BROKEN LANCE has one of those lovely enigmatic openings. A young man (Robert Wagner) is summoned to see the governor. We hear that his name is Joe Deveraux and that he's just gotten out of prison after a three year stretch. We have no real idea why he went to jail or what his deal is. When Joe goes to see the governor, there is a giant painting of another Matt Deveraux (Spencer Tracy) outside his office. It looks as though Matt Deveraux has died based on the date under his painting, and he must have been some kid of big deal based on the size of the thing. When Joe speaks to the governor, a girl is mentioned. She never married apparently. We don't know what she and Joe's relationship was before he went to behind bars. The governor then ushers in Joe's brothers, led by Ben Deveraux (Richard Widmark). They talk about the Deveraux ranch and how it's run differently now. Ben offers Joe $10,000 and some land in Oregon if he gets out of town on the next train. Joe declines in a dramatic way and leaves the governor's office. This is all the first ten minutes or so of the movie. I adore this kind of beginning as it leaves a lot of questions and sets up some serious tension right out of the gate. As viewers, we still don't know all that much about what the situation is, but we are absolutely intrigued (a good threatening scene with a smirking Richard Widmark will do that). My mind is immediately very curious what happened to Spencer Tracy. He's like the headliner of the movie and they are playing it like his character bought the farm. Is he really dead? Will his entire storyline play out in flashback? These are things I must find out! It's one of those stories that unfolds as you watch it and that is always a pleasure for me. Any movie that puts some faith in me to stick with it while things are revealed and does so in an interesting and thoughtful way has my attention and admiration right out of the gate. Hollywood films have moved away from this kind of storytelling over the years and I find it a disconcerting trend to say the least. Why must studios think that people must never be confused by a movie and allow for an audience to patiently make discoveries about the story on our own? It's just a shame, but as I said, I do appreciate it when I happen upon a film that goes about its narrative in this way.
BROKEN LANCE is one of those westerns that I saw many times in the Laserdisc rental section of my old video store. I have no idea why I never watched it. I am a big fan of director Edward Dmytryk's work so I must not have noticed this was one of his flicks. Check out MURDER, MY SWEET or MIRAGE to see how great Dmytry can be. Another reason I might have passed on BROKEN LANCE is that I may not have been fully on board with Spencer Tracy at the time I guess, but I feel pretty dumb for not giving it a look. I've come to appreciate Tracy a whole lot in the past fifteen years and I've seen lots of movies that he stars in that I consider favorites (CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS and TEST PILOT being a couple of them). He's basically one of those actors now that if I come across something of his I haven't seen, I'll likely give it a shot based on him alone. He's truly one of the great actors of Hollywood's golden era. One of my very favorite podcasts is called You Must Remember This and it is written and hosted by the delightful Karina Longworth. She just recently did an episode all about the great Spencer Tracy and it is quite fascinating. I recommend it:
I remember hearing director John Sturges talk about Tracy and his method during his excellent commentary for his film BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (another great Tracy movie). He said something about the way Tracy would memorize only his lines from the script and he would make a point of not retaining the lines of the other characters he would play scenes with. Apparently, this would allow him to really hear the actors in those scenes and it really made his performance more genuine. That story could be apocryphal or my memory of it could be completely faulty, but I always thought that was a pretty neat way to approach movie acting.
BROKEN LANCE is one of those movies that combines high drama that veers towards Film Noir almost, but that takes place in a western setting. It's a neat little tale told in that wonderful format we call Cinemascope. It was shot by Joseph MacDonald who worked with Sam Fuller (HOUSE OF BAMBOO, HELL AND HIGH WATER, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET), John Ford (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE) and Elia Kazan (PANIC IN THE STREETS) among others. He shot a bunch in Cinemascope and demonstrates his excellent ability to fill a frame in BROKEN LANCE. For fans of dark westerns, Spencer Tracy or any of the other cool folks involved in this movie, it is likely worth a blind buy.
-Audio Commentary with Actor Earl Holliman and Film Historian Nick Redman.
-Isolated Score Track
-Fox Movietone Newsreel
-Original Theatrical Trailers