Wednesday, October 26, 2016

THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY: Blu-ray (Paramount 1966) Olive Signature Series

I tend to look upon the career of Clint Walker with a modicum of regret; Walker (a twin – born Norman Eugene), one of the most robust and manly figures ever to cut a breathtaking silhouette of virile masculinity in the movies and on television (he towered at 6ft. 6 inch. with the even more impressive measurements of a 48 inch. barrel chest rendered down to a 32 inch waist and 21 inch arms built like tree trunks) so aptly described by New York Times film critic, Howard Thompson as “the biggest, finest-looking Western hero ever to sag a horse, with a pair of shoulders rivaling King Kong's.” And while Walker would make a great success of his reoccurring role as Cheyenne Bodie on ABC’s western serial, Cheyenne – and occasionally appear in movies of merit to his acting chops (The Dirty Dozen and None But the Brave among them), proving he was far more than beefcake for hire was his greatest challenge. Indeed, most roles rely on at least one or two sequences where Walker, stripped from the waist up, is toting an axe (or some other implement) with which to give credence and purpose to the artful flex of his taut musculature. There is a misnomer in Hollywood; that a gorgeous woman cannot possibly possess the intellectual wherewithal and natural ability to act her way out of the proverbial paper bag. Yet, by the mid-1950’s, this maxim had eschewed its sexual stereotyping to include men; Walker, like former bodybuilder cum actor, Steve Reeves, prime examples where producers became so enamored by their physicality, they ostensibly forgot such glorifications of the male physique were plied at the expense of any consideration the body functioned with a mind and/or talent to its rival – or, at the very least, its competition.  
Unlike Reeves, who recognized early on his body was his ticket to fame (and played up the image of the male beauty and muscle-bound pin-up in a series of cheaply made Italian ‘epics’ where he was frequently cast as some such nonsensically handsome, if ancient paragon of virility), Walker proved a gentle giant of many splendored pursuits; perfecting his physique, just one of them. Walker, in fact, machined the gymnasium equipment he used to create his look. Good with his hands, he liked to build things. He also loved other outdoorsy sports; skiing, almost, the death of him when, during a freak accident in 1971, he managed to pierce his own heart with his ski pole. Pronounced dead at the scene, doctors soon discovered a faint murmur and rushed Walker into surgery to repair the wounded organ and save his life. Mercifully, he is still very much with us today and looking years younger than the eight-nine presently prescribed him. Walker also possessed a rich baritone and the ability to carry a tune. Even more impressive; he was something of a self-made man, quitting school at the age of sixteen, joining the Merchant Marines a year later, making his bones on Texas oil fields and later, as a deputy sheriff at Vegas’ famous Sands Hotel. I could go on about Clint Walker as an enterprising young man who knew his own mind and went after exactly what he wanted out of life. Suffice it to say, I think much more of the man apart from either ‘his body’ or ‘body of work’.     
So, it is more than a little disheartening to watch Walker’s innate talents repeatedly squandered in director, Joseph Pevney’s The Night of the Grizzly (1966); a real hodge-podge and hokey-jokey disposable entertainment, scripted by Warren Douglas. The real problem here is the script, based off an actual incident Walker had read about and passed along to Douglas, about a series of grizzly attacks that decimated one community’s livestock, resulting in several human casualties as well. Douglas and Walker had worked well together on Cheyenne. But the net result in The Night of the Grizzly is a little too transparently riffing off the success of this serialized TV show; Douglas, introducing us to a cavalcade of great character actors, but then rather desperately endeavoring to provide all of them with a back story. It does not come off, chiefly because at 102 minutes, there is not enough time to get involved. Instead of fleshing out a few choice characters, we get a potpourri of one-dimensional cardboard cutouts; Walker, cast as ‘big’ Jim Cole – a northerner who has just inherited a track of choice real estate in Wyoming, very much sought by the enterprising, Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn), who aims to take it from his rival by any means necessary.
This alone would be enough of a plot to fill the movie’s run time, and rather successfully too. But no; the crux of our story – or so we are meant to believe, though only on occasion - is the nocturnal stalking conducted by a rather ruthless and seemingly indestructible grizzly bear (sometimes played by a real bear on a tether, and at other woeful intervals, by an extra in a bear skin); indiscriminately killing livestock and mauling the locals with a genuine bloodlust for both animal and human flesh. Add to this a rather feeble sideline involving reformed bounty hunter, Cass Dowdy (Leo Gordon), whom Jim sent to prison for nearly two years when he was a law man back east, now newly arrived in the neighboring town of ‘Hope’ at Curry’s request to kill the bear for a stipend. Time has not mellowed Cass’ desire for revenge. In fact, after Curry realizes Cass and Jim have a shared past, Curry wastes no time exploiting it to get Cass to conspire with him on yet another departure from the main event; this one, to steal Jim’s already heavily mortgaged ranch right out from under him. We also get flashes of Cass’ rhapsodic interest in Jim’s wife, Angela (possibly reciprocated in actress, Martha Hyer’s telling wayward stares) and the Coles’ prepubescent son, Charlie (Kevin Brodie) inexplicably devoted and perhaps, even preferring Cass to his own father. There are also hints Angela regrets marrying Jim; lashing out at his stubbornness to put a period to ‘Satan’ – the grizzly, once and for all. Instead, Angela increasingly urges her husband to simply sell out or even run away from the ranch when the chips are down. 
Warren Douglas’ screenplay ladles on more heavy-handed diversions; the precociousness of the Coles’ youngest offspring, Gypsy (Victoria Paige Meyerink) aside (a born actress/comedian at the tender age of six); a real ‘dead end’ romance involving the Coles’ bright-eyed teenage niece, Meg (Candy Moore), favored by Jed Curry’s youngest son, goony Cal (Sammy Jackson) and Jim’s camaraderie with bearded hired man, Sam Potts (Don Haggerty doing the clichéd ole coot no favors). Potts is relentlessly pursued by the gregarious, over-sexed dried goods proprietress, Wilhelmina Peterson (Nancy Kulp, whose career specialized in such awkwardly garrulous gal pals with no hope in hell of making it to the marriage altar). We also get Jack Elam, refreshingly not the baddie this time, as Hank, a rather adorably shiftless friend to the Coles; Ron Ely as Curry’s eldest son, Tad (who thrives on picking fights with practically anyone to prove his manhood), Ellen Corby (TV’s The Walton’s grandma, here cast as feisty livestock trader, Hazel Squires), and finally, Regis Toomey as benevolent banker, Cotton Benson. A lot of grade-A (or perhaps, just as easily identifiable, though nevertheless sold B-grade) talent has gone into The Night of the Grizzly, uncompromisingly pre-processed by screenwriter, Douglas’ poisoned pen of a gristmill, coming out Grade-F chuck on the other side.
We are never entirely certain where the story is headed and even more woefully disappointed to discover that whatever its trajectory, only one aspect of the plot is ever truly realized in the finale with a rather perfunctory showdown to quickly dispatch with all the loose ends. There is one surprise along the way; Sam’s death – mauled by Satan during a night raid in which Jim is too late at the point of his rifle to save his friend. This entanglement also puts a period to the built-up comedy/romance between Potts and Wilhelmina; a rather delicious bit of camp actress, Nancy Kulp is quite obviously having a marvelously good time, taking the rest of us along for the ride. The real ‘reel’ problem with The Night of the Grizzly is it never settles on a particular course. Is it a sprawling familial saga? – partly. Is it a noir-styled revenge (diffused by having Jim assaulted on all fronts: Cass, Curry, his sons, Satan – the bear, and, Angela, who threatens to leave him). Hmmmm. There is another old adage in Hollywood: ‘your hero is only as good as your villain’: or, the meaner the one, the more virtuous the other by direct comparison. As Jim’s noble ‘strong and silent’ type is never brought into question – he is as pure as the driven snow, built like an ox, and oozing the nobility of refined brawn with virtue to spare – we sincerely wonder why everyone except Gyspy is against him at one time or another, so jealously eager to knock him down a peg or two (as if they could for very long).  
The Night of the Grizzly opens with a rather turgid main title set to Leith Stevens’ nondescript underscore. We are introduced to the Cole clan; ‘Big Jim’, Angela, their children, Charlie and Gypsy, niece Meg and family friend, Sam Potts.  All arrive by horse-drawn carriage in the bustling town of Hope, Wyoming; Jim having inherited some property from his late uncle. The family’s introduction to the locals proves anything but inauspicious: the kindly banker, Cotton Benson informing Jim there is an outstanding balance on the mortgage. To pay it, Jim depletes nearly their entire life’s savings; naturally assuming the land is fertile and will yield everything they need to be sustainable. Jim is also informed by Benson that a local and prosperous rancher, Jed Curry is hot to reclaim the land as his own.  When Curry discovers the outstanding debt has been paid he is outwardly cordial to his new neighbors, though inwardly fuming and resentful. In the meantime, the rest of the family learns life in Hope will offer very little of just such a commodity to those who lack the gumption to pursue it on their own terms. Potts is hornswoggled out of $10 for a bottle of booze by Curry’s two sons, Tad and Cal, and their as devious fair-weather of a friend, Duke Squires (Med Flory). The vicissitude of Meg’s virtue is brought into question, while Charlie is shot in the seat of his pants with a slingshot by the local boys, resulting in an all-out brawl in the town square. The boys are eventually parted from bloodying each other’s noses by Jim.
The prospects for bucolic happiness do not improve as the Coles discover the ranch they have inherited is little more than a ramshackle cabin in the middle of nowhere (albeit, a picturesque ‘nowhere’) in need of a good makeover and decidedly, a woman’s touch. Presumably, to take advantage of Clint Walker’s baritone singing voice, Jim sings the ballad, ‘Angela’ (a thoroughly disposable ditty coauthored by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) while the rest of the family is fast asleep. Angela is stirred to come out and recline for a moment or two in Big Jim’s big and burly arms. More beefcake by dawn’s early light, Walker’s first prerequisite ‘shirtless’ moment in the picture; Jim chopping wood as Potts adoringly looks on. Benson arrives to forewarn Jim about Satan – an impenetrable grizzly that kills livestock seemingly for fun. Others have tried to rid the land of this Baskervillian hell-beast, but without success. Now, Jed and his two sons pay the family a call, supposedly a peace offering by way of a drink from their secret distillery. But Potts accosts Tad, who strikes the old man and is thereafter knocked to the ground with a single blow from Jim’s meaty fists. Jed proposes a truce, but the bottle of booze is knocked to the ground and breaks. Now, Jed tries to persuade Jim to sell his property, but to no avail.     
A short while later, Jim learns from Wilhelmina of her intensions to pursue Potts romantically; mildly amused by her extroverted good nature. Wilhelmina proves a loyal friend, ordering her shiftless sidekick, Hank to take Jim to Hazel’s Squire’s farm. Jim needs quality livestock to populate his ranch and buys a few choice head of cattle, some pigs and chickens with Hank’s subtle guidance. A bit of foreshadowing follows as Hazel discovers the carcass of one of her pigs mercilessly butchered. Later in the evening, the Cole’s farm is visited by the bear. Havoc ensues and Pott’s beloved mule runs off in terror for parts unknown. The Coles’ dog is severely wounded, forcing Jim to hurry the animal into town for treatment, accompanied by Meg. While there, Meg becomes the unwilling recipient of some backhanded compliments from Tad, Duke and Cal inside Wilhelmina’s store. After Jim ensures his daughter’s safety he decides to teach these boys a thing or two about respecting women the only way ‘real men’ know how; with a display of fisticuffs, rendering all three unconscious. Jed is angered by this confrontation, his rage directed at his boys, not Jim, as he has instructed Tad and Cal to remain aloof – if not cordial – towards the man he is still trying to woo off his land.
As Jim has no money to buy more livestock he takes out a loan from the bank; Benson affording Jim collateral for his various possessions, including his prized saddle and former sheriff’s gold star. As the bank’s primary shareholder, Jed informs Benson there will be no other such loans. He will allow Jim to go into debt however, so the bank can buy back the loan prematurely, thus making him the sole owner of Jim’s land. Inadvertently, Jed hires Cass Dowdy, a bounty hunter, to destroy Satan. This causes Angela to fear for her husband’s safety. After all, Jim was responsible for arresting Cass for the crime of murder several years earlier. Despite Cass’ transparent ruthlessness, Charlie regards him with uncanny affection almost as a surrogate father figure. And Cass, whatever his flaws, equally harbors an abiding love for the boy. Perhaps Charlie is really Cass’ child – not Jim’s?!?! Alas, Warren Douglas’ screenplay is not telling, dropping fleeting hints to suggest Cass and Angela may have once been more than friendly in a former life.  Whatever the case, Charlie idolizing Cass just seems odd.  In the meantime, Potts and Jim find the carcass of Pott’s mule lying in the clearing. Potts vows to destroy the bear. He and Jim set off on their ‘vision quest’ only to be ambushed by Satan atop a cliff, narrowly escaping with their lives. Angela thinks it silly to risk martyrdom on these random bear attacks. She begs Jim to reconsider – even to move the family away. Jim refuses to even entertain any such notions.
Instead, he and Potts set up another stakeout for Satan. This backfires when, under the cover of night, the men fall asleep and the grizzly returns to wreak havoc. This time Potts is killed, dying in Jim’s arms. Wilhelmina grieves at the funeral, but begins to spend more time with Angela and the family as a result. Cass vows first to kill the beast that slaughtered all three of his faithful hunting dogs; then, also to gun for Jim, thereby settling their old score. Jim aggressively sets traps all around his property to kill Satan as there is a thousand dollar reward at stake. This prize money could wipe clean all outstanding debts to the bank. But Cass systematically sabotages these traps, accidentally placing his foot in one of the unseen steel traps. Caught red-handed in his deceptions, Cass and Jim engage in a brutal fist fight, ending when Jim narrowly knocks Cass unconscious, contemplating leaving him face down in the river to drown. At the last possible moment, Jim instead drags Cass from the water, laying him face up to recover on the embankment. By now, Angela has had quite enough of Jim’s hunt for Satan. She forewarns that if he pursues the matter any further she will leave him and the farm for good. Determined to spare his parents this brittle separation, young Charlie quietly sneaks off with a rifle to bag the bear himself. He is, of course, ill-equipped to achieve this goal and Jim hurries into the woods in search of his son. He finds Charlie up a tree – literally – Satan gnashing at his heels. Jim manages to wedge himself between some rocks, just out of Satan’s grasp as he repeatedly tries to stab the beast with his hunting knife. Cass arrives and, at Charlie’s behest, fires his shotgun at Satan to save Jim. Unfortunately, he cannot save himself. Satan turns on Cass and mauls him to death. However, this incursion proves deadly for Satan too, as Jim picks up Charlie’s discarded rifle and fires several lethal shots into the beast. Jim and Charlie return to the ranch, victorious and embraced by Angela and the rest of the pensively waiting clan.
The Night of the Grizzly is reportedly Clint Walker’s favorite role. Yet it does not speak to his abilities as an actor. Despite being given a few meager platitudes to espouse, about the importance of being a real man, holding to one’s valor above one’s personal safety, and so on and so forth, most of the dialogue in The Night of the Grizzly is of the perfunctory ‘cause’ and ‘effect’; merely written to get the audience from plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with the most rudimentary lack of character development. Great screenwriting is an art. But even good screenwriting should endeavor to something more. Unfortunately, The Night of the Grizzly is so interested in its ‘pulled pork’ of a plot it forgets to provide direction and development to each character’s motivations; instead, readily relying on comedic vignettes, inexplicably inserted at moments when more tautly scripted bits of screen suspense would be infinitely preferred. Case in point: the Coles attend a social gathering where Meg is romantically pursued by Cal. Charlie is once more made the brunt of the local boys’ antagonisms; this time, with an almost Bugs Bunny-esque episode: gunpowder detonated inside a watermelon, thus covering Charlie in its sticky-sweet remnants. When Tad attempts to thwart Cal’s sheepish amour with Meg by offering her a glass of spiked punch, literally to turn her green (cinematographers, Loyal Griggs and Harold Lipstein casting a bilious lime spot on Candy Moore’s visage), Cal chivalrously assaults his elder brother, knocking Tad unconscious with a single blow before becoming startled by the merit of his own fists. The entire episode is played strictly for laughs; even for camp.
If The Night of the Grizzly had been a western musical, or even a western spoof, all this might have worked. But the juxtaposing of these feebly feather-weight moments with the severity of the subplot’s mano-a-mano revenge scenario, and, also the overriding arc of ‘man vs. the wilderness’ neither serves as a counterweight to the suspense, nor as an addendum to the high stakes drama.  Point blank: there is too much ‘smoke’ and not enough ‘fire’ in the telling of this tale; Clint Walker left with the brunt of the responsibility to sell Warren Douglas’ clumsy contrivances as an ‘action/adventure/western/drama/comedy’ mutt. In the final analysis, The Night of the Grizzly fulfills none of its primary precepts.  Arguably, the most lucid performance is owed to Nancy Kulp; deliciously over-the-top and ebulliently silly as the love-starved spinster who sees her last chance for great (or even any) sex in the aged and unkempt Sam Potts whom she regards as the embodiment of a Grecian god. The other ‘fun’ performer to watch is six year old Victoria Paige Meyerink; who kicks Tad in the shin; then, when prompted by her father to explain herself, militantly admits, “I don’t like him!” No kidding! Whether pointing out the similarities between Jack Elam’s scruffy-bearded Hank and a fuzzy caterpillar crawling up a blade of wild grass or brought almost to the brink of tears, Meyerink is a bundle of unsettlingly adult charm. If only charm alone were enough to rescue The Night of the Grizzly from inflicting its uneven ennui. It’s not. This movie is forgettable to a fault.
Shot in 2-perf 35mm Techniscope; The Night of the Grizzly has been given an upgraded transfer by Olive Films as part of the company’s Signature Series. Alas, the elements used in this new master are as flawed as those featured on their defunct first Blu-ray release from a little over two years ago. I have issues with the contrast in particular; the image looking fairly anemic for scenes lensed outdoors, with mid-grade tonality throughout and bleached out colors, rendering fine detail utterly moot. Flesh tones have adopted a wan pink caste. Colors, while considerably more robust here than on Olive’s first Blu-ray release, are nevertheless faded; the lush greens and mountain blue/greys only occasionally popping with gusty visual vibrancy. Grain often teeters on appearing slightly digitized rather than indigenous to its source. Detail in scenes shot at night is distilled into a murky gumbo of nondescript blues, blacks and grays with a lot of very clumpy and equally as unnatural looking amplified grain. Olive has mostly eradicated the age-related wear and tear glaringly evident on their first Blu-ray; most white speckles, dirt and scratches gone for good. Again, it is the color saturation that disappoints.  The 2.0 DTS audio is another issue: strident and thin, with interspersed static and crackling. Extras include an informative audio commentary from film historian Toby Roan, a written essay by C. Courtney Joyner, an interview with Clint Walker (the best extra feature in my opinion), archival footage of the World Premiere and a fascinating ‘at home’ vintage interview where Walker shows off his home-made workout equipment (good for kitsch). Bottom line: The Night of the Grizzly is not a great film. In fact, it plays more like four half-hour episodes unceremoniously thrust together from some vintage TV western/comedy without the prerequisite laugh track included. This latest Blu-ray incarnation, while better than its predecessor, wins no awards for hi-def mastering. Pass and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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