Monthly Archives: June 2015

Bandido

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 29, 2015

Bandido—Robert Mitchum, Gilbert Roland, Ursula Thiess, Zachary Scott, Henry Brandon, Roldolfo Acosta (1956; Dir: Richard Fleischer)

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Robert Mitchum had kind of a sub-specialty in westerns about adventurers south of the the border (The Wonderful Country, The Wrath of God, Villa Rides!), of which this is the earliest.  It is set in the revolution of 1916, when Black Jack Pershing and the American army were unsuccessfully pursuing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico in preparation for World War I.  Villa was not the only warlord in northern Mexico fighting the regular army at the time, as we all know from The Wild Bunch.

As this movie opens, an American arms dealer named Kennedy (Zachary Scott) is selling guns to the regulares, as they are known, using his wife Lisa (Ursula Theiss) to charm Mexican officials and high-ranking officers.  As Kennedy puts together a deal with them, some of their marital discord is witnessed by American opportunist Wilson (Robert Mitchum), who wants to highjack Kennedy’s arms and re-direct them to one of the under-supplied warlords, Col. José Escobar (Gilbert Roland).  Heading south from the border to where a battle between Escobar’s partisans and the regulares is taking place, Wilson intervenes with a few well-placed grenades, and Escobar wins.

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Opportunist Wilson (Robert Mitchum) adds a few granades to the battle below.

With Wilson’s help, Escobar captures the train carrying Kennedy and his wife.  Kennedy sets up a trap for Escobar in a fishing village with his intermediary Gunther (Henry Brandon).  Instead of Kennedy leading them there, Wilson takes Kennedy’s wife and develops a relationship there.  When the trap is discovered, Wilson escapes and Lisa is captured.  Wilson now persuades Kennedy to tell him where the arms really are, on two barges in another village.

Wilson and Kennedy escape Escobar’s men, but Kennedy takes a bullet in the back.  A sympathetic priest removes the bullet, and Lisa shows up, with the army not far behind.  As Kennedy takes aim at Wilson with Lisa’s purse pistol, he is shot by Escobar, and Escobar and Wilson go to see whether Kennedy was finally telling the truth.  They find the two barges, one with gasoline and dynamite (we can guess what will happen with that one), and the other with arms and ammunition.  But the army and Gunther are not far behind them, and there is a standoff.  As Escobar’s men arrive, they are about to be trapped, until Wilson and Escobar blow up the first barge to destroy the army’s position.  In the end, Escobar gets the arms and ammunition to continue his fight, and Wilson heads back to the U.S. border to look for Lisa.

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Escobar’s partisans and Wilson pursue the train carrying the Kennedys.

Silent screen star Gilbert Roland (Three Violent People, Cheyenne Autumn) makes a smoother and more elegant Mexican revolutionary than we usually see.  He is probably the best thing about the movie.   His relationship with Wilson evolves into a kind of Humphrey Bogart-Claude Rains friendship, as in Casablanca.  Robert Mitchum’s voice is excellent, and his performance in this convoluted plot is fine.  Zachary Scott is good as the ill-fated gun dealer.   German-born Ursula Thiess was beautiful, but this was her last movie after marrying Robert Taylor and largely retiring from the movies.  There is little on-screen chemistry between her and Mitchum.  German-born Henry Brandon was no stranger to westerns, having played both Germans in Mexico (Vera Cruz and here) and Indian chiefs (The Searchers, Two Rode Together, War Arrow).

Director Richard Fleischer did not make many westerns, although he made the revisionist The Spikes Gang.  However, he was a mainline director, known for Dr. Dolittle, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green and a couple of Conan movies, among many others.  The film was shot on location at several of the battle sites of the 1916 revolution, using as extras both old-timers who had fought for Villa and former army soldiers who had fought against them.  It marked Robert Mitchum’s first producing effort.  Music is by Max Steiner.  In color, and at 92 minutes it is reasonably enjoyable but not particularly memorable.  Most of it is spent in trying to figure out where Wilson’s loyalties lie, other than to himself.  Turns out he goes for Escobar’s cause and love, not making any money for himself.

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Wilson (Robert Mitchum) and Escobar (Gilbert Roland) hold off the regulares.

The title seems like maybe it once had an exclamation point after it (not usually a good sign, and some posters show the exclamation point), and it is not clear who the bandido of the title is.  There are lots of bandidos in this movie.  It does not appear to be available on DVD.  Not to be confused with Bandidas (2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

For other westerns set in Mexico during this revolutionary period, see Wings of the Hawk, They Came to Cordura, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, The Old Gringo, or any of the westerns featuring Pancho Villa as a character (e.g., Villa Rides! with Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Robert Mitchum).

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Pursued

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 24, 2015

Pursued—Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Judith Anderson, Dean Jagger, John Rodney, Alan Hale, Harry Carey, Jr. (1947; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This is a western noir, known as the first of that subgenre.  It is also a range melodrama with overtones of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca.  A not-entirely-clear past haunts and, to some extent, determines the course of the present.  The lead here is Robert Mitchum, the same year that he did the marvelous Out of the Past and one year before another of his best westerns noirs, Blood on the Moon.  The moving spirit behind this production appears to have been novelist and screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, The Furies), then a well-known writer.  He was married to Teresa Wright at the time.

The movie opens with a scene in a long-derelict ranch house in Glorieta Township, New Mexico Territory, early in the 20th century.  Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) enters the place, finding Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum), who seems to be the subject of the title.  She tells him that she’s not coming with him; he claims he was able to tell that just by looking at her.  The rest of the story is told in flashback.

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Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) and Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) confront both the past and a dim future.

As a child, young Jeb Rand is under a trap door in that same ranch house, terrorized by flashes of light and large flashing spurs, which will haunt his dreams for the rest of the movie.  Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), crawling across the floor, rescues him and adopts him as one of her family, along with her daughter Thor (short for Thorley) and son Adam.  Thor and Jeb grow up fond of each other, but Jeb and Adam have an up-and-down relationship with frequent fights.  One day Jeb accuses Adam of having shot a colt he was riding.  Mrs. Callum says it was deer hunters, but she knew it was her one-armed brother-in-law Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), who seems determined to kill the boy but now agrees to let him grow up.

When Jeb (Robert Mitchum) reaches adulthood, he loves Thor but still has a wary relationship with Adam (John Rodney).  They toss a coin to see who will go fight in the Spanish-American War; Jeb goes.  He becomes a war hero and is wounded, returning to the Callum ranch.  He plans to leave the ranch with Thor, and as he returns to make his departure, a figure ambushes him from a high ridge.  Jeb shoots back and hits the figure; it’s Adam.  He is acquitted at an inquest, at which he is prosecuted by Grant Callum, but Mrs. Callum and Thor do not forgive him.

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Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) does not depart on good terms with the Callums (Judith Anderson and Teresa Wright, with John Rodney prostrate on the ground).

[Spoilers follow.]  Jeb goes into a partnership with the saloon owner Jake Dingle (Alan Hale) and attends a dance to see Thor, who is dating young Prentice (Harry Carey, Jr.), son of the general store owner.  Grant Callum goads Prentice into following and shooting at Jeb, intending to finish the job if necessary, until he is stopped by Jake Dingle. The result is the death of Prentice, further estranging Jeb from the Callums—until Thor appears to start to change toward him, encouraging his suit.  As she explains to her mother, she’ll encourage him until they’re married, and then she’ll kill him.

But Jeb can read her mind, and provides her with a gun on their wedding night.  She switches again, and now loves him again.  But as they speak the house is surrounded by Grant and other Callums with guns.  Jeb makes his escape, with Thor agreeing to meet him at the old ranch house, resulting in the opening scene.  But the Callums show up, too, and they position Jeb for a hanging with a noose around his neck.  A wagon draws up, and it’s Mrs. Callum.  Jeb realizes what was going on the night she found him.  The flashes of light were gunfire, and the spurs were his father’s the night he was killed by Grant and other Callums.  Mrs. Callum had been having an affair with the senior Rand, and that is the root of Grant’s hatred and pursuit of Jeb.  Mrs. Callum stops the hanging by blasting Grant with a rifle, and Jeb and Thor (who has apparently changed her mind again) ride off together.

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It looks like the Callums will finally get Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum).

The best performance here is by Judith Anderson as Mrs. Callum, although Dean Jagger is good as the implacable Grant Callum.  Anderson reinforces the similarities with Rebecca, since it was her role as the fierce Mrs. Danvers that hung over that gothic tale.  Her only other western was The Furies, directed by Anthony Mann and also written by Niven Busch.  Robert Mitchum does well as Jeb Rand, the Heathcliff figure, although he is mostly impassive.  Teresa Wright is too sweet-seeming an actress to make the vengeful Thor believable, and, as written, seems to change her motivations abruptly more than once.  Heightening the noir sensibility, a whiff of forbidden sexuality, both past and present, hangs over the film.

Director Raoul Walsh could do well with noir-oriented westerns, as he does here; see his Colorado Territory (1949), with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo.  Music is by Max Steiner.  The brilliant black-and-white cinematography is by James Wong Howe; note the use of the canyons and rocks of the southwest (this was shot around Gallup, New Mexico), and the intricate lighting of the night scenes to heighten the noir feel.  101 minutes long.

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The Crippled Gunman

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 18, 2015

The Crippled Gunman

One of the most common traditional themes of the western genre is having disputes and confrontations finally resolved in a shootout.  Typically the good guy (or the forces of righteousness, however they are represented) wins with a combination of skill with a gun (the most common), guile, personal courage and moral force against great odds on the other side.  Mostly it works; sometimes it doesn’t (see, for example, Colorado Territory [1949], with the fate of Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, The Gunfighter [1950] with Gregory Peck, Devil’s Doorway [1950] with Robert Taylor or Hombre [1967], with Paul Newman).

However, one of the ideas that became current in westerns beginning in the mid-1950s was that of the crippled gunman.  How far can courage, guile and moral force take you in situations involving violence and requiring unusual physical skill, when the physical part isn’t at full strength?  Even some of the greatest directors of westerns used this idea (Sam Peckinpah in The Deadly Companions; Budd Boetticher in Decision at Sundown and also in Seven Men From Now; Howard Hawks in El Dorado).

Usually, the impaired gunman goes on to demonstrate that “some things a man can’t ride around,” (see that line in Hondo, Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and others), even if the fight isn’t fair any more—even if it appears hopeless.  This often gives a woman the opportunity to provide him with an out on the eve of his trial.  She tries to persuade him to go away with her instead of facing his adversaries, testing his moral worthiness and resolution.  (See Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street, Katy Jurado in Man from Del Rio, Virginia Mayo in The Proud Ones, Dorothy Malone in Warlock, and many others).  Even Grace Kelly couldn’t make that work in High Noon.

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Randolph Scott’s boarding house landlady explains the basics of what a man’s gotta do to his estranged wife Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street.

Ramrod (Joel McCrea, 1947).  The ramrod of the title is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), good with a gun but badly wounded in the shoulder before his big showdown with cattle baron Frank Ivey.  Solution:  he takes a shotgun to the showdown.

The Far Country (James Stewart, 1954).  The protagonists in westerns directed by Anthony Mann frequently had psychological impairments.  In this one, James Stewart has a physical one as well; his gun arm’s in a sling as he approaches his final confrontation with John McIntire and his band of thugs (including Robert Wilke and Jack Elam).

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Corinne Calvet nurses the badly-wounded James Stewart back to health in The Far Country.

A Lawless Street (Randolph Scott, 1955).  Randolph Scott plays marshal Calem Ware, who goes up against his gunfighting nemesis (Michael Pate) with a smashed gun hand and a head injury.  HIs only advantage is that the bad guys think he’s already dead because of those wounds.  Director Joseph H. Lewis seemed to like to play with the idea of an impaired gunman (this and Terror in a Texas Town).

The Lonesome Trail (John Agar, 1955).  Cowboy and Civil War veteran Johnny Rush (John Agar) returns to find his father dead, his land gone and his girl engaged to the local land baron.  He loses the use of his gun arm in a fight with the henchman of the land baron, so he takes up the bow and arrow instead of the usual tools of violence.

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Having had his gun hand shot by bad guys, James Stewart is forced to use a rifle in The Man From Laramie.

The Man From Laramie (James Stewart, 1955).  Will Lockhart (James Stewart) has been shot in the right hand point-blank, but he doesn’t let that stop him in his quest to hunt down whoever killed his brother and is responsible for selling guns to the Indians.  It does mean he has to use a rifle instead of a pistol, however.

Man From Del Rio (Anthony Quinn, 1956).  Anthony Quinn’s Dave Robles has practiced for five years to become very good with a gun, and he is.  However, in a fight before his final two confrontations, he has smashed the wrist in his gun hand.  Now he walks into a final showdown in that condition.

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Randolph Scott props himself up using a rifle as a cane, against Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now.

Seven Men From Now (Randolph Scott, 1956).  Former Sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) is disadvantaged in his final series of confrontations with miscreants because he can’t walk.  His leg was injured when one of them shot down his horse, and he can only stand using his rifle as a cane.

The Proud Ones (Robert Ryan, 1956).  Aging city marshal Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) may be proud, but he’s also very good with a gun and very experienced at taming wild towns.  However, a bullet creases his skull early in the film, leaving him with impaired vision before his battle with the much larger forces of bad guy Robert Middleton, supported only by his uncertain (but also proud) deputy Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter).

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Randolph Scott faces a final shoot-out with a badly wounded hand in Decision at Sundown.

Decision at Sundown (Randolph Scott, 1957).  Seeking revenge for the seduction and subsequent suicide of his wife while he was away at the Civil War, Bart Allison (Randolph Scott again) fights the entire town of Sundown, led by its corrupt sheriff (Andrew Duggan) and head bad guy and seducer Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll).  The otherwise capable Allison’s gun hand is injured before his final shoot-out with Kimbrough.

Forty Guns (Hank Worden, 1957). Hank Worden’s city marshal isn’t much of a gunman (or even a main character), but he is all but blind when he is gunned down by Barbara Stanwyck’s no-good younger brother Brockie (John Ericson).  In this case, picking on an old blind marshal early in the movie is indicative of Brockie’s moral bankruptcy, like shooting a dog or kicking a child.

Terror in a Texas Town (Nedrick Young, 1958).  This is the rare situation where the bad guy, black-clad Johnny Cale (Nedrick Young), has lost his right hand, although he is still good with his left.  The loss of a hand seems emblematic of his psychological deformities, but he doesn’t seem to feel the loss of it in his role as gunslinging enforcer—until he comes up against a whaler (Sterling Hayden) with a harpoon.

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Richard Widmark has been beaten and stabbed in the gun hand but still has to go against Henry Fonda in Warlock.

Warlock (Richard Widmark, 1959).  Brave but overmatched Deputy Sheriff Johnny Gannon’s gun hand is heavily bandaged, having been brutally pinned to a table with a knife by his former boss.  Gannon (Richard Widmark) must now face both that boss and his men in the street, followed by an even greater challenge:  going against Marshal Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda), who was obviously much better with a gun even before Gannon’s injuries.

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Brian Keith’s shooting arm doesn’t work right in The Deadly Companions.

The Deadly Companions (Brian Keith, 1961). In director Sam Peckinpah’s first movie, Yellowleg (Brian Keith) has a rifle ball near his collarbone from the Civil War, and it often impairs the functioning of his right arm.  At the start of the movie, it causes him to accidentally shoot saloon girl Maureen O’Hara’s son, and you know it will come up again in a critical situation.

The Gun Hawk (Rory Calhoun, 1963).  Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun) goes up against the conscienceless gunman Johnny Flanders (Robert J. Wilke) even though his gun hand is all but useless because of a bad wound to that arm.  Not entirely convincingly, he does it by beating him in a fist fight.  Ultimately, however, Madden does not win his bigger fight.

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John Wayne’s gun arm goes numb because of an old bullet near his spine in El Dorado.

El Dorado (John Wayne, 1966).  Expert gunman Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has his gun arm occasionally go numb, due to a wound in his back near the spine.  You know this will happen at a critical time.

Arizona Bushwhackers (Howard Keel, John Ireland, 1968).  This laughably bad A.C. Lyles production features the only saloon brawl on film between two one-armed battlers.  One is a wounded sheriff (Howard Keel) and the other is his deputy crippled in the Civil War (John Ireland).

The Shootist (John Wayne, 1976).  Aging gunman J.B. Books (John Wayne) is dying of cancer in turn-of-the-century Carson City.  He arranges to go out on his birthday, in a shoot-out with three of the area’s deadliest gunmen at once.

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Dean Jagger in Pursued

Tom Tryon in Three Violent People

Dean Jagger in The Proud Rebel

Clifford David in Invitation to a Gunfighter

David Dukes in Last Stand at Saber River

 

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Terror in a Texas Town

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 15, 2015

Terror in a Texas Town—Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Nedrick Young (Ned Young), Victor Milian, Carol Kelly, Sheb Woolley (1958; Dir: Joseph H. Lewis)

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Sterling Hayden starred in several B westerns in the mid-1950s, sometimes venturing into more ambitious territory with more upscale films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Killing (1956), later even showing up in smaller roles in Dr. Strangelove (as Gen. Jack D. Ripper) and The Godfather (as a corrupt police lieutenant killed in a restaurant).  He was said to have been more interested in sailing than in acting.  This low-budget effort is his last starring role in a western, and it’s also the last film directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry), who was known for his style-over-substance approach to filmmaking.

Some of that style is apparent from the opening scene, which shows Swedish whaler George Hanson (Sterling Hayden) marching down the dusty main street of the Texas town of the title without hat or gun, but carrying a whaling harpoon into a confrontation with a stereotypical black-clad, one-handed gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young). The rest of the story is told in flashback, getting us back to this point.

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The opening scene sets up the final confrontation on a dusty Texas street.

The outlines of the plot are not remarkable. A wealthy man, Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), has come to town, intent on taking over the surrounding land because it has oil.  He brings in Johnny Crale, a gunslinger he has worked with before.  Since then Crale appears to have lost his right hand and now wears one of metal with a glove, although his nasty disposition is intact.  Among those who will not sell is Swedish immigrant Sven Hanson (Ted Stanhope in an uncredited role); and Crale coldly kills him.  The killing is witnessed by Juan Mirada (Victor Milian), who keeps silent in part because his wife is expecting a new child any day,.and in part because it would do no good to say anything.

Sven’s son George Hanson comes to town to visit his father.  Although he is generally peaceable, he has progressive run-ins with Crale, whose men beat him and put him on a train out of town.  He returns and persuades Juan to tell the story of his father’s killing, until Crale kills Juan as his child is being born; the murder is witnessed by his own son Pepe.  McNeil starts to see Crale as a liability and they have a falling-out, until Crale kills him, too.  This brings us back to the opening scene, as George takes up the weapon he knows, a harpoon, and goes to meet Crale in the street in one of the most unusual western showdowns ever filmed.

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Land magnate Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) negotiates with his enforcer Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), while McNeil’s “secretary” listens.

Hayden, who never looked much like the traditional western hero, does well enough as a Swedish whaler who can’t be pushed any farther.  For once, devoted sailor Hayden got to play an actual seaman, even if in a western with no ocean.  Sebastian Cabot is better than most range tyrants as the nefarious oil-hungry magnate.  Kendrick Young is not entirely satisfying as the one-handed gunman, in a kind of stereotypically-written role.  Victor Milian (who was in the film noir Touch of Evil the same year, but spent most of his career in television) does well as the Mexican witness weighing his responsibilities to his family against telling the truth about Crale.

Director Lewis earns his reputation for style by constantly distracting us from the outlines of a routine story with unusual camera angles, lingering close-ups on weathered faces and disturbing editing.  In general, virtue is not rewarded, nor are those who summon the courage to do the right thing (Sven Hanson, Juan Mirada).  The psychologically-tortured gunman Crale seems almost as much a victim as those he killed–perhaps because his mother never loved him or because his crippled gun hand represents another kind of impotence.  The whole thing has the kind of bitter aftertaste of, say, The Ox-Bow Incident, with justice coming out on the short end.  This has become something of a cult favorite in some circles.

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When the law fails, George Hanson (Sterling Hayden) uses the weapons at hand–in this case, a harpoon.

Except for the inclusion of “Texas,” there is little about the alliterative title that signals this is a western.  Written by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, under another name.  Shot in black and white by Ray Rennahan, at 80 minutes.  For another Lewis-directed western featuring a gunman with a crippled hand (Randolph Scott this time), see A Lawless Street (1955).  If you’re only going to watch a couple of the eighteen Sterling Hayden westerns, you should try this and Johnny Guitar, neither of which was exactly typical for him.

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The Gun Hawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 11, 2015

The Gun Hawk—Rory Calhoun, Rod Cameron, Rod Lauren, Ruta Lee, Robert Wilke, John Litel, Morgan Woodward (1963; Dir: Edward Ludwig)

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This is a late western in the careers of Rory Calhoun and Rod Cameron, and the last movie for director Edward Ludwig (who made such John Wayne non-westerns as Big Jim McLain, Wake of the Red Witch and The Fighting Seabees).

The title refers to the mysterious figure who runs the haven of Sanctuary on the Mexican border, enforcing his rules with his gun.   Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun), not bad with a gun himself, rides into Baxter, the town where he grew up, in time to meet and help young footloose gunman Reb Roan (Rod Lauren).  Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron, with lots of gray paint in his hair) liked Madden when he was growing up and once offered him a job as his deputy.  He didn’t take it, but his jealous childhood friend Mitch (Morgan Woodward) did, and he still resents Madden.  Madden tells Corey he’s not staying in town but is headed to Sanctuary.

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Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron), Deputy Mitch (Morgan Woodward) and Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun) all see trouble coming but differ in their responses.

In the local saloon, after Madden helps Roan in a fight with the Sully brothers, those brothers start picking on the town drunk (long-time character actor John Litel, who had often played ministers and even Gen. Phil Sheridan).  Finally, they shoot him, not realizing that he’s Madden’s father.  Madden leaves town, saying he’s not going in pursuit of them, but he finds them before Corey does.  Corey rides up, sees Madden standing over the two dead Sullys and tries to arrest him.  Madden rides away, gambling that Corey will not shoot him in the back, but he does, winging him.

Aimless young drifter Reb Roan finds Madden having collapsed from his wound and does what he can to doctor it.  It’s in Madden’s right arm (his gun arm), and it obviously impairs Madden’s ability to use his gun.  As the two of them ride into Sanctuary, Madden is greeted as “El Gavilan,” Spanish for “the hawk”—he is the mysterious figure who presides over Sanctuary.  His first action is to run out Johnny Flanders (veteran screen heavy Robert Wilke), who has violated Sanctuary’s rules about not using guns.  He accomplishes this not with guns but (not very convincingly for some one with a badly wounded right arm) with his fists.

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Roan (Rod Lauren) and Madden (Rory Calhoun) ride into Sanctuary.

[Spoilers follow.]  Ben Corey rides into Sanctuary and takes Madden into custody, but the residents of the hamlet prevent him from riding out with El Gavilan.  Mitch tries unsuccessfully to raise a posse in a neighboring town and wants to just shoot Madden down.  Corey takes back his badge.  Meanwhile, in Sanctuary Madden’s romantic interest Marleen (Ruta Lee) spends the night with him, and in the morning he forces Roan into a gun fight.  Roan is wounded but Madden (who was dying from his wound) is dead—a death the way he wanted it.  Marleen then explains to Roan that, having violated the rules of Sanctuary, he must now leave.

The ending is not terribly satisfying, and the rationale for Reb having to leave not all that convincing now that Madden is dead.  There are at least two alternate endings that would have worked better:  (1) Instead of Madden dying, he and Roan stage the final gunfight, but it is just that—staged, for Corey to witness from his perch above the town.  When he sees Madden’s apparent death, he gives up the chase, and Madden and the inhabitants of Sanctuary live happily ever after in their remote location.  Or better, (2) if Madden has to die, it plays out as in the movie, but with his last words the dying Madden passes to Roan the mantle of El Gavilan, and Roan becomes the protector of Sanctuary in the place of his mentor.  And it’s never really explained why the fatherly Corey actually did shoot Madden in the back, although theoretically just wounding him.  The result in the film is probably more true to the state of 19th-century medicine on the trail than if Madden had survived.

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A last night for Madden (Rory Calhoun) and Marleen (Ruta Lee).

Experienced hands Calhoun and Cameron are fine in this low-budget effort, although Calhoun spends too much time just looking pained, either from his wound or the situation around him.  Lauren and Ruta Lee are not impressive.  This is not among Calhoun’s very best efforts; those would probably be Dawn at Socorro (1954) and Apache Territory (1958), both with better writing. But it does pull us in with interesting characters, good world-weary acting from Calhoun and with its twist on familiar situations up to a point, until things fall apart at the end.  Rory Calhoun fans will want to watch it anyway.  In color, at 92 minutes.

For another tale of a haven for outlaws in the Southwest, see the more famous Rancho Notorious (1952) by director Fritz Lang, with the establishment presided over by Marlene Dietrich.  There is a string of westerns about gunmen with physical impairments, the best-known of which is El Dorado (1966), in which John Wayne is the afflicted gunslinger.

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Santa Fe

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 8, 2015

Santa Fe—Randolph Scott, Janis Carter, John Archer, Roy Roberts (1951; Dir: Irving Pichel)

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In the wake of the Civil War, southerners Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) and his three brothers have lost their plantation in Virginia and head west.  In northern Missouri, they encounter hostile Yankee soldiers and are forced to kill one.  In their escape (Scott leaves behind his beautiful horse Stardust, who disappears from the movie), they hop on a passing train and end up in Kansas.  Brit goes to work for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, but his embittered brothers fall in with Cole Sanders (Roy Roberts), operator of a mobile saloon with a lot of other unlawful activities.

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The Canfield brothers in northern Missouri. Randolph Scott (second from left) is still riding Stardust.

Brit quickly becomes the chief assistant and troubleshooter for Dave Baxter (Warner Anderson), a former Yankee officer who remembers Britt as a capable commander for the opposition during the late war.  Baxter’s clerk, payroll manager and telegraph operator Judith Chandler (Janis Carter) is initially hostile, having lost her husband in the Civil War action for which Baxter remembers him.  Sanders (and Canfield’s brothers) fire up Indian hostility to the railroad, until Britt lets the chief drive the iron horse.  Canfield is continually at war with Sanders, with his brothers caught in the middle.

With the railroad rushing to the Colorado state line to make a bonus, Sanders causes a drunkern surveyor to move the state line designation so that the bonus is imperiled until Brit and Baxter drive the construction through the night for the final 48 hours.  The Denver and Rio Grande threatens to take Raton Pass in eastern Colorado (effectively blocking the Atchison, Topeka) until Brit makes a marathon ride to buy the toll road in the pass from Uncle Dick Wooton first.

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Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) meets the hostile Judith (Janis Carter). Note Scott’s trademark jacket.

A mysterious gang robs the train carrying the payroll, and Britt recognizes a couple of his brothers.  One of them is wounded and dies of his wounds.  Bat Masterson from Dodge City arrests the youngest brother until Britt creates a reasonable doubt for him, with the help of Judith Chandler.  Baxter sets up a decoy train, but Sanders overhears Britt telling his brothers it’s a trap, and they rob the Wells Fargo safe instead.  While pursuing the robbers, Britt encounters Bat Masterson and Baxter and persuades them to let him join their posse.

At a remote station they trap Sanders and his gang; when the remaining two Canfield brothers balk at killing during the escape, Sanders and his men shoot them.  Sanders and his remaining henchman leap aboard a passing train with Britt in pursuit, and since he’s Randolph Scott, we know how that will turn out.  Baxter finds that Judith has hidden a wanted poster for the Canfields and no longer trusts Brit; although the railroad makes it to Santa Fe (despite the name of the railroad, the original line didn’t go to Santa Fe), but by that time Brit is working for a railroad in Nevada.  When Judith finds out where he is, she goes to join him.  Fade to black.

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Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) hunts for train robbers in the rocks.

This is one of several movies with Randolph Scott as a railroad troubleshooter (see Canadian Pacific and Carson City, for example) in building a western railway.  The film has a lot of plot and good action, with Scott continually torn between getting the railroad through and trying unsuccessfully to get his brothers to go straight.  There are some loose ends in all of this; it’s not clear why Sanders would profit from sabotaging the railroad, for example.  You’d think he would do best with his mobile saloon if the railroad prospered.  This isn’t one of the better supporting casts for a Randolph Scott western; Janis Carter is a fairly colorless female lead, as was common in those films.  The film starts with misattributing a well-known phrase from Lincoln’s second inaugural address to the Gettysburg Address; and includes windy Manifest-Destiny pronouncements and speeches by C.K. Holliday (Paul Stanton playing the owner of the railroad) on more than one occasion.

On the whole, however, this is worth watching, with lots of good action–one of the better Randolph Scott westerns from the early 1950s.  It would make a good double feature with Carson City.  Shot in color in Arizona by Charles (Buddy) Lawton, Jr., at 87 minutes.  This was one of the last films from director Irving Pichel.  The producer was Harry Joe Brown, who frequently worked on Scott projects, most notably those directed by Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s.

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The Missouri Breaks

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 4, 2015

The Missouri Breaks—Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Kathleen Lloyd, John McLiam, Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, Randy Quaid, John Ryan (1976; Dir: Arthur Penn)

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The title refers to an area of rough terrain along the Missouri River in north central Montana, where a variety of rustlers, wolfers, outlaws and other undesirables found refuge during the ranching era of the 1880s.  Marlon Brando was generally thought to be the greatest film actor of his generation (roughly 1950 to 1972), and Jack Nicholson was the personification of the new American cinema of the1970s.  Here they star together for the only time, under the direction of Arthur Penn, who had helped usher in the new era with Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  It was the 52-year-old Brando’s first film since the back-to-back successes of The Godfather (with a Best Actor Oscar) and Last Tango in Paris three years earlier; and Jack Nicholson had just won the Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).  It made for a highly-anticipated movie.

Range baron David Braxton (John McLiam) is frustrated by mounting stock losses to rustlers, now up to 7% (a number repeated more than once).  As the movie opens, Braxton and his men are hanging a young rustler, to the distress of Braxton’s independent-minded daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd).  In response to that hanging, the rustlers hang Braxton’s foreman Pete.  So Braxton sends for a range “regulator”—Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) from Wyoming.

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Marlon Brando as Lee Clayton, as he first appears in The Missouri Breaks; and Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) surrounded by the others in his gang,

About the same time, Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and Little Tod (Randy Quaid) rob a train in a quasi-comic sequence.  Tom, the leader of a gang of outlaws that include rustling among their pursuits, seeks out Braxton for his advice on starting a ranching operation, which he does using the proceeds of the train robbery.  The rest of his gang, led by Cal (Harry Dean Stanton), take off north to steal 60 horses from the Canadian Mounties.

Tom finds that he likes farming/ranching, and may be good at it.  Jane Braxton conceives a sudden fondness for him, and they work out the terms of a dalliance.  As Jane watches from the Braxton porch, two apparently riderless horses approach over the hill.  As the horses arrive, Lee Clayton’s head pops out from under the lead horse’s neck.  The regulator has arrived, wearing a beautiful white leather jacket and a headband and sporting an inexplicable Irish accent.  He meets various Braxton neighbors, including Tom Logan.

Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson):  “Regulator?  Ain’t that like a dry gulcher?”
Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando):  “Well, that’s not the softest term you could use, I’d say.”
Tom Logan:  “Well, Regulator, correct me now if I’m wrong.  Isn’t a regulator one of these boys that shoots people and don’t never get near ’em?”
Lee Clayton:  “That’s it.”

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Jane Braxton (Kathleen Lloyd) and Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) get to know each other better.

[Spoilers follow.]  As the rest of Logan’s boys return from Canada with their stolen horses, they are ambushed on the American side of the border by the Mounties, who take back their horses.  Clayton, now sans Irish accent and claiming to be Jim Ferguson, meets Little Tod and drowns him in the Missouri.  Braxton can’t control Clayton and tries to call him off, to no effect.  One by one he picks off the others in Logan’s gang, often leaving his trademarck 50-caliber rifle shell.  Finally, as Cal sleeps in the cabin, Clayton, dressed as a woman and referring to himself as Granny, firebombs it and captures Cal.  After talking with him, Clayton kills him with a strange tomahawk/throwing knife.  Tom knows that he will be next.  As Clayton hunts him, Clayton goes to sleep at his camp and awakens suddenly to find Logan next to him.

Tom Logan [to Clayton, whispering]:  “You know what woke you up?  You just had your throat cut.”

Logan then confronts Braxton, intending to kill him, only to find that Braxton, upon hearing Jane tell him she was leaving, is now reduced to helplessness (perhaps by a stroke)—until he grabs a pistol and shoots Logan.  Whereupon Logan shoots back, killing Braxton.  As the movie ends, Jane and Logan try to figure out if there’s a future for them together, perhaps in Montana’s Little Rockies in a few months.

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The assassin as Granny:  Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) inexplicably dresses in drag.

The movie was not well-received on its release, grossing only $14 million in the U.S.  Leonard Maltin called it “a jumbled, excessively violent pseudo-event; a great director’s worst film and one of the worst ‘big’ movies ever made.”  Brando’s flamboyantly over-the-top (and often unintelligible) performance was singled out.  Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review, wrote that Brando’s performance “had no apparent connection to the movie around him.”  “The American press is always running him [Brando] down,” director Penn told one interviewer, “but he’s a great actor and a true professional.”  In Penn’s view, The Missouri Breaks flopped not because of Brando, but because “The American public isn’t ready for a film that doesn’t have a big shootout at the end.”  No, it was pretty much Brando; the ending actually works.

In the last couple of decades, there have been some attempts at re-assessment.  Upon Arthur Penn’s death in 2010, critic David Kehr referred to The Missouri Breaks as “a surreal western with moments of brilliance but a meandering tone.”  The Harvard Film Archive at a recent showing provided this synopsis:  “Featuring the incredible pairing of Jack Nicholson as a feckless cattle thief and Marlon Brando as the Irish ‘regulator’ hired to hunt him down, The Missouri Breaks is a rollicking and highly unusual Western that, in typical Penn fashion, strains the boundaries of the genre.  Penn’s empowerment of performers is taken to a wonderful furthest extreme by the subversive presence of Brando’s cross-dressing and unpredictable assassin, who effectively turns codes of masculinity and narrative continuity upon their heads.  Once dismissed as an ‘oddity’ in Penn’s career, The Missouri Breaks has been reevaluated as one of the more ambitious and original Westerns of its time, placing it in the company of Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand and Monte Hellman’s The Shooting.”  Such a neo-revisionist view of a revisionist western is not entirely convincing, however.  “Penn’s empowerment of performers” really meant that he couldn’t get Brando to accept direction and eventually gave up trying.  Brando’s scenery-chewing, constant ad-libbing of dialogue and unfathomable accents and costumes made Jack Nicholson look restrained by comparison; Nicholson does well in the film, although his presence always adds a note of subversion to a western.  It was said that, despite their multiple scenes together, Nicholson and Brando were only on the set at the same time for one day.

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Cal (Harry Dean Stanton) shows Tom Logan regulator Lee Clayton’s trademark 50-caliber shell, left on Little Tod’s horse.

Among the supporting players, Harry Dean Stanton is the best, as Cal, the other senior member of Logan’s rustler/outlaw gang.  Kathleen Lloyd is also good as Jane Braxton, and it’s a bit surprising that she didn’t have more of a film career. This just wasn’t the movie to build such a career on.  This was the last leading role of Brando’s career, although he was only 52.  Producers became warier of him, his politics got in the way, he seemed less interested in acting generally, and he had started to put on substantial amounts of weight.  He could still be excellent when he wanted to, though; his future still included smaller roles such as a cameo as Superman’s father (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), a brilliant comic riff on his Godfather role in The Freshman (1990), and the caper film The Score (2001), with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton.

Although this was released the same year as The Shootist and The Outlaw Josey Wales, this movie partakes much more of the revisionist western trends of the time than those films do.  Director Penn had established himself squarely in that stream with Little Big Man in 1970, and the anti-death penalty stance here was very much in line with the progressive times of the anti-authoritarian 1970s.  Jane Braxton’s feminist and sexual attitudes also seem more of the 1970s than the 1880s.  The outlaws are more humane than the authorities, such as they are, and are somewhat more charming than they would have been in real life, to make them more sympathetic.

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Co-stars Brando and Nicholson were together on the set for at least one day.

This has what is sometimes called a “literate” screenplay, meaning that the dialogue often sounds like characters in a book rather than real people talking.  It was written by novelist Thomas McGuane, known also for the films Rancho Deluxe and Tom Horn, with an uncredited rewrite by script doctor Robert Towne and extensive ad libbing by Brando.  It sports an early (and successful) film score by the prolific John Williams.  Filmed in color by Michael Butler at various locations in Montana (Red Lodge, Billings, Virginia City, Nevada City), at 126 minutes.  Rated R, for violence, hangings and sexual references.

Author McGuane obviously based the screenplay on some actual historical events and persons.  David Braxton reminds us of Montana founding father and rancher Granville Stuart, who built the DHS Ranch near the Judith River.  In 1884, he led a group of vigilantes known as Stuart’s Stranglers, who cleaned out rustlers in the area, killing up to twenty of them.  Stuart then lost his ranch after the Big Die-Up, the horrific winter of 1886-1887 that killed many of the cattle on the northern plains.  He was known for his fondness for books and his extensive personal library, and he spent his last years as the head librarian at the Butte Public Library.  Some aspects of Lee Clayton are based on Tom Horn, the most famous of the “range detectives,” including his marksmanship and penchant for killing at a long distance, and his leaving a trademark (in Horn’s case, usually a stone under the victim’s head).  Horn was eventually executed in Cheyenne in 1903 for a killing he may or may not have committed.  Tom Logan’s name seems to come from a famous family of Montana outlaws; Lee Clayton calls attention to that when he makes a reference to Lonnie Logan, a Montana outlaw of the 1890s who was one of the brothers of Harvey Logan–the Kid Curry of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.

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Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) using his specially-fitted Creedmoor long-range rifle.

The film remains controversial forty years later, a colorful artifact of its time.  Even if it’s a failure, it’s a notable one, joining such epic bombs as Duel in the Sun and Heaven’s Gate.  Like Heaven’s Gate, it will continue to be subjected to re-examination from time to time now that the passions surrounding its making and release have faded.  Among the colorful details of the film are Lee Clayton’s exotic weapons, including an engraved pistol with the front sight filed down, his silver-chased Creedmoor long-distance rifle, and the strange throwing hatchet/knife (supposedly invented by Brando) with which he kills Cal.  The film was put on the American Humane Association’s “unacceptable” list because of its treatment of horses: at least one was drowned in the Missouri River, another crippled by a tripwire (commonly used in movies at one time), and several others injured during a stampede sequence.

This was Brando’s third and final western, after One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and The Appaloosa (1966).  For Jack Nicholson in other westerns, see Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), The Shooting (1966) and Goin’ South (1978).  As for Kathleen Lloyd–well, she never made another movie worth noting.

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Trail Street

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 1, 2015

Trail Street—Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, George “Gabby” Hayes, Anne Jeffreys, Madge Meredith, Steve Brodie, Billy House (1947; Dir: Ray Enright)

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The Trail Street of the title is the main street of Liberal, Kansas, a reference to the route of the cattle drives from Texas.  Here, the trail-driving cattlemen are the bad guys, pitted against the good but defenseless farmers.

On  the side the farmers is sympathetic local banker (!) Alan Harper (Robert Ryan), who is running out of money to finance them and who is romantically interested in Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith).  Susan, who wants to movie to the big city, can’t decide between the obviously decent Harper and Logan Maury (Steve Brodie), saloon owner on the side of the cattlemen, who is trying to buy up the farmers’ land as they leave one by one.  Maury is wealthy and offers to take Susan to Chicago.  Saloon girl Ruby (Anne Jeffreys) grew up with Harper but ran away to her present life and sees Maury as hers.

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Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith) is romanced by decent banker Alan Harper (Robert Ryan).

Amid the gathering chaos, local character Billy Burns (Gabby Hayes) persuades the mayor to send for Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott).  Masterson quickly sizes up the situation and sides with Harper against Maury and the sleazy saloon operator Carmody (Billy House is excellent in the duplicitous role).  While Susan dithers, Harper is framed for the murder of a farmer he was trying to help, and he discovers the farmer had a new type of winter wheat that will make the Kansas prairies fertile fields for wheat production.  As Maury tries to bust the actual murderer out of jail, a battle breaks out, with the departing farmers pitching in against the cowboys and Maury.  Ruby burns the deeds of the farmers that Maury had acquired, and he shoots her in the back, causing his own men to turn on him.  Susan (not terribly convincingly) comes to her senses about Alan.  Bat Masterson leaves for New York to become a “journalist.”  (The real Bat Masterson became sports editor for the Morning Telegraph in New York.)

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Recently-deputized Alan Harper (Robert Ryan), Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott) and even the indecisive Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith) prepare to defend the jail.

This was made about the time that Randolph Scott was turning his career to making only westerns, and this was not his best work.  At this stage he sometimes adopted a relentlessly cheerful demeanor, notwithstanding what was going on around him, and the result was (a) a kind of dissonance, and (b) a sense that, whatever the problems, they weren’t all that serious, even if slaughter and mayhem were taking place.  Scott would be better in future westerns, especially those made a decade later with Budd Boetticher.  Another weakness, common in Randolph Scott westerns, is an insipid female lead, both in the writing and in performance.  Bad girl Anne Jeffreys is much more interesting than indecisive good girl Madge Meredith.  And a third problem is that Gabby Hayes’ brand of toothless, aw-shucks performance must have been much more attractive 70 years ago than it seems now.  As toothless sidekicks go, Walter Brennan was a much better actor.  Steve Brodie’s bad guy Logan Maury suffers from an inconsistent mustache, among other things.

In black and white, at 84 minutes.  Randolph Scott (Frontier Marshal, Trail Street) joins Joel McCrea (Wichita, The Gunfight at Dodge City) as actors who have portrayed both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson on film.  Some posters for the movie show Scott using two guns (as he did in Canadian Pacific), but he wears only one in the film.  He was better with one.  The German title was much more fun:  Die Totesreiter von Kansas (Death Rider of Kansas).

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The dying Ruby (Anne Jeffreys), having taken one for the team, makes a graceful exit, surrounded by Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith), Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott) and Alan Harper (Robert Ryan).

Randolph Scott, Gabby Hayes and Steve Brodie had starred the previous year in Badman’s Territory.  Four of these actors, Scott, Ryan, Jeffreys and Hayes would appear together the next year in director Enright’s slightly better Return of the Bad Men.  This time Ryan would be a bad guy (the Sundance Kid), Gabby Hayes would be a wildly improbable bank president and Anne Jeffreys still wouldn’t get the guy despite being more interesting than the ostensible female lead.  Ray Enright, who had directed movies since the 1920s including the 1942 version of The Spoilers with Randolph Scott and emerging star John Wayne, directed several of Scott’s westerns of the late 1940s (Albuquerque, Coroner Creek), as well as Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith in Montana (1950).

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