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Category Archives: Westerns

Day of the Outlaw

I like westerns, I like movies which could be described as chamber pieces, and I like snowy backdrops. Day of the Outlaw (1959), directed by Andre de Toth, checks all these boxes. It’s one of those films genre fans will enthuse about yet remains criminally underrated by others. It’s also a film where there’s not a huge amount of action; there is, however, a kind of relentless tension and a whole lot going on just below the surface. In short, the film is a sleeper, a tight and atmospheric classic just waiting to be discovered.

I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of watching movies is to be found in the deceptively simple story, those tales which initially appear to be straightforward or predictable yet gradually develop into something much more complex and satisfying. Day of the Outlaw is a fine example of a work where layers of depth emerge bit by bit and draw you in before you’ve realized it. It opens in a wintry Wyoming town as two men, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff), ride in and bemoan the stringing of barbed wire and the consequent threat to the open range. Starrett’s blood is up and he vows a showdown with the homesteader responsible. The scene therefore is set for the kind of range war drama that’s been seen countless times. But this is a mere introduction, an opportunity to draw attention to the implacable and tough character of the lead. When it then becomes apparent that Starrett is in love with and covets the beautiful wife (Tine Louise) of his chief rival, the plot moves to another level. And still we’re only dancing around the periphery, for what really matters here is the journey – both literal and figurative – which Starrett (among others) will be forced to embark upon. In a deft piece of filmmaking sleight of hand the entire emphasis is moved away from that which the build-up has led us to expect. Just as we’re about to witness the duel between Starrett and his foe a bunch of newcomers arrive and take us off in a completely different direction. Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a Quantrill-like figure, a soldier with a tarnished reputation now reduced to leading a band of amoral cutthroats. Bruhn and his men are loaded down with stolen gold, but he’s got a bullet lodged inside him and the army hot on his heels. The enforced stopover in the snowbound town represents a trial of sorts for the bewildered and helpless residents, but it also holds out a kind of hope for two lost souls – Starrett and Bruhn. Both men find themselves in opposition and through that also find a way to regain a little of the humanity that years of hard living have almost stripped away.

Redemption once again; Starrett and Bruhn have lost something along the way, their hearts have been hardened by the brutality of frontier life, and their salvation will be a by-product of their enmity. As far as I’m concerned, this is what drives the film along and gives it its power. I feel all the other plot devices are simply that, accoutrements put in place to facilitate the drama that forms the heart of the story. It’s the chance meeting of Bruhn and Starrett, at a key moment for both, which gives them pause and either forces or allows them (take your pick here) to alter the course of their respective destinies. The two characters wield a significant degree of influence over those around them and this is what first draws them into an uneasy mutual alliance. However, I believe that the real, if initially unacknowledged, motive comes from the fact that each recognizes something of himself in the other. The effect appears more profound in the case of Starrett, but it’s surely present in Bruhn too, and throws out a spiritual lifeline of sorts.

Day of the Outlaw is surely Andre de Toth’s best film, a well-paced exercise in mounting and sustained tension, aided by Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Lee E Wells’ novel. By having so much of the action confined to the saloon the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and suspense is multiplied. The impromptu dance, hastily organized to placate Bruhn’s increasingly restless men, perfectly conveys the threat and menace posed by the gang. Even when events later take us out into the wilderness of the snow-choked mountain pass that feeling of being locked into an inescapable situation is actually heightened rather than dissipated. A good deal of credit also has to go to cinematographer Russell Harlan here; his shooting of the frozen and forbidding landscape is chilling in every way. When you add in Alexander Courage’s spare, doom-laden score all the ingredients are in place for a memorable interlude in the icy wastes.

The cast is both deep and distinguished (Persoff, Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Frank DeKova, Dabbs Greer, Alan Marshal et al) but Ryan and Ives easily dominate proceedings. Ives in particular holds the attention whenever he’s on screen, which is entirely fitting as he’s playing a man who’s holding a gang of dangerous roughnecks in check principally through sheer force of personality. The dance segment which I referred to above is a good illustration of this, the frayed dignity of the man shining through and setting him apart from a shabby command which is beneath him in every respect. Ives also gets right into the physical and psychological guts of his character, from the harrowing operation he endures without anesthetic to the slow dawning of his impending and inevitable demise. Overall, it’s a first-rate portrayal of a complex man, and one which is wholly believable. Just as the characters feed off one another, I think the same can be said the performances of the leads. Ryan was never a slouch as an actor anyway and his playing opposite Ives ensured he stayed on top of his game. He starts out as bitter, cold and unforgiving as the country around him, delivering a blistering and scathing verbal attack on his homesteader rival. He holds onto that steely determination throughout, but slowly lets the sharp edges soften a little as he becomes aware of the path he’s been taking and where it must surely lead.

Day of the Outlaw is fairly widely available on DVD now. I have the US release from MGM which presents the film quite nicely in its correct widescreen ratio. However, the film comes with absolutely no extra features, and I reckon it’s more than deserving of some. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have the chance to chat about the movies I love with those who share my passion. Over time though, I’ve also come to realize that I was partly motivated by a wish to see a bit more critical respect afforded to certain films and genres. The western in particular has tended to be passed over as nothing more than time-passing entertainment. Now there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, a movie which doesn’t do so is failing straight out of the gate after all. Still, the underestimation of the western as an art form and as a vehicle for the intelligent examination of adult themes has persisted. A film like Day of the Outlaw highlights this critical neglect. I’d like to think that appreciation of the film has grown somewhat over time though, and I’d encourage anyone keen on polished and smart filmmaking to seek it out.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

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The Shooting & Ride in the Whirlwind

Films naturally reflect the times in which they are made, there’s no getting away from that. As an art form they of course focus on certain themes, frequently timeless ones at that, but there’s no divorcing the artistic ambition from the current circumstances. The western is particularly interesting in this respect as it uses a historical setting and period tropes to comment on a current situation. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, made back to back in 1966 by Monte Hellman, are a good illustration of this. Here are two films which could not have been made at another time; the mood and aesthetic are firmly rooted in the mid-60s, and in cinematic terms they look back to the classic era of the genre while also pressing forward and moving it in another direction. I see them as slotting in at the end of the genre’s transitional period, making them fascinating both historically and as an absorbing film experience in their own right.

The Shooting is as minimalist as they come with attention centered on just four people – Gashade (Warren Oates), Coley (Will Hutchins), Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson) and an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins). What’s more, precious little is revealed about the backgrounds of any of these characters; Gashade is referred to as having worked as a bounty hunter at one point, but that’s about it. Anyway, it matches perfectly the abrupt sparseness of the tale and the filmmaking style. As viewers we seem to arrive somewhere in the middle of the story, the events leading up to it being explained through a brisk flashback and the ongoing development of the narrative. In brief, the woman turns up and hires Gashade and Coley to lead her through the wilderness, without divulging exactly why she wants to travel or why she wants these men to accompany her. It gradually becomes clear that the events depicted in the flashback have a significant bearing on the woman’s motives, and then there’s the mysterious figure who follows all the way from a discreet distance. If anything, the lack of information and the way subtle hints are dropped as we go along cranks up the suspense. The film is virtually the antithesis of many current productions, where exposition seems to rule and everything has to be slavishly spelled out to audiences. By the time the startling conclusion rolls round almost as many questions have been raised as have been answered, yet the viewer is always treated as an intelligent adult capable of reading things in his or her own way.

Ride in the Whirlwind uses a more conventional narrative structure, and a slightly expanded cast, but it’s another pared down and deceptively simple piece of cinema. Once again no time is wasted in getting to the heart of the matter – a botched stagecoach robbery opens the movie in dramatic fashion and sets up the unfortunate circumstances into which three men will blindly stumble. Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson) and Otis (Tom Filer) are cowhands heading back to Texas who unwittingly come upon the outlaw’s hideout. Sensing something amiss, they plan to ride on the following morning but everything goes awry when a trigger-happy posse shows up. As is the case in The Shooting, events overtake the men and force them into a situation where they have little control of their fate. In a sense this film offers a reversal of perspective; where The Shooting follows the action from the hunters’ point of view, Ride in the Whirlwind lets us see it all develop from the side of the hunted. There’s suspense too, but of a different kind – there’s no particular mystery to unravel and the motivation of all concerned is much more clear-cut and easily defined – as a tense struggle for survival ensues.

Aside from the common contributors – Hellman, Nicholson, Perkins and cinematographer Gregory Sandor in particular – both films are fatalistic, existentialist pursuit dramas. The characters are abruptly and without warning pitched into violent and desperate situations which they are powerless to avoid yet are also committed to seeing them through to the bitter end. There’s an authenticity there too in the spare, clipped dialogue. And then there are the Utah locations: barren, harsh and dusty, a remote and hostile environment where the human tragedies are played out and the land itself poses a physical challenge. So much of the imagery captured by Hellman and Sandor harks back to the classic westerns of the previous decade while the editing and oblique storytelling style is very much a product of the turbulent mid-60s, in fact it’s arguably ahead of its time. Anyone familiar with westerns will find countless nods to the films that went before and laid the groundwork – the dogged pursuit of the wrong men (The Ox-Bow Incident & The Bravados), the deliberate crippling of a gunfighter’s hand (The Man from Laramie, No Name on the Bullet, One-Eyed Jacks), the burning of the shack to flush out the occupants (Red Sundown), the sudden revelation of the hunter and his quarry’s identities (Winchester ’73) and so on. These are motifs that would crop up again in the future of course, attesting to the influential character of the films.

However, there are other factors which mark these productions out as being of their own era, and as forward-looking works too. For me anyway, a clear shift in tone has taken place. The late 40s and on into the 50s saw the world faced with its fair share of difficulty and uncertainty. Still, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the massive social and cultural changes that were becoming apparent in the mid-1960s represented something totally different. Old certainties were being swept aside and consigned to a past that suddenly seemed very distant. Something new and, as is always the case when abrupt change occurs, vaguely unsettling was on its way; Hellman’s pair of westerns are a cinematic reflection of that sense of bewilderment and confusion.

And then there’s the matter of redemption, the mainstay of the genre throughout its golden years but something which would become increasingly rare with the passage of time. Gashade in The Shooting could be said to be on a redemptive quest, essentially chasing himself, or at least the darker side of himself, and perhaps achieving his goal in the end. I find it difficult to see how anyone else in that movie could be perceived in such terms though, and it just doesn’t apply at all in Ride in the Whirlwind. Therefore the altered emphasis in the western is more readily apparent in Hellman’s movies than was the case in other, earlier transitional works. The predominant feeling one comes away with, which is in marked contrast to what was to be found in the genre only a few years before, is ambiguity. While the true villains are easily identified, there’s a blurring or lack of definition when it comes to the heroes. Gashade’s inaction (albeit reluctant) effectively seals Coley’s fate and his subsequent assault on Spear could be seen as sentencing a man like that to certain death rather than genuinely sparing him. Similarly, when Vern and Wes break away from the homestead in Ride in the Whirlwind they cross a line ethically. The westerns that would follow, and not just the more nihilistic spaghetti variant, mostly saw the replacement of the hero with the anti-hero; a figure whom the audience could be asked to identify with but rarely admire, a figure whose moral plane was frequently only a degree or two above that of the villains.

Frankly, these films always looked a little rough any time I’d seen them in the past on any home video format. I’m delighted to say though that the new release by Criterion, available on both DVD and Blu-ray, sees them looking exceptionally fine. Both titles have undergone 4K restorations with the blessing of the director and the results are very pleasing. There’s plenty of detail in the image and the colors are rich and natural, really showing off the starkly beautiful Utah locations. As usual with Criterion releases there’s a wealth of solid extra features offered: the booklet has an essay by Michael Atkinson, and the disc has interviews with various members of the cast and crew. Kim Morgan provides a video essay on Warren Oates, and there’s a conversation between Will Hutchins and Jake Perlin. On top of all that, both movies have commentary tracks with Monte Hellman, Blake Lucas and Bill Krohn, which are relaxed, entertaining and informative. Overall, it’s an excellent package with the two films looking better than I’ve ever seen them.

These are two fine westerns, entertaining, thoughtful, and made by a man who understood the genre. Furthermore, they’re important movies in the evolution of the western, adding another link to the chain which runs from the silent era right up to the present day. I suppose Ride in the Whirlwind would be the more accessible of the two for viewers unfamiliar with Hellman’s work, but both really are essential viewing for anyone with a taste for intelligent and original filmmaking. I highly recommend them.

My thanks to the people at The Criterion Collection for making this review possible.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in 1960s, Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman, Westerns

 

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Shane

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no going back…

It’s a little difficult to know what to say when it comes to a movie like Shane (1953); so much has been written about it over the years and its influence is wide-ranging. I think the western is a genre that lends itself particularly to studies of humanity, it’s less reliant on tricks and all the best examples have something of worth to say about how we treat and react to each other. Shane is a very human picture, a simple story with great depth and sensitivity. I guess it’s fair to categorize it as an archetypical 50s western. The theme of redemption runs right through it, forming its core; it celebrates community, family, love and, maybe most of all, the importance of and one’s need to feel a sense of belonging.

The plot is a fairly straightforward affair and I won’t spend a lot of time on it. The background lies in the dying days of the open range, a key stage in the transition of the frontier from a wild, lawless territory towards a more stable and civilized environment. Major social changes such as this inevitably involve a degree of pain for all involved. The ranchers who tamed the country bitterly resent what appears to be a curtailment of their hard won independence, while the homesteaders must weather both the elements and the hostility of the cattlemen. Into this atmosphere of intractable conflict rides a lone figure, Shane (Alan Ladd), who halts at one of the dirt farms. The owner is Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) who, along with his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), is in the process of carving out a home and a future. Purely by chance, local rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) isn’t far behind and this immediately raises Starrett’s suspicions. Still, he has no cause for concern on that score as Shane makes it plain he has no connection with Ryker and actually backs up Starrett. It so happens these two men have crossed paths at a fortuitous time for both: Starrett is short of help to work his property, but Shane’s need is arguably greater still. His manner and apparel mark him out as a gunfighter, one of those rootless drifters of frontier lore. Here’s a man who desperately desires to bury his past and perhaps dream of a future, but that requires he find a place where he’s wanted and where he feels he belongs. For Shane, the Starrett homestead is a kind of beacon, a chance to redeem himself and seek out some meaning or purpose in his life. Yet that redemption and purpose will have to be earned the hard way – battles must be fought, temptations overcome, and specters of the past slain and laid to rest once and for all.

Shane is really all about relationships: between man and the land, the individual and society, the present and the past, and at the heart of it all is the Starrett family. This is one of the most wholesome and honest portrayals of family life I’ve seen and it’s not cutesy or fake. The Starretts represent trust, loyalty and devotion, in a credible way, in the face of hardship and adversity. As a viewer, it feels real and sincere, and it has to if that central dynamic which has the power to draw in a man like Shane is to be at all believable. What we have is one of those happy instances where the acting of Heflin, Arthur and de Wilde mesh perfectly with the writing of Jack Schaefer and the direction of George Stevens. All the interactions of the Starretts ring true, from the banal conversations about crockery round the table to the intense discussions on how best to confront the threat to their home. And hovering round the fringes is Shane, the man intimately acquainted with violence who has been beguiled by the allure of such simplicity.

Shane was a gift of a role for Alan Ladd, cementing his place in cinematic history. Ladd’s edgy discomfort was used to great effect in the films noir that first brought him to prominence, but the reluctant western hero was an even better fit. Ladd himself appears to have been a mass of contradictions and self-doubt, and that quality was ideal for his part here. Shane is an extremely self-aware character, aware of his skill with a gun and also fully cognizant of the deficiencies in his personal life. It’s a finely judged performance by Ladd, brimming with regret and yearning. The character of Shane is a man who knows he’s arrived at a crossroads; his past is never spoken of, only alluded to, and he realizes that an opportunity to make up for all his previous actions is within his grasp. He’s a natural outsider, detaching himself from the group given half a chance, yet always keen to be accepted into its ranks. His final decision to confront Ryker and save Starrett is simultaneously inspiring, fitting and heartbreaking. But it has to be – just like little Joey in that memorable finale, we want Shane to return and stay. Still we also understand that he must see things through if he’s to meet destiny head-on and achieve his redemption.

George Stevens was one of those filmmakers who seems to have been deeply affected by his wartime experiences, his presence during the liberation of Dachau often being cited as a profound influence on his subsequent work. Be that as it may, his handling of violence in Shane is worth noting and I feel the quote I used at the top of this piece is of significance. I’ve discussed the depiction of violence in the classic era western on this site and elsewhere before, and Shane illustrates what I think is the dominant approach very well. The film isn’t a devil-may-care shoot-em-up, where killings are seen as little more than an entertaining afterthought. No, the shootings which take place have an impact on the viewer because the characters involved on the screen treat them seriously. Jack Palance may look, sound and act like the cold assassin with no hint of conscience, but the build up to and results of his actions are powerful. On the few occasions a gun is fired in the film the gravity of the consequences is never in question – the sound of the discharge alone is an assault on the senses. When Palance blasts Elisha Cook Jr into the muddy street there’s no flippancy, polish or Hollywood glamor on view – it’s brutal, ugly and shocking in its authenticity. And it doesn’t end there in the cold anonymity of the churned up earth, for the gut-wrenching business of bringing his body back to his loved ones for burial has to be seen to. Cynicism seems to be in fashion these days and I have no doubt there are those who may regard the shot of the dog mournfully pawing Cook’s coffin as it’s lowered into the earth as mawkish sentimentality. As far as I’m concerned though, it’s a supremely touching moment and perfectly encapsulates the grief of those gathered at the graveside. If the repercussions of a killing are hammered home, the effects of less serious violence aren’t swept aside either. The fist fight between Ladd and Ben Johnson is an example of this; there’s no music to be heard to distract us from the landing of blows, and the injuries are never disguised. In Shane, every act of aggression, whether major or minor, is shown to hurt someone.

I’ve deviated a little from my usual format in writing this piece. I could have gone into more detail regarding the plot and social/historical issues it raises, I could also have offered a deeper analysis of the contributions of the cast – Jean Arthur, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan et al. I’m aware too that I’ve made no mention of Loyal Griggs’ superb photography of the Wyoming locations and the dim, smoky interiors, or of Victor Young’s careful scoring. None of that is a result of neglect or lack of appreciation on my part. No, I took a conscious decision to try to focus attention on a handful of those aspects, rather than attempt to draw in all of them, which I feel contribute to making Shane one of the enduring cinematic classics and a definitive 50s western. I hope I’ve managed to do so.

 

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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Gunsmoke

At one time the Hollywood studios all seemed to have a particular style and feel associated with them. Even without seeing the credits you could usually tell which company had produced a movie just by its look. Mention Universal to most film fans and they will probably think automatically of the horror cycle running from the early 30s through to the mid-40s. Understandable as that is, it also means that the westerns the studio made in the 50s tend to be overlooked, although not by genre fans. The Universal western (or Universal-International to be more accurate) was for the most part a no-nonsense affair that moved at a fast lick and was visually attractive. Gunsmoke (1953) is a good example of the studio’s output – pacy, entertaining and lacking in pretension.

Reb Kittredge (Audie Murphy) has been making a living as a hired gunman, and the opening shots of the film see him and his friend Johnny Lake (Charles Drake) riding hard in an effort to outrun a posse of cavalrymen on their trail. The two men had been plying their trade in the Johnson County War but are now heading off in different directions – Johnny planning to sell his skills elsewhere, while Reb hopes to get  into the ranching business. He’s had an offer of employment from a man called Telford (Donald Randolph), and is setting off to find out what it entails when he’s bushwhacked – a lone sniper shoots his horse from under him using a buffalo gun. As is often the case in these movies, a man’s reputation has the nasty habit of preceding him and then dogging his steps thereafter. Reb has made his name dispensing lead and that’s really the only thing that interests people. It turns out Telford is a slick and ruthless business type who has been buying up all the land around, and now there’s only one man standing in his way. Dan Saxon (Paul Kelly) and his daughter Rita (Susan Cabot) are all that stand between Telford and total control. And this is where Reb comes in – Telford wants to hire him to ensure (by whatever means are necessary) Saxon doesn’t get his cattle to market before his mortgage comes due. So far this is all pretty standard fare, but the initial reluctance of Reb to take on the job and, more significantly, the fact he wins the ranch from Saxon on the turn of a card takes the story in a different direction. Reb has the ranch he always wanted but with Saxon now working for him, the daughter resenting him, Telford on his back, a deadline looming and a former friend gunning for him.

No 50s western would be truly complete if it failed to touch on the notion of redemption, at least in passing. I don’t for a moment believe Gunsmoke was ever striving for great depth yet it does touch on this classic theme. Murphy’s character is referred to as having gained notoriety for his actions in the Johnson County War – while it’s not made clear which side he hired out to the implication is surely that he earned his pay gunning for the big ranchers. By siding with Saxon, the small independent, and taking on the might of Telford and all his resources it could be read as an attempt to make up for his past deeds. Anyway, the pace is so brisk and the script so packed with incident that there’s not that much time to linger over such matters. The screenplay comes courtesy of D D Beauchamp and a novel by Norman A Fox, neither of whom were strangers to the western genre. The direction was handled by Nathan Juran, one of those studio professionals who rarely get a lot of credit for the quality of their work. Juran made a number of westerns with Murphy alongside other studio assignments. As time wore on he moved towards science fiction and fantasy pictures – 20 Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer, and so on – which paved the way for a television career notable for his contribution to various Irwin Allen shows. Juran may not have been an especially spectacular director but he was very solid and I’ve always found his work highly watchable.

Gunsmoke saw Audie Murphy settling more comfortably into his role as a movie star, and particularly as a western star. He would go on to better and more complex parts in the future of course but this film offered him an opportunity to play a guy with some interesting shadings to his character. He’s probably at his best in his exchanges with Charles Drake, who makes for a fine anti-heroic/villainous adversary. Susan Cabot is good too and shows plenty of grit throughout – her driving of a chuck wagon down a treacherous mountain incline is a memorable scene – proving herself capable of providing more than mere eye candy. Still, the acting honors have to go to the supporting cast, particularly Paul Kelly and Donald Randolph. Randolph is oily and effete yet menacing as a coiled serpent, the silky exterior masking a calculating and venomous nature. And Kelly is just about perfect as the rancher who will gamble on anything. His philosophical approach to life and all its tribulations adds a lot of charm to the movie.

Gunsmoke is out on DVD in Spain (it’s also available in Germany as part of a Murphy box set from Koch Media) via Llamentol. The image is pretty good, if perhaps a little soft, and doesn’t have any serious damage visible. Generally, the presentation improves as the feature progresses. I’ve seen the film on TV a number of times and the DVD is comparable to those broadcast versions as far as I can tell. Gunsmoke may not be the best western Audie Murphy made and it’s not the best Universal-International had to offer either. Having said that, I like it a lot – it’s brisk, colorful and entertaining from start to finish. There’s good professional work done by everyone – both in front of and behind the cameras – and the film stands as a fair representation of the style and ethos of a Universal-International western.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Westerns

 

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Joe Dakota

Last time I looked at a remake. The film in question today isn’t a direct remake, at least not a credited one, but instead it’s what we might term an alternative take on a similar theme. Anyone who has seen Bad Day at Black Rock will easily spot the parallels in Joe Dakota (1957), although this later production doesn’t attain the same level of driving intensity as Sturges’ film. I think it’s fair to say this movie doesn’t have the same ambition, not as far as social commentary is concerned anyway, but it’s still interesting enough and definitely a worthwhile 50s western.

Arborville is a tiny settlement, barely able to justify the label of a town. As an unnamed stranger (Jock Mahoney) rides out of the desert onto its solitary street there’s an almost unnatural calm. At first it seems as though Arborville has been abandoned, like a western version of the Marie Celeste on dry land. The mystery provides only a temporary puzzle though as a lone girl, Jody (Luana Patten), sulkily informs the stranger that the whole population is outside of town at work. The work turns out to be an oil drilling operation, and the locals aren’t exactly thrilled to see an outsider poking his nose in. The main spokesman, Cal (Charles McGraw), initially appears happy enough to allow the visitor to observe the drilling but grows suspicious when this unnamed man decides to explore further, particularly when he exhibits an interest in the old shack that stands next to the derrick. The tone of this opening section of the movie is a little uneven, mixing the suspenseful elements up with some broad knockabout comedy. However, as the story progresses the emphasis on the mystery consistently holds center stage. Everything revolves around the question of identity – the identity of the apparently affable stranger with questions to ask, and that of the old Indian, now disappeared, who once occupied the shack. So there are issues to be resolved in Arborville but no-one seems keen to offer any answers. Even the locals are reluctant to discuss the matter among themselves. What is clear is that the town is nursing a secret, and the stranger is determined to haul that hidden past, kicking and screaming if necessary, out into the open.

Those familiar with Bad Day at Black Rock will know where the story is heading, and I’m not going to spoil things here for anyone who hasn’t seen either film. While the structure of both films is essentially the same the approach is a little different. Joe Dakota has the early lightness I already referred to and, even though the levels of suspense are ramped up as it goes along, the kind of searing examination of race relations that characterized John Sturges’ film is not present. Also, the insularity of the isolated frontier community isn’t probed in the same depth. Everything in Bad Day at Black Rock revolved around notions of hate, fear and neglect – Joe Dakota trades on fear too, but greed lies at the root of it all.

The script was by William Talman, best known as Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason show, and Norman Jolley. This pair also worked together on another Jock Mahoney vehicle, I’ve Lived Before, which I’d like to see one day. The core story is a good one and works well in a western setting, relying on the isolation to act as both a cloak for the town’s guilty secret and a catalyst for the paranoia that accompanies it. The plot recounts a journey towards the truth and, like most 50s westerns, represents a simultaneous quest for redemption or absolution. By the close the collective guilt of all concerned is literally burnt away and cleansed as the mistakes of the past are consumed by flames.

Jock Mahoney was well cast in Joe Dakota, his laid back charm easily wins the viewer over to his side right from the beginning and there was an air of tough resolve about him too which makes him believable as the dogged seeker after the truth. He made a handful of films with director Richard Bartlett – of those, I’ve only seen the enjoyable Money, Women and Guns – who appears to have recognized his strengths and used them to good effect. Charles McGraw had the rough edges and raspy voice to play a variety of movie villains and he always a pleasure to watch. Joe Dakota was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his more devious side, as opposed to a physical threat, and he acts as a good foil for the athletic Mahoney. Barbara Lawrence and Luana Patten took on the two principal female roles, with the latter getting the juicier and more rewarding part. The supporting cast is pretty strong too, with Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef indulging in some comic antics early on to soften the harder image we frequently associate with both men. It’s nice too to see the prolific Anthony Caruso – one of those faces you’ll immediately recognize – in a fairly prominent role.

Joe Dakota was a Universal picture and can be tracked down on DVD easily enough. I have the Spanish release, which is fair but nothing special. A 1957 production would certainly have been shot widescreen but the DVD is clearly open matte – there’s lots of extraneous head room in the frame. Aside from that, the image is reasonable if a little soft. The Eastman color process could be problematic and was apt to fade over time but I can’t say it looks too bad in this case. The disc just offers the film and there are no extra features whatsoever. Generally, this is a good, solid western which presents a different riff on a similar scenario to Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s interesting to look at the contrasting approaches of these two films but I think it would be unfair to compare them directly. Joe Dakota stands up just fine on its own merits and is both entertaining and thoughtful.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in 1950s, Jock Mahoney, Westerns

 

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Tribute to a Bad Man

We’re living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started – and this you don’t know – I’ve been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men’s been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him.

Sometimes little gems pass us by, having escaped our attention for one reason or another. Discovering such films is a genuine pleasure, a reminder that there are always cinematic nuggets to chance upon. Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) is a case in point, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. I’ll readily admit here that this may have been at least partially due to a certain prejudice on my part; neither the stars nor the director are people one automatically associates with the western. I guess my enjoyment of Robert Wise’s two earlier genre efforts, coupled with the recommendations of others, drew me to the film. The presence of James Cagney (who made only three westerns himself) and Irene Papas had me feeling less confident. However, I was delighted to find that any reservations were entirely misplaced – if anything, Tribute to a Bad Man proves how the genre has a tendency to bring the best out of talented performers and filmmakers.

The plot recounts a short episode in the life of a young man, a parable of renewal in the best tradition. Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) is a green easterner, a store clerk from Pennsylvania heading west to carve out a new life. Riding into a lush valley, he stumbles into an ambush in progress. A wounded man is pinned down with only the carcass of his slain horse for cover. Miller’s unexpected appearance on the scene drives off the bushwhackers and earns him the gratitude of the man he’s saved. This is Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a prosperous horse rancher and owner of the valley. Miller’s reward is to be taken on as a wrangler, but it also draws him into the harsh and complex world of Rodock. And it is completely his world; Rodock’s wealth and hard-bitten personality have made him the total master of his domain. In a land as yet untouched by the civilizing influence of the law, his authority is absolute and he quite literally holds the power of life and death when any crime takes place. The west at this time was very much a man’s country, with women thin on the ground. Rodock is one of those classic western types who has lived much of his life alone, but there is a woman in his home now. Jocasta Constantine (Irene Papas) is a Greek immigrant he has taken from the Cheyenne saloon where he found her and brought back to his ranch. It’s at this point that the film comes into its own, raising all kinds of questions about trust, suspicion and the way it’s all too easy to hide from and deny one’s true feelings. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he’s slow to trust. He’s become a hard man, masking a deep insecurity with an uncompromising exterior. There’s a kind of messianic zeal about the way he metes out his brand of justice, hanging any horse thieves who dare raid his stock. But his suspicion of potential criminals extends into his personal life too – he’s consumed with doubt when it comes to Jocasta, fearing the attractions of his head wrangler McNulty (Stephen McNally) and later Miller will be more than she can resist.

Tribute to a Bad Man was adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer, and I’ve yet to see a film derived from his work that’s left me dissatisfied. There’s a timeless quality which I feel comes from the focus on interesting characters and deeply affecting relationships. This isn’t a shoot-em-up western, rather it’s a character study which draws you in gradually. That’s not to say there are no action scenes – there are, but they certainly take second place. Mostly the movie concerns itself with Rodock and his relationship with Jocasta. Even the name Jocasta is highly suggestive, with its allusions to Greek mythology – Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus, who of course unwittingly killed his father and proceeded to marry his mother. I think it’s therefore intended that we see Rodock as a kind of Laius figure, simultaneously in love with Jocasta, deeply suspicious of what it may lead to, and also forever aware of the threat to him posed by younger men. Nevertheless, while an awareness of this aspect can add another layer of appreciation, it’s not an essential reading of the plot. What really matters here is the way an essentially decent man has allowed himself to succumb to cruelty, and how he rediscovers and regains his humanity. In this version Jocasta isn’t the tragic figure but instead represents salvation for Rodock.

I think it’s a pity Robert Wise didn’t make more westerns. All three of his genre efforts are fine movies, although I probably enjoyed Tribute to a Bad Man most. Aside from the rich, classical theme, the movie simply looks great throughout. Filming in CinemaScope, Wise and cameraman Robert Surtees use the wide frame to full effect, and the Colorado locations appear quite spectacular. Furthermore, the interiors are well used too. Wise and Surtees achieve good depth and contrast in those scenes – the grimy, smoky bunkhouse looking particularly authentic. The director’s judgment of the pacing was spot on too, letting scenes play out naturally but never allowing them to overstay their welcome. A polished and professional piece of work all round.

As I said at the beginning, James Cagney simply isn’t someone typically associated with the western – his fast-talking persona seemed to belong to a different period and location. And yet I never once found myself thinking there was anything anachronistic or out of place about his presence in Tribute to a Bad Man – which is a tribute itself to the talent and versatility of the man. Cagney of course wasn’t the first choice for the role of Rodock; Spencer Tracy was initially cast but his reluctance to spend so much time on location led to his leaving MGM and being replaced by Cagney. The character of Rodock wasn’t an easy one to play – he’s not really the bad man the title suggests, at least not  in the formal sense of the word. On their own, the prickliness, uprightness and bursts of cruelty could probably be handled fine by a number of actors. Cagney’s skill though lay in his ability to ensure Rodock never became wholly unlikable at any point; the fundamental honor and decency of the man were never far from the surface and that Irish twinkle would flash in his eyes at just the right moment. Irene Papas is another performer you don’t expect to see in a western – she hasn’t even made that many English language films all told. Once again though we can see this genre encouraging fine performances from people who, on paper anyway, sound like odd choices. Papas was one of only two women in the cast, and her striking Greek features make her stand out even more. This was her Hollywood debut and she carried off the role of Jocasta with style. Her character was at the heart of the story, the one who brings Rodock back to full life, and any weakness would have derailed the whole thing. She got across the right combination of sassiness, allure and soulfulness to make it all entirely believable, and even the significant age difference with Cagney is used to the film’s advantage.

Stephen McNally could play heroes, villains and everything in between with ease. Here he was the villain, a slick opportunist willing to gamble on anything and lacking any real moral sense. Probably his finest moment in the movie comes when he has to endure the sadistic punishment Rodock devises to pay him back for crippling his horses – grueling stuff and well handled by McNally. Don Dubbins was fine as the everyman narrator, ultimately it’s something of a thankless part but he did all that was asked of him. The supporting cast all have smaller roles but Vic Morrow got handed a reasonably meaty part as the embittered son of Cagney’s former partner. The other parts are filled by such familiar faces as Lee Van Cleef. Royal Dano, Jeanette Nolan, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith.

Tribute to a Bad Man is available  from a number of sources on DVD now. There’s a Warner Archive MOD disc out in the US, a Spanish release – which I think is non-anamorphic letterbox – and this Italian edition from A & R Productions which I own. I have a few titles by this company now and I’ve been very satisfied with them so far. The movie is presented in its correct scope ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The print used is crisp, clear and colorful with no significant damage. The film can be viewed either with its original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, and there are no subtitles at all offered. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries. All in all, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a first-rate western in my opinion, and ought to have more fans. I can certainly see myself revisiting it and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2014 in 1950s, James Cagney, Robert Wise, Westerns

 

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The Far Country

And so I come to the last western made by James Stewart and Anthony Mann, not the last they did together but rather the last one to be featured on this site. For a long time I tended to look upon The Far Country (1954) as the least of the Mann/Stewart westerns but, having been challenged on that view in the past, I asked myself to reassess it. On reflection, I feel my initial stance was both unfair and even lacked a certain logic – after all, there really is no such thing as a lesser Mann/Stewart western. I also think I know why I once undervalued the film, and it’s essentially for the same reason I was sightly ambivalent at one time about the collaboration between actor and director that never was: Night Passage. In short, the film doesn’t have what I can only term the sustained intensity of the other westerns these two men made. Yet to latch onto that aspect is to do the film a huge disservice; where the other films have that sustained intensity The Far Country has more isolated instances of it, and this actually fits the development of the plot and theme perfectly.

Perhaps the most noticeable motif in the films of Anthony Mann is the way his characters are forever driving themselves upwards, striving to attain a higher place and sometimes overreaching themselves in the process. In The Far Country Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is pushing himself further up the globe from the off, from Wyoming to Seattle and on to the north – the Yukon. Webster is a trail boss, a man with a herd of cattle to bring to market. That he’s a hard and uncompromising man is evident from the first scenes where it’s plainly stated that he shot and killed two cowboys who tried to desert him on the way – although it’s later revealed that the deceased had also planned to take his herd with them when they left. Webster’s partner is Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), a man of milder temperament whose ambitions stretch only as far as a ranch in Utah and a plentiful supply of coffee. One would have thought that having got this far, the worst of their trials lay behind these two men. However, that’s not to be. Gannon (John McIntire) is one of those conniving opportunists one often finds in border areas – he’s a man who uses the law, his version of the law that is, to ensure all profits accrue back to him. He seizes on the chance to confiscate Webster’s herd on a legal technicality that’s little more than a whim. However, Webster is no fool and when he’s offered the job of leading saloon owner Ronda Castle’s (Ruth Roman) outfit into Canada he turns it to his advantage. While Gannon is under the illusion that Webster is content to try his luck in the Canadian gold fields the latter snatches his herd from under his nose and jumps the border. So all’s well that ends well? Not exactly – Webster is a hard-nosed individualist, one of those men who look after themselves and leave the others to their own devices. However, the move north sees that isolationist position challenged. New friendships are forged – Rube (Jay C Flippen) and more especially the freckle-faced tomboy Renee (Corinne Calvet) – and with those come obligations, something Webster has assiduously avoided thus far. As first Ronda and then later the malignant Gannon set their sights on a piece of the action in the lucrative gold fields, Webster is forced to take stock of his previous philosophy of exclusively looking out for number one.

The other Mann/Stewart westerns were mainly concerned with individuals haunted by their past, tales of revenge and redemption earned the hard way. The Far Country differs in the sense that the Stewart character isn’t a man directly dogged by a painful history. There is an allusion to a woman who wounded him emotionally, perhaps partially explaining his remoteness from those around him. However, there isn’t that sense of someone running from himself. Instead what we get is a representation of total detachment, a man who places self-interest above all else. For most of the movie Jeff Webster really isn’t all that nice a guy, he cares not a jot who gets hurt so long as his own interests are best served. And so the theme here is more one of renewal and rediscovery, setting it a little apart from the other revenge focused films. The Stewart character isn’t at war with himself, as so often seemed to be the case, although he is eventually forced to question his previous attitude. This is what, for me anyway, makes the film a bit different – the moments of intensity occur in brief flashes, at least until Webster’s hand is forced by Gannon’s cruelty. Of course the threat of brutality and abrupt violence that characterizes the Mann/Stewart westerns lurks just below the surface – it’s this (and also the warmth that springs from the feeling of community) which finally provokes Webster, and consequently allows him to get back in touch with his own humanity.

The Far Country gave Stewart the chance to display more of his trademark affability than his other westerns with Mann, though it remains of the slightly hard-edged variety. Those other films concerned themselves more with a reconciliation with the circumstances and situations arising out of a damaged past whereas here Stewart has to gradually come to terms with his own failings as a human being. As such, the characterization is quite different yet no less interesting. In place of a deep psychological trauma which colors his actions, Stewart has to confront an ingrained emotional detachment instead. The catalyst, as usual, is violence and humiliation, and the transformation – the path towards renewal – is no less dramatic.

Naturally, everything revolves around Stewart’s character, but there’s plenty of good support from a fine cast. Walter Brennan had the lovable old coot thing nailed down by this stage in his career, and his turn as the coffee-obsessed partner provides a nice counterpoint to Stewart’s coolness. Brennan is the human face of the pair, the one audiences can most easily relate to and feel sympathy for. Corinne Calvet fulfills a similar function; there’s an amusing sweetness to this ingenue of the wilderness, although it lessens her impact as one half of the romantic interest. Ruth Roman, on the other hand, is a knowing, worldly figure – she’s arguably a better match for Stewart’s profit-minded cynic, but loses some of her allure as Stewart later finds himself examining his motives and allegiances. She’s actually one of the most interesting figures in the movie, retaining a degree of ambiguity throughout. However, there’s nothing at all ambiguous about John McIntire’s Gannon – he’s the real villain of the piece and positively glories in his iniquity and callousness. McIntire, along with Brennan, was one of the finest character actors of the golden age and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him sink his teeth into a role like this. Anthony Mann clearly liked working with Jay C Flippen – he used him often in his movies – and gave him another good role in The Far Country as the kind-hearted Rube with a fondness for the whiskey bottle. Already were looking at a pretty impressive battery of seasoned performers but when you bear in mind that the film also found parts for Robert J Wilke, Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, Chubby Johnson and Steve Brodie it ought to give an idea of the depth of talent involved.

The Far Country has long been available on DVD and really is due an upgrade to Blu-ray by now. Early editions in the US presented the film open-matte, but later pressings were in the correct widescreen ratio. I have the UK DVD, which was always the widescreen version, and it looks pretty good. William Daniels’ photography of the beautiful Canadian locations looks terrific while colors and sharpness are quite satisfactory. As I said at the beginning, there was a time when I tried to rate the Mann/Stewart westerns against each other but that’s a pointless exercise really. Over time I’ve come to understand that all of these films are great in their own ways – to try to compare them or view them as competing productions is to pick away at their greatness, and I honestly don’t want to do that. I held off writing about this film for ages, and for reasons which may appear foolish to others. Although I’ve seen all the Mann/Stewart westerns countless times I kind of liked the idea that there was still another one I had yet to feature. I didn’t like the feeling that I wouldn’t have the chance to write about another one – I got that same sense when I finished writing up the Boetticher/Scott pictures too – so I kept putting it off. Anyway, there it is. These films are among the finest the western genre has to offer – maybe I won’t be writing about them again but I’ll surely enjoy watching them, and I wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone who has yet to experience them.

Winchester ’73

The Naked Spur

The Man from Laramie

Bend of the River

 

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2014 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, James Stewart, Westerns

 

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Branded

All my life, I’ve been a snake. I’ve lived by my wits. I’ve gotten what I’ve wanted any way I wanted it. Just lately I’ve been wondering just for once if I couldn’t do something straight… do something a little decent.

There have always been movies that have been said to possess greatness. The reasons for their being labeled as such are frequently discussed and analyzed so it’s not that hard to find justification. But what of those films that are largely overlooked? Having recently been asked to participate in the selection of some underrated westerns, this thought has been buzzing around my head. How do some highly deserving movies get brushed aside and miss out on the praise heaped on others? Take a film like Branded (1950), a western which is rarely spoken of and probably unfamiliar to all but the more dedicated genre fans. Yet it has a strong story and a compelling theme, a good cast contributing very convincing performances and solid production values.

Sometimes you can tell from the opening moments that you’re going to be in for an enjoyable movie experience, and Branded is a good example of this. In a nameless town a crowd of armed men surround and lay siege to a dry goods store. Inside is the hostage storekeeper and Choya (Alan Ladd), the subject of the gunmen’s interest. The situation is tense and the dialogue is terse and we learn just enough to know that Choya gunned someone down in self-defense, but no one outside seems too bothered about the right or wrong of it. Making good his escape, Choya is followed by two apparent bystanders. When these guys catch up with the fugitive, a proposition is laid before him, one that promises to make them all rich with minimal risk. Leffingwell (Robert Keith) has been nursing a plan for years and just waiting till he could find the man he needs to pull it off. What Leffingwell has in mind is a kind of masquerade; Choya will pass himself off as the long-lost son of a wealthy Texan rancher called Lavery (Charles Bickford), the boy having been abducted when he wasn’t much more than a toddler. With a fake birthmark tattooed on his shoulder and just enough knowledge to sway people desperate to believe their child might be alive Choya duly obliges. Now while he may have spent his life hustling and doing whatever he had to in order to turn a buck, he’s by no means devoid of conscience. The kindness and warmth shown him by Lavery and his wife starts to gnaw away at him, and it doesn’t help any that his attractive “sister” Ruth (Mona Freeman) is on the scene too. Gradually, we can see that deceiving these nice people in this heartless way is eating away at him. Unable to bear it any longer, he tells Leffingwell that he’s not going through with the deal and plans to take off as soon as he gets Lavery’s herd to El Paso. Right from the beginning it’s been apparent that Leffingwell is a slippery customer with a ruthless streak, but Choya soon discovers that his partner has an even darker side to him. What he learns in El Paso not only increases the disgust he already felt for Leffingwell but also offers him the opportunity to make amends to people he’s hurt badly. By riding into a notorious bandit’s lair in Mexico there’s a chance to both earn redemption and maybe regain some sense of direction in his life.

The bedrock of any good movie is the writing; if you’re working from a solid script, you’re halfway home. Branded was sourced from a novel by the prolific Max Brand (I haven’t read the book myself but I have a copy on order), credited here under his Evan Evans pseudonym. The script itself was the work of Cyril Hume and Sydney Boehm, both of whom have an impressive list of writing credits. For me, the basic story is a strong one and the way in which it develops means that it holds the attention throughout. What’s more, and this is a feature I particularly appreciate in any film, the development of the plot and characters occurs in a natural, organic way. The opening throws the viewer straight into the middle of the action with no explanation of where we are or who the people are, all that is necessary for us to know is gradually revealed as the story progresses. As such, what exposition there is never has that slightly artificial feel that mars some films. Rudolph Maté started out as a photographer, first in Europe and then in Hollywood, before graduating to the role of director in 1947. I’ve seen a good many of his films and, as one would expect, they’re always visually interesting. Branded, photographed by Charles Lang, is no exception in this respect, and makes excellent use of the Arizona and Utah locations and the interiors. I also thought the shooting angles and compositions were very pleasing, evoking the mood of each scene perfectly.

This was only Alan Ladd’s second western, following on from Whispering Smith, and his comfort in the genre is evident. He transposes the edgy, taciturn quality of his film noir characterizations to the frontier setting smoothly and, backed by that solid writing I’ve spoken about, creates a rounded and sympathetic figure in Choya. Successful movies force their leads to undertake a journey, to grow and develop as the narrative moves along. Ladd first appears as something of an enigma, a man about whom we know very little beyond the fact he’s living a lawless existence. While the script obviously plays a significant part in opening up the character of Choya, it’s Ladd’s intelligent and nuanced performance that makes the viewer care. Ladd seems to have been a man riddled with personal insecurities and he taps into that very well in this film. In short, he brings truth to his portrayal of a man who is self-aware, a little lost, and dissatisfied with his own shortcomings. As the chief villain, Robert Keith is extremely good in the role of Leffingwell. His calculating, dangerous nature is apparent from the beginning, but he manages to make the character almost sympathetic (although perhaps it’s more appropriate to refer to him as deserving of pity) for a brief time before revealing his real darkness and evil. Charles Bickford was born to play prickly, irascible types and the part of Lavery fits him well – he’s upright, determined and credible throughout. Mona Freeman was handed some thankless roles at times but here she got something a bit meatier. There’s a genuinely sweet and trusting quality to Ruth, something vital as she’s a large part of the reason Choya feels his conscience pick away at him before setting out on that rocky road towards redemption. Finally, Joseph Calleia gets to indulge in some showy theatrics while Peter Hansen offers a sensitive and affecting turn.

Branded came out on DVD some years ago via Paramount and then, like many of the studio’s releases, quietly slipped out of print for a time. Recently, it’s been reissued via the Warner Archive, although I have no idea whether the presentation of the new iteration is any different. The old Paramount disc I own features a reasonably good, if unrestored, transfer. For the most part, the level of detail is strong and colors look very nice – there are, however, a few instances where they waver a little but it’s nothing serious as far as I’m concerned. There are no extra features offered. As I said at the beginning, Branded is one of those films I feel ought to have a better reputation. It’s never less than solid and boasts first class performances from Alan Ladd and Robert Keith in particular. The story too has that tough sensitivity that distinguishes the best 50s westerns – it’s pacy, exciting, warm and intriguing, and it’s well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Rudolph Maté, Westerns

 

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Ride a Crooked Trail

Anyone who has been a regular, or even occasional, visitor to this site will be aware of my fondness for westerns of the 1950s. And even a cursory glance through the various pieces I’ve written on these movies will reveal a particular term that crops up again and again – redemption. It was the overriding theme of westerns of the period and there’s no getting away from it. Such a concept inevitably involves a form of atonement for sins of the past and/or a coming to terms with the pain of the present. Superficially, revisiting this theme may appear either grim or formulaic, but I’ve found that this is rarely the case. It really boils down to the approach adopted by the filmmakers and the spin they put on it all. Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) is at heart another tale examining the journey towards redemption but comes at it from a slightly unexpected angle, a refreshingly lighthearted one.

The movie hits the ground running, literally. The first image is of a rider galloping across open country, with another horseman hot on his heels. As the pursuer smoothly unsheathes and fires his rifle the fugitive has his mount shot out from under him. Scrambling to his feet, he scurries off towards the protection of rocks and high ground. But it’s an illusory form of shelter masking a precipitous drop into a deep chasm. Still this man is nothing if not lucky as a misstep by his hunter sees him plunge over the edge to his death. The fugitive is the wonderfully named Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy), a would-be bank robber running from the law. Taking the dead man’s gear with him, he rides into the nearest town and immediately finds himself in a tricky situation. In the absence of a marshal the shotgun-toting Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) is the sole representative of the law and just happens to be on the lookout for a wanted man by the name of Joe Maybe. Just as it looks as though our hero has leaped from the frying pan into the fire, another stroke of dubious good fortune arises. The man whose outfit he took possession of happened to be a marshal of some repute by the name of Noonan, known far and wide for his distinctive broken star badge. Kyle, whose penchant for dispatching miscreants with his shotgun is matched only by his fondness for the whiskey bottle, automatically assumes that Joe is actually Noonan and welcomes him warmly. In fact, he duly appoints Joe town marshal and seems thrilled to have his burden lightened. Joe is initially reluctant to run with this masquerade but, ever the opportunist, sees the potential for an easy score in a trusting town that’s soon to be swimming in money from the trail drives. Yet complications soon appear: the arrival of an old acquaintance, Tessa (Gia Scala), signals both temptation and imminent danger. Tessa’s lover is Sam Teeler (Henry Silva), a ruthless type also eying the lucrative prize in the bank vault. And on top of this the gradually dawning suspicion of Kyle, the kindness of the townsfolk and the adoration of an orphaned boy all begin to prick at Joe’s conscience.

 Ride a Crooked Trail was scripted by the prolific Borden Chase, a writer whose work often wove lighter elements into generally serious stories. While this film isn’t a comedy there are strong comedic aspects, especially evident in the arch, knowing dialogue and the innuendo-rich circumstances surrounding Joe’s enforced domestic arrangements. As I said at the beginning, everything revolves around Joe’s path towards redemption. There’s adversity to be overcome and ghosts to be laid, but the performances, Chase’s script and Jesse Hibbs’ direction all add a sense of warmth to the film that sets it a little apart from other variations on this traditional theme. Where many other 50s westerns trade on intensity, fatalism or psychological complexity, Ride a Crooked Trail has heart and sincerity.

I get the impression that Audie Murphy tends to be viewed as a kind of standard western hero, a straight arrow if you like with the minimum of complexity. However, his best performances, and there are more of those than many would have you believe, point out the fallacy in that assumption. Murphy was a man deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the heroic image and clean-cut looks helped disguise that. When the occasion or role demanded he was able to channel a degree of ambiguity and in Ride a Crooked Trail we see some of that beneath the surface good humor. Even the name of his character, Joe Maybe, is suggestive of moral ambivalence. I think one of the best scenes in the movie is the quiet little interlude where Murphy chats with the orphan about growing up alone, the judgments made based on dubious ancestry and the road one is expected to follow. As it develops we learn more about Joe’s own past and even the origin of his curious name, although I think the explanation of the latter would actually have been better left unsaid. Either way, it’s an affecting and subtle little scene well-played by Murphy. The film also benefits from fine support from Walter Matthau and Gia Scala. Matthau was an immensely talented comic actor and I feel he struck the right balance here between comedy and drama, the judge coming across as simultaneously sardonic, ornery and cunning. The private life of Irish-Italian actress Gia Scala was one of those Hollywood tragedies, a sensitive beauty whose shyness led to alcohol problems and an early death. On screen though she was sassy and confident, and more than held her own with Murphy and Matthau. Now if ever a man was born to play villains, then it was surely Henry Silva. The man had a real knack for portraying menace, and it’s too bad he doesn’t get more screen time in this film.

At one time Ride a Crooked Trail wasn’t the easiest film to track down on DVD but it’s now fairly widely available in the US and Europe – incidentally, I see that a company called 101 Films have this title along with a raft of other Universal westerns up for pre-order at Amazon UK. I have the German edition released by Koch and it’s a typically strong effort. The anamorphic scope transfer is colorful and detailed and displays little in the way of damage. There’s the choice of viewing the movie with the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles of any kind to worry about. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer, a gallery and an inlay leaflet in German. In many ways this can be seen as a typical late 50s western, which is far from being a bad thing, but the lighter, warmer atmosphere gives it an extra bit of charm in my eyes. I don’t think I’d place it up with the very best Audie Murphy westerns but it’s still a strong piece of work, and I reckon it’s a rewarding film to watch.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Walter Matthau, Westerns

 

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A Distant Trumpet

It’s been remarked on before how the 1960s saw a gradual change in approach adopted by the Hollywood western. And it was indeed gradual, up until the middle of the decade, and even a little further in some cases, the influence and sensibilities of the 50s could still be discerned. The change, when it did come, tended to be most marked in the work of the newer breed of directors. The old hands, the pioneers, remained closer to the traditional vision and portrayal of the west. Raoul Walsh, with his earliest directing credit stretching way back to 1913, was most assuredly of the old school, and his final film A Distant Trumpet (1964) has more of the feel of a 50s western than one from the mid-60s.

The film opens spectacularly with a clash between the massed forces of the US cavalry and the Apache. It then cuts swiftly to the academy at West Point where General Quait (James Gregory) is delivering a first hand account of those events to a class of cadets. Among his audience is a young lieutenant Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue), soon to be posted to the remote and undermanned Fort Delivery in Arizona. It’s through Hazard’s idealistic and ambitious eyes that the remainder of the story is seen. The slovenliness, incompetency and insubordination he encounters at the isolated outpost is an affront to the young man’s sense of military propriety. As he assumes the task of whipping the rag-tag detachment into something resembling a modern, disciplined fighting force we get a look at the day-to-day lives of cavalrymen that, in some respects, recalls the work of John Ford. Woven into this is a, not altogether successful, romantic subplot which sees Hazard torn between his betrothed, the General’s niece Laura (Diane McBain), and Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette), the wife of a fellow officer. The second half of the movie sees General Quait and his troops arrive at the fort, and the emphasis shifts to the military campaign to neutralize the threat posed by the renegade Apache War Eagle. Quait’s tactics prove only partially effective however, and achieve not much more than driving War Eagle back across the border into the safety of Mexico. Holed up somewhere deep in the Sierra Madre, War Eagle is at liberty to raid over the border whenever he feels like it. Unless of course someone is prepared to risk his neck going alone into the Apache stronghold to negotiate terms with the old warrior. All told, the latter half of the movie works a lot better, not least because the unsatisfying romance is sidelined for long stretches. Not only are action and spectacle brought to the fore, but there’s greater opportunity to highlight the inherent pro-Indian sympathies of the film.

Raoul Walsh brought a lifetime of experience to the shooting of A Distant Trumpet, and the staging of some of the later battle scenes has an epic quality, aided by the wonderful camerawork of William Clothier. Walsh was always a first class director of action, and location work suited his talents especially well. The wide lens is used very effectively to highlight the vastness of the landscape and, again in a way reminiscent of Ford, the relative insignificance of the tiny humans framed against the primal backdrop. It’s easy to forget though that Walsh had a flair for close-ups and more intimate composition too, and the film offers plenty of chances to sample that aspect of his skill. One of the other great strengths of the production is the score; Max Steiner’s pounding, martial theme adds drive to the film and powers it along. And that brings us to the script, so often the crucial factor when it comes to making or breaking a film. The basis for the movie is a novel by Paul Horgan (not having read it, I can’t comment on how true the adaptation is) and the script derived from this reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the finished product. To begin with the positives: the story told is in effect an account of the latter stages of General Crook’s campaign against the Apache, and Geronimo in particular. Right away we have both a compelling narrative and, just as important, a chance to cast a critical eye over government/army relations and policy towards the Indians. The script treats the Apache with the greatest respect – not phony sentimentalism or misplaced adulation – and adopts a mature and balanced stance. There’s no shying away from atrocities, nor is there any attempt to gloss over government hypocrisy and the shabbiness of broken promises. One could, I suppose, complain about the positive resolution that doesn’t take into account how events really played out, but overall the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the situation. As for the negatives, the aforementioned romance, and consequent soapy elements, isn’t very well realized. It would appear to exist primarily as a means of fleshing out the character of Lt Hazard, however, it actually only serves to bog the picture down and dampen the pace in the first half.

I think of Troy Donahue principally as the star of 50s and 60s soap dramas. I understand his performance isn’t all that well regarded in A Distant Trumpet, but I’ll break ranks here and say that he’s reasonable in certain scenes. He fares best in the latter stages where he’s called on to play the action hero for the most part. His deficiencies are far more noticeable in the intimate scenes though, and that makes the romantic stuff seem even more labored. I guess it doesn’t help any that the parts of Suzanne Pleshette and, more especially, Diane McBain are pretty much under written. Pleshette has the stronger, more sympathetic role, while McBain gets to look glamorous but is saddled with playing a stuck-up, unattractive character. To be honest, McBain’s part could have been cut from the movie and not harmed the narrative one iota. James Gregory is very entertaining and seemed to enjoy playing the Latin-quoting general. Every scene he’s in is all the better for his presence. Claude Akins is good value too as the Indian agent, and purveyor of anything and everything from whiskey and guns to loose women. Generally, the supporting cast is fine with small but memorable roles for Kent Smith, Judson Pratt and William Reynolds.

A Distant Trumpet is widely available these days via the Warner Archive and various European releases. I bought the French Warner Brothers DVD back when it was the only edition available. That’s more than a few years ago now but the transfer still stands up well in my opinion. There’s a nice, crisp and colorful anamorphic scope image that’s basically undamaged. French DVDs can be troublesome when it comes to subtitles, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any issues with Warner releases. The subs are easily disabled via the language menu on this one. All in all, the film is what I’d call sporadically successful; there’s a strong story in there with a message that’s subtly expressed and never feels forced. On the other hand, there’s flab in the script too that could and arguably should have been edited out. There’s an ambition to achieve something approaching the epic, but the scripting and some of the casting choices fall short. However, while I have some reservations, I feel the movie works reasonably well on the whole.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in 1960s, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

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