Enlarging the scope: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1970s

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By Scott Ross

At the dawn of a new decade and after several years scoring for television and movies, Jerry Goldsmith was more than ready for the challenges ahead. He hit 1970 running, and pretty much never stopped. Right out of the gate, Goldsmith composed one of the most prominent themes of the era: His bold, classical, yet forward-looking martial motif for Patton.

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On its face, Goldsmith’s Patton theme follows the parameters of a long line of military marches, particularly those for movies — including his own. Yet those ghostly horn fanfares at the beginning (their reverberating effects achieved by Goldsmith’s use of the Echoplex tape-delay system) and the similarly eerie organ chords that seem to emanate from a distant past, are what the theme is really about: George S. Patton’s sense of himself as an invincible force, not merely of his own time but of all history, reincarnated from the shades of the ancients in his beloved historical war-texts. As bound up in the past as this is (the march’s cadences are distinctly Celtic) the use here by Goldsmith of recent musical reproduction technology points to his increasing fascination with what synthesized sound could do for his craft. Incredibly — but all too believably — while the score was nominated for that year’s Academy Award®, Goldsmith lost once again, this time to… Francis Lai(!) and his saccharine Love Story for which only the theme, endlessly iterated on pop recordings, is remembered.

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No matter. Goldsmith went onward, composing a remarkable, appropriately bifurcated, East-West score for Tora! Tora! Tora! that is (as so often with him) better than the movie deserved, and an energetic late Western score, Rio Lobo, for Howard Hawks, featuring an exquisite Spanish guitar theme, performed during the main titles by Tommy Tedesco. In 1971 Goldsmith moved further into electronica than anyone could have anticipated with his truly unnerving music for the horror thriller The Mephisto Waltz, in which he incorporates (along with the expected interpolation from Liszt) such other-worldly strings and Hell-tormented moans that listening to the score on its own with the lights off could constitute a true act of courage.

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That same year Goldsmith composed a vivid, exciting and appropriately melancholy score for Blake Edwards’ sad, elegiac Western Wild Rovers, the movie itself later butchered by the loathsome James Aubrey at MGM. At Christmas of 1971, home viewers could hear Goldsmith’s music for The Homecoming, that loveliest of holiday movies, out of Earl Hamner, Jr’s semi-autobiography. When the special spawned a series, The Waltons, Goldsmith was tapped to write the theme, resulting in a piece of music that, in just over a minute, conjures Depression rural America, Hamner’s slightly fictionalized family, the splendid Richard Thomas, and the warmth that eventually became a comedic by-word but which, at least in the early years, was quite genuine, and without falling into manipulation and bathos. All that from six well-chosen notes.*

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For 1973’s escape epic Papillon, Goldsmith composed a lilting, Gallic waltz on which he rang dramatic variations. For the first television miniseries (a concept much discussed at the time) based on the inexplicably popular Leon Uris novel QB VII† Goldsmith drew overtly on his own Jewishness for the first time, in music that keens as though with the voices of the six million dead.

Chinatown+Original+Motion+Picture+Soundtrack+folderMany Goldsmith aficionados cite 1982 and the triple-play of Poltergeist, The Secret of NIMH and First Blood as the Anno Principium of the composer’s great period. To be comprehensive, one could as easily point to 1966 and The Sand Pebbles, which for all intents and purposes begins his career-long ascendancy. If you don’t wish to extend things quite that far back, I would respectfully suggest 1974 as the year from which there really is no looking back, only, appropriately, forward. And the score that affixes Goldsmith’s place in the filmmusic firmament is the masterly Chinatown. Taking its cue from the Roman Polanski/Robert Towne classic’s pace, milieu, look, period and understated, doomed romanticism, the score has moments of languid eeriness, unnerving tension and bittersweet, minor key melodiousness whose key component is a jazzy, slightly foreboding solo trumpet line. Goldsmith’s score replaced that of Phillip Lambro, who was only recently permitted by the studio to release his version on disc, and even then providing it did not mention Chinatown in either the title or the description. Listening to Los Angeles 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski (fuck you, Paramount) one can see that Polanski led Goldsmith down very similar symphonic paths indeed. I’m not suggesting Goldsmith lifted from Lambro, but it is fascinating to note how not dissimilar (to use a deliberate double negative) the two scores are. But Lambro’s does not have a similarly (and insistently) memorable trumpet theme, and that may have been the dark/romantic sound the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, was after.‡ Additionally, I would not pretend that the two competing works are equal in quality; Lambro’s score is splendid, but Goldsmith’s is a masterpiece.

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For the 1975 Charles Bronson prison-escape thriller Breakout, Goldsmith provided a score of tremendous velocity, anchored by a Latin underpinning appropriate to the movie’s Mexican setting. Later that year he wrote one of his most accomplished scores, for The Wind and the Lion, the right-wing fantasist (I nearly typed “fascist”… by mistake?) John Milius’ epic fantasia on the so-called “Perdicaris Incident” of 1904. The movie, which, in Wikipedia’s apt phrase, “blends historic facts into a violent fictional adventure,” commanded from Goldsmith a magnificent score filled to overflowing with “exotic” Arabic strains, robust adventure writing, and unabashed romanticism. “The function of a score,” Goldsmith once noted, “is to enlarge the scope of a film. I try for emotional penetration — not for complementing the action. For me, the important thing about music is statement. I can’t describe how I arrive at the decision to make a statement, I simply feel it and react to it.” Seldom has such reaction yielded a more sublime response.

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The 1976 Logan’s Run, a rare science fiction picture at a time when the genre was considered a sure-fire loser (Hollywood needed to wait only one year longer to learn how wrong that thinking was, at least regarding space-fantasy) elicited from Goldsmith a score based on an sonic notion that complimented the movie’s theme: The highly artificial, hermetically-sealed world of the future, with its pleasure-games and enclosed reality (represented by electronica) contrasted with the world that’s been left behind — verdant, lush and full of possibilities (full, rich orchestral arrangements.) The central theme, which builds rhapsodically, is exquisite. Much more notable, and remunerative, was The Omen, which still, shockingly, remains Goldsmith’s sole Academy Award® winner. That’s not a slam. It’s a superb horror-movie score, anchored to the sinister, Stravinskiesque (if ungrammatical) Latin choral anthem “Ave Satani” (itself up that year, for Best Song!) but, alas, largely in the service of the filmmakers’ blood lust for progressively grander and ever more ingenious means of graphically killing off its cardboard characters. Screw Friday the 13thThe Omen is the true progenitor of ’80s slasher-porn.

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The same year as The Omen, Goldsmith composed what he regarded as his own favorite among his scores. Islands in the Stream amounts in a way to the anti-Omen; personal where the previous movie is impersonal, character-driven as opposed to effect-driven, elegiac where The Omen is deeply foreboding. One of Goldsmith’s not-infrequent collaborations with Franklin J. Schaffner, the director of Patton, and based on a posthumously-published, semi-autobiographical and incomplete Hemingway novel, Islands is one of the composer’s most ingratiating, and most melancholy, scores. Yet it is suffused with emotional highs — it’s filled with wonder. The long (nearly 12-minute) cue “The Marlin,” depicting the George C. Scott character’s younger son battling to land a gigantic fish from his father’s boat is, at least in Goldsmith’s hands, as stark, exciting and intensely memorable as Hemingway’s description of it. I don’t know why the composer felt as strongly as he did about this material, or why it so moved him, and, really, one doesn’t need to. This is film music that, alone, and without choral accompaniment, sings.

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Contract on Cherry Street, a good 1977 television thriller starring Frank Sinatra — from an even better novel, by Phillip Rosenberg — drew from Goldsmith a score that, unique for the home-screen of its time (or even now) was full-bodied, completely orchestral, one that would have enhanced any theatrical film of its type, then or today. The writing is muscular, exciting, subtle and crackling with energy, yet with moments of haunting emotionalism. No one but Goldsmith could have composed it.

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Peter Hyams’ 1977 paranoia thriller Capricorn One, about a faked Mars landing, drew on post-Watergate cynicism about the government (and our concomitant elevation of dogged reporters to hero status — almost entirely alien in these post-free press days) for a far-fetched but entertaining yarn, heightened by Sam Waterson’s wise-cracking and ultimately moving performance as one of the doomed astronauts (O.J. Simpson was the other; only James Brolin came out of it alive. Well, of course.) Goldsmith’s score compliments the material handily, from its ominous, heraldic, opening chords to its uplifting finale, although a comparison with Contract on Cherry Street does indicate some discrete sharing of arrangement and motif.

Which brings us rather neatly to the matter of the compositional phase. One hears it a great deal when listening to a single composer over an extended period: The recurrence of color, motif, orchestration — even entire phrases. If you listen to, say, Capricorn One and follow it up with The Great Train Robbery, Alien, The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist and Night Crossing, the similarities in tone and arrangement fairly scream at you. This isn’t self-plagiarism, it seems to me; I suspect it’s natural, a creative outgrowth of both where the composer is at a given time, and what his or her concurrent harmonic interests are.

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For the inevitable Omen sequel, in 1978, starring William Holden and Lee Grant this time out, Goldsmith used his “Ave Satani” theme more sparingly, supplementing it with new choral material that occasionally apes the croaking sound of ravens. (A bird crucial to one character’s bloody demise.) As he did with its predecessor, the composer piles on the action cues with aplomb. It’s better writing than pap of this sort merits.

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William Goldman’s Magic was essentially un-filmable, relying as it did on a literary device that must, necessarily, fall by the wayside in a visual transliteration: In the book we’re unaware that Corky Withers’ comedy partner, Fats, is a ventriloquist’s dummy until well into the story; in the movie, we know immediately. Still, Magic was creepy fun, inspired by the Michael Redgrave sequence in Dead of Night, and a chance to enjoy one of my then-favorite “unknown” actors, Anthony Hopkins, in a starring role. Goldsmith’s harmonica motif is appropriately unnerving, in the Bernard Herrmann manner, and the score as a whole is a dandy.

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Michael Crichton wrote and directed the adaptation of his own, fact-based, historical novel, in 1978, and The Great Train Robbery is good, juicy Victorian amusement from beginning to improbable end, especially with such seasoned pros as Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland along for the ride. Goldsmith’s waltzing train motif is a prime asset, adding a major dramatic thrust to the narrative, and on which the composer rings seemingly endless changes. If ever a movie score can be called “fun,” it’s this one; it’s as if the high of Korngold’s Sea Hawk theme extended over a movie’s entire score.

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The 1979 Alien was easily one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my movie-going life. Knowing virtually nothing about it before buying my ticket, I was wholly unprepared for the genuine shock awaiting me; when that damn thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I had a five-minute attack of hyperventilation in the theatre. Goldsmith was famously unhappy with the final mix as heard in the movie, where music from his score for Freud was tracked in to replace his original main title, some Howard Hanson appeared instead of his own end credits music, and his elaborate, driving theme for the alien was removed from the final print. For Goldsmith aficionados, the best solution is the 2007 Intrada release, which couples the complete score and the 1979 LP tracks with alternate cues and bonus items. Goldsmith’s score sets the tone, for the movie itself and for the entire coming cinematic franchise: Dark, moody, expressionistic. Harrowing.

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Goldsmith ended the decade as he’d begun it, with one of his most-cherished works. Few fans, or critics, were best pleased with the long-awaited Star Trek movie, but there were no similar complaints about Goldsmith’s majestic score; indeed, his theme for The Enterprise quickly supplanted Alexander Courage’s original television main title, and is the immediately identifiable “sound” of the subsequent Star Trek universe. (Courage, interestingly, became one of Jerry Goldsmith’s most frequent orchestrators, and Goldsmith’s own “sound” is intimately bound up in that of Courage.) It took many years for the full soundtrack of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be released, but it belongs in the collection of any Goldsmith aficionado. Or, indeed, that of any serious student of the form. Although the electronics for this space epic are kept to a minimum, there’s a Blaster Beam effect that is superbly integrated into the score, and the whole is nearly as good, in its more modest way, as John Williams’ music for the first Star Wars movie. The 3-disc La-La-Land release brings it all together, eked out by alternate cues and a reproduction of the original 1979 soundtrack re-recording. Essential.

Three years after the release of Star Trek, Goldsmith would have his unofficial Annus Mirabilis. But I daresay he’d been giving us years of wonder all along.


* Goldsmith also composed music for some of the early episodes of The Waltons, but any hopes of a CD highlighting those scores, and that marvelous theme, have been dashed by the intelligence that Lorimar, the company that produced the series, destroyed the tapes. So much for the virtues of the free enterprise system.

† It goes without saying that the Holocaust is one of the most important, and monstrous, events of the 20th century, and one can well understand the emotional involvement of Uris’ readers in QB VII. But the book, based on the author’s own legal experience with a man he named as a Nazi doctor in his novel Exodus, is written — “hacked” would be a better word — with no finesse whatsoever. Worse, it exhibits an appalling misogyny and evokes an allegedly heterosexual, totally masculine world in which women are either pussy, or nothing.

‡ In addition to the Los Angeles 1937 CD, you can also hear Lambro’s music under Chinatown‘s original trailer.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Somebody to do it for you: A Robert Ryan trilogy

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By Scott Ross

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A very interesting three-film Western omnibus DVD fell into my hands this past weekend. Outlaws and Lawmen caught my eye first because it contains the interesting, Edward Anhalt-written, John Sturges-directed Hour of the Gun, which I’d enjoyed on TCM several years ago. But, perusing the cover at my favorite second-hand bookstore, something beyond that (and, to be frank, the three-dollar asking price… at a dollar a movie, who could kick?) announced itself: All three of the movies starred, or at least featured, that quintessential post-war American, the great Robert Ryan.

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Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for Mr. President, the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He’s likely wondering either how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him one good song…

Any movie with Ryan in a leading role is almost automatically worth a look. Like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, Ryan was seldom capable of a bad performance, and his best work leaves the flailings of more ingratiating, and infinitely less gifted, actors gasping in the proverbial dust. As J.R. Jones noted of the perennially underrated Ryan in The Chicago Reader, “the persona that lingers is that of a strong, intelligent man guarding some storm of emotion — fear, guilt, helpless rage. Even in broad daylight he seemed cloaked in shadow.” Ryan, whose intelligence shines, cleanly, through every performance — one could no more imagine him as a mindless thug than one could accept Steve McQueen playing an intellectual — was all too often typed in dangerous, mercurial villain roles and he was never nearly as well-known, or as celebrated, as he deserved. (Even the splendid multi-volume Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series omitted him from its 58-title roster… although Jeanette McDonald got one.) A life-long leftist, he somehow managed to dodge persecution during the HUAC years, even though he was one of the members of the much-hounded Committee for the First Amendment; one presumes his punishment for that, and for his role in the witch hunter-reviled Tender Comrade, was having to appear as a vicious Commie (was there ever any other kind?) in The Woman on Pier 13, aka, I Married a Communist.

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Robert Ryan about to dispatch Cameron Mitchell in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo. In its intimacy and homoeroticism the scene echoes a similar one in Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, but goes much further. 

Yet even when reflexively cast in the negative, Ryan crafted complex, unnerving, surprising villains. Think, for example, of his homicidal, irrationally anti-Semitic bigot in the 1947 Crossfire, one of the first of the mainstream post-war American movies to examine the dark underbelly of the victors. Think, too, what Ryan could have done with the role had it been permitted to more accurately reflect the Richard Brooks novel on which it was based, in which the victim was not Jewish but homosexual; Ryan read the book (The Brick Foxhole) and told Brooks he was determined to play the killer. Consider also The Naked Spur, one of those uneasy, Anthony Mann-directed James Stewart Westerns of the period in which the seemingly noble Stewart’s motivations are easily as venal as (and perhaps more self-serving than) those of the ironic, smiling, rather likable killer Ryan portrays. The screenwriters, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received an Academy nomination for their work on that, recognition few Western screenplays ever achieve, which may tell you something about just how original the movie was. In the taut, bracing neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) the focus of the terrifyingly normal Ryan character’s xenophobia was a Japanese-American homesteader. And in Sam Fuller’s striking Cinerama crime drama House of Bamboo (1955) Ryan’s gangster ichiban is suave, genial and low-keyed. Yet he executes his second-in-command (and possible lover) Cameron Mitchell, when he comes to believe the man to be a traitor, with a dispassion matched only by its suddenness and shocking brutality. In Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Ryan is once again the bigot, loathing his association with Harry Belafonte, yet willing to stomach it for the spoils of their planned bank heist. In the ironic ending, both men are incinerated, black and white bodies becoming indistinguishable.

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Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in Billy Budd.

Taking a small role in support of Lee Marvin, his co-star from the previous year’s The Professionals, Ryan was the very model of the petty martinet hoist with his own petard in The Dirty Dozen (1967). And while eschewing a British accent, Ryan’s master-at-arms in the Peter Ustinov adaptation of Billy Budd (1962) is more than merely the embodiment of sadistic, repressed, self-hating (again, possible) homosexuality; his Claggart is chillingly paranoid, longing for Billy’s purity of heart more than his beauty, and hating the impulse to decency in himself.*

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Ryan as Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch.

When allowed to play a role that called on other, less troubling, aspects of his humanity — which was not nearly often enough — Ryan’s coiled, sinewy tension was still seldom far below the surface: His has-been boxer in The Set-Up (1949), for instance, refusing to take a fall while knowing full well the penalty for going against the wishes of the Mob. Or take his fatally compromised Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpaw and Walon Green’s The Wild Bunch (1969), forced by circumstance to track down his old comrades for the very legal system both hold in contempt. (William Holden: “What would you do in his place? He gave his word.” Ernest Borgnine: “Gave his word to a railroad.” Holden: “It’s his word!” Borgnine: “That ain’t what counts. It’s who you give it to!”) Deke’s self-disgust is perched atop his steely professionalism and contempt for greedy incompetence, and Ryan’s essential ambivalence is as deeply moving as the sagging majesty of Holden’s lined, craggy face. In his final role, as Larry Slade in the American Film Theatre The Iceman Cometh, Ryan is both the downbeat, antagonist flip side of Marvin’s Hickey and the living proof of Hickey’s failed thesis. Clinging to a belief, and a compassion, both of which he keeps trying to convince himself he no longer feels, Ryan’s Larry is a valedictory, a testament to the quiet strength with which he played, its aching intensity, and the immediacy of his passionate, troubled accessibility as an actor.


 

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Ryan as Ike Clanton

The trio of movies on Outlaws and Lawmen places Ryan in some interesting, contradictory, territory.

In Hour of the Gun (1967), he’s Ike Clanton, ruthless and cynically manipulative. For all of its obvious virtues, Anhalt’s screenplay does not give Clanton much depth or complexity; he’s as fixed on vengeance as James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, but without Earp’s ambivalent self-awareness. Earp claims to value law above personal desire, and half-convinces himself it’s true. Yet he has Jason Robards, Jr.’s Doc Holliday around to call him on it; and while the truth may sting badly, Garner’s Earp eventually accepts the reality of the observation. Clanton, by contrast, has no one he respects, as Earp does Doc, in his inner circle. Monied, and secure in his ability to buy whatever justice he seeks (“If this was the east,” he notes, “I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”) Clanton is undone as much by misreading Earp as anything else. Leonard Matlin, in his movie guide, says Hour of the Gun “begins well, but becomes increasingly tedious.” Well, obsession is tedious; it’s how you go about depicting it, and the toll it takes on the obsessed, and his or her victims, that make or break a study of it. The movie starts where all other Earp films end: at the O.K. Corral. Everything that happens flows from that event, instead of towards it; thus the obsession of each man for the obliteration of the other.


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A study in contrast: Ryan and Lancaster in Lawman.

Lawman (1971) is, of the three, both the most interesting and the most problematic.

Gerry Wilson’s screenplay ranks among the most literate and thoughtful of any Western scenario (and yes, I’m aware that, to some, that’s damning with faint praise) and it’s primarily the dialogue which makes Lawman so fascinating. It’s certainly not helped by the self-conscious direction of Michael Winner, the man who brought you such masterworks of subtlety as The Games, Death Wish (and the first two of its four sequels) and the wholly unnecessary remake of The Big Sleep. Winner’s direction here consists largely of inapt, when not inept, framing and a nauseating over-reliance on zooms. In contrast to Hour of the Gun, whose assets include Lucien Ballard’s luminous cinematography and a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, Lawman boasts merely workman-like photography (by the seemingly mis-named Robert Paynter); worse, the music, by the usually splendid Jerry Fielding, is shockingly over-emphatic. Well, one presumes both men gave the director what he wanted.†

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Joseph Wiseman in Lawman.

And, too, there is not much anyone could do with Burt Lancaster. A likable, athletic and even charismatic actor in the right role, when called upon to be taciturn and righteous he was just as often turgid and action-hero stalwart. He’s not bad in Lawman, mind you; he’s just not nearly as interesting as the actors who surround him. And what is best about the movie, aside from its script — at least until it goes wildly off-kilter; about which, more anon — is its rich casting of secondary roles: Lee J. Cobb as the Clanton-like boss of the ironically-named town of Sabbath, a hard man yearning for an end to the violence that made him; Robert Duvall and J.D. Cannon as farmers who get themselves in far deeper than either intends; Sheree North as Lancaster’s aging one-time lover, caught between her reluctant yen for the past and the hard but respectable realities of the present; Richard Jordan, bringing layered complexity to the de rigueur role of the trigger-happy kid; the often weird but utterly compelling Joseph Wiseman as a former Marshal with ruined legs and a wind-up clock fashioned from a human skull; the marvelous John McGiver as the pompous mayor, complete unto elaborate ear-trumpet; and, best of all, Ryan as Cotton Ryan, Sabbath’s beaten, timorous sheriff whose reputation is his abiding curse. “I remember you at Fort Bliss,” Lancaster remarks. “That’s my trouble,” Ryan answers ruefully. “Everybody remembers me at Fort Bliss.” Cotton no longer wishes to be challenged by every cheap, self-important young gunslinger in the territory. And, as he also says to Lancaster’s Maddox, “… if you’re a lawman, you’re a disease. They need you, but they hate you.”

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Frank McCarthy’s poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie’s violent, confusing climax.

 

Maddox speaks of, and seems to cherish, his ethical code — what he continually refers to as “the rules” (You don’t draw first “if you want to stay clean.”) And it is here that Lawman ultimately falls completely apart. Toward the sardonic climax, Maddox has decided to chuck it all, to release from jail the farmers he’s brought in, to ignore the postings on the others he hasn’t killed, and, perhaps, to go off with North. This we accept, given his 20 years and more of legal killing. (She informs him that, behind his back, he’s known as “The Widow-Maker.”) But in a sudden reversal of this, and of his own precious rules, Maddox gratuitously guns Cannon down, shooting him in the back as he flees (Cannon makes extraordinary little sounds as he runs, half-whine, half-sob.) It isn’t that Maddox’s attitudes gravitate first 180 degrees, then another 180; they go half an arc in two separate directions. Why? Neither Wilson’s script nor Winner’s direction gives a clue. It’s as though Maddox suddenly decides he wants to be that despised Widow-Maker. It’s a depressingly bifurcated ending to an otherwise sharp-witted, fascinating movie.


 

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The obvious assets of co-star Tina Louise (and the implicit sexual theat to them) decorate the original poster.

Aside from Robert Ryan, what all three pictures on the Outlaws and Lawmen disc also have in common is the inevitable mutability of the West itself.

The days of lawlessness and wide open spaces for the (often violent) taking are in each title giving way to the constricting arrival of so-called “civilizing” influences: Respectable women, law that is more than legalized slaughter, and the accumulating power of the almighty dollar, usually represented either by cattle barons or farmers. Churches, refreshingly, are not in much sanctimonious evidence among these movies; indeed, the only pastor in the three films is the bought-and-paid-for minister in Lawman played with more than slight smarminess by Charles Tyner. And in all three, the role of the men — and it is always men — who do the violent jobs no one else wishes to, is central. This is made explicit in Day of the Outlaw (1959) through the following exchange, between Ryan’s cattleman Blaise Starrett and Vic (Donald Elson), the owner of the tiny town’s general store:

Vic: I don’t hold for killin’.
Blaise: You don’t have to… as long as you got somebody to do it for you.

In Lawman, Joseph Wiseman’s Lucas notes to Lancaster’s Maddox. “You and I sit at the same table, Jared. The virtuous need us, but they can’t stand the smell.” In Hour of the Gun Wyatt Earp finally admits, “I don’t care about the rules anymore. I’m not that much of a hypocrite.” To which Doc Holliday rejoinders: “The whole thing is hypocrisy. The rules they tack on today that unless you’re wearing that badge or a soldier’s uniform, you can’t kill. But they’re the only rules there are. They are more important to you than you think. Play it that way, Wyatt, or you’ll destroy yourself.”

Whether any of this can be considered “deep,” even in opposition to the level on which most seven-day Westerns of the period operate, is of less importance than the fact such dialogues exist at all; the writers of these movies aren’t just cynical hacks, planting white hats on the heroes and darker models on the villains. They’re concerned, as all good writers are, with the gray that colors most issues, and most of the people who face them.

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In Day of the Outlaw the central conflict initially appears to be the deadly tension between cattle-herder and land-grabbing farmer spoofed so memorably by Oscar Hammerstein in Oklahoma! Here Ryan is the harsh cattleman Blaise Starrett, inflamed as much by lust for the wife of the farmer who is cutting up the plain with barbed wire fences as hatred for the man himself. The first quarter of Day of the Outlaw constitutes a set-up to the inevitable show-down between the two; but with the suddenness of a hail-storm, the script (by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan, perhaps the most notable of all fronts during the days of HUAC, for whom it is nearly impossible to separate work he did himself from that for which he claimed credit, even after the blacklist was broken) takes a strikingly different turn, with the arrival of a gang of wanted thieves led by the wounded Burl Ives.‡

Shot, fairly obviously, on a sub-B budget by Andre De Toth, Day of the Outlaw is strikingly different, in tone, visual palette and action, from the general run of bread-and-butter Westerns. Like Lawman and Hour of the Gun, the movie has something on its mind, and says it with surprising eloquence and panache. (The often-radiant black-and-white cinematography is the work of Russell Harlan.) The picture has an uncertain beginning, perhaps prompted by their being no money for alternate set-ups: Ryan and Nehemiah Persoff discuss, in long shot and via disconcerting voice-over, what Blaise has in mind for the wire-fencing farmer. This is a decided deterrent to comprehension. The dialogue is also occasionally, and deliberately, cryptic, which might not matter in a tight two-shot; the benefit of seeing faces speaking lines is that, if we are not sure what they’re talking about or where it’s going, the actors’ looks automatically help us over the hurdle, even as seeing their lips move makes comprehension of lengthy dialogue easier to follow. (Yordan is on record saying De Toth simply ran out of money on location and brought the production back to Hollywood, although surely some of that interior sequence could have been re-shot on a set.)

Once this opening sequence ends, however, De Toth seldom makes a misstep. Like a less-gifted Samuel Fuller, he seems to understand instinctively where best to place his camera and his actors, not for artistic but for dramatic effect. Moreover, he and Harlan move us into geographic areas few, if any, contemporary Western filmmakers cared to go. The final quarter of Day of the Outlaw places us on an increasingly impassable mountainside, as Ryan’s Blaise leads the cut-throats to a deliberate dead-end; Blaise wants to allow the dying Bruhn (Ives) an honorable death, and he knows he’ll eventually be murdered by the outlaws when they discover his perfidy, but he’s beyond caring. There are moments, earlier in the movie, as the camera pans across the starkly lovely Wyoming vistas, when you may find yourself wishing the picture had been filmed in color. But as Ryan, Ives and the bandits set off into the wilds amid gale-force wind, the white of the snow around, and beneath, them, marks a visual poetry comparable to that of Ansel Adams which color could only dissipate, and you’re suddenly very grateful indeed for black and white film.

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That snow, so intensely beautiful in itself, becomes a magnificent trap for the outlaws: A horse missteps and must be put down — rather horribly, but as the beast is carrying one of the more unsavory of Ives’ gang, that in itself is hideously in character. One of the remaining marauders dies, in his sleep, of exposure. Another, giving chase to Ryan, simply gives up, and gives out, coming to rest in the drifts almost picturesquely, as though his life is ebbing away in slow motion. (Could Robert Altman have seen this one? Day of the Outlaw is assuredly no McCain and Mrs. Miller, but the use of snow in both has striking similarities.) These men may live by the sword — or the gun — but they are, finally, helpless in the face of elements against which no firearm makes the slightest difference: You can’t shoot a blizzard.

Day of the Outlaw, despite that rather commonplace, utilitarian title, ultimately becomes a low-rent transcendental cautionary tale. And the angry, covetous Blaise seems cleansed by the ordeal; when he returns, to no fanfare (not even the remarkable chamber score in this movie, by Alexander Courage, overstates) he quietly announces to Persoff that there’ll be no more killing. Fade-out. The moment is no more pointed than it needs to be.

That too is a hallmark of Robert Ryan, who never shouted unless he had to. Could we ever use him today!


* While it is true that there is much to recommend the notion, posited by many Melville scholars, that Claggart is both attracted to and repelled by Billy’s goodness Stamp, in the 1962 Peter Ustinov adaptation, is so jaw-droppingly beautiful, and such a seemingly guileless seducer of men, the movie revived the “Is Claggart homosexual?” argument argument to justify their antagonism. One could as well ask, “Is Billy?” With Melville, who can tell?

† Interestingly, and as is sometimes the case, Fielding’s score — heard in isolation and divorced from the movie’s action — makes for a fine listening experience. No matter how good the score seems on CD, however, that it doesn’t work as effectively in context surely marks it as a failure.

‡ Yordan — and this time, apparently, he actually did write the script — based the movie on a novel by Lee Edwin Wells.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross