Western movies


HELL CANYON OUTLAWS. Jarod Zukor Productions/Republic, 1957. Dale Robertson, Brian Keith, Rossana Rory, Dick Kallman, Charles Fredericks, Buddy Baer and Don Megowan. Written by Allan Kaufman and Max Glandbard. Directed by Paul Landres.

   I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist a movie called Hell Canyon Outlaws, and when it was over, I wasn’t even mildly disappointed upon reflecting that there was no actual Hell Canyon in the film itself. Call it Poetic License I guess, but director Paul Landres was doing some interesting movies about this time, and this is one of them.

   It’s easy to look at Hell Canyon Outlaws and say Brian Keith carries it with his off-beat portrayal of Outlaw Leader “Happy” Waters: good-humored, lethal, and pitched on a collision course with steely lawman Caleb Wells (Dale Robertson — And get it? Wells? Waters?)

   But the fact is, some intelligent writing and sure-handed direction went into making the character—and those around him—come alive.

   The film itself balances delicately between cliché and creativity. Robertson’s Caleb Wells is a sure-shot sheriff who cleaned up the town years ago, but things are quiet now. His Deputy—fittingly named “Bear”—is drunk all the time, and the Town Council wants to replace the two of them with something more modern. And of course no sooner do they oust their lawmen than four owlhoots ride into town, obviously wired for trouble, with Brian Keith’s jovial leader keeping a treacherous hand on the switch.

   Standard stuff so far, made even more ordinary by staid Alexander Lockwood as the “modern” replacement lawman, and noisy method-acting Dick Kallman as the local quick-draw kid trying to prove he’s a man. Add Rossana Rory (of Big Deal on Madonna Street) as Dale Robertson’s girlfriend who doesn’t see the need for violence, and you’ve got a pretty cold deck to try and deal a new hand from.

   The wonder is that they do it, and do it rather well, too. Landres and the writers keep things poised on the edge of violence, so that whenever Keith and his overgrown goons (including Buddy Baer and Don Megowan) swagger into a saloon, bank or dry-goods store, they seem just about to take it apart by size alone.

   Contrast this with Dale Robertson, waiting silent and tight-lipped on the sidelines, no longer a lawman, but always just about to spring into action, and you get a very involving movie indeed, particularly when he and Brian Keith circle about each other, talking quietly but both clearly looking for the right moment….

   And when that moment comes, it doesn’t disappoint: An extended shoot-out in a darkened saloon, with Dale and his deputy jockeying for position against the bad guys, who make some smart moves themselves, ratcheting up the tension, even as shots blast and bodies fall all over the place.

   Hell Canyon Outlaws is a low-budget affair, and the DVD I got at Cinevent is a thing of shreds and patches, but it has flair and to spare, plus a few surprises. Recommended.


THREE HOURS TO KILL. Columbia, 1954. Dana Andrews, Donna Reed, Dianne Foster, Stephen Elliott, Laurence Hugo, Carolyn Jones, and Whit Bissell. Screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons, Roy Huggins, and Maxwell Shane, from a story by Alex Gottlieb. Directed by Alfred L. Werker.

   As medium-budget Westerns go, this is one of the best. With a writing team that includes Roy Huggins and Maxwell Shane, one expects something mystery-related, and they deliver nicely here, under the able direction of Alfred Werker.

   Werker is best known to mystery fans for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Fox, 1939) but in the 1950s he turned out a series of well-tuned westerns that included Devil’s Canyon, The Last Posse, and Rebel in Town, a film with violence still shocking today.

   Getting back to Three/Kill though, it’s structured as a revenge tale (another theme common to the genre) as Dana Andrews, looking very much like a declining star, rides back into the town where he was lynched three years ago, looking for the owl-hoot (sigh) who framed him for murder.

   What he finds is a town full of folks who’d rather forget all about him, including Donna Reed, who bore his child and is now respectably married to Richard Coogan (TV’s original Captain Video), Bartender James Westerfield, Sheriff Stephen Elliott (who played Cap Vid’s arch-enemy, Dr Pauli) gambler Laurence Hugo, and the ubiquitous Whit Bissel — all of them excellet in meaty parts..

   The film itself was produced by Harry Joe Brown, who did the Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott westerns, and he filled this one with color, action, and a cast of familiar faces from the B-Westerns, including Francis McDonald, Snub Pollard, Buddy Roosevelt and Sid Saylor.

   There’s an unusual slant to this film, with Andrews the center of attention who finds himself now oddly irrelevant as he pursues his lonely justice. Rather than letting things get bogged down in talk though, Director Werker keeps the action coming, photographed in splendid b-movie Technicolor with the requisite horse-chases, fist-fights and shoot-outs one expects.

   What one doesn’t expect is the surprisingly thoughtful conclusion, which I won’t reveal here except to say that it lingers in the memory long after a lot of better-known westerns have bit the cranial dust.


TUMBLEWEED. Universal Pictures, 1953. Audie Murphy, Lori Nelson, Chill Wills, Roy Roberts, Russell Johnson, K.T. Stevens, Madge Meredith, Lee Van Cleef, I. Stanford Jolley. Director: Nathan Juran.

   Surprisingly stylish for an Audie Murphy oater, Tumbleweed isn’t a particularly well-known Western. Yet it’s a quite watchable movie and one that deserves wider recognition as well as an official stand-alone DVD release. Directed by Nathan Juran, whose significant work in art direction gave him a keen eye for staging scenes, this Universal-International release may not have anything in it that you probably haven’t seen before.

   But that doesn’t mean what it has isn’t solid. There are Indians on the warpath; a White man scheming with them (of course); a seemingly impossible love affair; a man wrongfully accused of a crime; and a sheriff who must face off against the town’s rabble who are determined to exact frontier justice.

   Murphy portrays Jim Harvey, a drifter who takes a job guiding a wagon trail through Yaqui Indian country. When the braves attack the caravan, killing the men, he gets blamed for their deaths. Some seem to think he ran away out of cowardice. Others seem to believe he may have been in cahoots with the Yaqui. After he’s sprung from the town’s jail by a friendly Indian tribesman, it’s up to Harvey to clear his name and find out the real reason the wagon trail was ambushed. Chill Wills and a youthful looking Lee Van Cleef, respectively, portray the town’s sheriff and his deputy. Van Cleef is very good here as the tougher and more brutal of the town’s lawmen.

   Now, I know what you may be thinking. It sounds like every other Western from this period. Well. Yes and No. Juran isn’t often thought of as a Western auteur the way in which someone like Budd Boetticher is. But he definitely has his own particular style, one that is highly notable in two scenes in particular: Harvey’s jailbreak and a fight scene in which our hero takes on the corrupt, greedy White man behind all the recent troubles. Well-staged and filmed with a sharp sense of what makes action scenes invigorating to an audience, they are but two standout moments in a film that punches well above its weight.

GHOST TOWN. Bel Air Productions / United Artists, 1956. Kent Taylor, John Smith, Marian Carr, Serena Sande, John Doucette, Joel Ashley, Gilman Rankin, William ‘Bill’ Phillips (the latter uncredited). Director: Allen H. Miner.

   When it comes to westerns made in the 1950s, I find that independently produced black and white movies such as this one are often a lot more fun to watch than some of those filmed in color with big name stars. It may be my own skewed vision of the world, but I think the more personal approach says more to me than do pictures filtered through the eyes of corporate accountants, say.

   This one starts slow, but the story wouldn’t have worked as well as it does without establishing who exactly the characters are and what’s motivating them, beginning with the four passengers in a stagecoach heading west through Indian territory: a young woman from Boston going to meet the man she is going to marry; a Bible-thumping preacher who has nothing but brotherly love for the noble savages; a doctor who spends most of the day taking long swigs from a bottle; and a well-dressed but still shady-looking gentleman of uncertain profession (Kent Taylor).

   Along the way they are joined by the young woman’s fiancé (John Smith) and his crusty old sidekick Crusty (an unbilled Bill Phillips); an Army sergeant and his young son; and eventually a tongueless and disgraced Indian chief and his young mixed-heritage female companion.

   The stagecoach chased by a band of angry Indians, they manage to find refuge in an abandoned town, and that’s when all of their various secrets start to come out. None of these come as a complete surprise to those of us who have seen a lot of western movies, but it’s as smoothly done as it ever was ins bigger productions. There’s lot of action, too, for those who watch westerns only for the action.

   A couple of quibbles. The Indians at first abandon their chase when the stagecoach reaches the town — totally abandoned because of disease, they discover, and so, they assume, the Indians have marked the town as taboo. But for the sake of the story, though, once the fugitives are “safely” holed up inside the local saloon, the Indians show no signs of concern about bringing up the attack again.

   Which, of course, brings out either the best, or the worst, of each of those trapped inside, with very little ammunition to aid them.

   The other question I have is why on earth Bill Phillips gets no screen credit. He’s there primarily for comic relief, true, but he’s on the screen a lot more than some of the others who do get screen credit.


TOMAHAWK TRAIL. United Artists / Bel-Air Productions, 1957. Chuck Connors, John Smith, Susan Cummings, Lisa Montell, George N. Neise, [Harry] Dean Stanton. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Although there’s not much depth in Tomahawk Trail, it’s a rather enjoyable Western programmer that provides a good hour of pure cinematic escapism. With more than a nod to John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, the plot follows a U.S. Army troop caught in hostile Apache country. Problem is, Lt. Jonathan Davenport (George N. Niese), an arrogant West Point graduate, has gone mad from a head injury and exposure to the desert sun. This forces Sgt. Wade McCoy (Chuck Connors) into action, taking charge of the troop, knowing all too well that this could lead to his Court-martial.

   Along for the journey is a ragtag group of soldiers, including Private Reynolds (John Smith) and Private Miller (a young Harry Dean Stanton) and two women, the white Ellen Carter (Susan Cummings) and the Apache squaw Tula (Lisa Montell). The dialogue written for the women is bland and unconvincing. That’s putting it mildly. Conversations between the two are in a childish stereotypical Native American patois, with exceedingly simple words and phrases. Although it’s grating to the ears, fortunately the bulk of the film’s dramatic moments revolve not around them, but around McCoy as he tries to convince himself that he is doing the best possible thing in the worst possible situation.

   In many ways, there’s not all that much that’s wrong with Tomahawk Trail. It’s nothing exceptional, either. Just another 1950s Western that is neither particularly compelling, nor particularly off-putting. If you’re a Chuck Connors fan and you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look.

BELLE STARR. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Randolph Scott, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, John Shepperd, Chill Wills, Louise Beavers. Director: Irving Cummings.

   This was the first sound film to pretend to tell the story of the notorious western outlaw named Belle Starr, and by all accounts, they messed it up pretty badly. Some of the names are the same, and an incident or two, perhaps, but that’s about all.

   As I understand it, Belle Starr was not even all that notorious in her lifetime. It was not until the time of her unsolved murder in 1889 that dime novels picked up her story, leading to a novel about her by Richard K. Fox, Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889. Not too incidentally, Fox was also the publisher of the National Police Gazette, which had also been touting her exploits.

   In any case, the movie is entertaining enough, but from the opening scene, you know the intent was primarily to create a legend, be it based only on Technicolor and imagination. The movie begins with an old black man plowing a rocky field aside a burned out mansion telling his grandson the story of the woman who once lived there, and it ends with one black man telling another that Belle Starr will never die, because she is a legend.

   Belle Shirley is played by a young Gene Tierney, who is very pretty but not as beautiful on screen as she grew to be. Even so she is better looking than the real Belle Starr by a multiplicative factor of 100 or more. The story takes place in Missouri, but Tierney’s southern accent and mansion makes it seem as though the film was set in Georgia. (Cue for “Tara’s Theme.”)

   Miss Belle, as portrayed in the movie at least, is a Southerner through and through, even after the war is over, and when she meets Captain Sam Starr, a rebel turned bandit still fighting the Yankee troops and carpetbaggers busily taking over the state, she gives him shelter, at the cost of her home being burned (Dana Andrews’ character, Union major Thomas Crail, a former sweetheart, comes into play here), and she and her brother end up being declared outlaws.

   Captain Starr is played by Randolph Scott, as upright and soft-spoken then as he was in later films. Eventually he and Belle marry, she taking up his cause as thoroughly as he. Until, that is, she realizes that perhaps he is taking his killing and marauding too far.

   From this point on, though, you’ll have to watch the film yourself. It’s likable enough. You just have to realize that it’s made up of whole cloth only, planting the seeds for the legend that grew from there.


ONE FOOT IN HELL. 20th Century Fox, 1960. Alan Ladd, Don Murray, Dolores Michaels, Dan O’Herlihy and Barry Coe. Written by Aaron Spelling and Sydney Boehm. Directed by James B Clark.

   I hate it when someone has a good idea for a movie and then it gets fumbled.

   In this case it’s a warped quest for vengeance set in the old west, with Alan Ladd as a settler passing through a small town who sees his ailing wife die because of the callousness of its citizens: The hotel clerk won’t fetch a doctor, the local druggist doesn’t fill a prescription promptly, and when Ladd makes a fuss, the sheriff detains him on suspicion long enough for Ladd’s wife to die before he gets back with the medicine that would have saved her life.

   Chastened by her death, the good people of the town try to make up for it by offering him a job, but when Ladd takes a position as Deputy Sheriff, it’s with an eye out to settle the score.

   To this end, he recruits a small band of ne’er-do-wells and owlhoots to help him loot the local bank: Don Murray as a drunk looking to restore his pre-war fortunes; Dolores Michaels as a dance-hall floozie trying to get out of the racket; and Dan O’Herlihy and Barry Coe, who just like stealing & killing — and One Foot takes a step into Caper Movie Territory.

   The supporting cast does quite well in this, particularly when Murray and Michaels (who was memorable in The Fiend Who Walked the West) kindle a spark of decency between them and wrestle with the notion of going straight. Some of Aaron Spellings’ expositions are a bit too pat—like the characterizations in Love Boat — but when we get to the robbery and subsequent posse chase, led by Ladd himself, things get agreeably nasty as writer Sydney (The Big Heat, Violent Saturday, etc.) Boehm rings in some gratuitous murders and wicked double-crosses to liven things up.

   Too bad One Foot is afflicted by the wrong director and a star past his prime.

   Director James B. Clark did some highly successful animal films (Flipper, and A Dog of Flanders come to mind) but he lacks the sense of pace necessary to this sort of thing. As for star Alan Ladd as the bitter widower nursing a deadly grudge and finally turning on his cohorts…

   Well, back in the 40s he could have used his impassive features to suggest wheels within wheels ready to grind up his unwitting prey, but at this stage in his career Alan Ladd was from all accounts fighting a battle with booze & drugs, and not trying very hard to win. Podgy and dull-eyed, he looks about as deadly here as a rubber ball, and he’s not helped by a costume designer who dresses him like a hick.

   With Ladd and Clark at its heart, it’s surprising that One Foot in Hell works as well — or as not-too-badly — as it does. I recommend it to fans of Westerns and Caper Movies with a quick finger on the fast-forward trigger, who will find here a solid half-hour’s entertainment in a 90-minute movie.


  ROUGHSHOD. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Sterling, Gloria Grahame, Claude Jarman Jr., John Ireland, Jeff Donnell, Myrna Dell, Martha Hyer, George Cooper, Jeff Corey. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) and Hugo Butler. Director: Mark Robson.

   Roughshod is a surprisingly noir western from RKO, the quintessential nor studio, co-written by Geoffrey Homes (Out of the Past) and directed by Val-Lewton-alumnus Mark Robson. Surprising because it sets up a standard White-Hat vs. Black-Hat plot, then pretty much abandons it to dwell of the Pilgrim’s Progress of four Ladies of Easy Virtue reluctantly rescued by absurdly tight-lipped White-Hat Robert Sterling, who is stalking and being stalked by Black-Hat John Ireland.

   Homes does a thoughtful job sketching the trials and tribulations of the euphemistic “Dance Hall Gals” (who include Martha Hyer, Jeff Donnell and the unforgettable Gloria Grahame) as they chase dreams of Love, Lust, Avarice and Respectability, showing sensitivity without straying West of the Pathos, while Robson skillfully sustains tension in the Val Lewton style, with half-seen figures flitting about the night, punctuated by a few very chilling scenes of Ireland prowling about like a monster in a horror flick.

   There is also a dandy run-and-jump gunfight to wrap things up with a satisfying ironic twist that I refuse to divulge.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #44, May 1990.


ERNEST HAYCOX – Canyon Passage. Little Brown, hardcover, 1945. Pocket, #640, paperback, 1949. Many other reprint editions exist.

CANYON PASSAGE. Universal, 1946. Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges and Andy Devine. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Ernest Haycox. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   Ernest Haycox writes best about working men — miners, ranchers, or as here a freighter — made heroes by force of circumstance, set in communities that are not always right or just, but keep striving to get that way. Canyon Passage is the best example of this I’ve seen so far, not so much a carefully-plotted story as a series of interactions between fallible people bouncing off each other in an evolving milieu.

   A book like this gets life from its characters, and Haycox gives us a colorful cast. Logan Stuart, the central character, is the solid, dependable sort to hang a story on; he has a hankerin’ for smart, tough Lucy Overmire, and she for him, but… well, Haycox puts it best, as Logan ponders to himself:

   “It was a queer business — this confused wandering of people toward things they wanted and could not have, this silent resignation to less than they wanted. It was a world where people walked with their desires and seldom attained them, but it was all in silence, held away….”

   I credit Haycox with making these ill-turned relationships at least as interesting as the fights, murders and Indian raids that propel the story. He draws an interesting parallel between George Camrose — Logan’s friend betrothed to Lucy, and also a polished thief preying on his friends — and Honey Bragg, a murderous brute and near-outcast, also preying on the locals. Both are eventually punished by the mining camp they live in (and off) but in very different ways, and it’s this sense of Community as Character that gives Canyon Passage real depth.

   Bragg gets his comeuppance at the hands of Logan Stuart, after the good people of the town have goaded them into a fight for no better reason than they wanted to see a battle royal. And Haycox writes us a dandy. Faced with the meaner, stronger, Bragg, Stuart starts the fight by cracking a bottle across his face, then smashing a chair over his head, then picking up the pieces of the chair and smashing them over his head, then picking up another chair…. You get the idea. It’s brutal and very real.

   Camrose, on the other hand, gets tried by a Miner’s Court for the murder of a man whose poke he’s pilfered, found guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence (He is in fact guilty as hell.) and locked up till the town can get around to lynching him—which puts Logan in the position of having to rescue his guilty buddy for the sake of the misguided Lucy.

   Me, I woulda just sat back, seen him hanged, and moved in on Lucy myself, but that’s probably why I was never the hero of a Western. And I have to say Haycox rings in the Indian Raid that brings everything to a head and resolves the various conflicts without seeming a bit contrived.

   Producer Walter Wanger made a fine job of filming this, hiring Jacques Tourneur, known for his horror flicks with Val Lewton, to direct, and dependable hack Ernest Pascal to stick close to the book. He also signed up sturdy leads Andrews, Donlevy and Hayward, and a host of dependable character actors, including Ward Bond as Bragg, Andy Devine as a homesteader, and best of all Hoagy Carmichael as an amiable minstrel.

   The result is a film of considerable charm and surprising brutality. Like I say, writer Pascal stays close to the book, and director Tourneur gives us the beatings & killings with unflinching nastiness, done up in fairy-tale Technicolor by photographer Edward (Heaven Can Wait) Cronjager.

   There is one point where the movie departs from the book though, and I think it’s an improvement. And since it’s at the ending, I’ll throw in a SPOILER ALERT!!

   In the book, Logan Stewart helps his friend Camrose escape, but it does no good as he’s shot down shortly thereafter by one of his victims. Logan, having led the miners against raiding Indians, is forgiven by the town, mainly because they got their man anyway and no real harm done.

   In the movie, however, Logan returns from injun-fightin’ to find that the good people of the town have burned down his store as retribution for his crime. Having chastened him, they are now willing to accept him back as a member of society in good standing. And Logan accepts it as a just punishment, ready to move on with his life.

   It’s not a major story element, but somehow this moment, as directed by Tourneur, gets to the meat of what Haycox was saying in the book. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but it has something to do with a civilization not built on laws, religion, or even tradition, but on people. And therefore as good or bad as the best and worst of us.

   As Walt Kelly used to say, “it’s enough to make a man think.”

THE MAN BEHIND THE GUN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Randolph Scott, Patrice Wymore, Dick Wesson, Philip Carey, Lina Romay, Roy Roberts, Morris Ankrum, Katharine Warren, Alan Hale Jr., Douglas Fowley, Robert Cabal. Screenplay: John Twist, based on a story by Robert Buckner. Director: Felix Feist.

   An unusual sort of western, one that place in the burgeoning small town of Los Angeles, circa 1850 or so. The town is a lot more elaborately laid out than most western towns that sit in the middle of a prairie for no great reason to be there. References to Santa Monica to the west, the La Brea tar pits, and the importance of water to the growing community all are intended to add to the historical authenticity, as are references to whether California should enter the Union as a slave state or not, along with the presence of a young bandit named Joaquin Murietta.

   The plot is too complicated to go into (I didn’t understand it) but boiled down to as small a nutshell as I can manage, Randolph Scott (Major Ransome Callicut) comes to town undercover disguised as a schoolteacher (the latter being the result of some quick thinking on his part) to root out a gang of secessionists who also want to control the area’s water supply.

   There are several other major threads to the plot, however, including killings, desperate ruses and several lengthy scenes of singing and dancing in the local saloon, not to mention some ineffectual efforts in the way of comedy by Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr.

   There too many twisted threads in this movie’s tale, in other words, taking place mostly in cramped indoor sets. This is made all the more noticeable when at last the director takes the movie outside, for a big shoot-em-up finale. Scott is stiffer than usual in this one, looking far too old (55) for young Patrice Wymore (26), the real new schoolmarm in town. (I forgot to mention the rolling on the floor catfight the latter has with songstress Lina Romay, who also has eyes on Scott).

Next Page »