Category Archives: More Westerns

Diablo

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2016

Diablo—Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Walton Goggins, Danny Glover, Camilla Belle, (2015; Dir: Lawrence Roeck)

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It has been almost 25 years since Clint Eastwood, the greatest western star (see our post on Shooting Stars 1) since John Wayne, appeared in his last western, the impressive Unforgiven.  Now in his 80s, he is still working, but it seems doubtful he will ever appear in or direct another western.  Now comes his son Scott Eastwood (formerly known as Scott Reeves; his parents weren’t married) in his first western.  He has appeared in other movies (Fury and The Longest Ride, for example), and it appears that he may be a real actor.  Part of the enjoyment in watching this intensely psychological western is looking for those moments when Eastwood’s hair, the angles in his face and, just occasionally, his way of speaking remind one of his father.  It seems apparent from the movie posters that a little tweaking was done there to emphasize any resemblance to his father’s appearance.

As a psychological western with a significant twist, be warned:  there will be spoilers regarding that twist.  Read no farther if you don’t want to know it.  The movie develops slowly, and we are almost an hour into a short movie (83 minutes in total) before the plot starts to develop its point.  It begins with an action scene, of Mexican night raiders burning a ranch belonging to Jackson (Scott Eastwood) and abducting his wife Alexandra (or Alexsandra, which seems an unlikely way to spell it).  This is Colorado Territory in 1872; the titles inform us that it is seven years after the Civil War, so we assume that will play some role in the film.  Jackson assumes that the raiders have taken the “South Trail” toward New Mexico, and he follows.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) follows on the wintry “South Trail.”

As the story develops and he follows deeper into the wintry mountains, two elements become apparent. Jackson is not very trail-wise, being taken unawares by an Indian boy whom he allows to escape, and being jumped by an itinerant Chinese trader and then by Ezra (Walton Goggins), a possibly deranged man claiming to own the road.  Ezra gratuitously kills the trader and threatens to kill Jackson.  It also becomes obvious that Jackson should, in addition to his rifle, be wearing a sidearm, since he gets taken by surprise so often when he doesn’t have the rifle.  When he finally does see the Mexican party at a distance, one of them shoots him.  Dying, he is visited again by Ezra and awakens to find himself in a teepee being attended by the Indian boy’s father Nakoma (Adam Beach).  They give him peyote, and it is revealed in a gruesome scene that Jackson accidentally killed his younger brother during the late war.  The Indians drive him out, and as he goes, Ezra appears and shoots several of them.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) meets the volatile Ezra (Walton Goggins).

[Spoilers begin in earnest.]  The wounded Jackson visits Benjamin Carver (Danny Glover), a black man he knew during the war who now lives with his granddaughter in the mountains.  Carver offers to help, but is clearly afraid of Jackson, referring to Jackson’s service under Gen. Sherman as a killer and killing his own brother.  It now starts to become obvious that Ezra is Jackson’s alter ego, and that Jackson is a deranged killer, probably unhinged by killing his brother.  He is now using a pistol and moving like he knows very well how to use it.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) encounters Alexsandra (Camille Belle) at a stream.

He finds the Mexicans, and approaches Alexsandra at a stream.  She flees from him in terror, and the Mexicans bolt for the south.  They come to an extensive hacienda/homestead and prepare for Jackson’s arrival.  He kills several of them, using the pistol with great efficiency and ferocity.  Invading the house, he finds himself in the same room with Alexsandra, who pleads with him to leave her in peace with the father of her children and then shoots him in fear.  She flees to the next room, and a badly wounded but still ferocious Jackson appears at the door.  The movie ends with a close-up of Jackson in freeze frame, but the soundtrack continues, making it sound like he shoots Alexsandra’s husband and perhaps Alexsandra herself.  Jackson is the “Diablo” of the title.

This movie won the Best Feature award at the 2015 San Diego Film Festival.  Subsequent audiences have not generally been so fond of it, perhaps because of its slow initial development and its bleak, nihilistic ending.  Scott Eastwood is an attractive young man and a decent actor, although not as good as Walton Goggins (Cowboys & Aliens, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), who is downright scary as the murderous half of his mind.  Camille Belle, as the young Mexican woman Jackson may have abducted himself before the film began, has very little film time but does well enough with it.  We needed a little more backstory on Jackson earlier in the movie to avoid losing patience with the story; the sense is that it wasn’t quite playing fair and delayed the real developments in the story too long.

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Eastwoods, pere et fils.

The film was shot in color in Alberta, as many westerns are these days.  The cinematography (by Dean Cundey) of the wintry landscape is beautiful, although it is not entirely clear what the season is and why some places are snowier than others, making it seem capricious.  The overhead shots of Jackson riding through the scenic landscape may be overdone.  This is the second film for director-producer Lawrence Roeck, who co-wrote it.  Overall, the movie is not as watchable a western as it could have been, but it shows some promise.  Rated R for violence.

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Night Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 16, 2016

Night Passage—James Stewart, Audie Murphy, Dan Duryea, Jay C. Flippen, Dianne Foster, Elaine Stewart, Brandon De Wilde, Hugh Beaumont, Robert Wilke, Paul Fix, Olive Carey, Jack Elam, Chuck Roberson (1957; Dir: James Neilson)

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This is the movie that broke up the Anthony Mann-James Stewart partnership.  Beginning in 1950 director Mann and leading man Stewart had revitalized both westerns generally and Stewart’s career specifically with five westerns:  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.  (They had also made three non-westerns together.)  Mann and Stewart had planned to work together on this one, although neither thought the script was strong enough.  Mann also thought Stewart and Audie Murphy were too different to be believable as brothers, he didn’t think much of Murphy’s acting skills generally, and he was not fond of the continual emphasis on Stewart’s accordion.  Stewart liked the idea of being able to show off his accordion skills (although all his accordion-playing in the film was later dubbed in by a more expert musician).  So Mann left the production to go make The Tin Star, Stewart stayed, and the two never worked together again.

At the start of the film, Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is scraping by playing his accordion for change.  He had once been a troubleshooter for the railroad but had been fired when he let an outlaw escape.  Now Kimball (Jay C. Flippen), the railroad’s boss and the older husband of McLaine’s former flame Verna (Elaine Stewart), reluctantly hires McLaine back for one job:  to get a $10,000 payroll through to the end of the line, despite Whitey Harbin’s gang.  Verna makes it clear she wouldn’t mind resuming their relationship, and McLaine encounters Charlie (Dianne Foster), whom he had known as the long-time girlfriend of the Utica Kid.  And he rescues Joey, a kid (Brandon De Wilde) being tormented by Concho (Robert J. Wilke).

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Grant McLaine (James Stewart) demonstrates his prowess with the accordion to Joey (Brandon De Wilde).

True to recent form, Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang, including the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), rob the train.  Frustrated at not finding the payroll, they take Kimball’s wife Verna for ransom.  McLaine and his accordion show up at the abandoned mining camp where Harbin’s gang holes up, and it develops that McLaine and the Utica Kid are brothers.  The Utica Kid (real name:  Lee McLaine) was the outlaw Grant McLaine let go five years previously, ruining his career with the railroad.  Charlie arrives, too, and McLaine shoots it out with Concho, precipitating a fight with the whole gang.

In the course of the extended gun battle, McLaine sends Verna and the payroll in an ore cart to safety.  As he and Charlie trade shots with the gang, the Utica Kid reluctantly joins them.  (In general he finds McLaine’s attempts to reform him tiresome.)  But we know what traditionally happens to men with conflicted loyalties (see Randolph Scott in Western Union and Robert Preston in Union Pacific, to cite just two examples from railroading/technological westerns).  Utica takes a slug from Whitey, but McLaine gets Whitey.  In the end, McLaine heads off with Charlie, although they both would seem to need a longer mourning period for the Utica Kid before getting on with any relationship.

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Finally on the same side, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) and McLaine (James Stewart) shoot it out with Whitey Harbin and his gang.

So was Anthony Mann right?  The script is muddled and less than clear, the cast is talented but overlarge, Stewart (six feet three inches tall, 48 years old) and Murphy (five feet five inches tall, 31 years old) don’t seem much like brothers, and the accordion quickly becomes tiresome.  On the other hand, Murphy does fairly well in his role.  There is interesting interplay between Whitey (thoroughly bad) and the Utica Kid (some bad and some not so bad), who are obviously going to have it out at some point.  The movie was not well-received by critics or at the box office, Stewart seemed to blame Mann, and the two never spoke again.  Stewart didn’t agree to another western for four years, until he did Two Rode Together with director John Ford (not one of Ford’s best).

Dan Duryea, doing a humorless variation on his Waco Johnny Dean role from Winchester ’73, seems louder, more irritating and generally less successful here.  The two female roles are undistinguished, both in the writing and as executed on screen; Charlie, particularly, needed more.  There is a lot of talent involved here, but it doesn’t come together well.  It’s not really terrible, but not very good, either.  It probably would have benefited from an extensive script re-write, ditching the accordion and keeping Mann.

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Mann said later, “The story was so incoherent that I said the audience wouldn’t understand any of it.  But Jimmy was very set on that film.  He had to play the accordion and do a bunch of stunts that actors adore.  He didn’t care about the script whatever and I abandoned the production.  The picture was a total failure and Jimmy has always held it against me.”  Obviously, a clash of egos was involved, as often happens in movie-making.  Night Passage was perhaps not so total a failure as that, but Mann’s instincts were mostly right this time.

Shot in color near Silverton, Colorado, at 90 minutes; it was the first film made using the Technirama process.  The compact running time doesn’t really allow for enough development of the numerous characters, which may be one reason the women don’t seem all that interesting.  The cinematography by William H. Daniels is excellent.  The screenplay is by veteran screen writer Borden Chase (Red River, Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Vera Cruz), and music is by Dimitri Tiomkin (too many westerns and other films to list, including several with John Wayne).  Director James Neilson was working mostly in television at the time and had a less-than-distinguished record in movies over his career.

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The Lone Hand

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 9, 2016

The Lone Hand—Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, James Arness, Jimmy Hunt (1953; Dir: George Sherman)

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In 1870, widower Zachary Hallock (Joel McCrea) and his young son Joshua (Jimmy Hunt) come to the town of Timberline, looking for a new start.  They buy a ranch at a good price and set about fixing it up, making friends with the Skaggs family, especially marriageable daughter Sarah Jean (Barbara Hale) and her young brother Daniel.  As their first harvest comes in, they buy a couple of riding horses from amiable horse trader George Hadley (Charles Drake) for a wagon load of grain.  Zachary and Sarah Jean are married, and she moves in.

Timberline is also plagued by a band of outlaws.  As Joshua is delivering the grain to Hadley, shots from ambush spook his horse and the grain is dumped into a creek and lost.  The slippery-seeming Varden brothers (Alex Nicol and James Arness) approach Zachary with an invitation to join them in a robbery.  They refer to a shadowy big boss, who gives them the information on which their robberies are planned.  It works out profitably enough, but Sarah Jean and Joshua wonder about Zachary’s unexplained absences on more jobs.  As Joshua follows Zachary, he is spotted by one of the Vardens (James Arness), who traps Joshua by the river until Varden slips, falls in and is drowned.

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Sarah Jean (Barbara Hale) thinks new husband Zachary (Joel McCrea) has been less than forthcoming.

Zachary is to bring the mules up for a final big score (robbery of a mule train of gold), where he meets the big boss:  George Hadley, the horse trader and head of the local regulators.  As Zachary is captured, he is rescued, and the robbery is thwarted by the Timberline regulators, alerted by Sarah Jean.  It turns out that Zachary was a Pinkerton agent and was undercover with the gang until he could identify the real leader.  And now he, Sarah Jean and Joshua can live happily ever after.

Among Joel McCrea westerns of the early 1950s, this obscure one is not one of the most effective. It depends on a gimmick, with the movie being mostly narrated by Joshua from a position of partial ignorance.  Although the movie is not long (just 80 minutes), the gimmick is worn out before it is done.  Barbara Hale is competent and pleasant to look at, but not terribly charismatic.  (See her also as Randolph Scott’s fiancée in 7th Cavalry.)  Alex Nicol, who plays the surviving Varden brother, is a better and more interesting bad guy in both Dawn at Socorro and The Man From Laramie.  The river into which James Arness falls to his death is the same one (the Las Animas) used to good effect in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Charles Drake is so smooth and amiable as George Hadley that we know he must be the leader of the outlaws, so that development isn’t really much of a surprise.  If you are a particular fan of Joel McCrea (and I am), you may want to see this for the sake of completeness.  Although it’s pleasant enough fare, it may not be worth seeking out otherwise.  For other McCrea westerns from this period particularly featuring him in a parental role, see Saddle Tramp and Cattle Drive.

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George Sherman was a journeyman director who moved more into television work in the later 1950s and 1960s.  He made quite a few westerns of which his best may be a late one:  Big Jake (1971) with John Wayne.  Story is by Irving Ravetch.  Shot in color around Durango and Moses Lake, Colorado, with good cinematography and excellent scenery.  Cinematography is by Maury Gertsman and music by Joseph Gershenson and Henry Mancini (uncredited).

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Belle Starr

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 20, 2015

Belle Starr (also known as Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen)—Gene Tierney, Randolph Scott, Dana Andrews, Shepperd Strudwick, Chill Wills, Olin Howland, Louise Beavers (1941; Dir: Irving Cummings)

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Early in her career, the beautiful Gene Tierney appeared in three westerns among her first four films:  The Return of Frank James (1940), with Henry Fonda, Hudson’s Bay (1941) with Paul Muni, and this, with Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews.  Although they were all based on historical persons or events, they had precious little historical accuracy in them.  In particular, this depiction of the west’s most famous female outlaw has almost nothing to do with the historical person, playing her as a kind of Scarlett O’Hara in Missouri after the Civil War.

Scarlett, er, Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney), is a Confederate sympathizer with a lot of unused feistiness as the war ends.  We see the family home as a large-scale southern plantation, which was probably pretty rare in Missouri.  She shows her canniness by tricking ne’er-do-well thief Jasper Tench (Olin Howland) out of a stolen horse.  Her brother Edward (Shepperd Strudwick) returns from the war, as does former romantic interest Thomas Crail (Dana Andrews), now a major in the Union army and the regional military authority.  Crail is seeking former Missouri border guerillas who have not surrendered, such as Sam Starr (Randolph Scott).

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Outlaw Sam Starr (Randolph Scott) and southern sympathizer Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney) seem to be getting along well.

Belle helps Starr escape Crail’s clutches, and Crail is obliged by the occupation rules to burn down her mansion.  She flees to join Starr’s rebellion, and they fall in love and are married.  Meanwhile, Starr’s rebellion continues to grow in size.  Among the new recruits are the Cole brothers from Texas, said to have ridden with Quantrill during the war.  The Coles have fewer scruples than Starr, and they influence him to move more in the direction of robbery and murder.  Belle’s brother Edward comes to warn her about these new activities of Starr’s, and the Coles gun him down.  Belle gives back Starr’s ring and leaves.

Meanwhile, Starr plans to show up at a speech of the carpetbagger governor as a show of strength.  Belle discovers that it is a trap, with Crail’s men waiting for Starr, and she rides to warn him.  As she does, she is shot from ambush by Tench for the reward on her head. The shot is taken as a warning by Starr, and the raid is aborted.  But Starr gives himself up when he hears about Belle’s fate.  He and Belle’s mammy (Louise Beavers) see the body, but claim that it is not Belle so the venal Tench won’t get the reward.  Crail knows as well as they do that the body is Belle’s, but he plays along.

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Gene Tierney as Belle Starr; and the real Belle Starr in a full-length studio portrait probably taken in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the early 1880s.

Tierney had marvelous facial bone structure and extraordinary beauty, but she was not a great actress and this is not her best work.  (See Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and perhaps Leave Her to Heaven for that.)  The writing makes Belle often seem angrily stupid, and the whole thing makes little sense.  Scott and Andrews are good enough, and Chill Wills makes an early appearance as the outlaw Blue Duck (a strangely religious outlaw), otherwise best known on film as the principal villain in Lonesome Dove.  But none of the characters in this film bear much resemblance to their historical counterparts.

The film has distinguished writing credits, with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky) and story by Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, Pursued, The Furies).  It just goes to show that otherwise good writers can come up with an occasional bomb.  Director Irving Cummings had been an actor from the earliest days of the movies, but was not terribly notable as a director, having done a number of unremarkable films, along with uncredited work on 1939’s Jesse James.  Music is by experienced movie composer Alfred Newman; the title music had been composed for John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln two years earlier.  The film was shot in color (so it had a good budget for 1941), at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California, at 87 minutes.

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For a much more interesting depiction of Belle Starr on film, see Pamela Reed in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  Although the real Belle Starr was ugly as a mud fence, she has been played on film not only by the glamorous Tierney, but also by Jane Russell, Elsa Martinelli and Elizabeth Montgomery, among others–usually in highly fictionalized form.

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Go West, Young Lady

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2015

Go West, Young Lady—Penny Singleton, Glenn Ford, Ann Miller, Charles Ruggles, Onslow Stevens, Jed Prouty, Allen Jenkins (1941; Dir: Frank R. Strayer)

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For current fans of westerns, the obvious star of this western musical comedy would be the young Canadian actor Glenn Ford.  But at the time this was made in 1941, he was not the biggest star; first billing went to Penny Singleton, then known for having appeared as Blondie in a series of slight films based on the Dagwood and Blondie comic strips.  (She and Arthur Lake would make 28 of them between 1938 and 1950, including one with Glenn Ford in 1940; many were directed by Frank Strayer.)  Here, she is Belinda “Bill” Pendergast, the young lady of the title.

The once-tomboyish Bill is headed west to join her uncle Joe Pendergast (Charles Ruggles) in the lawless town of Headstone, now terrorized by the outlaw gang of Killer Pete.  In the stage with her is Tex Miller (Glenn Ford), a federal marshal being sent as temporary sheriff to clean things up in Headstone.  When the stage is attacked by Indians, Tex is surprised to find Bill outshooting him in the stage’s defense (like Mae West in the previous year’s My Little Chickadee).  Uncle Joe owns the Crystal Palace saloon, where the principal entertainment (and most of the movie’s musical numbers, along with some anachronistic but well-executed tap dancing) are provided by Lola (Ann Miller).  He is shocked to find that Bill Pendergast is a young woman.  Unfortunately, Lola and Bill do not get along well.

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Young Belinda “Bill” Pendergast (Penny Singleton) is surprisingly adept with a gun.

Uncle Joe owes more and more of his saloon to his financial backer, Hannegan (Onslow Stevens), but both of them seem to be losing money to Killer Pete.  [Spoilers follow.]  Unknown to almost everyone, however, Hannegan is in fact Killer Pete.  Tex does his best to bring a little law and order.  As Tex keeps fighting with bad guys who are bigger than he, in a running gag Bill tries to help him but always ends up bashing Tex.  He warns her off (to no effect) in one fight.  “Don’t hit him!  It’ll be me!”  It always is.

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Bill (Penny Singleton) and Lola (Ann Miller) don’t get along.  Eventually physical hostilities erupt.

Elements of this are reminiscent of Destry Rides Again, from two years earlier, with the corrupt town, the diffident-seeming (but actually forceful in his way) young lawman, and the exuberant fight between two women (Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry, Singleton and Miller here).  Other than those references, the writing here is desultory and the comedy predictable, with pies in faces, law and order prevailing against Killer Pete, and the young lovers getting together after multiple misunderstandings.  Like Belle of the Yukon, this is edging more into musical comedy than western.  Along with all the other musical numbers (several written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin), one is provided by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

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After numerous altercations, misdirected punches and the occasional pie in the face, finally the young lovers (Penny Singleton and Glenn Ford) get together.

Shot in black and white at the Iverson ranch in Chatsworth, California, at only 70 minutes.  Not available on DVD in the U.S.  Not to be confused with Go West, Young Girl, a 1975 made-for-television movie with Karen Valentine.  Or with the better-known Go West, Young Man, 1936, with Mae West, Warren William and Randolph Scott.

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The Revengers

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 13, 2015

The Revengers—William Holden, Susan Hayward, Ernest Borgnine, Woody Strode, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jorge Luke, Warren Vanders (1972; Dir: Daniel Mann)

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It is doubtful that “revengers” is even a real word, but you get the idea.  Somebody’s after vengeance in this Dirty-Dozen-style flick.  That would be John Benedict (a visibly aging William Holden at 54, after years of hard living).  He’s a Colorado rancher whose family is slaughtered by Comancheros and their Comanche allies during a horse-stealing raid.  He tracks them down to the borders of the U.S. and Mexico, and figures he needs help.  Spotting a Mexican prison that rents out convict labor, he hires six of their worst inmates.  Leaving the guards behind, he gets the six decent clothes and weapons, but has some difficulty getting their active allegiance (a staple of this kind of film).

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John Benedict (William Holden, upper left) and his newly-recruited gang, including Ernest Borgnine (tall hat) and Woody Strode (front right).

He leads them in an attack on the Comanchero stronghold, getting most of them, but the leader Tarp (Warren Vanders) escapes although wounded.  Depressed at this failure, Benedict drinks heavily and has a falling-out with one of the six, a Mexican gunslinger who fancies that he may be Benedict’s son.  The six scatter, and Benedict, grievously wounded, is tended by the local healer, an Irish nurse of a certain age named Elizabeth Reilly (Susan Hayward).  There is some attraction between them during the time it takes Benedict to heal, but he rides off in search of closure with Tarp. However, he is arrested and thrown in the Mexican prison from which he had helped the six escape.

Two of the six, Hoop (Ernest Borgnine) and Chamaco (Jorge Luke), the Mexican gunslinger, reassemble the six.  They spring Benedict from the Mexican prison and resume the search for Tarp, whom they find held by a small U.S. cavalry unit besieged by Comanches and Comancheros.  They want him back.  Benedict proposes to kill Tarp and send him back to the Comanches that way, but doesn’t proceed with that out of respect for the badly wounded lieutenant in charge.  Benedict and the six join the outnumbered cavalry and use dynamite and a little artillery to make a last stand.  The cavalry wins, but not without casualties.  The lieutenant and the Mexican gunslinger Chamaco are among them.  And Benedict rides away without killing Tarp, having belatedly decided that revenge is an empty motivation.

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The wounded Benedict (William Holden) and Irish nurse Reilly (Susan Hayward) get to know each other.

There are a couple of things about the movie that don’t work very well.  One is the interlude with the Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that doesn’t really go anywhere. Her accent isn’t good; it clanks as badly as Barbara Stanwyck’s faux-Irish in Union Pacific (1939).  When Hayward makes a reference to the possibility of having children, we notice that she seems to be in her fifties (at 55, she was a year older than Holden and three years away from her death of cancer) and children are improbable.  Benedict is supposed to be good with a gun, but he looks his age, his shoulders are rounded by now, and he’s not all that persuasive as a gunslinger.  And the ending, with Benedict just walking away from the revenge that has been the point of the movie, is similarly unpersuasive.  At the least, you’d expect that one of the remaining five would get Tarp, since they’ve all demonstrated that they’re not good at impulse control.  Most of the six are not well fleshed-out characters, but the film does keep moving.

Daniel Mann (The Rose Tattoo [1955], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Butterfield 8 [1960], Our Man Flint [1966] et al.) didn’t do many westerns; this may be the only one.  Holden and Borgnine (a replacement for Van Heflin after Heflin’s unexpected death) were reunited from The Wild Bunch (1969) for more adventures in Mexico, but this doesn’t remotely approach that classic in quality.  This is Holden’s last western.  Hayward, in her extraneous role, was coming to the end of her career and wasn’t making many movies.  This was written by Wendell Mayes, who had been nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Anatomy of a Murder.(1956), and who went on to write the blockbuster Death Wish and Towering Inferno.  The music occasionally reminds one of 1970s television.  In color, shot in Sonora, Mexico, at 106 minutes.  It was made available on DVD in May 2014, with a blu-ray to come in August 2015.

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Benedict (William Holden) prepares to hold off the Comancheros and their Indian allies.

Although it was released in the heyday of the revisionist westerns of the 1970s, this is more traditional in its approach and sensibility.  For better Holden and Borgnine at this late stage of their careers, see, obviously, The Wild Bunch.  For good Susan Hayward in a western, you have to go back twenty years to Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954).

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100 Rifles

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 6, 2015

100 Rifles—Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds, Fernando Lamas, Dan O’Herlihy, Aldo Sambrell (1969; Dir: Tom Gries)

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This is sometimes referred to as a spaghetti western, but it isn’t.  Although it was filmed in Spain like many spaghetti westerns and featured Italian actor Aldo Sambrell in the cast, it had an American director, writer, producer and most of the cast.  In fact, there was a lot of American talent involved here.  This was the second of director Tom Gries’ three westerns (along with Will Penny and Breakheart Pass).  He also co-wrote the script, along with experienced screenwriter Claire Huffaker (The Comancheros, Rio Conchos).  It has a very good musical score by Jerry Goldsmith.  And it featured three stars who were either on the rise (Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown) or near their peaks (Raquel Welch, known more for her physical attributes than for acting ability, but she still had box office appeal).  It gave Jim Brown, who had his start in movies with the western Rio Conchos five years earlier, a more substantial leading role than he had previously enjoyed in films.  And it also gave U.S. audiences the first bi-racial love scene in a mainstream movie.

It looks to be set in northern Mexico (specifically, in the state of Sonora) in the early 20th century, the era of continuous Mexican revolution, with trains, a few cars and a few modern armaments scattered around.  Gen. Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), the official governor of Sonora, leads regular troops against the Yaqui Indians and rebels under Gen. Romero.  One of the Yaquis is Sarita (Raquel Welch), as in the opening scene we see Verdugo hang her father.  Into town separately ride two Americans.  One is Yaqui Joe Herrera (Burt Reynolds), only half Yaqui, who has just robbed a bank in Phoenix, Arizona, of $6,000.  The other is Lyedecker (Jim Brown), a former buffalo soldier who has taken a temporary job as a peace officer and hopes to make it permanent by bringing in Joe.  Verdugo is not minded to let any of the three go, but they escape together with Verdugo and his men in hot pursuit.

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Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds) and Lyedecker (Jim Brown) make a break for it.

Joe has used the stolen money to buy the 100 rifles of the title for the desperate Yaquis.  They recover the rifles on mules outside of town, fighting a rearguard action against Verdugo.  Lyedecker develops a relationship (or at least a one-night stand) with Sarita.  As they arrive in the town where they expect to turn the rifles over to Gen. Romero, they find that he has been killed the day before, and Lyedecker is hailed as the new general.  He leads in the capture of an army train, although Verdugo wasn’t on it as they had hoped.  Taking the train into Nogales, on the northern border of Mexico, for an attack on Verdugo’s forces there,  Verdugo hears of their plan and is ready for the train.  Lyedecker, Joe, Sarita and most of the Yaquis and rebels jump off before the train crashes into Nogales, and a battle ensues, with the Yaquis using captured weapons.  Finally, Verdugo himself is clubbed to death with rifle butts, but Sarita is also killed.  Lyedecker appoints Joe his successor as Yaqui/rebel general and heads back to the U.S.

Jim Brown would become a bigger star in the blaxploitation films and a few more westerns of the 1970s, developing (like Robert Mitchum) a sub-specialty in westerns featuring adventures in Mexico (this, Rio Conchos, Take a Hard Ride, etc.).  He works well here, although Burt Reynolds does better.  Raquel Welch does what’s required of her, with flaring nostrils to indicate a fiery temperament and putting her physique on display (a bit quaint by current cinematic standards).  Welch is particularly effective in a scene that calls for her to distract a trainful of soldiers by taking a shower under a water tower.  Pretty smoky for a mainstream 1969 movie, but she’s wearing a white shirt while doing it; nevertheless it works as intended.  Reynolds and Welch did not get on well during the filming and would not work together again.

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A couple of publicity stills will give an idea of how this movie was marketed.  Burt Reynolds was said to have suggested as a tongue-in-cheek strategy, “Take her shirt off, take his shirt off, and give me all the lines.”

The Lyedecker-Sarita relationship was daring for its time, but it seems unremarkable now and it does slow down the plot of a movie obviously based on action.  The film seems like it could be tightened up to good effect.  Sarita’s death off-screen in the final battle scene feels arbitrary, although clearly such things happen in battles like the one in Nogales.  The movie’s not terrible, or even really bad, but the film’s present interest is more as a cinematic and cultural artifact of 1969 rather than because it’s a good western.  In color, at 110 minutes.  It was rated R on its release, because of all the violence and the steamy scenes with Raquel Welch.

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Somehow Jim Brown got lost on this Asian poster.

If you didn’t get enough Raquel Welch, see her in Bandolero! (adventuring in Mexico again, this time with James Stewart and Dean Martin) and in Hannie Caulder, a female revenge story.  Burt Reynolds had already done the spaghetti western Navajo Joe, and would go on to appear in Sam Whiskey and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing as he became a bigger star in the early 1970s.

 

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Black Spurs

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 2, 2015

Black Spurs—Rory Calhoun, Linda Darnell, Terry Moore, Scott Brady, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bruce Cabot, James Best, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley (1965; Dir: R.G. Springsteen)

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The black spurs of the title belong to an outlaw called El Pescadore (The Fisherman with an extra “e”), who robs a bank in the movie’s first scene.  Santee, a cowhand with ambitions, takes up his pursuit as a more lucrative line of work, and appropriates the black spurs when he gets his man.  Returning to his town in Texas in 1885, he finds that his girlfriend has married a sheriff from Laredo and moved on.

Eventually, Santee comes up with an idea to make his fortune in Kile, Kansas.  The railroad will come through Kile or Lark, but the railroad company avoids disorderly towns when making those decisions (historically, then they become disorderly after the railroad has arrived).  Santee makes a deal with Gus Kile (Lon Chaney, Jr.) to open up Lark, causing the railroad to avoid Lark and go through KIle.  He brings in more gamblers, gunmen (Bruce Cabot) and women (led by Linda Darnell), and backs off Sheriff Henry Elkins (James Best), now married to Santee’s former girl Anna (Terry Moore).  Santee is unable to completely control some of his men, who tar and feather Sheriff Elkins.  Anna reveals that her son is Santee’s, and that she had to marry Elkins to become respectable while he was out hunting El Pescatore.

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Santee (Rory Calhoun) wins his spurs (black ones).

Santee has a change of heart now.  (We always knew he was decent somewhere inside, because he was nice to kids.)  He takes up Elkins’ badge and cleans out the saloon he had set up, taking on four gunmen at once. A preacher with a broken arm, Anna and even the all-but-immobile Elkins take shots during the battle.  Finally, Santee takes down Henderson (Bruce Cabot), who is shot, falls, and is last seen being dragged screaming out of town by his frightened horse.  As Santee rides out of town the next day, he discards the black spurs (reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s red slippers in River of No Return, among many other such cinematic gestures).  The truly dreadful theme song intones: “He had no love of his own, because he wore … black spurs.”

This low-budget feature was late in the careers of Rory Calhoun (starting to get a little gray in his hair), Linda Darnell (still beautiful but thickening a bit), Bruce Cabot, who had been playing similar bad guy roles thirty years (Last of the Mohicans, Dodge City) and twenty years (Angel and the Bad Man) previously, and Lon Chaney, Jr.  For Calhoun, this and Apache Uprising (also 1965, also directed by R.G. Springsteen) were his last significant western movies.  It was Darnell’s last movie; she died tragically in a fire the same year at the age of 41 after 25 years in the movies.  Director R.G. Springsteen was nearing the end of his movie career as well, with several low-budget westerns produced by A.C. Lyles.  This is not among the best of Calhoun’s westerns, but it’s not the worst, either.

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Santee (Rory Calhoun) puts on the badge; co-star Linda Darnell behind the scenes with producer A.C. Lyles.

In the 1960s, A.C. Lyles produced a series of thirteen low-budget westerns for Paramount, of which this was the fourth.  One of the ways the budget was kept down was to use journeyman directors (like Springsteen) and to use stars with recognizeable names but who were past their primes–like those in this film.  Silent screen star Richard Arlen was in several of them, including in this as a hard-bitten saloon owner.  Shot in color at Ray Corrigan’s ranch in Simi Valley, California, at 81 minutes.

For better Rory Calhoun, see Dawn at Socorro or Apache Territory.  For better Linda Darnell in a western (and her role here as Santee’s imported madam from New Orleans is quite minor, although she received major billing with Calhoun), see The Mark of Zorro, My Darling Clementine and Two Flags West, all from the 1940s.  For another bounty hunter named Santee, see Glenn Ford in Santee (1973)—not one of his better westerns, either.

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The Missouri Breaks

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trail Street

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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