Tag Archives: Robert Mitchum

The Wonderful Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 31, 2015

The Wonderful Country—Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Pedro Armendariz, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Victor Mendoza, Satchel Paige (1959; Dir: Robert Parrish)

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In the 1950s, Julie London was known primarily as a sultry singer, but she also made three westerns:  Saddle the Wind (1958), with Robert Taylor; Man of the West (1958), with Gary Cooper; and this one with Robert Mitchum.  The story involves another of Robert Mitchum’s adventures in Mexico (e.g. Bandido and The Wrath of God), or rather back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., as he tries to sort out his loyalties.

Mitchum plays Martin Brady, an American who has long been working in Mexico as a pistolero for the Castro family—specifically for Cipriano Castro.  As the movie opens, he is delivering silver pesos to a German merchant named Sterner across the Rio Grande.  In a dusty border town on the U.S. side, his horse (a big black Andalusian stallion named Lágrimas—Spanish for “tears”) is spooked and throws him, breaking his leg.  As he is laid up for two months, he makes a number of acquaintances, most of whom have their own agendas for him.  And he begins to feel that he’d like to stay on the U.S. side.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) gets his broken leg set.

Brady initially fled Texas when his father was killed, and he in turn shot the killer.  But the local Texas Ranger authority (Albert Dekker), who would like to recruit him as a ranger, tells him that it was long ago now, and that most who know about it think he did a good thing.  The military commander at Fort Jefflin, Major Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), wants to form a joint venture with the Castros to hunt the Apaches who strike back and forth across the border.  Mrs. Helen Colton obviously hasn’t much attraction to her own husband, and Brady hears scuttlebutt about her affairs in Missouri.  As he thinks about staying, he attends a social gathering at the fort.  While he’s avoiding becoming involved with Mrs. Colton, a hardcase (played by Chuck Roberson, John Wayne’s favorite stand-in) picks a fight with a German friend of Brady’s and Brady is forced to kill him.

He then flees south of the border, where he finds that he is in trouble because the guns never made it back to the Castros while Brady was laid up.  Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendariz) is now the governor in the capital city, but the Castro brothers no longer trust each other.  As Major Colton visits the capital and forms an alliance with Cipriano, Brady dallies with Mrs. Colton but is interrupted when Cipriano orders him to kill the other Castro brother—the general Marcos (Victor Mendoza).  Brady refuses and flees the city, but now neither Cipriano nor Marcos trusts him.  He flees north, with his pursuit being led astray by a friend.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and the major’s wife (Julie London) try to come to terms with their mutual attraction.

The American force is now 100 miles deep in Mexico, but Marcos succeeds in assassinating his brother and repudiates the alliance.  Major Colton is mortally wounded in an encounter with Apaches, but Brady manages to retrieve the stolen wagon of rifles.  Colton dies, and Mrs. Colton tells Brady that if he wants her he’ll have to find her in the U.S.  Nearing the Rio Grande, Lágrimas is shot by a pursuer sent by Marcos Castro.  Brady kills the pursuer, but is forced to shoot Lágrimas as well, symbolic of killing his past life.  He leaves his sombrero and gun by the horse’s body and heads across the Rio Grande.

Some have referred to this as an “existential western,” as Brady tries to figure out where he belongs, if anywhere.  Based on a novel by Tom Lea (who has a cameo as a barber), the story is slow developing in its first half but picks up speed as Brady returns to Mexico.  At only 98 minutes, some of the characters and their competing agendas seem underdeveloped.  Mrs. Colton herself doesn’t really come alive as a character, as she might have with a little more development.  Without having read the novel, I’m guessing it probably works a little better than the movie in some respects.  Robert Mitchum, in his world-weary mode, is the primary reason to watch this movie, although it’s fun to see baseball pitcher Satchel Paige in his only movie role as a buffalo soldier sergeant.  Mitchum was also the executive producer.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and a sergeant (Satchel Paige) find the stolen rifles.

Shot in color on location in Durango and Guanajuato, Mexico, the movie looks good, especially in a high definition print.  Director Parrish also did Saddle the Wind, but his career was nothing remarkable.  The “wonderful country” of the title is presumably Mexico—wonderful, perhaps, but dangerous.

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Bandido

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 29, 2015

Bandido—Robert Mitchum, Gilbert Roland, Ursula Thiess, Zachary Scott, Henry Brandon, Roldolfo Acosta (1956; Dir: Richard Fleischer)

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Robert Mitchum had kind of a sub-specialty in westerns about adventurers south of the the border (The Wonderful Country, The Wrath of God, Villa Rides!), of which this is the earliest.  It is set in the revolution of 1916, when Black Jack Pershing and the American army were unsuccessfully pursuing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico in preparation for World War I.  Villa was not the only warlord in northern Mexico fighting the regular army at the time, as we all know from The Wild Bunch.

As this movie opens, an American arms dealer named Kennedy (Zachary Scott) is selling guns to the regulares, as they are known, using his wife Lisa (Ursula Theiss) to charm Mexican officials and high-ranking officers.  As Kennedy puts together a deal with them, some of their marital discord is witnessed by American opportunist Wilson (Robert Mitchum), who wants to highjack Kennedy’s arms and re-direct them to one of the under-supplied warlords, Col. José Escobar (Gilbert Roland).  Heading south from the border to where a battle between Escobar’s partisans and the regulares is taking place, Wilson intervenes with a few well-placed grenades, and Escobar wins.

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Opportunist Wilson (Robert Mitchum) adds a few granades to the battle below.

With Wilson’s help, Escobar captures the train carrying Kennedy and his wife.  Kennedy sets up a trap for Escobar in a fishing village with his intermediary Gunther (Henry Brandon).  Instead of Kennedy leading them there, Wilson takes Kennedy’s wife and develops a relationship there.  When the trap is discovered, Wilson escapes and Lisa is captured.  Wilson now persuades Kennedy to tell him where the arms really are, on two barges in another village.

Wilson and Kennedy escape Escobar’s men, but Kennedy takes a bullet in the back.  A sympathetic priest removes the bullet, and Lisa shows up, with the army not far behind.  As Kennedy takes aim at Wilson with Lisa’s purse pistol, he is shot by Escobar, and Escobar and Wilson go to see whether Kennedy was finally telling the truth.  They find the two barges, one with gasoline and dynamite (we can guess what will happen with that one), and the other with arms and ammunition.  But the army and Gunther are not far behind them, and there is a standoff.  As Escobar’s men arrive, they are about to be trapped, until Wilson and Escobar blow up the first barge to destroy the army’s position.  In the end, Escobar gets the arms and ammunition to continue his fight, and Wilson heads back to the U.S. border to look for Lisa.

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Escobar’s partisans and Wilson pursue the train carrying the Kennedys.

Silent screen star Gilbert Roland (Three Violent People, Cheyenne Autumn) makes a smoother and more elegant Mexican revolutionary than we usually see.  He is probably the best thing about the movie.   His relationship with Wilson evolves into a kind of Humphrey Bogart-Claude Rains friendship, as in Casablanca.  Robert Mitchum’s voice is excellent, and his performance in this convoluted plot is fine.  Zachary Scott is good as the ill-fated gun dealer.   German-born Ursula Thiess was beautiful, but this was her last movie after marrying Robert Taylor and largely retiring from the movies.  There is little on-screen chemistry between her and Mitchum.  German-born Henry Brandon was no stranger to westerns, having played both Germans in Mexico (Vera Cruz and here) and Indian chiefs (The Searchers, Two Rode Together, War Arrow).

Director Richard Fleischer did not make many westerns, although he made the revisionist The Spikes Gang.  However, he was a mainline director, known for Dr. Dolittle, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green and a couple of Conan movies, among many others.  The film was shot on location at several of the battle sites of the 1916 revolution, using as extras both old-timers who had fought for Villa and former army soldiers who had fought against them.  It marked Robert Mitchum’s first producing effort.  Music is by Max Steiner.  In color, and at 92 minutes it is reasonably enjoyable but not particularly memorable.  Most of it is spent in trying to figure out where Wilson’s loyalties lie, other than to himself.  Turns out he goes for Escobar’s cause and love, not making any money for himself.

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Wilson (Robert Mitchum) and Escobar (Gilbert Roland) hold off the regulares.

The title seems like maybe it once had an exclamation point after it (not usually a good sign, and some posters show the exclamation point), and it is not clear who the bandido of the title is.  There are lots of bandidos in this movie.  It does not appear to be available on DVD.  Not to be confused with Bandidas (2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

For other westerns set in Mexico during this revolutionary period, see Wings of the Hawk, They Came to Cordura, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, The Old Gringo, or any of the westerns featuring Pancho Villa as a character (e.g., Villa Rides! with Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Robert Mitchum).

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Pursued

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Way West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 30, 2015

The Way West—Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Lola Albright, Sally Field, Jack Elam, Michael Witney, Katherine Justice (1967; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)

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Kirk Douglas was a big star in the 1950s and 1960s, and he tended to indulge in flamboyant dress or other characteristics to emphasize his character in westerns.  (See his clothes in The War Wagon, for example, or the way his gunfighter character in The Last Sunset uses only a derringer.)  He’s the most prominent of the three big stars in this movie, and here the gimmick is the color red.  When we first see his character, he’s wearing a bright red cloak.  He drives a carriage with red wheels and undercarriage, and his Conestoga wagon is painted red.

This story is based on a novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, who also wrote The Big Sky and These Thousand Hills, both of which were turned into western movies.  This one tells the fictional story of the first wagon train of settlers going west from Missouri along the Oregon Trail to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1843.

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Senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) in his red cloak.

The moving force behind the expedition is former senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) of Illinois.  He recruits Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), a mountain man character from The Big Sky, to serve as the scout and guide for the company.  The group includes the Evans family, headed by Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), who is afflicted with the need to constantly move toward the frontier, his longsuffering wife (Lola Albright), to whom the widowed Tadlock is attracted, and their teenaged son Brownie.  There are the McBees, a family from Georgia (headed by Harry Carey, Jr.), taking their nubile daughter Mercy (Sally Field), several young peach trees and a bevy of unconvincing accents to the new land.  Newlyweds Johnnie (Michael Witney) and Amanda Mack (Katherine Justice) are stymied because the attractive Amanda is emotionally unbalanced and unable to face the idea of sex.  There is a stowaway preacher (Jack Elam, previously always a bad guy but about to move into more general character roles), unpersuasive and unattractive in his person and his religion, the first of many such in westerns.  Lije Evans becomes a leader and spokesman for those who don’t like Tadlock’s high-handed, autocratic ways.

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The big three look ahead: Sen. William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas), scout Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) and Lije Evans (Richard Widmark).

They have the usual hardship episodes as they move west, with river crossings and Indian troubles.  Mercy McBee and Johnnie Mack fall together for a night, and as they finish Johnnie hears a sound and shoots at it, only to find that he has killed an Indian boy dressed in a wolf skin.  Although the wagons get away, the Sioux pursue, insisting on retribution for the killer.  Tadlock says the killer will receive white man’s justice—hanging—if they can identify him.  Eventually the discouraged Johnnie Mack gives himself up, and his fate further unhinges Amanda, not to mention leaving Mercy McBee pregnant.  As they cross some desert, the Tadlock carriage, driven by his young son Billy, overturns and kills the boy.  At Fort Hall, now in Idaho, they are welcomed to stay or to switch to a California destination until word gets around (falsely) that a sick member of their party has smallpox.  The local Hudson’s Bay factor can’t get rid of them fast enough then.

After a rebellion against Tadlock, the train arrives at a cliff about 30 miles from their destination.  When an attempt to lower a wagon and its driver goes badly wrong, the party accepts Tadlock’s iron-fisted direction again.  He’s the last to be lowered, but somebody cuts the rope and he falls to his death.  It’s the unhinged Amanda Mack, who holds him responsible for her husband’s death.  Brownie Evans marries Mercy McBee and takes responsibility for her child.  And Dick Summers, now losing his eyesight, heads back for Independence.

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Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) bringing up the rear.

This is a glossy and brightly-colored production, episodic in nature.  Except for Fort Hall, there’s no attempt to relate the episodes to actual points on the map.  The actors are fine, but their motivations seem arbitrary and sometimes inconsistent, as if it’s enough just to state them and not to show them developing.  Andrew McLaglen had been a successful television director (especially with Have Gun Will Travel) and had made it into movie directing with Gun the Man Down (1956) and McClintock! in 1963.  His father, Oscar-winning Irish actor Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, etc.), had been one of John Ford’s favorite actors, and Andrew had connections with John Wayne and his production company through that association.  But something of his direction stayed rooted in television, although he continued to direct the occasional western movie for decades.  Douglas, Mitchum and Widmark all produced better performances elsewhere.

Visually, you can see some of the difference by comparing the lowering of wagons down the cliff to a similar sequence in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail from more than 35 years earlier.  Although the Walsh film is in black and white, the visual effect is much more striking and memorable in the earlier film than in McLaglen’s large-scale color production.  The intention was obviously to produce an epic here, too, but it didn’t work out as well.  Reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote in the N.Y. Times:  “It is hard to believe that anybody could have made such a hackneyed hash of that fine A. B. Guthrie Jr. novel, The Way West, as [producer] Harold Hecht and Andrew V. McLaglen have in the Western movie of the [same] title…”  It’s watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Shot at various locations in Oregon (Bend, Eugene, Mt. Bachelor, Crooked River Gorge, and the actual Willamette Valley), at 122 minutes.

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The Wrath of God

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 21, 2014

The Wrath of God—Robert Mitchum, Victor Buono, Frank Langella, Rita Hayworth, Ken Hutchison, Gregory Sierra (1972; Dir: Ralph Nelson)

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Directed by Ralph Nelson, like Duel at Diablo and Soldier Blue; some think this is a parody, but it probably isn’t.  In 1922 in an unnamed central American country (it might even be in Mexico), Tomas de la Plata (a young Frank Langella) and his personal army of gunmen (led by Gregory Sierra) have taken over a town and the surrounding area for the last couple of years.  De la Plata has a strong anti-clerical streak, and a record of killing priests.  The authorities coerce Jennings, a British gunrunner (Victor Buono), Emmet Keogh, an IRA gunman (Ken Hutchison), and Van Horne, a bank-robbing, corrupt priest (Robert Mitchum) into an assassination attempt on de la Plata.

There follows kind of a muddled plot as the three, especially Van Horne, help the townspeople and form a relationship with each other, while the IRA man becomes attached romantically to an unlikely mute Indian princess (Paula Pritchett).  Van Horne takes up priestly activities, but it’s unclear how real or strong his conversion is.  Jennings and maybe Van Horne are killed in the assassination attempt, as are De la Plata and most of his men.  This was 52-year-old Rita Hayworth’s last movie (she plays De la Plata’s mother), and she had trouble remembering her lines because she was already beginning to show evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.  Langella and Mitchum took to abducting her to get her to the set on time.  Written by Jack Higgins, filmed around Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the old silver-mining ghost town of La Luz.  In color, at 111 minutes.  Art on the posters is by Frank McCarthy.

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De la Plata (Frank Langella) has his suspicions about Father Van Horne (Robert Mitchum), as well as a hatred of all priests.

Father Oliver Van Horne: “We three faced the firing squad together. Everything else is just borrowed time.”
Jennings: “God protects fools and drunks, not idiots.”

There’s a certain amount of 1970s-style iconoclasm about the film, with more humor and action than was usual.  The plot leaves a number of unanswered questions, but film critic Roger Ebert found that they didn’t hurt the finished cinematic product.  Mitchum played questionable or corrupt priests with guns in several movies; see The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud in addition to this.  It’s not entirely clear here whether he is a priest good with guns and booze, or a bank-robber good at playing a priest.  Mitchum was good in westerns generally, but this isn’t one of his best.  Rita Hayworth only made a couple of westerns, but she was better (and almost fifteen years younger) in They Came to Cordura.  Despite being hailed by Ebert as the “American Sophia Loren,” this was Pritchett’s last movie and only one of any note.  It was for Ken Hutchison as well.

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Five Card Stud

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 22, 2014

Five Card Stud (aka 5 Card Stud)—Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Yaphet Kotto, Inger Stevens, Katherine Justice, John Anderson, Denver Pyle, Ted de Corsia (1968; Dir: Henry Hathaway)

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With a great production team, good cast (except for one), and decent budget, this should have been better.  The weakness is probably in the story and other aspects of the writing.  Directed by Henry Hathaway shortly before True Grit (one of his last movies), produced by Hal Wallis, with music by Maurice Jarré.

March 1, 1880:  Gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is in a seven-man game of five card stud in Mama’s Place in Rincon, Colorado.  He takes a break and returns to the game minutes later, only to find that during his brief absence a stranger in the game was caught cheating and taken out to be lynched.  This is all driven by the local cattle baron’s son Nick Evers (a miscast Roddy McDowell).  When Morgan rides up to stop the hasty hanging, Nick pistol-whips him and he’s left in the street at Rincon.  Morgan leaves for Denver after paying a visit to the Evers ranch, where he says goodbye to Nick’s sister Nora (who’s clearly got a thing for him although he holds back) and punches Nick.

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The fatal game of the title.

The Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum in another of his skeevy preacher roles) shows up in town to rejuvenate the church.  He’s clearly good with a gun, too.  Those in the fatal card game start to die one by one, with various forms of smothering and strangulation.  The movie at this point becomes a whodunit–or a who’s doing it, and why.  Morgan returns to Rincon and meets Lily Langston (Inger Stevens), the new local madam at a tonsorial parlor.  The town’s nerves are on edge, and some miners start a shootout.  As matters work out, Jonathan Rudd is the brother of the card cheater, and Nick has been feeding him the names of the card players one by one.  There’s some tension as to how things will work out until Rudd goes too far by believing Nick and killing bartender George (Yaphet Kotto), who was not a participant in the game.  At least Rudd then kills Nick and has a final showdown with Morgan.  Morgan leaves town for good, but he seems to have chosen Lily over Nora.

A miscast Roddy McDowell doesn’t have enough of an edge for the role of Nick, and his accent doesn’t work.  Though this is a late western for Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, Bandolero!, Showdown) and Inger Stevens (Firecreek, Hang ‘Em High), they are sometimes shot so their ages show.  That shouldn’t be the case, particularly with Stevens.  There is a good supporting cast:  Kotto, John Anderson (the local marshal), Denver Pyle (Sig Evers, father of Nick and Nora), Ruth Springford (Mama Malone, saloon proprietor).  The script has a flavor of late 1960s anti-establishment feeling about it, and a lot of people get killed.  There are several occasions when people seem conveniently not to hear gunshots.

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Gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin), Madam Lily (Inger Stevens) and Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum).

Van Morgan:  “You’ve preached a lot of funerals around here lately.  You got something new for this one?”

The Rev. Jonathan Rudd:  “The funeral is for the living, Mr. Morgan.  I’ll say what his folks want to hear:  that Nick Evers was a good son, a good brother, a loyal friend and a respected citizen.”

Morgan:  “You think you won’t gag on all that?”

Robert Mitchum narrowly escaped being crushed by a falling camera during shooting on this film.  The theme song (written by Jarré) is sung by Martin.  Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts also did True Grit.  This is a possible remake of 1950’s noir-ish Dark City (Charlton Heston’s screen debut).  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico.  103 minutes long.

 

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River of No Return

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 13, 2014

River of No Return—Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun, Tommy Rettig (1954; Dir:  Otto Preminger, Jean Negulesco)

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Reportedly, neither Marilyn Monroe nor director Otto Preminger wanted to make this movie; they were forced to do so because of contractual obligations.  Both were said to have reservations about the script, and they didn’t get along with each other much, either.

In 1875 Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) has sent for his ten-year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig) to live with him on a remote homestead on Idaho’s River of No Return after the boy’s mother dies.  While waiting in a mining camp for his father, Mark makes the acquaintance of dance hall girl Kay (Marilyn Monroe).  Once back on their farm, gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) and his “wife” Kay are on a raft headed downriver to file a gold claim in Council City but are marooned at the Calder place.  When Matt declines to lend Weston his rifle and horse, Weston knocks Calder out and takes them, leaving Kay behind.

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Calder worries about hostile Indians (of unspecified tribe, but one supposes that in 1875 they’d be Nez Perces or Northern Paiutes, maybe Bannocks) without the rifle, and they show up.  In desperation, Calder, Mark and Kay are forced to take the raft downriver, although there is little hope they can get through the rapids in the 15 miles to Council City.  The Indians burn the Calder cabin as the trio heads downstream.  Starvation becomes a problem, as they exist on berries and what few fish they can spear.  Finally, they catch an elk in the river, but the roasting meat attracts a mountain lion.  Calder attacks Kay, and the the lion attacks Calder.  He is saved when the lion is killed by a couple of hunters, one of whom turns out to be Colby, the person from whom the gambler Weston won his gold claim.  He’s determined to get it back and coarsely comes on to Kay.  Calder is up and down in his relationship with Kay; mostly he’s suspicious of her because of her association with Weston.

They spar verbally, with Kay saying she knows that Calder’s wife died while he was in jail for shooting somebody in the back.  For his part, Calder treats Kay like a dance hall girl.  It turns out Weston and Kay haven’t yet been married.  Calder drives off Colby and keeps his rifle and ammunition belt.  The next day as they head downriver again, the Indians find them just before they get to the rapids.  Calder drops several of them but runs out of ammunition.  Two of their Indian attackers make it to the raft, and Calder has to fight them off just as they reach the rapids. 

They shoot the canyon, although Calder falls off and only stays with them by hanging on to the steering rudder.  Just before they get to Council City, Kay makes Calder promise to let her talk with Weston first to avoid violence.  Reluctantly Calder agrees, and he and Mark go off to the general store.  Kay explains things to Weston, but he responds by taking out his gun and shooting Calder as he walks out of the store.  With Calder down, Weston heads for him, obviously planning to finish him off.  Just as he aims his gun to do so, Mark in the store at the rifle rack shoots him in the back. 

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Kay (Marilyn Monroe) returns to her former career.

Kay takes her red shoes (symbols of her former life and unsavory career) to the local saloon and resumes that career there.  The Calders get a horse, wagon and supplies.  In the final scene, Kay wistfully sings (dubbed by Gloria Wood) “The River of No Return.”  As she finishes to enthusiastic applause, she smiles ruefully.  Calder walks through the door and carries her out over his shoulder.  “Where are you taking me?” she says in presumed outrage.  “Home,” he replies.  As the wagon heads out of town, she throws the red shoes in the dust, much like Will Kane’s badge at the end of High Noon.

Despite any reservations Monroe and Preminger may have had about the script, this did well at the box office.  The movie is watchable, but Monroe’s not a natural in westerns.  She’s all right in this, if a bit distracting.  It was said that during the shooting Preminger and Monroe stopped speaking to each other and would only communicate through Mitchum, who had known Marilyn a long time.  Mitchum was quite at home in westerns, and Rettig went on to star in Delmer Daves’ The Last Wagon and in a television series with Lassie.  Rory Calhoun is in his slick and sleazy bad guy mode, as in The Spoilers.  He’s not on screen all that much.

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She didn’t get along with director Preminger’s screaming style, but she did get along with long-time friend and co-star Mitchum.

In color, filmed in Banff and Jasper, Alberta, in Cinemascope and 3D.  When Preminger was not available for some reshoots, Jean Negulesco directed those.  It’s not very long at 91 minutes.  Preminger did not consider this one of his best.

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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 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.  An RKO release in black and white, directed by Robert Wise (best known for The Sound of Music).  Not yet available on DVD in the U.S. at the end of 2013.

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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Man With the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 3, 2014

Man with the Gun—Robert Mitchum, Jan Sterling, John Lupton, Karen Sharpe, James Westerfield, Leo Gordon, Henry Hull, Ted de Corsia, Joe Barry, Claude Akins (1955; Dir:  Richard Wilson)

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Robert Mitchum is Clint Tollinger, who is made marshal in the town of Sheridan in order to clean it up.  Sheridan is controlled and terrorized by Dade Holman (Joe Barry), the local land and cattle baron.  Tollinger specializes in quick taming of wild towns and is good with a gun, but the town becomes uncomfortable because of that, especially when some businesses suffer.  Tollinger is in town to see his estranged wife Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), who is madam of a bunch of unusually attractive “dance-hall girls” (including a very young and uncredited Angie Dickinson as Kitty).  Impetuous young swain Jeff Castle (John Lupton) gets shot by Holman’s men, and his girl friend (Karen Sharpe) seems to be transferring her affections to Tollinger. 

Tollinger can take care of most of the trouble and politics thrown at him until the madam reveals the fate of their daughter.  Unbalanced emotionally by the news, Tollinger then burns down Holman’s saloon and shoots it out with its manager Frenchy Lescaux (Ted de Corsia) after goading Lescaux into the confrontation.  Holman develops a trap for Tollinger; in the final shootout, Tollinger wins but is shot when he defers to the swain at the last moment so he can look good for his girl.  Presumably Tollinger’s wound is not fatal, though. 

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Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) rides into the town of Sheridan.

Kind of a western-noir, this compact movie is one of those westerns from the 1950s dealing with the uneasy relationship between a gun-slinging law enforcer and the townsmen he’s protecting (High Noon, The Tin Star, Warlock, Lawman, etc.).  It’s also a gunslinger coming to terms with his past (The Gunfighter, Lawman, The Shootist, etc.)  Mitchum is very good at playing a character who is quite competent but possibly more on the edge than anybody realizes, with unresolved fatherhood issues in this case.  The resolution of the movie doesn’t feel entirely satisfying. 

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Facing down bad guys from the upper story of a barn.

Claude Akins, never a subtle bad guy, has a small role as Jim Reedy, one of Holman’s gunmen, who tries to get Tollinger with a gun hidden in his hat.  Henry Hull is the sheriff and Tollinger’s deputy in a colorful role verging on irritating.  James Westerfield is a supposed traveling drummer, who’s actually Holman’s lawyer; he’s a bit unctuous in the role.  Joe Barry, who plays Holman, isn’t seen until the film’s climax, and that works quite well.  Except for Mitchum, there’s not much star power here. 

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Better than most westerns, this is worth watching, although not often seen any more.  Shot on a back lot in black and white; the town has an unusual hillside feel to it.  The cinematographer was Lee Garmes.  Music is by Alex North, who later did Spartacus and recycled some of the music from this in it.  Director Wilson, a protégé of Orson Welles, did a similar movie again with Yul Brynner in Invitation to a Gunfighter in 1964.  This one is better.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

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Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

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Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

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Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

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Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

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  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

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  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

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Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

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Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

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Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

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Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

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Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

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Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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