Monthly Archives: December 2013

Last Train from Gun Hill

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 19, 2013

Last Train From Gun Hill—Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Carolyn Jones, Earl Holliman, Brad Dexter, John Anderson (1959; Dir:  John Sturges)


Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is the town marshal in Pauley, married to a Cherokee woman.  His wife is raped and murdered by a couple of young men passing through, and Morgan recovers their horses.  He recognizes the saddle on one as belonging to an old friend in Gun Hill, cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  It was his son Rick (Earl Holliman) who was using his saddle and committed the crime. 


Old friends Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn) and Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) talk about painful things.

On his way to Gun Hill on the train, Morgan meets Linda (Carolyn Jones), a saloon girl and Belden mistress recently emerged from the hospital after a beating from Belden pere and now returning to Gun Hill.  Gun Hill is a corrupt place, completely controlled by Belden.  Morgan confronts Belden, who denies any participation by his son in the death of Morgan’s wife.  But Morgan captures Rick and holes up in the Harper House hotel, where he is besieged by Beldon’s men. 

With some help from Linda, Morgan gets out to try to make it with Rick to the last train out of Gun Hill at 9:20 p.m.  At the last minute, Rick’s partner in crime, Lee Smithers (Brian Hutton), tries to shoot it out with Morgan and kills Rick instead.  Morgan gets Smithers and now has nobody to haul back to Pauley.  He and Belden shoot it out, at Belden’s insistence. 


With the town against him, Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) holds Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) prisoner.

The bones of the plot may sound fairly pedestrian, but it’s better than that.  It’s a well-put-together John Sturges western from the end of his early period.  Douglas gives a good performance; he’s obviously in good shape from the way he’s able to carry a supposedly unconscious Earl Holliman (not a small person) over his shoulder for an extended period on screen without showing any strain or becoming lopsided.  His anguish at the death of his wife is believable, as is his determination to uphold the law and not take it into his own hands—one of the two central conflicts of the movie.  Anthony Quinn is very good, too, in a character reminiscent of the one he plays in WarlockJones and Holliman are good in different ways, in limited parts.  Reminiscent of the plot in 3:10 to Yuma in terms of trying to catch a train against armed resistance.  In color.  Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr.  The screenwriter was said to have been the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.


An Al Hirschfeld caricature, 1959.

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Big Hand for the Little Lady

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 18, 2013

Big Hand for the Little Lady—Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Paul Ford, Jason Robards, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton, Charles Bickford, Burgess Meredith (1966; Dir:  Fielder Cook)


A drama-comedy whose comedic overtones get stronger toward the end, with a large and excellent cast.   It was the final film for both character actor Charles Bickford and Chester Conklin, a comedian from the silent era. 

The annual big card game is taking place in the back room of a saloon-hotel in Black Rock, presumably in Texas.  The players are wealthy local cattle barons and merchants—Jason Robards, Kevin McCarthy, Charles Bickford, Robert Middleton and John Qualen.  Into town arrives a small family on their way to San Antonio:  A father, Meredith (Henry Fonda), a mother, Mary (Joanne Woodward), and a small son.  While they wait for a wagon wheel to be fixed, Meredith gravitates toward the poker game, which Mary insists he avoid.  Gradually he is drawn in by the lawyer Otto (Kevin McCarthy), converting their savings into poker chips. 


As the movie slowly builds, Meredith loses all of his savings until he gets what he excitedly claims is a big hand, but everybody else seems to feel the same about their own hands and he needs at least $500 more to stay in the game.  He sweats as the tension builds, he keels over of an apparent heart attack, and he is taken to the house of the doctor (Burgess Meredith).  Out of desperation, Mary takes over the hand, although she seems to have little idea of how to play it or even how to play poker, for that matter.  Eventually she goes across the street to the bank, trying to persuade the banker P.L. Barrington (Paul Ford) to lend her the $500 to stay in the game.  For collateral, she shows him the great hand.  He tosses them all out, but eventually joins them at the game and bankrolls her. 


[Spoilers follow.]  Overcome by the tension, one by one the regulars fold, and Mary wins without ever having to show them her hand.  They are dazzled by her rectitude as a “good woman.”  Turns out it was all a con set up by Barrington, who was cheated by the same group 16 years previously.  Fonda emerges after the con as lively as ever, and the movie ends with Fonda, Mary (whose real name is Rosie) and several others in a new cutthroat card game.  The film builds slowly, but it works well as a character study with excellent actors. 

The big card game is one of the long-time elements of western movies, featured most prominently in recent years in Maverick (1994).  One of the reasons it works well here is that we’re used to seeing Fonda as a lead in westerns, and when he keels over in the middle of the movie, it becomes much less predictable.  Joanne Woodward (Mrs. Paul Newman) was an excellent actress, winning an Oscar for Best Actress in 1957 for The Three Faces of Eve.  Of the remaining group of character actors assembled for this film, Jason Robards and Paul Ford are the strongest.

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Wagon Master

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 17, 2013

Wagon Master—Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Jane Darwell, Alan Mowbray, Charles Kemper, James Arness, Francis Ford, Hank Worden, Jim Thorpe (1950; Dir:  John Ford)


The title of this movie is sometimes written in one word, but in the movie titles it’s two.  Even lesser John Ford westerns, like this and 3 Godfathers, are better than average westerns.  This one, although well cast, is lacking in star power, with leads going to actors who usually played supporting roles in Ford’s westerns.  It is normally thought that the title refers to Ward Bond’s character, who went on to play the role of the wagon master in the television series Wagon Train before his death in 1960 at the age of 57.  But in the film Bond refers to Ben Johnson’s character as the wagon master.

Here Bond plays the role of Elder Wiggs, leader of a band of Mormons stranded in Crystal City, a town that doesn’t like them, as they try to make their way toward the San Juan River country, not too far from the Monument Valley and Moab locations where this was filmed.  Wiggs encounters the horse trading Blue brothers Travis (Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) who are familiar with the desolate country and hires them to guide the beleaguered Mormons. 


The Blue brothers and Elder Wiggs (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ward Bond).

The first problem encountered is a medicine show (or “hoochie-coochie show,” as Wiggs refers to it) wagon, also kicked out of Crystal City and now stranded in the desert when its team of mules took off.  They’re consoling themselves with Dr. A. Locksley Hall’s elixir.  Hall (Alan Mowbray, who played the alcoholic Shakespearean actor in Ford’s My Darling Clementine) and his troupe reluctantly join the Mormons, who with equal reluctance are willing to give them replacement stock and take them as far as the cutoff to California.  Travis is drawn to Denver (a woman with a past, and named after a city, like Dallas in Stagecoach), the most attractive of Hall’s entourage.  (John Ford’s older brother Francis plays Mr. Peachtree, a minor member of the Hall group.) 

The next problem is water, scarce in this dry part of the southwest.  Third, they encounter the Cleggs, a Deliverance-style band of related outlaws led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), wounded in their most recent holdup—in Crystal City, as it happens.  He needs medical attention and decides not to leave the train after he gets it.  The Cleggs’ willingness to resort to violence and gunplay seems to put them in charge, to the dismay of the non-violent Mormons.

WagonmasterCleggs Shiloh and Floyd Clegg.

Next up, Indian trouble:  they encounter what seem to be hostile Navajos, played by the actual Navajos Ford normally used as Apaches or Comanches in his Monument Valley epics—except for Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox, in his last film appearance.  However, the Navajos actually seem inclined to trust Mormons more than normal white men, and the two groups bond over a campfire dance.  Reese Clegg attacks a Navajo woman, and in order to prevent bloodshed Wiggs orders him whipped.

A posse from Crystal City, where the Cleggs robbed the bank and which evicted both Hall’s wagon and the Mormons, catches up with them, seeking the Cleggs.  The Cleggs won’t let Hall’s wagon leave at the appointed place, and it looks like the Mormons are in for it from the Cleggs as well.  They come to a place where the Mormons have to dig a track for their wagons, including their unwieldy wagon with seed grain needed for their colony on the San Juan.  Still resentful at Reese’s whipping, Uncle Shiloh is on the verge of making Wiggs take the seed grain wagon on the track at full speed, insuring both Wiggs’ death and the destruction of the Mormons’ vital seed grain.  But Sandy, attracted to one of the Mormon girls (Kathleen O’Malley), is slipped a gun by her younger brother and starts shooting.  His brother Travis grabs a gun from a downed Clegg and together the two of them finish off the nasty Cleggs.  Wiggs’ comment to Travis:  “I thought you said you never got involved in gunplay.”  “I said, only shootin’ snakes.”


The medicine wagon and a prominent occupant:  Joanne Dru as Denver.

As far as we know, Sandy ends up with Prudence and Travis with Denver, although Denver is rather uncooperative through most of the movie, even when Travis tempts her with the prospect of joining him at a ranch in a special valley he knows (reminiscent of Ringo’s pitch to Dallas in Stagecoach). 

Historically, the story seems grounded in the actual story of the Mormon pioneers’ grueling journey to the San Juan River country in far southeastern Utah.  A couple of times they sing “Come, Come Ye Saints,” the Mormon signature hymn, although there is also a rendition of the inevitable “Shall We Gather at the River.”  There’s some actual familiarity with Mormons behind all this, although there are stereotypical elements in the portrayal of the Mormons, too.

Bond and the young Johnson are excellent, as are Mowbray (with a whiff of W.C. Fields about him) and Kemper in lesser roles.  Ben Johnson, with his cowboy background, did his own stunts and was one of the best riders in westerns (along with perhaps Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott).  Carey is fine in a slighter role.  Joanne Dru (married to actor John Ireland at the time) here reminds one of her role in Red River, although that was directed by Howard Hawks; she’s good at playing an attractive semi-bad girl.  James Arness shows up in an early role as Floyd Clegg; Hank Worden is a mentally-impaired Clegg.  Charles Kemper is very good as the slimy Uncle Shiloh Clegg; he was killed in an automobile accident not too long after making the movie.  Jane Darwell is Sister Ledyard, who blows a horn to get attention or to get things moving.


Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) calls for attention.

The movie is short, at less than 90 minutes, but well put together.  It is one of the better wagon train westerns; it would make a good double feature with Westward the Women, from about the same time.  There’s a fair amount of music from the Sons of the Pioneers, as in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande.  This was made between those two cavalry movies.  Ford was clearly enamored of the singing group during this period, although they’re an element that hasn’t aged particularly well for the tastes of modern audiences.  There’s a strong strain of Fordian nostalgia here, as in many of his westerns.  Ford is said to have claimed this was his favorite of his movies, and it’s quite good, if more modest than some others.  In black and white.

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Hang ‘Em High

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 14, 2013

Hang ‘Em High—Clint Eastwood, Inger Stevens, Pat Hingle, Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, L.Q. Jones, Arlene Golonka, Alan Hale, Jr., Ben Johnson, James MacArthur, Dennis Hopper, Ned Romero, Bob Steele (1968; Dir:  Ted Post)


This grim western is a meditation (mixed with a lot of action) on justice and hanging, sort of like The Ox-Bow Incident with more action and less talk.  One injustice piles on another, with a faulty human justice system thrown into the mix. 

In Oklahoma Territory in 1889, former St. Louis lawman Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) has bought a herd of cattle, but they turn out to be stolen.  A posse catches up with him and blames him for the rustling and for the murder of the previous owner.  (To this point, in just a few minutes the plot is the same as that of The Ox-Bow Incident, without any of the ambivalence or remorse by some of the lynchers.)  They hang him and ride off; he is found by Marshal Dave Bliss (Ben Johnson) and cut down before he dies. 


Hauled off in a paddy wagon to Fort Grant, Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle) sets him free and makes him a federal marshal, one of only 19 for the entire Indian Territory.  Cooper then goes after those who hanged him.  On his first trip, he captures Stone (Alan Hale, Jr.), a blacksmith who was part of the group, and Miller (Bruce Dern), a drifter who has killed the owner of a herd of cattle and enlisted two boys to help him.  Miller is pretty loathsome and worthy of hanging, but the boys aren’t.  Fenton won’t listen to Cooper and they hang the boys anyway.  The sequence in which six men are hanged is lengthy and oppressive.

Three of those in the original posse, led by Capt. Wilson (Ed Begley) come to Fort Grant and ambush Cooper in a local brothel during the hanging.  He is nursed back to health by storekeeper Rachel Warren (the haunted Inger Stevens), who meets each new group of prisoners, looking for the men who killed her husband Paul and raped her.  (The unfortunate Stevens seems to have often played a woman who is raped, as here and in A Time for Killing.)  Cooper and Rachel take to each other, but Cooper still has to go after Capt. Wilson.  He kills two of the three remaining, and Wilson hangs himself.  Cooper then tries to resign, but Fenton talks him into remaining as the price for releasing an old and dying prisoner.  At the end of the film, Cooper rides off on yet another mission for the judge.  We don’t know if he and Rachel ever do get together.


The movie clearly doesn’t much like hanging, but there are no unmitigated good guys, either—not even Eastwood’s character.  The music, by Dominic Frontiere, is obviously influenced by Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone.  The titles are in lurid red, as was in fashion in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  This was filmed in New Mexico, and some of the territory (the white sand desert, for example) doesn’t look much like Oklahoma. 

This was Eastwood’s first western after his appearance in Sergio Leone’s very successful trilogy, and it offers the appearances of several themes that would continue through Eastwood’s career:  The lawman who has issues with authority (Dirty Harry); the mysterious gunman who comes back from the dead (High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider); and delivering prisoners against great odds (Coogan’s Bluff, Joe Kidd, The Gauntlet).  The lovely Inger Stevens appeared in several westerns about this time:  A Time for Killing, Firecreek, Five Card Stud.


The principal cast:  Stevens, Eastwood, Hingle, Begley and Arlene Golonka.

There are a number of throw-away roles by well-known actors here:  Ben Johnson as the marshal who cuts down Cooper and takes him to Fort Grant; a young Dennis Hopper as a crazed “prophet” killed by Marshal Dave Bliss when he tries to escape; James MacArthur as a preacher during the mass hanging; Ned Romero as Charley Blackfoot, an Indian member of the party that hanged Cooper initially; Bob Steele as another member of the hanging party in one of his last film roles.  Pat Hingle is particularly effective as Judge Fenton, obviously based on Isaac Parker, the hanging judge at Fort Smith, Arkansas.  The appalling conditions under which prisoners are held at Fort Grant in this movie are apparently a fairly accurate representation of the prison at Fort Smith.  This was the first film produced by Malpaso, Eastwood’s production company.  Director Ted Post, who also did the second Dirty Harry movie with Eastwood, spent most of his career in television.

For another good western about a man who survives an unfair lynching and seeks revenge, see Dana Andrews (previously successfully lynched in The Ox-Bow Incident) digging up the past in Three Hours to Kill (1954).

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Cimarron (1931)

Nicholas Chennault ~

Cimarron—Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Edna May Oliver, Estelle Taylor (1931; Dir:  Wesley Ruggles, uncredited)


The first western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or any Academy Award, for that matter), and the last for 60 years until 1990’s Dances With Wolves.  By modern standards, this epic based on Edna Ferber’s 1929 best-seller seems dated:  the quality of the sound in the early days of talkies was not great; long-haired leading man Richard Dix, playing Yancey Cravat, has the looks and dramatic style of an earlier sort of matinee idol (reminiscent of Francis X. Bushman); and the existing print (as shown on TCM, which has pretty high standards generally) is not in great shape.  The racial attitudes may make modern audiences cringe, but if you watch carefully, you realize that is one of the points the movie is making.  So its social attitudes would be progressive for its time. Irene Dunne, in one of her earlier starring roles (just her second movie, in fact) as Yancey’s wife Sabra, is quite watchable still.  Edna May Oliver is Mrs. Tracy Wyatt, embodying prissy attitudes of the more respectable parts of the community in quasi-comic form.  She’s the most memorable of the supporting cast, just as she was in Drums Along the Mohawk..

cimarronDunneDix Irene Dunne, Richard Dix

Handsome lawyer-newspaper editor Yancey Cravat is afflicted with wanderlust, which takes him away from his young family in Wichita to become one of the Oklahoma Sooners in the land rush of 1889.  He has some kind of mysterious background on the range, and is good with guns, of which he wears two.  His friends include the outlaws led by the Kid (William Collier, Jr.).  When he loses out on the quarter-section of land he wanted due to the good-natured trickery of a lady of easy virtue, he returns to Wichita and brings his wife Sabra and four-year-old son Cim to the new town of Osage, Oklahoma, where he becomes a community leader by his guns and his newspaper. 

cimarronRush1889: The Land Rush is on!

In Osage he shoots it out with undesirables, including Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) and eventually with the Kid and his gang.  He advocates and embodies progressive social attitudes, befriending a Jewish peddler and Dixie Lee (played by Estelle Taylor, Jack Dempsey’s former wife), the young woman with a lurid past who beat him to the land he wanted.  Just as his family is becoming prosperous in 1893, Yancey disappears to join yet another land rush to the new Cherokee Strip farther west, and his family doesn’t hear from him for five years.  Sabra runs the newspaper he founded, the Oklahoma Wigwam (cringe again), and does well. 

Yancey reappears in 1898 in the uniform of a Rough Rider, just in time to defend Dixie Lee in court from charges brought by, among others, Sabra.  Dixie Lee is acquitted.  Yancey stays until statehood and has dreams of running for governor when Oklahoma reaches statehood in 1907, which are scotched when he publishes an editorial advocating rights for Indians.  When Cim wants to marry an Osage Indian, Sabra is horrified but Yancey sides with Cim. 

cimarronDix Dominating the meeting.

He soon disappears again, more or less for good this time.  Sabra hears rumors of him being spotted in the fighting in World War I at Chateau Thierry, although he would have been close to 60 at the time.  She keeps his name on the masthead as editor and publisher, and time vindicates many of his social stands.  Sabra prospers on her own and in 1929 is herself elected to Congress.  After a party celebrating her new status, she is touring a new oil field when an accident to an old worker (Ol’ Yance, he’s called) leaves him dying in the mud.  It is indeed a bearded Yancey, and it’s not clear why he never came home again even though it seems like Sabra would have welcomed him.  He dies in her arms.  The movie ends with that, and she presumably goes off to Congress.

Yes, it now seems old-fashioned, both the story and the manner of its presentation.  But it’s still a good story and is quite watchable, although seldom seen these days.  It’s long for its time, at more than two hours (131 minutes, to be exact).  Spanning more than 40 years, it gives its actors the opportunity to play their characters at different ages.  Dunne does it best, partly because Yancey isn’t around to age much.  Irene Dunne received a Best Actress nomination for her work here, the first of five nominations for her.  Cimarron was remade in color almost 30 years later with Glenn Ford and Maria Schell in the principal roles; the remake doesn’t work quite as well as this original.  Some of the Oklahoma land rush story was told again in Ron Howard’s Far and Away of 1992.


Supposedly the Yancey character is based on Sam Houston’s gun-toting lawyer son Temple Houston.  One of the extras was Nino Cochise, a grandson of the famous Apache chief, along with his friend Apache Bill Russell.  The land rush scene took a week to film, using 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers and 27 camera assistants.  The movie lost $565,000 on a budget of $1.433 million.  It was re-released in 1935 and the red ink mostly disappeared off RKO’s books.  In black and white, except for the posters–those are in vivid color.  The movie might be more than 80 years old now, but those are really great posters (see above).

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Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 13, 2013

Johnny Guitar—Joan Crawford, Sterlling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Paul Fix, Frank Ferguson  (1954; Dir:  Nicholas Ray)


An unusual cult favorite with a large cast, noir influences and bright colors; similar to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in having a big female star from Hollywood’s golden age in the lead and in the melodramatic noir sensibility, among other things.  More obviously an artifact from the time it was made than any attempt to re-create the 19th century west for its story, it’s nevertheless an interesting artifact.

Former saloon girl Vienna (Joan Crawford in her hard-edged mode, a veteran of 30 years in the movies at this point) has finally built up her own saloon in the wilds of Arizona, although local ranchers (Ward Bond as baron John McIvers) and business people (Mercedes McCambridge as banker-rancher Emma Small) see her place as a haven for outlaws and rustlers.  The railroad is coming through, which they think will bring in hordes of new settlers to take their land, and Vienna stands to make a lot of money then. 


Things come to a head when the local stage is robbed, Emma’s brother is killed in the holdup, and a tall, guitar-playing blond guy from Albuquerque shows up, apparently responding to a call from Vienna.  This is the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who initially spends his time fending off hostility both from McIvers and his group and from four apparent outlaw-miners, especially Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine).  McIvers gives Vienna and the four 24 hours to clear out; Vienna makes it clear she’s not going.  Johnny Guitar fights with Bart, and wins.  As he’s leaving, young gunman Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) shows off and Johnny Guitar grabs a gun and bests him.  It turns out his real name is Johnny Logan, and he and Vienna have a lot of history, although they haven’t seen each other in five years.  She instructs him to leave his guns in his saddlebag.


The four outlaw-miners include Bart, tubercular Corey (Royal Dano), Turkey and their leader the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a former paramour who now fancies Vienna more than she fancies him.  There are clearly a number of conflicts coming up.  The four aren’t yet real outlaws and didn’t rob the stage; they have a silver mine, but it’s played out now.  They decide that if they’re being chased out, they might as well rob the local bank (owned by Emma) before they go.

Vienna goes to the bank the next morning and withdraws all her money.  While she’s there, the four rob the bank, while Vienna tries unsuccessfully to talk them out of it.  McIver and Emma lead a vengeful posse in pursuit of the four, but Emma’s also convinced that Vienna had something to do with the robbery.  During the chase, the passes on the escape route are dynamited by railroad crews, and the four retreat to the Lair, their large house in a hidden, defensible position.  Turkey is hurt when his horse falls, and even more when his horse runs under a low-hanging branch and knocks him off.


Having lost the four, the posse comes to Vienna’s, which is closed.  Vienna is playing the piano in a white dress; Johnny Guitar is out of sight.  The posse finds the wounded Turkey hidden under a table, and McIvers and Emma promise him he won’t hang if he gives up Vienna as an accomplice.  Turkey cracks (Vienna tells him to save himself, so she’s kind of acquiescing although not taking responsibility for the lie), and he does it.  The posse proceeds to hang them both from a bridge anyway despite their promises.  At the last second Johnny Guitar cuts Vienna down, and they make a break for the Lair.  Vienna’s saloon is in flames.

Johnny-Guitar-HangingVienna Hanging Vienna.

The posse follows Turkey’s horse to the entrance to the Lair, and Emma convinces lookout Bart to turn on his compatriots.  He knifes Corey and Johnny shoots him as he’s trying to shoot the Kid in the back.  Emma wounds Vienna and the posse kills the Kid but refuses to go farther with Vienna.  The furious and implacable Emma then pushes Vienna into a shootout, which Vienna wins, and the posse slowly leaves.  Presumably Vienna and Johnny get back together on a long-term basis.  Maybe Vienna rebuilds her hard-won saloon.

Joan Crawford dominates the film with her character Vienna, who’s always working out what her various relationships will be.  Sterling Hayden is slightly flaky as her gunless gunman in a supporting role, although the movie is named after him.  He apparently didn’t get along well with Crawford during the filming.  Ward Bond’s McIvers has some scruples, but not enough.  Emma is said to be a one-time rival of Vienna for the Kid’s affections, but McCambridge is an implacably anti-Vienna wild woman for most of the movie, somewhat over the top in her performance.  Crawford and McCambridge did not get along well, either, and maybe that fueled some of the hostility.  McCambridge later admitted that she was battling alcoholism at the time as well.  Frank Ferguson as Marshal Williams, the voice of reason and restraint in the mob, John Carradine as Vienna’s caretaker, and Royal Dano as the consumptive, book-reading Corey are all particularly good.



Director Nicholas Ray was known for his noir work (In a Lonely Place and others) in the early 1950s, and that sensibility is present in this melodrama, along with bright Technicolor touches and Crawford’s fierce eyebrows and crimson lipstick.  Some see this as an allegory for the political McCarthyism then dominating Congress, with the posse’s mob mentality and its leaders’ mistaken judgment and misplaced hostilities.  Taken as a whole, this is enjoyable to watch, if a bit overwrought.  It seems torn between its desire to have the Vienna character be a strong, self-sufficient woman (she wears pants for most of the film) and the occasional nod to 1950s social mores.  The all-female shootout between Vienna and Emma is a hallmark in the history of westerns.  Peggy Lee wrote and sings the title song.

[Other films with a 1940s-50s take on lynching include The Ox-Bow Incident (obviously), The Moonlighter, Three Hours to Kill and this.  The first two even have a black peripheral character present at the lynching to make the point that they really want us to be thinking about the problem of lynching of blacks in the south.]


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Nicholas Chennault ~ December 12, 2013

Appaloosa—Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Hendrickson (2008; Dir:  Ed Harris)

[after a shoot-out]

Everett Hitch: That was quick.

Virgil Cole: Yeah, everybody could shoot.


Beautifully shot in New Mexico, with lots of sepia tones, period details and the appropriate amount of dust.  Excellent production design, with a lot of attention to detail.  The story doesn’t have a lot of depth, though, and many of the film’s weaknesses seem to come from the underlying material, a novel by Robert Parker. 

Partners Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), of whom Cole is the dominant partner, come to the town of Appaloosa at the invitation of the town fathers to deal with local rancher/rustler/gang leader Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his numerous thugs.  Villain Bragg seems tubercular and just unnecessarily nasty.  Harris’s supposed principal character Virgil Cole needs more development, although his reading of Emerson and attempts to develop a larger vocabulary are good touches.  Irons and Harris seem too old, although western villains are frequently older (e.g., Michael Gambon in Open Range, Brian Dennehy in Silverado, and Gene Hackman in Unforgiven), and John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper certainly weren’t young in some of their greatest westerns.  That seems to indicate that Harris, or maybe just the way his part is written, doesn’t have the moral or dramatic heft to make his character more compelling or believable.


Cole develops a relationship with Allison French (Renee Zellweger), who moves in with him.  After a few exchanges, Hitch suspects that her allegiance to Cole is not as firm as it could be.  Cole and Hitch succeed in taking Bragg prisoner and transport him for trial, but he escapes from the train.  His hired escape consultants, the Shelton brothers (Lance Henricksen and Adam Nelson) also take Allison.  Cole and Hitch follow, meeting the Shelton brothers in a prototypical shootout.  After recuperating from their injuries, they return to Appaloosa, where Bragg is in charge again and Allie is with him.  Hitch finds a way to resolve matters in a straightforward way that Cole couldn’t use.


Zellweger doesn’t work very well as a woman of quickly shifting allegiances; she doesn’t have nearly enough depth or interest.  It might have been that any good-looking woman would instantly attract all males in the Old West, but it doesn’t just work that way on film.  Mortensen is the strongest character and best actor in this film.  Cole is central for a while, but fades after the shootout.  Mortensen’s haircut and facial hair seem unusually authentic, and one wonders how he manages to carry that heavy-looking shotgun (they say it’s an 8-gauge) through the entire film.  The town fathers are a good group of character actors, especially Timothy Spall and James Gammon, although Gammon isn’t given nearly enough to do.


The plot begs for comparison with Rio Bravo, and comes up significantly short.  It also has similarities to 1959’s WarlockPerhaps a more experienced or more Hawksian director would have done better with the film’s pacing, could have gotten a better performance out of Zellweger, done better with the supposed male bonding and given less deference to the source material.  Most of the characters except for Hitch (Mortensen) seem underdeveloped, and Hitch usually doesn’t seem quite central enough to the story.  There just isn’t enough real development here, and the ending feels like the story is only half told, or perhaps two-thirds at most.  Violence by itself isn’t enough to build a solid western on, if you don’t care more about the characters.

Big-budget, well-produced westerns are rare enough in 2008 that one wants to like any such creature.  But this one isn’t as good as its various elements suggest that it could be.  The most glaring weakness is in the writing.  However, it’s watchable enough to enjoy at least once, even if the lingering taste is not as satisfying as one would wish.  Directed by star Ed Harris.  Not to be confused with The Appaloosa (1966), with Marlon Brando and John Saxon.  Cole, Hitch and Allie show up in the continuing series of four Cole and Hitch novels by Parker.  For Mortensen in his only other western (and it takes place mostly in the Arabian deserts), see Hidalgo, which is engaging.  For Ed Harris in another western, see him in the made-for-television version of Riders of the Purple Sage.

AppaloosaHitch2 Hitch moves on.

Note:  In addition to the shotgun, Hitch wears his pistol on his left for a cross-draw, authentically enough.  In two set-piece gunfights, Cole and Hitch don’t play it for a quick draw, but approach the action with guns already drawn.  That’s probably more historically authentic than the classic face-off and draw, too.

Second Note:  The name of the town (and movie), Appaloosa, seems to be a historical anomaly.  It’s supposed to be in New Mexico in 1882, a time at which appaloosas were not well known anywhere but in Nez Perce home country.    They were a breed of horse developed by the Nez Perces of northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon, one of the very few tribes that practiced selective stock breeding.  In the wake of the Nez Perce war of 1878, the breed was all but exterminated anywhere until its revival in Idaho in the 1930s and 1940s.

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Day of the Outlaw

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 10, 2013

The Day of the Outlaw—Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louis, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Alan Marshall, Nehemiah Persoff, Elisha Cook, Jr. (1959; Dir:  Andre de Toth)


Apparently a low-budget, late black and white western filmed in 1959.  The cast features good actors (Robert Ryan, Burl Ives) who were not big stars.  A decade before The Wild Bunch, Ryan was already aging and craggy-faced. 

It is winter in the remote town of Bitters, Wyoming, where a range war is about to break out between recently-arrived farmers who want to fence the range and long-term stockmen who built the town.  Representing the stockmen is Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), who’s been conducting a year-long affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife of Hal Crane (Alan Marshall), a leader of the farmers.  Starrett makes the same arguments as Ryker, the long-time rancher in Shane, about having cleared the country of Indians, outlaws and gunfighters, only to have clueless easterners and farmers move in thinking to take advantage of his years of danger and work without making any contribution themselves.  This speech is one of the movie’s longest.  After watching Shane, we can see that Starrett seems to be on the losing side of history, and morally he’s in the wrong because of his affair with Helen Crane, who has decided (mostly) to stay with her husband.  The connection with Helen seems to fuel the animosity between Starrett and Crane, but there’d be enough reason for it even without that.

DayOutlawBaddies Bad guys show up.

After the movie’s extended set-up, Starrett is facing off with three farmers including Crane, when in comes an armed gang of outlaws and thugs led by former Union cavalry captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives).  They take over the small town and threaten everybody in it, especially the women.  Bruhn’s been wounded by the cavalry pursuing the gang and needs medical attention.  The outlaws are clearly a depraved bunch, barely held in check by their strong-willed captain (much like the Lee J. Cobb character in Man of the West, made about the same time).  The exception to this depravity may be young Gene (David Nelson), the gang’s newest recruit, who is not yet thoroughly corrupted and who is attracted to the youngest and blondest of the town’s four women (Venetia Stevenson).  There’s a tense scene where the women are forced to “dance” with the outlaws, with the threat of rape hanging over them.


Trying–unsuccessfully–to help the women escape.

The gang is still pursued by cavalry and eventually forces Starrett to guide them out of Bitters through the mountains and snow.  He reluctantly does it to protect the women of people he doesn’t like, and that’s his redemption as a moral character, because he thinks he’ll probably die on the trip along with the outlaws.  In the process Bruhn dies of his wounds and the rest of the gang die one by one by various means on the grueling trek, even though Starrett doesn’t have a gun to shoot it out with them.  The only survivors are Starrett himself and Gene, whom Starrett gives a job on his ranch.  His role in keeping Gene from turning bad is also redeeming.

Echoes of Shane come from the name Starrett (also the name of the farming family that takes in Shane), the conflict between stockmen and farmers, townsman Elisha Cook, Jr. (a farmer in Shane), and a not entirely believable fight scene in which the aging, seemingly none-too-robust Starrett defeats the brutish Tex (Jack Lambert) from Bruhn’s gang.  Since Bruhn can’t allow that result to stand, two of his other men finish off Starrett, with this brutality seen only at a distance. 


The leads Ryan and Ives are excellent and generally believable here; Starrett isn’t entirely good and Bruhn isn’t completely bad despite the scum he leads and his status as a military renegade.  There is a vague reference by Starrett to something Bruhn did during the Civil War, involving the Mormons in Utah.  For an unspoken and tenuous rapport between the bad guy and the good guy, compare this to Boetticher classics The Tall T and Seven Men from Now.  To the extent the cattlemen-farmer dispute is resolved, it seems to come out on the opposite side of Shane—i.e., Starrett mostly wins, but in this one he’s a cattleman.  He still doesn’t chase off the farmers, though.


A stark and adult western with some noir flavor, among the best and last work by one-eyed journeyman director Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Man in the Saddle, The Indian Fighter).  Usually he worked with bigger stars (Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas) and was not terribly imaginative.  The film has a good script by Philip Yordan.  In structure, the first 30 minutes is the set-up of the town, characters and local dispute; the second 30 minutes is the introduction of the gang and the contest of wills with Starrett and Bruhn; and the final 30 minutes is the grueling and fatal trip over the mountains.  This excellent western rises above the usual formulas, even though some of them seem in play here.  One of two westerns featuring the Nelson brothers in 1959; the other is Rio Bravo, with David’s brother Ricky in a prominent role.  For Burl Ives in a similar role, see him facing off against Charles Bickford in the epic The Big Country, probably his best-known western.

The excellent black-and-white cinematography is by Russell Harlan, who did Four Faces West, Red River, Ramrod, The Last Hunt (another wintry western), Rio Bravo and To Kill a MockingbirdFilmed in Mount Bachelor, Oregon.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Women’s Division

Nicholas Chennault ~

This is the seventh and final post on great performances in westerns, and this one deals only with performances by women.  There are far fewer of these than there are for male actors, for at least three reasons:  (1) The population of the American frontier as it developed tended to be heavily male.  It was a rough place for women, and there weren’t that many of them, comparatively.  (2) Partly for the same reason, westerns have mostly featured active male roles, with females more the object that males fought over, defended or reformed for.  Female roles tended to be passive.  (3) When westerns were made featuring women in more prominent or active roles, they often tended not to be very good or not to do well at the box office because they didn’t meet the expectations of the usual audience for a western. 

However, as one thinks back over westerns since 1939, a few female performances come to mind.  If we were giving lifetime achievement awards, special honors might go to Joanne Dru (Red River, Wagon Master, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and Katy Jurado (High Noon, Man from Del Rio, The Badlanders), both of whom show up in several westerns.  If you have suggestions about other performances that should be on the list, leave a comment.

John Wayne and Claire Trevor in

Dallas (Claire Trevor) and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) confront their pasts in Lordsburg.

Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach

At the time Stagecoach was released in 1939, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in an ensemble film.  She received higher billing and was paid more than fledgling star John Wayne.  She is the most memorable single figure in Stagecoach aside from Wayne.  Her surprisingly sweet bad girl Dallas (how could anybody object to a prostitute/dance hall girl this nice, even in 1939?) forms a relationship with Wayne that seems doomed from the start for a variety of reasons.  One of the tensions in the movie is how explicit she’s going to get with the Ringo Kid about her past, and how quickly he’ll run when she does—not that he seems like a great catch himself, given his own past.  As he puts it, “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society the same week.”  Trevor tended to show up in films noir in the 1940s, and her best-known role to modern audiences is in Key Largo, as Edward G. Robinson’s alcoholic moll.  She’s very good in that, too, and won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her performance.  Trevor and Wayne were paired three more times in films, but never as memorably as in Stagecoach.


Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy in Destry Rides Again

James Stewart in his first western as the eponymous Destry would not have been nearly as effective without the cosmopolitan saloon girl Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich, to play against.  She’s corrupt, she’s in cahoots with the sleazy, crooked saloon owner Kent (veteran screen heavy Brian Donlevy), she has cheated men out of their land, and she’s either testing or attracted to the apparently naïve Destry, new sheriff.  So the central conflict (aside from the usual and less interesting “Will Destry get the bad guys?”) is whether this will be a real attraction and, if so, how it will work out.  Ironically named (she’s obviously German, not French), she doesn’t really have much of a singing voice, but she delivers one of the most memorable musical numbers ever in a western in a cabaret style, with “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”  She doesn’t back off from a fight, and she’s the catalyst for the winning strategy in the final battle.  She’s the most interesting character in the film, and she played variations on this character in The Spoilers (1942) and in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952).  In two of these three films, her characters were so morally compromised that the only way to redeem them cinematically was to have her take a bullet for somebody else.


Gail Russell as Penelope Worth in Angel and the Badman

John Wayne is young-ish, handsome and charming in his first effort at both starring and producing.  But it’s the luminous Gail Russell who really makes the story work as Penelope Worth, a young Quaker woman from Pennsylvania, who quickly falls in love with and reforms Wayne’s quasi-outlaw Quirt Evans.  The story glosses over some not-entirely-believable points (Penny’s miraculous recovery, the marshal’s sudden unexpected appearance at the end), and the technical qualities of the sound and film aren’t what you’d hope for 1947 in many of the prints and DVD transfers now in circulation.  But the movie works and it’s delightful, mostly because we believe that Evans would fall in real love with such a warm and honest (and gorgeous) religious woman.  She’s good again in one of her last roles in another Wayne production, Seven Men from Now, with Randolph Scott, before her tragic early death at 36 from an alcohol-related heart attack.


Loretta Young as Rachel in Rachel and the Stranger

Loretta Young wasn’t in many westerns (this and 1945’s Along Came Jones), but when she was, she was in the center of them.  Not only does the title signal that the movie’s about her character, but how interesting or convincing the movie is depends mostly on her character.  Her supposed husband, played by William Holden, is mopey for most of the film.  But Rachel, as a bond servant sold to a husband she doesn’t know but goes with, is elegant and quietly reveals aspects of Rachel’s character and background as the movie goes along.  One can see why both William Holden and Robert Mitchum would want her by the end of this movie set on the colonial frontier.  Mitchum comes to that conclusion very quickly; it takes Holden most of the movie and an attack by hostile Shawnees to get there.

MayoColoradoTerr Reasoning with McQueen.

Virginia Mayo as Colorado Carson in Colorado Territory

She’s known mostly for her performances in films noir and gangster movies–think White Heat, with James Cagney.  Here Mayo brings a noir sensibility to Raoul Walsh’s remake of his classic High Sierra, this one set in 1870s Colorado Territory (presumably before it became a state in 1876).  As Colorado Carson, a half-Pueblo saloon girl from El Paso, she is immediately attracted to decent outlaw Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) although she is wanted by the sleazier members of his gang.  She spends most of the movie trying to persuade McQueen that she is more his kind than Dorothy Malone’s Julie Ann.  By the end of the movie, we agree with her, and so does McQueen.  The colorful Italian poster for the movie features her in the forefront, depicting a version of the movie’s final scene.  Physically, the role of a part-Indian wouldn’t seem to fit her light coloring and eyes, and initially the dark makeup is a little distracting.  But we soon forget that and believe her.  Her best other performance in a western is in Fort Dobbs, with Clint Walker.  See her also in Budd Boetticher’s Westbound, with Randolph Scott, and in The Tall Stranger, with Joel McCrea.


The ensemble in Westward the Women

This is the story of a wagon train of women headed for California in the 1850s to find husbands.  They have a variety of backstories, but they’re compelling as all this develops, led by Hope Emerson and Denise Darcel.  Darcel plays a Frenchwoman of dubious background who comes to be the romantic interest of the somewhat unwilling wagonmaster Robert Taylor.  Hope Emerson, at six feet two inches tall, plays a widow from a seafaring family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who takes on many of the most difficult tasks first–and inevitably ends up with a short husband.  The women are well-differentiated and seem to be generally courageous in varying ways and of authentic-seeming character.  Some of that is good directing and some of it is good editing, but what we know as we watch is that there are strong and interesting characters on the screen in this underappreciated film.  The DVD from Warner Brothers Archive features an interesting commentary by film historian Scott Eyman, who points out that many of the women in this film were not actresses first, but stuntwomen.


Joan Crawford as Vienna in Johnny Guitar

This strange Nicholas Ray western with noir overtones and bright colors has become a cult favorite in some circles.  Joan Crawford chews the scenery as only she knew how, as Vienna, an Arizona saloon owner at odds with neighboring cattlemen and especially with an obsessive Mercedes McCambridge, local rancher and banker.  She’s constantly dealing with undefined relationships and past relationships that aren’t past, as well as lynch mobs, sympathetic outlaws and Sterling Hayden, the Johnny Guitar of the title—a conflicted and curiously passive gunman.  In addition to the near-surreal direction, the climax of this movie features an all-female gunfight between Crawford and McCambridge.  Crawford can easily seem overbearing in some roles, but that approach works to make Vienna interesting in this film.  She’s strong, independent and doesn’t back down from bankers, mobs, gunmen or outlaws.  The problem here is in finding a male in the movie to match with her.  By more than one account, she did not get on well with co-stars Hayden and McCambridge or director Ray, and generally despised the movie.  This film might make an interesting double feature with Rancho Notorious featuring Marlene Dietrich, a couple of entries in the movie-queens-as-cattle-queens trend of the 1950s.  Maybe you’re not allowed to do that without Barbara Stanwyck in the mix somewhere.


Angie Dickinson as Feathers in Rio Bravo

Feathers is a typically Hawksian female, assertive and inclined to be frank about what she wants.  She’s a female gambler and former dance hall girl with attitude.  Compare Angie Dickinson in this movie with the Lauren Bacall character in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, for example.  Both of them are very young women interested in men substantially older than they who are capable but for the moment beleaguered by the situation in which they find themselves.  The female dialogue sounds very similar (some screenwriters were the same), but it works–and the performances work–in both cases.  Angie Dickinson puts her own twist on the dialogue and has more vulnerability than Bacall showed, once embattled Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) gets past her outer shell. 



Joan Hackett as Prudy Perkins in Support Your Local Sheriff and as Catherine Allen in Will Penny

These two roles couldn’t be more different.  Prudy Perkins is the feisty, opinionated, accident-prone daughter of the local mayor who develops a romantic relationship with new sheriff Jason McCullough (James Garner) after McCullough keeps catching her in personally embarrassing situations in the successful western comedy-satire Support Your Local Sheriff.  And Catherine Allen is a young widow with a son, stranded on their way to Oregon.  She quietly forms a relationship with seasoned cowhand Will Penny (Charlton Heston) when the three of them are caught in a remote line cabin during the winter.  The question is whether, after a lifetime of independence and with fading career prospects as the western frontier closes down, Will Penny can step up to such a relationship and its responsibilities.  Hackett’s Catherine Allen makes the notion very appealing.  The success of the film depends on her performance and that of Charlton Heston as Will Penny, and they are both good.  (Heston could have been on the great performances list for this movie, too.)  After these two successes, one would think that Hackett’s career would take off, but she went mostly into television work and died at 53.  She was said to be a demanding perfectionist with strong political, environmental, social activist and other opinions who was not always easy to work with.  From the evidence of these two films, she was also a very good actress.


Rosalind Chao as Lalu/China Polly in A Thousand Pieces of Gold

A Thousand Pieces of Gold is an atypical western in that (a) it focuses primarily on the development of a male-female relationship and (b) the principal character is a Chinese woman in the American west.  It succeeds on both counts, in large part because Rosalind Chao is both convincing and interesting as Lalu/China Polly.  This was a small movie that has not been available on DVD, so it is not well-known or frequently seen these days.  Sold by her family in China, Polly quietly forges her own way as the center of the movie, as men with varying agendas try to take her over.  She forcibly causes Hong King (David Paul Hong) to reconsider his plan to make her a prostitute in his saloon.  She resists Charlie Bemis’s entreaties to stay with him because she plans to return to China.  China Polly and Charlie Bemis were an historical couple in Idaho, and this is an excellent telling of their story.  And it works mostly because of the depth and attractiveness of Chao in the central role.

missing-blanchett Wearing Clint Eastwood’s hat.

Cate Blanchett as Magdalena (Maggie) Gilkeson in The Missing

Australian actress Cate Blanchett seems to be Meryl Streep’s successor as the premier actress of her time, and this is her only western (so far).  She’s very good as a local New Mexico healer, estranged daughter of Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), and mother of an abducted daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).  Ostensibly, the movie’s plot is about recovering the daughter taken by renegades, but an equal part of the interest is in watching her work out and recover her relationship with her long absent father.  She’s strong, independent, capable in many ways (although not as good with wilderness or Apaches as her father), and kind of a symbol of traditional Christianity against the animism her father has adopted.  She fights, learns to relate to Indians herself, saves herself and her children, and is generally admirable.  It’s a layered performance by an intelligent and versatile actress, and she’s well worth watching here.  Jenna Wood, playing her younger daughter Dot, is also very good in this film, as is Tommy Lee Jones.


Annette Bening as Sue Barlow in Open Range

Always a capable actress, Annette Bening hasn’t been in many movies of any kind over the last twenty years, let alone westerns.  Her character is not one of the principals in this range war saga—hers is a supporting role.  But her performance as the doctor’s spinster sister Sue in the town of Harmonville and her reticent, mature romance with cowboy/gunman Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) give the movie an unusual depth and re-watchability.  She conveys intelligence, self-reliance, resolve, independence and a quiet charm in the role.  It is not just Waite who is taken with her; his older partner Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) clearly thinks she’s a very good catch for Waite and refers to her as “the brains of the outfit.”  


Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit

Reprising a role played by the forthright Kim Darby in 1969, Steinfeld as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross plays an Arkansas girl who hires rough marshal Rooster Cogburn to join her on a manhunt into the Indian Territory in search of her father’s killer.  A third member of their party is a dandy-ish Texas Ranger, and the relationships between the three of them provide much of the interest for the film.  In her first movie role, Hailee Steinfeld had to be able to show youth (that was the easy part), determination, independence and, yes, grit, and do it convincingly using period language.  She could easily have become irritating if her performance was not carefully modulated.  In addition, she had to hold her own with two excellent actors, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.  She does all of that well, more persuasively than Darby did for many—and Darby wasn’t bad.  Watch them both and draw your own conclusions.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun


Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.


Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.


Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.


Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.


  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.


  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.


Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.


Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.


Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.


Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.


Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.  He’s also excellent as the ex-con older brother to Chris Pine in modern Texas in Hell or High Water.

jeff bridges, tg

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.


Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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