Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2 by Delmer Daves at Anthology Film Archives

One of the few key directors discussed in Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema" without a book-length biography is Delmer Daves, which is surprising considering how popular and well-loved many of his films have remained over the years. However, unlike his fellow auteurs working in similar genres (John Ford, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks), one cannot generally tell a Delmer Daves film by its visual style or its thematic elements. He was, like many of his contemporaries, a solid studio-era director who just so happened to deliver good films time and again, even if they did not distinguish him from others of his type. Anthology Film Archives, whose "From the Pen Of..." series sheds light on underrated Hollywood screenwriters, also devotes several weeks a year to another series, "Overdue", programmed by critics who select a filmmaker who deserves, at long last, a retrospective film series. The month of May spotlights Daves with 5 films, including classic movie fan favorites like 1945's Pride of the Marines and 1950's Broken Arrow. If you asked fans of those films who directed it, one has to wonder if they would know. The stars, yes, are John Garfield and Jimmy Stewart, respectively, but the director? Daves is not a cinematic name brand. Maybe he never aimed to be.

Produced during the same year the HUAC hearings began, the provocatively-named The Red House (1947) is often written about as being a film noir, with its dark shadows and murderous secrets. However, anyone coming to this film expecting something in the noir mode will be disappointed. It does deliver a solid, if a tad unbelievable, mystery, engaging performances, and beautiful suspenseful atmosphere. Daves broke from the studio system to write, produce, and distribute this film independently for United Artists producer Sol Lesser, giving the film a slight edge and individual look that other pictures from 1947 did not offer. More than half is shot outdoors, in some confining spaces, contributing further to the overall independent aura of the production, free from the restrictions of studio walls.

There is something overwhelmingly Lynchian about Red House, as the small town is introduced by voice-over narration as a quaint locale far from the big bad city and with an innocence that has lasted over generations. Then the squeaky-clean rural setting is corrupted by the mysterious mention of a "red house" residing within the Oxhead Woods, one that produces blood-curdling screams that carry over wild winds in the dead of night. Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) warns his young farmhand Nath (Lon McCallister) to stay away from the woods at night, naturally giving the inquisitive teenager a case of the investigative bug. He recruits Pete's adopted daughter, Meg (Allene Roberts), to help him find the red house, incurring the wrath of Nath's jealous sexpot girlfriend Tibbie (singer Julie London, channeling Rita Hayworth in Gilda) and the villainous advances of property protector Teller (beefcake Rory Calhoun). Pete's spinster sister Ellen (Judith Anderson, who has never been bad in anything) knows the secret of the red house and threatens to burn the dastardly hovel to the ground.

The investigative team of Nath and Meg, and in fact the entire scenario of a small town's secret being hidden not-so-deep beneath the surface, surely had a vivid influence on Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), and Roberts' Meg is about as impossibly innocent as Laura Dern's Sandy. But even ignoring the obvious Lynch connections, Red House has much to recommend. As the film becomes progressively more intense and mysterious, the sunny vistas become more ominous and threatening, through superb photography by Bert Glennon. Robinson gives one of his finest performances as a man driven by his dark past and doomed to repeat his haunting mistakes, and while McCallister isn't the most engaging hero, Roberts is the ideal blonde American apple pie heroine. As previously mentioned, Anderson is always marvelous, though she is not featured in the film nearly enough, and London and Calhoun provide gender-specific eye candy. If there is a major fault with the film, it's that the running time is far longer than the mystery's interest can sustain. By the time the red house is found, it's some distance from the final act, which is where the discovery would hold more dramatic weight. That said, Daves builds the suspense as Robinson's dark secrets emerge and the lives of those around him are continually threatened. And that dark woodland ending is a stunner.

The complete movie The Red House

Following the excellence of 3:10 to Yuma (1957), it's quite a step down for Daves to deliver such a formulaic western as Cowboy (1958). The film reunites Daves with his Jubal (1956) and Yuma star Glenn Ford, but also saddles him with an unusually cast Jack Lemmon in a role perhaps better suited for someone with more gravitas as a western/action star. It's your rather standard manhood rite of passage story, based on what might have been a more compelling book by Frank Harris, played here by Lemmon. He is a poor hotel clerk who yearns to be a working man, and whose interest in a Mexican beauty leads him to enlist with Ford's cattle trail team. When he discovers she has married in his absence, Lemmon hardens and becomes a heartless cowboy, only softened by Ford's gradual growth towards sensitivity and humanity. Snore. While Daves does include some rather thrilling set pieces (the trail hands play with a rattlesnake with deadly results, Ford must place a ring around a bull's horn, a rough and tumble fistfight around the campfire), they are not enough to completely enliven what is otherwise a puerile genre effort. Even the Saul Bass titles are dull. The supporting cast has some fun faces in it, including Dick York (pre-"Bewitched"), Richard Jaeckel, Brian Donlevy (third-billed in what is essentially a glorified cameo), Strother Martin, and Anna Kasfhi as Harris' love interest (at the time she was Mrs. Marlon Brando). Daves would make a far better western, The Hanging Tree (1959), the next year.

This trailer is far better than the film.

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