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The Mann Act

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley revives a score of films by director Anthony Mann, Jan. 17-Feb. 21

By Richard von Busack

Male heroism was almost always the focus of director Anthony Mann's work. The 20-film retrospective that runs Jan. 17-Feb. 21 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley shows that Mann's work is the craft of a tense, tough and sometimes still-shocking director: an artist, though unafraid of violence, who was never a barbarian.

Some of Mann's films didn't make the selection: The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), a huge influence on the inferior Gladiator, probably can't be seen in a good enough print. At the time of the Film Foundation-hosted restoration of Mann's El Cid in 1993, the group's member Martin Scorsese was claiming that Fall was high on his wish list.

Still, what is on tap is a rich demonstration of Mann's essays in heroism, in war films, in film noirs and in some of the most mature Westerns made. What Mann's varied works all have in common--besides a formal skill that dazzled European fans--is his way of interpreting onscreen the tensions of the postwar hangover of the late 1940s and 1950s. His characters are fed up with killing but bound--by honor or duty--to reimmerse themselves in blood.

Mann began in poverty-row film noir, collaborating with the brilliant cinematographer John Alton. The series ranges from the triple-bill opener on Jan. 17--Raw Deal and T-Men (both 1948) and Desperate (1947)--to the highly recommended and almost dialogue-free thriller He Walked by Night (1949), which closes the series on Feb. 21. Alton's remarkable ability to bring out the contrast in white flesh and black asphalt is seen even in an exotic cheapy: a politically pointed drama about the Reign of Terror, The Black Book (1949; Jan. 24). It's a film made possible by the suggestion that a dark alley was always dark alley, whether it was in Paris in the 1790s or L.A. in the 1940s.

1945's The Great Flamarion (Feb. 6) is based on a short story by Vicki Baum (Grand Hotel); the film takes as its motto "Them that least deserves it, gets it." A vaudeville trick-shot artist (a typically immaculate job of acting by Erich von Stroheim) has two human-target assistants: a drunken cuckold named Al (Dan Duryea, uncharacteristically a victim instead of a victimizer) and his slutty wife, Connie (Mary Beth Hughes). Connie figures she can make some money out of her grim Prussian boss, who is weak enough to fall in love with her.

Like von Stroheim, director Mann had "a reputation for being nearly monosyllabic when it came to his direction of actors," writes Robert Ryan's biographer Franklin Jarlett. Ryan--the soul of film noir--was never better playing adversarial, angry men. In the antiwar picture Men in War (1957; Feb. 13), Ryan plays an Army lieutenant fighting not just the Koreans but the killer instincts of one of his own company (Aldo Rey). Mann considered Men in War one of his four best movies. Ryan turns up as a hillbilly looking for buried gold in the almost-never revived Erskine Caldwell adaptation God's Little Acre (1958; Feb. 20).

Ryan's career with Mann takes in a little of everything. In The Naked Spur (1953; Jan. 31), Ryan plays a killer called Vandergroat, tracked by a strictly mercenary bounty hunter (James Stewart). Stewart, as he is in his first Mann Western, Winchester '73 (1950; Jan. 30), is an ill-at-ease hero, and not necessarily a nice guy; Mann observes the crumbling of Stewart almost dispassionately, just as he does in Gary Cooper's end-of-the-trail movie, 1958's Man of the West (Feb. 20).

While Ron Howard and Kevin Costner alike try to stir up the embers of the Western movie, it's instructive to see how Mann approaches the legend of the cowboy, of solitude against the heavenly but hostile mountains. In his work, the prairie could even host Greek tragedy--an example is the little-seen The Furies (1950; Jan. 23), featuring the Hollywood studio era's most versatile actress, Barbara Stanwyck, as a cattle heiress with an Electra complex.

The Alton-photographed Devil's Doorway (1950; Jan. 30) is a message-movie about Indians facing discrimination after their return from fighting in the Civil War. In a new CinemaScope print, The Man From Laramie (1955; Feb. 13) has Jimmy Stewart on a mission of vengeance in New Mexico, against a cruel but bedeviled rancher.

Even Mann's 1961 hit El Cid (Feb. 14) has been called a Spanish Western. This epic of the Christian-Moorish wars in the 1100s is Gothic in the original sense of the word, set against the castles of the Dark Ages. It stars a just-ripe Sophia Loren, stiff as brocade and luscious as satin, cast against Charlton Heston as the Spanish paladin. The film's particularly memorable for a perilous, table-splintering, broadsword fight between Heston and John Cruickshank.

Even those who saw it panned and scanned on TV, where El Cid looked as elongated as an El Greco, can remember their astonishment at the hero's final charge, accompanied by the roar of a cathedral organ. Mann's career-long weighing of the squalor of combat against the ever-present need of a hero, is finally resolved in this burst of wonder at courage that survives even death.

The Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Charge-by-Phone: 642-5249; see http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/ for details.

Jan. 17
6pm: Desperate
7:35pm: T-Men
9:30pm: Raw Deal

Jan. 23
7pm: The Furies
9:10pm: Side Street

Jan. 24
7pm: Border Incident
8:50pm: The Black Book

Jan. 30
7pm: Devil's Doorway
9:10: Winchester '73

Jan. 31
7pm: The Naked Spur
8:50pm: The Tall Target

Feb. 6
7:30pm: The Great Flamarion
9:10pm: Strange Impersonation

Feb. 13
7:30pm: The Man From Laramie
9:30pm: Men in War

Feb. 14
7:30pm: El Cid

Feb. 20
7pm: God's Little Acre
9:10pm: Man of the West

Feb. 21
7pm: He Walked by Night
8:40pm: The Tin Star

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Web extra to the January 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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