The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.

The Sherlock Holmes character has come to the screen (both big and small) in many shapes and forms over the years and almost everyone has their own favorite incarnation. As often happens, the first version I saw or at least have a memory of has become my preferred choice. For me, the evening television screenings of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies cemented them in my consciousness to the point where I automatically see their faces first when the characters of Holmes and Watson are mentioned. The interpretations, adaptations and settings were far from what a purist might find acceptable, but I don’t care about any of that. These performers and their films carry me back almost 40 years and will always occupy a special place in my affections.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) wasn’t an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s stories, although the estate is credited, presumably for the use of the characters themselves. The script instead claims to be derived from the stage play by William Gillette. It opens with the dismissal of a murder case against arch-criminal Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), just as Holmes (Basil Rathbone)dramatically bursts into the courtroom with evidence he maintains will shoot the alibi of his adversary to pieces. With the verdict already in, he’s too late of course and there follows a neat little scene with the two rivals sharing a Hansom cab that spirits them away amid a torrential downpour. It’s at this point that Moriarty makes the little speech I used at the top of this piece, setting up the plan for revenge which dominates the remainder of the picture. I won’t go into too much detail here as much of the pleasure of the movie is to be had from watching the slow unfolding of two ingenious plot strands simultaneously. The lion’s share of the running time is taken up with the grotesque and macabre stalking experienced by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) and her ill-fated relatives.

1939 is often referred to as the golden year of cinema’s Golden Age due to the sheer number of successful and high quality pictures produced and released during those twelve months. This is something I wouldn’t want to argue with as even a cursory glance reveals the depth and breadth of the quality projected onto the silver screen in that year – from award-wooing prestige vehicles to crowd-pleasing genre pieces, just about every possible taste was catered to and it would be a mean-spirited film fan indeed who failed to hit on something to captivate him or her. Last time I was highlighting a tightly budgeted western shot by Alfred Werker, this time it’s the same director but the money men were a little more generous. Fox had already scored a success with Rathbone and Bruce in their wonderfully atmospheric version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and this was their follow-up. Werker had the resources of the studio backing him up in this moodily impressive effort, the sets looking rich and classy and Leon Shamroy displaying his photographic talents as cinematographer. There’s been some conversation on here of late relating to the relative merits of set based film production after I looked at a movie where I felt the backdrops were less than satisfactory. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, presents us with the flip side of the coin, where much of the enjoyment of the movie stems directly from the marvelous artistry involved in creating those fogbound and gas-lit cobble streets down which hacks chase their cabs speeding their fares to or from the scene of mystery and intrigue.

The two films made by Fox had Holmes and Watson fighting crime in the Victorian surroundings in which their creator had originally placed them. Subsequent tales of mystery and detection undertaken by Rathbone and Bruce would be produced on a smaller budget for Universal (my friend and regular contributor to discussion on this site, Sergio, is in the process of going through that series here, and others like 100 Films in a Year have done so too) with the characters operating in a contemporary setting. Purists may rail against such liberties but they never concerned me particularly. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes retains the era of Conan Doyle’s literary detective yet it will no doubt displease some as a result of the way certain central characters are portrayed.

Is there a definitive screen Holmes? Plenty of people would argue that Jeremy Brett nailed it on television. Having gone back and revisited a number of episodes of the Brett series, I’d say there’s a strong case to be made for this assertion and I wouldn’t seek to dissuade anyone from holding this opinion. And still I find I return to Rathbone, for those reasons I mentioned above; I’ve since read the novels and short stories and seen other interpretations that may have gotten closer to the sleuth on the printed page, but Rathbone was the one I came across first and thus will always be my Holmes. There’s a terrific energy and restlessness about the man and it contrasts nicely with the moody abruptness which can bubble up to the surface on occasion. Nigel Bruce’s Watson tends to come in for a fair bit of stick and derision for the bumbling and clowning, and I can quite understand how that must grate for those familiar with the capable and competent figure of the books. Sure there’s something of the overgrown child about Bruce’s performance, even so I like it fine and there’s good chemistry between him and Rathbone – I think the affection the characters have for each other is quite apparent and nicely illustrated by the little exchange right at the end of the movie. As Moriarty, George Zucco is delightfully creepy and dangerous. He would reappear in the Universal film Sherlock Holmes in Washington, though playing a different role. A young Ida Lupino was just seeing her career take off at this point and I think she does well as the girl whose family appears to be cursed in some way and haunted by dark South American secrets. In support, we have E E Clive, Henry Stephenson, Alan Marshal, series regular Mary Gordon, and Terry Kilburn.

I have all the Rathbone/Bruce series on the UK set issued some years ago by Optimum and the transfers sourced from the UCLA restorations are very good. There’s some damage to the prints of course but nothing major. Among the extra features on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a commentary track by Holmes writer David Stuart Davies. It’s worth noting here that there are various Blu-ray editions of these films available both in the US and in Europe – I’ve yet to pick one up but the quality is excellent by all accounts. As for this movie, it’s a fine tale with bags of creepy atmosphere and ought to satisfy fans of Holmes and the wider mystery genre too. It would serve as a good introduction to the Rathbone/Bruce take on Holmes and Watson and the brisk pacing is such that it never outstays its welcome.

Three Hours to Kill

The last few posts on this site have seen the subsequent discussions spin off in various directions, taking in the idea of the auteur in cinema, the use of sets vs location shooting, and also touching on the pluses and minuses of the studio system. Today I want to take a look at Three Hours to Kill (1954), a movie whose director is not likely to be described as an auteur yet one whose work is of interest and displays some distinct characteristics, and it’s also a good example of the kind of bread and butter material the studio system seemed to knock out effortlessly. It’s a sparse and effective piece of work with no flab whatsoever, pared down and streamlined entertainment made by accomplished professionals.

The opening, to the accompaniment of Paul Sawtell’s melancholic score, sees Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) heading back to his home town, heading back to see some of his old friends again. However much Guthrie might be looking forward to this reunion, it doesn’t appear to be bringing him any happiness, and his friends are even less thrilled when he turns up. The thing is Guthrie’s friends, as we discover via a short flashback sequence, tried to kill him three years before. To a man they were prepared to believe the worst of him and see him lynched for a murder he had no hand in. With friends like that, who needs enemies! So, what  would bring a man back to such a place? That he  survived at all, staying one step ahead of the law and just barely eluding capture, is largely down to his grit and determination. What sustained him as a fugitive those three years was his desire for justice and revenge, his hopes of making his tormentors feel the same slow, sliding dread he once did. Guthrie finds he has few allies left, the woman he once loved (Donna Reed) has married one of his former rivals, and mixed in with the dangers there are secrets beginning to stir in the shadows. The local sheriff (Stephen Elliott) has some sympathy but not much, in fact it amounts to only three hours’ worth: three hours in which to find the man who framed him on a murder charge, and helped tear his life to pieces. What Guthrie finds out, about others and about himself, has the potential to bring damnation or salvation, depending on which fork of his conscience he decides to follow.

One of the first things you notice about Three Hours to Kill is how packed the script is and how tight the writers keep things as a consequence. The story comes from Alex Gottlieb with the script coming via Richard Alan Simmons and Roy Huggins, and some dialogue credited to Maxwell Shane. The plot is based on a combination of revenge tale and whodunit, Guthrie’s quest for justice is conflated with a desire to avenge himself on his former friends, and even he seems unsure where the one ends and the other begins. In a film that runs just over an hour and a quarter that ought to be enough to be getting on with, but Three Hours to Kill offers even more. Underpinning all of this is the complex series of relationships between the protagonists, where jealousy, betrayals and moralizing all play a part in determining how everyone behaves. Even on the periphery of the main events and characters there are quite startling (considering the time the film was made) developments – there’s the frank admission that one of the subsidiary characters is overtly engaged in what can only be described as a threesome, for example. Situations which might have provided the dramatic basis for a number of different movies are simply laid before  the audience without any exposition or even analysis – they just are, and the viewer is expected to be sufficiently mature to appreciate that such things are part of life.

The writing is of course important under these circumstances, but it’s also imperative that a confident and well-organized director is on hand. Alfred Werker, who was in charge of the similarly trim and compact The Last Posse, was the kind of man needed to ensure everything stayed focused and on course. Furthermore, it was a boon for Werker to have a talented cameraman like Charles Lawton working alongside him, ensuring his setups looked as good as possible.

A film like this, where the lead is scarred both externally and internally, whose demons are a short step away from fully consuming him, needed a man with a strong fatalistic sensibility. Who better under these circumstances than Dana Andrews, that veteran of so many westerns and films noir. The structure of the movie, with that flashback sequence, lets Andrews explore the change that comes over Guthrie (something which can be applied to a greater or lesser extent to other cast members too) and the contrast on view is a nice showcase for the kind of barely controlled emotional turmoil he was so adept at handling.

Aside from Andrews, the other big name in the cast is Donna Reed. She appeared in a handful of goodish westerns around this time as well as prestige productions like her Oscar-winning role in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity. Her part as Andrews’ old flame gave her some depth to work with, and so there was more to it than the kind of one-dimensional fare sometimes handed to actresses in programmer westerns of this type. Dianne Foster was the other woman in the cast with a significant role and spars well with Reed for the attentions of Andrews. Carolyn Jones was generally good value or better and was both touching and amusing as one side of a triangle involving Charlotte Fletcher and Laurence Hugo. Stephen Elliott and Richard Coogan are among the “friends” who would rather not renew their acquaintance with fugitive but the more memorable work is done by the seemingly ubiquitous Whit Bissell and James Westerfield.

Three Hours to Kill was a Columbia picture, produced by Harry Joe Brown, and has been released in the US by Sony as part of its MOD program. The film is also available in Europe, in both Spain and Italy. The Spanish disc I have presents the film 16:9 and looks reasonably good. There is a bit of softness but the colors look true and the print used doesn’t appear to be damaged. The soundtrack plays in the original English and there are the usual optional Spanish subs that can be disabled. I enjoy this kind of solid lower budget affair, a type of film that is actually enormously satisfying if done properly. There’s an impressive roster of talent on both sides of the camera and that helps to make Three Hours to Kill a modest but successful piece of filmmaking.

Madigan

A little like the western, the crime story has remained one of the constants of genre filmmaking down the years. Any story which involves elements of crime has plenty of drama built-in so it’s only natural that cinema should take advantage of that.  The western had long been the dominant  genre in both cinema and TV until its gradual decline in popularity began in the mid-60s, and it was at that point that the crime yarn started to edge its nose in front. The detective/cop thriller really came into its own in the 1970s on the big and small screen. Madigan (1968) was one of those pictures which played a significant part in the flowering of the genre at that time, even inspiring its own, short-lived, television series a few years later.

Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) is a New York detective, a veteran with a variable reputation. It could be said that his superiors regard him with a mixture of respect and suspicion. He has a distinguished record on the job but also the kind of casual attitude towards rules and regulations that rubs some up the wrong way. One of those is Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda), the dry, straight arrow who has to try to juggle his police background with the political demands of his position. The ambivalence of Russell is borne out by the punchy opening section which sees Madigan and his partner, Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), screw up what ought to have been a routine bust. The upshot is a dangerous suspect manages not only to elude arrest, but also relieves the two bulls of their service revolvers. This sets up the situation which dominates the rest of the film: the search for the dangerous fugitive and the consequent pressure placed on the shoulders of Madigan and Bonaro to atone for their initial carelessness before matters deteriorate further. Allied to this is the personal stress experienced by both Madigan and Russell, in the case of the former due to strained relations with his wife (Inger Stevens) while the latter finds his almost puritanical approach to life tested by the actions of colleague and childhood friend Chief Inspector Kane (James Whitmore).

One of the regular visitors and contributors to this site (you’ll know who you are) just recently remarked that he doesn’t see himself as one who subscribes to the auteur theory of filmmaking, and also cited Don Siegel as one of his favorite directors, comments which provided me with food for thought. In the past I was reluctant to embrace the notion of the auteur, feeling that it was largely an affectation of the more academic critics and too pat to be applied to so collaborative a task as making movies. Another of our regulars (who will probably recognize himself too) challenged me on this position and made me wonder if perhaps my own interpretation wasn’t too narrow. To cut a potentially long story short, I found myself reassessing my view and coming to the conclusion that the notion of the auteur in cinema needn’t necessarily be a restrictive one. I’m more comfortable now with the term in a broader sense, both in the way it’s used and the people it may be applied to. In short, I think Don Siegel can be referred to as an auteur.

A director such as Siegel is a product of the studio system, working his way up through the ranks and honing his talents in a variety of roles on a range of genre pieces. As I said, I’ve moved away from thinking of an auteur as some domineering presence impressing his vision relentlessly on the films he works on. Instead, I’ve come round to the idea of the auteur as the most influential member of the creative assemblage, someone whose distinctive mark can be discerned on the finished piece. And I think this can be said of Don Siegel; it’s common to consider him primarily as an action director but there’s usually something of himself, or at least his interests, on view in his films. It’s difficult not to be aware of his examination of authority and authority figures throughout his career, and Madigan is no exception.

Siegel’s touch is visible enough to me, and he’s helped in leaving it there by the talents of accomplished cameraman Russell Metty, the writing of Abraham Polonsky and Howard Rodman, and a cool lounge score by Don Costa. While those individuals were all busy pooling their abilities to achieve the best results possible, it appears producer Frank Rosenberg’s contribution was less welcome. On the other side of the camera, both Widmark and Fonda gave the kind of coolly assured performances one would expect of actors with their experience and talent. Widmark’s trademark air of ambiguity is a good fit for the detective who treads the fine line of legality with the sure-footedness of a tightrope walker. Similarly, Fonda does stiff and prissy very well, and it’s all the more effective when the audience is aware  both of his internal conflicts and the hypocrisy of his overt moralizing. Inger Stevens had the meatiest of the female roles (although Susan Clark and Sheree North had parts of note too) and runs with it, getting across her dissatisfaction and frustration very successfully. In support, there’s uniformly good work done by Harry Guardino, Steve Ihnat, James Whitmore and Don Stroud.

Madigan has been available on DVD from Universal for a good few years now. The UK release I own presents the movie in anamorphic scope and uses a good print. Colors are strong and there’s good detail in the image. Additionally, there is no noticeable damage on view. Sadly, there aren’t any extra features offered, but I guess the film is the main thing and it does look very nice. I’ve always been a fan of detective/cop thrillers, regardless of whether they’re films, television shows or stories on the printed page, and Madigan is a prime example of good they can be. It’s tough, pacy, entertaining and has enough human interest to raise it above more mundane, one-dimensional fare. All told, it’s a polished piece of work from a top director, cast and crew. Recommended.

Apache Territory

The low budget western was arguably as important a representative of the genre as it’s more illustrious and more expensive cousins. The sheer quantity of programmers and B movies means they deserve attention by anyone claiming an interest in the western. Given the prodigious output, it’s hardly surprising that the quality varied considerably; some managed to transcend the restraints of their budgets, others were just downright poor but most were average efforts, offering an entertaining way to pass the time despite the weaknesses inherent in their production. Apache Territory (1958) is an example of what I’m referring to: a combination of good and bad elements that add up to a moderately diverting hour and something.

As the title say the action takes place n Apache territory, where the hero, Logan Cates (Rory Calhoun), is passing through on his way to Yuma. By his own admission, Cates is one of life’s drifters, a guy  with no particular purpose moving wherever the mood takes him. In this instance, it leads him towards trouble, someone else’s trouble to begin with but it’s soon to become his too. Seeing a group of riders about to be attacked by a band of Apache, he warns them and draws off the assault. It’s only a short-lived respite though as the sole survivor, along with a trickle of other refugees from the renegade raiding party gradually come together in search of safety. A disparate group, including an old flame of Cates’ (Barbara Bates) and her venal fiance (John Dehner), gather in an isolated desert oasis and prepare to wait out the siege. Water is plentiful, food is not, while mutual trust and goodwill are virtually non-existent. As the Apache press and probe, tempers fray and nerves jangle beneath the pitiless desert sun, and the numbers of the defenders are whittled down bit by bit.

Ray Nazarro is a name which probably isn’t all that familiar to many people. I’d say I’ve had a reasonable amount of exposure to movies of every size and shape in most genres and I’ll freely admit that I’ve only seen a handful of examples of Nazarro’s work. I have viewed  Domino Kid and The Hired Gun also starring Rory Calhoun, Top Gun with Sterling Hayden, and a few episode of TV shows such as State Trooper and Mike Hammer, and that’s about it, although I do have a few more titles to hand but not yet watched. Now if anyone spends their career working in the B units, it’s only reasonable to expect them to have a thorough understanding of the concept of economy. Budget filmmaking of any kind is dependent on exploiting resources to the full and wasting as little time and money as possible. Apache Territory certainly has that sense of urgency and pace one typically sees in a B picture, the plot takes precedence over all and characterization not only takes a back seat but also never penetrates deeper than is absolutely essential. The positive side of this is that the story keeps moving along and there’s no shortage of incident.

On the other hand, there are some negatives to take into consideration too. The opening section makes use of locations in Red Rock Canyon but this aspect is short-lived and it’s not long before events move to a studio set, a backlot mock-up of the oasis. While this adds a layer of claustrophobia, giving it that sense of a frontier chamber piece, the contrast with genuine locations is both apparent and somewhat jarring. This is a purely budgetary matter and I don’t think the director can be criticized for any of that. Nor do I feel Nazarro can be faulted for some weaknesses in the script. The screenplay is an adaptation of Last Stand at Papago Wells  by Louis L’Amour, a book I read some years ago and which I recall as being fairly faithfully reproduced here. The problems with the writing, for me anyway, relate to the tendency to rely on some unconvincing dialogue for exposition instead of showing things using cinematic language.

The film was a Rorvic production, meaning it was made via Rory Calhoun’s own company and offered him a strong, heroic role. Louis L’Amour stories generally involved central characters who were relatively uncomplicated, his strengths lying in his descriptions of action and landscape, his ability to communicate an authentic sense of time and place. Calhoun’s character in Apache Territory is pretty much one of those “what you see is what you get” types and he plays this undemanding part fine. The villains in such tales may not have much more depth or added dimensions but they tend to be entertaining. This film has two to enjoy – firstly, we get a snarling turn from Leo Gordon as a resentful and insubordinate cavalryman before he departs abruptly and violently, and then there’s the always welcome John Dehner. His assured work raised many a mediocre movie and he does well as the self-absorbed rival to Calhoun for the affections of Barbara Bates. Ms Bates was good enough as the refined woman who starts to see that she may have made a serious mistake and has the resolve and strength to try to reverse that before it’s too late. The only other female role went to Carolyn Craig, playing a timid massacre survivor who latches onto Tom Pittman’s California-bound orphan. As a sad little aside, Pittman, Craig and Bates all passed away under sudden and tragic circumstances.

Apache Territory was a Columbia release and Sony have made it available on DVD in the US as part of their MOD program. It has also been released in Spain and Italy, and I have the Spanish edition myself. The disc presents the film in a solid enough 16:9 transfer that is quite satisfactory – Spanish subtitles are offered but are optional and can be disabled. Overall, the movie is what I’d describe as routine. Tales involving isolated groups besieged and threatened from without and within are usually good value and Apache Territory is a middling, low-budget example. The lack of money does affect how it’s executed but there’s some nice action and suspense to offset that.

Horizons West

There are movies which look like they have everything going for them: a director with a substantial and significant reputation, a strong cast, and a promising script that is a blend of a couple of classic themes. All of this applies to Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West (1952) – add in the fact that the film was one of those handsomely shot Universal-International productions and one might reasonably expect it to be a cast iron winner.  However, the fact is it doesn’t quite live up to the build-up. It’s not a poor movie at all, just one which delivers a bit less than it could have – too much melodrama when more honest drama would have been preferable, and a series of conflicts which might have been more fully exploited.

The end of a war ought to signal a more peaceful era and maybe even a more hopeful one too. For the Hammond brothers, returning to their native Texas after taking part in the war between the states, the hopes are present although while Neil (Rock Hudson) wants nothing more than a return to the idyll he left behind when he signed on older brother Dan (Robert Ryan) is disgruntled enough to be in the mood for a different kind of struggle. By his own admission, Dan Hammond doesn’t like losing and almost immediately sets about changing the course of his fortune. This period of reconstruction in the vanquished South is one which can make men rich fast and, as always, draw the consequent attention of beautiful women. It just so happens that the allure of wealth and a woman crosses his path as soon as he enters Austin, and it also happens that both in this case belong to one man, Cord Hardin (Raymond Burr). It shouldn’t be any surprise that Dan will fall foul of this brash Yankee, nor that the clash is to set him on a path that tantalizes him with the promise of fulfilling his dreams but also creates a rift that threatens to irrevocably sour relations with his father (John McIntire) and Neil.

The title of the film – Horizons West – is both romantic and simple. Those two words pretty much encapsulate the spirit of the genre and I guess it’s no wonder that Jim Kitses used this as the title of his examination of the most influential figures in the western, a book I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet read it. Yes, those two words conjure up all kinds of iconic imagery and it’s therefore difficult not to have heightened expectations. As I said above, this isn’t a bad little movie but everything from the title on down holds out the prospect of something greater and grander. Perhaps that’s a tad unfair as I have a hunch that were one to come to it after the credits had rolled, and unburdened by any great familiarity with director or stars, then it would prove a satisfactory and satisfying way to pass 80 minutes or so. I sometimes feel that approaching movies as “film buffs” means that all that associated baggage we bring along is simply adding an unnecessary degree of pressure to how we perceive films and assess their relative worth.

Director Budd Boetticher’s fame and reputation come principally from the films he made in the late fifties with Randolph Scott, what we refer to as the Ranown cycle. The greatness of those half-dozen westerns, a little interrelated cluster of bona fide masterpieces – cannot be disputed; they mark the director and his star out as giants of the genre. However, the flip side is the  way the towering reputation of those films tends to cast a deep shadow over the rest of Boetticher’s body of work. That his other, earlier movies do not attain those artistic levels shouldn’t be regarded as any particularly damning criticism. Generally, Boetticher had far less creative control over the films he was making as a contract director within the studio system, a fact which applied to almost all filmmakers. Boetticher, like any contract director, was employed to turn in a competently made product as efficiently as possible. This is what he did on titles such as Horizons West, the script of which lays the melodrama on thicker than it needed to and only scratches the surface of the theme of sibling rivalry and the differing perceptions of ambition within a family. The film always looks sumptuous (as Universal-International productions typically did) even if the on screen action is a little lacking at times. As usual, Boetticher shines brightest in the outdoor scenes and the action sequences, the final act being especially well-handled.

I’ve spent plenty of time singing the praises of Robert Ryan on this site before, and I’ll try to confine myself to pointing out the fact he rarely gave a disappointing performance and certainly didn’t do so in this instance. His edgy magnetism once again anchors the movie and he uses the duality of his character to great effect – I often think it was impossible for Ryan to play anything other than an interesting role. In terms of the development of the story, I would have liked to have seen more of the growing chasm between the two brothers. However, Rock Hudson was still in the early stages of his career and thus his part was limited somewhat – although each successive film would see his screen time expanded. Julie Adams was handed a good vampish role as the wayward wife of the northern carpetbagger and she makes for a very attractive presence. Raymond Burr was well on his way towards becoming virtually typecast as unsympathetic villains in these pre Perry Mason years – he played such parts very convincingly but he must surely have been bored by the dearth of variety at the same time. One of the delights of these studio vehicles was the richness of the supporting casts, and Horizons West certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score – John McIntire, Dennis Weaver, James Arness, Douglas Fowley, Tom Powers, Rodolfo Acosta and Walter Reed all add value to the viewing experience.

Some years ago, the only available copy of Horizons West was the German DVD by Koch Media, which I have. Since then, however, the movie has been released in the UK and the US, and probably in other territories as well. I can only comment on the Koch disc, which displays some genuinely eye-popping colors and is extremely sharp on occasion. There are some instances of softness though, and also some minor registration issues where the color can appear to bleed slightly. Overall though, I have to say the film looks very  fine. So, to sum up, we’re talking here about a solid movie featuring the talents of Boetticher and Ryan. Even if it has imperfections and isn’t up there with the very best work such people were capable of, it remains entertaining and worthwhile.

Ambush

Mention cavalry films to anyone familiar with classic era movies, and westerns in particular, and the odds are they will immediately think of John Ford. Even so, most of those same fans will be aware of the fact that he certainly wasn’t the only one to spin tales of the men and women populating the isolated and dusty outposts of the frontier. The self-contained communities, the remoteness and the ever-present danger of these settings meant they were bursting with potential as backdrops for a wide range of dramatic developments. Ambush (1950), with its focus as much on the tensions simmering away within the fort as the threats of the hostile land around it, and of course the strong Irish presence among the horse soldiers, appears reminiscent of a Ford movie. And yet it’s a different creature at heart; the sentimentality and whimsy aren’t  there, and the sense of community is not as pronounced.

There’s a fine, tense opening which underlines the perilous situation. It’s Arizona and Apache chief Diablito (Charles Stevens) has broken out of the reservation and is raiding. The first shot of the movie reveals the aftermath of a massacre, broken bodies strewn across the landscape amid the smouldering remnants of wagons, the only sound being the cries of the retreating raiders. Up in the mountains Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor), some time scout for the army, is busy packing away the gold he has been prospecting for, but stops abruptly when a startled bird rises suddenly from a copse of bushes. His caution is understandable since the smoke drifting off neighboring peaks indicates Diablito isn’t far away. Still, it’s something of a false alarm as the alien presence is actually only that of Holly (John McIntire), another scout who’s been sent to bring Kinsman back to base. While that in itself is far from plain sailing, it’s achieved in due course and main thread of the story becomes apparent. A young woman by the name of Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has come west in the hopes of finding her sister who has been abducted by the Apache. Her family is army and so she the influence needed to have a party under the command of Captain Lorrison (John Hodiak) assigned to the task. It’s hoped that Kinsman can be persuaded to sign on as scout, thus his summons back to the fort at short notice. What follows is the attempts to trace and rescue the captive woman, complicated by two romantic subplots. The first is a fairly standard affair involving competition between Taylor and Hodiak for the affections of Dahl. The other is treated as a subsidiary, although I feel it’s much more interesting, and concerns the forbidden relationship between a young lieutenant (Don Taylor) and the abused wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man.

Ambush was the last movie made by Sam Wood, he died before its release, and it’s a solid piece of work with some memorable sequences, well-handled pathos and a nice line in suspense. Cavalry westerns, especially those which spend any amount of time in and around a fort or outpost, have a tendency to become a touch episodic. That’s the case here, as the film digs into the lives of the characters and builds towards the final confrontation with Diablito’s Apaches. The plus side of this though is that the scenes in the fort have a tight shadowy atmosphere, a reflection perhaps of the restrictive nature of army life and its effects on the personal lives of the characters. ON the other hand, there’s also plenty of location work on view, with New Mexico standing in for Arizona, and the outdoor action scenes are very well shot. If I have a criticism, it would be that some of the romantic stuff revolving around Taylor, Dahl and Hodiak could have been cut. I see it as being used to emphasize the rivalry between the two men but it’s not really necessary, adds little and slows things down somewhat. Aside from that, the movie carries only a little fat and moves along at a nice clip.

Taylor had already tried his hand at westerns back in 1941 in Billy the Kid. At that time he was 30 years old and, although arguably too old to be playing Mr Bonney, he looked a little fresh-faced for the genre. By the time of Ambush the war years were behind him, he was rapidly closing in on 40 and had taken on the harder look that would serve him well throughout the coming decade. Aside from the slightly jaded toughness that make his scenes with Dahl more interesting, there’s a surprising level of vulnerability on show too. It’s not so often that you see films of the era allowing their leading man to take a good old-fashioned hiding, but that’s exactly what happens to Taylor’s character at one point when he challenges Hodiak’s by-the-book officer to a fight. And Hodiak is fine too in that inflexible role although, as I mentioned before, the contrived romantic rivalry over Ms Dahl is something of a pointless distraction. Dahl’s role was mainly about looking good and keeping her potential suitors on their toes, and she manages both tasks easily. The more complex female part was given to Jean Hagen, she doesn’t get to exhibit the glamor of Dahl but it’s her conflicted yet loyal woman who makes the bigger impression – both actresses were cast together again in the following year’s Barry Sullivan crime picture No Questions Asked. Lots of good support is provided by Don Taylor (as Hagen’s would-be lover), the ever-reliable John McIntire, Bruce Cowling (who would go on to play Wyatt Earp in the underrated Masterson of Kansas), Leon Ames and Ray Teal.

There are plenty of options for watching Ambush as there are DVDs available from the Warner Archive in the US, as well as editions on the market in Spain and Italy. I have the Spanish version, although I did own the Archive disc too in the past and the transfer looks identical to my eyes. It’s one of those unrestored prints – cue markers and the odd scratch on view – that’s in reasonable shape overall. It could use a clean up but it’s not the kind of title whose profile, or market potential, is likely to justify the expense that would entail. So, Ambush offers a strong cast, authentic locations and good visuals. Marguerite Roberts’ script, taken from a Luke Short novel, maybe should have trimmed some material from the mid-section but that’s not what we could term a fatal flaw by any means – it remains a well-made and entertaining western.

Panhandle

Certain plot devices come up time and again in westerns, so much so that they can start to feel like old friends after a while. On occasion we even get a whole cluster of them all intermingled in one movie, although one tends to dominate when such a situation arises. Panhandle (1948) blends together the tale of the town tamer, the outlaw forced back into his old ways, and the perennial matter of settling scores. It’s that latter element – the quest for revenge, or perhaps it would be more accurate to talk of justice here – that comes to the fore in another stylish example of Lesley Selander’s work.

Mexico has frequently been portrayed on screen as a land of opportunity from a westerner’s perspective. Sometimes it has held out the possibility of attaining riches, at others of regaining something of the mythical freedom eaten up by the relentless advance of civilization. And it has also been viewed as the home of the second chance, a place of refuge and redemption of sorts, for the badman in search of spiritual solace. John Sands (Rod Cameron) is one of those men, a gunfighter trying to put his violent past behind him by living a simple but honest existence south of the border. Initially, it looks as though he has achieved some kind of peace selling leather goods, but unexpected news from the north is about to change all that. A young woman (Cathy Downs), unaware of his former identity and notoriety, drops the bombshell that his brother has been murdered in the town of Sentinel in the Texas Panhandle. In that instant, Sands’ life is transformed as he has been forced back to the way of the gun. His mission to exact retribution for the killing means a return to the US, to his own dark past and all the attendant dangers crossing the border represents to him – aside from confronting the guilty men, there’s also the little matter of an outstanding warrant for his arrest still circulating in the Lone Star state. Sands is going to have to negotiate this, and also the attentions of two very different women, before he can reach some form of closure and continue living on the terms he has chosen for himself.

The first thing one notices about the movie is the use of sepia tone, a look that I’ve never been especially fond of. In my mind, this kind of tinted photography will be forever associated with material of a much older vintage – silent films mainly – although that’s perhaps the thinking behind its use here, to reinforce the fact that the tale is unfolding in a different era. Whatever the reasoning, it’s a process that I find I get used to quick enough and it soon ceases to be something worth remarking on. If I have any particular issues, they relate to a few areas of the script that I feel were almost discarded after their introduction suggested something more was to be made of them. The question of Sands’ legal status in the US pops up early on when a lawman, played by Rory Mallinson, tries unsuccessfully to detain him. It’s mentioned again when certain interests in Sentinel make a play for his services as a town tamer, but then is essentially ignored. Even that aspect, the potential hiring of the outsider to clean up the undesirable elements gets elbowed aside when it looks like there might have been scope for some kind of commentary on way those with a less savory past were accepted on sufferance in times of need.

More time is allotted to the suggestion of a romance with Cathy Downs’ character, although this never develops, and a more overt one with Anne Gwynne. The latter situation doesn’t work all that convincingly in my opinion, and I can’t help but feel it’s a shame the storyline featuring Downs wasn’t built up more as there was more potential which could have been tapped into in that situation. Nevertheless, even if these aspects are not entirely satisfactory, they don’t weaken the film. Selander’s sure direction keeps the whole affair moving forward and switches the action smoothly between the studio backlot and the Lone Pine locations. As one might expect from this director, the action is neatly handled too, especially a fine bar room brawl and the climactic shootout on the muddy streets of Sentinel, with the rain pounding down and the harshly lit muzzle flashes signalling death for some and victory for others.

Panhandle was one of a number of films Rod Cameron made for Selander and it offered him a good rugged role. He was one of those actors who looked comfortable in westerns and provided a solid screen presence. This part was a good fit since he was believable as a hero and also as a villain in other films, so playing the outlaw struggling to reform himself was certainly within his range. One of the most enjoyable scenes in the picture comes when he’s pressed by a young Blake Edwards (who also had a co-writing credit for the movie) to divulge the details of the time he faced down Billy the Kid. Cameron draws the tale out wonderfully, holding the younger man rapt and milking the story for all its worth. And then he delivers a punchline that practically floors Edwards, and the viewer too, with its sheer audacity – a lovely moment. Cathy Downs and Anne Gwynne were an extremely attractive pair of leading ladies although, as I said above, it’s a pity the former isn’t used a little better. As for villains, Edwards is fine as the flashy hothead and Reed Hadley does good work too as his suave and deadly boss. In support, it’s nice to see familiar faces like Rory Mallinson and John Ford favorite J Farrell MacDonald, albeit in small roles.

Panhandle is available on DVD in both the US and the UK in Darn Good Westerns collections, from VCI and Odeon (now Screenbound) respectively. I have the UK edition and the transfer is just fair. The image generally looks soft and quite muddy in places  – I think the images i used above (despite the fact they’re reduced in size) give an indication of the picture quality. The disc offers the theatrical trailer as the sole bonus feature. This is a pretty good Selander film told in his usual economical style. The script, a debut effort for both Blake Edwards and John C Champion, has plenty of ideas and even if all of them aren’t as fully developed as they might have been, what happens on screen is consistently interesting. Another solid low-budget production with quite a bit to be said in its favor.

War Paint

It’s a pity the way low budget programmers, and those who made them, tend to get less critical attention and respect than their more expensive cousins. The result of this is that very good movies get lost in the shuffle and find themselves ignored as both the passage of time and the big name productions shunt them aside. I think Lesley Selander was a solid and skillful filmmaker, with a habit of turning out interesting and well crafted material, yet his name is unknown outside hardcore film buff circles. War Paint (1953) is one of those fairly obscure Selander westerns that highlights his strengths as a director.

The story concerns a treaty between the US government and an unnamed Indian tribe, one of those documents laboriously hammered out and promising peaceful co-existence between the two warring sides henceforth. In this case the agreement has been struck, and the document signed and sealed. The issue, however, is one of delivery. What we’re looking at here is a race against time to ensure the document in question is handed over to the native chief before nine days have passed and the deadline expires. The responsibility lies with one Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his small patrol. Initially, he’s tasked with handing the treaty over to the local Indian agent, but he’s not going to turn up as his body is lying somewhere out in the wilderness. Instead, it’s this man’s killer, Taslik (Keith Larsen), who also happens to be the chief’s son, that appears. Hitchcock always maintained that a good way to build up suspense was to make sure the audience knows a little more than the protagonists on screen, and that’s how it is in War Paint. While Billings and his troopers believe Taslik is leading them across the parched landscape towards his father’s village, the viewer knows that he has other plans in mind. Bit by bit, the suspicions of the weary and weakening men are roused as the desperately needed water remains elusive and the instances of ill-fortune start to add up.

What kind of words best sum up a Selander picture? Well, toughness and economy spring to mind right away, and War Paint provides an object lesson in both. The movie opens with a cagey and sparse duel among the desert dunes  – one man is first blinded and then gunned down while his partner is shot dead and his corpse scalped. This brutal little prologue sets the tone for the gritty story that subsequently plays out. On the surface, we get a solid outdoor adventure with the harsh Death Valley locations providing the backdrop for this man versus nature affair, and it’s very successfully executed even if it’s approached on that basis alone. Still, the more interesting films always have a little more going on to divert us, and War Paint adds some depth by fleshing out the characters – cavalrymen and natives alike – and affording us glimpses of their lives outside the events of the narrative. What we get is one of those microcosmic snapshots, where the hopes, dreams, disappointments and weaknesses of a random selection of humanity is laid before us.

I’ve looked at several examples of what can be referred to as the pro-Indian cycle of 50s westerns on this site before and in doing so I’ve become more aware not only of the number of such movies but also their range and position on the spectrum in terms of sympathy expressed. War Paint hits somewhere around the middle of this imaginary scale, striving for balance and the honesty that accompanies it. I think the exclusively outdoor setting helps with this, stripping away the trappings and distractions of civilization to let us look at things as they really are in the frank and merciless glare of the desert sun. The positive and negative aspects of these two rival cultures are put in front of us and we’re encouraged to appraise each one, taking into account the deceits and betrayals as well as the largess and nobility both are capable of.

Robert Stack didn’t feature in a huge number of westerns – he’s always going to be best remembered as television’s Eliot Ness and for his hilarious turn in Airplane! – but did make some and I think he had the kind of presence that worked well enough in the genre. As Lieutenant Billings, there’s an uncompromising, driven aspect to his character, the kind of thing which is to be seen in a lot cavalry officer parts. Such characteristics aren’t always explained adequately – frequently we’re just asked to accept that this is the way it is – but the writing in War Paint is again deserving of some praise for the way enough expository back story is sprinkled throughout the script to justify motivation and attitude. And this isn’t restricted to Stack; we discover little pieces of background information to round out the character of Joan Taylor’s vengeful young Indian woman and also that of Keith Larsen as her brother. Charles McGraw was able to put his gruffness to use either as a villain or as a good guy, and got to indulge in the latter here as the faithful sergeant always backing up his boss even when he’s wrestling with internal doubts. There’s good support from the likes of Walter Reed, Douglas Kennedy and John Doucette, and some patented nastiness from Peter Graves and Robert J Wilke.

War Paint has been available on DVD  for some time now, both as a MOD disc from the US and as a (now rather pricey) pressed disc from Sony/Feel Films from Spain. That Spanish disc looks fairly good, the image is sharp and colorful for the most part but there are some softer and less defined sections and inserts. The film could probably use a bit of a clean up overall but, realistically speaking, this is not the kind of title where the potential sales would justify the expense of such an undertaking. There’s a choice of the original English audio or a Spanish dub and the optional Spanish subtitles can be deselected either via the menu or on the fly from the remote. The trailer is included as an extra feature. This is an enjoyable film, as tight and rugged as you might expect from Selander and attractively shot on location – there’s not a single interior scene. It works on multiple levels and has the kind of maturity of outlook that characterizes the best of the genre’s output in the 50s. It gets my recommendation.

Riding Shotgun

Ever watch a movie and find yourself struggling to quite get a handle on it? I don’t mean in terms of following the plot, rather the direction in which the plot wants to lead your thoughts. Frankly, I’ve seen lots of films where the storyline has meandered all over the place and the focus seemed to shift continually. But it’s a whole different matter when we start talking about a small, tightly structured production, one where there’s an essentially simple story being told, yet where the theme and tone appear to vary almost from scene to scene. As I watched Riding Shotgun (1954) the other day I was struck by tonal shifts throughout, a kind of capriciousness in the scripting that meant a potentially interesting little movie fell short of what it might have been.

As soon as the credits roll there’s a sense that we’re going to get one of those noir-tinged westerns that can prove so satisfying, Firstly, we get a voice-over narration by the hero, Larry Delong (Randolph Scott), which lets us know that he took the job riding shotgun for the stagecoach line, and traveling all over the west as a result, for a very special reason – to find one particular man, and to kill him. The man in question is Dan Marady (James Millican), a notorious road agent or outlaw, and he’s well aware of the fact his nemesis is dogging his tracks. I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, as the following all occurs in the first 10 minutes or so of the film, by saying that Marady has a plan in place to lure Delong away from the stagecoach and then fake a raid on it to draw a posse out from the neighboring town. With the law off chasing the apparent attackers of the stage, the town will be left wide open so Marady and his men can enter at their leisure and pick off all they want in safety. That’s the plan, but a little carelessness means Delong remains alive and free, and in a position to warn the defenseless settlement of the impending raid. It’s at this point that the movie takes a turn off into more unusual territory – instead of being greeted as a savior, Delong first becomes the object of suspicion and distrust, and later an outright threat who has to be eliminated.

Coincidence, misfortune and misunderstanding provide the impetus for the plot of Riding Shotgun, the kind of circumstances that make for good drama,and can add to that sense of noir fatalism I alluded to earlier. With the revenge motif, the narration and the sight of Randolph Scott grimly determined to kill a man as opposed to, let’s say, bring him back for trial, everything appears to be in place for a solid B western suspenser. And yet it doesn’t really come off, and the reason is the uneven or uncertain tone I spoke about. For a story like this to work as it should, to be truly effective, it needs to be tackled as a straightforward and straight-faced yarn. The setting and build-up are suitably minimalist and claustrophobic, and director André de Toth frames some excellent compositions. As Scott’s character finds himself increasingly isolated and literally backed into a corner, there’s tension in abundance. However, we also get humorous undercurrents – the over-cautious and ever-hungry deputy (Wayne Morris), the grotty saloon keeper fretting about his costly mirror and addressing his son in Spanish while getting answered in German, and the (seemingly) deliberately obtuse townsfolk. The net result of it all is that the film is neither fish nor fowl, shying away from full-on suspense and flirting with the comedic elements, we end up with a film which feels slightly arch.

I wonder how this movie was received on release since, even now, I find it a little odd to see Randolph Scott so hell bent on killing off his enemy. I know he went to similarly dark places in a couple of the Budd Boetticher films a few years later but it still gives me pause. While I have reservations about the script I can’t fault Scott’s performance, but he rarely gave an unsatisfying performance by this stage in his career anyway. It’s nice to see James Millican, who often got cast in smaller but always memorable roles, handed a more substantial part as the chief villain; it doesn’t call for any great subtlety but there’s plenty of opportunity for some solid snarling and meanness. Millican’s principal sidekick is played by a young Charles Bronson (still being billed as Buchinsky) and his presence and potential can be clearly seen at this point. OK, I’m harping on the (not all that successful and also unnecessary) comic aspects again but I feel Wayne Morris is ill-served as a result. His conflicted deputy is an important character in the film, providing a lot of balance and accessibility. But the way the part is written undermines him at every turn and diminishes the role considerably, a great shame. There’s a good supporting cast featuring the likes of Joan Weldon, James Bell, Joe Sawyer, Frank Ferguson, Vic Perrin and John Baer, although many of them are given very little to do.

Warner Brothers put Riding Shotgun out on DVD years ago as part of a triple feature set with Man Behind the Gun and Thunder over the Plains. Scott’s westerns were harder to find back then and only few were available to buy compared to now, and I remember being very pleased to see these films come on the market. The presentation is as basic as it gets with no bonus features included. Still, the film looks reasonably good with nice colors and no major print damage. I’ve spent a fair bit of time highlighting what I see as the deficiencies of this film but I feel I should also point out that even a relatively weak Randolph Scott western benefits greatly and is elevated by his presence alone. I don’t think I’ve seen a Scott western I didn’t enjoy on some level at least, which is a testament to the man’s talents. If I seem unduly critical of this one, then it’s mainly because I can see how a few minor tweaks to the script could have left us with a far stronger picture. Nevertheless, and despite its faults, it’s still worth a look.

Lawman

It’s always the same. If you post a man, he has to come into town to prove he’s a man. Or you kill a man, he’s got a friend or kin – he just has to come against you… and for no reason… no reason that makes any sense. And it don’t mean a damn to the man already in the ground. Nobody wins.

Nobody wins – that quote taken from Lawman (1971) is a bit downbeat, but it does sum up the mood surrounding the film and maybe also feeds into the sentiments which would become increasingly common in the western in the 1970s. Last time out I was looking at a western, and at the same time musing about the genre itself, from the late 60s, a restless and hard to define era. The decade of the 70s followed on from that and gradually developed its own character – when we speak of the westerns of the 50s we often find ourselves referring to redemption, by the time we reach the 70s we’re more likely to encounter resignation.

The figure of the lawman is integral to the western, the constant expansion of the frontier and the subsequent attempts to bring and maintain civilization via the rule of law is a constant factor, if not the underlying theme in itself. A bunch of weary cowboys let loose and whooping it up is another common sight, and the result of such celebrations was frequently violence. Such was the case in the town of Bannock, where the hands employed by Vincent Bronson (Lee J Cobb) had a little too much to drink, let their good sense abandon them and left a dead man lying on the street. And so the marshal of Bannock, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), comes to Bronson’s patch with the goal of returning the guilty men to stand trial for the killing. Bronson is one of the old style pioneers, that tough breed who tamed a land and bent it to their will through the force of their personality, backed up by a loaded gun. Men like this are accustomed to getting their own way or, where that’s more difficult, to buying individuals who can smooth things out for them. Bronson has already bought and paid for his own marshal, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), and believes that Maddox or those he represents have their price. In a way, he’s right as Maddox admits that he’s really only going through the motions – acquittals can be purchased in all likelihood. Yet Maddox’s own price isn’t quite the same; he might draw his wages from a corrupt source but he owes personal loyalty to another more idealistic paymaster – justice. So the drama and conflict therefore grow out of two situations: the reluctance of Bronson, or at least that of his men, to comply with Maddox’s wishes, and also the lawman’s own battles with  himself and the code he’s stuck by all his life.

The 60s was a decade when many questions were asked, the 70s kept at it and got some answers, but those answers weren’t always the ones people wanted to hear. Disillusionment was creeping in and many ideals seemed to be tarnished when dragged out into the cold light of day. Lawman dealt with that now familiar theme of changing times – clearly articulated by Lee J Cobb’s character – and the need to adapt, bend or be broken.The message seems to be that when all around you has been corrupted and debased by greed and self-interest, then the only sure or true thing one can hold onto is your personal code of honor. Maddox is the lawman, the one who has lived by that code refused to compromise. It raises him above the other characters, friends and enemies, colleagues and lovers, but isolates him too. Maddox questions the value of this, understands the fact it has sustained him through the years, but ultimately betrays it (and by extension himself) when confronted by the rank and venal behavior of the man who, in some respects, replaced him. It’s as though the knowledge of what he could become, if he were to submit to his desires, is too much for him and so must be banished.

Lawman was directed by Michael Winner, a man not noted for his subtlety either as a filmmaker or in any other area of life. It became fashionable to dismiss his work as crass and lacking in substance, but blanket judgements are rarely worthwhile and best avoided, in my opinion. Winner will never be regarded as a great filmmaker, which is fair enough, but it’s unjust to simply brush him aside as a hack. Some of his early work is very good – for example, West 11 is a neat little movie – and it wasn’t until  mid-70s that a significant decline in quality could be discerned. Lawman does have too many needless zooms and close-ups yet it also has pace and a kind of raw, brutal honesty that’s quite attractive.

Once again, we have a film whose stars hark back to the golden era of the genre – Lancaster, Ryan and Cobb were all involved in some of the finest westerns made and worked with the most talented directors, writers and cameramen. To browse their filmographies is to contemplate the heights cinema was capable of attaining, and their class is readily apparent in even the smallest gestures. There’s real pleasure and delight to be had from seeing these seasoned pros playing off each other and enjoying the nuances they could bring to parts effortlessly. Although that trio of heavy hitters would be enough to hold our interest by themselves there’s a terrific supporting cast to savor too – Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, John McGiver, Richard Jordan, Robert Duvall, Robert Emhardt, J D Cannon, John Beck, Ralph Waite and more. It should be noted that the film is light on female representation; Sheree North is the only woman to play a part of any importance, but it’s a good role and one that impacts on the ultimate resolution.

Lawman is one of those United Artists titles released on DVD by MGM ages ago now. It’s typical of many such releases in that it’s just about passable but should look an awful lot better. On the plus side, the film is presented in the correct widescreen ratio and enhanced for 16:9 screens. On the other hand, there’s a softness about it and the usual artifacts and instances of print damage that need to be tidied up. The UK version I have has no extra features and I think the same can be said for the US edition too. Generally, I find I get on better with many (though not all) 70s westerns than the late 60s variety – it seems the genre settled down somewhat and made up its mind where it wanted to go by that stage – and I feel Lawman is deserving of a bit of attention. While it has suffered a bit due to the lackluster reputation its director earned over the years, it’s a good film and one that’s worth checking out.