Man Out of Time: Film Preservation and the Noir Western

As I have been participating in this amazing Noir Blogathon, I have had a lot of time to consider what I wanted to write about each day. And, as I have been writing, I have had many things on in the background. Whether it was TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar or just some music, it has somehow played into the way I have put together my work. But last night, I was having a rough time deciding what I wanted my last piece to be. I looked at my wall of movies and couldn’t figure it out. Did I want to go Sam Fuller, and dig through House of Bamboo? I love me some Sam, and while I have written on him before, never have I attempted that film. I pulled it out and looked at it, and kept it out as an option. Then I pulled out Lonely are the Brave, which I had been thinking about for about a day or so. It was a rough choice. Did I want to battle another film that wasn’t just an out-and-out noir? A film that masked its “noirness” underneath another genre? Then I looked down at my television, and saw what was playing.

I had just finished watching Blow Up (1966), and considered writing about that, but was honestly having a hard time thinking critically about the piece, due to the fact that I hadn’t seen it in so long and…well, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings are so impossibly good looking in that film that I was reduced to a drooling idiot, in no uncertain terms. So that film was out. However, as I stood by my television, DVDs in hand, trying to make my choice on the Next Noir to write about, the first bars of 2001: A Space Odyssey came on. And that’s when I remembered why I had challenged myself to write as many pieces in this short a span of time.

In December it had been announced that 17 extra minutes of the film had been discovered in a salt mine. To me, that was phenomenal. I know that it is blasphemy for any cinephile to say this, but I’m not a huge fan of 2001. In fact, I’ll come right out and say that I think the movie is extremely boring. Is it gorgeous? Totally. Well made? Absolutely. Is it a work of genius? Yeah, it probably is. Do I like it? Nope. I just like the parts with H.A.L. Those parts are creepy and I like creepy stuff. So there’s my admission and I am totally comfortable with it. That said, this discovery was brilliant to me. Not because it was 2001 necessarily, but because it was part of our history; and even moreso, our shared cultural history. Cinema bridges so many gaps in the world and manages to create a common visual language amongst millions of people and peoples who have never known each other and will never meet each other. When I fell in love with cinema in college it wasn’t because I wanted to make a movie, it was because I realized that no matter how much I like Chagall, not everyone on the planet would know who that was if you said his name. But if you mentioned/described Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse or a more modern star (who would it be now? Brad Pitt? Mark Wahlberg?), people would absolutely know who you were talking about. Of course it is, as always, about monetary economy and access, but cinema as a medium is far more wide-reaching than any other art form. Which is why the restoration of Metropolis or the saving of this 17 minutes of 2001 is crucial for us as scholars, film lovers, noir fans, and human beings. It is film preservation, my friends. Without our past, we do not have any future.

And with that, I made my decision on what I needed to write about. I needed to write about Lonely are the Brave. It is a story based on a man who is, in a sense, a bit of an anachronism. He’s a cowboy in a world that is, quite literally, over run with cars, trucks, and other machinery. Yet his own world is still alive and vibrant; he refuses to accept the idea that the things that surround him are “higher” technology. He is, indeed, a “man out of time,” in more than one way. With Lonely are the Brave, I see a man who whole-heartedly embraces what the world sees as the “past,” and he just accepts it as what he is. He doesn’t hold it against anyone else, necessarily, nor does he live in some kind of fantasy world where he thinks that it really is still the Days of the Wild West. His Past Persona is his identity and, to me, his ethos. Jack W. Burns feels that if there is no man out there living free like he does, then the world will somehow have died.

The film, written by Dalton Trumbo, is one of extreme import. Jack W. Burns (played with grace and style by Kirk Douglas) returns to an urban landscape from his regular transient routine doing whatever cowboy-related tasks he can find (sheep herding, etc) to help a friend in need. That friend, Paul Bondi, however, has changed, and is no longer the same person he once was and the help that Jack is willing to offer will do little to no good. In fact, in trying to help out his friend, Jack gets himself into the jam that leads to his ultimate altercation with the law and spiral downward. The great irony is that it is, quite literally, this modern, urban landscape and all of its accessories that end up leading to Burns’ downfall. Jack reinserted himself into the situation so that he could help his pal from the ol’ days; a friend he thought was still living (at least partially) in the same world that he was, only to find out that Bondi had moved on, become more responsible. But for Jack, his Cowboy Culture is not a phase, it is a way of life.

Burns gets put into jail specifically to see Bondi. After meeting and talking with Bondi, he realizes that Bondi is on a different life path, and so Jack stages a jailbreak- Bondi does not go. When Burns returns to the house where Bondi’s wife and child are, he has a conversation with Jerry (Gena Rowlands), Bondi’s wife. It is clear the two have had some kind of possible previous romantic involvement, at some point in their relationship, although it is not entirely apparent whether or not it was ever consummated. Before Jack leaves to try to start outrunning the police (on his horse, Whiskey), he says something quite important to Jerry:

JACK: I didn’t want a house, didn’t want all those pots and pans, didn’t want anything but you. It’s God’s own blessing I didn’t get you.

JERRY: Why?

JACK: Cuz I’m a loner down deep to my very guts. And you know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s crippled because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live, it’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you, cuz he couldn’t love you. Not the way you are loved.

JERRY: You’ll change too someday, Jack.

JACK: Mmm, maybe. Can’t now, too late. Paul did though…

The kind of emotionally-tinged speech to Jerry that is at once pushing her away while telling her that he cares deeply is very similar to another very famous speech involving Bogey and Bacall and a hill of beans. While Lonely is masquerading as somewhat of a western, the noir sensibility is just as strong as it is in Casablanca. Jack and Rick share a great deal of things in common. They are both outlaws in their own areas, live by their own rules, and are not willing to budge, even a little. While I have heard people argue on whether or not Casablanca is a noir, I’m not going to get into that discussion at all. If we are to go by the Borde and Chaumeton definitions, the Durgnat discussions, and even Paul Schrader’s family tree, I believe that both Casablanca and Lonely Are the Brave would qualify.

But a western noir is a difficult thing to be. And this film is even more difficult to qualify as it is, in essence, about the end of the western. Jack Burns is a loner, and all he has is his horse and his tight grip on the past. The environment and the officers/representatives of the environment he has put himself in are attacking him, and as the movie progresses, he gets more and more trapped within his situation and becomes even more of a “man out of time.”

Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliantly constructed score works in tandem with the alternate storyline of the trucker (Carol O’Connor) and the police chase to build the film up to a brilliant crescendo. The finale sequence, in the rain, essentially plays out the way a standard noir might do. If the standard noir was about a man and his horse, just trying to live their own way, damn the consequences. The modern world comes into conflict with Jack’s world, and he is left, confused, broken, and, ultimately, alone. His earlier words to Jerry were true. He is the only person he can live with, and that world is now coming to an end.

Our final moments of the film show us a man who has been conquered by forces beyond his control. Not dissimilar to other films noir, Jack W. Burns has been broken by the world that he did not wish to play a part in. The downbeat ending only further identifies this film as part of the cycle of the films that go under the categorization of noir western.

Lonely Are the Brave tells the tale of a man who is an anachronism, and a strong individualist. When I thought about this story, I thought about how I wanted to end this blogathon with a piece of writing that centered around this film. While the film has a downer ending (few noirs don’t, western or not), Jack W. Burns is still a good guy and a hero and somewhat part of our struggle. And our story doesn’t have to have a downer ending.

It is hard to convince people that film matters, these days. Most people would rather sit at home and throw on a DVD than go to the theater. The problem with that is that the less you go to the theaters, the less theaters there will be to go to. It’s also hard to convince people that film conservation and restoration is as important to our history as other archival professions and pursuits. Apparently, since it’s “entertaining” it cannot reflect our social values of the time? Sorry, bub, wrong answer. Every film is a little time capsule, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

It is hard to be a film-lover in this day and age where everything is so digital and technologically-bent. I’ve seen gorgeous 4K restorations of films that blew my mind, but to be honest? I almost cried when I was at the 12th Annual Film Noir Festival at the Egyptian last year and they whipped out that awesome print of Cry Danger, fully restored, looked brand-spanking new. I don’t want an Ipad or to watch a movie in a car stuck in the back of some headrest. I don’t want to be able to download the latest toy. I want the films that are languishing away in our vaults to get babied by the professionals who care about them so that I can see them, dammit. Yes, I am totally selfish. But somewhere inside of me there is a hope that if we conduct more of these blogathons, raise enough money, show our support for the film preservation and restoration community at large, maybe there will be people in the studios who will listen and they will financially back our attempts at saving our past.

I’m not going to completely knock the digital world. I don’t know enough about it yet and therefore I can’t say much. But I can say the following:

-We are still projecting nitrate prints. Those are damn old. We are also projecting everything from after that. Cared for properly, prints can last.

-Whatever happens, we need to make sure that our history gets saved. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our friends and families to make sure that this happens by continuing to write about/watch/support/go to/be an activist for any kind of film festival or theater that shows restorations or is a revival house. In my neighborhood, I have things like the New Beverly and the Cinefamily and I’m very much looking forward to the UCLA Festival of Preservation this next month.

I would like to thank everyone who has blogged for the Noir Blogathon. You guys are all fantastic. I have read a bunch of your stuff, and it has been delightful. I have to say that this was an amazing week for me, getting to bask in the presence of a bunch of talented folks who clearly believe in film preservation as much as I do. So hopefully we did some good, and keep at it!

See you at the movies!

2 Comments

  1. [...] At Sinamatic Salve-ation, Ariel Schudson gets one last post in, linking together noir westerns, film preservation, Lonely Are the Brave and Elvis Costello in Man Out of Time: Film Preservation and the Noir Western [...]

  2. Bravo! Lonely are the Brave is most certainly noir-ish, if not all the way, and its fatalism is deeper than many a classic noir, and second to none. Westerns have a deeper connection to noir than many other genres – the first mean streets went through cowtowns and canyons, and the Marlowes and Spades wore wide hats and spurs. I think this is Douglas’s most nuanced role, and points out that even the least story is worth preserving – Jack deserves more than being only a stat on a sheet somewhere, as do our films past. Great post!


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