Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Man Without A Star (1955): Kirk Douglas Drifting

ManWithoutAStar1955Poster.jpgThere are few better ways to get yourself into the spirit of a western than the majestic gusto of Frankie Laine (self-parodied in hilarious fashion by Blazing Saddles). It’s the segue into a mythical world.

I assumed Kirk Douglas would be the fellow lacking a tin star. And yet the title is a bit more poetic, if not altogether helpful. He’s a staple of westerns just as the plot he finds himself ensconced in is an archetype. Dempsey Rae (Douglas) is the quintessential drifter, constantly on the move. He never had time enough to look up at the constellations and settle on his place among them.

Not surprisingly, all things in the film revolve around Douglas who brings his usual vigor to the role. A fun dose of jocularity tones down his usual intensity, finding time enough to even knock back a few tunes on the banjo. Because, if I’m completely honest, he’s not the first man you think of as a western star. Not the features or the physique.

Still, he’s able to inhabit the role such that he spills out into everything and holds down the film with his very presence. If not an immediately recognizable cowboy, he is a larger-than-life talent.  His part in the story begins in a cattle car where he winds up sharing his open-air compartment with a callow kid from Texas (William Campbell). They witness Jack Elam knife a man, turn him in to the authorities, and get out of further trouble as stowaways.

They stop at the nearest town just passing through with the two men joining forces and becoming instantly chummy. The older man mentoring the young buck — keeping him out of trouble, drubbing him up a job, and teaching him how to shoot. Fancy tricks don’t matter. You’ve got to be quick and sure on the handle. Furthermore, they keep each other constantly amused, a fine example being when the naive wrangler walks into the local saloon in the most hilarious new duds.

In fact, aside from the opening run-in with the authorities, this is a thoroughly amicable storyline, at least until barbed wire comes into the picture. One of the local ranching families aren’t bad folks by any means, but they certainly have a different way of thinking.

There’s a sense it all goes back to the mythos of the open range — nothing to stop you, nothing to drag you down — so you remain free. This is the type of idealized rhetoric Dempsey speaks in. The wire gets in the way of this tradition, finding a hard-and-fast way to section off and also commodify the land.

Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen) is the foreman, a decent man who brings the boys on as cowhands to work The Triangle, owned by some unnamed investor from back east. Among other luxuries, they look with awe at the new-fangled inventions like indoor plumbing with a toilet inside the house. They’re in for an even greater surprise when their new boss turns out to be a woman named Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Crain is domineering as the cattle magnate and incumbent owner of the Triangle. Without question, it’s one of her most authoritative and thus, one of her most intriguing roles. Behind Douglas, she is the most commanding force as she looks to surround herself with cunning enablers, aspiring to oversaturate the pastures with her stock and gobble up as much wealth as she possibly can.

It’s the age-old conundrum. Douglas is smitten with her assured beauty, even to the proposition of marriage, and yet he can’t carry himself to stay with her as she becomes more and more consumed with her ambitions. The cattle wars end up being fought more by outsiders than those at its center.

Richard Boone and a new crowd are called in to give the cattle matron a more persuasive bargaining power. They rough up Rae something awful, leaving him hog-tied like a pig after one sound beating. Meanwhile, the formerly inseparable Texans are now on opposite sides of a feud. All of a sudden, Jeff’s not the callow laughing stock with a dumb grin on his face. He knows how to kill, losing a level of innocence. It becomes friend against friend.

Claire Trevor is a favorite, and she could play the hooker with a heart of gold part with her eyes closed.  Apart from being the obvious counterpoint to Crain, she is the friend and the romantic interest Rae can fall back on. She will always always have him unconditionally. She actually makes the dead-end role into something, but it’s a shame she’s not given something with more heft or narrative significance.

We have this continued swinging of allegiances. So it’s not a new storyline with its cattle and factions — disagreement over land, and guns looking to muscle their way in by railroading the competition. All of these elements are easily derivative from previous oaters.

But the cast is a joy to watch in action for what they are able to bring to the scenario. It makes for an engaging interplay as characters are turned against each other and stretched to their limits, just enough to make it compelling without breaking with convention too radically.

Expect there to be the preemptive happy ending where reconciliation is discovered and good gives evil a sound drubbing. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s the drifter’s journey to get there holding our primary interest.

3.5/5 Stars

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

Rawhide (1951): Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward

220px-Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film).jpgThough it’s easy for this film to be overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, in retrospect, Rawhide is a spare outpost western nevertheless loaded with tension and talent. It is set against the backdrop of a network of stagecoaches transporting mail across the continental United States.

Rawhide Station is one such spot looked after by old-hand stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchannan). He has been entrusted with training up young Easterner Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), whose father is division manager of the overland mail. This is a bit of on-the-job training before he moves back to the comfort of the East.

Power is slightly past his matinee idol prime, but he can still pretty nearly fake it with his dashingly handsome good looks. Meanwhile, Buchannan is always ready to be called upon, in a pinch, to play such a scraggly type, aided by his gravel-filled throat. It gives him instant credibility.

For whatever reason, Henry Hathaway is rarely remembered as a director, but when you take stock of his work, both in westerns and noir films, he really does have quite the catalog to his name over a very prodigious career spanning decades. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols had a prominent career of us own as did cinematographer Milton Krasner. Thus, the technical credentials on the film are quite an impressive array.

But what makes Rawhide actually take as a contentious tale of the West is the rest of the cast. My, oh my, is the cast good. It’s stacked with a steady, reliable group who know their parts and play them handily. It’s tough to choose a standout.

Because Owens finds himself being held hostage by a pack of escaped convicts on the trail for gold. It just so happens a feisty young woman (Susan Hayward), toting a child back east, also has the unpleasant fortune of getting caught in their crosshairs.

This man, still fresh-behind-the-ears, is forced to grow up right quick in the face of such a dubious bunch. Hugh Marlowe plays an exceptionally perceptive bandit calling the shots, saddled by the trio of incompetents he broke out of prison with.

Jack Elam, with that wall-eyed stare of his, made a living for himself as one of the great heavies of all time, right up there with Lee Van Cleef. Because their eyes say it all. He’s the most lascivious of the bunch, prone to violent acts and leering at pretty women. Zimmerman has his hands full because while his other two cronies are older and more obedient, they’re no less dumb. Dean Jagger plays a near grandfatherly old coot while George Tobias is the scruffy foreigner Gratz.

As we settle in for the long hall, Rawhide becomes a game of survival in pursuit of incremental victories like trying to sneak S.O.S. notes to incoming travelers. Then, they manage to swipe a knife from the kitchen to begin chiseling an exit out of their room on the road to escape. All the while, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about staying alive so they can find the gun dropped out by the corrals. It’s the faintest of hopes

They are further concerned with protecting the young progeny Vinnie has vowed to take care of ever since the passing of her sister in California. It all matters because each individual piece is a single entity in this entire patchwork of cat and mouse — a chess match playing out on all sides. What hangs in the balance are the lives of all those involved. When those are the constant stakes, it’s extremely difficult to have a tedious story.

In a single instance, the tripwires start going off, and the bodies start tumbling. We hold our breath to see who will make it out alive in such a precarious showdown. It plays its hand well. Power readily accepts the challenge at hand with grit and determination, while Susan Hayward has nerves of iron packing a shotgun to finish the job.  The harrowing adventure gives us two stalwart heroes in the end.

In considering our leads, it does feel as if Power is making a concerted effort to maintain his box office pull, while Rawhide feels more like a stepping stone for Susan Hayward as her career progressed to continually more interesting parts in the 50s. But in neither case does it feel like we’re dealing with preening stars. They ably claw and fight for survival with the pack of criminals in their stead.

I will admit the way the story is bookended as just another tale along the “jackass mail” line from San Francisco to St. Louis, “Oh Susannah” playing in the background, somehow cheapens what we’ve witnessed. It seems to momentarily lose its credibility as a grind-it-out western. Maybe we can just say it’s faulty advertising and leave it at that. Otherwise, Rawhide has more in common with the lean constructions of Budd Boetticher than any kind of superficial high-adventure cowboy picture. It comes with real guts.

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

Jubal (1956)

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There’s no doubt about it. Jubal boasts absolutely gorgeous imagery and how can you miss with a backdrop as majestic as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Its looming grandeur is evident in just about every single exterior shot — a continuous hallmark of classical frontier visions.

This element alone will quickly cause many western aficionados to recall one of the finest in the genre, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which was also shot in the same area and consequently, exhibits a broadly similar plotline. However, that can be attributed to the fact westerns often busy themselves with tales of lone drifters riding toward new destinations in an effort to escape some unnamed force in their past. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is molded out of the same archetype.

Except Jubal winds up at the cattle ranch of the welcoming Sherp Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), who finds the other man frostbitten and proceeds to give him shelter and a cup of coffee. That’s just Sherp’s way, even though he’s a fairly prosperous man with a pretty wife (Valerie French), he’s instantly likable and beloved by everyone, in spite of his good-natured prattling.

The figure instantly positioned as an antagonist is Pinky (Rod Steiger) who right off the bat accuses the other man of smelling of sheep. He holds sheepherders in disdain but soon feels like his position on the ranch is under threat. Because despite being a newcomer, Jubal instantly makes an impression as a reserved but nevertheless trustworthy and hardworking ranch hand.

He gains the favor of Sherp even as he’s bent on moving on. That’s his nature. Delmer Daves serves as both screenwriter and director, adapting a story bearing the strains of Shakespeare’s Othello but again, like comparison’s with Shane, it’s true most stories have narratives scouring similar cisterns for inspiration. What matters most is what they offer us that is unique.

Ultimately, Jubal does decide to stay on a spell and the consequences are not unfelt. He conceals a buried hurt that supplies our character conflict. In some regards, as best as I can describe it, he fits too neatly into a box as it all comes gushing out when talking with a pretty ingenue played by Felicia Farr. As he discloses his deep-seated hurt, Jube readily acknowledges he’s never shared this boyhood trauma with anyone else. There’s something about her genial innocence setting him instantly at ease.

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Her parents are part of an unnamed religious caravan searching for the Promised Land and Jubal is instrumental in allowing them to stay on the ranch, even as Pinky fights for them to move along. He’s continually looking to belittle and lessen Jubal in Horgan’s eyes by any means possible.

Meanwhile, the seductive onslaughts turned toward Jubal, coupled with slanderous verbal assaults from a jealous rival, look to take the man down one way or another. Yet he will do nothing to compromise himself. He stands firm with integrity but like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, you know he will be blamed for something he had no hand in.

The whole film is really an exhibition in differing acting styles rubbing up against each other. Rod Steiger, of course, immersed himself in “The Method,” famously playing alongside Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). In Jubal, you can very easily see the early shades of Officer Gillespie, though Pinky is arguably worse as an animalistic brute with a bur in his backside.

You can also easily see how his animosity could have spilled over into everything and soured his working relationship with Ford and Borgnine, who maintain a more naturalistic even intuitive style. Regardless, each man feels well-suited to their respective parts.

The same can be said of John Dierkes as well and Noah Beery Jr., as genial as ever, playing on the fiddle as another ranch hand. Charles Bronson at first seems a curious even suspicious character although his purpose becomes evident as he becomes the go-between to vouch for others, knowing both the worlds of the religious pilgrims and the ranchers. Jack Elam is features though he doesn’t have much to do while Victoria French’s role relies heavily on her being a tantalizing seductress, constantly coaxing Jubal into some sort of romantic tryst.

The film is a testament to the intrigue found in continuous antipathy and an almost fatalistic sense of powerlessness in the face of inevitable doom. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like Jube will never be able to win.

My main qualm, however, is in the ending. I’m used to abrupt endings but the film seems to have delegated its time in the wrong ways. The beauty of the film thus far was its smoldering potential threat which led to some invariably dark turns. By the final juncture, we essentially know what will happen but we relish them coming to fruition in a cathartically cinematic fashion.

While Jubal gets the girl and clears his name, he only gets a very brief showdown with the continual thorn in his side, Pinky, before the doctor comes out of the shed to pronounce death with the other man being guilty of certain indiscretions.

So in very basic terms what could have been a more thrilling culmination is all but cut short. Vindication is made easy. Otherwise, the picture boils to the end thanks to the maddening rage of Steiger, which is capable of twisting every minor detail into more ammunition to try and sway the mob and bury another man in his premature grave.

The necessity is that Ford is and remains throughout the film a white knight, never has a lapse of character, and even goes after the good girl. It’s the circumstances that are constantly against him. It makes for a tumultuous and repeatedly helpless state of being for the entirety of the film. The blip before “The End” loses a bit of this tension but up to that point, Jubal makes good as a friction-filled western drama.

4/5 Stars

The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The title says it all. James Stewart is the eponymous stranger who rides into town delivering a load of supplies to an isolated outpost called Coronado. But that’s not his main business at hand. He’s searching for someone because he has some personal matters to take care of. In this small regard, Stewart heads a cast of enigmatic characters with hidden agendas and histories we piece together over time.

Within the opening frames what becomes evident immediately are the million dollar skies and cotton candy clouds captured in CinemaScope and vibrant Technicolor by veteran cinematographer Charles Lang.

At the local general store, the stranger meets the demure shopkeeper Barbara Waggoman who welcomes him to town though she seems less than thrilled to receive his goods as she’s intent on closing up her father’s shop since he died. Otherwise, she tips him off to the salt reservoir outside of town so he and his partner Charley (Wallace Ford) can make some more dough. I’ll always hold a soft spot for Cathy O’Donnell since The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and nothing has changed here. She is as soft-spoken and delightful as ever.

Unwittingly this sets them up with the film’s reoccurring point of conflict. Because they begin mining the resource not knowing it’s technically located on the infamous Barb Ranch run by a ruthless cattle baron (Donald Crisp) and yet he’s nothing compared to his crazed son toting an inferiority complex.

He rides in on them with his band of heavies and proceeds to raze all their wagons and shoot every last mule they have. Talk about overkill for mining salt. It’s a textbook overreaction that’s seemingly uncalled for but it only makes Dave Waggonman’s other behavior more believable.

In town, fisticuffs erupt in the middle of a cattle stall as Lockhart handily takes on his adversaries thanks to the help of a plucky woman named Kate Canady. With it Aline MacMahon makes a crackling entrance as one of the film’s most joyously rousing characters.

The picture continues to be a contentious family affair on the whole. The quiet strength of Donald Crisp resonates as a hard man who you know holds onto some regrets for the empire he has forged. Not least among them the entitled softness of his only son. At the same time, he loves the boy dearly and will do anything to maintain his land holdings.

Arthur Kennedy rarely gets a fair shake as an acting talent but yet again much like Bend of The River, he is a vital component of this particular story. Here he is Vic Hansbro, Alec’s loyalist workhorse and the man trusted to rein in Dave. Though not a blood relation Vic has been with the family for a long time and is planning to marry Barbara. He’s a great deal more rational than Dave but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to fight for what’s in his best interest whether it’s against Lockhart or his longtime boss. He’s not about to be pushed around.

A single moment seared into our consciousness unfolds after the boy Dave ambushes Lockhart only to get shot in the hand. But he’s not about to take it like a man. Once his cronies are there to back him up he makes his rival pay in one of the most vindictive scenes out of the Mann canon. Jimmy Stewart gets treated to some eye for an eye maliciousness which only makes his personal vendetta smolder.

He’s intent on discovering the man who’s been giving the Apaches repeating rifles. Because he has a personal stake in it as do most everyone else in the story. It gets him in trouble nosing around. On one such occasion, Canady fishes him out of prison for the back alley stabbing of a man (Jack Elam) that he didn’t commit. As recompense, she asks him to finally accept the offer to be foreman of her ranch and he reluctantly agrees.

You see she has long been a thorn in the side of Alec. She’s been one of the few people he hasn’t pushed out of the territory. But maybe it has something to do with their past history together.

The final act brings everything to a stellar apex as Alec catches wind of the missing shipment of rifles and Vic begins to lose his cool as he does everything in his power to protect his boss, harming him in the process. The stage is set for a showdown, Will finally able to make his peace with Apaches also out on the warpath. It exceeds our expectations in typical Mann fashion.

Though regrettably they would never work on another picture together again based on a minor creative disagreement, James Stewart and Anthony Mann left us a stellar body of work including a line of five western pictures that remain a harrowing testament to the genre. If it must be the end, then The Man from Laramie is a fine capstone to go out with.

4/5 Stars

Wichita (1955)

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The more and more I get to know Jacques Tourneur the more it seems that he was content in making films on his terms no matter the budget or restrictions. His ambitions were not to win awards or garner acclaim yet he was a master craftsman painting in shadows, intrigue, and vibrant strokes.

Known in his early days for his lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton on low budget horror movies that still stand the test of time as inspired works, the high watermark of his career is indubitably the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). By the 1950s he had settled into making westerns, swashbucklers, crime pictures, and pretty much anything else handed him.

The striking realization is that he never really moved up the Hollywood totem pole which makes me suspect it was partially by choice. He was content with a certain stratosphere of production and when you watch a picture like Wichita you can understand why.

It takes many of the mythical staples of The West and insets them within the contemporary Hollywood framework that generated a lore of its own.The lineage that gave us a plethora of television classics like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others that I either failed to mention or don’t know.

The tradition runs rich and deep. Where people address a hero like Wyatt Earp by his full name and there’s some sort of knowing comprehension. Where good and evil are unquestionable entities that we recognize outright. Where a final showdown is all but inevitable as is the town’s prettiest girl falling for our hero.

Wichita is such a picture and yet by some method of ingenuity and delight in his craft Tourneur makes it into something worth remembering. Part of that must be attributed to a script by Daniel B. Ullman which manages to have time for a big reversal and some social commentary in what otherwise could have been droll entertainment.

Meanwhile, though Joel McCrea might look a little decrepit and over the hill for such a role especially opposite a beaming Vera Miles, there’s still that same amiability and honesty that he was good for. James Stewart would look much the same opposite Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But like that picture, the themes add a depth of character to the western making it a transcendent medium since it’s as American a genre as they come and it provides the perfect breeding grounds for allegorical tales.

Because before we meet our hero we meet a group of cowboys who are driving their cattle toward the rapidly growing destination of Wichita, Kansas. With the railroad turning it into a pitstop, the city shows no signs of slowing down and turning into a ghost town. Instead it aspires to be the next big Mecca in the Midwest bringing all sorts of people — the Babylon on the Arkansas River without the hanging gardens.

One such traveler rides as a solitary figure toward the cattlemen in one of the film’s most canonical shots and they oblige by offering him a meal. However, two of their band are mighty eager to swipe their visitor’s saddlebags when he beds down for the night.

What follows is a preview of coming attractions and even as Earp (McCrea) goes on ahead to Wichita we know intuitively that there will be another confrontation. In the meantime, he rides into town under the banner reading: “Anything Goes in Wichita” and local floozies waving giddily as they pass in covered wagons.

As best as I can describe it the town is alive. Positively bustling with activity and it makes everything in the frame more interesting with this ever dynamic ambiance playing out in the background. I’d like to think that is what Tourneur is able to offer the material.

While we bide our time we watch Earp looking around for something to invest his talents in. He befriends the towns newsmakers a stodgy old veteran (Wallace Ford) and his ambitious understudy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).

Earp also ends up thwarting a bank raid raising the eyebrows of the local big whigs for his prowess with a six-shooter. Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) the man responsible for bringing the railroad to Wichita offers him the job of Marshall which Earp gently refuses on multiple occasions.

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Twice already we have seen him use his gun but he embodies the archetype, an agile marksman who is hesitant to use his firearms and only under extreme provocation. But the final trigger comes when the cowboys from before roll into town with a hearty welcome. However, when their merrymaking devolves into belligerent hooliganism that leaves a young boy as collateral damage, Earp is finally ready to pick up the badge.

It ends up being a battle between the business-minded community members with political clout and a man whose number one priority is public safety. Others like Doc Black (a wily Edgar Buchannan) and even McCoy are willing to make concessions for what is termed progress but Earp once he’s taken his post is a hardliner.

He won’t budge an inch which is an admirable trait even as it doesn’t buy him many supporters. But sometimes that’s what the great men do and it is what few men seem willing to do now. Conceding their popularity for the greater good. However, I can hardly criticize any man for such a stance unless I convict myself too. As McCrea asserts it’s, “Not a question of who’s right but what’s right.” That’s the bottom line and he sticks to it.

In the final shot of Wichita as husband and wife ride off in their carriage together the image is all too familiar evoking for me High Noon (1952) one of the first westerns that truly moved me on a human level. This picture did much of the same though on a lesser more inconsequential scale. It caused me to place a magnifying glass to issues that we still see the U.S. confronted with right at this very moment.

“If men aren’t carrying guns they cannot shoot each other.” This common sense comes straight from the film and yet you can easily see how it becomes clouded with personal ambitions and polarizing politics. There’s no denying that. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy to shock us into some form of action. The question remains what is the greater good? I feel like it comes into clearer focus when you get hit where you’re the most vulnerable.

4/5 Stars

“Serving God and serving the law are two different things.” ~ Bat Masterson

“To do either one, takes a dedicated man.” ~ Arthur Whiteside

 

 

 

 

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

KCConfidential.jpgSaying that Phil Karlson has a penchant for gritty crime dramas is a gross understatement. And yet here again is one of those real tough-guy numbers he was known for, where all you have to do is follow the trail of cigarette smoke and every punch is palpable–coming right off the screen and practically walloping you across the face.

Like all heist films, there must be a point of inception, however, Kansas City Confidential finds its story after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have split up without a hitch. The man who takes the heat, their fall guy and the unsuspecting stooge is Joe Rolfe (John Payne who is adept at playing such roles) a nobody truck driver and a convict once upon a time.

It seems like the perfect crime as the three hired hands all wore masks and had no connection to each other, except for the stocky and demonstrative Mr. Big, the mastermind behind the whole operation and the one calling the shots. He sends each man off with enough money to tide themselves over until he contacts them to reconvene for their big payoff. Whether or not he will actually cough up the 300,000 clams he owes each of them is quite another story.

Still, each man heads his own way and Joe is getting grilled by the cops day after day in the hopes that he will crack. Finally, he is released, but with no prospects and no job, he sits in a bar stewing in his anger. The story takes it’s next big turn when he follows a lead down to Mexico to tail one of the hoods in on the job Peter Harris (Jack Elam). And although Joe is going in blind, he soon catches wind of the impending rendezvous in Barados and decides he’ll just show up as well, to get to the bottom of the entire mess.

It’s there where he first crosses paths with two other leering hoods, the beady-eyed Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and the silently brooding Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). However, while keeping tabs on these cronies, he keeps company with a budding lawyer Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), who has come to call upon her protective father, the former policeman Tim Foster. If this set up isn’t plain enough already, it certainly becomes increasingly interesting as the gears continue to turn towards the story’s inevitable climax.

Most certainly Kansas City Confidential boasts jarring close-ups, low budget facades and perpetually sweaty faces that accentuate its unsentimental noirish qualities. However, Coleen Gray acts as a more enlightened noir heroine, who does not grovel for her man or weep incessantly at the thought of danger. Instead, she’s training to be a lawyer, and rational but still unequivocally kind. Despite not having a proper meet cute, the chemistry between Gray and Payne still works surprisingly well.

What makes the film inherently more interesting is how the crime is embroiled with family issues. Because, as an audience, we know Mr. Big’s identity: a corrupted cop who got a bum steer and now is going to reap the benefits of setting up some real losers. Still, that doesn’t excuse what he did and Joe got dealt a similarly sorry hand. The fact that Foster’s daughter is involved sheds him in a more humane light and in the same instance makes Joe a more likable figure. In many ways, she brings out the best qualities of both these characters. It’s the darker recesses that lurk behind their characters. Those are made more evident by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand, a real rogues gallery of baddies if there ever was one.

4/5 Stars

Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once_upon_a_Time_in_the_West 2I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.

Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup.  The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.

The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.

James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.

Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.

Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.

At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.

When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.

5/5 Stars

Kiss me Deadly (1955)

kissmedeadly1Set in L.A., the film stars Ralph Meeker as the callous and often corrupt P.I. Mike Hammer, adapted from the Mickey Spillane novels. One night while driving, Hammer picks up a frightened woman who begs him to remember her. They are forced off the road by thugs and the girl is eventually killed. Hammer wakes up in the hospital to his secretary girlfriend Velda (Maxime Cooper). He makes it his priority to find out what the mysterious woman was talking about. He meets up with opposition and a femme fatale, but Hammer keeps on going using strong-armed tactics. He finally tracks down a mysterious whats-it but then discovers that Velda was kidnapped. In the final confrontation, he finally learns who he was looking for and he finds out the consequences of the Pandora’s box in the hands of a deadly female.

Out of most of the prominent works in the canon, Kiss Me Deadly is probably the pulpiest of L.A. Noir. The images are rather like a historical time capsule of 1950’s Los Angeles with locations on Wilshire Blvd., Sunset Blvd, and even near Angels Flight. It has crisp black and white cinematography with many noticeably low angles underlying the sleekness, but also the paranoia wrapped up in this story. It arguably has the queerest cold open and ending of any noir, which I cannot help but remember.

kissmedeadly2Ralph Meeker plays’s Mickey Spillane’s P.I. Mike Hammer to a tee. His husky voice perfectly fits the bravado of Hammer, a misogynistic brute prone to coercive action. Out of all the private gumshoes we’ve met, Hammer is probably the lowest — he’s a real scuzzball.

 Hammer throws women around like playthings and even his girl Velda has a double purpose. Yes, she is a lover, but she also makes a keen asset for business. As a P.I. specializing in divorce cases and marital problems, he’s not below giving business a little help. Velda willingly works on the husbands for him and he’s not above playing around with their wives. It’s a cozy little set-up.

kissmedeadly8That’s Hammer’s level and so when he gets caught up in the story of the mysterious girl Christina (Cloris Leachman), he has no idea what he gotten himself into. It’s a lot bigger than him and when the authorities throw around words like the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, and Trinity he finally understands what its all about, but not really. In essence, Kiss Me Deadly is the quintessential film of paranoia in the Cold War nuclear age. We have a MacGuffin in the form of the mysterious Whats-it, but aside from that, we get few answers. Only a few deaths and some mighty kissmedeadly4destruction.

Kiss Me Deadly has some great characters aside from Hammer and Velma. The thugs are played by the perpetually cross-eyed Jack Elam and the glowering Jack Lambert which turns out to be great casting. Also, the lively Greek-American Nick (Nick Dennis) is a great deal of fun with his enthusiasm and a lot of “Vavavoom!”

It’s an interesting dilemma because I have never loved Kiss Me Deadly, but director Robert Aldrich developed a film that is so persistently interesting. It was a film that was supposed to ruin young viewers for its moral depravity, sensuality and who knows what else. This film literally screams “Remember Me” and honestly I will not be forgetting about it anytime soon.

3.5/5 Stars

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Hammer: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.