Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Five Minutes To Live (AKA Door-To-Door Maniac) (1961)

I’m a lifelong Johnny Cash fanatic. Like Cash, I was born and raised in a devoutly Christian home in rural Arkansas, and early on I made a connection to his music despite the forty-three year gap in our ages. The Man in Black always seemed to be singing songs for me, and I’m proud to say that I was a Cash obsessive before his “rediscovery” made him fashionable again in the early nineties. Cash was always cool to me.

So when I found out that his first starring role in movies was as a psycho in a film noir called Five Minutes To Live, I was giddy. What could be better than badass Johnny Cash stomping down the dark streets of some southern fried noir? My enthusiasm, however, didn’t survive contact with the movie itself.

The film is a cheap little production, told in flashback, about a nutjob named Johnny Cabot (Cash) who’s recruited for a bank robbery by a hood named Fred Dorella (Vic Tayback, before he became Mel the diner owner on Alice). Dorella’s plan is to kidnap the wife of a bank employee and then force the husband to cash a forged check for $70,000. Dorella chooses a banker named Ken Wilson (Donald Woods). Dorella follows Wilson to work and sends Cabot to take Mrs. Wilson (Cay Forrester) hostage. Once Dorella makes contact with Wilson, he calls Cabot and lets Wilson speak to his wife to confirm the threat. If Dorella doesn’t call Cabot back within five minutes to tell him that Wilson has cashed the check, Cabot will kill Mrs. Wilson.

As a rough outline for a plot, this isn’t bad. Unfortunately, just about every aspect of its execution is flawed. Tayback is serviceable as Dorella (though, through no fault of his own, I kept seeing Mel Sharples when he appeared onscreen), but the rest of the cast is pretty bad. Donald Woods can’t muster much enthusiasm for his role as the banker and plays it like a poor man’s Dick Powell. Mrs. Wilson is played by Cay Forrester, a familiar face in noir (she was the salesman’s flirtatious wife in DOA). Interestingly, Forrester wrote the script for the film, but she doesn’t seem to have given her part much thought. You’d think that Forrester would make her character a little proactive, but Mrs. Wilson is clueless in the first half of the film and hysterical in the second half. There’s a brief moment where she seems to snap into action—putting on a negligee and attempting to seduce Cabot—but it passes over in a minute or two and she goes back to screaming.

But all of this is beside the point, really, since the main attraction here is Cash. I can imagine a vehicle in which his essential persona—the unhinged country boy with Jesus on one shoulder and Satan on the other—could be made to work. Think of him in a adaption of a Flannery O’Connor story, and maybe you’ll see what I mean. I still say that Cash could have been an effective character actor. Unfortunately, this movie provides little evidence for my claim.

Occasionally, you’ll come across defenses of his performance in the film, but I’m sorry to say that these apologetics are essentially misguided. While it’s true that Cash himself makes for a fascinating point of interest—looking razor thin and twitchy, he was already well into his drug-fueled hellion days—it cannot be said that he gives a good performance. His delivery alternates between too much and too little, and you can catch him committing the cardinal sin of acting—waiting for other actors to finish their lines so he can deliver his. He never seems fully in a scene with another performer. Waiting to say his lines, he never seems to be thinking, or feeling, much of anything. Acting, the old saying goes, is mostly about reacting. Cash never reacts to anything in the movie. Watching him here, I was struck by the contrast between his performances and the film performances I’d seen of Elvis. Of course, Elvis was always considered a bad actor—and he wasn’t too good, it’s true—but the camera loved him. Much like Bruce Lee, Elvis was more of a presence in a movie than an actor. He was, in short, a movie star.

Cash wasn’t a movie star, and he wasn’t much of an actor, either. Having said that, his fans will want to see this movie. As a drama, it’s flat and uninvolving, but as documentary footage of the man at the embryonic stage of his legend, it’s fascinating. I suspect part of the reason Elvis, for all his limitations, was a better actor than Cash was because, as a bigger star, Elvis received more acting instruction. Here, Cash looks like he just wandered onto a movie set and picked up a gun. It’s a telling choice of roles, of course. While Elvis was playing wholesome good boys who danced and romanced in Hawaii, Cash was gunning down cops and slapping around housewives. This movie isn’t very good, but you can see the origins of the badass myth already well in place.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hit Me (1996)

Jim Thompson’s novels have had a good shelf life. The Killer Inside Me has been made twice. The Getaway, twice. A Hell of A Woman and Pop. 1280 were both adapted in France. 1990 was a great year for Thompson; After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters were both neo-noir masterpieces faithfully adapted (more or less) from two of his best books. Of course, Thompson had been dead at that point for about twenty-three years, but somehow that injustice seemed fitting. Thompson always said he’d be famous after he was dead.

Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t live to see Steven Shainberg’s Hit Me, a loose adaptation of A Swell-Looking Babe. Thompson’s book—the story of a hotel bellhop caught up with gangsters and a beautiful woman—was no masterpiece itself. It’s a second-tier work that is never wholly convincing. Still, the book had some good qualities, as well. It worked some of Thompson’s favorite themes—namely incest, betrayal and doom—and he clearly drew on his own experiences as a bellhop in a sleazy hotel to help him flesh out his story.

Shainberg’s film, on the other hand, jettisons the incest and many of the nuances (such as they were) of Thompson’s story. Now understand, it is fine with me if an adaption takes a book and changes it. A filmmaker need feel no fidelity to a text. My problem with Hit Me, however, is not that it’s a bad adaption of A Swell-Looking Babe, it’s that Hit Me sucks all on its own.

The film stars Elias Koteas as Sonny, a bellhop at the Stillwell Hotel. He works the lonely night shift, sells bottles of booze out the backdoor, finds prostitutes for businessmen, and goes home to his mentally disabled brother (Jay Leggett). One night Sonny is called up to the room of a disturbed but beautiful woman named Monique (Laure Marsac). She slits her wrists more or less in front of Sonny, but when he tries to call a doctor she stops him. It’s just a cry for help. Sonny, being the protagonist in a film noir, falls immediately in love with her. In addition to Monique, however, Sonny has other problems. He biggest problem is that he owes money to the hotel’s head of security, Cougar (Kevin J. O’Connor). He’s also in danger of losing his brother to social services. His problems get worse one night when Monique seduces him on the floor of her hotel room (in a scene that strives for sexiness but fails because you can’t keep from thinking about how damn dirty that carpet must be). Right after they have sex, she lets out a piercing scream. Sonny, it seems, has been set up.

He’s bailed out of this situation by a friend named Del (Bruce Ramsay). Del says he’ll settle the situation with Monique, but then he ropes Sonny into a scheme he’s cooked up with Cougar to rip off a big-time gangster (Philip Baker Hall). Complications ensue.

In the broad outlines, this is a film noir plot. In execution, however, Shainberg’s film (with a script by the novelist Denis Johnson) is an utter bore. It tries very, very hard not to be boring, but therein lies the problem. This movie bores you senseless with its weirdness. What is the tone supposed to be here? It doesn’t work as a piece of suspense. The big robbery set piece, in which people are killed and the world falls apart around Sonny, doesn’t work. It’s pitched too high. This is the kind of film where the actors scream at each other in a fruitless attempt to approximate intensity.

It’s also the kind of film where everyone is odd. Koteas, a gifted actor, gives an incomprehensible performance. What is wrong with this guy? How is the audience supposed to feel about him? Is this supposed to be funny? (if I have to ask, by the way, then it’s not funny) Sonny’s twitchy and odd. It’s impossible to believe his erotic fixation on Monique because it’s impossible to believe in him as a sexual being. He’s a loose collection of tics and mannerisms and screaming fits. The rest of the cast doesn’t fair much better. Leggett’s unbelievable as the mentally disabled brother (he comes across like an actor playing a mentally disabled guy). Marsac is supposed to be sexy and sad, but she mostly seems depressed. Even great character actors like William H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall can’t get much traction with their brief roles as, respectively, a cop and a gangster. The only good performance in the movie comes from O’Connor as the nerdy-looking thug, Cougar. His weirdness actually works, maybe because it’s an understated weirdness.

Hit Me is, more than anything, a failure of tone. It’s not a long movie—only two hours—but it is a long experience.


For more on Thompson's books and movies, check out this page.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

David Goodis And The Elusiveness of Adaptation: The Burglar, Nightfall, and Dark Passage

1957 could have been a good year for David Goodis. Things had not been going great for him up until that time. Once a promising novelist, with a bestselling book (Dark Passage) and a fat Hollywood contract as a screenwriter, he'd spent the last few years of his life living in his parents’ house with a schizophrenic brother in Philadelphia, typing out darkly brilliant pulp elegies of wasted lives, and watching his own dreams disintegrate (some people say he watched his dreams drift away in an endless river of booze, but as with most things to do with the mysterious writer, we don't really know for sure). He would die a largely forgotten man at the age of 49 in 1967.

He had spent most of his brief time in Hollywood crawling through the seedy underworld of East L.A. in a drunken haze, but in 1957 Hollywood came to him when Paul Wendkos—an old Goodis friend—made his feature film directing debut by adapting The Burglar and shot the film in Goodis’ hometown of Philadelphia. Wendkos even managed to get someone to pay Goodis to write the screenplay. In the film, Dan Duryea stars as the leader of a gang of thieves (including a young Jayne Mansfield) who rip off a necklace from a sham spiritualist and then go on the run from the cops.

The film has its virtues. Duryea, of course, was one of the most dependably entertaining actors in movies. In 1957, he was a little long in the tooth for this role (there’s an unintentionally funny moment when Duryea—fifty at the time and looking every day of it—is asked his age and replies, without irony, “35”), and this becomes something of a problem when we realize he’s supposed to be roughly the same age as Mansfield (who was 24 at the time). Despite this, however, Duryea carries the movie. He’s aided by Wendkos’ energetic direction and slam bang editing, both of which owe a lot to Orson Welles, right up to a funhouse sequence that looks like lost footage from The Lady From Shanghai. Wendkos would go on to have a short, undistinguished career in features before turning to a long career making television movies. Here, in his initial outing, he’s admirably never content to film a boring shot.

Having said that, the film doesn’t quite work. Mansfield can’t carry the dramatic scenes she’s required to, and the perpetually underutilized Martha Vickers, after a promising introductory scene, is once again left with little to do. Wendkos lets scenes go over the top, and he’s not helped by Sol Kaplan’s intrusive score, which seems to beat every emotional moment into the ground. And, in the end, Goodis’ script is only okay. The sadness and mystery that sprang out of his novels is only hinted at here.

As a crime writer, Goodis is often likened to Jim Thompson because they were contemporaries who both wrote dark plunges into the human psyche rather than proper mysteries. One reason Goodis hasn’t had the same delayed success as Thompson, however, can be found in the nature of their writing. Thompson wrote dark stories about psychos and hustlers. Goodis, on the other hand, largely wrote dark stories about losers and drunks. Psychos and hustlers are, frankly, more proactive (and fun) than losers and drunks. While Thompson’s books are grotesque and often wickedly funny stories of men keeping terrible secrets, Goodis’s books are oppressive stories of men who encounter bad luck and then crumble in the face of it.

Now understand, I don’t want to imply that Goodis isn’t a fine writer. He’s one of the best postwar crime writers you can find, and his books can be adapted well, but as often as not his narratives simply lack the zip and drive of Thompson’s. Take something like Nightfall, considered by many to be Goodis’ finest book. Now, I should admit up front that it is not my favorite of his books, but it is perhaps the most energetic narrative he wrote after Dark Passage, his one popular success. It was adapted a couple of times for television, but in 1957 Goodis got one of his best chances at adaptation when director Jacques Tourneur and writer Stirling Silliphant adapted the book into a feature.

Sadly, the resulting film isn’t much to brag about. Aldo Ray plays Jim Vanning, a commercial artist living in New York who also happens to a man running from his past. One night he meets a pretty girl named Marie (Anne Bancroft) in a bar. She talks him into buying her dinner, but when they leave the bar two men from Vanning’s past appear from the shadows. Turns out these two hoods (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) have reason to think Vanning has a missing $300,000 from a bank heist. The past is revealed, the girl goes along with Vanning without good reason, and the film hikes out to Montana to track down the missing money.

This plot has been liberally altered from the book, especially the final act, which seems to have been moved out to Montana because somebody at the studio thought we needed a fight on a snow plow. Despite the attempts to pump things up, however, the film remains stubbornly uninvolving. Aldo Ray is a blank slate as Vanning. There’s nothing haunted about this guy, nothing for us to wonder about, certainly nothing for Marie to be instantly infatuated by. Bancroft does what she can with her role, but it’s an underwritten part. Marie is there to prompt Vanning to talk, and talk he does but to little effect for the audience. Brian Keith looks bored as John, the main thug, but Rudy Bond gives the film’s one energetic performance as Red, the crazy thug.

It’s not the fault of the actors that the film is so flat, though. Jacques Tourneur was a fine director, but this film has none of the style or intensity he brought to Out of the Past or I Walked With a Zombie. Even the big showdown at the end is a dud (Brian Keith is so low-key in the final shootout he looks like he’s on tranquilizers). Tourneur and his cinematographer Burnett Guffey create a good looking film, but something vital is missing. Here’s what I think the problem is: the novel Nightfall isn’t that great to begin with. Vanning’s mysterious past, when it’s revealed, isn’t a big dark secret, it’s just bad luck. And somehow, I’ve just never been convinced by his subsequent decision to take off and live a life on the lam. Vanning seems stupid, basically, and his back story seems farfetched. He suffers from a problem you sometimes find with Goodis’ characters: they are passive clogs caught in the wheels of a plot. Now, understand, that’s not always a bad thing. When Goodis is on his game, his passive characters take on a kind of internal intensity; this is because his great theme, when you get down to it, is depression. In his best work (Street of No Return, The Moon in the Gutter, Of Tender Sin), you see his characters dragged out of their drunken and/or depressive stupors just long enough to rise to the occasion of a plot and then find themselves winding up, in a Sisyphean irony, back where they started. The reason Goodis was never a great plotter is that his main theme was inner failure, not external circumstance. It made him a great writer, but it also made him tough to adapt.

One time Hollywood did get Goodis right was ten years earlier, 1947, with Dark Passage. Interestingly-- and this is just Goodis' luck--Dark Passage doesn’t get any respect. It has two things working against its reputation: 1) a hokey stylistic device, and 2) the fact that it is the least of the Bogart/Bacall vehicles.

I’ll deal with each of these criticisms in a moment. First however, the plot: Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a convict who has just busted out of prison when the film starts. He’s picked up by a talkative motorist named Baker (Clifton Young). It doesn’t take Baker long to figure out that Parry’s a fugitive, so Parry slugs him, takes off on foot and is picked up by another motorist. She’s Irene Jansen (Bacall), and surprisingly she already knows who Parry is and wants to help him. It turns out that Parry was convicted of killing his wife, and Irene followed his trial in the papers, convinced of his innocence. Before long, Parry undergoes a facelift and sets out to track down his wife’s killer.

Because the story involves plastic surgery, the makers had to come up with a way to handle Parry’s transition from one face to another. Their solution was to have the pre-facelift sections of the movie told from Parry’s point of view through a subjective use of the camera (i.e. the camera functions as his eyes, so we never see his face). The subjective camera was a hot concept in 1947. Orson Welles had planned to use it in his proposed adaptation of Heart of Darkness before abandoning the idea as unworkable. Robert Montgomery picked up the idea and in 1947 shot his entire adaption of Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake with a subjective camera. The results there were disastrous. Here, the technique is a bit distracting, but Daves is able to blend it a little more seamlessly into the story. It helps that once the facelift occurs we cut to Bogart’s lovely visage. While the subjective camera stuff is gimmicky, it has the virtue (unlike in Montgomery’s film) of serving a purpose and solving a problem presented by the story.

The other obstacle standing in the way of Dark Passage’s reputation is that it has the unfortunate distinction of being lumped together with the other Bogart/Bacall films (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo). Those movies are masterpieces (at least the first two are), and I will grant that Dark Passage does not rise to their level.

However, this is quite a fine piece of work. For one thing, Bacall is excellent. She has to carry the first half of the movie by herself because Bogart isn’t onscreen, and she also has to make Irene’s rather odd character believable. She carries off both of these tasks with great skill, and her work here is far more interesting than in Key Largo, where her job mostly consisted of staring at Bogart with longing for two hours. When Bogart does appear onscreen, he’s as good as she is. His Vincent Parry is an underacknowledged swerve for the actor. Parry isn’t a superhero like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He’s a normal guy who’s in over his head. Goodis, after all, was an author incapable of writing about heroes. His characters are sad, lonely, broken people. This movie glosses things up a bit, of course, but the last few scenes between Bogart and Bacall have a fragile emotionalism unlike anything else in their work together. The last shot of the film is probably the sweetest one they ever shared.

I’ve always thought Delmer Daves was an underrated director. For one thing, his movies unfailingly have a great physicality. This made him a strong hand at westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree), but it also served him well in his noir work (The Red House). His films usually have atmospheres achieved through their excellent utilization of black & white photography and even more through a mastery of art design, set decoration and camera work. Daves wasn’t a realist, but he had a realist’s eye. In Dark Passage you can almost smell the cheap apartments, the cigarette smoke and the alcohol. At least some of the film was shot on location in San Francisco, and he utilizes the city as well as anyone ever did. The same might be said for the way he utilizes Goodis' work.


Other Goodis adaptations include:

Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player (based on Down There)

Sam Fuller's Street Of No Return

Rene Clement's La Course Du Lievre A Travers Les Champs (based on the short novel Black Friday)

For more on Goodis check out the excellent website Shooting Pool With David Goodis

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Abe Christopher's Widow

I have a new story up at the crime fiction website A Twist Of Noir. The story is called Abe Christopher's Widow. It's a pulpy piece of business, and I hope you'll check it out. You can find links to my other short fiction, all of the noir variety, on the list to your right.

There are a number of good sites out there for pulp fiction these days. The internet has become the new 25-cent rack (even more so, because it's free). There's a great sea of junk out there, of course, but there are gems in those dark depths as well.

Some good sites:

Beat To A Pulp

Plots With Guns

Pulp Pusher

The Back Alley


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gangsters and Public Enemies

The gangster flick has had a curiously blessed history. Unlike the Western, which saw itself diminished with the passage of time (and usurped by the sci-fi movie), the gangster movie has continued flourish. Part of reason for this is that the genre has proven surprisingly supple when it comes to adaptability. We all know the landmarks in modern gangsterism: Coppola's The Godfather I and II, Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino, and David Chase's sprawling 86 hour masterpiece, The Sopranos. To see how the genre can adapt, just track the difference between Howard Hawks' Scarface in 1932 and Brian De Palma's iconic remake in 1983. I'm not a fan of either Scarface, but it's interesting to note how eternal the basic storyline of the rise and fall of a criminal mastermind seems to be in American film. If you want to find the real progenitor for Pacino's over the top performance in Scarface, though, don't start with Muni in Scarface, go to the original badass, James Cagney in William Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931). In this film, Cagney pretty much defined the gangster: spitting against the wind, railing against the law, going down in a blaze of gunfire, only to survive and end up dying ingloriously on his mother's doorstep. It's the greatest pre-Godfather gangster flick.

Now comes Michael Mann's Public Enemies. It has no relation to Wellman's film except the title, but I have very high hopes for it. Based on the book Public Enemies: America's Great Crime Wave and The Birth of the FBI 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough it tells the story of the sudden rush of criminal enterprise in the 193os and the way it gave rise to J. Edgar Hoover. Here are three reasons why I'm very excited about this movie:

1. It's based on an excellent book. Burrough's history of the period is a page turner with shootouts, vivid characters, and compelling insights into the people and the period. At the center of the book is the fascinating figure of John Dillinger, a true gangster who nevertheless was seen by many as a kind of Robin Hood.

2. The film is directed by Michael Mann, currently our best filmmaker interested in crime stories. Mann isn't perfect, but his talent is undeniable. Miami Vice was a stinker, but Collateral was a strong piece of work (until the final ten minutes or so), and his 1995 Heat is as good a cops-and-robbers picture as anyone has made in the last twenty years. At least in theory, he's the exact right choice to make this film.

3. The cast is superb. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger--which is an inspired choice, I think. Depp first began to emerge as a serious actor in Donnie Brasco, and it'll be interesting to see what he does with John Dillinger. He's supported by Christain Bale, Billy Crudup and Giovanni Ribisi.
It's a great cast, but all eyes will be on Depp. He follows in the footsteps of Lawrence Tierney, Ralph Meeker, and Warren Oates. Oates, in particular, will be a hard act to follow, but I have high hopes that Depp will pull it off.

Public Enemies opens July 1st. Here's the new trailer.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mann and Cooper and Man Of The West (1958)

Man of the West was Anthony Mann’s last foray into the Old West before he began the third phase of his career. He'd started out as one of the best noir directors of the classic era (Raw Deal, Railroaded!), moved on to a lucrative and artistically successful collaboration with Jimmy Stewart on a cycle of Westerns (The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie), and ended his career as the force behind a series of epics (The Fall Of The Roman Empire, El Cid). It was an amazing career, one of the best in the history of movies. In fact, it shows the depth of Mann’s work that a masterpiece like Man of the West has been overlooked by so many people.

The film is, in many ways, the best one Mann ever made. It is certainly one of the two or three best Westerns I’ve ever seen (up there with The Searchers and Unforgiven). It’s a dark and violent story about a man named Link Jones (Gary Cooper) who begins the film as an affable everyman traveling by train to find a schoolteacher for his little town of Good Hope. After a botched train robbery, Jones is stranded in the wilderness with a saloon singer named Billie Eillis (Julie London) and a card shark named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). Together the three of them stumble into the hideout of the train robbers, a rough band led by an old outlaw Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). Turns out Dock and Link know each other.

At the time Man of the West was made, the Western was at its peak. It had been the dominate genre in Hollywood (and, really the world) since the thirties. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the Western built Hollywood (after all, the desert is where you shot these horse operas). The genre would remain supreme until the seventies when the combination of Watergate and Star Wars killed it as a viable commercial force. On the one hand, institutional corruption threw the Western’s right-leaning worldview into disrepute. On the other hand, the space opera became the industry’s bread and butter. The frontier moved into outer space. The Western seemed old and hokey. It’s continued, of course, and good Westerns are still produced, but its day has passed.

Chief among the pleasures of the genre is a dark gem like Man of the West. As the film opens, we think we’re in one kind of film, but once Link and Dock square off their confrontation becomes a riveting drama. Mann had always been interested in violence as the result of thwarted masculinity and that theme finds its fullest expression in this film. There’s an extraordinary sequence in which one of Dock’s thugs, a psycho named Coaley (a young Jack Lord), holds a knife to Link’s throat and forces Billie to do a striptease. It’s a horrifying scene of symbolic rape (one aimed, really, at Link), and it is followed by an astonishing scene later in which Link beats Coaley and strips him naked, thus returning the symbolically sexualized assault.

This is dark stuff, but the film is deft in marrying its darkness to the bright form of the traditional Western. Look at the shootout in the ghost town of Lassoo near the end of the film. This sequence works on a richly symbolic level: while Dock thinks the town is a bustling mining community with a fat bank full of cash, it turns out to be an abandoned scattering of shacks. In this ghost town, Dock's hopes for the future are destroyed, and Link is able to confront his violent past. The sequence works as a piece of symbolism, but it also ends in a hell of a great shootout, up there with the gunfights in High Noon, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and Open Range.

You can feel Mann’s presence throughout the film—and his direction was never better—but due credit must be given to the film’s other two main creative forces. The script by Reginald Rose (from the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown) is simply terrific. Every character has a distinct voice, and Dock Tobin in particular is fun to listen to as he gets excited and gives praise to God for the robbery the gang is about to pull off.

The other major player here is Gary Cooper. He had always been an actor uncommonly comfortable with silence, imbued with the screen actor’s greatest gift: his face registered thought on camera. Orson Welles once explained to Peter Bogdanovich that while Cooper knew nothing of craft, he simply showed up on camera. On the set, Welles explained, Cooper seemed to be doing nothing. Once his performance was projected onscreen, however, it turned out the camera had caught some magic not visible to the naked eye. By the time he made Man of the West, Cooper was nearly at the end of his life. He had pretty much created the Western hero with his performance in The Virginian in 1929, helped Capra define the Everyman in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe (the director once said, “Gary Cooper just looks like America to me”), helped create the screwball comedy with Lubitsch in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, was Hollywood’s biggest male star in the forties, and gave his iconic performance as the beleaguered lawman in Zinnemann’s High Noon in 1952. His career was a towering body of work, and Man of the West is probably the best performance he ever gave. Watch him at the beginning, affable but withdrawn from the other characters, then watch his worry deepen, his inwardness turning dark as the film progresses. This is film acting of the highest caliber.

Cooper has long been one of my favorite actors, up there with Bogart and Mitchum, but he’s something else: he’s my favorite cowboy, more sensitive than Wayne but less neurotic than Stewart. With this film, Anthony Mann and Reginald Rose gave him one last great cowboy part to play.