As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
I believe David Thomson once said something about Fox's fifties output being "the antithesis of cinema," which is very slightly nuts if you consider the films of Samuel Fuller (Pick-Up on South Street among others), Nicholas Ray (Bigger Than Life), Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can't Help It), and more.
But we sort of know what he means: the advent of CinemaScope caused aesthetic confusion, as technical advances often do, and we can all picture laundry lines of less-than-fresh 1940s actors eking out their remaining B.O. value by standing shoulder to shoulder in flat and static master shots that seem to go on forever. If you could fit everyone in one shot, the thinking went, how could you justify an edit?
On the set of Niagara, Marilyn Monroe requested a close-up. Director Henry Hathaway (good with the camera, in Howard Hawks' estimation) said he agreed it was appropriate, but if he moved in closer he'd lose the top of her head. "That's OK," Monroe replied, "We already established that I have a top to my head." This is the kind of thing widescreen pioneers were losing sleep over.
In the fifties, it seems, everyone was getting older, but director Allan Dwan had a head start. He'd been at it since the patent trust days of the early 1910s, and his style, always lean and straightforward, had simplified over time to a kind of primitivism, part cartoon strip, part tableau. At the time of The River's Edge (1957) he had three films left to go and zero shits left to give. This movie provides him with the winning elements that made his recent Slightly Scarlet memorable: rugged rocks, rogues, and redheads.
The moviemakers' strategy for exploiting the wonders of 'Scope and gorgeous, lifelike color by Deluxe are spectacular Tex-Mex scenery and Debra Paget's amazing anamorphic legs. She's living with rancher/hunting guide Anthony Quinn but not adjusting well to country life (unevenly cut-off Daisy Dukes and fluffy pumps give the game away) when her no-good ex, Ray Milland, turns up with a hot million dollars in a suitcase, needing a guide to get across the border.
What ensues is outdoorsy couple therapy and cliffhanging suspense: Quinn is forced to help the fugitive while Paget tries to choose between them. A fair case could be made for this being a rural noir, as there's plenty of moral ambiguity with Milland an out-and-out murderer (and ex-Marine), Paget initially willing to take off with him, and Quinn helping, biding his time, gradually forming a firm intention to kill his rival at the earliest opportunity. When he threatens him with a turkey knife, the dialogue is anatomically explicit, and Dwan has fun slathering his characters in bright crimson gore (a distinct tendency in his late work, see also Enchanted Island, 1958).
This might be Paget's best role (her snake-dance for Fritz Lang is iconic, but not so much from an acting viewpoint) and Quinn and Milland, strictly B-list at this stage, one's star rising very slowly while the other's slides in the general direction of The Thing with Two Heads (i.e. downwards, bumpily), are both excellent. Milland can do slime in his sleep, and Quinn doesn't overact, impresses physically (iron-thewed, he scales a rope hand-over-hand) and combines menace and an equally shocking tenderness.
If septuagenarian megaphonist Dwan's style is is somewhat sedentary, (less "breath-takingly filmed," per the trailer, more "filmed out-of-breath") the vivid love-hate triangle and some fine dialogue make up for it. "You know, if you were on a desert island with that guy," says Quinn to Paget, "and there was nothing there but rocks, pretty soon he'd have all the rocks moved to his side of the beach."
Once everybody is at least an accessory to murder, you may get to wondering how the Production Code's stipulation that Crime Must Not Pay can be squared with the box office's requirement that somebody be alive at the end of the picture. "We're all fouled up, honey," Quinn tells Paget, and he's right. The movie's solution is pretty bleak if you think about it for more than a few seconds, and requires the intrusion of a deus ex machina in the form of a large Mexican family in a truck driven carelessly, but it's certainly surprising, as is the film.
Dwan made his last film at aged 76, then lived another 20 years out of sheer force of habit. He left 271 shorts and a hundred and 35 features behind him. We won't see another like him.