Western movies


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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


HANGMAN’S KNOT. Columbia Pictures, 1952. Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Claude Jarman Jr., Frank Faylen, Glenn Langan, Richard Denning, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Clem Bevans, Ray Teal. Written and directed by Roy Huggins.

   Hangman’s Knot has Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in it —two of my all time favorite actors — so I had pretty high hopes prior to watching this lesser known early 1950s Western. Unfortunately, despite solid performances by both these men (especially Marvin), the movie never really gets that far off the proverbial ground.

   It’s not that Hangman’s Knot is remotely a bad film; it’s just that it devolves into (trust me, I almost feel guilty saying this) somewhat mediocre, even somewhat clichéd, post Civil War-era, Western. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t help but watch this film without subconsciously comparing it the decidedly excellent Budd Boetticher-directed Westerns that Scott would star in as the golden age for the Western genre wound on.

   Written and directed by Roy Huggins and produced by Harry Joe Brown, Hangman’s Knot features Scott as Major Matt Stewart, a Confederate officer tasked with stealing a gold shipment from Union troops in Nevada. The mission, which he carries out with the assistance of his sociopath comrade (Lee Marvin), is a success.

   The catch: as it turns out, the war is already over, making these Confederate soldiers just a bunch of outlaws. They are literally men without a country.

   The rest of the movie follows these happenstance outlaws as they hole up in a way station with a group of hostages and surrounded by a ragtag posse out for the gold. About those aforementioned hostages: did I mention that one of them is a lovely young Yankee woman (Donna Reed) who, by the end, falls in love with our tall and handsome Southern protagonist? Love conquers all or something like that.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MINNESOTA CLAY. Ultra Film, Italy/France/Spain, 1964. Orinally released as Le Justicier du Minnesota. Cameron Mitchell, Georges Riviere, Ethel Rojo, Diana Martín, Antonio Roso, Fernando Sancho. Director: Sergio Corbucci.

   Sergio Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay has all of the great elements of a Spaghetti Western: a man wrongly imprisoned, a town held hostage, an outlaw who becomes a lawman, a corrupt Mexican general, beautiful women, and a hero with whom the audience can identify. Most importantly, it has Cameron Mitchell, an actor whose work I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate. (My earlier reviews of his The Unstoppable Man and The Last of the Vikings can be found here and here).

   Mitchell portrays the eponymous title character, a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned in a U.S. Army labor prison camp. After making his escape, he seeks out the man responsible for his confinement. As it turns out, Minnesota Clay’s problem is neither his willingness to seek vengeance, nor an inability to locale his nemesis. It’s that he’s gradually losing his eyesight, a unique twist on the gunfighter-seeks-villain theme.

   While Minnesota Clay may not have much in the way of memorable dialogue or the breathtaking cinematography of John Ford’s or Sergio Leone’s westerns, it nevertheless has its moments. The final fight sequence, in which our bloodied and battered hero uses his hearing, rather than his sight, to identify and kill his antagonist, is one for the ages.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          


DOWN DAKOTA WAY. Republic Pictures, 1949. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Dale Evans, Pat Brady, Montie Montana, Elisabeth Risdon, Byron Barr, James Cardwell, Roy Barcroft, Foy Willing & the Riders of the Purple Sage. Screenplay: John K. Butler & Sloan Nibley. Director: William Witney.

   Full disclosure: I’m definitely a William Witney aficionado. Plus, out of all the singing cowboys, I like Roy Rogers the best. After recently watching Under California Stars, which I reviewed here, I had moderately high expectations for Down Dakota Way. At the very least, I thought it would be an overall fun movie watching experience. In that sense, I was somewhat mistaken.

   Now, it’s not as if Down Dakota Way is a terrible movie or that the direction is necessarily of sub-par quality. No, it’s just that the movie lacks that real, but difficult to describe in words, sense of fun, lighthearted, escapism. In many ways, Down Dakota Way has all the characteristics of a dark, brooding, Hamlet-on-horseback Western but without the excellent acting and brilliant cinematography that make many “Western noirs” truly outstanding films.

   In this entry in the vast Roy Rogers cinematic corpus, Rogers ends up doing battle with a corrupt cattle baron willing to employ criminal methods to cover up the widespread presence of foot and mouth disease among his stock. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the baron’s hired gunmen, a ruthless little piece of work, happens to be the adopted son of Roy’s favorite childhood schoolteacher. Since the gunman’s father was also a criminal, there’s a bit of a morality play in this somewhat forgettable Western, a didactic lesson about raising your children right and not judging sons for the sins of their fathers.

   Still, when all is said and done, Down Dakota Way really just isn’t all that captivating. For a Witney-directed film, I’d expected some better rough and tumble fight choreography. That, too, was sadly lacking.

THE TALL T. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva, John Hubbard, Robert Burton. Screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on the story “The Captives,” by Elmore Leonard, published in Argosy, February 1955. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   To start off with, let me tell you that this is one of my favorite Western films of all time. I won’t tell you that it’s number one, because I’ll be honest with you as well as myself and say that it isn’t, but it’s in the top five.

   In part it’s the actors. Randolph Scott isn’t a lawman doing his job with professional dignity and humor, a common role he had in westerns. In The Tall T he’s a struggling former cowhand, no more than that, but he was good at his job. But now he’s living alone and struggling to make a go of his own small ranch, as honest with himself and others as the day is long.

   Richard Boone is the villain of the piece, who along with a pair of low-life outlaws he rides with (Skip Homeier and Henry Silva) holds up a stage only to find that it’s not the regularly scheduled one, but one chartered by the man who married the plain-looking daughter of the richest man in the territory, a rabbit of a man who gives up his wife as part of a ransom scheme to save his own hide. Scott, who just happens to be on the stagecoach, is caught up in the plan and as chance would have it, is made a captive too.

   As their captors, Richard Boone and his two cohorts are as murderous and vicious as they come. For some reason, though, Boone lets the yahoos he associates with do all the shooting, and as he confesses to Scott over an open fire, he has a wish to have a piece of land himself. Only Richard Boone could have played the part. A killer who aches with the need for someone intelligent to talk to.

   I don’t know how they managed to make Maureen O’Sullivan so plain looking, but she is, and at length she admits that she her knows exactly why her new husband married her. But it’s Randolph Scott who makes the movie work. Rugged, steely-eyed and quiet-talking, but with little ambition more than to make a living on his own, he’s also more than OK with a gun, a fact that in the end turns out to be rather important.

   Other than the actors, though, it is the storytelling, the combination of script and directing, that simply shines. The budget probably wasn’t all that large, but the story simply flows, with no wasted moments, every scene essential to the story. This is a movie that’s down to earth and real, and made by professionals on both sides of the camera.

   As for Elmore Leonard’s story, the one the movie is based on, you don’t have to read more than two or three pages before you know where the timing and the pacing of the movie came from.

   Most of the movie is taken straight from the story, at most only a long novelette, with only a couple of substantial changes. The campfire scene between Scott and Boone referred to above was added, and the way Scott and the woman defeat their captors was re-orchestrated, both changes for the better.

   Everyone agrees that Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction was always the best around, but to my mind, his western fiction, which came along earlier, is even better. That includes “The Captives,” beyond a doubt, and the movie is even better yet. To my mind, near perfect.

Next Page »