Monday, May 2, 2011

Andre de Toth's Springfield Rifle:

The instant streaming boom has lead to a few interesting things, one of which is the dumping of old, forgotten B Westerns by the boat load. Not unlike the studios slipping in auteurist gems amongst actor-centric dvd box sets, Netflix Instant is gradually accumulating a nice library of underserved genre-specialists. The infancy of the technology is also leading to some extreme aesthetic distortions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The obscure object under consideration here is Andre de Toth’s Springfield Rifle, a quick, no-frills, frequently brutal western-thriller. I’m no de Toth specialist, but at least a handful of his films are essentials – Ramrod, Day of the Outlaw, Crime Wave and Play Dirty spring immediately to mind. De Toth’s universe is as physically jagged as it is emotionally crippling, with multiple agendas playing out against an unforgiving landscape – de Toth’s landscapes being as integral to the physical and philosophical motivations of men as they are to the films of Boetticher, Ray and Mann; that is, the landscape becomes something of a character in and of itself.

The perennially over-valued Gary Cooper lends his unmovable granite visage as a Union officer who goes undercover to infiltrate a group of horse thieves; they are raiding Union horses and selling them to the South, who in turn hope to amass a huge cavalry that will ultimately crush their opponents to the North. In typical de Toth fashion, our hero is shunned by his commanding officers, his son and ultimately his wife – in a stunning reversal, a Union officer first introduced as a heavy is revealed to not only be in on the undercover plot, but becomes Cooper’s only ally. Of course, once this reversal is made clear, he is gunned down, leaving Cooper once again alone, in over his head, and without evidence of his mission ( interesting that every espionage/cop thriller of the last several decades has in effect already been anticipated by this modest oater).

De Toth’s mise-en-scene is masterful, and the use of the full frame to contain two different (and oppositional) kinds of movement, extreme horizontals and verticals, is not only startlingly audacious but also a fascinating formal metaphor for Cooper’s dual existence. The fact that the film involves huge numbers of horses creates an interesting dynamic. De Toth will keep his camera back at a distance, the better to observe huge herds of animals grazing – it is in these amassed shots that we realize the sheer size of the Confederates’ ultimate goal, obliterating one’s enemies through sheer numbers. Conversely, de Toth anticipates scope photography while filming lines of horses in movement. Throughout the film, de Toth frequently starts a scene with a slow pan, usually from left to right, first introducing the space and setting, as well as character’s spatial relationships within it. As the film progresses and the action ramps up, the movements become so quick as to induce whiplash – in an attempt to reproduce the movement of the horses, while also keeping in mind numbers and a sense of scale, de Toth tracks the camera along side the animals, eventually catching up to a human figure, then passing them by to finish the movement at the head of the herd.

As impressive as these formal dynamics are, de Toth ultimately seems to value vertical, downward movements even more. While not as refined, thematically, as the much later Day of the Outlaw or Play Dirty (a physically grueling trek that puts Herzog’s Aguirre to shame), the treachery and inherent danger of an unforgiving nature is still readily apparent in Springfield Rifle. The film begins with Union troops moving horses through a snowbound pass, assuming that it is so dangerous that the raiders would be insane to follow, never mind that the terrain could also kill them before they reach their destination (reach it they do, only to find a band of outlaws waiting for them - treacherous indeed). Later, Cooper escapes his tower jail cell, de Toth emphasizing the extreme distance with long vertical lines from the tower to the ground; the finale of the film finds Cooper chasing his friend and commanding officer, now revealed to have been a traitor all along, down a rugged mountain side, each man careening wildly down steep inclines and ultimately hurling themselves from great distances. One is tempted to attach some kind of psychological interpretation to these ‘leaps of faith’, one man trying to evade capture at all costs, the other attempting to catch his adversary no-matter-what.

The great critic Fred Camper (one of the few who have dealt with de Toth in any kind of serious way) writes, ‘De Toth's great theme is betrayal--not single betrayals by individuals but networks of betrayal that implicate most of his characters. In de Toth's moral universe, the majority are susceptible to compromise, and the minority who remain pure… wind up dead or otherwise ruined, their lives altered forever by the treachery they've survived. Indeed, the phrase "None Shall Escape" could serve as a motto for de Toth's entire oeuvre. Born in Hungary, de Toth directed several films there and elsewhere in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1940--on a ship, as he recalls, that sank on its next voyage. It's hard to know how his worldview originated, but perhaps it had something to do with coming of age amid the complexities of Europe between the wars, and having witnessed and filmed the 1939 German invasion of Poland.’

While Springfield Rifle has a happy ending (the traitor is caught and the plot revealed, Cooper is reinstated, given a medal and reunited with his wife and son), it’s hard to believe in it – there are so many tacked on happy endings in Hollywood films of every era that one is inclined to dismiss the final two or thee minutes of any given film. It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving unchanged in de Toth’s universe, where even nature itself has stacked the decks against us. Cooper’s victory must ultimately be hollow: one of his friends dead, the other revealed to be a traitor to his country, and his family left to survive the remainder of a Civil War.

Unfortunately, the technical limitations of this still new streaming technology reveals itself the most during camera movements – even more vexing as de Toth reveals so much with this contradictory visual scheme. The horizontal pans become blurred and choppy, and swaths of color betray clumps of digital artifacts, with tree leaves becoming square-ish bits and flowing water congealing into a morass of blue and white streaks. Granted, even HD streaming films have similar issues, and there is no doubt that whoever owns the rights to Springfield Rifle couldn’t give a shit as to how it’s shown (if you queue up anything that starts with a ‘Starz Network’ logo, you are guaranteed a sub-VHS visual presentation). But these gripes are perhaps grist for another post. Technical deficiencies aside, it’s still essential viewing.

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