Western movies

SUNSET IN THE WEST. Republic Pictures, 1950. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Estelita Rodriguez, Penny Edwards, Gordon Jones, Will Wright. Director: William Witney.

   The story line doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s one that’s strong and powerful enough to stand out in the minds of its intended audience. Which is to say, mostly 6 to 14 year olds watching the movie at a Saturday afternoon matinee — with solid enough production values to appeal to adults as well.

   For some mysterious unknown reason, a gang of outlaws are hijacking trains, killing the members of the crew and dumping all of the goods on board on the ground, then disappearing with the empty trains. The local sheriff, having no clues, is roundly castigated by a mob of townspeople outside his office until one of his former deputies, Roy Rogers, shows up to offer him a helping hand.

   What follows is a typical William Witney action-packed extravaganza, with songs and music inserted in every once in a while, some naturally, others more or less at random. The story isn’t much, as I’ve previously suggested, but it’s good to see one of these old series westerns in the bright shiny colors such as displayed in this one. By any standard, they’re quite spectacular.


ARROW IN THE DUST. Allied Artists, 1954. Sterling Hayden, Colleen Gray, Keith Larsen, Tom Tully, Jimmy Wakely and Lee Van Cleef. Screenplay by Don Martin (No, not that Don Martin). Based on the novel by L. L. Foreman. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   By 1954, Allied Artists was still trying to shake off its Monogram roots, but not trying too hard. That was the year they released Two Guns and a Badge, the last series Western, but they were still churning out Bowery Boys pictures and “A-Minus” westerns like this, directed by B-Western stalwart Leslie Selander with his usual flair for action and a surprising feel for the quieter moments.

   Hayden is a deserter who masquerades in a major’s uniform and rallies a decimated cavalry unit to help get a wagon train past the injuns. And that’s pretty much it. Arrow incorporates lots of stock footage from Arizona (1940) but someone thought to take the cast out to Sedona and Red Rock, so it matches well, and photographer Ellis Carter blends it seamlessly.

   There’s also a literate screenplay. Hayden’s character matures convincingly, acting and reacting off a rounded cast of supporting players who talk like actual people. Screenwriter Martin even includes the familiar quotation: “A mule is unapproachable in devilment, fathomless in cunning, born old in crime, of disreputable paternity, and incapable of posterity, stolid, imperturbable, with no love for anything but the perpetration of tricks and its daily rations,” and it fits right in.

   There’s a genuine movie moment here where they’re burying dead soldiers while the wagon train pushes on, composed like a Ford film, the wagons rolling endlessly in the background while Hayden recites the 23rd psalm over the fresh graves. No overacting, no arty camera angles, just letting the scene speak for itself and find fitting context in “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

   But my favorite part (I know you were burning to find out) is a quick-draw like I’ve never seen before: Hayden lays down the law to Van Cleef, and when another owlhoot goes to draw, Hayden pulls his own gun out of his belt, raises it overhead with both hands to cock it, sweeps down, levels and fires faster’n you could say “Sh-t, what was that?” I had to run it over three times just to see if I saw it right.

    Arrow in the Dust is little remembered today, but for fans of the cast and solidly-built Westerns, it’s a must-see.

POWDERSMOKE RANGE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1936. Harry Carey (Tucson Smith), Hoot Gibson (Stony Brooke), ‘Boots’ Mallory, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (Lullaby Joslin), Bob Steele, Tom Tyler. Based on the novel by William Colt MacDonald. Director: Wallace Fox.

   Three roving cowboys (not yet called The Three Mesquiteers) come to the aid of a friend (Bob Steele) who’s been thrown in jail on trumped up charges. Tom Tyler is the fast gun hired by the gambler who’s trying to take over Steele’s ranch, and it’s eventually up to Harry Carey to face him down.

   In spite of what was probably an all-star cast in 1935, this is not a very good movie today. It has a lot of the right ingredients, but the art of acting has changed dramatically. I’m no expert on such things, but I think it’s the extra beat everybody takes to react to the line just before.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER. Universal Pictures, 1969. Richard Widmark, Lena Horne, Carroll O’Connor, David Opatoshu, Kent Smith, Jacqueline Scott, Morgan Woodward, Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, John Saxon. Based on the novel by Lewis B. Patten. Director: Allen Smithee (Robert Totten & Don Siegel).

   Creative differences between Richard Widmark, the star of the film, and Robert Totten, the original director assigned to it, resulted in Don Siegel being hired to finish up this rather uninspired western film. The pseudonymous “Allen Smithee” ended up being credited for as its director when neither of the two men who did the job wanted his name to be associated with it.

   Besides a noticeable lack of continuity to the story, it’s a old one to boot, that of a sheriff who was hired by a town many years ago,with considerable success, but as times have changed, Marshal Frank Patch’s continued usefulness has diminished considerably. What’s worse, as far as the town elders are concerned, he refuses to leave.

   And that’s the only story there is, the only one that matters. There is only one note to this movie, and it’s played over and over again. Patch (overplayed by Richard Widmark) is a both a bully and bull-headed enough to never say good-bye, and he knows enough about the past of each of the town’s merchants to get away with it.

   I think that in movies — the better ones anyway, and including westerns — somebody has to change because of events that take place as the story goes on, especially the main protagonist, and Patch is the same man at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning, except that he’s dead. Hence the title.


TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES. Universal, 1940. Franchot Tone, Warren William, Peggy Moran, Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Porter Hall and Broderick Crawford! Written by Harold Shumate. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   Hey, how’s this for an original Western plot: A lawman comes to town to look into a killin’ and discovers that a pillar of the community is actually running the gang of rustlers that murdered his friend.

   Oh you’ve seen it? Well maybe not, because this one has the intelligence not to take itself too seriously – or seriously at all.

   The intelligence starts with Franchot Tone as an Eastern dude sent West to root around the prairie and look for clues — thank gawd no one tried to pass the cosmopolitan Tone off as a cowboy. Even better, when he gets to the burg of Peaceful Flats and finds the sheriff handcuffed to a lamp post, the laughs start coming, and though they pause for action, they never really stop.

   Warren William, his career in sad eclipse, lends his usual polish to the role of dress-heavy, and his veneer of sophistication matches Tone’s perfectly. In direct contrast, Tone gets teamed up with Andy Devine as a cowboy who dreams of becoming a valet (?!) and Broderick Crawford, providing truculent muscle for any and all occasions.

   And then there’s Mischa Auer, who comes on as an Indian in a Medicine show, morphs into a Mexican, then a Bullfighter, a Cossack, an Acrobat, Magician and Southern Colonel (!) lending an air of pleasing surrealism to the whole thing.

   I should also put in a word for Peggy Moran as a predatory ingénue who spends most of the film trying to seduce Franchot Tone, an agreeable change-up on the usual formula, and she handles it well.

   Overall though, the chief attractions of Trail of the Vigilantes are writer Shumate’s ability to overturn the conventions and director Dwan’s relaxed approach to it all. Thus Tone never fires a shot, even in the big saloon shoot-out, but the film makes no big deal of it. On the other hand, his iffy horsemanship gets only passing notice till it emerges to rousing effect in that saloon melee.

   So what you have here is that rarity, a film that mocks itself yet remains true to form. Exciting, absurd, funny and formulaic in equal measure, Trail of the Vigilantes emerges as rare fun. And what more could you ask?

PANHANDLE. Allied Artists, 1948. Rod Cameron, Cathy Downs, Reed Hadley, Anne Gwynne, Blake Edwards. Screenplay by John C. Champion and Blake Edwards. Director: Leslie Selander.

   This is the film that the later 1966 western movie The Texican was a re-imaging of. (You can read the review by Jonathan and posted here not too long ago.) The later film starred Audie Murphy in Rod Cameron’s part in the original, that of a former lawman now living as a reformed outlaw in Mexico, but who heads back north again to avenge the murder of his brother at the hands of an unknown bushwhacker.

   The villain in this original version is Reed Hadley, a role played by the much heavier Broderick Crawford in the later film, but both are equally mean and despicable. There are a few other changes made, but the basic storylines are about the same, emphasis on basic, and I’d say that the two movies are equally entertaining.

   Some things of interest about Panhandle on its own, however. It was filmed in sepia color, for no good reason that I could see, and because it’s such an uncommon choice, it takes a while to get used to, or it did me.

   While entertaining, the meandering plot really doesn’t know where it is going. When John Sands (Cameron) crosses the border heading north, he’s confronted by a sheriff he knew in the past, but after shooting the gun out of his hand, Sands continues his journey north. The incident does not come up again. Once in the town Hadley all but owns, some townsmen call on Sands to help bring justice to the town. Sands refuses and the incident does not come up again. After a breakneck brawl in a saloon and a subsequent shootout, a stranger has Sands’ back to good advantage. Turns out he (the stranger) works for the federal government (something to do with the panhandle country), but Sands refuses and the incident does not come up again.

   Sands also chooses the wrong girl, to my way of thinking, but we can certainly agree to disagree about that, if you’re so minded.

   One other thing. After seeing Blake Edwards play Floyd Schofield, one of Reed Hadley gunman’s hired gunmen, it is clear that Edwards made the right choice in switching from acting to writing. He’s the one on the right in the photo on the left. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me about that.


RETURN OF THE BAD MEN. RKO, 1948. Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, “Gabby” Hayes, Jacqueline White, Steve Brodie, Tom Keene (as Richard Powers), Lex Barker, Tom Tyler, Robert Armstrong. Written by Charles O’Neal, Jack Natteford & Luci Ward. Directed by Ray Enright.

   Back in the 1940s Universal opted to draw in the horror movie fans by teaming up their monsters, starting with FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, continuing with HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN/DRACULA and even ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Columbia nodded to fashion with a vampire/werewolf team in RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, but basically the fiendish team-up thing was the province of Universal — in Horror movies, that is.

   In Westerns it was much the same. The success of big-budget hits like JESSE JAMES, BELLE STAR and BILLY THE KID prepared the ground for Outlaw Biopics like BADMEN OF MISSOURI and WHEN THE DALTONS RODE, but it was RKO that brought on the Owlhoot Rallies with BADMAN’S TERRITORY (1946) and RETURN OF THE BAD MEN (’48) to be followed up by BEST OF THE BAD MEN (’51.)

   RETURN pits Billy the Kid, The Daltons, Bill Doolin, the Younger brothers and the Sundance Kid against Randolph Scott, which seems a trifle unfair — to them. Mostly it’s a silly thing, with tiresome comic relief from Gabby Hayes and a clunky romantic conflict between Jacqueline White as Scott’s fiancée and Anne Jeffreys as the outlaw gal redeemed by her love for the square-jawed lawman. Sigh.

   But hold on thar, there’s more to RETURN OF THE BAD MEN than you might expect. The story offers plenty of ridin’ shootin’ and fightin’, and director Ray Enright delivers it with maximum pace and camera angles well-judged to emphasize each shot and every punch.

   Enright also gives the film a surprising mix of moodiness and realism, as when the bad guys advance on a ranch house military-style, darting from cover to cover, or a jerky tracking shot of the Sundance Kid at the end of a long chase, his tired horse staggering beneath him as they stumble into his Ghost Town Hideout.

   Said Sundance is played with edgy nastiness by Robert Ryan, who brings a jarring but welcome touch of noir to the whole thing. Cameraman J. Roy Hunt (of SHE and FLYING DOWN TO RIO) frequently lights him from below, a disturbingly unnatural effect for a Western, and Enright composes his shots so that Sundance always looks like an outsider in a band of outcasts.

   Ryan himself more than lives up to the concept, snarling and glowering in between strangling Anne Jeffreys and gunning down Charles Stevens in cold blood. Best of all, his acting collides beautifully with Randy’s stoic decency, giving the whole thing a dramatic conflict that surprised me no end.

   RETURN OF THE BAD MEN is almost by definition a pre-destined Dumb Movie, but it sparkles with flashes of intelligence I will remember longer than many “important” films.


THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE. MGM, 1956. Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain, Broderick Crawford, Russ Tamblyn, Leif Erickson, John Dehner, Noah Beery Jr. Written by Frank D. Gilroy and Russell Rouse from an original teleplay (The Last Notch, 1954) by Gilroy. Directed by Russell Rouse.

FIVE GUNS TO TOMBSTONE. United Artists, 1960. James Brown, John Wilder, Walter Coy, Robert Karnes, Della Sharman, Willis Bouchey. Written by Richard Schayer and Jack DeWitt, from an original screenplay (Gun Belt, 1953) by Arthur E. Orloff.

   Two films I happened to watch back-to-back, and they go me to thinking….

   The Fastest Gun Alive was based on an early television drama, and it has the pared-down self-importance of that time. Where Shane mythologized the clichés of the Western, this seeks to codify them, with Glenn Ford as the eponymous pistolero, trying to resist his addiction to firearms until called on to save his community.

   According to the story, if anyone is known as a fast gun, every other gunfighter in the known universe will come after him, and they will meet on Main Street with guns holstered for a fair fight. Pure bosh of course, conveyed with a great deal of talk, but MGM saw fit to stretch the thing out by ringing in Russ Tamblyn for an acrobatic and completely extraneous dance number. There’s also the usual nod to High Noon, with the townsmen cowering for safety (and more talk) in a church as they hide from fast-gun Broderick Crawford and his back-up group.

   On the plus side, Director Russell Rouse opens it out well, Glenn Ford delivers a fine performance, and there are a lot of familiar B-Western faces around. Best of all, there’s John Dehner in a very well-written part as Brod’s lieutenant owl-hoot. This, with Man of the West, puts Dehner at the top of my list as Best of the 2nd-String Bad Guys.

   Five Guns to Tombstone, on the other hand, boasts no self-importance at all, and the players will be familiar only to the most devoted of B-Western fans. Directed by that veteran hack Edward L. Cahn (The She Creature, It: The Terror from Beyond Space) it moves with an uncomplicated simplicity that celebrates, rather than solidifies, the familiar paces of its story.

   The story? Ah yes. Something about another ex-gunfighter (James Brown) trying to get along peaceable-like until his outlaw brother drags him into a Wells Fargo robbery fraught with treachery and sudden endings. No memorable acting here, but everyone is more than competent, and the parts only require as much depth as a strip of celluloid – that and the ability to ride, fight and shoot convincingly. And speaking of shooting: In this movie, everybody, good guys and bad, pull out their irons at the first sign of trouble and go in shooting.

   Five Guns is hardly memorable, but as I watched it zip through its allotted time, after listening to Fastest Gun talk its way along, it was like a breath of fresh and simple Western air. Not a great western, maybe not even a very good one, but I found it refreshing.


THE TEXICAN. Columbia Pictures, 1966. Audie Murphy, Broderick Crawford, Diana Lorys, Luz Márquez, Aldo Sambrel, Anthony Casas, Gerard Tichy. Director: Lesley Selander.

   I feel as though I liked The Texican far more than I deserved to. Perhaps that’s a strange way to begin a film review, but it seems apt in this case, mainly because, all things considered, this Audie Murphy vehicle has a lot of noticeable flaws. First of all, there’s the score, which fits perfectly in a quirky late 1960s paella Western but which completely overwhelms this movie and feels gratuitously out of place. Then, there’s the dubbing of voices. And not just the Spanish actors, but also that of Broderick Crawford, whose voice was likely dubbed into Spanish and then back into English. Much like the film soundtrack, it seemed out of place.

   What won me over, I confess, was seeing Murphy in a Western role that was far less squeaky-clean than many of the programmers he starred in throughout the 1950s. Not that he always played perfect heroes in the past. But in The Texican, it also seemed as if being physically out of Hollywood and no longer on a studio lot allowed Murphy to portray a world-weary gunfighter in a more convincing manner than he could have when he began his acting career. Sadly, Murphy would pass away five years later in a tragic plane crash in Virginia.

   There’s also Broderick Crawford, whom I mentioned above, who is a superbly intimidating physical presence, even without his trademark growly voice. He portrays a heavy (pun semi-intended) by the name of Luke Starr who has the town of Rimrock under his thumb. That is until Jess Carlin (Murphy) begins to investigate the mysterious death of his brother Roy, a newspaperman who was a thorn in Starr’s side.

   The plot, for a 1960s Western, is rather conventional, but sometimes it’s good to revisit traditional narratives. Not every movie has to deconstruct the Western mythos. From what I have ascertained online, The Texican is a reimagining of Lesley Selander’s 1948 film Panhandle, also co-written by John C. Champion, in which Rod Cameron took top billing. I haven’t seen that one, but it’s now on my list.

   As far as The Texican goes, your cinematic life won’t be lacking if you never end up catching up with it But for simple escapist entertainment that checks all the boxes, you could do a lot worse.


STEWART EDWARD WHITE – The Killer. Doubleday, hardcover, 1920. Previously serialized in The Red Book Magazine, December 1919 through March 1920. Many reprint and Print on Demand editions available.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox, 1932. With George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens and Noble Johnson. Screenplay by Alfred A. Cahn, from the novella “The Killer” by Stewart Edward White.

   I picked up Stewart Edward White’s The Killer on a whim and found it an interesting hybrid of a book: the first third is a longish novelette from which the tome draws its title — about which more later — while the rest of the near-350 pages is a series of lengthy stories and true anecdotes (true-sounding, anyway) about working life on the plains in in the early 1900s: some quite amusing while others read like Hemingway before there was Hemingway.

   But the opening piece, The Killer, is a genuine blood-and-thunder Old Dark House chiller transplanted out west, and grown quite well, too. White sets the mood very capably and once he’s got the background fraught with palpable menace, he proceeds to build a simple but impressive little story filled with mad killers, drug addicts, distressed damsels and doughty do-gooders — all put through their pulp-paper paces with the kind of innocent gusto that typified thrillers of the time, a tale told with charm that writers since have never quite re-captured.

   As for the anecdotes that follow, perhaps they can be best exemplified by:

   “And I don’t need no gun to do it, neither,” he said, as though concluding a long conversation.

  “Shore not, Slim,” agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. “What is it?”

  “Kill that ____ ____ _____ Beck,” said Slim, owlishly. “I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b’ God!”

   He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Ten minutes passed. Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim’s face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stem along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm. His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.

   “Well,” said it, “did you kill Beck?”

   “Naw!” replied Slim’s remains disgustedly, “the son of a gun wouldn’t fight!”

   The Killer was made into a film in 1932, Mystery Ranch, and they did a nice job of it, with fast-paced direction, atmospheric photography by Joe August (Who cut his teeth on the early films of William S. Hart) and spirited playing from George O’Brien, Celia Parker, Noble Johnson and especially Charles “Ming” Middleton as the mad killer.

   And though Middleton gets all the best lines, I have to say he wouldn’t have been nearly so menacing without Charles Stevens (Who made a cottage industry out of playing “Indian Charrlie” in various films of the Wyatt Earp legend) and Noble Johnson skulking about in the background.

   Best of all, it seems everyone involved wisely decided to eschew typical B-movie complications and produced a film with the simplicity of a ballad, just under an hour of solid fun. Existing prints are a bit choppy, but they can’t obscure the streamlined beauty of a film like this.

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