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Nicholas Ray remains a favorite director of the 1950s, probably because he bucked the trend toward conformist pap and went off in his own direction, gracing the screen with 'sensitive' rodeo riders, a drug-deranged schoolteacher and Joan Crawford as a highly unlikely defender of Civil Liberties. Ray's enduring claim to history is of course directing Rebel Without a Cause, a film credited with inventing the idea of the American Teenager.
But hey, before Nicholas Ray helped James Dean realign the mentality of a million 'fifties teens, he directed other movies with almost the same theme. Two of them starred John Derek, an actor who began by playing a misguided youth in Ray's 1949 Knock On Any Door. Practically the blueprint for movies claiming that social influences are responsible for underage crime ("It's not his problem, it's our problem!"), Knock on Any Door posits the too-handsome-to-be-real Derek as a confused crook whose philosophy is to "Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse."
John Derek (future husband of Bo) was cast against Humphrey Bogart in that picture, and in Ray's follow-up western Run for Cover he gets third billing under star James Cagney. This time around, Derek is an orphan with a definite inability to distinguish right from wrong. This film's cure for teenaged angst is much less generous than in the other two Ray pictures.
Wandering Matt Dow (Cagney) and local orphan Davey Bishop (Derek) no sooner meet than they're mistaken for train bandits. Ambushed by the posse of an over-eager Sheriff (Ray Teal), Davey is critically wounded. Immigrant farmer Swenson and his daughter Helga (Jean Hersholt & Viveca Lindfors) let the men recover at their farm. Matt and Helga fall in love, but the bitter Davey blames the world for the permanent limp he has acquired. To atone for their misjudgment the town makes Matt their new Sheriff. He chooses Davey as his deputy, hoping that the young man will become a substitute son. When a bank robbery occurs, Davey allows the townsfolk to hang one bandit, and can't keep the second from escaping. Matt and Helga have just made plans to marry when a truly efficient gang robs the bank and makes off with $85,000 in loot. One of the crooks recognizes Matt, who must confess to his neighbors that yes, he spent six years in prison in a case of mistaken identity. Some of the townspeople suspect that Matt is in on the robbery -- the crooks knew that there was a lot of money in the bank.
Believe it or not, according to biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray believed the superb Johnny Guitar (soon to come on BD from Olive Films) to be a compromised mess. Ray said that he would abandon Guitar's theatrical stylization for a more realistic approach on Run for Cover, which was the kind of story he could make into something special. That's odd, as the accusations of bank robbery floating around in the new story are nearly identical to important plot points in Johnny Guitar.
As it turns out, the really special aspect of Run for Cover is its eye-popping VistaVision cinematography, originally printed in Technicolor. James Cagney is terrific as usual, but the script lacks dramatic conflict. The hero Matt Dow has had a tough background, but we know he's a nice guy. Even though he's irredeemably delinquent, Davey Bishop is too bland to excite our emotions. Favorite Viveca Lindfors' Helga is fresh and cheerful as the Swedish farm girl, and she's nice. The no-good townspeople blast away at total strangers, lynch the first thief they catch, undermine Matt's pride and integrity, accuse him of colluding with thieves -- and he still forgives them, because they're basically nice. The laid-back Run for Cover lets a slack judge off the hook and even paints its two bad guys as too colorful to be all bad. One of them is Ernest Borgnine, the ultra-thug Black Bart from Johnny Guitar. I'm afraid he's rather on the nice side too, relatively speaking.
Perhaps, after working with Joan Crawford, Nicholas Ray needed a break from tension of any kind.
The tension in Run for Cover lasts for about three scenes, until we realize that John Derek's punk is a bad egg unworthy of our sympathy. Davey Bishop snarls at the helpful Matt and breaks Helga's mirror, an heirloom that she probably hauled all the way from the Old Country. When the posse that shot him comes to apologize, Davey sneers at them. Matt Dow sticks it through and tries to "help the boy become a man" But we know it's hopeless. Davey's subsequent betrayals of those that love him place him far from any possibility of redemption.
Interestingly, we hear all the same arguments from later "soft on delinquency" drama: Davey has had a rough upbringing; it's hard for a young man to keep his pride; not everybody can be a "heroic" defender of the law (still the highest human goal endorsed by '50s westerns). But weepy apologies for rotten teens hadn't yet been codified -- this Davey is in bad need of some old fashioned Red State extermination.
Biographer Eisenschitz also reported that Run for Cover was re-edited after Nicholas Ray left the scene, and that a lot of the director's "touches" were removed, bits of life on the farm, a montage of work chores, etc.. The idea was that Ray's sense of humor and amused detachment was removed from the cut. Whether that's the case or not is difficult to say. Ray made fascinating pictures but his remarks on his own work could often be unreliable. He was a 'complicated' artist to say the least; some actors worshipped him and others said he just sat there and contributed nothing. Ray's personal motto, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself" applies to leading characters in almost all of his better movies. Matt Dow ought to be the personification of this sentiment. As an unjustly imprisoned ex-con, he lost his wife and his son and now has a tough time getting along in a town full of hypocrites. Cagney's performance is pleasant to watch, but he's not the kind of actor to project alienated angst. He's at home wherever he goes.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Run for Cover is outstanding - the release is also available on standard DVD. The original VistaVision cinematography has somehow survived the photochemical path to an HD transfer, yielding an image that evokes the glories of 1950s big-sky color westerns. About half of the film takes place in dazzling locations around Silverton Colorado, the same location producers Pine & Thomas used for their pictures Silver City and Denver & Rio Grande. The only thing that puzzles us is that the town in Run for Cover is a tiny 1.5-horse hamlet, yet it has $85,000 in its bank and a double rail line. Is every farmer and local layabout a secret miner of Uranium?
Seriously, it's pretty amusing seeing Run for Cover look this, well, fabulous while more prestigious Paramount westerns like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral haven't yet seen the inside of a Blu-ray player. Just sayin'. Olive Films has taken an "okay" '50s oater that was pretty dull on old TV screens, and mades it into a "wow" home video experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Run for Cover Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.