Devil’s Doorway

Devil’s Doorway (1950), is, like The Last Hunt, about Native Americans and, like The Naked Spur, was directed by Anthony Mann. By the early 1950s, Hollywood was dealing more openly with the issue of prejudice in such films as Pinky (about a black girl passing for white), Home of the Brave (a paralyzed black WWII veteran) and Gentleman’s Agreement (a Gentile reporter investigating anti-Semitism). Fox’s Broken Arrow, released a month before Devil’s Doorway, was considered the breakthrough film due to its positive portrayal of American Indians and their conflict with whites, but Devil’s Doorway took an even more uncompromising look at the subject. (Doorway was screened for the press before Arrow opened, but the studio apparently lacked faith in the film and waited another four months to release it.) Many Hollywood films that examine such issues attribute all of the blame to one evil character: Devil’s Doorway may feature an individual villain (a conniving, deceitful lawyer) but it makes clear that it is the government policies toward Indians that ultimately lead to the downfall of the main character, a Shoshone Indian named “Broken Lance” Poole.

The film begins with Poole returning to his Wyoming home after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the Civil War. Having served alongside, and even commanded, white troops, he is convinced that the tide is turning toward equality for Native Americans, but discovers that the reverse is true—with the influx of new settlers, prejudice against Indians is increasing, and the government’s new Homestead Act has taken away all his rights to his family’s property. He enlists the help of Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond), a beautiful female lawyer, to make his case with the government, but discovers that as an Indian he is a “ward of the state,” not an American citizen, and does not even have the right to homestead his own land.

Goaded by racist lawyer Coolan (Louis Calhoun), a group of sheepmen attempt to settle on Poole’s property, prompting a series of violent skirmishes between Indians and settlers. Poole is determined to defend his land to the end with his fellow Shoshones, knowing that he will almost certainly lose. When Poole kills Coolan, Orrie calls the cavalry in time to save the Indian women and children, but a fatally wounded Poole, the last surviving Indian man in the battle, dons his Civil War uniform and gives the cavalry officer a final salute before falling dead. The film is careful not to let Poole off the hook for his downfall, despite his attempts to use the law to plead his case: his own inflexibility helps seal his fate, giving the story an essentially tragic dimension. Director Mann was pleased with the end product, remarking, “I think the result was more powerful than Broken Arrow, more dramatic too.”

By 1950 Indians may have no longer been the default villains in Hollywood westerns, but genuine Native American lead actors were (and still are) a rarity, to say the least. Poole was played by none other than M-G-M star Robert Taylor (born Spangler Arlington Brugh), with dark makeup and longish hair pulled straight back. Taylor’s casting received some criticism from reviewers at the time, but he brought an appropriate somberness and dignity to the role—clearly he, like the filmmakers, wanted to do justice to the Indians and their plight—and when he starred in Quo Vadis a year later, no one complained that he was not really a Roman.

Director Anthony Mann had specialized in film noir during the 1940s, and Devil’s Doorway was his first western. While it has never achieved the critical reputation of the series of westerns starring James Stewart that Mann would later direct, it is an exceptionally well-directed film that, with its black-and-white photography and downbeat storyline, makes a fascinating transition from the noir to western genres. (Another noirish Mann western, The Furies, was shot after but released immediately before Doorway.)

Much of the impact of Devil’s Doorway derives from John Alton’s expert cinematography. Alton had shot several of Mann’s noirs, and his work on Doorway balances rich, crisp exteriors reminiscent of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams with strikingly composed, deep-focus interiors. Devil’s Doorway proved to be the last collaboration between Mann and Alton: the cinematographer moved on to color and a wide variety of projects, sharing the Color Cinematography Oscar for 1951’s An American in Paris for his work on the ballet sequences. (Alton’s final credit was for the pilot episode of the Mission: Impossible TV series.) Doorway’s screenwriter, Guy Trosper, was nominated for a WGA award for his script in the long-abandoned category of Best Written American Western, and went on to a prestigious career that included such classics as Birdman of Alcatraz and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Devil’s Doorway was composer Daniele Amfitheatrof’s only score for an Anthony Mann film. While the storyline of Doorway is distinctly monothematic—very little transpires in the narrative aside from Poole’s attempt to maintain control of his land—Amfitheatrof’s score is not dominated by a particular theme, and the composer uses a variety of motives and musical moods to tell the story. The principal melody depicts Poole and his fellow Shoshones, but Amfitheatrof’s cues tend to turn on a dime, closely attuned to the tone of a scene on a moment-by-moment basis. He provides Scottish-tinged music for the sheepmen led by Scotty MacDougall (Rhys Williams), and while his drum-laden Indian cues are typical of Western scoring at the time, they help add to the film’s tragic inevitability.

The somberness of much of the score is balanced by Amfitheatrof’s musical evocation of the spectacular countryside, which virtually all of the characters (even the despicable Coolan) covet. The composer also provides a comical motive for Orrie’s nosy mother (played by familiar character actress Spring Byington). The working relationship between Poole and Orrie (his shock at meeting a female lawyer makes a nice parallel to the whites’ prejudice against the Indians) hints at an attraction that is never addressed openly until the finale, and Amfitheatrof fittingly emphasizes the underlying tension and conflict of their scenes together rather than employing traditionally romantic music. While an early scene of Poole bringing a reluctant white doctor to his home—only to find his ailing father has already died—is scored only with the onscreen source of Indian chants (composed by André Previn), the action-packed final reels feature nonstop, large-scale scoring. Along with its other qualities, the somber effectiveness of Amfitheatrof’s music should serve as a rebuttal to those who only know his western scoring from his final work in the genre, his offbeat, oft-derided music for Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee. — 

Devil’s Doorway is presented on this collection from the surviving optical 35mm monaural film cues, which were subsequently archived by M-G-M on ¼″ tape. Unfortunately, the masters are incomplete, and in this case acetates could not be found to fill in the missing cues. (Acetates for M-G-M scores archived at USC exist only for films with production numbers of 1501 or higher; Devil’s Doorway is production number 1468.) The surviving cues offer a more-than-captivating glimpse at Amfitheatrof’s engaging music for the film’s Native Americans and their dark journey undertaken in the film. Reel and part numbers are provided in the program commentary below to help the listener understand the “gaps” created by the missing cues.

Among the lost cues are the main title (1M1—obscured by sound effects in the finished film, rendering it unsuitable to be lifted from the film soundtrack itself). For purposes of introduction, the opening title sequence features Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) on horseback, riding through Wyoming’s mountains back to his hometown of Medicine Bow; the accompanying cue introduces and develops Amfitheatrof’s bold, pentatonic-flavored main theme as well as the compound Scottish melody associated with MacDougall and the sheepmen, concluding with a noble brass fanfare that comes to represent Lance’s service in the army.

15. Looking for Green Pastures (2M3)
Early in the film, Lance suffers the death of his father (Fritz Leiber) at his Indian homestead, Sweet Meadows. “Looking for Green Pastures” appears with agitated brass and strings for Poole’s loss, giving way to sweeping statements of the main theme for a sequence of Lance and the Shoshones rounding up cattle on their property. The Scottish melody plays innocently when sheepman Scotty MacDougall (Rhys Williams) arrives looking for grazing land. Lance angrily announces that Sweet Meadows belongs to him, and he rides off with brass defiantly calling out his theme.
16. Meeting (1M2)
This unused cue falls in sequence prior to disc 2, track 15, but has been placed here for listening purposes (as “Looking for Green Pastures” is a better cue to begin the Devil’s Doorway program, in the absence of the “Main Title”). Poole arrives at the town saloon and is reunited with his friends: the bartender, Bob (Tom Fadden), and soon-to-be sheriff, Zeke (Edgar Buchanan). They are impressed by his decorated uniform, but bigoted lawyer Coolan (Louis Calhern) chimes in, noting that things were different when he was in the army. Lance dismisses the comment and leaves the bar to find his ill father. “Meeting” was likely intended to play under the bar dialogue but was not used in the finished film. The piece’s bouncing string writing and tentative brass fanfares might have lent the scene a more urgent and ominous air.
17. The First Client (3M2)
In another scene at the saloon, Coolan instigates a brawl (unscored by Amfitheatrof) between Lance and Ike Stapleton (James Millican), a vicious cowboy, over the ownership of Sweet Meadows; after Poole emerges victorious, he visits lawyer Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond) in hopes that she will help him legally homestead his own land. “The First Client” underscores the end of their initial uncomfortable encounter with a somber passage for woodwinds and strings; subdued impressionistic writing continues after Poole leaves and Orrie’s mother chides her for taking on an Indian as her first client. The cue captures Orrie’s delicate compassion as the lawyer implies that her father would have done the same, with her mother quick to agree.
Running Into Indians (4M3)
A broad statement of the main theme accompanies a transitional shot of the Shoshones working on Sweet Meadows. A subsequent scene of a shotgun-toting Mrs. Masters boarding her daughter’s wagon is underscored with the introduction of her comical descending motive; the music plays to the mother’s overcautious disposition as the women set out to deliver disappointing news to Lance.
The main theme is quoted as the scene transitions to Sweet Meadows, where Lance finishes pounding a post into the ground, happily unaware of the land office’s decision; the Masters women arrive and as they are surrounded by the Shoshones, the score plays up their trepidation with suspenseful writing for strings and muted brass. Tribal percussion plays as Lance senses his visitors’ fear and dismisses his friends. He takes Orrie’s hand to help her out of the wagon, and although he shies away when sensing her discomfort, the music’s warm impressionism acknowledges the gesture. The cue peters out as Lance escorts the women to his porch, where Orrie informs him that his homestead application has been turned down. Infuriated, Lance insults Orrie’s profession and denounces the law that forbids him from homesteading his land.
18. Talons of an Eagle (4MA)
Agitated, trilling strings mark the arrival of Jimmy (Henry Marco), a fatigued Shoshone boy, who collapses near Lance’s porch. Orrie expresses concern, but Poole will not carry Jimmy inside, instead encouraging him to reach the house under his own power. A belabored version of the main theme underscores the boy pulling himself onto the porch, where a Shoshone woman finally collects him and brings him inside. Tribal percussion enters under the theme as Lance explains to the Masters women that Jimmy has just completed a rite of passage, having traveled into the mountains alone and returned with the talons of an eagle. Orrie finds the test cruel, but Lance responds that the tribe must know that they can depend on the boy to fight.
Shining Spear (4AMA)
Jimmy comes back outside and presents the talons to Lance, who dubs him “Shining Spear”; Amfitheatrof offers hopeful chordal statements of the main theme, with Orrie’s mother voicing her approval of the Shoshones’ strong sense of family. The piece ends on an air of suspense when the scene transitions to Lance escorting the Masters women back to Medicine Bow.
19. There’s Still Hope (4M6)
Lance and his guests encounter a group of Shoshones who have fled the reservation; living conditions have become intolerable there, so Poole illegally allows them to stay on his property. The scene shifts to outside the Masters home, where “There’s Still Hope” underscores the farewell between the Indian and the women. A sympathetic rendition of the main theme gives way to lush string writing as Orrie tells a grateful Lance that she will fight to have the law changed so that he can rightfully claim Sweet Meadows. Before Lance rides off, the playful motive for Orrie’s mother is restated when he informs her that the firing pin on her rifle is rusted off.
Making Camp (wild, 4M7)
The Scottish melody is reprised for a transition to the open country—the sheepmen are poised to cross Devil’s Doorway, the entrance to Sweet Meadows.
20. Time to Compromise (5M1)
Orrie brings MacDougall’s son, Rod (Marshall Thompson), to see Poole about allowing him and the other sheepmen to use Sweet Meadows for grazing. Embittered strings play through Lance’s refusal to compromise. The cue takes a final hopeful turn when he agrees to negotiate if Orrie’s petition to revise the homesteading law is successful.
21. MacDougall Shot (5M2)
After Lance is informed that the MacDougalls are staking a claim by his water hole, a threatening, chromatic build of strings, brass and timpani underscores him retrieving his gun belt. Furious string writing escalates through a transition of Lance riding to the water hole—his confrontation with the sheepmen is marked by unnerving trills and sporadic timpani. Before the younger MacDougall can open fire, Poole shoots his hand; Ike (the cowboy whom Lance beat up) witnesses this and rides off to inform Coolan. (The opening 0:20 of this cue is dialed out in the finished film.)
22. I’m So Sorry (wild, 6M2)
Word of the MacDougall shooting spreads and results in the townspeople’s refusal to sign Orrie’s petition. The Scottish theme is reprised for “Earth Is Our Mother” (6M1, not on this CD), underscoring the lawyer’s apology to Rod and the sheepmen for what happened. “Earth Is Our Mother” also features a reverent arrangement of the main theme when Orrie informs Poole of the failed petition and again pleads that he make concessions to the sheepmen. Lance refuses to give up his land, explaining his deep connection to the valley.
“I’m So Sorry,” the cue included here, does not appear in the film, possibly due to deleted footage. After a tentative introduction, the cue features pensive woodwind and string developments of the main theme. The concluding material is contrastingly stark, with unison writing punctuated by unsettling dissonant chords.
Dynamite Attack, Part 1 (6M3)
Poole leads the Shoshones on horseback out into the valley to engage Sheriff Zeke and the invading sheepmen. Foreboding brass plays over a native bass drum pulse as Lance surveys the white men from afar. When the party reaches the Indians, Lance levels his pistol at Zeke, the score building dissonant tension as he warns the sheriff not to come closer. Zeke is unconvinced and Poole furiously leads his own men back up into the mountains, the score following with busy, chromatic string writing. In the finished film, the music continues with a violent action cue, “Dynamite Attack, Part 2” (7M1, lost and thus not included here), which plays through the opening of the Indians’ subsequent attack on the sheepmen.
23. Indians vs. Sheepmen (wild)
This unruly action cue (which does not appear in the film, possibly due to deleted footage) is dominated by the main theme: fragmented versions of the tune chaotically trade off with rhythmic brass figures, ferocious string writing and pounding percussion.
24. Sheriff’s Dead (7M2)
Several Indians, sheepmen and sheep are killed during the ambush. “Sheriff’s Dead” begins with an anguished brass fanfare as Lance and the surviving Shoshones retreat from the battle. A gnarled rendition of the main theme runs its course as the camera pans away from the Indians to reveal the corpse of the sheriff.
Wire (7M3)
Coolan is given the title of “temporary United States Marshal” and gathers a posse to storm Lance’s property. Threatening low strings walk under the opening of “Wire” as Orrie telegraphs a message to Fort Laramie requesting the aid of the U.S. Cavalry. The scene transitions to Sweet Meadows, where the Shoshones are hard at work barricading the area around Poole’s ranch. Resolute iterations of the main theme play over a tribal beat as Lance supervises the work of his people and promises young Jimmy a gun “soon enough.” A dry statement of the melody sounds when Poole takes a moment to appreciate a Shoshone infant, the percussion resuming as he picks up a rifle.
25. Coolan Attacks (8M1)
The propulsive opening measures of “Coolan Attacks” play as Orrie rides toward Lance’s home to intercept Coolan and his posse. Night falls, and just as the mob is ready to attack, Orrie arrives and pleads with them, rationalizing that they need not go through with the assault since the cavalry is already on its way and will remove the Shoshones. Orrie’s overtures are represented by a twisted, ever-changing line voiced on lush strings; Coolan’s rebuttals are treated with scornful brass. The first 1:07 of this cue appears in the finished film with the remaining music (1:08–3:22) dropped, presumably due to deleted footage—the unused material alternates between a taunting development of the “twisted” idea, the main title’s closing fanfare, and the main theme.
Second Attack (8M2)
The twisted motive is voiced on woodwinds after Coolan dismisses Orrie and lights a keg of dynamite. The ensuing battle between the Shoshones and the posse is scored with frenzied writing that emphasizes rapidly descending lines and forceful brass (some of this material was previously established in the unused portion of “Coolan Attacks”). Urgent readings of the main theme give way to a subdued, tragic setting of the melody after Lance’s house is destroyed by dynamite and the Indians are overwhelmed. Poole then orders that the women and children be evacuated to the reservation. The cue re-establishes its aggressive tone, with bold chromaticism and pungent fanfares spelling doom for the Shoshones as more and more white men advance toward them. The music subsides as Lance resolves to take the fight to the enemy and to “make it count.”
26. Good Luck (8M4)
A suspense cue, “U.S. Cavalry Arrives” (8M3, not on the CD), plays through a sequence in which Poole and his men sneak into the woods and quietly kill several members of the mob, including Coolan. “Good Luck,” the cue presented here, employs threatening low brass, tremolo strings and martial percussion for the U.S. Cavalry assembling on Lance’s property.
It’s Hopeless (9M1)
Lt. Grimes (Bruce Cowling) permits Orrie to try to convince Lance to surrender. “It’s Hopeless” provides chromatic tension for the lawyer running toward Lance’s house. An anguished rendition of the main theme sounds when Poole admits her into his destroyed residence; the women and children are still huddled inside, having refused to return to the reservation. The cue unfolds with bitter string writing suggestive of the main theme, and scowling brass as Poole stubbornly refuses to surrender, knowing that the trial Orrie guarantees him will mean certain death.
“The Children Were Happy Here” (9M2, not on the CD) continues to apply tension to their conversation as Lance laments that the children will not be able to grow up with the freedom he was able to provide for them in the valley. He angrily addresses the mutual attraction he and Orrie feel, holding the lawyer more than close enough to kiss her—but ultimately dismissing her (marked by a bittersweet version of the main theme), telling her, “A hundred years from now it might have worked.”
27. Memories (9M3)
Poole wearily walks through his scorched, empty home to the accompaniment of “Memories,” which supplies a moody passage emphasizing low-register woodwinds and trilling strings. He picks up his father’s pipe and studies it as the sound of the cavalry’s gunfire suddenly fills the air; a fateful reprisal of the main theme signals Poole’s final decision. Before he steps outside to meet his destiny, he eyes his Civil War uniform, to a fleeting suggestion of the fanfare figure. Climatic rising brass and tribal percussion underscore him calmly revealing himself to the cavalry and firing at them in vain—he is shot, and descending jagged brass mimics his crumbling to the ground.
Last Walk (9M4)
The tension of the previous cue is carried over for mortally wounded Lance taking Orrie’s advice: He shouts his terms for surrender to the cavalry, agreeing to turn himself in if the women and children are allowed to return to the reservation. Nervous trilling continues even after Lt. Grimes accepts the offer, and a quotation of the main theme plays encouragingly as Lance places brave young Jimmy, the last remaining “man,” in charge of the survivors.
Resigned renditions of the main theme underscore the Shoshones marching out toward the reservation, with a tragic contrapuntal setting of the material following as Lance trails behind them dressed in his war uniform. The brass fanfare is reprised over a snare roll when he salutes the lieutenant and falls dead before the officer and Orrie. “It would be too bad if we ever forgot,” the lawyer says, before Grimes looks out toward the Wyoming mountains, to a tragic concluding statement of the main theme’s opening pitches. The end titles play out over a glorious arrangement of the main theme’s second half, similar to its presentation during the opening titles.
28. Indian Lament
This slow-paced source piece of wordless male and female moaning over percussion (composed by André Previn) is performed on screen by the Shoshones; early in the film it is divided over two separate scenes of Lance Poole’s father dying in his bed, prior to “Looking for Green Pastures” (disc 2, track 15). The recording may have been repurposed from an earlier M-G-M film. —