Four Guns to the Border

Generic and predictable – aren’t those terms we’ve all seen tossed casually and in derogatory fashion towards westerns before? Yet generic is no sort of criticism at all, in my opinion. Almost all films, and certainly the more interesting and rewarding ones, belong to some genre or other. Using the word generic is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that certain tropes and trappings are present, and thus should not be construed as some negative feature. Which brings me to “predictable”, and few genres have within them the range and variety of the classic western. So whenever someone presents you with bland labels such as those above, I’d urge caution and encourage everyone to see for themselves and make up their own minds. Now all of this is, I’ll grant, a rather long-winded way of telling readers that Four Guns to the Border (1954) is film which proudly wears its genre badges and also tells a story that flirts with familiarity but tramps off determinedly down its own distinctive path.

The story follows the four men of the title, a gang led by Cully (Rory Calhoun) and comprised of an aging outlaw Dutch (John McIntire), an Indian by the name of Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) and a comically awkward young man called Bronco (George Nader). This group is first seen carrying out a robbery, but an unsuccessful one where their efforts are for nothing as the safe they blow turns out to be empty. And so they move on, crossing the path of an old gunfighter Bhumer (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller). This is the key event, for even as they separate, the Bhumers on the way to their home and Cully’s companions to a new job, the seeds of a powerful attraction have been planted. When Cully is offered the chance to rob the apparently ultra-secure bank in Cholla and simultaneously humiliate the town lawman Flannery (Charles Drake),  his one time friend and rival in love, he grabs it enthusiastically. In a sense though, all of this is incidental to where the plot is leading – a series of showdowns that bring out the humanity in all of the main players, altering their perspectives on life and their role in the scheme of things. Ultimately, it all winds up in place that is hard to foresee from the beginning, but the journey there and the spiritual growth and renewal that this provokes are not only highly entertaining but also, vitally, hugely rewarding.

Four Guns to the Border was adapted from a Louis L’Amour story (one that I can’t recall whether or not I’ve read) and directed by Richard Carlson. He’ll be forever remembered, and rightly so, for his acting roles in Sci-Fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space among others, but he was a fine director when he turned his talents in that direction and would make another interesting western with Calhoun a few years later in The Saga of Hemp Brown. Clearly, he liked L’Amour’s writing for he would go on to direct another adaptation of the author’s work a decade later when he made Kid Rodelo. He paces the movie beautifully here, neatly drawing together the strands of a moderately complex affair in a brisk one hour and twenty minutes. The shooting is a blend of interiors and location work, including the Iverson Ranch, and it looks very impressive at all times. The attractive overall look of the production becomes quite beautiful on occasion in the hands of master cinematographer Russell Metty; his rendering of the storm is dreamlike and borders on the fantastic. Still, this is quite appropriate considering that what we’re presented with here is essentially a fable, an uplifting love story where the classic redemption motif is not simply applied but celebrated.

Calhoun is on top form as Cully, sore and surly to begin with, nursing a grudge and holding any finer feelings at a definite distance. If ever a character was in need of a form of spiritual salvation, it’s Cully. When he runs across Colleen Miller’s wide-eyed ingenue, the spark is immediately apparent. Sure Calhoun is a good western lead, as he proved time and again in his career, but Miller’s interaction with him, her infectious and innocent sensuality, is what elevates it all. Although Miller only made a small number of films before retiring early, her screen presence is quite remarkable, and I feel Four Guns to the Border would have been a far poorer and much more routine affair had she not been cast.

Classic westerns were frequently distinguished by the strength in depth of their casting and that was certainly true of Universal-International productions, where a seemingly inexhaustible pool of exceptionally fine character actors was available. Four Guns to the Border benefits greatly from having performers of the caliber of Walter Brennan and John McIntire competing with and complementing each other as authentic frontier types. George Nader and Jay Silverheels provide some gentle humor and the former is quite affecting in his clumsiness. I think it’s fair to say that any movie which can afford to have the likes of Charles Drake and Nina Foch in small to medium supporting roles is a rich one indeed. In fact, a brief glance at the names mentioned in this short paragraph ought to provide ample evidence of the kind of quality that is on view.

Four Guns to the Border is widely available on DVD, at least in Europe where it has been released in the UK, Spain and France. I’ve had the Spanish disc for some time now and I imagine all those versions are taken from the same source. The print is in fine condition with little damage and the Technicolor cinematography looks quite spectacular at times. Thematically, this is one of the classic 1950s Hollywood westerns, a tightly handled production blending action and characterization but placing more emphasis on the latter. There’s a maturity on show in the way the script examines relationships and the twists and turns taken on the journey through life. This is a finely crafted and deeply satisfying film, one I’d urge everyone who is keen on cinema to take the opportunity to view.

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Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

Graft and gangsters on the waterfront probably evoke thoughts of Brando, Kazan et al, but there was more than one movie to make use of that particular milieu. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), while naturally incorporating  some social commentary, follows the template of a more traditional crime story. To add some further confusion the title is borrowed from Richard Rodgers’ ballet. The film features the composer’s music throughout but it has no direct connection to the on screen events; one could perhaps make a case for both having something to say about the pernicious and tragic effects of crime and poverty on the lives of the underprivileged, but I”m not convinced it’s worth heading too far down that route. No, this is essentially a solid crime/noir exposé that sits comfortably alongside, and actually a few notches above, a number of other 1950s  productions which looked at how deeply the gangs and racketeers had embedded themselves in post-war society.

The opening is businesslike, shot impersonally from above,  as a car purposefully makes its way  through the streets of New York, on its way to a killing. While we don’t get the stentorian narration that frequently accompanied these socially aware noir pictures, there is a matter of fact feel to the way a grubby little hit is treated as just another part of the daily routine, another minor affair to tick off the agenda before the day begins in earnest. As Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) lies, bleeding his guts out on a  tenement staircase, and his distraught wife Madge (Jan Sterling) tries to comfort him, the gunmen responsible melt away as unobtrusively as an early morning mist.

Enter Bill Keating (Richard Egan), an inexperienced assistant D.A. and a two-fisted product of the coal mining country of Pennsylvania. He’s full of vim and vigor, and the kind of righteous faith in justice that the audience must know will be sorely tested before the credits finally roll. His principal police contact is Lieutenant Vosnick (Charles McGraw), an insider in a neighborhood and beat where Keating is most assuredly an outsider, and something of a tarnished knight whose gritty manner acts as a thin veil for the principles to which he remains true. These two form an idealistic bond, the goal of which is to break the power of the mobsters and their corrosive hold over the blue collar dockworkers, and the means will be the prosecution of those who came to visit Solly Pitts in the early morning.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was adapted from Keating’s own autobiography The Man Who Rocked the Boat, and directed by Arnold Laven. It rates as one of this filmmaker’s best efforts – part noir, part social justice picture, part melodrama, and completely human. Crime stories can sometimes distance themselves from the viewer, the plot twists seeming to relate to intangible “others” rather than to people like ourselves. However, the sense of empathy is never lost in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and the characters feel real at all times, the major and minor tragedies touching on their lives perfectly believable.

I mentioned the brisk, no nonsense beginning already, and the courtroom scenes in the second half are also of note, never overcooked as can sometimes be the case. Then there is the ending, which has the courage and imagination to avoid any anti-climactic reaction from the principals. Instead, this is extraordinarily well realized, with the camera soaring in tandem with Rodgers’ music, panning out to reveal a now deserted dock as a bruised and disheveled Nick Dennis, the radio announcer’s news of the verdict still ringing in his ears, stumbles off towards a hopefully better future. In one hand he’s clutching a bottle of hooch, in the other the lawyer’s crammed briefcase; truth and justice side by side, as always.

One of the first things to grab the attention about Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is the cast – it’s deep and rich, a movie lover’s dream. Egan is top-billed, and he was very much a star property at this stage. He had the right kind of quiet brawn to suit the part of the white collar guy who still hasn’t put too much distance between himself and his working class roots. Julie Adams, who only recently passed away, makes the most of her limited role as his wife who sticks faithfully by him despite the growing pressures from friends and enemies alike. She has a couple of subtle yet telling scenes with sparse dialogue, not the least of which is the aftermath of the dockside brawl when she tenderly caresses Egan’s livid bruises. She doesn’t say a word but those simple gestures and looks convey all the character, and we the viewers, needs to know. It’s little things such as this that I find very cinematic, very discreet, and very effective. Charles McGraw is typically gruff, although atypically white-haired, and offers a reassuringly pugnacious presence.

Jan Sterling was highly skilled at playing the kind of slightly shop worn dames that were the staple of many a film noir, and she brings  that world weary quality to the part of the tough waterfront wife. One becomes accustomed to seeing Dan Duryea in either villainous or slippery roles. He only shows up after the hour mark and, while he is on the side of the villains here as the lead defense lawyer, he gets to play an essentially straight up figure who may wheedle but balks at outright cheating. The real bad egg is Walter Matthau, ruthless and malicious in his determination to  maintain control over the longshoremen. It’s a masterclass in the art of mean and a fine portrayal of the ugly side of corruption.

Sadly, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is yet another of those Universal-International films that nobody seems willing or able to release on disc. At the moment, one has to rely on catching the movie if it happens to show up on TV. I feel there is enough depth and quality in the story, direction and cast to warrant wider availability. Lesser works than this have been shown to have an audience so let’s hope somebody somewhere gets around to this neglected movie before too long.