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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vengeance Valley, novel by Luke Short, 1949, MGM movie, 1951













Next time you point a gun at me, shoot






Luke Short

Frederick D Glidden (1908 - 1975) was a fine writer of Western stories and one of my favorite authors. His books are tightly-plotted, full of authentic detail and have strong, memorable characters. He wrote under the nom de plume Luke Short, a moniker he presumably borrowed from the dandy and gambler-gunfighter of that name (1854 - 1893), another interesting character.
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But the writer Short is definitely worth reading. He wrote dozens of novels, from The Feud at Single Shot (1935) to Trouble Country (1976).
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A remarkable number were turned into films. This is because the books were shortish and lent themselves to cinematic treatment, especially because, as I have said above, their plots and characters were so strong, they were full of action and they reeked of authenticity.
 
The 1949 novel Vengeance Valley is a good example.
 
The 1951 Western movie that MGM made of it has an almost documentary feel to it at times as we get a cattle drive with voiceover commentary by one of the drovers (Carleton Carpenter, very well played). The cowboy scenes are true-to-life and there is skillful cutting out of steers to admire. There are impressive numbers of cattle – no ultra-low-budget cowboy film this.

.But it’s also a family drama and tale of how the misdeeds of a wastrel, ne’er-do-well son, Lee (Robert Walker, rebuilding his career after time in the sanitorium), are foiled by the sturdy, decent adopted son and foreman, Owen (Burt Lancaster). You can tell Lee is a bad one when he says to his wife, after beating a horse, “A good whipping never hurt any filly” (a line not in the book).

The old rancher, Arch (Ray Collins) knows, deep down, that his son is no good. The film makers have put Arch on crutches, like Edward G Robinson in The Violent Men, which he wasn't in the book; it isn't quite clear why. Perhaps to make him more vulnerable.

It’s quite a daring theme for 1949/1951. A town girl has an illegitimate baby and will not reveal the identity of the father. It is clear from the first chapter (and first reel) that it's Lee. Lily's brothers, the Faskens arrive, played by John Ireland and Hugh O'Brian, both very good (and the latter very unEarpish). They will have the name of the father and force a marriage or there will be hell to pay.

There’s good Colorado scenery (round Cañon City, where many of the early silents were filmed) photographed by George J Folsey.

The Short story (as it were) is adapted for the screen by Irving Ravetch. Several important changes are made apart from the detail of the crutches. Chiefly, the characters of Jen, a neighboring rancher, and Edith, Lee's wife, have been combined. Owen loves rancher Jen in the book and rather despises the gold-digger and unWestern Edith but in the movie, he and the Jen/Edith figure (Joanne Dru, Mrs. Ireland, in fact) are in love. While changes of this kind are often worse than the original book, in this case it adds well to the rivalry between Lee and Owen and is probably better.

Another change is made in the ending but I will not discuss that here to avoid spoiling it for you if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie.

Richard Thorpe directed tidily. He had been making two-reelers and B Westerns since the early 1920s and went on to do Jailhouse Rock.
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Vengeance Valley is no epic with sweeping, nation-building themes (Short's books weren't like that; he was more interested in the interplay of a small number of characters) but it is a good story and Lancaster does an excellent job.

Burt stands for no nonsense when one of the Fasken boys points a gun at him. He says, “You’ve scared me twice tonight. Next time you point a gun at me, shoot.” The bad man later takes him at his word but should have known better.
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