Category Archives: Westerns Worth Watching

The Unforgiven

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 18, 2015

The Unforgiven—Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford, Lilian Gish, John Saxon, Joseph Wiseman, Albert Salmi, Doug McClure (1960;  Dir:  John Huston)

UnforgivenThePosterUnforgivenTheIt

Audrey Hepburn was an elegant and accomplished actress, but seemingly not a natural in westerns—more a creature of the modern world, with a very slight and vaguely European accent.   This was her only western, and she has kind of a peripheral role, although a controversy about her is the central conflict of the movie.  In fact, she is not well cast here for what her character is supposed to be.  In addition to Hepburn, there is a lot of top talent involved here:  director John Huston, writer Alan LeMay (known for The Searchers), big star Burt Lancaster, and western star Audie Murphy.

The movie opens with an interesting shot of cattle grazing on the sod roof of the Zacharys’ ranch house in the Texas panhandle in the years immediately after the Civil War.  The family patriarch, Will Zachary, had been killed by Kiowas several years previously, and because of the long conflict with the Kiowas many whites, including middle brother Cash Zachary (Audie Murphy), hate Indians.  The Zacharys are partners of a sort in a ranching venture with the Rawlins family headed by Zeb Rawlins (crusty Charles Bickford), left crippled by Kiowa torture some years previously.

UnforgivenTheHepLanc

Sister Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) and brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) riding together.

The head of the Zachary family now is oldest brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster), first seen returning from Wichita with newly-hired hands to make the long drive back to Wichita with the combined Zachary-Rawlins herd.  The proceeds should make both families financially secure for the first time.  Brother Cash Zachary is good with a gun but hot-headed; youngest brother Andy Zachary is just inexperienced; and sister Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn in dark makeup) is a foundling adopted by the family a couple of decades earlier.

Early in the movie, Rachel encounters a mysterious older figure dressed what appear to be parts of a Confederate uniform, carrying a saber.  He is Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), who makes cryptic quasi-Biblical pronouncements and may be crazy.  Ma Zachary (Lilian Gish in her second Texas matriarch role, after Duel in the Sun more than ten years earlier) clearly feels threatened by him.  Ben and Cash give chase, and, although they do not catch Kelsey, they kill his horse.

UnforgivenTheKelsey

Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), who may be crazy, stirs up old wounds.

Rachel Zachary:  “Ben, what did those Indians want?”
Ben Zachary:  “They offered to buy you for those five horses.”
Rachel Zachary:  “Well, did you sell me?”
Ben Zachary, grinning:  “Nope; held out for more horses.”  (In fact, he has just told the Kiowas that there are not enough horses to buy her.)

Meanwhile, young Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi, who tended to play thugs or clods—here he’s a clod) is interested in Rachel, although Ben doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about Charlie’s romantic attentions to his (non-genetic) sister.  Kiowas show up, claiming that Abe Kelsey has told them that Rachel is an abducted Kiowa and sister to the Kiowa leader.  As Ben rejects the Kiowa overtures, they respond by killing Charlie Rawlins.  A clearly distraught Ma Rawlins reacts by claiming to believe the Kiowa story, and the Rawlinses threaten to pull out of their partnership with the Zacharys if the story is true.  A combined force of Zachary and Rawlins men hunts down Abe Kelsey when he steals Rachel’s horse.  Under interrogation at the Rawlins ranch, he says that when his own son was captured by the Kiowas years before, he had wanted to trade young Rachel for his son and the Zacharys had refused.  As Kelsey sits on a horse with a noose around his neck, Ma Zachary kicks his horse and he hangs.

UnforgivenTheNego

Oldest brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) negotiates with the Kiowas.

[Spoilers follow.]  Back at the Zachary ranch, Ma Zachary admits that when Will Zachary returned from a settler raid on a Kiowa village a couple of decades earlier, the only survivor was an infant girl, who was then adopted by the Zacharys in the place of their recently–deceased baby girl.  That was Rachel.  Cash is having none of it and leaves in a rage.  The Zacharys find themselves besieged by Kiowas and hold out for a day under the leadership of Ben.  Ma is shot and dies because she doesn’t tell anybody about her wound.  The next day, the Kiowas drive the Zachary cattle onto the top of their house, causing the roof to collapse.  Cash returns with ammunition just in time and kills several Kiowas but is wounded a couple of times himself.  Rachel, with only a few rounds in a pistol, is confronted by her Kiowa brother and has to choose between the only family she has known or her Indian heritage.  She shoots the Kiowa brother.  At the end, with their ranch in ruins, the latent romance between Ben and Rachel comes out, and they decide to get married.

This is a typical sort of John Huston movie, with dark secrets from the past influencing or controlling the present.   Burt Lancaster is a strong lead, seldom wearing a hat during the entire movie so his vigorous growth of hair is always on display.  Audie Murphy is perfectly adequate in one of his few A westerns (along with Night Passage).  Lilian Gish is good at being a frontier matriarch haunted by the dark past.  Audrey Hepburn doesn’t look much like an Indian despite her dark makeup, and she has an unusually refined persona for any kind of frontier woman.

UnforgivenTheHepGun

Preparing to receive the Kiowas: Rachel (Audrey Hepburn, in her dark makeup) with her frontier skills.

Huston saw this as a story about racial relations and bigotry; the studio wanted to make sure that it was primarily commercial, and the two concepts do not always make for a comfortable mix.  Some of the dialogue and references to Indians (they are continually referred to as “red-hide Indians” and worse) seems a bit virulent for modern tastes.  It has some themes in common with John Ford’s The Searchers, although in this case it’s an Indian child abducted by whites and not the other way around. Big budget or not, this is watchable but seems somewhat overheated. Music is by Dimitri Tiomkin and cinematography by Franz Planer.  Filmed in color in Durango, Mexico, at 125 minutes. Not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven.

Lancaster’s production company was behind the film, and he initially saw Kirk Douglas in the role of his brother Cash.  That idea was shot down because it was thought that Douglas would alter the balances between the brothers as written in the story.  When it was decided not to use Douglas, Tony Curtis and then Richard Burton were considered for the role before Audie Murphy was ultimately chosen.  Bette Davis turned down the Lilian Gish role because she didn’t want to play Burt Lancaster’s mother.

UnforgivenThe4End

The surviving Zacharys: Andy (Doug McClure), Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Rachel (Audrey Hepburn).

Before filming began, director Huston and Lancaster took Lillian Gish out to the desert to teach her how to shoot, which she would have to do in the film.  However, Huston was surprised to discover that Gish could shoot faster and more accurately than either he or Lancaster, who both thought themselves expert marksmen.  It turned out that early in her career during the silent movie era, Gish was taught how to shoot by Oklahoma outlaw Al Jennings, who had become an actor after his release from a long prison sentence for train robbery and was cast in one of her films.  She found that she liked shooting and over the years had developed into an expert shot.

Audrey Hepburn was seriously injured during production when she was thrown by a horse between scenes.  Hepburn, who was pregnant, spent six weeks in the hospital healing from a broken back and, when she returned to the set, was able to complete her role wearing a back brace, which her wardrobe had to be redesigned to hide.  Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage a few months later, which some blamed on her injury from this movie.  Indeed, John Huston blamed himself for the mishap, although Hepburn harbored no ill feelings toward the director.  While Hepburn was in the hospital, Huston filmed scenes using a double.  Of course, it didn’t help Hepburn’s health that her weight fell to 98 pounds during filming, and that she increased her smoking to three packs a day.

unforgivenThePoster2

In his autobiography, John Huston describes this film as the only one he ever made that he entirely disliked.  Film critic David Thomson, not usually a Huston admirer, called it his best film.  It pretty clearly is not:  The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen and The Man Who Would Be King all have stronger claims to that honor.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Canadian Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 11, 2015

Canadian Pacific—Randolph Scott, Victor Jory, J. Carroll Naish, Nancy Olson, Jane Wyatt, Robert Barrat (1949; Dir: Edwin L. Marin)

CanPacPosterCanPacPoster2

Randolph Scott seemed to have bad luck in romantic triangles in western movies.  In the earlier stages of his career, in Virginia City, Western Union and Jesse James, he was an ethical guy with a shady past or even a good guy in an insipid role, doomed to lose the girl to Errol Flynn, Robert Young and Tyrone Power.  Later in his career, plots of his movies sometimes found him interested in two women, one of whom insists that he give up his guns (Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street, Jacqueline White in Return of the Bad Men and Jane Wyatt in Canadian Pacific).  In two of those movies he actually ends up with the woman who wants him to change, but in this case Jane Wyatt loses out.

Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) is a surveyor and troubleshooter for the Canadian Pacific Railway, now trying to find a path over the Rocky Mountains.  The railroad is meeting resistance from the local metis (a group of mixed French-Canadian and Indian ancestry) led by fur trader Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory).  The animosity between Rourke and Andrews is complicated by the fact that they both fancy the same girl—Cecille Gautier (Nancy Olson, in her first significant screen role), daughter of a metis leader.  Andrews finds a pass for the railroad and is not scared off when Rourke takes a shot at him.  He is unsuccessful at dissuading a metis meeting from supporting Rourke, and returns to the railroad.

CanPacOlsonScottMountsCanPacWyattScott

Publicity stills of Andrews and his romantic interests:  Cecille Gautier (Nancy Olson) and Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) in the Canadian Rockies; and Tom Andrews successfully romances the lady doctor (Jane Wyatt).

The railroad extension effort is led by Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat), who persuades Andrews to come back to the railroad instead of marrying Cecille.  Andrews encounters railroad lady doctor Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a beautiful and intelligent but priggish easterner with her own hospital railroad car who views him as a gun-wielding barbarian.  Nevertheless, she patches him up from the occasional bullet wound, and presides over his lengthy recovery when he is grievously injured by a dynamite blast triggered by a shot from Rourke.  Meanwhile, Rourke persuades the Blackfoot Indians to attack the railroad, and Cecille rides to warn Andrews.

CanPacNaishSmokingDyna

Dynamite Dawson (J. Carroll Naish) lives up to his name, smoking a little dynamite with the Blackfeet.

Just recovering after several months and having found an attraction to Dr. Cabot, Andrews leads the defense, while his friend Dynamite Dawson (J. Carroll Naish) rides for help.  During the battle, while Rourke and Andrews are shooting it out, Andrews sees Rourke killed by a convenient falling tree, but not before Rourke has successfully given the signal for the Indians to attack.  At the end, Dr. Cabot can’t forgive Andrews his return to violence, and he ends up with the (much younger) Cecille.  And the railroad goes through.

CanPacIndianAttack2Color

Andrews (Randolph Scott) and the railroad men desperately fight off a massive Indian attack from behind a makeshift barricade.

This was an attempt in a way to remake Cecil B. Demille’s Union Pacific story from ten years earlier.  However, the writing isn’t as good and the story doesn’t hang together convincingly.  It was filmed on location in the beautiful Canadian Rockies around Banff National Park.  It was shot in color, but the print hasn’t aged well. 95 minutes long.

CanPacItCanPacRRPoster

For Randolph Scott enthusiasts, note that this is one of the few instances when he wears (and uses) two guns.  He was more persuasive with one.  And this is one of the earliest appearances of Scott’s famous leather jacket, which would show up periodically in progressively more worn condition for the rest of his career (Hangman’s Knot, Ride the High Country, etc.).  Director Edwin L. Marin was at the helm for several of Scott’s westerns in this era (Abillene Town, Fighting Man of the Plains, The Cariboo Trail, Fort Worth), but his work is generally unremarkable.  For another adventure involving Randolph Scott north of the border, this time with a herd of cattle, see The Cariboo Trail the next year (1950).

This was Nancy Olson’s first significant screen role, and the usually-blond Olson doesn’t seem very persuasive as a dark-haired metis girl.  At 21, she was thirty years younger than Scott.  Next, she went on to one of her biggest screen roles, as screenwriter William Holden’s girlfriend in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  Other than that, she may be most familiar now for her wholesome work as the frequent girlfriend/wife in Disney comedies of the early 1960s, like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Three Hours to Kill

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 7, 2015

Three Hours to Kill—Dana Andrews, Donna Reed, Dianne Foster, Stephen Elliott, Richard Coogan, James Westerfield (1954; Dir: Alfred L. Werker)

3HoursPoster3HoursIt

In the classic western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Dana Andrews was one of three innocent victims of a lynching, along with Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford.  In this, Andrews returns three years after he was the victim of an unsuccessful lynching attempt to find out who was responsible for the murder for which he was almost killed.

There are mixed, but mostly negative, reactions as Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) confronts one by one the leaders of the lynch mob.  In flashback we see the story of how banker Carter Mastin (Richard Webb) was killed at a dance, with certain strategic gaps so we don’t know who actually did it.  Guthrie’s main suspects are saloon owner Sam Minor (the unctuous James Westerfield), barber Deke (a frazzled Whit Bissell), hostile rancher Niles Hendricks (Richard Coogan) and smooth gambler Marty Lasswell (Laurence Hugo).  Guthrie’s long-time friend Ben East (Stephen Elliott) is now the sheriff, and he doesn’t immediately lock Guthrie up, although Guthrie is still officially accused of the murder.  Instead, Ben gives Guthrie three hours until he has to leave town—hence the title with the double meaning.

3HoursHanging

Flashback: Irate citizens attempt to hang Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) immediately after the banker’s murder.

None of the four candidates seems entirely satisfactory as the real killer, and a lot of people disliked Carter Mastin, but other matters develop as well.  When Guthrie barely escaped with his life, his fiancée Laurie Mastin (Donna Reed), sister of the murdered man, was pregnant and married Niles Hendrick to give her son a father.  Saloon girl Chris Palmer (Dianne Foster) still has a thing for Guthrie, although he doesn’t appear interested.  Gambler Lasswell has two women (unusual in a 1950s western) and attempts to leave town with them but is apprehended by Guthrie.

3Hours4Candidates

Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) holds his four murder candidates at Sam Minor’s saloon.

[Spoilers follow.]  As the four principal suspects sit out the three hours in Minor’s saloon, they review the events of the night of the murder.  Laurie still seems to have feelings for Guthrie, but will he break up her family?  As the accounts of the murder are examined, a new candidate starts to emerge, although we know him and see it coming.  In the end, Guthrie and the real killer shoot it out, Laurie stays with her family, and Guthrie and Chris ride out of town together.

This is a modest, effective and underrated western whodunit, and it is not really well known today.  Dana Andrews is remembered more for modern roles (Ball of Fire, Laura, The Best Years of Our Lives, etc.), although he made a number of westerns, even some good ones (The Ox-Bow Incident, Canyon Passage, Strange Lady in Town).  In the early 1950s Donna Reed made several westerns (The Far Horizons, Gun Fury, Hangman’s Knot, They Rode West, Backlash, etc.), and she is good here as the conflicted Laurie in a difficult situation.  This was produced by Harry Joe Brown, who did a number of Randolph Scott movies, including those with director Budd Boetticher.

3HoursAndrewsShootout

Eventually, of course, Guthrie (Dana Andrews) is forced to resolve matters in a final shootout.

On the whole, it’s worth watching and should be more widely remembered.  In color, at 77 minutes.  For another western featuring vengeance from an innocent man almost lynched, see Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Ride, Vaquero!

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 4, 2015

Ride, Vaquero!—Robert Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, Charles Stevens (1953; Dir: John Farrow)

RideVaqPosterRideVaqIt

This story takes place immediately after the end of the Civil War near Brownsville in southern Texas, on the Mexican border.  José Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) is the leader of a large gang of banditos and outlaws, with whom the law in the area (Ted de Corsia) does not have the resources to cope.  Esquedo’s right-hand man is his foster brother known only as Rio (Robert Taylor, with a lot of makeup, showy gun rig and leather cuffs).  With the end of the war, military resources in southern Texas are being beefed up.

King Cameron (Howard Keel) has bought up a lot of land in the area, and at the start welcomes his new wife Cordelia (Ava Gardner) to southern Texas.  Esquedo and his men keep burning ranches to keep out ranchers, settlers and their accompanying law.  Cameron stubbornly keeps rebuilding.  Rio has met Delia and is apparently attracted to her, but he says and does nothing that would give that away.

Rio to Esquedo:  “Why do you talk to me this way?  You wouldn’t kill anything…unless it was alive.”

RideVaqEsqMen

Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) surrounded by loyal retainers Barton (Jack Elam) and Rio (Robert Taylor).

As the conflict between Cameron and Esquedo escalates, Rio is sent to burn Cameron’s newest ranch house, which is well-fortified.  Before the task is complete, a cavalry unit shows up, and Rio and his men have to run for it.  Pursued closely by Cameron, Rio’s horse stumbles and throws him. Captured by Cameron, Rio then promises to help him round up and bring back horses from Mexico in return for Cameron not turning him over to the law or shooting him.  So the central conflict in the film is about Rio and his struggles with the ideal of loyalty.

Rio keeps his promise, to the disgust of Esquedo.  As Cameron leaves on an extended trip to purchase equipment, Rio is in effect his foreman.  Delia insists on being taken to Esquedo to try to talk him out of his war with Cameron.  Despite misgivings, Rio takes her.  The meeting goes badly, but Esquedo allows Delia and Rio to leave; he’s sure that Rio will come to his senses and rejoin him if given time.  Back at the Cameron ranch, Delia kisses Rio, and despite his attraction to her, he is horrified at her lack of loyalty to her husband, and he disappears.

José Esquedo: “The strong will fight the strong for possession of the weak.”
Cordelia Cameron: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
José Esquedo: “Only six feet of it, Senora.”

RideVaqTaylorGardnerRideVaqQuinn

Rio (Robert Taylor) and Cordelia Cameron (Ava Gardner) get to know each other.  And Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) takes aim.

Finally Esquedo loses patience and takes over Brownsville with his men, killing the outgunned sheriff, looting the bank and local saloons.  As Esquedo’s men hear of approaching cavalry, they begin to desert him.  Cameron returns to Brownsville and stands up to Esquedo, although he can’t really match him with a gun.  Finally, Rio takes on the increasingly irrational Esquedo in the saloon where he’s about to kill Cameron and demonstrates finally where his loyalty lies.

John Farrow was not really a great director of westerns.  His best western, Hondo, was at least partially directed by John Ford.  The other two, Copper Canyon and this, are flawed.  Many of the women who worked with him, including Ava Gardner, seemed to despise him.  Howard Keel was not really a terrific actor, especially when he wasn’t singing, but he’s not bad here.  Ava Gardner made few westerns (just this and Lone Star the previous year); her part here seems underwritten.  It’s pretty well known that director Farrow (married to Maureen O’Sullivan, with whom he had seven children, including actress Mia Farrow) and Gardner were having an affair during filming.

We know that Robert Taylor could be very good in the right circumstances (see Ambush and Westward the Women from about the same time, for example).  But here he seems stiff and heavily made up, and his part as the conflicted Rio is not well written.  Still, he manages to be interesting.  Anthony Quinn could be an excellent actor (Man From Del Rio, The Ride Back, Warlock), but here he chews the scenery as an over-the-top stereotyped Mexican bandit chieftain.  Jack Elam is effective in one of his meatier (if brief) roles as Esquedo’s right-hand man after Rio leaves.  Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson Charles Stevens is one of Esquedo’s banditos.

RideVaqFinal

Rio (Robert Taylor) and a debauched Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) meet over a prostrate Cameron (Howard Keel).

A considerable part of the weakness here is in the writing by Frank Fenton, who could do better (Station West, River of No Return, Escape from Fort Bravo, Garden of Evil).  Still, it’s watchable as the enigmatic Rio works out where his loyalties will lie.  For another character named Rio in a much worse western, see Jane Russell as Billy the Kid’s romantic interest in The Outlaw (1943).

Shot in color by the estimable Robert Surtees near Kanab, in southern Utah, at 90 minutes.  Music is by Bronislau Kaper.

RideVaqIt2RideVaqSpan

Like most other movies featuring a strong relationship of any kind between two men (Warlock, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many others), comments have been made about a supposed homosexual subtext.  If it’s there at all (and it’s doubtful), there’s certainly nothing overt.  It becomes a lot campier if you start thinking about it in Freudian terms.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Man from Del Rio

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 27, 2015

Man From Del Rio—Anthony Quinn, Katy Jurado, Peter Whitney, Guinn Williams (1956; Dir: Harry Horner)

DelRioPosterDelRioGerm

Anthony Quinn played the lead in a couple of small but good westerns in the mid-1950s.  One was The Ride Back (1957), with William Conrad; and this was the other.  It clearly had a small budget and a director otherwise known principally for television work, but it was good.

It presents an unusual social twist on a traditional western gunfighter story, this time with a Hispanic slant.  As the movie opens, gunman Dan Ritchy rides up to a saloon in the town of Mesa, a quieter version of Hays City, Ellsworth and Dodge City on the cattle trails north from Texas to the railroads in Kansas.  He encounters a down-at-the-heels cowboy, who stops him and asks if he remembers Del Rio five years ago, where he killed three men.  A fourth was with them:  Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn), who says that it has taken him five years to learn how to use a gun.  He’s wounded in the exchange, but Ritchy is dead.

DelRioQuinn3

Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) apparently owns the town after taking down Dan Ritchy.

The cantankerous local doctor, Doc Adams (Douglas Fowley), whose sign advertises that he is also the dentist, undertaker and veterinarian, patches Robles up, and Robles meets the doc’s housekeeper and medical assistant Estella (Katy Jurado).  Back at the saloon, the proprietor Ed Bannister (Peter Whitney) chats Robles up.  He claims to have been a gunman when he was younger, and he apparently invites gunmen to town (as he did Ritchy) in the hopes of finding one that will buy into his vision of the town as a more vigorous trail town.

As Robles tries to get to know Estella better, she’s having none of him.  Three more of Bannister’s potential gunmen come to town, and they tie up the sheriff in a tree to use for target practice.  When they want to make off with Estella, Robles shoots it out with them and wins.  (If one of the three looks familiar, that’s because it’s Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, in an uncredited role.)  Impressed, the local town fathers offer him the job of sheriff at $100 a month and lodging, along with new clothes.

DelRioQuinn2DelRioQuinnJurado2

Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) has reason to be wary, even after he is made sheriff of Mesa.  And Estella (Katy Jurado) tries to dissuade Robles from a showdown with Bannister.

But the job and situation are not as good as Robles thought.  Social acceptance does not come with the job, and when he attends a dance, neither Estella nor any of the other respectable women in town will dance with him—apparently because he is Latino and a gunman.  When Ed Bannister renews his offer because Robles is drinking heavily and feeling ostracized by the community, the two get into a fight.  Robles wins, but he breaks the wrist on his gun hand.  Notwithstanding that, he is successful at running out a young gunman who thinks he can go along with Bannister’s plan.  And he gives Bannister until noon the next day to leave town.

The town drunk Breezy (Whit Bissell) tells Bannister what he has overheard at the doc’s office (he was sneaking the doc’s booze) about Robles’ wrist, however, and Bannister now thinks he can take Robles.  As Robles goes to meet Bannister, Estella begs him to leave town instead (shades of Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper in High Noon, with the same result).  Robles walks purposefully toward Bannister in the street, taking off the wrapping on his wrist, although we know he can’t move his fingers.  Bannister braces to meet him, and …

DelRioShowdown

Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) marches to his apparent end against Ed Bannister (Peter Whitney, left).

Well, watch it and see. The result is both consistent with Robles’ character as we have come to know it, and with his medical situation.  Although it’s not a long movie at all, it takes its time as Robles develops from the penniless, good-with-a-gun near-alcoholic he was at the start to whatever he may be at the end.  Like The Ride Back, this is largely a character study, and it’s good, if not quite as good as The Ride Back.  Both Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado were very good actors, and they carry this film, although Estella’s transition to being fond of Robles is sudden and not entirely persuasive.

For Anthony Quinn as a quasi-villain in bigger westerns, see Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) and Warlock (also 1959), where he brings a dimension of humanity to what would otherwise be standard bad-guy roles.  Katy Jurado is remembered mostly for her excellent performance in High Noon, but she’s also good in The Badlanders (1958), with Alan Ladd.  Peter Whitney has another role as a bad guy in Domino Kid (1957), with Rory Calhoun.

DelRioItDelRioBelg

Filmed In black and white at Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in Placerita Canyon in southern California (destroyed by fire in 1962), at 82 minutes.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

A Distant Trumpet

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2015

A Distant Trumpet—Troy Donahue, Suzanne Pleshette, James Gregory, Diane McBain, Claude Akins, William Reynolds (1964; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

DistrantTrumpPoster2DistantTrumFren

This ambitious film is a highly fictionalized retelling of the surrender of Geronimo (here called War Eagle) and the supposed role of young Lt. Gatewood (here called Matt Hazard) and Gen. George Crook (here named Alexander Upton Quait).  It’s all based on a novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Paul Horgan, and it’s famed director Raoul Walsh’s last western, and his last movie of any kind.

Fresh from West Point, young 2nd Lt. Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue) is sent to dusty Fort Delivery in southern Arizona Territory, where boredom seems as much an adversary as War Eagle’s Apaches, lurking over the border in Mexico’s Sierra Madres.  Bringing with him White Cloud as an Apache scout, he finds the men at Fort Delivery lax and undisciplined.  The temporary commander of the fort is Lt. Mainwaring (William Reynolds), whose wife Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette) is the only woman at the post.  Mainwaring leads a detail off to retrieve long-requisitioned replacement mounts, while Kitty is supposed to head back to Washington, D.C.  While out collecting lumber, Hazard and his detail are attacked.  The men react badly and flee; Hazard fights and is separated from them.  He rescues Kitty Mainwaring, who was also attacked by Indians, and they spend the night in a cave together before returning to the fort.  Hazard’s attentions are now consumed more by Kitty than they are by his own distant fiancée Laura Frelief (a very blonde Diane McBain), niece to bachelor Gen. Alexander Upton Quait (James Gregory), a famous Apache fighter.

DistantTrumRescuingKitty

Lt. Hazard (Troy Donahue) rescues Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette).

Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “You’re a hard man, a duty man.  It’s your only love, really.”
2nd Lt. Matt Hazard:  “Is there a better kind?”
Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “Well, speaking as a normal woman, yes; as an Army woman, no.”

Hazard works at shaping up the men, including the uncooperative Sgt. Kroger.  He also resists the corrupting influence of Seely Jones (Claude Akins) and his troop of prostitutes.  While on patrol, Hazard finds Mainwaring and his men all killed, and uses the opportunity to steal back the remounts and other horses from the Apaches.  Upon returning to the fort, he finds Laura there, along with a new commanding officer, Maj. Hiram Prescott.  Hazard seems more attracted to the newly-widowed Kitty Mainwaring than to Laura, and Laura senses that while making plans for them to be married as quickly as possible.

DistantTrumPleshMcBain

Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette) and Laura the fiancee (Diane McBain) engage in a little verbal sparring.

An inquiry led by Gen. Quait seems to take Hazard and Prescott to task, but it’s a sham.  Quait is impressed by Hazard as he leads his men into a battle which is technically a victory but results in War Eagle retreating into Mexico again.  Hazard is sent with White Cloud to persuade War Eagle to surrender on generous terms from Quait.  When Hazard returns successfully, he finds that Quait is no longer in charge, that the terms have been changed, and that all the Indians, including the faithful White Cloud, are to be sent to Florida.

Hazard is summoned to Washington, where he is awarded the Medal of Honor for his feat and promoted to captain long before he otherwise would have been.  Feeling betrayed, however, he and Quait both resign in an attempt to get Pres. Chester Arthur to reverse some of the decisions made.  In the end, Capt. Hazard is shown commanding Fort Delivery and married to Kitty Mainwaring.

DistantTrumpBigBattle

At the big battle.

Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette had enjoyed success with 1962’s Rome Adventure, and Warner Bros. apparently thought their casting in this cavalry tale would appeal to younger audiences.  The year this film was released, Donahue (real name: Merle Johnson) and Pleshette were married in January and divorced in September.  (Donahue was married four times, and none of the marriages lasted longer than a couple of years.  In Hollywood he was widely known to be gay, although the general public didn’t share that knowledge until later in his life.)  Donahue was very attractive in a blonde, hunky sort of way, but as an actor he was limited, and his film career was entering its downhill side as his limitations became more apparent.  The romantic triangle in this film looks doomed from the start, with the fiancée (Diane McBain) played rather unattractively.  Neither 77-year-old director Walsh nor star Donahue would ever make another western; Suzanne Pleshette would show up again in a few years in the comedy Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), with James Garner and Jack Elam.

Obviously intended as a large-budget epic, the movie feels more lightweight than that.  It is visually impressive, with excellent cinematography by William Clothier, and music by Max Steiner.  Shot in color on location in northern Arizona and around Gallup, New Mexico, at 117 minutes.

DistantTrumpLtWhiteCloud

Lt. Hazard and White Cloud on their big mission.

A better version of the Geronimo-Gatewood story, using the real names, is Walter Hill’s Geronimo:  AnGreat Western Movies American Legend (1993), with Jason Patric, Matt Damon, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.  In fact, after Gen. George Crook had done the hard work of getting Geronimo to surrender (a second time), he was supplanted by Nelson Miles, who took the credit and shipped both Geronimo and the Apache scouts who had supported the cavalry off to Florida.  Geronimo died in 1911 at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, having never seen his homeland in Arizona again.  The real disillusioned Lt. Gatewood did not receive the Medal of Honor.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Arrow in the Dust

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 20, 2015

Arrow In The Dust—Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Tom Tully, Keith Larsen, Tudor Owen, Lee Van Cleef (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

ArrowDustPosterArrowDustBelg

Prolific director Lesley Selander seldom had a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or with casting.  This is one of his better casts.  Sterling Hayden was in a number of westerns and other movies in the mid-1950s, most notably Johnny Guitar (also from 1954).  Coleen Gray is now remembered principally as the girl on the wagon train John Wayne leaves behind in Red River (1948), only to see the Comanches slaughter the rest of the train—and for a smattering of films noir (Kiss of Death, Copper Sky).  Both Hayden and Gray appear together again in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956).  This is both a wagon train and a cavalry story–as the poster proclaims, a “Flaming Saga of the Savage West.”

Here army deserter Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) is on the run, somewhere east of Fort Laramie in western Nebraska-eastern Wyoming.  In Indian country, he’s trying to link up with a wagon train for safety as he makes his way west.  This is generally Sioux country, but the Pawnees seem to be on the warpath as well.  He hears of a Major Andy Peppers heading to take command of Camp Taylor, and finds the remnants of a small burnt-out wagon train, with Peppers dying in one of the wagons.  Peppers, it turns out, is his cousin, and they had started at West Point together before Laish had dropped out to become a gambler and gunfighter.  The dying major tries to persuade Laish to find a way to rescue the wagon train ahead.

Maj. Andy Peppers:  “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been or what you’ve done.  There must still be some good left in you.  Or have you changed so much, Bart?”

ArrowDustGrayHaydenArrowDustGrayCropped

Stars Coleen Gray and Sterling Hayden in a publicity still.  And feisty doctor’s daughter Christella Burke (Coleen Gray) fights the attacking Pawnees with the best of them.

Camp Taylor, too, is burned out, and Laish dons Peppers’ uniform and insignia of rank.  He comes upon the wagon train, and he claims to be Peppers.  The few remaining troopers, led by Lt. Steve King (Keith Larsen), take him at face value; the experienced scout, Crowshaw (Tom Tully), has reservations but goes along.  The train itself includes attractive young Christella Burke (Coleen Gray), in whom King is interested, and freighting businessman Tillotson (Tudor Owen) with several wagons.  Laish-Peppers does well enough as the train is under almost continual attack, but Crowshaw knows he’s not Peppers.  They lose people and wagons fighting Pawnees and allied Apaches (?), but get ever nearer to Fort Laramie.  Finally, they discover Tillotson is hauling new Henry repeating rifles, and that’s really what the Indians want.  Tillotson is killed trying to attack Crowshaw, and they destroy his wagon, while Laish-Peppers is wounded fighting a rear guard action while the train moves out.

Laish had intended to leave the train before Fort Laramie to head south for Santa Fe.  But now Christella, who knows his story, Crowshaw and Lt. King will all speak up for him based on how he got the wagon train through, and he decides to go into Fort Laramie with the train.  In 1954, Laish and Christella weren’t allowed to just take off together for California, as they probably would have in real life.  Laish has to face the music, even though it will happen after the end of the movie.  For similar endings, where somebody who’s committed a crime has to give himself up instead of just moving on, see Four Faces West [Joel McCrea], Face of a Fugitive [Fred MacMurray] and The Moonlighter [MacMurray again].  The alternative seemed to be expiating one’s sins by taking a bullet (fatally) while doing something honorable, as Randolph Scott did in Western Union, and not getting the girl.

ArrowDustMtgFauxPepp

Lt. King (Keith Larson) introduces the faux major (Sterling Hayden) to the redoubtable Christella Burke (Coleen Gray).

This is a fairly good story, but it is marred by Selander’s pedestrian direction and by Hayden’s stiff, unnatural demeanor as the false Peppers.  Nevertheless, it’s one of Selander’s better films.  Coleen Gray is very good, and so are Tom Tully and some of the other supporting players.  Lee Van Cleef is one of Tillotson’s henchmen; he does not survive the movie, like his boss.

The writing, by Don Martin. is not dazzling.  In color, at 79 minutes.  Many of the prints of Selander’s low-budget movies from this period were not of good quality originally or have become dingy through poor preservation.

ArrowDustWide

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Return of the Bad Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2015

Return of the Bad Men—Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, George “Gabby” Hayes, Jacqueline White, Anne Jeffreys (1948; Dir: Ray Enright)

RetBadMenPosterRetBadMenPoster2

Indian Territory Marshal Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott) is retiring as a lawman to marry Madge Allen (Jacqueline White), the young and attractive widow of another lawman.  Early in the movie is the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, and the hasty settlement of the town of Guthrie.  The local military authority persuades Cordell to accept a temporary appointment as marshal, just in time for a gang of all the known outlaw names of the old west to start a crime spree (Youngers [out of commission since 1876], Daltons, the Arkansas Kid, Billy the Kid—who was long dead by 1889—and especially the Sundance Kid [Robert Ryan]).  They’re led by Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong), whose niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) decides to go straight and joins Cordell as his assistant.

It’s all very counter-historical, and somewhat formulaic.  Gabby Hayes as a toothless bank president?  That’s neither formulaic nor believable.  Things work out as you’d expect.  There’s supposed to be some sexual tension with Cordell and Cheyenne, and some competition between Madge and Cheyenne, but since Randolph Scott’s in his ultra-straight mode you know how that’s going to work out, too.   Cheyenne’s more interesting than Madge, though, and it makes you wonder about Cordell’s judgment.  Note also that the actress playing Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) gets higher billing than the one playing Madge (Jacqueline White).  There is a good performance by Robert Ryan as a hard, ruthless Sundance Kid.

RetBadMenScottJeffreysRetBadMenRyan

Two legs of a romantic triangle:  Production stills of Marshal Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott) captured by Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys).  And Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid.

The “return” of the title is an apparent reference to a successful film Scott and Hayes had made two years earlier, also about a law officer in Oklahoma territory:  Badman’s Territory (1946).  This is not really a sequel in any meaningful sense, except that it also includes a variety of unrelated and implausibly-gathered outlaws.

For another western in which Randolph Scott works things out with a woman (Angela Lansbury) unalterably opposed to his being a lawman, see A Lawless Street.  One recurring lesson seems to be to watch out for the attractive young widows and daughters of deceased lawmen—they tend to want you to leave the profession. (See The Tin Star, for example.)

Note: This is at least the third movie in which Randolph Scott’s character is named Vance, along with Virginia City and Western Union, which are both better than this is.

RetBadMenWide

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Copper Canyon

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 6, 2015

Copper Canyon—Ray Milland, Hedy Lamar, Macdonald Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ian Wolfe, Mona Freeman, Hope Emerson (1950; Dir: John Farrow)

CopperCanyonPosterCopperCanyonBelg

Welsh actor Ray Milland didn’t make many westerns, and the best of the few he did make is probably A Man Alone (1955).  The beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr made even fewer; this movie, from late in her career, seems to be her only western.  Nevertheless, they both show up in this watchable and busy story of North-South disputes and nefarious doings in a post-Civil War western mining town.

Shortly after the Civil War, a group of Confederate veterans approaches Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), who has a stage sharpshooting act.  They are under the impression that he is Col. Desmond, a former southern commander from Virginia.  Captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp during the war, he escaped with $20,000 the camp commandant had; as a consequence, he’s still wanted by the federal authorities, even though the war is over.

The southerners are mining copper but find themselves oppressed by a corrupt local regime in Coppertown and are unable to get their ore to market.  Carter denies that he is Desmond but shows up in Coppertown to put on his act in the local saloon, run by the beautiful and exotic Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr).  Both Roselle and deputy sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) have been sent to Coppertown by the mysterious Mr. Henderson (Ian Wolfe) to keep the southerners from smelting and marketing their ore so he can buy them out cheaply.

CopperCanyonMillandLamarr

Adversaries Johnny Carter (Ray Milland) and Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) strike up a closer acquaintance.

Carter strikes up a relationship with Roselle to the irritation of Travis, who has been trying to develop his own interests there.  While Roselle tries to keep Carter involved with her and not joining a miner’s wagon train to Mesa City, he slips out to give the miners cover by pinning down Travis’ attacking men.  Back in Coppertown, he is betrayed and framed for the robbery of the $160,000 in proceeds from Mesa City.  Carter has finally persuaded Balfour, owner of the local smelting facility, to allow the southerners to use it, but Travis shoots Balfour in the back.  With Roselle’s help Carter gets out of jail and stops the cut-rate sale of claims to Henderson.

Using military skills, Carter organizes an attack on Travis and his men at the smelter, with the support of the local cavalry Lt. Ord (Harry Carey, Jr.).  He wins a shootout with the nefarious Travis.  At the end he takes the stage out of town with Roselle, never having admitted that he is Desmond–if he is.  Lt. Ord is promoted to captain.  And Carter and Lisa take off for Sacramento and San Francisco to start a new theater, with $20,000 Carter happens to have in the lining of his gun case.

CopperCanyonMillandCarey

Carter (Ray Milland) is captured by Deputy Sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey).

While pleasant and watchable fare, this isn’t terribly memorable.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Milland and Lamarr, as the attraction of these characters to each other overtakes their competing agendas.  According to stories from the production, the two leads couldn’t stand each other.  Milland doesn’t seem like much of a southerner.  Undeniably beautiful (and reportedly very intelligent as well), Lamarr doesn’t exude much warmth.  There are a lot of characters, many of whom remain underdeveloped. Six-foot two-inch Hope Emerson could be excellent in character parts (see her in Westward the Women [1951], for example), but here she is underused as Ma Tarbet, a bartender and associate of Roselle.  Philip Van Zandt is the cheerfully corrupt sheriff of Coppertown, dominated by his deputy Travis.  Harry Carey, Jr., is fine in one of his young lieutenant roles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Rio Grande, 1950).  Macdonald Carey usually appeared in westerns with much lower budgets and less upscale casts, but he makes an excellent villain here.

CopperCanyonMilland2Hedy Lamarr-1949

Stars Ray Milland and Hedy Lamarr in publicity stills.

Director John Farrow’s best-known western is Hondo (1953), although there are stories he didn’t finish that one.  This is in lively color, with a lot of plot for its 84 minutes.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Last Posse

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 2, 2015

The Last Posse—Broderick Crawford, John Derek, Charles Bickford, Skip Homeier, Henry Hull, Wanda Hendrix (1953; Dir: Alfred L. Werker)

LastPossePosterLastPosseTall

Aging, heavyset Broderick Crawford would seem to make an unlikely leading man, but he was the lead in two “last” westerns in 1953:  The Last Posse and Last of the Comanches.  He’d won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and was moving more into television work, where he would make his mark in Highway Patrol.  And he still had a few westerns left in his career.

This one takes place in Roswell, New Mexico, where the sheriff is hard-drinking John Frazier (Broderick Crawford), who once played a significant role in cleaning up the town.  Now it’s mostly peaceful, but not as peaceful as it may seem.  The posse of the title rides back into town at the start of the film, weary and with Frazier seemingly wounded, but without prisoners or stolen money.  Most of the story is told in flashbacks.

LastPosseCrawHull

Sheriff John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) gives a whiskey drummer (Henry Hull) some backstory on Sampson Drune.

The three Romers, rancher Will (Todd Mitchell) and his sons George (Guy Wilkerson) and Art (Skip Homeier) have been unfairly treated by bigger rancher Sampson Drune (Charles Bickford at his most cantankerous).   When they seek redress, they get into a fight with Drune’s adopted son Jed Clayton (John Derek).  Drune concludes a big cattle sale for $205,000 and attempts to deposit the money in the local bank, when it is stolen by the Romers, who take off into the desert with it.  Drune and Clayton head the posse chasing them, which includes the most prominent of the local citizens—the banker and the store owner among them.  Frazier is given an out, but he joins them, too.  He knows, as Jed does not, that Drune killed Jed’s father, and Frazier suspects that Drune has something similar in mind for the Romers, who also know what he’s done.

During the pursuit in the desert, Drune and Clayton get ahead of the rest of the posse, but Frazier knows the desert well and cuts them off.  Drune knocks Frazier off his horse, but Frazier nevertheless reaches the Romers first as they seek refuge in some rocks.  As they try to get away, George Romer falls to his death, and Will and Art surrender to Frazier.

LastPosseSurrender

The two remaining Romers surrender to Sheriff Frazier (Broderick Crawford).

[Spoilers follow.]  As Frazier takes custody of the two arrested Romers, the rest of the posse rides up.  Sampson Drune guns down both Romers, and gets Frazier at least twice as well, as Frazier tries to tell Clayton the truth about Drune.  Clayton reflexively kills Drune.  By the time the posse arrives back in Roswell, Frazier is in very bad shape.  Posse members have agreed to tell a story that has all Romers and Drune being killed in a shootout in the desert.  Clayton will inherit the large Drune ranch, and the others will split up the $205,000, after claiming it was lost in the desert.

As the judge starts an inquest that evening, things proceed as planned, except that Frazier struggles into his clothes and with great difficulty takes a seat at the proceeding.  His presence convinces Clayton to tell the truth to the judge about what happened.  At the end Clayton re-unites with girlfriend Deborah (Wanda Hendrix), and it is discovered that Frazier had died of his wounds about the time he sat down.  They didn’t need to tell the truth after all, leaving the town’s leading citizens to wallow in their own collective hypocrisy.

LastPosseCrawDerek

John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) and Jed Clayton (John Derek) confer.

Crawford makes an effective sheriff here, the most honest character in the movie although he is either drunk, hung over or badly injured for much of the film.  He does some strenuous riding in the desert, down steep slopes and falling off his horse at least three times, where it is apparent that it is a skinnier stunt double doing the riding and falling.  Skip Homeier does his usual “kid with a gun” sort of performance (The Gunfighter, Ten Wanted Men, Dawn at Socorro, The Tall T, Comanche Station) in a limited role.  He was never a leading character in them, but he managed to be in a surprising number of good westerns.  Charles Bickford is unpleasant (as he could be in real life, apparently; see The Big Country), spiteful and unscrupulous the entire movie.  John Derek does not seem to be much of an actor, and will soon move into photography and become better known for his series of wives than for his acting career.  Wanda Hendrix’s character is extraneous.  The fussy Henry Hull is a whiskey drummer to whom Frazier tells key parts of his story.

This was produced by Harry Joe Brown, experienced with westerns and now remembered principally for his work with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher.  In black and white, with a lot of plot for 73 minutes.

For Broderick Crawford in another western role, see him as bad guy Vinnie Harold, challenging Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive (1956).   Director Alfred Werker also made At Gunpoint (1955), with Fred MacMurray.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone