Western movies

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.


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.


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.


HEAVEN ONLY KNOWS. United Artists, 1947. Re-released as Montana Mike. Robert Cummings, Brian Donlevy, Marjorie Reynolds, Jorja Curtwright (debut), John Litel, Bill Goodwin, Stuart Irwin, Gerald Mohr, Edgar Kennedy, Lurlene Tuttle, Peter Miles, Glenn Strange. Screenplay: Art Arthur & Rowland Leigh. Adaptation by Ernest Haycox from a story by Aubrey Wisberg. Directed by Alfred S. Rogell.

   Heavenly fantasy dates back a while, but it took a foothold in Hollywood with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and by the late forties was a genre unto itself with such heavenly(and diabolical) helpers as Claude Rains, Laird Cregar, Henry Travers, Cary Grant, Clifton Webb, and Cecil Kellaway taking a hand in human affairs.

   This time out the angel in question is Robert Cummings, as Michael, who discovers as the film opens that a mistake has been made in the heavenly bookkeeping: Adam “Duke” Byron (Brian Donlevy) has been born without a soul, and thus won’t fulfill his destiny. In fact, he is already two years behind time in marrying Drusilla (Jorja Curtwright), the daughter of a reverend (John Litel), and that union looks unlikely since Duke Byron runs a saloon and gambling hall and is embroiled in a deadly power struggle with his partner in the Glacier, Montana mine, Bill Plummer (Bill Goodwin).

   With that in mind, Michael is dispatched to Earth to correct the problem, and a bigger babe in the woods there never was, save for the fact he is an archangel though without his cloak of immortality and forbidden to use his powers.

   Glacier proves no paradise. The feud between Duke and Plummer means the mines have been shut down for two months and the desperate miners and townsfolk, led by Drusilla, are ready for vigilante justice. Laconic Sheriff Bodine (Stuart Irwin) talks them into waiting as he hopes to play Byron and Plummer off each other until only one of them is left, and things get quickly more complicated when Plummer makes sure Duke thinks Michael is the Kansas City Kid hired to kill him.

   Then there is Duke’s gunslinger, Treason (Gerald Mohr), who doesn’t like the look of Michael one bit, and with good reason, as there is more than a hint of sulfur and brimstone about him. Heaven isn’t the only one interested in Duke Byron (a good running joke has Treason’s match going out whenever Michael is near him).Michael saves Duke from the real Kansas City Kid, and becomes his friend, but his job is only starting.

    Heaven Only Knows is a curious mix of fantasy, religion, comedy, romance, sentimentalism, and traditional Western elements, the latter no doubt given a boost in the screen treatment by veteran Western writer Ernest Haycox (“Last Stage to Lordsburg,” Canyon Passage, The Adventurers). Brian Donlevy plays the familiar role of good bad man (we know he is good because an ill little boy, Skitch, played by Peter Miles, and drunk storytelling Judd, played by Edgar Kennedy, are loyal to him).

   Cummings angel steals the show, by turns naïve, otherworldly, strong, and scheming, finding himself a bit tempted by saloon girl Ginger (Margorie Reynolds) who begins to fall for him.

   Along the way there are ambushes, two rescues from burning buildings, a showdown “Montana” style between Duke and Plummer, a few sermons, a lynching where Duke finally finds his soul, and a three hanky ending designed to leave no eye in the house dry.

   At times a bit preachy, and sometimes corny, I don’t imagine too many of today’s audiences will care for it, but if you like this genre well done, and would like to see Cummings stretch his wings a bit (sorry) Heaven Only Knows is an odd semi-lost film well worth finding, and easily the most unusual of a genre that still pops up on big and small screens today.

JANE GOT A GUN. 1821 Pictures / The Weinstein Company, 2016. Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich. Director: Gavin O’Connor.

   Some people blame the lack of success of this recent western movie epic — its first weekend’s gross was a paltry $865,572 with a per theater average of $691 — on the problems in production: too many last minute changes in the cast and crew, including the director. Others have suggested that modern day audiences aren’t able to handle sophisticated story-telling devices, such as the extended use of flashbacks in revealing the history of the characters gradually and only in bits and pieces.

   Or maybe westerns have fallen out of favor with movie-going audiences in general, with only a few exceptions making any noise at the box office. Lots of reasons, in other words, but personally, I enjoyed this one.

   Which tells the life story of Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), whose husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) comes home to their New Mexico ranch one afternoon badly wounded and telling Jane that the Bishop gang is coming. Leaving their young daughter with a neighboring family, Jane goes to Dan Frost, another neighbor (Joel Edgerton), for help. He refuses, but it is clear that there is a history between the two.

   And what that history is is where the flashbacks come in, and the whole purpose of the movie — to tell us one of hundreds of similar stories of the real Old West, a time and place that was often brutal and uncaring. This is not as much a story of a woman’s quest for revenge (as the title might suggest) as it is one of a woman making some tough choices in life and then having to live with them as life goes on.

   The photography is often strikingly beautiful, and that of course includes Natalie Portman, who stands out and steals every scene she is in. Of course we the viewer also realize that she is more beautiful than any other women in the real Old West ever was, but instinctively we also place such thoughts into a category called the magic of movie-making.

   The movie is rated R for the occasional horrific scenes of violence, making the (Spoiler Alert) the happy ending a bit too saccharine and therefore out of place in comparison, but once again, speaking personally, I didn’t mind at all.


RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL. Universal, 1958. Audie Murphy, Gia Scala, Walter Matthau, Henry Silva. Written by Borden Chase. Directed by Jesse Hibbs.

   Someone at Universal figured out how to make a decent Audie Murphy Western: hire a strong character actor (such as Barry Sullivan, Dan Duryea…) a good writer (such as Clair Huffaker, Burt Kennedy…) and build the movie around the character actor, with Audie moving the plot along.

   Ride a Crooked Trail offers the formula at its best, with Walter Matthau as a shotgun-totin’ judge and a script by Borden Chase, who penned classics like Red River and Winchester 73. And if this isn’t exactly his best work, it still ain’t bad.

   Audie sort of stumbles into the proceedings as an outlaw on the run who picks up a dead sheriff’s horse and is mistaken for the lawman when he rides into Matthau’s town. Forced to adopt the false identity, he finds himself unwillingly adopted by the boozy old judge, but things get complicated when an ex-girlfriend (Gia Scala) comes along and ends up posing as his wife… to be followed in turn by nasty Henry Silva, the current man in her life and head of an outlaw gang with eyes on the local bank.

   It’s all very pat, fast-moving and family-oriented. Henry Silva is convincingly nasty, in a Jack Palance kind of way as the bad guy, though there isn’t really much for him to do. But it’s fun watching Matthau ham it up as the old reprobate judge, and the whole thing is done up in that lush Technicolor used by Universal in those days. In short, easy to watch and easy to forget.

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