Monday, May 27, 2024

Tonight's Movie: Devil's Doorway (1950) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

The Western DEVIL'S DOORWAY (1948), directed by Anthony Mann and filmed by John Alton, has just been released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive Collection.

Mann and Alton teamed on a couple of especially grim films in 1949-50, the first being BORDER INCIDENT (1949) and the second DEVIL'S DOORWAY. One film was set in modern day, the other in the post Civil War era, but each details prejudice and crime against minorities in searing fashion.

Although Robert Taylor is one of my favorite actors and his performance in DEVIL'S DOORWAY is widely acclaimed, I'd frankly put off watching it because I knew it would be a difficult watch.

Having tackled BORDER INCIDENT earlier this month at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, it was time to also watch DEVIL'S DOORWAY via the new Blu-ray. My take, in brief: It's a very well-made film, but it's also incredibly depressing.

Taylor plays Broken Lance Poole, a Shoshone Indian newly arrived home in Wyoming after serving three years in the Civil War.

Lance was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but once back home he finds local attitudes toward Indians have turned negative in his absence; a slimy lawyer named Coolan (Louis Calhern) and a violent cowboy (James Millican) are among those doing their best to displace Indians, and old friends like the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan) are now running cold as well.

In a particularly horrifying sequence, Lance finds that the local doctor has no interest in helping when his father (Fritz Leiber) is dying; the doctor coldly attempts to avoid visiting, and when he finally does, he handles it in the most unkind way possible.

Lance learns that under new homestead laws, the prosperous ranch land he has inherited is considered up for grabs, but Lance cannot file a claim himself as he's not considered an American citizen. Instead, he is a "ward" of the government, and consequently he's on the verge of losing his land and ability to make a living.

Lance turns to the only lawyer in town besides Coolan, who happens to be a woman named Orrie (Paula Raymond, who later appeared in Mann's THE TALL TARGET). Lance and Orrie are each outcasts of a sort, and Orrie does her best to help Lance through various legal processes, to no avail.

In the end, DEVIL'S DOORWAY is 84 minutes spent watching a man's life spiral from prosperity into death, and it's a very hard thing to view, as both people and "the law" do nothing to stop it.

The screenplay by Guy Trosper is very dark in this regard, with only Orrie and her mother (Spring Byington) caring about what's happening to Lance. I imagine this was reality in some cases, but I would have better liked a more inspiring story in which justice prevails. Some have said that this sad tale is a forerunner of the more recent tragedy KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON (2023).

Taylor is outstanding in the leading role, onscreen the vast majority of the time; it's one of many films which illustrates what a fine actor he was, particularly in his films of the '50s. I thought Raymond was fine as the idealistic lawyer torn between her faith in the law and her growing desire to help Lance; she suffers the growing realization that the law isn't going to do a thing for him.

Mann made this movie the same year as WINCHESTER '73 (1950), and while that film also has some very dark moments, it's ultimately a more uplifting story of the west, including justice prevailing. WINCHESTER '73 is a film I rewatch regularly; DEVIL'S DOORWAY, despite my admiration for its execution, isn't something I'll look forward to revisiting.

The cast includes actor-dancer James Mitchell, who was also in BORDER INCIDENT; he has considerable screen time here but his role isn't especially significant. Also in the cast are Marshall Thompson, Rhys Williams, and Harry Antrim.

The Blu-ray print, from a new HD master of a 4K restoration of "best preservation elements," is excellent, showing off John Alton's outstanding black and white cinematography to fine effect. Everything looks great, from the Colorado locations to the glowing closeups of Raymond to the darker interiors. Sound quality is also top-notch.

Disc extras consist of the trailer plus the cartoons THE CHUMP CHAMP (1950) and CUE BALL CAT (1950).

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from Movie Zyng, Amazon, and other online retailers.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

I agree with you completely in your assessment, especially about Robert Taylor. A personal thought about Anthony Mann: I have never been emotionally invested in of his pictures.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I totally go along with your assessment here, Laura. A powerful story, superbly filmed and acted, especially by the fine as always Robert Taylor but not a film I return to as often as other films of this era. For the same reasons as you, Laura, because it is ultimately a dark story that doesn't end well.

As for the other Mann film, BORDER INCIDENT, that one I like a lot and always welcome a rewatch despite the horrific death of George Murphy's character. And Ricardo Montalban was very fine in it.

10:42 AM  

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