Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2010 May 05 • Wednesday

Director Anthony Mann made a lot of great movies, most of them visually impressive. He often worked with the brilliant cinematographer John Alton, who literally wrote the book on motion picture photography.

Desperate (1947) is one of Mann's best, a film noir of fear and paranoia worthy of Cornell Woolrich. It's also one of the best looking of Mann's films and was shot by George Diskant.

And I think that a young Sergio Leone must have seen and admired Desperate.

Steve Brodie plays a trucker who gets hired to transport stolen goods for gangsters. When he finds out that he's being asked to break the law, he tries to escape but Raymond Burr, the leader, won't let him. The trucker manages to get the cops's attention, thus initiating a shoot-out and the arrest of Burr's kid brother, who has shot and killed a police officer.

Back at the gangsters' hide-out, Raymond Burr is very upset about his brother's arrest and likelihood of being sentenced to death. He wants Brodie to take the rap. Brodie refuses and is then beaten by the gang.

Here's how this scene begins: the trucker is in the corner of the frame with hoods on either side and a space in the middle. Burr appears in the space and approaches, gradually filling the entire space. Then everything is abruptly wiped out by Burr's fist, which hits Brodie's face before going straight into the camera—into the audience's faces.

During the beating, the single overhead light is struck and starts swinging back and forth, creating a chiaroscuro riot.

Brodie doesn't give in, so Burr smashes a bottle and shoves the jagged edge right into the camera—assaulting the audience again. He isn't threatening Brodie with this bottle, though; the bottle is for Brodie's pregnant wife, who's home alone.

Brodie escapes but Burr and his henchman catch up with him later, which is where we get what might be the prototype for some of Sergio Leone's most famous scenes.

Burr's brother is going to be executed at midnight. Burr plans to kill Brodie at exactly midnight so the two die at the same time. It's about 11:45 in this scene.

This scene anticipates the final shoot-out in For a Few Dollars More.

A nice touch: Raymond Burr checks his watch and notices that Brodie's clock is a little bit fast. He turns it back a few minutes, giving Brodie more time to sweat.

Another anticipation of Leone is how Burr drinks a glass of milk in the middle of this tense scene. This is like Lee Van Cleef's character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, whose first appearance has him eating the food of a man he's about to kill.

Now it's ten to midnight (like the Charles Bronson movie!) and we get to the most Leone-like scene. Leone is famous for cutting between shots of people's faces, getting closer and closer until we just see their eyes. If you want to do this in a movie now, you say you're doing a Sergio Leone-type thing. But did Leone get the idea from Desperate?

In the end of Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, another group of three men are transfixed by guns and clocks. Gian Maria Volonte plays a bandit who killed Lee Van Cleef's son and daughter-in-law (or daughter and son-in-law; I forget).

The two victims each had a pocket watch that chimed a melancholy tune when opened. Lee Van Cleef has one of these watches and Gian Maria Volonte the other. Clint Eastwood holds one of the watches open so it plays the tune. When the tune stops, the two men will draw their guns and shoot.

It does seem similar to the climax of Desperate, especially in its use of a clock. While it could be a coincidence, I suspect Leone would have been familiar with Anthony Mann. Mann was probably most famous for westerns, though he made several great crime films as well as some war films and movies like El Cid.

Leone improved on this ending in his next movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, not least by making it a three-way shoot-out. He also included an additional camera position (over the shoulder), close-ups of guns and eyes and made it generally more visually exciting. Putting it in a graveyard is a nice touch. And Ennio Morricone's music for this scene, for the whole movie, is sublime.

So do these Sergio Leone movies and Anthony Mann's Desperate share some DNA? I think so.