Western movies


A. B. GUTHRIE, JR. – These Thousand Hills. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1956. Pocket/Cardinal C-267, paperback, 1957. Bantam, paperback, 1976, 1982.

THESE THOUSAND HILLS. Fox, 1959. Don Murray, Lee Remick, Richard Egan, Patricia Owens, Stuart Whitman, Albert Dekker. Screenplay by Alfred Hayes, based on the book by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Directed by Richard Fleischer.

   The novels of A. B. Guthrie are intimate epics, encompassing a broad sweep of history and geography over the course of years, yet never losing the personal focus of characters who grow (and sometimes diminish) into complex individuals, at once larger than life and all too human.

    Perhaps that’s why they’ve never been successfully adapted to the screen — Oh, I’m not saying there haven’t been some good movies made from them, but none ever captured the sense of progress and loss so essential to Guthrie’s style, and These Thousand Hills shows why.

   As the story opens, Albert “Lat” Evans is a farm boy with ambitions who joins a cattle drive to Montana and becomes a cowboy with ambitions. After the drive he convinces his wastrel friend Tom Ping to spend the winter hunting wolf hides (a harrowing profession as Guthrie describes, not to be confused with hunting wolves) which leads to their capture and eventual release by a tribe of nomadic semi-outlaw Indians –an episode that will come to define Lat’s future.

   Guthrie does an intelligent and strikingly original job of detailing Lat’s rise to prosperity and fame, distinctive enough to be worth mentioning. Most stories about the rise of the rich become Faustian parables of compromise and corruption, but Lat simply realizes that if he wants to get anyplace, he’ll have to estrange himself from his loyal but disreputable companions. He’s honest, even generous with everyone he deals with, but as Hills draws to a close, and his old friends come to the bad end that was always waiting for them, he realizes that the people he owes the most to won’t even turn to him when they need his help.

   It’s a delicate point to make dramatically, and Guthrie handles it splendidly, as Lat and his old buddy meet one final time in a saloon, both armed, and These Thousand Hills seems headed for Tragedy… but turns to Drama of a very high sort, and one I won’t forget.

   Well, when they made a film of this, they felt like they had to ditch the Delicate and keep the Drama, and they didn’t do a bad job of it. The film doesn’t measure up to the book by a long ways, but it ain’t bad at all. Don Murray plays Lat with just the right amount of strength and naiveté, Stuart Whitman as his ex-pardner gone bad projects the right mix of strength and instability, and Lee Remick is simply splendid as the vulnerable prostitute who loves him.

   In lesser parts, Richard Egan and Albert Dekker portray opposite sides of an unflinching moral code, and we even get some fine turns from Old Western stalwarts like Royal Dano, Fuzzy Knight and Douglas Fowley.

   Director Richard Fleischer handles all this quite capably, and if he and writer Alfred Hayes fumble the whole point of the thing…. Well they made a decent movie out of it anyway, and one that’s worth your time. But take a look at the book if you can.


THE SHIP OF MONSTERS. Producciones Sotomayor, Mexico, 1960. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Originally released as La Nave de los Monstruos. Eulailio González, Ana Bertha Lepe, Lorena Velázquez, Manuel Alvarado. Directed by Rogelio A. González.

   From the land of robot-fighting Aztec Mummies, and monster-battling masked wrestlers, comes their strangest contribution to cinema yet, Ship of Monsters, a UFO, alien monster invasion, Western, singing and dancing cowboy and alien, Mariachi-singing robot and computer console, kid and his robot pal, science fiction adventure.

   Let’s just say if it didn’t exist, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would have had to invent it. There used to be a Science Fiction Western comic book from Charlton, but it was never this weird.

   It all starts when Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe) and Beta (Lorena Velázquez) land on Earth with a ship load of monsters who escape and have to be rounded up with the help of their robot Tor. Unknown to them they are observed by Lauranio (Eulailio González) a singing and dancing, fast on the draw cowboy who no one in the local cantina will listen to about his UFO sighting. Well, he does drink a little, so they can be excused.

   So of course Lauranio goes back out and runs into Gamma and Beta, gorgeous flimsily clad redhead and blonde, and agrees to help them round up the escaped monsters, enlisting the young Rupert who soon becomes pals with Tor.

   As if that wasn’t enough, Beta becomes jealous of Gamma and Lauranio and turns evil, sending the monsters out to capture or kill Gamma and Rupert. Lauranio then has to seduce Beta, singing and dancing seductively with her in the monster’s cave, while Rupert sneaks on the ship and saves Gamma. It is easily the most awkward dance scene in the history of film with Beta resembling nothing so much as a cheap Burlesque Queen and Lauranio looking more like he is fighting a bull than seducing a beautiful blonde alien.

   Beta discovers, as all must, monsters can’t be controlled, leaving Lauranio, Gamma, and Rupert to stop the monsters, and the film comes to a romantic end as Gamma decides to stay on Earth with Lauranio and Rupert while Tor pilots the monsters back home singing a Mariachi duet with a mobile female computer console he has a crush on.

   I kid you not.

   You can watch it in Spanish on YouTube if you want. In its own insane way it is entertaining, however strange, but you have to wonder at the mind that came up with it and try not to boggle your mind wondering what Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would have done with this one. Compared to it Gene’s Phantom Empire serial is downright tame: none of his robots even hummed.

THE SOMBRERO KID. Republic Pictures, 1942. Don ‘Red’ Barry, Lynn Merrick, Robert Homans, John James, Joel Friedkin, Rand Brooks, Stuart Hamblen. Director: George Sherman.

   Despite being short — 5′ 4½”, according to IMDb — and not looking much like a cowboy hero, nor having a wide range as an actor, Don Barry had a presence about him on the screen that you could never manage to create if it weren’t there. But Barry managed to alienate himself from directors and other cast members, or so I’m told, and his career never got much higher than making B-westerns such as this one. [But see comments.]

   Which, in spite of its running time of less than 60 minutes, is actually quite good, as far as low budget westerns from the early 40s go. There is enough plot in this one to be half again as long. I won’t go overly much into details, but it has to do with a marshal and his two sons, one of whom learns an unfortunate fact about himself as the three of them come to town to rid it of a persistent outlaw.

   There is a girl that both sons find attractive, a villainous town banker, and a humorous hidey-hole than men of the town use to make their escape from a backroom card game when their wives come looking for them. And, yes, it also comes into play when the lead starts flying.

   The title of the movie is something of a mystery. Apparently one of the sons, the one Don Barry plays, looks like a notorious outlaw called the Sombrero Kid — but isn’t him.


COLORADO SUNDOWN. Republic Pictures, 1952. Rex Allen , Koko, Mary Ellen Kay, Slim Pickens, June Vincent, Fred Graham, Louise Beavers. Director: William Witney.

   Brutality meets slapstick comedy in Colorado Sundown, a perfectly enjoyable if forgettable matinee Western starring Rex Allen and his horse Koko. Directed by William Witney, the film contains more than its fair share of well-choreographed fight scenes.

   But it’s also notable for its skillful inclusion of physical comedy, thanks in no small part to the presence of veteran character actor Slim Pickens. Similarly, the inclusion of talented African-American actress Louise Beavers in the cast helps make the film a little quirkier than what I had initially expected. Unfortunately, Beavers is relegated to portraying a servant, which makes some of the humor surrounding her character tremendously dated.

   The plot isn’t a terribly interesting or complicated one. Rex Allen gets caught in the middle of a feud between loggers and ranchers. The loggers, led by the cold-hearted Carrie Hurley (June Vincent) seeks to obtain a local ranch in order to gain access to the trees.

   Standing in their way are numerous obstacles, most prominently Jackie Reynolds (Mary Ellen Kay) who, along with Slim Pickens (portraying himself), has inherited a stake in the ranch. Hurley and her two brothers will go to great lengths, including murder, in order to advance their nefarious agenda.

   But no worry. Rex Allen is on the case and he’s determined to make sure justice is done. Not before he gets into a knockdown fistfight, complete with a bookshelf crashing down on the floor and blood on his face though. It’s a William Witney movie, you see.


GUN THE MAN DOWN. United Artists / Batjac Productions, 1956. James Arness, Angie Dickinson, Emile Meyer, Robert Wilke, Harry Carey Jr., Michael Emmet. Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

   I had somewhat high hopes for Gun The Man Down. Not only is it a Batjac film — John Wayne’s production company — but it also features Gunsmoke star James Arness in a leading role. Sadly, I came away disappointed and, truth be told, somewhat frustrated at what clearly could have been a much better revenge story.

   Arness portrays Rem Andersen, a man who stupidly decides to throw his lot in with a bank robber duo. When their first bank job together goes awry, Rem ends up wounded and at the mercy of law enforcement. The brains of the operation, Matt Rankin (Robert Wilke) not only gets away with the loot, but also rides away with Rem’s girl, Janice (Angie Dickinson). After spending a year in jail, Rem decides to get even with those who betrayed him. Standing in his path is not only a gunfighter named Billy Deal, but also a small town sheriff (Emile Meyer) and his deputy (Harry Carey, Jr.) Truth be told, none of the characters apart from these latter two are particularly compelling.

   Although it starts off with promise and is well photographed and competently staged, Gun The Man Down simply never rises above its formulaic and mediocre plot. Even worse, the film eventually bogs down in a poorly lit night gunfight, a sequence which not only lasts far too long, but one that doesn’t give the viewer ample opportunity to even decipher what’s going on. Not that it really matters much, given how low the stakes seem to be in this rather uninteresting tale featuring a protagonist who is incredibly difficult to root for.


THE BROKEN STAR. United Artists, 1956. Howard Duff, Lita Baron, Bill Williams, Douglas Fowley, Henry Calvin, Addison Richards, Joel Ashley, John Pickard, Joe Dominguez. Written by John C. Higgins. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   Back in the late 1940s, John C. Higgins wrote some memorable film noir scripts turned into riveting movies by Anthony Mann: T-Men, Raw Deal, Railroaded and Border Incident, as well as He Walked by Night. In the 50s, his output became more variable with things like Shield for Murder, The Black Sleep and Untamed Youth, capped off in the mid-60s by Robinson Crusoe on Mars. And somewhere in and among these he recycled his Shield for Murder script into a Western called The Broken Star.

   This opens with Deputy Sheriff Howard Duff scoping out an illicit money drop used by the local cattle baron to store his ill-gotten goodies; which, it seems, are also ill-guarded by a lone Mexican who passes quickly and noisily out of the story when Duff guns him down and makes it look like self-defense.

   But when Duff stashes the loot and gives his story to his boss (Addison Richards) he’s met with professional skepticism. Richards sends Deputy Bill Williams out to investigate the scene, where he (Wiliams) runs into two goons — excuse me: owlhoots — in the employ of the Cattle Baron, who wants his ill-guarded gains gotten back.

   Meanwhile Duff has his own problems with the murdered man’s sister: a fiery Mexican Maiden who sings in the local saloon and does a specialty number with a whip. (We’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we?) The kind of girl I used to date in college. Before long, the hired goons/owlhoots have summoned Duff to a meeting with Mister Big/Cattle Baron, a genial and unsavory sort who reminds one of Sydney Greenstreet or perhaps Robert Emhardt in Underworld USA, squeezing the local ranchers in between hosting barbecues and making threats while calling the steps at a square dance. And when he smiles and tells Howie he wants his money back, we know the jig is up.

   What follows however is a bit of a mess. The goons kidnap Lita, Howard fights them, Deputy Bill fights them, they kidnap Litas again, Bill fights them again, Howard fights Bill, Howard tries to grab the loot and hit the trail and the whole thing ends up pretty much as we knew it would. In a proper film noir our doomed protagonist would have ended up bleeding in a gutter desperately groping for escape, but here we get a rather protracted shoot-out in an abandoned mine, with everyone jockeying for position and the loot.

   Director Lesley Selander helmed some fine shoot-’em-ups in his day, including some of the best of the Hopalong Cassidy series, but he has little feel for this sort of thing, and it shows. Douglas Fowley does what he can as a ratty little double-crosser (a specialty of his) but beyond that and an elaborate saloon fight, the action seems a bit perfunctory, the sense of fatality that’s so much a part of noir is totally lacking, and a film that could have been a fine successor to movies like Ramrod and Pursued just sort of wastes its time — and ours.

   By the way, Mister Big/the Cattle Baron here seemed awfully familiar to me, sort of a nasty Jonathan Winters type, and it took me a while but I finally placed the actor who portrays him; it’s Henry Calvin, best remembered by viewers my age as Sergeant Garcia in Disney’s TV show Zorro.

WHISTLING HILLS. Monogram, 1951. Johnny Mack Brown, Jimmy Ellison, Noel Neill, I. Stanford Jolley, Marshall Reed, Pamela Duncan. Director: Derwin Abrahams.

   There’s a little more plot than usual to this otherwise run-of-the-mill western, enough so that I decided it was worth talking about. It seems that the local stage is being held up on a regular basis by a gang of outlaws who always seem to know which pass it’s going through, and they go into action only on days when the strongbox is full.

   Key to their success is a rider dressed all in black who rides the crests of the surrounding hills and blows a whistle when it’s time for the bandits to go into action. The local sheriff (Jimmy Ellison) is stumped; he has no clue as to who the rider in black is.

   When Johnny Mack Brown comes to town looking for a horse that has been stolen from him (and finds both it and the fellow responsible), he stays on to help the sheriff, the owner of the stage line (I. Stanford Jolley), and his niece (a very petite Noel Neill). Problem is, although very much a good guy, Sheriff Dave Holland resents Johnny taking over the chase, and more: he really resents the fact that the niece seems to be making a play for Johnny.

   There is the usual amount of riding and shooting, and barroom fisticuffs, too, but the little bit of mystery adds to the story — not a detective story in reality, although it acts like one, since there’s no reason to suspect the guilty party ahead of time — unless, that is, you realize that there are only a limited number of suspects it could be.

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.

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