Western Fiction


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


STEVE FRAZEE – Desert Guns. Dell 1st Edition A135, paperback original, April 1957. Thorndike Press, hardcover, 1998.

GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS. Warner Brothers, 1961. Clint Walker, Roger Moore, Letícia Román, Robert Middleton, Chill Wills, Gene Evans. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Leonard Freeman, based on the novel Desert Guns by Steve Frazee. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Wind-sculptured into curving smoothness, the ridges of sand rose seven hundred feet toward the sky, Rainbolt saw the wind racing on the delicate spines, laying the sand before it like the manes of running horses.

   No tree or rock or permanency of any kind broke the flowing architecture. There was only sand that for a million years had been gathered here by wind currents sweeping across the great San Luis Valley.

   Steve Frazee is, perhaps, the most underappreciated Western writer to come out of the late pulp era and practice his considerable skills in hardcover and paperback. He had an early success with his novel Many Rivers to Cross, a rollicking story of the taming of a mountain man that became a MGM film with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, and Hollywood would call on him more than once, but he never seemed to achieve the place he should have among writers like Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Elmer Kelton, and the like.

   This despite the fact he also wrote non-Westerns like Sky Block (something of a minor collector’s item), Running Target, and High Cage (these last two both films, the latter as High Hell, with John Derek). He also wrote Whitman big books featuring the likes of Cheyenne, Maverick, and Zorro, often illustrated by renown comic book artist Alex Toth, and thus doubly collectable.

   Desert Guns opens in 1853 with its heroes, young Jim Rainbolt and his mentor and friend Shaun Weymouth, already on the run along the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico from the hideously disfigured but canny Green River and his constant companion, the sadistic brute Frank McCracken, both of whom are after the Spanish gold the two have found, and plunging us directly into the action at hand.

   Frazee is particularly adept here at capturing the otherworldly feel of the high desert and the haunted atmosphere of the Sangre de Cristos. I’ve spent a good deal of time there over the years, briefly living in Los Alamos, and I can attest to the “weird, whining sort of sound, low and mighty,” that you can hear in a hollow and the sand on “the steep sides of the hollow (that) was running like fine brown snow” the sand playing it’s “unearthly music.”

   In short order Rainbolt and Shaun encounter the Hudsons, father and daughter Gail building a life on a small ranchero, Hudson an arrogant Virginian with little hospitality and less time for a couple of ‘field hands.’”

   With scant help from the arrogant Hudson, the two decide to bury the gold and seek help from Diamasio Gondora the “one man on the Hueferano you can trust.” It’s there they meet the boy Chico, and Gondora’s half Indian daughter Paisano. By now you should be able to smell the triangle that develops between the blonde civilized Gail, the wild half Indian Paisano, and Rainbolt, a further complication to everything.

   The basics of the plot are simple: gold makes men mad and greedy and there are more important things. Along the way there is graphic violence, torture, mayhem,treachery, and redemption. Rainbolt grows from youngster to man and Shaun achieves a sort of mythic status as the ideal man of the West, the last of a breed, more worried that the gold will change his wanderer’s life than about losing it.

   The shifting treacherous sands play a central role both in the plot and thematically. They represent not only shifting loyalties and fortunes, but also inconstant nature, that takes no sides, but sometimes favors one and not the other, and sometimes favors no one.

   Desert Guns is no Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is an entertaining Western, superbly written, and with more to offer than the simple story it tells. It is Frazee at his best, which is very good indeed, involving you in the fortunes and fate of Rainbolt and Shaun at a much deeper level than most Westerns.

   The film, Gold of the Seven Saints, changes many of the elements of the book, Clint Walker is Rainbolt, but the older and more seasoned of the two, while Roger Moore as Shawn Garrett is an Irishman. Still, it has a fine script co-written by Leigh Brackett, solid direction by Gordon Douglas, and though it is unaccountably a black and white film, location settings capture much of the feel of the book, and fine character actors people it playing to the broader elements with some zest, despite the fact it often seems like an extended episode of a Warner Brothers fifties television Western with so many familiar faces from the small screen.

   I happen to like it much more than many others do, but whatever its virtues it doesn’t rise to the standard of the Frazee novel it is based on. But don’t let that stop you from seeking out Desert Guns. I found a hardcover copy on Amazon for $4, so it isn’t impossible to find.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


  FRANK O’ROURKE – Legend in the Dust. Ballantine, hardcover/paperback (#211), 1957; paperback reprint, #421, 1960. Signet D3571, paperback, 1968; Pocket, paperback, 1989.

   An engaging work by an author I always meant to get around to.

   Legend opens in the classic mode: a lone rider enters the scene, as a thousand others did before him, riding into a terrain simmering with repressed tension and impending violence. And as simmering tensions go, the little town of Fort Ellis is on a slow boil; we quickly learn that the lone rider is ex-lawman Pat Glennon and the first man he meets is Buck Atherton, a likeable local boy with a reputation as a killer.

   In fact Buck makes his living mostly working for local capitalists who have exclusive contracts to supply beef to the nearby Army post…. and are getting product by rustling from the local cattle baron. Before many pages are past there’s a pitched battle between the factions with the merchants besieged in a store that gets burned down around them and Buck goes on the run as a wanted man with some scores to settle.

   Attentive readers, if any, will have gathered by now that Legend is loosely based on the saga of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, and that’s the way I like it: Loose. Dozens, maybe scores, of writers have written the tale as fact or fiction. And they all ultimately have to pick sides, discredit some accounts, endorse others and emerge with historical good guys and bad guys.

   Freed of these restrictions, O’Rourke can make what he wants of the characters, and they emerge as a vibrant, engaging cast. He can also make whatever history he feels like, and though the story stays fairly close to real-life events, it departs whenever dramatically convenient, which makes for better reading.

   I had never tried any O’Rourke before, but this will get me looking for more.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DALLAS. Warner Brothers, 1950. Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman, Raymond Massey, Leif Ericson, Steve Cochran, Barbara Payton. Written by John Twist. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

WILL F. JENKINS – Dallas. Gold Medal #126, paperback original, 1950. Adaptation of the motion picture of the same title.

   Okay: for starters, I know some of you out there will be tempted to reply with a smart-ass comment about “Who shot J.R.?” I’m not naming names; you know who you are. Please remember that the TV show in question was a long time ago and you may have to explain it to the younger readers who flock to this board. Now on to the review:

   Every so often Warner Brothers decided to try doing another old-fashioned big-scale Western along the lines of their big hit from 1939, Dodge City. But somehow the spirit just wasn’t there. Where Dodge City was helmed by the talented and prestigious Michael Curtiz, they gave Dallas to the erratic Stuart Heisler. The difference is palpable: where the earlier film crackles along at a lively pace, Dallas seems to lurch awkwardly from incident to incident. Some of them are competently done, but mostly they just seem a bit tired.

   As far as the plot goes, Dallas starts out with notorious outlaw Blayde “Reb” Hollister (Gary Cooper) getting himself gunned down in the street by Wild Bill Hickok (an appropriately saturnine Red Hadley; probably the best thing in the movie) in front of the new greenhorn U.S. Marshall (Leif Erickson.)

   It’s all a put-up job of course, so that Reb can get close to Will Marlowe (Raymond Massey) a major businessman in Dallas with an unsavory reputation (not unlike Bruce Cabot in Dodge City) who murdered Reb’s family years ago in Georgia.

   Plot complications call for Reb to impersonate the Marshall, romance his fiancée (the alluring Ruth Roman) and generally muck about until a respectable running time is achieved and he gets his revenge. Raymond Massey does a solid job as the dress-heavy, but the script doesn’t give him much to do, and writer Twist throws in time-wasting complications, such as Erickson getting a pardon for Reb, then hiding it, then revealing it, Coop getting arrested and breaking jail, caught by bad guys, escaping from bad guys….. It could have been exciting, but it just ain’t.

   Warners promoted Dallas heavily, even working out a movie tie-in paperback with Gold Medal, who wisely gave it to Will F. Jenkins, who also wrote as Murray Leinster and did fine work in either persona.

   Jenkins/Leinster actually takes John Twist’s scenario and makes a better book out of it than it was a movie, starting with forty pages which ain’t even in the film, detailing how Colonel Blayde Hollister, late of the Confederate Army, was forced into outlawry to avenge the murder of his family. And when we get into the story that’s in the movie, he adds depth and complexity to the characters. The greenhorn Marshall becomes more introspective, minor townspeople acquire convincing character traits, and there’s a bit part, an outlaw’s trollop named Flo (played in the movie by the ill-fated Barbara Payton) whose resigned self-hatred suddenly becomes very real and poignant.

   Dallas the book is far from a western classic, but I found myself admiring it for what a competent pulpster could bring to a hackneyed project. I can’t recommend the movie, but the book is worth your time.

MAX BRAND – Valley Thieves. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted many times, including Pocket #668, paperback, January 1950. First serialized in Western Story Magazine, Oct 28–Nov 25, 1933.

   Jim Silver, also known as Silvertip, so called for the small tufts of gray hair up above his temples, comes on the scene relatively late in this tale, but the story’s a doozie from page one on. A newcomer to the West, a bold braggadocio of a man, but likeable for all that, tells a woman who has quickly caught his fancy that he can bring her Jim Silver’s horse for her to ride, but not only that, but the wolf who is the man’s constant companion.

   No one, of course, believes him, but lo and behold, that is exactly what he does. But then disaster happens, as both horse and wolf are stolen from him. It seems that Barry Christian, Silver’s mortal enemy, recently escaped from prison, may have had a hand in it, but no matter who the thief may be, it is essential that both Parade and Frosty must be found and returned to their master.

   When it comes to the Silvertip series, Max Brand was not just writing westerns, he was writing legend. He was writing mythology. Jim Silver is the purest, the most honest man you could ever hope to know, and if he is on your trail, you had best never sleep at night.

   The result, the book at hand, is one with the substance of cotton candy, and as enjoyable. To allow the series to continue, or so my sense of the matter is, the tale ends both a little abruptly and predictably, but until then, it’s a mile a minute through some of well-designed Western prose you’ll ever read, bar none.

       The Silvertip series —

1. Silvertip, 1941.
2. The Man from Mustang, 1942.
3. Silvertip’s Strike, 1942.
4. Silvertip’s Roundup, 1943.
5. Silvertip’s Trap, 1943.
6. The Fighting Four, 1944.
7. Silvertip’s Chase, 1944.
8. Silvertip’s Search, 1945.
9. The Stolen Stallion, 1945.
10. Valley Thieves, 1946.
11. Mountain Riders, 1946.
12. The Valley of Vanishing Men, 1947.
13. The False Rider, 1947.

   This list is tentative and subject to verification. Publication dates are of those of the hardcover editions, not the prior magazine versions.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


WILL C. BROWN – The Border Jumpers. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1955. Dell #878, paperback, 1956. Reprinted as Man of the West, Dell #986, paperback, 1958.

MAN OF THE WEST. United Artists, 1958. Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehner, Royal Dano, Robert Wilke. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, based on the novel The Border Jumpers, by Will C. Brown. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Lincoln Jones, on an uncomfortable train journey from Crosscut to Fort Worth, finds himself beset by Beasley and Billie: a tin-horn gambler and a saloon chanteuse trying to separate him from $600 the citizens of his small town have scraped together for him to hire a schoolteacher. But that’s the least of his worries as the train is robbed at a wood stop, speeds off, and he finds himself abandoned in the wilderness with the two con artists.

   Even that pales, however, when it develops that the train robbers, still close by, are the remains of an outlaw clan run by the notorious killer Dock Tobin — Linc’s uncle.

   We quickly find that Linc was raised by his Uncle Dock; raised to be a killer like the rest of the family, until the day he escaped and started making what’s known in Westerns as a decent life for himself. That life is shattered now as the demented (and still very lethal) old man takes him back into the fold, despite his glowering cousins Claude and Coaley, who would as soon kill Linc and Beasley (“I say we open ‘em up and leave ‘em here.”) and indulge themselves with Billie.

   It’s a situation rife with tension and dramatic potential, and author Brown develops it with the speed and precision of an able pulp-writer, fleshing out characters and background colorfully and adding bits of unexpected excitement to keep us off-balance — there are two brutal and unsettling strip-tease scenes — until he wraps the thing up a bit too patly. But it’s even more fascinating to see how director Anthony Mann and screenwriter Reginald Rose turned it into a piece of Pure Cinema.

   Gary Cooper brings his graceful authority to the role of Linc, along with a certain aging melancholy perfectly suited to the situation. He’s matched evenly with Julie London, projecting that sexy disenchantment she could do so well. Surrounded by murderous degenerates, she shoots them a look that seems to take it as just another bad hand in a crooked game. Arthur O’Connell, on the other hand, is delightful as a scrabbling, scheming angler, frightened and desperate, his agitation pitched perfectly against Ms. London’s weary composure.

   Among the bad guys, Lee J. Cobb has the showiest part as mad Dock Tobin, but I prefer the typecast meanness of Robert Wilke, Royal Dano’s off-beat lunatic and Jack Lord’s wolfish juvenile delinquent. Best of all though is John Dehner as Claude, the smartest and most dangerous member of the clan. There’s a really fine scene where Linc and Claude have a quiet talk and Coop tries to make him see the insanity of living like this while Dehner insists on loving and protecting the crazy old man. It’s a moving and sensitive moment (much like the one between Robert Ryan and Terrence Stamp in Billy Budd a few years later), and it lends dramatic weight to the shoot-out when the characters have to confront each other.

   Said shoot-out is a high point in the work of a director who excelled in complex action scenes, as the characters maneuver through a ghost town, running, jumping and throwing shots back and forth as they jockey for position until, weary and near death, they pause for a final sad exchange before finishing it off.

   This confrontation is set in a ghost town, the perfect visual metaphor for the waste and emptiness confronting our hero. And where the book wraps things neatly, the movie leaves a lot of emotional loose ends to dangle intriguingly in the viewer’s mind. Indeed, as the two survivors make their way to the fade-out through a bleak landscape, one recalls the tension, brutality and emotional rawness of this thing and asks, “What the hell just happened?”

   What happened was a great movie.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


TOM LEA – The Wonderful Country. Little Brown, hardcover, 1952. Bantam Giant, paperback, A1190, 1954. Reprinted many times since.

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY. DRM Productions/United Artists, 1959. Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Pedro Armendariz, Jack Oakie, Charles McGraw, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Victor Mendoza, Chuck Roberson and Chester Hayes. Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, based on the novel by Tom Lea. Directed by Robert Parrish.

   One of those instances where seeing the movie prompted me to read the book, which I found very different but just as fine.

   As the novel starts, Martin Brady enters the story as an unlucky rider who breaks a leg while on a gun-running errand in a Texas border town. As he spends months recovering, surrounded by curious townspeople and shifty business associates, we learn that when he was a boy of fourteen in Missouri he murdered the man who killed his father and fled to Mexico where he has made his living for the last fifteen years as a pistolero for a wealthy Mexican land-owner.

   We also learn about the citizens of the town and the soldiers at the nearby Army Outpost: Gruff & thoughtful Doc Stovall who sets Brady’s leg; Major Colton, the new Post Commander and his tearful, unhappy wife; Captain Rucker of the Texas Rangers and his fiercely loyal men; the shopkeepers and soldiers in and around the town…. Lea takes time to evoke them all but manages it without slowing his story down.

   Ah yes, the story: As Brady recovers he finds himself growing closer to the community. It seems no one is interested in the unsolved murder of a no-good years ago in Missouri. The townspeople are warming to him, and Captain Rucker would like to recruit a man who knows Mexico and can speak the language. Brady seems set to rejoin the human race…. until he kills a man in a fight and has to flee back south of the border again where more grief awaits him till he can find a way back into humanity.

   Lea has his own unique way of recounting Brady’s labors as a hired pistolero; he gives us the expected bursts of terse action, quite well handled, but what he concentrates on is the ordinary unglamorous hardship of getting around in a hostile land. He makes us feel the heat, the cold and the ache in your bones crawling through wet grass on a cold night, or the saddle-soreness of long, long rides and the gritty business of pursuing and fighting hostile Apaches, lending a tactile realism to things most Western writers just ignore. He also does a skillful job of keeping his bad guys off-stage, lowering like clouds gathering at the edge of the story, then thundering in for a torrential impact. The result is a book I’ll come back to again.

   They couldn’t capture all of this in the movie; the film is set in that perpetual sunny Summer that seems a staple of the Western; characters are changed around, the plot is simplified, but The Wonderful Country is a film to treasure.

   Robert Mitchum, a great actor who phoned it in too often, gives himself fully to the part of Martin Brady: scruffy and unshaven for most of the movie, he evokes that kicked-around look he did so well in Out of the Past, combined with the leathery toughness you need in a Western.

   He’s supplemented with a worthy cast. The movie doesn’t have time to for all the personal details in the novel, but makes up for it with sharp performances from memorable actors.

   Charles McGraw evokes Doc Stovall in a few telling lines and gestures; Pedro Armendariz and Jack Oakie strut their arrogance and cupidity; Albert Dekker, Satchel Paige and Gary Merrill make tough fighting men, and even bit players like Chuck Roberson and Victor Mendoza (both as local bullies) stay in the memory long after their brief time on screen has flashed by. And the nasties kept off-page in the book are given a few memorably menacing shots early in the film so they seem to come out of the story naturally when it’s time to bring them on.

   Best of all is Julie London as the unhappy officer’s wife. No tears for her, though; Julie plays it with a sexy toughness that seems to bubble up out of the Texas heat and spread across the screen. Add to that a manner of frank self-appraisal, and we get a characterization of unusual depth and a few surprises.

   Director Parrish handles the action well enough, but this is basically a film about the characters. And it’s a memorable one.

L. L. FOREMAN – Last Stand Mesa. Ace Double 47200, paperback original, 1969, bound with Mad Morgan’s Horde, by Philip Ketchum. Reprinted as a solo volume: Ace 47201, no date stated (shown).

   At a spare 126 pages, this western novel still has enough fast-paced action and staying power to keep a reader going through an entire cross-country airplane flight, even interrupted every so often by short naps and offers of pretzels and soft drinks, with time left over for an even meatier private eye novel from the 50s as well. Or so it proved for me.

   Even though the book opens with Mike McLean on the run from a sheriff’s posse on the way to Mexico, he’s portrayed sympathetically enough that we instinctively know he’s not a ruthless outlaw of any shape or form, just a guy who’s down on his luck and who made a mistake. And so he proves to be.

   After McLean saves an elderly gent, a tinhorn gambler named Timothy Sean Mario O’Burrifergus — or Ould Burro for short — from imminent death from a gang of disgruntled former acquaintances, the two down-on-their-luck fugitives join forces and take a detour from their foray into Mexico. They settle down instead in what turns out to be the middle side of an incipient range war, caught between two ranchers, one also the leader of a gang of outlaws, but each of whom wants to control the entire valley.

   There is a girl, of course, a roundup and a stampede, a fancy dance night interrupted before it’s over by hatred and gunfire, a fake wedding and a deadly ambush with a story-shaking outcome — all I say, in a mere 126 pages. A book with almost everything but a major twist or two in the plot, only minor ones. Just enough staying power to keep a reader reading, but alas, none whatsoever afterward.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


LUKE SHORT – Station West. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1946. Bantam #139, paperback, 1948. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post from 19 Oct to 30 Nov 1946. Reprinted many times.

STATION WEST. RKO, 1948. Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Guinn “Big Boy’ Williams, Steve Brodie, Raymond Burr and the ever-popular Regis Toomey. Screenplay by Frank Fenton and Winston Miller. Directed by Sidney Lanfield.

   Luke Short always had a way with gritty characters and down-and-dirty stories, and here’s one of his best. John Haven, a cavalry officer working undercover, gets dispatched to investigate the theft of Army Uniforms at the fort near the mining/logging town of South Pass Wyoming and quickly discovers that the quirky crime is merely a prelude to something much more grandiose and sinister.

   From this fairly conventional start, Short builds an atmosphere of pervasive evil and compulsive treachery, painting South Pass as a snowbound Western Gomorrah: a town run by corrupt bosses, rife with casual killings, where larceny is a way of life and life is nasty brutish and short, to coin a phrase.

   To be sure, there are some good folks here: the upright Cavalry Captain and his beautiful daughter; the hard-working widder woman working as Haven’s liaison; a few miners and freighters and cooks… but the impressive thing about Station West is how the author pushes his protagonist through a plot filled with a near-constant sense of danger and double-cross. Short keeps us guessing about the moves and counter-moves in a story that bucks and jumps like a toboggan on a bumpy slope — an apt comparison since he also evokes the chill of a Wyoming winter in a way that kept me shivering.

   As I watched the film made from this, it suddenly occurred to me that the TV character Peter Gunn must have been based on Dick Powell’s tough-guy persona; they show the same wry cynicism, share the lop-sided grin, are quick with a quip or a punch, and handy with the ladies as the plot requires. That has nothing o do with this review — just thought I’d throw it in here and look at the ripples.

   Anyway, the movie Station West works a few changes on the book. For one thing it swaps the frigid Wyoming locale for sunny, picturesque (and familiar) Red Rock area around Sedona Arizona. And they write in another character: where the criminal gang in the book is run by a couple of nasty tough guys, the outfit in the movie is headed by Jane Greer, who runs her unlawful enterprise with an iron fist, much as Barbara Stanwyck would do (more convincingly) a bit later.

   The Greer character lends a neat noirish tone to a film that carries it nicely; there’s enough night in this movie to put a Yukon winter to shame. We also get Raymond Burr as a crooked lawyer, Agnes Moorehead, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as a sadistic strong-arm reminiscent of his turn in The Glass Key (1935).

   The film carries over the fights, shootings and double-crosses from the book and carries them well, and it even makes room for a few brief and quirky turns by some good character actors, but one of these puzzles me:

   Burl Ives sings the song under the title credits and has a showy bit as a philosophical hotel clerk (you know the type) but he gets NO BILLING! His name never appears on the cast list or even in the musical credits. I did some research on this and found that Ives was blacklisted by the HUAC in 1950, which led to a rather controversial phase in his life and career, and I wondered if this might have something to do with it, which led to some deeper thought about the nature of hypocrisy and how one can deny the obvious simply by keeping a straight face…..

   But all that is mere idle speculation. And these thoughts passed like breeze, which man respecteth not. Station West is a fine book and a fun noir Western, and you should enjoy them both.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


LOUIS L’AMOUR – Reilly’s Luck. Bantam, paperback original, 1971. Reprinted many times.

   I have a theory that the reason so few of Louis L’Amour’s novels have done well on screen is that his quality as a writer doesn’t lie in story and character alone, but in his voice and small details that are almost impossible to translate to the screen. The same, by my estimation, is true of John D. MacDonald. Both men have had successful screen translations, but most often their work seems to lose something when it moves to film.

   Reilly’s Luck is a good example of the qualities that illustrate my point: it is a strong well written western on classical lines with a story worthy of Greek myth, and yet as cinematic as it would seem I can’t really see it working on screen.

   Valentine Darrant’s mother Myra abandons him in a snowstorm to the mercies of Will Reilly, a young gambler who like most L’Amour heroes is a little too good with a gun. Reilly is angered at first, but soon warms to the child and takes him under his wing as father and mentor.

   “Always give yourself an edge, boy. You may never need it, but it saves a lot of worry. Learn to depend on yourself, and if you expect nothing from anyone you will never be disappointed.”

   With Reilly, Val kicks around the West from one trail town to another, from San Francisco to the capitals of Europe, gambling, working, and adventuring, but always haunted by why he was abandoned, and an unvoiced threat from his past. It is not until Val reaches maturity that things come to a head and he finds cold blooded gunman Henry Sonnenberg paid to kill him — by his own mother with a Russian nobleman from his European adventures involved.

   L’Amour liked his themes from classical literature and he certainly works them here. Will Reilly is a sort of Charon ushering Val to manhood, and you can certainly see Myra as Medea murdering her own children when one interferes with her ambition. Val himself could be Jason or Theseus easily. Myra Fossett, Val’s mother, is certainly the most unusual woman in a L’Amour novel that I have encountered.

   Obviously this sounds as if it would be a natural on screen. But the fact is the qualities that make a good L’Amour novel, the complexities and the details, just don’t transfer to the screen anymore than the savage commentary on the world of a MacDonald novel do. Like MacDonald, who he does not otherwise resemble, L’Amour’s plots aren’t really the point. You read them to be in their world, to experience them and not merely the story they tell.

   The experience of reading L’Amour doesn’t translate to the screen as well as an Elmore Leonard or Luke Short western for instance. Here, and in many L’Amour works, the plot meanders a bit, a quality that is admirable in a novel but less so in a movie. Most of Reilly’s Luck would have ended up on the cutting room floor to the detriment of the novel and disappointment of L’Amour’s readers.

   This one is one of my favorite L’Amour novels, penned later in his career and more ambitious than earlier titles. It’s a fairly big book, close to 300 pages, with a great many characters and a fairly busy plot. I’m sure many L’Amour fans dislike it for that reason, but for whatever reason I found Val Darrant’s quest an entertaining read, and Will Reilly a memorable companion for Val and for myself.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


MARVIN H. ALBERT – The Law and Jake Wade. Gold Medal #553, paperback original, 1956; Gold Medal #756, 2nd printing, movie tie-in edition, 1958.

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by William Bowers, based on the novel by Marvin H. Albert. Director: John Sturges.

   I’ve never been a big fan of Marvin H. Albert, but this ain’t bad. Like all the best Gold Medal originals, it starts with a crackle of mysterious action as Marshal Jake Wade travels to a nearby town to break Ben Swift, a condemned killer, out of jail. The jailbreak is handled with the terse violence one expects in a Gold Medal, and we soon learn that Marshal Wade himself used to ride what they call The Outlaw Trail, and he’s repaying Swift back for saving his life back in those days. Been me, I’d a let him hang, but that wouldn’t have made much of a book, I guess.

   It seems Wade hates and fears Swift, who has been trying to find him for more than a year — the result of a misunderstanding over the loot from their last job together, which was last seen in Jake’s possession. Jake buried the loot in a fit of remorse, and has built himself a decent life, as they say in westerns, complete with a career as an upright lawman and a fetching fiancée named Lorna, but none of this makes a damn to Ben, and soon we’re off on a long, punishing ride to recover the loot, with Jake and his bride-to-be the unwilling captives of Ben and his henchmen.

   The ensuing action is pretty gripping, what with raiding Comanches, blizzards, rugged mountains, and the ever-present tension as Jake works to maneuver his captors to destruction. But the real emphasis is on the relationships between the characters, as it quickly becomes apparent that our hero won’t get away from these owlhoots until he understands them.

   And likewise, he won’t be able to rescue Lorna until she understands him. A nice touch this, and it lifts the story a bit out of the ordinary — as does the climax, when Jake realizes he can’t really escape at all, and calmly waits for his fate to overtake him.

   Albert evokes some fine tension by concentrating on the small stuff: the effects of having one’s wrists tied for days on end, the constant attention to keep Jake and Lorna secured and apart, and the careful cat-and-mouse maneuverings of Jake and his captors. But this is primarily a book about the characters, and he does an exemplary job of balancing thought, feeling and action…. plenty of action.

   When they filmed this in 1958, MGM and producer William Hawks did well by it: they got director John Sturges, back when he was lean & fast, Robert Surtees to photograph it, and William Bowers to fashion the script. Bowers specialized in comedy-westerns, including Alias Jesse James and The Sheepman, and he even injected some humor into Henry King’s fatalistic The Gunfighter. Here, he imparts a laconic lilt to the proceedings that makes the action scenes somehow more intense and brutal by way of contrast.

   The blizzard is omitted, probably for reasons for reasons of economy and expeditious film-making, but they don’t stint on the wide-open scenery and they even provide a highly cinematic ghost town for the Comanche fight, and the final showdown—possibly borrowed from Yellow Sky, but no less exciting for that. And the acting….

   The acting is what academics call top-notch, with the performers slipping easily into their parts. Robert Taylor plays the marshal Randolph-Scott-style: tight-lipped and square-jawed, the perfect foil for Richard Widmark’s talkative and brutal bad guy. Patricia Owens (who starred in The Fly that same year) has little to do as the fiancée, but she does it capably. And Widmark’s gang includes Henry Silva, Robert Middleton and DeForest Kelly, who had a nice line in smiling cowboy bad-guys in those pre-Star Trek days.

   The only thing that puzzles me is why they changed so many names: Ben Swift becomes “Clint Hollister;” Lorna becomes “Peggy” and Henry Silva’s character, named “Henry” in the book, is now “Rennie.” Most puzzling of all, a major character named “Otero” in Albert’s novel is listed as “Ortero” in the credits.

   I guess it’s just one of those unsolved mysteries of The Cinema. Don’t let it spoil the movie.


Editorial Comment:   It wasn’t planned; it’s only one of those great cosmic mysteries of the universe called a coincidence. But Jonathan reviewed this same film on this blog exactly one year ago today.

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