Five Card Stud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copper Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

Money, Women and Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springfield Rifle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gambler from Natchez

I remember when I was first toying with the idea of starting up a blog on movies, almost ten years ago now, and wondering about whether or not I wanted to focus on certain genres or types of film. Back then lots of the big entertainment sites took what looked like a shotgun approach of covering as wide a range of material as possible and I felt the best way to break into this digital scribbling was to specialize. The question though was what to specialize in. I eventually settled on writing primarily (though by no means exclusively) on westerns of the classic era as that was, and remains, my favorite area. But I’d mulled over a focus on noir thrillers (which do figure fairly prominently as it stands) and even war movies for a while. Another genre that I recall giving some thought to was the swashbuckler/adventure picture yet I ultimately felt that had limited appeal. Anyway, all this leads me in a slightly circuitous way to The Gambler from Natchez (1954), something of a hybrid which blends together elements of both the swashbuckler and the western to produce a pretty enjoyable confection.

We follow Vance Colby (Dale Robertson) on his way back to New Orleans having served in the army of Texas under Sam Houston. The uniform tells us Colby is a soldier, and a run in with an ill-tempered card player reveals his familiarity with games of chance. The fact is he’s the son of a renowned gambler and immensely proud of it too. His defense of the honor of his family leads to a fight (the first of many) and also the acquaintance of a kindred spirit in Antoine Barbee (Thomas Gomez) and his spitfire daughter Melanie (Debra Paget), two people who will figure prominently in events to follow. In brief, Colby is soon to learn that his father is dead, slain after being accused of cheating at a game of Blackjack. It looks very much as though the three men responsible, led by foppish but ruthless plantation owner André Rivage (Kevin McCarthy), had other reasons for the killing, and the rest of the tale is taken up with the unraveling of their scheme and the quest for justice.

I’ve tagged The Gambler from Natchez as a western here even though, as I mentioned earlier, it’s at best a hybrid form with arguably more of a swashbuckling flavor about it. However, I hope the presence of Robertson (and to some extent Paget) and a story from the pen of Gerald Drayson Adams makes my stretching of the definitions of the genre just about permissible, but I won’t mind if anyone strongly objects. Director Henry Levin moves everything along at a nice even pace, never getting bogged down in unnecessary asides nor skimming over the important parts. Cameraman Lloyd Ahern ensures everything looks as sumptuous as possible while Levin get maximum impact from the action set pieces – a nocturnal chase through the reeds and a brace of duels, one with pistols and the other with rapiers.

Dale Robertson was very much a western star. Sure he worked in other genres but even a quick glance through his filmography shows how much it leans towards the Old West. A film like The Gambler from Natchez called for his customary ruggedness and also a degree of suavity that we don’t always see. It’s a balancing act which I reckon he pulls off perfectly successfully – the polish of the climactic duel with McCarthy standing as proof of that. And McCarthy was one of the most versatile actors to ply his trade in Hollywood, taking on heroic and villainous roles as lead or support with ease – he’s likely most famous for his work in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film I hope to feature here sooner rather than later. Suffice to say he sneers with some style in this movie. Debra Paget’s looks meant she was an ideal fit for westerns and exotica alike. She’s very good as the fiery river denizen with a particularly determined streak and plays well off the cool Robertson. Thomas Gomez is another of those whose presence I always appreciate in a film. He could bring tragedy and pathos to his parts as in Force of Evil yet also possessed a lovely light touch and indulged in that latter quality here.

The Gambler from Natchez has been released in the US as a MOD disc from Fox and had also available in Spain as a pressed DVD via Fox/Impulso for some time before that. I have that Spanish disc which presents the film in what I take is an open matte transfer – IMDb suggest the correct aspect ratio is 1.66:1 and that may or may not be right, I’d have thought anything up to 1.78:1 would be possible. That aside, the movie looks reasonably good, a bit of a clean up would bring out more detail and perhaps add a bit more pop to the colors, but it’s quite watchable as it is.

This is a film which is hard to classify neatly in any one genre, drifting  between the western, the swashbuckler and the adventure yarn. None of that is especially important of course, what does matter is how effectively all these aspects  come together. In my opinion, it all gels and therefore works. The film has  no pretensions of being anything other than a smooth piece of entertainment and goes about its business with style, excitement and wit.  A good film.

Bullet for a Badman

Predictability tends to be the scourge of good storytelling. You know the feeling, when you can tell right from the beginning exactly where a writer is heading, how the story is going to develop and what the characters will do. That’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be derived from such situations, but it’s awfully hard to get enthused about the questionable allure of the familiar. So, having no doubt whetted everyone’s appetite with an opening hook like that, I’d like to say how much a pleasure it is when the promise of the humdrum is swept away and the potentially trite  is actually revealed as an impostor. This is kind of how I feel about Bullet for a Badman (1964), where the opening suggests we’re going to be served up one of those vaguely dispiriting mid-60s efforts, the type of western that highlights the weariness which had crept into the genre during those years. Well if you shouldn’t set too much store by the cover of a book, then I guess this movie goes some way towards bearing out the parallel truism about not judging a film too harshly on the basis of its opening.

Bullet for a Badman starts off with two men setting out on paths  that are soon to converge on the town of Griffin. Sam Ward (Darren McGavin) is an outlaw, his status as a genuine badman established by the cold-blooded killing of an informer, and he’s finalizing his plans to rob the bank in town and then pay a most unwelcome visit on someone he once knew. That someone is Logan Keliher (Audie Murphy), who’s preparing to ride into Griffin with his boy to negotiate financing for his land. The first quarter of an hour or thereabouts play out much as you might expect given the build up I’ve sketched in above. Anyone who has seen even a handful of westerns would most likely be nodding with a sense of uninspired expectation at about this point – the stereotypical characters and circumstances are lined up just the way we anticipate, but then they change tack. The relationships aren’t quite as we’d been led to believe, there’s a complex back story governing the actions and reactions of these people, and what we thought we knew is only the half of it. The revelation of the nature of the connection between Keliher and Ward comes fast and immediately adds a significant amount of meat to the bones of what had looked for all the world like a pretty clapped out tale. Furthermore, once the narrative carries us out of Griffin into the wilderness in the company of the fugitive Ward and the pursuing posse we run into some more previously unsuspected twists. The preconceptions we were actively encouraged to foster in the opening section are whipped away and replaced by a challenge – if the badman we were shown in the early stages isn’t quite excused, then it is at least suggested that we look at those on his trail and ask ourselves whether they are really much better.

I’ve mentioned how the plot, and consequently the characterization, shifts gear after the preliminaries are taken care of and the film moves away from the town of Griffin. Well as that takes place the visual style of the movie naturally alters too. At the beginning there is that flat look that you see in some TV productions of the era, lighting that’s a little too solid and uniform, an over-reliance on sets and mock-ups – the result is not just an artificial appearance, which certainly has its merits, but a cheap one.  Cameraman Joseph F Biroc had an impressive list of credits in both television and cinema but it’s not till we get out among the Utah locations that the best of his talents become apparent. Generally, location shooting has the effect of opening things up, of making a movie feel bigger. That’s the case with Bullet for a Badman, where the film is given the opportunity to breathe away from the backlot. Director R G Springsteen did a lot of TV work, so much that anyone with an interest in the small screen of the period must surely have seen some of his work. Prior to that he made a lot of budget westerns and, to an extent, one could say he was returning to his roots with this, the elusive Showdown also with Murphy, and a handful of A C Lyles pictures. I found his direction here satisfactory overall, but he does let the pace lag a bit in the second act.

I spoke a bit about Audie Murphy’s growing assurance as an actor last year when I wrote a piece on Apache Rifles, a film which was made around the same time as this. Without wishing to go over the same ground repeatedly, let me just reiterate that the abilities which were always there were put to ever more effective use by Murphy as he grew older and grew into the movies; the more complex the role, the more of himself he seemed to put into it. The script by Mary and Willard Willingham, adapted from a Marvin H Albert novel, had protagonist and antagonist as former comrades in the Texas Rangers now cast as rivals by their love of the same woman. There’s plenty of scope for juicy drama in a situation like that, but it needs someone strong to take the part of the antagonist. Here it’s Darren McGavin, another guy I associate primarily with television. I guess many people will think of him as Carl Kolchak from the 70s series and the two reportedly superior TV movies (which I still haven’t seen!), although I’ve also gotten used to him as the 50s version of Mike Hammer. But is he the real villain of the piece? I’ll let each person decide for themselves on that one – suffice to say Skip Homeier, George Tobias, and even Alan Hale Jr have the chance to explore the less savory side of their characters. As for the women, Beverley Owen has a fairly straightforward and typical part as the object of McGavin and Murphy’s affections, while Ruta Lee got more screen time along with a showier if no more original role.

The UK DVD of Bullet for a Badman contains a good print of the movie transferred attractively but economically to disc. There are no supplements at all but the film looks very good, particularly the aforementioned location shooting. The movie itself is one which starts in a frankly pedestrian manner and threatens to become mired in the doldrums. However, it does shake off those routine constraints to become something much more fulfilling. While it does tap into some of the redemptive themes and the richer qualities to be found in the better 50s productions, I don’t want to oversell it either. That opening section is decidedly trite and there are occasional lapses in that direction as it goes along, but I feel that it builds sufficient momentum to keep it fresh for the most part.

The Saga of Hemp Brown

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Massacre

It’s been said that everything has its own time, its place in the overall scheme, and I guess that’s true of art in general and  movies in this particular instance. Anyone browsing around this place for even a short time will probably notice that I’m fond of tracing the lines of development of cinema, especially the western. I like to see where individual films came from, what they were pointing towards and where they fit into the pattern formed by the genre. The reason I mention all that is because as I watched Fort Massacre (1958) it struck me that the film is very much a product of its time, both within the line of progression followed by the western and also on account of its placement in the filmography of its leading player – I shall return to, and try to expand upon, that later.

It opens with a killing, or the aftermath of a massacre to be more precise. In New Mexico a platoon on its way to join up with a larger column, in turn supposed to meet and escort a wagon train, has been ambushed and very nearly wiped out by  a large war party of Apache. What remains is a bedraggled and weary troop under the command of Sergeant Vinson (Joel McCrea), the highest ranking man left alive. It’s down to this man to try to get the survivors to the nearest fort and let his superiors take it from there. However, in order to do this he has to overcome hostility. That hostility is exists on many fonts and on many levels: form the landscape, the elements, the Apache and most damaging of all, from the men he has to lead. The leader whose right to do so is under question could be regarded as something of a cliché, it tends to come down to lack of confidence and questions pertaining to competence. Here, somewhat refreshingly and perhaps daringly, that’s not quite the case. Vinson has to constantly battle the mutinous rumblings from within his own ranks not because they don’t trust his abilities as a soldier, but because his own men look on him as something of a monster, a man consumed with a passion for killing. It’s gradually revealed that Vinson lost all that he held most dear to the Apache and acquired a ruthless, bloodthirsty streak as a consequence. And so every decision that has to be taken is eyed with suspicion by the troopers, and also by the viewers, who wonder whether the veteran sergeant is savior or avenger.

Fort Massacre was the first of two films director Joseph M Newman made with Joel McCrea (The Gunfight at Dodge City would come out the following year) and it’s an excellent piece of work. With the enduring popularity of cult Sci-Fi movies, I imagine Newman’s name will be familiar to many as the man who took charge of This Island Earth. Here, he keeps the story on track and moving steadily forward, making optimum use of the New Mexico and Utah locations. The two big action set pieces are well handled and sure touch of cinematographer Carl Guthrie is also evident throughout. I mentioned the placement of the film in the timeline of the western back in the introduction, and I’d like to attempt to clarify what I was referring to. By the 1950s the western had attained full maturity, and by the end of that decade it was possessed of the self-assurance that its own artistic elevation bestowed on it. So in practical terms, what does that mean? It means, to my mind anyway, that the genre had clarity of vision. The western by this time, and at its best, could regard itself with clarity, unburdened by the awkwardness of its own adolescence and not yet jaded by the introspection of its post-classical years. The western could see itself as it was, and therefore present audiences with a character like Vinson and, with confidence, ask them to make of him what they would.

Which leads me neatly on to Joel McCrea and his portrayal of Sergeant Vinson, which I also alluded to above. McCrea was approaching the end of his career at this stage, with only the aforementioned The Gunfight at Dodge City and the masterly Ride the High Country as noteworthy works ahead of him. His post-war credits, like those of Randolph Scott, were almost exclusively confined to the western so his authoritative position in the genre was and is unassailable. Again, this breeds the type of assurance that allows a big name player like McCrea to tackle a figure of the moral complexity of Vinson. A lesser performer, at a different place professionally, would have struggled with this one. Vinson is neither all bad nor all good, he’s a human being with all the reactions and failings which go with that. This is where the film is at its strongest, I think, that solid core which McCrea provides allowing for a grown-up appraisal of the revenge motif that bypasses the temptation to go for any simplistic resolution.

For long stretches the supporting cast appear as something akin to a Greek chorus, blending into one disgruntled formation, anonymous behind the figurative masks of their uniform and speaking as one as they voice their criticism of Vinson. Yet, from time to time, individuals do step forward and show something more of themselves. John Russell is the next closest to a rounded character, his self-doubting though educated recruit gradually coming into his own as circumstances and the influences of both his fellow troopers and Vinson mold him. It’s a good role for Russell, though he lacks the warmth McCrea naturally exudes he still acts as a figure for viewers to identify with more comfortably. Forrest Tucker  also has opportunities to shine as the stage Irish soldier who mixes insubordination with charm, a very enjoyable turn and he plays well off Anthony Caruso. Late on there are memorable, and at times darkly humorous, appearances by Susan Cabot and Francis McDonald as two Paiute Indians who become reluctantly involved in the soldiers’ plight.

Fort Massacre is easy enough to track down for viewing, there are readily available Blu-ray and DVD options in the USA, Europe and, I  imagine, other territories. Towards the end of last year there was a blogathon dedicated to Joel McCrea which I had hoped to participate in but which circumstances at the time just didn’t allow. I regret missing out on it and the reason I mention it here is because Fort Massacre was the film I had planned to write up as my contribution. Well, here it is, a few months late, and I recommend anyone reading this check out the other entries in that blogathon, which can be accessed here – good film writing doesn’t have an expiry date.

Tall Man Riding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Hours to Kill

The last few posts on this site have seen the subsequent discussions spin off in various directions, taking in the idea of the auteur in cinema, the use of sets vs location shooting, and also touching on the pluses and minuses of the studio system. Today I want to take a look at Three Hours to Kill (1954), a movie whose director is not likely to be described as an auteur yet one whose work is of interest and displays some distinct characteristics, and it’s also a good example of the kind of bread and butter material the studio system seemed to knock out effortlessly. It’s a sparse and effective piece of work with no flab whatsoever, pared down and streamlined entertainment made by accomplished professionals.

The opening, to the accompaniment of Paul Sawtell’s melancholic score, sees Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) heading back to his home town, heading back to see some of his old friends again. However much Guthrie might be looking forward to this reunion, it doesn’t appear to be bringing him any happiness, and his friends are even less thrilled when he turns up. The thing is Guthrie’s friends, as we discover via a short flashback sequence, tried to kill him three years before. To a man they were prepared to believe the worst of him and see him lynched for a murder he had no hand in. With friends like that, who needs enemies! So, what  would bring a man back to such a place? That he  survived at all, staying one step ahead of the law and just barely eluding capture, is largely down to his grit and determination. What sustained him as a fugitive those three years was his desire for justice and revenge, his hopes of making his tormentors feel the same slow, sliding dread he once did. Guthrie finds he has few allies left, the woman he once loved (Donna Reed) has married one of his former rivals, and mixed in with the dangers there are secrets beginning to stir in the shadows. The local sheriff (Stephen Elliott) has some sympathy but not much, in fact it amounts to only three hours’ worth: three hours in which to find the man who framed him on a murder charge, and helped tear his life to pieces. What Guthrie finds out, about others and about himself, has the potential to bring damnation or salvation, depending on which fork of his conscience he decides to follow.

One of the first things you notice about Three Hours to Kill is how packed the script is and how tight the writers keep things as a consequence. The story comes from Alex Gottlieb with the script coming via Richard Alan Simmons and Roy Huggins, and some dialogue credited to Maxwell Shane. The plot is based on a combination of revenge tale and whodunit, Guthrie’s quest for justice is conflated with a desire to avenge himself on his former friends, and even he seems unsure where the one ends and the other begins. In a film that runs just over an hour and a quarter that ought to be enough to be getting on with, but Three Hours to Kill offers even more. Underpinning all of this is the complex series of relationships between the protagonists, where jealousy, betrayals and moralizing all play a part in determining how everyone behaves. Even on the periphery of the main events and characters there are quite startling (considering the time the film was made) developments – there’s the frank admission that one of the subsidiary characters is overtly engaged in what can only be described as a threesome, for example. Situations which might have provided the dramatic basis for a number of different movies are simply laid before  the audience without any exposition or even analysis – they just are, and the viewer is expected to be sufficiently mature to appreciate that such things are part of life.

The writing is of course important under these circumstances, but it’s also imperative that a confident and well-organized director is on hand. Alfred Werker, who was in charge of the similarly trim and compact The Last Posse, was the kind of man needed to ensure everything stayed focused and on course. Furthermore, it was a boon for Werker to have a talented cameraman like Charles Lawton working alongside him, ensuring his setups looked as good as possible.

A film like this, where the lead is scarred both externally and internally, whose demons are a short step away from fully consuming him, needed a man with a strong fatalistic sensibility. Who better under these circumstances than Dana Andrews, that veteran of so many westerns and films noir. The structure of the movie, with that flashback sequence, lets Andrews explore the change that comes over Guthrie (something which can be applied to a greater or lesser extent to other cast members too) and the contrast on view is a nice showcase for the kind of barely controlled emotional turmoil he was so adept at handling.

Aside from Andrews, the other big name in the cast is Donna Reed. She appeared in a handful of goodish westerns around this time as well as prestige productions like her Oscar-winning role in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity. Her part as Andrews’ old flame gave her some depth to work with, and so there was more to it than the kind of one-dimensional fare sometimes handed to actresses in programmer westerns of this type. Dianne Foster was the other woman in the cast with a significant role and spars well with Reed for the attentions of Andrews. Carolyn Jones was generally good value or better and was both touching and amusing as one side of a triangle involving Charlotte Fletcher and Laurence Hugo. Stephen Elliott and Richard Coogan are among the “friends” who would rather not renew their acquaintance with fugitive but the more memorable work is done by the seemingly ubiquitous Whit Bissell and James Westerfield.

Three Hours to Kill was a Columbia picture, produced by Harry Joe Brown, and has been released in the US by Sony as part of its MOD program. The film is also available in Europe, in both Spain and Italy. The Spanish disc I have presents the film 16:9 and looks reasonably good. There is a bit of softness but the colors look true and the print used doesn’t appear to be damaged. The soundtrack plays in the original English and there are the usual optional Spanish subs that can be disabled. I enjoy this kind of solid lower budget affair, a type of film that is actually enormously satisfying if done properly. There’s an impressive roster of talent on both sides of the camera and that helps to make Three Hours to Kill a modest but successful piece of filmmaking.