Monthly Archives: August 2014

Tall Man Riding

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 6, 2014

Tall Man Riding—Randolph Scott, Dorothy McGuire, Peggie Castle, John Dehner, Robert Barrat, John Baragrey, William Ching, Paul Richards (1955; Dir: Lesley Selander)

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Made about the same time as the first of the Bud Boetticher-Ranown westerns, this stars Randolph Scott as Larry Madden returning to Montana.  Madden, a one-time small rancher, is returning not only to Montana but to the valley from which he had earlier been driven out by Tuck Ordway (Robert Barrat), owner of the Warbonnet Ranch, the largest spread in the valley, for daring to romance Ordway’s daughter Corinna (Dorothy Malone).  His back still bears the whip scars from that occasion.

On riding into the valley Madden rescues a well-dressed man being pursued by three gunmen.  Only when the rescue is complete does he discover that the rescued man (William Ching) is the husband Corinna has acquired since Madden’s departure five years before.  Riding on into town, Madden ventures into the saloon owned by Cibo Pearlo (John Baragrey; his character claims to be “pure Castilian”).  Pearlo received the same treatment from Ordway as Madden, but Madden doesn’t like him any better than he likes Ordway.  Pearlo’s girlfriend Reva (Peggie Castle) is the singer in the saloon and a friend of Corinna.

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Madden (Randolph Scott) calls out the Peso Kid (Paul Richards).

By the end, Corinna’s husband has been killed, as has Reva (probably), Pearlo and Madden’s corrupt lawyer Luddington (John Dehner), as well as Pearlo’s Mexican gunman the Peso Kid.  Ordway’s land titles are invalid, and there’s a land rush onto what used to be his ranch.  The implication is that Madden and Corinna will get together again, although (a) she hasn’t been a widow long, (b) she’s spent most of the movie hating him, (c) there’s still bad blood with her family, and (d) Reva would be a better match for him if she’s still alive.

This is kind of an average western for Scott in non-Boetticher material.  This has some clunky writing, a contrived plot and uncertain relationship motivations, but it does have Randolph Scott, Dorothy Malone and John Dehner.  Scott is also riding his beautiful dark palomino Stardust, who shows up in many Scott movies from this period, much like James Stewart’s horse Pie does in the Anthony Mann westerns.  This was directed by prolific journeyman director Lesley Selander, although it’s better than some of his other work.  In color, 83 minutes.  The Montana landscape here looks a lot like California.

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Silver River

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 4, 2014

Silver River—Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Thomas Mitchell, Barton MacLane, Monte Blue, Tom D’Andrea, Bruce Bennett (1948; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This is one of Errol Flynn’s lesser-known westerns, the sixth of eight that he made.  He and director Raoul Walsh had worked together before on They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 and couple of World War II pictures (Objective Burma and Northern Pursuit) before San Antonio (on which Walsh was uncredited) in 1945.  Instead of Olivia de Havilland or Alexis Smith, Flynn is here paired with Ann Sheridan.  They had actually worked together before, starting with 1939’s Dodge City, but Sheridan’s role there was quite small.  Here she’s the leading lady.

Capt. Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) is part of the Union guard on a pay wagon at Gettysburg during the Civil War.  Ordered to stay put, he is attacked by Jeb Stuart’s cavalry and flees.  When it looks like he’ll be captured, he torches a million dollars in paper money to keep it out of Confederate hands.  He is cashiered for his pains, so he and his junior partner Pistol Porter (Tom D’Andrea) head west, gambling on a river boat (presumably up the Missouri River).  Here, determined to be more ruthless, he runs afoul of Banjo Sweeney (Barton MacLane) and meets Mrs. Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan), who’s hauling mining equipment to the silver mine she runs with her husband Stanley (Bruce Bennett).

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Mrs. Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan) views Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) skeptically.

Disembarking from the riverboat, McComb finds that all the freighting capacity has been taken over by the acerbic Mrs. Moore.  Meeting the freighter Sam Slade, McComb wins Slade’s wagons, horses and mules at poker, so his gambling equipment and not the Moores’ mining equipment gets hauled to Silver City.  (There was an actual Silver City in Idaho and one in Nevada, but this one appears to be a fictional town in Nevada.)  Then McComb sells the freighting equipment to Stanley Moore for 6000 shares in his mining company, to the chagrin of Moore’s wife.  McComb also meets alcoholic lawyer Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell, in one of his patented drunken, classically-educated westerner roles).  When McComb refuses to let the miners gamble in his establishment with mining company scrip, he starts a bank and negotiates a percentage of the silver mines with the mining owners who now need more cash on hand.

The silver empires, McComb’s and everyone else’s, grow ever larger.  He buys land to the horizon and builds a quasi-castle.  He is supported in this by Beck until, when Beck and McComb find Sam Slade dying of Shoshone Indian wounds, McComb fails to warn Stanley Moore fully of the Indian dangers when he heads into the Black Rock Range looking for more silver.  Moore is indeed killed, and Beck accuses McComb of being like the Biblical King David in lusting after another man’s wife and getting him killed.  (The analogy doesn’t seem to fit completely, although McComb isn’t sad when Moore dies.  He has always been interested in Moore’s wife.)  Beck goes his own way, and McComb marries Georgia Moore.  Pres. Ulysses Grant (Joseph Crehan played him eight times, something of a specialty for him) visits Silver City, and McComb and the other mine owners promise to produce ever more silver.

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Plotting at the bar: Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell), Pistol Porter (Tom D’Andrea), Stanley Moore (Bruce Bennett) and Mike McComb (Errol Flynn).

However, they have a falling out, and there is a silver war by the Western Combine against the McComb interests, with the silver mines shut down.  McComb is inadequately sympathetic to the plight of the miners, and Georgia leaves him.  He has to sell his holdings, there is a run on his bank, and he loses his castle.  Plato Beck runs for the Senate with Georgia’s support and wants McComb to understand his populist position.  As Beck begins to speak to a crowd of miners, he is shot down by Banjo Sweeney, now a henchman of the Western Combine and its leader Buck Chevigee (Monte Blue).

But McComb leads the miners in capturing Sweeney, his men and presumably the Combine leaders in Silver City.  The miners want to lynch them, but McComb insists on due process, and Georgia comes back to him.  Maybe he even takes Plato Beck’s place in running for the Senate.

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Mrs. Moore and McComb finally get together.

So it’s the rise and fall and at least partial redemption of silver king Errol Flynn, both morally and materially.  Flynn could really act; Ann Sheridan looks luscious with her hooded eyes, but Flynn is a better actor.  This was the fourth movie in which they starred together.  Flynn at only 39 was getting toward his last few movies by this time, and his career-long style of hard living, over-the-top drinking and constant debauchery was starting to take its toll on his looks.  But that works in this role, where he is supposedly aging over a period of years.  Tom D’Andrea is good as Pistol Porter, and Thomas Mitchell did what he usually did in alcoholic roles.  Bruce Bennett is decent but bland as the mining-engineer husband, but then he’s supposed to be.  And Barton MacLane chews the scenery as the conscienceless villain Banjo Sweeney.

This isn’t Walsh’s best western (maybe that was Colorado Territory the next year), and it was not a big hit in its time.  But Walsh often (but not infallibly) had a good feel for westerns.  You can sometimes see it in the composition of shots of the wild, mountainous landscapes with riders or wagons moving against them, or in the crane shots of crowds of milling miners with lots of action.  This isn’t often seen any more, but it’s worth watching both for Flynn’s performance and for Walsh’s direction.  And for the lovely Ann Sheridan.  It was the last time Flynn and director Walsh worked together.

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Shot in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is apparently a slightly longer cut at 114 minutes somewhere.  A movie with this kind of scope in 1948 should have been shot in color, but it was a transitional period for such things in the movies.  It’s not available on DVD at this point.

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Wild Bill (1995)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2014

Wild Bill—Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, James Gammon, Christina Applegate, Keith Carradine, Bruce Dern, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar, Steve Reevis (1995; Dir: Walter Hill)

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This film sports an excellent cast with Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok, Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, and, best of all, one of the greatest living masters of the western movie, Walter Hill directing.  Should be great, right?  It doesn’t seem to be, though.

Jeff Bridges does look terrific as Wild Bill; there is very good production design on this film.  At the start of the movie, there are brief vignettes from his career as a lawman:  battling cavalrymen from the Seventh Cavalry in a bar in Tommy Drum’s saloon in Hays City, Kansas, killing several of them; killing Phil Coe and, accidentally, his own deputy Mike Williams, in Abilene; and jousting with and killing Sioux chief Whistler (Blackfoot actor Steve Reevis) on the plains, at Whistler’s insistence.  All those incidents get him to the rough mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876.  He hasn’t been a lawman for five years, and he’s 39 years old.  He makes his living as a gambler (badly, apparently).  His eyesight is going, thanks to glaucoma.  He may be suffering from a venereal disease.  And he drinks a lot and takes refuge in smoking opium.

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Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok; Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane.  One looks pretty authentic, and one less so.

As soon as he gets to Deadwood, he encounters old friend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), who makes it plain she’d like to renew an old relationship and even take it farther.  He doesn’t reciprocate, although he still values the friendship.  Jack McCall (David Arquette) is the none-too-smart son of Susannah Moore (Diane Lane), whom Hickok had once promised to marry.  Instead, he went off to scout for the army and, when he came back six months later, she had a relationship going with Dave Tutt.  Hickok killed Tutt in a gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865, and Susannah died in an asylum.  McCall announces he intends to kill Hickok, but Hickok, who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t have much fear when it comes to guns, doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

Bill hits the opium den, and smoking the stuff takes him back to other events in his life.  Sometimes those are in color, as with his gunfight in Cheyenne with a crippled Will Plummer (Bruce Dern), with Bill tied to a chair.  Usually, the flashbacks are in black and white, often with a skewed angle, as when Bill encounters a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers.  He remembers the McCandles fight that made his reputation as a gunfighter and almost killed him.  He remembers his brief and unsuccessful theatrical career with Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine in a cameo).  He remembers Susannah Moore and Dave Tutt, as well.  McCall finds him in the opium den relatively helpless under the effects of the narcotic, but he’s not as helpless as he seems.

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Cheyenne dog soldiers in an opium dream.

Finally McCall and several desperadoes, including Donnie Lonnigan (James Remar) and Jubal Pickett (Stoney Jackson), get the drop on Hickok as he and Calamity Jane are dallying in No. 10 saloon.  Hickok friends Charley Prince (John Hurt, apparently an English version of actual Hickok friend Charley Utter) and California Joe (James Gammon) join them, as well as a prostitute on whom McCall has a fixation (Christina Applegate).  We know how this is going to end, and it takes a while getting there with all these extraneous characters.  Finally, Bill gets some of the desperadoes and chases off the rest.  But he’s holding black aces and eights, and the weaselly McCall shoots him in the back of the head with a derringer, to be hung himself later.  Nowhere does Bill’s recent wife, Agnes Lake, show up, nor is she referred to.

Jeff Bridges is an excellent actor, and he looks good in the part.  He communicates Hickok’s fearlessness and a powerful personality.  But it’s not an attractive period in Hickok’s life, and the performance seems a bit over the top.  The Hickok gunfight scenes are very effective and believable.  Ellen Barkin is much more attractive than the real Calamity Jane, as is usual in a movie about Hickok.  Although there are a number of good character actors (Bruce Dern, John Hurt, James Gammon, Diane Lane), many of them seem extraneous to what’s going on, especially during that overly-extended final sequence in the bar.  Hurt’s character talks too much, meaning the writing isn’t as good as it could be.  Arquette’s McCall is probably intended to be as weaselly as he is here, but he’s on screen too much.

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The real James Butler Hickok and his murderer, Jack McCall, the first person executed by federal authorities in Dakota Territory.

Director Walter Hill has made what may be the best movie to date about Jesse James (The Long Riders), as well as an underrated film about Geronimo (Geronimo: An American Legend) and the really excellent made-for-television Broken Trail.  He has a genuine feel for westerns, but this is probably his weakest.  The movie claims to be based on a good novel by Pete Dexter, Deadwood, and the play Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe, but it certainly doesn’t keep very closely to the novel.  Hill himself wrote the screenplay, so he has no one else to blame for that.  It was not a success at the box office, costing more than $30,000,000 and making back only $2,168,000 domestically.

Cinematography, mostly in color but also occasionally in sepia tones and black and white, is by Lloyd Ahern (Broken Trail).  Music is by Van Dyke Parks, who also did the music for the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).  Perhaps that’s why the song over the opening and closing credits is the same as that used as the theme music for True Grit:  the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  Jeff Bridges starred in that one, too, as Rooster Cogburn.  Wild Bill is only 98 minutes, but it feels longer, which is not a good sign.  However, if you’re particularly interested in cinematic versions of Wild Bill Hickok, Jeff Bridges’ work in westerns or the career of Walter Hill, you’ll want to watch this, too, if only for the sake of completeness.  This doesn’t keep particularly close to the facts of Bill’s life, but neither do most movies featuring Wild Bill Hickok.  In particular, McCall had no relationship with Hickok.  He was just someone who had lost money to Hickok the night before and killed him opportunistically by shooting him in the back of the head with a .45 (acting alone).  The movie is rated R for violence and seaminess in language and sexual matters.

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Walter Hill directing Jeff Bridges.

Hill was also involved in the making of the cable television series Deadwood, which had some of the same gritty feel, directing the first episode (2004).  That one featured Keith Carradine as a world-weary Wild Bill for several episodes.  For an earlier and more adulatory version of Wild Bill’s myth, see Gary Cooper as Bill in The Plainsman (1936).  The definitive Wild Bill movie probably has yet to be made.

If you want the real historical background on James Butler Hickok, look for the biography by Joseph Rosa, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (1974).

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