December 9, 2019
Stars James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan.
Though his infectious smile directed mostly at Walter Brennan goes a long way to defuse this perception, 1954’s The Far Country surprises a little by casting James Stewart as a real hard-ass with some unattractive traits, given that his character hasn’t been personally wronged the way he is in some of the other Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns. To be sure, he has his cattle taken away from him by an unusually colorful John McIntire in what is more precisely a “Northern” as genres go; the setting here is Seattle-to-Alaska. But this fourth of five collaborations that co-starred horses isn’t exactly akin to, say, the team’s concluder The Man From Laramie, in which the heavies do something dreadful to Stewart’s hand that the camera flinches from showing in full (and I thank you).
Decked out in a distinctive stovepipe hat but no Abe Lincoln, McIntire channels his inner Judge Roy Bean to riff on that real life judge, ironically played for real and to a supporting Oscar by Brennan himself 14 years earlier in William Wyler’s The Westerner. McIntire, finessing a fictional version, is also jury and even hangman of Alaskan stop-off Skagway — to say nothing of taking a hefty cut from the general store (no Costco bargains at this place) and the local saloon where owner Ruth Roman is around to provide some glamour as well. For reasons at least partly physical, Roman becomes a surprise protector of Stewart after authorities try arresting him in Seattle on someone else’s past charge — offering him concealment in her room on the boat journey up to Skagway (a scene, as one of the Blu-ray’s bonus-section commentators notes, echoes Eva Marie Saint’s future help-out to Cary Grant in North by Northwest).
She ends up on the trail with Stewart as they trek supplies to Dawson City, though he’s really interested in sneaking back to Skagway to take back his seized (by McIntire) cattle. As suggested earlier, Stewart focuses on whatever goal he has at the time to the exclusion of everything else. Breaking with parties also making the journey, he elects to take one path through snowy mountains while rejecting an alternative, not bothering to tell these settlers that taking other route is tantamount to courting an avalanche. When the others elect to follow their preferred destiny, the result is a wipe-out by boulders of snow while Stewart basically shrugs it off with a “life’s tough” attitude because it’s no icicle off his nose hairs. This is basically his approach to life on all matters.
And yet. There’s a subplot here about plans for Stewart and Brennan to have their own spread together someday, complete with a bell on a door to announce visitors who’ve wandered in 20 miles off the trail. Of the two, Brennan seems to be more of the instigator for this, though Stewart seems to go along with the scenario. But any event, this all seems in keeping with the premise of Mark Rappaport’s cheeky The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), which found coded gay subtext in everyday genre situations (think of all the Westerns where the grizzled sidekick brews coffee for the hero when they awaken in the morning down by the river). Of course, Brennan was such a notorious real-life reactionary that anyone broaching this subject really would have been asking for it. There’s nothing like having your an eye put out by a heavy flying projectile that turns out to be dentures.
For whatever reason, though, Stewart can’t seem to get all that worked up even by Roman’s smoldering availability — and especially not by a smitten tomboy played by onetime starlet Corinne Calvet, a most atypical role for the underachieving onetime Hal Wallis glamour-puss whose autobiography (Has Corinne Been a Good Girl?) is said to be one of the most salacious howlers of its genre. Actually, Calvet is not inadequate here and lot more animated than Roman — an actress who engendered the most drama during her heyday by surviving the sinking of the Andrea Doria. (I’ll reserve the right to change my mind after I see her in Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray of Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning, a Civil War Western for which I harbor a minor sweet spot from many years back.)
Mann peppers Country with what looks like a high school reunion of instantly identifiable Western character actors who specialized in playing affable drunks, not so affable heavies and others who also could use fresh longjohns. These would include McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Chubby Johnson, Chuck Roberson, Kathleen Freeman, Connie Gilchrist and probably a few more males I’ve missed that Judy Garland wouldn’t have wanted to be on her dance card in Meet Me in St. Louis. A few of these find themselves here on the high side of their careers, and I definitely don’t think I’ve ever seen McIntire this memorable before, even if his small role as the sheriff in Psycho certainly resonates.
Country got its U.S. release in early ’55 when Hollywood was still tinkering with trying to turn non-anamorphic films into something like widescreen releases by cropping the image. Universal-International sometimes liked going with a 2.00:1 aspect ratio in those days, and Arrow’s two-disc release offers both the film as it was shot and as it played many theaters, one version on each disc. I chose to view the 2.00:1 rendering in full but thought the image somewhat “in my face” and much preferred the 1.85:1 when I re-looked at several scenes in that format. This is good (for convenience’s sake) because the 1.85:1 presentation is on the same disc as the bonus extras, which include a substantive Philip Kemp essay (nice still photos, too); a commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; the always amusing Kim Newman on both the film and other Mann Westerns (he’s hip to the unconventionality of the Stewart-Brennan relationship); and another documentary on Mann and Universal with an A-team of Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Preece, Rob Word and my fellow Buckeye Michael Schlesinger. Putting all these altogether, we get a pretty good explanation of the fissure over 1957’s Night Passage that destroyed the collaborative relationship forever (Stewart and Mann also did three other non-Westerns together).
Arrow seems to have gone all out here by showcasing a 4K makeover as well. The long shots look fuzzy, but the medium shots and close-ups are often striking, and fortunately, there are a lot of those. So with this release, MGM’s The Naked Spur is the only Stewart-Mann Western not yet released on Blu-ray, and I’m surprised Warner Archive hasn’t given it a go. Stewart is so good here in a role where he’s more disagreeable than he might have been that I realized that I had somewhat underrated Country, which a lot of people do. Blasphemous as its sounds, given its fan base, I’m rather amazed that I’d personally rate Bend of the River the least of the five, even though many good movie minds rate it as best of the bunch.