Filed under: film | Tags: 1957, aldo ray, anne bancroft, anthony mann, inglourious basterds, jacques tourneur, men in war, nightfall, out of the past, robert ryan
I consider myself a fan of classic Hollywood cinema, yet prior to press for Inglourious Basterds, I had never heard the name Aldo Ray. Certainly I’m not the only one, yet some poking around has told me he was hardly a nobody, he received above the title billing alongside Jane Wyman, Humphrey Bogart, Ray Milland, Robert Ryan and several others. He acted in films by George Cukor, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz. Granted he only seemed to have that kind of clout for a period of about 5 years in the mid-50’s and very few of the films he starred in are remembered as classics. His star declined in the 60’s and by the 70’s he had resorted taking roles in exploitation films, which led to his acting in even lesser pictures throughout the 80’s (apparently trying to cover medical costs accumulated while fighting throat cancer). However, viewing a few of his films has revealed that he had a very interesting screen presence, and I’m glad Tarantino has brought his name somewhat back into vogue. I’d like to bring to your attention two forgotten films he starred in from 1957.
Men in War was either my first or second Anthony Mann film, I feel like I’ve seen The Furies, but I don’t really remember it. Irregardless, I was very impressed. The film takes place in the Korean War and concerns a squadron of soldiers who are stranded in enemy territory without radio contact. Mann very ably places the audience in the soldiers’ boots and creates a sense of uncertainty, a feeling that anything could come from any direction, a feeling that nobody is safe. In that way it is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.
While the squadron attempts to take a hill with no means of transportation for their food and ammo, Aldo Ray comes rambling by in a jeep, attempting to get his shell-shocked colonel back to civilization. Robert Ryan’s lieutenant pulls rank on Ray and commandeers his jeep. Much of the drama in the film is derived from their war of wills. Watching Ray and Ryan attempt to outwit one another is one of the great pleasures of Men in War.
I’m typically not a fan of war films, but much like the aforementioned Hurt Locker, I feel Men in War is very effective at capturing the horrors and uncertainties of war by immersing the audience in the soldiers’ situation and creating suspense. It’s a much different approach than many of the hero worship war films of the 40’s (I understand the political motivations behind them) and the sentimentalized war films of the present like Saving Private Ryan. There are occasions where Mann flirts with these cliches but I feel he is rather successful in avoiding them.
Whether Mann had any grandiose notions or whether he was merely attempting to make an engaging film, I feel he captured some truth with his film. Robert Ryan is fantastic as Robert Ryan so often is, but in my opinion Aldo Ray steals the film from him. He gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. At the beginning of the film he is viewed as a disagreeable impediment to Robert Ryan’s progress, but as the story unfolds new layers of his character are unveiled and by the end we are presented with a complex human being. His motivations are conflicted and driven by feelings that are hidden behind the tough guy exterior he presents early on.
Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Anthony Mann, an Elmer Bernstein score, it’s a shame that Men in War has been as overlooked as the war it portrays.
Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is often mentioned in ‘best film-noir’ discussions, but you never hear about Nightfall, in my opinion a better film. Some of this owes to Aldo Ray’s performance, but let’s not get crazy, while he’s a great character actor, he isn’t Robert Mitchum. No, it’s just a wonderfully constructed film built on Sterling Silliphant’s adaptation of a David Goodis novel. I think Goodis might be the X-factor here. He’s known for his snappy dialogue and you rarely come across a discussion of his work in which the term ‘hard-boiled’ is not employed. His most famous film adaptations are probaby Shoot the Piano Player and Dark Passage. Nightfall can stand shoulder to shoulder with either of them.
As the film opens we sense an aura around Ray’s character but aren’t sure why he’s acting so cagey or what his problems are. These are revealed, much like in Out of the Past, via a series of flashbacks, and we find he’s engaged in a Wrong Man scenario and is on the run. He’s being chased by two criminals and an insurance investigator, and he develops a relationship with Anne Bancroft along the way, 10 years before Benjamin Braddock had the pleasure. Ray’s casting may seem a bit odd on the surface, but he has a wonderful vulnerability to his acting that suits the role to a tee.
The climax of the film gathers all the key characters in that snowy wilderness. It’s a fantastic scene, featuring some of the films best dialogue and an ending that in some ways recalls the Coen Brothers masterpiece Fargo. The back and forth between the criminals on Ray’s trail is great and it reaches a head here. It’s a fine ending to one of the better films noir I’ve seen. When set alongside Night of the Demon it’s easy to look at 1957 as the most impressive year of Tourneur’s career, it’s a shame neither film has the reputation they deserve, and as of yet Nightfall is not available on home video. I highly recommend tracking it down or keeping an eye out to see when it next airs on TCM.
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