Tag Archives: James Stewart

Aldrich’s Desert Plane Crash Suvival Picture


Pros: cast, desert

Cons: musical overkill

I saw Robert Aldrich’s 1965 plane crash in the (Tunisian) desert movie “The Flight of the Phoenix” when it was newish and I was fifteen. Since then, my attention span has lessened and watching it again, I thought its 149-minute running-time excessive and the makeup (blistered faces) risible, BUT the conflicts among its all male characters and, in some cases grudging their co-operation to build an airplane from the wreckage as envisioned by an arrogant German (played by Hardy Krüger (who was so diffident in “Sundays and Cybèle”) remains absorbing. The captain (James Stewart in his flawed and bitter tough guy persona rather than the aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart) blames himself for flying into a sandstorm in a plane without a functioning radio. That defect relates to his alcoholic navigator/steward, played by Richard Attenborough. Their relationship seems lifted from a Howard Hawks movie with Attenborough playing something like the part Walter Brennan played in “To Have and Have Not” (or Thomas Mitchell back further in “Only Angels Have Wings” and Stewart more fallible than Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant in those two Hawks movies.

Of course, Aldrich made a number of movies focused on male-male rivalries mixed with ambivalent co-operation, including “Vera Cruz,” “Attack!,”,” “The Longest Yard,” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” and “The Dirty Dozen” (which would be his next movie, released in 1967, with an overlap of three actors who were in “Phoenix”: Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Gabriele Tinti; Borgnine was more memorable as the extremely nasty scourge in Aldrich’s great but underrated “Emperor of the North Pole” in 1973, and had also returned (with Peter Finch and Gabriele Tinti) in Aldrich’s (1968) “The Legend of Lylah Clare”).

In addition to the flight crew (Stewart and Attenborough) chafing against the self-confident expert (Kruger), there is an insubordinate sergeant (Ronald Fraser) attached to an oblivious, hidebound officer, Captain Harris (Peter Finch), a wacked-out Ernest Borgnine eager to follow Harris “marching” across the Sahara (even while Sgt. Watson fakes being unable to walk), a cast-against-type milquetoast Dan Duryea, a heroic physician (Christian Marquand), and a badly wounded handsome Latin martyr (Gabriele Tinti). Inexplicably to me, the one who garnered an Oscar nomination was Ian Bannen (whom I thought was better in “The Hill”). (Krüger or Attenborough would have been better choices IMO. Krüger refused a Golden Glob nomination and the Academy voters probably took the hint.)


The estimable Joseph F. BIroc (who had lensed Stewart’s most beloved movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and would do more memorable desert work in “Blazing Saddles” (1974) (not to mention “Airplane!”, “Towering Inferno,” and Aldrich’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “The Longest Yard”, “Ulzana’s Raid,” etc.) shot the Arizona and California desert locations and the motley cast. Frank DeVol provided too much overwrought music (musical minimalism had not been invented yet, though Robert Bresson for one made movies with minimal musical underlinings). Aldirch’s usual (15-time) editor Michael Luciano (Oscar nominated for this and three other Aldrich movies, for two of which he won his own guild’s award) was deft with the action sequences, but could have cut more IMO.


©2019, Stephen O/ Murray

Notes on seeing “Vertigo” again

There’s something to the “If you haven’t heard it like this, you haven’t seen Vertigo” promotion. With the enhanced (rerecorded?) Bernard Hermann soundtrack, I found it scarier than before. Perhaps obsession scares me more as I age, and some color (especially green) has been intensified in restoration. I know what is going to happen in every scene, and knowing what is going to happen seems as scary or scarier than not knowing. From when James Stewart sends Kim Novak into the bathroom to put up her hair (the final touch of remolding Judy into Madeline) I had goose-bumps.

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What I find hokey is the opening. When the first two men jump onto the sloped roof, it is from a flat roof, but when Stewart and then the uniformed cop slip back, it is from a sloped roof directly above the edge of a tall building.

Aside from the powerful tale of weakness and the strength of obsession, I enjoy seeing much lower-rise downtown San Francisco, and the mix of what is gone (the creepy apartment building at the eastern edge of the Western Addition, Ernie’s, the old De Young, and what remains (the Mission Dolores cemetery, Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Mission at San Juan Bautista, though it lacks the tower that is so central to the story).

Stewart’s body of work in the 50s (extended at both ends to encompass the period between “Rope” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) was not recognized at the time, but in “Vertigo” and “Anatomy of a Murder” and some Anthony Mann Westerns, he was very tense (and add the charm of “Harvey.” “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation,” and “Bell, Book, and Candle,” the ingenuity of “Rear Window,” and the pathos of “It’s a Wonderful Life” one realizes he had some range).


©1996 [my third viewing of the movie, on a theatrical rerelease with enhanced soundtrack), Stephen O. Murray


“Notorious” (1946) is my favorite Hitchcock film, but “Vertigo” has displaced “Citizen Kane” as the best movie ever in the most recent (2012) decennial Sight and Sound poll

“The Man from Laramie”

Anthony Mann directed eight movies—five of them westerns—with James Stewart that were released between 1950 and 1955. To me Stewart seems somewhat deranged (manic) in Alfred Hitchcock’s single-set “Rope” made before the Mann/Stewart films, so that the break from the all-American Mr. Nice Guy that Stewart essayed for Frank Capra (in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Its a Wonderful Life”) was a joint Hitchcock and Mann enterprise. Stewart played an obsessive voyeur of sorts in “Rear Window” and went on to the obsessive, agoraphobic police officer in “Vertigo.”

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In Mann’s westerns (in order: Winchester 73, Bend of the River, Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie), Stewart generally played someone minding his own business, not very comfortable with women, not seeking trouble but not backing away from any that confronted him. They all turn into stories of revenge. It is not immediately obvious that revenge is driving him from before the start of what is shown in “Naked Spur” and “Man from Laramie,” but in both of them, like the other three, he is riled by affronts from others who impinge on him as he is trying to mind his own business.

I have to say that “Man from Laramie” has the least gripping opening of any of the five Mann/Stewart westerns, even if one can ignore the ballad underlying the opening credits. Will Lockhart, the man from Laramie of the title, is leading a mule train across Apache country, stopping at the scene of an ambush of soldiers, though it is unclear how long ago it occurred. After camping on the battleground for the night, he delivers the goods to store-keeper Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) who surprises him by telling him she’s sort of sorry that the goods arrived. because with nothing to sell, she had been considering closing down her store.

On his way out, Will notices a repeating rifle for sale and asks the (Pueblo) clerk where it came from. An interest in who has been selling repeating rifles to the Apaches becomes ever more central as the movie continues. But first, he is in the process of filling his wagons with salt so that he was some freight to take back the other way. (Side note: that the New Mexico town is being supplied from Laramie puzzles me, as does explicit mention of it being a stop on the way east, later on…)

Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol, the psychotic son of the main rancher, attacks the wagon train for trespassing and stealing salt. Among other things, he has Will lassooed and dragged through a fire (for which Stewart had no stunt double). The weak heir is a recurrent figure in 1950s westerns (in Sam Fuller’s “40 Guns” it is a brother rather than a son of a generally clear-eyed boss). This one is supposed to be kept out of trouble by a saner surrogate older brother, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy, who played an ally of Stewart’s picked up on the trail in “Bend of the River”… and the man seeking revenge in Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious”). There’s sibling rivalry, especially since the overlord, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp, the brutal father of D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” and the very harsh father of John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”) has delegated authority to Vic rather than to his son.

Will and Dave have two more run-ins, the second ending with something that shocks most everyone (including this viewer). Will is not the world’s greatest detective, and his final understanding is not entirely correct. Dave is a gangster who is devoid of compunctions and of sense.


One can say that Will is saved by a woman, Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a tough rancher who was jilted by Alex Waggoman and has been the only rancher not bought out by him. To further complicate matters, Vic’s fiancée, to whom Will is drawn, is the store-keeper, Barbara, who is Alex’s niece.


Soap opera, Oedipal psychodrama, detective story, western rolled into one. With striking northern New Mexico (Taos and Santa Fe counties) backdrops filmed by Charles Lang (cinematographer of “The Big Heat,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gunfight at the O. K. Corral,” etc.) and well transferred to DVD. The only “extra”, however, is a trailer. (Though subtitles are available in an unusual number of languages.)

I don’t know why the Mann/Stewart partnership ended. Stewart made more westerns, including two very good ones directed by John Ford (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Two Rode Together,” the latter much closer to the kinds of characters Stewart played for Mann than the former). Mann directed three more westerns. The one most like the Stewart ones was “Man of the West” (1958) with Gary Cooper playing a role close to the one Stewart played in “Bend of the River” and with Lee J. Cobb as a larger-than-life patriarch/villain. (I haven’t seen Henry Fonda mentoring Anthony Perkins in the 1957 “The Tin Star.”)

Except for the first, shot in black and white, the Mann westerns have striking scenery. The five starring Stewart all have complex not entirely heroic Stewart characters and interesting villains. The most entertaining of these is the corrupt sheriff played by John McIntire in “The Far Country,” though Robert Ryan makes an interestingly wry prisoner in “Naked Spur.” Arthur Kennedy is an interesting second lead in “Bend of the River” and “The Man from Laramie,” but Walter Brennan in “The Far Country” is the most entertaining sidekick of Stewart’s. I am writing myself into a conclusion that “The Far Country” is the best of the four in color (though the least popular and most northern). Ruth Roman in that is less wooden than Janet Leigh in “The Naked Spur” or Cathy O’Donnell in “Man from Laramie” or Julie Adams in “Bend of the River.” Shelley Winters surpasses this weak female competition in “Winchester ’73,” which is probably the tightest of the five. So, if you like psychologically complex westerns, watch them all and pick your own favorite!


©2018, Stephen O. Murray