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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Black Bart (George Sherman, 1948)

Further Investigation, 1948

George Sherman's western deserves recognition for being one of the only movies to feature the legendary Lola Montez as a central character - in fact, the canonical Max Ophüls biopic did not appear for another seven years. This movie, an 80-minute Technicolor genre piece of modest means, name-checks her Bavarian phase (which Ophüls would depict memorably, to say the least) twice, but it's really all just scaffolding to promote the legendarily gorgeous, and legendarily leggy, Yvonne De Carlo: if not for the expository dialogue regarding how she got six figures' worth of diamonds to tote through the wild west, her role functions purely for spectacle and scripted love interest. Yes, it's true, this B-western does not have the contemplative aspect, or the spellbinding mise-en-scene, that helped Ophüls's film to be regarded as an all-time masterpiece.

Then again, few films do. What's worth considering is what, if anything, distinguishes Black Bart from its mere description:  a rather light, anti-hero western with a significant share of its running time devoted to a showgirl/"it" girl/A-list glamour girl.  Sherman's style is clean and casual, depicting action sequences from a medium-wide perspective.  Black Bart's heists are cut against news coverage, cleverly allowing two years to pass in a few seconds' worth of montage - the left-to-right kind, not the spinning-front-page kind.  Character actor Percy Kilbride steals a great deal of the picture with a few, short scenes:

Yes, I believe he has just the one shirt for the entire picture.

Almost at the halfway point, the movie serves its big number, a highly sexualized cabaret performance by Ms. Montez.  A few words about build-up, which is achieved to singular effect by Sherman.  You will, I hope, agree that when a film is 80 minutes long, and made in the short-sweet-and-to-the-point idiom of Hollywood's more budget-conscious production front, that when you are 15 minutes in, and the film has established itself as a routine (if pleasant) genre picture, with dependable character types and all the usual trimmings, that you have a pretty good idea how the remaining 65 minutes are going to go.  Black Bart gets the viewer going along this path, and then introduces a new, highly disruptive element.  After observing the discussion between a couple of Wells Fargo men as they consider the ongoing crisis of an outlaw who is holding their corporation hostage with his relentless stagecoach heists, the sharp, staccatto pounding of nails is heard as, right in their midst, a showman is just putting the finishing touches on a one-sheet advertising the imminent arrival of the world-renowned exotic dancer, Lola Montez. 

"I'm not interested in the woman you're advertising.  I'm interested in those diamonds."
Without delay, the film consolidates two storylines into one:  that of the title character (played by Dan Duryea, as only he could play a gentleman hold-up man), and that of the film's top-billed star (De Carlo), allowing the film, using the tool of deferred pleasure, to build toward the inevitable "big show."  Within minutes of this poster's appearance, we meet Montez on a stagecoach (her conveyance of choice in the Ophüls, too), which is quite naturally hijacked by Bart (but not for the reasons you'd expect), and we're off.

What is not mentioned very often in discussions of genre cinema is the employment of (visual, narrative, aural) disruptive elements, although the musical production number is the one that is used more often than not, even in noir films and westerns.  Sherman (with his writers, William Bowers, Luci Ward, and Jack Natteford) not only stops the film for a little song and dance, he structures several frames around the event, similar to the way one exit from the highway has three or four warning signs. Certainly De Carlo's star power demanded nothing less, but Sherman takes advantage of the structure to include a few side benefits.

In the afternoon prior to the show, Bart confronts his on-again-off-again partners-in-crime at the saloon.  He's dressed to the nines, they're sipping whiskey as they savor their newfound status as legitimized Wells Fargo muscle.  In spite of the fact that the pair cheated him out of a prior heist and left him holding the bag, there's no hard feelings, and he invites them to the show. (I'd explain why he's sitting in the catbird seat, with amazing threads and VIP access to the event, but that would be telling.)  They reconvene later, in more appropriate attire (comparatively dressed down a notch for him and up for them; the late-1840s equivalent of a polo shirt and Hilfiger pants and a little too much cologne), and descend upon the theater, where he has box seats.

What's going on here is that Sherman has quietly, but potently, applied the brakes on the heist narrative, and enhanced our experience of moment-to-moment life in an up-and-coming frontier town, temporarily reconfiguring the crude pre-metropolis into a zone of refinement, respect, and luxury.  We are given a demonstration of how the townspeople (men, mostly) are brought up and out of the muddy chaos, with the right enticement.  It's a delicate declaration of equality that extends even to the "lowest" of men.

The camera follows the trio through the theater, but also backs off to survey the performance/spectator space. This is easily the film's most elegant set of camera movements.


The above stills were taken from one single camera movement across the rear of the auditorium, all while keeping an eye on the trio as they re-emerge in the forward-most, stage-right loge. There is a cut to isolate the trio from the audience, followed by a similar pan that gives us a prime view of the proscenium:

In a tracking shot that echoes the one that came before it, the camera dollies back across the orchestra and audience, and the film cuts to a vivid medium closeup of the emcee.

His introduction is short and sharp.  We are all set and ready to go. Before we can stand to wait any longer, the camera whip-pans stage left...
The curtain rises...

...and Lola hits the screen.  In an appearance that has been anticipated by a series of disruptions and arrests, we are still unprepared for this shotgun blast of star power.  It's almost confrontational, the suddenness and magnitude.  It's also worth emphasizing that De Carlo is a highly sexualized figure, and she's onscreen to give us a highly suggestive dance, and that she's playing the role of one of the most famous figures of female sexuality in history.  The film is very nearly up to that tall order.

(It's important to note, in case this narrative of stills implies otherwise, that De Carlo has been in the film for most of the preceding 40 minutes.  It's not that she's just appearing now, a la Harry Lime in The Third Man.)

(But that might as well be the case.)

Everyone is dressed in their finest, and the film observes how dressing up for a big to-do means different things to different people, but also that everyone in attendance has made a significant effort to look his or her very best, and when a couple of haggard, bearded winos pass the bottle during the performance, they do it with a respectability that approaches that of a Japanese tea ceremony.

This sequence captures something rare for the cinema, besides what I have already mentioned (its democratic well-wishing, its transmission of star power), and that is the phenomenon of the sheer power of a live performance as it is propagated - and amplified - by a small, almost constricted, space.  Sherman's camera has inscribed the length and the width of the auditorium twice in two consecutive shots, and continues to emphasize the enclosure through reverse and sidelong shots across the orchestra, the spectators, the stage, and the loges.  Few films - let alone second-tier genre fare - have been able to capture the immediacy of live performance:  the cramped intimacy, the shock of the performer who broadcasts her charisma through a small but dense crowd, the way the small space compounds that effect.

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