John Sturges | The Magnificent Yankee | Mystery Street | The Girl in White | Bad Day at Black Rock | The Scarlet Coat | Last Train from Gun Hill | Sergeants 3 | The Hallelujah Trail | Ice Station Zebra

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John Sturges

John Sturges is a Hollywood film director.

He is the subject of the book Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges (2008) by Glenn Lovell.

Some common subjects in the films of John Sturges:

Genre, Mystery Plotting and Story Telling: Civil Rights: Society, History and Social Commentary: Technology: Style:

The Magnificent Yankee

The Magnificent Yankee (1950) is a bio-pic of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The film is much more about Holmes' personal life and character, than about his actual legal ideas or their social impact.

Like John Sturges' Mystery Street, The Magnificent Yankee glorifies Harvard, with Holmes' numerous law clerks all coming from Harvard. Both films have characters mainly from Boston, although The Magnificent Yankee is set in Washington. The film opens with the hero arriving in Washington, rather like the way the heroes of Bad Day at Black Rock and Last Train from Gun Hill will arrive in small towns.

The Magnificent Yankee emphasizes positive struggle, courage and persistence. These will be traits running through Sturges' heroes.

Semi-Documentary Film

The Magnificent Yankee is certainly not any sort of crime film. But it has features in common with the semi-doc crime films of the era: However, such film noir images as clocks, mirrors and staircases play little role in the film, which does not look like a film noir. We do see Brandeis being interviewed on the Capitol steps.

Anti-Racism

The Magnificent Yankee gives an admiring portrait of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice. It shows his six month struggle to be confirmed by the US Senate. Political opposition to Brandeis is depicted as partly caused by Brandeis being Jewish, partly by Brandeis' political views. This is an example of Sturges' career-long opposition to racism.

One of Brandeis' opponents is Adams, from an old New England elite WASP family. This anticipates the prejudice shown to Hispanic cop Ricardo Montalban in Mystery Street, which will also come from such a scion.


Mystery Street

Semi-Documentary Film and Medical Detection

John Sturges' Mystery Street (1950) stands at the confluence of two mystery traditions, one cinematic, one literary. Its cinematic influence is The Naked City (1948). Like The Naked City, Mystery Street is a semi-documentary mystery film shot on location of a big city, in this case Boston, and it shows honest policemen solving a murder case through step by step laborious police work. As in The Naked City, there is no sign of the Hathaway - Mann tradition of undercover assignments; the police in both films work strictly as detectives, and their lives represent 100% normalcy. The police in both films are hard working and intelligent, but do not form any sort of military style institution. This police work recalls the police procedural school of prose crime fiction.

The literary influence on Mystery Street is R. Austin Freeman and his inverted detective stories. As in Freeman, first we see the murder in detail. Then we watch the police use scientific means to reconstruct the crime, and find the guilty party.

Just as in Freeman, there is a great deal of emphasis on the disposing of the body.

Also as in Freeman, scientific methods are used to examine the remains of that body. Here the police are aided by scientists from the department of legal medicine of Harvard's Medical School, just as the crimes in Freeman's books are solved by Dr. John Thorndyke, a specialist in medical jurisprudence. The Harvard doctors use the techniques familiar to us from Freeman's novels to study the corpse, and deduce facts about its origin and fate. Some of the Harvard scenes are shot on location. It is perhaps typical of MGM and its emphasis on gloss and sophistication that even its doctors are from Harvard! No lesser schools for the MGM lion.

The film does some innovative things with superimposition of projected photographs. These are a purely visual technique, highly suited to the film medium, and to the best of my knowledge are not found in Freeman's work. They are in a semi-documentary tradition of projected, magic lantern images that goes back to the work of Fritz Lang, such as M (1931).

The film has a complex attitude towards its central character, the policeman played by Ricardo Montalban. He does a great deal of creative detective work himself, in addition to the scientific detection performed by Harvard. He is also honest and sincere. However, in one long sequence of the film, he goes tooth and nail against a man whom circumstantial evidence makes look guilty, but whom the audience knows is innocent. This is a reminder that the police are fallible. He is not a Superman of detection, merely an officer doing his best. The audience does not stop respecting Montalban during these sequences, but they sure know he is wrong, and it reminds us that even the best policemen need checks and balances on their work. There is a democratic message to these sequences.

Locations

The film has a big finale in a train yard (Trinity Station) in Boston; such finales in photogenic industrial areas were common in semi-documentary films of the period. Please see a chart on the history of semi-documentary film.

The film is not quite as gung ho about showing Boston locations as was Naked City in New York. This is perhaps a matter of economics: such location shooting must be expensive. Boston locations are extremely rare in movies; it must be the least photographed of any major US city of its stature. One notes that the police in this film work not for the city of Boston, but for an outlying community. This makes it different from the many semi-docs showing the New York City police.

This film manages to get to those two favorite film noir locations, the lunch counter and the sleazy bar. These are the work environments of two of the women in the movie, and the one is as respectable as the other is tawdry. Women in noir never seem to work in offices: it was left to Alfred Hitchcock to show two of the most depressing offices in film history in The Wrong Man and Psycho, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has recently pointed out.

Anti-Racism

John Sturges was relentless critic of racism in his films. Here, the lead police officer is played by Ricardo Montalban. His dignified Hispanic officer has a memorable encounter with the film's old WASP family murderer, one that offers some pointed comments on immigrants.

A Scientific World

Mystery Street constantly reminds us that the world is filled with science and technology:

Staircases

Like other noir films, Mystery Street is notable for staircase shots. The telephone at the rooming house is on the side of a staircase. And the finale at Trinity Station includes outdoor staircases.

Mirrors

Mirrors run through film noir:

Clocks

There is a clock at the landlady's apartment, and at the baggage room of Trinity Station. Prominently featured clocks are a noir staple.

Photography

Mystery Street benefits greatly by photography by John Alton. It is not as baroque as his work with Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis, but it is always beautiful and creative. Scenes at the police station where each desk is bathed in its own circular pool of light from its desk lamp are especially beautiful. So are some of his nocturnes on the streets of Boston. I like the neon signs in the opening sequence.

Alton also includes one of his swinging lights, in the basement.

A scene at the police station, shows a dark squad room, with each officer's desk bathed in its own small pool of light.


The Girl in White

The Girl in White (1952) tells the real-life story of the first woman doctor to work in a hospital in New York City. Gritty feminist saga, full of detail. It is an absorbing film, one of John Sturges' best.

The Girl in White resembles Mystery Street in some ways:

Like The Magnificent Yankee, The Girl in White is an admiring biography of a real person, set against a background of urban 1900-era United States.

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a suspense thriller. It is one of John Sturges' best known films.

A Scientific World

The town in Bad Day at Black Rock is very small, but much of it is filled with science and technology:

Not a Semi-Documentary Film

However, aside from its technology, Bad Day at Black Rock is less semi-documentary than some of Sturges' other films: Bad Day at Black Rock does have a lunch counter, a favorite setting of film noir. It also works in another noir favorite image: a staircase (at the hotel). But this is not shot in any baroque manner.

Japanese-Americans

Japanese-Americans were severely mistreated during World War II, rounded up into internment camps. A few subsequent movies tried to raise awareness of this ugly chapter in history. Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947) discusses it; Hell to Eternity (
Phil Karlson, 1960) shows it on-screen. Bad Day at Black Rock does not look at this interment or other systematic discrimination - instead it looks at a specific incident. It could hardly be otherwise if the film wants to have a thriller plot. Discrimination against Japanese-Americans was legal; the covered-up murder in the film was emphatically not. It is something that the characters would kill to keep concealed. Bad Day at Black Rock deserves great credit for discussing this history.

Robert Ryan, a terrific actor, played a villain with similar racist motives in the famous film Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947). Both films are fierce attacks on racism.

The comic book story "Adventure of the Nisei Japanese Patriot" (Flash Comics #32, August 1942) attempted to create positive images of Japanese-Americans, during the early days of World War II. Please see the article on comic book hero The Whip for details.

History: A Film Set in the Recent Past

Bad Day at Black Rock is set in the period right after World War II, circa 1946. This is nearly a decade before it was made in 1955. Bad Day at Black Rock is an example of a kind of work that is notoriously difficult to pull off, the historical drama set in the recent past.

All sorts of historical regulations related to home-front World War II are still in effect, and discussed in the film. They don't play much role in the plot, but they do add some historical color.

Sturges had an ongoing interest in American history, and made a number of films about it.


The Scarlet Coat

The Scarlet Coat (1955) is a spy tale, set against the background of the US Revolutionary War in 1780, and Benedict Arnold's plan to betray West Point to the British.

Semi-Documentary Film and Costume Drama

Most semi-docs are set in modern times. Several are spy dramas. The Scarlet Coat is unusual in merging the semi-doc with the historical drama.

The Scarlet Coat bears links to the genre of semi-documentary film:

A doctor (George Sanders) is an important character, as in other Sturges films.

Boats also play a prominent role, as they do in Mystery Street.

True Stories about Real People from US History

Like The Magnificent Yankee and The Girl in White, The Scarlet Coat is about a real person from US history.

The traditional Colonial style homes, recall in their architecture and interior design, the dignified houses in The Magnificent Yankee.

Several Sturges films show the hero arriving in a city. In The Scarlet Coat, we see the hero's entrance into 1780 New York City.

The Law

The final scenes turn The Scarlet Coat into a legal drama. There is a courtroom scene. Plus further discussions of the law and legal issues outside of the court. These recall the extensive legal discussions in The Magnificent Yankee.

Color

Like many historical adventure films, The Scarlet Coat is in often lavish color.

Much of the long party sequence at the house, is in a mix of the three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. The brilliant British dress uniforms are in red-and-gold. The film cannot allow the civilian hero to be outdone, giving him an even better outfit. He is also in primary colors: a blue coat with spectacular gold metallic breeches and vest. The costumes are by the great Walter Plunckett. Plunckett also designed the costumes the same year for Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955), including the hero's similar gold vest and breeches.

Towards the end of the party-and-house sequence, we see a woman in her boudoir. The color scheme changes to complementary colors: green-and-pink. Much of the feminine boudoir is in pink; the man visitor wears a contrasting dark green coat.

The hero towards the end rides though one of Sturges' lovely "forest scenes with water". This forest is in full autumnal color, mainly shades of red. His horse is reddish, and the hero often wears a light brown outfit that harmonizes with these reds.

On board ship, the hero is locked into a hold with brown wooden walls. His brown clothes are a strong color match and harmony. Such "brown clothes matching brown wood walls" harmonies appear in films directed by Vincente Minnelli. So do scenes in red-yellow-blue, and scenes in red-and-green.


Last Train from Gun Hill

The most interesting character is the woman played by Carolyn Jones. She raises a wide variety of feminist issues.

Geometry

The courtyard of the Belden Ranch is strikingly geometric. There is a rectangular fence, rectilinear posts connected by cylindrical rods, a rectangular gate, and a square well inside. The house has arches with circular tops, and there is a circular planter around some small trees.

SPOILERS in the rest of this review:

Other John Sturges films

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) starts out much like Mystery Street. First, there is a crime against a woman, committed by an arrogant wealthy man who feels he is privileged. Then other people start reconstructing the crime, based on physical clues.

Last Train from Gun Hill has two saloons:

The contrast recalls a bit the lunch-room versus night-spot contrast in Mystery Street.

Last Train from Gun Hill also resembles Bad Day at Black Rock. Both are set in small towns, accessible mainly by a railroad that passes right through the town. Both towns are treated as giant sets by the filmmakers. Both towns are also filled with corruption and menace, to the solitary hero who takes them on. Nearly everyone is arrayed against him. Both towns have hotels, with lots of the locals hanging out in the lobby.

Links to Films by Other Directors

Last Train from Gun Hill also resembles some Westerns by other directors:

Sergeants 3

Sergeants 3 (1962) is a burlesque of traditional Westerns, starring the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra and his pals. John Sturges would soon go on to make an even more elaborate parody Western, The Hallelujah Trail. Both films have a US Cavalry background. Sergeants 3 suggests that it would be really cool to swagger around in Cavalry uniforms, having comic misadventures. Both films are silly, but occasionally endearing.

Sergeants 3 is like a baggy pants follow up to a serious Cavalry Western, Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960). Sergeant Rutledge was one of the first films to integrate the Western, giving African-Americans dignified roles in a Western drama. While Sergeants 3 is pure silliness, it similarly has Sammy Davis, Jr. as an ex-slave who wants to join the Cavalry. Davis' aspirations are viewed as admirable, and make a pro-Integration stand.

The telegraph operator at the beginning, perhaps expresses some of Sturges' interest in technology.

The saloon where we first see the Sergeants, while typical of Westerns, also recalls the raffish night-spots at the start of Mystery Street. The three doors from which the Sergeants make their parallel entrances, are perhaps an example of Sturges' use of geometry.


The Hallelujah Trail

The Hallelujah Trail (1965) is another burlesque of traditional Cavalry Westerns, like Sergeants 3.

I love the title song, with lively music by Elmer Bernstein.

History and Society

John Sturges had a real interest in US history, and several of his films recreate historical periods in detail. The Hallelujah Trail parodies historical films, with a sententious narrator (John Dehner) who solemnly explains historical situations.

Sturges' earlier The Girl in White was staunchly pro-feminist, with its look at pioneering women doctors. But this too comes in for humor in The Hallelujah Trail. A major element in The Hallelujah Trail is a group of women who are temperance crusaders. Although their anti-alcohol activities are mainly stressed, these women are also supporters of "female equality". They chant slogans about women being able to change the world. This is a burlesque, but it also gets 19th Century woman's equality protestors on screen, something that many audience members probably had little awareness of.

John Anderson

John Anderson gets a big screen role, as one of the Cavalry men. Anderson had many of his finest hours in episodes of The Rifleman directed by
Joseph H. Lewis.

Ice Station Zebra

Sets

Ice Station Zebra (1968) has an unusual quality. It takes place on studio sets representing the Arctic. These are obviously unreal. But they are also beautiful looking and charming. In addition, the characters all wear Arctic protection gear that looks like nothing else the viewer is familiar with. Watching this film is like entering a dream world. Under its surface realism, it is as strange as Alice in Wonderland. The viewer is transported to an artificial reality, one as strange as the films of Méliès. Everything is very charming, upbeat and pretty here. Unlike modern films, which often seem gloomy and designed to horrify, this one is designed to give the viewer happy thoughts and a pleasant escapist experience. Watching this film had a calming effect on me. It helped me feel sleepy and get a terrific night's sleep afterwards. The film is in brilliantly bright color.

One of the art directors, George W. Davis, also worked on the spectacular sets for Byron Haskin's The Power (1968). These too were eye-poppingly colorful. Both sets suggest high tech, and a 1960's optimism about the technological future. There is a similar high tech charm to his work on Frank Tashlin's The Glass Bottom Boat (1966).

The slow methodical way the sailors aboard the sub work together is also soothing.

Nation and Race

John Sturges' films are full of pro-Civil Rights advocacy. The Marine Captain played by Jim Brown is a pioneering look at an African-American in a position of military authority. Such characters have thankfully since become common in films, but they were mainly new in 1968.

Ice Station Zebra is another Sturges movie mixing British and American characters.

Geometry: Circles

The hatch on the submarine is circular. Sturges shoots straight up it, making a striking composition.

A sonar screen includes circular effects. It is bright green.

A lighted table in the sub is round. It is next to the map table.

The control room has many circular dials.

The periscope is also a cylindrical piece of machinery.

Camera Movement

In the scene where the sub goes under the ice, there is some gentle rocking or soft movement, to convey that the sub is underwater. But mainly, the camera set-ups are stationary. Exceptions: The camera movements are very gentle, in keeping with the slow, soothing nature of the scene.