Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.