|Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Run time: Approved | 84 min | Western
Director: Anthony Mann
Writers: Guy Trosper
Stars: Robert Taylor, Louis Calhern, Paula Raymond
An early Western by the great Anthony Mann, following his now-classic series of films- noir in the 1940s, that deals with racial prejudice and injustice towards a native Indian who returns home after serving in the Civil War.
Toronto Film Society is back in the theatre! However, we’re still pleased to continue to bring you films straight to your home! Beginning Season 73 until now we have...
A dark grim yet gritty movie is probably the best way to describe this fairly forgotten and under appreciated jewel of a western. Produced by Nicholas Nayfack for MGM in 1950 the picture – just like "Winchester 73" and "The Gunfighter" made the same year – marked the coming of age of the American western. DEVIL'S DOORWAY was the first movie which undertook to depict – in graphic terms – the plight of the native American in the west of the 1860s. It was also the first western to be directed by Anthony Mann who alongside John Ford would become the genre's most iconic director with his masterpiece "Winchester 73" and thereafter with his fruitful working relationship with actor James Stewart that would produce some of the finest westerns ever made like "Bend Of The River", "The Far Country" and the brilliant "Naked Spur". Nicely written for the screen by Guy Trosperm DEVIL'S DOORWAY was stunningly photographed in glorious Black & White in Aspen, Colorado by John Alton and was complimented with a splendid atmospheric score – featuring an exciting Indian motif – by Russian composer Daniele Amfitheathrof.
With the Congressional Medal of Honour pinned to his Union tunic distinguished Shoshone Indian Sergeant Major Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) returns home from the war between the States to his people in his beautiful valley of Sweet Meadow. He is greeted by his aged and ailing father (Fritz Leiber) ("You are home – you are again an Indian"). But prejudice against the tribe is beginning to take hold in the nearby town instigated and then exacerbated by a shady Indian hating lawyer Verne Coolin (Louis Calhern). Things really come to a head when sheep-men arrive and need to graze their herds on Sweet Meadow but Lance will not allow it and orders them off his property ("This is my land and you're trespassing"). However they are encouraged by Coolin to take the land since the Homestead Act of the period states that it is forbidden for an Indian to own any land. An enraged Lance takes up arms and leads his people against the interlopers (a well executed battle scene). Finally with many deaths on each side the army are sent for to quell the fighting which leads to a tragic finale. Lance settles his score with Coolin before the final shootout with the army which sees him and his braves being killed, his village destroyed and the tribe – what's left of them – being escorted to the reservation.
DEVIL'S DOORWAY is a superb western and deserves to be rediscovered. With Mann's earlier noir successes "T Men" (1947) and "Raw Deal" ('48) DEVIL'S DOORWAY contains wonderful noirish moments of outstanding quality such as in the bruising fist fight sequence in the Saloon between Taylor and gunman James Milican with its low angle camera and arresting use of light and shadow and again later for scenes inside the dimly lit Indian shacks. The acting throughout is splendid all round. Taylor arguably gives the performance of his long career in an unusual bit of casting. Eschewing his handsome MGM glamour-boy image (he was Gable's chief rival at the studio) he turns in a powerful and striking portrayal of great depth and substance. His performance as a man who sees his beloved valley being ripped out from under him and his people is heartfelt and sincere. Excellent too is Louis Calhern as the antagonistic racist lawyer. His part not being very far removed from his brilliant shady lawyer in the studio's "Asphalt Jungle" the same year.
So here is a powerfully evocative and accomplished movie that was strikingly bold for its time and today remains compelling in its stark presentation. Directed by a man who was on the verge of western movie greatness DEVIL'S DOORWAY is a movie that shouldn't be missed by anyone who cares about the American western. It is a movie that with some reassessment and a little more exposure could easily become one of Hollywood's greatest achievements and perhaps even Mann's real masterpiece. A movie that makes the final and prophetic line in the picture that bit more fitting……….
"IT WOULD BE TOO BAD IF WE SHOULD EVER FORGET".
wow – I’m not normally a big fan of westerns, but this one seems to excel in all departments. At first I was wondering if I would buy Robert Taylor as a full-blooded Native American character, but it’s a testament to the depth and range of his talent that he had me convinced within the first minute of his screen time, without even a momentary falter throughout the rest of the film. The cinematography is nothing short of spectacular, sometimes even haunting; certain outdoor scenes are as memorable as masterpiece landscape paintings (and we’re talking black & white here!)
The dramatic storyline is excellent and never misses a beat; character motivations may be surprising at times, yet they remain dramatically valid and consistent throughout the film. Even when the main character makes certain decisions with which you may not agree, you’ll still understand why he does what he does.
The ending is one of the best that I know of; the final dialogue is as prophetic as it is unforgettable. I watched this movie on TCM knowing very little about it before I sat down in front of the tube, and I’m thrilled to say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching an actual 10/10. I’m really looking forward to seeing it again!
Your one other comment on this film so far (Under the Arch) sums up my feelings entirely. Why this masterpiece of a film is not mentioned in the same historical discussions of great westerns as Stagecoach, The Oxbow Incident, High Noon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, etc. is beyond me. But of course it was made by Anthony Mann and that says it all. Those little known episodes in our nation's history in which greedy white men dispossessed cooperative and non-violent native Americans can never be re-told often enough; such as when Andrew Jackson, despite a Supreme Court decision to the contrary, conspired in the 1820s with the land robbers so as to allow those white men to exploit the state's mineral wealth in the 1820s. The peaceful and civil Cherokees were driven out of their Carolina homelands and into concentration camps. (Hitler had nothing on Andrew Jackson.) From there the Cherokees were driven into Florida and then on to Oklahoma via the "Trail of Tears." And the Devil's Doorway is such a classic tale of land-grabbing, ethnic cleansing, bigotry, and high-handed discriminatory bureaucracy as to make your flesh creep. See it.
PS I recently (2009) saw Anthony Mann's Cimarron (1960, his last Western) for the first time and read all the many reviews of it. Many went into great depth as to Mann and his career, listing and evaluating many of his previous films. Not one of them mentioned this film, perhaps his greatest! So even among Mann aficionados one of his greatest accomplishments has fallen by the wayside and into the memory hole! What can be done about this to bring back such a classic and restore it to its rightful place in film history?
Devil's Doorway is directed by Anthony Mann. It stars Robert Taylor as Lance Poole, a Shoshone Indian who returns home to Medicine-Bow from the American Civil War after a three year stint, and a veteran of three major conflicts. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor he rightfully expects to be able to retire to a peaceful life back on the family land. However, all his hopes and dreams are shattered by bigotry and greed as new laws are ushered in to deprive the Native Indians land rights.
Biting and cutting, Devil's Doorway is a Civil Rights Western that, boldly for its time, looks at the injustices done to Native Americans. Very much grim in texture, it's no surprise to see Anthony Mann at the helm for this material. Mann of course would go on to become a Western genre darling for his run of "Adult Westerns" he would do with James Stewart. Prior to this Mann had showed himself to have a keen eye for tough pieces with dark themes in a few well regarded film noir movies. So this was right up his street, in fact a glance at his output shows him to be something of a master when it comes to showing minority groups sympathetically. MGM were nervous tho, unsure as if taking the Western in this direction was the way to go, they pulled it from release in 1949. But after the impact that Delmer Daves' similar themed Broken Arrow made the following year, they ushered it out and the film promptly got lost amongst the plaudits for the James Stewart starrer. That's a shame because this is fit to sit alongside the best work Mann has done.
Filmed in black & white, the film has beautiful landscapes that belie the bleak road the movie ultimately turns down. Shot on location at Aspen and Grand Junction in Colorado (the talented John Alton on cinematography), the film also manages to rise above its obvious eyebrow raising piece of casting. Robert Taylor always had his critics, hell I'm sometimes one of them, but here as he is cast against type as a Shoshone Indian, he gives the character conviction and a stoic nobility that really makes it work. Some of his scenes with the beautiful Paula Raymond (playing his lawyer Orrie Masters) are a lesson in maximum impact garnered from emotional restraint. You will be aware of the fluctuating skin pigmentation he has throughout the movie, but honestly look into his eyes and feel the confliction and loyalty and you really will not care.
Scripted by Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz), the screenplay is unflinching in showing how badly the Native Americans were treated. Throw that in with Alton's other gift, that of the dusty barren land shot, and you got a very film noir feel to the movie. Something which not only is unique, but something that also showed a shift in the Hollywood Oater. We now get brains to match the action and aesthetics of the Western movie. Not that this is found wanting for action, Mann doesn't short change here either, with a dynamite led offensive purely adrenalin pumping.
A fine fine movie, an important movie in fact. One that is in desperate need of more exposure. Still awaiting a widespread home format disc release, I quote Orrie Masters from the movie…"It would be too bad if we ever forget"…. that applies to both the theme of the piece and the actual movie itself. 9/10