Western movies


THE PRAIRIE. Edward F. Finney Productions / Screen Guild, 1947. Lenore Aubert, Alan Baxter, Russ Vincent, Chief Thundercloud, Chief Yowlachi, Jay Silverheels. Screenplay by Arthur St. Claire, from the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Directed by Frank Wisbar.

   Sometimes they do things in B-movies that seem avant-garde when they were probably merely necessary, but this time I’m not so sure. I mean, why would anyone try to make a movie about a wagon train headed West without enough money to even shoot it outdoors? Not unless they were plain-damn crazy — or, as the Indians in old Westerns put it: Touched by the Sun.

   I think this is the case with The Prairie. Director Frank Wisbar (or Wysbar) was one of those German filmmakers who fled the Reich and ended up making films in the U.S. though he never achieved the success of Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder, or even the cult status of Edgar Ulmer. He’s remembered (if at all) for making Fahrmann Maria in Germany, with striking imagery of Death on horseback dressed in SS regalia, then re-making it at PRC as Strangler of the Swamp.

   And then there’s The Prairie, and one can almost see Wisbar stepping up to the challenge of transforming Cooper’s sagebrush saga into a visual metaphor, evoking not the wide vistas of the West, but the cramped psyches of the emigrants with tight, claustrophobic compositions.

   Well it almost works. There’s a fine sense of sexual tension as Lenore Aubert is taken into the mostly-male wagon train after her family is wiped out in a buffalo stampede (done with silent-movie stock-footage superimposed over studio sets!) followed by jealousy, murder, and a grim comeuppance for the killer, but even the earnest playing of all concerned can’t make it quite convincing.

   What is convincing is Wisbar’s commitment to painting an allegory. After a while, the fakey sets take on a painterly quality, like stylized representations, almost lifting the film into a realm one seldom sees outside an art film. It doesn’t really work, but I marveled at Wisbar’s artistic daring in even trying it.

   And I’ll add as a post-script that Ms. Aubert is fondly remembered by her legions of fans as the femme fatale in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.


THE LONELY MAN. Paramount, 1957. Jack Palance, Anthony Perkins, Neville Brand, Elisha Cook Jr. Claude Akins, Lee Van Cleef and Elaine Aiken. Written by Harry Esex and Robert Smith. Directed by Henry Levin.

   A pretty good film that should have been great.

   I mean look at that cast, and all of them with good parts written by the author of Creature from the Black Lagoon and Sons of Katie Elder, with photography by Lionel (The Manchurian Candidate) Lindon. So where did they go not-great?

   We’ll leave that for later. Right now let’s start with the basics: Jack Palance stars as Jacob Wade (called Jake by his friends, but that movie wouldn’t come along till next year) a notorious gunfighter/outlaw trying to make his peace with the world and particularly with the son (Tony Perkins) he hasn’t seen in nigh unto twenty year now. Turns out Tony blames Jack for the ostracism and death of his mother, and when Jack gets run out of town, Tony goes along just out of adolescent angst.

   Meantime (as they say in Westerns) Neville Brand is plotting revenge for a near-fatal wound Jack gave him sometime before the movie started. And not just him; Brand is abetted by fellow no-goods Lee Van Cleef and Elisha Cook Jr. And not just them; Robert Middleton is skulking around with suspect intentions and shady links to an outlaw band run by Claude Akins. (Here billed for some reason as “Claude A. Akins” though his actual middle name was Marion!)

   With all this going on, one expects a lot of action, but in fact this is a rather leisurely film as Jack and Tony hole up on a ranch with the pert Ms. Aiken (a stage actress of note who did too few films) and chase wild horses around until the bad guys come calling. Elaine loves Jack, and Tony has a yen for Elaine, but there’s a lot of complex emotional issues to resolve, and director Levin seems disinclined to hurry things along.

   Therein lies the problem. I wouldn’t mind a bit of emotional conflict, but director Levin never seems to put any passion into it, giving the feeling that we’re just marking time here. And in the year that gave us emotionally resonant westerns like The Tall T, The Halliday Brand, Fury at Showdown and Forty Guns, that just won’t wash.

   On the plus side, The Lonely Man has lustrous photography of some breathtaking locations, fine action scenes, and writers Essex and Smith took the time to work things out intelligently. This film is worth your time, but I can’t help wishing….

YOUNG FURY. Paramount Pictures, 1965. Rory Calhoun, Virginia Mayo, William Bendix, Lon Chaney [Jr.], Richard Arlen, John Agar, Preston Pierce, Jody McCrea, Merry Anders. Story & screenplay: Steve Fisher. Producer: A. C. Lyles. Director: Christian Nyby.

   An outlaw who’s turned against his former gang (Rory Calhoun) returns to his hometown to make a stand against them, but in the meantime his son (Preston Pierce), having grown up alone, has formed his own gang of hooligans, and his burning desire is to spit in his father’s face for deserting him.

   This mixture of the standard western with the juvenile delinquent saga of the 50’s misses on almost all cylinders, Richard Arlen, as the stalwart but luckless sheriff, might be pleased with his role in this movie, but except for William Bendix in a cameo part, nobody else.

PostScript:   William Bendix died in 1964, and this was his last movie role. He played both dim-witted villains and comedy roles with equal ease. I can’t think of anyone who did it better.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24,, August 1990. (very slightly revised).


MAN WITHOUT A STAR. Universal International, 1955. Kirk Douglas, Jeanne Crain, Claire Trevor, William Campbell, Richard Boone, Jay C. Flippen, Screenplay by Borden Chase & D. D. Beauchamp, based on a novel by Dee Linford (1952). Director: King Vidol.

   It starts off promising enough. Frankie Lane’s title song plays while we see a black train belching billows of smoke into a blue Western sky as it traverses a long barren landscape. The theme soon becomes obvious, that of how fencing in grassland with barbed wire represents the beginning of the end for the Old West. All indications are that the primary story Man Without a Star is designed to tell is that of one man’s unfruitful quest to battle the forces of technological progress as it advances across the frontier.

   Problem is: the movie loses this central focus and, as it drifts further away from what could have been a unifying them, it ends up being more of a mixed-up muddled affair that doesn’t pack nearly the punch of the movie it should have.

   Kirk Douglas portrays Dempsey Rae, a cowboy from Texas who has made his way out to Wyoming to work as a cowhand. His reason for leaving Texas is simple: he doesn’t like barbed wire and the concomitant range wars that arise when greedy ranchers use it to claim grassland as their own. So, along with Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), his newfound green young friend that he takes under his wing, Dempsey goes to work for lady ranch owner Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain). Soon enough Dempsey discovers that Reed’s rivals are using barbed wire to enclose their grassland. From then on, it’s game on. Dempsey is going to side with his new employer and lover.

   Soon enough, however, Dempsey realizes that the seductive Reed is just as much a scoundrel as any avaricious male rancher. Case in point is her hiring of gunslinger Steve Miles (Richard Boone) to put the squeeze on her rivals. Before long, Dempsey’s world is turned upside down. His new friend Jeff betrays him, Reed deserts him, and he’s working for the ranchers who are using barbed wire – the stuff he hates more than anything else in the world.

   Nothing in this movie ever gels. There are too many subplots and thematic elements that are raised but which are never fully explored, thus detracting from the movie’s would-be central theme, that a single man attempting to outrun the closing of the American frontier.

   For instance, there’s the introduction of Idonee (Claire Trevor), a local madam who seemingly has known Dempsey for many years. The film doesn’t exactly know what to do with her, so she appears, then disappears, then comes back again to play the role of Dempsey’s personal savior. Similarly, the father-son cycle of life relationship between Dempsey and Jeff seems artificial and forced.

   Then there’s the case of the murder that takes place in the opening minutes of the film, in which an itinerant traveler on the same train as Dempsey and Jeff kills a man. The murder, along with the introduction of the town’s sheriff to investigate the crime when the train comes to a halt, just happens and never comes up again.

   This is my main criticism of Man Without a Star. A lot of stuff just happens, making the movie, despite a solid performance by Douglas, a bit too formulaic for its own good.


THE DESPERADO. Allied Artists, 1954. Wayne Morris, James Lydon, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef, Dabs Greer John Dierkes, Roy Barcroft. Written by Geoffrey Homes from the novel by Clifton Adams (Gold Medal #121, 1950). Directed by Thomas Carr.

   I finished my inadvertent Wayne Morris Film Festival with this, a surprisingly classy B-western from Allied Artists in the days when they were morphing from Monogram, still churning out second-features but with an eye to moving upscale.

   The plot is the standard revenge story, with Jimmy Lyden (best remembered as Henry Aldrich) out to avenge the murder of his dad, but it’s given a typical 1950s twist: It’s Reconstruction and Texas is run by a bunch of corrupt owlhoots, and when Jimmy runs afoul of them, he goes on the run, a rebellious youth persecuted by an older generation.

   This is a B-western, so it’s not long till he meets up with wanted outlaw Sam Garrett (Morris of course) and the two of them form a shaky friendship that gets tested when Sam cynically lets his new pardner shoot his own way out of a scrap with Lee Van Cleef.

   In fact, cynicism is the mark of Morris’s character here, constantly warning his new buddy not to trust anyone or mix himself up in other people’s fights. When Lyden gets a chance to avenge his dad, Wayne cheerfully urges him to shoot down the unarmed baddies in cold blood, and takes a dim view of his inability to do so. It turns out, though, that other folks have no such tender feelings, and our callow hero gets a murder frame-up added to his troubles.

   With all this and more going on (Lee Van Cleef plays twins, so Jimmy gets to shoot him twice), The Desperado could have easily bogged down in complications, but writer Geoffrey Homes keeps it moving and even throws in a couple of corrupt sheriffs: one (Dabs Greer) likably so and one… well he’s played by Roy Barcroft and enough said.

   Mostly though, the focus is on the uneasy relationship between Morris and Lydon, and it’s here where script, acting and direction come together, and I say this knowing that Wayne Morris and James Lyden are not well-known for deep and insightful acting. But they could rise to the occasions like Strange Illusion and Paths of Glory, and they do quite nicely here.

   Director Thomas Carr was a soul consigned to toil for eternity in B-movies and cheap television, but he took his fate like a low-budget Sisyphus, moving his camera for maximum effect, turning out the best of Bill Eliott’s final westerns with a fluid camera and sure sense of pace, shown here to good effect.

   As for writer Geoffrey Homes (or Daniel Mainwaring, if you prefer) well, his talent was always a variable commodity. His screenplay for Out of the Past is much better than his source novel (Build My Gallows High) which in turn is much much better than any of his other books. His movies range from the excellent Invasion of the Body Snatchers to dreck like The George Raft Story, and The Desperado is somewhere about mid-range: nothing fancy, but solid and enjoyable.

   Oh, and one more footnote: Wayne Morris was a bona fide war hero whose next film after Desperado was Two Guns and a Badge, generally considered the last series B-western. And his first wife was named Bubbles Schinasi.

   Just thought I’d mention it.


TULSA. Eagle-Lion Films, 1949. Susan Hayward, Robert Preston, Pedro Armendáriz, Lloyd Gough, Chill Wills, Ed Begley, Harry Shannon, Lola Albright. Suggested by a story by Richard Wormser. Director: Stuart Heisler

   I’m going to be honest with you. I enjoyed watching Tulsa way more than I ever expected to. And really, this surprised me. For at the end of the day, there’s nothing all that special about this Technicolor melodrama/modern Western hybrid. Directed by Stuart Heisler, who directed Humphrey Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1949) the very same year, the film stars future Academy Award winner Susan Hayward as Cherokee Lansing, an Oklahoman rancher of mixed heritage who hits it big in the eponymous city’s 1920s oil boom.

   When Cherokee’s rancher father gets killed in an accidental oil rig blowout, she decides that the best way to get even with Bruce Tanner (Lloyd Gough), the oilman she holds responsible is for her to join the business herself. Joining her on her ambitious quest to make a name for herself in the oil industry is geologist Brad Brady (Robert Preston) who, to no one’s surprise, ends up falling for the headstrong redheaded beauty. Complicating matters for Cherokee is her longstanding friendship with local rancher Jim Redbird (Pedro Armendáriz), a man who wants no part in Cherokee’s increasingly ruthless and ambitious plans to become an oil tycoon.

   What makes Tulsa worth watching, however, is not the rather mediocre and predictable plot. No. It’s that, for a low budget western from the late 1940s, Tulsa has surprisingly lots to say about both environmental conservation and race relations in Oklahoma. Some of it is heavy handed, but a lot of it was perhaps just subtle enough to make an impact on some moviegoers when the film first opened.

   Still, if message films aren’t your cup of tea, there’s always Susan Hayward, who is a joy to watch. And there’s a rather spectacular fire sequence at the end of the film, with images of rows of oil derricks up in flames. People must have noticed that intense finale, for it was enough to earn the movie an Oscar nomination for special effects in 1950.


THE FAR FRONTIER. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gail Davis, Andy Devine, Francis Ford, Roy Barcroft, Clayton Moore, Robert Strange, Riders of the Purple Sage. Director: William Witney.

   With William Whitney at the helm, you just know you’re quite likely going to get a motion picture with some down and dirty fighting in it. While The Far Frontier has some well-choreographed fight scenes, it’s more notable for “death by oil barrel.”

   What’s that, you ask? Well, for starters it’s a particularly brutal way to kill someone. There’s a scene, early on in the movie, in which sadistic human traffickers toss oil barrels down a rocky mountain cliff. In the barrels are the very persons who have hired them to transport them illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border.

   That scene, along with Whitney’s name in the opening credits, gives the viewer the sense that this entry into the extensive Roy Rogers filmography isn’t going to be one of the more innocent, child-friendly ones.

   Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s some singing and lightheartedness and Andy Devine, with that goofy and innocent smile on his face, is there to provide some comic relief to the proceedings. But overall, this Rogers film has a slightly darker story. One that involves coldblooded murder, amnesia, and a blood feud that finally comes to a violent conclusion.

   A final note: there are a few un-credited “actors” in The Far Frontier who portray characters who become essential to the plot.

   I’m talking about pigeons, carrier pigeons to be precise. These little birds are the means by which the film’s primary villain communicates with his minions. Fortunately, Roy is able to get one of the pigeons on the side of justice. Who said birds didn’t matter?

PASSION. RKO Radio Pictures, 1954. Cornel Wilde, Yvonne De Carlo, Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr., Rodolfo Acosta, John Qualen, Anthony Caruso. Director: Allan Dwan.

   A conflict over land in old Spanish California flares up into the deaths of several members of one homesteading family, and one of the survivors vows vengeance.

   Cornel Wilde and Yvonne De Carlo strike me as being a couple who are absolutely meant for each other, but surprisingly, in this movie they don’t even get to kiss. She’s the tomboy (!) sister of the woman who’s the murder5ed mother of Wilde’s son, and while she is obviously making eyes at him, he is so busy with revenge, he hardly notices her at all. A passionate affair it isn’t.

   Raymond Burr plays the officer of the police who must bring his old friend to justice. If it weren’t for him, I’d never even have considered saving this movie on tape. (And even so, I didn’t.)

COMMENT:  In Brian Garfield’s book on western movies, he calls what this film as a “Bob Steele” plot. If it weren’t such an obvious slur on Bob Steele, I’d agree 100 percent.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. Paramount Pictures, 1957. Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp), Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday), Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland (Johnny Ringo), Lyle Bettger (Ike Clanton), Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, Ted DeCorsia, Dennis Hopper, Whit Bissell, DeForest Kelley, Martin Milner. Screenplay: Leon Uris. Director: John Sturges.

   I don’t think I’m exaggerating one iota when I say that there is an entire generation of Americans (mine) who grew up thinking they knew everything there was to know about the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Well, as everybody knows now, and should have known then, there’s a lot more fiction than fact in the story of that gun battle, and what led up to it.

   I won’t go into that. I’m sure you can find plenty of sites on the Internet that go into that, in quite come detail,and it won’t take a lot of effort on your part to find one of them. Let’s suffice to say that for the most part the names are the same, although not always, and that Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), Wyatt Earp’s romantic interest, seems to seems to have made up out of whole cloth. [CORRECTION: See Comment #3.]

   What this is is a buddy film, with the often prickly relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday holding the various short episodes together. In one Wyatt saves Doc’s hide, in the next Doc is the only one to come to Wyatt’s assistance.

   It is therefore the performances of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, perfectly cast that makes this movie so memorable. Burt is tall and and as upright as if he were to preach a sermon, and Kirk so scruffy and so disreputable a scoundrel that the audience can’t help but love him.

   Rhonda Fleming is but an afterthought, but a most beautiful one, but for some reason Jo Van Fleet, as Doc’s lady companion/common law wife whom he treats as if with a combination of dislike and contempt, but who has no choice but to come back each time for more. For some reason this made an impression on me when I first saw this movie in my mid-teens that it came back to me immediately when I saw it again last week.

   Although they appear into the movie only as the story needs them, there’s quite a supporting cast of cowboy actors who ought to be mentioned, particularly (and most recognizable) Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper and DeForest Kelley

   I see that I have not yet mentioned the gunfight. I found it both highly choreographed and confusing, and way down on the list of reasons why I think you should see this movie, if you haven’t already.


EYES OF TEXAS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Lynne Roberts, Andy Devine, Nana Bryant, Roy Barcroft, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers. Director: William Witney.

   Whitneyesque. That’s the term I coined in my mind while watching a fairly brutal– comparatively speaking — fight scene in Eyes of Texas, a Roy Rogers film directed by veteran director William Whitney. (Apologies to anyone who coined this term before, but it certainly fits.) There’s just something exceptional about William Whitney’s fight choreography. You can see it as much in the serial The Crimson Ghost, for example, as in this programmer in which Rogers portrays a marshal tasked with investigating a mysterious death and possible insurance fraud.

   True to the Roy Rogers formula, there’s some lighthearted comedy, songs by Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, and the smartest horse in the movies — the one and only Trigger. But in Eyes of Texas, you also get a murder mystery, death by a pack of vicious dogs, a corrupt lawyer, and the rather lengthy Whitneyeque fight sequence referenced above in which Roy gets into an altercation with a gang of hired thugs in which he is bruised and battered, punched and roped. It’s gritty and set to the type of music that you’d expect to hear in an action-packed film serial.

   Of course, a Roy Rogers movie of this era wouldn’t be the same without Andy Devine. In this film, he portrays a doctor caught between townsfolk who have turned on Roy Rogers and his longstanding affection for, and friendship with, Rogers. His blend of physical comedy and general ability to convey pathos when needed works well in this particular entry in the vast Rogers canon. Eyes of Texas may not be the best Western ever made, and it might not even be the best Roy Rogers film, but it’s an entertaining movie from Gower Gulch that punches well above its weight.

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