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Hombre

We all die, just a question of when.

I’m an unashamed fan of westerns from the 1950s, the genre’s golden years, but I’m also pretty fond of those from the following decade. By the end of the 60s, with the spaghetti western in the ascendancy, revisionism was in the air, though that movement wouldn’t come to full fruition until we pass into the 70s. For the classic Hollywood western these were the transitional years, a painful period in some ways, with the genre thrashing about in search of direction. Such times tend to bring about a combination of successes, throwbacks and misfires. When we view the era in this light, I think it’s fair to say that the 1960s was a decade that was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating for western fans. Ultimately, revisionism would strip the genre down to the bone and train a probing searchlight on its innermost workings. One could write an in-depth study on the effects of this process, and I have a hunch the conclusion would be that no genre, least of all one so firmly rooted in myth as the western, could emerge unscathed from such an intimate examination. But I’m not going to take on that task here; instead I’m going to look at one of those late 60s westerns that seemed to benefit from the turmoil of the time, Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967). Here we have a movie that avoids the outright nihilism of the Euro western, retains the structure and moral complexity of the best 50s efforts, and looks forward to the bleak honesty of revisionism. In short, it becomes a kind of philosophical meditation on social responsibility.

The classic western hero has frequently been characterized as a loner, a man drifting along on the fringes of society for one reason or another. Such a ploy isn’t accidental of course; it allows us to connect with the spirit of freedom and individualism that’s a significant part of the western’s attraction, and also helps objectify the view of society and encroaching civilization. Generally though, the hero does feel himself drawn in some way towards the society he observes. Hombre presents us with John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man raised by the Apache who has categorically rejected the ways of his own race. He’s first seen in his preferred environment, rounding up wild horses, and has clearly been fully integrated into the Apache lifestyle. However, news of an inheritance – a beaten up boarding house – brings him back to white society, at least temporarily. Arriving in town, he’s adopted the outward appearance of his own people but retains the cool detachment of the Apache. Essentially, Russell has made it his business to mind his own business – to have as little contact with the white world he has rejected as possible. He sells up and books passage on the last stagecoach out. Yet, the interrelated nature of society doesn’t really work that way; all action, even calculated inaction, has its consequences. In a sense it’s Russell’s single-minded detachment that lays the groundwork for what follows.The sale of the boarding house, effectively acts as the catalyst that finally pushes at least one man towards crime, and Russell’s own determination to avoid intervention in the affairs of others ensures that a bullying outlaw, Grimes (Richard Boone), gets to ride the stage. The first hour of the film is a fairly sedate affair, concentrating on establishing the character of each passenger and offering some insight into their relationships. Collectively, they add up to a cross-section of frontier types: the outwardly respectable older man and his younger, disillusioned wife, a young couple coming to terms with the realities of married life, the veteran driver who’s long since bid farewell to his ideals, the woman who has been around and remains a survivor, the swaggering bully, and the enigma that is Russell. Locked within the confines of the bumpy stagecoach, the tensions, prejudices and fears of this disparate little group simmers away just below the surface. The pressure comes to a head when they are held up on a remote part of the trail, and the truth about each one emerges. Abandoned in the wilderness, and facing the very real prospect of perishing, they turn towards Russell to guide them out. But Russell is now in something of a quandary; apart from the fact he’d been shunned due to his Apache affiliations, he feels no obligation towards his fellow man anyway. He’s faced with a philosophical dilemma  – does he follow his head and leave these people to the fate he reckons they deserve, or does he listen to that still distant voice within that urges empathy.

If we count Hud, then Martin Ritt made three westerns with Paul Newman, and all of them have their points of interest. Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Hombre is the closest to the traditional western. The basic structure owes much to John Ford’s classic Stagecoach, but it’s a much more cynical affair. The two films do share the vital element of spiritual redemption for their hero, but Ritt’s movie reaches that point in a more tragic and bitter way. The script raises interesting questions about how much we owe others, how far we should go for those we deem undeserving of our sympathy, and whether intervention or isolation is the correct approach. Bearing in mind the film was made while the war in Vietnam was still raging, I think that last issue must have been in the minds of the filmmakers. However, leaving that aside and looking at things from a purely personal perspective, the problems continue to be thorny. Russell not only knows that assisting the abandoned travelers will add to his own peril, but his years living outside of white society have meant that he no longer identifies with these people. Circumstances have resulted in his being caught in a kind of cultural no-mans-land, where his head and heart are in conflict. In cinematic terms, this is a reflection of the position the western itself was facing in 1967, with its soul and conscience pulling in one direction while social and economic factors were pressuring it to go another way. Visually, with the aid of James Wong Howe’s great cinematography and the Arizona landscape, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic western, but the existentialist undertones of its theme point to the future.

Mrs Favor: I can’t imagine eating a dog and not thinking anything of it.
John Russell: You even been hungry, lady? Not just ready for supper. Hungry enough so that your belly swells?
Mrs Favor: I wouldn’t care how hungry I got. I know I wouldn’t eat one of those camp dogs.
John Russell: You’d eat it. You’d fight for the bones, too.
Mrs Favor: Have you ever eaten a dog, Mr. Russell?
John Russell: Eaten one and lived like one.

Paul Newman was an adherent of the method style of acting. Now I’m no fan of the method and the frequently affected performances that it encouraged. I understand it is meant to help the actors dig deeper within themselves and find a truth in their role yet it often seemed to produce the polar opposite, a mannered performance that actually draws attention to itself. Some of Newman’s early roles are badly blighted by this in my opinion. However, by the time he came to Hombre he had moderated his acting style, and what we see on screen is far better, far more involving. As far as I can remember, and it’s been a few years since I read Leonard’s novel, Newman’s portrayal of John Russell is pretty close in spirit to how the character came across on the page. It’s a very quiet performance; I think the stillness of the man, the eternal patience of his Apache side is perfectly captured. There’s a great sense of his being aware of everything, absorbing the sounds, smells and moods around him and storing them away. When he’s aroused to action there’s a jarring abruptness to it that makes it all the more effective. The first instance takes place in a cantina where Russell sits and calmly watches and listens to his Apache companions being goaded by two ignorant redneck types. We’re expecting something, a reaction of some kind, maybe a rebuttal from this soft-spoken man. But the sudden swing of his rifle butt to shatter and drive the splinters of a whiskey glass into the face of the barroom lout is both shocking and satisfying. In a similar vein, the later eruption of aggression when he opens fire on Boone when he comes to parley is made more intense by the apparent calm that precedes it.

Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross. His first scene in the station when he intimidates a soldier into turning the last ticket available over to him illustrates this quality well. There’s something in that craggy face and low-pitched voice that conveys his intent far more effectively than bluster and showboating; not an easy task but when it works, it works wonderfully. Of the three female roles in the movie, Diane Cilento had the most substantial and the one with the greatest significance. Generally, I feel she was an underrated performer who was always interesting to watch. She played the most down to earth of the three women on that stagecoach, and the one with the lowest social status. Russell’s decision to sell up saw her out of a job and on the streets but with her spirit unbroken. The script offered her several opportunities to shine and she took each one, displaying an earthy and attractive honesty. She was also fortunate to be playing the character whose mentality the average viewer could most readily identify with, providing a kind of bridge between Newman’s omnipotent aloofness and the self-interest of the others.

Fredric March had a nice little late career turn as the corrupt Indian agent, the one whose presence poses the greatest danger to the survival of the group. Basically, he represents all that’s wrong with the society that Russell has rejected – corruption, vanity, weakness and hypocrisy. Still, despite portraying a deeply unpleasant person, March manages to inject a good deal of pathos into his performance and leaves you feeling a little sorry for this man who has transitioned poorly from the successes of his youth; he did something similar in Inherit the Wind, where he tapped into the human frailty of another character who was essentially unsympathetic. Martin Balsam was a first-rate character actor who enriched many a great movie – 12 Angry Men & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to mention just two – with his everyman persona. As the stagecoach driver who has come to terms with his own limitations and realizes that he can no longer fight the tide of progress, he’s another figure with whom the audience can connect.

As far as I can tell, Hombre has never been released on DVD in the UK, though it is readily available from both the US and continental Europe. I have the Dutch DVD from Fox, which presents the movie most satisfactorily. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the transfer is very pleasing with good colour and definition to show off James Wong Howe’s location photography. The disc offers a wide selection of subtitle options and the only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. For me, Hombre is a highly successful piece of work that hits the mark on a number of levels: as an entertaining western movie, an examination of race and social cohesion, and also contextually, for the position it occupies in the development of the genre. I consider the latter to be the most fascinating aspect, and yet another link between what may superficially appear to be irreconcilable eras. Nevertheless, whatever way one opts to view the film, it makes for a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in 1960s, Martin Ritt, Paul Newman, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

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The Raid

There is no conflict as dirty, socially corrosive and tragic as a civil war. Friends and neighbours, those whose similarities are every bit as pronounced as their differences, suddenly find themselves sworn enemies at one another’s throats. Any story which uses such a conflict as its backdrop automatically has an enormous amount of built-in dramatic potential. Yet despite that, there’s a hazard too – commercial success is by no means guaranteed. Movies based around the American Civil War were traditionally regarded as box office poison, and I don’t think such an aversion is some affectation confined to the United States. There are few nations which haven’t fallen victim to internal bloodletting, and the scars of these events never fully heal in the public consciousness – it’s hard to get past the essential ugliness of a country tearing itself apart from within. However, a movie can still remain compelling, and indeed worthwhile, in the face of these obstacles. The trick is to sidestep the cloying piety that can sink a script and instead focus on the real human effects of a land and people divided. The Raid (1954) is such a film.

The story is based on a real event during the Civil War - one of those peripheral actions that occur in most conflicts. It opens with a small band of Confederate POWs staging a breakout from a Union prison close to the Canadian border. The aim of the fugitives, under the command of Major Benton (Van Heflin), is to cross into neutral territory and reorganise themselves there. Benton has in mind using the neighbouring country as a springboard to attack the North. His plan is to marshal his forces and unexpectedly raid the border towns, both as an act of revenge for Sherman’s pillage of the South and as a means of drawing vital troops away from the front line and thus relieving the pressure on Lee. The target for the first of these incursions is St Albans, Vermont. Benton arrives in town posing as a Canadian businessman looking to invest in local property, but really scouting the lay of the land and paving the way for his comrades to join him. The basic plan is to clean out the banks, providing much needed funds for buying munitions, and then to torch the town and cause as much havoc as possible before beating a hasty retreat back across the border. On paper, this sounds like a viable proposition but complications inevitably arise. There are three troublesome flies in Benton’s jar of ointment: Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft), the young widow running the boarding house where Benton’s lodging; Captain Foster (Richard Boone), the one-armed veteran in charge of St Albans’ small military force; and Lieutenant Keating (Lee Marvin), whose bitter hatred of the North means he’s something of a loose cannon among Benton’s otherwise highly disciplined force. These three people, and Benton, are a perfect illustration of the effects of civil warfare. All of them have been damaged, either physically or emotionally, by the war and all represent different aspects of the mindset it has created - Keating’s volatile sadism, Katy’s dignified struggle against loneliness, Foster’s self-loathing, and Benton’s juggling of professionalism and sentiment. One key scene highlights the moral dilemma faced by a man in Benton’s peculiar and precarious position. Having just saved the townsfolk from mortal danger (and himself too, as it happens), he returns to his lodgings only to be confronted with that which he least expected – the gratitude and acceptance of the local community. A combination of shock, humility, and horror at his own duplicity briefly flit across Benton’s features. In this moment, everything we need to know about how this kind of war divides loyalties, even internally, is deftly expressed. Still, Benton is a man of principle and, despite any moral qualms he may be experiencing, he forges ahead towards his objective. By the time the actual raid occurs the viewers have been granted a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those from both sides of the divide, making the climax all the more tense and charged.

Argentine director Hugo Fregonese came to Hollywood in 1949 and made a number of films that have largely been forgotten outside of film buff circles. There may not be any masterpieces among his credits but he displayed a very strong visual sense and his work remains interesting at the very least. Apache Drums, produced by Val Lewton, is a little neglected gem that’s ripe for rediscovery, while Saddle Tramp and Harry Black and the Tiger have points in their favour too. The Raid is one of his best efforts, looking handsome and maintaining suspense throughout. The reenactment of the titular raid (a bit of research indicates that the real event resulted in considerably less damage) makes for an exciting climax and it’s well staged by Fregonese and his cameraman, Lucien Ballard. Van Heflin does very well as Major Benton, looking tough and authoritative enough to be believable as the commander of the raiders, and also showing the right degree of sensitivity when necessary. He hadn’t the looks to make a career as a romantic lead but his understated performances generally had a very attractive human quality. Once again, Richard Boone seems to get right into the character he’s playing; the gruffness of Foster initially seems to stem from his bitterness over his war injury but, as the story progresses, it’s apparent that his reserved demeanour has a deeper psychological root. Both actors bring quite subtle nuances to their respective characterizations and there’s nothing one-dimensional about either of them. Personally, I found it refreshing that Anne Bancroft’s widow was used as a softening influence on both Boone and Heflin, and wasn’t there merely to provide an excuse for some superfluous romance. Her presence is integral to the development of the plot and the shifting emotions of the two men staying under her roof, but not as a stereotypical Hollywood siren. Heading up an especially strong supporting cast, Lee Marvin turns in another memorable performance as the vengeful and dangerous Keating. His “bull in a china shop” approach acts as a counterweight to Van Heflin’s measured caution and helps to up the tension.

To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD release of The Raid is the Spanish edition from Impulso/Fox. Generally, whilst apparently unrestored, the disc is one of their reasonable efforts. The film may have been 1.66:1 originally, but this transfer presents it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) – if it’s open-matte it may be slightly zoomed as the framing looks a little tight to my eyes on occasion. However, I wouldn’t say it was seriously compromised. The colour and detail levels are quite strong, and it’s pleasing to look at. The extras are the usual gallery and text items, and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. The film approaches its subject matter intelligently and avoids forcing judgements on the viewer. The combination of a strong, capable cast, a tight script and professional direction adds up to a pacy and entertaining look at an intriguing episode from the Civil War. Recommended.

 

A Thunder of Drums

Think of cavalry westerns, or rather, think of the best cavalry westerns and one name tends to spring to mind – John Ford. The famous trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) forms an integral part of Ford’s building up and subsequent deconstruction of the myth of the west. It’s Ford, and Wayne of course, that we think of as being at the heart of their success. While this is entirely justified, there is, however, another figure who had an influence on the shaping of these films – the author of the source material, James Warner Bellah. Aside from the trilogy, his work also provided the inspiration for A Thunder of Drums (1961), a far less celebrated movie. I’m not going to try to argue here that this is a film deserving of the kind of acclaim accorded to Ford’s work, but it does warrant a little more attention than it ordinarily receives.

The story takes place in and around Fort Canby, one of those isolated and undermanned outposts on the extremities of the frontier. It opens in hard-hitting and startling fashion with an Indian raid on a homestead, the full horror of which is reflected in the terrified eyes of a child witness and in the grotesque shadows playing across the ceiling. When the awful aftermath is discovered by a passing cavalry troop the sour and downbeat tone is further emphasised by the fact that these men are bringing their own dead back home. So, with their faces already covered to counter the stench of their current cargo, the troops set about the grim task of burying the victims. From this point on the threat of imminent violence never really slackens, although the action moves into the confines of the fort and remains there until the last half hour. The uncompromising beginning serves to set up the brutal realities facing the fort’s commander, Captain Maddocks (Richard Boone), a man whose past has condemned him to a life of thankless soldiering. With the arrival of a green young officer, Lieutenant McQuade (George Hamilton), we start to get hints that something dark, some error made years before, means that Maddocks is doomed to remain at his present rank until retirement or death release him. And so this western version of the ancient mariner has the task of teaching McQuade the skills necessary for surviving on the frontier and becoming a proper professional soldier. In the process, we get to see (as in Ford’s trilogy) the minutiae of life at one of these half-forgotten postings. Despite Maddocks’ bristly and abrasive style keeping things ticking over, the mid-section of the movie gets itself bogged down in a pretty tedious love triangle involving McQuade and the fiancée of another young lieutenant. What rescues the picture is the last half hour. The troops move out in the open to avenge a massacre and hunt down the hostiles who have been harrying them. The cat-and-mouse pursuit leads to a well-staged climactic battle that ensures the whole thing ends on a high note.

Joseph M Newman was no auteur; he was, however, a versatile professional, the type Hollywood depended on to make good, tight movies. Throughout the 1950s he made a succession of films that, though largely forgotten these days, included some highly entertaining and capable stuff. In this one, his best work is at the beginning and at the end of the picture – a little like the situation with Escape from Fort Bravo, where the strong opening and close bookend a flabby middle. The climax is well handled as an action set piece, especially the Apache ambush tactics and their sudden appearance like spirits conjured out of the ether. Besides this, the greatest saving grace is the central performance of Richard Boone. I thought he was ideally cast as the grizzled officer, ageing and passed over for the promotion his experience and talent merits yet not succumbing to the corrosive bitterness you might reasonably expect him to feel. He had the necessary grit, and a kind of weary resignation, to deliver his memorable dialogue  and lend it the weight it deserved – towards the end, he even gets to put his own spin on the Duke’s old line about never apologising as it’s a sign of weakness. In fact, there’s a lot in Boone’s performance that recalls James Warner Bellah’s other cavalry journeymen. In contrast, George Hamilton’s portrayal of McQuade is problematic and represents a major weakness. Firstly, Hamilton just doesn’t look right; there’s too much Hollywood polish and smoothness about him. What’s more, he just didn’t have the acting chops to either compete when sharing the screen with Boone or to carry off the pivotal role that was so vital in shoring up that sagging mid-section. Similarly, the lightweight and not especially convincing work of Luana Patten (as Hamilton’s love interest) and Richard Chamberlain fails to add much to the film. Still, there are good supporting turns to help paper over the cracks. Charles Bronson has a medium-sized part as a devious and dirty-minded trooper who comes good in the end, Arthur O’Connell is entertaining enough in the role of the top sergeant that Victor McLaglen played for Ford, although Slim Pickens’ talents are basically wasted.

A Thunder of Drums is available as an MOD disc in the US. However, as an alternative, there’s a perfectly acceptable release to be had in Spain. Llamentol/Paycom have presented the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is generally quite pleasing. There is a little softness in the image but it’s clean enough and the colours are nice and strong. There are no extra features offered, but the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the setup menu. I found it interesting to see situations that Ford so skilfully presented taken on by someone else. A Thunder of Drums has none of the artistry or poetry of the old master himself, but it’s a fair enough movie all the same. Considering the inadequacies of some of the performances around him, it’s very much to Richard Boone’s credit that he was able to drive the film as much as he did. I feel that the presence of Boone, and Newman’s handling of the action and exteriors earn this at least a qualified recommendation.

 
 

Man Without a Star

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When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.

Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused – he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.

Kirk Douglas displaying his mean streak in Man Without a Star.

I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.

As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones – no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Kirk Douglas, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

Rio Conchos

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I’ve always enjoyed looking at the way the western evolved over the years. There’s a, fairly common, misconception that the spaghetti western just kind of exploded onto the scene in a genre busting blaze of immorality and violence. However, that’s a superficial reading of things; the foundations were being laid a decade before and the progression isn’t that hard to follow. Anyway, the consensus seems to hold that the spaghettis gave the traditional western a much needed jolt to shake it out of the doldrums it was in danger of slipping into. That’s hard to argue with, but I’m not sure the Hollywood western wasn’t heading in more or less the same direction of its own accord regardless of outside pressure. When you look at some examples of genre pieces from the mid-60s there are already indications of their straddling the two, seemingly irreconcilable, eras. Rio Conchos (1964) makes for interesting viewing in this context, having the trappings and look of the traditional oater but displaying an attitude and sensibility closer to the emerging European westerns.

At the heart of Rio Conchos lies revenge – there’s essentially no nobility on show, nor very much in the way of finer feelings of any kind. The main character is Lassiter (Richard Boone), a former confederate Major who’s almost totally consumed with a killing rage sparked by the torture and murder of his wife and child by the Apache. This man hunts down and disposes of his enemy with a ruthless precision. The opening shots are of Lassiter calmly massacring an Apache burial party, before heading back to the ruins of his former home to get drunk amid the personal and physical devastation. He would appear content to spend the remainder of his existence extracting his pound of flesh every time the opportunity arose. But that’s not to be, as he finds himself coerced into participating in an army plan to recover a shipment of stolen rifles thought to be over the border in Mexico and soon to be sold to an eager Apache warlord, Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta). Lassiter’s motivation, apart from a desire to get out of the army guardhouse, is the chance to even his personal score with Bloodshirt and he has no particular sympathy for the two cavalrymen, Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown), that he’s guiding. Haven’s on a mission of vengeance too, being the man in charge of the original arms shipment that’s gone missing. His quest may be dressed up in the guise of duty, but there’s no hiding the fact that he too is seeking some form of recompense for the slight to his reputation. The party is completed by a Mexican rogue, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), whose involvement is quite simple: he’s out to avoid the hangman’s rope and hopefully line his pockets in the process. In the more traditional scenario, this ill-assorted group bound together by a common objective would include at least one member driven by some higher moral sense. Not in this case though; all (with the possible exception of the cipher-like Franklyn) are pandering to their own base instincts. Everything builds towards a surreal climax on the banks of the titular river, where a demented Colonel (Edmond O’Brien) twisted by the bitterness of defeat in the Civil War plots merciless retribution for his conquerors.

Stuart Whitman & Richard Boone in Rio Conchos.

Director Gordon Douglas made a lot of so-so films but he had it in him to produce something of real quality when the conditions were right. Rio Conchos is among his best movies (and Only the Valiant is another little dark gem tucked away in his filmography) due largely to the tough and cynical script and an uncompromising performance by Richard Boone. To Douglas’ credit, the action scenes are extremely well staged and, along with cameraman Joe MacDonald, he really makes the most of the rugged Utah locations. Still, it’s Boone that carries it all along, playing a mere shell of a man subsisting on hatred and bitterness. His craggy, lived-in features were ideal for westerns, from his iconic Paladin in TV’s Have Gun – Will Travel to a couple of memorable appearances as the villain in two John Wayne pictures, to name just a few. I’ve seen it written that his performance is a bit one note, but I don’t think that’s being entirely fair. One sequence in particular has him showing two vastly different sides to his character within minutes. I’m referring to the scene where the travellers come upon a burned out house containing what one assumes is a tortured and/or violated woman, moaning in agony on her deathbed, while her infant lies neglected in a cot alongside. We can see a series of emotions playing across Boone’s face, but the predominant one is a deep hurt as the terrible vision obviously brings back memories of the fate of his own wife and child. As he puts the woman out of her misery he is close to breaking down totally, the mask of toughness slipping momentarily in the now deserted room. When the raiding party returns to harry the trapped men though, Boone reverts to type almost instantaneously. There is something terrible in his primal joy, the gales of malicious laughter he expels when watching a downed Apache burning to death before his eyes. It could be argued that Lassiter undergoes a change of heart as the quest progresses, seeing that the army mission has some worth in itself that supersedes his own desire for vengeance. Again, I don’t read it that way. The confrontation with Rodriguez seems to me not so much a realization that there are higher issues at stake but more a necessary way of ensuring that his own ambitions are not thwarted.

By the time the climax rolls round, the obsessive nature of Lassiter’s rage seems tame and reasonable when compared to the schemes of the deluded Colonel played by Edmond O’Brien. He only appears late on in the film but he makes a deep and lasting impression. At the outset, O’Brien’s character seems merely eccentric. However, when he opens the door to his reproduction plantation mansion and invites Lassiter to step inside the full extent of his madness is revealed. This castle in the desert is little more than a facade, a half-constructed monument to a world that’s passed away yet he struts around like he’s entertaining company back in Virginia. O’Brien wisely tones down the histrionics and lets his words and outlandish surroundings convey the imbalance of his mind instead. The ending, though it might be termed abrupt and somewhat inconclusive, is a wonderful exercise in nihilism. It’s this, rather than the violent tone of the movie, that persuades me that the Hollywood western was already moving in the direction of the spaghettis. The classic era of the Hollywood western told stories that invariably held out the promise of redemption for one or more of the lead characters. What sets the likes of Rio Conchos apart is the total lack of concern for any kind spiritual salvation. In the end, nobody really triumphs and no higher purpose is achieved – none of the characters, whether living or dead by this point, have advanced much from the stage they were at when we saw them initially. 

The German DVD of Rio Conchos from Koch Media treats the film very well. There’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer with rich colours, especially evident in the red clay of the locations. There is no damage worth mentioning present on the print used and detail is again strong. The English soundtrack (with subs that are removable via the main menu) is a nice stereo mix that does justice to the frequent heavy gunshots, and also to Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful, driving score. The disc is nicely packaged in an attractive digibook format with notes (in German) and supplements the trailer and gallery that are provided as extras. The film may not qualify as one of the true greats of the genre, but it’s still a high quality production that marks an important stage in the evolution of the western. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend seeking it out.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1960s, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

The Tall T

Poster

Some things a man can’t ride around…

The first official entry in the Budd Boetticher / Ranown cycle of westerns is The Tall T (1957). The story here was adapted by Burt Kennedy from an Elmore Leonard short story called The Captives. That makes for an impressive set of credits and, in truth, the end result is a near perfect film. Once again Boetticher and Kennedy boil the western down to its absolute essentials, and the bulk of the action involves just five people and how they all relate to one another. Everything from location and plot to dialogue is pared right down and the film is all the better for that. What is left is a raw and visceral western with a strong moral current running through it and characters who we actually care about.

For a film with a short running time – under 80 minutes – it’s really a story with two distinct parts. The opening section introduces the character of Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott), a happy-go-lucky type in the process of building up his newly acquired ranch. He comes across as a gently charming sort who stops off on his way to town to pass the time of day with the local stationmaster and his young son. He even takes the time in town to pick up some candy for the boy as he had promised to do. When he visits his former employer, and loses his horse in an ill-judged wager, you start to wonder how such a hapless innocent could survive in a harsh environment. It is from this point on though that the depth of Brennan’s character begins to become apparent. Hitching a ride on a private stagecoach, hired for the honeymoon of Mrs. Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her gold-digging chiseller of a husband, he stops off to deliver the candy to the stationmaster’s boy. The station has been taken over by outlaw Frank (Richard Boone) and his two sidekicks (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier) with the aim of holding up the regular stage. Faced with the horror of what has just taken place, and the likely fate awaiting him and the other hostages, the character of Brennan undergoes a sea change. Almost immediately the easy-going ex-ramrod is transformed into a cool, calculating avenger who knows he must now play for time while waiting for the opportunity save himself and the woman. It’s a credit to all involved that this transition appears so natural as to be nearly seamless.

Turning point - Randolph Scott & Richard Boone

Scott’s flinty features once again blend in with the bleak Lone Pine locations which dominate the picture. The character shift I mentioned is magnificently achieved in the scene where the fate of the stationmaster and his boy is revealed in cold, matter-of-fact fashion by Henry Silva. Scott’s face hardens almost imperceptibly yet the meaning is all too clear. This kind of thing makes for great screen acting and the lead was a pastmaster in the art of underplayed emotion. Richard Boone was always interesting to watch, and in Frank he gives a fascinating performance as the outlaw you want to sympathise with. When he dispatches Mrs. Mimm’s husband, whose craven character offends his own personal morality, it’s difficult not to feel some grudging admiration. The two subsidiary villains are of less interest, but Silva manages to tap into a vaguely detached psychosis that works very well. Maureen O’Sullivan has an unglamorous role which offers her the chance to play something which is a cut above the standard damsel in distress. The fact that we get such well rounded characters in a short run time speaks volumes about the writing skills of Burt Kennedy. Boetticher again excels at making a cheaply produced picture look far more expensive. The framing and camera placement are miles away from the usual point and shoot style employed in low budget fare; this man had a real flair for the quirky and the unexpected. His handling of the action scenes is again exemplary, and they have both a frankly brutal quality and an odd humanity that make them stand out from other pictures of this vintage. There’s something deeply satisfying about Randolph Scott turning to the sobbing woman at his side, after the violent climax, and quietly intoning: Come on now, it’s gonna be a nice day.

Sony’s presentation of The Tall T on DVD is another excellent one. Some may carp at the amount of grain on view but I don’t regard that as a bad thing. The anamorphic widescreen picture is bright and colorful throughout. The disc also carries a short featurette with Martin Scorsese praising the film. Best of all, there’s the feature length documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That. So, we get a great movie which is presented with care and respect – what more could you ask for.

 
 
 
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