Tag Archives: Fred MacMurray

Face of a Fugitive

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 21, 2014

Face of a Fugitive—Fred MacMurray, Lin McCarthy, Dorothy Green, Alan Baxter, James Coburn, Ron Hayes (1959; Dir: Paul Wendkos)


In the 1950s Fred MacMurray was in a series of low-profile westerns that tended to be in part meditations on community and in part a consideration of whether a bad man can walk away from his past.  They included At Gunpoint, Quantez, Good Day for a Hanging, The Moonlighter, and this one.  Partly they work because MacMurray could project the kind of decency he did later as the father Steve Douglas in the television show My Three Sons in the 1960s.  Partly they work because he’s also good at portraying somebody on the edge, who could go either way.  His greatest movie role was as Walter Neff, the insurance investigator who gets pulled to the dark side by his fascination for bad woman Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), one of the best films noir ever made.  We know how that one ended up, so we’re always aware that he could go that way again.

As in The Moonlighter and Quantez, here he’s a man with a past.  Jim Larsen (MacMurray) is a bank robber in the custody of a deputy marshal on a train, being taken to prison.  He overpowers the deputy and gets away, just as his younger brother Danny (Ron Hayes) arrives with horses to give him help he doesn’t need or want.  The deputy pulls a hidden gun and shoots Danny; Danny shoots back and kills the deputy, putting Larsen in bigger trouble than he was in before.  Larsen and his wounded brother get on the rear car of a train and try to sort out their situation.


They have a patchy family history, with a father who looked out for himself and a mother who wore herself out and died young.  Larsen left home when she died and harbors continuing resentment against his father.  As he tries to figure a way out, Danny dies and Larsen stuffs his body in a mail bag and tosses it off a bridge into a river.  At a railroad switchyard, he pretends to be Ray Kincaid, mine inspector, and eludes capture until he arrives at the town of Tangle Blue.  (This picturesque name is the name of a lake in northern California’s Trinity Alps, but there’s no overt connection with this location in the movie.)

His seatmate is six-year-old Alice, who lives in Tangle Blue, where her mother Ellen Bailey (Dorothy Green) is a widow and her uncle Mark Riley (Lin McCarthy) is the new sheriff.  The plot takes its time developing, as Ray makes the acquaintance of Ellen and witnesses a confrontation between the young sheriff and Reed Williams (Alan Baxter), a large rancher who wants to fence off public land.  Ray can’t leave town because the passes have been shut down while the search is on for Jim Larsen.  So he applies to Mark for a job as a deputy.

At the dance in Tangle Blue that night, the answer on the job is no.  But Williams shows up with several of his men, including Purdy, to threaten Riley.  Ray steps in to back Williams off, and Riley gives him the deputy job.  As they talk about the nature of responsibility, law and family life, Ray talks Riley into marrying his long-time girlfriend, even with the uncertainties of his life as sheriff.


Helping the sheriff face down the bad guys.

Mark Riley:  “Are you trying to tell me I should ask her to marry me now? Tonight?”
Jim Larsen/Ray Kincaid:  “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Mark Riley:  “Don’t you realize that I might be killed in the morning?”
Larsen/Kincaid:  “Anybody can be killed… any day.”
Mark Riley:  “Anybody is me!  Any day is tomorrow!”

As Ray takes Ellen home from the dance, they see that the body of a young man has been found in a local stream, stuffed into a mail bag.  (Of course, we knew it would show up.)  Ray and Ellen seem to have a relationship developing, but he still has to get out of there.  In town, Williams’ men jump him in a bar.  He beats Williams, but Williams’ men pound him.  (Reminiscent of Robert Ryan’s fight against the outlaws in Day of the Outlaw, the same year as this film.)

Early the next morning Ray and Riley are guarding the pass out of town.  Ray tries to talk Riley into either backing off with Williams, or as an alternative, taking it to him hard.  Riley, who is about to become a lawyer, is stubborn in rejecting both of these, and heads off to cut down Williams’ fence, which will precipitate some form of showdown.  Purdy draws on Riley when he moves to cut the fence, but Ray is in the rocks above and displays extraordinary marksmanship with a rifle, hitting Purdy’s gun and cutting the three strands of wire with shots.  Riley leaves to get the wanted flyers from the train that will show Larsen’s likeness on them, and Ray starts to cut Purdy loose from his entangling wire when Williams’ men ride up.  Ray gets away to a small ghost town; he’s badly outnumbered but he starts to get Williams’ men one by one.  However, as he runs across a rotted roof, he falls through and breaks a leg.  As he drags himself into another room of the building, Purdy follows and Williams comes into the abandoned building through the front door.  It’s dim, and Williams shoots Purdy by mistake.  Riley, Ellen and deputies arrive, and it’s not clear whether Ray gets Williams or Riley does, but Ray has wounds in addition to his broken leg and is past caring for the moment.


Ray (Fred MacMurray) cuts Purdy (James Coburn) loose.

Ellen Bailey:  “What’ll they do to him?”
Mark Riley:  “I don’t know.  But I’ll be there in court to tell them what he did here.”

In the 1950s, of course, outlaws in westerns weren’t allowed to get away with their crimes as they might be now.  (See the end of The Moonlighter, for example.)  There’s still the dead deputy to account for, even with Ray’s subsequent heroism in Tangle Blue.  It makes for an equivocal and mildly unsatisfying ending.

Mark Riley:  “You might say it’s the same man, but then again, you might not.”

MacMurray and Coburn (showing up here after his introductory role in Ride Lonesome) are very good, and Dorothy Green is good enough.  Ron Hayes is good in a brief role as Danny Larsen before he dies.  The rest of the cast isn’t as strong, particularly Lin McCarthy as the stubborn sheriff Mark Riley and Alan Baxter as the principal bad guy.  Both these roles could have used more nuance in their development, but the movie’s budget probably wasn’t big enough to get better actors for these roles.  MacMurray is really the only significant name in the cast.  By now he is not thought of as a star in westerns, but he was in several good ones in the 1950s.  This and Quantez are probably the two best, but they’re all worth watching.  This was MacMurray’s last western.

In general, the writing is good but not flashy, as Ray develops relationships in town.  As he is treated decently, he responds the same way and is better than he has to be, convincingly.  The pacing is good as the plot and relationships develop, heading toward the inevitable conflict with Williams.  Director Paul Wendkos spent most of his career in television, but he also made one of the Magnificent Seven sequels (Guns of the Magnificent Seven) and three Gidget movies.  Music is by Jerry Goldsmith.  In color, at 85 minutes.

For a similar good story of a man with a past riding into town under a false identity and helping out a beleagured sheriff against considerable odds, see Richard Egan in Tension at Table Rock (1956).

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Good Day for a Hanging

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 26, 2014

Good Day for a Hanging—Fred MacMurray, Robert Vaughn, Maggie Hayes, Joan Blackman, James Drury, Emile Meyer (1959: Dir:  Nathan Juran)


It’s been more than twenty years since Ben Cutler (Fred MacMurray) wore a lawman’s badge.  He’s now a widower in Springdale, in small-town rural Nebraska, with an almost grown daughter (Joan Blackman), and engaged to Ruth Granger (Maggie Hayes), a widow with a growing son.  When the town bank is robbed, Ben drops one of the bandits with half the loot and joins the posse chasing them out of town.

As the bandits take brief refuge in some rocks, they return fire on the posse, killing aging Marshal Hiram Cain (Emile Meyer, the range baron in Shane).  When Ben sees Cain fall, he gets another of the bandits while the rest make their escape.  The posse takes young Eddie Campbell back to town with a head wound that doesn’t seem to be too serious.  He’s a local boy with a slick lawyer, and Ben’s daughter Laurie is increasingly infatuated with him, even though the young local doctor (James Drury) is also trying to get her attention.


Cutler (Fred MacMurray) and Hiram Cain (Emile Meyer), the dead marshal.

When the town asks him to take Cain’s place as marshal, he does.  Campbell has a good lawyer with political ambitions, obviously paid for by the outlaws using the bank loot.  During the trial, Campbell’s lawyer manages to shake most testimony about seeing Cain get shot, but not Ben’s.  Campbell is convicted and sentenced to hang based largely on Ben’s testimony as a witness of the event.

Most locals feel the sentence is too harsh, but Ben feels obligated to carry it out.  As the hanging approaches, Laurie is caught smuggling a derringer to Campbell.  Public opinion, and that of his own daughter and fiancée, turn against Ben.  The only ones who still believe in him are Maggie’s young son Mitch and Cain’s elderly widow.  The town council gets a petition for clemency for Campbell and asks Ben to take it to the governor, who knows him.  While he’s gone, his deputies get drunk and Campbell’s confederates manage to spring him from jail, wounding the doctor.


Cutler’s daughter is infatuated with young Campbell.

As Ben returns to town with the governor’s commutation of Campbell’s sentence, he gives back the badge, feeling he no longer has public support.  He steps into the middle of a shootout, as the outlaws try to get out of town.  He gets two of them, but Campbell takes refuge in the adjacent livery stable.  During the extended gunfight, Laurie warns Ben as Campbell steps out behind him.   Campbell is wounded but makes a break for it and returns fire on Ben.  Ben finally gets him, symbolically enough, on the platform of the gallows on which he was to hang.

The town council wants him to take back the badge, and with a minimum of discussion he does.  All is forgiven, apparently, and Ben’s daughter and fiancée come back to him.


Cutler takes the badge.

Obviously, this is one of those westerns from the 1950s, like High Noon and The Tin Star, that is concerned with the relationship between the town and its lawman.  The story is told well enough that the viewer is not entirely sure of the degree of Campbell’s guilt until the end; it all depends on how much you trust Fred MacMurray.  This is, after all, the solid and dependable father-figure Fred MacMurray–not the weaselly one from Double Indemnity or the unrepentant outlaw from The MoonlighterThe end is abrupt and not entirely convincing; it feels like more reconciliation is necessary among several characters and with the town in general.  This is similar in many ways to MacMurray’s At Gunpoint, in which he is not a lawman but a shopkeeper unskilled with guns who manages to get an outlaw during a robbery.  But the town doesn’t like the results of that, either.  It also has similarties in theme to The Fastest Gun Alive.

The resolution may be abrupt, but this is a watchable western.  The fiancée Ruth never comes alive, and the daughter Laurie seems impenetrably stupid for much of the movie.  But MacMurray as Ben always seems reasonable and right.  In color.  Short, at just 85 minutes.

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At Gunpoint

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 3, 2014

At Gunpoint—Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone, Walter Brennan, Skip Homeier, Tommy Rettig (1955; Dir:  Alfred L. Werker)


A variation on the High Noon theme, which was made two or three years earlier than this movie.  Peace-loving storekeeper Jack Wright (Fred MacMurray) kills the leader of an outlaw gang by a stroke of luck while they’re trying to rob the local bank.  Hailed as a hero, Wright realizes deep down that he’s a coward, and, more obviously, he’s not really any good with a gun.  When the surviving gunmen return to town, thirsting for revenge, the townsfolk expect Wright to singlehandedly stand up to the villains. When he asks for help, his neighbors turn their backs on him, ordering him to get out of town to avoid further trouble. Only the doctor (Walter Brennan) and Wright’s wife (Dorothy Malone) remain loyal.  Ultimately, Wright finds that he may not be as cowardly as he had thought.  After Wright gives a stirring speech in a saloon, the townspeople do come to his aid and the gang is captured. 

This is different from High Noon in that the man in danger has not deliberately taken that risk—he’s not a marshal or sheriff—and because eventually the town does stick up for him.  Kind of talky.  Good performance by MacMurray; his son is played by Tommy Rettig, who went on to star in Delmer Daves’ The Last Wagon and in television’s Lassie.  The crusty but beloved town doctor (Walter Brennan) is essentially the same character as John McIntire in The Tin Star.


This is one of those 1950s westerns dwelling on the interaction between a town and its sheriff, the nature of community and the kind of support a sheriff should expect from those he protects.  The most famous is High Noon, but see also The Tin Star, Warlock and Rio Bravo, as well as the later Lawman.  This also bears some resemblance to The Fastest Gun Alive a couple of years later; the difference is that Glenn Ford in Fastest Gun is good with a gun but doesn’t want to use it.  The cowardly townspeople were becoming a cliché by the time this movie was made.  Another comparison might be with 1967’s Hombre, in which Paul Newman has been rejected by others for living as an Apache.  He clearly owes them nothing, but nevertheless comes to their aid against his own inclinations simply because he is the one best suited to do so.   In color, at 81 minutes.

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The Moonlighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 3, 2014

The Moonlighter—Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Ward Bond, William Ching, Jack Elam (1953; Dir:  Roy Rowland)


Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had been making movies together since 1940’s Remember the Night, and of course their best-known collaboration was in one of the screen’s all-time greatest films noir:  Double Indemnity (1944).  This time they’re in a western, and, while pleasant enough to watch, it’s not in the same category as Double Indemnity.  It’s probably the weakest of their four films together.

The film starts with Wes Anderson (MacMurray) in jail, having been arrested as a moonlighter—one who rustles cattle by moonlight.  He is in fact guilty, but an irate rancher wants to lynch him.  Circumstances conspire so that they hang the wrong man (as in The Ox-Bow Incident), and a black man in the jail sings spirituals so we’ll get the connection with more modern lynching in the American south—also like The Ox-Bow Incident. 

Anderson escapes and arranges for a funeral for the supposedly deceased Wes Anderson, robbing those who attend to pay for the festivities.  He takes some revenge on the spread that did the lynching and heads home for Rio Hondo after a five-year absence with a wound in his shoulder.


His brother Tom (William Ching) works respectably in the local bank and has finally convinced Wes’ former girlfriend Rela to marry him.  However, Tom gets fired, and Cole Gardner (Ward Bond), an old outlaw acquaintance of Wes’, shows up with a plan to rob the bank.  Wes tries to keep Tom out of the plan, but Tom now insists on being included.  As they escape, his former employer pulls a hidden gun and shoots Tom in the back.  Wes and Cole make their escape in the bank president’s horseless carriage, placing the time of this movie around 1900.

As Wes and Cole hole up in a remote cabin, a posse searches for them ineffectively.  But Rela knows where they probably are, and she convinces the sheriff to deputize her.  Meanwhile, Cole decides he doesn’t want to share the loot.  He and Wes fight, and, hampered by his wounded shoulder, Wes is knocked out and tied up.  As Cole descends the mountain, Rela spots him and a gun battle breaks out between them.  Rela eventually wins, finds Wes and unties him.  She insists they go down the dangerous way. 

As Rela and Wes cross under a waterfall, Rela slips and falls in a pool.  Wes could escape but chooses to rescue her and he takes her back to the remote hideout.  They have a discussion with lots of “suddenly I realized …” on both sides.  Rela always loved Wes and he loves her.  Now he’s decided to turn in himself and the money so that he and Rela can be together when he gets out of jail.  (He’s ignoring the fact that under the felony murder rules, he is likely to be accused of Tom’s murder, since it happened in the commission of a felony in which he was participating.)  Anyway, the second ride down the mountain goes smoothly, and they fade out.


The action sequences (the jailbreak and lynching, and the fight between Cole and Wes, for example) are good.  But all of the sudden realizations are not convincing.  At the least, they needed more time to develop.  It brings to mind the ending of Remember the Night, which was not quite as unsatisfying.  MacMurray and Stanwyck rekindle their relationship in 1956 in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow.  And MacMurray is better in 1957’s Quantez.  In black and white.  Short, at 77 minutes.  Like John Wayne’s Hondo and Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury, The Moonlighter was originally shot in 3-D during Hollywood’s brief flirtation with that technology in the early 1950s.

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Nicholas Chennault ~ February 8, 2014

Quantez—Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone, John Gavin, John Larch, Sydney Chaplin, Michael Ansara, James Barton (1957; Dir: Harry Keller)


Talkative, melodramatic western with a small cast.  This is one of Fred MacMurray’s better westerns, and worth watching.  The title refers to a ghost town in which a small gang of outlaws finds itself after a robbery.

The band of outlaws is retreating across the desert toward Mexico, on the run from a posse after robbing a bank.  They haven’t been together long, just put together by the ruthless Heller (John Larch) for this job.  They include Chaney (Dorothy Malone), Heller’s woman; Gentry (Fred McMurray), an experienced desert scout; Gato (Sydney Chaplin), a white man raised by Apaches; and Teach (John Gavin), a young easterner good with a gun. 

QuantezGangHorseThe gang arrives.

After eluding the posse in Apache country, they come to Quantez one horse short, only to find it abandoned.  The action and a lot of dialogue take place over one night as they try to sort out their differing loyalties and objectives.  Heller, as it turns out, is willing to leave Chaney behind.  Gentry keeps trying to make things work, getting both Heller and Teach to back off in turn.  As matters develop, both Teach and Gentry seem to be interested in Chaney, setting up another potential conflict. 

Itinerant artist Puritan (a contrived-seeming name, played by James Barton) rides into the ghost town, singing about a gunfighter named John Coventry and painting Chaney’s portrait.  Gentry, it is revealed, is Coventry, and he helps Puritan escape Heller’s clutches.  Gato is trying to work out a deal with the Apaches led by Delgadito (Michael Ansara).  In the end, they kill him instead.  Gentry/Coventry is finally forced to kill Heller and holds off Delgadito’s band long enough to give Teach and Chaney a chance to escape. 

QuantezGavinMaloneMacM Getting out.

This is reminiscent of Yellow Sky, Rawhide, Man of the West and Incident at Tomahawk Gap, which all involve relative innocents captured by ruthless, unprincipled outlaws in remote locations in a movie with a noir-ish feel.  It might be Fred MacMurray’s best western; he and Dorothy Malone are particularly good.  In color, and short at just over 80 minutes.  This can be hard to find, but it’s worth seeking out.


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