AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO/MVDvisual MONTH
A Western Northern, featuring familiar sagebrush trappings in the wilds of the Klondike, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, the last of the superb Universal-International oaters directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, rides into town via a mind-blowing deluxe two-disc Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.
Perhaps the darkest Jimmy Stewart-Tony Mann character ever, the pic’s Jeff Webster isn’t merely short-fused or violence-prone (as in Winchester ’73 or Bend of the River), he’s a wanted murderer coming off a dodgy trail ride to Seattle (where the cattle is to be shipped to the ravenous miners in Alaska). Even though his m.o. seems standard fare: attached to a cantankerous sidekick (the cantankerous Walter Brennan) and deeply devoted to a dream (owning a ranch), his behavior is anything but. Webster’s a dictionary of psychological ticks – a loner, apathetic to the fates of others (even those on his side), who nevertheless is bound to a reprobate; and (blatantly) carnal with a bad girl/entrepreneur he meets along the way (a cool Ruth Roman). Uncaring to the point of sociopathy (about folks who’d give their lives for him), Jeff fits right in with the thoroughly corrupt element in the North. Hanging (shooting/knifing/strangling) Judge Gannon (John McIntire at his finest) is one of the most difficult specimens in the Mann playbook, evil beyond words, yet sinisterly jovial – often more so than Stewart’s forced rare gregariousness (“I’m gonna like ya,” he announces to Jeff upon their meeting. “I’m gonna hang ya, but I’m gonna like ya.”). Along the way, there are some splendid, colorful supporting players, including Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Steve Brodie, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson. Jack Elam, John Doucette, Robert Foulk, Chuck Roberson and Kathleen Freeman and Connie Gilchrist (the latter as a pair of shopkeepers/restauranteurs, christened Hominy and Grits). Gorgeous Corinne Calvet, usually cast as a sultry femme fatale, portrays the second female lead – a rugged tomboy; it’s obviously her least glamourous role, yet, bizarrely enough her sexiest. And her best. Stewart’s go-to equine, Pie, is also on-hand/hoof, and delivers his greatest performance as well.
The awesome non-homo sapien star is the majestic Jasper National Park location, where the movie was lensed in spectacular Technicolor by the magnificent d.p. William Daniels.
THE FAR COUNTRY, as excellently written by Borden Chase, is chock full of truly outstanding sequences – the highlight pinnacle (ironically, speaking of mountains) being Stewart watching as many of his copadres ride to their death, following a short cut up a glacier that culminates in an avalanche. With almost glee, he listens to their screams, as Brennan and Calvet plead with him to help the doomed caravan. Stewart’s initial response is a brittle I-couldn’t-care-less/I-warned-them rebuttal. It’s goose-bump worthy.
Art sort of imitated life when it came to the partnership between Stewart and Brennan in reel life, and, Stewart’s and Mann’s in real life. After a string of wildly successful westerns, action-dramas and even a musical (The Glenn Miller Story), their professional union came to a vicious halt (Mann’s refusal to helm 1957’s Night Passage); they never spoke again. With the exception of 1965’s Flight of the Phoenix, Stewart stopped playing nutjobs and went on to a later career of lovable…well, Jimmy Stewart characters. Mann graduated to a sensational run of classic movies, including Men in War, God’s Little Acre, Man of the West, and, then the super epics, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
The Arrow Blu-Ray of THE FAR COUNTRY is loaded with extras, including two versions of the movie. In the early mid-Fifites, Universal-International was dicking around with widescreen aspect ratios, and, on occasion, released their titles in 2.0, along with the standard widescreen 1.85 (it should be noted that the industry’s first standard widescreen pic was 1953’s Thunder Bay, a U-I entry, directed by Mann and starring Stewart). While both show signs of grain, particularly when it comes to opticals, I suggest sticking with the general 1.85 version; in 2.0, the top and bottom cropped images are a bit too tight and claustrophobic (even though Mann favored that “closing in” approach for his noirs), especially for a tale relying on the massive breathing room vistas of this movie (it makes me wonder if Mann or Daniels were informed that there would be an alternate super-wide edition); mono audio on both versions is fine (abetted by the usual routine U-I supervised score by Joseph Gershenson, culled from stock music composed by Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, Henry Mancini, and Frank Skinner). Other terrific supplements include a documentary on Mann and Stewart at Universal, featuring Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Schlesinger and Mann’s script supervisor Michael Preece; there’s also another shorter take on THE FAR COUNTRY by Kim Newman, plus audio commentary, image galleries and the original theatrical trailer.
Admittedly, the least of the Mann-Stewart westerns, THE FAR COUNTRY nevertheless stands out miles above the competition (there has never been a disappointing Anthony Mann western). The depiction of human darkness lurking amongst the beauties of Nature is a contradiction that is genuinely chilling (in physical and emotional climate)…and memorable.
THE FAR COUNTRY. Color. Widescreen [either 2.00:1 or 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios. CAT # AA060. SRP: $39.95.