Tag Archives: Range Melodramas

The Furies

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2015

The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952.  Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner.  But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson.  His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones.  His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick.  But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.).  And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.

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Adversaries T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) frame Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck).

Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology.  The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco.  He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight.  The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it.  There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations.  It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though.  The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.

At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival.  The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child.  That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better.  He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves.  At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey).  When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence.  And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t.  Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.

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T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) don’t always get along, either.

Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland).  She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).  Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000.  More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance.  Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side.  Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men.  Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.

Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount.  She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.

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Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) gets ready to attack Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).

T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more.  T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs.  The two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver.  As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).

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Mom Herrera (Blanche Yurka) prepares to take her revenge.

All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit.  On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes.  The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck.  The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well.  Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man.  At heart, she’s a cowgirl.  Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”

Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo.  Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here.  The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.

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Gambler-banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) try to work things out.

1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns:  Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this.  They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period.  This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky.  The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer.  The screenplay is by Charles Schnee.  Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman.  Music is by Franz Waxman.

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For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn.  And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992).  For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

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Pursued

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 24, 2015

Pursued—Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Judith Anderson, Dean Jagger, John Rodney, Alan Hale, Harry Carey, Jr. (1947; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This is a western noir, known as the first of that subgenre.  It is also a range melodrama with overtones of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca.  A not-entirely-clear past haunts and, to some extent, determines the course of the present.  The lead here is Robert Mitchum, the same year that he did the marvelous Out of the Past and one year before another of his best westerns noirs, Blood on the Moon.  The moving spirit behind this production appears to have been novelist and screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, The Furies), then a well-known writer.  He was married to Teresa Wright at the time.

The movie opens with a scene in a long-derelict ranch house in Glorieta Township, New Mexico Territory, early in the 20th century.  Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) enters the place, finding Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum), who seems to be the subject of the title.  She tells him that she’s not coming with him; he claims he was able to tell that just by looking at her.  The rest of the story is told in flashback.

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Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) and Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) confront both the past and a dim future.

As a child, young Jeb Rand is under a trap door in that same ranch house, terrorized by flashes of light and large flashing spurs, which will haunt his dreams for the rest of the movie.  Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), crawling across the floor, rescues him and adopts him as one of her family, along with her daughter Thor (short for Thorley) and son Adam.  Thor and Jeb grow up fond of each other, but Jeb and Adam have an up-and-down relationship with frequent fights.  One day Jeb accuses Adam of having shot a colt he was riding.  Mrs. Callum says it was deer hunters, but she knew it was her one-armed brother-in-law Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), who seems determined to kill the boy but now agrees to let him grow up.

When Jeb (Robert Mitchum) reaches adulthood, he loves Thor but still has a wary relationship with Adam (John Rodney).  They toss a coin to see who will go fight in the Spanish-American War; Jeb goes.  He becomes a war hero and is wounded, returning to the Callum ranch.  He plans to leave the ranch with Thor, and as he returns to make his departure, a figure ambushes him from a high ridge.  Jeb shoots back and hits the figure; it’s Adam.  He is acquitted at an inquest, at which he is prosecuted by Grant Callum, but Mrs. Callum and Thor do not forgive him.

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Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) does not depart on good terms with the Callums (Judith Anderson and Teresa Wright, with John Rodney prostrate on the ground).

[Spoilers follow.]  Jeb goes into a partnership with the saloon owner Jake Dingle (Alan Hale) and attends a dance to see Thor, who is dating young Prentice (Harry Carey, Jr.), son of the general store owner.  Grant Callum goads Prentice into following and shooting at Jeb, intending to finish the job if necessary, until he is stopped by Jake Dingle. The result is the death of Prentice, further estranging Jeb from the Callums—until Thor appears to start to change toward him, encouraging his suit.  As she explains to her mother, she’ll encourage him until they’re married, and then she’ll kill him.

But Jeb can read her mind, and provides her with a gun on their wedding night.  She switches again, and now loves him again.  But as they speak the house is surrounded by Grant and other Callums with guns.  Jeb makes his escape, with Thor agreeing to meet him at the old ranch house, resulting in the opening scene.  But the Callums show up, too, and they position Jeb for a hanging with a noose around his neck.  A wagon draws up, and it’s Mrs. Callum.  Jeb realizes what was going on the night she found him.  The flashes of light were gunfire, and the spurs were his father’s the night he was killed by Grant and other Callums.  Mrs. Callum had been having an affair with the senior Rand, and that is the root of Grant’s hatred and pursuit of Jeb.  Mrs. Callum stops the hanging by blasting Grant with a rifle, and Jeb and Thor (who has apparently changed her mind again) ride off together.

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It looks like the Callums will finally get Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum).

The best performance here is by Judith Anderson as Mrs. Callum, although Dean Jagger is good as the implacable Grant Callum.  Anderson reinforces the similarities with Rebecca, since it was her role as the fierce Mrs. Danvers that hung over that gothic tale.  Her only other western was The Furies, directed by Anthony Mann and also written by Niven Busch.  Robert Mitchum does well as Jeb Rand, the Heathcliff figure, although he is mostly impassive.  Teresa Wright is too sweet-seeming an actress to make the vengeful Thor believable, and, as written, seems to change her motivations abruptly more than once.  Heightening the noir sensibility, a whiff of forbidden sexuality, both past and present, hangs over the film.

Director Raoul Walsh could do well with noir-oriented westerns, as he does here; see his Colorado Territory (1949), with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo.  Music is by Max Steiner.  The brilliant black-and-white cinematography is by James Wong Howe; note the use of the canyons and rocks of the southwest (this was shot around Gallup, New Mexico), and the intricate lighting of the night scenes to heighten the noir feel.  101 minutes long.

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Three Violent People

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2015

Three Violent People—Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Elaine Stritch, Robert Blake (1956; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This combines a romantic melodrama with a brother-goes-bad story, all set in post-Civil War carpetbag Texas.  The central question is:  What will happen when a respectable man discovers his new wife’s sordid past?

Capt. Colt Saunders, a former Confederate cavalry officer, is returning to the family ranch in southern Texas after the war.  He sees the oppression by the carpetbaggers but is careful not to get involved himself, until he notes a well-dressed woman about to be manhandled when she tries to alight from a stagecoach.  The woman is Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter), and in the ensuing fight Saunders is knocked unconscious.  Lorna puts him in a hotel room and makes off with $900 she finds on his person, but on second thought she has it put in the hotel safe with a receipt made out to Saunders.  It turns out the hotel and its related saloon are run by her old (and shady) friend Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), who disapproves of whatever game Lorna’s playing with Saunders.

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Early Days: Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) and Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) get to know each other.

When he wakes up, Saunders is taken enough with Lorna to marry her impulsively on the spur of the moment.  Arriviing at the Saunders Bar S ranch founded by Saunders’ grandfather, they find that (a) it has been kept running by foreman, gunman and resident sage Innocencio Ortega (Gilbert Roland) and his five sons, (b) the carpetbag government has taken virtually all the Saunders cattle, leaving them only a hidden horse herd, and (c) Saunders’ one-armed black sheep brother Beauregard “Cinch” Saunders (Tom Tryon) has returned to complicate everything else.

Saunders and Lorna go off to visit a neighbor, where instead they find the local carpetbag Tax Commissioner (Bruce Bennett) and his minions, including Cable (Forrest Tucker), a gunfighter.  One of the minions recognizes Lorna from St. Louis, where as a member of Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler’s staff he had once frolicked with her during the war.  It’s a bad way for Saunders to find out, and he doesn’t take it well.  Against Ortega’s advice, he orders her to leave while he’s off on an extended tour of the ranch.

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Carpetbagging gunslinger Cable (Forrest Tucker) gets what he wants.

Thinking better of it, especially when he learns that Lorna is pregnant, he heads back to ranch headquarters early, only to find that Cinch has persuaded Lorna to help him make off with the remaining Saunders horses, which they plan to sell for $30,000.  With the help of Ortega and his sons, Saunders recaptures the herd and takes the horses and Lorna back to the ranch, at least until the baby is born.  Ortega decides he must leave in the face of such stupidity.  Cinch Saunders has been banned from the ranch for his perfidy, but he schemes with the carpetbaggers to take over the Saunders ranch, even as Texas’ carpetbag government is falling apart.

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Hard-headed Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) negotiates with his brother Cinch, with his wife Lorna, and with carpetbaggers.

The baby is born, and Lorna prepares to leave as Saunders had demanded.  Cinch shows up to take over but is double-crossed by the Commissioner and Cable, who plan to leave no witnesses to their shady dealings.  He redeems himself by taking out Cable at the cost of getting shot himself, while Saunders, Ortega and the Ortega sons kill the Commissioner and drive off the other nefarious carpetbaggers.  Cinch dies nobly, and Lorna and Colt Saunders are apparently back together.  And Ortega and his sons (one of whom is played by Robert Blake) decide to stay.

Charlton Heston was hitting the peak of his career, having just finished as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956, not yet released at the time this was filming) and coming up as Steve Leech in The Big Country (1958) and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur (1959).  He manages to convey the competence and implacability of Colt Saunders, although this is not on the scale of those three big productions.  Anne Baxter is good as a woman with a past (The Spoilers [1955], Cimarron [1960] and even The Ten Commandments).  And Gilbert Roland, who had been in movies since the silent era of the 1920s, played this kind of role—a polished Hispanic man of the world, good with a gun—better than anybody else, although here he verges on a stereotype.  On the whole, this feels a little overheated to current audiences, but melodramas are no longer fashionable in movies.  It’s quite watchable, although you wish the characters (except for Roland, who talks a lot) would talk to each other more, and that there was a little more subtlety in the relationship between Colt and Lorna Saunders.  Tom Tryon as bitter one-armed brother Cinch is too much a one-note character.  It would be good if glimmers of something other than the bitterness were shown.  Some of the names (Colt?  Cinch?  Beauregard?) are a bit of a problem.

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Rudolph Maté, who had started as a cinematographer in Europe in the early 1920s, was an experienced director of westerns (The Rawhide Years, The Far Horizons, The Violent Men).  The screenplay was by James Edward Grant, a favorite of John Ford and John Wayne.  Shot in color in and around Old Tucson, Arizona, by Loyal Griggs, at 100 minutes.

It’s not entirely clear who the three violent people are (there would seem to be more than three), but they’re probably Colt Saunders, Cinch Saunders and Innocencio Ortega.  Maybe including Lorna Saunders, since the title isn’t limited to men.  Not to be confused with Maté’s The Violent Men (1955), with Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Brian Keith.

For Charlton Heston in better westerns, see him in the sprawling The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Burl Ives and in the excellent character study Will Penny (1968).  Gilbert Roland shows up in Anthony Mann‘s The Furies (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck,  Bandido (1956) with Robert Mitchum and as a noble Cheyenne chief in John Ford‘s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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The Violent Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 23, 2015

The Violent Men—Glenn Ford, Babara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Dianne Foster, May Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, James Westerfield (1955; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This belongs to the “cattle queen western” subgenre, along with Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and various others from the 1950s, in which a dominant character is played by an established and prominent Hollywood actress of a certain age.  The violent men of the title are played by Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith, but it turns out to be Barbara Stanwyck who dominates the course of the plot.

Capt. John Parrish (Glenn Ford) is a wounded veteran of the Union cavalry in the recent Civil War. He had come west three years previously to recover from a wound that went through his lung.  He receives a clean bill of health at the start of the movie and intends to marry Carolyn Vail (May Wynn), sell his ranch and movie back east.  The only potential buyer is Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled owner of the huge Anchor Ranch, by far the largest in the valley.

Lew Wilkison:  “Here at Anchor we don’t pay much attention to that hogwash about the meek inheriting the earth.”

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Meeting the Wilkisons: Cole (Brian Keith), Lew (Edward G. Robinson), and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), with John Parrish (Glenn Ford).

Wilkison has long been trying to expand his Anchor Ranch to encompass the entire valley.  Twelve years previously during a burst of violence in the valley he was crippled, and he now walks only with crutches and even then with difficulty.  Parrish notices the Anchor men, especially gunman Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel), renewing their efforts to chase off other landowners; Matlock shoots the local sheriff in the back, and he is replaced by the unctuous Magruder (James Westerfield), who is more completely in Anchor’s pocket.  Lew Wilkison and his brother Cole (Brian Keith) offer Parrish only $15,000 for his ranch.  Wilkison’s alienated daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) is outraged at her father’s behavior, but his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) appears to be pulling the strings and to have developed a relationship with Cole.

John Parrish:  “Don’t force me to fight, because you won’t like my way of fighting.”

Matlock and several Anchor riders try to push Parrish by killing one of his hands, but Parrish, who has been a determined pacifist to this point, takes the hand’s gun, confronts Matlock, and kills him.  No one attends Wade Matlock’s funeral, and one of Parrish’s riders wonders if there will be reprisals from Matlock’s friends.  John Parrish: “Matlock wasn’t the kind to have any friends after he was dead.”

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Gunman Wade Madlock (Richard Jaeckel) meets Parrish (Glenn Ford).

[Spoilers follow.]  Parrish brushes off his military skills from the war and prepares for battle.  Carolyn is appalled and ends their engagement when Parrish refuses to go east immediately.  Using his own ranch as bait, he sets up an ambush in a canyon when Anchor riders burn it down and take the shortest way home.  In retaliation,  Parrish and his men stampede Anchor’s horses and cattle, and use the distraction to burn most of the Anchor buildings.  Martha escapes the burning mansion, tossing away Lew’s crutches and leaving him to die in the flames.  Cole and Magruder lead a small army of riders attacking all the smaller ranchers and farmers, until Parrish finds that Judith has rescued her father.  In a confrontation at the Anchor ranch, Lew orders the riders away.  Parrish and Cole have a classic showdown, and Martha is killed by Cole’s Mexican paramour.  At the end, Lew wants to hire Parrish to run the Anchor ranch, and Judith and Parrish appear to be striking up a relationship.

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This is a good melodramatic range war western for its time, but pedestrian direction takes it out of the really excellent category.  Neither the Stanwyck nor the Dianne Foster character has much nuance.  Glenn Ford is good in his tenth western; he’s wearing the same hat he’ll be wearing for the next 15 years, and it’s not yet as disgusting and shapeless as it would become.  Edward G. Robinson was an excellent actor, and his presence, along with Stanwyck’s, reminds us of Double Indemnity (1944), giving this more of a western-noir flavor.  Robinson didn’t make many westerns, in part because, like James Cagney, he seems to have a modern, urban presence.  But he works well here, hard but able to shift tone convincingly.  Brian Keith, in dark hair and a thin mustache, makes a fine bad guy early in his career.  And Richard Jaeckel is good as a gunman without conscience.  An uncredited Richard Farnsworth is one of the Anchor riders.

During its second half, the action is interesting enough but not well developed, as the two sides progress through strike and counter-strike.  In particular, the shootout between Ford and Keith at the end is not well-edited (compare it with Budd Boetticher’s handling of Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now [1956] in a moment of similar dramatic intensity, for example), nor is Stanwyck’s death.  The end seems very quick, not fleshed-out, and a bit out of character for Parrish.

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For another crippled cattle baron in a range melodrama, see Lionel Barrymore in Duel in the Sun (1947).  For Barbara Stanwyck as another cattle queen, see her in Forty Guns (1957, with Barry Sullivan); she doesn’t win there, either.  She’s better in Trooper Hook (1957, with Joel McCrea) and The Moonlighter (1953, with Fred MacMurray).  For Glenn Ford in another range melodrama, see him in Jubal (1956), which is better than this.  For James Westerfield displaying the same unctuousness in a range war, see Man With a Gun (1955, with Robert Mitchum).  For another Union Civil War veteran trying unsuccessfully to revert to pre-war pacifism because of the horrors of the war, see Rock Hudson in Gun Fury (1953).

There is some well-written dialogue here, by Harry Kleiner.  The music is by Max Steiner.  Shot in Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, in California, and in Old Tucson, Arizona.  In color, at 96 minutes.

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The Sea of Grass

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2014

The Sea of Grass—Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Carey, Robert Walker, Phyllis Thaxter, Edgar Buchanan, Ruth Nelson (1947; Dir: Elia Kazan)

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were one of the great pairs from Hollywood’s golden age, appearing in nine films together.  This one is based on a 1936 novel by Conrad Richter, reckoned a considerable literary light in his time.  The director, on only his second movie, was Elia Kazan, who turned out to be one of the greats.  There’s a terrific supporting cast, and an excellent screenwriter in Marguerite Roberts (Ambush, True Grit).  A superb cinematographer is on board in Harry Stradling.  Should have been a recipe for a classic, right?  Well, it’s probably one of the two least-watched of the Tracy-Hepburn collaborations, along with Keeper of the Flame.  This is a family saga-range war story, albeit one with more literary roots than is normal for such tales, and it’s also an easterner-comes-west-and-doesn’t-get-it melodrama.

In 1880, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) of St. Louis decides to marry Col. James B. Brewton (Spencer Tracy) of Salt Fork, New Mexico Territory after a short courtship in St. Louis.  He’s the biggest rancher in the Salt Fork area, consisting of high (7,000 feet) plains he calls “the sea of grass.”  Brewton owns the water holes in the sea of grass, but he does not have title to the thousands upon thousands of acres he uses as grazing land for his many cattle.

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Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) arrives in Salt Fork.

Brewton was unable to come to St. Louis for the wedding because he’s embroiled in a trial with Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) as opposing counsel.  A homesteader was shot and driven off his 160 acres, and Chamberlain’s representing him in suing the supposed assailants.  As Lutie arrives, she meets Chamberlain in the local hotel while looking for Brewton.  He is obviously taken with her.  As he returns to court, the jury finds that the homesteader was attacked by “parties unknown.”  Brewton reiterates his view that the high sea of grass won’t work for farming (much as John Wayne’s G.W. McClintock would put it in the comedy McLintock! twenty years later).

Lutie and Jim are married in town, and Jim takes her out to the ranch, where the nearest neighbor is fifteen miles away.  She doesn’t get Jim’s insistence on keeping the land as grassy range, but she wins over Jeff, the ranch’s crusty cook (Edgar Buchanan).  The Brewtons have a daughter, Sarah Beth, and Lutie talks Jim into allowing her friend Selina (Ruth Nelson) and husband Paul to homestead, although he says they will only last six months.  During a winter blizzard, the Brewton cattle knock down Paul’s fences; he shoots one and is beaten by Brewton riders.  Selina loses her baby and terminates her relationship with Lutie.  Chamberlain tries to talk Lutie into running away with him.

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Brewton (Spencer Tracy) and Lutie (Katharine Hepburn in white) argue; Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) tries to romance Lutie (Hepburn in black).

After a couple of years (one character or another frequently announces that it’s been two years since the previous scene), Lutie takes off to Denver to shop and perhaps to take an extended break.  While there, she encounters Chamberlain at the historic Brown Palace Hotel where she’s staying, and they indulge in a night of passion.  But Lutie discovers that she loves Brewton and goes back to Salt Fork, only to realize that she’s pregnant with Chamberlain’s child.  When she gives birth to a boy, she tells Doc (Harry Carey) and Jim the truth while she’s apparently out of her head.  Things are never the same between them again.  She goes back to St. Louis after another two years; Brewton keeps the children.

Chamberlain is appointed a federal judge and sees that the range is opened to homesteaders with the support of the cavalry.  At first they do all right, when there’s a lot of rain.  But after two or three years of drought, their farms blow away and there’s no longer grass to hold the soil down.  The Brewton children grow up; Sarah Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) goes east to school, and son Brock (Robert Walker) becomes a wild hand, good with a gun.

When Sarah Beth comes home, she finds that Brock is largely out of control.  His birth circumstances are an open secret in Salt Fork, and when another gambler brings it up during a card game, Brock shoots him.  He jumps bail despite Jim’s asking him not to, and a posse finally hunts him down about the time Lutie comes back to Salt Fork.  After fighting it out with the posse, Brock dies in Jim’s arms, and Jim and Lutie are finally reconciled.  Presumably the settlers did not survive the drought on the sea of grass.

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Brock Brewton (Robert Taylor) gets into a dangerous game.

For a couple whom we know to have been romantically involved for years, including while this movie was made, and who had superb chemistry in other films, the relationship of Tracy and Hepburn is curiously flat throughout this one.  We never see what brought the Brewtons together; they have few interests in common and disagree on a big one that affects Col. Brewton.  There are several occasions when it seems like these people could resolve matters between them if they would just talk to each other about them.  When they don’t, that tends to be frustrating in a movie.  Tracy, who was a superb actor, doesn’t show much range in this film.  Hepburn, as Lutie, is not terribly sympathetic, in part because the writing doesn’t play to her usual strengths and independence.  If you like melodrama, this may be your cup of tea, though.

This was director Elia Kazan’s only western.  In his autobiography, his comment on it was, “It’s the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of.  Don’t see it.”  And in the 65 years since it was made, viewers have largely followed that advice.  It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t really come to life.  This is not the best work for either the fledgling director or the writer.  At the time this was made, Kazan was a talented stage director and nobody knew then that he would turn out to be a great screen director.  He didn’t really demonstrate that with this film, and he went back to the stage for a few years.

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Director Elia Kazan confers with Hepburn and Tracy behind the scenes.

During filming, director Kazan complained that Kate kept changing her character’s outfit in every scene.  Costume designer Walter Plunkett, who had been dressing Hepburn and her characters since 1933, explained, “It’s because of Spence.  He’s the love of her life, and she wants him to think she’s prettier than any other girl.”  Kazan explained, “I mean in the movie.”   Plunkett responded, “The movie!  I mean in real life.  That’s what matters.”  We don’t see that chemistry in this film, though.

For Harry Carey, this was the next-to-last of his movies, made just before Red River was released.  He carries kind of a folksy authenticity, as he always did, in playing Doc Reid.  A long-time giant of the screen, he had made 132 westerns, many of which from the silent era are now lost.  Melvyn Douglas is good in a role that calls for him to be both self-righteous (about the homesteaders) and a bit slimy in trying to make off with another man’s wife.  He’s hard to like, but it’s believable that there could be a character like that.  Edgar Buchanan is excellent as the cook-cum-nursemaid Jeff.  Both Ray Teal and Hank Worden have small, uncredited roles in this, too.  Robert Walker would play a similar role again in 1951’s Vengeance Valley, with Burt Lancaster as the good brother to Walker’s wild, amoral brother.

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Katharine Hepburn with costume designer Walter Plunkett, staying pristine between scenes.

Brice Chamberlain: “Why do women insist on loving men for what they want them to be instead of what they are?”  [Seems like this ought to be a line for Jim Brewton, but he never says anything this vulnerable, so Chamberlain says it for him.]

For Tracy in better westerns, check him out in Northwest Passage (1940, set during the French and Indian War of the 1750s) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in a modern west).  Hepburn made no other westerns for another 25 years until she made Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne, a sequel of sorts to True Gritor and/or a remake of The African Queen, depending on how you want to look at it.

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Watching this movie, the cinematography is occasionally dazzling, with small wagons against immense, brightly lit rock formations.  Even the shots of the sea of grass are persuasive.  This is one of those that, if made just a few years later, would have been shot in color and in widescreen format, which would have made it better.   Although Harry Spradling was a superb cinematographer, nominated thirteen times for Academy Awards, he’s known much more for shooting large scale musicals, including My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Funny Girl, as well as A Streetcar Named Desire and many others.

Music is by Hubert Stodhart.   Excellently shot in black and white, at 123 minutes.

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Tribute to a Bad Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 23, 2014

Tribute To A Bad Man—James Cagney, Irene Papas, Don Dubbins, Stephen McNally, Lee Van Cleef, Vic Morrow, Royal Dano (1956; Dir:  Robert Wise)

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King Lear-like ranching baron Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney) is under siege on his Wyoming territory ranching empire, by horse thieves, a former partner (James Bell) and his own recently-hired shifty foreman McNulty (Stephen McNally).  McNulty has designs on (and perhaps a history with) Rodock’s live-in Greek mistress Jocasta (Irene Pappas), a former dance hall girl from Cheyenne. 

Under attack and wounded by horse thieves on his own range, Rodock is rescued by a young easterner Steve Millar (Don Dubbins) and promptly gives him a job.  Rodock is obsessed with vengeance and his own brand of frontier justice, and young Miller becomes obsessed with Jocasta.  

TributeCagPapRodock and Jocasta.

On one encounter with the thieves when they try to kill him, Rodock’s men shoot the former partner and hang the leader of the thieves.  The partner’s son (Vic Morrow) takes up with Rodock’s crooked foreman and the rest of the thieves, but they, too, are caught.  Rodock foregoes his usual vengeance, though, and Jocasta comes back to him.  He doesn’t have Lear’s tragic end.  His empire isn’t destroyed, he gets the woman back, and his enemies (except the partner’s embittered son) are dealt with.  The young easterner goes off into the west. 

One assumes the “bad man” of the title refers to Cagney’s Rodock, but it doesn’t really fit him.  The original title was “Jeremy Rodock.”  He’s more misguided than bad, and he’s not entirely wrong.  Cagney’s eastern accent is a bit jarring, and the Greek Papas doesn’t particularly fit in a western.  Don Dubbins is not very interesting as Rodock’s young protege.  But it seems to work nevertheless.  Lee Van Cleef is here, not as a bad guy but just one of Rodock’s wranglers (named Fat Jones), as is Royal Dano (Abe).  A late Cagney film, this is the last of his three westerns (The Oklahoma Kid and Run for Cover are the other two). 

TributeCagRifleAttacked on the range.

Cagney was a great actor, but he was never as persuasive in a western as he was in a gangster film or even a musical.  This does not have a dazzling script.  It was a big budget movie filmed in Colorado in widescreen gorgeous color (by Robert Surtees), with a big-time director.  Robert Wise didn’t do many westerns, but he did this and Blood on the Moon (1948), a western noir which is better.  Music is by the Hungarian Miklos Rosza, who tended to do epics.

For Shakespearean overtones, compare it with Jubal, which came out the same year.  This was originally cast with Spencer Tracy and Grace Kelly, but Tracy had problems with director Robert Wise and Kelly married Rainier of Monaco. 

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Jubal

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 12, 2014

Jubal—Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Valerie French, Felicia Farr, Noah Beery, Jr., Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, John Dierkes, Basil Ruysdael, Jack Elam (1956; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is a hard-luck cowboy whose horse dies while carrying him over Glacier Pass from Montana into Wyoming.  He is found unconscious by Shep Horgan, a big rancher in Jackson Hole, who offers him a job.  The situation is not without obvious complications:  one of the resident cowhands at Horgan’s ranch, Pinky Pinkum (Rod Steiger), resents any authority and the newcomer.  Even trickier is Mae (Valerie French), Horgan’s young wife from Calgary.  They’ve been married for 16 months, and she’s unhappy.  She’s previously had some kind of relationship with Pinky and now is coming on to Jubal, who’s having none of it.

Pinky:  “If you’re a cowhand, how come you stink of sheep dip?”

Jubal Troop:  “I hired out to a sheep ranch ’cause it was the only job I could get.”

Pinky:  “Most cowhands would die before they’d herd sheep.”

Jubal Troop:  “Show me one.”

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Glenn Ford as Jubal Troop, trying to figure things out.

Horgan soon appoints Jubal his foreman, and Jubal accepts with misgivings.  The prickly situation with Pinky becomes more difficult, and he has more interaction with Mae.  A group of ten “rawhider” wagons on their way to Idaho camps on Horgan’s land while some of their members recuperate from illness.  Pinky and several Bar 8 riders try to run them off, but Jubal overrules him and lets them stay, incurring the gratitude of their religious leader Shem Hoktor (Basil Ruysdael) and the admiration of his daughter Naomi (Felicia Farr).  Naomi is promised to Jake, another member of the group who is jealous, and Jubal hires Reb Haislipp (Charles Bronson), a good-natured cowboy who’s been riding along with the rawhiders.

Tensions on the Horgan ranch get higher with mountain lions raiding their stock and with Jubal developing a romantic interest in Naomi, which she reciprocates.  While the men are camped far from the ranch house on roundup, Mae lures Jubal back to the ranch and tries to get him into bed.  He doesn’t go for it and heads into town and starts drinking.  Reb goes looking for him when he doesn’t return promptly.  Pinky is filling Shep’s mind with imprecations of a relationship between Mae and Jubal.  When Shep gets back to the ranch, Mae lies and says it’s true.  Shep bursts into the saloon and starts shooting at Jubal, who’s not armed.  He doesn’t want to shoot back, but when Reb tosses him a gun he uses it in self-defense.  Wounded, Jubal makes it back to the rawhider wagons.  They take him in, with Shem Hoktor’s wagon heading east to hide him, and the rest heading west for Pocatello.

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Valerie French as the faithless Mae, coming on to Jubal (Glenn Ford).

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Pinky arrives at the ranch after the killing and intends to renew his former relationship with Mae, who doesn’t want him now.  He beats her badly and recruits a posse of his Bar 8 friends to hunt down Jubal.  It takes a couple of days, and by the time they find Hoktor’s wagon (with the help of jealousy-crazed Jake), Jubal is heading back for the ranch so Mae can tell the posse the truth when they get to him.

Mae is in bad shape when Jubal finds her, but she manages to tell the doctor the truth about her and Jubal and about who beat her before she dies.  As the posse fingers their rope while looking at Pinky, Jubal and Naomi ride off into the sunset, or maybe just to Idaho.

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This is one of director Delmer Daves’ bigger movies, shot in color on location in Jackson Hole (like The Big Sky and Shane) and with lots of low camera angles that emphasize the sky and the magnificent Tetons.  The movie is well-paced at 100 minutes.  Cinematography is by Charles Lawton, Jr., who worked on many westerns (including 3:10 to Yuma and Comanche Station).  The very good screenplay is by Robert S. Hughes and Daves.  The music by David Raksin (Laura, Big Hand for the Little Lady, Will Penny) is also excellent.

The cast is very good, especially Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, whose performances are well-calibrated.  Ford made the original 3:10 to Yuma with Daves the next year, and he was excellent in that, too.  See Ernest Borgnine in bad-guy roles from the same period in Johnny Guitar and Bad Day at Black Rock, and as a semi-good guy in The Badlanders.  Charles Bronson has a good-guy role, rare for the pre-Magnificent Seven stage of his career, and Jack Elam is one of the Bar 8 riders.  Rod Steiger is effective in another of his nasty bully roles from the 1950s.  Steiger had played the title role in the 1953 telecast of Marty, and Borgnine had just won an Oscar for the same role in the movie version (1955).  This was Felicia Farr’s movie debut, and Daves clearly liked her; she shows up again in 3:10 to Yuma and The Last Wagon.

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This melodramatic range saga has overtones of Shakespeare (Othello), although in this case the wife is young and faithless, and of Biblical stories (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife; and Jake is referred to as a Judas).  It’s often referred to as an “adult” western because of the all the sexual tension.  It was adapted from a novel by Paul I. Wellman.  For another big melodramatic range story, see Tribute to a Bad Man from the same year, one of James Cagney’s few westerns (he was not a natural in them).  But this one is better.  For other westerns from this stage of Daves’ career, in addition to 3:10 to Yuma, see Cowboy with Glenn Ford and The Last Wagon with Richard Widmark.

As of May 2013, Jubal is available on a Criterion Collection DVD, which refers to it as “an overlooked Hollywood treasure from genre master Delmer Daves.”

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Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 13, 2013

Johnny Guitar—Joan Crawford, Sterlling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Paul Fix, Frank Ferguson  (1954; Dir:  Nicholas Ray)

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An unusual cult favorite with a large cast, noir influences and bright colors; similar to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in having a big female star from Hollywood’s golden age in the lead and in the melodramatic noir sensibility, among other things.  More obviously an artifact from the time it was made than any attempt to re-create the 19th century west for its story, it’s nevertheless an interesting artifact.

Former saloon girl Vienna (Joan Crawford in her hard-edged mode, a veteran of 30 years in the movies at this point) has finally built up her own saloon in the wilds of Arizona, although local ranchers (Ward Bond as baron John McIvers) and business people (Mercedes McCambridge as banker-rancher Emma Small) see her place as a haven for outlaws and rustlers.  The railroad is coming through, which they think will bring in hordes of new settlers to take their land, and Vienna stands to make a lot of money then. 

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Things come to a head when the local stage is robbed, Emma’s brother is killed in the holdup, and a tall, guitar-playing blond guy from Albuquerque shows up, apparently responding to a call from Vienna.  This is the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who initially spends his time fending off hostility both from McIvers and his group and from four apparent outlaw-miners, especially Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine).  McIvers gives Vienna and the four 24 hours to clear out; Vienna makes it clear she’s not going.  Johnny Guitar fights with Bart, and wins.  As he’s leaving, young gunman Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) shows off and Johnny Guitar grabs a gun and bests him.  It turns out his real name is Johnny Logan, and he and Vienna have a lot of history, although they haven’t seen each other in five years.  She instructs him to leave his guns in his saddlebag.

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The four outlaw-miners include Bart, tubercular Corey (Royal Dano), Turkey and their leader the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a former paramour who now fancies Vienna more than she fancies him.  There are clearly a number of conflicts coming up.  The four aren’t yet real outlaws and didn’t rob the stage; they have a silver mine, but it’s played out now.  They decide that if they’re being chased out, they might as well rob the local bank (owned by Emma) before they go.

Vienna goes to the bank the next morning and withdraws all her money.  While she’s there, the four rob the bank, while Vienna tries unsuccessfully to talk them out of it.  McIver and Emma lead a vengeful posse in pursuit of the four, but Emma’s also convinced that Vienna had something to do with the robbery.  During the chase, the passes on the escape route are dynamited by railroad crews, and the four retreat to the Lair, their large house in a hidden, defensible position.  Turkey is hurt when his horse falls, and even more when his horse runs under a low-hanging branch and knocks him off.

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Having lost the four, the posse comes to Vienna’s, which is closed.  Vienna is playing the piano in a white dress; Johnny Guitar is out of sight.  The posse finds the wounded Turkey hidden under a table, and McIvers and Emma promise him he won’t hang if he gives up Vienna as an accomplice.  Turkey cracks (Vienna tells him to save himself, so she’s kind of acquiescing although not taking responsibility for the lie), and he does it.  The posse proceeds to hang them both from a bridge anyway despite their promises.  At the last second Johnny Guitar cuts Vienna down, and they make a break for the Lair.  Vienna’s saloon is in flames.

Johnny-Guitar-HangingVienna Hanging Vienna.

The posse follows Turkey’s horse to the entrance to the Lair, and Emma convinces lookout Bart to turn on his compatriots.  He knifes Corey and Johnny shoots him as he’s trying to shoot the Kid in the back.  Emma wounds Vienna and the posse kills the Kid but refuses to go farther with Vienna.  The furious and implacable Emma then pushes Vienna into a shootout, which Vienna wins, and the posse slowly leaves.  Presumably Vienna and Johnny get back together on a long-term basis.  Maybe Vienna rebuilds her hard-won saloon.

Joan Crawford dominates the film with her character Vienna, who’s always working out what her various relationships will be.  Sterling Hayden is slightly flaky as her gunless gunman in a supporting role, although the movie is named after him.  He apparently didn’t get along well with Crawford during the filming.  Ward Bond’s McIvers has some scruples, but not enough.  Emma is said to be a one-time rival of Vienna for the Kid’s affections, but McCambridge is an implacably anti-Vienna wild woman for most of the movie, somewhat over the top in her performance.  Crawford and McCambridge did not get along well, either, and maybe that fueled some of the hostility.  McCambridge later admitted that she was battling alcoholism at the time as well.  Frank Ferguson as Marshal Williams, the voice of reason and restraint in the mob, John Carradine as Vienna’s caretaker, and Royal Dano as the consumptive, book-reading Corey are all particularly good.

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Director Nicholas Ray was known for his noir work (In a Lonely Place and others) in the early 1950s, and that sensibility is present in this melodrama, along with bright Technicolor touches and Crawford’s fierce eyebrows and crimson lipstick.  Some see this as an allegory for the political McCarthyism then dominating Congress, with the posse’s mob mentality and its leaders’ mistaken judgment and misplaced hostilities.  Taken as a whole, this is enjoyable to watch, if a bit overwrought.  It seems torn between its desire to have the Vienna character be a strong, self-sufficient woman (she wears pants for most of the film) and the occasional nod to 1950s social mores.  The all-female shootout between Vienna and Emma is a hallmark in the history of westerns.  Peggy Lee wrote and sings the title song.

[Other films with a 1940s-50s take on lynching include The Ox-Bow Incident (obviously), The Moonlighter, Three Hours to Kill and this.  The first two even have a black peripheral character present at the lynching to make the point that they really want us to be thinking about the problem of lynching of blacks in the south.]

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