TCM Marathon: Anthony Mann films

So I spent all night watching monster movies; think I got any rest? No, because the next day was Anthony Mann's birthday, and they were running his movies all day! Taking into consideration the fact that my temperature was veering wildly from normal to a hundred and three, all those desperate hoodlums, vigilantes, and fugitives running, crouching, shooting, grappling and most of all sweating onscreen had my most profound sympathies (not to mention attention).

Missed the first, but the second at seven in the morning, The Bamboo Blonde (1946), was fresh out of the Second World War, about Ralph Edwards as Eddie Clark, a farmer turned soldier who meets a torch singer called "The Bamboo Blonde" (Frances Langford); he leaves for the war, gets her face and name painted on his plane, comes back home to meet the girl again--all hunky-dory, only Eddie's original fiancée wants to marry him, and sees Langford as a threat. Mann directs this all with what for me was uncharacteristic cheerfulness (I've only previously been familiar with his noirs, both urban and western) and froth. Very enjoyable piece of fluff.

Desperate (1947) was more familiar ground: trucker Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) is forced by gangster Walter Radak (Raymond Burr) to participate in a robbery that goes horribly wrong; a cop is killed, Randall runs and goes into hiding, and the gangster's brother is arrested for the crime, eventually sentenced to death for it. Randall's situation isn't pleasant--he has to prove his innocence as well as keep out of Radak's clutches--but it's Burr's sweatily intense performance as Radak that makes the film: he really cares for his brother, and because of this and a sense of vengeance he hunts Randall relentlessly, ruthlessly. When they meet up again he plays a particularly neat gimmick on Randall: he sits him across the table and gives him up to midnight to live (about ten minutes) and when they execute his brother, he's going to execute poor Randall. Ten minutes of staring at a sweaty, staring Raymond Burr: I'd rather be shot right off, myself.

Two O'Clock Courage (1945) was something a bit unusual (for me): Tom Conway played a man who's lost his memory and maybe has committed a murder and he has only taxi driver Patty Mitchell (Ann Rutherford) to help him. Witty dialogue instead of rough and realistic: kind of a change for Mann (again, for me). Glad to see he can handle this kind of lost-memory comic mystery thriller.

Side Street (1949): Farley Granger as a mailman who steals a bit of money and is haunted by his crime. Classic noir, where Mann makes the very buildings of the city press in from above, and you feel an increasing lack of air and space and freedom (Granger can actually act, too). Wonderful fare for slightly delirious people running a high fever, really recommended.

Devil's Doorway (1950): Robert Taylor plays a civil war veteran who comes home to help his tribe run their lands and fend off their racist white neighbors; when sheep farmers insist on taking their flocks grazing across his tribe's land, things quickly get from bad to worse. It doesn't have the claustrophobia of Side Street (the film was shot in the beautiful slopes of Colorado), but does have same sense of things closing in on you, trapping you, overwhelming you: this is about as vivid a cry against Native American racism as anything I can think of (and far cannier and honest than the few that are). Mann seems to have had a huge head start on John Ford about rethinking the role of Native Americans onscreen (of course he started later), and I imagine he wasn't apologetic about it then or since.

The Naked Spur (1953): the quintessential Mann and, I'm sure, considered by many to be his masterpiece, about Howard Kemp (James Stewart) and his hunt for the wily Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). The two men gather a group of characters along the way--young Lina (Janet Leigh), prospector Jess (Millard Mitchell), and reckless, slightly undependable Roy (Ralph Meeker, who'll go on to play one of the most memorably unsavory Mike Hammers in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). They're all actually variations on the two men, by turns innocent, practical, sensuous and unscrupulous, and it's interesting to see them sway towards one man or the other, depending on circumstance; the shifting relationships point up and illuminate the basic difference between the two men.

The quintessential Mann style is evident here too--plenty of medium to long shots, capturing the action clearly, and for the climax a sense of space and location so precise it comes together to form a three-dimensional image in your head (Meeker below, Ryan above, Stewart sneaking in from behind). The ending is something I've debated about with people (some find it implausible; others argue it makes perfect sense); I'll probably be debating it with people--and myself--for years to come.

Cimmarron (1960): Mann in his late, epic period, and I don't see him getting any more slack here than in his early days, though his camera has spread out considerably (in The Naked Spur it seemed his camera roved over a relatively small area of a few miles per sequence (in Desperate and Side Street it seemed like a few blocks, even at times only a few square feet); now he seems to be taking in the classic Western vista of endless horizons and distant mountain ranges. The emotions have become bigger, too: instead of just the mean bickering between a few losers, it's become the struggle of pioneers, the foundation of a state, the slow movement of generations.

Glenn Ford as Yancy "Cimarron" Cravat, newspaper editor, is wonderful; I've always thought Ford in other films to be an inexpressive lout, but here he looks huge, even monumental, the kind of immovable object irresistible forces love to try their luck against, and the perfect centerpiece for this kind of sprawling Western. John Ford and Mann like to use actors like John Wayne and Ford for their strong jaws and barrel chests, poised against the sky; Ford for a poetic effect, Mann for an at times ironic one. Mann's the more 'modern' director in a way, more open to psychological motivation (though it's hard not to see anything psychological in Ford's The Searchers), and I think you can see that his use of Ford (Glenn, I mean) is as critical as it is ostensibly iconic.

Part of the drama is, of course, the gradual conquest of Oklahoma, part the cost this conquest represents to Cravat's other, better half, his petit yet equally formidable wife, Sabra Cravat (Maria Schell). Every time he puts his life on the line, goes up against the powers that be, goes off into the vast outdoors to try his luck against nature and everything else, there's a consequent reaction from Sabra, a cry of sane self-interest: What about your wife? Your kids? Your self? Must you be so idealistic, so unselfish all the time? Must you go against the flow of everyone, just when things are about to go well? Is actual success anathema to you? By film's end Mann shows us the darker side of heroes: that they often have failed marriages and stunted (if equally well-meaning) offspring, that they're in some ways harder on loved ones and friends than on the ostensible enemy (at least the enemy gets their attention). Perhaps my favorite of the Manns I've seen that day, at least for now; I know, Spur has the higher rep, and I'm sure time and a gradually recovering sense of proportion will guide me accordingly, but for now I've fallen in love with this newly discovered bit of outsized melodrama, and the glow has stayed with me. Or maybe it's the fever speaking.

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