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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61 thoughts on “Four Guns to the Border

  1. Another one to add to my very long list 🙂 I forgot Carlson also directed. I have somehow managed to never read a L’Amour though have seen plenty of movies from his work (I think CATLOW may have been the first). Thanks chum!

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    • I’ve been meaning to get round to this for ages now so it was a pleasure to finally watch it. I recommend it.

      I think this film was based on High Lonesome, which I know I read at one time but I honestly can’t recall a thing about it now. L’Amour wrote a huge number of novels and stories and they are generally brisk and entertaining reads. He dabbled a bit in other genres too – for a mystery fan something like The Broken Gun might be worth looking at as it’s a modern western mystery with flashbacks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This has the most blatantly sexually symbolic scene I’ve ever encountered in that era – involving Colleen Miller at the general store. Even Tonto looks amazed.

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  3. Colin, another good write-up of one of my favorite Western movies. I liked FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER when I first saw it as a youngster and I still like it. Fact is, I think it is a gem and I knew that you would enjoy it. This movie is a favorite of Blake Lucas and I’m sure he will comment, if he hasn’t by the time I finish with my rambling comment. Also, Blake interviewed Colleen Miller.

    As for the Louis L’Amour story that FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER is loosely based on, it is “In Victorio’s Country,” which was published in the June, 1949 issue of GREAT WESTERN magazine. Also, it is one of the nine L’Amour short stories published in the collection VALLEY OF THE SUN(1995). L’Amour expanded the story into his novel HIGH LONESOME(1962). There are similarities and differences in all three, but I think all three can stand alone very well. I highly recommend FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER.

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    • Yes, Blake has recommended this one to me on numerous occasions but I somehow kept postponing viewing. I’m delighted to have finally got around to it as it did live up up to all the positive comments I’ve heard before.

      While I know I do have a copy of the novel, I don’t think I have that particular short story collection but I will look into it.

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  4. Louis L’Amour was quite savvy, the Film “Hondo” was also based on a short story of his ” The Gift of Cochise” and he later expanded it to a full novel after the Film and changing the title.
    Many of his Novels seem to have been written with the possibility of filming being considered.
    This was on UK TV some years (Film 4) and it certainly was very ahead of its time in respect of the steamy Rory Calhoun/Coleen Miller scene

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    • There’s a great spark there between Calhoun and Miller and it adds something extra to their scenes together.

      Lots of L’Amour’s work has been adapted and I agree that he wrote in a way that felt quite natural on the screen.

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  5. I’d say this movie puts a smile on every viewer’s face.

    I’m a bit surprised you didn’t talk a bit more about the sizzling chemistry between Calhoun and Miller which could blow up a small country. 🙂 This film should be shown to anyone who thinks 50s movies are a bit puritan.

    Also a good one with Rory, one of my many favorites, is Raw Edge. Again he has very good chemistry with leading lady Yvonne De Carlo.

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    • You know, I did think about highlighting that aspect more but then felt I’d skim it over for anyone who hadn’t seen it as I went in not really anticipating the frankness, and enjoying it all the more for that. It is quite remarkable though, isn’t it, and rather refreshing. There is sometimes a feeling that 50s movies were all strait-laced and extremely proper but there are examples out there of filmmakers subverting those preconceptions.

      Raw Edge is an unusual film, very ripe in many ways and quite a lot of fun. I’ve thought about writing it up here in the past and may well do so yet.

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  6. I’ve been waiting for you to get around to this one, Colin, and I am truly gratified by your obvious enjoyment, elation even. This is one of my favourite westerns, thanks to multiple factors – Russell Metty’s stunning camerawork, Carlson’s solid direction, the fine playing of a terrific supporting cast and then there’s that sizzling chemistry between Rory and Coleen. She was terrific here. As for Rory, this was one of his very best westerns (and that’s saying something!).
    An expert piece of evaluation on your part, if I may so, my friend.

    I’ve recently finished a L’Amour novel, btw. “THE SKY-LINERS” (1967). Recommended read.

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    • I’ve not read that one yet, Jerry, but I’ve noted it now.

      The film was a real pleasure to watch, and I agree it probably is the best Rory Calhoun movie I’ve seen so far. He’s very well cast and comfortable in his role but the whole picture just gels perfectly. You’re right about all those ingredients coming together and producing something fabulous. I love that I can still find a 50s western that that offers such a great all-round experience.

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  7. One of your best reviews, Colin – and that is saying something, as your standards are so high. So much to think about in your observations. I agree that what lifts the better Westerns above the average is their ability to develop the characters in some depth, along with the action that is essential to the genre. The viewer cares for what happens to such characters and any confrontations involving them become laden with suspense. You make this film irresistible to me and I can get it for less than $A10 through Amazon, sent from the UK.

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    • That’s good news, Steve. It’s great, isn’t it? I’m now looking forward to Volume 2 coming out in July and Volume 3 in September.

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      • Yes, it is excellent value, Jerry, judging by the 3 movies I’ve watched so far. (I was rather taken with Assignment in Paris). I’ll also line up to buy the next volumes when they’re available. Cheers. Steve

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  8. Very enticing review of the western which I have not seen. Have watched The Saga of Hemp Brown and enjoyed it. Rory Calhoun is one of my favorite western stars. Best regards.

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  9. Some thoughts about this movie……I first viewed this movie a few months back and did enjoy it. Given that Colin has now reviewed it and given it high marks I was intrigued to view it again. Not surprising, I enjoyed the film even more the second time around as I usually do. Beyond the attributes of the film’s high production values, what I found rather interesting is that Calhoun’s role wasn’t given the task to prop up and be central to the story. Actually, I found Calhoun’s role was of little words and was served just fine by expressing a sturdy body language and an effective dialogue short and to the point. What kept this film moving along was the dialogue was spread rather evenly among many of the characters. There was little to no meaningless lines written in the screenplay. Lines were delivered which told a character’s previous story to some degree and to what may be ahead. All in all, Rory and Colleen’s screen presence brought it home. However, the other characterizations throughout the movie solidified the screenplay as a whole……especially stark was the dialogue given to Walter Brennan’s role as the aged but confident and still capable reformed ex-gunfighter and protective father of his young daughter……the scenes that played out at La Tienda are memorable.

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    • Thanks for chipping in with that contribution, Scott.
      Some very cogent points there. Many a tightly scripted movie knew the value of spare dialogue, words were used for a purpose as opposed to filler, and at best this enriched character instead of explaining away plot points.
      I agree too that the workload is spread well among the cast and this is a big part of why we viewers end up caring so much about them.

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  10. I’m enjoying the commentary on FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER. I liked Bill Oppenheim’s comment on the eye acting of Jay Silverheels. Leave it to Margot Shelby(nice sobriquet) to bring up the “lust in the dust” human condition aspect of the movie. Margot does have a way with words, https://downthesemeanstreetsblog.blogspot.com/2019/05/mildred-pierce-1945.html Check out her site, it is a joy to read.

    Credit should be given to the screenwriters George Van Marter and Franklin Coen for fleshing out the storyline with good characterization through dialogue and the actors and actresses for bringing those characters to life. I so agree with Scott and Steve about the best Westerns being a cut above because of this.

    I think the ones who haven’t seen this gem of a Western will enjoy it.

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    • I plan to read the Louis L’Amour stories (reread in the case of the novel) in the not too distant future, while this is still fresh in my mind, to see how much was retained/altered. Totally different media of course, but it’s often fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the page and the screen.

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      • Thank you so much, Walter.
        Incidentally I just rewatched Lust in the Dust, aka Duel in the Sun. I still love it. Jennifer Jones, who could be an amazingly subtle actress, overacts shamelessly here. When she says “I’m trash, trash, TRASH!”, that has something.

        It would be great, Colin, if you could write a review about that.

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        • Although I’ve not watched the movie myself in ages, it has crossed my mind to write it up. I have a very nice Pan edition of the Niven Busch novel too and must actually read it some time.

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          • Apart from the wonderfully ripe melodrama, I think the movie has a lot to offer. Affecting performances from Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish, plus a great standoff at the train station between Barrymore’s men and the Cavalry.

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              • Margot, you’re most welcome. Your writing is good whether it is slow cooking or not. The end result is what counts. I read Niven Busch’s DUEL IN THE SUN(1944) decades ago. The paperback copy I read is a Popular Library movie tie-in from 1946. Above the title on the front cover reads, “A Lusty Novel Of The Southwest.” If my memory serves me right, the “I’m trash” statement by Pearl Chavez(Jennifer Jones) isn’t in the book.

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                • I’ve never read Niven Busch, though I think I should. I’m sure Selznick changed quite a bit of the story. Looking it up, it seems in the book Mrs. McCanles is a drinker. There’s no way Lilian Gish would have played her that way.

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    • As you mentioned Walter…..the eye acting by Jay Silverheels was used quite well. I do wonder if it was intentional in order to bolster his audible dialogue deficiencies. Maybe it was just me, but I did have a difficult time understanding his accented dialect. Makes me further wonder if he had a hand in establishing his lines. However, most notable to me was his stand-out elegant black and silver buttoned full-dress costume and his white horse. A costume that depicted a cross between a Yaqui Indian and a Mexican vaquero suggesting that was the character’s family roots. I also picked up on the reverse pistol holster worn by notable gunslingers of the period.

      This was a different kind of role for Jay and seemed to be somewhat of a breakout moment for him. Consequently, we saw a diversity in him that projected an on-screen presence in a meaningful supporting role. Just some thoughts.

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      • Scott, real good observations on Jay Silverheels as the character Yaqui. This was the type of role that actor Jay Silverheels wanted to portray. From 1962 onward, Jay spent countless hours establishing the Indian Actors Workshop, an organization to help train indigenous actors and to prepare them for what would certainly be a tough up stream battle trying to make it in Hollywood.

        I don’t know if Jay had a hand in establishing his line readings, but I wouldn’t doubt that he probably brought his own costume. He looked authentic in his clothing and the way he wore his pistol. The rest of the cast dressed in the typical Universal-International costume department offerings.

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        • Another observation Walter, but this one about Rory Calhoun. Even though he dressed in typical Western gear and clothing……he set himself apart by wearing his regiment trouser belt buckle offset to his inside left hip. If my memory serves me correct, he did this in many of his Western film roles. I believe it may have originated and carried over from his first starring role in the 1947 South Sea adventure film ‘ADVENTURE ISLAND’. Ya know…..I really enjoy picking up on personal touches like this that actors bring with them to the screen……a` la Jay Silverheels as Yaqui.

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  11. Rory Calhoun – a favorite of mine. Tremendous Cast in this. Would be worth watching for that alone. I always found his Westerns to be excellent.
    I’m still looking for the one where he throws the billiard ball and hits the guy in the back. ???

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  12. Yes, FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER is a special film to me, as Walter and Colin noted a few days earlier. What has been heartening reading some of these comments is to find that a lot of people here also love it and say it is a favorite. That’s something that I didn’t know, though have observed more good things said about it in recent years. When I first wrote about it over 20 years ago, I thought it was an almost completely overlooked Western, at least in the English-speaking world—because the French did notice (always more savvy and genre respectful in the 50s and 60s) and Richard Carlson rated an entry in one overview, I believe LE WESTERN (1966).

    First, Colin, I’m glad you finally have seen it now and responded as you did. I never doubted you’d see it in this positive way. It has the themes of redemption and renewal that we love, and gets there in its own way. And you said some really good things here, like the point about the strength of genres and the part that plays here. Personally, I was fine with you letting people discover that central love scene for themselves because that’s how I first experienced it. I didn’t feel I had this luxury when I wrote about it because I gave Lolly/Colleen Miller a special place in that piece (“Saloon Girls and Ranchers’ Daughters” in THE WESTERN READER), including her as one my ten best Western heroines (really what I hope was a thoughtfully if very subjectively considered group of personal favorites, as there are so many to choose from), and what is done with her character is built around that scene—really, we should say “sequence” because it runs over six minutes and is highly deliberated. I actually broke it down and described the 37 shots that compose it, but had to cut a very long piece, so now it’s just briefly described but I’ve saved that for when I get back to writing about it again.

    Now, speaking of subjectivity, I’m willing to do that. I was 10 when the movie came out, unprepared for something so erotic and the way that it tapped and captured my imagination in a part of my consciousness that was of course still buried beneath many layers of youthful innocence. I guess most people have that experience with something and sometimes maybe it is a movie. But it was very powerful for me, always stayed in my mind—besides which, the movie as a whole was exciting and beautiful and satisfying as a story even at a young age. You couldn’t really articulate how you responded to the erotic at that age—just as the characters in the film do not say anything too explicit about it but simply experience this and we see how they feel about it. But this stayed somewhere in me and encountering it again about 20 years later, now living the experience of an adult, it was no less compelling.

    Margot Shelby is of course right in her observation about the so-called “puritan” 50s. At any time, both audiences and certainly artists know and experience all the same things about life and are completely aware of these things. That’s true even when social mores dictate any kind of repression, because repression is not something that can be enforced within people’s thoughts, even if it may sometimes inhibit their actions. The reality then was the Production Code imposed this kind of view, but it only had the effect of making filmmakers creative so they could deal with anything they wanted to, and that certainly includes sexuality.

    FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER is a really good example of turning any restriction into a virtue. The Code would not have let that relationship be consummated within this sequence, even though it plainly was going in that direction until the intervention of Simon, so it ends with the torrid kisses and embraces we do see. But there are several things that make this even better just because it needed to end this way. One, the sudden intervention of the ultimate tough patriarchal figure in the persona of Walter Brennan here, with his threat to kill Cully (which we know he would be capable of) imparts a greater power to the erotic attraction and something definitive for Lolly and Cully, and two, the way it is left as it is keeps it in their minds—a memory of sexual heat still waiting to be resolved—and that informs the rest of the movie. If they had been able to become a couple then, Cully might have given up the bank robbery which was partly motivated by his past with Jim and Maggie Flannery, in favor of a future with Lolly (one feels that that the other three do not have the same will for it that he does), while the last part at Shadow Valley ranch when Lolly is ministering to the wounded Cully shows an evolving relationship in which tenderness and a sensitive vision of a better future comes into the relationship before the final confrontation with Jim, and the visual scheme reflects it accordingly.

    I need to clarify to something Walter wrote. I didn’t interview Colleen Miller in any official way, not having a venue to do so. But I had a chance to meet and talk to her and ask her about the movie, and gave her a copy of the book with my piece and then we talked again. She appreciated being acknowledged and that someone cared about what was in this film, and shared with me then how director Carlson essentially created that memorable nocturnal sequence on his own in production, far beyond anything indicated, which didn’t surprise me. Like a lot of great cinema, it has a choreographed quality and highly deliberated texture, both in image and sound.

    When I wrote about it I said this was one of the most erotic sequences in cinema, but really for me, I’ll have to say after a number of further viewings that it is, for me, the most erotic. At the same time, I never wanted to burden the movie with saying it was one of the great Westerns, feeling I couldn’t put someone with just a handful of directed movies in the company of people like Mann, Daves and Boetticher. But I’ve since changed my mind about that. It deserves to be called great—it’s beautifully realized all the way through, the action as well as the romance, well played, looking beautiful with that art direction and stunning Russell Metty photography.

    And will just add that meeting Colleen Miller and being able to share feelings about the movie and her performance did mean a lot to me, but even after so many years, and at the age we were, I still felt like a little like an awkward love struck teenager. I managed all the poise I could and hopefully it was enough.

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    • Thanks for a superb response, Blake. It’s interesting to hear how people respond to films they first caught at a young and arguably more impressionable age. The impressions formed then tend to be deeply felt and longer lasting, and most likely more honest.

      On the other hand, the years do encourage us to reassess positions and limitations we once imposed. I found it particularly fascinating to hear you had a rethink of your initial exclusion of Carlson’s movie from the more “accepted” canon of greats. I’ve noticed myself becoming more flexible with regard to such classifications too, and it’s nice to know I’m not alone in that.

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    • Hi Blake, nice writeup about this film. I’ve seen you comment here quite often and it’s always a good read. Do you have your own blog? You also mentioned a book. I’d be interested to have a look at it.

      I agree that this is one of the most erotic sequences in cinema. I can think of a few others from the 40s and 50s that come close, but not quite.

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        • Thanks, Walter, especially because knowing Margot’s taste, I felt that the “Drive a Crooked Road” piece is one of mine I might have offered for to read.
          And I am very grateful to hear you liked that one.

          But I’ve been trying to mentally compose a concise reply to her all day and will try to do that now. It’s not my place to load up Colin’s blog with citations of my own writing but do want to express appreciation to Margot for her interest and for what she said.

          I remember that you had seen my Sirk/Universal-International piece last year and linked it and want you to know it means a lot to me to know anyone reads my work. I am very low profile and well aware of that.

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        • Hi, Walter, thanks for posting this link to Blake’s piece on Drive a Crooked Road. And Blake, what a brilliant analysis of the film: the relationship between its creators and the full import of the script and direction. I watched the movie a couple of months ago and thought it was rather good, now I can see so much more to it, thanks to Blake’s deep perspectives. Wonderful stuff, Blake!

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      • Thank you, Margot.

        I’m glad you responded just to know you read my comment because I had really appreciated what you’d written earlier and wanted to make a point of that, so hoped you would see that.

        I don’t have a blog. I’ve been encouraged to get something up, especially by my niece who is technologically fluent enough to help me (when she gets to town–don’t know the next time that will be), and my older sister. So hopefully I may do it sometime. I’m a little worried that I’d spend too much time on the blogging part of it. But I’d like to have a website to collect all my previous published writing, which is very dispersed and some of it out of print.

        I’m working on two film books I hope to finish and trying to give most of my time to that. That’s most important to me now. Because I don’t have a book of my own–instead, I’ve mostly contributed to a lot of anthologies, books conceived by others, though I’ve enjoyed some of these a lot, and also, more recently, online magazines and guest blogging.

        One of the books was THE WESTERN READER (edited by Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman)–that has the piece I cited here, one of mine that I always hope will get read. It was some years before I started to feel my writing was anywhere near where I wanted it to be.

        I really admire those like you and Colin who can keep up the energy and inspiration to write the pieces you do in your blogs.

        If you ever get to further eviscerating the myth of the “puritan 50s” in a longer piece, I’d dearly love to read it, Margot.

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  13. Walter and Colin, thanks for the links to Drive a Crooked Road (a movie I actually haven’t seen yet) and the Douglas Sirk piece.

    May I suggest you start a blog? 🙂 You should really have a place where you collect all your writing, so people can read them too. If you get your books published, please let us know. I checked out The Western Reader on Amazon and would love to read your contribution.

    I read your article on Drive a Crooked Road. Very informative. It’s interesting you don’t call it a Noir, because most people put it in that category. I still have to watch it. I put it off simply because I’m not the biggest Mickey Rooney fan. But I’ll take a look at it soon.

    Blogging takes quite a bit of time, but I only publish one article per month now, so it’s not too bad. I’m not at all a fast writer, just the opposite, and often my articles sit there for two weeks 95% done, because I simply can’t get them to the point I really like them.

    I’ll definitely would love to write something about the supposedly puritan 50s. Let me sit down and think of some more love scenes that I thought were sizzling, without actually showing much.

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  14. Blake, as always, I enjoy reading your excellent commentary, especially concerning a movie that means a lot to you personally, which FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER does, hands down.

    I look forward to reading the two books that you are working on. A future website of your previous published writings would be a fine source of information of interest, to many out here.

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    • As another admirer of Blake’s fine writing, I completely concur with Walter’s comments – no pressure though, Blake!

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  15. Thanks, Margot, Walter, Steve and Jerry for all of what you wrote here the last few days.

    And please forgive me for just offering that right now and not any more elaborate comment. I am working on a substantial piece for one of my books this week and it’s challenging. Margot, I relate to what you said about writing as I’m not fast either. The whole process has never been easy for me, though I do feel better in the end for just doing my best with it.

    I hope to pick up some of this later.

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