Tag Archives: The Mysterious Stranger

Buchanan Rides Alone

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 6, 2014

Buchanan Rides Alone—Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Manuel Rojas (1958; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)


One of the Ranown westerns based in a town, like Decision at Sundown, instead of being shot out in the Lone Pine countryside.  Agry Town, on the California-Mexico border, is corrupt, like Sundown.  The genial Texan Buchanan rides in from Mexico and has trouble riding out.  The sheriff, the judge and the hotel keeper are all brothers named Agry, with a son of the judge as a short-lived trouble-maker.  That seems to make four Agrys.

In a saloon, Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), a wealthy young Mexican seeking revenge, kills Roy Agry, son of Judge Simon Agry.  Buchanan helps him as the sheriff’s men proceed to beat him, and both land in jail, Buchanan with his $2000 from his years in Mexico confiscated.


Buchanan rides in–alone.

Sheriff:  “Oh, you don’t like this town?”

Buchanan:  “I don’t like some of its people.”

Sheriff:  “Me included?”

Buchanan:  “You especially.”

Sheriff:  “Oh, you’d like to kill me maybe?”

Buchanan:  “I’d like to give you what your boys gave me.”

Sheriff:  “Take the law into your own hands, is that it?”

Buchanan:  “No, just you.”

As matters play out, Buchanan is sent out from town in the company of two deputies who obviously have instructions to kill him.  One of them, Pecos Hill, upon finding that Buchanan is a fellow West Texan, turns on the other and kills him.  Buchanan is released and they hold a non-stereotypical impromptu funeral for the deceased gunman.  Pecos has a speech in which he declares that his deceased friend was a cheater and a thief who couldn’t be trusted, but otherwise was not a bad guy.


Pecos (L.Q. Jones) delivers an impromptu funeral soliloquy, while Buchanan (Randolph Scott) looks on.

The three senior Agrys are all conspiring against each other.  Judge Simon is the most powerful, and has his own gunman, Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens).  Sheriff Lew Agry has several deputies.  And hotel keeper Amos Agry is playing one against the other for his own advantage.  Simon keeps trying to extract a $50,000 ransom from Juan’s family, while Luke wants to get the money and hang Juan, too.  Amos wants a cut of the money.  Juan escapes and is recaptured; Buchanan is released and recaptured.   After several reverses, all the players end up at the border scrabbling over the $50,000.  The Agrys are on the U.S. side, and Juan and Buchanan are on the Mexican side.  The money is on the bridge in the middle, and there is a stand-off.  Lew sends Simon to get the money and then shoots him while he’s on the bridge. Lew then gets shot in turn.  With the two effective Agrys dead, Buchanan gets most of his $2000 back and then hands the $50,000 to Juan and the town over to Carbo.

This is based on the 1956 novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward.  The writing credit for this one is attributed to Charles Lang (as is Decision at Sundown), and Randolph Scott as Buchanan is talkier than in Burt Kennedy’s scripts, with more humor.  However, Boetticher later confirmed that he found the Lang script unsuitable and had Burt Kennedy re-write it.  Since Lang’s wife was gravely ill and they needed the money, Kennedy generously allowed the writing credit (and the fee) to stay with Lang.  Still, it’s not really Kennedy’s best work as a writer. 


Buchanan (Scott), Carbo (Craig Stevens) and a nameless horse.

Interestingly enough, there is no significant female role in this film, not even for Karen Steele (the statuesque Mrs. Boetticher).  Television private eye Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) plays Carbo, Simon’s hired gunman who always rides in a carriage.  Stevens gets second billing, but his character isn’t very developed.  There is an early screen appearance by L.Q. Jones as the chatty young Texan Pecos Hill. 

This is not one of the more highly-regarded Boetticher-Scott efforts, but it’s enjoyable enough to watch.  Cinematography is in color by Lucien Ballard.  Like all the other Ranown westerns, this is fairly short, at 78 minutes.  Filmed in Old Tucson-Sabino Canyon, in Arizona, not at Lone Pine like most of the other Ranown series.  So, although it’s the only one of the Ranown films to be set in California, it’s the only one not to be filmed in California.  Director Taylor Hackford has commented that Scott’s Buchanan is a sort of precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the character at the center of Sergio Leone’s influential Dollar movies. .


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Cowboys & Aliens

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 1, 2014

Cowboys & Aliens—Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo, Noah Ringer (2011; Dir:  Jon Favreau)


Somehow the ampersand (“&”) emphasizes the high-concept nature of how the seemingly-incompatible science fiction and western elements of this movie were all put together.  And it seems to downplay the fact that there’s an interesting story and some pretty good acting going on here.  Based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the title is pretty straightforward about going to the heart of what’s involved here.  But maybe it’s too simplistic, and it suggests a lightness of tone that isn’t present in the film.

It’s 1873 in the Arizona Territory desert.  A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no knowledge of who he is or how he got there, but he has a non-bullet wound in his side.  When three miscreants decide to rob him, he demonstrates a high level of skill with violence.  They donate clothes, a hat, mount and arms to him instead.  He rides off to find medical help for his wound, which he has no idea how he received.

In the tiny town of Absolution, he gets treated by Meacham (Clancy Brown), a local preacher/doctor.  As he goes out to get his bearings, he encounters young Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), son of the local cattle baron, terrorizing the few inhabitants and shooting randomly, and makes short work of him.  Entering the saloon, he interests Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who is drawn to the large high-tech bracelet he’s wearing.  Soon enough the sheriff (Keith Carradine) comes in with several deputies and suggests that the unknown man at the bar is in fact Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw and gang leader.  He successfully resists capture, expertly and without killing anybody, until Ella hits him over the head from behind.

CowboysAliensJake Jake faces an alien attack.

That evening, while Jake and Percy are loaded into a cage wagon for transport to the county seat, the town is attacked by flying vehicles that start to nab certain of the inhabitants, including the sheriff, Maria, wife of Doc the saloonkeeper, and Percy.  Jake’s bracelet comes to life and he blasts one of the vehicles with it, ending the attack.  Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, Percy’s father, insists that Jake accompany them in pursuit of the invaders.  He goes his own way.

The next day Jake encounters a scruffy band of outlaws, who are apparently his former colleagues.  He reasserts his leadership by blasting with his bracelet the big ugly thug who has taken over in his absence.  Jake starts to have flashbacks involving a mystical hummingbird and a dark-haired young woman who resembles, but at the same time is clearly not, Ella.  

As matters develop, the invaders are after the same thing as the outlaws:  gold, which may power their large ship, now mostly hidden in a canyon.  After a brief and unsuccessful daylight scrap with the aliens, the outlaws are ready to run for Mexico.  A band of Chiricahua Apaches are also searching for stolen loved ones.  And Jake and Ella take down one of the flying craft, at the cost of perhaps a mortal wound to Ella.


Taken to the Apache camp for whatever help she can get, Ella in fact regenerates and explains that she is not, strangely enough, from earth but is the last survivor of a planet devastated by these invaders.  She wants Jake’s help in stopping them, but he still can’t remember anything, until he takes an Indian potion.  Then he remembers (a) he and the young dark-haired woman were captured by the aliens, (b) how he got the wound in his side, (c) he escaped wearing the bracelet-weapon, and (d) the location of the alien ship in the canyon.

[Spoilers follow.]  Jake, Col. Dolarhyde and the Apaches put together an unlikely coalition of outlaws, Indians and the few remaining townsfolk to fight the aliens.  Jake and a few outlaws climb the outside of the ship and throw dynamite into the ship’s landing bay, provoking retaliatory attacks outside the ship, which is what they want.  While most fight the invaders, Jake and Ella sneak into the ship and find the chamber where the remaining captives are held.  The young dark-haired woman is not among them.  Jake and Ella release the captives and fight their way to the central core of the ship, where Ella takes the bracelet and goes to destroy the ship at its power source.  Jake is trapped by the alien who gave him his wound, until Dolarhyde helps him.


Finally, Arizona Territory (and, incidentally, earth) are saved from the alien menace.  The colonel forgives Jake for the previous theft of his gold, since more gold has been discovered in the fight and the railroad will be coming through and bringing yet more new gold.  Jake rides on, having lost two loves, gained a sense of community in Absolution and apparently but not certainly having mended at least some of his outlaw ways.

Daniel Craig is impressive as Jake Lonergan, just as he is as James Bond.  He works in the western setting, and one would like to see him in more westerns.  Olivia Wilde is very good as a sexy alien, in what may be her best performance to date.  Harrison Ford is appropriately gruff and domineering as Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Many of the supporting roles are played very well by Paul Dano (the feckless Percy Dolarhyde), Sam Rockwell (saloonkeeper Doc), Clancy Brown (the Reverend Meachum), Adam Beach (Nat Colorado, Col. Dolarhyde’s Apache foster son), Walton Goggins (one of Jake’s outlaws), Noah Ringer (the sheriff’s grandson) and Raoul Trujillo (the Apache chief Black Knife).

CowboysAliensFavreauFavreau directing Craig.

It is well known that this was a box-office disappointment, falling $34 million short of making back its production costs during its domestic theatrical run.  It has been less well known that this is a fun and enjoyable movie if accepted on its own terms, skillfully directed with a very good cast and an interesting, if not entirely believable or consistent, story to tell and many of the traditional trappings of western stories.  It has a high degree of re-watchability; the well-staged fights and action sequences hold up pretty well.  The ending seems to have contemplated the possibility of a sequel, but the poor box office returns make that unlikely.  Still, if you’re game for a decent supernatural western, you could do a lot worse.  As of March 2014, an extended cut of the film was released on DVD, if you want more of it.

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Jonah Hex

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 27, 2014

Jonah Hex—Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender (2010; Dir:  Jimmy Heyward)


Doomed/haunted/scarred/supernatural Confederate veteran Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) has a past, to put it mildly.  In the late Civil War he “betrayed” the unprincipled Col. Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who was about to burn a hospital.  Hex shot Turnbull’s son Jeb, his own best friend, and aborted the hospital torching.  Turnbull subsequently returned the favor by forcing Hex to watch while his own family burned alive, and his own face was branded. 

JonahHexBrolinBrolin in Hex makeup.

Kept alive by Crow Indians, the near-death experience has left him able to talk with the dead, a useful talent in his new profession as bounty hunter.  As long as he maintains physical contact with a corpse, he can temporarily resurrect and communicate with the dead, bringing the corpse physically and mentally back to its condition prior to death.  Hunting Turnbull, he discovers that the Colonel has died in a hotel fire.

Now, more than ten years after the Civil War, Hex finds that Turnbull is still alive and planning high-tech atrocities for the 1876 centennial of U.S. independence from Britain.  Hex digs up the decayed corpse of Jeb Turnbull at Gettsyburg.  After a difficult interview, Jeb discloses that his father is at the improbably-named Fort Resurrection.  Hex himself has a taste for out-of-the-ordinary weaponry and overcomes numerous obstacles and setbacks to foil Turnbull’s plot and defeat not only Turnbull but quasi-supernatural bad guys, with only the help of Lilah (or Tallulah, played by Megan Fox), a sympathetic whore in the Angelina Jolie-action heroine mode who looks and acts very 21st-century.


Unconventional weaponry: repeating dynamite crossbows.

At Fort Resurrection, Hex sees Turnbull’s new steampunk-style weapons but is badly wounded by Burke, an Irish assassin employed by Turnbull, who escapes.  His Crow friends heal Hex again, and the pursuit is resumed.  Hex kills Burke, but Turnbull has captured Lilah and forces Hex to surrender.  As they are held prisoner on Turnbull’s weapon-ship, Lilah picks the locks on their manacles.  Together, they put a fiery end to Turnbull’s plans and to Turnbull himself.

The plot is something we’ve seen lots of times before, sometimes in epically bad and overblown movies (e.g., The Wild Wild West).  This is pretty bad, too, if not quite epically, mixing the modern, the fictional-steampunk and the 19th-century without much consistency.  This deserved a much better story, and Josh Brolin in particular is a better actor than this material allows him to demonstrate.  John Malcovich can be a very good actor, but that’s not in evidence here.  Michael Fassbender shows up before he became a big name, as the heavily (and anachronistically) tattooed Irish assassin Burke.  (The tattooing seems to have been used as a substitute for actual characterization.)  There was a lot of talent used badly in this film.  It’s said that Brolin initially did not like the script but came to appreciate its tongue-in-cheek tone.  His first instinct was right.  The character and situations are intriguing enough that this could have been interesting with a better story and script.  But it mostly isn’t. The music, by heavy metal band Mastodon, doesn’t help much.


Michael Fassbender as the heavily-tattooed assassin Burke.

This is based on a DC comic series, another bad sign.  During its domestic theatrical run, Jonah Hex grossed only $10.5 million back on a $47 million budget, officially making it a box office bomb.  Director Jimmy Heyward was a former animator at Pixar who worked on the first two Toy Story movies, which would seem to have little in common with this material.  Relatively short, at about 80+ minutes.  Often visually dark and eye-straining.  If you’re looking for a supernatural western, Cowboys & Aliens is significantly better.

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The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 14, 2014

The Mark of Zorro—Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Linda Darnell, J. Edward Bromberg, Gale Sondergaard, Montagu Love, Eugene Pallette (1940; Dir:  Rouben Mamoulian)

ZorroPoster ZorroPoster2

This is a quite serviceable version of the oft-remade tale of the fictional black-clad Robin Hood of early California.  The two romantic leads of Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell are extraordinarily beautiful, but one supposes that Errol Flynn would have brought more dash to the role of Zorro.  It’s not a standard western, using swords more than guns, but the setting is in the American West at a time when it was on the frontier.

Young Diego Vega returns from years of education in Spain to his family’s home in southern California ca. 1820, only to find that his father Alejandro (Montagu Love) is no longer the alcalde in Los Angeles.  The new alcalde, Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) is corrupt and oppressive, with the commander of the local garrison, Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), providing the muscle and real brains behind the oppression of local hidalgos and peons alike.  Quintero’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) is very interested in Diego’s knowledge of the social life of Madrid and new fashions, and Quintero’s almost 18-year-old niece Lolita (Linda Darnell, in a negligible role) is also interested.


Diego adopts the manners of a fop and the secret identity of Zorro (a la The Scarlet Pimpernel) to avenge the wrongs of Quintero and Pasquale and to champion the cause of the people.  Ultimately it comes down to a duel between Esteban and Zorro, and of course Zorro wins.  Rathbone had a reputation as perhaps the best fencer in Hollywood, but since he normally played villains (except when he was Sherlock Holmes), he was seldom allowed to win on film.  In the end, Esteban is killed (a little too soon), Quintero is banished and Lolita and Diego are together.

This version was a hit in its time and remains highly watchable, with more modest pretensions and a simpler story than the more elaborate 1998 remake with Antonio Banderas.  The 1920 Douglas Fairbanks version (the first film version, since the source story by Johnston McCulley, The Curse of Capistrano, was only published in 1919) is probably more fun.


The famous duel between Diego and Esteban was staged by the resident Hollywood fencing master of the time, Fred Cavens.  Cavens specialized in staging duels that relied more on actual fighting than on the participants jumping on furniture and leaping from balconies.  Cavens’ son Albert doubled for Tyrone Power in the more challenging parts of the duel (mostly with his back to camera), such as the extended exchange with Esteban that ends with Diego’s sword smashing into the bookcase.  Fast fencing shots were under-cranked to 18 or 20 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24fps); and all the sound effects were post-synchronized.  Rathbone was asked how well Tyrone Power did in their scenes in which stunt doubles were not used.  Rathbone responded, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera.  Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”

In DC comics lore, this version of Zorro with Tyrone Power is the movie that a young Bruce Wayne goes to see the night his parents are mugged and shot by Joe Chill.  Parents and child are coming out of the movie and walking through an alley when they are mugged, and that leads to Batman’s creation.


In black and white, with an Oscar-nominated score by Alfred Newman.  The gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as Fray Felipe is doing a sort of reprise of his role as Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, and the voice and uni-dimensional character can become tiresome.  Tyrone Power didn’t make a lot of westerns, but he was pretty good in Jesse James and in Rawhide.  Linda Darnell is pretty much just window dressing in this movie, but catch her as the fiery Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine and as the beautiful cavalry widow in Two Flags West.

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Riders of the Purple Sage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 13, 2014

Riders Of The Purple Sage—Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Henry Thomas, Robin Tunney, Norbert Weisser, G.D. Spradlin (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Charles Haid)


This is the fifth and most recent film version of Zane Grey’s 1912 bestselling novel, which is perhaps as some call it “the most popular western novel of all time.”  Having said that, it should also be noted that this, as some other oft-retold western stories dating from near the turn of the 19th century, does not wear its age lightly.   The film’s strengths:  very good cast, attempt to be true to the language of the novel, beautiful locations (Moab, Utah).  Weaknesses:  poor direction and editing, failure to use the scenery well.

This is a Shane story, from before Shane—the Mysterious Stranger.  An unknown gunman rides alone into a tense situation and turns things around by siding with the underdogs.  In this case, the underdog is Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan), spinster-rancher in a religious community in southern Utah (presumably, by the looks of the terrain).  Without much help, she is facing (a) rustlers, (b) Deacon Tull (Norbert Weisser) of her own church, who wants her to marry him and is trying to force her hand, and (c) Pastor Dyer (G.D. Spradlin), who also wants her to marry Tull.  When Tull and his men are attempting to hang Bern Venters (Henry Thomas), one of her hands, she prays for help, and into this mess rides Lassiter (Ed Harris, balding with otherwise long hair), who backs them off and they ride away without completing the hanging. 


Lassiter (Ed Harris) and Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan).

Lassiter, who spends most of the film without a first name, tells Jane he is looking for the grave of Millie Erne and wants to know how she came there.  Jane seems to have harbored friendly feelings for the late Millie and is willing to show him the grave, but does not give him any of the other information he seeks.  He agrees to stay and work for her until she does tell him.  Meanwhile, Bern rides out looking for rustled cattle and finds Oldring’s rustlers, including a strange masked rider.  When they come after him, he shoots them.  The masked rider turns out to be Bess (Robin Tunney), a female.  Bern hides her in an Indian cave dwelling and nurses her back to health.

Back at the ranch, Pastor Dyer shows up to lecture Jane and pulls a gun on Lassiter, who wounds him.  Jane’s one remaining hand, Judkins, is killed and her two best riding horses (Black Star and Night) are stolen.  Bern crosses paths with the thieves, recognizes Jane’s horses, and exchanges shots with them.  He gets several of them, including Oldring, but is captured by Tull, who is riding with the rustlers and takes Bern off to be hung (again) for stealing the horses and killing Judkins, which he obviously did not do.

At this point, Jane tells Lassiter that Pastor Dyer was the one who stole Millie Erne from her husband and family and gave her to Jane’s own father.  When her father tried to force Millie, she shot him and then herself.  Meanwhile, her father had given away Millie’s infant daughter.  Lassiter straps on his guns and heads to the church, where he blasts all the bad guys except Tull, including Dyer.  Taking Black Star and Night, Lassiter and Bern pick up Jane and head for the cave where Bess is waiting.  It develops that Bern and Bess are in love, that Bess is in fact Millie’s missing baby (although she thought she was Oldring’s daughter), and that Lassiter is Millie’s brother and has been following her trail for thirteen years.


The masked rider is (gasp!) a girl!  It’s Bess (Robin Tunney).

They see Tull and his riders heading for them, and Bern and Bess take off on Black Star and Night, leading the pursuit away and heading for a new future together.  Lassiter and Jane have only one horse for the two of them and head up the canyon to where Bern was hiding Bess.  As Tull eventually realizes his mistake in being led away and returns to follow Lassiter and Jane, they tip over a huge rock and cause a landslide on to him.  And presumably they live happily ever after.

As with Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” the 1912 Zane Grey novel makes Jane’s religious group specifically Mormons, following cultural conventions current when the book was written, what with Mormon reclusiveness, their practice of polygamy and supposed related woman-stealing.  This film makes the bad guys a non-specific religious cult, now that Mormons are more mainstream.  The action takes place in 1871, so Lassiter has been following the evildoers since before the Civil War, apparently.  This is only about 90 minutes long without commercials, and it does not flow well.  The Oldring thread of the story is not very developed.  The direction (by Charles Haid, once an actor on television’s Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s) seems like television direction, not using the spectacular canyon landscapes as well as it might.  The red rock shots seem like postcards, not related well to the surrounding terrain or to the story.  John Ford would have done it better; even Gore Verbinski did it better (in the otherwise forgettable The Lone Ranger), but they both probably had much bigger budgets.  There is good use of light and dark, which gives an appropriate 19th-century feeling and perhaps an occasional sense of the moral confusion Jane Withersteen is feeling.


Deacon Tull and his henchmen, in hot pursuit of Lassiter and Jane.

All in all, not great but worth watching—perhaps the best version on film of this antique story.  The previous most recent film version was made almost 60 years before this, in 1941.  This and several other often-retold western stories from its era (The Virginian, Whispering Smith) can seem kind of clunky and dated to modern viewers.  This story has a great title–good enough to be adopted by a country-rock group in the late 1960s and by three separate country-western groups.  But it’s unclear what riders are referred to in this story.  Everybody rides the purple sage:  rustlers, religious zealots, ranchers, spunky spinsters and mysterious gunmen.  Zane Grey is not read nearly so much as he was a hundred years ago, and his cultural assumptions and floridly romantic sensibility have not worn well.  His writing style is not much to modern tastes, either.  But he still tells a good story if one takes the trouble to read him.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, the leads, were married when this was made, and they were also executive producers.  All four of the leads here give good performances, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t have a good flow to make better use of them.  Apparently Ed Harris liked westerns enough after this experience to direct and star in his own several years later:  Appaloosa in 2008.

This was made for television’s TNT network which, in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the best places to see new westerns and remakes of old western stories, often with Tom Selleck or Sam Elliot.  Another classic western story from this period of TNT’s sponsorship is the 2000 version of The Virginian, directed by Bill Pullman and starring Pullman and Diane Lane.

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Bad Day at Black Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 2, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock—Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger (1955; Dir:  John Sturges)


Perhaps the best movie set in the modern west (but see Lone Star and No Country for Old Men), a claustrophobic noir-inflected story that takes place in a tiny town in the Arizona desert. 


First Train Conductor:  [Looking at Black Rock] “Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.”

First Train Conductor:  “In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.”

The movie begins with an interesting opening shot of a train crossing the desert.  One-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in Black Rock in 1945 in a dark suit, the first time the train’s actually stopped there in four years.  World War II is just over, but rationing and other strictures persist.  None of the town’s suspicious residents want him there, as he tries to locate a local Japanese farmer, Mr. Komoko. 

blackrockjj-macready The mysterious stranger arrives in town.

A couple of local cowboy-thugs, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin), try to intimidate Macreedy, who bears them with patience and an even temper.  Local rancher-boss Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) suggests that Komoko was sent off to an internment camp shortly after Pearl Harbor, and only three months after he arrived at Black Rock.  Macreedy visits Adobe Flats, where the Komoko farm was; he finds a burned house, a deep well and what may be a grave. 

Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher:  “Sure you don’t want some lemonade? It don’t have the muzzle velocity of some other drinks drunk around here, but it’s good for what ails you.”

On the way back, Coley tries to drive him off the road, but Macreedy makes it back to Black Rock.  Coley then tries to pick a fight in a diner, only to find that Macreedy knows judo and takes him out using only one arm.  It becomes clearer that Smith and his people killed Komoko, and they’re probably going to kill Macreedy, too.  Macreedy is a veteran who lost his arm in Italy; Komoko’s son was killed saving his life, and he wants to give the old man his son’s medal. 


Reno Smith:  “She must have strained every muscle in her head to get so stupid.”

The drunken sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) and undertaker Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) try ineffectively to help him.  Finally, young local hotel clerk Pete Wirth (a James Dean-esque John Ericson), plagued with guilt over his minor role in Komoko’s death, recruits his sister Liz (Anne Francis) to take Macreedy out of town in her jeep.  She betrays Macreedy to Smith, who kills her anyway.  In a shootout with no gun, Macreedy improvises a Molotov cocktail and sets Smith afire.  Having brought in the state police to Black Rock, he then catches the train out of town. 

[last linesSecond Train Conductor:  “What’s all the excitement? What happened”

John J. Macreedy:  “A shooting”

Second Train Conductor:  “Thought it was something.  First time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Second time.”

A superb cast cast, although Tracy seems old for a recent veteran, and some excellent writing in the screenplay by Millard Kaufman.  Tightly directed, the film comes in at 81 minutes.  Tracy was nominated for Best Actor.  This was part of a good run for director Sturges in the 1950s, along with Escape from Fort Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral, before he got into his larger-scale action films of the 1960s.  Music was by a young Andre Previn.

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Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2013

Shane—Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde, Elisha Cook, Jr., Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Ben Johnson (1953; Dir:  George Stevens)

Shane:  “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool:  an axe, a shovel or anything.  A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.  Remember that.”

Filmed in 1951, Shane sat quietly on the shelf at Paramount for two years before its release in 1953.  There are a couple of versions of the reasons for the delay.  In one version, director George Stevens simply dithered over the editing of the movie for the interim.  But studios have ways of pressuring directors to get on with it if they really want to release a film.  The other version has it that Paramount didn’t really think they had anything interesting in this property.  Alan Ladd was not quite as big a star as he had been ten years earlier (as the killer Raven in This Gun for Hire, for example), and Jean Arthur, coaxed out of semi-retirement for what would be her final film role, was thought to be over the hill.  When Shane was finally released, though, it turned out to be a big hit and received four Oscar nominations.  And it is one of the greatest westerns ever made.

shane1 The Mysterious Stranger.

This movie tells one of the archetypal western stories, one which had been used before and many times since.  Shane (played by Ladd) is the quintessential Mysterious Stranger.  The Stranger rides into a community in conflict, sides with the underdog, uses his talent for violence to balance the odds, and, when he wins the conflict, finds that there is now no place for him in the community.

The film wastes little time getting into the story.  In the opening sequence, Shane rides up to the Starrett homestead in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole in the shadow of the magnificent Grand Tetons.  He’s wearing nicely tailored buckskins and and a showy gunbelt.  It’s clear he can use the gun, although he’s not overbearing about it.  While Shane gets a drink of water, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is accosted by several other riders led by local cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).  Ryker and his men ride through Starrett’s garden to warn him off the land, which in Ryker’s view is his free range.  The sodbusters have no business fencing it off.  Shane quietly backs Starrett up and is invited by Starrett to stay.  Starrett’s son Joey (Brandon de Wilde) develops a fascination with Shane.  So does Joey’s mother Marian (Jean Arthur), although more quietly.  When Marian tells Joey not to become too attached to Shane, we know she’s speaking to herself, too.  The relationship develops but is left carefully undefined.

The dispute between cattle baron and homesteaders escalates, and the film develops the homesteaders as individual characters, including Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr., in one of his most memorable roles) and Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan).  Starrett and Shane fight Ryker and several of his men to a standstill in the local saloon, and Ryker decides he needs a real gunfighter.  So he sends to Cheyenne for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).


Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is no match for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).

Wilson, cold and menacing in black, guns down Torrey in a muddy street in particularly ruthless fashion, and it’s only a matter of time until somebody more competent has to deal with Wilson.  Marian Starrett hates guns and fighting, but it’s clear there will be more of both.  Joe Starrett, as apparent leader of the homesteaders, feels he has to take on the fighting role, too, although it’s obvious Shane could do it better, especially when it comes to guns.  And Starrett realizes that if something happens to him, the attraction between Shane and Marian would mean she wouldn’t be left defenseless.  As Starrett starts for town to have it out with Ryker, Shane, now dressed in his buckskins and gunbelt again, stops him.  They fight, and Shane wins by knocking Starrett out with his gun—cheating, in effect.  As he rides toward town and the final confrontation with Wilson and Ryker, Joey follows on foot.  The showdown plays out as it should.  Shane points out to Ryker that his free range days are over, just as Shane’s skill with a gun is now becoming anachronistic.  Having made the area safe for civilization, Shane rides off into the mountains, with Joey yelling, “Shane!  Come back, Shane!”  But Shane knows he can’t go back, and he takes his mysteriousness with him.  We still don’t know his other name or much of his history—only what we were shown when he was in this valley.

shane and joey The loner takes his leave.

It’s surprising that this turned out to be such an archetypal western.  The director, George Stevens, was top-notch but not known for westerns—more for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (Swing Time) and perhaps later epics like Giant.  And this is a meticulously directed movie.  In the opening shot, for example, a deer being watched by Joey raises its head, and its antlers perfectly frame the approaching rider—Shane.  Scenes are shot from many angles and carefully stitched together in the editing room.   Frequent low camera angles (a) encourage us to see the action as if through Joey’s eyes, (b) emphasize the majesty of the mountains and the sky, and (c) mask the fact that Ladd was quite short, only five feet six inches tall.

It works brilliantly, but if you watch the movie again, some elements start to seem less than perfect.  The seams in the moviemaking begin to show.  Brandon de Wilde’s Joey becomes more irritating, although he does behave more or less like a real child.  The pacing of the movie, with all the development of the not-so-interesting homesteader bonding, seems to drag a little in places.  In the physical fight scenes, it becomes more apparent that they’re shot and edited to disguise the fact that Van Heflin, for example, is much larger than Alan Ladd, and they’re less persuasive on a second or third viewing.  It seems unlikely that Joey could run all the way to town after the riding Shane in time to witness the final shootout.  After that final showdown, when Shane twirls his gun and pops it in his holster, you become aware that the shot is only of his midsection and gun arm, and you wonder if it’s a double doing that expert twirling.  (It is–gunsmith/stuntman Rodd Redwing.)  Still, it’s great movie-making.

Shane - Ladd, Arthur, Heflin

A production still of the three stars: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.

The casting shouldn’t work as well as it does.  Although he was in several westerns, Alan Ladd still seems more like an urban character in appearance and speech.  The golden hair, the classic good looks, the low-key, reserved approach to acting, the rich voice—all work well for the mysterious Shane in this movie.  Jean Arthur seems urban, too, although she too was in a couple of other westerns (The Plainsman, Arizona) earlier in her career.  Arthur was in her fifties when this was made, significantly older than her two male co-stars and ten years older than Emile Meyer, who plays the seemingly aging Ryker.  The age differences aren’t obvious, but something strange was going on with Arthur’s hair in this movie; she seems to have been wearing wigs constantly, and not all that persuasively.  Van Heflin plays the kind of role for which he is best known, the solid and reliable but perhaps not so exciting husband.  And he’s excellent here, with a lot more lines than the quiet Shane.  (First choice for the Starrett role was said to be William Holden, who would have been good, too.)  Jack Palance doesn’t have much screen time, but his menace has become iconic.  Elisha Cook, Jr. and Ben Johnson (as Chris Calloway, a Ryker cowhand who has a change of conscience) are very good in minor roles, too.

Ladd was reported to have had trouble with guns and Palance was new to horses.  The scene where Shane is showing Joey how to shoot is said to have required 116 takes, and Palance’s mounting up after taking a drink of water is said to actually be a dismount played in reverse.  None of it matters.  This movie is a classic.


In the wake of Shane’s box office success, it received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.  For Best Supporting Actor, both de Wilde and Palance were nominated, although, perhaps surprisingly, Ladd was not nominated in the Best Actor category.  Novice screenwriter A.B. Guthrie, Jr., received a Best Screenplay nomination for his script based on a novel by Jack Schaefer (also the author of Monte Walsh).  The only win, however, was by Loyal Griggs for Best Cinematography, which he richly deserved.  Shot on location in Jackson Hole, the film makes the best use ever of the majestic Tetons on the Wyoming-Idaho border.  (A few years later, director Delmer Daves would also make particularly effective use of Jackson Hole in the underrated Jubal.)  The score by Victor Young is good, too.  The success of Shane boosted Ladd’s career, as High Noon had done for the aging Gary Cooper the previous year.

Van Heflin plays a very similar character in Delmer Daves’ excellent 3:10 to Yuma.  About 35 years later, Clint Eastwood remade this story with himself as a more overtly mysterious stranger in Pale Rider.  It too was an excellent western—it just didn’t quite have the resonance of this original version.  For another good Alan Ladd western, see him in Branded or Saskatchewan.  For a slightly older Brandon de Wilde in another western, see him with James Stewart and Audie Murphy in Night Passage.

ShanePoster One of several posters.

Note:  On the movie’s soundtrack, the sound of shots was punched up by Stevens in the editing of the film, so as to cause the shots to be more shocking when those sounds occur.  This technique was copied in Bonnie and Clyde about 14 years later.  Warren Beatty, a producer as well as a star of Bonnie and Clyde, tells a story of talking with a projectionist in London who unknowingly pronounced Bonnie the film with the worst-mixed sound since Shane.  The projectionist thought it was unintentional and compensated by reducing the sound level for the shots.  [See comments by Beatty in a documentary on George Stevens, shown on TCM.]  For a more recent example of playing with the sound of shots for greater effect, watch Open Range.





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Pale Rider

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 11, 2013

Pale Rider—Clint Eastwood, Michael Moriarty, Carrie Snodgress, Richard Dysart, John Russell (1985; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

The title reference is to a phrase from the book of Revelation in the New Testament, also quoted more explicitly by the Johnny Ringo character in Tombstone.  The scripture refers to a pale horse with a pale rider, who is death.  In retrospect, this film is also apparently a remake of Shane, with Clint Eastwood even more mysterious and implacable than Alan Ladd’s gunfighter in the earlier movie.  The basic story is of small miners and settlers versus an established mining company in northern California’s gold country, with all the strength apparently on the side of the establishment.  Until the Preacher (Eastwood) rides in, that is.


As in Shane, the principal miner/settler (Michael Moriarty) is somebody with strong moral and community sense but not the skills with violence to defend himself or his community.  And the principal settler’s woman (girlfriend, in this case, played by Carrie Snodgress) is attracted to the new, stronger intervener.  So is her 15-year-old daughter, setting up a new kind of potential conflict.  As in Shane, while defending the miner community, the Preacher remains visibly separate from them.  With Shane, there was the sense that Shane would like the kind of family and roots he saw among the settlers, but ultimately recognized that he could never be like them.  The Preacher never gets that close or makes any attempt to avoid violence.  He’s always definitely “other.”  From the beginning he seems to see the final climax is inevitable and strides unswervingly toward his role in it.

Unlike Shane, there is a suggestion of the supernatural and foreknowledge about the Preacher.  A shot of Eastwood’s unclothed back in one scene shows a pattern of bullet scars, repeated during the climactic shootout on another character.  It doesn’t seem that somebody with these scars could have survived the incident that created them.

There are also links with prior Eastwood films.  The supposedly dead character who returns for revenge is a Clint Eastwood specialty (cf. High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High), as is a principal character with no name (as in A Fistful of Dollars and its sequels).

Two other elements of Shane are rather obviously repeated in Pale Rider.  There is a shootout in the street, where a miner is forced to face odds that he can’t possibly beat.  In Shane, it was a laughing, black-clad Jack Palance against Elisha Cook, Jr.  Here it is the corrupt Marshal Stockburn and six duster-clad deputies against one drunk miner in the street.  The result is the same, but even more ruthless.  And instead of the young boy yelling for Shane to come back at the end, here it is the 15-year-old girl.

As in Shane (and countless other westerns), there is a climactic shootout, very effectively done, with the Preacher against Stockburn and six deputies.  The corrupt Marshal Stockburn with six hired gunmen as deputies recognizes, and is shocked by the appearance of, the Preacher during the climax.  Stockburn is played by John Russell, who over the years played head bad guy Nathan Burdette in Rio Bravo and, briefly, Bloody Bill Anderson at the start of The Outlaw Josey Wales.  This role is kind of a reference to his years as Sheriff Dan Troop of Laramie in the television series Lawman from the early 1960s.  If the head bad guy’s son looks familiar, it’s because he’s Sean Penn’s brother Christopher.

The action can be a little slow; the Preacher doesn’t even put on a gun until about two-thirds of the way through the movie.  The sense is sometimes that director Eastwood is still working out some of what he learned from Sergio Leone twenty years before, with a few more reaction close-ups and low-angle shots than are really needed to tell the story.  Eastwood also plays with light and shadow in interesting ways.  And the outdoor setting in the Sawtooth Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border is magnificent.  One of the ways it’s made clear that the bad guys are evil is by the way they despoil the environment through their hydraulic mining practices.  You can also see one of the themes here as similar to Unforgiven—the former gunman’s unsuccessful attempt to reform into a more peaceful role.   Although much about Pale Rider suggests that it’s an obvious homage to Shane, it’s very much worth watching on its own.  It’s well done, and very Clint Eastwood.


Pale Rider movie poster art by Michael Dudash. The original is in the possession of Clint Eastwood.

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