Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Twilight Time - THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON and CONRACK ""

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Twilight Time - THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON and CONRACK

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955; Anthony Mann)
I used to think of this film only in terms if its place among the great group of Anthony Mann westerns that he did around this period, but years ago it took on another association. Patton Oswalt is a comedian that I love from some of the very first routines I heard him do, one of which was a hilarious bit about TiVo if I recall. The thing that stood out to me about it was not only that it was ridiculously funny, but also that Oswalt chose to mention THE MAN FROM LARAMIE in it. He could have used any western as an example but he chose this one. My esteem for him as a person, comic and cinephile shot through the roof based on that. Call me shallow, but I find these things important and when a person loves movies so much that he can't stop them from creeping into his standup, that's a big time movie lover in my mind. So THE MAN FROM LARAMIE became a "Patton Oswalt Movie" for me. 
THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was a film year left a distinct impression on me when I first saw it. I was undereducated in the films of James Stewart outside of obvious classics like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and REAR WINDOW. Though there is certainly some darkness to Stewart's characters in those films, he still comes off as the sort of all-American Everyman that people seem to most remember him to be. I had yet to see THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, so I was blissfully unaware of the bunches of western films Stewart made in his time. It was like this untapped vein of golden goodness for me when I finally found them. It stands to reason that Stewart would have made westerns, I mean it is one of the most popular genres in the history of cinema. Anyway, I never pictured Stewart riding a horse, but when you see him in these environs, he looks just at home as John Wayne or Randolph Scott. His 'Everyman' quality translates well to the old west. He has a face and a soul out of time and that is a unique quality that I love in an actor. Some of them just look and feel too 'modern' to have ever lived during frontier times and it  often takes me out. That sense of immersion I get in westerns might be part of the reason I love them so much. They are also these sort of time portals for me if  acted and done properly. Anyway, I digress. James Stewart really got my attention in this movie. There was this undercurrent of anger and darkness in him that was unsettling and yet mesmerizing. He was a man with a mysterious past that I was very much intrigued to figure out. Along the way he meets a host of interesting faces like those of Arthur Kennedy, Cathy O'Donnel (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT) and Jack Elam. This film is the last of five westerns that Stewart made with Anthony Mann. I always used to think of the westerns as a part of Stewart's career that was seprate from his other movies, but in actuality he made them concurrently. The same year he made HARVEY he also made WINCHESTER '73. In 1954 he made both REAR WINDOW and THE FAR COUNTRY. This back-and-forth fascinates me. THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is one of Mann's best westerns and I hope that it's release on Blu-ray may be an indicator of things to come. Hopefully Twilight Time will bring forth some of Mann's other films and with any luck, perhaps some of Budd Boetticher's.

HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957; John Huston)
Two-actor movies are an interesting genre unto themselves. You don't see them too much these days, especially on a big studio level. Even lesser seen are single-actor movies (Altman's SECRET HONOR is the only one that comes to mind). There's something inherently theatrical about two characters intersecting and conversing with each other. In this case the two characters in question are a WWII marine and a nun who've both find themselves stranded in a deserted island in the South Pacific. It's kind of like a more platonic version of THE BLUE LAGOON (for a minute) which is then interrupted by a war movie. Huston builds some nice simple tension by thoroughly establishing the two leads before the story takes a bit of a turn. Robert Mitchum is quite literally one of my very favorite actors (top three all-time easily), so watching him work is always a pleasure. And I've been a fan of Deborah Kerr's ever since I first fell in love with her in Powell & Pressburger's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (which is one of my favorite movies), so she can really do no wrong in my eyes. Not surprisingly, they make a wonderful duo here and the movie is a memorable entry in John Huston's rather varied filmography. It's a deeply romantic film. The usual will they/won't they is complicated by the nun factor as well as the war factor though.  It's makes for a nicely textured story. That alone would be engaging enough, but with these two actors as the principles it's a remarkable alchemy. Though it is highly regarded as a classic in some circles, I feel like it's a movie that is nonetheless undressed and underappreciated in the great scheme of each of the chief players' bodies of work. I can't be sure about this, but I do feel like I hear it talked about less than others. Hopefully more will see it sooner than later. Can't believe I waited so long.

CONRACK (1974; Martin Ritt)
Long before DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, Martin Ritt took a stab at the "Oh Captain, My Captain" genre of school teacher dramas with this little film based on a true story. Martin Ritt is a man who makes a lot of socially conscious and issue-oriented movies and this one carries on that tradition. He's a remarkable filmmaker is flanked by the amazing cinematographer John A. Alonzo and backed up musically with a score by the legendary John Williams.
Pat Conroy (Jon Voight) accepts a job teaching the 5th-8th grade on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina which is populated mostly by poor black families. After one day in class with his new students, he realizes that many of them have had little to no education of any kind at all and that he must basically start from scratch. Undaunted, Conroy dives in with much energy and enthusiasm in his lively attempts to teach the kids. He introduces them to the concept of gravity, the basics of geography, sports, classical music, swimming, Halloween and even Tyrone Power. 
Jon Voight is acting at the top of his game here with this charismatic, uber-affable inspiration of a portrayal. It's just one of those vibrant performances wherein the actor makes the whole craft of acting seem easy and naturalistic. Voight is truly one of the greats and this movie stands as triumphant reminder of that fact. Surrounding Voight is a remarkable cast of other great talent including Paul Winfield and Hume Cronyn. Both do their standard outstanding work in this film and both play excellent off of Voight in their scenes together. It's scenes like these, with this calibre of actors just doing what they do in a low-key setting that always reminds me of why I love watching movies. Much credit goes to these actors, but Martin Ritt deserves a good deal of recognition as well. The performances he gets out of not just the fine, seasoned actors as well as the children here who are fantastic. The heart of the movie is really Jon Voight and the kids. Overall, it's a  breath of fresh air to see a life-affirming film like this in a time when movies are a bit more cynical and opening weekend box office is the altar at which Hollywood most often worships. Even the independent minded films of today have a tendency to rub our noses in the ugliness underlying the issue that's being addressed. This film is quite wonderful in that, although it certainly acknowledges some ugliness and small-minded thinking, it doesn't dwell on those things and our takeaway is ultimately more positive. It's a truly triumphant story of a man and the children he reaches and just how much they impact him in the process.

Included on this disc is a commentary track with Nick Redman and film editor Paul Seydor. Having never heard a commentary on any Martin Ritt film (& few on Jon Voight films), I found this one rather enlightening. Seydor apparently used to teach a class in which he showed his students this film and so he is a fountain of information about both the film(along with HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A) and also the book upon which it is based (and the real details of where it took place). Seydor even reads passages from the book periodically throughout the track which give extra added insight.

All three of these discs can be purchased via Screen Archives:
http://screenarchives.com/

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