Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

.
.
Superb Western noir
.
.
“Life is a betrayal. Let’s have the guts to admit it.”  André De Toth
.
.
André De Toth, whose first Western Ramrod was, was an interesting fellow. Hungarian (his real name was Sâsvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály, which probably wasn’t too Hollywood-friendly) he directed five films in pre-War Europe, served as an assistant to Alexander Korda in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1942.
 .
.
André de Toth

.

Though assigned to low-budget movies and struggling to make his way, he somehow met and married big Paramount star Veronica Lake. She was to be the female lead of Ramrod, with the character’s name of Connie, actually her own birth name.
.
.
Veronica Lake: poker-faced but it wasn’t Western poker. Should have stuck to noirs.

.

The movie was to have been directed by John Ford (an interesting might-have-been) but he was taken up with My Darling Clementine at Fox and to producer Harry Sherman he suggested De Toth in his place.

 

De Toth was to write and/or direct twelve Westerns and he really liked them, as indeed many of these European exiles loved the American hard-boiled. His first oater as director, Ramrod, and his last, Day of the Outlaw, were certainly his finest achievements in the genre. His co-writing of The Gunfighter for Henry King in 1950 was also outstanding, although he did also direct some good oaters with Randolph Scott. It is interesting that the top three Westerns he was involved in were all noir. In the non-Western arena De Toth was a master of noir, as viewers of the likes of Pitfall and Crime Wave will know. De Toth once said, “The fringed jacket of a cowboy or the business suit of an insurance investigator – they might as well be the same.”
.
.
It was the first film of producer Sherman’s new company, Enterprise. He thought (and he was right) that post-war audiences, especially returning soldiers, would want grittier, more adult and less romantic Westerns. That was De Toth’s remit.

 

Ramrod is a very good film. The movie has two huge advantages aprt from its director. It was written by Luke Short and starred Joel McCrea.

 

1.    Short was one of the greatest of all Western novelists, well above the pulp line, and many of his books were made into quality Western movies. The stories combined Western and noir very effectively; they were dark and they had dislocated central characters, crime themes, and often, a femme fatale. When noir came to the Western in the late 1940s, Short stories were ideal material. They are taut, gripping and authentic, and they contain real characters who think – and develop. Ramrod, the book, is a very good read. And the film is an unusually close rendition of the book.
.
.
Luke Short
.
The book
.
.
2.    Joel McCrea was in 35 Westerns between 1933 and 1976 and managed to avoid Italian and TV Westerns (with the sole exception of NBC’s Wichita Town 1959 – 60). Many were top-notch oaters and there were other good ones too. He was always quiet, decent but determined. In Ramrod he plays a slightly different character, Dave Nash, just out of a bout of hard drinking, traumatized after the death of his wife and son, hired to ramrod Veronica Lake’s outfit when she goes it alone to spite her daddy. He’s perhaps not the usual Western hero. He’s quite compliant, passive, even. That will change, though.
.
.
McCrea: a great Western hero

.

Actually, McCrea wasn’t too keen on De Toth and expressed a preference for Raoul Walsh, but Walsh was over at Warners helming another noir Western, Pursued, with Robert Mitchum. 

 

Other plus points come from the excellent black & white photography of the Utah locations by Russell Harlan, with noirish tints that suit the plot admirably. Noir Westerns were all the rage at the end of the 40s. And there is rather delightful Adolph Deutsch music, which plays variations on a theme of These Thousand Hills but without the cheesy 50s Hollywood angel choirs in the movie of that name. 

 

I also liked the fact that a strong, independent woman was at the center of the story, not just an add-on as in so many Westerns, even if she comes across as a scheming siren without scruples. This was typical for noir, and a typical Short trait, in fact, though relatively rare in Western movies then. The woman’s strength is underlined by the fact that many of the men are gullible or weak. Bertrand Tavernier has said, “Long before Johnny Guitar, Ramrod made women the real heroines of the story.” I suppose that depends on your definition of heroine but certainly I can’t think of such a manupulative femme fatale in an earlier Western.

 

So the movie had a lot going for it and indeed, many aficionados do regard it as a classic.
.
.
Scorsese likes it

.

However, it does also have some weaknesses. Veronica Lake, for one. This was her only Western (though she was also in a Juarez Mexico Lippert picture in 1951) and it was abundantly clear that this glacial, neurotic, 1940s Hollywood lady did not suit the genre. Of course, she looks glamorous. Her husband lovingly filmed her in her best light, often in soft focus, with flowing curls framing her face. But as a Western rancher woman she doesn’t convince one bit. She should have stuck to crime noirs with Alan Ladd. Actually, McCrea had reservations about Lake too. “When you work with the director’s wife, it’s for the birds.” Though I’m not the greatest Barbara Stanwyck fan, I do think she would have been better in the part of Connie. De Toth directed a noir with her the same year, The Other Love, and McCrea of course starred with her in three Westerns, The Great Man’s Lady, Union Pacific and Trooper Hook. 

 

Then, despite the carefully crafted story, De Toth and his scriptwriters (three are credited, Jack Moffitt, Graham Baker and Cecile Kramer) play about with it so that the first reel is not easy to follow. A lot of names of people we haven’t met yet are bandied about. Actually, you need to see it twice. Fortunately, this is no hardship.
.
.
Why it was called Woman of Fire, I don’t know. Woman of ice, maybe

.

Some of the support acting also is not the very best. Don DeFore, as the good-bad pal of McCrea, a little like Steve in The Virginian, wasn’t right in the part. It was in fact his only Western movie, probably sensibly. And Donald Crisp was the sheriff. Oxford-educated Englishman Crisp appeared in a number of Westerns and was used by John Ford but didn’t really convince in them. He did nine back in the silent days as actor or director, that was OK, then was in the unfortunate Cagney/Bogart movie The Oklahoma Kid, as the judge. After Ramrod, he did Whispering Smith with Alan Ladd and The Man from Laramie with James Stewart and a couple of others. But he wasn’t right either and probably should have stuck to Easterner parts.
.
.
Crisp: an unconvincing tough sheriff

.

On the other side of the coin, Arleen Whelan is the anti-Lake, the other woman, a simple dressmaker who really loves Joel, and she is rather good, and Preston Foster is the ruthless cattle baron. There are small parts for a young Lloyd Bridges and good old Ray Teal (he comes to another sticky end), so it’s not all bad.
.
.
There’s a traditional ending with a showdown between hero and chief villain. You may guess who falls. Veronica is pleased and tells Joel that they now have everything they wanted. “You and I. All this is ours now for the rest of our lives.” Joel gives her a cold response: “Not ‘we’, Connie. Just you alone.” And he goes off to the comfort of the decent dressmaker.
.
.
It’s a story in which betrayal is everywhere.
.
.
In a 2003 article Senses of Cinema Rick Thompson wrote of Ramrod, “I see it as a turning-point film – a skillful and moving summary of a long tradition … and a definitive break with that tradition, setting up a new area of posssibilities which proceed to change the genre – in the direction of film noir.”
.
.
Martin Scorsese considers Ramrod a masterpiece. Well, it may be. I’m no Scorsese, only a Western buff. All I can say is that I love watching it; it’s very, very good.

 

By the way, if you’re interested, you can find this blog’s essay on the noir Western here.

 .

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments
Labels