Western movies


APACHE TRAIL. MGM, 1942. Lloyd Nolan, Donna Reed, William Lundigan, Ann Ayars, Connie Gilchrist, Chill Wills, Ray Teal, Grant Withers, Fuzzy Knight, Trevor Bardett. Based on the short story “Stage Station” by Ernest Haycox (Collier’s, 22 April 1939). Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Lloyd Nolan is miscast as a no good rascally outlaw in MGM’s Apache Trail, a surprisingly effective, if not overly memorable, programmer. Directed by Richard Thorpe, who had a long career at the studio, the film stars William Lundigan as Tom Folliard, a stagecoach station manager who must contend not only with his criminal brother Trigger (Nolan), but also Apaches on the warpath. Given how much of a scoundrel Trigger is, it comes as no real surprise to him that the Apache uprising is due, at least in large part, to Trigger’s subterfuge.

   There’s also a romantic subplot that revolves around the unrequited love that Rosalia (Donna Reed), a Spanish employee at the station has for Tom. Her competition is war widow Constance Selden (Ann Ayars), who is guarding a secret about her late husband’s death. Then there’s a small amount of comic relief and music thanks to Chill Wills who portrays a worker at the station.

   All told, Apache Trail isn’t anything that one need to go seeking out. But it’s a decent enough Western, albeit one that features a formulaic plot about white people trapped inside a station in the Southwest with marauding Indians on the outside, one that would be repeated time and again throughout the next two decades. But with Thorpe’s craftsmanlike direction and a decent soundtrack courtesy of Sol Kaplan, Apache Trail works well for what it is. Still, one wonders who made the decision to cast Lundigan and Nolan as brothers?

BLACK SPURS. Paramount Pictures, 1965. Rory Calhoun, Linda Darnell, Terry Moore, Scott Brady, Lon Chaney [Jr.], Richard Arlen, Bruce Cabot, Patricia Owens, James Best, Jerome Courtland, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay: Steve Fisher. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   Let me explain the title first. Anxious to earn some money so he can get married, a ranch foreman (Rory Calhoun) goes after a bank robber named El Pescadore, and along with the $3000 reward money, he also earns the right to wear the outlaw’s trademark spurs. He also loses the girl he was going to marry in the process, and soon, as he captures bad guy after bad guy, he crosses the line and (ta-boom), he’s a Bounty Hunter.

   Which apparently is one rank lower than a scumlord, though it’s not clear from the move exactly why. We soon see that he’s crossed another line, however, as we find him promising to turn the small settlement of Lark, Kansas, into a helltown, forcing the railroad to move its forthcoming spur somewhere more profitable for the man he’s working for.

   Guess who’s married to the sheriff of Lark, Kansas? (If you don’t know, go back and read the first paragraph again.) Guess who gets religion fifteen minutes before the end of the movie? (Aw, you’ve seen it before.)

   Steve Fisher, who wrote the screenplay, was one of the better pulp writers of the 1930s before going to Hollywood, so the story is actually pretty good. It is certainly a step above the average Gene Autry picture, say, but it’s no classic either. The cast of veteran actors seem to know what they are doing at all times, but it’s a downright shame that Linda Darnell had to end her career as the madame of a traveling group of bordello girls — this was the last film she made before she died.

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

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TRAIL GUIDE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1952. Tim Holt, Linda Douglas, Richard Martin, Frank Wilcox, Robert Sherwood, John Pickard, Kenneth MacDonald. Director: Lesley Selander.

   Maybe in 1952 the market had changed and B-Westerns – especially those in black and white – were no longer in demand, and apparently Trail Guide, one of the last Tim Holt RKO westerns, did not make money at the box office. But I found this entry in the series to be an above average oater, one that zips along at a good pace and one with enough grittiness to make it as appealing to adults as to the kiddie matinee crowd. Indeed, there is something of a William Witney feel to this Lesley Selander directed production. Having character actor Frank Wilcox portray the villain wasn’t a bad move either.

   The plot: After Tim Holt and his perennially womanizing sidekick Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin) have finished guiding a wagon train out West, they run afoul of cattle ranchers who are none to eager to have homesteaders on their land. Totally original right? But the plot gets a goes off in another direction when the duo stumble upon a bigger criminal enterprise, one that gets not only the local marshal killed, but also the brother of lovely ranch owner Peg Masters (Linda Douglas).

   That angers Holt enough that he threatens to beat the truth out of one of the bad guys. And beat it out of him he does. He also slams the guy’s hand in a desk drawer. What did I say about a William Witney feel?

All told, Trail Guide is not a great film and it’s not something that you probably ought to go well out of your way to see. But if you do happen to catch it, you might be pleasantly surprised about how solidly crafted it is. This one didn’t deserve to lose a dime.


BUFFALO BILL IN TOMAHAWK TERRITORY. United Artits, 1952. Clayton Moore, Slim Andrews, Chief Yowlachie, Chief Thundercloud, Sharon Dexter, Eddie Phillips. Written by Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck. Directed by Bernard B. Ray.

   The release date is deceptive. Although part of this film was made the same year as High Noon, most of the action interludes — the cattle stampedes, wagon trains, buffalo stampedes and Indian battles — were lifted from old silent films, with sound effects dubbed in.

   It starts, after a time-killing tribute to the Western Pioneers made up of old stock footage, with what I thought was going to be an intriguing premise:

   Buffalo Bill (played by Clayton Moore, of Lone Ranger fame) and his sidekick Cactus (Slim Andrews) hear a wagon train being attacked by Indians and ride off to the rescue. As they join the battle on the side of the emigrants, however, it appears that the expedition is made up entirely of women. Then a closer look reveals that they are all men in women’s clothes!

   As Buffalo Bill and the transvestites bravely shoot down the attackers, Cactus looks askance at the whole affair and, with an admirably straight face, cautions, “Watch yerself, Bill!”

   At this point I thought this might be a really remarkable bit of film history. The unsung story of those who travelled west in search of true freedom to live as they chose, but such was not to be. It quickly develops that the cross-dressers are all soldiers who dressed up that way — possibly at the behest of a very lonely commander; who knows?– to lure out marauding Indians, who, it turns out, are actually local bad men in disguise. So we got bad guys disguised as Indians fighting soldiers dressed as women. Got that?

   What follows is the tired plot of nasty white men fomenting disorder and vexation to steal Indian land, set in a barely watchable movie, although Clayton Moore is rather good as Buffalo Bill, complete with wig, mustache and beard. Like Welles and Olivier, Moore always seemed more authoritative when performing with some facial disguise.

   I also liked the fact that the scriptwriters never bother to tell us just what the Dress-Heavy (Eddie Philips) does for a living. He simply struts about the town in dark hat and fancy suit, obviously a citizen of some local importance, demanding that something be done about all these Indians, then sneaking off to plot and scheme.

   But whether he’s the town banker, mayor, saloonkeeper, or Amway distributor is never made clear. Like Iago, he is simply a Villain, turning to the dog-heavy at opportune moments and whispering, “Tell the boys to meet me at the hide-out,” before going out to look respectable again. Like the real Buffalo Bill, he is less a person than he is a bit of iconography, and I’m glad the writers had the good judgment not to over-complicate him.

   Now I kinda like this movie, but I should warn discriminating viewers that the producer applied this minimalist concept to the rest of the film. BBiTT is a work of staggering frugality of the sort that can best be appreciated by those of us who love desperate filmmaking for its own sake. Be warned and enjoy!

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY. United Artists, 1959. Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Jack Oakie, Charles McGraw, Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige, Jay Novello, Tom Lea. Based on the novel by Tom Lea. Director: Robert Parrish.

   An American gunman who has lived in Mexico since killing man as a youngster takes an inquisitive trip into Texas, breaks his leg in an accident involving a tumbleweed and his horse, and is almost persuaded to stay. The wife of the lieutenant in charge of a cavalry post is one of the main attractions.

   There is also a good deal of political activity going on, both n the US and Mexico, but the story that’s worth caring about is a personal one. Mitchum is always always effortless in the roles he does on the screen, but he does more acting here than in a dozen other movies he’s been in. He portrays Martin Brady as a slow, cautious, and possibly thick-witted man, but one greatly in demand for the speed of his gun hand, and that’s wher all his troubles lie. In other words, this is strictly a Robert Mitchum picture, but Julie London still somehow manages to make the most of her rather limited role.

PostScript:   Tom Lea, who is said to have a small part, I wouldn’t recognize if I saw him, and I guess I did. Satchel Paige is, of course, the baseball pitching legend, and I never knew he was also in demand by anyone in Hollywood. Charles McGraw, a long-time favorite of mind, had a part too short to suit me, but I was glad to finally out a face on the voice of Jay Novello — better known in this house, at least, as Rocky Jordan’s old fried and enemy, Captain Sam Sabaaya of the Cairo police.

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


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.

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