Bright Lights Film Journal

Allan Dwan: Between the Lines

“Dwan was never afraid of melodrama, so often disdained for its contrivance, implausibility and heightened emotion; nor of farce, with its tendency to reduce characters to spastic puppets or wind-up toys. Dwan’s skill at visually expressing relationships — the legacy of his nearly two decades making silent movies — cannot by itself salvage stories or characters that fail that test of engaging us; but when combined with his crisp narrative intelligence and detached yet compassionate eye for human behavior, it gives his best films an apparently effortless power to engross.”

For many film-loving New Yorkers, the anticipation aroused by the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Allan Dwan retrospective came partly from a feeling that it presented terra incognita — not just due to the number of rarities in the lineup, but to the sense that Dwan’s career has not been fully mapped.1 He has been known as a major director without a signature work or essential masterpiece to his name, without a tie to a particular genre or readily definable subject. His best-known films are probably his biggest: the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood (1922), or Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne (1949), films with large budgets, large casts, large subjects. But while he handled such scale with ease and success, Dwan’s importance as a filmmaker lies elsewhere, in the principle he stated to Kevin Brownlow: “Any story worth a damn must be intimate. It must be close to you.” With an optimism that has, alas, hardly been borne out by contemporary Hollywood, he believed audiences would easily tire of spectacle, and what was needed to hold their interest was above all “good scenes between two people. Occasionally more, but basically two people.”2

“Occasionally more” is somewhat ironic, since as Dwan himself told Peter Bogdanovich: “Everything I did was triangles with me.” (26) But the power of his triangles comes from a focus on the bonds between two people, and the way they are strained or strengthened by a third person — or, in some cases, by a community or a mob. Dwan spoke of seeing stories as mathematical problems, of plotting out relationships as dots connected by lines, ensuring no distracting loose ends (ibid.) This habit of mind accounts for the clarity and precision with which he captures the geometry of relationships through staging and framing, but it sounds like it might produce cold films, over-calculated exercises in connecting the dots. On the contrary, one of the most appealing qualities of Dwan’s movies is their human warmth, the intimacy with which he addresses the audience’s first need, to know who the people on the screen are and why what happens to them matters.

Dwan’s films fuse two meanings of “plot”: a story-line and a map or diagram of a space. The patterns that he sees formed by human relationships are like the constellations: we can no more help turning the stuff that happens to us into stories than we can help seeing pictures in the night sky. Stories are imagined, manipulated, stylized, but this process is natural and irresistible: stories need not be realistic to be authentic. Grasping this, Dwan was never afraid of melodrama, so often disdained for its contrivance, implausibility and heightened emotion; nor of farce, with its tendency to reduce characters to spastic puppets or wind-up toys. Dwan’s skill at visually expressing relationships — the legacy of his nearly two decades making silent movies — cannot by itself salvage stories or characters that fail that test of engaging us; but when combined with his crisp narrative intelligence and detached yet compassionate eye for human behavior, it gives his best films an apparently effortless power to engross.

The tale Dwan related to Kevin Brownlow about how he became a director has a “print the legend” perfection, neatly encapsulating what made him a great one. The story was that in 1909 his work developing mercury-vapor arc lamps for the post office in Chicago was noticed by George K. Spoor, who hired him to install similar lights at the Essanay movie studio, and that after growing interested in the filmmaking he observed there, he brought in a stack of original stories that pleased the producers so much they hired him as a scenario editor. Thus Dwan’s technical bent and his narrative gift appear as twin engines of his career from the get-go. His account of being ordered to step in and finish a film whose director who had vanished on a binge, and of asking the actors to show him what a director was supposed to do, further enhances his persona as an unflappable problem-solver with an unpretentious sense of humor, an exception to the usual Hollywood image of the director as a neurotic tyrant. “Dwan is a sane director,” Photoplay declared in 1921, with the implication that this set him apart from the rest.

If Dwan is difficult to place, it’s only partly because he worked in so many disparate genres over the course of a prolific 50-year career that spanned from silent one-reelers to wide-screen Technicolor features, from major-studio prestige projects to Poverty Row quickies. It may also be Dwan’s sanity — the straightforwardness of his unadorned style, a kind of down-to-earth classicism — that makes him seem inscrutable in a pantheon of directors defined by and celebrated for their personal obsessions and instantly recognizable styles. As the Dwan series unrolled at MoMA, the question on people’s minds was whether a clear persona, a set of unifying themes and cinematic principles, would emerge from the sampling of his work. Could the dots be connected to form a picture?

In fact, recurring techniques and motifs are not hard to find in the films, and many that have been analyzed by critics were acknowledged by Dwan himself in Peter Bogdanovich’s book-length interview, Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (1971). To take three (of course) examples:

1. The tracking shot, which Dwan pioneered as early as 1915 in David Harum, is beautifully described by Dave Kehr as “central to [Dwan’s] concept of a human-centered cinema, in which the performers themselves, through their constant movement, seem to carry the frame along with them, rather than being anchored as elements in a static composition.”3 My favorite example is Claire Trevor’s walk down the street in a Harlem-like black neighborhood in One Mile From Heaven (1937). What could have been a literally and figuratively pedestrian sequence is instead a passage of refreshing loveliness, as the camera keeps pace with her steady, confident stride, and we hear tantalizing snippets of conversation, glimpse people before they slip away. The images stroll past at the speed of a light breeze. A stranger to the neighborhood, the blonde Trevor acts like a traveling spotlight, illuminating the rich yet casual authenticity of the setting, the real sense of life going on.

2. Settings, whether they are wilderness landscapes, the streets of a (studio backlot) town, or the rooms of a house, conform to and map out the story — another example of Dwan’s “human-centered cinema.” His penchant for using contrasting adjacent spaces and dividing or connecting structures to shape narratives was analyzed by Bill Krohn in “The Cliff and the Flume,” an essay that in its eponymous example shows how Dwan could find inspiration for stories in existing landmarks. Even the urban peaks of Manhattan in the charming picaresque East Side, West Side (1927) do not dwarf but rather express the inner journey of the hero (George O’Brien), who starts the film gazing at the skyline from the harbor, an outsider, and ends it gazing down at the burgeoning city from the top of a skyscraper. In between, he descends into the netherworld of subway tunnels under construction, whirls through a Lower East Side street brawl, perches on the walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge, and passes out on the sidewalk outside a seedy nightclub, after seeing a drunken vision of his lost love in the shop window of a bridal store.

3. Dwan constantly shoots through windows, which sometimes provide opportunities for characters to eavesdrop or spy on one another; sometimes illustrate the divisions between people; sometimes create framed images like little movie screens, as when Gloria Swanson in Manhandled (1924) looks out her window at night and sees her neighbors as tableaux embodying her fears or desires for married life. Sometimes they do all three of these things, as in Tennessee’s Partner, where several long sequences follow social outcasts as they creep around the outside of a house at night, peering in at the revelry through large windows. These windows frame miniature versions of what David Phelps calls Dwan’s “social theater,”4 a motif that dominates whole films, like Rendezvous with Annie (1946) or Silver Lode (1954), in which an individual must prove his innocence in the public theater-cum-courtroom of a town’s streets.

These trademark techniques are all facets of Dwan’s essential importance, which resides first and last in his nature as a story-teller. All are on display in the quartet of films that represent his best late work: Silver Lode (1954), Tennessee’s Partner (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), and The River’s Edge (1957). While not made back to back, the films (all produced by Benedict Bogeaus) share enough structures, themes, and actors to constitute a kind of suite. First, as Frederic Lombardi points out in a chapter cleverly titled “Four Sides of the Triangle,” each of the films features some variation on a threesome of central characters. In addition, all of the stories focus on outsiders — fugitives or pariahs facing hostile mobs or the abstract hostility of the law. Most crucially, these films are elevated by a mature acceptance of ambivalence, conflict, and muddy motives. They are among Dwan’s darkest, most noirish films, yet they illustrate a temperament that was fundamentally comic in the Shakespearean sense: supported by a belief in change, reconciliation and redemption. Dwan’s is, as Chris Fujiwara writes, “a cinema of the return of the exile and the acceptance and embrace of home.” (Dossier, p.47)

The stark western Silver Lode, with its minimal backstory and swiftly drawn characters, zeroes in on the psychological and physical dynamics of an individual pitted against the crowd. Rancher Dan Ballard (John Payne) must contend with a whole town that turns against him after he’s accused of murder by a stranger (Dan Duryea) claiming to be a U.S. Marshal. Even if the Marshal were not named McCarty, the film — conspicuously set on the 4th of July — would stand out as an allegory of McCarthyism, but Dwan clearly wanted it to have more universal applicability. Just as Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1956) is a powerful parable about conformity that can be read from any ideological stance, so Silver Lode is about trust and skepticism, conscience and herd instinct within communities, without any political slant. Ballard is a man with a shady past as a gambler who killed in self-defense, who has started a new life as a respected citizen but remains fundamentally wary of and resented by the town. A truly alienated and self-sufficient hero is not Dwan’s style, however; in the end, Ballard is saved by the loyalty of two women, his steadfast fiancée (Lizabeth Scott), and the cast-off lover (Delores Moran) who overcomes her bitterness to take his side.

As a narrative device, the love triangle brings both the satisfying completeness of the number three and the inherent instability of a disruption to the union of a couple. As George Balanchine liked to say when people called his ballets plotless or abstract: as soon as you put a man and a woman on the stage you have a story; as soon as you put a man and two women on the stage, you have a plot.

Slightly Scarlet sets its trio — a morally ambiguous protagonist played by Payne and a pair of red-headed sisters, one very bad and the other mostly good — against a backdrop of corrupt politics and organized crime. The convoluted plot, filled with scheming, blackmail, and double-crosses, is typical of noir but unusual for Dwan. His interest lies squarely in the sisters’ relationship, seething with resentment, jealousy, dependence and obligation. The “bad sister,” Dorothy (Arlene Dahl), is handicapped not so much by kleptomania or nymphomania as by a pathological inability to hide anything she feels or does. She is almost innocent in her blatant lack of innocence, while June (Rhonda Fleming) is unreadable beneath her open, virtuous demeanor. This is partly perhaps a function of Fleming’s depthless presence, but it enriches the duality of the sisters. June, the heroine, is caught between the externalized Id of her sister and the wholly opaque, opportunistic Ben Grace (Payne).

One of those actors who transitioned from light-weight romantic lead to hard-boiled noir anti-hero after the War, Payne conveys somewhat generically the weary, embittered weight of experience. Where Phil Karlson used Payne to embody the everyman as battered scapegoat in gritty postwar noirs (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential), Dwan makes even better use of his sulky reserve by casting him as laconic men who can’t easily be pinned down as good or bad. As a gambler or an operator, he is essentially amoral, a man who lives by judging other people’s motives while hiding his own. This poker-faced style, so central to the postwar ethos, is far removed from the lively lucidity of the silent era or the hyper-loquacity of 1930s and wartime comedy. But Dwan, who believed in giving his actors a lot of freedom and didn’t think it his job to teach them how to act, was able to adapt to each style and make the most of it for his narrative purposes. Dwan also shows how Payne, rather heavy and stolid in repose, could be launched into action, as when he evades pursuers in the streets of Silver Lode by diving behind overturned picnic tables, or when he leaps from rocky crags to assault his nemesis in Tennessee’s Partner.

In this, a delightful western set in a California gold-rush town, Dwan marshals crowds in swirling, choreographed patterns, waves and streams flowing around the outsiders whom they ostracize and threaten. The hostile town and lynch mob are reminiscent of Silver Lode,5 but groups of people play other roles as well. Most of the film is set in The Marriage Market, a gaudy, lavishly rococo club that is apparently a clip joint — hostesses are employed to sell vastly overpriced merchandise to male customers — and like all clip joints in Hollywood movies is a presumable stand-in for a bordello. It’s an oddly charming place, though, and the girls who work there form a kind of comic chorus, always flitting and twittering in a synchronized flock around the regal owner, the Duchess (Rhonda Fleming). The brightly colored, fluttering women are complemented by a somber circle of dark-suited men who are always seated playing poker in one of the parlors. They are anchored by Tennessee (John Payne), a professional gambler who is universally hated by the men who can’t stop losing money to him. As Aaron Cutler points out in his recent appreciation of the film, the lovers Duchess and Tennessee are united by their acceptance of their morally shadowy status (when asked if her announcement that her ladies are seeking respectable husbands is “on the level,” the Duchess calmly replies, “most of it;” when asked if he cheats much, Tennessee answers tersely, “I’ve been accused of it,” and then no less evasively, “A good gambler doesn’t need to cheat.”) They are joined too by the peculiar dignity they bring to their exploitative professions, and by the way they are never alone, yet always alone.

Into this precarious yet unchanging set-up comes Cowpoke (Ronald Reagan), an innocent prospector who saves Tennessee’s life when he is ambushed by his enemies. Cowpoke has been physically isolated and lonely, spending seasons alone in the wilderness, but he has a friendly and trusting nature; while Tennessee, who is surrounded by people and carries on numerous liaisons with women, insists that he has no friends. As a gambler, he can’t afford them; he trusts no one and accepts being distrusted. While his killings are always justified as self-defense, one could say he kills men by making them want to kill him. On the simplest level, Tennessee’s Partner is about a cynical misanthrope who, through an encounter with a loyal and generous nature, learns to love the person he should have loved all along — the Duchess. In a sad way, Cowpoke is used by the story, as Tennessee seems to acknowledge when he looks down at the friend who has taken a bullet for him and says, stricken, “I never even knew his name.”

Actually, every one of the film’s major characters is known solely by a nickname describing their nature or background (in addition to the main three, there is Goldie, the duplicitous, golddigging fiancée of Cowpoke; and Grubstake, an old prospector), giving the film the archetypal quality of a ballad or a campfire legend. It also has a dark undercurrent below the colorful surface: like many westerns, it illustrates the corrosive effects of a gold strike, which turns men into frenzied monsters of avarice. Both elements come from the writing of Bret Harte. While the film’s primary source was a Harte short story of the same name, it also borrows characters and themes from one of Harte’s best-known works, the 1869 story “Outcasts of Poker Flat,” itself filmed three times in Hollywood (in 1919, 1937, and 1952). The stylized simplicity of Harte’s work is reminiscent of silent films, with their often nameless characters and streamlined stories unconcerned with quotidian detail. Dwan never entirely shed this quality, and it returned more and more in his late films.

Harsh and dark, yet filled with mordant humor and sprightly pacing, The River’s Edge presents the eternal triangle in its most stripped-down form, the three players forced together and isolated from society; yet it also has the most fully drawn and complex characters of the quartet. At the apex is a woman, Meg (Debra Paget), who must choose between the smooth-talking con man who abandoned her to a jail term and the rugged rancher who married her and thus saved her from doing another nine years for parole violation. This might not sound like a hard choice, but her dilemma is well established through a pair of extended sequences that place the men in richly detailed settings. A city girl, Meg is grossly out of place on the hardscrabble ranch where she lives with her husband, Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn), and shuffles sulkily around in fluffy pink high-heeled sandals. You can sympathize with Ben’s frustration at her incompetence and whining, but you also can’t blame her for being fed up with finding scorpions in her slippers and mud spurting out of the shower-head. She does try to bake her husband a birthday cake, though in doing so she causes the butane stove to blow up.

When her former lover and partner in crime, Nardo Denning (Ray Milland), shows up and takes her into town, she luxuriates in a hotel bubble bath. Where Ben was blunt about her mistakes and laughed at her humiliations, Nardo suavely surrounds her with dancing, cocktails, and flattery, all spread out on a bed of plausible lies about his earlier betrayal. The journey of the film takes the three away from both these settings into the wilderness, where their true characters are laid bare and they find resolution and renewal. This classical conceit brings the movie closer to westerns, with their journeys that test and reward both physical and psychological stamina, than to film noir, in which people driven into extreme settings are usually diminished and ultimately destroyed.

Dwan told Bogdanovich that the film was weakened by Paget, who was wooden and couldn’t hold her own against the male co-stars. There is some truth in this ungallant verdict, but Meg’s character would be the weak link no matter who played her. She’s in thrall to an obvious grade-A louse, believes his lies and lets him corrupt her, betrays the good man who rescued her — all this despite being essentially honest and good-hearted. Dwan, to his credit, liked strong, self-reliant women, but Meg’s vacillating character is the necessary pivot of the story.

Dwan certainly didn’t hesitate to exploit Paget’s voluptuous figure, and on one level the film is a sophisticated version of a cave-man battle between two rivals for a desirable woman. It’s the interplay between Milland and Quinn that generates much of the film’s gripping, prickly energy. Nardo Denning, who rolls into the movie in a pale pink Thunderbird (it was actually Dwan’s car), wearing a cream suit and burgundy ascot, is the apotheosis of Ray Milland’s shifty, smirking creeps. With his syrupy voice and darting eyes, his smug, gloating smile, he looks exactly like a man carrying a million dollars he stole from his best friend. His rival sums him up succinctly: “If you were on a desert island with that guy, and there was nothing but rocks, pretty soon he’d have all the rocks moved over to his side of the beach.”

Until the last minutes of the film, Denning is a simple character, blithely and thoroughly bad. It’s Ben Cameron, ostensibly an honest, salt-of-the-earth farmer, who is the more complex and ambivalent man. Nardo is a professional liar, but there’s never a moment when you don’t know exactly what he’s thinking and what he wants; Ben on the other hand plays a deep game, and his motives are often murky. Within the first ten minutes of the film he goes through three abrupt changes of mood: first bickering irritably with his wife; then urgently pleading with her when she threatens to walk out; then casually sending her off with Denning when he shows up claiming he wants to hire Ben as a hunting guide. Ben knows who he is but pretends not to; does he throw them together to test Meg? Or because he really doesn’t want her if she wants her former lover? Or because he hopes if he gives her enough rope she will learn the truth about Nardo and come back? It’s hard to say, just as throughout the story it’s hard to say how much Ben really cares about Nardo’s money, and how much he uses greed as a cover for his scheme to get his wife back. Ben is always keeping an eye on the others (watching in mirrors, a common Dwan device, he sees Nardo open his suitcase filled with cash, and Nardo kissing Meg), and hiding what he knows. Lombardi compares Ben’s character to a film director, putting the other two into scenes and watching how they play out. Anthony Quinn gives a brilliant and unusually subtle performance as a man who is both earthily passionate and coolly cunning.

The contest between the men is mostly a battle of wits, though backed up by a lot of brandishing of guns and knives. But the film is punctuated by violence, almost all of it perpetrated by Denning, and all depicted in abrupt and shocking ways. Dwan hated violence, he told Bogdanovich, and no director makes it less enjoyable then he does here, focusing on the abruptness and ruthlessness of Nardo’s killings. The first comes when he runs over a border patrol agent who wants to search his car; chillingly, he adjusts the rear-view mirror before reversing and leaving the bloody cop lying in the road. The second comes when he coldly guns down an old prospector who has accidentally seen the money in his suitcase. Each murder is a turning point: the first killing, which he assures Meg was an accident, forces them to flee across the Mexican border, with Ben guiding them — for a fee of $10,000, and to save Meg from going back to jail. The second is the moment when Meg finally sees what a monster Nardo is, and turns against him, at first privately.

Her foolish, self-sacrificing attempt to get Nardo caught is just one more lie and double cross in what becomes a kind of murderous game. The almost cartoonish look of triumphant cunning on Nardo’s face as he steals a gun from the sleeping (he thinks) Ben is answered by the little triumphant smile on Ben’s face — he has replaced the bullets with blanks. As Matthew Flanagan writes in his essay on the film,6 this is a story about shifting power dynamics, and the men score against each other in every way they can, not just with threats and violence, but with small insults and indignities. Even in the most humiliating position, being held at gunpoint by a man who has stolen his wife, Ben keeps getting in little verbal digs at the couple, enjoying the power he has over them as their only hope of fleeing to safety. When the smirking Nardo claims that his suitcase contains just a change of underwear, Ben quips, “You must have problems.”

The centerpiece of the film is a magnificent, extended scene that distills the relationships between the three characters. They are sheltering in a cave during a heavy rainstorm, and Ben realizes that Meg’s arm wound has developed gangrene, and he must cut away the infected area to save her. First he needs to build a fire in order to sterilize his knife, but there is nothing dry to burn, except the money in the metal suitcase. Ben asks for his cut and uses it as kindling. When that runs out, he demands more — at which Nardo makes a small, hilariously pathetic gesture, moving the suitcase a little closer to himself like a child afraid a favorite toy will be taken away. The incredulous expression on his face, as he huddles sulkily in a corner, is priceless. The sight of cash going up in flames torments him in the shallow depths of his greedy soul, yet there is also, at the back of his eyes, a hint of shame as he’s forced to observe Ben’s selfless love and virile tenderness. Ben gently talks his wife through the operation, coaxing and soothing her as he would a panicked animal, and he almost breaks down in the anguish of having to hurt her. He crosses himself before cutting into her arm, and for all his pragmatic toughness, he almost can’t bring himself to do it.

After this deeply satisfying sequence, which concludes with husband and wife reunited, plot machinations take over. It’s somewhat implausible that Nardo could get the better of Ben in a brawl, even with the help of a rockslide, but this is a minor point compared with the difficulty of believing that the utterly cold-blooded killer would not only leave the couple alive, but would decide to detour from his own escape to summon help for them. I don’t think it’s just the cynic in me that is unconvinced; to believe in a character’s change of heart, you first have to believe he has a heart, and nothing up to this point has suggested any such thing. But the story’s denouement is filled with poetic justice and poetic imagery: on the way to do his one good deed, Nardo is hit by a car on a narrow mountain road. There is a beautiful shot of the money from his suitcase fluttering like autumn leaves down the hillside, and an even more memorable shot of a raven holding a crumpled $100 bill in its beak, expressing in a single image a link between money and death. Most powerful of all is the sight of Ben, who was willing to burn thousands of dollars to save his wife, wading into the river grabbing up handfuls of bills — until Meg shames him into dropping them. It’s what anyone would do, perhaps, and this note of realism is a welcome counterpoint to the dubious redemption of the villain.

Dwan hated unhappy endings, he told Bogdanovich, but this one is mixed at best; Ben and Meg go back to “face the music,” meaning presumably that she will return to jail, but he has already promised to wait for her, “honey, till you’re a little old lady.” The River’s Edge is noirish in its focus on deceit and betrayal and the manipulative cruelty of human relationships, but not in its ultimate faith in the possibility of change and forgiveness. Perhaps this is part of what Dwan meant when he said that stories to him were mathematical problems: that they should have solutions.

Yet the solution is reached not by adding one plus one, but by subtracting one from three. Stories are not resolved without loss, patterns aren’t made tidy without cutting away what is extraneous or disruptive — an idea most eloquently expressed in the stately, deep-focus shot of Tennessee and the Duchess joining hands at Cowpoke’s funeral. According to Lombardi, Dwan devised this brief and wordless scene, which formally presents his vision of people as “related through triangles or lines,” to replace a lengthy passage of dialogue. It comes between the lines, upholding the silence to which Dwan always maintained his allegiance.


Bogdanovich, Peter. Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer. New York: Praeger, 1971.

Lombardi, Frederic. Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studio System. McFarland: 2013.

Phelps, David and Gina Teleroli, ed. Allan Dwan: A Dossier. E-Lumiere, 2013.

  1. In his brief entry on Allan Dwan in the “Expressive Esoterica” chapter of American Cinema, Andrew Sarris concluded, “there may be much more to say about Dwan.” That promise has been amply fulfilled with the publication of Frederic Lombardi’s Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studio System; Allan Dwan: a Dossier, edited by David Phelps and Gina Teleroli and available free online; as well as many other critical responses to the Dwan retrospective that ran June-July 8, 2013 at Museum of Modern Art, New York. []
  2. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press, 1968, pp. 96-104. Dwan also appears as an interviewee in Brownlow and David Gill’s majestic documentary series Hollywood (1980). []
  3. Dave Kehr, “Sweethearts on Parade.” In Allan Dwan: A Dossier, p. 274. []
  4. David Phelps, “The Uncertainty Principle,” Dossier, p. 68. []
  5. Lombardi suggests that Tennessee’s Partner can be viewed as a sequel to Silver Lode, but it could also be a kind of prequel, depicting the shady gambler’s life that the Payne hero led before coming to Silver Lode and re-inventing himself as a respectable rancher. []
  6. “To Deserve a Few Tears: The River’s Edge (1957),” Dossier, p. 416. []