The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) and Glenn Ford Eaten Up Inside

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“There’s always somebody faster.” – Walter Baldwin as a Blind Man

The Fastest Gun Alive chooses to reveal its threat before it offers up anything else. A hulking Broderick Crawford rides into a no-name town flanked by two cronies. He yells into the saloon for some man to come out and proceeds to gun him down in a quick draw. The only reason: Bragging rights. He wants to be known as the fastest gun, and now it seems he’s earned the title.

We now know the inevitable will happen. There’s always somebody else. In this case, it has to be Glenn Ford. Sure enough, the story takes us to another town. It seems like it’s made up of honest people trying to make a go of life on the frontier.

Among their ranks is George Temple (Ford), who runs the local general store with his devoted wife (Jeanne Crain), well along in her pregnancy. Per usual, Ford plays a variation on his grounded hero with a demon planted in his past. It’s not said explicitly — but his actions speak for him — his current life is eating him up inside.

So much so he hides his excursions out to shoot targets from his wife and buries his old firearm in the backroom where it can’t be found. Normally well-groomed for the West, Ford’s hair seems often stringy and plastered down on his face. A new look for him and he doesn’t have a hat to corral it. Because he has presumedly shed all aspects of that kind of life. Still, there’s little doubt it lingers in his past.

For now, there are happy times to be had. The high point is a town-wide shindig complete with some fancy stepping from a young Russ Tamblyn. His shovel stilts dance becomes a highly involved number showing off his physical prowess in what feels like a black & white extension of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In one solitary scene, The Fastest Gun Alive shows more technical verve than other less exuberant musicals.

However, soon thereafter, the stage brings news of the gunfight, and it has the whole town buzzing with excitement. It’s typical of simple folks. The pontificating old man McGovern keeps the town enraptured with his yarn-spinning about the event of the century, at least as he tells it.

Meanwhile, Temple continues to suffocate under the life in his store — where the games of customer service are driving him insane. Between insufferable customers with their petty requests and grubby children handling the confectionaries, he’s about had it. Except this is only a manifestation of his underlying problem. The news of the gunfight prods old wounds as does his conflicting issues of pride.

He starts falling back on old habits like whiskey drinking. The monkey on his back won’t leave him alone since he cares so deeply about how others perceive him, just as he cannot handle their unintentional derision. It’s what makes him the antithesis of Shane or Atticus Finch, for that matter.

George Temple is insecure. It goes back on the age-old tenets of manhood, being able to prove yourself, to be taken seriously in the ranks of your gender, whether through feats of strength, cunning, or sheer stupidity. However, the consequence is his greatest fear — making himself a whole lot more conspicuous — and sounding the call for anyone who wants to challenge him.

Echoing High Noon, the church becomes the town’s public forum, in this case, involving a man’s resolution to give up his gun and leave the town behind. The bottom line is no one wants him to leave, and he hasn’t committed any infractions. One by one they join in solidarity to keep the secret so no one will ever hear of Temple’s exploits.

It seems a rather strange scenario. But what it does is indicate just how close-knit this community remains. This alone is commendable and yet truthfully, the story stalls here. It opts to bide its time, milking the dramatic irony for all its worth. The inevitable feels like it’s continually being delayed in lieu of a debate.

Even if the townsfolk don’t know what’s coming, he knows that someone riding in to test out his skills is imminent. He doesn’t want to be around to meet them. That is, of course, unless they come to meet him…accidentally. Because it only takes one, in this case, a boy, to spill the beans.

There is no taking it back, and Crawford won’t rest until he’s proved himself the better shot, even with a posse on his trail. It’s these moments where not only Crawford comes into fuller relief but also his partners in crime, a pair of solid characters in Noah Beery Jr. and John Dehner. Two lesser men would have made this interim period far less agreeable.

Even then, it feels like the story’s fizzling out a bit, although it does maintain this one galvanizing strand of tension. It’s almost enough. The one crucial piece of information is finally revealed, and it’s not so much of a revelation as it turns our theme on its head.

Temple’s father was a famed lawman who taught his son everything he knew. He became an even faster man but he’s never drawn on another human being. It’s kept him scared out of his wits. He admits in the same scene, “I’m so afraid, I’m sick to my stomach.” So it’s no longer about pure bravado. True bravery is suggested to be doing something even when you are deathly afraid. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

This is arguably one of Ford’s better performances for the very fact he’s forced to shed his typically cool and robust exterior in favor of something far more tremulous and vulnerable. It relies on the unraveling of his purely masculine image. Otherwise, The Fastest Gun Alive deserves its place rightfully several rungs below the likes of The Gunfighter, High Noon, Shane, or even Day of The Outlaw. That is no criticism, only an honest assessment of a decent western with a unique perspective.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: West Side Story (1961)

westside1Look at West Side Story through a simple lens and you might see a Shakespearian classic given a 1950s facelift and set to music. It might seem antiquated, perhaps not as politically correct as we have come to expect, and maybe a bit regressive. However, this musical based off of the bard’s famed Romeo and Juliet is most definitely a thematic spectacle pulsing with song and dance. It’s full of romance, full of angst, all expressed through the motions of the human body. In an age where we often feel like we have come so far and know so much, maybe a film like this is good for us if we take a step back for a moment.

Robert Wise’s film opens over the skies of New York and we are quickly introduced to the two competing forces that rule the streets with a “snappy” opening number. You have the local street gang, the Jets made up of delinquents of New York and the Sharks consisting of young immigrant Puerto Ricans. They hate each other for different reasons, but the bottom line is that they hate each other, and there’s no other way to slice it. A tiny scuffle broken up by Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke is only a small tremor of what is to come, but it sets the tone.

The Jet’s leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is looking to have a rumble with their bitter rivals and the neutral territory at the local dance is the perfect opportunity to set things up. Although people are having fun and it’s a grand ol’ time you can tell there’s unrest between the factions bubbling under the surface. The indubitably funny John Astin makes a valiant effort to get them all to be friends, but it doesn’t work so well. Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks accepts the offer to have a war council because he wouldn’t mind getting a piece of one of the Jets.

The glue that holds the narrative altogether, of course, is the romance that buds on the dance floor when our star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) first meet. This is important because Tony use to be a Jet and is still the best friend of Riff. Meanwhile, Maria happens to be the younger sister of head Shark Bernardo. This is a relationship that’s not supposed to happen and yet their inhibited, naive passion disregards all else. He’s obsessed with a girl named “Maria.” That’s all he has, a name to go with a face and yet he’s infatuated. The singing of “Tonight” reflects how caught up in this dream they really are. And finally “I Feel Pretty” is Maria’s own exuberant reaction to the turn of events.

As an aside, Richard Beymer supposedly wanted play Tony rougher around the edges instead of a hopeless romantic, but ultimately it seems alright that he did not. Only because this film is not simply a drama where a nuanced performance would be suitable, but it is also a musical and a romance. In many ways, we need his character to be as love-struck and idealistic as he is. Because his song and his love story are a striking contrast with the world he and Maria live in.

westside2With the rumble afoot the following night, it can only spell trouble for all involved. The moment that Tony promises Maria that he will try to stop the fighting, he is part of it. Things turn out as he could never have imagined. In fact, no one wanted things this way, revealing how big a difference one single day makes. Tragedy hits with a vengeance, making this a marvelous piece of cinematic expression, but also a jarring indictment of this broken world we live in.

All the choreography in the film is directed by Jerome Robbins, and it is beautiful to see the melding of something so graceful like ballet crossed with the street gangs of New York. There’s something inherently contradictory about it and yet the culture, as well as the angst, is revealed so beautifully. It can be smooth and slick with a group of buddies or violent with arms flailing, heads contorting, and bodies all over the place. But it’s never vulgar, the people might be, but the dance never is. It is always enjoyable to see George Chakiris dance, and he’s not the only one, from Rita Moreno to a whole host of others. They move with such grace but it is never dull because it has feeling. And that extends to their entire performances. In fact, Chakiris and Moreno are probably the most enjoyable, because they are far removed from the dreamy-eyed couple of Tony and Maria.

The composition by Leonard Bernstein is obviously outstanding and this is one of the famous soundtracks in musical history including the “Jet Song”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, and “I Feel Pretty.” However, I think I was especially interested in “America” and “Gee Officer Krupke.” The first puts to song the two conflicting perspectives that lead to civil unrest. There’s the idea that America is this land of opportunity and yet there’s also a negative flip side to this ideal. Also, the second song in a comical way, comments on the treatment of the youth of America. From a film that might seem outdated, it has some pretty frank analysis of the never-ending cycle that goes on.

westside3In fact, if we give our society a good hard stare, have things really changed? Are our discrimination and racism better than that of Lt. Schrank or just veiled behind greater open-mindedness? Are people still hating one another, even when they might be more similar than they realize? Is our society working towards collective good or are we slowly “killing” it through our acts of hate? Even a likable fellow like the drugstore owner Pop (Ned Glass) brings into question those who are against the violence but don’t really seem to do much about it. Words don’t act unless the people behind them do. That can go both ways.

All this pops into my mind because of a musical from over 50 years ago where, yes, Natalie Wood was, unfortunately, playing a Puerto Rican. But hopefully, we can look past that for a moment and see the artistic merit here and then think for a moment what themes we might glean from this West Side Story.

4.5/5 Stars

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Seven_brides_seven_brothersThe title gives a clear indication of what this Stanley Donen musical will be about, but it does not tell us how we will arrive at that conclusion. It all begins when a woodsman named Adam (Howard Keel) comes to town intent on finding himself a cute and handy bride. That he does in Milly (Jane Powell) and soon enough, in a whirlwind, they are married and heading back to his home. There she is greatly surprised to meet his rambunctious and rough-edged younger brothers. Six to be exact, but you already guessed that.

Once she accepts her new life, it becomes Milly’s mission to straighten them out and find them girls to court. It isn’t easy but soon they learn table manners and proper etiquette before the big barn raising takes place. There the boys make quite the impression and the audience is given quite the show complete with bright colors and inventive-foot-tapping choreography. It’s an understatement to say that the Pontipee brothers are not popular with the locals, and not only is there a barn-raising but some hell-raising as well.

Adam is proud of their showing, but the rest of the lads are lovesick as the long cold winter begins, separating them indefinitely from their girls. With Adam’s encouragement, they decide to do as the Romans and kidnap their sweets, but they fail to think about the consequences. The town’s in an uproar, the girls are frightened, and a man-made avalanche means there is no contact with the outside world for at least 5 months!

Milly is appalled by their actions, especially Adam’s part, and the lads are made to sleep in the barn as she dotes over the scared group of girls. Not liking what he’s seeing, Adam heads off on his own for a while. Spring brings a fresh start as young love flourishes and the boys are forgiven. Milly gives birth to a baby girl, and Adam finally returns home with a new perspective. But what about the town folk you ask? They do come after the  Pontipees, and they don’t like what they see when they ride in. Needless to say, it is a happy ending with each boy getting his girl, thanks to a few shotguns.

With catchy songs, beautiful color cinematography, lively dance numbers, and an amusing premise, this is a very strong MGM musical, even if it is not the best of the lot. That is not saying much because the studio could hardly go wrong with such previous titles as On the Town, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Seven Brides is a nice addition although I will say it vaguely reminded me of Oklahoma. However, it is different enough to be well worth it. The only question left to ask is, “Are Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, “Frank,” and Gideon natural red-heads? I’m not sure I know the answer but I could wager a guess.

4/5 Stars

West Side Story (1961)

354d1-west_side_story_posterIn this 1960s, musical adaption of Romeo and Juliet, two lovers become infatuated with each other but the problem is that none of their friends would ever approve. They come from two different classes and backgrounds which are constantly at odds. The two sides frequently clash as represented by the Shark and Jet gangs. Naively, the lovers believe they can get away and be happy forever. However, the situation escalates when the gangs take part in a rumble. Pretty soon the situation is out of control and it has become something nobody wanted. Hope for the future finally seems possible for the pair but it is brutally crushed in an instant. The viewer is left with a feeling of tragedy. This is a very good film for the most part and many of the songs are great, sticking with you afterwards. I suppose it is quite difficult to go wrong with a story from Shakespeare .

4.5/5 Stars