Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Fabulous Films of the 50s: Devil's Doorway
The name of this blogathon is Fabulous Films of the 50s and when it came to the western genre, the 1950s was indeed a fabulous decade. There were probably more genuinely great westerns in that decade than any other.
1950 alone saw some of the greatest westerns ever made – BROKEN ARROW, THE FURIES, THE GUNFIGHTER, RIO GRANDE, THE STARS IN MY CROWN, WAGON MASTER and WINCHESTER '73, just to name a few. And DEVIL'S DOORWAY.
Amazingly, director Anthony Mann directed three of these – DEVIL'S DOORWAY, THE FURIES and WINCHESTER '73. Any one of these three would earn him a standing ovation in the Westerns Hall of Fame. Three in one year is very impressive, and a strong argument for the studio system. No time spent developing properties by the director, the studio did it for you.
Of the three, I'd probably give the number one spot to WINCHESTER '73, with DEVIL'S DOORWAY coming in a very close second. It's not as well known as it should be. It's sympathetic treatment of the American Indian was overshadowed that year by the huge success of the similarly themed BROKEN ARROW. I like BROKEN ARROW a lot, but its a more family-friendly movie, while DEVIL'S DOORWAY is stark, brutal and unrelenting.
In her book Source: Anthony Mann (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). Jeanine Basinger astutely places Mann's western work in its proper context: “Mann might be said to have modernized the genre, incorporating into it an increased violence and using it to express man's vision to self, the conflicts of his inner psychology.”
In DEVIL'S DOORWAY Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a full-blooded Shoshone, returns to his Wyoming home after serving with the Union Army during the American Civil War, where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Upon his return though, he finds himself the target of bigotry and prejudice, with not even the basic rights of a citizen.
The local doctor refuses to give up his poker game to treat his dying father, and the town bully starts a barroom brawl with Poole simply because he's a Shoshone.
Poole owns a particularly coveted spread, eagerly wanted by the local ranchers. There's a loophole in the law uncovered by an Eastern lawyer named Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who wants the Shoshones driven from their land at all costs.
Poole and his fellow Shoshones stand ready to defend their land to the death. The U.S. Cavalry sides with the townspeople, and Poole and the Shoshones make a last stand on their land.
DEVIL'S DOORWAY deserves to be better known. It's a gorgeous film to look at. Mann and ace cinematographer John Alton film many scenes like a noir. There's a noir-like barroom fight where the spectators watch in sweaty-faced close up. Think THE SET-UP (1949) on the frontier. Much of the action plays in the shadows with some characters barely visible in conversations.
The combination of Mann and Alton means there isn't a dull or uninteresting shot in the whole movie. (Anyone who thinks black and white photography is boring really needs to see this movie, or anything Alton shot in black and white).
Take the photographic treatment of Coolan. Dressed in black, Mann positions him often in the foreground or at a low angle looking up, as people in the background discuss what they will do with the Shoshones. He stands there quietly taking it all in, almost as if he represented the evil of bigotry. I don't mean to imply that he is demonic or anything like that, but the way he is presented its almost as if he personifies evil on the frontier, chortling inside as he spreads the ugliness of bigotry under a most respectable facade. Between this and his weak-willed lawyer turn in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE the same year, Louis Calhern had a banner year playing two very different villains.
Unfortunately, DEVIL'S DOORWAY tanked at the box office, having the bad luck to open the same year as the very popular and similar-themed BROKEN ARROW.
Basinger again: “DEVIL'S DOORWAY was not a critical or commercial success. Its reception was greatly harmed by the release of Delmer Daves's BROKEN ARROW, starring James Stewart as a western scout who tries to make peace with Cochise. Most critics saw Mann's film as a low-budget black and white rip-off of Daves. This was unfortunate, because DEVIL'S DOORWAY is a far superior film. BROKEN ARROW is self-conscious and talky, but its overt moralizing was taken seriously by the same critics who dismissed DEVIL'S DOORWAY. It was not Mann's style to film screenplays which discussed and presented concepts laid over a story. Rather he presented stories with ideas and concepts built into them, and the depth of his films is still overlooked on this basis....
“A key to the relative honesty of the two films might be their attitudes toward sexual relationships between Indians and whites. In BROKEN ARROW, Stewart married an appropriately beautiful Indian maiden, Debra Paget, who is killed by whites. This cliched area of white-man-loves-Pocahontas is a staple of the old-fashioned western story and does nothing to further the truth about the plight of the Indians. On the contrary, the sight of Paget in her beautifully designed suede moccasins and color-coordinated beads is enough to send any white man scampering to the reservation. No love is allowed in DEVIL'S DOORWAY, a far more truthful situation and although white-man-can-love-redwoman, white woman still cannot love red man without shame and ostracism....
“Fortunately, DEVIL'S DOORWAY has gained in reputation since its release. It is not only an honest portrait of the plight of the Indian, but it also has an interesting portrait of a pre-liberation woman. It is in every way a modern film. In Mann's career, it stands out as a major step forward, carrying over his noir sensibility, both formally and thematically, into a new genre.”
Yes, a very modern film, though I suspect some contemporary audiences won't be able to get past the casting of Robert Taylor as a Native American. But he's terrific in it, and I would rank it among his top three performances. His Lance Poole is a very sympathetic character, giving everything for his country only to return to his home where he is treated less than dirt.
I can see some actors gnashing their teeth and beating their chest as indignity after indignity is forced on them. But Taylor underplays, letting us see the very proud man trying to hold onto his values while hoping he can help his people as much as possible. It's a quietly physical performance, and I can't think of another actor who could have done as good a job.
Taylor made quite a few westerns in the decade, including two of the very best ever, WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) and THE LAST HUNT (1956). Even those of the more routine variety, such as AMBUSH (1950), RIDE, VAQUERO (1953) and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958) are very entertaining contributions to the genre. Add DEVIL'S DOORWAY to the list and I think a good case can be made that Robert Taylor made many important contributions to the western film.
I remember when DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) opened, and while I enjoyed it, it it bugged me to no end how in interviews and press materials the movie was touted as the first Hollywood film to treat Native Americans with respect for their culture, instead of being the anonymous bad guys in hundreds of westerns.
I'm no apologist for Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans, but that's simply not true. Most reporters and film journalists whose knowledge of film history only goes back to STAR WARS (1977) eagerly nodded their heads and lauded Costner and Co. for their bold stand on behalf of the continent's original settlers. There was an article in Film Comment that pointed out the fallacy to the film's defenders, but many writers thought DANCES WITH WOLVES was the first western to treat the Native American culture sympathetically. (I guess they never saw any of Richard Harris' MAN CALLED HORSE movies).
But Hollywood was there long before DANCES WITH WOLVES. Movies like DEVIL'S DOORWAY and BROKEN ARROW also showed the injustice the white man showed to Native Americans. Even in the silent era, Richard Dix played a heroic Native Americans in THE VANISHING AMERICAN (1925) and the part-sound REDSKIN (1929) – the title may be racist but the film hardly is.
There was the remarkable MASSACRE (1934) from Warner Bros., a pre-Code doozie with Richard Barthelmess trying vainly to save the reservation from ruin in the heights of the Depression, with hindrance after hindrance thrown up by crooked government officials.
Some viewers who equate John Wayne with traditional western thinking might be surprised at some of his dialogue in HONDO (1953), where Wayne pretty much says he doesn't blame the Apaches for going on the war path, as the Apaches never broke a treaty while the U.S. Government broke every one they ever signed.
So DANCES WITH WOLVES was hardly the first pro-Indian film, and far from the best, despite its many Oscars. Others were there first. DEVIL'S DOORWAY did it before and far more effectively. And as Basinger says, it's very modern, its starkly beautiful photography often in counterpoint with the stain of prejudice. It's one of the best westerns ever made, a tribute to Mann, Alton, Taylor and company.
Be sure to visit the Classic Movie Bloggers Association website - http://clamba.blogspot.com/ - for a list of titles and blogs during this blogathon.