Western movies


DEADWOOD ’76. Fairway International, 1965. Arch Hall Jr, Jack Lester, LaDonna Cottier, Arch Hall Sr, Liz Renay and Robert Dix. Written by Arch Hall Sr and James Landis. Directed by James Landis.

EL TOPO. Producciones Panicas, 1970. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, and Mara Lorenzio. Written & directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

   A few years ago, driven by some irrational but irresistible impulse, I sought out two hard-to-find (then) westerns and viewed them almost simultaneously; I’d watch 10-20 minutes of one, then switch to the other, then back again: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) is a respected cult film, laden with symbolism; Arch Hall’s Deadwood ’76 (1965) is a much-maligned B-movie, rife with clichés — but somehow they seemed spiritual twins to me.

   El Topo used to play on college campuses at Midnight, where crowds of young people in various stages of awareness tried to figure out the plot. It has something to do with (SPOILER ALERT!) a mythic gunfighter (played by the director) who rescues a damsel who then sets him three tasks.

   He completes the tasks but loses his self-respect, the damsel and his life, whereupon his body is picked up by trolls and taken to their underground dwelling where, years later, he resurrects himself and frees the trolls from their oppressors after confronting the son he abandoned way back when the movie started.

   Along the way there are references to Christ, Buddha, Zen, Catholicism, Socialism and Fellini, resulting in a film that’s very easy to get lost in.

   Deadwood ’76 played a few dates in drive-ins in the south and grindhouses elsewhere, where kids and drunks threw popcorn and passed out while generally ignoring it. It has something to do with a young drifter (played by the director’s son) mistaken for Billy the Kid, who wanders into Deadwood and is pressured into a gunfight with Wild Bill Hickok.

   Along the way, we get wild Indians, desperadoes, fancy women, silk-shirt gamblers, and beautiful young Indian maidens, all parading around in obvious stage make-up, reading meaningless lines with varying degrees of ineptitude — except for Robert (son of Richard) Dix, who’s really rather good as Hickok.

   Drawing parallels would probably insult both filmmakers, but for some reason these disparate efforts struck me as brothers-under-the-celluloid, as if their creators had picked up whatever symbolism was handy and used it to make a movie. Jodorowsky was influenced by Dali, and Arch Hall by Buntline, but the effect is strangely similar: obvious actors patently playing out a disjointed story using memes and symbols that meant something to somebody once.

   The true difference is that El Topo strives to be obscure where Deadwood ’76 begs to be forgotten. And I kind of liked them both.


THE QUIET GUN. Regal Films / 20th Century Fox, 1957. Forrest Tucker, Mara Corday, Jim Davis, Kathleen Crowley, Lee Van Cleef, Tim Brown. Based on the novel Law Man, by Lauren Paine. Director: William F. Claxton

   Sheriff Carl Brandon (Forrest Tucker) is a man with a code. The quiet but strong type, he is the lawman of a Western frontier town. With a live and let live attitude, he does not seem to have all that much to do, other than keep things calm. All that changes when the city attorney comes to his office and tells him that he and the town are about to file an immorality complaint against rancher Ralph Carpenter (Jim Davis).

   Carpenter’s alleged crime? Relations with a teenage Indian girl named Irene (Mara Corday). After all, his beautiful wife has temporarily left him due to marital troubles and it can’t simply be that the Indian girl is his servant? Can it?

   Brandon warns the city attorney to let it be. First of all, Carpenter is an old friend of his. But more importantly, the good sheriff knows that provoking Carpenter will be like provoking a bear and will likely result in bloodshed. The city attorney is determined, however, to have his say and ends up getting himself killed by Carpenter.

   What follows is a compelling hour or so of action and drama in which Brandon investigates what happened at the ranch and attempts to uncover the conspiracy that ends up getting Carpenter and Irene murdered before it all ends. This leads him into a direct conflict with saloon owner John Reilly (Tim Brown) and cattle rustler Doug Sadler (Lee Van Cleef).

   In many ways The Quiet Gun could just have easily been a pilot for a late 1950s TV Western with Forrest Tucker cast as the lead, but the movie transcends the limitations of the small screen with some stark visuals, a hardy cynicism, and a rather dismal view of the human propensity to gossip. It would seem as if nearly every man in the town except Brandon and his deputy, the kind, but mentally slow Sampson (portrayed by Hank Worden, known for his association with John Ford).

   There’s not much in this Regal Films production that you haven’t seen before – a man quietly in love with his friend’s wife; a lynch mob exacting brutal frontier justice; and a sheriff holed up in his office determined to make sure that his prisoners face a judge rather than a street mob – but one thing I noticed in The Quiet Gun is that nary a minute is wasted. This is a taut, well-edited film and one that deserves more attention.

REBEL IN TOWN. Bel-Air Productions / United Artists, 1956. John Payne, Ruth Roman, J. Carrol Naish, Ben Cooper, John Smith, Ben Johnson, James Griffith. Writer: Danny Arnold. Director: Alfred L. Werker.

   I have a small confession to make. I find myself more and more liking the small budget black and white films of the late 1950s more than I do the large scale Technicolor epics of the same era. There’s often a grittiness, for lack of a better word, to them than the westerns meant for large audiences don’t seem to have.

   Here’s an example. Rebel in Town takes place after the Civil War is over, but not too soon afterward for all of the bitter hatreds and other emotions to have faded away. When a rebel-hater’s young son is killed in a tragic shooting at the hands of a family of former Confederate soldiers on the run, what comes instinctively to mind? Revenge, of course.

   As the young boy’s grieving parents, both John Payne and Ruth Roman make as much of their roles as they possibly can, and J. Carroll Naish as the Bible-quoting patriarch of the outlaw family is equally impressive. Admittedly this is a one-note story, but when it comes time for turning points to occur, neither the scriptwriter nor the director takes the easy way out.


   From the trailer, it would appear that The Proud Ones is just another 1950s frontier justice Western. That’s far from the case. It’s actually an exceptionally constructed film, due in large part to Robert Ryan’s acting and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography.

   In many ways, the trailer also fails to capture the core of the movie; namely, the friendship that develops between Ryan’s character, a town marshal, and the fiery young man portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter. The movie also reminded me of Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955) which I reviewed here. A Western to be sure, but also a work of drama and cinematic artistry.


HELL CANYON OUTLAWS. Jarod Zukor Productions/Republic, 1957. Dale Robertson, Brian Keith, Rossana Rory, Dick Kallman, Charles Fredericks, Buddy Baer and Don Megowan. Written by Allan Kaufman and Max Glandbard. Directed by Paul Landres.

   I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist a movie called Hell Canyon Outlaws, and when it was over, I wasn’t even mildly disappointed upon reflecting that there was no actual Hell Canyon in the film itself. Call it Poetic License I guess, but director Paul Landres was doing some interesting movies about this time, and this is one of them.

   It’s easy to look at Hell Canyon Outlaws and say Brian Keith carries it with his off-beat portrayal of Outlaw Leader “Happy” Waters: good-humored, lethal, and pitched on a collision course with steely lawman Caleb Wells (Dale Robertson — And get it? Wells? Waters?)

   But the fact is, some intelligent writing and sure-handed direction went into making the character—and those around him—come alive.

   The film itself balances delicately between cliché and creativity. Robertson’s Caleb Wells is a sure-shot sheriff who cleaned up the town years ago, but things are quiet now. His Deputy—fittingly named “Bear”—is drunk all the time, and the Town Council wants to replace the two of them with something more modern. And of course no sooner do they oust their lawmen than four owlhoots ride into town, obviously wired for trouble, with Brian Keith’s jovial leader keeping a treacherous hand on the switch.

   Standard stuff so far, made even more ordinary by staid Alexander Lockwood as the “modern” replacement lawman, and noisy method-acting Dick Kallman as the local quick-draw kid trying to prove he’s a man. Add Rossana Rory (of Big Deal on Madonna Street) as Dale Robertson’s girlfriend who doesn’t see the need for violence, and you’ve got a pretty cold deck to try and deal a new hand from.

   The wonder is that they do it, and do it rather well, too. Landres and the writers keep things poised on the edge of violence, so that whenever Keith and his overgrown goons (including Buddy Baer and Don Megowan) swagger into a saloon, bank or dry-goods store, they seem just about to take it apart by size alone.

   Contrast this with Dale Robertson, waiting silent and tight-lipped on the sidelines, no longer a lawman, but always just about to spring into action, and you get a very involving movie indeed, particularly when he and Brian Keith circle about each other, talking quietly but both clearly looking for the right moment….

   And when that moment comes, it doesn’t disappoint: An extended shoot-out in a darkened saloon, with Dale and his deputy jockeying for position against the bad guys, who make some smart moves themselves, ratcheting up the tension, even as shots blast and bodies fall all over the place.

   Hell Canyon Outlaws is a low-budget affair, and the DVD I got at Cinevent is a thing of shreds and patches, but it has flair and to spare, plus a few surprises. Recommended.


THREE HOURS TO KILL. Columbia, 1954. Dana Andrews, Donna Reed, Dianne Foster, Stephen Elliott, Laurence Hugo, Carolyn Jones, and Whit Bissell. Screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons, Roy Huggins, and Maxwell Shane, from a story by Alex Gottlieb. Directed by Alfred L. Werker.

   As medium-budget Westerns go, this is one of the best. With a writing team that includes Roy Huggins and Maxwell Shane, one expects something mystery-related, and they deliver nicely here, under the able direction of Alfred Werker.

   Werker is best known to mystery fans for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Fox, 1939) but in the 1950s he turned out a series of well-tuned westerns that included Devil’s Canyon, The Last Posse, and Rebel in Town, a film with violence still shocking today.

   Getting back to Three/Kill though, it’s structured as a revenge tale (another theme common to the genre) as Dana Andrews, looking very much like a declining star, rides back into the town where he was lynched three years ago, looking for the owl-hoot (sigh) who framed him for murder.

   What he finds is a town full of folks who’d rather forget all about him, including Donna Reed, who bore his child and is now respectably married to Richard Coogan (TV’s original Captain Video), Bartender James Westerfield, Sheriff Stephen Elliott (who played Cap Vid’s arch-enemy, Dr Pauli) gambler Laurence Hugo, and the ubiquitous Whit Bissel — all of them excellet in meaty parts..

   The film itself was produced by Harry Joe Brown, who did the Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott westerns, and he filled this one with color, action, and a cast of familiar faces from the B-Westerns, including Francis McDonald, Snub Pollard, Buddy Roosevelt and Sid Saylor.

   There’s an unusual slant to this film, with Andrews the center of attention who finds himself now oddly irrelevant as he pursues his lonely justice. Rather than letting things get bogged down in talk though, Director Werker keeps the action coming, photographed in splendid b-movie Technicolor with the requisite horse-chases, fist-fights and shoot-outs one expects.

   What one doesn’t expect is the surprisingly thoughtful conclusion, which I won’t reveal here except to say that it lingers in the memory long after a lot of better-known westerns have bit the cranial dust.


TUMBLEWEED. Universal Pictures, 1953. Audie Murphy, Lori Nelson, Chill Wills, Roy Roberts, Russell Johnson, K.T. Stevens, Madge Meredith, Lee Van Cleef, I. Stanford Jolley. Director: Nathan Juran.

   Surprisingly stylish for an Audie Murphy oater, Tumbleweed isn’t a particularly well-known Western. Yet it’s a quite watchable movie and one that deserves wider recognition as well as an official stand-alone DVD release. Directed by Nathan Juran, whose significant work in art direction gave him a keen eye for staging scenes, this Universal-International release may not have anything in it that you probably haven’t seen before.

   But that doesn’t mean what it has isn’t solid. There are Indians on the warpath; a White man scheming with them (of course); a seemingly impossible love affair; a man wrongfully accused of a crime; and a sheriff who must face off against the town’s rabble who are determined to exact frontier justice.

   Murphy portrays Jim Harvey, a drifter who takes a job guiding a wagon trail through Yaqui Indian country. When the braves attack the caravan, killing the men, he gets blamed for their deaths. Some seem to think he ran away out of cowardice. Others seem to believe he may have been in cahoots with the Yaqui. After he’s sprung from the town’s jail by a friendly Indian tribesman, it’s up to Harvey to clear his name and find out the real reason the wagon trail was ambushed. Chill Wills and a youthful looking Lee Van Cleef, respectively, portray the town’s sheriff and his deputy. Van Cleef is very good here as the tougher and more brutal of the town’s lawmen.

   Now, I know what you may be thinking. It sounds like every other Western from this period. Well. Yes and No. Juran isn’t often thought of as a Western auteur the way in which someone like Budd Boetticher is. But he definitely has his own particular style, one that is highly notable in two scenes in particular: Harvey’s jailbreak and a fight scene in which our hero takes on the corrupt, greedy White man behind all the recent troubles. Well-staged and filmed with a sharp sense of what makes action scenes invigorating to an audience, they are but two standout moments in a film that punches well above its weight.

GHOST TOWN. Bel Air Productions / United Artists, 1956. Kent Taylor, John Smith, Marian Carr, Serena Sande, John Doucette, Joel Ashley, Gilman Rankin, William ‘Bill’ Phillips (the latter uncredited). Director: Allen H. Miner.

   When it comes to westerns made in the 1950s, I find that independently produced black and white movies such as this one are often a lot more fun to watch than some of those filmed in color with big name stars. It may be my own skewed vision of the world, but I think the more personal approach says more to me than do pictures filtered through the eyes of corporate accountants, say.

   This one starts slow, but the story wouldn’t have worked as well as it does without establishing who exactly the characters are and what’s motivating them, beginning with the four passengers in a stagecoach heading west through Indian territory: a young woman from Boston going to meet the man she is going to marry; a Bible-thumping preacher who has nothing but brotherly love for the noble savages; a doctor who spends most of the day taking long swigs from a bottle; and a well-dressed but still shady-looking gentleman of uncertain profession (Kent Taylor).

   Along the way they are joined by the young woman’s fiancé (John Smith) and his crusty old sidekick Crusty (an unbilled Bill Phillips); an Army sergeant and his young son; and eventually a tongueless and disgraced Indian chief and his young mixed-heritage female companion.

   The stagecoach chased by a band of angry Indians, they manage to find refuge in an abandoned town, and that’s when all of their various secrets start to come out. None of these come as a complete surprise to those of us who have seen a lot of western movies, but it’s as smoothly done as it ever was ins bigger productions. There’s lot of action, too, for those who watch westerns only for the action.

   A couple of quibbles. The Indians at first abandon their chase when the stagecoach reaches the town — totally abandoned because of disease, they discover, and so, they assume, the Indians have marked the town as taboo. But for the sake of the story, though, once the fugitives are “safely” holed up inside the local saloon, the Indians show no signs of concern about bringing up the attack again.

   Which, of course, brings out either the best, or the worst, of each of those trapped inside, with very little ammunition to aid them.

   The other question I have is why on earth Bill Phillips gets no screen credit. He’s there primarily for comic relief, true, but he’s on the screen a lot more than some of the others who do get screen credit.


TOMAHAWK TRAIL. United Artists / Bel-Air Productions, 1957. Chuck Connors, John Smith, Susan Cummings, Lisa Montell, George N. Neise, [Harry] Dean Stanton. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Although there’s not much depth in Tomahawk Trail, it’s a rather enjoyable Western programmer that provides a good hour of pure cinematic escapism. With more than a nod to John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, the plot follows a U.S. Army troop caught in hostile Apache country. Problem is, Lt. Jonathan Davenport (George N. Niese), an arrogant West Point graduate, has gone mad from a head injury and exposure to the desert sun. This forces Sgt. Wade McCoy (Chuck Connors) into action, taking charge of the troop, knowing all too well that this could lead to his Court-martial.

   Along for the journey is a ragtag group of soldiers, including Private Reynolds (John Smith) and Private Miller (a young Harry Dean Stanton) and two women, the white Ellen Carter (Susan Cummings) and the Apache squaw Tula (Lisa Montell). The dialogue written for the women is bland and unconvincing. That’s putting it mildly. Conversations between the two are in a childish stereotypical Native American patois, with exceedingly simple words and phrases. Although it’s grating to the ears, fortunately the bulk of the film’s dramatic moments revolve not around them, but around McCoy as he tries to convince himself that he is doing the best possible thing in the worst possible situation.

   In many ways, there’s not all that much that’s wrong with Tomahawk Trail. It’s nothing exceptional, either. Just another 1950s Western that is neither particularly compelling, nor particularly off-putting. If you’re a Chuck Connors fan and you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look.

BELLE STARR. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Randolph Scott, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, John Shepperd, Chill Wills, Louise Beavers. Director: Irving Cummings.

   This was the first sound film to pretend to tell the story of the notorious western outlaw named Belle Starr, and by all accounts, they messed it up pretty badly. Some of the names are the same, and an incident or two, perhaps, but that’s about all.

   As I understand it, Belle Starr was not even all that notorious in her lifetime. It was not until the time of her unsolved murder in 1889 that dime novels picked up her story, leading to a novel about her by Richard K. Fox, Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889. Not too incidentally, Fox was also the publisher of the National Police Gazette, which had also been touting her exploits.

   In any case, the movie is entertaining enough, but from the opening scene, you know the intent was primarily to create a legend, be it based only on Technicolor and imagination. The movie begins with an old black man plowing a rocky field aside a burned out mansion telling his grandson the story of the woman who once lived there, and it ends with one black man telling another that Belle Starr will never die, because she is a legend.

   Belle Shirley is played by a young Gene Tierney, who is very pretty but not as beautiful on screen as she grew to be. Even so she is better looking than the real Belle Starr by a multiplicative factor of 100 or more. The story takes place in Missouri, but Tierney’s southern accent and mansion makes it seem as though the film was set in Georgia. (Cue for “Tara’s Theme.”)

   Miss Belle, as portrayed in the movie at least, is a Southerner through and through, even after the war is over, and when she meets Captain Sam Starr, a rebel turned bandit still fighting the Yankee troops and carpetbaggers busily taking over the state, she gives him shelter, at the cost of her home being burned (Dana Andrews’ character, Union major Thomas Crail, a former sweetheart, comes into play here), and she and her brother end up being declared outlaws.

   Captain Starr is played by Randolph Scott, as upright and soft-spoken then as he was in later films. Eventually he and Belle marry, she taking up his cause as thoroughly as he. Until, that is, she realizes that perhaps he is taking his killing and marauding too far.

   From this point on, though, you’ll have to watch the film yourself. It’s likable enough. You just have to realize that it’s made up of whole cloth only, planting the seeds for the legend that grew from there.

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