BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE ROBERT MITCHUM SIGNATURE COLLECTION

By • Jan 23rd, 2007 •

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(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment). 6 discs.

“It’s not what he plays,” Miles Davis said of Thelonious Monk, “but what he doesn’t that’s important.” The same might be said of Robert Mitchum. Heavy-lidded and laconic, he drifted through scores of post-war Hollywood films, his voice a deep yet deceptively soft rumble, his only defiance against a world of trouble a stoic shrug. Within that mid-century, mid-American stance lies a rich vein of performances and possibilities.

“Baby, I just don’t care” is not only a typical Mitchum line (from OUT OF THE PAST) but, paradoxically, evocative of his method and commitment. A zen master in the American grain, Mitchum’s presence before a camera appears as natural as breathing. With tender objectivity, he pares down every aspect of his performance until the character’s basic humanity is revealed in all its stark simplicity. Because of this, Warner’s set of obscure but essential Mitchum films (THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS is the only conventional time passer) also implies a grammar of living.

“Now they call them film noir,” Mitchum says in an interview broadcast on TCM and included as an extra. “But at the time, we just couldn’t afford any lights.” For the first part of his career, Mitchum toiled in almost medieval servitude at RKO, a small studio that, in the midst of the late 40’s economic boom, was still using standing sets that had been constructed before the war. “MGM had all the lights,” Mitchum continues. “At RKO, you had to settle for a cigarette lighter.” The house from Orson Welles’ MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), for instance, appears with such regularity, from SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) to SPIRAL STAIRCASE(1946), it seems a kind of Freudian symbol.

ANGEL FACE
RKO 1952. 92 minutes. b&w. 1:33 aspect ratio mono; extra features: commentary by Eddie Muller.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall, Leon Ames, Barbara O’Neil.
Credits: Produced & Directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by Frank Nugent & Oscar Millard. Story by Chester Erskine. Photography by Harry Stradling. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.

Chronologically, the earliest film in the set is ANGEL FACE. Mitchum’s sleepy-eyed insouciance has a sneering insolence here that edges on contempt. In his commentary, Eddie Muller suggests this may have been due to the actor’s distaste for director Otto Preminger. Early in the production, Preminger wanted Mitchum to slap Jean Simmons repeatedly. Instead, Mitchum struck the director in the face saying, “Otto, is that what you wanted?”

Released in 1952 when RKO was controlled by Howard Hughes, ANGEL FACE was put in production to dispense with Jean Simmons’ contract obligations. In spite of this, Preminger has crafted a mysterious film that seeps under one’s skin with wayward abandon. It’s part thriller, part gothic romance, like a weird cross-breeding of James M. Cain with Charlotte Bronte, up-to-the-minute as a tabloid headline, but with a lingering sense of inevitability and dread.
There’s something oddly compelling in the way darkness and light flows through these frames alongside the steely demeanor of the performers. The mythic quality of Jean Simmons’ face (she was mostly known for playing Ophelia in Lawrence Olivier’s HAMLET), the schematic sets, even the inherent grain in the photography seems to impose an almost haunted presence.

Mitchum plays Frank Jessup, an ex-race car jockey who drives ambulances for Los Angeles County. On an emergency in the gilded mansion district, Frank meets Diane Tremayne, an enigmatic and slightly spaced-out seductress who hasn’t come to terms with her father’s second marriage. It’s even possible her stepmother’s carbon monoxide poisoning was a murder attempt. Frank and Diane’s first meeting is one of those classic encounters. Thinking she is in a trance, he slaps her and she slaps him right back. Later, Diane follows Frank to the hospital and offers him a job as her chauffeur. I’m hesitant to reveal any more plot details of this surprising and remarkable film, much of which is set in cars, their sleek mobility, not to mention dangerous beauty, used as an ironic comment both on Jean Simmons’s character and the plot mechanics.

Moving the camera between Mitchum and Jean Simmons so one always seems to be connected to the other, Preminger incorporates the viewer in this dance of repulsion and attraction. What appears to be desire is actually murderous intent, and this double meaning, emphasized by the camera, somehow liberates the characters from the paperback plot. Suddenly, we are face to face with people who are totally free even as their options are disappearing.

This is reinforced by Preminger’s use of height (expressing the plot’s underpinnings of class and wealth) with a specifically emotional undercurrent. From the opening shot of an ambulance speeding up the Hollywood hills to the final drive downward, the story weaves an obsessive, almost circular movement -a ride that we ourselves as observers cannot escape.

No one is better than Mitchum at revealing character through an almost contemplative sense of` being present. You know everything about Frank Jessup the moment he switches on the car ignition. Mitchum’s performance is a radical act that infuses Hollywood acting with a new realism that expands the context of his character even as the physical elements are pared down. Every move comes from a specific socio-economic foundation, not to mention mind-set. This was a perfect match with the documentary-style crime films (and Mitchum starred in many of these) that were coming out of Hollywood after the war.

Luminously photographed by Harry Stradling (on loan from MGM), the stateliness of the imagery is deeply unsettling. Unlike the extreme contrast in most film noir, the lighting here is softer, reminiscent of mother of pearl. There’s an almost painterly quality that evokes the world of silent film photographed on nitrate stock. The precipitous darkness at RKO was often used by set designer Albert d’Agostino to cover up the poverty of the productions, so it’s possible there was more money than usual because of Howard Hughes. Need I point out that the transfer is blemish-free, not to mention a revelation in every way?
Eddie Muller’s commentary deftly brings out the subtleties of Preminger’s direction, while also detailing the back-story. He mentions that Jean-Luc Godard, while a critic in the 1950’s, included ANGEL FACE in a list of the ten best American sound films. Despite this top shelf recommendation, the film has languished too long in obscurity.

MACAO
RKO. 1952. 81 minutes. b&w. 1:33 aspect ratio mono; extra features: commentary by Eddie Muller, Stanley Rubin & Jane Russell; TCM Private Screenings with Robert Mitchum & Jane Russell.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix, Thomas Gomez, Gloria Grahame, Brad Dexter.
Credits: Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld & Stanley Rubin. Story by Bob Williams. Photography by Harry J. Wild. Music by Anthony Collins. Produced by Alex Gottlieb.

Next up is MACAO. Also released in 1952, it exerts a certain fascination due to a weirdly imposed randomness so spectacularly wrong this reaches a kind of formal purity akin to disruptions caused by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters. Planned by Howard Hughes as a follow up to 1951’s HIS KIND OF WOMAN, also staring Mitchum and Jane Russell, MACAO went through a myriad of scripts and directors until the stars were making up dialogue as they went along. The wacky editing causes the performers to jump around in time and space so often it seems an unconscious critique of classic Hollywood continuity.
Even as the film disintegrates around them, Mitchum and Ms. Russell remain relaxed, affable and totally real. Started by Josef von Sternberg, the film was completed by Nicholas Ray–who had his own uniquely eccentric vision–but in this case was working as a hired gun. The finished product, a heady collage of grainy back-projection and surrealistically minimalist sets, also exhibits its producer’s penchant for putting svelte women in pointy brassieres.

The plotting is as haphazard, yet oddly entertaining, as the editing. Nick Cochran (Mitchum) arrives in the port of Macao on the run from the Saigon police. What he actually did to put himself in danger is never explained. But he clearly likes out-of-work chanteuse Julie Benson (Russell). Julie sings “One For My Baby” wearing a gold lame gown that makes her bosom resemble the prow of a battleship. Police Lieutenant Sebastian (Thomas Gomez) suggests Julie talk to casino owner Halloran (Brad Dexter) about finding a job. Halloran decides Cochran is a US Treasury agent and allows him to win at roulette on the condition he will leave. At the last moment, Halloran changes his mind and lets Cochran lose everything. Halloran has his girlfriend Margie (Gloria Grahame) lure Cochran to her place to kill him. But Margie, jealous of Julie, decides to keep Cochran alive.

Beyond the charismatic combination of Mitchum and Russell, the main reason for watching this film is the stylistic subtleties of its original director, Josef von Sternberg. A certain poetic and melancholy sensibility weaves its way through the 81 minutes of MACAO. Often it’s gone in the winking of an eye. For instance, on the wall of the gambling house, there is a shockingly elongated shadow of an Asian blackjack dealer alongside the spinning diaphanous blur from the cage of a game of chance. This is not simple exoticism, but rather a fragment of a visual language. The original edit of MACAO had shots of mysterious objects and people that were supposed to create a subliminal connection to the main story.

Unfortunately, von Sternberg’s cut no longer exists. The intermittent images that remain have a moodiness and gravity that go against the tongue-in-cheek bonhomie of the romantic adventure Hughes wanted. Stylistically, they also seem to exist in an entirely different universe, one in which the actions of individuals have little meaning, yet one is nonetheless compelled to act with a sense of honor and respect.

There is one sequence that appears to be intact. It’s a chase between Mitchum and Dexter’s henchmen amongst fog-enshrouded fishing boats. The actors move with the preordained yet rootless symmetry of ripples in a pond. The interlocking patterns of fishing nets, following one upon the other, makes Mitchum’s attempt to hide behind them seem an almost existential dilemma. What saves these shots from disintegrating into abstraction is the clarity of its construction and the otherworldly quality of the lighting.

In the 1970’s, Nicholas Ray claimed he had copied Von Sternberg’s style in MACAO so successfully it was impossible to tell their contributions apart. Of course, everything was mashed together by Hughes’ editors. Still, it’s interesting to compare the opening sequence Ray took credit for with the Von Sternberg fishing net chase.

Ray’s sequence has an overall darkness that lacks any kind of illumination. Although cleanly composed and fluidly paced, the actors seem anchored in the center of each shot. The camera only moves to make a plot point. Along with multiple key lights, Von Sternberg has a tendency to use cookies (a large metal disc with uneven spaces). This creates a halo-like glow in the midst of deep shadows that’s very distinctive. Also, Von Sternberg often focuses on peripheral objects such as nets or shadows, placing his actors on the edges of the frame.

The transfer is spectacular, clearly revealing the misaligned back-projection as well as allowing one, due to differences in lighting , to pick out pieces directed by von Sternberg. I also highly recommend the commentary, which features Stanley Rubin. He wrote the first draft screenplay of MACAO and later produced THE NARROW MARGIN at RKO and RIVER OF NO RETURN with Mitchum at Fox. What I didn’t know is he’s an incredibly gregarious and entertaining raconteur. The commentary starts with a hilarious story about how Howard Hughes interfered with Mr. Rubin’s attempt to take Janet Leigh out for dinner. He seems to remember everything that happened on the RKO lot fifty years ago.

HOME FROM THE HILL
MGM. 1959. 150 minutes. Color. 2:35 aspect ratio 16:9 widescreen enhanced mono; extra features: theatrical trailer.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Everett Sloan, Luana Patten.
Credits: Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Produced by Edmund Grainger. Screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr & Irving Ravetch. Based on the novel by William Humphrey. Photography by Milton Krasner. Music by Bronislau Kaper. A Sol C. Siegel Production.

We now jump seven years, to Mitchum’s freelance work at Warners and MGM. HOME FROM THE HILL, Vincente Minnelli’s most vertiginously rigorous film, is one of many literary novels with adult themes, this one by William Humphrey, adapted by Hollywood in the late 50’s. These stories dealt with secrets (usually sexual in nature) of the rich and powerful, discovered by a younger, more innocent generation. This had the benefit of presenting a high-toned yet prurient tale while providing roles for up and coming stars. With their themes of family rebellion and the questioning of any monetary or spiritual inheritance, these films also document the first intimations of discontent during the Eisenhower years.

Capt. Wade Hunnicut (Mitchum) is the largest landowner in a small Texas town near the Arkansas border. A man of complex emotions and motives, he dominates a region sustained by small businesses and family farms. Resplendent in equestrian red while living on the fault line between past and present, Wade goes everywhere with his hunting rifle and hounds. He also scoops up with aplomb any maiden that crosses his path.
Wade appears to be a self-made man. His mansion, with an elegant Greek portico in front, has a frontier-style kitchen and ancient wallpaper in back. This set design schizophrenia is reflected by Wade’s relations with his two sons. Rafe (George Peppard) his oldest and illegitimate son, lives openly but unacknowledged in a shack on the backwoods of Wade’s property, while Theron, (George Hamilton) in line to inherit everything, is blissfully unaware of Rafe’s blood ties. Theron has been under the influence of his mother Hanna (Eleanor Parker) all his life. When Theron reaches his seventeenth birthday, Wade decides it’s time his boy became a hunter. A wild boar from Louisiana sets Wade’s tenant farmers aquiver, and he gives Theron the responsibility of killing the beast. This angers Hanna, who tells Theron the truth of Rafe’s parentage. Instead of turning Theron against Wade, this revelation makes Theron leave both his parents in an attempt to enter the world of adulthood honorably.
Although there is enough bad behavior–not to mention sex and murder–for a season of soap operas, HOME FROM THE HILL is more of a communal and agrarian tragedy. William Humphrey’s hard-scrabble prose keeps the focus on the believability of the characters. Minnelli’s film, on the other hand, is almost a fever dream of color-drenched sets and choreographed camera movement. The visual style creates a slowly escalating flow that is very similar to reading the original novel, transforming the social elements of the story into a personal testament that still reveals a deep commitment to both his actors and audience.

There is usually a nightmare-like sequence in a Minnelli film whose purpose is to place the audience inside the skin of the main character and pinpoint their hopes and anxieties. In HOME FROM THE HILL, the boar hunt is that pivotal sequence. Through its movement from the virginal green of the forest to the bloody swampland of the boar’s demise, it traces the journey from innocence to experience that Theron travels in the film. It was filmed in Clarksville, author William Humphrey’s home town. The forests of East Texas, raw, lush and golden-hued (particularly in this restored 16:9 Panavision transfer), in their colors and textures reveal the inner feelings of the characters the same way a Greek chorus speaks.

The hunt begins with a doe and two racoons, associated in the frame with Theron as he exhibits the same openness and sense of wonder. Rafe is sent by Wade to watch over Theron, but while Rafe is asleep that night, Theron goes out on his own. Across a dilapidated bridge, with the camera craning majestically above him, Theron reaches the edge of quicksand, the dawn light transforming everything into a dusty gold. Behind a felled oak, Theron’s dog has cornered the giant pig. The colors of brown and red, usually worn by Wade, sets the scene as a prelude for a kill. The boar moves in the background while Theron enters the frame from the right and his gun goes off, extraordinarily loud. The same perspective is repeated later when Wade, in a haze of cotton dust, visits Theron in the mill where he works. Theron enters on the right driving a yellow fork lift, the color reminiscent of the quicksand. At the end though, Rafe gives Theron his yellow jacket, transforming the color into a brotherly bond.

At this point in his career, Mitchum’s acting has become even sparer. He often waits a few beats to speak, infusing his characterization with a sense of surprise. And of course, there’s that musical voice of his. It’s hard to resist it’s clarion call, even when put at the service of a loose cannon like Wade Hunnicut. As Theron, George Hamilton is surprisingly effective. Although visually he’s almost perfect, his line readings are a little uncertain. When Theron develops in maturity, so does Hamilton’s characterization.

George Peppard almost steals the show away from Mitchum and Hamilton with a mix of grit and tenderness. The scenes between Theron and Rafe have a giddy sense of possibility. With their contrasting coloration, blonde vs. brunette, Peppard and Hamilton look like negative images of each other. Minnelli emphasizes this by placing the actors on either side of the frame. I’m loath to discuss Peppard’s work in detail, as it would reveal plot twists that should be seen rather than described.

Unlike most Hollywood films of this vintage, there are no character types here. Both the dialogue and sensitivity of the performances elicits audience sympathy and understanding in the midst of all the high-pitched goings on.
Except for one shot filled with thousands of leaves in the first blush of spring which is the tiniest bit quivery, this is another perfect transfer. Since every color has a narrative as well as psychological function, the impressive restoration Warners has done here is also essential. Seeing HOME FROM THE HILL again after so many years, I’m not only impressed by Minnelli’s visual mastery, but also the subtle humanity that lingers long after the images have faded.

THE SUNDOWNERS
Warner Bros. 1960. 133 minutes. Color. 1:85 aspect ratio 16:9 widescreen. Enhanced mono; extra features: theatrical trailer, vintage featurette: “On Location with the Sundowners.”
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, Peter Ustinov, Glynis Johns, Dina Merrill, Michael Anderson Jr., Chips Rafferty, Lola Brooks.
Credits: Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Screenplay by Isobel Lennart. Based on the novel by John Cleary. Photography by Jack Hildyard. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by Gerry Blattner

THE SUNDOWNERS was released in 1960. (In case you’re interested, the film’s title is Australian slang for “wanderer.”) I remember my parents and I were going to see the film during Christmas week at Radio City Music Hall . In fact, we stood for hours on 50th Street surrounded by slowly drifting snow, but never got in. According to Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times from December 6, 1960, along with the Nativity scene, I missed “Marvin Roy, magician; the Flying Kovacs, trampoline performers; the Choraleers; the Corps de Ballet in a carousel fantasy number, and the Rockettes doing their “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”*

Finally seeing the thing on DVD, I wondered why THE SUNDOWNERS was booked into Radio City – it’s not what I would call a family film, by any stretch of the imagination–and realized what they had in common–sheep. For those of you not from New York City, Radio City’s Nativity Scene is full of sheep. So is THE SUNDOWNERS. The film has jumping sheep, bleating sheep, compliant sheep, sheared sheep and (during the bush fire sequence) scared sheep. In fact, they are such an omnipresent part of the film, one can’t help but wonder if there was a make-up artist just for sheep

In 1920’s Australia, Paddy and Ida Carmody (Mitchum & Deborah Kerr), along with their son Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr.) roam the isolated towns and wilderness, herding sheep. They live in a tent and keep their dwindling cash in a jam jar (on which Zinnemann, I’m afraid, expends too many close-ups). Although Paddy thrives on this improvisational life, which he equates with freedom, Ida and Sean yearn for a house of their own. In a pub, Paddy runs into Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov), who hires on as his drover to escape the bondage of a middle-aged romance. Venneker, the almost perfect reflection of Paddy’s wanderlust, is more of a literary idea than a character, but Ustinov makes it his own, turning in an extremely subtle and humorously modulated performance, both as Paddy’s foil and also expressing, through his passionate ambivalence towards the fairer sex, an unambiguous joy.

In the next town, Ida convinces Paddy to hire on as a shearer, and the rest of the family, including Mr. Venneker, join him. The film then explores a group of transient individuals with the sense of their growing together. Although clearly in period, this seems documentary in style, both in terms of characterization as well as the evolution of finely etched moments. In particular, there’s a moving childbirth scene (possibly inspired by George Stoney’s 1953 film ALL MY BABIES) that maintains a beautiful balance in the frame between the mother (Lola Brooks) and Ida acting as midwife.

Usually described as an Australian “western”, the film is more a portrait of a marriage, detailing the gentle rhythm between two people of long connection, where pauses and evasions create their own subtle communication.. I don’t understand why books haven’t been written about Deborah Kerr’s performance. It’s one of her most serene characterizations, which denotes a lifetime of intimacy in a simple gesture or glance. This may be the only salt of the earth role she has played. Her hair is messy, her face sunburned, and she doesn’t seem to be wearing make-up. It’s a part that’s normally reserved for Anna Magnani, with her grand opera mannerisms. Instead, Ms. Kerr is subtle, expressing the character’s emotions with almost pointillist-like touches

Mitchum, playing for once against type, is as simple and necessary as the parched fields and hilly expanses that fill the screen. Although not his finest acting in terms of depth, watching him simply exist in the shimmering light of these frames is one of the glories of this set. The most dramatic scenes are when Mitchum doesn’t speak at all, but through his intake of breath infuses the film with the touch of the poet. (It’s also there in many of the images, including those leaping sheep.)

I did a little research. Before he became a director, Fred Zinnemann was an assistant for both Robert Flaherty and Busby Berkeley. The intimate focus on the lives of people in an inhospitable environment owes a strong debt to Flaherty. On the other hand, the prancing and surging sheep, captured in long, sweeping pans with the sunlight behind them, almost appear choreographed in a manner that evokes the pneumatic chorines of Berkeley’s Warner Brothers musicals.

Presented in an immaculate 16:9 widescreen transfer that seems impossibly warm and glowing, Jack Hildyard’s cinematography is justly famous and needs to be seen in all its handsome ruggedness. Along with lyrical abandon, the lighting takes on the function of narrative that is almost subliminal, revealing the emotions of characters that don’t really speak.

I can understand why reviewers at the time were kind to THE SUNDOWNERS. So much of the film is charming, it seems churlish to complain about the rest. Still, for a director such as Zinnemann, who has a reputation for being meticulous, the big scenes – the bush fire, the shearing competition, the drunken brawl – have this languorous feeling due to the uncertainly of what is taking place and where.

The sheep herding scenes, for instance, are beset by ellipses and repetition. Although the camera is often in constant movement, it’s as if Zinnemann is panning to avoid showing things, trying for an artfully abbreviated style. These pans are the equivalent of blank canvas in a painting by Jackson Pollock, and though lovely, have a tendency to lull one to sleep. The bush fire scene (except for a master shot of Deborah Kerr driving the wagon out of a smoky field) is composed mostly of the same shots of Koala bears and kangaroos we’ve seen for the past half hour, back-projected and covered with studio smoke, inter-cut with Mitchum covered with the same smoke. Think what John Ford (or, for that matter, B. Reeves Eason) would have done with such a sequence.

This is very different from the rest of the film, which is detailed and closely observed, filled with the kind of discursive lyricism that informed Zinnemann’s earlier works, such as THE SEARCH and TERESA, before success catapulted him into more epic but incompatible forms. Just for the record, Bosley Crowther’s review lists a running time of 141 minutes, as opposed to the 133 minute running time of this DVD. Not that I’m complaining.

*Editor’s note: My father and I did get in to the Music Hall, and the only thing you missed among the ancillary delights was the Rockettes in their Wooden Soldier outfits, though the Choraleers and the Nativity Scene were effective. The film felt, as you surmised it might, inappropriate for the 6000-seat family venue – even with the clever sheep connection – and both my father and I were bored, though we also both acknowledged the aesthetic power of the movie, and we were grateful for Ustinov’s comic relief (he was known for that in this period – SPARTACUS, TOPKAPI, etc), and for the memorable sheep-shearing showdown.

THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS
Warner Bros. 1969. 90 minutes. Color. 2:35 aspect ratio 16:9 widescreen. enhanced mono; extra features: theatrical trailer, vintage featurette: “The Good Guy From Chama.”
Cast: Robert Mitchum, George Kennedy, Martin Balsam, David Carradine, Tina Louise, Dogulas Fowley, Lois Nettleton, John Davis Chandler, John Carradine, Marie Windsor, Nick Dennis, Kathleen Freeman, Buddy Hackett.
Credits: Directed by Burt Kennedy. Written & Produced By Robert M. Cohen & Dennis Shryack. Music by William Lava. Lyrics by Ned Washington. Photography by Harry Stradling, Jr. A Robert Goldstein Production

THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS was released in November of 1969, four months after Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH obliterated the rule book for westerns. It was probably conceived as a follow-up to director Burt Kennedy’s successful THE WAR WAGON (with John Wayne & Kirk Douglas camping it up), as well as an attempt to capitalize on recent Oscar winner George Kennedy’s star potential.

The first thing one notices is the lushness and porcelain-like finish of Harry Stradling Jr.’s photography. The 16:9 Panavision transfer is absolute perfection, presenting fluid compositions that despite a bucolic setting, evokes FAO Schwartz at Christmas time. Colors and textures have the freshness and seductive beauty of wrapped presents, while the hills and surrounding greenery have a warmth one usually associates with 17th Century Dutch landscapes. This is a perfect setting for the story, and though dealing with many of the same themes as Peckinpah (aging, betrayal, the encroachment of modernity into the raw ethos of the old west), treats them more in the style of farce and gentle fable.

Aging Sheriff John Flagg (Mitchum) has been put out to pasture by opportunist Mayor Wilker (Martin Balsam). Flagg has heard from prospector Grundy (Douglas Fowley) that a gang of thieves — including Flagg’s old nemesis McKay (George Kennedy) – have been casing the train route in order to snatch the bullion shipment the following week. Flagg informs Mayor Wilker and even tries to round up a posse, but this falls on deaf ears. It later turns out McKay has been kicked out of his own gang by young upstart Waco (David Carradine). Since Flagg and McKay suddenly have time on their hands, they decide to join forces and stop Waco from robbing the train.

There are also prostitutes, lustful male citizenry (especially a perversely ecstatic Buddy Hackett) an embarrassing sexual encounter between Mayor Wilker and a married woman played by Tina Louise, not to mention an action climax with every spare actor and horseless carriage they could rustle up on location in New Mexico. As I’ve already implied, the film falls halfway between the wistful mournfulness of Sam Peckinpah and the ribald satire of Mel Brooks. Whether this somewhat inhospitable mix works in the film’s favor or against it probably depends on your point of view.

Burt Kennedy is an interesting if neglected figure in American films of the 50’s and 60’s. He wrote the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott series of westerns that in their stoicism, schematic view of relationships, and surprising lyricism were a major influence on Peckinpah’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. As a director, Kennedy made a number of very personal western comedies such as MAIL ORDER BRIDE and THE ROUNDERS, as well as THE MONEY TRAP and WELCOME TO HARD TIMES, two vivid if not entirely successful experiments in noirish fatalism, dark humor and a wide divergence in tone between style and subject.

Unfortunately, one cannot pay a mortgage making these kinds of pictures, and by the mid 60’s Burt Kennedy had graduated to big budgets and entertaining but blandly conservative star vehicles. THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS is probably Kennedy’s most accomplished and ambitiously made film from this period. Even at the plot’s most predictable arc, the direction somehow makes you care about what’s going to happen. What’s more, on the whole, these images resonate. Burt Kennedy places his stars against landscapes in ways that suggest the more serious themes of aging and the limits of individualism that lie beneath the surface.

As unemployed sheriff and reformed badman, the two leads are relaxed and smoothly charismatic. Even watching Mitchum marking time is revealing. You’d think he’d coast, but he gives the sheriff a surprisingly focused sensibility, based on eye contact with others in the cast, seemingly lackadaisical, but sharp as a tack underneath.

THE YAKUZA
Warner Bros. 1975. 112 minutes. 2:35 aspect ratio 16:9 widescreen enhanced. mono; extra features: commentary by director Sydney Pollock, vintage featurette: “Promises to Keep.”
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, Eiji Okada, Richard Jordan, Keiko Kishi, James Shigeta.
Credits: Directed by Sydney Pollock. Screenplay by Paul Schrader & Robert Towne. Story by Leonard Schrader. Photography by Kozo Okazaki & Duke Callahan. Production Design by Stephen Grimes. Music by Dave Grusin. Produced by Michael Hamburg, Sydney Pollock & Koji Shundo.

THE YAKUZA, from 1975, is the final disc in the set. From this perspective, it also seems like the culminating moment in Mitchum’s 70’s comeback. Back then, though, I had little interest in seeing anything by Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand’s house director. (Pollock’s previous film was THE WAY WE WERE.)

THE YAKUZA turns out to be a taut and character rich thriller. In detail and directorial style, it compares favorably to both CHINATOWN (which script doctor Robert Towne penned) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s artfully severe gangster films (such as LE CIRCLE ROUGE) about friendship and fate. There’s an almost classical beauty in its compositions referring both to the past of cinema–in particular, film noir with its dark pessimism–as well as the life of its characters.
It’s as if he’s been waiting twenty years when retired private detective Harry Kimble (Mitchum) receives a phone call from his old friend George Tanner (Brian Keith). Tanner’s wife and daughter have been kidnapped by Yakuza big wig Tono (Eiji Okada). They will be murdered unless Tanner pays Tono an exorbitant sum, and Tanner is dead broke. Tanner asks Kimble to go to Japan and use kendo master Ken Tanaka’s (Takakura Ken) obligation towards him–Kimble kept Ken’s sister Eiko (Keiko Kishi) alive in post-war Toyko. When Kimble arrives in Japan, things are not as they seem, and he becomes involved in an increasingly violent conspiracy. Kimble is still in love with Eiko, and discovers he must resolve this threat in order to save her life and possibly his own.

Mitchum plays Kimble as a man awakening to his own potential and the realities that surround him from a kind of self-willed hibernation. There are moments, in particular his scenes with Keiko Kishi, when he speaks with a plaintive tearfulness. (Only an authentic tough guy like Mitchum can get away with such forthright sentiment.) In a sense, Mitchum has come full circle, for Harry Kimble is a distillation and further development of ex-private eye Jeff Bailey, his first major starring role in 1947’s OUT OF THE PAST. Like Kimble, Bailey also retreats into anonymity because of a failed love affair. But whereas Bailey seems doomed by a combination of character and fate, Kimble, by perceiving what lies beneath the intertwining of personality and emotion, is able to break through and save both himself and others through decisive action. Mitchum here is as brutally tender, not to mention physically articulate, as I’ve ever seen him. There is also, unlike most of his portrayals, the possibility of change. Takakura Ken as Kimble’s nemesis Ken Tanaka is inspired casting, since he comes from the same stoic and working class roots as Mitchum. Their final scenes together have a real sense of emotion, as they’re both so poker faced and straightforward in their movements.

Along with an edgy sense of storytelling, there’s also a sensitivity to the timelessness of traditional Japanese culture in both the framing and pacing. There’s a scene where Eiko and her younger sister are in hiding, protected by Tanner’s bodyguard Dusty (Richard Jordan). Responding to his flirtatious questions, they show him the Japanese tea ceremony. This may sound a little abstract, but it works perfectly in the context of the film. The camera tracks almost infinitesimally across the objects and their faces, until suddenly a rival gang crashes in, guns blazing. The editing becomes a torrent of quick shots and the camera tilts precariously.

Director Sydney Pollock’s commentary is a consistently interesting and absorbing listen. He seems a little surprised to be speaking at such length about a work which has always been considered a failure. Pollock says most of the film was shot in Japan by a crew which couldn’t speak English, so he communicated by using a gray scale lighting card and pointed to the appropriate bar. It’s a good story, but I find this a little hard to believe, considering the detailed quality of the lighting. The compositions work on a number of levels simultaneously, both multi-cultural as well as bringing together the present with the past.

Although Paul and Leonard Schrader have reworked John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET numerous times (HARD CORE and AMERICAN GIGOLO come immediately to mind), this script is quite original in its delineation of character and the way both the action plot and the personal revelations support each other. Others have mentioned some signs of decay in this print, but it looks fine to me, with more than adequate black levels, no sign of edge enhancement, and crystalline sharpness and beautiful color that brings out Sydney Pollock’s aesthetic and dramatic sense in equal measure.

Spending a few weeks with an actor like Mitchum is bound to be a life transforming experience. These films aren’t all classics, but well worth your attention and time, particularly considering the perfection of the presentation and the copious extras. I found this set particularly engaging because I’ve been able to explore a screen persona I’ve always taken for granted to the point I’m now rethinking my ideas about film acting. This set is also rich in works that have fallen through the cracks of film history, and haven’t really been available for decades. When asked for his favorite performance, Mitchum responded he didn’t know, as he never saw any film in its finished form. Fortunately, he was around for the making of them, and as this set demonstrates, we are all the richer for it.

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