Tuesday, July 22, 2014

POINT BLANK: Blu-ray (MGM 1967) Warner Home Video

Tony Curtis once said any movie made in Hollywood is a miracle – a rather sad irony. Show business…to quote Irving Berlin – “like no business I know”; and fairly apropos when considering John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), in hindsight, a movie that bids farewell to the ancient flowers of old Hollywood only to usher in its new un-glamorous era, never astutely categorized in the annals of film history as what it rightly became - the ‘American’ new wave. 
Boorman was, of course, working during exceptional times; a transitional period in which the proverbial curtain came down on the studio system and the ensconced production code: Hollywood’s discombobulated superstructure disemboweling its ‘dream factories’ from the inside out: art for art’s sake about to segue into the modern era, where ‘show me the money’ really is the only cache any creative has for sustaining his/her autonomy in this Babylon of forgotten dreams.  In spurts, Point Blank is progressive, disturbing, ground-breaking and - well…‘miraculous’; cribbing from an old Orson Welles mantra: ‘there are no happy endings if you tell the rest of the story’.
In some ways, Point Blank feels as fresh as the day it was made; the constant stylist tug o’ war; the last gasps of the establishment competing with the experimentalisms of the age; queerly symbiotic though never entirely comfortable together. What was it they used to say about ‘strange bedfellows?’ All sorts of subtext are at play: a sexual undercurrent – even homoerotic, at times – between Lee Marvin’s emotionally scarred hit man, Walker, his love/hate relationship with ex-best friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon) and the two sisters, Lynne (Sharon Acker) and Chris (Angie Dickinson) who get passed between these explosive personalities: rams destined to lock horns in a game of sudden death. Boorman strips away the underlay of an omnipotent ‘organization’ whose sole purpose seems to be moving large sums of laundered cash in and out of clandestine contact points. Talk about a Hitchcock MacGuffin!  It’s not about the money at all: neither the organization – nor even Walker, who steps off at the last possible moment and allows the sharks to devour each other before realizing his whole reason for being has been predicated on a lie.
The film is immeasurably blessed to have Lee Marvin as its star; Marvin holding the plot together even when the Alexander Jacobs, David and Rafe Newhouse screenplay begins to disintegrate around its particulars. There are whole portions of Point Blank that make very little sense at all – its non-linear, dreamlike essence, bookended by utterly ruthless sequences of brutality and gratuitous nudity; albeit, mostly done in silhouette. It’s fairly obvious, Boorman is in love with the newly christened 40mm Panavision lens, offering him both depth of field and crystal clarity. Style alone, however, does not a movie make – not even with Philip H. Lathrop’s stunning use of the wide angle teeming with gorgeous shots of Frisco and L.A. Evidently, Lee Marvin was apt to agree. For, when initially asked by Boorman to play the part, Marvin agreed on one precondition; tossing out the 70 page treatment and telling Boorman to start anew.  
In watching Point Blank evolve on the screen there is a definite sort of ‘spur of the moment’ kinetic energy happening between director and star; Boorman rising above the fairly pedestrian material, but this too in part to the technical wizards working behind the scenes, by Boorman’s own admission “not a single one under the age of sixty” – all of them sacred cows of the old MGM since its early years and old enough to remember that studio in its prime.  It ought to be pointed out Point Blank is a movie that could never have been made – much less conceived – during Metro’s heyday. However, like its protagonist, the studio had pretty much gone to seed by the time Point Blank went before the cameras. At the outset, Boorman was summoned by studio executive, Robert O’Brien, who began their conversation by thumping his fingers against a copy of the script, submitted for his approval, then asking the director to explain both it and his reasons for wanting to make the picture.
Mercifully, sweaty palms and heated debate were narrowly averted when a telephone call came in from half way around the world: director, David Lean shooting Ryan’s Daughter on the Dingle Peninsula and asking for more time and money. O’Brien, who was somewhat in awe of Lean, listened intently and obliged Lean incessantly before hanging up the telephone, completely forgetting the reason he had brought Boorman to his office. Reportedly, O’Brien instead said, “Go out and make it a good one”, Boorman hurrying off with his project green lit and not about to look a gift-horse in the mouth.    
In Lee Marvin, Boorman had a trusted ally and a very good friend. Marvin’s clout in carrying the picture included both script and casting approval, both graciously deferred to Boorman’s discretion in their first official meeting with the studio, thereby affording Boorman total control over his ‘final cut’.  Marvin was to later have only minor regrets over his decision – in Boorman’s choice of Angie Dickinson to play his love interest. But more on this in a moment.
In retrospect, Point Blank remains something of a textbook example of style singularly buoying a threadbare plot: Philip H. Lathrop’s lush cinematography transforming even the seediest suburbs of Los Angeles into grittily stylish homages to film noir. It’s odd too, because Point Blank takes place mostly in the unvarnished glare of daylight; Boorman using his night shoots sparingly but to excellent effect and even jokingly referring to his high concept for the production as ‘film blanche’. Undeniably, both clothing and hair styles have dramatically changed since Point Blank’s debut, although Lee Marvin’s immaculately tailored and body-hugging suits remain contemporarily chic. Otherwise, the film feels very much in and of the moment, particularly in its unorthodox use of the flashback to jog Walker’s memory. This also helps keep the audience inside our protagonist’s head at all times. For Walker, despite his ‘action guy’ persona is, in fact, a very cerebral creature; a thinking man, tortured by his haunted past chronically turning his present upside down – and perhaps, destined to make even his future rancid.
Boorman sets up his non-linear narrative almost immediately following the roar of MGM’s Leo the lion; Walker (Lee Marvin) lying in a cramped cell inside Alcatraz after gunshots have been fired; the credits laid over moving and still images of the famed San Franciscan prison and Walker’s voiceover digressing us to the not so distant past. In flashback we see Walker hooking up with the fairly malevolent, Mal Reese (John Vernon), who knocks him to the floor inside a very congested nightclub, the rest of the patrons seemingly oblivious to their altercation. Reese ruthlessly shakes Walker by the hair until he agrees to partake in a heist of some omnipotent organization’s money drop at Alcatraz Island.
The plan, so Walker is told, is merely to knock out the organization’s point men and make off with the loot. Walker involves his wife, Lynne (Sharon Ackers) under the pretext three heads are better than one. But almost immediately things turn ugly; Reese cold-bloodedly assassinating the organization’s goons, then realizing the payoff isn’t nearly as large as he expected. Walker is disgusted by these murders – odd, for a hit man (has he gone soft?) – lying on a cot inside one of the cells. He is joined by Lynne, who hums a rather haunting tune to sooth his nerves. Reese appears, orders Lynne from the cell and then shoots Walker without provocation.
There remains some scholastic speculation over whether the rest of the movie is, in fact, the reminiscences of a dying man; Walker expiring in the cell as he imagines the rest of the story. It’s possible, although Boorman has repeatedly refused to comment one way or the other. We observe Walker, miraculously unharmed by his altercation with Reese, lowering himself into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay; the voiceover from a nearby tour boat advancing the narrative timeline to an undisclosed point in the future – now, the present.  Walker, immaculately groomed, listens intensely to the boat’s tour guide explain how it is virtually impossible for anyone to escape Alcatraz; begging the inquiry from Walker’s buddy, Yost (Keenan Wynn) – “How did you do it?” Walker doesn’t explain himself, and frankly, neither does Boorman. Instead, Yost outlines his plan of action – actually, revenge. Walker wants Reese and, presumably, the $93,000 owed him from the heist. He also wants Reese’s head on a platter. Yost wants the organization. Their goals are one in the same. Or are they?
Yost gives Walker the address to Lynne’s apartment, telling him Reese lives there too. However, upon breaking in and taking his ex-wife hostage, Walker quickly learns Reese hasn’t lived there for at least the last three months. Another flashback; this one dedicated to Lynn and Walker’s initial ‘cute meet’, their burgeoning romance and her gradual shifting affections from Walker to his best friend, Reese. Lynne confesses she is tired of not knowing about the future; of having betrayed him for a man who continues to pay for her fairly luxurious apartment via a different courier each month, but who chooses to live somewhere else without her. Walker is surprisingly sympathetic; Boorman moving us into Point Blank’s most disjointed and incomprehensible overlap of the past, present and future.
Walker discovers Lynne lying face down in her bedroom; dead of an apparent overdose. We fast track through his nights of sleeplessness, haunted by reoccurring visions from the night Reese shot him; Walker awakening from a dead sleep to discover the apartment empty, with only a white cat sitting on the stripped down mattress inside Lynne’s bedroom. Looking out the window, Walker sees Yost at street level grinning from ear to ear. A change of clothes – for no apparent reason – and Walker now catches the courier (John McMurtry) by surprise, arriving with Lynne’s monthly payoff. Instead, Walker forces the courier to divulge the identity of the man who sent him. The courier points a finger at used car dealer, John Stegman (Michael Strong), whom Walker pays a visit under the pretext of being interested in buying a Cadillac. Taking both the car and Stegman for a ride, Walker trashes the vehicle but gets only one name from Stegman: Chris (Angie Dickinson) – Lynne’s estranged sister and presumably Reese’s new lover.
Chris works as a cocktail waitress at a seedy nightclub called The Movie House, where still images are projected against silk screen and the thoroughly annoying Stu Gardner screeches into a microphone, encouraging the tightly wound patrons to respond in kind. Walker taps one of the waitresses (Sandra Warner) for Chris’ new address, observing he is being watched by a pair of goons and Stegman who has been sent by Reese to dispose of Walker.  Instead, Walker ducks out the back way, but not before he thoroughly pummels Stegman’s thug muscle, toppling a heavy shelf of movie canisters onto one goon and pulverizing the other with what can only be described as a thoroughly wincing knuckle bust to the crotch.  
Breaking into Chris’ bungalow in the dead of night, Walker discovers his ex-sister-in-law unconscious and splayed across the bed similarly to the way he discovered Lynne’s lifeless remains, and with the same bottle of sleeping pills on her nightstand. Alas, Chris has only taken one to knock her out for the night; Walker stirring the woozy gal to life much to her regret. The decision to cast Angie Dickinson was Boorman’s. Lee Marvin had requested Peggy Lee, owing to hard feelings still existing between him and Dickinson from an incident on the set of 1964’s The Killers. Dickinson had yet to forgive her costar. Later in Point Blank, she would have her revenge, in a scene where Chris gives Walker a good chest-thumping with her fists.
But back to the plot – such as it is. Chris allows Walker to stay at her place, explaining Reese has since taken up residency at Santa Monica’s fashionable Huntley Hotel. Boorman hand-picked this location himself, then instructed MGM’s art department to add a time lapse matte that included a posh penthouse on its rooftop. In the meantime, Reese goes to see Frederick Carter (Lloyd Bochner): his contact inside the organization. Carter is unimpressed, blaming Reese for letting Walker live; also for stealing his wife as a trophy. Reese explains he needed all the money from their heist to pay Carter off, something Walker would never understand. Carter agrees to stakeout the Huntley with bodyguards for Reese’s protection; Walker convincing Chris to slink and coo her way into the penthouse and, in fact, Reese’s bed.
In the meantime, Walker breaks into a gay couple’s apartment across the street, ordering them to telephone the police to create a diversion. Responding with curiosity to the sudden appearance of cruisers, Walker gets his moment to sneak into the Huntley’s underground parking - taking the elevator to the penthouse. There, he discovers Reese and Chris in post-coital embrace. While she hurries to dress, Walker drags Reese out of bed by his leg; Reese landing with a thud on the carpet and clutching at his bed sheets for false modesty. With a gun to his brain, Reese willingly divulges the names of his superiors: Carter, Brewster and the main man, Fairfax. Walker, who has already bound and gagged Reese’s bodyguards on the patio, now drags Reese to the edge of the balcony, determined he should pay out the $93,000 or die. Instead, Reese stumbles and falls over the side of the balcony; a clumsy traveling matte following his naked body to its unglamorous – and curiously unbloodied - road splatter in front of the hotel. Nevertheless, it draws a crowd almost immediately, including Yost, who quietly observes Reese’s demise with great satisfaction, virtually unnoticed.
The next day, Carter admonishes his bodyguards for their failure to protect Reese from Walker. He pulls Stegman aside and hands him a package. It’s Walker’s payoff and he’s going to deliver it personally at a prearranged rendezvous under the overpass. Alas, this too is a setup, Carter having hired a sniper (James Sikking) to take care of both Stegman and Walker.  It’s a fairly neat plan, except Walker now breaks into Carter’s private office, terrorizing his secretary (Nicole Rogell) with a few whispered threats in her ear that leave her quivering. He also knocks Carter’s bodyguard unconscious, forcing Carter to take him to the prearranged rendezvous with Stegman.
Unknowing of the setup, Stegman is perplexed to find Carter rushing to meet him; two gunshots from the sniper’s high-powered rifle putting a definite period to Carter, then Stegman as Walker looks on from the relative safety of a nearby concrete runoff. A few moments pass and Walker decides to examine the contents of Stegman’s package, discovering nothing but a block of paper squares disguised as money and wrapped inside. Carter never was going to pay Walker off. In his commentary track, John Boorman claims to have discovered this underpass location for this sequence, endlessly exploited for various crime/thrillers. Alas, Boorman has forgotten about Gordon Douglas’ 1954 sci-fi gem, Them! – the one about giant radioactive ants; Douglas already having used the storm drain locale for his pivotal standoff between mankind and nature.
Moving on: Walker decides to track down Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), who he incorrectly assumes is the head of the organization, at least so Yost has led him to believe. Walker and Yost arrive at Brewster’s home while he is away on business; Walker later bringing Chris to Brewster’s place after hers has already been trashed by the organization looking for clues. Chris and Walker have words – or rather, she assaults him in a fit of rage (the aforementioned comeuppance – a.k.a. ‘payback’ Dickinson inflicted on Marvin.  Reportedly, it left bruises and welts all over the actor’s body). Walker is unmoved by Chris’ violent outburst, waiting for her to tire out before casually reclining on the couch to watch television. In response, she turns on every major appliance in the kitchen, followed by all the lights in the house, and finally the P.A. system and reel-to-reel music in her efforts to elicit a response. Walker eventually discovers Chris in the billiard room. She strikes him in the head with her pool cue, the pair falling to the floor.
Boorman expertly plays the next several moments; cutaways of Walker and Chris involved in some passionate love-making, as the pair writhe between the sheets, Boorman cutting to Walker thinking about Lynne in his arms; in Reese’s embrace, Chris with Reese, and finally, returning to Chris and Walker lying together after their frenzied exchange. Boorman gives us more flashback references the next morning; Walker observing the crumpled bed sheets that remind him of Lynne’s overdose. Chris interrupts his thoughts, emerging from the bathroom fully clothed. “Hey,” she asks, “What’s my last name?” to which he replies, “What’s my first?”  This, she also cannot answer. (Aside: I’ll just diverge here to suggest that while superficially this exchange of dialogue seems ‘cleverly’ scripted, it really does not add up or take into account Walker ought to know Chris’ maiden name, if for no other reason, than presumably because it’s the same as her sister, Lynne’s, whom Walker was married to… remember?)
Brewster arrives with his own bodyguard in tow; Walker dispatching him posthaste and holding Brewster at gunpoint to demand his money. Brewster suggests Walker is looking at this situation the wrong way. The ‘organization’ is a business and under the operations of a business model they are not about to pay blood money on a say so – even at the point of a gun. To prove this point, Brewster telephones the head of the organization - Fairfax, who unequivocally refuses to pay Walker off. In reply, Walker spares Brewster’s life but shoots up his telephone. Brewster now insinuates to Walker there is one other way to get his money – by intercepting the organization’s latest money drop the same way Walker and Reese did earlier, only this time with Brewster’s complicity.
Brewster and Walker rendezvous at San Francisco’s Fort Point, a helicopter landing with the prearranged drop off a few moments later. Brewster makes the exchange alone. But Walker remains conspicuously absent and for good reason. Only moments after the helicopter’s departure, Brewster is gunned down by the same sniper Carter hired to get rid of Stegman. Yost emerges from the shadows and is identified by the dying Brewster as Fairfax. Yost now congratulates Walker on helping him to eliminate all of his nefarious underlings within the organization. He offers Walker a job as its point man. But Walker has had enough, vanishing into the shadows before anyone is the wiser. The sniper reaches down to collect the payoff. But Yost tells him to leave it. Just another package of cut paper used to snuff Walker out of hiding? We’ll never know, because Point Blank ends here; the camera tilting and panning to a long shot of Frisco with Alcatraz Island in the distance.
For its time, Point Blank broke many taboos; chiefly with more graphic displays of violence and flashes of gratuitous nudity. Boorman and his production team could also lay claim being the first film company to shoot inside Alcatraz; an impressive feat considering the prison had only been mothballed a scant three years earlier. In between principal photography, Angie Dickinson and Sharon Acker posed for a fashion spread in Life Magazine, pitting their obvious glamor against the rusted out backdrop of these infamous prison walls. Shooting at Alcatraz fit with Boorman’s desire to accentuate the very sparse landscape in which the rest of his story takes place. He also utilized color in a fairly interesting way; almost monochromatic by design at the start, then gradually becoming more saturated as the movie progressed.
Boorman also had costume designer, Margo Weintz coordinate each character’s attire to match the backdrops: as in Carter’s office – a bilious green, complemented by the bodyguards’ suits in varying tonalities of green fabric: ditto for their shirts and ties. Boorman also altered certain locations to heighten the film’s sense of isolationism; having his production team remove all of the potted plants from an airport terminal, as example, to give it a more clinical feel. He also spray-painted one of the long-range observation binoculars on the beach to compliment Angie Dickinson’s bright yellow ensemble, with Lee Marvin dressed in complimentary mustard tones. 
There is little to deny Point Blank its place as a transitional piece in American cinema; the old giving way to the new – or rather, struggling to keep pace with it. Perhaps, only in retrospect, does the film seem tepid and unoriginal; modern eyes at a greater disadvantage for having endured countless imitators of Boorman’s unconventional style ever since. Even so, there’s not much going on here in terms of plot; the Jacobs/Newhouse screenplay marking time, and at 92 anemic minutes, with a thoroughly unimpressive amount of repeat coverage in flashbacks. 
Why, for example, do we need to be shown again and again Walker’s every waking and nocturnal thoughts are of Lynne? We know this by his actions; his unwillingness to kill her in cold blood, by the tender – if remorseless – way he handles her suicide, and by his visitation to her grave. Much has been written of the fact, Walker – although a hit man, arguably no better than his competition – manages to escape Point Blank without killing a single person. This overriding sense of compassion is decidedly uncharacteristic for the traditional hit man persona. It also makes Walker a rather fascinating figure – the avenging angel with male machismo, but whose heart somehow doesn’t seem to be in it; Lee Marvin’s introspective presence adding layers of subtext with a casual glance and the occasional scowl. It must be said of Marvin; few actors of his generation (and certainly none since) have been able to get away with as little, while giving the audience so much.
Regrettably, we’re not really given much else in Point Blank; the other characters rarely going beyond the cardboard cutout stage: Lloyd Bochner’s slippery eel, Angie Dickinson’s bittersweet sex kitten, Keenan Wynn’s man of mystery and John Vernon’s grotesquely unsympathetic sell out.  All these characterizations add flavoring of a kind. But none attain distinction; an unrecoverable hurdle for the movie. The story grows more episodic rather than cohesive as it unravels; the characters motivations becoming less clear, instead of crystalizing for the audience.
From its opening flashback/flash forward montage of discombobulated events, to its showdown of shady big reveals, Point Blank is anything but self-explanatory; its motives even more unsound. Remember, Boorman expertly sets up Walker’s revenge premise at the start of Point Blank. It’s supposed to be a no holds barred, knockdown/drag out fight to the finish. But Reese’s death does not satisfy Walker. Nor is it cathartically appealing for the audience to observe this raw and unrepentant killer suddenly devolving into a sniveling snitch before accidentally taking a header in the raw over the side of the Huntley Hotel. What is Walker’s motivation thereafter? Arguably, the cash. He’s willing to put a bullet in Brewster to get it…or is he? And what of the final helicopter money exchange? Does Brewster know it’s all a setup… the money not in the package he picks up; the audience coming to realize as much after Yost instructs his sniper to leave it behind?
Alfred Hitchcock remains the supreme master of the MacGuffin: a seemingly all-important element of the plot, ultimately inconsequential except to keep the characters and the storyline moving ahead. Alas, Point Blank has one too many MacGuffins to be taken at face value or even to keep us entertained. Introspective and brilliant screenwriting or merely Boorman’s desperate attempt to cobble together a movie on the fly from his fractured series of inconclusive plot twists? Yes, Boorman gives us style. But style alone remains a vacuous substitute for good solid storytelling. Point Blank’s narrative core is as rudimentary as it becomes infrequently uninspired; just a story about an angry guy who cannot even assert for himself the ever-changing purpose of his quest.
There’s better news for Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray; improving on the very fine DVD in the expected ways. Colors brighten, contrast and clarity marginally improve and the image becomes tighter with more fine details revealed. Alas, Warner Home Video continues to skimp on their bit rate. Point Blank looks fairly impressive, clean and with good tonality and contrast. Could it have looked better? Hmmmm. Warner gives us a fairly aggressive audio – nicely done, plus two vintage short subjects shot consecutively with the movie as promo pieces and the original theatrical trailer. There’s also a fairly entertaining commentary from Steven Soderbergh and John Boorman. It’s more an affectionate waxing between directors than a comprehensive ‘this is how I made my movie’ – but it generally informs and is definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, July 19, 2014

SEPARATE TABLES: Blu-ray (Hecht-Lancaster/UA 1958) Kino Lorber

At the height of his stardom, actor Burt Lancaster did the unthinkable: he decided to gamble everything on a chance to be his own star; also to produce his own material as well as for others in the industry who were either tired of the Hollywood studio gristmill or had been prematurely retired from their long term contracts; in part, due to the start of that steady decline in the system itself, soon to engulf the industry in its own maelstrom of professional chaos. At the time, Lancaster elected to join forces with his then agent, Harold Hecht – the concept of two men taking on this system to make their own movies…or rather, movies they would prefer to make, and make them on a budget rivaling the status quo, seemed grossly foolhardy to downright ridiculous and impossible.
Arguably, what gave Hecht-Lancaster its early cache was not Lancaster’s chutzpah or clout as a name above the title, but the three-ring media circus draw of seeing if Lancaster could actually pull it off. Lest we forget, this was not the era of the independent. Neither were the majors particularly willing to fluff off an upstart who thought he could do better; all the worse for Lancaster, who could be known for being caustic, moody and temperamental. Stars were expected to remain indentured to their studios back then, at least until such time as their profitability waned or they ‘chose’ to mutually seek out greener pastures elsewhere. In forming his own company Lancaster, of course, beat the studios to this punch – buying out his contract and going independent virtually overnight, together with Harold Hecht; the man who had discovered him in New York and set his feet upon the golden paved streets of Hollywood.
But Lancaster knew he was more than just a good set of shoulders; his early career in pictures predicated on exuding a sort of raw animal magnetism – capitalized with the prerequisite shirtless moment where his sinewy hunk would take a female ingénue in his arms and passionately kiss her, before storming off to conquer and claim the spirit of adventurism for himself. Lancaster’s brains were rightly situated atop those shoulders, and he would prove it by doing the impossible – or rather, what others had already decided was impossible for him to do.
Perhaps it was Burt Lancaster’s audacity that so appealed to Harold Hecht; this idea any actor – and by most critic’s accounts, not even a very good one – could trump the system that had given him his start, then thumb his nose at the bureaucracy behind it, endeavoring to carve a competitive niche from nothing except his own formidable ego; this teen dropout and ex-circus performer, a hunk of bones artfully slung together with some brawny mass between them to hold everything neatly together. Who did Burt Lancaster think he was? Ah, the secret lay in Lancaster’s wounded past; also in his resilience to triumph and remain above it all. No one was going to stand in his way. “They thought me a steamroller,” Lancaster once said in an interview, “But it’s the steamroller that gets the job done.”
And work they did; both Hecht and Lancaster, along with writer James Hill – like fiends – to make their fledgling enterprise click with investors, but more importantly, with audiences who steadily flocked to see their pictures. Neither man was particularly interested in mimicking the types of entertainments already flooding the marketplace. Indeed, a quick glance at the movies produced under the company banner reveal a handpicked selection of story-driven and fairly intense dramas, mainly imbued with social commentary; in short – ‘thinking pictures’ handled with a deft mantle for quality and always focused on satisfying the public’s insatiable need to be richly entertained. At the height of their success, Hecht-Lancaster was an unbeatable combo, unsettling the mogul/mandarins with their razor-sharp clairvoyance and ability to place their fingers on the pulse of the popular demand.
Today, we have the great luxury of reviewing the Hecht-Lancaster repertoire from the vantage of hindsight, which is always 20/20. Reverse engineering in that analysis, approaching history from the beginning, readily reveals that the steam in Hecht-Lancaster’s engine was definite winding down under their new alliance with United Artists in the fall of 1956. Indeed, by the time the company put Delbert Mann’s impeccably crafted, Separate Tables (1958) into production, Lancaster had grown slightly bored of his position; making important pictures that had increasingly strained the coffers of his company. Many today forget that movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) were not profitable in their day, though they garnered critical praise. Separate Tables was the exception to what had steadily become the rule; an intensely engaged melodrama based on Terrance Rattigan’s superbly crafted two one-act melodramas taking place inside the Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth, a seaside escape decidedly out of season and out of sorts; what with two sets of conflicted lovers made to bear the brunt of small-minded public scrutiny. On the stage, there were two distinct plays ‘Table by the Window’ (dealing with the imploding relationship between a disgraced politico and his ex-wife) and ‘Table Number Seven’ (about a repressed spinster who befriends a fake aristocrat; a kindly old gent, masquerading as a retired army officer). The gimmick of the play was that both couples were played by the same actors; their stories separated by eighteen months.
For obvious reasons the screenplay written by Terence Rattigan (along with John Gay and an uncredited, John Michael Hayes) chose to condense and combine the action. Both stories now take place simultaneously; the couples played by four different actors with Lancaster slightly miscast as the disgraced politico, living obscurely at the Beauregard. The hotel’s major feature is it offers ‘separate tables’ in its cozy dining salon. Alas, human curiosity will not allow these couples to remain ‘separate’ for very long or prevent the rest of the hotel’s rather snooty inhabitants from discovering what is going on from the outside looking in. As with the play, the insidious nature of gossip is deconstructed in the movie; its proponents eventually shamed and the couples allowed their very genuine need to be loved - regardless of personal estrangements and/or past indiscretions.
Viewing Separate Tables today, one tends to regard Lancaster as the outsider, even though the ensemble is a healthy mix of British and American stars. Lancaster had begun his company with a general abhorrence for always being miscast as the young stud. But by 1958, no one could accuse Lancaster of being that anymore, and in the interim his reputation as an actor had badly foundered in most critics’ not-so-humble opinions, collectively labeling his ambitions as just a little too far-reaching. There’s something to be said for this – Lancaster, too strong a presence to ever hide behind, or rise above, his material. Separate Tables requires some very heavy lifting indeed. All of the parts are zingers and each has its’ ‘look at me’ moment.
In some ways, Lancaster is playing John Malcolm as a sort of stud gone to seed; John’s affair with the hotel’s prim middle-age proprietress, Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller) thrown the proverbial wrench when his ex-wife, Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) – still stunningly beautiful and as affluent as ever – deliberately arrives for a brief respite that turns out to be anything but.  Alas, like an American character in an English novel, Lancaster just doesn’t seem to fit into this cast. Even Hayworth, whom no one could ever confuse of being anything except American, manages a veneer of aristocracy. But Lancaster’s performance is, in ample portions, flashy, yet infused with tainted sullenness; Lancaster’s own brio coming to bear on his character; John Malcolm morphing into Lancaster instead of the other way around.
The real irrefutable standouts herein are David Niven and Deborah Kerr as toffee-nosed, but kindly, Major David Angus Pollock and Sibyl Railton-Bell; a very mousy and much younger prospective paramour.  Niven, in fact, won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for his subtly nuanced portrait of this tragic and fearful elder statesman, desperate to keep his more recent past a secret. Kerr is, of course, playing against type, uncommonly dressed down and with priggish ringlets to boot. It is one thing to look the part; quite another to embody it heart, mind and spirit. But Kerr’s Sibyl is a tortured soul of convincing completeness; henpecked by her deliciously demonstrative mother, Maude (Gladys Cooper), who treats family, friends and all those whom she unfairly regards as her inferiors (which pretty much encompasses everyone else) with the same uncompromisingly rigid code of ethics - noblesse oblige.
Separate Tables remains near perfect melodrama; Delbert Mann’s deft handling of the play’s dialogue-driven narrative, modestly fleshed out with several set changes. The tempo of the piece is pitch perfect, Mann relying on his great love of live theater, his many years – first, acting then directing the Yale Drama School, and finally his decade long tenure in live television. In blocking his scenes, Mann conferred with Harry Horner, whose superb production design made it possible for Mann to shoot his entire picture within the confines of Stage 5 and 6 at Goldwyn Studios – even the outdoor sequences; a cost-cutting measure that never once impugns the overall quality of the production values. 
Horner did, in fact, purchase remnants from an old Pasadena mansion slated for the wrecking ball, tearing out its grand fireplaces, a staircase, and, making off with most of its double-paned beveled glass windows. These eventually became part of his set design for the Beauregard Hotel. Exemplary work too from Edward Carrere and Edward G. Boyle, whose art and set decoration created spaces of screen intimacy surrounded by walls of beveled glass and open French doors, thereby giving the illusion of being quietly observed through a fishbowl; also allowing transparency of action from one room to the next; the fluidity in Charles Lang’s cinematography lending yet another layer to this distinct cohesiveness from shot to shot and scene to scene. 
Of particular contention was the inclusion of the title song, written by Harry Warren and Harold Adamson. In agreeing to make the picture, director, Delbert Mann really had only one stipulation – that the score by famed composer, David Raksin would dictate the mood and tone of the piece. Harold Hecht willingly agreed to these terms while the movie was still in preproduction. However, in postproduction, the topic arose to incorporate a song into the main titles – a popular practice from this period and from which many a movie of this vintage artistically suffered. When Mann learned of this, he marched straight into Hecht’s office demanding an explanation. Assured the song was merely being recorded as a promo, not for inclusion in the final cut, Mann skipped the New York premiere, confounded when he learned from a total stranger at a cocktail party the song, ‘Separate Tables’ had indeed survived the final edit. ‘Separate Tables’ is sung by Vic Damone with forlorn majesty and in some ways it maintains the integrity of the ‘British setting’. But Mann always considered this alteration underhanded and disloyal to the original terms of his contract, ordering his agent to get him released posthaste from his Hecht-Lancaster contract. As a result, Delbert Mann would never work for the company again.
Separate Tables opens with a steady crane shot gradually moving in toward the Beauregard Hotel under the main titles; the action coming to rest on Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr), seated quietly on a lonely bench overlooking the countryside at dusk and just beyond the hotel’s dining room. In a few moments, she is warmly greeted by Major David Angus Pollock (David Niven), the two becoming engaged in friendly conversations. At once, and despite their respective discrepancies in age, we witness how ideally suited these two people are; each terrified of the world beyond these cloistered walls. Alas, Sibyl’s moment of happiness – presumably, like all others she has entertained in her young adult life - is interrupted by her mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper), who wastes no time isolating this meek girl in a corner to tell her what a forward little tart she has been with the Major; her conversations misrepresented as forward and aggressive.
The Major delays his displeasure by casually consulting with Charles (Rod Taylor), a medical student on holiday from his studies with his girlfriend, Jean (Audrey Dalton), who is fairly forthright in her affections, much to David’s chagrin. The Major is a social butterfly, his clever exchanges with the hotel’s proprietress, Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller) and fellow patrons, Lady Matheson (Cathleen Nesbitt) and Mr. Fowler (Felix Aylmer) raising Mrs. Railton-Bell’s dander more than a little.  
In these early scenes, director Mann captures the tenor of what is essentially Terrance Rattigan’s ensemble soap opera. Rattigan had, in fact, based virtually all his characters on people he had met in Bournemouth – largely a retirement community and where his elderly mother resided. In capturing the flavor of the piece, Mann made his own pilgrimage to Bournemouth just prior to principle photography, discovering such prototypes for these complex characters in his midst and returning to Hollywood with a renewed interest and the confidence necessary to make a movie as English as anybody.
In short order, we are introduced to the rest of the principal players staying at the Beauregard; including the spry Miss Meacham (May Hallatt), a vibrant, billiard player who bets Mr. Fowler she can actually split two balls with a single shot – and does! The shot was performed by Hallatt, who had practiced it incessantly. Alas, in the editing processes, a break was inserted, thus giving the illusion the skilled split had been performed by genuine pool shark instead, when in actuality it was Hallatt’s doing.
The aged actress had been in the play’s original London run, touring the provinces; then invited to reprise her role for the New York premiere. Hallat, who was elderly at the time, not only played the part for its Broadway run, she had a whale of a time doing it; her exuberance infectious to cast and crew. Thus, when the movie version was proposed, Mann could think of no one better suited to reprise the part than Hallatt. Film is a rare media. For it has the power to transform a bit player into a star virtually overnight, and indeed, with Hallatt, the international notoriety long denied her as an actress in her home town was, at long last, made secure. Returning to Bournemouth to bask in the afterglow of her newfound celebrity, Hallatt retired and soon thereafter died of natural causes.
All of the aforementioned scenes are, of course, mere window-dressing leading up to the introduction of Rita Hayworth’s Ann Shankland, arriving late in a taxi and garnering the interests of Mrs. Railton-Bell, Mr. Fowler, Lady Matheson and Miss Meacham, who are immediately impressed with Ann’s deportment, but more so with the cultured jewelry and fur collar she wears. Thoroughly unimpressed by Ann’s sudden appearance is Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller), who immediately recognizes what a stir her presence is about to create; particularly for her fiancée/Ann’s ex – John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster).
Interestingly, Wendy Hiller did not initially want to do this part despite being in the London stage production; discovering in Rattigan and John Gay’s rewrites, her character had slipped in importance from third to fifth position. Mann implored the actress to reconsider and thereafter heard not a single peep of a complaint from Hiller who, after all, went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Fifth or third, Hiller proved, at least on Oscar night, she belonged at the head of the line.
That evening, all eyes in the dining room are on Ann, the other residents absolutely awestruck by her demure nature. Absent from the gathering is the Major, who is more interested in grilling Miss Cooper about the West Hampshire Weekly News; determined no one else should see it before him. To delay the audience’s discovery of this pivotal plot point, the screenplay momentarily differs to a tidy little piece of camp; Jean playfully goading Charles to go upstairs to bed. Seemingly oblivious to the obvious inference, Lady Matheson innocently encourages the couple to ‘sleep tight’ – Mrs. Railton-Bell immediately chastising Lady Matheson for her rather plainspoken comment.  As Jean and Charles hurry off to bed, we are introduced to the other star in the piece – Burt Lancaster – whose introduction as John Malcolm is slightly disheveled and thoroughly engaging; a loveable scamp possibly, having only just returned from the local pub; hair tussled, trench coat wet and wrinkly and, of course, incurring Mrs. Railton-Bell’s immediate displeasure. 
Miss Cooper admonishes John for tracking fresh mud on her clean carpet, ordering him to conduct himself properly in the presence of ladies, and instructing him to hang his sopping coat in the front hall closet where it belongs. She treats him as she might any delinquent child, her austere exterior immediately softening once the two are alone. Cooper forewarns John of Ann’s arrival.
The narrative now shifts ever so slightly to pick up Ann and John’s story; the pair’s first tempestuous ‘cute meet’ in the dining room after hours, facing each other across their own separate tables. She poo-poos his desire to remain happily buried in this near forgotten community. He admonishes her for their breakup – presumably predicated on her having an extramarital affair. At different moments, Mann draws out parallels in each character’s loneliness; Ann’s wounded spite, forcing John out into the cold where we discover the Major quietly isolated in a chair on the veranda, his own inner dread mounting. The Major’s insistence on the paper before anyone else can read it raises Mrs. Railton-Bell’s curiosity. Sure enough, upon acquiring the newspaper ahead of the Major, Mrs. Railton-Bell learns he has pleaded guilty to a spurious charge of soliciting young women inside a local theater. Although the complaints against him remain dubious at best, Mrs. Railton-Bell is only too eager to spread this unearthed manure about the hotel; first to Lady Matheson, then to Miss Cooper, whom she demands take immediate action to evict the Major from these premises.
However, Miss Cooper has no intention of complying with such an impertinent request, forcing Mrs. Railton-Bell to conduct a group meet of the tenants and put the issue to a vote.  In the meantime, Ann coolly informs John she is engaged to be married, believing the revelation will wound him. Instead, he combats her announcement with one of his own. He too is slated for the altar a second time, although he manages to keep Miss Cooper’s name out of the equation. John suggests if Ann had desired a rich husband she could have as easily had him; her decision to marry a less established man predicated on her need for control in any relationship. Despite these bitter barbs, neither can entirely dismiss the truth; that even with all this water under their bridge the two still desperately lust after one another.
Miss Cooper interrupts their bittersweet détente, telling Ann she has a phone call. Pulling John aside, Miss Cooper attempts to get him to confess his true feelings about Ann, asking John to reevaluate the real reason for her impromptu visit. In reply, John takes Ann’s side – a telling bit of foreshadowing. Miss Cooper has already lost. Or has she? For in just a few short moments she will relay more news: that Ann is talking to John’s publisher, the only man who knows John and Miss Cooper are engaged. Coincidence? Or is Ann spying on her ex to add new fuel to their fire? John needs to know, confronting Ann in her bedroom.
She’s coy and vindictive, applying her feminine wiles to seduce him.  John has had enough, drawing Ann’s face to the light and informing her she no longer holds the physical appeal that once commanded his attention. Furthermore, without it Ann has very little to offer any man – much less entice him into her bed. It is a moment of extreme cruelty – also a lie – for John doesn’t believe his own words for an instant. Nevertheless, they sound convincing and succeed in wounding Ann’s pride and vanity. She begs him to remain, but John storms out of her room and Ann suffers an emotional breakdown as a result.
In its aftermath, Miss Cooper plays the part of the devoted nursemaid and Ann quietly confesses she is not really engaged. It was all just a ruse to see if she could get John back. Despite the airs she has been putting on, life has not been nearly as kind to Ann and in the interim since the dissolution of their marriage, she has taken to medicating her anxieties with sleeping pills. The next morning, Sibyl decides to confide in Major Pollock. She knows all about his indiscretions and it makes absolutely no difference to her. He is still the same man she cares for, recognizing within him the self-same streak of loneliness she has endured at her mother’s command these many long years. He confesses to never having felt comfortable around people: that the only way he could achieve satisfaction of a kind was to become intimate with strangers – easily disposable and just as easily forgotten after the moment of their flagrante delicto.
By now the inhabitants have all learned about the Major’s peccadillos, Mrs. Railton-Bell effectively convincing everyone to ostracize him from their tiny social circle. Realizing he can no longer remain hidden from the world - even in this much smaller one of his own design - the Major makes ready to pack and leave the Beauregard for good; Sibyl genuinely concerned for his welfare, but also worried he will never find another home. In another part of the hotel, Miss Cooper awaits John’s return, informing him of Ann’s genuine emotional fragility. She encourages him to see Ann before her planned departure later that morning. Miss Cooper also implores the Major to reconsider leaving. He is genuinely touched by Miss Cooper’s concern, but politely declines her offer. She does, however, convince him to partake in one final breakfast.
At first, the reception inside the dining room is frosty at best. Gradually, the hotel’s residents come around to making their own decision about the Major. He is not the monster Mrs. Railton-Bell has made him out to be; just a world-weary old fraud who desired nothing more substantial from his friendships than a little honest peace and quiet. Defying Mrs. Railton-Bell, the residents cordially greet the Major with sincere friendship, taking their cue from John who knows more than a little something about how destructive a woman’s influence can be. Realizing she has lost the battle against the Major, Mrs. Railton-Bell commands Sibyl at least to leave the dining room with her. But Sibyl politely refuses her mother, at last free of this maternal tyranny, for so long a plague upon her own social development and friendships. The Major decides to remain at the Beauregard; John and Ann reconciling on its front steps as Miss Cooper realizes she has lost the only man she’s ever loved.
Separate Tables is a masterwork of discreet introspection; Delbert Mann’s direction utterly superb in quietly unraveling all of these secret lives. Mann was, frankly, charmed by costars Cathleen Nesbitt and Gladys Cooper – stalwarts of the British stage and each considered great beauties in their prime; Nesbitt, the one-time sweetheart of poet, Rupert Brooke, whose life was tragically cut short in the First World War; and Cooper, whose career in the movies would be revealed playing a series of brittle English dowagers, quite unlike her open and appealing true character. But Mann would later confess he thought the entire cast enchanting; everyone a real professional.
In Burt Lancaster, Mann had feared encountering either the tough as nails workaholic producer-type disinterested in following his directives, or the arrogant leading man who had on occasion torn down many bridges during his early years in Hollywood. Mercifully, Lancaster was to both thoroughly disappoint and delight Mann on this score; proving every inch invested in giving the sort of performance Mann wanted; a mutual win-win for star and director.
In preparing for the part of this malicious viper, Rita Hayworth placed herself completely at her director’s mercy. She would later confide to Mann a terrified anxiety to be in such distinguished company; her casting made secure by the fact Hecht-Lancaster’s third and silent partner, Jim Hill also happened to be Hayworth’s husband at the time. Nevertheless, Hayworth relied on her years of experience to see the role through; a very accomplished piece of screen acting she would continue to hold in high regard, and from a woman who had once been known simply as Columbia Pictures enduring pinup girl.
Composer David Raksin was unimpressed at having to rescore several key sequences in the movie. His initial compositions had focused more on capturing the inner tenacity and strife of each character’s emotional context. Harold Hecht believed the theatricality expressed in Raksin’s cues wounded, rather than aided, in evolving these narrative threads. As is often the case in Hollywood, a stalemate was averted by a show of force; Hecht informing Raksin either he would do as required or be replaced on the picture. Given this option, Raksin rescored the requested sequences with subtlety, although he would later chalk up his experience on Separate Tables as one of the most unpleasant of his entire career.
Viewed today, Separate Tables retains most of its original drama, primarily due to the stellar craftsmanship in each performance. Mann was afforded six weeks of rehearsals – in essence, gathering together the entire cast for dry run-throughs of the play; performing their parts as though they were to be done on a live stage. The result: by the time these performers stepped in front of the camera, each was meticulously versed in their motivations; every movement, nuance and intonation gone over to a point beyond mere performance. The proof is in the finished product. Separate Tables is an engrossing tour de force.
We’ll begin by commending Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray; virtually blemish free, crisp and solid in glorious B&W, with gorgeous amounts of fine detail and superbly rendered contrast levels: in short – near reference quality; the one caveat being a minor hint of age-related debris. It’s really more of a quibble than anything else. The original 2001 MGM DVD was a travesty by comparison: not even in anamorphic widescreen. The Blu-ray rectifies this immense sin. It also provides us with a DTS lossless stereo track of Raksin’s score. The DVD was a flat mono. This being a dialogue-driven movie, there’s not a lot of opportunity for spatial separation. But it’s still an exceptionally solid track with only slight hints of stridency. Kino Lorber has ported over the commentary Delbert Mann recorded for the DVD – an eloquent backstage pass into the making of this movie. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line:  Separate Tables is a blind purchase – or rather, should be. Wonderful stuff given its due in hi-def. By God – an enthusiastic ‘yes’!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


TWO FLAGS WEST: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1950) Koch Media

The eclecticism of director, Robert Wise never fails to impress. Nor does it seem to know any boundaries. Lest we forget, Wise comes from a rarified ilk of Hollywood artisans – supreme craftsman in more than one field of hands-on study; also from a gentlemanly ‘old school’ philosophy where movies are meant to entertain - first and foremost. In the years that followed his accomplishments, Wise’s critics were often too quick – and frankly, much too unkind – to point to his workaday ethic as kowtowing to external forces – namely, the edicts imposed upon him by the studio system and the old-time mogul. They might have first reconsidered the obvious: that during Hollywood’s golden era, directors – like all other creative personnel – were subservient to the system; mere fodder for the gristmill of churning out 52 pictures a year.
And yet Wise, despite this system of rules and regulations, seemingly conspiring to rob him of his own creative initiatives, managed a telescopic concentration and meticulous attention to every last detail; also, to effortlessly migrate from one genre to the next within a pantheon of huge financial hits. Conversely and in retrospect, these movies became lasting works of cinema art. It is nevertheless true Robert Wise is not a director whose personal imprint is immediately identifiable on the movie screen. There is pliability to his style. But it is still his style!  
Wise worked his way up from the lowly ranks as a film editor at RKO, cutting together Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941) – an effort earning him an Academy Award nomination. Some have criticized that he also helped to bastardize what ought to have been Welles’ other plat du jour; The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Wise, called upon not only to edit, but also reshoot some scenes and shoot other new ones long after Welles had been unceremoniously deposed by the powers that be. Ironically, it was this effort that directly led to the beginning of Wise’s directorial career, although he would remain indentured at RKO, pulling double duty as both a fledgling director and film editor.
A quick tour of Wise’s back catalog reveals his-mindboggling diversity; in complete command of the visual arts in everything from the darkly psychological child’s fantasy, The Curse of The Cat People (1944) to the unrelentingly gritty boxing noir, The Set-Up (1949); also adept making intriguing murder/mysteries like The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). His more introspective masterworks came later; The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – each exploring a facet of the depth of humanity’s capacity for suffrage and forgiveness. For most, it is unlikely Wise’s legacy will go beyond being known primarily for The Sound of Music (1965); undeniably still (as 2oth Century-Fox’s publicity astutely promoted it back then) ‘the happiest sound in all the world’. It was also the movie that rescued Fox from its fiscal black hole created by their disastrous blind faith in Cleopatra (1963). 
There are too many truly outstanding films in Wise’s repertoire to effectively appreciate at a glance. So perhaps it isn’t surprising Two Flags West (1950) – a superior western drama – should get misplaced among this lot. Initially, screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent had conceived of the story of ‘galvanized Yankees’ – Confederate soldiers given the option to serve in Lincoln’s Union army rather than go to jail for treason during the Civil War. It was an idea Nugent toiled on while writing John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1948). The concept had merit, though Nugent could find no takers – not even a proponent in Ford himself. So, the idea languished at MGM before finally finding a home at 2oth Century-Fox, put into development by Darryl F. Zanuck under the working title, Trumpet to the Morn.
Originally, Zanuck had hoped to cast in-house talents, Victor Mature or Richard Basehart as Confederate Colonel Clay Tucker; a stoic southern gentleman who is bound by personal honor and duty to see his mission through – even in the face of spiteful resentment from his commanding officer,  Maj. Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) - an impenetrable martinet. Fortunately, the part went to Joseph Cotten instead; ironically, an alumni of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players, whose familiar face and formidable charm had graced many a memorable and star-studded vehicle throughout the 1940s; culminating in his superb performance in Carol Reed’s exemplary post-war thriller, The Third Man (1949).
And yet, Cotten’s reputation in Hollywood would remain that of a competent second-string player rather than an A-list leading man. Such was the system back then with far too much stellar talent to pick and choose from, cultivating plug n’ play ‘types’ for virtually any role a screenwriter  might endeavor to create. The lanky Virginian who segued from modeling to acting, Joseph Cotten is, in fact, the lone voice of integrity in Two Flags West; gallant and gentile – the embodiment of the noble Southerner who can tolerate, though never accept, he is on the losing side of the Civil War. In Cotten we are blessed by an inner luminosity of character-driven spirit and strength.
The other ‘stars’ that surround him are all competently delineated in their motivations. The aforementioned, Jeff Chandler (who I’ve never been able to take seriously as the typecast he-man, ever since reading Esther Williams’ biography, and her recollections about his prediction for wearing women’s underwear) appears in Two Flags West as the overtly butch, but severely conflicted military man who would seemingly sacrifice his fort and the lives of its inhabitants (but later martyrs himself to save the rest from complete annihilation) merely to illustrate a point of honor. Zanuck ask cast popular leading man, Cornel Wilde – doing a variation on the flashy lady’s man that was, in fact, his only real métier, herein, as Capt. Mark Bradford.  Linda Darnell, a Fox favorite, run through many a disposable melodrama and romantic comedy – occasionally rising to prominence in movies like the sadly underrated, Forever Amber (1947) and Oscar-winning, A Letter To Three Wives (1949), is Elena – the widowed mate of Kenniston’s brother.  Two Flags West is also notable for character actors, Jay C. Flippen as soft-spoken, Sgt. Terrance Duffy and Arthur Hunnicutt, the embodiment of the defeatist Confederate rebel, Sgt. Pickens.
At some point, Frank Nugent’s story was appropriated by screenwriter, Casey Robinson, who also produced Two Flags West. Robinson’s shooting script is formidably accomplished; his adherence to history commendable, while using his artistic license wisely to concoct a melodramatic backstory with underpinnings of a romantic love triangle. This unexpectedly blossoms between Darnell’s weary widow – initially mistaken as the Major’s wife by Tucker; Kenniston – who makes every attempt to hold Elena against her will under the guise he is protecting her from a perilous journey across Indian country, but actually desires to take his brother’s place in both Elena’s heart and her bed, and finally, Mark Bradford - who knew Elena a long time ago and would prefer to know her much better now that her husband is out of the picture. Of these three, Elena prefers Mark –undoubtedly screenwriter, Robinson playing to Cornel Wilde’s status as the beefcake. Indeed, after only a few scenes, Robinson elects to have Wilde’s hunky captain cast off his eye patch, revealing no discernable damage, save a marginal scar across his cheek, applied with great care by the makeup department to add more ‘character’ than ugliness to his chiseled visage.  
Two Flags West is grounded in a reality quite uncharacteristic for a western of its time – its milieu usually given over to grand narratives and mythologized figureheads. Refreshingly, we get no such embellishments in Two Flags West; the historic Fort Thorn accurately depicted as the last bastion for personal safety from the marauding Indians and becoming the central focus of the film’s last act; director Wise staging an energetic, harrowing and fairly gruesome assault, seemingly hopeless until Maj. Kenniston’s noble self-sacrifice stems the tide of imminent death. The real Fort Thorn has a fairly interesting history; built in 1854 near the Rio Grande and becoming the eastern terminus of a well-traveled path to Arizona’s Fort Yuma. Closed as a permanent garrison, it was later reestablished as a forward outpost, exchanging occupancies between the warring Union and Confederate armies throughout the American Civil War.
Two Flags West picks up the fort’s history after history itself had ostensibly finished with it: the defeat of Capt. Robert Morris in 1860, effectively ending its importance as a military outpost.  In theory, at least, the 3rd Cavalry continued to occupy Fort Thorn. But it is questionable whether or not the so called ‘galvanized Yankees’ were a part of its operations. Nevertheless, here too Casey Robinson’s screenplay chooses history over fiction as his backdrop; the 5th Georgia Cavalry under Col. Clay Tucker’s command - as depicted in the movie - actually actively serving on the western front. With President Lincoln’s special proclamation on Dec. 8th, 1863, these confederate forces joined the union army on the western front.
Our story begins in autumn, 1864 with remnants of the Confederate 5th Georgia Cavalry, guided by Col. Clay Tucker, forced to wait out the war or go stir crazy inside the Union prison camp at Rock Island, Illinois. Rock Island is a hell hole, the men corralled in cramped, crude barracks, sleeping on dirt floors and dying of their combat-inflicted wounds or dysentery. Enter Union Capt. Mark Bradford – sporting a patch across his eye and offering these prisoners of war a chance to be ‘useful’ once more; only this time in service to the winning side; assigned to guard the western gate at Fort Thorn, since grossly undermanned from the exodus of soldiers recalled by President Lincoln.
Bradford makes the men a singular promise; they will not be compelled in their new duties to stand against their own. Nevertheless, many of the Georgians resist at first. Consulted by his men, Col. Tucker suggests there are worse ways to wait out the war than by being of use as proud military men on the western front; his own sense of duty coming to bear as the deciding vote. On route to their new home, Sgt. Pickens inquiries if the men, who have all been provided new Union uniforms and mounts to ride, might sing to pass the time. Bradford, who is a most benevolent sort, willingly agrees, to which Pickens leads the cavalry in a rousing rendition of ‘Dixie’ much to both Tucker and Bradford’s amusement.
Arriving at Fort Thorn, Tucker, whose rank has been reduced to lieutenant, is introduced to his new commanding officer, Maj. Henry Kenniston; a Southerner-hating, stern disciplinarian whose low opinion of Tucker and his men has already anticipated their desertion. Kenniston’s brittle sentiments have been clouded by his own battle-scars; a visible limp; also, his hidden anxieties, still lamenting the loss of his younger brother. On their first night at the Fort, Tucker is invited to dine at Kenniston’s table, along with Bradford and a select group of the fort’s gentry. This includes Kenniston’s widowed sister-in-law, Elena, whom Tucker mistakenly assumes is Henry’s wife. She cordially avails Tucker of his misperception. The mood turns rancid after Kenniston discovers Tucker led the cavalry charge that killed his brother. And yet, even discovering this, Elena is not bitter toward Tucker. But Kenniston turns sullen and vicious as he makes patronizing comments about the South. Proud, but contrite, Tucker removes himself from this loaded situation to retire to his barracks, rather than confronting Kenniston at his own table.
On the moonlit veranda, Elena is reunited with Bradford. He discovers she has been stranded at the fort for months and begins to suspect Kenniston has ulterior motives for this delay; to become his late brother's surrogate. It doesn’t take very long for tensions to mount between the Northern and Southern soldiers; Tucker ordering his men in pursuit of a band of Apache; but recalled at the last possible moment by Kenniston, who admonishes them for their Yankee pride, explaining how the Apache were leading them into an ambush. As a way to demoralize and put Tucker and his men in their place, Kenniston orders them to execute a pair of civilians suspected as Confederate gunrunners. Reminding Kenniston of the pact under which they agreed to serve – never having to turn against their own kind – Kenniston unrepentantly prompts Tucker he is in his army now. The orders are to be carried out without fail or questioning, and, they are.
Tucker considers this a breach of their contract and stands behind his men who have already begun plotting their desertion, unaware, perhaps, that Kenniston has deviously orchestrated the entire affair, merely to prove his own point about Southerners.  Rationalizing that he does not want enemies in his ranks, Kenniston assigns Tucker’s troops the perilous task of escorting a wagon train across hostile Indian Territory. He knows Tucker will see the caravan through, but then will likely never return to the Fort.  As Elena happily prepares to leave, she discovers her release has been personally rescinded by Kenniston. Bitterly, she explains to the Major she will never be his wife. He is humiliated by the transparency of his own motives, but remains steadfast in denying Elena her leave. In reply, she bribes the Reverend Simpkins (Everett Glass) and his wife (Marjorie Bennett) to sneak aboard their covered wagon for the trip.
As the caravan prepares to pull out, Bradford discovers Elena hidden in the back of the Simpkins’ covered wagon. Nevertheless, he allows her to pass. Unaware Elena has taken such steps to escape him, Kenniston orders the wagon train from Fort Thorn, convinced he has rid his own shoe of a very cumbersome pebble. On their journey Tucker befriends one of the civilians, Ephraim Strong (Harry Von Zell), who confides he is a Confederate agent and enlists Tucker in a plan to link California with the South. Strong convinces Tucker to return to Fort Thorn with Elena. It will gain Kenniston’s confidence - if not his respect. Tucker, who has begun to forge a cordial relationship with Elena is disinclined to take her back to Kenniston, but does so at the expense of their friendship.
Back at the Fort, Bradford is disgusted to learn Kenniston has already begun drafting letters regarding Tucker’s presumed desertion. But Kenniston is in for a shock and a surprise when Sgt. Duffy informs him of Tucker and his men’s return, along with Elena, who remains bitterly resolved to avoid Kenniston’s advances. In their absence, a Kiowa warrior, actually the son of Chief Satank has been captured by Kenniston’s men. Satank’s tribe arrives at Fort Thorn and Satank – with the aid of an interpreter – orders Kenniston to release his prisoner or face dire repercussions. In reply, Kenniston retreats to the Fort, ordering the immediate execution of Satank’s son on the grounds he is a rebel and a traitor. He then sends the boy’s lifeless body out on horseback. 
The fort endures a brutal siege, Satank’s men decimating Kenniston’s forces and slaughtering many innocent men and women. Elena tends to the wounded, spared an arrow by Bradford, who is mortally shot in her stead. As night falls, Satank’s men retreat. But no one, least of all Kenniston is fooled by this brief calm. Satank will return at dawn to finish them off. Recognizing only he can save them from the inevitable, Kenniston disarms himself, placing Tucker in command before marching beyond the fort’s protective gates; obscured by a dense veil of smoldering ruins. His shrill outcry a moment later alerts everyone to his massacre. The next morning, Tucker and his men recover Kenniston’s stripped body lying in the dust with multiple arrows protruding. His sacrifice – nee suicide – has spared them from a renewed assault.
But now a dispatch rider arrives with ominous news: General Sherman has completed his forced march to the sea, marking an end to the Confederacy. As the Union soldiers break into a patriot refrain of The Battle Hymn of the Republic the Confederates belt out a reprise of Dixie: old wounds, very reluctant – and arguably, never to heal. Elena attempts to comfort Tucker, promising things will seem better tomorrow. It is the lone note of womanly optimism all but obscured by this otherwise male-dominated cynicism.
Two Flags West is sadly underrated; a western melodrama on par with the legacies of John Ford and Howard Hawks. Interestingly, Robert Wise only directed one other western afterward, 1956’s Tribute to a Bad Man. Two Flags West was also preceded by the only other western in Wise’s cannon, 1948’s Blood on the Moon. While both of the aforementioned movies had big stars at their helm (James Cagney in ‘Bad Man’ and Robert Mitchum in ‘Blood’) neither is particularly memorable. Two Flags West is; the milieu enriched by its ensemble casting; also, by Wise’s ability to balance history with fiction.  
Wise would later recollect that his alliance with Darryl Zanuck was one of the most creative and mutually beneficial. “When we ran Two Flag West for Zanuck, I expected him to start making comments right away,” Wise mused in an interview, “But no – nothing…not even a sound....I was so impressed. He really observed the film, thought about it and then came up with his suggestions - after five minutes of puffing on a cigar.” This mutual admiration society apparently extended from friendships already forged on the set. Two Flags West was actually photographed almost in its entirety at Pueblo of San Ildefonso; a community of Tewa Indians near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Wise took great pains to respect that community’s privacy, avoiding any location shooting around their native burial grounds.
Jeff Chandler was reportedly so much in awe of Joseph Cotten he chose to remain on set even on days when he was not working, simply to drink in and absorb what he could from Cotten’s performance. The two men would became good friends, occasionally chumming around with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell, who had worked together previously on various Fox films and were already very well acquainted.  For all its chaotic narrative machinations, the production of Two Flags West was fairly smooth for Robert Wise, who garnered the trust and respect of his artists and thereafter found everything about the project to his liking – except for the heat. At an average of 102 degrees daily, Pueblo presented its own challenges for cast and crew; heavyset cameraman, Leon Shamroy daily complaining to Wise about the stifling heat, while wiping the sweat chronically cascading off his brow with a handkerchief soaked in ice water.
In retrospect, it’s rather interesting Joseph Cotten’s Clay Tucker is the only male star in the cast to survive the film’s narrative deluge; like the character so often played by John Wayne in a John Ford western, Cotten’s Clay Tucker destined to roam the earth as ‘God’s lonely man’ – a survivor of fate, but without a life or home to call his own. Joseph Cotten’s own reputation amongst those who knew him best, almost mirrors his characterization in Two Flags West. Indeed, when Cotten suffered a debilitating heart attack and stroke in the early 1980s, it was his old friend, Orson Welles who remained steadfast at his side throughout his lengthy recovery. “He was strong and supportive,” Cotten would write of Welles; Welles’ own opinions of Cotten as laudatory. When Welles informed his friend, Roger Hill Cotten had written a book, asked by Hill to quantify its flow and content, Welles simply replied, “Gentle, witty, and self-effacing…just like Jo.”
Also in retrospect, Two Flags West seems to be the singular highlight of Jeff Chandler’s mid to later movie career. Like a lot of actors of his build and youth, Hollywood attempted to fabricate an earthy ‘hunk’ persona. This eventually impacted and typecast Chandler as the buff and brooding romantic lead in such forgettable tripe as Female on the Beach (1955) and The Lady Takes a Flyer (1958); men of brawn but very little brain. It was an oversight, perhaps. For there is something rather unsettling and fierce about Chandler’s Major Kenniston in Two Flags West; a taut bundle of nerves ready to explode, and, an emotionally scarred little boy – perhaps even tinged with sexual frustration – the limp, code for a deeper emasculation at work – all of it rolled into one multi-layered portrait. Alas, the actor had only eleven more years to live after this movie; his spine injured during a routine baseball game and leading to emergency surgery, badly bungled and causing Chandler to hemorrhage to death nearly a month after entering the hospital.
Two Flags West gets a limited European release via Koch Media. The disc is mislabeled as being Region B locked when, in fact, it is Region Free. The B&W elements are in remarkably solid shape. As far as I can gather, this isn’t a release sanctioned by 2oth Century-Fox, the studio logo appearing nowhere on the outer packaging. I can only speculate, since Koch is not a bootleg operation, they have licensed this print from Fox Home Video in much the same way Criterion and Twilight Time have with other Fox titles in the past.
Image quality herein is first rate. The B&W full frame transfer captures all the subtleties in Leon Shamroy’s gorgeous cinematography. Occasionally, we do detect just a hint of digitized pixelization. Nothing dramatic or distracting, and again, most of the image is free of it entirely. Also absent – for the most part – are age-related artifacts. The image is smooth and satisfying, with good solid contrast and a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced.  Minted for the non-English speaking European market, all of the packaging and disc menus are in German. This disc also defaults to German audio. Not to worry: simply change the setting to English to enjoy the film in its native glory. Bonus materials are limited to a German theatrical trailer and a ‘gallery’: actually a montage of German and English poster art and a few stills set to Hugo Friedhofer’s score.
I have to say the cover art, which is culled from the original poster campaign, is somewhat misleading, showing Joseph Cotten kissing Linda Darnell and a rather resolute Cornel Wilde and utterly exuberant Jeff Chandler. I think someone at Fox’s publicity department confused each character’s personality, as well as the plot points when designing this PR campaign. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)