Western movies


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          


DOWN DAKOTA WAY. Republic Pictures, 1949. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Dale Evans, Pat Brady, Montie Montana, Elisabeth Risdon, Byron Barr, James Cardwell, Roy Barcroft, Foy Willing & the Riders of the Purple Sage. Screenplay: John K. Butler & Sloan Nibley. Director: William Witney.

   Full disclosure: I’m definitely a William Witney aficionado. Plus, out of all the singing cowboys, I like Roy Rogers the best. After recently watching Under California Stars, which I reviewed here, I had moderately high expectations for Down Dakota Way. At the very least, I thought it would be an overall fun movie watching experience. In that sense, I was somewhat mistaken.

   Now, it’s not as if Down Dakota Way is a terrible movie or that the direction is necessarily of sub-par quality. No, it’s just that the movie lacks that real, but difficult to describe in words, sense of fun, lighthearted, escapism. In many ways, Down Dakota Way has all the characteristics of a dark, brooding, Hamlet-on-horseback Western but without the excellent acting and brilliant cinematography that make many “Western noirs” truly outstanding films.

   In this entry in the vast Roy Rogers cinematic corpus, Rogers ends up doing battle with a corrupt cattle baron willing to employ criminal methods to cover up the widespread presence of foot and mouth disease among his stock. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the baron’s hired gunmen, a ruthless little piece of work, happens to be the adopted son of Roy’s favorite childhood schoolteacher. Since the gunman’s father was also a criminal, there’s a bit of a morality play in this somewhat forgettable Western, a didactic lesson about raising your children right and not judging sons for the sins of their fathers.

   Still, when all is said and done, Down Dakota Way really just isn’t all that captivating. For a Witney-directed film, I’d expected some better rough and tumble fight choreography. That, too, was sadly lacking.

THE TALL T. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva, John Hubbard, Robert Burton. Screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on the story “The Captives,” by Elmore Leonard, published in Argosy, February 1955. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   To start off with, let me tell you that this is one of my favorite Western films of all time. I won’t tell you that it’s number one, because I’ll be honest with you as well as myself and say that it isn’t, but it’s in the top five.

   In part it’s the actors. Randolph Scott isn’t a lawman doing his job with professional dignity and humor, a common role he had in westerns. In The Tall T he’s a struggling former cowhand, no more than that, but he was good at his job. But now he’s living alone and struggling to make a go of his own small ranch, as honest with himself and others as the day is long.

   Richard Boone is the villain of the piece, who along with a pair of low-life outlaws he rides with (Skip Homeier and Henry Silva) holds up a stage only to find that it’s not the regularly scheduled one, but one chartered by the man who married the plain-looking daughter of the richest man in the territory, a rabbit of a man who gives up his wife as part of a ransom scheme to save his own hide. Scott, who just happens to be on the stagecoach, is caught up in the plan and as chance would have it, is made a captive too.

   As their captors, Richard Boone and his two cohorts are as murderous and vicious as they come. For some reason, though, Boone lets the yahoos he associates with do all the shooting, and as he confesses to Scott over an open fire, he has a wish to have a piece of land himself. Only Richard Boone could have played the part. A killer who aches with the need for someone intelligent to talk to.

   I don’t know how they managed to make Maureen O’Sullivan so plain looking, but she is, and at length she admits that she her knows exactly why her new husband married her. But it’s Randolph Scott who makes the movie work. Rugged, steely-eyed and quiet-talking, but with little ambition more than to make a living on his own, he’s also more than OK with a gun, a fact that in the end turns out to be rather important.

   Other than the actors, though, it is the storytelling, the combination of script and directing, that simply shines. The budget probably wasn’t all that large, but the story simply flows, with no wasted moments, every scene essential to the story. This is a movie that’s down to earth and real, and made by professionals on both sides of the camera.

   As for Elmore Leonard’s story, the one the movie is based on, you don’t have to read more than two or three pages before you know where the timing and the pacing of the movie came from.

   Most of the movie is taken straight from the story, at most only a long novelette, with only a couple of substantial changes. The campfire scene between Scott and Boone referred to above was added, and the way Scott and the woman defeat their captors was re-orchestrated, both changes for the better.

   Everyone agrees that Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction was always the best around, but to my mind, his western fiction, which came along earlier, is even better. That includes “The Captives,” beyond a doubt, and the movie is even better yet. To my mind, near perfect.

BILLY THE KID TRAPPED. PRC, 1942. Buster Crabbe, Al St. John, Bud McTaggart, Anne Jeffreys, Glenn Strange, Walter McGrail, Ted Adams, Jack Ingram, Milton Kibbee. Director: Sam Newfield.

   Let me say right off from the start that any movie with Anne Jeffreys in it can’t be all bad, but this one comes very very close. If only they’d given her something to do. As the sister of the recently deceased sheriff of Mesa City (gun poisoning), all she is allowed to do is stand around and direct admiring eyes at young and handsome Billy the Kid (Buster Crabbe), hinting at a possible romantic liaison between the two, even perhaps after the movie’s end, but young and handsome Billy does not even seem to notice.

   And the 10 to 12 year old boys who would made up the large part of viewing audience back in 1942 would have yelled something fierce if he had.

   Not that there aren’t possibilities in the plot, which begins with Billy and his two pals on the road being rescued from jail by a benefactor unknown. Set to be hanged the next morning for a killing they did not do, the three saddlemates are grateful but puzzled.

   Turns out (and this comes out early in the story) that the three, Bill, Fuzzy and Jeff, have been impersonated by three outlaws dressed up as them, and if they were to be hanged, there would be no one to blame the three outlaws’ crimes on.

   After this masterful plot is revealed, the rest of the story is a pure yawner. Lots of men on horses riding here and there, holding up stagecoaches, fist fights in saloons, gunmen lurking behind stable doors, the whole works. Me, no longer 10 or 12 years old, I fell asleep.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          


THE PLUNDERERS. Allied Artists, 1960. Jeff Chandler, John Saxon, Dolores Hart, Marsha Hunt, Jay C. Flippen. Director: Joseph Pevney.

   The Plunderers appeared on the scene at the tail end of a great decade for Westerns when the genre was beginning to show moderate signs of fatigue. It wasn’t necessarily that Westerns in the early 1960s were necessarily bad films or sub-par Westerns, not at all. It’s just that after the 1950s – a truly golden era for the Western – there wasn’t much new, in terms of plot or structure, under the sun.

   Not yet anyway.

   The genre, of course, would be reinvigorated soon enough, thanks in large part to (love ‘em or hate ‘em) Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Monte Hellman, auteurs willing to take Westerns into cinematic realms more daring, violent, or, downright quirkier, than those great late 1950s Ranown cycle films of Budd Boetticher and the first films of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo trilogy. These directors who came to the fore in the 1960s built on the groundwork laid before them by directors such as William Castle, Andre De Toth, and Jacques Tourneur, among others.

   The TV Western in the early 1960s, of course, was another story altogether. There were still plenty to choose from on the air; many of them were quite good and stand the test of time.

   The Plunderers is best understood as a product of its historical context, coming as it did between the end of the 1950s Western and the dawn of the revisionist and Spaghetti Westerns. Directed by Joseph Pevney (Star Trek), The Plunderers, which feels more like an above average TV episode more than a feature film, stars Jeff Chandler as Sam Christy, a rancher wracked by doubt and self-loathing. Severely wounded during the Civil War, Sam was left with only one good arm and a chip on his shoulder the size of the West Texas.

   So it’s perhaps no surprise that when four marauding youngsters roll into Trail City and proceed to ravage the place, Sam’s natural response is to revert his gaze and pretend it’s not of his business. That, of course changes, when Sam realizes how much the townsfolk, particularly the lovely Ellie Walters (Dolores Hart), need him to take a stand.

    And take a stand he does. With a knife and with a gun, Sam decides it’s time to fight back against the four hooligans. Among the criminals is, Rondo (John Saxon), a cunning Mexican with some historical baggage on his mind. He has his eye, and occasionally his hands, on Ellie, including in one particularly brutal attempted sexual assault scene.

   Despite the semi-tired plot of townsfolk banding together to face down a threat, The Plunderers does have one great thing going for it. And that’s Jeff Chandler, whose acting skills are on full display here. Without much seeming effort, Chandler is able to vividly express the emotions of a man haunted by wartime trauma. He’s a man alone, but one who desperately wants human connection. He’s a fighter afraid to fight, and a lover afraid to love.

   When all is said and done, when Sam Christy decides to fight back, he’s not afraid to fight dirty. In an otherwise slow, but steady, paced movie, that’s when the action really begins. The Plunderers may not be the best Western out there, but it’s an solid film with very little working against it, apart from the fact that the cinematography is overall forgettable and the natural scenery all but not existent. But it’s nevertheless a good little morality play about courage and manhood.

THE RIDER OF THE LAW. Supreme Pictures, 1935. Bob Steele, Gertrude Messinger, Si Jenks, Lloyd Ingraham, John Elliott, Earl Dwire. Director: Robert N. Bradbury.

   Bob Steele was far from being one of the more handsome of the B-western heroes, but he sure made a lot of them before settling down into character parts (still mostly westerns) and ending up on television (and still mostly westerns).

   I don’t know why I always liked him as a cowboy hero, though, but as a kid I did, and I don’t even know what movies he was in that I might have watched. (I never watched F-Troop on TV, if that’s what you might be thinking.)

   I did not even recognize him at first in The Rider of the Law, and I hope I don’t spoil your surprise when you watch this movie the next time your order of DVDs comes in from Alpha Video, but I suspect you won’t either.

   SPOILER ALERT. He’s the bespectacled dude in big city clothes who comes to town with no gun and no idea of how to ride a horse. (He ends up facing backward.) There is a story that might be made of this as an interesting idea, but Law of the Rider isn’t it.

   I didn’t time it, but I think Si Jenks gets as much screen time as Bob Steele. As the bewhiskered old prospector who gets talked into becoming the town marshal when the previous one is shot up pretty badly when the Tollivers last came to town and robbing the bank in the process, Jenks is as lovable an old coot as they come, and funny, too.

   There are some other small surprises to come, but I have a feeling that at least one of the remaining plot twists was due to a certain ineptitude on the part of the script, rather than anything deliberate. They should have taken the good idea at the beginning and done more with it, but it’s far too late for any of the people responsible for this basically Grade D western to heed any advice from me.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE HANGING TREE. Warner Brothers, 1959. Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg, with Ben Piazza as Rune. Screenplay: Wendell Mayes & Halstead Welles, based on the novella by Dorothy Johnson. Music by Max Steiner. Title song sung by Marty Robbins. Directed by Delmer Daves and (uncredited) Karl Malden.

   The Hanging Tree was Gary Cooper’s last western other than the documentary The Real West, and appropriately it is one of the best of his career, and one of the best of the 1950‘s, the golden age of the Hollywood Western. It’s based on the novella by Dorothy Johnson (A Man Called Horse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), or it was supposed to be directed by Daves until he fell ill and Gary Cooper, whose company was also producing the film, asked Karl Malden to take the helm. It proved a remarkable collaboration and the start of a friendship and mutual admiration society that lasted until Cooper’s death.

   Like most good westerns the story is simple, Doctor Joe Frail follows the 1873 Montana Gold Trail to a small mining community, mostly tents and mud, where he sets up practice. When a boy, Rune (Ben Piazza) is shot for stealing from a sluice Frail saves him and makes him his bondsman, a virtual slave, blackmailing him with the bullet that proves he was the sluice thief.

   It’s a rough little town not improved by glad-handing backstabbing miner Frenchy (Karl Malden) who knows Doc Frail from another mining camp, knows how fast he is, and about the fire Frail may have set that burned his wife and her lover alive.

   This is a very adult adult western.

   When Frail wins a gold claim from gambler Society Red (John Dierkes) all seems set, and no one much listens to Grubb (George C. Scott) a fanatic faith healer who hates Frail and knows his history. There is only one element left, and that arrives when the stagecoach is held up and the horses panic. Everyone dies but a young woman who suffers severe wounds and exposure, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a Swiss immigrant come west with her now dead father.

   Frenchy finds her and feels a proprietary interest in her, as well as undressing her with every lewd look. Frenchy has other bad habits than backstabbing. But Doc takes on her care with young Rune, and while Doc seems a hard man there are signs he is more than that. Frankly Rune just can’t read him and neither can Elizabeth: a man with secrets like he carries becomes remote, even his name is false. He took the name Frail because he figured all men were frail and he was the frailest.

   When Elizabeth is well she tires of Frail’s bossiness, especially when he tells her he is sending her back to Switzerland because he can’t live near her. She runs away, Rune rebels, and Doc secretly backs them through store owner Tom Flaunce (Karl Swenson), the only decent man in this little mud hole Sodom of the west despite his shrewish wife, Edna (Virginia Gregg).

   Backed by Doc Elizabeth and Rune team with Frenchy who knows gold digging though he isn’t very good at it, and though they find nothing Doc keeps backing them whenever they need money.

   When a rainstorm fells a tree on their claim they find the glory hole, a vein of nuggets in the roots of the tree and beneath. Now they are rich and rush to town to celebrate.

   But Frenchy hasn’t forgotten Elizabeth and when he tries to rape her, Doc arrives just in time and kills him. No, that’s an understatement, because in one of the most brutal scenes in any American western of its era, Cooper empties his gun into the fleeing Frenchy, who dies at the edge of a cliff, and Doc then kicks his corpse over.

   The grim Frail as he coolly walks down the pleading running Frenchy putting bullet after bullet in him is a scene you won’t soon forget. Perhaps only Cooper’s brutal beating of Jack Lord in Man of the West and throwing Cameron Mitchell into the fire in Garden of Evil come anywhere near it. And, I’m little ashamed to admit it, it is a very satisfying scene as well, Malden is always a very killable bad guy.

   Grubb and Society Red and a group of drunken miners drag Frail to the hanging tree to lynch him, and have the rope on his neck and Grubb at the horse’s reins when Elizabeth and Rune arrive and buy his life at the cost of their claim. As the drunken miners battle over the claim Rune frees Frail and Elizabeth turns to leave but Frail calls her back and kneels in the buckboard to embrace her. Fade to the Marty Robbins theme. He literally found his love at the hanging tree.

   The Hanging Tree has more than enough virtues and might be Cooper’s best if not for High Noon. Frail is a complex character who is never just a hero, just a good man, just misunderstood. Life and fate have bred a rattlesnake mean streak in him and it is clear he fears it though he fights it more successfully than he knows.

   It is not until he comes clean that the viewer knows for certain he did not set than fatal fire. Malden, fresh off his Oscar, is quite good as Frenchy, but as a director he is a revelation. This film is as well directed as any major western of the era, a worthy rival for Ford, Mann, Hawks, Daves, or any of the other iconic Western directors. IMDb says he finished the film, but Daves became sick early, and Malden directed the bulk of the film

   Ben Piazza as Rune is a little lost in this cast of veterans, but not badly lost, and Schell is fine in a tough no nonsense non-glamorous role that is both physically and emotionally demanding. And then there is that New York actor making his Hollywood debut on screen, George C. Scott. He has only a little time on screen, but he makes the most of every scene as the fanatic, cowardly, venal, murderous Grubb. If he had never done anything else you would remember him from this. I did for years, though I didn’t really know who he was or connect the star of television’s East Side, West Side with the part.

   But like almost any film he is in this is Gary Cooper’s film and there is never a moment you don’t know it, whether he is on screen or not. I recall seeing this on the big screen (it was the debut of Technirama) and being bowled over by Cooper. He’s still impressive on the small screen though in this one, Malden seems to have staged it to shoot Cooper from a lower angle making him seem even taller and more commanding than he was to begin with.

   The Max Steiner score is fine, and surprisingly, considering the title, the Marty Robbins theme song turns out to be one of the best of the era and one of the best western themes ever. “To really live/ You must almost die …” proves haunting if you may not want to think about it too much and “I found my love at the hanging tree” is a tough lyric to pull off even in a western song but Robbins succeeds.

   Brian Garfield suggested they should have stopped making westerns when Cooper died and this should have been the last of its kind. I don’t know that I agree with him, but his point is well taken. In many ways this is the last and one of the best of its breed. Screen westerns never really reached this height again; in my opinion, they were never this good again, not at this level. Whatever Cooper brought to the western, went with him.

   If you have never seen this one then find it. It shows up on TCM now once in a while and is available from the Warner’s Archives to own or watch on line if you are a subscriber. You can also listen to the Marty Robbins song and see the titles and end scene on YouTube.

   This is quite simply one of the best westerns of the 1950‘s and one of Gary Cooper’s best westerns, which makes it one of the best westerns ever made.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS. Allied Artists, 1955. Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, Barton MacLane, Dick Foran, Lola Albright, Gordon Jones, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef. Based on the story “The Rider of the Ruby Hills,” by Louis L’Amour. Director: Frank McDonald.

   For a Western with quite a few excellent character actors, Treasure of Ruby Hills is overall something of a disappointment. Based on a Louis L’Amour story, the movie stars Zachary Scott as a man determined not to follow his deceased father down the rabbit hole of frontier criminality.

   Scott, with menacing eyes and a thick mustache, portrays the enigmatic Ross Haney, a man determined to revenge the death of his friend and business partner at the hands of Frank Emmett (the always enjoyable-to-watch Lee Van Cleef). Haney also seems to have a greater scheme in mind. Although it takes a while for the viewer to learn his overall motivations, one soon learns that Haney’s overall objective is to control the water supply to the town of Soledad, so as to exert power over the thuggish cattle barons who rule the town.

   Sounds simple enough.

   Unfortunately, the film tries to do too much. It introduces far too many characters in a running time of just over seventy minutes. There’s the rancher brother and sister combo. No surprise here: Haney falls in love with the sister and ends up the mortal rival of her would-be fiancé, Alan Doran, portrayed by Dick Foran.

   There are also two rival cattle/land barons, Chalk Reynolds (Barton MacLane) and Walt Payne (Charles Fredericks), both of whom end up with a bellyful of lead thanks to Doran’s scheming. Plus, there’s the marshal; Scott’s other would-be business partner; a wounded man whom Haney tends to; an innkeeper; and a waitress. Add to this some backstories about the characters and you end up with an overall muddled story, one that simply refuses to flow smoothly.

   What Treasure of Ruby Hills does have going for it is, however, is atmosphere. The narrative unfolds in a semi-claustrophobic, self-enclosed universe of suspense and violence. There really are no good guys here, just men morally clad in shades of grey, burdened by the albatross of their past misdeeds and their family history.

   Significantly, there are no children in the film and, if I am not mistaken, apart from horses, no animals either. The movie presents the West as rough and tumble world, where live is cheap and loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold.

   As much as I like Zachary Scott, Lee Van Cleef, and Barton MacLane, I’d very much hesitate to categorize Treasure of Ruby Hills as a particularly good film. Sad to say, but it’s really just another mediocre mid-1950s Western. But somehow I managed to see it through to the very end, wondering how it’d all turn out and who’d still be alive and kicking once the proverbial dust settled. Take that for what it is, as it surely must mean something.


NOTE:   This movie is available for viewing on Hulu. Follow the link.

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