Tag Archives: Westerns Noir

The Walking Hills

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2016

The Walking Hills—Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White, Jerome Courtland, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Stevens (1949; Dir: John Sturges)

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The enigmatic title of this treasure-hunting noir western set in modern times (ca. 1950) refers to a large area of dunes that move around in strong winds.  An 1852 wagon train supposed to have been full of gold was been lost there, and in a back room card game in Calexico, young Johnny (Jerome Courtland) refers to having seen what might be a line of wagons out in the sand.  Old Willy (grizzled former dentist Edgar Buchanan) supplies the legend, and it is determined that everybody in the room must go, lest anybody staying behind later follow with his own search party and cut them out.

They are soon joined by Chris Jackson (Ella Raines), who works at a local lunch counter and has romantic history with two members of the group.  Aside from Old Willy, the most experienced hand is Jim Carey (Randolph Scott), a rancher and horse breeder, who brings along a mare he expects to foal at any time.  He supplies the expedition with horses, wrangled by his Indian hand Cleve (Charles Stevens).  Chris and Jim were a romantic item before she left him for rodeo rider/gambler Shep/Dave (William Bishop).  Shep in turn abandoned her in the rain in Denver.

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Jim Carey (Randolph Scott) is the center, figuratively and visually, of the group of gold hunters.

Frazee (John Ireland) is a private detective who was pursuing Shep but is now more interested in gold.  He has a gun and a heliograph, with which he signals a confederate in the foothills.  Bits of backstory are told in flashback, such as the fact that Shep had been in a card game in Denver that resulted in an accidental death, for which he is now wanted by the law.  That’s why he left Chris in Denver.  Johnny sees Frazee burying something and jumps him; he is shot by Frazee and initially thought to be paralyzed.  Chris insists that Jim get Johnny to a doctor, but Jim can’t leave his mare and thinks that Johnny won’t make it anyway.  He doesn’t, although he supplies a couple more bits of information before his demise.

[Spoilers follow.]  Old Willy discovers a wagon, giving the group new energy.  But there’s no gold in the wagon, and the band is hit by a sand storm, during which Frazee battles Shep, Chalk (Arthur Kennedy) and Jim with shovels and fists before Chalk shoots Frazee with his own gun.  Jim scrambles to round up the scattered horses in the storm, while the others seek cover.  When the storm passes, the wagon train stands revealed, but with no gold.  Shep takes off to turn himself in and sort things out; Jim gives Chris one of the few remaining horses to follow him.  And he forces Old Willy to reveal that he has in fact found $10,000 in gold, which he will have to split with the survivors.  Jim takes the remaining horse and the new foal, saying that he will send horses for them.

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Treasure-seekers and romantic triangle Chris (Ella Raines), Shep/Dave (William Bishop) and a shirtless Jim Carey (Randolph Scott).

The cast is very good.  Randolph Scott was the biggest star at the time, and he is the moral center of the movie, although he doesn’t seem all that moral at the start.  He’s in good physical shape for a man in his 50s, as his shirtless scenes remind us (for more of those, see him in Carson City).  His strong, taciturn role here reminds us of his work ten years later with director Budd Boetticher.  Sultry Ella Raines is good as Chris; this may have been the peak of her modest movie career, though.  John Ireland was also at the early peak of his long movie and television career following Red River, My Darling Clementine and I Shot Jesse James and before All the King’s Men.  Look for Scott and Ireland together again the same year in The Doolins of Oklahoma, a more conventional western.  William Bishop was fine in this, but did not have a particularly notable career before his early death at 41.  Arthur Kennedy doesn’t have much to do or much camera time.  For Edgar Buchanan in another role as a grizzled gold seeker about this time, see him with Glenn Ford in Lust for Gold. Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens gets more screen time here than he usually did, and he looks authentic.

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Fights break out, mostly centering on private investigator Frazee (John Ireland).

Surprisingly for a relatively short film, this includes a couple of musical interludes by bluesman Josh Smith.  Note the camera angles used by director Sturges during those interludes to provide visual interest and prevent things from becoming too static during the songs.  The birth of a foal in the desert provides a symbol of hope and renewal when things are going badly.

The classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre had come out the previous year (1948), and this was obviously influenced by the success of that film.  It was shot in Death Valley and Lone Pine in beautiful black and white by Charles Lawton, Jr., who later worked with producer Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott several more times on the Boetticher westerns.  The sandstorm scenes are particularly effective.  He also worked with eminent western directors Delmer Daves, including the marvelously shot 3:10 to Yuma, and John Ford.

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At a compact 78 minutes, much is revealed by flashback, but not everything.  The story is left with a few holes in it, and that appears to be by design.  Story and screenplay are by Alan LeMay (Gunfighters, San Antonio, Rocky Mountain, novels for The Searchers and The Unforgiven).  This is from early in the career of excellent director John Sturges (Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, Hour of the Gun et al.).  It is not as polished as some of his later work, but it is well worth watching (and even re-watching), although it can be hard to find

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The Furies

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2015

The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952.  Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner.  But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson.  His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones.  His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick.  But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.).  And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.

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Adversaries T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) frame Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck).

Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology.  The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco.  He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight.  The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it.  There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations.  It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though.  The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.

At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival.  The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child.  That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better.  He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves.  At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey).  When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence.  And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t.  Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.

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T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) don’t always get along, either.

Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland).  She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).  Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000.  More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance.  Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side.  Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men.  Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.

Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount.  She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.

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Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) gets ready to attack Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).

T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more.  T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs.  So she buys his cattle with worthless scrip, and he’s still broke.  Nevertheless, the two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver.  As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).

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Mom Herrera (Blanche Yurka) prepares to take her revenge.

All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit.  On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes.  The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck.  The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well.  Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man.  At heart, she’s a cowgirl.  Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”

Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo.  Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here.  The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.

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Gambler-banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) try to work things out.

1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns:  Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this.  They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period.  This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky.  The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer.  The screenplay is by Charles Schnee.  Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman.  Music is by Franz Waxman.

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For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn.  And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992).  For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

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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 Violent Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 23, 2015

The Violent Men—Glenn Ford, Babara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Dianne Foster, May Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, James Westerfield (1955; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This belongs to the “cattle queen western” subgenre, along with Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and various others from the 1950s, in which a dominant character is played by an established and prominent Hollywood actress of a certain age.  The violent men of the title are played by Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith, but it turns out to be Barbara Stanwyck who dominates the course of the plot.

Capt. John Parrish (Glenn Ford) is a wounded veteran of the Union cavalry in the recent Civil War. He had come west three years previously to recover from a wound that went through his lung.  He receives a clean bill of health at the start of the movie and intends to marry Carolyn Vail (May Wynn), sell his ranch and movie back east.  The only potential buyer is Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled owner of the huge Anchor Ranch, by far the largest in the valley.

Lew Wilkison:  “Here at Anchor we don’t pay much attention to that hogwash about the meek inheriting the earth.”

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Meeting the Wilkisons: Cole (Brian Keith), Lew (Edward G. Robinson), and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), with John Parrish (Glenn Ford).

Wilkison has long been trying to expand his Anchor Ranch to encompass the entire valley.  Twelve years previously during a burst of violence in the valley he was crippled, and he now walks only with crutches and even then with difficulty.  Parrish notices the Anchor men, especially gunman Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel), renewing their efforts to chase off other landowners; Matlock shoots the local sheriff in the back, and he is replaced by the unctuous Magruder (James Westerfield), who is more completely in Anchor’s pocket.  Lew Wilkison and his brother Cole (Brian Keith) offer Parrish only $15,000 for his ranch.  Wilkison’s alienated daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) is outraged at her father’s behavior, but his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) appears to be pulling the strings and to have developed a relationship with Cole.

John Parrish:  “Don’t force me to fight, because you won’t like my way of fighting.”

Matlock and several Anchor riders try to push Parrish by killing one of his hands, but Parrish, who has been a determined pacifist to this point, takes the hand’s gun, confronts Matlock, and kills him.  No one attends Wade Matlock’s funeral, and one of Parrish’s riders wonders if there will be reprisals from Matlock’s friends.  John Parrish: “Matlock wasn’t the kind to have any friends after he was dead.”

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Gunman Wade Madlock (Richard Jaeckel) meets Parrish (Glenn Ford).

[Spoilers follow.]  Parrish brushes off his military skills from the war and prepares for battle.  Carolyn is appalled and ends their engagement when Parrish refuses to go east immediately.  Using his own ranch as bait, he sets up an ambush in a canyon when Anchor riders burn it down and take the shortest way home.  In retaliation,  Parrish and his men stampede Anchor’s horses and cattle, and use the distraction to burn most of the Anchor buildings.  Martha escapes the burning mansion, tossing away Lew’s crutches and leaving him to die in the flames.  Cole and Magruder lead a small army of riders attacking all the smaller ranchers and farmers, until Parrish finds that Judith has rescued her father.  In a confrontation at the Anchor ranch, Lew orders the riders away.  Parrish and Cole have a classic showdown, and Martha is killed by Cole’s Mexican paramour.  At the end, Lew wants to hire Parrish to run the Anchor ranch, and Judith and Parrish appear to be striking up a relationship.

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This is a good melodramatic range war western for its time, but pedestrian direction takes it out of the really excellent category.  Neither the Stanwyck nor the Dianne Foster character has much nuance.  Glenn Ford is good in his tenth western; he’s wearing the same hat he’ll be wearing for the next 15 years, and it’s not yet as disgusting and shapeless as it would become.  Edward G. Robinson was an excellent actor, and his presence, along with Stanwyck’s, reminds us of Double Indemnity (1944), giving this more of a western-noir flavor.  Robinson didn’t make many westerns, in part because, like James Cagney, he seems to have a modern, urban presence.  But he works well here, hard but able to shift tone convincingly.  Brian Keith, in dark hair and a thin mustache, makes a fine bad guy early in his career.  And Richard Jaeckel is good as a gunman without conscience.  An uncredited Richard Farnsworth is one of the Anchor riders.

During its second half, the action is interesting enough but not well developed, as the two sides progress through strike and counter-strike.  In particular, the shootout between Ford and Keith at the end is not well-edited (compare it with Budd Boetticher’s handling of Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now [1956] in a moment of similar dramatic intensity, for example), nor is Stanwyck’s death.  The end seems very quick, not fleshed-out, and a bit out of character for Parrish.

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For another crippled cattle baron in a range melodrama, see Lionel Barrymore in Duel in the Sun (1947).  For Barbara Stanwyck as another cattle queen, see her in Forty Guns (1957, with Barry Sullivan); she doesn’t win there, either.  She’s better in Trooper Hook (1957, with Joel McCrea) and The Moonlighter (1953, with Fred MacMurray).  For Glenn Ford in another range melodrama, see him in Jubal (1956), which is better than this.  For James Westerfield displaying the same unctuousness in a range war, see Man With a Gun (1955, with Robert Mitchum).  For another Union Civil War veteran trying unsuccessfully to revert to pre-war pacifism because of the horrors of the war, see Rock Hudson in Gun Fury (1953).

There is some well-written dialogue here, by Harry Kleiner.  The music is by Max Steiner.  Shot in Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, in California, and in Old Tucson, Arizona.  In color, at 96 minutes.

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Ramrod

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2014

Ramrod—Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Donald Crisp, Charles Ruggles, Preston Foster, Arleen Whelan, Ian MacDonald, Ray Teal, Lloyd Bridges, Wally Cassell, Nestor Paiva (1947; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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“Men are so easy!… A little lace, a pair of lips, a touch, and they kill for you!”  Despite the lurid line on the poster (which nobody says in the film), this is a very good western.

This was the first of eleven westerns directed by one-eyed Hungarian-born Andre de Toth, and it was one of his two best. Star Joel McCrea was moving into the phase of his career during which he would, as Randolph Scott had done, choose to make mostly westerns.  He and Veronica Lake (now Mrs. De Toth) had starred early in the decade in Preston Sturges’ excellent Sullivan’s Travels, and now, as her career waned, they reunited in a very good western directed by her husband.  It was based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good sign for a western, especially in the late 1940s.

There’s a lot of backstory as the movie starts, and a large cast of characters with complicated relationships.  The ramrod of the title is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), who is coming back to himself after an extended period of heavy drinking.  His wife died giving birth to a son, and the son died in a cabin fire, triggering Nash’s descent into alcoholism.  Three weeks before the film begins, sympathetic sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) had gotten him a job with Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), who plans to bring sheep into the area and break up the cattle ranchers’ monopoly on the valley’s free range.

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Stars Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea behind the scenes.

The cattle ranchers are led by the fierce Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), and they include Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles).  He and his strong-willed daughter Connie (Veronica Lake) are on the outs; he wants her to marry Frank Ivey, and she’s engaged to Walt Shipley instead.  She has moved out of her father’s ranch house and into the local hotel.  As the movie starts, Shipley is about to take the stage out of town to buy sheep, and Ivey has vowed to stop him.

It’s night as the stage is about to leave; Dave is in front of the hotel to back up his boss with his gun as the occasion presents itself.  But Walt can’t stand up to Ivey, and he folds.  He disappears from town quietly, leaving his Circle 66 ranch to Connie.  Red Cates (a young Lloyd Bridges), one of Ivey’s riders, prods Dave in a bar; they fight, and Dave wins and almost comes to blows with Frank Ivey, too.  Connie plans to run Shipley’s ranch and hires Dave as her foreman (or “ramrod”), figuring he’s one of the few who’ll stand up to Ivey.

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Bill Schell (Don DeFore) is recruited by his friend Dave Nash (Joel McCrea).

In turn, Dave hires four or five more riders, beginning with his long-time friend Bill Schell (Don DeFore).  Schell has a long-term grudge against Ivey, and few scruples about staying on the right side of the law.  He brings in the other riders, who all have issues with Ivey.  When Ivey and his men burn down the former Shipley ranch house and buildings while Connie is retrieving things from her father’s house, Dave moves her into a nearby stone line cabin used by Ivey.  When they file for title to the line cabin, Ivey and his men show up there, and Ivey orders Virg (Wally Cassell) to beat Curley (Nestor Paiva), who is there to give Connie protection.  The camera work is tight on Virg’s face, managing to convey the brutality of the beating without showing the actual blows.

Connie takes what’s left of Curley into town, where he is cared for by Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan), the local dressmaker.  She and Dave have a relationship of sorts, but now there are questions by some, including Ben Dickason, about the nature of Dave’s relationship with Connie.  Dave insists on allowing Jim Crew to follow the law as they plan the next step after Curley’s beating.  However, Bill Schell finds Ivey’s ramrod Ed Burma (Ray Teal, in an early role although he was not young even then) in a livery stable.  Schell prods him into a fight and guns him down.

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Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) and his men ride up to the line cabin now taken over by Connie (Veronica Lake).

Connie senses Dave’s reluctance to do anything downright dishonest, so she approaches Bill Schell to stampede her herd and blame it on Ivey.  As Sheriff Jim Crew goes to arrest Ivey, Ivey shoots him down.  When he hears about it, Dave finds Virg and kills him in a gunfight, taking a bad wound to the shoulder himself.  The dying Virg tells him it was Ivey himself who killed the sheriff, not Virg.  The doc fixes Dave up at Rose’s, but Bill has to get him out of town before Ivey finds him in such helpless condition.  Curley finally dies from the effects of his beating.

Bill hides Dave in a mine in the hills, but Connie rides there to take them supplies.  Ivey’s men follow her. Dave is healing, but not yet enough, and Bill puts him on Connie’s horse and sends him one direction.  He takes Dave’s horse and heads higher into the mountains, where Ivey and two other men track him.  Ivey kills Schell with two shotgun blasts to the back.  As Dave makes it back to town, Ben Dickason tells him how Schell was killed.  With his arm still in a sling, Dave takes a shotgun into the street to call Ivey out.  Ivey still thinks of Dave as a drunk and taunts him about how close he’ll have to get to make the shotgun work.  He does.  The question then remains:  Will Dave take up with Connie, who now has the way clear to her own ranching empire, or is he still more interested in Rose?

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Dave Nash and Frank Ivey finally have it out, shotgun against pistol.

Joel McCrea is excellent as the reforming alcoholic Dave, and Veronica Lake has a very strong role as the scheming Connie.  At first she’s pushed into using whatever she can, but we can see that she comes to relish using all the tools at her disposal.  This was her only western, but she’s good in it. Use of her as a femme fatale nudges this into the noir western category.  Don DeFore is very good as the genial, good-with-a-gun but not terribly scrupulous Bill Schell, and a lot of the smaller roles are well played, too.  Preston Foster is a standard despicable villain as Frank Ivey.  Charles Ruggles, often a genial or comedic father figure (see Ruggles of Red Gap, for example), is still genial but not commanding as Connie’s father.  Arleen Whelan is pretty good but not great as Rose the dressmaker, although it’s kind of a thankless role, since she’s mostly playing the counterpoint to Lake’s Connie.  This and Kidnapped (her first starring role) were the high points of her career.

This complex western cost more than $1 million to make in 1947, and it didn’t make that back at the time.  However, modern audiences tend to like it better than those of 1947.  It’ll make you wonder why you haven’t heard more about it.  It’s available on Blu-Ray since 2012.

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A still of the sultry Veronica Lake in her role as Connie Dickason.  You can see why the Spanish title was La Mujer de Fuego (“Woman of Fire”).

Although there’s a lot going on, the story is economically told in 95 minutes.  The dialogue is well-written, crisp and intelligent.  There is both good camera work and excellent western scenery, since the film was shot in southern Utah in and around Zion National Park.  Cinematography is in black and white by Russell Harlan, who also shot Red River, The Big Sky and Rio Bravo for Howard Hawks, not to mention Lust for Life and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Joel McCrea was in several strong westerns about this time in the late 1940s, including Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and The Outriders.  Andre de Toth went on to make a series of westerns, many of them starring Randolph Scott, until he burned out on them in the mid-1950s.  Several of them, such as The Bounty Hunter, Riding Shotgun and Carson City, are well worth watching.  His last western was Day of the Outlaw in 1959, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives. His first (this one) and his last were his best.  If you like his work, look for his well-known 3-D horror classic, House of Wax with Vincent Price.

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Lust for Gold

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 23, 2014

Lust for Gold—Glenn Ford, Ida Lupino, Gig Young, William Prince, Edgar Buchanan, Paul Ford, Will Geer, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jay Silverheels (1949; Dir: S. Sylvan Simon)

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This mystery-noir western is a retelling of the story of the Lost Dutchman Mine on Superstition Mountain in Arizona.  It has a modern (ca. 1949) framing story with the supposed grandson of the Dutchman, and the historical portion of the film, which takes place in 1886 and 1887, features a sordid romantic triangle and several murders.  The movie starts with a certification from the governor of Arizona that the events of the film are true “according to the histories and legends of Arizona.”  This is about as truthful as most such movie declarations are.

In modern times, Barry Storm (William Prince), the grandson of German-born Jacob Walz, is hiking on Superstition Mountain when he hears a gunshot and finds the body of adventurer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke), shot with a hunting rifle.  He reports this to the Sheriff Lynn Early (Paul Ford) in Florence, Arizona, and leads an expedition to retrieve the body.  Revealing himself to be the grandson of Walz (the Dutchman after whom the mine is named), deputies Ray Covin (Will Geer) and Walter (Jay Silverheels), an Apache, go back to the site with him and tell him the history of the mine and show him a couple of the landmarks associated with it.  Storm goes off to a retirement home in Phoenix, looking for more of the story.

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Walz (Glenn Ford) and Wiser (Edgar Buchanan) follow the last of the Peraltas to the lost mine.

Long known by Apaches, the fabulous mine was rediscovered by the three Mexican Peralta brothers around 1850.  Manuel Peralta and his miners are killed by Apaches led by Cochise, however.  More than thirty years later, Ramon Peralta returns to Superstition Mountain (about 40 miles from Phoenix) with an American partner (Arthur Hunnicutt), who can file on the claim.  They are followed by Wiser (Edgar Buchanan) and his friend Jacob Walz (Glenn Ford), who trail them to the mine.  Once there, they kill Ramon and his partner and Walz kills Wiser, leaving the three bodies in a ravine.

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Walz cashes in the first of his gold.

[Spoilers follow.]  Walz takes his initial load of gold back to Phoenix, where gold fever builds.  Among those affected is Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), who tells her ineffective husband Pete (Gig Young) to disappear while she gets to know Walz.  She’s successful, and Walz is infatuated with her, while Pete becomes a local laughingstock.  Walz makes five trips to the mine, returning each time to Julia.  After the fifth trip he sees Julia and Pete together and realizes he’s being played.  He gives Julia a map back to the mine, and Pete and Julia arrive there before him.  Walz takes their mules and supplies and traps them at the mine without water.  Finally Pete runs out of bullets and Julia tries to go to Walz.  Pete stops her, and she stabs him in the back (literally, with a knife).  As Julia climbs toward Walz, there’s an earthquake and she’s crushed by rocks;  Walz is also killed and the entrance to the mine buried.

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Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino) is trapped at the mine.

Storm now thinks he can find the mine, and he heads back to the mountain.  However, there is still Buckley’s killer, who has apparently killed a total of four men over two years.  The killer also finds Storm, and they fight.  It is deputy Ray Covin, who is larger than Storm.  During their lengthy fight, it appears that Ray is winning until he is bitten by a rattlesnake and falls over a cliff.  It develops that Lynn Early had his suspicions about Ray but could not prove them until he could use Storm as bait.  Storm still hasn’t found the mine, though.

The structure of the movie is a bit complicated, with its multiple flashbacks, but it works if you’re paying attention.  This film has a large cast of good actors and a very noir feel, with few admirable characters.  British-born Ida Lupino is particularly effective as the faithless Julia Thomas, and Glenn Ford is appropriately moody as a Walz who is alternately sympathetic and murderous.  Ford’s German accent is slippery.  The weakest link in the cast is William Prince as Barry Storm; but he’s not terrible and spends most of his time narrating.  This was based on Thunder God’s Gold, a 1945 book by the real Barry Storm that renewed interest in the Lost Dutchman Mine, but there are many versions of the story.   The real Jacob Walz supposedly died of pneumonia in 1891 after flooding on his Arizona ranch.  Author Storm was not in fact a grandson of Walz, and sued the studio.

There are some painted backgrounds and obvious studio shots, and the earthquake sequence does not look particularly real.  But the movie is nevertheless quite watchable.  This was director S. Sylvan Simon’s last film; he died a short time later of a heart attack at 41.  Shot on location in Arizona, in black and white by Archie Stout; 90 minutes in length.

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The Showdown

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 25, 2014

The Showdown—William Elliott, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, Jim Davis, Marie Windsor, Rhys Williams, Yakima Canutt, Charles Stevens (1950; Dirs:  Dorrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan)

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Not a terribly meaningful title for a cattle drive movie.  Stoic actor Wild Bill Elliott starred in a lot of B-type westerns and crime stories in the late 1940s and 1950s, including several as Red Ryder, but he was kind of stone-faced and not very charismatic.  If you want to watch one of his westerns to see what he was about, you could do worse than trying this one. 

William (Wild Bill) Elliott is Shadrach Jones, an ex-Texas State Policeman looking for his brother’s killer.  The movie opens with Jones digging up his brother’s body, to find that he’d been shot in the back with a small-caliber gun.  Figuring the killer to be one of the hands on a trail drive to Montana, he signs on as the trail boss for owner Cap MacKellar (Walter Brennan) of the Circle K after he has to kill Big Mart (Leif Erickson), the existing foreman.  Marie Windsor (queen of the B-movies) is Adelaide, saloon owner and partner to MacKellar, with perhaps a romantic interest in Jones.  She shows up to go on the drive, theoretically to protect her investment but really to have a female on screen through the movie.

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Adelaide (Marie Windsor) and Shadrach Jones (William Elliott).

[Spoilers follow.]  The drive has the usual vicissitudes (stampedes and related deaths), with the added element of somebody killing various participants as the drive moves along.  Finally an accident gives MacKellar a mortal injury and he admits that he did the shooting of Jones’ brother, leaving a number of loose ends in the plot. 

There are some spots where the background is too obviously painted, and the supporting cast is stronger than the lead.  Walter Brennan gives the best performance in the film as McKellar, the owner of the herd.  Charles Stevens (grandson of Geronimo) is another of his Indian Joe characters.  Harry Morgan is good as Rod Main, a gunhand hostile to Jones from the start.  Rhys Williams is Chokecherry, the one-handed cook and chuckwagon driver.  On the whole this seems slightly better than a B movie, with a better than average script.  A Republic film with a low budget and some noir elements, but it’s better than it deserves to be.  Black and white, 86 minutes. 

Not to be confused with either Showdown (1963) with Audie Murphy, or Showdown (1973) with Rock Hudson, Dean Martin and Susan Clark.  Not to mention Fury at Showdown, Showdown at Boot Hill, etc.

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Station West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 22, 2014

Station West—Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Gordon Oliver, Guinn Williams, Raymond Burr, Tom Powers, Regis Toomey (1948; Dir:  Sidney Lanfield)

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“A STRANGER IN TOWN…WHERE STRANGERS WEREN’T WELCOME!…and he found out a gal double-crossed is Deadly as Poison!”

Well cast, Dick Powell’s only western is sometimes referred to as a noir western, mostly because stars Powell and Greer frequently found themselves in films noirs but also because of the flavor of the dialogue and the shadows in the cinematography.  This is a rare western for both Powell and Greer, and they’re both very good in it.

Powell is Haven, an undercover military man investigating the murder of two soldiers killed while transporting gold.  He gets a job working for Charlie (Jane Greer), the very attractive owner of the local saloon and many other enterprises around town.  There’s a well-staged fight between Haven and Mick Marion (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, playing Charlie’s chief thug instead of his usual quasi-comic relief).  The question seems mostly to be whether Charlie is centrally involved in local crime or whether it’s her right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) who’s doing it. 

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Haven (Dick Powell) and Charlie (Jane Greer) figure things out.

Chemistry develops between Charlie and Haven.  Agnes Moorehead plays a mine owner and romantic interest of the local post commander (Tom Powers).  Burl Ives is a singing hotel clerk and one-man Greek chorus as he comments on the action.  “A man can’t grow old where there’s women and gold.”  Both Ives and Greer sing, quite pleasantly.

In the end, Haven shoots Prince but Prince shoots Charlie while going for Haven.  Turns out that Haven and Charlie are in love, but that’s not going to work out.  There is snappy film-noir-style dialogue; this is based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good source for a western.  It seemed that not all the plot threads were resolved in the end, but it was pleasant to watch.  This might make a good double feature with Rancho Notorious, Blood on the Moon or Colorado Territory.  Above average; shot in Sedona, Arizona, in black and white with lots of shadows, at 80 minutes.  Good cinematography by Harry Wild.

Burl Ives was surprisingly interesting to watch in westerns.  He was in five or six of them, of which this is an early one and the only one in which he sings.  In his two best, from the late 1950s, he played strong leaders, very effectively:  The Big Country and Day of the Outlaw.

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Devil’s Doorway

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forty Guns

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 18, 2014

Forty Guns—Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Robert Dix, Hank Worden (1957; Dir:  Samuel Fuller)

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The forty guns referred to in the title are employees of the boss of the range, Jessica Drummond (Barbarbara Stanwyck) in Cochise County, Arizona, in this Earpian-cattle queen melodrama.  U.S. marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) comes to town with two of his brothers, with a warrant for one of those employees. 

Drummond has run things pretty much as she pleased, with her private army and the local sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) in her pocket.  Her wild younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) has a tendency to drink too much and to father illegitimate children, whose mothers Drummond then has to pay off.  The Bonnell brothers are bathing when Brockie and his friends shoot up the town, including shooting the elderly near-blind town marshal (Hank Worden).  After some entreaties, oldest brother Griff (Barry Sullivan) tackles Brockie and arrests him.  The corrupt sheriff then lets him go with no consequences.

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Griff serves his warrant at the Drummond ranch and meets Jessica.  She seems intrigued by him.  Bonnell brother Whit (Gene Barry) meets the local female gunsmith and is taken with her.  Griff keeps trying to send youngest brother Chico (Robert Dix) off to California, but he resists because he wants to join the family business.

The man Griff arrested is shot in jail, and Griff looks for the shooter.  He develops more of a relationship with Jessica, while Ned Logan sets up a trap for Griff with the supposed shooter as bait.  When Griff walks into the trap, Chico gets the shooter who would have shot Griff.  Brockie goes crazy, displaying the corpse of the shooter at the local undertaking establishment.  Griff and Jessica deepen their relationship while all this trouble also gets deeper.  She fires Sheriff Logan, who hangs himself in despair at being cut out of Jessica’s life.

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On the day of Whit’s wedding to the lady gunsmith, Brockie tries to kill Griff from afar with a rifle and kills Whit instead.  Jessica pays for his legal defense and bribes judges, but he’s convicted and she refuses to help him escape.  Her empire, based on bribery and other sorts of crime, is falling apart around her ears, while she tries to do the right thing and square herself with Griff.  Brockie breaks out and uses Jessica as a hostage/shield.  Griff shoots Jessica non-fatally and then empties his gun into Brockie when he drops her.  Chico takes Whit’s position as the town marshal, and Griff heads off to California in his two-seater buggy.  Around the end credits we can see a distant shot of Jessica running up the dirt street after Griff and catching up to him at the fade-out.  Presumably they make up and live happily ever after, rebuilding Jessica’s empire.

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The Earp connection is made overt by having this take place in Tombstone, in Cochise County, Arizona, and by having the Bonnell brothers’ father named Nicholas (also the name of the Earps’ father).  It has some heavy-breathing passion, some apparent double entendres and some noir touches.  A good, watchable movie, with a fair amount of talking for a western.  The title song “High-Ridin’ Woman With a Whip” is reprised a couple of times.  Some of the interior scenes at the Drummond ranch are apparently shot in the remodeled set for Tara from Gone With the Wind.  Filmed in black and white; not a long movie, at around 80 minutes.  This has become a modest cult favorite, with some similarities to Johnny Guitar.  Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan also starred together in The Maverick Queen.

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