Thursday, 21 January 2021

Gang War (1958)

Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Writer: Louis Vittes, from the novel The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stars: Charles Bronson, Kent Taylor, Jennifer Holden and John Doucette

21st January marks the centennial of character actor John Doucette and it took me a long while to figure out what I could review in his memory. The problem is that he was such an effective character actor, stealing moments and scenes out from under the leads, often as a tough guy, whether sheriff or villain, that he was rarely given a lead of his own, even with credits in a hundred and forty films and even more TV shows. Eventually, I tracked down this picture, a relatively straightforward gangster flick released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. He’s not the lead here, either, that honour going to a young Charles Bronson, who was newly ascended to top billing himself. Doucette is fourth billed, after Kent Taylor and Jennifer Holden, but he dominates the entire film, because he’s the gangster that it’s all about, Maxie Meadows. This is his story just as much as it’s Bronson’s, even if his character has less depth and substance, and it’s easier for him to make his presence known in emphatic fashion.

We’re in Los Angeles and, to highlight what the City of Angels was like at this point, we’re treated to a montage of mayhem right at the start. Machine guns unloading their rounds directly at the audience! Cars screaming round corners at high speed! Barber shops exploding in the night! Even the title explodes onto the screen at us in military capitals: “GANG WAR”. And when our story begins, Louis Vittes’s script, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s novel, The Hoods Take Over, gets right down to business. Slick Connors slaps down his girl, Marsha, because she doesn’t like him becoming a stool pigeon. He’s turning state’s evidence against Joe Reno so that, when the syndicate moves in, he’ll become Mr. Big. “Glad to know you while you’re still alive,” she tells him, with prescience, because he leaves her apartment to find Joe and Bernard “The Axe” Duncan outside, waiting to murder him in cold blood. Which they do. Slick betrays himself to be a coward, but Joe isn’t. He takes care of business and that’s Leonard P. Geer’s uncredited performance over.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Fort Massacre (1958)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writers: Martin M. Goldsmith
Stars: Joel McCrea, Forrest Tucker, Susan Cabot, John Russell and George N. Neise

Fort Massacre is an odd movie in a lot of ways, not least because it’s well worth seeking out but it’s frustrating to watch. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, but it takes root in your brain and stays with you, because it also does quite a lot very right indeed. The lead is Joel McCrea, playing very much against type as the story’s bad guy, though oddly he’s also one of the good guys; the explanation of that sentence would count as a good synopsis of the film. There are other easily recognisable character actors here too, like Forrest Tucker and a very young Denver Pyle, but I’m watching for John Russell, who would have been a hundred years old on 3rd January, 2021 and he’s arguably the best thing about the film. He’s one of four highlighted co-stars and he’s the only one with a story arc, as his character is just as important to this story as McCrea’s, important enough that he literally gets the last word. His story arc both goes in the right direction and in the direction of right, making him our moral compass in a complex situation.

As you might imagine, this is a western, set entirely in the deserts of the southwest, and we begin on 28th July, 1879. Capt. Cole had command of C Troop, Second Regiment, Sixth Cavalry, but Capt. Cole is dead, along with half his men, after the troop was attacked by seventy Apache braves. His lieutenant survived but was seriously injured and he dies shortly into the film, having done nothing but fall off his horse, another corpse to bury. That leaves Sgt. Vinson in charge, as the only officer left alive. They’re somewhere in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and he figures that means about a hundred miles or so east of Fort Crain and safety. Their first task is to find the regiment’s main column that’s escorting a wagon train. It’s probably fair to say at this point that they never do, because this isn’t that sort of story. As expansive as the desert is, this really isn’t about what’s out there, whatever that may be, as this is a psychological western and the real story takes place inside the heads of Sgt. Vinson and Pvt. Robert W. Travis.