Western movies


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO. Universal International, 1954. Audie Murphy, Susan Cabot, Dan Duryea, Abbe Lane, Russell Johnson, Paul Birch, William Pullen, Jack Elam, Denver Pyle. Director: Jesse Hibbs.

   While Ride Clear of Diablo may not be the best Western ever made, it’s nevertheless an entertaining one. Directed by Jesse Hibbs, the film stars soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy as Clay O’Mara, a man who seeks revenge for the murder of both his father and brother at the hands of cow rustlers.

   O’Mara’s good with a gun, but he’s still got a lot to learn about how the world really works. It’s this juxtaposition of fluidity with guns and naivety about society that makes Murphy’s O’Mara an interesting character. True, O’Mara’s not the sort of brooding hero that Randolph Scott portrayed so successfully in the Ranown cycle, but he’s a step above the typical gunslinger hero that populated hundreds of 1950s Westerns.

   And there’s more to the film than Murphy. Although the former World War II hero got top billing, the real star of the show is Dan Duryea, an actor so incredibly good in portraying bad guys. In Diablo, Duryea portrays Whitey Kincade, a wild-eyed outlaw with a hyena laugh who takes a liking to the green Clay O’Mara.

   After a series of twists and turns, Kincade eventually teams up with O’Mara and assists him in capturing and killing the men who were both directly, and indirectly, responsible for the deaths of his brother and father.

   O’Mara has another interest besides revenge. Her name is Laurie Canyon (Susan Cabot). She happens to be the niece of the sheriff, Fred Kenyon (a well cast Paul Birch), who hires O’Mara and instructs him, for dubious reasons, to bring Kincade in for justice. She also just happens to be engaged to local attorney, Tom Meredith (William Pullen), who is actually the man responsible for murdering O’Mara’s brother and father. The plot thickens.

   Along for the wild ride in and out of Diablo is future Gilligan’s Island star, Russell Johnson, who portrays Jed Ringer, a criminal and a double-crosser who (deservedly) gets it in the chest from Murphy’s character in a dank silver mine. Abbe Lane portrays Kate, a saloon girl and Ringer’s lady friend, who, unlike the men she associates with, turns out to have a conscience.

   While there’s not all that much in the way of exceptional cinematography, the action sequences are both well filmed and choreographed, particularly those where Murphy is at the center of attention.

   At the end of the day, however, it’s Duryea, not Murphy, who makes this film worth watching. If you like Duryea as a crazed villain with a wild laugh and a devil-may-care grin, you’re just going to love watching Ride Clear of Diablo. It may not be one of the fine character actor’s best-known performances, but it’s surely a memorable one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TRAIL STREET. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Randolph Scott (Marshal William Bartley ‘Bat’ Masterson), Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Madge Meredith. Director: Ray Enright

   Like The Gunfight at Dodge City, which I recently reviewed here, Trail Street is a Western starring a major Hollywood leading man in a highly fictionalized biopic of Bat Masterson. It’s an above average horse drama, with some good cinematography and a decent enough plot.

   What makes it worth watching is the fact that all of the actors, especially Randolph Scott, who portrays Masterson as the semi-reluctant marshal in the town of Liberal, Kansas, seem to be having what can best be described as jolly good fun with the project.

   Masterson, who really just wants to be a journalist, is tasked with interceding on behalf of farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by an unscrupulous cattle baron, Logan Maury (Steve Brodie). Joining the legendary lawman in his mission is his deputy, Billy Burns, portrayed by perennial goofy sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes and an upright citizen by the name of Allen Harper, portrayed by Robert Ryan.

   In a way, it’s a shame that Ryan’s character doesn’t go bad in this one, given how skilled Ryan was as an actor in portraying villains, be they in films noir or in Westerns. Allen Harper’s on-again, off-again love interest Susan (Madge Meredith) and the saloon girl with a kind heart, Ruby Stone (Anne Jeffreys) add some flair and romance to what would otherwise be just another Western action story.

   In many ways, Trail Street a much better film, both visually and plot wise, than The Gunfight at Dodge City. That isn’t to say that it’s a great or even accurate biopic of Bat Masterson. It isn’t.

   But it’s a decent enough Western that, in many ways, marks a transition point between Randolph Scott’s more wholesome characters in the Zane Grey films and the darker, more brooding characters portrayed by Scott in the Ranown cycle films of auteur Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you should go out of your way to see this one, but I’ll just say that it’s a difficult film to actively dislike.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.

   What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.

   Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.

   From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.

   Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)

   Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.

   The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.

   Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY. United Artists, 1959. Joel McCrea (Bat Masterson), Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty.

   I really wanted to like The Gunfight at Dodge City much more than I did. I’m generally an admirer of Joel McCrea and I find it difficult not to like the lovely Julie Adams. I also quite enjoyed the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita starring McCrea as Wyatt Earp, which I reviewed here and believe to be a Western deserving of more critical attention.

   Yet despite McCrea’s adequate portrayal of Bat Masterson, Joseph M. Newman’s solid direction, and some beautifully decorated interiors, The Gunfight at Dodge City ended up feeling like a disappointment, a case of what could have been rather than what it is.

   McCrea, in a stoic role, portrays legendary lawman Bat Masterson as he transforms himself from a buffalo hunter to the lawman of Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, however, Masterson makes two mortal enemies, Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) who seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of Masterson, and Dodge City’s corrupt sheriff, Jim Regan (Don Haggerty). Both are villains without any depth.

   Masterson also finds himself torn between two beautiful women, Lily (Nancy Gates), a saloon owner and Pauline Howard (Julia Adams), a preacher’s daughter engaged to Bat’s brother, Ed (Harry Lauter) who ends up being killed by the aforementioned Dave (Anderson).

   Masterson also plays mentor to a mentally challenged kid, Billy, who has, to Bat’s mind, an unhealthy fascination with guns and violence. What does help make Masterson’s character a bit more interesting are his friendships with Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire) and Reverend Howard (James Westerfield).

   As you might suspect, Billy gets himself into a pickle by shooting a lawman and is sentenced to death by hanging. This forces Masterson’s hand. Will he uphold the law or will he revert to his semi- outlaw ways and free the lad from state custody?

   If all of this happens to sound like fairly standard Western fare, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what The Gunfight at Dodge City is. There’s a couple of fights, some drunken cowboys shooting in the twilight, a couple of love affairs, brothers with different personalities, a saloon, and a protagonist who kills his rivals and gets the girl. But it’s just not much more than that.

   True, there are a couple of great moments, but there’s really not too much in the way of memorable dialogue or excellent acting. McCrea is a very capable actor, but in this one, he just seems at times like he was phoning it in. Bat Masterson looks more bored than tormented. And everyone else was playing their roles better than many actors could have, but it still leaves one with a nagging question: aside from making a movie with Bat Masterson at the center of the action, what was it all for?

SANTA FE TRAIL. Warner Brothers, 1940. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, William Lundigan, Van Heflin, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Director: Michael Curtiz.

   I’m sorry to tell you this, but there is no scene in this movie that takes place any closer to Santa Fe than Kansas. If I had gone to see this movie back in 1940, I might have wanted my money back. But with dashing Errol Flynn in it, plus the beautiful Olivia de Haviland, I doubt that too many at the time actually did.

   And for the most part, audiences in 1940 got their money’s worth. The aforementioned Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart, the boyishly handsome “aw, shucks” kind of guy Ronald Reagan as George Custer, good buddies who graduated together from West Point, and sent on their first assignment in tandem to protect the construction of a yet-to-be-built railroad line from Kansas to Santa Fe. (OK, yes, so there you go.)

   Problem: pre-Civil War Kansas was a powder keg of violence, mostly instigated by John Brown, the religious anti-slavery abolitionist played to perfection by jut-bearded and wild-eyed Raymond Massey, abetted by equally obsessed Van Heflin. For my money, it is Massey who walks away with star honors for this film.

   The movie ends with John Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, about as far away from New Mexico as you can imagine, with some romantic moments in between all of the spying, marauding and fighting, with both Custer and Stewart vying for the hand of “Kit Carson” Holliday, played by Olivia de Haviland.

   Funny thing is, though, that Jeb Stewart and George Custer, although they both attended West Point, they did so seven years apart, and in real life they never met at all, nor did Stewart marry anyone by the name of Kit Carson Holliday. I could go on with a long list of similar flaws, and if you check out the IMDb page for the movie, I’m sure you’ll find that several other viewers already have.

   Santa Fe Trail is a fun movie to watch, but if I were a history professor back in 1940, I’d not only want my money back, but I’d sue. How you do get kids to learn what really happened, when movies like this one subvert all of the hard work you’re trying to do?

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE TEXAS RANGERS. Paramount Pictures, 1936. Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker, Lloyd Nolan, Edward Ellis, George “Gabby” Hayes. Based on The Texas Rangers (1935), by Walter Prescott Webb, a non-fiction history of the first hundred years of the famed law enforcement agency. Director: King Vidor.

   The Texas Rangers is a quite fun, if sometimes predictable, 1930s Western. Directed by King Vidor and starring Fred MacMurray, the movie benefits from an overall solid cast, some great scenery, a devious villain, and enough personal conflicts between the characters to keep you engaged with the story throughout the film’s running time of a little over ninety minutes.

   While The Texas Rangers is not the type of film you watch for the cinematography or to explore frontier psychology, it is 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.

   The movie begins, like many a Western, with bandits holding up a stagecoach driven by a semi-comical character by the name of Wahoo Jones (Jack Oakie). Soon enough, it turns out that Wahoo is in cahoots with the bandits, his friends Jim Hawkins (MacMurray) and Sam McGee (Lloyd Nolan). After the robbery, the men decide to part ways. McGree heads off to seek his Mexican girlfriend. Wahoo and Jim decide to stick together, eventually joining the Texas Rangers.

   But the three men will be reunited soon enough. Out on patrol for cattle rustlers, Jim and Wahoo, now both Texas Rangers, find out that their old friend Sam is now living in their small part of the world. A plan is hatched, with the men deciding that they’ll work together on a criminal scheme, utilizing inside information that Jim can obtain now that he’s a lawman.

   And as might be expected from a movie such as this, Jim eventually has a change of heart about his criminal ways, setting the stage for a confrontation with Sam (Nolan). Unlike some other Westerns I’ve watched recently, in this one at least, the protagonist’s change in mindset is gradual, haphazard, and believable. Up to the very end at least, he really doesn’t want to harm his former partner in crime.

   Although MacMurray is quite good in this, it’s Nolan’s character that is more dynamic and interesting. There’s something universal about his being that’s just plain villainous. Sam McGee wouldn’t seem all that out of place in 1930s New York. He just seems a bit more gangster than outlaw. He’s truly ruthless, someone who isn’t above murdering an old friend for the sake of maintaining his criminal ways.

   In conclusion, The Texas Rangers isn’t a particularly deep or introspective film, as much as a well paced, gripping action movie set on the Texas frontier. Its depiction of Native Americans isn’t especially enlightened, but that’s to be expected. And with the exception of Sam McGee, the movie’s main characters can at times come across as somewhat one-dimensional. But that doesn’t stop the film from being an above average Western, one that tells a story about men in a certain time and place, and which tells it very well.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, De Forest Kelley. Based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert (Gold Medal, 1956). Director: John Sturges.

   The Law and Jake Wade has many of the requisite elements of an above average 1950s Western. Directed by John Sturges, whose Last Train From Gun Hill I reviewed here, the film boasts an impressive cast and an even more impressive natural scenery of the Alabama Hills and the High Sierras. There are some incredibly well shot action sequences to boot.

   Overall, the film has a quite stark and gritty feel to it. This dovetails nicely with the film’s plot about a man seeking a domestic, morally upright life far removed from both his wartime experiences and his criminal past.

   Yet, despite all this, the film nevertheless ends up feeling as something of a letdown. It’s not so much that the plot doesn’t work, as it is that outlaw-turned-lawman Jake Wade, as portrayed by a taciturn Robert Taylor, just isn’t all that a compelling Western protagonist.

   Instead, the film’s evilly grinning villain, played by Robert Widmark, ends up being the movie’s center of gravity. Without him as an antagonist, the viewer might find it very difficult to care about Jake Wade.

   The film begins with Jake Wade (Taylor) breaking Clint Hollister (Widmark) out of jail. He does it out of a perhaps misplaced sense of loyalty to the man, because as it turns out, the two men used to be partners in crime. That is, until Wade accidentally shot and killed a young boy in a bank holdup (or so he believes). Wade’s left the criminal life behind him and has set up shop in a new town with a lovely girl and a job enforcing the law as opposed to breaking it.

   But Hollister and his men aren’t about to let Wade walk out of their lives so readily. There’s the pesky matter of stolen cash that Wade, now a Marshal, allegedly buried, and Hollister wants his share of the loot.

   So he kidnaps Wade and his fiancée, Peggy Carter (Patricia Owens), with the goal of forcing them to take him to where the money is buried. Assisting him in his endeavor is his gang, including the lanky sociopath Rennie (Henry Silva) and the violent but loyal Wexler (Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley in a great role). It’s Widmark’s character that makes the movie increasingly suspenseful.

   The rest of the movie follows this ragtag expedition as they traverse mountain paths, hole up in a ghost town, and do battle with Comanches.

   And, naturally, there’s a final shootout between Jake Wade and Clint Hollister. Wade ends up killing his former partner, allowing him to at least have an opportunity to put his dark past behind him once and for all.

   It’s only too bad that the character of Jake Wade was never developed beyond what is essentially a stereotypical Western anti-hero, a former Confederate soldier and outlaw who wants a fresh start.

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