Tag Archives: Andre de Toth

Man in the Saddle

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 16, 2015

Man in the Saddle—Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Terry, Alexander Knox, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Cameron Mitchell, John Russell, Richard Rober, Clem Bevans, Alfonso Bedoya (1951; Dir: André de Toth)

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Several of the the Randolph Scott movies from the early 1950s had generic-seeming titles for a western (e.g. The Stranger Wore a Gun), and this is one of them.  It came by the title honestly, taking it directly from its source novel by Ernest Haycox.  Behind that generic title, however, is a strong cast, a good director (one-eyed Hungarian André de Toth), and a complicated range war plot, with a lot of characters coming and going around another Randolph Scott romantic triangle (as in, for example, Canadian Pacific, A Lawless Street, Return of the Bad Men et al.).

Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) of the Christmas Creek Ranch is one of the smaller ranchers near the big Skull Ranch, owned by Will Isham (Alexander Knox).  Merritt and Isham had both been courting Laurie Bidwell (Joan Leslie), from a poor family with an alcoholic father.  Although she seems to prefer Merritt, Laurie has chosen Isham and security as the movie opens.  Isham senses that she still has feelings for Merritt, and it makes him insecure, feeding his need to take over the valley by fair means or foul.

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Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is threatened by his (much shorter) adversary Will Isham (Alexander Knox).

As Merritt licks his emotional wounds, Isham has hired gunfighter Fay Dutcher (Richard Rober) as his foreman.  One night just after the marriage, Merritt’s cattle are stampeded and Juke Vird, one of his hands, is killed.  Juke’s brother George (a youngish Cameron Mitchell) goes into town looking trouble with the Skull hands.  In a gunfight in a dark bar, one the Skull gunhands is killed, leading to a series of strikes and counterstrike between Merritt and the Skull outfit.  George Vird is killed, and Merritt attacks a Skull line cabin.  Merritt’s ranch is attacked and Merritt wounded; he is rescued by his neighbor Nan Melotte (Ellen Drew), who takes Merritt to her grandfather’s remote cabin to recover for a few days.

They are found there by Hugh Clagg (John Russell), an unbalanced lone-wolf-type with a fixation on Nan.  He tries to kill Merritt, but Merritt fights him off and Clagg makes his escape to the Skull Ranch.  As Clagg makes accusations about the faithlessness of a woman, Isham thinks he’s referring to Laurie and shoots him in cold blood.  He and his men head for town to ambush Merritt and his men there.

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Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) and Hugh Clagg (John Russell) fight for the hand of Nan Melotte in a collapsing cabin.

Merritt and his men sneak into town in a dust storm dressed as Mexicans, with one of the Skull men who saw the Clagg shooting.  They take him to the sheriff, where he fills out an affidavit.  Isham’s men invade the jail, but Merritt goes after Isham.  They reach an agreement that Isham will leave the valley, taking Laurie with him, but as Isham comes down the stairs of the hotel he is shot by his own foreman Dutcher.  Merritt and Dutcher shoot it out, and we know what the outcome of that will be.  The Skull Ranch now belongs to Laurie, and it seems that Nan and Merritt belong to each other.

Fay Dutcher to Owen Merritt, as he turns away with his hands up:  “You wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, would you?”
Owen Merritt:  “I could you.”

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Merritt (Randolph Scott) fights Isham’s forces.

Scott is good as he usually was, riding his horse Stardust (an uncredited co-star) and with his trademark leather jacket making at least one appearance.  Joan Leslie and Ellen Drew are a little stronger than most women in Scott westerns.  Alexander Knox is a bit too much of a megalomaniac in his one-note humorless performance, but his part seems to be written that way.  The rest of the supporting cast is quite strong.  John Russell is good as the unbalanced Hugh Clagg in one of the story’s more interesting and less predictable threads.  Alfonso Bedoya was charming (he has a recurring bit about finding a new hat), but for modern tastes he seems rather an uncomfortably stereotypical Mexican in most of his roles, including this one.  Guinn Williams (The Desperadoes, Virginia City, etc.) keeps his broad comic relief tendencies under control here as one of Merritt’s riders.

A surprising amount of the action takes place at night (the raids and counterstrikes and an impressive gunfight in a darkened saloon) or in a dust storm (the final developments and gunfights), emphasizing De Toth’s good direction and excellent cinematography.  This was the first of De Toth’s six westerns with Scott, although he didn’t think Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown paid enough attention to a film’s story as long as they were making money.  In this case, the plot has a lot of convolutions for the film’s 87 minutes, but much of it is predictable bad big rancher vs. virtuous smaller rancher stuff when you start thinking about it.  We get to see one of Randolph Scott’s patented fights in a collapsing/burning building (see Ten Wanted Men, Hangman’s Knot and Riding Shotgun, for other examples) when Clagg and Merritt tangle in an old cabin.

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The excellent cinematography is by Charles Lawton, Jr., who did many good westerns, including 3:10 to Yuma with director Delmer Daves and several with Budd Boetticher.  It has a better-than-average theme song, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford in hist first film appearance.  Kenneth Gamet, who wrote a number of Scott films (and a total of 44 westerns for the large and small screens, in fact), did the screenplay.  Shot in color at Lone Pine, at 87 minutes.

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Director Andre de Toth confers with Guinn Williams and Randolph Scott during filming.

Although it’s not one of Randolph Scott’s very best westerns, it’s one of the better films from his pre-Budd Boetticher period and well worth watching.  Some say it’s the best of the half-dozen De Toth-Scott collaborations, although you should see at least The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City and Riding Shotgun before deciding.  De Toth’s very best westerns are probably his first (Ramrod, with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake) and last (Day of the Outlaw, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives).

 

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The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.

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Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.

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Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.

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A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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Carson City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 20, 2014

Carson City—Randolph Scott, Raymond Massey, Lucille Norman, Richard Webb, Larry Keating (1952; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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Despite the name, this is not a mining western but a railroading western.  (Carson City and Virginia City were in the heart of the fabled Comstock Lode silver-mining country.)  It is not the very best work in the genre by one-eyed Hungarian director Andre de Toth (see Ramrod and Day of the Outlaw) or by star Randolph Scott during the early 1950s (see maybe Hangman’s Knot), but it is an above-average western with a reputable star and director.

Silent Jeff Kincaid (a not-so-silent Randolph Scott) has developed a reputation as a railroad construction engineer able to deal with tough terrain.  San Francisco banker William Sharon (Larry Keating) wants to build a railroad line in the mountains between between Virginia City and Carson City on the Nevada side of the Sierra Nevada range.  Kincaid knows the territory well because he grew up there.  His half brother Alan is still there, although Kincaid hasn’t been back in a dozen years or more.

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The brothers (Richard Webb, Randolph Scott) meet, along with the newspaper publisher’s daughter (Lucille Norman).

As Kincaid rides back into town, he is greeted by Susan Mitchell (Lucille Norman), daughter of the local newspaper publisher.   She was only thirteen when Jeff left town, but she had a crush on him.  Working with the Mitchells is brother Alan Kincaid (Richard Webb), who has a relationship of sorts with Susan.  Banker Sharon wants the new line to avoid bandits who’ve been robbing stages, but newspaperman Mitchell and most of the rest of the town like it the way it is and don’t want the riotous changes railroaders will bring.

The bandits are led by mine owner Big Jack Davis (Raymond Massey), whose mine is played out, and by his henchman Squires (James Millican).  They try to sabotage the new line at every turn, smashing up a wagon load of equipment and killing the driver, then engineering a landslide that kills three others and traps Kincaid and several others in a blocked tunnel.  They are rescued by a joint town-railroad effort that punches through the tunnel from the other side.  Davis kills Susan’s father when he thinks he knows too much.  Some suspect Kincaid of having had a hand in Mitchell’s murder to silence opposition, and Susan isn’t sure.  Alan becomes hostile because he thinks Susan is becoming too fond of Jeff.

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Kincaid (Randolph Scott) rescues Susan (Lucille Norman) from a railroad-building blast.

On the line’s opening run, there is a big celebration, but Davis plans to rob the train as it returns from Virginia City to Carson City.  Jeff gets wind of these plans and rides with miners to the site of the robbery.  As Davis and Squires are getting away with the gold bullion, Davis shoots Squires in the back and heads into the rocks.  In an extended shootout, Alan is killed but Jeff gets Davis.  In the end, it looks like Jeff gets Susan and is about to be talked into taking on the building of another tricky line of railroad.

Most of Randolph Scott’s westerns in the early 1950s were made for Columbia and Warner Bros.  They tended to be made with comparatively low budgets, and this showed up principally in the writing, the hiring of the director and the supporting players.  Here the director is better than in most, but the weaknesses are in the supporting cast.  Raymond Massey could usually do a pretty juicy villain pretending to respectability (see Dallas, for example), and he does it well here.  But Richard Webb, playing blond brother Alan, is not very memorable, nor is Warners starlet Lucille Norman—another in a string of forgettable romantic interests in Scott westerns.  The assumption seems to be that if Jeff Kincaid left Carson City twelve years ago, maybe he’s about 35 years old; but Randolph Scott, although he is aging very well, is closer to 55.  That’s about 30 years older than Lucille Norman.  During the shootout in the rocks, the figure in black leaping around the rocks with great agility is clearly not a Randolph Scott in his mid-fifties.  One co-star worth looking for:  Scott’s beautiful dark palomino Stardust.

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With those grumbles, this film moves right along, and if you’re a Randolph Scott fan, it’s worth watching.  This is the second of six Randolph Scott westerns directed by Andre de Toth.  After two or three more years and four more westerns, De Toth would tire of the restrictions of low budgets and other frustrations that came with Scott westerns, and would decide to make no more of them.  But this is a pretty good one.  According to Robert Knott, author of The Films of Randolph Scott, it is “the absolute best Warner Bros. Scott western of the period.”  (Hangman’s Knot was a Columbia production.)  In color, at 86 minutes.

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Thunder Over the Plains

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 26, 2014

Thunder Over the Plains—Randolph Scott, Lex Barker, Phyllis Kirk, Charles McGraw, Hugh Sanders, Elisha Cook, Jr., Henry Hull (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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Cavalry, carpetbaggers and quasi-vigilantes clash in 1869 Texas, before the state was re-admitted to the Union following the Civil War.  Captain (and native Texan) Dave Porter (Randolph Scott) and wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk) are finding Texas not entirely comfortable after he fought for the Union in the late unpleasantness between the states.  In part Norah’s discomfort is not only because she isn’t a native Texan like her husband, but perhaps also because she seems much younger than he—30 years, maybe?

Porter’s commanding officer Lt. Col. Chandler (the fussy Henry Hull) is mildly sympathetic to Porter’s concerns, but mostly he doesn’t want to mess up with the brass in the two years before he can retire with his pension.  Porter doesn’t really want to exterminate the local vigilantes led by Ben Westman (Charles McGraw, with the subtle name for his character) because he sympathizes with them to some extent.  Elisha Cook, Jr., is Joseph Standish, a corrupt tax assessor, being run by the more corrupt developer and cotton broker Balfour (Hugh Sanders).

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Bad guys Standish (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and Balfour (Hugh Sanders) with hands up (note the expensive clothes, obvious evidence of corruption).

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Dave Porter (Randolph Scott) tries to talk things out with wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk), but she’s having trouble seeing it his way.

Matters are further complicated when cavalry reinforcements arrive, led by handsome young Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker, fresh off several performances as Tarzan), who knew Norah in a former life.  He’s a smug, by-the-book type who cares nothing about the locals but only about black-and-white orders.  Westman is falsely accused of the murder of Henley, a Balfour informer, and Porter tries to buy time to find the real guilty party (Balfour).  But Hodges starts shooting prematurely and also dishonorably makes a play for Norah, and Porter finds himself a wanted man for having released Westman from custody.  Fortunately, things work out as they should, after some angst for the Porters.

Norah Porter (Phyllis Kirk):  “Whatever became of Frances Bilky?”

Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker):  “I don’t know.  She married a colonel, I think.  Maybe it was a general.  At any rate, she outranks all of us.”

Norah Porter:  “But that’s wonderful!  Now she’ll have her lifelong ambition to lead the cotillion.  Well, I guess that’s what I always wanted too.”

Hodges:  “You don’t have anything like that around here, do you, Captain?”

Capt. David Porter (Randolph Scott):  “Oh, I don’t know.  The Indians come down once a month and dance for us.”

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Smug Capt. Hodges (Lex Barker) prematurely starts the violence. Perhaps a Tarzan yodel would be effective here.

Westman’s friends abduct the corrupt Standish, intending to trade him for Westman before he can hang, but Col. Chandler is having none of that.  Dave Porter is about to get Standish to provide written proof that Balfour killed Henley when the increasingly sleazy Hodges raids the camp and shoots Standish, apparently trying to get Porter.  When he brings in Westman’s men and Porter, they manage to escape.  While Porter finds Standish’s evidence, Balfour and three henchmen try to kill him.  Of course they fail.  He is, after all, played by Randolph Scott.  And Hodges gets sent either (a) back to Washington in disgrace, or (b) to an assignment in dangerous Indian territory–Chandler gives conflicting signals about which it is.  And a little voice-over narration neatly wraps up Reconstruction in Texas and returns its government to the locals much more congenially than it actually happened.

The title has no apparent relationship with the movie’s content.  Randolph Scott always looked good in a cavalry uniform, with his straight-backed bearing and obvious rectitude.  Fess Parker has a brief part here (and in The Bounty Hunter) before becoming more widely known as Davy Crockett on television.  There is heavy-handed voice-over narration at the start and end.  In all, this is a decent job by one-eyed Hungarian director Andre de Toth, although it’s not his very best work.  That would be Ramrod (his first western, with Joel McCrea) and Day of the Outlaw (his last western, with Robert Ryan).  But this is one of the better efforts from his Randolph Scott period in the early 1950s, when De Toth and Scott made six westerns together.

Screenwriter Russell Hughes also did Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier and Delmer Daves’ Jubal, as well as giant bug movie Them.  Cinematography was by Bert Glennon.  In color, at 82 minutes.

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For another movie about Texas during the carpetbagger Civil War aftermath, see Three Violent People, with Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter (1956).

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Ramrod

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2014

Ramrod—Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Donald Crisp, Charles Ruggles, Preston Foster, Arleen Whelan, Ian MacDonald, Ray Teal, Lloyd Bridges, Wally Cassell, Nestor Paiva (1947; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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“Men are so easy!… A little lace, a pair of lips, a touch, and they kill for you!”  Despite the lurid line on the poster (which nobody says in the film), this is a very good western.

This was the first of eleven westerns directed by one-eyed Hungarian-born Andre de Toth, and it was one of his two best. Star Joel McCrea was moving into the phase of his career during which he would, as Randolph Scott had done, choose to make mostly westerns.  He and Veronica Lake (now Mrs. De Toth) had starred early in the decade in Preston Sturges’ excellent Sullivan’s Travels, and now, as her career waned, they reunited in a very good western directed by her husband.  It was based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good sign for a western, especially in the late 1940s.

There’s a lot of backstory as the movie starts, and a large cast of characters with complicated relationships.  The ramrod of the title is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), who is coming back to himself after an extended period of heavy drinking.  His wife died giving birth to a son, and the son died in a cabin fire, triggering Nash’s descent into alcoholism.  Three weeks before the film begins, sympathetic sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) had gotten him a job with Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), who plans to bring sheep into the area and break up the cattle ranchers’ monopoly on the valley’s free range.

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Stars Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea behind the scenes.

The cattle ranchers are led by the fierce Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), and they include Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles).  He and his strong-willed daughter Connie (Veronica Lake) are on the outs; he wants her to marry Frank Ivey, and she’s engaged to Walt Shipley instead.  She has moved out of her father’s ranch house and into the local hotel.  As the movie starts, Shipley is about to take the stage out of town to buy sheep, and Ivey has vowed to stop him.

It’s night as the stage is about to leave; Dave is in front of the hotel to back up his boss with his gun as the occasion presents itself.  But Walt can’t stand up to Ivey, and he folds.  He disappears from town quietly, leaving his Circle 66 ranch to Connie.  Red Cates (a young Lloyd Bridges), one of Ivey’s riders, prods Dave in a bar; they fight, and Dave wins and almost comes to blows with Frank Ivey, too.  Connie plans to run Shipley’s ranch and hires Dave as her foreman (or “ramrod”), figuring he’s one of the few who’ll stand up to Ivey.

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Bill Schell (Don DeFore) is recruited by his friend Dave Nash (Joel McCrea).

In turn, Dave hires four or five more riders, beginning with his long-time friend Bill Schell (Don DeFore).  Schell has a long-term grudge against Ivey, and few scruples about staying on the right side of the law.  He brings in the other riders, who all have issues with Ivey.  When Ivey and his men burn down the former Shipley ranch house and buildings while Connie is retrieving things from her father’s house, Dave moves her into a nearby stone line cabin used by Ivey.  When they file for title to the line cabin, Ivey and his men show up there, and Ivey orders Virg (Wally Cassell) to beat Curley (Nestor Paiva), who is there to give Connie protection.  The camera work is tight on Virg’s face, managing to convey the brutality of the beating without showing the actual blows.

Connie takes what’s left of Curley into town, where he is cared for by Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan), the local dressmaker.  She and Dave have a relationship of sorts, but now there are questions by some, including Ben Dickason, about the nature of Dave’s relationship with Connie.  Dave insists on allowing Jim Crew to follow the law as they plan the next step after Curley’s beating.  However, Bill Schell finds Ivey’s ramrod Ed Burma (Ray Teal, in an early role although he was not young even then) in a livery stable.  Schell prods him into a fight and guns him down.

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Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) and his men ride up to the line cabin now taken over by Connie (Veronica Lake).

Connie senses Dave’s reluctance to do anything downright dishonest, so she approaches Bill Schell to stampede her herd and blame it on Ivey.  As Sheriff Jim Crew goes to arrest Ivey, Ivey shoots him down.  When he hears about it, Dave finds Virg and kills him in a gunfight, taking a bad wound to the shoulder himself.  The dying Virg tells him it was Ivey himself who killed the sheriff, not Virg.  The doc fixes Dave up at Rose’s, but Bill has to get him out of town before Ivey finds him in such helpless condition.  Curley finally dies from the effects of his beating.

Bill hides Dave in a mine in the hills, but Connie rides there to take them supplies.  Ivey’s men follow her. Dave is healing, but not yet enough, and Bill puts him on Connie’s horse and sends him one direction.  He takes Dave’s horse and heads higher into the mountains, where Ivey and two other men track him.  Ivey kills Schell with two shotgun blasts to the back.  As Dave makes it back to town, Ben Dickason tells him how Schell was killed.  With his arm still in a sling, Dave takes a shotgun into the street to call Ivey out.  Ivey still thinks of Dave as a drunk and taunts him about how close he’ll have to get to make the shotgun work.  He does.  The question then remains:  Will Dave take up with Connie, who now has the way clear to her own ranching empire, or is he still more interested in Rose?

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Dave Nash and Frank Ivey finally have it out, shotgun against pistol.

Joel McCrea is excellent as the reforming alcoholic Dave, and Veronica Lake has a very strong role as the scheming Connie.  At first she’s pushed into using whatever she can, but we can see that she comes to relish using all the tools at her disposal.  This was her only western, but she’s good in it. Use of her as a femme fatale nudges this into the noir western category.  Don DeFore is very good as the genial, good-with-a-gun but not terribly scrupulous Bill Schell, and a lot of the smaller roles are well played, too.  Preston Foster is a standard despicable villain as Frank Ivey.  Charles Ruggles, often a genial or comedic father figure (see Ruggles of Red Gap, for example), is still genial but not commanding as Connie’s father.  Arleen Whelan is pretty good but not great as Rose the dressmaker, although it’s kind of a thankless role, since she’s mostly playing the counterpoint to Lake’s Connie.  This and Kidnapped (her first starring role) were the high points of her career.

This complex western cost more than $1 million to make in 1947, and it didn’t make that back at the time.  However, modern audiences tend to like it better than those of 1947.  It’ll make you wonder why you haven’t heard more about it.  It’s available on Blu-Ray since 2012.

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A still of the sultry Veronica Lake in her role as Connie Dickason.  You can see why the Spanish title was La Mujer de Fuego (“Woman of Fire”).

Although there’s a lot going on, the story is economically told in 95 minutes.  The dialogue is well-written, crisp and intelligent.  There is both good camera work and excellent western scenery, since the film was shot in southern Utah in and around Zion National Park.  Cinematography is in black and white by Russell Harlan, who also shot Red River, The Big Sky and Rio Bravo for Howard Hawks, not to mention Lust for Life and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Joel McCrea was in several strong westerns about this time in the late 1940s, including Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and The Outriders.  Andre de Toth went on to make a series of westerns, many of them starring Randolph Scott, until he burned out on them in the mid-1950s.  Several of them, such as The Bounty Hunter, Riding Shotgun and Carson City, are well worth watching.  His last western was Day of the Outlaw in 1959, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives. His first (this one) and his last were his best.  If you like his work, look for his well-known 3-D horror classic, House of Wax with Vincent Price.

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Randolph Scott in the Early 1950s

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 27, 2014

Randolph Scott, Western Hero

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By 1946, Randolph Scott had begun to concentrate his acting career almost entirely on westerns.  He’d always done some good ones (Last of the Mohicans [1936], Frontier Marshal [1939], Virginia City [1940] and Western Union [1941], for example).  In those last two, he seemed to specialize in playing an uncommonly good bad guy, wrestling with moral dilemmas but eventually losing the girl to a less conflicted good guy.  As the decade developed he made only westerns, and seemed very at home in them, with his stern rectitude, his natural riding ability and his courtly North Carolina accent.  By 1950 Scott was the leading box office movie star in the country, ahead even of John Wayne.  Although his movies always made money, they tended to be formulaic and not terribly well written.  They are still engaging to watch for fans of westerns, but they are not really as good as some of the westerns of Joel McCrea during the same period or as good as the last westerns of Scott’s career that he made with Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah.

Boetticher referred to the early 1950s Scott movies as “the old Randolph Scott pictures,” and to the movies he made with Scott beginning in 1956 as “the real Scott pictures.”  One reason the old Randolph Scott pictures began to seem formulaic was Warner Brothers’ approach.  Ed Gorman describes Scott’s position in the industry and the production of Scott movies:

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“Scott was the constant current running beneath ‘A’ westerns flourishing after the war.  He’d gone over completely to cowboy parts, profited handsomely on many he produced, and passed shooting breaks conferring with stockbrokers.  There were ongoing deals with Warners and Columbia, permitting Randy to knock off four and sometimes five a year while bigger names like Wayne, Stewart, and Cooper limited western output and spent themselves as heavily hammering out percentage memos and negative ownership.  Scott was on and off jobs within three or so weeks and traveled no further than Lone Pine to finish yearly quotas.  He was unstoppable in small towns and all his shows met payroll.  His southern accent was apple butter to kinsmen here in North Carolina where Scott grew up, and no frontiersman came more credibly of the times and places his westerns depicted ….

“[Studio head Jack] Warner had gathered his line producers and lower execs to map out the year’s program.  We’ll make the usual number of Randolph Scott westerns at seven hundred and fifty thousand apiece.  We can always count on rentals of a million and a quarter, he said.  Could I make a suggestion?, asked a young man in the room.  Why not spend a million dollars on the Scott westerns?  With improved quality, maybe they could bring back two million, he said hopefully.  Kid, you’re fired, replied Warner.  I’ll tell you why you were fired.  Those westerns are a dying market.  The public is getting all the shit-kickers they need on our TV shows.  Now, if you had said, “Why don’t we make Randy Scott westerns for half a million?”, I would have made you my assistant.

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“This, unfortunately, was the backdrop against which Seven Men From Now was produced, for by then Scott grosses were declining.  Warner’s most recent with him, Tall Man Riding (1955), barely cracked a million in domestic rentals, while across-town Columbia saw just $777,000 from 1956’s 7th Cavalry.  [Warner Brothers] did try economizing to the extent of shooting in-house Shootout At Medicine Bend in black-and-white the following year, an act punishable in this instance with domestic rentals lowest of any so far–$655,000.  Budgets and profits both fell as tele-cowboys rose, with WB enthusiastically competing with itself.  Cheyenne was breaking big on ABC by 1956-57, having gone to new episodes every other week after an initial season among revolving wheels on the failed Warner Brothers Presents, and Maverick [of which Budd Boetticher directed the first three episodes] was in preparation for a 1957 premiere.”

For Gorman’s comments, see newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-randolph-scott-budd-boetticher.html

With this trend of declining revenues on his movies and competition from television, one might be forgiven for considering Randolph Scott over the hill.  Batjac, John Wayne’s production company, commissioned a script from Burt Kennedy, giving him only the title Seven Men From Now to work with.  Wayne liked the script but decided against starring in the film himself, since he had a bigger project with John Ford in the works (The Searchers).   Budd Boetticher, slated to direct, recalled a conversation with Wayne.  “I said, ‘Who do you want to play the lead, Duke?’ and he said, ‘Well, let’s use Randolph Scott, he’s through.'”

BoetticherWayneScottWayne, Scott and Boetticher.

Maybe Scott was not as through as Wayne thought.  The project meant that the now-aging Scott (58 years old in 1956) began his productive partnership with producer Harry Joe Brown, director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy, resulting in a series of excellent westerns now considered classics of the genre, including Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, and Decision at Sundown, among others.  These did not have big budgets and were filmed at Lone PIne, but they were better in quality than Scott’s projects for Warner Brothers and Columbia had recently been.  Seven Men From Now, for example, was made for $719,000, which could not have happened if John Wayne had starred in it according to the original plan.  It made a modest $989,000 and was not initially recognized by the public as a gem, but it led to the Boetticher-Scott partnership and a series of western classics over the next five years.

The movies below are examples of Scott’s solid cinematic output during the early 1950s.  For other good (perhaps better) Randolph Scott movies from the early 1950s, see also Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Cariboo Trail, Thunder Over the Plains and The Bounty HunterIt may be that upon re-viewing, one or more of the titles briefly described below may seem worthy of its own post.  If you like Randolph Scott, these are still worth watching.  With Scott movies from the 1950s, look for a frequent, although uncredited, co-star:  his beautiful dark palomino horse, Stardust (Tall Man Riding, Seven Men From Now).  Another Scott trademark from this period is his worn leather jacket, seen in such films as Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men and his last, Ride the High Country.

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Fighting Man of the Plains—Randolph Scott, Dale Robertson, Victor Jory (1949; Dir.  Edwin L. Marin)

The most notable feature of this film is that the James gang, led by an improbably well-dressed Jesse (Dale Robertson), shows up at the very end to save the life of Marshal Jim Dancer (Randolph Scott), who is otherwise about to be lynched by Jimmy Tancred for his outlaw past.  He rode with Quantrill in the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, a plot quirk that is also used in another Scott western of the period, The Stranger Wore a Gun.  Victor Jory is Dancer’s friend, rather than a villain.

The Nevadan—Randolph Scott, Dorothy Malone, Forrest Tucker, George Macready (1950; Dir:  George Douglas)

A dark-haired Dorothy Malone as Karen Galt may do the best acting in this.  Scott plays Andrew Barclay, a federal marshal, who tracks and befriends escaped outlaw Tom Tanner to find where he’s hidden his loot.   Also after the loot is local boss Ed Galt, father of Karen.  In color.

Colt .45—Randolph Scott, Zachary Scott, Lloyd Bridges, Ruth Roman, Alan Hale (1950; Dir:  Edwin L. Marin)

Clunky western full of anachronisms, supposedly set in 1851.  Randolph Scott is Steve Farrell, a firearms salesman trying to get back a couple of new .45s stolen by Zachary Scott, head of an outlaw gang.  Bridges is a miner working with the outlaws, married to Roman.  Hale is a corrupt sheriff, also working with the outlaws.

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Fort Worth—Randolph Scott, Phyllis Thaxter (1950; Dir.  Edward L. Marin)

The railroad comes to Fort Worth; Randolph Scott is a fighting newspaperman exposing outlaw gangs and greedy real estate operators cheating local folks out of their rights to land the railroad wants.  In color.

Riding Shotgun—Randolph Scott, James Millican, Joan Weldon (1954; Dir:  Andre De Toth)

One of those 1950s stories in which a town doesn’t support those who are trying to defend it.  It features an early appearance by Charles Bronson, as bad guy Pinto under the name of Charles Buchinsky.  Larry Delong (Randolph Scott) rides shotgun on the stage.  When he survives a stage robbery, he is figured by the town to be either a coward or in cahoots with bandits.  So he has to go after the Maraday (James Millican) gang himself, while the town is trying to lynch him.  Delong’s romantic interest is the daughter (Joan Weldon) of Col. Flynn, the proprietor of the town’s Bank Club, which the gang is trying to rob while all the competent men in town are out in the posse chasing them.  Improbably, Delong wins.  Lots of voice-over narration by Scott.  One of several westerns that find Randolph Scott besieged (e.g., Decision at Sundown).  A better-than-average Scott movie of his pre-Boetticher period—a workmanlike job by director DeToth.  In color.

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Rage at Dawn—Randolph Scott, Forrest Tucker, Mala Powers, J. Carroll Naish, Edgar Buchanan, Ray Teal (1955; Dir:  Tim Whelan)

Not much of a western, since it takes place just after the Civil War (1866) in Indiana and Missouri.  James Barlow (Scott) is an undercover agent and former Confederate spy working for a Pinkerton-type agency to infiltrate a gang of bank and train robbers led by the Reno brothers.  He develops feelings for Laura (Powers), the Reno sister.  He sets them up for capture during a train robbery, but is too late to save them from an early-morning lynching while they’re in jail.  Based on a story by Frank Gruber; the Reno brothers were actual historical characters (the first train robbers in American history), as was their sister Laura.  Barlow is fictional.  In color.

 

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The Bounty Hunter

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 9, 2014

The Bounty Hunter—Randolph Scott, Dolores Dorn, Ernest Borgnine, Marie Windsor, Dub Taylor (1954; Dir:  Andre de Toth)

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A formulaic western with an improbable plot, which is nevertheless engaging on a minor level.  Randolph Scott is the titular merciless bounty hunter Jim Kipp, engaged by the Pinkerton agency to find three unknown train robbers responsible for several deaths near Dodge City a year previously.  After a shoot-out with a posse killed four of the seven robbers, the three survivors had escaped with the loot into somewhere in the New Mexico-Texas-Colorado area. 

Scott tracks the three off into the badlands with a cowboy’s minimal baggage, figuring how far they could have gone with the water available to them.  Yet when he arrives in the remote and unfriendly town of Two Forks, over the course of a couple of days he demonstrates that he’s brought with him at least three hats and several changes of clothes.  The local Doc Spencer (Harry Antrim) lies to Kipp about having treated a wounded man shot in the leg; Kipp is intrigued both by the lie and by the Doc’s comely blonde daughter Julie Spencer (Dolores Dorn).  Nobody seems to like Kipp much.  (“Well, you know what they say about you:  you’d turn in your grandmother on her birthday if there was a reward on her.”).  But that doesn’t get to him. 

BountyHunterWindScott Getting the drop on Kipp.

Kipp demonstrates his humanity by letting a young prison escapee go and revealing how his storekeeper father’s killing set him on his present course.  He acts as an agent provocateur to get the bad guys to reveal themselves, and, surprisingly, Ernest Borgnine (as antagonistic, limping hotel clerk Bill Rachin) ultimately isn’t one of them.  The three improbably turn out to be the local postmaster (Dub Taylor), the sheriff (Howard Petrie), and a resourceful and not unsympathetic saloon girl Alice Williams (frequent movie bad girl Marie Windsor).  The movie ends with two of them having been killed by others of the three.  In the end, Kipp gets the girl and converts to being a lawman in Two Forks, much like Henry Fonda’s redemption in the more convincing The Tin Star.

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The doc’s prim daughter (Dorn) takes on the saloon girl (Windsor).

The editing’s not great, with a few jerky cuts.  You can also see too clearly where doubles are used (for Scott while riding bareback, and for stocky character actor Dub Taylor jumping off a roof), for example—sloppy directing where the camera’s too close.  The movie is well paced, however, and modestly engaging, with Scott mostly in his cheerfully confident mode.  Romantic interest Julie Spencer is played by Dolores Dorn, 36 years younger than Scott and married to Franchot Tone.  She’s eclipsed by Marie Windsor, though.  Vance Edwards has a bit part as Tyler MacDuff, and at the end look for a young Fess Parker as one of three wild cowboys who ride into Two Forks and quickly back out again.  One of several westerns made by De Toth in the late 1940s and early 1950s, mostly with Randolph Scott.  The low-wattage cast and sloppy editing seem like evidence of a low budget and quick production, but the movie’s not bad.  The color wasn’t good on the print I saw.  Even on TCM, which makes a point of using the best prints available, the print looked dingy and in need of restoration.  Not available on DVD. 

Not to be confused with the terrible 2010 movie of the same name with Jennifer Anniston and Gerard Butler.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

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One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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