BR: Broken Lance (1954)

January 1, 2016 | By


BrokenLance_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  November 10, 2015

Genre:  Western

Synopsis: After returning to his home town, a convicted felon is pressured by his thieving brothers to leave town and relinquish any claims to the family ranch.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with actor Earl Holliman and film historian Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Perhaps in looking for another suitable smaller-scaled project for up and coming star Robert Wagner + its flamboyant widescreen CinemaScope process, Fox chose to dust off the script of a relatively recent film noir, House of Strangers (1949), Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel “I’ll Never Go Home Again, and had Richard Murphy (Boomerang!, Panic in the Streets, The Desert Rats) do a major genre upgrade, transposing  to the western genre the core story of a favourite son encountering the hatred of his jealous brothers head-on after being freshly released from a prison term.

Wagner’s bland screen persona – he’s either grinning or morose, depending on the film role – works for the character of Joe Devereaux, a ‘half-breed’ whose Indian mother was patiently tolerated by older brothers Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian), and not-so-bright Denny (Earl Holliman). Naturally, when patriarch and family tyrant Matt (Spencer Tracy) dies, there’s both a power vacuum and an instant feud between favourite son Joe and much-maligned Ben, resulting in a finale where brotherhood means nothing to the long-suffering older sibling.

Broken Lance is a western – there’s horses, guns, a cattle ranch, and some eco-drama from a mine that’s poisoning the herd upstream – but it’s really an easily transposed story of a family seething with jealousies and closet urges for revenge, with things kept padlocked until the family tyrant is emasculated and finally eradicated. There’s no stark villain in the drama; Widmark plays Ben with dignity, and his rage is understood when he’s openly whipped by his father, but it’s in a later key scene where a weakened Matt first asks and then makes a demand of his eldest son that shows the father to be a monster who deserves to have a family rotting at the roots.

Matt may be tough, but that trait has no place in a world where due process and patience are required, if not waiting things out until the real law arrives to investigate. The only people he respects is son Joe and second wife Senora Devereaux (Katy Jurado), perhaps because the former has the right mix of non-threatening independence and total loyalty, and the latter knows how to tame Matt’s temper when it reaches volcanic levels.

Studio director Edward Dmytryk (fresh from The Caine Mutiny) has been criticized for making bland dramas, but I’ll argue his ongoing post-HUAC fixation with human cruelty (neatly discussed by Lem Dobbs in The Young Lions commentary) and the ongoing suffering of an inherently decent soul is what also makes Broken Lance quite timeless.

Although the mayor’s pretty / headstrong daughter Barbara (Jean Peters, one film away from retiring and becoming Mrs. Howard Hughes) is dated and clichéd, that weak strand is offset by Joe, a lad who hasn’t had an easy life, being racially teased, living among jealous brothers, going to jail to save his father’s face in the community, and re-entering civilian life.

When Joe takes too long to decide whether to stay in town, he’s abused by Ben in a finale that features some great stunt work and sharp editing. Widmark may have started out playing tough guys (Road House) and psychos (Kiss of Death), but he tempers Ben’s rage, and the script offers some interesting complexities: when Joe rejects Ben’s offer of cash for land shares, Ben tells Denny to fish out $10,000 cash from a full spittoon, making it clear Denny’s been his own whipping boy for the past 5 years, recreating the sadistic relationship Ben had under his tyrant father.

While not a western with epic scope, Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography compensates with gorgeous panoramas of the dusty and rocky terrain, and Dorothy Spencer’s editing keeps the pace of dialogue and action scenes tight and brisk. Perhaps the glue that ties the emotions, performances, and visuals together is Leigh Harline’s score, which shines when the main theme returns to its more brooding design. Harline’s perhaps best-known for scoring Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), but once brought to Fox the composer took advantage of the tougher human dramas and created many memorable scores, of which his title theme with pounding drum is among his finest.

Fox had previously released Broken Lance on DVD in 2005, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a striking transfer with good detail within the film’s 2.55:1 ratio (typical of early CinemaScope productions before the more standardized 2.35:1 ratio). Unlike other ‘Scope productions (like the Wagner-starring Between Heaven and Hell), there’s no obvious examples of ‘CinemaScope mumps’ which suggest MacDonald and / or Dmytryk composed shots to avoid the warping at the frame’s edge, or when a vertical object tilts downward and across the frame. Close-ups are sparingly interjected, making them both well-composed and greater in impact.

TT’s disc features a 5.1 mix (upgraded from the older 4.0 surround sound mix) plus a vibrant stereo mix, and Harline’s score is isolated in a separate stereo track, with the cues often surrounded by fleeting studio chatter.

Nick Redman’s commentary with co-star Holliman is an interesting alternative to the standard track, and even the actor periodically voices a bit of concern that the pair aren’t talking more directly about the film. Redman probably recognized that Holliman, one of Hollywood’s best-known character actors in film and TV, has never gotten his due, and this release offered an irresistible chance to record Holliman’s entry into acting, Hollywood, westerns, working with Widmark, and the studio system.

Fans of the film may be a little disappointed more time wasn’t directed towards the other cast members, controversial screenwriter Yordan, composer Harline (House of Bamboo, The Wayward Bus, The Enemy Below), prolific / A-level quality producer Sol. C. Siegel (Monkey Business, Three Coins in the Fountain), but there’s a sense they’ll get their due in later TT releases.

Wagner discussed his time as a Fox contract player on the 2003 DVD of Titanic (1953), and Dmytryk’s career is heavily scrutinized on the excellent three-person track for The Young Lions (1959).

Yordan’s career is somewhat showcased on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) DVD, including his work as a singular writer (Johnny Guitar), a front for blacklisted writers (The Naked Jungle, The Day of the Triffids, Circus World), and a leader of a team of writers.

Weidman’s novel was adapted for film as the noir House of Strangers (1949), the western Broken Lance (1954), and the circus-laden (!) The Big Show (1961).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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