Did you take advantage of Kino's Winter Wonderland sale? We certainly did, so we decided to give our takes on the disks we bought in common. This month is a grab bag of blu-rays to help you chase away the January blues. First up is Adam and Samantha discussing Backlash.
ADAM WILLIAMS: In the dangerous Apache land of Gila Valley, Arizona, Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) comes across Jim Slater (Richard Widmark) at a gravesite of a massacre. Jim’s looking for his father, who he believes is one of the deceased. Karyl’s motivations aren’t so clear, although the gold that’s supposed to be buried in those hills might provide a clue…
SAMANTHA GLASSER: The film begins with action, a random assailant in the desert with the advantage of the high ground. It is amazing how much shooting goes on in this film. If movies like this are any indication of what life was like in the wild west, its no wonder the average life expectancy was so low.
AW: I’ve been on a steady diet of 1930s and 40s B-Westerns lately, so it was startling to dive into this very mid-50s offering. Obviously, there’s a world of difference between a typical sagebrush saga in the pre-World War II era and one made amid the Cold War. A good double feature to illustrate the genre’s progress would be 1938’s Lawless Valley with George O’Brien and Backlash released 18 years later. Both films begin with the same premise—a man investigating the death of his father—but the similarity ends there. Of course, the technical differences are immediately apparent: we’re talking about the disparity between a boxy black and white film that clocks in at 59 minutes and a 2:1 ratio color film that runs nearly an hour and a half. It’s fascinating to compare the timbre of the two films. Herman Stein’s score for Backlash is angular and tense, the opening music of Lawless Valley is a sprightly march. Not to belabor the point, but a quick comparison of O’Brien and Widmark really sums it up. One looks like he eats beefsteak and whole milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the other has the countenance of one who suffers from an ulcer. I can appreciate both modes, but the stoicism of the older B-Westerns is more appealing than the neurotic brooding that spread throughout the 50s. More William Boyd and less Sigmund Freud is my motto of late.
SG: My preference definitely sways Widmark's way.
AW: The most erotically charged scene is about halfway in when Karyl attends to Jim’s shoulder gunshot wound. Kneeling over him with a black leather glove on, she presses a heated sheath knife to the injury. As Jim writhes in agony, she removes her blouse and uses it as a makeshift sling. It’s a stunningly sado-masochistic scene!
SG: Jim's idea of romantic banter is to ask Karyl about her husband. What he lacks in charm, he makes up for with temptation. Widmark makes his love scenes palpable by delivering dialogue centimeters away from his leading lady's lips. You can feel the kiss coming, but he teases it for a while first, making the event more satisfying for the anticipation. The Technicolor assists in the sensuality of the film by making it feel more present. Just looking at Widmark, you can tell he smells like leather and sweat and whiskey.
There were a couple of times the color seemed off, though. The blood in this film is cardinal red, which makes it seem cartoonish. There is a scene were Karyl wears a traveling dress and goes from outside of a stagecoach to inside a tavern and her dress goes from yellow to peach. It really threw me off and I rewound it to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. It reminded me of that photo of the dress that went viral a few years ago. Is it blue or is it white? I don't know if this is a lighting error or an issue with the restoration, although I'd suspect this is the way it was shot.
"I guess I didn't hit you hard enough."
AW: There are some really good baddies in this one, including Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, and John McIntire. But I think we can all agree the standout is William Campbell as—get this—Johnny Cool! Like a cross between Elvis and Liberace, Campbell struts around in a black leather jacket and a red kerchief around his neck. In a hilariously camp scene, he saddles up to the bar next to Slater and hisses out, “You can buy me a drink, mister.” After Slater orders him a glass of milk, Johnny Cool elbows him. “I did that on purpose,” he announces. Slater responds by backhanding the nuisance, sending Cool tumbling to the floor. Campbell makes the most out of the role, adding a snide note to each line. I don’t think I’m being overly analytical here: his endless stream of predatory comments about Karyl are clearly meant for Jim.
SG: Who can blame him? Not only was he a knockout in love scenes, Widmark was a smart man off-screen. Instead of a salary, he performed in and peddled this film (attending the Houston, Texas premiere with actor Jay C. Flippen, who did not appear in Backlash) for half the movie's profits, according to Modern Screen. Variety reported the gross take as $1.6 million.
AW: If the reviews for this are any indication, by 1956 the critics were getting tired of Westerns. The Chicago Tribune’s Mae Tinee was bored by the gunfights, “silly dialog,” and “attempts to be sexy.” The Los Angeles Times’ Philip Scheuer somewhat enjoyed this “Hamlet on Horseback” even if he found the plot hard to follow. R.H. Gardner of The Sun cantankerously complained about plot inconsistencies and cliches of the genre in his lackluster review. Each of these critics commented on the scene of Donna Reed cauterizing Richard Widmark’s wound. Gardner spent three paragraphs on it, questioning why she would remove her blouse to use as dressing only to put on another blouse out of her saddlebag a moment later. What a killjoy! It’s the most memorable scene of the movie.
SG: Why indeed; hasn't Gardner ever heard of a come on? The reviewer for the Independent Film Journal was impressed. "Tautly directed by John Sturges, this western drama offers a great deal of suspense--especially in the earlier scenes. Add to this element an excellent performance by Richard Widmark, and atmospheric outdoor Technicolor photography, and you'll see that Backlash offers fans something more for their money." Photoplay's Janet Graves was less enthusiastic. "Richard Widmark gives one of his sturdy workmanlike performances in a Western that tries to tell its story in adult terms... A bit too much mystery clouds the drama and occasionally slows the pace." I would agree that Karyl's intentions are murky for too long. Had they established her motives earlier, our focus would have been on the rest of the quest which would allow for better appreciation of those elements.
AW: The Kino Studio Classics Blu-ray was on sale this past December for about the price of a burrito, so the temptation was irresistible. The image is so clear that one can go back and see where Richard Widmark’s stunt double is inserted to leap from horse to stagecoach (it’s a marvel of both athleticism and film editing). The disc is a beautiful, film-like presentation.
SG: Westerns really aren't my cup of tea, but I'll watch if someone I like is in it. That's what brought me here, and I wasn't too appalled or ever bored while watching. The color was a surprise, and I think it worked well to make this movie more memorable. Three stars.
AW: It’s not a world-beater, but Backlash is a solid example of the hardboiled school of the Western. Watch it for Reed and Widmark…but mostly for—I just need to reiterate—William Campbell as Johnny Cool! Three stars.