Double Happiness: a Contemporary Classic of Canadian Cinema

I recently watch my DVD copy of this 1994 favourite because I was in a nostalgic mood. So when Double Happiness aired on CBC TV last night, prefaced by a brief interview with writer director Mina Shum and a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of women in the film industry, I was thrilled to learn that this film still resonated with others. I was also somewhat saddened by the glacial pace of progress towards diversity in contemporary mainstream TV and cinema. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this film holds up.

Sandra Oh (in her feature film debut) plays Jade Li, the eldest daughter of Chinese parents from Hong Kong, who now live in Canada. She is a struggling actress, much to the chagrin of her traditional parents who view her artistic passion as a frivolous and futile pursuit. For much of the film we watch her navigate a punishing series of auditions as she fulfils role as dutiful daughter and supportive sister and fun-loving friend. We see her humour her parents as she is set up on numerous dates with men from good Chinese families. Ultimately we watch her figure out what she wants, rather than what her parents want.

This film shares many thematic similarities to The Big Sick, which I recently blogged about. However, this film is more drama than comedy, by design. This story is an honest portrayal of the double life that is familiar to many children of immigrants to North America. This is Sandra Oh’s film and she is a delight to watch in an authentic portrayal of a young adult dealing with culture class and a generation gap. Themes that always strike a cord with me. The supporting cast, which includes Callum Keith Rennie, is also fun to watch. I bet that this DVD is available in most Canadian libraries. It is currently also available to stream on CBC TV’s mobile app and website at the link below.

http://watch.cbc.ca/canadian-feature-films/all/41bd9e84-2271-4aeb-8395-16a579a2d330

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New Waterford Girl: a Contemporary Classic of Canadian Cinema

 

I watched New Waterford Girl on DVD again; is it the 3rd or 4th time? I have lost count. This 18 year old movie is one I absolutely adore. It is funny, quirky, sweet, kind, very specific to time and place and so very Canadian. It also has an amazing pedigree. It was directed by Allan Moyle (Pump Up the Volume) and features Mary Walsh (This Hour has 22 Minutes) and Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci’s Inquest), two icons of Canadian TV. Both actors give authentic portrayals as the titular character’s haggard parents. Andrew McCarthy (Pretty in Pink), an under-rated talent, is great in a key supporting role.

 

 

Liane Balaban makes her film debut as Agnes Marie (nick-named Mooney) Pottie in this coming of age story set in 1970’s small town Nova Scotia. She struggles to be understood as the 4th of 5 children in a lovingly chaotic dysfunctional family. She is introverted, imaginative and creative and considered weird because she dreams of a life beyond her small mining town. With the help of her teacher, Mr. Sweeney (not a local) her talents are rewarded by a scholarship to a prestigious art high school in Manhattan. But how to get there? In an insular Catholic town, where anyone who comes from away is viewed with suspicion, any girl who leaves does so under a cloud of gossip. With the help of her tough new extroverted friend Lou (Tara Spencer-Nairn), an American new-comer, in exile from the Bronx, Mooney concocts a plan to realize her dream.

I really enjoy the way the film prioritizes a friendship between 2 very different teenage girls. Both Mooney and Lou are trying to figure out who they are and the actresses portraying them do a terrific job.  Both girls have to make fine adjustments in their behaviour and beliefs while determining where to draw the line. All this is done without the need for a major romantic subplot. Ok, there are hints of romance but Mooney makes it clear that she has no interest and won’t be flattered by its introduction. How refreshing and un-Hollywood is that?

Gosh, I am a sucker for films about misfits. This film also hits other themes in my wheelhouse. It deals with family dysfunction, the expectations of women in the 1970’s, small town life and the role of Catholic church. Mooney is singular in her dream of the life that she wants, eschews conformity and allows nothing to derail her. This film has a great period soundtrack featuring Canadian artists and a musical performance cameo by Ashley MacIsaac. Having lived through the 1970’s, I feel comfortable in saying this film  captured the spirit of the times in a remarkable way. The outfits, the cars, the hairstyles, the interior decor, this film just nailed it.

If you are looking for a quirky, sweet, fun, blast from the past, you might want to check this one out. I imagine almost every public library in Canada probably has a copy.

La La Land, a love song to Classic Film and Musicals

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I went with my family to the theatre to watch this movie. It has many critics whispering Oscar and I was super curious. The only musicals in theatres these days are usually cartoons. I was raised on classic Hollywood film and I am a fan of musicals. I did like (not love) this film. So did my family, but I don’t think it will win anyone over who isn’t partial to musicals to begin with. But if you are a fan of either Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling (I am) and are curious about them breaking into song and dance numbers, this is worth a look.

We follow Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they fall in love and support each other through the struggle to make it against all odds in L.A. Mia is an aspiring actor and Sebastian is a jazz pianist. It is a story that honours artistic dreamers. It is a fantasy that flirts with harsh realities. It is beautifully filmed and the acting is top notch, especially Emma Stone. The dancing is pretty good but I can’t say it was as effortless as I had hoped it to be. The songs are good but didn’t exactly wow me. The singing is ok.

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I give the writer/director, Damien Chapelle A+ for effort. It takes guts to tackle a musical without a big studio system supporting you and a dearth of triple-threat talent to choose from. There were numerous overt nods to classic Hollywood films and I really liked the ending. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. However, this isn’t the film that will convert anyone to embrace musical film. For me, that film is still Singing in the Rain (1952 starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor). I can’t help feel sad as I write this less than a day after Debbie Reynolds has died, on the heels of the tragic loss of her daughter Carrie Fisher. I think I am going to dust that DVD off now, watch it again while my husband goes out to see the new Star Wars: Rogue One movie with my eldest.

 

 

Lone Star (1996) revisiting a modern classic

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Lone Star is a film that I remembered really enjoying almost 20 years ago when it was released on home video. I think I watched it then because Roger Ebert raved about it. Gosh I still miss that man’s writing. I didn’t always share his opinion, but I admired his writing tremendously, coveted his job and appreciated that when I read his review, whether positive or negative, I could usually guess if a film was for me or not. But I digress. Back to Lone Star, when I saw that it was playing on premium cable, I set it up to record and enjoyed revisiting it again.

Lone Star is a modern day western mystery set in a Texas border town. We follow sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) piece together clues to a decades old mystery.  In doing so, skeletons tumble out of many closets. He is convinced that his late father, Buddy Deeds, former sheriff and town saviour has something to do with the skeletal remains discovered in a shallow grave on an abandoned shooting range.

In addition to a very compelling mystery, there is a masterful depiction of small town life and its unwritten rules of the social order. There is also subtle commentary about the complexity of Texas history and how it is perceived by an ethnically diverse population. This is also a story about grown men and their fathers, political corruption and love. It is masterfully presented by writer/director John Sayles with many surprises that I daren’t hint at.

The cast is stellar. In addition to a wonderful and subtle performance by Chris Cooper, there is a young Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds in flashback sequences as well as Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Frances McDormand and a young Chandra Wilson.

This is a great film that still holds up 20 years after it was released. If you like mysteries and social commentary this may be worth hunting down.

Jane Eyre: Redux and Reviews

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I am a sucker for screen adaptations of classic English literature, especially the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre has remained my favorite story in this genre since childhood, when I first encountered the 1943 gothic B&W movie version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Since then there have been many adaptations, for TV and cinema. Indeed, a quick search reveals a wonderful website that discusses them all in superb detail, An Enthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations. I won’t pretend to be as enthusiastic, but reading a recent review of the 1943 version on a favorite blog that I follow had me in a nostalgic mood to revisit this favorite story.

But which version to watch? As I stared at my DVD shelf, my choices were the following : the most recent (2011) big screen adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, the 2006 BBC miniseries Starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, the 1997 A&E TV movie starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds and the previously mentioned 1943 version.

It wasn’t that hard a choice. The 2006 BBC miniseries is by far my favourite adaptation.  You can watch it on youtube here, to see what I mean. To be fair, Jane Eyre is a novel of at least 400 pages and condensing it into a 2 hour movie simplifies a powerful story. At over 3 hours, the length of the 2006 TV miniseries allows for a rich character driven story to unfold. The truncated movie length results in a highlight reel presentation that favours plot over character, so in truth, there really is no contest.

The story of Jane Eyre is essentially the underdog hero’s journey. In the novel, we meet Jane as a excruciatingly plain 10 year old orphan, rejected by her aunt and cousins and dumped in an orphanage. In this harsh environment she is starved for food and affection. The saving grace is a decent education, enough to secure a post as governess upon her graduation. She is hired, as such, to teach Miss Adele Varon who is also an orphan and the young ward of frequently absent Mr. Edward Rochester. In his employ at Thornfield Hall that Jane finally feels at home, due in part of the camaraderie of kind Mrs. Fairfax , the housekeeper and the affection of her pupil. Mr Rochester, master of Thornfield, is a broody, rough, curt older man who soon takes an interest in Jane upon his return home after many months abroad. He treats her as an intellectual equal and seems to genuinely enjoy her company. But all is not right at Thornfield. What is the source of the strange noises and goings on within? The answer to that question tears Jane away from the first real home that Jane has ever had and yet she survives and thrives. Indeed, despite her lack of beauty or money, her confidence and resilience ensure that she remains an independent woman who manages to carve a place for herself in a harsh world . She is a woman ahead of her time, a real feminist icon.

Jane Eyre is a character study and a gothic romance. The 2006 TV miniseries offers the viewer a beautifully acted and wonderfully paced remarkably faithful (ok, ok there are a few embellishments) adaptation of the novel. Ruth Wilson embodies the spirit of Jane Eyre so well, even if she cannot be rendered as physically plain as the novel would suggest. Likewise, Toby Stephens (more handsome than the novel allows) conveys the complexity of Mr. Rochester’s dark moods and deep passions as never before seen on screen. This longer adaptation allows us to buy in to the love story; whereas other adaptations, especially the 1997 version (my least favourite, watch it here to see what I mean) starring Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton left me wondering what she every saw in such an unpleasant harsh man. I still have a soft spot for the 1943 version. The acting is fine and young Elizabeth Taylor dazzles as young Jane’s friend Helen. But the trimming of major thematic elements rank it as my 3rd choice. Check it out here if you are interested.

In addition to truncated character and romantic relationship development, the shorter movie-length versions are forced to eliminate major plot points, which arguably are not essential but dilute the power of the narrative. I would choose the latest, 2011 adaptation (my 2nd choice) over any of the previously mentioned ones. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are brilliantly cast in the lead roles. I also enjoyed how the narrative played around with the timeline by employing flashbacks. It was a refreshing novelty to a familiar story.

So if you ever wondered why this story remains a timeless classic and you are intrigued by mystery, gothic romance and a strong heroine and you don’t want to read the book, I would highly recommend checking out the TV mini-series. Especially when it is only a click away.

Pitch Perfect: as Close as it Gets: Movies for Mothers and Daughters:

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The whole family watched Pitch Perfect last night. I had heard some pretty good buzz about this film (EW magazine and Pop Culture Happy Hour), but it wasn’t until my eldest daughter started telling me how much her friends really liked it that I decided to take the plunge. My reluctance was due in part by how awful and derivative most Hollywood romantic comedies are, and do not get me started on musicals.

Pitch Perfect introduces us to the cut-throat world of collegiate competitive a capella singing. It stars Anna Kendrick as Beca, a reluctant college freshman. She is a talented DJ and a rebel who would rather take her chances with the L.A. music scene. Because her dad is a professor at Barden University, he is insistent that she take advantage of collegiate life (at the low cost of FREE since he works there) at least for a year, before she gives up on higher education. I couldn’t help but chuckle when he tells her that being a DJ isn’t a career, it is a hobby. I wonder if DeadMau5 had that conversation with his folks? Beca reluctantly promises to give university a fair chance and finds herself interning at the campus radio station. It is here that she meets fellow intern Jesse (Skylar Astin) who clearly starts crushing on her. She and Jesse share a love for music and join competing a cappella singing clubs (Barden Bellas and the Treble Makers).

Ok, Ok, the rest of the plot is not ground breaking (Bring it On/Strictly Ballroom/etc). Both singing clubs vie for the championship prize (no spoilers here) as a backdrop for the unfolding romance of Beca and Jesse. Of course, there are impediments to the romantic relationship that need to be overcome. Surprisingly, said impediment was not as insulting to my intelligence as is often the case. How refreshing.  Yes, my younger daughter, at age 9, could see where things were heading. However, this movie had a lot of heart, a ton of  laughs and great musical performances (cleverly selected to appeal to a broad demographic). My daughter and I found ourselves swaying as we cuddled on the couch together. Pitch Perfect has stellar performances from the entire cast. Rebel Wilson stands out as Fat Amy; just check her out in the linked trailer. She is a scene stealer with some of the best lines. Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are outrageously inappropriate as the color commentators during the lively competition scenes.

This movie tackles a number of themes that are springborads for discussion, such as the following: team work, college dorm life, following one’s dream, giving new things a fair chance, stepping outside one’s comfort zone, romance and how far one is willing to go in its pursuit. One of this film’s biggest flaws is the racial stereotyping. On the upside the choirs are populated by a mixed gang, reflecting true North American collegiate life. On the downside however, the non-white characters are one dimensional or worse, stereotype punch lines. This makes for some uncomfortable laughs (especially the outrageous but barely audible words that shy/quiet Asian Lilly blurts). Still, this affords further discussion, which is never a bad thing.

My husband and I were really surprised at how much we enjoyed this PG-13 rated film. My husband has an infectious gut busting laugh that is not unleased lightly and can be used as a comedy metric. It was set off repeatedly throughout the 112 minute runtime and added to our enjoyment. My youngest kept whispering how much she enjoyed the film, using the word “EPIC” repeatedly. It is now 2nd to Avatar as her favorite film. I would watch it again in a heartbeat. Then again, I see that Bring it On is airing this month. Maybe it is time to revisit that one, to see if  my daughters enjoy it as much as I did.

Mother and Daughter viewing recommendations are always welcome if you have any.

Panic in the Streets: Noir or Not, Still a Good Film After All These Years

Panic in the Streets (1950) is a good film that solidifies Richard Widmark’s place in Hollywood as a hard-boiled hero. Shot on location in New Orleans by legendary director Elia Kazan, PitS tells the tale of 2 men who are in pursuit of a criminal. Widmark plays Dr. Clint Reed of the Public Health Dept and Paul Douglas plays Police Capt. Tom Warren. They form a reluctant partnership in pursuit of a killer, Blackie (Jack Palance in his screen debut) whose victim was determined to be suffering from highly contagious pneumonic plague when he was brutally murdered and dumped. Reed and Warren are given 48 hours to identify the victim’s identity and find the killer in order to curtail an epidemic. Reed pleads successfully to have the information withheld from the press in order to prevent mass panic and possible further spread of the disease. The tension of the race against the clock is balanced by the contrasting scenes depicting Reed’s happy home life.

Widmark does a fine job as the doctor. He is passionate about his work despite the long hours, relatively low pay and lack of public recognition. He is paired up with the very capable and solid Paul Douglas as a cynical police captain who is reluctant with this new assignment to say the least. The dialogue is sharp and realistic.

Capt. Warren: “Why shouldn’t I believe you Dr., you’re a smart fellow, college man, you probably wouldn’t make something out of nothing just to be important.”

Dr. Reed: “You know, my mother always told me if you look deep enough in anybody, you would always find some good, but I don’t know.”

Capt. Warren: “With apologies to your mother, that’s the 2nd mistake she made.”

Dr. Reed: “I should of seen that one coming.”

Jack Palance does a great turn as the villain called Blackie. He has a face to match his personality – menacing. Zero Mostel, as his sniveling side-kick Fitch, is icing on the cake,

I first saw this film as a teenager, at home, on TV and I remember being thrilled by the tension. The world of a Public Health physician seemed very exciting. So when it was released on DVD a few years ago, I was eager to watch it again … to see if it held up to the critical eye of adulthood. Well it does hold up, as far as the narrative flow, plausibility and performances are concerned. The cat and mouse chase is above average with the added complication of the killer not knowing about the disease threat and thus wondering about all the interest in the identity of yet another “John Doe” being washed up.

Blackie: ” This guy Kochak is just a floater, comes in off a boat, gets very unsocial and then pulls a knife that he’s gonna use on Poldi. So they turn the town upside down for one crumb. They got every cop in town, huffin’ and puffin’ trying to find out who he is. Why are they doing that?”

Fitch: “Blackie, I don’t know.”

Blackie: “I”ll figure it out for you. I gotta hunch that he brought something in, see. I gotta hunch that he brought something in, and they’re looking for it. Only he ain’t got it, you know why, because friend Poldi’s got it.”

So Reed and Warren are looking for Blackie and Fitch ….. and Blackie and Fitch are looking for Poldi and the potential loot. The chase is on.

What elevates this film beyond a chase plot is the unveiling of personal relationships. Some are well established, and we just catch glimpses, such as Dr. Reed’s domestic life. Although the scenes are few, they ring true and add dimension to the main character. We find out about their financial struggles, career aspirations, and desire for a bigger family. I love this bit of dialogue between Clint Reed and his wife Nancy (played so well by Barbara Bel Geddes). She has just scolded her husband for indulging their only child with extra pocket money after he blew his allowance. “Incidentally, since you’re being so free with your money” as she hands him another unpaid bill. It is clear that Reed has a long working day that leaves him little family time. His wife is tired of “being the heavy” and guilt causes Reed to indulge his son (played by Tommy Rettig, in his film debut and 1st of 3 films with RW; what are the other 2?). I also really appreciate the way Nancy does not let her husband get away with his crabby behavior. She makes it clear that she does not appreciate being his verbal punching bag just because he has had a hard day at work. I like her strength!

We also witness the evolution of Reed and Warren’s relationship. They start off almost resenting one another but develop a genuine respect for one another by the end of the chase.

The relationship of Blackie and Fitch has some interesting revelations and parallels the relationship of Reed and Warren. I chuckled at their “good cop/bad cop” routines as both pairs are in pursuit.

Interestingly, pneumonic plague is still considered a virulent disease, caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Thankfully, it is pretty rare. Widmark’s medical spiel at the beginning of the movie is an accurate depiction of the disease process. If diagnosed in time, it can be treated with Streptomycin as stated in the film. A vaccine was also available historically to prevent spread of disease. I was impressed by the medical accuracy of this film except for one part. The examination of the 1st body was extremely cursory, and yet a communicable pneumonic disease was suspected and bystanders were ordered out of the room. A bit nit-picky, I admit. I also get a chuckle over the paternalistic practice of medicine, which is probably accurate for the time. My how times have changed!

The R1 DVD is part of the Fox Film Noir series. However, whether this film represents true noir is debatable. The location shooting certainly gives the film a gritty atmosphere. The disc includes a commentary track by James Ursini and Alain Silver which is quite good if you are a film buff, but the DVD is otherwise pretty lean. I can recommend this film to anyone who is not bothered by black and white cinematography. You can watch it online below

Warlock (1959), Outstanding Western with an Odd Title

Warlock (1959) is one of my favorite westerns.  Unfortunately it shares a title with a horror/fantasy film made 30 years later. It has a stunning cast that includes Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Dorothy Malone. And for fans of 60’s TV shows it also has DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy/Star Trek) and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler/Batman) in supporting roles.

Widmark plays the role of Johnny Gannon.  He and his brother (Frank Gorshin, an ideal choice as there is a resemblance) ride with a lawless gang who like to shoot-up the town of Warlock between stints of cattle rustling and other such endeavors.

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This leaves the town terrorized and frightened and unable to attract a deputy sheriff.  So the citizens of Warlock decide to hire a notorious gunfighter named Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), at the bargain price of $400 a month.  By law, a sheriff’s deputy only earns a tenth of that sum.  So technically and according to the sheriff, Blaisedell, the appointed Marshall is a vigilante- gun-for- hire, operating outside of the law on behest of the townsfolk of Warlock.  Unfortunately, said sheriff is counties away and of no immediate everyday use. There seems to be no takers at the paltry sum offered to a deputy, so what else can the town of Warlock do?

So Blaisedell comes to town with his good friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who happens to have a club foot, but is also a pretty quick draw.  They are clearly a package deal and settle into town by opening up their gambling saloon and intimidating the unruly gang.  The story gets complicated when Widmark’s character, Gannon, decides to break ties with the gang and turn over a new leaf. As soon as he accepts the position as the town’s deputy, he finds himself caught between his former gang buddies and Blaisedell, with little support of the citizens. Further complications arise when Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) comes to town in search of Blaisedell.  She is an old flame of Morgan’s (Quinn) and is back with a vengeance. This adds an interesting subplot the helps flesh out the main characters by adding another dimension to the story. I am not going to give any more plot points away, as I do not want to risk spoiler territory.  Suffice it to say, the conflict between Gannon (the law) and Blaisedell (the vigilante), in addition to the resolution of the Morgan, Blaisedell and Lily affair, play out with great tension, action and drama.

I thought all the main roles were well acted.  I especially liked Widmark’s low-key performance of a man with a very troubled past who is looking for redemption.  It is the kind of role he excels at.  There is a great performance by  DeForest Kelley as Curly, one of the more likeable members of the outlaw gang.  He does a great job providing comic relief and steals many scenes.  I like the way the story unfolds with surprises along the way. Henry Fonda is very capable in the thankless role of the stoic gun fighter; it is the least dynamic of any of the male leads.

Anthony Quinn’s villainous portrayal of Morgan suggests more than just a close friendship with Henry Fonda’s Blaisedell by reinforcing homosexual stereotypes (flamboyant clothes, preoccupation with interior decor, hostility toward women who pose a threat to the status quo of their relationship).  Some of the final scenes make me wonder if perhaps Blaisedell is just too afraid of society’s wrath to reciprocate feelings that he dared not acknowledge.  Of course, this is all subtext; anything explicit about such themes would have been impossible in 1959. Certainly this is all in the eye of the viewer; but I have read online that the director (Edward Dmytryk) was surprised when critics of the time commented on the perceived homosexuality of Morgan (I am not the only one to think so).  It was not intentional, in his mind.  Or maybe he did not see it but the screenwriter did.  Some people get quite hostile at the notion that Morgan’s character might be gay. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, not that there is anything wrong with that. I find it an interesting interpretation of a fictional character.

I really enjoyed this Western. The themes are more complex than average; it has no clear hero, no clear villain and it left me thinking, long after I finished watching it for the countless time. My biggest complaint is the title. I wish the town had a different, less supernatural sounding name. The title seems so incongruous to the story.

The Violent Men, Great Western, Awful Title

I was doing the usual chores in the kitchen, chopping veggies for dinner, stuffing loot bags for my youngest daughter’s friends, when I realized, something was missing. That something was the TV; it was off; that was just wrong. Such chores demanded some entertainment. Then I remembered that I had recorded a movie on TCM that I had remembered enjoying some time ago. In my years of multi-tasking while watching a movie, there are inevitably gaps that leave me frustrated. So a familiar story was a perfect way to make mundane chores more pleasant.

“The Violent Men” (1955) wins the award for the best movie with the most terrible title. Truly, the title is the worst part of this otherwise entertaining western that boast an all-star cast of Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Glenn Ford.

Ford plays Parrish, a rancher who is trying to return east with his fiancé, as he promised her. That is the plan, as long as he can sell his ranch for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned and Parrish finds himself in the middle of a range war. Edward G. Robinson plays Wilkison, a big shot who owns most of the surrounding land. Parrish’s friends and neighbors are bitter at the thought of Parrish selling out to the enemy. Unfortunately, Wilkison is the only one who can afford to buy. Wilkison is clearly a bully who has been running a range war with the surrounding smaller outfits. Parrish does his best to avoid conflict.  However when he is low-balled in his negotiations with Wilkison and then one of his hired hands is ambushed and killed by Wilkison’s thug; he understands the pleas of his neighbors. He finally decides to step up to the plate. This comes at a price, as he loses his fiancé’s affection; it seems she was more interested in moving east than spending her life with him. Poor Wilkison is getting it from both sides. He really under estimates a foe such as Parrish in his quest for supremacy over the land. And to make matters worse, his brother (Brian Keith), whom Wilkison depends on to help run things on the ranch is carrying on with Wilkison’s wife (Barbara Stanwyck). Let the fight begin.

I really enjoyed this movie. The plot is layered but not too complicated. The viewer is treated intelligently. The history and context of the range war is revealed organically without clumsy exposition. We learn about the characters’ motivations during realistic conversations. The film shows the underdog using clever strategy and tactical maneuvers in dealing with a bully. Dealing with a bully is a timeless subject that is especially well handled in the Western genre. As a bonus, this film highlights a buff Glenn Ford,

one of my favorite actors from classic Hollywood and the quickest draw in Hollywood (oh yes, quicker than John Wayne). Barbara Stanwyck is dynamite as the cold, calculating, two-timing, rancher’s wife. Edward G. Robinson is simply great, as a man obsessed with controlling as much land as possible.  Probably because he realizes he is losing his wife. It is beautifully filmed in Cinemascope and Technicolour, the way a Western should be.

“The Viloent Men” is a great movie with an awful title; don’t let that stop you from watching it. So how would I have titled it? I don’t know; I probably would have named after the ranch that Parrish lived on or the title of the book it was based on, “Smoky Valley” by Don Hamilton. Not exactly genius, but marginally better than, “The Violent Men”. It plays on TCM from time to time and it is available on DVD. Or you can try watching it at this link .

Broken Lance

Still on a Richard Widmark roll. But to shift gears somewhat, I have decided to write about one of my favorite westerns. “Broken Lance (1954)” is a retelling of an earlier 20th Century Fox film, “House of Strangers (1949)”.  The story is transposed from a big city banking family to a western family of ranchers.  This is done with ease, because the story resonates as true for many dysfunctional families, regardless of the setting.  This was one of the first Widmark films that I remember seeing as a child, initiating my fandemonium.  It was on TVO’s double bill movie program called Saturday Night at the Movies, which is still going strong, decades later.  That evening’s theme was the Hollywood remake; thus House of Strangers was paired with Broken Lance.  The latter film is the best in my opinion, although both are good.  True confession time – I dusted off my DVD copy of House of Strangers to rewatch it, just for fun after watching Broken Lance.  I am such a movie geek.

Spencer Tracy plays the patriarch, Matt Devereaux.  He has 3 sons from his first marriage, and Widmark plays the eldest, Ben.  Tracy’s character’s first wife died when his sons were young.  He married again and had a fourth son, Joe (played by Robert Wagner).  His second wife is played by Katy Jurado.  Jean Peters plays Barbara, Joe’s firecracker of a sweetheart.  The acting is fabulous by all. It is a great dysfunctional family story. Even the villainous sons, Widmark in particular, evoke some sympathy. Matt Devereaux is a bully, and takes the law in his own hands. He lets his favorite son take responsibility and is shocked to learn that his other sons are not going to give up part of their inheritance to spare the consequences of their father’s ill advised actions.

What makes this film stand ahead of the pack is the attention it pays to character development and dead on family dynamics.  It beautifully illustrates how miserably Tracy’s character, Matt, treated his sons, especially the oldest 3.  To watch Widmark’s face as he reacts to his father’s hollering out for all to hear “Just brand them, don’t BBQ them” is to die, just a little  One sees numerous examples of Matt publicly humiliating his sons, belittling them, using a whip on them — they are grown men for crying out loud!  Yet he treats them like children; paying them like ranch hands, yet expecting them to behave differently, as if they have a vested interest in the business.  “What’s mine is yours” says Matt Devereaux.  Yah, sure not til I’m dead, is the subtext.  He has the nerve to tell them that if they don’t like it they could leave. Really?  After he failed to educate them as children in order to put them to work on the ranch.  Leave and do what, start their own ranch?  That’s easier said than done.  Especially when your offspring only expected to be treated with respect due any other adult.  He used his sons poorly and refused to advance them to partners in the business until it was forced upon him due to his legal difficulties.  Matt Devereaux is an insufferable know-it-all and his own worst enemy.  He is constantly ignoring the sound advice of his son Ben on business and legal matters and he is oblivious to the depth of prejudice against his aboriginal second wife and favorite youngest son.  So when Matt’s know-it-all attitude lands him in hot water with the law, and he is surprised by the lack of support from his “friend” the govenor (Jean Peter’s character’s father); the only son willing to take the rap on his behalf is his favorite, Joe, the goody-goody.  The repercussions of this decision are played out to a great climax, which I shall not give away.

This movie is beautifully filmed in Cinemascope.  The story is richly layered with family dysfunction, social predjudice and the added treat of rich character development.  It gives Widmark a wonderful opportunity to showcase some of  his best work.  So few actors could have resisted being type-cast as a heavy. He managed to do so with his sympathetic portrayal of antagonists, such as in this film. His scenes with Spencer Tracey are phenomenal.  They are head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. That is saying something because Katy Jurado won a supporting Oscar for this role. Robert Wagner and Jean Peters also turn out fine performances.  Sure Widmark is billed 4th and deserved 2nd, but that is an understandable business decision on Fox’s part.  They would naturally promote the actors with remaining contracts. This was Widmark’s last film for Fox. He declined to renew his contract, much to the chagrin of the studio executives. Below is a A&E Biography episode about Widmark, for those that are curious.
Broken Lance is Widmark’s first of 3 western films with director Edward Dmytryk (The other 2 are Warlock and Alvarez Kelly, both excellent as well).  Dmytryk was one of the original so-called “Hollywood Ten” .  He was imprisoned for months after he initially refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a congressional committee that used cruel tactics in order to expose and destroy what it saw as Communist influence in Hollywood.  He eventually named names and the fact that he insited that he had done the right thing, put a shadow over his career similar to the one Elia Kazan fell under.

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