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The year is 1861, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, and the place is the Colorado Territory. Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack) is a Rebel sympathizer who has come west to make his fortune in Denver, which is in the midst of a gold-mining boom. Already tensions between Union and Southern factions in the town have divided the citizens, creating an atmosphere of distrust and instability. At first Pentecost, a gambler and an opportunist, thrives in this environment but then his world begins to unravel as the War Between the States becomes a reality and he is forced to take a stand. Additional tension is generated by Pentecost's attraction to both Ann Merry Alaine (Virginia Mayo), a straight-laced dress shop proprietor, and Boston (Ruth Roman), a saloon hostess who helps him usurp the former town boss, Jumbo Means (Raymond Burr).
Great Day in the Morning (1956), directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People , Out of the Past ), is, in the words of Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, "perhaps the most puzzling and disturbing item in Tourneur's filmography." It is certainly the most cerebral and complex of his movies, and one of the rare westerns which focuses less on gunplay than moral and ethical considerations facing the main characters. The protagonist, Owen Pentecost, is a true anti-hero, a man of cunning determination and ruthless ambition whose real motives and beliefs remain unclear, even to himself at times. As the film progresses, it becomes less about the tumultuous events and uneasy alliances that occur in this frontier town and more about how they affect Pentecost, forcing him to examine his own conscience. [Spoiler Alert] In the end, after numerous betrayals and shootings, Pentecost finds redemption in proclaiming his allegiance to the South and admitting his love for Boston. But his moment of self-realization has come too late. Pentecost doesn't realize Boston was murdered by Means after he deserted her in Denver and his newfound commitment to the Confederate cause is doomed. It's a bitterly ironic ending that prefigures such introspective and melancholy westerns as Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
For a film brimming with violence, emotional upheavals and desperate situations, Great Day in the Morning is surprisingly undramatic. This is partly due to the stylized performances and theatrical staging but the underlying suspense is actually generated through the film's brilliant cinematography (by William Snyder) which uses color and varying shades of dark and light to reveal aspects of the characters and their relationships not readily evident from the dialogue. The sequence where Means lures Boston into a darkened saloon to kill her is a particularly powerful moment, as evocative in its own way as the scene from Tourneur's Cat People when an unseen presence threatens Jane Randolph in the swimming pool or Curse of the Demon (1957) when Dana Andrews takes an ill-advised short cut through a dark woods.
Typical of the type of review Great Day in the Morning received upon its release is this quote from Variety which pegged it as B-movie drive-in fodder: "...sufficient to fit the not-too-demanding requirements of the general outdoor market...unfolds at a regulation, but not always fast, pace." It wasn't a hit with audiences either and is generally overlooked in the western genre by most film reference books such as Halliwell's Film & Video Guide, which has labeled it a "solemn semi-Western without much excitement." Maybe you have to be a Jacques Tourneur fan to appreciate Great Day in the Morning and see it as the bleak and despairing morality play it was obviously intended to be.
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Lesser Samuels, Robert Hardy Andrews (novel)
Cinematography: William Snyder
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Leith Stevens
Cast: Virginia Mayo (Ann Merry Alaine), Robert Stack (Owen Pentecost), Ruth Roman (Boston Grant), Alex Nicol (Captain Stephen Kirby), Raymond Burr (Jumbo Means), Leo Gordon (Zeff Masterson).
by Jeff Stafford