Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Stalking Moon (1968)

You can’t so much see as feel reverberations of the turmoil in the streets in this 1968 western directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck. Both had worked together in the making of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and it’s hard to think of two movies more different from each other.

Plot. Based on a 1965 novel by western writer T. V. Olsen, the film has a plot you could write on the back of an envelope. Peck is retiring after 15 years as a scout in the service of the U.S. Cavalry. When he leaves, he agrees to take with him a white woman (Eva Marie Saint) discovered in a roundup of Apaches. She has with her a young son, whose father is one of the men of the tribe.

The father pursues them, eventually tracking them to Peck’s ranch, where he unsuccessfully attempts to abduct Saint, then one by one kills the two other men living at the ranch. Peck, having been shot once in the shoulder, leaves the cabin on foot to find the Indian. After an exchange of rifle fire and a knife wound in the leg, Peck is finally in hand-to-hand combat with the Indian and manages to kill him.

Spinning the genre. This seems to have been Mulligan’s only western. If screenwriter Alvin Sargent wrote any other western scripts, this seems to have been the only one to make it to the screen. He’s better known for his adaptations of Lillian Hellman’s Julia (1977) and the novel Ordinary People (1980). Today he’s writing Spiderman scripts.

What the director and screenwriter are up to in this movie is not all that easy to guess. Not only the plot is stripped down to a few basic elements. The dialogue is spare. Whole scenes are almost wordless.

The film refuses to offer even the suggestion of romance between Peck and Saint. Mulligan has deliberately prevented any glimmer of affection between them. Peck takes her on at his cabin as a cook and housekeeper only. The closest they come to any intimacy occurs in a scene where he tries to reassure her, drawing her closer to him, and she tentatively places her cheek on his shoulder.

Racial divides. The silence has something to do with Saint’s character. Separated from whites for a half dozen or more years, she speaks hesitantly and simply, as if English has become a forgotten language. There’s little expression in her face beyond apparent dread of recapture by her captor. There is also their son, who maintains a continuing look of incomprehension and speaks not at all.

She also retains her Indian appearance, her blonde hair a long thick thatch, lifeless from years of wind, sun, and desert air. She exists in a kind of limbo on the boundary between two cultures. As in her speech, she moves slowly and stiffly. Her son remains unchanged, in buckskin with long dark hair and a headband.

Robert Forster plays a half-breed scout for the cavalry, who follows Peck to his ranch to warn him that he’s being stalked by Saint’s Indian husband. Forster’s character has mostly crossed over the racial divide. He is bilingual and wears white clothing except for a breechcloth. He tries to draw out the boy, attempting to teach him poker and to count in English, but with little success.

Meanwhile, Saint’s Indian husband is a powerful presence for being mostly absent until the end. We get only glimpses of him, usually from a distance. He is murderously savage and leaves a trail of corpses as he pursues Peck. In his stealth, he seems to possess almost superhuman powers.

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada (CC) Stan Shebs
Peck. Gregory Peck had done several other westerns, notably The Gunfighter (1950). He seems not altogether comfortable in this one. There’s much footage of him on foot, tracking across rocky terrain (beginning with the credits), through woods, and over mountains. Called upon to express thoughts and emotions without putting them into words, he often looks uncertain.

You keep wanting to hear that deep, resonant voice of his, and you realize how much of Peck’s performance was in the way he spoke lines. Physically, he lacks the athletic presence of a cowboy actor like Randolph Scott. The costumers have hidden him inside a fleece-lined coat much of the time, and with his flat-brimmed hat he bears maybe too much resemblance to a forest ranger.

Wrapping up. In the search and destroy aspects of the plot, the men are like foot soldiers tracking an unseen enemy, and the movie alludes to a war that was currently being fought in Southeast Asia. Whether it has anything to say about that war is open to question. In some ways, it shows how Peck’s character is drawn into a conflict he never wanted. At the beginning, he overcomes a deep resistance to offering the woman and her son assistance.

As he must eventually defend and protect her, he risks his life to neutralize this indigenous threat to all of them. Not a warm or demonstrative man, he grows even more cold-blooded, especially when his friend, played by Forster, is killed. His friend dies in his arms, with hardly a word spoken, and Peck reaches a gloved hand to stroke his face. It is the only moment of heart-felt emotion in the entire film.

Whether Mulligan and Sargent achieved what they set out to do with this film is hard to guess. In a story about a woman abducted by Indians, they seem to have been after more realism than a similar western, Comanche Station (1960), reviewed here a while ago. And the result is strangely cool, a story told in a minor key, as is much of the music track. Accounting for the fact that she is still alive, Saint says to Peck, “I didn’t have the courage to die.” That desolate and traumatized tone pervades the movie.

While the story is set in Arizona and New Mexico, it was shot in Nevada, partly in Red Rock Canyon, and the widescreen glows at times with its stark beauty. The film is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Monday, January 30, 2012

Photo essay: Grand Central Market, Los Angeles

Almost 100 years old, this covered market in downtown LA has been in business since 1917. Between Broadway and Hill Street, it's located at the foot of Bunker Hill, once a high-end residential district, with its own funicular, Angels Flight, so-called shortest railway in the world. Bunker Hill is now the home of a cluster of soaring office buildings and the city's cultural center.

The market bustles with produce stalls, Mexican and Central American imports, eating places with counter service, even a Chinese massage. Bright daylight filters in from the streets outside, and in the half-light of the huge enclosed space, under a high ceiling, there are brightly colored neon signs and sawdust on the floor.  Here's what it all looked like on a morning in January 2012.

Front entrance, on Broadway
Inside Broadway entrance
Ana Maria's Tacos
Burger stand
Candy stall
Chiles secos
Del Rey Productos Latinos
Economy Meats (future carnitas and tacos)
Hill St. Cafe (oddly, just inside the Broadway entrance)
One of many steam tables for the adventurous lunch crowd
Jose Chiquito Sandwiches
Jugos (juice bar)
La Adelita (my favorite sign in the market)
La Huerta Produce
Pastry cook
Produce seller
Sawdust on the floor
View of hall from Hill Street entrance
Another view of hall from Hill Street entrance
Chinese massage
China Cafe, inside Hill Street entrance (always busy)
Valeria's Chiles and Spices
Cafe tables, awaiting the lunch crowd

Coming up: Gregory Peck, The Stalking Moon (1968)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Western writer inspiration, no. 22

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer. [Click to enlarge]

Apache Indian prisoners, Southern Pacific Railway near Nueces River, Texas, 1886
Santa Barbara Hills, California, 1882. Artist: William Keith (1838-1911)
Saloon, Trinidad, Colorado, 1880s
Gardiner, Montana, 1887
Original City Brewery (Behloradsky Brewery), San Antonio, Texas
Hermit Range, Canadian Pacific Railway, British Columbia, 1880s
The Deadwood stagecoach, 1889

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gregory Peck, The Stalking Moon (1968)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

Here's another in the ongoing series "The Wall Murals of Los Angeles County." Found behind a high fence in a paved vacant lot on Hope Street near 18th. Would love to know the story.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Gregory Peck, The Stalking Moon (1968)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf (1913)

The Canadian West has its writers, and among the earliest was William Lacey Amy (1877-1962), later known as Luke Allan. His first novel, The Blue Wolf, was published in London in 1913. It’s a mystery-adventure set in the Cypress Hills and surrounding prairie south of Medicine Hat, Alberta.

The narrator, Arthurs, is a tenderfoot from Toronto, gone West to visit a college chum who has taken up cattle ranching. The mysterious deaths of two other chums while visiting the same ranch should have been warning enough to stay in Toronto, but this fellow has a lot to learn.

Plot. The blue wolf of the title is a much-feared predator believed to lurk in the vicinity of the ranch. Arthurs has a close encounter with the creature in the opening chapters, its startling howl sending the horse he’s been riding over a precipice. Fortunately for Arthurs, he’d just dismounted.

It’s old home week when he gets to the ranch, discovering that another man, Dicky, has also arrived. Together with the rancher Jock, they are the remaining three of the original circle of five chums. Also at the ranch are Jock’s wife Aggie, whom they all loved while in university, and her sister Margaret.

Arthurs has some history with Margaret. Their reunion is somewhat awkward, especially as he learns she’s been keeping company with a local Mountie, Corporal Humby. The corporal has his eye on a communal settlement of farmers who call themselves Dreamers and are led by an unsavory character, Maskin.

Cypress Hills
A handful of other characters figure into the story: a consumptive Englishman, Mathers, with his wife and young daughter, Rosa, and the ranch’s foreman, Squart. During the novel Mathers dies and is buried near the verandah of his house, under a Union Jack flying at half-mast.

There are peculiar goings-on. Jock behaves strangely. Margaret is meeting someone in the woods around the ranch house at night. Long after dark, a gunshot takes out a ranch house window. Corporal Humby seems to have everyone under surveillance and keeps popping up unannounced.

More curiously, Arthurs sees flashes of light and a climber on a rocky peak that rises from the Hills, but Jock warns him not to investigate. There’s mysterious singing from a nearby lake to be heard after nightfall. The Dreamers have clandestine, moonlit meetings in the hills, where they are harangued by Maskin. And so on.

Everyone has secrets, and rather like a Hardy Boys’ novel, Arthurs and Dicky try to piece together a disconnected series of clues. When the mystery is finally solved, it involves a Jekyll-Hyde mad scientist and technology that would be at home in a science fiction pulp novel. The nerve-wracking climax includes a literal cliffhanger and multiple deaths. In the final scene, two pairs of lovers are united.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Win some, lose some

Yesterday the early-western researcher in me got some unwanted news. I’ve been hoping to find a copy of a novel that’s not available anywhere as an ebook. It’s a book by western writer Hugh Pendexter, called The Mantle of Red Evans (1914). A short version of the story can be found in Munsey’s, published October 1911. It’s even nicely illustrated there (at right and below).

I know that at least six hard copies of the novel exist. I can see them online, arranged in a digital list at worldcat.org (you can see for yourself). The nearest is at the University of Tulsa, and in progressive giant steps across the country, the next are at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Ohio State University, The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, and finally Harvard University, where there are not one but two copies.

"Unbuckle those guns!"
Alas, they are apparently too fragile or valuable to circulate. Yesterday I learned from interlibrary loan that they’ve been unable to turn up a copy for me. The only current alternative is to travel to Tulsa, which is 1700 miles from where I’m sitting. (The worldcat site conveniently provides the mileage between me and each copy of the book.) Not likely to happen.

I might shrug this off except that Hugh Pendexter  (1875-1940) went on to be a prolific western writer. Judging from the story in Munsey’s, he shows an early gift for the genre. "The Mantle of Red Evans" has strong characters and clever plotting, and it shows a gift for comic irony.

All of which is not to say I’ve given up looking for the book. It’s there somewhere, located maybe at as many as six degrees of separation. Unfortunately interlibrary loan is not one of them. I’m happy to entertain search ideas from anyone reading this. I'm also available to commiserate with anyone who’s had the same or a similar problem.

Illustrations: W. Herbert Dunton

Coming up: William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf (1913)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

John Ford, The Iron Horse (1924)

Followers of TV’s Hell on Wheels will be interested in this silent epic about the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The grandness of the movie’s scale is equal to that of its subject. John Ford weaves together several plots, deftly manages a large cast of characters, and constantly fills the eye with grand, sweeping photography.

It’s also a history lesson that celebrates American know-how, vision, and democracy. The railroad is an achievement of common men and women working together to overcome obstacles of all kinds in the building of a great nation. The making of the railroad across hostile and forbidding terrain, connecting East and West, becomes a symbol of Manifest Destiny.

Enough breathlessness, which the movie aims for and surely earns. It’s also darned entertaining. 

Plot. Beginning in Springfield, Illinois, the film introduces us in wintry scenes to a boy, Davy, whose father sets out West with a dream of a cross-country railroad. The man has already discovered a mountain pass that, he says, will some day be a passage for trains. The boy then witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a half-breed Cheyenne with two fingers on one hand.

Years later, the two-fingered half-breed, going by the name of Deroux, shows up again, wearing a fur coat and with one hand shoved into his pocket. A land speculator, he tries to get the railroad built through a valley where he owns property. 

Joining the tracks, Promontory, Utah, 1869
The boy Davy now re-enters the story, a handsome young pony express rider (George O’Brien), and discovers that the sweetheart of his youth, Marian (Madge Bellamy), is engaged to the head engineer Jesson. When Davy tells of his father’s pass through the mountains, which would save 200 miles of track-laying, Deroux and Jesson attempt to have the young man killed.

That scheme fails, and after a big fight with Jesson, Davy is made gang boss. With Jesson out of the picture, Deroux returns to the Cheyenne to incite them to attack the railway crew. In a battle that involves most of the population of the nearest town, Davy finds and kills Deroux.

Before long, the two sections of the railroad meet in Promontory, Utah, where the golden spike is driven that completes the project. Davy is on hand for the ceremony and so is his childhood sweetheart. No longer engaged to Jesson, she is free to be Davy’s wife.

More. That’s the thread running through this 2.5-hour movie. Along the way we are treated to numerous subplots and incidents that range in tone from farce to melodrama. Hell on Wheels itself appears as the name of a saloon, presided over by a Roy Bean-style judge. A suspenseful scene occurs there as several thugs gather to do away with Davy. When their efforts fail, Davy and Jesson slug it out until Marian arrives and makes them stop.

Union Pacific poster
Several historical characters appear at points in the story, Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill Hickock. Presidents of the two railroads, Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant, are on hand for the ceremony at Promontory. So are the actual locomotives that were there, Jupiter and Engine #116.

Ford works in a cattle drive from Texas, with bearded cowboys and cattle with actual long horns. He includes a tribe of friendly Pawnee who are hired by the railroad company for protection from the hostiles. He also makes an effort to include the Chinese laborers who helped build the Central Pacific eastward from Sacramento.

The cinematography is often remarkable, especially shots of bands of Indians on horseback racing over the landscape. Large crowd scenes are orchestrated with dramatic movement and depth, such as when the town of North Platte is taken down and moved by train to Cheyenne, where it is quickly reassembled.

There is some nifty stunt work as Davy, chased by Indians, tumbles from a falling horse and then leaps onto a passing train. His fall while rappelling down a cliff, after Jesson cuts his rope, is a seamless mix of actual footage and matte work.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 25

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Patience Stapleton’s Babe Murphy, about an independent young woman in Colorado, and Marah Ellis Ryan’s Told in the Hills about a squaw man in Montana. As usual I struck out once or twice. If anybody knows the meaning of  “grave room,” leave a comment.

Basque, 1857
basque = waistcoat, bodice, corset, or other tight-fitting clothing for the upper body. “Somehow I remember that Jim Dunn’s saying I’d a trim figure, and being more than ever careful of the set of my basques.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

battledore = a small racket used in a game of badminton. “Some of the dismal periods of my life have been passed in the company of married folks, where I became a sort of shuttlecock for their contradictory battledoors.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

boodle = money. “Clara’s got the boodle too, and I’m broke, as usual, and we are going to Texas, cuss the luck.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

bump = a mental faculty supposedly associated with certain shapes of the cranium; from phrenology. “My bump of curiosity was enlarged somewhat as to his life.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

by hooky = a mild expletive. “‘A regular cave, by hooky!’ said the moral guide from Idaho, as he stood upright at last.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

catamaran = a quarrelsome woman. “There are lots of old catamarans around me all the time to tell on me.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

corndodger = cornbread made in a skillet. “He uncovered the fire, set on the coffee-pot, and, with Rachel’s help, had, in a very short time, a steaming-hot dinner of broiled bear steaks and ‘corn-dodgers.’” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Presidential fifteen-puzzle, 1880
croaker = killjoy, complainer, pessimist. “Her joy was mine, and I would not be the croaker to cast the first shadow over her sunshine.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

fifteen puzzle = a sliding puzzle that consists of a frame of numbered square tiles in random order with one tile missing. “We resume our conversation on the tariff, which we know as little about as anybody else, and which is, it seems to me, the great fifteen puzzle of the nineteenth century.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

freeze to it = hold fast to something. “This trail goes somewhere; may be to an Injun village. I allow we’d better freeze to it.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Gainsborough portrait, c1876
Gainsborough hat = A woman's broad-brimmed hat resembling those shown in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). “Mrs. Ballinger was with her in gorgeous raiment, as usual, this time I think some sort of a figured silk in soft pink and blue with a wide Gainsborough hat.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

got up regardless = furnished at great expense. “‘Yes, remarked a gentleman who joined them during this speech, and whose brand-new hunting suit bespoke the ‘got-up-regardless’ tourist.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

in the sulks = unhappy. “But he was divided between his impulse to send the trio on a double-quick about their business and the doubt as to what effect it would have on the tribe if they were sent back to it in the sulks.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

independent as a hog on ice = ungovernable. “A young cub of a Siwash came a-riding along to camp about noon, as large as life and independent as a hog on ice.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

jog = the space created by a right-angled notch in a surface. “In a jog behind the door, a safe was set in the wall.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

The Kelpie, Thomas Millie Dow, 1895
kelpie = a supernatural creature of Scottish and Irish folklore, appearing as a woman or, more often, as a horse luring riders into the water where they are drowned and eaten. “O’ course a man likes to try his chance on the chips once in a way, and to the kelpies o’ the drinkin’ places one must leave a few dollars.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Lalla = Persian princess, in a poetic romance, Lalla Rookh (1817), by Irish poet Thomas Moore. “He would do all right for the poet-prince—or was it a king? But  you—well, Rachel, you are not just one’s idea of a Lalla.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

leghorn = the dried and bleached straw of an Italian variety of wheat. “She came in then, in her pretty blue muslin, with her leghorn hat and drooping plumes.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

mousquetaire = opera or evening glove. “As I turned to go home, I saw in the road at my feet, a mousquetaire glove, tan-colored and scented with violet.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.