Great Day in the Morning

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
Stars Virginia Mayo, Robert Stack, Ruth Roman, Raymond Burr, Alex Nicol.

By the year Great Day in the Morning was released, owner Howard Hughes had finished ruining RKO Pictures to the point where he now could sell it — thus enabling him to pursue worthier pursuits like, say, seeking out the right size of Kleenex-Box loafers that folklore says that he would sport in his lair from time to time. The new 1955 purchasers had been the General Tire and Rubber Company, which wasn’t quite the final word in Dream Factory glamour, so I suppose it was something of a miracle that a movie as respectable as 1956’s Great Day in the Morning made it into theaters during this final period before almost immediate studio extinction.

As its year’s Westerns go, this pre-Civil War love triangle is hardly The Searchers (which opened 10 days later) or 7 Men from Now; it’s not even an impressive second-tier achievement like Delmer Daves’s Jubal, which still remains formidable enough to have rated Criterion treatment. But as an assignment for director Jacques Tourneur, who rarely was given break-the-bank budgets, it merits the “mid sleeper” accolade if you can get over the once de rigueur Indian shoot-out that opens the action and then a Confederate point of view. We’re basically talking something the Tourneur level of, say, Anne of the Indies, Circle of Danger and Wichita — all of them movies I like to a relaxing degree yet ones that wouldn’t get anyone to say, “Let’s go the mat defending them.”

Still, if you like electric color schemes photographed for the wide screen — here the process was the initially short-lived Superscope, which much later evolved into todays’ Super 35 — prepare to indulge. This opportunity doesn’t arrive, though, until after some exposition that finds a Confederate loner (Robert Stack) smelling the aroma of elusive gold in 1861 Colorado. Until some angry Native Americans interrupt the journey, he’s working his way toward what turns out to be Denver, though a Denver strikingly humble in appearance. One cannot conceivably imagine the John Elway of merely a century-plus later lobbing forward-pass bombs — and in a stadium where beers probably cost even more than what Morning’s shifty saloon owner (Raymond Burr, once again corpulent  enough to earn his character’s name: “Jumbo”) is charging to thirsty prospectors.

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Stack is rescued unexpectedly by a blonde looker (Virginia Mayo) traveling with protective males, his life saved thanks to a shot fired by Leo Gordon (in glorified cretin mode) who immediately regrets his act upon learning that the apolitical Stack nonetheless harkens from North Carolina. Gordon is a “former” sergeant in the Union army, and one can only imagine just how transgression turned him into the past tense, though the other bodyguard (Alex Nicol, smitten with Mayo) is more agreeable. Her goal in Denver, by the way, is to open a women’s store full of intimate wear to service the two women in town who wouldn’t be mistaken for Marjorie Main or Minerva Urecal.

Actually, the only other obvious town looker besides Mayo herself is saloon associate Ruth Roman — she of an amazing turquoise dress that is so dramatic a visage that some fan of this Warner Archive Blu-ray posted a representative still (and in the correct aspect ratio) on my Facebook newsfeed page. Roman takes one look at Bob’s bare chest, determines that boss Burr isn’t the way to go and rigs a poker game to enable Stack to take over the joint. Burr was at the tail end of a villainous tenure that served him (and the movies) so well from about 1947-56 — about a year-and-a-half away from premiering in somewhat slimmed-down fashion as TV’s “Perry Mason.” You can effortlessly envision the CBS purchase order to whatever the Costco of the day was, ordering him 800,000 water pills.

Colorado, thus far noncommittal, is full of both Yankees and Rebels, but the situation won’t last long, and Stack needs to get what he can get from a ton of now-dead claims before more Northern military arrives and makes away with all territorial spoils this side of Mayo’s lingerie. The last situation plays out in ways that result in perhaps predictable fatalities, especially when Stack finds life in one of the deceased mines; as a result, the original burned-out prospector, working side-by-side, balks at paying Stack an agreed-to 50% share for having received a grubstake for a second try. This all makes it tough on the local priest (Regis Toomey), who has to maintain peace between factions — kind of like the way that that clergyman did between invading aliens and earthlings in George Pal’s version of The War of the Worlds. Of course, you may recall that he ends up being melted by death rays.

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Adapted from a Robert Hardy Andrews novel that had been kicking around a few years, the screenplay by Lesser Samuels (hey, I thought he was blacklisted in the ’50s) has some pretty fair dialogue (occasional zingers included) for a borderline A-picture from the era. Morning is a type of picture that has always interested me: One where the parties involved tried to go an extra half-mile when one cared or was looking (certainly not General Tire and Rubber). Of course, this one had more resources than others in its situation had: Tourneur, who had cult favorites Nightfall and Curse of the Demon coming up next; Colorado locations around Silverton; 2:1 framing for theaters that wished to show it that way; Technicolor (not the discontinued three-strip kind but at least with stable IB printing, which was more than Warner Bros. could boast at the time, The Searchers aside); and that Ruth Roman dress, of which I can’t say enough or more, other than to add that Roman is pretty good in the role.

To use his oft-employed highly expressive Trump adjective, I wasn’t “nice” to Roman recently by taking a mild swipe. I still think she leaned toward the overwrought, and Hitchcock himself is said to have been perturbed that Warner forced her on him for Strangers on a Train. Here, though, she’s less icy than usual while co-offering an undeniable workable contrast in personality against the more outgoing Mayo. The movie’s key problem is that a key character gets killed off a little too early (no spoilers), and we’re forced to root when Stack locates his inner Confederate for the big action conclusion. The last probably plays better with regions where even fast-food joints serve juleps than it does with a lot of 2019-ers, myself included.

Still, it’s gratifying that Warner Archive has elected to give a picture this relatively obscure the full treatment, including four much earlier Tourneur MGM short subjects as well. However, it’s worth mentioning that at the time, Morning was popular enough to get held over for a second week at one of my hometown’s downtown theaters (co-feature was Bill Williams in Wire Tapper, which couldn’t have done much for the gate). This wasn’t all that common at the time unless the picture was a commercial blockbuster — which leads me to note that two of the other competing theaters weren’t running Bowery Boys movies but the Burt-Tony-Gina Trapeze and some minor piece of change called The King and I. This all correctly indicates that audiences really used to love their Westerns once they veered away from the coasts.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Glorifying the American Girl’ and ‘Great Day in the Morning’

A Man Alone

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr.

As the latest Kino Blu-ray of an under-appreciated sleeper shown at this year’s two MoMA Republic Pictures tributes under Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur, 1955’s A Man Alone is the movie that finally satisfied lead Ray Milland’s long-gestating desire to direct. It’s also a childhood and early adolescent favorite that I used to watch every time it aired on TV — though as recently as a year ago, I would have thought its chances of getting its own Blu-ray were as remote as a guy attempting to bump off his wife when she was played by Grace Kelly. Of course, the actor had done quite well with that impossible concept just a year before Alone’s original release when he had the lead in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Milland was pretty polished in that one, but in Alone, his Western character eats so much sand that in one scene (the first, in fact), it really looks as if he’s spitting some out for real after his horse takes a fatal desert fall. Maybe this is what you’re willing to do when acting in your own picture, though I doubt if Republic’s famously parsimonious chief Herbert J. Yates (who managed to hack off Roy and Gene and John Wayne) gave him a piece of the gross. This said, bonus commentary historian Toby Roan quotes Milland as saying Yates’s word was ultimately solid once financial bandying was completed, and the actor returned to Republic just a year later to direct the also new-on-Blu-ray Lisbon — another movie I’ve always liked and one that felicitously traded in on Nelson Riddle’s possibly unexpected chart buster of Lisbon Antigua in early ’56 as counter-programming to the Elvis boom.

Though it would be a stretch to describe Alone as an attempt to fashion something of an art film out of a well-worn genre, the picture remains an intriguingly curious mix of backlot jawboning involving a lot of familiar-looking Western character actors and a shaky-‘A’ that largely pulls off an attempt to do something different starting with a long opening without any dialogue. Milland (speaking of “alone”) commands this section by himself, and it’s roughly 30 minutes in — or nearly a third of the running time — before there’s any conversation. Perhaps this was all laid out neatly in a script and story credited to John Tucker Battle and Mort Briskin, but it’s worth noting that just three years earlier, Milland had headlined Russell Rouse’s The Thief, an espionage drama that utilized sound effects and nothing more for its entire running time.

Working from a theme for which Henry King’s The Gunfighter is still the final word, the movie poses Milland as a weary ex-gunfighter who unknowingly rides into a dusty town (and I mean dusty town) to be immediately accused of past robberies and now the latest and most heinous: a stagecoach stickup in which a young girl known to all was slaughtered. Barely given enough time to utter “what the hell?” to himself, Milland takes cover in the first available basement — but not before finding himself just feet away from an opaque conversation that has a bad smell to it. As coincidence would have it — and there are a few of them here — it’s information that comes in handy down the road when he can attach names and faces to their community standing. Which is to say that a lot of the town heavyweights — and in Raymond Burr’s case, you can take this literally — have been up to no good.

Stuck in the basement with a cat, some peach preserves, and gritty pores, Milland is secretly situated well enough in to witness a young woman (Mary Murphy) coming down the stairs to interact … well, hopefully … with her hope chest. Maybe this is why Murphy remains surprisingly sanguine throughout at having a) a strange man and also b) accused killer, on the premises. This is one of those burgs where all the men are either over 50, younger hired-gun creeps or the world’s most ineffective sheriff’s deputy (“Gilligan’s Island” star Alan Hale Jr., and yes, you read that right). It’s also one of those familiar movie-Western towns where the women must be hiding out making peach preserves of their own: the only other female role of note goes to character actress and biddie specialist Minerva Urecal, who was just as aptly cast around this time in a TV version of Tugboat Annie that I used to watch as a kid. Well, it’s a way of controlling the population, though from all appearances, it could use a fresh influx.

Murphy not only doesn’t live alone, but her father is the town sheriff (Ward Bond) — though one helpfully out of commission because he’s quarantined upstairs in bed with a case of yellow fever, another coincidence. Even so, the narrative grips surprisingly tightly despite abundant dialogue, playing out a lot better than it should due to the conviction the leads bring to their roles; even the stock villain (Burr) gets brownie points because the role is so ideally cast. This was about two years before TV’s “Perry Mason” changed Burr’s image and forced him to drop significant weight (maybe Milland sent along a few cases of the fresh cactus juice his parched character is glad to have out in the desert during the film’s opening). Here, Burr looks as if he’s wearing about a 96-long playing the transparent phony his character is — transparent, that is, to everyone except the townsfolk who matter.

Commentator Roan, who seems less enthusiastic than I about the film, notes that reviewers at the time had a tough time accepting Murphy as a blonde, given that she was a natural brunette during her undeservedly short heyday on the screen (I love her as the negliged schemer in Phil Karlson’s VistaVision/Technicolor toughie Hell’s Island, last in the director’s fruitful noir trilogy with John Payne). It’s true that her makeup is distractingly heavy for one just hanging around the house caring for pop, and if the goldilocks look as if they’d had some “help” from the makeup department, they still look pretty good. Murphy also played the coffee-shop/bar counter-babe who reforms Brando’s hood in The Wild One and basically turns him into a “Whatever. You. Want. Comma. Honey” type, no matter what pigment she brandishes. Murphy’s Alone character is, by the way, no sweet-ums pushover but a attractive mix of tough analytical logic and vulnerability. Bond’s sheriff isn’t boilerplate, either; there’s something of a surprise in store.

Though it’s in some ways a psychological or “adult” Western — which, in Republic terms, means that there’s no shoehorned-in song break with Lee Van Cleef, who has a small part — the old-school fan base is rewarded with some gunplay when matters are on the line. There’s even a particularly brutal fistfight between Milland and Burr (stay down till the 9-count, Mr. Burr, you look a little winded breadbasket). During which, Milland (or his stunt double) flips Burr (or another stunt double) off his back. Hernia City.

As Variety used to say, technical credits are “pro” — though even with 4K scanning, cinematographer Lionel Lindon obviously doesn’t have as much to work with here as Jack Marta had shooting on-location Portugal locales in Lisbon (which was also shot in Republic’s in-house anamorphic process: Naturama). There’s also a very good score by workhouse Victor Young that illustrates the degree to which film artists must hop around and go where the work is. One year, it’s a Republic Western. The next it’s Lindon and Young laboring on the extravaganza that won them their Oscars: Around the World in 80 Days.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’

Raw Deal: Special Edition (1948)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

ClassicFlix;
Film Noir Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr.

Despite enough prowess shooting in color to have won an Oscar for photographing the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, the still revered John Alton ranks way up there with, say, RKO, real-life rap-sheet artiste Lawrence Tierney and the young Anthony Mann as an automatic word-association touchstone when it comes to even rudimentary discussions of film noir. Much of Alton’s photographic work was for Mann himself before the latter went all big-time to direct James Stewart, Charlton Heston and let us not forget Mario Lanza (in Serenade, to save you an IMDb.com stop-off) in major studio endeavors with real budgets. Raw Deal is one of the pictures on which Mann and Alton collaborated for the tiny, relatively short-lived but always-resourceful distributor Eagle-Lion. Running a tight 84 minutes before Raymond Burr takes a memorable big bounce in the climax, it had been preceded by the team’s T-Men, which became one of the standout movie sleepers of 1947 (maybe the sleeper) after that undercover treasury agent melodrama rated a spread in Life magazine, not your everyday occurrence.

Both films shared the same male lead, Dennis O’Keefe, who had recently come into his own with, among other projects, a couple well-received comedies after a long apprenticeship grind. He now suddenly found himself an ideal actor of noir, thanks to looks on the high-side of “Average Joe” and a demeanor that suggested he could take care of himself. I became kind of a fan early on as a child courtesy of Chicago Syndicate (featuring Xavier Cugat as “Benny Chico”) and Inside Detroit — both of them metropolis-underbelly exposés that I caught at my nearby Lane Theater in 1955 and ’56 in a possible attempt to gauge whether five-a-year director Fred Sears (who also had five films in the can when he died of a heart attack at 44) was an auteur. OK, I’m kidding with the auteur crack, but not so about O’Keefe, who’s something of a comfortable presence throughout Raw Deal despite its occasional pronounced brutality, including a pair of wall-mounted antlers that put featured henchman John Ireland’s face in need of Michael DeBakey’s best suture kit. One unexpected extra in this release’s bonus section is an interview with O’Keefe’s son. Nice.

This said, Deal has been equally positioned by some as a “woman’s picture” — notwithstanding the still eye-opening bit where heavy-in-both-senses Burr heaves a flambé at a nagging live-in who’s getting on his nerves (something apparently easy to do). Truth to tell, the picture is a love triangle as much as it is anything, with sympathetic narrator/moll Claire Trevor frustrated that breaking O’Keefe out of jail hasn’t been enough and that Marsha Hunt (employed by O’Keefe’s lawyer) is falling for him against her better judgment and with some small degree of reciprocity. Hunt, an interestingly complicated character, even finds herself a tad excited over entering a world of crime — not nearly to the degree of say, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy but enough to make us wonder what’s going on in her complicated head. Helping the audience not to be complicit in these shenanigans as well is the fact that O’Keefe has actually taken the rap for Burr and has been stiffed on money owed to him, which explains the latter’s nervy state.

Like most Eagle-Lions, Deal has been fairy seeable for years but in prints of varying quality — none of them capable of showing what Alton could do and does here. I remember a longtime friend of mine coming out of a mint 35mm print of John Ford’s black-and-white My Darling Clementine years ago and raving about how Joe MacDonald’s photography showcased 50 shades of gray (back when there was a different vowel in “gray” and the phrase a purer connotation). Something like that happens here in the nocturnal woodsy scenes in which the permutations of foliage spread out in minute detail — this, of course, in addition to the expected shadowy photography of actors. Which, in this case, is also full of surprisingly complex and situation-revealing blocking that Mann was also great at, even amid a short shooting schedule.

Deal is the newest release from ClassicFlix, a distributor that really knows how to ask for money. But it has also done a stellar job making films that have for decades being seeable in compromised form and making them look the best they have since their original releases, which usually date back to somewhere around the time when I was spitting up on my crib bumpers. There’s some really first-rate talent on the bonus extras: Jeremy Arnold for the voiceover commentary, who, in news to me, is a protégé of Mann expert, movie expert and all-around great person Jeanine Basinger; Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo; director/historian Courtney Joyner; and arguably dominant Alan K. Rode, who’s had a great recent run benchmarked by his mammoth Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film — a 700-pager I was rolling along in, lickety-split, when Michael Woolf’s stop-the-presses Fire and Fury put me on a Rode pause button (absolutely temporary) just as I was getting to The Adventures of Robin Hood. There’s a before/after digital restoration comparison — your eyes will tell the story — and an essay by Max Alvarez, who wrote The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, which constituted most of the director’s early career. And by the way, an on-camera Rode gets off a really good one here about the size of Burr’s shoulders.

Mann would soon branch out in his subject matter, even as his skill with black-and-white briefly sustained itself before he mostly began working in color. Criterion did a wonderful job with the DVD for The Furies — a Mann Western I’ve always liked a lot and one that would almost certainly make a great Blu-ray. And it also would be something to see at least a foreign-region attempt to transfer the outdoor grit of Winchester ’73 into the high-def format. William Daniels shot it for Mann, 36 years years after laboring on (and that must have been the verb) Stroheim’s Greed, which definitely showed he knew a thing or two about photographing Western dust.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’