Western movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GUN THE MAN DOWN. United Artists / Batjac Productions, 1956. James Arness, Angie Dickinson, Emile Meyer, Robert Wilke, Harry Carey Jr., Michael Emmet. Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

   I had somewhat high hopes for Gun The Man Down. Not only is it a Batjac film — John Wayne’s production company — but it also features Gunsmoke star James Arness in a leading role. Sadly, I came away disappointed and, truth be told, somewhat frustrated at what clearly could have been a much better revenge story.

   Arness portrays Rem Andersen, a man who stupidly decides to throw his lot in with a bank robber duo. When their first bank job together goes awry, Rem ends up wounded and at the mercy of law enforcement. The brains of the operation, Matt Rankin (Robert Wilke) not only gets away with the loot, but also rides away with Rem’s girl, Janice (Angie Dickinson). After spending a year in jail, Rem decides to get even with those who betrayed him. Standing in his path is not only a gunfighter named Billy Deal, but also a small town sheriff (Emile Meyer) and his deputy (Harry Carey, Jr.) Truth be told, none of the characters apart from these latter two are particularly compelling.

   Although it starts off with promise and is well photographed and competently staged, Gun The Man Down simply never rises above its formulaic and mediocre plot. Even worse, the film eventually bogs down in a poorly lit night gunfight, a sequence which not only lasts far too long, but one that doesn’t give the viewer ample opportunity to even decipher what’s going on. Not that it really matters much, given how low the stakes seem to be in this rather uninteresting tale featuring a protagonist who is incredibly difficult to root for.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE BROKEN STAR. United Artists, 1956. Howard Duff, Lita Baron, Bill Williams, Douglas Fowley, Henry Calvin, Addison Richards, Joel Ashley, John Pickard, Joe Dominguez. Written by John C. Higgins. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   Back in the late 1940s, John C. Higgins wrote some memorable film noir scripts turned into riveting movies by Anthony Mann: T-Men, Raw Deal, Railroaded and Border Incident, as well as He Walked by Night. In the 50s, his output became more variable with things like Shield for Murder, The Black Sleep and Untamed Youth, capped off in the mid-60s by Robinson Crusoe on Mars. And somewhere in and among these he recycled his Shield for Murder script into a Western called The Broken Star.

   This opens with Deputy Sheriff Howard Duff scoping out an illicit money drop used by the local cattle baron to store his ill-gotten goodies; which, it seems, are also ill-guarded by a lone Mexican who passes quickly and noisily out of the story when Duff guns him down and makes it look like self-defense.

   But when Duff stashes the loot and gives his story to his boss (Addison Richards) he’s met with professional skepticism. Richards sends Deputy Bill Williams out to investigate the scene, where he (Wiliams) runs into two goons — excuse me: owlhoots — in the employ of the Cattle Baron, who wants his ill-guarded gains gotten back.

   Meanwhile Duff has his own problems with the murdered man’s sister: a fiery Mexican Maiden who sings in the local saloon and does a specialty number with a whip. (We’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we?) The kind of girl I used to date in college. Before long, the hired goons/owlhoots have summoned Duff to a meeting with Mister Big/Cattle Baron, a genial and unsavory sort who reminds one of Sydney Greenstreet or perhaps Robert Emhardt in Underworld USA, squeezing the local ranchers in between hosting barbecues and making threats while calling the steps at a square dance. And when he smiles and tells Howie he wants his money back, we know the jig is up.

   What follows however is a bit of a mess. The goons kidnap Lita, Howard fights them, Deputy Bill fights them, they kidnap Litas again, Bill fights them again, Howard fights Bill, Howard tries to grab the loot and hit the trail and the whole thing ends up pretty much as we knew it would. In a proper film noir our doomed protagonist would have ended up bleeding in a gutter desperately groping for escape, but here we get a rather protracted shoot-out in an abandoned mine, with everyone jockeying for position and the loot.

   Director Lesley Selander helmed some fine shoot-’em-ups in his day, including some of the best of the Hopalong Cassidy series, but he has little feel for this sort of thing, and it shows. Douglas Fowley does what he can as a ratty little double-crosser (a specialty of his) but beyond that and an elaborate saloon fight, the action seems a bit perfunctory, the sense of fatality that’s so much a part of noir is totally lacking, and a film that could have been a fine successor to movies like Ramrod and Pursued just sort of wastes its time — and ours.

   By the way, Mister Big/the Cattle Baron here seemed awfully familiar to me, sort of a nasty Jonathan Winters type, and it took me a while but I finally placed the actor who portrays him; it’s Henry Calvin, best remembered by viewers my age as Sergeant Garcia in Disney’s TV show Zorro.

WHISTLING HILLS. Monogram, 1951. Johnny Mack Brown, Jimmy Ellison, Noel Neill, I. Stanford Jolley, Marshall Reed, Pamela Duncan. Director: Derwin Abrahams.

   There’s a little more plot than usual to this otherwise run-of-the-mill western, enough so that I decided it was worth talking about. It seems that the local stage is being held up on a regular basis by a gang of outlaws who always seem to know which pass it’s going through, and they go into action only on days when the strongbox is full.

   Key to their success is a rider dressed all in black who rides the crests of the surrounding hills and blows a whistle when it’s time for the bandits to go into action. The local sheriff (Jimmy Ellison) is stumped; he has no clue as to who the rider in black is.

   When Johnny Mack Brown comes to town looking for a horse that has been stolen from him (and finds both it and the fellow responsible), he stays on to help the sheriff, the owner of the stage line (I. Stanford Jolley), and his niece (a very petite Noel Neill). Problem is, although very much a good guy, Sheriff Dave Holland resents Johnny taking over the chase, and more: he really resents the fact that the niece seems to be making a play for Johnny.

   There is the usual amount of riding and shooting, and barroom fisticuffs, too, but the little bit of mystery adds to the story — not a detective story in reality, although it acts like one, since there’s no reason to suspect the guilty party ahead of time — unless, that is, you realize that there are only a limited number of suspects it could be.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW. United Artists, 1959. Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshal, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Nehemiah Persoff, Jack Lambert, Frank deKova, Lance Fuller, Elisha Cook Jr., Dabbs Greer. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on a novel by Lee E. Wells. Director: André De Toth.

   What begins as a routine story of homesteaders vs. the local cattle baron (Robert Ryan) in Day of the Outlaw shifts without warning (unless you’ve read a review like this one) to another tale altogether. Before going any further, let me add this. There is something that suggests that if not interrupted, the initial plot may have gone somewhere else very interesting: the wife of the leader of the farmers (Tina Louise) has had an affair with the cattle baron.

   From this point on, you have a decision to make. Read on and learn more about the story than I had any idea about before I watched this film, or stop right here with my telling you that this one of the bleakest black-and-white westerns I have ever seen. It ends with a 30 minute trek through a mountain pass that may not exist, with snow up to the saddles on the horses, the leader of the men dying from a bullet wound, but all of them have run out of other options.

   In between, what happened? A gang of seven men who come to town, led by former army officer Jack Bruhn, the stentorian-voiced Burl Ives, the Cavalry hard on their trail, held up only by the weather. It is the middle of winter Only by Bruhn’s firm command of his band of outlaws are they kept from completely destroying the town, in all likelihood killing the men and raping the women.

   Bruhn’s men are brutish, sadistic killers — all but one — and to watch them dance wildly with little restraint with the town’s women later that evening — the only entertainment that Bruhn will allow them — is a sight to behold.

   It is up to Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), tough as they come but weary-faced and tired, but who is damned if he will allow the town he helped create be destroyed, to avert disaster. How he does it is the crux of this fascinating small gem of a movie.

TRIGGER FINGERS. Monogram, 1946. Johnny Mack Brown, Raymond Hatton, Jennifer Holt, Riley Hill, Steve Clark, Eddie Parker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   For a former football player, Johnny Mack Brown was a pretty good actor. He appeared in a few straight dramas over a career of 40 years or so, but he found his niche in Hollywood as a western star, mostly of the “B” variety, and was always a favorite of mine, starting when I was 8 or 9 years old.

   You can forget the title of this one. “Trigger Fingers” could have applied to several hundred of these crank-em-out westerns, and it would have worked just the same. This one starts when a young cowboy shoots a man who has tried to cheat him at a game of cards, then has to make fast tracks out of town thinking he’d killed the fellow.

   It turns out that he only winged him, as he intended to do, but for reasons nefarious (blackmail), a plan is cooked up by a gang of local bad guys to make everyone think the gunman he shot is dead. Enter Johnny Mack Brown to the aid of the young man’s father (Raymond Hatton).

   This one starts out slow, but before the less than an hour’s running time has gone by, there have been enough twists in the story to satisfy any 8 or 9 year old boy’s wish for a stirring whiz bang of a Saturday afternoon at the movies. I think the lack of any time taken out for a song or some not very funny comedy routines may have had something to do with that.

THE BLACK WHIP. 20th Century Fox, 1956. Hugh Marlowe, Coleen Gray, Adele Mara, Angie Dickinson, Paul Richards, Richard Gilden, Sheb Wooley, Strother Martin. Director: Charles Marquis Warren.

   One reviewer on IMDb says, as someone there so often does, that this is a movie that is so bad, it’s enjoyable. Well, no. It’s mediocre — not bad — and it’s dull, ill-conceived, indifferently directed, and if those are your criteria for enjoying a movie, then maybe it is.

   There is the potential. Oops, make that the past tense. It’s too late now. A veiled lady in black helps one of the “black legs,” a gang of ex-confederate raiders, escape from jail. Her face is covered, but she must be one of four local dance hall girls, all of whom are summarily shipped out of town on a wagon to a town where no one else wants them, either.

   Staying temporarily at a remote transfer station for the local stagecoach line, they and the two brothers who run it are taken prisoner by the black leg gang, led by a suitably villainous Paul Richards, the man with a whip, not a gun.

   But the bad guys do not have a plan, only a goal, and that is to kidnap the governor coming in by stage, force him to grant them pardons, and make their getaway. Nothing else they do makes more sense than pouring water in your boot, as my granddaddy used to say, especially when it comes down to the final confrontation.

   The two brothers have their issues, the four dance house ladies are pretty, but other than Coleen Gray, who has fallen in love with one of the brothers (Hugh Marlowe), apparently at first sight, they have little to do. The younger brother (Richard Gilden) is as green as all get out, and not very interesting. Perhaps there was some potential here, but what what appears on the screen is strictly sub-standard stuff. See paragraph one.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


STEVE FRAZEE – Desert Guns. Dell 1st Edition A135, paperback original, April 1957. Thorndike Press, hardcover, 1998.

GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS. Warner Brothers, 1961. Clint Walker, Roger Moore, Letícia Román, Robert Middleton, Chill Wills, Gene Evans. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Leonard Freeman, based on the novel Desert Guns by Steve Frazee. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Wind-sculptured into curving smoothness, the ridges of sand rose seven hundred feet toward the sky, Rainbolt saw the wind racing on the delicate spines, laying the sand before it like the manes of running horses.

   No tree or rock or permanency of any kind broke the flowing architecture. There was only sand that for a million years had been gathered here by wind currents sweeping across the great San Luis Valley.

   Steve Frazee is, perhaps, the most underappreciated Western writer to come out of the late pulp era and practice his considerable skills in hardcover and paperback. He had an early success with his novel Many Rivers to Cross, a rollicking story of the taming of a mountain man that became a MGM film with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, and Hollywood would call on him more than once, but he never seemed to achieve the place he should have among writers like Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Elmer Kelton, and the like.

   This despite the fact he also wrote non-Westerns like Sky Block (something of a minor collector’s item), Running Target, and High Cage (these last two both films, the latter as High Hell, with John Derek). He also wrote Whitman big books featuring the likes of Cheyenne, Maverick, and Zorro, often illustrated by renown comic book artist Alex Toth, and thus doubly collectable.

   Desert Guns opens in 1853 with its heroes, young Jim Rainbolt and his mentor and friend Shaun Weymouth, already on the run along the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico from the hideously disfigured but canny Green River and his constant companion, the sadistic brute Frank McCracken, both of whom are after the Spanish gold the two have found, and plunging us directly into the action at hand.

   Frazee is particularly adept here at capturing the otherworldly feel of the high desert and the haunted atmosphere of the Sangre de Cristos. I’ve spent a good deal of time there over the years, briefly living in Los Alamos, and I can attest to the “weird, whining sort of sound, low and mighty,” that you can hear in a hollow and the sand on “the steep sides of the hollow (that) was running like fine brown snow” the sand playing it’s “unearthly music.”

   In short order Rainbolt and Shaun encounter the Hudsons, father and daughter Gail building a life on a small ranchero, Hudson an arrogant Virginian with little hospitality and less time for a couple of ‘field hands.’”

   With scant help from the arrogant Hudson, the two decide to bury the gold and seek help from Diamasio Gondora the “one man on the Hueferano you can trust.” It’s there they meet the boy Chico, and Gondora’s half Indian daughter Paisano. By now you should be able to smell the triangle that develops between the blonde civilized Gail, the wild half Indian Paisano, and Rainbolt, a further complication to everything.

   The basics of the plot are simple: gold makes men mad and greedy and there are more important things. Along the way there is graphic violence, torture, mayhem,treachery, and redemption. Rainbolt grows from youngster to man and Shaun achieves a sort of mythic status as the ideal man of the West, the last of a breed, more worried that the gold will change his wanderer’s life than about losing it.

   The shifting treacherous sands play a central role both in the plot and thematically. They represent not only shifting loyalties and fortunes, but also inconstant nature, that takes no sides, but sometimes favors one and not the other, and sometimes favors no one.

   Desert Guns is no Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is an entertaining Western, superbly written, and with more to offer than the simple story it tells. It is Frazee at his best, which is very good indeed, involving you in the fortunes and fate of Rainbolt and Shaun at a much deeper level than most Westerns.

   The film, Gold of the Seven Saints, changes many of the elements of the book, Clint Walker is Rainbolt, but the older and more seasoned of the two, while Roger Moore as Shawn Garrett is an Irishman. Still, it has a fine script co-written by Leigh Brackett, solid direction by Gordon Douglas, and though it is unaccountably a black and white film, location settings capture much of the feel of the book, and fine character actors people it playing to the broader elements with some zest, despite the fact it often seems like an extended episode of a Warner Brothers fifties television Western with so many familiar faces from the small screen.

   I happen to like it much more than many others do, but whatever its virtues it doesn’t rise to the standard of the Frazee novel it is based on. But don’t let that stop you from seeking out Desert Guns. I found a hardcover copy on Amazon for $4, so it isn’t impossible to find.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CANADIAN PACIFIC. 20th Century Fox, 1949. Randolph Scott, Jane Wyatt, J. Carrol Naish, Victor Jory, Nancy Olson. Director Edward L. Marin.

   Directed by the prolific Edwin L. Marin, Canadian Pacific opens in semi-documentary form with the recounting of the political struggles involved in constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway. Then the movie quickly shifts into a rather mediocre frontier melodrama before settling into its natural rhythm. It ends up a slightly above average and surprisingly enjoyable, late 1940s shoot ’em up.

   It goes without saying that absent Randolph Scott’s formidable screen presence, this rather staid Western wouldn’t have had much of a shelf life. But with Scott’s trademark grit and wit, combined with on screen character’s repartee with a sidekick portrayed by J. Carrol Naish, the film eventually grows upon the viewer. Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousing epic-like score likewise lends itself well to the film, providing it with momentum during some altogether formulaic scenes.

   The plot. Scott portrays Tom Andrews, a surveyor who also doubles as a security guard for the railroad. After discovering a pass that would allow the railroad to continue all the way to the Pacific, Andrews quits the railroad life and returns to Calgary to visit his fiancée, the lovely Cecile Gautier (Nancy Olson). It’s there that he learns to what depths trading post owner Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory) is willing to sink in order to prevent the construction of the railroad through Alberta. Forced to choose between Cecile and the railroad, Andrews opts for the latter and heads back to help his former employer fend off Rourke and his Indian allies.

   Aiding him in his efforts is Dynamite Dawson (Naish), a sidekick that could have just as easily been portrayed by Gabby Hayes. Andrews also has female help. After Andrews is injured in a dynamite explosion, Dr. Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt) ends up tending to him. A physician who soon becomes romantically involved with her recovering patient, Cabot also has strident pacifist views and is charming enough to temporarily convince Andrews not to wear his gun belt.

   But sometimes, good guys need a gun. Tom Andrews is no exception. So once again, Andrews is forced to choose between a woman and his loyalty to the railroad. Soon enough, Cecile is back by his side and they’re fighting Rourke and marauding Indian bucks. As melodrama gives way to action, Canadian Pacific revs up for a bit before winding down into a happy Hollywood bury-the-hatchet ending.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DALLAS. Warner Brothers, 1950. Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman, Raymond Massey, Leif Ericson, Steve Cochran, Barbara Payton. Written by John Twist. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

WILL F. JENKINS – Dallas. Gold Medal #126, paperback original, 1950. Adaptation of the motion picture of the same title.

   Okay: for starters, I know some of you out there will be tempted to reply with a smart-ass comment about “Who shot J.R.?” I’m not naming names; you know who you are. Please remember that the TV show in question was a long time ago and you may have to explain it to the younger readers who flock to this board. Now on to the review:

   Every so often Warner Brothers decided to try doing another old-fashioned big-scale Western along the lines of their big hit from 1939, Dodge City. But somehow the spirit just wasn’t there. Where Dodge City was helmed by the talented and prestigious Michael Curtiz, they gave Dallas to the erratic Stuart Heisler. The difference is palpable: where the earlier film crackles along at a lively pace, Dallas seems to lurch awkwardly from incident to incident. Some of them are competently done, but mostly they just seem a bit tired.

   As far as the plot goes, Dallas starts out with notorious outlaw Blayde “Reb” Hollister (Gary Cooper) getting himself gunned down in the street by Wild Bill Hickok (an appropriately saturnine Red Hadley; probably the best thing in the movie) in front of the new greenhorn U.S. Marshall (Leif Erickson.)

   It’s all a put-up job of course, so that Reb can get close to Will Marlowe (Raymond Massey) a major businessman in Dallas with an unsavory reputation (not unlike Bruce Cabot in Dodge City) who murdered Reb’s family years ago in Georgia.

   Plot complications call for Reb to impersonate the Marshall, romance his fiancée (the alluring Ruth Roman) and generally muck about until a respectable running time is achieved and he gets his revenge. Raymond Massey does a solid job as the dress-heavy, but the script doesn’t give him much to do, and writer Twist throws in time-wasting complications, such as Erickson getting a pardon for Reb, then hiding it, then revealing it, Coop getting arrested and breaking jail, caught by bad guys, escaping from bad guys….. It could have been exciting, but it just ain’t.

   Warners promoted Dallas heavily, even working out a movie tie-in paperback with Gold Medal, who wisely gave it to Will F. Jenkins, who also wrote as Murray Leinster and did fine work in either persona.

   Jenkins/Leinster actually takes John Twist’s scenario and makes a better book out of it than it was a movie, starting with forty pages which ain’t even in the film, detailing how Colonel Blayde Hollister, late of the Confederate Army, was forced into outlawry to avenge the murder of his family. And when we get into the story that’s in the movie, he adds depth and complexity to the characters. The greenhorn Marshall becomes more introspective, minor townspeople acquire convincing character traits, and there’s a bit part, an outlaw’s trollop named Flo (played in the movie by the ill-fated Barbara Payton) whose resigned self-hatred suddenly becomes very real and poignant.

   Dallas the book is far from a western classic, but I found myself admiring it for what a competent pulpster could bring to a hackneyed project. I can’t recommend the movie, but the book is worth your time.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


RATON PASS. Warner Brothers, 1951. Dennis Morgan, Patricia Neal, Steve Cochran, Scott Forbes, Dorothy Hart, Basil Ruysdael, Louis Jean Heydt, Roland Winters. Screenplay: Thomas W. Blackcburn based on his own novel. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   I had hoped for a little more from Raton Pass, a rather mediocre horse opera set in the New Mexico Territory. The standard elements are all there: a hired gunman; a father-son conflict; a culture conflict between Whites and Mexicans; a dispute over who properly owns a ranch. You get the picture.

   Having a female lead portray the film’s primary villain is a bit out of the ordinary, and it adds a little something extra into the mix. But it wasn’t nearly enough to make this early 1950s oater all that memorable. Then again, the film’s cast and in particular, Dennis Morgan, isn’t particularly known for their work in the Western genre.

   The plot: There’s a new lady in town and her good looks belie her nefarious intentions. Her name is Ann (Patricia Neal) and it doesn’t take her long for her to marry ranch owner, Marc Challon (Dennis Morgan). Truth be told, it doesn’t take her too long to do much of anything because before you can blink an eye, it seems, she’s seduced a Chicago financier named Prentice (Scott Forbes) and has wrestled control of the Challon ranch.

   This naturally upsets both Marc and his father, Pierre (Basil Ruysdael), who can’t believe his son won’t shoot Prentice dead there on the spot. A lot of drama ensues as Marc comes up with a scheme to win back control of the range and exact his revenge on Ann who, it should be noted, is still technically his wife.

   But Ann’s not going down without a fight! She’s hired a slimy gunfighter named Cy Van Cleave (Steve Cochran) to make trouble for Marc and his men.

   How will it all turn out? It suffices it to say that melodrama gives way to action sequences that, in turn, give way to tragedy. It’s standard Western fare, all served up with competent, but by no means, outstanding cinematography and direction. There’s also too little natural scenery to be found in Raton Pass, which is a shame given how much it would have counterbalanced the otherwise completely average script.

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