Western Fiction


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.
   

T. T. FLYNN “Bushwhackers Die Hard.” Novelette. First published in Dime Western, January 1933. Collected in Prodigal of Death: A Western Quintet (Five Star, hardcover, 2001).

   T. T. Flynn was one of the more prolific pulp writers, with hundreds of stories in both the detective and western pulp magazines. He tried but never really made the switch over to mass market paperbacks when the pulps began to die out, as some of his contemporary authors did.

   The two featured players in “Bushwhackers Die Hard” are a couple of rambling cowpokes named Lonesome Lang and Tarnation Tucker, who seem to delight in poking their noses into other people’s business, however, rather than poking cows. Even though team-ups such as this were quite commonplace in the western pulps, this appears to be their only recorded adventure together.

   Which begins by finding a dead man beside his buggy, which they had watched fly off the side of a mountaintop road, Investigating, they discover it wasn’t the fall hat killed him. He’d been shot and killed instead while maneuvering his way down the treacherous road. Their services the are offered to the man’s beautiful daughter, unwillingly on her part, as she believes they are on the rancher working against her father.

   Ah, misunderstandings. How could western stories such as this ever have been written without them? Flynn had a smooth and flowing writing style, which serves him in good stead in this average to middling pulp yarn, that and a good sense of what life was like in the west in a time when automobiles were just beginning to appear in such tales.

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 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.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BRETT McKINLEY – Just Plain Scum. Cleveland Publishing Co., Australia, digest-sized paperback original, no date stated.

   Okay, I just couldn’t resist a title like that. Even on a saddle stitched booklet of fewer than a hundred pages wrapped in an indifferent cover. Ultimately, I had to read it, and…

   Well for what it is, Just Plan Scum ain’t bad. It ain’t good, mind you, but it recalled to me the Doc Savage books I enjoyed in Junior High, with characters as colorful and flat as the pages in a comic book, and a fast-moving, unlikely story told in plain, functional prose.

   Scum starts well, with

   “Hey Johnny!”

   “What?”

   “There’s a feller here wants to fight you.”

   “Why?”

   “He reckons you’re flash.”

   “He’s right.”

   “He still wants to fight you.”

   I like that. It promises imminent action and a bit of humor, and it could go anywhere from there.

   Where it goes is to a band of free-booting veterans of the Civil War—Yanks and Rebs alike — known as The Company, guided by the loose but firm reins of Johnny Lee, a pulp hero in the best tradition: invincible, right-minded and colorfully costumed. He’s also surrounded by a few faithful lieutenants, each with a special trait that recalls the myrmidons of Doc Savage or the Shadow.

   The story that follows serves them well: raiding Apaches, lovely women, brave soldiers, a double-dealing Officer, and action action action action. It left a cloying aftertaste, and the vague suspicion that too much of this would give me brain decay, but that was quickly rinsed by reading a real book.

   And as I put Just Plain Scum on the shelf somewhere between Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Hud, it was with a sense of deep down pleasure that my library is big enough for all three.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


ERNEST HAYCOX -Sundown Jim [or “Red Harvest Rides the Range”}. Little Brown, hardcover, 1937. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint, 1938. Pocket Book #573, paperback, 1949. Reprinted many times since. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1942, with John Kimbrough as Sundown Jim Majors.

   Haycox tended to make his heroes working men: miners, ranchers, freighters and such, but here the focus is on Jim Majors, a US Deputy Marshall sent to the town of Reservation, fast becoming a sanctuary for wanted men, to clear out the owlhoots and generally set things straight.

   Turns out, Reservation is the Western equivalent of Hammett’s “Poisonville,” a town so rife with corruption, warring factions and shifting alliances that it’s hard to tell who’s on which side at any given moment and fatal to misjudge. One sure-enough outlaw, Ben Maffit, has his eye on Katie Barr, daughter of the local cattle baron, and keeps his felonious followers allied against the smaller ranchers, but some of these lesser cattlemen are as bad as the Barrs and scarcely better than Maffit’s misfits – in fact, sometimes not as good.

   The situation is ripe for violence and Haycox ladles out plenty, done up in his terse, visceral style, but he also peoples the tale with some well-rounded and even memorable characters, and gives them enough ink to spread their wings and fly about the pages a bit. And this in turn motivates the plot as violence spreads throughout Reservation’s environs.

   There’s a dandy few pages here where, having de-fanged the cattle baron, Majors persuades the smaller ranchers not to take advantage of his weakness. They do it anyway, with decidedly mixed results, and then blame Majors for the ensuing tragedy. And it works on the page because Haycox has given us a few short scenes of each man debating the situation and deciding on violence.

   I have to say that the characters of Majors himself and Katie Barr never break free of the Hero and Heroine mold, but they don’t really need to; Haycox keeps things moving fast enough to cover for it, and the back-up band makes it all ring true.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


CHARLES O. LOCKE – The Hell Bent Kid. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1958. Popular Library, paperback, 1958; reprinted. 1963. Ace, paperback, date unknown. Named at one time as one of the top 25 Western novels of all time by the Western Writers of America. Film: Released as From Hell to Texas (20th Century Fox, 1958) Don Murray, Diane Varsi, Chill Wills, R. G. Armstrong, Dennis Hopper. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

   This Kid — Tot Lohman — was no murderer and was not penned up. He knew he had to stay on the place, the way I had fixed it with the sheriff. Also, he had killed Shorty Boyd in self-defense, although I think he made a mistake in not saying how it was done. The Boyds said Shorty had been shot. Lohman let it go that way. There was supposed to be more honor to it, if it involved a bullet. On both sides.

   When Tot Lohman was probated to me, he had one thing on his mind. His family had been pretty well wiped out, except one brother and his father, who suddenly took consumption and seemed to be dying a slow death. The father, who had been a fine peace officer, pulled up stakes and went into the territory of New Mexico, looking like a skeleton that walked and leaving his son in Texas, which led to the shooting, if it was a shooting, that landed the boy on me.

   Tot Lohman is only about eighteen, a fair hand with cattle, but gifted with his two loves, horses and guns. He’s a decent kid, hard luck, but hard luck isn’t unusual on the Staked Plains of West Texas, the Llano Estacado.

   But life has just spun out of control for Tot because he killed a Boyd, and the Boyd was related to Hunter Boyd, and his son wild Tom Boyd, and neither will stand for the killing.

   Tot wisely decides getting out of the country will be better than waiting for the Boyds. He heads for New Mexico looking for his father determined to put the Boyds behind him, but the Boyds are determined and want “justice,” and they will do anything to get it, including turning Tot Lohman, a big kid who just happens to be good with a gun into the Hell Bent Kid, a killer with a conscience and a growing list of white crosses in his wake.

   I have a taste for Westerns, and bend to no one in my love of the more common pulp Western from Zane Gray to Louis L’Amour and the men and women who write them, but there is another kind of Western, the more literary model, the Western as novel, and not just story that I admire. It is no attack on the former to admire the latter.

   It’s a sub-genre of the more popular form with a history in itself with familiar names like Owen Wister, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Walter Van Tilberg Clark, Frederick Manfred, Dorothy Johnson, Wallace Stegner, Conrad Richter, Oakley Hall, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and now one I never knew about before, Charles O. Locke. Titles like The Oxbow Incident, The King of Spades, A Man Called Horse, Sea of Grass, Shane, The Last Hunt, Warlock, Blood Meridian, and Lonesome Dove are among its more famous examples.

   As you might imagine, it’s rarer to discover a book in this category than in the more familiar form and a time to celebrate when you do.

    The Hell Bent Kid is a pure example of the form. The plot may be straight out of a hundred pulp Western fantasies, but this is a novel and not just a tale. It is about the destruction of a young man forced to run and fight through brutal country against hard men who learn too late his almost mystical skill with a gun. It is about a good kid forced to become a killer, a decent young man who doesn’t want to be what his hunters make him into, who meets a girl, has a brief moment of normalcy, and is forced to take up the gun one last time.

   “No more of this fooling around with scare-shots and cattle. I will shoot first from now on and will aim for one of two places, the head or the heart.”

   Amos looked at me a long time. “Well,” he finally said, “if you aim at either one, you kill a man as a rule, and you don’t have to prove to me that you can hit where you aim. I hope you get a bagful of Boyds. But in the end they’ll get you. Yep.”

      It’s the inevitability of Tot Lohman’s fate that makes this a novel and not just a well written pulp tale. The same story appeared in a thousand Western pulps and original paperbacks and still does today, but seldom written with the simplicity and human understanding of this version.

   It’s no coincidence this one ends in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, though Tot Lohman is no Billy the Kid, and his fate isn’t met at the hands of a Pat Garrett.

   After the noise there was dead quiet. The breeze had died. I looked once quick at the faces of the cattlemen and they were a study. Except Hunter who was smiling to himself so that, having known him thirty years, he visibly began to get small in my eyes and once he had seemed pretty big. Yes sir. For as I saw him smile, he seemed to shrivel down to less than a fraction of a man. Hunter couldn’t change. He was still a born winner and could even rake in life’s chips over the body of his dead son. Sometimes it takes a long time and a particular set of circumstances to catch up with a man.

   There is no shortage of standard Western thrills here, but there hangs over the book a hint of Greek tragedy, of hard country written on men’s souls, and burned in women’s broken hearts and too short lives. As I said at the beginning I had never heard of this book or of Locke, but now I will look for his name and treasure this book.

   Told in epistolary form, a long section in the middle by Tot himself, the book is as easy to read as any Western, it just has a little more to say than most, the difference between a great B Western film and John Ford, between blazing guns and the smell of gunsmoke and the exposed souls of the people involved.

   The Hell Bent Kid was made into a decent film in 1958, From Hell To Texas, directed by Henry Hathaway. It’s a pretty good little film aimed at focusing on younger stars, but it is a pale adaptation of the novel, much more a standard Western than the well-written novel this book is.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

BACKLASH. Universal International, 1956. Richard Widmark, Donna Reed, William Campbell, John McIntire, Barton MacLane, Harry Morgan, Robert J. Wilke, Jack Lambert, Roy Roberts, Edward C. Platt, Robert Foulk. Screenplay: Borden Chase, based on the novel Fort Starvation by Frank Gruber, reviewed here. Director: John Sturges.

   Here’s a gaudy little B-movie which I found enjoyable out of all proportion to its actual merit. Written by Borden (Red River) Chase, directed by John Sturges (Great Escape, Magnificent Seven) and done up in lurid Universal Technicolor, this is in every inch a “B,” never mind the budget, cowboys, Indians, lost treasure and what-all else you need for a Saturday afternoon.

   The plot hangs loosely on the peg of Richard Widmark looking for the man who killed his Pa — or more precisely, the an who let Dad and four others get butchered by Indians instead of going for help, then took the gold they were carrying out of Indian country.

   To this end, Widmark does some exemplary sleuthing, poring over old testimony, double-checking witnesses, exploring the crime scene and wisecracking in the best PI tradition (“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you since we first met — Goodbye!”) with “tough gal” Donna Reed, who plays the possibly treacherous female lead like Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo or The Killers.

   There are suggestions here that this could have been a better movie, though perhaps less fun: as the story progresses we find that Widmark is not so much pursuing his dad’s killer as he is trying to live up to a father whose love he never knew. Anthony Mann or Delmar Daves would have pursued the oedipal complexities of this, but Sturges just shrugs it off and brings on the Indians.

   And the gunfights, fistfights, and chases with the lean technical skill typical of him, and even a certain amount of humor. I particularly enjoyed the spirited thesping of third-billed William Campbell: he’s only in the movie for a few minutes, but he plays a black-clad giggling gunfighter just like Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo of a decade earlier.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.


CLIFF FARRELL “Sign of the White Feather.” Short novel. First published in Fighting Western, March 1946. Collected in The White Feather as “The White Feather.” (Five Star, hardcover, 2004; Leisure, paperback, March 2005).

   Fighting Western is generally considered one of the second- or even third-rank western pulps, but this particular issue is filled with a bunch of better western writers. Besides this long tale by Farrell, there are four shorter ones by gents such as Giles A. Lutz, William J. Glynn, Thomas Thompson, and Joseph Chadwick, of whom only Glynn is completely unknown to me.

   As you can probably guess from the title, “Sign of the White Feather” is the story of a man considered a coward but who in the end redeems himself. It seems that in order to make a hurried trip to Salt Lake City to raise money to save his estranged father from bankruptcy, he had to forego a fight with one of the men working for his father’s ruthless competitor in finishing a coast-to-cast telegraph line.

   A contract is a contract, and a deadline is a deadline, but it’s even harder when thugs, gunmen and outlaws are working for the other side. Even Kelly’s fiancée is starting to wonder how much courage the man she is engaged to marry actually has. It does not help in that regard when she learns that the only person who has agreed to give Kelly the loan he needs is a woman, and what’s more, she’s coming back with him.

   The story is non-stop action, starting with a rough and bumpy stage ride back to Salt Lake City, then up in the mountains cutting down logs to be used as poles — just as the winter season is ready to settle in. The enemy is suitably vicious, the romance suitably up in the air, and while the characters are not deeply developed, I found myself rooting for them all the way. Is Kelly Brackett a coward? Far from it!

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