The Oklahoman

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Allied Artists Pictures grew out of Poverty Row specialists Monogram and produced and distributed movies from the late 40s through to the 70s. The brainchild of Walter Mirisch, the studio aimed to produce what he termed B+ movies, promising a step up from the lower production values Monogram had been associated with. What resulted was a range of films from the instantly forgettable to the memorable, and everything in between. For this blogathon celebrating the work of the studio I’ve chosen a late 50s western, The Oklahoman (1957) starring Joel McCrea, one of the genuine icons of the genre. It’s a brisk tale of love, race and oil, charging home at just under 80 minutes and never pausing for breath.

It’s 1870 in the Oklahoma Territory and a couple of wagons bound for California have stopped off, the reason being that a baby is on the way. Tragically, the mother dies in childbirth and leaves the grieving father, John Brighton (Joel McCrea), with an infant girl and a tough choice to make. The experience has sapped his pioneering spirit and, being a doctor, he decides to stay put in the small town and set up in practice. We jump forward a few years and the child is growing up, reaching that stage where she needs a maternal figure in her life. Brighton finds himself in the enviable position of having two attractive women vying for his affections – the first is the young Indian girl, Maria (Gloria Talbott), he’s hired to look after his daughter, while the other is a widowed rancher, Anne Barnes (Barbara Hale). Thus we’re presented with a romantic triangle with the somewhat bemused doctor as the focal point. Westerns tend to use change as the engine to drive their dramatic content, sometimes it’s changes to the social structure or the spread of civilization and the establishment of the rule of law. In this case, the evolution of society is underway with the absorption of the native people into the community already in progress. That theme is addressed of course but there’s also the matter of shifting economic priorities at play, providing the motivation for the actions of the villains and in the process threatening to cast a shadow over the native-settler relationship. When leading rancher Cass Dobie (Brad Dexter) becomes aware of the large oil deposits on the neighboring land owned by Maria’s father (Michael Pate) he sees the direction the economic wind is blowing. If he can’t get the land by buying it, he’s quite prepared to resort to whatever means are necessary, regardless of who gets in his way or what social damage is caused.

While the oil angle is interesting and a little unusual for a western, it’s the treatment of the racial aspect which stands out particularly in this film. Right from the beginning the Indian characters are shown to be working at integration into white society and, even more notably, being accepted on those terms. The conflicts of the past haven’t been forgotten of course, as a conversation among a few town residents on the boardwalk one evening demonstrates, but they’re spoken of in a philosophical and progressive way – there’s an explicit admission of wrongdoing and an awareness that the fighting had justifications from both sides. What’s more, the question of racial tension only rears its head when the villains force it onto the agenda, and even then those who would seek to reopen old wounds and exploit the resulting hostility remain in the minority; there are as many and perhaps more voices expressing support for the Indians.

The Oklahoman came from the pen of Daniel B Ullman, who had a long list of writing credits to his name. Latterly, he wrote extensively for television but also contributed a significant number of western scripts, including Canyon River, Wichita, At Gunpoint and Face of a Fugitive, to name just a few. The cameraman was another vastly experienced guy, Carl Guthrie, and he helps give the whole thing a look which at least partially belies the modest budget. Director Francis D Lyon started out as an editor and did the bulk of his work for TV. His feature credits are limited (he did take charge of the rather nifty Escort West though) but he does fine with this movie and certainly keeps everything moving at pace.

All too often, the romantic elements can feel like a superficial adjunct, something bolted on to pad the running time or broaden the appeal of a movie. However, with The Oklahoman that’s not an issue; the romance, and the jealousies and confusion arising from it fold neatly into the plot and are integral to the picture. Joel McCrea plays what might be termed a typical McCrea role, that of a stolid and upright individual maneuvered by circumstance into a conflicted position. I think the key to McCrea’s success and enduring popularity among western fans is the smoothly professional way he handled such parts. As he aged he grew in courtliness and took on a more introspective air. That served him well in his scenes with both Gloria Talbott and Barbara Hale, the respectful reserve striking the right tone for a character who has long lived alone and has perhaps come to accept that his path is destined to lie in that direction – the gradual uncoiling of this stiffness adds a whole lot of charm and poignancy to the film. Brad Dexter had an unctuous quality to him, a slippery lack of sincerity, which again is used to good effect here. The ready smile is never any more than a paper-thin facade and you can almost see the self-absorbed computations going on behind it. In support there are nicely written parts for Michael Pate, Anthony Caruso, Verna Felton and Esther Dale. Furthermore, we get to see genre stalwart Ray Teal in a rare sympathetic role.

The Oklahoman is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive line and there’s also a European edition, which I own. The film is part of a 2-disc set from Spain, paired up with Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita. The transfer is good enough without being especially noteworthy. Presented in anamorphic scope and boasting generally strong colors, it can look a bit soft from time to time but is in reasonable shape for all that. The disc is a very basic one with no extra features whatsoever and the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be disabled either through the setup menu or on the fly via the remote. I’m very fond of these short, punchy westerns from the late 50s and anything with Joel McCrea in the lead ought to be recommendation enough in itself. Check it out, if you get the chance.

This piece is offered as part of the Allied Artists Blogathon hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s. I’d like to suggest readers visit the site and check out the other contributions to this blogathon dedicated to the films of Allied Artists by following the link above. Alternatively, feel free to click on the badge below, which will take you to the same destination.

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The Outcast

You wanna ride that horse straight up or belly down?

Another week, another Witney. I’m not entirely sure why I’d neglected to feature this director on the site before, a simple oversight on my part is the only reason I can think of. However, I’ve been trying to make up for it to some extent this month, not out of any trite sense of obligation but simply because I’ve liked what I’ve seen. This time it’s The Outcast (1954), a film which I’ll admit had passed beneath my radar until my friend Jerry Entract wrote about it (and thus called my attention to it) last year. Sometimes the recommendations of others strike a particular chord, get under your skin in a way, and I was intrigued enough by the sound of this movie to make a point of seeking out a copy. I’m certainly glad that I did, and only regret that I didn’t get round to watching it sooner.

It’s a classic tale of revenge, of settling scores and restoring things to the way they ought to be. It opens with the image of the stranger, who really isn’t of course, riding into a small Colorado town. This is Jet Cosgrave (John Derek), back home after 8 years and resolved to win back that which is rightfully his. Land is one of those eternal sources of conflict, giving rise to a whole range of emotional responses from jealousy to grim passion. In this instance, the scenario involves a grand swindle, one which also bears the pungent and unpleasant odor of a hushed up murder. The upshot of it all is that it’s sparked a number of feuds, principally that between Jet and his uncle, Major Cosgrave (Jim Davis), and a related one involving a neighboring family. This is a strong enough plot in itself, that notion of a family tearing itself apart carrying all the hallmarks of a classical tragedy, yet is further enriched by the skillful weaving in of two romantic threads. The overarching theme of betrayal is further spiced up by the actions and motivations of a clutch of subsidiary characters, their loyalties shifting like the ebb and flow of an increasingly fickle tide. By the time the show wraps up the complex skein of lies and deception is gradually untangled, and justice is seen to be served in a way which allows Jet to achieve his goals without sacrificing his conscience.

I guess the storyline of The Outcast sounds packed and complicated, and there’s no point in my denying that fact. The number of layers and sub-plots could easily torpedo any picture, if handled clumsily. And that simple observation highlights the beauty of Witney’s style of filmmaking; there’s a simplicity and directness to his approach which allows the focus to remain pin sharp throughout, never allowing the side issues to haul the narrative off course, absorbing and integrating them into the whole to ensure the flow is smooth and clear throughout. Let’s not forget that aspect for which Witney is most often lauded though, the handling and depiction of action. One might expect a densely plotted piece like this to move sluggishly at best yet that potential trap is nimbly negotiated, not least by the frequent and well-coordinated bursts of action. taking place both on the set and on location. I could draw attention to the regular fist and gunfights that intersperse the story, but I’d especially like to mention the wonderfully staged sequence towards the end which involves breaking up a cattle drive – the pace, editing and stunt work is genuinely breathtaking and has to be seen to be believed.

A good number of movies, of various genres, in the 50s touched on the idea of disaffected, displaced and rebellious youth. John Derek’s lead performance in The Outcast slots into that phenomenon quite neatly. The journey on which his character is taken naturally features the redemptive aspect that is virtually inseparable from the western, and there’s also a point being made about the development of maturity. I think Derek handled himself well as he grows beyond the cold and manipulative individual we see at the beginning. His progression towards a more nuanced understanding of the consequences of his determination is credibly achieved. I liked how his slow realization of the undesirability of resorting to violence subtly alters his perspective, and then ties in with his burgeoning awareness of the hollow, and ultimately self-destructive, nature of revenge. Jim Davis was always an authentic western presence, and is very good as Derek’s rival. Again, his character evolves, or disintegrates might be a more apt description under the circumstances, in a wholly believable fashion. The swaggering confidence we see at the outset is chipped away at bit by bit. The best villains tend to have an element of pathos about them, and I think Davis does here as you’re left almost feeling sorry for him as he sees his dreams and ambitions turn to dust around him. In addition to Davis and Derek, there are solid roles for the two principal actresses, Catherine McLeod and Joan Evans. Both women have significant parts to play in the way the tale twists along, and there’s a reasonable amount of depth to their respective characters. The supporting cast is made up of a checklist of seasoned genre players – Slim Pickens, Bob Steele, James Millican, Harry Carey Jr, Hank Worden and Frank Ferguson all provide memorable turns.

To date, the only release of The Outcast on DVD that I’m aware of is an Italian disc. It looks like an unrestored version of the movie but the  print used (obviously an Italian one as the title card appears in that language) is in reasonable shape. There isn’t any severe damage and the color is fairly rich although there is a little of the fading and variation, which one frequently gets with the Trucolor process, on display. Both the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub are offered and subtitles are, as usual, optional. I might also mention that the film could also be found on YouTube last time I looked. All in all, I got a lot of enjoyment out of this fast-moving picture with its solid cast and no-nonsense direction. Anyway, that brings my short series of features on William Witney films to a close for now (though I’ve no doubt I’ll return to his work at a later date) and it’s nice to finish on a title I very definitely recommend.

Apache Rifles

One of the great pleasures of blogging about movies is the way it has a habit of altering one’s plans in a positive way. Recent discussion put me in the mood to watch more William Witney, and the always fascinating tangential comments mentioned Audie Murphy and one of his films I hadn’t gotten round to. Apache Rifles (1964) is a film I’ve had sitting unwatched on my shelves for a while now and it’s one of the later films of both Witney and Murphy and has the added appeal, for me at least, of fitting into that transitional era for the western that has always interested me. The timing, casting and style are all noteworthy in any examination of this period of film history, and the picture itself is a tight and entertaining affair.

This highly fictionalized account sees Apache chief Victorio (Joseph Vitale) break out of the San Carlos reservation in protest at, among other things, the exploitation of the land and breaking of the treaties by unscrupulous gold miners. And so the hunt is on to bring these miscreants back, in this case led by a Captain Stanton (Audie Murphy), a soldier whose driven and implacable reputation precedes him, both among the troops under his command and the Apache he’s pursuing. Reputations are invariably won, and on occasion lost, for a reason; with Stanton, it all stems from his past and what he believes was his father’s misplaced trust in the word of the Indian. Embittered and determined not be played for a sucker in the same way, Stanton has taken a different path to his forebear and fully embraced his hatred for his enemy. In his eyes, the Apache is essentially sub-human, little more than an animal to be brought to heel by whatever means are necessary. Yet just as he achieves success in persuading Victorio to return to San Carlos, the seeds of self-doubt are sown by his encounter with Dawn Gillis (Linda Lawson), a missionary who has opted to live among the despised Apache. What’s worse, from Stanton’s point of view, is the attraction he feels towards this woman, especially in view of the fact she’s of mixed blood with a Comanche mother. Here we have the basis for an internal conflict, one that’s exacerbated by the unexpected shift in circumstances which takes place. At the precise moment when this unapologetic racist is on the point of questioning his own prejudice the carpet is whipped from beneath him. As ever, economic considerations influence political direction and Stanton finds himself pitched into something of a moral and emotional quandary.  Stripped of his command, he can only look on as the scene is set for a bloody conflict between the wronged Apache and the manipulated cavalry, with his own moral and emotional well-being at stake.

Apache Rifles was made at the same time Sergio Leone was turning out A Fistful of Dollars and only a year before Sam Peckinpah would give us Major Dundee. In short, the western genre was in a state of flux at this point, and here we have a movie which is a reflection of that. The central theme of a man coming to terms with his own preconceptions and the reassessment of White/Indian relations harks back to the golden age of the 50s, while the tone and casting straddles the divide. As the 60s progressed, and the spaghetti western gained an ever stronger foothold on the consciousness of the audience, cynicism and a more casual attitude to violence would take root. Apache Rifles isn’t a cynical picture yet there’s a certain bitterness on show that presages what was looming over the horizon. Witney was an action director, an advocate of pace and punch, and there’s a frankness to his depiction of violence that would be built upon (or some might argue exploited) in the years to come. While there’s no explicit gore on display, there’s an acceptance of cruelty – a crucifixion and the torture of an a captive Apache. The film is by no means graphic compared to what would be the case in the future but there is a hard edge to it all the same. The location shooting, in Red Rock Canyon and Lone Pine, similarly recalls the classics of the 50s while simultaneously grounding it in realism.

All of which lead us on to the casting. Once again, there’s that sense of transition, particularly with the presence of Audie Murphy and L Q Jones. It’s impossible to think of Murphy without recalling the 50s, his wholesome persona fitting neatly into that more hopeful and optimistic time. But Murphy was far from simplistic, his war record and increasingly complex performances being proof of that. Given the right material, he was capable of the kind of brooding moodiness that grabs the attention. I think he was a fine actor who grew in stature with each successive picture, bringing a kind of coiled self-awareness to his roles. Taking the part of the principal villain is L Q Jones, a man who had already worked with Boetticher and Scott in Buchanan Rides Alone but who would go on to achieve greater fame in his films with Sam Peckinpah. His is a marvelously weaselly part, one with no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s also worth mentioning Michael Dante, who plays Victorio’s son and heir, a stoic and honorable figure throughout if perhaps a little too noble.

Apache Rifles is readily available on DVD, both in the US and the UK. The US edition comes via VCI – I imagine the Odeon UK disc replicates the transfer – and presents the film in its native 1.85:1 ratio. Overall, this is a good presentation of the film that is colorful and free of major distractions and damage. Happily, there are some worthwhile extra features included: there’s a gallery and trailers for some other VCI titles as well as some short featurettes. There are brief pieces on the Lone Pine museum and Michael Dante discussing his work with Witney, and then a more substantial piece on the position Apache Rifles occupies in the evolution of the genre. The latter includes some interesting information on the cast and crew of the movie. All told, this is an entertaining film, one of the last of what might be called the classic westerns. It’s certainly worth a look for anyone keen on the genre and the direction it was taking in the 1960s.

Santa Fe Passage

All westerns are about journeys. In some cases this journey is explicit and external, involving some pioneering trip along or beyond the frontier. At other times it’s implicit, an internal or spiritual quest which the hero embarks on leading to the discovery of some truth or a better understanding of himself. As much as anything it’s the setting of the western which lends itself to stories of this type – if you’re going to tell such a tale, then what better time or place to do so than one on the fringes of civilization amid a harsh and primal landscape. For me, when the two concepts of the journey, the external and the internal, coincide the results are almost always satisfying. Santa Fe Passage (1955) is one of those movies, a case of seeing the hero strike out into the wilderness and simultaneously (impelled by circumstances) delving into his own consciousness to confront his preconceptions and prejudices.

It’s always nice to see a movie come charging out of the starting blocks, and that’s precisely what happens here. Two riders are driving their mounts hard over the baked Utah landscape, one clearly in hot pursuit of the other. The quarry, a Kiowa, is soon overtaken and savagely clubbed to the ground with the butt of his pursuer’s rifle. This is Sam Beekman (Slim Pickens), a wagon train scout, and he hauls his captive back to where his partner, Kirby Randolph (John Payne), is waiting with the westbound travelers. With the Kiowa evidently on the warpath, Randolph hits upon what he thinks is a clever ploy, namely distracting the war party with an offer to trade while the wagons roll ahead to safety. However, he miscalculates badly and only discovers later that those he’s responsible for end up massacred and the few survivors left mutilated. If the guilt for this piece of poor judgment weighs heavily on his soul, it’s as nothing compared to the near universal revulsion and hatred the mere utterance of his name invokes. Randolph becomes an outcast among his own and virtually unemployable. Despite all this, he’s presented with a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself, when a freight outfit needs a scout. Jess Griswold (Rod Cameron) and Aurelie St Clair (Faith Domergue) are taking a shipment of arms to sell in Santa Fe and, even though the latter voices strong objections based on his tarnished reputation, decide to hire Randolph to see them through safely. The trip will be an eventful one, filled with physical dangers and peril, though none quite as challenging as the psychological hurdles the scout is going to have to negotiate along the way.

Over the years, I’ve managed to feature the work of most of the major figures from the classic era of cinema, particularly those who worked in westerns. A notable exception though is William Witney, a director whose critical reputation has gradually grown, no doubt helped by the fact that people like Tarantino have spoken of his work with admiration. Early in his career, Witney worked extensively on serials before moving on to features and thereafter alternating between those and a significant amount of television work. His output was so substantial that I’m sure most people with an interest in classic cinema or TV will have come across examples of his directing at some point. Unsurprisingly, given his background, action and pace were his forte, and Santa Fe Passage certainly packs plenty into its hour and a half running time. There’s a kind of brutal honesty to this movie, something I recall noticing in one of Witney’s later productions Arizona Raiders too, and is particularly noticeable in the scenes depicting the chilling aftermath of the early wagon train massacre. It’s also to be found in the frank presentation of uncomfortable attitudes and how they are addressed and overcome, which I’ll touch on presently, although this aspect probably has its roots in Clay Fisher’s original story. Additionally, the harshly beautiful Utah locations, where the bulk of the action plays out, provide yet another layer of realism to it all.

What raises this picture above the straightforward adventure variety, not that there’s anything wrong such movies of course, is the characterization of the leads. In particular, the roles undertaken by John Payne and Faith Domergue offer a fascinating insight into guilt, bitterness and self-loathing, all sparked by racial stereotyping and the fear of miscegenation. Both characters carry their burden of guilt for different reasons and this threatens to consume them whole. In Payne’s case, the guilt appears to have twisted around and turned in upon itself; the bitterness stemming from his awareness of mistakes made manifests itself in a violent distrust of the Indian, or even anyone of mixed blood. It sets up a wonderful dramatic conflict as it seems to me that his character is galled by his own prejudice even as he indulges in it. One could argue that the resolution, when it comes around, is too pat and convenient but it’s fitting for all that and it does complete the journey the filmmakers have been on. The whole thing also serves to blur the line between hero and villain, especially when Rod Cameron is cast in such an ambiguous role – he’s more understanding and tolerant than Payne yet behaves treacherously, although his motivations in that regard are not entirely ignoble. The net result of all this is that the viewer is forced to think and weigh up the good and bad in all concerned, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think there may be a commercial DVD of Santa Fe Passage available in Italy, though I wouldn’t be too sure about its quality, and it can be viewed easily enough online. So far, it doesn’t appear to have been granted an official release anywhere and, once again, I’m indebted to John  Knight for his kind assistance in ensuring I was able to watch a good print of the film. As has been noted before, too many of John Payne’s films remain unavailable and this is one of the best examples, in my opinion. This is a fine mid-50s western, the kind that typically offers plenty of food for thought alongside strong entertainment value. Check it out if you get the chance.