Saturday, October 19, 2013

DVR Diary: RAWHIDE (1951)

The first awesome thing about this Henry Hathaway western from Twentieth-Century Fox is that it's a remake of a 1935 modern-dress crime picture called Show Them No Mercy. I've never seen that picture, but the mere existence in that year of a film with that title is kind of awesome. It sounds more like something you'd see on a Times Square marquee around 1980, and it's definitely a better title than Rawhide, which only reminds you of the unrelated TV series on which Clint Eastwood served his apprenticeship. It's worlds better than the alternate title, Desperate Siege, the studio came up with later to avoid confusion with the Eastwood show. Hathaway's film is worthy of the better title. It's an intense, tightly shot thriller about good and bad people trapped in a situation rapidly deteriorating out of anyone's control.

The next awesome thing about Rawhide is the way it ruthlessly stomps on our expectations of genre heroism. In the star role, Tyrone Power is steadfastly, stubbornly helpless throughout. He's a greenhorn with the Overland Mail -- the "Jackass Mail," as an obnoxious prologue narrator is happy to remind us -- who ends up taken hostage by four escaped convicts who intend to use him in their scheme to hijack a gold shipment. His fellow hostages are Susan Hayward and her baby girl -- for Code purposes, the child is her niece. Their every attempt to thwart the criminals and escape their predicament fails. Hathaway builds up quite a bit of suspense as hero and heroine chop away at some adobe brickwork under a bunk in the room they're trapped in, with the toddling about and babbling of the infant as wild counterpoint, only to have everything possible go wrong. In the end the characters owe their survival to the inherent instability of the convict gang and the random intervention of the baby, who manages to crawl through the little hole that had been made in the wall and provoke a final round of madness. Hathaway is unafraid to show the toddler in peril, whether she wanders between the legs of skittish horses or stands like a sitting duck in the wide-open as a gunman fires warning shots to force Power out of cover. The poor tyke clearly isn't acting when Hathaway has squibs set off in the dirt on either side of her; how could she realize what the hell is going on? But it fits the insanity of the last reel, which climaxes with the Power character as grimly helpless as ever and the Hayward character actually saving the day and her little girl.

"Insanity" is my cue to mention the most awesome thing about Hathaway's Rawhide, which is Jack Elam, here almost at the start of a long, grizzled career as a western character actor. After his appearance as the villain in Alan LeMay's indy western High Lonesome, Rawhide was Elam's first prominent appearance in a Hollywood western, and boy, does he make the most of it. Gaunt and ghastly, like a devolved John Carradine, he plays one of the lieutenants of Hugh Marlowe's brusquely thuggish mastermind, one increasingly resentful of Marlowe's dominance. I'd call it a slow burn performance except that it starts at about the two-alarm level as Elam shoots Edgar Buchanan in the back and builds to a human holocaust. He looks ready to snap, and not for the first time, when Marlowe slaps a glass of liquor out of his hand. Hathaway keeps the camera on him for what seems a longer time than it actually is as Elam trembles with shock, fear and rage before calming down. Later, when Hayward realizes that the baby is out in the open and screams for her to come back, Elam goes berserk -- I ought to say to the next level of berserk -- his desire to shut her up turning quickly into a desire to rape her. When Marlowe intervenes Elam is reduced to begging for his life, but just when you think the situation has stabilized to set up the conventional finish, Elam destabilizes it from out of nowhere. He really destabilizes the entire picture, giving Rawhide an all-bets-are-off quality uncommon in Hollywood pictures of the period, even the more hard-boiled "adult" westerns. That quality makes Rawhide very effective as a western thriller while arguably subverting genre conventions by thwarting a conventional resolution. I don't know if it was Hathaway's idea or a producer's to bracket the story with those trite narratives about the Jackass Mail. Someone at Fox may have thought to pass Rawhide off as one of the studio's patriotic pioneer epics, but if you sense a note of mockery when the narrator returns at the end to rave about the Jackass Mail, I suspect that Hathaway and company intended you to do so.

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