Stagecoach (1966) ****

It’s probably sacrilege to admit that I quite enjoyed this. Also it’s been so long since I’ve seen the John Ford original that I could remember very little of the specifics and I haven’t seen the remake before so this was just like watching a new movie.

Basically, it’s the story of a group of passengers taking the stagecoach to Cheyenne for different reasons who are joined by an escaped murderer and shepherded along by the driver and a town marshal. There is some excellent action but mostly it’s a relationship picture, how the characters react to one another and their response to crisis.

Good-time girl Dallas (Ann-Margret) is on the run, banker Gatewood (Bob Cummings) is hiding a stash of stolen money, alcoholic doctor Boone (Bing Crosby) is penniless, liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) is a coward, gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors) has Civil War secrets, pregnant Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) is meeting her cavalry husband in Cheyenne. Ornery Buck (Slim Pickens) is the driver. Curley (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun and when he comes upon stranded escaped murderer the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) promptly arrests him.

The drama unfolds as the characters confront each other or their own weaknesses. Dallas, who had a high old time as a saloon girl, is way out of her depth in respectable company,  concealing the secret of her affair with the married Gatewood. Ringo coaxes her along, bringing her out of her shell, giving her back self-respect, and of course falling in love. Curley, with his eyes on the $500 reward for bringing Ringo in, has no intention of letting the gunslinger take his revenge in Cheyenne on Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn) who killed his family. Boone and Peacock provide the fun, the doctor spending most of his time separating the salesman from his cargo of booze.

There are endless permutations with a story like this, the kind of material favoured in  disaster movies like Airport (1970) and The Towering Inferno (1974) where disparate characters battle for survival. The action is only part of the deal. The picture only truly works if the characters are believable. For that, you need a heap of good acting. The audience could certainly rely on old dependables like Bing Crosby (The Road to Hong Kong, 1962) in his big screen swansong, Van Heflin (Shane, 1953), Red Buttons (Oscar-winner for Sayonara, 1957), Robert Cummings (Saboteur, 1942) and cowboy picture veteran Slim Pickens to put on a good show. But the main dramatic load was to be carried by relative newcomers Ann-Margret and Alex Cord.

Ann-Margret has made her name with sassy light-hearted numbers like The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and had only just stepped up to the dramatic plate with Once a Thief (1965). This was Alex Cord’s sophomore outing after Synanon (1965), the odds stacked against him making any impact in the role which turned John Wayne into a star. 

Amazingly, the casting works. Ann-Margret moves from feisty to restrained, meek to the point of being cowed, and for most of the film, far removed from the false gaiety of the saloon, seeks redemption. The cocky trouble-making minx emerges only once, to knock the wind out of Mrs Mallory, but, after taking a tumble down the humility route, gradually steers her way towards a better self, preventing Gatewood from causing chaos, nursing Mallory and inching her way towards true feelings for Ringo. As in the best movies, it’s not for her to open up about her woeful life but for another character, in this case Ringo, to identify her predicament: “What you doin’ about your scars, you got ‘em even if they don’t show…when you goin’ to stand up and stop crawlin’?” When they finally kiss it is one of the most tender kisses you will ever see.  

My reservations about Alex Cord’s acting skills were based on his moustachioed performance in Stiletto (1969) but I reversed my opinion after seeing him in The Scorpio Letters (1967) and this is another revelation. As much as he can deliver on the action front, and sports on occasion a mean-eyed look,  it’s in the dramatic scenes that he really scores, gentle, vulnerable, caring. He certainly matches the Duke’s trademark diffidence in terms of romance. That the camera can mine depths of expression from both faces proves the calibre of their acting.

If director Gordon Douglas (Rio Conchos, 1964) had more critical standing, his bold long opening aerial tracking shot over rugged forest, mountain and plain before reaching the stagecoach would have received the acclaim accorded Stanley Kubrick for a similar shot in The Shining (1980). The opening also makes it clear how far removed this is from the original, not just in colour obviously, but (although filmed in Colorado) in a different locale, Wyoming, rather than the arid Arizona of Monument Valley. After a brief glimpse of the stagecoach, Douglas switches to a cavalry troop making camp. A soldier going into a wagon is met by a hatchet in the head. The camera tracks the corpse’s blood as it flows down a stream where it alerts another soldier washing clothes. Before he can raise the alarm, he gets a lance in the back.

Where the passengers have heard rumors, quickly dismissed (“nobody got scalped by an old rumor”) of the Sioux (Apaches in the original) on the warpath, the audience has seen the cavalry troop slaughtered, so (in effectively a Hitchcockian device) provides the movie with the tension the on-screen characters initially lack The passengers soon grasp reality when they come across another patrol dead at a staging post, and eventually are battling for their lives when ambushed. But prior to that there is a tense sequence of leading the stagecoach across a narrow mountain ridge during a storm.

There’s a clever reversal before the Sioux onslaught. The passengers think they have seen soldiers approaching, but it is the Sioux wearing cavalry uniforms. There is no river to cross as in the original, but the chase along a mountainous path is breathtaking, aerial and tracking shots given full rein, ending in a shoot-out without (as in the original) the cavalry riding to the rescue.

Douglas has his work cut out with the drama, as various characters confront their issues, and his staging is superb, characters always given reason to move. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (Rio Conchos) borrowed material from the Dudley Nichols original but added and subtracted quite a bit.

At the time critical deification of John Ford had not begun and Hollywood was in a cyclical remake mood – new versions of Beau Geste and Madame X appearing the same year – so Gordon Douglas didn’t quite face a critical backlash, although praise was generally sparse. Judging by the box office it received an audience thumbs-up – as it does from yours truly.

You can rent this on Amazon Prime.

The Detective (1968) ****

Perhaps the boldest aspect of this raw look at the seamier side of life as a New York cop is that perennial screen loverboy Frank Sinatra plays a cuckold. Prior to what is always considered the more hard-hitting cop pictures of the 1970s – Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973) etc – this touched upon just about every element of society’s underbelly. Despite an old-school treatment, more a police procedural than anything else, homosexuality, nymphomania, corruption, police brutality, and a system that ensured poverty remained endemic all fell into its maw. And, for the times, several of these issues were dealt with in often sympathetic fashion.

Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra), an ambitious but principled detective gunning for promotion, investigates the murder of a prominent homosexual while dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to Karen (Lee Remick) and colleagues on the take. When other cops want to beat confessions out of suspects or strip them naked to humiliate them, Leland intervenes to prevent further brutality. He is not just highly moral, but takes a soft approach to criminals, not just playing the “good cop” part of a good cop/bad cop double-act but genuinely showing sympathy. Not only does Leland leap to the defense of those he feels unfairly treated, but he trades punches with those meting out such treatment. In addition, he clearly feels guilt over sending to the electric chair a man he believes should be treated in a mental institution.

Although at first glance this appears a homophobic picture, it is anything but, Leland showing tremendous sympathy towards homosexual suspect Felix (Tony Musante) – whom his  colleagues clearly despise – to the extent of holding his hand and gently cajoling him through an interview. Later, rather than condemn a bisexual the film shows empathy for his torment. Certainly, some of the attitudes will appear dated, especially the idea of sexual expression as a brand of deviancy, but the film takes a genuinely even-handed approach. Through the medium of Leland’s perspective, it is clearly demonstrated that it is other police officers who have the warped notions.  

Having solved the first murder, Leland takes up the case of an apparent suicide at the behest of widow Norma McIver (Jacqueline Bisset), only for this to lead not only to civic corruption on a large scale but back to the original investigation. Leland also has a wider social perspective than most cops and there is a terrific scene where he berates civic authorities for creating a system that perpetuates poverty. The ending, too, casts new light on Leland’s  character.

By this point, most screen cops were defined by their alcoholism and ruined domestic lives, but this is altogether a more tender portrait of an honest cop. Leland’s relationship with Karen is exceptionally well done. Normally, of course, it is the man who usually strays. This reversal in the infidelity stakes adds a new element. Karen has more in common with an independent woman like the Faye Dunaway character in The Arrangement (1969).

While playing the good cop would come relatively easy to an actor like Sinatra, carrying off the role of the hurt husband is a much tougher ask. Coupled with his sensitive approach to criminals, this is acting of some distinction, a mature performance by a mature star.  This is the last great Hollywood role by Lee Remick (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968) and she brilliantly portrays a woman trapped by her self-destructive desires.

Jacqueline Bisset (Bullitt, 1969) leads an excellent supporting cast that includes Jack Klugman (The Split, 1968), Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Robert Duvall (The Godfather, 1972), Lloyd Bochner (Point Blank, 1967) and Al Freeman Jr. (Dutchman, 1966).

While Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961, and Tony Rome, 1967) was viewed very much as a journeyman director, he brings an inventive approach and some surprising subtleties to the picture. He opens with a very audacious shot. It looks like you are seeing skyscrapers upside down, as if a Christopher Nolan sensibility had entered a time warp, until you realize it is the city reflected off a car roof. There are some bold compositions, often with Sinatra appearing below Remick’s sightline, rather than the normal notion that the star must be taller or at least the same height as everyone else.

Oscar-winning Abby Mann (The Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961) adapted the bestseller by Roderick Thorp who achieved greater fame much later for writing the source novel for Die Hard (1988) – Nothing Lasts Forever, a sequel to The Detective. For the Bruce Willis film Joe Leland became John McClane. Sinatra, although 73 at the time, was offered that role first as part of his original contract for The Detective.

In The Detective Sinatra’s wife Mia Farrow was initially contracted to play the part of Norma McIver but pulled out when Rosemary’s Baby (1968) overshot its schedule. Partly in revenge, Sinatra sued her for divorce.

Claudelle Inglish (1961) ****

Simple small-town morality tale, brilliantly told, with a quiet nod to The Blue Angel and Citizen Kane. Shy dirt-poor farmer’s daughter Claudelle Inglish (Diane McBain) after falling for the handsome Linn Varner (Chad Everett) expects to be married when he returns from his Army stint until she receives a “Dear John” letter. Initially devastated, keeping all his letters and the dancing doll she had won with him at a fair, she decides that lying in bed all day and staring at the ceiling is not going to work. So she smartens up her frumpish look with lipstick and turns her simple wedding dress into a more attractive outfit.

She discovers that the boys are so desperate to come calling on this new-look creature that they will bring presents to every date, ranging from the biggest box of candy in the shop to a pair of red shoes. Encouraging her determined manhunt, dissatisfied mother Jessie (Constance Ford), who has endured twenty years of broken promises throughout marriage to hardworking Clyde (Arthur Kennedy),  beseeches her to go after a rich man. Luckily, there is one in the vicinity, the widowed S.T. Crawford (Claude Akins) who happens to be their landlord. Crawford tries to bribe Clyde with free rent and other benefits to put in a good word, but to no avail, the father believing that true love cannot be bought and, furthermore, will alleviate abject poverty.

Advertisement to the trade encouraging exhibitors to book for one
of the key dates on the U.S. release calendar.

Claudelle bluntly rejects Crawford as “too old and too fat” but takes his present anyway and, under pressure, agrees to go for a ride with him without allowing him to stop the car. Dennis Peasley (Will Hutchins), elder son of a store owner, believes he is the front runner, deluging her with gifts, naively believing she is his sweetheart until he realizes he is in competition with a horde of other local boys, including his younger brother, and outsider Rip (Robert Colbert). Jessie, seeing the prospect of a rich husband slip away, embarks on an affair with Crawford. Soon, Claudelle has the entire male population in the palm of her hand, piling up presents galore. However, tragedy, in the way these things go, is just round the corner.

What struck me first was the subtlety. Nothing here to bother the censor, beyond the immorality on show and despite Hitchcock breaking all sorts of sexual taboos with Psycho the year before. This isn’t an all-hot-and-bothered essay like the previously reviewed A Cold Wind in August or a picture that pivots on twists-and-turns like A Fever in the Blood, both out the same year. It is so delicately handled that took me a while to work out that Claudelle was actually having sex with all these guys.

Erskine Caldwell was America’s bestselling author at the time with over 40 million books sold and most famous, of course, for God’s Little Acre, filmed in 1958, and Tobacco Road (1941).

The initial shy girl blossoming under the first blush of love is done very well, a gentle romance ensuing, Claudelle still withdrawn in company, agreeing to an engagement even though Linn cannot afford a ring, waiting anxiously for his letters, adoring the dancing doll,  paying off a few cents at a time material for a wedding dress. It’s only after she receives a Dear John (Dear Jane?) letter that it becomes clear, though not crystal clear, that sex has been involved because that word is never spoken and that action never glimpsed. Only gradually do we realise that present-givers are being rewarded, and as her self-confidence grows she is soon able to pick her own presents.  One look is generally all it takes to have men falling all over themselves to give her what she wants, which is, essentially, a life where promises are not broken. But the closest she gets to showing how much she is changed from her original innocent incarnation is still by implication, telling a young buck she is “pretty all over.”

I was also very taken with the black-and-white cinematography by Ralph Woolsey. The compositions are all very clear, but in the shadows Claudelle’s eyes become glittering pinpoints. The costumes by Howard Shoup won an unexpected Oscar nomination, his third in three years. Veteran director Gordon Douglas (Them!, 1954) does an excellent job of keeping the story simple and fluent, resisting all temptations to pander to the lowest common denominator while extracting surprisingly good performances from the cast, many drawn from Warner Brothers’ new talent roster.

Diane McBain (Parrish, 1961) handles very well the transition from innocence to depravity (a woman playing the field in those days would be tagged fallen rather than independent) and holds onto her anguish in an understated manner. In some senses Arthur Kennedy (Elmer Gantry,1960) was a coup for such a low-budget production, but this could well have been a part he was born to play, since in his movie career he knew only too well the pain of promise, nominated five times for Best Supporting Actor (some kind of record, surely) without that nudging him further up the billing ladder. His performance is heartbreaking, working his socks off without ever keeping head above water, repairs getting in the way of promises made to wife and daughter, kept going through adoration for his wife.

Constance Ford (Home from the Hill, 1960) is heartbreaking in a different way, scorning her loving husband and dressing like her daughter in a bid to hook Crawford.  Television regular Claude Akins is the surprise turn. In a role that looked like a cliché from the off – i.e. older powerful man determined by whatever means to win the object of his desires – he plays it like he was auditioning for The Blue Angel, hanging on every word, being twisted round her little finger, demeaning himself as he is made to wait, sitting downcast outside the Inglish house like an rejected schoolboy. Of the younger cast, Will Hutchins was Sugarfoot (1957-1961), Chad Everett was making his movie debut, and Robert Overton had appeared in A Fever in the Blood (1961). Leonard Freeman (Hang ‘Em High, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the Erskine Caldwell bestseller.

And where does Citizen Kane come into all this? The dancing doll Claudelle won at a fair when dating Linn is something of a motif, never discarded, as if a symbol of her innocence, and in close-up in the last shot of the film.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.