The Tall Men

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell.

A substantial hit in its day that made Clark Gable give a damn because he took a percentage deal against his already meaty salary, The Tall Men is a combination cattle drive drama/wagon train epic with a long stop-off in San Antonio. The last is so that Jane Russell can take all the baths she wants in the town’s fanciest hotel, courtesy of amoral smoothie Robert Ryan’s deep pockets.

Whatever its flaws, the movie’s CinemaScope panoramas of a zillion or so cows sprawling and sometimes racing across the frame make this Twilight Time release something of a demonstration disc, even if the actors (while more than competent individually) never quite interact with enough kinetic energy to make us feel that anything is much at stake — other than maybe giving Gable that good payday for his second film after leaving MGM with five years left to live.

The director here is Raoul Walsh, who at the time was more than a four-decade filmmaking veteran with another decade to go before wrapping up his career with a Troy Donahue Cavalry picture (at least that was more in keeping with Walsh’s career oeuvre than the actor’s Palm Springs Weekend would have been). But in 1955, the filmmaker was already over the hill despite having just scored a monster box office smash earlier in the year with the censors-compromised movie of Leon Uris’s Battle Cry — a movie straight from the “War Is Heck” school, especially given its Marine Corps focus. The Tall Men is not dissimilarly slick in its portrayal of what had to have been an unforgivably grungy environment in its non-Texas episodes — though at least now we can view the film as something like a second cousin to 1930’s The Big Trail, which can add a little to one’s enjoyment.

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Much more widely seen today than then, the intended John Wayne star-maker that fizzled was for years a victim of dim common wisdom that viewed it as simply a massive red-inked flop — before, that is, revisionist criticism rightfully pumped up its reputation. Despite its vintage, Trail had been shot in a 70mm version (thankfully still in existence and available on Blu-ray), and we can now see that its caravan footage is pretty close to breathtaking. Walsh somewhat replicates some of these scenes in Men, and they may be its strongest feature, though the extensive location work (Idaho standing in for Montana, plus more shooting near Durango) is impressive all around, where it certainly looks as if the stars are really braving the elements. And this time, Walsh had color and stereo sound (the later track sounds good on my setup).

The story, though, plays out with few surprises. With the screenplay taking a sanguine attitude toward Quantrell’s Raiders that likely wouldn’t make it to the screen today, brothers Gable and Cameron Mitchell are presumably onetime town torchers now in postwar Montana and indulging their shady streak. But if anything, one of the high rollers they rob (Ryan) is even more shifty than they are, though too polished to be an outright thug, preferring to fold his cards whenever he sees that something dastardly he’s intending no longer has the percentages on his side. Power-hungry, he someday hopes to own Montana — which appeals to the mercenary half of obvious love interest Russell, whose character roughed it through a tough childhood that left her materially hungry in addition to her loathing of the blizzards. On the other hand, there’s Gable, who has saved her life in that same Montana snow but only has limited aspirations to work his ranch, which she speculates will no doubt turn her into walking death at age 40 from having too many babies. But … he’s a tall man, and Ryan’s a little too slick.

Ryan is so cynically pragmatic that he ends up hiring the very people who’ve just robbed him because he thinks Gable has the stuff to lead his envisioned cattle trek from San Antonio back to Montana (there’s a lot of traveling in this movie). Re Mitchell … well, he’s not even that attractive. The actor is cast again as his familiar liability: how many times did he play a kid brother, a drunken kid brother, a drunken tag-along, a drunken hothead or some combination? Probably fewer than it seems, but I still always wondered what it must have been like for Mitchell trying to put the make on Hollywood starlets at parties and being asked what he did — to which he’d answer, “I play weaklings.” In any event, he’s the kind of guy who throws Russell’s dry clothes in the drink for kicks when she’s skinny-dipping, which doesn’t get you many life-longevity points, either in life or screenwriting. By the way, with all those fancy San Antonio baths bankrolled by Ryan, Jane must be the cleanest pioneer on record; she even takes her own bathtub with her on the wagon train, which is not exactly Frankie Laine Rawhide material.

There’s an abundance of Russell here, which swells the running time, though this is nothing against her personally, given her down-to-earth quality both on and off the screen that proved disarming for one so heavily promoted as a sex symbol. This said, Russell’s voluptuousness made her kind of a female equivalent to a “tall man,” and this picture came out maybe two months after I mortified my mother at a just-turned age 8 when I engaged the minister at a local summer Bible school — boy, was I miscast for that one before saying, “no way” after about two weeks —in a discussion of Russell’s breasts. (For his part, I remember that he kind of reciprocated.) Decades later, she proved her cross-generational appeal when my older son, then age 3, went into a screaming fit after I switched channels from TCM to something else after that wild Russell number in The French Line that got that got it into such censorship trouble (about all one can watch of The French Line). Whereupon my son started wailing and screaming over and over that he wanted to see “the Big Lady.”

He’s a doctor today.

Thus, you can see why it gets a little competitive out on the trail when so many women look as if they’ve just entered the Maria Ouspenskaya lookalike contest. And for Russell, too, because each of these men (not talking about joker-boy Mitchell) has something to offer, though it must be said that Gable looks like every one of what would have been his 53-54 years at the time. And this was a real-life era when everyone but Cary Grant looked old at 55. Ryan has riches that may or may not last a while and, to be sure, all the newest colognes, which are probably attractive in their own way. There couldn’t have been many of these sweet-smelling droplets out on the trail, even in a trail-drive epic with its own private bathtub.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Tall Men’ and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’

No Down Payment

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Sheree North, Barbara Rush, Cameron Mitchell, Pat Hingle, Patricia Owens. 

A time-capsule movie that also captures the members of its large cast at interesting career junctures, No Down Payment is based on a John McPartland novel that used to stare at me regularly from the library shelves, daring me to take it out when I knew the librarian would shoot my fifth-grade-or-so self one of those “who do you think you are?” frowns. Its characters, divided into a quartet of couples just getting started after one war or another interrupted their youths, live in a homogenous California development full of “starter” homes — wondering if they’ll ever move beyond their current fortune or if this start is also the end. They drink a lot, flirt a lot, and sometimes (a syndrome that seems to be on the upswing and getting out of hand) push these habits too far. So, what: the librarian thought I was going to read John R. Tunis and Freddy the Pig forever, even if Freddy remains a deity in my life?

The always socially conscious Martin Ritt directed, and not too far removed from the Blacklist: Payment was, in fact, just his second feature. The first was onetime flop d’estime Edge of the City, which I’ve always want to like more than I do — given its (for the day) grown-up subject matter and potent Poitier-Cassavetes casting dynamics, but which, in fact, is pretty heavy-handed. This one, though, I kind of like in that slick, Jerry Wald kind of big-studio way — and in this case, I mean slick as more than even a backhanded compliment, given that the combined casting, production values and subject matter of Wald’s productions were usually seductive marquee magnets with a keen eye on the current Zeitgeist even when they turned out to be unsuccessful. Payment, too, was grown-up for the time; when it played first-run at my downtown Loew’s Ohio, the Loew’s Broad was playing Mr. Rock and Roll with Alan Freed and Chuck Berry, while the RKO Palace was actually trying to meet its monthly mortgage nut with Richard Denning and Mara Corday in The Black Scorpion (which, coincidentally, Warner Archive just brought out on Blu-ray).

Though James Wong Howe gave Ritt a humungous cosmetic assist when he photographed Hud on his way to a cinematography Oscar, Ritt never had much of a visual style — though his pacing was usually strong, and he was often marvelous with actors. Probably my No. 1 revelation re-looking at Payment for the first time in years (and never in a print this crisp) is how good Tony Randall is as an alcoholic used car salesman who isn’t above gouging financially humble customers with shady finance companies who like to charge the kind of 38% interest rates that Michael Cohen might float if he had an auto loan business (think a desk, lamp and half-empty jar of instant Maxwell House) about a block from the lot. Randall’s character is desperate, and the actor memorably conveys his multiple dimensions, while his wife (Sheree North) suffers and pro-cons the ramifications of leaving him.

Payment’s studio (Fox) had kept North in the wings mostly as substitute casting for Marilyn Monroe whenever the latter indulged her exasperating work habits, but North was actually better than that. Her career was on the downswing, with Randall’s slightly on the up — though except for his incomparable work as the perfect foil for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, he wasn’t the easiest big-screen actor to cast, Doctor Lao’s seven faces notwithstanding. Jeffrey Hunter plays this residential unit’s college-grad techie, and I could never figure out how his career lost so much of its momentum right after he was so great in The Searchers (though John Wayne is so titanic that Hunter’s contribution is still overlooked). Patricia Owens, who plays Hunter’s proper but dangerously flirty spouse who gets in over her head, never caught on despite being more than adequate here — possibly because she seemed bit chilly or maybe because being the female lead in The Fly was no one’s idea of a career-maker. Cast as a good-old-girl boozer is Joanne Woodward, who was definitely on the upswing, with her Three Faces of Eve Oscar winner about a month from release. As her husband, Cameron Mitchell has one of the best roles from a screen career that wasn’t much of a grabber: a Tennessean who was the kind of war hero with Japanese souvenirs all over the garage but is now all too conscious of his educational shortcomings. This leaves Pat Hingle, in the most sympathetic role of his limited screen career, as an appliance store proprietor liked by all (which is a problem) and Barbara Rush as his wife.

Rush, too, is suffering — though it’s true that she was an actress who probably ran the premier unhappy-spouse franchise of any screen peer at the time. Maybe “frustrated” is the better word re the character here, and even this isn’t due to any shortcomings on her husband’s part beyond his resistance to church attendance (Hingle knows hypocrisy when he sees it) and would rather attain spiritual sustenance by washing his car. As a member of the town council, Hingle keeps getting leaned on to help solve other people’s problems, and it’s a treadmill that affects his home life — though it’s more a case of sheer volume than a disinclination to help in individual cases. One of these involves Mitchell, and when the situation goes as south as the latter’s formative geographical region, the movie turns ugly and melodramatic (albeit more dainty in presentation than that of the not dissimilar domestic sexual attack in Hud from a time when the screen was a little more liberated).

With The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, Sweet Smell of Success, 12 Angry Men and A Face in the Crowd pacing the top, I’m always amazed to see how underrated an English-language movie year 1957 still is (my favorite list would even go much, much deeper than this, even before we get to foreign releases). As a result, Payment isn’t exactly an undiscovered world-beater or even the year’s best Wald production (I’d go with Peyton Place or An Affair to Remember). But it is rather undiscovered on a lesser but respectable level and holds up remarkably well: conveying claustrophobia without paying for it via storytelling monotony, in part because it knows when to occasionally transpose the narrative into the community’s bustling business district (which will likely evolve into urban sprawl). Thanks to the kind of nugget that Julie Kirgo always seems to come up with in her Twilight Time liner notes, we learn that David Bowie was apparently a fan of this movie. My normal reaction to this would be, “Well, you never know” — but actually, I learned never to assume anything after once reading, to intense delight, that Bob Dylan loves Johnnie Ray.

Mike’s Picks: ‘No Down Payment’ and ‘Moonrise’