Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Furies

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2015

The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952.  Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner.  But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson.  His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones.  His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick.  But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.).  And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.

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Adversaries T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) frame Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck).

Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology.  The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco.  He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight.  The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it.  There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations.  It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though.  The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.

At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival.  The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child.  That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better.  He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves.  At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey).  When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence.  And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t.  Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.

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T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) don’t always get along, either.

Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland).  She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).  Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000.  More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance.  Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side.  Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men.  Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.

Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount.  She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.

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Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) gets ready to attack Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).

T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more.  T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs.  The two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver.  As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).

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Mom Herrera (Blanche Yurka) prepares to take her revenge.

All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit.  On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes.  The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck.  The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well.  Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man.  At heart, she’s a cowgirl.  Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”

Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo.  Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here.  The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.

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Gambler-banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) try to work things out.

1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns:  Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this.  They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period.  This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky.  The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer.  The screenplay is by Charles Schnee.  Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman.  Music is by Franz Waxman.

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For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn.  And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992).  For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

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Last Stand at Saber River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 16, 2015

Last Stand at Saber River—Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Tracey Needham, David Dukes, Rachel Duncan, Haley Joel Osment, Harry Carey, Jr., Lumi Cavazos (Made for television, 1997; Dir:  Dick Lowry)

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A story from Elmore Leonard is usually a good starting point for a western.  (See, for example, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma [original and remake], Hombre, Valdez Is Coming and Joe Kidd.)  In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot appeared in a series of westerns that were initially shown on Ted Turner’s TNT television station, with higher production values than normally seen in that medium.  Often they were based on stories from the heyday of westerns in the 1950s and 1960s by such masters as Leonard and Louis L’Amour, but also on classics by writers like Jack Schaefer (Monte Walsh).  Tom Selleck not only starred, but often took a production role in getting the movie made, as was the case with this Leonard story from the 1950s.

In early 1865 Paul Cable (Tom Selleck; we seldom hear him called anything but “Cable”) is returning from the Civil War, where he has spent four years riding with Confederate cavalry commander Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There are multiple references to Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, where Forrest and his men committed an atrocity by gunning down more than 300 Union prisoners, most of them black soldiers.  Burned out on the war, Cable just wants to pick up his wife and children in Texas and move back to their ranch in Arizona Territory.  Cable’s wife Martha (Suzy Amis) has spent the interim as a schoolteacher and gunsmith, working with her gunsmith father (Harry Carey, Jr. in his final acting role).  It’s not easy to put the Cable family back together again.  Martha is still traumatized by the death of baby Mary three years ago, by not understanding why (and resenting that) Cable went to fight, by seeing that he’s changed while he’s been away (more willing to kill if necessary) and by being uprooted again.  Frictions in the Cable marriage are one of the basic two conflicts that flow through the story.

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The Cables (Haley Joel Osment, Suzy Amis and Tom Selleck) try to sort things out, now that Paul Cable is home from the war.

The other involves the Kidstons, a family consisting of two brothers Vern (Keith Carradine) and Duane (David Carradine) and Duane’s free-thinking daughter Lorraine (Tracey Needham).  They’re Union sympathizers (Duane had been kicked out of the Union army) who have come to dominate the area while the Cables have been gone.  When the Cables approach their own ranch house, they find it occupied by Kidston men and prostitutes; Martha shoots down two of them when they threaten Cable, and she is appalled that she did it.

Cable is jumped by two brothers of one of the deceased men; he kills one and captures the other, but eventually lets him go.  He takes his family to the general store, where Edward Janroe (David Dukes), a Confederate veteran himself, promises protection for them.  Returning to his cabin, Cable finds Lorraine Kidston there, claiming to have been thrown from her horse.  She makes it obvious he can have a dalliance with her; it is less obvious whether the attraction is real, or she’s just making mischief.  Cable politely resists in any event.

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Daughter of a gunsmith, Martha Cable (Suzy Amis) can both make and shoot guns.

[Spoilers follow.]  As news of the end of the war reaches Arizona Territory, Janroe, who has been smuggling British Enfield rifles across the border with Mexico and then sending them east to the Confederate army, volunteers to take the news to Cable.  But Janroe seems to have become unhinged by this development.  Cable is out working, and in his absence Janroe trashes the Cable cabin.  He then stops by the Kidston ranch, and shoots Duane twice, with no witnesses.  Vern Kidston thinks it’s obvious that Cable did it.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) negotiates with storekeeper Edward Janroe (David Dukes).

When Kidston and his men besiege Cable at his cabin, he’s rescued by Martha taking out yet another of their gunmen.  Cable and Vern Kidston finally talk and figure out that Janroe didn’t give Cable the news, and that if he was out that way he might have been the one to shoot Duane. Heading for the Janroe store, they find that Janroe has (a) abducted Cable’s daughter Clare (Rachel Duncan), (b) shot Luz (Lumi Cavazos), his Hispanic mistress, when she tried to stop it, and (c) taken his stock of rifles to the Mexican bandits along the border.  Cable and Vern head out in pursuit.  The rescue involves an extended chase, Vern shooting Janroe, Cable rescuing his daughter from a runaway wagon, and finally Cable fighting off the bandits and taking a wound himself.  Back at the Cable cabin, indications are that there will be peace with the remaining Kidstons and perhaps between Cable and Martha.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) is pinned down in the rocks by superior numbers.

Selleck was usually good in these high-quality made-for-television westerns, almost single-handedly bringing back the big hat that was more or less authentic to the time of the story.  (Perhaps the best example of a Selleck hat is in Quigley Down Under, which was not made for television.)  Both Suzy Amis (near the end of her acting career at only 35) and Tracey Needham have strong female roles well-integrated with the story (unusual for a western); Amis’ character is both harder-edged and more sympathetic.  David Dukes makes an effective fanatical one-armed villain.  Rachel Duncan and Haley Joel Osment as the Cable children are unusually effective, too. The Carradine brothers most famously starred together in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) as two of the Younger brothers, but you can also see them together in The Outsider (2002), another made-for-television western.

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Keith Carradine as the more sensible Kidston brother Vern; and David Carradine as Duane.

Dick Lowry was a long-time television director, who also worked with Selleck on one of his Jesse Stone police procedurals in 2011.  This was shot in New Mexico, around Santa Fe, in color at 96 minutes.

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Canyon Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2015

Canyon Passage—Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine (1946; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Dana Andrews is remembered these days primarily for such modern roles as he played in Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  But he was also in several good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Three Hours to Kill (1954), Strange Lady in Town (1955)… and this one.

The movie opens in Portland, Oregon, in 1856.  Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is a freighter, running strings of pack mules from San Francisco to Portland.  While in Portland, he gets paid $7000 and arranges to take Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), fiancée of his friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), back to George in Jacksonville in southern Oregon.  He is also attacked by a robber, whom he thinks to be Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and with whom he has unpleasant history.  The robbery is not successful, and the thief gets away.

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Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) and Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) head south for Jacksonville.

On the way south to Jacksonville, they stop at the ranch of Ben Dance (Andy Devine) and his family, where Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) is staying.  Stuart is attracted to Caroline, but he seems also to have a relationship with Lucy.  At a cabin raising, he asks Caroline to marry him and she accepts, although she wants to stay put and is troubled that Logan is so footloose, constantly concentrating on expanding his freighting business.

Arriving at Jacksonville, Stuart fights Bragg and wins.  Lucy has been putting off setting a date for her marriage to George, but plans to go through with it after she goes to San Francisco with Logan to get a wedding dress.  Meanwhile, George is acting as a banker for miners in Jacksonville.  He has also been gambling and losing, and has been covering his losses by stealing from the gold deposited with him.  We see that George is also a man of restless affections, not limited to Lucy.  Eventually George stands accused of murdering one of his depositors for his gold, and Logan helps him escape before he can be hung.

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George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) finally persuades Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) to set the date for their wedding.

[Spoilers follow.]  As Logan and Lucy head south, they are attacked by Bragg.  They are unhurt, but their horses are killed, and they have to walk back to Jacksonville.  By that time the Jacksonville miners, led by Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges), have found and killed George in their absence.  After ambushing Logan, Bragg has also attacked an Indian woman, and now the Indians are torching farms and ranches in retaliation, including Ben Dance’s and Logan’s way stations and general store.  Dance is killed and the Indians are after Caroline Marsh, with Logan and the militia also in pursuit.  The Indians catch Bragg and take care of him, which seems to satisfy them for the moment.  Caroline decides she can’t marry Logan because he won’t settle down in one spot.  So Logan heads to San Francisco again to buy more mules to rebuild his operations.  And Lucy joins him.  They’re better suited to each other than Logan and Caroline were, anyway.

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A suspicious Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges) speaks for a band of vengeful miners.

Logan Stuart:  “There was a lot of good in George.”
Johnny Steele:  “He sure panned out no color.”
Logan Stuart:  “There’s a thin margin, Johnny, between what could be and what is.”
Johnny Steele:  “Yeah.  It was thin for you last night.  We were of a mind to hang you.”
Logan Stuart:  “You see how thin the margin is.”

Based on a story by Ernest Haycox, this is stuffed full of complicated and not-too-predictable plot and romantic triangles, densely populated with a good cast.  Dana Andrews plays Logan Stuart with the same stoic independence he did Det. Mark MacPherson in Laura.  Susan Hayward, an excellent and often fiery actress, has kind of a generically-written part that doesn’t really allow her to show what she can do.  She’s better in Rawhide [1951] and Garden of Evil [1954], both with meatier roles for her when she had become a bigger star.

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Ben Dance (Andy Devine) offers Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) a little avuncular advice.

Brian Donlevy didn’t always play villains (see him in Billy the Kid [1941] and Cowboy [1958], for example), but at this stage of his career he’s so identified with bad guys (the corrupt saloon owner Kent in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Sgt. Markov in Beau Geste, as just two examples from 1939) that we don’t trust him from the start.  The role of George Camrose calls out instead for somebody like Robert Preston, who specialized during the 1940s in friend-gone-bad roles, in which he established himself as charming first.  Ward Bond also has one of his occasional bad guy roles (e.g., The Oklahoma Kid), and he’s very effective.  This has one of Andy Devine’s better roles, too, where he is not used simply as a form of comic relief.  Hoagy Carmichael plays Hi Linnett, supposedly a small merchant, but mostly there to provide musical interludes, as in To Have and Have Not, and to comment on the action.  Carmichael’s song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” got the movie’s only Oscar nomination.  Several of the film’s significant events happen off-camera:  Bragg’s attack on the Indian maiden, the killing of George by the miners’ mob, the killing of Ben Dance by Indians, etc.

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Hoagy Carmichael as minstrel Hi Linnet provides musical interludes, occasional commentary and the film’s only Oscar nomination.

Jacques Tourneur was a good director of westerns, although he wasn’t best known for them in the 1940s.  Later on in the 1950s, he made a few of them (Stars in My Crown, Wichita, etc.) with Joel McCrea.  Ernest Pascal adapted the Haycox story into a screenplay, with some crisp, sometimes even philosophical, dialogue.  Music, except for that provided by Carmichael, is by Frank Skinner.  This was filmed on location in Oregon in color (a rarity for westerns in 1946) by Edward Cronjager, so it must have had a significant budget for its time.  92 minutes.

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Logan Stuart’s mule train wends its way past Oregon’s Crater Lake.

The title doesn’t seem to mean much; there are no obvious canyons involved.  For other “passage” westerns, see Northwest Passage (1940), California Passage (1950), Passage West (1951), Desert Passage (1952) Southwest Passage (1954), Oregon Passage (1957) and Night Passage (1957), which are otherwise unrelated to this one or to each other.

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The Tall Stranger

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 9, 2015

The Tall Stranger—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Barry Kelley, Michael Ansara, Whit Bissell, Leo Gordon, George Neise, Michael Pate, Ray Teal (1957; Dir: Thomas Carr)

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The stranger of the title is played by Joel McCrea, coming toward the end of his career, and he’s a bit long in the tooth for the role he plays in this combination wagon train-range war story with a convoluted plot based on a story by Louis L’Amour.  But he is still Joel McCrea, and, like Gary Cooper, he can still hold our attention and make us forget about his age.

Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) is heading home to Bishop Valley in Colorado Territory from the Civil War, when he spots rustlers and one of them ambushes him, shooting him and killing his horse.  All he saw of his assailant was a gold-plated rifle, along with fancy spurs.  He wakes up in a wagon heading west; a wagon train had found him, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a widow with a young son, had found room for him.  There is some hostility toward him among members of the wagon train.   Bannon was wearing parts of a Union uniform, and most of them are southerners and former Confederates.

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Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) returns home from the war to have it out with his brother (Barry Kelley).

He finds that they are led by a man named Harper (George Neise), and, although they think they are going to California, they are far south of the normal trail, heading for Bishop Valley, from which there is no good trail farther west.  Bannon is unlikely to get much of a welcome from the local cattle baron Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley), his half-brother.  During the recent war, Bishop’s only son Billy had joined Quantrill’s Missouri border raiders, and Bannon had led the Union cavalry that captured him, among others of Quantrill’s men.  The son had been executed.  Bannon has to fight Bishop before Bishop will listen to him at all, but Bannon persuades Bishop to give him three days to talk the wagon train into leaving the valley.

Bishop approaches the wagon train with Stark (Leo Gordon, in a rare good guy role), Bishop’s foreman, and Red.  Harper goads Red into drawing his gun and shoots him; in the melee that follows, Mrs. Judson is killed, although Bannon sees that she was shot from behind with a hollow-point bullet—the same kind with which he had been ambushed.  Ellen is bathing in a stream when she is attacked by Zarata (Michael Ansara), leader of Harper’s rustlers; he has a gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs.  Bannon fights Zarata and seems to be winning, until Zarata grabs Ellen’s son and uses him as a shield, breaking the boy’s arm.

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Young widow Ellen (Virginia Mayo) defends herself and her son.

[Spoilers follow.]  Bannon takes Ellen and son back to Bishop’s ranch, where they are doctored by Bishop’s cook Charley (Michael Pate).  Now Bannon knows that Harper plans to use the settlers and Zarata to take over the valley, and Harper and Zarata’s men attack the ranch.  After a protracted siege, Bannon and Bishop use a makeshift smokescreen to allow Bishop’s men to escape from the bunkhouse and get weapons, swinging the battle in their favor.  Bishop gets Zarata but is himself mortally wounded.  Harper is killed.  In the end, Bannon, presumably the new owner of the ranch and the valley, offers to let the wagon train stay and build a town.  Although Ellen reveals that she has a sordid past in St. Louis with no husband (kind of like Anne Baxter in Three Violent People), she and Bannon appear to have a future together.

This is can be hard to find now, since it’s not on DVD, but it is worth watching. The print I saw (on Amazon) was both grainy and inconsistent in color, and it’s obviously in need of restoration. This is one of McCrea’s better westerns from the late 1950s, like Trooper Hook and Gunsight Ridge (both also from 1957).  Notwithstanding McCrea’s age, the fight scenes with Barry Kelley and Michael Ansara are well-staged and persuasive.  Virginia Mayo is also good here, and there is an excellent supporting cast as well.  Leo Gordon and Michael Pate are particularly good.

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Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley) and Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) are besieged by Harper and his minions.

Director Thomas Carr had started as a child actor in silent movies.  He was an extra in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and became a director of B movies at Republic in the 1940s.  When he made The Tall Stranger, he was near the end of his movie-directing career before going exclusively into television work.  Filmed in color in southern California, at 81 minutes.

Virginia Mayo’s best other westerns are Colorado Territory (1949), also with Joel McCrea, and Fort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker, but you can also see her in The Proud Ones (1956) with Robert Ryan, Westbound (1959) with Randolph Scott and in the [inaccurate] Jim Bowie biopic The Iron Mistress (1952) with Alan Ladd.

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Buck and the Preacher

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 5, 2015

Buck and the Preacher—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Cameron Mitchell (1972; Dir: Sidney Poitier)

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The Buck of the title is Sidney Poitier in his second western, playing a former slave and former buffalo soldier who is now a wagon master helping free blacks move west in the face of night riders who are paid to drive them back to their southern homes to pick cotton.  The Preacher is Harry Belafonte, also a former slave, now a con man who uses a religious background for cover.  As you might guess from those two main characters, this western focuses primarily on black characters, a novelty for its time.

After the Civil War, newly free blacks seeking greater freedom than they can find in their Mississippi delta homeland.  The Pecos River is mentioned several times, so they seem to be in Texas.  At the same time, Deshay (Cameron Mitchell, wearing the remnants of a Union uniform of sorts) and his night riders are paid to terrorize them and drive them back to Louisiana, so they will once again be a source of cheap labor.  Deshay is also consumed with finding and killing Buck, for whom he offers a reward of $500.  Buck, trail-wise and good with guns (he has a special pair of cut-down shotguns in holsters, in addition to his regular pistol) is not so easy to find or kill.

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Black families heading west for more freedom.

When Deshay not only hits a wagon train that Buck has led but lays an ambush for Buck at his woman’s cabin, Buck barely escapes.  In his need to keep moving, he switches horses with the Preacher, whom he catches bathing in a stream.  (The Preacher says he is Willis Oakes Rutherford of the High and Low Orders of the Holiness Persuasion Church, but that sounds much too grandiose for the footloose ruffian he appears to be.)  The wagon train Buck is currently leading is hit by Deshay and his men, and Buck heads for Copper Springs, where Deshay is based; the Preacher tags along.  The two of them attack Deshay and his men while they are sporting at Miss Esther’s, killing eight, including Deshay.

Making their escape, they find that Deshay had spent almost all of the $1400 he had stolen from Buck’s people.  To recover it, they decide to rob both the express office and the bank in Copper Springs while the posse is chasing them.  It’s not without incident, but they are successful, and the robbery nets them $1800 each.  The Preacher plans to return to Illinois, but finds his way blocked by the posse on their heels.  As they run for Buck’s wagon train, the pursuers are blocked by Indians (of an unspecified tribe), who say they will allow the blacks passage through their land but will not fight for them.

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The Preacher (Harry Belafonte) and Buck (Sidney Poitier) prepare an assault.

[Spoilers follow.]  Deshay’s nephew kills the Copper Springs sheriff (who appears not to have anything against blacks) and continues the pursuit with the remnants of the posse.  Buck and the Preacher draw them off but are trapped in some rocks, killing several posse members but are also wounded themselves.  As things look hopeless, their Indian guides begin picking off posse members.  In the final scene, the patched-up Buck, the Preacher and Buck’s woman (Ruby Dee) are headed on their way with the wagon train (and presumably the proceeds of the robberies).

This is watchable, but not as good as Poitier’s first western (Duel at Diablo, 1966).  Poitier was the pre-eminent black actor of his time, and, although he is not a natural in westerns, he brings his considerable acting ability and strong sense of dignity and authority to the role.  Belafonte does well as the skeevy Preacher, playing off that dignity.  Ruby Dee is excellent as Buck’s woman, who wants to be freer than Texas allows and maybe move to Canada, but her role, as that of many women in westerns, is mostly extraneous.

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Poitier was here making his first foray into directing (he has nine directing credits), and the direction here is mostly unexceptional.  For what turns out to be mostly an action movie, there are several slow-moving sections, particularly in the first half of the film.  But Poitier and Belafonte get points for putting together and executing something that had largely not been done before.  They also get some credit for not making all the whites unrelievedly nasty (e.g., the decent sheriff of Copper Springs, who does not survive the movie).  In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Indians are all noble and oppressed, too.  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico, at 103 minutes.  Rated R for brief nudity (principally Belafonte’s derriere) and mostly for all the violence.

For other westerns featuring black people, see our post on Blacks in a White and Hispanic West.  For a good western featuring con men (one of whom is black) from about the same time, see Skin Game (1971), with James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr.  For another black con man in Texas before the Civil War, see Ossie Davis (Ruby Dee’s husband) in The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster (1968).

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Wichita

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 2, 2015

Wichita—Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Keith Larsen Robert Wilke, Jack Elam, Walter Coy, Mae Clarke (1955; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Director Jacques Tourneur is best remembered today for such 1940s fare as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (starring Frances Dee, Joel McCrea’s real life wife) and one of the very best films noirs, Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.  In the 1950s he made several westerns with Joel McCrea, of which the best is probably Stars in My CrownWichita is one of those Tourneur-McCrea collaborations, a supposed retelling of the early pre-Dodge City part of Wyatt Earp’s career as a lawman.

The railroad has just been brought to Wichita, Kansas, by Sam McCoy (Walter Coy).  It’s starting to attract more cattle herds and those in search of new business opportunities, like young Wyatt Earp (played by not-so-young Joel McCrea).  He camps overnight with one of those herds, and two of their cowboys, the Clements brothers (one played by Lloyd Bridges), try unsuccessfully to rob him while he sleeps.  Foiling that, he moves on to the town, where he meets the local newspaper editor Arthur Whiteside (played as a typical heavy-drinking western newspaperman by Wallace Ford) and his young assistant Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).  His first action in town is to break up a bank robbery, getting him lots of attention from the law-and-order part of the citizenry.

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When wild cowboys shoot up the town and kill a young boy, Wyatt accepts the marshal’s badge and starts to clean things up.  Not everybody is happy with that, including Sam McCoy, who’d like to see the town a little more open to promote business.  McCoy’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) is romantically interested in Wyatt, though.  Wyatt bans the wearing of guns in town.  Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan), the most corrupt of the town fathers, tries to hire a couple of slick-looking newcomers to kill Earp, but they turn out to be his brothers Morgan (Peter Graves) and James (John Smith).  When Wyatt runs Doc out of town, he seeks out the Clements brothers and engineers an attack on Wyatt as he leaves the McCoy house.  Instead of Wyatt, they kill McCoy’s wife Mary (Mae Clarke).  Giving chase, the Earp brothers kill one and capture another.

As gunman Ben Thompson (Robert Wilke) and the rest of the cowboys are about to try to get Wyatt, they reconsider as Doc Black’s role in the killings and trying to take down Wyatt is revealed.  Presumably Wyatt and Laurie can now get together, although of course that didn’t happen in real life.

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Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles) romances the new marshal (Joel McCrea).

In general, this is a pretty typical town-taming story.  Joel McCrea can play Wyatt Earp’s stern rectitude easily, but at 50 he’s too old for a young Wyatt, and too old for the lovely 27-year-old Vera Miles, who is fine but not very central to the story here.  Wallace Ford is also fine as hard-drinking newspaperman Arthur Whiteside, but we’ve seen this character before—notably Edmund O’Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also with Vera Miles, this time romanced by the too-old James Stewart and the too-old John Wayne), and even Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone in Stagecoach.  Edgar Buchanan does well as a villain, as he did in Texas (1941), with Glenn Ford and William Holden.  Robert Wilke and Jack Elam appear as bad guys, and the rest of the supporting cast is good.  You might even see future director Sam Peckinpah in an uncredited appearance as a bank teller.

So how do these goings-on relate to the actual Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson?  In real life, Wyatt Earp’s first law enforcement job was for a year in Wichita in the late 1870s, where he was deputy sheriff, not the main man.  He was 28 at the time.  Although Bat Masterson finished his career as a New York sportswriter, at this early stage he’d met Wyatt Earp when they were both hunting buffalo.  Wyatt didn’t take up any long-term romantic relationships in Wichita.  His brother James never did much in the law enforcement business, unlike Morgan and especially Virgil.  All in all, this isn’t very accurate historically.

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But it is worth watching, if not the most memorable of Joel McCrea’s westerns.  McCrea was a good actor, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s was a bigger star than John Wayne.  Like Gary Cooper, even if he’s too old for the role, he’s watchable.  This movie makes him the only star to play both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson (The Gunfight at Dodge City, 1959).

The title song, sung by Tex Ritter, is forgettable.  Shot in color, at 81 minutes.

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