Tag Archives: Psychological Westerns


Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2016

Diablo—Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Walton Goggins, Danny Glover, Camilla Belle, (2015; Dir: Lawrence Roeck)


It has been almost 25 years since Clint Eastwood, the greatest western star (see our post on Shooting Stars 1) since John Wayne, appeared in his last western, the impressive Unforgiven.  Now in his 80s, he is still working, but it seems doubtful he will ever appear in or direct another western.  Now comes his son Scott Eastwood (formerly known as Scott Reeves; his parents weren’t married) in his first western.  He has appeared in other movies (Fury and The Longest Ride, for example), and it appears that he may be a real actor.  Part of the enjoyment in watching this intensely psychological western is looking for those moments when Eastwood’s hair, the angles in his face and, just occasionally, his way of speaking remind one of his father.  It seems apparent from the movie posters that a little tweaking was done there to emphasize any resemblance to his father’s appearance.

As a psychological western with a significant twist, be warned:  there will be spoilers regarding that twist.  Read no farther if you don’t want to know it.  The movie develops slowly, and we are almost an hour into a short movie (83 minutes in total) before the plot starts to develop its point.  It begins with an action scene, of Mexican night raiders burning a ranch belonging to Jackson (Scott Eastwood) and abducting his wife Alexandra (or Alexsandra, which seems an unlikely way to spell it).  This is Colorado Territory in 1872; the titles inform us that it is seven years after the Civil War, so we assume that will play some role in the film.  Jackson assumes that the raiders have taken the “South Trail” toward New Mexico, and he follows.


Jackson (Scott Eastwood) follows on the wintry “South Trail.”

As the story develops and he follows deeper into the wintry mountains, two elements become apparent. Jackson is not very trail-wise, being taken unawares by an Indian boy whom he allows to escape, and being jumped by an itinerant Chinese trader and then by Ezra (Walton Goggins), a possibly deranged man claiming to own the road.  Ezra gratuitously kills the trader and threatens to kill Jackson.  It also becomes obvious that Jackson should, in addition to his rifle, be wearing a sidearm, since he gets taken by surprise so often when he doesn’t have the rifle.  When he finally does see the Mexican party at a distance, one of them shoots him.  Dying, he is visited again by Ezra and awakens to find himself in a teepee being attended by the Indian boy’s father Nakoma (Adam Beach).  They give him peyote, and it is revealed in a gruesome scene that Jackson accidentally killed his younger brother during the late war.  The Indians drive him out, and as he goes, Ezra appears and shoots several of them.


Jackson (Scott Eastwood) meets the volatile Ezra (Walton Goggins).

[Spoilers begin in earnest.]  The wounded Jackson visits Benjamin Carver (Danny Glover), a black man he knew during the war who now lives with his granddaughter in the mountains.  Carver offers to help, but is clearly afraid of Jackson, referring to Jackson’s service under Gen. Sherman as a killer and killing his own brother.  It now starts to become obvious that Ezra is Jackson’s alter ego, and that Jackson is a deranged killer, probably unhinged by killing his brother.  He is now using a pistol and moving like he knows very well how to use it.


Jackson (Scott Eastwood) encounters Alexsandra (Camille Belle) at a stream.

He finds the Mexicans, and approaches Alexsandra at a stream.  She flees from him in terror, and the Mexicans bolt for the south.  They come to an extensive hacienda/homestead and prepare for Jackson’s arrival.  He kills several of them, using the pistol with great efficiency and ferocity.  Invading the house, he finds himself in the same room with Alexsandra, who pleads with him to leave her in peace with the father of her children and then shoots him in fear.  She flees to the next room, and a badly wounded but still ferocious Jackson appears at the door.  The movie ends with a close-up of Jackson in freeze frame, but the soundtrack continues, making it sound like he shoots Alexsandra’s husband and perhaps Alexsandra herself.  Jackson is the “Diablo” of the title.

This movie won the Best Feature award at the 2015 San Diego Film Festival.  Subsequent audiences have not generally been so fond of it, perhaps because of its slow initial development and its bleak, nihilistic ending.  Scott Eastwood is an attractive young man and a decent actor, although not as good as Walton Goggins (Cowboys & Aliens, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), who is downright scary as the murderous half of his mind.  Camille Belle, as the young Mexican woman Jackson may have abducted himself before the film began, has very little film time but does well enough with it.  We needed a little more backstory on Jackson earlier in the movie to avoid losing patience with the story; the sense is that it wasn’t quite playing fair and delayed the real developments in the story too long.


Eastwoods, pere et fils.

The film was shot in color in Alberta, as many westerns are these days.  The cinematography (by Dean Cundey) of the wintry landscape is beautiful, although it is not entirely clear what the season is and why some places are snowier than others, making it seem capricious.  The overhead shots of Jackson riding through the scenic landscape may be overdone.  This is the second film for director-producer Lawrence Roeck, who co-wrote it.  Overall, the movie is not as watchable a western as it could have been, but it shows some promise.  Rated R for violence.

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Tension at Table Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 15, 2014

Tension at Table Rock—Richard Egan, Dorothy Malone, Cameron Mitchell, Angie Dickinson, Royal Dano, DeForest Kelley, Billy Chapin, John Dehner, Edward Andrews (1956; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)


This is basically a bad-guy-goes-straight western, with overtones of the search for family and 1950s lawman-and-community tension.  Deep-voiced Richard Egan (his voice is reminiscent of Clint Walker’s) was never a big star, but he does well as the lead in this small western with an excellent and well-chosen supporting cast.  And it has an unusual and effective poster.

Wes Tancred (Richard Egan) has followed outlaw leader Sam Murdock (Paul Richards) since they both rode with Quantrill during the Civil War.  But when Murdock gratuitously kills a wounded gang member while fleeing a posse, Tancred decides to pull out.  Murdock’s girlfriend (a young Angie Dickinson in a very brief role) has a thing for Tancred and pours oil on the distrust between the two as Tancred tries to leave.  They shoot it out just as the posse arrives, and the girl tells them Tancred shot Murdock in the back.  However, he receives a complete pardon and even the reward for Murdock, which he spurns.


Tancred (Richard Egan) and Murdock’s girl (a young Angie Dickinson).

Now wherever he goes he hears “The Ballad of Wes Tancred,” referring to him as a cowardly backshooter.  He keeps moving and is at a stagecoach outpost when three robbers try to take a stage.  The caretaker tries to break it up and is killed, but Tancred, now going by the name John Bailey, gets the three and agrees to take the caretaker’s young son Jody (Billy Chapin) to his uncle, the sheriff in Table Rock.

The tension in Table Rock is because a herd from Texas is about to arrive, and the sheriff (Cameron Mitchell) is nervous about his ability to control the cowhands.  He was badly beaten and physically and psychologically scarred in an earlier incident, and has lost his confidence.  Tancred/Bailey understands because he has his own scars.  He helps Jody get a job with the local newspaper editor Harry Jameson (Royal Dano), who is vocal about keeping law and order.  Kirk (Edward Andrews), owner of the biggest saloon, welcomes the cowhands, whatever it takes.  The sheriff’s wife is loyal to him but shows signs of being attracted to Tancred/Bailey.

When big rancher Hampton (John Dehner) brings in his herd with fifty trail hands, he drives it across the land of a local farmer, destroying fences and crops (for which he is willing to pay, but he gives no choice).  The hands are mostly just barely under control, but that night one of them shoots the farmer and puts a gun in the farmer’s hand to make it look like self-defense.  The sheriff and Tancred/Bailey are witnesses, though.  In court the next day, the sheriff tries to back out, but Tancred/Bailey testifies straight, including his real name.  It’s a turning point for both Tancred and the sheriff.  Hampton threatens to come back the next day and get his man, and Kirk arranges for a gunfighter to take out the sheriff.


Tancred (Richard Egan) is attracted to the sheriff’s wife (Dorothy Malone); bad guys abound.

Gunfighter Jim Breck (DeForest Kelley) arrives the next day and turns out to be an old friend of Tancred.  Tancred asks him not to call out the sheriff, and it looks like he might accede.  But Kirk’s $2000 is too much for Breck, and Tancred and Breck have a classic showdown in the street.  Tancred wins, and Kirk is about to shoot him in the back when the sheriff takes down Kirk.  When Hampton and his fifty men ride in, they face the sheriff and Tancred—and the town’s populace with guns from the windows.  And Tancred leaves town so as not to threaten the sheriff’s marriage.

It sounds like a standard western tale from the 1950s, but the execution of it is better than average, even though it was from bargain studio RKO.  Egan, Mitchell, Chapin, Dano, Dehner, Kelley and Edwards are all good; Dorothy Malone is also good but is largely wasted in a small part here.  Kelley was in several westerns about this time, usually as some form of bad guy (The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock), as he bounced back and forth between movies and television before finding his greatest fame in Star Trek.  The development of the moral crises of Tancred and the sheriff is nicely done.  The story is slightly understated but mostly convincing.  This is better than you’d expect from the relative lack of star power and low budget.


Charles Marquis Warren was a screenwriter, director and producer who made ten low-profile westerns as a director in the 1950s.  His best were probably this and Trooper Hook (1957), with Joel McCrea.  He even directed Charro!, Elvis Presley’s western in 1969.  The screenwriter here was Winston Miller, based on a story by western writer Frank Gruber, with music by Dimitri Tiomkin.  In color, at 93 minutes.

For a similarly good story about a man on the run who rides into town under an assumed name and comes to the aid of a beleaguered sheriff, see Face of a Fugitive, with Fred MacMurray (1959).

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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 Fastest Gun Alive

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 21, 2014

The Fastest Gun Alive—Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford, John Dehner, Jeanne Crain, Russ Tamblyn, John Dehner, Noah Beery, Jr., Leif Erickson (1956; Dir:  Russell Rouse)


Heavy-set Broderick Crawford as a quick-draw bad guy named Vinnie?  A psychological western with lots of angst, kind of 1950s Freudian.  It is also a variation on the theme of how somebody quick with a gun draws others who want to test themselves against him (e.g., The Gunfighter).  

Storekeeper George Kelby/Temple (Glenn Ford) has father issues with his now-deceased lawman father, who was good with a gun until he was killed.  Bad guy Vinnie’s insecurities are fueled by having been abandoned by his wife.  Kelby/Temple is great with a gun and occasionally needs to show off his skills, but he has never shot a person and is afraid to do so.  Vinnie, having robbed the bank in a neighboring town with his gang (John Dehner, Noah Beery, Jr.), is making his escape when he hears about Kelby’s skill.  Fancying himself to be fast with a gun, Vinnie tries to force Kelby into a test showdown, or he’ll burn down the town.


Kelby/Temple (Glenn Ford), wondering if he can do it.

There is much anguish as Kelby and other townsfolk take refuge in the church and debate whether he has to take up Vinnie’s challenge and save the town.  His wife (Jeanne Crain) doesn’t want him to do it.  One townsman (Leif Erickson) reluctantly volunteers to impersonate George to save the town.  Finally Kelby steps up, as we knew he eventually would have to.  But he doesn’t like it.  “Don’t say a word, Lou…because a word is about all it would take.”  George walks out into the dusty street ….

Cut to the posse pursuing Vinnie et al., finally arriving in town.  They find only graves in the churchyard, including one for Vinnie and one for George Temple.  He has been buried with his gun.  Only the living storekeeper George Kelby remains.

FastestGunShowdownShowdown time.

Theoretically, all of the anguish is resolved at the end of the movie, but it seems like the need to demonstrate his skills will come back, even though his father’s gun is now buried and gone with Vinnie.  This has a good supporting cast, including Noah Beery, Jr. and John Dehner as the other two members of Vinnie’s gang.  There are a lot of 1950’s “gunman and the community” issues, with a lot of ambivalence among townsmen about how to deal with Vinnie, the role they want Kelby/Temple to play, and how they feel about him.  In black and white, at 89 minutes.

Glenn Ford was at the peak of his career in westerns, although he always played roles other than westerns, too (Teahouse of the August Moon, Don’t Go Near the Water).  This was about the time that he made 3:10 to Yuma, Jubal and Cowboy with director Delmer Daves and The Sheepman.  For a similar theme with Fred MacMurray, see At Gunpoint.

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The Left-Handed Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 19, 2014

The Left-Handed Gun—Paul Newman, John Dehner, Lita Milan (1958; Dir:  Arthur Penn)


This anguished retelling of the Billy the Kid story, with overwrought psychological overtones, was the directing debut of Arthur Penn and the first film for producer Fred Coe.  It depicts the usual events (e.g., the killing of John Tunstall, Billy’s English employer, and Billy’s escape from jail and killing of deputy Bob Ollinger [Denver Pyle]) without sticking very closely to the historical details.  . 

Paul Newman conveys Billy’s immaturity and poor impulse control, although at 33 he was not as young as Billy was and certainly doesn’t look much like him.  James Dean was originally signed for this role but didn’t live to play Billy.  The script emphasizes Billy’s illiteracy and certainly doesn’t make him a hero.  John Dehner’s Pat Garrett might be the best portrayal here, although he, too, seems overwrought at times.  And there are pacing problems, too.  The final scene, Garrett’s killing of Billy, takes place at night but otherwise doesn’t much resemble the actual events. Here, the anti-heroic Billy is unarmed but maneuvers Garrett into shooting him in the half light; he then falls on his back across wooden rails in a position that suggests crucifixion.  There’s also the strange character of Moultrie (Hurd Hatfield), who seems driven to mythologize Billy and then betray him when he feels himself betrayed. 


Newman as The Kid (using his left hand, of course), and The Real Kid.

The screenplay is based on a play by Gore Vidal, and maybe that accounts for some of the anguish.  In some ways it foreshadows Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde ten years later, with the alienation of the undereducated outcast.  Peckinpah’s later (1973) version of the story is more historically accurate, although it has its own problems.  In black and white.

This is an early western by Arthur Penn, who was not known for making westerns.  Indeed, it was his first film of any kind.  He is best remembered for 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the revisionist western Little Big Man in 1970.  This was a flop at the box office in the U.S., but was praised by French film critics.

Historical note:  The title of this film comes from the only known photographic image of Billy, a scratched-up thing that shows him holding a rifle and wearing his pistol on the left.  (Somehow the left-handedness seems to be another detail that suggests Billy was off kilter.)  More recently, research suggests that the image was flipped in development, and that Billy was really right handed.  He was still kind of squirelly and unduly given to violence, but he didn’t particularly use his gun with his left hand.

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Fort Massacre

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2014

Fort Massacre—Joel McCrea, John Russell, Anthony Caruso, Denver Pyle, Forrest Tucker (1958; Dir:  Joseph M. Newman)


This is a grim psychological cavalry western, with Joel McCrea as Sgt. Vinson of Company C in southwest New Mexico in 1879, a variant of the “lost patrol” story. 

At the start of the film, the captain and lieutenant of Company C have been killed by Apaches, and the decimated company is trying to get back to Fort Crane under the leadership of Sgt. Vinson.  Forrest Tucker is Pvt. McGurney, a particularly malcontent Irishman; Anthony Caruso is Pawnee, the patrol’s sardonic Indian scout.  Vinson is experienced but influenced by the death of his wife and son at the hands of Indians.  His men gripe and seem on the point of mutiny the entire film, but he forges ahead, attacking the Apaches twice with the resulting reduction in his own numbers. 

Only Pvt. Travis (John Russell) becomes something of a reluctant confidant for the embattled sergeant.  “Fort Massacre” is the name given by the men to the cliff dwelling where they take refuge, only to have a war party of Apaches show up.  In the end, Vinson is shot by the last of his own men, Pvt. Travis, when Vinson tries to shoot a couple of non-hostile Paiutes at the cliff dwelling. 

FortMassacreMen Sgt. Vinson and Company C.

In some ways this can be compared with They Came to Cordura, released about the same time.  It’s a cavalry movie with a revisionist view of the cavalry.  Joel McCrea being who he was, we keep waiting for him to reveal his good side, but it’s apparently not there in this movie.  In some ways, McCrea toward the end of his career seemed to be looking for roles that were more varied than he had tended to play for the previous decade. 

The movie is short at around 80 minutes; in color.  Filmed at three locations:  Gallup in New Mexico, Red Rock State Park, New Mexico, and Kanab, Utah.

For a couple of other variants of the mutinous patrol story from the late 1950s, see 7th Cavalry with Randolph Scott (1956) and They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper (1959).

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The Last Hunt

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 31, 2014

The Last Hunt—Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Russ Tamblyn, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget (1956; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

LastHuntPoster LastHuntIt2

A psychological western set in 1883 in Dakota Territory, when the buffalo herds were mostly gone.  Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) is a former buffalo hunter whose modest herd of cattle is destroyed in a buffalo stampede.  He is lured back to his former profession by Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), for a final go to make a stake to replace his herd.  They take Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan), a one-legged alcoholic buffalo skinner, and Jimmy O’Brien (Russ Tamblyn, as an improbable-looking Indian half-breed). 

As it turns out, Gilson is a killer who hates Indians.  It’s obvious that Gilson and the decent McKenzie will clash at some point.  When it comes down to the hunting, Gilson gets spooked by the buffalo and comes to see McKenzie as the source of his problems.  Debra Paget is an unlikely-looking Indian woman with a small child, acquired by the band when Gilson guns down three Indian males who steal their mules.  Gilson and McKenzie have conflicts over her and over a while buffalo skin they acquire in their hunt. 


[Spoilers follow.]  Gilson gets jumpier, more unreasonable and more unstable; he kills Woodfoot when Woodfoot tries to stop him from hunting McKenzie.  However, at the end Gilson freezes to death waiting to gun down McKenzie. 

Taylor is effective in a rare bad-guy role.  The downward trajectory of Gilson is sometimes compared to that of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Interesting but talky, especially Nolan’s character, and it’s kind of downbeat.  This was written by director Richard Brooks, who needed an editor for the script but didn’t have one.  (This is similar in that regard to the better The Professionals ten years later, also written and directed by Brooks.)  


 Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) warns McKenzie (Stewart Granger).

Some of the attitudes here seem a bit anachronistic—more politically correct than they would have been in the 1880s, but certainly less so than in the current 21st century.  There is more angst and psychological disintegration here than in most westerns.  Based on a novel by Milton Lott.  Shot in color in South Dakota. 

For more Stewart Granger in westerns, see The Wild North (1952) and North to Alaska (1960).  As the titles suggest, those are northern westerns set in northern Canada and Alaska.  Late in his career he also moved into German movies adapting Karl May’s Old Shatterhand stories.  Robert Taylor starred in westerns from Billy the Kid (1941) to the end of his career in the late 1960s.  A couple of the best of them are Westward the Women (1951) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958).  He often wore black, although he was seldom the bad guy as he was here.  During the 1950s Debra Paget often played exotic ethnics, including several movies in which she played Indian maidens, as she does here.  The first (and probably the best) such was Broken Arrow (1950), in which she plays a young Apache woman who marries James Stewart; she was only 15 when filming began on that one.

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Man of the West

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 1, 2014

Man of the West—Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Jack Lord, Arthur O’Connell, Robert Wilke (1958; Dir:  Anthony Mann)


Link Jones (Gary Cooper) to his cousin Claude (John Dehner):  “Don’t you talk anymore, Claude?  We used to talk, you and me, when we were kids.  What happened?  Things have kind of gone to hell, haven’t they?  And you’re still at it – stealing and killing and running.”

This psychological western has a pretty meaningless generic title, and it’s not as good a film as the westerns director Mann made with James Stewart.  Except for the 1960 remake of Cimarron, this was Anthony Mann’s last western and the third of his post-James Stewart period (after The Last Frontier and The Tin Star and before Cimarron). 

ManWestCooper ManWestCoopLondon

Publicity stills of Gary Cooper and Julie London from Man of the West.

Gary Cooper was always watchable in a western, but he seems too old for the role he’s playing in this one.  He’s Link Jones, a reformed outlaw in west Texas in 1874 on his way to Fort Worth to hire a schoolmarm for the new school in his town.  An unsuccessful train robbery leaves Jones, saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) and talkative gambler Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) stranded a hundred miles from anywhere.  Jones used to know the territory, and they hike to an apparently abandoned ranch.  It’s not abandoned but is being used for the moment by the Dock Tobin gang with which Jones used to run and which pulled the botched train robbery. 

In fact, Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) is Jones’s uncle, and the two most effective members of the gang are Jones’s cousins Coaley (Jack Lord) and Claude (John Dehner).  The others are the mute Trout (Royal Dano) and Ponch (Robert Wilke). 


Jones, who’d abandoned the gang a decade earlier, makes like he intends to rejoin them and tells them that Ellis is his woman (although he actually has a wife and two kids back home in Good Hope).  Tobin wants Jones back, but he’s just barely in control of this gang of brutal scumbags, and the rest of them aren’t at all sure of Jones.  The two most disturbing scenes are when Coaley makes Ellis strip while holding a knife at Jones’ neck, and later when Jones beats the crap out of Coaley and rips Coaley’s clothes off in retaliation.  Tobin seems to see Link as a more capable successor than either of his own sons, and they both resent it and don’t trust him as much as Tobin is inclined to.

Jones joins the gang for a bank robbery in what turns out to be a ghost town now, and he kills Trout, Ponch and Claude, one by one.  Returning to the wagons, he finds that Ellis has apparently been raped by Dock, and Jones and Dock have it out.  At the end, Link and Ellis set off for civilization, Link with his town’s money back and the gang all dead (and Link’s unsavory past with them), and Ellis in love with Link but knowing there’s no future in it. 


Link (Gary Cooper) and Dock (Lee J. Cobb) talk about the past.

Some would draw parallels between Link Jones and Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny in Unforgiven.  Both have a past filled with outlawry and violence, from which they have moved on to a life of law-abiding peace.  Both are called back to their old skills early in the movie and must use them to accomplish what needs to be done.  But Link goes back to his peaceful life when he’s done; William Munny never can.

It’s kind of a bleak western.  Cobb wears an unconvincing hairpiece and seems distracted and half-crazed for much of the movie.  Dano, being mute, has no lines, and Ponch very few.  Dano and London were in Saddle the Wind the same year.  This movie was not a critical or commercial success, blamed in part on Cooper being too old for the part.  (Cobb, playing his supposed uncle, was in fact ten years younger than Cooper.)  The fight with Coaley is not entirely convincing, partly because of Cooper’s age and physical limitations.  French critics liked the film, though.  Adapted from Will C. Brown’s novel The Border JumpersIn color.

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The Ride Back

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 7, 2013

The Ride Back—William Conrad, Anthony Quinn, Lita Milan (1957; Dir:  Allen H. Miner, Oscar Rudolph [uncredited])


Lead William Conrad doesn’t show up in these posters at all.  The American posters show the title with an exclamation point that doesn’t make much sense:  The Ride Back!  You don’t usually see it that way, though.

This film is an example of why the 1950s could be such a good era for westerns.  They were so strongly in fashion that stories that could have been in other genres got made as westerns.  This is a small story with a small but excellent cast and good writing.  The moving forces behind it seem to have been lead actor and co-producer William Conrad and co-producer Robert Aldrich.

ride-backTakingPrisoner Taking Kallen prisoner.

For current audiences, the balding, thickset Conrad seems an unlikely choice for a leading man.  For several years he had played Marshal Matt Dillon on radio in Gunsmoke, and his deep voice was very recognizable.  Here he is Chris Hamish, a deputy sheriff from Scottville (Texas?), who as the movie opens is in Mexico with a warrant for Bob Kallen, a half-Mexican gunman wanted for two shootings in the U.S.  With the help of a priest, Hamish finds Kallen in a small village living with a girl who is related to the priest.  He takes Kallen prisoner, although Kallen is open about the fact that he thinks he’s better with a gun than Hamish and plans to get away.  Hamish agrees with him about the gun skills.  Some villagers show up and ask Kallen if he wants them to kill the man taking him away.  For the moment, he says no.

As they camp the first night, Kallen’s girl catches up with them and tries unsuccessfully to liberate him.  He sends her home.  They see some drunken Apaches and the next day are attacked by them.  With only one horse, they take refuge in a house where they find two dead older women and a dead girl.  They bury them and encounter a twin sister of the dead girl, who witnessed the slaughter and is apparently mute.  Pursued by the Apaches, they take her along. 


Once back in the U.S., they are about a day from Scottville, with only a lame horse.  Kallen and Hamish have come to know a bit about each other.  Kallen thinks he has been unjustly accused in the shootings and won’t get a fair trial.  He is good with people; the mute girl much prefers him to Hamish.  It comes out that Hamish’s wife can’t have children and hates him, and he considers himself a failure.  That’s why he’s so adamant about bringing Kallen in—the accomplishment of that task will show that he can actually do something.  He could have been jealous of Kallen’s people skills, confidence and ability with a gun, but it seems that he comes to admire Kallen.

Less than a day from Scottville, the Apaches attack them again.  Hamish is wounded badly, and he gives Kallen both the key to his manacles and the gun before he collapses.  Kallen polishes off the remaining Apaches.  He takes advantage of Hamish’s weakened condition to take the horse and head back for Mexico.  But as Hamish lies delirious on the ground with the girl helpless to do anything for him, Kallen returns, helps Hamish onto the horse and the three of them move on toward Scottville.


Pondering whether they can get back at all.

This is a psychological western, a character study of both Kallen and Hamish, but especially of Hamish.  The movie is short, at less than 90 minutes, and it’s not long on plot.  But it is effective.  The shifting relationship of a captor and outlaw captive moving toward mutual respect might remind you of the original 3:10 to Yuma, made the same year.

Shot in black and white at a time when the transition was being made to color, the cinematography is effective, with lots of low shots that include clouded skies.  It didn’t have a large budget, and it didn’t make a lot of money, but it is good.  It got made because Conrad also played a role as producer.  The dialogue is fairly spare, and both Conrad and Quinn are very good.  This was a period when Quinn played several villains in westerns (Last Train from Gun Hill, Warlock), and he is excellent in all of them.  Kallen is written more flamboyantly than Hamish, and Kallen shows some of the outlaw’s attractiveness.  The credited director, Allen Miner, was ill during a significant amount of the shooting (ten days), and during that time the second unit director Oscar Rudolph took over, although he is not credited as director.


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