Bend of the River (1952, Anthony Mann)

Somehow Bend of the River manages to be too cluttered while running too short at ninety-one minutes. The film starts great; James Stewart is a former bad man of the West who’s trying to be a good guy and become a farmer (or rancher if he can get himself some cattle). He’s guiding a wagon train to Oregon and has gotten in good with the group leader Jay C. Flippen, who has two fetching daughters too young for Stewart—Julie Adams and Lori Nelson. Stewart teases Nelson and has a nice relationship with Adams, where it seems like he’s got an interest but isn’t going to do anything about it.

Right away—the best thing Borden Chase’s script does is move things along quickly—right away River introduces Arthur Kennedy, who’s another bad man from the Middle West moved further out west to escape his past. Or at least escape the law. Kennedy’s not a repentant bad man. Stewart takes an immediate shine to him and the two pal around for a while, including a fantastic action sequence where a group of Native Americans attack the wagon train. River’s mostly apolitical, at least as far as the Native Americans are concerned. It eventually gets to being about White man greed, brought on by gold lust.

But first the wagons have to get to the settlement, which is mostly done in summary, set to Flippen giving a very religious manifest destiny speech.

Flippen’s one of the film’s bigger problems. Him, Julie Adams, and—eventually—Jack Lambert. Flippen’s character hates bad men of the West (and doesn’t know Stewart used to be one, but does know Kennedy is one) and otherwise doesn’t have much character to him. He apparently could care less about his daughters (the characterization is so slim in Chase’s script it’s unclear if the mom is still alive) other than to complain once Adams takes up with Kennedy. Adams taking up with Kennedy is all she gets to do in the film. And it’s after a multiple month gap in the present action, so she’s barely defined at the start other than the light flirtation with Stewart and then she’s Kennedy’s de facto fiancée when she comes back in. Lambert I’ll talk about later.

The film does pretty well for a while after the time jump, with the previous material foundation, but then it doesn’t really go anywhere. Stewart, Kennedy, Flippen, Adams, and charming gambler Rock Hudson (who seems shoehorned in but whatever, he’s charming) are on the run from gold crazed Howard Petrie, leading to some decent material, even if Petrie’s performance is bad. Bend has a problem with villains, because director Mann and screenwriter Chase want Kennedy to be a possible villain—he’s got to be dangerous, even if Adams adores him and Stewart thinks he’s a good guy. Lambert is the other main villain. Stewart hires Lambert and some other guys (town drunks) to help them get upriver (including the utterly wasted Harry Morgan and Royal Dano) and Lambert wants to mutiny. The mutiny stuff is terribly plotted and requires Stewart to be dumb, multiple times. Right before he turns into a (mostly offscreen) action hero.

The finale has a big action sequence but none of the skillful execution Mann showed at the beginning. The movie hinges on Stewart and Kennedy’s chemistry, but then gives Flippen a bunch to do with Stewart instead. And Flippen can’t make the poorly written role work. No one could.

I haven’t even gotten to recurring supporting cast members Stepin Fetchit and Chubby Johnson. They’re sort of a comedy duo. Johnson is a riverboat captain, Fetchit is his right hand man. Lots of mild jokes at Fetchit’s expense, usually from Johnson (who wishes they could go back to the Mississippi because he presumably wants more Black people around to treat badly). Both actors—even with Fetchit’s caricature—are better than Petrie or the town drunks, just because they at least have… I don’t know… because they’re reasonable caricatures. Lambert and company seem like they’re from a different movie, which is sort of the fault of the jump forward in the present action, but because Mann and Chase do such a shoddy job with it.

After appearing to do a decent enough job with it.

Adams having chemistry with Stewart or Kennedy (outside a couple kissy scenes) would help a lot too. Plus Hudson just stands around until the script needs him for something. He’s underutilized given his obvious potential, but overused in the script.

Mann’s direction is occasionally impressive, occasionally mediocre. Same goes for pretty much everything else—technically speaking—except Hans J. Salter’s music, which is always fantastic. Stewart’s okay until he’s got to be a hard-ass and then the script falls down on the character development. Face plants really. Kennedy is great, even though the script pretends he doesn’t have a character arc. Bend is best when it’s about Kennedy and Stewart. Once it makes time for Adams and Flippen, it loses their rakish charm. There’s so much potential when they’ve got it and the film wastes it.

Mann and Chase make it through most of the film without revealing they don’t have anything to finish it up. Once it becomes clear they don’t—which is actually long before the aforementioned disappointing finale showdown—the film becomes rather tedious, which is never a good thing with a ninety minute runtime. It’s too bad; Stewart and Kennedy deserved a better picture. Adams probably did too. Maybe even Flippen. Definitely Hudson (but for him, he more deserved not to be shoehorned into this one).

Bend of the River is a filmic shrug.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Mann; screenplay by Borden Chase, based on a novel by William Gulick; director of photography, Irving Glassberg; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Aaron Rosenberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Glyn McLyntock), Arthur Kennedy (Emerson Cole), Julie Adams (Laura Baile), Jay C. Flippen (Jeremy Baile), Rock Hudson (Trey Wilson), Howard Petrie (Tom Hendricks), Chubby Johnson (Cap’n Mello), Stepin Fetchit (Adam), Jack Lambert (Red), Lori Nelson (Marjie Baile), Harry Morgan (Shorty), and Royal Dano (Long Tom).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ARTHUR KENNEDY'S CONQUEST OF THE SCREEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


RELATED

Advertisements

Primrose Path (1940, Gregory La Cava)

Primrose Path gets fun fast. Given the film opens with nine year-old Joan Carroll stealing a neighbor’s tamales (instead of buying them) for her and her grandmother, Queenie Vassar, it sort of needs to be fun. Vassar’s the maternal grandmother, not related to despondently alcoholic dad Miles Mander. Ginger Rogers is the older daughter, who we soon find out has forced herself into a kind of functional naïveté about her family’s situation. See, Mander’s a drunk because wife Marjorie Rambeau is out as a professional mistress. But he can’t work because he’s a complete drunk. Vassar trying to break the two up doesn’t do any good for their relationship either. Meanwhile Rambeau lives in a somewhat forced naïveté of her own, at least as far as Mander’s concerned.

Path opens about this family barely surviving—with Carroll apparently already lost, Vassar poisoning all the fresh water—and then there’s Rogers, who’s figured out a way to navigate herself through it. Until she takes a ride from kindly and silly old man Henry Travers when she’s on her way down to the beach. Path takes place in a small city (or large town) on the California coast. Closer to San Francisco than L.A. The contrast between Travers’s beachfront hamburger diner and Rogers’s regular life is striking inside and out. But definitely out. Path’s first half is full of fantastic location shooting, with director La Cava and cinematographer Joseph H. August delivering some fantastic scenes.

So once Travers and Rogers start bantering and she realizes he’s not an old pervert, she agrees to let him forward her a lunch. Once in the diner, she meets banter-master Joel McCrea, who works the counter. Except Rogers doesn’t like McCrea’s banter so he tries to get a rise out of her, which continues for a sequence of scenes, culminating in McCrea kissing Rogers. Well, once he’s kissed her, she’s smitten, leading to her telling a few small lies to get out of her life and into his.

For a while Rogers is able to avoid her past, but it’s not too far away, just on the “other side of town.” There’s never a “wrong side of the tracks” remark, but there are a couple audible train whistles. La Cava can be subtle and La Cava can be obvious. He can also be subtly obvious. He saves the straight obvious for the romance between McCrea and Rogers. It doesn’t take long for him to get just as smitten.

Unfortunately, neither character is being entirely honest. While Rogers’s lies don’t have any further repercussions after she and McCrea are joined at the hip, McCrea’s kind of been on holiday. Path gets away with a lot during the Production Code—there’s adultery, there’s sex work, there’s drunken Mander, there’s the thieving kid, whatever—but it’s most impressive moves are with Rogers and McCrea. They never get their big blowout scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and understandable–Path has got to keep light on its feet before the realness can grab it. Vassar’s downright evil at times and McCrea’s got a hideous mean streak. The film plays the former almost for laughs (as well as keeping Vassar’s understandable despondence and her unforgivable cruelty separate) while the latter just sets up La Cava’s third act commentary on people. The film’s very focused on the family. Rogers shares time with McCrea more than he gets the time to himself. Same goes for Travers. It’s a long time before he gets anything to do separate from Rogers (and then it’s just to talk about her with McCrea). It’s Rogers’s movie. Then Rambeau’s. Then Vassar’s. Then McCrea’s. McCrea still gets a full character arc, he just doesn’t get it on screen. So when La Cava opens things up—pretty much for the first time (the diner scenes are all about Rogers and McCrea’s salad days)—it’s for the finale. And the finale is really subtle and amusing, but it also informs some earlier plot points. Allan Scott and La Cava’s script is incredibly patient. The film’s a stage adaptation but never feels stagy; quite the opposite. It’s hard to imagine the story told any other way.

The music from Werner R. Heymann’s excellent. Sound is important in Primrose Path and La Cava and editor William Hamilton are careful how they reinforce the narrative with it. The film’s full of echoed moments, with only one of them being at all obvious. La Cava keeps the rest of them submerged and they more reverberate than sound off. So Heymann’s music has to fit perfectly and it always does, not just the scenes content but in place among the echoes. Path runs just over ninety minutes but it never skimps, never rushes. La Cava, in direction and script, is casually deliberate. He does excellent work here.

Great performances from Rogers and McCrea. He doesn’t get the lead role but he does have some breakout moments. For a while it seems like he’s going to be most successful for his toxic male behavior stuff but it turns out there’s going to be more to his character arc and McCrea keeps excelling. Meanwhile Rogers has to keep a lot mildly submerged too and she gets to go full bloom at finish to great success as well. The parts are good. Better than than the showier ones like Mander or Vassar. Vassar’s character is just a little too hurtful for the performance, but she’s still good. Mander is great. Rambeau is great. Rambeau’s part is far less showy as the film progresses.

Primrose Path is an outstandingly nimble romantic drama. La Cava, Rogers, and McCrea can keep it loose enough for sincere and affable romance, while still getting into the hard family drama stuff. It can’t go either way fully because, well, it wouldn’t be a vehicle for Rogers and McCrea then, but La Cava finds an ideal balance.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory La Cava; screenplay by Allan Scott and La Cava, based on the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by William Hamilton; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie), Miles Mander (Homer), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell), and Henry Travers (Gramp).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FIRST ANNUAL VALENTINE’S DAY “MEET-CUTE” BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PHYLLIS OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES.


RELATED

Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You has four endings. Well, more like three and a half. They’re all good enough endings, except the last one, which is truncated and just reminds how iffy the entire third act has been. Until the third act, the film is going strong. Underdeveloped but affable lead Lakeith Stanfield–the character is underdeveloped and affable, not the performance; Stanfield’s performance is fantastic–gets a job as a telemarketer and finds out he’s a natural salesman. At least over the phone.

The film takes place in an alternate reality (of sorts). Mostly Sorry just seems like its set in 2028 but with technology from 2008. Smartphones aren’t ubiquitous. Actually, they’re not even present until writer and director Riley needs to use one for a plot point. But society is futuristic, in all the bad–and very realistic–ways, with rich White guy Armie Hammer and his company, which signs people into lifetime work contracts. People live in the warehouse, they work in the warehouse, they (presumably) die in the warehouse. And having a limitless supply of indentured laborers isn’t even enough for Hammer it turns out. Riley does really well conceptualizing the possibilities and inhumanity of capitalist greed, though he doesn’t really execute them particularly well. At least not once the third act hits.

Stanfield’s not thinking of signing up for the work-for-life thing. It seems to be more for people trying to get out of debt. They even take your kids. It’s a background subplot, which ends up figuring in a little, but only because Riley forces it. Riley’s not subtle about Chekov’s gun. Guns, actually. There’s also the most popular TV show in the world, where people get beat up on camera for… notoriety? It’s never clear. There’s a fame culture but without the new media infrastructure (even though YouTube gets a big mention).

So while Stanfield’s trying to make the telemarketer thing work (selling crappy encyclopedias–again, there’s no wikipedia?), his girlfriend Tessa Thompson is working on an art show while making ends meet as a sign twirler. She’s got a really undeveloped subplot about becoming an activist protesting Hammer’s work-for-life company. Her art show is also really undeveloped, though sensational when Riley finally gets to it. Thompson is, in general, really undeveloped.

Simultaneous to Stanfield’s rise to telemarketer success is the other employees (including Thompson) trying to unionize. Steven Yeun is the outside agitator who gets things started–by leveraging Stanfield’s success, which comes off as exploitative but goes unexplored–and Jermaine Fowler is Stanfield’s friend who stays true to his fellow workers. One of the big problems, which doesn’t matter because the movie’s so funny, is how unbelievable the telemarketing company comes off. It’s not believable anyone could sell the crappy encyclopedias, so how do they have enough employees to fill a call center. The always good, sometimes exceptional laughs fill in the spaces too wide for suspensions of disbelief.

Once Stanfield gets super successful he’s unknowingly put on a collision course with Hammer, who needs a good salesman like Stanfield. Just like Stanfield, who’s an affable Black man who can talk to White people the way White people want to be talked to. Riley’s commentary on capitalism and its disgustingly obvious roadmap takes precedence over any exploration of race. Race is always present–sometimes it’s on the fore–but it’s always secondary, even when it shouldn’t be.

Just like the comedy in the first two acts covers for the narrative leaps or avoidances, Riley uses sensationalism–absurdist sensationalism–to cover in the third. Because Stanfield doesn’t really get a character arc. He’s on a story arc, but he was so thinly established (Riley leveraging Stanfield’s performance) it doesn’t add up to much. And then three and a half endings muss things up more. Each in different ways.

All of the acting is strong. Stanfield’s a spectacular leading man. Thompson’s good, even if her part is only deep in exposition. Yeun’s good. Fowler’s somewhat inconsequential–Sorry feels like things got cut either from the final cut or from the script; Fowler’s just around. Omari Hardwick’s fine as one of Stanfield’s bosses, though he’s a sight gag versus the other bosses–Michael X. Sommers, Michael X. Sommers, and Kate Berlant–who are all absurdly funny. Hammer’s perfect for the part but almost brings too much self-awareness and humanity to it. Danny Glover and Terry Crews are great in extended cameos.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Riley’s direction, Doug Emmett’s photography, Terel Gibson’s editing. Especially Gibson’s editing, which does a lot but without any fanfare whatsoever.

Sorry to Bother You is really good. It’s almost great. But the third act is a mess.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Boots Riley; director of photography, Doug Emmett; edited by Terel Gibson; music by The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Riley, and Tune-Yards; production designer, Jason Kisvarday; produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush, Forest Whitaker, and Kelly Williams; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Lakeith Stanfield (Cassius), Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Armie Hammer (Steve Lift), Steven Yeun (Squeeze), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Omari Hardwick (Mr. _______), Terry Crews (Sergio), Kate Berlant (Diana), Michael X. Sommers (Johnny), Danny Glover (Langston), Robert Longstreet (Anderson), and Forest Whitaker (Demarius).


RELATED

Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


RELATED

superior film blogging

Advertisements