Where director Anthony Mann is concerned, there are two kinds of people: those who admire him extravagantly (Jean-Luc Godard, who called him "Supermann," is in that group) and those who are unfamiliar with his output. A new UCLA Film & Television Archive series is ambitious enough to pitch its appeal to both groups.
Starting Jan. 31 at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood, the 22-picture film series "Dark City, Open Country: The Films of Anthony Mann" features both the acknowledged classics that made Mann's modern critical reputation and the early, little-seen Poverty Row programmers he honed his craft on.
A director of many parts who closed his career doing historical epics like "El Cid" and "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (neither of which fits into the UCLA program), Mann is unusual because he is admired for his work in two distinct genres that sound more dissimilar than they turn out to be.
The earliest Mann milestone is a pair of stunning film noirs, 1947's "T-Men" and 1948's "Raw Deal," conveniently double-billed on March 12. The first is a pseudo-documentary focusing on a counterfeiting case cracked by the Treasury Department, while the second tells its tale of prison breaks and criminal double-crosses with the help of a distinctive voice-over by co-star Claire Trevor.
Both films are lean and efficient noirs through and through, filled with familiar moral ambivalence and tough-talking performances. What unites them and raises their game, aside from Mann's direction, is the cinematography of noir's great master, John Alton.
Though he eventually won an Oscar for his work on, surprisingly, "An American in Paris," Alton is best known for his spectacular no-budget noir camera work. Even his most casual shots showcase this cinematographer's unsurpassed gift for light and shadow, and his bravura signature scenes, like the opening of "T-Men" and a later murder set in a steam bath, are breathtaking to behold.
The second group of films that made Mann's reputation is set far from film noir's urban jungles in the wide open spaces of the American West. Unlike the heroic region Hollywood usually presented, the world of Mann's 1950s psychological westerns was a callous, morally unstable place, a location that was home to anger, despair and hysterical rages.
No one benefited more from Mann's decision to in effect put noir characters into the West than the last person you'd expect to find on the team, James Stewart, an actor whose career at that point, critic Philip Kemp noted, "had been faltering, trapped in a prolonged adolescence."
Mann and Stewart made eight westerns together, four of them showing at UCLA and all of them featuring a Stewart who was especially terrifying to those who remembered his gee-whiz Frank Capra past. If you see enough of these films, you'll forget that other Stewart ever existed.
As a stranger bent on avenging a brother's death in the gripping "The Man From Laramie," Stewart managed to be both sweet and terrifying. His scenes taking tea with ingenue Cathy O'Donnell reveal a man who'd probably been a regular guy in some long-ago, distantly remembered past. But as always in the Mann westerns, Stewart in an instant becomes someone frighteningly eager to kill with his bare hands, a man who could convincingly say, as he moved in for the coup de grâce, "I've waited a long time for this and I'm not going to rush it."
"Winchester '73" is the crackling 1950 film that created the mold for Mann's westerns. In it, Stewart plays a man of malevolent implacability, determined to track both the one-of-a-kind rifle the film is named after and bad guys Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) past the ends of the Earth if necessary. Mann's direction adds a touch of the sinister to even the most innocent exchanges, and leads to a tense climax that Britain's Time Out calls "one of the most neurotic shootouts in the history of the western."
Though Stewart and Mann worked beautifully together, one of Mann's best westerns, and one of his last, 1958's "Man of the West," starred Gary Cooper. Cooper plays Link Jones, a man so taciturn that sultry dance-hall singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) is half-serious when she asks, "Do you talk?"
Jones is a former outlaw, struggling to stay straight, when circumstances force him to confront the leering and sadistic gang he left behind. His main nemesis, and one of Mann's most effective villains, is his uncle, the legendary half-mad bad man Dock Tobin, played with Shakespearean grandeur by Lee J. Cobb. A Lear-like monarch of darkness who rages against an indifferent universe, Dock Tobin roars lines like "God forgive us, we painted those walls with blood that time." No wonder Godard was moved to write of the film, "each shot gives the impression that Anthony Mann is reinventing the western."
Though Mann devotees as well as those new to the faith will relish seeing these films on the Wilder Theater's big screen, this series' treat for the old guard is the chance to experience Mann's first steps as a director, to see programmers that show his early fascination with desperate characters trapped in the vice of fate.
The director himself, it should be noted, was not himself a fan of these first works. "You make these things and hope nobody will ever remember them," the director is quoted as saying in "The Crime Films of Anthony Mann," Max Alvarez's new study, "and then they come back to haunt you."
Though Mann's ambivalence is understandable where some of these early crime melodramas are concerned, a few of them stand out in any crowd. Two of the best are 1948's "He Walked by Night" and 1949's "Side Street."
Not as celebrated as "T-Men" and "Raw Deal," "He Walked by Night" is another collaboration between Mann (who shot key scenes but didn't get screen credit) and director of photography Alton, and it is a pip. A classic police procedural laced with gorgeous lighting effects, its best sequence is a "Third Man"-type chase through the sewers of Los Angeles.
"Side Street," shot by Joseph Ruttenberg, is another crime story that benefits from some remarkable location shooting on the streets of New York as it tells the tale of Joe (Farley Granger), a man revealed to be "no hero, no criminal, just a human being." In the hands of Mann, his story, like the others in this fine series, can't help but compel.
"Dark City, Open Country: The Films of Anthony Mann"
Where: Billy Wilder Theater of the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: All screenings are at 7:30 p.m. unless noted.
Information: (310) 206-8013 or http://www.cinema.ucla.edu.
Jan. 31: "The Great Flamarion," "The Furies"
Feb. 1: "Dr. Broadway," "Two O'Clock Courage"
Feb. 5: "Strangers in the Night," "The Man From Laramie"
Feb. 9 at 7 p.m.: "He Walked by Night," "The Naked Spur"
Feb. 21: "Strange Impersonation," "The Last Frontier"
March 1: "Desperate," "Railroaded!"
March 3: "Border Incident," "Devil's Doorway"
March 12: "T-Men," "Raw Deal"
March 15: "Side Street," "Winchester '73"
March 23 at 7 p.m.: "The Tall Target," "The Far Country"
March 30 at 7 p.m.: "Man of the West," "The Tin Star"