Monday, December 19, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Broken Lance" (1954)

Here's a description I found of Jerome Weidman's 1941 novel, "I'll Never Go There Anymore," unread by me:
This semi-classic Weidman novel places a handful of vibrant characters together for a two week stay at a lonely summer cabin. "A summer vacation thrust him into manhood."
And yet this largely forgotten book was turned into not one, not two but three disparate movies spread out over just 12 years. First was 1949's contemporaneous "House of Strangers" starring Edward G. Robinson as a corrupt New York City banker. For 1954's "Broken Lance," the story was transposed to the wide open country during the late 19th century, featuring Spencer Tracy as a hard-bitten cattle baron. Finally Esther Williams and Cliff Robertson starred in 1961's "The Big Show," set in the world of a traveling German circus.

Talk about artistic license. A summer vacation story gets turned into a film noir, a Western epic and a European flying trapeze romance?

At their hearts, though, all of the stories are about a strong father figure struggling to wrangle his offspring and deal with his own tragic choices. "Lance," directed by Edward Dmytryk, takes on Shakespearean notes at time, with the tale of four brothers vying for the scraps of dad's crumbling domain, while the once-vital patriarch slips further and further into physical and spiritual decay.

Interestingly, the screenplay by Richard Murphy was not nominated by for an Academy Award -- nor did it deserve to be -- but the story by Philip Yordan actually won the Oscar. The Academy has shifted around the writing categories more than any other award area over the years, though they've been pretty stable since about 1970. Prior to 1957 there were separate story and screenwriting awards.

Under modern rules, a "story by" credit means the writer had to have submitted an earlier version of the script, or at least a treatment or some kind of written product. Simply "having an idea" doesn't get you a story credit -- otherwise, a lot of producers would be considered writers.

I thought Dmytryk, a journeyman with many notable credits to his name (including "Crossfire," "The End of the Affair" and "The Caine Mutiny"), does a fine job shooting the rocky vistas, making excellent use of the CinemaScope widescreen format.

I did have one significant complaint, however: the lack of close-ups for Spencer Tracy. Tracy was a famously naturalistic performer, whose subtle facial cues and postures could convey a lot of emotional information with just a centimeter of movement. But Dmytryk keeps his camera at middle distance or further for nearly the entire film. That tends to let the orneriness of his character, Matt Devereaux, play out but not his little moments of self-doubt and reconciliation.

Contrastingly, young Robert Wagner is given many loving close-ups as Matt's youngest (and prettiest) son, Joe. Given a slight color tinge to reflect Joe's "half-breed" Indian status, the camera swoops in adoringly for him again and again.

Joe's a pretty straightforward and uninteresting character, the good son who stands by his father while his brothers all stab him in the back. Richard Widmark plays Ben, the oldest, still resentful over a lifetime of being treated more like a hired cowpuncher than heir apparent. Ben is certainly savvy and probably would make a good next-generation cattleman -- he suggests opening an office in town to negotiate the best prices with the Chicago meat markets.

But Matt is an old-school authoritarian type. He expects his sons to be eternally loyal and subservient. He built an empire with his own two hands, and wants to keep it that way forever. 

When the two dimwitted middle kids -- Mike (Hugh O'Brian) and Denny (Earl Holliman) -- steal a couple of old steers to supplement the meager $40 a month wage the old man gives them, he's ready to send them packing. Matt callously kills the two Mexicans who helped them, as he's done his whole life to rustlers or anyone who tried to infringe upon his land. Tin stars and courtrooms are unnecessary delays in the attainment of justice, Matt figures, strongly prejudiced toward the frontier kind.

Matt doesn't kill the Indian hands who also assisted in the theft, since it's obvious Matt has a tender spot for their kind. His wife, played by Katy Jurado (who got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod), is addressed by all as SeƱora, despite being a for-real Comanche "princess" (daughter of the chief). He married her after his first wife, mother of his three oldest, died during the hard early years on the Devereaux ranch.

It's a true romance, but racial prejudice is always loitering just outside the door. Horace, the bendable governor played by E.G. Marshall, owes his position to Matt's pulling the levers of power. But when Joe starts to fall for his own daughter, Barbara (Jean Peters), the governor registers his objections while apologizing for his inability to change with the times.

Matt abruptly ends their friendship just when he needed it the most. A trial is coming after Matt and his boys raided a copper mine that was dumping its waste into his stream, killing 40 head of cattle. Despite the inconsequential nature of the loss -- representing something like 0.08% of Devereaux's massive herd -- Matt sternly orders the mine foreman,  Mac Andrews (Robert Burton), to shut down or be shut down.

When the scores of miners learn their livelihood is threatened by a bossy cattleman and his four sons, they prepare to put an end to the Devereaux clan. But then Two Moons (Eduard Franz), Matt's trusted Indian foreman, rides in with their own men and lay waste to the mine.

Nobody's killed, but Matt is put on trial and his cussed obstinance on the witness stand -- repeatedly threatening the opposing attorney (Philip Ober) with bodily harm -- pretty much puts the nails in the coffin.

To save his dad, Joe claims that he started the fight and gets sentenced to three years in jail. His release from prison acts as a framing device, with Joe now the prodigal son returned to the dusty ruins of the ranch, which is gradually being turned over to oil drilling.

Matt had a stroke after losing his honor by allowing Joe to take the fall, a raging dog confined to his chair with no bite to back up the bark. He foolishly split up the ranch among his four sons as a preventive move in case the court case went against him, but that now means Ben, with the support of the brothers dim, is now in charge.

In perhaps the film's best scene, Matt begs Ben not to sell off part of the ranch to oilmen, and is haughtily refused. Widmark and Tracy really go at each other, two men who are two alike to ever really get along with each other. Matt confesses that he couldn't stand his own father's stern yoke and rode off to seek his fortune, and it's clear that he would have preferred Ben follow suit.

Really, this is what the movie should have been about. The lackluster Joe character and the needless romance aspect should all have been given the dusty boot.

At 96 minutes, "Broken Lance" aspires to be an epic Western but just doesn't have the narrative sweep and distinctive characters to go any higher than it is: a serviceable story of fathers and sons, squabbling on the squalid plains.

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