Tag Archives: Alan Ladd

Red Mountain

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2015

Red Mountain—Alan Ladd, Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy, John Ireland, Jay Silverheels, Jeff Corey, Neville Brand (1951; Dir: William Dieterle, John Farrow [uncredited])

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This is one of Alan Ladd’s more elusive, seldom-seen westerns, a Civil War story with an excellent cast.  Ladd plays Brett Sherwood, a captain from Georgia who has gone west in April 1865 to Colorado Territory to meet up with “Gen.” William Quantrell.  (Reality note: Usually spelled “Quantrill,” he was a colonel at best, and he was long dead by this time, having been killed in Missouri.)  The opening scene shows the legs of a person in the town of Broken Branch dismounting and killing an assayer, hiding his identity.  Since a rare form of Confederate ammunition was used, the locals figure that former Confederate soldier Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), paroled after he was captured at Vicksburg, is responsible.

A lynch mob captures Waldron and is about to hang him when Sherwood shoots the rope (a la Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and helps him escape. When Waldron discovers his rescuer is also a Confederate, he figures Sherwood killed the assayer, and, with the help of his fiancée Chris (Lizabeth Scott), he ungratefully captures Sherwood to turn him in and exonerate himself.  Waldron has found a significant gold strike and wants to stay in the area to work it.

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Sherwood (Alan Ladd) meets Gen. William Quantrell (John Ireland) in Colorado.

The upper hand shifts back and forth a couple of times until Waldron’s leg is broken in a scuffle. Sherwood flags down a passing Union patrol, which turns out to be a group of Confederates and their Ute sympathizers led by Gen. Quantrell (John ireland).  Chris, a Union sympathizer who had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, when Quantrell raided there, is horrified.  Sherwood works to keep the two prisoners alive, while Quantrell is pleased to have another military officer and kindred spirit.  Gradually Quantrell reveals plans to foment a larger Indian rebellion (involving Comanches, Cheyennes, Utes and others) in the wake of the Civil War.

Chris is allowed to retrieve a doctor for Waldron, who is in bad shape, but the doctor is killed when Sherwood helps him escape.  Against her better judgment, Chris is falling for Sherwood rather than Waldron, and Quantrell also becomes suspicious.  As Sherwood helps Waldron and Chris defend themselves against the Utes, a real Union patrol attacks Quantrell.  As Quantrell flees, Sherwood takes after him, and gets him in a final shootout.  Waldron is dead of wounds by this time, and, as Sherwood recovers from his own wound, he confesses to the marshal that he killed the assayer.  Sherwood had found a claim in Colorado Territory before the war, and the assayer had stolen it.   Apparently Sherwood and Chris end up together.  (We knew any character played by Arthur Kennedy was unlikely to get the girl.)  Chris knows where Waldron’s gold strike was.  And word reaches them that the Civil War has ended two days earlier.

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Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), Sherwood (Alan Ladd) and Chris (Lizabeth Scott) make their last stand.

Lizabeth Scott, best known for her work in films noirs, is fine here in one of her two westerns (with Silver Lode [1954]).  Alan Ladd makes a sympathetic leading man, as usual, and is obviously becoming more comfortable in westerns than he was in Whispering Smith.  If you haven’t seen him in a western, you should start with Shane and maybe Branded, both from around the same time as this film; but this one isn’t bad aside from the obvious historical impossibilities.  Character actors Jeff Corey and Neville Brand show up in small parts as a couple of Quantrell’s troopers.  Jay Silverheels is Ute chief Little Crow.

William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame [the Charles Laughton version, 1939], Kismet [1944], Portrait of Jennie [1948]) was a mainstream director, not particularly known for westerns.  The uncredited John Farrow directed a few scenes when Dieterle was unavailable during filming.  Music is by Franz Waxman.  Shot in color by Charles Lang around Gallup, New Mexico, at 84 minutes.

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For another western that has Quantrell surviving the war and heading out west to continue his depredations, see Arizona Raiders (1965), with Audie Murphy.

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Whispering Smith

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 9, 2015

Whispering Smith—Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Brenda Marshall, William Demarest, Donald Crisp (1948; Dir: Leslie Fenton)

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A frequently-told western railroading story with Alan Ladd in the title role of the railroad detective.  It was at least the sixth filmed story featuring the character Whispering Smith.  It’s melodramatic, with Ladd looking not entirely comfortable in his first western role and his first color film as a major star.  He was more convincing by the time he did Shane four years later.

Whispering Luke Smith is a railroad troubleshooter, and his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) has started a ranch of his own and married Marian (Brenda Marshall), whom they both loved.  This is one of Preston’s patented old-friend-goes-bad roles, in which he seemed to specialize in the 1940s (see Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police and Blood on the Moon, for example).  Donald Crisp, instead of playing the personification of occasionally misguided rectitude as he usually did in westerns (The Man From Laramie, Saddle the Wind, Ramrod), is here not terribly persuasive as Barney Rebstock, a bandit chief and rustler.

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Alan Ladd as Whispering Smith; and production still of Brenda Marshall and Alan Ladd.  Having Ladd sit down disguises his short stature, always a visual problem when he wasn’t sitting on a horse.

In addition to running his ranch, Murray still works for the railroad, leading crews that clean up when a train is wrecked.  But he is edging more into wrecking trains for his own profit, after feeling disregarded by the bureaucracy of the company.  His relationship with Marian is becoming more strained as well, and he becomes more obsessed with the idea she might leave him for Smith.  This ends as it usually did for Preston in such roles.  Smith spends the movie balancing the duties of his job against his friendship with Murray, as well as his continuing regard and affection for Marian, while Murray gets deeper into anti-railroad crime.  Smith grapples with multiple bad guys, including the train-robbing Barton boys, Rebstock and his gunslinger Whitey, and it’s not clear until the end how his long-time friendship with Murray will turn out.

Brenda Marshall, then married to William Holden, made only one more film before retiring from the movie business.  Ladd and Preston were good friends, and this was the last of five movies in which they appeared together (This Gun For Hire, Variety Girl, Wild Harvest, etc.).  Ladd later became more comfortable and persuasive in westerns.  Not only did he go on to make the iconic Shane, for example, but he made a string of westerns in the 1950s, such as Branded, Drum Beat, Saskatchewan, Red Mountain and The Badlanders.  In color, at 88 minutes.

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Frank H. Spearman wrote the 1906 novel first using this character; at least one edition was illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.  The first Whispering Smith film was made in 1916, with the character said to be based at least in part on Joe LeFors, an actual western lawman (and sometime Union Pacific detective) based in Denver and Cheyenne who had chased Butch Cassidy and caught Tom Horn at the turn of the century.  Whispering Smith was played by silent star George O’Brien when he drifted into the lower-prestige genre of westerns during the 1930s.  After this 1948 film, the character was used once more in Whispering Smith Hits London (1952), after which he was retired from the movies, apparently for good.  He showed up on television for twenty episodes beginning in 1961, played by Audie Murphy.

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Whispering Smith (J.P. McGowan) in a scene from the 1916 movie of that name.

 

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Branded

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2014

Branded—Alan Ladd, Mona Freeman, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, Robert Keith, Peter Hansen, Tom Tully (1950; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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Alan Ladd made this one just before he revived his career by playing Shane, perhaps his biggest role ever and certainly his best western.  He had been in movies for almost ten years at this point and was not quite as big a star as he had been after his breakthrough roles in This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).  After Whispering Smith (1948), he moved more into westerns and made several good ones, including this.

“You got any friends?”
“My guns.”
“Kinfolk?”
“My horse.”

When we first see Choya (Ladd’s character), he is besieged by the men of a town where he has just killed someone who drew first on him.  He wears two guns in the kind of fancy rig often seen in the 1950s, which mark him as a gunman, and he escapes from his predicament resourcefully.  He is followed, however, by T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his partner Tattoo, who want to make him a business proposition.  Leffingwell knows of a south Texas ranching family whose son Richard was kidnapped 25 years previously.  The son had a birthmark on his left shoulder, and Leffingwell proposes that Tattoo give Choya the birthmark.  He will then pretend to be Richard Lavery to win over the ranching family and take over their ranch.  The story’s title refers to him after the tattoo.

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Choya (Alan Ladd) receives the tattoo that leads to the title.

Choya (Cholla?) is Spanish for a type of cactus, and Choya shares the plant’s prickliness.  That’s the only name he has, along with a spotted and murky past, and he agrees to Leffingwell’s plan, with certain provisos.  After receiving the tattoo, he heads for for the Laverys’ Bar O Ranch and starts by getting a job there.  Leffingwell, meanwhile, has killed Tattoo so as not to share the gains from this con, and has been told by Choya to lay low.

[Spoilers follow from this point.]  Choya gets a job on the ranch, despite suspicious foreman Ransome (Tom Tully), who doesn’t like him.  While fighting with the owner (Charles Bickford), his tattoo/supposed birthmark is spotted.  The family accepts him, including daughter Ruth (Mona Freeman), and he plays along, slowly and apparently reluctantly.  Leffingwell shows up to press the matter.  Choya/Richard is trusted to head a cattle drive to El Paso with Ruth, and he has second thoughts about this con.  Finally he sells the cattle for more than $180,000 and makes sure that it goes back to the family.  He has it out with Leffingwell, discovering that Leffingwell was the baby’s kidnapper and that Mexican bandit chieftain Mateo Rubriz (Joseph Calleia) has raised the child as his own son Antonio.

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Choya negotiates with the sleazy Leffingwell (Robert Keith) from a position of strength.

After warning Leffingwell not to set foot in Texas again, Choya heads south over the Rio Grande toward the mountain retreat of Rubriz.  Somehow he charms Rubriz and, while Rubriz is called away, manages to make off with Rubriz’s son Antonio (Peter Hansen), the Laverys’ real long-lost son, who doesn’t really want to go to Texas.  Life is fine for him where he is.

Rubriz was called away to see Leffingwell (we knew he’d show up again), who tells him what Choya’s up to, and Rubriz and his men give chase.  It’s a long way to the Rio Grande, and Choya doesn’t know the shortest paths.  Antonio was wounded in their getaway, and they are trapped in a cave while Rubriz’s men unknowingly camp below.  Choya has taken good enough care of Antonio, and told him enough stories of the Laverys, that Antonio is beginning to trust him and helps him steal horses to sprint for the river, stampeding the rest.  As Leffingwell takes a bead on Choya to shoot him down with a Winchester, the stampeding horses push him off a cliff.  Once on the other side of the river, Antonio faints from his wound and Choya passes out from exhaustion.  They are found there by Lavery and his foreman Ransome.

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Having barely made it back across the Rio Grande, Choya (Alan Ladd, with Peter Hansen) prepares to shoot it out.

As Antonio wakes in a bed on the Lavery ranch, Choya explains things to him.  But Rubriz and his bandit band have found him, and Rubriz plans to kill both Choya and Antonio, whom he views as a traitor.  Choya manages to talk him around, though, and it looks like Antonio will have a family on both sides of the border.  As Choya makes yet another escape, he is caught by Ruth, and it looks like this time he will not get away so easily.

Based on a story by Max Brand, the outline of this plot seems a bit contrived.  But it works in part because Ladd manages to be convincing (if short) as the irascible Choya.  The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Robert Keith as the delightfully loathsome and unprincipled Leffingwell, Joseph Calleia as the bandit chieftain and family man Rubriz, and Peter Hansen as Antonio. Calleia, who was of Maltese origin, often played heavies and Mexicans, but he was particularly good when the role called for some ambiguity, as his does here.  He could give his roles an enigmatic humanity, when in other hands they might just be stereotypes.  Charles Bickford, said to be as irascible as Choya and hard to work with on other film sets (see The Big Country, for example), is fine here, as he was in Four Faces West with Calleia a couple of years earlier.  Mona Freeman always played younger than she was in movies, and doesn’t have many nuances to her performance, but she’s fine here.

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This isn’t really what his two-gun rig looks like.

Shot on location in Arizona and southern Utah, with Charles Lang doing the cinematography in color in “academy aspect,” full-screen.  Not terribly long, at 104 minutes, it nevertheless moves at what sometimes seems a leisurely pace.  The movie was recently released on DVD by Warner Archive (Sept. 2013).

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The Iron Mistress

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 16, 2014

The Iron Mistress—Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Joseph Calleia, Phyllis Kirk (1952; Dir:  Gordon Douglas)

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Biopic about Louisiana gambler, land speculator and knife fighter James Bowie, based on the novel with the same title by Paul Wellman.  Shane (also with Alan Ladd in the lead) was made first, but this reached theaters earlier when Shane’s release was delayed.  The poverty-stricken Bowie goes to New Orleans in the 1820s, where he meets poor painter John James Audubon, develops a few social pretensions for his backwoods family, and moves into the fringes of a higher social circle.  Virginia Mayo has one of her best roles as the faithless Judalon de Bornay, a spoiled French creole aristocrat in New Orleans for whom Bowie isn’t socially upscale enough.  Most of the conflict in the film comes from wondering if they’ll ever get together, even after de Bornay marries a weakling.  And from the periodic outbreaks of violence that Bowie’s involved in, which are of course unavoidable as matters of honor but never really his fault. 

Finally Bowie has had enough and drifts toward the frontier–specifically, to Texas.  The film ends with Bowie’s marriage to the daughter of the Mexican governor of Coahuila, which includes Texas—not with the Alamo in 1836, where Bowie met his real end and became a Texas hero.  Just before that, dismayed by the carnage he has wrought (and his own not-very-savory reputation), Bowie tosses his legendary knife (the “iron mistress” of the title) into the Mississippi and is done with it forever. 

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Ladd as Jim Bowie in a production still; the knives used in the film–Bowie’s big Bowie knife and Bloody Jack Sturdevant’s Arkansas toothpick.

Much of this (especially his throwing the legendary blade in the Mississippi) is contrary to history, although the film contains some references to real elements of Bowie’s supposed story:  John James Audubon, the Quaker painter of Mississippi birds and wildlife, for example; the legendary Arkansas knifemaker James Black; the Bowie brothers’ not-entirely-savory history as land speculators; and the Sandbar fight on which Bowie’s reputation as a knife-fighter was made.  There’s a visually interesting sequence in which Bowie, armed with his knife, fights a duel with a man with a rapier in a darkened room, lit only by the occasional flash of lightning through the skylight.  Some writing is clunky, the obsession with Judalon becomes tiresome, and there are several outdoor scenes that were very obviously done on an indoor soundstage, but it’s watchable.  In color, with a score by Max Steiner.  Not really much seen these days.

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Bowie takes on swordsman Contrecourt in a duel, Bowie knife against rapier, to be fought in the dark.

Alan Ladd is now remembered among fans of westerns principally for his role as Shane, but he made a number of other westerns:  Whispering Smith (the last film version of an often-remade story about a railroad detective), Drum Beat (about the Modoc War), Saskatchewan (with Ladd as a misunderstood Mountie dealing with Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Canada), and The Badlanders (a western version of the caper story The Asphalt Jungle), for example.  For other versions of Jim Bowie on film, see Richard Widmark in John Wayne’s 1960 version of The Alamo or Jason Patric in the 2004 The Alamo (which is a better movie).

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Saskatchewan

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2014

Saskatchewan—Alan Ladd, Shelley Winters, Hugh O’Brian, J. Carrol Naish, Jay Silverheels.  (1954; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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The very blond Mountie Inspector Thomas O’Rourke (Alan Ladd) has been raised by Cree Indian chief Dark Cloud and is now stationed at Fort Walsh about 20 miles north of the Canadian border with the U.S.  Jay Silverheels is Cajou, his Cree foster-brother.  The post-Custer Sioux under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are moving into Canada, threatening to overthrow the peace and lead a general Indian uprising.  They’ve wiped out the group of which Montanan Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) is part, but she’s rescued by O’Rourke. 

It turns out she’s wanted for murder back in Montana.  O’Rourke’s troop of Mounties has to get back to Fort Walsh to warn his commanders there about the Sioux, although they don’t believe him and O’Rourke’s in trouble for refusing to obey due authority.  Hugh O’Brian plays Carl Smith, a malcontent Montana lawman with the troop, who’s always trying to get them to leave a wounded Mountie behind.  It turns out that Smith is (a) a U.S. marshal taking Grace back to Great Falls, (b) the brother of the murdered man, and (c) the actual murderer of his brother.  That gets sorted out on the way to Fort Walsh.  Banks, the Mountie commander, leads his men into a Sioux ambush, and it looks like Custer’s fate will be repeated north of the border.  O’Rourke is able, with the help of the Crees, to save his commanders from the Sioux anyway, despite being locked in the stockade with his men. 

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Inspector O’Rourke (Alan Ladd, out of uniform), Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) and Cajou (Jay Silverheels).

J. Carrol Naish is particularly good as a French-Canadian trapper and scout.  Problems:  There’s very little chemistry between the Ladd and Winters characters, who supposedly are fascinated with each other.  Saskatchewan is actually a plains province and doesn’t have mountains like these.  Sitting Bull made it to Canada for a couple of years (Crazy Horse never went there), but he had neither the resources nor the disposition to cause much trouble before eventually being forced back to the U.S.  The Mounties have very clean red coats, and wear anachronistic Smokey the Bear-style hats that weren’t regulation until after World War I.  O’Rourke wears one of the bright red coats while sneaking up to spy on the Sioux without much cover, and surprisingly enough they fail to spot him.  Filmed beautifully in color in Banff National Park (in Alberta, not Saskatchewan).  Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe were said to be filming The River of No Return (actually located in Idaho) in the same locale at the same time.

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Colorful Mounties, great scenery.

For another movie about Mounties, see Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police (1940), with Gary Cooper, or The Wild North (1952), a manhunt in the frozen wastes with Stewart Granger, Wendell Corey and Cyd Charisse.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 4

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 6, 2013

Glenn Ford as Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

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The two are inseparable, because it’s the tension between them and the opposite ideas they represent that make this movie work.  In large part, that’s because neither of them is quite what he seems.  Ford’s Wade claims to be an unrepentant outlaw, but he’s drawn to the decency he sees in Heflin’s Evans.  Evans is decent, but by the end of the movie he has shown the development of a quiet heroism that no one else in the movie will step up to.  And that makes a difference even to Wade.  For other really good performances by these two, look for Ford in Cowboy, Jubal (both with excellent director Delmer Daves) and The Sheepman and Heflin in Shane.

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Christian Bale as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

It’s somewhat the same story, but there are differences, especially in how things end.   Russell Crowe is excellent as the captured outlaw leader Ben Wade, but the Dan Evans role as a desperate honest rancher is harder.  How do you make quasi-ineffective decency attractive, both to the movie audience and convincingly to the other characters?  Evans gradually becomes less ineffective and more heroic, to us, to Wade and to his own son.  He doesn’t ask for their admiration, but by the end of the movie he has it.                        

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Alan Ladd as Shane in Shane

Movie roles don’t come any more iconic than Shane, the mysterious gunfighter in the film with his name as its title.  The entire movie revolves around him, as its title implies.  As an actor, Ladd has some drawbacks to overcome:  his small size works against him in a couple of fight scenes; his urban-seeming reserve nevertheless works to lend him some mystery as a western gunman; and he was not a natural either with guns or horses.  Maybe some of his success in this role is due to brilliant direction by George Stevens, who was into an amazing string of movies at the time Shane was made.  But when the film ends, it’s Ladd as Shane that we remember.  He makes almost as big an impression on us as he does on young Brandon de Wilde in the movie.  Ladd made a number of westerns during his career, although none of them are as strong as Shane.  The next best is probably Branded; after that try The Badlanders, Red Mountain and Saskatchewan. 

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Bruce Dern as Asa Watts (Long Hair) in The Cowboys

The role of demented ex-con Asa Watts gave Bruce Dern the chance to both kill John Wayne and to chew the scenery in one of the best bad-guy performances ever in a western.  He’s exactly what’s needed in this role—never quite convincing in his belated attempts at sincerity, and clearly psychotic as he takes on Wayne and his boys.  In Dern’s long career as a supporting actor, this is one of the roles that defines him.  For a similar role, see him as a villain fighting Charlton Heston in Will PennyFor a comedic variant on this role, see him as ne’er-do-well miscreant Joe Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff.  He plays an outlaw who may be more sympathetic than any of the lawmen in the revisionist PosseIn a more sympathetic role late in his career, catch him as an aging lawman on a manhunt south of the border in the made-for-television Hard Ground.

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Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon

Cooper was too old for the part, and presumably for the young Grace Kelly as his romantic interest, when he played Will Kane.  But his particular style of underplaying worked magnificently in this role, and it revitalized his career.  Besieged on every side by a resentful deputy, by old relationships, by evasive townspeople, and most of all by the advancing hour with its approaching confrontation with evildoers, Kane takes the strain and steps up to do what a man’s got to do.  This, Alan Ladd’s Shane and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards are the iconic roles of the western in the 1950s.  A westerner from Montana himself, Cooper always had both a good feel for playing western roles and a Gregory Peck-like way of projecting a basic decency.  See him also in Man of the West, a later role for which he was also too old, The Hanging Tree, Vera Cruz and Garden of Evil.  For a younger Gary Cooper, see him as Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman and as a friend of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner.  He’s even good as a quasi-comic singing cowboy in Along Came Jones, although he clearly can’t sing.

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Yul Brynner as Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven

One of the most memorable roles in Brynner’s long and varied career is as the enigmatic Chris Adams, the leader of the Seven.  His accent is hard to place, and Brad Dexter refers to him, not entirely convincingly, as “You old Cajun.”  In the end, we go with him, though, through the tryouts, the planning, the initial confrontations with the bandits, and the outright battles.  We don’t really know him any better as he and Steve McQueen ride out of the village they have saved, though.  But there’s a reason he reprised this role at least twice—once in the first of the sequels and again as a robotic version of his character in Westworld.  And it’s a version of this role he plays in the spaghetti western Adios, Sabata and in Invitation to a Gunfighter.  The role had become iconic, although Brynner didn’t make many westerns.

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Steve McQueen as Vin in The Magnificent Seven

This was McQueen’s breakthough role in movies, although he had become a television star of sorts as the moral bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted:  Dead or Alive.  Seemingly a natural for westerns, he nevertheless didn’t make very many of them; his career flowered as the genre was going through one of its numerous fades.  Vin is a rootless cowboy who steps up to help Chris Adams drive a hearse with an unwanted Indian corpse to Boot Hill, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.  It’s even more interesting if one considers that McQueen didn’t get along well with Brynner and was looking for ways to make Vin more noticeable with bits of business (shaking shotgun shells, taking off his hat to scan the horizon, etc.).  It works for him; he pretty much steals the scene, and it’s interesting to watch from that perspective.  Notwithstanding the lack of personal chemistry between the actors, the relationship between the characters works, too.  The only other westerns in his body of work were Nevada Smith (1966) and Tom Horn (1980, when the actor was already dying).  McQueen and director Sturges would have another significant success with the non-western The Great Escape,1963.

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Kevin Kline as Paden in Silverado

Silverado is really an ensemble movie, but the character most at the heart of it is Kevin Kline’s Paden.  He never actually loses his temper or composure, even in the most threatening or dire circumstances.  He has a native elegance and competence, but we never learn as much about his backstory as we do about the other major chatacters.  We discover that Paden rode with Cobb’s outlaws for a time and has a quixotically humane streak along with a fondness for saloons, but that’s all we know.  The result is that he’s a bit enigmatic.  For all we know, after the action shown in the movie, Paden lives out his days as a saloon proprietor with Linda Hunt in the town of Silverado, although he’s been instrumental in wiping out the largest rancher in the area.  The character works, although in a way it cries out for a real romantic relationship, aside from his friendship with Hunt’s character.  There’s an allusion to an attraction to Rosanna Arquette’s settler character, but it’s not very developed or persuasive, with the feeling that much of it was left on the cutting room floor.  Kline’s film career largely took place during a period when not many westerns were made, and this may be his only such movie.  For other roles showcasing his sly humor, see Soapdish, Princess Cariboo (in a minor role with wife Phoebe Cates as the lead) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention The Big Chill, another ensemble movie by Lawrence Kasdan from the early 1980s.

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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.

Shane - Ladd, Arthur, Heflin

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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