Western movies


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CHEYENNE. Warner Brothers, 1947. Dennis Morgan, Jane Wyman, Janis Paige, Bruce Bennett, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, John Ridgely, Barton MacLane, Tom Tyler, Bob Steele. Screenwriters: Alan LeMay & Thames Williamson, based on the story “The Wyoming Kid” by Paul I. Wellman. Director: Raoul Walsh.

   Cheyenne is a movie with an identity crisis. It’s a Western, but also a mystery. It’s a comedy, but it feels like a would-be musical, especially given the fact that the score by Max Steiner occasionally overwhelms the dialogue and the plot. There are some gritty fight sequences, but also ridiculously light, borderline risqué, romantic moments.

   And with a screenplay by Western writer Alan LeMay and direction by Warner Brothers’ go-to guy for action films, Raoul Walsh, you might think you’re in for a psychological Western. But you’d be wrong. Cheyenne is much more typical of a late 1940s Western, one that doesn’t push the envelope very far.

   In that sense, the casting of Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman, talented actors both, as the leads was a perfectly good decision. Plus what’s not to like about Alan Hale as Fred Durkin, a goofy, cowardly Wyoming lawman?

   Morgan portrays James Wylie, a gentleman gambler and a cheat. After getting himself into a pickle in Laramie, he’s faced with a choice. Either work for the law or be sent back to Nevada to face justice for some past misdeed. Wylie’s a smart man and quite debonair. He chooses to work for the law, an easy choice. His mission: seek out a mysterious bandit named The Poet who is stealing from the Wells Fargo Stage Line.

   Wylie heads from Laramie to Cheyenne, encountering a group of bandits led by a man named Sundance (Arthur Kennedy) along the way. He also makes the acquaintance of a lovely young woman, Ann Kincaid (Wyman) who engages him in a bit of push and pull deception and flirtation.

   Theirs is a Western battle of the sexes, one that would be pulled off with much better effect by John Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). There’s just not that much visible chemistry between these two leads. Morgan just isn’t gritty enough for a Western hero.

   Cheyenne does have some mystery, but not all that much. There’s quite a bit of mistaken identities and assumed identities, lies big and small. It doesn’t take all that long, however, to figure out that Wells Fargo employee, Ed Landers (Bruce Bennett) is up to no good or that saloon girl, Emily Carson (Janis Paige) is going to play an important role in the film.

   Altogether, it’s a pleasant enough affair. Someone should just have turned down the musical fanfare a bit.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE STRANGER WORE A GUN. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor, Joan Weldon, George Macready, Alfonso Bedoya, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine. Director: André De Toth.

   Given how top notch the cast is, you’d expect the Harry Joe Brown-produced The Stranger Wore a Gun to be much better than it actually is. Directed by Andre de Toth, the film is an early 3-D Western that has some great moments and memorable scenes, as well as skillful use of color to convey meaning, but overall falls flat. It’s not so much that it’s a terribly made film, as it is a rather humdrum affair with a plot that’s far too weak for such a set of skilled actors.

   The film stars Randolph Scott as Jeff Travis, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders. Former, because he left the outfit for service in the Confederate Army upon seeing the Raiders recklessly and maliciously raid the city of Lawrence, Kansas, during the Civil War. But the past has a funny way of catching up with a man, and Travis is no exception.

   Upon suggestion from his apparent love interest, Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor), Travis flees the Deep South for Prescott, Arizona, where he ends up in the service of conniving gold thief, Jules Mourret (George Macready) who has big plans to rob the stagecoach business run by the father-and-daughter team of Jason Conroy (Pierre Watkin) and Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon).

   From the get go, Travis, has no love for Mourret’s two primary henchman, Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) and Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine). The palpable tension between the characters portrayed by Scott and Marvin is actually one of the highlights of the film. Rounding out the cast of villains is Alfonso Bedoya who portrays a Mexican bandit, Degas. His performance, almost certainly designed to be comical, ends up nothing less than cringe-worthy.

   In a not unfamiliar plot twist, Travis (Scott) has second thoughts about joining forces with Mourret (Macready) and ends up siding with the Conroys against his former employer. There’s just not all much to the plot besides that. The potential love interest between Travis and Shelby Conroy (Weldon) is never developed. As far as the supposed love between Travis and Josie, it’s hardly anything of note given that the chemistry between Scott and Trevor barely registers.

   All told, The Stranger Wore a Gun definitely has its moments, such the final showdown between Travis (Scott) and Kurth (Marvin) and a harrowing saloon-on-fire sequence. But the film ends up feeling like a bit of a disappointment, especially when watching it in standard 2-D. If you’re a De Toth fan, it’s probably worth watching just to compare it with his other Westerns. That said, most everyone would likely agree that Scott, Macready, Marvin, and Borgnine have all been in much better Westerns than this one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MILTON LOTT – The Last Hunt. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Cardinal paperback C-203, 1955. Gregg Press, hardvover reprint, 1979.

THE LAST HUNT. MGM, 1956. Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn, Constance Ford, Joe De Santis. Based on the novel by Milton Lott. Director: Richard Brooks.

   Fans of Western fiction need to run out and get a copy of this book, which ranks right up there with The Big Sky, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones and a very few others as one of the great novels of the American West.

   Lott takes a simple tale of buffalo hunters in the 1880s, charges it with vivid description of an unforgettable countryside, adds some thoughtful and very surprising plot twists, and lights it up with scenes and characters you won’t forget.

   Lott has a way of telling a story that seems to build up to a dramatic life-or-death confrontation every so often, then suddenly develops it with a maturity and naturalness that seems to grow directly from the characters and their setting.

   Even the bit players come alive here, and Lott’s descriptive powers are such that — well let me just say that when the freighter trekked through a Dakota blizzard, I forgot the warm Ohio Sun on my back and felt myself shiver!

   MGM filmed this in 1956, and they did a pretty fine job of it, too. Writer/director Richard Brooks always loved filming Literature, but he sometimes stumbled rather badly. Here though, he takes the best bits form Lott’s novel, simplifies when he has to, plays up the drama nicely, and doesn’t flinch from the grimmest parts. Along the way, he loses a bit of what makes the book so unique, but he turns out a damfine movie, so what’s to complain?

   I should also mention the acting: where Lott evoked character, Brooks provokes performance. Robert Taylor makes a chilling kill-crazy hunter (his second portrait of a psycho, after Undercurrent) Stewart Granger — who lost his wife to Brooks in real life — seems at home on the range in his first and best real Western; Russ Tamblyn looks a bit unlikely as a red-haired Indian, but that’s how Lott wrote it; Debra Paget, typecast again as a dusky Indian maiden walks through the part with assurance, and best of all—best of all is Lloyd Nolan as a one-legged mule-skinner whose commentary on the proceedings puts things into context.

   He sometimes seems to be carrying Brooks’ Important Message for him a little too obviously, but he does it with such robust good humor I didn’t mind a bit.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO. Universal International, 1954. Audie Murphy, Susan Cabot, Dan Duryea, Abbe Lane, Russell Johnson, Paul Birch, William Pullen, Jack Elam, Denver Pyle. Director: Jesse Hibbs.

   While Ride Clear of Diablo may not be the best Western ever made, it’s nevertheless an entertaining one. Directed by Jesse Hibbs, the film stars soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy as Clay O’Mara, a man who seeks revenge for the murder of both his father and brother at the hands of cow rustlers.

   O’Mara’s good with a gun, but he’s still got a lot to learn about how the world really works. It’s this juxtaposition of fluidity with guns and naivety about society that makes Murphy’s O’Mara an interesting character. True, O’Mara’s not the sort of brooding hero that Randolph Scott portrayed so successfully in the Ranown cycle, but he’s a step above the typical gunslinger hero that populated hundreds of 1950s Westerns.

   And there’s more to the film than Murphy. Although the former World War II hero got top billing, the real star of the show is Dan Duryea, an actor so incredibly good in portraying bad guys. In Diablo, Duryea portrays Whitey Kincade, a wild-eyed outlaw with a hyena laugh who takes a liking to the green Clay O’Mara.

   After a series of twists and turns, Kincade eventually teams up with O’Mara and assists him in capturing and killing the men who were both directly, and indirectly, responsible for the deaths of his brother and father.

   O’Mara has another interest besides revenge. Her name is Laurie Canyon (Susan Cabot). She happens to be the niece of the sheriff, Fred Kenyon (a well cast Paul Birch), who hires O’Mara and instructs him, for dubious reasons, to bring Kincade in for justice. She also just happens to be engaged to local attorney, Tom Meredith (William Pullen), who is actually the man responsible for murdering O’Mara’s brother and father. The plot thickens.

   Along for the wild ride in and out of Diablo is future Gilligan’s Island star, Russell Johnson, who portrays Jed Ringer, a criminal and a double-crosser who (deservedly) gets it in the chest from Murphy’s character in a dank silver mine. Abbe Lane portrays Kate, a saloon girl and Ringer’s lady friend, who, unlike the men she associates with, turns out to have a conscience.

   While there’s not all that much in the way of exceptional cinematography, the action sequences are both well filmed and choreographed, particularly those where Murphy is at the center of attention.

   At the end of the day, however, it’s Duryea, not Murphy, who makes this film worth watching. If you like Duryea as a crazed villain with a wild laugh and a devil-may-care grin, you’re just going to love watching Ride Clear of Diablo. It may not be one of the fine character actor’s best-known performances, but it’s surely a memorable one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TRAIL STREET. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Randolph Scott (Marshal William Bartley ‘Bat’ Masterson), Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Madge Meredith. Director: Ray Enright

   Like The Gunfight at Dodge City, which I recently reviewed here, Trail Street is a Western starring a major Hollywood leading man in a highly fictionalized biopic of Bat Masterson. It’s an above average horse drama, with some good cinematography and a decent enough plot.

   What makes it worth watching is the fact that all of the actors, especially Randolph Scott, who portrays Masterson as the semi-reluctant marshal in the town of Liberal, Kansas, seem to be having what can best be described as jolly good fun with the project.

   Masterson, who really just wants to be a journalist, is tasked with interceding on behalf of farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by an unscrupulous cattle baron, Logan Maury (Steve Brodie). Joining the legendary lawman in his mission is his deputy, Billy Burns, portrayed by perennial goofy sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes and an upright citizen by the name of Allen Harper, portrayed by Robert Ryan.

   In a way, it’s a shame that Ryan’s character doesn’t go bad in this one, given how skilled Ryan was as an actor in portraying villains, be they in films noir or in Westerns. Allen Harper’s on-again, off-again love interest Susan (Madge Meredith) and the saloon girl with a kind heart, Ruby Stone (Anne Jeffreys) add some flair and romance to what would otherwise be just another Western action story.

   In many ways, Trail Street a much better film, both visually and plot wise, than The Gunfight at Dodge City. That isn’t to say that it’s a great or even accurate biopic of Bat Masterson. It isn’t.

   But it’s a decent enough Western that, in many ways, marks a transition point between Randolph Scott’s more wholesome characters in the Zane Grey films and the darker, more brooding characters portrayed by Scott in the Ranown cycle films of auteur Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you should go out of your way to see this one, but I’ll just say that it’s a difficult film to actively dislike.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.

   What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.

   Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.

   From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.

   Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)

   Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.

   The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.

   Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY. United Artists, 1959. Joel McCrea (Bat Masterson), Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty.

   I really wanted to like The Gunfight at Dodge City much more than I did. I’m generally an admirer of Joel McCrea and I find it difficult not to like the lovely Julie Adams. I also quite enjoyed the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita starring McCrea as Wyatt Earp, which I reviewed here and believe to be a Western deserving of more critical attention.

   Yet despite McCrea’s adequate portrayal of Bat Masterson, Joseph M. Newman’s solid direction, and some beautifully decorated interiors, The Gunfight at Dodge City ended up feeling like a disappointment, a case of what could have been rather than what it is.

   McCrea, in a stoic role, portrays legendary lawman Bat Masterson as he transforms himself from a buffalo hunter to the lawman of Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, however, Masterson makes two mortal enemies, Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) who seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of Masterson, and Dodge City’s corrupt sheriff, Jim Regan (Don Haggerty). Both are villains without any depth.

   Masterson also finds himself torn between two beautiful women, Lily (Nancy Gates), a saloon owner and Pauline Howard (Julia Adams), a preacher’s daughter engaged to Bat’s brother, Ed (Harry Lauter) who ends up being killed by the aforementioned Dave (Anderson).

   Masterson also plays mentor to a mentally challenged kid, Billy, who has, to Bat’s mind, an unhealthy fascination with guns and violence. What does help make Masterson’s character a bit more interesting are his friendships with Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire) and Reverend Howard (James Westerfield).

   As you might suspect, Billy gets himself into a pickle by shooting a lawman and is sentenced to death by hanging. This forces Masterson’s hand. Will he uphold the law or will he revert to his semi- outlaw ways and free the lad from state custody?

   If all of this happens to sound like fairly standard Western fare, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what The Gunfight at Dodge City is. There’s a couple of fights, some drunken cowboys shooting in the twilight, a couple of love affairs, brothers with different personalities, a saloon, and a protagonist who kills his rivals and gets the girl. But it’s just not much more than that.

   True, there are a couple of great moments, but there’s really not too much in the way of memorable dialogue or excellent acting. McCrea is a very capable actor, but in this one, he just seems at times like he was phoning it in. Bat Masterson looks more bored than tormented. And everyone else was playing their roles better than many actors could have, but it still leaves one with a nagging question: aside from making a movie with Bat Masterson at the center of the action, what was it all for?

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