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The Scarf

Posted by martinteller on November 15, 2012

“That’s the beauty of a bullet.  Talks everybody’s language.  Before a bullet, all men are equal.  Like in the Constitution.  A bullet has authority.”

John Howard Barrington (John Ireland) has just escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane.  He’s been there for two years, convicted for the murder of his girlfriend… a crime he has no memory of.  He yearns to remember, to know for certain whether he’s guilty or innocent.  After struggling on foot through 10 miles of desert, he comes across a turkey ranch.  The aged proprietor, Ezra (James Barton), has a hunch about the young man’s innocence and agrees to shelter him, letting him work in exchange for the reward money he’d get for turning him in.  One day John risks going into town to run errands that Ezra is too infirm to handle.  On the way, he picks up a hitchhiker: Connie (Mercedes McCambridge), a guarded, brassy woman on her way to a singing waitress gig in the big city.  They spend some leisurely time together, and then Connie puts on a scarf to protect her throat from the evening chill.  The scarf triggers a memory in John, but will it open doors that might be better left shut?

This is an odd little movie.  It’s unusually philosophical and introspective for a noir.  Most of the first half hour consists of Barton ruminating and pontificating.  It’s rather overwritten, to be honest.  But it has a compelling atmosphere, its unhurriedness draws you in… while simultaneously being a bit dull.  Things pick up when McCambridge enters the picture.  Two years earlier she easily held her own among a stellar cast (including Ireland) in her debut, All the King’s Men.  Here she performs just as admirably.  There’s something unshakeable about McCambridge.  She’s not a classic beauty, she doesn’t fall into any standard archetypes, but she has a special something.  Maybe it’s just what you call talent.

The film’s plot is barely there, most of the details of the murder are crammed into the third act and aren’t especially surprising or satisfying.  But the aura of melancholy, of searching for something you can’t quite reach, is thick.  There are a number of odd little touches.  The neon police station sign that says “5000 DOLLARS” through the subjective gaze of a character pondering the reward.  The bar fight, which goes on far longer than it needs to.  The song McCambridge sings (“Summer Rain”, lovely tune) while sharing plot development with the pianist (much of the film’s exposition is delivered in interesting ways).  Barton’s quirky — but not too quirky — performance.  The almost meditative moments of quiet.

A sometimes frustrating and sometimes overreaching movie, but one with a strange fascination.  Worth watching for McCambridge if nothing else, and the film would probably score higher if she was in it more.  Rating: Good (73)


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