It all began with the death in mid-December of Van Johnson. As is my wont, I found something in the Los Angeles Times obituary to grumble about at the breakfast table: no mention of The Bottom of the Bottle. Why, I wondered aloud to the suffering soul who puts up with my grumbles, is that movie never shown anymore on television? I’d have been content to drop it there, but my wife went Googling and wound up at a blog labelled Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide, where Bottom of the Bottle held a place of honor among such estimables as The Big Lebowski, El Dorado, Rio Bravo, The Nutty Professor, and Whisky Galore, in addition to the inevitable Harvey and Lost Weekend and many more. “A never-better Van Johnson,” the blogger wrote to my satisfaction. But no more was I content to drop it. At the end of the brief write-up was a note to the effect that the movie had never been released on video and a link to a site called Yammering Magpie Cinema, which was said to have “a collectors [sic] copy available on DVD... presented in its original Cinemascope ratio.” Yammering Magpie? I clicked.
Yammering Magpie proved to be an attractive and navigable website which listed, at reasonable prices, DVD-R’s of movies either no longer or never available on commercial video, “offered as digital transfers from one collector to another.” The claim of unavailability was patently untrue in some cases, but still. Bottom of the Bottle happens to be a 20th Century-Fox film in Cinemascope directed by Henry Hathaway in the second half of the Fifties. It occurred to me immediately to type into the site’s Quick Find box the title of another 20th Century-Fox film in Cinemascope also directed by Henry Hathaway in the second half of the Fifties, a film I periodically Google in hopes that it will have been issued on DVD, a film I have over the years mentioned a time or three in this space, a film I recklessly refer to as one of my favorites even though I haven’t seen it on the big screen since I was ten years old and haven’t seen it on the little screen literally in decades or, even then, in anything but a pan-and-scan print. I typed it into the search box. F-r-o-m H-e-l-l t-o T-e-x-a-s. Et voilà. Bingo. Eureka. Hallelujah. They not only offered it. They offered it letterboxed — “barely worth watching unless seen in its original Cinemascope” — and they graded the print quality as “A” for “pristine.” (Bottom of the Bottle was graded “B” for “good.”) I spent a short while typing in some other titles for which I’m always on the lookout (some hits, some misses), scrolling through the categories of Classics, Film Noir, Westerns, and making up a shopping list. I had to apply the brakes. I didn’t know Yammering Magpie from Yammering Adam. So I prudently limited my first order to the two Hathaways.
Weeks went by. E-mails confirmed variously that my order had been received, processed, shipped, and, after the passage of a few more days, again shipped. I didn’t worry. It was Christmastime after all, a busy time. The package arrived in the new year, two slim-line plastic cases adorned with miniatures of the original posters, plus a handwritten note to assure me that in the next week they would be sending “a better copy” of Bottom of the Bottle. Hmm. What could be wrong with the copy in hand? I popped it into the DVD player, and up came... Secret of the Incas. Now, Secret of the Incas, as I knew well from experience, is what we might call a hoot, a risibly inauthentic treasure hunt in authentic locales, featuring Charlton Heston and a “native” musical number by the five-octave Peruvian marvel, Yma Sumac. But I wasn’t hooting. Secret of the Incas is not Bottom of the Bottle. It shouldn’t take much to provide “a better copy.” I thought I’d better promptly check out the pièce de résistance. I could see in my mind’s eye the abandoned saddle in the desert, and I could hear in my mind’s ear the galloping hoofbeats and the wordless male chorus. And up came... Secret of the Incas.
Numerous phone calls and E-mails, of differing degrees of consternation, outrage, and sarcasm, went unacknowledged. Total blackout. I observed on the website that Secret of the Incas occupied the top spot on the site’s list of best-sellers, and I speculated in one E-mail that that was because it was the only disk they ever sent out. I had begun to worry. It wasn’t until I earmarked an email as my final attempt at communication, promised to dispute the charges on my credit card, and identified myself (I wince to recall it) as the film critic on the nation’s largest alternative free weekly, that I got an immediate response. The explanation was perfectly plausible to the extent that it went over my head. They had, in a nutshell, been trying out new equipment for their digital transfers and didn’t know how to work it correctly. Then they had been gone over the holidays and were swamped with complaints from customers who likewise had received unwanted copies of Secret of the Incas. They couldn’t have been nicer about it. And inasmuch as they would be pleased to throw in a couple of bonus DVDs to make up for the inconvenience, I went to my embryonic shopping list and requested Hugo Fregonese’s Black Tuesday (graded “D” for “rough”) and either John Farrow’s Alias Nick Beal (a “B”) or Andre de Toth’s Pitfall (another “B”), whichever would be easier. They sent me everything mentioned, plus the unmentioned Big House, U.S.A., plus boxes with appropriate artwork for Secret of the Incas. All was forgiven.
Black Tuesday, a taut Edward G. Robinson prison-break thriller that I hadn’t seen since childhood, was indeed rough in print quality not to mention in violence. Alias Nick Beal, with its reliance on fluid long-takes and naturalistic supernaturalism, was silky-smooth. Pitfall, owing to Raymond Burr’s psychopathic stalker, was creepy in the extreme. Big House, U.S.A. was rougher in violence and even more so in cinematic technique, though not in print quality, than Black Tuesday. And Bottom of the Bottle, a Cain-and-Abel parable from a Simenon novel, about an alcoholic escaped convict trying to sneak across the Mexican border to his wife and kids but marooned by floodwater at his upstanding brother’s, had moral ambiguity and amoral ambience in abundance. A fleeting logo on screen disclosed that the print had been broadcast on the Fox Movie Channel, whatever that may be.
But now to the pièce de résistance. It is always risky to designate as a personal favorite a movie not seen in decades. The very designation is inherently slippery. Such a movie is asked to hold the hill against the challenges of dozens, hundreds, a thousand. And any one movie can do only so much. No one movie can civilize a desert island. So let me first remove the burdensome designation and then say simply that I was amazed at how well I remembered every foot of From Hell to Texas, that I have now watched the DVD of it three times, and that the movie comes as close to perfection, in a certain bygone Hollywood tradition, as a movie can come. Admittedly it falls short of perfection when the hero, to appease the attacking Comanches, cuts loose two horses tied to the back of the rumbling covered wagon, and then in the next scene rides into Socorro astride one of the horses he had cut loose. (Is there a missing scene that might account for this? The running time of the DVD comes up a few minutes shy of the official 100.)
A manhunt Western, plainly titled Manhunt in Great Britain, it begins in medias res, with six riders, behind a shielding herd of horses, descending upon a lone cowpoke and his lame mount. The cowpoke, pumping his Winchester into the ground, turns the herd against the riders, one of whom is trampled to the sill of death’s door and not long afterward crosses the threshold. It all gets sorted out in short order. The cowpoke has been blamed for the knifing death of a man at a schoolhouse dance. The casualty of the stampede was the dead man’s brother. A third brother remains standing, a punkish Dennis Hopper. Their father, R.G. Armstrong in the performance of his life, is a self-made land baron, first name of Hunter, who now heads up the avenging posse: “That saddle tramp has come close to washing my mark out.” We also find out firsthand that this saddle tramp, while he wears no six-gun, is a crack shot with a rifle.
Of the initial killing we have only his account — that the victim fell on his own knife — and we have no cause to disbelieve him. He’s as decent a man as ever rode the West, a soft-speaking, Bible-reading pacifist who has been searching since his mother’s death for his long-lost father, striving always to be guided by the Ten Commandments. If a nubile tomboy impudently strips off in front of him to bathe in the river, he’ll demurely turn his back. Don Murray, a conscientious objector during the Korean War, is excruciatingly touching in the part (seldom more so than when he is introduced to a California orange: “What do I do with it?”), and the enigmatic convent-bred Diane Varsi, already twice divorced as a teenager in real life and soon to be a contract-breaking Hollywood dropout, is hardly less touching as the tomboy on the brink of womanhood. Their mutual longing in their reunion scene has a nakedness that practically cries out for an “R” rating.
As events unfold, infused with the American love of the underdog and hatred of the tyrant (“Wherever this man goes,” puzzles our Hunter, “somebody turns a hand to help him. They don’t even know him. Why?”), we can see the sowing of the seeds of a local legend, and yet nothing is overblown or overdrawn as it’s happening, nothing outgrows its moment. It just keeps moving steadily ahead, the right shot in the right place for the right duration, with nice rhythmical variation in angle and distance, nothing fancy, nothing stressed too heavily, never even one true closeup in the entire movie, and any extra shots noticeably retarding the tempo and concentrating the attention: as when, in an ingeniously strategic gunfight indelibly punctuated with the sound of cocking rifles, an ambusher forces the hero in self-defense to violate the Sixth Commandment (“That don’t pleasure me none,” he deflects congratulations), or when, immediately thereafter, he can’t bring himself to kill the ambusher’s tag-along horse. The questing fatherless hero gets a taste of different types of father figure — the merciless punisher; the benevolent protector, a folksy Chill Wills, who looms as a potential father-in-law; and lastly the padre, earthly delegate of the Heavenly Father, who can show him to his natural father’s grave — but the psychology is stressed no more heavily than anything else. It’s present, if only in passing. This is a self-effacing, straight-shooting, ammo-conserving style of filmmaking I treasure and mourn: picking the shots, making them count. Conciseness refined into classicism, craft elevated into art.
I can recollect — I don’t expect you will — that I wrote some years ago about the melodramatic boiling point when the fugitive, horrified that the prospective father-in-law has taken three bullets for him, suddenly stops running and reverses course to confront his final three pursuers in the streets of Socorro. The remarkable upshot is a shootout that lasts over five minutes, fully satisfying as a piece of action filmmaking, a working of angles, a covering of space, a shifting of positions, a teetering of advantage, and yet — you would never imagine in an adult Western — no one gets killed! What the shootout finally settles is the superior humanity of the hero, to the diminishment and mortification of the black hat. The latter’s beseeching effort to save face in the denouement (a beautiful speech beautifully delivered, almost poetically: “Long after we’re dead, you and me both, they’ll be telling this story. And they’ll tell it in a dozen different ways. None of them will favor me...”) is the icing on top. I would not want to have bitten the dust without getting to see this movie again. And again and again.
No outward clue, by the way, as to the provenance of the print: the website of the Fox Movie Channel, as I discovered, doesn’t have this title in their database. The crisp, clean image, it ought to be noted, was properly letterboxed for the opening credits only, then switched to a modified letterbox with a tall enough slot to fit a Christmas package through. Reason enough, perhaps, to downgrade it to a “B.”
But I would invite you to go to yammeringmagpie.com in search of your own long-lost favorites. If they send you Secret of the Incas instead, don’t hesitate to tell them you’re a personal friend of the film critic on the nation’s largest alternative free weekly.