Western movies

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.


ONE FOOT IN HELL. 20th Century Fox, 1960. Alan Ladd, Don Murray, Dolores Michaels, Dan O’Herlihy and Barry Coe. Written by Aaron Spelling and Sydney Boehm. Directed by James B Clark.

   I hate it when someone has a good idea for a movie and then it gets fumbled.

   In this case it’s a warped quest for vengeance set in the old west, with Alan Ladd as a settler passing through a small town who sees his ailing wife die because of the callousness of its citizens: The hotel clerk won’t fetch a doctor, the local druggist doesn’t fill a prescription promptly, and when Ladd makes a fuss, the sheriff detains him on suspicion long enough for Ladd’s wife to die before he gets back with the medicine that would have saved her life.

   Chastened by her death, the good people of the town try to make up for it by offering him a job, but when Ladd takes a position as Deputy Sheriff, it’s with an eye out to settle the score.

   To this end, he recruits a small band of ne’er-do-wells and owlhoots to help him loot the local bank: Don Murray as a drunk looking to restore his pre-war fortunes; Dolores Michaels as a dance-hall floozie trying to get out of the racket; and Dan O’Herlihy and Barry Coe, who just like stealing & killing — and One Foot takes a step into Caper Movie Territory.

   The supporting cast does quite well in this, particularly when Murray and Michaels (who was memorable in The Fiend Who Walked the West) kindle a spark of decency between them and wrestle with the notion of going straight. Some of Aaron Spellings’ expositions are a bit too pat—like the characterizations in Love Boat — but when we get to the robbery and subsequent posse chase, led by Ladd himself, things get agreeably nasty as writer Sydney (The Big Heat, Violent Saturday, etc.) Boehm rings in some gratuitous murders and wicked double-crosses to liven things up.

   Too bad One Foot is afflicted by the wrong director and a star past his prime.

   Director James B. Clark did some highly successful animal films (Flipper, and A Dog of Flanders come to mind) but he lacks the sense of pace necessary to this sort of thing. As for star Alan Ladd as the bitter widower nursing a deadly grudge and finally turning on his cohorts…

   Well, back in the 40s he could have used his impassive features to suggest wheels within wheels ready to grind up his unwitting prey, but at this stage in his career Alan Ladd was from all accounts fighting a battle with booze & drugs, and not trying very hard to win. Podgy and dull-eyed, he looks about as deadly here as a rubber ball, and he’s not helped by a costume designer who dresses him like a hick.

   With Ladd and Clark at its heart, it’s surprising that One Foot in Hell works as well — or as not-too-badly — as it does. I recommend it to fans of Westerns and Caper Movies with a quick finger on the fast-forward trigger, who will find here a solid half-hour’s entertainment in a 90-minute movie.


  ROUGHSHOD. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Sterling, Gloria Grahame, Claude Jarman Jr., John Ireland, Jeff Donnell, Myrna Dell, Martha Hyer, George Cooper, Jeff Corey. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) and Hugo Butler. Director: Mark Robson.

   Roughshod is a surprisingly noir western from RKO, the quintessential nor studio, co-written by Geoffrey Homes (Out of the Past) and directed by Val-Lewton-alumnus Mark Robson. Surprising because it sets up a standard White-Hat vs. Black-Hat plot, then pretty much abandons it to dwell of the Pilgrim’s Progress of four Ladies of Easy Virtue reluctantly rescued by absurdly tight-lipped White-Hat Robert Sterling, who is stalking and being stalked by Black-Hat John Ireland.

   Homes does a thoughtful job sketching the trials and tribulations of the euphemistic “Dance Hall Gals” (who include Martha Hyer, Jeff Donnell and the unforgettable Gloria Grahame) as they chase dreams of Love, Lust, Avarice and Respectability, showing sensitivity without straying West of the Pathos, while Robson skillfully sustains tension in the Val Lewton style, with half-seen figures flitting about the night, punctuated by a few very chilling scenes of Ireland prowling about like a monster in a horror flick.

   There is also a dandy run-and-jump gunfight to wrap things up with a satisfying ironic twist that I refuse to divulge.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #44, May 1990.


ERNEST HAYCOX – Canyon Passage. Little Brown, hardcover, 1945. Pocket, #640, paperback, 1949. Many other reprint editions exist.

CANYON PASSAGE. Universal, 1946. Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges and Andy Devine. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Ernest Haycox. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   Ernest Haycox writes best about working men — miners, ranchers, or as here a freighter — made heroes by force of circumstance, set in communities that are not always right or just, but keep striving to get that way. Canyon Passage is the best example of this I’ve seen so far, not so much a carefully-plotted story as a series of interactions between fallible people bouncing off each other in an evolving milieu.

   A book like this gets life from its characters, and Haycox gives us a colorful cast. Logan Stuart, the central character, is the solid, dependable sort to hang a story on; he has a hankerin’ for smart, tough Lucy Overmire, and she for him, but… well, Haycox puts it best, as Logan ponders to himself:

   “It was a queer business — this confused wandering of people toward things they wanted and could not have, this silent resignation to less than they wanted. It was a world where people walked with their desires and seldom attained them, but it was all in silence, held away….”

   I credit Haycox with making these ill-turned relationships at least as interesting as the fights, murders and Indian raids that propel the story. He draws an interesting parallel between George Camrose — Logan’s friend betrothed to Lucy, and also a polished thief preying on his friends — and Honey Bragg, a murderous brute and near-outcast, also preying on the locals. Both are eventually punished by the mining camp they live in (and off) but in very different ways, and it’s this sense of Community as Character that gives Canyon Passage real depth.

   Bragg gets his comeuppance at the hands of Logan Stuart, after the good people of the town have goaded them into a fight for no better reason than they wanted to see a battle royal. And Haycox writes us a dandy. Faced with the meaner, stronger, Bragg, Stuart starts the fight by cracking a bottle across his face, then smashing a chair over his head, then picking up the pieces of the chair and smashing them over his head, then picking up another chair…. You get the idea. It’s brutal and very real.

   Camrose, on the other hand, gets tried by a Miner’s Court for the murder of a man whose poke he’s pilfered, found guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence (He is in fact guilty as hell.) and locked up till the town can get around to lynching him—which puts Logan in the position of having to rescue his guilty buddy for the sake of the misguided Lucy.

   Me, I woulda just sat back, seen him hanged, and moved in on Lucy myself, but that’s probably why I was never the hero of a Western. And I have to say Haycox rings in the Indian Raid that brings everything to a head and resolves the various conflicts without seeming a bit contrived.

   Producer Walter Wanger made a fine job of filming this, hiring Jacques Tourneur, known for his horror flicks with Val Lewton, to direct, and dependable hack Ernest Pascal to stick close to the book. He also signed up sturdy leads Andrews, Donlevy and Hayward, and a host of dependable character actors, including Ward Bond as Bragg, Andy Devine as a homesteader, and best of all Hoagy Carmichael as an amiable minstrel.

   The result is a film of considerable charm and surprising brutality. Like I say, writer Pascal stays close to the book, and director Tourneur gives us the beatings & killings with unflinching nastiness, done up in fairy-tale Technicolor by photographer Edward (Heaven Can Wait) Cronjager.

   There is one point where the movie departs from the book though, and I think it’s an improvement. And since it’s at the ending, I’ll throw in a SPOILER ALERT!!

   In the book, Logan Stewart helps his friend Camrose escape, but it does no good as he’s shot down shortly thereafter by one of his victims. Logan, having led the miners against raiding Indians, is forgiven by the town, mainly because they got their man anyway and no real harm done.

   In the movie, however, Logan returns from injun-fightin’ to find that the good people of the town have burned down his store as retribution for his crime. Having chastened him, they are now willing to accept him back as a member of society in good standing. And Logan accepts it as a just punishment, ready to move on with his life.

   It’s not a major story element, but somehow this moment, as directed by Tourneur, gets to the meat of what Haycox was saying in the book. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but it has something to do with a civilization not built on laws, religion, or even tradition, but on people. And therefore as good or bad as the best and worst of us.

   As Walt Kelly used to say, “it’s enough to make a man think.”

THE MAN BEHIND THE GUN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Randolph Scott, Patrice Wymore, Dick Wesson, Philip Carey, Lina Romay, Roy Roberts, Morris Ankrum, Katharine Warren, Alan Hale Jr., Douglas Fowley, Robert Cabal. Screenplay: John Twist, based on a story by Robert Buckner. Director: Felix Feist.

   An unusual sort of western, one that place in the burgeoning small town of Los Angeles, circa 1850 or so. The town is a lot more elaborately laid out than most western towns that sit in the middle of a prairie for no great reason to be there. References to Santa Monica to the west, the La Brea tar pits, and the importance of water to the growing community all are intended to add to the historical authenticity, as are references to whether California should enter the Union as a slave state or not, along with the presence of a young bandit named Joaquin Murietta.

   The plot is too complicated to go into (I didn’t understand it) but boiled down to as small a nutshell as I can manage, Randolph Scott (Major Ransome Callicut) comes to town undercover disguised as a schoolteacher (the latter being the result of some quick thinking on his part) to root out a gang of secessionists who also want to control the area’s water supply.

   There are several other major threads to the plot, however, including killings, desperate ruses and several lengthy scenes of singing and dancing in the local saloon, not to mention some ineffectual efforts in the way of comedy by Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr.

   There too many twisted threads in this movie’s tale, in other words, taking place mostly in cramped indoor sets. This is made all the more noticeable when at last the director takes the movie outside, for a big shoot-em-up finale. Scott is stiffer than usual in this one, looking far too old (55) for young Patrice Wymore (26), the real new schoolmarm in town. (I forgot to mention the rolling on the floor catfight the latter has with songstress Lina Romay, who also has eyes on Scott).


RENEGADE TRAIL. Paramount, 1939. William Boyd, Russell Hayden, George Hayes, Charlotte Wynters, Russell Hopton, Roy Barcroft, John Merton, Bob Kortman, and Sonny Bupp. Screenplay by John Rathmell & Harrison Jacobs, based on characters created by Clarence E. Mulford. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   A landmark Western… of sorts.

   Even if it were no better than routine, Renegade Trail would be remembered by B-Western buffs for the last appearance in a Hoppy film by George Hayes, who had established himself as trusty-dusty side-kick Windy Halliday in George Sherman’s Hopalong Cassidy series since Bar 20 Rides Again in 1935.

   In the intervening four years, Hayes had worked his garrulous old-timer schtick into a smooth routine, replete with tall tales, amusing double-takes and toothless muttering asides. Small wonder then, that Hayes hit producer Sherman up for a substantial raise. Or that Sherman, running a successful but not hugely profitable enterprise, had Windy Halliday written out off the Bar 20 ranch, into a comfortable sinecure as a town marshal and out of the series.

   George Hayes moved to Republic, playing basically the same character, but since “Windy” was owned by Paramount, he changed the name to “Gabby,” and it stuck. Gabby Hayes. Thus are legends born.

   Getting back to the movie itself, Trail is a bit lacking in action, the plot needlessly complicated, but vigorously directed by Lesley Selander, and has a moment that would have been at home in an Anthony Mann movie:

   Hoppy’s pal Lucky, lying wounded in the back of a chuck wagon, trying to get his gun out as a bad guy walks from long-shot to medium range and murders the driver. The only problem is that Mann would have done it in a single shot, where Selander breaks it into 3 or 4 — which makes the difference between a great director and a talented one.

   But I said this was a landmark Western and it is. Renegade Trail is the only Western I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen plenty) where the bad guy (Roy Barcroft) actually makes his entrance kicking a dog – an act which seems to have gone down in B-movie folklore. And it ties into a delicious ending, so I’ll insert here a SPOILER ALERT!

   Toward the end, the outlaw gang has the good guys pinned down, but Hoppy slips behind their lines, sneaks up close to Roy Barcroft and says. “Tell your men to drop their guns!” which he does and they do. Then in the post-game wrap-up, there’s a conversation I’ll paraphrase as:

   “Nice work, Hoppy. But how’d you know he’d give up?”

   And Hoppy replies, “No man that’d kick a dog would stand up to a fair fight!”

   They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.


FACE OF A FUGITIVE. Columbia, 1959. Fred MacMurray, Lin McCarthy, Dorothy Green, Alan Baxter and James Coburn. Screenplay by David T Chantler and Daniel B Ullman, based on the short story “Long Gone” by Peter Dawson (Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, March 1950). Directed by Paul Wendkos.

   In a decade supposedly marked by conformity, and in a genre supposedly bound up in cliché, I’m surprised sometimes by how many off-beat, idiosyncratic and just plain weird westerns came out of the 1950s: Terror in a Small Town, 40 Guns, A Day of Fury, Ride Lonesome…. I could go on and on, but then I’d be going on and on.

   Face of a Fugitive may not as bizarre as some of the others, but it’s sufficiently off-beat and well-made to stay in the memory. Or this memory, anyway.

   Face opens with Fred MacMurray as an affable outlaw being escorted to jail by a Deputy unequal to the task. In the first few minutes Fred overpowers him and is making his escape when his younger brother (Ron Hayes) shows up, kills the deputy, and is himself mortally wounded in the shoot-out.

   Now wanted for murder, Fred buries his brother by sewing him in a mail sack and dumping the body in a river. Then he insinuates himself into the closest town, passing as a traveling businessman, feigning acquaintance with the locals, and looking for some way to split the scene before Wanted Posters show up with his picture on them — in 24 hours.

   MacMurray is in fine form here. In the years before Disney and “My Three Sons” his persona was bluff and likeable bit not always trustworthy. Check him out in The Texas Rangers, Double Indemnity, The Apartment and others to see what I mean. Here he uses both sides of his acting face as the outlaw on the run masquerading as a respectable citizen, and he does it quite well, befriending the local barber, horse trader, store clerk, and sheriff, but always with an eye out for the main chance.

   Of course it’s not that simple. Nor is the Sheriff, whose deputies have the town bottled up pending the arrival of the posters. Always the smoothie, Fred wangles himself a job as a Deputy — only to find himself embroiled with the Sheriff in a range was against local cattle baron Alan Baxter, and his henchman James Coburn.

   The writers handle all this quite capably, setting up the situation, ratcheting up the tension, and pausing for some truly affecting moments when Fred sees them fish his brother’s body from the river and later watches him lowered into an unmarked grave. They also flesh out the minor characters, particularly Coburn: lithe and lethal, but essentially a cowboy, not a killer.

   Back in the day, director Paul Wendkos made a splashy debut with The Burglar (1957) then retreated into television and the Gidget movies, until finally overtaken by obscurity. Still early in his career here, he imparts a sense of pace and humanity to the proceedings, particularly in a slam-bang run-and-jump shoot-out in a ghost town, making the most of the settings and Coburn’s athleticism vs. Fred’s stoic efficiency. And he caps it all with a line (which should have been the final line) I will remember for some time.

   This is a film to enjoy—and come back to.


RIDE THE MAN DOWN. Republic Pictures, 1952. Brian Donlevy, Rod Cameron, Ella Raines, Forrest Tucker, Barbara Britton, Chill Wills, J. Carroll Naish, James Bell, Taylor Holmes, Jim Davis, Paul Fix, Roy Barcroft, Jack La Rue, Douglas Kennedy, Chris-pin Martin Screenplay by Mary McCall, Jr. based on the book by Luke Short (Doubleday Double D Western, hardcover, 1942; Bantam Books # 82, paperback, February 1947; first published as a Saturday Evening Post serial, April 4 through May 16 1942). Directed by Joseph Kane.

   Maybe it is because it is based on a novel by Luke Short (Frederick Glidden), but this fast moving tale of a range war has enough characters and plot for half a dozen films, and yet somehow never seems crowded or off balance, and that certainly has to do with an all star B cast and the sure hand of veteran Republic oater director Joe Kane at the helm.

   Shot in TruColor, this one boasts a literate script, tough almost hard-boiled characters (not surprising from Short who was one of the leading exponents of the hard-boiled Western and whose books inspired two of the better noir Western films — Blood On the Moon and Stations West), and solid motivation all around, and in this one it feels less like the old West than Capone era Chicago with horses and cowboy hats, as everyone in the countryside is out to steal from or kill the handful of good-guys. Odds against the hero of one of these have seldom been higher.

   This is one of several Rod Cameron and Forrest Tucker worked on at the studio with Cameron usually the hero and Tucker the heavy, though here he is only one of a formidable group surrounding the embattled Cameron and his handful of allies.

   The time is the early thaw of 1892 when Phil Evarts, owner of the Hatchet Ranch has just died, frozen to death in the harsh winter. Evarts was an unpopular man who carved his land out by sweat and bullets and few mourn his passing, particularly not Bide Marriner (Brian Donlevy), a fellow rancher, and neighbors Paul Fix, Roy Barcroft, Jack La Rue, and Douglas Kennedy, who all want the Hatchet grazing land, and Evart’s son-in-law-to-be Sam Danfelser (Forrest Tucker) who has other reasons to want Hatchet broken up. Even Sheriff Joe Kneen (J. Carroll Naish) is no mourner, and likely to be little help.

   Add to that Red Courteen (Jim Davis) as a renegade who sells whiskey and guns to the Indians and wants his piece of the pie, and there is a who’s who of Western bad guys gathered to destroy the Evarts legacy. Even the proprietor of the local general store Mr. Priest (Taylor Holmes) father of Lottie, the girl Hatchet foreman Will Bartlett (Rod Cameron) wants to marry (Barbara Britton), wants to get in on the deal. The Hatchet Ranch is surrounded by venal and violent vultures who want to feed on the body before its dead the characters almost as venal as a revisionist Western from a much later era.

   In fact, the only people who seem to care about Evarts and Hatchet are his weak brother John (James Bell), Phil’s strong daughter Celia (Ella Raines), and foreman Will Bartlett, and it quickly looks as if it will be the latter two against the whole territory as they fight to keep the Hatchet together against impossible odds and enemies inside and out.

   Sub-plots abound. Sam is jealous of Celia Evarts devotion to Bartlett; Lottie is jealous of Bartlett’s devotion to Celia; Sheriff Kneen is in Marriner’s pocket but the fit is increasingly binding; Ray Kavanaugh (Paul Fix) murders John Evarts and is witnessed by weak rancher Joe Kennedy (Jack La Rue) who flees the country pursued by Bartlett; Marriner wants Kavanaugh arrested and tried tying up the Hatchet in court and with it certain the locals who hate the Hatchet Ranch will set him free; Red Courteen (Jim Davis) hates the part Indian Bartlett who humiliated him; Lottie’s father Mr. Priest has bought interest in cattle owned by Courteen and now being held by the Hatchet because they were grazing on Hatchet land and he’s losing money; and, the only help Bartlett can hire is a couple of drifters top hand Ike Adams (Chill Wills) doesn’t trust.

   Meanwhile Sam tries to undermine Bartlett and force Celia to give into Marriner because he is unmanned by her wealth and power and resents her strength.

   That’s quite a bit of plot to work into just over ninety minutes and still get in a satisfying amount of action and gunplay, and granted Donlevy doesn’t really get as much film time as he might need to really make an impression as the bad guy, what with Tucker and Davis taking up so much of the bad air..

   And tough action there is, more brutal than you might expect from a Western of this era, but also room for the redemption of Sheriff Kneen and a shootout between him and Marriner; a couple of well done set pieces — a nice one of Bartlett trapped in the town run by Courteen having to shoot his way out against a small army of enemies — and enough bits here and there for the large cast to keep all the actors happy.

   It’s no lost classic, and frankly the print I saw was at best only serviceable, but it is a good example of what Republic could do with the Western, given a bit more to chew on than the usual oater script. The fact that the crowded plot never seems constrained by the running time and no one in the cast gets slighted shows capable hands at work. Just getting all those plot elements from the Short story into the screenplay without losing track of any of the characters or their arcs was no small achievement.

   It’s not exactly true that Republic never made a bad Western as they used to assert when I was a kid growing up, but they didn’t make many of them, and they hit the bulls-eye for more often than you might expect. This is a surprisingly meaty small A film with a Western fan’s dream cast, and more going for it than any fan has the right to expect. You got a lot for your dime or quarter in those days and no Western fan, kid or adult, was likely disappointed in this one.


LEE LEIGHTON (WAYNE D. OVERHOLSER) – Law Man. Ballentine, hardcover (H51) & paperback (#51), 1953. Ballantine U1040, paperback 1964. Axe, paperback, 1977. Ace/Charter, paperback, 1985. Jove, paperback, 1988. Winner of the first Western Writer’s Assocation Spur Award for Best Novel.

STAR IN THE DUST. Universal, 1956. John Agar, Mamie Van Doren, Richard Boone, Colleen Gray, Leif Erickson, Randy Stuart, Paul Fix, Harry Morgan, Kermit Maynard and Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Oscar Brodney, from the novel by Lee Leighton. Produced by the redoubtable Albert Zugsmith. Directed by Charles Haas.

   A taut film from a slack novel.

   Leighton/Overholser’s book deals with twenty-four hours in the life of middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden: the last day in the life of convicted killer Ed Lake, scheduled to hang next morning. It also deals with a wide cast of characters, including:

   Worden’s daughter Ellen, who is engaged to marry

   George Ballard, who owns the biggest ranch in the valley and the local bank — and is therefore ipso facto a bad guy.

   Nan Hogan, Ballard’s ex-mistress, now married to

   Lew Hogan, a stubborn rancher who feels duty-bound to keep Lake from hanging

   Rigdon, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who feels duty-bound to hang Lake himself

   Mike MacNamara, Worden’s Deputy

   Orval Jones, janitor and would-be deputy

   Jeannie Mason, a fallen woman because of Ed Lake

plus assorted farmers, ranchers, cowhands, townsfolk and attendants to the court.

   Leighton does a skillful job of setting all these folks at odds with each other: the ranchers out to save Lake, Ballard anxious to see that Lake doesn’t incriminate him, farmers egged on to lynching by Rigdon, Lake with his own plans for the future – and thankfully Leighton takes care to remind the reader who everyone is from time to time. He also works things to a convincing resolution, one that seems to grow from the characters themselves.

   The problem is that Leighton tends to tell us how they feel—repeatedly and at length — when he should just show us — and when things should be getting tense, they just get wordy. Worthy concept, weak execution.

   Oscar Brodney’s script for Star in the Dust tightens things up considerably. For one thing, it starts at dawn on the day Lake (here named “Sam Hall”) is scheduled to die at sunset. And since this is a film, the internal monologues of the book get replaced by a few lines of dialogue.

   That’s not all that gets replaced. Preacher Rigdon of the book is here a power-mad schoolteacher (I think I had him for English 101 in College) and middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden is now youngish Bill Jordan (John Agar) engaged to marry Ballard’s sister (Mamie Van Doren.)

   Best of all, nasty Ed Lake in the book is now Sam Hall, played with savage sensitivity by Richard Boone, a year before Have Gun, Will Travel and in those days a character actor to be reckoned with. I suspect Brodney knew he was writing for Boone, and wrote the part to fit him. His Sam Hall is educated, self-aware, and dangerous to know, a character at once sympathetic and frightening.

   With Boone as the lynch pin, Star in the Dust could have stopped right there, but producer Albert Zugsmith fills the movie with fine actors in choice parts. Leif Erickson radiates bluff duplicity as the scheming bad guy, slimy Robert Osterloh projects petty tyranny as the schoolmaster, while Paul Fix and James Gleason do a fine double-act as Agar’s deputy and the wanna-be janitor.

   Star in the DustEven better, Colleen Gray and Randy Stuart play off each other perfectly as the women who loved well but unwisely. Stuart in particular carries a moving rueful aspect as Erickson’s cast-off mistress, now married to Henry Morgan, as the loyal-but-not-bright Lew Hogan (Years later, Stuart also played Morgan’s wife in the 1960s Dragnet teleseries.)

   Best of all, Star in the Dust moves in a way the novel never did, filling eighty minutes with action under the fast-paced direction of Charles Haas.

   And by the way, in his one scene, a skinny young contract player named Clint Eastwood is what is usually and charitably termed adequate.

YELLOW SKY. 20th Century Fox, 1948. Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, Robert Arthur, John Russell, Henry [Harry] Morgan, James Barton, Charles Kemper. Based on a story by W. R. Burnett. Director: William A. Wellman.

   How would you like to be Gregory Peck asthe leader of an outlaw gang that has someone like Richard Widmark as mamebr it? Not much, you say, and you’d be right. It goes about as well as you’d expect. As it turns out, though, they end up with two different goals in mind. Peck wants the girl (Anne Baxter), while Widmark wants the gold she and her grizzled old grandfather have dug out of their mine.

   The setting is a deserted old mining town named Yellow Sky, located right on the edge of Death Valley, which Peck and his men have just crossed. With her tight shirt and jeans, “Mike” is a sight for sore eyes, but not right away. All the outlaws want at first is water, and lots of it.

   Eventually, though, they begin to wonder what the girl and her grandpa are doing there, totally isolated as they are, miles from any sign of civilization. This is where — you guessed it — thoughts of the gold come in, and this is also exactly when rifts between the members of the gang begin.

   This is a well-constructed western movie that makes perfect use of its setting. It may be just a bit talky, but toward the end there’s plenty of gunplay and action for anyone who’s looking for that; after all, that’s what the whole film is building up to.

   As for Gregory Peck vs. Richard Widmark, you know exactly how that’s going to come out, and except for an ending that seems to be tacked on to satisfy the Movie Code, Peck does it quite convincingly.

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