Western movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE RETURN OF WILDFIRE. Lippert, 1948.  Richard Arlen, Patricia Morison, Mary Beth Hughes, James Millican, Reed Hadley, Chris Pin-Martin, Stanley Andrews and Mike Ragan. Written by Betty Burbridge and Carl K Hittleman. Directed by Ray Taylor and Paul Landres.

   Whence the title? Return of Wildfire isn’t a sequel, and the eponymous stallion never actually leaves anyplace, so the issue of returning doesn’t arise here. Well never mind, it’s a bit draggy at times, but well played, and with a terrific finish.

   The story opens on a ranch owned by Stanley Andrews, the widowed father requisite in B-Westerns, with two daughters (Mary Beth Hughes and the lovely Patricia Morison.) Andrews raises horses, and suffers from the depredations of outlaw horse Wildfire, who keeps running off with his stock. But his real problem is with dress-heavy Reed Hadley, who aims to corner the market and will stop at little or nothing to get his hands on Andrews’ herd.

   About this time driftin’ cowpoke Richard Arlen blows in, helps out Ms Hughes, who has been injured hunting Wildfire, and is promptly hired on. He also takes a yen for Ms Morison, which leads to some very tiresome complications with Hughes, but before things can get too bogged down, Hadley makes his play and things liven up.

   Andrews gets murdered by his own foreman (James Millican, in a well-judged role as a vacillating bad guy) Hadley jumps in and scarfs up the horses in a dirty business deal, and when Arlen whips up replacements from Wildfire’s herd, Hadley just plain steals them, too.

   Up to this point, The Return of Wildfire has run on the tepid side, but from here on out, it’s non-stop action, with a running gun battle across the Sierra Peloma Mountains, capped with an exhausting fistfight that recalls similar moments in Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur. And I have to say directors Taylor and Landres do it just as well as Anthony Mann could have. Quite a surprise coming from producer Lippert, and one that makes for fine viewing.

   I said The Return of Wildfire was well played, and it is. Besides Millican’s wavering, we get Arlen’s type-cast toughness, and Reed Hadley’s sepulchral villain. And best of all, there’s Patricia Morison, who makes any film she’s in a delight to watch.

   

HIDDEN VALLEY OUTLAWS. Republic Pictures, 1944. Wild Bill Elliott, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Anne Jeffreys, Roy Barcroft, Kenne Duncan. Story and co-screenwriter: John K. Butler. Director: Howard Bretherton.

   Right on the heels of Sundown in Santa Fe (reviewed here ), here is a review of another B-western, and if you don’t like them and if this happens to be one too many for you, you can ask for your money back. (Let me repeat that. You can ask.) This one’s a jim-dandy one, though, and I think maybe the key is one of the names up above in the credits.

   If you’re a long time reader of the detective pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, you may have spotted him already. John K. Butler. The story is what makes this one go. Butler made a living at writing, and what’s more he was awfully good at it. This one is as tightly plotted as it can get. You’ve got to watch the actions of everyone every minute, and listen to the dialogue, too. There’s humor (*), there’s action when it’s needed, and while there is a good-looking woman involved, not a bit of romance is even hinted at.

   The story concerns a rancher who’s murdered for his land, his son who tries his hand at revenge until his equally untimely death, and Wild Bill Elliott, who along with his friend Gabby, is framed for the murder in the slickest bit of trickery you can imagine. They escape, join up with ranchers, try to persuade them not to become vigilantes, and bring the crooked lawyer behind it all to justice.d b
   This review has gone on long enough, but one of these days I’m going to have to put in a word for comic sidekicks in western movies. B-variety detective movies had them, too, I know, but it was the westerns who couldn’t exist without them, and Gabby Hayes was surely the rootin’, tootin’ best of the lot of them.
      ___
   
(*) Here’s the line I liked best. A crooked actor has been hired to play several parts in the fraud being played against Wild Bill and his friends, and one of the other owlhoots has this to say about him: “I don’t like actors. My wife ran away with one, but I still don’t like actors.”

– Considerably revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

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SUNDOWN IN SANTA FE. Republic Pictures, 1948. Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane, Eddy Waller, Roy Barcroft, Trevor Bardette, Jean Dean. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   B-westerns get no respect. They’re seldom listed in any of the various video guides or other standard reference books. Mysteries of the same vintage and caliber seem to be included, even with the same production values and indifferent plots, but not the movies of Rocky Lane, Lash LaRue, or Sunset Carson. Not even the films of Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys himself. And hey, come on, they’re not that bad.

   To remedy that, to some small minor extent, I’m going to be including a few of them from time to time in these pages. Not a lot of them. Only the ones I watch, and if I watch too many of them, my mind will turn to mush, if I can say that without spoiling the point I was making, but what else can I say?

   The opening scenes are very promising. Armed robberies that are taking place near and about Santa Fe are linked by the discovery of similar daggers at the site of each, suggesting that somehow or another Walter Durant, leader of the Lincoln conspiracy ring, is involved. Rocky is sent in as an undercover investigator to find out exactly what is going on.

   There’s very little mystery to the affair, however, as it turns out, since the son of the sheriff that Rocky goes to work for soon shows his true colors. He’s in love with the daughter of the rancher who is running the gang, although the man (as it turns out) is not really the mastermind behind it all. While the secret identity if that man is no secret either, at least to the audience, it takes Rocky most of the picture to figure it out.

   There’s plenty of action, but there’s also too much plot for such a relatively short feature, and details of what’s happening (and why) soon get swamped in the desire to get the story over with in its allotted amount of running time. While Rocky is ruggedly handsome, there’s no love interest for him at all, and maybe that’s why as a kid, I liked his movies so much. No gooey, gloppy stuff for him, at least not in this one.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

THE BADLANDERS. MGM, 1958. Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine, Katy Jurado, Claire Kelly, Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff. Based on the novel The Asphalt Jungle by W. R. Burnett (1949). Director: Delmer Daves.

   I suppose I should tell you that I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing the earlier version of this movie, nor have I read the book. All I know is that it has a pretty good reputation (the movie, I mean; I don’t know about the book). Whose idea it was to turn it into a western, I don’t know that either, but it was a lousy idea.

   At least it’s one that didn’t come off, in terms of putting it into practice. I’m not surer what went wrong. The actors are professional and competent, and they seem enthusiastic enough. (Or in Alan Ladd’s case, as enthusiastic as he ever seems to get.) I would lay most of the blame on the people responsible for the script.

   But maybe I should tell you what the story’s about first. Ladd is a mining engineer or geologist who’s been framed for stealing some gold; Borgnine is a simpler sort who’s been cheated out of a mine (or the land it was on; it wasn’t entirely clear) and jailed for retaliating the only way he knew. They leave Yuma Prison at the same time, but not on so friendly terms with each other. Nevertheless, they decide to team up and steal some ore that’s still in a vein that only Alan Ladd knows about.

   Along the way somehow or another they become friends. Male bonding. Borgnine also saves a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado) from some overfriendly white men, and before you know it, he has moved in with her, full of surprisingly cheerful good will toward mankind.

   The heist comes off – don’t ask me how they can carry around three large bags of gold ore worth $200,000 (or more) with as little effort as this – and what it so unpredictable about the rest of the movie is that no one would predict anything as predictable as what happens next. If you see what I mean.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

THE SHOOTING. 1967. Walter Reade Organization, US, 1968. Will Hutchins, Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates. Director: Monte Hellman.

   This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your typical, average western. This one is perky, murky, and quirky, à la Twin Peaks, of which this is very nearly the cowboy western equivalent. It does, however, except for the ending, which is deliberately obtuse, make more sense.

   Two men, apparently miners, are hired by a mysterious women to take her to a town which apparently lies across a desert. She has another idea in mind, however, and the two men soon realize that she is really on the trail of someone. Someone is on their trail, as well.

   That someone being a hired killer, played ultra-enigmatically by Jack Nicholson (the most subdued role I can ever recall seeing him play in a movie), and he eventually joins the small group of riders traveling through the sand and the barren hills on a trek that lasts, or so it seems, clear on to forever. (It’s no Lawrence of Arabia, but in a small budget sort of way, it comes close.)

   Brian Garfield, in his book on westerns, seems to have been totally mystified by what this movie is about, seeing all sorts of mystical things in it. I couldn’t tell you about the ending – I’m not sure if anybody could – but I didn’t have any problem with the rest of the film, nor should anyone who sees the first ten minutes. It seems like a straight-forward tale of revenge to me, without all the other motivations being spelled out completely (and believe me, this movie has more than most).

   Of course, maybe I’m wrong, so when you see it yourself, you’re entirely free to make up your own mind. It wouldn’t bother me. As I hope you can see, it’s that kind of movie. (And if you’re a western fan, see it yourself I think you should).

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

IN OLD SANTA FE. Mascot Pictures, 1934. Ken Maynard, Evelyn Knapp, George Hayes, Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette. Director: David Howard.

   This movie was made before Gabby Hayes was Gabby, but not before he was gabby. He’s known as “Cactus” in this picture, and he’s as prickly as old character as he ever was. Key Maynard is the star. He shoots and rides with the best of them, and is bashful around the women (one in particular), but Gene (whose first movie this may have been) outdoes him in the singing category, at least.

   If it weren’t for the songs, the races, the catching of runaway horses and wagons, and the gunshooting, this 64 minute movie would have been 15 minutes long. But in those 15 minutes is hidden a halfway decent detective story: one main clue is a footprint in the dirt; the other is the caliber of the bullet that killed the blackmailer’s number one henchman.

   There is also a gold robbery, and Ken is framed for it. He’s also framed for the killing of the henchman. Does he get out of all of these scrapes? Yes and no. At movie’s end the rancher’s daughter has him sewn up as tight as you could please. (To the complete disgust of his grizzled old sidekick named Cactus.)

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

LIGHTNIN’ BILL CARSON. Puritan, 1936. Tim McCoy, Lois January, Rex Lease, Harry Worth, Karl Hackett, John Merton, Lafe McKee, and Ed Cobb. Written by George Arthur Durlam and Joseph O’Donnell. Directed by Sam Newfield.  Available on YouTube here.

   A real cheapie from the brother-act of producer Sigmond Neufeld and director Sam Newfield, just before they settled in at PRC. But this one has a little something extra.

   Not much, mind you, but a little. Lightnin’ Bill Carson still bears all the earmarks of desperate penury: bad-script, bad acting, shoddy sets and slip-shod continuity. The dross is leavened somewhat by the assured presence of Col. Tim McCoy, and a bit of imaginative nomenclature: at various times, McCoy’s Lightnin’ Bill Carson comes up against the colorfully-monickered likes of Silent Tom Rand, “Stack” Stone, Breed Hawkins, and the Pecos Kid, played by veterans John Merton, Harry Worth and Rex Lease with easy familiarity.

   The plot, if you can call it that, undulates loosely around lawman Lightnin’ Bill and his uneasy relationship with an unlucky gambler called the Pecos Kid (Rex Lease.) When the townsfolk of San Jacinto call on the services of Lightnin’ Bill, he arrives to find Pecos already in the employ of local dress-heavy “Stack” Stone (Karl Hackett) who maintains a cottage industry of robbing stagecoaches.

   It all plays out as expected, but scenarists Durlam and O’Donnell ring in some disquieting elements, starting with a frontier Cassandra (Lois January) who sees Death in the cards — she can’t say whose, but Pecos keeps turning up the Ace of Spades. Later on, an honest, upright Sheriff lynches an innocent man, a solid citizen goes on a killing spree, and our hero must set things right in a final shoot-out that seems more like a ritual killing.

   I’m not going to make any big claims for Lightnin’ Bill Carson. Fans of old cheap Westerns will enjoy it, others will wonder why. But the glimmers of thoughtful writing that peek through the sagebrush fascinate me.
   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE HELLBINDERS. Embassy Pictures, US, 1967. Originally released in Italy as I crudeli (“The Cruel Ones”). Joseph Cotten, Norma Bengell, Julián Mateos, Gino Pernice, Ángel Aranda, Claudio Gora, María Martín. Director: Sergio Corbucci.

   In some ways, The Hellbenders is a typical Spaghetti western. There’s an antihero, loads of action, violence, betrayal, and vengeance. In other ways, however, there’s something unique about this Sergio Corbucci directed feature. Even if the film doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve, there is undoubtedly an ideology embedded in the feature that makes it a more compelling watch than it deserves to be.

   Namely, that the world is a cruel and brutish place where exploitation and violence are more common than not. Although somewhat nihilistic in its approach, the movie does leave open the promise for a brighter future. Another aspect that makes this particular Italian western different is that the leading actor in question here is not a somewhat youthful actor like Clint Eastwood or Mark Damon; rather, it’s Joseph Cotton during the latter part of his career.

   Cotton portrays Colonel Jonas, a Confederate officer embittered by his side’s devastating loss in the Civil War. Determined that the South shall rise again, he enlists his three sons in a scheme to steal Union cash which he plans to use to finance a new war effort.

   The problem is that his plan depends on having a woman involved in the operation. That’s when he has his son Ben (Julián Mateos – who incidentally looks quite a bit like James Stacy) cajole a saloon girl into playing the part of an officer’s widow to fool the Union Army troops in the area. You see, they will be transporting the loot in a coffin, nominally belonging to her supposed late husband.

   Various twists and turns ensue. Jonas and his boys are put through the ringer. They face off with Mexican bandits, the US Calvary, and Indians. But the final showdown isn’t solely between these Confederate diehards; it’s also between the men themselves.

   Lincoln said something about how a nation divided against itself cannot stand. Apparently, so too with a family. And in the final moments of the film, the absurdity and futility of the entire quest is laid bare for all to see.

   

SELECTED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

UNION PACIFIC. Paramount Pictures, 1939. Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, Robert Barrat, Henry Kolker, Anthony Quinn, Lon Chaney Jr., Stanley Ridges, Evelyn Keyes, Regis Toomey, Joe Sawyer, J. M. Kerrigan, Richard Lane, Fuzzy Knight. Screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Jessie Lasky Jr.; adapted by Jack Cunningham from a story Ernest Haycox (also uncredited on the screenplay, along with Frederick Hazlitt Brennan). Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

   One of Cecil B. DeMille’s better epics, and probably his best Western, the story of the race to Ogden, Utah, by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad centers on the efforts of trouble-shooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) in the employee of General Dodge (Francis McDonald) to prevent murderous gambler Syd Campeau (Brian Donlevy) from sabotaging the advance of the title railroad for crooked Chicago businessman A. M. Barrows (Henry Kolker), who plans to fund the Union Pacific, buy Central Pacific stock and make a fortune selling the former short when it fails by his machinations.

   It’s based on a tight well written story by Ernest Haycox, ironically whose story “The Last Stage to Lordsburg” was filmed as Stagecoach the same year. Cecil B.DeMille and John Ford both using your work as a source the same year was a pretty heady place for a pulpster to be, and it showed when Haycox, already in the slick, soon graduated to the Book Club circuit and best seller list too.

   Complicating things is the three-way romance between Irish postmistress Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck, beautiful, though you can take some issue with her Irish accent), daughter of engineer Monahan (J. M. Kerrigan) who drives the General McPherson, charming rogue Dick Allen (Robert Preston), Butler’s former wartime friend and Campeau’s partner, and Jeff.

   As usual the history in any DeMille epic is only there to back up a good deal of myth and legend and a certain amount of flag-waving and or Bible-thumping, but it is pretty good corn here with lots of riding, shooting (a memorable shootout between McCrea and Anthony Quinn, “It’s a good thing you keep that mirror clean.”), fighting (a good fight between McCrea and Robert Barratt), and romance between Stanwyck and charming Preston and reticent stalwart McCrea (“I loved him from the first time I hit him.”).

   When Allen steals the railroad payroll Molly covers for him, but forces him to return the loot in exchange for marrying him which puts him on the wrong side of Campeau.

   “You know what there is in that sack, champagne, carriages, and enough money to live well the rest of our lives,” Dick tries to explain to her.

   
   Akim Tamiroff is Fiesta and Lynne Overman, Leach Overmile, Butler’s seedy comedic companions. They were similarly teamed, only on opposite sides, in Northwest Mounted Police. Preston played similar rogues in the former and in Reap the Wild Wind (also with Overman). Virtually everyone in the film from son-in-law Quinn to the least bit part is from a DeMille regular (Monte Blue, Elmo Lincoln, Frank Lacteen, and Iron Eyes Cody all are uncredited and look for a young Richard Denning).

   There is an old saw about the basic kinds of Western, and this one fits clearly in the Empire building category of silent classics like The Iron Horse and Covered Wagon. It’s a bit old fashioned even for 1939, considering it competes with Stagecoach.

   Molly marries Dick to save Jeff, but Campeau talks and Jeff arrests him the day of their wedding. She helps him escape, but when Dick hides out on Molly’s car on the way to Laramie he discovers she really loves Jeff just before they are attacked by a Sioux war party stirred up by Campeau.

   However you view the whitewashing of Western history or the exploitation of Native Americans it is a splendid sequence visually with DeMille at his best right down to the cavalry coming on another train.

   There is some sympathy for Native Americans expressed here, more than in Stagecoach where Ford uses them only as a force of nature.

   That rescue train crossing a burning trestle is beautifully shot, right down to the comic relief when Tamiroff’s mustache is burned off (Overman: “I never liked it in the first place.”)

   There are a number of scenes like that in the film including Irish track layer Regis Toomey murdered by Anthony Quinn speaking of the light as a shadow passes over his dying face and a weeping Stanwyck holds him in her arms on the saloon floor.

   Another nice set piece features Jeff and Monahan pushing the General MacPherson across a snow bridge to cut around a tunnel they can’t complete in time. “’Tis the first time for an engine to run on snow, and if he don’t like it, I’ll put snowshoes on him.”

   Yes, it is corny, right down to the use of “My Darlin’ Clementine” as a running theme throughout the film even as a funeral dirge for Monahan when the first attempt at crossing the snow proves fatal, but it still has cinematic power in the old Hollywood tradition. It may be model work, and obvious to us today, but it was state of the art in 1939.

   Finally at Promontory Point Jeff, Molly, and Dick are reunited as the golden spike is driven in with Campeau planning revenge.

   Molly: Where’s Dick?”

   Jeff: He’ll be waiting for us Molly — at the end of track.

   Just before the vintage railroad becomes a gleaming modern engine cutting across America as the music swells.

   I’ll grant some of you have grown too sophisticated for this to work, some will find a million reasons to find offense at something or other, and I don’t fault you if you do, but even recognizing its flaws, it is splendid film making, a classic Hollywood cast and creative talents working at the top of their form, and Western mythologizing in the epic mode at its best. I still think there is something to be said for the lost arts that made it possible that is worth recognizing and applauding whatever the social flaws or the lack of modern sophistication.

   I hope I never reach the point I can’t still respond to this kind of film a little like the kid lying on the living room floor looking up at a twenty-seven inch black and white screen, eating popcorn, and watching this unfold between commercials. I hope every one of you still has some films that bring back something like that for you.

   There was a reason Hollywood was called the Dream Factory.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

BILLY TWO HATS. United Artists, 1974. Gregory Peck, Desi Arnaz Jr, Jack Warden, David Hudddleston, and Sian Barbara Allen. Written by Alan Sharp. Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Currently available for viewing online here.

   An unjustly neglected western well worth your time.

   Gregory Peck, portly, bearded, and sporting a Scots accent, charms the screen as a principled outlaw on the run, partnered with Desi Arnaz Jr (don’t laugh; he’s not bad at all here as the eponymous mixed-race youth.) and, briefly, Vic Armstrong, an actor-stuntman blasted into a hotel wall early on by lawman Jack Warden.

   Warden captures Desi, Peck escapes, then rescues Desi at a lonely wayside stop on the edge of the desert, wounding Warden in the process. But Warden’s old buffalo-hunting pal (a surprisingly grizzled Huddleston) shoots Peck’s horse out from under him, breaking Greg’s leg.

   The ensuing chase — wounded lawman & fat buddy, riding after crippled bad guy & partner sharing a horse — feels not so much leisurely as repressed. Every time one party or the other starts to make progress, something stops them dead, sometimes literally.

   Fortunately, Alan Sharp’s witty script and Ted Kotcheff’s nimble direction keep things from getting dull. The sparse action scenes are well-handled, and the characters consistently engaging, particularly Sian Barbara Allen as a pioneer woman whose speech impediment provides a thematic bond with the disabled antagonists.

   And I found a cute sidelight on IMDb: Billy Two-Hats was filmed in Israel, standing in for the rugged terrain of Arizona. Years earlier, when Gregory Peck starred in David and Bathsheba, Arizona stood in for Israel. That means something, but I don’t know what.
   

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