Monday, February 13, 2012


“There is a difference between apples and men…really, there is…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In the '50s, beginning with Winchester ’73 (1950), director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart embarked on a series of eight film collaborations — five of which were Westerns, and those were highly influential in transforming that film genre through exploration of more “adult” themes, tone and content. Mann, who had helmed a number of acclaimed film noirs early in his movie career, used much of that film style in his oaters — featuring cynical heroes and other morally ambiguous characters thrust into an amoral, hostile world, characterized by the use of landscapes to portray the feelings of his protagonists and the futility and emptiness in their lives. Winchester ’73 was a tremendous box-office success for Universal, revitalizing the Western at a time when it served primarily as fodder for B-pictures and Saturday matinee “kiddie fare.”

The second of the Mann-Stewart westerns, Bend of the River (1952), was released to theaters 60 years ago on this date and while the film was not generally well-received by critics at the time, it served as another building block in the maturation of Jimmy Stewart’s acting career. Stewart’s reputation as “the boy next door” would develop a little more tarnish with each successive film he made with Mann, as the characters he played were individuals haunted by incidents from their past and dedicated to avenging a serious wrong done to them. They were so obsessive in achieving these ends that their better natures would drift perilously toward the dark side. Bend of the River is a shining example of how a changing world challenged “men of the west” to choose the respective paths they would continue to walk.

Glyn McLyntock (Stewart) is scouting for a wagon train of settlers on its way to Oregon and in checking the trail ahead, we learn of his outlaw past as a Missouri border raider when he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynch mob. Both McLyntock and Cole are acquainted with each other’s reputations and cement their friendship when the two of them successfully go after a party of Shoshone Indians who’ve attacked the group of settlers during the night, one of whom wounds Laura Baile (Julie Adams) with an arrow. Though Cole’s intention is to head out to California, he decides to stick around with McLyntock and the settlers (He’s developed feelings for Laura) and follow them to Portland, where they arrange to procure the needed supplies to carry their planned settlement through the winter. They strike a deal with merchant Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), who will arrange for their provisions to be sent on to their wilderness encampment. Laura will recuperate from her wound in Portland and McLyntock and company will make better time traveling back to their settlement with an assist from riverboat skipper Captain Mello (Chubby Johnson).

As the work toward establishing the settlement gets underway, McLyntock and Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), Laura’s father, grow concerned that their food supply may run out with winter only six weeks away because the promised provisions still have not been shipped. The two men make the trip into Portland and find the town caught up in the thrall of gold fever, with supplies now fetching 10 times what they previously were worth. As a matter of fact, the settlement’s provisions still sit on the dock — so McLyntock and Jeremy hire some ne’er-do-wells to load them up on the riverboat while they straighten things out with Hendricks. They discover that both Cole and Laura now work for Hendricks (Cole as a pit boss, Laura running the gold scales since she’s “just about the only person he can trust”) and have no intention of leaving Portland. Confronting Hendricks, McLyntock demands delivery of the supplies but Hendricks continues to put him off and he informs Glyn that if he’s not satisfied he’ll gladly offer a refund (knowing he can get much more for the valuable cargo). This results in a shootout in Hendricks’ saloon, and the boat containing the supplies sets off for the settlement with Cole, Laura and riverboat gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) joining Glyn, Jeremy and the makeshift crew.

Hendricks and his group of flunkies engage in hot pursuit of the riverboat, and plan to ambush our heroes at the point where they have to head ashore to avoid a nearby waterfall. Instead, Glyn and company dock 20 miles upstream from the falls and plot a risky escape over the mountains to get back to the settlement; and while they do their best to make good time, Hendricks and his posse eventually catch up to them. By that time, however, McLyntock and his crew have set up camp and welcome Hendricks and his men with hot lead via a reverse ambush. Hendricks and some of his goons are killed in the shooting, and the rest of them ride off.

Continuing their journey to the settlement, McLyntock, Cole and the rest get approached by a group of miners who desperately need the supplies at their camp and offer $100,000 for the food; Cole, giving into temptation, falls in with the men Glyn and Jeremy hired to help drive the wagons of provisions to the settlement and makes tracks for the mining camp, leaving a bruised and battered Glyn behind without gun or horse. McLyntock eventually catches up to Cole and his men and, with the help of Jeremy, Laura and Trey, runs Cole’s “employees” off and recaptures the supplies. Cole eventually confronts McLyntock and a climactic brawl in a raging river results in Cole’s death, his body carried by the current toward the falls. It is at this point that Jeremy, whose distaste for Cole stemmed from his outlaw past, admits that he was wrong about the possibility of redemption and the four of them arrive in the settlement to receive the well-wishes of the grateful settlers anxiously waiting for their provisions.

Borden Chase’s screenplay for Bend of the River — based on Bill Gulick’s novel Bend of the Snake — is essentially a tale of two men whose past disreputable actions confront them at the crossroads of civilization. Should a man surrender to the reality that “the times are a-changin’” or will he continue to embrace his violent, amoral ways? Stewart’s Glyn McLyntock has done things of which he’s not particularly proud and in order to obtain acceptance from the group that he wants to be part of, he attempts to keep his criminal past a secret. But his history comes to the fore when he rescues Emerson from being hung by vigilantes and in doing so meets his doppelganger; Cole is the man McLyntock would have become had he not decided to take the road of reformation. The movie points out their similarities in many different ways, chiefly the way each man seems to know what the other thinks, much of this reflected in their dialogue. (When McLyntock meets up with Cole during his second trip to Portland and Cole asks what brought him here, both men say in unison, “A very tired horse.”)

Bend of the River transcends its traditional good-bad morality lecturing by introducing characters that succumb to temptation and stray off the straight-and-narrow path during the course of the film. Chiefly among these is Laura Baile, who decides during her convalescence in Portland that her future isn’t in farming and elects to stay in Portland with the persuasive Cole, telling Glyn that life there is “exciting” and that she’s had “a wonderful time.” Trey Wilson, the gambler befriended by the settlers, also seems to change allegiances whenever it’s to his advantage — working for the corrupt Hendricks as a cardsharp in the saloon, and then joining forces with Cole when Emerson double-crosses McLyntock on the trip back to the settlement. The moral compass of the movie, however, is Jeremy Baile, who acts as a stabilizing influence on both of these characters — Laura shows reluctance to confront her father and tell him that she’s decided to stay with Cole (and she eventually comes back to his side after witnessing Cole’s treachery), and Trey sees Cole’s true colors when Emerson starts slapping Jeremy around after learning that he helped the pursuing Glyn acquire a horse. (Trey defends Jeremy by threatening to kill Cole but can't bring himself to do so; wounded by Cole’s bullet, Cole editorializes that Trey was always “too soft.”)

Jeremy’s black-and-white view of the world tells him that a man “can’t change…when an apple’s rotten, there’s nothing you can do except throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel.” We, of course, know this not to be true — Glyn desperately wants to escape what he once was and settle down in civilization, becoming a rancher/farmer. Mann shows us in Bend of the River glimpses of the man McLyntock used to be, none more tellingly that when Glyn spies Cole being hung by the vigilante mob and he nervously tugs at his neckerchief, then subconsciously wipes his chin at the sight of the rope tied around Cole’s neck. (Toward the end of the movie, as Glyn is being rescued from the current by a “lifeline” thrown to him by Trey, we learn that Glyn’s neckerchief covers up a rope burn that he suffered when he was in a situation similar to Cole’s.) When Cole decides that he can cash in on the miners’ offer and reap a tidy sum by selling them the settlers’ provisions he has, one of his hired goons jump McLyntock but spares the man from killing Glyn, figuring he owes him restitution for saving his life. We then see the cold son-of-a-bitch that once trademarked Glyn when he warns Cole: “You’ll be seein’ me…you’ll be seein’ me…every time you bed down for the night you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there…and some night I will be…you’ll be seein’ me…”

Beginning with Bend of the River, every one of the Mann-Stewart Westerns were filmed in Technicolor — allowing audiences to drink in the breathtaking scenery, which in this case came courtesy of cinematographer Irving Glassberg. (As much as I love Bend, I have to say that I’m more partial to the black-and-white cinematography of Winchester ’73, only because it’s more in keeping with Mann’s film noir pedigree.) Screenwriter Chase’s (who co-wrote Winchester, and later worked with Mann on The Far Country) adaptation also is first-rate, with wonderful moments of wry humor sprinkled into the suspenseful action (my favorite is when Cole responds to Glyn’s observation that he’s “still following that star” with “Sometimes it’s better than having a man with a star following you”).

Because Bend of the River was a Universal picture, the studio used many of its contract players in crucial roles and not necessarily to the best advantage: I’m not all that impressed with Rock Hudson (who also was in Winchester ’73) as Trey the gambler (the legend has it that Stewart was so pissed at Hudson’s getting more applause at the movie’s premiere that he vowed never to work with “Ernie” again…and he made good on that promise) and I find the presence of both Julie Adams and Lori Nelson (she’s younger sister Marjie, who has it bad for Hudson’s Trey) amusing only in that both actresses later acted alongside the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Adams in the original, Nelson in the sequel, Revenge of the Creature). But the film is buoyed by the superb performances of Stewart and Kennedy (whose ability to trade off between good guy and bad guy was peerless), not to mention solid character support from favorites Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Frank Ferguson, Royal Dano and the controversial Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry — better known to one and all as “Stepin Fetchit” (he plays Johnson’s sidekick). You’ll also see future TV faces in Harry “Colonel Potter” Morgan (as one of the hired guys, billed as “Henry”) and Francis “Aunt Bee” Bavier (as one of the settlers), and old-time radio fans will giggle that Howard Petrie, who served as the announcer for shows starring Jimmy Durante and Judy Canova, plays bad guy Tom Hendricks. (Lillian Randolph, known for her role as “Birdie” on The Great Gildersleeve, also appears briefly as Hendricks’ maid, "Aunt Tildy.")

Six years after Bend of the River, Anthony Mann directed Man of the West, a Western starring Gary Cooper as an ex-outlaw who’s also reformed and become a part of the community in which he now resides and who has been entrusted with the task of hiring a schoolteacher only to meet up with his former gang. The movie, which has quite a cult following, is an interesting “bookend” to Bend of the River in that it offers a glimpse into the life of a man like Glyn McLyntock after he has become “civilized” and it wouldn’t be all that difficult to see Stewart in the Cooper role (his falling out with Mann during the filming of Night Passage sort of put the kibosh on any future collaborations, however). If you’ve seen Man, you might be interested in checking out Bend as a sort of “backstory” and if you haven’t, by all means go with Bend first. It’s long overdue for re-evaluation as one of the examples of the marvelous actor-auteur partnership that was James Stewart and Anthony Mann.

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Believe it or not, I have actually come to blows with people who do not understand my affection/reverence for "Bend of the River". Well, what amounts to blows on the internet. Next time, I'll simply send them a link to your article. Thanks.
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