My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
This week focuses on three non-Western collaborations between James Stewart and Anthony Mann.
THUNDER BAY (1953)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
This non-Western from Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart begins as an entertainment but uneventful melodrama but evolves in its second half to be much more.
THUNDER BAY does not feel like a Mann picture at first, presenting the story of an oil-drilling entrepreneur and the community he brushes up against in his latest venture. It pokes along with minor trials and tribulations as a narrative thread with female lead Joanne Dru never comes together in a cohesive way. Dan Duryea keeps things lively with his supporting performance just long enough for the movie to get going around the midpoint.
The storm sequence is the most astonishing part of the picture and everything that follows it has more urgency and impact than what came before. Stewart’s performance, more MR. SMITH than NAKED SPUR, really shines in the last third of the movie and his reaction at the climax of THUNDER BAY belongs in a reel of the actor’s best on screen moments. Of course, that’s where the picture should end but it doesn’t. Like most films of its time, it had to be wrapped up with a nice, happy ending.
Watched on Criterion Channel
THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
This is the most unlikely film for Anthony Mann to have made. The master of Westerns who often dipped his toes in the crime genre and made some damn fine epics at the end of his career isn’t who I’d pick to direct a biopic about a famous musician. But THE GLENN MILLER STORY is proof that Mann, like many directors of his era, was far more versatile than the filmmakers we have today.
Though he does a fine enough job with this Jimmy Stewart collaboration, I do feel there’s something missing, something that might have been handled better by a Michael Curtiz or William Wyler. The film lacks a dramatic urgency, which might be more the screenplay’s fault than the director’s. The major flaw rests in Miller’s struggle to break through as a musician. He succeeds far to early in the narrative and the film spends too much runtime showing how successful he was. For this reason, it lost my attention in the second half. There was no conflict to care about. And then it comes to a screeching end in tragedy.
Mann does handle the final scene well but this isn’t the kind of story he was great at making.
Watched on Criterion Channel.
STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Probably the best of Anthony Mann’s non-Western collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND is deceptively simple.
Touted for its aerial photography, which is stunning, the military melodrama goes through the motions while subtly exploring professionalism and marriage in a way most pictures of its time did not. On the surface, this is a patriotic exercise to demonstrate the American air fleet and sell the Cold War but Anthony Mann is up to something else. He shows a man becoming engrossed in his work and losing his sense of family. Stewart, perhaps best in obsessive roles like VERTIGO and THE NAKED SPUR, shines here as the once-reluctant pilot who ends up thinking of nothing else but flying. June Allyson, as his wife, portrays an enthusiastic young bride who slowly loses touch with her husband. Her breakdown scene is pitch perfect. This picture shares a lot in common with THE GLENN MILLER STORY, another Stewart/Allyson pairing, and whether on purpose or by accident plays off that film to tease the audience’s expectations.
You may not realize it till the end (I didn’t) but Mann is making a darker picture than beautiful aerial photography suggests. Just study that last shot and the look on Allyson’s face. It’s haunting.
Watched on Criterion Channel.