Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I had what can certainly be described as a good day yesterday. Or evening, really; the day was so insubstantial as to be almost non-existent, like very thin tissue. But the evening just got progressively better, so that by the end of it, I was jittery with happy excitement, far happier than circumstances probably really warranted.

On Tuesdays, I normally eat at my mother's house. There I watch Gilmore Girls with my family, which is an occasionally decently written show, though less so these days. However, my mother and sister were having some sort of "girl's night" with friends at Olive Garden (a restaurant), leaving me alone at my mother's house. I watched my DVD of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' Shall We Dance. I noticed it's not as well written in the first half as it is in the second half, and I wondered why. But already the pattern of mounting happiness was presenting itself in my evening.

Then my sister came in briefly to give me some cheese ravioli from Olive Garden. One of the keenest pleasures of my life is cheese ravioli, and I was very hungry at this point for lunch having been several hours before.

So happier I became, and upon returning here, I discovered Robyn had recommended Anthony Mann's Westerns with Jimmy Stewart, and I got irrationally happy when I found I had one already on tape.

But irrational happiness proved most prudent and wise, as The Naked Spur, the movie on my tape, proved very good indeed.

A movie many times better than Mann's later Man of the West, The Naked Spur is cunningly written. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar it very much deserved--it succeeds in vividly crafting characters and stringing them through conflicts that are both fascinatingly unpredictable, yet consistently true to the characters and human nature.

James Stewart plays Howard Kemp, who's been provoked into the life of a bounty hunter by a very raw deal. Robert Ryan is his quarry, and Janet Leigh is Ryan's girl . . . You know, as with Match Point, I find myself not wanting to discuss many details of the plot, as one of the movie's joys for me were its surprises.

I'd seen Ryan in only two other movies, Clash By Night, and The Woman on the Beach, the former being a decent, dark domestic drama featuring Barbara Stanwyck with bad hair, and the latter being an American film by Jean Renoir, who seemed with it to be about as far from The Rules of the Game as Marcel Dalio was in Casablanca. In both movies, Ryan was a nearly adequate male lead, but in The Naked Spur, he's quite good at being plain hateable.

All of the supporting players were good and appropriately cast, but the great performance of the movie was definitely Stewart's. Where Gary Cooper was staunchly Nice, James Stewart was capable of injecting a disturbing, dark edge into his performance that contributed enormously to the movie's core beauty. In the midst of the plot's clever workings is a very compelling story of a decent man trying so hard to retrieve his decent life that he's almost ready to commit murder. The soundtrack of the film was quite good--the rough percussion and strings of the opening theme reminded me of Yojimbo, while Stewart's desperate, uncertain justifications and forbiddingly manic pleading for Lina(Janet Leigh)'s affections are accompanied by a slightly soured rendition of "Home, Sweet Home."

The delicious trickiness of the character relationships is perhaps best evoked in the scene of Stewart pleading for a wife who won't abandon him only a few feet from the man he's willing to kill in the desperate hope to ensure that future.

Now, although I didn't think Man of the West was a great film, it nonetheless didn't seem unlikely from it that Mann, with his eye for dusty, American wilderness, was capable of filming a great Western. And his contribution to The Naked Spur isn't insubstantial. Filmed in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, scenery is constantly used to great effect, and the movie seems to have been filmed almost entirely outdoors, with the exception of one scene on a cave set. It gives the movie an air of realism unusual for movies of the period, yet there were times I almost wish he had used a set, as the several very obvious day-for-night shots were a little jarring.

But, all in all, it's a brilliant movie that I only wish was available on DVD.

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