Another Western noir from Niven Busch
When is a door not a door? When it is ajar, of course. That may be the oldest joke in the book. But when is a Western not a Western? Ah, no snappy answers there. Instead we get that most banal of responses: it depends.
Purists regard stories not set in the late nineteenth century and/or not set in the United States west of the Mississippi as ipso facto not Westerns. Your blogger has a wider and looser interpretation of the genre and he regards as Westerns many pictures set in Mexico or Canada, even in Australia for goodness sake, as Westerns. And he thinks you can have twentieth-century oaters (though eighteenth-century ones are a bit more problematic). It’s the themes that count, the subject matter, the loner doing what a man’s gotta do (it’s almost always a man) and sometimes using a gun to do it, the hombre making his own kind of justice in a land without law.
When reviewing the Western career of John Sturges, pictured below, recently (click the link to read that) I completely ignored The Capture. Yet I counted The Walking Hills of the year before. Both are ‘small’, black & white movies set at some indeterminate time in the last century (they have cars, for example). The Capture is set in Mexico so will be double-damned by the purists but to me it’s a Western alright, just as The Walking Hills is.
Furthermore, it’s a rather fine film – though I agree that this fact is by the way. One of the main ways it is a fine film is visually. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager (below) was a real artist, as I have remarked before. Nominated no fewer than six times for an Academy award (though never winning one) Cronjager was seriously talented, especially in black & white. He shot many Westerns: I would pick out particularly the greatest ever version of The Virginian, the Gary Cooper one, in 1929; the 1931 Cimarron (one of the Oscar nominations); and the classy Jacques Tourneur-directed Canyon Passage, in Technicolor this time, with its Oregon scenery. He brings to The Capture moody monochrome with distinct noirish tints.
The picture was produced and written by Niven Busch (below) and based on his own novel. Busch is probably most noted for The Postman Always Rings Twice but of course he had a long Western pedigree, being famous especially for Duel in the Sun, popularly known as Lust in the Dust. He also co-wrote the splendid screenplay for the Judge Roy Bean story The Westerner in 1940, and in the same year as The Capture, another of his novels, The Furies, was made into a movie of the same name by Anthony Mann. Of more interest to us here, though, is perhaps his screenplay for Pursued, a 1947 Western noir starring Robert Mitchum and Mrs. Busch at the time, Teresa Wright. That stunningly good picture was shot, also in black & white, by the great James Wong Howe, and there are definite similarities between Howe’s work and Cronjager’s.
As for the cast, Teresa Wright starred again. She wasn’t the greatest of actresses, in my view, at least judging by Pursued, but in The Capture she does a reasonably solid job as the widow wooed by her husband’s killer, in an ever-so-slightly creepy way. The male lead was Lew Ayres, a well-known actor (he was Dr. Kildare) but not a Western specialist, as I said recently when reviewing his 1951 picture New Mexico. He plays Lin Vanner, an oilfield boss in Mexico who goes out alone on the hunt for a man (William Bakewell) he believes has robbed the company payroll, captures him (hence the title) and is then responsible for the man’s death: he shoots from a distance when the man doesn’t raise his hands but it transpires that he was wounded in one arm and could not. As, in addition, the man is later proved innocent of the crime, Vanner is racked by guilt.
Wright and Ayres adequate but no more
He resigns and seeks out the dead man’s wife (Wright), hiring on as her foreman under a false name. He bonds with her young son (Jimmy Hunt) and it seems that they will now form a new family unit (it’s essentially the Hondo plot) but she discovers his true identity and there follows an almost macabre period of abuse of the hired hand by the woman and his semi-masochistic acceptance of it. It’s all rather a psychoWestern, as Pursued was.
The story is told in flashback as Vanner recounts it all to a Mexican priest, Father Gomez, played by the great Victor Jory. We normally expect Jory in Westerns to be a crooked saloon boss, probably with a sneaky derringer, but this time he provides solace and calm advice.
Fr. Victor consoles
Duncan Renaldo is there too, as a family friend. Renaldo was very well known as the Cisco Kid: the movies had started in 1945, though when this picture was made they had yet to make the move to TV.
The whole was directed by John Sturges, as I said. He was quite early in his career (he had only started working on movies in 1946). But he does an excellent job on this psychological drama with only limited action scenes. Perhaps he was practicing for the Bad Day at Black Rock. He seemed to specialize in tense present-day Westerns.
Classic Cronjager work
There’s quite an exciting last reel, as the real villain is exposed and disaster occurs, causing Vanner to go on the run – which is why is telling his story to the priest. But the ending is rather too sudden and too pat, unfortunately, as exonerated, he together with his new wife and son live happily ever after.
Reconciliation and lovey-dovey too sudden and pat
Ayres and Wright are OK, I guess, but I can’t help wondering what Mitchum and, say, Ida Lupino would have made of it (I say Lupino because I am thinking of the previous year’s superb Lust for Gold with her and a brilliant Glenn Ford). The Capture would have been not just a good film but a great one. Still, even with the cast it has, this movie is definitely worth a watch. I might have been too mean with the revolver-rating but the Ayres/Wright pairing did that.