Western movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

RAIDERS OF OLD CALIFORNIA. Albert C. Gannaway Productions/Republic, 1957. Jim Davis, Faron Young, Arlen Whelan, Marty Robbins, Lee Van Cleef, Louis Jean Heydt, and Douglas Fowley. Screenplay by Samuel Roeca and Tom Hubbard. Directed by Albert C. Gannaway.

   Let’s get one gripe out of the way first: This thing is set around the time of the Mexican-American War, but the uniforms, firearms and clothing date from almost a generation later. Don’t let it bother you. This is just a B-Western, and a pretty good one.

   Story-wise, the usual thing is afoot here: a cattle baron (Jim Davis) in old California (hence the title of the piece) is trying to grab all the land he can from surrounding farms, using a Spanish land grant he extorted from a Mexican General (Lawrence Dobkin) at the end of the war. Enter Judge Ward Young (Louis Jean Heydt) and his son Faron (Faron Young) who set about putting things to rights by … well, that would be giving away one plot twist too many.

   It may be worth mentioning that Faron Young played a character named Faron Young in Hidden Guns (reviewed here),  where Richard Arlen played Sheriff Ward Young. Or maybe it’s not worth mentioning, in which case forget I mentioned it.

   The dialogue is rudimentary, and some of the sets look more like cardboard boxes than adobe walls, but Raiders still has a lot going for it, starting with superior stunt work and a script that emphasizes action. The players go through their familiar paces with authority born of long practice (though neither Faron Young nor Marty Robbins sings a note) and Douglas Fowley is a real surprise as a grizzled ad hoc sheriff.

   Best of all, Raiders gives Lee Van Cleef the kind of part he was born for and lets him show off his type-cast malevolence with real flair. I’d venture to say he gets more screen time than any of the principals, and he eats it up with a spoon, whether quietly threatening his victims, or administering a beating with psychotic pleasure.

   Lee Van Cleef was one of the real pleasures of 1950s movies, and his euro-stardom in the 70s only proved that he was better at supporting a picture than starring in it. His presence in Raiders of Old California is a reminder of just how effective he could be.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

UTAH BLAINE. Columbia, 1957. Rory Calhoun, Susan Cummings, Angela Stevens, Paul Langton, Max Baer, George Keymas, Ray Teal and Gene Roth. Screenplay by Robert E Kent, from a novel by Louis L’Amour. Produced by Sam Katzman. Directed by Fred F. Sears.

   A Western brought to you by the producer-director team that gave us The Giant Claw.

   And actually, it’s not bad. The keynote here is action, plentifully supplied in Robert E. Kent’s screenplay, and briskly directed by Fred Sears, an old, old hand at this sort of thing, who moved easily from the Durango Kid series to Sam Katzman’s B unit at Columbia. Sears knew how to make a B-Western: fast pace and plenty of fightin’, and he keeps Utah moving violently along, starting with Blaine (Rory Calhoun) rescuing an old rancher from a lynching, through gunfights, chases, fistfights, and a few seconds of mushy stuff so we can get our popcorn.

   The plot is a standard thing: Big Rancher Ray Teal wants the surrounding spreads and has hired a band of ne’er-do-wells who pose as vigilantes and mete out “justice” to the offending landowners. Enter our Hero, looking a bit threadbare and unkempt after an unprofitable sojourn in Mexico. Rory saves a rancher from a slow hanging, hires on as foreman, and sets about putting things to right.

   But Rory Calhoun was always on the side of Right more as a matter of convenience. In this case, Ray Teal’s hired boys include a fast-gun (Sepulchral George Keymas) who, the script hints, was responsible for putting him in Mexican Jail. Give credit to writer Kent again. He never tells us what went on South of the Border (That would slow down the action.) just drop hints that Rory wasn’t on his best behavior back in them days, and his grudge against Keymas is a matter more of revenge than justice.

   The actors move easily through this familiar territory, and while I can’t say Utah Blaine is anything outstanding, it offers the unpretentious gracefulness true professionals bring to bear on even forgettable projects like this.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE STREETS OF LAREDO. Paramount Pictures, 1949. William Holden, Macdonald Carey, Mona Freeman, William Bendix, Stanley Ridges, Alfonso Bedoya, Ray Teal, Clem Bevans. Directed by Leslie Fenton.

   I was no more than fifteen minutes into The Streets of Laredo when I began to have the distinct impression that I had seen the movie before. The thing is: I was nearly certain I hadn’t. I’m pretty good at remembering which movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t. I also was pretty sure I would have remembered William Holden portraying an outlaw turned Texas lawman.

   As it turns out, this late 1940s Technicolor western was a remake of The Texas Rangers (1936), which I reviewed here some seven years ago. Turns out that I liked the movie well enough, although it doesn’t seem like I felt like it was anything exceptional.

   In many ways, the same good equally be said for The Streets of Laredo. The film strives to be something of an epic tale about friendship, love, and good vs. evil, but ends up being something less than that. It’s just a solidly made western, albeit one that is assuredly better than many of the clumsy westerns from the late 1940s. Notably, it doesn’t include a single Native American character or a notably goofy sidekick.

   William Holden portrays Jim Hawkins, who along with friends Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and Wahoo Jones (William Bendix) is in the stagecoach holdup business. After the trio gets separated, Lorn (Carey) continues to pursue a life of crime, while Hawkins and Wahoo sign up with the Texas Rangers. Two men, former amigos, end up on the opposite side of the law.

   But that’s not all. Both Jim and Lorn have similar romantic intentions toward Rannie Carter (Mona Freeman), a young woman they had rescued years ago. Add in a devious extortionist by the name of Charley Calico (a scenery chewing Alfonso Bedoya) and you’ve got yourself a solid ninety minutes of cinematic entertainment.

   Although it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Texas Rangers, I somehow have the impression that the original was better than the remake. There’s nothing remotely memorable or artistic about the direction or cinematography in The Streets of Laredo. Aesthetically, it’s about as average as you can get. And from what I can tell from my review of King Vidor’s 1936 film, that one was “worth viewing for its good direction, plot twists, and some rugged, well choreographed, frontier action. There’s an especially harrowing sequence involved Indians rolling boulders down a hill in order to maim and murder some Rangers that is really something to behold.” I can’t think of any such equivalent action sequence in Leslie Fenton’s film.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE RETURN OF WILDFIRE. Lippert, 1948.  Richard Arlen, Patricia Morison, Mary Beth Hughes, James Millican, Reed Hadley, Chris Pin-Martin, Stanley Andrews and Mike Ragan. Written by Betty Burbridge and Carl K Hittleman. Directed by Ray Taylor and Paul Landres.

   Whence the title? Return of Wildfire isn’t a sequel, and the eponymous stallion never actually leaves anyplace, so the issue of returning doesn’t arise here. Well never mind, it’s a bit draggy at times, but well played, and with a terrific finish.

   The story opens on a ranch owned by Stanley Andrews, the widowed father requisite in B-Westerns, with two daughters (Mary Beth Hughes and the lovely Patricia Morison.) Andrews raises horses, and suffers from the depredations of outlaw horse Wildfire, who keeps running off with his stock. But his real problem is with dress-heavy Reed Hadley, who aims to corner the market and will stop at little or nothing to get his hands on Andrews’ herd.

   About this time driftin’ cowpoke Richard Arlen blows in, helps out Ms Hughes, who has been injured hunting Wildfire, and is promptly hired on. He also takes a yen for Ms Morison, which leads to some very tiresome complications with Hughes, but before things can get too bogged down, Hadley makes his play and things liven up.

   Andrews gets murdered by his own foreman (James Millican, in a well-judged role as a vacillating bad guy) Hadley jumps in and scarfs up the horses in a dirty business deal, and when Arlen whips up replacements from Wildfire’s herd, Hadley just plain steals them, too.

   Up to this point, The Return of Wildfire has run on the tepid side, but from here on out, it’s non-stop action, with a running gun battle across the Sierra Peloma Mountains, capped with an exhausting fistfight that recalls similar moments in Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur. And I have to say directors Taylor and Landres do it just as well as Anthony Mann could have. Quite a surprise coming from producer Lippert, and one that makes for fine viewing.

   I said The Return of Wildfire was well played, and it is. Besides Millican’s wavering, we get Arlen’s type-cast toughness, and Reed Hadley’s sepulchral villain. And best of all, there’s Patricia Morison, who makes any film she’s in a delight to watch.

   

HIDDEN VALLEY OUTLAWS. Republic Pictures, 1944. Wild Bill Elliott, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Anne Jeffreys, Roy Barcroft, Kenne Duncan. Story and co-screenwriter: John K. Butler. Director: Howard Bretherton.

   Right on the heels of Sundown in Santa Fe (reviewed here ), here is a review of another B-western, and if you don’t like them and if this happens to be one too many for you, you can ask for your money back. (Let me repeat that. You can ask.) This one’s a jim-dandy one, though, and I think maybe the key is one of the names up above in the credits.

   If you’re a long time reader of the detective pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, you may have spotted him already. John K. Butler. The story is what makes this one go. Butler made a living at writing, and what’s more he was awfully good at it. This one is as tightly plotted as it can get. You’ve got to watch the actions of everyone every minute, and listen to the dialogue, too. There’s humor (*), there’s action when it’s needed, and while there is a good-looking woman involved, not a bit of romance is even hinted at.

   The story concerns a rancher who’s murdered for his land, his son who tries his hand at revenge until his equally untimely death, and Wild Bill Elliott, who along with his friend Gabby, is framed for the murder in the slickest bit of trickery you can imagine. They escape, join up with ranchers, try to persuade them not to become vigilantes, and bring the crooked lawyer behind it all to justice.d b
   This review has gone on long enough, but one of these days I’m going to have to put in a word for comic sidekicks in western movies. B-variety detective movies had them, too, I know, but it was the westerns who couldn’t exist without them, and Gabby Hayes was surely the rootin’, tootin’ best of the lot of them.
      ___
   
(*) Here’s the line I liked best. A crooked actor has been hired to play several parts in the fraud being played against Wild Bill and his friends, and one of the other owlhoots has this to say about him: “I don’t like actors. My wife ran away with one, but I still don’t like actors.”

– Considerably revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

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SUNDOWN IN SANTA FE. Republic Pictures, 1948. Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane, Eddy Waller, Roy Barcroft, Trevor Bardette, Jean Dean. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   B-westerns get no respect. They’re seldom listed in any of the various video guides or other standard reference books. Mysteries of the same vintage and caliber seem to be included, even with the same production values and indifferent plots, but not the movies of Rocky Lane, Lash LaRue, or Sunset Carson. Not even the films of Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys himself. And hey, come on, they’re not that bad.

   To remedy that, to some small minor extent, I’m going to be including a few of them from time to time in these pages. Not a lot of them. Only the ones I watch, and if I watch too many of them, my mind will turn to mush, if I can say that without spoiling the point I was making, but what else can I say?

   The opening scenes are very promising. Armed robberies that are taking place near and about Santa Fe are linked by the discovery of similar daggers at the site of each, suggesting that somehow or another Walter Durant, leader of the Lincoln conspiracy ring, is involved. Rocky is sent in as an undercover investigator to find out exactly what is going on.

   There’s very little mystery to the affair, however, as it turns out, since the son of the sheriff that Rocky goes to work for soon shows his true colors. He’s in love with the daughter of the rancher who is running the gang, although the man (as it turns out) is not really the mastermind behind it all. While the secret identity if that man is no secret either, at least to the audience, it takes Rocky most of the picture to figure it out.

   There’s plenty of action, but there’s also too much plot for such a relatively short feature, and details of what’s happening (and why) soon get swamped in the desire to get the story over with in its allotted amount of running time. While Rocky is ruggedly handsome, there’s no love interest for him at all, and maybe that’s why as a kid, I liked his movies so much. No gooey, gloppy stuff for him, at least not in this one.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

THE BADLANDERS. MGM, 1958. Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine, Katy Jurado, Claire Kelly, Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff. Based on the novel The Asphalt Jungle by W. R. Burnett (1949). Director: Delmer Daves.

   I suppose I should tell you that I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing the earlier version of this movie, nor have I read the book. All I know is that it has a pretty good reputation (the movie, I mean; I don’t know about the book). Whose idea it was to turn it into a western, I don’t know that either, but it was a lousy idea.

   At least it’s one that didn’t come off, in terms of putting it into practice. I’m not surer what went wrong. The actors are professional and competent, and they seem enthusiastic enough. (Or in Alan Ladd’s case, as enthusiastic as he ever seems to get.) I would lay most of the blame on the people responsible for the script.

   But maybe I should tell you what the story’s about first. Ladd is a mining engineer or geologist who’s been framed for stealing some gold; Borgnine is a simpler sort who’s been cheated out of a mine (or the land it was on; it wasn’t entirely clear) and jailed for retaliating the only way he knew. They leave Yuma Prison at the same time, but not on so friendly terms with each other. Nevertheless, they decide to team up and steal some ore that’s still in a vein that only Alan Ladd knows about.

   Along the way somehow or another they become friends. Male bonding. Borgnine also saves a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado) from some overfriendly white men, and before you know it, he has moved in with her, full of surprisingly cheerful good will toward mankind.

   The heist comes off – don’t ask me how they can carry around three large bags of gold ore worth $200,000 (or more) with as little effort as this – and what it so unpredictable about the rest of the movie is that no one would predict anything as predictable as what happens next. If you see what I mean.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

THE SHOOTING. 1967. Walter Reade Organization, US, 1968. Will Hutchins, Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates. Director: Monte Hellman.

   This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your typical, average western. This one is perky, murky, and quirky, à la Twin Peaks, of which this is very nearly the cowboy western equivalent. It does, however, except for the ending, which is deliberately obtuse, make more sense.

   Two men, apparently miners, are hired by a mysterious women to take her to a town which apparently lies across a desert. She has another idea in mind, however, and the two men soon realize that she is really on the trail of someone. Someone is on their trail, as well.

   That someone being a hired killer, played ultra-enigmatically by Jack Nicholson (the most subdued role I can ever recall seeing him play in a movie), and he eventually joins the small group of riders traveling through the sand and the barren hills on a trek that lasts, or so it seems, clear on to forever. (It’s no Lawrence of Arabia, but in a small budget sort of way, it comes close.)

   Brian Garfield, in his book on westerns, seems to have been totally mystified by what this movie is about, seeing all sorts of mystical things in it. I couldn’t tell you about the ending – I’m not sure if anybody could – but I didn’t have any problem with the rest of the film, nor should anyone who sees the first ten minutes. It seems like a straight-forward tale of revenge to me, without all the other motivations being spelled out completely (and believe me, this movie has more than most).

   Of course, maybe I’m wrong, so when you see it yourself, you’re entirely free to make up your own mind. It wouldn’t bother me. As I hope you can see, it’s that kind of movie. (And if you’re a western fan, see it yourself I think you should).

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

IN OLD SANTA FE. Mascot Pictures, 1934. Ken Maynard, Evelyn Knapp, George Hayes, Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette. Director: David Howard.

   This movie was made before Gabby Hayes was Gabby, but not before he was gabby. He’s known as “Cactus” in this picture, and he’s as prickly as old character as he ever was. Key Maynard is the star. He shoots and rides with the best of them, and is bashful around the women (one in particular), but Gene (whose first movie this may have been) outdoes him in the singing category, at least.

   If it weren’t for the songs, the races, the catching of runaway horses and wagons, and the gunshooting, this 64 minute movie would have been 15 minutes long. But in those 15 minutes is hidden a halfway decent detective story: one main clue is a footprint in the dirt; the other is the caliber of the bullet that killed the blackmailer’s number one henchman.

   There is also a gold robbery, and Ken is framed for it. He’s also framed for the killing of the henchman. Does he get out of all of these scrapes? Yes and no. At movie’s end the rancher’s daughter has him sewn up as tight as you could please. (To the complete disgust of his grizzled old sidekick named Cactus.)

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

LIGHTNIN’ BILL CARSON. Puritan, 1936. Tim McCoy, Lois January, Rex Lease, Harry Worth, Karl Hackett, John Merton, Lafe McKee, and Ed Cobb. Written by George Arthur Durlam and Joseph O’Donnell. Directed by Sam Newfield.  Available on YouTube here.

   A real cheapie from the brother-act of producer Sigmond Neufeld and director Sam Newfield, just before they settled in at PRC. But this one has a little something extra.

   Not much, mind you, but a little. Lightnin’ Bill Carson still bears all the earmarks of desperate penury: bad-script, bad acting, shoddy sets and slip-shod continuity. The dross is leavened somewhat by the assured presence of Col. Tim McCoy, and a bit of imaginative nomenclature: at various times, McCoy’s Lightnin’ Bill Carson comes up against the colorfully-monickered likes of Silent Tom Rand, “Stack” Stone, Breed Hawkins, and the Pecos Kid, played by veterans John Merton, Harry Worth and Rex Lease with easy familiarity.

   The plot, if you can call it that, undulates loosely around lawman Lightnin’ Bill and his uneasy relationship with an unlucky gambler called the Pecos Kid (Rex Lease.) When the townsfolk of San Jacinto call on the services of Lightnin’ Bill, he arrives to find Pecos already in the employ of local dress-heavy “Stack” Stone (Karl Hackett) who maintains a cottage industry of robbing stagecoaches.

   It all plays out as expected, but scenarists Durlam and O’Donnell ring in some disquieting elements, starting with a frontier Cassandra (Lois January) who sees Death in the cards — she can’t say whose, but Pecos keeps turning up the Ace of Spades. Later on, an honest, upright Sheriff lynches an innocent man, a solid citizen goes on a killing spree, and our hero must set things right in a final shoot-out that seems more like a ritual killing.

   I’m not going to make any big claims for Lightnin’ Bill Carson. Fans of old cheap Westerns will enjoy it, others will wonder why. But the glimmers of thoughtful writing that peek through the sagebrush fascinate me.
   

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