The Last Posse

Small films with big themes, that’s perhaps as good a summation of the successful B movie as any. Low budget films were always capable of using a superficially simple tale to disguise layers of depth and complexity, the smarter and more skillful efforts using standard cinematic techniques to do so. The Last Posse (1953) is all about the past, both the recent and distant forms, and how the events which occurred drive the actions of men in the present, and indeed have shaped how they and others view themselves.

A posse is usually a group of residents sworn in as temporary deputies, charged with upholding the law via the pursuit of criminals. The film opens with one such group, tired, dusty and disheveled, making their way home to a small New Mexico town. Among them is one man who is clearly in considerably worse shape than his fellow riders. John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) is the town sheriff, a man  of once mighty reputation who is now gut-shot and dying. The drawn faces of the men, the mortally wounded lawman, and the tension writ large on the countenances of the townsfolk leave no doubt that something went badly wrong out there in the desolation of the desert. As the remainder of the posse head off to clean up we can see by their furtive manner and whispered conversation that all may not be the way they’re telling it. Their story has it that the fugitives died after a shootout which also claimed the leader of the posse and, most tellingly, that the $105,000 of stolen money was nowhere to be found. While these leading citizens reappear freshly scrubbed and suitably spruced up there’s no hiding the fact that there are other stains, those on the conscience, which can be neither washed away nor wished away. So what did happen out there in the wilderness? It seems wholly appropriate that a film which concerns itself so much with the past should be told and find its ultimate resolution by means of three lengthy flashback sequences seen from three separate perspectives.

The Last Posse was directed by Alfred Werker, and it was the strong endorsement of both the filmmaker and this title by regular contributor John Knight which led me to view it. I was already familiar with a number of Werker’s other movies (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, He Walked by Night, Shock, Three Hours to Kill and At Gunpoint to name just a few) and I’m keen to see more, Repeat Performance in particular. He was a director capable of packing a good deal of atmosphere and tension into what were, for the most part, small productions. Here we get another fine piece of work, an hour and a quarter of sustained suspense delivered at a smart pace from a smooth script by Seymour Bennett, Connie Lee Bennett and Kenneth Gamet. In the best tradition of western filmmaking, the layers of hypocrisy and faux civilization are gradually stripped away to allow the truth to be revealed as the action moves away from the town, out into the desert and the rocks of Lone Pine. It’s here in this harsh and sparse landscape (beautifully shot by Burnett Guffey) that the illusions and cant are burned away by the merciless sun, and the deceit of the past collides with the brutal reality of the present.

Broderick Crawford is one of those actors I can take or leave, often depending on the kind of role he’s playing. He could have a loud, almost mechanical quality leading to some one-note performances. However, there was also something bruised and lived-in about him, I suppose you could call it the weariness of his years. Whenever he tapped into that, as he certainly does in The Last Posse, he had a lot more to offer. It could be argued that a few characters in the film are somewhat underwritten, more on that shortly, but Crawford doesn’t suffer in that respect. Frazier is a man who has been almost broken by life, propping himself up mainly with alcohol, and with little regard for the quality of men he now has to associate with. What comes across most powerfully is a sense of guilt and regret for a life badly lived, and a good deal of that seems connected to the relationship with Charles Bickford’s Sampson Drune character. The exact nature of the men’s hostility and enmity becomes slowly apparent the deeper they move into the desert but it also highlights one of the weaknesses in the script. Bickford always shone in villainous parts, those craggy features and penetrating eyes were ideal, and he’s suitably arrogant and cruel as Drune. The problem, as I see it though, is that the writing of his character allows for little else; it’s heavily alluded to that he’s also driven by fear and a kind of warped paternal instinct, but the script permits little if any of that to be actively shown. As a result, the vital backstory – the actual core of the movie – is of course ever-present yet lacks a little due to the presentation of the character.

John Derek is one of those actors whose contribution to the movies tends to be underrated or glossed over. I think I first saw him in his breakout role in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door and I’m of the opinion he was a perfectly competent performer. He recently came to my attention again during the Republic blogathon when The Outcast was featured, a film I’ve since acquired for future viewing. Derek’s role in The Last Posse is an important one within the context of the picture but he’s overshadowed for much of the running time by both Crawford and Bickford. Much of the cast is made up of familiar character players: notably Henry Hull, Warner Anderson, Will Wright and, as one of the trio of fugitives, Skip Homeier. This is very much a film dominated by the men and the only female role of note goes to Wanda Hendrix, although it’s really a nothing part – I was actually more intrigued by the uncredited Hispanic girl, the one with her eye on Anderson’s blowhard editor, as her two brief appearances hinted at an altogether more fascinating relationship.

The Last Posse is available as a MOD disc from Sony in the US, it was a Columbia production, and looks good. The film has been given a nice clean transfer and the crisp black and white photography is very attractive. Overall, this is a solid, pacy little western with plenty of depth, even if all aspects of that aren’t explored as fully as they might have been. Definitely worth checking out if the opportunity arises.

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33 thoughts on “The Last Posse

  1. Love the sound of the opening of this movie Colin – very noirish and a real attention-grabber. Never seen it and Derek’s name wouldn’t normally be much of a draw for me and, like you,. with Crawford it depends on the role. You make this sound great though – thanks chum. 🙂

    • Yes, there is a touch of noir to the whole thing, although more in terms of tone than the visuals.
      I liked it a lot and I hope I haven’t gushed too much over it – it really is the kind of tight little film that appeals to me though.

      • I usually find your enthusiasm is well-placed chum. Small films of value and interest like this need deserves the support and it is always good to follow and well-informed cheerleader (though for me reason I now have a John Hughes / Joss Whedon vibe in my head – stupid 1980s!)

        • Cheers, Sergio. I like to draw a bit of attention to films which impressed me even if they’re not all that widely known – I’m not the only one doing that of course, but every bit helps.

  2. A real sleeper! The gap between my first reading about and being intrigued by this film and actually getting to finally see it was nearly 60 years!!

    This is another western, like ‘THE OUTCAST’, that shows how well John Derek could suit the western genre and the cast generally does a fine job. This is a western I like a lot and I am so glad you chose to get it and review it, Colin. I look forward to your review of the other above-referred film.

    • Thanks, Jerry. I liked the sound of The Outcast when you wrote about it for the blogathon and therefore ordered the Italian DVD, which looks fine from a quick scan. I haven’t watched it all the way through yet – not had a lot of time for anything lately hence the lack of activity here – but will do so at the earliest opportunity.

  3. An obscure and entertaining western without any doubt. You did a vivid and concise review of film and cast. I would go back and view it again soon. Best regards.

  4. I remember enjoying Alfred Werker’s Pirates of Monterey starring Rod Cameron and Maria Montez. It is rousing adventure yarn. I would consider it a standout for the said director. Best regards.

  5. A very fair review,I thought Colin,you have covered well the films strengths and weaknesses.
    Thanks,for the mention BTW…how very kind.
    It’s odd that Alfred Werker should more or less end his career with some half dozen Westerns,
    especially considering his previous work.
    Certainly THE LAST POSSE is far and away the best of Werker’s Westerns.
    A couple of the others were what I might call “gimmick” Westerns.
    DEVIL’S CANYON made in 3D was a lively hybrid of the Western combined with a Prison Movie.
    Warner Archive have promised a remastered version sometime in the future but state that
    working from old 3D elements provides a whole raft of problems. At least it’s a work in progress.
    CANYON CROSSROADS was a modern day Western involving helicopter chases and although
    I’ve not seen it in some 50 years I remember it as being pretty good.
    Another Alfred Werker Western I believe lurking in Colin’s now legendary “to be viewed heap”
    is REBEL IN TOWN. This entry (along with THE HALLIDAY BRAND) is one of the darkest,
    most intense of Fifties Westerns.
    I may be wrong but I do recall that THE HALLIDAY BRAND (director Joseph H Lewis) is also
    in Colin’s extensive collection of thus far unseen movies.

    • Thanks, John. You played a big part in making this post possible so it’s good to hear your contribution to the discussion. Those last two titles you mentioned, the Werker and the Lewis, do indeed form part of my collection. And yes, they’re still unwatched – ongoing pressures from work and elsewhere mean that not only have I been unable to update this site as often as I’d like but my viewing has been severely curtailed too.

  6. It’s nice to see you cover this gem, Colin, and a good account of it.

    I’m not sure I see the limitations of presentation you talk about as weaknesses. It’s a strong story, but modestly told–like a lot of B Westerns. So it covers a lot in 73 minutes. Given that there is a rich back story involving most of these characters, a two hour version could probably get more deeply into some of this, but “heavily alluded to” works for me with Drune. The movie seems clear that his sins in making Derek’s character his foster son have made him worse in his darker aspects, desperate to hold on to the relationship with the younger man and so dominating him as he does. Charles Bickford is such a powerful actor and knows how to to make those past events resonate in the present. I kind of agree that Wanda Hendrix is not given enough to make her character all it could have been–she was a very good actress. On the other hand, Guffey’s black and white cinematography is worthy of an A movie I believe–and visually the movie is always artful.

    Along with the tone and mood, I really do think Broderick Crawford’s performance as Frazier is one of the movie’s greatest strengths. Like you, I’m not especially strong on him for his whole career, but something did hit me recently watching HUMAN DESIRE again. As limited as Crawford is, he is willing to do something many lead actors are not–and that is to be truly pathetic and convincingly so, and it’s even more interesting in a big man. The reason I like him so much in THE LAST POSSE is that it initially taps that quality strongly in the worn out, played out alcoholic lawman we see as the flashbacks begin, but by the end of the film the character rises to the heroic stature for which he had been legendary in earlier years, and sets things right partly through his action (on the trail) and then through sheer moral presence, at the end. It’s moving, and I don’t think his last page is sad.

    Of course, I’m glad that John K. encouraged you about this title and that you gave him credit for that, but I do think you read my Underrated Westerns piece last year (Rupert Pupkin Speaks) and made mention then you hadn’t seen it. So maybe I did something to pique your interest too. Of the five I chose then I believe the other one you still haven’t seen is FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER and will look forward to reading you on that one when you get to it.

    I haven’t seen a lot of Alfred Werker–here and there in his long filmography but enough to have a pretty good impression. I have seen those half-dozen Westerns he made in his last years and it appears John Knight and I are in accord about them. I agree THE LAST POSSE is outstandingly the best (and was first of this group too). For me DEVIL’S CANYON is hampered by being made in 3D so is probably the least though it’s likeable enough. CANYON CROSSROADS, a modern subject as John noted, is very good I believe, and REBEL IN TOWN (indeed very grim) is good too. THREE HOURS TO KILL is another concise drama but I like AT GUNPOINT even more. This last title, in CinemaScope, turned out to be important to me getting back to it on TV ten or twelve years ago. In CinemaScope it was shown pan and scan and it was during the course of that viewing, I felt this was so unfair to the film that I resolved to longer watch anything anamorphic that was not presented that way, even though I had done so for years. Of course there are more remarkable uses of ‘Scope than that movie can claim, but that’s just the point–even a more visually prosaic work is carefully composed for its format and so will be less and we are not being fair to it. And I have stuck to that resolve.

    • Hi, Blake. I actually like the B movie sensibility on show here – the pacing, the sparseness and urgency. I just felt that Bickford was a fine performer who was handed a role with a good deal of implicit complexity yet written in such a way as to afford him only minimal opportunity to explore it. It’s certainly not a fatal flaw for the movie overall but it left me hungry for a bit more, which is perhaps not a bad complaint to have when all is said and done.
      Yes, I did remember your comments on the film and was certainly encouraged by them – John just gave me that added little push recently and I wanted to acknowledge that in particular.
      I’m very fond of At Gunpoint and it’s been a source of irritation for a while now that the movie seems unavailable in the correct ratio.

  7. Great stuff Colin, as usual a write-up that has me tempted to go onto Amazon and pay the £10.86 – plus postage – that would wing the R1 DVD over (I checked eBay but Amazon might be the better choice in this instance). Despite not having seen it, your article does have a sense that the film has a RASHOMON influence, something that was pretty much remade for the Western in THE OUTRAGE but there does appear to be elements here. In any event, the flashback structure sounds fascinating and I’ll definitely try to check it out.

    • Thank you, Mike. I wouldn’t want to take the Rashomon idea too far as I don’t feel that’s the right kind of structure to have in mind here, although perhaps my wording is responsible for that impression. The flashbacks are more reminiscent of the linear approach in films like Siodmak’s The Killers or Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number.

  8. Colin,
    While on the subject of grim,dark Westerns,please note that over at Toby’s French
    contributor Chip has just noted that Harold Schuster’s bleak austere JACK SLADE
    is being released by Artus Films in January,and according to Amazon France in widescreen
    as well.This is very good news-I wonder where Artus are sourcing this from-does that mean
    we might see other “lost” Allied Artists Westerns surfacing like AT GUNPOINT.

    • I hadn’t seen that, John, but it most certainly is very good news. Thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’ll have to keep an eye on that label.

  9. I for one would be especially pleased to see “AT GUNPOINT” made available in ‘scope as it is a film I like a great deal though I have only EVER seen it in pan & scan sadly. One day maybe…..can only hope! I know Fred MacMurray thought the series of westerns he made 1953-59 were a comedown for him but frankly he hid it well at the time and was so darn good in ’em.

  10. Colin,
    Further to my previous comments regarding the Artus release of JACK SLADE it’s also
    worth mentioning that on the same date they are releasing CANON CITY.
    This is an old Eagle-Lion title and is a very highly regarded prison break film shot by the
    great John Alton.
    I don’t know where Artus are sourcing these films from and I’d love to know.
    Previously they were a sort of p.d. imprint and later morphed into a Euro Exploitation
    outfit with a bizarre blend of Euro Thrillers/Horrors and lots of Spaghetti Westerns.
    If Artus are now focusing on old obscure,unreleased Hollywood pictures,then that can only
    be a good thing.
    I will be getting both of the aforementioned titles and will report back regarding picture quality.

    While we are on the subject of all things French you have probably noticed that Sidonis are
    about to release two of the “missing” Joel McCrea Westerns THE LONE HAND and BLACK
    HORSE CANYON.To add insult to injury they are also releasing GUNFIGHTERS the only
    Randolph Scott Columbia Western thus far unreleased on DVD.
    Sidonis,as we all know have those wretched “forced” subtitles. I really don’t know why this is as
    other fine French imprints like Carlotta,Elephant and Rimini Editions get round this.

    • Yes, I’d really appreciate any feedback or thoughts you have on those two titles when you get your hands on them, John.
      That’s disappointing about the Sidonis releases – but maybe someone else in Europe will pick them up.

  11. Thanks for recommending this film, Colin – it has just been shown on the UK TCM, and I really enjoyed it. I was surprised by how much it packs into its short running time and think Crawford and Bickford are both excellent – Crawford has such a great voice, so expressive. Which of his roles would you recommend?

    I’ve previously seen John Derek in Nicholas Ray’s Run For Cover, where I think he’s very good as a bitter young man who can’t get over an injury done to him – here he doesn’t get so much time, but I rather like the way that a lot of the past is hinted at even if there isn’t time to show it – although the relationships between Jud and his father and girlfriend could do with being filled out more, I think there is enough there for us to imagine a lot more. Anyway, thanks again for highlighting this film – I’d never have thought to watch it otherwise.

    • That’s great to hear that you felt like seeing the film and even better that you enjoyed it having had the opportunity to see it.

      As I said in the original piece, Crawford is an actor I can take or leave depending on the role he’s playing. Which ones would I recommend? Blake mentioned Lang’s Human Desire above and I’d certainly second that. All the King’s Men is another to look out for. Finally, I liked both Crawford and, again, Derek in Scandal Sheet, directed by Phil Karlson and adapted from a novel by Sam Fuller.

          • Caught this one last summer and was rather surprised with it. I had it on the shelf for several years and just kept going by it when looking for a duster. Something just made ignore it. Silly me! It is was a great little western. Good cast, nice looking and fine direction from the under-rated Werker. As for Derek, the more of his work I see, the more I like him. He has a great role in the UK crime/noir THE FLESH IS WEAK from 1957 where he plays a smooth talking pimp.

            • It is something of a low profile movie, I guess. Still, it’s one of those that will surprise with its quality when it’s been viewed, which is always a good thing.
              I’ve never seen that Brit noir with Derek but I have heard of it – forgot all about it though till you mentioned it here.

  12. Pingback: Three Hours to Kill | Riding the High Country

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