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.

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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 ride 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.

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.