So I mentioned having an unsatisfactory film experience: it happened over the weekend and I find it frustrating. I can't tell if it's the film or me. I am usually very good at seeing the film that's there, not the film I wanted or the film I was expecting. But either I saw the beginning of this one wrong or it fails one of its characters badly or I just tripped over the Production Code and need to ice my disbelief. Whichever way, argh.
The film in question is Ramrod
(1947), a Western noir directed by Andre de Toth and starring Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea. I got it out of James Ursini's "Noir Westerns" (Film Noir Reader 4
ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, 2004), which made it sound like my sort of genre-bending thing; I think it would be, except that as I wrote to kore
, I have trouble with a movie which castigates its lead female character for her "greed and ambition" when her primary motive for striking out as an independent rancher was to escape her violent stalker of a would-be husband, especially when the script initially seemed sympathetic to her situation. The night that bullying cattle baron Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) runs off his latest competitor in love and business is the night Connie Dickason (Lake) finally decides she's done with trying to play the stacked deck of a good woman's proper place in the West. Her toadying father was no protection against Ivey, pushing her to accept his boss' attentions and then blaming her for the bloodshed that threatened when she refused; she's never been able to find a suitor strong enough to stand up to Ivey's intimidation. "They'd break any man I wanted. They'd find a reason. Like they made sheep the reason for breaking Walt. But I'll never turn to Frank Ivey. A little money of my own—enough to buy some cattle and hire a crew—they won't break anybody when I get through with them." She's the new mistress of the Circle 66, Walt having thoughtfully signed over the land to her before skedaddling ignominiously out of town. The day she takes possession, Ivey has her new home burned to the ground. Counseled to keep on the clean side of the law ("The sheriff's our blue chip. Anything we do against Ivey's got to be legal"), Connie eventually decides that she can't wait until Ivey escalates the already murderous range war any further and makes an unethical move of her own. Rocks immediately start to fall. More than one person will die. And it is not that I disagree either that it was a poor decision or that she should at least not have lied to her "ramrod"—her ranch foreman—about it, but it's one thing to watch a character draw herself down the road to hell with the best intentions, as happens in many a noir, and another to be abruptly asked to reconsider her as a heartless troublemaker from the start, deserving of whatever consequences her cavalier treatment of others can visit on her.
I suppose one of the problems here is that I want to see Connie succeed. A woman who wants control of her own life in the face of men who would treat her with less consideration than their cattle: what's not to sympathize? The film even seems to encourage it. Frank Ivey is a sneering, domineering heavy, not quite a mustache-twirler, but he might try tying a girl to a track if the railroad would only come through town. Her fiancé folds without a fight; her father blusters like he wasn't bought years ago. Only Connie is icy and fearless, a small woman carrying herself with the adamant and defiant pride of space she has a right to. She's not fighting fair, but she's not on a level playing field. When Ivey orders one of her men beaten in front of her to teach her a lesson, she can't even defend him: alone and unarmed, she's easily caught and restrained by Ivey himself, his big hands around her wrists and at least the lewd smirk startled off his face when she followed up the heroine's traditional slap with a cold, contemptuous pummeling. Her anger is clear and understandable. But the film's recognition of it doesn't last. As the ramifications of her decision begin to ricochet through the valley, the script decides that her fearlessness is foolhardy arrogance, her desire for independence merely the willful and inappropriate bucking of the proper authorities—and when it lets her win the range war, she's righteously condemned for it by the hero as he walks away into the arms of another woman, leaving her with the feminine Pyrrhic victory of all the power she ever dreamed of and none of the man. The third act does not fall quite as far as a humiliation conga, but no character seems to pass up the opportunity to pass judgment on Connie and nothing in their presentation suggests that we the audience are not assumed to agree. I suppose we can if we judge her strictly on her behavior in the second half of the film, after the personality transplant. Her last, plaintive line is hardly recognizable as belonging to the woman who originally declared her intent to make a life without relying on the lenience of men. Hold that thought.
It is especially frustrating because I like so much of the rest of the film. McCrea is understated and effective as Dave Nash, the slow-dawning hero who's barely got himself in shape in time for the plot to start. He's sober now, but he was on a hell of a drunk when he arrived in town; it got him a reputation that dogs him into the bar and offers Ivey's men easy pickings to taunt him with and he only came out of it with the practical assistance of the town's aging sheriff (Donald Crisp) and the low-key sympathy of dressmaker Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan) and her sometime swain, the cheerful hell-raiser Bill Schell (Don DeFore). "Took me a week to rope that hangover," he answers when the sheriff gently sounds out his steadiness. He buys the older man a drink in thanks, but perhaps also to prove that he can walk into the Special and not have to be scraped off the floor at the end of the night. He relates the tragedy that started him drinking so directly and simply that it doesn't sound like necessary backstory, just one of the terrible, inexplicable things that happen in the world sometimes. Once hired by Connie as her ramrod, he insists on honest dealing not just out of pragmatism or native decency, but because he spun out of control once before and didn't like it; he is a curiously tentative protagonist, not so much easily led as unsure of the limits within which he can be trusted now. Meanwhile, DeFore is acres of magnitude more interesting as a charming, haphazardly principled drifter than he was as the avenging moral majority in Byron Haskin's Too Late for Tears
(1949), where I could have swapped him without noticing for any number of sturdy second leads—Bill's loyal to his friends and quick in defense of them, but he'll cut corners on his ethics without hesitating if he thinks it'll get results. His relationship with Rose is informal but affectionate. I am aware that his relationship with Connie is framed as though she's seducing him to her own ends, but since the film has already established that he can do moral ambiguity on his own dime and he'll never say no to a willing girl, I can't buy it: it plays much more like a hookup of convenience on both sides. It's a good film to look at. Russell Harlan's cinematography treats daylight scenes with a flat, almost overexposed objectivity that washes out even violent actions into a kind of indifferent glare, while night scenes are dense and dramatic. Fires happen at night; so do showdowns, ambushes, and stampedes. Deaths happen by day and there is nothing expressionistic about them. Ramrod
handles its violence unusually for the time—a fistfight in a bar is quick, scuffling, and messy, with blood on both men's shirts and faces by the time it's broken up, while the brutality of a fatal beating is conveyed by the camera's steady focus on the face of a man who is coolly and professionally, with short, hard, bare-knuckled blows, reducing another man's face to the blinded pulp he'll die of. (We never see his handiwork, but the doctor brought vainly to treat the dying man asks after a look, "Was he dragged by a horse?") There is little gunplay in the film and it doesn't follow the expected rhythms. A snipers' game of cat-and-mouse on a brushy canyonside drags on all night until someone gets shot in the back. The climactic shootout ends with a shotgun blast. I thought Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious
(1952) was ahead of the curve on demolishing the romance of the West, but de Toth obviously got here first.
And yet. I last saw Lake in This Gun for Hire
(1942), a movie I loved and totally failed to write about a year ago. Essentially it's a wartime spy story that turns into film noir by making its protagonist, instead of the sterling cop pursuing the sticky threads of industrial and international espionage through more than one murder and the kidnapping of his girlfriend, the double-crossed hitman who's in possession of a vital chemical secret but only wants to get back at the boss who set him up; even when the rest of the movie behaves like action-comics pulp around him, he and his relationship with the heroine are complex and ambivalent and unpredictable enough to pull the other genre through. Alan Ladd plays the hitman and seeing this movie after
Jean-Pierre Melville's Le samouraï
(1967) was actively disorienting, because I hadn't realized until then what a pure homage Alain Delon's Jef Costello is to Ladd's Raven, who loves cats and cares nothing about people and lives in an apartment so sparsely furnished he might as well not exist between jobs.1
Lake plays a professional magician freshly recruited by the U.S. government to spy on new employer Laird Cregar, who just so happens to be the hitman's double-crossing boss. She is tiny, beautiful, radium-blonde. Ladd is equally tiny, equally beautiful, dark-haired in this role so that they make a strange matched pair; together they feel simultaneously more real and more fairytale than anything else happening in the movie, deadly Hansel and duplicitous Gretel in the nightclubs and railyards and factories of Los Angeles. Robert Preston plays the cop who loves Lake, but he was always better at slippery than sterling and he doesn't have a chance against the leads' chemistry. At one point Lake wears skintight black vinyl and slinky hip waders to perform a fishing-themed nightclub number. And strictly speaking, she betrays all three of the leading men in the picture. Cregar's Willard Gates may be taken for granted, but it is less traditionally forgivable that she should at different points work with or against the policeman or the hitman depending on which one will get her closer to solving the mystery of the secrets Nitro Chemical may be selling—and yet she remains sympathetic, heroic, and generates such a charge with Ladd that I'm not surprised they were reteamed for three more films. She is not punished for her betrayal of Preston's Detective Lieutenant Michael Crane by losing his love and she is not punished for her betrayal of Raven by losing his respect. Daniel M. Hodges in "The Rise and Fall of the War Noir" (also Film Noir Reader 4
, I am so glad to have discovered this book) considers it a unique feature of wartime noirs that they include women as equals, allies, and protagonists in their own right—either way, not obstacles or rewards—and while I feel this may be slightly overstating the case
, it is true that if I look at Lake in This Gun for Hire
and Lake in Ramrod
and consider them at all representative of their respective eras, it does look bad for 1947.Ramrod
was adapted from a 1943 novel of the same name by Luke Short, which I have not read; it is possible that it went weird in translation. Since it is not reasonable to interpret a film strictly according to its source material, however, that doesn't help much with the fact that Connie as introduced and Connie by the finale feel like two closely related but actually different characters, with little to explain the transition between them unless it turns out that I misread the degree to which the film intended me to find her sympathetic in the first place or I accept that it is impossible for a woman to exercise power without misusing it and/or needing a man to share it with. In which case I think it's not me, it's the film, and I should definitely put some ice on that disbelief. For the record, Lake does a bang-up job with her fractured character. I just wish the entire film thought she was as amazing as I did. This irritation brought to you by my headstrong backers at Patreon
1. I find it very thoughtful of the Brattle to double-feature This Gun for Hire and Le samouraï at the end of this month. I'll be there.