The Gunfight at Dodge City

If any decade can be said to offer the finest representation of the strengths of the western, then the 1950s has to be it. And if any one year is to be regarded as providing the purest distillation of the themes and motifs of that genre, then 1959 has to be the prime contender. Whether the effort was conscious or not is of little importance; what matters the way everything built upon foundations already laid earlier, gaining depth and gravitas as the decade wore on, to culminate in the cinematic riches of that peak year. The Gunfight at Dodge City is a fine film, a beautifully shot piece of wistfulness, a mature film for a mature star in a genre which had become a master of its own conscience.

There are certain names which have a habit of cropping up time and again in westerns – lawmen like Wyatt Earp and outlaws such as William Bonney. Bat Masterson may not be quite as well-known but it would be a close run thing and he can’t be far off most people’s radar either. The movie isn’t what you could call a biopic, it just uses a familiar western figure and weaves a story around his legend. We first encounter Masterson (Joel McCrea) as he’s about to return to civilization after a spell hunting buffalo. First though, there’s a visit from an old acquaintance Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson), warning him of the threat posed by a jealous and belligerent soldier. Right away we come face  to face with the theme that dominates the movie, violence and its consequences. Masterson tries to explain to his young and naive companion how the fear and anxiety that walk hand in hand with violence gnaw at the soul, and how the cold brutality of the consequences haunt one thereafter. We get to see it too, in order to drive home the point and the rest of the film employs the oft-used town tamer motif as a vehicle for its parable about loneliness and renewal.

The  previous year had seen director Joseph M Newman explore the ambiguities in McCrea’s character in Fort Massacre. There’s less of that quality on display here, instead we get to see more of the personal integrity typically associated with the star, and an implacability that both commands and demands respect. McCrea was then in his mid-50s, confident enough to project a cool self-awareness and accomplished in the craft of dominating the screen. If the film goes places the western had been before, it’s McCrea’s honesty and directness that keep it feeling fresh. Still, it’s a role that is uncompromising and could become almost too harsh were it not for one character player in particular. John McIntire was a marvelously versatile figure and could add a twinkle to his eye when necessary to lighten even the grimmest  situation. Julie Adams and Nancy Gates are the two women competing for McCrea’s affections, and adding subtle shades to the usual good girl/bad girl scenario.

The Gunfight at Dodge City isn’t a western of the plains or the wide open spaces, remaining confined to the back lot and interiors throughout. However, Newman’s pacy direction and careful use of angles ensures this is never a drawback. If anything, the shot selection in combination with the atmospheric lighting choices of cameraman Carl E Guthrie are used to the greatest possible effect. And then there’s the finely staged climactic duel. It’s a terrific piece of work, as McCrea hears his own words from the film’s first scene echoing in his ears, fatalistically pointing out the folly and fear of the gunman’s path. He reluctantly strides out onto a deserted street to confront an equally unwilling foe, two men fully aware of what they are undertaking yet apparently powerless to break free of the deadly code that binds them. After the iconic face-off the guns will crash and one of them will crumple in the dust, and the whole affair is executed clinically and without any veneer of glamor. This is what the western was building up to – a frank acknowledgment of the grubbiness of violence. The myth  of the west was not built on a celebration of gun play but a celebration of the quest for accommodation with one’s own soul and conscience.

The Gunfight at Dodge City has been readily available on DVD for years now, and there’s also a Blu-ray on the market. I still have the old US DVD, which presents the film quite handsomely in anamorphic ‘Scope. I imagine the Hi-Def version will show off Newman and Guthrie’s imagery to great effect but the old SD copy isn’t bad. I think this is a very strong film, a good example of the quality of work in the genre by this time – an excellent film from a year filled with highlights.

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Face of a Fugitive

A race against the clock is usually a solid and bankable  hook upon which to hang a story; there’s that built-in  element of suspense that grows naturally from the diminishing time, and then of course there are a fair few variations to exploit. Face of a Fugitive (1959), one of the last times Fred MacMurray would feature in a western role, sees the net drawing ever tighter around a wanted man, and the complications and obstacles lying in wait.

Jim Larsen (MacMurray) starts out as a prisoner, traveling a train on his way to serve time for robbery. Down but not quite out, he’s just got the jump on his amiable if slow-witted escort when his impulsive brother shows up ready to set him loose. The result of this unsolicited “help” is an exchange of gunfire that sees the lawman killed and the brother fatally wounded. This leaves Larsen running in earnest, now with a murder rap hanging over him and no way to prove his innocence. His only chance is to disappear before the law seal up all the escape routes. A bluff on another train buys a little time but even a name change and a touch of bare-faced audacity may not be enough to allow him to slip away from a small town in time. With all exits patrolled, Larsen’s only chance is to brass it out and hope he can find a way out before the wanted posters bearing his likeness arrive the following morning.

Face of a Fugitive sits comfortably among other late 50s westerns. Its theme of an individual striving to stay one step ahead of the guilty shadows cast by his own past and his somewhat reluctant path towards redemption had been thoroughly explored by this time, but that’s not to say the film is worth any less as a result. It benefits from the weary and fatalistic lead and the frequently inventive and evocative use of studio interiors by cameraman Wilfred M Cline and director Paul Wendkos. I tend to think of the latter as primarily a television name and I think there is, on occasion, a little of that sensibility on show  – the overall pacing and some of the shot selections. He would go on to take charge of a number of noir-tinged episodes of The Untouchables and I see some of that aesthetic at work here. Jerry Goldsmith earns one of his early screen credits for the score although I’m not convinced that a tight little production such as this is the best vehicle for his  more expansive style.

As I understand it, Fred MacMurray wasn’t overly keen on his western films, but he made some impressive ones: At Gunpoint would make for an interesting double bill paired up with High Noon, and Quantez is something of a low budget masterpiece. Face of a Fugitive offered him another worthy part, of the type that sat well with his inherent ambivalence and mock cynicism. I think he was well suited to roles like this, where he never appears fully comfortable with the image of himself he projects – that shallow insolence always feels like a veil to conceal the fragility of his  supposed self-confidence.

If MacMurray was nearing the end of his western career, James Coburn was just setting out on his. Within a year he and six others would head south of the border with John Sturges and never look back. His part here is a small but showy one as the villain’s principal henchman, and he stalks and prowls around the screen with wonderful menace. It’s just as well too as the villain of the piece, Alan Baxter, is just about passable, but lacks that authoritative presence his role calls for. Dorothy Green and Lin McCarthy play the other main characters and are fine without being especially remarkable.

I’m not sure how widely available Face of a Fugitive is for  home viewing – I have  an Italian DVD which is perfectly adequate in my opinion. The widescreen print used is generally clean and the transfer is acceptably sharp. If I had any complaint, it would be that the sound can be a little  weak or muffled from time to time but it remains audible. All in all, this is a good western, pacy and made on a tight budget, it represents a nice showcase for the contrasting talents of MacMurray and Coburn.

The Halliday Brand

When I started this blog a good many years ago my motivation was to talk about movies, in particular westerns. At the time I felt the genre was somewhat neglected in comparison to others, and that what we might refer to as the medium efforts were passed over with depressing regularity. Films such as The Halliday Brand (1957) were what I had in mind, where a strong cast and crew worked on a project that only a smattering of people seemed to be aware of. This is a movie where the final result isn’t quite up to the level of the filmmakers’ ambition, where you have to admire the stylish execution even as you experience a touch of regret for a promising scenario which doesn’t quite gel.

The opening makes it clear that the Halliday family is a troubled one, Clay (Bill Williams) attempting to coax his brother Daniel (Joseph Cotten) back to the homestead at the point of a gun. The reason is Dan senior (Ward Bond), local lawman and hardheaded pioneer, is on his deathbed and keen to see his estranged son while he still has time. Now this is an especially dark tale of familial strife, bordering on film noir in its intensity and tragedy, and it’s therefore only appropriate that its telling should be largely undertaken via flashback. It’s here that we learn how the elder Halliday is so consumed with an unpleasant combination of racial prejudice and stubborn pride that he’s prepared to ignore the advice of his sons and his own inner voice. His inflexibility leads to a lynching that breaks his daughter’s heart, and then a pointless confrontation which drives a powerful wedge between himself and the son who bears his name. And at the center of this emotional maelstrom sits the mystically serene enigma that is Aleta (Viveca Lindfors), the half-Indian girl who has captured the hearts of both Halliday brothers.

I have to say I really like the films of Joseph H Lewis; they may not always be wholly successful but there is an artistic drive and strong visual sensibility at their heart which is hard to resist. The Halliday Brand sets itself up as a classical tragedy played out against a frontier backdrop, which is a noble enough intention and one which has paid off in other productions. Here I think it works only up to a point as it feels as though there are too many themes (or too many facets of themes) competing for the viewer’s attention over its reasonably brief running time. The essence of it all is the Halliday brand of the title – the literal one is the symbol of the buried tomahawk, of conflicts resolved through strength, while the figurative one is the harsh implacability represented by Halliday senior and the barely acknowledged version of the same to be found in the younger generation. One could draw inferences from the casting of arch-conservative Ward Bond as the in such a role but it’s (in my opinion) an optional exercise and the movie still works without doing so – it’s the human drama at the center of it all that counts for more but the layered structure facilitates different levels of appreciation if desired.

Bond is as impressive as ever in his role here, mean and manipulative to the end and an imposing, authentic physical presence. Joseph Cotten is less effective I feel, his natural reserve fits the quieter and more introspective side of his character but his performance feels somewhat mannered at times and could have used a bit more raw passion. Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors sounds like an odd choice to play a half-Indian girl but her striking beauty, photographed with superb skill by Ray Rennahan, works in her favor and I found her credible in the role. In support there is good solid work done by Bill Williams, Jay C Flippen and a virtually unrecognizable Jeanette Nolan.

The Halliday Brand is available on DVD from the US via the MGM Manufacture on demand line. It looks like an older television master was utilized, meaning an acceptable if unspectacular image in terms of clarity and contrast. However, bearing in mind this is a 1957 production, it’s almost impossible to see how the Academy ratio presented on the disc could be correct. That aside, the film is a moderately successful example of western noir – the classical aspirations don’t all hit the mark but the attempt remains a stylish and entertaining one.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

Last time I had a look at a political thriller and noted how the politics, in the classic style of the Hitchcockian McGuffin, acts as a powerful motivation for the characters inside the drama while remaining nothing more than a plot device in the eyes of the audience. The classic western rarely went down the overtly political route and tended to reserve its commentary for broader sociological and philosophical issues. Even in those cases, messages were, as often as not, delivered via implication and with the kind of subtlety which left it up to the viewer to decide how much or how little attention to give them. More direct political points could be said to appear in films set on the Mexican side of the border, and in particular those which make explicit reference to the revolution. The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955) plays out in such an environment, a number of the characters being clearly driven by their convictions and stating that fact on a few occasions, but this really isn’t the main focus of the movie, neither from the perspective of the figures on screen nor we who watch them.

The post-credits caption places the events in 1915, right in the middle of the revolution. Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) and Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland) are under siege in wilderness and taking a breath, ruefully commenting on their fabulous wealth as the Federales creep ever nearer. Somewhat paradoxically, we find ourselves beginning at the end of the tale as follows on from his point is delivered via flashback. The machine-gun wielding Bryan is the classic mercenary figure, tough and bluntly proud of his own love for cash and corresponding disinterest in ideals. He’s introduced providing the firepower to facilitate the raids necessary to secure the finances Villa needs to stay in the revolutionary business. Despite professing a desire to retire and enjoy the profits of his toil, he finds himself drawn back into one more caper – all in the name of friendship. Castro is one of Villa’s colonels and Bryan’s fiend, and it’s hard to say no to an old friend when he asks you to help take a gold-laden troop train and then transport the spoils overland. Initially, the American seems to have been swayed principally by the rewards promised, but the presence of an idealistic woman (Shelley Winters), also from the US, and a shifty bandit (Joseph Calleia) who has a score to settle with Castro play an increasingly important role.

I can’t get enough of George Sherman’s work, particularly those films made in the 1950s. I find it addictive and entertaining, becoming progressively stronger and more complex as the decade wore on and building towards such beautifully realized pieces as The Last of the Fast Guns. I mention that movie here because not only is it arguably Sherman’s finest and most accomplished, but it also shares some features whose roots can be seen in The Treasure of Pancho Villa. The setting is, of course, the obvious link and a number of locations appear in both productions. There’s even something on the costuming of the leads – Calhoun is clad predominantly in black with Roland largely favoring white, which seems to be foreshadowing the completely black/white outfits adopted by Mahoney and (again) Roland in the later film. Still and all, it’s that theme of redemption which never ran far below the surface of any 50s western that draws the attention more. Sure there are some noble words on freedom and justice voiced by the characters (mainly Winters) but such proselytizing is rarely interesting or effective in my opinion, and I get the impression that neither Sherman nor screenwriter Niven Busch were all that enthused themselves. Instead, greater emphasis is given over to more personal motifs – loyalty, friendship and the discovery of something deeper and more meaningful within oneself.

Calhoun had a terrific run in westerns in the 50s and this film offered him an excellent showcase for his talents. The hard-boiled mercenary with one eye ever on the main chance  was the type he could carry off in his sleep, and the way that role then develops and becomes more textured as the story progresses shows that he had sufficient depth when called upon. I’m struggling to think of a part played by Gilbert Roland that I didn’t enjoy – the energy he invested in his characters is quite infectious and it’s easy to be swept along by his charm. Any film that saw him handed an expanded part is invariably worthwhile. On the other hand, I’ve rarely been all that taken with Shelley Winters – too often she was assigned needy and, ultimately, irritating roles. While that’s not the case  in The Treasure of Pancho Villa, she’s asked to play the kind of starchy and self-righteous woman who again fails to elicit a lot of sympathy. This is a weakness in the film for sure, however, everything is handily shored up by a great bit of villainy and duplicity from the typically excellent Joseph Calleia.

Generally, where possible, I like to make some comment about the availability of films which are featured on this site, not least because people often wonder about the relative merits of what copies are currently on the market. In the case of The Treasure of Pancho Villa, there is a DVD which has been released in Spain (also, I think there’s an Italian version – possibly the same print –  too) but the quality is frankly poor and it’s not a disc I’d be happy to recommend to anyone. I’ve heard rumors before that Warner Brothers in the US is working on a restored version of the title and I’d like to think that is true – this is a fine movie and it deserves to be seen in far better quality that what is out there right now. The setting in revolutionary Mexico almost immediately conjures up images of spaghetti westerns, and in turn the image of the lead with a machine-gun might well make you think of the likes of Django. Nevertheless, this is very definitely a western out of the classic mold, with all the sensibilities that implies – very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Hostiles

Rumors of its demise, and so on. Every so often one hears of the passing of the western, the obituary of the genre being wheeled out and presented newly polished, typically, in equal parts respectful, regretful and dismissive. The gist tends to run along the lines that it once rose to prominence, becoming the quintessence of Americana, the imagery evoking the culture of a continent in the eyes of the world. And then it, just as it had achieved true greatness, it began its slow decline, growing tired and introspective to the point of unhealthiness, and finally feeling less relevant as its origins fade further into the past. Yet the western is arguably an integral part of cinema (not just an element of its history) and every time a wake is announced it appears somewhat premature. At the risk of mawkishness, the western constitutes the soul of Hollywood filmmaking, underpinning it and forever watching over it. The point of all this is that as frequently as the genre is lamented, just as frequently does it hint at a recovery. In truth, there have been many false dawns, and perhaps the expectations are either misplaced or too high. The western will never again dominate cinema, but a film like Hostiles (2017) suggests, to me anyway, that there are still stories to be told within the framework of the genre that have artistic merit.

The opening is harsh, make no mistake about that. It’s not so much that the violence is graphic (although there is a brief shot that could be described as such) as the fact it has a stark brutality. There are some moments in westerns that are remembered for this kind of frank depiction of frontier ruthlessness: think of Jack Palance’s shooting of Elisha Cook Jr in Shane or Henry Fonda wiping out a family in Once Upon a Time in the West. What Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) experiences here is on a par with those moments, an emotional gut punch that, quite naturally, leaves her slightly unbalanced for a time and colors her attitude and actions as she journeys through the film. And the whole piece is a journey, literal and metaphorical, following the progress of Captain Joe Blocker, a soldier of fearsome reputation and on the eve of his retirement, as he escorts an old enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his spiritual home in Montana. Yellow Hawk is a dying man and his request to end his days in this fashion has been granted by the government. Blocker wants no part of this detail but is given no option and therefore sets out consumed with resentment and naked hatred, something not improved by the discovery of Mrs Quaid and her plight. To say more would, I feel, diminish the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, so I’ll confine myself to pointing out that this trek undertaken by a collection of damaged and broken souls is involving from start to finish. It is intense and violent at times but not in any gratuitous or nihilistic way, while the growth and emotional development of the characters is ultimately fulfilling and rewarding.

For me, the great appeal of the western is its timelessness and versatility, the ability to tell almost any story in an absorbing and satisfying way. The western always had a way of holding up a lens to the world around us, of taking its setting and trappings and allowing the viewer to examine the world around us through the prism of the past, by focusing on our humanity and reminding us that the challenges we face today have parallels in our past and may well arise again in our future. This is what I see as the central theme of Hostiles: the settling with the past. The film is essentially about characters coming to an arrangement with their own histories and subsequently of growing into an accommodation with themselves. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of the film where Yellow Hawk and Blocker sit side by side and talk. Blocker tells his one time adversary that when he dies a piece of him will also go with the old chief. I think that’s what the message here comes down to, that confronting our past is not about rejecting it out of hand, but rather acknowledging that some aspects have to be left behind while others are retained and assimilated in order to move forward.

Until now, I’d not seen anything by Scott Cooper but his is a name I’ll be looking out for in future – he appears to have a genuine affinity for the genre and I hope he returns to it at some stage. I always feel westerns are at their best visually when they are shot outside on location and that’s the case here with some wonderful views of the (mainly) Arizona and New Mexico landscape. The only criticism I’d make of the film is the pace is allowed to drop on occasion and I feel the whole sub-plot with Ben Foster’s character is largely superfluous – some judicious cutting/rewriting here and there could have tightened the whole production up. Structurally, thematically and spiritually this movie harks back to the classic era, but scripts then would have been much more streamlined and pared down.

Christian Bale was impressive in his role as the battle-scarred captain, confident and efficient on the outside when faced with the various dangers and threats encountered along the way yet still entirely human as opposed to superhuman in more intimate situations. Frankly, his character arc is hugely satisfying and the end of the film simply feels fitting. What’s more, Bale comes across as wholly convincing as a westerner, a quality which is not so common among leading men these days. Wes Studi is no stranger to westerns of course and he gives another typically authentic performance that’s marvelously quiet. I also thought Rosamund Pike did fine work with just the right kind of vaguely off-center detachment to suit her part. It was nice too to see Stephen Lang, although he’s really only in the movie briefly.

So, Hostiles generally worked for me, and it’s been a good few years now since I came away from a cinema with that feeling about a western. I’d like to think  it might perform well enough to keep the genre from drifting off towards the sidelines immediately. I don’t think it’s a game changer but it’s a mature piece with a solid emotional core and well worth the time of anyone who has an interest in quality western movies.

Run of the Arrow

Whatever the causes of conflict might be, the aftermath, particularly for those on the side of the vanquished, tends to follow  predictable pattern and is typically characterized by feelings of futility, division and bitterness. The taste of defeat is sour, and the man who partakes of it may well find himself raging against the only adversary worthy of his bruised and broken contempt: the inadequacy and impotence he perceives within himself. Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) takes the capitulation of the South in the Civil War as its starting point, clinically probing the raw wound left by that rending of a fledgling nation before cauterizing it and thus allowing the healing process to begin.

It begins at the end, the end of the war, or one war anyway. With Lee about to acknowledge defeat, one embittered soldier of the South, O’Meara (Rod Steiger), fires the last bullet of the conflict. That fateful shot strikes and critically wounds  a Yankee lieutenant. Yet in what is perhaps a telling action as far as the true character of O’Meara is concerned, he takes his stricken enemy back to his own  lines for treatment by the field surgeon. Our protagonist is an angry and frustrated man, promised much but denied more by the battles he’s lived through, he’s seen his world smashed and his family decimated. For all of the hatred he claims to have embraced and the rage he’s barely able to contain, he never loses touch with his humanity and the deceptively hard heart he notionally displays is in reality little more than a fragile shell. The short-term result is that this man is left feeling adrift in life, rootless and without a sense of loyalty – so he sets out in search of something to  which he hopes he may attach himself. To that end he heads west, to the plains and the simplicity, and in some respects, the brutality of the Sioux. All the while though, as he seeks to transform himself and rediscover his place in the world, O’Meara is in fact on a cyclical journey, one that will ultimately lead him back to his own innate morality. And so the tale can end where it began, and the path towards internal reconciliation can be accessed.

Fuller’s characteristically punchy script is nicely constructed and layered; the classic, cyclical form utilized frames it all neatly while the characters are set up to mirror one another, and the central theme of the quest for inner reconciliation which is portrayed on a personal level can also be seen as an allegory for a wider process in national terms. The figure of O’Meara is (to my mind anyway) suggestive of Fuller himself, in that we have an ethical and fundamentally sensitive man choosing to present himself as a maverick. It’s hard not to see something of the provocative director in the confrontational character portrayed by Steiger. And Steiger, who too often in his career succumbed to the temptation to feast on the scenery, turns in a relatively restrained performance – there’s only one early scene with Olive Carey where he really lets rip and seriously overcooks it.

While I take a lot of pleasure in sifting through  the theme of the picture and the overall shape of it, it’s worth bearing in mind that the movie also functions and can be approached purely as a highly professional piece of entertainment, thus combining the essential characteristics of any successful piece of filmmaking. Joseph Biroc’s photography makes the most of the harsh Utah locations, and it’s always good to see a western which predominantly features exteriors. Aside from Steiger, the cast is very sold too. Ralph Meeker and Brian Keith swagger and sympathize respectively as they offer contrasting images of the victorious Northerners, while Charles Bronson, Sarita (Sara) Montiel and Jay C Flippen fill the principal native roles with varying degrees of success.

This is a slightly shorter piece than I’ve been in the habit of writing here, and there are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I’m still easing my way back  into site after  lengthy lay off. And secondly, I’m toying with the idea of going down the road of writing briefer posts in the future,  ones that focus on a few aspects of a work that particularly engage my attention. We’ll see how it develops.

Five Card Stud

On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

Copper Canyon

Do the stars of a movie need to be what we think of as genre regulars for it to a success? Back in its heyday the western attracted just about every leading player in Hollywood, some of them slotting in with ease and a number actually going on to carve out a niche for themselves within the genre. Frequently, when less familiar western stars were cast they were backed up by co-stars who had already grown accustomed to riding the cinematic range. However, Copper Canyon (1950) seems to be on of those more unusual productions where none of the three headline stars would have had a background in westerns when the movie was made. So does it succeed? I suppose it does to some extent, although you do have to wonder how much the relative inexperience of the cast hurt it.

The setting is the years following the Civil War, when the process of national healing had only just begun and the wounds remained raw. The whole plot revolves around the struggles of former Confederate miners and obstacles they are confronted with as rivals seek to drive them out of business. These men are in need of a champion, someone capable of figuratively rallying the troops and protecting them. It’s with this aim in mind that a small delegation is sent to sound out Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), a former Rebel officer who has changed his name and, in an attempt to reinvent himself, has become a trick shot artist working the saloon circuit. It is only with the greatest reluctance that he allows himself to be drawn back into conflict with anyone. But once he does the allure of saloon boss Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) and the challenge of facing down corrupt lawman Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) are enough to keep him interested.

Copper Canyon offers few surprises  in its scripting. The story is typical fare dealing with the oppression of the little guy by the powerful, and a hero who endeavors to tip the  balance a little in the former’s favor. While this is a solid enough premise, I tend to think a touch of ambiguity can elevate such a tale into much more interesting territory. However, that’s not really offered here and so we’re left with the uneasy reconstruction angle and, to a lesser degree, the gimmick of Milland’s sharpshooting to provide a more distinctive flavor – both of which are well enough employed yet I can’t say I regard either as very compelling. On the other hand, the pacing is reasonable and director John Farrow composes some nice shots, favoring plenty of titled low-angles in the interiors. What’s more cameraman Charles Lang lights the interiors to maximize the atmosphere and captures some fine views of the Sedona locations.

As I mentioned at the start, the stars hadn’t much of a western pedigree when Copper Canyon was made. Ray Milland had a strong body of work behind him at this point and had an Oscar to his name but, with the exception of California (1947) which was also made with Farrow, he had mostly straight drama and noir roles among his credits. While he would go on to other material in the genre, notably the superior A Man Alone (1955), he was still something of a novice at this point. In a similar vein, Macdonald Carey had only made Streets of Laredo (1949) prior to this but he too would make a number of other westerns in the following years. Hedy Lamarr isn’t a woman anyone would automatically associate with the west (although that running gag in Blazing Saddles might suggest otherwise) and Copper Canyon was, aside from a few television appearances, her only foray into frontier drama. All three acquit themselves well enough, though I do wonder how contemporary audiences would have viewed that lineup. In support we do get more typical faces like Harry Carey Jr and Frank Faylen. In addition, there are parts for Mona Freeman, Peggy Knudsen and, in a truly startling red wig, the imposing figure of Hope Emerson.

Copper Canyon was a Paramount production and was released on DVD in the US by the same company years ago. Even though the disc was a bare bones affair, the transfer is quite a good one, bright and colorful with only minor damage on show. It’s a fairly entertaining movie but hardly what could be termed essential. There’s competent work from all in front of and behind the camera yet it also has to be said that all either did or would do much more memorable stuff on screen. So, let’s say it’s okay but not something you need go out of your way to see.

Money, Women and Guns

What’s in a title? Sometimes a lot and other times very little. On the most fundamental level, it’s one of the most prominent hooks upon which to hang a movie, or at least one’s expectations of a movie. It may encourage a sense of what’s coming up, tease you with anticipation or, if handled clumsily, dampen your enthusiasm. If successful, it will have conjured images in your mind, kindled a flame of curiosity and drawn you in. So what of a title such as 1958’s Money, Women and Guns? Does it paint visions of some freewheeling adventure, full of action and eye candy but not all that much depth? I ask this because that’s something like the way I first approached the film, but the reality is a little different. The title grabbed my attention, the opening even looked as though it might be bang on, and then the rest of the movie delivered quite a bit more.

It all begins on location in Lone Pine, with a botched robbery. Three masked men attempt to rob an ageing prospector, but make a poor job of it – two of them will die while the third is driven off by the mortally wounded miner. The incomplete or unclear dying declaration is one of the classic tropes of the mystery genre, the victim tantalizing us with broad hints towards the identity of his slayer before expiring. This time there’s a little additional spin in that, before he dies, the old man makes it known that the perpetrator is named as one of the beneficiaries of his will. Superficially, that is what the story is about, the search for a killer from a short list of suspects. Up to this point it looks very much like a standard, formulaic tale, and that impression is strengthened further when we’re introduced to the lead. “Silver” Ward Hogan (Jock Mahoney) is something straight out of a dime novel, a virtual caricature named for his fondness for silver bullets and accoutrements. Yet first impressions, like the pulpy title, prove to be misleading and the movies becomes much more interesting. Hogan is a detective retained by the prospector’s lawyer to track down the beneficiaries of the will and, using that cover, bring in the surviving member of the gang. So Hogan sets out to locate the names on his list, to give the good news of an unexpected fortune to most, and the less welcome news of a day in court to one.

The film is structured in an episodic fashion, with series of vignettes providing the backdrop against which everything unfolds. It is, as I stated, a standard and quite absorbing mystery on the surface, but with a redemptive thread running through it all that is typical of the era. There is the journey Hogan is on towards personal fulfillment, something he will e seen to have attained by the fade out. As each little drama is played out in the course of his quest, we learn a little more about all those involved, about the motivations of the old man who made this rather odd will and the seemingly disparate group named within it. Essentially, it develops into a succession of moral fables which are telling, touching and not entirely predictable. By the end, it’s the redemptive and restorative aspects that take precedence for us, even the discovery of the guilty party fits into this pattern and the result is a wonderfully positive experience. While the film never becomes overly sentimental, it does reinforce the better side of human nature and every negative consequence has a kernel of positivity within it. In short, you come away from this film with good feeling overall.

Richard Bartlett had already made the engaging Joe Dakota with Jock Mahoney and again used the star’s cool and relaxed persona perfectly. Along with cinematographer Philip Lathrop, he captured some terrific images from around Lone Pine and the whole movie looks very attractive inside the wide CinemaScope frame. However, it’s that powerful thread of salvation which permeates Montgomery Pittman’s script which stands out strongest and gives the film its heart.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a western starring Jock Mahoney that I haven’t enjoyed. He had such an easy-going and assured persona on the screen that you end up feeling confident yourself of what you’re going to get. he role of the master detective fit him like a glove and he handled the action the scenes, the romantic interludes and the occasional light humor with great style, making the whole affair a pleasure to watch. Of course he benefited from having a solid cast working alongside him; Kim Hunter, who had a long and illustrious career from her beginnings with Val Lewton in The Seventh Victim through her Oscar-winning work with Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire and on to cult immortality in Planet of the Apes, is an especially accomplished figure to play off, a classy lady who brings a great deal of charm and grace to a pivotal role. I think Tim Hovey did well too and came across convincingly, which isn’t something you can always say about child actors. And there’s quality all through the cast with Lon Chaney Jr, James Gleason, William Campbell, Gene Evans and Tom Drake all turning in credible or better performances.

Money, Women and Guns has been released on DVD in France and Spain but nowhere else, as far as I know. I’ve had the Spanish edition for some time and it’s a good enough copy. It’s presented in the correct anamorphic scope ratio and the print used is in pretty fair condition. Colors are stable and bright and the image doesn’t suffer from much damage. There’s a little softness from time to time, but nothing serious, and some of the process shots look a bit rough – overall, it’s quite acceptable though. The disc, as usual, offers a choice of the original soundtrack or a Spanish dub and optional subs. Frankly, I think this is a delightful movie and one that is good for a number of viewings. That’s not something you can say about too many films with a mystery at the heart of the script. However, Money, Women and Guns, aside from that superb title, features the kind of theme that goes beyond the more mechanical elements of the plot. Perhaps it’s not all that well-known but I’d give it a recommendation.

Springfield Rifle

Having looked at a hybrid movie last time out (a western/swashbuckler mash-up), I thought I’d continue in a similar vein and feature another western which has borrowed and blended in elements of another genre. Here it’s the espionage or spy movie and the result of this cinematic marriage is Springfield Rifle (1952).  It takes place during the Civil War, which has traditionally been a setting with decidedly mixed returns in both critical and commercial terms. And I think that’s what could be said of this production too: the film is interesting in places, muddled and short on momentum in others, and ultimately not wholly satisfying, a classic mixed bag.

As far as plot is concerned, this is the type of film where one has to be careful not to give too much information away, the mystery aspect is significant and it would be churlish to spoil that for anyone who hasn’t seen this before. Right from the beginning we’re made aware that this is a tale of counterespionage, and I doubt if it’s revealing too much to say that it’s essentially a case of setting a spy to catch a spy. Anonymous raiders are rustling horses in Colorado which are bound for the Union army. The regularity and success of this rustling operation strongly indicates that a spy or traitor is playing a part. Given the nature of conflict at the time, horses are vital to the war effort. So, the top brass is pressing for something to be done, and that pressure is being felt by local commander Lt Colonel Hudson (Paul Kelly). It’s Hudson’s hope that Major Lex Kearney (Gary Cooper) can deal with the problem. When Kearney’s command is relieved of its herd of horses with a shot being fired in anger, the Major finds himself facing a court-martial for cowardice. While this brings disgrace it also opens up an opportunity to learn much more than anyone in a uniform could hope to do. A bitter and disgruntled man, despised and shunned by family and former comrades alike, is in an ideal, unique position to infiltrate the ranks of the raiders.

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When you take a look at the cast and crew of Springfield Rifle you’d think there were strong grounds for expecting a first-rate piece of cinema. Even there are good points to consider, and I’m going to do just that presently, the end product does not measure up to what the constituent parts appear to promise. A film directed by Andre de Toth, especially around this time, is going to have some strengths, and it can’t be denied that the movie looks quite spectacular in places – the location work is a joy in visual terms giving the film a real boost, and the action set pieces are memorably staged and coordinated. There’s also a powerful and distinctive Max Steiner score to add some punch and drive. The beginning, and the somewhat misleading title, raise the prospect of the film being one of those odes to the military that can all too easily run to dreary and sanctimonious. Luckily though, the espionage theme takes precedence and the story goes in some unexpected directions – questions of trust and integrity are not only raised but are explored in some depth as well.

Movies with a script by Charles Marquis Warren normally get my attention, not because I like them all or even rate them all that highly – his TV work is undoubtedly more significant – but his name does encourage a certain amount of anticipation. Frankly, I feel the plot of Springfield Rifle is excessively and unnecessarily complicated. Aside from the twisting and turning, which is par for the course for any spy movie, the structure becomes muddled in my view by the tendency to reach too many (anti) climaxes, thus watering down their effect and drawing the energy out of the picture. The film runs for an hour and a half bit it feels longer than that.

Think of Gary Cooper and 1952 and, supposing you’re a movie fan, the words High Noon must surely come to mind. Springfield Rifle is from that same year but it’s a world away when it comes to quality. Again, it’s not a bad film but it is a rather mediocre one. I try to look at material on its own terms, to avoid unfair or loaded comparisons where possible, but there are occasions when I can’t get round them. In the same year as High Noon the sheer ordinariness of this movie leaps out at one but the fact is that it fares the same when placed against a lot of Cooper’s other genre work. I don’t say Cooper delivers a poor performance – there’s the deceptive simplicity which was his trademark, and also a meanness (verging on sadism I’d say) touched on in the aftermath of a fight with Lon Chaney Jr that would be drawn on further by the actor in Anthony Mann’s later Man of the West. Nevertheless, it’s minor Cooper and I can think of at least a half dozen other westerns which used his persona and talents better.

The rest of the cast of Springfield Rifle is extremely impressive: Lon Chaney Jr, Phil Carey, Paul Kelly, James Millican, David Brian, Phyllis Thaxter, Alan Hale Jr & Fess Parker. By anybody’s standards, that’s quite a list. However, with the exception of Kelly and, to a lesser extent Brian, these people are wasted and their abilities are never exploited as fully as they ought to have been. Many of them are written into the movie and then written out abruptly or, in a few cases, simply dropped with next to no explanation. In some ways, this failure to get the best out of such a bank of talent is the most disappointing thing about the movie.

Springfield Rifle was released years ago on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of a Cooper box set. The film looks OK but there are some marks here and there and there’s the potential, with a bit of restoration, to have the film looking really splendid. I doubt that will happen though, and maybe it’s not something worth getting upset about. While the movie could be spruced up visually that won’t address the weaknesses inherent in the script. My final verdict? A picture which is very attractive to look at, a cast to stoke up your enthusiasm, but a complex stop-start script that eventually trips you up in the overabundance of peaks and troughs.