Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Quickies: THE BADLANDERS (1958)

Delmer Daves ought to be mentioned more frequently alongside Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher as a leading director of westerns during the peak decade of the 1950s. Daves helped kick off the Fifties with Broken Arrow, the film that set a new standard of sensitivity toward Native Americans (and had the regrettable side effect of making Jeff Chandler a star). Like Mann, Daves worked in other genres during the decade (including Demetrius and the Gladiators, a sequel more entertaining than its progenitor, The Robe), but the westerns are probably his best work. He really hit his stride starting with Jubal in 1956, which he followed with The Last Wagon, 3:10 to Yuma, and Cowboy, to name the ones I've seen and admired, before making The Badlanders, his penultimate western, for M-G-M. This one is a trickier proposition than the others, because it's based on a novel by W.R. Burnett. That novel is The Asphalt Jungle.

That's right: Daves and writer Richard Collins converted the definitive noir heist story, already filmed by John Huston eight years earlier, into a western. The story actually converts fairly smoothly, Collins tightening things up a bit to establish a prison relationship between the two lead conspirators. In Huston's film the mastermind was played by Sam Jaffe, the muscle by Sterling Hayden. For Daves, the muscle is provided by Ernest Borgnine -- a fair trade. More risky is the exchange of Jaffe for Alan Ladd, who gets top billing. Ladd is Peter "the Dutchman" Van Hoek, a mining engineer who was framed for robbery by a corrupt marshall and sent to Yuma Penitentiary. Borgnine is John McBain, jailed for fighting back against the men who swindled him out of his ranch. The Dutchman wants McBain, scheduled for release ahead of him, to be his outside partner on some vague scheme, but the bitter McBain "wouldn't take God for a partner." They seem to become enemies when Van Hoek stops McBain from attacking a guard who'd abused another prisoner, but they end up in the same place when the Dutchman's good deed earns him an early release while McBain's thwarted attack is forgiven. Dutch ultimately convinces McBain to join him in a plan to steal a secret vein of gold from a mine that happens to be on McBain's old land. They'll be working for a mine owner who's poised to lose his mine in a divorce settlement but wants to start fresh with his mistress, for whom Dutch himself has an eager eye.

While Ladd gets top billing, Borgnine gradually dominates the film as Collins and Daves develop a romantic subplot for him and his real-life girlfriend Katy Jurado. This storyline takes Daves back to Broken Arrow territory, in a way, as McBain becomes a champion of the underdog minority, protecting Anita, a Mexican woman, from violation by white bigots. While the Dutchman schemes, McBain holes up in the Mexican neighborhood and laments its poverty. He teams up with Dutch mainly to help the Mexicans, out of his growing affection for Anita, who in turn sees the good man beneath Borgnine's brutish exterior. Jurado and Borgnine have authentic chemistry, and you get the feeling while watching that the film was rewritten while shot to spotlight the couple. The tension and distrust you expect to simmer between Borgnine and Ladd rapidly dissipates as we realize that both men are good guys after all, but both actors are likable enough that those who recognize the Asphalt Jungle template should be willing to follow the new directions the characters travel. This does become a challenge once it becomes clear that The Badlanders will have a happy ending, but if we take the film on its own terms, I think it works as a suspenseful adventure, especially during the impressively art-directed mine heist, with social consciousness thrown in as a bonus. Still, I couldn't help thinking what the Italians would have done with the concept a decade later. To faithfully translate Asphalt Jungle into a western, you'd probably have to make a spaghetti western. To deviate from Burnett and Huston's grim finish will understandably seem like a cop-out to some viewers, and the absence of real tension between Ladd and Borgnine after the first reels reduces Badlanders to minor Daves. But minor Daves still has a narrative drive and a knack for highlighting strong character that makes this movie worth a look for western fans.

Here's the trailer from TCM:

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