Friday, February 21, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Last Frontier (1955) at UCLA

Tonight was another most enjoyable evening at UCLA's Anthony Mann Festival at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.

So far I've been at every evening of the festival except for the opening night, and I'm loving the chance to see so many widescreen Westerns for the very first time on a big screen, while also revisiting some of Mann's earlier "B" films and crime movies.

Tonight's double bill started off with STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1946), which I reviewed via a Kino DVD in 2011. Like Mann's STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944), this is one wild movie.

Some of STRANGE IMPERSONATION's absurdities seemed heightened in a big screen viewing -- Brenda Marshall and Hillary Brooke both lusting after a mustachioed, milquetoast William Gargan?! Brenda Marshall supposedly looking unrecognizable after plastic surgery, when all she does is dye her hair? One wonders if the cast pondered any of these questions at the time they made the movie!

The movie also has some delightfully hokey moments, such as Gargan trying to kiss Marshall in the laboratory, as she puts him off with the immortal line "Stephen, remember -- science!"

Still and all, this is a completely entertaining 68 minutes and it's hard to ask much more of a "B" film, especially when shown in a lovely 35mm print.

THE LAST FRONTIER (1955) was an interesting and different Western, combining familiar cavalry film elements with an unusual lead character portrayed by Victor Mature; my husband has termed the film "weird" and I can understand why, but at the same time I enjoyed it quite well despite some flaws. Those flaws started with the too-jolly Western music bookending the film; the filmmakers seemed to be trying to emulate the music of John Ford's cavalry pictures but I felt it didn't match this movie's tone.

THE LAST FRONTIER does echo Ford's FORT APACHE (1948) with its story of a martinet cavalry commander stationed at a fort who's determined to go out and kill Indians, while not understanding the tactics for successfully doing so.

In turn, THE LAST FRONTIER seems to foreshadow LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992); of course, there were earlier film versions of the classic story, but the Daniel Day-Lewis version is the one I've seen and found myself mentally comparing to the Mature film. As in MOHICANS, Mature's Jed Cooper roams the frontier with two male companions, one a father figure (James Whitmore) and the other an Indian (Pat Hogan).

The decision-making clashes between Jed and Col. Marston (Robert Preston), with their mutual love for a refined woman (Anne Bancroft) also standing between them, also calls the MOHICANS storyline to mind.

When the movie ended I thought "Well, that was different!" and wasn't sure it completely worked, and yet as I ponder the film further while writing this, I'm struck that it was a movie which offered much to reflect on, and perhaps I liked it more than I'd initially realized. Mature once again demonstrates that he was way underrated as an actor; so good as quietly brooding types in films such as KISS OF DEATH (1947) and CRY OF THE CITY (1948), here he plays an exuberant wild child of the West, seemingly incapable of conforming to the rules of "civilized" society.

This disregard for societal norms includes laying claim to Corrina (Bancroft) as his woman, despite the fact that she is (unhappily) married to Col. Marston. For her part, Corrina doesn't want to be attracted to the unpredictable Jed, but she also can't help being interested as he awakens feelings she clearly has never had before.

I'm not sure if I found the prospect of a continued relationship between Jed and Corrina believable, and yet I wanted to think it was possible. Jed may be unrestrained and uneducated, but he also has the intuitive smarts to immediately size up people and situations, as well as formidable skills as an outdoorsman, so if he's able to add to that the maturing that the ending implies has and will take place, perhaps it's believable at that.

Corrina had apparently settled for marrying the colonel to be "rescued" from being a spinster, and they have a proper yet distant relationship, with the Colonel pushing away her attempts to connect with him on a deeper emotional level. (The Colonel at least appreciates she's a "fine woman" who wouldn't let Jed abandon her silly husband to the Indians!) Corrina has a second chance at what would be a far different relationship; she and Jed don't have common backgrounds but she now has the prospect of passion and being truly wanted.

Guy Madison is appealing as the captain who hires Jed as a scout, and I'll be seeking out more of his Westerns. Grizzled James Whitmore pulls off being the man who raised Jed, despite being several years younger than Victor Mature! This is the second '50s film in which I've seen Anne Bancroft -- the other being NIGHTFALL (1957) -- and I definitely find this early work more interesting than what she would do in the '60s and beyond.

The cast also includes Russell Collins, Peter Whitney, Mickey Kuhn, Guy Williams, and Jack Pennick, who played countless soldiers in his long career, several of those for John Ford.

The film runs 98 minutes, with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Russell S. Hughes based on the novel THE GILDED ROOSTER by Richard Emery Roberts. This Technicolor movie was filmed in CinemaScope by William Mellor.

THE LAST FRONTIER is available on a widescreen DVD. It can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.

It also had a VHS release under its TV title, SAVAGE WILDERNESS.

It can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

Earlier films seen in this series: DR. BROADWAY (1942), which was paired with the previously reviewed TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945); THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), shown with the previously reviewed STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944); and THE NAKED SPUR (1953), shown with the previously reviewed HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948).

I strongly encourage my fellow Southern Californians to check out future nights in this series, as it's been terrific having the chance to delve deeply into Mann's films.


Blogger Kristina said...

As a Victor Mature fan I agree with you that he's underrated, brings a lot to everything he's in, and I'm very interested in this movie now! The rest of the cast looks good too, thanks for the detailed review.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Kristina, I'd love to know what you think of this movie if you get the chance to see it. It's quite different, a little hard to put into words, though I certainly tried! LOL.

Thanks very much!

Best wishes,

6:49 PM  
Blogger Mike's Take on the Movies said...

As much as I like Victor Mature and the films of Anthony Mann I find this one doesn't compare favorably to Mann's Stewart westerns if going in one knows his work. If not it's a decent effort and it does have James Whitmore which is a benefit to any film.

4:22 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Laura
You welcomed some feedback on this one (in Toby's site) so here goes... For me, this is the least of Mann's westerns probably though having watched it only recently I did find more to like than on previous screenings. Don't get me wrong, it is still a Mann western so I am not rubbishing it but something does not quite work for me.
Victor Mature was an under-rated actor, I think, and was absolutely terrific in "Kiss Of Death" and "Cry Of The City" (2 of my favourite noirs) but his characterisation in this film lacked something for me.

Would be very interested too to hear Toby, Blake, John's takes on it.
Best wishes,

5:24 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Mike and Jerry, I really appreciate you each taking the time to share your thoughts on this one, as it was definitely different. It probably does work better comparing it to Westerns in general rather than to the other Mann films I've seen thus far.

I think I would have like to see more maturity in Mature's character but I guess that wasn't how the filmmakers envisioned him...

Would also enjoy hearing other takes on this one!

Best wishes,

12:25 AM  
Blogger john k said...

Hi Laura,

BTW many thanks for your most kind feedback on the recent Noir thread.
I do hope that you will be able to catch up with IT ONLY RAINS ON SUNDAY,

This is generally regarded as one of Mann's lesser Westerns but one,I feel
needs a re-visit.
I have only seen the film in theatres and on TV.
I have decided to avoid getting the DVD in the hope that a Blu-Ray will
be released sooner rather than later.
My only real gripe with the film is the very dark "natural" lighting used
in the film. People have commented before that in the early days of
CinemaScope technicians found it difficult to light interiors;adjusting to
the new ratio.
Mann in any case liked low-key lighting in the interiors in his Westerns.
This was years before Clint Eastwood and Bruce Surtees came along and
re-defined what "natural lighting" should look like in Westerns.
Some feel these guys took it a tad too far in PALE RIDER but the Blu-Ray
of that film is wonderful.
One of the main plus factors of Blu-Ray is that there is far more detail
in darkly lit scenes. I am guessing of course but I feel that the Blu-Ray
of THE LAST FRONTIER should look stunning and will be a great time to
re-appraise the film.
There are no plans to release THE LAST FRONTIER on Blu-Ray that I know of
but with Mann's cult reputation it will happen at some point.
I am,obviously really excited about the forthcoming release of THE MAN
One film I recently got on Blu-Ray was the Aussie release of THE GUNFIGHT
AT DODGE CITY. I found the USA DVD release of this film was far too dark
and I was forever adjusting my brightness control when watching this fine
Western. The Aussie Blu-Ray ia a marked improvement,so much more detail in the
dark interior scenes and in the striking "day for night" opening scene.
I don't know if you have seen this one Laura,but it does have two of your
fave actresses Julia Adams and Nancy Gates;both excellent.
I am sure when THE LAST FRONTIER does appear on Blu-Ray the film will
be sort of re-discovered.
Well I'm off over to Toby's to add some thoughts on the ever expanding

CITY OF BAD MEN thread. I DO love all this flitting around all over the

6:40 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Regarding THE LAST FRONTIER, first I missed this one on original release but finally did see it in a new 35 print most recently, likely the one Laura just saw--Sony has worked pretty hard on these Columbias and I thought it looked pretty good, the color not looking like perfect original Technicolor but still good and I was fine with all the interior lighting, unlike John K.

I've always liked this very much and seen it a fair number of times. You may put that in context that I consider all of Mann's 1950s Westerns to be outstanding, this one neither one of the very best nor do I feel it's the least. Naturally, I have these ten Westerns prioritized for myself but as I've shared with Laura, I don't want to say how until she has at least seen all the Stewarts. Laura, it's a joy to see you making such an effort to see as much of Mann's work as you can in a concentrated way. I'll add that the one Western of Mann's that for me does miss and is disappointing is the later CIMARRON (1960), so for me MAN OF THE WEST closes his great period of Westerns in 1958. CIMARRON is expansive enough to be an epic, the direction in which Mann was headed in the 1960s, and it does have some very fine sequences, especially in the first half where some things recall the Westerns he made before, but it's apparent he lost faith in this project; he says the studio would not let him take it the way he wanted and he didn't even stay until it was finished.

In the 50s, Mann's Westerns do a good job covering the full range of the genre, and even though he has clear interests in some aspects--conflicted and obsessive protagonists, deep treatments of revenge or overcoming the past, he is comfortable with wherever his Westerns go, so I don't find THE LAST FRONTIER at all eccentric--it's consistent both with him and with where the genre was at this point in the decade. Especially strong for me as always with Mann is his formal organization, especially of the visual elements here--it's a pleasure to watch it just for its use of space. I also do respond to the drama and like Victor Mature very much in his role--you probably won't ever hear me complain about Mature--even if his quieter, more inward characters tend to play most to his strengths.

Laura, your observations about the relationship between Jed and Corinna are interesting and here is my point of view. Whether they would go on as a couple is a question that really can't be answered, as they are, after all, made up and disappear from the canvas at the end, like all movie characters. For me, we can only concern ourselves with whether what we see between them within the film's story is believable, and it seems to me that it is.

In any event, it's my understanding that Mann would have preferred an ending in which Jed does not stay with the army but returns to the mountains. Not having it, he tried to give the ending a rueful feeling with the falling snow.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi John and Blake!

My thanks to you both for adding your thoughts on THE LAST FRONTIER. John, when you get a fresh look at the film I'd be interesting to know your further thoughts. I did see GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY and enjoyed it. :)

Blake, I've enjoyed each night at the Mann series so much that it's encouraged me to try to make the next night; the movies have proven to be more than worth all the driving time and the cost of gas! It really is a marvelous opportunity to see so much of Mann's work. (BTW I hadn't noticed the Wellman name on the back of the UCLA program and am very much hoping it's a series with the scope of the Mann series!) I am looking forward to comparing notes on how the Mann Westerns stack up for each of us after I become acquainted with WINCHESTER '73 and THE FAR COUNTRY.

Very true that we really don't know what happens to characters beyond "The End," yet for me, one of the marks of a good movie and the characters capturing my imagination is if the film leaves me thinking about what might happen next.

I was most interested to learn about Mann's view of the ending and the use of the snow.

I haven't had time yet to visit Basinger's Mann book vis-a-vis this film and hope to do that tomorrow. It's always most enjoyable to read various viewpoints after seeing an interesting film.

Best wishes,

12:14 AM  
Blogger Biograph Consulting said...

It seems that lots of these comments are overlook what might be considered the strongest performance in the film, that of Robert Preston as the domineering officer trailing a tainted past, as during the battle of Shiloh most of his men were killed or maimed; he now wants to reaffirm his ability by repeated the process, treating his men as fodder for the battle with Red Cloud that has already been predicted by experts to be a disaster. Preston, so trim and uptight, is in such a contrast to his usual amiable peppy self, is angering to watch, and Mann has set him against both the primitive man-child Mature and a more balanced Guy Madison. The main setting of the large wooden fort against a snow-capped mountain is a stunning visual, too, and I find this film never dull and frequently compelling.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm belatedly catching up with comments after a crazy December (recovery from knee surgery meant I wasn't always on top of things!). I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts on Preston and his character. I think in my case he was so hard to watch -- "angering," as you say -- that that's a reason I didn't focus on him more. It really was an atypical role for him, wasn't it?

That's a good description of Mature as a "man-child." It really was an interesting film, one I need to return to -- I liked it enough to buy the DVD after seeing it at UCLA so that I'd be able to do that.

Best wishes,

9:11 AM  

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