Tag Archives: Modern West

The Walking Hills

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2016

The Walking Hills—Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White, Jerome Courtland, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Stevens (1949; Dir: John Sturges)

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The enigmatic title of this treasure-hunting noir western set in modern times (ca. 1950) refers to a large area of dunes that move around in strong winds.  An 1852 wagon train supposed to have been full of gold was been lost there, and in a back room card game in Calexico, young Johnny (Jerome Courtland) refers to having seen what might be a line of wagons out in the sand.  Old Willy (grizzled former dentist Edgar Buchanan) supplies the legend, and it is determined that everybody in the room must go, lest anybody staying behind later follow with his own search party and cut them out.

They are soon joined by Chris Jackson (Ella Raines), who works at a local lunch counter and has romantic history with two members of the group.  Aside from Old Willy, the most experienced hand is Jim Carey (Randolph Scott), a rancher and horse breeder, who brings along a mare he expects to foal at any time.  He supplies the expedition with horses, wrangled by his Indian hand Cleve (Charles Stevens).  Chris and Jim were a romantic item before she left him for rodeo rider/gambler Shep/Dave (William Bishop).  Shep in turn abandoned her in the rain in Denver.

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Jim Carey (Randolph Scott) is the center, figuratively and visually, of the group of gold hunters.

Frazee (John Ireland) is a private detective who was pursuing Shep but is now more interested in gold.  He has a gun and a heliograph, with which he signals a confederate in the foothills.  Bits of backstory are told in flashback, such as the fact that Shep had been in a card game in Denver that resulted in an accidental death, for which he is now wanted by the law.  That’s why he left Chris in Denver.  Johnny sees Frazee burying something and jumps him; he is shot by Frazee and initially thought to be paralyzed.  Chris insists that Jim get Johnny to a doctor, but Jim can’t leave his mare and thinks that Johnny won’t make it anyway.  He doesn’t, although he supplies a couple more bits of information before his demise.

[Spoilers follow.]  Old Willy discovers a wagon, giving the group new energy.  But there’s no gold in the wagon, and the band is hit by a sand storm, during which Frazee battles Shep, Chalk (Arthur Kennedy) and Jim with shovels and fists before Chalk shoots Frazee with his own gun.  Jim scrambles to round up the scattered horses in the storm, while the others seek cover.  When the storm passes, the wagon train stands revealed, but with no gold.  Shep takes off to turn himself in and sort things out; Jim gives Chris one of the few remaining horses to follow him.  And he forces Old Willy to reveal that he has in fact found $10,000 in gold, which he will have to split with the survivors.  Jim takes the remaining horse and the new foal, saying that he will send horses for them.

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Treasure-seekers and romantic triangle Chris (Ella Raines), Shep/Dave (William Bishop) and a shirtless Jim Carey (Randolph Scott).

The cast is very good.  Randolph Scott was the biggest star at the time, and he is the moral center of the movie, although he doesn’t seem all that moral at the start.  He’s in good physical shape for a man in his 50s, as his shirtless scenes remind us (for more of those, see him in Carson City).  His strong, taciturn role here reminds us of his work ten years later with director Budd Boetticher.  Sultry Ella Raines is good as Chris; this may have been the peak of her modest movie career, though.  John Ireland was also at the early peak of his long movie and television career following Red River, My Darling Clementine and I Shot Jesse James and before All the King’s Men.  Look for Scott and Ireland together again the same year in The Doolins of Oklahoma, a more conventional western.  William Bishop was fine in this, but did not have a particularly notable career before his early death at 41.  Arthur Kennedy doesn’t have much to do or much camera time.  For Edgar Buchanan in another role as a grizzled gold seeker about this time, see him with Glenn Ford in Lust for Gold. Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens gets more screen time here than he usually did, and he looks authentic.

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Fights break out, mostly centering on private investigator Frazee (John Ireland).

Surprisingly for a relatively short film, this includes a couple of musical interludes by bluesman Josh Smith.  Note the camera angles used by director Sturges during those interludes to provide visual interest and prevent things from becoming too static during the songs.  The birth of a foal in the desert provides a symbol of hope and renewal when things are going badly.

The classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre had come out the previous year (1948), and this was obviously influenced by the success of that film.  It was shot in Death Valley and Lone Pine in beautiful black and white by Charles Lawton, Jr., who later worked with producer Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott several more times on the Boetticher westerns.  The sandstorm scenes are particularly effective.  He also worked with eminent western directors Delmer Daves, including the marvelously shot 3:10 to Yuma, and John Ford.

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At a compact 78 minutes, much is revealed by flashback, but not everything.  The story is left with a few holes in it, and that appears to be by design.  Story and screenplay are by Alan LeMay (Gunfighters, San Antonio, Rocky Mountain, novels for The Searchers and The Unforgiven).  This is from early in the career of excellent director John Sturges (Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, Hour of the Gun et al.).  It is not as polished as some of his later work, but it is well worth watching (and even re-watching), although it can be hard to find

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Bad Day at Black Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 2, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock—Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger (1955; Dir:  John Sturges)

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Perhaps the best movie set in the modern west (but see Lone Star and No Country for Old Men), a claustrophobic noir-inflected story that takes place in a tiny town in the Arizona desert. 

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First Train Conductor:  [Looking at Black Rock] “Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.”

First Train Conductor:  “In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.”

The movie begins with an interesting opening shot of a train crossing the desert.  One-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in Black Rock in 1945 in a dark suit, the first time the train’s actually stopped there in four years.  World War II is just over, but rationing and other strictures persist.  None of the town’s suspicious residents want him there, as he tries to locate a local Japanese farmer, Mr. Komoko. 

blackrockjj-macready The mysterious stranger arrives in town.

A couple of local cowboy-thugs, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin), try to intimidate Macreedy, who bears them with patience and an even temper.  Local rancher-boss Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) suggests that Komoko was sent off to an internment camp shortly after Pearl Harbor, and only three months after he arrived at Black Rock.  Macreedy visits Adobe Flats, where the Komoko farm was; he finds a burned house, a deep well and what may be a grave. 

Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher:  “Sure you don’t want some lemonade? It don’t have the muzzle velocity of some other drinks drunk around here, but it’s good for what ails you.”

On the way back, Coley tries to drive him off the road, but Macreedy makes it back to Black Rock.  Coley then tries to pick a fight in a diner, only to find that Macreedy knows judo and takes him out using only one arm.  It becomes clearer that Smith and his people killed Komoko, and they’re probably going to kill Macreedy, too.  Macreedy is a veteran who lost his arm in Italy; Komoko’s son was killed saving his life, and he wants to give the old man his son’s medal. 

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Reno Smith:  “She must have strained every muscle in her head to get so stupid.”

The drunken sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) and undertaker Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) try ineffectively to help him.  Finally, young local hotel clerk Pete Wirth (a James Dean-esque John Ericson), plagued with guilt over his minor role in Komoko’s death, recruits his sister Liz (Anne Francis) to take Macreedy out of town in her jeep.  She betrays Macreedy to Smith, who kills her anyway.  In a shootout with no gun, Macreedy improvises a Molotov cocktail and sets Smith afire.  Having brought in the state police to Black Rock, he then catches the train out of town. 

[last linesSecond Train Conductor:  “What’s all the excitement? What happened”

John J. Macreedy:  “A shooting”

Second Train Conductor:  “Thought it was something.  First time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Second time.”

A superb cast cast, although Tracy seems old for a recent veteran, and some excellent writing in the screenplay by Millard Kaufman.  Tightly directed, the film comes in at 81 minutes.  Tracy was nominated for Best Actor.  This was part of a good run for director Sturges in the 1950s, along with Escape from Fort Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral, before he got into his larger-scale action films of the 1960s.  Music was by a young Andre Previn.

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Lone Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 30, 2013

Lone Star—Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Ron Canada (1996; Dir:  John Sayles)

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The central character is Rio County sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) in modern-day Texas.  Sam is grappling with personal and professional (but mostly personal) issues relating to his own legendary-but-now-deceased sheriff father Buddy Deeds (played as a young man in flashbacks by Matthew McConaughey) and Charlie Wade, Buddy’s brutal and corrupt but effective predecessor (Kris Kristofferson) as sheriff.  However, there are also multigenerational issues involving Latinos and blacks, as well as the area’s changing demographics.  These are all played out against a background of finding and identifying a body in the desert, dead for decades and reduced to bones.  It’s a rich canvas, focusing on several families with different backgrounds and weaving them together with the central story.  The quiet use of the changing ethnic mix of Texas, with the conflicts between generations, is never heavy-handed and seldom predictable.

In addition to dealing with the heritage of the western mythos in the person of his father (who was apparently more successful as a lawman than as a father), Sam copes with his own ethical and relationship dilemmas.  He’s divorced and becomes interested in renewing a relationship with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), his Latina high school girl friend.  Pilar, now a high school history teacher, has some issues with her own mother Mercedes, a widow who runs a successful Mexican restaurant.  Fort McKenzie, the local army base, is slated to be closed.  The new camp commander, Col. Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), is a hard-line military type trying keep his command in shape while juggling his feelings about his estranged father Otis (Ron Canada) and his own adolescent son who’s chafing under his military father’s restrictions.  Otis runs Big O’s, the only bar in the county primarily for blacks.

While Sam investigates past sheriffs Buddy and Charlie and digs up old secrets, he tries to figure out if he wants to run for sheriff again when the much more numerous Latinos get political power in the next election.  Buddy could be as controlling as Charlie—it was part of the job description for a sheriff in border country—but was he as corrupt?  Some of the investigation involves Pilar’s family, too, and the Paynes.  Sam and Pilar hit it off as well as they did when they were teenagers.  Eventually he finds the truth about the body and some about his father, as well.

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Two former sheriffs of Rio County face off.

The cast is surprisingly good, especially the understated Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Ron Canada and Joe Morton.  Even Matthew McConaughey is good in this (albeit with little actual screen time), which must mean that the story and director are unusually excellent.  The smaller characters, like Clifton James who plays a former Wade deputy who’s now the town’s mayor, are quite good, too.  Frances McDormand has a very good cameo as Sam’s ex-wife, who’s “wound a little too tight.”  There’s a deliberate pace to the development and a focus on relationships, with a little action interspersed.  In the occasional flashback, the camera pans seamlessly from the present to the past to start the flashback, or from the past to the present at the end in an interesting technique.

Director John Sayles is known much more for easterns than for westerns, but he created a gem here.  This was not widely seen on its release in theaters—it was shown mostly in art houses.  But it’s very good.  It’s rated R, apparently for some language, violence and even some sexual references.  This is perhaps one of the three best westerns set in modern times, along with Bad Day at Black Rock and No Country for Old Men.  [But see also Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Giant, which many don’t put into the category of westerns.]

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