T. it.: La jungla dei temerari. Sog.: dal racconto omonimo di Bret Harte. Scen.: Milton Krims, D.D. Beauchamp, Graham Baker, Teddy Sherman. F.: John Alton. M.: James Leicester. Scgf.: Van Nest Polglase. Mus.: Louis Forbes. Int.: John Payne (Tennessee), Ronald Reagan (Cowpoke), Rhonda Fleming (Elizabeth ‘Duchess’ Farnham), Coleen Gray (Goldie Slater), Tony Caruso (Turner), Morris Ankrum (il giudice), Leo Gordon (lo sceri o), Chubby Johnson (Grubstake McNiven), Joe Devlin (Prendergast), Myron Healey (Reynolds), John Mansfield (Cli ord), Angie Dickinson (Abby Dean). Prod.: Benedict Bogeaus per Filmcrest Productions Inc. Pri. pro.: 21 settembre 1955 35mm. D.: 87’. Col.
“My friends call me Cowpoke”. “My name’s Tennessee, and I don’t have friends”. Two lines in perfect chiastic structure, and we go from there. The fact that the two actors uttering these are short on movie star charisma (Ronald Reagan and John Payne) adds a captivating touch of understatement to the scene, and accentuates the shy quality of the friendship that here begins. Dwan, probably, didn’t think of it that way: when asked by Bogdanovich if he would have preferred John Wayne for Tennessee, he answered, stunned: “Of course I wanted John Wayne. Anyone would have wanted him”.
And yet Dwan’s post-war period on the Poverty Row was, as historians now recognize, the golden era of his career. The imposed belt-tightening didn’t intimidate him; rather it honed his skills and finetuned the emotions. Tennessee’s Partner doesn’t even take advantage of vast landscapes or of majestic nature that will be found in The Cattle Queen of Montana. This western is, like many of that era, a more intimate personal voyage, a voyage autour de mon set carefully and artistically crafted and brimming with irony. The set pieces offer the standard western fare: saloon, porches, the sheriff’s office; but what a wonderfully acerbic invention is the boarding house/bordello called “The Marriage Market”, run with ethical righteousness and a solid business sense by the ‘Duchess’ Rhonda Fleming, “a tawny, sweaty blue-eyed beauty, with a red mane and a hot breast” (Roger Tailleur). And what is marriage, after all, in this late 1800’s, in the Wild West territory as well as in the big towns of both Atlantic coasts, if not a marketplace? Here, at least, there is a hand painted sign that wipes out any hypocrisy. The Duchess’ boarding house, where dainty blondes offer caviar and sweets to their clients, surrounded by flowers: and while the western enters the territory of its golden decline, the basic conflict of its mythology, the opposition of Desert and Garden, can even find a refuge amid the aromatic irises in this Madame’s boudoir – perhaps the most memorable Madame on screen before Robert Altman’s Mrs. Miller… Running throughout the film is the story of the search for gold, triggering a spiral of greed and cowardice, but much of this takes place off-screen: as always, “evil is present in Dwan’s stories, but gets no more attention than it deserves” (Michael Henry Wilson). As Lourcelles states, even the black and white “manichaeism” of the Bret Harte novel, that counterpointed the innocence of the prairie boy with the cynicism of the gambler, finds dramatic shading and ambiguity in spite of itself: it will turn out to be Tennessee’s loyalty and his determination to do whatever it takes to keep his friend from marrying a gold-digger that drives Cowpoke toward his tragic end – but all handled with such stark simplicity, where the soundtrack highlights each fist with a drumbeat. Dwan nurtured “a visceral distaste for desperation” (Lourcelles); he detested unhappy endings. The final image is the kiss of a woman who always wanted to be kissed as if she were a chaste newlywed, but when it comes down to it, she gets on fire and kisses as a lover would. Moments earlier, however, we found ourselves around the tomb of a young innocent, and are moved by a voice whispering: “…I didn’t even know his name”. A western from 1955, long lost in B-movie purgatory, ends as films like Il sorpasso, or Last Tango in Paris will later come to end, with the same words there magnified by the hypersensitivity of modern cinema– and ultimately this is no less of a film, in its scope and in its noble genre: Tennessee’s Partner too is an adventure of identity and loneliness.