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.

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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.

Firecreek

Somewhere in the mid-60s the western began to be less attractive, both in terms of the look and the mood. It’s something which seemed to creep into the genre gradually as the decade wore on. You could even say it made occasional forays before retreating again, but it seemed to visit more frequently and stay a little longer each time. What I’m speaking about here is difficult to put my finger on exactly; it’s got to do with images which haven’t got quite the snap that was once the case, and an attitude of weariness and melancholy. Firecreek (1968) comes close to encapsulating the point I suppose I’m trying to make here – not a bad film by any means, but not an especially attractive one either.

Firecreek is a quiet town, a place where nothing all that important happens and people just go about their daily business without much serious worry. And yet it’s a place lacking something else, something vital whose absence is soon to be highlighted by the arrival of a handful of men. Larkin (Henry Fonda) is gunman, an enforcer for hire who has spent his life roaming the frontier plying his trade, and that of the ragtag bunch of followers he attracts, in the service of the highest bidder. A gunshot wound, the need to rest up and the suggestion of pursuit by unnamed figures has brought him and his men to Firecreek. And it’s here that they run into Johnny Cobb (James Stewart), farmer and family man, and part-time sheriff if or when the need arises. Cobb displays none of the characteristics or indeed the trappings one might normally associate with a lawman, and when this role is eventually revealed it represents as much a surprise to Larkin’s band of toughs as it does to the viewer. These new arrivals profess no interest in hanging around any longer than is necessary while Cobb, and indeed virtually the entire population, takes the view that confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. However, any place where drink is available as well as the presence of that other genuine rarity on the frontier, women, trouble has a habit of turning up too. When violence does burst onto the scene and shatters the tranquility of Firecreek, Cobb in particular finds himself driven towards confrontation. On the surface, he’s forced to face off against the men who have threatened the security of his town, but it’s really a challenge posed by the passive mood of the settlement itself and the withdrawal from life he’s been hitherto happy to embrace.

Firecreek was directed by Vincent McEveety, a man who worked extensively on television (most notably on Gunsmoke) but whose work I’m not very familiar with. Personally, I found the pacing of the movie a bit too leisurely, taking a long time to set up the central situation and then slacking off again before racing towards the resolution. The idea of a group of dangerous men resting up in a small and isolated settlement, while their leader tries to recuperate, and subsequently causing mayhem recalls de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw in some respects. However, Firecreek never reaches those dramatic heights, nor does it have the tight focus of that picture. Aside from the community in peril aspect, it attempts to blend in too many other themes and thus weighs itself down. The main ideas seems to be that of a town which has become a kind of repository for those who have lost their way or lost their nerve in life, a sort of limbo state on the western frontier. That’s an interesting enough concept, the antithesis of the thrusting pioneer spirit typically portrayed in the genre, but it’s introduced late in the day and the back stories of the characters are sketched too lightly to bear it out successfully. Alongside this there are allusions to the conflict between civic duty and one’s responsibilities to family, questions about race and miscegenation, and a whole range of powerful emotions from desire and jealousy through loss and bitterness – yet none of them feel all that fully developed. In addition to all this, much of the plot unfolds within the drab confines of the town and there’s therefore limited scope for cinematographer William H Clothier to show off his unquestioned skills behind the camera.

Fonda and Stewart were big names in cinema and both had their fair share of important westerns behind them, each having worked with the likes of Ford and Mann in the past. Stewart got the meatier role, one which afforded him the chance to progress from his characteristic down-home humility to something approaching the emotional pain Mann so expertly coaxed from him. Although the transformation his character undergoes in the third act doesn’t reach the intensity of those tortured souls he gave us in the previous decade there’s still a touch of that inner rage and frustration he was so adept at tapping into. Fonda’s villain is one of those men who senses the end of the line nearing, a throwback to wilder days who sees he’s fast becoming an anachronism yet can’t envision himself doing anything else. The supporting cast is impressive even though some of the members aren’t used as effectively as they might have been. Of the women, Inger Stevens has the most to do and gets to play a decisive part in the final resolution. Conversely, Barbara Luna and an exceptionally sour Louise Latham play potentially interesting characters whose backgrounds are never fully explored. Gary Lockwood makes for an extraordinarily dangerous henchman with a tinderbox temperament and James Best nails both callous and dumb. As is so often the case, Jack Elam is more or less wasted as the senior member of Fonda’s gang but he’s always a pleasure to watch all the same. With the likes of Dean Jagger, John Qualen, Ed Begley and Jay C Flippen all contributing turns of varying significance, it shouldn’t be hard to appreciate the depth of talent involved in this movie.

Firecreek was released on DVD in the US many years ago, on a disc which has The Cheyenne Social Club on the flip side, by Warner Brothers. The scope image is presented anamorphically and looks fine for the most part. Colors look reasonable to my eye but, as I said at the beginning, it’s not what I’d term a handsome looking movie. The only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. Despite the excellent cast and a plot that offers plenty to mull over, I can’t say I like this movie a lot. The tone, look and central message are all downbeat, and relentlessly so. Films of this era can, at times, leave me with that vaguely dissatisfied feeling. I have a hunch that filmmakers then were striving to achieve what they hoped would be another layer of realism but it’s possible to lose some of that magical and almost indefinable quality that can make cinema such an alluring form of art and entertainment. All told, Firecreek is a film which doesn’t quite work for me – others may react differently of course.