The Films of Anthony Mann (Part 1): Desperate, The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror), Devil’s Doorway, The Tall Target

After trying to get through the thoroughly old-fashioned Two O’Clock Courage (1945), an ideal cure for insomnia interesting only for its opening dolly-in and crane shot of an injured Tom Conway standing at a crossroads, bleeding from a nasty head wound, it came as a great relief that Desperate (1947), Anthony Mann‘s noir follow-up, contains a good bit more meat on its still-skeletal storyline.

Running a slender 73 minutes, Desperate stars Steve Brodie as a long- and short-haul trucker, Audrey Long as his adoring wife and Raymond Burr as the heaviest of screen heavies. (Burr served the same function in Mann’s even-better Raw Deal [1948].)

The opening act alone boasts a snappily executed robbery sequence and an archetypal beat-down/interrogation scene (complete with crazily swinging overhead lamp) before it settles into a groove as a more conventional, yet always watchable, “couple on the lam” road movie.

The weird factor is upped during a stopover at the wife’s Scandinavian adopted parents’ home where, on learning the couple hasn’t had a traditional (read: Old World) wedding ceremony (tsk tsk!), they proceed to whoop it up but good…

Desperate picks up steam again once Burr and his cronies track Brodie and Long to their small town hiding spot. The climactic shootout–expertly staged along the vertical and horizontal axes of a multilevel stairway–is a stunner, clear indication that the formal and technical brilliance to come was there even before teaming up with legendary cameraman John Alton. Though maybe not all the credit for its effectiveness belongs to Mann, since the DP on Desperate was George Diskant (who also lensed Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night [1949] and On Dangerous Ground [1952]), no slouch in his own right.

Historical thriller filtered through the stylized prism of film noir, The Black Book (1949) opens with brisk narration (“France! The Revolution!”) over a wall of fire. Leering faces–shot with a fisheye lens to lend the requisite grotesque distortion–emerge from the flames as the narrator intones their names, a kind of infernal roll call. After the credits, the first shot reveals a severely distorted landscape–it’s as though someone took a classic “John Ford shot” and bent it into the shape of a Chinese fan–all lowering skies and ominous clouds, as a lone rider spurs his horse along a dusty road. The rider is Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) and he’s on a secret mission from the imprisoned Duc de Lafayette. Impersonating a notorious executioner, D’Aubigny worms his way into the good graces of cold fish Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart) who, having just disposed of chief rival Danton, stands poised to become Dictator of the French Republic.

The Black Book is distinguished not so much by strong narrative (though it’s certainly serviceable) as by Mann’s typically forceful visuals: heavy on the shadows, generous with the wide-angles and claustrophobic closeups, ladling out surprisingly strong violence (gunshots generate blood spatter, and even though you know it’s just corn syrup, the razor-sharp editing nevertheless lends it a psychic wallop). The Convention scenes in particular–with its almost vertical wall of irascible faces and gesticulating limbs–make an indelible impression.

Sowing the seeds of the Revisionist Western–with its sympathetic portrait of Native Americans and disdain for the hypocrite logic behind Manifest Destiny, and released the same year as the similarly-themed, if tamer, Broken ArrowDevil’s Doorway (1950) stars Robert Taylor as full-blooded Shoshone Lance Poole, a decorated Civil War hero returning home to find his father dying and his ancestral lands targeted for hostile takeover by crooked shyster Coolan (Louis Calhern). Mann and Alton–it was their third outing and first Western together–forge an impressive visual scheme: outdoor location shots render the landscape (and its inhabitants) with startling clarity–filmed in Colorado, Doorway has a real feel for the land, from dozens of sheep herded through the Bozeman streets kicking up clouds of dust to the Poole home’s idyllic mountainside locale–while indoor scenes retain the impact of earlier films noir, in particular a vicious fistfight in the local saloon.

Aided by lady lawyer Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond), Lance tries the legal-appeal route, to no avail. The System sides with its own. Even the cavalry–usually the trumpet-sounding saviors in nearly every John Ford Western–are out for Shoshone blood. The concluding massacre ends only when the remaining women and children agree to return to their reservation. Dying, Lance Poole suits up in his military finest, marching out to meet the cavalry captain and snapping off a crisp salute, before he falls flat on his face.

It’s a slap in the face to rampant militarism, thus virtually unprecedented in film history, not too many years before certain right-wing members of the Hollywood establishment (John Wayne, Ward Bond and John Ford, chief among them) would agree to collaborate with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the so-called Militant Liberty program–to “‘explain the principles upon which the Free World way of life depends’ and dramatize ‘the magnitude of the danger’ to that way of life” (see J. Hoberman, The Dream Life [2003])–weaving it into the warp and woof of films like The Wings of Eagles (1957).

A return to more conventional filmmaking, The Tall Target (1951) is based, rather loosely (in typical Hollywood fashion), on what’s now known as the 1861 Baltimore Plot.

The film accompanies NYC police detective John Kennedy (Dick Powell) by train to Baltimore, aboard which he suspects several potential assassins are planning to kill President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Confined for almost its entire running time to the train’s interior, the film has to distinguish itself either through acting and story (middling) or else its visuals and, since Mann did not team with John Alton on this one (or George Diskant, for that matter), they too are middling–a well-rendered brawl under the wheels of the smoke-belching train notwithstanding.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to The Films of Anthony Mann (Part 1): Desperate, The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror), Devil’s Doorway, The Tall Target

  1. Pingback: The Films of Anthony Mann (Part 2): Railroaded, Raw Deal, Border Incident, Side Street | That Obscure Object of Desire: Cinema

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