Western movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER, Universal, 1954. Rory Calhoun, Colleen Miller, John McIntire, Walter Brennan, George Nader, Jay Silverheels, Nina Foch, Charles Drake, Nestor Paiva, and Mary Field. Screenplay by George Van Marter and Franklin Coen, from a story by Louis L’Amour. Directed by Richard Carlson. Streaming on Starz until December 1st.

   The Asphalt Jungle with Indians. And not bad.

   Rory Calhoun plays an out-and-out owl-hoot in this one, the CEO of an outlaw band that includes John McIntire, George Nader, and Jay Silverheels (as a Yaqui Indian this time) on the run from one unsuccessful robbery, and planning another effort.

   Along the way they meet up with Walter Brennan, a reformed outlaw and old saddle pal of McIntire’s, and his daughter (Colleen Miller) who could best be described in frontier terms as a buxom lass, or as we say today, a real hottie. Writers Van Marter and Coen go out of their way to get her wet as often as possible, and director Carlson shows her off to excellent effect, sure to keep the big kids (this one, anyway) in their seats while the little ones go for popcorn.

   There’s not much time for popcorn, though, because Rory’s plan calls for the other three to hit the bank in his old hometown while he picks a fight with his old-buddy-turned-lawman (Charles Drake) who ran him out of town and married his gal (Nina Foch) years ago.

   So we get a vigorous and protracted fight between Calhoun and Drake, cross-cut with a tense bank job, followed by a pursuit conveniently interrupted by marauding Apaches. Of course, when Calhoun and his band are faced with the choice of making their escape or going to the aid of Brennan and Miller, pinned down and surrounded by hostiles, they do what every kid in the audience would, and we get another pitched battle.

   Yeah, it’s all a little too pat. Chalk it up to the writers, whose work (separately) includes high points like The Train and Champagne for Caesar, and dreck like Chained for Life — a very mixed bag, to be sure. But it finishes off with a powerful showdown between Calhoun, badly wounded, and Drake, badly humiliated, shot for maximum emotional tension by Carlson, who alternates tracking shots of the antagonists with long shots that frame the conflict perfectly.

   Added up, this one is a touch formulaic, but still intriguing. And Collen Miller will keep you watching.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

WILD WILD WEST. Warner Brothers, 1999. Will Smith (James West), Kevin Kline (Artemus Gordon), Kenneth Branagh (Dr. Arliss Loveless), Salma Hayek, M. Emmet Walsh, Ted Levine. Loosely adapted from The Wild Wild West, a 1960s television series created by Michael Garrison. Director: Barry Sonnenfeld.

   Soon after the American Civil War, impulsive Army Captain Jim West (Will Smith) sets out to find his parents’ killer: the bitterly ruthless ex-Confederate General ‘Bloodbath’ McGrath (Ted Levine). The trail leads to a West Virginia brothel where the blundering intervention of undercover U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) and an accidental nitroglycerin explosion causes McGrath to escape.

   The two Americans may be on the same side, but they dislike each other on sight, so neither are pleased when President Ulysses S. Grant orders them to join forces and continue the hunt for McGrath, who has kidnapped several of the country’s best scientists in a plot which could destabilise the government.

   Aboard Gordon’s gadget-laden train ‘The Wanderer’, the fiercely competitive pair follow a bloody clue to the New Orleans home of Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a legless ex-Confederate officer and ingenious engineer in a steam-powered wheelchair and decorous goatee beard. Imprisoned there is singer Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), who claims her father is one of the captured scientists. It seems that mysterious new weapons are being manufactured, one of which they discover to be an armoured vehicle – what we would now recognize as a tank – that has the power to kill dozens of soldiers in a single sweep.

   Yet something even bigger abounds in an eighty-foot mechanical spider stocked with two nitroglycerin cannons. Loveless uses this war-machine to kidnap the President before threatening to destroy the United States if they aren’t divided among other nations and himself. The ensuing struggle on the cliffs of Spider Canyon ends with West – and the fate of the country itself – at risk of falling into a yawning abyss…

   In the ’90s, making films of ’60s TV shows was a major trend. Baby boomers were buying tickets to see at the cinema what they had seen in their living rooms as kids. And so, after Batman, we got a cycle of remakes, mostly bad (Lost In Space, My Favourite Martian, The Saint) but some good (Mission Impossible, The Fugitive). Wild Wild West was yet another, based on the quirky action-adventure series made to weather the western genre’s declining popularity by having it capitalise on the James Bond craze – what you might call ‘spies-in-saddle’.

   This film version must have sounded great at the time. People who had enjoyed Will Smith and middle-aged straight man Tommy Lee Jones being government agents in sci-fi comedy adventure Men In Black would surely watch Will Smith and middle-aged straight man Kevin Kline being government agents in western comedy adventure Men In Chaps. Smith even chose it over The Matrix, believing it could result in another of his “big Willy weekends”.

   Instead, Wild Wild West was a disaster. The script was re-written, scenes were reshot, and the budget ballooned until it became one of the most expensive films of all time. On release, it lost money and “won” five Razzies, including Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay and Worst Director. Smith has repeatedly joked about its failure. It might now be bundled alongside those two other self-afflicting franchise films of the late ’90s, Batman and Robin and The Avengers.

   And yet, whereas I think such clunkers could be enjoyed as weird camp classics that just don’t care – the cinematic equivalent of streakers on a sports field – Wild Wild West is just bad.

   The pace is off from the start: Smith’s first fight, though shot continuously, is placed either side of a languid scene with Kline in drag, immediately killing any excitement. From there, the humour is ribald, with two different sequences showing scantily-clad prostitutes, and at one point both main characters suggestively fondle a pair of fake breasts. It’s a strange attempt at a running joke with a crude pay-off, much later, in which Smith’s character beats his hands against a woman’s bosom.

   The sexism becomes downright tasteless when Salma Hayek’s character unwittingly wears a buttock-exposing night-gown, much to the stunned pleasure of our heroes, who go on to mutter much innuendo built around the word “ass”. Apart from that, in fact, Hayek is barely in the movie at all. She tries to join them by slipping onto their train, yet Smith’s character doesn’t believe she can handle herself and insists she get off again. The actress herself felt underused in what is little more than an extended cameo. You know they only put a woman in it so they could splash her over the posters.

   Elsewhere, Ted Levine – playing yet another southerner – is dependable as always, though he gets dispatched halfway through with little consequence. Branagh is fun, and director Barry Sonnenfeld regularly has him wheel close to the camera to humorous effect. Thinking, though, of how Ken justified all this to his high-brow theatre friends in London is more entertaining than anything managed on set.

   The balance, throughout, between Smith and Kline is not quite set and neither appear to be the foil. (Maybe they’re not meant to be equal? Note how the title drops the definite article of the original version, subtly giving Smith the eponymous character – did Kline not notice?).

   Characterisation, too, is a bit ropey: at times, Kline gives us an amiably absent-minded scientist, proud of his gadgets and easily distracted by them, yet at others he seems cynical and condescending to his partner. And the decision to have him play the President too is just baffling. It made sense in Fierce Creatures when he was a father and son, but here it’s contrived, convenient and not at all cute.

   Meanwhile, Smith’s loud, smart-guy persona seems a little anachronistic in the Old West – and though some of the race jokes work in his favour, others are just clumsy and misconceived, especially a sequence in which he must appease a lynch mob, and another that sees him doing a harem dance (even the director hated it).

   Perhaps most importantly, the stakes in this thing are too fuzzily defined: why, for example, must Loveless be caught before the transcontinental railroad is inaugurated? And which is the super-weapon – tank or tarantula?

   A boisterous, preposterous romp, Wild Wild West does show occasional flashes of inspiration: the opening, in which a terrified man is decapitated by a flying buzz-saw, is vividly Avengers-esque, and there’s playful humour in all manner of steampunk gadgets. Yet the film never enjoys its western trappings as thoroughly and warm-heartedly as, say, Maverick or Back to the Future Part III, and neither does it do anything with the world of spying. This is an espionage-western which isn’t interested in either genres, focusing instead on infantile comedy, tired buddy-cop tropes and empty, if eccentric, spectacle.

   Had it been a light-hearted mystery-adventure with a sense of proportion, it could have been terrific. As a comedy, however, it’s a wild, wild mess.

Rating: **

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

RAIDERS OF OLD CALIFORNIA. Albert C. Gannaway Productions/Republic, 1957. Jim Davis, Faron Young, Arlen Whelan, Marty Robbins, Lee Van Cleef, Louis Jean Heydt, and Douglas Fowley. Screenplay by Samuel Roeca and Tom Hubbard. Directed by Albert C. Gannaway.

   Let’s get one gripe out of the way first: This thing is set around the time of the Mexican-American War, but the uniforms, firearms and clothing date from almost a generation later. Don’t let it bother you. This is just a B-Western, and a pretty good one.

   Story-wise, the usual thing is afoot here: a cattle baron (Jim Davis) in old California (hence the title of the piece) is trying to grab all the land he can from surrounding farms, using a Spanish land grant he extorted from a Mexican General (Lawrence Dobkin) at the end of the war. Enter Judge Ward Young (Louis Jean Heydt) and his son Faron (Faron Young) who set about putting things to rights by … well, that would be giving away one plot twist too many.

   It may be worth mentioning that Faron Young played a character named Faron Young in Hidden Guns (reviewed here),  where Richard Arlen played Sheriff Ward Young. Or maybe it’s not worth mentioning, in which case forget I mentioned it.

   The dialogue is rudimentary, and some of the sets look more like cardboard boxes than adobe walls, but Raiders still has a lot going for it, starting with superior stunt work and a script that emphasizes action. The players go through their familiar paces with authority born of long practice (though neither Faron Young nor Marty Robbins sings a note) and Douglas Fowley is a real surprise as a grizzled ad hoc sheriff.

   Best of all, Raiders gives Lee Van Cleef the kind of part he was born for and lets him show off his type-cast malevolence with real flair. I’d venture to say he gets more screen time than any of the principals, and he eats it up with a spoon, whether quietly threatening his victims, or administering a beating with psychotic pleasure.

   Lee Van Cleef was one of the real pleasures of 1950s movies, and his euro-stardom in the 70s only proved that he was better at supporting a picture than starring in it. His presence in Raiders of Old California is a reminder of just how effective he could be.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

UTAH BLAINE. Columbia, 1957. Rory Calhoun, Susan Cummings, Angela Stevens, Paul Langton, Max Baer, George Keymas, Ray Teal and Gene Roth. Screenplay by Robert E Kent, from a novel by Louis L’Amour. Produced by Sam Katzman. Directed by Fred F. Sears.

   A Western brought to you by the producer-director team that gave us The Giant Claw.

   And actually, it’s not bad. The keynote here is action, plentifully supplied in Robert E. Kent’s screenplay, and briskly directed by Fred Sears, an old, old hand at this sort of thing, who moved easily from the Durango Kid series to Sam Katzman’s B unit at Columbia. Sears knew how to make a B-Western: fast pace and plenty of fightin’, and he keeps Utah moving violently along, starting with Blaine (Rory Calhoun) rescuing an old rancher from a lynching, through gunfights, chases, fistfights, and a few seconds of mushy stuff so we can get our popcorn.

   The plot is a standard thing: Big Rancher Ray Teal wants the surrounding spreads and has hired a band of ne’er-do-wells who pose as vigilantes and mete out “justice” to the offending landowners. Enter our Hero, looking a bit threadbare and unkempt after an unprofitable sojourn in Mexico. Rory saves a rancher from a slow hanging, hires on as foreman, and sets about putting things to right.

   But Rory Calhoun was always on the side of Right more as a matter of convenience. In this case, Ray Teal’s hired boys include a fast-gun (Sepulchral George Keymas) who, the script hints, was responsible for putting him in Mexican Jail. Give credit to writer Kent again. He never tells us what went on South of the Border (That would slow down the action.) just drop hints that Rory wasn’t on his best behavior back in them days, and his grudge against Keymas is a matter more of revenge than justice.

   The actors move easily through this familiar territory, and while I can’t say Utah Blaine is anything outstanding, it offers the unpretentious gracefulness true professionals bring to bear on even forgettable projects like this.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE STREETS OF LAREDO. Paramount Pictures, 1949. William Holden, Macdonald Carey, Mona Freeman, William Bendix, Stanley Ridges, Alfonso Bedoya, Ray Teal, Clem Bevans. Directed by Leslie Fenton.

   I was no more than fifteen minutes into The Streets of Laredo when I began to have the distinct impression that I had seen the movie before. The thing is: I was nearly certain I hadn’t. I’m pretty good at remembering which movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t. I also was pretty sure I would have remembered William Holden portraying an outlaw turned Texas lawman.

   As it turns out, this late 1940s Technicolor western was a remake of The Texas Rangers (1936), which I reviewed here some seven years ago. Turns out that I liked the movie well enough, although it doesn’t seem like I felt like it was anything exceptional.

   In many ways, the same good equally be said for The Streets of Laredo. The film strives to be something of an epic tale about friendship, love, and good vs. evil, but ends up being something less than that. It’s just a solidly made western, albeit one that is assuredly better than many of the clumsy westerns from the late 1940s. Notably, it doesn’t include a single Native American character or a notably goofy sidekick.

   William Holden portrays Jim Hawkins, who along with friends Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and Wahoo Jones (William Bendix) is in the stagecoach holdup business. After the trio gets separated, Lorn (Carey) continues to pursue a life of crime, while Hawkins and Wahoo sign up with the Texas Rangers. Two men, former amigos, end up on the opposite side of the law.

   But that’s not all. Both Jim and Lorn have similar romantic intentions toward Rannie Carter (Mona Freeman), a young woman they had rescued years ago. Add in a devious extortionist by the name of Charley Calico (a scenery chewing Alfonso Bedoya) and you’ve got yourself a solid ninety minutes of cinematic entertainment.

   Although it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Texas Rangers, I somehow have the impression that the original was better than the remake. There’s nothing remotely memorable or artistic about the direction or cinematography in The Streets of Laredo. Aesthetically, it’s about as average as you can get. And from what I can tell from my review of King Vidor’s 1936 film, that one was “worth viewing for its good direction, plot twists, and some rugged, well choreographed, frontier action. There’s an especially harrowing sequence involved Indians rolling boulders down a hill in order to maim and murder some Rangers that is really something to behold.” I can’t think of any such equivalent action sequence in Leslie Fenton’s film.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE RETURN OF WILDFIRE. Lippert, 1948.  Richard Arlen, Patricia Morison, Mary Beth Hughes, James Millican, Reed Hadley, Chris Pin-Martin, Stanley Andrews and Mike Ragan. Written by Betty Burbridge and Carl K Hittleman. Directed by Ray Taylor and Paul Landres.

   Whence the title? Return of Wildfire isn’t a sequel, and the eponymous stallion never actually leaves anyplace, so the issue of returning doesn’t arise here. Well never mind, it’s a bit draggy at times, but well played, and with a terrific finish.

   The story opens on a ranch owned by Stanley Andrews, the widowed father requisite in B-Westerns, with two daughters (Mary Beth Hughes and the lovely Patricia Morison.) Andrews raises horses, and suffers from the depredations of outlaw horse Wildfire, who keeps running off with his stock. But his real problem is with dress-heavy Reed Hadley, who aims to corner the market and will stop at little or nothing to get his hands on Andrews’ herd.

   About this time driftin’ cowpoke Richard Arlen blows in, helps out Ms Hughes, who has been injured hunting Wildfire, and is promptly hired on. He also takes a yen for Ms Morison, which leads to some very tiresome complications with Hughes, but before things can get too bogged down, Hadley makes his play and things liven up.

   Andrews gets murdered by his own foreman (James Millican, in a well-judged role as a vacillating bad guy) Hadley jumps in and scarfs up the horses in a dirty business deal, and when Arlen whips up replacements from Wildfire’s herd, Hadley just plain steals them, too.

   Up to this point, The Return of Wildfire has run on the tepid side, but from here on out, it’s non-stop action, with a running gun battle across the Sierra Peloma Mountains, capped with an exhausting fistfight that recalls similar moments in Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur. And I have to say directors Taylor and Landres do it just as well as Anthony Mann could have. Quite a surprise coming from producer Lippert, and one that makes for fine viewing.

   I said The Return of Wildfire was well played, and it is. Besides Millican’s wavering, we get Arlen’s type-cast toughness, and Reed Hadley’s sepulchral villain. And best of all, there’s Patricia Morison, who makes any film she’s in a delight to watch.

   

HIDDEN VALLEY OUTLAWS. Republic Pictures, 1944. Wild Bill Elliott, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Anne Jeffreys, Roy Barcroft, Kenne Duncan. Story and co-screenwriter: John K. Butler. Director: Howard Bretherton.

   Right on the heels of Sundown in Santa Fe (reviewed here ), here is a review of another B-western, and if you don’t like them and if this happens to be one too many for you, you can ask for your money back. (Let me repeat that. You can ask.) This one’s a jim-dandy one, though, and I think maybe the key is one of the names up above in the credits.

   If you’re a long time reader of the detective pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, you may have spotted him already. John K. Butler. The story is what makes this one go. Butler made a living at writing, and what’s more he was awfully good at it. This one is as tightly plotted as it can get. You’ve got to watch the actions of everyone every minute, and listen to the dialogue, too. There’s humor (*), there’s action when it’s needed, and while there is a good-looking woman involved, not a bit of romance is even hinted at.

   The story concerns a rancher who’s murdered for his land, his son who tries his hand at revenge until his equally untimely death, and Wild Bill Elliott, who along with his friend Gabby, is framed for the murder in the slickest bit of trickery you can imagine. They escape, join up with ranchers, try to persuade them not to become vigilantes, and bring the crooked lawyer behind it all to justice.d b
   This review has gone on long enough, but one of these days I’m going to have to put in a word for comic sidekicks in western movies. B-variety detective movies had them, too, I know, but it was the westerns who couldn’t exist without them, and Gabby Hayes was surely the rootin’, tootin’ best of the lot of them.
      ___
   
(*) Here’s the line I liked best. A crooked actor has been hired to play several parts in the fraud being played against Wild Bill and his friends, and one of the other owlhoots has this to say about him: “I don’t like actors. My wife ran away with one, but I still don’t like actors.”

– Considerably revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

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SUNDOWN IN SANTA FE. Republic Pictures, 1948. Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane, Eddy Waller, Roy Barcroft, Trevor Bardette, Jean Dean. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   B-westerns get no respect. They’re seldom listed in any of the various video guides or other standard reference books. Mysteries of the same vintage and caliber seem to be included, even with the same production values and indifferent plots, but not the movies of Rocky Lane, Lash LaRue, or Sunset Carson. Not even the films of Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys himself. And hey, come on, they’re not that bad.

   To remedy that, to some small minor extent, I’m going to be including a few of them from time to time in these pages. Not a lot of them. Only the ones I watch, and if I watch too many of them, my mind will turn to mush, if I can say that without spoiling the point I was making, but what else can I say?

   The opening scenes are very promising. Armed robberies that are taking place near and about Santa Fe are linked by the discovery of similar daggers at the site of each, suggesting that somehow or another Walter Durant, leader of the Lincoln conspiracy ring, is involved. Rocky is sent in as an undercover investigator to find out exactly what is going on.

   There’s very little mystery to the affair, however, as it turns out, since the son of the sheriff that Rocky goes to work for soon shows his true colors. He’s in love with the daughter of the rancher who is running the gang, although the man (as it turns out) is not really the mastermind behind it all. While the secret identity if that man is no secret either, at least to the audience, it takes Rocky most of the picture to figure it out.

   There’s plenty of action, but there’s also too much plot for such a relatively short feature, and details of what’s happening (and why) soon get swamped in the desire to get the story over with in its allotted amount of running time. While Rocky is ruggedly handsome, there’s no love interest for him at all, and maybe that’s why as a kid, I liked his movies so much. No gooey, gloppy stuff for him, at least not in this one.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

THE BADLANDERS. MGM, 1958. Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine, Katy Jurado, Claire Kelly, Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff. Based on the novel The Asphalt Jungle by W. R. Burnett (1949). Director: Delmer Daves.

   I suppose I should tell you that I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing the earlier version of this movie, nor have I read the book. All I know is that it has a pretty good reputation (the movie, I mean; I don’t know about the book). Whose idea it was to turn it into a western, I don’t know that either, but it was a lousy idea.

   At least it’s one that didn’t come off, in terms of putting it into practice. I’m not surer what went wrong. The actors are professional and competent, and they seem enthusiastic enough. (Or in Alan Ladd’s case, as enthusiastic as he ever seems to get.) I would lay most of the blame on the people responsible for the script.

   But maybe I should tell you what the story’s about first. Ladd is a mining engineer or geologist who’s been framed for stealing some gold; Borgnine is a simpler sort who’s been cheated out of a mine (or the land it was on; it wasn’t entirely clear) and jailed for retaliating the only way he knew. They leave Yuma Prison at the same time, but not on so friendly terms with each other. Nevertheless, they decide to team up and steal some ore that’s still in a vein that only Alan Ladd knows about.

   Along the way somehow or another they become friends. Male bonding. Borgnine also saves a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado) from some overfriendly white men, and before you know it, he has moved in with her, full of surprisingly cheerful good will toward mankind.

   The heist comes off – don’t ask me how they can carry around three large bags of gold ore worth $200,000 (or more) with as little effort as this – and what it so unpredictable about the rest of the movie is that no one would predict anything as predictable as what happens next. If you see what I mean.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

THE SHOOTING. 1967. Walter Reade Organization, US, 1968. Will Hutchins, Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates. Director: Monte Hellman.

   This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your typical, average western. This one is perky, murky, and quirky, à la Twin Peaks, of which this is very nearly the cowboy western equivalent. It does, however, except for the ending, which is deliberately obtuse, make more sense.

   Two men, apparently miners, are hired by a mysterious women to take her to a town which apparently lies across a desert. She has another idea in mind, however, and the two men soon realize that she is really on the trail of someone. Someone is on their trail, as well.

   That someone being a hired killer, played ultra-enigmatically by Jack Nicholson (the most subdued role I can ever recall seeing him play in a movie), and he eventually joins the small group of riders traveling through the sand and the barren hills on a trek that lasts, or so it seems, clear on to forever. (It’s no Lawrence of Arabia, but in a small budget sort of way, it comes close.)

   Brian Garfield, in his book on westerns, seems to have been totally mystified by what this movie is about, seeing all sorts of mystical things in it. I couldn’t tell you about the ending – I’m not sure if anybody could – but I didn’t have any problem with the rest of the film, nor should anyone who sees the first ten minutes. It seems like a straight-forward tale of revenge to me, without all the other motivations being spelled out completely (and believe me, this movie has more than most).

   Of course, maybe I’m wrong, so when you see it yourself, you’re entirely free to make up your own mind. It wouldn’t bother me. As I hope you can see, it’s that kind of movie. (And if you’re a western fan, see it yourself I think you should).

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

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