Tag Archives: Range Wars

The Virginian (1929)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 28, 2016

The Virginian (1929)—Gary Cooper, Mary Brian, Richard Arlen, Walter Huston, Eugene Pallette, Chester Conklin, Jack Pennick, Randolph Scott, Charles Stevens (1929; Dir:  Victor Fleming)

Virginian29PosterVirginian29Poster2

This early talkie version of Owen Wister’s oft-refilmed 1902 western novel provides Gary Cooper with one of his signature roles in westerns, along with perhaps The Plainsman and High Noon.  At 28, he had been appearing in movies for about five years, many of them westerns.  And he had broken through to initial stardom with his role in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), a western of sorts.  A lanky native of Montana, he proved to be a natural in westerns, starring in many of them for the rest of his career.  Although the tale seems old-fashioned now and provides the basis for some of the oldest clichés in westerns, many think this 1929 film is the best version of the story on film.  It was also the first major sound film to be shot outdoors, made on location in Sonora, California.

Most fans of westerns will be familiar with the outlines of the story.  Beautiful young Molly Stark Wood from Vermont comes west to Wyoming Territory to teach at a remote school.  The biggest rancher in the vicinity is Judge Henry, but despite his title there is little law in the territory.  Molly (Mary Brian) meets Judge Henry’s foreman, known only as the Virginian (Gary Cooper), and his sunny-tempered friend Steve (Richard Arlen).  Originally put off by the Virginian’s informality, Molly nevertheless develops an affection for him.

Virginian29CoopHustonSmile

The Virginian (Gary Cooper) and Trampas (Walter Huston): “If you want to call me that, smile.”

That affection is tested twice.  In the first instance, Steve is corrupted by the rustler Trampas (Walter Huston).  When Judge Henry’s riders capture three of Trampas’ rustlers red-handed, one of them turns out to be Steve.  According to the rules of the time, they are all hanged, and the Virginian takes after Trampas.  As he tracks the rustler chief, Trampas shoots him in the back from ambush.  The Virginian’s horse takes him to the school, and Molly nurses him back to health, only to be horrified when she learns that he led those who hanged his friend Steve.

They manage to get past that, but on their wedding day in Medicine Bow, Trampas shows up in town and orders the Virginian out of town by sundown.  He actually says that the town isn’t big enough for both of them.  Molly tries ineffectively to talk her man out of doing what we all know he has to do.  As the sun goes down, Trampas shoots first, again from ambush, and the Virginian returns fire in a classic street shootout.  As the Virginian returns to Molly at their hotel, they fall into each other’s arms and the film ends.

Virginian29DontGoVirginian29TrampasAmbush

Molly (Mary Brian) reasons with the Virginian, to no avail.  And Trampas (Walter Huston) shoots the Virginian in the back from ambush.

The production seems a bit stilted by today’s standards, and the makeup (especially on Brian and Cooper) is clearly of the 1920s.  But this is still a very good western.  There has probably never been a better Virginian on film than the young Cooper, and the film made Cooper a bigger star.  This was his second talking western, after Wolf Song, also directed by Fleming.  He reportedly had trouble remembering his lines, now that he actually had to say lines.  The most difficult part in this story is usually that of Molly, who can easily seem priggish and overly Victorian to current audiences.  Mary Brian is adequate and sometimes spirited in her way, especially when compared with, say, Barbara Britton from the 1946 film version with Joel McCrea.

The supporting cast is very good, too.  Richard Arlen is good at showing Steve’s good nature and making him sympathetic as he falls under Trampas’ sway.  At the time this was made, Walter Huston was better known than Cooper, mostly from working on Broadway; he was paid $20,000 to Cooper’s $3,400.  (Director Victor Fleming was paid $75,000, so we know who had the real clout here.  A prominent director since 1919, Fleming, of course, was connected with some of the best-remembered films of the 1930s and into the 1940s, such as Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and A Guy Named Joe—hardly any of them westerns.)

Rotund, gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette is one of the Virginian’s principal supporters in the film.  You’ll recognize him from the later Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and the Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro.  Silent comedian Chester Conklin makes a fleeting appearance.  Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens is in the cast as a Mexican.  North Carolina native Randolph Scott worked on the film as a dialect coach teaching Cooper how to speak as if he were from Virginia, and in a brief non-speaking part early in his career.  There had been earlier silent versions of the story in 1914 and 1923, but this one is better.  The film is in black and white, at 91 minutes.

Virginian29CoopBrianArlen

Initially Molly (Mary Brain) is torn between the Virginian (Gary Cooper, left) and his pal Steve (Richard Arlen, right), but she chooses well.

This is probably one of the three foundational westerns from the 1920s.  If you want to see how many of the tropes, archetypes and lore of the modern western were developed, watch The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse and this.  If you want to watch Cooper in another western from the early talking-movies stage of his career, try Fighting Caravans (1931).  If you want to watch another version of The Virginian for purposes of comparison, try Bill Pullman’s television version from 2000 with Diane Lane, which tries to make the language and situations more relatable to modern audiences, with some success.  The 1946 remake with Joel McCrea, Barbara Britton and Brian Donlevy is less successful.

This can be very difficult to find, since it’s not available on DVD.  Sometimes you can catch it on TCM or on the Starz Encore Westerns channel, and it’s said to be on YouTube.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

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)

FuriesPosterFuriesTall

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.

Furies3Sign

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.

FuriesHustonStan

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.

FuriesStanSciss

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.  So she buys his cattle with worthless scrip, and he’s still broke.  Nevertheless, 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).

FuriesHerreraMom

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.

FuriesCoreyStan

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.

FuriesFrenFuriesSpan

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.

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Last Stand at Saber River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 16, 2015

Last Stand at Saber River—Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Tracey Needham, David Dukes, Rachel Duncan, Haley Joel Osment, Harry Carey, Jr., Lumi Cavazos (Made for television, 1997; Dir:  Dick Lowry)

LastStandPosterLastStandDVDCover

A story from Elmore Leonard is usually a good starting point for a western.  (See, for example, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma [original and remake], Hombre, Valdez Is Coming and Joe Kidd.)  In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot appeared in a series of westerns that were initially shown on Ted Turner’s TNT television station, with higher production values than normally seen in that medium.  Often they were based on stories from the heyday of westerns in the 1950s and 1960s by such masters as Leonard and Louis L’Amour, but also on classics by writers like Jack Schaefer (Monte Walsh).  Tom Selleck not only starred, but often took a production role in getting the movie made, as was the case with this Leonard story from the 1950s.

In early 1865 Paul Cable (Tom Selleck; we seldom hear him called anything but “Cable”) is returning from the Civil War, where he has spent four years riding with Confederate cavalry commander Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There are multiple references to Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, where Forrest and his men committed an atrocity by gunning down more than 300 Union prisoners, most of them black soldiers.  Burned out on the war, Cable just wants to pick up his wife and children in Texas and move back to their ranch in Arizona Territory.  Cable’s wife Martha (Suzy Amis) has spent the interim as a schoolteacher and gunsmith, working with her gunsmith father (Harry Carey, Jr. in his final acting role).  It’s not easy to put the Cable family back together again.  Martha is still traumatized by the death of baby Mary three years ago, by not understanding why (and resenting that) Cable went to fight, by seeing that he’s changed while he’s been away (more willing to kill if necessary) and by being uprooted again.  Frictions in the Cable marriage are one of the basic two conflicts that flow through the story.

LastStandCables

The Cables (Haley Joel Osment, Suzy Amis and Tom Selleck) try to sort things out, now that Paul Cable is home from the war.

The other involves the Kidstons, a family consisting of two brothers Vern (Keith Carradine) and Duane (David Carradine) and Duane’s free-thinking daughter Lorraine (Tracey Needham).  They’re Union sympathizers (Duane had been kicked out of the Union army) who have come to dominate the area while the Cables have been gone.  When the Cables approach their own ranch house, they find it occupied by Kidston men and prostitutes; Martha shoots down two of them when they threaten Cable, and she is appalled that she did it.

Cable is jumped by two brothers of one of the deceased men; he kills one and captures the other, but eventually lets him go.  He takes his family to the general store, where Edward Janroe (David Dukes), a Confederate veteran himself, promises protection for them.  Returning to his cabin, Cable finds Lorraine Kidston there, claiming to have been thrown from her horse.  She makes it obvious he can have a dalliance with her; it is less obvious whether the attraction is real, or she’s just making mischief.  Cable politely resists in any event.

LastStandMartha

Daughter of a gunsmith, Martha Cable (Suzy Amis) can both make and shoot guns.

[Spoilers follow.]  As news of the end of the war reaches Arizona Territory, Janroe, who has been smuggling British Enfield rifles across the border with Mexico and then sending them east to the Confederate army, volunteers to take the news to Cable.  But Janroe seems to have become unhinged by this development.  Cable is out working, and in his absence Janroe trashes the Cable cabin.  He then stops by the Kidston ranch, and shoots Duane twice, with no witnesses.  Vern Kidston thinks it’s obvious that Cable did it.

LastStandSelleckDukes

Cable (Tom Selleck) negotiates with storekeeper Edward Janroe (David Dukes).

When Kidston and his men besiege Cable at his cabin, he’s rescued by Martha taking out yet another of their gunmen.  Cable and Vern Kidston finally talk and figure out that Janroe didn’t give Cable the news, and that if he was out that way he might have been the one to shoot Duane. Heading for the Janroe store, they find that Janroe has (a) abducted Cable’s daughter Clare (Rachel Duncan), (b) shot Luz (Lumi Cavazos), his Hispanic mistress, when she tried to stop it, and (c) taken his stock of rifles to the Mexican bandits along the border.  Cable and Vern head out in pursuit.  The rescue involves an extended chase, Vern shooting Janroe, Cable rescuing his daughter from a runaway wagon, and finally Cable fighting off the bandits and taking a wound himself.  Back at the Cable cabin, indications are that there will be peace with the remaining Kidstons and perhaps between Cable and Martha.

LastStandCablePinnedDown

Cable (Tom Selleck) is pinned down in the rocks by superior numbers.

Selleck was usually good in these high-quality made-for-television westerns, almost single-handedly bringing back the big hat that was more or less authentic to the time of the story.  (Perhaps the best example of a Selleck hat is in Quigley Down Under, which was not made for television.)  Both Suzy Amis (near the end of her acting career at only 35) and Tracey Needham have strong female roles well-integrated with the story (unusual for a western); Amis’ character is both harder-edged and more sympathetic.  David Dukes makes an effective fanatical one-armed villain.  Rachel Duncan and Haley Joel Osment as the Cable children are unusually effective, too. The Carradine brothers most famously starred together in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) as two of the Younger brothers, but you can also see them together in The Outsider (2002), another made-for-television western.

LastStandKCarradineLastStandDCarradine

Keith Carradine as the more sensible Kidston brother Vern; and David Carradine as Duane.

Dick Lowry was a long-time television director, who also worked with Selleck on one of his Jesse Stone police procedurals in 2011.  This was shot in New Mexico, around Santa Fe, in color at 96 minutes.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Tall Stranger

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 9, 2015

The Tall Stranger—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Barry Kelley, Michael Ansara, Whit Bissell, Leo Gordon, George Neise, Michael Pate, Ray Teal (1957; Dir: Thomas Carr)

TallStrangerPosterTallStrangerIt

The stranger of the title is played by Joel McCrea, coming toward the end of his career, and he’s a bit long in the tooth for the role he plays in this combination wagon train-range war story with a convoluted plot based on a story by Louis L’Amour.  But he is still Joel McCrea, and, like Gary Cooper, he can still hold our attention and make us forget about his age.

Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) is heading home to Bishop Valley in Colorado Territory from the Civil War, when he spots rustlers and one of them ambushes him, shooting him and killing his horse.  All he saw of his assailant was a gold-plated rifle, along with fancy spurs.  He wakes up in a wagon heading west; a wagon train had found him, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a widow with a young son, had found room for him.  There is some hostility toward him among members of the wagon train.   Bannon was wearing parts of a Union uniform, and most of them are southerners and former Confederates.

TallStrangerBannonBishop

Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) returns home from the war to have it out with his brother (Barry Kelley).

He finds that they are led by a man named Harper (George Neise), and, although they think they are going to California, they are far south of the normal trail, heading for Bishop Valley, from which there is no good trail farther west.  Bannon is unlikely to get much of a welcome from the local cattle baron Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley), his half-brother.  During the recent war, Bishop’s only son Billy had joined Quantrill’s Missouri border raiders, and Bannon had led the Union cavalry that captured him, among others of Quantrill’s men.  The son had been executed.  Bannon has to fight Bishop before Bishop will listen to him at all, but Bannon persuades Bishop to give him three days to talk the wagon train into leaving the valley.

Bishop approaches the wagon train with Stark (Leo Gordon, in a rare good guy role), Bishop’s foreman, and Red.  Harper goads Red into drawing his gun and shoots him; in the melee that follows, Mrs. Judson is killed, although Bannon sees that she was shot from behind with a hollow-point bullet—the same kind with which he had been ambushed.  Ellen is bathing in a stream when she is attacked by Zarata (Michael Ansara), leader of Harper’s rustlers; he has a gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs.  Bannon fights Zarata and seems to be winning, until Zarata grabs Ellen’s son and uses him as a shield, breaking the boy’s arm.

TallStrangerMayoGunWider

Young widow Ellen (Virginia Mayo) defends herself and her son.

[Spoilers follow.]  Bannon takes Ellen and son back to Bishop’s ranch, where they are doctored by Bishop’s cook Charley (Michael Pate).  Now Bannon knows that Harper plans to use the settlers and Zarata to take over the valley, and Harper and Zarata’s men attack the ranch.  After a protracted siege, Bannon and Bishop use a makeshift smokescreen to allow Bishop’s men to escape from the bunkhouse and get weapons, swinging the battle in their favor.  Bishop gets Zarata but is himself mortally wounded.  Harper is killed.  In the end, Bannon, presumably the new owner of the ranch and the valley, offers to let the wagon train stay and build a town.  Although Ellen reveals that she has a sordid past in St. Louis with no husband (kind of like Anne Baxter in Three Violent People), she and Bannon appear to have a future together.

This is can be hard to find now, since it’s not on DVD, but it is worth watching. The print I saw (on Amazon) was both grainy and inconsistent in color, and it’s obviously in need of restoration. This is one of McCrea’s better westerns from the late 1950s, like Trooper Hook and Gunsight Ridge (both also from 1957).  Notwithstanding McCrea’s age, the fight scenes with Barry Kelley and Michael Ansara are well-staged and persuasive.  Virginia Mayo is also good here, and there is an excellent supporting cast as well.  Leo Gordon and Michael Pate are particularly good.

TallStrangerKelleyMcCreaBeseiged

Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley) and Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) are besieged by Harper and his minions.

Director Thomas Carr had started as a child actor in silent movies.  He was an extra in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and became a director of B movies at Republic in the 1940s.  When he made The Tall Stranger, he was near the end of his movie-directing career before going exclusively into television work.  Filmed in color in southern California, at 81 minutes.

Virginia Mayo’s best other westerns are Colorado Territory (1949), also with Joel McCrea, and Fort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker, but you can also see her in The Proud Ones (1956) with Robert Ryan, Westbound (1959) with Randolph Scott and in the [inaccurate] Jim Bowie biopic The Iron Mistress (1952) with Alan Ladd.

TallStrangerWideBelg

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Man in the Saddle

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 16, 2015

Man in the Saddle—Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Terry, Alexander Knox, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Cameron Mitchell, John Russell, Richard Rober, Clem Bevans, Alfonso Bedoya (1951; Dir: André de Toth)

ManSaddlePosterManSaddleBook

Several of the the Randolph Scott movies from the early 1950s had generic-seeming titles for a western (e.g. The Stranger Wore a Gun), and this is one of them.  It came by the title honestly, taking it directly from its source novel by Ernest Haycox.  Behind that generic title, however, is a strong cast, a good director (one-eyed Hungarian André de Toth), and a complicated range war plot, with a lot of characters coming and going around another Randolph Scott romantic triangle (as in, for example, Canadian Pacific, A Lawless Street, Return of the Bad Men et al.).

Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) of the Christmas Creek Ranch is one of the smaller ranchers near the big Skull Ranch, owned by Will Isham (Alexander Knox).  Merritt and Isham had both been courting Laurie Bidwell (Joan Leslie), from a poor family with an alcoholic father.  Although she seems to prefer Merritt, Laurie has chosen Isham and security as the movie opens.  Isham senses that she still has feelings for Merritt, and it makes him insecure, feeding his need to take over the valley by fair means or foul.

ManSaddleScottKnox

Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is threatened by his (much shorter) adversary Will Isham (Alexander Knox).

As Merritt licks his emotional wounds, Isham has hired gunfighter Fay Dutcher (Richard Rober) as his foreman.  One night just after the marriage, Merritt’s cattle are stampeded and Juke Vird, one of his hands, is killed.  Juke’s brother George (a youngish Cameron Mitchell) goes into town looking trouble with the Skull hands.  In a gunfight in a dark bar, one the Skull gunhands is killed, leading to a series of strikes and counterstrike between Merritt and the Skull outfit.  George Vird is killed, and Merritt attacks a Skull line cabin.  Merritt’s ranch is attacked and Merritt wounded; he is rescued by his neighbor Nan Melotte (Ellen Drew), who takes Merritt to her grandfather’s remote cabin to recover for a few days.

They are found there by Hugh Clagg (John Russell), an unbalanced lone-wolf-type with a fixation on Nan.  He tries to kill Merritt, but Merritt fights him off and Clagg makes his escape to the Skull Ranch.  As Clagg makes accusations about the faithlessness of a woman, Isham thinks he’s referring to Laurie and shoots him in cold blood.  He and his men head for town to ambush Merritt and his men there.

ManSaddleFight

Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) and Hugh Clagg (John Russell) fight for the hand of Nan Melotte in a collapsing cabin.

Merritt and his men sneak into town in a dust storm dressed as Mexicans, with one of the Skull men who saw the Clagg shooting.  They take him to the sheriff, where he fills out an affidavit.  Isham’s men invade the jail, but Merritt goes after Isham.  They reach an agreement that Isham will leave the valley, taking Laurie with him, but as Isham comes down the stairs of the hotel he is shot by his own foreman Dutcher.  Merritt and Dutcher shoot it out, and we know what the outcome of that will be.  The Skull Ranch now belongs to Laurie, and it seems that Nan and Merritt belong to each other.

Fay Dutcher to Owen Merritt, as he turns away with his hands up:  “You wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, would you?”
Owen Merritt:  “I could you.”

ManSaddleBurning

Merritt (Randolph Scott) fights Isham’s forces.

Scott is good as he usually was, riding his horse Stardust (an uncredited co-star) and with his trademark leather jacket making at least one appearance.  Joan Leslie and Ellen Drew are a little stronger than most women in Scott westerns.  Alexander Knox is a bit too much of a megalomaniac in his one-note humorless performance, but his part seems to be written that way.  The rest of the supporting cast is quite strong.  John Russell is good as the unbalanced Hugh Clagg in one of the story’s more interesting and less predictable threads.  Alfonso Bedoya was charming (he has a recurring bit about finding a new hat), but for modern tastes he seems rather an uncomfortably stereotypical Mexican in most of his roles, including this one.  Guinn Williams (The Desperadoes, Virginia City, etc.) keeps his broad comic relief tendencies under control here as one of Merritt’s riders.

A surprising amount of the action takes place at night (the raids and counterstrikes and an impressive gunfight in a darkened saloon) or in a dust storm (the final developments and gunfights), emphasizing De Toth’s good direction and excellent cinematography.  This was the first of De Toth’s six westerns with Scott, although he didn’t think Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown paid enough attention to a film’s story as long as they were making money.  In this case, the plot has a lot of convolutions for the film’s 87 minutes, but much of it is predictable bad big rancher vs. virtuous smaller rancher stuff when you start thinking about it.  We get to see one of Randolph Scott’s patented fights in a collapsing/burning building (see Ten Wanted Men, Hangman’s Knot and Riding Shotgun, for other examples) when Clagg and Merritt tangle in an old cabin.

ManSaddleBelgManSaddleTall

The excellent cinematography is by Charles Lawton, Jr., who did many good westerns, including 3:10 to Yuma with director Delmer Daves and several with Budd Boetticher.  It has a better-than-average theme song, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford in hist first film appearance.  Kenneth Gamet, who wrote a number of Scott films (and a total of 44 westerns for the large and small screens, in fact), did the screenplay.  Shot in color at Lone Pine, at 87 minutes.

ManSaddleDeTothDirects

Director Andre de Toth confers with Guinn Williams and Randolph Scott during filming.

Although it’s not one of Randolph Scott’s very best westerns, it’s one of the better films from his pre-Budd Boetticher period and well worth watching.  Some say it’s the best of the half-dozen De Toth-Scott collaborations, although you should see at least The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City and Riding Shotgun before deciding.  De Toth’s very best westerns are probably his first (Ramrod, with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake) and last (Day of the Outlaw, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives).

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Terror in a Texas Town

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 15, 2015

Terror in a Texas Town—Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Nedrick Young (Ned Young), Victor Milian, Carol Kelly, Sheb Woolley (1958; Dir: Joseph H. Lewis)

TerrorTexPosterTerrorTexTall

Sterling Hayden starred in several B westerns in the mid-1950s, sometimes venturing into more ambitious territory with more upscale films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Killing (1956), later even showing up in smaller roles in Dr. Strangelove (as Gen. Jack D. Ripper) and The Godfather (as a corrupt police lieutenant killed in a restaurant).  He was said to have been more interested in sailing than in acting.  This low-budget effort is his last starring role in a western, and it’s also the last film directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry), who was known for his style-over-substance approach to filmmaking.

Some of that style is apparent from the opening scene, which shows Swedish whaler George Hanson (Sterling Hayden) marching down the dusty main street of the Texas town of the title without hat or gun, but carrying a whaling harpoon into a confrontation with a stereotypical black-clad, one-handed gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young). The rest of the story is told in flashback, getting us back to this point.

TerrorTexShowdown

The opening scene sets up the final confrontation on a dusty Texas street.

The outlines of the plot are not remarkable. A wealthy man, Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), has come to town, intent on taking over the surrounding land because it has oil.  He brings in Johnny Crale, a gunslinger he has worked with before.  Since then Crale appears to have lost his right hand and now wears one of metal with a glove, although his nasty disposition is intact.  Among those who will not sell is Swedish immigrant Sven Hanson (Ted Stanhope in an uncredited role); and Crale coldly kills him.  The killing is witnessed by Juan Mirada (Victor Milian), who keeps silent in part because his wife is expecting a new child any day,.and in part because it would do no good to say anything.

Sven’s son George Hanson comes to town to visit his father.  Although he is generally peaceable, he has progressive run-ins with Crale, whose men beat him and put him on a train out of town.  He returns and persuades Juan to tell the story of his father’s killing, until Crale kills Juan as his child is being born; the murder is witnessed by his own son Pepe.  McNeil starts to see Crale as a liability and they have a falling-out, until Crale kills him, too.  This brings us back to the opening scene, as George takes up the weapon he knows, a harpoon, and goes to meet Crale in the street in one of the most unusual western showdowns ever filmed.

TerrorTexCabotCraleSec

Land magnate Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) negotiates with his enforcer Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), while McNeil’s “secretary” listens.

Hayden, who never looked much like the traditional western hero, does well enough as a Swedish whaler who can’t be pushed any farther.  For once, devoted sailor Hayden got to play an actual seaman, even if in a western with no ocean.  Sebastian Cabot is better than most range tyrants as the nefarious oil-hungry magnate.  Kendrick Young is not entirely satisfying as the one-handed gunman, in a kind of stereotypically-written role.  Victor Milian (who was in the film noir Touch of Evil the same year, but spent most of his career in television) does well as the Mexican witness weighing his responsibilities to his family against telling the truth about Crale.

Director Lewis earns his reputation for style by constantly distracting us from the outlines of a routine story with unusual camera angles, lingering close-ups on weathered faces and disturbing editing.  In general, virtue is not rewarded, nor are those who summon the courage to do the right thing (Sven Hanson, Juan Mirada).  The psychologically-tortured gunman Crale seems almost as much a victim as those he killed–perhaps because his mother never loved him or because his crippled gun hand represents another kind of impotence.  The whole thing has the kind of bitter aftertaste of, say, The Ox-Bow Incident, with justice coming out on the short end.  This has become something of a cult favorite in some circles.

TerrorTexHaydenHarp

When the law fails, George Hanson (Sterling Hayden) uses the weapons at hand–in this case, a harpoon.

Except for the inclusion of “Texas,” there is little about the alliterative title that signals this is a western.  Written by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, under another name.  Shot in black and white by Ray Rennahan, at 80 minutes.  For another Lewis-directed western featuring a gunman with a crippled hand (Randolph Scott this time), see A Lawless Street (1955).  If you’re only going to watch a couple of the eighteen Sterling Hayden westerns, you should try this and Johnny Guitar, neither of which was exactly typical for him.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Missouri Breaks

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 4, 2015

The Missouri Breaks—Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Kathleen Lloyd, John McLiam, Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, Randy Quaid, John Ryan (1976; Dir: Arthur Penn)

MissouriBreaksPosterMissouriBreaksFren

The title refers to an area of rough terrain along the Missouri River in north central Montana, where a variety of rustlers, wolfers, outlaws and other undesirables found refuge during the ranching era of the 1880s.  Marlon Brando was generally thought to be the greatest film actor of his generation (roughly 1950 to 1972), and Jack Nicholson was the personification of the new American cinema of the1970s.  Here they star together for the only time, under the direction of Arthur Penn, who had helped usher in the new era with Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  It was the 52-year-old Brando’s first film since the back-to-back successes of The Godfather (with a Best Actor Oscar) and Last Tango in Paris three years earlier; and Jack Nicholson had just won the Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).  It made for a highly-anticipated movie.

Range baron David Braxton (John McLiam) is frustrated by mounting stock losses to rustlers, now up to 7% (a number repeated more than once).  As the movie opens, Braxton and his men are hanging a young rustler, to the distress of Braxton’s independent-minded daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd).  In response to that hanging, the rustlers hang Braxton’s foreman Pete.  So Braxton sends for a range “regulator”—Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) from Wyoming.

MissouriBreaksBrandoRifleMissouriBreaksGang

Marlon Brando as Lee Clayton, as he first appears in The Missouri Breaks; and Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) surrounded by the others in his gang,

About the same time, Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and Little Tod (Randy Quaid) rob a train in a quasi-comic sequence.  Tom, the leader of a gang of outlaws that include rustling among their pursuits, seeks out Braxton for his advice on starting a ranching operation, which he does using the proceeds of the train robbery.  The rest of his gang, led by Cal (Harry Dean Stanton), take off north to steal 60 horses from the Canadian Mounties.

Tom finds that he likes farming/ranching, and may be good at it.  Jane Braxton conceives a sudden fondness for him, and they work out the terms of a dalliance.  As Jane watches from the Braxton porch, two apparently riderless horses approach over the hill.  As the horses arrive, Lee Clayton’s head pops out from under the lead horse’s neck.  The regulator has arrived, wearing a beautiful white leather jacket and a headband and sporting an inexplicable Irish accent.  He meets various Braxton neighbors, including Tom Logan.

Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson):  “Regulator?  Ain’t that like a dry gulcher?”
Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando):  “Well, that’s not the softest term you could use, I’d say.”
Tom Logan:  “Well, Regulator, correct me now if I’m wrong.  Isn’t a regulator one of these boys that shoots people and don’t never get near ’em?”
Lee Clayton:  “That’s it.”

MissouriBreaksLloydNich

Jane Braxton (Kathleen Lloyd) and Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) get to know each other better.

[Spoilers follow.]  As the rest of Logan’s boys return from Canada with their stolen horses, they are ambushed on the American side of the border by the Mounties, who take back their horses.  Clayton, now sans Irish accent and claiming to be Jim Ferguson, meets Little Tod and drowns him in the Missouri.  Braxton can’t control Clayton and tries to call him off, to no effect.  One by one he picks off the others in Logan’s gang, often leaving his trademarck 50-caliber rifle shell.  Finally, as Cal sleeps in the cabin, Clayton, dressed as a woman and referring to himself as Granny, firebombs it and captures Cal.  After talking with him, Clayton kills him with a strange tomahawk/throwing knife.  Tom knows that he will be next.  As Clayton hunts him, Clayton goes to sleep at his camp and awakens suddenly to find Logan next to him.

Tom Logan [to Clayton, whispering]:  “You know what woke you up?  You just had your throat cut.”

Logan then confronts Braxton, intending to kill him, only to find that Braxton, upon hearing Jane tell him she was leaving, is now reduced to helplessness (perhaps by a stroke)—until he grabs a pistol and shoots Logan.  Whereupon Logan shoots back, killing Braxton.  As the movie ends, Jane and Logan try to figure out if there’s a future for them together, perhaps in Montana’s Little Rockies in a few months.

MissouriBreaksBrandoGranny

The assassin as Granny:  Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) inexplicably dresses in drag.

The movie was not well-received on its release, grossing only $14 million in the U.S.  Leonard Maltin called it “a jumbled, excessively violent pseudo-event; a great director’s worst film and one of the worst ‘big’ movies ever made.”  Brando’s flamboyantly over-the-top (and often unintelligible) performance was singled out.  Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review, wrote that Brando’s performance “had no apparent connection to the movie around him.”  “The American press is always running him [Brando] down,” director Penn told one interviewer, “but he’s a great actor and a true professional.”  In Penn’s view, The Missouri Breaks flopped not because of Brando, but because “The American public isn’t ready for a film that doesn’t have a big shootout at the end.”  No, it was pretty much Brando; the ending actually works.

In the last couple of decades, there have been some attempts at re-assessment.  Upon Arthur Penn’s death in 2010, critic David Kehr referred to The Missouri Breaks as “a surreal western with moments of brilliance but a meandering tone.”  The Harvard Film Archive at a recent showing provided this synopsis:  “Featuring the incredible pairing of Jack Nicholson as a feckless cattle thief and Marlon Brando as the Irish ‘regulator’ hired to hunt him down, The Missouri Breaks is a rollicking and highly unusual Western that, in typical Penn fashion, strains the boundaries of the genre.  Penn’s empowerment of performers is taken to a wonderful furthest extreme by the subversive presence of Brando’s cross-dressing and unpredictable assassin, who effectively turns codes of masculinity and narrative continuity upon their heads.  Once dismissed as an ‘oddity’ in Penn’s career, The Missouri Breaks has been reevaluated as one of the more ambitious and original Westerns of its time, placing it in the company of Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand and Monte Hellman’s The Shooting.”  Such a neo-revisionist view of a revisionist western is not entirely convincing, however.  “Penn’s empowerment of performers” really meant that he couldn’t get Brando to accept direction and eventually gave up trying.  Brando’s scenery-chewing, constant ad-libbing of dialogue and unfathomable accents and costumes made Jack Nicholson look restrained by comparison; Nicholson does well in the film, although his presence always adds a note of subversion to a western.  It was said that, despite their multiple scenes together, Nicholson and Brando were only on the set at the same time for one day.

MissouriBreaksStantonShell

Cal (Harry Dean Stanton) shows Tom Logan regulator Lee Clayton’s trademark 50-caliber shell, left on Little Tod’s horse.

Among the supporting players, Harry Dean Stanton is the best, as Cal, the other senior member of Logan’s rustler/outlaw gang.  Kathleen Lloyd is also good as Jane Braxton, and it’s a bit surprising that she didn’t have more of a film career. This just wasn’t the movie to build such a career on.  This was the last leading role of Brando’s career, although he was only 52.  Producers became warier of him, his politics got in the way, he seemed less interested in acting generally, and he had started to put on substantial amounts of weight.  He could still be excellent when he wanted to, though; his future still included smaller roles such as a cameo as Superman’s father (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), a brilliant comic riff on his Godfather role in The Freshman (1990), and the caper film The Score (2001), with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton.

Although this was released the same year as The Shootist and The Outlaw Josey Wales, this movie partakes much more of the revisionist western trends of the time than those films do.  Director Penn had established himself squarely in that stream with Little Big Man in 1970, and the anti-death penalty stance here was very much in line with the progressive times of the anti-authoritarian 1970s.  Jane Braxton’s feminist and sexual attitudes also seem more of the 1970s than the 1880s.  The outlaws are more humane than the authorities, such as they are, and are somewhat more charming than they would have been in real life, to make them more sympathetic.

MissouriBreaksBrandoNich2

Co-stars Brando and Nicholson were together on the set for at least one day.

This has what is sometimes called a “literate” screenplay, meaning that the dialogue often sounds like characters in a book rather than real people talking.  It was written by novelist Thomas McGuane, known also for the films Rancho Deluxe and Tom Horn, with an uncredited rewrite by script doctor Robert Towne and extensive ad libbing by Brando.  It sports an early (and successful) film score by the prolific John Williams.  Filmed in color by Michael Butler at various locations in Montana (Red Lodge, Billings, Virginia City, Nevada City), at 126 minutes.  Rated R, for violence, hangings and sexual references.

Author McGuane obviously based the screenplay on some actual historical events and persons.  David Braxton reminds us of Montana founding father and rancher Granville Stuart, who built the DHS Ranch near the Judith River.  In 1884, he led a group of vigilantes known as Stuart’s Stranglers, who cleaned out rustlers in the area, killing up to twenty of them.  Stuart then lost his ranch after the Big Die-Up, the horrific winter of 1886-1887 that killed many of the cattle on the northern plains.  He was known for his fondness for books and his extensive personal library, and he spent his last years as the head librarian at the Butte Public Library.  Some aspects of Lee Clayton are based on Tom Horn, the most famous of the “range detectives,” including his marksmanship and penchant for killing at a long distance, and his leaving a trademark (in Horn’s case, usually a stone under the victim’s head).  Horn was eventually executed in Cheyenne in 1903 for a killing he may or may not have committed.  Tom Logan’s name seems to come from a famous family of Montana outlaws; Lee Clayton calls attention to that when he makes a reference to Lonnie Logan, a Montana outlaw of the 1890s who was one of the brothers of Harvey Logan–the Kid Curry of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.

MissouriBreaksBrandoGun

Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) using his specially-fitted Creedmoor long-range rifle.

The film remains controversial forty years later, a colorful artifact of its time.  Even if it’s a failure, it’s a notable one, joining such epic bombs as Duel in the Sun and Heaven’s Gate.  Like Heaven’s Gate, it will continue to be subjected to re-examination from time to time now that the passions surrounding its making and release have faded.  Among the colorful details of the film are Lee Clayton’s exotic weapons, including an engraved pistol with the front sight filed down, his silver-chased Creedmoor long-distance rifle, and the strange throwing hatchet/knife (supposedly invented by Brando) with which he kills Cal.  The film was put on the American Humane Association’s “unacceptable” list because of its treatment of horses: at least one was drowned in the Missouri River, another crippled by a tripwire (commonly used in movies at one time), and several others injured during a stampede sequence.

This was Brando’s third and final western, after One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and The Appaloosa (1966).  For Jack Nicholson in other westerns, see Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), The Shooting (1966) and Goin’ South (1978).  As for Kathleen Lloyd–well, she never made another movie worth noting.

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Trail Street

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 1, 2015

Trail Street—Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, George “Gabby” Hayes, Anne Jeffreys, Madge Meredith, Steve Brodie, Billy House (1947; Dir: Ray Enright)

TrailStPosterTrailStArgen

The Trail Street of the title is the main street of Liberal, Kansas, a reference to the route of the cattle drives from Texas.  Here, the trail-driving cattlemen are the bad guys, pitted against the good but defenseless farmers.

On  the side the farmers is sympathetic local banker (!) Alan Harper (Robert Ryan), who is running out of money to finance them and who is romantically interested in Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith).  Susan, who wants to movie to the big city, can’t decide between the obviously decent Harper and Logan Maury (Steve Brodie), saloon owner on the side of the cattlemen, who is trying to buy up the farmers’ land as they leave one by one.  Maury is wealthy and offers to take Susan to Chicago.  Saloon girl Ruby (Anne Jeffreys) grew up with Harper but ran away to her present life and sees Maury as hers.

TrailStMadgeRyan

Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith) is romanced by decent banker Alan Harper (Robert Ryan).

Amid the gathering chaos, local character Billy Burns (Gabby Hayes) persuades the mayor to send for Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott).  Masterson quickly sizes up the situation and sides with Harper against Maury and the sleazy saloon operator Carmody (Billy House is excellent in the duplicitous role).  While Susan dithers, Harper is framed for the murder of a farmer he was trying to help, and he discovers the farmer had a new type of winter wheat that will make the Kansas prairies fertile fields for wheat production.  As Maury tries to bust the actual murderer out of jail, a battle breaks out, with the departing farmers pitching in against the cowboys and Maury.  Ruby burns the deeds of the farmers that Maury had acquired, and he shoots her in the back, causing his own men to turn on him.  Susan (not terribly convincingly) comes to her senses about Alan.  Bat Masterson leaves for New York to become a “journalist.”  (The real Bat Masterson became sports editor for the Morning Telegraph in New York.)

TrailStRyanMadgeScott2

Recently-deputized Alan Harper (Robert Ryan), Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott) and even the indecisive Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith) prepare to defend the jail.

This was made about the time that Randolph Scott was turning his career to making only westerns, and this was not his best work.  At this stage he sometimes adopted a relentlessly cheerful demeanor, notwithstanding what was going on around him, and the result was (a) a kind of dissonance, and (b) a sense that, whatever the problems, they weren’t all that serious, even if slaughter and mayhem were taking place.  Scott would be better in future westerns, especially those made a decade later with Budd Boetticher.  Another weakness, common in Randolph Scott westerns, is an insipid female lead, both in the writing and in performance.  Bad girl Anne Jeffreys is much more interesting than indecisive good girl Madge Meredith.  And a third problem is that Gabby Hayes’ brand of toothless, aw-shucks performance must have been much more attractive 70 years ago than it seems now.  As toothless sidekicks go, Walter Brennan was a much better actor.  Steve Brodie’s bad guy Logan Maury suffers from an inconsistent mustache, among other things.

In black and white, at 84 minutes.  Randolph Scott (Frontier Marshal, Trail Street) joins Joel McCrea (Wichita, The Gunfight at Dodge City) as actors who have portrayed both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson on film.  Some posters for the movie show Scott using two guns (as he did in Canadian Pacific), but he wears only one in the film.  He was better with one.  The German title was much more fun:  Die Totesreiter von Kansas (Death Rider of Kansas).

TrailStDyingRuby

The dying Ruby (Anne Jeffreys), having taken one for the team, makes a graceful exit, surrounded by Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith), Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott) and Alan Harper (Robert Ryan).

Randolph Scott, Gabby Hayes and Steve Brodie had starred the previous year in Badman’s Territory.  Four of these actors, Scott, Ryan, Jeffreys and Hayes would appear together the next year in director Enright’s slightly better Return of the Bad Men.  This time Ryan would be a bad guy (the Sundance Kid), Gabby Hayes would be a wildly improbable bank president and Anne Jeffreys still wouldn’t get the guy despite being more interesting than the ostensible female lead.  Ray Enright, who had directed movies since the 1920s including the 1942 version of The Spoilers with Randolph Scott and emerging star John Wayne, directed several of Scott’s westerns of the late 1940s (Albuquerque, Coroner Creek), as well as Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith in Montana (1950).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Saddle Tramp

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2015

Saddle Tramp—Joel McCrea, John McIntire, Wanda Hendrix, Jeannette Nolan, John Russell, Ed Begley (1950: Dir: Hugo Fregonese)

SaddleTrampPoster2SaddleTrampBelg

Chuck Conner (Joel McCrea) is the titular saddle tramp, an experienced cowhand heading through Nevada on his way to California.  He stops to see Slim Stevens, an old friend with four small boys. Their mother has been dead a year, and while Chuck is there Slim falls off a horse and breaks his neck.

Chuck heads toward California with the four boys in tow.  He finds a job at the Higgins ranch, but owner Jess Higgins (John McIntire) doesn’t like kids [a plot contrivance that isn’t terribly persuasive, especially since he’s married to Jeannette Nolan, one of the quintessential mother figures in westerns].  So the kids camp out in the hills, and Chuck takes them food.  They are joined by Della (Wanda Hendrix), a runaway whose uncle (Ed Begley) has improper ideas about her.

SaddleTrampMcCrea

Meanwhile, Higgins is at war with the neighboring Martinez ranch over rustling, and Higgins’ foreman Rocky (John Russell) is developing suspicions about Chuck.  It turns out, however, that Rocky and the Martinez segundo are behind the rustling.  Chuck catches them at it, and they catch him.  The kids and Della manage to bring both Higgins and Martinez factions to Chuck’s rescue.  At the end, Chuck appears to have married Della (despite an age difference of some significance) and taken the boys back to Slim’s ranch to try to make a go of it.

Pleasant enough fare, if unremarkable.  Some plot elements don’t really come together.  In color, although there appear to be different cuts of it.  One version is 90 minutes long; the version shown on the Encore Westerns channel seems to be only 74 minutes.  For Wanda Hendrix in another western, see her in The Last Posse.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

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)

ViolentMenPosterviolentMenPoster2

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.”

ViolentMenMeetingWilks

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.”

ViolentMenMadlock

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.

ViolentMenFordGuns

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.

ViolentMenIt2OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone