Auteurs with Depth

The only thing better than having 3D movies from the format’s Fifties’ Golden Age arrive on Blu-Ray is being able to finally appreciate the titles done by pantheon directors.  It is, thus, with immense pleasure to be able to discuss and hype two must-have platters for any 3D library, 1953’s WINGS OF THE HAWK, directed by Budd Boetticher and 1954’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE, helmed by Douglas Sirk (now both available, thanks to the gang at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, The 3-D Film Archive and Universal Studios).

Westerns, of course, provided a gold mine for 3D – a perfect visual frame for landscapes, cowboy and Indian battles, gun fights and all that fragile barroom brawl furniture frisbee-ed into your faces.  Universal-International certainly took advantage of the process, producing some of the best titles during 3D’s relatively short 1950’s reign.  While the lion’s share of the U-I coverage is usually geared toward the sci-fi Jack Arnold stuff (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon), movies such as the two above managed to beautifully display the non-freaky wonders and possibilities of stereoscopic photography.  At first glance, WINGS and TAZA might not seem to be representing these acclaimed directors at their peaks.  At first glance.  But read on.  There are surprises in store.

WINGS OF THE HAWK would be a praiseworthy western, even without the 3D.  It presents an unusual take on the era’s oaters, and delivers the goods handsomely.

In 1911 Mexico, prospectors Gallagher and Marco are successfully running an operation that is unceremoniously taken over by thug-like Federales, who kill the latter (but not before Gallagher viciously fights back, injuring the band’s commandant, Colonel Ruiz).

Now on the run, Gallagher is surrounded by a band of rebels, working in factions for Pancho Villa and his protégé Orozco (a wink at cinema history, as the cameo appearance of the famed leader’s underling is played by Noah Beery, Jr., an obvious nod to Uncle Wally, who practically owned the role after his lead part in 1934’s Viva, Villa!).

Surprisingly, Gallagher’s captor is not your average angered farmer-turned-revolutionary, but the ravishing Raquel, a woman striving for equal rights and an expert agitator, in all areas of combat, riding and killing. Credit James E. Moser’s script, adapted by Kay Lenard from Gerald Drayson Adams’ novel (with assist from Budd) for carving that extra notch.  Similar to the following year’s Vera Cruz (also about Mexican rebels), WINGS OF THE HAWK often plays like a precursor to the spaghetti western.

With insurrection within the insurrection, double-dealing, burgeoning sexual fireworks (between the two principals) and dynamite action sequences, WINGS OF THE HAWK never lets up in its 81-minutes, from fade-in to fade-out.

Van Heflin (as Gallagher) is great (as usual); likewise beauteous Julie Adams (still billed as “Julia”) as Raquel.  Adams, it should be noted, had the typical U-I contract, which meant, in the words of future signee Susan Clark, that women basically, “stood around waiting for the fucking cavalry.”  Adams fared better, at least here. In one of the three pics she made with Boetticher (a candid shot I once saw of her lovingly looking on as Budd stages a fight scene suggests it was perhaps more than a professional relationship), WINGS is, perhaps, the lady’s best – giving the actress a chance to get in on and even instigate a lot of the action sequences.  Another interesting aspect of her character is the revealing of Raquel’s equally gorgeous sister Elena (Abbe Lane), who, rather than “fight the good fight” has decided to sleep her way into riches by marrying one of the country’s top political and military villains (the evil ubiquitous Ruiz).

Heflin once told a funny story about the making of this movie.  Prior to filming an escape/chase sequence, Boetticher pulled the Oscar-winning actor aside and said, “Now when I give the signal, you leap on your horse, and gallop to the corral fence, jumping it and riding hell-bent away.”  Heflin grinned and responded by nodding to the adjacent stuntman, “Shouldn’t you be telling that to him?  Budd, you know I really don’t do this stuff.”

The supporting cast is your typical roster of U-I thesp stock, which is to say a sampling of the decade’s character actor heaven; included in the lineup are Antonio Moreno, George Dolenz (as the slimy Ruiz), Mario Siletti (as Marco), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Rodolfo Acosta and Paul Fierro.

The movie was shot in the new 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and is creatively framed by the excellent d.p. Clifford Stine (with the 3D material supervised by David Horsley, Fred Campbell and Gene Polito).  Suitable music supervision accompaniment is provided by Frank Skinner (another plus is the original stereophonic mag track reproductions in both 3.0 or 5.1).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray of WINGS OF THE HAWK looks pretty good.  Working on the restoration of the 3D materials with The 3-D Film Archive couldn’t have been an easy chore, as it’s been nearly seventy years since the stereoscopic elements have seen the light of day.  Occasionally, some scenes look a bit on the dark side, but there’s nothing crucial to deter from enjoying this Third Dimension treat.  Extras include audio commentaries by Jeremy Arnold and 3D authority Mike Ballew; the most notable supplement is the U-I 3D Woody Woodpecker cartoon Hypnotic Hick (which was released with WINGS in its original release) I first saw Hick in 3D during a now legendary Third Dimension series at Manhattan’s 8th Street Playhouse movie theater in 1982.  The credits for this cartoon alone had the audience screaming in approval, as the titles and building girders seemed to stretch out over the viewers’ heads.  I remember taking off my glasses and looking at the packed house, who were all staring at the ceiling in optical illusion bedazzlement.  How cool to have this as an extra!  The trailer to WINGS is also featured, but, unfortunately, only in 2D.

Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to meet Budd Boetticher at The Museum of the Moving Image.  At the time, I asked him about working in 3D; his reply initially shocked me:  “HATED IT!  It was supposed to make things more realistic, never did.  Made them look more fake.  I shot the picture like any other, no attention to any 3D effects.  When I finished, they brought in some hack to film the crap being thrown at the camera.”

Okay, fair enough, but one must never forget that Boetticher was infamously dubbed a maverick – prone to fighting the suits when told to do something he didn’t want to do, or that he had not come up with himself.  Truth be told, there aren’t many instances of “crap being thrown at the camera.”  If Boetticher is to be taken at his word, it really becomes a head-scratcher as to why the remainder of WINGS OF THE HAWK looks so amazing in 3D; center action is meticulously framed between foreground and background, giving viewers great sense of depth.  This goes for both exteriors (landscapes, trees, cactus, boulders, barricades) and interiors (jail bars, lanterns, tables). I’d go as far as to say that WINGS OF THE HAWK might be one of the best of the Technicolor pics the director made while at Universal.

1954’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE was almost at the outset plagued by a title that seemed tailor-made for MST.  Star Rock Hudson’s sloughing it off as “Joe College in a wig” didn’t help.  And many who learned that it was directed by Douglas Sirk thought the whole exercise as a forced easily forgotten studio project that no one should ever mention in a serious discussion of the director or the genre.

Wrong.

TAZA is actually quite a good western – and refreshingly different from the reels of sagebrush sagas relentlessly churned out during the 1950s.  It’s based on a true story, with Taza taking after his peace-yearning father while hot-headed sibling Naiche opts to remove every white who has infringed upon the Indian nation.

Cochise himself became a cottage industry.  First played by Jeff Chandler in Fox’s 1950 smash Broken Arrow (which later became a hit TV series), the role won him much acclaim and helped make him an Eisenhower Era star.  He reprised the chief back at his home studio in 1952’s Battle at Apache Pass and, then again (and lastly) in this movie, as a cameo in the opening scenes.

As indicated, the movie’s version of Taza does contain a peppering of truth to counterbalance the expected (no pun) whitewashing.  Taza was conflicted – wanting to continue his father’s dream of harmonic ethnicity with the other races increasingly arriving in the West; yet, he also had to contend with a simmering faction of tribal members (led by his own brother, no less), who ended up siding with a bloodthirsty Geromino.  Taza’s plight is compounded by racist whites who want no peace at all – the chalky supremacist “only good Indian is a dead Indian” jackasses.  Sadly, this is an emotion felt by the commanding officer of the cavalry, General Crook, another true-life bigot who lived up to his name, but is portrayed here as more misunderstood than racist scum.  Taza does have one friend, sorta the white version of himself, the liberal Captain Burnett.

This all goes amiss when the Native Americans are (big surprise) royally screwed over and brutally ordered to be relocated to a reservation; an all-out war erupts.  Taza’s initial benevolence is proven not to have been of the weak creampuff variety he was thought to be.  The son of the famed chieftain emerges as a vicious warrior.  The script by George Zuckerman (from yet another original story by Gerald Drayson Adams) is admirably sympathetic for the times.  It should be noted though that the real Taza was not as successful as the movie version; although succeeding his father as chief of the Chiricahuas, Taza ended up leading his people to the land chosen for them. He journeyed to Washington to plead a case for Native American equality; there “civilization” took its toll.  He contracted pneumonia in D.C., succumbing on September 26, 1876, at age 33.

Still, enough historical authenticity survives to make TAZA, SON OF COCHISE a fairly reasonable depiction of some of the facts; for cineastes, it is also a very Sirkian movie.  The class structure within the Native American community is every bit as present as it is in the middle-upper echelons of the 1950s suburbia unveiled in Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Written on the Wind.  Taza must compete with his brother for the favors of the radiant Oona, who is essentially a “keeping up with the Joneses” trophy prize to be auctioned off by her greedy capitalistic father (goats and property replacing country clubs and Cadillac limos).  The duality of the human condition so prevalent in Sirkian drama is also visually underlined (in an attempt to appease both sides, Taza dresses in half Native American attire, with a “white eyes” Army police top).  Yet, TAZA is also a vicious pic – with violence escalating to near Anthony Mann levels (a young white settler getting an arrow through her breast).  The action scenes are breathlessly framed, the stunning Utah locations gorgeously rendered.  This is where the 3D comes in triumphantly – spectacularly composed imagery in the rare hybrid-shape of 2:00 (a format Universal-International would test the waters with between 1954 and 1955).  The boulders, cactus, fort gates, Native American villages, cooking spits, etc. envelope the viewer as few Fifties third dimension flicks ever have.  And the numerous action sequences enhance the experience as well.  Big kudos to d.p. Russell Metty (once again, Horsley, Campbell, and Polito assisted with the 3D material)!

Despite his scoffing, Hudson is excellent in the lead, as is Barbara Rush as his beloved bride, and also Rex Reason (as nasty bro Naiche, still billed as “Bart Roberts”).  Morris Ankrum, Gregg Palmer, Eugene Inglesias, Richard H. Cutting, Ian MacDonald, Robert Burton, Joe Sawyer, Lance Fuller, Charles Horvath, Russell Johnson, Hugh O’Brian, and William Leslie nicely fill out the excellent cast.

The Kino-Lorber/3-D Film Archive Blu-Ray of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE looks the berries – one of the finest Golden Age stereoscopic discs to date.  The colors really pop – a far cry from the faded 16MM prints I’ve suffered through since the 1970s – even the Technicolor ones.  The mono audio, too, is excellent, and features a rousing albeit typical score by Frank Skinner.  Extras include audio commentaries by David Del Valle, Courtney Joyner and Mike Ballew, and, most relevantly, the original theatrical trailer IN 3D.  Suffice to say, it is one of the best 3D trailers I have ever seen.

Over forty years ago, I had the pleasure of being at a MoMA screening of The Tarnished Angels, hosted by Sirk.  Afterward, he graciously allowed me a brief window for discussing his work (and signed my All That Heaven Allows half-sheet).  His comments on this movie are particularly worthy of mention.

“Many people ask me what my favorite movie is, and expect me to answer Written on the Wind or Imitation of Life.  Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that response – except it wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  Watching interviewers’ reactions to my reply consistently amuses me. One of my favorite movies is TAZA, SON OF COCHISE.  I always loved Westerns, and had wanted very much to make one.  I actually lobbied at Universal, who were famous for making them, to let me shoot TAZA.”

I loved working with Metty on those sensational locations – away from the studio.”

We did take some pains to devise many images to bring out the 3D effects, not just the obvious material, but subtle, visually natural and pleasing objects to fill the widescreen and third dimension frame.  To me, the whole process was more like a temporary experiment; not long after the movie was shot, they abandoned the format.  I think it mostly played in standard 2D.”

Thanks to Kino-Lorber and The 3-D Film Archive, my 3D Bucket List has gotten two titles shorter.  To reiterate, it’s wonderful to at last be able to view them in third dimensions, let alone own terrific copies of each.  These are necessary additions to anyone’s stereoscopic library (or for Boetticher and Sirk collections); 2-D versions are also included, but, seriously, try and check out the 3-D restorations.

WINGS OF THE HAWK. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0/5.1 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K25216.

TAZA, SON OF COCHISE. Color. Widescreen [2.00:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K24491.

Both titles Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios/The 3-D Film Archive. SRP: $29.95@.

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