Western movies

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE HANGING TREE. Warner Brothers, 1959. Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg, with Ben Piazza as Rune. Screenplay: Wendell Mayes & Halstead Welles, based on the novella by Dorothy Johnson. Music by Max Steiner. Title song sung by Marty Robbins. Directed by Delmer Daves and (uncredited) Karl Malden.

   The Hanging Tree was Gary Cooper’s last western other than the documentary The Real West, and appropriately it is one of the best of his career, and one of the best of the 1950‘s, the golden age of the Hollywood Western. It’s based on the novella by Dorothy Johnson (A Man Called Horse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), or it was supposed to be directed by Daves until he fell ill and Gary Cooper, whose company was also producing the film, asked Karl Malden to take the helm. It proved a remarkable collaboration and the start of a friendship and mutual admiration society that lasted until Cooper’s death.

   Like most good westerns the story is simple, Doctor Joe Frail follows the 1873 Montana Gold Trail to a small mining community, mostly tents and mud, where he sets up practice. When a boy, Rune (Ben Piazza) is shot for stealing from a sluice Frail saves him and makes him his bondsman, a virtual slave, blackmailing him with the bullet that proves he was the sluice thief.

   It’s a rough little town not improved by glad-handing backstabbing miner Frenchy (Karl Malden) who knows Doc Frail from another mining camp, knows how fast he is, and about the fire Frail may have set that burned his wife and her lover alive.

   This is a very adult adult western.

   When Frail wins a gold claim from gambler Society Red (John Dierkes) all seems set, and no one much listens to Grubb (George C. Scott) a fanatic faith healer who hates Frail and knows his history. There is only one element left, and that arrives when the stagecoach is held up and the horses panic. Everyone dies but a young woman who suffers severe wounds and exposure, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a Swiss immigrant come west with her now dead father.

   Frenchy finds her and feels a proprietary interest in her, as well as undressing her with every lewd look. Frenchy has other bad habits than backstabbing. But Doc takes on her care with young Rune, and while Doc seems a hard man there are signs he is more than that. Frankly Rune just can’t read him and neither can Elizabeth: a man with secrets like he carries becomes remote, even his name is false. He took the name Frail because he figured all men were frail and he was the frailest.

   When Elizabeth is well she tires of Frail’s bossiness, especially when he tells her he is sending her back to Switzerland because he can’t live near her. She runs away, Rune rebels, and Doc secretly backs them through store owner Tom Flaunce (Karl Swenson), the only decent man in this little mud hole Sodom of the west despite his shrewish wife, Edna (Virginia Gregg).

   Backed by Doc Elizabeth and Rune team with Frenchy who knows gold digging though he isn’t very good at it, and though they find nothing Doc keeps backing them whenever they need money.

   When a rainstorm fells a tree on their claim they find the glory hole, a vein of nuggets in the roots of the tree and beneath. Now they are rich and rush to town to celebrate.

   But Frenchy hasn’t forgotten Elizabeth and when he tries to rape her, Doc arrives just in time and kills him. No, that’s an understatement, because in one of the most brutal scenes in any American western of its era, Cooper empties his gun into the fleeing Frenchy, who dies at the edge of a cliff, and Doc then kicks his corpse over.

   The grim Frail as he coolly walks down the pleading running Frenchy putting bullet after bullet in him is a scene you won’t soon forget. Perhaps only Cooper’s brutal beating of Jack Lord in Man of the West and throwing Cameron Mitchell into the fire in Garden of Evil come anywhere near it. And, I’m little ashamed to admit it, it is a very satisfying scene as well, Malden is always a very killable bad guy.

   Grubb and Society Red and a group of drunken miners drag Frail to the hanging tree to lynch him, and have the rope on his neck and Grubb at the horse’s reins when Elizabeth and Rune arrive and buy his life at the cost of their claim. As the drunken miners battle over the claim Rune frees Frail and Elizabeth turns to leave but Frail calls her back and kneels in the buckboard to embrace her. Fade to the Marty Robbins theme. He literally found his love at the hanging tree.

   The Hanging Tree has more than enough virtues and might be Cooper’s best if not for High Noon. Frail is a complex character who is never just a hero, just a good man, just misunderstood. Life and fate have bred a rattlesnake mean streak in him and it is clear he fears it though he fights it more successfully than he knows.

   It is not until he comes clean that the viewer knows for certain he did not set than fatal fire. Malden, fresh off his Oscar, is quite good as Frenchy, but as a director he is a revelation. This film is as well directed as any major western of the era, a worthy rival for Ford, Mann, Hawks, Daves, or any of the other iconic Western directors. IMDb says he finished the film, but Daves became sick early, and Malden directed the bulk of the film

   Ben Piazza as Rune is a little lost in this cast of veterans, but not badly lost, and Schell is fine in a tough no nonsense non-glamorous role that is both physically and emotionally demanding. And then there is that New York actor making his Hollywood debut on screen, George C. Scott. He has only a little time on screen, but he makes the most of every scene as the fanatic, cowardly, venal, murderous Grubb. If he had never done anything else you would remember him from this. I did for years, though I didn’t really know who he was or connect the star of television’s East Side, West Side with the part.

   But like almost any film he is in this is Gary Cooper’s film and there is never a moment you don’t know it, whether he is on screen or not. I recall seeing this on the big screen (it was the debut of Technirama) and being bowled over by Cooper. He’s still impressive on the small screen though in this one, Malden seems to have staged it to shoot Cooper from a lower angle making him seem even taller and more commanding than he was to begin with.

   The Max Steiner score is fine, and surprisingly, considering the title, the Marty Robbins theme song turns out to be one of the best of the era and one of the best western themes ever. “To really live/ You must almost die …” proves haunting if you may not want to think about it too much and “I found my love at the hanging tree” is a tough lyric to pull off even in a western song but Robbins succeeds.

   Brian Garfield suggested they should have stopped making westerns when Cooper died and this should have been the last of its kind. I don’t know that I agree with him, but his point is well taken. In many ways this is the last and one of the best of its breed. Screen westerns never really reached this height again; in my opinion, they were never this good again, not at this level. Whatever Cooper brought to the western, went with him.

   If you have never seen this one then find it. It shows up on TCM now once in a while and is available from the Warner’s Archives to own or watch on line if you are a subscriber. You can also listen to the Marty Robbins song and see the titles and end scene on YouTube.

   This is quite simply one of the best westerns of the 1950‘s and one of Gary Cooper’s best westerns, which makes it one of the best westerns ever made.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS. Allied Artists, 1955. Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, Barton MacLane, Dick Foran, Lola Albright, Gordon Jones, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef. Based on the story “The Rider of the Ruby Hills,” by Louis L’Amour. Director: Frank McDonald.

   For a Western with quite a few excellent character actors, Treasure of Ruby Hills is overall something of a disappointment. Based on a Louis L’Amour story, the movie stars Zachary Scott as a man determined not to follow his deceased father down the rabbit hole of frontier criminality.

   Scott, with menacing eyes and a thick mustache, portrays the enigmatic Ross Haney, a man determined to revenge the death of his friend and business partner at the hands of Frank Emmett (the always enjoyable-to-watch Lee Van Cleef). Haney also seems to have a greater scheme in mind. Although it takes a while for the viewer to learn his overall motivations, one soon learns that Haney’s overall objective is to control the water supply to the town of Soledad, so as to exert power over the thuggish cattle barons who rule the town.

   Sounds simple enough.

   Unfortunately, the film tries to do too much. It introduces far too many characters in a running time of just over seventy minutes. There’s the rancher brother and sister combo. No surprise here: Haney falls in love with the sister and ends up the mortal rival of her would-be fiancé, Alan Doran, portrayed by Dick Foran.

   There are also two rival cattle/land barons, Chalk Reynolds (Barton MacLane) and Walt Payne (Charles Fredericks), both of whom end up with a bellyful of lead thanks to Doran’s scheming. Plus, there’s the marshal; Scott’s other would-be business partner; a wounded man whom Haney tends to; an innkeeper; and a waitress. Add to this some backstories about the characters and you end up with an overall muddled story, one that simply refuses to flow smoothly.

   What Treasure of Ruby Hills does have going for it is, however, is atmosphere. The narrative unfolds in a semi-claustrophobic, self-enclosed universe of suspense and violence. There really are no good guys here, just men morally clad in shades of grey, burdened by the albatross of their past misdeeds and their family history.

   Significantly, there are no children in the film and, if I am not mistaken, apart from horses, no animals either. The movie presents the West as rough and tumble world, where live is cheap and loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold.

   As much as I like Zachary Scott, Lee Van Cleef, and Barton MacLane, I’d very much hesitate to categorize Treasure of Ruby Hills as a particularly good film. Sad to say, but it’s really just another mediocre mid-1950s Western. But somehow I managed to see it through to the very end, wondering how it’d all turn out and who’d still be alive and kicking once the proverbial dust settled. Take that for what it is, as it surely must mean something.

NOTE:   This movie is available for viewing on Hulu. Follow the link.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

APACHE. United Artists, 1954. Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire, Charles Bronson, John Dehner, Morris Ankrum, Monte Blue. Based on the novel Broncho Apache by Paul Wellman. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   You’d think that a movie starring Burt Lancaster with strong supporting roles by John McIntire and Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) would be more captivating and engaging than Apache, a mid-1950s film about the life and times of Massai, one of the last Apache warriors. The film is based on Paul I. Wellman’s novel, Broncho Apache and on fact as well as fiction.

   The story follows Massai (Lancaster) as he escapes a prison train meant to deliver him and other Apache prisoners, including Geronimo (Monte Blue) to confinement in Florida. Massai makes his way through the Midwest, encountering Whites in St. Louis and a Cherokee Indian man who teaches him about the Cherokees’ decision to grow corn and to adopt a non-warrior lifestyle. Initially, Massai, who really isn’t all that personable a fellow, thinks little of this approach to living, but eventually decides to crow his own corn when he arrives back in Arizona.

   There is, of course, a love interest. Massai falls for Nalinle (Jean Peters), daughter of an Apache man who betrays him to the White authorities. He is a fugitive, after all. On his trail are two men, Al Sieber (McIntire) and the Apache Calvary officer Hondo (Bronson). Both of them are excellent in this otherwise average Western.

   Apache often feels labored, almost soporific. It’s not that there isn’t any action. There’s actually action a plenty, but much of it seems so forced and downright tedious. There is, however, one notable exception. In a tense, beautifully filmed sequence, Massai and Al Sieber (McIntire) play cat and mouse in Massai’s small cornfield. For a moment or two, it’s not quite clear who is going to best whom and with what weapon.

   Unfortunately, too many of the other chase sequences just aren’t all that thrilling. And then there’s the unavoidable question of whether the casting of the blue-eyed Lancaster as an Apache warrior was a good choice. I’ll leave that to future viewers to decide.

CONQUEST OF COCHISE. Columbia Pictures, 1953. John Hodiak, Robert Stack, Joy Page, Rico Alaniz. Director: William Castle.

   On the other hand, for a Western/historical drama that isn’t all that, you know, historically accurate, Conquest of Cochise is nevertheless a fairly entertaining action packed little film. Like Masterson of Kansas, which I reviewed here, Conquest of Cochise is a William Castle/Sam Katzman collaboration that holds up to the test of time far better than many other similarly situated lower budget 1950s Westerns.

   Why is this the case? First of all is the strong cast. Although they may not have been the biggest box office stars of their time, both John Hodiak, who portrays Apache chief Cochise, and Robert Stack, who portrays U.S. Calvary Major Tom Burke, are both solid actors more than capable of delivering above average performances. The two men’s attempt to bring peace between the United States and the Apache Nation is repeatedly thwarted by events both in, and out of, their direct control.

   The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Joy Page in her portrayal of Consuelo de Cordova, a Mexican woman caught between her family, the Apaches, and Major Burke’s romantic advances. Rico Alaniz, who may be familiar to fans of 1950s TV Westerns, portrays Felipe, a hotheaded Tucson man seething at the Apaches for the murder of his wife.

   The film’s story line, if not true to history, is both fairly straightforward and (thankfully) without a lot of the forced, well meaning, anti-racist platitudes that ironically only served to categorize Indians as a people almost irrevocably culturally apart from broader American society. In Conquest of Cochise, the Apaches are neither presented as fundamentally misunderstood “noble savages,” nor as mindless brutes. They are a people caught between the Americans and the Mexicans, with their leader Cochise trying to make good decisions under difficult geopolitical constraints.

   Indeed, Conquest of Cochise is a surprisingly thoughtful Western with some breathtaking scenery to boot. Although it doesn’t have the cinematography and sentimentalism of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy or the star power of James Stewart (Broken Arrow), William Castle’s Conquest of Cochise, with a running time of around seventy minutes, nevertheless remains a worthwhile investment of one’s time.

   True, it’s no classic. But there’s action, moderately well developed characters, internal and external conflict, and romance. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t try to be a heavy-handed horse opera.

   One final thing to consider: although it can be said about nearly every film ever made, I do think that this movie in particular has to be far more enjoyable when watched as it was meant to be seen on the big screen. Maybe it has something to do with Castle’s unique, if not easily categorized, vision of how a film should be directed so as to captivate the viewer’s attention.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

STRANGER ON HORSEBACK. United Artists, 1955. Joel McCrea, Miroslava, Kevin McCarthy, John McIntire, John Carradine, Nancy Gates, Emile Meyer. Based on a story written for the film by Louis L’Amour. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

   Stranger on Horseback is perhaps one of director Jacques Tourneur’s least known films, one that was commercially unavailable for decades. Filmed on location in Arizona with a budget under $400,000, the film stars Western icon Joel McCrea as a federal circuit judge tasked with bringing an accused murderer to trial.

   Although the movie benefits from punchy dialogue and has some very fun, downright quirky moments (look for the cat in the sheriff’s office!), it is altogether a somewhat disappointing entry in the large corpus of slightly gritty postwar Westerns.

   The film’s plot, based on Louis L’Amour story, follows Judge Richard Thorne (McCrea) as he enters a small Western town, which he soon learns is basically run from top-to-bottom by land baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire). It also comes to his attention that Bannerman’s son, Tom (Kevin McCarthy), may have murdered a man.

   Despite entreaties from a charmingly serpentine federal lawyer (John Carradine), Thorne decides he is going to see that justice is done. He even convinces the local feline loving sheriff (Emile Meyer in a standout role) to join forces with him. Along the way, the upright judge gets into a little push and pull with the Bannerman’s ferociously exotic niece, Amy (portrayed by Czechoslovakian-born Mexican actress Miroslava). It’s one of the stranger romances I’ve yet seen depicted in a McCrea Western.

   Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t gel. In some ways, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is the case. There seem to be a lot of minor flaws that add up to weaken what could have otherwise been a quite strong picture. These include the fact that Stranger on Horseback was filmed in Ansco Color and that it ends way too abruptly, to put it mildly.

   Also, the final action scene is filmed in such a manner that it’s difficult to tell who is shooting at whom. It’s a much weaker film than Tourneur’s superbly crafted Wichita, also starring McCrea, which I reviewed here. Still, if you’re a McCrea fan, you might appreciate viewing this relatively short Western where, despite the film’s numerous flaws, he has a comparatively strong presence.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Jane Frazee, Andy Devine, George H. Lloyd, Wade Crosby, Michael Chapin. Director: William Witney.

   Don’t let the cowboy songs and the lighthearted Andy Devine comic antics deceive you. This William Witney-directed Roy Rogers movie isn’t entirely as innocent as you might think.

   In Under California Stars, Trigger is kidnapped and is nearly shot to death by a bunch of ornery horse traders. A criminal double-crosses his masters and, as payback for his deception, gets some lead in his chest. And Rogers aptly demonstrates that he can throw a mean punch or two, get scrappy in a fight, and roll in the dirt with the best of the brawlers, thanks in so small part to Witney’s excellent choreographing.

   But it’s not all mayhem in and around the Double R ranch. There are some fun characters too. Cookie Bullfincher (Devine) and his lovely cousin, Caroline (Jane Frazee) add a light touch to the story, as does Ted Carver (Michael Chapin), who portrays a young boy caught between his mean stepfather and his affection for Trigger.

   All told, this Roy Rogers movie is a better than average singing cowboy 1940s Western. Filmed in Trucolor, it’s definitely a step up from the lower grade black and white Western films from the same era. And you know what, the catchy title song, “Under California Stars,” isn’t all that bad, either.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

CARSON CITY. Warner Brothers, 1952. Randolph Scott, Lucille Norman, Raymond Massey, Richard Webb, James Millican, Larry Keating, George Cleveland, Don Beddoe. Director: André De Toth.

   Carson City is a good, albeit not great, Western starring Randolph Scott. Directed by Andre de Toth, whose The Stranger Wore a Gun I reviewed here, the film benefits from a solid, if standard, plot and the presence of a sinister-looking Raymond Massey as the main villain.

   Unfortunately, there just isn’t all that much in the way of outstanding cinematography or in-depth character development. That, and the fact that at times it feels as if Scott is merely going through the motions, makes Carson City less entertaining than it might have been.

   That said, the plot is easy enough to follow. Scott portrays Jeff Kincaid, an adventurer and an engineer who is tasked with building a railroad between Carson City and Virginia City, both in Nevada.

   Unfortunately, the good townsfolk of Carson City are divided on the wisdom of constructing a rail line through their small city. Local newspaper owner, Zeke Mitchell (Don Beddoe) is strongly opposed. His daughter, Susan (Lucille Norman) seems more ambivalent. Susan also figures in some family drama: Kincaid’s half-brother, Alan (Richard Webb), has romantic feelings for her, feelings that aren’t reciprocated.

   But as it turns out the real drama in this movie isn’t so much about the railroad. It’s about bandits, particularly a group called the Champagne Bandits, so named for their propensity to serve their victims bubbly. Leading these gourmand outlaws is no other than the character portrayed by Raymond Massey, Jack Davis. It’s really Massey, more than Scott, who makes this film worth watching. Massey, who like Scott served during the First World War (some historical trivia), is quite good in this film. One only wishes that the final showdown between Scott and Massey’s characters wasn’t so brief.

   While Carson City isn’t nearly among the best Western movies from the 1950s, it’s not the worst either. It’s just somewhere in the vast middle or maybe just slightly better than average.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox Films, 1932. George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens, Forrester Harvey, Noble Johnson, Roy Stewart, Betty Francisco. Based on the novel The Killer, by Stewart Edward White. Director: David Howard.

   The best line in this antique and in many ways very Gothic western comes very near the end, as the villain in the piece comes to realize that the jig is up, standing at the edge of a cliff: “Young man, if you want to serve that on me, you’ll have to do it in Hell!” And off he jumps, tumbling hundreds of feet down to his death, and a well-deserved one at that.

   It’s the end of a very satisfying, and for a western made in 1932, quite sophisticated film, a watching experience best enjoyed in the company of other western fans, as was the case for me last weekend in Walker Martin’s living room the evening before Rich Harvey’s pulp and paperback show the nest day.

   IMDb describes the plot thusly, and I can’t improve upon it in terms of either brevity or accuracy: “An undercover ranger investigates a deranged rancher who acts as a law unto himself, finding a girl held as a prisoner until she agrees to marry the madman.”

   George O’Brien is the hero, stalwart and strong. Cecilia Parker plays the girl held against her will by deceased father’s business partner, Henry Steele, played by a gaunt but still powerful-looking Charles Middleton, who first claims that Jane Emory is his niece, but then reveals his true plans: to marry her, carried away both by lust and to take full control of the former partnership.

   On her own, Jane would be no match for the mad, piano-playing Henry Steele, who vows to eliminate any living person near his ranch who will not bow down to him. It is up to Texas Ranger Bob Sanborn (George O’Brien) to save the day.

   Besides the ending, which I apologize for revealing, just in case you decide obtain this movie on DVD and watch it for yourself, there was one other scene that I found extremely striking. Toward the end of the movie, Bob and Jane are trying to make their escape, and they find themselves trapped atop an old Apache stronghold in the hills. Bob is firing a rifle down upon their pursuers, while Jane, a mere slip of a girl, is cowering against his back. It’s straight from pulp western cover. If only it had been in color!

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