The Saga of Hemp Brown

Tales of revenge are a staple in the western genre, the better ones pressing home the point about the self-defeating nature of it all and how it ends up inflicting more harm on the seeker than anyone else. That’s a perfectly valid theme and one which has a wealth of potential when handled appropriately. However, variations are to be welcomed and The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958) successfully does just that by laying the groundwork for a very understandable quest for vengeance yet adds a twist right at the beginning by making it plain that justice is more desirable, and that revenge is necessarily precluded as a result.

I like films that waste little time getting to the point, ones which draw us right into the heart of the story at the earliest opportunity. Here we have a military detail bringing the payroll, and an officer’s wife too, to the nearest outpost. The detail is under the command of a young lieutenant, Hemp Brown (Rory Calhoun), and we first encounter them on a twisty mountain road. They in turn encounter an apparently stranded traveler looking for a ride. He’s Jed Givens (John Larch), a former soldier who once served under Brown. As the party gets moving once again, Givens real motives become brutally and violently clear – his purpose was to facilitate a ruthless ambush. The upshot of this is that the patrol is wiped out, with the exception of Brown. No, Givens hasn’t had an attack of conscience and decided to spare his old commanding officer out of any sense of altruism. Instead, he wants a fall guy, someone to hang the blame on. He knows that Brown will face a court-martial under the circumstances and he’s also carrying around an added bit of insurance – officially, Jed Givens is a dead man and knows this fact is going to torpedo Brown when he tries to explain what happened. So, to cut to the chase, Brown is duly found guilty of cowardice and dismissed in disgrace. Despite the fact that, or perhaps because, nobody believes him and his name is now mud, he takes the only course open to him. He saddles up and heads off to see whether he can trace this murderous and larcenous ghost, and restore his own tainted reputation. Ironically and paradoxically, he will find himself fighting to save the neck of the very man he’d dearly love to see swing.

By the time The Saga of Hemp Brown was made the western was close to its apogee as an expression of cinematic art. Even medium range pictures like this were effortlessly examining complex themes and concepts. The old west has frequently presented the ideal canvas for looking at the clash between the individual and society, how the aims and objectives of each can be reconciled with the other and how or whether they can coexist comfortably. The Saga of Hemp Brown presents what I’d refer to as a reluctant individualist, a man standing apart from society but against his will. We see an outcast, albeit one who has been wronged, not so much railing against a restrictive society but searching for the key that will grant him readmission. Somehow though, I can’t help wondering if he will really want to be absorbed back in again; by the end of the movie he will have experienced the haste to judge unfairly, the tendency towards mob rule and also only found support from one who, similar to himself, is living on the periphery of society. Anyway, alongside the traditional western action, there’s much to occupy the viewer there, and actor turned director Richard Carlson smoothly blends all this into a nicely paced 80 minute film.

Rory Calhoun makes fairly regular appearances on this blog, which shouldn’t be any big surprise given his westerns were very often both entertaining and also quality productions. This was his second collaboration with Carlson, following on from Four Guns to the Border – and  no, before anyone asks I still haven’t watched that one. Calhoun’s work here is typically strong, dealing well with the action and physical stuff and also coping just fine with the more dramatic moments. He gets sympathetic support from and a believable romance with the prolific Beverly Garland. She came to this movie off the back of a role in the excellent The Joker is Wild and gave an attractive performance which played up her soulfulness and emotional bruises. The principal villain was John Larch, another familiar face in countless movies and shows over a long career. It just happens that I was watching him in an episode of The Untouchables the other day and was struck, in both instances, by the ease with which he could alternate between swaggering cruelty and craven fear. And good as Larch is here he faces some competition in the rottenness stakes from a hook-handed Russell Johnson. In other supporting roles are Fortunio Bonanova, Morris Ankrum and an uncredited but memorable Victor Sen Yung.

Sadly, The Saga of Hemp Brown is one of a handful of problematic titles when it comes to finding suitable copies for viewing. The film was shot in CinemaScope and any film using that kind of wide framing really suffers if it is cropped down. The movie begins, in the edition I watched,  with the credits in the correct (though not anamorphic) ratio and  then zooms in to a panned and scanned 1.33:1 image. That’s how it is on the Spanish DVD I own but I understand that’s the case with other releases too. Frankly, this is an unacceptable way to view a film and it’s extremely disappointing that no option to see it in the correct ratio appears to exist at the moment. I can only hope that a decent version turns up at some point in the future. Actually, the fact that the rather rough-looking trailer included on the DVD is in (non-anamorphic) scope adds to the irritation. The movie itself is quite good, absorbing and intelligent, and I can well believe a better presentation could only enhance that impression. As such, I find myself in the slightly odd position of championing a film but feeling unable to recommend anyone make much of an effort to track it down given the state of what is currently available.

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Apache Territory

The low budget western was arguably as important a representative of the genre as it’s more illustrious and more expensive cousins. The sheer quantity of programmers and B movies means they deserve attention by anyone claiming an interest in the western. Given the prodigious output, it’s hardly surprising that the quality varied considerably; some managed to transcend the restraints of their budgets, others were just downright poor but most were average efforts, offering an entertaining way to pass the time despite the weaknesses inherent in their production. Apache Territory (1958) is an example of what I’m referring to: a combination of good and bad elements that add up to a moderately diverting hour and something.

As the title say the action takes place n Apache territory, where the hero, Logan Cates (Rory Calhoun), is passing through on his way to Yuma. By his own admission, Cates is one of life’s drifters, a guy  with no particular purpose moving wherever the mood takes him. In this instance, it leads him towards trouble, someone else’s trouble to begin with but it’s soon to become his too. Seeing a group of riders about to be attacked by a band of Apache, he warns them and draws off the assault. It’s only a short-lived respite though as the sole survivor, along with a trickle of other refugees from the renegade raiding party gradually come together in search of safety. A disparate group, including an old flame of Cates’ (Barbara Bates) and her venal fiance (John Dehner), gather in an isolated desert oasis and prepare to wait out the siege. Water is plentiful, food is not, while mutual trust and goodwill are virtually non-existent. As the Apache press and probe, tempers fray and nerves jangle beneath the pitiless desert sun, and the numbers of the defenders are whittled down bit by bit.

Ray Nazarro is a name which probably isn’t all that familiar to many people. I’d say I’ve had a reasonable amount of exposure to movies of every size and shape in most genres and I’ll freely admit that I’ve only seen a handful of examples of Nazarro’s work. I have viewed  Domino Kid and The Hired Gun also starring Rory Calhoun, Top Gun with Sterling Hayden, and a few episode of TV shows such as State Trooper and Mike Hammer, and that’s about it, although I do have a few more titles to hand but not yet watched. Now if anyone spends their career working in the B units, it’s only reasonable to expect them to have a thorough understanding of the concept of economy. Budget filmmaking of any kind is dependent on exploiting resources to the full and wasting as little time and money as possible. Apache Territory certainly has that sense of urgency and pace one typically sees in a B picture, the plot takes precedence over all and characterization not only takes a back seat but also never penetrates deeper than is absolutely essential. The positive side of this is that the story keeps moving along and there’s no shortage of incident.

On the other hand, there are some negatives to take into consideration too. The opening section makes use of locations in Red Rock Canyon but this aspect is short-lived and it’s not long before events move to a studio set, a backlot mock-up of the oasis. While this adds a layer of claustrophobia, giving it that sense of a frontier chamber piece, the contrast with genuine locations is both apparent and somewhat jarring. This is a purely budgetary matter and I don’t think the director can be criticized for any of that. Nor do I feel Nazarro can be faulted for some weaknesses in the script. The screenplay is an adaptation of Last Stand at Papago Wells  by Louis L’Amour, a book I read some years ago and which I recall as being fairly faithfully reproduced here. The problems with the writing, for me anyway, relate to the tendency to rely on some unconvincing dialogue for exposition instead of showing things using cinematic language.

The film was a Rorvic production, meaning it was made via Rory Calhoun’s own company and offered him a strong, heroic role. Louis L’Amour stories generally involved central characters who were relatively uncomplicated, his strengths lying in his descriptions of action and landscape, his ability to communicate an authentic sense of time and place. Calhoun’s character in Apache Territory is pretty much one of those “what you see is what you get” types and he plays this undemanding part fine. The villains in such tales may not have much more depth or added dimensions but they tend to be entertaining. This film has two to enjoy – firstly, we get a snarling turn from Leo Gordon as a resentful and insubordinate cavalryman before he departs abruptly and violently, and then there’s the always welcome John Dehner. His assured work raised many a mediocre movie and he does well as the self-absorbed rival to Calhoun for the affections of Barbara Bates. Ms Bates was good enough as the refined woman who starts to see that she may have made a serious mistake and has the resolve and strength to try to reverse that before it’s too late. The only other female role went to Carolyn Craig, playing a timid massacre survivor who latches onto Tom Pittman’s California-bound orphan. As a sad little aside, Pittman, Craig and Bates all passed away under sudden and tragic circumstances.

Apache Territory was a Columbia release and Sony have made it available on DVD in the US as part of their MOD program. It has also been released in Spain and Italy, and I have the Spanish edition myself. The disc presents the film in a solid enough 16:9 transfer that is quite satisfactory – Spanish subtitles are offered but are optional and can be disabled. Overall, the movie is what I’d describe as routine. Tales involving isolated groups besieged and threatened from without and within are usually good value and Apache Territory is a middling, low-budget example. The lack of money does affect how it’s executed but there’s some nice action and suspense to offset that.

Dawn at Socorro

– Who’s coming after you?

– My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.

I guess that short exchange, coming near the end of the movie, sums up much of what Dawn at Socorro (1954) is all about. It’s a classic 50s western scenario, the hunger for a fresh start, a chance to slay the demons of one’s past once and for all. In the case of this film there’s the added interest of the disguised Earp/Holliday elements in the story, although this aspect is really only peripheral, and I think it’s no bad thing the names are changed and some of the events portrayed are used primarily as an inspiration – it allows the theme to develop without weighing it down with unnecessary historical baggage.

The story opens with a reminiscence, the words of an old man drawing us back into a past he experienced and into the lives of people he was once intimate with. Our point of entry comes in a cheap saloon, one of those basic drinking spots with low ceilings and lit by guttering lamps. The Ferris clan arrives en masse, planning to pick up the youngest member, Buddy (Skip Homeier), and head back to their ranch. But Buddy’s a hot-blooded guy, at that stage in life where he needs to show off in public how much of a man he is. Reluctantly, his kin leave him to his own devices, but still under the watchful eye of gunman Jimmy Rapp (Alex Nicol). The back room is occupied by the Ferris’ mortal enemies, Marshal McNair (James Millican) and ailing gambler Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun), and it’s only a matter of time before Buddy talks himself into a fight, one which will leave him dead and bring the feud between his family and McNair and Wade to a head. What we’re looking at here is a fictional account of the build up to the confrontation between the Clantons and Earps. It culminates in what is essentially the gunfight at the OK Corral in all but name. And the upshot of the killings is that the Holliday figure, Wade, is convinced of the folly of his lifestyle up to this point. He resolves to make a change, to get out of the territory and do something about his weakening health. Sharing a stage to Socorro with a bitter and self-loathing Rapp, he makes the acquaintance of fellow passenger, Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie). Unknown to him, Rannah has been disowned by a father who believes the worst of her, and chooses to believe her lie that she’s on her way to meet her future husband. The truth is though that Rannah is going to become a saloon girl, working for Dick Braden (David Brian), a gambler whom Wade has clashed with before. It’s the realization of what is actually happening that leads Wade to put his plans to move on to Colorado on hold, to try to regain something of his youthful promise, to halt the waste and do something of worth before it’s too late.

There have been plenty of positive words about George Sherman on this site before, and Dawn at Socorro is another example of quality work from the director. The opening twenty minutes lays the groundwork for the Ferris (Clanton) and McNair (Earp) feud and the subsequent gunfight. The lengthy passage in the saloon, where the character dynamics are clearly defined, is beautifully shot and loaded with atmosphere. Sherman made good use of close-ups throughout the film, but these early scenes see them employed especially effectively. Although this is largely a town based, and therefore interior heavy, film, there is also some nice location work during the eventful stagecoach trip to Socorro. Also impressive is the shooting and composition of the key duel late in proceedings between Wade and Rapp – at the vital moment the camera is positioned high above both protagonists as they face off on the deserted Socorro street. The unusual angle chosen assigns the viewer the role of dispassionate observer gazing down on two regretful men, their individuality diluted by the distance as they become merely a pair of gunfighters on a dusty thoroughfare, their actions mirroring each other and the fatal shots appearing as simultaneous bursts of smoke.

So many westerns have concerned themselves with the dogged pursuit of individuals by the sins of their past, and the salvation, redemption or personal understanding or acceptance which grows out of this. It can be seen as a general western motif I suppose, but in the 50s in particular almost every genre entry of worth features these themes. I may be way off base here (so feel free to pull me up on this if it appears I’m mistaken) but I’m now of the opinion that this phenomenon has its roots in the post-war climate of coming to terms with the events of the past. The world had only recently recovered some kind of equilibrium after years of violence and uncertainty. Those war years represented a loss of innocence for a generation, a time of intense emotional and physical challenge, so it seems natural that the modern art form of the cinema should try to address that. I can imagine audiences of the time would have identified with tales of people struggling to escape the horrors of a violent past and by doing so perhaps regain at least a shred of their former innocence.

The Brett Wade character is very obviously based on Doc Holliday, featuring all the familiar traits which have become associated with Wyatt Earp’s ally in many films over the years. It always provides a strong role for whoever plays it and Rory Calhoun is given plenty to get his teeth into. The combination of swaggering bravado on the outside and corrosive introspection in private automatically rounds out the Wade figure – there’s that essential loneliness and otherness that the more intriguing western characters tend to display. But there’s solidarity too as most of the main players in the drama are consumed with a desire to get back to an imagined idyll, a simpler existence they still recall yet have misplaced through time. When Mara Corday’s disillusioned saloon girl wistfully inquires “How do you turn back the clock?” you know that nobody will be able to hand her a satisfactory answer.

Piper Laurie does some good work too as the young woman rejected by her father and facing a highly uncertain future, trying to convince herself of her suitability for the new life she’s prepared to take on while still dreaming of the one she’s been deprived of. And then we have Alex Nicol, an ever interesting actor, who plays a Johnny Ringo type. Nicol is embittered from the moment we first see him, drinking heavily to deaden some half-defined inner pain, and later overcome and ultimately destroyed by a sense of guilt and inadequacy – I find him the most fascinating figure in the whole movie. The real villain is played by David Brian, a man whose career started off very strong but seemed to stutter soon after. He’s suave, slippery and deadly, a guy with no redeeming features but an excellent foil for the hero. The supporting cast is full of fine actors and it’s pity there wasn’t more for some of them to do: James Millican Lee Van Cleef, Skip Homeier, Kathleen Hughes, Edgar Buchanan and Roy Roberts being the most notable of the long list of familiar faces.

The last few years have seen more and more frequently neglected films from this era getting releases, and Dawn at Socorro is now reasonably easy to get hold of. There was a box set of Universal-International westerns (Horizons West) put out a few years ago and this title was included. There’s also a Spanish DVD, which I have, and the film seems to be available to view on YT as well. I’d imagine a 1954 movie would be shot with some widescreen process in mind – IMDb suggests 2.00:1 – but my Spanish copy presents it full frame, as can be seen from the screen captures above. That aside, the transfer is generally strong, with the Technicolor looking vibrant and the image sharp. There are a few incidences of print damage, but nothing all that distracting. Dawn at Socorro is a western I like very much, with good work by Calhoun and director Sherman. The whole thing has a handsome look, is pacy and well scripted with characterization developed as the story progresses rather than through tiresome and unnatural exposition. One to look out for if you haven’t yet seen it, or to view again if you’re already acquainted.

The Silver Whip

As far as I’m concerned, one of the great pleasures of maintaining this site, maybe the greatest if I’m honest, derives from the feedback received. so many posts here have prompted discussion, debate, spitballing and recommendations. The latter has been invaluable to me by drawing my attention to movies of which I was either only vaguely aware or which were entirely new to me. There’s something quite invigorating about the realization that not only is one on a learning curve, but also that this curve continues to grow and expand as one moves along it. I guess all of that is just a long-winded way of saying there’s always new stuff to discover and appreciate. As a result of comments made here in the past I was particularly keen to see The Silver Whip (1953), and I’d like to offer a big thank you to John K for his help in making that possible.

What we have here is both a coming of age story and also a parable on the way mistakes and poor judgment can have both positive and negative influences on the lives of those concerned. The events in The Silver Whip are seen from the perspective of Jess Harker (Robert Wagner), a young man with ambition and dreams, for whom responsibility remains no more than an ill-defined word rattling round his consciousness. Harker’s opening narration makes it clear that his greatest desire is become a stagecoach driver, cracking the whip over a team of horses and pressing ever further at the boundaries of the frontier. However, it’s always been the case that one of the closest companions of youth is frustration, with impatience frequently tagging along in reserve, and it’s no different for Jess Harker. He’s stuck with a team of mules and a mail run that’s barely worth the name. What makes it worse is the fact he’s living in the shadow of men like Race Crim (Dale Robertson) and sheriff Tom Davisson (Rory Calhoun), guys who blazed trails back in the days when the law was simply something people talked about rather than lived by. Harker is restless, he’s got an itch that needs to be scratched, and he’s ready to pack up and move out. But, like most young men, he’s got a girl, Kathy Riley (Kathleen Crowley). This girl wants him badly, bad enough to go to Race Crim and beg him to do something to keep Jess in town. Race’s inherent decency leads him to use his influence to get Harker the job of driving the next stage, and it’s here that the mistakes start to be made. This run, along with passengers, will involve carrying a gold shipment, and gold has a habit of attracting the wrong kind of people. A hold-up is going to take place, people are going to die, and others are going to have to live with the consequences. Without going into further plot details, that’s what the movie is all about – the effect, on two men in particular, of a couple of poor decisions at vital moments.

The Silver Whip is adapted from First Blood by Jack Schaefer (which I haven’t read yet but I’ve just ordered a copy) and deals with the way those decisions lead one man towards the heart of darkness and another to enlightenment and maturity. In a sense it’s that eternal fork in the road, that choice of paths we’re all presented with, although perhaps not in such dramatic fashion, as we make our way through life. The hold-up pushes one man off course, or detours him at least, when he allows his base instincts to take control of him. Conversely, it signals an awakening in another, acting as a catalyst for his first steps towards manhood. And yet, while the routes chosen appear to diverge and head off in different directions, the final result is a convergence, an arrival at a common destination. Salvation and redemption are integral to the 50s western, they cannot be removed without taking away something of the soul of a film and the genre itself. The Silver Whip sets its characters on a journey away from their initial personae, testing them morally and spiritually, before drawing them back towards completion. Harmon Jones’ direction and composition alternately highlights the isolation of both Jess and Race, to draw attention to the uncertainty of the former and the cold determination of the latter. But there’s also the blending of both men into opposing camps too, where their individuality is at times absorbed into the groups they come to represent. And of course there’s the ultimate convergence right at the end, the meeting of mind and spirit which offers closure.

One of the first things you notice about The Silver Whip is the strength of the casting. A very young Robert Wagner was an excellent choice as the green and callow Jess Harper, and his gradual awareness of his place in the world and the results of his actions upon others is nicely realized. He acts as our point of reference, the one through whose eyes everything unfolds, and I think Wagner was fine at conveying the development of his character. Having said all that, Dale Robertson gets the plum role of Race Crim, and really runs with it. He moves seamlessly from an open and affable man to one totally consumed by a desire for revenge and weighed down by an enormous sense of guilt. Positioned between these two is Rory Calhoun as the sheriff whose duty puts him in conflict with his former friend. Calhoun’s role is essentially a supporting one but it’s no less important for being so. And also in support there’s another well-judged turn by James Millican, playing the stage boss whose tough edge hasn’t been quite worn away by his desk job. It’s sometimes thought that women get sidelined in westerns, but that’s rarely the case. While both Kathleen Crowley and Lola Albright have limited screen time, there can be no question about the significance of their respective parts. Crowley is marvelously tender in her understanding of Wagner’s foolishness and Albright impresses deeply in her three brief scenes. Her portrayal of the saloon girl, Waco, is pivotal in the transformation of Robertson – the scenes in the saloon and at the beginning of the stage trip establish his devotion to her, and then the aftermath of the hold-up is the moment when his destiny is mapped out.

The Silver Whip is a 20th Century Fox production and is now available as a MOD DVD via that studio. The transfer to disc looks like an off-the-shelf one where the elements were in reasonable shape but haven’t undergone any restoration. The image is acceptably sharp and detailed throughout but there is the odd scratch and mark visible. I also think the contrast is set a little high as whites can look a bit blown at some points. Overall though, the movie looks fine and is certainly quite watchable. I have to say I got a lot of enjoyment out of my first viewing of this film and I can easily see myself returning to it. There are strong performances from all the cast and Jones’ direction is both pacy and thoughtful. A very pleasant surprise for me, and a film I recommend seeing.

Powder River

Seeing as I’ve reviewed the majority of the movies which directly featured the character of Wyatt Earp, I thought I might as well have a look at Powder River (1953). Even though this film does not have any character by the name of Earp in it,  that’s where the inspiration comes from. Stuart N Lake’s book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal is probably the most influential source helping to shape the legend which grew up around the famous lawman. Powder River is yet another adaptation of that book, and Lake is credited on screen as the author. However, for whatever reason, none of the real names of characters are used – perhaps Fox just didn’t want another Earp movie at that particular time. Anyway, the film represents another retelling of the Earp/Holliday story though it puts a slightly different spin on the central relationship, one that I’m not sure is altogether successful.

In this version of the story the Earp character becomes the colorfully named Chino Bull (Rory Calhoun). Chino – I’m sorry, but I’m not going to write a piece continually referring to a man as Bull – is a former lawman who has grown weary of the violence that goes along with that profession and has decided to try his hand at prospecting. A quick visit to town to pick up supplies leads to two events that combine to alter Chino’s chosen path. Firstly, some unplanned heroics connected to a can of peaches and a gun-happy drunk see him offered the job of town marshal. While he’s initially uninterested in putting on a badge again, a return to camp and the discovery of the fact his partner has been murdered and robbed brings Chino back to town, and back to his old life. As the newly appointed marshal, one of his first official acts is to crack down on crooked gambling and rigged tables. This means the temporary imprisonment of Frenchie Dumont (Corinne Calvet), the proprietor of one of the town’s saloons and gambling houses. This in turn sees the introduction of the Doc Holliday figure, here renamed Mitch Hardin (Cameron Mitchell). Hardin has a fearsome reputation as a drinker and a gunman, and also happens to be Frenchie’s man. Although Chino and Hardin butt heads to begin with, the former’s cool self-assurance wins over the gunman. As such, the central relationship, based on mutual admiration and respect, is established in a fairly familiar way. Now most Earp/Holliday films have concentrated on the friendship of the two men and how it is tested and then cemented by the feud with the Clantons. Powder River diverges from that formula somewhat by bringing in an insipid romantic triangle, the rivalry and distrust of a professional gambler (John Dehner), and a damaging secret which Hardin is harboring. I’d say that the extent to which the film works for the viewer is heavily dependent on how far one is able to buy into these aspects.

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Anyone familiar with the Earp/Holliday movies will immediately recognize the characters of Chino and Hardin are only the thinnest of disguises. In addition there are sequences that directly mirror some of those in Dwan’s Frontier Marshal and Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Director Louis King had a long career, but he was no match for either Dwan or Ford. Having said that, King’s work on Powder River is by no means poor – it simply lacks the flair that Dwan or, more especially Ford, were able to achieve. Much of the action is confined to the town and interiors, but there are occasional scenes shot on outdoor locations. These exteriors are generally attractive, and one in particular, an attempted hi-jacking of a ferry carrying a stagecoach, is very well shot. The movie is largely a character driven piece, but King handled the action quite effectively whenever it does come along.

I like Rory Calhoun in westerns, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, he just seemed comfortable in the genre and frontier parts were a good fit for him. I feel the right word to describe his performance in Powder River is confident. Calhoun spends much of the running time unarmed, his character’s preference, and is never less than convincing as a man with enough self-belief and force of personality to keep the peace without resort to weapons. On the other hand, Cameron Mitchell is rarely seen without his custom rig. Again, this is entirely appropriate for a character living mainly on his nerves, and who has built a reputation for himself as a killer of men. Mitchell was a good enough actor, and gave some fine performances over the years, however, he didn’t have a huge amount of charisma. The Doc Holliday figure is one of the most interesting and, from an actor’s point of view, one of the more rewarding roles offered up by westerns. Almost all the performers who have played this part at various times have created something memorable. Of all those I’ve seen, Mitchell’s take on the role was among the least satisfactory, for me anyway. I can’t say he did poorly; he certainly got across the self-loathing aspects of someone who has witnessed his life take a route he had never intended. To some extent, the problem stems from the character arc Hardin goes through, but that’s not it all either. Ultimately, Mitchell’s performance never quite measures up to the other screen depictions of Doc Holliday – it may be a little unfair to compare performances in this way, but it’s hard not to. John Dehner was a man who always brought a touch of class to his parts and his name among the credits is something that I look forward to. He has a medium size role in Powder River, and I think the film would have benefited had he been given a bit more to do. There are two female parts in this production, those of Corinne Calvet and Penny Edwards. Of the two, Calvet did by far the most interesting work, coming across as tough, sexy and sassy from her very first appearance. In contrast, Penny Edwards just feels very colorless, and her romantic involvement with Calhoun and Mitchell never catches fire or is the least bit convincing.

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Rory Calhoun hasn’t been all that well served on DVD, with the dearth of titles being especially noticeable in the US. Generally, he’s fared a bit better in Europe, and Powder River has been released on disc in Spain by Fox/Impulso. For the most part, the transfer is quite good. This is an extremely colorful movie and the Spanish release reproduces that aspect pretty well. It can appear a little dark at times, notably during interior scenes, and there is some mild flickering on occasion although none of that is particularly distracting. The disc allows the Spanish subtitles to be disabled via the setup menu, and extras are the usual gallery and a few cast and crew text pages. Powder River is a modest western, never straining to overreach itself and delivering reasonably satisfying entertainment. Personally, I’m always up for another version of the Earp/Holliday saga, and I do appreciate the fact that the filmmakers tried to bring something slightly different to the table with this movie. However, while the attempts to alter the dynamic of the relationship between the two leads is interesting, I don’t honestly think it works that well in practice. There are a handful of good performances and the film is worth checking out, but it never seriously challenges the better Earp movies.

Red Sundown

Low budget westerns seem to occupy a place on the filmography of just about every Hollywood star at one time or another. For some actors, the relationship with the genre was little more than a flirtation, something they dipped in and out of without leaving any real or lasting impression. On the other hand, there were others who discovered their niche in such movies. Rory Calhoun belongs in that category; sure he made other types of movie, but it’s with the western, and the programmers in particular, that his name tends to be most often associated. Red Sundown (1956), directed by Jack Arnold, offered him a pretty good role in a standard tale of a man trying to reform and make a fresh start.

Alec Longmire (Calhoun) is a man with a violent past, a drifter with no particular plans. However, his aimless existence is about to take a sharp turn, precipitated by his stumbling upon a lone figure in the wilderness. Bud Purvis (James Millican) is another wandering gunslinger, running from the law and on his last legs. He’s already walked the same path Longmire is currently taking, and all he has to show for it is regret. An altercation with a group of roughnecks in the saloon of some nameless backwater leads to the two men riding out of town in a hurry, with company not far behind. By nightfall they’re under siege in an abandoned shack with no way out. Gutshot and dying, with their shelter already on fire, Purvis comes up with a unique plan that will allow one of them to escape. But he has one condition; the doomed gunman has the younger man give his word that he’ll hang up his weapons if he should make it out alive. Well, Longmire’s not the kind to break a promise, least of all one given to a dying man, and so determines to leave his past behind him. However, reputations have a way of catching up with people and, besides that, wiping the slate clean generally demands more than a sense of remorse and good intentions. And so Longmire, somewhat reluctantly, finds himself sworn in as deputy to Sheriff Murphy (Dean Jagger) in the town of Durango. Murphy’s not getting any younger, and badly needs some backup as he’s caught right slap in the middle of an escalating range war. On one side is big time rancher Henshaw (Robert Middleton), while on the other is a collection of squatters and homesteaders. The greatest threat posed to Longmire and Murphy is the arrival on the scene of Chet Swann (Grant Williams), a reckless killer hired by Henshaw. Longmire has to tread a fine line, maintaining the objectivity of the law while an unwanted showdown with the dangerous Swann looms ever closer.

Red Sundown was Jack Arnold’s second western and showed a lot of promise. That’s not to say it’s above criticism though. Restricted budgets generally meant short running times and pacy storytelling, and that’s more or less the case with this movie. I say more or less because the film fairly springs out of the gate and grabs the attention, tends to coast along in the middle, and then puts in a strong sprint finish. The opening benefits from a bit of added exterior shooting and a great turn from James Millican – this was to be his last film and he looks quite ill at times. The siege of the abandoned hut where he and Calhoun hole up looks good, has a sense of real tension, and a pay off that’s sad and uplifting at the same time. The slightly problematic mid-section, in contrast, suffers from too much interior work and a romantic angle with Martha Hyer  that never sparks or truly convinces. In short, this passage has too much talk, not enough action and relatively flat visuals. Having said all that, the character of Swann is introduced in a way that highlights his creepy ruthlessness, and his presence does create a bit of much needed tension. The ending, while a touch abrupt, sees the pace pick up for the climactic duel and allows for a little more inventiveness as far as the camerawork is concerned.

Rory Calhoun gives what I’d term a comfortable, easy performance as the former bad man trying to cut his ties with a violent past and turn over a new leaf. This is far from an unfamiliar theme within westerns, and I think it’s fair to say that Calhoun doesn’t bring anything new or startling to the table. However, he’s never less than believable in the role and has enough natural charm to carry the lead. I think there’s a bit of a misconception that playing a tough western character doesn’t require a lot of effort. The thing is, pushing the boat out too far means you end up with a caricature, while reining it in too much results in a limp character lacking in credibility. Personally, I feel Calhoun strikes the right balance; the whole look, posture and attitude he adopts never leaves the viewer in any doubt that he’s capable of handling himself in a tight situation, yet he never tips over into comic book antics. In contrast, Grant Williams, as the hired killer Swann, doesn’t quite hit the mark. His first appearance, all smiles and mock geniality, really taps into a sinister, chilling quality that bodes well. However, he fails to maintain this, and the scene where he confronts Calhoun in his room doesn’t work at all. It’s something almost indefinable, but the way Williams delivers his lines is all wrong – there’s no threat behind them, none of the menace that’s desperately needed. I already referred to the unsatisfactory romance between Calhoun’s character and Martha Hyer’s, but I’ll bring it up here again simply because it highlights what I feel was a missed opportunity. There was the possibility of adding an intriguing triangle to the mix with the introduction of Lita Baron as Henshaw’s housekeeper, and Calhoun’s old flame, but it’s never truly exploited. The actress was married to Calhoun at the time and there is a chemistry at work whenever the pair share the screen. When you consider the fact that Lita Baron eventually sued for divorce and cited her husband’s having committed adultery with seventy-nine different women (yes, that’s right 79) as the grounds, it’s clear this must have been a turbulent relationship. If there are some weaknesses in a few of the performances, it’s just about balanced out by solid playing from two old pros, Dean Jagger and Robert Middleton – the latter even gets to slug it out in a fine saloon punch-up with Calhoun.

Red Sundown has always been one of the more difficult Jack Arnold westerns to get hold of, previously only being available in a pricey box set from Koch in Germany (more so if, like myself, you already had the other titles) or a French release afflicted with the dreaded forced subtitles. However, Llamentol in Spain have recently put out a nice-looking edition on DVD that’s competitively priced. The film is presented in the correct 2:1 ratio and is anamorphic. The image is generally pleasing, with strong colour and a clean print. As usual, there’s no problem with subtitles – they can be disabled via the setup menu. The disc boasts no extra features, but I’m just glad to have a decent looking copy for a reasonable price. The movie is a solid programmer, and never aspires to anything loftier. I won’t claim the film is some lost classic or anything, but what I will say is that it does provide 80 minutes of attractive entertainment.

The Red House

“Did you ever run away from a scream? You can’t…it will follow you through the woods…it will follow you all your life!”

Last time, I looked at a movie that grafted film noir tropes onto a western story and setting. To the purist, noir really ought to be set in a contemporary, urban location, but there are always examples that prove the exception to the rule. Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1947) has its characters battling their demons in a superficially wholesome and clean rural environment, but it does take place in modern times. The tale also imports some of the elements and trappings of the ghost story, largely for the sake of atmosphere and to create a oneiric quality. However, this is no supernatural affair and the only phantoms on view are those locked away in the subconscious mind.

Everything revolves around the reclusive Morgan family: Pete (Edward G Robinson), his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) and the girl they have adopted, Meg (Allene Roberts). Their self-imposed seclusion has given rise to rumours and wild conjecture about what goes on in their private world. As viewers, we gain entry to this odd household via a young boy, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), who has been hired to help out with the farm chores. Our first impressions of the Morgans, especially Pete, are positive, and the overall feeling is that this is a simple, kindly family interested only in minding their own business and not overly concerned about the opinions of others. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent, almost imperceptible at first, that all is not well. Gradually, it becomes apparent that this Garden of Eden houses its own serpent, lurking deep in the shadows of the past and awaiting the opportunity to uncoil itself and strike at the present. The trigger is Nath’s arrival and the refreshing sense of openness that his presence introduces into the musty Morgan home. This impacts most noticeably on Meg, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and eager to sweep away the cobwebs of superstition woven around her. The root of the mystery and the doom-laden atmosphere is the Red House of the title. Pete’s ominous warnings to Nath to avoid the forest at night and his allusions to the menace emanating from the house within don’t have their intended effect. Nath is a young man brimming with self-confidence and Pete’s urgings, while building up the mythic stature of the Red House, serve only to stir his contempt for what he sees as mere old wives tales. The upshot of all this is a growing determination on Nath’s part, aided by Meg and his girlfriend Tibby (Julie London), to find the house and crack its secret. Yet, the deeper the young people penetrate into the forbidding woods and the closer they come to discovering the elusive house, the more pronounced Pete’s paranoia and desperation become. It’s painfully obvious that we’re not being confronted with just the foolish ramblings of a hick farmer, but rather some dark and shameful event in the past that cannot and will not remain buried.

Delmer Daves took on both the directing and writing duties (although IMDB claims Albert Maltz was also involved) for The Red House so much of what appears on-screen is down to his efforts. The whole film builds slowly and relentlessly towards the solution of the central mystery and, in terms of pacing, rarely puts a foot wrong. The early stages paint a picture of idyllic rural life, with only the odd hint of something unpleasant slumbering below the surface. The first discernible cracks appear when Nath decides to defy Pete’s melodramatic pleas to avoid the woods and the horrors he claims they hide. Daves’ direction, Bert Glennon’s photography and Miklos Rozsa’s lush, haunting score all combine to glorious effect in the sequence that sees Nath stumbling through the woodland in the midst of a gale. What looked like a peaceful, untroubled paradise by day is transformed into a sinister and menacing jungle by night. The howling wind, the groping branches and the darkness all contribute to the creation a nightmarish landscape that threatens to take possession of the boy. Throughout the film Daves and Glennon draw attention to the contrast between the bright cheerfulness of the days where youthful optimism and hope hold sway, and the gloomy nights when the despair of the older generation casts its long shadow. In the last third, the pace quickens, the visuals darken and the revelations come thick and fast. The result is a powerfully affecting climax that offers excitement, tension, revulsion, and tugs a little at your heart. The ending itself, which emphasises the idea that there’s no escaping the past, is both moving and apt.

Edward G Robinson came to his part on the back of some sterling work for Billy Wilder, Orson Welles and Fritz Lang. I reckon he was at the peak of his powers at this time, and his role as Pete Morgan is a further illustration of his versatility. His time at Warners may have made him famous, but some of his best and most memorable work was done elsewhere. His turn as the lovesick loser in Lang’s Scarlet Street has justifiably earned many plaudits, and I feel his performance in The Red House makes for a nice companion piece. It’s a complex role that calls for a subtle touch to convincingly achieve the transition from the avuncular figure at the beginning to the guilt crazed shell of a man he becomes by the end. He got some fine support in the shape of Judith Anderson, exercising great restraint as the sister who has repressed and subordinated her own desires to maintain the illusion of a united family – there’s a touching moment where we see her stealing a glance onto the porch at the man whose love she spurned, and thus condemned herself to a life of lonely spinsterhood for the sake of her brother. Julie London and Rory Calhoun both had interesting parts too, as good for nothing wasters, and they seemed to have a bit of chemistry in their scenes together. That’s more than I can say for Lon McCallister and Allene Roberts, who never convince as a couple of burgeoning sweethearts. Individually though, they weren’t bad; McCallister had the right kind of cocksure quality for a young man trying to prove himself, and Roberts managed a nice line in wistful confusion and frustration that befitted a girl brought up in such a murky and secretive household.

The Red House is one of those films that seems to have been a staple of the PD market for as long as I can remember, regularly turning up from a variety of distributors in generally rotten transfers. Until recently, the best edition available was the one included on the Edward G Robinson double feature from VCI, although that too displayed problems such as interlacing and a mediocre soundtrack. Last month, the film was released as a region-free DVD/Blu-ray combi by HD Cinema Classics, and it’s the best I’ve seen the film looking and sounding. However, it’s not a perfect release: the DNR has been liberally applied to achieve a smoother look and the brightness has been boosted too. While this is far from ideal, it has to be said that even this digitally manipulated image is streets ahead of what was previously available. The new release also features a commentary track with William Hare and a before-and-after restoration comparison. Bearing in mind the PD status of the film, this is likely to be about the best we’re going to see. The movie is a great piece of rural noir, a slow-burning melodrama that’s visually impressive and emotionally involving. I guess that the unsatisfactory condition of previous editions of The Red House have contributed to its not getting the attention or respect it deserves, but it’s a wonderful and neglected example of film noir for all that. The excellent performances of Robinson and Anderson, and the moody, assured direction of Daves earns it a solid recommendation from this viewer.