(Twilight Time./Screen Archives) 1958. 98 mins. AR: 2.35:1 Color by Deluxe.
Director: Henry King. Screenplay: Philip Yordan. Music: Lionel Newman (with help from brother Alfred, and from Hugo Friedhofer/). Cinematography: Leon Shamroy.
With: Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, Henry Silva, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef, Andrew Duggan, Gene Evans.
THE BRAVADOS was way over my head when I saw it in 1958, sitting in a dark theater, watching dark images. It still seems quite dark today, but now that look has a name – Film Noir. Back then we weren’t educated about this durable genre.
Jim Douglass (Peck) has difficulty riding into an otherwise friendly town which is now in lockdown due to a quadruple hanging scheduled for the following morning. But he persists – he’s ridden a hundred miles to be there for the event, and though he won’t say exactly why, he nonetheless persuades the sheriff to let him stay. Almost 40 minutes pass before Douglass reveals enough for us to begin to piece things together. Until then it’s been subtext-city, allowing Peck to be a bit more fleshed-out than usual. In fact it feels very much like a Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann western – bitter and dangerous. But Henry King’s presence as director beckoned Peck into the title roll, since eight years earlier they’d made a classic western together – THE GUNFIGHTER.
Douglass requests that he be allowed to see the four condemned prisoners. He gets his wish, and when he (and we) see them in their cell, it’s like we’re being treated to a film villains Who’s Who – Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef, Stephen Boyd (pre-BEN-HUR), and Henry Silva, a full hand of menacing icons, probably even more impressive today. The four of them manage to escape, and Peck-plus-posse take off in hot pursuit.
Playing devil’s advocate to Douglass’ grim reaper is Local beauty Josefa Velarde as played by Joan Collins, a seemingly superficial choice but she proves to be up to the task, until the third act, that is, when she, and others, are asked by the script to make sudden moral reversals; that she’s unable to pull off, but it’s in the writing, not the performances, and after a while the tone rights itself and the story ends powerfully. There are, after it’s over, a few glaring loose ends that rise to the surface but, if you’re not itching to find them, maybe they’ll wiggle past without igniting your sense of story logic gone astray.
A few words about the cinematography. Director of Photography Leon Shamroy has the dubious distinction of having made the most grievous visual miscalculation in film history. No other cinematographer ‘s work comes anywhere near it. Not William C. Thompson’s in Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Not the helmers of the earliest B&W TV shows. No one!
So it’s with extreme bafflement that I have to compliment him on the great work he did here. The noir sensibility superimposed over a very ordinary Western town is wonderfully accomplished. Low key lighting in the first act tells the story as succinctly as the direction. His use of the CinemaScope frame is constantly reinvigorating. He has no fear whatsoever of negative space. And at about 4 minutes and 35 seconds you can actually see Peck’s horse drooling, captured through the use of backlighting and deft spatial design. Was the intention of the shot to see the horse drooling? Most probably not. But it made me realize that in a lifetime of fervent movie-going I’d never seen that happen, and the lighting clearly facilitated it.
This being a Twilight Time release, the isolated score must be considered. Lionel Newman’s work is as attentive to the tone of the film as the contributions of the other key departments. There are bursts of ‘theme’ music at chosen moments, but more prevalent are nonintrusive uses of scoring designed to control and reinforce the film’s momentum. Interestingly, some of the music sounds vaguely religious, which I pondered for a while, finally guessing that it was meant to support a spiritual layer of the narrative that hadn’t been developed sufficiently during the directorial stage.
Two of the supplements are silent B&W footage of the NYC and LA premieres. An odd collection of talent, studio types, and freeloaders ascend the stairs and disappear into the Fox Screening Room – Lee Remick, Groucho Marx, Rossano Brazzi (appearing in Fox’s SOUTH PACIFIC), Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Andrew Duggan, but no Boyd or Van Cleef. Enjoyable as it is to see them all, I was most impressed to spot Philip Yordan poising for the camera. Screenwriters don’t fill the frame too often.
There’s a wonderful coffee table book I’m going to be plugging (starting now) for the upcoming holiday season, from FAB Press in the UK, called “Renegade Westerns: Movies That Shot Down Frontier Myths.” In addition to the titles you would expect such as HIGH NOON and THE WILD BUNCH, there are substantial sections for feminist Westerns and Western noirs. The noir list delves deeply enough into the genre to even include THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST. But not THE BRAVADOS. And yet the four-page pamphlet enclosed in the Blu-ray box extols the noir characteristics and virtues of the film. So it’s not my imagination.
This is a good movie that has been laying low. I recommend you give it a shot. READ MORE REVIEWS HERE