Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Nicholas Ray's Other Western

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nicholas Ray's Other Western

Run for Cover (1954) Finally Arrives on Blu-ray

by Tony Dayoub

Following on the heels of Nicholas Ray's notable Western Johnny Guitar (1954) and released just before his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Ray's other Western, Run for Cover, fits rather nicely between the two from a historical perspective, refining some of the tangential themes of Johnny Guitar (including the growing influence of McCarthyism) while also serving as a transition to the "troubled youth" subject matter explored in Rebel.

Run for Cover begins with Matt Dow (James Cagney) riding west toward the town of Madison, where he hopes to settle down after leaving a questionable past behind him. While en route, he runs into cocky Davey Bishop (John Derek), a young man from the town who dreams of leaving for somewhere more exciting. As they come close to a passing train, the two are mistaken for bank robbers and thrown a money bag by frightened bank guards who had just been robbed the month prior. After Madison's citizens find out about the "train robbery," a posse is formed. The trigger-happy sheriff immediately shoots at the two men as they, resolved to return the money, gallop toward him. Davey is seriously injured. He eventually recovers, but only in part; Davey is left lame by the incident. Asked to be Madison's new sheriff, the upright Dow invites the devastated Davey to be his deputy, hoping to raise his spirits.

In Ray's previous film, Johnny Guitar, America's growing preoccupation with finding Communists in their midst is more boldly addressed. At one point in that film, Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper), a young cocky outlaw not unlike Run for Cover's Davey, is threatened with hanging unless he names the unfairly persecuted bar owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) as an accomplice in a bank robbery. An immediate association forms as the scene thinly veils its allusions to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the organization's own 1950's witch hunt (HUAC instructed witnesses to name any Americans they knew to be Communists or face being blacklisted). Run for Cover is subtler in tackling the same topic, amplifying it from mere subplot to overarching theme of the film. Dow and Davey are nearly hanged without benefit of a trial. Later, two of the Gentry Gang — the same miscreants guilty of the original train robbery — return to rob Madison's bank. One is caught and left in the care of Davey, while Dow pursues the other one (Ernest Borgnine in an early role) as he tries to escape. Dow returns with his quarry only to find a mob celebrating the hanging of Davey's charge.

Dow stands alone in defending himself and others against prejudice, unable to trust even his deputy (and surrogate son). But Dow falls victim to his own blind spots where Davey is concerned, and often. Despite evidence of Davey's weak will, he repeatedly entrusts him with more and more responsibility, hoping that Davey's strength of character will rise along with his escalating authority.This is a recurring theme in Ray's work, the neglected young person who is taken under wing by an elder who successfully escaped similar limitations in his youth. 1949's Knock on Any Door is one of the earliest of Ray's films to touch upon that topic. Humphrey Bogart plays Andrew Morton, an attorney defending Nick, a young hood played by Run for Cover's John Derek. (It is Derek's Nick who first utters the now famous expression, "Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.") Nick is a little more streetwise, and a lot more resigned to his fate than the ambivalent Davey in Run for Cover. In much the same way Nick is unable to put his impulsive ways behind him in Knock on Any Door, Run for Cover's Davey can't imagine a future where he can succeed with his new physical impediment.

Run for Cover's setting may be as open and expansive as Knock on Any Door's is closed and oppressive, but the two film's respective, troubled protagonists are both limited by their lack of opportunities, ambition, and faith. Interestingly, even though Ray cast Derek as both of these similar characters, six years between these two projects may have shifted the director's take on this archetypal character. Knock on Any Door more evenly splits its point of view between the surrogate father, Morton, and the unappreciative son, Nick Romano, who Ray often forces us to identify with. (Note how strongly Romano's name bears a resemblance to Ray's, as many of the director's other protagonist's do.) In Run for Cover, the story is firmly seen through the eyes of Cagney's Dow, as decent a Ray hero you'll find this side of Jesus Christ in King of Kings. It's an interesting journey Ray takes us through on his continuum of juvenile delinquency which would bear fruit in his next film, the most nuanced of all his takes on youthful alienation, Rebel Without a Cause.

Essentially each of Derek's characters are variations on the type that we see more clearly delineated in Rebel. In that movie, it is James Dean who is searching for a role model after which to pattern his coming of age. In Rebel’s climax, Dean and his co-stars role-play their way through their respective adolescent dilemmas, pretending to be a nuclear family, with Dean playing father alongside Natalie Wood's mother and Sal Mineo's son. Though Dean is able to better appreciate his own father's moral strengths and failings, it is actually Mineo's character, struggling with his sexuality, abandoned by his parents, left to fend for himself in a harsh world that persecutes him for his stunted growth, who most resembles Run for Cover's lame Davey. Ultimately, neither Mineo nor Derek's character is able to capitalize on the opportunities for a second chance that are provided by their new role models.

Just over a year ago, when I first wrote about Run for Cover, I wondered why the movie had yet to be released on DVD. Up until now the only way to see Run for Cover was to stream a version with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on Netflix. What a difference a year makes. Just released this past Tuesday by Olive Films, Run for Cover gets a nice sprucing up on Blu-ray that, while not perfectly representing the theatrical release, is a damn sight closer to what it must have looked like in all its original VistaVision glory. Because of the larger size of its 35mm frame (oriented horizontally in the camera gate), VistaVision was one of the earliest high resolution film formats. 1.85:1 was one of the three aspect ratios in which VistaVision was exhibited, as was specifically the case with Run for Cover according to both the TCM database and IMDB. Pictured below is Netflix's version.

Compare that to the next still, a screen grab I took from Olive's new Blu-ray. You can click any photo in this post to enlarge (I can't speak to the resolution of Netflix's version because it is affected by internet speed, but the stills from Olive's Blu-ray are 1080p).

Notice how the Netflix frame contains more picture information at the top and bottom of the frame (compare the space above his head and note his left hand on each picture) and but less on each side (note the trees on either side of the top of the frame and compare). The first frame grab is a 1.33:1 frame. The picture has been cropped on the sides from a print which was likely meant to be masked on top and at the bottom by the theater projectionist for exhibition (where this print was obtained, I do not know). The second still is not 1.85:1, but at 1.77:1 it's likely the closest we'll ever get to an accurate representation. What is worth noting is how distinct the resolution on Olive's version is compared to what's available on Netflix. Also look at the crispness of the Technicolor. Olive's disc is bare bones, but at $24.99 on Amazon, it is a steal for Run for Cover, a solid Nicholas Ray film that deserves reappraisal.

Much of the critical appraisal of the film was reworked from two previous articles I wrote, the first for the March 2, 2011 edition of the now defunct Nomad Editions Wide Screen and the second for a post I wrote last year for the Nicholas Ray Blogathon.

1 comment:

Robby Cress said...

Thanks for the comparison of the Blu-ray screen grab vs. the Netflix image. What a difference! That's one thing that I really do not care for about Netflix - the often poor quality of the source material. The Blu-ray screen grabs look so sharp and crisp.