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Category Archives: George Sherman

The Last of the Fast Guns

I’ve met a lot of men in my time. A woman they forget, a mine busting with gold, even the faces of their own children. But I’ve never met a man who forgot a grave he dug.

The Last of the Fast Guns (1958) is set mostly in Mexico, and as a result it belongs to a smallish group of westerns that transplant their heroes south of the border. Generally, these films involve men searching for something or someone. In this case, the hunt is ostensibly for a man, but the reality is that the hero is on an altogether different quest – as he chases after shadows and memories he’s actually trying to pin down a kind of inner peace, looking to come to terms with his own demons and violent nature as the country changes around him.

The opening is stark, brutal and a little shocking in its cold abruptness. The first image we see is a cemetery with a freshly dug grave, and a man quietly riding away from it. At first glance, this scene has an almost supernatural quality, as though the rider has just risen from the earth before mounting up and moving off. However, the truth is that Brad Ellison (Jock Mahoney) has been making preparations, quite literally doing the spade work before heading off to find an occupant for that new grave. He enters the neighboring town and calmly guns down an unnamed man in a brief duel. Right away we know the type of character we’re dealing with, a man of few words with a dangerous reputation that can make him a fortune but is also something of a curse. No sooner has he removed a threat than he’s presented with a proposition: head over the border and track down a man named Forbes. The reason is Forbes’ brother is a wealthy man in poor health and wants to find him to avoid his estate passing on to a treacherous partner. The thing is men like Ellison don’t get hired unless there’s a high risk factor, and the disappearance of two previous messengers is testament to that. Forbes is an elusive figure, someone who’s spoken of in hushed, almost reverential and awed tones, and his shadowy, spectral presence hangs over the picture. Ellison’s mission brings him into contact with four people: Michael O’Reilly (Lorne Greene), his daughter Maria (Linda Cristal), his foreman Miles Lang (Gilbert Roland) and an old padre (Eduard Franz). These four, in different ways, have a powerful effect on Ellison, shaping his destiny as they help and hinder his efforts to catch up with the mysterious Forbes.

The Last of the Fast Guns is a very interesting piece of work from director George Sherman. It’s one of those late 50s westerns that is very much in the classical mold, but also looks forward to and anticipates some of the trends that would surface in the following decade. The dialogue is terse and economical, rapped out with the kind of staccato rhythm that wouldn’t seem out of place in a film noir, and loaded with existential undertones. The hero is much more of an anti-heroic figure than one typically associates with the 50s – the black clad, mercenary Mahoney recalling Burt Lancaster’s grinning rogue form Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, but not quite achieving the amorality that would characterize the bounty killers peopling many 60s westerns. In a sense the link here is not so much with the approaching spaghetti westerns as the regretful nihilism of Peckinpah. That aspect was reinforced for me by an early scene which sees Ellison stopping off at a type of outlaw refuge when he’s just entered Mexico. This is a lovely interlude as he sits around with James Younger and Johnny Ringo, reminiscing about the past and lamenting the passing of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. For all that, The Last of the Fast Guns is at heart a classic 50s production, concerning itself with notions of rebirth and redemption. And that brings me back to that haunting opening. Ellison can in fact be seen as something of a resurrected soul, a man striving to leave death behind him, to achieve or earn his place among the living. Perhaps it’s telling too that, like in The Wonderful Country, the implication is that this can only be realized in Mexico.

Former stuntman Jock Mahoney is probably best known for playing Tarzan, but he made a number of good westerns from the mid to late 50s. I guess it’s fair to say he wasn’t the most expressive actor around but he did have a lot of physical presence and was a good fit in westerns. His laconic style works very well here where he’s taking on the role of a tough gunman and killer. In complete contrast – even down to the predominantly white costume – Gilbert Roland is typically swaggering and arrogant. Roland cuts a much more ambiguous figure, leaving the viewer guessing for long periods of time just whose side he’s really on. Together, Mahoney and Roland balance each other out and their friendship/rivalry is one of the most attractive parts of the film. The casting also has a strong television connection: Lorne Greene being forever associated with Bonanza and Linda Cristal evoking memories of The High Chaparral for me at least. Personally, I don’t feel Ms Cristal had a huge amount of screen chemistry with Mahoney, although there is just about enough there for her role as his spiritual savior to work.

As far as I’m aware there are only two DVD editions of The Last of the Fast Guns available at present, from France and Spain. I have the Spanish release from Llamentol (currently on sale at a fairly good price here) which presents the movie in anamorphic scope and clearly comes from a strong source print. As is usual with this company’s releases, there are no extra features on the disc and subtitles can be removed via the main menu. I reckon a lot of George Sherman’s work is underrated and there’s a rich selection of material waiting to be mined for those unfamiliar with him. The Last of the Fast Guns is a good example of Sherman’s deceptively relaxed filmmaking style. The movie is a visual treat, runs for a lean 80 minutes and has a lot more depth than you might expect. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in 1950s, George Sherman, Jock Mahoney, Westerns

 

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Tomahawk

Over the years I’ve tried to turn the spotlight where possible on those films which I reckon have either been unfairly maligned or, more commonly, just fallen between the cracks and slipped off the radar of movie fans. As a lover of westerns, I’ve found that the genre provides an especially rich vein to mine with respect to neglected gems. This is partly down to the sheer volume of pictures made during the western’s heyday, and also the gradual decline in interest in the genre, not least from a critical perspective. In my own small way, I’ve looked to draw a little attention back towards westerns and maybe encourage others to explore a little deeper. I particularly like the more socially aware pictures of the early 50s, those movies which did their best to offer entertainment and simultaneously encourage thought on the part of their audience. George Sherman’s Tomahawk (1951) is one such film – it’s a handsome looking, well paced work that not only contains a potted history lesson but also approaches the Indian Wars in a mature and intelligent way.

The film is bookended by one of those strident, self-important and frankly grating narrations that became fashionable in the documentary-style noir pictures of the post-war years. In many ways this is an inauspicious opening and one that doesn’t really blend in with the rest of the film. The time and context are established but I feel that this could have been achieved just as well, and with a good deal less piety, via the more traditional method of using rolling captions. Anyway, it’s Wyoming in 1866, at the time the Bozeman Trail is drawing in settlers and prospectors. The fact that this route west passes through Sioux hunting grounds, and violates previous treaty pledges, has the potential to spark off a major conflict with Red Cloud’s warriors. The problem is exacerbated by the government’s decision to build Fort Phil Kearny as a garrison to house an army detachment and offer protection to travelers. The construction proved a sore point with the Sioux, and the film concentrates on a compressed version of the bloody events that ensued, namely the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. It includes all the major players in those battles and gives the story a new twist by adding in a revenge aspect. Everything unfolds from the perspective of Jim Bridger (Van Heflin), a trapper and former scout who allows himself to be coaxed back into service for personal reasons. Bridger is disparagingly referred to by some as a “Squaw Man” – a man who has taken an Indian girl as his wife – and it’s this status that forms the basis for his decision to return to scouting duties. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most notorious atrocities to take place on the frontier, when Colonel Chivington led his irregular cavalry in a raid on a Cheyenne village, butchering and mutilating in the region of 150 of the inhabitants, the majority of whom were women and children. Bridger, who suffered a grievous loss in this massacre, has spent the intervening years hunting those responsible. When the young Cheyenne girl, Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), with whom he’s traveling believes she has recognized one of Chivington’s men among the troops detailed to the new fort, Bridger takes up the offer to scout for the army once again. At first, there exists an uneasy truce between the Sioux and the soldiers, Red Cloud being shown as a man willing to compromise so long as his people aren’t faced with aggression. However, the hotheaded hatred of the Indians by a young officer, Lieutenant Dancy (Alex Nicol), leads to an inevitable killing and matters start to spiral ever downward. The new fort soon finds itself under effective siege, with Dancy and Captain Fetterman (Arthur Space) seeking to discredit Bridger in the eyes of the garrison commander and downplay his estimate of the strength of Red Cloud’s forces. The movie covers the essentials concerning the build up to and aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre but alters some details for the purposes of storytelling – most notably by compressing the timeline and shifting some of the responsibility away from Fetterman himself.

George Sherman has never really got his due as a director; he worked in a variety of genres but his westerns for Universal in the 1950s in particular constitutes a strong body of work. His movies tend to be well paced and, more often than not, play around with interesting themes. Tomahawk packs a lot of story into its 80 minutes yet, despite moving at a fair clip, never sacrifices coherence. Aside from the standard cavalry versus Indians stand-off at the heart of the tale, there’s a revenge story and a commentary on the dubious treatment of the Indians blended in too. I think it’s a credit to Sherman’s skill that all these elements are handled well, and that the finished film is never less than entertaining. The majority of the action takes place outdoors, with Sherman and cameraman Charles P Boyle making the most of the Dakota locations. Sherman manages to convey the beauty and expansiveness of the landscape, leaving the viewer in no doubt why men like Red Cloud were prepared to fight and die if necessary to safeguard their ancestral lands. The film makes no bones about where its sympathies lie; the character of Bridger is as much of a guide for the viewer as he is for the army. It’s through his eyes that we’re invited to see things, and this allows us to experience the personal conflict of a man torn by his love for and understanding of the Indian way of life, and his sense of duty to the country of his birth. As such, the film never shies away from depicting the duplicity and inherent racism of Indian policy at the time, yet does its best to address the complexity of the situation too. I feel it slots nicely into that cycle of early 50s westerns that tried to come to terms with a particularly tumultuous period of US history.

Van Heflin’s stoic presence is the glue that holds the picture together. He had that lived in look that was just right for playing a toughened frontier scout, and the necessary physicality to make the action scenes seem authentic. I think one of his strengths as an actor was the thoughtful, introspective quality that he was able to bring to his roles, and the character of Bridger allowed him to explore that. You could argue that the revenge motif that runs throughout the movie was a tacked on extra, but it’s very important in helping to flesh out the character of Bridger and explain his motivation. Without the whole Sand Creek back story, Bridger would be just another westerner with a fondness for Indians. The scene where he explains his background to Yvonne De Carlo not only provides something for Van Heflin to get his teeth into, but it also makes it clear to the viewer where his passionate advocacy of the Indian stems from. Heflin rarely gave a poor performance in any movie, and Tomahawk saw him touch on grief, compassion, love and fury convincingly – a real three-dimensional figure rather than a caricature or stereotype. Yvonne De Carlo always brought a kind of tough glamour to whatever part she played, and some of the technicolor movies she made in the late 40s and 50s really highlighted her beauty. Although she was essentially playing the love interest in this film, her character’s real purpose was to draw out Heflin. Therefore, the romantic aspects never actually overwhelm the main focus of the story, serving to complement it instead. The chief villain of the piece was Alex Nicol as the sneering racist. He always seemed at his best playing the bad guy (check out The Man from Laramie for another performance that’s certainly interesting), and Tomahawk gave him the chance to indulge in some great rodent-like nastiness. The film boasts an extremely strong supporting cast, including a small part as a trooper for a young Rock Hudson. Susan Cabot met a very tragic end in real life but she was a very attractive screen presence in her time. I thought she brought a really sweet allure to the role of Monahseetah. In addition, there are well-judged turns from Jack Oakie, Preston Foster and Tom Tully.

Tomahawk is available on DVD in a number of territories, including the US (as part of Universal’s MOD programme) and the UK. Before those editions were released Mondo Entertainment in Germany put the title out as part of a licensing arrangement with Universal, and that’s the copy I have. I have to say that the transfer on that disc is fantastic – it’s sharp, clean and has the kind of eye-watering colours that show the cinematography off to great effect. The film is offered with a choice of the original audio or a German dub, and no subtitles of any kind are present. Extras are confined to text biographies of Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson (Hudson’s name gets prominent billing on the cover too despite his minor role – no mention of Heflin at all) and advertisements for other titles in the range. All told, I feel Tomahawk is an excellent little film that rarely seems to get a mention. Sherman paints some lovely images, packs in the action, tackles tough themes, coaxes solid performances from his cast and entertains all the way. Frankly, this really ought to be better known and more widely seen. It’s definitely a movie to check out if you get the opportunity – I don’t think it will disappoint.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rock Hudson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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Hell Bent for Leather

You know, the more westerns I watch, and discuss with others, the more convinced I’ve become that the smaller, less ambitious productions actually offer a better representation of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. The leaner budgets mean that the writing, shooting and performances are more honed, less indulgent, and therefore maybe a little more honest and direct. Hell Bent for Leather (1960) is what is known as a programmer; the B western had disappeared and been absorbed by television, but there was still a place for those movies which weren’t going to open as headline A features. The movie is a fine example of economy filmmaking; it demonstrates the benefits of a simple yet tight plot, a small and experienced cast, and a director capable of making the most of his locations.

The story is a very simple one, a case of mistaken identity leading to a desperate manhunt. At the risk of overselling it, Hell Bent for Leather tells a kind of Kafkaesque tale of senseless persecution, the reasoning behind it all only gradually becoming apparent as the narrative unfolds. It opens starkly, with a lone figure staggering out of the wilderness, clutching a shotgun. It’s clear the man is dehydrated and nearing exhaustion, but salvation is at hand – he spies a horseman who has just stopped to eat and rest. This is Clay Santell (Audie Murphy), a horse dealer travelling on business. No sooner has Santell extended the hand of hospitality to the bedraggled figure who’s stumbled upon his camp than that gesture backfires spectacularly. Finding himself viciously clubbed to the ground and his mount stolen in payment for his kindness, Santell only has time to loose off a single shot, winging his assailant and causing him to drop his distinctive shotgun. Santell is now in a similar fix to the man he foolishly tried to help, forced to make his way on foot to the nearest settlement. After this shock beginning, the plot slowly takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality. That shotgun Santell picked up has a history; it belonged to a notorious outlaw who’s been terrorizing the area, in fact most of the townsfolk are at that moment burying his latest victims. However, descriptions of the wanted man are vague, vague enough to fit a lot of men, someone like Santell for instance. There does remain one hope though, the marshal who’s been on the killer’s trail and knows him by sight. Incredibly though, when this lawman, Deckett (Stephen McNally), turns up, he immediately identifies Santell as his quarry. In the face of such a predicament, Santell takes the only option open to him: he makes a break for it with a local girl, Janet (Felicia Farr), as hostage and heads for the hills. What remains to be seen is whether Santell can stay one step ahead of the relentless posse, convince anyone of his innocence and, crucially, discover what motive lies behind Deckett’s seemingly inexplicable actions.

It’s difficult to watch any western from this period that is shot in and around Lone Pine, featuring a limited central cast and a minimalist plot, and not be reminded of Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest Hell Bent for Leather measures up to the quality of Boetticher at his best (there are issues with the script, which I’ll come back to, preventing such comparisons) but it certainly treads a nearby path. The film was presided over by George Sherman, one of those journeymen directors whose work, in spite of a long and varied career, tends to be glossed over if not wholly neglected. However, a look at his credits for the late 40s and on through into the 50s reveals a number of quality genre pieces. Sherman shot the bulk of this film outdoors on location, and made the most of Lone Pine’s distinctive rock formations. These serve both as the backdrop and also the main stage upon which the drama is played out. Whether the camera was positioned at ground level, the viewers’ gaze straining upwards to pick out the tiny figures scrambling over the sun-baked surface, or high above and aimed down through the narrow gaps with cold objectivity, the primal, treacherous nature of the terrain is always apparent. Also, for a movie that involves comparatively little gunplay, Sherman maintains the sense of danger and menace, both through the expert handling of his locations and by ensuring that the pace is never allowed to flag. As I mentioned, the biggest problem with this film comes from the writing, or at least one aspect of it. When you look at a Boetticher movie, especially those written by Burt Kennedy, you’re immediately struck by the quality of the characterization. Those films all provide the leads with plausible and relatively full backstories. Now, Hell Bent for Leather is essentially a three-hander, revolving around Santell, Janet and Deckett. The details concerning the latter two are filled in as the story goes along, quite deftly too, but Santell’s background is not. By the end of the movie, we don’t know any more about this man than we did in the opening minutes. As a result, the lead, the man with whom we must sympathize, is left as a kind of cipher, a guy to whom bad things happen just because – very existentialist but not entirely satisfactory.

Given the lack of assistance from the script, it says a lot for Audie Murphy’s abilities that he was able to make the part of Clay Santell work. Murphy rarely gets much credit for his acting, but he could turn in a decent enough performance when the film was of some quality. Even though his part is provided with virtually no background, he still makes Santell a man worth rooting for in Hell Bent for Leather. Being cast in what’s essentially the role of the underdog naturally helps to garner sympathy but he also managed to keep the character real, remaining convincing as he moved from bemusement and disbelief through panic and determination. Felicia Farr had already shown she could handle the role of a western heroine with some accomplishment in a series of films with Delmer Daves, and continued that trend here. Her character is fleshed out as the movie progresses, and she does come across as a woman with an inner strength that keeps her going in the face of adversity. The best, or most interesting, part in the movie was handed to Stephen McNally, an actor who was always a strong supporting player. He really gets under the skin of the driven, slightly unhinged Deckett. At first, this might appear to be a fairly one-dimensional character, but he develops further towards the end. By the time we reach the climax, there’s been enough revealed about Deckett to explain his actions and even create a touch of pathos.

At the moment, Hell Bent for Leather is available on DVD in three countries: Spain, France and Germany. The German release comes via Koch Media, and it’s another of their strong efforts. The film is presented in anamorphic scope, with good levels of detail and rich colour. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer, a gallery and booklet of liner notes in German. The disc offers both the original English soundtrack and a German dub, there are no subtitles at all. It’s also worth mentioning that Pegasus in the UK are rumoured to have this movie lined up for release so, bearing in mind the high quality transfers of Universal titles they have recently put out and their competitive prices, it may be worth holding off on this one for a bit. I feel this film is a superior little programmer that’s well acted and directed, and looks very attractive. It’s one of Audie Murphy’s most enjoyable pictures and also highlights the directorial skills of the underrated George Sherman. All in all, this is a solid, nicely crafted western that represents the genre well and shows what can be achieved with a limited budget and a bit of imagination.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2012 in 1960s, Audie Murphy, George Sherman, Westerns

 
 
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