The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Left Hand of God

The lives, missions, and beliefs of priests lends well to film adaptations. Think of movies like Keys of the Kingdom, I Confess, The Mission, The Scarlet and the Black, Going My Way, Boys Town and many others. How about a priest sub-genre? Priests who aren't what they seem, films like 1972's The Wrath of God and 1955's The Left Hand of God.

It's 1947 in a remote province of China, and Father O'Shea (Humphrey Bogart) is on his way to an isolated Catholic miss deep in the hills. His predecessor was killed, and the mission is has been missing a priest for months. Three other Americans await, Dr. David Sigman (E.G. Marshall), his wife, Beryl (Agnes Moorehead), and Anne (Gene Tierney), a widow working at the mission. O'Shea's work is cut out for him, the local villagers happy he's there but also worrisome about his arrival. The biggest problem though isn't from the villagers though, but instead the new priest. O'Shea has a secret that threatens to tear the village apart. One of the few men who knows the secret? A warlord, Mieh Yang (Lee J. Cobb), who with his small army of killers poses a huge threat to the poor farming villages.

Based on a novel by William Barrett, this priestly-based story went through its fair share of incarnations and stars before it finally ended up in the hands of director Edward Dmytryk who eventually decided Bogart would be an ideal choice for the part (Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck were attached to star in earlier incarnations). The film itself is nothing classic, nothing particularly different or unique, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable, well done movie that I was interested in from beginning to end. I'll say it again, familiarity can be a good thing when handled right (read: not boring). Substituting Malibu Canyon, California for China doesn't seem like an obvious choice, but it works in the same way MASH did replacing California for Korea. Composer Victor Young's score is a step above the rest, not your standard epic score.

After reviewing We're No Angels in late 2012, here's another Bogart film from late in the Hollywood icon's career. With Angels, The Harder They Fall, The Desperate Hours and this film (his last four films before his death in 1957), Bogie takes somewhat atypical roles. They're different, not just typical tough guy parts. Semi-spoiler alert......Bogie isn't a priest, taking the disguise and cover story to escape a troublesome situation. I won't spoil the details here, but an effective flashback lays it all out. It's not a showy or scene-stealing part by any means, but there's something charming about it. Bogie's Jim Carmody -- formerly Father O'Shea -- is quite capable of handling himself but there's a certain element of his lifestyle and past that makes him vulnerable.

Without ever becoming sappy, 'Hand' does a fine job of developing the character. We see his interactions with the cynical Dr. Sigman, a physician trying to consider the bottom line and frustrated with Chinese ways, with the widowed Scotty who sees him for the good he does, and most importantly, the Chinese villagers. Converts to Catholicism, they're seeking answers while also looking for a priest to lead the community. Several scenes show Bogie's Father O'Shea interacting with the village children, a good running bit that could have been pushed too far but knows when to tap the brakes. Bogie does a great job with these scenes, especially with his village assistant/quasi-altar boy, John (Victor Sen Yung), and also talking things out with a father (Benson Fong) who loses his wife and newborn baby minutes apart.

Clocking in at just 87 minutes, 'Hand' lacks the epic scale that the story could have required. It's pretty straightforward and to the point but never in a bad way. Marshall, Moorehead, and Tierney all provide solid support for Bogart, three differing performances that show a variety of responses to his arrival and impact. Cobb as the Chinese warlord is an odd choice to play....well, a Chinese warlord, but he avoids being stereotypical or cliched. Bad eye makeup? Yes. Bad performance? No, it could have been awful. Also look for Philip Ahn in a small part as Yang's assistant. Nothing flashy, but I liked this one a lot, especially for a late role for Bogie, and a goodie at that.

The Left Hand of God (1955): ***/****

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