A Philip Yordan Trio: Broken Lance (1954), House of Strangers (1949), and The Man from Laramie (1955)

January 4, 2016 | By

PhilipYordan_picThe trio of films covered today were, to some extent written and / or derived from work by Philip Yordan, a prolific and industrious writer and occasional producer whose career includes about 69 films in various genres, and a little bit of controversy.

I have to go back to Patrick MacGilligan’s outstanding series, in particular Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, in which the author interviewed many of Hollywood’s most esteemed screenwriters from the golden and silver age, including Yordan and his peers.

On the one side are claims Yordan was a hack, an appropriator, and a clever businessman who farmed out work to other writers, and during the Blacklist era fronted the work of blacklisted screenwriters including Ben Maddow (God’s Little Acre) and Bernard Gordon (The Day of the Triffids). On the other side is Yordan himself, who (if memory serves correct) saw no harm in giving other writers paid work in what was a business agreement.

Whatever the claims and mudslinging and defensive missives, Yordan was involved with many classic films produced by both studios and independent producers (especially El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire’s Samuel Bronston), and certainly in the case of the showcased three, he contributed to some fine pictures.

BrokenLance_BRTwilight’s release of Broken Lance (1954) significantly updates the old 2006 Fox DVD, and as fans of this underrated western know, it’s a remake of the crisp, grim noir House of Strangers, based on the novel by Jerome Weidman, and directed by the esteemed Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

HouseOfStrangers1949What’s especially weird is how Broken Lance won an Oscar for Best Writing even though the film, which differs significantly from House of Strangers, was written by Richard Murphy, and Yordan received just a story credit.

I made a point in watching both films to seek out the changes, and while both deal with a convicted son returning to a fractured family after a lengthy term in jail, there’s no carried-over dialogue or identical scenes, much in the way Warner Bros. did a sometimes shot-for shot, word-for-word, prop-for-pro remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) via the 3D classic House of Wax (1953).

The core story of four bickering brothers and overbearing father has significant differences in each production, but there are specific elements that were retained (albeit used differently by each film’s respective screenwriter(s) and director), and yet it’s the remake that won the Oscar because it was a better, flashier CinemaScope version of a story redone by another writer.

ManFromLaramieYordan also co-penned Anthony Mann’s brooding western The Man from Laramie (1955), another Twilight Time release and a story dealing with jealousies between the spoiled brat of a wealthy rancher and the foreman expecting some validation via land or a permanent power position in the rancher’s empire.

Both westerns are potent dramas, and yet Broken Lance tends to get short-shrift because it unfurls like a glossy Fox production, and was directed by Edward Dmytryk, a personal favourite whose own career was briefly marred by the Blacklist when he was tossed in jail as part of the famous Hollywood 10 but managed to regain his career after ‘naming names’ for HUAC.

There’s a great (and peppery) discussion of Dmytryk’s work in the commentary for The Young Lions (1959), and while he may not have been a filmmaker with an overt personal style, he wasn’t a hack, and it was refreshing to hear Lem Dobbs admit (with some obvious reluctance) that Dmytryk’s work does have a few unique motifs that may reflect the filmmaker’s own ongoing guilt in being able to enjoy a high-profile career with several studios – Fox, Universal, Paramount, to name a few – while his fellow filmmakers lost years of work because they refused to name names.

What can be gleaned from the three reviewed films is that even within a roughly 6 year period, there’s a great deal of history behind their key players that passing film fans made not be aware of (and I’ve not even touched upon Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s most erudite and witty writers).

Seeing these classic westerns in HD is a delight, but it’s especially satisfying that Broken Lance gets its due on Blu, replete with an isolated score track that allows Leigh Harline’s fine score to boom in surround sound.

Coming next:  a trio of the bombast I watched during my Xmas hermitting, including Fast and Furious 7, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

I’m also finishing up on a review of Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of Absolute Beginners (1986), Synapse’s superb Blu edition of the epic German documentary series Stalingrad (1983), and prior German Region 2 edition of Die Stalingrader SchlachtStalingradskaja BitwaThe Battle of Stalingrad (1949) – a  3 hour propaganda epic in which Uncle Joe Stalin personally supervises the saving of his personally branded city and quashes the Germans with his brilliant defensive strategies.

Bitwa was apparently part of a planned 10-film Soviet propaganda series meant to show the world how swell yet fearfully powerful Communism was in post-WWII Europe, and features similar heroic bombast and peculiar historic distortions as The Fall of Berlin 1945 / Padeniye Berlina (1950), another two-part epic that was shot literally within the ruins of the freshly vanquished capitol of the Third Reich.

The latter reviews will appear around mid-week, as I’m finishing up sound designing BSV 1172 to make the Hot Docs 2016 deadline this Wednesday. Sunday was almost exclusively spent working on one 2.5 minute sequence, plus rendering into the night to ensure things look and sound fine.

This may be the most time I’ve ever spent editing, mapping, and mixing static fuzz and distorted audio.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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