Friday, October 02, 2009

Thunder Over the Plains (1953, de Toth) - A Dreary Western

Thunder Over the Plains (1953) is a truly dreary western from the usually estimable André de Toth. It features immaculate John Alton-like lighting from Bert Glennon who seems to bring a noir sensibility to Westerns (he did similar things in Felix Feist's Man Behind the Gun), and Citizen Kane-like framings which I'll attribute to de Toth.

The dreary comes from the very un-engrossing plot and, while the characters are developed moderately well, it is just a motley crew ripe for delivering boredom. None is given quite enough of a drive or a reason, and the conflict is lacking, making the whole film dull. I think a Screenwriting 101 teacher ought to have a field day with this one. A pretty great director directs the pants off this weak script but the problems must have been there on the page and should have been addressed before shooting.

The weakness starts right from the beginning, with an omniscient narrator and ostensibly tense scenes that unfurl before us with characters we don't yet care about. This is not an uncommon problem in omniscient narrator films, and this one has a historical bent which probably adds to the stodginess. The most important problem is Ben Westman, the character played by Charles McGraw. McGraw can't do much here—his character has no passion. He's supposed to be the Robin Hood fighting against the evil carpetbaggers, and Randolph Scott is the "hero" supposed to bring him in. On paper it might seem like a great struggle between two conflicted characters, but McGraw's raison d'être is thinly drawn.

I wonder if there was any McCarthy angle to this one that might explain its dreariness-- if there was an ulterior motive behind the picture that put traditional plot clashes on the back burner. In any case, the result is not fun to watch.

I've rarely watched a film so beautifully lit, directed (and to some extent acted) that was so painfully unwatchable. A lesson that just beautiful images alone can't carry a movie. This also reminds me that something must be going on in seemingly plotless masterpieces like Last Year at Marienbad to hold our attention that could be worth analyzing (for film or screenwriting students at least).
(This boring picture helps illustrate how boring the movie is. Screen grab courtesy of DVD Beaver review.)

Note: Originally written 07/10/09 but delayed posting due to procrastination of rewriting! This is a pretty messy draft but now the movie is too faded from memory to refine this.

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