Western movies



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.



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.




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.




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.



A TIME FOR DYING. Fipco, 1969/71/82. (*) Richard Lapp, Anne Randall, Robert Random, Audie Murphy, Victor Jory, Beatrice Kay, Burt Mustin, Peter Brocco, Walter Reed and Emile Meyer. Written and directed by Budd Boetticher.

   The last film of legendary westerners Audie Murphy and Budd Boetticher, and the best I can say is that it will probably do their reputations no lasting damage.

   Murphy, of course, is remembered as the most decorated soldier of WWII (Neville Brand was the fourth most decorated.) and as the rather retiring hero of numerous westerns, some pretty good, including fine performances in THE UNFORGIVEN and RED BADGE OF COURAGE.

   Budd Boetticher’s films are a mixed bag, but he hit his stride with a series of Randolph Scott Westerns, most of them produced by Harry Joe Brown, including SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, THE TALL T, COMANCHE STATION and RIDE LONESOME. Same Peckinpah’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is often seen as a continuation of the series and a fitting coda to Scott’s career.

   Boetticher’s subsequent career was notably rockier, including a lengthy exile in Mexico laboring to produce ARRUZA, which is only fair-to-middling, the screenplay for TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH, and this one, A TIME FOR DYING, which was plagued with money troubles during and after production — note the various release dates — probably because it isn’t very good.

   Boetticher’s best work was spiced with the fiery Karen Steele and memorable baddies like Lee Marvin and Richard Boone, anchored by the authoritative presence of Randolph Scott at the films’ center. DYING offers some fine character actors, but they only serve to show up the inadequacies of the leading players, who never seem to relax into the natural performances that grace the earlier films.

   If you can get past this (and you can’t, really) you run into an uncharacteristically aimless screenplay from Boetticher. His films with Randolph Scott had a sense of movement (One critic called them “journey films.) with the characters and the story visibly progressing to a conflict defined early on. Or as another critic put it: “Partly metaphorical odysseys, partly floating poker games where every character took turns bluffing about his hand until the final shoot-out.”

   There’s movement in A TIME FOR DYING, but it’s mostly just Richard Lapp and Anne Randall (Never heard of them? See this and find out why.) bounced from one encounter to another without ever realizing their place in Boetticher’s existential universe. And the result is a story that meanders when it needs to move.

   If there’s a saving grace, it’s Boetticher’s elliptical, near-poetic dialogue. Dialogue written to be spoken, not read. As in a Mexican stand-off:

SHOTGUN: “Billy, that woman drop a hammer on you, I’ll blow her husband’s head clear across the street.”

BILLY: “That woman drop a hammer on me, it don’t make a damn what you do to her husband’s head.”

   But I’m afraid it’s just not enough. This is available free on Amazon Prime, and worth every penny, but if you’re inclined to see it, talk yourself down and watch RIDE LONESOME instead.


(*) From Wikipedia: A rough cut of the film premiered at the National Film Theatre in London on May 27, 1969. The finished version of the film premiered in Dallas, Texas on September 15, 1969. The film was shown throughout Texas, but following legal problems after Murphy’s death in 1971, the film only had limited showings and did not screen in New York until 1982.




TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS. Allied Artists, 1955. Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, Dick Foran, Barton MacLane, Lola Albright, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef, Stanley Andrews and Steve Darrell. Screenplay by Tom Hubbard and Fred Eggers, based on the pulp story “The Rider of the Ruby Hills” by Louis L’Amour, written under the pen-name Jim Mayo (West, September 1949), later expanded to the novel Where the Long Grass Blows (1976). Directed by Frank McDonald. Currently available on YouTube here.

   There’s no treasure, and we never actually get to the Ruby Hills, but here’s an intelligent Western, well-played, with some interesting noirish angles.

   Things kick off fast, with Zachary Scott and his aging outlaw buddy waiting nervously for their partner to return with his end of a land-grab they’re plotting. He gets back, mission accomplished, and in a voice like a dead man’s, tells his friends who killed him.

   It’s obvious from here that the game’s afoot, as they say in shoe stores, but things pause for a short word from an aging sheriff to the effect that Darrell’s past is catching up with him, and Scott would be wise to part ways before it does. It’s a thoughtful moment that turns moving when Darrell opts to send Scott on alone while he lingers in a ghost town to “see some old friends.”

   Then it’s back to the plot: quarreling cattle barons, and a third party keeping things stirred up for his own ends. Scott has grabbed the water rights to the whole valley, but there’s so much going on around him, that detail seems to get lost in the shuffle. What we get is a vigorous shoot-out, a desperate escape through dark alleys and shadowy stables, a showdown between Scott and Lee Van Cleef, and a final set-to back in the old ghost town where it all started.

   Along the way we get some finely-etched characters. Zachary Scott, a native-born Texan and a figure of moral ambiguity in the movies, combines both aspects quite effectively. He really does look like a man who’s been mixing in low company a little too long. And he comes up against tough Carole Mathews (one of Corman’s Swamp Women) as a gal who clearly has her own plans. Gordon Jones vacillates quite well as her double-dealing brother, Lee Van Cleef struts his razor-sharp villainy, and Dick Foran, on his way to becoming a fine character actor, does an excellent turn as a contemplative, pipe-smoking schemer.

   Writers Hubbard & Eggars make the story a little too convoluted, and director Frank McDonald lets the reins slacken now and again, but for the most part things move swiftly and agreeably here, and the result is a solid B-western I can highly recommend.



FRANK THOMPSON – Alamo Movies. Old Mill Books, softcover, 1991. Republic of Texas Press, softcover, 1994.

   I have a fondness for what I call “Alamo Movies”: films based on fact or fiction in which a small group of soldiers hold out against superior forces, a list which includes THE LOST PATROL, the Flynn CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, BEAU GESTE, BATAAN, 55 DAYS AT PEKING, KHARTOUM and ZULU. There are more, but by this time you either know what I mean or I can’t explain it. Anyway, in ALAMO MOVIES, Frank Thompson confines himself to one particular siege, about which there has never been a great film made.

   After a brief introduction by Fess Parker, there’s a chapter on facts and legends surrounding the actual battle, mostly centering on whether or not Travis actually drew the line in the sand, and more importantly the fact that a handful of Alamo defenders were captured alive, with many eyewitnesses claiming Davy Crockett was among them (though executed shortly thereafter) although you will never see a film where Crockett doesn’t die heroically.

   Chapters are devoted to the films: THE IMMORTAL ALAMO, the lost first film on the subject, made by Gaston Melies (George’s brother) who crammed the whole story into 10 minutes! MARTYRS OF THE ALAMO, produced by D. W. Griffith and subtitled THE BIRTH OF TEXAS to cash in on the notoriety of BIRTH OF A NATION, and with a similarly racist slant — the revolt isn’t so much against Santa Anna as to protect the flower of American Womanhood from dark-skinned Mexican Lust; Santa Anna was even played by Walter Lang, th would-be rapist in BIRTH OF A NATION.

   Then there’s DAVY CROCKETT AT THE FALL OF THE ALAMO, directed by Robert Bradbury, whose son (later Bob Steele) played one of the defenders, so years later, on F-TROOP, when Steele as Duffy talked about fighting alongside Davy Crockett, it wasn’t so far from the truth.

   As the chapters progress, more familiar films get their due: MAN FROM THE ALAMO, DAVY CROCKETT: KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER, THE LAST COMMAND, THE ALAMO, and the Peter Ustinov comedy, VIVA MAX. Moving on, Thompson appraises the TV miniseries 13 DAYS TO GLORY and the IMAX film ALAMO … THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.

   Final chapters cover “lost” Alamo movies and films that were announced but never made. Thompson rates Wayne’s THE ALAMO as the best, “nearly great except for an awful screenplay,” which is like saying the Giants had a nearly perfect season except for a seven-game losing streak. Still, it’s an entertaining and informative read, with lots of purty pitchurs to look at when the going gets heavy.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.


   For the titles, see below. Cast: James “Shamrock” Ellison, Russell “Lucky” Hayden, Raymond Hatton, “Fuzzy” Knight, Julie (later Julia) Adams, Tom Tyler, George J Lewis, John Cason, Stanley Price, Dennis Moore, George Chesebro, Bud Osborne, and Stanford Jolley. Written by Ron Ormond and Maurice Tombragel . Directed by Thomas Carr.





5. FAST ON THE DRAW. 1950.


   Six movies with the same set of credits. There’s a story here.

   About the time William Boyd achieved TV stardom with his old Hopalong Cassidy movies, producer Robert Lippert hit upon the notion of making a little cash with the erstwhile sidekicks of Hoppy’s salad days, James Ellison and Russell Hayden. (For background on Lippert, see my review of MAN BAIT.)

   Lippert announced his new series with all due fan-fare: Press releases about multi-year contracts and big-budget Western epics… then proceeded to make all six films in a month(!) using the same actors in the same costumes on the same sets and locations, playing the same roles, or analogous ones, in all six entries.

   Actually, the first three aren’t bad, as B-westerns go. The action is plentiful, the actors show a certain chemistry playing off each other, and there’s a sly, subtle humor flirting about the edges of the scripts. HELDORADO offers James Ellison a chance to masquerade as an Eastern Dude, just as William Boyd did from time to time in the Hoppy series, and the result is pleasingly humorous.

   With COLORADO RANGER, a sort of carelessness began to creep in, betrayed at first by a bit of mis-matched footage from a Bob Steele Western in COLORADO RANGER. FAST ON THE DRAW opens with about ten minutes of “Prologue” made up of unrelated stock footage (a favorite ploy of writer Ormond’s) that meanders into a tired story of Shamrock Ellison seeking out the criminal mastermind behind the murder of his parents — the guilty one turns out to be not only the least likely suspect but also the least convincing. WEST OF THE BRAZOS, which opens with the same footage as FAST ON THE DRAW, brought the series slouching to a close.

   Which is kind of a shame, actually. There was an abundance of talent here, some beloved faces, and an indefinable sense of sheer Fun in the early entries. Just a shame Lippert – who never wasted a penny foolishly, or ever spent one wisely—couldn’t see what he had and do better by it.



THE BRAVADOS. 20th Century Fox, 1958. Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef, Herbert Rudley, Andrew Duggan, Ken Scott, George Voskovec, Barry Coe, Gene Evans. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on a novel by Frank O’Rourke. Director Henry King.

“There’s only one man who could have followed us here. The strange one. The one with the eyes of a hunter.”

      — Henry Silva as the half-breed, to outlaws Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, and Lee Van Cleef.

   This widescreen Technicolor western may not quite be a classic, but it comes close, and as the saying goes, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference. Directed by veteran Henry King and with a remarkable cast of actors, even for a Western from this period, it follows one man’s path to revenge and ultimately redemption.

   Jim Douglass (Gregory Peck) rides into a quiet and tense little town on the eve of a public hanging of four outlaws who shot up the place and killed several people. All he will say is that he is from a small town one hundred miles away and he is there to see the hanging. The law (Herbert Rudley) is nervous about strangers in town and waiting for the hangman, unsure of this quiet sullen man who has traveled so far to see four men die.

   Also in town is Josefa Valarde (Joan Collins, and quite good here) who knew Douglass five years ago in New Orleans. Through her we gradually piece together Peck’s nature and journey, his wife’s death, his six month quest to hunt down these four men he has never seen (that’s a key point later in the film).

   There are several small characters from the town drawn sharply, the young lovers and the girl’s disapproving father who wants more than small town life for her (Kathleen Gallant, Barry Coe, George Voskovec), a gullible good natured deputy (Ken Scott), Rudley’s lawman, padre Andrew Duggan (who knows the secret Douglass hides from everyone).

   During a church service the supposed hangman (Joe deRita — yes, that Joe deRita, unbilled and quite good in serious role) frees the prisoner, stabbing Rudley and getting killed for his efforts and the young girl Emma (Gallant), is taken hostage by the escaping killers.

   There’s a fine scene when the wounded Rudley stumbles bleeding into the church, eloquently shot and staged for full effect.

   In a scene that echoes The Searchers, Peck refuses to join the others in a pointless nighttime posse. He knows the hunt will be long and deadly.

   Peck’s performance here as a man grown deadly and possessed by his anger, grief, and need for revenge anchors the film.

   Boyd is his usual charming over-sexed sadist, a part he perfected (his showdown with Peck is well staged as less a duel than an execution), Salmi a vicious brute (a part he perfected), Van Cleef a hothead prone to losing his cool and a coward when it comes down to it (one of the stronger scenes key to the movie is when Peck’s character executes him in cold blood), and Silva the cool half-breed (Salmi: “I don’t trust the Indian. You never know what he’s thinking.”}, the key to this Western drama that proves to be much more than just the typical Western revenge Kabuki theater we are so used to.

   Uniquely for King, who usually composed his films like paintings, the camera work here is often nervous and edgy, especially when Peck is on screen. Shot by the great Leon Shamroy, who often worked with King, the film’s intelligence goes well beyond the screenplay and O’Rourke’s fine novel (he also wrote Two Mules for The Marquesa, the basis for The Professionals), to the films visual style which varies from wide sweeping shots to tense close ups.

   A tensely shot fight between Salmi and Peck in a shadowy grove of woods is one of the best uses of outdoor Technicolor filming you will see in a film and the dramatic scene when the posse finds Salmi hanging upside down from a tree a masterpiece of implied violence. You’ll notice Peck wears a black hat and dark blue and black clothes throughout the film and rides a black horse, visual shorthand for what he has become.

   What isn’t shown or even said is more eloquent than any dialogue could be in this film.

   The key to the film lies in the duel of wits between Henry Silva’s half-breed and Gregory Peck. As the killers circle towards the Douglass ranch never knowing it, a gentle neighbor of Douglass is killed (Gene Evans), and the girl attacked by Boyd, but left alive at Silva’s insistence when he interrupts her rape by Boyd to force him to flee. Even Collins, who has sought to curb Peck’s wrath is ready to see him kill them all when they find the girl in Evans cabin.

   Peck gives a subtle understated performance here. As the hunt goes on his humanity begins to reemerge, as he kills the men one by one until only he and Silva are left.

Peck: Why didn’t you kill me when you had a chance?

Silva: I had no reason to kill you. Why do you hunt me?

   The answer changes this film from what it began as, and gives it a remarkable turn rare in a Western revenge film, one Peck plays to the hilt, and one that leaves this film feeling remarkably modern and marks its rare intelligence. That is is also beautiful to look at and the cinematography is part and parcel of telling the story is also notable. There is also a fine score by Lionel Newman with contributions by Hugo Friedhofer and Alfred Newman uncredited.

   The suspense here is less whether Peck’s character will survive and more whether he will end up worse than the men he is hunting.

   Peck has a particularly good Western resume, from films like The Gunfighter, and Yellow Sky, to Only the Valiant and The Big Country and fairly late in his career, The Stalking Moon. This one fits well within the mold,

   And if you want to call it a classic, you won’t get an argument from me.




SILVER LODE. RKO, 1954. John Payne, Lizabeth Scot, Dan Duryea, Morris Ankrum, Harry Carey Jr. Robert Warrick, Dolores Moran, Emile Meyer, and Frank Sully. Written by Karen DeWolf. Directed by Alan Dwan. Available on DVD, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

   Probably the most explicit anti-McCarthy film of its time, and a pretty good “Town” Western besides.

   “Town Westerns” of course are those that largely forsake the wide-open spaces associated with the genre, and focus the action in and around a small community. They can get a bit static and talky, but there are some fine ones: FACE OF A FUGITIVE, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, RIO BRAVO…. Feel free to add your favorites in the list, but try to include SILVER LODE.

   The film opens with a quartet of Owlhoots riding into town, led by a stubble-faced Dan Duryea as a character named McCarty — could it get more obvious? Turns out that a well-loved local man (John Payne) is about to Marry Lizabeth Scott when Duryea/McCarty disrupts the ceremony. He has papers identifying hm as a US Marshal, a warrant to arrest Payne for murder, and a glint in his eye that says Payne will never make it to trial.

   What follows will be familiar to anyone who has seen HIGH NOON or its imitations: Payne’s friends rally to his side, then drop away one by one as suspicion mounts against him. To be fair to them, at one point he’s found standing over the murdered Sheriff (Emile Meyer) with a smoking gun, but director Alan Dwan keeps the talky parts commendably brief and un-preachy.

   Thus, SILVER LODE emerges as a well-crafted cat-and-mouse game, Payne trying to find some lever against Duryea, and Duryea chipping away at his reputation with innuendos and half-truths—character assassination in aid of physical murder.

   Karen DeWolf, a prolific writer of B Movies, makes it seem fresh by keeping the characters on the move, seldom seen on the same set twice, and never for very long. She also makes a fine job of giving Lizabeth Scott and Dolores Moran (as a tarty Saloon Gal) roles that are more than decorative. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that they manage to shape the story without breaking character. Indeed, DeWolf uses their positions in the social strata of the town so well I began to wonder if this was a Chick-Western.

   No fear of that though. Dwan keeps up the pace and tension as few could, culminating in a bell tower chase-and shoot-out that caps the action perfectly. Where some Town Westerns tend to get verbose and self-important, SILVER LODE delivers its anti-McCarthy message with style and a disarming lack of pretension.

   I also want to put in a word here about Frank Sully. A busy character actor in films as diverse as THE GRAPES OF WRATH and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, he specialized in dumb cops, dumb hoods, dumb cowboys and the occasional yokel, and he always gave it his all. SILVER LODE features Sully as a rattled telegrapher, and he manages to inject his own sense of humor quite effectively into a scene played for tension.


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