My Name is Nobody (1973)

For those familiar with the tales of Odysseus, My Name is Nobody earns its name from the witty trick the Greek hero uses to escape the Cyclops. However, the movie should draw more comparisons to the works of Sergio Leone than Homer.

It’s difficult not to immediately calibrate the film’s first scene against something like the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West; it’s as much about the stretching and manipulation of time as it is the near-wordless actions. There’s even a clock ticking in the background.

We have a callback to Fonda getting a shave at the Tonsorial Parlor in My Darling Clementine (feet even propped up) however, here the scene is done up with this new sense of impending dread, and we can’t quite fathom why. We just feel it.

Again, getting a shave, milking a cow, brushing a horse, are mundane activities undertaken by three strangers, and yet the scene imbues them with this uneasy energy. They could be Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock biding their time at the creaking train depot for Charles Bronson.

Although Leone’s not the director; he conceived the original idea, and Tonino Valerii, who was Leone’s assistant director on some of his most prominent films, knows what it means to milk the moment through images and sound.

It’s not even the heart and soul of the movie, but like the earlier picture, it gives us the essence of the style and certainly Jack Beauregard. Because after giving the public a shock by turning Henry Fonda into a bad man, Leone’s done the western icon one last favor by canonizing his legacy for a final time.

Before any of this gets perilously high-winded and overly contemplative, it should be mentioned forthright that My Name is Nobody remains an unadulterated comedy on multiple accounts. Given what I’ve said already, I’m not sure if this comes as a shock or not. But what’s even more imperative is how it’s intended to be this way.

The dialogue is pure pap. It feels generally tone-deaf and totally out of sink with some of the best images of the movie, but this is all very much in the tradition of the Spaghetti western no matter the language, locale, or subject matter. It’s telling the only actor who actually dubbed himself was in fact, Henry Fonda. Again, he’s given the ultimate deference and his audience probably expects nothing less.

I’m also no music man, but there are elements of Ennio Morricone’s compositions here — the man who wrote the book on the Spaghetti soundtrack — seeming to gleefully parody himself. The interludes during the title credits are merry and gay literally popping with an almost sickening buoyancy. Later, it devolves into a melding of Wagner and chanting chorale arrangements that can only hearken back to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Here we get our first look at Terence Hill. He’s a vagabond who catches fish with his bare hands. This too builds off the same persona he had in They Call Me Trinity. He’s the anti-Eastwood if we can call him that — bearing a convivial manner — though equally adept when it comes to gunslinging.

Since there is no Bud Spencer, he gets Henry Fonda as his main partner in crime. Nothing against his most prolific friend and countrymen, but you’re definitely getting a different kind of picture with this change in personnel.

True, it’s hardly Fonda’s best work, but he feels strangely at peace with his surroundings and coolly confident since he’s done this so many times before. He’s not capable of going into parody in the same manner as Morricone’s score. Or if he does, it only aids in burnishing his already established legend.

Because he has a pedigree with forging the West you never had in a movie like They Call Me Trinity, though it shared some tonal similarity thanks in part to Terence Hill’s quick drawing ne’er do well. Fonda manages some amount of grandeur in a movie that otherwise is happily preoccupied with slapstick and scatological humor. There’s Sam Peckinpah’s name listed on a tombstone for goodness sake! And yet Henry Fonda, that is Jack Beauregard, provides a certain level of enduring gravitas to the proceedings.

It functions relatively effectively because Nobody (the name of Hill’s character) idolizes the older gunslinger so much. He makes us believe in him even as many of us bring our own history with Fonda to the movie already. The younger gun can best be described as a historian of Jack Beauregard and better yet a fanboy. He knows all about his exploits and has followed him from his earliest days.

He’s a peculiar sort of figure. At once, seeming to jostle for the spotlight and dog the renowned fighter, and at the other end, trying to grow his acclaim. He wants people to remember Beauregard as the larger-than-life figure he was in real life on countless occasions. But he also wants the man to go out by living up to his expectations. He can only do this by facing off with The Wild Bunch, a pack out of outlaw roughriders at least 100-strong.

The fun and games of the movie happen at a bustling carnival. Nobody takes the time to shoot a stilt walker down to size and pie a fat-headed vendor. He’s equally game for some gunplay in the saloon showcasing both his tolerance for alcohol and his uncanny sharpshooting.

All of this feels like an audition for a bout with Beauregard. Because the whole movie they toy with their adversaries, whether it’s in a funhouse, over bombs, or dynamite. Nobody ably turns some of his playthings into bobo dolls and runs off with a train filled with gold after staring down the engineer in a urinal. Yes, this really happens.

But of course, the movie is never about rivalry and this is how it sidesteps the usual trope others will remember from The Gunfighter or I Shot Jesse James, et al. In the final stand we have The Wild Bunch kicking up a dust storm in a face-off against a solitary, bespectacled Henry Fonda at the ready with his shotgun. He’s kept his part of his bargain, for the sake of his legacy and his ever-present shadow has provided him a fitting piece of assistance.

Although I have little call to cast aspersions on the picture, it feels like My Name is Nobody strives to be both comedy and elegy. It can never fully succeeds at either, but there are distinct elements to be appreciated. One of these is Fonda, and he goes out as a “national monument” rightfully so.

It’s not his greatest western by a long shot, but his last round in the saddle puts a fitting denouement on Fonda’s career adding its own addendum to the kind of Liberty Valance mythos or the cyclical lineage of toxic gunfighters. The pronouncement “Nobody shot Jeff Bearegaurd” maintains its double meaning. Sometimes myths aren’t bald-faced lies. They can also be acts of willful preservation and frankly, peace of mind.

In My Name is Nobody, there’s a warm jocularity to it all, down to the very last shot. It’s an accommodating movie, and although this keeps it from being totally profound, that’s okay.

3.5/5 Stars

They Call Me Trinity (1970)

When I was living abroad it was one of my European friends who first introduced me to Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. I had never heard of them and was anxious to learn something about the duo. Regardless of what their names imply, both men are Italians with aliases befitting American action heroes.

They Call Me Trinity is one of their most lucrative pairings together, and it fits into the historical narratives I know well. It is a spaghetti western a la Leone or Corbucci, but it was made with deeply comic inflections.

We all know the laconic heroes: Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” or Bronson’s “Harmonica.” Hill seems to be one of their ilk, although he can be found lounging lazily on a litter pulled by his horse. He proceeds to get up and walk into the nearest cantina looking half-naked as he scarfs down a skillet of beans and drains a bottle of booze with a hearty belch. It’s the kind of showing that draws the curiosity of all bystanders. He represents a different kind of temerity — totally comic in nature. It helps he’s also ludicrously fast on the draw.

If he’s one source of easy laughs, the other is his brother played by Spencer, a sheriff in a nearby town at odds with some of the locals. It doesn’t help he’s got one of their buddies held prisoner. Bambino, as he’s called, showcases some farcical gunplay and superhuman brawn, wiping the floor with anyone who dares challenge him. Also, he’s not too pleased to see his blood relation, who quickly turns the showdown into a spectator sport.

Beyond their sibling rivalry, Trinity is just the man who could let everyone know Bambino is actually an escaped convict and not a true sheriff; he stole the job from the real man while he bides his time waiting for his cronies. None of this is of great importance

It must be said that the sense of reality is always strained to the nth degree in these Italian western pieces, normally shot in Europe with international casts, copious amounts of dubbing for various audiences, and any number of anachronistic flourishes. The dubbing is so prevalent it becomes an artistic decision more than a purely merchandising one. It’s part of the charm of the Spaghetti western and Trinity gladly soaks in this tradition.

The eponymous hero calls on his brother’s sense of propriety to help a clan of defenseless Mormons, whose pious hospitality is brutalized by Mexican marauders who might as well be under the commission of a corrupt landowner (purportedly Farley Granger) intent on pushing the migrants out.

Trinity is rallied to their cause by two bodacious Mormon daughters (Gisela Hahn and Elena Pedemonte) and Bambino reluctantly takes part thanks to their fine stock of horses. He might be able to gain something out of the arrangement. When his friends do arrive, they start instructing the righteous people on how to defend themselves and fight their battles.

They make their final stand, and it’s full of kinds of cathartic poundings and pummelings of the enemy. The good guys put up a valiant fight. It’s not quite The Magnificent Seven, but it has an ending worthy of its own characters.

From time to time, it’s a pleasure having heroes like these who feel a bit like a reincarnation of Laurel & Hardy for the buddy, western, action movie era. Bud Spencer as a bit of an indestructible hulk with an irascible temper. Hill as the handsome rapscallion who’s more than easy to root for.

They would follow up this success with many more — some westerns and then other pairings taking advantage of all the crazes taking over the international movie industry. I was introduced to them in Miami Supercops, which indubitably ripped off a handful of Miami Vice episodes and any number of cop shows being released in the ’70s and ’80s.

Here you have a great deal of the charm in Hill and Spencer. The Spaghetti Western was a hit in how it took the American conventions and gave them a facelift through pastiche and violent homage. It sounds like a formalistic mess and in many ways, it is, but that’s also part of the charm.

3/5 Stars

The Hired Hand (1971)

It’s true that Peter Fonda comes out of a western tradition of sorts, which is merely an indication of his family’s presence in the film industry. Obviously, one of his father’s identifying genres was the western, and he worked with some of the greats from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

Films like My Darling Clementine have become the bar with which to evaluate future generations. Then, Peter’s older sister, Jane, of course, tried her hand with the wildly popular Cat Ballou. It’s not high art, but there’s a great deal to appreciate between her gallivanting around and the drunken histrionics of Lee Marvin.

However, with The Hired Hand, Peter starred and directed a western of a very different breed. There’s a hallucinatory quality to the movie suggesting it’s not too far removed from Monte Hellman’s acid westerns of a few years prior. It’s composed mostly of images swimming in the restless score of Bruce Langhorne.

We already have Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, and it’s obvious the genre is funneled through the vision of the counter-culture that brought us pictures like Easy Rider and even Two-Lane Blacktop. In some of his earliest feature film work, Vilmos Zsigmond provides a casual, unsentimental sense of the landscape fitting the overall canvass developed by both the editing and score.

In their passing dreams, floating just out of reach, the California coast acts as a kind of far-off oasis for the three drifters staked out by a river bed. I couldn’t help thinking of generations before. Peter’s father as Tom Joad headed to California and faced his own brand of disillusionment with the dream packaged for him. Expectations didn’t meet reality.

Peter Fonda is besieged by the discontentment and malaise of his generation, but if we recall The Grapes of Wrath maybe this youthful sense of Sehnsucht, while morphing and evolving, is not totally lost or forgotten. It’s only reimagined in new forms and under new banners.

After days without bathing and nights without a warm bed, they roll into a town. But it’s not much better than the backcountry they’ve been frequenting. At any rate, it’s hardly the picture of civilization.

The film remains mostly a sullen affair plagued by death, but not just physical death, the death of joy or adulation in any sort of quality life. It starts grappling with the life of a drifter — the camaraderie of saddle buddies — and the solace of a settled home life. Because Harry Coilings didn’t always live this peripatetic existence. Once he was married. Funny how he never mentioned it before to his companions, but then again, the overwhelming emptiness in his heart has made him crave something different. So he and Arch pay a visit to his former missus.

Warren Oates has gained some welcomed acclaim since his death as a kind of cult favorite, but in The Hired Hand there’s something especially welcomed about him. He’s congenial and faithful, a source of affability in a movie that is mostly lacking in any kind of generosity toward its audience. Fonda gives us nothing. Verna Bloom has nothing to give because her character has learned to insulate herself. And there’s really no one else to offer any kind of condolence.

The film’s barely a meditation on marriage. There’s hardly time to build this into something substantive nor entirely profound, but we do have a sense of this male camaraderie. And suddenly it gives the movie a central question. Fonda must reconcile this relationship, one that has stayed with him for years on the lonely roads, with that of a distant wife who never expected him to show his face again. Whether he totally acknowledges them, they are both of great importance to him.

At first, I mistook the finale — a giant bloody shootout — for a pointless exercise. What good does it do? Very little aside from bludgeoning us with a bleak view of the world. However, it does speak to a man’s vow of friendship. While other elements of this western are irrevocably different from the past, there’s some small amount of stability in such a simple trait as this. Is this stupid courage like the screenwriter Bill Goldman enthused about? Probably.

It’s also a glimmer of something laudable speaking to the exact same listless despondency an entire generation was looking to grapple with from Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces. This alone doesn’t make it a superior western, simply by having a muddied, unadorned sense of the world. But Peter follows in the footsteps of his dad and sister to leave his own impression on a deeply American genre.

3/5 Stars

Cat Ballou (1965)

When the Columbia statue whips off her toga and comes out with western wear and six shooters, the movie’s intentions are made quite clear. And if that’s not enough Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye appear on the scene, decked out, strumming their banjos. They become the accompanying bards relating the ballad of Cat Ballou.

To my mind, it’s one of the only moments in Nat King Cole’s movie career where his talents seem used in a more robust way, and it seems like he’s genuinely having a ball sending up the story. He and Stubby have an open line of communication going with the audience becoming one of the film’s primary conduits for comedy.

And of course, the world itself is ripe with screwy antics easily sharing a world with the likes of Support Your Local Sheriff if not Blazing Saddles. It feels like the West is a place filled with all sorts of oddball characters and idiosyncracies worthy of laughs and a myriad of double-takes.

Jane Fonda was still ascending on her way to becoming one of the ’60s and 1970s most visible performers, and she teems with an undeniable pluckiness in the title role. In its own likable and goofy way, it becomes a picture of empowerment for female heroines.

If hardly a feminist screed, it nevertheless has the kind of charm you might find in an episode of That Girl. It’s Hollywood not quite coming to terms with the full brunt of counter-culture (Ann-Margret was even earmarked for the role).

But if Fonda proves her mettle as a “wanted” outlaw destined to be hung and the leader of a “nefarious” gang of desperados, it’s Lee Marvin who becomes the film’s undisputed attraction. Kid Shelleen is an inspired western hybrid: the restless gunslinger crossed with the town drunk.

He’s got hair like Harpo Marx coiffed under his beat-up hat, hands twitching, married to a bottle, with his disheveled buckskins hanging down to put his long john undergarments on full display. It’s this whole package making Lee Marvin’s performance such a crowd pleaser, but this is only true because it flies in the face of so much of what he made a name for himself doing. He was tough guys, psychos, and henchmen. Here he’s more than game to lie prostrate in the street, falling over his horse, in fits of comedic inebriation.

However, it’s the scene before his auspicious introduction that really brings the picture together. The square dancing sequences become a wonderfully visual merging of characters and arcs all in one place as Cat formulates a plan to help her daddy out: enlisting the help of a gunslinger, or at least a man with a gun. It devolves into glorious chaos as all the men who have been thrown into her life (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and Tom Nardini) vow to protect the elder Ballou (John Marley) to the best of their abilities.

Cat Ballou is mostly corny, and it works best leaning whole hog into this sentiment. When it tries to be something with the semblance of drama, it doesn’t quite work as if it’s grasping for something outside its comfort zone. Cat loses her father, faces a town complicit in the killing perpetrated by a rival gunman — a silver-nosed murderer (also played by Marvin). Even a storied hero like Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicut) has stuck himself behind a mercantile counter.

Jane Fonda exerts herself pouting and throwing a rock tantrum to get her three male companions to see it her way. The Hole-in-the-Wall gang is revived to acquire their much-needed funds, and they do quite a job of it without a Superposse to chase after them.

These exploits are how Cat Ballou earns notoriety across the Old West although she finds herself before a scaffold for quite a different reason. The gallows humor of the noose going around her gorgeous neck feels like another unbecoming scenario until we slip back into a much-preferred gear of silliness.

Cat Ballou is at its finest as a goofball western, a bit dorky around the edges but no less lovable. It does mystify me how it became such an award-season darling, though it’s not without a few unremitting charms. Its impact on the western mythos feels minor at best if only for Fonda’s spirited heroine in a genre otherwise replete with male heroes.

3.5/5 Stars

Cowboy (1958)

In Cowboy, Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford continue their fruitful partnership by examining the life of a different sort of cattleman. The movie opens on a grand mid-century establishment soon to be frequented by a  cowboy named Reece. Everything is colorful and ornate in the Spanish style with gaudy curtains and wood interiors.

Thus, it begins as a hotel drama that switches out a sulking Garbo and destructive John Barrymore for a gang of cowhands and a hotel clerk’s romance. The movie would not be the same without Jack Lemmon. He is Frank Harris, a lowly clerk with the unenviable task of moving some guests to make way for Mr. Reece. It runs deeper still. He’s fallen in love with the gorgeous daughter (Ann Kashfi) though her father dismisses the young man’s affirmations of love.

Soon enough, they will return to their native Mexico, and Maria will be a distant memory to the impressionable boy. Before he can sort out his feelings, Reece’s contingent comes pouring in and takes over the hotel.

The whole movie is built out of these two men coming together and what a glorious juxtaposition of characters it is. The dreamy-eyed idiot and a veteran cowboy, pragmatic and hard-bitten. Ford and Lemmon have been created on their most fundamental level to chafe with one another. Still, the tinge of comedy is not entirely imperceptible in the setup.

In their introduction, you have Lemmon sidling up to Reece’s bath to get in with his gang while Ford shoots stray cockroaches with some relish. Equally important is how real life intersects with film fiction because Glenn Ford built a storied career in westerns, even if you only count his films with Delmer Daves. Lemmon was always the common, everyman schmuck. Now he’s a tenderfoot barely prepared to place his backside on a horse.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo explores a modern mode of western calling for a different brand of star. Lemmon could easily be built into the City Slicker archetype, lovelorn and ready to prove himself. The first time Harris gets tossed from his horse it feels like a kind of initiation. He’s begrudgingly allowed to ride along, but there’s not going to be any concessions for him. He better toughen up or get out.

As their journey together begins, Daves does remind us about the austere beauty out on the range. It’s a tough life certainly, there is no Sabbath; you must learn to sleep in the saddle and pick yourself up when you fall. And yet there’s a newfound appreciation watching the cowboys at work against nature’s grandeur all around them. It feels like a noble profession out on the land using your heads and working hard each and every day.

Brian Donlevy was a minor icon of the 1940s, once he overcame his relegation as a tough guy, but almost 20 years later, there’s a modicum amount of joy seeing him still up to the task at hand along with such disparate figures as Dick York and Richard Jaeckel, each prone to their own sins, whether drink or violence.

It becomes apparent as a long-form almost classical tale, Cowboy can easily be compared with other cattle movies a la Red River. Because while we have Jack Lemmon and Ford’s not totally averse to humor, there must be hardship and conflict stirred up. They take up the mantles of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, vying for control as they exorcise personal demons and hone in on their priorities.

Later there’s a strangely poignant funeral sequence after one of the trailhands (Strother Mother) is killed in a rattlesnake attack instigated by a practical joke. These unfortunate circumstances lend a troubling undercurrent to the sober congregation. It’s Frank’s first lesson in the cruelty of the trail.

In another moment, one of their group is drinking it up at a Mexican Cantina and is obviously about to be jumped by some jealous locals. Harris is intent to help him, but they live by the credo: if a man’s old enough to get himself into trouble, then a man’s old enough to get himself out of trouble. There’s no sentimentality or loyalty as far as they are concerned. You do your work and look out for your own hide.

These events are not completely isolated, but they put the newest trailhand over the edge. We know he’s naive about what it takes to survive out on the road, but he also highlights the callous code these men are willing to live by. He barks at Reece, “I thought I would be living with men, not a pack of animals.” It changes him thereafter. He won’t allow it to affect him anymore.

Cowboy hints at Jack Lemmon’s substantial chops as an actor. And I use the term in the sense it is often used. Sometimes comedy is not considered true “acting” to the same degree as drama, but it seems comedic actors are capable of some of the best drama. Perhaps they can see one in the other or vice versa.

Because the movie begins as a kind of comedy on the range. At least this is what it hints at and what we know Lemmon can offer. And then it builds into a story with greater ferocity and also emotional depth. It’s not just about a jilted romance, but a disillusionment in this admiration he had for a certain brand of masculinity. There’s something inwardly thrilling in this transformation even as we see the change projected over Lemmon’s character.

With grit and determination, Harris gets below the border to see his girl once more, but he’s been made callous and her circumstances are different. It feels like a betrayal. In these specific scenes, Dalton Trumbo, who was currently an exile in Mexico due to the Blacklist, calls upon a locale not far removed from him or even his earlier bullfighting effort, The Brave One. Also, he would go into a further deconstruction of the cowboy archetype in Lonely Are The Brave only a few years later. It’s difficult not to view these films across the same continuum.

True, it is a tale about cowboys — their lifestyle, whether real or imagined — and both the toxicity and mythos that comes with such a life. I couldn’t help thinking, like The Magnificent Seven, it fashions itself into something greater — a broader exploration of morality. Masculinity in the West takes on many facets be it survival, gunplay, or getting the girl, but it’s movies like these making it about a kind of stalwart integrity.

Like The Magnificent Seven, it starts out as a mission — representing a job with specific utility — and becomes a parable of doing right by your fellow man. Lemmon must mature and Ford must soften until they both settle on a newfound prerogative. The movie reverts back to the cycles these men know best, and yet not without changing them.

Cowboy is easily the most unheralded picture in Delmer Daves’s western trilogy with Glenn Ford, but it’s held together by some more stunning imagery and two truly complementary performances. Now as they lounge side by side in their bathwater picking off cockroaches, there’s a mutual respect between them along with a newfound parity.

3.5/5 Stars

The Paleface (1948)

As a kid, I was fond of Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface for a myriad of reasons. Thanks to that esteemed institution known as the local library I was well-versed in the Hope & Crosby Road Pictures by an early age and Roy Rogers was probably second-only to Gene Autry as king of the Singing Cowboys. Jane Russell wasn’t too bad herself.

More recently, coming to understand Tashlin himself — his background in animated comedy and his partnership with Jerry Lewis — gives greater context to his place as a creative visionary. Because it’s true he blends the gray area between live-action and the cartoon logic of animation better than almost anyone else.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Tashlin had these unsavory words for The Paleface and its director:

“After seeing the preview of it, I could’ve shot Norman Z. McLeod. I’d written it as a satire on The Virginian (1929), and it was completely botched. I could’ve killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff.”

While it’s true the original movie doesn’t have the same outrageous commitment to comic gags that its successor did, if Tashlin was not so close to the material, he might be able to appreciate some of its elements.

However, before we go there, it seems necessary to introduce a caveat. The Paleface is a film out of a different era. If you’re an immediate impression of the movie is one of distaste, there aren’t any surprises here. Particularly jolting is when they are taken in by the local Natives to die some gruesome death only to be saved by Hope’s masquerading as a medicine man armed with the black magic of dynamite.

But if you have a sense of nostalgia, can look past the blind spots, or have a reservoir of goodwill toward Bob Hope, it delivers alongside the best of his comedies by providing a genre and allowing him to bend it to his will, courtesy of his usual feckless, smart-aleck shtick.

It works by first introducing all the western tropes Tashlin was mentioning. Russell, the feisty female outlaw, Calamity Jane, is enlisted by the government to investigate clandestine operations supplying the Indians with firearms. She joins a wagon train after outsmarting some adversaries in the ladies’ showers. It allows her to do some recon and she uses a first-class boob as her cover.

Bob Hope (as Painless Potter) is showcased with a row of dentistry gags including his canister of laughing gas, which becomes a recurrent plot point throughout the picture. When he’s not getting them lost in the woods, he knocks back “Buttons and Bows,” a tune that has remained a lasting relic of the movie, thanks to renditions by the likes of Dinah Shore, and its reintroduction in the sequel.

Every kiss he shares with his costar is like a rap over the head with the butt of a pistol. But along with being the aggressor, Russell also does his shooting for him on multiple occasions. In fact, when he is goaded into a shoot-out over the hand of a woman in a saloon, the outcomes prove surprisingly close to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paleface was released over a decade earlier). Could it be John Ford was influenced by Paleface? I’ll let you be the judge.

As for Norman Z. Macleod, I’m inclined to give him my good graces given his pedigree with Marx Brothers and screwball-like comedies of all sorts. While he might not commit to gravity-defying visual gags as Tashlin would have — we understand how he would be able to expand and punctuate them — Macleod always seems intent on zipping the pace along and keeping the tone zany.

This suits Hope even as Russell and the other characters allow the story to still stay true to many of the western tropes of cowboys, Indians, and western towns needing to be tamed. This melding of the usual beats with the wacky subversions instigated by Hope is the crux of the movie and blended with its color photography and the antagonistic chemistry of its stars, it’s more than enough to garner a watch. My own biased nostalgia still makes me partial to The Son of Paleface.

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.

westward the women

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. 

warlock fonda and quinn

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