"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bend of the River (Universal, 1952)












Redemption

 



 
By 1952, two years on from Winchester ’73, Universal’s Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaboration had progressed. Stewart has the same horse and same hat but Bend of the River had Technicolor now and a lot of expensive location work (Mount Hood, Oregon), nicely photographed by Irving Glassberg.
 
These posters. I mean, honestly.

Borden Chase wrote it again (from Bill Gulick's Bend of the Snake) and once more the screenplay is tight, doesn’t waste words and is exciting. The story tells of a wagon train of decent farmers, guided by ex-gunman Stewart trying to live down his past (quite Robert Taylorish, really). The farmers settle in the high country near Portland but are cheated by a crook out of vital supplies, without which they cannot last the winter. Stewart rides back down to Portland to get them and is duly heroic. That’s the plot.

It starts Mannishly with a grimacing face and a noose. Two guys who have knocked about the West a bit, not always on the right side of the law, ex-Missouri raiders. One saves the other from a necktie party. "Still following that star?" "Better than having a man with a star following you." It’s a good start.
 
That Winchester again

Arthur Kennedy is excellent as the (at first charming) villain. His rascally laugh is infectious but he proves that he is a rotten apple. He combines both the black evil and the cheerfully roguish natures of the two villains McNally and Duryea from Winchester ’73, and he is essentially, Stewart's other self.

Rock Hudson has been promoted from ug-type Indian in Winchester ’73 to star part (though this was the last time he worked with Stewart) and he is very dashing as a dandy gambler Trey Wilson who is fast with a gun but “too soft”.
 
Smooth dude

Jay C Flippen has also been promoted, from Army sergeant in Winchester to farmers’ leader. And Chubby Johnson and Stepin’ Fetchit are fun as the riverboat captain who “shoulda stayed on the Mississippi” and his black sidekick. Julia Adams and Lori Nelson make rather glamorous farm girls but honestly they only seem to be there for Stewart, Hudson and Kennedy to dally with. That's Mann for you: after Devil's Doorway and The Furies, where women were strong and central characters, females were only really in his Westerns as accessories.

Stalwarts Royal Dano (Long Tom) and Harry Morgan (Shorty) are seedy gunmen.

The film is colorful, action-packed and lively. There are injun attacks, a mutiny and shoot-outs, not to mention the battling with the terrain. Stewart is gritty and tough. He is again driven, forceful, violent, if not quite as manic as Lin McAdam in Winchester. In this one Jimmy the badman redeems himself by getting the supplies to the settlers. You’ve got a hero with a murky past and a bad man with redeeming features. Westerns were moving on. But by now people were getting used to the idea of Mr. Smith or Elwood P Dowd in a tough, grown-up Western. The following year they’d get The Naked Spur where he'd be even tougher.
 
Forget Harvey

The Hans J Salter score provides ‘rolling’ music suitable for the high mountains and mighty rivers that Mann was showing an increasing penchant for.

Studio executives were unsure if British audiences would understand the title and changed the syntax to Where the River Bends. Now I may be dumb, probably am, but I do think the average Brit might understand the four words Bend of the River. Just. They do speak English over there. Kinda. In fact I think they invented the language.
 
Rotten apple

Mann loved the journey, physical as much as psychological, and all his Westerns contain this element. They are films about following a course - trail, river, quest for revenge - and because of this they are essentially Western. In every one, it becomes necessary to change, to turn - there is a bend in the river. Jay C Flippen's wagon train leader is morally rigid and says “rotten apples” can never change.  He's right about Kennedy but wrong about Stewart. The film is about at least the possibility of redemption. Even smooth gambler Rock changes into settler and future husband. Finally, the climactic fight between good and evil (or the two sides of the same character) takes place in the river and when Jimmy finally overcomes, Kennedy's body is washed away down the river, in a sort of purification rite. Oops, I think I have got a bit pretentious. Hell, it's a Western movie, that's all.

The film, completed in six weeks, was a big box-office earner, although was slightly knocked by the critics. It does not have the quality of Winchester ’73 or The Man from Laramie (the best of them) but Bend of the River is nevertheless an exciting mountain Western with lots of action and some good acting. Certainly worth a DVD purchase.

Jean-Luc Godard wrote that "with Anthony Mann one rediscovers the western, as one discovers arithmetic in an elementary maths class" but an abiding principle of this blog has always been, Never take account of anything uttered about Westerns by someone named Jean-Luc. Plus, he didn't give a capital W to Western. Cad.

Still, a word of advice from the movie: “Never mix marriage with gambling. Percentage is all against it.” I thought you ought to know.

 

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