Broken Lance (1954)

Broken LanceWhen it comes to pure acting chops, Spencer Tracy had few equals. In a career that spanned four decades, Tracy won two Best Actor Academy Awards and was nominated 9 times, a record he shares with Laurence Olivier. Let’s take a look at one of his only western performances, 1954’s Broken Lance.

For 25 years, Matt Devereaux (Tracy) worked to carve out a ranch and a life for his family in the American southwest. He accomplished his goal, creating one of the most well-respected ranches in Texas…but at the expense of his sons, elder Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian), Denny (Earl Holliman) and his youngest, Joe (Robert Wagner). The three older boys have long resented how they’re treated as workers and cowboys and not family. As he ages and as the west continues to develop, Matt has to face what to do next, both with his family and the cattle and mining empire he has created.

I’ve made no bones about my thoughts on 1950s westerns. (Spoilers Alert: They’re typically not my favorite). While ‘Broken’ has plenty of positives, my typical complaints are there. The family story plays out like a soap opera, heavy and brooding from the word ‘go.’ It feels like a Shakespearean play or a Greek tragedy as the Devereaux family tears itself apart. Director Edward Dmytryk has plenty of talent on hand, and the story is interesting but in the end I came away with a ‘meh’ review of a 96-minute flick.

In telling this story, Dmytryk uses a cool storytelling technique, Wagner’s Joe released from prison after a 3-year sentence. We don’t know why or what he did. Minutes later, we see him meet the governor and his three brothers, ominously, forebodingly offering him $10,000 to move along and never come back. It’s a great little intro…that never quite clicks once the story flashes back to what drove the story to this point. When the two stories click, it lacks that great energy, that connection that I was hoping for. Still, cool points for trying.

Playing the Devereaux family patriarch, Tracy does not disappoint in the starring role. He’s far from a heroic lead, his Matt a harsh, driving man who – usually – means well but has had to make some tough decisions along the way. He’s tried to build a life for his family and has succeeded, but it’s come at a price. His dynamic with his youngest son, Wagner’s Joe, provides the best moments in the movie. Wagner too delivers an understated, effective performance as Joe, a half-white, half-Comanche young man.

The coolest performance goes to Katy Jurado who plays Senora, a Comanche woman who married Matt after his first wife died. She’s not Mexican but people call her “Senora” because it’s easier than addressing the elephant in the room that a white man married an Indian. It’s a quiet, moving, scene-stealing performance as she tries to hold the family together as everyone starts grabbing for pieces to control. Jurado deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part, ultimately losing to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.

While the rest of the cast has some name recognition, they’re not given much to do. One of the best heavies ever, Widmark is the leader of the three older Devereaux boys, but unfortunately his character is off-screen for far too long. O’Brian may say 8 words the whole movie, and Holliman is the brother kinda sorta caught in between. Eduard Franz plays ranch foreman Two Moons, E.G. Marshall is the weakling governor, and Jean Peters plays his daughter, Barbara, a love interest for Joe that feels bleh and forced.

I wanted to like this one more, especially as I read reviews of folks who loved it. The cast is worth it alone, even if the storyline doesn’t give much of them to do. Some cool locations in Arizona spice things up with a true sense of the desert wilderness as well. Flawed but good, worthwhile for Tracy, Wagner and Jurado in solid performances.

Broken Lance (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****