Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Olive Films Signature - HIGH NOON and JOHNNY GUITAR on Blu-ray ""

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Olive Films Signature - HIGH NOON and JOHNNY GUITAR on Blu-ray

HIGH NOON (1952; Fred Zinneman)
This film is an interesting classic for me. I think it was my introduction to Gary Cooper and it honestly put me off him initially. First off, it was my initial exposure to Cooper's very specific cadence in the way he delivers dialogue. If you've not seen him in a movie before, he might seem a little stiff - but it's just the way he does his thing. So I had the hurdle of getting over that and on top of that the movie itself is about cowardice and facing up to that which must deal with or die trying. It's tricky because the Howard Hawks fan in me must have kicked in and my knee-jerk reaction was similar to Hawks' response. Supposedly, Hawks saw HIGH NOON and was so turned off by it that he made RIO BRAVO as a response to it. For that, I am forever indebted to director Fred Zinnemann as RIO BRAVO is one of my very favorite films. Apparently John Wayne wasn't a HIGH NOON fan either and was said to have called it, "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life". Howard Hawks said, "I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western." All fair points, but I've come around to HIGH NOON over the years and a lot of it has to do with the tension and the structure of the thing. Zinnemann isn't any slouch as a filmmaker and HIGH NOON is a well made movie for sure. The editing alone makes it worthy of study. Though it doesn't quite play in real time, it's pretty darn close and the clock motif is woven in nicely. 
While I can see why Hawks may have seen the film the way he did, the more I've watched it, the more I see it a little differently. I see Gary Cooper more as a man that's doing what he feels like he has to do. His town marshal character is caught in a mighty conundrum. A man that he had sent away for murder is returning to town after being released and has vowed to kill him. Though all the townsfolk are encouraging him to run away - as fast and as far as he can - he seems to know that he'll never fully escape without dealing with this situation. He's literally just gotten married and he knows that this killer will not rest until he gets his vengeance. So while Cooper is kind of running around town trying to scrape together any and all help that he can, he has still resigned himself  to his fate. He will face it and take what comes, whether he gets help or not. He'll even let his wife leave him instead of retreating with her. It's not the Hawksian way exactly, but it has a certain resonance nonetheless.
As a movie, it's an entertaining and suspenseful little ride. It has a great cast outside of Cooper and Grace Kelly - including Beau Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Morgan, Lon Chaney and Otto Krueger. Also - Grace Kelly is about the sexiest Quaker woman I've ever seen in a movie. Her wedding dress is gorgeous and the way it clings to her slender frame is downright stunning. Lastly, as another reason why I am grateful this movie exists - it has inspired other enjoyable "real time" films. Without HIGH NOON, there wouldn't be any THREE O'CLOCK HIGH - which is one of my favorite films if the 1980s. John Badham's NICK OF TIME is pretty good too.

Special Features:
This disc and JOHNNY GUITAR are the first of Olive Film's new "Olive Signature" line. They've already issued these films on Blu-ray, but these new editions include new transfers and extra features. Think of these discs as Olive's attempt to appeal to collectors and cinephiles who love Criterion Collection releases. Both films are mastered from new 4K restorations and both have some nice extras. HIGH NOON's include:
-“A Ticking Clock” – Academy Award-nominee Mark Goldblatt on the editing of High Noon
-“A Stanley Kramer Production” – Michael Schlessinger on the eminent producer of High Noon
-“Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon” – with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein
-“Ulcers and Oscars: The Production History of High Noon” – a visual essay with rarely seen archival elements, narrated by Anton Yelchin
-“Uncitizened Kane” – an original essay by Sight and Sound editor Nick James
-Theatrical trailer

You can purchase this edition of HIGH NOON here:

JOHNNY GUITAR (1954; Nicholas Ray)
Though we don't have them as much today, I do miss the idea and practice of "B" movies. The kind of cheaply produced features that were made to fill out double bills back in the day. They were such a big deal in the Hollywood studio era, that many little studios like RKO and Republic Pictures sprang up to meet the demand for this kind of material. Some of them even specialized in specific genres and became these little factories that were just cranking them out. Republic's main thing was westerns. They produced tons of them. Many are not that memorable, but what I love about these little studios is that every so often they would hit it out of the park and do something that absolutely transcends what a B picture should be. JOHNNY GUITAR is one of those pictures. It is really not like any other western I can think of anc that is for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is the creative and unique vision of director Nicholas Ray. Ray was one of those individualist filmmakers that really brought an artistic and a poetic sensibility to his work. Apparently, he studied architecture under the great Frank Lloyd Wright before becoming a director and it's clear to see that he was greatly influenced by that time in his life in terms of how he decided to compose his frames. Interestingly, JOHNNY GUITAR was Ray's second color film and he followed it with one of his greatest successes in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE the next year. Both films use color in interesting ways, but JOHNNY GUITAR is most interesting in this way in that it is a western and this a genre that is not often defined by its use of color - especially with regard to the costumes. Another thing that's unique about the film is that it has two very powerful women at the center of it. Some may classify this as a feminist film as a result of that central conflict, but that's a bit more complicated to define when you look at the movie as a whole. Regardless, it is fascinating to see what would seem to be a traditional role reversal in terms of what we might have come to expect from a western. The westerns is a male dominated genre, so it is quite interesting to see Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge go head to head through the course of JOHNNY GUITAR. Their passionate anger and seeming hatred of one another drives the movie for the most part and that is quite refreshing. This brings me to Joan Crawford's presence in the film specifically and how it had an impact on it becoming a different kind of take on the genre. She was in her fifties at the time, but was still riding the wave of her stardom to a degree. Working with a smaller studio like Republic after all her years of success with the majors gave her some influence on the film and how it turned out. Basically she became upset by the potential of being upstaged by Mercedes McCambridge and demanded that her character be made the lead and that several scenes be added to bolster that idea. As a result, she is much more prominent than she would have been and the film shifted completely from what it was to have been. One of my favorite podcasts, YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, just finished a neat series on Joan Crawford and I highly recommend it. It gives a nice context for JOHNNY GUITAR and how Crawford came to make the film.
As I have often done here at Rupert a Pupkin Speaks, I must give a nod to Danny Peary for introducing me to this movie. He wrote about it in his amazing book CULT MOVIES (which if you don't own you should snap up a copy). I highly recommend reading his essay included in that book as it examines the film from a few different angles - be they its potential feminist elements, as parody of the western genre and also its angle on being "indictment of McCarthyite mob hysteria and bigotry". What's great about movies is the variety of ways they can be interpreted and embraced by audiences even decades after their initial release. Some of them are thin with subtext and others (like JOHNNY GUITAR) are waist deep in it.
Westerns have been a round for a long long time and we've seen them rise and fall from popularity for as long as movies have been around. They never totally disappear though and they says something about how we as an audience must have some kind of primal connection to them. Maybe we all long for a simpler time and see these as very stripped down stories, free from the entanglements and complications of technology and our "modern" lives. Who knows the reason why westerns are still with us, but I hope they never go away. There is always room for more of them as far as I'm concerned and the best ones are the films they try to do something a bit different with the genre. JOHNNY GUITAR is timeless in that way and though it may seem a bit strange in comparison to some, I find it to be a really great one.

Special Features:
This disc is even more stacked than the HIGH NOON disc, including lots of new material and a commentary. For fans of Criterion Collection releases I would have to call this a must 
own. Supplements included:
-Introduction by Martin Scorsese
-Audio commentary with historian and critic Geoff Andrew
-“Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar” – with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein
-“Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon” – with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich
-“Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures” – with archivist Marc Wanamaker
-A critical appreciation of Nicholas Ray with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich
-“My Friend, the American Friend” – Nicholas Ray biographical piece with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich
-“Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western” – an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

You can purchase this edition of JOHNNY GUITAR here:

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