Western movies


THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE. MGM, 1956. Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain, Broderick Crawford, Russ Tamblyn, Leif Erickson, John Dehner, Noah Beery Jr. Written by Frank D. Gilroy and Russell Rouse from an original teleplay (The Last Notch, 1954) by Gilroy. Directed by Russell Rouse.

FIVE GUNS TO TOMBSTONE. United Artists, 1960. James Brown, John Wilder, Walter Coy, Robert Karnes, Della Sharman, Willis Bouchey. Written by Richard Schayer and Jack DeWitt, from an original screenplay (Gun Belt, 1953) by Arthur E. Orloff.

   Two films I happened to watch back-to-back, and they go me to thinking….

   The Fastest Gun Alive was based on an early television drama, and it has the pared-down self-importance of that time. Where Shane mythologized the clichés of the Western, this seeks to codify them, with Glenn Ford as the eponymous pistolero, trying to resist his addiction to firearms until called on to save his community.

   According to the story, if anyone is known as a fast gun, every other gunfighter in the known universe will come after him, and they will meet on Main Street with guns holstered for a fair fight. Pure bosh of course, conveyed with a great deal of talk, but MGM saw fit to stretch the thing out by ringing in Russ Tamblyn for an acrobatic and completely extraneous dance number. There’s also the usual nod to High Noon, with the townsmen cowering for safety (and more talk) in a church as they hide from fast-gun Broderick Crawford and his back-up group.

   On the plus side, Director Russell Rouse opens it out well, Glenn Ford delivers a fine performance, and there are a lot of familiar B-Western faces around. Best of all, there’s John Dehner in a very well-written part as Brod’s lieutenant owl-hoot. This, with Man of the West, puts Dehner at the top of my list as Best of the 2nd-String Bad Guys.

   Five Guns to Tombstone, on the other hand, boasts no self-importance at all, and the players will be familiar only to the most devoted of B-Western fans. Directed by that veteran hack Edward L. Cahn (The She Creature, It: The Terror from Beyond Space) it moves with an uncomplicated simplicity that celebrates, rather than solidifies, the familiar paces of its story.

   The story? Ah yes. Something about another ex-gunfighter (James Brown) trying to get along peaceable-like until his outlaw brother drags him into a Wells Fargo robbery fraught with treachery and sudden endings. No memorable acting here, but everyone is more than competent, and the parts only require as much depth as a strip of celluloid – that and the ability to ride, fight and shoot convincingly. And speaking of shooting: In this movie, everybody, good guys and bad, pull out their irons at the first sign of trouble and go in shooting.

   Five Guns is hardly memorable, but as I watched it zip through its allotted time, after listening to Fastest Gun talk its way along, it was like a breath of fresh and simple Western air. Not a great western, maybe not even a very good one, but I found it refreshing.


THE TEXICAN. Columbia Pictures, 1966. Audie Murphy, Broderick Crawford, Diana Lorys, Luz Márquez, Aldo Sambrel, Anthony Casas, Gerard Tichy. Director: Lesley Selander.

   I feel as though I liked The Texican far more than I deserved to. Perhaps that’s a strange way to begin a film review, but it seems apt in this case, mainly because, all things considered, this Audie Murphy vehicle has a lot of noticeable flaws. First of all, there’s the score, which fits perfectly in a quirky late 1960s paella Western but which completely overwhelms this movie and feels gratuitously out of place. Then, there’s the dubbing of voices. And not just the Spanish actors, but also that of Broderick Crawford, whose voice was likely dubbed into Spanish and then back into English. Much like the film soundtrack, it seemed out of place.

   What won me over, I confess, was seeing Murphy in a Western role that was far less squeaky-clean than many of the programmers he starred in throughout the 1950s. Not that he always played perfect heroes in the past. But in The Texican, it also seemed as if being physically out of Hollywood and no longer on a studio lot allowed Murphy to portray a world-weary gunfighter in a more convincing manner than he could have when he began his acting career. Sadly, Murphy would pass away five years later in a tragic plane crash in Virginia.

   There’s also Broderick Crawford, whom I mentioned above, who is a superbly intimidating physical presence, even without his trademark growly voice. He portrays a heavy (pun semi-intended) by the name of Luke Starr who has the town of Rimrock under his thumb. That is until Jess Carlin (Murphy) begins to investigate the mysterious death of his brother Roy, a newspaperman who was a thorn in Starr’s side.

   The plot, for a 1960s Western, is rather conventional, but sometimes it’s good to revisit traditional narratives. Not every movie has to deconstruct the Western mythos. From what I have ascertained online, The Texican is a reimagining of Lesley Selander’s 1948 film Panhandle, also co-written by John C. Champion, in which Rod Cameron took top billing. I haven’t seen that one, but it’s now on my list.

   As far as The Texican goes, your cinematic life won’t be lacking if you never end up catching up with it But for simple escapist entertainment that checks all the boxes, you could do a lot worse.


STEWART EDWARD WHITE – The Killer. Doubleday, hardcover, 1920. Previously serialized in The Red Book Magazine, December 1919 through March 1920. Many reprint and Print on Demand editions available.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox, 1932. With George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens and Noble Johnson. Screenplay by Alfred A. Cahn, from the novella “The Killer” by Stewart Edward White.

   I picked up Stewart Edward White’s The Killer on a whim and found it an interesting hybrid of a book: the first third is a longish novelette from which the tome draws its title — about which more later — while the rest of the near-350 pages is a series of lengthy stories and true anecdotes (true-sounding, anyway) about working life on the plains in in the early 1900s: some quite amusing while others read like Hemingway before there was Hemingway.

   But the opening piece, The Killer, is a genuine blood-and-thunder Old Dark House chiller transplanted out west, and grown quite well, too. White sets the mood very capably and once he’s got the background fraught with palpable menace, he proceeds to build a simple but impressive little story filled with mad killers, drug addicts, distressed damsels and doughty do-gooders — all put through their pulp-paper paces with the kind of innocent gusto that typified thrillers of the time, a tale told with charm that writers since have never quite re-captured.

   As for the anecdotes that follow, perhaps they can be best exemplified by:

   “And I don’t need no gun to do it, neither,” he said, as though concluding a long conversation.

  “Shore not, Slim,” agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. “What is it?”

  “Kill that ____ ____ _____ Beck,” said Slim, owlishly. “I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b’ God!”

   He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Ten minutes passed. Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim’s face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stem along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm. His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.

   “Well,” said it, “did you kill Beck?”

   “Naw!” replied Slim’s remains disgustedly, “the son of a gun wouldn’t fight!”

   The Killer was made into a film in 1932, Mystery Ranch, and they did a nice job of it, with fast-paced direction, atmospheric photography by Joe August (Who cut his teeth on the early films of William S. Hart) and spirited playing from George O’Brien, Celia Parker, Noble Johnson and especially Charles “Ming” Middleton as the mad killer.

   And though Middleton gets all the best lines, I have to say he wouldn’t have been nearly so menacing without Charles Stevens (Who made a cottage industry out of playing “Indian Charrlie” in various films of the Wyatt Earp legend) and Noble Johnson skulking about in the background.

   Best of all, it seems everyone involved wisely decided to eschew typical B-movie complications and produced a film with the simplicity of a ballad, just under an hour of solid fun. Existing prints are a bit choppy, but they can’t obscure the streamlined beauty of a film like this.


HARRY BROWN – The Stars in Their Courses. Knopf, hardcover, 1960; Bantam, paperback, 19??

EL DORADO. Paramount, 1967. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Ed Asner, Michele Carey, Christopher George and Olaf Wieghorst. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses, by Harry Brown. Directed by Howard Hawks.

   The other day I re-read The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, which I hadn’t touched in 30 years, and it spurred me to re-watch a film I haven’t seen in almost as long, El Dorado.

   Stars tells the Trojan War legend reframed as a Western: Arch Eastmere (think Achilles) is a skillful gunfighter with a bad heart and worse luck, who returns to his home town to find that the small ranchers (to whom he owes money) are getting fed up with the local Big Rancher, Percy Randal. When Percy’s younger son rides off with the abused wife of one of the small ranchers, they’re ready to fight. Arch likes the Randals, and was a close friend of Percy’s tough older son Hallock (think Hector) but he owes a debt to the opposition….

   It’s all a bit contrived and pretentious, but somehow fitting. The ancient heroes were to the Greeks as cowboys were to us when I was a kid, and it’s fascinating to see Brown set these leathery westerners to reenacting a legend, with splendid prose, fast action, and characters at once larger than life and all too human.

   This was almost filmed by Howard Hawks as El Dorado — Hawks lost faith in the script half-way through and decided to just re-make Rio Bravo. If you watch Dorado you may notice the earlier scenes shot outdoors tend toward the grim side, but the later parts (done in the studio to save time & money) just earnestly copy Rio Bravo.

   The wonder is that it all works so splendidly. Hawks’ gift for vivid action and his knack of making his actors look like they’re actually talking to each other were never displayed to better effect.

   He’s helped considerably by a remarkable cast. Charlene Holt plays the local shady lady with a tender toughness that becomes really moving at times, and Michele Carey projects an untamed sexuality that smacks up agreeably against James Caan’s virile neophyte. Paul Fix and R.G. Armstrong lend their typecast western authority to the proceedings, and Christopher George recalls the amiable lethality of John Ireland in Red River, as a man who will share drink with someone or gun him down just as easily. Best of all, Arthur Hunnicutt positively shines as the Ultimate Comical Sidekick, a character so funny and bizarre that only he could do it justice.

   And then there are the top-liners: John Wayne and Robert Mitchum playing the heroes of the piece with rueful maturity. Mitchum gets a showy part as the sheriff-turned-drunk, by turns comic and harrowing, and he makes it one of the best performances of a remarkable career. Wayne’s role as Mitchum’s gunfighter-buddy plagued by a debilitating wound is just as fine, his toughness crumbling with startling poignancy that somehow reveals the inner strength.

   Hawks’ skill as a director has been duly celebrated in classics like To Have and Have Not, The Thing from Another World and Bringing Up Baby, but he was never better than in this broken-backed western.

   By the way, El Dorado opens with the title credits over some fine Western paintings. They are the work of artist Olaf Wieghorst, who also plays the Swedish gunsmith with the great line, “He shoot the piano player, and they hang him.”



LAWMAN. United Artists, 1971. Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, John McGiver, Ralph Waite. Director: Michael Winner.

   Brutal and cynical, Lawman certainly isn’t a genial Western where the good guy takes on a villainous cattle baron, wins the love of a beautiful girl, and restores the equilibrium of the world to be on the side of justice. Rather, this Michael Winner film is a character study of an aging, brooding lawman so obsessively committed to his personal code of honor that all he is able to do is bring death and misery to all those he encounters.

   Burt Lancaster, in a role that allows little for his personal charm to shine, portrays Jared Maddox. Sporting a black leather vest and a holster, Maddox rides into the town of Sabbath. We learn through a conversation that he has with the town’s marshal Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan) that he has come to Sabbath for a very specific reason.

   Several months ago, cowhands working for the stoical cattle baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) had ridden into a town by the name of Bannock and shot up the place. Although they were drunk and merely looking to blow off steam, an old man died at the hands of one of their bullets. And Maddox intends to bring the men back to Bannock to face trial.

   This sets in motion a series of violent confrontations between Maddox and the wanted men, as well as anyone who dares stand in his way. Maddox is so tied to the cause of “justice” – indeed, to his very identity as a “lawman” – that he’s increasingly blind to how much unnecessary death and misery he is bringing in his refusal to budge even slightly from his personal code.

   In that sense, Lawman stands in the tradition of those tragic Westerns in which a protagonist has outlived his time. Maddox belongs to an earlier era, in which the law was good and the outlaw was bad. Such binary demarcations are outdated in Braddock. Even the “bad” cattle baron seems to have more insight and compassion than Maddox.

   But does this mean we are supposed to not root for Maddox? Or are we supposed to be somewhat detached spectators watching Maddox make one bad decision after another? Unlike Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish (1974), a film Winner directed several years after Lawman, we never get to see how or why Maddox was forged into a stone cold killer.

   It’s the absence of a backstory that makes Lawman a far less compelling character study than it could have been. By the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), when Maddox shoots a man in the back, we finally get the message. Maddox is as much a villain as a hero. And the real lawman in the film, the one we should admire is the quiet, thoughtful Cotton Ryan.

BANDIT QUEEN. Lippert Pictures, 1950. Barbara Britton, Willard Parker, Phillip Reed, Barton MacLane, Martin Garralaga, Angelo Rossitto (as Angie). Director: William Berke.

   I know Barbara Britton almost exclusively for her role as Pam North in the Mr. & Mrs. North TV series on 1952-54, but she was in a long list of movies before that, most of which I have never seen. Champagne for Caesar is one exception, but to be honest, I don’t even remember her role in it.

   Those earlier movies included comedies, pirate movies, and surprisingly (to me) quite a few westerns. Her role in Bandit Queen, in other words, was not the anomaly I thought it was when I placed the DVD into the player and sat down to watch.

   She plays Zara Montalvo in this film, a young woman who comes to visit her parents in Spanish California around the time of the Gold Rush, only to watch a gang of ruthless outlaws murder them in front of her eyes for their land and money.

   Revenge being the order of the day as far as she is concerned, she is taught how to crack a whip by none other than the infamous rebel leader Joaquin Murietta, blandly played by Phillip Reed. She lives in a Spanish mission under the name Lola Belmont (from Detroit); he is incognito as Carlos Del Rio. Neither knows who the other is, but once Zara’s name becomes known as a Robin Hood-style bandit, he catches on more quickly than she does.

   A better-than-average Lippert film, but that’s a distinction that makes this no more than a run-of-the-mill western. Save for our daring heroine, the bad guys are by far the better actors. (Not more interesting, just better actors.) As for the story, there’s nothing more to it that I haven’t already alluded to.

RIDERS OF THE BADLANDS. Columbia Pictures, 1941. Charles Starrett, Russell Hayden, Cliff Edwards, Ilene Brewer, Kay Hughes, Roy Barcroft. Director: Howard Bretherton.

   A fairly ordinary early 40s western, except for a few observations I thought I’d make, but in truth, the only reason I watched this one is that Charles Starrett is in it, and he’s one of my favorite western actors of the B-movie variety. I also thought The Durango Kid was in it, but alas, I was wrong about that.

   Among points of interest, though: Starrett plays both the good guy — a Texas Ranger — and the bad guy, two fellows who just happen to look exactly alike. So close are they that when Starrett the bad guy is wanted for murder the fellow who’s put in jail is Starrett the good guy. It takes some good camera work to get them to appear on the screen at the same time, and in fact, it was better than good.

   One surprising aspect of the story is that the story begins with Russell Hayden’s brand new wife being killed, just as they start out in a stagecoach on their honeymoon. I sort of knew that’s where the story was going to go, but it was still shocking when it really happened.

   Also interesting was the fact that the bad guy had a young teen-aged daughter (Ilene Brewer) who is crazy about him. You know he will be caught and hauled off to jail, and when he is, you have to wonder what will happen to her. I don’t suppose you will mind if I tell you that the movie ends with her going off to boarding school waving out of a stagecoach window.

   One last point. Every so often the story stops while Cliff Edwards is given an opportunity to play the ukulele and sing. It’s OK the first time, but by the third time around, the thrill has begun to fade.

   Otherwise, as I said up top, a fairly ordinary 1940s western of the B-movie variety. There wasn’t room in the story for Durango to appear, but now that I think about it, wouldn’t that have been something?


LAW OF THE PAMPAS. Paramount Pictures, 1939. William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Russell Hayden, Sidney Toler, Steffi Duna, Sidney Blackmer. Based on characters created by Clarence E. Mulford. Director: Nate Watt.

   Law of the Pampas is a Hoppy Western set mostly in Argentina (or some relatively convincing Burbank equivalent) with Sidney Toler, on temporary leave from the Chan films, as comedy relief.

   I never much liked Hopalong Cassidy as a kid, and as an adolescent I scoffed at his clean-livin’ ways and the lectures he gave kids on his TV show. In the wisdom of my advancing years, however, I’ve come to see him as a rather likable and even off-beat icon, more Symbolic than Real, but very warm nonetheless.

   The early Hoppy’s are very well produced as well, and a lot of fun to watch if you don’t take them too seriously. This one offers a mystery that would insult the intelligence of a five-year-old, but not, apparently, that of the Latin Americans who just naturally look to Hoppy for guidance in these matters.

   But that’s too serious. On its own level, for those who can take it that way, it’s still a fun movie.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #45, July 1990.


THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID. Universal Pictures, 1972. Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Elisha Cook (Jr.), Royal Dano. Screenwriter-Director: Philip Kaufman.

   Filmed in a style that approaches cinéma vérité, Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Road has a quasi-documentary feel to it, providing the viewer with an experience that’s almost akin to watching an historical recreation. The movie isn’t so much about plot as it is about atmosphere and, more significantly, about its portraiture of both outlaws and ordinary townsfolk.

   Indeed, when it’s at its best, the movie, with its naturalistic performances and lack of artifice allows the audience to be temporarily transported to a small, calm Midwest town in the year 1876 and the midst of great cultural and technological changes.

   Enter the outlaws who will wreak havoc in the town. Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall star, respectively, as Cole Younger and Jesse James in this superbly constructed feature about the Younger Gang’s last and final bank robbery that occurred in the town of Northfield, Minnesota. Both actors portray their characters as both instigators of events and as individuals able to make the most out of life’s circumstances and opportunities after the Confederate loss in the Civil War.

   The two are technically in cahoots, but they have very different personalities. Cole is the more introspective of the two; Jesse is the more reckless of the two and betrays a real hatred for the North. He’s also not fully to be trusted. Case in point: when Jesse learns that Cole’s sights are set on Northfield, he attempts to get there before Cole is fully recovered from being wounded in an ambush. Cole, for his part, seems just as intrigued by the societal and technological changes he witnesses in Northfield as he is by his upcoming final bank robbery.

   Be on the lookout for the beautiful sequence, filmed documentary style, in which he watches a rudimentary baseball game being played on the outskirts of town with Allen (Dana Elcar), one of the town elders. The message is delivered in a most subtle manner, but it’s abundantly clear. The era of gunslingers is fading away, the anarchic spirit represented by the Younger and James gangs will soon to be replaced by a new, more orderly national pastime, one that will eventually unite a formerly bitterly divided union.

   Some might argue that such a sequence takes the viewer out of the film and that it is unnecessary to the plot. But it’s moments like these –and there are a few of them scattered throughout the picture—that are what makes The Great Northfield Minnesota Road stand out from the rather bloated pack of cinematic representations of Cole Younger and Jesse James.

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