Western movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

FALSE COLORS. Paramount, 1943. William Boyd, Andy Clyde, Jimmy Rogers, Douglass Dumbrille, Tom Seidel, Claudia Drake, Glenn Strange, Pierce Lyden, Roy Barcroft, and Robert Mitchum. Screenplay by Bennett Cohen. Directed by George Archainbaud.

   Figure this for the plot of an imaginary film noir: Let’s say there are three War Buddies (maybe Alan Ladd, William Bendix, and Hugh Beaumont) who pick up a fourth towards the end of the war. The new guy, a veritable orphan, forms an attachment to his surrogate family of war buddies, and when he learns inherited a lot of money from the father he hasn’t seen in years, he impulsively writes a will making his new pals beneficiaries in the event of his death — which, as you might expect, comes around very soon and rather suspiciously thereafter.

   The buddies, of course, have no intention of accepting the money, and when they get out of the Service they journey to their late pal’s home town — and discover an imposter there in his place, along with a cute-kid-sister-in-distress! Something sinister’s going on, and with Douglass Dumbrille and Roy Barcroft around, it’s easy to see what.

   Okay. Now substitute a Cattle Drive for the war, make the three buddies cowboys and the inheritance a ranch, and you have the real False Colors, an intriguing Hopalong Cassidy effort with a fine cast of heavies, including Bob Mitchum, still in his “Right, Boss,” days. There’s the usual riding, running and shooting amid splendid backgrounds, a nice knock-down-drag-out between Boyd’s and Mitchum’s stuntmen, plus an interesting performance from someone named Tom Seidel (who?) as the neurotic buddy and his feckless impostor.

   Seidel’s performance, in fact, is one of those bits of desultory inspiration that make “B” movies so much fun to watch: It’s basically a nothing part in a pot-boiler movie, from an actor whose career never went anywhere, but he’s in it for all he’s worth, quietly, intelligently working up his act, and investing it with thoughtfulness and energy, even when he must have known no one would be watching.

   As for the rest, well, this was among the last half dozen Hoppy films produced by Harry Sherman, and it shows. Sherman’s care is still there in the excellent photography, locations and stunt work, but comic relief Andy Clyde is a bit tired, and Jimmy Rogers is no match for James Ellison or Russell Hayden, who preceded him. Young Bob Mitchum graduated in importance to the point where he could match stuntmen with the star, and his fellow-heavies are their usual nasty selves, but a tinge of weariness had settled in, and…

   …and actually it serves the story rather well, familiarity breeding a weary worldliness (or maybe a world-weariness) that would emerge a few years later in the cynical heroes of film noir — and foremost among them, Robert Mitchum.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE HARD MAN. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Guy Madison, Valerie French, Lorne Greene, Barry Atwater, Robert Burton, Rudy Bond, Trevor Bardette, Myron Healey. Director: George Sherman.

   The Hard Man begins with a gunfight. Lawman Steve Burden (Guy Madison) faces off against his friend, Ray Hendry (Myron Healey). Hendry is quick with his gun. But not quick enough. For Burden ends up killing Ray. So much for questioning him. As it turns out, there was some question as to whether Ray was truly guilty of murder or whether he had been set up. To find out, Burden travels to a small town where cattle baron Rice Martin (Lorne Greene) and his wife live out a tenuous romantic existence. Martin’s top dog in town and he’s sure to let everyone know it. But being a big shot doesn’t mean that his wife Fern (Valerie French) is beyond straying. In fact, nothing seems to set Martin into more of a rage than knowing his wife may be running around behind his back.

   Although the movie is most definitely a Western, there’s something very film noir about the whole affair. A movie nominally about a tough lawman, it really turns out to center around a femme fatale and her ability to skillfully manipulate the men in her life. Fern Martin plays all the menfolk against each other, weaving a devious little web of lies as the body count piles up. In tandem with the film noir plot, the movie also has numerous instances where some exceptionally hardboiled dialogue is employed. These scenes are thoroughly enjoyable, such as when Rice asks his wife why she sits in the dark like a cat, and she answers that it allows her to avoid seeing things she’s rather not see. Good stuff, indeed.

   Now, is The Hard Man a particularly good movie? Yes and no. It’s got some grating orchestral music for a score, and it has a decidedly studio lot feel to it. No wide vistas here. And Guy Madison, while talented, simply didn’t have the screen charisma of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or James Stewart.

   And yet. If you go into The Hard Man expecting very little, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. While an overall decidedly average motion picture, this Columbia Pictures release has several things going for it. Although Madison was the top-billed star, it’s really Lorne Greene and Rudy Bond who shine. Both basically steal every scene they are in. Many will primarily remember Greene as America’s favorite TV dad Ben Cartwright on Bonanza or as Adama on the original Battlestar Galactica. In The Hard Man, Greene gets to demonstrate his ability to play a villain with great skill. His physicality, combined with his distinct deep voice, makes for a thundering bravado performance.

   As for Rudy Bond, his portrayal of a hired gunslinger is utterly convincing and delightfully memorable. Bond also demonstrated similar traits in his portrayal of a murderous bank robber in Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957), released that same year. Rudy Bond double feature? Sounds good to me.
   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CHARLES NEIDER – The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. Harper & Brothers, 1956. Crest #368, paperback,1960. University of Nevada Press, trade paperback, 1992.

ONE-EYED JACKS. Paramount, 1961. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Pina Pellicer, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Timothy Carey and Sam Gilman. Written (at various times) by Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, Sam Peckinpah and Rod Serling. Directed by Marlon Brando.

   Like Day of the Outlaw, a book and film that grow widely dissimilar. But where Day’s incarnations are excellent, these are great.

   Charles Neider wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Mark Twain, and I read somewhere that he then set himself to a similar work about Billy the Kid, but gave it up after years of research and wrote the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones instead. His own introduction to a later edition tends to refute this story, but I like it anyway. In fact, Neider’s prose is very much like Twain’s. No surprise that, but it’s Twain in a nostalgic, elegiac tone, as the narrator, Doc Baker, looks back on youth and friendship now gone.

   Doc, however, is only the narrator. The subject of the book is a Billy the Kid figure, here named Hendry Jones, and Neider manages to convey second-hand the attraction and fear the character evokes in those around him: the easy charm, generosity, sexual magnetism and murderous nature of a man who lives only in the moment. Make no mistake, Hendry Jones is one of the great figures of Fiction and he’s right at home in a great novel.

   No wonder then that the character and the book would attract an actor of Marlon Brando’s caliber. And even less wonder that, having bought the novel and been given carte blanche on the film, Brando would feel compelled to re-shape it to his own psyche as One-Eyed Jacks.

   The result is nothing like the book, but there’s no arguing with the beauty of the thing. Brando directs himself with a knowing narcissism that makes for powerful cinema and plenty of just-plain-fun movie moments. He knows his own strengths, and writes and plays to them, with quietly-mumbled lines like “Don’t be doin’ her that way,” shot with all the impact of a stray bullet.

   For a self-indulgent egoist, Brando is surprisingly generous with his supporting players. At the top of the list, Karl Malden’s portrayal of venal hypocrisy is as compelling as Brando’s forthright knavery. Slim Pickens and Pina Pilar play lustful and lustee, arrogant and innocent, with real feeling, and Ben Johnson, my personal favorite, damnear steals the whole show as a bloody-eyed bank robber partnered with Brando.

   And oh yes: Timothy Carey, the sine qua non of quirky movies, got most of his scenes deleted (he was fired for causing trouble on the set and demanding that his salary be doubled), but survives long enough to try to back-shoot the Star — never a good idea in a Western.

   I read that tidbit in another book: A Million Feet of Film: The Making of One-eyed Jacks (2019) by Toby Roan. It’s full of information, with snippets from just about every biography, magazine article and gossip column on the subject, some quite juicy. I would have appreciated more insight (much of the material seems self-serving and rather suspect), but there’s no gainsaying the research and effort that went into this, and there are gems of information here, including:

   One of my favorite moments in the film is when Rio (Brando) catches up with his betrayer (Karl Malden) after five years in a Mexican jail and months of searching. The scene is set for a shoot-out… and they sit down and lie to each other in an extended scene, perfectly written and played!

   So imagine my surprise to learn that this was largely re-shot without Brando, when the Studio heads decided it made Malden’s character too sympathetic. I read the original dialogue here and looked at the scene again… and I had to agree with the Suits that this works much better! Credit goes to editor Archie Marshek and Karl Malden, for a seamless and captivating bit of Cinema.
   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE NAKED DAWN. Universal Pictures, 1955. Arthur Kennedy, Betta St. John, Eugene Iglesias, Roy Engel, Charlita. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

   Arthur Kennedy as a Mexican bandit. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then The Naked Dawn probably isn’t for you. If you are amenable to that, you might find, much as I did, that this B-Western actually punches well above its weight.

   Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who had a natural talent for transforming what would otherwise could have been forgettable dreck into highly stylized works, The Naked Dawn does not have the production values of more polished Westerns of the era. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own special charm.

   Kennedy actually puts in a convincing performance as Santiago, a solitary bandit who inadvertently ends up on the property of a young married couple. His presence there has an immediate effect on the beautiful wife who tells him that her marriage was really one of necessity, not love.

The young husband is also taken with Santiago, albeit for different reasons. He’s keen to know what it’s like to be an outlaw, to live with reckless abandon. Soon, a strange love triangle will emerge between these three characters. While the wife dreams of running away with Santiago, the husband plots his murder.

   For a Western, the film has precious little natural outdoor scenery and a lot of intimate dialogue that one associates more with melodramas. It’s a chamber piece, to be sure and the film could just easily have worked as a film noir set in 1950s Los Angeles. Clumsy and stilted at times, it nevertheless has its own internal logic. Overall, the film doesn’t always succeed in keeping your attention. But Arthur Kennedy’s Santiago is a quite memorable movie character. More than you might expect.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE MOONLIGHTER. Warner Brothers, 1953. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Ward Bond, William Ching, John Dierkes, Morris Ankrum, Jack Elam. Writer: Niven Busch. Director: Roy Rowland.

   In Warner Brothers’ The Moonlighter, Fred MacMurray portrays a cattle thief who finds himself at odds with not only the law, but also with his brother (William Ching). He also comes into conflict with his own true love (Barbara Stanwyck), who gets fed up with his reckless criminal ways. Typical Western fare, for sure.

   Although the plot may be fairly standard, The Moonlighter is nevertheless an odd film. Not because it’s quirky or because it’s offbeat. No. It’s because of two factors, none of which seem to make much sense. First of all, the film’s running time is a mere 78 minutes, yet it has an intermission! Second, it was released in 3-D, but there’s really nothing in the movie that makes it remotely worthy of that format.

   The cast also makes it an odd film. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were undoubtedly far too talented for this uneven film. Admittedly, the reunited Double Indemnity (1944) actors do the best they can with the sometimes downright atrocious low-tech dialogue that plagues what could have, with some tweaking, been a much better film. Too much of the dialogue is on the nose, with characters telling each other how much they either love or hate one another. It’s just cringeworthy to listen to these two actors who, it’s clear, deserved a much better script than the one offered here.

   And yet, despite these factors, there are some rather good moments in the film. These include when Fred MacMurray’s character works outside of the law to avenge the death of an innocent man or when Barbara Stanwyck’s character becomes a deputized lawman (or woman!) and rides out on horseback, rifle in tow, to seek justice. In how many movies, can you say that a female law officer shoots and kills a villain portrayed by Ward Bond? Not many, I suppose. That too makes The Moonlighter unique. Whether it’s worth your time depends, however, on how much you like the actors. (This includes the always enjoyable Jack Elam.) Without them, this would have been a completely turgid and forgettable production.

   

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REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

LEE WELLS – Day of the Outlaw. Rinehart, hardcover, 1955. Dell #906, paperback, 1956.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW. United Artists, 1959. Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Nehemia Persoff, David Nelson, Venetia Stevenson, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Elisha Cook Jr, Dabs Greer, Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert, and Paul Wexler. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on the novel by Lee Wells. Directed by André De Toth.

   Two very different takes on the story, each memorable in its own way.

   Both deal with an isolated frontier community imprisoned by snow and mud, a tough rancher willing to kill for more land, and a band of outlaws just barely under the control of a hardened chief, who take over the town. But from there on, the book and the film go different ways.

   In Wells’ novel, the Rancher Blaise Starrett (The name seems a deliberate reference to Shane, released two years earlier.) has a foreman, Dan Murdock, who refuses to follow his boss’s murderous program and gets fired for his scruples. From that point on, Dan becomes the book’s central character. There are minor digressions to limn the thoughts and actions of townsfolk and desperadoes, but mostly we follow his efforts to a) unseat the outlaws; b) keep his neighbors and those he loves from gettin’ they fool heads blowed off; c) thwart Starrett’s lethal scheme; and d) get in out of the damn weather, which veers from mudslide to blizzard as only Wyoming weather can.

   Murdock doesn’t always succeed at this, which lends a real sense of uncertainty to the outcome, as we follow his progress through fights & frustrations to a dan-dan-dandy final shootout between the citizens and a last, lethal gunman who bids fair to kill them all. Wells has a gift for detailing fast action and dangerous personalities with equal flair, and the result is a book that kept me up reading past my bedtime. Which is why I became a Grown-up.

   In the film however, Dan Murdock(played by Nehemiah Persoff) gets blind drunk early on and pretty much drops out of the action as Starrett (Robert Ryan at his toughest) decides to gun down the inconvenient nesters in a “fair” fight, only to have his plans smattered (“smattered?”I like that. I think I’ll keep it.) his plans smattered by the dirtiest-looking bunch of renegades to hit the screen till The Wild Bunch.

   These baddies seem on the edge of smattering up the whole town, but they’re held in tenuous check by Burl Ives, who clings to the fantasy that they are a disciplined bunch and he their leader — and Burl Ives is about the only actor possessed of a screen presence imposing enough to carry it off. He actually projects a sense of power over the likes of Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller and Paul Wexler (more on him later) while they convey a sense of incipient chaos you can feel coming through the screen.

   Oh – did I mention Ive’s character is dying of a bullet wound? And if he goes, his owlhoots look all set on rape, murder, and wholesale destruction — for starters.

   It’s all very tense, but I have to say it also gets awfully confining after a while, with so much happening indoors. Even when they get outside, the landscape is flat and uninteresting, and I found myself growing restless until…

   Well I’ll just say the last part of Day of the Outlaw is spectacular and literally chilling, with Robert Ryan and the outlaws struggling through a blizzard to an eerie, silent, haunting climax.

   And now a word about the cast. Ryan & Ives dominate the thing, but I was impressed by what director André De Toth did with the outlaws. David Nelson (Ricky’s older brother) projects youthful angst as a kid gone wrong; Lance Fuller, inept leading man in things like Voodoo Woman and The She Creature, is actually quite good here as a grinning gun-happy back-shooter; Jack Lambert is the only actor who could scowl and sneer at the same time, and Paul Wexler…

   Wexler’s star never rose high nor shined brightly in Hollywood, but I recall him fondly as the sinister butler in The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters and Henry Daniell’s lip-sewn gofer in The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. Here he plays a mixed-race desperado whose fixed stare threatens to steal the show from all the better actors.

   Films are too often judged and condemned based on their faithfulness to the book, but I found this one just as enjoyable in its own way. And when I say that about a film from a book I couldn’t put down, well… Try them both.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

THOMAS W. BLACKBURN – Short Grass. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1947. Bantam #207, paperback, 1948; #1164, paperback 1953. Other editions include Dell, paperback, 1973.

SHORT GRASS. Allied Artists, 1950. Rod Cameron, Johnny Mack Brown, Cathy Downs, Morris Ankrum, Alan Hale Jr. Raymond Walburn, Harry Woods, Stanley Andrews, Riley Hill, Jeff York, Tristam Coffin and Lee Tung Foo. Screenplay by Thomas W. Blackburn. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   An excellent book turned into a superior B Western.

   I started watching Short Grass last month and was immediately struck by something rare in B Westerns: Depth. Early on, wandering gunfighter Steve Lewellen (Rod Cameron) gets dry-gulched by Myron Healey, who is in the employ of big rancher Hal Fenton (Morris Ankrum.) He survives (Healey doesn’t) and is nursed back to health by small rancher Pete Lynch (Stanley Andrews) and his daughter Sharon (Cathy Downs — whom you may remember in the title role of My Darling Clementine.)

   The whole episode serves as a plot device to put Rod on the side of the small ranchers, but the film takes a few minutes to tell us a bit about Myron Healey’s character, and how he comes up against Rod Cameron. The two even have a bit of edgy interaction before getting on with the story, and I wondered why a B-Western would take such pains with a throwaway character like Healey’s. Then I saw that the screenplay was by the author of the book, who would naturally try to get as much of his story on screen as he could.

   Then I started wondering about the book itself. So I dug out a copy to compare and contrast with the film, and it was a revelation.

   Don’t get me wrong. Short Grass is not a great novel. But it’s a damn fine one, and it made a superior B Western. But where was I?

   Oh Yeah: In the book, Steve Lewellen uses his prowess to keep Pete Lynch from being crowded off his range. But when he kills Fenton’s hot-head brother he realizes the odds are too great, and if he stays it will bring worse trouble. So he advises his friend to sell out and rides away from the woman he has grown to love.

   That’s book one of a two hundred page novel. Book two finds Lassiter three years later, farming on the outskirts of a small town called Brokenbow, which threatens to become a wide-open town since the railroad arrived and drew in the cattle drives—headed by Fenton.

   And this is where Blackburn turns a standard western into something a bit better, sketching out vivid portraits of the townsfolk: a town-taming sheriff, a Swede farmer, crusty old doctor, shopkeeper… and even a Chinese Cook. They all come to life here and join in the action, of which there is plenty.

   Ah yes, the action. You couldn’t ask for anything better. In one scene Lewellen takes on four opponents and Blackburn makes it read real, not like some pulp-book superman. And he wraps things up with a running gun battle through the streets: Townsfolk vs drovers, and never lets the reader lose track of who’s where and what hit whom—a neat trick, and he does it well.

           ***

   When Allied Artists made this into a movie they were still sloughing off the Monogram persona, like a caterpillar turning hopefully moth-ward, and they fashioned Short Grass firmly in the B+ mode, with sturdy sets, good stunting, lots of extras, and names familiar to Western fans.

   Blackburn cut out the unnecessary characters, put the bit parts in deep focus (as in the opening cited above) and changed what needed changing; in the book, the virile, town-taming sheriff is fooling around with the wife of the Newspaper Editor. In the movie he’s tough, paunchy Johnny Mack Brown, loving her pure & chaste from afar.

   Allied Artists picked Lesley Selander to direct, and no one could have made a better job of it. Selander was a dab hand with action, and he visualizes Blackburn’s fights and shoot-outs just as he wrote them. But more than this, Selander — who brought Hopalong Casssidy and The Lone Ranger to the scree — had a feel for the mythic qualities of the men and their story. When, after many minutes of furious battle, the battered gunman and the wounded lawman lock arms and march across the street into a saloon full of bad guys, it carries all the feeling of a similar moment in Ride the High Country. Peckinpah did it better, but Selander did it first.

   You can enjoy Short Grass equally as book or movie, but I recommend you try both. And before I wrap this up, I should add that Tom W Blackburn was also a songwriter of sorts with one solid gold record to his credit.

   Can you name it?

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

STAGECOACH TO DANCERS’ ROCK. Universal Pictures. 1962. Warren Stevens, Martin Landau, Jody Lawrance, Don Wilbanks, Del Moore, Bob Anderson. Screenplay: Kenneth Darling , based on his own story (his only film credit). Director: Earl Bellamy.

   Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much from Stagecoach to Dancers’ Rock. Especially once the opening credits began rolling, along with a ridiculously outdated (even for 1962) theme song that basically explains the whole plot. Also, the movie starts off like any other somewhat lower budget Western of the time period. There’s a ragtag group of travelers heading into Apache territory. And among them, there’s Dade Coleman (Martin Landau), an outlaw recently released from jail.

   The first twenty minutes or so are nothing you haven’t seen time and again. But things begin to get interesting when it turns out that one of the passengers – a Chinese woman on her way to San Francisco – may have smallpox. The myriad ways in which the characters react to that development could have carried the whole film, had the screenwriter wanted it to.

   But instead, the film shifts into a half-baked subplot in which one of the stagecoach’s passengers named Jess Dollard (Warren Stevens) teams up with a gunman to rob the very coach he is riding. Why he does this and what lead him to this decision is never fleshed out. In fact, by the end of the movie, it’s almost all forgotten.

   So why did I enjoy the second half of this movie so much? Martin Landau. That’s why. Stagecoach to Dancers’ Rock was one of his earliest screen roles. And he certainly was a much bigger presence in this production than he was in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

   Here, he takes on the role of a psychotic Western outlaw with glee and with vigor. He smiles that mad smile he was capable of. His character quotes aphorisms and cackles with fiendish delight as succumbs to madness under the glare of the unforgiving hot desert sun.

   You may never have heard of Dade Coleman as an infamous Western villain. But with Landau’s scenery-chewing performance, his name should be up there in the pantheon of villains who stand out from the pack.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE TALL T (AND OTHER WESTERN ADVENTURES) Avon #775, 1957, featuring: “The Tall T” (originally “The Captives”) by Elmore Leonard, 1955; “The Man from Gant’s Place” by Steve Frazee, 1951; “The Twilighters” by Noel M Loomis, 1954.

THE TALL T. Columbia, 1957. Randolph Scott, Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, and John Hubbard. Screenoplay by Burt Kennedy from the story by Elmore Leonard. Directed by Budd Boetticher.

   Whathehell does that title mean?

   But leave that be for now. Perhaps it will convey the quality of the book if I say that the Elmore Leonard story, while quite good, is the least of the three here.

   Leonard’s tale is a tight-knit saga of a hold-up-turned-kidnapping, with Rancher Pat Brennan reluctantly along for the ride as three killers hold heiress Doretta Mims for ransom and send her husband — Willard Mims, the name says it all — to make arrangements. The characters are well defined, the action deftly done, but it all seems a bit too terse, as if there were a novel inside this story, yearning to break out.

   I will add though that I saw the film before reading the book, and my judgement may be more critically impaired than usual. More on this anon. For now I’ll just say, as if it needed saying, that Elmore Leonard knew how to write action and move a story fast without seeming rushed.

   But “The Man from Gant’s Place” takes the prize here. A simple tale of a boy fresh off the farm walking into the middle of a range war, that overturns every cliché known to pulp writers. Steve Frazee isn’t well remembered among Western writers, but he had a way of looking at hard work and senseless gunplay that gave his stories depth as well as life, and this is one of his best.

   And the book rounds off with one of the grimmest western stories I’ve ever read: “The Twilighters,” a narrative of dishonor among thieves filled with shocking brutality. Tough, scary and unforgettable.

   I will add that the book is graced with a gaudy cover and loads of shots from the film, and conclude that it’s an attractive package indeed, and one worth seeking out.

            ***

   As for the movie made from it, this is a minority opinion, but I’ve always felt that the first twenty minutes were a waste of film, and watching them was a wanton squandering of my precious youth. But the film proper truly takes off when the three bad guys ooze out of the darkened swing station, and from there on it attains a high level of tension and feeling until (SPOILER ALERT!) Randolph Scott flushes them back into the darkness from whence they oozed at film’s end.

   I say “tension” because The Tall T reels at the edge of violence like a drunk at a wedding, with Henry Silva as a killer who enjoys his work entirely too much, Skip Homeier as an outlaw too dumb to be honest, and Richard Boone as their leader, who doesn’t really want to kill Scott but knows he will have to do it in the end.

   All four actors seem so at home in their parts that one doesn’t even notice them acting, and Maureen O’Sullivan matches them as the homely prize they must fight over. Arthur Hunnicutt tosses off another of his pitch-perfect performances as himself, and even John Hubbard, the forgettable leading man of The Mummy’s Tomb, has moments of rare and well-done intensity.

   Best of all, writer Burt Kennedy fleshes out the empty spaces in Elmore Leonard’s story with genuine sensitivity. When Boone and Scott talk quietly about ranching and outlawry, they’re really talking about life itself and why they ended up on opposite sides of it. Boone in particular seems trapped in his role no less than his captives, and his confabs with Scott are as much a struggle for escape as Scott will undertake when the chips go flying.

   The Tall T is, in short, what poets and philosophers call “a must-see” and though I have yet to figure out what the title means, it’s a film I can watch again and again with pleasure.


WAGON WHEELS. Paramount Pictures, 1934. Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick, Billy Lee, Monte Blue, Raymond Hatton, Jan Dugganq, Leila Bennett, Olin Howland Based on the novel Fighting Caravans by Zane Grey, serialized in Country Gentleman between November 1928 and March 1929. Director: Charles Barton.

   This is a remake of the 1931 film Fighting Caravans starring Gary Cooper, with stock footage taken from the earlier film, or so I’m told. And at a running time of less than 60 minutes, some of it is taken up by the time it takes to sing several songs, “Wagon Wheels” being one of them, there’s not much space left to tell a story.

   Which is that of a wagon train of settlers heading for Oregon Territory to begin new lives, if they can make it. Indians, snow-covered mountain, wide rivers and more all lie ahead of them, complicated by the nefarious plot against them by a fur dealer who would like to delay the settling of the new land for several more years.

   Randolph Scott is the head scout for the party, while Gail Patrick is the love interest, a widow with a small boy (five year old Billy Lee, who in several ways nearly steals the show). Scott repeatedly tries to warn her off from going, but she manages to thwart all his efforts to do so.

   There’s not much more to this movie than this, but Randolph Scott was Randolph Scott, even some 85 years ago at the age of 36.


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