Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Last Hunt

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 31, 2014

The Last Hunt—Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Russ Tamblyn, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget (1956; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

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A psychological western set in 1883 in Dakota Territory, when the buffalo herds were mostly gone.  Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) is a former buffalo hunter whose modest herd of cattle is destroyed in a buffalo stampede.  He is lured back to his former profession by Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), for a final go to make a stake to replace his herd.  They take Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan), a one-legged alcoholic buffalo skinner, and Jimmy O’Brien (Russ Tamblyn, as an improbable-looking Indian half-breed). 

As it turns out, Gilson is a killer who hates Indians.  It’s obvious that Gilson and the decent McKenzie will clash at some point.  When it comes down to the hunting, Gilson gets spooked by the buffalo and comes to see McKenzie as the source of his problems.  Debra Paget is an unlikely-looking Indian woman with a small child, acquired by the band when Gilson guns down three Indian males who steal their mules.  Gilson and McKenzie have conflicts over her and over a while buffalo skin they acquire in their hunt. 

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[Spoilers follow.]  Gilson gets jumpier, more unreasonable and more unstable; he kills Woodfoot when Woodfoot tries to stop him from hunting McKenzie.  However, at the end Gilson freezes to death waiting to gun down McKenzie. 

Taylor is effective in a rare bad-guy role.  The downward trajectory of Gilson is sometimes compared to that of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Interesting but talky, especially Nolan’s character, and it’s kind of downbeat.  This was written by director Richard Brooks, who needed an editor for the script but didn’t have one.  (This is similar in that regard to the better The Professionals ten years later, also written and directed by Brooks.)  

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 Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) warns McKenzie (Stewart Granger).

Some of the attitudes here seem a bit anachronistic—more politically correct than they would have been in the 1880s, but certainly less so than in the current 21st century.  There is more angst and psychological disintegration here than in most westerns.  Based on a novel by Milton Lott.  Shot in color in South Dakota. 

For more Stewart Granger in westerns, see The Wild North (1952) and North to Alaska (1960).  As the titles suggest, those are northern westerns set in northern Canada and Alaska.  Late in his career he also moved into German movies adapting Karl May’s Old Shatterhand stories.  Robert Taylor starred in westerns from Billy the Kid (1941) to the end of his career in the late 1960s.  A couple of the best of them are Westward the Women (1951) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958).  He often wore black, although he was seldom the bad guy as he was here.  During the 1950s Debra Paget often played exotic ethnics, including several movies in which she played Indian maidens, as she does here.  The first (and probably the best) such was Broken Arrow (1950), in which she plays a young Apache woman who marries James Stewart; she was only 15 when filming began on that one.

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Nevada Smith

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 29, 2014

Nevada Smith—Steve McQueen, Brian Keith, Karl Malden, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau, Janet Margolin, Paul Fix (1966; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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This episodic vengeance western is one of Steve McQueen’s few works in the genre.  Uneducated young Max Sand (McQueen) is the product of a mixed marriage—a white father and a Kiowa mother.  He finds his parents brutally killed by three outlaws and sets out to kill them all.  On the way he runs into gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), who teaches him to shoot, along with various other survival skills. 

The first of the killers he finds is a gambler in Abilene, Jack Langley (real name Jesse Coe, played by Martin Landau).  Sand kills him in a knife fight, although he is badly wounded himself, saved only by the McGuffey reader stuffed in his shirt.  He is nursed back to health by Kiowa dance hall girl Neesa (Janet Margolin). 

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Young Max Sand (Steve McQueen) being instructed by Jonas Cord (Brian Keith).

He learns that Billy Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) is in a prison camp in the Louisiana swamps, after an unsuccessful bank robbery.  Sand gets himself thrown in prison to find Bowdre.  Sand and Bowdre escape through the swamps with the help of young Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), who is bitten by a snake and doesn’t make it. 

The third is Tom Fitch (Karl Malden in a bad-guy role) in the California gold country, where he has an outlaw gang.  Sands has tracked him down calling himself Fitch’s brother, but Fitch is now paranoid about Max Sand.  Fitch’s men bust him out of jail and all but kill him when they find he isn’t the outlaw.  They leave him for dead and he is nursed back to health by a Catholic priest.  He joins Fitch’s outlaw gang for a big job, and in the middle of the job takes after Fitch, whom he shoots to pieces but can’t bring himself to finish off.  Presumably then he joins up with Jonas Cord again. 

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This is based on two characters (Jonas Cord and Nevada Smith) from a sleazy Harold Robbins novel, The Carpetbaggers, which had been a successful movie two years earlier.  (Nevada Smith was played by Alan Ladd in that one, in his last movie role; he doesn’t look half-Kiowa, either.)  Well-produced and directed by old veteran Henry Hathaway, it looks good but the plot doesn’t hang together real well.  Characters feel manipulated (or tossed away) rather than developed except perhaps for Sand.  Cinematography by Lucien Ballard; music by Alfred Newman.  Watchable but not terribly memorable. 

Blond, blue-eyed McQueen at 36 seems old for the young Sand, and he certainly doesn’t look half Kiowa.  Brian Keith may be the best actor in the film; Howard da Silva is good as the Louisiana prison camp warden and Pat Hingle as a prison trusty.  Iron Eyes Cody, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones have uncredited bit parts.  A dark-haired Loni Anderson has an uncredited bit part as a dance hall girl in the first half of the film.  Filmed in the Owens Valley desert and in Inyo National Forest.

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The Spoilers (1955)

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 28, 2014

The Spoilers—Jeff Chandler, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun, John McIntire, Ray Danton, Barbara Britton (1955; Dir: Jesse Hibbs)

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This is the fifth and most recent version of Rex Beach’s oft-filmed novel of claim-jumping, fraud and larceny in the Alaska gold rush of 1899.  Like some of the other frequently re-made stories from the earlier years of the movies (The Virginian, Whispering Smith), this one hasn’t been done again in 60 years, as tastes in stories and forms of entertainment have changed.  This story and various of its elements (the culminating fight scene, the female saloon owner in love with the good guy, the shared mine ownership, the con-man claim-jumping mastermind) obviously influenced better Alaska gold rush movies such as 1954’s The Far Country and 1960’s North to Alaska.  The 1930 version of the story with Gary Cooper is apparently lost; the 1942 version with John Wayne and Randolph Scott is generally thought to be the best, especially its climactic fight scene.  This one is watchable but not exceptional.

As the movie opens, the arrival of Roy Glennister (Jeff Chandler) and his partner Dextry (John McIntire) on the boat from Seattle is anticipated by his girlfriend, saloon owner and dance-hall girl Cherry Malotte (Anne Baxter).  There have been a number of claim-jumping incidents recently, and nobody knows where the new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Rory Calhoun) will come out on these things.  When the steamer arrives, Cherry is chagrined to find that Glennister has apparently been keeping company with the new federal judge’s attractive young niece, and she and Glennister have an explosive break-up.  Concern over claim-jumping dies down as the new judge generally seems to find for the original claimants.  But when Glennister and Dextry are served with a warrant about a competing claimant, we start to see that McNamara is crooked and has hired a fake federal judge.  He intends to take Glennister and Dextry’s existing $80,000 in gold and take another $250,000 from their claim while they wait for their case to be heard.  It never will be.

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Cherry Malotte (Anne Baxter) gets to know Alexander MacNamara (Rory Calhoun); Dextry (John McIntire) and Glennister (Jeff Chandler) defend their mining claim.

Originally Glennister takes a more law-abiding view than Dextry, but at this point he sees that things are crooked and stacked against them.  They try to take the gold from their sequestered safe, and the marshal is killed in the process—shot in the back by Cherry’s dealer Blackie (Ray Danton, who had a short-lived but memorable career as a bad guy in the 1950s before drifting into mostly television work). Blackie is apparently playing his own anti-Glennister game because he wants Cherry, too.  Glennister is blamed for the marshal’s death and thrown into jail, where McNamara plots to allow him to escape and then shoot him down in the process.  Cherry hears of the plan and aids a real escape for Glennister.  Glennister and Dextry violently take back their mine while McNamara is distracted by Cherry in town.  Blackie is killed in a train crash during the recovery of the mine, but not before admitting his killing of the marshal.  Glennister confronts McNamara and they engage in a lengthy fist fight that virtually destroy’s Cherry’s Northern Saloon.  McNamara’s gang is apprehended (including the comely faux-niece), and Glennister and Cherry are back together.

Chandler gives a serviceable performance, as does Calhoun.  The best are probably Anne Baxter and John McIntire (who had played the principal claim-stealer in the previous year’s The Far Country).  Anne Baxter’s most famous role was in All About Eve, of course, but if you’d like to see her in another good western, check out Yellow SkyIn color.

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The films are based on Rex Beach’s 1906 novel, which was in turn based on the exploits and machinations of real-life Nome crook and claim-jumper Alexander McKenzie, who served three months in jail before being pardoned by Pres. McKinley in 1901.

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Fifteen Underrated Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 27, 2014

Fifteen Underrated Westerns

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Italian posters for Seven Men from Now and The Tall T.

At one time in the 1960s, this list would have been headed by the four best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns (Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station) and Sam Peckinpah’s second movie, Ride the High Country.  But in the video-DVD age these have been much more widely available and in the last couple of decades particularly have been recognized as among the very best of their kind.  If there are any of these you haven’t yet watched, quit reading this and go find them.

Why do they tend to be underrated?  There are a variety of reasons, but they fall into two categories:  The studios that produced them didn’t have a lot of confidence in them when they were released, and didn’t bother promoting them much.  Sometimes, as with the classic Shane, westerns were thought to be low-prestige releases generally, and they were allowed to sit on the shelf.  But on release, audiences flocked to see Shane, and it was a big hit.  The traditional Hollywood mentality tends to equate the money spent on production with the film’s quality.  Ride the High Country, for example, was much more appreciated in Europe on its initial release than it was in the U.S. because MGM didn’t accurately perceive what it had and its marketing effort and budget, like its production budget, were very low.  As one MGM executive told screenwriter William Goldman, “it didn’t cost enough to be any good.”  By now everybody fond of westerns knows that, regardless of its original cost, it is very good indeed.

The other reason may simply be changing tastes and the test of time.  Some that were not greeted with great public enthusiasm at the time of their initial release are regarded more fondly fifty or sixty years later, when their quality may be more obvious simply because they are still watched after all these years by new generations with different tastes and different social attitudes.  John Wayne’s The Alamo was released with great hype in 1960, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture.  It wouldn’t be nominated, if it were released now.  The original 3:10 to Yuma, from 1957, was a low-key release by a very good director of westerns (Delmer Daves) that is, if anything, even more highly regarded now that it was in the 1950s.

Even in the video-DVD age, two of these are not available yet on DVD, and one was not available until recently.

If there are any of the movies on this list that you haven’t seen, they’re all worth a watch.  If you have any other nominees for this list, leave a comment.  When you’ve digested this list, check out our second post on underrated westerns.

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Ramrod (1947)

Four Faces West (1948)

Colorado Territory (1949)

These three movies from the late 1940s share a common thread:  Joel McCrea.  At that time McCrea was doing a Randolph Scott—i.e., he was transitioning to making mostly if not entirely westerns, after a career in which he had done mostly non-westerns.  Unlike Scott, he either had stronger material or was just a stronger screen presence, because his westerns in the late 1940s and 1950s were better than those in Scott’s pre-Boetticher period, even if Scott was bringing in more at the box office.  These three films all have different directors, and in two of them McCrea uncharacteristically plays an outlaw, albeit an outlaw trying to go straight.  The best of these three is Colorado Territory with Virginia Mayo, director Raoul Walsh’s remake of his gangster movie High Sierra as a western.  Four Faces West, in which McCrea stars with real-life wife Frances Dee, is the kind of story one doesn’t see in westerns these days—an outlaw wrestling with moral dilemmas without a lot of outward violence, although there’s recurring tension.  In Ramrod, McCrea re-unites with Sullivan’s Travels co-star Veronica Lake in a tense range war tale.  All very good, and none of them often seen these days.

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)

In the 1950s and into the early 1960s, there were two directors who, if you saw their names on a western, you could be sure you were in very good hands:  Delmer Daves and John Sturges.  Neither has the cachet of John Ford or Howard Hawks these days, but they both produced an excellent body of work.  Escape from Fort Bravo, starring William Holden and Eleanor Parker, is a tale of Confederate prisoners held in the Arizona desert, while everyone is threatened by Apaches.  This may be Sturges’ best work from his early period.

Hondo (1953)

If any John Wayne film can be said to be underappreciated, this is.  It tends to get lost between John Ford’s cavalry trilogy and The Searchers, and that may be because it’s not directed by John Ford and because it was part of the brief 3-D fad of the early 1950s.  Wayne is excellent as curmudgeonly Apache scout Hondo Lane, playing off Geraldine Page as a widow isolated on an Arizona ranch and threatened by Indians.  It was largely unavailable for decades, and it’s very good.  Not all of John Wayne’s movies were good, but this is.

The Ride Back (1957)

This is a small western with a small but excellent cast and a very low budget.  The balding, heavy-set William Conrad (who produced the film) is deputy sheriff Chris Hamish, who goes into Mexico to extract wanted gunman Bob Kallen, played superbly by Anthony Quinn.  Kallen is better with a gun and with people, but their relationship develops into a mutual respect on the ride back, threatened by Apaches and bringing along an orphaned mute girl who prefers Kallen to Hamish, too.

Fort Dobbs (1958)

Gar Davis (Clint Walker), pursued by a posse, fakes his death in Comanche country and comes to an isolated ranch owned by a widow and her son (echoes of Hondo).  If they sell him a horse, he promises to try to get them to Fort Dobbs, where they hope to be safe.  They encounter devious gunrunners, hostile Comanches, and, when they get to Fort Dobbs, they are far from safe.  In addition to the Comanches, Davis still has to elude the posse after him.  This small-budget western, also featuring Virginia Mayo and Brian Keith, was directed by Gordon Douglas, like Rio Conchos, below.

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Another low-budget western, filmed in black and white in a time when most movies were turning to color.  Like Ramrod, this was directed by journeyman director Andre de Toth and might be his very best movie.  It lacks major star power, but in its two main roles it has Robert Ryan and Burl Ives, who could be very good with the right material.  They have it in this wintry ranchers versus outlaws story set in remote Wyoming.

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Rio Conchos (1964)

One can almost hear the studio executives wondering what to do with this, given a relative lack of star power (Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman and Jim Brown, who is without many lines in his first movie role).  Whitman and Brown are Union soldiers immediately after the Civil War who have to go into hostile Mexican territory to retrieve stolen rifles, using a wagon of gunpowder as bait.  Boone is an embittered, Apache-hating former Confederate officer forced to go with them, and Tony Franciosa a knife-wielding Mexican of uncertain loyalties.  It works better than you’d expect because of (a) Boone’s dominating performance, (b) good writing by Clair Huffaker, who also wrote the novel on which this is based, and (c) pretty good direction from Gordon Douglas, who made a lot of movies of all kinds, usually well enough but without dazzling anybody.

Duel at Diablo (1966)

James Garner was a better actor than he’s usually given credit for, and he demonstrates it here without any of his normal easy-going charm.  But this cavalry versus Apaches story is also an ensemble movie, with Sidney Poitier (out of his element in a western, but doing a good job) as a former Buffalo soldier sergeant and Scotsman Bill Travers as an up-from-the ranks cavalry officer in a desperate position.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

One of the last cavalry movies, and certainly the last good one.  This, like Soldier Blue, is kind of a 1970s revisionist cavalry western, but it’s better than Soldier Blue.  Burt Lancaster is the Old Scout leading the Young Lieutenant Bruce Greenwood and his patrol in pursuit of Apache leader Ulzana, who has jumped the reservation.  The revisionism lies in showing the Apaches as people rather than just savages, and in showing a tendency toward savagery by both Apaches and cavalry in desperate situations.  The Apaches are seen as strategists, whose moves have to be deciphered and countered by the Old Scout.

The Grey Fox (1982)

This is one of those not available on DVD, and that’s why it’s hard to see now.  Even on its initial release, this Canadian production was shown mostly in art houses and has never found a wide audience.  This story of turn-of-the-century stage and train robber Bill Miner has a superb leading performance by long-time stuntman and bit-player Richard Farnsworth.  But the supporting performances, especially that of Jackie Burroughs as a liberated, modern (for then) female photographer, are also very good.  This is a gem that is worth seeking out even on VHS or perhaps on a DVD of the laserdisc.  But it shouldn’t be this hard to get.

A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)

Similarly, this small relationship-oriented western is not available on DVD, although it should be.  The relationship in question is based on a real historical one, between gambler Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper) and Lalu, usually referred to as China Polly (Rosalind Chao), in an Idaho mining camp.  Lalu has been sold by her impoverished family in China and brought to the Golden Mountain (the U.S.), where she can expect to be further sold into prostitution.  Most of the tension is produced by friction between whites and Chinese in the mining camp.  This is also one of the few westerns directed by a woman, Nancy Kelly. 

Geronimo:  An American Legend (1993)

Walter Hill is one of the best living directors of westerns, along with Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner.  He has done the best Jesse James movie (The Long Riders) and an excellent trail drive story with Robert Duvall (Broken Trail), both among the 55 great westerns.  He has also come up with a dud in Wild Bill, the story of Hickok, so he’s not infallible.  But he has an innate feel for westerns, and it shows in this story of the U.S. cavalry’s trying to track down Geronimo and negotiate a surrender to the last of the Apache wars.  He uses real historical characters in old scout Al Sieber (Robert Duvall), young officers Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) and Britton Davis (a young Matt Damon) and Apache scout Chato (Steve Reevis), along with Geronimo (Wes Studi) and Generals George Crook (Gene Hackman) and Nelson Miles (Kevin Tighe).  There is a developing sympathy among the cavalry scouts for the Apaches, and the end result makes for difficult choices for the young officers.

Gunless (2010)

This western comedy is another Canadian production that few saw; not even Canadians went to see it.  However, with its dry humor it is the sort of thing that doesn’t get made much.  A western comedy is very hard to pull off well.  This features Paul Gross as The Montana Kid, who finds himself in the Canadian frontier town of Barclay’s Brush, trying to apply his gunfighter’s code to a very different sort of people than he usually runs into.  It causes him to reconsider the teachings of Aristotle, his line of work and his place in the world, along with finding ways to deal with pursuing bounty hunters from the States.  It deserves to be much more widely seen.

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Two Rode Together

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 26, 2014

Two Rode Together—James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal, John McIntire, Andy Devine, Olive Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ken Curtis, Annelle Hayes, Henry Brandon, Woody Strode, John Qualen (1961; Dir:  John Ford)

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A clunky title, and not a well-put-together story set in 1870s Texas.  This is one of those, like Rio Grande, that John Ford appears to have made simply for contractual reasons or for the money, not because he had a compelling story to tell.  The two riding together are straight-arrow cavalry Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark, seeming a bit old for the role at 45) and venal Tascosa marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart, wearing the same battered hat from his 1950s westerns with Anthony Mann and also seemingly old for the role at 52).   

McCabe has a sweet situation in Tascosa, where he gets ten percent of all the businesses in town, including Belle Aragon’s saloon and <ahem> in addition to his modest marshal’s salary.  The cavalry at Fort Grant is under pressure from civilians to recover their captive relatives from Quanah Parker’s Comanches; most have been with the Indians for years.  The cavalry, led by Major Frazer (John McIntire), can’t go onto Indian land without breaking the existing treaty and re-igniting active hostilities, so Frazer is recruiting McCabe for the job.  McCabe thinks an army scout’s pay ($80 a month) isn’t nearly enough for this kind of risky mission, so he gets contributions from the civilians and hears their stories.  One of the civilians is Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones), who’s looking for her brother.  Gary falls for her, although the relationship is inadequately developed.  (It seems to be taken for granted that anyone would fall for Shirley Jones, which may be true.)

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Lt. Gary (Richard Widmarl) and Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) mull things over.

McCabe takes off for Parker’s camp, accompanied by a reluctant Gary in civilian clothes.  He trades guns and other weapons to Parker (played by six-foot-five-inch German-born Henry Brandon—Scar from The Searchers).  Parker has his own difficulties with militants like Stone Calf (Woody Strode), but he’s quite willing to trade his white captives, one of whom is Stone Calf’s wife, who turns out to be the Mexican Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal).  Taking back Elena and Marty’s now much older brother, McCabe is attacked by Stone Calf and kills him. 

Back at the post, the rescued captives have trouble integrating.  Marty’s brother is thoroughly an Indian, and he kills a slightly deranged white woman who claims to be his mother.  He is lynched for it.  The whites, especially the cavalry wives, do not accept Elena among them, either.  McCabe goes back to Tascosa to find he’s been replaced as marshal and in Belle Aragon’s affections.  He takes off for California with Elena to where their pasts presumably won’t follow them, and Gary and Marty get engaged.

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The beautiful Linda Cristal as Elena, a young Mexican woman recaptured from the Comanches.

 

The film has a large cast, including Harry Carey, Jr. (by this time it was becoming clear that he’d never be more than a bit player) and Ken Curtis (from The Searchers—at the time he was Ford’s son-in-law) as brothers and supposed comic relief.  Andy Devine is a fat sergeant, and Olive Carey is the major’s sympathetic wife.  John Qualen is a Scandinavian settler whose daughter won’t come back from the Comanches.  The Belle Aragon role (Annelle Hayes) sparks a little interest, but it’s not developed.  Linda Cristal (see her also in John Wayne’s version of The Alamo) is excellent, and Shirley Jones is underused.  And the leads are too old for the roles they play, although they’re both excellent actors (kind of like Gary Cooper in Man of the West).  This time around, there’s no Monument Valley.  The Comanches look pretty clean. 

This film has some echoes of The Searchers—looking for whites among the Comanches, even the actor (Henry Brandon) playing the Comanche chief—but it’s not as coherent or focused.  It was also not a critical or box office success.  There’s no real resolution of the conflicting social attitudes, which is probably realistic.  The real Quanah Parker’s mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive.  This was the first of three westerns Stewart did with Ford, just before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Ford seems to be moving toward a more sympathetic view of Indians, which would come to full flower in his final movie three years later, Cheyenne Autumn, also with Widmark as a cavalry officer and Stewart badly miscast as a comic Wyatt Earp.  In color, with cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr.  Written by Frank Nugent, a favorite of Ford’s.  Not Ford’s best work, but watchable.

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Stewart and director Ford wait between scenes.

From Dave Kehr, NY Times columnist.  Two Rode Together finds its most intimate moment in an unbroken four-minute shot in which a career officer (Richard Widmark) and a mercenary Indian trader (James Stewart) exchange their views on women and independence.  But this comic sequence proves to be the lead-in to a nightmarish evocation of domestic life gone wrong, as Widmark and Stewart enter an encampment of traumatized families, each hoping that Stewart will be able to negotiate the release of a member held captive by Comanches. The love of a husband for his wife or a mother for her child proves to be pitifully inadequate in the face of the cultural divide that has risen between them.

“Ford’s darkest and most bitter film, Two Rode Together opens into the mythic perspective of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where the shortcomings of human relations are subsumed by the greater march of civilization — a glorious lie masking an unbearable truth.”

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The Showdown

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 25, 2014

The Showdown—William Elliott, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, Jim Davis, Marie Windsor, Rhys Williams, Yakima Canutt, Charles Stevens (1950; Dirs:  Dorrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan)

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Not a terribly meaningful title for a cattle drive movie.  Stoic actor Wild Bill Elliott starred in a lot of B-type westerns and crime stories in the late 1940s and 1950s, including several as Red Ryder, but he was kind of stone-faced and not very charismatic.  If you want to watch one of his westerns to see what he was about, you could do worse than trying this one. 

William (Wild Bill) Elliott is Shadrach Jones, an ex-Texas State Policeman looking for his brother’s killer.  The movie opens with Jones digging up his brother’s body, to find that he’d been shot in the back with a small-caliber gun.  Figuring the killer to be one of the hands on a trail drive to Montana, he signs on as the trail boss for owner Cap MacKellar (Walter Brennan) of the Circle K after he has to kill Big Mart (Leif Erickson), the existing foreman.  Marie Windsor (queen of the B-movies) is Adelaide, saloon owner and partner to MacKellar, with perhaps a romantic interest in Jones.  She shows up to go on the drive, theoretically to protect her investment but really to have a female on screen through the movie.

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Adelaide (Marie Windsor) and Shadrach Jones (William Elliott).

[Spoilers follow.]  The drive has the usual vicissitudes (stampedes and related deaths), with the added element of somebody killing various participants as the drive moves along.  Finally an accident gives MacKellar a mortal injury and he admits that he did the shooting of Jones’ brother, leaving a number of loose ends in the plot. 

There are some spots where the background is too obviously painted, and the supporting cast is stronger than the lead.  Walter Brennan gives the best performance in the film as McKellar, the owner of the herd.  Charles Stevens (grandson of Geronimo) is another of his Indian Joe characters.  Harry Morgan is good as Rod Main, a gunhand hostile to Jones from the start.  Rhys Williams is Chokecherry, the one-handed cook and chuckwagon driver.  On the whole this seems slightly better than a B movie, with a better than average script.  A Republic film with a low budget and some noir elements, but it’s better than it deserves to be.  Black and white, 86 minutes. 

Not to be confused with either Showdown (1963) with Audie Murphy, or Showdown (1973) with Rock Hudson, Dean Martin and Susan Clark.  Not to mention Fury at Showdown, Showdown at Boot Hill, etc.

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Dallas

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 24, 2014

Dallas—Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman, Raymond Massey, Leif Erickson, Steve Cochran (1950; Dir:  Stuart Heisler)

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Clunky writing and unduly lurid names mar this otherwise ambitious effort.  In color and with Gary Cooper, this obviously had a good budget for a western in 1950.  It starts with a cameo appearance by Bill Hickok (Reed Hadley) as a marshal in Springfield, Missouri, who helps Blayde Hollister (Gary Cooper—see about the florid names?) stage his own death so that he won’t be followed by “wanted” posters in trying find the nefarious Marlow brothers. 

U.S. Marshal Martin Weatherby:  “But Marshal! This – this outlaw; if you don’t arrest him, I shall!”

Wild Bill Hickok:  “Outlaw?  Let me tell you something, son.  This ain’t Boston.  We had a war down here and you’ll find men in high offices who are thieves and cutthroats.  You’ll find others who are branded outlaws that are only fighting for what’s their own.  There’s those known as bad men and those as are bad men.  You better learn to tell the difference!”

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Hollister, Weatherby and Hickok:  Instructing the inexperienced marshal.

Hollister is an unreconstructed Civil War veteran hunting evildoers who burned his place and slaughtered his family in Georgia during the war.  He befriends Martin Weatherby (Leif Erickson), an apparently incompetent U.S. marshal from Boston.  Weatherby’s on his way to Dallas to aid the family of his fiancée, Tonia Robles (Ruth Roman), and Hollister persuades him to change places, since Weatherby is not only inappropriately dressed but incompetent with a gun. 

Raymond Massey is the oldest and chief of the nefarious Marlow brothers, William, Cullen and Bryant.  Bryant (Steve Cochran) wears a Union kepi and two guns on two belts; he’s the most obvious and open gunman among the Marlow brothers.  William is apparently a respectable businessman, while actually being the mastermind of the Marlow operations.  Hollister kills Cullen soon after arriving in Dallas, and the question is how he’ll get the other two brothers. 

Tonia Robles:  “Do you know what Texas means?  It’s an Indian word for friends.  It’s a big land with room for everyone.  And you could be a part of it in time.”

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The Marlows temporarily capture Hollister, and he shoots it out with Bryant.  Bryant tells him it was William who lit the fires in Georgia.  As Hollister heads for town to get William, the oldest Marlow brother gets out on the other side of town while Hollister’s real identity is revealed by one of his former men.  He pursues William toward Fort Worth, where William has been successful in arranging for a posse to capture the infamous Reb Hollister.  William heads back to Dallas to extort as much as he can from the Robles family before he departs for good.

Hollister escapes from jail with the posse in hot pursuit, heading for Dallas, where Tonia’s father Don Felipe has been trying to raise money.  He enters the Robles house disguised as the father, taking out William’s accomplices and getting into an extended gunfight with William.  Meanwhile the posse follows and runs into the rest of Marlow’s men, who are captured.  Of course Hollister wins the fight with William, who is turned over to the authorities.  Weatherby has meanwhile arranged for a full pardon for Hollister, and Tonia has fallen for Hollister as well.  Weatherby goes off to build a railroad.

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This is watchable but not terribly memorable.  This formulaic stuff is what Gary Cooper’s career in westerns had come to before High Noon; it had a big enough budget but isn’t remotely among his best stuff.  He’s watchable but not particularly believable.  Ruth Roman may be the best thing in this movie.  (See her in The Far Country; she’s good in that, too.)  It has some modestly comic touches, many of which are intentional.

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Station West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 22, 2014

Station West—Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Gordon Oliver, Guinn Williams, Raymond Burr, Tom Powers, Regis Toomey (1948; Dir:  Sidney Lanfield)

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“A STRANGER IN TOWN…WHERE STRANGERS WEREN’T WELCOME!…and he found out a gal double-crossed is Deadly as Poison!”

Well cast, Dick Powell’s only western is sometimes referred to as a noir western, mostly because stars Powell and Greer frequently found themselves in films noirs but also because of the flavor of the dialogue and the shadows in the cinematography.  This is a rare western for both Powell and Greer, and they’re both very good in it.

Powell is Haven, an undercover military man investigating the murder of two soldiers killed while transporting gold.  He gets a job working for Charlie (Jane Greer), the very attractive owner of the local saloon and many other enterprises around town.  There’s a well-staged fight between Haven and Mick Marion (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, playing Charlie’s chief thug instead of his usual quasi-comic relief).  The question seems mostly to be whether Charlie is centrally involved in local crime or whether it’s her right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) who’s doing it. 

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Haven (Dick Powell) and Charlie (Jane Greer) figure things out.

Chemistry develops between Charlie and Haven.  Agnes Moorehead plays a mine owner and romantic interest of the local post commander (Tom Powers).  Burl Ives is a singing hotel clerk and one-man Greek chorus as he comments on the action.  “A man can’t grow old where there’s women and gold.”  Both Ives and Greer sing, quite pleasantly.

In the end, Haven shoots Prince but Prince shoots Charlie while going for Haven.  Turns out that Haven and Charlie are in love, but that’s not going to work out.  There is snappy film-noir-style dialogue; this is based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good source for a western.  It seemed that not all the plot threads were resolved in the end, but it was pleasant to watch.  This might make a good double feature with Rancho Notorious, Blood on the Moon or Colorado Territory.  Above average; shot in Sedona, Arizona, in black and white with lots of shadows, at 80 minutes.  Good cinematography by Harry Wild.

Burl Ives was surprisingly interesting to watch in westerns.  He was in five or six of them, of which this is an early one and the only one in which he sings.  In his two best, from the late 1950s, he played strong leaders, very effectively:  The Big Country and Day of the Outlaw.

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The Proposition

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 21, 2014

The Proposition—Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, David Wenham, Emily Watson, Richard Wilson, Danny Huston, John Hurt (2005; Dir:  John Hillcoat)

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This Australian western features terrific performances from Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley and Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns, a captured member of the outlaw Burns gang headed by his brother Arthur.  In the 1880s, the Burns gang has long been pursued ineffectively by Captain Stanley, raiding, plundering, ravishing women and then disappearing into the outback.  Finally, in the wake of the rape and murder of the Hopkins family, Stanley captures the two younger Burns brothers:  middle brother Charlie and his mentally-impaired 14-year-old brother Mikey (Richard Wilson).  But he really wants oldest brother Arthur, who runs the gang.  Stanley gives Charlie the Proposition of the title:  He’ll turn Charlie loose and give him nine days to kill brother Arthur.  If he doesn’t do that within the nine days, Stanley will hang brother Mikey on Christmas Day.  Charlie has to choose which brother will live–the sweeter and not-responsible-for-his-actions Mikey, or the intelligent and charismatic but violent, nasty and wild Arthur.  And he will be the instrument of the death of whichever dies.

PropositionWinstoneWinstone as Capt. Stanley.

Pearce heads into the outback, not sure what he’ll do or how he’ll do it.  Meanwhile, Stanley is overseen by government bureaucrat Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) and deals with the fragility of his cultured wife Martha (Emily Watson) in this rough setting.  The more we see of the Burns gang, in flashbacks and in current action, the more we realize what a horrible bad guy Arthur is, and our sympathies start shifting around.  Maybe Arthur could somehow get the government bureaucrat, and then Stanley could get him?  But it doesn’t work out that way.  Arthur and what’s left of the gang continue their furious, and almost mindlessly violent, depredations. 

Charlie encounters possibly-mad bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt).  He is captured and wounded by aborigines, but is rescued by Arthur and the gang.  As he recuperates from his wounds he has to come to terms with how he’ll react to Stanley’s Proposition.  In the end, the Burns gang comes to Stanley (violently–they do everything violently), and Charlie is appalled by it all.

By hearing the premise, you’d think that Stanley is a monster and Pearce not much better, but they turn out to be the most sympathetic characters in the film.  There is marvelous cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and excellent use of the bleak Australian outback landscape, which becomes one of the characters.  The loathsome government bureaucrat is well-played by David Wenham.  You feel it when Winstone’s plot breaks apart.  Winstone and Pearce are excellent in as Capt. Stanley and Charlie Burns.  The production design is very good, too. The effective music was composed and performed by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote the script) and violinist Warren Ellis.

PropositionGang The remaining Burns gang.

The film is not without its weaknesses; the pacing, for example, is too slow.  It has some of the weaknesses of spaghetti westerns, i.e., lingering tight close-ups on faces, flies and dust that don’t advance plot or character understanding much; and there are strange and loathsome soldiers/police/townspeople without giving us much understanding of them.  Emily Watson’s character (the cultured wife of Captain Stanley) is a little spooky, although she’s written that way.  That is, Watson is a good actress and the weakness is in the writing and direction.  It makes her too much just a symbol.  There is poor linking of motivation with the actions of Arthur Burns (Danny Huston, son of director/actor John Huston and grandson of  actor Walter Huston).  Is he just a psychopathic monster, despite his obvious intelligence and literary flair?  He’s interesting in a way, but just too unintelligible.  There is too much dust and not enough exposition, perhaps.  Too much strong language.  The biggest problem:  Over-the-top graphic violence.  It makes Arthur Burns seem like Freddy Kruger.  It is rated R for the violence and language.

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Brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Arthur (Danny Huston) at the end.

There are echoes of Sam Peckinpah in the graphic violence, and of Sergio Leone in some of the ways the film was shot.  Roger Ebert gave it 4 out of a possible 4 stars, describing the film as a “A movie you cannot turn away from; it is so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from.”  Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly called it “A pitiless yet elegiac Australian Western as caked with beauty as it is with blood.”

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Saskatchewan

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2014

Saskatchewan—Alan Ladd, Shelley Winters, Hugh O’Brian, J. Carrol Naish, Jay Silverheels.  (1954; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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The very blond Mountie Inspector Thomas O’Rourke (Alan Ladd) has been raised by Cree Indian chief Dark Cloud and is now stationed at Fort Walsh about 20 miles north of the Canadian border with the U.S.  Jay Silverheels is Cajou, his Cree foster-brother.  The post-Custer Sioux under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are moving into Canada, threatening to overthrow the peace and lead a general Indian uprising.  They’ve wiped out the group of which Montanan Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) is part, but she’s rescued by O’Rourke. 

It turns out she’s wanted for murder back in Montana.  O’Rourke’s troop of Mounties has to get back to Fort Walsh to warn his commanders there about the Sioux, although they don’t believe him and O’Rourke’s in trouble for refusing to obey due authority.  Hugh O’Brian plays Carl Smith, a malcontent Montana lawman with the troop, who’s always trying to get them to leave a wounded Mountie behind.  It turns out that Smith is (a) a U.S. marshal taking Grace back to Great Falls, (b) the brother of the murdered man, and (c) the actual murderer of his brother.  That gets sorted out on the way to Fort Walsh.  Banks, the Mountie commander, leads his men into a Sioux ambush, and it looks like Custer’s fate will be repeated north of the border.  O’Rourke is able, with the help of the Crees, to save his commanders from the Sioux anyway, despite being locked in the stockade with his men. 

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Inspector O’Rourke (Alan Ladd, out of uniform), Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) and Cajou (Jay Silverheels).

J. Carrol Naish is particularly good as a French-Canadian trapper and scout.  Problems:  There’s very little chemistry between the Ladd and Winters characters, who supposedly are fascinated with each other.  Saskatchewan is actually a plains province and doesn’t have mountains like these.  Sitting Bull made it to Canada for a couple of years (Crazy Horse never went there), but he had neither the resources nor the disposition to cause much trouble before eventually being forced back to the U.S.  The Mounties have very clean red coats, and wear anachronistic Smokey the Bear-style hats that weren’t regulation until after World War I.  O’Rourke wears one of the bright red coats while sneaking up to spy on the Sioux without much cover, and surprisingly enough they fail to spot him.  Filmed beautifully in color in Banff National Park (in Alberta, not Saskatchewan).  Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe were said to be filming The River of No Return (actually located in Idaho) in the same locale at the same time.

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Colorful Mounties, great scenery.

For another movie about Mounties, see Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police (1940), with Gary Cooper, or The Wild North (1952), a manhunt in the frozen wastes with Stewart Granger, Wendell Corey and Cyd Charisse.

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