Category Archives: Westerns Worth Watching

Cahill U.S. Marshal

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 20, 2015

Cahill U.S. Marshal—John Wayne, Gary Grimes, George Kennedy, Neville Brand, Clay O’Brien, Marie Windsor, Royal Dano, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Paul Fix, Hank Worden (1973; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)

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The late phase of John Wayne’s career was unusual because, unlike his contemporaries such as Henry Fonda and James Stewart, while he continued to make westerns as they did, some of Wayne’s were actually pretty good.  While this is not the best of late John Wayne, it is not among the worst, either.

J.D. Cahill (an aging John Wayne) is, as the title has already told us, a U.S. marshal, based in Valentine, Texas.  The drama comes because he has been, as a widower, a neglectful father, with his two sons (aged 11 and 17) growing up resentful of his constant absences from their lives.  The movie opens with a scene where Cahill catches and brings in five armed bank-robbers single-handedly, establishing his formidable competence as a marshal.

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J.D. Cahill (John Wayne) is clearly nobody to mess with.

Meanwhile, back in town, his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) has fallen in with bad company and has gotten himself thrown in jail with them to establish an alibi for a criminal enterprise.  The younger son Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) has also been enlisted in the plan, moving the tools into position, providing a distraction for the sheriff and others by setting fire to a barn, and taking and hiding the loot after the job.  He lets the conspirators, led by Fraser (George Kennedy), out of jail, and they proceed to rob the bank, killing the sheriff and a deputy in the process.  They get back into jail as if they’d never been out, establishing their apparent innocence.

The boys, especially Billy Joe, have a tough time, since they’re not really hardened outlaws and were promised there’d be no killing.  J.D. takes Danny and the half-Comanche Lightfoot (Neville Brand in dark makeup) in pursuit of the supposed robbers, and catches four of them.  They seem guilty enough so they are sentenced to hang, although Danny knows they are innocent—of the bank robbery, at least.

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Cahill (John Wayne) is not pleased to find his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) in jail with questionable companions (George Kennedy).

He may be lacking as a father, but Cahill’s instincts as a manhunter are at full strength, and he knows something is up with his sons.  He and Lightfoot track them as they take the money from the robbery up in the mountains to meet Fraser and the others at a mine.  They are shot at by the gang’s sentry; Lightfoot wounds him but is himself killed.  The sons know that Fraser does not intend to leave them alive.  Since we have already seen Cahill take on several bad guys at one time, we are not surprised when he does it again; it is well-staged.  The sons take the loot back to town to return it, and it looks like they’ll arrive in time to stop the wrong men from hanging.  (They should still need a good lawyer, although that isn’t addressed.)  Cahill’s left shoulder is wounded twice in the course of the movie, but it looks like some repairs have been made to his relationship with his sons as well.  Maybe the future will be better.

The working title of the film initially was “Wednesday Morning.”  Produced by Wayne’s Batjac production company, there are elements of this we’ve seen elsewhere.  The faux-Indian figure (played by Howard Keel in The War Wagon and by Bruce Cabot in Big Jake) is here done best of all by Neville Brand, although he was never an actor of much subtlety.  Elmer Bernstein had done many musical scores on John Wayne movies (e.g., The Comancheros), and elements of the music here seem recycled.  Cahill’s invincibility seems a bit overdone, although it is a critical element of the story and certainly of the John Wayne persona.  The large hairy outlaw who doesn’t speak much but is a vicious killer seems imported from Big Jake.

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Head bad guy Fraser (George Kennedy) is pretty scary to an eleven-year-old in the rain.

John Wayne is, well, very much John Wayne in this movie.  His hats got taller during the 1970s, but he still looked convincing in a well-written part.  At 66, he was not in good health, suffering from emphysema and the lung cancer that would kill him in a few years.  Reportedly, he also had a few pangs about his own paternal neglect of his children over the years, which was partially addressed here by having one of them (Michael Wayne) as the producer.  In the early 1970s, Gary Grimes specialized for a few years in coming-of-age stories, notably in Summer of ’42, but also in westerns such as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Spikes Gang, and he wasn’t bad at it.  Young Clay O’Brien, who played the younger son, was an authentic New Mexico cowboy whose first acting job had been on Wayne’s The Cowboys the previous year.  After a few years of playing small cowboys in movies, he went back to real cowboying, becoming a champion roper.  Part of the fun here is seeing all the good character actors in bit parts. Royal Dano, Paul Fix, Hank Worden, Marie Windsor (once queen of the B movies), Denver Pyle and Harry Carey, Jr. all show up briefly here.  Even Chuck Roberson, Wayne’s long-time stand-in and stunt double, shows up on screen here; in addition to playing the head of a lynch mob, most of the medium-to-long shots of Cahill on a horse are actually Roberson.

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Cahill (John Wayne), here with sons Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) and Danny (Gary Grimes), takes a knife to the shoulder in the climactic shootout.

Director Andrew McLaglen had long had connections with John Ford and John Wayne through his father, actor Victor McLaglen.  This was his fifth and final movie directing John Wayne, and as a movie director, McLaglen was a pretty good television director; that is, he never seemed to be as good as he should have been, given the resouces and talent he often had to work with at this stage of his career (see The Way West, for example).  Screenwriter Harry Julian Fink and his wife Rita Fink had written Dirty Harry and Big Jake, and would go on to do a few more Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies.

This movie is not the best of Wayne’s late career; The Cowboys, Big Jake and The Shootist (his last film) are all better.  But it’s far from the worst, which would include the lamentable Rio Lobo and The Train Robbers.  All in all, it’s worth watching, even if it sometimes seems like there’s less here than meets the eye.  Shot in Durango, Mexico, in color, at 103 minutes.

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Man in the Saddle

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 16, 2015

Man in the Saddle—Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Terry, Alexander Knox, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Cameron Mitchell, John Russell, Richard Rober, Clem Bevans, Alfonso Bedoya (1951; Dir: André de Toth)

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Several of the the Randolph Scott movies from the early 1950s had generic-seeming titles for a western (e.g. The Stranger Wore a Gun), and this is one of them.  It came by the title honestly, taking it directly from its source novel by Ernest Haycox.  Behind that generic title, however, is a strong cast, a good director (one-eyed Hungarian André de Toth), and a complicated range war plot, with a lot of characters coming and going around another Randolph Scott romantic triangle (as in, for example, Canadian Pacific, A Lawless Street, Return of the Bad Men et al.).

Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) of the Christmas Creek Ranch is one of the smaller ranchers near the big Skull Ranch, owned by Will Isham (Alexander Knox).  Merritt and Isham had both been courting Laurie Bidwell (Joan Leslie), from a poor family with an alcoholic father.  Although she seems to prefer Merritt, Laurie has chosen Isham and security as the movie opens.  Isham senses that she still has feelings for Merritt, and it makes him insecure, feeding his need to take over the valley by fair means or foul.

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Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is threatened by his (much shorter) adversary Will Isham (Alexander Knox).

As Merritt licks his emotional wounds, Isham has hired gunfighter Fay Dutcher (Richard Rober) as his foreman.  One night just after the marriage, Merritt’s cattle are stampeded and Juke Vird, one of his hands, is killed.  Juke’s brother George (a youngish Cameron Mitchell) goes into town looking trouble with the Skull hands.  In a gunfight in a dark bar, one the Skull gunhands is killed, leading to a series of strikes and counterstrike between Merritt and the Skull outfit.  George Vird is killed, and Merritt attacks a Skull line cabin.  Merritt’s ranch is attacked and Merritt wounded; he is rescued by his neighbor Nan Melotte (Ellen Drew), who takes Merritt to her grandfather’s remote cabin to recover for a few days.

They are found there by Hugh Clagg (John Russell), an unbalanced lone-wolf-type with a fixation on Nan.  He tries to kill Merritt, but Merritt fights him off and Clagg makes his escape to the Skull Ranch.  As Clagg makes accusations about the faithlessness of a woman, Isham thinks he’s referring to Laurie and shoots him in cold blood.  He and his men head for town to ambush Merritt and his men there.

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Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) and Hugh Clagg (John Russell) fight for the hand of Nan Melotte in a collapsing cabin.

Merritt and his men sneak into town in a dust storm dressed as Mexicans, with one of the Skull men who saw the Clagg shooting.  They take him to the sheriff, where he fills out an affidavit.  Isham’s men invade the jail, but Merritt goes after Isham.  They reach an agreement that Isham will leave the valley, taking Laurie with him, but as Isham comes down the stairs of the hotel he is shot by his own foreman Dutcher.  Merritt and Dutcher shoot it out, and we know what the outcome of that will be.  The Skull Ranch now belongs to Laurie, and it seems that Nan and Merritt belong to each other.

Fay Dutcher to Owen Merritt, as he turns away with his hands up:  “You wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, would you?”
Owen Merritt:  “I could you.”

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Merritt (Randolph Scott) fights Isham’s forces.

Scott is good as he usually was, riding his horse Stardust (an uncredited co-star) and with his trademark leather jacket making at least one appearance.  Joan Leslie and Ellen Drew are a little stronger than most women in Scott westerns.  Alexander Knox is a bit too much of a megalomaniac in his one-note humorless performance, but his part seems to be written that way.  The rest of the supporting cast is quite strong.  John Russell is good as the unbalanced Hugh Clagg in one of the story’s more interesting and less predictable threads.  Alfonso Bedoya was charming (he has a recurring bit about finding a new hat), but for modern tastes he seems rather an uncomfortably stereotypical Mexican in most of his roles, including this one.  Guinn Williams (The Desperadoes, Virginia City, etc.) keeps his broad comic relief tendencies under control here as one of Merritt’s riders.

A surprising amount of the action takes place at night (the raids and counterstrikes and an impressive gunfight in a darkened saloon) or in a dust storm (the final developments and gunfights), emphasizing De Toth’s good direction and excellent cinematography.  This was the first of De Toth’s six westerns with Scott, although he didn’t think Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown paid enough attention to a film’s story as long as they were making money.  In this case, the plot has a lot of convolutions for the film’s 87 minutes, but much of it is predictable bad big rancher vs. virtuous smaller rancher stuff when you start thinking about it.  We get to see one of Randolph Scott’s patented fights in a collapsing/burning building (see Ten Wanted Men, Hangman’s Knot and Riding Shotgun, for other examples) when Clagg and Merritt tangle in an old cabin.

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The excellent cinematography is by Charles Lawton, Jr., who did many good westerns, including 3:10 to Yuma with director Delmer Daves and several with Budd Boetticher.  It has a better-than-average theme song, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford in hist first film appearance.  Kenneth Gamet, who wrote a number of Scott films (and a total of 44 westerns for the large and small screens, in fact), did the screenplay.  Shot in color at Lone Pine, at 87 minutes.

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Director Andre de Toth confers with Guinn Williams and Randolph Scott during filming.

Although it’s not one of Randolph Scott’s very best westerns, it’s one of the better films from his pre-Budd Boetticher period and well worth watching.  Some say it’s the best of the half-dozen De Toth-Scott collaborations, although you should see at least The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City and Riding Shotgun before deciding.  De Toth’s very best westerns are probably his first (Ramrod, with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake) and last (Day of the Outlaw, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives).

 

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Red Mountain

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2015

Red Mountain—Alan Ladd, Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy, John Ireland, Jay Silverheels, Jeff Corey, Neville Brand (1951; Dir: William Dieterle, John Farrow [uncredited])

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This is one of Alan Ladd’s more elusive, seldom-seen westerns, a Civil War story with an excellent cast.  Ladd plays Brett Sherwood, a captain from Georgia who has gone west in April 1865 to Colorado Territory to meet up with “Gen.” William Quantrell.  (Reality note: Usually spelled “Quantrill,” he was a colonel at best, and he was long dead by this time, having been killed in Missouri.)  The opening scene shows the legs of a person in the town of Broken Branch dismounting and killing an assayer, hiding his identity.  Since a rare form of Confederate ammunition was used, the locals figure that former Confederate soldier Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), paroled after he was captured at Vicksburg, is responsible.

A lynch mob captures Waldron and is about to hang him when Sherwood shoots the rope (a la Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and helps him escape. When Waldron discovers his rescuer is also a Confederate, he figures Sherwood killed the assayer, and, with the help of his fiancée Chris (Lizabeth Scott), he ungratefully captures Sherwood to turn him in and exonerate himself.  Waldron has found a significant gold strike and wants to stay in the area to work it.

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Sherwood (Alan Ladd) meets Gen. William Quantrell (John Ireland) in Colorado.

The upper hand shifts back and forth a couple of times until Waldron’s leg is broken in a scuffle. Sherwood flags down a passing Union patrol, which turns out to be a group of Confederates and their Ute sympathizers led by Gen. Quantrell (John ireland).  Chris, a Union sympathizer who had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, when Quantrell raided there, is horrified.  Sherwood works to keep the two prisoners alive, while Quantrell is pleased to have another military officer and kindred spirit.  Gradually Quantrell reveals plans to foment a larger Indian rebellion (involving Comanches, Cheyennes, Utes and others) in the wake of the Civil War.

Chris is allowed to retrieve a doctor for Waldron, who is in bad shape, but the doctor is killed when Sherwood helps him escape.  Against her better judgment, Chris is falling for Sherwood rather than Waldron, and Quantrell also becomes suspicious.  As Sherwood helps Waldron and Chris defend themselves against the Utes, a real Union patrol attacks Quantrell.  As Quantrell flees, Sherwood takes after him, and gets him in a final shootout.  Waldron is dead of wounds by this time, and, as Sherwood recovers from his own wound, he confesses to the marshal that he killed the assayer.  Sherwood had found a claim in Colorado Territory before the war, and the assayer had stolen it.   Apparently Sherwood and Chris end up together.  (We knew any character played by Arthur Kennedy was unlikely to get the girl.)  Chris knows where Waldron’s gold strike was.  And word reaches them that the Civil War has ended two days earlier.

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Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), Sherwood (Alan Ladd) and Chris (Lizabeth Scott) make their last stand.

Lizabeth Scott, best known for her work in films noirs, is fine here in one of her two westerns (with Silver Lode [1954]).  Alan Ladd makes a sympathetic leading man, as usual, and is obviously becoming more comfortable in westerns than he was in Whispering Smith.  If you haven’t seen him in a western, you should start with Shane and maybe Branded, both from around the same time as this film; but this one isn’t bad aside from the obvious historical impossibilities.  Character actors Jeff Corey and Neville Brand show up in small parts as a couple of Quantrell’s troopers.  Jay Silverheels is Ute chief Little Crow.

William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame [the Charles Laughton version, 1939], Kismet [1944], Portrait of Jennie [1948]) was a mainstream director, not particularly known for westerns.  The uncredited John Farrow directed a few scenes when Dieterle was unavailable during filming.  Music is by Franz Waxman.  Shot in color by Charles Lang around Gallup, New Mexico, at 84 minutes.

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For another western that has Quantrell surviving the war and heading out west to continue his depredations, see Arizona Raiders (1965), with Audie Murphy.

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Bandido

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pursued

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 24, 2015

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

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

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 15, 2015

Terror in a Texas Town—Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Nedrick Young (Ned Young), Victor Milian, Carol Kelly, Sheb Woolley (1958; Dir: Joseph H. Lewis)

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Sterling Hayden starred in several B westerns in the mid-1950s, sometimes venturing into more ambitious territory with more upscale films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Killing (1956), later even showing up in smaller roles in Dr. Strangelove (as Gen. Jack D. Ripper) and The Godfather (as a corrupt police lieutenant killed in a restaurant).  He was said to have been more interested in sailing than in acting.  This low-budget effort is his last starring role in a western, and it’s also the last film directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry), who was known for his style-over-substance approach to filmmaking.

Some of that style is apparent from the opening scene, which shows Swedish whaler George Hanson (Sterling Hayden) marching down the dusty main street of the Texas town of the title without hat or gun, but carrying a whaling harpoon into a confrontation with a stereotypical black-clad, one-handed gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young). The rest of the story is told in flashback, getting us back to this point.

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The opening scene sets up the final confrontation on a dusty Texas street.

The outlines of the plot are not remarkable. A wealthy man, Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), has come to town, intent on taking over the surrounding land because it has oil.  He brings in Johnny Crale, a gunslinger he has worked with before.  Since then Crale appears to have lost his right hand and now wears one of metal with a glove, although his nasty disposition is intact.  Among those who will not sell is Swedish immigrant Sven Hanson (Ted Stanhope in an uncredited role); and Crale coldly kills him.  The killing is witnessed by Juan Mirada (Victor Milian), who keeps silent in part because his wife is expecting a new child any day,.and in part because it would do no good to say anything.

Sven’s son George Hanson comes to town to visit his father.  Although he is generally peaceable, he has progressive run-ins with Crale, whose men beat him and put him on a train out of town.  He returns and persuades Juan to tell the story of his father’s killing, until Crale kills Juan as his child is being born; the murder is witnessed by his own son Pepe.  McNeil starts to see Crale as a liability and they have a falling-out, until Crale kills him, too.  This brings us back to the opening scene, as George takes up the weapon he knows, a harpoon, and goes to meet Crale in the street in one of the most unusual western showdowns ever filmed.

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Land magnate Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) negotiates with his enforcer Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), while McNeil’s “secretary” listens.

Hayden, who never looked much like the traditional western hero, does well enough as a Swedish whaler who can’t be pushed any farther.  For once, devoted sailor Hayden got to play an actual seaman, even if in a western with no ocean.  Sebastian Cabot is better than most range tyrants as the nefarious oil-hungry magnate.  Kendrick Young is not entirely satisfying as the one-handed gunman, in a kind of stereotypically-written role.  Victor Milian (who was in the film noir Touch of Evil the same year, but spent most of his career in television) does well as the Mexican witness weighing his responsibilities to his family against telling the truth about Crale.

Director Lewis earns his reputation for style by constantly distracting us from the outlines of a routine story with unusual camera angles, lingering close-ups on weathered faces and disturbing editing.  In general, virtue is not rewarded, nor are those who summon the courage to do the right thing (Sven Hanson, Juan Mirada).  The psychologically-tortured gunman Crale seems almost as much a victim as those he killed–perhaps because his mother never loved him or because his crippled gun hand represents another kind of impotence.  The whole thing has the kind of bitter aftertaste of, say, The Ox-Bow Incident, with justice coming out on the short end.  This has become something of a cult favorite in some circles.

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When the law fails, George Hanson (Sterling Hayden) uses the weapons at hand–in this case, a harpoon.

Except for the inclusion of “Texas,” there is little about the alliterative title that signals this is a western.  Written by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, under another name.  Shot in black and white by Ray Rennahan, at 80 minutes.  For another Lewis-directed western featuring a gunman with a crippled hand (Randolph Scott this time), see A Lawless Street (1955).  If you’re only going to watch a couple of the eighteen Sterling Hayden westerns, you should try this and Johnny Guitar, neither of which was exactly typical for him.

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The Gun Hawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 11, 2015

The Gun Hawk—Rory Calhoun, Rod Cameron, Rod Lauren, Ruta Lee, Robert Wilke, John Litel, Morgan Woodward (1963; Dir: Edward Ludwig)

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This is a late western in the careers of Rory Calhoun and Rod Cameron, and the last movie for director Edward Ludwig (who made such John Wayne non-westerns as Big Jim McLain, Wake of the Red Witch and The Fighting Seabees).

The title refers to the mysterious figure who runs the haven of Sanctuary on the Mexican border, enforcing his rules with his gun.   Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun), not bad with a gun himself, rides into Baxter, the town where he grew up, in time to meet and help young footloose gunman Reb Roan (Rod Lauren).  Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron, with lots of gray paint in his hair) liked Madden when he was growing up and once offered him a job as his deputy.  He didn’t take it, but his jealous childhood friend Mitch (Morgan Woodward) did, and he still resents Madden.  Madden tells Corey he’s not staying in town but is headed to Sanctuary.

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Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron), Deputy Mitch (Morgan Woodward) and Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun) all see trouble coming but differ in their responses.

In the local saloon, after Madden helps Roan in a fight with the Sully brothers, those brothers start picking on the town drunk (long-time character actor John Litel, who had often played ministers and even Gen. Phil Sheridan).  Finally, they shoot him, not realizing that he’s Madden’s father.  Madden leaves town, saying he’s not going in pursuit of them, but he finds them before Corey does.  Corey rides up, sees Madden standing over the two dead Sullys and tries to arrest him.  Madden rides away, gambling that Corey will not shoot him in the back, but he does, winging him.

Aimless young drifter Reb Roan finds Madden having collapsed from his wound and does what he can to doctor it.  It’s in Madden’s right arm (his gun arm), and it obviously impairs Madden’s ability to use his gun.  As the two of them ride into Sanctuary, Madden is greeted as “El Gavilan,” Spanish for “the hawk”—he is the mysterious figure who presides over Sanctuary.  His first action is to run out Johnny Flanders (veteran screen heavy Robert Wilke), who has violated Sanctuary’s rules about not using guns.  He accomplishes this not with guns but (not very convincingly for some one with a badly wounded right arm) with his fists.

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Roan (Rod Lauren) and Madden (Rory Calhoun) ride into Sanctuary.

[Spoilers follow.]  Ben Corey rides into Sanctuary and takes Madden into custody, but the residents of the hamlet prevent him from riding out with El Gavilan.  Mitch tries unsuccessfully to raise a posse in a neighboring town and wants to just shoot Madden down.  Corey takes back his badge.  Meanwhile, in Sanctuary Madden’s romantic interest Marleen (Ruta Lee) spends the night with him, and in the morning he forces Roan into a gun fight.  Roan is wounded but Madden (who was dying from his wound) is dead—a death the way he wanted it.  Marleen then explains to Roan that, having violated the rules of Sanctuary, he must now leave.

The ending is not terribly satisfying, and the rationale for Reb having to leave not all that convincing now that Madden is dead.  There are at least two alternate endings that would have worked better:  (1) Instead of Madden dying, he and Roan stage the final gunfight, but it is just that—staged, for Corey to witness from his perch above the town.  When he sees Madden’s apparent death, he gives up the chase, and Madden and the inhabitants of Sanctuary live happily ever after in their remote location.  Or better, (2) if Madden has to die, it plays out as in the movie, but with his last words the dying Madden passes to Roan the mantle of El Gavilan, and Roan becomes the protector of Sanctuary in the place of his mentor.  And it’s never really explained why the fatherly Corey actually did shoot Madden in the back, although theoretically just wounding him.  The result in the film is probably more true to the state of 19th-century medicine on the trail than if Madden had survived.

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A last night for Madden (Rory Calhoun) and Marleen (Ruta Lee).

Experienced hands Calhoun and Cameron are fine in this low-budget effort, although Calhoun spends too much time just looking pained, either from his wound or the situation around him.  Lauren and Ruta Lee are not impressive.  This is not among Calhoun’s very best efforts; those would probably be Dawn at Socorro (1954) and Apache Territory (1958), both with better writing. But it does pull us in with interesting characters, good world-weary acting from Calhoun and with its twist on familiar situations up to a point, until things fall apart at the end.  Rory Calhoun fans will want to watch it anyway.  In color, at 92 minutes.

For another tale of a haven for outlaws in the Southwest, see the more famous Rancho Notorious (1952) by director Fritz Lang, with the establishment presided over by Marlene Dietrich.  There is a string of westerns about gunmen with physical impairments, the best-known of which is El Dorado (1966), in which John Wayne is the afflicted gunslinger.

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Santa Fe

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 8, 2015

Santa Fe—Randolph Scott, Janis Carter, John Archer, Roy Roberts (1951; Dir: Irving Pichel)

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In the wake of the Civil War, southerners Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) and his three brothers have lost their plantation in Virginia and head west.  In northern Missouri, they encounter hostile Yankee soldiers and are forced to kill one.  In their escape (Scott leaves behind his beautiful horse Stardust, who disappears from the movie), they hop on a passing train and end up in Kansas.  Brit goes to work for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, but his embittered brothers fall in with Cole Sanders (Roy Roberts), operator of a mobile saloon with a lot of other unlawful activities.

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The Canfield brothers in northern Missouri. Randolph Scott (second from left) is still riding Stardust.

Brit quickly becomes the chief assistant and troubleshooter for Dave Baxter (Warner Anderson), a former Yankee officer who remembers Britt as a capable commander for the opposition during the late war.  Baxter’s clerk, payroll manager and telegraph operator Judith Chandler (Janis Carter) is initially hostile, having lost her husband in the Civil War action for which Baxter remembers him.  Sanders (and Canfield’s brothers) fire up Indian hostility to the railroad, until Britt lets the chief drive the iron horse.  Canfield is continually at war with Sanders, with his brothers caught in the middle.

With the railroad rushing to the Colorado state line to make a bonus, Sanders causes a drunkern surveyor to move the state line designation so that the bonus is imperiled until Brit and Baxter drive the construction through the night for the final 48 hours.  The Denver and Rio Grande threatens to take Raton Pass in eastern Colorado (effectively blocking the Atchison, Topeka) until Brit makes a marathon ride to buy the toll road in the pass from Uncle Dick Wooton first.

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Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) meets the hostile Judith (Janis Carter). Note Scott’s trademark jacket.

A mysterious gang robs the train carrying the payroll, and Britt recognizes a couple of his brothers.  One of them is wounded and dies of his wounds.  Bat Masterson from Dodge City arrests the youngest brother until Britt creates a reasonable doubt for him, with the help of Judith Chandler.  Baxter sets up a decoy train, but Sanders overhears Britt telling his brothers it’s a trap, and they rob the Wells Fargo safe instead.  While pursuing the robbers, Britt encounters Bat Masterson and Baxter and persuades them to let him join their posse.

At a remote station they trap Sanders and his gang; when the remaining two Canfield brothers balk at killing during the escape, Sanders and his men shoot them.  Sanders and his remaining henchman leap aboard a passing train with Britt in pursuit, and since he’s Randolph Scott, we know how that will turn out.  Baxter finds that Judith has hidden a wanted poster for the Canfields and no longer trusts Brit; although the railroad makes it to Santa Fe (despite the name of the railroad, the original line didn’t go to Santa Fe), but by that time Brit is working for a railroad in Nevada.  When Judith finds out where he is, she goes to join him.  Fade to black.

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Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) hunts for train robbers in the rocks.

This is one of several movies with Randolph Scott as a railroad troubleshooter (see Canadian Pacific and Carson City, for example) in building a western railway.  The film has a lot of plot and good action, with Scott continually torn between getting the railroad through and trying unsuccessfully to get his brothers to go straight.  There are some loose ends in all of this; it’s not clear why Sanders would profit from sabotaging the railroad, for example.  You’d think he would do best with his mobile saloon if the railroad prospered.  This isn’t one of the better supporting casts for a Randolph Scott western; Janis Carter is a fairly colorless female lead, as was common in those films.  The film starts with misattributing a well-known phrase from Lincoln’s second inaugural address to the Gettysburg Address; and includes windy Manifest-Destiny pronouncements and speeches by C.K. Holliday (Paul Stanton playing the owner of the railroad) on more than one occasion.

On the whole, however, this is worth watching, with lots of good action–one of the better Randolph Scott westerns from the early 1950s.  It would make a good double feature with Carson City.  Shot in color in Arizona by Charles (Buddy) Lawton, Jr., at 87 minutes.  This was one of the last films from director Irving Pichel.  The producer was Harry Joe Brown, who frequently worked on Scott projects, most notably those directed by Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s.

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Three Violent People

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2015

Three Violent People—Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Elaine Stritch, Robert Blake (1956; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This combines a romantic melodrama with a brother-goes-bad story, all set in post-Civil War carpetbag Texas.  The central question is:  What will happen when a respectable man discovers his new wife’s sordid past?

Capt. Colt Saunders, a former Confederate cavalry officer, is returning to the family ranch in southern Texas after the war.  He sees the oppression by the carpetbaggers but is careful not to get involved himself, until he notes a well-dressed woman about to be manhandled when she tries to alight from a stagecoach.  The woman is Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter), and in the ensuing fight Saunders is knocked unconscious.  Lorna puts him in a hotel room and makes off with $900 she finds on his person, but on second thought she has it put in the hotel safe with a receipt made out to Saunders.  It turns out the hotel and its related saloon are run by her old (and shady) friend Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), who disapproves of whatever game Lorna’s playing with Saunders.

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Early Days: Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) and Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) get to know each other.

When he wakes up, Saunders is taken enough with Lorna to marry her impulsively on the spur of the moment.  Arriviing at the Saunders Bar S ranch founded by Saunders’ grandfather, they find that (a) it has been kept running by foreman, gunman and resident sage Innocencio Ortega (Gilbert Roland) and his five sons, (b) the carpetbag government has taken virtually all the Saunders cattle, leaving them only a hidden horse herd, and (c) Saunders’ one-armed black sheep brother Beauregard “Cinch” Saunders (Tom Tryon) has returned to complicate everything else.

Saunders and Lorna go off to visit a neighbor, where instead they find the local carpetbag Tax Commissioner (Bruce Bennett) and his minions, including Cable (Forrest Tucker), a gunfighter.  One of the minions recognizes Lorna from St. Louis, where as a member of Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler’s staff he had once frolicked with her during the war.  It’s a bad way for Saunders to find out, and he doesn’t take it well.  Against Ortega’s advice, he orders her to leave while he’s off on an extended tour of the ranch.

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Carpetbagging gunslinger Cable (Forrest Tucker) gets what he wants.

Thinking better of it, especially when he learns that Lorna is pregnant, he heads back to ranch headquarters early, only to find that Cinch has persuaded Lorna to help him make off with the remaining Saunders horses, which they plan to sell for $30,000.  With the help of Ortega and his sons, Saunders recaptures the herd and takes the horses and Lorna back to the ranch, at least until the baby is born.  Ortega decides he must leave in the face of such stupidity.  Cinch Saunders has been banned from the ranch for his perfidy, but he schemes with the carpetbaggers to take over the Saunders ranch, even as Texas’ carpetbag government is falling apart.

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Hard-headed Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) negotiates with his brother Cinch, with his wife Lorna, and with carpetbaggers.

The baby is born, and Lorna prepares to leave as Saunders had demanded.  Cinch shows up to take over but is double-crossed by the Commissioner and Cable, who plan to leave no witnesses to their shady dealings.  He redeems himself by taking out Cable at the cost of getting shot himself, while Saunders, Ortega and the Ortega sons kill the Commissioner and drive off the other nefarious carpetbaggers.  Cinch dies nobly, and Lorna and Colt Saunders are apparently back together.  And Ortega and his sons (one of whom is played by Robert Blake) decide to stay.

Charlton Heston was hitting the peak of his career, having just finished as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956, not yet released at the time this was filming) and coming up as Steve Leech in The Big Country (1958) and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur (1959).  He manages to convey the competence and implacability of Colt Saunders, although this is not on the scale of those three big productions.  Anne Baxter is good as a woman with a past (The Spoilers [1955], Cimarron [1960] and even The Ten Commandments).  And Gilbert Roland, who had been in movies since the silent era of the 1920s, played this kind of role—a polished Hispanic man of the world, good with a gun—better than anybody else, although here he verges on a stereotype.  On the whole, this feels a little overheated to current audiences, but melodramas are no longer fashionable in movies.  It’s quite watchable, although you wish the characters (except for Roland, who talks a lot) would talk to each other more, and that there was a little more subtlety in the relationship between Colt and Lorna Saunders.  Tom Tryon as bitter one-armed brother Cinch is too much a one-note character.  It would be good if glimmers of something other than the bitterness were shown.  Some of the names (Colt?  Cinch?  Beauregard?) are a bit of a problem.

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Rudolph Maté, who had started as a cinematographer in Europe in the early 1920s, was an experienced director of westerns (The Rawhide Years, The Far Horizons, The Violent Men).  The screenplay was by James Edward Grant, a favorite of John Ford and John Wayne.  Shot in color in and around Old Tucson, Arizona, by Loyal Griggs, at 100 minutes.

It’s not entirely clear who the three violent people are (there would seem to be more than three), but they’re probably Colt Saunders, Cinch Saunders and Innocencio Ortega.  Maybe including Lorna Saunders, since the title isn’t limited to men.  Not to be confused with Maté’s The Violent Men (1955), with Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Brian Keith.

For Charlton Heston in better westerns, see him in the sprawling The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Burl Ives and in the excellent character study Will Penny (1968).  Gilbert Roland shows up in Anthony Mann‘s The Furies (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck,  Bandido (1956) with Robert Mitchum and as a noble Cheyenne chief in John Ford‘s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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Slow West

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 23, 2015

Slow West—Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann (2015; Dir: John Maclean)

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Life in 1870 in Colorado Territory was apparently “nasty, brutish and short,” as in the well-known quotation by Thomas Hobbes and as depicted in this low-budget current western with a high body count.  Young (16-year-old) Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is out of his element, searching for his lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius).  A narrator (Silas, as it turns out) describes him as “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”  The mood is set as the credits role over Jay riding through an Indian burial site.  We are shown in a series of flashbacks how Jay’s uncle was accidentally killed in an altercation, causing Rose and her father (Rory McCann) to flee Scotland for the wilds of the New World.  The flashbacks also reveal that Rose, of a lower social caste, does not think of Jay as a lover.  What Jay also does not know is that a bounty of $2000 (very high for the time) has been posted on the Rosses, causing legions of distasteful bounty hunters to pursue them.

Silas:  “Kick over any rock, and most likely a desperado would crawl out and knife you in the heart if there was a dollar in it.”

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This is not as much a standoff between a masked Silas (Michael Fassbender) and a young Jay Cavendish as it would at first appear.

As Jay gets closer to the Silver Ghost Forest (a name more allegorical than real-sounding) somewhere in Colorado, he is confronted by three ex-soldiers hunting Indians for sport, until he is rescued by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), one such bounty hunter.  Silas quickly and pitilessly dispatches the three, and Jay gives Silas his remaining money to get him safely to his destination.  They arrive at an isolated general store, and spot another bounty hunter, dressed as a minister and carrying an elaborate rifle.  While they are at the store, a desperate Swedish couple arrives and tries a hold-up.  The storekeeper kills the husband, and, as the wife holds a gun on Silas, Jay shoots her.  As they flee the scene, they see two blond children waiting outside the store.

Sickened by it all, Jay sneaks away from Silas and falls in with Werner (Andrew Robertt), a man in a yellow wagon who appears to be a 19-century anthropologist “recounting the decline of the aboriginal tribes in the hope of preventing their extinction by their conversion to Christianity.”  As Werner notes, “In a short time, this will be a long time ago,” showing a keen (and perhaps anachronistic) awareness of the transitory nature of the Old West.  When Jay awakens the next morning, he discovers that Werner has departed in the night with his horse, clothes and possessions.  He stumbles across the prairie until Silas finds him and gives him back his horse and clothes.  Silas denies having killed Werner for it.

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Chaperoned by Silas (Michael Fassbender), Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way farther west.

As they camp one evening, they are accosted by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who presides over a band of scurrilous bounty hunters and with whom Silas once rode.  Payne plies them with absinthe, and Jay stumbles into Payne’s camp, noting that they appear to have the two blond children with them now.  When Jay and Silas awaken the next morning in a downpour, they have lost their guns and most of their meager possessions.  But they make it to the Silver Ghost Forest, and see the Ross cabin in the distance.  Silas ties Jay to a tree to keep him from dashing into the situation.

[Spoilers follow.]  We see that the reverend/bounty hunter has arrived first, and he picks off John Ross.  He is in turn blasted by Payne’s men, who lay siege to Rose and an Indian within the house.  As Silas tries to help them without a gun, he is shot twice and rendered helpless.  Silas, Rose and the Indian have reduced the number of Payne’s band, however.  Jay finally gets loose and makes his way to the cabin, only to be shot by a shaking Rose as he enters.  Payne finally enters as well and appears to have them at his mercy, but Rose slips a dying Jay her pistol and uses her body as a shield to give him the chance to shoot Payne.

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Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), leader of a pack of ruthless bounty hunters, in his impressive fur coat.

As the movie comes to an end, we see Rose, Silas and the two blond children, apparently living as a happy family.  It pans back over Silas’ killings that we saw earlier.  Maybe all the bounty hunters are dead; if not, we have no idea why they are able to live so peacefully now.

The title is curious but not inaccurate.  This was written and directed by first-time Scottish director John Maclean, with a bit of a European sensibility.  Sometimes the dialogue does not seem entirely authentic, as with Silas’ repeated “Let’s drift” when he’s ready to get going.  Jay crosses the U.S. (or at least the western part of it) on horseback without a hat, which seems unlikely.  The film does not always explain what’s going on, resulting occasionally in a slightly surreal feel, reminding us of, for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man—another tale of a stranger in a strange western land.  Still, it is skillfully executed in its way and worth watching.  Most viewers will find it more accessible than Dead Man.  The siege at the cabin is well-filmed; it could easily have been very confusing with so many characters involved, but we can follow it well enough.

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Rose (Caren Pistorius) finds herself besieged by bounty hunters and surrounded by flying bullets.

If the scenery does not always look completely like Colorado, that’s because this was shot mostly in New Zealand.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, and was released in May.  The twangy music by Jed Kurzel is very good.  Excellent cinematography is by Robbie Ryan.  In color, at 84 minutes; rated R for the violence.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender is by far the best-known cast member, but all four of the main performers are excellent–Fassbender, young Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn.  For South African/New Zealander Pistorius, in particular, it may prove to be a breakthrough role, although she isn’t actually on screen much until the end.  (Her name appears to be misspelled on one of the film’s posters.)  Fassbender had a production role as well, which is why the film got made.  If you have the opportunity, watch it twice; it will flow better the second time.

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Poster for the UK release of Slow West, scheduled for late June 2015.

Rodrigo Perez in The Playlist was one of the more enthusiastic reviewers:  “Brilliantly executed, Maclean’s movie is certainly an unconventional Western with a European and outsider’s perspective.  While it has its share of traditionally moody and atmospheric elements, Slow West is perhaps best defined by its sharp wit, absurdist violence and fairy tale qualities.  Evincing a magic realism of fable dreaminess, juxtaposed with harsh severity, Maclean is right at home with this tone.

“Slow-burning and simmering, Slow West knows how to kick the voltage into high gear.  As the movie gallops to its inevitable epic conclusion, the narrative is like three wicks lit and racing to a thrilling and explosive ending with a high body count, but with heart and soul, too.  A dark but spirited fable about the pitilessness of the West, the meaning of home on the range and the worthwhile qualities of wicked, seemingly irredeemable men, Slow West is a terrific little parable, and a strong debut by John Maclean worth treasuring.”

 

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