Tag Archives: Range Wars

Robber’s Roost

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 25, 2014

Robber’s Roost—George Montgomery, Richard Boone, Peter Graves, Sylvia Findley, William Hopper, Bruce Bennett (1955; Dir:  Sidney Salkow)

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This a revenge/manhunt western, mixed with a range war.  And all this in a B movie starring good-looking but unexciting George Montgomery in his flat-crowned 1950s cowboy hats.

The mysterious Tex (aka Jim Wall, played by George Montgomery) throws his lot in with a gang of rustlers led by Hank Hayes (Richard Boone).  Boone and his men are on their way to work for crippled cattleman Bull Herrick (Bruce Bennett), figuring to steal his cattle. 

When they arrive, they find that Herrick has also hired a rival gang of rustlers led by Heesman (Peter Graves), figuring that the two bunches of thieves will keep each other honest.  Herrick’s sister Helen (Sylvia Findley) has also arrived from the East, hoping to persuade her brother to return east with her for an operation that will restore his ability to walk and ride.  Also in the mix is neighboring rancher Robert Bell (William Hopper), who has asked Helen to marry him once before and still hopes to persuade her to say yes. 

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A good guy and two bad guys:  Montgomery, Graves and Boone.  But which is which?

Tex, who is thought not to be very interested in women, becomes Helen’s riding companion, delegated by Hayes to keep her from seeing things he doesn’t want her to be aware of.  Initially, the rivalry between gangs has the desired effect, but eventually they start cooperating to steal the entire herd.  At the climax, Hayes makes off with the herd and Helen, with Tex trying to keep her safe. 

It turns out Hayes had robbed Tex’s ranch and raped and killed his wife, and Tex has been tracking him down not only for revenge but also to exonerate himself from murder charges.  After a four-way shootout in the mountains (Hayes’ gang vs. Heesman’s gang vs. a posse led by the sheriff and Bell, while Tex and Helen are trying to escape and Hayes is trying to catch them).  Luckily, Hayes doesn’t die before telling the sheriff about Tex’s innocence, and Tex and Helen ride off together.

RobbersRoostMontFindlay Tex and Helen try to hold out.

George Montgomery’s Tex is remarkably taciturn, and he wears a quintessentially 1950s hat (short, flat crown and wide brim) as he usually did.  Richard Boone’s Hayes is almost continually blinded by lust; this isn’t his best performance as a screen villain.  The dying confession that absolved a wrongly-accused good guy became kind of a cliché in 1950s westerns, and it was often not terribly believable.  There are weaknesses in the writing here, even if the star doesn’t talk much.  In color, filmed in Durango, Mexico, from a story by Zane Grey.  

Historical note:  There were a number of places in the west referred to as Robber’s Roost.  They tended to be either where stages or mining coaches were often robbed (in Montana’s gold country near Bannack and Virginia City, or in southern Idaho’s Portneuf area, for example) or where outlaws sought refuge, as with the remote spot on the Outlaw Trail in the red-rock deserts of southern Utah where Butch Cassidy’s gang and others hid out.  None of them had much to do with rustlers.

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Return of the Gunfighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 24, 2014

Return of the Gunfighter—Robert Taylor, Chad Everett, Ana Martin, Lyle Bettger, Mort Mills, John Davis Chandler (1967; Dir:  James Neilson)

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Aging gunfighter Ben Wyatt (played by aging Robert Taylor in his typical black, in one of his last movie roles) is released from the Arizona territorial prison at Yuma in 1878 after five years when it is discovered he was falsely convicted and imprisoned.  On his way to Lordsburg, New Mexico, he discovers (a) wounded Lee Sutton (Chad Everett) being chased by a Lordsburg posse after having killed a man named Boone; (b) his old friends the Domingos from days as a Juarista have been killed; and (c) three Boone brothers are also on the trail of Sutton.  (One of the Boones is played by Australian actor Michael Pate, who often convincingly played Indians in movies and television productions—Major Dundee, Hondo.) 

After retrieving the Domingo daughter Anisa (Ana Martin) from Cipar, Wyatt, Sutton and Anisa head for Lordsburg to find out who killed her parents.  Turns out it was Lee’s older brother Clay Sutton (Lyle Bettger), who displays his unsuitability by cold-bloodedly shooting down the corrupt town judge and marshal (Mort Mills), who are both in his pocket.  Lee must choose between Wyatt (who has saved him) and Anisa on one side, or his brother.  There is a final shootout in Lordsburg, and it turns out predictably.  Taylor isn’t bad, but he looks tired, which is appropriate enough for this role.  In fact, Taylor was gravely ill during the shooting of this film.  The ending should have provided some form of resolution in the life of Ben Wyatt, and it doesn’t.  The action should have more of an impact than it does.  Everett isn’t great.  There are a couple of holes in the plot.  On the whole, this isn’t bad, though.  Not much seen these days.  Burt Kennedy is listed as one of the writers, with Robert Buckner.  He was also starting to direct westerns about this time (Mail Order Bride, Young Billy Young), with his masterpiece (Support Your Local Sheriff) coming in two years.

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Lee Sutton (Chad Everett), Anisa (Ana Martin) and Ben Wyatt (Robert Taylor); Ana Martin and Robert Taylor on the set of Return of the Gunfighter.

Taylor would be dead in two years, at the age of 57; this was his last western.  For another western in which Robert Taylor plays a character named Wyatt, see him as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women (1951).  Chad Everett was a young, up-and-coming actor and appeared in a couple of westerns about this time before turning more completely to television (Medical Center).  The other is The Last Challenge, with Glenn Ford (1967).

Notes:  The nefarious Clay Sutton has a couple of gunslingers working for him named Sundance (the snaky John Davis Chandler in a strange hat, also seen in a bit part as a bounty hunter in The Outlaw Josey Wales) and Butch Cassidy, both bad guys.  The two historical outlaws did spend some time on New Mexico ranches, but not like this.  This movie was released a couple of years before the George Roy Hill movie came out, making the outlaw pair into sympathetic good guys.  Ostensibly the action takes place in 1878, but Lordsburg wasn’t founded until 1880. 

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Devil’s Doorway

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2014

Devil’s Doorway—Robert Taylor, Paula Raymond, Louis Calhern, Edgar Buchanan, Spring Byington (1950; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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An early and socially-conscious western by Anthony Mann (it was his first western, in fact); and a range war western with an interesting Indians vs. whites twist.  Civilized Shoshone Indian Lance Poole (or Broken Lance, played by blue-eyed Robert Taylor in dark makeup with his hair growing longer as the movie progresses) fought at Antietam in the Civil War and won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, but he returns home to find that his people are in trouble.  His home town is Medicine Bow (the same Wyoming town that was the setting for The Virginian), and his family has long ranched at Sweet Meadows in the mountains.  The gap leading to their mountain valley is known as the Devil’s Doorway, and much of the action takes place around it. 

Long-time residents like Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan) know Lance and treat him well enough.  However, a venal and bigoted eastern lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), has lured sheep ranchers to the area with the promise of free land for the homesteading—Sweet Meadows.  Lance tries to follow the law, as directed by his young and attractive female attorney Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond, with Spring Byington playing her mother).  But Indians are not U.S. citizens (not until 1924, in fact), and can’t legally homestead themselves. 

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Lance (Robert Taylor) and Orrie (Paula Raymond) ponder the futility of it all.

Lance’s father dies, and a band from the reservation seeks refuge with Lance at Sweet Meadows.  Lance tries legal recourse, but Coolan forms a mob and attacks Sweet Meadows.  The Indians are successful in holding them off for a while (both sides use dynamite, which is probably anachronistic for the 1860s), and Lance kills Coolan.  But Masters calls in the cavalry from Fort Laramie to get the Indians back to the reservation.  By the time the Indians agree to go back to the reservation, there are only the women and children left alive.  Lance dies theatrically, wearing his soldier’s jacket and Medal of Honor. 

The film is not based on any historical incident involving Shoshones, but it’s not wrong about the implacability of racial attitudes at the time, either.  The reservation in question would have been the Wind River reservation, which wasn’t, and still isn’t, bad as reservations go.  In those days the Shoshones would have only felt the need to leave it to go buffalo hunting.  The great Washakie was the Eastern Shoshone chief in the 1860s, and he was an effective leader respected by both Indians and whites. 

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Beleagured Shoshones defend themselves against settlers, in a reversal of the usual situation..

Orrie and her mother, as sympathetic, even radical, as they are for their times, can’t bring Orrie to act on the attraction she feels for Lance.  One of Lance’s last comments to Orrie:  “Maybe in a hundred years we could have made it work.”  But he’s right; in the 1860s, the Indians couldn’t win in this fictional situation.  Even Custer’s demise was ten years in the future.  This plays well with modern social sensibilities 60 years after its release.  It’s a little heavy-handed, especially at the end, but watchable.  Taylor, Calhern and Raymond are all good.  It was released the same year as the more celebrated Broken Arrow.  Shot in black and white by cinematographer John Alton, with great mountain scenery in Grand Junction and Aspen, Colorado.  The aspens and mountain meadows look authentic.

Robert Taylor was in the middle of a pretty good run as he moved into making more westerns.  See him also in the excellent Ambush (1950) and Westward the Women (1951).  During the 1950s, he would also be good in The Last Hunt (1956), The Law and Jake Wade (1958) and Saddle the Wind (1958).

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Saddle the Wind

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2014

Saddle The Wind—Robert Taylor, John Cassavetes, Julie London, Donald Crisp (1958; Dir:  Robert Parrish; Screenplay:  Rod Serling)

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A psychological western, in which reformed gunfighter Steve Sinclair (played by an aging Robert Taylor) has to deal with his increasingly squirrelly and gun-happy much younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes).  The Sinclair ranch is one-third of a mountain valley, with the rest belonging to Dennis Duneen (Donald Crisp, in his old-bull-of-the-range mode, as in The Man from Laramie, but here with anti-violence principles). 

Tony shows up at the ranch with Joan Blake (Julie London), a dance hall girl, as his announced fiancée.  Tony shoots down Larry Venables (Charles McGraw, wearing a very 1950s name for a gunfighter), who has come seeking Steve, and things go downhill from there.  A group of range squatters with title to a strip of land announce their intention of fencing off their strip, leading to confrontation between those now using the range and the squatter leader Clay Ellison (Royal Dano), who seems none too mentally stable himself. 

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Eventually, Tony shoots Ellison and is banned from the valley by Duneen.  He confronts Duneen, and both are shot in the exchange.  Steve has to go after Tony now, and as they face off Tony shoots himself so Steve won’t have to.  The implication at the end is that Steve and Joan end up together.  The end is fairly abrupt.  The question from the start is not what will happen, but how will it happen. 

The Joan Blake role, played by Julie London, is underwritten and pretty much extraneous.  There is a good supporting cast, including Crisp, Dano and Ray Teal.  This is notable for a rare screenplay by Rod Serling, creator and writer of television’s The Twilight Zone; it’s his only western.  This is one of several westerns made by singer Julie London during a short period in the late 1950s, along with Drango, Man of the West and The Wonderful Country (also directed by Robert Parrish).  She seems a little glossy for westerns, usually playing a former or current saloon girl.  This is not quite as good as Taylor’s The Law and Jake Wade released the same year, but it’s still watchable.  Score by Elmer Bernstein.  Filmed in Colorado.  In color.

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The Outsider

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 27, 2014

The Outsider—Tim Daly, Naomi Watts, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Thomas Curtis, John Noble (Made for Television, 2002; Dir:  Randa Haines)

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This slow-moving relationship drama is set in Montana, a variation on a theme of Angel and the Badman from 1947.  Good acting power is in evidence, though; Tim Daly is convincing as gunman Johnny Gault, and Naomi Watts (before she really became a big star) is even better as young widow Rebecca Yoder of the Plain People, who takes in the badly wounded Gault and nurses him back to health. 

Based on a romance novel by Penelope Williamson, this is one of the few westerns directed by a woman, and it’s better than you’d expect.  (The reduced expectations are because of the nature of the source material, not because the director is a woman.)  As usual, there are three conflicts going on in this plot:  the clash/attraction between Gault and Yoder as man and woman, the clash between the worldly Gault and the Mennonite-like Plain People, and the clash between Gault and those who’d oppress both him and the Plain People with violence.  In only one of these conflicts might Gault’s talents with violence prove helpful, and even then numbers favor the bad guys (although a relatively low budget may have kept down the number of them who appear on film).  

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The gunman takes the young widow and her son to church.

Not only are the Plain People religiously separate, they raise sheep in cattle country.  Rebecca’s husband was killed by the real bad guys, who wanted (and still want) her land.  The real bad guys are the usual collection of local banker-cattle baron (John Noble) and his hired gunmen.  Keith Carradine is one of the Plain People, presumably romantically interested in Rebecca; his real brother David Carradine plays the sympathetic local doctor.  Thomas Curtis is good as Benjo Yoder, Rebecca’s young son.  An interesting touch is the music, based mostly on Norwegian folk songs, although the film sometimes seems self-consciously arty in its use of both music and images. It seems to take a long time getting to dealing with the conflicts.

There are the usual scenes of the wary gunman trying with very limited success to mesh with the religious community for the sake of the young widow.  There is the sizing up by others in her community who are trying to assess both Gault and the nature of the relationship that’s apparently in formation.  There is the developing relationship between the gunman and the traumatized young son of the beautiful widow.  And there is the resistance by both the gunman and the widow to the attraction they’re feeling to each other, along with questions about how much each will have to accommodate the other’s beliefs and ways of life if they do go ahead.

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This version of the story isn’t as sympathetic to religion and the strength of community as Angel and the Badman, and it ends with Rebecca leaving the Plain People when she marries Gault, although Gault appears to make some accommodations, too.  Of course, the religious community here projects a little more paranoia and pressure toward conformity, and fewer warm fuzzies than the Quakers in the John Wayne movie.  Although music isn’t allowed outside of church, Rebecca hears “the music of the earth,” signaling that maybe the Plain People aren’t her real destination anyway. 

The story of a gunman entering a religious community with very different values is one of the oldest western stories, a variation on the Mysterious Stranger theme.  It was the basis of Zane Grey’s 1912 best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, where the violence wins because of the inherent dishonesty of the religious community.  (Check here for one of the more recent film versions of Purple Sage.)  This is much more like the 1947 John Wayne movie, where the validity of the religious community seems to be recognized, except that (a) the violence from the gunman is still necessary to resolve matters, and (b) the widow ultimately leaves the religious community instead of the gunman joining it.  Presumably there is still some kind of uneasy affiliation remaining there, rather than a shunning from the community, though.  At least the bad guys have been dealt with.  A non-western version of the story is 1985’s Witness, with Harrison Ford as a hard-boiled cop among the Amish in Pennsylvania.

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Leaving their respective religions: Rebecca Yoder (Naomi Watts) leaves the Plain People, and Johnny Gault (Timothy Daly) renounces his guns.

There are echoes of other westerns in this.  The gunman coming to know and appreciate both the widow and her son is much like the main story arc of Hondo.  And the cattle baron and his men trampling a gathering of the Plain People (while Gault rescues the young son of the widow) reminds us of a similar scene with the homesteaders in Shane.  The culminating shoot-out with the bad guys (and they are undeniably bad) is satisfying, except that Rebecca Yoder is accidentally shot and appears to be dying.  Gault symbolically places his pistol in the blacksmith forge, in a scene that reminds us of other gunmen’s similar renunciations:  Gary Cooper tossing his badge in the dirt in High Noon; Glenn Ford burying his guns at the end of The Fastest Gun Alive and The Last Challenge; and Randolph Scott giving up his guns at the end of A Lawless Street, for example.  And, most of all, John Wayne giving up his guns at an inopportune moment at the end of Angel and the Badman.

Timothy Daly is good enough in this that one regrets he had no other chances to make westerns.  In addition to a revolver, Gault also uses something that looks like a cut-down rifle, like the mare’s leg used by television’s ethical bounty hunter Josh Randall (played by Steve McQueen) in Wanted:  Dead or Alive in the late 1950s.  If the vegetation doesn’t entirely look like Montana, that’s because this was filmed in northeastern Australia.  They’re careful to keep eucalyptus trees out of it, though, and it’s not distracting.

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San Antonio

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 17, 2014

San Antonio–Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, S.J. Sakall, John Litel, Paul Kelly, Victor Francen (1945; Dir:  David Butler)

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This is the first of two westerns teaming Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith and S.J. Sakall (the Hungarian character actor best known as Karl the waiter at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca).  As with other Flynn westerns, this was written by Alan LeMay (author of the novels on which The Searchers and The Unforgiven were based) and W. R. Burnett (Yellow Sky, This Gun for Hire, High Sierra and the novels of Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle).

Clay Hardin (played by Flynn; his name could just as easily have been John Wesley Allison) is a San Antonio-based cowboy in post-Civil War Texas.  At the start of the movie, he’s in hiding (more or less) on the Mexico border, where he’s been looking for evidence of Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly) running a large-scale rustling operation.  There he meets Jeanne Starr (Smith), a very attractive musical performer heading for San Antonio.  He uses her for cover to sneak back to San Antonio himself, with the help of his long-time friend Charlie Bell (John Litel). 

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On the stage back to San Antonio.

In San Antonio, Hardin makes clear to Bell and his friends that he has a tally book which shows Stuart’s rustling, and he further develops his relationship with Starr.  Bell is killed and the tally book stolen by Stuart’s partner Miguel Legare (played by sinister Belgian Victor Francen).  As Hardin finds out who killed Bell and as Stuart tries to kill Hardin, there is an improbably large shootout in the Bella Union saloon (bodies falling scenically from balconies and one bad guy is even run over by a piano). 

Hardin’s near-final confrontation with Stuart takes place in the supposed ruins of the Alamo.  And Hardin and Starr get together as expected, although it’s not clear that Stuart is either dead or in jail.

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Worth watching, perhaps, but not as good as Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) or some of the other seven Flynn westerns.  This, Rocky Mountain and Montana are the least seen of them.  Clips are sometimes shown of Flynn walking with a curiously stiff-armed gait toward a shootout; in close-ups he’s starting to show the physical effects of his dissipated lifestyle, and he’s coming to the end of the period of his best work.  Smith is tall and elegant, with excellent 1940s shoulder pads.  Sakall as Starr’s manager and musical director Bozic is less effective here than in other roles.  Flynn, Smith and Sakall would be teamed again five years later in Flynn’s last western, Montana (1950).

The song “Some Sunday Morning,” written for this film, is sung by Alexis Smith and was nominated for an Oscar.  It went on to be a hit for various singers in the 1940s.  On its original release, this was Flynn’s highest-grossing movie.  Music was by Max Steiner, who reuses his theme from Dodge City over the credits here.  In color, with excellent cinematography by Bert Glennon.

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The Sheepman

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 31, 2014

The Sheepman—Glenn Ford, Leslie Nielsen, Shirley MacLaine, Pernell Roberts, Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens, Mickey Shaughnessy, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (1958; Dir:  George Marshall)

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A congenial range war western, as the cattlemen in town try to cope with and drive out Jason Sweet (Glenn Ford), a newcomer-sheepman who’s good with a gun and has a sense of humor and his own way of going about things.  Not exactly a full-on satire like, say, Support Your Local Sheriff, it nevertheless has a well-developed sense of humor and a lot of satiric elements, especially in the first half. 

Col. Stephen Bedford (Leslie Nielsen), now a respectable local cattle baron, is also the morally slippery Johnny Bledsoe from Sweet’s Texas past.  Sweet has won all these sheep in a card game in Denver and wants to graze them on common range. He begins by winning a fight he picks with the toughest man in town, the none-too-smart Jumbo McCall (Mickey Shaughnessy).

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The conflicts here include not only the obvious cattle vs. sheep, but there are also the conflicted loyalties of Shirley MacLaine’s Dell Payton, who’s attracted to Sweet but all of whose other interests are on the side of the cattlemen.  She’s also engaged to Bedford.  She does participate in a plan to distract Sweet at a dance while his sheep are removed, which Sweet takes as a betrayal.  Sweet will obviously have to confront Bedford’s gunman Choctaw Neal and probably Bedford himself.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen.

In addition to pitting two Canadian-born actors (Ford and Nielsen) against each other, Pernell Roberts is gunslinger Choctaw Neal, in his pre-Bonanza days (and a year before playing another more nuanced role as a quasi-heavy in Ride Lonesome).  The young Shirley MacLaine is excellent as the cattleman’s daughter/romantic interest in one of her two westerns (with Two Mules for Sister Sara).  Character actors Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens and Mickey Shaughnessy are also good in this one.  Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez is good as Sweet’s head sheepherder, a year before playing a Mexican hotelier in Rio Bravo. 

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Altogether, a pretty good and quite watchable western, nicely paced.  It came out the same year as Cowboy, another seldom-seen but good Glenn Ford western.  It has good dialogue; William Bowers and James Edward Grant (a favorite writer of John Wayne’s) got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.  It should be seen in several ways as a precursor of Support Your Local Sheriff.  It uses the phrase “town character” ten years before Support Your Local Sheriff (which was also written by William Bowers).  It’s one of several good George Marshall-Glenn Ford movies (comedies, some military like Advance to the Rear, Imitation General, It Started with a Kiss; The Gazebo), several of which were written by William Bowers, too.  George Marshall, director of the original Destry Rides Again and the less memorable 1954 remake with Audie Murphy, had a good touch with humor.  In color. 

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Blood on the Moon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 18, 2014

Blood on the Moon—Robert Mitchum, Robert Preston, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter Brennan, Phyllis Thaxter (1948; Dir:  Robert Wise)

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A watchable range war saga based on a 1941 novel by Luke Short.  Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) is drifting from Texas, when he’s invited by old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston, in his sleazy friend mode) to join him in a get-rich-quick scheme with corrupt Indian agent Jake Pindalest (Frank Fayden). 

John Lufton (Tom Tully) is the local cattle baron, who has long provided beef for the reservation while grazing his herds on the Ute reservation land.  Pindalest, on Riling’s urging, has given Lufton notice that he’ll no longer be buying Lufton’s beef, and Lufton has to find new grazing land.  He’s trying to move his cattle back to the basin where he used to graze, but now there are homesteaders there to resist, led by Riling.  Kris Barden (Walter Brennan), who used to work for Lufton, is prominent among them. 

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Lufton has two daughters, one of whom, Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), is romantically interested in Riling and the other, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes), takes a few shots at Garry.  After being fully informed of the set-up and participating in stampeding Lufton’s herd, Garry decides the scheme isn’t for him and saves Lufton from two of Riling’s gunmen.  He’s hurt in a fight with Riling but gets Pindalest to tell the army to back off on the deadline for removing Lufton’s herd. 

Riling, PIndalest and a couple of gunmen come after Garry, who’s wounded and holed up at Barden’s place.  Amy Lufton shows up to give medical care and help fight off the bad guys.  (You can tell Riling’s sleazy because of the loud plaid jacket he wears.)  In the end Garry kills one of the gunmen, shoots it out with Riling and gets Amy. 

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A good cast, with a complicated story for the 90-minute length of the movie.  Note Garry’s authentic-looking hat, different than 1950s-style hats in westerns.  Some shots look like Monument Valley, but mostly it was filmed on the RKO lot in Encino, with some outside of Sedona, Arizona.  Like Yellow Sky, released the same year, it has some noir-ish elements, especially in the use of light and shadow and low camera angles.  An RKO release in black and white, directed by Robert Wise (best known for The Sound of Music).  Long unavailable on DVD, it was released on blu-ray in 2020–a very nice, clear transfer from Warner Bros. Archive.

According to Lee Server’s 2001 biography of Mitchum (Robert Mitchum:  “Baby, I Don’t Care”), director Wise claimed “the first scene we shot after Mitch got outfitted was in the barroom.  Walter Brennan was sitting at a table with a couple of pals, and Brennan was very interested in the Old West, it was a hobby of his.  And I’ll never forget when Bob came on the set, just standing there, wth the costume and the whole attitude that he gave to it, and Brennan got a look at him and was terribly impressed.  He pointed at Mitchum and said, ‘That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!’”

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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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Day of the Outlaw

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 10, 2013

The Day of the Outlaw—Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louis, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Alan Marshall, Nehemiah Persoff, Elisha Cook, Jr. (1959; Dir:  Andre de Toth)

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Apparently a low-budget, late black and white western filmed in 1959.  The cast features good actors (Robert Ryan, Burl Ives) who were not big stars.  A decade before The Wild Bunch, Ryan was already aging and craggy-faced. 

It is winter in the remote town of Bitters, Wyoming, where a range war is about to break out between recently-arrived farmers who want to fence the range and long-term stockmen who built the town.  Representing the stockmen is Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), who’s been conducting a year-long affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife of Hal Crane (Alan Marshall), a leader of the farmers.  Starrett makes the same arguments as Ryker, the long-time rancher in Shane, about having cleared the country of Indians, outlaws and gunfighters, only to have clueless easterners and farmers move in thinking to take advantage of his years of danger and work without making any contribution themselves.  This speech is one of the movie’s longest.  After watching Shane, we can see that Starrett seems to be on the losing side of history, and morally he’s in the wrong because of his affair with Helen Crane, who has decided (mostly) to stay with her husband.  The connection with Helen seems to fuel the animosity between Starrett and Crane, but there’d be enough reason for it even without that.

DayOutlawBaddies Bad guys show up.

After the movie’s extended set-up, Starrett is facing off with three farmers including Crane, when in comes an armed gang of outlaws and thugs led by former Union cavalry captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives).  They take over the small town and threaten everybody in it, especially the women.  Bruhn’s been wounded by the cavalry pursuing the gang and needs medical attention.  The outlaws are clearly a depraved bunch, barely held in check by their strong-willed captain (much like the Lee J. Cobb character in Man of the West, made about the same time).  The exception to this depravity may be young Gene (David Nelson), the gang’s newest recruit, who is not yet thoroughly corrupted and who is attracted to the youngest and blondest of the town’s four women (Venetia Stevenson).  There’s a tense scene where the women are forced to “dance” with the outlaws, with the threat of rape hanging over them.

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Trying–unsuccessfully–to help the women escape.

The gang is still pursued by cavalry and eventually forces Starrett to guide them out of Bitters through the mountains and snow.  He reluctantly does it to protect the women of people he doesn’t like, and that’s his redemption as a moral character, because he thinks he’ll probably die on the trip along with the outlaws.  In the process Bruhn dies of his wounds and the rest of the gang die one by one by various means on the grueling trek, even though Starrett doesn’t have a gun to shoot it out with them.  The only survivors are Starrett himself and Gene, whom Starrett gives a job on his ranch.  His role in keeping Gene from turning bad is also redeeming.

Echoes of Shane come from the name Starrett (also the name of the farming family that takes in Shane), the conflict between stockmen and farmers, townsman Elisha Cook, Jr. (a farmer in Shane), and a not entirely believable fight scene in which the aging, seemingly none-too-robust Starrett defeats the brutish Tex (Jack Lambert) from Bruhn’s gang.  Since Bruhn can’t allow that result to stand, two of his other men finish off Starrett, with this brutality seen only at a distance. 

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The leads Ryan and Ives are excellent and generally believable here; Starrett isn’t entirely good and Bruhn isn’t completely bad despite the scum he leads and his status as a military renegade.  There is a vague reference by Starrett to something Bruhn did during the Civil War, involving the Mormons in Utah.  For an unspoken and tenuous rapport between the bad guy and the good guy, compare this to Boetticher classics The Tall T and Seven Men from Now.  To the extent the cattlemen-farmer dispute is resolved, it seems to come out on the opposite side of Shane—i.e., Starrett mostly wins, but in this one he’s a cattleman.  He still doesn’t chase off the farmers, though.

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A stark and adult western with some noir flavor, among the best and last work by one-eyed journeyman director Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Man in the Saddle, The Indian Fighter).  Usually he worked with bigger stars (Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas) and was not terribly imaginative.  The film has a good script by Philip Yordan.  In structure, the first 30 minutes is the set-up of the town, characters and local dispute; the second 30 minutes is the introduction of the gang and the contest of wills with Starrett and Bruhn; and the final 30 minutes is the grueling and fatal trip over the mountains.  This excellent western rises above the usual formulas, even though some of them seem in play here.  One of two westerns featuring the Nelson brothers in 1959; the other is Rio Bravo, with David’s brother Ricky in a prominent role.  For Burl Ives in a similar role, see him facing off against Charles Bickford in the epic The Big Country, probably his best-known western.

The excellent black-and-white cinematography is by Russell Harlan, who did Four Faces West, Red River, Ramrod, The Last Hunt (another wintry western), Rio Bravo and To Kill a MockingbirdFilmed in Mount Bachelor, Oregon.

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