Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon: Sherlock Holmes

The Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon is well underway and features much of interest. Many thanks to our esteemed host Frankensteinia's Pierre Fournier.

Waiting in line at a coffee shop I overheard a fellow complain to his friend that "all of a sudden that Sherlock Holmes character is everywhere and it's getting annoying". I so wanted to mention to the stranger that the phenomenon was not "all of a sudden", but simply the result of having been born in the last 100 years. However, his companion settled things by giving the raised eyebrow and a succinct "people like that guy".

Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes in 1954

People do like that guy. They can't get enough Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's four novels and 50-odd stories have never been enough. The characters of the brilliant consulting detective Holmes and his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson have appeared in further adventures, homages, and pastiches that include encounters with Jack the Ripper, a frozen incarnation in the future and even an animated mouse.

Since William Gillette wrote and performed his play Sherlock Holmes in 1899 innumerable actors have brought Holmes to life on stage, radio, and screens large and small.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a television series from 1954 starring Ronald Howard whose Holmes is not only a brilliant man of action but charming with a wry smile for the world. My sister describes him as a Doctor Who sort of Sherlock. The mind wanders. 

Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes in 1964

The imposing Douglas Wilmer played Sherlock Holmes in a BBC production of The Speckled Band in 1964. Versatile Nigel Stock was the embodiment of Dr. Watson. Here our Watson is not the bumbler as was increasingly required of Nigel Bruce in the Universal films of the 1940s, but more of a befuddled companion. No more befuddled, I dare say, than the rest of us when we first read the Holmes stories. Like Watson, it is after the mystery has been cleared that it all seems perfectly obvious.

The BBC planned to continue the series, this time in colour, in 1968 and while Stock was on board as Watson, Wilmer had other career fish to fry.  Fortunately for fans, Wilmer never entirely left Holmes, playing the detective in 1975s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, recording audio versions of the stories and making a cameo appearance in The Reichenbach Fall episode of 2012s Sherlock. The BBC in 1968 had to look to another Holmes. John Neville was first choice having earned his Holmes stripes hunting Jack the Ripper in 1965s A Study in Terror, but he declined. Happily, Peter Cushing accepted the gig. What took them so long?

Terror Stalks the Moor!
Horror Fills the Night!

Cushing first became Holmes in Hammer Film Productions 1959 lush and lurid Technicolor version of the popular The Hound of the Baskervilles. Andre Morell (TVs Quatermass) is Watson and Christopher Lee is Sir Henry. Was there a busier actor than Peter Cushing? Classic roles in television plays and in movies with names like Mr. Darcy, Sir Robert Morton, Victor Frankenstein, and Van Helsing dot his resume, and now Sherlock Holmes. Here we had a Holmes in colour and looking every inch as he should. The brilliant observations fall naturally in his clipped speech. The impatience with incompetence, yet the patience to see a thing through. Ah, what a Holmes indeed.

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in 1968

Only a few episodes of 1968s Sherlock Holmes survive for our viewing pleasure and they are all adaptions of original Conan Doyle stories. The plots adhere to the stories with necessary cuts for time and compression of events. Much of the dialogue, particularly the explanations from Holmes come straight from the page. The sets are much more than serviceable but not as rich as we would find in productions of today. Much use of location shooting is made when necessary.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is presented in two parts with a fine supporting cast and works as a public service announcement to stay away from that Grimpen Mire. A Study in Scarlet is a lot of story to tell in 50 minutes, but they manage nicely even throwing a music hall entertainer into the mix. The adaption does not delve into the first meeting of Holmes and Watson, but features their established personaes.

The Bascombe Valley Mystery is another that benefits greatly from location shooting. The Sign of Four loses none of its inherent excitement despite the truncated version. There are some very nice touches concerning the attraction between Dr. Watson and Miss Morstan. Sir Arthur favoured us with one mystery set at Christmas and you'll want some eggnog when watching The Blue Carbuncle which is currently available on the inestimable YouTube. Reminder:  I've never tried goose. I wonder if it tastes like chicken.

The theme music to the series promises we are about to see something chilling and mysterious. However, I find the program more comforting than anything else perhaps due to familiarity with the stories. There is also a comforting familiarity to seeing Peter Cushing as Holmes almost a decade after he first took on the role. The audience slips into the show the way he slipped into the dressing gown and settled into 221B Baker Street.

Holmes and Watson
Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock

Beyond the stories, it is the characters of Holmes and Watson that tie generations of fans together. The continuity of Nigel Stock's Watson is a boon for this program. Peter Cushing is the jewel in the crown. The planes of his face, his sharp features, and those piercing eyes continually draw you to him. His thoughtful and natural delivery leaves no doubt as to who is in charge and the smartest one in the room. When he has inadvertently dismissed Watson's efforts or assistance, Holmes "My dear fellow!" is honestly contrite. He just doesn't seem to understand why Watson should be hurt, why he doesn't get the joke. We should all have such a friend as Watson who will put up with our foibles.

Holmes and Watson
Peter Cushing and John Mills

Peter Cushing was 46 when he first played Holmes in the feature The Hound of the Baskervilles and 55 when he starred in the television series. At the age of 71, Peter Cushing was directed by Roy Ward Baker as Holmes in the 1984 TV movie The Masks of Death with John Mills co-starring as Dr. Watson. Here is something unique in representations of the world's most popular fictional character. An actor portraying a character through a span of his lifetime. Here is a Holmes altered by age. Still with the same intellect and ferocious need to solve a puzzle. Still with the steel in his backbone. Still our Holmes. Still our Peter Cushing.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"We all love Regis Toomey."

Regis Toomey (1898 - 1991)
"The High and the Mighty"

"And there is the one and only - Regis Toomey.  We all love Regis Toomey.  Wonderful actor.  A favourite of many directors, not just your father.  Your father liked him just fine, but he worked a lot for Capra - he worked for everybody."

- Leonard Maltin to William Wellman, Jr. on the commentary track to the DVD release of 1954s The High and the Mighty.  Toomey plays the operations manager of the airline and enters the picture close to the climax.

Regis Toomey's presence in close to 300 movie and television appearances generally bespoke a comforting image.  If he was in charge you could be sure he knew what he was doing.  If he was your pal, you knew you could trust him.  It wasn't always the way, but he grew into himself.  Toomey was born in Pittsburgh and studied Law before succumbing to the acting bug and toured in musical theatre.  His wife of 56 years, Kathryn Scott was the choreographer of a 1924 production of Rose Marie in which Toomey appeared.  The couple would have two children together.  While touring in England Toomey suffered a severe case of laryngitis which caused him to rethink singing as a career and focus on acting.  His film debut was in Roland West's Oscar nominated 1929 gangster film Alibi starring Chester Morris.  Toomey is undercover cop Danny McGann and I am not one of the admirers of his performance.  Goodness knows it's not as if I wanted Chester Morris to get away with anything, but my how I found Regis grating.  Perhaps it was the roles that Toomey was getting at this period that actually annoyed me.  The wimpy jealous husband of Mary Astor in 1931s Other Men's Women, the wimpy rich husband of socially unacceptable Barbara Stanwyck in 1932s Shopworn and Loretta Young's unbearably chauvinistic boyfriend in 1933s She Had to Say Yes.  I was just waiting for the "real" Regis Toomey to start showing up in the movies.

Frank Jenks, Roscoe Karns, Rosalind Russell, Porter Hall
Gene Lockhart, Regis Toomey, Cliff Edwards
"His Girl Friday"

By "real" Regis Toomey, I might mean movie cop and Detective "Smiley" North in 1934s Hildegarde Withers flick Murder on the Blackboard is a great start.  In 1935s "G" Men he is FBI agent Eddie Buchanan whose death at the hands of mobsters incites pal "Brick" Davis played by James Cagney to join the Agency to extract revenge.  There follows a string of reporters, cops and working stiffs and a nice role as railroader Paddy O'Rourke in C.B. DeMille's 1939 epic Union Pacific.  In 1940s His Girl Friday Toomey is tops as one of the fast-talking, wise-cracking reporters.

Walter Brennan, Gary Cooper, Regis Toomey
J. Farrell MacDonald, Ann Doran
"Meet John Doe"

Frank Capra's 1941 feature Meet John Doe gives us grade A, number 1 Regis Toomey as Bert Hanson, one of the fellows who starts up the John Doe Clubs, along with his wife played by Ann Doran.  They are also there on the rooftop at the Christmas Eve finale of the picture, giving comfort.

Humphrey Bogart, Regis Toomey
"The Big Sleep"

As Chief Inspector Barney Ohls in 1946s The Big Sleep from Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novel, Toomey may be the only sane person in the entire movie!  Maybe you have a favourite Regis Toomey role in The Devil and Miss Jones, The Bishop's Wife, Mighty Joe Young, Raw Deal, Drums Across the River or dozens other titles.

Regis Toomey, Dick Powell, Richard Erdman
"Cry Danger"

In 1951s The Tall Target directed by Anthony Mann and starring Regis Toomey's close real-life friend Dick Powell, Toomey is once again a cop and once again his murder sets off the action in possibly the best thriller ever set on a train.  The same year he co-stars with Powell in Cry Danger as a police officer whom Powell's character describes as having the "face of a saint and the heart of a thug".  Perfect.

Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando
Regis Toomey, Kathryn Givney
"Guys and Dolls"

In 1955s Guys and Dolls Regis Toomey uses that "face of a saint" as Sarah Brown's (Jean Simmons) Uncle Arvide Abernathy.  One of the great shames of this movie version of the classic musical (besides having Brando and Sinatra in the wrong roles) is that they omitted Arvide's lovely little song "More I Cannot Wish You".  It would have been a lovely moment for Regis Toomey and the audience.  
Detectives Les Hart, Tim Tilson and Captain Amos Burke
Regis Toomey, Gary Conway, Gene Barry
"Burke's Law"

TV kept Regis Toomey busy from 1950 on with guest appearances and recurring roles on shows from The Mickey Rooney Show in 1954 to Petticoat Junction in 1968.  Many of the programs were produced by Dick Powell's Four Star Productions including Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Zane Grey Theater and Four Star Playhouse.  I enjoy Burke's Law with its cheeky mystery plots and line-up of Golden Age of Hollywood guest stars.  The 1963 - 1964 series often poked fun at Det. Les Hart's (Regis Toomey) age and memory reaching back to silent screen days.  Regis Toomey passed away from natural causes at the age of 93.  The man with the enviable career once said "I'd rather be a supporting actor than a star.  Supporting actors last longer."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Mary Astor Blogathon: Mary Goes to the Dogs

Mary Astor
(1906 - 1987)

The fascinating and entertaining Mary Astor Blogathon continues.  Many thanks to our hosts, Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings.

Mary Astor was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois.  The attractive and imaginative only child of driven parents, she became the focus of their thwarted ambitions and the family breadwinner.  The route to success lay in show business and while looks were the key to opportunities on the screen in time Mary discovered a skill to provide independence and a craft in which she ultimately took some pride.  In a career that spanned silent films to live television Mary found few roles that she would acknowledge as worthy.  Mired in "mother roles" at MGM or playing "decorative dolls" did not sit well with the strong-minded Ms. Astor. 

One of my favourite of Mary's performances is of the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in John Huston's darkly humorous thriller The Maltese Falcon based on Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel.  In scene after scene, Mary is perfection as the adventuress.  It is a performance that inspires me to want to rush the sound stage and thump Mary on the back, shout hooray and perhaps even do a little celebration dance.  I think Ms. Astor would be less than impressed with such effusiveness from a stranger, but it's her own fault for being so good.  

Many of us fans who live on the right side of the law enjoy nothing better than a good crime novel or mystery movie.  Alongside The Maltese Falcon, Mary Astor features prominently in the two other literary/film treats we will look at today.


S.S. Van Dine is the pen name of Williard Huntington Wright, the ne-er-do-well son of a wealthy family whose ambitions and education outstripped his means during most of his life.  Illnesses and a drug habit added to his troubles.  During a prolonged illness he followed the advice of a friend and worked on constructing a mystery novel which proved popular beyond imagination.  The mysteries solved by wealthy amateur sleuth Philo Vance are chronicled in novel form by his attorney S.S. Vane Dine.  The stories are set among the wealthy in New York City and are intricate puzzles to tantalize the reader.  The first of the stories was The Benson Murder Case in 1926.

The actor most associated with the role is William Powell who played Vance in 1929s The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case.  In 1930 he starred in The Benson Murder Case and in 1933 The Kennel Murder Case.  Basil Rathbone, Edmund Lowe, Warren William, Paul Lukas and James Stephenson are some of the other actors who had a crack at Vance.  As befits a man who once edited a magazine called The Smart Set, Van Dine knew a lot of words and seems to use them all in his stories.  While I might find a Vance story ultimately satisfying, I do find them quite a slog.  However, the film The Kennel Murder Case is a dandy.  Directed by Michael Curtiz with his usual flair for entertainment he keeps the pace brisk with a series of wipes and juggles the suspects with aplomb.

Our characters are introduced at the Long Island Kennel Club competition.  Vance's adorable Scottie, Captain MacTavish is an entrant, but not a semi-finalist.  There is bad blood between two of the finalists Archer Coe (Robert Barrett, Heroes for Sale) and Colonel Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh, The Scarlet Claw) and when MacDonald's pooch Ghillie is found killed suspicion falls on Coe.  When Coe is killed suspicion falls on just about everybody else in the movie.  He was not a well-liked man.  For starters, there are about two million Chinese distilled into his Cambridge educated cook Liang (James Lee) who is disturbed by Coe's collecting of revered Chinese artifacts.  There is Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy, The Ox-Bow Incident).  Brotherly love are just words between Brisbane and Archer.  There is Archer's belittled secretary Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan, No Greater Glory).  Edward Grassi (Jack LaRue, The Story of Temple Drake) has not only been cheated on a business deal with Coe, he's been seeing Coe's girl on the side Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson, Torrid Zone).  Gamble, the butler (Arthur Hohl, Island of Lost Souls) is not all he seems.  We can't leave out Hilda Lake played by Mary Astor.  Hilda is Archer's niece and she resents not only his tight fist on the purse strings, but his jealous control over her personal life.  

Archer Coe is found dead in his locked bedroom, an apparent suicide.  When Philo Vance hears the news over the radio he suspects murder and cancels a planned ocean voyage to assist District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade, brother of Edward McWade) and Detective Heath (Eugene Pallette, The Adventures of Robin Hood).  The coroner Dr. Doremus (Etienne Girardot, The Whole Town's Talking) is a scene stealer who must be the great-great-grandfather of "Bones" McCoy with lines such as "I'm a doctor, not a magician" and "I'm the city butcher, not a detective."  The spin-off boys dropped the ball with this character.

As the only gals in the proceedings Ms. Astor and Ms. Vinson get to wear Orry-Kelly gowns.  Ms. Vinson, as a shady lady, enjoys off the shoulder negligees and day dresses with a bit of spangle.  Ms. Astor is always perfectly tailored and accessorized.  Both ladies have a fiery nature.  They had legitimate reasons to hate Archer Coe which make them suspects.  They both place themselves in conflict with the investigators when they suspect their lovers may be involved in the killing.  Philo Vance, in his usual methodical manner unravels the locked room puzzle, but Hilda Lake is paramount in bringing the criminal to justice.  The movie is very entertaining thanks in large part to William Powell who makes Philo Vance a more appealing fellow than he appears in print.



Erle Stanley Gardner was a rambunctious youngster who became an energetic and successful lawyer, author of mystery fiction as well as books on travel and conservation.  Along with other legal professionals he started the Court of Last Resort to assist the wrongly convicted.  I highly recommend Dorothy B. Hughes' The Case of the Real Perry Mason for Gardner's fascinating life story.

Gardner's most famous protagonist and greatest gift to popular fiction is Perry Mason.  I love kicking back with one of the Mason page turners.  Perry Mason goes beyond the extra mile for his clients and it echoes much of Gardner's thinking that the "law" has everything on its side in terms of power and resources and anything a lawyer has to do to assist his client is only right.  The first Mason novel was published in 1933, The Case of the Velvet Claws followed by The Case of the Sulky Girl and in 1934 by The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Case of the Howling Dog.

If I had to choose only one favourite Gardner story (please, don't make me!) it would be The Case of the Howling Dog as it packed a real emotional punch upon my first reading.  It was this story that Warner Brothers wanted to kick off a series of films based on the popular character.  The studio's first thought for the role of Mason was Edward G. Robinson.  I would have liked to have seen that.  Warren William, whose first screen triumph was as The Mouthpiece and who had just played Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case was tapped to be the screen's first Perry Mason and he's wonderful in a first-class production directed by Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer).  Canadian born Helen Trenholme plays a most winning Della Street in one of two movies she made for Warner Brothers before returning to a stage career. 

Arthur Cartwright (Gordon Westcott) is a very nervous client.  He wants his neighbor's dog to cease its nighttime howling.  Is a noisy dog the only thing keeping Cartwright up at night?  He seems very  interested in that neighbor, Clinton Foley (Russell Hicks, Charlie Chan in Shanghai) and everyone in that household.  He seems particularly concerned for Mrs. Clinton Foley.  Intrigued by what may be the secret motive behind this client's actions Perry takes on the case which expands to include a Will designed to protect said Mrs. Clinton Foley.  When Arthur Cartwright mysteriously disappears Perry finds that he may have a client in someone he has never met and sets about trying to locate Mrs. Clinton Foley beginning by staking out the Foley home.  On a dark night a beautiful woman enters the home, voices are raised, a dog barks, shots ring out.  The dog and its owner lay dead.

Perry immediately begins working for his client even without her knowledge.  Bessie Foley is played by Mary Astor and, again gowned by Orry-Kelly, she looks marvelous.  Both cool and hot as a woman in desperate trouble she immediately draws you to her side and you want to protect her.  Perry uses all the means at his disposal, especially his favourite of testing the recall of eye witnesses.  This was something Gardner used early in his career, not just for the courtroom effect, but because he truly felt that police skewered the process by planting ideas with witnesses prior to line-ups or photo identification.  

Suspicious characters abound including Foley's secretary Lucy Benton (Dorothy Tree, The Asphalt Jungle) and her chauffeur boyfriend Joe Sawyer (TVs The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin).  Luckily, the police a predisposed to being more helpful than not in the forms of Captain Kelly (Joseph Crehan, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball) and Sgt. Holcomb (Allen Jenkins, Destry Rides Again).

The trial is a testing ground for Perry who becomes a whipping boy for the press when he keeps his client silent.  The court of the popular press is willing to give the beautiful Ms. Astor as Bessie Foley every break and Della is sure that once she tells her side of the story everything will fall into place.  Perry sticks to his tactics and after turning the courtroom into a circus there is a shocking revelation and his client is freed in an ending which probably wouldn't make the screen in only a few months time.  Thank you very much, Mr. Hays.

Run-of-the-mill roles forgotten by their creator immediately the job was done, Mary Astor nonetheless laid the groundwork for one of her most famous characters in these early mysteries from the Golden Age of print detectives.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bing's Birthday Movie: Rhythm on the River (1940)

It's my favourite holiday of the year. Bing Crosby's birthday, of which there is some confusion to the actual date. Is it May 2nd or May 3rd? I stick with the 3rd thus making it a two day holiday. Hooray!

This year's Bing's Birthday Movie is the charming Rhythm on the River. The casual movie fan has probably heard of Going My Way, The Country Girl or High Society, but not this winner. Anyone who has seen it really enjoys it although it only has a paltry 189 votes on the IMDb.

The story idea is from the deliciously twisted mind of Billy Wilder and the screenplay is by Dwight Taylor who gave us such delightful scripts as Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee and Follow the Fleet, along with thrillers I Wake Up Screaming and Pickup on South Street.

The director of Rhythm on the River is Victor Schertzinger. A violin prodigy, composer and conductor, Schertzinger began directing films in 1917. Sound was no obstacle for the director, who continued to compose scores and popular songs.  He has a special place in my heart for the song Sand in My Shoes. If you haven`t heard Connie Boswell sing that haunting tune - all I can say is it is the reason Edison invented the phonograph. As a director, Schertzinger knew how to successfully combine the musical moments with the comedic and dramatic in such entertainments as the Hollywood spoof Something to Sing About starring James Cagney, Love Me Forever with Grace Moore and the gorgeous 1939 version of Gilbert and Sullivan`s The Mikado.  

Schertzinger and Crosby combined their talents on Rhythm on the River, Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar and Birth of the Blues. It is a shame that we don`t have even more Schertzinger pictures to enjoy, but sadly he passed from a heart attack in 1941 at the age of 53. His last film, released in 1942, was The Fleet`s In starring Dorothy Lamour which features Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer standards, I Remember You, Tangerine and the fun novelty piece Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.

Basil Rathbone, Bing Crosby

Rhythm on the River is the story of Oliver Courtney played by Basil Rathbone. The man really should have been in more comedies. Courtney is a high-strung and famous Broadway composer. Sadly, he has lost his muse and is "temporarily" and on the q.t. collaborating with composer Bob Sommers played by Bing Crosby. Bob is willing to go along with the arrangement for the money, for the chance to work with the great Courtney and with the hope that it will be his big break.

Courtney is also "temporarily" collaborating with lyricist Cherry Lane played by Mary Martin. Cherry is willing to go along with the arrangement for the money, for the chance to work with the great Courtney and with the hope that it will be her big break. Only Courtney's transcriber and confidante Billy Starbuck played by Oscar Levant is, in his everlasting sarcastic way, in on the secret. Once that secret breaks, however, Bob and Cherry form a professional and private partnership. The course of true love does not run smoothly. Oliver Courtney sees to that. Music publishers take care of scuttling the couple`s show business dreams. They already have a full catalog of Courtney material. It is suggested that Cherry and Bob be more original!

Oscar Levant, Bing Crosby

Musical comedies must have their complications and it helps to have an Oscar-nominated soundtrack. The breakout song from this feature is James V. Monaco and Johnny Burke`s Only Forever. Along with Bing and Mary`s lovely version you can find recordings by Dean Martin and Nat King Cole.

My favourite of Bing's title tracks is the one for Rhythm on the River. As with most of his pictures, all you need is Bing and a song, but on this dandy, he is backed up by none other than famed Dixieland trumpeter Wingy Manone. His parents named him Joseph, but after losing his right arm (he used a prosthesis) in a streetcar accident, he could be no one else but "Wingy".

Here's the title tune set in a pawn shop where Bob and Cherry's pal's instruments are being held hostage. Can't beat Courtney at his own game without a band. That's Christian "Gepetto" Rub grooving in the background. Prior to this scene Cherry has a great line of musician snark when she inquires of the lads: "What else can you fellas play outside of "Tiger Rag" and pinochle?"  Ouch!

Rhythm on the River is loaded with laughs, charm, and music. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for May on TCM

I wonder if cinematographer William Daniels ever got tired of looking at Jimmy Stewart.  The acclaimed master of Black & White cinematography fame is often linked with the great Garbo whom he filmed 21 times.  She would insist upon it.  However, Daniels also gave us images of James Stewart in 14 films from his MGM years in films such as 1936s Rose Marie and 1940s The Mortal Storm and The Shop Around the Corner to Jimmy's glorious 1950s career.  The 1950s films include westerns like 1954s The Far Country and 1956s Night Passage, along with the 1954 biography The Glenn Miller Story proving Daniels to be as proficient in Technicolor as in Black & White.  In 1950 when Stewart began seriously to shepherd his post-war career, Daniels was the cinematographer on the whimsical adaption of Mary Chase's Harvey and the western classic Winchester '73.

Winchester '73 is based on a story by Stuart Lake (Frontier Marshal/My Darling Clementine) with the screenplay by Borden Chase (Oscar nomination - Red River).  It is the first, but certainly not the last, western directed by the master of noir Anthony Mann (Raw Deal, Border Incident).  During the 1950s Mann and Stewart would collaborate on eight films, five of them would be westerns.  The IMDb features this quote by William Daniels:  "We try to tell the story with light, and the director tells it with action."  Both gentlemen are at their best with Winchester '73.

James Stewart

I believe it wasn't until my fourth or fifth viewing of Winchester '73 that I was suddenly struck by the beauty of Daniels camerawork.  Whether it was a silhouette of riders along a ridge, the soldiers by the campfire at night, the harsh majesty of the scenery for the final shootout and the faces.  The faces of the acting ensemble are an integral part of the time, the place and the characterizations.

Millard Mitchell, James Stewart

Our film tells the story of Lin McAdam (Stewart), a Civil War veteran single-minded in his quest for vengeance against an outlaw.  The why's and the who's come about in the telling of the story.  Millard Mitchell (Singin' in the Rain, Thieves' Highway) is Lin's loyal friend High-Spade, who keeps a wide perspective on their narrow focus.  Shelley Winters (The Big Knife, A Patch of Blue), never a glamour puss, is a compelling mix of soft and tough as feisty entertainer Lola.  Traditionally, westerns don't offer an actress much of a chance to display their range, but Winters is so good that the movie could almost have been "The Adventures of Lola Manners".

Dan Duryea, Shelley Winters

Stephen McNally is Dutch Henry Brown, the object of Lin's obsession and a man with an equal stubborn streak.  The same year as this film McNally played the compassionate doctor in Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out with young Sidney Poitier.  McNally, under his given name of Horace McNally played another caring physician in the Broadway production of Johnny Belinda.  When that play was filmed McNally played the loathsome villain of the piece Locky McCormick.  While Lin and Dutch Henry flirt with madness in their overwhelming need for vengeance, Winchester '73 has a genuine crazy in the character of Waco Johnny Dean played by the always compelling Dan Duryea (The Little Foxes, Scarlet Street).  Johnny is a loose cannon if ever there was one and is a joy to watch.

John McIntire, James Millican, Stephen McNally, Steve Brodie

The Winchester of the title is the prize at an Independence Day shooting match and as the rifle changes hands throughout the film, it changes the fate of many.  Winchester '73 is a journey through which our characters move physically and emotionally.

The outstanding cast includes Will Geer (TVs The Waltons) as a folksy Wyatt Earp.  John McIntire (TVs Wagon Train, The Virginian) as a gunrunner.  James Millican (Carson City, Diplomatic Courier) and Steve Brodie (Crossfire, The Steel Helmet) are Dutch Henry's "gang".  Abner Biberman (His Girl Friday) backs up Waco Johnny Dean.  Ray Teal (TVs Bonanza) is on the right side of the law.  John Alexander (Arsenic and Old Lace) plays a laconic way station owner.  Charles Drake (Harvey, No Name on the Bullet) is an interesting character involved in one of the more shocking scenes in any western.

Charles Drake, James Stewart, Millard Mitchell, Jay C. Flippen

Jay C. Flippen (The Killing, They Live by Night) is a veteran cavalry sergeant and under his charge are fresh-faced youngsters played by James Best and Tony Curtis.  Their adversary is young Rock Hudson as a fierce and earnest young native chief.  Keep your eyes on those young fellas, they might amount to something in years to come.

Film historians point to Winchester '73 as beginning a cycle of adult westerns in the 1950s and while it truly is a touchstone for a golden era for the genre, it is a film that need not appeal only to fans of that enduring genre.  It is a film for anyone who appreciates strong storytelling, fine acting and the art of William Daniels.

TCM is screening Winchester '73 on Monday, May 20th at 3:45 p.m.




Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...