Western movies

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM. Merit Pictures, 1938. Herb Jeffrey, Marguerite Whitten, Mantan Moreland, Clarence Brooks, “Stymie” Beard, Spencer Williams, Mae Turner. Screenwriter-Director: Richard C. Kahn

   An all-black Western from the 1930s, beneath contempt for most critics, but I enjoyed it.

   Now I know many of you out there hang on my words with slavish devotion, but I should warn potential viewers that Two-Gun has its short-comings: bad script, bad acting, low budget, insipid stunt work and continuity gaffes that could give you whiplash — the usual results of a lack of time and money. There is, however, a magic in the movies that can transcend these things for those who are spiritually attuned or simply deficient in critical judgment, and I must be one or the other.

   Star Herb Jeffrey has real screen presence; and I mean when he walks in, he dominates the tawdry screen around him just as Bogart, Gable and Flynn ruled their more sumptuous surroundings. In his flashy cowboy-hero garb or “disguised” as a bad guy, he moves with that natural assurance that distinguishes the Western Hero, and he carries a tune (yes, this is a singing western) as well as any of them.

   Two-Gun is actually a re-make of a 1931 film, Two-Gun Caballero, a film now considered lost, though it may simply be hiding. Whatever the case, it’s B-Western boiler plate about a man accused of murder who flees the scene, assumes a new identity, and returns in disguise (not terribly convincing, but it seems to fool even those who knew him well) to sort things out.

   If you were charitable or trying to sell the film, you might refer to it as “noirish” since the killing in question is of a rancher done in by his wife’s lover — the old Postman Rings Twice thing — in her presence. The wife (Mae Turner) frames the hero to clear her paramour, but when she starts pressing her boyfriend for a commitment, he contracts with a local outlaw (Spencer Williams) to have her killed. Which is when our hero re-emerges, disguised as a notorious killer from Harlem—hence the title of the piece.

   But this flick is not so much Noir as simply Black. Academics might call it an attempt to translate the prominent cultural iconography of its day into distinctly ethnic terms. To the rest of us, it’s just a B-western made primarily by African-American actors, aimed at that segregated niche market in its day.

   Mantan Moreland is (surprise!) the comedy relief here, and at first I thought his capable talents were going to be wasted in an unrewarding part as Jeffrey’s side-kick with very little screen time and no worthwhile dialogue at all. Then, late in the picture, Jeffrey warns the local outlaw to get out and “…Don’t look back; remember what happened to Lot’s wife.”

   A few minutes later we’re back in the Outlaw Hideout, where Mantan has infiltrated the gang as a cook (?!) and bad-guy Spencer Williams pauses in the middle of some trifling skullduggery, turns to Mantan and says, “Hey. What happened to Lot’s wife?”

   Which is all the excuse this veteran funnyman needs to launch into an extended biblical riff about how Lot’s wife was running around on him “…and the neighbors started scandalizin’ on her (You know how they do.) and one day she was leaving her boyfriend’s place….. ‘Your husband’s coming, Honey!’…. commenced to running…. and it rained 40 days and 40 nights… and she sat down to rest and couldn’t move because she was turned to salt… more rain… salt melting…and that spot where she sat down is where Salt lake City is today.”

   And I guess it’s moments like that which will keep Two-Gun Man from Harlem on my mind long after much better films have been forgotten.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

HIGH LONESOME. LeMay-Templeton / Eagle-Lion Films, 1950. John Barrymore Jr., Chill Wills, John Archer, Lois Butler, Kristine Miller, Basil Ruysdale, Jack Elam and Dave Kashner. Written and directed by Alan LeMay.

   Alan LeMay is best remembered as the author of the novel basis for The Searchers (1954) but he started writing Westerns in 1927 and did his first Western (sorta) screenplay in 1940: Cecil B. DeMille’s Northwest Mounted Police. In between times he authored or co-authored screenplays for Along Came Jones (1945), The Walking Hills (1949), and others worthy of note, and in 1950 he turned his hand to directing as well as writing High Lonesome.

   LeMay’s direction is serviceable, but it’s not the sort of work that would worry John Ford. His story, on the other hand, is definitely intriguing. The movie opens with young Barrymore pursued by two shadowy figures on horseback who (we learn later) involved him in a murder. Caught pilfering a cookhouse, he’s tentatively adopted/detained by rancher Basil Ruysdale and his daughters (Butler & Miller) and nick-named “Cooncat” which is the only name we ever know him by, and surely the most unlikely moniker ever given a Western hero.

   No one completely trusts him though (and with good reason: Barrymore’s playing verges on hysteria) and when he tells them about the killing (now about a week old) they take him to the scene of the alleged crime, only to find it deserted, disused and dust-covered. Moreover, when he describes his shadowy pursuers, the others immediately recognize the description as that of two local outlaws—who were killed in a range war fifteen years earlier.

   Well that’s a nice creepy start, and LeMay builds on it well; when a real murder is discovered, Cooncat is naturally blamed and almost lynched. The mysterious dead men (Jack Elam and Dave Kashner) flit about in the shadows while prairie discord and ranchland romance spread across the plains in equal measure and we get a couple more murders, one of them pretty shocking even by today’s standards, whatever those are.

   The acting here is uniformly good, but it’s mostly a case of able players taking advantage of well-written character parts. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore Jr.) goes over the top too often, but he’s got that Youthful Angst thing down nicely, and he even looks a bit like young Sean Penn. Basil Ruysdale (you might remember him as the Confederate reverend leading his child-soldiers against John Wayne’s cavalry in The Horse Soldiers — or the befuddled detective who loses his shirt to Harpo in The Coconuts) projects real authority as the rancher/patriarch; Lois Butler conveys vulnerable adolescence nicely, and it goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that Jack Elam creeps around with appropriate loathsomeness.

   Hey! Come to think of it, howcum nobody ever made a movie where Jack Elam and Peter Falk played brothers?

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1951, Re-released as Cavalry Charge. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Bruce Bennett, Bill Williams, Noah Beery, Peter Hansen, Hugh Beaumont, Lloyd Corrigan. Screenwriters: Geoffrey Homes, Winston Miller, George Worthing Yates Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   The Last Outpost was Ronald Reagan’s first Western film and it’s a darn good one. Directed by Lewis R. Foster, the movie initially feels like it’s going to be just another B-Western about the U.S. Cavalry in the American Southwest. After all, all the stock-in-trade characters are there: the corrupt white man who runs the local trading post; the beautiful girl from back East who’s out of place in the sparsely populated desert; and the newly arrived U.S. Army officer.

   But if you’re just a little bit patient, you’ll find that The Last Outpost is a surprisingly charming, funny, and action-packed movie with a plot that’s complex, but never convoluted.

   Reagan portrays Confederate Army Captain Captain Vance Britton, a Baltimorean who signed up to fight for the Gray, rather than for the Blue. He’s in charge of a Confederate Cavalry brigade positioned out in Arizona. His task is to harass the U.S. Army posted out in the remote desert country. Things get complicated for the always affable Captain Britton (Reagan) once he learns that not only his brother, Col. Jeb Britton (Bruce Bennett) is now stationed at Ft. Gil, Arizona, but that his ex-girlfriend, Julie (Rhonda Fleming) is there too.

   As if that weren’t enough drama for one man to deal with, the Apaches are about to go on the warpath, threatening Whites from both the North and from Dixie.

   Can our hero successfully win back the girl, make amends with his estranged brother, and defeat the Apache? I think you know the answer to that one, but getting there is well more than half the fun in this altogether financially successful film from Pine-Thomas Productions.

HONG KONG. Paramount Pictures, 1952. Re-released as Bombs Over China. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Nigel Bruce, Marvin Miller, Mary Somerville. Director: Lewis R. Foster

   Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Ronald Reagan.

   That’s the impression I had watching Hong Kong, a rather middling adventure film starring the future President as Jeff Williams, an ex-GI turned arms merchant living in China during the Communist takeover. While on the run from the Reds, Williams takes a young Chinese orphan boy under his wing and teams up with the lovely schoolteacher, Victoria Evans (Rhonda Fleming), as the two make their way by plane to Hong Kong.

   Williams may not carry a whip and he’s no archaeologist, but he sports a leather jacket and has his eye on a priceless work of art. There are a couple of bad guys hot on his trail too.

   But while Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, another film with a leather jacket wearing hero, a Chinese boy, and a girl, had an edge to it, Hong Kong is a rather plodding affair with little tension and even less adventure.

   Reagan is a formidable screen presence, no doubt, but his character is just too nice for his own good. Even when he tries to be rapacious, he just can’t bring himself to go through with it.

   It’s not that I necessarily wanted the character he portrayed to be a bad guy or sell the orphan down the river, so to speak, as much as I wanted him to be a little more hard-nosed. It’s supposed to be Hong Kong in the late 1940s after all.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

WALK LIKE A DRAGON Paramount, 1960. Jack Lord, Nobu McCarthy, James Shigeta, Mel Tormé, Josephine Hutchinson, Rodolpho Acosta, Benson Fong, Michael Pate, Lilyan Chauvin, Don “Red” Barry and Lester Matthews. Written by James Clavell and Daniel Mainwaring. Directed by James Clavell. Yes, that James Clavell!

   Not entirely successful, but interesting enough to keep you watching, this plays out like an extended episode of Have Gun Will Travel; it even starts in San Francisco in the 1870s, as Jack Lord is touched by the sight of a Chinese girl (the talented and subtly touching Nobu McCarthy) being auctioned off in a slave market and impulsively buys her to set her free.

   Things of course just ain’t that simple; Nobu got no place to go to (see what I did there?) so Jack takes her back to his small town, where she encounters racial prejudice and slowly wins his heart — betcha didn’t see that coming, didja?

   But they’re only two sides of the equation; there’s another refugee Chinese in town (James Shigeta) trying to earn the respect of the white bigots around him. He loves Nobu too, and I don’t blame him, but he figures the way to go about it is to acquire prowess with a gun so he can face off against Jack Lord.

   There’s also Mel Tormé as The Deacon, a black-clad philosopher-gunman (another nod to Have Gun Will Travel) who sometimes sings(?!) and undertakes to educate James Shigeta in the ways of the gun.

   Well it’s an earnest little film, and off-beat enough to keep the viewer alert, but the problem is that not much happens. People talk, they look askance, they talk a little more, go to Church, talk about going to Church, go shopping, talk about shopping…..

   You get the idea: no chases, fisticuffs, gun battles… not so much as a dogfight to liven things up till near the end, when we get a bit of nicely done and very dramatic gunplay. In fact, as the climax approaches and the three protagonists face off, all motivated by love, Walk achieves some real intensity as – for once in a gunfight — one doesn’t know what to expect.

   The acting is uniformly good here, or maybe it’s just that the characters are better-written than usual. Rodolpho Acosta, normally a villainous Indian or Mexican Bandit, makes a fine cynical lawman. Lilyan Chauvin is a rather complex “saloon gal” and Benson Fong (Tommy Chan in the Monogram Charlie Chan films) gives real depth to his subservient Chinese Laundryman.

   The only one I’m not sure about is Mel Tormé; he’s relaxed, self-assured and handles his lines capably, but he just looks like a jazz singer plunked down in a Western — sort of a cross between a hipster and a singing cowboy.

   This aside though, and if you make allowances for a rather quiet time of it, Walk Like a Dragon will hold your attention and even offer a few surprises.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

HIDDEN GUNS. Republic, 1956. Bruce Bennett, Richard Arlen, Faron Young, John Carradine, Angie Dickinson. Written by Samuel Roeca and Al Gannaway. Director: Al Gannaway.

   This ain’t much good, but it’s off-beat enough to keep you watching. Bruce Bennett stars as a slimy saloon owner, complete with fancy vest, a cadre of dog-heavies, and dreams of a western empire founded on the land he steals from honest folk. Richard Arlen is Sheriff Ward Young, trying to round up a witness to Bennett’s latest atrocity, and country singer Faron Young is his son Faron (get it?) Angie Dickinson is the pretty young heroine with not much to do.

   Plot-wise, there may be a few surprises tossed into the formula, but it’s still a western-by-rote. The stunt work is up to the classic Republic standard, and the only real irritant is an off-screen chorus occasionally bursting into doggerel to sing us what we already know, like,

“The Sher-riff had to find his man,
To tes-ti-fy,
And make a stand….”


   But Hidden Guns leaps out of the ordinary the minute John Carradine comes on, laughing it up as a hired gun named Snipe Harding, making corny jokes, bursting into song, and generally having a fun time, as in:

    “How old are you, sonny?”


    “You should be ashamed! At your age, I was fourteen.”

   Actually, some of Carradine’s dialogue is so good — and delivered with such relish — I suspect he may have written it himself (or borrowed it from his friend W. C. Fields) certainly nothing else in the writers’ or director’s oeuvre suggests such talent for bizarre zaniness.

   The rest of the crowd is nothing but solid. Richard Arlen, a western stalwart since The Virginian (1929) is reliably heroic as the beleaguered lawman, Faron Young makes an adequate juvenile lead, and Angie Dickenson fills her nothing part rather well. Bruce Bennett plays his raffish baddie like an actor who knows he’s stuck in B-mnovies, and it adds an edge of nasty desperation that works here.

   It’s Carradine’s show, though, and he makes a rather ordinary thing worthy of note.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SANTEE. Crown International, 1973. Glenn Ford, Michael Burns, Dana Wynter, Jay Silverheels, Harry Townes, John Larch. Director: Gary Nelson.

   What do you get if you cross a Disney coming of age story with a Spaghetti Western revenge story and a 1970s video aesthetic?

   Santee, that’s what. One of the first American movies to be shot entirely on video, this quixotic movie features Glenn Ford as Santee, a bounty hunter who has never quite gotten over the death of his son at the hands of outlaws.

   But then he meets young Jody Deakes (Michael Burns) and takes the teenage orphan under his wing. Did I mention that Deakes is an orphan because Santee killed his outlaw father? So, there’s some suspense as to whether Deakes is going to seek revenge against Santee, despite their budding father-son relationship. And Jay Silverhills is around too, portraying ranch hand John Crow and dispensing words of wisdom to the boy.

   All told, Santee is more of an historical curiosity than anything else. It feels like a made-for-TV movie and plays as a psychological Western. There’s something very 1970s about it all, including an incredibly New Age theme song that is so horribly out of place that it actually fits. The movie ends on an extraordinarily downbeat note, washing away all the saccharine wholesomeness that has come before.

   If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry too much.

   Santee, as a film, doesn’t make all that much sense. Why was this made? Why Glenn Ford? And why on video? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it was made and that, while the 1970s gave us a lot of cheap forgettable features, it also was a time when filmmakers and big name stars had a lot more license to try bizarre things than they do today. And that’s got to count for something.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST CHALLENGE. MGM, 1967. Glenn Ford, Angie Dickinson, Chad Everett, Gary Merrill, Jack Elam, Delphi Lawrence, Royal Dano. Screenplay: John Sherry, based on his novel Pistolero’s Progress (Pocket, 1966). Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Late 1960s oaters don’t have all that much to recommend them. Made at a time when the Spaghetti Western was reinventing and reinvigorating the genre, many of these films are more compelling as cultural artifacts than as compelling movies in their own right. Such is the case with The Last Challenge, a mediocre and formulaic Western featuring Glenn Ford as an outlaw turned lawman.

   Directed by Richard Thorpe, who had a long career at MGM, The Last Challenge was the veteran director’s final film. Unfortunately, it has almost nothing in it that you haven’t seen before. Ford portrays Dan Blaine, an aging gunfighter and former bank robber who installed himself as marshal in a small town. He’s also shacked up with the local brothel owner, Lisa Denton (Angie Dickinson). Then along comes upstart gunman, Lot McGuire (Chad Everett) who challenges Blaine to ascertain who is the better pistolero.

   At a running time of just over ninety minutes, the film offers up the typical – one might say even say stereotypical – tropes of 1960s B-Westerns: a crooked poker game, violent Indians, a man unable to fully escape his past. Truth be told, Glenn Ford, a presence in his own right, is just about the only thing that makes The Last Challenge worth watching. As for Dickinson, she looks completely bored, which is understandable when comparing how uninteresting her character is in this altogether forgettable film.

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