Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Bend of the River (1952) at the Egyptian Theatre

At tonight's tribute to Julie Adams at the Egyptian Theatre, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) was followed by the Anthony Mann Western BEND OF THE RIVER. The movie was screened in a beautiful 35-millimeter print; although I've seen it before on multiple occasions, it was a particular joy to see it on the big screen for the first time.

I wrote a fairly cursory review of BEND OF THE RIVER five years ago, but it's a movie which really deserves a fuller exploration. It's a terrifically entertaining Western which I admire more with each viewing. The film has outstanding lead performances by James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy, an engaging supporting cast, beautiful Technicolor Oregon vistas, and a fast-paced, well-constructed script by Borden Chase.

Glynn McLyntock (Stewart) and Emerson Cole (Kennedy) are two men with violent pasts who meet when McLyntock saves Cole from a hangman's noose. Their friendship is further forged as they work together battling Indians who attack McLyntock's wagon train on the way to Oregon. McLyntock is determined to start a new life as a farmer or rancher in Oregon, but Cole may not be able to permanently renounce his past, even though he's won the love of the beautiful Laura (Adams).

The film has a great sense of pacing, starting with a slam-bang opening that speeds from McLyntock saving Cole, to the wagon train attack and then the two men subsequently working together to fight off the Indians. Humor is sprinkled throughout, whether it's the two men joking about Indian "birdcalls" or silently acknowledging one another's help as they pluck off the Indians one by one.

As the film continues, it has great set pieces including a saloon shootout, the men later racing their horses onto a paddlewheeler as they escape with their bought-and-paid-for supplies from a town that's got gold rush fever, or McLyntock stalking the villains near the end of the film, memorably telling the leader "You'll be seein' me."

One of the things I really enjoy is the teamwork between McLyntock, Cole, and Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), a young gambler who joins forces with the older men. The saloon shootout with the three men fighting off seemingly most of the town is terrific. There's a sweetly funny subplot about the tentative attraction between Trey and Marjie (Lori Nelson), Laura's younger sister. There's also a very cute moment with Trey herding cattle with a weak calf across his saddle.

Stewart is, in a word, outstanding. Julie Adams said in her interview before the film that she would watch Stewart film his closeups and marvel at how much he could convey with his eyes; she said not many actors she worked with over the years could match Stewart's skills in front of a camera. Something I particularly noticed on this viewing is that although Stewart's McLyntock has remarkable abilities as an outdoorsman and fighter, when his life is in danger, he's no Superman -- there's real fear in those eyes. Similarly, when betrayed by a friend, we simultaneously see anger and even hurt in those eyes.

We see McLyntock's unspoken feelings for Laura in the way he looks at her when she's not watching and in the somewhat despairing way he moves his arms as he leaves her. Stewart's facial expressions and body language alone may contribute more to his fully rounded performance than what he does with dialogue, and of course his way with dialogue is quite remarkable too.

The supporting cast is filled with marvelous faces. In addition to the lovely Adams and Nelson, Jay C. Flippen and Harry Morgan are in the cast; both men were regulars in the series of films Mann and Stewart made in the '50s. Character actor Chubby Johnson is delightful as the paddle-wheeler captain. Stepin Fetchit is the captain's righthand man, and although the character at times seems stereotypically dense, looking beyond that there's a real sweetness in the close relationship between Johnson and Fetchit, who go off into the sunset (or, more accurately, back to the South) together near the end of the film.

Frank Ferguson, another favorite character actor, is a card cheater, and Howard Petrie is a storekeeper who goes bad when tempted by gold rush riches. (It was driving me crazy trying to remember where else I'd seen Petrie, and it suddenly dawned on me he's in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS.) Royal Dano, Frances Bavier, Jack Lambert, Lillian Randolph, Frank Chase, and Cliff Lyons fill out the cast; Lyons was also on the film's team of stuntmen.

The film is based on the novel BEND OF THE SNAKE by Bill Gulick. The fine cinematography was by Irving Glassberg. Costumes were by Rosemary Odell.

BEND OF THE RIVER has been released on DVD as part of the Universal Western Collection, as well as on VHS. It's also included in the six-film set James Stewart: The Western Collection. The DVD is available from Netflix.

This film is also shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

2019 Update: This film is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. My review of the Blu-ray is here.

Previous Egyptian Theatre posts: Dick Van Dyke Show 50th Anniversary at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the 13th Noir City Film Festival (2011); Tonight's Movie: An American in Paris (1951) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: West Side Story (1961) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the Noir City Film Festival (2010).


Blogger DKoren said...

Neat! I came very close to attending this double feature myself (I really wanted to see Bend of the River big screen), but I had prior commitments. Reading about the night's viewing in your two posts was almost as good. Sounds like a great evening, and meeting Julie Adams would have just made it even more special! Thanks for sharing!

2:44 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

"Bend of the River" is one of my comfort food movies. After her first viewing my daughter asked "How many bad guys have to die before you're comforted?" Also, after the "You'll be seeing me" scene, she said "Wow!".

You make me ache to someday see this on the big screen.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I'm sorry I couldn't make it to this event, Laura, as I hoped, and would have looked for you to say hello if I had. I'm glad you were able to go and see these on the big screen. At least I can say I have seen them both many times and both on the big screen. But I am sorry to miss meeting Julie Adams and hearing her talk more about her career. I do intend to buy her book and look forward to it.

I especially enjoyed your comments on BEND OF THE RIVER, which I would rate as the best of her movies, though I love many of them, and always liked her. She is a favorite of mine through my whole life, both for beauty and talent.

Will keep tabs on other L.A. events involving classical films that you are going to, and sure we'll meet somewhere down the line.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I wish you could have been there, Blake and Deb! I look forward to meeting you both in the future -- in Deb's case, if all goes well that should be in a matter of days! :) Blake, I am thoroughly enjoying Adams' beautifully produced book -- as a fan I believe you will definitely like it.

Caftan Woman, it's a shame you're so far away, I think this screening would have been really special for you. It was a beautiful print. I agree, this is a great "comfort food" movie. I *loved* your daughter's comment! LOL.

Best wishes,

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece on this movie Laura. I particularly like your perceptive analysis of Stewart's acting abilities and how important, and skilfully used, his body language was.


3:18 AM  

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