No resurrected Ray masterpiece, but a solid oater, nonetheless. Olive Films, which puts out all those great Paramount library titles, has released Run For Cover, the 1955 Western directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Cagney, Viveca Lindfors, John Derek, Jean Hersholt, Granter Withers, and Ernest Borgnine. Often shunted aside when "cinephiles" (yeech) discuss Ray's better known movies and bona fide masterpieces (particularly that same year's Rebel Without a Cause), Run For Cover is probably a good tonic for those movie lovers―like myself, too often―who automatically reboot to the auteur theory when watching minor or misplaced entries from great directors' canons: trying to cram that square peg into a round hole can be a fun game...but maybe a game is all it really is in the end. A nice-looking transfer of a VistaVision® print helps.
Wandering cowpoke Matt Dow (James Cagney) is heading towards podunk cowtown Madison when he encounters young Davey Bishop (John Derek), a "charity" case from Madison who's peeved at Matt for drawing down on him after coming up on Matt a little too quickly at a watering hole. Once Matt deftly deflects Davey's mounting immature anger, the two set off for Madison, stopping to take a pot shot at a spiraling hawk above them. Unfortunately, a passing train spots the two and takes their shots as a signal for robbers to hit the train (the same thing had happened just weeks prior). The cowardly railroad worker preemptively throws out a satchel of money at the feet of the "robbers," Matt and Davey, and proceed to tell a whopper about being robbed once they return to town. The town's hair-trigger sheriff (Ray Teal), is soon on the trail with a hopped-up posse, but despite the odd fact that Matt and Davey seem to be heading towards town (to return the money), the sheriff gives the order to open fire, creasing Matt's head but seriously wounding Davey. A disgusted Matt is almost lynched before he sets the story straight, and he soon joins a recovering Davey at Mr. Swenson's (Jean Hersholt) farm, where Swenson's daughter, Helga (Viveca Lindfors), toils in lonely isolation. Matt takes a shine to the kid―and to Helga―but handicapped Davey's growing cynicism, and a black mark on Matt's past, will threaten Matt's new role as town sheriff.
I go around and around in my head with this stuff all the time. The buzzsaw starts simply enough with: what do you do with a movie like Run For Cover when it doesn't seem to fit in with all the auteur Muzak® written about a famous director like Ray? And then you extrapolate that irritation, and begin to wonder if all that "film theory" jazz you learned back in school from all those pointy head professors is, in the immortal words of Blazing Saddles's Liam Dunn, "just jerking off." Of course the simplest answer would be: you don't know Ray well enough, so you missed all the clues that indicate Run For Cover is indeed "informed" by Ray's authorship. Fair enough. I'm no "expert" on Ray like I'd like to consider myself on some other directors. But then how do you reconcile, after watching Ray's Rebel Without a Cause from the same year (and despite no "expertise" in the director, clearly being able to connect it aesthetically with his other major works like Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life), with admitting to yourself that if the director's credit on Run For Cover had been forever unlisted, damn few viewers (if anybody) could connect it up with Ray? And then you're right back to the "auteur theory" is okay for certain directors or for certain movies of certain directors, but it's not a be-all, end-all model (not only because it can't adequately account for anomalies in style and message, but also because it marginalizes the collaborative nature of the medium). Every time I look back on a review or term paper I wrote soaked in auteur assumptions (or any other so-called theory), I'm reminded of two things: a college psych class where the professor told us that whenever more than five random dots are put on a board, human beings will "connect" them up, regardless of logic, and Alma Hitchcock laughing at a self-serious "cinephile" who regaled her with an esoteric five-minute thematic explanation of a particular shot of Kim Novak in Vertigo, to which Hitchcock then explained (paraphrased), "it was the only shot we had of her for coverage." (you just know all those old pro Hollywood directors―even the ones who eventually nodded along for the publicity―laughed their asses off whenever someone mentioned Cahiers du Cinema)
So...I'm fickle. Maybe next week Run For Cover would have struck me as uniquely "Ray-like" in its composition and thematic elements, but today...I just don't see it. What did appeal to me in Run For Cover, though, was a solidly-drawn, if familiar, Western tale that again trades on those classic "what it takes to be a man"/father-son dynamics that inform so many American Westerns, from Shane and The Big Country, to True Grit. I can't imagine there are too many viewers out there who aren't going to see right away where Run For Cover is going to ultimately wind up, as Cagney (who lost his son) looks kindly on shifty town ward Derek, babying him through his life-threatening injuries, educating him with books, re-teaching him to mount a saddle, and giving him a job, as his deputy...only to have Derek turn on him.
Far from obscure, Run For Cover's screenplay by Winston Miller (My Darling Clementine, The Far Horizons, Lucy Gallant), from a story by famed writing team of Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Home From the Hill, Hud, Hombre, The Cowboys), is accessibly concerned with courage and bravery and more importantly, how each man perceives himself when threatened. When Cagney first meets Derek and scares him by quickly drawing on him, Cagney rightly calls out Derek's anger resulting from showing his fear, not because of the draw itself (Cagney's kind of mature, manly courage allows him diffuse the situation with young hothead Derek by laughing off the encounter and making the kid feel at ease). The injured railroad man isn't going to die for someone else's money, so he throws the payroll satchel out the window...and then lies with his buddy to the sheriff, inflating the threat because he doesn't want to seem like a coward. And the rather abrupt scene of Cagney using tough love to shame invalid Derek up off the floor ("That's the last time I want to see you crawl!"), illustrates a typically misguided "father" having the right message of courage and bravery for his "son," delivered in exactly the wrong way (the old, tough-as-nails Cagney comes out when he stands over Derek, sneering, "Lots of guys live and die without finding how much of a man they are!"). It's too bad the screenplay and Ray didn't push this subtext into more unchartered waters, instead of letting it resolve itself in a rather expected, conventional manner (see how different Ray handles the son telling his father how to be a man in Rebel, when Dean implores Mr. Magoo to take off that woman's apron and get up off his knees...hey wait―I just found a connection!).
Run For Cover has other interesting asides that unfortunately don't get picked up on (Lindfors' proto-feminism, courtesy of New World America's encouragement of children talking back to their parents), but for the most part, its story holds few if any surprises, with most viewers way ahead of SPOILERS ALERT! Derek turning out to be a sniveling coward/thief, and innocent Cagney having a (undeservedly) "shady" past. Certainly Ray and Smith telegraph Derek's rotten apple core early and often enough, but significantly, that transformation doesn't feel grounded in a believable "build." It's arbitrary (and certainly not made more subtle by resolutely constipated Derek, who's just as bad here under Ray as he was under DeMille in The Ten Commandments). Surprisingly, if you're looking for Ray's recognizable sympathy for a typically mixed-up kid...it isn't here in Run For Cover. You would think that Ray might take Derek's side, or at least make him sympathetic, but Cagney sounds like any other father disappointed in a son he feels isn't "man enough" to carry on his name, running Derek down for being a traitor and a coward to the end SPOILERS ALERT! (having Derek save Cagney at the end feels like an easy cheat on the part of the screenwriter, not a philosophical transformation of the character).
Ray does get in some good bits of direction now and then, giving us some nice visual clues that expand the narrative (I like the little kid pantomiming shooting Derek―dead like Cagney's real kid)―as we hear the gunshot from the bank robbery, or having everyone dangle or jimmy their legs, from Cagney to Borgnine, to remind us what they have and Derek doesn't). However, you'd be hard-pressed to see in those VistaVision® visuals anything all that special other than some truly spectacular scene values; how this can look so bland, and Rebel look so electrifying, is perhaps better discussed with each cinematographer, rather than Ray (Ray showing two characters "split" by a post to opposite sides of the widescreen wasn't exactly groundbreaking mise-en-scene in 1955). Still...a Western can work at the most basic level if it supplies horses and guns and big conflicts against a bigger sky, which Run For Cover certainly does (although spare me that gawd-awful title song: "Run for cover....eye-aye!")...and you really can't beat a pro like Cagney this late in his game, moving with authority through a genre that doesn't even suit him, either physically or temperamentally (he's a fireplug like Edmond O'Brien in my recently reviewed Silver City...but Cagney transcends that physical limitation). If for nothing else, he's worth Run For Cover alone...even if you initially go in looking for Ray.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.