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.

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52 thoughts on “War Paint

  1. Another I’ll need to catch up with and you make a really good case for this one Colin – cheers mate!. Actually, from a personal stadpoint, your Selander timing couldn’t be better as I have SHOTGUN on my list lined up for either this evening or Wednesday … 🙂

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  2. I’m pretty sure this was the first Selander I saw where he started to come up in my regard, and have seen quite a few in recent years to confirm that. This is still one of the best of his, if my memory is serving me about it, rivaled or surpassed perhaps only by three Allied Artists/Rod Cameron movies he made from 1948-1950, but those are fresher in my mind now.

    Not only in the balance of sympathy you describe but also the focus on the small group on a meaningful journey, one of the strengths of so many memorable 50s Westerns, this already has a lot going for it going in and I felt Selander made the most of all of that. His characteristic toughness is always a strength partly because it’s earned by the way he connects with the deeper ideas and internal drama of the characters..

    Colin, I must admit I was a little taken aback by this about Robert Stack– “he’s always going to be best remembered as television’s Eliot Ness and for his hilarious turn in Airplane!”

    I guess maybe it depends on who’s remembering him. He’s certainly associated with the role of Ness in a popular series and was well-cast there, and he was funny in Airplane as you say, but surely there’s a good argument that he should be most remembered for his brilliant performances in two Douglas Sirk melodramas, Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, in which he truly found his niche and is quite awesome. Those are definitely the first ones that come to my mind.

    And after that, I’d go next to Bullfighter and the Lady (1951, a memorable role partly created from Budd Boetticher’s own experiences and which Stack worked very hard on. And of that handful of Westerns, I believe Great Day in the Morning (1956, directed by Jacques Tourneur) is a memorable movie too, with Stack once again well-cast.

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    • I won’t say too much about the Cameron films because, in a similar vein to what I just mentioned to Sergio a moment ago, I may feature one of them fairly soon.

      I know what you mean about my remarks re Stack. I guess it sounds a little unfair to him but I honestly think the average viewer is going to remember him from one of those two examples I gave. I’d say you’re right his roles for Sirk represent possibly his best screen work although, sadly, I reckon neither one will be as well known with more casual film fans as they ought to be.

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  3. Very interested to read your review and recommendation, Colin, as this must be one of maybe only a handful of Selander’s westerns I have never seen. Ignored as he is more widely, he is of course revered here, and justly so. “Toughness and economy” is a very apt phrase to apply to his work. The man just knew his way around a western!

    I shall now have to make a point of putting this one on my shopping list.

    By the way, looking forward to your hinted-at upcoming review of a Selander/Cameron western.

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  4. Its an obscure western directed by the capable Lesley Selander which I have not seen. I remember seeing Robert Stack/Jean Gabin in an obscure but engrossing euro crime thriller Action Man. Best regards.

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  5. Selander’s been on my radar since I bought a neat little Western box-set containing Panhandle, Shotgun and Hellgate, that I only got for Sterling Hayden!

    There’s something raw and immediate about both Panhandle and Shotgun that makes them – I hesitate to say contemporary – but certainly difficult to date, his name automatically piquing my interest in any Western now.

    I know you’ve talked about the more moderate or sympathetic view of the plight of Native Americans in 50s Westerns before – Tomahawk and Devil’s Doorway are favourites. It does annoy me that Dances With Wolves still gets so much credit for it. What do you reckon was going on at that time that brought about this shift?

    Random info – One of the screenwriters on War Paint is Fred Freiberger, who had a long career in and out of Westerns but managed to earn the reputation of “series killer” for presiding over the final seasons of Star Trek and Space 1999; perhaps unfairly, if you read up on what else was going on at the time.

    Thanks for highlighting another “obscurity”, Colin. Dunno how many great films you’ve brought to my attention – I’m about to add the MOD disc of War Paint to my amazon basket – surely there’s a way you could get a little kick back for recommending these titles!

    PS To me at least, Robert Stack will always be the man in the trench-coat in House of Bamboo.

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    • Great to see you chipping in here, Chris, and I hope my recommendation here doesn’t disappoint – don’t think it will though. BTW, I plan to have something on Panhandle up in the not too distant future, so stay tuned.

      As for your question on the pro-Indian cycle, i think it must largely have been down to the impact of WWII and the societal shifts it led to – cinema was a different beast entirely in the post-war years and you can see the way the western began to flower from the middle to the end of the 40s.

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  6. Note to Mr Entract.
    The MOD of WAR PAINT can be picked up on Amazon UK for £11…it’s a pretty good transfer.

    Nice choice Colin,and a very fine review I might add.
    I’ve been championing Selander on these blogs for some considerable time now and I’m glad
    that more folks are giving him his due.I must also give credit to our friend Toby for fighting
    Selander’s corner even before I entered cyberspace 🙂

    WAR PAINT was the first production from Bel Air pictures and it turned out to be a good money
    maker,good enough for partners Howard Koch and Aubrey Schenck to get a distribution deal
    with United Artists.More about them later.
    WAR PAINT is part of what I call the Selander “Cavalry Trilogy” which also includes
    THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK and FORT YUMA. Selander did do other cavalry flicks for Bel Air
    but these three were all made round about the same time. Sadly THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK
    no longer exists in color but I understand a color neg does exist.
    It’s a shame that YELLOW TOMAHAWK and FORT YUMA were hacked to bits by the censor
    for their graphic violence but are still very good Westerns.
    Bel Air liked to try to get away with as much as they could with the censor but came unstuck
    with the two aforementioned titles.
    Selander directed about 10 films for Bel Air including their most ambitious project
    DESERT SANDS a foreign legion romp in SuperScope.
    Lots of Bel Air’s best films are now available from various sources including the brutal,
    abrasive BIG HOUSE USA which is well recommended.
    This is very “Laura unfriendly” as not only does the film contain elements like child kidnapping
    and murder but also has additional shock value in having lovely Felicia Farr as an evil nurse.
    Our friend Laura has already included two Bel Air pictures as her “clunkers” of the year.
    The violence in BIG HOUSE USA is not easy to take but it’s still a darn good thriller.
    I await Bel Air’s SHIELD FOR MURDER with much anticipation,a rarely seen little known Noir,
    due soon from Kino Lorber.
    Bel Air certainly did not do family entertainment.

    By all accounts Koch and Schenck were fun guys to work for,they employed the same people
    time and time again. Gordon Avil was more or less their “house” DOP his creative lensing
    added much to the Bel Air product.Howard W koch (not to be confused with screenwriter
    Howard Koch) after Bel Air had a very successful career,having a long association with
    Frank Sinatra and later becoming head of production at Paramount.
    Aubrey Schenck produced several fine films before Bel Air (T-MEN,REPEAT PERFORMANCE,
    UNDERCOVER GIRL) After Bel Air he continued making the same sort of fare (BAQUERO,
    MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE,ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS).There is lots of stuff about the duo
    on the commentary on the recent Kino release of Bel Air’s THE BLACK SLEEP.
    The pair passed away within a short time of each other. They had wished that their ashes
    were scattered over Kanab Utah where most of their Westerns were made.This only proves
    that they loved making those Westerns.To add to this much quoted tale according to THE
    BLACK SLEEP commentary after their ashes were scattered by air; a flock of geese instead
    of flying straight ahead, circled the famous Kanab Fort (FORT YUMA and others) a couple of
    times and then continued on their way,According to the locals this had never happened before!

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    • Good overview of Koch and Schenck and the Bel Air movies, material I find myself liking better the more I see of it. I’m keen to see Shield for Murder too – I love to see stuff like that getting released.

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  7. Many years ago,Jerry says it was something like 1992,I thought earlier I attended,as usual, the
    yearly, much missed, B Western Convention in London. I must admit I did not know Jerry then,
    until Colin introduced us,but we have traveled down the same trails.over the years.
    Anyway, at that convention the guests were Greg Barton and Walter Reed. They had great tales
    to tell. One of the films at that event was SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (not a series B Western I
    might add) It was shown in 16mm black & white and at that time considered a “lost” movie.
    Bearing in mind in those days there was no internet and certainly no imdb I knew virtually
    nothing about Mr Barton and just as little about Mr Reed. I was aware about his role in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW which up to that point I had not seen.
    The only film of Mr Reed’s that my friend Tony and I were aware of was MACUMBA LOVE a
    voodoo flick and one of the very few where Mr Reed had the leading role.
    MACUMBA LOVE was the only film directed by Douglas Fowley.
    My friend and I both decided that a B Western convention was not the best place to mention
    a film like MACUMBA LOVE.
    Had we both been more clued up we could have asked Mr Reed about all the Pine Thomas
    films that he appeared in; he was one of their “house” actors. We also could have asked about
    what it was like working for Bel Air-in fact Mr Reed had another rare leading role in Bel Air’s
    EMERGENCY HOSPITAL.
    Interestingly, WAR PAINT is one of the more ambitious Bel Air pictures I don’t know what the
    budget was but it was certainly lots more than the $100,000 GHOST TOWN cost to make.
    GHOST TOWN took 6 days to make,and it’s a pretty good little movie.
    The aforementioned THE BLACK SLEEP cost $225,000 and took 12 days.
    One things for sure,whatever these Bel Air films cost to make the results always looked as
    impressive as they could,even considering their financial constraints.

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      • Yes-but the earlier Bel Air’s were better.
        On the previous thread we discussed “star power” and I don’t think Ralph Meeker and
        Marla English were bankable enough names to headline Bel Air’s most ambitious project
        DESERT SANDS. I like Meeker a lot and think he generally was underrated but like Sterling
        Hayden,who we discussed before, he did not have much box office appeal.
        DESERT SANDS had a most appealing supporting cast however:J Carrol Naish,John Carradine,
        Ron Randell,John Smith,Keith Larsen and Mort Mills.
        Hollywood Scrapheap have it as a future release and I do hope that it’s the widescreen version.,
        DESERT SANDS really needed a Lancaster or a Mitchum who were way beyond Bel Air’s
        price range.
        As the Bel Air cycle moved on the budgets got even smaller and the star power even less so.
        After the success of THE BLACK SLEEP they flirted with drive in Horror-I have not seen
        VOODOO ISLAND or THE PHARAOE’S CURSE but their reputation is not too hot.
        THE BLACK SLEEP was a game attempt to revive Gothic Horror and should have,as originally
        intended, been made in color.Not long after Hammer and Roger Corman showed them how
        it should have been done. Hammer added color and Corman added to this by making his
        pictures in Panavision. I just cannot describe the impact of those early Corman/Price films
        had in huge single screen cinemas.
        Screenwriter John C Higgins wrote many of the Bel Air films. He replaced the gore and violence
        in the earlier Westerns with humor. QUNICANNON FRONTIER SCOUT and THE BROKEN
        STAR are both very good,though it’s a shame THE BROKEN STAR was not filmed in color
        especially considering those lovely Old Tucson locations.
        Higgins had a long working relationship with Aubrey Schenck from early efforts like T-MEN.
        He worked with Schenck on post Bel Air titles like ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS,
        IMPASSE and DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS.
        Interestingly T MEN was remade as FILE OF THE GOLDEN GOOSE transported to London
        and teamed Yul Brynner with Edward Woodward. It’s coming soon on Blu Ray from Kino Lorber.
        I thought it was pretty good at the time although nowhere near the original.What I do remember
        about the film was the striking London location work.Higgins gets a writing credit on the film,but
        I don’t know if this was just for an adaptation of his original material.

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        • You mentioned Voodoo Island there and I can’t remember now if I’ve seen it or not. I know I have a copy of the movie which came out years ago as a double feature paired with the cheap but fun The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake – if you ever feel the need to see either of those, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

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          • Thanks Colin,
            I’m a bit overdosed on Reginald Le Borg and Edward L Cahn of late.
            “Jonathan Drake” I have seen years ago..”cheap but fun” is a good way
            to describe it,
            Another Bel Air epic WAR DRUMS directed by Le Borg is pretty good.
            I have the MGM MOD but am informed that the recent UK release is
            looking good as well.
            Had a quick look at the Italian NAKED ALIBI and that looks in very good shape-
            really looking forward to that.
            With all the high def TV stations everywhere now, it looks like the “bootleggers”
            are going to have a field day-add to that all the releases of streamed films.
            I’m all for it especially as the major studios for the most part have little interest
            in releasing vintage films;apart from Warners.
            Add to that the “anything goes” copyright laws in Spain and Italy.
            I saw NAKED ALIBI when it was first released-the main feature was
            BLACK HORSE CANYON.
            A typo in my comment above; the film should have read DAUGHTERS OF SATAN,
            which was,I think Tom Selleck’s first leading role in a feature.
            How’s the “to be viewed stack” going BTW.

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            • Ah, just realized I have a copy of War Drums knocking around, unwatched naturally. And that in itself probably goes some way towards answering your question on the to watch pile – always seems to be one step forward and two back, not a bad problem to have I suppose. 🙂

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    • Thanks for the Amazon tip re ‘WAR PAINT’, John. It will have to get in line though in my shopping queue!!
      Funny you should mention that 1992 western convention in London – John Brooker tells me he has film of the convention and apparently there is Yours Truly appearing. I am attending a westerns soiree at Chez Brooker this coming Friday and am hoping to get John to play it. I’ll see if I can spot a young You!!!

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  8. Just finished watching WARPAINT. Great to find such a good print on You Tube. I enjoyed it particularly because of that cast and the superb location filming.
    Thanks for putting me onto it.

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  9. Meant to add that next week ,one of the U.K. TV channels, Spike, has a 1941 western,BADLANDS OF DAKOTA, also starring Robert Stack, but I am interested in seeing it because Frances Farmer plays Calamity Jane and Richard Dix is Wild Bill Hickcock.
    Don’t know it but it looks promising.

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  10. I saw ‘BADLANDS OF DAKOTA’ for the first time last year. It certainly benefits from appearances by Farmer and Dix though in truth they are more or less cameos. The film belongs to Stack.
    I enjoyed it quite a bit and it would be good to hear others’ reactions once you have watched it.

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  11. I have had a look at the aforementioned Italian release of NAKED ALIBI and I must admit
    that the picture quality is sensational,in fact it simply could not be better.
    This bodes well for this Italian imprint A & R films or something.
    Thanks for the heads up on that Colin-I find it hard to keep up with these Italian releases and
    hope that you might keep us in the loop if you uncover any more gems.
    Interesting plot in NAKED ALIBI…maverick cop,bounced from the force stalks psycho off duty….
    remind you of a later film?
    Always found Jerry Hopper pretty hit & miss as a director but he’s bang on target in this film,
    which also has breathtaking photography from Russell Metty.
    An unheralded Noir which should be far more well known.
    I note that the same Italian imprint has Tourneur’s TIMBUKTU in 1.66…very interesting.
    Have not seen this one in many years but I remember it being one of the great director’s lesser
    efforts.Certainly deserves another look especially as the film headlines Victor Mature,Yvonne
    De Carlo and John Dehner.

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    • That’s good to hear re Naked Alibi, a film that tends to get dismissed but I kind of like it. It’s in my Amazon.it cart for my next round of purchases, along with The Turning Point.

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  12. Also had a peek at some of the latest offerings from Hollywood Scrapheap which are offering
    nicely packaged,possibly streamed versions of films that the majors (Paramount mainly) don’t
    want to release.
    It means that at last I’ve been able to up-grade some hard to find (in decent quality) Pine-Thomas
    Productions. Very pleased with versions of PASSAGE WEST and THE BLAZING FOREST which
    are far superior to my previous off air versions. A friend of mine said that he projected
    THE BLAZING FOREST on to a 12 foot screen and it still looked very good. My friend,quiet
    rightly, did admit in this day and age it’s hard to take seriously a film that glorifies deforestation.
    If you can overcome that some of these logging dramas are pretty good and THE BLAZING
    FOREST is one of the best in that sub-genre.
    I’d love to see Joe Kane’s SPOILERS OF THE FOREST which I understand has the logging
    company as the bad guys…I guess the title tells all.It’s the only Joe Kane Rod Cameron Western
    that I have never seen and sadly the forthcoming German Film Jewels release is in German
    only. To add insult to injury it’s also in the correct ratio 2.35.
    Hollywood Scrapheap also have a very nice version of a later Republic Noir programmer,DOUBLE
    JEPOARDY which has Rod Cameron cast as a hot-shot lawyer.Interesting cast includes
    John Litel,Robert Armstrong and a very sleazy Jack Kelly. For a change Gale Robbins is the
    femme fatale and Allison Hayes is the “good girl” ..A very neat little programmer.
    Other goodies in the pipeline are Don Siegel’s BABY FACE KELLY which nobody’s got in
    good shape and James Cagney’s SHORT CUT TO HELL. Cagney’s only turn as director
    is very good in this interesting re-working of THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Film was produced
    by Cagney’s pal A.C.Lyles.

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    • Very interesting, Passage West is a film I’m keen to see at some point so that’s good to hear the quality is acceptable.
      I saw Double Jeopardy some time ago and I agree with your assessment that it’s a neat little programmer.

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  13. This is a really fun film. I like the Turkish poster, too! It says “Death Valley”, in Turkish. 🙂

    I’ve come to appreciate Robert Stack as an actor from his earlier works; I came to know him in his later career, which was hit-and-miss, and if I may say, a tad parodistic. He’s a very possessing actor in this type of film, and I can see why he had a lasting career.

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    • A fitting translation considering where the bulk of the film was shot.
      Stack was one of those faces that seemed to be around a lot when I was growing up – TV, movies of all vintages. As you say, a lasting career but his better work is certainly to be found earlier on, especially in the 50s.

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  14. War Paint is well worth catching. For a b-programmer type, it punches like it is in a higher division. Good acting, good story, and excellent direction from b-film helmsman Lesley Selander make this a winner all the way through.

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