Jesse James (1939): Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda

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Reputed screenwriting scribe Nunnally Johnson starts off on clever footing by giving his mythic western hero an obvious antagonist. It was the railroad — that lawless iron horse — forcing Jesse James into the position of a criminal. Though he would evolve over time into the complicated human being projecting his legend, at least in the beginning, he was all but driven to take the mantle of an outlaw. At least in this telling. 

In making his hero fully sympathetic, Johnson has cast James as a western Robin Hood righting the wrongs perpetrated against him and others based the bloodthirsty land grabbing of railroad companies. Brian Donlevy, still yet to be promoted from his heavy roles, makes his rounds swindling the general populous and using more persuasive tactics to swipe their holdings.

Content notwithstanding, Jesse James is just about the glossiest possible extravaganza, you could offer a cold-blooded outlaw. The early Technicolor is gorgeous to behold, and in these prime early years of their careers, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda aren’t in need of any favors.

Jesse James (Power) is nothing more than a gee-whiz country bumpkin when we first set eyes on him. His big brother Frank (Henry Fonda) sits in the house lazily chawing on tobacco. Despite living with their concerned mother (Jane Darwell), they aren’t squeamish about sticking up for their own. They also aren’t about to be squandered out of their land without a fight, and they’re ready to oblige any strong-armed tactics thrown their way. Dunlevy doesn’t stand a chance.

As they flee into the night with reward posters calling for them to be dragged in for a hefty reward, they on take the mantle of fugitives almost out of necessity. It’s not merely about absconding with payloads for their own pleasure. This is a form of just retribution to be enacted against the corrupt machine belching smoke and literally railroading every poor sap in its way.

A codgerly newspaperman (Henry Hull) is one of their primary champions, though each week spawns a new tirade, whether it be lawyers or dentists or any insufferable faction who are all destroying society as we know it. Rufus Cobb is one of the voices rallying the public on Jesse’s behalf because it is his daughter Zerelda (Nancy Kelly) that the man has an eye for, but he also genuinely likes the lad.

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Even as the James’ boys notoriety grows, Jesse and Zee get hitched in an impromptu church wedding. They find out, even among this congregation, they have a great deal of friends.

For every conceited businessman represented by diminutive railroad baron Mr. McCoy (a comically demonstrative Donald Meek), there is another humble, salt-of-the-earth human being like local Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). He knows the law, in all its strictness, calls for him to chase down James as a craven villain. In his own way, he’s cheering for him to live another day, even as he turns the other way on at least one occasion.

It’s this sense of good faith and the pleading of his wife leading Jesse to turn himself into the authorities for a fair trial. The judge has vowed for leniency as negotiated by the marshall. They’re all for a fresh slate. Mr. McCoy is not such an understanding fellow. All he thinks of are dollars and cents. He uses his resources to bring in his own judge and make a harsher sentence stick.

However, he’s hardly counting on Frank James. He happens to be a brazen fellow, and when he vows to come in and retrieve his brother from jail before the stroke of midnight, you better believe he’ll keep his word or else be taken for a fool. Even after their thrilling escape — one of the most gratifying successes of the picture — we fall into a bit of a rough patch.

Not only has Jesse gone off on his own to leave his family to live without the specter of his reputation, he begins to change with the constant pressures and paranoia weighing on him daily. He’s no longer the same good-natured kid who once went on the run in a righteous coup against extortion.

While not a film you look for poignancy in, Henry Fonda is present and he does deliver one monologue that speaks to something supremely candid. Jesse has become hard and crazed, systematically alienating all those around him. And if there’s anyone who can speak to him, it’s his brother Frank. Fonda handles the scene with his usual subtleness dumping all these obvious grievances in the lap of his own flesh and blood. He encourages him to draw if he needs to. Frank’s not squeamish about it, but it’s his last-ditch effort to speak some sense into his kid brother.

What will come of Jesse if he doesn’t trust those who have still stuck with him? Of course, among the faithful, there is often a Judas. In this case, Robert Ford (John Carradine), intent on getting a payoff for stabbing his old compatriot in the back.

We understand implicitly we are reaching the beginning of the end. First, they get corralled in a town after a bank job and a hail of bullets comes raining down from any number of windows. This is not what does him in. If you’re acquainted with the history, you’re aware he got knocked off by a double-crossing skunk. Then, again, this is not the Sunday school truth. If anything, Johnson relishes tinkering with the details and coloring in the tall tales to fit his ambitions.

The verdict? Jesse James feels a bit sluggish as it runs its course. There’s not enough action or bank robberies in the span of the film to make it really feel alive with the overarching aura of the James brothers. In its most watchable moments, it functions, fundamentally, like a family drama. Even if the movie is only a minor oater, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda are the main attractions, and they rarely disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Man With The Gun (1955): Mitchum The Town Tamer

man with the gun 1.png“I’ve seen some cures worse than the disease.” – The Doctor

The opening images set the tone. It’s a sleepy afternoon in a ghost town. There’s a boy with his dog. The dog starts yipping at the boots of a rider cutting through town. In an instance, the merciless killer shoots the dog and rides on unperturbed. His calling card: a shoulder holster.

His actions go off, quite literally, like a gunshot, causing the whole town to stir and jump to their windowsills. It’s got them frightened and for the time being, there is no obvious solution aside from letting the gunman ride on unimpeded as he prowls around for a local tyrant named Holman.

Almost in response, soon another man (Robert Mitchum) rides into town, and in his wake is a much different temperament. He too makes his living with a gun — not a marshall or a sheriff — he’s what they call a town tamer. He works fast and demands free reign, such that he’s not beholden to anyone. It’s how he manages to run the scum out of town and make towns worth living in. However, to get the result, it requires fighting fire with fire.

Of course, it takes us a while to learn all about him. For a time, he’s just a new face making the rounds, getting to know people, including the town’s blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), while still keeping a tight lid on his private affairs.

In this regard, Man With the Gun is reminiscent of Wichita in how it unfolds. Although, in all manners of atmosphere, plotting, and thematic ideas, the other picture comes out looking far superior. This says more to the praise of the Tourneur-directed Joel McCrea vehicle because Man with The Gun still manages a few moments of flair in its own right.

What it might be best at is building up its regimen of stock characters and places. The world itself is just another riff on noted conventions, but familiar faces make it a quality retreading all the same.

Emile Meyer is their undisputed leader — a workhorse character actor in all sorts of roles — but I also relish spotting the likes of Jay Adler, Claude Akins, even the ever-reliable Burt Mustin manning the hotel desk. And of course, the scarred visage of Leo Gordon deserves to be canonized with the mugs of Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and a handful of others in the pantheon of 1950s reprobates.

Meanwhile, the local Palace, a steamy saloon run by a Frenchman (Ted de Corsia), gets their supply of pretty girls from a local businesswoman (Jan Sterling). She’s precisely the kind of strait-laced personality you wouldn’t expect to get tied up in such a line of work. It takes all kinds. Her troop includes the noticeably ditzy Barbara Lawrence, while a youthful Angie Dickinson gets to play one of her wry counterparts.

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This is all mere groundwork for the coming attractions. Tollinger is installed, rather uneasily, by the local governing body, headed by the disgruntled blacksmith and family man. Somehow, despite his self-assured nature and a pedigree to back it up, the town is wary about backing one man against many. They aren’t so much assuaged as they are perturbed when he proceeds to gun down two thugs, who are running with the unseen, iron-fisted Holman.

Likewise, a proud young man, who’s been threatened, isn’t about to let someone else fight his battles, even as his plucky bride-to-be, Stella (Karen Sharpe), asks Mr. Tollinger to keep an eye on her beau. His response is noncommital, and Jeff Castle gets taken, after already sustaining a gunshot wound.

The dynamic is not explored fully, aside from a community dance, but there is a hint of some romantic feelings between the older man and Stella. Because he is a full-fledged man, even as her fiancee is still growing into his masculinity. She still sees him as the boy she’s grown up with. As added complication, Tollinger also happens to have another relationship in his past to seek out…

That, and cleaning up the streets, keep him more than busy. He gets the young upstart back in a trade while enforcing new gun laws, then a curfew. The townsfolk are grumbling all the time at these infractions on their rights. Another very calculated decision follows when Tollinger sets fire to the local house of sin, coaxing the enraged proprietor, Frenchy Lescaux (De Corsia), to come at him. This comes to fruition even as his relationship with an old flame starts nipping into previous unresolved wounds.

All the while a bright-eyed out-of-towner is watching everything with interest, twiddling his thumbs, capped with a bowler and feet propped up lazily. His demeanor is far from hostile, but there’s something disconcerting behind his eyes. He’s too amiable to not have an angle.

True enough, Holman is looking for retaliation on the town tamer, exploiting his greatest weakness, which seems to be a gentlemanly soft-spot for women. After all, this feels like one of the prerequisites for a western hero. They must be a strong and silent type with a dose of gallantry. So it is with Mitchum.

The cathartic shootout comes, and the town is “tamed” as much as it can be. Man with The Gun settles into a happy ending that arrives all too easily. For all the interesting dilemmas, either implied or touched on, there is not enough attention given to make them fully resonant.

It becomes necessary to take this sagebrusher at face value, and given all the alternatives, it’s probably too derivative to be a totally gratifying experience. However, if you’re fond of Robert Mitchum, give it a watch because he is and always will be the same. It’s to his credit. I will stop short of saying he makes a mediocre picture great, but without him, there’s not any point of connection.

3/5 Stars

Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Below the Mexican border, during Antebellum days, a diverse array of Americans find themselves in the middle of the fight against Maximillian of France. Vera Cruz is far from a history lesson, however. It need not be. Still, it plays as an important footnote in a different type of history altogether, that of the classic western genre in a current state of evolution, jutting ahead into the 60s.

The script is not always phenomenal, but what it does have is an Aldrich-like penchant for the cynicism of noir. It starts to make even more sense when you consider Borden Chase’s pedigree: a fine row of Anthony Mann westerns. And yet the good sense of amusement overshadows everything else. This is how it still manages to remain a product of the 50s (which isn’t necessarily bad).

Its other readily available and beneficial assets are star power: the pairing of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster fits the bill. Then, the on-location shooting does so much to elevate the environmental credibility. There is no other way to make this picture feel truly robust aside from actually finding your way down to Mexico. It’s not that it’s a wholly authentic experience, but at least something in these locales breathes of some form of reality.

Lancaster has the beefier, more intriguing part as Joe Erin, but Gary Cooper (Ben Trane) is able to bring his even-keeled strength to a new generation of westerns, and it serves the picture splendidly. It’s paramount that the two stars act as the utter antitheses of one another while still managing to be opposite sides of the same archetype.

Their garbs still plant them squarely in the traditions of olds, Cooper in the light colors of an undisputed hero and Lancaster game to wear the pitch-black clothes of a two-bit bandit, who would shoot a man in the back and hold children hostage.

Due to Coop’s presence, I couldn’t help but feel Vera Cruz is somehow reminiscent of the adventure films of old like Lives of a Bengal Lancer. There is a similar sense of camaraderie here and our main characters are able to blow through their mission on their own personal valor, even as the locals only purpose seems to be that of collateral damage.

As hinted at before, Vera Cruz is also an early forerunner to a future generation of westerns, all but losing the luster of the mythologized west for something grittier, more graphic, and in some ways, more stylized.

This is the lineage that will lead us to The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, and The Wild Bunch Et al. The presence of Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine in a pair of minor thuggish roles are a convenient nod to their future counterparts. For that matter, even Jack Elam would get into Once Upon a Time in the West.

The picture can generally be characterized by two distinct tones: giddy in one moment and equally tense and unsentimental in the next. If you mentally draw up any partnerships or rivalries in the picture, you’re probably apt to see it. It’s incredibly fluid. This precedent is effectively established when Erin growls at his pack of thugs that they aren’t even his friends. Instead of ganging up on Trane, he welcomes him aboard into their merry company.

In other words, he doesn’t show favoritism, nor does he harbor any kind of sentimentality. It’s both an asset and a curse. Always game for a new gun to come around, but equally intent upon looking after number one. His sole allegiance is to himself.

In their attempts to sell themselves out as mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War — potentially to Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) — they find themselves trapped. Rebels poke their heads over the side of mission walls, guns pointed menacingly down on them.

One must only dip back into the memory bank to remember a similar visual in Butch Cassidy. But of course, in this picture Coop is still infallible and by most accounts, indestructible. Talking his way out of predicament with casual diplomacy and whipping out his six-shooter only upon provocation. He’s entered the grimy, blood-spattered world full of its ambiguous tones, and yet he still remains stalwart. One of the last remaining bastions of the archetypal western hero.

If anything, Vera Cruz signals the decline of his reign over the West, even as it manages to have a wagon full of fun. They show their prowess with a Winchester rifle in the courts of Emperor Maximillian, only to be entrusted with a tenuous mission to escort a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Veracruz. Their valuable cargo winds up being more precious than they first envisioned when they discover it’s loaded up with gold bullion.

The gold becomes the driving force worthy of all sorts of double-crosses and easily rearranged allegiances. There are those driven by greed, others who want the kingdom, and still others, the most noble of all, who want to return the nation to its rightful rulers.

In this last act, the patriotic Juarista and the French forces face off with all the fervor you can imagine. The editing feels surprisingly quick for a day and age when breaking 10 seconds on an individual shot was not altogether uncommon.

Aldrich, in his first big production, fused with the talents of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, boasts a picture with a lot of frenetic energy to offer. It is an imperfect, at times, disjointed effort, but it willingly takes hold of the bridle and rides the story to a worthwhile conclusion.

There are ample visually striking moments to reference, from a column of men on horseback fleeing across the plains and then, in the climactic moments, gattling guns rattling the terrain with bullets. Cannon volleys follow in earnest as a charging onslaught of men look to take the Bastille, as it were. Clouds of gunpowder and smoke hang in the already dusty air.

This is purely on the macro level. Overlaid with Erin’s relentless ambitions to acquire the gold for his own, and Trane looking to do anything in his power to keep him at bay. It comes down to the fated face-off, all but bubbling under the surface from the first time they ever laid eyes on one another. Do you really need to guess the outcome? See it for yourself.

The final emblematic images are of a ravaged battleground strewn with dead bodies. Widows and orphans scurrying to find loved ones and survey the damage. Who ends up with the gold at this point feels inconsequential. The conclusions drawn might as well be the cataclysmic effects of avarice and war. Though Vera Cruz has enough wherewithal to manage a decently good time going about it. This might be an unfeeling observation to make but, once again, it also remains a fitting portent for the future.

3.5/5 Stars

Sierra (1950): A B-Movie in The Mountains

Burl Ives, knocking out the title ballad in his instantly recognizable tones, is the welcome mat laid out by the film. The setting is slightly novel. High in the hills and mountainous crags is the crib for our story. Sierra gives numerous hints at its modest budgeting. This is no grand, windswept epic and yet it does not need to be.

It opens with our leading loner Ring Hassard (Audie Murphy) who finds, of all things, a girl in the underbrush. Living an isolated existence as he does, the curt young man is slightly distrusting of human beings. It doesn’t help that they meet after she has scared away some wild horses he was stalking.

This is Sierra Vista. Hassard lives in the solitude with his father (Dean Jagger) raising their stock of horses and enjoying a simple life away from the prying eyes of the town miles below.

They have few acquaintances and fewer friends. One man who might fit the bill is the itinerant apothecary Lonesome (Ives), traveling lazily by mule, strumming away, with a tune for every occasion. I’m rather fond of Ives’ sleepy ditties, and the western was made for such asides, though there is quite the multitude. After Jeff Hassard is injured by a bucking steed, it’s the old-timer who patches him up. However, it’s only a maintenance job.

Ring continues with their work single-handedly, and in one representative encounter, he runs into a lowdown horse thief named Big Matt (Richard Rober), who unfortunately finds himself on the right side of the law. In another turning point, the irrepressible Ms. Riley Martin (Wanda Hendrix) gets ambushed by a rattlesnake and a fearless Ring shoots the poison out of her arm. It breaks with any form of reason I’ve ever heard of. Regardless, it sends the story hurtling toward a new conclusion.

He breaks his lifelong vow to never go into the town of Sierra Vista. Soon enough, people are lauding his quick thinking, and, of course, asking questions about where he materialized from.

When word gets out about him and his unfairly maligned father, a narrative has already been written about them.  The town knows only reputations. He is a menace to society, and they all but confirm his prevailing distrust in his fellow human beings. Foregoing all the normal systems of law and order — suspicious of all types of authority — he doesn’t do himself much good. Between her uncooperative client and a ridiculing public, Riley’s position as counselor to the accused is not one to be coveted.

Soon thereafter, the sheriff takes calls for a posse of men to comb the adjoining hills. Meanwhile, one of the town’s shifty characters, with a claim to our eligible heroine, looks to commit to a stealthy operation of his own with Big Matt — parallel to the law’s endeavors — and far more dubious.

Ring finds himself having no other choice but to play fugitive and outlaw — the card that has been dealt him — joining with a clan of curmudgeon mountain men, who have been regarded with the same animosity. They form a ragtag band of renegades to do battle with seemingly unassailable odds weighing against them.

The ending is a bit lame and too clean, but it can hardly be expected for the movie to have gone toward bleaker terrain. A B-movie is meant to be cheap and agreeable to the audience. Anything potentially alienating would be a hard break with accepted convention. All flaws aside, it’s a decent vessel for Audie Murphy. Idle curiosity might well lead one to Sierra if nothing else.

Some fitting subtext of the movie was the real-life, brief yet tumultuous matrimonial bond between Audie Murphy and Wanda Hendrix. Their union would be horribly short. Though married during filming, they would already find themselves separated by the time of its release.

One can only hazard a guess the relationship was exasperated by Murphy’s undiagnosed PTSD from his war experiences. Honestly, he was only on the cusp of his fledgling career, not so far removed from his premier status as America’s ultimate war hero, and the demons that come with such a pedigree.

If the eyes are the so-called window to the soul, Audie Murphy’s is burning with a maelstrom of fierce emotion, oscillating from melancholy and glints of warmth to tormenting darkness. His eyes are his greatest attribute and would remain so for all of his movie career. Action pictures like war films and westerns suited these attributes. He could probably speak more with his eyes than with any line of dialogue.

3/5 Stars

The Violent Men (1955) and Rockefellers on The Range

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The Violent Men is an age-old tale of cattle wars on the range. The local apothecary warns about Wilkerson a man from the long tradition of land eaters. There are only two choices: run or stand and fight.

Before we ever see him, his cronies are messing around town. In the town’s main street the Sheriff is gunned down in the back by a hotshot gunman (the always smirking Richard Jaeckel). Everyone either turns away or is in the coattails of the local tyrant. We learn so much about them from their inaction. This is a community that has acquiesced to a thug and conformed to a type of general passivity.

No one is willing to stand up or speak up or do anything involving gumption because it means sticking their neck out and being vulnerable to the consequences. Glenn Ford starts getting perturbed, realizing he is just as liable as everyone else.

He’s been stewing to the point of exasperation, even as his future in-laws and his girl coax him to mind his own business and think of their extended future happiness. Again, it’s this constant mentality of the individual over the common good. Maybe it’s a product of reading a book on the Red Scare, but I cannot help but see it as a parable of benevolent socialism versus the tenets of a particularly ruthless capitalism.

For well-nigh 20 minutes the name Wilkerson is all but mythologized and lifted up as one of the most ruthless, bloodthirsty names on the frontier; he is Rockefeller on the range. With such a build-up, there must be performances to hold up the bargain. Fortuitously the movie delivers with not only Edward G. Robinson but Barbara Stanwyck as well. Of course, Stanwyck is no stranger to the West, and she’s quite adept at exuding this certain balance of necessary toughness and femininity.

Robinson is hardly the image of a western cattle baron (he was, in fact, a late replacement for Broderick Crawford), but he still has the presence of Edward G. Robinson. The fact he is crippled with a pair of crutches and still so ornery makes for an intriguing character biography. He completely subverts conventional expectations.

Meanwhile, Dianne Foster feels a little like Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep — the first impression is important — and she leaves the audience wary of this family’s pedigree. They’re not allowed to have one normal member.

Next, comes the entrance that is of utmost importance. The hobbling old codger himself. He’s particularly boisterous and hard-nosed when it comes to land dealings and taking over the valley. Behind closed doors, his wife is equally cunning and calculating, along with his kid brother (Brian Keith). His main enforcer (Jaekcel) follows up murder in the streets with another grisly murder on the range as a message to the holdout, Parrish, and anyone else brazen enough to stand up to Wilkerson.

For the 1950s, it’s quite the brutal exhibition as they whip a man, rope him up, nearly choke him to death, before leaving him for dead. Words do not do it the justice it deserves.

If Wilkerson didn’t sanction these egregious actions, he gave Cole (Keith) free reign to enforce their presence on the territory in whatever manner he deems applicable. The crooked deputy, a seemingly obliging fellow, has the system conveniently tipped against anyone who dares stand in opposition. There’s no way to win.

The movie might easily end here if only our hero were to wash his hands of the situation and move back east. He loses his bride-to-be for the sake of his own private moral integrity. Whether it’s because this is Glenn Ford or his character, need not be important. He resolves to stay, playing the fool, only to draw in his foe and retaliate.

Soon he’s taken his army training and put it to good use, fighting a war against his neighbors who, by all accounts, seem more formidable. What he has are determination and tactical advantages. The distinction of who the actual foe is remains dicey.

Robinson is just the blustering frontman. Cole blasted the range open with his pack of thugs. Martha Wilkeson pulled the strings, working all the while in her husband’s shadow.

Cinemascope offers some expected monumental views of the west compete with all the trimmings of the great outdoors. Ironically, the actual montages of the stampedes, burnings, and killings are relatively uninteresting. It might as well be stock footage from other pictures, and it probably is. The most invaluable moments are delivered by the characters, served up just as much as psychological warfare than any physical grudge match.

As the Wilkerson girl perceptively berates the men in her climactic stand, at their core is this barbarism, causing men to constantly be driven by a senseless need to kill one another for a lousy piece of land. Merely to prove something to themselves and others. What makes it worth it?

There is the subsequent realization this is not wholly good versus wholly evil. There are corrupt people, selfish ones, yes, but even Ford, who is supposed to act as our moral center, has no qualms about retribution and annihilating his enemy, since they were first poised to kill him.

It makes for a volatile experience, and the leads are a worthy ensemble, capable enough to suggest these particular nuances and personal ambitions. The irony remains in the title. On a cursory glance, it’s a lurid eye-catcher, but it also happens to be an apt descriptor for a movie with a main conceit about the implications of such escalated violence. The Violent Men takes its most obvious attribute, only to turn it right on its head. The surprise punch is a much-appreciated admonition about violence in the guise of popular entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

Lonely Are The Brave (1962): The Last Cowboy

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Armed with black and white and rolling plains full of instantly recognizable western exteriors, Lonely Are The Brave goes for an intimate approach. The camera focuses on a man splayed out with his hat tipped over his eyes in slumber. This could have been out of many earlier pictures up until this moment. An instant later the illusion is stripped when a jet cuts across the skyline. It’s an indication of where we are.

Because this is not a blaring lack of continuity. This is a telling signifier. What proves to be out of place is not this jet but the main character at the center of our story. If one of these things is not like the other, then he is indeed the anachronism.

This is the continual struggle of Kirk Douglas’s John W. Burns because even as he fights to maintain his rootless lifestyle reminiscent of the bygone drifting cowhands of old, it’s hardly in vogue with the introduction of social security cards and, for a lack of a better word, civilization. The two diverging stratospheres just don’t gel very well.

The film must sit somewhere atop the list of deceptive film titles. Going in imagining a High Noon-like film about one man standing up in the face of many, instead we get an equally meaningful meditation on the lingering ways of the west in a contemporary context. No thanks to the marketing department, I might add.

However, what does that matter when you employ the considerable wit and wizardry of Dalton Trumbo? He has a ball toying with the most obvious thematic idea of a near-mythical man — an old-time cowboy — whose code of conduct and dwindling philosophy on life butts up against a world that will not have him. He is at odds with it. Averse to fences, boundaries, sectioning off of lands — all now common practice.

He’s indicative of a certain romanticism with his horse and hat out on the range. Even as the pragmatic world around him as passed him by in favor of changing forms of living. This intersection of the remnants of the West with post-war American modernity is made visibly evident when he is forced into playing animal crossing with his horse on a heavily trafficked highway.

When he pays a visit to a woman (Gena Rowlands), there’s something enigmatic about the encounter. A wife, perhaps a lover. At first, we’re not sure. It’s more complicated and less understood. Until it comes out her husband — his best friend — is in prison, and she’s worried about him. Rowlands would have to wait for a true tour de force, but the best compliment I can give is her role has something equally bewitching about it. She’s not quite an entirely conventional housewife.

The subsequent scene takes place in a Mexican-flavored cantina. It proves to be the unlikely arena for an explosive fistfight with a belligerent one-armed man, for what seems to be no reason at all.

If we’re ever told, I’ve no recollection of it and if we weren’t, it doesn’t much matter. It conveniently serves the story twofold. Because we get a rowdy action piece with Douglas duking it out “mano y mano,” while subsequently landing himself a jail sentence so he can drop in on his old buddy as a favor to the incarcerated man’s wife. If this makes little logical sense, then at least it’s different — not where we expect the story to go.

His jail sentence gets dropped and then upped following a police station scuffle carried out while the booking officer dryly lists off the unidentified drifter’s personal belongings like it’s just another day in the office. In the end, Burns keeps his promise to see Paul. There are momentary glimpses this could be a prison movie not unlike Brute Force, Caged, and certainly Cool Hand Luke.

We have a sadistic George Kennedy on the outside of the bars instead of inside. His main adversary is obvious. However, true to character, nothing can keep the cowhand in one place, not even prison.

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The movie is beholden to a cast of giants (current and soon-to-be). Trumbo’s impeccably inventive scripting gives them all the words to emote with wry humor and assorted ticks making them come alive beyond the range of flimsy cinematic outlines.

The plotting itself is of a strange and unorthodox nature, nevertheless buoyed again by the talent and words on the page. Payoffs abound for these very reasons. Otherwise, it would wander as an ill-paced, unfulfilling mess. Thankfully, this is far from the case. The payoffs are strangely affecting, thanks to a story that bides its time, allows for asides, and spends time in untrodden places.

Between Douglas playfully cajoling a recalcitrant new mount and Walter Matthau observing the daily rituals of an unseen mutt outside the office window, Trumbo continually adds these delightfully offbeat touches.

William Schallert — as the good-natured bumpkin officer manning the police radio is in one sense totally aggravating and yet endearing in an innocent way. Even a fresh-faced Bill Bixby is manning the police helicopter the fugitive promptly shoots down from overhead. It’s an unceremonious reversal of fortune with the cowboy’s bullet taking on the whirly gridiron machine down from its illustrious heights.

Still, he cannot hang on forever. Eventually, even his tried and true way will betray him against the rapid assault of constant advancement. It cannot survive just as he cannot. Carrol O’Connor gets only a few solitary lines at the beginning and the end of the picture with rain pounding the highway, but his truck driver has a crucial moment we can all but see coming from a mile away. Though such a realization does not make it any less impactful when it arrives. It was inevitable.

Kirk Douglas, a man known for his intensity (some would say overacting), gives a performance bridled back with his winsome charm. In fact, the entire story plays with this generally lackadaisical, at times, melancholic pacing.

The final act in another picture might be chockful of moments. Lonely are the Brave needs only one. Turner makes one final push to freedom — his escape route, a harrowing ascent into the mountains. As gravity determines, the only way to go is down. It must be the so with John Turner.

So he never quite reaches his apotheosis. He is a partial embodiment of the sentiments of Dylan Thomas’s most famous work — the fight to rage against the dying of the light. Except the light is the way of the West and the battle is lost. It is a foregone conclusion. As time marches on, there is no way to claim victory. One wonders if being the last cowboy is an act of bravery, futility, or folly. Perhaps the answer runs the gamut of all three.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on 2/5/2020.

Gunman’s Walk (1958): A Cain & Able Western

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“I think it’s high time for this state to remember its history!” – Van Heflin

The whistling intro to Gunman’s Walk is one of the most insouciant beginnings to a western you might ever see. Regrettably, the opening lines of dialogue, penned by Frank S. Nugent, don’t stand up on their feet. It’s easy enough to understand Tab Hunter is a sharp-tongued pretty boy with a big chip on his shoulder. His reticent more unassuming brother Davy acts as his complete antithesis. This is the source of immediate tension, even visually, with the casting of such disparate actors as Hunter and James Darren.

Given these elements, the words coming out of their mouths aren’t of much use. It’s not simply in the opening arguments either but in their later verbal skirmishes. Even the brief interludes of candor, they are not always capable of holding a scene. They need a Van Heflin to work with, and he certainly makes them both better and more compelling. Because it is their conflict and confused relationship with him speaking to all other facets of the movie.

Gunman’s Walk finds its footing not only with the introduction of Heflin, but also when it settles into a story with ideas fueling relationships. We come to understand it to be more nuanced than mere bickering. Because with every fight there is an underlying trauma of some form. In the nucleus, you have the archetypal dichotomy between the two male progeny with divergent paths ahead of them. They are like Cain and Abel.

It’s their father who looks to guide them toward the straight-and-narrow or at least the western equivalent, which means molding them to be like he was when he was a boy. In fact, it goes further still. He wants to be one of the lads, even chiding them to call him by his first name.

Quick drawing, carousing, having a good time, and generally cultivating a “boys will be boys” mentality are all part of his regimen as their sole guardian. One boy shies away from this based on his natural tendencies and the other rebels more blatantly still, determined to be his own man, greater than his dad ever was.

Beyond their initial quarreling, we begin to comprehend the spirit of the brothers when they wander into the local mercantile. Tab Hunter notes the pretty “half-breed” working inside, and it’s the immediate barb to suggest this is also a drama about racism.

It cannot help but come front and center when Ed pushes a half-Sioux off the cliffside as he selfishly sprints after a prized white stallion, with no consideration of human life. The man killed, named Paul, happens to be the older brother of Clee (Kathryn Grant). She works in the mercantile and faces the debilitating, inbred bigotry of the town day in and day out.

What must come out of this is a trial. Because two bystanders speak up on behalf of their friend. They think it was murder, and it might as well be. But Lee will have none of it. He’s not about to let his son get railroaded by two natives.

It goes far to suggest a type of privilege not only earned arbitrarily through skin color but also in attributing who is memorialized in the history books and how they get remembered. Lee’s demonstrative cry to remember history is itself a highly ironic evocation, given the circumstances. Just what version of history is he talking about? Undoubtedly his version.

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There’s a trial to follow and of course, Ed gets off. A crooked witness comes to his defense — upon hearing what a generous soul Hackett is — though the conniving passerby is no better than a horse thief. Meanwhile, Davy finds himself in a Romeo and Julietesque romance, at least in considering his father would never agree to a union with a Sioux.

Ever disconsolate, Ed dodges jail once only to end up there again, this time for gunning down his father’s blackmailer. His attempts to frame it as self-defense fool no one in town and Lee is flabbergasted. Why would he do such a thing? Ed feels like his father has gone against his own principles. They’re further apart than they have ever been.

There is no turning back when Ed blasts himself out of jail, murdering another man, with a posse now out to get him. Lee has no choice but try and beat them to his boy — to try and do anything he can to shield him. One wonders if it’s already too late.

The final showdown feels like a foreign dynamic — father pitted versus son — there is no other way to go about it with the law bearing down on them. It ends unceremoniously, though the emotional toil remains heady.

Tab Hunter absolutely blows through his clean-cut, boy-next-door image and tramples on it with the hooves of his horse for good measure. As a result of constantly fighting the demons of his own malice and being cast in his father’s shadow, he remains all but unrepentant to the last frame.

Each subsequent film I see featuring Van Heflin cements my estimation of him as a giant among the unsung heroes of Hollywood’s elite. This is by no means a great western, but in the moments unearthing some semblance of deep emotional truth, it is Heflin who guides them with a craggy vulnerability. The final two scenes are pure class. They tear your heart apart.

It’s quite the statement given that during much of the film we wouldn’t mind tearing him limb from limb. He hobbles off with his boy and the boy’s wife, and we actually have sympathy stored up for him. It’s an extraordinary achievement in a relatively minor western.

3.5/5 Stars

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): Douglas Vs. Quinn

the last train from gun hill.pngThe action begins with a chase of sorts, except with the men pursuing a buckboard, carrying a woman and a young boy, it’s more like a game of cat-and-mouse. As a Native American maiden and a pretty one at that, they look to have their way with her. A horrible incident follows, and it’s a fairly frank depiction for the 1950s.

Meanwhile, a local Marshall (Kirk Douglas) can be found regaling the kiddos with a story about the olden days, 10 years prior. It’s strangely light in contrast to the preceding scene. This is precisely the point because never again will we see the Marshall with such a jovial demeanor. We must wait only minutes to comprehend how our pieces fit together. Because this young boy, his son, races to call upon his father. It is his wife who has been brutally ravaged and left for dead.

There are only a couple of clues to go by. The first is a deep scar on the cheek of one of the perpetrators. His wife did not give up without a fight. The second is an abandoned horse with an ornate saddle. He knows it well. It belongs to an old friend: cattle baron Craig Belden.

Because the man who raped Catherine Morgan was Belden’s gutless son. The other man was one of his many hired hands. If not already clear, the dramatic dilemma becomes even more tenuous. The Marshall wants justice and resolves to pay his old buddy a fateful house call.

Under any other circumstances, these two men would be meeting for a drink to wax nostalgic about old times — the glory days — because it’s true things were different back then. As we have a habit of doing, we memorialize our youth, and the friends and experiences we gird around us as young men commonly follow us our entire lives.

But now they must factor in their current lives. Morgan’s wife is dead. Belden’s last kin is his boy Rick (Earl Holliman). Family is everything to the two of them, and it finds them at odds across most fragile lines.

Soon enough, this western finds its tracks along with the lumbering steam engine barreling through the local town. It’s the age-old format gleaned from High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma. A showdown is inevitable. The train is the method by which locals keep time. It’s is a destination, a symbol, and a way in which to move from here to there. It brings people in and takes them out. Sometimes to leave and find a new life. Sometimes to end someone else’s life.

And yet, as alluded to already, this western is far more personal. This is its strength because Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, as old chums, are pitted against each other under very unpleasant circumstances. But the story also requires someone who can stand up to Kirk Douglas as far as acting chops and screen presence go.

If not exact equals, they keep the playing field level based on their enduring differences. Neither is looking to budge. One, a marshall with an unassailable will. The other, a cattle baron who owns the entire town. They represent justice in two divergent forms, as individuals enacting the law as they see fit, whether through dictatorship or vigilantism.

The Marshall tries to drum up some allies in town. The stand-in for sheriff is always about taking the long view. That is, whatever will let him keep his craven neck alive. Realizing the whole town’s on Belden’s side, he settles in for the long haul, taking the young upstart prisoner and holding up inside an upstairs hotel room — his captive manacled to the bedpost. The stakes are set firmly in place, milking the tension to the nth degree. We know what must go down if no one budges.

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Earl Holliman’s not necessarily as adept at mind games as Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur or Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma, but he proves he can play the jerk. He’s the detestable combination of an entitled rich kid and a spineless loser.

It’s a misnomer to say there are no sympathetic figures. Morgan makes the acquaintance of one on the train into Gun Hill. She too has a past with Belden. In a town and theatrical landscape literally dominated by men, Linda (Carolyn Jones) has to be strong and a bit of a pragmatist. For these very reasons, she wants to see the Marshall succeed in his foolhardy task.

So, in fact, he has one minor ally for the very reason she’s not completely against him, though she’s not looking to play hero. Nevertheless, she admires a man with manners and the moral compass to hold doggedly to his principles. In a passive way, she’s in his corner, if only because he has the gumption to stand up to her old beau. However, she comes to be more than just a mere observer. Linda gives him his lifeline for bringing his crazy plan to fruition.

With tension mounting, he leads his prisoner out of the hotel with the whole town watching, all the guns trained on him, and the 9 o’clock train arriving just as planned. He marches out with his shotgun square on his prisoner’s quivering jaw. He’ll get it if anyone moves and so we have a contentious stalemate. By some crazy circumstance, he might find a way to achieve justice yet. Because, again, the train is a symbol. It reflects what he might still be able to do if he can only get there.

In the end, it barely matters. It’s a partial spoiler yes, but this was always a story about relationships more than anything. The draw must blow up somehow before reverting to its most crucial point of conflict. It’s all over and yet we’ve reached the inevitable point of no return. A hesitant Marshall is called to draw on his best friend. He doesn’t want this.

But Belden is an equally proud man, and he lives by a certain creed of western masculinity. You must face a man for any personal affront to your being. There is no other way. Even if he has to die in an ensuing shootout, he’s done his paternal duty for his flesh and blood. One must question what the bloodshed accomplishes. In this film, it’s a fitting end of fatalism. Whether it could have been avoided is quite another matter.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5th, 2020.

The Raid (1954): Starring Van Heflin

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On first glance, The Raid feels like a punchier, B-grade version of John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959). In time, it winds up being a fairly apt descriptor. The fact that the other Civil War piece is a lumbering giant gives The Raid an unpretentious edge. Because in the casting department it still has a fine ensemble to work with, despite its humble production values. When Lee Marvin is your fourth bill, the prospects for an absorbing experience are great.

Likewise, the story grabs hold of the real-life events, taking a few artistic liberties, but honing in on an interesting theme. It begins as a mere mission movie — a vehicle for revenge — only to evolve into something more nuanced and ultimately, heartbreaking. This time we see the action from the other side, beginning on September 26th, 1864. These are not rogue Union cavalry looking to wreak havoc but renegade Rebels preparing to break out of their prisoner-of-war camp.

In essence, we have Stalag 17 meeting not only The Horse Soldiers but some amalgamation of The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen, except, again, we are working within budget constraints.

Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) is the calculating ringleader, who gets his men across the border to Canada in order to plot out the next plan of action. The Raid becomes a story of infiltration, watching and waiting for the best moment to strike. The man sent ahead to do the recon is of course Benton. He dons his best gentlemanly duds to make the necessary arrangement and takes on the name Neal Swayze as part of the masquerade.

News of General Sherman’s march to the sea stokes the flames kindling behind their ire. The purpose becomes twofold. They want to avenge their brothers-in-arms as much as they want to become a thorn in their enemy’s side. Their spot of choice is the Northern oasis of St. Albans. The undercover Rebel makes acquaintance with the local bank owner (Will Wright) and finds agreeable domicile in the home of a war widow.

Anne Bancroft’s role is not altogether demanding as she plays the docile love interest. Regardless, she does this well, even getting a few moments to assert herself. After all, she is the enemy with a human face and we care for her as much as we do for Heflin. This equal footing is key. It causes a schism because alliances have been split. We begin to understand the deep fissures running through the ravaged society.

Even with the mistrusting Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone), it’s less about him thinking the other man is traitor and more so, his belief Swayze is elbowing in on his territory. After all, he’s known Katie Bishop far longer. He’s protective of her.

So with time, these relationships grow and Swayze receives a generous amount of acceptance. Soon the Confederate forces slip into town incognito, ready to tear it apart and hit the Yankees where it’ll hurt — in their pocketbooks. An auction of scavenged Rebel goods boils the outsider’s blood. It instigates a contentious bidding war that he finally diffuses. It’s not yet the time for action.

Lee Marvin, forever the loose cannon, all but blows their cover, threatening to set off a disastrous chain reaction. After going on an alcoholic binge, he gets it together just in time to stumble into the local sanctuary of worship. Their hard-sought plans look perilously close to being spoiled. Swayze steps out of the house of God a local legend and feeling even more like a heel.

As such, The Raid is this strange jolting empathy machine. This crisis of conscience comes to bear because the enemy has surprised him and welcomed him into the fold as a fellow human being. Of course, he can barely look them in the eye much less take their generosity, knowing full-well what he has been commissioned to do — completely obliterate their homes.

After all, their soldiers did little better to his home in the South. If we were simply to go by the eye-for-an-eye mentality, and the fact this is wartime, he has more than a right. However, this does not make the endeavor any easier. On top of the logistical elements, Northern troops patrolling through, and the need for stealth and efficiency, all of a sudden he has to deal with complicated relationships.

In the form of the widow Anne Bancroft and her precocious son, the local banker Will Wright, and even the standoffish Richard Boone. He starts to soften to these folks. The most impressive evolution is with Captain Foster. He shows a vulnerability and an ultimately retained dignity as the plot progresses. He would be so easy to villainize because Boone, Marvin, and Claude Akins were so good at those parts. And yet they can all be in this picture and function differently. Boone actually comes out looking extraordinarily sympathetic.

The fact that these characters become more and more like human beings, makes his mission all the more perplexing. This very element gets at the core dissonance of the Civil War because we were literally turning brother-against-brother, sometimes across arbitrary lines of distinction.

What this film suggests is that we have more bringing us together than separating us. Still, we stand doggedly to our presuppositions. Certainly, we cannot downplay the crucial issue of slavery (though it doesn’t play into this tale at all), but I think there are already some intriguing implications.

The line between feelings and duty become perilous roads to traverse. Van Heflin, while never the classically handsome lead, had something far more compelling. There’s an inherent honesty within his stock. He can be genial, pragmatic, even harsh and unfeeling. Whatever he is you never feel like he’s being inauthentic as both hero and villain. This ability carries the picture’s emotional core opposite Bancroft and the stellar troop around them.

Events run their course and yet there is an unquestionable toll to them. A war picture often fails if we don’t feel abhorrence for the violence. But there also needs to be a human connection. The Raid somehow manages both with relative ease. Movies such as this never grow tiresome because they carry with them an invigorating life, in spite of the inherent restrictions hoisted upon them.

3.5/5 Stars

Saddle The Wind (1958): In Memory of Richard Erdman

Saddle-the-wind_posterJulie London provides her airy voice to the title track and Elmer Bernstein gives his scoring talents for the rest of the picture. In these beginning moments, Saddle the Wind evokes the expanse of the majestic landscapes of the West like the best of its brethren. There is a sense we really are out on the frontier, not some manufactured piece of artifice. For the time being, the film maintains this sense of the wind-open spaces away from Hollywood soundstages.

It gets its first jolt of action when a leering Charles McGraw stomps into a saloon and shoves his weight around for food and a bottle. He’s got his feet kicked back and starts breaking bottles over counters just to get his point across. The locals aren’t looking for any trouble, but he’s certainly looking for someone: gunslinger Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor).

Here we must introduce the glut of Saddle The Wind. Robert Taylor is still Hollywood handsome but time has set in and made his features more applicable for the West. Where a hard life and past wounds lead people to make a new existence for themselves. The reformed gunfighter is not a new concept, but it is a handy one. It gives a man menace without him having to show it, until it’s absolutely necessary.

The real action arrives in the form of his spunky dynamo of a little brother, who comes back to the family ranch with a woman (London) betrothed to be his wife. His big brother is less than pleased to find Tony has gone and got himself hitched and spent his money on a spiffy new gun.

If anything is cemented in this preliminary scene, it is that one is the hothead, the other maintains reproachful silence. They are the yin and yang of the West. Cassavetes and Richard Erdman, as rowdy Reb veterans, form a rambunctious partnership looking to tear up the town and have themselves a bit of fun. They positively take the bar by storm, only to have their merriment disrupted by the same out-of-towner. Except the man Venables meets up with isn’t an old local or a squeamish bartender.

Tony is on top of the world, and if there’s one thing he’s never gonna do is back off even when the other man isn’t looking for trouble. His quarrel, after all, is with the elder Sinclair. Still, the feisty buck takes it as a personal affront. He goads the man into action. There is no other way for it. Guns are drawn.

Steven rushes on the scene an instant too late. His brother isn’t killed, but something worse happens. He’s filled with renewed fire. The taste of power — the ability to strike a man down with the pull of a trigger — is like an intoxicating liqueur.

Steve Sinclair has long kept the peace with the main landowner in the area Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp), who is, by all accounts, a businessman and a pacifist. The stage is set for something…

Clay Ellison (Royal Dano) is a proud man clinging unflinchingly to the promise of land out west, formerly bestowed on his dearly departed father when the territory was still wide-open. He’s come on the scene to take back what’s his even as Steve tells him, brusquely, he’s trespassing. In a different context, that might be the end of the incident.

What ignites it irrevocably is a remnant of North vs. South animosity left over from the Civil War (Ellison is a proud Union man with great distinction). The torchbearers are Tony and the impish Dallas as they have a grand old time with the squatters, upending their wagons and chasing away their livestock in fits of gunfire and laughter. It’s a bit of festering payback for wartime grievances, and it’s easily the most devastating scene, right smack dab in the middle of the picture.

It’s a testament of what happens when men take squatter’s justice into their own hands and when the protective big brother does little more than beat back his baby sibling and throw money at a problem. Nothing is remedied.

However, Saddle The Wind ends up being far more contained than I was expecting. It’s fundamentally a character study about two brothers and how they grapple with one another, based on outside stimuli.

We could name a number of people, first the new wife who is brought home. The old vagabond war buddy who is an instant enabler. A gunfighter with a vendetta looking to tromp up old wounds. Even the obdurate homesteader who’s not about to get pushed out by a punk kid.

None of these characters seems to truly exist for themselves. Even lord of the valley, Mr. Dineen, though deeply humanized by Donald Crisp, is just another piece in the brother’s story. This observation might seem too harsh, but with Rod Serling as the story’s scribe, it seems conceivable to say the intriguing idea — because it is that — takes some precedence over the characters.

There are moments to turn the stomach, feelings of conflict, and wrenching segments of tension. This is not a completely lethargic film by any means. If anything, Cassavetes alone sets it ablaze with his youthful fire. Still, some component seems to be missing.

With this vast assemblage of characters, it could be that there are a handful of stories worth telling when the credits roll, and we only got over the cusp of one of them. The ending lacks all the cathartic payoffs we craved so dearly. The strands don’t entirely tie together, though the movie does try and solve everything with a silver lining. Surely it’s not that easy.

Whereas the opening moments felt like a regalia of western imagery, Saddle The Wind settles into almost small-screen paces, going from long shots full of real sagebrush to close-ups with backdrops painted on.

Although it’s hardly fair to consider the film’s merits on this issue alone — I think the suspension of disbelief being broken speaks to something — even as these characters never settle into something truly genuine. It’s allowable to be harsh with critique only because Saddle The Wind has its share of all-too-brief shining moments to go along with its potential. It’s an oater with enthralling elements not fully realized.

3/5 Stars

Note: I watched this film literally two days before the passing of Richard Erdman at the age of 93. He was one of my most beloved supporting actors. He will be deeply missed for his myriad of classic roles and for his work as Leonard on Community.