Tag Archives: Bounty Hunters

Black Spurs

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slow West

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 23, 2015

Slow West—Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann (2015; Dir: John Maclean)

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Life in 1870 in Colorado Territory was apparently “nasty, brutish and short,” as in the well-known quotation by Thomas Hobbes and as depicted in this low-budget current western with a high body count.  Young (16-year-old) Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is out of his element, searching for his lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius).  A narrator (Silas, as it turns out) describes him as “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”  The mood is set as the credits role over Jay riding through an Indian burial site.  We are shown in a series of flashbacks how Jay’s uncle was accidentally killed in an altercation, causing Rose and her father (Rory McCann) to flee Scotland for the wilds of the New World.  The flashbacks also reveal that Rose, of a lower social caste, does not think of Jay as a lover.  What Jay also does not know is that a bounty of $2000 (very high for the time) has been posted on the Rosses, causing legions of distasteful bounty hunters to pursue them.

Silas:  “Kick over any rock, and most likely a desperado would crawl out and knife you in the heart if there was a dollar in it.”

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This is not as much a standoff between a masked Silas (Michael Fassbender) and a young Jay Cavendish as it would at first appear.

As Jay gets closer to the Silver Ghost Forest (a name more allegorical than real-sounding) somewhere in Colorado, he is confronted by three ex-soldiers hunting Indians for sport, until he is rescued by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), one such bounty hunter.  Silas quickly and pitilessly dispatches the three, and Jay gives Silas his remaining money to get him safely to his destination.  They arrive at an isolated general store, and spot another bounty hunter, dressed as a minister and carrying an elaborate rifle.  While they are at the store, a desperate Swedish couple arrives and tries a hold-up.  The storekeeper kills the husband, and, as the wife holds a gun on Silas, Jay shoots her.  As they flee the scene, they see two blond children waiting outside the store.

Sickened by it all, Jay sneaks away from Silas and falls in with Werner (Andrew Robertt), a man in a yellow wagon who appears to be a 19-century anthropologist “recounting the decline of the aboriginal tribes in the hope of preventing their extinction by their conversion to Christianity.”  As Werner notes, “In a short time, this will be a long time ago,” showing a keen (and perhaps anachronistic) awareness of the transitory nature of the Old West.  When Jay awakens the next morning, he discovers that Werner has departed in the night with his horse, clothes and possessions.  He stumbles across the prairie until Silas finds him and gives him back his horse and clothes.  Silas denies having killed Werner for it.

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Chaperoned by Silas (Michael Fassbender), Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way farther west.

As they camp one evening, they are accosted by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who presides over a band of scurrilous bounty hunters and with whom Silas once rode.  Payne plies them with absinthe, and Jay stumbles into Payne’s camp, noting that they appear to have the two blond children with them now.  When Jay and Silas awaken the next morning in a downpour, they have lost their guns and most of their meager possessions.  But they make it to the Silver Ghost Forest, and see the Ross cabin in the distance.  Silas ties Jay to a tree to keep him from dashing into the situation.

[Spoilers follow.]  We see that the reverend/bounty hunter has arrived first, and he picks off John Ross.  He is in turn blasted by Payne’s men, who lay siege to Rose and an Indian within the house.  As Silas tries to help them without a gun, he is shot twice and rendered helpless.  Silas, Rose and the Indian have reduced the number of Payne’s band, however.  Jay finally gets loose and makes his way to the cabin, only to be shot by a shaking Rose as he enters.  Payne finally enters as well and appears to have them at his mercy, but Rose slips a dying Jay her pistol and uses her body as a shield to give him the chance to shoot Payne.

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Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), leader of a pack of ruthless bounty hunters, in his impressive fur coat.

As the movie comes to an end, we see Rose, Silas and the two blond children, apparently living as a happy family.  It pans back over Silas’ killings that we saw earlier.  Maybe all the bounty hunters are dead; if not, we have no idea why they are able to live so peacefully now.

The title is curious but not inaccurate.  This was written and directed by first-time Scottish director John Maclean, with a bit of a European sensibility.  Sometimes the dialogue does not seem entirely authentic, as with Silas’ repeated “Let’s drift” when he’s ready to get going.  Jay crosses the U.S. (or at least the western part of it) on horseback without a hat, which seems unlikely.  The film does not always explain what’s going on, resulting occasionally in a slightly surreal feel, reminding us of, for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man—another tale of a stranger in a strange western land.  Still, it is skillfully executed in its way and worth watching.  Most viewers will find it more accessible than Dead Man.  The siege at the cabin is well-filmed; it could easily have been very confusing with so many characters involved, but we can follow it well enough.

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Rose (Caren Pistorius) finds herself besieged by bounty hunters and surrounded by flying bullets.

If the scenery does not always look completely like Colorado, that’s because this was shot mostly in New Zealand.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, and was released in May.  The twangy music by Jed Kurzel is very good.  Excellent cinematography is by Robbie Ryan.  In color, at 84 minutes; rated R for the violence.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender is by far the best-known cast member, but all four of the main performers are excellent–Fassbender, young Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn.  For South African/New Zealander Pistorius, in particular, it may prove to be a breakthrough role, although she isn’t actually on screen much until the end.  (Her name appears to be misspelled on one of the film’s posters.)  Fassbender had a production role as well, which is why the film got made.  If you have the opportunity, watch it twice; it will flow better the second time.

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Poster for the UK release of Slow West, scheduled for late June 2015.

Rodrigo Perez in The Playlist was one of the more enthusiastic reviewers:  “Brilliantly executed, Maclean’s movie is certainly an unconventional Western with a European and outsider’s perspective.  While it has its share of traditionally moody and atmospheric elements, Slow West is perhaps best defined by its sharp wit, absurdist violence and fairy tale qualities.  Evincing a magic realism of fable dreaminess, juxtaposed with harsh severity, Maclean is right at home with this tone.

“Slow-burning and simmering, Slow West knows how to kick the voltage into high gear.  As the movie gallops to its inevitable epic conclusion, the narrative is like three wicks lit and racing to a thrilling and explosive ending with a high body count, but with heart and soul, too.  A dark but spirited fable about the pitilessness of the West, the meaning of home on the range and the worthwhile qualities of wicked, seemingly irredeemable men, Slow West is a terrific little parable, and a strong debut by John Maclean worth treasuring.”

 

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Hannah’s Law

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2014

Hannah’s Law—Sarah Canning, John Pyper-Ferguson, Billy Zane, Danny Glover, Greyston Holt, Ryan Kennedy (MfTV, 2012; Dir.: Rachel Talalay)

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This made-for-television movie was produced for the Hallmark Channel and shows its awareness of its audience (largely female and older, but reaching for younger viewers, too) by embracing anachronistic attitudes toward feminism, killing, ethnic diversity and sex.  It is part of a line of female revenge fantasies going back at least to Hannie Caulder in the early 1970s and extending to the present through The Quick and the Dead (the one directed by Sam Raimi, not the one based on a Louis L’Amour novel) and 6 Guns (also made for television).  Although it attempts to introduce actual historical characters into its story, it takes some of them (Isom Dart, Stagecoach Mary) out of their actual times and locations.  This appears to be set in Dodge City when Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt) was a deputy there, making it the late 1870s.  Doc Holiday (Ryan Kennedy) is also a character (relying heavily on Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone for inspiration), but Doc and Wyatt do not yet appear to be friends.

Hannah Beaumont’s family was killed by ruthless post-Civil War outlaws twelve years ago.  She (Sarah Canning) was raised in the orphanage in Dodge City and tutored in bounty hunting by Isom Dart (Danny Glover).  Now, one by one, she’s bringing in members of the gang that killed her family, without killing any of them.  Physically, she’s attractive but fairly small.  Wyatt would like to advance his relationship with her, but she’s not paying attention.  At least once, she sleeps recreationally with Doc.  She has carefully interracial relationships with Dart and with Stagecoach Mary.

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Danny Glover as Isom Dart, Hannah’s bounty hunting mentor.

Frank McMurphy (John Pyper-Ferguson), head of the outlaw gang, finally figures out his men are disappearing and decides to get Hannah before she gets any more of them.  Isom Dart, now wanted himself, has returned to Kansas, and McMurphy thinks Hannah will be looking for him.  (She’s actually plenty easy to find herself in Dodge, so this subterfuge isn’t necessary.)

As McMurphy and his gang come to town, everybody appears to desert her at the instigation of the town boss (Billy Zane), even her friends Earp, Isom, Holliday and Mary.  Predictably, they haven’t really deserted her, but she (not terribly believably) bears the brunt of the fight.  As Wyatt is forced to shoot McMurphy, the bad guy has just revealed to Hannah that her brother is still alive but did not say where he is or what name he is using, clearly setting up a potential sequel.

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Sarah Canning as Hannah in her bounty hunting attire, and looking more traditionally female with the young Doc Holliday (Ryan Kennedy) and Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt).

Stagecoach Mary (real name:  Mary Fields) was actually significantly older than Isom Dart.  She would have been around 45 at the time of this story, a former slave living in Florida.  Around 1883 she moved to Montana, where she became known by her nickname.  Isom Dart would have been about 25-30 years old at the time of this story, not the 60-ish shown.  A rustler, he was killed around the turn of the century by Tom Horn in Brown’s Hole, where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado come together.

Uses of minorities in westerns are welcome, but one would like to see them used more authentically and less anachronistically than this.  Similarly, it would be good to see more female directors of westerns like Rachel Talalay–especially of good westerns.  This was kind of a low-budget production ($5,000,000), and it’s short at 88 minutes.  Shot in Alberta, Canada.

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Dawn Rider

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2014

Dawn Rider—Christian Slater, Donald Sutherland, Jill Hennessy, Lochlyn Munro, Ben Cotton, Ken Yanko (2012; Dir: Terry Miles)

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By the time of this movie’s release in 2012, Christian Slater was getting a bit long in the tooth and lower in the Hollywood pecking order than he had been twenty years earlier. Looking at the cast here, one concludes that this the modern equivalent of a B movie, which is only appropriate, considering that it is a remake of 1935’s The Dawn Rider with John Wayne, made at a period when Wayne was not yet a star and was only making B westerns.  Except for Slater, this appears to be a largely Canadian production.

John Mason (Christian Slater) is in Gray Falls, Montana, in 1883, when he rescues Ben McClure (Ben Cotton) in a card game that turns bad.  We hear that Mason is referred to as Cincinnati John Mason, although he has a recurring line about never having been in Cincinnati.  However, he has been the sheriff in Dodge City, a Texas Ranger, a Pinkerton man, and a prisoner in a Mexican jail.  He is hunted by bounty hunters from Missouri, led by U.S. Marshal Cochrane (a white-bearded Donald Sutherland in a brief but talkative role).  McClure works in the express office in Promise, Wyoming, with Mason’s father Dad Mason (Ken Yanko).  Father and son are not on great terms, but when a gang of hooded outlaws robs the express office and kills Dad, John wants revenge.

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John Mason (Christian Slater) renews a relationship with Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy).

Also wounded in the attack on the express office, Mason is nursed back to health by his old girlfriend Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy), who lives on the XX (Doublecross) Ranch with her brother Rudd Gordon (Lochlyn Munro), John’s childhood best friend.  Cochrane catches up to Mason and agrees to give him a couple more days to hunt for his father’s killers if he will surrender peaceably and without further resistance at the end of that time.  (This seems unlikely, given how hard a time Cochrane has had finding and capturing Mason.)  McClure wants Alice to marry him, but Alice and Mason have resumed an intimate relationship.

We see early on that the hooded outlaws are led by Rudd Gordon, who is about to lose the XX unless he can come up with $5000 in cash.  Gordon’s gang ambushes Cochrane and his men, leaving them for dead and planting hoods on them.  Mason is not persuaded.  He sets a trap for the gang, and they take the bait, killing the local sheriff as the trap is sprung.   As a final showdown looms, McClure takes the bullets out of Mason’s guns out of jealousy.  But when Mason meets Rudd and the surviving gang members, he notes that guns without bullets feel lighter, and he has reloaded them.  Rudd reveals his low character by his willingness to kill his own sister.

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Armed and hooded bad guys.

Finally, Cochrane shows up, revealing that Mason saved him after he was ambushed, and he takes Rudd into custody.  He also produces documents exonerating Mason and rides off into the sunset.  Mason, who blew up the express office money during the showdown, reveals that somehow $5000 of it has ended up at the XX Ranch, where he and Alice will presumably retire.

This isn’t absolutely terrible, but it’s not really good, either.  Slater is not a strong choice as the leading man.  The best performance here is probably by Jill Hennessy as Alice Gordon; she seems lively and a bit like a younger Charlotte Rampling.  The original movie was only 53 minutes long, and this is 40 minutes longer; the plot feels like it meanders a fair amount.  The film looks good, shot with a lot of gray and brown tones.  Everybody wears dusters, which look nicely western.  Although cowboys and others did wear dusters occasionally, if you look at old photographs of the west from that period, you don’t see them as often as they are worn in westerns since, say, The Long Riders made them cinematically fashionable in 1980.  They look great flying out behind a rider racing along, but they probably weren’t actually worn as much as movies like to show (e.g., The Lone Ranger, 2013).

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Donald Sutherland as loquacious, bounty-hunting Marshal Cochrane.

Shot in color in Vancouver, British Columbia, at 94 minutes.  It’s rated R for violence and a lot of unnecessarily bad language, which gets in the way.

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Shadow on the Mesa

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 18, 2014

Shadow on the Mesa—Wes Brown, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’Grady, Greg Evigan, Shannon Lucio, Micah Alberti, Barry Corbin, Meredith Baxter (MfTV 2013; Dir: David S. Cass, Sr.)

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This was made for the Hallmark Channel, so you know some of what you’ll find here: a certain kind of beautiful nature cinematography in establishing the mood and setting, the triumph of right over evil (could be a given in most westerns anyway), some kind of affirmation of the value of human relationships.  Not bad stuff, really.  And that’s all here.

Wes Rawlins (Wes Brown) is a bounty hunter, and a proficient one.  As he returns from his latest trip, he receives the news that his mother has been murdered—beaten to death.  She had been rescured from Comancheros thirty years previously, taken in by the kindly Rawlinses (Barry Corbin and Meredith Baxter), and, when her son Wes was born seven months later, they raised him as part of their family. Now Wes hears that not only was his mother killed, but not long before her death she had finally found Ray Eastman, Wes’ father, “down Palo Duro way,” and had written him a letter. Wes decides to pay him a visit and find out why he abandoned his family and what he had to do with his mother’s death.

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Rawlins (Wes Brown) and foster parents (Meredith Baxter, Barry Corbin) at the grave of his murdered mother.

So Wes comes to town as the Mysterious Stanger with a Gun.  As Wes enters the local saloon, a loud-mouthed young man is causing trouble and Wes backs him off.  Turns out that both the loudmouth and the local sheriff are sons of Peter Dowdy (Greg Evigan), a neighboring rancher who wants Eastman’s land.  He is in fact conspiring with Eastman’s wife Mona (Gail O’Grady), and it was she who gave Dowdy the letter leading to the death of Wes’ mother.  Dowdy’s men killed her.

Wes rides in to the Eastman ranch, where Ray (Kevin Sorbo) has a bad leg and is on crutches.  He gives Eastman the news that Mary Rawlins has died, and from Eastman’s reaction is inclined to leave it at that and ride on.  The next morning as he leaves he encounters Eastman’s headstrong daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio), and they further have an encounter with Dowdy and two of his gunmen.  When the gunmen try to kill Wes, he takes them out and returns with Rosalie to the Eastman ranch.

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Rancher Ray Eastman (Kevin Sorbo) and daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio) are determined to resist their greedy but powerful neighbor.

The Dowdy sheriff son keeps driving off Eastman cowboys and throws one in jail to lure Wes into town.  Wes breaks him out, and things get more violent.  Wes breaks the news to Eastman that he, Wes, is Eastman’s son, and he bonds with the existing Eastman son (Micah Alberti) and daughter.  Rosalie overhears her mother talking with Dowdy and discovers what’s been going on between them. Wes orchestrates the defense of the Eastman headquarters and goes looking for missing cowboys.  In the course of rescuing one, Wes and his new brother kill four Dowdy gunmen, including the loudmouth son.

Back at the Eastman ranch, Dowdy, having killed Mona as she pleaded for more time to work something out, is attacking the few defenders.  Eastman and his few remaining men take out some of them but things are going badly. Then Wes and his brother ride in and even the odds.  With some well-placed dynamite and good shooting, all but the Dowdy father are taken care of.  At the end, Dowdy tries a hidden gun on Wes, but that’s not going to work.  Eastman forgives the deceased Mona, Wes has a new family, and he rides off into the sunset.

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Greedy and corrupt Dowdy (Greg Evigan) attempts to take the ranch by force.

Kevin Sorbo is the best-known name in the cast, but he is not the main character.  That would be Wes Brown as the bounty hunter Wes Rawlins.  The writing is a bit clunky, but it’s not that bad.  Wes seems impossibly invincilble, but that can be okay in a western.  (See any of Clint Eastwood’s characters, for example, especially in spaghetti westerns.)  At least he doesn’t talk too much.  There’s lots of killing for a Hallmark Channel western.  In terms of production design, Wes’ hat and facial hair seem too modern.  A pleasant enough western, but not terribly memorable.  Short, at 79 minutes.

 

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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. 

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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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Jonah Hex

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 27, 2014

Jonah Hex—Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender (2010; Dir:  Jimmy Heyward)

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Doomed/haunted/scarred/supernatural Confederate veteran Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) has a past, to put it mildly.  In the late Civil War he “betrayed” the unprincipled Col. Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who was about to burn a hospital.  Hex shot Turnbull’s son Jeb, his own best friend, and aborted the hospital torching.  Turnbull subsequently returned the favor by forcing Hex to watch while his own family burned alive, and his own face was branded. 

JonahHexBrolinBrolin in Hex makeup.

Kept alive by Crow Indians, the near-death experience has left him able to talk with the dead, a useful talent in his new profession as bounty hunter.  As long as he maintains physical contact with a corpse, he can temporarily resurrect and communicate with the dead, bringing the corpse physically and mentally back to its condition prior to death.  Hunting Turnbull, he discovers that the Colonel has died in a hotel fire.

Now, more than ten years after the Civil War, Hex finds that Turnbull is still alive and planning high-tech atrocities for the 1876 centennial of U.S. independence from Britain.  Hex digs up the decayed corpse of Jeb Turnbull at Gettsyburg.  After a difficult interview, Jeb discloses that his father is at the improbably-named Fort Resurrection.  Hex himself has a taste for out-of-the-ordinary weaponry and overcomes numerous obstacles and setbacks to foil Turnbull’s plot and defeat not only Turnbull but quasi-supernatural bad guys, with only the help of Lilah (or Tallulah, played by Megan Fox), a sympathetic whore in the Angelina Jolie-action heroine mode who looks and acts very 21st-century.

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Unconventional weaponry: repeating dynamite crossbows.

At Fort Resurrection, Hex sees Turnbull’s new steampunk-style weapons but is badly wounded by Burke, an Irish assassin employed by Turnbull, who escapes.  His Crow friends heal Hex again, and the pursuit is resumed.  Hex kills Burke, but Turnbull has captured Lilah and forces Hex to surrender.  As they are held prisoner on Turnbull’s weapon-ship, Lilah picks the locks on their manacles.  Together, they put a fiery end to Turnbull’s plans and to Turnbull himself.

The plot is something we’ve seen lots of times before, sometimes in epically bad and overblown movies (e.g., The Wild Wild West).  This is pretty bad, too, if not quite epically, mixing the modern, the fictional-steampunk and the 19th-century without much consistency.  This deserved a much better story, and Josh Brolin in particular is a better actor than this material allows him to demonstrate.  John Malcovich can be a very good actor, but that’s not in evidence here.  Michael Fassbender shows up before he became a big name, as the heavily (and anachronistically) tattooed Irish assassin Burke.  (The tattooing seems to have been used as a substitute for actual characterization.)  There was a lot of talent used badly in this film.  It’s said that Brolin initially did not like the script but came to appreciate its tongue-in-cheek tone.  His first instinct was right.  The character and situations are intriguing enough that this could have been interesting with a better story and script.  But it mostly isn’t. The music, by heavy metal band Mastodon, doesn’t help much.

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Michael Fassbender as the heavily-tattooed assassin Burke.

This is based on a DC comic series, another bad sign.  During its domestic theatrical run, Jonah Hex grossed only $10.5 million back on a $47 million budget, officially making it a box office bomb.  Director Jimmy Heyward was a former animator at Pixar who worked on the first two Toy Story movies, which would seem to have little in common with this material.  Relatively short, at about 80+ minutes.  Often visually dark and eye-straining.  If you’re looking for a supernatural western, Cowboys & Aliens is significantly better.

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The Naked Spur

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2013

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

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

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

NakedSpurStewart Capturing Ben

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

naked-spur-trio Ben, Lina and Jesse

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

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

Nakedspur2 Fighting things out.

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

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

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The Tin Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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Hickman gives the youngster a few tips.

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

tinstarpalmerfonda Romancing the widow.

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

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

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Anthony Mann directs Fonda and Perkins in a scene.

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

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

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