Western movies

JACK SLADE. Allied Artists/Monogram, 1953. Mark Stevens, Dorothy Malone, Barton MacLane, John Litel, Paul Langton, Harry Shannon, Jim Bannon, Lee Van Cleef. Director: Harold D. Schuster.

   The Jack Slade of this dark and gritty biopic has nothing to do wuth the Cactus Jack Slade played by Kirk Douglas in The Villain, a disaster of a film which David Vineyard reviewed here on this blog not too long ago. There was a real Jack Slade, however, whose life resembles to some small degree the character Mark Stevens portrays in this still mostly fictional adaptation.

   I don’t believe the dark and often broody Mark Stevens was the leading man in very many movies, and his performance in this one is one that needs to grow on you while you’re watching. His portrayal of a man who’s good with a gun and obsessed since early childhood with eliminating as many of the outlaws of the west as he can, a one man instrument of revenge, is riveting. He is, in the end, as much an outlaw as the many that he is killed.

   Unfortunately the script does the film in, trying to cram too much into a 90 minute movie, losing some significant points of continuity and telling more often than showing. Dorothy Malone is marvelous as the young exotic beauty who falls in love with him as soon as her eyes fall on him, but Barton MacLane as Jules Reni, Slade’s constant nemesis, is far too oafish and dim-witted to be believable.

   Lee Van Cleef, at least, in a role far too short, has the sense to back off when he sees Slade draw, saying “That’s fast enough.”


FRONTIER MARSHAL. 20th Century Fox, 1939. Randolph Scott (Wyatt Earp), Nancy Kelly, Cesar Romero (Doc Halliday), Binnie Barnes, John Carradine, Eddie Foy Jr., Ward Bond, Lon Chaney Jr., Chris-Pin Martin, Joe Sawyer. Based on the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake. Director: Allan Dwan.

   There’s something just a little too polished about Twentieth-Century Fox’s Frontier Marshal. The second cinematic adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s largely fictional biography of Wyatt Earp, the film features the gentlemanly Randolph Scott as the titular character and Cesar Romero as his friend, the gambler/gunman Doc Holliday. Both actors are personal favorites of mine, but neither seem to completely immerse themselves in their given roles.

   If Scott comes across as too refined – this is before he took on a more rugged screen persona in Budd Boetticher’s Westerns – Romero fails to present himself as a man with blood on his hands. This was supposed to be Tombstone, after all! Those criticisms aside, Frontier Marshal is a perfectly enjoyable pre-war feature that benefits strongly from a supporting cast including John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Ward Bond, all of whom deliver memorable performances.

   Although the film nominally is about famed lawman Wyatt Earp, the central focus of the story is on Doc Holliday, as he struggles to reconcile his past identity as a successful East Coast physician with his current predicament as a man facing the end of his life with anger and regret. The two ladies who vie for Doc’s affection, the sophisticated and urbane Sarah Allen (Nancy Kelly) and the tough and jaded saloon girl Jerry (Binnie Barnes) are essentially peripheral to the film’s core.

   Frontier Marshal is, above all else, a story about friendship, a buddy movie before there were buddy movies. While not half-bad, the film will always be overshadowed by John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1949). And for good reason, as Ford’s reimagining of Tombstone and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has an elegiac feel that Frontier Marshal simply cannot reach.

TEN WANTED MEN. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Randolph Scott, Jocelyn Brando, Richard Boone, Alfonso Bedoya, Donna Martell, Skip Homeier, Clem Bevans, Leo Gordon, Minor Watson. Director: H. Bruce Humberston.

   Twelve years after making The Desperadoes (reviewed here ), Randolph Scott is starting to show his age a bit, but though he was in his 50s when this movie was made, he could still ride tall in the saddle. Here he’s a cattleman whose hopes for the peaceful growth of Arizona go up in a blaze of bullets.

   Opposing him is Richard Boone, a rival whose craving for wealth and power leads him to bring in a band of outlaws to help him. (I don’t think there is anyone whose eyes could burn with such bitter hatred as Boone’s.) Lots of action keeps the muddled story going.

— Reprinted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

THE DESPERADOES. Columbia Pictures, 1943. Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor, Glenn Ford, Evelyn Keyes, Edgar Buchanan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Screenplay: Robert Carson, based on an original story by Max Brand. Director: Charles Vidor. Assistant director: Oscar ‘Budd’ Boetticher Jr.

   Let’s go with a list of the characters for this one: A sheriff and his former partner, a wanted outlaw trying to go straight; a girl and her father, the slightly shifty Uncle Willie; plus a crooked banker and the “Countess” who runs Red River’s only hotel of note.

   Once all the players have been sorted out, the story begins. Randolph Scott is his usual straight as an arrow self, but a very young Glenn Ford seems too awkward and wet behind the ears to be playing a notorious gunman. As for Edgar Buchanan, his overplayed role (guess who?) might be the worst of his career.

— Very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

SUNSET IN THE WEST. Republic Pictures, 1950. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Estelita Rodriguez, Penny Edwards, Gordon Jones, Will Wright. Director: William Witney.

   The story line doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s one that’s strong and powerful enough to stand out in the minds of its intended audience. Which is to say, mostly 6 to 14 year olds watching the movie at a Saturday afternoon matinee — with solid enough production values to appeal to adults as well.

   For some mysterious unknown reason, a gang of outlaws are hijacking trains, killing the members of the crew and dumping all of the goods on board on the ground, then disappearing with the empty trains. The local sheriff, having no clues, is roundly castigated by a mob of townspeople outside his office until one of his former deputies, Roy Rogers, shows up to offer him a helping hand.

   What follows is a typical William Witney action-packed extravaganza, with songs and music inserted in every once in a while, some naturally, others more or less at random. The story isn’t much, as I’ve previously suggested, but it’s good to see one of these old series westerns in the bright shiny colors such as displayed in this one. By any standard, they’re quite spectacular.


ARROW IN THE DUST. Allied Artists, 1954. Sterling Hayden, Colleen Gray, Keith Larsen, Tom Tully, Jimmy Wakely and Lee Van Cleef. Screenplay by Don Martin (No, not that Don Martin). Based on the novel by L. L. Foreman. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   By 1954, Allied Artists was still trying to shake off its Monogram roots, but not trying too hard. That was the year they released Two Guns and a Badge, the last series Western, but they were still churning out Bowery Boys pictures and “A-Minus” westerns like this, directed by B-Western stalwart Leslie Selander with his usual flair for action and a surprising feel for the quieter moments.

   Hayden is a deserter who masquerades in a major’s uniform and rallies a decimated cavalry unit to help get a wagon train past the injuns. And that’s pretty much it. Arrow incorporates lots of stock footage from Arizona (1940) but someone thought to take the cast out to Sedona and Red Rock, so it matches well, and photographer Ellis Carter blends it seamlessly.

   There’s also a literate screenplay. Hayden’s character matures convincingly, acting and reacting off a rounded cast of supporting players who talk like actual people. Screenwriter Martin even includes the familiar quotation: “A mule is unapproachable in devilment, fathomless in cunning, born old in crime, of disreputable paternity, and incapable of posterity, stolid, imperturbable, with no love for anything but the perpetration of tricks and its daily rations,” and it fits right in.

   There’s a genuine movie moment here where they’re burying dead soldiers while the wagon train pushes on, composed like a Ford film, the wagons rolling endlessly in the background while Hayden recites the 23rd psalm over the fresh graves. No overacting, no arty camera angles, just letting the scene speak for itself and find fitting context in “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

   But my favorite part (I know you were burning to find out) is a quick-draw like I’ve never seen before: Hayden lays down the law to Van Cleef, and when another owlhoot goes to draw, Hayden pulls his own gun out of his belt, raises it overhead with both hands to cock it, sweeps down, levels and fires faster’n you could say “Sh-t, what was that?” I had to run it over three times just to see if I saw it right.

    Arrow in the Dust is little remembered today, but for fans of the cast and solidly-built Westerns, it’s a must-see.

POWDERSMOKE RANGE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1936. Harry Carey (Tucson Smith), Hoot Gibson (Stony Brooke), ‘Boots’ Mallory, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (Lullaby Joslin), Bob Steele, Tom Tyler. Based on the novel by William Colt MacDonald. Director: Wallace Fox.

   Three roving cowboys (not yet called The Three Mesquiteers) come to the aid of a friend (Bob Steele) who’s been thrown in jail on trumped up charges. Tom Tyler is the fast gun hired by the gambler who’s trying to take over Steele’s ranch, and it’s eventually up to Harry Carey to face him down.

   In spite of what was probably an all-star cast in 1935, this is not a very good movie today. It has a lot of the right ingredients, but the art of acting has changed dramatically. I’m no expert on such things, but I think it’s the extra beat everybody takes to react to the line just before.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER. Universal Pictures, 1969. Richard Widmark, Lena Horne, Carroll O’Connor, David Opatoshu, Kent Smith, Jacqueline Scott, Morgan Woodward, Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, John Saxon. Based on the novel by Lewis B. Patten. Director: Allen Smithee (Robert Totten & Don Siegel).

   Creative differences between Richard Widmark, the star of the film, and Robert Totten, the original director assigned to it, resulted in Don Siegel being hired to finish up this rather uninspired western film. The pseudonymous “Allen Smithee” ended up being credited for as its director when neither of the two men who did the job wanted his name to be associated with it.

   Besides a noticeable lack of continuity to the story, it’s a old one to boot, that of a sheriff who was hired by a town many years ago,with considerable success, but as times have changed, Marshal Frank Patch’s continued usefulness has diminished considerably. What’s worse, as far as the town elders are concerned, he refuses to leave.

   And that’s the only story there is, the only one that matters. There is only one note to this movie, and it’s played over and over again. Patch (overplayed by Richard Widmark) is a both a bully and bull-headed enough to never say good-bye, and he knows enough about the past of each of the town’s merchants to get away with it.

   I think that in movies — the better ones anyway, and including westerns — somebody has to change because of events that take place as the story goes on, especially the main protagonist, and Patch is the same man at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning, except that he’s dead. Hence the title.


TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES. Universal, 1940. Franchot Tone, Warren William, Peggy Moran, Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Porter Hall and Broderick Crawford! Written by Harold Shumate. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   Hey, how’s this for an original Western plot: A lawman comes to town to look into a killin’ and discovers that a pillar of the community is actually running the gang of rustlers that murdered his friend.

   Oh you’ve seen it? Well maybe not, because this one has the intelligence not to take itself too seriously – or seriously at all.

   The intelligence starts with Franchot Tone as an Eastern dude sent West to root around the prairie and look for clues — thank gawd no one tried to pass the cosmopolitan Tone off as a cowboy. Even better, when he gets to the burg of Peaceful Flats and finds the sheriff handcuffed to a lamp post, the laughs start coming, and though they pause for action, they never really stop.

   Warren William, his career in sad eclipse, lends his usual polish to the role of dress-heavy, and his veneer of sophistication matches Tone’s perfectly. In direct contrast, Tone gets teamed up with Andy Devine as a cowboy who dreams of becoming a valet (?!) and Broderick Crawford, providing truculent muscle for any and all occasions.

   And then there’s Mischa Auer, who comes on as an Indian in a Medicine show, morphs into a Mexican, then a Bullfighter, a Cossack, an Acrobat, Magician and Southern Colonel (!) lending an air of pleasing surrealism to the whole thing.

   I should also put in a word for Peggy Moran as a predatory ingénue who spends most of the film trying to seduce Franchot Tone, an agreeable change-up on the usual formula, and she handles it well.

   Overall though, the chief attractions of Trail of the Vigilantes are writer Shumate’s ability to overturn the conventions and director Dwan’s relaxed approach to it all. Thus Tone never fires a shot, even in the big saloon shoot-out, but the film makes no big deal of it. On the other hand, his iffy horsemanship gets only passing notice till it emerges to rousing effect in that saloon melee.

   So what you have here is that rarity, a film that mocks itself yet remains true to form. Exciting, absurd, funny and formulaic in equal measure, Trail of the Vigilantes emerges as rare fun. And what more could you ask?

PANHANDLE. Allied Artists, 1948. Rod Cameron, Cathy Downs, Reed Hadley, Anne Gwynne, Blake Edwards. Screenplay by John C. Champion and Blake Edwards. Director: Leslie Selander.

   This is the film that the later 1966 western movie The Texican was a re-imaging of. (You can read the review by Jonathan and posted here not too long ago.) The later film starred Audie Murphy in Rod Cameron’s part in the original, that of a former lawman now living as a reformed outlaw in Mexico, but who heads back north again to avenge the murder of his brother at the hands of an unknown bushwhacker.

   The villain in this original version is Reed Hadley, a role played by the much heavier Broderick Crawford in the later film, but both are equally mean and despicable. There are a few other changes made, but the basic storylines are about the same, emphasis on basic, and I’d say that the two movies are equally entertaining.

   Some things of interest about Panhandle on its own, however. It was filmed in sepia color, for no good reason that I could see, and because it’s such an uncommon choice, it takes a while to get used to, or it did me.

   While entertaining, the meandering plot really doesn’t know where it is going. When John Sands (Cameron) crosses the border heading north, he’s confronted by a sheriff he knew in the past, but after shooting the gun out of his hand, Sands continues his journey north. The incident does not come up again. Once in the town Hadley all but owns, some townsmen call on Sands to help bring justice to the town. Sands refuses and the incident does not come up again. After a breakneck brawl in a saloon and a subsequent shootout, a stranger has Sands’ back to good advantage. Turns out he (the stranger) works for the federal government (something to do with the panhandle country), but Sands refuses and the incident does not come up again.

   Sands also chooses the wrong girl, to my way of thinking, but we can certainly agree to disagree about that, if you’re so minded.

   One other thing. After seeing Blake Edwards play Floyd Schofield, one of Reed Hadley gunman’s hired gunmen, it is clear that Edwards made the right choice in switching from acting to writing. He’s the one on the right in the photo on the left. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me about that.

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