The River’s Edge

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, Debra Paget.

The River’s Edge (with a “The”) hasn’t anything to do with plain old River’s Edge (1986), whose sundry plot points centered on wayward teen slackers, a murder victim and an inflatable blowup doll that Dennis Hopper loves in one undesignated fashion or another. Instead, this earlier near-namesake has other things on mind, but in its own way managed to be nearly as tawdry by the tepid standards of 1957, when I first managed to see it at age 10 on a double bill with Pat Boone’s screen debut in Bernardine. This was the great thing about neighborhood theaters at the time: “It’s OK, mom, we’re going to see Pat Boone, and I know how much you dig ‘Love Letters in the Sand’” (true enough) but failing to add that the co-feature featured an adulterous love triangle and at least one exceptionally blood-soaked killing for its day.

Though it’s tempting to say that director Allan Dwan had been involved in visual communication since the days that people drew illustrations on the walls of caves, his career only went back to 1911, which was still just three years after D.W. Griffith began dabbling in moving images himself. That was a 46-year career up to this point with four more still to go, and though Dwan got mired in “B’s” after directing some higher-profile projects in the 1920s, he did bring enough storytelling distinction with what he was given to become an auteurist figure to ’70s film scholars. Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), which was late in the game itself, is solid by any standards.

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The River’s Edge, filmed in CinemaScope and with a fairly electric dose of DeLuxe Color, is impressive in how Dwan and veteran production designer Van Nest Polglase made it look more expensive than it possibly could have been — something noted by ace film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD. But they also point out continuity problems more likely than not are the result of the limited budget. One case in point are the da film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a somet film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD imes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD y-for-night photographic limitations in an otherwise well-shot outing from Harold Lipstein, whose credits included the absolutely gorgeous-looking Heller in Pink Tights for George Cukor three years later.

And yes, Edge at least has “elements” of noir — or so say these authors of one of the definitive noir books, even though the picture is in color and often takes place in the wide open spaces during daylight hours. Certain key elements are definitely here, though, including a heavy sexual undercurrent and stolen money that has put one of its principals (Ray Milland) on the lam. Plus a dissatisfied wife (Debra Paget) at the center of two competing males — though in this case she’s simply more dissatisfied than the usual all-out noir “Trouble.” Paget is, however, playing a redhead, which is always a good way to accrue noir-ish bonus points.

In a locale that just as easily could be known as South Hellhole, NM, we begin with what’s presumably this rural route’s only known pink Thunderbird — with its driver/stranger (Milland) asking for directions to find the area’s best known guide (a role played by Anthony Quinn, who had just won his second supporting Oscar in five years, though he took the money and ran here all the same). Living with Quinn on his spread, if that can possibly be the word, is parolee Paget — a marriage that kept her from going back to jail (say, how about a movie about the court system that so ruled?).

Still, despite legitimate feelings for Quinn, she’s had it: he’s nearly gotten badly gored just outside; the kitchen appliances blow up; a scorpion crawls into one of her high heels; and the shower rains mud all over her when she’s trying to look extra nice for her man’s birthday.

Quinn’s place is no efficiency but a trailer whose incredibly shifting dimensions amuse Ursini and Silver (and likely many viewers) to no end. From the outside, using a movie’s screen size as an analogy, it’s about the size of a nickelodeon peep show from around the time Dwan started directing. But if it’s an indoor shot, we (comparably speaking) find ourselves in an Imax frame; it’s like when the screen expands at the beginning of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It. Be that as it may, Milland shows up carrying a cache of cash (stolen), and the divulgence of some past history emerges. Paget is his former lover and partner in crime (which got her sent to prison), and Milland would like to reclaim her, as well as get Quinn to guide him across the border into Mexico where he hopes to escape with his bounty. Through circumstances having to do with all the dead people who seem to materialize whenever they cross Milland’s path, regretful accessory (and, again, parolee) Paget joins them on the mountainous trek as well.

Milland is the same kind of corrupt smoothie he played in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and is effortlessly superb at it, while Quinn is atypically a nice-guy cuckold instead of his standard force of nature (read: Zorba the Anything). Paget is OK with a couple standout scenes, though she seems to have been foisted on Dwan due to her status as a 20th Century-Fox contract player (she’d been the center of another love triangle between brothers Richard Egan and Elvis Presley just half-a-year earlier in Love Me Tender). This is the kind of movie where you’re in danger of being killed merely by being in the supporting cast; those dispatched include not just a a cave-dwelling rattlesnake but a harmlessly grizzled Western “old-timer” played by Chubby Johnson, who’d previously sat atop the stagecoach with Doris Day during her great Deadwood Stage opening to Calamity Jane.

As if this weren’t exactly the kind of screen entertainment we 10-year-olds wanted to see, there’s also a heavy sexual undercurrent throughout the entire narrative, something that Dwan (per Ursini and Silver) loved injecting into his films — and at his age, no less. When he made Edge, Dwan had recently come off Slightly Scarlet, a tantalizingly lurid James M. Cain adaptation for Edge producer Benedict Borgeaus that featured another redheaded ex-con (Arlene Dahl) lounging around provocatively while sis Rhonda Fleming (redheads, redheads) tried to have Dahl’s back despite the latter’s abject looney-tune-ness. Two decades earlier, Dwan had directed the Shirley Temple version of Heidi, but now he had the kind of material where the big boys played. Oh, Allan, you devil.

Depending on how you feel about marginal The Restless Breed or how adequate or not Dwan swan song Most Dangerous Man Alive turns out to be (I recorded it maybe a year ago off Turner Classic but haven’t gotten to it yet), Edge was not too arguably his last smoothly finessed film, one that always comes up with compelling framing and actor blocking when there couldn’t have been much time or money to help. Interestingly, Dwan lived 20 more years after he retired in 1961, a remarkable achievement — though it’s not so much that he lived to be 96, as impressive as that is. It’s that he lived to be that age despite at one point having directed three Vera Ralston films in a row at Republic — the third a World War II drama where Phil Harris found a way to perform his No. 3 Billboard hit The Thing. Good genes, buddy.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great Buster’ and ‘The River’s Edge’

The Last Hunt

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn.

To Western lovers, 1956 is synonymous with The Searchers, but there was a pretty fair bumper crop from all directions. Budd Boetticher’s 7 Men from Now comes immediately to mind, I’ve always been partial to Donna Reed’s cool cowgirl duds in Backlash (especially the hat), and there were a couple underrated Delmer Daves achievements (The Last Wagon and Jubal, though the latter did rate a Criterion treatment five years ago). For embracers of the “big tent” theory, we had the definitive screen “Texan” with Giant, and those with a taste for the outrageous could go with Martin & Lewis in Pardners, Elvis in Love Me Tender (a Civil War aftermath pic, but the future King was riding a horse) and Guy Madison bringing a dinosaur to the chuckwagon in The Beast From Hollow Mountain. I even once had a poster for Tony Martin in the same year’s Quincannon, Frontier Scout hanging on my office wall, but I will not go there. (Though if Tony could later record for Motown, why not?; it was good enough for Albert Finney.)

Into this mix and adapted from a highly regarded novel by Milton Lott came MGM’s The Last Hunt — respectable, engrossing and a movie that didn’t deserve to be another of production chief Dore Schary’s box office disappointments, particularly given what the crew but especially the cast had to go through (because they were in winter apparel). An epic about the decimation of buffalo that combines on-location CinemaScope panoramas with disfiguringly obvious outdoor sets, a lot of it took place during what the script claimed were frigid temperatures but were actually the toughest 110-degree weather that South Dakota could provide. Co-lead Stewart Granger endangered his health with the heat, and I’m almost surprised that Robert Taylor didn’t have what certainly looks like hair dye running down his forehead.

This is no knock on the somewhat underrated Taylor, who gets top-billing with his very atypical villain’s role as a guy who, in addition to hating Indians and slaughtering buffalo, isn’t too bright and is sometimes challenged by grammar. He also treats women badly, drinks too much and thinks little of shooting people at will. Equally well cast as Taylor’s partner/adversary is Granger, who reluctantly gets back into buffalo-hunting after his hopes of becoming a cattleman are dashed by his dead cattle (which will do it) Rounding out the principals are an unlikely Debra Paget as a Native American with child (a high-profile year for the actress, with Love Me Tender and The Ten Commandments still to come); Russ Tamblyn as an even more unlikely half-Indian who’s trying to assimilate (though, as ever, Tamblyn remains an appealing screen presence); and Lloyd Nolan as an affable, one-legged old coot of a jug-swigging buffalo skinner. After a long period on the road rolling steel balls on stage as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, this was Nolan’s first feature in three years. He is terrific and, as ever, malleable; compare him here to his performance as town-conscience Doc Swain in the movie of Peyton Place the very next year.

Schary got Richard Brooks to adapt and write after the latter skyrocketed MGM into the rock-and-roll era with Blackboard Jungle, a movie that still gives me the willies whenever I flash on the fate of Richard Kiley’s 78 collection. We even see them together in one of two Blu-ray excerpts from the old “MGM Parade” show that George Murphy hosted during my TV youth, a vehicle designed to promote the pictures the studio was about to put in theaters (Tamblyn shows up in the other included segment). This was an ambitious picture that didn’t quite live up to turnstile hopes because, in part, Taylor’s box office potency was fading — though he’d last longer at MGM than even Gable and Tracy and go out on a lurid favorite of mine: Party Girl. Meanwhile, Granger never quite caught on in America the way he deserved (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most would have liked to have directed, he said James Mason and Granger, and may even have listed Granger first).

Still, The Last Hunt is a fast-mover with Russell (Red River, Hatari!) cinematography of real buffalo being “thinned out” — a process that was all on the up-and-up because the filmmakers were allowed to capture an official government reduction of herds, which had to be done periodically. The climax is capped by a chilling shot that even got to me when I saw the picture (for the first time) on NBC’s old “Saturday Night at the Movies” weekly viewing ritual, albeit in a presentation that hardly approached the one here. The Blu-ray’s stereo track has some punch, though even with a magnifying glass, I couldn’t read the damned specs on the back of the disc jacket (a bad layout habit that too many distributors have picked up). The image also has a lot less of the mud we’ve all seen in other mid-’50s Eastman Color MGMs, maybe due to all that bright sunlight from those impossible South Dakota location temperatures. I only wish the Warner Archive Blu-ray of my much beloved but Eastman-plagued It’s Always Fair Weather looked as satisfactory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘My Man Godfrey’ and ‘The Last Hunt’