Western movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. Universal Pictures, 1962. Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. Director: David Miller

   Although the film languished in relative obscurity for decades, the 2009 DVD release of Lonely are the Brave likely introduced a new generation to this remarkably effective modern Western.

   With a screenplay adapted from Edward Abbey’s novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956) and penned by Dalton Trumbo, the movie stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, a cowboy trying to make his way in modern industrial society. Burns is a charming anachronism, a rugged individualist who eschews automobiles for his horse and hates barbed wire fences and artificial borders.

   The crux of the story is two-fold. When Burns learns that his friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) has been detained for helping illegal immigrants cross the border into New Mexico, he decides to ride – literally – to the rescue.

   Complicating matters slightly are his feelings for Bondi’s wife, Jerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role). But what really gets the story moving is when Burns hatches a plan to break into jail so as to meet up with his friend Paul and help him escape. Needless to say, the plan falls apart and Jack ends up alone with his horse, a fugitive from the law.

   Hot on Jack’s trail is cynical world-weary Sheriff Johnson, portrayed by future Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. It’s a near perfect role for him, one accentuated by little personality quirks and tics that simultaneously give his character both an everyman and a larger-than-life persona. Johnson has the modern world at his disposal: a plane, a helicopter, and police radio. But as it turns out, they are simply of no real use when they clash with Jack’s stubborn nineteenth-century values of individualism and self-sufficiency.

   At times surprisingly humorous, Lonely are the Brave is also achingly sad. Douglas was exceptionally well cast; indeed, after watching the movie, it’s very difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part of Jack Burns. In many ways, it’s a very untraditional role for Douglas, an actor who has specialized in playing angry and intense men. His character in this film is surprisingly laid back, even more so in the face of nearly insurmountable challenges.

   There is, however, one pivotal scene in which Douglas’s intensity shines through; namely, a well choreographed bar fight in which Jack Burns fights with a one-armed man. (As recounted in one of the extras on the DVD: apparently, the scene made a vivid impression one a young Steven Spielberg!)

   While Lonely are the Brave will never likely achieve the same sort of canonical status as the work of auteur directors such as Budd Boetticher, John Ford, and Anthony Mann, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of such high aesthetic consideration. Indeed, the film holds up exceedingly well over fifty years after its initial cinematic release. Some may find the theme of the anachronistic cowboy to be overdone and trite, but in my estimation this generally unheralded film is able to both utilize, and build upon, this theme without falling into either pathos or cliché.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WAGON MASTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1950. Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell. Director: John Ford.

   It suffices it to say, I’m not going to be breaking any new ground here with my thoughts upon recently viewing John Ford’s Wagon Master. Considered an excellent film by many, and one of Ford’s personal favorites, the black and white film features Ben Johnson as Travis Blue, a horse trader tasked with leading a Mormon wagon train across perilous terrain and toward the San Juan River in Utah.

   Riding alongside Blue is his friend, Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.). Leading the Mormons is the gruff, but lovable patriarch, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Along the way, the group runs into whimsical fun with a medicine show group; danger in the face of a family outlaw gang; and cross-cultural understanding (and misunderstanding) with Navajos.

   Filmed on location in the American Southwest, Ford’s elegiac tribute to westward pioneers is both a compelling narrative and visual work of genius. The movie isn’t so much filmed as it is photographed, with perfectly framed portraits of the characters making an indelible imprint on the viewer. Add to that the music and the songs, performed by Sons of the Pioneers and you have yourself a classic.

   There are, however, some minor flaws in an otherwise extraordinarily solid work. For instance, the outlaws first appear at the very beginning of the film, only to reappear more than thirty minutes or so later. And there’s a marshal, tasked with hunting the aforementioned criminals, whose role in the film remains somewhat uncertain. But, as I said, minor flaws in an otherwise great Western, one that I suppose many readers of this review have themselves watched time and again.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


A MAN ALONE. Republic Pictures, 1955. Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr, Arthur Space, Lee Van Cleef, Alan Hale Jr. Director: Ray Milland.

   What begins as a remarkably bleak and gritty Western noir eventually undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis and transforms into a rather standard melodrama – a Eugene O’Neill family drama in the American Southwest, as it were.

   And it’s a darn shame, for A Man Alone, a movie both starring and directed by Ray Milland, certainly had the potential to be a much more offbeat, rough around the edges, Western than it turns out to be. This is especially true given that Ward Bond, Raymond Burr, and Lee Van Cleef all portray men engaged in a criminal enterprise that is suffocating a small Arizona town.

   The movie begins as bleak as can be, with scant dialogue and the sound of desert winds. Gunfighter Wes Steele (Milland) is literally a man alone in the hot, dusty Arizona desert.

   After stumbling upon the site of a brutal stagecoach massacre, he makes his way to Mesa where he first engages in a shootout with the local deputy and then holes up in the town bank.

   It’s there that he learns that a man named Stanley who runs the Bank of Mesa (Burr) and his henchman, Clanton (Van Cleef) were behind the massacre. In noir fashion, however, it is Steele who is blamed for the crime, leading him to seek refuge in the home of Nadine Corrigan (Mary Murphy).

   Problem is: Nadine’s dad (Bond) is not just overprotective. He’s also the local sheriff and a corrupt one at that. He has his reasons, of course. (Don’t they all?)

   But this promising setup ultimately doesn’t pay off. What could have ended up as Western noir classic instead turns into instead standard Hollywood fare, complete with a relatively upbeat ending.

   Wes Steele may be a gunfighter (Spoiler Alert), but he ends up defeating the bad guys and getting the girl. Perhaps had he ended up as an elegiac, tragic figure like Gregory Peck’s world-weary gunslinger, Jimmy Ringo, in Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950), A Man Alone would be more widely known film than it is.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE REDHEAD FROM WYOMING. Universal International, 1953. Maureen O’Hara, Alex Nicol, William Bishop, Robert Strauss, Alexander Scourby, Palmer Lee, Jack Kelly, Jeanne Cooper, Dennis Weaver, Stacy Harris. Director: Lee Sholem.

   For the first twenty minutes or so, I thought that The Redhead from Wyoming was going to be a much better movie than it ultimately turned out to be. There was something particularly dynamic about Maureen O’Hara’s screen presence, including her brightly colored clothes that gave me reason to think that this Universal International release might be something of a minor forgotten gem.

   Sadly, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Although it’s not without its charms, the movie is simply just another lackluster 1950s Western that ends up playing it on the safe side. The result being that the movie is likely to languish in relative obscurity.

   In many ways, the plot is less a cohesive whole than a mishmash of tropes. Range war between the local cattle baron and homesteaders (check); drifter with a tragic past turned lawman (check); the flamboyant female saloon proprietress with a dark past and heart of gold (check); the power mad villain who wants to catapult himself into the governorship (check). You get the picture and can fill in the blanks from there.

   What makes The Redhead from Wyoming somewhat interesting is the rather overt proto-feminist messaging. O’Hara portrays Kate Maxwell, a strong-willed saloon owner caught between three powerful men: Sheriff Stan Blaine (Alex Nicol), cattle baron Reece Duncan (Alexander Scourby), and local power broker Jim Averell (William Bishop). What these three men don’t realize is that Kate has more than good looks. She’s got brains and she’s willing to use them. She’s pretty handy with a gun too. Sadly, the supporting cast, let alone the lifeless male characters and plot, doesn’t do her character justice.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


WYOMING. MGM, 1940. Wallace Beery, Ann Rutherford, Marjorie Main, Leo Carrillo, Bobs Watson, Joseph Calleia, Lee Bowman, Paul Kelly, Henry Travers, Addison Richards, Chill Wills, Richard Alexander. Screenplay: Jack Jevine (his story) and Hugo Butler. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   When outlaws Reb Harkness (Wallace Beery) and partner Pete (Leo Carrillo) hold up a train in Missouri and find the cavalry waiting for them they decided it is time to move on, complicated by the fact Pete gets greedy and steals the money and horse, leaving Reb afoot and being hunted.

   Luckily for Reb he meets Dave Kincaid (Addison Richards), a rebel soldier returning home to his ranch in Wyoming, and the two team up with Reb planning to head out for California as soon as he can steal Kincaid’s horse, which he finally does not far from Kincaid’s ranch in Wyoming. But when he hears gunshots, he returns only to find Kincaid murdered by men stealing from his ranch. The dying man extracts a promise from Reb that he will see to his children, Lucy (Ann Rutherford) and Jimmy (Bobs Watson), thus plunging Reb into a range war between the small ranchers, evil John Buckley (Joseph Calleia), and George Armstrong Custer (Paul Kelly) and the 7th Cavalry.

   Whether you like this or not will likely depend on your tolerance for Beery in full ham as a not-so-bad but not-quite-good-yet-badman, a role he played in most films, varying between being semi-reformed (The Champ), not reformed at all (Treasure Island), and a backstabbing bastard (China Seas). Of course being a Beery film, there is the inevitable crying child (Bobs Watson, who could cry on cue as well as any moppet in Hollywood if not quite in the Jackie Cooper or Jackie Coogan class) to moisten Beery’s leery eye and the inevitable tough masculine woman for him to romance, here Marjorie Main as female blacksmith Mehetabel.

   Shot on location in Wyoming near Jackson Hole, the film is good to look at, and moves at a crisp pace with more than enough to keep you watching. Rutherford has a romance with Sgt. Connelly (Lee Bowman) of the 7th, Henry Travers is a meek cowardly sheriff with a crush on Mehetabel. Chill Wills is her no good layabout but loyal brother, Richard Alexander Buckley’s backshooting henchman Gus, and Paul Kelly a somewhat bemused Custer, who knows Buckley is a no good crook and has no compunction about using Reb, a good badman. to solve his problems in the territory.

   Meanwhile an apologetic Pete has shown up having thrown away the stolen money out of guilt — and because it was Confederate — with promises to save his dear friends life. Like Beery’s, Carrillo’s mugging is kept to a minimum as well.

   There is no lack of shooting and fast riding, the big gunfight between Reb and Buckley and henchman Gus suspensefully played off camera, and there is an exciting Indian raid on the Kincaid ranch during a party at night with Reb riding to the rescue and the defenders driven into the open as the ranch house burns just as Custer arrives.

   No surprises here. The Beery/Watson business isn’t overdone so it doesn’t really have time to grate too much, the scenes with Main show the two could have made a decent screen team, the Rutherford/Bowman romance is just enough for plot development without ever really getting in the way of the flow of the action, and Travers comedy relief is kept within bounds.

   A lot of familiar faces like Dick Curtis, Clem Bevans, Donald MacBride, Chief Thundercloud, and Glenn Strange are among the cast, and the film never asks much more of you than that you go along for the ride, the movie ending with Bowman out of the army and tied up with Rutherford, Beery serenading Main on his unharmonious harmonica, and Custer riding off to the the Little Big Horn to put down a small Indian problem assuring us he won’t be around to arrest Reb or send him back to Missouri for the trial the Code insists be mentioned in the screenplay.

   All in all, a good hard-riding, hard-shooting, and only occasionally cloyingly hard-crying Western enhanced even in black and white by the genuine Wyoming exteriors, and more restrained Beery, Carrillo, and Main than usual.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE HILLS RUN RED. C.B. Films S.A., Italy, 1966. United Artists, US, 1967. Original title: Un fiume di dollari. Thomas Hunter, Henry Silva, Dan Duryea, Nando Gazzolo, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Gianna Serra. Screenplay by Dean Craig (Piero Regnoli). Directed by Lee W. Beaver (Carlo Lizziani)

   Imagine a Spaghetti Western without the jangling percussive score or the arty cinematography and directorial flourishes and with a more or less standard Western plot from an average lesser A Western of the fifties, and you pretty much have this. The Hills Run Red is a decent minor Spaghetti Western from producer Dino De Laurentiis shot handsomely in color and on more or less classical revenge Western lines, despite some over the top bits you expect of the sub genre.

   I would warn you of spoilers from here on, but honestly if you can’t figure this one out you have never seen a Western.

   Jerry Brewster (Thomas Hunter) and Cam Siegel (Nando Gazzolo) are ex Confederate soldiers, you can tell by their over the top Southern dubbed accents, who have stolen $600,000 from the U.S. Army and are on the run from pursuing soldiers when just north of the border the Army catches up with them. Brewster loses a game of high card draw and agrees to lead the Army away while Siegel will take the money and promises to take care of Brewster’s son and wife if the latter is captured.

   If you don’t see where this is going, you haven’t been paying attention all these years.

   Sure enough, Brewster is caught and sent to prison where he spends five years in hard labor and inhuman conditions well illustrated during the titles. When he is finally let go he heads home to find his home deserted (and no wonder he needed the money it is pretty palatial for the post Civil War West) and is promptly ambushed by two killers sent by his old pal Siegel who has been waiting five years. He is saved by the timely help of Winnie Getz (Dan Duryea), an out of work drifter who happens to be sleeping in the remains of Brewster’s barn, and learns from a dying killer that his wife died four years earlier never knowing Jerry Brewster was in prison as Jim Houston or had stolen the money and his son was taken in by Siegel, now known as Milton, who let poor Mary starve to death rather than share the money.

   This is accompanied by a half decent song about a golden haired woman.

   Either quite a few scenes of connecting material are cut from the film or the screenplay was written during a weekend binge, because no one ever asks questions like what is an aging man doing sleeping in the deserted Brewster barn in the middle of the day in the first place, or why the gun he provides the unarmed Brewster during the battle with the killers only has two bullets.

   For that matter why didn’t Duryea’s character just kill the two killers himself? There is an answer, but you have to fill it in for yourself because the screenplay leaves you to guess all the stuff most writers would take the time to fill in. I have to wonder if the screenwriter was a son-in-law or nephew or some other relation of Di Laurentiis, if not I hope he wasn’t allowed to write anything after this.

   Brewster swears revenge, and Getz, seeing a chance to get money out of it (exactly how is never explained, but turns out not to matter because … but then I don’t want to give away the big non-surprise), convinces him to play dead while Getz claims to have killed him and gets a job on Milton’s ranch in Austin. There is a fairly nasty scene where they get proof Brewster is dead by carving a tattoo off of his forearm and cauterizing it, but as Spaghetti Westerns go, it is pretty tame. I’ve seen much rougher stuff in American Westerns from a decade earlier. Hell, Gary Cooper lancing the boil on Karl Malden’s ass in Hanging Tree is more disturbing, and its played for laughs.

   From there, it is off to Austin where Milton has his ranch, and is pressuring the other ranchers trying to take all the land in standard Western bad guy fashion, aided by his chief henchman Garcia Mendez (Henry Silva) a sadistic hyena of an assassin and ranch foreman in black who covets Mary Anne (Nicoletta Machiavelli) Milton/Siegel’s sister. Apparently it has never occurred to Mary Anne to ask her brother why they had to change their last name, but she frankly never seems very bright anyway. Even by the standard of Spaghetti Westerns, Mary Anne is dumb as a rock.

   I won’t even bother with the fact this film is supposed to be taking place in at most the 1870‘s yet everyone is carrying hand guns not in common use for another decade. Those are pet peeves of mine and not really fair to the genre under discussion here.

   Brewster, now calling himself Jim Houston, the name he used in prison, shows up and promptly kills two of Mendez men aligning himself with the ranchers and a saloon owner. We are told the sheriff is dead, which still doesn’t explain where the Texas Rangers and Army are, since Austin is the capital of Texas — sorry, keep forgetting it is a Spaghetti Western and they don’t have books in Italy to use for research.

   In short order Brewster finds his son Tim (Loris Loddi), living in poverty working for a brutal smith on the Milton ranch, and after proving himself by beating up about eight of Mendez men is befriended by Mendez the cheerful laughing psychopath — you have to wonder Duryea didn’t keep suspecting he was cast in the wrong role, as Silva seems to be playing a Dan Duryea part but as a Mexican bandit.

   Of course Milton’s sister has eyes for Brewster (who keeps lingering on the Mary part of her name so we get the connection in case we are as dumb as she is) almost as soon as she sees him setting up a rivalry with Mendez that the screenplay lays on but then promptly forgets to follow up on as it hurries to the finale. Silva tries hard but can’t quite master the Duryea leer — or even the Jack Palance leer. I kept wondering if some of the laughing was directed at himself stuck with this screenplay.

   There are a number of big twists in the film that are only twists because the director and screenwriter weren’t familiar enough with the genre to properly set them up. At times it feels as if Di Laurentiis himself must have been shouting at them that they had a movie to make and not to bother with the plot. Quite a few things are never explained and never connected.

   Skipping some of the details of the plot, eventually a big gunfight takes place and the two men wipe out Mendez men in one of those over the top Spaghetti Western blood bath gunfights rather dully staged, save Duryea is enjoying not getting killed for once. He, or his stunt man, even gets to jump off a roof onto a bad guy on a horse. You know Duryea must have wanted to be the jumper and not the jumpee in that scene at least once in his career. Brewster then chases Mendez back to the ranch where Henry Silva gets a ridiculous death scene, involving enough lead to sink the Titanic.

   We have to hope he was getting paid a ridiculously high salary for this.

   Meanwhile a whore (Gianna Serra, who gets the single worst musical number I have ever seen in a Western early on in the film) who helped Mendez trap Brewster by waylaying Tim, has shot Mary Anne when Mendez tried to kidnap his bosses sister and ride away, Mendez has killed the whore/dance hall girl (once you hear her song you know where her talents lie and it an additional motive for Mendez to kill her), and Brewster comforts the wounded Mary Anne before, dressed as Mendez (and I wouldn’t have put those clothes on after putting six or eight holes in Henry Silva), he finally confronts and kills the cowardly Milton (we know he is a coward because earlier he nearly faints at the sight of his own blood) in a decently shot interior gunfight in the dark.

   At this point we discover Mary Anne is alive and it looks like she will end up with Brewster and his son Tim (what’s a dead brother among friends), the ranch is turned over to the Army to make up for the lost $600,000, the Army is told Brewster is dead and the now Jim Houston gets a reward and a badge as sheriff of Austin. (But wait, you say, the Army never knew who Brewster was and thought Jim Houston did the crime and the time so why … better still try not to think about it, it’s one of those uncrossed t’s or undotted i’s which abound in this films screenplay.) It’s a happy ending, shut up and enjoy it.

   Then there is a twist involving Winnie Getz that is never even hinted at in the film, Getz is Colonel Getz, an undercover Army officer trying to recover the stolen money all this time, explaining quite a few things which the screenplay finds so obvious it leaves for us to guess on our own. Most importantly this allows for possibly the only time in his long career of Westerns for Dan Duryea to not only be proven to be a total good guy, but get to literally ride off into the sunset as a bona fide hero. I admit I wanted to tear up a little at the prospect. It’s one of the few films where he even gets out alive, much less a hero.

   Got me right here — I’m tapping my chest, and it isn’t heartburn, though with this film it is hard to tell.

   Hunter overacts terribly at times — screaming his dialogue at other actors is his specialty, and it is a wonder Silva didn’t gain weight, he chews so much scenery, come to think of it he looks a little stuffed here, probably all that pasta, those cheekbones are positively rosy. Duryea seems happy to be getting paid for very little and not getting killed for once.

   The film is not in a class with any of the Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef films, certainly not most of the Django, Sartana, Nobody or other series, but it is not a bad Western, more like a classic Hollywood type than the ultra violent, cartoonish, and at times psycho sexual Spaghetti Western we know and love. It’s just above a passing grade as such things go, a bit like a shaggy puppy that wins you over by wagging its tail harder than it has to despite knocking over a few lamps in the process.

   Jack Elam claimed Henry Fonda called him when they were filming Once Upon a Time in the West and told him to come to Italy, they were paying them for doing nothing. You have to imagine someone told Duryea the same thing.

   But for me The Hills Run Red is worth seeing just to see Dan Duryea get to ride away into the sunset. It was a long time coming, and he honestly seems to be enjoying it, I know I did. Way to go, Dan, you made an entire Western without once shooting anyone in the back.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Columbia Pictures, 1955. James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Crisp, Cathy O’Donnell, Alex Nicol, Aline MacMahon, Wallace Ford, Jack Elam. Based on the novel by T. T. Flynn (Dell, paperback original, 1954). Director: Anthony Mann.

   The final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart, the gritty and taut Western The Man from Laramie has a lot to recommend it. Filmed on location in New Mexico in CinemaScope (one of the first Westerns to do so), the film has some absolutely beautiful Southwestern scenery.

   So much so that, despite the Shakespearean drama unfolding before your very eyes, you nevertheless are attuned to the relative insignificance of man’s petty foibles in the midst of Nature’s bountiful horizons and mountains. Be it menacing cliffs or a dusty frontier town, Mann captures the color, mood, and the very spirit of the myriad outdoor settings.

   Indeed, the crisp and memorable visual aspect of the film overshadows what is essentially a rather quotidian Western revenge story. Stewart, more than capable of playing a stoic man with torrents of rage gurgling under an outwardly jovial demeanor, is really very good. Even those who don’t particularly find Stewart to be on the same level as Wayne and Scott will find much to appreciate here.

   He portrays Will Lockhart, a former Army captain from Laramie, Wyoming, who is determined to find the man he holds indirectly responsible for his brother’s death at the hands of Apaches. This is what brings him to Coronado, a small dusty border town with a significant Pueblo Indian presence.

   It is here that he gets caught up not only in his own psychological desire for revenge, but also enmeshed in a range feud between the local power broker and cattle baron, Alec Waggoner (Donald Crisp) and local holdout, Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon). Complicating matters further is a menacing drunk portrayed by Jack Elam; Waggoner’s spoiled and violent son, Dave (Alex Nicol); and Waggoner’s devious foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy) who is set to be married to Waggoner’s niece, Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell). The plot veers from Greek tragedy to soap opera, never exactly finding a comfortable middle ground.

   But it’s not really the plot that matters in The Man from Laramie as much as the visual means by which Mann tells a story of a lone man set out for revenge in the midst of an expansive Western landscape. There are some extremely effective moments of violent retribution and menace. One gets the sense that Mann was trying very hard to say something about what happens when one gets the chance to peek behind the façade of self-made men.

   It’s also as if all that the frenetic activity that transpires in the movie has happened before and will happen again, all petty squabbles taking place in the shadows of mountains that will outlast the different human civilizations that will come and go in their majestic presence.

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