Category Archives: 55 Greatest Westerns

Hondo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 21, 2013

Hondo—John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Ward Bond, James Arness, Lee Aaker, Leo Gordon (1953; Dir:  John Farrow)

John Wayne plays Hondo Lane, an ill-tempered part-Indian army scout in Arizona territory in 1870.  This movie doesn’t have as high a profile as some of the Wayne westerns of the late 1940s and early 1950s (Red River, The Searchers), but Hondo Lane is a quintessential Wayne character.

So why doesn’t it have a higher profile?  There are at least three major reasons:  (1)  The story isn’t as epic in nature as some others.  (2)  The rights are owned by Wayne’s production company, Batjac, and Batjac kept it largely out of circulation for a few decades.  (3)  It was made during the brief 3D fad of the early 1950s and bears some of the hallmarks of that specialized kind of moviemaking.  Along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, it might be the best 3D movie made during that period.  It is certainly the best movie made from a story by the best-selling western author Louis L’Amour, although it doesn’t have much good competition for that title.

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A stranger from the desert, accompanied by a feral dog.

As the movie opens, army scout and dispatch rider Hondo Lane walks up to an isolated Arizona ranch, looking somewhat the worse for wear, carrying saddlebags and a rifle and followed by a scruffy-looking feral dog, Sam.  Lane’s horse was killed when he was attacked by Apaches a few days earlier, and he’s been on foot ever since.  At the ranch he finds Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her son Johnny (Lee Aaker).  She says her husband Ed is up in the hills rounding up strays, but the place doesn’t show much sign of a man’s upkeep for the past several months.  Lane buys a wild horse from her, tames it and does some other tasks to earn his keep.  He develops the beginnings of a relationship with Angie and Johnny, and reveals that he once lived among the Mescalero Apaches and was married to one of them.  Lane tries to talk Angie into coming back to the military post and safety, but her family has lived for a long time at the ranch originally built by her father.  They have always had decent relations with the Chiricauhua Apaches in the area, now led by Vittorio (Michael Pate), and Angie insists on staying.

Lane returns to the army post with the tattered pennant of C Troop that he has recovered from an Apache.  He has a couple of run-ins with an unpleasant loudmouth who turns out to be named Lowe (Leo Gordon, who was just getting started in a career as a bad guy and thug).  Yes, he’s Angie’s husband, who has abandoned his family on the isolated ranch in Apache country.  As Lane leads a pack horse back toward the Lowe ranch, Lowe and a confederate follow at a distance, planning to attack and rob Lane when they find him in a convenient spot.  When they do attack, a band of Apache warriors attacks the three white men.  They get Lowe’s friend; Lane is forced to shoot Lowe and then tries to outrun the Apaches.  He’s not successful and is captured by Silva (Rodolfo Acosta), one of Vittorio’s nastier subchiefs. 

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Hondo (John Wayne) and Mrs. Lowe (Geraldine Page) survey the situation.

After Lane’s departure from the Lowe ranch, Vittorio shows up with his warriors in a less than friendly mood.  However, Vittorio is taken with Johnny’s spirit in his youthful attempts to defend his mother, and he adopts the boy as a blood brother.  Now that Lane is a captive of the Apaches, they begin to torture him until they discover in his possession a tintype of Johnny that Lane had taken from Lowe’s body.  He is given the right to single combat against Silva.  He wins after being wounded, but declines to kill Silva.  Vittorio deposits him at the Lowe ranch, where Angie lies and confirms to the chief that Lane is her husband.  This saves her from having to take an Apache husband.  And she’s starting to wish that the lie were true.

Lane gives Angie the tintype and tells her that he got it from Lowe’s body.  There follows an interlude in which Lane bonds with the boy and his mother.  Vittorio shows up unexpectedly to extract from Lane a promise that he won’t help the soldiers and will mislead them about Vittorio’s whereabouts.  Lane refuses to lie to the soldiers, knowing that the Indians hate lies.

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When they do show up, the soldiers are led by Lt. McKay, a recent West Point graduate who won’t listen to the voice of experience, as represented by Lane and his fellow scout Buffalo Baker (Ward Bond).  In a subsequent altercation with the Apaches, McKay is badly wounded and Vittorio is killed.  With Vittorio dead, Lane knows he and his new family are now in greater danger from the Apaches, and from white men who know that Lane killed Lowe.  There is a stirring resolution with a cavalry-Apache battle on the run.  Observing the departing Indians at the end, Lane notes, “End of a way of life.  Too bad.  It was a good way.”

Hondo may not be all that different from other John Wayne western characters, but he’s not identical, either.  For one thing, there’s Hondo’s irascibility:  “No wonder the Apaches call him Enverrado.  It means bad-tempered.”  He’s given to saying “A man oughta do what he thinks is best” just when somebody’s about to do something blatantly wrong or stupid.  Note the battered hat worn by Hondo throughout the movie; it’s the same one worn by the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Capt. Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo.  It was honorably retired after Rio Bravo in 1959 after 20 years of hard use.

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The cast is excellent, and aside from the central role of Hondo Lane, the young Geraldine Page really makes the movie as slightly prissy pioneer woman Angie Lowe.  Previously known only for her work on the New York stage, she got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work here.  (A political liberal, she was reportedly horrified at the right-wing views of Wayne, Bond, Arness and director Farrow.)  Ward Bond, one of the usual John Wayne-John Ford suspects, is also superb as a slightly rougher than usual variation of the rough-hewn frontier character he normally played.  Australian actor Michael Pate is credible as Vittorio, more than you’d expect, and he shows up in other movies (McLintock!, for example) as an Indian.  The young and blond James Arness plays yet another scout, this one of a morally dubious nature.  The overconfident recent West Point graduate, Lt. McKay (Tom Irish), might have stepped out of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy.  And Paul Fix as the post commander is good in a small part.  Sam, Hondo’s dog, is a good character, very similar to “Dog” in Big Jake.

There are some remaining traces of the movie’s 3D origins, but they’re not too distracting.  They include the garish titles, a few lunges at the camera during the knife fight and the battle sequences and a couple of strange camera angles.  There is an Intermission card, needed for this relatively short movie so that film could be changed in both projection cameras at the same time. 

hondotitles Garish 3D titles

The movie is directed in a thoroughly professional manner by John Farrow, although there are stories that Farrow was restrained some by Wayne.  The movie’s final sequences (including the cavalry-Apache battle) were directed by John Ford when Farrow had to leave before the film was quite finished.  The screenplay is by James Edward Grant, whose brand of terse dialogue was particularly congenial to Wayne.  It was filmed on location in the Mexican desert, in Camargo, Chihuahua, during the summer months, which no doubt accounts for the authentic-looking dust and sweat.  At less than 90 minutes, it’s pretty tight story-telling.

By the time the film was released in late 1953, the 3D fad had already passed, and Hondo was mostly seen in a more normal format.  But it was a hit.  Based the short story “A Gift of Cochise,” author L’Amour reworked it into a novel that sold 3,000,000 copies, the first with his real name attached.  It started him on the road to best-sellerdom, although that mostly arrived in the 1970s and 1980s.

Note that Wayne recycled the names “Lane” and “Mrs. Lowe” twenty years later in one of his last movies, The Train Robbers.  It’s not one of his better films, though, unlike Hondo.

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Shane

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2013

Shane—Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde, Elisha Cook, Jr., Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Ben Johnson (1953; Dir:  George Stevens)

Shane:  “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool:  an axe, a shovel or anything.  A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.  Remember that.”

Filmed in 1951, Shane sat quietly on the shelf at Paramount for two years before its release in 1953.  There are a couple of versions of the reasons for the delay.  In one version, director George Stevens simply dithered over the editing of the movie for the interim.  But studios have ways of pressuring directors to get on with it if they really want to release a film.  The other version has it that Paramount didn’t really think they had anything interesting in this property.  Alan Ladd was not quite as big a star as he had been ten years earlier (as the killer Raven in This Gun for Hire, for example), and Jean Arthur, coaxed out of semi-retirement for what would be her final film role, was thought to be over the hill.  When Shane was finally released, though, it turned out to be a big hit and received four Oscar nominations.  And it is one of the greatest westerns ever made.

shane1 The Mysterious Stranger.

This movie tells one of the archetypal western stories, one which had been used before and many times since.  Shane (played by Ladd) is the quintessential Mysterious Stranger.  The Stranger rides into a community in conflict, sides with the underdog, uses his talent for violence to balance the odds, and, when he wins the conflict, finds that there is now no place for him in the community.

The film wastes little time getting into the story.  In the opening sequence, Shane rides up to the Starrett homestead in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole in the shadow of the magnificent Grand Tetons.  He’s wearing nicely tailored buckskins and and a showy gunbelt.  It’s clear he can use the gun, although he’s not overbearing about it.  While Shane gets a drink of water, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is accosted by several other riders led by local cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).  Ryker and his men ride through Starrett’s garden to warn him off the land, which in Ryker’s view is his free range.  The sodbusters have no business fencing it off.  Shane quietly backs Starrett up and is invited by Starrett to stay.  Starrett’s son Joey (Brandon de Wilde) develops a fascination with Shane.  So does Joey’s mother Marian (Jean Arthur), although more quietly.  When Marian tells Joey not to become too attached to Shane, we know she’s speaking to herself, too.  The relationship develops but is left carefully undefined.

The dispute between cattle baron and homesteaders escalates, and the film develops the homesteaders as individual characters, including Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr., in one of his most memorable roles) and Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan).  Starrett and Shane fight Ryker and several of his men to a standstill in the local saloon, and Ryker decides he needs a real gunfighter.  So he sends to Cheyenne for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).

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Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is no match for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).

Wilson, cold and menacing in black, guns down Torrey in a muddy street in particularly ruthless fashion, and it’s only a matter of time until somebody more competent has to deal with Wilson.  Marian Starrett hates guns and fighting, but it’s clear there will be more of both.  Joe Starrett, as apparent leader of the homesteaders, feels he has to take on the fighting role, too, although it’s obvious Shane could do it better, especially when it comes to guns.  And Starrett realizes that if something happens to him, the attraction between Shane and Marian would mean she wouldn’t be left defenseless.  As Starrett starts for town to have it out with Ryker, Shane, now dressed in his buckskins and gunbelt again, stops him.  They fight, and Shane wins by knocking Starrett out with his gun—cheating, in effect.  As he rides toward town and the final confrontation with Wilson and Ryker, Joey follows on foot.  The showdown plays out as it should.  Shane points out to Ryker that his free range days are over, just as Shane’s skill with a gun is now becoming anachronistic.  Having made the area safe for civilization, Shane rides off into the mountains, with Joey yelling, “Shane!  Come back, Shane!”  But Shane knows he can’t go back, and he takes his mysteriousness with him.  We still don’t know his other name or much of his history—only what we were shown when he was in this valley.

shane and joey The loner takes his leave.

It’s surprising that this turned out to be such an archetypal western.  The director, George Stevens, was top-notch but not known for westerns—more for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (Swing Time) and perhaps later epics like Giant.  And this is a meticulously directed movie.  In the opening shot, for example, a deer being watched by Joey raises its head, and its antlers perfectly frame the approaching rider—Shane.  Scenes are shot from many angles and carefully stitched together in the editing room.   Frequent low camera angles (a) encourage us to see the action as if through Joey’s eyes, (b) emphasize the majesty of the mountains and the sky, and (c) mask the fact that Ladd was quite short, only five feet six inches tall.

It works brilliantly, but if you watch the movie again, some elements start to seem less than perfect.  The seams in the moviemaking begin to show.  Brandon de Wilde’s Joey becomes more irritating, although he does behave more or less like a real child.  The pacing of the movie, with all the development of the not-so-interesting homesteader bonding, seems to drag a little in places.  In the physical fight scenes, it becomes more apparent that they’re shot and edited to disguise the fact that Van Heflin, for example, is much larger than Alan Ladd, and they’re less persuasive on a second or third viewing.  It seems unlikely that Joey could run all the way to town after the riding Shane in time to witness the final shootout.  After that final showdown, when Shane twirls his gun and pops it in his holster, you become aware that the shot is only of his midsection and gun arm, and you wonder if it’s a double doing that expert twirling.  (It is–gunsmith/stuntman Rodd Redwing.)  Still, it’s great movie-making.

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A production still of the three stars: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.

The casting shouldn’t work as well as it does.  Although he was in several westerns, Alan Ladd still seems more like an urban character in appearance and speech.  The golden hair, the classic good looks, the low-key, reserved approach to acting, the rich voice—all work well for the mysterious Shane in this movie.  Jean Arthur seems urban, too, although she too was in a couple of other westerns (The Plainsman, Arizona) earlier in her career.  Arthur was in her fifties when this was made, significantly older than her two male co-stars and ten years older than Emile Meyer, who plays the seemingly aging Ryker.  The age differences aren’t obvious, but something strange was going on with Arthur’s hair in this movie; she seems to have been wearing wigs constantly, and not all that persuasively.  Van Heflin plays the kind of role for which he is best known, the solid and reliable but perhaps not so exciting husband.  And he’s excellent here, with a lot more lines than the quiet Shane.  (First choice for the Starrett role was said to be William Holden, who would have been good, too.)  Jack Palance doesn’t have much screen time, but his menace has become iconic.  Elisha Cook, Jr. and Ben Johnson (as Chris Calloway, a Ryker cowhand who has a change of conscience) are very good in minor roles, too.

Ladd was reported to have had trouble with guns and Palance was new to horses.  The scene where Shane is showing Joey how to shoot is said to have required 116 takes, and Palance’s mounting up after taking a drink of water is said to actually be a dismount played in reverse.  None of it matters.  This movie is a classic.

In the wake of Shane’s box office success, it received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.  For Best Supporting Actor, both de Wilde and Palance were nominated, although, perhaps surprisingly, Ladd was not nominated in the Best Actor category.  Novice screenwriter A.B. Guthrie, Jr., received a Best Screenplay nomination for his script based on a novel by Jack Schaefer (also the author of Monte Walsh).  The only win, however, was by Loyal Griggs for Best Cinematography, which he richly deserved.  Shot on location in Jackson Hole, the film makes the best use ever of the majestic Tetons on the Wyoming-Idaho border.  (A few years later, director Delmer Daves would also make particularly effective use of Jackson Hole in the underrated Jubal.)  The score by Victor Young is good, too.  The success of Shane boosted Ladd’s career, as High Noon had done for the aging Gary Cooper the previous year.

Van Heflin plays a very similar character in Delmer Daves’ excellent 3:10 to Yuma.  About 35 years later, Clint Eastwood remade this story with himself as a more overtly mysterious stranger in Pale Rider.  It too was an excellent western—it just didn’t quite have the resonance of this original version.  For another good Alan Ladd western, see him in Branded or Saskatchewan.  For a slightly older Brandon de Wilde in another western, see him with James Stewart and Audie Murphy in Night Passage.

ShanePoster One of several posters.

Note:  On the movie’s soundtrack, the sound of shots was punched up by Stevens in the editing of the film, so as to cause the shots to be more shocking when those sounds occur.  This technique was copied in Bonnie and Clyde about 14 years later.  Warren Beatty, a producer as well as a star of Bonnie and Clyde, tells a story of talking with a projectionist in London who unknowingly pronounced Bonnie the film with the worst-mixed sound since Shane.  The projectionist thought it was unintentional and compensated by reducing the sound level for the shots.  [See comments by Beatty in a documentary on George Stevens, shown on TCM.]  For a more recent example of playing with the sound of shots for greater effect, watch Open Range.

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The Naked Spur

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2013

The Naked Spur—James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell (1953; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Every one of the characters in this movie is deeply wounded or flawed in some significant way.  As the film develops, it’s not clear who’s the best one, but it is clear who’s the worst:  Ben Vandergroat, played by Robert Ryan in one of his best roles, an outlaw wanted for murder in Abilene, Kansas.  He’s always smiling and utterly without conscience, traveling in the company of Lina Patch (a dirty-faced Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a now-deceased outlaw colleague.

At the start of the movie, Ben is captured in the mountains by Howard Kemp (James Stewart), with the incidental help of cashiered cavalry lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and down-at-the-heels prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell).  Ben knows Howard from the Abilene area, and lets the others know that (a) Howard (whom he irritatingly calls Howie throughout the movie) is not a peace officer but only wants to bring him in for the $5000 reward, and (b) Howard went off to fight for the Union in the recent Civil War and deeded his ranch to his fiancée so she could work it properly in his absence.  When he returned from the war, she’d sold the ranch and left with another man.  Betrayed and unsure of himself now, Howard wants the reward to buy back his ranch and start over.

NakedSpurStewart Capturing Ben

When Roy and Jesse hear this, they want equal shares of the reward and Howard is forced to accept that arrangement.  As the group heads east toward Abilene, Ben starts to work on the three taking him back, exploiting personal weaknesses and setting them against each other.  He also uses Lina to appeal to their baser instincts.  (“They’re men, honey, and you ain’t.  Remember that.”)  Ben’s creepily physical relationship with Lina sets their teeth on edge.  (“My back’s bothering me again, honey.  Can you do me?”)  Howard’s emotional stability starts to show some cracks.  It turns out that the sleazy Roy was dishonorably discharged from the army for being “morally unstable.”  The group is followed by a dozen Indians (Blackfeet, Howard says), and it’s Roy they’re after.  Apparently he demonstrated his moral instability by raping a young Indian woman, and they want revenge.  Ben plays on Jesse’s lifetime of unsuccessful prospecting by slyly suggesting he knows the secret location of gold in the mountains.

naked-spur-trio Ben, Lina and Jesse

Howard expels Roy from the group when he discovers why the Blackfeet are following, but Roy gets the group ambushed for his own protection.  They kill the Indians, but Howard is shot in the leg.  Lina tends Howard while he is delirious and seems to be developing some sympathy for him; Howard may reciprocate, on his way to becoming more human.  Ben uses that attraction between them to try repeatedly to escape.  He’s never quite successful, but he never gives up

Finally the lure of a potential strike becomes too much for Jesse, who cuts Ben loose to lead him to the supposed gold.  Jesse, Ben and Lina escape, but Jesse by himself is no match for Ben, who shoots him and prepares an ambush for Roy and Howard.  The final showdown takes place in mountain rocks (much like in Mann’s Winchester ’73), which Howard climbs with the help of a spur used as a piton.  In the end, both Howard and Lina have to decide what they really want—the reward for Ben and a life in the shadow of the past, or a new beginning somewhere else.

Nakedspur2 Fighting things out.

There’s always action, either psychological or physical or both, in this tautly-paced movie.  In a genre previously known for black-and-white values, this one has all shades.  With all those loose psychological threads, the end can seem abrupt.  Nobody’s entirely admirable.  With only five characters, it’s a small cast, but every performance is excellent.  Stewart was in the middle of his association with director Anthony Mann, and gives perhaps his most tortured performance for Mann.  Meeker would not be recognized by most audiences now; he had a brief career in the movies, with his greatest success as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.  He is very good as the sleazy Roy, who wears his uniform throughout the movie despite having been cashiered.  Millard Mitchell (who also appears in Winchester ’73 with Stewart and in The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck) is fine as Jesse, the failed prospector.  Janet Leigh’s role is the smallest, but she does well. 

Mann and Stewart made several westerns in the 1950s, and Mann is now considered the father of the psychological western.  Many think this is his best movie, although The Man from Laramie and Winchester ’73 also get votes.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Script, and William Mellor’s color cinematography makes good use of the high country of Colorado where it was shot.  It’s gorgeous if you’re watching this on a good print or DVD transfer.

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The Far Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 18, 2013

The Far Country—James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman, John McIntire, Corinne Calvet, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Kathleen Freeman (1954; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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In another of Mann’s stories about an alienated loner, Jeff Webster (James Stewart) has driven a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle, where they are loaded on a steamboat for Skagway, Alaska Territory.  It is 1898, so the Alaskan gold rush is on.  Webster and his garrulous partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) plan to drive the herd even farther north to Dawson, where there isn’t a lot of beef and they can get top dollar for their cattle.  Then, as Ben tells anyone who will listen, they’ll buy a ranch in Utah, where they’ll spend the rest of their days.

Jeff isn’t just a loner; he’s a loner who’s good with a gun and killed two men on the drive to Seattle.  When the boat’s authorities try to arrest him, he is hidden by saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), who’s taken a romantic interest in him.  As he’s driving his cattle off the boat, Jeff inadvertently disrupts a public hanging conducted by Gannon (John McIntire), the local authority who is a law unto himself with a band of thugs (Jack Elam, Robert Wilke) to back him up.  He confiscates Jeff’s cattle, and Jeff takes a job leading Ronda Castle’s wagons to Dawson, up over the Chilkoot Pass.  When he get the wagons over the pass, he goes back to Skagway in the middle of the night, steals his cattle back and drives them over the pass toward Dawson.

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Jeff Webster (James Stewart) makes a new acquaintance (Ruth Roman) while escaping the law on the way to Alaska.

Once in Dawson, Ben makes connections with the regular folk, including Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a young girl they had met in Skagway.  With the gold has come a rougher element and some crime, and the process is sped up by Ronda’s Dawson Castle saloon.  Jeff sells his cattle at a high price and buys a local gold claim.  Meanwhile, the Mounties haven’t yet figured out how to extend their authority over the unruly area.  Jeff finds himself with several conflicts:  two potential romantic interests; the salt-of-the-earth regular residents and claimholders against the glitzier newcomers out for a fast buck; and regular law and order against Gannon’s variety of law.

Yes, Gannon has shown up in Dawson, with an even larger gang of thugs than he had in Skagway.  Claim-jumping becomes a regular feature of life in Dawson, as do murder and robbery.  Jeff resists taking a hand until he’s robbed and left for dead, and Ben is killed.  Renee nurses him back to health, and although his arm is still in a sling, he has a final shootout with Gannon and his minions.

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Jeff Webster (James Stewart) confronts a gleefully corrupt Gannon (John McIntire, with henchman Jack Elam on his left).

This is one of the best of the “northerns” set during the Alaska gold rush (see also North to Alaska, White Fang and The Spoilers), and like many of them, it features a character based on the real-life conman Soapy Smith, who took over Skagway for a time.  This has a larger cast than some of Anthony Mann’s westerns, and they’re quite good.  Both Ruth Roman and Corinne Calvet are believable romantic interests, so that the final choice is not a foregone conclusion.  John McIntire is excellent as Gannon, the Soapy Smith character.  Walter Brennan’s talkative Ben makes personal connections much more easily than Jeff, but he tends to let information slip when he shouldn’t.  Jay C. Flippen and Kathleen Freeman are both part of the good Dawson crowd.  Stewart is edgy as he usually was in a Mann western; he wears his usual hat and rides Pie, the horse he rode through seventeen westerns.  One key plot point relates to a bell Jeff hangs from his saddle horn.

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James Stewart demonstrates that Randolph Scott wasn’t the only star of western movies who could have a romantic triangle going, first with saloon owner Ruth Roman and then with mining lass Corinne Calvet.

The script was by Borden Chase, who provided the scripts for previous Mann films Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, as well as for Red River and Night Passage.  The film was shot on location at Jasper in Alberta.  Cinematography was by William H. Daniels.  The DVD version in general circulation (2010) is unfortunately only a full-screen, pan-and-scan version.

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The Man from Laramie

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 17, 2013

The Man from Laramie—James Stewart, Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Alex Nicol, Cathy O’Donnell, Aline MacMahon, Jack Elam, Wallace Ford (1955; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

This was the last of five westerns in five years with the very effective pairing of director Anthony Mann and leading man James Stewart.  It was the only one in Cinemascope, and it’s one of the best.  (Mann and Stewart also made three non-westerns, and Mann made three or four westerns without Stewart.)

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As this film opens, freighter Will Lockhart (Stewart) is taking three wagons of supplies from Laramie, Wyoming, to Coronado, New Mexico.  At his last campsite before arriving in Coronado, he surveys the site of the Dutch River massacre, where a patrol of twelve cavalrymen were all killed by Apaches with new repeating rifles.  Lockhart’s brother was one of the twelve, and he’s come to find and kill the person responsible for selling the guns to the Indians.

In town he delivers the supplies to the general store run by Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), niece of the local cattle baron who basically owns the town and most of the surrounding countryside.  He was lucky to get through; the Apaches have prevented most such shipments from arriving in Coronado.  He’s looking for return cargo to Laramie, and Barbara directs him to nearby salt flats, where she says the salt is free for the taking.

As Lockhart and his men load their wagons, a number of cowboys led by Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) ride up with guns drawn.  Dave thinks the salt is on Barb Ranch land and isn’t free to just any one.  On Dave’s orders, the cowboys burn Lockhart’s wagons, kill his mules, and rope him, dragging him through a campfire.  Before matters go any farther, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), the Waggoman foreman, rides up and stops the altercation.  The next day in Coronado, Lockhart beats up Dave and fights Vic to a draw before Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), the cattle baron himself, stops things.  Alec offers to pay for Lockhart’s destroyed wagons and animals and suggests that he leave the country. 

We see that Vic and Barbara would get married, but Barbara wants Vic to agree to leave the area before she’ll marry him.  She needs to get him away from her uncle’s powerful and slightly malevolent influence.  Vic feels that Alec has promised him a stake in the Barb Ranch and he is unwilling to leave that.  Dave, Barbara’s cousin, is described as “weak,” and we see that he has poor judgment and a sadistic streak.  Kate Canady owns the Half Moon, the only significant spread in the area not controlled by Waggoman.  She’d like to hire Lockhart as her foreman, but he says he doesn’t know anything about cattle.  The inference is that he’s been in the army.  Eventually Lockhart takes the job with Canady.  Lockhart:  “You’re just a hard, scheming old woman, aren’t you?”  Kate:  “Ugly, too.”

Alec Waggoman is played by Donald Crisp with his usual appearance of stern rectitude, but Alec isn’t averse to breaking his word occasionally.  Despite his promises, he seems willing to cast Vic off with nothing if it helps him get what he wants.  Alec and Kate have some ancient history and were engaged in their younger days.  It’s a pretty complex group of characters, although Lockhart doesn’t have as much of the potential instability that Stewart’s characters sometimes show in other Mann westerns.

As Lockhart trails some Half Moon stock on to Barb range, Dave Waggoman takes a shot at him.  Lockhart returns fire, hitting Dave in the hand.  When Dave’s backup cowboys arrive, Dave has them hold Lockhart while he shoots him point blank in the right hand in a brutal scene.

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This is the low point for Lockhart, but the Waggoman faction is having internal troubles of its own.  Alec Waggoman is going blind, unknown to his son and foreman.  Dave and Vic are the ones selling guns to the Indians, and when they fall out over how to manage it, Vic kills Dave.  When Alec finds a discrepancy in accounts and goes looking for a wagonload of guns, Vic pushes him down a cliff and leaves him for dead.  Lockhart finds him and takes him to Kate for medical help.  He’s also developing his own romantic interest in Barbara, who seems attracted back despite her arrangement of sorts with Vic.

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Lockhart (James Stewart) is not letting his wounded hand stop him.

Ultimately, Lockhart finds the wagon with guns by following Vic.  He forces Vic to push them over a cliff before deciding he can’t just take his long-awaited revenge and shoot Vic.  Vic’s escape is only momentary, though.  He encounters the Apaches who were coming for the guns they’d already paid for, and they surround him and shoot him down. 

As things quiet down, Lockhart suggests to Barbara that if she’s going east, she’ll pass through Laramie and should ask for Capt. Lockhart.  (Laramie and Fort Laramie were not the same place, and someone headed east from New Mexico would have to go considerably out of her way to pass through either.)  Meanwhile, Kate Canady takes over the care of the now-blind but still alive Alec Waggoman.  Finally, they’ll be married, several decades after that wedding was initially planned.

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The cowboy, the girl and the horse.

These characters are all written to be more complicated than you’d find in most westerns.  Stewart and Crisp are both known quantities as actors, and they’re as good as you expect.  Alec Waggoman as a character has some Lear-like overtones, if you like that sort of thing.  Kennedy as Vic seems better than Nicol as Dave, but some of that may be because Dave’s role is written to be more overtly unattractive.  Vic’s motivation is not always clear and seems to be changing during the movie.  Cathy O’Donnell manages to convey a certain amount of stubbornness coupled with romantic confusion but is otherwise not terribly memorable.  (Stewart seems too old for her.  And it’s hard not to think that Joanne Dru, Virginia Mayo or Coleen Gray would have done better with the role.)  Aline MacMahon is very good as Kate Canady; she has some of the most acerbic lines in the film.  Wallace Ford is good in brief appearances as Lockhart’s scout Charley O’Leary, and Jack Elam puts in an equally brief appearance as the town drunk and informer before he’s killed.  It all works, even though there are some loose ends to the plot that are never explained.

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The Searchers

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 16, 2013

The Searchers—John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Harry Carey, Jr., Olive Carey, Dorothy Jordan, Hank Worden, Natalie Wood, Lana Wood, Ken Curtis (1956; Dir:  John Ford)

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In the movie’s opening shot, the camera sits in the dark interior of a cabin as the silhouette of Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) moves to the door.  Both Martha and the camera look out into the bright sunlight at a distant horseman—Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), her brother-in-law.  It’s 1868, supposedly on the Llano Estacado of Texas.  We can tell, however, that it’s shot in John Ford’s favorite location, the Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border.  Edwards has been away at the War Between the States, and it’s taken him three years after the war to find his way back to what home he has.  As he greets his only living relatives, he kisses Martha on the forehead, and we sense that some of his distance is caused by his warm feelings for his brother’s wife.  It’s never more explicit than that, though.

Similarly, we’re never really told what he’s been up to for the three years since the war ended, except that he didn’t go to California and he has $180 in freshly minted Yankee gold.  The implication is that he never surrendered (“I don’t believe in surrenders”), and he’s been outlawin’ somewhere.  Just as he’s getting reacquainted with his family, up rides a band of Texas rangers led by Capt. the Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), with a neighbor whose cattle have been run off by Indians.  Ethan and young Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an Edwards foster son whose parents were killed by Indians when he was small, join the rangers and take off in pursuit. 

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Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan (John Wayne) begin their search.

The cattle raid was just a ruse, though.  The Comanches double back and hit the Edwards place, killing the parents and young son and taking captive the daughters, Lucy and Deborah.  After the initial chase, the rangers get called to other responsibilities, and then it’s just Ethan, Martin and young Ben Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.), Lucy’s beau, on the trail of the raiders.  Early in the chase, Ethan finds Lucy’s body and buries it.  When Ethan is forced to tell Ben, Ben goes crazy and is killed attacking the Comanches by himself.  Now it’s just Ethan and Martin on an odyssey that will take the next five years.

Periodically they drop back in on the Jorgenson ranch, where it develops that Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) and Martin have feelings for each other, although Martin’s never around enough to do anything about it and Laurie gets increasingly desperate.  Over time, Ethan and Martin figure out which Comanche band has Debby and try to catch up with it.  Ultimately they do, more than once.  Martin inadvertently acquires a Comanche wife, Look, and she suffers the fate most Indian wives do in westerns (see Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man, for example). 

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The search continues.

This may be a plot centering on how the chase is conducted over five years, but it’s principally a character study of Ethan Edwards, all edges, absolutes and internal conflicts.  He doesn’t concede that Martin has any actual relationship to any Edwards, although they’re all the family the boy has known.  Martin has some Cherokee blood, which Ethan doesn’t like; he keeps calling the boy Blanket-head.  Ethan won’t swear an oath to the Rangers because he’s already sworn one to the Confederacy.  When he and Martin are attacked by venal trader Jerem Futterman and two henchmen with robbery in mind, Ethan doesn’t mind shooting them in the back as they’re trying to get away.  They’re bad guys and that’s all they deserve.  The camera work emphasizes Ethan’s obsessive qualities:  When he’s aiming at Comanches with his rifle, he can almost kill them by his look without pulling the trigger.  In a winter scene, Ethan and Martin check out white female captives the cavalry has recently taken back from the Comanches.  They’re kept in a rough chapel at a cavalry post.  None of the rescued women appears to be stable mentally, and as Ethan walks to the door to leave he turns suddenly and looks at them.  In the dim room we can barely see his eyes under the brim of his hat, but his look is obsessive and filled with anger and frustrated purpose—excellent acting and a brilliant shot. 

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Ethan surveys a group of recaptured white women and children.

It becomes more apparent to Martin that Ethan means to kill Debby (Natalie Wood, then 18) when he finds her.  She’s been sullied by living too long among the Indians and has been defiled by her relations with them.  In one of their brief encounters, Laurie makes Ethan’s case for killing Debby to Martin as she attempts to persuade Martin to discontinue the chase and stay with her.  That was likely an accurate attitude for the time, although one that this movie doesn’t really share.

The movie depends on Ethan, and John Wayne plays him superbly—so much so that it’s hard to think of any one else in the role.  (Maybe a younger Tommy Lee Jones—Jones can play this kind of implacability, as he did with Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove.)  This also has one of Ward Bond’s more colorful parts, and he makes the most of it as he repeatedly rides in and out of the plot.  (As he gives the order to attack:  “Brethren, leave us go amongst them.”  “Mount!  M-O-N-T-E, mount!”)  Mrs. Jorgensen is played by Olive Carey, widow of one Harry and mother of another, and she’s good in the very limited requirements of the part.  At the time Jeffrey Hunter was an up-and-coming young actor, and he’s good enough here.  Hank Worden plays Mose Harper, an addled scout, and it’s one of his better roles.  A 15-year-old Patrick Wayne makes his significant film debut as a young cavalryman.  The clunky note in the cast is Ken Curtis, who plays Charlie McCorry, a young Ranger suitor of Laurie’s.  Although his dialect may be authentic, it simply sounds like he’s having trouble talking around his teeth.  German actor Henry Brandon as Scar looks very imposing, and Scar is played as an intelligent and courageous leader, if one, like Ethan, filled with and perhaps crippled by hatred. 

Ethan changes some by the end, regaining a bit of his humanity.  But the closing shot is a bookend of the opening shot.  The camera is inside the dim Jorgensen cabin, looking out the front door into the sun-lit landscape.  Walking in the sun and through the doorway toward the camera, Mr. and Mrs. Jorgensen take the newly-liberated Debby into their care.  Next come Martin and Laurie, moving into the cabin the same way.  As they enter the cabin interior and walk past the camera, that leaves only the figure of Ethan standing on the porch looking in, holding his right elbow with his left hand in perhaps the most memorable single image from the film (Wayne said the posture was an homage to Harry Carey).  He watches for a moment, seemingly with a touch of longing, then turns and walks out into the bright sunlight—to what future we have no idea.  Presumably he has more peace now, but he still doesn’t belong with regular people.

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The direction is John Ford at his best:  Low camera angles in the Monument Valley emphasize the rock formations, the sky and John Wayne’s looming size.  There is brilliant use of light and dark in interior shots.  The editing shows remarkable and very effective restraint in the attack on the Edwards cabin; after setting the atmosphere by showing the fear of various members of the Edwards family, the only element of the attack shown is Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) finding the very young Debby (Lana Wood) huddled by her grandmother’s grave.  In a current western, it would be hard to imagine not showing the violence, but the effect of doing it Ford’s way here is to emphasize the off-screen violence’s effect on the characters and especially the violence within Ethan Edwards.  There’s a lot of information in this movie conveyed without dialogue, so watch closely.

The cinematographer was Winton C. Hoch, who had won back to back Oscars in 1948 and 1949, as well as in 1952.  The music by Max Steiner involves the usual Ford Americana themes:  Lorena, Bonny Blue Flag, Garry Owen, etc.  The participation of the Sons of the Pioneers now seems a bit old-fashioned, like the comic relief.  Based on a novel by Alan LeMay, the screenplay was written by frequent Ford collaborator Frank Nugent (nominated for an Oscar for his work with Ford on The Quiet Man).  For an extended discussion of both (a) the historical roots of the story (the Comanche capture of Cynthia Ann Parker as a child and her ultimate tragic recapture 24 years later), and (b) the making of the movie in the 1950s, see The Searchers:  The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel (New York, Bloomsbury, 2013).

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It has been said that another historical influence on this story was Brit Johnson, an African-American teamster who spent years in a successful quest to find and ransom his kidnapped wife and daughter from the Comanches, then almost immediately set off again to find and rescue yet another child kidnap victim.  Brit Johnson was killed by the Kiowas.

There are only five westerns on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies, and The Searchers is the highest-ranked of them at no. 12.  (The other four are High Noon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven.  There are six if you count Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  See http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx.)

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Seven Men from Now

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 14, 2013

Seven Men from Now—Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Gail Russell, Don Barry, Walter Reed, John Larch (1956; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

In the opening scene, former sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) enters a cave from a driving rain storm and approaches the campfire of two strangers.  They’re a little edgy, and they start talking about a recent killing in the town of Silver Springs.  Stride sits at the fire and takes a cup of coffee.  One of the two asks Stride, “Did they catch the ones who done it?”  “Two of ‘em,” responds Stride, carefully watching the others.   They draw and Stride gets them both.  We don’t know why Stride was the one hunting them, but he walked right in and did it fair and square.  And according to the title there are five more to come.

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Randolph Scott as Ben Stride, looking for seven men.

On his way the next morning Stride crosses trails with the Greers, an eastern couple whose wagon is stuck in mud.  He helps them pull out and guides them to a deserted stage stop, where they encounter Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clete (Don Barry).  Masters is somebody Stride once put in jail, and who claims not to have been involved in the robbery in Silver Springs, although he’s interested in the stolen gold.  For a while the four travel together, and they rescue a man pursued by Apaches, only for Masters to kill him moments later as the rescued man tries to shoot Stride in the back.  Three of seven down; four more to go.

Masters has eyes for Annie Greer (Gail Russell), whose husband John (Walter Reed) is garrulous, unskilled in the ways of the west and perhaps weak.  Masters pushes John Greer in a remarkable scene in a wagon in the rain just telling stories, until Stride makes Masters leave.

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Masters (Lee Marvin) telling tales in the rain.

It turns out Stride is a widower; it was his wife working in the Wells Fargo office who was killed in Silver Springs.  Stride lost the last election for sheriff, and when he declined to take a job as deputy, his wife had to work.  He’s now attracted to Annie Greer, too, but she’s married and Stride has a strict moral code.  Stride and Masters are both heading for Flora Vista, which they think is the likely point for whoever took the Wells Fargo gold to try to get it into Mexico.  The Greers are going there to catch a trail west to California.

Masters reaches Flora Vista first after leaving the slower-moving Greers, and there he encounters Payte Bodeen (John Larch), the leader of the gang that planned and committed the robbery and murder.  Masters tells them Stride is on his way, and two of the gang are dispatched to intercept Stride in the desert before he gets to Flora Vista.  Stride gets them both, but injures his leg and loses his horse in doing so.  The Greers, following along behind in their wagon, find him and patch him up as well as they can.  John Greer admits that he had unknowingly agreed to take the stolen Wells Fargo box to Flora Vista, and he leaves it in the desert with Stride.  Stride figures it will draw the remaining killers to him.

He’s right, and it also draws Masters and Clete.  The final shootout for the gold is between Stride and Masters, and it’s great.  By the end of the movie, John Greer is also dead, more bravely than one might have expected, and there is the suggestion that Stride and Annie Greer might get together.  But they might not, too.  That makes this movie one of only two (along with The Tall T) of the Boetticher westerns where Scott may end up with a romantic interest.

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An injured Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) faces off against Masters (Lee Marvin) in the desert.

The editing of the shooting scenes is very interesting.  Although Stride wins at least two of these, we never actually see him draw and shoot.  We see Masters constantly playing with his guns, drawing them, loading them, twirling them, and he’s clearly fast, dextrous and confident.  Fast as Masters is, Stride is faster, but it’s mostly in our minds.  This is a remarkable contrast to how shootout scenes are shot in later westerns, especially after The Wild Bunch.

Scott plays much the same character in all the Boetticher westerns—capable, taciturn, obsessed with vengeance, sure of himself and that he knows all the rules.  Lee Marvin is one of the two best villains in a Boetticher movie, and although he is an obvious bad guy he’s not without a certain dangerous charm.  The interactions between Scott and Marvin make the movie memorable.  You can also see Scott’s frequent uncredited co-star, his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust.

The script was written by Burt Kennedy for John Wayne, but Wayne couldn’t take the part of Ben Stride because he was scheduled to be in John Ford’s The Searchers.  However, this one was produced by Wayne’s Batjac Company and was successful enough to start a series for director Boetticher.  The rest were produced by Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown—combining their names in that of their production company, Ranown.

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This is the earliest and one of the best of the westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, all made during a surprisingly brief period in the late 1950s.   “Spare” is one word frequently used to describe the storytelling in them.  They typically don’t have large casts or budgets, and they’re not long, but they work well.  Burt Kennedy wrote this one, as he did the best of these collaborations.  This and the other Boetticher westerns were unavailable for decades, appreciated only by a small cult of fans and, of course, the French.  But you can now find them on DVD, and they’re well worth watching, especially the stronger entries in the series (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station).

 

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The Tin Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 13, 2013

The Tin Star—Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer, Neville Brand, John McIntire, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

Grizzled bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) meets green sheriff Ben Owens (Tony Perkins in one of his first roles):  “How long you had that badge?”  “Since Sheriff Parker…uh, got killed.”  “Nobody else wanted it, huh?  How come they picked you?”  “I’m only temporary.”  “You’re more temporary than you think.”

The title is a generic sort for a western featuring a lawman; in fact, a short story with this name was made into the classic High Noon.  In this case Hickman has come to town to collect the reward on an outlaw he brings in, dead and draped over his pack horse, only to find himself despised by the respectable townspeople.  The inexperienced sheriff is just finding his way in a difficult job and tells Hickman he’ll have to wait for his money until he gets confirmation from the party offering the reward.  This means Hickman will have to spend at least several days in the hostile town until he can get paid.  The town bully and livery stable owner is Bart Bogardus (played by experienced villain Neville Brand, who was said to be the fourth most-decorated American soldier during World War II); Bogardus thinks he’d be a better sheriff than Owens.  Hickman bails Owens out of a difficult situation with Bogardus and unintentionally becomes the young sheriff’s mentor.

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Hickman (Henry Fonda) submits a claim to the green sheriff (Anthony Perkins).

Meanwhile, the hotel won’t rent Hickman a room, and he finds accommodations with young widow Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her half-Indian son.  In addition to making a place for himself as sheriff, Owens is also trying to get Millie Parker (Mary Webster) to marry him.  But she’s the daughter of the previous (and now dead) sheriff, and she won’t marry him unless he takes off the tin star.  The beloved town doctor (John McIntire) is killed, and Owens loses control of his posse to Bogardus.  It becomes a mob.  Meanwhile, Hickman and Owens find and capture the killers, but may not be able to hold them against Bogardus and the mob.  As Hickman and Owens become better friends, Hickman reveals that he had been a lawman in Kansas when his own family needed help, and the townspeople he thought were his friends wouldn’t provide the assistance he needed.  He now has few illusions about the relationships between townspeople and those they hire to protect them, and he thinks they ask too much while providing too little in return.

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Hickman gives the youngster a few tips.

In the final confrontation between Owens and Bogardus, Hickman puts on the star again in support of Owens, but Owens, armed with what he’s learned from Hickman, is the one who has to deal with the situation.  And at the end Hickman takes off with the young widow and her son to find another town that wants somebody to wear a star.

tinstarpalmerfonda Romancing the widow.

This is one of a number of westerns from the 1950s that explored social issues, especially one of those concerned with a sense of community and how much townspeople owe to those who enforce the law against the lawless.  (Compare it with High Noon, Man With the Gun, At Gunpoint, 3:10 to Yuma and Rio Bravo, for example.)  The townspeople usually come off badly in such situations, so much so that it has become a cliché (see Support Your Local Sheriff, for example, which exploits that cliche to comic effect).

The cast here is appealing, with a good relationship between American everyman Fonda and the young Tony Perkins.  Palmer is attractive and straightforward as Fonda’s romantic interest.  John McIntire is his usual avuncular self as the town doctor, but he’s basically the same character as Walter Brennan in At Gunpoint.  McIntire was a Mann favorite, and shows up more colorfully in Winchester ’73 and The Far Country, too.  Villains Brand and Van Cleef do exactly what they’re supposed to do.

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Anthony Mann directs Fonda and Perkins in a scene.

This is the better one of the two good westerns directed by Anthony Mann that don’t feature James Stewart.  (The other is Man of the West with Gary Cooper.)  Mann was more interested in psychological and social issues than some directors of westerns in the 1950s, but he knew what he was doing.  This is in black and white, at a time when most movies with ambitions (even westerns) were in color.  But it doesn’t suffer for all of that.

For another movie featuring Fonda as an experienced ex-lawman helping a younger and greener peace officer, see Warlock, made a couple of years later.

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Comanche Station

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2013

Comanche Station—Randolph Scott, Claude Akins, Nancy Gates, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Jefferson Cody’s wife was stolen by Comanches ten years ago, and now every time he hears of a white woman among the Comanches he goes out and buys her back.  The movie opens with a typical Budd Boetticher shot of a lone horseman making his way through the Lone Pine rocks, and the horseman is Cody (Randolph Scott) on another such errand.  This time the white woman is Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), and she’s grateful for the rescue but uncertain how she’ll be received when Cody returns her to her husband and family.

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Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) barters with the Comanches for Mrs. Lowe (Nancy Gates).

Cody and the newly liberated Mrs. Lowe are resting up at Comanche Station, a stagecoach swing station locked up for now, when three other riders come up, engaged in a running battle with the Indians.  They turn out to be Ben Lane (Claude Akins), cashiered from the cavalry by Cody years earlier when Cody was a major, along with two younger henchmen.  Cody helps them fend off the Comanches, and they form an uneasy alliance until they can all get through to Lordsburg and safety.

One of Lane’s young guns is killed by the Comanches, and Lane saves Cody when Cody is attacked while reconnoitering—this despite the fact that everybody knows that Lane hates Cody and plans to kill him so he can collect for himself the $5000 reward offered by Mrs. Lowe’s husband.  So the question isn’t what he’ll try, but how and when, as it was in Seven Men from Now, The Tall T and Ride Lonesome.  We even have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be (this is a Randolph Scott character we’re talking about, after all), but the interplay between the adversaries and the drawing of moral lines (or not) are what make it interesting. 

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Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) and Ben Lane (Claude Akins), adversaries temporarily riding together.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Lowe thinks that Cody is only bringing her back to Lordsburg for the reward, too.  She clearly doesn’t understand either the degree of obsession that takes over Randolph Scott characters in these Boetticher westerns, or their unyielding moral rectitude.  So that has to play out, too.  Maybe her husband isn’t worthy of her and she’ll decide to ride off with Cody.  After all, Lowe can’t be much of a man if he doesn’t go after her himself, can he?

There are a couple of twists at the end, and this is one of the best of the Boetticher-Scott films.  As with the best of them, this one was written by Burt Kennedy, and there’s some good dialogue that provides character development and differentiation in very few words.  Scott doesn’t talk much, as usual, and when he does it’s in a convincing quasi-Southern accent.  (Scott grew up in North Carolina.)  Claude Akins as Ben Lane is playing a slightly more sympathetic bad guy than he is normally given, although the character of Lane doesn’t have the layers that, say, Lee Marvin or Richard Boone might have brought to the role.  His two young guns as played by Skip Homier and Richard Rust are excellent.  Nancy Gates, who retired from movies after this film, is attractive, feisty and convincing as Mrs. Lowe, although not as much is required of her. 

Much of the movie is spent either fighting Comanches or trying to get away from them, but there’s an undercurrent of sympathy for Indians that runs through this, as in other Boetticher films.  It’s usually voiced tersely by Scott at some point in the film.

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Cody (Randolph Scott) is surrounded by Comanches.

This was the last of the Ranown westerns directed by Boetticher, and although there are remarkable similarities in plot, casting, location and production team for all of them, they never become too formulaic.  Or if there is a formula, it’s so skillfully executed that they’re compelling nevertheless.  They’re enjoyable individually as westerns, and taken together they constitute a remarkable body of work within a short period of time.  For decades, this and the others were not available on video or DVD, but in late 2008 five of them were released in a set.  Boetticher’s and Scott’s best work can now be much more widely appreciated, as it deserves.  There could easily be two more of the Boetticher-Scott westerns on this list of greatest westerns –The Tall T and Ride Lonesome.   Randolph Scott hung up his spurs and retired from movies after Comanche Station, to be lured out of retirement only for one last movie:  the superb Ride the High Country with Joel McCrea.

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Rio Bravo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 11, 2013

Rio Bravo—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, John Russell, Claude Akins (1959; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

Well, John Wayne, yes, of course.  But Dean Martin?  Ricky Nelson?  Who’d be able to make this work at all, let alone make it memorable?  Director Howard Hawks, that’s who.  Rio Bravo’s initial commercial success and the enduring respect in which it is held are usually credited principally to Hawks, with considerable justification.  Hawks was one of the great directors of his long era, from silent movies to the 1970s, and he didn’t work in westerns all that often.  Rio Bravo was a commercial sort of movie, not held in great critical regard at the time of its release in 1959.  But that respect has increased over the ensuing 50 years, and it still scores high in re-watchability.  Various of the elements of the casting and film shouldn’t work, but they do. 

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The title apparently comes from the fact that Mexicans refer to the Rio Grande as the Rio Bravo.  The central plot is fairly common.  Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) of Presidio County, Texas, is holding the local land baron’s brother in his jail on a murder charge, and faces insuperable odds in trying to keep him there until a U.S. marshal arrives to take custody of the miscreant.  Tension builds as Chance puts together his beleaguered team, strategy develops on both sides and the odds against Chance rise.  Subplots involve the rehabilitation of his alcoholic deputy Dude (Martin) and an unlikely romance between Chance and young gambler/dance hall girl Feathers (Angie Dickinson).

rio-bravodude Dude battles his demons.

This was a first film for Martin and Nelson, and very early in Dickinson’s career.  Wayne was in the stage of his career (after The Searchers) where his characters became frankly middle-aged.  Martin and Nelson were both better known as singers than actors, and for commercial purposes (and presumably to show male bonding), there had to be a scene where song breaks out.  It’s the cheesiest moment in the movie, but surprisingly it doesn’t undercut the development of the film.  Martin is excellent, as he was in another, later western (The Sons of Katie Elder).  Nelson didn’t have much of a film career, but he was fine in this as youthful gunfighter Colorado Ryan.  Dickinson was remarkable as the young gambler Feathers in a May-December romance with Chance.

There are lots of moments that stick with you:  Chance giving the most threatening “Good evening” greeting you’ll ever see on film as he passes a suspect character on the street at night.  In a saloon, an angry Chance turns, bashes a bad guy with his rifle and then says of the bleeding thug on the floor, “Aw, I won’t hurt him.”  In the villain’s saloon, a frowzy, despised Dude rubs his stubbled jaw, spins, draws, shoots and drops a killer in the shadows above him who’s been dripping blood into a beer on the bar.  Chance’s tough love to the recovering alcoholic deputy:  “’Sorry’ don’t get it done, Dude.”  Any of three exchanges between Chance and Feathers in her hotel room.  Walter Brennan’s incessant cackling and complaining as Stumpy, the lame jailhouse guard.  Colorado finally buying into the big fight by tossing Chance his rifle in the street while the bad guy’s thugs have the drop on him.  The constant playing of the Deguello, the threatening Mexican trumpet and guitar music (composed by Dimitri Tiomkin) emanating from the bad guy’s saloon, supposedly meaning “no quarter will be given.”  John Russell’s tall, smooth and impeccably dressed villain verbally spars with Chance at the jail.  (This was Russell’s most memorable role in a modest career.)

riobravo1 Arresting brother Joe.

And there are lots of small touches that work well in retrospect:  The way Wayne’s character favors a rifle (as he did in Hondo and several other movies) as his weapon of choice, and how he handles it.  Martin’s sloppy attire and convincing degradation when his character is a drunk.  The use of roll-your-own cigarettes throughout the movie, as an indication of male bonding.  Wayne’s convincingly battered hat, which he used from 1939’s Stagecoach for the next 20 years of movies (see, for example, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hondo), tilted forward on his head with the front brim bent slightly up.

A few touches don’t work as well:  The singing scene is not universally beloved.  And the stock-Mexican portrayals of the hotel keeper and his wife don’t play as well today as they may have 50 years ago.  But the movie is remarkably sure-footed, and what seems to be a leisurely plot development seldom drags.

Rio-Bravo-chancefeathers Chance and Feathers

Hawks said that one of the interests for him in making Rio Bravo was to make a counter-statement to Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, released six years earlier and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  Instead of trying to get help from townspeople and cattle drovers (as does Marshal Will Kane in High Noon), Chance here prefers to rely instead on a very small group of professionals for his support.  Hawks was also not impressed with the drawn-out slow-motion violence of Peckinpah’s influential The Wild Bunch a decade later; he thought that violence was more effective if it was over quickly as in real life, instead of glorifying it in extended slower sequences.

Hawks was known for stealing from himself, re-using material that had worked in his other films.  The Chance-Feathers relationship is very reminiscent of the middle-aged Bogart and young Lauren Bacall in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944).  Even some of Feathers’ lines are virtually the same, and she shows a very similar aggressiveness in the relationship.  Walter Brennan was also a principal supporting character in To Have and Have Not.  There are similar pop musical touches in both movies, with Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not and Martin/Nelson in Rio Bravo. 

riobravohawks Director Hawks and Angie Dickinson

Later, Hawks would remake Rio Bravo twice more, with diminishing success each time.  1966’s El Dorado featured Wayne again, with Robert Mitchum in the Martin role and a young James Caan in the Nelson role.  It worked, but not as well as Rio Bravo.  Rio Lobo in 1970, again starring Wayne, used many of the same plot elements.  It was Hawks’ last film and not one of his more successful in a number of ways.  John Carpenter took the plot as the basis for his 1976 urban action film Assault on Precinct 16.

Some credit for the enduring success of Rio Bravo should go to excellent screen-writing by two frequent Hawks collaborators:  Jules Furthman (a screenwriter since 1915, with Mutiny on the Bounty, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The Outlaw, Nighmare Alley) and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Hatari, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, The Empire Strikes Back).  As with most great films, however, a number of elements worked together well to produce something worth remembering.

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