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Devil’s Doorway (DVD Review)

9 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Robert Taylor, Louis Calhern, Paula Raymond.

Any time anyone makes a movie sympathetic to the Native American’s plight there’s always some reviewer who says, “oh, what a relief” from the manner in which Hollywood treated Indians in the past.

Actually, you have to dig pretty deeply to find a major studio production (an important emphasis) made after 1950 that took a retro view, though 1953’s Charlton Heston starrer Arrowhead immediately leaps to mind. Even John Ford’s unflinching The Searchers is about racism, and brutal villain Chief Scar (played by a white actor in what was a major departure from Ford’s casting norm) was positioned as an alter ego to John Wayne’s virulent racist Ethan Edwards.

The first of the two racially sensitive 1950 benchmarks was August’s Technicolor hit Broken Arrow (directed by Delmer Daves) — which, along with Anthony Mann’s immediately preceding Winchester ’73, is the movie that got James Stewart really back on commercial track for the first time in his postwar career. The second benchmark, less known, was September’s black-and-white Devil’s Doorway, which Mann directed as well. Amazingly, Mann’s The Furies was sandwiched between them, giving him three well-regarded Westerns released between July and September — and that film is somewhat of a correlative here. Both The Furies and Doorway look almost noir-ish a times, and, indeed, Doorway’s cinematographer was the great John Alton, Mann’s partner during his immediately preceding film noir period.

The leap of faith Doorway audiences have to make is the casting of Robert Taylor (pronounced makeup and all) as an Indian bilked out of his land and the cattle fortune that’s gone with it by laws that give Native Americans no rights — and he a Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor winner to compound the insult. Well, the movie wouldn’t have gotten made without a major star (and definitely not at MGM) — especially when there’s not a sliver of sentimentality in Guy Trosper’s script. And at this point, it’s time for a footnote regarding the career of not-your-everyday screenwriter. Trosper was the top-billed scripter of One-Eyed Jacks, the second-billed for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (a posthumous release) and received solo credit for The Stratton Story, Birdman of Alcatraz and Jailhouse Rock. (So does this mean that Birdman Burt Lancaster looked at the last and pronounced, “This is the man”?)

The war aside, Taylor’s character has lived with Wyoming locals all this life and is generally well liked, but many incoming settlers are not so sympathetic, including an agitating lawyer played by Louis Calhern. Interestingly, Calhern had one of his signature roles the same year and also at MGM: as another slimy mouthpiece in John Huston’s still brilliant The Asphalt Jungle. The crud he plays here could be grandfather to the other, though it’s tough to imagine this 19th-century shyster having Jungle’s Marilyn Monroe as a much younger mistress.

Taylor then hires a woman lawyer (Paula Raymond) to defend him as her very first client — a great way to ingratiate oneself with the town’s white power structure, though there’s some hint of mutual physical attraction (an issue not ignored but not fully addressed by the movie, either). Some of the settlers are reasonable, and if Taylor were politically savvy enough to negotiate with them, he might be better off because times are changing in the West no matter what one’s race. Cattlemen have needs, sheepmen have needs and so do what in Shane are called “squatters.” (Even the gruff Ryker character Emile Meyer plays in the last has a point, even if we do want him to see him get plugged.)  But Taylor has been so shafted by the official power structure that his subsequent death-wish aggression is understandable.
The print hasn’t been remastered but is quite acceptable, though certainly it’s not up to what Criterion did with The Furies in 2008 (which is almost breathtaking). Thanks to VCI last year, even Mann and Alton’s The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror) finally got sprung from public domain hell last year by an acceptable print. It, too, applies noir-ish visuals into setting even more surprising: the French Revolution.

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