Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

“You know dear, we’re drifting apart, you and I — and I don’t like it.”

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Synopsis:
An ambitious press agent (Tony Curtis) reliant on favors from widely-read columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) panics when he’s unable to carry out Hunsecker’s request to break up a romance between Hunsecker’s beloved sister (Susan Harrison) and her musician-boyfriend (Marty Milner).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “savage glimpse at the sleazy New York show-biz scene” — co-scripted by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman — is “crisply directed by [Brit] Alexander Mackendrick, with strong emphasis placed on New York locales” and a “great array of characters”. He accurately notes that it presents an “ugly, dark… world full of paranoia, hatred, hustling, squirming, backbiting, lying, blackmailing, sex traded for favors, schemes, threats, broken dreams, ruined lives, money, and power”. Indeed, this is one truly bleak flick: as if being reminded of rampant corruption and power dynamics weren’t enough to make us quiver for the state of humanity, we’re exposed to Lancaster’s unsavory fixation on his beautiful younger sister, which propels the entire narrative. (Hunsecker was reportedly based on Walter Winchell, who was similarly upset about his daughter’s romance — but there’s a difference.)

Other distressing scenes and characters abound. Early in the film we’re shown Curtis entering his apartment/office, where his deeply despondent, love-sick, homely secretary (Jeff Donnell) lies on his behalf and makes it clear she’s at his beck and call no matter how badly he treats her. (“So, what’ll you do if I feel nervous?” he taunts her. “Open your meaty, sympathetic arms?”) Meanwhile, in a nightclub, Hunsecker viciously tears into a politician (William Forrest) naively attempting to pass his mistress (Autumn Russell) off as the ward of a talent agent (Jay Adler). Shortly after this, Curtis blackmails a buxomy, sympathetic cigarette-girl (Barbara Nichols) into sleeping with a lecherous reporter (David White) so that White will help out Curtis’s cause by printing something unsavory in his column about Milner.

Despite its challenging moral landscape, however, the film remains compulsively watchable, thanks to a script chock-full of zingy one-liners:

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
“What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”
“Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!”
“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”

and typically stunning, noir-ish cinematography by James Wong Howe. (Be sure to check out TCM’s article “Behind the Camera” for fascinating insights into Howe’s craft and decision making.) Excellent use is made of New York locales: we feel we’re trapped in this city’s snare of publicity and sleaze, with Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score simply adding to the hectic surreality. While it’s true, as Peary writes, that “Milner and Harrison seem out of place” in the film, Curtis and Lancaster — and other supporting players — are top-notch. All film fanatics should view this grueling film at least once (and probably again), though they’re excused for not wanting to revisit it often.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
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  • Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker
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  • Barbara Nichols as Rita
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  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
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  • Highly effective use of NYC locales
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    sweet-smell-of-success-nyc
  • Elmer Bernstein’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a bleak classic. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

House on 92nd Street, The (1945)

“The Germans felt that Dietrich was an extremely valuable man; so did the FBI.”

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Synopsis:
A German-American university student (William Eythe) is recruited by a group of Nazi spies — led by a dress-shop owner (Signe Hasso) — but instead becomes a double-agent for the FBI.

Genres:

Review:
Winner of an Academy Award for best original story, this semi-documentary look at the take-down of an American Nazi spy ring — based on the life of William G. Sebold — was the first film made with full cooperation by the FBI, and was enormously popular with audiences who were surely giddy with relief by the end of World War II. Unfortunately, other than telling an interesting real-life tale — and effectively incorporating some authentic footage — the film hasn’t held up all that well: the Nazi spies are pure baddies, the dialogue is clunky, and lead actor Eythe isn’t all that memorable (likely intentionally so, given that he was playing someone attempting to remain calm and discrete). Sadly, Sebold apparently had a very challenging time of it after his life-threatening efforts on behalf of the United States; a book about this unsung hero was recently released.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nice incorporation of authentic footage with dramatic material
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    house-on-92nd-street-authentic2
  • Norbert Brodine’s cinematography
    house-on-92nd-street-cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance.

Links:

Naked City, The (1948)

“Yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl. But now she’s the marmalade on a hundred thousand pieces of toast.”

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Synopsis:
A detective (Barry Fitzgerald) and his assistant (Don Taylor) search for clues related to the murder of a model whose lying boyfriend (Howard Duff) is engaged to her co-worker (Dorothy Hart).

Genres:

Review:
Jules Dassin‘s documentary-style police procedural is notable as the first major Hollywood film shot in New York City streets and locales. There are some surprisingly gritty scenes — including the initial murder of the model, shown briefly but graphically during an opening montage of NYC at 1:00 in the morning, and the final confrontation with one of the killers — but the film itself suffers from the same syndrome as Undercover Man (1949), with too much pedantic emphasis placed on giving viewers the “inside scoop” on how law enforcement does its grueling work. Journalist-producer Mark Hellinger provides an overly earnest voice-over, with lines such as these:

The 10th precinct station is in the Chelsea district of New York, a rather shabby building on a rather shabby street. Acts of violence in Manhattan are reported to the third floor of this building, because, here, rather quietly, the homicide squad does its work.

(Be sure to check out TCM’s article for fascinating background info on Hellinger, who was apparently quite a character.) Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor are far too straight-out-of-Hollywood as the detective duo assigned to investigate the murder, and Howard Duff is pretty bland as the key player in the intrigue. The true power of this flick lies in its many shots of New York City in the late 1940s; to that end, it serves as an invaluable cinematic time capsule.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine use of authentic NYC locales
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  • Atmospheric cinematography by Oscar-nominated William H. Daniels
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  • Ted de Corsia as Willy Garzah
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Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2007 by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Links:

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

“Time presses — and I’ve run out of means of persuasion.”

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Synopsis:
A corrupt businessman (Sebastian Cabot) with a beautiful “secretary” (Marilee Earle) hires a ruthless gunslinger (Nedrick Young) with a self-loathing girlfriend (Carol Kelly) to kill any farmers who refuse to sell their oil-rich land to him — starting with the father (Ted Stanhope) of a Swedish-American whaler (Sterling Hayden) who arrives in town and refuses to accept Cabot’s claim that the land isn’t legally Hayden’s.

Genres:

Review:
Ghost-written by Dalton Trumbo, this western tells a fairly straight-forward tale of good-versus-evil in a lawless town, with the “fat cat” businessman literally a rotund guy, and a sociopathic hitman perennially clad in black. Shades of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) are immediately evoked as Hayden emerges in the opening scene, wielding a whale harpoon against an unseen foe, and we also see Frank Ferguson — who played Marshal Williams in …Guitar — in a key supporting role. Unfortunately, once Hayden opens his mouth, disbelief must be suspended: his Swedish accent is highly dubitable, and comes and goes randomly. Young is menacing but not especially memorable as the key baddie (where are Lee Van Cleef or Lee Marvin when you need them?). However, Joseph H. Lewis’s unique directorial stamp makes this film worth a look; see stills below.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joseph Lewis’s top-notch direction
    tiatt-imagery1
    tiatt-imagery2
  • Fine cinematography
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    tiatt-cinematography2

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

Killers, The (1946)

“I did something wrong once.”

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Synopsis:
When two hit-men (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) kill a former boxer (Burt Lancaster) known as “The Swede”, an insurance agent (Edmond O’Brien) slowly unravels a complex tale of Lancaster’s obsessive love for a beautiful singer (Ava Gardner), as well as his involvement in a heist organized by crime boss “Big Jim” (Albert Dekker).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this elaboration on Ernest Hemingway’s “concise but powerful short story about a couple of hitmen rubbing out an ex-boxer in his hotel room” features “sharp dialogue, strong, atmospheric direction by Robert Siodmak, and an excellent cast”, but he argues that “the storyline that was chosen is fairly conventional” and “has dated”. However, the reverse-chronology flashback structure is uniquely effective: despite “knowing from the start that [Lancaster’s] character is dead”, we remain curious to learn how he arrived in his hopeless situation. Peary writes that Lancaster is “somewhat stiff but okay in his movie debut”, though I actually find him perfectly suited for his cipher-role as a duped noir chump who we learn about exclusively through the memories of those who knew him — including his policeman-friend (Sam Levene), his former girlfriend (Virginia Christine), and a crook named Dum Dum (Jack Lambert).

Gardner is sexy and charismatic, but primarily a noir icon rather than a fully-fledged character — at least until her “final, loopy moments on the screen” when she shows evidence of “strong dramatic acting”. O’Brien is really the film’s primary protagonist: despite being given multiple gentle warnings by his boss (Donald MacBridge) to stop wasting time on the case, he persists out of sheer determination, ensuring we learn the truth about the Swede! However, it’s Elwood Bredell’s atmospherically noir-ish cinematography that remains the film’s true stand-out, with many visually memorable scenes — including the highly tense opening sequence in the diner. The 1964 remake by Don Siegel is also worthy viewing; both films are enjoyable in different ways.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Burt Lancaster as “The Swede”
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  • Fine supporting performances
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  • The tension-filled opening sequence
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  • Siodmak’s direction
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  • Elwood Bredell’s cinematography
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  • Anthony Veiller’s well-crafted screenplay
  • Miklos Rozsa’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a noir classic. Selected in 2008 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

“What reason is there to build a pyramid to hold a tomb if the tomb may be violated?”

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Synopsis:
In Ancient Egypt, single-minded Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) hires an enslaved architect (James Robertson Justice) to design a full-proof tomb that will secure his body and belongings for the after-life — but his second wife, wily Nellifer (Joan Collins), longs for his riches, and plots with her lover (Sydney Chaplin) to kill Khufu and his first wife (Kerima) and son (Piero Giagnoni).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “mediocre milepost in Howard Hawks’s otherwise brilliant career” has a cult “among adults who saw [it] as kids and were excited by such sights as a bunch of bald, tongueless priests allowing themselves to be buried alive in a tomb; some cowards being hurled into an alligator pit; and statuesque beauty Joan Crawford displaying a bare midriff”. However, he concedes that “seeing it today, few will disagree that it’s just another silly, stiltedly acted historical epic”. While there are impressive crowd scenes, there are “no expensive battle sequences to take advantage of CinemaScope; the cast is second-rate…; the make-up is bad”; and the storyline “lacks intrigue, suspense and visual elements”. Land of the Pharaohs remains of interest simply because “it was Hawks’s most ambitious project conceptually”, requiring “10,000 extras, 50 days filming in Egypt, and the simulated construction of the base of the great pyramid” — and the “entombment finale (with pouring sand and sliding blocks) remains truly spectacular.” But overall, as Peary himself concedes, “this is a pretty dull film that only… longtime fans can really enjoy”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Magnificent recreations of an ancient era
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  • The exciting finale
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Must See?
Yes, once, as a cult favorite. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies.

Categories

Links:

Spiral Staircase, The (1945)

“Even with her eyes shut, she seems to be watching you like an evil spirit.”

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Synopsis:
On a dark and stormy night, a mute housemaid (Dorothy McGuire) caring for an infirm woman (Ethel Barrymore) in a country mansion fears for her life after several local girls with disabilities are murdered. Meanwhile, a kind doctor (Kent Smith) believes he can cure McGuire of her trauma-induced muteness, while Barrymore’s son (Gordon Oliver) romances the household’s beautiful secretary (Rhonda Fleming), and Oliver’s stepbrother (George Brent) manages the rest of the staff — including a tippling maid (Elsa Lanchester), a stern nurse (Sara Allgood), and a manservant (Rhys Williams).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while it’s “not hard to figure out the mystery” of this “classic gothic thriller”, director “Robert Siodmak’s atmospheric direction keeps viewers anxious”, and there are “some particularly eerie close-ups of the murderer’s eye before he attacks his victims”. Indeed, the primary star of the show is DP Nicholas Musuraca (best known for his work with Val Lewton), whose stunning cinematography turns multiple frames into gorgeous chiaroscuro paintings. The most memorable aspect of the screenplay (based on Ethel Lina White‘s novel Some Must Watch) is that the protagonist can’t (won’t) speak, even to save her own life; to that end, this would make an interesting double-bill with Wait Until Dark (1967), also about an imperiled woman whose disability heightens her vulnerability to a predator.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nicholas Musuraca’s highly atmospheric cinematography
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Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Johnny Guitar (1954)

“I searched for you in every man I met.”

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Synopsis:
A saloon owner (John Crawford) hoping to earn money when the railroad comes through her property reconnects with her former lover, “Johnny Guitar” (Sterling Hayden), while battling a local landowner (Mercedes McCambridge) who is determined to prove Crawford is in cahoots with a group of outlaws — including trigger-happy Bart (Ernest Borgnine), book-loving Corey (Royal Dano), and young Turkey (Ben Cooper) — led by the “Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “Nicholas Ray’s legendary baroque western” is an “amusing parody of the ‘classic’ western; high camp; an homage to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious; [and] a fifties youth-gang picture with adults playing teen parts”. Primarily, however, “it is a serious indictment of McCarthyite mob hysteria and bigotry”, one that attacks “the reactionary American political climate of 1954 by subverting what had always been a politically conservative genre”. He points out that “every character represents a political faction: left-handed Kid is the community; Vienna [Crawford] is a [‘foreigner’] who is pushed to side with the ‘communists’; … [and] Emma [McCambridge] is presented as a witch (dressed in black), the head of the witch-hunt, who uses fear and power to destroy the careers of rivals”. The remainder of Peary’s fascinating analysis — excerpted from his lengthier essay in Cult Movies — goes into even more detail about all the ways in which Johnny Guitar metaphorically represents HUAC-era America.

In his review, Peary also discusses the many “dialectically opposed forces in confrontation” in the film: “the future (civilization) vs. the past; progressives vs. conservatives (those who oppose the railroad); … the law vs. mob rule; … the emotionally and sexually self-assured (Vienna) vs. the unbalanced, sexually repressed (Emma); … and decency and goodness (what America stands for) vs. evil (Emma and those like her who represent the true threat to American ideals)”. Additionally, he comments on the rife “sexual symbolism” throughout the film (“guns, safes, staircases”) as well as the clever building of tension through constant repression of “violence, [both] symbolic and real” as “characters make threats but confrontations are postponed”.

Overall, Peary asserts that the film is “great fun” — perhaps most especially through Crawford’s memorable lead performance, in which her every movement, every statement, every expression, and every outfit is DELIBERATE. Speaking of Crawford, reading about her experiences while making Johnny Guitar offers invaluable insights to fans; the following lengthy excerpt from TCM’s article is worth citing in full:

Like their on-screen characters, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge were fierce rivals on the set as well. Crawford, whose professional jealousy of younger actresses was well known, initiated the feud after she angrily observed the director, cast, and crew applauding Mercedes’ scene where she addresses the posse. Ray later admitted, “I should have known some hell was going to break loose.” Later that night, an inebriated Joan Crawford was seen by the director stumbling along the highway. In her wake was a long trail of objects that he recognized as costumes and clothing belonging to McCambridge; Crawford had obviously raided the younger actress’ dressing room in a drunken rage. The very next day Crawford demanded major changes to the screenplay – favoring her – and had them approved since she was the star of the film. The major revision was an issue over gender. Instead of Johnny Guitar and the Dancin’ Kid as the central focus, Vienna and Emma would take center stage in the more traditionally masculine roles.

It’s no wonder that the article quotes director Ray as saying, “Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning” (!!!). Thankfully, Ray persisted with his “brilliant filmmaking”, culminating with the highly memorable “gunfight between Vienna and Emma”, but with much to enjoy throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford’s deliciously campy performance as Vienna: “I’m going to stay! I’m going to fight! But I won’t kill!”
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  • Excellent supporting performances
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    johnny-guitar-mccambridge
    johnny-guitar-carradine
    johnny-guitar-dano
  • Nicholas Ray’s consummate direction
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  • Excellent use of Sedona locales
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  • Philip Yordan’s brilliant, highly-quotable screenplay:

    “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.”
    “He makes her feel like a woman — and that frightens her.”
    “A posse isn’t people: I’ve ridden with them and I’ve ridden against them. A posse is an animal. It moves like one, and thinks like one.”

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite. Nominated as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Undercover Man, The (1949)

“It’s never too late for a trade.”

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Synopsis:
A T-man (Glenn Ford) and his partner (James Whitmore) are tasked with hunting down a notorious gangster who owes $3 million in taxes, but quickly find that all witnesses are too scared to talk. Meanwhile, a big-time mob attorney (Barry Kelley) foils the T-men’s attempts to get accountants arrested, and when the safety of Ford’s wife (Nina Foch) is threatened, Ford reconsiders his career goals.

Genres:

Review:
This semi-documentary look at T-Men (federal Treasury agents) determined to collect on back-taxes from an Al Capone-like gangster is primarily notable for being directed by John H. Lewis of Gun Crazy (1949) fame, who, assisted by DP Burnett Guffey, brings flashes of cinematic ingenuity to an otherwise unexceptional story. Too much emphasis is put on Ford’s “career crisis” (no doubt, messing with the Mafia is dangerous), and certain pivotal scenes — i.e., when a young girl (Joan Lazer) whose father (Anthony Caruso) has been murdered by The Big Fellow’s men translates her Italian grandmother’s (Esther Minciotti’s) pleas for Ford to continue his hunt — are milked too hard for emotion. With that said, Ford gives a surprisingly affecting performance; but Foch — leading lady in Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross (1945) — is wasted in a pro-forma role as his concerned wife sent off to the country to wait for him, and Whitmore, a consummate supporting actor, is also surprisingly unmemorable. More time should have been spent following Ford’s nemesis, a hopelessly smug attorney (Barry Kelley) who plays a pivotal role in the denouement.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glenn Ford as Frank Warren
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  • Barry Kelley as O’Rourke
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  • Burnett Guffey’s cinematography and Lewis’s direction
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Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Rancho Notorious (1952)

“Go away and come back 10 years ago.”

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Synopsis:
A rancher (Arthur Kennedy) whose beautiful fiancee (Gloria Henry) is raped and murdered by a thief (Lloyd Gough) vows revenge and goes undercover, helping a known outlaw (Mel Ferrer) escape from jail in order to learn the location of a “safe-ranch” known as “Chuck-a-Luck”, where a former saloon singer (Marlene Dietrich) temporarily houses wanted criminals for a percentage of their earnings.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Pear writes that this “enjoyably silly western” — directed by Fritz Lang as his third and final western after The Return of Frank James (1941) and Western Union (1941) — has “an interesting premise and it’s fun to watch Dietrich holding court over the men, but the direction is a bit static and [the script] should be much more outrageous”. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of this clever but unevenly toned vengeance-tale: the opening idyllic exchange between Kennedy and Henry — followed immediately by Henry’s murder and rape (which is unambiguous, despite taking place off-screen) — make us believe this will be a clear-cut, serious revenge flick, but the “love triangle” between Ferrer, Kennedy, and 50-year-old Dietrich (she IS the star of this flick!) detracts from the primacy of Kennedy’s quest. Other distractions include the terribly obvious painted back-drops often used in place of natural outdoor settings, and the laughably over-the-top theme song (“HATE. MURDER. AND REVENGE!” intones bass singer Bill Lee). In the film’s favor, Kennedy demonstrates leading-man presence, and George Reeves makes a charismatic appearance in a small but pivotal supporting role as a perennially cheerful outlaw who insists he “never loses a face”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Kennedy as Vern Haskell
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  • George Reeves as scar-faced Wilson
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  • Several memorably racy moments
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Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one time viewing given its cult status.

Links: