Panhandle

Certain plot devices come up time and again in westerns, so much so that they can start to feel like old friends after a while. On occasion we even get a whole cluster of them all intermingled in one movie, although one tends to dominate when such a situation arises. Panhandle (1948) blends together the tale of the town tamer, the outlaw forced back into his old ways, and the perennial matter of settling scores. It’s that latter element – the quest for revenge, or perhaps it would be more accurate to talk of justice here – that comes to the fore in another stylish example of Lesley Selander’s work.

Mexico has frequently been portrayed on screen as a land of opportunity from a westerner’s perspective. Sometimes it has held out the possibility of attaining riches, at others of regaining something of the mythical freedom eaten up by the relentless advance of civilization. And it has also been viewed as the home of the second chance, a place of refuge and redemption of sorts, for the badman in search of spiritual solace. John Sands (Rod Cameron) is one of those men, a gunfighter trying to put his violent past behind him by living a simple but honest existence south of the border. Initially, it looks as though he has achieved some kind of peace selling leather goods, but unexpected news from the north is about to change all that. A young woman (Cathy Downs), unaware of his former identity and notoriety, drops the bombshell that his brother has been murdered in the town of Sentinel in the Texas Panhandle. In that instant, Sands’ life is transformed as he has been forced back to the way of the gun. His mission to exact retribution for the killing means a return to the US, to his own dark past and all the attendant dangers crossing the border represents to him – aside from confronting the guilty men, there’s also the little matter of an outstanding warrant for his arrest still circulating in the Lone Star state. Sands is going to have to negotiate this, and also the attentions of two very different women, before he can reach some form of closure and continue living on the terms he has chosen for himself.

The first thing one notices about the movie is the use of sepia tone, a look that I’ve never been especially fond of. In my mind, this kind of tinted photography will be forever associated with material of a much older vintage – silent films mainly – although that’s perhaps the thinking behind its use here, to reinforce the fact that the tale is unfolding in a different era. Whatever the reasoning, it’s a process that I find I get used to quick enough and it soon ceases to be something worth remarking on. If I have any particular issues, they relate to a few areas of the script that I feel were almost discarded after their introduction suggested something more was to be made of them. The question of Sands’ legal status in the US pops up early on when a lawman, played by Rory Mallinson, tries unsuccessfully to detain him. It’s mentioned again when certain interests in Sentinel make a play for his services as a town tamer, but then is essentially ignored. Even that aspect, the potential hiring of the outsider to clean up the undesirable elements gets elbowed aside when it looks like there might have been scope for some kind of commentary on way those with a less savory past were accepted on sufferance in times of need.

More time is allotted to the suggestion of a romance with Cathy Downs’ character, although this never develops, and a more overt one with Anne Gwynne. The latter situation doesn’t work all that convincingly in my opinion, and I can’t help but feel it’s a shame the storyline featuring Downs wasn’t built up more as there was more potential which could have been tapped into in that situation. Nevertheless, even if these aspects are not entirely satisfactory, they don’t weaken the film. Selander’s sure direction keeps the whole affair moving forward and switches the action smoothly between the studio backlot and the Lone Pine locations. As one might expect from this director, the action is neatly handled too, especially a fine bar room brawl and the climactic shootout on the muddy streets of Sentinel, with the rain pounding down and the harshly lit muzzle flashes signalling death for some and victory for others.

Panhandle was one of a number of films Rod Cameron made for Selander and it offered him a good rugged role. He was one of those actors who looked comfortable in westerns and provided a solid screen presence. This part was a good fit since he was believable as a hero and also as a villain in other films, so playing the outlaw struggling to reform himself was certainly within his range. One of the most enjoyable scenes in the picture comes when he’s pressed by a young Blake Edwards (who also had a co-writing credit for the movie) to divulge the details of the time he faced down Billy the Kid. Cameron draws the tale out wonderfully, holding the younger man rapt and milking the story for all its worth. And then he delivers a punchline that practically floors Edwards, and the viewer too, with its sheer audacity – a lovely moment. Cathy Downs and Anne Gwynne were an extremely attractive pair of leading ladies although, as I said above, it’s a pity the former isn’t used a little better. As for villains, Edwards is fine as the flashy hothead and Reed Hadley does good work too as his suave and deadly boss. In support, it’s nice to see familiar faces like Rory Mallinson and John Ford favorite J Farrell MacDonald, albeit in small roles.

Panhandle is available on DVD in both the US and the UK in Darn Good Westerns collections, from VCI and Odeon (now Screenbound) respectively. I have the UK edition and the transfer is just fair. The image generally looks soft and quite muddy in places  – I think the images i used above (despite the fact they’re reduced in size) give an indication of the picture quality. The disc offers the theatrical trailer as the sole bonus feature. This is a pretty good Selander film told in his usual economical style. The script, a debut effort for both Blake Edwards and John C Champion, has plenty of ideas and even if all of them aren’t as fully developed as they might have been, what happens on screen is consistently interesting. Another solid low-budget production with quite a bit to be said in its favor.

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Santa Fe Passage

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

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

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

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

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