The Tin Star (1957)

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You can master a gun if you have the knack. Harder to learn men.” ~ Henry Fonda as Morgan Hickman

A veteran bounty hunter rides into town with a corpse slung over the rear of his horse and gets the whole town gawking. They don’t quite fancy this entrance because they’re about law and order in these parts. Paid guns have no place in the western utopia that they have envisioned.

Obviously, no one in town wants to house such a reprobate and he has no place to bed down his horse at the livery stable either. Finally, he finds room and board with the only folks who have enough congeniality to welcome in a man like him. Because in one sense they are ostracized too, living on the outskirts of town as local pariahs. The single mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) gets by doing needlework in the evenings and trying to keep her son out of mischief. He’s half-Indian. Hence the reason no one wants anything to do with them.

But in this man who seems little more than a hardened killer, they find someone genuine and compassionate when you get to know him. Though initially surprised by the boy’s paternity his kindness doesn’t slacken admitting only that many others grow up hating Indians. They are preached as much by their parents and take it to heart so they can’t hardly change their ways. It’s unfortunate.

I’m not sure if I dare use the term “revisionist western” lest viewers get the wrong idea but seeing of all people gun shy Anthony Perkins as sheriff over a town you realize that something is gravely different with the film’s character types — at least this crucial one. His skittish nature is perfectly-suited along with his boyish looks because, as he soon learns, being a sheriff is not only about what you do but how you look doing it. Being smart, working your mind, and projecting a certain image.

At first, Ben Owens (Perkins) is like everyone else. He sees Hickman only at face value. But soon he gathers there is much to glean from this veteran who is handy with a gun and holds a wealth of knowledge. Most impressively he’s lived long enough to talk about it and that means he must be a pretty smart fellow. He’s become well-versed in human nature.

He looks at Owens, a young gun beholden to the duty thrust upon him, and he sees a dead man walking. He’s not going to last long. Hickman knows it. Ben’s girl (Mary Webster) knows it. Perhaps deep down Ben knows it too.

Finally, he asks the bounty hunter to be his mentor and reluctantly Morg agrees to it because his pupil still has his training wheels on as it were. He’s not ready to stand down the town or confront a hulking heavy like the local bad boy named Bogardus (Neville Brand).

One of the film’s finest creations is the local Doctor Joseph McCord (John McIntyre) who not only pulled strings to get Mrs. Mayfield work but he is keen to play matchmaker with two of the fast-growing babies he brought into the world. Indeed he is well-liked by all on every side.

Mann pulls another stunt, not unlike the one in The Far Country (1954) with the Doc making a grand entry with his horse into town to much fanfare on his birthday. It’s one of the film’s most indelible sequences.

A pair of half-breed brothers are also on the lamb and wanted for a couple of crimes. Bogardus gathers a mob of his own to go after them. But begrudgingly following the advice of Morg who has remained hands-off, the Sheriff decides to track them alone.

Morg lingers behind and ultimately ends up being the one who smokes them out without any bloodshed. He delivers the McGaffey Brothers (including Lee Van Cleef) over to the Sheriff so that justice can be implemented first in the jailhouse then in the courtroom.

But that is just the beginning. The final act takes on an uncanny turn toward a High Noon-like allegory. One man faced with a major opposition and yet resisting to back down. But whether or not that motif is McCarthyism incarnate or not, Mann’s handling of the sequence is arresting.

He sets up the action in such a way that we are standing behind Perkins peeking past his solitary frame. He’s unimposing and spindly standing there on the jail steps with his shotgun but he is a better man than me. The question he must grapple with is where the line between a good man and a dead one exists. Sheriffing is a nervewracking business and most men die young in such an occupation. Mann makes us comprehend exactly why that is.

And yet, in the end, it’s all for naught as the picture collapses too easily lacking that typical hard-edged savagery of Mann’s other pictures with James Stewart. While Dudley Nichol’s high-minded script might be quality stuff for a minor picture, it’s not necessarily the script best-suited for Mann.

He was never one for moralizing. In fact, his best films about isolation or outsiders never seemed to make a point of a racial divide or any other societal issues. It felt like they were very much implicit in the story at hand. They never were didactic instead choosing to viscerally speak to us delivering any themes through mere osmosis.

By no means does that downplay the fine chemistry between Henry Fonda or Anthony Perkins both seemingly impeccably cast. However, The Tin Star is a picture that could have been even more resonant.

3.5/5 Stars

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: High Noon (1952)

highnoon1Drums softly beating. A voice mournfully bellowing,”Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin‘.” It can only mean one thing, the beginning of High Noon, a western that has grown near and dear to my heart in the recent years. And yet how can a western of under 90 minutes mesmerize and cause goose bumps to form time after time? That opening ballad sung so wonderfully and folksy by Tex Ritter is one great reason. It’s a mournful dirge of a song which nevertheless draws us into this film, and personally, I cannot help but belt out a few lines now and then (I’m unashamed to say I know the whole song). After all, it’s this song that reflects the story of our main character Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and reiterations of the tune can be heard throughout for the following hour as we all wait for the noon train.

The song makes it clear that Ben Miller is coming after Kane for sending him to prison. He’s got revenge on the mind and three of his buddies, including his brother, are waiting for his arrival, along with everybody else in town. Meanwhile, the Marshall is about to hang up his badge as it were, because he’s gotten hitched to a pretty young quaker (the estimable Grace Kelly), and they look to settle down with a store in some sleepy town. He’s well-deserving of it after all he’s done and the town stands behind him.

But the news of Miller’s return is no way to start the honeymoon. Still the couple sets off, but Kane turns around realizing he cannot run (I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. For I must face a man who hates me, Or lie a coward, a craven coward; Or lie a coward in my grave).

Thihighnoon4s is the backdrop that he’s trying to scrounge up a posse with. Others getting out of town, some telling him he should get out of town too, and a general commotion about what they should do about the whole mess. There are numerous cross sections and enclaves all with different motives and most importantly excuses. They all turn down a chance to help Kane for one reason or another (even his closest friends). It seems so easy to pass judgment, but then again what would we do in such a situation? In fact, it brings to mind the Hollywood Blacklist which this story was supposed to be an allegory for. This is not just some fictionalized parable, it was mirroring real life to some extent.

What really resonates about this film is the resolve of one man, because when it comes down to it, Kane did not need to stay, he did not need to do what he did, but he stood by his guns, literally, when no one else would stand with him. It’s easy to conform, easy to go with the crowd. It takes real courage to walk out on your own — although the Marshall did have a little help. So whether or not John Wayne thought this film was wholly “Un-American” or not, I think I would have to disagree with him on this one. Maybe what Kane has is reluctant courage, and I could see how the Duke would be disgusted by such a “spineless” individual. But for me, he’s all the more relatable played so aptly by Gary Cooper.

highnoon7It continues to amaze me that a film of this length can have so many wonderful characters who leave an indelible mark on the story. Certainly, you have the hero and the villains, but then we have character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan, and Lon Chaney Jr. playing some of Kane’s buddies. There’s the gang at the bar and the hotel clerk, who are no friends of the Marshall. There’s his former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and his hot-headed deputy (Beau Bridges). The rest are filled out by men, woman, children, town drunks, and churchgoers. Zinnemann does a wonderful thing aside from just using the clock as a plot device and tension builder. He also calls back all these many characters as the noon train comes in with smoke billowing black. The audience and all these people know what that shrill whistle means. Things are going down, and Kane is going to face it all alone.

highnoon2The isolation is so wonderfully conveyed by an aerial shot where the camera moves up to show the stoic Marshall standing in the middle of a ghost town. No people around and no one showing their faces. Then of course, when it’s all over, the floodgates open and all the folks rush into the center of town. Fittingly,  Kane drops his tin star in the dirt in disgust as the refrains of Tex Ritter’s ballad continue.

Put High Noon up against other films and it could be criticized as nothing more than a western, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I cannot help but gravitate towards it. In some ways, it reminds me of growing up and it allows me to forget about any sort of deeper meaning for an instant so I can be fully enraptured with this story, this song, and these characters. It’s a worthy incarnation of the mythic west, that also leaves a little space for some humanity.

People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.” – Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.)

5/5 Stars

The Bravados (1958)

The_Bravados_-_US_film_posterThe Bravados opens with an ominous stranger in black riding towards a town. He doesn’t say much, but his presence alone creates tension enough. He gets led into town by the local deputy and after a meeting with the sheriff, he is allowed to stick around. His only reason for coming to the city of Rio Arriba is to watch the hanging of four outlaws, at least that’s what he says. But when he asks to see the prisoners, he surveys them and there is nothing but anger in his eyes.

As they wait for the hangman from out of town to arrive, Jim Douglas (Gregory Peck) gets reacquainted with the beautiful Josefa (Joan Collins). And nothing is said about their backstory, but there is obviously something between them. He at first refuses her offer to go to church, but requests to walk her over before reluctantly joining her in the chapel.

However, back at the jail, the hangman is not who he appears and stabs the sheriff in the back with the four outlaws getting away taking a local’s daughter with them. So the town is in a fury sending a posse after the fugitives led by Douglas.

And one by one Douglas tracks down the culprits. First, ambushing Parral (Lee Van Cleef) who he shoots after the man begs for his life to be spared. Next, he takes down Taylor and hangs him from a tree after dragging him behind his horse. The posse does eventually get the kidnapped girl Emma, but Douglas is far from satisfied, crossing the border to Mexico to finish the job. He guns down Zachary in a bar and his only target left is Lujan (Henry Silva). But that’s when things change. Douglas is knocked out of his blind rage for a moment. Because this whole vendetta began after his wife was raped and murdered. He went on an obsessive quest to find the four culprits and although these four no-goods constantly denied seeing his wife, he just went after them anyway.

It is Lujan who finally makes Douglas realize he made a mistake. In this epiphany, Douglas realizes he is little different than these four outlaws, willing to kill mercilessly, even in the name of justice. He goes back to town a hero, but he heads straight for the church where he confesses his wrongs to the local priest. He is a man with a lot to wrestle with, but also a lot to live for thanks to his daughter and Josefa. Although not quite as iconic and memorable, The Bravados, in a sense, is Gregory Peck’s version of The Searchers. This Henry King western in CinemaScope is noteworthy for allowing Peck to play another morally ambiguous character. He is no Atticus Finch.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Combo (1955)

b456e-bigcombo1There is so much to the plot of The Big Combo, but the irony is that the story is not altogether extraordinary. Instead, highlights include David Raksin’s (Laura) jazzy score infused with brass which is somewhat unusual for the genre. Cinematographer John Alton also helped in making this film visually and stylistically engaging. There are some crazy, overstated shadows making this undeniably film-noir. There are very few better examples of so-called “dark” cinema with prototypical chiaroscuro and low key lighting.

Honestly, I have never been a huge fan of Cornel Wilde, and I can understand why he is not that popular or well known. He’s relatively beady-eyed, not particularly good looking, and his voice is not altogether memorable. Like Mr. Brown said in the film, “It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop.” Even Dick Powell has some wit but Wilde’s character is straitlaced and steady. There’s nothing of much repute about him. But enough about Wilde.

The story is your somewhat typical procedural with a righteous cop facing off against a big time mobster. Mr. Brown is practically untouchable with a large pool of money at his disposal and a group of faithful thugs ready to do his bidding. He has a girl, Susan Lowell, who is about fed up with him, but she sticks around.

Lt. Diamond (Wilde) is totally fed up with the corruption but himself is also infatuated with Lowell. His only lead is the name “Alicia” which leads to trouble with Brown and his thugs who rough him up and leave him drunk. However, he learns from a man named Betini that “Alicia” was Brown’s wife who was supposedly murdered and thrown overboard with an anchor.

Next on the beat is a tight-lipped Swedish antique dealer, and ultimately, Diamond comes up with proof that Brown’s wife is still alive. He’s getting too close so Mr. Brown sends out his thugs Fante and Mingo to shut him up for good. They get the wrong person.

Alicia finally turns up, a few more figures get mowed down in Mr. Brown’s wake including Diamond’s trusty colleague Sam (Jay Adler). All that’s left is a showdown at the airport that is like Casablanca‘s atmosphere on steroids. It truly is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis.

There is not a great deal of sympathy to be had for a lot of the characters who got it, and though she seemed to have little bearing on the plot, Rita’s demise was surprisingly difficult to take. She was the girl with the heart of gold. Brown’s heartlessness finally came back to bite him but honestly, I could have cared less if Diamond was the one to catch him or not. He couldn’t have done it without Susan anyways.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

a44af-themanwhoshotNothing’s too good for the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!!! But who is he exactly? How did it happen? Where is he now?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps one of the moodiest and most atmospheric westerns of all time. In a sense, it is almost like a Noir Western with its often stark cinematography (especially during the climatic moments), and it is told through a long flashback that encapsulates nearly the entire narrative. Both qualities are typical film-noir.

John Ford had numerous classic westerns, but this one is possibly one of the darkest in tone. The film has a typically great John Ford cast (like My Darling Clementine or The Searchers). Of course, it would not be one of his westerns without John Wayne, then add James Stewart, Vera Miles, and of course Lee Marvin. Then the secondary cast is rounded out by such great character actors as Edmund O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, and Denver Pyle among others.

This film is also steeped in politics. It becomes more obvious the more you watch that there is this underlining conflict between democracy and a different system of representation. Could this be a critique of Communism also packed into a western? Probably.

One of the moments that really stood out this time around was the flashback within the flashback when Doniphan (Wayne)  reveals his point of view to Ransom Stoddard (Stewart). He was, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance. We knew it at heart but finally we have the proof and all of sudden his behavior seems justified and he becomes the tragic hero of the film.

It is an unjust ending and yet it plays out the way it was meant to — maybe not the way it should have. The lawyer got the girl, the fame, and the spot in Congress, because he is a hero for something he did not actually accomplish. Tom instead is the one who fades into the past. It struck me that this is one of the few films I can remember where Wayne actually dies, the other would be the Shootist. Except here he is dead before the story has even began. The legend of John Wayne himself lends nicely to this legendary man in the film who we only know through the recollections of others. As the newsman noted, when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.

4.5/5 Stars

High Noon (1952)

14bd7-high_noon_posterThis may not be the greatest film of all time, but it is certainly one of the greatest westerns gifted to us so generously by Fred Zinnemann. It tells a very simple story, yet it is, in fact, so powerful simply, because of the hero it depicts. In its time it also served as a condemning allegory of the finger pointing going on in Hollywood.

*May Contain Spoilers

The film tells the story of Marshall Will Kane, who is willing to face his foes even when no one else will help him. Gary Cooper plays the newlywed lawman, who must flee town or face the killer coming on the noon train. He resolves to do just that, despite the pleas of his loving wife (Grace Kelly). The sheriff scrambles against the clock to get help. However, no one is brave enough to face the enemy with him. Even with the odds against him, he faces them in a showdown. Cooper is outgunned, but not outmatched — heroically prevailing.

This film is so powerful, because it is full of human emotions, and it feels so real since the events unfold almost in real time. The somber ballad, sung by Tex Ritter, also helps to create the mood right from the opening credits. In fact, I must admit that multiple times I have found myself humming or crooning the words, but then again I suppose it makes sense since the song is woven into the very fabric of the film.

The score by Dimitri Tiomkin utilizes the tune throughout to complement the images of the town. In that respect, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” is not just a song, but an important piece of this story. It is easy to forget the supporting players since Cooper often steals the show. Nevertheless, there’s Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr.,  Harry Morgan, and even a young Lee  Van Cleef. Many have pasts with Kane that we cannot expect to fully know. All we can understand is the here and now that causes a person to weigh their options, and either follow or go against their conscience. Kane and then his bride both did what they thought was right even when others would not follow suit.

It struck me how simple the story is, and yet on the other side, it is a complex allegory that critiques humanity. Will Kane is a man, who helped make the town what it is, but when trouble comes and the odds are bad no one is willing to help him. Besides the obvious positives like a good story and a heroic protagonist, this film stands out because it feels so human. Here we are as an audience watching the events unfold almost minute for minute. Then we see the various town folk and their fear of getting involved, and to make matters worse a lot of them are Kane’s very good friends. It makes us question what we would have done in their position. Because some of them were obviously good people, who were scared to be involved. Of course, during this time McCarthyism was prevalent and it is suggested that this film alluded to that. However, whatever you think it is still unquestionable that High Noon is a powerful film, a love story, and at its simplest a classic western.

5/5 Stars

 

 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as the title characters, this is a memorable Spaghetti western. Angel Eyes (Cleef) is on the prowl for a man who stole some gold. Meanwhile Tuco (Wallach) is on the run until three bounty hunters confront him. However, Blondie (Eastwood) is the one who turns him in and then helps Tuco escape after he picks up the reward. Finally, the two accomplices split up on bad terms. The next time Tuco turns the tables capturing Blondie and marching him through the desert. While on their journey they learn where the gold is hidden. First they have run ins with Angel Eyes an the Union army and then they got caught up in a Civil War skirmish. The two of them endure it all and go to the cemetery where the gold is. There they have the final showdown with Angel Eyes in epic fashion. This film is great because it is exciting, it features an iconic Ennio Morricone score, and it has great cinematography which is a trademark of Sergio Leone. An Italian western may seem strange but Leone somehow makes it work.

5/5 Stars

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

7c912-forafewdollarsmoreStarring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef with director Sergio Leone, this Spaghetti western is the second film in the “Dollar Trilogy.” The film opens with two bounty hunters, and in two separate instances we quickly realize their skill in bagging their man. However, when a notorious outlaw, “El Indio,” and his gang begin to cause trouble, both men are intent on getting the reward. Reluctantly they agree to join forces and Manco (Eastwood) joins Indio in his robbing of a bank so the two mercenaries can bring him down. The bandits get away with the money and then later they overhear the intentions of Manco and the Colonel, and so they rough them up. In secret Indio has them released, then sends his gang after them so he can get away with the money.

However, the colonel took the loot and so the next morning he and Manco systematically mow down the bandits. Indo comes for the money and shares a tense moment with the colonel only to have Manco appear too. Using the chime of a pocket watch, they face off. In the end one man leaves, his revenge complete and the other takes the reward. Although this is not the best Eastwood western, it certainly had some action-packed moments that were very entertaining.

4/5 Stars