Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bend of the River (1952)

Can a man change his nature? This is the key question posed by Anthony Mann's solid Western. Mann tests this query by contrasting James Stewart's dogged wagon-train guide and Arthur Kennedy's quick-draw cowboy. It's made clear that these two share some form of a common seedy history (when Mann parallels the noose around Kennedy's neck at an impromptu hanging with the handkerchief around Stewart's neck); the difference is in how they conduct themselves. They're both trying to transition into the straight life, and as they go their paths converge and diverge at various points. Ultimately, it comes down to what matters to each man, and that's where their true natures come out (and where the drama comes from). Also interesting is how Stewart and Kennedy's alliance holds fast as long as they dance around certain truths -- an arrangement presaged by Kennedy's assurement to a woman in the wagon train that the Indian whoops they hear are mere bird calls from 'red-winged orioles.' It's a fine oater that gets stronger as it goes, all the way through the tight and brutal climax, and one that also gives a rare glimpse of Stewart at his scariest (check out the seething intensity on his face when he hisses to Kennedy, "You'll be seein' me"). Mann's direction is as economical and effective as it had ever been, though not without some surprising stylistic flourishes, especially in the use of foreground/background space. (Note how two killings -- one of an Indian, one of a cowboy -- each have the victim's head filling the frame, effectively bringing the film's morality full circle.) The inclusion of a strong heroine seems a bit unusual for this time period (the Western still being a big ol' boy's club); the inclusion of grotesque racial stereotyping via Stepin Fetchit, though, is sadly not unusual.

Grade: B+


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