Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Bravados

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 28, 2014

The Bravados—Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, Lee Van Cleef, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Andrew Duggan (1958; Dir:  Henry King)

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A revenge/manhunt story.  Gregory Peck is Arizona rancher Jim Douglass, who has spent the last six months tracking down four miscreants (as he puts it, “two white men, a half-breed and an Indian”).  Now they have been caught while robbing a bank in the small town of Rio Arriba and are to hang.  Douglass, who has been hunting them for raping and killing his young wife while robbing his isolated ranch, comes to witness the hanging. 

One of the two white men, the leader Bill Zachary (Stephen Boyd), admits to having a weakness for women; the other, Ed Taylor (Albert Salmi), is a backshooter with a fondness for cards.  The halfbreed is Alfonso Parral (played by Lee Van Cleef), and the Mexican Indian Lujan is played by Henry Silva.  They’re all good in these roles, playing bad guys. 

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In Rio Arriba, Douglass encounters Josefa Velarde (a young Joan Collins) whom he had earlier met in New Orleans and had asked to marry him.  She’d turned him down and now regrets that decision.  The hangman, Mr. Sims (future stooge—of the Three Stooges–Joe DeRita), turns out to be a fake and a confederate of the four outlaws.  He is killed in helping them to escape, and he almost kills the sheriff.  The escapees also take along as a hostage the daughter of Steinmetz, the Jewish general store owner. 

Douglass joins the posse, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s the best manhunter among them.  Initially, the outlaws leave behind one of their number to hold a pass and slow down the posse.  He rejoins them, and now that they’ve identified Douglass as a particular threat, they leave Parral behind to ambush Douglass.  It works the other way around and Douglas ruthlessly kills the halfbreed, although the death isn’t shown.  Next it’s Taylor who’s left behind to get Douglass, but that doesn’t work any better and Douglass captures and kills him, too.

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Douglass, reconstituting his family, but with Joan Collins’ Josefa Velarde this time.

Meanwhile Zachary and Lujan with their captive Emma Steinmetz (Kathleen Gallant) have arrived at the cabin of a prospector, John Butler (Gene Evans), only four miles from Douglass’ ranch.  While there, Zachary kills Butler, Lujan grabs a leather bag of money from him, and Zachary rapes Emma.  As the posse (now including Josefa) closes in, they find Butler’s body and the sobbing Emma in the cabin. 

Urged on by Josefa, Douglass’ determination is renewed.  The two remaining outlaws have stopped at Douglass’ ranch and taken the last fresh horses.  The posse comes to the Rio Grande and has to stop there, except for Douglass.  Crossing into Mexico, he finds Zachary at a cantina in San Cristóbal and shoots it out with him, killing him and just missing Lujan, who flees on horseback.  Douglass tracks Lujan to the remote cabin where he lives with his wife and sick son.  There Douglass sees the leather sack with the loot and recognizes it as what was robbed from his ranch months ago.  Since Lujan took it from Butler, it’s now obvious that Butler raped and killed Douglass’ wife, not the four outlaws he’s been tracking for months and has mostly killed.  Back in Rio Arriba, he’s hailed as a hero but he seeks comfort and perhaps absolution from the Catholic priest, played by Andrew Duggan.  And he finally gets together with Josefa.

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The plot has some similarities with John Ford’s The Searchers:  a relentless, even obsessive, hunt for killers, with the focus on the effects of the hunt for revenge on the hunter.  What will be left of him when the hunt is done?  The story is a grim one.  Peck is fine as Douglass, the outlaws are persuasively rotten and most of the townspeople of good in their roles.  Young British Joan Collins’ acting skills are limited, especially in her passionate speech when she finds the violated Emma and urges Douglas to kill them all, and her accent is slippery.  In color, highly watchable, with Leon Shamroy as cinematographer.  Shot on location in Mexico   Music by Alfred Newman.  Based on a story by Frank Rourke.

Henry King had been directing movies for a long time, since 1915 in the early silent era.  He’d already been an actor-director for ten years when he made The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky–and the first notable movie for bit player Gary Cooper.  And he’d directed Gregory Peck in one of his previous best westerns, The Gunfighter (1950).

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The Outsider

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 27, 2014

The Outsider—Tim Daly, Naomi Watts, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Thomas Curtis, John Noble (Made for Television, 2002; Dir:  Randa Haines)

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This slow-moving relationship drama is set in Montana, a variation on a theme of Angel and the Badman from 1947.  Good acting power is in evidence, though; Tim Daly is convincing as gunman Johnny Gault, and Naomi Watts (before she really became a big star) is even better as young widow Rebecca Yoder of the Plain People, who takes in the badly wounded Gault and nurses him back to health. 

Based on a romance novel by Penelope Williamson, this is one of the few westerns directed by a woman, and it’s better than you’d expect.  (The reduced expectations are because of the nature of the source material, not because the director is a woman.)  As usual, there are three conflicts going on in this plot:  the clash/attraction between Gault and Yoder as man and woman, the clash between the worldly Gault and the Mennonite-like Plain People, and the clash between Gault and those who’d oppress both him and the Plain People with violence.  In only one of these conflicts might Gault’s talents with violence prove helpful, and even then numbers favor the bad guys (although a relatively low budget may have kept down the number of them who appear on film).  

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The gunman takes the young widow and her son to church.

Not only are the Plain People religiously separate, they raise sheep in cattle country.  Rebecca’s husband was killed by the real bad guys, who wanted (and still want) her land.  The real bad guys are the usual collection of local banker-cattle baron (John Noble) and his hired gunmen.  Keith Carradine is one of the Plain People, presumably romantically interested in Rebecca; his real brother David Carradine plays the sympathetic local doctor.  Thomas Curtis is good as Benjo Yoder, Rebecca’s young son.  An interesting touch is the music, based mostly on Norwegian folk songs, although the film sometimes seems self-consciously arty in its use of both music and images. It seems to take a long time getting to dealing with the conflicts.

There are the usual scenes of the wary gunman trying with very limited success to mesh with the religious community for the sake of the young widow.  There is the sizing up by others in her community who are trying to assess both Gault and the nature of the relationship that’s apparently in formation.  There is the developing relationship between the gunman and the traumatized young son of the beautiful widow.  And there is the resistance by both the gunman and the widow to the attraction they’re feeling to each other, along with questions about how much each will have to accommodate the other’s beliefs and ways of life if they do go ahead.

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This version of the story isn’t as sympathetic to religion and the strength of community as Angel and the Badman, and it ends with Rebecca leaving the Plain People when she marries Gault, although Gault appears to make some accommodations, too.  Of course, the religious community here projects a little more paranoia and pressure toward conformity, and fewer warm fuzzies than the Quakers in the John Wayne movie.  Although music isn’t allowed outside of church, Rebecca hears “the music of the earth,” signaling that maybe the Plain People aren’t her real destination anyway. 

The story of a gunman entering a religious community with very different values is one of the oldest western stories, a variation on the Mysterious Stranger theme.  It was the basis of Zane Grey’s 1912 best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, where the violence wins because of the inherent dishonesty of the religious community.  (Check here for one of the more recent film versions of Purple Sage.)  This is much more like the 1947 John Wayne movie, where the validity of the religious community seems to be recognized, except that (a) the violence from the gunman is still necessary to resolve matters, and (b) the widow ultimately leaves the religious community instead of the gunman joining it.  Presumably there is still some kind of uneasy affiliation remaining there, rather than a shunning from the community, though.  At least the bad guys have been dealt with.  A non-western version of the story is 1985’s Witness, with Harrison Ford as a hard-boiled cop among the Amish in Pennsylvania.

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Leaving their respective religions: Rebecca Yoder (Naomi Watts) leaves the Plain People, and Johnny Gault (Timothy Daly) renounces his guns.

There are echoes of other westerns in this.  The gunman coming to know and appreciate both the widow and her son is much like the main story arc of Hondo.  And the cattle baron and his men trampling a gathering of the Plain People (while Gault rescues the young son of the widow) reminds us of a similar scene with the homesteaders in Shane.  The culminating shoot-out with the bad guys (and they are undeniably bad) is satisfying, except that Rebecca Yoder is accidentally shot and appears to be dying.  Gault symbolically places his pistol in the blacksmith forge, in a scene that reminds us of other gunmen’s similar renunciations:  Gary Cooper tossing his badge in the dirt in High Noon; Glenn Ford burying his guns at the end of The Fastest Gun Alive and The Last Challenge; and Randolph Scott giving up his guns at the end of A Lawless Street, for example.  And, most of all, John Wayne giving up his guns at an inopportune moment at the end of Angel and the Badman.

Timothy Daly is good enough in this that one regrets he had no other chances to make westerns.  In addition to a revolver, Gault also uses something that looks like a cut-down rifle, like the mare’s leg used by television’s ethical bounty hunter Josh Randall (played by Steve McQueen) in Wanted:  Dead or Alive in the late 1950s.  If the vegetation doesn’t entirely look like Montana, that’s because this was filmed in northeastern Australia.  They’re careful to keep eucalyptus trees out of it, though, and it’s not distracting.

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Dawn at Socorro

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 26, 2014

Dawn at Socorro–Rory Calhoun, Piper Laurie, David Brian, Alex Nicol, Edgar Buchanan, Lee Van Cleef, Mara Corday, Skip Homeier (1954; Dir:  George Sherman)

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This movie asks the question “What if Doc Holliday had been a nicer guy?”  The famously misanthropic gambler-gunman-dentist often steals a film of the Earp story, but here he’s less misanthropic—a world-weary former Confederate gambler from South Carolina with a reputation and a way with guns.  And he apparently likes to help innocent blondes instead of hanging out with big-nosed Hungarian prostitutes.

It starts with an Earp-esque framing story in 1871, ten years before the real Tombstone gunfight.  In Lordsburg, New Mexico, Marshal Harry McNair, his brother Vince and gambler-gunman Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun) take on the local Ferris clan, led by Old Man Ferris and including sons Tom, Earl (Lee Van Cleef) and Buddy (Skip Homeier).  As in Tombstone, the Ferrises lose, in part because their gunman-ally Jimmy Rapp (Alec Nicol) is dead drunk and unable to participate at the time of the shootout.

Having received a minor wound in the battle, Wade is now planning to go to Colorado Springs for his lungs.  A young woman is brought into Lordsburg by her religious-fanatic father and told she no longer has a family; she has to make her own way in the world with few options.  She is Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie), and Dick Braden (David Brian), owner of a crooked saloon in Socorro, pounces and offers her a job there as a saloon girl when she has nowhere else to go.

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Piper Laurie as Rannah Hayes in her saloon-girl phase; Alex Nicol as Jimmy Rapp.

The next day Wade, Jimmy Rapp and Rannah are on the same stage for Socorro, where Wade intends to catch the train.  Wade and Rannah talk, and he hears a bit of her story.  At a way station, Earl Ferris makes an attempt to ambush Wade, who grabs Rapp’s gun and kills Earl.

Once in Socorro, Wade manages not to catch the first train so he can keep an eye on Rannah.  Socorro Sheriff Cauthen (Edgar Buchanan) is nervous at the presence of the notorious gunman and orders him to take the next available train, at 6:30 the next morning.  Meanwhile, he plans to spend the entire night keeping an eye on Wade and Rapp.

Sheriff Cauthen:  “Let’s have your gun.”
Jimmy Rapp:  “I’m naked without it!”
Sheriff Cauthen:  “It’s all right. I won’t arrest you for being naked.”

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As Braden pushes Rannah farther into the life of a saloon girl, Wade tries without much success to get her to go the other way.  She is emotionally bruised by the treatment of her father, who claimed she was coming on to the ranch hands.  Wade’s old friend Letty (Mara Corday) works at Braden’s and has no illusions about where the life leads.  Wade has a very successful night at Braden’s craps table, winning more than $20,000.  Finally he and Braden agree to a poker game.  If Braden wins, he gets Wade’s craps winnings and keeps Rannah.  If Wade wins, Rannah leaves with him.  As 6 a.m. looms in the tense game, Wade loses and prepares to leave town.

Station Agent:  “Who’s coming after you?”
Brett Wade:  “My past.  Every dark, miserable day of it.”

Having won is not enough revenge for Braden, who offers Rapp $5,000 to kill Wade.  Wade wins that shootout, despite having to borrow a gun again.  And he takes out Braden as Braden prepares to shoot him without warning.  Wearily, he gives the sheriff back his gun and gets on the train.  As it pulls out of Socorro, Rannah takes the next seat and says she’s heading for Colorado Springs.

George Sherman was a lifelong director of B movies, and this one fits that description, too.  However, it’s a pretty decent B movie, one of Rory Calhoun’s better films.  Calhoun, whose real name was apparently Francis McCown and whose friends called him “Smoke,” was in 21 western movies and many television shows.  In A movies (The Spoilers, River of No Return), he was often a bad guy.  In B movies, he tended to be a good guy.  He was reasonably smooth and convincing at both.  He’s good here, but the movie really depends on Piper Laurie’s ability to be persuasive and engaging as naïve-but-sweet potential saloon-girl Rannah.  If we don’t care about her, we don’t care about the movie.  And she works well.  Even Edgar Buchanan is good in a different role than his usual alcoholic reprobate judge.  This may not be the most memorable western you’ll see this year, but it’s a pleasant way to spend 80 minutes.  In color, with a script by George Zuckerman.

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Dave Kehr characterizes it as “an audacious re-framing of the OK Corral story that imagines the Doc Holliday character (Rory Calhoun) surviving the shoot-out with the Clantons and trying to get out of the game, only to find himself in a town that exactly resembles the one he just left.  There’s some highly imaginative staging here:  a lot of the action takes place in a crowded saloon, where the main characters warily keep an eye on each other while nothing much happens, and there’s a stylized showdown at the end that makes use of some striking high-angle compositions that suggest Hitchcock more than Ford.”

For another 1950s variation on the Earp story using different names, try Forty Guns (1957), with Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck.

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Great Directors: Clint Eastwood

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 25, 2014

Clint Eastwood

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Many of the best directors of western movies were paired with a specific actor—one with whom they liked to work and with whom they did some of their best work.  For example, John Ford-John Wayne, Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott are well-known teams.  The best living director of westerns is Clint Eastwood, who is also similarly paired with the greatest star of western movies in the post-John Wayne era:  Clint Eastwood, the actor.  Neither of them has made a western in more than twenty years, and it appears increasingly unlikely that either of them will again, since they are in their 80s.

Clint Eastwood directed three of the 55 great westerns, and his star in all three was Clint Eastwood:  The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992).  Although he has appeared in many of the films he has directed, he has also received acclaim as a director for films in which he does not appear as an actor, such as Mystic River (2003) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), for which he received Academy Award nominations.  So we can assume that if he were so inclined and could find the right lead actor, he could do an excellent job on a western in which he himself did not star.

Clinton Eastwood Jr. was born in San Francisco, California, in 1930.  After a stint in the army at Fort Ord in the early 1950s, he was hired by Universal as an actor in 1954, although he had little experience.  He was criticized for his stiff manner, his squint, and for hissing his lines through his teeth, features that would become lifelong trademarks as an actor.  He had a number of mostly uncredited bit parts in movies and television before being cast in 1958 as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, an hour-long television series about cattle drives.

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Young Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide.

In 1963 he got the chance to work in Spain for the relatively unknown Italian director Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars.  He was to be paid $15,000 with a bonus of a Mercedes upon completion, for eleven weeks’ work.  “In Rawhide I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat.  The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody.  I decided it was time to be an anti-hero.”  That was his big break as an actor in movies.  It led to two more spaghetti westerns with Leone (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and international stardom in westerns.  He starred in Hang ‘Em High, Coogan’s Bluff for director Don Siegel and Where Eagles Dare, moving out of the strictly western star category and into action roles with the Dirty Harry movies, again with Siegel.  He continued to make westerns such as Two Mules for Sister Sara, but not exclusively.

In 1967 Eastwood formed Malpaso, his own production company.  In late 1970 he started directing his first film, Play Misty for Me, in which he starred with Jessica Walter.  It was well-received on its release the following year and established that Eastwood could direct and star in a film at the same time.  In 1973 he directed his first western, High Plains Drifter, involving a mysterious stranger in a brooding western town, themes that he would revisit in Pale Rider.  Eastwood released the first (and for many, still the favorite) of his great westerns in 1976, The Outlaw Josey Wales, although the western as a movie genre was waning.  It was one of Time’s “Top 10 Films of the Year.”  He continued his success as an action star, making five Dirty Harry movies in all (directing the fourth) and Escape from Alcatraz in 1979.

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Directing High Plains Drifter, 1973.

In the 1980s, he made films with western connections that were not traditional westerns, such as Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man.  And finally in 1985 he released Pale Rider, a variation of the Shane-Mysterious Stranger themes, which received a certain amount of critical acclaim and did well at the box office, too.  With various ups and down, Eastwood was in a quieter period of his career, until in 1992 he made and starred in Unforgiven from a script that had been kicking around Hollywood for a couple of decades.  It opened to his strongest critical reception yet.  In addition to making money, it won the Academy Awards for Best Picture (going to Eastwood, since he had produced) and for Best Director, firmly placing Eastwood in the top echelons of the directing profession.  It was to be his final western.

Eastwood has since won another Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award, this time for Million Dollar Baby (2004).  He was nominated again in both categories for Mystic River (2003), although he didn’t win.  In 2006 he released two films about the World War II battle for the island of Iwo Jima:  Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the second from the Japanese point of view.  They were both well-reviewed; if anything, the second had a stronger reception, being nominated both for Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards. 

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Directing Letters from Iwo Jima, 2006.

Known as a fan of jazz, Eastwood has increasingly provided the music for his films, having composed the film scores for Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Grace is Gone, Changeling, Hereafter, J. Edgar and the original piano compositions for In the Line of Fire. He wrote and performed the song heard over the credits of Gran Torino.

Eastwood continued his success as a director with Gran Torino (2009) and Invictus (2009), based on the story of the South African team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He dedicated Unforgiven “To Sergio and Don,” an apparent reference to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel as his mentors in directing.  Having now directed over 30 movies, he is one of the few successful actors to have enjoyed a similar level of achievement as a director.  Unlike such directors as George Stevens or William Wyler, he is known for his efficiency as a director, reducing the number of takes of scenes, streamlining filming time and bringing movies in under budget.  He works without the formality of storyboards (meaning that he does that work in his head before shooting), and without yelling “Action!” and “Cut,” which he thinks interrupts the actors’ processes.  Like Woody Allen, he is thought of as an “actor’s director,” meaning that he is very careful in casting his films and mostly lets his actors bring to their performances what he saw in them initially and whatever their imaginations may provide, with only the occasional suggestion.  Eastwood is fond of low-key lighting and back-lighting, which tend to give his movies a noir-ish feel.

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“Everybody wonders why I continue working at this stage.  I keep working because there’s always new stories. … And as long as people want me to tell them, I’ll be there doing them.”  (2010)  Nearing 84, he seems unlikely to come out with another western, but fans can always hope.  “Westerns.  A period gone by, the pioneer, the loner operating by himself, without benefit of society.  It usually has something to do with some sort of vengeance; he takes care of the vengeance himself, doesn’t call the police.  Like Robin Hood.  It’s the last masculine frontier.  Romantic myth, I guess, though it’s hard to think about anything romantic today.  In a Western you can think, Jesus, there was a time when man was alone, on horseback, out there where man hasn’t spoiled the land yet.”—Eastwood, on the allure of portraying western loners, quoted in Michael Munn’s Clint Eastwood: Hollywood’s Loner (1992).

The best biographical look at Eastwood and his work to date is probably by his friend, film critic and historian Richard Schickel, with his 1996 Clint Eastwood:  A Biography and Clint Eastwood:  A Retrospective (2010).  Obviously, the definitive work on Eastwood has yet to be written.

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Eastwood Essentials:  The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven.

Second-Rank Eastwood:  High Plains Drifter, Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man.

Eastwood Non-Western Essentials:  Play Misty for Me, Heartbreak Ridge, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, Invictus.

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The Deadly Companions

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 24, 2014

The Deadly Companions—Brian Keith, Maureen O’Hara, Chill Wills, Steve Cochran, Strother Martin (1961; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

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A low-budget revenge western, this is Sam Peckinpah’s first movie after an apprenticeship as a writer and director of television westerns.  Mostly it’s slow moving, with a minimal guitar score for music. 

Yellowleg (Brian Keith) was a Union soldier in Missouri during the Civil War.  A rebel sergeant tried to scalp him, and he’s been hunting for the rebel for the five years since the war ended.  He also has a rifle ball near his collar bone which impairs the functioning of his right (shooting) arm.  In the movie’s opening scene, he saves Turkey (Chill Wills) from being hung as a card cheat, and persuades Turkey and his gunslinger companion Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran) to join him in robbing the new bank in Gila City, Arizona Territory. 

Once in Gila City, they find another gang in the process of robbing the bank.  In the ensuing shootout, Yellowleg’s impaired arm causes him to accidentally shoot and kill the son of saloon girl Kit Tildon (Maureen O’Hara).  She feels rejected by the respectable elements of Gila City and is determined to bury her son next to his father in the ghost town of Siringo in Apache country.  As penance Yellowleg determines to help her and dragoons Turkey and Billy into joining him.  Kit understandably despises them all. 

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When Billy attacks Kit, Yellowleg drives him away, and Turk slips away, too.  Yellowleg is forced to steal a horse from the Apaches, and one of them starts hunting him, killing his horse.  Eventually Kit kills the Indian with a shotgun, and Kit and Yellowleg finish carrying the boy’s coffin to Siringo.  There Turk and Billy get the drop on them, now having robbed the bank in Gila City themselves.  Kit tries to talk Yellowleg out of taking his revenge on Turk, who is the rebel he’s been hunting.  Eventually, Turk and Billy shoot each other, and Yellowleg almost scalps Turk.  But he quits in disgust, just as the Gila posse shows up to take possession of the increasingly deranged Turk.  (Billy’s dead.)  Yellowleg and Kit complete the burial and ride off together. 

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Brian Keith was cast as the lead in this because of his success with Maureen O’Hara in The Parent Trap.  He had also starred in Peckinpah’s short-lived western television series The Westerner, and he used his influence to bring in Peckinpah as director.  Maureen O’Hara and her brother Charles Fitzsimons had a role in producing the film, and that’s O’Hara singing the film’s theme song over the opening and closing credits.  Peckinpah did not get on well with Fitzsimons, beginning his well-earned reputation for avoiding and clashing with producers.  Peckinpah at first thought that Fitzsimons was hiring him to do work on the script and arrived at their first meeting with pages of edits, only to be told that changes were not wanted.  The first-time director also tried to minimize some of the more obvious flaws of the script, such as the problem of carting a dead body for five days across a hot desert.  He said: “At least I kept off [the dead body] enough that we weren’t too conscious off it.  To do it realistically would, I suppose, have been a lot of fun.  You’d have buzzards flying all over them and wearing masks and so on.”

Similarly, Peckinpah was not allowed to participate in the film’s final edit.  The editing’s a little disjointed in places, and there are some strange camera angles.  Sometimes the action is hard to see in the dark, and the music seems cheap.  The plot takes a back seat to the development of the relationship between Yellowleg and Kit.  Strother Martin is the preacher in Gila City.  The violence here is more muted than would be the case in future Peckinpah westerns.  The movie is kind of slow and gloomy in tone.  Cinematography is by William Clothier.  In color. 

This is notable at all only because it was directed by Peckinpah.  Peckinpah’s second film, Ride the High Country, would be clearly superior in just about every respect—one of his two masterpieces, in fact.

Because producer Fitzsimons forgot to put a copyright notice on the film, it slipped into the public domain.  That’s the reason that, until recently, it was available only on a variety of awful DVDs.  As of May 2013, a new edition released by VCI Entertainment and produced by the archivist Cary Roan had the best picture quality and sound for this film yet seen on home video.  The picture is much better, but the sound still has a lot of hiss on the track.

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Ride With the Devil

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 22, 2014

Ride with the Devil—Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jewel Kilcher, Jim Caviezel, Zach Grenier, Tom Wilkinson, Margo Martindale, Mark Ruffalo (1999; Dir:  Ang Lee)

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“On the western frontier of Missouri, the American Civil War was fought not by armies, but by neighbors.  Informal gangs of local southern Bushwhackers fought a bloody and desperate guerrilla war against the occupying Union Army and pro-Union Jayhawkers.  Allegiance to either side was dangerous.  But it was more dangerous still to find oneself caught in the middle.”  [Title card]

Strictly speaking this is a Civil War movie, more than a western.  But it takes place on the frontiers of American civilization, on the Missouri-Kansas borders where the war took place less formally but perhaps more viciously than it did in the east.  This superb film has a large and excellent cast, and it plays on the humanity and diversity of the participants more than on doctrinal correctness of the Union or the moral corruption of the Confederacy and slavery.

Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is a German immigrant raised in Missouri.  The Germans are almost all Union sympathizers, and as war approaches Jacob’s father urges him to leave, principally for his own safety.  But when Jayhawkers (Kansas Union-sympathizing bushwhackers) attack the plantation farm of his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and kill Jack’s father, Jacob, often called Dutchie, is driven to join Confederate-sympathizing bushwhackers under Black John (Jim Caviezel).  A year later, they have become long-haired, red-shirted bushwhackers themselves, along with planter George Clyde (Simon Baker), his freed slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright), and nasty-tempered Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). 

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Bushwhackers:  Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker), Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright).

At one point they have captured four Union soldiers, including Alf Bowden (Mark Ruffalo), whom Jake knows.  He is instrumental in showing Alf mercy and getting him released to carry a message.  Pitt insists that Jake, who, unlike most of his compatriots is literate, read a captured Union letter, which turns out to be from a Wisconsin mother to her son in the army.  Most of the bushwhackers respond to the humanity of a mother’s concern for her son and the earthy issues related to farming in Wisconsin.  Jake is later told that Alf Bowden sought out Jake’s father and brutally killed him.

Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier), speaking of Lawrence, Kansas, and the abolitionists there :  “…My point is merely that they rounded every pup up into that schoolhouse because they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same free-thinkin’  way they do with no regard to station, custom, propriety.  And that is why they will win.  Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them.  And we shall lose because we don’t care one way or another how they live.  We just worry about ourselves.”

Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich):  “Are you sayin’, sir, that we fight for nothin’?”

Mr. Evans:  “Far from it, Mr. Chiles.  You fight for everything that we ever had, as did my son.  It’s just that… we don’t have it any more.”

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A few of the bushwhackers hide out for the winter in a dugout near the Evans place, and Jack Bull strikes up a relationship with Sue Lee, an Evans daughter who was married for only three weeks before being widowed.  One night the Federals attack the Evans home and kill Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier); while riding to offer what help they can, Jack Bull is wounded in the arm.  Gangrene sets in, he dies, and Jake and Holt deliver Sue Lee to the sympathetic household of Orton Brown and his wife (Tom Wilkinson and Margo Martindale).

The next summer all of the Confederate bushwhacker bands are united by the charismatic William Quantrill (John Ales) to attack Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolition and pro-Union sentiment.  In the notorious attack in August 1863, men are slaughtered indiscriminately, but Jake and Holt prevent Pitt from killing a family who is feeding them.  There are those (Pitt, Black John) who do not find Jake brutal enough; there are others, like George Clyde, who sympathize with him.  In the retreat, fending off Union soldiers, George Clyde is killed and Jake and Holt are wounded.  They make it to the Brown household to recuperate.

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Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers):  “Why, you little Dutch son of a bitch. You do what I tell you or I’ll kill you.”

Jake (Tobey Maguire) [pulls his gun a few inches from Pitt’s face]:  “And when do you figure to do this mean thing to me, Mackeson?  Is this very moment convenient for you?  It is for me.”

As they recuperate, Jake and Holt become aware that the Browns and others think Sue Lee’s baby Grace is Jake’s, rather than the product of a one-night stand between Jack Bull and Sue Lee.  Jake, who is resistant to the idea of marriage, is nevertheless pushed into marrying Sue Lee as the end of the war approaches.  At the age of 19, he has killed fifteen men but never made love to a woman.  He cuts his long hair (“Goodbye, bushwhacker curls,” he says) and shaves off his beard, symbolic of leaving the old life behind and taking on new responsibilities.  He thinks of taking Sue Lee and Grace to California; Holt thinks of going to Texas to look for his mother, who was sold there before the war.  And they hear stories that Pitt Mackeson has formed a group of former-bushwhacker outlaws who rob from and kill Union and Confederate sympathizers alike.

MSDRIWI EC021 Impromptu wedding.

As Jake and his family and Holt move toward western Missouri, they encounter Pitt and one of his men, and there is a tense standoff.  But Pitt moves on to the town of Newport, where a Union force is stationed.  The parting between Jake and Holt is drawn out, mostly wordless and very touching.

Tobey Maguire, Jeffery Wright and Simon Baker are particularly good in their roles as Jacob, Holt and George Clyde.  Skeet Ulrich, Jim Caviezel, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are also very good.  Zach Grenier, Tom Wilkinson and Margo Martindale are excellent in small parts.

In addition to the acting, the film is notable for (a) its superbly staged action sequences, including battle and raids, without resorting to slow motion; (b) attention to period detail in language and in production design, especially costumes and weaponry; and (c) brilliant and beautiful cinematography by Frederick Elmes.  The excellent screenplay is by John Schamus, a frequent Ang Lee collaborator, based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On.  Music is by Mychael Danna.  It was shot on location in Missouri and Kansas.

RideDevilRaid Raid on Lawrence.

It’s not a perfect film; it’s a bit long at 140 minutes.  (As of 2010, there is now a director’s cut that is ten minutes longer, available on a Criterion Collection DVD.)  While some find that it drags in places, others think the developing relationships when there is less overt action on the screen are fascinating.  The singer Jewel is adequate as Sue Lee, but a better actress could have turned in a stronger performance.  If you give it the time, the film communicates the pain of wounds treated under primitive conditions, for example, and the continuing discomforts of a life lived out of doors.  It’s rated R for graphic war violence. 

What makes this film unique in its story is not that it takes place among the Missouri bushwhackers, but that it carefully delineates their different personalities and motivations.  They don’t all believe the same way or in the same things, and they are not automatically despicable because they are Confederates.  Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), as a black man fighting for the south because of his devotion to the man who freed him, is fascinating, as is the relationship that develops between Jacob and Holt as the others they are close to are killed and each comes to understand and like some one who is very different from himself.  There are no scenes of men singing or whistling “Dixie” or praising Robert E. Lee or slavery.  There are those who find that it is insufficiently condemnatory of the South and slavery, but that’s not really the point of the movie.

RideDevilLee Director Ang Lee on location.

Hal Herring in Field & Stream particularly liked the accurate depiction of 1860s battle.  “The Missouri Border Wars were the historical highwater mark of handgun combat.  Rifles were single shots, shotguns could be fired at most twice, but a Colt 1851 carried six rounds, and with six Colts, carried in special holsters and configurations on the body, a man on a fast and steady war horse could inflict fantastic levels of damage on an enemy that planned to fight a conventional battle.  Ride with the Devil contains some of the best renditions of 1860’s era combat in any film.”

Philip French of The Guardian called this “a masterpiece that is also one of the finest films touching on the Civil War.”  He puts it as one of the ten best westerns ever made, but then he also includes Heaven’s Gate on that list.  It is likely one of the seven best Civil War movies (so far), along with:

  • The General (Buster Keaton’s semi-comic train chase silent movie from 1926);
  • Gone With the Wind (the war from the traditional southern point of view);
  • Glory (the war from the point of view of black Union soldiers and their commanders);
  • Gettysburg (one large-scale battle mostly from the point of view of the Union army, especially Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top);
  • Cold Mountain (the war on the North Carolina home front); and
  • Lincoln (the political war as it developed in Washington, D.C., toward the end).

If you were a film historian, you’d want to include D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 silent classic Birth of a Nation (made when the war was still within living memory) on the list, but it isn’t actually watched much these days, and its southern point of view is repugnant to many.  Ronald Reagan would have included Friendly Persuasion (Quakers in Indiana during the war); it was said to be his favorIte movie.  It is easy for more than a whiff of self-righteousness to creep into even a good movie about the Civil War these days (see, for example, Glory and Lincoln), but this underrated gem is free of it.

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Cowboy

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 21, 2014

Cowboy—Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Brian Donlevy, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Richard Jaeckel, Strother Martin (1958; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Tom Reese:  “And all that hogwash about horses!  The loyalty of the horse!  The intelligence of the horse!  The intelligence?  You know a horse has a brain just about the size of a walnut.  They’re mean, they’re treacherous and they’re stupid.  There isn’t a horse born that had enough sense to move away from a hot fire.  No sensible man loves a horse.  He tolerates the filthy animal only because riding is better than walking.”

This is a standard tenderfoot-and-cattle drive story with a good cast.  Hard-bitten Tom Reese (Glenn Ford, at the peak of his career as a leading man) is a cattleman who buys his cattle in Mexico (Guadalupe, on the trip in this movie), drives them north to Wichita to the railroad and then sells them in Chicago. 

CowboyMendozaReeseMendoza and Reese on the trail.

As the movie opens, Reese and his men are arriving at a luxurious Chicago hotel to spend a week or more enjoying the cash from the most recent sale.  Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon, just entering his period as a major leading man) is a night clerk at the hotel and harbors romantic notions of the cowboy life, in addition to an infatuation with the daughter of the major Mexican cattleman in Guadalupe.  In a hard night of gambling, Reese loses more money than he expected to and borrows Harris’ bankroll of $3800, agreeing to make Harris his partner in the next cattle drive.  The next morning when Reese tries to return the money, Harris is adamant that he wants to stick with the deal for partnership and has quit his job at the hotel.

There are the usual cattle drive episodes:  the stampede, snakes, raiding Comanches (meaning this had to be before 1876 or so, when Comanches were put on a reservation in Oklahoma), fights in bars, tenderfoot riding the wild bronc and such.  Harris is the tenderfoot in question, and he grows in both trail skills and responsibility, as he and Reese have a falling-out over how to handle the men, and Reese is badly wounded by the Comanches.  It turns out the young Mexican woman is now the wife in a marriage arranged by her parents, devastating Harris.  By the time they return to Chicago with the cattle, Reese and Harris have established a mutual respect and perhaps a continuing partnership. 

CowboyHarrisReese CowboyPoster4

The supporting actors here are good, particularly Brian Donlevy in one of his last screen roles.  Donlevy plays Doc Bender, an aging former marshal of Wichita and gunhand trying to figure out where he fits into the increasingly civilized west and what his connections are while he makes a few bucks as a cowboy.  Strother Martin and Richard Jaeckel are also good as trail hands, and Victor Manuel Mendoza as Mendoza, the segundo to Reese.  While Ford is a natural in westerns, Lemmon isn’t, although he’s fine in the tenderfoot role.

This film looks good, bigger than most of Daves’ work.  It seems short, at around 90 minutes, with the wrapup and re-establishment of the relationship between Reese and Harris particularly abrupt.  Worth watching but not as memorable as it may seem at first.  In color, shot in New Mexico.

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7th Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 20, 2014

Seventh Cavalry—Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Michael Pate (1956; Dir:  Joseph E. Lewis)

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The producer on the credits is Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott’s partner in Ranown, the production company that produced most of Budd Beotticher’s westerns with Randolph Scott.  And this appears to be a Scott-Brown production.

It’s not as good as the best Boetticher stuff.  This cavalry movie stars Scott as Captain Tom Benson, first seen approaching Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory with his fiancée Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale) to find nobody there.  The 7th Cavalry, which had been based there, has now been mostly destroyed by the Sioux-Cheyenne allies at the Little Bighorn, and the few survivors straggle in as Benson watches.  The survivors and others blame Benson for cowardice, not realizing or not believing that Custer ordered him to go get his bride.  That includes her father, General Kellogg, who never liked Benson anyway and is at Fort Lincoln conducting hearings on what happened.

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Benson (Randolph Scott) and fiancee (Barbara Hale) are distressed to find nobody holding the fort

Benson, a former gambler and faro dealer, was close friends with Custer and resists versions of the events that would impute bad judgment to Custer.  With his military career and his marriage in question now, Benson leads a detail of prisoners from the guardhouse on a mission to retrieve the bodies of the officers.  It’s dangerous because the Sioux hold the ground and now believe it to hold big medicine for them.  Benson has fights on his hands with a couple of his men, and insubordination from others.

They make it to the battlefield site and begin to collect remains.  The Sioux appear and make it clear that they do not intend for Custer’s remains to be taken, and they surround the small detail.  Cpl. Morrison (Harry Carey, Jr.) rides into Fort Lincoln and talks to Martha, telling her he was standing beside Custer when he ordered Benson to retrieve her instead of going to Little Bighorn.  He then rides out after Benson’s detail, riding Custer’s second horse, Dandy.

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Almost to the battlefield, Morrison is shot off his horse by an Indian.  Riderless, Dandy makes his way to Benson’s beleaguered body collection detail.  The bugler sounds charge, and Dandy charges in.  The Sioux recognize Custer’s horse and take that as a sign that the detail is to be allowed to depart.  Apparently Morrison’s news about Custer’s order has changed Gen. Kellogg’s view of Benson, and everything is fine now back at the fort.

This takes the old school view of Custer as a gallant soldier.  Within ten or fifteen years, the revisionist view of Custer as a foolhardy glory hound would be more common, fueled in part by disillusionment with the Vietnam-era military.  Randolph Scott is fine, with excellent military bearing, although he seems a bit old for Barbara Hale, since he was nearing 60.  She is also fine, although there is nothing remarkable in her part.  The movie is short, at around 75 minutes, which doesn’t give enough time to answer all the questions that arise in the course of the story.  Based on a short story by Glendon Swarthout.  In color.

7thCavalryWide

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Great Directors: Anthony Mann

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 19, 2014

Anthony Mann

AnthonyMann 

“He was less reckless than Sam Fuller, less passionate than Nicholas Ray, yet in the framework of the Western he hit on an almost perfect form with more consistency than either of his peers—and fueled it with pain.” – Tom Charity, The Rough Guide to Film, 2007.

Anthony Mann was born in 1906 in San Diego with the name Emil Anton Bundesmann, to an Austrian Catholic father and a Jewish Bavarian mother.  He was only 60 when he died of a heart attack in Berlin in 1967 while filming A Dandy in Aspic.

He started out as an actor, appearing in plays off Broadway in New York City, moving into directing.  Among many others he worked with the young James Stewart during the 1930s.  In 1938 he moved to Hollywood and joined the Selznick organization as a casting director and talent scout.  In 1942 he became an assistant director and moved into directing low-budget crime films for RKO and Republic.  During the 1940s he was known principally as a director of films noirs.

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Paula Raymond and Robert Taylor in Devil’s Doorway, 1950.

His first western was Devil’s Doorway in 1950, which showed both the social concerns and the interest in the psychological roots of action and violence that had marked his earlier work.  The noir sensibility had already been evident in such westerns by other directors as Yellow Sky and Blood on the Moon from the late 1940s, but it was strongly present in Mann’s work in westerns as well.  The same year he directed the family saga-range melodrama The Furies as well.  For Mann, westerns were his opening to becoming a front-rank director.  His westerns were commercially successful, and he became known as the father of the psychological western.  And James Stewart re-invigorated his career through his work with Mann and with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s.

His first major production was Winchester ’73 in 1950; he was recommended as a director by James Stewart, with whom he had worked in the 1930s.  The partnership was very successful.  In addition to the five westerns they made together in the early 1950s, they also made The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command.  Mann and Stewart are linked together in cinematic history as much as John Ford and John Wayne.  The two had a falling-out over Night Passage in 1957, Mann left the production, and the two never worked together again.  Mann was the initial director of Spartacus but left after disagreements with the star-producer Kirk Douglas, to be replaced by the more amenable Stanley Kubrick.

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Mann directing Walter Brennan and James Stewart in The Far Country, 1954.

Even without the collaboration with Stewart, Mann continued to make good westerns in the 1950s:  The Last Frontier with Victor Mature, The Tin Star with Anthony Perkins and Henry Fonda, and Man of the West with Gary Cooper.  About 1960, he increasingly moved toward historical epics, such as the remake of Cimarron, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire—a long way from the films noirs in which he made his initial reputation and the westerns with a psychological edge that made him a front-rank director.

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Mann directing Charlton Heston in El Cid, 1961.

In retrospect, his directorial career seems to divide neatly into three parts. “Though he incidentally directed films in various genres (the musical, the war movie, the spy drama), Anthony Mann’s career falls into three clearly marked phases:  the early period of low-budget, B-feature films noir; the central, most celebrated period of westerns, mostly with James Stewart; and his involvement in the epic (with Samuel Bronston as producer).   All three periods produced distinguished work, but it is the body of work from the middle period in which Mann’s achievement is most consistent and on which his reputation largely depends.” – Robin Wood, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991.

The best comprehensive look at Mann’s work is probably film historian Jeanine Basinger’s  Anthony Mann, initially written in the 1970s but updated and expanded in recent years (2007).

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Shooting Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West, 1958.

Mann Essentials:  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, The Tin Star, Man of the West.

Second-Rank Mann:  Devil’s Doorway, The Furies, The Last Frontier, Cimarron.

Mann Non-Western Essentials:  T-Men, Raw Deal, The Glenn Miller Story, Strategic Air Command, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

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Forty Guns

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 18, 2014

Forty Guns—Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Robert Dix, Hank Worden (1957; Dir:  Samuel Fuller)

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The forty guns referred to in the title are employees of the boss of the range, Jessica Drummond (Barbarbara Stanwyck) in Cochise County, Arizona, in this Earpian-cattle queen melodrama.  U.S. marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) comes to town with two of his brothers, with a warrant for one of those employees. 

Drummond has run things pretty much as she pleased, with her private army and the local sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) in her pocket.  Her wild younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) has a tendency to drink too much and to father illegitimate children, whose mothers Drummond then has to pay off.  The Bonnell brothers are bathing when Brockie and his friends shoot up the town, including shooting the elderly near-blind town marshal (Hank Worden).  After some entreaties, oldest brother Griff (Barry Sullivan) tackles Brockie and arrests him.  The corrupt sheriff then lets him go with no consequences.

40GunsJessica Getting the brother out of jail.

Griff serves his warrant at the Drummond ranch and meets Jessica.  She seems intrigued by him.  Bonnell brother Whit (Gene Barry) meets the local female gunsmith and is taken with her.  Griff keeps trying to send youngest brother Chico (Robert Dix) off to California, but he resists because he wants to join the family business.

The man Griff arrested is shot in jail, and Griff looks for the shooter.  He develops more of a relationship with Jessica, while Ned Logan sets up a trap for Griff with the supposed shooter as bait.  When Griff walks into the trap, Chico gets the shooter who would have shot Griff.  Brockie goes crazy, displaying the corpse of the shooter at the local undertaking establishment.  Griff and Jessica deepen their relationship while all this trouble also gets deeper.  She fires Sheriff Logan, who hangs himself in despair at being cut out of Jessica’s life.

40GunsWhit Whit and the gunsmith.

On the day of Whit’s wedding to the lady gunsmith, Brockie tries to kill Griff from afar with a rifle and kills Whit instead.  Jessica pays for his legal defense and bribes judges, but he’s convicted and she refuses to help him escape.  Her empire, based on bribery and other sorts of crime, is falling apart around her ears, while she tries to do the right thing and square herself with Griff.  Brockie breaks out and uses Jessica as a hostage/shield.  Griff shoots Jessica non-fatally and then empties his gun into Brockie when he drops her.  Chico takes Whit’s position as the town marshal, and Griff heads off to California in his two-seater buggy.  Around the end credits we can see a distant shot of Jessica running up the dirt street after Griff and catching up to him at the fade-out.  Presumably they make up and live happily ever after, rebuilding Jessica’s empire.

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The Earp connection is made overt by having this take place in Tombstone, in Cochise County, Arizona, and by having the Bonnell brothers’ father named Nicholas (also the name of the Earps’ father).  It has some heavy-breathing passion, some apparent double entendres and some noir touches.  A good, watchable movie, with a fair amount of talking for a western.  The title song “High-Ridin’ Woman With a Whip” is reprised a couple of times.  Some of the interior scenes at the Drummond ranch are apparently shot in the remodeled set for Tara from Gone With the Wind.  Filmed in black and white; not a long movie, at around 80 minutes.  This has become a modest cult favorite, with some similarities to Johnny Guitar.  Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan also starred together in The Maverick Queen.

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