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Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

J.K. Simmons on Whiplash (2014)

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Here’s a brief but excellent interview with J.K. Simmons on his new film Whiplash.

Whiplash is being praised as one of the best films of 2014, and while I think it’s a long way from that, what really does redeem the film – which is yet another version of The Red Shoes – is J.K. Simmons’ performance as a ruthless teacher driving a gifted student to the breaking point in the pursuit of “perfection.”  Simmons has been a deeply underrated actor for a long time now, working in numerous commercials, the Law & Order franchise, and many other supporting roles. Like any truly great actor, he makes all of this seem effortless – you instinctively believe him, whether he’s playing a police psychologist, or a rabid neo-Nazi, or the gentle pitchman in the Farmers Insurance advertisements. In Whiplash, he has his first chance to stretch out and tackle a really big part, and the shocker for me is that he’s being considered only as Best Supporting Actor in the upcoming Oscar derby; he’s really the star of the film.

Of course, as a journeyman professional, who’s seen and done so much work in his career, Simmons would modestly refute this, but it’s nevertheless true – the film simply would not work without him. Perhaps someone with the range of Stanley Tucci might be able to tackle it, but consider what would happen if someone specializing in traditional bombast had taken the role – it just wouldn’t be as effective. And yet in Simmons’ capable hands, a truly monstrous music teacher becomes both real and genuinely frightening, with depth and resonance, rather than delivering just a one-note performance. So this film is really worth seeing chiefly because Simmons is in it; and he should certainly win the Best Supporting Oscar, whatever that means, for his work in Whiplash – but mind you, he’s the star of the film, and not a supporting player.

Click here, or on the image above, to listen to Simmons’ thoughts on the film.

Reset! Check Out Frame by Frame from 2011 To The Present!

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Click on the button above to check out this blog from the first entry to the present!

Frame by Frame began more than three years ago with a post on Rebel Without A Cause – now, with more than 590 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll,  the Film International blogroll and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites. With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, and a whole lot more. So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

So click on the button & see what you can find!

New Book – Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Here’s a new, groundbreaking book on the horror film in the 1940s.

As the editors, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé and Kristopher Woofter note of this excellent collection of new essays, “the 1940s is a lost decade in horror cinema, undervalued and written out of most horror scholarship. This collection revises, reframes, and deconstructs persistent critical binaries that have been put in place by scholarly discourse to label 1940s horror as somehow inferior to a ‘classical’ period or ‘canonical’ mode of horror in the 1930s, especially as represented by the monster films of Universal Studios.

The book’s four sections re-evaluate the historical, political, economic, and cultural factors informing 1940s horror cinema to introduce new theoretical frameworks and to open up space for scholarly discussion of 1940s horror genre hybridity, periodization, and aesthetics. Chapters focused on Gothic and Grand Guignol traditions operating in forties horror cinema, 1940s proto-slasher films, the independent horrors of the Poverty Row studios, and critical reevaluations of neglected hybrid films such as The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and ’slippery’ auteurs such as Robert Siodmak and Sam Newfield, work to recover a decade of horror that has been framed as having fallen victim to repetition, exhaustion, and decline.”

In essays by Paul Corupe, Blair Davis, Louise Fenton, Anne Golden, David Hanley, Karen Herland, Mark Jancovich, Kier-La Janisse, Cory Legassic, Peter Marra, Ian Olney, Dennis R. Perry, Selma Purac, Gary D. Rhodes and Rick Trembles, the authors examine a wide range of Gothic films from the era, including such long forgotten gems as Lew Landers’ Return of the Vampire (1944), Bela Lugosi’s last “straight” turn as a rapacious creature of the night; the long-neglected Universal Inner Sanctum series of films, starring Lon Chaney Jr.; and the above-mentioned The Vampire’s Ghost, directed by Lesley Selander from a script by the great Leigh Brackett, who would later go on to work on Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), and a little film called Star Wars (1977). All of these films, and the other works discussed in this volume, deserve greater attention, and this superb group of essays by some of the most accomplished younger writers in the field is real contribution to the existing literature on the subject.

As critic L. Andrew Cooper says of the volume, “Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade surveys that touch on horror’s fate during the 1940s, and is a must-read for genre scholars and for anyone who teaches film history. Not only does this collection of essays offer an overwhelming amount of evidence—including accessible, teachable examples—of the genre’s vitality during the period, but it also shows Gothic horror’s presence in film noir’s monstrous gangsters, melodrama’s silenced women, and other cinematic traditions more often discussed as vital to the 1940s. The book’s diverse perspectives offer productive challenges to long-held assumptions about the boundaries and histories of film genres; it’s a great learning opportunity for experienced researchers or for educated readers coming to the subject for its inherently dark pleasures.”

Read more about this intriguing new book by clicking here, or on the image above.

Adrian Danks on Bruce Conner’s Report (1967)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Bruce Conner’s classic film Report is a masterpiece of montage, dealing with the death of JFK.

As Adrian Danks noted in his brilliantly detailed essay on the film in the journal Senses of Cinema, “completed over a three-year period, Bruce Conner’s Report [1967] is one of the key works of 1960s avant-garde cinema, a refinement and extension of the filmmaker-artist’s film work to that date. In some respects, it is a return to the montage, association and found footage driven preoccupations of his first cinematic opus, the truly seminal and massively influential A Movie (1958), and something of a condensation of Conner’s key interests in popular culture, mass media, the contemporary power of celebrity, recontextualization, and the constitutive significance of cataclysmic violence to both the United States and what we might call late modernity.

Although enmeshed in the nature of cinema itself, as well as our experience of it (it is in essence both a visceral and intellectual encounter), Report equally resonates with Conner’s significant work in sculptural assemblage and what would become known as conceptual art. Initially conceived in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, Report is a deeply felt work, an often lacerating but emotionally draining attempt to deal with John F. Kennedy’s death and the ways it was exploited by the mass media, particularly television (in fact, its use of such material as the “cross-hairs” included in countdown leader suggest an even greater level of culpability). It is also, aesthetically, a prescient but undervalued work, prefiguring the structuralist turn in much avant-garde cinema in the late 1960s.

Report is a film that asks for an affective response from its viewer but also requires forensic attention to detail and structure. It is never an easy film to watch. Roughly divided into uneven halves, it relies upon the principles of association, repetition, variation, recognition, and the often-contrapuntal relationship between sound and image to try to capture the “feeling” of the event. Conner’s decision to only partially ‘illustrate’ Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath is both pragmatically and intellectually apt. Initially, Conner wanted to make a more conventional and fully-formed documentary on Kennedy’s death (how conventional even this film would have ended up being is another matter).

Living in Kennedy’s birthplace, Brookline, Massachusetts, at the time of his death, Conner originally intended to draw heavily upon television archives and to film the burial he expected to occur in his own neighborhood (Kennedy was ultimately buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Pennsylvania). The ambitious nature of Conner’s project was partly driven by the Ford Foundation Grant he had received (one of ten given to experimental filmmakers in 1964), but was also an outcome of an uncommon obsession (though perhaps quite common at the time) with the assassination. In this regard, Report can be considered as something of a mourning work, an attempt to deal with and actually register Kennedy’s death (an aspect that Conner builds into the form and structure of the film itself).”

Another masterpiece of the cinema, which deserves a much wider audience.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

Looking for a truly original, really scary horror film? Try Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook.

As Wikipedia notes, “Kent studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art [in Australia]—where she learned acting alongside Babadook’s lead actor, Essie Davis—and graduated in 1991. She then worked primarily as an actor in the film industry for over two decades. Kent eventually lost her passion for acting by the end of the 20th century and sent a written proposal to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist on the film set of von Trier’s 2003 drama film, Dogville, to learn from the director. Kent’s proposal was accepted and she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.

Prior to Babadook, Kent’s first-ever feature film, she had completed a short film, titled Monster, and an episode of the television series Two Twisted. Kent explained in May 2014 that the origins of Babadook can be found in Monster, which she calls ‘baby Babadook.’ . . . Kent has stated that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness with ourselves, the ‘fear of going mad’ and an exploration of parenting from a ‘real perspective’ . . .  In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable, so that “we [the audience] really feel for them” . . .

Kent drew from her experience on the set of Dogville for the assembling of her production team, as she observed that von Triers was surrounded by a well-known ‘family of people.’ Therefore, Kent sought her own ‘family of collaborators to work with for the long term.’ Unable to find all of the suitable people within the Australian film industry, Kent hired Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk, for whom Babadook was his first-ever English-language film, and American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. In terms of film influences, Kent cited 1970s and ’80s horror—including [John Carpenter's version of] The Thing, Halloween, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining and Let The Right One In—as well as Vampyr and Nosferatu.”

Partially crowd funded on Kickstarter, and completed for roughly $1.5 million US dollars, The Babadook has received numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a screening at the Sundance Film festival, and when it opened theatrically in the United States on November 28, 2014, the critical response was equally adulatory. But since it isn’t a mainstream release, and as yet is available only on Australian DVD – an all region version, however, so I bought it immediately – you can only see it on demand, if you’re lucky enough to have it on your cable system, or in a theater if you live in New York City or another major metropolis.

This, of course, is the real tragedy here – this is an intelligent, absolutely riveting and completely original film that will keep you guessing right up to the last frame, and at the same time scare you to death, as a horror film should, but without the requisite gore and misogyny that seems to mar the horror genre of late – and it deserves the widest possible audience. There are echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw here, at least for me, and traces of De Maupasssant’s The Horla, and the overall feel of the film is akin to Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents, but The Babadook is really a completely unique vision, immaculately photographed in CinemaScope and suitably subdued color.

As Anthony Lane wrote in his ecstatic review of the film in The New Yorker, “let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. It would curb so many antiquated tropes: the use of young women, say, underdressed or not dressed at all, who are barely fleshed out as characters before that flesh is coveted, wounded, or worse. Beyond that, the law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition. Such thoughts are prompted by The Babadook, a fine new Australian film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is about a woman in peril, yet it has no truck with the notion that she is a mere victim. At times, indeed, the peril seems to be, if not her fault, at least of her own making. Is she the sum of all fears, or the root of them?

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, living in a small and ill-lit house with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her only child. He is unmanageable, but, then, his origins were dire; his father was killed in a car crash, nearly seven years ago, as he drove Amelia, who was in labor with Samuel, to the hospital. Now it’s just the two of them, although they are soon joined by an unexpected third. The Babadook is towering and dark; he looms taller as you look at him, like an unhappy memory that swells in the traumatized mind. He wears a top hat, like the Artful Dodger, and his hands could be a child’s drawing of hands—a splay of simple spikes. He cleaves to what we ask of our monsters, that they be both amorphous and acute: oozily hard to pin down, but manifestly there, like a knife against the throat. His name has a nice Australian tang; Aboriginal legend tells of a frog called the Tiddalik, with an insatiable thirst.”

Watch the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above; then see the film as soon as you can – it’s that good.

Orson Welles’ Last Film to Finally Surface?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Orson Welles (far right) filming Oja Kodar in The Other Side of the Wind with cameraman Gary Graver and Frank Marshall, holding camera slate.

As Dave McNary reports in Variety, “Orson Welles’ unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, may be heading for a theatrical release next year. The New York Times has reported that Royal Road Entertainment has reached an agreement to buy the rights to The Other Side of the Wind with the aim of showing the film by May 6 — the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth. The report said Royal Road is planning to promote the distribution at the American Film Market next week.

Welles shot the film-within-a-film between 1970 and 1976 and then worked on it until his death in 1985, leaving behind a 45-minute work print that he had smuggled out of France. John Huston starred as a temperamental film director battling with Hollywood executives to finish a movie –much like Welles did throughout his career. Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, Dennis Hopper and Peter Bogdanovich played supporting roles.

To obtain the rights, Royal Road has negotiated agreements with Welles’s collaborator, Oja Kodar; his daughter and sole heir, Beatrice Welles; and Iranian-French production company, L’Astrophore. Welles had financed through a combination of TV roles and investors, including Mehdi Bushehri, brother-in-law of the shah of Iran and an investor in L’Astrophore. As a result of clashing with Welles, Bushehri took control of more than 1,000 negative reels, which have been stored in a Paris warehouse.

Since Welles’ death, a multitude of efforts have been made to sort out the legal issues in order to complete. Two years ago, veteran producer Frank Marshall, who was a line producer on The Other Side of the Wind, joined with Royal Road’s Filip Jan Rymsza to approach Beatrice Welles and Oja Kodar. Beatrice Welles, who manages the Welles estate, told The Times that the 2012 visit was key to starting the process of getting the film finished.

Marshall and Bogdanovich will assemble the film. ‘We have notes from Orson Welles,’ Marshall told The Times. ‘We have scenes that weren’t quite finished, and we need to add music. We will get it done. The good news is that it won’t take so long because of all of the technology today.’”

We’ll have to see how this plays out; could be very interesting.

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 24 to November 22, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is not to be missed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, film preservation – the active conservation of our shared cinematic heritage – is one of the prime concerns of this website. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest edition of To Save and Project: the 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is thus absolutely central to film history and criticism; if you can’t see the films, how can you possibly judge them, or appreciate them? It’s somewhat amazing to me that along with films such as Her Sister’s Secret - a title I just blogged on, and a film which clearly begs for preservation due to its Public Domain status – more recent films such as Caravaggio and Excalibur, to name just two possible titles, also need to be carefully preserved for the future. Projected in MoMA’s state of the art auditorium, these films are an indispensable part of of cultural heritage, and need to be as widely seen as possible. Curated by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at MoMA, and adjunct curator Dave Kehr (who used to write an excellent column for the New York Times, now much missed), this is an event of the first rank, and anyone in the New York area should run, not walk, to see this superb series of screenings.

As the notes for the series point out, “each fall, MoMA’s annual festival of newly preserved films, To Save and Project, brings together masterworks and rediscoveries from film archives, studios, and foundations from around the world. Many of the films in the festival will be receiving their first American screening since their original release; others will be shown in meticulously restored editions that more closely approximate the original experience of the film; a few will even be publicly screened for the first time ever in New York—including work by Orson Welles (sequences filmed but never used for the 1938 Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson). Also presented are films by Charles Chaplin, Maya Deren, Allan Dwan, Derek Jarman, Sergio Leone, Kenji Mizoguchi, Raul Ruiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest presenters include Kathryn Bigelow, John Boorman, George Chakiris, and Ken Jacobs.

The opening-night film is the North American premiere of a new MoMA restoration: Allan Dwan’s 1929 masterpiece The Iron Mask, a rousingly entertaining swashbuckler starring Douglas Fairbanks that is often considered, as Dwan himself called it, ‘the last of the big silents.’ MoMA’s version, however, contains the entire original Vitaphone soundtrack—with music, sound effects, and three spoken sequences—which will be heard here for the first time since the film’s original roadshow presentation. These titles will join dozens of others from archives both public and private to create a four-week overview of the tremendously exciting work that is being done around the world to reclaim endangered films and rediscover forgotten treasures.

The series runs from October 24 to November 22, 2014 – don’t miss it!

Her Sister’s Secret (1946) – A Forgotten Feminist Classic

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Margaret Lindsay and Nancy Coleman in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret (1946)

As the Laura Grieve wrote on her excellent website Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings a few days ago, “Her Sister’s Secret is fairly unusual for the mid ’40s insofar as it deals at length with unwed pregnancy. There were other films made on this topic in that era, such as To Each His Own (1946), but it was still fairly daring subject matter for the Production Code era. Anne Green’s screenplay was loosely based on a novel by Gina Kaus titled Dark Angel. The title of the film has a double meaning, referring to one sister’s secret pregnancy and the other’s secret adoption of the baby.

Toni DuBois (Nancy Coleman) falls in love with soldier Dick Connolly (Phillip Reed) during a WWII-era Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, but when he ships out and they lose contact she finds herself in a desperate situation, alone, unmarried, and pregnant. Toni’s sister Renee (Margaret Lindsay) is happily married to Bill (Regis Toomey), but they are sadly childless. While Bill is away on military service, Toni secretly gives birth, and the sisters agree to pass the baby off as Renee’s. Bill is told that little Billy (Winston Severn) is his son, although it eventually turns out that the kindly man isn’t quite as unobservant as the sisters believe.

After giving the baby to Renee Toni stays away for an extended period, but as time passes she can’t resist the chance to see the child, triggering territorial conflict with Renee. And when Dick unexpectedly reenters the picture, things become even more complicated. Her Sister’s Secret has many positive attributes, including fine performances and gleaming black and white photography by Franz (Frank) Planer. The film has a great sense of mood, whether the setting is a masked party in New Orleans or a comfortable apartment in New York. Coleman and Lindsay are always very watchable actresses, and this film is no exception. The movie also offers a small but attractive role for Regis Toomey as the likeable Bill.

As Jan-Christopher Horak of the UCLA Film & Television Archive wrote of the film, in Noah Isenberg’s book Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, ‘for a B-picture, the film demonstrated an unusual sensitivity for the complexity of human emotions, for the giddiness of great love affairs, for the difficulty of motherhood, and for the barely repressed jealousy between siblings.’ The film is considered by some critics to anticipate Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, such as Written on the Wind (1956).”

About ten years ago, I was given a 16mm print of this film for a birthday present, and I wholeheartedly agree with Laura’s assessment; this is a stunningly beautiful piece or work. For a six day picture shot at the lowest of all Hollywood studios, PRC, the film is not only stylish, but also deeply perceptive, and much more forthright about the position of women during the 1940s, and the social pressures that they faced in their everyday lives. Indeed, the scenario of the film is so progressive that it’s a wonder that the MPAA didn’t step in and censor the film. Her Sister’s Secret is seldom mentioned in conventional film histories, but in many ways, it’s one of the most important films of the era; a film that told the truth in an era of evasions.

The film is now in the Public Domain, but DVDs of it can be found on the web; you can also see it on TCM from time to time.

The Bounty Killer (1965)

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

The Bounty Killer is a little known, but quite effective western, with a lot of history attached.

One of the last films directed by the great action specialist Spencer Gordon Bennet, The Bounty Killer can also be seen as a capsule history of the western, and of the men and women who appeared in them, neatly rolled up into one film, just about the time the western faded from mass popularity. Dan Duryea stars as tenderfoot Willie Duggan, just off the train from Vermont, who rapidly discovers that without a gun, he can’t protect himself in the old West. In his first scrape with a local bully, Duggan is bailed out by Johnny Liam (Rod Cameron), a hired gun who shoots down a man in cold blood who has been threatening Duggan for supposedly moving in on someone else’s love interest. But Duggan rapidly becomes just as vicious as Liam himself, and soon, with the aid of a sawed off shotgun of his own design, builds up a lucrative business as a bounty hunter who shoots first, and doesn’t even bother to ask questions.

What makes the film of interest is not only the all-star cast of  western veterans, including Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Frank Lackteen, Eddie Quillan, I. Stanford Jolley and others, but also the fact that it includes a cameo by the very first western cowboy hero, Broncho Billy Anderson, as “the man in the cantina,” and thus pays tribute to the history of the genre, as well as celebrating the work-a-day actors who worked so steadily in the genre from the 1930s onwards, as dependable leads, second leads, or sidekicks. In addition, the film is astonishingly brutal for the period; the corpses pile up with alarming regularity, and the film’s message – that polite society depends upon people like Duggan becomes to do its dirty work, even as it ostracizes him – is as true today, if not truer, than when the film was first released.

Duryea, who made his name in film noir in the 1940s, arguably gives one of his best performances in the film – convincingly wet behind the ears as the film opens, becoming harder and more brutal as the film unreels, until by the end he’s little more than a drunken killing machine, living by the law of the gun and nothing else. But, of course, there’s a problem with all of this; you can’t see the film in its proper format. Shot in Techniscope – a widescreen process – and Technicolor, there is a legal US VHS tape of the film from long ago, cut down to pan and scan, and just recently a British PAL DVD of the film was released, but, as I found out to my dismay, it simply uses the same pan and scan master as the US VHS release from more thna twenty years ago, chopping off the sides of the frame to reduce the film to standard Academy ratio.

Needless to say, this pretty much wrecks the film, and though there are several YouTube videos of the film available, all are so poor I simply can’t recommend them, nor will I link to them. You can find them if you look around. The British DVD release is your best bet, if you own an all region DVD player — and again, if you don’t by now, why not? – but as I mentioned, by chopping off nearly one-half of the frame (slightly less than a third on the left and right), you’re really not seeing the film. That’s a pity, since The Bounty Killer is a sharp, taut, well acted and deeply allegorical film, which deserves greater attention – just as it paid attention to the history of the the western itself.

As critic Hal Erickson wrote of the film, “Dan Duryea plays a Western bounty hunter, expert in his job, but ill at ease with his conscience. He is shunned by the ‘good’ townsfolk until they need him to track down and kill a criminal; the gratitude doesn’t last long, and it’s back to outcast status for Duryea. At one juncture, the embittered bounty hunter delivers a condemnation against the ‘hypocrites’ who hire him — but nonetheless takes one more job. Ultimately, Duryea meets his end at the hands of a younger man (Peter Duryea, Dan’s son), who becomes a bounty hunter himself, starting the cycle all over again. Produced very economically by B-Western specialist Alex Gordon, The Bounty Killer is distinguished by Dan Duryea’s superb performance and by the presence in the supporting cast of several cowboy film veterans — including Hollywood’s very first Westerner, Billy Anderson.”

It would be nice to see a DVD release of The Bounty Hunter in its proper aspect ratio.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/