Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Fiend Who Walked The West (Le Tueur Au Visage D'Ange) (Sidonis Calysta) 96 mins. 42 secs.

Daniel Hardy (Hugh O'Brian) is desperate to secure a financial future for his growing family, so he joins a group of bank robbers. However, the robbery fails to run to plan when Daniel is locked in the safe and arrested, and Daniel's life plans go further awry when he is jailed for ten years rather than the expected shorter prison term he expected as a first-time offender.

Things go from bad to worse when his fellow gang members - whom he has refused to name - fail to provide his family with his expected share of the loot and as he gradually discovers that his young cellmate Felix Griffin (Robert Evans) is an unstable psychopath who exacts a fearful revenge on those who lay their hands on him. However, Felix has plans of his own and, after he discovers the identity of Daniel's gang leader, he decides to secure the loot for himself following his release from jail; which he proceeds to do in murderous fashion. With Daniel on the inside and Felix raising hell on the outside, a plan is hatched by the authorities to ensure that Felix pays for his crime. It's a plan that involves Daniel and his family in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

It's Kiss of Death out West as this first remake of the 1947 film noir classic rides the range (there is also a 1995 version starring Nicolas Cage in a scenery-chewing performance as the psychopath whilst David Caruso portrays the similarly slightly tarnished hero). And it's a far more interesting film than it's lowly reputation leads one to believe (a reputation probably due in no small part to a highly misleading advertising campaign from title through poster and trailer that predominantly sell the film as a Western / Horror film hybrid, and which is also cued up by the film's opening titles theme that segues from traditional Western to seemingly supernatural).

Often broodingly shot by experienced DOP Joseph MacDonald, who had previously worked on both Westerns and noirs like My Darling Clementine, Call Northside 777 and Panic In The Streets, and solidly directed by experienced director Gordon (Them!) Douglas from a Harry Brown / Philip Yordan script derived in part from Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's 1947 script for Kiss of Death (which was itself based on a novel by Eleazar Lipsky), the film is actually a surprisingly successful blending of the style of more adult 1950s psychological Westerns like 3:10 To Yuma and Jubal and the noirish crime cycle that began in the previous decade as the forces of law and order deploy unconventional methods to stop a dangerous criminal in his tracks.

For those aware of the film's derivation, there's a neat and intentional misdirected Kiss Of Death homage in a scene where Griffin encounters the criminal gang-leader's larcenously-inclined wheelchair-bound mother, although the pay-off here reflects the different genre, and, particularly, in Evans' performance in which he occasionally seems to be channelling Richard Widmark's performance in what are often some of the film's least successful moments. It's worth noting that Evans' performance - which the man himself has negatively commented on in his entertaining, if rather self-serving, memoir The Kid Stays In The Picture (both the book and the film adaptation) - is nowhere near as bad as either he, the trailer (in which he gibbers and snarls like a hopped-up 50s juvenile delinquent in scenes that do not feature in the film) or the film's reputation might lead one to believe.

True, the occasional eye-rolling and snarling close-ups contain far less credible menace than Widmark's seminal Tommy Udo. But, in the film's quieter moments and also where his psychotic behaviour is implied rather than played out on screen (the fate of a chain-gang convict who has foolishly previously crossed his path as well as that of a docile and seemingly traumatised female companion who has undoubtedly been subjected to unseen brutality are chilling for what is suggested rather than shown) and where he toys with O'Brian's square-jawed and more instinctive traditional Western hero show that he was a far more accomplished actor than either he or critics within and outside the industry (many of whom resented his seemingly smooth accession to lead actor ranks over others who had toiled for longer and with less success) have been prepared to admit.

The film also balances Evans' more showy moments with solid supporting performances from O'Brian (who was better known at the time for playing Wyatt Earp in the long-running TV series The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp), Stephen McNally, Dolores Michaels (who subsequently starred in the unusual and little-seen Alan Ladd revenge Western One Foot In Hell), Linda Cristal (as O'Brian's wife and who achieved more notable success in a similar role in TV Western series The High Chaparral), snarling stalwart Emile Meyer ('fat cop' Harry Kello from Sweet Smell Of Success) and future TV Tarzan Ron Ely as a Deputy with a hair-trigger temper.

Overall, it's a film undeserving of its consignment to date to a critical backwater and, hopefully, this sharp French DVD 2:35:1 transfer that maintains the original Cinemascope ratio (and which is English language with forced French subtitles) may herald a US or UK release, possibly with a subtitled version of the two add-ons, one of which features French director Bertrand Tavernier who - based on my limited understanding  of the French language - appears to be providing some long-deserved critical rebalancing. It's certainly no masterpiece, but there's much to recommend it, and far more than the laughably conceived trailer that also features on the disc.

AFTERWORD: Now that you've seen what is probably one of the reasons why the film is generally held in such low regard, please check out the film. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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