28 July 2012

DEVIL'S DOORWAY (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1950, US) - No Man's Land

Deep Focus Cinematography by John Alton.
Devil’s Doorway is one of the first western’s Anthony Mann directed. It’s also one of his least seen works and perhaps one of his greatest westerns. Closer in tone to The Furies and Winchester ’73, Devil’s Doorway is revisionist before the term came in to use in the early 1960s. Devil’s Doorway deals with race, exploring the slow genocide of Native American people and the stealing of their land. Released in 1950, the film was way ahead of its time and offers one of the earliest sympathetic representations of the indigenous people of America; the Indians. Robert Taylor plays Lance Poole, a highly decorated Indian who fought at Gettysburg. Poole returns to the land of his ancestors that he owns and realises that a new homesteading law is due to be passed. The new law states that no Indian can own land and it is not long before Poole faces a bitter and violent struggle to protect his livelihood and what remains of his people’s legacy. Mann approaches the material like a film noir and much of the action is shot using deep focus camerawork, oblique angles and chiaroscuro lighting. Much of the film’s stunning visual look can be attributed to ace cinematography John Alton who offers some unforgettable black and white imagery. A western like The Searchers deals with racial prejudices in a much more subtle way but Mann refuses to hide behind allegory, tackling race head on in an era of Hollywood cinema that rarely dealt with such controversial subject matter. A minor criticism is that Robert Taylor had to ‘brown up’ for the role of Poole yet he still manages to deliver a memorable performance. Equally brilliant is the ending, which is uncompromisingly stark and poignant. Devil’s Doorway certainly belongs in the company of Mann’s most celebrated westerns but the film’s relative obscurity is somewhat of a mystery. 


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