Saturday, August 11, 2012

"Gold Is Where You Find It" (1938, Michael Curtiz)

Gold Is Where You Find It (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz. Screenwriters: Warren Duff and Robert Buckner, from a story by Clements Ripley. Director of Photography: Sol Polito. Producers: Samuel Bischoff, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner. Music: Max Steiner. Actors: George Brent (Jared Whitney), Olivia de Havilland (Serena Ferris), Claude Rains (Col. Ferris).

Released in 1938, Gold Is Where You Find It is a California Western about the conflicts between the gold mining industry and the farmers whose fields are flooded with mud and other mining refuse. The political clash is channeled through star-crossed lovers: mining engineer Jared Whitney (George Brent) and Serena Ferris (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of farmer Col. Ferris (Claude Rains). Whitney's innovations only intensify the dispute, bringing greater wealth to the mining company and further devastation to the land. Though the drama is finely acted (Rains, in particular, is terrific), it is the photography and setting, as well as the underly politics of the story, that are the most fascinating aspects of the film.

Gold Is Where You Find It was Warner Brothers' way of testing the waters of the newly innovated 3-strip Technicolor process before embarking on their epic production of The Adventures of Robin Hood. At the helm was director Michael Curtiz, the German emigre who cut his teeth making Expressionist films at Berlin's UFA studios in the 1920s and who would later go on to make Casablanca. Aiding him was Director of Photography Sol Polito, a veteran from the silent era whose stark, stylized cinematography (I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang) came to define Warner Bros. in the early 1930s. Though it hardly looks resembles the black-and-white chiaroscuro its makers are known for, Gold Is Where You Find It is a stylistic splendor, ablaze with vibrant colors. The most prominent attractions of the film are the dynamic opening montage of hydraulic mining and the flooded fields -- poetically edited and narrated in the vein of Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains -- and the climactic, explosive flooding of the mountains and plains at the end. For a film that seemingly prides itself on its photographic merits, its a shame that the finale relies so strongly on what are obviously sound-stage miniatures. By contrast, by re-enacting the actual process of hydraulic mining, the opening of Gold Is Where You Find It has an almost documentary significance to it, one of those privileged instances (such as the whaling sequences in Down to the Sea In Ships or the fishing scenes in Tiger Shark) of Hollywood dramatics preserving what would otherwise be a lost piece of American history.

One of the key characteristics of the Western genre is the way that is doubles as both entertainment narrative and symbolic discourse on the foundation of America. Beyond the romance plot, there are many political dramas unfolding within Gold is Where You Find It. At its core, the film is about the shifting balance of democracy and capitalism -- a heated topic that, nearly a century and half after this film takes place, is still being disputed. The central court case in the film proposes certain basic human rights, as well as the rights of the land, against the abuses of corporations. Viewed today, the film resonates with contemporary issues about pollution, water privatization, seed patents, and conservation.

A final note about the legacy of director Curtiz. Though he made one of the most well-known and enduring films of all time, Casablanca, Curtiz himself is surprisingly forgotten. His films in Germany seem to have landed in the hands of collectors and museum vaults, and his American output is more frequently categorized by the stars he worked with (particularly Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn) than by his own name. From what I've seen, Curtiz had the versatility that characterized (or un-characterized, some might say) the most efficient and successful studio directors, yet there's a certain dynamic flair to his visuals that can't be overlooked. His Expressionist roots are clearly visible in the heavy shadows and stark contrast of 1933's Private Detective 62 (visually a prototype for the Noir style to come in the following decade); one can see how this evolved into more subtle usage in Casablanca, made 9 years later. Yet films like Gold Is Where You Find It and The Adventures of Robin Hood show a different side of Curtiz, one who is as adept at large-scale spectacle as small-scale suspense, at using bold colors as well as nuanced shades of grey and violent clashes of black and white, and of one who is equally sensitive to hardboiled, romantic, political, and adventure narratives. Judging by his prodigious output, there are even more sides to Curtiz's character, and I'm greatly looking forward to uncovering them in future screenings.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Horizons West" (1952, Budd Boetticher)

Horizons West (1952)

Director: Budd Boetticher. Screenwriter: Louis Stevens. Director of Photography: Charles P. Boyle. Producer: Albert J. Cohen. Music: Henry Mancini, Herman Stein. Actors: Robert Ryan (Dan Hammond), Rock Hudson (Neil Hammond), James Arness (Tiny McGilligan), Raymond Burr (Cord Hardin), Julie Adams (Lorna Hardin), Judith Braun (Sally Eaton). Universal. 81 mins.

Horizons West is emblematic of the anti-traditionalist direction that director, Budd Boetticher, would take the Western genre. The film is bursting with energy and ideas, much of which winds up feeling rushed, displaced, or pre-mature in its execution due to the film's brief runtime. At 81 minutes, it's far too short for its ambitions. Nonetheless, it is a flawed but fascinating Western that exemplifies the personal vision of Boetticher. 

Robert Ryan, Rock Hudson, and James Arness portray three friends returning to Texas after the end of the Civil War. Ryan and Hudson are brothers, while Arness is the family's ranch hand. The war has touched them all in different ways, dividing them by their distinctive and contrasting worldviews. Ryan is the cynic, Arness the naive optimist, and Hudson the realist. In a more conventional Western, Hudson would be our hero, with Ryan and Arness playing out some obvious, extremist moral counterpoint. However, Budd Boetticher doesn't direct typical Westerns, and Ryan becomes our main character, our unstable moral compass. Arness is practically forgotten after the opening scene, and Hudson is little more than a side note throeughout. Even in the end, when Hudson must rise to the occasion to restore justice and order to The West -- the key thematic values usually associated with the genre -- Boetticher shows next to no interest in his character or his ideals. Instead, it is Ryan, in all his corrupt and immoral rage, that is the object of Boetticher's fascination. 

Ryan can't stay at home for long. Itching for money and prosperity, he quickly rejects the traditional virtues of a Western hero and abandons farm and family to make it as a gambler. After losing big, however, Ryan is unable to pay his debt to local tycoon Raymond Burr. Ryan then rallies together the surviving scraps of the Confederate army and turns them into a gang of outlaws. Raiding local farms and robbing cattle, the gang becomes the scourge of Texas. Eventually, even Ryan's family -- led by Hudson -- picks up arms against him. The town's retribution, however, isn't given much sympathy from Boetticher. Ryan's amoral worldview, insatiable desires, and culture of violence are the director's focus. 

Unlike most Westerns, Horizons West's structure and pacing is more akin to the gangster genre -- the rise and fall of someone like Little Caesar, Scarface, or The Public Enemy. And, like in those films, whatever restoration of normality at the finale isn't a signal of good triumphing over evil, but all morality -- good natured, wicked, or otherwise -- is all-consuming, and self-destruction is inevitable.

It would be an understatement to describe the editing style of Horizons West as blunt. It is reckless and headstrong, well past the point of harming the narrative. What should be an epic story of family, economics and morality, symbolizing a larger shift in the American ethos -- something akin to Giant, or perhaps even Gone With the Wind -- is hammered out in just over an hour. Post-war turmoil is barely alluded to. Little time is given to the formation of the gang, their raids, or their dealings in Mexico; after Ryan rallies them for the first time, they almost disappear from the picture. Likewise, the family, the farm, and the love interests must have been left on the cutting room floor (if they were ever written or filmed at all). Even though the tempo, in some ways, limits the film from achieving its full potential -- the characters are thin, the plot full of gaps -- one cannot deny the overall relentless fever to the narrative, one that is perfectly in synch with Ryan's own raging whirlwind.

Horizons West is also notable for its complete lack of Western hokum. No fat amiable sheriffs, no cowpoke wisdom, no Main Street displays of virtue, no emblems of purity. Even the landscapes and sets are rendered without sentimentality. In contrast to his hard-edged characters and hell-bent for destruction tempo, Boetticher's compositions are lush and delicate, and his vibrant color palette blossoms in every frame. Unlike Ford's majestic long shots, there's something more intimate and immediate about Boetticher's shots. Ford's shots evoke eternity, while Boetticher's  suggest something more ephemeral and fragile, something grounded entirely in the moment. From the ground up to the characters themselves, Boetticher's natural order is one of life and death, always on the verge of creation and destruction.