I’m still busy watching through Alan Ladd pictures, and in today’s triple feature, he’s one of the best known literary characters, a man for whom cash is a name and a way of life, and an idealist entrepreneur who believes if he builds it, cattle will come.
The Great Gatsby (1949) is a gritty, noirish take on the novel, directed by Elliott Nugent, and adapted by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. Upstart bootlegger Gatsby (Ladd) makes a big splash with his arrival on Long Island, renovating an old mansion to luxurious glory, driving fancy cars and throwing the most extravagant parties, all in an effort to attract and win back the long lost love of his life, Daisy (Betty Field). Ladd gets a range of emotions and qualities to play here; ambitious, classy and stoic, patiently building his wealth, then showing off with it. He’s like an excited little boy when he flings open his closet doors to show Daisy all his fancy imported shirts, in every colour. He’s loyal to old pals, and his squad shares his new high life (including a piano-playing Elisha Cook Jr.). By the end he’s vulnerable, sympathetic and tragic, and anti-hero whose shady past looks positively angelic compared to the deception and opportunism practiced by his dream girl and her shallow, fickle upper crust friends. When, in a hit and run, Daisy kills Myrtle (Shelley Winters), who was having an affair with Daisy’s husband Tom (Barry Sullivan), Gatsby’s heroic offer to take the blame, opens his eyes to her betrayal and the truth about this cruel, careless rotten world he’s worked so hard to fit into. He’s reduced to a small, pathetic figure dwarfed against that massive house, and becomes the victim of their miseries and misdeeds through the vengeance of Myrtle’s husband (Howard da Silva). Macdonald Carey is a likable Nick Carraway, and Ruth Hussey is a quippy Jordan. Overall, a pretty good adaptation that leaves out a lot of the novel’s subtleties and ironies but gets the main notes right. The sad, powerful ending has Ladd sitting dejected by his pool and fully realizing what a joke is this dream he’s chased, just before he’s gunned down in a surprisingly bloody scene.
Santiago (1956) has Ladd as a gun runner who’s forced into an uneasy alliance with rival Lloyd Nolan, when they get involved in a deal to sell weapons to Cuban rebels. Fairly interesting historical adventure, produced by Ladd’s own Jaguar company and directed by Gordon Douglas. The pace is slow at times, and Rosanna Podesta’s performance is lifeless and uninteresting, whether in action, romantic or patriotic mode. Thank goodness for the many good and memorable exchanges between Ladd, the disgraced former soldier who grows a heart, and Nolan, who’s itching to eliminate Ladd but has to wait for the payout. There’s a great supporting cast, including Chill Wills, Paul Fix, L.Q. Jones and Royal Dano. Wills and Jones have a fantastic death scene where they drink to their close friendship and all they’ve experienced though slavery, war and freedom, then take their positions in a literal boatload of explosives, lure the Spanish troops in close and blow it all to smithereens. A similarly clever bit had Ladd and Nolan tie dead Spanish soldiers on a wagon laden with dynamite and let it trundle into the base.
The Big Land (1957). Gordon Douglas directing and Ladd’s company producing again, but this time with no pacing problems or dull parts. Ladd plays a former Confederate soldier and big dreamer who saves hopeless alcoholic Edmond O’Brien from a lynching and conditions him into being a productive partner in the development of a cattle trading town on a railway spur. They get far with the help of O’Brien’s sister (Virginia Mayo) but things fall apart when Ladd’s old enemy and crooked cattle buyer (a delightfully dastardly Anthony Caruso) shows up to bully the customers. The stress drives O’Brien back to the bottle and tragic death. This is a comfortable, well-done western, predictable in all the good ways. It’s a certainty that Ladd, the stoic, quiet man who wants to be done with the gun will be the only one who can bring justice to the town he built, and it’s a given that he’ll end up with Mayo, even though in the worst of her grief she rips his heart out by saying they were all better off before he showed up with his grand ideas. You know from Mayo’s early warnings that O’Brien is doomed to fail, but does he ever give a great performance before his time is up, and all of it makes for an enjoyable picture. Loved the fun appearance by Alan’s son David as the little “echo” who repeats everything he hears.
Previously: Chicago Deadline, Drum Beat, Hell Below Zero, Red Mountain, Thunder in the East, The Iron Mistress, The Man in the Net, Whispering Smith, Calcutta, O.S.S., Two Years Before the Mast, Branded, Appointment with Danger.