Western movies


VIGILANTES OF BOOMTOWN. Republic, 1947. Alan Lane (as Red Ryder), Robert Blake, Roy Barcroft, Peggy Stewart, George Cheseboro, Ted Adams and John Dehner. Screenplay by Earl Snell, based on characters created by Fred Harman. Directed by R.G. Springsteen.

CITY OF BAD MEN Fox, 1953. Jeanne Crain, Dale Robertson, Richard Boone, Lloyd Bridges, Rodolfo Acosta, John Doucette, Frank Ferguson, Percy Helton, Leo Gordon, Harry Hines and Don Haggerty. Writtten by George W. George and George Slavin. Directed by Harmon Jones.

   Something prompted me to watch a double bill of VIGILANTES OF BOOMTOWN (Republic, 1947) and CITY OF BAD MEN (Fox,1953) two undistinguished but very enjoyable B-westerns centered around the Corbett-Fitzsimmons prizefight in Carson City Nevada in 1897.

   VIGILANTES is a classic Red Ryder flick from Republic, with Alan Lane as the cowboy hero deputized to keep order in Carson City during the fight, young Robert Blake as Little Beaver, his Indian pal (and alleged comic relief) veteran Nasty Roy Barcroft as – well – as the veteran nasty who means to steal the gate receipts, and John Dehner, of all people, as Fitzsimmons. It’s a modest time-killer, but fast and unpretentious enough to make it fun.

   Republic was losing interest in Red Ryder about this time, and it shows. Crowd scenes are sparse, sets are familiar, and the action, while up to Republic’s usual high standard, somehow seems a bit blasé. What carries it through is the novelty of the idea and the professionalism of the players. Alan Lane, on the verge of getting his own series, is as stoically heroic as ever, Roy Barcroft flashes his evil grin with practiced malevolence, and when they square off for yet another fight, it’s with all the enthusiasm of yet another battle between Right and Wrong.

   CITY OF BAD MEN is slightly more ambitious, filmed in color with lots of extras and a characters a bit more shaded: Dale Robertson as an embittered soldier of fortune, deputized to keep order in Carson City during the fight, a young Lloyd Bridges (looking eerily like Randy Quaid!) as his edgy kid brother, and aspiring nasty Richard Boone as Johnny Ringo, who means to steal the gate receipts. I will also call attention here to Don Haggerty, an actor who had a long and mostly-uncredited career, as another rival owlhoot; the script doesn’t give him much to do, but he does it well.

   Again, it’s all pretty fast-paced and helped along considerably by Charles G. Clarke’s photography. Clarke was an old hand around Hollywood, whose credits include TARZAN AND HIS MATE, and he makes the thing very pleasing to the eye. Harmon Jones keeps things moving swiftly, with a sure hand on the action scenes.

   Both films, though, overlooked a ploy I would have thought almost obligatory: they both feature a struggle between the hero and the heavy while the prizefight is in progress, but apparently neither director thought to inter-cut the good-guys/bad-guys battle in the dust with the prize-fighters in the ring.

   Or maybe they did, and just figured it’d be too obvious. Whatever the case, both movies got along just fine without my help.


CAPTAIN APACHE. Scotia-Barber, Spain-UK, 1971. Lee Van Cleef (Capt. Apache), Carroll Baker, Stuart Whitman, Percy Herbert, Elisa Montes, Tony Vogel. Director: Alexander Singer.

   The thing I won’t forget about Captain Apache is undoubtedly the film’s theme song as it’s sung – spoken, really – by Lee Van Cleef, who portrays this quirky acid western’s titular hero, an Apache in the U.S. Calvary.

   Investigating the enigmatic last words of a dying Indian Commissioner, he finds hemself caught in a web of deception as he begins to uncover a conspiracy to assassinate the President Ulysses S. Grant, who is traveling through Arizona on his way to California. As he proceeds with his investigation, Captain Apache encounters a witch who piles him with hallucinogens, a motley crew of Mexican bandits, and an urbane scoundrel played to the hilt by a scene-chewing Stuart Whitman who also wants to know what the cryptic phrase “April Morning” means.

   There’s a lot of humor in Captain Apache, much of it goofy and borderline juvenile, one that surely was designed to elicit guffaws from European teenagers. It works for a while, but it soon wears out its welcome, making the scenes in which humor is employed less and less compelling as the movie begins to repeat itself. While there is a final sequence on a train that’s admittedly worth waiting for, it pales in comparison to so many other train scenes in so many other westerns, Spaghetti or not.

   I wouldn’t recommend anyone go out of their way to catch this one, but fans of Lee Van Cleef might appreciate seeing him in a starring role, one that apparently required that he shave off his trademark mustache and give his vocal cords a nice workout.

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.

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