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August 26, 2010

My Ernest Borgnine Weekend DVD Retrospective

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The Stranger Wore a Gun
Andre De Toth - 1953
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Delmer Daves - 1956
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Ice Station Zebra
John Sturges - 1968
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

The Screen Actors Guild recently announced that they would be handing a Lifetime Achievement award to Ernest Borgnine this coming January. While I don't have any problem with Borgnine being a more than worthy recipient, I feel like someone is tempting fate here. I'm pretty sure there were several people who were counting on giving Stanley Kubrick an honorary Oscar in 2001. And while Borgnine is still going strong at 93, with several movies yet to be released, I would still keep the proverbial fingers crossed.

The news was enough for me to watch a couple more films featuring Borgnine that I hadn't seen, plus one that, if I had seen it, had viewed as a pan and scan black and white televised version of originally produced with CinemaScope and color. The guy is most famous for his wide, gap toothed grin. Depending on the movie, Borgnine makes that grin whether he's the bully who takes joy in kicking someone when they are already down, or the pal who's ready to give you a rib crushing bear hug as a sign of unlimited friendship. Borgnine's most interesting work for me is in part of male ensemble pieces such as The Wild Bunch or Flight of the Phoenix. While films like Marty and The Catered Affair have their fans, I would rather see Borgnine, if not nasty and villainous, as in Hannie Caulder, then as the sleazy studio head modeled after Harry Cohn and Darryl Zanuck in The Legend of Lylah Clare. I might have made a better choice in one of the films I saw over the course of a weekend, but even that film had some elements worth appreciating.

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In The Stranger Wore a Gun, Borgnine plays one of the two lead henchmen of lead bad guy George Macready. If you've seen a couple of Randolph Scott westerns from the Fifties, this one follows the template of Scott coming into town, cleaning up the corruption, and getting the girl. Surprisingly though in this film, Scott ends up with the nearly his age Claire Trevor instead of young hottie Joan Weldon. But the real reason to watch Andre De Toth's film is to see Borgnine in his first teaming with Lee Marvin. The two made several films together, top lining as arch enemies in Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North, about twenty years later. Marvin is a slack jawed baddie, and the putative brains for a bunch of thugs. Borgnine's villain is as loud as his shirts, negotiating with brute strength.

The Stranger Wore a Gun was originally made in 3D, and uses that device as was intended, for actors to throw stuff towards the camera and the audience. In this regard, the film is similar to De Toth's House of Wax. The film begins with a group of Confederate guerillas shooting at the audience when they're not tossing flaming torches. The big fight near the end features Borgnine aiming his gun at the camera as well as tossing a chair. Those in New York City had the fortune to see the film as intended. Even without the 3D, the film is still fun primarily because of Marvin, Borgnine as the smiling sadist, and Alfonso Bedoya as a goofy rival bad guy, and chief nemesis to town boss Macready.

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Those who have read this blog for a while already know how much I like Delmer Daves. Jubal is one of three westerns Daves made with Glenn Ford. Borgnine is a more sympathetic character here, a cattle rancher who finds the physically exhausted Ford on the side of the road, takes him in, and gives him a job as a ranch hand. Borgnine has a young, attractive wife, played by Valerie French. The film isn't exactly Othello, but French is soon eyeing Ford, the only photogenic guy on the ranch, while fellow ranch hand, Rod Steiger, is seething with resentment over the stranger who soon is elevated to ranch foreman. One scene lets us know that French and Steiger were lovers. Perhaps deliberately, their is some dialogue that may remind some of Marty, where French tells Steiger that she finds him no more physically attractive than Borgnine.

I have to wonder if the feelings Steiger expressed on film towards Ford may have really been his attitude towards Borgnine. Steiger had played the role of Marty for television in 1953. Borgnine took the same role in the 1955 movie version, and won his Academy Award as well. One of the film's highlights is Steiger suggesting to Borgnine that French is sleeping with Ford. Borgnine is about to explode with anger but it is Steiger that he attacks. Neither Borgnine nor Steiger might be considered the most subtle of actors. Steiger has one gentle moment, saving a stray calf. Seeing the two on screen together has me believe that Borgnine was the better choice for the big screen Marty, with his more open, friendly expression, rather then Steiger, whose screen characters never seemed particularly warm.

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As for Ice Station Zebra, there are better films by John Sturges, and better films starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan. Jim Brown is stiff here. Borgnine show up as a Russian spy who may or may not actually be on "our side" in this story of Cold War espionage. Is his character of Boris Vaslov responsible for sabotage on the submarine, endangering his own life? And can anyone trust McGoohan's character who cheerfully admits that Jones is not his real name?

None of this matters when the real stars of Ice Station Zebra are the submarine, and the polar ice cap. The best scene is of several men trying to find the remote station of the title in a blizzard. The ice cracks and several men fall into a crevice. The ice is seen as a living organism, constantly shifting and contracting, with the men about to be crushed between two walls. This is the most suspenseful part of a film that undermines itself by being filmed in Super Panavision for Cinerama exhibition, yet was almost completely filmed in studio sets. At no time does breath appear on screen as it would if the film were shot in outdoors, in the cold. Between the obvious expense, star power and some intriguing set pieces there are watchable elements to Ice Station Zebra. What convinced the suits at MGM to think that what could have been a serviceable thriller from the author of Guns of Navarone had the spectacle required of Cinerama? Bigger is not better for a film that would have been as good filmed in standard Panavision. Of note is that Borgnine and Brown also starred in the crime thriller, The Split, a film that could well be worth seeing if only for a cast that included Julie Harris, Gene Hackman and Donald Sutherland. My enthusiasm for Ice Station Zebra is at best luke warm.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 26, 2010 05:49 AM


what, no Johnny Guitar?

Posted by: Blake Couch at August 26, 2010 08:57 AM

I suggest his autobiography, Ernie. Breezy read, packed with anecdotes, fun.

Posted by: Patrick Galloway at August 26, 2010 12:57 PM

Blake: I've seen Johnny Guitar a few times. These were films I hadn't seen yet, or in the case of Jubal, had seen once several decades ago on black and white TV.

Patrick: I'll keep the autobiography in mind for the future.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at August 26, 2010 11:32 PM

Just seeing the headline of this piece made me feel good. More people should have Ernest Borgnine retros. He's one of the most likeable guys Hollywood has ever produced.

Posted by: Greg at August 27, 2010 10:11 AM

Yeah! I love Ernest Borgnine, too. Now, he'd be a good subject for a blog-a-thon...

Posted by: larry Aydlette at August 28, 2010 12:39 PM