Western movies

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE. United Artists, 1969. Clint Walker, Vincent Price, Anne Francis, Paul Hampton, Craig Littler, Mike Henry. Written by George Schenck. Directed by Robert Sparr.

   In the wisdom of my advancing years I find myself wondering more and more where films like this come from. At the tail end of the “Spaghetti Western” cycle this film appears, written and directed by talents completely undistinguished, yet brought off with style and imagination, carried through by a well-used cast.

   Perhaps I should have said “almost completely undistinguished;” the cinematographer here was Jack Marquette, who worked in the B-movie sub-basement back in its 50s/60s hey-day, with films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Creature from the Haunted Sea to his credit, and he does serviceable work here. But to get back to the Movie, as they say:

   Clint Walker stars as Cain (aka:“Killer Cain”) a notorious gunman with twelve notches on his pistol, released from Prison after an 18-year stretch… possibly for thwarting bad-guy Mike Henry’s effort to spring his brother from jail in a bloody but abortive break-out attempt.

   At any rate, Cain finds himself at loose ends in a society that has moved past him, much like the aging lawmen in Ride the High Country, periodically tormented by the sadistic Mike Henry and unable to find a steady job because of his reputation. Like Randolph Scott in Country, he settles uncomfortably into employment in a shabby Wild West show run by Vincent Price (a marvelous performance) where his notoriety brings him dubious stardom.

   It also brings him into conflict with the show’s former star (Paul Hampton, of whom more later) a superior gun-artist now reduced to supporting-player status. The movie becomes an interesting study of the three-way relationship between Walker, Price and Hampton, with Walker’s easy assurance matched perfectly by Price’s show-biz savvy while Hampton knocks himself out on the sidelines like a moth batting into a light bulb, torn between jealousy and hero-worship.

   Writer Schenck also throws in Anne Francis, every bit as bewitching as she was back when she sported about on the Forbidden Planet, and Craig Littler as a good-humored young attorney dogging Walker’s footsteps like a benevolent counterpart to Mike Henry’s outlaw. Things run to a surprise finish after a satisfying set-to between Walker and Henry—two screen antagonists who seem perfectly matched against each other.

   But I should put in a word here about Paul Hampton as the would-be gunslinger: his performance has come in for a lot of ridicule — I particularly like the reviewer who called him the Ultimate Method Actor — but I find his playing energetic and daring. Equal parts James Dean and Leo Gorcey, he agitates, cries, and visibly deflates as the part requires, and his scene with Mike Henry is incredibly visceral.

   One thing puzzles me, though: according to Wikipedia, Paul Hampton is a highly-regarded singer and composer, but the only actual credit I can find for him is as the writer/performer of My Mother the Car. So either I’m missing something important or it’s pretty easy to be “highly regarded” in the Music Industry.

   Hey, maybe I should give it a try….


THE VIOLENT MEN. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Dianne Foster, Brian Keith, May Wynn, Warner Anderson, Basil Ruysdael, Lita Milan, Richard Jaeckel, James Westerfield, Jack Kelly, Willis Bouchey, Harry Shannon. Based on the novel Smoky Valley by Donald Hamilton. Director: Rudolph Maté.

   Sometimes the formula works. That’s what I thought when I finished watching The Violent Men, a taut, emotionally wrenching Western starring Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.

   The plot, a standard one about a range war, follows former Union soldier John Parrish (Ford) as he gradually becomes embroiled in one with local land baron and petty tyrant, Lew Wilkenson (Robinson). Parrish initially is more than willing to sell his land to Wilkenson and head East with his fiancée. But when he realizes just how thuggish Wilkenson’s brother, Cole (Brian Keith) is and the lengths to which the Wilkenson clan are willing to go in order to consolidate their power, Parrish shifts gears and decides to launch a violent confrontation with the brothers.

   But behind these eponymous violent men there is a devious, scheming woman with blood as cold as ice: Martha Wilkenson (Barbara Stanwyck), Lew’s wife and Cole’s lover. Her duplicitousness and hidden contempt for her husband serve to fuel the fire that both literally and figuratively consumes Anchor, the family’s estate.

   With its tragic underpinnings and intense focus on family drama, there is something operatic about The Violent Men. That may help explain why the movie makes such extensive use of its score in pivotal scenes, so much so that the music occasionally overwhelms the visual presentation.

   This has the opposite effect of what the director likely intended, making scenes a bit too melodramatic for their own good. But with a solid cast and some beautiful outdoor scenery, this Western is something I imagine Tennessee Williams could have written, had he worked in the genre. It remains an above average film that, despite its forced upbeat ending, is well worth seeking out.


THE DOOLINS OF OKLAHOMA. Columbia Pictures, 1949. Randolph Scott, George Macready, Louise Allbritton, John Ireland, Virginia Huston, Charles Kemper, Noah Beery Jr., Dona Drake , Robert Barrat, Lee Patrick. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Suffice it to say, there’s nothing new under the Western skies in The Doolins of Oklahoma. Starring Randolph Scott as real life outlaw Bill Doolin, this docudrama/Western has its moments, but is an overall average movie that begins and ends pretty much as you would expect it to.

   What makes it worth a look, particularly for those with fond memories of this type of movie that they certainly don’t make anymore, is the presence of co-star George Macready as the U.S. Marshal on Doolin’s trail. Character actors John Ireland and Noah Beery (Jr.) feature prominently as members of Doolin’s gang. Scott, not yet the star of films directed by Andre De Toth and Budd Boetticher, portrays Doolin as a man who wants nothing more than to leave his criminal past behind him and start a new life working the land as a farmer.

   Problem is: Scott’s Doolin is just too darn nice. One can hardly imagine him as a bank robber or the leader of The Wild Bunch, let alone a killer. As far as Doolin’s wife, as portrayed in the film by Virginia Huston, she hasn’t a clue. She’s nice and pretty, but that’s about as far as it goes. Still, if you happen to like Scott as a Western star – and I very much do – he’s not all bad here and does his best with the rather mediocre script.

   There’s some dry humor, genuine pathos, and wit here, all delivered in Scott’s distinguished Southern gentleman’s accent. It’s just not enough to make this movie particularly memorable.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF

TENNESSEE’S PARTNER. RKO, 1955. John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Ronald Reagan and Coleen Gray. Written by Milton Krims and D. D. Beauchamp, based on the story by Bret Harte (Overland Monthly, 1869). Photography by John Alton. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   An elegant little Western: maybe a bit short on action, but fun nonetheless and even a bit poignant in parts.

   Director Alan Dwan was in the movies almost since they started, with classics to his credit from Robin Hood (1923) to Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with stops along the way for Shirley Temple in Heidi and the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, but he is perhaps most fondly remembered for a series of medium-to-low-budget films he did for producer Benedict Bogeaus in the 1950s of which Tennessee’s Partner may be the most charming.

   Loosely (and I mean very loosely) based on a Bret Harte story, with the dubious charisma of John Payne and Ronald Reagan to carry it along, Partner moves a bit sluggishly at first; Payne is Tennessee, a cynical gambler who likes no one, and Reagan (looking a bit long in the tooth for the part) is a naïve cowpoke (that’s his name: Cowpoke) who likes everyone. When Cowpoke saves Tennessee’s life in a rigged gunfight and the two of them land in jail, they become unlikely friends and partners — hence the title of the piece.

   The plot gels a bit when Cowpoke’s fiancée (Coleen Gray) shows up and Payne recognizes her as a mercenary little tramp … and proceeds to run off with her, leaving Reagan in the proverbial lurch and looking something of a chump. Payne quickly dumps Gray however, and returns to settle up with his partner, since he did it all for Cowpoke’s sake anyway.

   So far so dull, and I think if I were a little kid at the movies in those days, I’d have been mighty restless by now. But then things pick up sharply, with a stolen gold claim, murder, a lynch mob out after the unpopular Tennessee, and enough chasin’ shooton’ and fightin’ to fill the quota of any B-Western.

   I should especially note the rich Technicolor photography of John Alton, a painter-with-light whose work highlighted films across the spectrum from He Walked by Night to Elmer Gantry, and makes Tennessee’s Partner a joy to look at even when there’s nothing going on.

   John Payne manages to inject a pleasing bit of rattiness into the character of Tennessee, and Coleen Gray, memorable in Red River and Nightmare Alley, makes a fine trollop, but the prize for Screen Presence here goes to Rhonda Fleming as Tennessee’s girlfriend and owner of the local brothel, an opulent establishment that advertises itself as a Matrimonial Bureau. When Coleen Gray enters and remarks, “I’ve never been in a place so beautiful!” Rhonda replies knowingly, “I think you’ll feel right at home!”


THE UNDEFEATED. 20th Century Fox, 1969. John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Antonio “Tony” Aguilar, Roman Gabriel, Marian McCargo, Lee Meriwether, Merlin Olsen, Melissa Newman, Bruce Cabot, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Royal Dano. Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

   Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, The Undefeated features two of Hollywood’s leading men, some breathtaking outdoor vistas, and a John Ford sensibility. All that, however, cannot compensate for a lackluster script. The movie takes far too long in getting to the heart of the post-Civil War story, one about national reconciliation as experienced through the intersecting journeys of two men and those recently under their commands.

   John Wayne, looking both sturdy and timeworn, portrays Colonel John Henry Thomas, a recently decommissioned Union officer who decides to try his luck in horse-trading in Emperor Maximilian’s Mexico. Rock Hudson portrays Thomas’s would-be nemesis, former Confederate Colonel James Langdon who, upon learning that the South has lost the war, heads to Mexico with his men and their families rather than live under humiliating Yankee rule.

   When the two men finally end up meeting in Mexico, it doesn’t take long for the movie veer into national reconciliation sentimentalism, as the two former enemies on the battlefield end up joining forces to defeat Mexican bandits. All well and good, except for the fact that the movie’s most glaring flaw is in the absolute mismatch of the two leads. For his part, Wayne actually looks like he belongs in the movie and is a good fit for his character. Hudson, on the other hand, looks like he’s phoning it in and is altogether unconvincing as a Yankee-hating Confederate colonel.

   Although beautifully filmed without any glaring technical flaws, this rather forgettable Western could have been a lot memorable than it ends up being. The film’s romantic subplots and its occasional attempts at lighthearted humor really don’t work very well, either. For a John Wayne film, The Undefeated is surprisingly uninspiring.


TOMBSTONE CANYON. Sono Art-World Wide Pictures, 1932. Ken Maynard, Cecelia Parker, Sheldon Lewis, Frank Brownlee, Jack Clifford. Director: Alan James.

   For a low-budget programmer, Tombstone Canyon isn’t that bad. As a matter of fact, this quirky, surprisingly violent Western starring Ken Maynard has a decent enough story. Maynard, who had a prolific career in Westerns, portrays “Ken,” a man in search of his true identity. Who was his father? Where did he come from? In order to get the answers he seeks, he travels to a town a stone’s throw away from Tombstone Canyon. There, he plans to meet a man who knows the secret to his past.

   But when the man who knows Ken’s secret past turns up dead and a grotesquely disfigured man in a black cape called The Phantom appears on the scene, things get weird. Not so much supernatural weird, but just a bit off kilter. Tombstone Canyon is surprisingly atypical; there’s no singing, almost no humor to speak of, and a level of brutality that wasn’t typical in films of this era.

   That’s not to say that the movie is some forgotten classic. It really isn’t. This is largely due to the fact that the movie’s means of telling a compelling story is altogether clunky and haphazard. Part of this, of course, is reflective of the time period in which the movie was made. So you end up seeing the texts of written letters on screen as a means of advancing the story and listening to dialogue that feels more like exposition than what would naturally flow from fully developed characters.

   Nevertheless, there’s something about Tombstone Canyon that makes it worth watching. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were wanting to do so much more than their financial and technical limitations would allow. This may be just another an average Western, but I’d very much consider giving it an “A” for effort.

THE HALLIDAY BRAND. United Artists, 1957). Joseph Cotten, Viveca Lindfors, Betsy Blair, Ward Bond (Big Dan Halliday), Bill Williams, Jay C. Flippen, Christopher Dark, Jeanette Nolan. Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

   For any number of reasons, Ward Bond didn’t get a chance to play leading roles in movies all that often, but even though he’s billed fourth, it is his performance in The Halliday Brand that takes the film out of the ordinary to something that lifts it above the limited budget it must have had.

   Joseph Cotten had the bigger name, but while his performance was otherwise spot on as usual, he was not really a cowboy. Ward Bond was, and as the bullheaded father who fights a losing battle with his three rebellious children in The Halliday Brand, bellowing all the way, he makes sure that everyone for miles around knows who owns the biggest ranch, built the town from the bottom up, and as sheriff, who ruled the range with no holds barred.

   But when he allows the half-breed suitor for his daughter’s hand to be lynched, then kills the boy’s father in an ill-advised attempt at a man-to-man reconciliation, he drives his older son away (Joseph Cotten), totally alienates his daughter (Betsy Blake) and leaves the third (Bill Williams) trying to be a good son but finding himself lied to in the old man’s plotting and scheming.

   Much of the story is told in flashback, which I believe is unusual in a western, but maybe I missed the others. This was the next-to-the-last movie that director Joseph H. Lewis made, and the movie is filmed with many interesting shots at various angles, and with lots of objects in the foreground. Overall, as a western, this may fall into the category of high melodrama for some, with some obviously outdoor scenes filmed on an indoor set, but as a melodrama, this is an very good one.

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