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

Friday, April 30, 2010

Rough Night in Jericho (Universal, 1967)


He wants to get his hands on 51% of Jean Simmons.






Such a nice man, Dean Martin still played an excellent bad guy. Here he is a lawman gone bad who owns the town of Jericho, or 51% of it anyway. He wants to get his hands on the stage line too, and on at least 51% of its owner, Jean Simmons, but she won’t play, partly because she’s sassy and independent and says damn and drinks whiskey, and partly because George Peppard was at his handsomest in 1967. He looked great in his gambler’s frock coat, even if his coiffure was rather Alan Laddish. Jean wasn’t going to fall for Dean with George around.

Dean is backed up by various heavies, including the sadistic Slim Pickens, who is real mean with a whip, but George has a far stronger team because John McIntire is on it, as crusty ex-Marshal Ben Hickman. Perhaps he was the brother of Morg Hickman from The Tin Star. He’s great, as always.

This is a standard 60s Western, nothing really outstanding about it apart from the acting. Based on the Marvin H Albert novel ‘The Man in Black’, with TV and B movie director Arnold Laven behind the camera, it was photographed by Russell Metty and the music was by Don Costa, so the crew wasn’t exactly stellar. Furthermore, most of it was shot on a studio set (though when they finally do get out, the Kanab, Utah locations are very nice) and it is quite static. There’s a fashionable 60s amount of blood (though it still registered only about 4.5 on the Peckinpah Scale).

But the movie has its points and when McIntire, Peppard and Simmons get together to take the town away from Dean, it’s actionful and it rattles along at the pace of a good six-up stage. Some of the cowed townsmen rediscover their courage and join up, and dynamite and sixguns do the rest. The plot isn’t exactly new, far from it, but the writing is decent and the acting is above average so the movie works.

As so often, honors go to John McIntire, one of the great stalwarts of Western acting. In this movie he was just turned 60 but in fact he looked just turned 60 in every single Western he was in.

A two-revolver Western which is still worth a look, pards, and maybe I should have awarded three. I was tempted.


 

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Alamo (United Artists, 1960)

 
This post has been revised and updated.
Please click here for the new one.
Thanks,
Jeff

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The horses


My pal


Horses were far more than the basic means of transport in the West and in the Western. There is a whole myth attached to them.

An illuminating treatment of horses and their importance and the way they were treated is in the book ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry and the wonderful movie made from it, Lonesome Dove. Captain Call’s mount, the Hellbitch, or Newt’s, Mouse, become essential characters of the story. When Call gives the Hellbitch to Newt it is a pivotal moment of the story. Other movies give the horse a central role and beautiful pictures of running horses abound. Try The Violent Men or Broken Trail, for example.

In The Misfits horses are a tragic symbol of the end of the West as mustangs are rounded up for slaughter.

In many movies, certain Western actors used the same horse again and again and they became part of the mystique. Everyone knows that Roy Rogers’s horse was Trigger (who was so ‘intelligent’ that he could rescue Roy from scrapes) and The Lone Ranger’s horse was Silver (“Hi-yo Silver!”). Tom Mix’s steed was Tony (though in fact he used Blue for many of his Westerns and Tony Jr. or Tony II for the later ones).
 
Matt Dillon rode Buck (Buck even gets a cameo in the later full-length Gunsmoke movies).

Sometimes a horse was the star, as in Champion The Wonder Horse. There were even talking and singing horses - unfortunately.

One of the best mounts was Pie, James Stewart’s horse. Pie appears again and again and even gets a mention in The Far Country (where he wears a little bell on the saddle horn). Pie was a beautiful sorrel, intelligent, perky and adorable. In fact Pie didn’t belong to Stewart at all but the relationship was so close that the director of many fine Westerns with Stewart, Anthony Mann, said, “I swear the horse looks back at him and smiles.” Henry Fonda did a water color of Pie, treasured by Stewart, on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club, just before Pie died.


Of course horse stealing was a hangin’ matter. Many films have more or less (usually less) official stringings-up because of horse theft. It was a capital offence alright, far worse than stealing a car today. Of course leaving a person afoot in much of the West was likely to kill him. Still, they do seem to have over-reacted…

One major problem for any horse lover, or indeed anyone with any sensitivity to the plight of animals, is the brutal abuse of horses in so many Westerns. Early Westerns had no compunction at all about killing horses for a more dramatic scene. Cecil B DeMille was especially guilty. Horses were spurred over cliffs or through shop windows. They were brought crashing down with trip wires. Some of the wranglers were very expert and managed to give the appearance of horses being killed or maimed without harming the animals and later movies have been monitored by the American Humane Association or SPCA and carry the statement that “No animal was harmed in the making of this film”. But for much of the history of the Hollywood Western, countless animals were brutally abused.

Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are The Brave could escape the law but he won't desert his capricious mare, Whiskey. The cowboy and his horse were often pals and the relationship was closer than that with any durned gal. The world is full of girls but a good horse, now, that's a rare breed. You don't think that's sexist at all, do you?

 

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Gunfight at Dodge City (United Artists, 1959)











McCrea is very good, McIntire is outstanding.





 
At first blush The Gunfight at Dodge City is a straight-down-the-line, clean-up-the-town B Western in which Bat Masterson replaces his murdered brother Ed as Sheriff and brings law ‘n’ order to Dodge. The title and poster apparently tell all: we expect a classic 50s Main Street showdown.

But it’s more than a B movie. It has relatively high Mirisch production values, good Cinemascope color and some classy actors.

Notably, of course, Joel McCrea. In his mid-50s and near the end of his career, looking rather stocky, he was still that quiet, calm lead that was ideally suited to the Western hero. In this he reminds me a bit of Matt Dillon: he is low-key, strong, quietly authoritative. He’d cleaned up Wichita, of course, four years earlier, for Jacques Tourneur and RKO. Now he does the same to Dodge for Mirisch/United Artists.

In fact this film was shot contemporaneously with Comanche Station with Randolph Scott and the two stars then immediately retired. They came out of retirement together for the fine Ride the High Country in 1962, directed by Sam Peckinpah.

In The Gunfight at Dodge City, McCrea was directed by Joseph M Newman, a solid workhorse who had made a number of rather average pictures, including the curious Fort Massacre (again with McCrea) the year before.

John McIntire as the town doc and sidekick of Bat is superb, as he could be. This was one of his finest roles in a Western and the movie is worth seeing just for him. He also has some decent lines, written by Martin Goldsmith and Daniel B Ullman (Wichita, Colt .45, later to do a lot of TV work including an episode of Bat Masterson).

There’s a decoy love interest, as Bat falls for Ed’s fiancée, Julie Adams, who, he finally realizes, is cold and hard, and then there’s glamorous Lily (Nancy Gates), co-owner of The Lady Gay saloon, with whom he finally realizes he is in lerve, though not till the very last reel. There are often two ladies in Westerns, a prim & proper one and a saloon gal; usually the hero plumps for the 'good' one but it's refreshing when he goes for the racy dame.

A weakness of the film is that the principal baddy, evil Sheriff Regan, is bland. Don Haggerty doesn’t cut it and of course without a plausible tough guy as opponent, Bat’s victory is smaller.

Naturally, all resemblance to history is entirely coincidental. Dirty Dave Rudabaugh (slick and slim Richard Anderson) shoots Ed (in the back) and then is shot by Bat. The Thompsons (occasionally oddly referred to as Townsends) make an appearance, though Ben (Walter Coy) is awfully decent and Billy (Wright King) no psychopath but a mentally-handicapped boy in need of hospitalization. Never mind. Who needs history? You want history, read a history book.

Kansas looks very like California. The music is ho-hum. The outcome is predictable. Still, McCrea is very good, McIntire is outstanding and altogether this is a three-revolver Western that you will enjoy.

 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Electric Horseman (Columbia, 1979)


Redford riding down the Strip in his suit of lights.






 
I give this movie three revolvers because it has a certain amount of class. Directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, it was unlikely to be a total turkey. Furthermore it had Willie Nelson in it and he, though usually dire in Westerns, was terrific as the cynical ex-rodeo star’s promoter who had lines like, “I'm gonna get me a bottle of tequila and find me one of them Keno girls that can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch and just kinda kick back.” (Waddya mean, you find that sexist? I can't imagine what you're driving at). And, because it was Willie, our toes don’t curl up in our shoes when we listen to the ballad over the titles. In fact the songs are great. No, the casting is acceptable, more than.

Redford is not that credible as a broke-down rodeo star, and certainly nowhere in the Mitchum or McQueen class in The Lusty Men or Junior Bonner, but he’s OK and Fonda is, shall we say, satisfactory as the New York TV reporter who falls for Robert. I also think John Saxon was more than passable as the corporate baddy. In fact he was excellent. So at least three guns there.

Then, visually the movie was attractive. Owen Roizman is a solid cinematographer. He had done one Western (Return of a Man Called Horse) and photographed some successful other movies (there are non-Westerns, you know, pards) like The French Connection and The Exorcist but he did a sound job on the Nevada and Utah locations. In fact those locations are so beautiful that I could have photographed them well. But strangely enough his best work is in the Vegas scenes and the image of Redford riding down the Strip in his suit of lights is unforgettable, one of the, er, highlights of the movie.

The theme of what we might call ‘the cowboy and the lady’ is as old as the Black Hills and as durable. It works well here.

So, you see why I give it three.

But why not five, I hear you cry?

Well, the first thing is Sydney Pollack. Mr. Pollack may have been born in Indiana and died in California but he was a Noo Yoiker thru and thru. As a Westerner he was - sorry - hopeless, and conspicuous on the set of Jeremiah Johnson or Electric Horseman in urban clothes and attitudes. He was an excellent character actor but frankly, as a director of Westerns, he was pretty poor. The worst point was his pacing. His films were so long and needed savage editing which they didn’t get. This movie was edited, poorly, by Sheldon Kahn. Don’t get me wrong. Pollack’s actors were nominated for any number of Oscars. But he’s not in the top ten of Western directors and not even in the top 100.

Not that The Electric Horseman is really a Western. It’s a post-rodeo picture. A post-post-Western at most. No gun makes an appearance at all, for one thing. It’s really a romantic comedy (ugh). But I have a soft spot for it. The theme is warming and the scenes of the horse Rising Star running are great. You can forgive Jane those ghastly 70s glasses.

See it anyway.

 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Everybody should like Westerns

 
Words of wisdom
 


Watching an early Martin Scorsese film yesterday, Who's That Knocking at My Door, 1967, I jotted down this opinion delivered by Harvey Keitel as JR:

"Everybody should like Westerns. It'd solve everybody's problems if they liked Westerns."

There you are. Straight from the horse's mouth.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Warner Bros 1948)


What a treasure



.


Whether this film is a Western is open to debate. Set in Mexico in 1925, it does not fulfill the purists’ criteria but it is nevertheless often regarded as one. It deals with men in the great outdoors battling with bandits and each other and using guns to do it, so that's pretty Western. But Western or not, it’s a great movie.

Mexican settings finely photographed by Ted McCord in a glowing black & white combine with an outstanding screenplay by John Huston, who worked the basic B. Traven novel, with its Marxist theme of the evils and final futility of capitalism, into a subtle, powerful, riveting script, to make this film into a magnificent picture. If you add to that outstandingly good acting, you are close to a masterpiece.

The pick of the actors is undoubtedly the director’s father, Walter Huston as ‘Pops’ Howard, the grizzly old timer who leads the greenhorns Fred C Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest ever roles) and Curtin (former juvenile cowboy star, now Pavarotti-lookalike Tim Holt) out into the Sierra Madre bandit country between Tampico (where the story starts) and Durango to look for gold. They find it. But the point of the tale is that wealth picked up from the ground is never free and causes more evil than good.

Huston père is magnificent: wise, wily, witty. Holt does a surprisingly good job (who knew he could act?) as the basically decent Curtin (who nevertheless votes to kill the stranger) and Bogie is superb as a paranoiac gradually descending into madness and violence. There are some terrific supporting actors too, such as Alfonso Bedoya as the unforgettable smiling bandit chief, ex-Tarzan Bruce Bennett as the shrewd but unlucky interloper (a role first slated for Ronald Reagan), Western expert Robert Blake (then only 13) as the boy who sells the lottery ticket and the director, Huston fils, who appears in an almost Hitchcockesque cameo (directed by Bogart) as an American in a white suit. Great stuff.

The film is curiously prudish even for the late 40s. All the deaths happen discreetly off screen. In the book Dobbs is decapitated but in the movie we only see him fall behind a mule and a machete descend. Similarly, the firing squad victims are tucked away out of sight and only a sombrero rolls across our sight as the volley rings out.

There are some great touches such as the toothpicks stuck in Bogart’s manky hatband. There’s a very modern eco-message as Pops insists that they repair the mountain after they have extracted the gold.

The Max Steiner music is OK, although there are annoying Hollywood angels when the old man brings the Indian child back to life. The ending is maybe too ‘happy’ as Pops goes off to a life of luxury in the Indian village and Curtin to find the widow with the peach orchard. But these are niggles.

The movie won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture. Rightly. John Huston won an award both for the direction and the writing. His dad was best supporting actor. No other father-and-son team has done that. It was Budd Boetticher’s favorite Western so that has to mean something.

Brian Garfield wrote, “It is one of the very few genuine works of art in the Western movie genre.” That puts it up there with The Searchers or Bad Day at Black Rock. 5 revolvers, pards.