Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawl fight ever spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bobs Watson) is lost it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars

The Naked Dawn (1955): An Edgar G. Ulmer Western

220px-The_Naked_Dawn_film_poster.jpgThe western is founded on certain unifying archetypes, from drifters to revenge stories, showdowns and the westward progress of civilization butting up against the lawless wilderness. It always proved a fitting genre for morality plays and deeply thematic ideas. The tradition of the bank robbery goes back to Edwin S. Porter and The Great Train Robbery, and it plays an important role in The Naked Dawn.

The action opens with Mexican banditos robbing a train and looking to flee the scene. Though they manage to get away, it’s not without consequences. One hombre named Santiago watches as his campanero Vincente dies in his arms. He comforts him with visions of heavenly cattle grounds even though the man’s life was full of indiscretions, to put it nicely.

The story does occupy itself with religious rhetoric, which feels very much a part of the cultural landscape, as do the Spanish language and such ubiquitous elements as taco stands, cantinas, and a mariachi soundtrack. The film rightly steeps itself in this perceived world below the border. Whether it is authentic or not feels slightly immaterial, because something fairly immersive is erected. In one sense, this is the most impressive success of The Naked Dawn.

There is “brownface” needing acknowledgment and a certain stereotypical gaze, but director Edgar G. Ulmer develops a surprising amount of atmosphere for such a meager western. Secondly, Arthur Kennedy somehow manages to give a thoroughly flamboyant performance showing his competency in anchoring a leading role — even in an admittedly small scale oater like this.

Because in typical drifter fashion, he goes from leaving his dead buddy behind to finding a day’s shelter at a farmhouse along the trail. There he is met by an energetic young farmer and his dutiful wife. The presence of such a figure as Santiago unearths all their flaws even as he overwhelms them with his vagabond existence, full of a certain high-living and nostalgia for the old days.

Although initially hesitant to get involved, the husband finds himself brought along for a raid on a crooked shipment manager who they overpower and string up while raiding the contents of his safe. In the midst of all the money, Manuel (Eugene Iglesias) suddenly becomes brave and also greed springs to life in his heart.

For thence onward, Manuel holds this stranger in high regard, in awe of this man who has seen so much and takes him for the time of his life in the local watering hole, partaking of all the worldly pleasures afforded from strong drink, saucy women, lively music, and a bar brawl to wind out the entertainment.

But if this is the grand exciting world away from the ranch, then back with his doting wife (Betta St. John), we find a certain amount of unrest. She does not love her husband but his prospects were so much better than what she had before. Still, this new man makes her heart glad; she is ready to elope with him without fear of consequences.

The utter irony is the very fact that while Santiago is the outlaw, at least he is obvious and upfront about his waywardness. In his new company, Manuel fancies himself an honest man and his wife comes across as an angel. However, whether it’s unwitting or not, they both have more conflicted characters than they let on. Santiago is the one who allows them to salvage their lives.

It should be noted Francois Truffaut purportedly gleaned inspiration from this film’s love triangle for Jules et Jim. At first, any sort of comparison seems superficial at best. However, I finally settled on the fact both films contrive this three-way relationship that plays peculiarly for the very fact it lacks a great deal of interpersonal drama.

There is a passivity to how it unwinds and this feels counterintuitive to how these stories are supposed to function. Although we have tragedy on both accounts, the fact it is so detached leaves a different taste, rather than a blistering, jealousy-fueled gunshot finale. For that, we have to look at alternatives like Laura (1944) or Truffaut’s own Soft Skin (1964).

There is not a lot of time and space but the resources are used in all number of facets to at least touch on issues of religion, law and order, romance, greed, and unquestionably, so much more. Fittingly, as the picture zips to its rapid conclusion, we have come full circle with our larger-than-life Bandido dreaming of the pearly gates much like his campanero before him.

Ulmer blesses the audience with another extraordinarily lucid 10-day effort. Let that sink in for a second. The Naked Dawn is yet another marvel in economic ingenuity. Better yet, any drop off in quality or production values only seems to add to the film’s inherent flavor.

3.5/5 Stars

Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars

Ride the High Country (1962): A Sam Peckinpah Western

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Admittedly at times, I fall into the trap of getting so caught up in the context of a film and its history I miss out on elements of the experience. However, when I watched Ride the High Country it didn’t feel like I was getting distracted by how this story pertained to others — at least not when I was immersed in it.

I probably don’t foster enough of a respect for Sam Peckinpah as other viewers or perhaps as much as I should, but watching a picture like this there’s this undying sense that he knows full-well the tradition of the western. He builds off some of the best themes of the genre with two fine actors straight out of the tradition. It comes with not only tightening the script to make it more resonate but honing in on the inner conflict of our characters as well.

Lucien Ballard’s photography is equally phenomenal in its use of the width of the screen to capture horizontal panoramas of majesty. Instantly he makes the high country synonymous with raw and rugged beauty that’s a joy to behold.

Like the most riveting westerns, this stunning imagery paired with the compelling narrative of two men, played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, picked me up and carried me away. Implicitly I knew that the West was changing; themes that we would be reminded of again most definitively in The Wild Bunch (1969).

In the opening minutes, we already have camels, automobiles, Arabian music, and popcorn machines out in the West and if they’re not purely anachronistic, the times must be changing. And our two main characters too were a different breed of cowboy. It’s more so a simple reality than the point of the drama.

And anyway what we learn and would do well to remember is that sometimes it’s not a generational thing at all. Each person has their own makeup and circuitry that ultimately dictates their decisions and moral framework. But, again, that comes later.

With no acting marshall in the territory and six miners recently killed and robbed trying to get their spoils down to the bank, there’s a need to be met. Steve Judd (McCrea) soon earns the gig guarding a shipment of gold to be extracted from the mining outpost of Hornitos. Granted he’s not as young as he used to be but his name still means something in the territory and when he runs across his old comrade Gil Westrum (Scott) working a carnival show, they bring an entire history with them that we only have to imagine. The other man coaxes his buddy into letting his young partner Heck (Ron Starr) come on too. It’s very reluctantly agreed to.

Their first stop is a ranch ruled by a puritanical homesteader who distrusts all men and their earthly ways; he deems them deserving of God’s wrath. His outlook is so pernicious because there is not an ounce of affection in him and it reveals himself in how he maintains a severe existence that deeply affects his daughter. Such that at the first sign of a man she perks up and runs off to put on some different duds.

Her father begrudingly gives them lodging in his barn far away from his daughter and chides the trio with the words out of Proverbs 22. Perceiving them as godless fortune seekers he lords over them with the words that “gold is a stumbling block.” He’s not wrong exactly and yet Steve coolly comes back with his own scriptural knowledge, suggesting he’s not some heathen. He can ably play the game and hold his own.

Mariette Hartley had yet to become the familiar face who flooded my childhood from The Bob Newhart Show to M*A*S*H but she’s an important piece of this picture just as Ron Starr is. They are the youth, representative of the new generation still trying to find their way. Elsa makes a rash decision to travel up to the mining town to get hitched with a man named Billy Hammond (James Drury) who formerly promised marriage.

She gets there and finds the wheels turning toward matrimony with Billy’s four lascivious brothers intent on the marriage and the added benefits for them. What becomes so striking is the harsh reality of this whirling wedding. It’s crowded with people and photographed in such a way that is claustrophobic, raucous, and dare I say, garish. It hearkens back to a similar sequence in Day of The Outlaw (1959) except the color in this one makes the palette come alive evocatively.

Simultaneously, in her youthful exuberance, it was nothing of what Elsa imagined her wedding day would be like presided over by a drunken buffoon (Edgar Buchannan) and frequented by an ensemble of floozies and lewd miners. It’s completely bereft of the loveliness or intimacy of true matrimony as its meant to be but she’s made her decision. Surely, she has to live with it now.

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Ride the High Country is situated as a moral tale deceptively simple like a High Noon (1952) or Magnificent Seven (1960) in a sense, and yet it gives way to so much of note. Like many stories, it gets to one place only to realize it must go back from whence it came and yet the game and the stakes indubitably change.

In this case, Steve just occupied himself with his task at hand initially and yet in a righteous moment he decides to insert himself into this young woman’s plight and intercede on her behalf. He doesn’t have to do it but it is the right thing and since Heck’s in love with her, he’s right there too. Judd has the girl and the gold in toe planning to do right by both. Gil has his own agenda planned since the first moment they ever set out. Justice relies on men acting in honor and they rarely do. But when they do, it’s important. It’s what this story ultimately hinges on, this constant shifting of moral tectonics.

There’s a deep satisfaction in watching two giants of the genre riding out together in style. It’s true that both Scott and McCrea took a premature retirement (though McCrea would come back years later). The sentiment being, “why not quit when you’re ahead?” and when you look at the landscape of westerns and where they were headed, Ride the High Country is a perfect cantilever jutting out into the great unknown.

Because most important of all and crucial to understanding this inherently American genre is some sense of a moral code — good and evil that must always be grappled with in the hearts and minds of any man who gets on a horse and takes to the West. That’s Ride the High Country at its finest revealing how muddled this tradition would become even in a few years time. It was the direction of the new west still untrod that Peckinpah’s film openly anticipates.

4/5 Stars

 

Great Day in The Morning (1956) and Owen Pentecost

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The backdrop is important to understand where we’re at in America’s history. It’s the 1860s. We’re in the Colorado Territory but it’s the eve of the most egregious war that ever was fought on American soil. Already blood is boiling between diehard Northerners and the Secessionists who want nothing better than to bury each other under a foot of dirt.

We get a taste of it in a man name Zeb who helps save another man’s life from marauding Indians only to turn right around and wish he’d left him for dead upon hearing he’s from North Carolina. However, he’s not the one giving orders. He and a more reserved companion, with a covert mission of his own, are working under hardy Virginia Mayo who is intent on setting up a dress shop out west. She obliges the stranger, the wonderfully named Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack) and he gladly joins their peculiar company.

When they get to town, Pentecost challenges a local saloonkeeper (Raymond Burr) in a high stakes poker game and in the last hand winds up owning the place. As a result, he’s made few friends on either side of the brooding town except for the flirtatious chorus girl Boston (Ruth Roman) who frequents the joint and stacks the deck in his favor.

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He takes up with his brethren below the Mason-Dixon line because he’s heard rumblings that they have a payload of gold and no way to get it back home. Their goal is to use it to bankroll the early stages of the inevitable war. Pentecost is no rebel and no patriot. He’s purely in business for himself and that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable character given the present climate. Because he ends up being an outsider to both contingents.

Instead, he looks to start a revival, preaching a gospel of gold as he’s got a lot of stakes in his ownership, which have yet to be excavated. Though most people around hate his guts, some are in desperate need of money. He lets everyone know he won’t tolerate any double crossing and yet it ends in the inevitable. One man is left for dead and it means very little to Pentecost until the orphaned son comes west, oblivious of the fate of his father or by whose hand. Pentecost takes him under his wing, foregoing to tell the boy about the precise events behind his father’s untimely demise.

He has no sentimental lumps in his throat about going off to war. His only goal is staying alive and he has quite the test ahead with Fort Sumter surrendering and the territory overrun with bloodthirsty Union men as it is. The northern loyalists come to his saloon with one thing on their minds. Making “The Rebels” pay by filling them full of lead. Hanging is too good for them.

But violence only sows more violence and hate still more hate. The collateral damage is far-reaching. The minister (Regis Toomey) watches the world continually shot to hell around him and he puts his hands up and runs into the fray to be some voice of peace even as he too is affected.

A daring escape is finally undertaken with the Union soldiers camped out nearby looking to gun them down decisively if they won’t surrender their goods. It ends up not mattering. The wagons loaded with gold take off in the cover of the night as the loyal Northerners look to chase them down led by the Union officers who have been tasked with the assignment.

It’s at this point that Pentecost finally seems to get a noble streak. In one sense, we see a certain amount of gallantry even on the verge of such a traumatic war but there are also tones that are unquestionably, even morbidly dark. It’s as if to suggest that war might bring out heroism in people but it can also bring out our very worst tendencies too. It’s just our innate nature as human beings.

It seems such a long distance that we have traversed since those opening shots on the brightly lit plains, one newcomer, a lady giving the orders, and two men who will turn out to be deeply invested in this newly forged war. The Civil War changes the entire complexion of the film by its end, even the mores of our main character.

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Cinematographer William E. Snyder boasts chiaroscuro color photography that’s so easy to take for granted because it bathes most of the picture, particularly the later scenes where it seems like more and more drama unfolds during the evening hours.

Part of the reason there’s little to no fanfare around a picture such as this is it’s wholly counterintuitive for B-grade entertainment to be formalistically stylish but that’s what Tourneur always seemed capable of since the days of Cat People (1942). It’s little different here and in one of his final westerns, he continues shooting beautiful sequences with storylines that don’t have any right to be.

There are interludes where Great Day in The Morning has rather peculiar beats and one could say the ending comes early or it’s anticlimactic or it didn’t matter, to begin with. Any one of those conclusions could, in fact, be correct but regardless, some might be taken just as I was with this unassuming oater.

It’s buried movies like this keeping hungry cinephiles always searching for a new delight. It doesn’t have to be a glowing success but if it even momentarily sparkles with shards of inspiration while bringing together a fine cast, we have a winner. Maybe I’m just an ardent Tourneur fan or have a soft spot for Ruth Roman and Virginia Mayo, not to mention the western genre as a whole. Either way, I have few qualms in liking this outing for precisely these isolated reasons.

3.5/5 Stars

Stranger on Horseback (1955) with Judge Joel McCrea

Stranger_on_Horseback_film_poster.jpgI didn’t know my Grandpa too well because he passed away when I was fairly young but I always remembered hearing that he really enjoyed reading Louis L’Amour. It’s not much but a telling statement nonetheless. I’ve read and seen Hondo (1953), which stars John Wayne and Geraldine Fitzgerald, and yet I’d readily proclaim Stranger on Horseback the finest movie adaptation of an L’Amour novel.

Exhibit A is Joel McCrea as a circuit judge, highly principled but firm in his dealings. He’s not simply an idealist either also having the guts to back up his philosophy, packing a gun and walloping thugs when it’s called for. He comes off as an irreproachable, unstoppable enactor of justice — a truly fascinating hero to stand front and center in a western.

Exhibit B has to be one of the most underrated directors of this period in Jacques Tourneur who not only showed an early penchant for low budget black and white horror but in a handful of color westerns, he showcased an equal affinity for visual filmmaking. Shot in Anscolor, Stranger on Horseback is quite the looker, encapsulating the 1950s western landscapes of old. No budget is too minuscule and no runtime too short for Tourneur to make an interesting picture.

The man rides past the unmistakable images of a pine box and a makeshift funeral. The dead man and the reasons for his death are still to be told. However, it becomes apparent very quickly that he was gunned down.

John Carradine leads the welcoming committee as the local attorney and stooge who is very conveniently on the Bannerman payroll and therefore in the family’s pocket. Because in a small place like this hidden away from the long arm of the national government, the Bannerman family and their associates remain king and they have their hand in everything.

The crotchety Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire) is looking to buy out the judge and invite him over to dinner to straighten him out about the killing that took place. He actually meets Judge Thorne and realizes full-well that’s not going to happen with such a principled man. For once there’s someone who isn’t afraid of him, even if he should be.

There’s his niece Amy Lee (Miroslava) who’s handy with a pistol and though she’s on the verge of marrying a feckless local boy, there’s a sense that he cannot give her anything. She is too strong like Bannerman. She needs a man who can match her self-assured toughness.

But it is Tom (Kevin McCarthy) the cocky, smart-aleck son who the judge forcibly takes to the local jailhouse to hold him for the murder of another man. Thorn’s put a target on his back and he knows that the retribution of Bannerman will come swiftly if he cannot be bought out.

He gets the support of the local sheriff (Emile Meyer) who’s eager to shed the apathy that the town breeds and back a man with real guts who will stand by his gun. That’s attractive to him and so if no one else stands up, the Judge has one friend. Meanwhile, he rustles up a few clandestine witnesses to testify against the Bannerman boy because they saw what happened and though initially reluctant they agree to testify since it is the right thing.

With the nearest speck of civilization and with it the nearest courtroom being in the town of Cottonwood 47 miles away, it’s inevitable that Bannerman will send his cronies after the small caravan to stop them in their tracks. It looks to be a daunting proposition at best but again, the Judge never balks.

The finale is all but cut short on an abrupt even awkward note much as we suspected. Our hero has been met and his bluff has been called. But we soon realize since he has been a brazen and thoroughly scrupulous man thus far, he’s not about to change anytime soon. So the final outcomes might surprise just as much as they captivate in a mere matter of minutes.

The question remains, why does the judge go through all this trouble? Is it some vendetta that has him out for vengeance? Is he doing it to prove his stature or receive the admiration of a woman? Is he simply a fellow who’s a stickler for rules and regulations? We never know for sure. Of course, there are obvious markers.

Our best hint comes out of another man’s mouth as he reminds his daughter, “There’s right and there’s wrong and when you see the difference you’ve just got to speak up.” In Judge Thorn, McCrea has brought to life a man who holds to precisely those moral tenets.

He puts his safety in jeopardy, he makes himself unpopular and foregoes major payoffs that could help him live comfortably. All because his view of justice and of right and wrong are so lucid he sees no other way of going about his duties. Let there be more men in our world like the Judge. Not sticklers but men of immense integrity.

Stranger on Horseback is a testament to small-scale westerns that have the guts and the certain level of ingenuity to stand out and weather the ultimate test of time.  Dig it out of obscurity, dust off the mothballs, and you might just find yourself in for a pleasant outing.

3.5/5 Stars

Colorado Territory (1949): High Sierra on Horseback

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For me, it’s fascinating to consider directors who did not simply direct remakes but they actually reworked their earlier films. Prominent examples are, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B. DeMille, and Frank Capra, just to name a few.

The reasons could range from any number of things. Maybe they could command higher production values or harbored a desire to reexamine or improve on themes they had tackled previously. In the case of Howard Hawks, he even amazingly returned to the same basic narrative three times over as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo respectively. That’s quite the feat even if it initially appears a tad repetitive. However, watch the films and it does feel like you are seeing an altogether different entity each time, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory fits somewhere in there as a western that very much has two feet to stand on and the fact it was based off the director’s earlier work High Sierra, starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, feels nearly inconsequential. It’s not so much that there is no space to begin comparing the two. It’s more so the latter film, given its new cast and a new location, genuinely feels like an entirely different animal. Yes, we still have Walsh at the helm but the canvas and the language being utilized is essentially different. So from thenceforward, I will treat it as such.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to western scenery capturing the raw majesty of the rock faces as men on horseback make their way across the planes of God’s country. This certainly is no gangster movie. The distinctions are made straightaway.

We meet Jeff McQueen (Joel McCrea) for the first time in a jail cell where he’s been stowed for his notorious exploits as a bank robber. However, an old friend keeps a promise and gets him out of the clink so he can pull one last job.

It feels like an uncharacteristic role for McCrea, in one sense, but he still fills the boots of his character with his typical principled outlook. McQueen, at this point, has had time to think and favors settling down and carving out a new life for himself with a stretch of farmland, a pretty wife, and a life of honest sweat and toil.

On an outgoing stage, he makes the acquaintance of a hopeful fellow from back east (Henry Hull) who’s also looking to make a new life for his daughter (Dorothy Malone) and himself out west. His philosophy is epitomized by the statement, “The sun travels west and so does opportunity.” He’s intent on finding the Promised Land and even as his daughter remains slightly skeptical, their life appeals to McQueen deeply.

What follows is an epic introduction of our antihero’s attributes, single-handedly righting a runaway stagecoach while fending off incoming bandits with an assured fearlessness. Even in these moments, McQueen cannot completely disown what he is or shed the years of experience he has accrued. He’s a hardened and whip-smart man whether it’s on horseback or handling a revolver. He’s a real man’s man.

So when he finally arrives in the rubble of a ghost town, serving as a hideout, he’s quick to cut the two young bucks waiting for him down to size. One’s your prototypical hothead (John Archer) looking to have it out at the drop of a pin and the other (James Mitchell) is strangely eloquent, though no less treacherous.

In his vast history of bank jobs, McQueen’s met many like them and it speaks to something that he’s probably the only one who made it out alive. Everyone else is either dead or rotting in prison. He’s not a man to take chances or make mistakes because if he had, he would have been dead long ago.

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It’s part of the reason, despite his compatriots’ objections, he tells their gal pal Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a fiery former saloon singer, to leave their company. He’s not afraid of her getting in the way. On the contrary, he’s worried the other two outlaws will find reason to quarrel over her. That’s the last complication he needs now.

And yet Colorado impresses him and ultimately convinces McQueen to let her stay. She’s pumped full of a dogged tenacity making her persistently tough. He likes that and, of course, she’s beautiful because Mayo is sweltering even in her earthy, lacquered state.

If the dichotomy is not obvious already, the weathered outlaw has two girls and two lives calling out to him. He must dispense with one for good before he can take up the other for all posterity. At this point, the story is barreling towards the long-awaited bank job. We know what it means.

As the events unfold, he’s always one step ahead of everyone moment after moment. It’s thrilling to watch really because McQueen’s such a savvy, completely pragmatic man. This constant awareness makes him likable. He feels as much of a hero as he’s a villain and that’s as much as a testament to McCrea gritty candor as anything else — a straight arrow as he always is.

No matter, he outwits his two accomplices and flees the posse looking to string them up with the price tag on his head growing steadily bigger. There is a sense that time is running out on his dreams. He also comes to find things were not as good for his stagecoach acquaintances as they expected. For once in his life, he begins to gamble.

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First, on the prospect they will take him in even as a fugitive on the run and then in his own struggles to protect Colorado. What we get is literally Virginia Mayo versus Dorothy Malone as they have it out in a stellar log cabin struggle, the picture beginning to spiral toward imminent doom.

A harrowing finale takes us back inevitably to the Valley of Death with McQueen climbing over cavernous rock faces in a last-ditch effort to flee his pursuers. It’s easy to see the foregone conclusion. We don’t want it to be but it’s hopeless and Colorado Territory gives us that odd sensation only certain stories can effectively manage.

It made us empathize with a purported scourge on society, wishing that he might find love and escape to a life of anonymity as he had always dreamed. But we knew before it ever arrived such a dream was never to be. Does the ending surprise us? Not necessarily. That doesn’t make it any less bitter as two tragic hands clasp each other one final time in a desperate attempt to stay together.

4/5 Stars

Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

Barbary Coast (1936)

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The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

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Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rio Grande (1950)

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Rio Grande is the final chapter in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. It is less of a continuous narrative, held together instead through the maintaining of a similar spirit as well as analogous thematic elements and characters. Much of this must be attributed to Ford and Merian C. Cooper who produced the pictures through their Argosy Pictures label. Furthermore, much of the director’s stock company makes a showing as per usual headed by John Wayne as Colonel Kirby Yorke.

While, to some extent, the earlier picture Fort Apache was also about the sometimes prickly marriage between duty and familial obligation, it was all but thrown to the wayside in the end. In other words, the maniacal resolve of Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), as a military leader, took precedence over his relationship with his daughter (Shirley Temple), which in itself was a statement.

However, one could claim Rio Grande is a simpler picture with far less complicated aspirations in its own attempt to examine alienated families. To get a grasp of the scenario, three figures must be brought to the fore.  Colonel Yorke (Wayne) is stationed on the Texas border tasked with defending folks from raids instigated by belligerent Apaches. But such a lifestyle can be difficult on relationships and Yorke has long been estranged from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) who has never quite forgiven him for numerous past grievances in their rocky courtship.

We find out in passing they had a son together though Yorke hasn’t seen the boy for years and he’s surprised to find out his own son flunked out of West Point for failing arithmetic. The next big shock comes with the new class of recruits, requested by Yorke to aid in keeping up defenses against the onslaught of Indian raids.

One of the recruits just happens to be his son Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), who by no decision of his own has managed to wind up at his father’s outpost. From their first reunion, both men make it clear there will be no favoritism or show of kinship. As far as both sides are concerned, it’s duty first and they hardly know each other anyway. There seems little need to start now.

The picture does have some lively idle chatter in the background provided by the ever boisterous and larger-than-life Irish teddy bear Victor McLaglen tasked with getting the new recruits up to snuff. Aside from Trooper Yorke, he is befriended by Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) and southerner Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) who both prove their aptitude in taking on jumps in the manner of the Ancient Romans. Music is also integral to the life of a cavalryman in tents or around campfires, in the form of ballads or down-home toe-tappers. Song follows them everywhere.

But the moment of greatest import arrives with Mrs. Yorke as she pays a call on her husband and comes to fetch her boy. She plans to take him back home with her by buying him out and removing him from the life for good. It’s full of contentious and complicated feelings. But what we realize is there still is a fleeting love between the couple. They are on the receiving end of an after dark serenade from the Sons of the Pioneers and Kathleen notes Kirby has grown more thoughtful with age.

Still, there’s no denying his inherent sense of duty that has left a path of destruction, both physical and relational. After an abrupt nighttime raid, Yorke resolves to send the women and children within the encampment away to safety, except they too get ambushed en route. The children are abducted. He has some choices to make. A countermeasure is now in order to extract the children from the enemy.

It’s very much a concrete objective and yet taken in light of what has already transpired, we can easily see this act of necessitated bravery being tied closely to the roots of family identity. What we are willing to do for our sons and our wives or to make our parents proud? All of these issues come under scrutiny and must be resolved in a tangible way.

When everything is said and done, Wayne and O’Hara together are what does it for me. We leave them grinning from ear-to-ear as O’Hara playfully spins her parasol next to her man, newly reunited. There’s something electric surging between them — that intangible whats-it all the great screen couples were imbued with.

Though smaller scale and relatively compact, Rio Grande is no less a western from John Ford. One might concede Ford was going through the motions as he had compromised and made this picture solely so he could realize his next passion project The Quiet Man (1952) (also starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Victor McLaglen). As they say, the rest was history.

3.5/5 Stars