”.
The inspired filming anticipates Godard on Ray.
Banker steals oil company payroll, inculpating a derrick hand who’s shot and killed, unable to lift both hands above his head.
The secure basis of Sturges’ later varieties is laid in a mature technique and something of a film noir extravaganza.
The two towns of Last Train from Gun Hill, Niven Busch’s screenplay, instances of the zoom, the very strange structure (field manager takes the dead man’s place, having shot him), enigmatic and beautiful, assert the film against critics who were never there, presumably.
The People Against O’Hara
Following Benedek’s Port of New York, a description of the threshold over which the new mob steps to supplant the old.
A quiet New York, businesslike, the mob is reputed deadly but is heavily invested in legitimacy. The dope trade passes from Tangier to Chicago via the fish market, a shipment is hijacked.
Losey takes a different tack with the material in Time Without Pity.
Lumet’s themes practically begin here.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times saw nothing at all, “it creaks... curiously old-fashioned... padded... slack writing and meandering... moves ploddingly.”
Variety saw nothing at all, “a basically good idea for a film melodrama is cluttered up with too many unnecessary side twists and turns, and the presentation is uncomfortably overlong.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “slack”.
Leonard Maltin, “middling”.
Halliwell’s Film Guide, “formula drama.”
Escape from Fort Bravo
The history of the Civil War is essentially recounted.
Confederate prisoners in the Arizona Territory are kept in a corral or open stockade within the fort, outside are Mescaleros (this is the familiar story of the red man and the white man drawing circles in the dust).
The poetic soul of the Confederacy is cowardly enough to ride a horse to death in escape, but the contemptuous officer in charge of the prisoners rounds them all up, the Mescaleros attack.
The feminine second theme is a forced disaffection.
H.H.T. of the New York Times thought he had seen all this before, in Wise’s Two Flags West. Critical appreciation is generally high, considering the structural imagery of a highly poetic film on impressive locations, very capably assembled.
Bad Day at Black Rock
The point is taken from Macreedy’s description of Black Rock, “the rule of law has left this town, and the gorillas have taken over.”
Guilt by association, and the impossible counter of innocence likewise, constitute the ignominy.
The curious story takes place mainly offscreen (in Italy, Adobe Flat, Los Angeles and points beyond) as the myriad-minded screenplay details various events while Macreedy wanders the desert town and environs in late 1945.
The Virgin beneath the sea, all made of gold, the living woman beyond price, a perfect vision.
As this follows Bad Day at Black Rock, the significance is unmistakable.
Perez Prado supplies the theme, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “trifling”.
Variety, “Sturges’ direction is hampered for the first half by more dialog than the picture can comfortably assimilate.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “feeble”.
Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader), “routine”.
Leonard Maltin, “standard”.
Halliwell’s Film Guide, “flabby”.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
From Zinnemann (the citations of High Noon irked Bosley Crowther no end) to Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), with a set of main clues for Morricone.
The Law and Jake Wade
The middle term of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill (the scenery harks back to Escape from Fort Bravo).
There are the two towns, and badlands, and the complex ghost town finale (Comanche attack and shootout), all as background to the gradually-revealed portrait of a nut played masterfully by Widmark.
This is sometimes admired, sometimes not (Crowther saw a blank screen before him with an unintelligible Western).
The Old Man and the Sea
The reader of these notes will easily recognize the big fish and the sharks, and there is Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo to put the matter beyond doubt, if any exists.
Last Train from Gun Hill
The complicated analysis begins and ends with two towns, Pauley and Gun Hill, the second is what the first used to be (in fact, the whole film is like the story told by Pauley’s marshal to several town children at the opening).
Here is the whole point, never reached by criticism admiring (Variety) or indifferent (New York Times).
The whole meaning of the film, then, is the introduction of law where tribal or social orders had previously held sway.
And now the various marvels of Sturges’ direction can be taken up and inspected for their own sake, as every bit of the film bears upon the theme.
Never So Few
Never So Few appears to be where Sturges discovered the style of his next period, beginning with The Magnificent Seven. It happens during the long take in the field hospital tent with Sinatra and Lawford, Sturges has been building up large-scale compositions throughout this large-scale film, now he dollies forward a foot or two and instantly establishes the tight architectural rapport that carries him through The Great Escape.
Variety and Halliwell honestly had no idea what this film was all about, though it was praised and dispraised by them respectively (or irrespectively). It is fiercely difficult, but as with any vast structure, it all boils down to a simple thing, and here it is a Chinese warrant granting a warlord authority to take preventive measures in defense of the country.
What Halliwell calls “philosophizing” (in the sense of a book with no pictures) is a running countertheme of Lollobrigida looking down her expensively-kept nose at Sinatra, an OSS captain in Burma, because he doesn’t “make deals in seven languages at all hours” like Henreid.
This is of the utmost interest, of course, and would have been to the critics as well, if they could have grasped it.
Sturges’ earlier compositions include a greenhouse scene with flowers on the CinemaScope left from foreground to background (with carven Buddha), Sinatra and Lollobrigida center in front of the door, and monkey cages right to foreground. Even in a bleachy print effacing the photography, its beauty can be discerned.
Though his later films tend to concentrate the pure style he discovers here, the action scenes toward the end are an exhilarating test of its properties, which appear to be limitless. Again, his earlier compositions show a master hand at work. A handful of parachutes at a great distance are just seen in the upper right of a completely azure screen, along whose bottom edge a twin-engine cargo plane makes a landing somewhat later (and this plane also shows the hairiness of Burma operations, flying low with a man in the open door preparing to jump). A jungle ambush has the Japanese suckered into attacking a skeleton crew of GI’s and Kachin reading comic books while the rest of the unit lies in wait, and a quick camera movement reveals these latter. Bronson plays a Navajo who, without explanation, speaks his native tongue on the radio in the famous code, and tangles with “Sergeant Rich Boy” Jones, who calls him Hiawatha (Bronson looks down on these Burmese “gooks”, whom Sinatra explains are his historic ancestors, in a running theme on levels of prejudice).
The transition from one style to another is, for Sturges, like moving on from Impressionism to Cubism, it gives a much tighter structure and a more secure representation to his images.
Lollobrigida throws her weight into this part, and Kaufman’s writing is up to it (her first appearance being a carny guess-your-weight game at a nightclub, in a manner of speaking). Henreid is a tall celestial operator and a European snob, quick as that. The casting is so deep that John Hoyt and Whit Bissell have what amounts to nothing more than a walk-on (as foils at that).
Johnson has a lovely gag as a monocle-wearing captain explaining to a WAC at the nightclub that it’s not keeping it in but getting it out that’s difficult. Sinatra his friend and colleague obligingly demonstrates with a right to the jaw that sends him sprawling but monocled. Donlevy is the General who carries out the reconciliation at the close, and McQueen is established in his technique at this early date, while Lawford has a turn as a rear echelon doctor pressed into combat service.
Sinatra wears a goatee in the opening scenes, which he loses for R & R in Ceylon, and a bush hat with a peacock feather tucked into its band, which he resumes on returning to combat. It’s a skilled performance, but this is only to be expected from Sturges, who always lays out his films with the utmost diligence and ability, and here employs the unusual device of introducing his characters during the credits in silent clips from their roles, a device apparently designed to encourage intelligibility throughout the complex interweaving of his plot, but to little avail it would seem.
“The score is a notable one,” says Variety, opening with gamelan. The film is a notable one with no doubt whatsoever.
The Magnificent Seven
The technique deployed by Sturges is unique to him, and appears further refined in The Great Escape. It may be described as forcing the image into complete abstraction of its scenic elements by placing the actors in a foreground relation to the camera (medium close shot) against backgrounds brought by the lens into proximal range, so that, especially in interiors, the scene is articulated structurally rather than pictorially. In the simplest terms, the expressive elements of a shot are not set dressing but the set itself in its barest terms, wall jointures, support beams, lintels, windowframes (closed), architectural features.
The exterior corollaries of this are first an ongoing depiction of continuous space as mainly horizontals but also verticals seen as limitless (from the first shot after the credits), giving pronounced indelibility to occasional properties seen in isolation, such as the curious hearse or the detail of the train engine (in a continuous line of cars).
How Sturges arrived at this may partly be observed in the sheer labors expended in such films as The Capture, which uses a zoom to diminish the perspective in a long shot, or Last Train from Gun Hill with its exhaustive variation of locales as measured distances, but there appears a jump in the discovery of this technique so marked as to bring to mind David Lean’s stylistic shift a few years earlier.
The perfection of style is more than in the camerawork, it’s also in the degree of preparation and finesse in every shot and sequence. The Western town just over the border from the main action is constructed in steps on a hill, up which the hearse is driven to the cemetery. All parts of the construction figure in the scene, and this is typical of Sturges’ whole approach, nothing is wasted and yet there is a sense of limitlessness or magnificence (this scene is remembered in Chato’s Land and Unforgiven, variously).
Nowadays it’s customary to look down on the three sequels, each of which is a film of the highest merit, so it’s useful to read the New York Times review utterly denigrating The Magnificent Seven by comparison with its original. Time has shown Sturges’ work in its proper light as a flawless masterpiece from script to score, without taking away from Kurosawa, Kennedy, Wendkos, or McCowan.
In particular, the Times reviewer could not understand the reason why a man like Chris would take this job, which is what the bandit Calvera asks with his dying breath, the question supplying its own answer in the tersest eloquence. Sturges is always too subtle for film critics, rare as it is to find one so obtuse.
Stevens’ Gunga Din, which is about all that any critic perceived.
In fact, the transposition had no effect on journalism, to a man the critics were sure they were at a Vegas revue, and then dumbfounded that the jokes were more serious than the circumstances would warrant, in their view.
The Great Escape
The credits convey a new batch of prisoners to the Luftstalag. High-angle views give a flavor of the approach to action at the close of Never So Few, and much of The Great Escape happily capitalizes on Sturges’ discovery in the latter part of the earlier film, which figures throughout The Magnificent Seven. This is a close coordination of interiors so that architectural elements (joists, beams, corners, windows, supports) have a symbolic role in the drama. The key scene in The Great Escape demonstrates this, showing SBO Ramsey seated on the right with blind wood paneling behind him, and the Kommandant standing behind his desk with a sunny window to his left and framed photographs from his flying days behind him.
This scene governs the whole film, as Sturges achieves his grand effects by building on its simple structure, a horizontal opposition (left/right). Shortly after this scene, the Gestapo arrive, some gathered menacingly around the Kommandant’s desk (he is now seated), the leader sitting in the chair previously occupied by Ramsey. The Kommandant’s interview with Squadron Leader Bartlett (as before) adds the former’s sympathetic appreciation of the latter’s pain. Much has now been conveyed in these scenes by largely symbolic means (the Kommandant’s blue Luftwaffe uniform is an element recurring later), psychological structure and so on, but principally a fixed position of warder and prisoner in the frame, so that the Gestapo are identified as prisoners in their origin, and immediately Ramsey and Bartlett repeat the scene with Bartlett left in front of the barracks window and Ramsey right, expressing their relative positions.
A complicated scene like Flight Lt. Blythe’s defense of his blindness shows a variation. Bartlett (left) forbids Blythe (right) to escape. Flight Lt. Hendley enters (left), protesting, with Bartlett now on the right and Blythe in the center. Finally, Hendley (left) in his blue uniform sympathetically faces Blythe (right), having accepted responsibility for him.
Another variation is the shooting of Lt. Cmdr. Ashley-Pitt on the station platform, running at an angle left, shot by soldiers right, and the angle is repeated in the same way when the fifty recaptured officers are machine-gunned.
Blythe’s death on the hilltop puts him between an infantryman with a scope rifle (left) and Hendley (right).
When Capt. Hilts on his motorcycle is finally caught, he stands in the barbed wire (left) with a victorious smile at all the enemy soldiers (offscreen right) he’s kept occupied.
Another complicated variation has Flying Officer Sedgwick at the French café (with the staff, left), German officers at a table (center), and a car with Resistance gunmen (right). Bartlett’s recapture has the German on the left, Bartlett right, with the same look of helpless pain in the Kommandant’s office.
Finally, the anguished Kommandant (left), seated at his desk, reports on the murdered fifty to SBO Ramsey (right), standing with indignation. The finale continues as Hendley is brought back to the camp. Sturges constructs a monumental opposition of Hendley (left), incredulous at the news from Ramsey (right). The last word is given to Hilts locked in the cooler (right), as the sound of his baseball makes the guard (left) stop in his tracks and look around.
Sturges mounts these scenes with a precision rarely matched by anyone, even Hitchcock. You have to look at Beckett’s diagrams for a staging of Waiting for Godot to see something similar. The action sequences are liberated by contrast, and show Sturges in the light of acquired experience with long shots and camerawork of great dexterity.
The antecedents are La Grande illusion and The Bridge on the River Kwai, also Un condamné à mort s’est échappée. The technique might have come from a general observation of Dreyer, and resembles in different ways the organization of Ray’s King of Kings and Losey’s The Go-Between. Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke shows a direct influence, with the same sources.
A crucial scene shows a direct opposition to the general theme in structural terms. Flying Officer Ives, who is claustrophobic, charges the fence (left) in full daylight and is shot. This prepares the drama of Flight Lt. Velinski’s claustrophobia (opposed by Flight Lt. Dickes on the left). Variations of all these occur dramatically throughout, with differing thematic intent, the scenic preparations of one forming the basis of the next. In this, Sturges has taken an important cue from Lawrence of Arabia, the “representation of fate”, and reduced it to a grammatical feature of an extraordinarily rich, nimble and expressive cinematic language, which is why Hilts parks his motorcycle at one point, to pay homage to this source.
The Satan Bug
A Crœsus insinuates himself within a government installation and acquires essential power, with the intent of destroying the installation.
This is a very succinct avowal, a science-fiction accounting of corruption figured in the cartoon titles.
It stands to reason (pace the critics) that a dismissed security officer who does not follow the line of bullshit will not countenance the trend nor support the hijacking, therefore he is put back on the case.
The metaphor is germ warfare, a counterpoison does or does not exist.
Sturges draws upon his final understanding of style in The Great Escape for a Méliès helicopter expanding into frame, then drops it for a desert construction as incidental frame or cadre round a central playing space thereby elicited, with great use at Station 3 (the secret lab) of diverse verticals to shape the widescreen image similarly.
The Hallelujah Trail
It carries Philadelphia whiskey and French champagne out West where they’re sorely needed.
Temperance ladies and suffragettes, striking Irish teamsters, the freight operator, and Sioux Indians, have to be dealt with by the Army.
All is lost, however, and yet something remains of the “precious cargo” or “vile cargo” to gladden the hearts of men.
A decorous and refined drawing-room comedy, an all-out farce, a romance, an adventure, anything you please.
“Frankly,” said Crowther of the New York Times, “I found but one sequence that caused me to crack a smile.”
Hour of the Gun
Sturges has the opportunity of the screenplay to depict his forces of pictorialism and structure in opposition.
This leads him to a tragedy in result, Wyatt Earp’s gun-battle with Ike Clanton on the plaza in Nogales.
The film’s fame has grown over the years, owing to a close awareness of this.
The walk downhill in Tombstone past the Epitaph to the O.K. Corral is a mirror of the uphill ride to Boot Hill in The Magnificent Seven.
The tragedy is in the nature of the conflict between a civilization bought and sold, and its abstract rights. This is depicted in the final shootout with a new church behind Clanton and an old one with a ruined wall behind Earp.
Siegel’s Dirty Harry soon addressed the problem, while Peckinpah (who had already foreseen the dilemma in Ride the High Country) picked up the ride into Nogales (from Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, no doubt) in The Wild Bunch.
These are a few of the major points. Doc Holliday on the witness stand in Tombstone sits beside a window shuttered in its lower half, a corrupt prosecuting attorney hammers this point, the judge with an unlit lantern like a mace beside him on the wall (exactly as the prosecuting attorney is seen) nevertheless has Old Glory on his right and the Holy Bible his left to circumscribe his actions, his verdict is just.
But in Nogales, the very structure of civilization is in question, the crucifixes that support the roof of the depot platform in Tombstone are stone columns, the architecture of the ride to the plaza comes into play. Only the most remote continuance of understanding justifies warrantless Earp openly challenging Clanton to a showdown.
And then, it may be said, Camus’s injunction is called into play. A show of force calls for a subsequent retirement.
A direct quote from Zinnemann’s High Noon (flinging the badge away) decides the question. When the structure is compromised beyond remedy by assassins with bought position, only an image remains.
The excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith ought to be mentioned.
A deliberate memory of Bad Day at Black Rock, as well as Last Train from Gun Hill, is brought to bear for the analysis.
Ice Station Zebra
The matador-and-bull of Lumet’s Fail-Safe is stated somewhat differently (steer-and-bull), nevertheless that is camouflage.
A journey from Holy Loch past the Orkneys and underneath the polar cap on a rescue mission with a classified byplay involving spy film from a satellite.
The main action navigating undersea ice is one of the greatest passages in cinema, founded on essential realism in the Navy submarine crew.
The North Star of abnegation shines sufficiently from just below a weather balloon to consummate the theme, presented as an equation resolved in a storm on the drifting ice shelf and then a slow snowfall, like Char’s lepers.
The manned space program has certain limitations, technological, psychological, physiological.
The inevitable raison d’être, manned spaceflight.
The Apollo program ends amid these considerations.
The structure has three parts correspondingly, each associated with one of the astronauts, submissive (Pruett), commanding (Stone), despairing (Lloyd).
Kotcheff’s Fun with Dick and Jane has a very important analysis of the space program as its basis, intimately associated with Sturges’ Marooned.
Critics were unable to perceive any of this, who could?
The failure of Ironman One, the astronauts’ dialogue with their wives, the rescue mission, those are the three main movements.
The Spanish Armada in New Mexico, Sinola (they don’t know Sit from), where the author of The Spanish Tragedy is in jail for poaching, among other things.
Harlan, who murdered his literate boss because the fellow was orotund and had a big spread in these parts, comes hunting. Chama, leader of the Spaniards, is persuaded to turn himself in. Under the guns of Harlan’s men, Kidd runs a locomotive into the R.R. Saloon (Blood on the Sun, The Gauntlet).
The derivation from Corbucci’s Il Grande silenzio has escaped notice first and comprehension second. Chama loses support by sacrificing to his own glory “nobodies” who thus are “names”. Harlan is an executioner pure and simple.
The progression drunk tank-hired killer-faith-reason-law defines the film, upon which general terms (as well as the particular intricacy of the screenplay, notably in the opening scenes) Sturges conducts his filming.
A note of The Maltese Falcon is adduced in the conflict with Lamarr, a gunman of Harlan’s.
Sturges of the long eye, with painted skies. The secure technique translates Corbucci back into the language of De Toth and Mann, to the inestimable advantage of Eastwood as director.
The Misfits of John Huston for Chino’s stock of mustangs in the wild with an English stud. Still more, Losey’s The Go-Between. Finally the case is put at about the midpoint with the Scarface motif.
Sturges tries the limits of a certain theorem (Suspicion, Some Came Running), that the ending of a work of art is immaterial, unless one is to admit the workings of his equation are as expected, all told.
The technique is Sturges’ main discovery (Never So Few, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) deployed in William S. Hart country to all appearances. The score is nugatory, deliberately, and downplays the action.
An unnoticed late masterpiece.
In much the same way Godard dedicated his early films to Monogram, this is an homage to Quinn Martin. McQ is an exercise in face value, derived from television. Sturges takes his mark from films such as Bullitt and Dirty Harry. The idea is “a succession of images” distilled into language.
The crime is ultimately simple, a drug ring is hijacking evidence en route to the furnace, but its trade is interrupted by police officers with the same idea.
The script (which is the layout for Sturges’ plan) has a cop assassinated by another cop, who’s killed by a hit man. McQ quickly roughs up the gang boss Santiago, and is obliged to resign, but pursues the case by attaching himself to a private investigator.
Life on the outside is presented visually in a car chase. The drugs are transported in a linen supply van. McQ follows it, but traffic blocks him on the freeway and he speeds through alleyways (the car is covered with dust) in a long remove from The French Connection, stops the wrong van, and sees the real one driving away on a very high overpass.
He acquires a novel rapid-fire weapon (his pistol having been confiscated). Old friends are murdered, new friends are untrustworthy (his car is crushed from in front and behind by two semis in another alleyway), and in fact the nice young widow is in cahoots with the million-dollar cop dealers.
McQ is set up to take the fall, but escapes in a disused squad car. Sturges films the final chase “between the shingle and the dune” as any television director would do if he had time and money, and throws in a POV shot from inside McQ’s car that is a momentary glimpse of personal style, along with everything else.
The Eagle Has Landed
There’ll always be an England, these Nazi invaders are simply “more bloody foreigners.” The Yanks save the day because they’re so bloody good, even if the Ranger colonel green out of Ft. Benning is a silly ass who gets his head shot through.
The man in Hitler’s moon is Winston Churchill, a rabbit out of the hat, he’s poached on the terrace but only the man in the moon.
A film that begins where the madness of Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? leaves off, pace Time Out Film Guide.
The mirror variant is Jarrott’s Night of the Fox.