Western movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

SILVER LODE. RKO, 1954. John Payne, Lizabeth Scot, Dan Duryea, Morris Ankrum, Harry Carey Jr. Robert Warrick, Dolores Moran, Emile Meyer, and Frank Sully. Written by Karen DeWolf. Directed by Alan Dwan. Available on DVD, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

   Probably the most explicit anti-McCarthy film of its time, and a pretty good “Town” Western besides.

   “Town Westerns” of course are those that largely forsake the wide-open spaces associated with the genre, and focus the action in and around a small community. They can get a bit static and talky, but there are some fine ones: FACE OF A FUGITIVE, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, RIO BRAVO…. Feel free to add your favorites in the list, but try to include SILVER LODE.

   The film opens with a quartet of Owlhoots riding into town, led by a stubble-faced Dan Duryea as a character named McCarty — could it get more obvious? Turns out that a well-loved local man (John Payne) is about to Marry Lizabeth Scott when Duryea/McCarty disrupts the ceremony. He has papers identifying hm as a US Marshal, a warrant to arrest Payne for murder, and a glint in his eye that says Payne will never make it to trial.

   What follows will be familiar to anyone who has seen HIGH NOON or its imitations: Payne’s friends rally to his side, then drop away one by one as suspicion mounts against him. To be fair to them, at one point he’s found standing over the murdered Sheriff (Emile Meyer) with a smoking gun, but director Alan Dwan keeps the talky parts commendably brief and un-preachy.

   Thus, SILVER LODE emerges as a well-crafted cat-and-mouse game, Payne trying to find some lever against Duryea, and Duryea chipping away at his reputation with innuendos and half-truths—character assassination in aid of physical murder.

   Karen DeWolf, a prolific writer of B Movies, makes it seem fresh by keeping the characters on the move, seldom seen on the same set twice, and never for very long. She also makes a fine job of giving Lizabeth Scott and Dolores Moran (as a tarty Saloon Gal) roles that are more than decorative. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that they manage to shape the story without breaking character. Indeed, DeWolf uses their positions in the social strata of the town so well I began to wonder if this was a Chick-Western.

   No fear of that though. Dwan keeps up the pace and tension as few could, culminating in a bell tower chase-and shoot-out that caps the action perfectly. Where some Town Westerns tend to get verbose and self-important, SILVER LODE delivers its anti-McCarthy message with style and a disarming lack of pretension.

   I also want to put in a word here about Frank Sully. A busy character actor in films as diverse as THE GRAPES OF WRATH and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, he specialized in dumb cops, dumb hoods, dumb cowboys and the occasional yokel, and he always gave it his all. SILVER LODE features Sully as a rattled telegrapher, and he manages to inject his own sense of humor quite effectively into a scene played for tension.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

BIG JAKE. Batjac/CinemaCenter Films, 1971. John Wayne, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Hara, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr, Hank Worden, Glenn Corbett, Jim Davis, and John Agar. Narrated by George Fenneman. Written by Harry & Rita Fink. Directed by George Sherman.

   George Sherman’s final feature film makes an altogether fitting end for a career that stretched back to the Three Mesquiteers: just as silly, just as vigorous and just as much fun.

   That’s not to say Big Jake is a very good movie – it ain’t. The first half is barely tolerable, what with “trendy” borrowings from Butch Cassidy and a story that slows to a grind in order to bring on the Duke and show us how tough he us. Duke’s acting here is painfully self-indulgent, and despite plenty of dramatic potential (an estranged father must work with his two sons to rescue his kidnapped grandchild) the screenplay goes out of its way to avoid anything like emotional conflict.

   But that’s just the first half. Once Duke and his party reach the rendezvous point, where Richard Boone waits with a small army of bad guys, Big Jake turns into a real scrapper. I particularly enjoyed the diminuendo effect of the final set-to, so let me see if I can explain that.

   In Laurel & Hardy Movies, action moves to a crescendo. The boys start out spilling coffee on someone and end up demolishing his car in a series of comic escalations. But Big Jake’s climactic battle opens with phalanxes of warriors, armed with shotguns, machetes, high-powered rifles and a semi-automatic pistol, then grinds them down till by the ending, the combatants are throwing lanterns and popping derringers at each other.

   Add to this that in Richard Boone, John Wayne finds an adversary worthy of him, and you get a movie that is, finally, enjoyable on the level of the old Republic B-Westerns. No more, but certainly no less.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

SAN ANTONIO. Warner Brothers, 1945.Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, “Cuddles” Sakall, Victor Franken, John Litel, Paul Kelly and Tom Tyler. Written by Alan Le May and W. R. Burnett. Music by Max Steiner. Directed by David Butler, Robert Florey (uncredited) and Raoul Walsh (uncredited).

   This generally gets compared unfavorably to Dodge City (1939) and dismissed as inferior, but I find a lot in San Antonio to enjoy. With three directors and two talented writers, it’s hard to say who might be the real auteur of the film, but my bet is Max Steiner.

   Flynn plays Clay Hardin, a South Texas rancher shot to pieces sometime before the movie started (Tom Tyler quips “They must be picking lead out of him yet!”) recovering from his wounds in Mexico and gathering evidence against Paul Kelly, who heads up a combine of organized rustlers preying on honest cattlemen. As the film opens, Flynn’s got hold of the vital Macguffin that will convict Kelly, and means to make his way to San Antonio (hence the title of the piece) through outlaw-infested territory to get his man — with a few time-outs to romance itinerant chanteuse Alexis Smith.

   It’s a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir. Kelly owns the nightclub saloon where Ms Smith performs and he has a suave and treacherous partner in Victor Franken. Unfortunately, somebody lets the pace slacken, throws in too much witless time-wasting bits with Cuddles Sakall, and generally prolongs things when they need speeded up. BUT we also get a death scene from Tom Tyler to match his memorable exit in Stagecoach and a dandy saloon-wrecking shoot-out where everyone who gets hit smashes into something, falls off of something, or just flies into the air — or as we kids used to say “He died neat!”

   There are also as couple of quieter moments that surprised me: Like Errol Flynn looking visibly shaken after killing Tom Tyler in the street. I’ve never seen such a haunted look from Flynn or any other movie cowboy coming out of a fight. And satanic Victor Franken, double-crossed and dying, smiling up at his killer and saying “I’ll be waiting for you!”

   Small things, but together with the bigger scenes, thy make San Antonio a fun movie, and one worth seeing.

   

RETURN OF THE BAD MEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1948. Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Jacqueline White, Robert Armstrong. Director: Ray Enright.

   It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Bring together all of the famous bad men of the west, or a good passel of them, whether or not they ever met each other in real life, or were active at the same time, and create a gang of outlaws even a figure as solid and stalwart as Randolph Scott could handle them. Audiences would simply flock in, or I’m sure that’s what was the expectation was.

   I haven’t researched the historical facts well enough to tell you whether anything in this movie is true, but I doubt it. In any case, the result is surprisingly sub-par. Not even the evil presence of Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid, nor the alluring beauty of Anne Jeffreys as Cheyenne, the niece of Wild Bill Doolin, help a lot to make Return of the Bad Men more than a barely passable way to spend 90 minutes f your time.

   For the record, here’s a list of the outlaws that gangleader Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong) puts together: The Youngers (Cole, Jim and John), the Daltons (Emmett, Bob and Grat), Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Yeager, and the Arkansas Kid. I hope I didn’t leave anyone out. I didn’t list any of their names as part of the cast because other than Robert Ryan, who’s as mean as they come, all of them are very minor roles.

   It turns out that Randolph Scott has a sweetheart that he plans to marry, but what Anne Jeffreys’ character, once reformed (or is she), thinks about that is that she will have something to say about it. Scott is quite oblivious. Unfortunately, the writers not knowing how to write themselves out of this romantic triangle they’ve written themselves into, take the weakest, lamest way out.

   George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, as a bank president, no less, adds comedy relief, but the story is overwhelmed by characters who are simply not very interesting. Not even the sight of the masses of men on horseback and in flimsy wagons at the beginning of the Oklahoma Land Rush adds any excitement to the proceedings.

   Passable entertainment, but barely. Only the sharp, clear black and white photography is worth a mention (J. Roy Hunt , cinematographer). Credit where credit is due.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

FOUR FACES WEST. MGM, 1948. Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calliea, and William Conrad. Screenplay by C. Graham Baker and Teddy Sherman, from the story “Paso Por Aqui” by Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Produced by Harry Sherman. Directed by Alfred E Green.

   “Pop” Sherman’s last Western is a gentle affair, maybe too gentle, but a fitting coda for the man who brought Hopalong Cassidy to the screen.

   Joel McCrea stars as a wandering westerner who rides into town and robs the bank while Marshall Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is giving a speech a few blocks away. A chase ensues. And ensues. And goes on… and on…. And about the time I’d had enough, the story takes a turn that brings things to a worthy, if tame, ending.

   Aye, there’s the rub. I’m not going to put in a ((SPOILER ALERT!)) here because it’s pretty obvious early on that nothing very bad is going to happen here. And when the viewer figures that out, the film forfeits a certain amount of interest. Much as we like the characters, it’s hard to care about them when we can see a happy ending galloping across the screen with every shot. And speaking of Shot, nobody gets killed in Four Faces. Hell, nobody even gets shot much. There’s not even a decent fist-fight in the whole film, and at a certain point we no longer expect one, so there’s no need to add ((END OF ALERT!)) here.

   For viewers accustomed to seeing a certain amount of action in their oaters — even a pacifist Western like Angel and the Bad Man — this can be off-putting. Four Faces compensates with a literate script, strong performances (Charles Bickford embodies everything I’d like to think Pat Garrett really was) and lustrous photography, and I’d like to think this was what Sherman wanted his Hoppy series to be.

   I’m just glad it wasn’t.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE GAY CAVALIER. Monogram Pictures, 1946. Gilbert Roland, Martin Garragala. Nacho Galindo, Ramsay Ames, Helen Gerald, Tristam Coffin, John Merton. Screenplay by Charles Belden, based on the character created by O Henry. Foreword by Sidney Sutherland. Directed by William Nigh.

   “Sometimes a rider comes, his face is not so pretty. He is death.”
      — the Cisco Kid

   Gilbert Roland rides onto the screen as the Cisco Kid in this B Western and does so with a good deal more romance and less action than you might expect.

   Cisco had been around ever since the story by O Henry whose original character is a far cry from the charming Mexican Robin Hood we know and love.

   The original Cisco was a sociopathic Anglo Billy the Kid type hunted by a brave Texas Ranger captain (based on Lee Nace the Ranger who arrested and befriended William Sidney Porter in Texas for embezzlement). In the story the Kid uses his Mexican girlfriend to escape the Ranger having her ride away on his horse in his clothes and to be killed by the Ranger while he escapes on her horse in drag.

   By the time Cisco came to the big screen, he was a charming but still ruthless Mexican bandit played by Warner Baxter, who managed to take home the first Academy Award playing the part in 1929 (Ronald Colman was nominated as Bulldog Drummond that year) in In Old Arizona.

   Over the years Cisco was a handsome Cesar Romero (mostly playing himself), the beloved Duncan Renaldo of television fame, Jimmy Smits in a made-for-television movie, and the dashing and dangerous Gilbert Roland.

   Roland my be billed as the gay cavalier, but there is nothing light or happy about him. There are a few rueful or slightly sinister smiles, and he romances some beautiful women, but his Cisco all in black is almost noirish dark, driven, and haunted as well as philosophical.

   “Baby, why do you worry about time? Time is a wonderful thing, it ages wine and mellows women.”

   Roland, debuted in the silent era and went from leading man to character actor over his career, but as Leonard Maltin once wrote, no movie was ever worse for his presence, and here as a dark and sardonic Cisco he brings something new to the character.

   The film opens with Cisco on a hill top standing with his hat off beside a cross. It is the grave of his father. As his fat friend Baby (Nacho Galindo) explains to one of the gang, Cisco’s father was the most powerful man in California at one time, and now Cisco to atone for his father’s sins and so the old man can rest, has become a Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

   I don’t think any other film ever gave Cisco an origin story.

   Meanwhile Don Felipe (Martin Garragala), a poor ranchero, is marrying his daughter (Helen Gerrald) off to wealthy gringo John Lawton (Tristam Coffin) though she loves a poor Mexican boy. What no one knows is that Lawton and his man (John Merton — a bad guy surprise surprise) are criminals planning to use Don Felipe’s estate as a base and have already held up the money gathered to build a new church and blamed the Cisco Kid for the crime.

   That doesn’t sit well with this Cisco. He determines to find whoever imitated him and stole the church money, and once he knows it is Lawton to play Cupid for the young Juan and Don Felipe’s daughter.

   Meanwhile Cisco finds time to romance the older and much more attractive daughter, Ramsay Ames.

   There is a raid on Lawton’s hideout to steal the money back for the church, and a well staged duel with swords between Coffin and Roland, but little boys must have been squirming in their seats on Saturday mornings as this one unreeled. On the other hand, adults may have enjoyed a more mature Western done with some actual charm and a charismatic lead who could actually act.

   Leonard Maltin’s axiom stands. Like anything else he was in, no movie was ever worse for the presence of Gilbert Roland, and many, like this one, far better for him being in it.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

FALSE COLORS. Paramount, 1943. William Boyd, Andy Clyde, Jimmy Rogers, Douglass Dumbrille, Tom Seidel, Claudia Drake, Glenn Strange, Pierce Lyden, Roy Barcroft, and Robert Mitchum. Screenplay by Bennett Cohen. Directed by George Archainbaud.

   Figure this for the plot of an imaginary film noir: Let’s say there are three War Buddies (maybe Alan Ladd, William Bendix, and Hugh Beaumont) who pick up a fourth towards the end of the war. The new guy, a veritable orphan, forms an attachment to his surrogate family of war buddies, and when he learns inherited a lot of money from the father he hasn’t seen in years, he impulsively writes a will making his new pals beneficiaries in the event of his death — which, as you might expect, comes around very soon and rather suspiciously thereafter.

   The buddies, of course, have no intention of accepting the money, and when they get out of the Service they journey to their late pal’s home town — and discover an imposter there in his place, along with a cute-kid-sister-in-distress! Something sinister’s going on, and with Douglass Dumbrille and Roy Barcroft around, it’s easy to see what.

   Okay. Now substitute a Cattle Drive for the war, make the three buddies cowboys and the inheritance a ranch, and you have the real False Colors, an intriguing Hopalong Cassidy effort with a fine cast of heavies, including Bob Mitchum, still in his “Right, Boss,” days. There’s the usual riding, running and shooting amid splendid backgrounds, a nice knock-down-drag-out between Boyd’s and Mitchum’s stuntmen, plus an interesting performance from someone named Tom Seidel (who?) as the neurotic buddy and his feckless impostor.

   Seidel’s performance, in fact, is one of those bits of desultory inspiration that make “B” movies so much fun to watch: It’s basically a nothing part in a pot-boiler movie, from an actor whose career never went anywhere, but he’s in it for all he’s worth, quietly, intelligently working up his act, and investing it with thoughtfulness and energy, even when he must have known no one would be watching.

   As for the rest, well, this was among the last half dozen Hoppy films produced by Harry Sherman, and it shows. Sherman’s care is still there in the excellent photography, locations and stunt work, but comic relief Andy Clyde is a bit tired, and Jimmy Rogers is no match for James Ellison or Russell Hayden, who preceded him. Young Bob Mitchum graduated in importance to the point where he could match stuntmen with the star, and his fellow-heavies are their usual nasty selves, but a tinge of weariness had settled in, and…

   …and actually it serves the story rather well, familiarity breeding a weary worldliness (or maybe a world-weariness) that would emerge a few years later in the cynical heroes of film noir — and foremost among them, Robert Mitchum.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE HARD MAN. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Guy Madison, Valerie French, Lorne Greene, Barry Atwater, Robert Burton, Rudy Bond, Trevor Bardette, Myron Healey. Director: George Sherman.

   The Hard Man begins with a gunfight. Lawman Steve Burden (Guy Madison) faces off against his friend, Ray Hendry (Myron Healey). Hendry is quick with his gun. But not quick enough. For Burden ends up killing Ray. So much for questioning him. As it turns out, there was some question as to whether Ray was truly guilty of murder or whether he had been set up. To find out, Burden travels to a small town where cattle baron Rice Martin (Lorne Greene) and his wife live out a tenuous romantic existence. Martin’s top dog in town and he’s sure to let everyone know it. But being a big shot doesn’t mean that his wife Fern (Valerie French) is beyond straying. In fact, nothing seems to set Martin into more of a rage than knowing his wife may be running around behind his back.

   Although the movie is most definitely a Western, there’s something very film noir about the whole affair. A movie nominally about a tough lawman, it really turns out to center around a femme fatale and her ability to skillfully manipulate the men in her life. Fern Martin plays all the menfolk against each other, weaving a devious little web of lies as the body count piles up. In tandem with the film noir plot, the movie also has numerous instances where some exceptionally hardboiled dialogue is employed. These scenes are thoroughly enjoyable, such as when Rice asks his wife why she sits in the dark like a cat, and she answers that it allows her to avoid seeing things she’s rather not see. Good stuff, indeed.

   Now, is The Hard Man a particularly good movie? Yes and no. It’s got some grating orchestral music for a score, and it has a decidedly studio lot feel to it. No wide vistas here. And Guy Madison, while talented, simply didn’t have the screen charisma of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or James Stewart.

   And yet. If you go into The Hard Man expecting very little, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. While an overall decidedly average motion picture, this Columbia Pictures release has several things going for it. Although Madison was the top-billed star, it’s really Lorne Greene and Rudy Bond who shine. Both basically steal every scene they are in. Many will primarily remember Greene as America’s favorite TV dad Ben Cartwright on Bonanza or as Adama on the original Battlestar Galactica. In The Hard Man, Greene gets to demonstrate his ability to play a villain with great skill. His physicality, combined with his distinct deep voice, makes for a thundering bravado performance.

   As for Rudy Bond, his portrayal of a hired gunslinger is utterly convincing and delightfully memorable. Bond also demonstrated similar traits in his portrayal of a murderous bank robber in Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957), released that same year. Rudy Bond double feature? Sounds good to me.
   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CHARLES NEIDER – The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. Harper & Brothers, 1956. Crest #368, paperback,1960. University of Nevada Press, trade paperback, 1992.

ONE-EYED JACKS. Paramount, 1961. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Pina Pellicer, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Timothy Carey and Sam Gilman. Written (at various times) by Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, Sam Peckinpah and Rod Serling. Directed by Marlon Brando.

   Like Day of the Outlaw, a book and film that grow widely dissimilar. But where Day’s incarnations are excellent, these are great.

   Charles Neider wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Mark Twain, and I read somewhere that he then set himself to a similar work about Billy the Kid, but gave it up after years of research and wrote the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones instead. His own introduction to a later edition tends to refute this story, but I like it anyway. In fact, Neider’s prose is very much like Twain’s. No surprise that, but it’s Twain in a nostalgic, elegiac tone, as the narrator, Doc Baker, looks back on youth and friendship now gone.

   Doc, however, is only the narrator. The subject of the book is a Billy the Kid figure, here named Hendry Jones, and Neider manages to convey second-hand the attraction and fear the character evokes in those around him: the easy charm, generosity, sexual magnetism and murderous nature of a man who lives only in the moment. Make no mistake, Hendry Jones is one of the great figures of Fiction and he’s right at home in a great novel.

   No wonder then that the character and the book would attract an actor of Marlon Brando’s caliber. And even less wonder that, having bought the novel and been given carte blanche on the film, Brando would feel compelled to re-shape it to his own psyche as One-Eyed Jacks.

   The result is nothing like the book, but there’s no arguing with the beauty of the thing. Brando directs himself with a knowing narcissism that makes for powerful cinema and plenty of just-plain-fun movie moments. He knows his own strengths, and writes and plays to them, with quietly-mumbled lines like “Don’t be doin’ her that way,” shot with all the impact of a stray bullet.

   For a self-indulgent egoist, Brando is surprisingly generous with his supporting players. At the top of the list, Karl Malden’s portrayal of venal hypocrisy is as compelling as Brando’s forthright knavery. Slim Pickens and Pina Pilar play lustful and lustee, arrogant and innocent, with real feeling, and Ben Johnson, my personal favorite, damnear steals the whole show as a bloody-eyed bank robber partnered with Brando.

   And oh yes: Timothy Carey, the sine qua non of quirky movies, got most of his scenes deleted (he was fired for causing trouble on the set and demanding that his salary be doubled), but survives long enough to try to back-shoot the Star — never a good idea in a Western.

   I read that tidbit in another book: A Million Feet of Film: The Making of One-eyed Jacks (2019) by Toby Roan. It’s full of information, with snippets from just about every biography, magazine article and gossip column on the subject, some quite juicy. I would have appreciated more insight (much of the material seems self-serving and rather suspect), but there’s no gainsaying the research and effort that went into this, and there are gems of information here, including:

   One of my favorite moments in the film is when Rio (Brando) catches up with his betrayer (Karl Malden) after five years in a Mexican jail and months of searching. The scene is set for a shoot-out… and they sit down and lie to each other in an extended scene, perfectly written and played!

   So imagine my surprise to learn that this was largely re-shot without Brando, when the Studio heads decided it made Malden’s character too sympathetic. I read the original dialogue here and looked at the scene again… and I had to agree with the Suits that this works much better! Credit goes to editor Archie Marshek and Karl Malden, for a seamless and captivating bit of Cinema.
   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE NAKED DAWN. Universal Pictures, 1955. Arthur Kennedy, Betta St. John, Eugene Iglesias, Roy Engel, Charlita. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

   Arthur Kennedy as a Mexican bandit. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then The Naked Dawn probably isn’t for you. If you are amenable to that, you might find, much as I did, that this B-Western actually punches well above its weight.

   Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who had a natural talent for transforming what would otherwise could have been forgettable dreck into highly stylized works, The Naked Dawn does not have the production values of more polished Westerns of the era. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own special charm.

   Kennedy actually puts in a convincing performance as Santiago, a solitary bandit who inadvertently ends up on the property of a young married couple. His presence there has an immediate effect on the beautiful wife who tells him that her marriage was really one of necessity, not love.

The young husband is also taken with Santiago, albeit for different reasons. He’s keen to know what it’s like to be an outlaw, to live with reckless abandon. Soon, a strange love triangle will emerge between these three characters. While the wife dreams of running away with Santiago, the husband plots his murder.

   For a Western, the film has precious little natural outdoor scenery and a lot of intimate dialogue that one associates more with melodramas. It’s a chamber piece, to be sure and the film could just easily have worked as a film noir set in 1950s Los Angeles. Clumsy and stilted at times, it nevertheless has its own internal logic. Overall, the film doesn’t always succeed in keeping your attention. But Arthur Kennedy’s Santiago is a quite memorable movie character. More than you might expect.

   

Next Page »