Western movies

INTRO. Jon and I went to see this as the first film of a Randolph Scott double feature last night. It was showing at the New Beverly Theater in Hollywood, the one owned by Quentin Tarantino. While tempting we didn’t stay for the second feature, but I think a large number of the audience did. The theater wasn’t jam-packed, but as a rough estimate, it was filled to sixty percent capacity, maybe more.

   It was good to see the film on the big screen in an actual theater, with an audience that came to see the movie, not to have a party. It also made me wonder if anyone involved in making the film back in 1957 had any idea that here and now, some 65 years later, the movie would still be around to keep fans watching an enjoying.

   The review below was first posted on this blog on 19 January 2015.

THE TALL T. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva, John Hubbard, Robert Burton. Screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on the story “The Captives,” by Elmore Leonard, published in Argosy, February 1955. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   To start off with, let me tell you that this is one of my favorite Western films of all time. I won’t tell you that it’s number one, because I’ll be honest with you as well as myself and say that it isn’t, but it’s in the top five.

   In part it’s the actors. Randolph Scott isn’t a lawman doing his job with professional dignity and humor, a common role he had in westerns. In The Tall T he’s a struggling former cowhand, no more than that, but he was good at his job. But now he’s living alone and struggling to make a go of his own small ranch, as honest with himself and others as the day is long.

   Richard Boone is the villain of the piece, who along with a pair of low-life outlaws he rides with (Skip Homeier and Henry Silva) holds up a stage only to find that it’s not the regularly scheduled one, but one chartered by the man who married the plain-looking daughter of the richest man in the territory, a rabbit of a man who gives up his wife as part of a ransom scheme to save his own hide. Scott, who just happens to be on the stagecoach, is caught up in the plan and as chance would have it, is made a captive too.

   As their captors, Richard Boone and his two cohorts are as murderous and vicious as they come. For some reason, though, Boone lets the yahoos he associates with do all the shooting, and as he confesses to Scott over an open fire, he has a wish to have a piece of land himself. Only Richard Boone could have played the part. A killer who aches with the need for someone intelligent to talk to.

   I don’t know how they managed to make Maureen O’Sullivan so plain looking, but she is, and at length she admits that she her knows exactly why her new husband married her. But it’s Randolph Scott who makes the movie work. Rugged, steely-eyed and quiet-talking, but with little ambition more than to make a living on his own, he’s also more than OK with a gun, a fact that in the end turns out to be rather important.

   Other than the actors, though, it is the storytelling, the combination of script and directing, that simply shines. The budget probably wasn’t all that large, but the story simply flows, with no wasted moments, every scene essential to the story. This is a movie that’s down to earth and real, and made by professionals on both sides of the camera.

   As for Elmore Leonard’s story, the one the movie is based on, you don’t have to read more than two or three pages before you know where the timing and the pacing of the movie came from.

   Most of the movie is taken straight from the story, at most only a long novelette, with only a couple of substantial changes. The campfire scene between Scott and Boone referred to above was added, and the way Scott and the woman defeat their captors was re-orchestrated, both changes for the better.

   Everyone agrees that Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction was always the best around, but to my mind, his western fiction, which came along earlier, is even better. That includes “The Captives,” beyond a doubt, and the movie is even better yet. To my mind, near perfect.


THE GUNFIGHTER. 19SO. Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Jean Parker, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Richard Jaeckel. Director: Henry King. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   Jaeckel’s part is small but a key one. He’s a young squirt who taunts the famous Jimmy Ringo into a gunfight. When the boy gets killed, it’s obviously self-defense, but the kid has three brothers who won’t believe it. Ringo’s past just won’t let him be.

   A classic, if you ask me. The plot’s an old one, but here it’s done well. The town where Ringo tries to find his former wife looks real, and feels real. Peck has a mustache in this movie, and it gives him a different look, weather-beaten, and weary. Just right.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


by Dan Stumpf:

   This is not a review of

LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. Universal, 1962. Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Michael Kane, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, and George Kennedy. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, from the novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. Directed by David Miller.

   This is not a review, because I haven’t seen Lonely Are the Brave in its entirety. Nor do I intend to. No, this is more of a reminiscence and reflection on what I HAVE seen of it, and not to be taken for a serious evaluation.

    Lonely aired on the 9 PM Saturday night movie back in 1972. I remember the approximate date, because I was working 3rd shift that night and had to leave for work at 10 PM. I wasn’t particularly keen on watching it, because I knew how it ended –


   Indeed, every reviewer in the Free World seems to have felt duty-bound to reveal the ending of the film, and if I mention it here, well you got your !!!WARNING!!! )

   –and I had no taste for the pre-fab defeatism of a story like that. But this was in the days of very limited choices, before cable, VCRs, and all that, so I settled in to watch the first half of Lonely Are the Brave.

   And it wasn’t half bad! Kirk Douglas stars as a shiftless cowboy who wanders in to visit his old buddy (Michael Kane) and learns from his wife (Gena Rowlands) he’s in jail for helping out some migrant workers. There’s real power in this scene, what is commonly and conveniently called Chemistry between the actors as they convey longing, frustration, and rueful passion between them. So Kirk, being soft of heart and head, decides to spring his old buddy from jail.

   A terrific (and quite brutal) bar fight lands him in the pokey with his friend and a file to cut away the window bars (No, I didn’t believe it either!) Come to think of it, Kirk gets three nasty thumpings in this movie, and ends up with nothing worse than a few scratches and makeup-man-made bruises, but I digress; things don’t go as planned because his childhood buddy is too mature for anything as dumb as a jail-break.

   Which leaves Kirk at loose ends and looking kind of childish. Also, he should get out of town pretty quick. But he makes a final stop to see Gena, reflects thoughtfully on old times, his inability to grow up with them, and the love that might have been… Then saddles up his horse and rides off into the sunrise, down the way to Mexico. At which point I had to buckle on my gunbelt and head into Night Shift.

   But the more I thought about Lonely, the more I liked it right there, ending with that image of the sadder-but-wiser hero on his way to some mythical fade-out always just beyond the end credits.

   And so I have been content to leave it that way. I know the ending of Lonely Are the Brave, and it just doesn’t interest me.

   But I highly recommend that first half!




FOUR FAST GUNS. Phoenix/Universal, 1960,  James Craig, Martha Vickers, Edgar Buchanan, Brett Halsey, Paul Richards, Richard Martin, and Blu Wright. Written by James Edmiston & Dallas Gaultois. Directed by William J. Hole Jr.

   There ain’t much to it, but what there is works pretty well.

   James Craig, looking a bit dissipated since his days battling Satan at RKO, stars as Tom Sabin, a gunfighter kicked out of Abilene by a town-taming marshal. When they both head off to the distant town of Purgatory  – the marshal to take on a new job, Sabin just to get along  —  they meet by chance and Sabin guns down the town-tamer in a fair fight.

   In one of those coincidences reserved for pulp fiction and B-movies, Sabin arrives in Purgatory, is mistaken for the town-taming marshal, and decides to take the job. Whereupon the local dress-heavy (Paul Richards) summons three fast-gun dog-heavies to end Sabin’s career before it starts.

(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: “Dress Heavy” is a term used by Western fans to describe the bad guy in a Western who wears a fancy vest, runs a bank or a saloon, tries to buy the heroine’s ranch or swindle the locals, and says “Have the boys meet me at the hideout.” to nearby underlings. This as opposed to the “Dog Heavy” who does the grunt work and can usually be spotted somewhere on the trail, hiding in the rocks with a view to ambushing somebody. Dog Heavies look mean, but rarely win fist-fights and show remarkably poor aim when shooting from behind rocks.)

   Getting back to the movie, Sabin encounters the three adversaries separately, and writers Edmiston & Galtois do a fine job differentiating them, investing each potential killer with a distinct personality, subtly expressed by the actors themselves. It’s a lot more care than is normally taken with Dog-Heavies, and I found it pleasantly surprising.

   The result is a low-budget Western with plenty of action, and a bit of thoughtfulness – of Humanity, if you will – that goes down easily and stays on the mind longer than most.




  GONE ARE THE DAYS. Lionsgate, 2018. Lance Henricksen, Tom Berenger, Billy Lush, Meg Steedle, Steve Railsback and Danny Trejo. Written by Gregory M. Tucker. Directed by Mark Landre Gould.

   A metaphysical western. And not bad at all.

   Lance Henricksen, looking appropriately mummified, plays Taylon, a dying — or possibly already dead — outlaw on a journey to Durango, accompanied by a black-clad former cohort who keeps vanishing at odd moments.

   The ostensible reason for the journey is that old chestnut, the One Last Bank Job, but it turns out Taylon has another motive for going, involving another old chestnut, the daughter he hasn’t seen in years.

   This could have turned out very ordinary, but Writer Tucker and director Gould put a unique spin on it all; there are no answers awaiting Taylon, only more mystery. No dignity in death or aging, only fresh indignities, as he finds that it’s certain we can take nothing out of this world when we go.

   All of which contrasts very effectively with Tom Berenger as an aging but robust ex-partner of Taylon’s, an outlaw turned lawman who finds himself up against an old buddy (another stock situation well-handled) and meets it with grim irony.

   Gone Are the Days  dances at the edge of self-importance like a drunk on roller skates, but manages to remain merely thoughtful — and easy to watch.




TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN. United Artists, 1958. Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Ned Young. Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo (fronted by Ben L. Perry). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

   I watched Lewis’s Terror in a Texas Town again the other day, a film I have reviewed before. It’s a splendidly cheap thing, with Sterling Hayden as a Swedish whaler coming to help out his Dad on the besieged Ranch they bought, Sebastian Cabot as the dress heavy, and blacklisted Ned Young as the Ultimate Hired Gun, who looks like they coined the term”walking dead” just for him: He’s overweight, over-age, over-indulged, and with every gesture he conveys the feel of a deadly working stiff who long ago forgot what he’s doing all this for.

   Lots of fine camera work, surprising characterization, and a few scenes that stay in the mind a long time, such as Young begging Hayden to take a few Steps closer so their final gunfight will be fairer — to Hayden.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #76, March 1996.




THE TEXAS RANGERS. Paramount, 1936. Fred MacMurray, Lloyd Nolan, Jean Parker, and Jack Oakie. Screenplay by King Vidor, Elizabeth Hill, and Louis Stevens, from the book by Walter Prescott Webb. Directed by King Vidor. Currently streaming on YouTube.

   A trio of desperadoes get separated while fleeing from a posse. Two of them join the Texas Rangers as cover, and gradually find themselves becoming committed to the Ranger mission, while the third forms a new gang and continues on his thievin’ murderin’ way, and if you can’t tell what develops….

   Despite the formulaic plot, this is far far from routine, thanks to Vidor’s assured direction and the performances from the leads. Until he hooked up with Disney and My Three Sons, MacMurray always lent a kind of equivocal edge to his roles that contrasted uneasily with his bluff good looks, and it makes him perfect as the bad guy turned hero (for now). Oakie’s good-for-little bravura makes a fine comedy relief, and Nolan’s big-city look suits his character just fine.

   But it’s Vidor’s sensitive handling of stock situations and his flair for action scenes that lifts Rangers out of its cliche’d roots.

   F’rinstance, there’s a bit where the Rangers are trapped on a cliffside, holding off angry Apaches down below. A few of the more ambitious Native Americans climb up above and start laboriously rolling boulders down at the Rangers. Vidor’s smooth way of cutting (The boulders come at intervals, thundering down the near-sheer wall like a cannon shot, as the rangers claw their way up the cliff to stop them) from long-shots, to medium exteriors, to studio “exteriors” propels the scene to epic proportions.

   Then, in quieter moments, the emotional resonance he puts into the scene where Nolan and Oakie have it out — Oakie’s braggadocio melting as he realizes how dangerous his old pal has become, Nolan losing control of himself, and visibly enjoying it — has stuck with me since I was a kid, and followed me into my dotage.

   Jimmy Stewart called moments like these “Pieces of time.” I call it fine movie-making and great fun.




BROKEN LANCE. 20th Century Fox, 1954. Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters, Richard Widmark, Katy Jurado, Eduard Franz, Hugh O’Brian, E. G. Marshall, Earl Holliman, Carl Benton Reid. Screenplay by Richard Murphy based on the screenplay for House of Strangers by Philip Yordan. Director: Edward Dmytryk.

   By 1954 when this drama of a family in conflict and brothers at each others throats was made, the Western was the dominant form of entertainment in theaters around the country, and the simple morality plays of an earlier era had been replaced with far more complex and adult themes. Novels, histories, and original screenplays were being churned out in great number and it was perhaps natural that Hollywood would turn to its own products for the basis of new material for the seemingly endless demand for new Westerns.

   It had already begun in the Post War-era. Raoul Walsh remade his own High Sierra as Colorado Territory, John Ford’s Four Men and a Prayer was remade as Fury at Furnace Creek, Kiss of Death as The Fiend Who Walked the West, Objective Burma as Distant Drums, and soon Asphalt Jungle as Badlanders, The Lost Patrol as The Last of the Comanches, even Gunga Din as Sergeants 3.

   Broken Lance was a remake of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1949 film noir House of Strangers. In that one Edward G. Robinson was the patriarch of an Italian banking family whose favorite son, Richard Conte who loves society woman Susan Hayward, goes to jail to save the old man when he gets in trouble with his high-handed ways only to find his brothers led by Luther Adler out to destroy him and cheat him out of his part of the family fortune when he finishes his prison term.

   Here Spencer Tracy is Matt Devereaux, cattle rancher and pioneer who has died while his youngest son Joseph (Robert Wagner) was in prison. Joe’s half brothers Ben, Mike, and Denny (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian, and Earl Holliman Jr.) try to buy him out and send him packing when Joe is released, but Joe still has business and memories to deal with.

   The movie opens with a lobo wolf running wild across the landscape. We will later see Matt refuse to let son Denny shoot the same wolf, and at one point Matt’s Native American foreman (Eudard Franz) tells Joseph that Matt’s spirit runs with the wolves. We see and hear the wolf a final time as the music rises and The End appears hammering home the theme.

   The story is told in flashback, and to Mankiewicz’s plot, Dmytryk and screenwriter Richard Murphy add a sub plot about racism and intolerance since Wagner’s Mother (Katy Jurado, who was only six years older than Wagner) is Native American, a source of many not so subtle snubs from Matt’s business partners..

   When Old Matt takes on a copper mine poisoning his source of water and destroys the place he finds his friend the territorial governor (E. G. Marshall — and yes the film several times refers to Arizona as a state well before that happened) is unwilling to help him unless he stops Joe from romancing his daughter Barbara (Jean Peters).

   The legal proceedings go badly and Joe volunteers to go to prison to save his father striking a deal to only serve a short sentence if Matt will sell the land to the copper interests, but when the time comes older brother Ben refuses to sign, Joe is sent to prison for three years, and Matt has a stroke confronted by Ben and his brothers refusal to help Joe.

   While Joe is in prison the brothers undo everything Old Matt built and eventually cause his death in a well done scene reminiscent of the end of El Cid. But Joe wants no part of fratricide having said his goodbyes to his dead father and is ready to leave when Ben decides he would never sleep well as long as Joe was alive and decides to kill him.

   Beautifully shot by cinematographer Joe MacDonald, with a strong score by Leigh Harline, and imaginatively staged by director Edward Dmytryk, Broken Lance is a satisfying adult Western with the shoot ’em up action nicely balanced by family drama, a trial, and Tracy in larger than life scene stealing mode (there are two life sized portraits of Tracy featured in the film I would kill to own).

   An avid polo player when he was younger Tracy sits a horse well and looks natural in the saddle. At this point he was still active enough to look believable in action scenes.

   Widmark is good (when isn’t he?) as Ben the resentful older brother who hates his father enough to destroy every thing and everyone around him including his half brother. O’Brian and Holliman fill out the roles of the two wastrel middle brother well enough though neither has much to do.

   Of course Katy Jurado is fine in anything she plays and in this period has one fine role after another. Eduard Franz plays Old Matt’s Native foreman and surrogate father to Wagner’s character with his usual quiet efficiency (he plays a similar role as a tracker in The Burning Hills). Peters, Marshall, Reid are all solid in their various supporting bits as well.

   The star here though, despite Tracy’s top billing, is Wagner, who is in almost every scene as the decent loyal son, and holds his own opposite the likes of Tracy (Wagner knew many of the Old Hollywood elites well, including Tracy who he had caddied for when he was younger) and Widmark. He played opposite O’Brian in The White Feather, so this was old home week in some ways.

   It’s no easy task for a young actor to even stay on the screen with the likes of Tracy (they played brothers in The Mountain) and Widmark, but he does it with ease. He was always at ease on screen, perhaps too much so for his own growth as an actor, but here he more than manages the unenviable trick of having to hold the screen when viewers are waiting for more of Tracy and Widmark.

   Incidentally there is a quiet scene with Tracy and Widmark that is almost a masterclass in two screen naturals subtly battling for screen dominance and coming to a draw without either of them ever once slipping out of character or crossing the obvious line into scene stealing. Widmark’s quiet self assurance on screen with Tracy, expressed in his relaxed posture, even adds to the tension between their characters in the film.


JOE DAKOTA. Universal-International, 1957. Jock Mahoney, Luana Patten, Charles McGraw, Barbara Lawrence, Claude Akins, Lee Van Cleef, Anthony Caruso, Paul Birch. Screenplay: William Talman and Norman Jolley. Director: Richard Bartlett. Currently streaming on Starz.

   When Jock Mahoney’s character rides into the small western town of Arborville, at first he finds it totally deserted. No one in the street. No one in any of the stores. No one anywhere. Until at last he discovers a girl (Luana Patten) sulkily standing near the general store. That she is not forthcoming as to where all the townspeople are is an understatement. Shrugging, he rides off.


   Whereupon he finds the answer. A short way from town all of the men who live there are drilling an oil well. By hand. The women are sitting in the shade at the equivalent of a picnic table, watching. Jock Mahoney’s character asks if he can watch. After some discussion with the man in charge (Charles McGraw), it is agreed that no harm would be done if he did.

   Pushing the boundaries of the agreement he has just made, Jock Mahoney’s character enters the small shack near where the men are working. This seems to annoy them, and Jock Mahoney’s character winds up in the oil pool next to the drilling site. Covered in black, he unceremoniously leaves. The next we see him, he is taking a bath back in town in their watering trough, with the girl secretly watching.

   As it so happens, Jock Mahoney’s character is looking for an old Indian who calls (or called) himself Joe Dakota. It was his shack there near the oil well, but what he is told is that he sold right to the property just before leaving town.

   If you stop and think about it right about here, you will probably know where the story is going from here, and you’d probably be right. You may even think of another earlier movie with a plot line that would be along the same lines as this one, and you’d be right about that, too.

   It doesn’t mean that this one is not fun to watch, because it is. Nor can it be bad, not with a cast like this, and a storyline that’s clean and efficient and basically well told. Jock Mahoney makes no attempt to overplay his role; quite the opposite. The villain, of course, is Charles McGraw’s character, and Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef play a pair of local louts for all they’re worth, as only they could.




FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER, Universal, 1954. Rory Calhoun, Colleen Miller, John McIntire, Walter Brennan, George Nader, Jay Silverheels, Nina Foch, Charles Drake, Nestor Paiva, and Mary Field. Screenplay by George Van Marter and Franklin Coen, from a story by Louis L’Amour. Directed by Richard Carlson. Streaming on Starz until December 1st.

   The Asphalt Jungle with Indians. And not bad.

   Rory Calhoun plays an out-and-out owl-hoot in this one, the CEO of an outlaw band that includes John McIntire, George Nader, and Jay Silverheels (as a Yaqui Indian this time) on the run from one unsuccessful robbery, and planning another effort.

   Along the way they meet up with Walter Brennan, a reformed outlaw and old saddle pal of McIntire’s, and his daughter (Colleen Miller) who could best be described in frontier terms as a buxom lass, or as we say today, a real hottie. Writers Van Marter and Coen go out of their way to get her wet as often as possible, and director Carlson shows her off to excellent effect, sure to keep the big kids (this one, anyway) in their seats while the little ones go for popcorn.

   There’s not much time for popcorn, though, because Rory’s plan calls for the other three to hit the bank in his old hometown while he picks a fight with his old-buddy-turned-lawman (Charles Drake) who ran him out of town and married his gal (Nina Foch) years ago.

   So we get a vigorous and protracted fight between Calhoun and Drake, cross-cut with a tense bank job, followed by a pursuit conveniently interrupted by marauding Apaches. Of course, when Calhoun and his band are faced with the choice of making their escape or going to the aid of Brennan and Miller, pinned down and surrounded by hostiles, they do what every kid in the audience would, and we get another pitched battle.

   Yeah, it’s all a little too pat. Chalk it up to the writers, whose work (separately) includes high points like The Train and Champagne for Caesar, and dreck like Chained for Life — a very mixed bag, to be sure. But it finishes off with a powerful showdown between Calhoun, badly wounded, and Drake, badly humiliated, shot for maximum emotional tension by Carlson, who alternates tracking shots of the antagonists with long shots that frame the conflict perfectly.

   Added up, this one is a touch formulaic, but still intriguing. And Collen Miller will keep you watching.


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