Reprisal!

I get a kick out of looking at the way trends and perspectives develop and evolve. Anyone who has followed along on my journey through cinema over the last decade and more may have noted that I come back to this, and other matters besides, on a fairly regular basis. As I do so I can’t avoid also observing changes that have taken place in my own perspective over the years. Films and filmmakers have alternately risen and fallen in my estimation, and what I find especially interesting is how certain individuals who only came to my attention relatively late in the game have become not only firm favorites but people whose artistic merits I now rate very highly and examples of whose work I I seek out with genuine enthusiasm. That’s how it is with George Sherman and that’s the frame of mind in which I approached Reprisal! (1956), and I can’t say I was disappointed.

Drama thrives on conflict, in fact it’s said to be one of the integral components. A good deal of conflict in art, and indeed in life itself, derives from the land. And land of course derives its own importance as much from what it represents as what it is.  So what does it represent? Permanence, stability, belonging and, crucially, identity. The western as a cinematic art from draws heavily upon the myths nurtured on the American frontier, myths which had their roots in the notion of the land and all its associated ideals. There is something primal at work here, it is after all what we all spring from and, ultimately, what we return to. Allied to this is the feeling that ownership of land, although perhaps possession or stewardship would be more apt terms given our ephemeral or transitory nature in comparison, affords a strong sense of belonging.

This is all a slightly circuitous way of leading in to Sherman’s Reprisal!, a film which confronts this eternal ambition existing at the very heart of the human condition. The theme crops up again and again in classic westerns and it plays a critical role in ensuring that the genre never really loses its relevance. Here, we follow Frank Madden (Guy Madison) as he struggles to establish himself as a new landowner. His desire (one of the characters speaks of a hunger for land) to literally put down roots is all-consuming for this man. It is his shot at permanence, his chance to attain a sense of identity that will define him. I don’t want to go into too much detail concerning plot here as, in a movie like this, saying a little is so close to saying a lot and I’d like people to be able to come to the film fresh and without too much information that might color their perceptions. Let’s just say that it’s a pretty thorough examination of a man’s gradual coming to terms with his real self, reaching an understanding with that self and perhaps finding a love worthy of him. The film’s strength lies in both its frank appraisal of the core themes and its courage in refraining from providing pat or easy answers to the questions raised.

Sherman takes what I feel is a characteristically thoughtful approach to his story and there is a large measure of the type of optimism and positivism I’ve come to associate with a director like Delmer Daves on view. I’m always on the lookout for redemptive themes but that’s not really the focus here; but it could, I suppose, be argued that a shade of that is to be seen in the arc followed by Felicia Farr’s character. Instead, we’re presented more with some near relatives, namely sacrifice, renewal and rebirth. Madden’s quest to find his own spiritual equilibrium necessitates his sacrificing some of his most cherished dreams, part of himself in truth, in order to achieve some kind of internal rebirth. Sherman switches between some handsome Arizona locations and interiors and uses the landscape quite effectively. There is the image of the hanging tree casting its shadow over the movie at key moments and this – trees being typically symbolic of cycles of renewal as well as the concepts of nature and permanence – mirrors the use of similar imagery in such powerful films as Ride Lonesome and The Hanging Tree.

Felicia Farr made a number of film with Delmer Daves throughout the 1950s – Jubal, The Last Wagon and best of all 3:10 to  Yuma – and would appear in Hell Bent for Leather, another strong movie for Sherman a few years later. If one stops a moment and considers this little group, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Farr deserves to be rated as one of the most important actresses in westerns, her contribution to what are all quite major genre works cannot be overstated. As I mentioned above, Reprisal! doesn’t attempt to present easy answers or to gloss over human weakness and ambiguous attitudes. Farr plays a woman who is superficially a standard western heroine but her character has layers and these are only slowly revealed as the story unfolds – it’s a characteristically subtle and alluring performance.

In terms of actors featured on this site, there have been some notable absences and I’ve been trying to plug a few gaps in recent months. The focus of this place suggests that someone like Guy Madison ought to have made an appearance by now but, for no particular reason, he ended up being overlooked – no doubt his name will appear again in future though. Reprisal! offered him a very strong role and came along in the middle of his long run on TV playing Wild Bill Hickok. I think what stands out most about Madison’s work on this movie is the restraint he displays. There are some very powerful emotional currents in this film and the fact he underplays lends them even greater potency. The way the lead, the director and the writers consistently sidestep the predictable options is another big plus for this production.

Felicia Farr got the top female billing but there is a worthwhile role for Kathryn Grant (Gunman’s Walk) as a potential rival for Madison’s attention and affections. As the heavies, the ever reliable and versatile Michael Pate is cast as the impassioned yet confused one of a trio of brothers gunning for Madison. Edward Platt is a more straightforward proposition as the older and more clearly hate-fueled sibling while Madison’s real-life younger brother Wayne Mallory appears as a slightly cliched hothead.

As far as I know, Reprisal! hasn’t had any official release on disc in the US. However, there are DVDs available from France and Italy. As a 1956 production this movie would have been shot for widescreen projection (probably 1.85:1) but the current  DVDs appear to be open-matte 1.33:1 presentations. Leaving aside the aspect ratio, the movie looks to have been well preserved and is colorful and sharp. Over time I have grown into a big fan of George Sherman and I think this is a very strong effort from the director. I’d like to think his reputation is being reassessed and upgraded, it most certainly ought to be. I still have a good number of his movies to catch up with and every time I come across a pleasure like Reprisal! I find myself looking forward to the next one all the more keenly.

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Pillars of the Sky

Over the years there has been a good deal of ill-informed, and one might even say uninformed, material written and spoken about the classic western, and the depiction and treatment of the Native American Indian has arguably attracted the lion’s share of this negative commentary. That’s perhaps a slightly blunt way to open a post but it does rankle some to see unjustified assessments go unchallenged, not least because it contributes to critical neglect of the genre and a subsequent lack of appreciation and/or interest among potential viewers. Today, it feels as though we are increasingly living in a world of absolutes, one of stark blacks and whites where the very idea of nuance or shading is either dismissed outright or mercilessly lampooned. I suppose that one of the aspects that regularly draws me back to the classic 1950s version of the western is both the ease and the courage with which so many productions navigated moral, and historical complexities. Pillars of the Sky (1956) is an interesting entry in the decade’s Indian cycle,  one which adds religion and its influence on the conflict on the frontier into the blend.

It’s Oregon a few years after the end of the Civil War, and First Sergeant Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler) is responsible for patrolling the reservation in tandem with his Nez Perce scouts. The general direction of the tale is a familiar one for anyone who has seen more than a few westerns from this era. Treaties will be compromised in the name of progress, trust betrayed in the name of expediency, and conflict stoked up off the back of misunderstandings. Still, before the storm comes the calm, represented by the peace efforts of missionary Dr Joseph Holden (Ward Bond). Holden is one of life’s true believers, a man who seeks to bring civilization and all the benefits he associates with his religion to the varied tribes sharing the reservation. Bell presents a more pragmatic face but one which is no less sincere or well-meaning for that. The arrival of the new commanding officer with with orders to supervise the construction and policing of a road through the territory spells trouble. For the army these are orders that have to be executed, for the Indian they are evidence of further hollow promises – whatever the perspective, the end result will be a fight nobody really wants yet one nobody really knows how to avoid either.

Adapted from a Will Henry story, Pillars of the Sky is a typically mature piece of work, eschewing any temptation to paint in broad brush strokes and present the viewer with a simplistic heroes and villains stand-off. As is the case in so many conflicts, there are no clearly delineated good or bad guys, just people manipulated by circumstances and personal loyalties into a situation that can all too easily slide out of control. What sets this production apart from other thoughtful appraisals of the frontier wars is the prominence afforded to the religious aspect. Now some may find this overdone, and I can imagine that accusations of excessive piety might be leveled. Personally, I’m not sure that it has to be approached in that way – the theme here relates to co-existence as far as I can see. Digging a little deeper, it deals with the idea of reaching an accommodation, and on a number of levels. There is of course the wider accommodation being sought between two competing civilizations and cultures, while a range of smaller and more personal examples are to be determined among the characters.

Let’s look at some of those characters then. Firstly, Jeff Chandler’s hard-bitten Sergeant Bell is man having to come to terms with a number of changes and challenges in his life. He has gone from being a Civil War officer to a peacetime non-commissioned man, leading to some amusing confusion for a young lieutenant who served under him in the past and still finds himself saying “Sir” to the man he’s now giving orders to. Bell’s struggle is dual one: he must reconcile his humanitarian instincts with the prickly toughness his years of hard experience have brought about while at the same time assessing his feelings towards a woman he loved and then apparently lost. That woman is Calla Gaxton (Dorothy Malone) and her own path is far from certain, having come west to make a final choice between her old flame Bell and her husband Captain Gaxton (Keith Andes). While this triangle is supposed to add another layer of drama to the story, it ends up as one of the weaknesses for me, with Malone underused and the competition between Chandler and Andes proving something of a damp squib alongside the genuine explosiveness of the main plot strand.

Ward Bond’s missionary offers  him a good role, allowing him to indulge in some larger than life bluster while displaying an equal measure of compassion. And there you have the conflict faced by his character – how best to apply his Christian principles to circumstances and an environment inherently hostile to such ideals. When it comes to portrayals of army brass, it’s common to see inflexible martinets blindly provoking violence yet Pillars of the Sky offers a welcome way around that tired cliché by having Willis Bouchey play an officer who is aware of his own fallibility. Lee Marvin adds another colorful supporting role to his CV as a characteristically hard drinking Irish sergeant. There’s a good deal of broad comedy in his part but plenty of pathos too in his later scenes in the aftermath of the big Indian attack. On the other side of the battle lines, Michael Ansara gives good value as the warrior Kamiakin who has firmly rejected the missionary teachings and contrasts nicely with Sydney Chaplin’s devout and devoted scout.

George Marshall might be best known for making the classic Destry Rides Again – mind you, I’d argue that his own remake of that film Destry in 1954 runs it very close. His long career covered most genres and he made a handful of other notable westerns in the 1950s in The Sheepman and The Guns of Fort Petticoat. I’d rate this among his better movies, for the rich and less common theme and the superb visuals too. CinemaScope westerns are attractive as a rule and the the shooting of the Oregon locations, with the help of cinematographer Harold Lipstein, is quite breathtaking at times, managing to recall Frederic Remington paintings in some shots.

Pillars of the Sky has been released on DVD in a variety of territories over the years and I suspect the same master will have been used for all of those. Universal International productions have a distinctive look and as viewers we’re fortunate to be able to enjoy so many of these via excellent prints and transfers. I have the German release of this movie from Koch and it looks very fine with a sharp, detailed and colorful image. In brief, this is a strong western, and another that has not received its full due, perhaps in part because of the reasons I alluded to in the introduction above. So, if anyone who is keen on westerns has yet to see this one, I recommend they look into it – it has action, drama, visual splendor and intelligence. Check it out.

The Ride Back

I’ve never been a success at anything I tried to do. Anything I ever tried to do ever, failed. I’ve been a failure and that’s all, a plain old failure. But I’m not going to be this time. I’m going to make this one. I’m going to do this right!

That quotation comes late on in proceedings, uttered reluctantly and somewhat desperately by a man goaded into justifying his actions, the result of baiting of one form or another he’s probably struggled with all his life. Most visitors here will know my fondness for small productions and the reasons for that, not the least of which is the opportunity for experiencing the good old heartfelt reactions and observations one can often find in such modest films. The pared down quality leaves little room for the extraneous; when every word and shot has to count, then the odds are we’re going to see something which presents moral conundrums and human truths in a frank and candid way. The Ride Back (1957) is such a film.

Restrictions tend to stimulate creativity, knowing what you can’t do being a powerful way of forcing one to focus on what can be done. The Ride Back opens with men walking into a barber shop, armed men who mean business. Rather than prosaically show what they say and do and how their presence is greeted, the filmmakers cleverly cut to two little boys playing in the street at the same time. As the adults enter the shop the boys emerge from an alley, one escorting the other with a “gun” fashioned from a branch. As the prisoner bolts his captor raises his weapon, and then the deafening crash of real and deadly gunfire drags the attention back to the world of grown-up violence. A man launches himself out into the street, discarding soap and towels as he flees. This person making a bid for freedom is Roberto “Bob” Kallen (Anthony Quinn), and his flight will carry him  across the border into Mexico where half of his bloodline hails from. Where there is a fugitive from the law there  must necessarily be a pursuer. In this case it’s a lone figure; Sheriff Chris Hamish (William Conrad) is a restless combination of truculence and trepidation, driven on by a set of personal demons which will only become apparent gradually.

The small scale of the production here points clearly to the limited budget involved. There are many of the characteristics of a television piece visible in the tiny cast and the overall feeling of spareness. Writer Antony Ellis and director Allen H Miner (although I’ve seen claims he didn’t actually have the reins all the time) did almost all of their work for the small screen. Now this isn’t meant as any criticism, I’m merely noting that you do get the sense that the whole thing was made by people who were familiar with working to a tight schedule and all the discipline that was required in such circumstances. The story is pacy and the focus never wavers, building the relationship between Kallen and Hamish in a believable way. The enmity and mutual distrust is well handled and grows into a mature understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses as the titular ride back throws up a number of challenges that will force both men to confront their own motivations. The movie benefits hugely from the skill and artistry of cinematographer Joseph F Biroc, his shooting of both the interiors and exteriors shows his mastery of lighting, and some clever use of angles emphasizes either space or confinement according to the needs of any given scene. And of course, for fans of western movie theme songs, there is one of those memorable narrative efforts delivered by Eddie Albert to open and close the film.

Anthony Quinn’s part as a half-Mexican gunman must have been a breeze for him, which is not a suggestion that he put any less into his role. No, I mean that there was a “big” quality to the man, a grandness that he seemed to turn on effortlessly and which was ideally suited to this kind of flamboyant and romantic character, something he seemed able to dial up or dial down at will. He’s very good as the sympathetic fugitive, interacting naturally and effectively with both his passionate peasant lover Lita Milan (The Violent Men) and also with Ellen Hope Monroe, the tiny and silent survivor of an Apache massacre.

William Conrad served as both producer and actor on The Ride Back, which I think indicates his level of interest in the project. Quinn played the showier and more eye-catching part, but Conrad’s sheriff is the more interesting character. Both men are headed for a form of personal redemption and both achieve this by the end, conquering distrust of others and distrust of oneself respectively. Conrad nailed the insecurity of his underachieving lawman perfectly, exercising caution at every turn and testing the ground suspiciously before every step. Such was the honesty of his wariness and self-doubt that I found the climactic scenes, where he essentially attains what he’s longed for so deeply by a circuitous and oblique route, genuinely moving. A fine performance.

The Ride Back was released on DVD in the US many years ago by MGM. The 1.33:1 ratio (once again) sounds unusual for a 1957 movie but it looks good overall and, in a way, fits the television vibe surrounding the production. Biroc’s black and white cinematography is nicely reproduced and I wasn’t aware of any major print damage at any stage during my most recent watch. This is by no means a major western and never aspires to be. What it is, on the other hand, is a spare, character-driven piece of storytelling, a virtual two-hander where two very good actors play off each other in an expert fashion and draw in the viewer with the candor of their work. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should try to catch up with it as soon as possible.

Four Guns to the Border

Generic and predictable – aren’t those terms we’ve all seen tossed casually and in derogatory fashion towards westerns before? Yet generic is no sort of criticism at all, in my opinion. Almost all films, and certainly the more interesting and rewarding ones, belong to some genre or other. Using the word generic is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that certain tropes and trappings are present, and thus should not be construed as some negative feature. Which brings me to “predictable”, and few genres have within them the range and variety of the classic western. So whenever someone presents you with bland labels such as those above, I’d urge caution and encourage everyone to see for themselves and make up their own minds. Now all of this is, I’ll grant, a rather long-winded way of telling readers that Four Guns to the Border (1954) is film which proudly wears its genre badges and also tells a story that flirts with familiarity but tramps off determinedly down its own distinctive path.

The story follows the four men of the title, a gang led by Cully (Rory Calhoun) and comprised of an aging outlaw Dutch (John McIntire), an Indian by the name of Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) and a comically awkward young man called Bronco (George Nader). This group is first seen carrying out a robbery, but an unsuccessful one where their efforts are for nothing as the safe they blow turns out to be empty. And so they move on, crossing the path of an old gunfighter Bhumer (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller). This is the key event, for even as they separate, the Bhumers on the way to their home and Cully’s companions to a new job, the seeds of a powerful attraction have been planted. When Cully is offered the chance to rob the apparently ultra-secure bank in Cholla and simultaneously humiliate the town lawman Flannery (Charles Drake),  his one time friend and rival in love, he grabs it enthusiastically. In a sense though, all of this is incidental to where the plot is leading – a series of showdowns that bring out the humanity in all of the main players, altering their perspectives on life and their role in the scheme of things. Ultimately, it all winds up in place that is hard to foresee from the beginning, but the journey there and the spiritual growth and renewal that this provokes are not only highly entertaining but also, vitally, hugely rewarding.

Four Guns to the Border was adapted from a Louis L’Amour story (one that I can’t recall whether or not I’ve read) and directed by Richard Carlson. He’ll be forever remembered, and rightly so, for his acting roles in Sci-Fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space among others, but he was a fine director when he turned his talents in that direction and would make another interesting western with Calhoun a few years later in The Saga of Hemp Brown. Clearly, he liked L’Amour’s writing for he would go on to direct another adaptation of the author’s work a decade later when he made Kid Rodelo. He paces the movie beautifully here, neatly drawing together the strands of a moderately complex affair in a brisk one hour and twenty minutes. The shooting is a blend of interiors and location work, including the Iverson Ranch, and it looks very impressive at all times. The attractive overall look of the production becomes quite beautiful on occasion in the hands of master cinematographer Russell Metty; his rendering of the storm is dreamlike and borders on the fantastic. Still, this is quite appropriate considering that what we’re presented with here is essentially a fable, an uplifting love story where the classic redemption motif is not simply applied but celebrated.

Calhoun is on top form as Cully, sore and surly to begin with, nursing a grudge and holding any finer feelings at a definite distance. If ever a character was in need of a form of spiritual salvation, it’s Cully. When he runs across Colleen Miller’s wide-eyed ingenue, the spark is immediately apparent. Sure Calhoun is a good western lead, as he proved time and again in his career, but Miller’s interaction with him, her infectious and innocent sensuality, is what elevates it all. Although Miller only made a small number of films before retiring early, her screen presence is quite remarkable, and I feel Four Guns to the Border would have been a far poorer and much more routine affair had she not been cast.

Classic westerns were frequently distinguished by the strength in depth of their casting and that was certainly true of Universal-International productions, where a seemingly inexhaustible pool of exceptionally fine character actors was available. Four Guns to the Border benefits greatly from having performers of the caliber of Walter Brennan and John McIntire competing with and complementing each other as authentic frontier types. George Nader and Jay Silverheels provide some gentle humor and the former is quite affecting in his clumsiness. I think it’s fair to say that any movie which can afford to have the likes of Charles Drake and Nina Foch in small to medium supporting roles is a rich one indeed. In fact, a brief glance at the names mentioned in this short paragraph ought to provide ample evidence of the kind of quality that is on view.

Four Guns to the Border is widely available on DVD, at least in Europe where it has been released in the UK, Spain and France. I’ve had the Spanish disc for some time now and I imagine all those versions are taken from the same source. The print is in fine condition with little damage and the Technicolor cinematography looks quite spectacular at times. Thematically, this is one of the classic 1950s Hollywood westerns, a tightly handled production blending action and characterization but placing more emphasis on the latter. There’s a maturity on show in the way the script examines relationships and the twists and turns taken on the journey through life. This is a finely crafted and deeply satisfying film, one I’d urge everyone who is keen on cinema to take the opportunity to view.

Indian Uprising

So many things seem to be connected.  And once you move into the field of the arts, and particularly cinema, this becomes all the more noticeable. Film fans tend to spend a fair amount of time griping about the latest remake and indeed the fact that more and more of that species seem to be appearing. I can appreciate that; there is that sense of laziness, of creative stagnation, and sometimes the trepidation that accompanies news that some personal favorite is about to be reimagined. Still, it’s not a new phenomenon and has been happening for about as long as people have been making movies. All of which brings me to Indian Uprising (1952), a modest yet engaging cavalry western, which is hardly the type you’d think anyone would have been clamoring to redo. Nevertheless, the writing team behind this picture are the same people whose names you will find attached to the very similar Apache Rifles, directed by William Witney more than a decade later.

The plot here is a familiar one for anyone who has seen more than a handful of westerns, but that’s not to be taken as a criticism since it’s the execution of  a story that matters more than how high or low it’s positioned on the originality scale. It’s Arizona in the 1880s and Geronimo (Miguel Inclan) is still free and more than a few steps ahead of General Crook’s cavalry. We see events from the perspective of Captain McCloud (George Montgomery), and the opening has his troops luring a band of Apache into an ambush which leads to the capture of Geronimo’s son. A valuable captive such as this offers an opportunity to draw the elusive war chief to the negotiating table, and McCloud is both humane and canny enough not to overplay his hand, ultimately setting the boy free to demonstrate good faith. What follows is a process that has often been observed. The Apache strike a deal and keep to it, but other interests are keen to make as much money as possible from the newly tamed territory. As expected, plans are set in motion to stir up latent racial antagonism, political pressure is applied, and the flames of a new conflict are kindled for the sake of a tidy profit.

The later Apache Rifles would focus on a different war chief, Victorio, and add a few other elements to the mix but the essence of that film and of Indian Uprising is the question of trust and good faith. These are eternal themes, ones that have resonance in all aspects of human interaction but are especially potent in movies looking at the Indian wars. The message conveyed here is a progressive one but it’s realistic enough not to allow its hopefulness blind us to the facts. The integrity and good intentions of the lead remain intact by the end but the ultimate shabbiness of the government line and its dissembling opportunism is confronted squarely and acknowledged, which is to the filmmakers’ credit. There are a mix of interiors and location work (including the often used Iverson Ranch and the instantly recognizable red earth of Arizona), with the latter showing director Ray Nazarro’s (Apache Territory) work off to best effect and also providing a dramatic backdrop for the major action set pieces.

If you take a look around any of the sites that devote time to classic westerns, it’s hard to avoid coming across some mention of George Montgomery. I’ve not featured him here before and the reason for that is down to the simple fact that I’ve not seen a lot of his films. This is somewhat remiss of me but I have taken steps to remedy that and have acquired a number of his movies – although in my defense, I will say that I’ve seen and enjoyed a number of episodes Cimarron City, his late-50s TV show. He’s a solid and personable lead, his part being a much more straightforward and less complicated one than the corresponding role Audie Murphy would take on in Apache Rifles, and an easy figure for audiences to identify with and root for.

The only woman in the picture is Audrey Long, and Indian Uprising would be her last movie before retiring and settling down to a long marriage to the creator of The Saint Leslie Charteris. She had a relatively brief career anyway although one which included a number of choice films; she played alongside John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle and also was cast in a couple of fine films noir Desperate and Born to Kill. A quick glance at her filmography drew my attention to another of her films I must look out for, Homicide for Three based on Patrick Quentin’s novel Puzzle for Puppets. This stood out for me because I’m a mystery fan and also due to the fact not many of Patrick Quentin’s Peter Duluth stories have been adapted for the screen, the Lex Barker and Lisa Gastoni vehicle Strange Awakening from Puzzle for Fiends being another example.

Thinking of cavalry movies nearly always brings John Ford to mind.  While Indian Uprising is certainly not in the same league as Ford’s work, there are a few common factors, quite aside from the general horse soldiers milieu. In the first place, Mexican actor Miguel Inclan appeared in The Fugitive and also, more notably, as Cochise in Fort Apache. One of Ford’s trademarks was his portrayal of the various army types and the domestic situation in the isolated outposts. The latter doesn’t get an awful lot of attention but, to me anyway, the stage Irish sergeants played by Joe Sawyer and John Call were not such distant relations of those of Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond.

Indian Uprising should be easy enough to locate. There’s a MOD DVD available in the US, a French DVD and the Spanish disc I picked up. I think it also turns up online in the usual places but I’m not positive on that. The image generally looks good with natural colors and minimal damage. While this is very much a second tier western it’s also an enjoyable one. These kinds of movies were the bread and butter affairs that kept the genre ticking over and are often better than some critics would have you believe. I liked the movie and I feel anyone who appreciates what such programmers have to offer will do so too.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

If there’s one thing that turns my stomach, it’s respectability.

By the 1950s the western itself could be said to have attained something very close to respectability. Mind you, the relative dearth of awards bestowed on the genre, even in these peak golden years, possibly contradicts that. If respectability hadn’t entirely been conferred or, as the above quote from Miriam Hopkins’ character asserts, wasn’t even something worth angling for, it would be hard to deny the popularity the genre was experiencing. There are all sorts of theories propounded to account for that popularity, and I guess we’ve all become familiar with a fair few of them. In filmmaking terms, it’s the ultimate American genre, and for many that makes it part of the bedrock of cinema. I think the myth of the Old West as portrayed on screen is one of the strongest representations of the myth of America, and I’m referring to America here as an idea as much as a nation. One of the central tenets of that idea, to  my mind anyway, relates to rebirth, renewal and, that word which is hard to avoid under the circumstances, redemption. All the best examples of the western hinge on this, and The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952) is no exception in that regard.

The story begins in the town of Poker Flat, in deep and forbidding darkness. The foul and muddy streets glisten in the night, and few people are to be seen, most are whooping it up in the saloons as they drink and gamble the evening away. Yet, there are a few figures abroad, detaching themselves from  the shadows momentarily to move from one brightly lit establishment to another, although a handful are heading in another direction. These are the men led by Ryker (Cameron Mitchell), and they are on their way to the assay office, planning to raid the safe within. That robbery, where Ryker cynically betrays and sacrifices his confederates, sees some new graves filled and a residue of bitterness left among the miners.

If justice can’t be fully meted out, then outraged morals can at least be assuaged, and so it is that certain undesirable elements are to be run out of town. The can in this case is to be carried by the gambler Oakhurst (Dale Robertson), the drunken Jake (Billy Lynn), ageing saloon girl the Duchess (Miriam Hopkins) and a young woman called Cal (Anne Baxter). The latter is the wife of Ryker, and is in possession  of the proceeds of the robbery, but this is not known to her ill-assorted traveling companions. However, this fact is to play a crucial role as the outcasts along with a young man and his pregnant fiancée are forced to lay up in an abandoned cabin to shelter from and wait out a blizzard.

Remakes are nothing new, it’s a practice stretching right back to the early days of moviemaking. The Outcasts of Poker Flat, freely adapted from Brett Harte’s story,  had already been filmed in 1919 by John Ford, and again in 1937. I’ve not seen either of the earlier versions so I can’t comment on how Joseph M Newman’s 1952 movie compares. It does develop the plot in a different way to Harte’s original text though, reducing the tragic elements and instead building up the positives. This is where I see the western movie, especially in the key post-war years and on into the 50s, bringing those redemptive concepts to full fruition, using contemporary sources and situations, retaining the core shape and then molding them all to slot into the mythic framework we now recognize. In The Outcasts of Poker Flat it’s those title characters who redeem themselves and are spiritually reborn via their confrontation not only with evil but also through society’s rejection of them and, as a consequence of this, their own revitalized self-reliance and self-confidence.

In visual terms, the progress of the characters along the road towards renewal is plain to see. The film starts out in deep and grimy darkness, rooted firmly in an uncommunicative, isolated and threatening environment. By the end though, light has come to dominate, a literal birth is soon to take place and the two leads opt not to return to Poker Flat but to take an alternative turn and strike off towards a new destination. Newman’s direction throughout has been very solid, emphasizing the narrowness and lack of space of the cabin, clearly drawing attention to the parallels in the characters’ lives. And then there’s the gradual widening  of perspective, leading up to the bright, airy and liberated feel of the final scene – a literal journey into the light, towards open horizons. While Newman’s direction is assured and controlled, the real star of the show is the wonderful and expertly lit cinematography of Joseph LaShelle.

The cast is small and ample time is available to allow most to make a mark. The principal female lead is Anne Baxter, a versatile actress who was in her prime at this stage and she offers good value as the conflicted wife who doesn’t quite know how best to extricate herself from the tangled mess her life has become.  Dale Robertson is generally a good western lead, a dependable presence who tends to anchor movies securely. That’s exactly what happens in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, where his unflappable stoicism keeps the tension manageable and the melodrama in check.

That tension comes from a combination of the elements, the isolation and then the return of Cameron Mitchell’s menacing villain. He does a neat line in shiftiness in this movie, coming across as genuinely mean and dangerous and with just enough insecurity to go along with it to add a layer of unpredictability. Billy Lynn is fine as the befuddled drunk and Barbara Bates (who had appeared with Baxter in All About Eve) is appealing and vulnerable but has little to do. On the other hand, Miriam Hopkins is on top form as the jaded and weary Duchess, a woman who knows her best years are behind her, and delivers some of the best lines with an acid relish.

For some reason The Outcasts of Poker Flat doesn’t seem to be widely available. I don’t think it’s out on disc in the US but there are European releases. There’s a French disc which I imagine will suffer from non-removable subtitles and there’s also an Italian DVD. I have a copy of the latter and I have to say the film looks terrific, it has been given a very clean and sharp transfer and the print used is clearly in great shape.

This piece represents the 200th western movie which I have written about on this site and I hope others will think it’s an appropriate choice. Sure I could have picked a big, better known title, but as I said some time ago when I marked the 100th western, it somehow seems more fitting to choose the kind of less celebrated movie I’ve spent a lot of time (although by no means exclusively) flagging up over the years.

Other Joseph M Newman westerns:

The Gunfight at Dodge City

Fort Massacre

A Thunder of Drums

Silver City

Watching movies again after a long gap can alternate between the rewarding and the disappointing. Any conclusions reached are, of course, entirely subjective as it’s we who represent the variable here, the ones who change, and not the movies themselves. And it’s a curious phenomenon, one whose mechanics I’ve never wholly understood beyond vague allusions to the mood one happens to be in on any given occasion. For what it’s worth, I find that my feelings towards most films don’t shift all that radically, and when I do perceive a change it’s a positive one as often as not. Still, when I recently had another look at Byron Haskin’s Silver City (1951) I experienced the opposite effect – a certain disappointment, as though the film I remembered were subtly different.

The show opens with a robbery and pitches us right into what promises to be a pacy adventure. The bright start and then the following sequence that establishes Larkin Moffatt (Edmond O’Brien) as a man fated to be dogged by a tarnished past has the potential to develop into something really meaty and satisfying. We follow Moffatt from one rejection to another as he trudges along the path of weary disillusionment trodden by legions of noir anti-heroes. This was the image I’d been carrying around in my mind – that of the pugnacious, tight-lipped guy slouching his way through a hard-boiled western in search of some form of personal redemption. But that’s only part of the story, and not necessarily a fair representation of it either. Moffatt is thrown a moral lifeline of sorts when Candace Surrency (Yvonne De Carlo) and her miner father Dutch (Edgar Buchanan) persuade him to take on the role of foreman when they’ve made a big silver strike. There’s trouble looming though in the shape of a grasping rival, Jarboe (Barry Fitzgerald), as well as the reappearance of  figures from Moffatt’s past who refuse to let him move on.

On paper, this all sounds quite good – and the fact it’s derived from a Luke Short story attests to its pedigree – but the fact is it plods along where it needs to zip, and the tone tends to vary in a way I didn’t find especially successful. Moffatt is for the most part portrayed as terse, tough and two-fisted but there are a few occasions where he’s involved in some knockabout antics which didn’t blend in naturally for me – there’s a manufactured saloon brawl that feels altogether too broad, in my opinion. Aside from that, I’m of the opinion that there’s almost too much going on in the script – jealousy, romantic subplots which crisscross feel somewhat repetitive, rivalries that spill over from relationships into business, and consequent grudges and bad feeling nursed by others. In short, there’s always something going on but the crowded nature of it all actually serves to slacken the pace rather than quicken it.

On the plus side, there is a fine cast here, led by the ever watchable O’Brien, bringing that natural noir sensibility he had to his role. Yvonne De Carlo always had that earthy allure and photographs wonderfully in Technicolor. I think she generally excelled in westerns and made quite a few, her blend of sexuality and toughness finding a natural home in the genre. Laura Elliott (AKA Kasey Rogers), who had a pivotal role in Strangers on a Train around this time, is fine too as De Carlo’s competition for O’Brien’s attentions. Moving on to the villainous roles, I ‘d argue there are too many of them for their own good. The great Barry Fitzgerald could never be less than enjoyable and he seemed to be having a high time with his malignant Irish pixie act. John Dierkes is good too as a murderous and vindictive drunkard but he’s underused, while neither Richard Arlen nor Michael Moore amount to a big enough threat to provide a solid core to the drama.

I think director Byron Haskin had a great visual sense and this film looks very attractive most of the time. Westerns tends to be at their best when the locations are used to good advantage and while this film has some good outdoor work, it has to be said that the director really made the most of the interiors, and there’s no doubt cameraman Ray Rennahan’s beautifully understated lighting played an important part in this too. Haskin made a trio of westerns around this time with Edmond O’Brien and I’m keen to see the most elusive of them, Warpath.  That title has only had a release in Spain as far as I can tell and I can’t find any reviews to throw light on its quality. Even so, I may well end up taking a chance on this myself in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Silver City has been out in the US on DVD and Blu-ray via Olive  for a few years now, and I think there are European versions on the market too. The movie looks reasonable, if not startling, and passes the time agreeably. However, I still feel there are the ingredients for something better in the mix, and I remain somewhat disappointed that my latest viewing had me noticing more of the flaws than the strengths. Anyway, that’s just my current take and, as ever, other opinions are available.

The Violent Men

Quality is a hard thing to  define with any degree of precision. It’s something we all know when we see it but try putting it into words, creating a label for it which can be affixed to suitable candidates and you find yourself in trouble. If that’s a tough one, then differentiating or categorizing grades of quality is the kind of challenge one could base myths on. I, like probably most other people, will take some pride in my ability to recognize “a good movie”, even if that is merely my necessarily subjective view, and I might also try to impart to others exactly why I feel this is the case. But what separates a great movie from a simply good one? I genuinely don’t know, but again I can usually recognize it. All this abstraction leads me to The Violent Men (1955), a Rudolph Maté directed western with a superb cast and the kind of names on the other side of the camera which really ought to ensure its comfortable position among the acknowledged greats. Yet it doesn’t belong there, it’s not poor by any means but never rises above the level of quite good. And I can’t help but wonder why that’s so. Needless to say, any and all ideas on the subject are welcome and will be taken into consideration.

The framework within which the story plays out is a classic one for the genre, the range war. The motivation behind it all appears to be ambition and a twisted kind of love, twisted by a its traumatic birth in violent circumstances. I say appears here because it’s really greed, or perhaps covetousness might be more accurate, which propels everybody and everything towards another of those fiery yet cathartic conclusions. We follow it all from the perspective of John Parrish (Glenn Ford) a Civil War veteran who came west in the uncertain hope of recovering from his wounds. Well he did recover, and clearly made a success, albeit a slightly reluctant one, of his time as a small-scale rancher. However, in something of a subversion of the standard western trope the dearest wish of this young man is to go east. That’s what he claims anyway, or at least it’s what his betrothed, Caroline Vail (May Wynn), has encouraged him to believe. When we meet Parrish he’s poised to sell out and be on his way to a new life, but there are clearly nagging doubts stalking him. He’s ready to sign everything over to local big shot and bully Lew Wilkison (Edward G Robinson), a battle-scarred old tyrant who rules the range with an iron fist but who fails to see the treachery taking place under his own roof involving his restless wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and his shiftless younger brother Cole (Brian Keith).

I spoke about the path that leads to a blazing climax earlier, but it’s a long and slow-burning fuse that leads us there. The first half of the movie builds everything up carefully and methodically, as Ford’s character gradually comes to terms with his own doubts, his sense of responsibility to a place and a people who arguably saved his life and offered him a new start. As he watches injustice pile on top of vindictiveness, till cold-blooded murder is done before his eyes, we see him wrestling with his own indecision. Ford was, in my opinion, a master at pushing against his own natural reticence, a characteristic which colored and strengthened his best performances. This quality gets a solid workout in The Violent Men, the pressure rising incrementally until a release must be  sought.

If drama needs conflict in order to have meaning, then that conflict should be founded on the existence of a strong villain to give it the necessary momentum. The Violent Men presents the nominal bad guy in the form of Edward G Robinson and he growls, blusters and threatens his way through the first half with aplomb. Still, I don’t think he can be classified the main villain; although there’s some effectively sullen slouching from Brian Keith, and even a bit of mean braggadocio from a young Richard Jaeckel, the honor surely belongs with Barbara Stanwyck. Mendacious and manipulative to the end, she pulls the strings and directs the mayhem, easily seeing off any competition from the other women in the cast – May Wynn, Diane Foster and Lita Milan. In support, Warner Anderson is enjoyable as Ford’s dependable foreman and there’s a typically unctuous turn from James Westerfield.

Rudolph Maté began as a cinematographer and carried his talents in that area into his subsequent work as a director, generally turning out visually attractive and striking movies. With a man like that directing and the actual photography duties shared between W Howard Greene and Burnett Guffey, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the film looks exceptionally fine, aided by shooting in the familiar Lone Pine locations. The story derives from a novel by Donald Hamilton, of the Matt Helm stories (much admired apparently by John Dickson Carr) and The Big Country. Personally, the only book by Hamilton I’ve read is Night Walker, which was reissued in paperback a few years ago, and I rather liked it so I’ve a mind to see if I can locate a copy of this. Anyway, plenty of talent on display here so far and that’s further enhanced by having the score penned by the great Max Steiner.

So, we wind up in a similar place to where we started, looking at a mightily impressive list of highly talented contributors in a well made western that flirts with themes that allude to classical tragedy. Make no mistake, this is a fine and entertaining piece of work yet it falls short of what I’d think of as greatness. Nevertheless, this isn’t a major criticism, more something that piques my curiosity. Just to round it all off, while The Violent Men has long been widely available on DVD, the image could use a bit of a brush up and there’s the potential for a very strong Blu-ray. As far as I’m aware, no-one has  released a Hi-Def version of the movie and I think this is a title deserving of that kind of treatment.

Man with the Gun

” It doesn’t look nice for a town as small as Sheridan to have a graveyard as big as we’ve got.”

Man with the Gun (1955) is what I think of as a small production. Sure there’s a big name lead, a supporting cast full of classy and familiar faces, and also some fairly big hitters on the other side of the camera. Still, there no location work and the action is all confined to the studio backlot, which indicates a tight budget. So I call it a small production. Even so, as the quote above indicates, there’s a pretty high body count for such a brisk and spare film but the onscreen violence never appears gratuitous, something I always appreciate.

Sheridan City carries a grandiose name for a mean little backwater, a shabby-looking settlement clinging on to the periphery of civilization. The opening moments add mean-spiritedness to the general meanness when a horseman rides along the grim main street, a dog darting out to bark and yap alongside him. And then he simply shoots the animal dead, not for any particular reason – just because. This is Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) a troubleshooter for local bigwig Dade Holman. The latter has been tightening his grip on the town itself and land surrounding it, and notions of law, justice or just common decency have been getting correspondingly squeezed. Into this increasingly tense atmosphere comes another rider, a grey clad figure with a fearsome reputation. He’s Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum), a professional town tamer who happens to be passing through on an unrelated matter. His business is with Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), the manager of a group of saloon entertainers, and Tollinger’s former love. This gunman’s services seem to be just what Sheridan City needs and the fact it ties neatly in with his personal affairs is a good enough excuse for him to stop a while.

The town tamer western is a variant that allows for plenty of rumination of the role of justice and the weaknesses of the legal system. These kinds of movies concern themselves with societies where the rule has law has broken down to the point where only the intervention of an outsider can restore a community’s faith in its own ability to endure. The outsider should always be one of those types who live by their wits and their ruthlessness, a man with a gun. The role of the outsider always appeared a good fit for Robert Mitchum, a man who, despite his star status, forever gave the impression of not really being an insider. There was that wry detachment about the man which made parts like this ideal, and he does look the real deal as he struts purposefully around and lays waste to the string of largely ineffectual semi-hard men the local land baron sends his way.

Still, a movie needs a stronger hook than that to grab and maintain our attention. Drama requires an emotional core if it’s to raise itself above the level of juvenile thrill-seeking. In Man with the Gun that comes courtesy of the subplot involving Jan Sterling and her previous relationship with Mitchum. Right from the beginning there is a strong sense of sadness and regret floating around these two grim and austere people; they circle one another cautiously and Sterling is the one who ensures contact is withheld and distance remains constant. I’m not going to go into the details back of it all as I think it amounts to a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie. What I will say though is it offers a layer of depth and when the big revelation comes it triggers the films main set piece, the huge conflagration Mitchum sets off to cauterize both his and the town’s wounds.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, this film has an enviable cast of familiar faces on show. Karen Sharpe gets a substantial role as a young girl both drawn to and vaguely repelled by Tollinger’s frank acknowledgement of the persuasive power of violence. It’s a nicely judged performance and benefits from not having to navigate the emotional heat inherent in Sterling’s part, allowing the viewer to sample a different, less charged perspective. There’s also good work from Emile Meyer, in sympathetic mode for a change, and from Henry Hull, who seemed to be channeling Walter Brennan as the cautious marshal. You can usually tell the quality of a movie by the caliber of its villains and anything that features a lineup with Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon and Claude Akins positively demands one’s attention. I could go on listing names here but if I limit myself to saying that there’s an early appearance by Angie Dickinson well down the cast, the depth of talent involved ought to be apparent.

A word now for those behind the camera. Director Richard Wilson might have a comparatively brief list of credits as the man in charge but his work under and alongside Orson Welles is significant, and no man who spent that time around such a cinematic titan could come away the poorer. And what can one say about Lee Garmes? Here was a man whose experience stretched back to Hollywood’s pioneering days and who was responsible for shooting some of the most visually attractive and remarkable works committed to film – Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express being just one example.While Man with the Gun doesn’t have that kind of baroque richness there are flashes of Garmes’ flair, notably that set piece fire scene I referred to earlier. Finally, I’d like to make a brief comment on Alex North’s appropriately spare score and the fact that there’s a wonderfully melancholy quality to the tag he employs for Mitchum’s character.

For a time Man with the Gun was only available on DVD in an open-matte transfer. In truth, aspect ratio aside,  it wasn’t bad in terms of picture quality. Now there are DVDs and Blu-rays available in the US (Kino) and Europe (via Koch in Germany) so good quality presentations are relatively easy to access. I don’t suppose too many people will claim this is a great western but I quite like it, and a lot of that is down to the tone achieved by the accomplished playing of Mitchum and Sterling. Try it, if you get the opportunity.

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.