Monday, February 9, 2015

DVR Diary: ONE FOOT IN HELL (1960)

Shane should have turned Alan Ladd's career around,but while it's now his best known role, it didn't reverse his long-term decline. Immediately afterward he was still making self-evident A pictures like Delmer Daves's Drum Beat. But by the end of the Fifties his pictures were little better than Bs, and the man himself was in clear physical decline. In 1960 his face looks bloated and uncomfortable, and in this particular picture a certain bitterness comes through because his part requires it. In a script co-written by future TV mogul Aaron Spelling, Ladd plays a wronged man who turns stone cold evil -- who becomes an anti-Shane. It's the "one bad day" theory of character development; Mitch Garrett (Ladd) comes to town with a sick wife going into labor. There is room at the inn, but Mitch has to use his last ready cash to pay in advance. He finds a doctor who prescribes some crucial medicine, but the druggist demands $1.87 up front. A desperate Mitch pulls a gun, grabs the stuff and runs for the hotel, but the druggist cries thief and gets the sheriff to intercept our man. Mitch convinces them to let the doctor straighten things out, but by the time they return to the hotel Mrs. Mitch has died. The conscience-stricken townspeople think the best thing to do for Mitch is give him a job. The sheriff goes so far as to make him a deputy, and within a few years Mitch is a solid citizen. We learn soon enough that Mitch is nursing a long-term grudge. He means to ruin the town by robbing the main bank at the time the cattle drive comes to town. Gradually he recruits a team, redeeming a drunken cartoonist and fellow ex-Confederate, Dan Keats (Don Murray), while drawing more sinister men into his orbit. They are all expendable men; Mitch expects to lead a posse and exterminate his partners before taking the money and running, but he doesn't expect Dan to grow a conscience or fall in love with a saloon girl (Dolores Michaels) who's also part of the master plan....

Ladd is the whole show here, and the drama of watching One Foot in Hell is waiting for him to crack. Its small triumph is that he doesn't. He never seeks to vindicate himself beyond muttering grimly about that $1.87. There's no soul-baring speech, no displays of obsessive grief after his first despair over the wife's death. Frankly, after seeing Ladd emote then you'll be glad he doesn't bother later. But his cold performance is the right approach to a character who, arguably like the actor about his career, doesn't give a damn about anything anymore. It brings Ladd almost back full-circle to his star-making mostly emotionless performance in This Gun For Hire, and it's one of his most badass performances precisely because he's so cold, or numb. It still isn't a very good film, but at the tail end of a great era for "adult" westerns James B. Clark's film is one of the darkest. Clark is competent enough, but the film's most spectacular or alarming moment is most likely a second-unit achievement: a storefront explodes just as a herd of cattle is moving up the street. Animals clearly were harmed during this production, but deplorable as that is, it highlight's the picture's take-no-prisoners approach. One Foot was Ladd's penultimate starring role in Hollywood, and if his public was abandoning him, this was him abandoning them, and there's something almost tragically heroic about it.

No comments: