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’

The Set-Up

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter.

To some extent overlooked when it came out the same year (1949) as Kirk Douglas’s star-making rival boxing drama Champion, Robert Wise’s The Set-Up finally attained the rep it deserves after many years. Even Raging Bull’s director (you know who, and he’s not an Irishman) says he was struck by how good it is when he belatedly got to see it on a 35mm print. We’re dealing here, of course, with a Blu-ray taken off a 35 — but it’s a Blu-ray with the usual high Warner Archive standards, and Milton Krasner’s photography captures every drop of the picture’s sweaty locker room squalor. How did cinematographer Milton Krasner so easily transition from small-screen black-and-white (say, All About Eve and this) to CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color (Three Coins in the Fountain, The Seven-Year Itch, An Affair To Remember)? Write it down as a subject for another day.

The day in The Set-Up is actually a night — and one shot in what’s pretty close to real time. The great Robert Ryan, who was a successful real-life boxer at Dartmouth, is here a tank-town puncher at the end of what career he’s had — age 35 (around the time a boxer had better look around for other employment) and relegated to a bout to take place after the evening’s Main Event has already taken place but with still more beer and popcorn to unload to the crowd of predominantly slugs who’ve been watching. Just across the street on one of the most expressive “outdoor” movie sets I can ever recall seeing is the spartan room Ryan’s “Stoker” character shares with a wife (Audrey Totter) in the ill-named “Hotel Cozy.” (The size of it probably does mandate intimacy.) She’s finally had it — not with him (on the contrary) but with using the free ticket provided by the event’s so-called management. Even that price isn’t right to watch her husband getting pummeled.

Two other subplots dominate a very tight screenplay (from a Joseph Moncure March poem about a black boxer) by Art Cohn, the Mike Todd biographer who was killed in the same New Mexico plane crash that also took that producer’s life when he was married to Elizabeth Taylor. One deals with the overall locker room retinue of attending physician, all-round nurse/cut-man (played by one of my favorite character actors, Wallace Ford) and an array of dubious boxing hopefuls and never-were punch-drunks who are awaiting their own bouts to begin. The remaining co-narrative deals with a despicably cruel act of duplicity: Stoker/Ryan’s manager (George Tobias) has sold him out to take a fall because a low-end mobster wants to groom Stoker’s opponent for better things (which likely means a few quick-money bouts before this rookie lunk, who’s unlikely ever to see any of the cash, gets discarded as well). This is bad enough, but no one in Stoker’s corner has told him about the fix, so sure are they that he can lose the fight all by himself.

There’s something close to another subplot as well, and this one involves the so-called fans, who are even more bloodthirsty than the grandmothers in tennis shoes who filled the stands during the local fixed wrestling matches in my hometown — televised on Saturday afternoons and sponsored by a Chevy dealer. There’s one guy played by Herbert Anderson, later the father on TV’s “Dennis the Menace,” whose approach to the role too directly hits the nail on the head in cornball fashion and thus always takes me out of the film.

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But the others are pretty colorful, including a woman fan who looks a little like a worn or stressed-out version of “Father Knows Best” star Jane Wyatt might have had husband Robert Young (who played an insurance salesman on that enormously popular Emmy magnet) just admitted at the family dinner table that he’s just a double-indemnity “unusual death” life insurance policy to a Bond villain. There’s also a blind guy whose companion describes the ring carnage to him and a double-dipper who listens to a baseball game on a portable radio. Director Wise, who shares separate, unintegrated commentaries by Martin Scorsese (lotta Oscars in that combo) notes that a lot of this fan material came from what he personally observed in the pre-filming research he did. Wise was such a stickler for prep that he even watched an execution before he made I Want to Live!).

This is an impressive amount of material to cover in a short running time (72 minutes) as the main narrative time bomb ticks: What’s the wronged fighter, who, for starters, is suddenly feeling his oats in the ring, going to do when he learns that he’s supposed to take a dive? The fight scenes here are rough and convincing; not only had actor Ryan boxed at Dartmouth, but so had the actor playing his opponent: Hal Fieberling, who not long after changed his screen name to Hal Baylor. (He later had an elaborate screen brawl with John Wayne in the climax of the HUAC camp-fest Big Jim McLain.) The stalwarts still remaining in the stands after the main event get more than they could have anticipated — major if monetary crowd thrills that pay the guys in the ring so little that only dreams of some future “big score” (fortunes controlled, of course, by hoods) that might bring them fame, hot women and, in the dreams of one self-deluder here, a Hollywood contract. If Humphrey Bogart’s swan song The Harder They Fall is still perhaps the toughest screen indictment of boxing’s underbelly, The Set-Up probably ranks second.

Ryan, who so often played malevolent sociopaths in this period at RKO, is here not just a sympathetic character but one with something close to dignity when he gently chastises the crass behaviors of other fighters as they await their turn in the arena. Totter is his match, and their scenes together are heartfelt as she looks at her husband’s whopper of a cauliflower ear. This is another Warner Archive release where the classic black-and-white cinematography leaps off the screen in all its crispness and depth of field. In an aside on this long ago, carried-over commentary (Wise died in 2005), the director bemoans the inability of today’s young audiences to appreciate black-and-white. He does this without being churlish about it because he was one of the all-time nice guys — and besides, on this subject, I can easily be churlish enough for the both of us.

If anything, Scorsese is on the Blu-ray commentary even more than Wise is, and what better choice than the director of Raging Bull — who, in an admission I recall from other interviews, had no interest in boxing when he took on the project that couldn’t quite make Jake LaMotta a matinee idol. (Scorsese adds, however, that his father and uncles were huge fight fans and passed along lore.)

As it turns out, though, the younger director was a huge Wise fan, which given Scorsese’s love for the editing room, isn’t any knock-you-down surprise when you remember that Wise was the editor of Citizen Kane before he began directing. Marty goes on a lot about Wise’s career in general, noting, for instance, that neither The Set-Up nor Executive Suite (a different milieu entirely) has a musical score, which turned out in both cases to be an effective artistic decision. Scorsese even has not unfavorable things here to say about Wise’s late-career The Hindenburg and Audrey Rose (which I believe Andrew Sarris picked as worst movie of its year), which makes him the friend that every movie needs. There’s no question, though, that The Set-Up is a minor classic that was Wise’s personal favorite of his early RKO period — which also included The Body Snatcher, the deliciously nasty Born to Kill and the underrated Blood in the Moon.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Major and the Minor’ and ‘The Set Up’