Western movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

BILL GULICK – Bend of the Snake. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950. Paperback reprints: Bantam #906, 1951; Paperback Library, 1968.

BEND OF THE RIVER. Universal, 1952. James Stewart, Julia Adams, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan Jack Lambert, Royal Dano, Frances Bavier. Screenplay by Borden Chase. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Bill Gulick’s first novel, Bend of the Snake, doesn’t seem like anything special to me, but it got snatched up immediately by the movies, and then discarded — of which more later.

    Bend rides out slowly at first, with Scott Burton summoned to help out an old friend in a foundering business deal. Seems his buddy Emerson Cole is trying to break up a local monopoly in the Oregon territory and needs Burton’s help — understandable since Burton is that stock figure of Western Fiction: an honest man who can’t be beaten with guns or fists.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   Gulick never tells us just what the bond is that makes Burton so willing to come to Cole’s assistance, but it quickly becomes apparent that Cole has neither the spine nor the ethics of his good buddy, character traits which lead the story into murder and a fairly well-handled investigation when a bookish youngster turns amateur sleuth.

   For the most part though, this is pretty standard stuff, with Burton breaking the local robber baron by getting a load of goods to market past his hired guns, then beating down further attempts at ambush, arson and general mayhem.

   Gulick creates an effective cast of salt-of-the-earth settlers and a crusty riverboat captain to give the tale a fine, spirited background, but plot-wise this is no different than a hundred others.

   This was filmed, sort of, as Bend of the River, and when it came out Gulick ran an ad complaining that the only things they used from his book were the first three words of the title. Whereupon screenwriter Borden Chase observed wryly that he should have waited to see if the movie was a hit before distancing himself from it.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   In fact, Bend of the River (the second teaming of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart) was a big hit, and deservedly so. It is in fact, probably the most enjoyable of Mann’s westerns and the most satisfying of Stewart’s.

   Just to be strictly accurate, I should note that Borden Chase did incorporate a few elements from Gulick’s book besides the first three words of the title: Emerson Cole is still a shifty character (though considerably more ballsy as played by Arthur Kennedy) and there’s still a helpful steamboat captain and something about getting a wagon load of goods past considerable obstacles, but the rest is pure Borden Chase, and it’s a theme he’d return to again: a man of principle (Jimmy Stewart, natch, the character re-named Glyn Mclyntock) allied with a helpful but not entirely trustworthy partner (Arthur Kennedy in a role he’d also return to again) involved in a deadly undertaking that is part thrill-a-minute adventure and part spiritual odyssey as Stewart/Mclyntock seeks to redeem himself from his past.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   Mann seemed particularly attuned to this sort of thing and he evokes it here with speed and energy but without the angst that intensifies his later films: The Naked Spur (’53) and Man of the West (’58) may be more profound, but Bend of the River is more fun, as Stewart and Kennedy brave marauding Indians, crooked speculators, hired guns and mutinous miners (Morgan, Lambert and Dano at their best/worst) on their way to a confrontation that seems all the more satisfying because we know it’s coming.

   I should also add that Universal had Chase write in a part for a rising young newcomer on the lot, Rock Hudson, who can be glimpsed in the Mann/Stewart Winchester ’73 (1950). Chase wrote him in but then apparently had no idea what to do with him as Hudson drops out of the action at a crucial moment and only reappears when it seems safe to do so.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


RANGERS OF FORTUNE. Paramount, 1940. Fred MacMurray, Gilbert Roland, Albert Dekker, Patricia Morison, Betty Brewer, Dick Foran, Joseph Schildkraut. Written by Frank Butler. Directed by Sam Wood.

RANGERS OF FORTUNE

   I had some trouble getting this due to a not-quite-prompt/dependable dealer, but it was worth the effort. You don’t hear the word “Rollicking” much anymore, but there’s no better word to describe this seldom-seen adventure classic, a film right up there with Gunga Din or Princess Bride.

   MacMurray, Roland and Dekker come on as a trio of good-natured desperadoes (we first see them as they’re being marched in front of a Mexican firing squad) at loose ends on the range who find themselves sorting out the problems of a dying newspaperman, his moppet granddaughter, and a town being stylishly terrorized by an aristocratic bad guy.

   Rangers was directed by Sam (Night at the Opera) Wood and written by Frank Butler, who did the Hope/Crosby “Road to” movies so you can figure it will offer some fun, and it is in fact rich in comic moments, some of them unexpected (Dekker playing his part like Curly in the Three Stooges) and some enjoyably predictable, when you see the punch-line coming and smile as you wait for it to smack the screen.

   What you might not expect are the well-mounted action scenes (fights, chases and tricky gun-play galore) and the hard-edged moments when they kill off characters who don’t usually die in movies like this.

RANGERS OF FORTUNE

   There are also some very well-thought-out minor characters played by actors you never heard, and they surprised me from time to time: Betty Brewer as the not-cloying moppet, Arthur B. Allen (from Our Town) as a drunken milquetoast who chimes in with some erudite sleuthing, and Bernard Nedell (who?) as a gunman nasty enough to seem like a genuine threat to our doughty heroes.

   Patricia Morison is her usual sexy self, Dick Foran comes off well as the chump/straight man, and Joseph Schildkraut turns in one of those cultured-heavy performances that remind one of Count Zaroff or Kasper Gutman at their best — or worst if you prefer.

   The film really belongs to the three male leads though, and they carry it vigorously, helped out by the typical Paramount production gloss and some canny direction from Sam Wood, who follows them around with a sweeping camera that lends pace and forcefulness to everything they do, from hawking newspapers to one of those memorable walks down Main Street to the showdown so beloved of western fans.

   Not an easy film to catch, but you really ought to try.

RANGERS OF FORTUNE

THE PARSON AND THE OUTLAW. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Anthony Dexter, Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Buddy Rogers, Bob Steel(e). Director: Oliver Drake.

THE PARSON AND THE OUTLAW

   Yet another fictional distortion of the legend of Billy the Kid, but one in which I have to admit a really neat twist takes place. It seems that what really happened was this: Pat Garrett and Billy got together on a plot that would leave Billy “dead” and buried, free to begin a new life, one without the need to constantly prove himself to every new gunfighter in town.

   This all takes place in the first ten minutes, so I’m not telling you all that I could, but unfortunately, it is the most interesting ten minutes of the movie — as maybe you could tell from just a single glance at the cast.

   Marie Windsor excepted, of course.

THE PARSON AND THE OUTLAW

   As Billy the Kid, Anthony Dexter has no acting ability, no looks, and is minus 30 on the standard Sonny Tufts charisma scale. (Which means that Sonny Tufts has 30 times the charm and charisma of Anthony Dexter, as displayed in this movie.)

   On the other hand, no movie with Marie Windsor in it is ever a complete waste of time, but a few of them come close, and even fewer of them come closer than this.

   And what other movie can you think of would have the parson, a man of the cloth, begging Billy to put his guns back on, for the sake of the town. (It works out even worse than you might think.)

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.


THE PARSON AND THE OUTLAW

GUN FEVER. United Artists, 1958. Mark Stevens, John Lupton, Larry Storch, Jana Davi, Russell Thorson, Iron Eyes Cody. Director & co-screenwriter: Mark Stevens.

GUN FEVER Mark Stevens

   Back in 1958 “adult” TV westerns were all the rage — Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel and many others. And in many ways, that’s what I think Mark Stevens had in mind when he put so much effort into this movie: an “A” (for adult) western movie; what he also had was a “B” (for budget) expense account, and it shows.

   From the opening scenes on, however, this is one of the grimmer westerns I’ve seen in a while. The interior backgrounds, the homesteaders’ shacks and so on, all are stark and barren; outdoors it seems as though the wind in always blowing: with the incessant tumbleweeds and eternal sand in everyone’s faces, it makes you grit your teeth even to watch.

   Storywise, there’s not much to it. A young lad splits from his father’s gang when he decides the bloodletting has gotten too much for him. Six years later, he goes on a trail of revenge with his mining partner when the other man’s parents are brutally murdered — instigated by the outlaw he knows is his father. Confrontation is inevitable.

GUN FEVER Mark Stevens

   Several other deaths occur along the way, most with guns, some with knives, some at the hands of Indians. Jana Davi, whom I don’t remember ever seeing before, plays an Indian married to a white man, a sympathetic role, but as a Native American Indian, I don’t think so. (And it did surprise me a but when I discovered that Larry Storch was the man behind the serapes of the Mexican bandit, Amigo.)

   Overall, though, no more than moderately interesting. The highlight for me was seeing at last (as far as I know) the man behind Russell Thorson’s voice. I’ve heard him many times on the radio, but while in 1958 he was quite a bit older than when he played the capable, easy-going Jack Packard on the old I Love a Mystery radio series, he still looked much as I’d pictured him.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.

[UPDATE] 01-14-14. From IMDb: “Maureen Hingert [aka Jana Davi] was born on 9th of January 1937 in Columbo, Ceylon, of Dutch ancestry, the daughter of Lionel Hingert and Lorna Mabel del Run.”

GUN FEVER Mark Stevens

GOIN’ SOUTH. Paramount Pictures, 1978. Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, John Belushi, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwrighht, Ed Begley Jr. Director: Jack Nicholson.

GOING' SOUTH

   Even if I told you this was a Western, you’d still know it was a comedy, just by looking at the list of people in it. The only two cast members of any consequence, however, are Nicholson and Steenbergen — the first film appearance of the latter, at the very young age of 25.

   Nicholson is a horse thief, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, an outlaw through and through, and of no good to anyone to boot. Captured in Mexico and broght back (illegally) across the border to be hanged, he is saved from the noose at the last minute by Steenbergen’s speaking up at the last minute to say that she will parry him. (A local ordinance carried over from the Civil War, when men were scarce.)

   It’s not really a husband she’s looking for, however. She has a mine on her property that needs working, and she’s desperate to find the gold she’s sure that’s there before the railroad comes in and takes over the land.

   One look at Nicholson in this movie will show you just how desperate she is. He is the scruffiest looking star of a major motion picture that I can ever recall seeing. He is manical capering gnome of a man, leaping for the sheer joy of living, with a leer in every glance to sends his new wife’s way.

GOING' SOUTH

   And Mary Steenbergen, although still young, is a quintessential “old maid,” with fussy, virginal ways, but totally in charge of the situation, until, of course, it blushingly (and inevitably) goes out of control.

   The rest of the cast is there for background, nothing more, except for perhaps Veronica Cartwright, who plays the outlaw’s former love, he “first woman he ever had to pay for.” Sparks fly, misunderstandings abound, nefarious double-dealings run amuck. And for a Jack Nicholson movie, there are surprisingly few moments of enigmatic incomprehensibility. This is a funny movie, worth looking out for.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.


GOING' SOUTH

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DECISION AT SUNDOWN

MICHAEL CARDER – Decision at Sundown. Macrae Smith, hardcover, 1955. Ace Double D-160, paperback, no date [1956]. Bound dos-à-dos with Action Along the Humboldt, by Karl Kramer. First serialized in Ranch Romances magazine, January 1955. (Part Three can be found online here.)

DECISION AT SUNDOWN. Columbia, 1957. Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Valerie French, Noah Beery Jr., John Archer, Andrew Duggan. Based on the novel by Michael Carder (screen credit given to Vernon L. Fluharty). Director: Budd Boetticher.

   My mention a while back of Jim O’Mara’s Wall of Guns elicited a comment from James Reasoner (a worthy western pen-slinger in his own right) revealing that O’Mara was actually one Vernon Fluharty, who also wrote westerns under the name Michael Carder, among them Decision at Sundown (Macrae Smith, 1955; originally serialized in Ranch Romances, January 1955) which two years later at Columbia studios was turned into one of Budd Boetticher’s most complex and least satisfying westerns.

DECISION AT SUNDOWN

   The book Decision at Sundown bears some interesting similarities to Wall of Guns; in both a bitter loner rides into town seeking revenge, and in both he runs into a range fraught with intrigue: crooked locals grabbing for power, ranchers nursing long-simmering grudges, neighborhood bad guys, loyal friends and a woman who should hate him but finds herself strangely attracted to the handsome stranger (yawn).

   The difference is that Wall of Guns was enlivened by some deeper-than-usual supporting players whose actions — whether short-sighted, passionate or surprisingly thoughtful — sent the book places where lesser tales don’t go.

   In Decision at Sundown however, the ensemble remains depressingly stale: Tate Kimbrough, the town tyrant, is just a double-dyed rat; Lucy, his intended bride comes off like Daisy Mae on the printed page, too purely wholesome and impulsive to believe; Swede and Spanish, the hired guns are nothing but thug-uglies, and — and so it goes: the blowsy ex-mistress, the gruff doctor, grizzled rancher, doughty pardner … they all remain firmly in the cookie-cutter.

DECISION AT SUNDOWN

   There’s a trace of depth as the plot develops and our hero suddenly finds his revenge turned laughable, but it’s quickly drowned in the shallow characters charged with putting it across.

   When the novel reached Hollywood two years later, director Budd Boetticher and writer Charles Lang (story credit goes to Vernon Fluharty) picked up on that particle of originality and ran with it, adding some depth to the characters along the way and coming up with a B-western that if not completely satisfying, is at least original enough to remember.

   The hero here is Randolph Scott, and when he rides into town it’s with the easy assurance of two decades of westerns behind him, abetted here by Boetticher’s graceful camerawork and feel for action. Unfortunately, he and the viewer get quickly mired in the story’s rather static complications, and the drama plays out in a few rather cramped and confining sets.

   When one thinks of Budd Boetticher’s films, it’s with appreciation of his feel for characters framed against an open, rugged landscape, dealing warily with their issues and each other as they traverse hostile terrain that reflects some inner conflict. (Or as Andrew Sarris put it, part allegorical odysseys and part floating poker games.) But in this movie, we’re just stuck in a stable.

DECISION AT SUNDOWN

   Stylist that he was, Boetticher managed a few fine moments, notably a couple of deliberately theatrical showdowns in the middle of Main Street, first with Andrew Duggan metaphorically stripping himself down for the performance, and later with John Carroll trying to hide his fears and live up to the Bad Guy’s Code of Conduct, murky as that may be.

   In fact, Boetticher’s attention to this stock character almost brings the film to life. We first see Tate Kimbrough in standard attire for dress heavies in shoot-em-ups: fancy vest, dark coat, and the snide moustache worn by thousands of B-western baddies before him.

DECISION AT SUNDOWN

   Then he starts to show some depth; he’s thoughtful and loving to his trampy ex-girlfriend, frank about himself and his past with his bride-to-be, and toward the end, when he has to go out and face Randolph Scott alone (a pre-doomed enterprise in films of this sort) there’s a rather touching moment when he confesses his fears to his ex-gal (a fine performance from Valerie French, who specialized in this sort of thing) but goes out there anyway.

   I said this was a complex film and I meant it. I also said it was unsatisfying and I meant that too. In Westerns, action is traditionally cathartic, but in this one it simply becomes irrelevant, leading to an ending that Boetticher seems unprepared to handle.

   There’s a lot of stage business between the dramatic climax and the actual ending of the film, and it dilutes the impact of what could have been a uniquely powerful Western. And that’s kind of a shame.

DECISION AT SUNDOWN


Note: To read Mike Grost’s extensive comments on this same film, check out his website here.

THUNDERHOOF. Columbia, 1948. Preston Foster, Mary Stuart, William Bishop, Thunderhoof. Director: Phil Karlson.

THUNDERHOOF Preston Foster

   Phil Karlson scored solid hits with films like Walking Tall and The Silencers, but he started out at Monogram with Charlie Chan and the Bowery Boys, and when he won his critical spurs, it was in the “B” unit at Columbia with a seldom-seen film called Thunderhoof (1948) — a minimalist Western about the hunt for a dream and what happens when you get it.

   This one is lean: Three actors, maybe one or two sets, and the rest filmed outdoors against a barren backdrop, as befits the allegorical story. The hunters are Preston Foster as an aspiring rancher, tough as a horseshoe, but possessed of a soft heart, which has led him to marry saloon gal Margarita (Mary Stuart, who achieved greatness of sorts on The Guiding Light) and befriend/adopt a young wastrel known as “The Kid” (William Bishop, whose career remained undistinguished despite his talent.)

THUNDERHOOF Preston Foster

   That’s the cast, and the story is equally pared-down; no sub-plots or complications as the three of them track down and capture a legendary stallion with which Foster hopes to start his ranch. But right from the start, it becomes apparent that his avuncular attitude to his wife and buddy is growing irksome to the two, who apparently have some kind of past. And when he breaks a leg, prolonging their return from the wilderness, the tension grows — among the characters and in the gut of the viewer, who feels something dark and disturbing looming above the sagebrush.

   What’s looming is emotional reality; the characters in Thunderhoof don’t talk like cowboys in a B Western, they talk like people in real life. They talk about frustration, jealousy and envy, and when they speak you can feel the weary pain of a heart seeking peace. Not that Thunderhoof is talky. There’s plenty of action to fill the brief hour-and-a-quarter of its running time, and the pace never lags. But by the time the plot resolved itself and left two survivors to carry on, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a Western or some incredibly draining tale of emotional violence. Whichever the case, it’s a film you won’t forget.

THUNDERHOOF Preston Foster

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