Scaramouche (1952)

Like many of the archetypal tales of literature or film, Scaramouche is a story of the aristocrats warring against the common man or closer still the common man throwing off the shackles placed upon him by his oppressor.

The dynamic is spelled out in an early scene as that ill-fated debutante (Nina Foch) enlists the help from behind parlor room doors of her dear cousin, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), to find the infernal insubordinate “Marcus Brutus.” The vagrant had the unthinkable gall to litter her very own palace with his pamphlets.

It’s easy to get distracted by the period elegance leftover from the MGM of the late 30s and 40s. The movie wears its opulence well and thankfully there’s a worthy story to prop it up and give it the heartbeat of humor and substance. Although we are on the eve of The French Revolution, this acts as merely a backdrop. As is usually the case, the story is made far more personal.

This could very easily be the story of a rebellious pamphleteer and his loyal compatriot sticking it to the bourgeoisie. However, the young upstart Philippe (Richard Anderson) is killed by the sword at the hands of the lethal Marquis, and now his companion Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vows to seek revenge. In fact, his story from thenceforward is driven by an all-consuming personal vendetta.

Janet Leigh, on her part, is a virginal beauty brimming with a poised elegance. She’s crucial to this story as the queen’s ward and a chosen companion for the Marquis. However, kismet means she also shares a fondness for Andre after a chance encounter by the roadside. Suddenly our two men are tied perilously close together.  Still, there must be time for amusement.

Stewart Granger takes to the part with ease, and it plays to his finest attributes as a leading man. But he’s also able to have a bit of fun donning the visage of Scaramouche the masked jester, a perfect disguise and also a way to cast himself in the likeness of all the great vagabond heroes of Hollywood lore, whether they be Robin Hood or Francois Villon.

Eleanor Parker is vivid and fierce with fiery red hair and passionate jealousies befitting a person of her ilk. She bursts on the screen with an untameable beauty trampling after her love on stage, with all manner of blunt instruments, and malice in her heart. However, he’s the one who plucks her out of the arms of matrimony only to receive her continual ire and consternation in return. It’s only one of the fires lit under the movie.

The bursting palette of the picture and its sense of comic pageantry onstage cannot help but elicit comparisons to Kiss Me Kate. The adaptation of Taming of the Shrew was a musical, yes, but also directed by the very same George Sidney.

Sidney himself felt this material was ready-made for musical treatment. I’m not too familiar with Granger’s singing prowess, but I’m rather partial to how the story develops and part of that might be the dearth of modern swashbucklers. There’s something so invigorating about them even to this day, and the spectacle of the film fails to disappoint. And if Sidney was at all disappointed by the results, he only had to wait a year to get his musical.

What becomes apparent about Scaramouche is how it ably fluctuates between two tones to fit its two divergent worlds. At one time, Andre finds himself dabbling in the royal courts as a traitor and wanted man, sharing covert rendezvous with the pure-hearted Aline de Gavrillac (Leigh). Then, in subsequent moments, he’s the larger-than-life theater vagabond caught up in a perpetual game of stagebound slapstick and ferocious cat and mouse with his most favored acting partner.

However, he also has time to take on a new hobby as he endeavors to become a master swordsman, man enough to take on the Marquis. When the time comes, he takes the troupe to the big stage and bright lights of Paris though he maintains his ulterior motives.

In the name of his good friend, he takes up the mantle of the common man in the national assembly. He handily whittles down the list of deputies who all insult his character for the chance at a duel. Of course, there’s only one name he waits to cross swords against — and it’s the one name he has yet to face.

You see, the two women in his life conspire to keep them apart and, for the time being, keep Andre safe. Alas, they cannot stave off the confrontation forever; it’s an inevitable development. They meet at the theater of all places.

The final rousing show of swordplay has to be one of the finest displays I’ve witnessed in some time. Between Granger’s moderate background and Ferrer’s grace as a dancer, they make the choreography pulse-pounding and totally enthralling while their venue brings in a novel element.

All the spectators rush around as haphazard collateral damage as they thrust and parry their way across the balcony, down the steps, into the first-floor theater seats, and then finally up on the stage. It’s not just a sword fight; it feels like a whole movement with a beginning, middle, and end that plays out in front of us.

It ends with almost an anticlimax and a twist that initially seems to take away from the story, although it just might add one more feather in the movie’s cap. The only matter left to parse through is probably the most important or at least the most troubling. Which leading lady shall our leading man choose? Although they come from two different strata of society, they both boast an embarrassment of riches. In the end, he takes Janet Leigh.

It’s easily forgivable and Eleanor Parker gets the last laugh on him, not to mention a new man on her arm, all but waiting in the wings to tear France a new one. Who needs a strapping vagabond swordsman, when she winds up with one of the greatest military minds of all time? This touch of conclusive irony summarizes Scaramouche at its very best. It manages to harness the drama while never losing its romantic sense of adventure and unadulterated good humor.

4/5 Stars

Anne of The Indies (1951)

“What should it trouble a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul” – Herbert Marshall

There’s not a finer prospect I can think of than a Jacques Tourneur-helmed swashbuckler starring Jean Peters as a swarthy pirate who terrorizes the high seas. At this point in her career, Peters had yet to garner a starring role. Pictures like Pickup on South Street and Niagara were still in her future, but she more than proves her salt, taking to the role ferociously. The best part is that regardless of its humble running time, this is the kind of material an actor can really sink their teeth into.

Her Captain Providence proves fierce and stout-hearted in a sea of growling seafarers. Despite being one of the few women on the landscape, she’s a domineering captain of the ship who wears her sea legs well; there’s a believable pitilessness about her.

It’s the only way one survives such a climate. In their opening takeover of a ship from the British fleet, we get a perfect showcase for their merciless treatment of any foe. It primes our expectations going forward.

However, there is one uncharacteristic move our protagonist makes by pardoning a man they find shackled in the brig. He is a Frenchman (Louis Jourdan). Her right hand man is distrustful of such a rogue, but the enigmatic fellow becomes an addition to the crew after appealing to the captain’s judgment.

If she has anything close to a resident conscience, it would be the jaded doctor (Herbert Marshall), who cares for the crew’s ailments while also keeping her apprised of the words of scripture and what scrupulous men might do. This is very much the war playing out within the character. She tries to maintain her mastery of the sea while also grappling with love, opening herself up, and risking an admission of weakness.

For instance, feminity is not something to be flaunted, but Jourdan’s La Rochelle manages to coax it out of her. Like other wenches, she’s fallen for a man. He effectively comes between her and the only mentor she’s ever known.

Thomas Gomez takes on the larger-than-life task of Black Beard. He is both mentor and partial antagonist worthy of all the scurvy legends and tall tales that have been spun about him over the years. He’s armed with an agreeable bluster full of throaty good humor but also the edge of prickly menace. It makes him more threatening as the story progresses because he doesn’t forget a grudge easily.

Their initial fight is everything we could ask for in a rousing duel between a pair of boisterous daredevils. However, if this is what they do in a jocund company, you can only imagine what it will look like when animosity is stirred up between them.

Debra Padget is hardly a flash in the pan and for all the solid pictures she was a part of, more often than not it seems like she’s given very little to do. Once again she shows up as a pretty albeit sympathetic face. In this picture, she’s a fitting contract to Anne, if little else. She was rarely allowed anything more substantial.

It’s easy enough to summarize the latter half of the picture as a game of successive feints and parries back and forth with several lovely offensive thrusts from both sides. They’ll see it through to the end hell or high water, cannonballs raining down, masts crashing, fires burning all over. If it’s not obvious already, there can only be one victor in the fight to the death and the total subjugation of the sea.

The ending is another twist of romanticism. To me, it does twinge with the feelings of a cop-out, but it brings back Black Beard to fight it out with his old yard arm. They were meant to meet one final time. Except for this time, his old accomplice has been stricken with a momentary conscience. She takes her furious grit and puts it to use in one final stand of sacrificial defiance. Still, the famed pirate goes out much the way she came in as a titan among men.

There are few things I abhor more than a bloated picture where the scenery and the running time get away from the filmmakers. While Tourneur’s not anti-epic, he takes shorter, more compact material and still manages to give it the scale and import of much larger pictures. He did it with horror, westerns, and certainly swashbucklers like this one. Because genre pictures have the auspicious opportunity to offer their spectators atmosphere — all kinds of atmosphere — and we see it in spades with Tourneur. This surely is one of his finest attributes as a director.

Part of me still marvels that they actually made a movie like this in the early 1950s. But that quickly dissipates in lieu of a total appreciation for what this cast and crew are able to conjure up onscreen. It’s like they had the key to rousing swashbucklers that we’ve all pretty much forgotten. For a picture that very few people seem to remember today, Anne of the Indies is a good time, and a novel one at that.

3.5/5 Stars

The Wrong Man (1956): Henry Fonda The Most Sympathetic of Victims

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I never grew up watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but there’s kind of a ubiquitous aura about them. The man himself — the entirety of his portly physique — comes out of the shadows into a family’s living room to narrate some ghastly or unseemly crime with a droll sense of humor. The show ran from 1955 to 1965 becoming a wildly popular cultural touchstone, and it’s easy to see how The Wrong Man (1956) might have fit into this lineage.

Hitchcock was normally a walking cameo, providing a wink-wink to the audience as he pulled the strings from behind the camera. Here he is also a spokesperson assuring his audience every word of the following story is true though it plays stranger than fiction.

What becomes immediately apparent is the New York milieu. It’s unadorned and if it’s themes and star bring to mind Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda, then the world itself has the kind of simple humanity of Paddy Chayefsky. And this is a Hitchcock movie, mind you, but the cinematography by Robert Burks is gorgeous in its stark black & white tones. It helps to maintain this suggested sense of concrete realism.

We open on the bustling Stork Club — it’s a real place — and there “Manny” Balestero (Fonda) plays bass as part of the house band. He’s not rich by any means, but he makes an honest wage going home to his wife (Vera Miles) after the dancing is done. Their life together is humble but full of love and decency. They raise two rambunctious boys, and he promises to give them music lessons.

His life is preoccupied with the kind of familial responsibilities we all understand. His wife has some dental work that needs to be done — it’s expensive so he needs to check on their insurance policy — and he plans to check in on his mother. It’s rather unextraordinary. But this is what makes it unusual.

While Manny only looks to check on his wife’s insurance policy, Hitchcock frames it like a bank robbery. Except the gun coming out of his pocket is the paper policy. The teller walks away, her face racked with concern as she consorts with her superior. A holdup hasn’t been committed, and yet it sure feels like it. In a stunning shot, the superior peers past her shoulder and catches sight of Manny perfectly oblivious. It’s the beginning of trouble.

Soon Manny is I.D.’d. He’s not trying to hide anything. Some policemen (including Harold J. Stone) show up on his doorstep to take him in for questioning. They assuage any concerns he might have: “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about. It’s the fella who’s done something wrong who has something to worry about.” And so he goes along with their line of interrogation because he naively believes in the veracity of justice.

What becomes more apparent is the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and the coincidence found in circumstantial evidence. I am reminded of the work done by the likes of Elizabeth Loftus and of confirmation bias. Of how misleading information often molds responses. Two ladies pick Manny out of a lineup which doesn’t bode well. Then, whether or not it’s uncanny, his handwriting also looks close enough to an incriminating stick-up note.

However, more so than any of the implications on law and the criminal justice system, The Wrong Man is such a powerful exemplification of Hitchock’s directorial talents. It’s devilishly simple on the exterior, and yet he does so much to make us totally cognizant of Fonda’s condition. It goes beyond mere osmosis. Thanks to Hitchock, we live Fonda’s point of view.

When he’s first approached, then, again, when he finds himself actually booked and imprisoned, Hitchcock does something deceptively simple — taking on Fonda’s eyes. He looks around the confines of the space — to the sink in the corner, up at the ceiling, and we are there with him. We forget about a camera — that there is visual trickery going on — and we fall into Manny’s predicament sitting right there by his side.

We recognize the shame of being imprisoned — to be robbed of your dignity even if you manage to be exonerated. He’s taken through all the paces of justice in all its drab mundanity. It takes all the sheen out of law and order; this isn’t Elliot Ness or Perry Mason. This is common, everyday people grinding through their daily lives.

Manny watches as they do their jobs around him with a kind of detached efficiency. He has no idea what he’s caught up in nor does he think about trying to speak up on his behalf. The machine is moving too fast, and he’s already reticent. Could it be it’s hopeless? Instead, as he’s handcuffed, he watches the footfalls of his fellow prisoners being led to the van. What’s he supposed to do? Worst of all, he isn’t able to notify his wife, and he always calls her if he’s out late. He’s that kind of man.

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The resulting storyline involves a valiant lawyer (Anthony Quayle), who agrees to take his case. However, every possible alibi proves a dead-end. Manny’s wife, once the image of so much jovial warmth, has become delusional in the lead up to his trial. She can’t take the strain.

Finally, we are in the throes of the court proceedings. Manny holds his rosary under his desk and later the cross hangs suspended up above him. It’s hard to take it any other way but that of a symbol: here is a man being falsely accused crucified for something he did not do. Like I Confess, this is not only a tale of a man put on trial unjustly, it’s the tribulations of a devout man of faith.

True to form, The Wrong Man also reflects the most perceptive and honest of courtrooms. As Manny sits there, his fate in the balance, he glances around to see all the various side conversations going on — for other people the proceedings only hold mild curiosity — but again, Hitchcock has made us totally empathize with Manny.

After his mother implores him to pray to God, he prepares for work as per usual, but then takes a moment to heed her advice. Looking at the picture of Jesus on the wall, he begins to whisper his prayers under his breath. The visuals start to superimpose. There is Manny — that is Henry Fonda’s face — and the mug of the wanted man comes into view and meets him in the middle of the screen. All of sudden, he’s got a bit of luck. It’s the fortuitous key to the whole horrid mess. Christians would believe this is Providence.

The ending hardly matters nor does the fact that it is a “true story.” It’s the impression the movie leaves on us casting the greatest shadow. Hank Fonda is the most sympathetic of victims. However, it’s Alfred Hitchcock who intuitively understands how to augment his plight by making it viscerally resonate frame after frame. Without the bells and whistles he grew accustomed to, he shows he’s still capable of making a superior film.

4/5 Stars

I Confess (1953): What Would Hitch Do?

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Religion doesn’t always play a prominent role in the films of Alfred Hitchock — he could possibly be considered a lapsed Catholic — but I Confess is his most overt exploration of moral and religious convictions. Although one could make the argument that he’s most interested in the mechanisms created by the moral conundrum since his priest becomes another innocent man accused. Nonetheless, the story speaks for itself.

It opens in quintessential Hitchock fashion as signage seems to indicate a route and then moments later a murder is announced with a body sprawled out on the floor. A man walks down the street briskly in the cosset of a priest. If nothing else, it suggests a man of the cloth might soon be implicated.

Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), who will soon become of primary importance, is in the church when he is met by Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who works in the local parish with his wife. The Father has always been good to him, his friend even, and now he has a confession.

The confessional becomes such a powerful dramatic element: It’s been used to stirring effect in everything from Leon Morin, Priest to the more recent Calvary. In I Confess it conveniently sets up Hitchcock’s core dilemma. The flustered European immigrant confesses to the murder of a man named Vilette. Priests, of course, take a vow of confidentiality. Thus, the picture is not entirely a mystery. This is laid in the audience’s lap before we know what exactly to do with it.

Everything must become far more complicated. It involves the Father’s past relationship with the now married Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter). That was many years ago, although Logan remains above reproach.

Still, the police inspector (Karl Malden) needles him and cannot understand why he will not be more compliant. After all, he was supposed to meet Vilette the morning after his death, and he was seen with the young woman on the street corner, the day after. It’s true enough, but he will not divulge more regardless of how it looks.

Flashbacks clog up the story’s midriff even as it becomes imperative to inform the narrative. Because before he ever took his vows, they were in love. He went off to war and she was left despondent, receiving small comfort from her employer and future husband: Pierre.

Not all the performances feel altogether pristine or polished but as with the environment, this is a bit of added authentic charm. The more readily-remembered Hollywood actors feel mostly like dressing compared to Father Logan — Malden’s obdurateness might be the exception. Still, this is not altogether problematic and while the picture’s not exactly taut, it does feel psychologically distressing. Clift is made to suffer in silence.

We often forget, with the lustrous Technicolor glories of the Paramount years and pictures from Rear Window to Marnie, that Hitchock was comfortable with smaller scale and black & white. Quebec is a very unique locale, but it effectively serves his plot and the evocation of provincial character quite well.

Although Hitchcock was never one to see eye to eye with so-called “Method actors,” I think of Clift and Paul Newman in particular, there’s no argument that he allows Monty to shine even sets him up for a nuanced but ultimately towering performance. There’s a quiet magnitude imbued by his stoicism in front of the camera.

He literally becomes a Christ figure and it’s no mere coincidence that Hitchcock shoots looking down past a sculpture of a man carrying the cross as Logan himself walks below on the street. Or for that matter, how often do you see a crucifix so prominently featured in a courtroom? It’s because this courtroom drama has a priest on the stand. The whole movie is playing out through what he will and will not do. His convictions dictate what will happen.

It’s the district attorney (Brian Aherne) who has the undesirable job of getting a conviction by doing his job to the best of his abilities. This means cross-examining a mutual friend (Baxter) as well as the man of the cloth. Is he in a sense, Pontius Pilate? Because even if Father Logan comes out of the trial alive, the media attention and the aspersions on his character can never be undone. He will be faced with public ignominy.

He’s also made to walk the gauntlet so many times; Hitchock blesses Clift with some phenomenal close-ups and allows the camera to take on his protagonist’s point of view multiple times. He’s not the only one, but one can hardly forget the very final scene in the Chateau Frontenac Hotel: The Father goes in to confront the man who was going to let him take the rap for a murder he did not commit.

The man has a gun. He’s holding himself up and by now he’s desperate already, having killed at least one other person. The room couldn’t seem larger and still, with a kind of peerless conviction, Clift’s hero makes the long walk prepared to sacrifice himself yet again.

Ultimately, he is vindicated; there is a sense of justice, but what a terrifying portrait it is. For those without major religious convictions, it might feel absurd. I must admit it seems almost inconceivable a priest cannot alert the police about a murderer. Surely, even the Bible talks about there being a season for everything, and a time for every purpose under Heaven. Still, Hitchcock even made a point in an interview:

“We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”

It should be noted, in a Hitchcock film, it usually seems like a time to kill and a time for hate because what better way to explore our moral makeup and the forums of human justice? In the end, Father Logan holds fast and is exculpated. If not only by earthly powers, then higher powers too. I’m still left to wonder what Hitchcock would have said in the confessional if he was faced with it.

You can tell a lot about a man from his fears as well as his vices. What stands out about the picture is how it never feels undermined by jokes. It feels as sincere as the man at its core. For some, it might be a turnoff. For others, it will make you appreciate the director even more. He willingly enters into the realm of the pious, albeit through the lens of murder.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Hunt (1956) and The Killing Fields

The Last Hunt considers an era that is no more. Once America’s Great Plains ran rampant with herds of bison numbering up to 60,000,000 based on the estimation of this movie. The initial premise of Richard Brooks’ western intrigues for the sole fact that this is a slice of history that doesn’t get much screen time in the cinematic west and, thus, it offers a framework for some potentially pointed commentary.

The onus for the circumstances is placed on both hunters and American Indians for recklessly slaughtering the population down to a mere 3,000. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems much of the blame must be cast on the white men. But this is something to get into later. 

For now, it should be briefly mentioned the movie has a great deal of footage shot in the famed Custer State Park spread out across the Badlands, and if you’ve never had the opportunity to go there, I would certainly recommend it, if only for the chance to see some bison. 

I’ve gotten the exhilarating opportunity to see bison several times in my life and let us just say, there’s nothing quite like it as far as putting you in touch with the sheer majesty of nature. To look at one of those creatures in close proximity, even from the relative safety of an automobile, is breathtaking. It gives one an even deeper appreciation for both the magnitude and the inner turmoil The Last Hunt attempts to grapple with. 

Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) for one, is a big-time hunter who wants to wash his hands clean of the profession. He’s intent on taking one last job and moving on. However,  it’s one of his colleagues, the bloody-thirsty Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), who derives an unseemly amount of pleasure out of his vocation. He stays matter-of-factly, “Killing, fighting, war, that’s the natural state of things” and he wholeheartedly believes it. This mentality bleeds into all facets of his life. 

For one thing, he despises Indians. They’re hardly better than the big-time game he bags, and he’s quick to deride the genial half-breed who joins their company (Russ Tamblyn). Sandy is just as quick to welcome the boy on, and it’s yet another uneasy wedge between the two hunters. 

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Watching the bison drop instantly to the ground as dead weight is in itself a bit perturbing and feels unnatural. Be forewarned, The Last Hunt is not for the squeamish because there is nothing simulated about the hunting throughout the film, actually performed by government sharpshooters who thinned out the bison population. Why it is done this way I’m not quite sure.

Likewise, watching Taylor blast away at the giant beasts until he’s decimated a whole pack for their skins, and then a moment layer cutting away to what feels like a bison killing field leaves a startling impression. The baby bison are left parent-less and a majestic white buffalo — believed to be medicine for the natives — is unceremoniously struck down. 

But this is only a backdrop or even a representation of what is going in the hearts & minds of the two characters as they chafe against one another. The movie would not work without both of their points of view. Charlie continues to exercise his almighty power of life and death over the beasts, relishing every minute, because killing is the only real proof you’re alive. His words, not mine.  Sandy could care less — having his own personal crisis of conscience — even as he extends a courteousness to his fellow man, no matter their creed. 

 Lloyd Nolan, who might best be remembered for character parts in the 30s and 40s, to my recollection puts together one of the most colorful portrayals of his career. His cackling “Woodfoot” holds a foolhardy appreciation for life and the rush of the hunt. It’s a lark to him, but he’s also good at what he does. The resplendent green plains laden with sheets of pine trees capture the sense of rip-roaring adventure out on the trail as the raucous pegleg tears across the territory with a giddy sense of abandon. 

Over time he settles into a good-natured sagacity even as he provides nighttime accordion playing to lighten the mood. He’s a bit of insulation between the men around him while offering the young boy neighborly advice. He softens and becomes more decent as Charlie becomes more and more stricken with his crazed obsession. 

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Because there are only a handful of primary characters, each one has a very specific personality put on display and each earns their keep in the movie. The one exception seems to be Debra Padget, no fault of her own. She is an extremely alluring albeit absent beauty. Charlie desires her lustily, despite his bigotry, while Sandy becomes her de facto protectorate. I feel sorry for her because with the part she has to play — as the captured Indian maiden with child — she can’t win. Obviously, there’s a vague sense of her being a love interest, but in a male-dominated arena, she doesn’t have much import, unfortunately.

 Though the picture doesn’t have the best track record with American Indians — this is often the case with westerns circa 1956 — The Last Hunt does make a valiant attempt at some kinds of off-handed commentary. When talking about their customs, Charlie says, “Indians they don’t have religion.” Woodfoot replies with a cynical response of his own, “Indian religion is just the same as ours, except they don’t pass the hat after they pray.”

There’s another moment worth mentioning as a kind of mutual appreciation builds between Sandy and Padget’s nameless Indian girl. He acknowledges that he learned how to ride and learned about life from natives, so he holds them in the highest esteem. Proximity breeds this kind of empathy. 

She comes back around with her own version (by taking care of a toddling infant who is not her own child). She learned babies belong to all people, a sympathetic pearl of wisdom gained from Christian missionaries. It’s in this space where they form a kind of shared understanding built on mutual respect. 

But there comes a point of no return. For Sandy, he goes into town to sell their skins for a hefty sum, but he’s also resolved to get some of the buffalo stench off of him. He’s ashamed and the whole outpost points to his ignominy. Soon he’s brawling over the beasts to the chorus of rowdy honky-tonk and bodies flying over and under the bar.

 Charlie fairs little better as he goes into a continued fit of paranoid delusion leading him toward a chasm of madness. He believes his partner is looking to double-cross him, and he’s prepared to track him down and kill him if he has to (or anyone else who might get in his way). For all his disreputable malevolence, Robert Taylor is undoubtedly the film’s standout totally committing to his demented role. Granger is a necessary foil, but he and most everyone else must play cool and understated only smoldering under Nilson’s provocations. 

Truthfully, the ending feels woefully anticlimactic, or at least ill-gotten, failing to follow the trajectory that the story looked to be paying off. Still, up until this point The Last Hunt has a nervy tenacity in its best moments that might well leave a lasting impression on a willing audience. It remains a contentious indictment of America’s dubious indiscretions even as it also helps to unwittingly propagate a few more. Sometimes the good comes with the bad. 

3/5 Stars

Westward The Women (1951): A Fuller, Richer Kind of Western

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My only qualm with Westward The Women might be the title itself because otherwise, it’s a striking movie that should rightfully be heralded as a supremely significant western for the story it chooses to tell. At the very least, the title does make it evident that this is a story with women at the forefront — after all, the journey west was just as much theirs as anyone else’s. They just needed someone in a position of influence to enable them.

John McIntire is the visionary who can see what his land would become if subdued by men who could settle down with wives and make it into a suitable country. He’s already got the land. He’s already got the hands to work it. He just needs the women.

But he needs a man with the grit and horse sense to make it a reality because the closest females are thousands of miles away from his pristine California valley. Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is the man for the job with a plethora of experience when it comes to being a wagon master. This task seems nearly unthinkable, and he takes it mainly for the money. He doesn’t necessarily believe they can make it. He hasn’t met the women yet.

As if to confirm his expectations, most of them are city folk and have neither fired guns nor ridden horses. They already have a few strikes against them. He’s hardly impressed, propped up in the corner with his hat tipped back contemptuously. During the vetting process, Mr. Whitman takes on the recruits with a far more benevolent eye.

They run the gamut from the imposing Hope Emerson to ladies with sullied reputations (among them Denise Darcel). The fact that an Italian widow and her young son sign aboard must also make us pause for a moment.

Because Westward the Women isn’t merely a story about heroic women — it is certainly this. However, since it was originally conceived by Frank Capra (who wrote the story and planned to direct), it’s an immigrant tale, albeit between Chicago and California.

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While Robert Taylor is rightfully acerbic and disaffected for the part, he also has a strict sense of equity extending to both genders. Although he has a crew of veteran men working with him, he’s not going to take any of their guff or fooling around, and he’s prepared to kill to maintain order. It’s supremely harsh but then again, he seems to understand something few others do: This is a life or death scenario.

There are the torrential downpours that nearly wash them away, the treacherous terrain crushes a couple of their wagons to pieces, and, of course, there’s the threat of Indian raids. Worst of all is the internal division inside the company. Buck knows they will never survive if they can’t stick together.

The trail requires the supreme sacrifice of many who give their lives in service to the journey. It’s never easy but more than anyone else, the women’s resolve is firm. They will make it to their destination even if it kills them. Moment by moment, we learn more about the depth of their character.

The movie is a western that cuts against the grain — of both the 1850s and the 1950s —  engaged in telling a story predominantly about women featuring a Japanese character who feels at least a little bit more substantial than a sideshow attraction. His existence at all feels unheard of for depictions of either era.

I wish more directors and westerns had seen fit to have characters like Henry Nakamura (also featured prominently in Go For Broke!). While he might not be a totally integral piece, he adds yet another perspective to the movie and provides a kind of empathetic echo chamber for Robert Taylor (ie. When you’re wrong big boss, I’ll tell you).

There’s also the long-running gag with Ito’s Japanese creating an unspoken irony between what he says in his native tongue and what he expresses to Wyatt. When they finally happen upon the grave of Wyatt’s dead buddy (and with it a cache of rum), Ito voices his surprise, then says “Good ol’ Quackenbush.” His translation is liberal, to say the least!

Still, one of the most unforgettable interludes comes with reading off the roll call of those who were lost in the latest raid. It moved me immensely. Most of these women we don’t know by name, but they leave an insurmountable impact on the story representing so much of the human spirit and the dignity held aloft by the film. They feel, rightfully so, like a hallowed list of heroes.

And again, over any prevailing plot points, it’s the specific touches that will be remembered going forward. With the trail getting unstable ahead, the women are beseeched to lighten their loads and begrudgingly ditch all their worldly possessions at the roadside. It becomes a graveyard of discarded belongings as they roll ever onward.

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Then, there’s a little dog being carried along in a bucket under the birth of the wagon or the impression of a wayward wagon wheel left behind in the middle of the desert in their wake. They stop for nothing.

Finally, they get to The Promised Land, with fresh springs of running water, but before they go over the hill, Buck vows to gather together garments so they can look their best for their future husbands. There’s a kind of mounting expectation on all sides. It’s something supremely special they all get to take part in and we are privy to it as well.

When Taylor speaks to the men, he entreats them, “These are good women, great women, make sure you treat them right because God help you if you don’t.” He’s grown to esteem them just as his audience has. Thankfully, these men will too.

When the sexes finally get together, it feels a bit like a western cotillion and the ending is fittingly idyllic as they create a kind of rural utopia built on the bedrock of matrimony, decency, and hard work.

John Ford was always the purveyor of civilization making its way across the West, but we must remember Capra also had a stake in representing the American Dream. As the actual director of this film, William Wellman does a fine job capturing the adventure with the trials and tribulations of a wagon train, highlighted by numerous standout performances garnering an abiding admiration for all these folks.

Westward The Women is sadly the exception to the rules governing the western genre, but what a treasure it is to have as a kind of hagiography to the pioneering ladies who weathered immense hardship to pursue their dreams. Whether fact or fiction, the portrayals feel revolutionary, and what a joy it is to find such bountiful parts for people as diverse as Hope Emerson and Henry Nakamura. They suggest a fuller, richer western landscape than we’re in a habit of seeing.

4/5 Stars

Warlock (1959): Fonda, Quinn, and Widmark

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There are three names emblazoned over the title credits engulfing the screen: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, and Anthony Quinn. Somehow they all figure into this story — into the war that we are about to be privy to. The question remains, how so and on what sides? It turns out, it’s far from a clearcut answer.

As Warlock progresses, I couldn’t help but think of that quote: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” Its variations have been attributed to individuals as diverse as Bertolt Brecht, Carl Sandburg, and the Vietnam-era Hippie movement. Regardless, the most overt sentiment remains the same. War is perpetuated by people who willingly show up to fight, whether it’s out of a sense of duty, an assertion of masculinity, personal advancement, or a desire to watch the world burn. 

The San Pablo gang frequents Warlock quite often, prepared to terrorize a town and demoralize all those who stand for law & order, even to the point of death. The incumbent deputy sheriff is sent out of town on an honor guard of emasculation. He’s the most recent casualty, yet another man who will have his name crossed out on the brick wall of the jail. Because everyone is keeping tally. The whole town observes the public humiliation with distaste and private shame behind curtains and tucked away on second-story balconies. 

Richard Widmark’s Gannon consorts with the rebels, but he doesn’t like it. He looks decidedly conflicted in their company. It’s his baby brother (a scrawny Frank Gorshin), who keeps him connected to the gang by association. We must come to decipher where his allegiances lie just as he does. 

 What a majestic pair Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn make together as they trot toward Warlock. They give off a sense of having traversed much of the world. Hank’s been installed as the new Marshall famed for his golden-handled colt revolvers.

From years of experience, he predicts the local community will be pleased with him until it grows into a general resentment as he maintains such a high degree of autonomy. But as their town has already given itself over to anarchy and murder, this is a form of salvation at a very high wage. It remains to be seen if it’s worth the price. 

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In this way, Warlock courts themes not unfamiliar to Wichita or Man with a Gun. Director Jacques Tourneur’s sense of the town somehow felt more atmospheric and real, and then Robert Mitchum in the latter film was a singular hero without peer, ready to go to war alone. In Warlock, the talent is more substantial and as such, we get something slightly more complex, if not always more compelling or artful than Wichita, in particular. 

One might be reminded that this is a Moab-shot western, and yet while there are some stunning exterior shots, what’s just as telling is how much of the movie takes place either in interiors or at the very least in the confines of the town. Director Edward Dmytryk finally ensconced again after the Hollywood Blacklist, looks far more engaged in the psychological underpinnings of his characters than he does in making the picture look pretty with sweeping grandstanding. The color schemes are bright if a bit gaudy, and the same might be said of the costuming. 

But what does it matter in comparison to his characters? Even someone like Deforest Kelley has a say as a delightfully thuggish heavy with a wicked sense of humor. Then, the stage brings Dorothy Malone. She’s not exactly an antagonist, but she owns a vindictive streak having it out with (Quinn) in back parlor rooms over past grievances.

In another scene, she lays flowers at the perfectly constructed Hollywood grave of the murdered Bob Nicholson. What’s curious is the scriptural epitaph: How long, oh Lord?” It’s the implicit question at the heart of the story.

If she is one surprise inserted into the storyline, another is Gannon volunteering to become Deputy Sheriff. It’s not out of any amount of duplicity or self-lobbying. There’s a sense he legitimately wants to pursue law and order — standing tall, knowing he’s committed to veracity for once in his life. It should be noted Fonda is a Marshall, and the film makes a distinction. He is not bound by the same strictures.  

Thus, Widmark becomes the fulcrum in the film’s dialogue covering all realms from law & order to the tenets of western masculinity. Where does Widmark get his teeth? Where does he get his sense of conscience? These questions might be up for debate, but to his credit, despite being the top-billed actor among a group of heavyweights, he’s brave enough in the role to come off as pitiful at times. It’s a deceptive performance, and I mean this as a compliment. 

Since this is a western, albeit set mostly in a specific locality, there are very few female characters — only two of note — and the leading ladies are both blondes, conveniently mirroring one another as they pair off with the leading men.  Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michael) is a creature of civility, who is surprised to find their hired gunman has a courteous manner. In his view, he practices with his pistols the way she practices the church organ. Their vocations are different, but as people, they have a surprising amount of common ground. 

Likewise, it is Lily (Malone) who rebuffs Morgan (Quinn) due to his undying allegiance to Blaisedel (Fonda) only to turn her affections to Gannon. Again, it feels like a curious pairing, but if the other couple functions, then so can they. 

If we are to analyze Warlock on a perfunctory level of criticism, the problem is that it has three climaxes, which means it possibly has none. However, there’s a nugget in here somewhere, and it’s couched in the ending. The whole movie is transmuted in the final visual summation. It’s announced by Henry Fonda with nary a word. If you want to call it a deconstruction of the West you can, a subversion of convention, that too, but what is it, if not a definitive statement?

Warlock is a talky western and perilously long, but in those final moments, it spits out our American genre back into the dust and leaves us to meditate on our corporate understanding of so many things. In Anthony Quinn, I see a character who is not willing to break with tradition. He is trapped in the habitual cycle of his ways, in a life that can never last, and out of preservation, he buries himself. It’s a tragedy, and not because he’s a cripple. Fonda has the whole town sing “Rock of Ages” out of deference to his lifelong companion.

Richard Widmark, time and time again, finds it within himself — this unexplainable compulsion to uphold the law — it’s as if once he pins on that badge, he’s devoted to his post. Whether it’s totally blind or not, he comes out of the picture with this peculiar kind of integrity we never would have expected. It’s not a flashy part, but it’s vital.

Finally, Hank Fonda. Good ol’ Hank. He feels like such an enigma for the entirety of the picture. He has that casual soft-spoken charm of his and yet he really is a vigilante; ironically, a symbol of chaos. It makes it all the more imperative to dwell on his final actions. I’m not sure if they’re warranted and from what we know of his character, I’m not sure they made sense. Maybe they do. But the image speaks volumes. It’s an ending to a western you won’t soon forget.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hanging Tree (1959): Delmer Daves and Gary Cooper

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“You’re standing on the edge of a cliff. I don’t advise you going through life with your eyes closed.” – Doc Frail

Delmer Daves isn’t often remembered alongside the foremost western directors. Although in the 1950s, he crafted some stellar movies, and something less-heralded like The Hanging Tree is as much a testament to his legacy as anything he ever did. It puts a fine foot forward with a bouncy ballad courtesy of Marty Robbins and verdant imagery of epic proportions.

We’re in Montana, 1873, in gold country, and the local folks have caught the bug. Gary Cooper (in one of his last great performances) drifts into town on horseback. As he rides past, someone notes the local hanging tree makes people feel respectable. We know it will have imminent significance.

For now, he sets up shop as an M.D. named Doc Frail. The bustling town is being built as we speak, everyone in search of their own private “glory hole.” They are territorial and have no mercy for sluice robbers trying to pilfer their claims.

Frail is a curious figure because he hardly seems drawn to the same promise of riches as everyone else. There is a sense that this is as good a place to stop as any. Like Joel McCrea’s judge in The Stranger on Horseback, he is a man of vocation, who knows how to take care of himself while also adhering to a personal code of conduct. However, he also has a smoldering secret buried in his past creating a lingering specter over his present. Some men might deem him a saint and others a devil.

Could it be he has a higher calling altogether? His first good deed is to fix up the thief (Ben Piazza), who got winged in the arm. But he doesn’t let the young man named Rune off without payment. He salvaged the boy’s life and so he takes him on as a begrudging bondservant. Again, it feels like it’s all part of the veteran doctor’s plan.

Cooper takes to the role, and it informs the more casual even comical tone the film sets on initially. Sure there’s a lurking menace but for the time being Coop takes to the people and provides them the healthcare they desperately need. They’re obliged to him. What’s more, he’s not an outsider — some of the folks have made his acquaintance before — and he’s likable while ratting out the phonies.

Front and center is the jovial if slightly skeezy Frenchy, with Karl Malden turning in a vital performance to supply the story some direction. The other is a scripture-spouting drunkard named Bub (George C. Scott in an early role).

The rest of the tale is built out of the search for a lost stagecoach passenger. When she is found, the half-unconscious, blinded Swiss immigrant (Maria Schell) is nursed back to health by Doc. He shields her from both the light and the prying eye of the world outside.

If it’s not apparent already, The Hanging Tree gives off the aura of an entirely different brand of western, and it’s not just the Montana terrain. It also comes down to the pacing and how the characters relate to one another.

Over time, Rune feels beholden to Doc, and he becomes a loyal companion by association. The same might be said of Elizabeth as she has the doctor to thank for her health and her entire livelihood. For the time being, she “sees” only the good in him. But the movie would be too clean if he reciprocated directly.

He continually takes part in these elliptical games with others. His lady benefactor calls him cruel for bringing people close only to push them away, and she has a point. It’s true his decency and bedside manner is tempered by a bleakly cynical side. How do you reconcile such a thoughtful figure with the man in black who gambles by night?

One also comes to understand how ephemeral this community seems. Doc warns Elizabeth their current home is a crawling anthill that could blow away with the scum of the world. It’s true in six weeks it could be a ghost town. But she rejoins with a plucky resolve. There is no other way to tackle this world, and she takes to it gladly. She settles into her own grubstake, christened “The Lucky Lady Mine,” joining forces alongside Rune and Frenchy (and a silent partner).

The ending of the movie can only end in one place if it’s to make good on its title. It’s true we end up there. What’s curious is how joyous euphoria about striking it rich can turn people into a mob just the same if they were angry. Inhibitions get released and the world goes to hell with drink, lust, and incendiary male hedonism.

For me, everything falls together so conveniently I didn’t have time to consider the logic. There’s little need to. Gary Cooper sticks to his guns and does what he always has from the beginning of time and by that I mean The Virginian way back in 1929. His quiet boldness punctuates the madness, and it feels right, though not totally complete.

If nothing else, it’s worth the final shot and in case we didn’t catch the metaphor, a musical refrain reminds us, “The Hanging Tree was a tree of life for me.” Where the gold rush-crazed economy is gladly ditched for something more tangible and lasting. Where being granted eyes to see can be a sobering reality check while still leading us in pursuit of goodness. Because sometimes the hanging tree might just be the place we find salvation once we realize we’re not in control. We can’t always save others, especially when we are in need of saving ourselves.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Wagon (1956): Morals Out On The Range

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We’re in the Arizona territories. The year is 1873. Glorious overhead shots give us a sense of the vast panorama of the terrain in CinemaScope as Richard Widmark gets hunted down and returns the fire of his pursuers.

The distinctive red rocks have the hint of John Ford and if nothing else, remain a stunning reminder of America’s glorious topography. We really live in a gorgeous place if we take the time to get out in it.

For Widmark, it’s life or death as he kills one assailant only to get winged and dragged behind a horse by the wrists. It’s hardly water skiing. This is the untidy, rough-and-tumble law of the wide-open land. The victors are those who survive, whether through chicanery, brute strength, or guns loaded with lead.

It feels like we’ve been privy to a whole short movie before our main storyline has even begun. This is to The Last Wagon’s credit. It has robust beginnings and makes Widmark out to be an intriguing enigma right from the outset.

We find him finally, dead beat, strung up in a tree for safekeeping in the custody of a sadistic sheriff (George Matthews) as a wagon train of women and children scuttle by. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but this is the entire premise of the movie right here.

It’s their leader (Douglas Kennedy) who welcomes the lawman into their company, wary of both prisoner and his executioner. It’s an uneasy partnership to be sure. He makes his moral stance quite clear when he blesses their evening meal, “Teach us to live with open hearts and share with our fellow man our values.” It falls on the deaf ears of Bull Harper and “Comanche” Todd, who is trussed up to a nearby wagon wheel.

The wanted criminal doesn’t help his case when he murderers yet another man in view of a whole wagon train of incredulous witnesses. They aren’t accustomed to such savagery. He comes back sharply, “I had a right to kill him, but I suppose my side of the story doesn’t interest you none.” It plays as another pointed comment on who he is: both a murderer and a “white” Comanche, and then who they are, naive Christian pilgrims.

There are two individuals in their ilk, in particular, who show him a dose of Christian compassion. The young boy Billy (Tommy Rettig) brings him food, with all the candor in the world, asking him honestly if he thinks he’ll go to heaven. It’s hardly out of a place of browbeating or scorn, but genuine concern. He’d like to go scouting with Todd up in Heaven because Billy aims to be there. He wants the other man to be there too. His older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr in an amiable and lucid performance) also extends him a certain benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, the movie’s attempt at commentary on prejudice is partially undermined in all its good intention. It begins with Widmark. Although it’s partially explained away through exposition, he’s certainly no Indian by birth. Likewise, in a precursor to her mixed-race role in Imitation for Life, Susan Kohner is given the role of a half-Navajo girl, who faces bigotry with a stolid resolve. It is her bratty half-sister (Stephanie Griffin), white by birth, who encapsulates all the malicious prejudices festering on the range. This is made plainly evident.

However, Delmer Daves does not constrict his movie into being a mere morality play. In fact, The Last Wagon is hard to pin down. There are all these potential narrative offshoots, and it supplies some genuine moments of surprise while still mixing its messages and becoming an entirely different narrative on multiple occasions. One prime example is how the movie is both indicting prejudices against American Indians and still somehow using them as a mechanistic trope of the West.

Gratefully, the movie splits off from the pack and hones in on the most intriguing characters. One drastic turning point comes when all the adolescents sneak off to go skinny-dipping, including the scandalized Valinda and the foxy Ridge (Nick Adams). They’re the story’s resident imbeciles. For the time they can frolic gaily only for the rapids to give them a scare, and then worse…

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They return to nothing — a camp totally decimated — Widmark is the only one left, cast aside on his wagon wheel. Valinda chastizes him, “You got no right to be alive when our people are dead!” Here we find the meat of our story. It settles into being a survival western with Richard Widmark anchoring the youthful contingent following his lead. Their objective is obvious, making their way through the aptly bone-chilling “Canyon of Death.” They have no other alternative. Widmark is the only one who knows what it takes to survive.

The Last Wagon has some downright bizarre moments — setting traps for food and Widmark makes it look like a breeze ambushing their dinner in a cave. In a matter of minutes, snake bites, apache ambushes, and they just keep on coming; it’s the kind of western melodrama not averse to tossing out all sorts of wrinkles, and why not? There’s a lot to work with. Either you laugh it off as absurd or you admire the commitment to making the story lively. The same goes for the dialogue. It’s not the most nuanced job, but it keeps the pulse going.

There are obligatory interludes too as he hacks off his handcuffs across from Farr while sharing his life story. We get something of his own spiritual belief system. His father was a circuit-riding preacher — he was even baptized — and his daddy looked to carry the word of his God to the whole world, that is until he died. The operative word is “his” God because Todd was adopted by a Comanche chief and never looked back. If this God wasn’t concerned with saving his father, then he wasn’t interested.

Still, they just might receive a providential intervention yet in the form of some horse soldiers. However, their saviors in Calvary uniforms turn out to be a reconnaissance unit, and with Indians on the warpath fast approaching, it becomes Todd’s time to rescue all of them. He knows the dilemma: Get them out of their hopeless predicament only to find himself on trial for murder.

It becomes a layman’s civil discourse. Law is law — Comanche or white — if it is just. The question remains who gets to decide Justice? Jenny comes to her man’s defense: The Good Book says something about taking life but what about giving life back? This is what he’s done for them — provided a lifeline in a hopeless scenario. Needless to say, whatever the parameters most human systems are flawed and infallible. They don’t always hold up.

In the end, there’s a kind of swelling sentiment as we watch redemption at work. The young men and women sitting before the courts as a testament to Todd’s decency. After such a treacherous journey, it’s convenient and painless. So be it. It feels equally grand to watch Widmark ride off with Farr and Rettig. It hits all the beats like a western such as this is supposed to. Nothing more is required.

Delmer Daves puts together an oater with a gorgeous sense of the Western vistas in its many earthy hues. Any ways in which it feels heavy-handed or derivative are mostly smoothed over by a typically stalwart performance by Widmark (and the fact I’m fond of Farr and Rettig). The Last Wagon is a pleasant surprise, and it need not be more.

3.5/5 Stars

Ride Lonesome (1959): One of The Best Ranown Westerns

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“You just don’t seem like the kind of man who would hunt a man for money.” 

“I am.”  

Ride Lonesome has a setup as obvious as it is simple, further indicating why the collaborations between Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy were so plentiful. It comes with supplying a concrete premise with an intriguing overlay of character dynamics.

But you also need an inscrutable hero. Here a veteran bounty hunter has a man to bring in. The hero’s name is Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) and his quarry, Billy John (James Best), sits waiting for him. Brigade comes up to him nice and easy-like to take him into custody.

It’s right then Billy John grins and lets him know his cronies are spread out in the rocks up above. He’s trapped. If he turns his back and walks away, there’s nothing more to it or else he commits himself to what he started along with probable death. Right here in a moment of immeasurable tension, we see Randolph Scott at his capable, laconic best. He’s totally inexorable and nobody’s gonna get him to back down. 

As the story progresses Santa Cruz becomes a kind of MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock would call it. It’s where Brigade plans to take Billy John to be strung up. In case there was any doubt, he gets out of this opening scrape alive and with his prisoner still intact. So they mosey their way along the gorgeous craggy tundra of the West toward their destination. 

On their journey, they happen on a stagecoach outpost. It’s important for introducing three more of the film’s key players. Two of them are little better than bandits (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), the third is a woman (Karen Steele) waiting for her husband to return with some much-needed provisions. She’s wary of her uninvited guests and not too pleased to have two more strangers passing through. 

With these newest additions, we have the requisite menagerie to give the story a renewed outlook because what are the Ranown westerns but character pieces with higher stakes than what meets the eye? Foes can come in many forms: a gang of outlaws, self-serving amnesty seekers, and who ruled the land before all others but the Native American population — out for blood to avenge the affronts to their cultural hunting grounds. 

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It makes for some of the most engrossing stand-offs and conflicts on multiple planes of contention. People are constantly being caught between other people. What makes it delicious is how it’s not totally vindictive. Some of these people form relationships and still feel compelled to kill one another for their own purposes. At least they stand prepared to and our hero is no different. 

Mrs. Lane drifts around with hardly any stake anymore with her husband murdered. She can’t understand why Roberts would want to save Scott’s life in one minute and hours later be meditating on killing him. They need him until the time is right, and then they have to take him down — as simple as that. 

It’s loose cannons like him giving this movie a new kind of dramatic depth. Because there are no longer any straightforward roads. Everything feels ambiguous.  We gravitate toward Scott as some kind of moral center because his pedigree in films tells us as much. Maybe we can sense the decency in him. Otherwise, his career path and his generally callous nature don’t do him many favors. But it’s a tribute to the picture. 

On a side note, it always astounds me how they were able to scrounge up such a stellar group of players for these westerns. Take stock of everyone for a moment. Of course, you have Randolph Scott but then Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, and Lee Van Cleef. That’s pretty remarkable for a low-budget flick.

Lee Van Cleef doesn’t have much to do aside from being a threat, and he’s good at this, prepared to search the bounty hunty out and reclaim his brother. Their meeting is inevitable. Roberts is chummy yet opportunistic, subverting his Bonanza infallible eldest brother on horseback in an agreeable way. Coburn plays a dimwitted second fiddle as he hasn’t quite ascended to the aloof heights of Britt in The Magnificent Seven. All in due time. Karen Steele doesn’t normally get much acknowledgment, as her career was mostly relegated to the small screen — you can’t quite call Ride Lonesome the big time — nevertheless, she is a stalwart in her own right and strikingly beautiful.  

 But we must remember, Brigade and his uneasy alliance still have a prisoner to get to Santa Cruz with Van Cleef’s Frank fast approaching for a showdown. It’s almost like the bounty hunter wants them to catch up…The question: Why? For that matter, if he gets out of one scrape, he still has two more guns to get past. He’s rapidly running out of time. 

The script quickly flips the inevitable on its head and instead of feeling like we’re subjected to the usual rhythms of the West or left hanging, so to speak, there is this sense of satiation. All loose ends are tied off, and the resultant humor comes with a sigh of relief. If there’s this touch of lightness, then the resolution is equally about making peace with the past as so evocatively captured in the final shots — an image that so easily becomes emblazoned in one’s mind. Brigade sets his specters ablaze ready to step out of the ashes a new man.

Ride Lonesome does its job well, and it’s such a delectable, economical delight. If it’s not the best of the Ranown cycle, it’s darn near the top and remains a classic reminder of why the Ranown westerns have maintained a pull on many of the genre’s aficionados. It’s a marvel that so much can be accomplished and so much emotion can be mined in a movie that clocks in nicely at under 75 minutes. 

4/5 Stars