Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

“It’s a bum’s world for a bum”: Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)

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Watching Emperor of the North, it’s hard to believe that Robert Aldrich was also capable of directing such high camp as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George. Women only speak a couple of lines in this film, and are treated entirely as sex objects or background figures. Emperor of the North is all about men – and one of its strengths is that it depicts the unique word of certain men in such convincing detail.

The film is set in the Great Depression, a time when hobos rode the rails. Unemployed and forced to live outside of society, the hobos had their own culture with traditions and norms. As a rare man with a job, it’s a point of pride for train conductor Stack (Ernest Borgnine) that he takes his work seriously. Not only is he determined to prevent any hobos from riding his train, he’s willing to kill any who try. For No. 1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo famous amongst his kind, pride is something worth risking his life for. The stakes of this film are nothing more than a man hitching a ride on a train – but this may well mean a fight to the death.

No. 1’s plans are complicated by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young man new to being a hobo, who’s determined to make a name for himself. It’s through the interactions between the two –sometimes willingly given lessons on No. 1’s part, sometimes clumsy attempts at imitation on Cigaret’s– that we get many insights into the peculiarities of hobo life. How do you stop a train? Why wear a belt rather than suspenders? How hard should you fight to hang onto a turkey? The slang flows thick and fast; pay attention, and you might work out just what an Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title) is to a hobo. It probably means something different to you and me.

Aside from an action sequence set in early morning fog, which doesn’t quite look convincing, Emperor of the North is a well-made film. The trains could not have been easy to handle, but the scenes taking place on them feel believable. Some moments don’t even look especially safe. You may never have expected to be watching a film set in this world, but you’ll easily get drawn into it. Of course, if the time period has a particular appeal for you, definitely seek the film out.

And then there’s the actors. Carradine is appropriately annoying as the big-toothed, thick-skulled Cigaret, while Marvin is made for roles such as the taciturn yet charismatic No. 1. Borgnine is the standout, however; he makes Stack one of cinema’s ultimate sadists, petty and ferocious even in a goofy conductor’s hat.

The film culminates in a faceoff between Stack and No. 1 that has to be seen to be believed, one that’s a whole different kind of nasty to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford conflict in Baby Jane. It’s to Aldrich’s credit that he could make such different kinds of films, and to this level of quality.

Genre as variations on a theme: Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

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Seven Men from Now is a film entirely concerned with being what it is, not just by avoiding larger matters, symbolic or otherwise, but in how it focuses on showing and revealing one small story. It’s about the journey Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) takes to revenge himself upon the seven men who killed his wife during a train robbery. Along the way, he meets two settlers, Annie (Gail Russell) and John Greer (Walter Reed), and gunslinger Bill Masters (Lee Marvin); these three become part of his story too.

This film only involves a few characters. Even the seven men play little part. Rather, the film gradually explores the relationships between the four leads. They are all connected, and slowly drawn closer together. Reveals are made slowly and with understatement, and many thoughts are unspoken. Every nuance is explored as the journey continues, and as the characters separate and reunite.

In this context, an actor such as Lee Martin can be a standout with little effort. In only a few exaggerated gestures, Masters becomes positively flamboyant. He makes advances toward Annie in full view of her husband, he practices his quickdraw, he delivers exposition about the past that Stride has no interest in revealing. He’s charismatic, and funny, and ruthless, and his self-confidence may be his downfall.

Stride and Masters stand in stark contrast. Scott is stoically inexpressive, making every slight indication of Stride’s inner feelings significant. In an inventive scene, Stride sleeps out of the rain under a wagon, directly beneath where Annie will spend the night. A great deal passes between the characters even though they cannot see each other. Stride has been ruined by loss, and all that remains are remnants of emotions connected to his former life.

This film is rarely visually striking. Its landscapes are barren, with only one desert scene having a sense of beauty to it, and an unlikely one at that. Little details are important: a cloud of dust rising signals approaching riders; a wagon crossing a river sends sunlit ripples across the water, the journey briefly taking a pleasant turn; hidden gaps between rocks offer misleading means of escape, or entrapment. These are not Ford’s landscapes, or even Leone’s; they are unextravagant and often as ungiving as the film’s protagonist.

Seven Men From Now will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a western. However, in its lack of scope, downplaying of iconography, and disinterest in violence, it shows how thoughtful decisions can create distinctiveness and defy expectations. As much as anything, the film is a highly successful commentary on the western. Its simplicity belies its intelligence and, under analysis, becomes its most accomplished feature.