Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Lawless Breed (1953)

WHO: Raoul Walsh directed and was, according to biographer Marilyn Moss, uncredited producer on this film.

WHAT: Walsh's 1941 picture They Died With Their Boots On may have been about George Armstrong Custer, but its title was taken from a 1935 book about three other larger-than-life figures of the Old West: Ben Thompson, Bill Longley, and John Wesley Hardin. Perhaps to make up for this decade-old slight, Walsh eventually did make a film about Hardin based on the outlaw's own memoir, using ascending star Rock Hudson in the role of the well-known gunslinger and gambler (who had been played by John Dehner two years prior as a supporting character in the Phil Karlson-directed The Texas Rangers). That film was The Lawless Breed. It was the first of three films Walsh made with Hudson as lead, all in 1953. It would be followed by the swashbuckler Sea Devils and by another Western Gun Fury, the latter distinguished by having been shot and released in 3-D (although Walsh by this point had lost sight in his right eye, making him, like André De Toth and Herbert L. Strock, a monoscopic director of a stereoscopic picture).

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive at 6:30 PM.

WHY: Being able to attend virtually every screening thus far in the PFA's retrospective A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh has been a highlight of my cinematic year. Thanks to the lifting of the July BART strike just hours before the series launched, I've been able to attend eight out of nine screenings in the series to this point, all except The Big Trail, the only one of the selections I'd seen before (albeit nearly ten years ago). With another strike looming I'm not sure I'll be able to complete the rest of the series, which includes some of Walsh's most well-known titles (yet still unseen by me) like High Sierra and They Drive By Night. But I definitely plan to be at The Lawless Breed tonight, and probably stay for the noir-ish Western Pursued starring Robert Mitchum.

Everything in the series so far has been well worth watching, but certain films and scenes can be singled out as highlights. They Died With Their Boots On and Objective Burma are rah-rah patriotic action films made on the eve of and the near the end of American involvement in World War II, but at least for me, in 2013 they played as compassionate inquiries into the senselessness of martial sacrifice. Objective Burma in particular was overwhelming in 35mm, as light from the projector bombarded my eyes in the climactic night battle sequence, like luminous shrapnel being cast from a flicker-form grenade. Silent films Regeneration and What Price Glory benefited from crack piano accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg, and made me hope that more Walsh silents like The Red Dance or (although it is considered a lost film) The Honor System might make it onto a screen in my vicinity in my lifetime. Of the four pre-code era films in the series, it was hard to beat the series openers Sailor's Luck and Me And My Gal for their exuberant humor and earnest sentiment, but I also very much appreciated seeing Wild Girl the other night, one of the few early-1930s Westerns I've seen that's recognizable to modern audiences as a "pre-code" film, with Joan Bennett starring as a woman with the kind of sexual energy generally stamped out of Hollywood pictures after 1934, and some wonderfully risque dialogue by supporting cast players such as Eugene Pallette and Minna Gombell.

New York Times DVD reviewer Dave Kehr was in town to present Wild Girl and to discuss "the future of classic films" (to latch onto a phrase Kehr sheepishly coined on the spot) and other topics with local critic Michael Fox and a highly-engaged audience. Though I very much related to one audience member's comment that the discussion didn't go very far in exploring the challenges of using the written word to encourage audiences to congregate to watch films made to be seen collectively, I was nonetheless stimulated by the conversation that did take place, mostly centering on the lamentably increasing unavailability of all but the most solidly canonized classic film titles without resorting to bootlegs of questionable quality.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information Kehr related regarded a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (I think it's section 108-h) that should allow libraries and archives to distribute at least certain films (from my understanding, those made in the 1920s and 30s at any rate) that copyright owners refuse to circulate "at a reasonable price". Could the intentional studio withering of their repertory, DVD and streaming distribution channels put thousands of unavailable titles into a legal zone in which they could be distributed by a place like the PFA in lieu of commercial distribution? A lawyer would be the only one to be able to hazard an informed guess, but the prospect is surely tantalizing.  With copyright extension likely to become a major policy battle in Washington in the next five years as the 1998 extension's expiration looms in 2018, the landscape could shift dramatically relatively soon- or it might not change at all. But in the meantime, I hope to take advantage of rare opportunities to see films like The Lawless Breed when I can.

HOW: The Lawless Breed screens via a new 35mm print, following a 6:00 book-signing event with Kehr on hand with copies of his recent anthology When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade.

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