Tag Archives: Westerns Noir

Quantez

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 8, 2014

Quantez—Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone, John Gavin, John Larch, Sydney Chaplin, Michael Ansara, James Barton (1957; Dir: Harry Keller)

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Talkative, melodramatic western with a small cast.  This is one of Fred MacMurray’s better westerns, and worth watching.  The title refers to a ghost town in which a small gang of outlaws finds itself after a robbery.

The band of outlaws is retreating across the desert toward Mexico, on the run from a posse after robbing a bank.  They haven’t been together long, just put together by the ruthless Heller (John Larch) for this job.  They include Chaney (Dorothy Malone), Heller’s woman; Gentry (Fred McMurray), an experienced desert scout; Gato (Sydney Chaplin), a white man raised by Apaches; and Teach (John Gavin), a young easterner good with a gun. 

QuantezGangHorseThe gang arrives.

After eluding the posse in Apache country, they come to Quantez one horse short, only to find it abandoned.  The action and a lot of dialogue take place over one night as they try to sort out their differing loyalties and objectives.  Heller, as it turns out, is willing to leave Chaney behind.  Gentry keeps trying to make things work, getting both Heller and Teach to back off in turn.  As matters develop, both Teach and Gentry seem to be interested in Chaney, setting up another potential conflict. 

Itinerant artist Puritan (a contrived-seeming name, played by James Barton) rides into the ghost town, singing about a gunfighter named John Coventry and painting Chaney’s portrait.  Gentry, it is revealed, is Coventry, and he helps Puritan escape Heller’s clutches.  Gato is trying to work out a deal with the Apaches led by Delgadito (Michael Ansara).  In the end, they kill him instead.  Gentry/Coventry is finally forced to kill Heller and holds off Delgadito’s band long enough to give Teach and Chaney a chance to escape. 

QuantezGavinMaloneMacM Getting out.

This is reminiscent of Yellow Sky, Rawhide, Man of the West and Incident at Tomahawk Gap, which all involve relative innocents captured by ruthless, unprincipled outlaws in remote locations in a movie with a noir-ish feel.  It might be Fred MacMurray’s best western; he and Dorothy Malone are particularly good.  In color, and short at just over 80 minutes.  This can be hard to find, but it’s worth seeking out.

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Rawhide

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 28, 2014

Rawhide—Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, George Tobias (1951; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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No, not the trail drive television series, with the memorable theme song by Frankie Laine, that gave Clint Eastwood his start.  Eastwood has nothing to do with this.  The title refers to Rawhide Pass, the stagecoach relay station where this movie takes place, as well as perhaps to a stagecoach driver’s whip.  The geography doesn’t entirely make sense; Rawhide Pass is supposed to be about midway on the trip between San Francisco and St. Louis, but it seems to be perhaps in Arizona Territory from the references to Yuma and Tucson.  There are references to the prison at Huntsville, which would seem to be Texas.  Timewise, it’s before the transcontinental railroad, perhaps in the late 1850s. 

In any event, Tom Owens’ father is a big cheese in the overland stage line, and Owens (Tyrone Power) is at Rawhide Pass relay station to learn the business from old timer and stationmaster Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan).  Owens is not doing too well at it and can hardly wait to head back east in a week.  The stage comes through, carrying among others Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and a one-year-old baby, Callie.  She’s heading east from the California gold country, but before she can continue her trip she’s forced off the stage by company policy. 

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Escaped criminals from Huntsville Prison, led by Ray Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), have raided one stage and supposedly make it too dangerous for the baby to continue.  However, waiting doesn’t help.  The four criminals show up at the station, taking Todd, Owens and Holt prisoner.  In addition to Zimmerman, there are Tevis (Jack Elam, in the juiciest role of his early career), a depraved killer crazed with lust for Holt; a German, Gratz (George Tobias); and a compulsive petty thief, Yancy (Dean Jagger).  They plan to wait for the noon stage the next day, which they know is carrying $100,000 in gold. 

The gang assumes that Holt is Owens’ wife; they kill Todd early on.  Owens and Holt try desperately to escape, with no success, and the gang members bicker among themselves.  There’s a fair amount of character development, and developing tension as well.  Ultimately Owens shows himself to have some character, and Holt may have fallen in love with him.  In the climactic shoot-out, Holt plays the pivotal role.  Owens’ pistol seems to have an inexhaustible supply of bullets, amazingly enough.

RawhideElamHay Tevis leers at Holt.

Susan Hayward is the most watchable actor in the movie, although Power and Marlowe are both good, too. At first we take her for a woman with a past, an unwed mother.  But she eventually explains that the child is not hers but her sister’s.  However, she seems to have a chip on her shoulder about it all.

The claustrophobic feel, the black and white cinematography, and the focus on unstable characters in desperate situations make it seem noir-ish.  The theme music over the opening credits by Alfred Newman had been used before, in 1940’s Brigham Young.  Written by Dudley Nichols, who also wrote Stagecoach and The Tin Star.  Shot at Lone Pine, in black and white, by Milton Krasner.  Very watchable; better even than Garden of Evil, a good western which was also directed by Henry Hathaway with Susan Hayward.  She wasn’t in many westerns, but there were at least three more:  Canyon Passage, The Lusty Men and The Revengers.  The situation of innocents held by bad guys has some similarities with The Tall T and Man of the West, as well as non-westerns The Desperate Hours and Key Largo.  The DVD is available in a Fox Western Classics set with The Gunfighter and Garden of Evil, a pretty good deal on three pretty good westerns.

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The Law and Jake Wade

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 21, 2014

The Law and Jake Wade—Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Henry Silva, Robert Middleton (1958; Dir:  John Sturges)

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“Do you want to die now, or in a few minutes?”

This is from director John Sturges’ early period; he made several very good westerns in the 1950s.  His major period was thought to be a little later, in the 1960s with larger-scale movies (The Magnificent Seven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Great Escape).  But with Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill and others, his work is worth seeking out.

Robert Taylor was usually kind of a wooden performer, but that stoic quality can work okay in westerns, of which he made several in the 1950s.  The real star of this modest western (shot at Lone Pine in Owens Valley) is Richard Widmark as Clint Hollister, a near-psychotic badman with whom Taylor has a past. 

LawWadeWidTayHollister and Wade negotiate.

Jake Wade (Taylor) is now a city marshal of a small town in New Mexico, but he springs Hollister from jail to save him from hanging because Hollister once did the same for him when they ran in the same outlaw gang.  The completely amoral (or even immoral) Hollister then repays him by abducting Wade and his fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens).  It turns out that when Jake left the gang more than a year previously, he took the loot from their most recent robbery.  Now Hollister wants it, and he wants to kill Jake, too. 

The plots works itself out in the ghost town where Wade had buried the money in the cemetery, with a raid by Comanches and, ultimately (inevitably), a shootout between Wade and Hollister. 

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Widmark is excellent as the relentlessly nasty Hollister.  Notable supporting characters include Robert Middleton as Otero, and Henry Silva and DeForest Kelly (later of Star Trek) as other members of Widmark’s gang.  Silva shows up again as Chink, an evil henchman of Richard Boone in The Tall T, also made about this time, and as a Mexican Indian outlaw in The Bravados.  He often has an ethnic edge of some kind.  This is very watchable.  In color, with Wade wearing Taylor’s usual black.  See also Saddle the Wind, made with Taylor about the same time.

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Blood on the Moon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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A good cast, with a complicated story for the 90-minute length of the movie.  Note Garry’s authentic-looking hat, different than 1950s-style hats in westerns.  Some shots look like Monument Valley, but mostly it was filmed on the RKO lot in Encino, with some outside of Sedona, Arizona.  Like Yellow Sky, released the same year, it has some noir-ish elements, especially in the use of light and shadow.  An RKO release in black and white, directed by Robert Wise (best known for The Sound of Music).  Not yet available on DVD in the U.S. at the end of 2013.

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

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Garden of Evil

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 10, 2014

Garden of Evil—Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell, Hugh Marlowe, Victor Manuel Mendoza (1954; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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During the California gold rush (putting this more or less in the 1850s), passengers on a steamship are stranded in Puerto Miguel on Mexico’s Pacific coast.  They include Hooker (Gary Cooper), a former sheriff from Texas; Fiske (Richard Widmark, in what turns out to be a good-guy role), a gambler; and Daly (Cameron Mitchell), a bounty hunter.  Leah Fuller (a husky-voiced Susan Hayward) arrives in town, desperate for help in getting her mining engineer husband John out of a gold mine, where he lies trapped with a broken leg.  The title of the film refers to the region surrounding the mine, about three days of rough travel into Apache country.

Fiske:  “You know, at first I thought she was one of those women who come along every so often and fascinate men without even trying or even knowing why.”

Hooker:  “And now what?”

Fiske:  “She tries, and she knows why.”

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Hooker, Fiske and Daly sign up for $2000 each, along with Vicente Madariaga (Victor Manuel Mendoza), a Mexican.  After an arduous trip on which Daly makes a move on Leah, they find the mine, rescue Fuller (Hugh Marlowe) and fix his leg.  The unreliable Daly gets his fill of gold and they head back, followed by Apaches and slowed down by the injured and embittered Fuller. 

At the first stop, Daly helps Fuller escape on a horse to get rid of him.  Daly is killed by the Indians, and the group finds Fuller’s body hung upside down from a cross.  The party is now on the run. Vicente is killed, and they reach the narrow trail down a cliff just ahead of the Apaches.  Fiske stays behind to hold them off, and Hooker and Leah make their escape.  Hooker goes back to help Fiske, but it’s too late.  The suggestion is that Leah and Hooker go off together, perhaps with some of the gold from the cursed mine.

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Motivations are uneven.  Leah appears to love her husband (he doesn’t think so), but she also appears to be attracted to Fiske (maybe) and Hooker, though not to Daly.  It’s taken for granted that she drives all the men crazy with lust, although only Daly seems to act badly on that impulse.  (What, no bathing in a stream scene?)  The Apaches’ motivation doesn’t appear to be all that consistent, either, and they don’t look much like Apaches.  Clothes and equipment (guns, particularly) don’t fit the 1850s.  The writing is a little spotty, and there are obvious comparisons to Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  One or two of Cooper’s brief speeches get a little heavy-handed, but his presence is strong as always.  This story could have used a bit more character background development. 

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“I guess if the earth were made of gold, men would still die for a handful of dirt.”

There are questions left at the end.  For example, did any of the gold get out, and what happened to it?  Did Hooker get his $2000?  This is watchable, but not the unrecognized gem some would claim.  Spectacularly shot on location in Mexico in early Cinemascope and Technicolor, but there are occasional obvious painted backdrops, too.  Good score by Bernard Herrman and competent direction by Henry Hathaway.  If you like Susan Hayward in this, catch her in Rawhide with Tyrone Power, where she’s even better. 

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Man With the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rancho Notorious

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 23, 2013

Rancho Notorious—Marlene Dietrich, Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, William Frawley (1952; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

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Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) is a former saloon girl who runs a horse ranch in the southwest where outlaws can take refuge while on the run.  She gets 10% of their ill-gotten loot as a fee.  (Among the outlaws staying there are George Reeves, Jack Elam and the blacklisted Lloyd Gough.)  The ranch is called Chuck-a-Luck because she won the money to start it at that roulette-like game.  Her paramour is gunfighter and bank robber Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). 

When Kinch (Gough) robs an assay office in Whitmore, Wyoming, he rapes and kills Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry), fiancée of rancher Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) and kills his own partner Whitey (who wears an egregious wig).  Haskell laboriously becomes good with a gun and tries to track down the rapist-robber over the next year.  He keeps hearing stories about Altar Keane and a place called Chuck-a-Luck.  In one town he helps Frenchy break out of jail, and Frenchy takes him to Altar Keane and her ranch, where he becomes another of the guys on the run there.  He sees Keane wearing a brooch he’d given his fiancée and tries to find out where she got it, feigning an attraction to Keane. 

RanchoNotoriousDietKenKeane and Haskell.

The outlaws get shot up in a bank holdup when Kinch prematurely takes a shot at Haskell.  Haskell turns Kinch over to the local sheriff, and the rest of the gang (except for Frenchy) turns on Keane for telling Haskell about Kinch.  In the ensuing shootout, Haskell kills Kinch, but Keane takes a bullet for Frenchy and dies.  Haskell and Frenchy apparently ride off together, a la the ending of Casablanca.

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Haskell is a typical Lang hero with a fixation on vengeance after a terrible wrong.  But the Van Heflin-esque Kennedy is not particularly memorable in the lead role.  There a faintly amoral air to the movie, and a slightly European feel from the cosmopolitan Dietrich and Ferrer and Austrian director Fritz Lang.  Lang is not particularly interested in gunplay or action, except for the final shootout.  He tries to persuade us that Dietrich is fascinating; her character is the subject of most of the movie.  She inevitably reminds us of her role in Destry Rides Again 13 years earlier (where she played a character named Frenchy), and was said to have hated working with the Prussian-minded Lang.  The movie has a truly terrible theme song, which intrudes at several points throughout the movie, and there are several obviously painted vistas in a curiously lurid Technicolor.

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Lang’s most famous films are M and Metropolis, made when he was still in Europe, and this was the last of three westerns he made (along with The Return of Frank James and Western Union).  In the U.S., he mostly made films noir and suspense/thrillers.  This is an interesting, not-completely-effective, noir-ish, almost campy artifact, reminiscent in some ways of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar from the same era.

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Yellow Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 20, 2013

Yellow Sky—Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter, John Russell, James Barton, Charles Kemper (1948; Dir:  William Wellman)

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Talky, noir-ish western with a small cast.  James “Stretch” Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the leader and perhaps the toughest of a gang of seven outlaws.  In 1867, the gang robs a bank in northern Arizona or New Mexico and is pursued by a posse into the desert.  One of them is killed, and they set out across the waterless waste.  (An outlaw gang pursued by a posse is a traditional set-up for a desert/isolation story, used, for example, in 3 Godfathers, Quantez and Purgatory, among a number of others.)  The survivors include Dude (Richard Widmark), a gambler with a gold fixation; Lengthy (John Russell), who likes both gold and women; Bull Run (Robert Arthur), a young man; Walrus (Charles Kemper), a hefty guy with a drinking problem: and Half Pint (Harry Morgan), the least developed character of the six.  

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On their last legs, they arrive at Yellow Sky, a ghost town, where they find water, an old prospector (James Barton) and his tomboyish granddaughter Mike (real name:  Constance Mae, played by Anne Baxter).  Trouble starts almost immediately, with various lusts coming into play.  And then Dude discovers that the prospector and Mike have gold.  With numbers on their side, Stretch makes a deal to split the gold 50-50.  Lengthy and Stretch are developing interests in Mike, and some backstory develops with Stretch.  It turns out he’s a Yankee veteran of the war on the border fighting Quantrill, and his intentions toward Mike may be more or less honorable, in contrast to Lengthy’s. 

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Mike (Baxter) meets Stretch (Peck).  Dude considers his chances for the gold.

As matters develop, eventually the gang with Dude as the dominant personality rejects Stretch’s leadership, and Stretch joins the prospector and Mike as they shoot it out.  Bull Run is killed, and Dude turns on Lengthy.  Stretch gets Walrus and Half Pint to join him, and in the end has to shoot it out with Dude and Lengthy in an old saloon.  None of the saloon shootout is shown—just the bodies on the floor afterward.  Stretch returns the stolen bank money, presumably to settle down to a permanent relationship with Mike.  This is one of the first westerns where an outlaw gets to return his ill-gotten gains and walk away (unlike, say, Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter or John Wayne in 3 Godfathers, all of whom have to serve some jail time as part of their rehabilitiation). 

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The story relies on believing Peck’s basic decency, even when he seems to be a bad guy.  Peck was initially reluctant to play an outlaw, feeling that he was miscast.  Hank Worden and Jay Silverheels have uncredited tiny parts.  Watchable but a bit talky, with an excellent cast.  This may have been one of John Russell’s best roles.  Charles Kemper is largely forgotten now, but in the late 1940s and very early 1950s he was an excellent character actor in such westerns as this, Wagon Master and Stars in My Crown before his early death in an automobile accident.  Harry Morgan shows up in a surprising number of good westerns, from The Ox-Bow Incident to this to High Noon to Support Your Local Sheriff, to mention just a few. 

This was an early entry in the series of “adult” or psychological westerns of the 1950s.  The setup has some similarities with The Law and Jake Wade, made a few years later.  Some say this is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but if so it’s not a very close one.  Director William Wellman said in the book “The Men Who Made the Movies” that he had no idea of the connection.  Wellman also made such excellent westerns as The Ox-Bow Incident and Westward the Women.  Produced by Lamar Trotti, who wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, among many other films.  Shot in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills in Owens Valley in black and white.  Music by Alfred Newman.

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Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 13, 2013

Johnny Guitar—Joan Crawford, Sterlling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Paul Fix, Frank Ferguson  (1954; Dir:  Nicholas Ray)

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An unusual cult favorite with a large cast, noir influences and bright colors; similar to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in having a big female star from Hollywood’s golden age in the lead and in the melodramatic noir sensibility, among other things.  More obviously an artifact from the time it was made than any attempt to re-create the 19th century west for its story, it’s nevertheless an interesting artifact.

Former saloon girl Vienna (Joan Crawford in her hard-edged mode, a veteran of 30 years in the movies at this point) has finally built up her own saloon in the wilds of Arizona, although local ranchers (Ward Bond as baron John McIvers) and business people (Mercedes McCambridge as banker-rancher Emma Small) see her place as a haven for outlaws and rustlers.  The railroad is coming through, which they think will bring in hordes of new settlers to take their land, and Vienna stands to make a lot of money then. 

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Things come to a head when the local stage is robbed, Emma’s brother is killed in the holdup, and a tall, guitar-playing blond guy from Albuquerque shows up, apparently responding to a call from Vienna.  This is the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who initially spends his time fending off hostility both from McIvers and his group and from four apparent outlaw-miners, especially Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine).  McIvers gives Vienna and the four 24 hours to clear out; Vienna makes it clear she’s not going.  Johnny Guitar fights with Bart, and wins.  As he’s leaving, young gunman Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) shows off and Johnny Guitar grabs a gun and bests him.  It turns out his real name is Johnny Logan, and he and Vienna have a lot of history, although they haven’t seen each other in five years.  She instructs him to leave his guns in his saddlebag.

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The four outlaw-miners include Bart, tubercular Corey (Royal Dano), Turkey and their leader the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a former paramour who now fancies Vienna more than she fancies him.  There are clearly a number of conflicts coming up.  The four aren’t yet real outlaws and didn’t rob the stage; they have a silver mine, but it’s played out now.  They decide that if they’re being chased out, they might as well rob the local bank (owned by Emma) before they go.

Vienna goes to the bank the next morning and withdraws all her money.  While she’s there, the four rob the bank, while Vienna tries unsuccessfully to talk them out of it.  McIver and Emma lead a vengeful posse in pursuit of the four, but Emma’s also convinced that Vienna had something to do with the robbery.  During the chase, the passes on the escape route are dynamited by railroad crews, and the four retreat to the Lair, their large house in a hidden, defensible position.  Turkey is hurt when his horse falls, and even more when his horse runs under a low-hanging branch and knocks him off.

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Having lost the four, the posse comes to Vienna’s, which is closed.  Vienna is playing the piano in a white dress; Johnny Guitar is out of sight.  The posse finds the wounded Turkey hidden under a table, and McIvers and Emma promise him he won’t hang if he gives up Vienna as an accomplice.  Turkey cracks (Vienna tells him to save himself, so she’s kind of acquiescing although not taking responsibility for the lie), and he does it.  The posse proceeds to hang them both from a bridge anyway despite their promises.  At the last second Johnny Guitar cuts Vienna down, and they make a break for the Lair.  Vienna’s saloon is in flames.

Johnny-Guitar-HangingVienna Hanging Vienna.

The posse follows Turkey’s horse to the entrance to the Lair, and Emma convinces lookout Bart to turn on his compatriots.  He knifes Corey and Johnny shoots him as he’s trying to shoot the Kid in the back.  Emma wounds Vienna and the posse kills the Kid but refuses to go farther with Vienna.  The furious and implacable Emma then pushes Vienna into a shootout, which Vienna wins, and the posse slowly leaves.  Presumably Vienna and Johnny get back together on a long-term basis.  Maybe Vienna rebuilds her hard-won saloon.

Joan Crawford dominates the film with her character Vienna, who’s always working out what her various relationships will be.  Sterling Hayden is slightly flaky as her gunless gunman in a supporting role, although the movie is named after him.  He apparently didn’t get along well with Crawford during the filming.  Ward Bond’s McIvers has some scruples, but not enough.  Emma is said to be a one-time rival of Vienna for the Kid’s affections, but McCambridge is an implacably anti-Vienna wild woman for most of the movie, somewhat over the top in her performance.  Crawford and McCambridge did not get along well, either, and maybe that fueled some of the hostility.  McCambridge later admitted that she was battling alcoholism at the time as well.  Frank Ferguson as Marshal Williams, the voice of reason and restraint in the mob, John Carradine as Vienna’s caretaker, and Royal Dano as the consumptive, book-reading Corey are all particularly good.

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Director Nicholas Ray was known for his noir work (In a Lonely Place and others) in the early 1950s, and that sensibility is present in this melodrama, along with bright Technicolor touches and Crawford’s fierce eyebrows and crimson lipstick.  Some see this as an allegory for the political McCarthyism then dominating Congress, with the posse’s mob mentality and its leaders’ mistaken judgment and misplaced hostilities.  Taken as a whole, this is enjoyable to watch, if a bit overwrought.  It seems torn between its desire to have the Vienna character be a strong, self-sufficient woman (she wears pants for most of the film) and the occasional nod to 1950s social mores.  The all-female shootout between Vienna and Emma is a hallmark in the history of westerns.  Peggy Lee wrote and sings the title song.

[Other films with a 1940s-50s take on lynching include The Ox-Bow Incident (obviously), The Moonlighter, Three Hours to Kill and this.  The first two even have a black peripheral character present at the lynching to make the point that they really want us to be thinking about the problem of lynching of blacks in the south.]

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Day of the Outlaw

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 10, 2013

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

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

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

DayOutlawBaddies Bad guys show up.

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

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Trying–unsuccessfully–to help the women escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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