By Kristin Battestella
Shall we settle in with another batch of April 5th birthday gems honoring Atticus himself, dear Mr. Gregory Peck? I think we shall.
The Big Country – Our Man Peck goes toe to toe with the perfectly rugged Charlton Heston (really?) over the delightfully sassy Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) and perfectly feisty Carroll Baker (Baby Doll) in this larger than life 1958 western directed by William Wyler (Ben-Hur). He fights off bad boy Chuck Connors (The Rifleman), Oscar Winner Burl Ives (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and singer of that perennial classic ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’), and the big Texas wilds, too. He was Hornblower for goodness sake, of course we know and love Peck as a robust sea captain. His old time non-landlubber casting is perfect against the rough, gruff, angry, and jealous soon to be superstar Heston. Texas isn’t going to tame this compass using, bowler wearing gentleman, oh no! There are principles to be learned on both sides indeed, and the dirty slick of Connors and the old school class from Ives, Simmons, and Charles Bickford (The Farmer’s Daughter) as Major Terrill add more charm to the iconic, rousing, yet playful and adventurous Oscar nominated music by Jerome Moross (Wagon Train). Rival cattle barons, water rights, great costumes, traditional Old West décor – all of its here from carriage racing and horse pursuits to shootouts and mistaken romance. After so many years of choppy VHS editions, the blu ray release invigorates the colorful, sprawling vistas. The seamless effects work looks brand new, and the solid script, pace, intensity and social statements are taut to match even at a longish 2 hours and 25 minutes. For those who think westerns are nothing more than singing cowboys, this is how a real quintessential western is done. To fans of the cast, classic film lovers, or well, anyone, this is a must see.
The Bravados – Joan Collins (Dynasty), Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), and Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur) co-star in this 1958 western from oft Peck director Henry King (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, David and Bathsheba). The colorful design is lovely but the heavy and dark plotting builds as the audience questions the reasoning and motivations of those on both sides of the law. Peck’s embittered determination and vengeance is understandable – he looks good, but worn and quiet dangerous. His Jim Douglass is the kind of man you don’t want to cross if you’ve done him wrong. He’s an unmoving physical presence and sticks out like a sore thumb at church where the shadow on his soul can’t hide. Jim’s a good guy, but blinded, one-sided, un-saintly and gray in what he’ll do for what he perceives as justice and this complexity is wonderful. Boyd, by contrast, is a juicy, sexy villain with hints of something saucy to come; and the brief Cleef (hehe) is surprisingly decent for a bad guy – creating more gray and doubts for Our Man Peck. Her frocks are great – from the red and black lace gowns to the tight riding get ups – but the uber young Joan Collins is culturally miscast and has too little to do beyond the stereotypical Spanish and American Indian elements. The Spanish isn’t subtitled, either, but great background music, period hymns, and guitar flavoring add to the scenery and above average design. Some luster is lost as the character complexity turns into a slightly typical and rushed pursuit vehicle. However, there are enough gritty surprises and solid work from Peck to delight here.
Gentleman’s Agreement – Best. Best. Best. Based upon the equally lovely book by Laura Z. Hobson, Oscar followed this 1947 Best Picture tour de force on antisemitism from Best Director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront). Best Actor nominee Peck is joined by fellow nominees Dorothy McGuire (Swiss Family Robinson) and Anne Revere (National Velvet), Supporting Actress winner Celeste Holme (All About Eve), John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice), a baby Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap), and more for the hard hitting but gracefully told story, honest script, and heavy post-war subject matter here. Granted, some today may think this a tame, simplistic, on the nose, and overly innocent exposé. It will be dated or hammy to some, but dang if it wasn’t ahead of its time then and still relevant for prejudices in the 21st century. Mature, classy people of old were supposed to be so suave – but that veneer gets pressed from all sides by our delightful, honest, and heartfelt Birthday Boy. If we could all be taught about the differences on religion from the soft-spoken but no less earnest Gregory Peck, more people might be apt to listen! These 2 hours start off jolly good – a new city, going undercover for a story – however, it’s disturbingly excellent to see how people change for the better or worst throughout the film. Dinner table conversations get so awkward when religion comes up yet the gossip afterward happens so fast. These debates are very thoughtful with film making and camera work accentuating the statements. If only all films were so frank instead of CGI and 3D empty today! Of course, adding to the backhanded bigotry onscreen is the ironic blacklisting and McCarthyism that followed the cast and crew. One wonders if people we normally think of as so good and nice in the past could really be like this, and yet we still deal with a lot of the same today, and look at all the Old Hollywood actors who changed their ethnic names despite the majority of Jewish movie producers doing the hiring. I could go on, but simply put, there’s no reason for fans of the cast, students of classic film, and the religious or sociology classrooms not to see this movie.
Mirage – This 1965 black and white suspense thriller opens with atmospheric blackout photography, plenty of shadows, flashlights, and silhouettes. These visual tricks add to the dream like recollections and feelings of déjà vu, and yet there’s sensitivity amid the great chases, zooms, and carefully orchestrated frantic. Naturally, Gregory Peck’s debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound comes to mind. However, a strong script, psychology debates, and ethical analysis create a pleasing confusion as clues and character pieces unravel. Although this one succeeds as an old espionage adventure, there’s a modern intelligence and contemporary energy to match the noir intensity and pace. New thriller fans and old school noir audiences can enjoy the New York locales and brief flashbacks as the viewer is slowly informed. Blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk (The Young Lions) doesn’t dump the answers in your lamp, yet we aren’t beaten over the head with the obvious, either. Peck is of course casual and classy as always, and the viewer relates to his dilemma even as our suspicions mount. Walter Matthau (Grumpy Old Men) is also perfection as a crusty little detective who drinks Dr. Pepper and doesn’t like guns. Along with some shockers, there is an excellent build of twists and clues bouncing between the characters. Whom do we trust? Who shouldn’t we? Who’s crazy? Who isn’t? Is someone creating this elaborate mystery? I know I seem a bit vague in my praise, but I wouldn’t want to give anything away!
For more Gregory Peck analysis, here’s a complete list of our prior Peck praise:
The Big Country