Tall Man Riding

It’s been a good few months now since I last featured a western on this site, not that the site itself has been all that active of course, so I thought it might be time to return to the genre which has been at the heart of the place over the years. Under the circumstances, what better choice than a Randolph Scott movie from the mid-50s, that time when the star and the genre were at their height. Tall Man Riding (1955) is not in the very front rank of Scott westerns but it’s not what I’d term a weak effort either. We get a director and a lead both working smoothly and professionally and a story which is built around the classic revenge/redemption motif, so there’s plenty to enjoy here.

It opens in what we might refer to as regulation fashion, with a rider coming upon someone in distress. In this case, the rider is  Larry Madden (Randolph Scott) and his travels are interrupted by a horseman going hell for leather across the plains with a handful of trigger-happy types in hot pursuit. While Madden has no idea exactly what he’s witness to, he takes it upon himself to balance the odds a little. With the immediate threat repulsed, he’s both bemused and a little amused to learn that the man he’s just rescued is closely connected to an old adversary. The thing is, Madden is a man with a grudge, and an appetite for a chilled plate of revenge. His back is crisscrossed by the scars of a lash while his mind bears less visible ones, the product of a five-year-old feud that saw his home burned down and his hopes for marriage similarly reduced to ashes. And now he’s unwittingly saved the neck of the man who, to all intents and purposes, stepped into his shoes. Well ain’t that a kick in the head! Anyway, that’s our introduction to the story, but there are a good many twists and turns still ahead: misunderstandings of past and present, alliances and double-crosses, realizations and resolutions to be reached.

The overarching theme of Tall Man Riding is obviously that of revenge, how the desire for it arises, how it affects people and how little it ultimately offers those who dedicate themselves to attaining it. This may not be anything new or startling but it’s a worthwhile point and one which is well made here. All the main characters learn something as they go along, some uncomfortable truths about themselves and others, but generally grow as a result of this. I guess the script could be said to be packed a little too full – there are a range of relationships and associations introduced and only a mere handful of them are explored in any kind of depth. Of course, we don’t need to have everything laid out for us and the glimpses we’re afforded and the allusions consequently drawn could be said to add to the tapestry of the piece as a whole. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Norman A Fox, which I have an unread copy of somewhere but I can’t seem to lay my hands on it right now, and the complexity of the story most likely stems from that source.

The movie is tightly directed by Lesley Selander, diving straight into the action and, even though there are lulls along the way, ensuring that the tale moves forward at a brisk pace. Selander’s films tend to have an edge to them, sometimes even a frank brutality, but this production mostly confines itself to references to past excesses – the scars of whippings borne by Scott and another character – yet there’s something rather harsh about the blackened and exposed remains of Scott’s former home, suggesting the destruction and consumption of some deeply cherished feelings in the inferno. On a more prosaic level, there is also a pretty tough punch-up which dispenses with music and thus keeps our attention firmly focused on its bruising physicality. In addition, the climax sees an excitingly shot land grab sequence, with men, wagons and horses racing and milling wildly in the charge to lay claim to as much choice real estate as possible.

Randolph Scott had a natural nobility, his easy charm and courtesy slotting in nicely alongside it. Still, his best roles and best movies offset this quality somewhat by blending in some complexity of character, at least a hint of ambiguity. Tall Man Riding follows that pattern by giving him a driven, hardness derived from his hunger for vengeance. And the fact we can see the emotional toll this has been taking on him makes his realization of the futility of his quest, and then the subsequent path towards personal redemption, all the more effective and satisfying. While the attention remains on Scott throughout there is able support from both Peggie Castle and Dorothy Malone. Both women have contrasting roles, the former as a streetwise saloon singer and the latter as Scott’s old flame, but their characters look for common ground and the work done by  the two actresses goes a long way towards building up the emotional substance at the heart of the story. John Dehner is as good as he always was as a lawyer advising Scott, and whose motives are only gradually revealed. The principal villain is played by John Baragrey with a generous coating of slick oiliness. Other significant parts are taken by William Ching, Robert Barrat and Paul Richards.

Tall Man Riding has been out on DVD for ages, on a triple feature disc along with Fort Worth and Colt 45. There’s a bit of print damage on show from time to time but nothing too fatal and color and detail are quite acceptable for the most part. AS I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the film doesn’t sit up there with the very best Scott did but it remains a solid example of filmmaking and, if we’re going to be honest here, there isn’t too much genuinely poor stuff in his credits from the late 40s onward. Professional work from Scott and Selander, supported by Castle and Malone, and attractive photography by Wilfred M Cline, makes for a very entertaining feature in my opinion – worth checking out, if you haven’t already done so.

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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.

War Paint

It’s a pity the way low budget programmers, and those who made them, tend to get less critical attention and respect than their more expensive cousins. The result of this is that very good movies get lost in the shuffle and find themselves ignored as both the passage of time and the big name productions shunt them aside. I think Lesley Selander was a solid and skillful filmmaker, with a habit of turning out interesting and well crafted material, yet his name is unknown outside hardcore film buff circles. War Paint (1953) is one of those fairly obscure Selander westerns that highlights his strengths as a director.

The story concerns a treaty between the US government and an unnamed Indian tribe, one of those documents laboriously hammered out and promising peaceful co-existence between the two warring sides henceforth. In this case the agreement has been struck, and the document signed and sealed. The issue, however, is one of delivery. What we’re looking at here is a race against time to ensure the document in question is handed over to the native chief before nine days have passed and the deadline expires. The responsibility lies with one Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his small patrol. Initially, he’s tasked with handing the treaty over to the local Indian agent, but he’s not going to turn up as his body is lying somewhere out in the wilderness. Instead, it’s this man’s killer, Taslik (Keith Larsen), who also happens to be the chief’s son, that appears. Hitchcock always maintained that a good way to build up suspense was to make sure the audience knows a little more than the protagonists on screen, and that’s how it is in War Paint. While Billings and his troopers believe Taslik is leading them across the parched landscape towards his father’s village, the viewer knows that he has other plans in mind. Bit by bit, the suspicions of the weary and weakening men are roused as the desperately needed water remains elusive and the instances of ill-fortune start to add up.

What kind of words best sum up a Selander picture? Well, toughness and economy spring to mind right away, and War Paint provides an object lesson in both. The movie opens with a cagey and sparse duel among the desert dunes  – one man is first blinded and then gunned down while his partner is shot dead and his corpse scalped. This brutal little prologue sets the tone for the gritty story that subsequently plays out. On the surface, we get a solid outdoor adventure with the harsh Death Valley locations providing the backdrop for this man versus nature affair, and it’s very successfully executed even if it’s approached on that basis alone. Still, the more interesting films always have a little more going on to divert us, and War Paint adds some depth by fleshing out the characters – cavalrymen and natives alike – and affording us glimpses of their lives outside the events of the narrative. What we get is one of those microcosmic snapshots, where the hopes, dreams, disappointments and weaknesses of a random selection of humanity is laid before us.

I’ve looked at several examples of what can be referred to as the pro-Indian cycle of 50s westerns on this site before and in doing so I’ve become more aware not only of the number of such movies but also their range and position on the spectrum in terms of sympathy expressed. War Paint hits somewhere around the middle of this imaginary scale, striving for balance and the honesty that accompanies it. I think the exclusively outdoor setting helps with this, stripping away the trappings and distractions of civilization to let us look at things as they really are in the frank and merciless glare of the desert sun. The positive and negative aspects of these two rival cultures are put in front of us and we’re encouraged to appraise each one, taking into account the deceits and betrayals as well as the largess and nobility both are capable of.

Robert Stack didn’t feature in a huge number of westerns – he’s always going to be best remembered as television’s Eliot Ness and for his hilarious turn in Airplane! – but did make some and I think he had the kind of presence that worked well enough in the genre. As Lieutenant Billings, there’s an uncompromising, driven aspect to his character, the kind of thing which is to be seen in a lot cavalry officer parts. Such characteristics aren’t always explained adequately – frequently we’re just asked to accept that this is the way it is – but the writing in War Paint is again deserving of some praise for the way enough expository back story is sprinkled throughout the script to justify motivation and attitude. And this isn’t restricted to Stack; we discover little pieces of background information to round out the character of Joan Taylor’s vengeful young Indian woman and also that of Keith Larsen as her brother. Charles McGraw was able to put his gruffness to use either as a villain or as a good guy, and got to indulge in the latter here as the faithful sergeant always backing up his boss even when he’s wrestling with internal doubts. There’s good support from the likes of Walter Reed, Douglas Kennedy and John Doucette, and some patented nastiness from Peter Graves and Robert J Wilke.

War Paint has been available on DVD  for some time now, both as a MOD disc from the US and as a (now rather pricey) pressed disc from Sony/Feel Films from Spain. That Spanish disc looks fairly good, the image is sharp and colorful for the most part but there are some softer and less defined sections and inserts. The film could probably use a bit of a clean up overall but, realistically speaking, this is not the kind of title where the potential sales would justify the expense of such an undertaking. There’s a choice of the original English audio or a Spanish dub and the optional Spanish subtitles can be deselected either via the menu or on the fly from the remote. The trailer is included as an extra feature. This is an enjoyable film, as tight and rugged as you might expect from Selander and attractively shot on location – there’s not a single interior scene. It works on multiple levels and has the kind of maturity of outlook that characterizes the best of the genre’s output in the 50s. It gets my recommendation.

Shotgun

Certain directors seem to get mentioned or name checked quite a lot on this site, particularly in discussions following on from the main posts. One of those is Lesley Selander, a man with a long and varied career but something of a specialist in low-budget westerns. Anyway, he’s a guy who crops up a lot here yet, despite having seen a number of his films now, I’ve never actually featured any of his work. Well, I guess it’s time to put that right by taking a look at Shotgun (1955), a tough little western with a good cast and some nice location shooting.

What we have is a classic revenge tale, although perhaps a quest for justice fits too. The central character is Clay Hardin (Sterling Hayden), a marshal in a small town, working in partnership with his older mentor, Fletcher (Lane Chandler). Lawmen have the unfortunate tendency to make enemies in the course of their work, and these two are no exception in that regard. Ben Thompson (Guy Prescott), a hardened criminal, has just spent six years in prison after having been brought in by Fletcher and Hardin, and he’s quite literally gunning for them. However, things don’t go entirely as planned, Fletcher finding himself on the receiving end of double shotgun blast while Hardin remains unharmed. Their task only half completed, the killers beat a hasty retreat. Meanwhile, Hardin vows to avenge the death of the man he called a friend. As the pursuit gets underway another subplot is introduced, a deal between Thompson and a band of renegade Apache for the delivery of a consignment of repeating rifles. Along the way, Hardin acquires a couple of traveling companions – Abby (Yvonne De Carlo), a former saloon dancer desperate to get to California and a new life, and Reb Carlton (Zachary Scott). Reb’s a smooth-talking bounty hunter and an old acquaintance of Hardin’s. These three form an uneasy and brittle alliance, initially born of a combination of convenience and potential profit, that may either help Hardin achieve his goal, or possibly prevent him from doing so.

I called Shotgun a tough little western, and I think that’s a fair description; it starts out with a feeling of menace and becomes downright mean in places as it progresses. The character of Hardin grounds it all with a sense of honor, but even so it’s of the hard-bitten and hard won variety. The screenplay, by Clarke Reynolds and actor Rory Calhoun, never shies away from highlighting the less savory aspects of the old west – the cool murder of Fletcher, the aftermath of an Apache raid, torture (involving stakes, wet rawhide and a rattlesnake), and a particularly nasty death. No, this isn’t a movie that pulls its punches or romanticizes the frontier. As a result, there’s a sense of danger, or maybe a lack of security might be more accurate, at all times. Selander seemed to have a knack for directing these gritty kinds of westerns; I watched Fort Yuma not that long ago and it displayed a similar frankness towards violence. Context, of course, is everything, and Selander wasn’t using violence in a gratuitous way. The instances of cruelty on screen don’t take place merely for cheap entertainment, they are consistent with the characterizations and the consequences are never glossed over. The most important characteristic Selander brings to the picture though is urgency, the kind of forward movement necessary for any pursuit drama to succeed. There’s never any shortage of incident as we follow Hardin, always pressing ahead towards his ultimate objective. Selander doesn’t let the pace drop, framing the action against the harshly beautiful Arizona landscape but never lingering on it, and wraps the whole thing up in around eighty minutes.

Sterling Hayden appears to have had a penchant for appearing in westerns featuring off-center elements. Johnny Guitar is chock full of strangeness, Terror in a Texas Town opens and closes with a harpoon taking on a six-gun, and Shotgun also climaxes with a highly unorthodox duel. His large frame and loud, somewhat abrupt style of delivery made him an imposing figure, well suited to film noir and westerns. He had a directness too, bordering on aggression, that made him believable here as a former outlaw brought in from the cold. There’s always the feeling that, despite his inherent loyalty to a murdered friend and the ideals he learned from him, he’s only a step or two away from breaking all the rules in his thirst for vengeance.

Zachary Scott never played too many heroes, he didn’t really have the face or personality for it. His specialty was the urbane villain, or at least a highly ambiguous character. His bounty hunter role in Shotgun isn’t especially villainous, but there’s plenty of his typically venal and insincere charm on show. He’s happy enough to tag along with Hayden so long as there’s a chance he may outmaneuver him and collect a nice fat reward, but he remains essentially untrustworthy. The bonus, however, is that his mercenary part means he gets some of the choicest dialogue. Caught somewhere between Hayden’s avenger and Scott’s opportunist is Yvonne De Carlo. Always a striking screen presence, De Carlo spends much of her time enduring the various hardships encountered on the trail, though she does get to indulge in a memorably provocative bathing scene. The outright villain is played by Guy Prescott, all scowls and ruthlessness. In support there’s Lane Chandler, Rory Mallinson and the reliably unpleasant Robert J Wilke.

Shotgun, an Allied Artists picture, is widely available – in a VCI western set in the US, on individual disc in France, and this western set, which I have, from the UK. The UK release has the same titles, spread over two volumes, as the US version so I imagine the transfers should be broadly similar. The film is given a 16:9 transfer but hasn’t been restored at all – there’s not much distracting damage, although the opening could be described as a little rough in my opinion, but the color varies from time to time. Overall, I’d say it’s an acceptable presentation, just. It’s a good mid-range western which holds the attention, helped by the highly watchable cast, and I reckon it would serve as a good introduction to Selander’s no-nonsense approach to filmmaking.

You can also read other views on the movie by both Jeff and Laura.