Tag Archives: Burl Ives

Station West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 22, 2014

Station West—Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Gordon Oliver, Guinn Williams, Raymond Burr, Tom Powers, Regis Toomey (1948; Dir:  Sidney Lanfield)

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“A STRANGER IN TOWN…WHERE STRANGERS WEREN’T WELCOME!…and he found out a gal double-crossed is Deadly as Poison!”

Well cast, Dick Powell’s only western is sometimes referred to as a noir western, mostly because stars Powell and Greer frequently found themselves in films noirs but also because of the flavor of the dialogue and the shadows in the cinematography.  This is a rare western for both Powell and Greer, and they’re both very good in it.

Powell is Haven, an undercover military man investigating the murder of two soldiers killed while transporting gold.  He gets a job working for Charlie (Jane Greer), the very attractive owner of the local saloon and many other enterprises around town.  There’s a well-staged fight between Haven and Mick Marion (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, playing Charlie’s chief thug instead of his usual quasi-comic relief).  The question seems mostly to be whether Charlie is centrally involved in local crime or whether it’s her right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) who’s doing it. 

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Haven (Dick Powell) and Charlie (Jane Greer) figure things out.

Chemistry develops between Charlie and Haven.  Agnes Moorehead plays a mine owner and romantic interest of the local post commander (Tom Powers).  Burl Ives is a singing hotel clerk and one-man Greek chorus as he comments on the action.  “A man can’t grow old where there’s women and gold.”  Both Ives and Greer sing, quite pleasantly.

In the end, Haven shoots Prince but Prince shoots Charlie while going for Haven.  Turns out that Haven and Charlie are in love, but that’s not going to work out.  There is snappy film-noir-style dialogue; this is based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good source for a western.  It seemed that not all the plot threads were resolved in the end, but it was pleasant to watch.  This might make a good double feature with Rancho Notorious, Blood on the Moon or Colorado Territory.  Above average; shot in Sedona, Arizona, in black and white with lots of shadows, at 80 minutes.  Good cinematography by Harry Wild.

Burl Ives was surprisingly interesting to watch in westerns.  He was in five or six of them, of which this is an early one and the only one in which he sings.  In his two best, from the late 1950s, he played strong leaders, very effectively:  The Big Country and Day of the Outlaw.

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The Big Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 25, 2014

The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya (1958; Dir:  William Wyler)

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The Big Country is a self-consciously big movie, an epic sprawling family saga with a big, top-flight cast full of alpha males and a long running time, at 165 minutes.  William Wyler had inherited Cecil B. Demille’s spot as the master of the large-scale film, and this one was between The Friendly Persuasion (a Civil War movie, said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite film) and the even more epic Ben-Hur.  Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons were at the peaks of their careers.  At the time of its release, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was known to relax by reading pulp western novels) gave the movie four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made.  My number one favorite film.”

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the scion of a family with a seafaring empire and has himself been a successful sea captain.  His father was given to dueling, and was killed in a final duel ten years previously, leaving McKay with a distaste for meaningless violence.  He has met young Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) in Baltimore, where she has been in school, and they became engaged.  He has come to the Terrill estate in Texas for the marriage.  So a familiar western plot emerges:  the easterner comes west, and the tenderfoot is educated in the ways of the west.  But in this case, the easterner is already competent in the world of men and does not automatically buy in to the supposed code of the west.

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Major Terrill (the cranky Charles Bickford) gives the young couple his blessing.

In town, Jim is introduced to Pat’s friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local schoolmarm, granddaughter of one of the first ranchers in the area (now deceased), and owner of a neglected ranch with the best water source in the area, the Big Muddy.  Heading for the Terrill Ranch, McKay is hoorahed, roped and dragged by drunk cowboys led by Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors, clearly playing a bad guy).  When McKay is rescued by Terrill foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Pat is deeply humiliated that McKay didn’t stand up to the Hannasseys.  McKay has found himself in the middle of a long-term feud between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the patriarch of the lower-class Hannasseys, Rufus (Burl Ives), both of whom want the water of the Big Muddy.

Leech is the closest thing Terrill has as a son, and he clearly doesn’t think McKay is worthy of the Terrill daughter.  In one of the traditional tropes of a western like this, Leech has the cowboys saddle up Old Thunder, a beautiful but apparently unridable appaloosa, for the tenderfoot, but McKay declines the set-up.  Major Terrill leads a group of twenty of his riders in shooting up the Hannassey place in Blanco Canyon and beating up three of the riders involved in the McKay incident while Buck hides in a wagon.  While everybody is gone, McKay does in fact ride Old Thunder with only vaquero Ramon Guiteras (Alfonso Bedoya) to see.

At a Terrill party to celebrate the engagement of McKay and Patricia, Rufus Hannassey invades the festivities to issue a challenge to the Major.  McKay takes off on a multi-day ride around the country, and everybody assumes he is lost in the vastness of the ranch and its surroundings.  In fact, he can navigate fine with the help of his compass, and he encounters Julie again at her ranch.  She says she’d like to get rid of it, and McKay buys it from her, adding the promise that both Terrills and Hannasseys can use the water of the Big Muddy.

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McKay (Gregory Peck) and Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) at the Big Muddy.

Terrill riders led by Leech finally encounter McKay, and tempers are at the boiling point.  McKay declines to fight Leech, and again Pat is humiliated.  McKay decides he has to leave, but before he does he visits Leech privately and they batter each other inconclusively at length.  Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey come to the conclusion they have to decide matters between them as well.  Terrill gathers a force of riders, and Hannassey arranges his defenses in Blanco Canyon and sends Buck to bring back Julie Maragon.

Patricia Terrill:  “But if he loved me, why would he let me think he was a coward?”

Julie Maragon:  “If you love him, why would you think it?  How many times does a man have to win you?”

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Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) at the battle of Blanco Canyon.

The abduction of Julie is ostensibly the reason for Terrill to ride against the Hannasseys.  Rufus sees that Julie despises Buck, and she tells him that she’s sold the Big Muddy to McKay.  Buck attacks Julie until he is pulled off by his disgusted father.  McKay also hears of the abduction and takes off for Blanco Canyon with Ramon.  He arrives and doesn’t believe Julie when she says she’s there of her own choice.  Rufus figures the matter should be decided in gentlemanly fashion, using McKay’s father’s pistols in an old-fashioned duel.  As they pace off and turn, Buck fires prematurely, demonstrating his cowardice again.  McKay fires into the ground.  As McKay turns away, Buck grabs a gun from a cowboy, takes aim at McKay’s back and is shot down by Rufus, who can’t countenance such dishonor.

Meanwhile, Leech has tried to talk Terrill out of the attack on Hannassey.  Terrill doesn’t listen, and the Terrill riders are trapped in the canyon.  As McKay and Julie ride out of Blanco Canyon with Ramon and Rufus, the Terrill and Hannassey patriarchs face off.  We don’t see exactly the results, but the suggestion is that both are killed.  Presumably McKay and Julie live happily ever after at the Big Muddy, and Leech marries the spoiled Pat and continues to run the Terrill spread.

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Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) faces off against the scurrilous Buck Hannassey (not shown).

The dominant performances are by Peck, who had a producing role, and Burl Ives, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for chewing the scenery while wearing huge false eyebrows.  Those characters are the most interesting in the film, and they make it move.  Charlton Heston was at his epic peak, between his roles as Moses in The Ten Commandments and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, as well as starring in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  But he accepted a supporting role and fourth billing in order to work with director Wyler.  It turned out to be a good career move, since Wyler directed him in Ben-Hur, too.  He was big and in great shape, as we can see from a couple of scenes in which he’s shirtless.  (Gregory Peck has no similarly shirtless scenes.)

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Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and rotten son Buck (Chuck Connors).

The weakest point in the cast is Carroll Baker, a hot screen commodity since her performance in Baby Doll, but she’s a little light here.  There is no screen chemistry between her and Peck from the start: it is immediately obvious that Jean Simmons would be a better match.  Charles Bickford is fine, if a little stiff, as he’s supposed to be.  This was the last film for Alfonso Bedoya, who is surprisingly effective as Ramon the vaquero.

The elements of this film are top-flight as well.  The cinematography by Franz Planer conveys that it is, in fact, a big country, although most of it was shot in California, not Texas.  Several writers are credited, including Jessamyn West (well-known in her time, with whom Wyler had worked on The Friendly Persuasion) and Robert Wyler, the director’s older brother.  The memorable music is by Jerome Moross, who received his only Oscar nomination for this film score.

One difficulty was in the script; seven writers were involved, including novelist Leon Uris (Exodus, Battle Cry), but shooting began without all the bugs ironed out.  According to Gregory Peck, “After seven writers, I don’t think either of us [Peck or Wyler] was completely satisfied with the script.  But by this time, we had made expensive commitments with an all-star cast and a cameraman.  We had financing from United Artists.  So we got ourselves painted into a corner, where we were obliged to go ahead with a script that neither of us were fully satisfied with.”

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On the set: the cast with director William Wyler.

Shooting the movie was not without its problems.  Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly between director Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell’s Heroes (1930) decades earlier and were continuing their antagonism.  Wyler liked to shoot numerous retakes and Bickford was very cranky, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like or to vary his performance no matter how many takes he was forced to deliver.  According to Charlton Heston, “Charlie Bickford was a fairly cantankerous old son of a bitch.”  Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s when she revealed, “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning.  It made the acting damned near impossible.”  The experience also also touched off bad feelings between Gregory Peck and Wyler, who made up a couple of years later.

Burl Ives in effect reprises his Rufus Hannassey character in the much smaller Day of the Outlaw, made about the same time with Robert Ryan.  Ives got on well with Wyler, unlike some of the others.  That year he was also getting rave reviews for his work as Big Daddy in the film version of Tennesse Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin RoofGregory Peck and Charlton Heston are good in several other westerns.  And Jean Simmons shows up ten years later in Rough Night in Jericho.

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Director William Wyler was perhaps the most respected in the business by this time, or at least up there with John Ford.  Unlike Ford, Wyler didn’t make many westerns at this stage of his career, although he had started as a director making two-reel westerns in the 1920s.  During the 1930s and 1940s he had gone on to make such classics as Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.  He had made The Westerner with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in 1940.  He had done well with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday earlier in the 1950s and would go on to do other successful large-scale movies like Ben-Hur and Funny Girl.  He was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award twelve times (the most ever–he was the Meryl Streep of directors), and he won three times.  He directed more Oscar-nominated performances than any other director (36), of which fourteen won.  No wonder actors wanted to work with him, even if he required so many takes.

The film was a modest, but not a universal, success in its time.  An expensive production, it barely made it into the black financially.  It was 11th at the box office for 1958.  As Gregory Peck put it:  “I suppose that any movie that grosses $9,500,000 can’t be classed as a failure. The exhibitors made money, the grips made money.  Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.”

If you were a film critic with a Marxist bent (Philip French of The Observer, say), you might see this sprawling film as an allegory of the cold war era, with the inconclusive fight between Peck and Heston demonstrating the futility of the macho ethos and the arms build-up of the 1950s and 1960s.

Make sure you have allotted enough time to watch this.  Wyler later admitted he should have cut the film more.  “Would I cut it today?  Yes, I would cut it.  I would probably cut 10 to 15 minutes out which would make you feel as though you cut half an hour out.”  The story occasionally seems to be developing at a leisurely pace, but it doesn’t drag.  At the end you may wonder if there’s really enough story here for all that time, but it works if you let it.  This is good enough that many consider it one of the great westerns, and it’s probably the best of its kind—the epic western family saga.  But for us, it’s on the line between great and near-great.  See what you think.  

 

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Day of the Outlaw

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 10, 2013

The Day of the Outlaw—Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louis, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Alan Marshall, Nehemiah Persoff, Elisha Cook, Jr. (1959; Dir:  Andre de Toth)

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Apparently a low-budget, late black and white western filmed in 1959.  The cast features good actors (Robert Ryan, Burl Ives) who were not big stars.  A decade before The Wild Bunch, Ryan was already aging and craggy-faced. 

It is winter in the remote town of Bitters, Wyoming, where a range war is about to break out between recently-arrived farmers who want to fence the range and long-term stockmen who built the town.  Representing the stockmen is Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), who’s been conducting a year-long affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife of Hal Crane (Alan Marshall), a leader of the farmers.  Starrett makes the same arguments as Ryker, the long-time rancher in Shane, about having cleared the country of Indians, outlaws and gunfighters, only to have clueless easterners and farmers move in thinking to take advantage of his years of danger and work without making any contribution themselves.  This speech is one of the movie’s longest.  After watching Shane, we can see that Starrett seems to be on the losing side of history, and morally he’s in the wrong because of his affair with Helen Crane, who has decided (mostly) to stay with her husband.  The connection with Helen seems to fuel the animosity between Starrett and Crane, but there’d be enough reason for it even without that.

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After the movie’s extended set-up, Starrett is facing off with three farmers including Crane, when in comes an armed gang of outlaws and thugs led by former Union cavalry captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives).  They take over the small town and threaten everybody in it, especially the women.  Bruhn’s been wounded by the cavalry pursuing the gang and needs medical attention.  The outlaws are clearly a depraved bunch, barely held in check by their strong-willed captain (much like the Lee J. Cobb character in Man of the West, made about the same time).  The exception to this depravity may be young Gene (David Nelson), the gang’s newest recruit, who is not yet thoroughly corrupted and who is attracted to the youngest and blondest of the town’s four women (Venetia Stevenson).  There’s a tense scene where the women are forced to “dance” with the outlaws, with the threat of rape hanging over them.

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Trying–unsuccessfully–to help the women escape.

The gang is still pursued by cavalry and eventually forces Starrett to guide them out of Bitters through the mountains and snow.  He reluctantly does it to protect the women of people he doesn’t like, and that’s his redemption as a moral character, because he thinks he’ll probably die on the trip along with the outlaws.  In the process Bruhn dies of his wounds and the rest of the gang die one by one by various means on the grueling trek, even though Starrett doesn’t have a gun to shoot it out with them.  The only survivors are Starrett himself and Gene, whom Starrett gives a job on his ranch.  His role in keeping Gene from turning bad is also redeeming.

Echoes of Shane come from the name Starrett (also the name of the farming family that takes in Shane), the conflict between stockmen and farmers, townsman Elisha Cook, Jr. (a farmer in Shane), and a not entirely believable fight scene in which the aging, seemingly none-too-robust Starrett defeats the brutish Tex (Jack Lambert) from Bruhn’s gang.  Since Bruhn can’t allow that result to stand, two of his other men finish off Starrett, with this brutality seen only at a distance. 

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The leads Ryan and Ives are excellent and generally believable here; Starrett isn’t entirely good and Bruhn isn’t completely bad despite the scum he leads and his status as a military renegade.  There is a vague reference by Starrett to something Bruhn did during the Civil War, involving the Mormons in Utah.  For an unspoken rapport between the bad guy and the good guy, compare this to Boetticher classics The Tall T and Seven Men from Now.  To the extent the cattlemen-farmer dispute is resolved, it seems to come out on the opposite side of Shane—i.e., Starrett mostly wins, but in this one he’s a cattleman.  He still doesn’t chase off the farmers, though.

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A stark and adult western with some noir flavor, among the best and last work by one-eyed journeyman director Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Man in the Saddle, The Indian Fighter).  Usually he worked with bigger stars (Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas) and was not terribly imaginative.  The film has a good script by Philip Yordan.  In structure, the first 30 minutes is the set-up of the town, characters and local dispute; the second 30 minutes is the introduction of the gang and the contest of wills with Starrett and Bruhn; and the final 30 minutes is the grueling and fatal trip over the mountains.  This excellent western rises above the usual formulas, even though some of them seem in play here.  One of two westerns featuring the Nelson brothers in 1959; the other is Rio Bravo, with David’s brother Ricky in a prominent role.  For Burl Ives in a similar role, see him facing off against Charles Bickford in the epic The Big Country, probably his best-known western.

The excellent black-and-white cinematography is by Russell Harlan, who did Four Faces West, Red River, Ramrod, The Last Hunt (another wintry western), Rio Bravo and To Kill a MockingbirdFilmed in Mount Bachelor, Oregon.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

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Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

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Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

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Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

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Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

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  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

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  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

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Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

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Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

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Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

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Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

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Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

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Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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