Western movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ARIZONA RAIDERS. Columbia Pictures, 1965. Audie Murphy, Michael Dante, Ben Cooper, Buster Crabbe, Gloria Talbott. Director: William Witney.

   To enjoy Arizona Raiders, you’ll just make it past the first ten minutes or so. Then you’re free to discover that you’ll find that it’s pretty decent, if formulaic, Western. But first you’ll have to put up with an on-screen narrator breaking the fourth wall, as well as voice-over narration, all designed to provide the viewer with historical background about Quantrell’s Raiders. It’s all highly unnecessary and honestly one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a film of this nature.

   But don’t let me give you the impression it’s not worth watching, because the movie has quite a bit going for it.

   Directed by William Witney and shot in Technicolor and Techniscope, Arizona Raiders features Audie Murphy as Clint, a former member of Quantrell’s Raiders, now working for the Arizona Rangers. He’s tasked with rooting out the remnants of his former gang, which has holed itself up in a Yaqui village in preparation for a raid on a gold shipment.

   Legendary serial film star Buster Crabbe portrays Captain Andrews, Clint’s nominal boss. With Witney at the helm, there’s plenty of action, including some beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Murphy wasn’t the greatest of Western actors, but he more than holds his own here. He certainly does appear tired and world weary, something that only adds to the film’s rather downbeat, pessimistic tone. There are a couple of particularly bloody scenes in Arizona Raiders, further delineating how much Westerns had changed since the time of Roy and Trigger.


THUNDERING HOOFS. FBG, 1924. Fred Thomson, Fred Huntley, Charles Manes, Ann May, Carrie Clark Eard, Willie Fung, Silver King. Director: Albert S. Rogell. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Fred Thomson films are rare indeed. Thomson was married to noted screenwriter Frances Marion and died before the advent of sound films. Willie Fung is a familiar face from sound films, but the real co-star is Silver King, Thomson’s horse.

   In addition to the superb action sequence in which Thomson stops a runaway stage (and injured himself so severely by falling under the horses that the film was completed by stunt man Yakima Canutt), a sequence shows Thomson’s character’s father slipping from Silver King and dying, with a quick cut to a staged shot of Silver King kneeling by a roadside grave marked by a crude cross.

   A good friend’s unforgettable comment was his curiosity about why the footage showing the horse burying the father was cut. In spite of this irreverent comment that broke me up, the film is a top-notch western. I am convinced that had Thomson made more surviving films, he would have made it to the pantheon that includes Tom Mix, Tim McCoy and Buck Jones.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TAZA, SON OF COCHISE. Universal International, 1954. Rock Hudson (Taza), Barbara Rush, Gregg Palmer, Rex Reason (as Bart Roberts), Morris Ankrum, Ian McDonald, Jeff Chandler (Cochise, uncredited). Director: Douglas Sirk.

   Directed by Douglas Sirk, Taza, Son of Cochise is an above average, although unforgivingly predictable and formulaic, mid-1950s Western. Rock Hudson, in a somewhat early role, portrays the title character, Taza, one of the Apache leader’s two sons. Unlike his brother, Taza wants to maintain cordial relations with U.S. government. But it’s not going to be so easy. Not when his brother, Naiche (Rex Reason), and rival Apache leader, Geronimo (Ian MacDonald), both are inimical to his peaceful intentions towards the Whites.

   There really isn’t anything the matter with Taza, Son of Cochise. The plot makes perfect sense, the actors are all more than competent, and the outdoor scenery transports the viewer to the American Southwest. It’s a perfectly fine escapist adventure.

   And yet one gets the feeling as if one as seen this all play out before.

   You know what I mean: good Apaches (on the side of the Whites) face off against renegade warlike Apaches (on Geronimo’s side), all under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Cavalry led by the alternatingly competent and clueless Captain Burnett (Gregg Palmer). Then there’s the love interest, Oona (Barbara Rush), a beautiful Apache woman that both Taza and Naiche lust after. Taza, Son of Cochise is a competently made film, no doubt about it. It’s just not a particularly daring one.

   It’s worth keeping an eye out for Jeff Chandler in an uncredited cameo as Cochise, a character he portrayed with distinction in 1950’s Broken Arrow.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE WALKING HILLS. Columbia, 1949. Randolph Scott, Ella Raines, William Bishop, John Ireland, Arthur Kennedy, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White and Jerome Courtland. Written by Alan Le May. Directed by John Sturges.

   Any movie where Josh White sings is worth watching, but this one is also an off-beat contemporary western that manages to be leisurely and edgy at the same time.

   In a seedy border town, a few casual acquaintances and complete strangers sit in on a pick-up poker game and catch an off-hand remark that puts them on the trail of a lost treasure in the desert just north of the line. Soon they’ve left the city on horseback and are in the desert to dig out the gold and get rich.

   And of course it just ain’t that simple.

   For one thing, one of the party (William Bishop) is wanted for a murder he never done. And another member (John Ireland) is the PI hired to catch him, now detoured by the lure of wealth. A couple other treasure-seekers have guilty secrets of their own, and Ella Raines, who joined the party to be with her man, apparently ditched Randy years ago to run off with Bishop.

   Complicated enough for you? The wonder is that director Sturges and writer Alan Le May keep it all feeling (and moving) very fast and straightforward, the story unfolding at its own pace as the characters interact with a natural grace that never seems forced.

   Here for the first time that I know of, Randolph Scott seems to be moving toward the complex persona that typified his best films of the 1950s: terse, authoritative and reserved, but with some kind of personal sensitivity just beneath that sun-baked surface.

   Throughout the 1940s, Scott played a lot of very dull parts. He played them well, but they seemed to be nothing but a succession of square-dealing lawmen, hard-working engineers, dedicated soldiers, and even honest lawyers. His good-bad guy in Western Union was a pleasant exception, but his bad-bad guy in The Spoilers was strictly from Sominex till he threw a punch at the Duke.

   It was producer Harry Joe Brown who first saw some deeper potential in Scott, and began developing it in films like this one, Man in the Saddle, Coroner Creek, and finally the films with Budd Boetticher that led up to Ride the High Country.

    Walking Hills gives us this character playing out his part against some breath-taking desert landscapes in a story with admirable pace, tension, and plenty of action.

   And there’s also Josh White singing.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

RIMFIRE. Lippert/Screen Guild, 1949. James Millican, Mary Beth Hughes, Reed Hadley, Victor Killian, Henry Hull, Fuzzy Knight, Chris-Pin Martin, Glenn Strange, Jason Robards Sr., I. Stanford Jolley and the ubiquitous (at Lippert) Margia Dean. Written by Ron Ormond, Arthur St. Claire and Frank Wisbar. Directed by B. Reeves Eason.

   Not a terribly good movie, but an unusual and intriguing one, Rimfire offers James Millican as an undercover cavalry officer in search of a purloined gold shipment. Early on he stops a stagecoach robbery (masterminded by that stalwart of the genre, the fancy-vested saloon-owner) and gets a job as deputy for the local sheriff.

   All pretty standard stuff, but it happens that one of the stagecoach passengers is a savvy gambler known as the Abilene Kid (saturnine Reed Hadley) who knows a thing or two about the local bad guys, and in short order, he’s framed for cheating at cards with a marked deck and promptly hanged by the law-abiding citizenry.

   Well I wasn’t expecting that. Nor the next part where a ghostly shadow shows up at odd times and starts murdering the rest of the cast, leaving a playing card at the scene of each slaying.

   The origins of this bit aren’t far to seek. Co-writer Frank Wisbar is best known for writing/directing Strangler of the Swamp (PRC, 1946) which also featured the ghost of a wrongly-hanged man exacting revenge. Director B. Reeves Eason, who helmed such off-beat adventures as Undersea Kingdom and Darkest Africa (both Mascot, 1936) knew his way around the world of low-budget thrills, so Rimfire achieves a certain eerie resonance as we see each doomed victim suddenly shrouded by shadow, staring fearfully into the camera as a sepulchral voice tells him his time has come. And some of the murders are unusually grim for a B-western.

   Alas, however, and also alack while you’re up, the makers of this thing opted for a fairly conventional “surprise” ending which I saw coming about 10 minutes in. Damn shame, that.

   Along the way though there’s some fairly chilling fun to be had, and if Rimfire never makes it into the ranks of Creepy Classics or Western Noir, at least it offers something a little out the ordinary to keep you watching.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Warner Brothers, 1973. Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Al Lettieri, Neville Brand, William Smith. Based on a story by Samuel Fuller. Directors: Barry Shear & Samuel Fuller, the latter uncredited.

   The first three minutes of The Deadly Trackers are about as annoying as you can possibly get. In what appears to be an attempt to be artistic and edgy, the movie begins with an unnecessary voice-over dialogue and a frame by frame introduction to the main character, Sean Kilpatrick (Richard Harris), a pacifist sheriff in a small border town.

   It’s enough to make you want to turn the whole thing off.

   I’m guess I am glad I didn’t. While I’d never go so far to say The Deadly Trackers is a particularly good or an effective Western, it does have something worthwhile going for it. That would be Al Lettieri (The Getaway, Mr. Majestyk), a veteran crime film actor who died at the early age of 47 in 1975. Lettieri portrays Gutierrez, a Mexican lawman, who is just about the remotely likable character in this gritty, sweaty, revenge thriller.

   The plot is simple enough. After Kilpatrick (Harris) witnesses his wife and son killed by the cruel Frank Brand (Rod Taylor), he gives up his pacifist ways (a little too easily, it should be noted) and sets out to seek Brand and his three henchmen, Schoolboy (William Smith), Choo Choo (a tired looking Neville Brand), and Jacob (Paul Benjamin). None of these men are particularly interesting villains save Choo Choo, a man with part of a railroad track for a hand.

   After crossing the border, Kilpatrick encounters Mexican lawman Gutierrez and engages in a series of cat and mouse chases with him. By the time the whole thing’s over, Kilpatrick has turned into a carbon copy of the man who killed his family. In the matter of less than two hours running time, he’s become a truly despicable character, so much so that you’re not sad when [SPOILER ALERT] Gutierrez shoots the lout in the back.

   And therein lies the problem with The Deadly Trackers. There’s no one really to root for. It’s mainly just a bunch of dirty, sickly looking men doing horrible things to one another.

   That may be a necessary ingredient for a certain type of Western, but it’s not sufficient to make this anything other than a historical curiosity: an American Spaghetti Western morality play about how blood lust corrupts, a story that attempts to be more profound than it actually is.

   The movie does have some decent cinematography, but it would have been a whole lot better had the film been told from Gutierrez’s point of view. He seems like the only character in this film that you wouldn’t be terrified to be around for more than a minute or two.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE JAYHAWKERS. Paramount Pictures, 1959. Jeff Chandler, Fess Parker, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Herbert Rudley, Frank DeKova, Don Megowan, Leo Gordon. Director: Melvin Frank.

   The Jayhawkers, a late 1950s Western set in Bleeding Kansas, doesn’t have the most unique plot. Although the score by Jerome Moross is quite memorable and can be listened to here, the film’s cinematography isn’t all that captivating. And while Melvin Frank’s direction is perfectly adequate, his workmanship isn’t really Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher territory.

   So what makes The Jayhawkers – at least in my estimation – really worth watching? The characters.

   Well, one character in particular. The villain. His name: Luke Darcy. Modeled, at least in part, on abolitionist firebrand John Brown, Darcy is skillfully portrayed by Jeff Chandler in such a manner that it’s next to impossible to conceive any other actor having the role. Sometimes an actor seems as if he were just destined for the part. That’s certainly the case here.

   To appreciate The Jayhawkers, you really have to consider the film as primarily a character study of Luke Darcy rather than as a standard drama set on the eve of the Civil War. Darcy’s an imposing man, both by height and temperament. A psychologically nuanced figure rather than a caricature, he devours the classic texts of strategy and warfare, drinks red wine, and chases women. And he’s got a grandiose future planned. He’s going to be the authoritarian ruler of an independent Kansas, a tall Napoleon on the wide Prairie.

   Darcy’s not invincible, however. He’s got an Achilles Heel. He is pathologically afraid of being caught and hanged by the authorities. Nothing frightens him so much as the image – one he seems to play out repeatedly in his own mind – of him dangling, lifeless from the end of a rope. He finds the whole notion sickening, a disgusting clownish spectacle for the masses. It is little character details like this that makes Darcy a unique, if at times almost sympathetic, villain.

   But make no mistake about it. He is a villain and has done some horrible things in his time. For instance, he is responsible for seducing and abandoning another man’s wife. That man, Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) makes it his mission to find and to kill Darcy. But things get complicated along the way.

   Rounding out the cast: Nicole Maurey as Cam’s potential love interest and Henry Silva as one of Darcy’s hired gunmen. All told, it’s a better than average Western, one that benefits greatly from Chandler’s imposing presence and his ability to convey a quiet rage that lurks just beneath a man’s seemingly calm and controlled surface.

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