Monday, May 25, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Ambush (1950)

AMBUSH is a solidly made cavalry Western, with good performances and excellent use of location shooting in New Mexico.

The exciting opening credits sequence sets the tone, with Indian drums beating as Leo the Lion roars, followed by silence as the viewer surveys the aftermath of an Indian ambush. The title then zooms onto the screen as the Indians ride away from the scene of the attack.

Robert Taylor stars as Ward Kinsman, a civilian cavalry scout who is recruited to help find the sister of Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl). Ann's sister has been kidnapped by Indians. Ann has a tentative romance with the outpost's second in command (John Hodiak) but can't help but be interested in the charismatic Kinsman.

Taylor registers strongly as the tough scout. He was a terrific Western star; one only wishes he'd had time to make more of them. (Taylor Westerns previously reviewed here: WESTWARD THE WOMEN, MANY RIVERS TO CROSS, and SADDLE THE WIND, which was recently reviewed by Moira Finnie at the TCM Blog.) Taylor, an outdoorsman in real life, looks completely at home on a horse and shooting a rifle. Dahl is appropriately lovely and spirited, while Hodiak is mostly saddled with being annoying.

An interesting subplot features Don Taylor as a lieutenant who loves the abused wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man (Bruce Cowling). The ambiguous ending to their storyline was a bit of a surprise. Always-reliable Leon Ames plays Major Breverly, the fort's commanding officer.

John McIntire does a great job as Kinsman's grizzled fellow scout. McIntire could be a real chameleon; this part is completely different from his role as the bespectacled, quiet detective in SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949) and different still from his role as the kindly, determined rancher in WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951).

The extensive use of location shots featuring the principal actors adds a great deal to the film's realism. (Occasionally a back projection shot is cut into a scene which was otherwise filmed on location; it would be interesting to know the reasons why.) The striking rock formations and desert vistas were photographed by Harold Lipstein.

AMBUSH was the last film directed by Sam Wood, who passed away in 1949. Wood's career dated from the silents and included A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939), KINGS ROW (1942), and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942). Wood was also one of the directors who toiled on GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). He stepped in when Victor Fleming was out of commission due to illness and continued to work on the film after Fleming's return.

AMBUSH was shot in black and white and runs 90 minutes. It has not had a VHS or DVD release. It can be seen as part of the library at Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available here.

February 2011 Update: This film was just released on DVD-R by the Warner Archive. The cover art is terrific!


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Hi Laura (and welcome back, globetrotter!),

I liked AMBUSH but kept thinking that if all the guys weren't in love with Jean Hagen rather than the stiff if gorgeous Dahl, they must have been out in the sun too long. I was especially intrigued by Jean Hagen's unhappily married laundress character, who in historical Western reality would probably have been a former prostitute turned cavalry dogsbody, doing double duty as a wife and menial laborer. Sometimes I suspect that Hagen came along about a decade after she should have for a better career in film. As she amply demonstrated in each of her brief appearances, and her sterling and hilarious work in "Singin' In the Rain" the lady had beauty, talent and humor.

I initially watched AMBUSH to see if it offered John Hodiak a decent role, but, as usual in the latter stages of his career, this occasionally appealing actor never quite fulfilled his early promise. At times, the poor man looked so uncomfortable in his own skin, it was painful to watch, though in this film, that fit his character's martinet tendencies.
Thanks for the mention, btw!

5:15 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for the welcome, Moira, and for your thoughts on AMBUSH.

With Hodiak's character I felt like I was watching a bit of a rerun of Henry Fonda's character from FORT APACHE, although Hodiak's character wasn't as rigid as Fonda's. He just wasn't all that interesting...

Best wishes,

8:07 PM  

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