THE ARCHIVIST — Volume VIII — Missions In The East And West With THE DEFECTOR (1966) and WICHITA…


Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Welcome back to The Archivist! This week, you are privy to the first proper installment under my adoption. I bring you a double feature, fresh from the cinema-rich caverns of Warner Brothers, studying the themes of politics, law, and how the individual navigates a reluctantly accepted duty in The Wild West, and The Cold War East. Style, acting, and drama are abundant in these forgotten films.

The Defector [1966]

In his final role, Montogomery Clift stars in Raoul Levy’s final film, The Defector. This was sadly a posthumous release for both artists in the year of 1966. Set in the year of its making, the action starts in West Germany, when Clift’s character, James Bower (a physicist), is relatively gently forced into doing espionage in East Germany by a friend in the American Government. Despite much hesitation, the inexperienced scientist shoulders his new career as a spy with as much confidence as he can muster, even as details slowly come to him that the entire mission might be a wash.

Clift was perfectly cast in the lead. In stark contrast with his early tenure playing vibrant youths, he looks so unassuming in this film that he is the last person anyone would suspect of black operations. Apparently very ill during production, the actor trots around East Germany, arms lanky, a hunch curling up his back, with an infinite forehead soaring above the bushiest eyebrows. As far as leading men are concerned, this once hunky actor looks positively alien. So, watching this sort of Everyman barely evade his inquisitors and captors is not only believable, but quite a joy. This certainly isn’t 007. Hell, it isn’t even Sneakers. This is a cloak-and-dagger game on the WAY down low.

For what it is, it plays pretty nicely, too. If you can make it past the slow-moving sparseness of the first 30 minutes or so, it can be fairly rewarding. It has a cheap, made-for-TV quality, with thanks mostly going to flat lighting, but there is a lot of good work here. The performers are fun to watch, and there are some truly inspired moments of psychedelic, and straight-up goofy stylistic touches amidst its primarily moody tone. If nothing else, it’s interesting to watch an actor go out around the same time as the old studio system that brought him up.

For James Bower, his task in the East was mostly a lost cause, reflecting the doom of an unwinnable cold war. In the next film for this pairing, however, another ambivalent protagonist succeeds stateside in securing the ultimate destiny: a civilized country.

WICHITA [1955]

Wichita was released almost 10 years after Henry Fonda famously took the role of the legendary Wyatt Earp (for further reading on Earp’s cinematic history, check out The Archivist creator’s editorial HERE). He was not the first, nor would he be the last, as Joel McCrea (Sullivan’s Travels) swaggered his way into a sort of prequel to the better-known exploits in Dodge City. Strangely, this film tells a story almost too similar to the one featured in films like Tombstone, as a large band of cowboys run amok in Wichita, KS, and only Earp can stop them with all his justice-y capital “J” justice!

This here is a true, old school, Cinemascope’d, Technicolor’d, day-for-night’d Classical Hollywood western, folks. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad and there ain’t no in between. It’s a lot of fun, it looks great, and the first half is rampant with penis metaphors. At one point, a cattle hand even compares the size of Earp’s pistol to that of his own. How’s THAT for a pissing contest?

Unlike The Defector, Wichita features an ideal leading man in the idealized, mythic old west. McCrea is a towering, handsome man and nearly impervious to physical or emotional harm. For that reason, and the film’s sneeze-and-you-missed-it anti-climax, it just doesn’t add up to much, but it is a must-see as an entry in the Wyatt Earp cinema catalogue in spite of itself.

As companion pieces, these two works intersect along several avenues of discussion, chief among them being their interest in politics. The Defector surveys the politics of science, but more deeply explores the depths of what a person is willing to do in the name of his or her country, right or wrong. Wichita is concerned with the machinations of law and its resistance to the weight of the corrupt and powerful, and in the West, success in that frontier is treated like a righteous destiny. No matter what side of the world you are on, a call to action makes for interesting viewing.

Now hog-tie a bowl of popcorn, and interrogate some orange soda!


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