Broken Lance (Blu-ray Review)23 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters, Richard Widmark.
Tops-of-its-kind Broken Lance came along at an interesting juncture of Hollywood history, starting with the fact that Edward Dmytryk was just back from the Blacklist (in fact, the director’s spotty but popular stab at adapting The Caine Mutiny was playing first-run in my hometown at the Loew’s Ohio while Lance was playing at the RKO Palace).
Then there was Spencer Tracy — all but out of his MGM contract (only Bad Day at Black Rock was still to come) and making his first trip off the plantation with a return to Fox, where he had mostly floundered in the early ’30s not long before the studio merged with Darryl Zanuck’s 20th-Century Pictures to become a hyphenated titan. Meanwhile, Zanuck’s much-ballyhooed baby — CinemaScope — was still in its first year, and its color-only production lineup was making the transition from Technicolor to De Luxe with vibrant initial results (Lance would be in De Luxe, though with prints by Technicolor). And Richard Widmark was trying to get out of his own Fox contract, which likely explains why one of that studio’s dominant leading men of the immediate postwar era took fourth billing here.
None of this distracted from the main event, which was and is a compact 96-minute rouser that’s kept me watching during channel surfs for more than 50 years. It was also a big hit at the time: three Palace weeks in a solo run when the relatively short running time meant that there were many runs per day. Despite booming echoes of King Lear and (more to the Fox point) its revamping of the studio’s 1949 family-oriented banking drama House of Strangers into a Western setting, Lance somehow won the Oscar for original story (an Academy category that no longer exists). Yet, whatever the genesis, this is a mighty solid told-in-flashback yarn: Cattle baron Tracy has three disappointing sons from his first marriage with a long-deceased mother; particularly estranged is Widmark, who has been worked to death by the old man — generating the same kind of cheap-labor animosity Paul Newman feels toward father Melvyn Douglas in Hud. On the other hand, Tracy has genuine affection for son No. 4 (Robert Wagner), whose mother’s status as a Native American has engendered some of the community racism one might unfortunately expect. Katy Jurado plays her, and she got a supporting actress nomination not long after the strong impression she’d previously made in High Noon.
There are several memorable setpieces all the way up to a niftily staged sibling battle on which the stuntman broke his arm while taking a long fall off a cliff into the drink. One of these involves love interest Jean Peters, whose brief career would soon be over in favor of marriage to Howard Hughes); Tracy serves her a meal that he knows will result in forest-fire breath — and she just takes it without giving an inch. Another is when the two other sons (Hugh O’Brian and a notably dim Earl Holliman) steal some of pop’s own cattle in a very unsmooth move, and another is when Holliman notes that water in the Tracy ranch stream tastes something like a penny, and Tracy proceeds to wreck a nearby copper mine responsible for the pollution. As gestures go, it’s impressive — though possibly an indication that a patriarch who’s always gotten his way with everyone may finally be losing some of his grip. Julie Kirgo’s always-welcome liner notes peg this scene, and I think she must be right, as one of the first overtly pro-environment stances that a Western ever took.
The great Joe MacDonald (his debut as a frequent Dmytryk cinematographer), makes this all look like a trillion — and, for me, Lance was the last movie where the director displayed full fire in his belly, though the Dmytryk-MacDonald Warlock has enough revisionist admirers to make me ripe for a re-look. Appearing with Twilight Time chieftain Nick Redman on one of the year’s most unusual bonus commentaries is actor Holliman, who is now 87 (tough to imagine). By Holliman’s own sheepish admission here, they often talk everything but the picture at hand — yet anyone who’s worked with many if not most major Western male leads, Katharine Hepburn, Martin & Lewis and opposite Angie Dickinson on Police Story has some interesting stories to tell. (Not even mentioned, unless I had my own senior moments, are Holliman’s drunken scene with Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet and his solo appearance on the very first “Twilight Zone” episode). At his best here, Holliman is lucid and quite detailed, but there are times when the synapses don’t fire, and he forgets the question. Even so, he comes up with a very funny wisecrack (not mean-spirited) about Peters right at the end.