"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bend of the River (Universal, 1952)

 
Redemption

 



 
By 1952, two years on from Winchester ’73, Universal’s Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaboration had progressed. Stewart has the same horse and same hat but Bend of the River had Technicolor now and a lot of expensive location work (Mount Hood, Oregon), nicely photographed by Irving Glassberg.
 
These posters. I mean, honestly.

Borden Chase wrote it again (from Bill Gulick's Bend of the Snake) and once more the screenplay is tight, doesn’t waste words and is exciting. The story tells of a wagon train of decent farmers, guided by ex-gunman Stewart trying to live down his past (quite Robert Taylorish, really). The farmers settle in the high country near Portland but are cheated by a crook out of vital supplies, without which they cannot last the winter. Stewart rides back down to Portland to get them and is duly heroic. That’s the plot.

It starts Mannishly with a grimacing face and a noose. Two guys who have knocked about the West a bit, not always on the right side of the law, ex-Missouri raiders. One saves the other from a necktie party. "Still following that star?" "Better than having a man with a star following you." It’s a good start.
 
That Winchester again

Arthur Kennedy is excellent as the (at first charming) villain. His rascally laugh is infectious but he proves that he is a rotten apple. He combines both the black evil and the cheerfully roguish natures of the two villains McNally and Duryea from Winchester ’73, and he is, essentially, Stewart's other self. This notion of good guy with faults vs. mirror-image bad guy with saving graces was one that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott would exploit so well together at the end of the decade.

Rock Hudson has been promoted from ug-type Indian in Winchester ’73 to star part (though this was the last time he worked with Stewart) and he is very dashing as a dandy gambler Trey Wilson who is fast with a gun but “too soft”.
 
Smooth dude

Jay C Flippen has also been promoted, from Army sergeant in Winchester to farmers’ leader. And Chubby Johnson and Stepin’ Fetchit are fun as the riverboat captain who “shoulda stayed on the Mississippi” and his black sidekick. Julia Adams and Lori Nelson make rather glamorous farm girls but honestly they only seem to be there for Stewart, Hudson and Kennedy to dally with. That's Mann for you: after Devil's Doorway and The Furies, where women were strong and central characters, females were only really in his Westerns as accessories.

Stalwarts Royal Dano (Long Tom) and Harry Morgan (Shorty) are seedy gunmen.

The film is colorful, action-packed and lively. There are injun attacks, a mutiny and shoot-outs, not to mention the battling with the terrain. Stewart is gritty and tough. He is again driven, forceful, violent, if not quite as manic as Lin McAdam in Winchester. In this one Jimmy the badman redeems himself by getting the supplies to the settlers. You’ve got a hero with a murky past and a bad man with redeeming features. Westerns were moving on. But by now people were getting used to the idea of Mr. Smith or Elwood P Dowd in a tough, grown-up Western. The following year they’d get The Naked Spur where he'd be even tougher.
 
Forget Harvey

The Hans J Salter score provides ‘rolling’ music suitable for the high mountains and mighty rivers that Mann was showing an increasing penchant for.

Studio executives were unsure if British audiences would understand the title and changed the syntax to Where the River Bends. Now I may be dumb, probably am, but I do think the average Brit might understand the four words Bend of the River. Just. They do speak English over there. Kinda. In fact I think they invented it.
 
Rotten apple

Mann loved the journey, physical as much as psychological, and all his Westerns contain this element. They are films about following a course - trail, river, quest for revenge - and because of this they are essentially Western. In every one, it becomes necessary to change, to turn - there is a bend in the river. Jay C Flippen's wagon train leader is morally rigid and says “rotten apples” can never change.  He's right about Kennedy but wrong about Stewart. The film is about at least the possibility of redemption. Even smooth gambler Rock changes into settler and future husband. Finally, the climactic fight between good and evil (or the two sides of the same character) takes place in the river and when Jimmy finally overcomes, Kennedy's body is washed away down the river, in a sort of purification rite. Oops, I think I have got a bit pretentious. Hell, it's a Western movie. Don't go all intellectual on me.

The film, completed in six weeks, was a healthy box-office earner, although not nearly matching High Noon, the year's third best grossing picture, and it was slightly damned with faint praise by the critics. It does not have the quality of Winchester ’73 or The Man from Laramie (the best of them in my view) but Bend of the River is nevertheless an exciting mountain Western with lots of action and some good acting. Certainly worth a DVD purchase.

Jean-Luc Godard wrote that "with Anthony Mann one rediscovers the western, as one discovers arithmetic in an elementary maths class" but an abiding principle of this blog has always been, Never take account of anything uttered about Westerns by someone named Jean-Luc. Plus, he didn't give a capital W to Western. Cad.

Still, a word of advice from the movie: “Never mix marriage with gambling. Percentage is all against it.” I thought you ought to know.

 

8 comments:

  1. Jeff, even if I am not a huge Jean-Luc Godard fan, I can certify he is a true admirer of Anthony Mann's style - he compared him to Virgile, the latin poet -and his W-westerns especially Man of the West if I remember well, probably Mann's film which stirred up the most controversy among the French film critiques. Besides I hope that one day you will write some hommage to Jack Lambert, one ofcthe greatest Hollywood badmen ever. I love his french-canadian voyageurs' "tuque" - the long wool bonnet - JM

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    1. I may have slipped over into Godardisms when I was wittering on in this review about purification. I'm not really against Jean-Luc though. He knows far more about movies than I ever will. It's just that I have never been a cinéaste in the French way.
      I too am a Jack Lambert fan and agree that it's time for a Lambertorama career retrospective.
      Jeff

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  2. This one was okay. What kind of ruined it for me was the too quickly abrupt change of Arthur Kennedy's character. Maybe it would have come off more realistic if he hadn't saved Stweart's life about a hundred times before he went evil. He's supposed to be the devil all along, yet gives Stewart enough supplies to make it back into town even though Stewart threatens to kill him. Then later on he's all scared and paranoid Stewart is going to get him and will shoot anyone. I know it's just a movie and that money can change people, but it could have been handled better. Not Kennedy's fault as he was excellent. That blame goes on the writers and director.

    I still enjoyed the heavy action and beautiful scenery. This definitely rates below NAKED SPUR and WINCHESTER 73. I've been saving MAN FROM LARAMIE for a rainy day since you ranked it the best out of the Mann/Stewart collaborations.

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    1. Yes, maybe there are some plausibility issues here and there.
      Still, I guess plausibility wasn't Westerns' strongest suit…
      Jeff

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  3. Jeff, have you ever seen "The High Cumberland" a two-part Daniel Boone episode from 1966 (also turned into a movie Daniel Boone: Frontier Trail Rider)? It is almost an exact scene for scene copy of Chase's script for Bend of the River. It even has some of the same dialog. Daniel leads settlers to Kentucky to build Boonesboro, meets his future wife, Rebecca and first meets Mingo. Supposedly "written" by D.D. Beauchamp from "his" story, it is a copy of Chase's script. I do know that Chase wrote the first episode of Daniel Boone and Aaron Rosenberg was executive producer of both productions Do you know if perhaps they had something to do with this "remake"?

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    1. Fascinating. No, I don't know the backgrouynd to this. But 'borrowing' plots and even chunks of script was far from unknown!
      Jeff

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  4. That's true, but you would think they would do a "based on" credit like movies sometimes do. I guess writers weren't as litigious back then or just didn't care about a television script. Chase wrote Red River, Winchester '73, The Far Country, Vera Cruz, Man Without a Star, etc. - some really great westerns. And he wrote quite a few tv scripts in the 50's - 60's

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