"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Gun Street (UA, 1961)


Disappointing




 
 
Gun Street is a low-budget black & white B-Western with an unstellar cast and all the appearance of a TV show. It’s disappointing.

The taglines, All The Terror Of A 'Killer Hunt'... All The Fury Of The Old West... All The Cold-Steel Courage Of One-Man Law!, were frankly misleading.

It was a Robert E Kent production. As I said the other day when reviewing this movie's companion piece, Gun Fight, released earlier the same year, Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Street will be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

It stars James Brown (no, not that one) as a sheriff trying to be Matt Dillon. Brown was an athlete who made his name in war movies and then in 1954 became Lt. Rip Masters in the very popular TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. After that his career didn’t exactly skyrocket. Apart from these two two Kent Westerns in 1961, it was largely occasional appearances in TV shows.

Trying to be Marshal of Dodge

He has a deputy, played by John Clarke, a forgettable TV actor; this was one of only two big-screen Westerns he appeared in.

Upholdin' the law with deputy Sam Freed

They learn that a townsman who had been jailed for life (Warren Kemmerling) has broken out of the state pen, killing a guard, and is heading for town. There, his ex-wife (Peggy Stewart) is now married to the local doc (John Pickard), who has adopted the killer’s son. There is supposed to be a sense of threat but it’s all rather bland.

Tension is supposed to build in the final reel as a posse pursues the killer into the Californian rocks but viewers hoping for a Winchester ’73-style shoot-out will be sorely disappointed. The ending might be described as bathos, if you were being polite. Weak and trite would be other words.

The sheriff has to deal with a complaining and critical mayor (Nesdon Booth)

It was written by Sam Freedle, who had been a ‘script clerk’ on High Noon but that really was the height of his Western fame. The screenplay of Gun Street is ponderous, not helped by the actors stodgily delivering the lines. Sam Freedle allowed himself the joke of having the deputy named Sam Freed.

Edward L Cahn (right) directed. Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the very fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. he never did anything as good again. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director. He looks rather serious in the photo, doesn't he? As if pondering the philosophical weight of his B-Westerns. Sadly, there wasn't any.

You could watch Gun Street, if you absolutely had to. But with the best will in the world (and anyone will tell you I have that, hem hem) I couldn't bump it up to two revolvers.

 

 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gun Fight (UA, 1961)


Dull






In 1961 producer Robert E Kent put together two B-Westerns released by United Artists and starring James Brown: Gun Fight, released in May, and Gun Street, which came out in November. Gun Street will be our next review. Bet you can’t wait.

I’m sorry to tell you right away that neither is very good. They are low-budget black & white affairs, cheaply staged with interior sets that a local amateur dramatics troupe might have been satisfied with and unconvincing studio ‘exteriors’ that remind us of those old 1940s programmers. There are plastic logs and fake snow. The writing and acting is also plodding and ponderous.

Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Fight and Gun Street will both be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

Both were directed by Edward L Cahn (left). Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started very well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. He never did a Western as good as that again and we certainly don't count Cahn among the élite of Western directors. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director.

Brown had started as an athlete, got picked for war movies and then made his name as Lt. Rip Masters in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The show ran on ABC on Friday evenings from October 1954 to May 1959, for no fewer than 164 episodes, and was enormously popular, so Brown, though rather a wooden actor, was a well-known character in uniform.

The best actor is in the middle. Actually, that's not quite fair: Lee Aaker was very good too.
 
However, Brown seems to have been demoted because in Gun Fight he is a sergeant, mustering out (and changing into buckskins) after serving with Benteen on the Little Big Horn and going to Wyoming to join up with his brother Brad (Gregg Palmer) who has a cattle ranch. Or so he thinks. Actually Brad is a low-down rustler and stage robber with a mean gang which includes vicious half-breed known as Pawnee (Ron Soble).

In fact the gang hold up the very stage Sgt. Brown is on, riding with his girlfriend Nora (Joan Staley) and an oily gambler, Cole Fender (Charles Cooper). The skunk Fender bonks the sergeant on the head with a pistol, to stop him shooting at the outlaws. Naturally, because Fender is a slick gambler in a frock coat, this gun is a derringer, so that sent the movie up in my estimation (you know who besotted I am with derringers). The interior of the stagecoach, by the way, is one of the most laughably bad studio sets I have ever seen in a Western.

 
Palmer, you will certainly know, did dozens and dozens of B- and TV-Westerns, becoming a regular member of John Wayne’s stock company of actors. He started as Grat Dalton in the Audie Murphy picture The Cimarron Kid, and among many other appearances was an Army captain in both Taza, Son of Cochise and Revolt at Fort Laramie. He was Jack Slade in the Stories of the Century episode, and the same year as Gun Fight he was one of the duelists in Wayne’s The Comancheros. He was always reliable, and quite good as heavy. This time he’s a heavy with a heart of gold, though.

Bad guy Gregg (obviously bad because unshaven) with goody bro
 
Soble takes the acting honors (such as they are) as the nasty and treacherous Pawnee who hates our hero. He was a regular as bad guy on any number of Western TV shows but only did a handful of big-screen oaters. He had small parts in True Grit and Chisum, so that’s something.
 
Soble is the really bad guy though
 
Gun Fight was written by Gerald Drayson Adams, so really the screenplay should have been better. But much of it is lurid melodrama. There’s a very vague attempt at a Cain-and-Abel theme but as Cain doesn’t kill Abel it doesn’t really come off.
 
Both pictures were photographed by Walter Stenge, later to become President of the ASC. Unfortunately, there is so little location shooting and the studio sets are so basic that Stenge hardly got a chance to shine. You get the impression that such shots of Wyoming as there are were intercut from footage of other movies.
 
If I had to choose, I’d go for Gun Fight over Gun Street, but to be brutally frank (and when, dear e-pards, am I anything else?), they both pretty well suck. Oh, that's unkind. Let's say they aren't terribly good.

 

 
 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stagecoach to Fury (Fox, 1956)


Hostages at the stage station




 
 
William F Claxton (left) was principally a director of TV Westerns, doing especially Yancey Derringer episodes and later working a lot with Michael Landon, on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. But he did some big-screen oaters too, and in 1956 and ’57 he made two for Regal Pictures, released by Fox, which starred the excellent Forrest Tucker – a fine Western actor. They were low-budget black & white B-pictures really but they had some merit, especially the second one, The Quiet Gun, which we reviewed the other day (click the link to read that). Claxton (billed on this one without the middle F) managed to bring some pace and tension into what is essentially a static story. It’s a ‘siege Western’ in which bandits take over a stage relay station and hold the passengers of the incoming coach, which they believe to be carrying gold, hostage.
 
Fury is the destination town but also, obviously, has a double meaning. In some ways it reminded me of Fox’s earlier picture, Rawhide, a superb, gripping (though largely forgotten) noir which has a similar plot. And when stage driver Paul Fix says to his friend the shotgun messenger Forrest Tucker that he wonders what happened to the people who ran the stage station and Tucker replies that maybe he wouldn’t want to know, it also reminded me of The Tall T, released earlier the same year, where the grisly fate is more graphically described.

Static siege stories like this one are cheap to stage, so are good for a low-budget picture, but can be hard to do well. They risk becoming slow and over-talky. But this one does have excitement as the passengers plot to outwit the bandits.

It’s a flashback-movie: each of the passengers has a story and we go back with them as they remember. There is a manipulative and duplicitous woman (Western vet Mari Blanchard) on the run with a small bag of cash, very like the banker Gatewood in Stagecoach. There is a judge (the even more experienced Wallace Ford) who is a serial coward, running from threats in town after town. And there is a two-gun quick-draw artist (Wright King, from The Gabby Hayes Show) who, it is revealed, has shot down a decent sheriff (Ian MacDonald) for no other reason than to make a name for himself as a gunfighter. All three are lowlifes but only the judge comes up trumps and finally finds some courage.

One of the bandits (Rico Alaniz) has designs on Mari

The robbers are led by Rodolfo Hoyos Jr. in his first big-screen Western – he did mostly TV shows, though he would be Villa! in 1958. He is satisfactory as the gentleman bandit with a heart of stone. Of course he will be thwarted by brave Forrest Tucker, as we all know. He must have guessed, surely?

Rodolfo bosses the bandits

Eric Norden wrote both pictures. This one has fewer improbable plot twists than The Quiet Gun and the occasional classy line. Paul Dunlap did the music for both, and it’s pleasant enough. It is said to have been shot in Montana, though looks more like Utah to me.

Widescreen

The cinematographer was Walter Strenge (soon to be President of the American Society of Cinematographers) and rather surprisingly, considering how few exterior shots there are, this picture, Strenge’s first Western, was nominated for ‘best black and white photography’, this being one of the last movies to be considered in that category because the Academy dropped it shortly thereafter. It was in CinemaScope, so maybe it was that.

Margia Dean as Forrest's wife Ruth has surprisingly little to say or do

There’s quite a good final shoot-out and a Tucker/Hoyos showdown horseback duel with rifles.

Definitely watchable. It doesn’t, perhaps, have quite the quality of The Quiet Gun but it certainly has merit.



Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Quiet Gun (Fox, 1957)


An interesting B-Western




 
 
I really like The Quiet Gun. On one level just a minor black & white B-Western made on a modest budget by Regal Pictures (in “Regalscope”!), it is lifted by the quality of the acting into an interesting, rather dark psychological Western of some quality.
 

The stand-out is Forrest Tucker as Carl Brandon, the decent sheriff of Rock River, a small Western town. Tucker was a much better Western actor than many have allowed and this was one of his best performances, B-movie or no. He manages to convey decency and courage while at the same time being conflicted and far from certain of himself. He reminds us of Gary Cooper, even, and indeed, there are similarities to High Noon in the plot as the lawman of a Western town (most is shot on sound stages) is obliged because of pusillanimous townsfolk to stand alone against the bad guys - though of course The Quiet Gun is far from High Noon in quality.

Decent Sheriff Tucker looks askance at henchman Van Cleef

It’s an indictment of small-town morality. Pompous and judgmental attorney Steven Hardy (Lewis Martin, a regular on TV Westerns) rails against local rancher Ralph Carpenter (Jim Davis in his umpteenth Western; he’d been at it since 1942, and was well known at the time because of Stories of the Century on TV) because he has separated from his wife and is apparently living with a young Indian woman (Mara Corday, from A Day of Fury). Hardy gets the town council to issue a formal complaint and rides out to serve it. Carpenter is angry. Hot words are exchanged. The attorney grabs a rifle and in self-defense Carpenter shoots him. Now Carpenter is wanted for murder and an undeputized posse – in fact a lynch mob – is out after him.

Jim offends the busybodies by having an Indian mistress

Sheriff Brandon is a good friend of Carpenter’s but he is in love with Carpenter’s estranged wife Teresa (Kathleen Crowley from The Silver Whip). In one way it would be convenient if Carpenter were to fall. But the sheriff will do his duty, and he does all in his power to convince Carpenter to turn himself in. But the lynchers overpower the lawman and hang the rancher.

Oh dear

Now the sheriff sets out to arrest and bring to trial the murderers of Carpenter but the townsfolk want the men free…

Behind the scenes there is a classic slimy saloon owner, Reilly (Tom Brown, often that rancher on Gunsmoke) who wants Carpenter’s ranch and he has a sadistic henchman all in black, in the shape of Lee Van Cleef, in a classic performance. There will of course be a last-reel showdown, quite interestingly staged in fact, between the sheriff and these two crooks.

Slimy saloon owner and henchman

Hank Worden is a simple-minded liveryman who is bullied by Van Cleef, defended by the sheriff and who becomes a loyal deputy. Worden of course specialized in these simpletons and there are (very) faint echoes of the previous year's The Searchers in his role. Normally the bad guy would mistreat a child or animal in the first reel to establish his badness but here he had to make do with Hank.
 
Good old Hank

There is also an entertaining undertaker played by Vince Barnett, that professional insulter and prankster of a comic.

There are some improbable plot twists, it must be said, but they don’t detract too much from the quality. The title is also a bit odd, neither the firearm nor the character of the sheriff being all that silent.

Tough sheriff deals with henchperson

It was directed by William F Claxton (below), a Michael Landon pal who did a lot of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie epsiodes, who had started as an editor on the 1939 Frontier Marshal and who had directed another black & white B-Western with Tucker the year before, Stagecoach to Fury (click the link to read about that one).


Worth a look.



 

 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Desperate Mission (Fox/NBC, 1969)


Murieta saves the day




 
 
In 1969 Ricardo Montalban’s Montalban Enterprises put together a project to produce a TV movie with Fox, and The Desperate Mission was screened by NBC in 1971 as a result. Montalban had been in Westerns since 1948 when he had a bit part as a dancer in Frank Sinatra’s The Kissing Bandit (fame indeed) but he had been second-billed to Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri and then topped the bill in 1951 in The Mark of the Renegade. After that, whenever TV casting directors wanted a tame Mexican they had Ricardo’s number in their Rolodexes. He was also Little Wolf for John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn (there was a Hollywood tradition of using Mexicans for Indians) but big-screen outings were rare. He was mostly a TV guy. I always thought he was rather good.
 
Artist's impression
 
This is a Joaquin Murieta story, or at least nominally. Actually, it’s a generic Western and the hero could have been anyone but the Murieta name probably gave it appeal. As you probably know, Murieta (or Murrieta or Murietta) was a famous figure during the California gold rush in the 1850s – either a common bandit or a Mexican hero, depending on your point of view. He was supposed to be the inspiration for Zorro (actually, Ricardo would have been a good Zorro). Walter Noble Burns wrote a sensational biography of Murieta in 1932. Historian Susan Lee Johnson wrote:

So many tales have grown up around Murrieta that it is hard to disentangle the fabulous from the factual. There seems to be a consensus that Anglos drove him from a rich mining claim, and that, in rapid succession, his wife was raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murrieta himself horse-whipped. He may have worked as a monte dealer for a time; then, according to whichever version one accepts, he became either a horse trader and occasional horse thief, or a bandit.

This lack of hard historical fact is a good thing, though, as far as Hollywood Westerns are concerned because producers and writers have carte blanche to make up any preposterous tale they wanted – after all, it could have happened.

Warner Baxter played him in the 1936 MGM film Robin Hood of El Dorado directed by William A Wellman and based on the Burns bio. Murieta also features in the 1953 Randolph Scott Western The Man Behind the Gun, played by Robert Cabal. Jeffrey Hunter was Murieta in Warner Brothers' 1965 picture Murieta, directed by George Sherman.
 
Ricardo as Murieta
 
The story of The Desperate Mission (it’s not all that desperate, actually) is set in the late 1840s, though of course this does not stop the characters having 1870s Winchesters and wearing 1870s (or rather 1960s) Stetsons. Murieta has been dispossessed of his property, his wife murdered and his hacienda burnt. He sets out as an adventurer to make back his fortune. He meets up with an Anglo outlaw, Shad Clay (Earl Holliman) and joins Clay and his men on a mission, charged by Don Miguel (Anthony Caruso, hooray) with taking Señora Ruiz (Ina Balin) to San Francisco to catch a boat back to Spain for safety – you see California is suffering at the hands of marauders.

But then there is a rather Vera Cruzy plot in which Murieta discovers that the Señora’s carriage is carrying a hidden solid gold statue of the Madonna. Obviously, the bandits now want this – to hell with taking the lady to Frisco – but there are also sundry other ne’er-do-wells who want that gold, notably a gang of badmen bossed by Robert J Wilke (an even bigger hoorah).
 
 
Earl Holliman is rather good as the outlaw boss. Holliman did s hood number of A-Westerns, notably Broken Lance, Gunfight at the OK Corral (in which he was Charlie Bassett) and John Wayne’s The Sons of Katie Elder in which he was Matt Elder. And in this one he has a good gang. Slim Pickens is in full coonskin-cap-and-buckskin mode as Three-Finger Jack (a shooting accident saw to the other two). Roosevelt Grier is the strong man who can lift up a laden wagon on his back (though he can’t raise the señora’s carriage when it loses a wheel; that’s what alerts Murieta to the fact that it is carrying a heavy secret cargo). Grier was a regular on Daniel Boone on TV but never did a big-screen Western.

A youngish Jim McMullan is Arkansaw, another gang member. McMullan often appeared in Western TV shows but only did two big-screen oaters, as an unconvincing Buffalo Bill in The Raiders in 1963 and as one of James Stewart’s sons in Shenandoah in ’65. He’s OK as Arkansaw, the unwilling outlaw.

Love interest is provided not by the scheming señora but by her beautiful maid Claudina (Miriam Colon) who believes the Madonna can do miracles and persuades Murieta to take it back to the village.

There’s a sort of sub-Magnificent Seven final attack on this village and, naturally, a Holliman-Montalban showdown shoot-out – no prizes for guessing who wins that one.

At the end Murieta rides off to roam the West righting wrongs and a child asks his mother when he will return. “When we need him,” she replies in a Lone Rangery way.

The cinematography of Durango, Mexico locations was by Jorge Stahl Jr and the music by Robert Drasnin. It’s all decently done. I didn’t mind it.

 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Take a Hard Ride (Fox, 1975)


Blaxploitation spaghetti: is that a thing?




 
 
Take a Hard Ride is really a late spaghetti western. Produced by three European companies, shot in Gran Canaria with a Spanish-Italian crew and directed by Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony M Dawson), it had all the spag credentials. It even starred Lee Van Cleef as a bounty hunter, so it must have been a spaghetti.
 
 
But it was also a mid-70s blaxploitation flick, released in the US by Fox, with Jim Brown as the hero, Fred Williamson as the charming-rogue anti-hero and Jim Kelly as the strong, silent martial-arts type. Other Afro-American actors also appear.

I warn you, it’s pretty bad.

It was at least filmed in English and not post-dubbed, so that’s something. And the De Luxe color is nice. The rather bizarre volcanic scenery does have the occasional saguaro so at least attempts to look like Arizona (though largely fails).

And a few old-timers were wheeled out.

Dana Andrews (left) is the rancher Morgan who entrusts his foreman Pike (Brown) with the money he has made from a cattle drive to get it back to his family in Sonora. This Pike duly swears and Dana croaks of a heart attack, so his part was confined to the first reel. He looked in quite good shape, actually, for someone pushing 70. It was in fact his last ever Western.

Then Barry Sullivan (below) is there, as Kane, a ruthless lawman turned fortune hunter, who wants to get his hands on that money, like everyone else. It was his last Western feature too. He looks a little more anno domini, though actually younger than Dana. Still, this pot should not talk slightingly of any kettle.
 
 
Then Harry Carey Jr (below) and Clint’s pal Robert Donner play Dumper and Skave, a pair of slightly Strother Martin/LQ Jones-ish scurrilous rogues who are also after the loot, and who fall in (they are obliged to) with Lee Van Cleef as Kiefer, the ruthless Colonel Mortimer-ish crack shot bounty hunter. Donner called it a Western day in ’76 (at least on the big screen) but the great Dobe would go right through to the late 90s and he took parts in, it must be said, some real junk, but a fellow’s gotta eat, I guess.
 
 
It’s very 70s in look. The men wear elegantly flared pants and Catherine Spaak, the token woman, has make-up that Abba members would have liked. Jim Kelly plays a mute Indian (so didn’t have to learn too many lines) in an oversize hat to fit over his afro. Still, we mustn’t scoff. All Westerns had their characters in costumes and haircuts that looked like the decade the movies were made in rather than the late nineteenth century. This one, though, does look much more 1970s than 1870s. Never mind.

One thing I disliked strongly about this movie was the disgraceful horse-fall stunts. Sig Margheriti ought to have been banned from making another movie. Or maybe it was Hal Needham’s fault: as well as having a bit part in the first reel he was the second unit director. Maybe Spain didn’t have as strict animal welfare rules as pertain in America, I don’t know. Anyway, I shuddered several times.
 
Jim is all stoic and tough
 
The whole thing is loud and brash with a great deal of gunplay. The producers and director probably had too many greedy bad guys chasing the money, so that every couple of minutes Brown and Williamson have to fend off yet another attack. It is also too long at 1 hour 43 minutes and would benefit from some fairly substantial cuts.

Talking of loud and brash, the Jerry Goldsmith score is.

There are quite a few ‘Doh!’ moments, such as when the party of four goodies come to a rope bridge of dubious stability and all four walk onto it with their horses at the same time.
 
Classic spag close-up of Lee
 
Brown is curiously stodgy. Perhaps he was going for the steely decency approach. But all Williamson’s attempts at charming roguishness are absorbed by the wall of stolid phlegm and there is none of the Butch/Sundance spark between the two.

Naturally there’s a mega showdown and equally naturally the heroes come across some cases of dynamite. If you’d asked me I would have told you in the first five minutes that there would be dynamite at the end.
 
Naturally there would be dynamite
 
Oh, well, it’s OK if you like that kind of movie.

I pushed it up to two revolvers for Dana and Barry and the lack of dubbing.