Western Fiction


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

BILL GULICK – Bend of the Snake. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950. Paperback reprints: Bantam #906, 1951; Paperback Library, 1968.

BEND OF THE RIVER. Universal, 1952. James Stewart, Julia Adams, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan Jack Lambert, Royal Dano, Frances Bavier. Screenplay by Borden Chase. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Bill Gulick’s first novel, Bend of the Snake, doesn’t seem like anything special to me, but it got snatched up immediately by the movies, and then discarded — of which more later.

    Bend rides out slowly at first, with Scott Burton summoned to help out an old friend in a foundering business deal. Seems his buddy Emerson Cole is trying to break up a local monopoly in the Oregon territory and needs Burton’s help — understandable since Burton is that stock figure of Western Fiction: an honest man who can’t be beaten with guns or fists.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   Gulick never tells us just what the bond is that makes Burton so willing to come to Cole’s assistance, but it quickly becomes apparent that Cole has neither the spine nor the ethics of his good buddy, character traits which lead the story into murder and a fairly well-handled investigation when a bookish youngster turns amateur sleuth.

   For the most part though, this is pretty standard stuff, with Burton breaking the local robber baron by getting a load of goods to market past his hired guns, then beating down further attempts at ambush, arson and general mayhem.

   Gulick creates an effective cast of salt-of-the-earth settlers and a crusty riverboat captain to give the tale a fine, spirited background, but plot-wise this is no different than a hundred others.

   This was filmed, sort of, as Bend of the River, and when it came out Gulick ran an ad complaining that the only things they used from his book were the first three words of the title. Whereupon screenwriter Borden Chase observed wryly that he should have waited to see if the movie was a hit before distancing himself from it.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   In fact, Bend of the River (the second teaming of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart) was a big hit, and deservedly so. It is in fact, probably the most enjoyable of Mann’s westerns and the most satisfying of Stewart’s.

   Just to be strictly accurate, I should note that Borden Chase did incorporate a few elements from Gulick’s book besides the first three words of the title: Emerson Cole is still a shifty character (though considerably more ballsy as played by Arthur Kennedy) and there’s still a helpful steamboat captain and something about getting a wagon load of goods past considerable obstacles, but the rest is pure Borden Chase, and it’s a theme he’d return to again: a man of principle (Jimmy Stewart, natch, the character re-named Glyn Mclyntock) allied with a helpful but not entirely trustworthy partner (Arthur Kennedy in a role he’d also return to again) involved in a deadly undertaking that is part thrill-a-minute adventure and part spiritual odyssey as Stewart/Mclyntock seeks to redeem himself from his past.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   Mann seemed particularly attuned to this sort of thing and he evokes it here with speed and energy but without the angst that intensifies his later films: The Naked Spur (’53) and Man of the West (’58) may be more profound, but Bend of the River is more fun, as Stewart and Kennedy brave marauding Indians, crooked speculators, hired guns and mutinous miners (Morgan, Lambert and Dano at their best/worst) on their way to a confrontation that seems all the more satisfying because we know it’s coming.

   I should also add that Universal had Chase write in a part for a rising young newcomer on the lot, Rock Hudson, who can be glimpsed in the Mann/Stewart Winchester ’73 (1950). Chase wrote him in but then apparently had no idea what to do with him as Hudson drops out of the action at a crucial moment and only reappears when it seems safe to do so.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


DOROTHY M. JOHNSON The Hanging Tree

DOROTHY M. JOHNSON – The Hanging Tree and Other Stories. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1995, with ten stories. Ballantine 274K, paperback original, 1957, with seven stories. Several later Ballantine printings.

   The Hanging Tree is a collection of ten tales by Dorothy M. Johnson written from 1942-57 and some of the best western fiction I’ve ever read. Johnson could pack movement, character and setting into a very few words without sounding packed, and she knew how to develop a tale with a feel for its implications as well as its actions.

   The result is ten memorable vignettes of which “The Hanging Tree” — a great story by itself — is perhaps the least. I got a lot of pleasure from “Lost Sister,” a cryptic tale of a “rescued” captive, and “The Last Boast,” in which a condemned cowboy looks back on the best-and-worst thing he ever did, and there’s some laugh-out-loud prose in “I Woke Up Wicked.”

   In all, a book to treasure and a writer to seek out again.

Editorial Comment:   For more on the author of this collection, Dorothy M. Johnson, her Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.

LEWIS B. PATTEN – Prodigal Gunfighter. Berkley F1241; paperback original, 1966. Signet, paperback , 1976; Leisure, paperback, packaged with The Law in Cottonwood, 1994.

LEWIS B. PATTEN Prodigal Gunfighter

   By sheer happenstance, this is the next western I picked up to read, and in a strong sense it picks up a thread I was working with in my review of W. C. Tuttle’s Straws in the Wind. If Tuttle’s career as a paperback writer ended in 1951 or so, Lewis B. Patten was there almost immediately to pick up the torch. His first book, Massacre at White River, came out from Ace in 1952.

   Patten’s writing career continued right up until he died in 1981, when Track of the Hunter came out, also as a paperback original, this time from Signet. He was incredibly prolific. In a thirty-year span he produced something like 90 novels, including books as by Lewis Ford, Len Leighton (with Wayne D. Overholser) and Joseph Wayne (also in collaboration with Overholser).

   As one of the next generation of western writers, all of Patten’s novels appeared in the post-pulp era but (as far as I know) they were all still very much in the strong “code of the west” tradition. It’s certainly difficult to generalize on the basis of one book, and Prodigal Gunfighter is the only book of his that I’ve read in several years, and probably more than that.

   Not that Patten didn’t write for the pulps. Starting in 1950 he had a score or more shorter works that appeared in magazines like Mammoth Western, Thrilling Western, Frontier Stories and so on. His name is certainly more identified with novels, however, and in his heyday, he was cranking them out like almost nobody else.

   And he was published in hardcover as well. He may have begun in softcover only, but beginning with Guns at Gray Butte in 1963, more and more of books came out from Doubleday. Not all of them, but a high percentage of them, the easy explanation for why not all of them was that he probably wrote more books than Doubleday could publish.

   Take 1966 for example. He wrote No God in Saguaro and Death Waited at Rialto Creek for Doubleday; The Odds Against Circle L for Ace; and Prodigal Gunfighter for Berkley. Not that year, but in the same time period, he also wrote for Lancer and Signet, the latter eventually becoming his primary publisher in paperback, both for originals and reprints of the Doubleday novels.

   If you want a slim and lean western to read, one that you will pick up and not put down until you’re done, then the 128 page Prodigal Gunfighter is the book for you. Taking place in the space of only a day in the small town of Cottonwood Springs, Patten certainly doesn’t leave the reader much time to breathe.

   The early morning finds the entire town down at the railroad station, waiting for the prodigal to return, in the person of the notorious home-grown gunfighter Slade Teplin. Included among them is a rather nervous deputy sheriff Johnny Yoder, who has been semi-courting Teplin’s wife, Molly, a school teacher who thought she could tame him, couldn’t, but who has not yet divorced him.

   Is he the reason for Slade’s return? Slade has had no contact with Molly since he left town. His father still lives in Cottonwood Springs, but there’s hardly any love lost between the two of them. Does he want revenge of some sort against the entire town? It is pure hatred? No one seems to know, and the sense of fear in the town is everywhere.

   And no one can do anything, including the law. In all but his first of many killings over the years, Slade has never drawn first. On page 91 Slade is briefly confronted by the sheriff:

   … Arch said finally, “So that makes it murder doesn’t it? It’s just like a rigged poker game where you know you’re going to win because you’ve stacked the cards.”

   “I always let the other guy draw first.”

   “Sure. Sure you do. You can afford to. Besides, it’s smart. It gives you immunity from prosecution. But you know, every time who it is that’s going to die. Like with Cal Reeder earlier today.”

   Cal Reeder was a kid, the son of a wealthy local rancher, who thought he’d make a name for himself and failed. His father is part of the story, and so are the four drifters that Johnny notices having come quietly into town.

   Even at the short length the plot does not go exactly where it seems expected to do, and on pages 114-115 is one of the best choreographed fist-fights (not shoot-outs) I’ve read in quite a while, and it’s not even with Slade Teplin. He’s still on the loose, however – don’t worry about that – and with plans to cause even more havoc in Cottonwood Springs.

   To show you want I mean, though, here’s at least how the end of the fight reads:

   Johnny followed him over the desk-top and landed once more on top of him. The man was fighting with a silent desperation now, fighting for his life. Each blow he struck had a sodden, smacking sound both his fists and Johnny’s face were wet with blood. And he was tough. He was wiry and strong and no stranger to this kind of fight.

   But he lacked one thing, one thing that Johnny had – anger, righteous indignation and outraged fury. Johnny had those things in quantity. For every blow the stranger struck, Johnny retaliated with another, harder one.

   The man was weakening. They rolled against the glass-strewn floor to the window and back again. And at last Johnny felt the man go limp.

   After a few seconds taken to recover, Johnny knows he needs to make the man talk. From page 116:

   Johnny said softly, “You’re going to talk, you son-of-a-bitch, or I’m going to kick your head in. You understand what I said?”

   He’s not bluffing. The west was a tough place to live, but Patten’s characters also seem to be tough enough themselves and equal to the challenge when they need to be. What’s more traditional than that?

PostScript:   Written later in Patten’s career is a book called The Law in Cottonwood (Doubleday, 1978). While I’m curious, I do not know whether the later book has any of the same characters as this one.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly revised).


W. C. TUTTLE – Straws in the Wind. Hillman #26, paperback, no date stated [1949?]. Hardcover edition: Houghton Mifflin, February 1948. First published as a 38 page story in Short Stories, July 10, 1938.

W. C. TUTTLE Straws in the Wind

   I remember reading a lot of Tuttle’s work back when I first started reading paperback westerns in the late 1950s: Luke Short, Max Brand and so on, the early Gold Medal’s, westerns published by Popular Library and lots and lots of Dell’s by authors no one but me would me would remember, and me only barely.

   I also remember listening to the Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens radio show on Mutual, two of Tuttle’s most famous characters — a pair of cattlemen’s detectives, as I recall, whose adventures took them all over the Old West.

   Not too many collectors of old time radio shows know about the program, by the way, and as far as I know, only two of the programs still exist, both badly trimmed to fit into the Armed Forces redistribution format. I remember the program distinctly, however, surprisingly so, given my extreme youth at the time. As a matter of fact, it was Tuttle himself who appeared and introduced each episode on the air – but I digress.

   In any case, when I started Straws in the Wind, it had been a long time since I’d read anything at all by Tuttle, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect — you can’t always go back to old favorites and expect them to be new favorites all over again — but as soon as I started reading it – see if this makes sense – it was exactly as I expected.

   That’s from the very first paragraph on. See what you think:

   No one seemed to know the exact age of Granny Miles. Over a hundred, they said. She was a small, antiquated morsel of humanity, her little face etched with a million fine lines which seemed multiplied around her eyes, which were clear and still very blue. She carried a gnarled stick in lieu of a cane, and thumped herself around with an alacrity seldom seen in one of her age.

   Granny, as it happens, is an oracle of sorts, forecasting to Donna Weir as soon as the book begins that trouble is coming. If Tuttle is not exactly a teller of tall tales, he comes awfully close – a yarn spinner of some magnitude. The usual kind of opening that almost every western begins with comes at the start of Chapter Two:

   Jack Dean drew rein at the top of the grade and looked back at the long slope, where the dirt road twisted over the hills out of the haze of the distance. The old road looked like broken bits of dirty-yellow ribbon, stretched over the hills out of the haze.

   Ahead of him the road ran through a natural cut in the hills, after which it sloped sharply into Council Valley.

   At the age of 22, Dean is returning to the valley after an absence of twelve years. His father, Wolf Dean, had ruled Council Valley for 25 years, and Jack assumes that the reason the telegram had requested his return was that his father was dead. Which is true. The older man had been murdered, shot through a window in his home, and the killer has not been found.

   Confronting one of the residents of Lost Horse, a moonshiners’ settlement in the other end of the valley, here’s Jack Dean in action (pages 26-27 of the Hillman edition):

   Jack’s left hand flashed out, his fingers hooking into the collar of Sol Feeney’s shirt. Then he fairly lifted Feeney off his feet and pulled him so close that their noses almost touched. Feeney struggled for a moment, but realized he was no match for this hard-muscled young man.

   “You and your dirty gang of murderers killed my father,” said Jack quietly, “and you’ve got the gall to threaten me. Feeney, I’m not afraid of you and your killers, and you can pack that word to them. You’ll find that Wolf Pup can cut and slash as hard as the Old Wolf. You killed him, hoping that I wouldn’t come back. Well, I’m back – so make the most of it.”

W. C. TUTTLE Straws in the Wind

   I would imagine that those paragraphs would constitute a review in themselves, if the purpose of a review is allow you to decide whether a given book is one that you’d care to read, or not.

   There is a girl, of course, if you’ll allow me to keep on talking anyway. We met Donna in Chapter One, and of course she lives in the wrong end of the valley. She favors Jack, however, and she is willing to risk the wrath of her father by giving Jack a heads-up warning when she knows he is about to get into trouble. In return, her father is determined to marry her off to someone else, and she is made a prisoner in her own home, all the way up to her wedding day.

   Jack is asked to take his father’s place on the local ruling Council – Lost Horse having no representation, to their continuing and growing irritation – but he is not sure that the Council really wants anything to do with his new ideas, most of which would mean their giving up some of the power they are used to having.

   With an open seat at stake, the whole valley is about to explode. It’s about as stable as – a straw in the wind, you might say – and Jack Dean is at the center of it. Another straw is Donna’s grandmother, who just might be able to say who her granddaughter should be marrying, and that does not mean the intellectually challenged Len McFee, the fellow chosen by her father.

   There is more than a modicum of gunfire in this book, as you can tell from the cover, but I don’t imagine that I am giving anything away when I say that in spite of the obstacles in their way, good hearts do prevail. It all turns out well, in other words, especially when you consider how much (or how little) of the valley is left standing when everything is over. Whatever anyone might say, they certainly don’t write them very much like this any more.

   And all seriousness aside — keeping in mind that I mentioned Tuttle as very much a teller of tall tales, didn’t I? — there are also parts of Straws in the Wind that tickled my funny bone considerably, this way and the other, and the book just might affect you that way, too.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (considerably shortened and revised).


[UPDATE] 02-28-14. A chunk of the earlier version of this review contained a checklist of all of Tuttle’s fiction that ever appeared in paperback, along with some comments and other discussion of his overall body of work by me. I’ll not include the commentary here, as much of it is out of date, but I see no reason why the checklist should not be included here.

   I have made no attempt to expand or update this list, so please take this as a work in progress. Whitledge-Clark refers to a mimeographed checklist of all of Tuttle’s western fiction, not just that which appeared in paperback. Said I at the time:

    “… someone offered for sale on eBay [and I won] a complete checklist of Tuttle’s works – a fanzine titled The Hitching Rail, published by Fred C. Whitledge and William J. Clark.
    “This issue, done in mimeo, is Volume 2, #1, and it came out ‘Sometime in 1975.’”

     ● Indicates a title not listed in Whitledge-Clark.
     ●● Indicates a title listed in Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Second Edition, but for which no further confirmation of its existence has been discovered.

● The Devil’s Payday. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, October 10, 1922.
● The Law of the Range. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, — ? Found on ABE only in a hardcover four-in-one edition with three other authors.
● Powder Law. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, — ? No copies found on ABE or in WorldCat.
●● Sad Sontag Plays His Hunch. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, —? No copies found on ABE or in WorldCat.
● Sontag of Sundown. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, July 10, 1922.
● Spawn of the Desert. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, May 10, 1922.
● Straight Shooting. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, August 10, 1924. No copies found on ABE.
● Tramps of the Range. Garden City, dime novel format, 1920s. A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, — ? No copies found on ABE or in WorldCat.
The Mystery of the Red Triangle, Avon #53, 1944.
● Blind Trail at Sunrise, Royce Quick Reader #148, small-sized (approx. 3″ x 5″), 1945. NOTE: A pulp story with this title appeared in Short Stories, April 10, 1933.
Bluffer’s Luck, Western Novel of the Month #27, digest-sized, 1945; Hillman #5, 1948
Tumbling River Range, Western Novel of the Month ##33, digest-sized, 1945; Hillman #2, 1948.
The Keeper of Red Horse Pass, Western Novel of the Month #41, digest-sized, 1945.
The Tin God of Twisted River, Western Novel of the Month #46, digest-sized, 1945.
The Dead-Line, Western Novel of the Month #50, digest-sized, 1945.
Hashknife of the Double Bar 8. Western Novel of the Month #55, digest-sized, 1945.
Singing River, Popular Library #96, 1946.
● The Vultures of Vacaville, Western Novel of the Month #108, digest-sized, 1946. No prior appearance of a Tuttle story by this name is known.
Hidden Blood, Popular Library #149, 1948.
Valley of Vanishing Herds, Popular Library #165, 1948.
Straws in the Wind, Hillman #26, 1949.
The Redhead from Sun Dog, Hillman #28, 1949.
Trouble at the JHC, Hillman #40, 1949. Original title: The Mystery at the JHC Ranch.
Wild Horse Valley, Popular Library #203, 1949.
Twisted Trails, Popular Library #249, 1950. Original title: The Santa Dolores Stage (Houghton Mifflin, 1934). NOTE: There is some confusion about this attribution. According to some sources, the hardcover edition of this book was The Valley of the Twisted Trails (Houghton Mifflin, 1931), but this assertion does not appear to be substantiated.
Hashknife of Stormy River, Hillman #37, 1950.
Shotgun Gold, Popular Library #297, Dec 1950.
The Trouble Trailer, Popular Library #330, Apr 1951.
Gun Feud, Popular Library #354, July 1951. Abridged edition. Original title: Wandering Dogies.
Thunderbird Range, Pyramid #370, 1958.
● The Redhead of Aztec Wells [+] Trouble at War Eagle, Tor Western Double #14, Jan 1991. Book #1 appeared in West, August 1946. Book #2 has a 1950 copyright date, but where it first appeared, no one seems to know.

Reviewed by
CAPTAIN FRANK CUNNINGHAM:


B. M. BOWER The Quirt

B. M. BOWER – The Quirt. Little Brown, hardcover, 1920. Thrilling Novels #15, digest-sized paperback, [1948]. Also available in several Print on Demand editions; a free ebook edition can be downloaded here.

   This story of the cow country concerns the efforts of the Sawtooth Cattle Company, who number their cattle by the tens of thousands, to eliminate the smaller outfits around.

   Al Woodruff, the evil eye of the Sawtooth, is efficient in his particular line of work, which is the reason why Brit Hunter of the Quirt ranch calls life in the Sawtooth country “extra hazardous.”

   Hunter’s daughter Loraine, a city-bred girl, whose ideas of the Wild West have been obtained in the movies, arrives for a visit just in time to witness an incident of real tragedy, and in her ignorance of conditions she talks enough to arouse the ire of Al Woodruff and thus brings upon her father the neecessity of making a fight for his ranch and his life.

   Action and adventure there are a-plenty.

– Reprinted from Black Mask magazine, August 1920.

BRIAN WYNNE – The Night It Rained Bullets. Ace Double M-128, paperback original, 1965 (packaged back-to-back with Nemesis of Circle A, by Reese Sullivan).

BRIAN WYNNE The Night It Rained Bullets

   The author is, of course, better known as Brian Garfield. (Wynne is his middle name.) I didn’t do a lot of research on Mr. Garfield – what I’m about to pass on to you is only what Ace told his readers inside the front cover. In 1965 he was only 26, for example, and he was already the author of 10 other western novels for Ace, and of course who knows how many others from other publishers?

   And many (if not most) of the others from Ace were, like this one, short but intense tales of Jeremy Six, long-time marshal of Spanish Flat, Arizona, confirmed by a quick excursion to Google, without which we can obviously no longer live as a successful civilization. Of the westerns that Garfield did for Ace, eight of them were about Jeremy Six.

   Even more, when Garfield stopped writing them, they were evidently so popular that Ace hired a ringer to write a ninth one, called Gunslick Territory, in 1973. They even went so far as to use the Brian Wynne byline until Brian Garfield said nothing doing, and that was the end of that. (I am paraphrasing Mr. Garfield’s email to me in April 2006. The actual author of Gunslick Territory was Dudley Dean [Owen] McGaughey.)

   Here, from page 18, is a long quote that will tell you something about Mr. Six:

   Jeremy Six had wide shoulders and lean hips. His hair was brown, and his face was shaped like a shield, with a long, hard jaw. He was no longer a young man – he was near forty, now – but he had the quickness and vigor of a youth, and his muscles were hard and trim. His had big bones and large, ungainly hands. Going on four years now, he had been chief town marshal of Spanish Flat. Most of the time the job was routine and drab: each night, with a schedule that changed constantly to prevent ambush, he made the rounds of the town several times. He crused (sic) Cat Town, checking on the saloons and bawdy houses. Fat Annie always had a kind word for him, a bubbling laugh and a hoarse obscene remark or two. He had friends in all the quarters of town. He liked the job; it kept him busy, it kept him alert, now and then it challenged his wits or his strength, and in that manner, it kept him finely tuned so that he was always alive to the smallest pleasures and warm subtleties of each day’s quiet adventures. Once in a long while there was a bad time, a time of regret: last summer he had lost a deputy and a friend in a drawn-out chase and series of gun battles with the Madden gang. That had been summertime, and hot on the rim of the desert. Now it was the dead of winter, and Jack Lime had come with his three toughs to take the place of the Madden gang in the mountains.

   Not only do Lime and his men come to town, but they kidnap Jeremy’s lady friend Clarissa, who is the owner of a saloon on the wrong side of town, during the worst blizzard Spanish Flat has ever seen. This is not all. There is more. A gambler and a notorious gunman is in town, as well as many other drifters and ne’er-do-well’s, along with the naive young (and hot-headed) owner of a local mine, who resists (and resents) being watched over by his sister, and a confrontation between some or all of these elements is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

   This was written when television westerns like Gunsmoke had become more and more popular, and the B-western heroes had all but hung up their spurs. (Now, I don’t imagine anyone has ever used that metaphor before, have they?)

   And there’s little that happens here that could not also have happened in Matt Dillon’s Dodge City. The scope is narrow, and yet, when all of the various small crises are over, it is not with any immediate sense of closure. The ending is off-beat and subdued, and if you expect the book to fade out with a clinch and a kiss, you’re reading the wrong author, I suspect, and almost definitely the wrong book.

   And once you realize that, ah, yes, that’s when the impact finally hits. It’s like a delayed reaction, and a heftier punch is seldom packed. At only 130 pages, the book is short, but it’s as long as it needs to be, and if you’re like me, you’ll find many scenes still playing their way through your head several days later.

   I don’t know the technical name for this effect. Maybe it’s just called heavy duty staying power.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #5,
   July 2004 (slightly revised & updated).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


WILLIAM HOPSON A Gunman Rode North

WILLIAM HOPSON – A Gunman Rode North. Pyramid #225, paperback, 1956. First published in hardcover by Avalon Books, 1954.

   A while ago back I read William Hopson’s DESPERADO, and was taken by the book’s portrait of a man slowly becoming an outcast in his own community. A GUNMAN RODE NORTH isn’t nearly as compelling, but it does have its points of interest — mainly plot devices lifted from old Burt Lancaster movies.

   The story starts with Lew Kerrigan in Yuma territorial prison, whence he has gone for the sake of a beautiful girl named Kitty, who is now a gangster’s moll, or rather the mistress of Colonel Harrow, a scheming gold baron, but basically the same figure as Ava Gardner in THE KILLERS (1946).

   We quickly learn (maybe too quickly; there’s a lot of exposition in the early chapters) that Harrow was Kerrigan’s erstwhile partner in a gold strike, but Kerrigan’s stake in all this has vanished in a swirl of corporate chicanery (shades of I WALK ALONE, 1948) and Kerrigan is about to be released into the custody of the man who sent him there, a plot device from ROAD HOUSE (1948) which was not a Burt Lancaster movie, but might as well have been.

WILLIAM HOPSON A Gunman Rode North

   From this point we segue into a bit of BRUTE FORCE (1947) with sadistic prison guards and desperate convicts bent on escape, until Kerrigan is finally released and confronts Harrow, who is flanked by his hired goons — excuse, me, hired guns — and learns that he is now a pawn in another of Harrow’s nasty plans (see CRISS CROSS, 1949) while Harrow has spurned Kitty for a more socially acceptable marital prospect (back to I WALK ALONE.)

   Out on the street/riding the range once more, Kerrigan moves across a landscape peopled with noir figures: bent cops/deputies, a corrupt judge, a too-helpful stranger (back to CRISS CROSS) an old friend who happens to be an honest-cop/deputy and boring as the range is wide (back to THE KILLERS) plus hired killers (ibid) stalking him across the prairie as he pursues his lonely vengeance against all odds. Hopson also throws in a few rampaging Apaches (ULZANA’S RAID, but that came later), who add to the noir feel of a hostile universe.

   Okay so there’s nothing too original here, and the ending’s entirely too pat, but Hopson keeps the plot moving nicely, and he has a sure hand for the action scenes. And A GUNMAN RODE NORTH is fast-reading enough that it’s fired and back in the holster before you have time to say, “Who was that masked man?”

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