PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.
The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet(1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.
Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus
FEATURING: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
PLOT: An unlucky screenwriter, Joe (Holden), begins a chance relationship with once popular actress Norma Desmond (Swanson), getting caught up in a world of mystery and eventual murder.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: This noir-ish 50’sdrama is not only an early inside look on Hollywood actors dealing with being washed up and forgotten about, but it has an atmospheric weirdness that builds and builds until its ending, which is actually the beginning.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Norma Desmonds’ pet monkeys funeral.
COMMENTS: A non-linear, shadowy, and dark examination of those working within the Hollywood business. Mixing Hollywood and murder-mystery before it was a formula. Directed by great Austrian filmmaker Billy Wilder with as much tension as a Hitchcock film. This film is one of the most bizarre to come out of Hollywood pre-1960, outside of Blonde Venus. The film is definitely an American classic that can also be classified as a strange classic. Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton have cameos. David Lynch named Sunset Boulevard as one of his personal favorites.
The late Gregory Peck was a rarity of rarities among Hollywood actors in that he lived a life of authentic integrity, fulfilling a role of moral iconography that seems to be extinct now. The previous generation of critics were too preoccupied in assessing his occasionally dull virtuosity to notice that Peck was as vital a symbol, albeit a flawed one, as was John Wayne. Peck’s rugged nobility was best conveyed when shaped and nurtured by the right director. In the wrong hands, Peck could be woefully miscast, such as his Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) or worse, as Josef Mengele (complete with cringe-inducing accent) in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Peck, a moderate liberal of devout faith, could rarely generate the type of rudimentary excitement and screen charisma of conservative counterparts such as Wayne, Charlton Heston, or Gary Cooper.
It is well known that Peck, fortunately, turned down the part of Will Kane in High Noon (1952). Although, in hindsight, Peck counted it as a grave mistake, he graciously and correctly admitted Cooper had been the better choice. The reason Peck turned down the role was that he had recently finished what he felt was a similar film, with Henry King: The Gunfighter (1950). Peck, of course is best remembered for his Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s naive Hollywood version of To Kill AMockingbird (1962), but some of Peck’s best work can be found in his inconsistent six-film collaboration with King. King often cast Peck against type. The results were usually better than normal: vivid performances in Twelve O’ Clock High (1949), the largely unsuccessful adaptation of Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), and The Bravados (1958). At the opposite end of the spectrum were embarrassingly inept misfires as the biblical King David in David and Bathsheba (1951) and as F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beloved Infidel (1959), which makes the pair’s successful collaborations all the more valuable.
The Gunfighter was best of the King/Peck collaborations, despite not having received the attention it deserved, which was due in large part to producer Daryl Zanuck’s lack of effort in promoting it. Zanuck was reportedly disgruntled with the screenplay (which was worked on by Andre De Toth, Nunnally Johnson, Roger Corman, William Bowers, and William Sellers), feeling (correctly) that the script did not follow standard western formula. Zanuck first offered the part of Johnny Ringo to John Wayne, who declined, having the same grievances as Zanuck. As with High Noon, Wayne later did an about face and regretted that rejection. An older, gravely ill Wayne would play a slight variation of Ringo in his valedictory film The Shootist (1976). However, in 1950, Wayne’s persona was still too invincible, lacking the essential weariness the part required. The Gunfighter stands as one of Peck’s best roles and as one of the first psychological anti-westerns. Peck nails the nuances of an aged shootist whose past brashness has caught up with him. Fortunately, we are not privy to views of Peck as the younger Ringo. Such an exposure would have inevitably rendered both the performance and film uneven. Rather, we are given a Ringo who has barely enough time from being on the run to reflect on a life of bad choices. He is hoping against hope that he can evade the consequences of those choices and reunite with his estranged wife and son. Even while trying to set things right, Ringo is still pervious to making poor decisions, which continually puts his life at risk. The most telling difference between Ringo and Wayne’s later portrayal of J.B. Books is regret: Books is hated by many, but dies confidently with no regrets. Ringo has nothing but regret.
Several young thugs are pursuing Ringo, seeking revenge for the killing of their brother, despite the fact that it was in self-defense. A local father seeks justice for his son, whom he mistakenly believes to have been one of Ringo’s victims. The young Skip Homeier is the next generation of white trash (a type Homeier played well), seeking to gain a name for himself by killing the famous older gunfighter.
Ringo plants himself in a town that finds his celebrity a much needed break from their monotonous existence while, paradoxically, seeking his death for having disrupted their routine. Peck portrays Ringo with the right tone of desperation. He is virtually standing on his toes, fighting against time and his own reputation. Smartly, the screenplay does not succumb to any fatal misplaced sympathy for Ringo.
What makes Peck effective in the role is his against-type awkwardness. Several antagonists correctly observe: “Ringo doesn’t look so tough.” Indeed, the actor often looks hunched over, as if he has had a few nights on a misshapen bed, resulting in a bad back.
A foreboding clock occupies the claustrophobic space, yet it draws far less attention to itself than did the numerous timepieces in the noticeably tighter High Noon (1952). In hindsight, Ringo might also be compared to Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven (1992), yet there are, again, revealing differences. For all his self-proclamations of penance, Eastwood’s Munny never convinces us of his regret, because he is still as prone to one-note sadistic violence as his reputation suggests. In contrast, Peck’s Ringo throws away the firearms of would be assassins, jails another potential assassin, and grants dying clemency to his eventual killer.
It is the central performance and intelligent screenplay that assures The Gunfighter of its reputation as an underrated cult classic. However, that does not mean it is without its share of flaws, mainly in the assignment direction of King and the substandard performances of Helen Westcott and B.G. Norman as Ringo’s estranged family. With such a dull wife and annoying son, one can’t resist wondering why the Gunfighter would risk his well-being to reconcile with them. Karl Malden as the awestruck, slimy barkeeper Mac fares considerably better.
Neither director William Keighley nor actor Errol Flynn are remembered as heavy-hitters in the Western genre, but the two collaborated for a low budget, remarkably grim effort in 1950’s Rocky Mountain. Flynn is, of course, remembered for being the king of the sound swashbucklers, even though he did a total of seven westerns. Flynn justifiably felt he was ill-suited to them, and with commendable self-depreciation he referred to himself as “the rich man’s Roy Rogers.” In his earlier westerns, Flynn’s disdain shows in his performances. However, it is in two later films, when the actor was well into personal and professional decline, that he briefly became an interesting, weathered star in the genre.
Flynn’s plasticity as an actor mars many of the films from his first decade, even including his certifiable masterpieces such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Modern audiences understandably have a difficult time with Flynn’s phallic brandishing and thrusting of his chest while he eeks out lines like, “come on men, let’s win one for Her Majesty, the Queen!” One can easily understand Bogart’s dismissal of the young Flynn’s acting as “phony.” Later, in his last three years, Flynn was a too-far-gone, cirrhosis-ravaged caricature in films like The Sun Also Rises (1957) and TooMuch, Too Soon (where he played his idol, John Barrymore). Critics of the time praised Flynn’s performances in these films as authentic, but today they register as a final, pathetic stab by an actor who realized that his hedonism had defeated his potential as an artist. In between these two extreme phases, Flynn gave a number of interesting, world-weary performances in mostly mediocre films.
Starting in the late forties, the plasticity in Flynn’s acting diminished in favor of a more subtle realism. He is much more interesting and mature as an actor in The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) than he is in his swashbucklers of the thirties, even if the film, as a whole, is not as good. Critics rightly praised his earthy acting abilities in the war melodrama Objective Burma (1945), but that film offended British with its omission of their contributions to the war effort, and it was yanked off screens after a short run. Likewise, Flynn is far better in the underrated Raoul Walsh directed Silver River (1948), than he is in any of his earlier Westerns, including the lavishly budgeted and decorated Dodge City (1939), in which Flynn’s superficiality is woefully apparent.
As good as Flynn is in the still frustratingly unavailable Silver River, he is equally effective in Keighley’s Rocky Mountain. Keighley is mostly known for being fired as director of the aforementioned Robin Hood. Apart from that, he competently directed a number of routine efforts, but never really showed a vision for any of his projects. Perhaps re-teaming with Flynn for RockyMountain was an inspiring chance to make amends for Robin Hood, since this is a cut above Keighley’s normal standard, even though his lack of an imaginative directorial touch is still apparent.
A poor choice was made in the film’s narration, and it is a serious flaw, even if there is a bit of unintentional irony in the movie being narrated by a character who dies. However, the producers made a good choice to omit the usual comic relief found in most of Flynn’s movies. Thankfully, the hammy antics of an Alan Hale are nowhere in sight to disrupt the decidedly downbeat milieu.
Flynn is the grizzled Lafe Barstow, captain of a rag tag Confederate army detachment, sent by his superiors to California to raise a guerrilla force. The New Mexico desert landscape is bleak, barren and strikingly expressionist, echoing the fate in store for Barstow and his unsavory team. Rocky Mountain prefigures the stark, flawed protagonists and character-driven, fatalistic plots that populated the Western genre in its 1950’s jubilee.
Barstow and his men sidetrack their mission to come to the rescue of a stagecoach being attacked by Shoshone warriors. Joanna Carter (Patrice Wymore, who became the third and last Mrs. Flynn shortly after filming) is the lone survivor of the stagecoach. She is also the fiancée of a Union officer who will soon appear to further disrupt plans. One expects a romance to follow between Barstow and Carter but, thankfully, that never materializes. Instead, Carter is taken hostage by the empathetic Barstow.
Wymore is effective in her equally empathetic performance, as is Slim Pickens and Flynn regular Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Keighley admirably keeps the extroverted antics of those two character actors in check, eliciting surprisingly low-key performances. Keighley may not have been the most assured director in Hollywood, but he was an actor’s director who gave his star and cast well-rounded roles, making one wish Flynn had been able to work with this director more often. Flynn rises to the occasion, proving he could be a hell of an actor when given the opportunity by a director who wanted a bit more than the typical role of merely being “Errol Flynn.”
Rocky Mountain ends on a true blue note, but not before Barstow engages in a last act of heroic gallantry. However, this time Flynn’s on-screen heroism springs not from chest-beating, flashing teeth, or a Captain Blood-styled patriotic call to arms. Instead, his chivalry is a shrug, a final gasp, fully accepting the consequences for choosing a human life over the good of the cause. Barstow’s choices even impress Carter’s sourpuss of a fiancée. Of course, there is nothing more gallant than placing the individual over the movement. It’s downright Biblical.
Rudolph Maté’s Branded emerged at the dawn of the 1950’s. It stars Alan Ladd and is little remembered today, due in part to Ladd’s being cast in George Stevens’ phenomenally popular Shane a mere three years later. I do not side with the consensus of contemporary criticism in the reassessment that says Stevens’ classic is overrated, just as I will not concede to revisionist opinions regarding High Noon (1952), although I do believe there were, and still are, better westerns: Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Budd Boetticher‘s The Tall T, or Anthony Mann’s Naked Spur. However, Branded is as almost as good as the film which sealed the surprising superstardom of Ladd.
There is something quintessentially cinematic and mythic in the image of a man on a horse under an expansive sky. Branded fills that bill to the Technicolor brim, contradicting an often held opinion that Westerns simply look better in black and white. Sydney Boehm’s unpredictable screenplay comes from a Max Brand novel and meshes well with Maté’s sense of pacing.
Alan Ladd was an actor of limited range, and came off best when his persona of icy precision was used to full advantage, as it is here in the role of Choya. This film literally starts off with a bang. Choya holes up in a general store, surrounded by enemies. He pulls off an exciting escape and teams up with T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his aptly named partner, Tattoo (John Berkes). Leffingwell has a guaranteed get rich scheme. Leffingwell knows of a wealthy ranch family with a long lost son who was kidnapped 25 years ago. The son had a unique birthmark, which Tattoo tattoos on Choya’s shoulder. Once Tattoo’s services are no longer needed, Leffingwell brutally murders his partner to increase his share. Choya doesn’t seem to care.
Choya arrives at the Bar O-M Ranch looking for work. The ranch foreman, Ransom (Tom Tully) recognizes a gunslinger when he sees one and is reluctant to take Choya on, but does so at the insistence of the rancher’s daughter Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman). Choya plays the chip on his shoulder to the hilt, resulting in a fight in which he conveniently loses his shirt, revealing his “birth mark.” Upon seeing Tattoo’s handiwork, the family is convinced that Choya is their long lost son.
Along the way however, Choya starts developing a conscience after coming to like his new family. Additionally, falling in love with his “sister” doesn’t help. After feeding Choya enough background information to fool the ranchers, Leffingwell, tired of the long wait, pops up to make a nuisance of himself and throws a monkey wrench into the unfolding plot. Keith registers trashy slime to perfection in the role. Ladd is equally impressive in the role of Choya and has, in Maté, a rare director who expertly knows how to utilize his actor’s limitations and personality. Matte draws a tormented, internalizer fire out of Ladd, by keeping it under a layer of thick, exterior ice. Ladd’s character is so apt at piling lie upon lie while increasingly sympathizing with the victimized family that we genuinely do not know which way he will go and, indeed, initially find him to be no better than Leffingwell. Branded is a film which does not flinch from conveying a struggle towards spiritual redemption, and Matte enhances the message with his cinematographer’s eye for sumptuous composition.
Branded is a bit like discovering music from the Gil Mellé Quartet after repeated exposure to the better known masterpieces from Miles Davis & John Coltrane (and there is something so right in likening the western genre to jazz) . Compared to the likes of Ford, Mann, Boetticher, Peckinpah, or Leone, Rudolph Maté is barely a blip on the radar, but his Branded is a worthwhile blip.
It’s true, many of us had a difficult childhood, but, after a vicarious look at Connie and Colleena, hopefully those bad experiences seem a little less severe. We hereby give Louella Gallager a Bronze Medal in knife throwing, and a Gold Medal in questionable parenting.
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