As great as James Cagney is, there’s something very odd about seeing him in a Western. There’s nothing wrong with his performance here as the hard-edged horse rancher who’s quick to lynch the people that cross him, he’s really quite good, he’s just…distracting. It makes the heartfelt story difficult to take seriously in spots, but overall it’s a compelling western that’s good but not great.
Vera Cruz is an incredibly influential Western from 1954 starring two of my favorite actors, Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. Robert Aldrich directs the two greats in a story about an ex-Confederate soldier who teams up with a gunslinger and his gang to help escort a countess to the city of Vera Cruz. But when everyone finds out about the large amount of gold they’re secretly transporting it’s every man and woman for themselves.
While the film is tame by today’s standards, at the time it was one of the first Hollywood Westerns to really tap into the cynicism and amoral brutality of the old west. It was no doubt an influence to filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, whose films a decade later would revolutionize the genre. With revolution, romance, and a hell of a shootout at the end, I’m not sure what more you need in a Western.
Night Passage is one of those films that may not have a terribly interesting story, but the presence of Jimmy Stewart and the beautiful Colorado scenery sure help to hold your attention. Stewart is an accordion playing man working for the railroad to safely deliver a $10,000 payroll to the railroad workers. When the train is hijacked he hides the money in the shoe box of a little boy, who just happens to be friends with one of the outlaws trying to steal it. There’s a fair amount of tension as our hero spends the rest of the film fighting to get the money back, save the little boy, and save his reputation.
I’ve always been a fan of Stewart’s westerns — he’s the gentler answer to someone like John Wayne. The caring cowboy who can still kick some ass when need be. While Night Passage isn’t one of his more notable films, it’s still a decent effort that’s traditional without being overly stereotypical.
The Left Handed Gun is one of those films that may not be the greatest, but it’s admirable for its ambition. This was director Arthur Penn’s feature debut and what the film lacks he helps make up for in sheer energy. Paul Newman is slightly miscast as Billy the Kid but he still gives it his all, and while he gets an “A” for effort I couldn’t help thinking how much better the film would have been had James Dean been alive to take on the role.
Despite its shortcomings The Left Handed Gun is still a striking film visually, with stark black and white photography and ominous undertones; I have to admit I’m a sucker for noir-like westerns. All in all it’s a good-but-not-great film that’s worth checking out.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
I grew up watching Dial ‘M’ for Murder and it’s long been one of my favorites from the “Master of Suspense”. For a film that takes place solely (with two small exceptions) inside an apartment, it’s amazing how he maneuvers through the plot. Even with these limitations Hitchcock utilizes magnificent staging and camera work so you never once feel claustrophobic. As he’d proven with Lifeboat and Rope, he has a knack for creating suspense in tight spaces. Everything in the film has these subtle nuances that add to the experience, from the cinematography to the music to the facial expressions of the characters. To this day it gives me chills when Grace Kelly screams out “I saw his eyes!”.
As a whole the film plays out like an elegantly choreographed dance. The characters waltz around each other in each scene, which is particularly noticeable in the scene between Wendice and Swann. We spend the latter part of the film watching Wendice and Chief Inspector Hubbard in a mental tango as one tries to outsmart the other. Even after seeing it so many times it continues to grip me because it’s so intellectually and visually stimulating. The film was shot specifically for 3-D (and it helps to know this fact), so everything in the frame is deliberately placed so that you feel like you’re in the room. And man what I would give to have a chance to see this in 3-D on the big screen, I would imagine it’s pretty spectacular (albeit headache inducing). With or without that extra dimension, it’s just a wonderful film that showcases Hitchcock’s mastery as a filmmaker.