It’s not a name that many people—classic-film buffs included—easily remember, even though Canadian-born director Mark Robson made some extremely popular and well-regarded Hollywood films of the mid-20th century. Robson died at age 64 in 1978 and would have turned 100 this week (on December 4th). His directing career can be separated into three distinct periods, moving from low-budget horror movies to modestly budgeted black-and-white dramas to expensive and colorful commercial pictures. The variety in his filmography, representing nearly every genre, means that Robson is hard to pin down as any particular kind of moviemaker. Maneuvering his way from horror movies to boxing pictures to WWII epics to soap operas, he reinvented himself time and again. Though versatile, Robson lacked the kind of discernible style, or noticeable interest in recurring themes, that makes people get to know your name. It would be difficult to describe the typical Robson picture simply because there seems to be no such thing. Yet he certainly made his share of good ones.
Robson’s big break came at RKO, as the assistant editor on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Not bad, eh? Working on these two Orson Welles masterpieces had to be awfully good training for any aspiring director. Robson continued at RKO, promoted to film editor on two Val Lewton-produced horror classics: Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), both directed by Jacques Tourneur. Lewton then gave Robson his first directing assignment, The Seventh Victim (1943), another highly esteemed picture in Lewton’s much-admired series of low-budget horror films, all of them noted for their suggestive, rather than explicit, approach to scaring the audience. These movies primarily explored horrors of the psychological variety. And so Robson entered the first phase of his directing career, making literate, shivering B movies, going so far as to direct the arguably greatest work in Lewton’s series: Isle of the Dead (1945), starring Boris Karloff. Robson’s The Ghost Ship (1943) and Bedlam (1946) are no slouches either. These early films declare his gifts for visual imagination, a keen sense of pacing, and a willingness to probe the inner workings of his characters.
With the Lewton series over in 1946, Robson made a comeback with the boxing melodrama Champion (1949), entering the next phase of his directing career, as the maker of intense and reasonably realistic black-and-white dramas. With Champion, Robson made a major (and Oscar-nominated) star of Kirk Douglas, and with The Harder They Fall (1956), another boxing movie, Robson directed Humphrey Bogart in his final film. Also from this era in Robson’s work comes the blind-veteran rehabilitation picture Bright Victory (1951), the Korean War-themed domestic drama I Want You (1951), and the Cold War potboiler Trial (1955). Throughout this period, Robson became a fine director of A-list actors, ultimately guiding ten performances to Oscar nominations.
The final major phase of Robson’s career was about as far from Isle of the Dead and Champion as could be expected, kicking off with the phenomenal success of his Peyton Place (1957). He was now a maker of glossy, colorful, and trashy soap operas, continuing with From the Terrace (1960) and the camp wonder Valley of the Dolls (1967). Easily the best of the three, Peyton Place benefits enormously from Robson’s extensive use of New England locations, endowing the film with a palpable sense of place. Then there are a number of Robson films that don’t quite belong in any of these categories, further preventing him from being typecast as any kind of recognizably specialized director: My Foolish Heart (1949), far more restrained than his later female-driven soaps; The Little Hut (1957), a rather arch, triangular sex comedy; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), a lavish war-torn epic; The Prize (1964), his lightweight Hitchcock-like caper; and Earthquake (1974), his disaster movie. Robson was nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar, in consecutive years, for Peyton Place and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. And four of those aforementioned ten acting nominations went to Arthur Kennedy for Champion, Bright Victory, Trial, and Peyton Place.
After speeding through Robson’s career, allow me to get to the task at hand: to look at one of Robson’s best and, as usual for me, more neglected films. Made at the beginning of his middle period, RKO’s Roughshod (1949) also happens to be Robson’s only western. However, it feels connected to his best work because of its attention to character and its atmospheric (black-and-white) cinematography. (It’s a western with a positively noir-ish look and feel.) Having honed his style-on-a-budget techniques and deft storytelling skills during his Lewton years, Robson turned Roughshod into an uncommonly smart and satisfying late-forties western. The plot may be routine but the details and the emotions aren’t. Killer John Ireland breaks out of prison and seeks revenge on Robert Sterling, the man who captured and wounded him. Sterling and his kid brother, Claude Jarman, Jr., are traveling to their horse ranch when Ireland and two fellow prisoners make their escape. To this basic plot comes the addition of four prostitutes booted out of town. Their wagon breaks down, and they are soon traveling with Sterling and Jarman.
The film charts a fresh, unexpected odyssey for everyone involved, particularly the females. This quartet consists of Gloria Grahame, Myrna Dell, Jeff Donnell, and a brown-haired Martha Hyer. There will be joy and misery on the journey, including happy endings for some but not all. As the central female, Grahame bonds with young Jarman and teaches him to read. She and Sterling get off to a rocky start, before falling for each other. The plotting grows richer, as do the characters, while the killers-on-the-loose suspense mounts. Robson’s hand is sure: Roughshod is a tight, well-constructed, good-looking movie.
Ms. Grahame, recently of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and her Oscar nomination for Crossfire (1947), is the film’s chief acting asset. Still in her ’40s blonde phase, she’s an offbeat, interesting presence with her comical voice (a sort of hardened baby-talk) and seemingly numbed upper lip. And yet she’s to be taken seriously because she’s got brains and a no-nonsense manner, which makes her as likable as can be. Yep, she’s the classic whore with a heart of gold, meaning that vulnerability is part of the package. Grahame, as good here as she was in anything, manages to be quite touching. She and Jarman play especially well together. Ms. Dell and Ms. Donnell also make strong showings as western whores of three dimensions rather than cliches of the genre. Meanwhile, good-guy Sterling and bad-guy Ireland make lesser, blander impressions.
We get a shootout climax, of course, and a pleasing fadeout, but what stays with the viewer are the nuances of characters and their relationships, their mistakes and their second chances. Though a western, Roughshod is actually similar to much of the best of Mark Robson’s work. Like his ’40s horror movies, it delves inward, moving beyond surfaces. Like his middle-period pictures, it’s got grit, a pulsing pace, and sensitive acting. And like his trash spectaculars, it’s got the juice of a page-turning yarn. Maybe Roughshod is the quintessential Mark Robson movie after all.