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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Big Sky (RKO, 1952)

 

OK if you like long black & white movies about trappers









Set too early to be a true Western (in the 1830s), this is more of a historical yarn about trappers and pioneers. At 122 minutes, it is long (the original cut came in at a hefty 140 minutes) and Howard Hawks's rather lethargic direction makes the black & white movie a bit on the ponderous side.


Still, Kirk Douglas is quite fun as Jim Deakins, the hero, doing that cheery-chappy act he patented, and Arthur Hunnicutt, especially, is great in support as Zeb Calloway, the narrator (he was nominated for an Academy award for it). Jim Davis also does a good job as the badmen's leader Streak. Kirk's eye falls on an Indian maid, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt - her only film) but Kirk's pal and Zeb's nephew, Boone (Dewey Martin, rather good) does too and strains develop... Standard stuff, really, but done with gusto.


The photography and Grand Tetons locations are sometimes fine (though there is a lot of studio work too): Russell Harlan was behind the lens (as he was for Hawks on Red River).


The screenplay is by Dudley Nichols (again, from an AB Guthrie Jr. novel) and the story carries us along fine. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin is suitably grandiose.


So there is much that is enjoyable and high-quality about this movie. It was Howard Hawks's fault and that of his editor Christian Nyby that it wasn't better than it turned out to be. It needed sharper direction and cutting.



 
 

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Outlaw (UA, 1943)


Quite dreadful
 




 


The worst Billy the Kid movie, or at least the worst I have ever seen, was The Outlaw, produced and directed (according to the credits) by the eccentric Howard Hughes, made in 1941 and released, finally, without a certificate, in 1943.


Brace yourself
 
 
It is the worst not because it is one of the most outrageous travesties historically (many movies were as bad) but because of the desperately wooden Jules Furthman screenplay, delivered by the principal characters in an appropriately wooden way.



Sultry Buetel - pursued by Hughes?
 

The lead, Jack Buetel, an insurance clerk chosen presumably for his sultry looks, cannot act to save his life, though actually the real lead is Jane Russell, who is worse. Hughes, who designed a special cantilevered bra for her, said, referring to the effect, that there were two good reasons why every American male wanted to see the film. (In fact, Russell later said she hardly ever wore it as it was so uncomfortable but the myth dictates that she wore it in the film). The famous billboard poster for the film, designed by publicist Russell Birdwell, showed the scantily clad Russell provocatively lying in the straw and holding a gun, and didn’t even show Billy (the outlaw of the title) at all. Or the bra.


Russell Birdwell's master stroke
 

Of course, though it caused scandal at the time, and deliberately traded on that, it is so tame now that we can’t understand what the fuss was about. We never see Buetel and Russell in bed; it’s only hinted at. When the movie was re-released in 1976 it got a G rating, “suitable for general family audiences”.

As, er, counterweight to the two glamorous screen leads, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston were drafted in as proper actors, to play Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. What’s Doc Holliday doing in a Billy the Kid film? Don’t ask. Huston as Holliday manages to do something with his script. Mitchell, a totally ludicrous Garrett, just can’t.

In fact, of course, the censor was so obsessed with Russell’s cleavage, or insisting that she be married in the story before she spent the night with Billy, that he (it was always a he) completely missed the true salacious content of the film, which is, amazingly, a sadomasochistic homosexual love triangle. Or at least it sounds like that as the two older men, Garrett and Holliday, jealously compete for the love of the pouty youth Billy, the real sex object of the movie, unnoticed by the Hays office.

Russell squeezed out of the male love triangle
 
 
Thomas Mitchell, as Garrett, has this speech, addressed to Huston as Holliday: “I might have known you’d do this to me … Ever since you met him [Billy], you’ve treated me like a dog … You stand there, side by side, with that little snip of a kid, against me, me, who’s always been the best friend you ever had. And I still would be if it wasn’t for him.”


A jilted Garrett, jealous of Doc. What crap.
 

This is the petulant foot-stamping of a jilted girl. It comes very strangely out of the mouth of Thomas Mitchell but there the dialogue is. It has been suggested (Garry Wills in his biography of John Wayne writes that LucienBallard said this) that Howard Hughes was sleeping with an unwilling Buetel, not with Russell at all, and the script was a sly dig at Hughes’s relationship. Hughes must have been pretty obtuse if so, letting that script pass.

Howard Hughes. As a producer of films he made a great aviator.
 

Later, Billy submits masochistically as his ‘lover’ shoots nicks out of his ears and creases his gun hand, in a really quite gruesome scene for then (or even now).


Doc and his love interest
 

But all this seems to have slipped by unnoticed, overshadowed (as it were) by Russell’s bosom.

Overall, though, the word I would use to describe this movie is plodding. It’s a dreary, rather washed-out black & white that just looks cheap - extraordinary when you consider Gregg Toland was the photographer, with Lucien Ballard as assistant (two of the greatest cinematographers ever). The vast majority was filmed on studio sets (no excuse for wartime austerity obliging the producers to do that; it was filmed before the US entered the war). Not a lot happens and what does happen is silly. There is a great deal of standing and talking. And there is an irritating muted trumpet that goes wa-wa-wa to simulate laughter every time something ‘comic’ happens (not).

Hawks: bizarrely claimed 'credit' for this film
 


Howard Hawks, uncredited, directed for two weeks and even wrote parts of this movie, before being fired by Hughes. He called Red River (1948) his first Western but he actually worked on The Outlaw a lot, including on the script, with Furthman. He once even said, “I wrote The Outlaw.” If true, he should be ashamed of himself.

It’s junk.

 



 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My Name is Nobody (Titanus, 1973)



His name was Somebody




 























1973. Henry Fonda is 68. He accepts a part in what turns out to be his last Western.

But it was a tragedy that this should be so because he finished with the worst Western he had ever made, My Name is Nobody. It was by a long shot worse even than There Was A Crooked Man.

Much of the time this tiresome film is puerile. The rest of the time it is infantile.

It was directed by Tonino Valerii but has Sergio Leone stamped all over it, from the scenes that go on far too long, way after we have got the point, to the interminable close-ups of eyes and the use of Ennio Morricone’s irritating music. Why people think Morricone was good I will never know. The music is trite and wanders between the annoying woo-woo vocals and ‘comic’, chirpy interludes. In this film there are a hundred and fifty riders (known as The Wild Bunch) and whenever they appear Morricone puts his wretched stamp on the Valkyries music. As always, this ‘amusing’ idea is milked till we are heartily sick of it.

The main stars of this Italian-French-German co-production are a Venetian named Mario Girotti (who took the name Terence Hill) and Henry Fonda. It was most unfortunate that the great Fonda, one of the finest Western stars of all time, now nearly 70, should lend himself to this trash. He does occasionally seem in this movie to look bewildered, as if wondering what on earth he is doing there. Hill was enormously popular in Italy and perhaps his kind of ‘humor’ goes down well there. There is a lot of slapstick and speeded-up film. He makes faces. He is a buffoon, in fact, which is, of course an ancient Italian tradition but entirely unsuited for a Western ‘hero’.

There is naturally the old ‘nobody’ joke - which is at least as old as Odysseus - as in “Nobody was faster on the draw”. If you want to see that joke used well, watch Dead Man. Here, it is, like everything else, done to death.

There is lavatorial ‘humor’ and a silly (and far too long) scene in a house of mirrors, a cheap reworking of the moment in Lady from Shanghai.
There are really only two good things about this film (one of the worst Westerns ever): some of the photography is quite good, for example a bit where the riders gallop through the White Sands in New Mexico; and, of course, Fonda, who, despite the awful lines he has to deliver, shines through in his old age as the famous gunfighter at the end of his career. If it hadn’t been for these two points, the film would have rated no ‘revolvers’ at all in this review.

If you are a Western fan steer clear of it.

But we mustn't let this dreadful movie spoil our enjoyment of the career of Henry Fonda as a Western actor. He was great. He had weight and authority. He looked right. He exuded the taciturnity, grit and basic decency that are required for a true Western hero. So think of The Ox-Bow Incident, think of My Darling Clementine (which is actually on TV in France tonight). Don't think about My Name is Nobody. In fact, you would do better not to watch My Name is Nobody at all.



 

Monday, May 2, 2011

There Was A Crooked Man (Warner Bros, 1970)



Pretty awful







 

Sadly, Henry Fonda's last two Westerns were pretty awful and that was very unfortunate after such a fine career. 1970 was the year of some good Westerns: The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Little Big Man, Monte Walsh, to name a few. There Was A Crooked Man, however, wasn’t one of them.

If you are thinking that there wasn’t the film maker born who could make Fonda bad in a Western, well, producer/director Joseph L Mankiewicz is your man. He made every effort. He certainly also employed some dire writers, David Newman and Robert Benson. He couldn’t have made a film this lousy all alone. They went on to the even dizzier heights of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Kramer vs Kramer. But a lot of the 'credit' for this dreary tale must go to Mr. Mankiewicz.

The acting doesn’t help. There are some good names in the line-up but they all give of their worst, starting with Kirk Douglas, as chief jailbird, in eyeglasses and bright orange hair. Poor Fonda, in a beard, does his best but with this plot and these lines and that direction even he stood no chance. John Randolph and Hume Cronyn are an elderly male couple. Warren Oates is a dumb killer. Michael Blodgett is the pretty boy with virtually no lines. Burgess Meredith is the old lag ‘Missouri Kid’. None of them is any good. There are a few women but only for titillation purposes, to be shown without their clothes in various scenes. As most of the story takes part in a men’s prison in the middle of the desert, these scenes were bound to be a bit contrived.

The music (Charles Strouse) is tiresome, an insistent reworking of a grim title song warbled by Trini Lopez. The photography (Harry Stradling Jr.) is unremarkable. In fact it manages to make the Joshua Tree and La Joya, NM dull – quite an achievement.

The film went for the ‘bawdy-comic’ approach. It flopped dismally. The ending was supposed to be an O Henry-type twist. It’s dismally bad. The prison brawl episodes are among the least convincing scenes in the movie, and that is saying a lot.

One has to search to find something good to say about this Western. The set was impressive, a huge 1880s territorial prison built specially and then demolished afterwards to leave the desert location unspoiled. Truckloads of rocks were brought in for the prisoners to break and then trucked out again. Will that do?

It got one or two surprisingly good reviews but the Christmas public was more discerning and stayed away in herds. They might have preferred the British comic Norman Wisdom vehicle of the same title of ten years previously. Brian Garfield, as so often, got it right in his Western Films: A Complete Guide: “It’s long, slow, overacted and monumentally distasteful – an idea gone awry. Neither funny nor illuminating, it is only pretentious trash. It commits the ultimate sin: it is boring.”

Yup.





 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Firecreek (Warner Bros, 1968)

 
 
A big hand for Firecreek









Although the direction and editing of Firecreek could have been tighter and the pace of this movie is slow, the writing, acting and photography are so good that the movie shines.

Vincent McEveety was primarily a director of TV episodes (Columbo, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE, you name it) and didn’t really do a great job with this film (though he was better at big-screen Westerns than his brother Bernard). But his actors, notably the stars James Stewart and Henry Fonda but also the supporting cast, were such professionals that they overcame this.

The story and dialogue (Calvin Clements) are very good. Fonda is the boss of a band of white-trash professional guns, on the run from a range war killing up north, who arrive in a crumbling town of losers, Firecreek, which has a farmer who does part time sheriffing for two dollars a week (Stewart). The bad guys tree the town and Stewart, though he tries to stand up to them, is outclassed and knows it.

Fonda is outstanding as the leader with qualities far above the gang and Stewart is also fine as the man who comes round to realizing that he’s going to have to make a stand. It was Fonda and Stewart’s first full length film together and by that time the friends had both been in Hollywood for 32 years. And it was the first time that Fonda played an out-and-out badman. (He sure outdid himself later in the year when Once Upon A Time… came out).

There are (distant) echoes of High Noon as the townsfolk cower and leave it up to the sheriff. There’s a bit like the scene in The Deadly Companions where the villains come in to drink in the store which is acting as improvised church (Ed Begley is excellent as the preacher). The shoot-out, with the professional gunmen searching for the hero in the streets of a wooden town, is in a way the prototype of that in the later Pale Rider: but here Stewart is no super-human Clint-style gunfighter. Yet he gets them, amateurishly, more by luck than judgment, rather as Warren Beatty does in McCabe & Mrs Miller.

The women in the town are as bitter and hopeless as the men, Inger Stevens and Louise Latham being particularly good, as is the young tart who throws herself at the men, Barbara Luna. The bad guys under Fonda, led by Jack Elam, are satisfactorily nasty. Robert Porter is moving as the simpleton stable boy. All the acting is good.

William Clothier photographed it, well, as ever, and there is some nice Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona scenery (although a lot is done on the studio set). The Alfred Newman score is effective.

The ending in which the irresistible force of Fonda meets the immovable object of Stewart, is superb.

The Western is small and somber. It was far from a box office smash. Perhaps late sixties audiences were tired of dark, grim Westerns or, more likely, they expected more fun from Fonda and Stewart in harness. Fonda used to shake his head when reminded of the film. “Any man who tries to kill Jim Stewart,” he said, “has to be marked as a man who’s plain rotten.” But it’s a must, boys and girls.

Fonda and Stewart renewed their partnership two years later in The Cheyenne Social Club.



 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Rounders (MGM, 1965)

 

A favorite of aficionados






 

This is a delightful light Western in which Henry Fonda (Howdy) and Glenn Ford (Ben) shine as two down-on-their-luck, none too bright cowboys who always end up working for sharp rancher Chill Wills. Ben says, “It comes to me that we ain’t the smartest cowboys ever lived” and Howdy replies, “You could say that.”



























Edgar Buchanan excels as a moonshiner with, ahem, ‘eligible’ daughters. Sometimes the comedy gets a bit low, especially when Fonda & Ford meet up with some seriously dumb blondes (it wouldn’t be allowed these days). One thing we can also say: as a dancer, Glenn is not a good twister. Fonda doesn’t even try (much wiser).

There’s a nod to the Duke when Fonda is asked the origin of his name Howdy. He says he was christened Marion so he changed it to something more Western.

The movie’s written by Burt Kennedy (from the Max Evans novel) and so is rather superior and it is also directed by him. The music (Jeff Alexander) can be a bit irritating (‘comic’ tuba in the funny bits). But the photography (Paul Vogel) and Arizona locations are lovely. I kind of wonder if Sam Peckinpah had seen this film because his Junior Bonner (1972) also has sad rodeo stars, saloon brawls and quasi-documentary footage, in his case of the Prescott Frontier Days, here the Sedona Rodeo.

Maybe the makers of Will Penny (1968) had seen it too because Ben and Howdy winter up at a line shack, get a Christmas tree and have a dance. But no brutal ending here.

As in Junior Bonner, the aging bronc buster dreams of new horizons; Ben wants to buy a boat and go to Tahiti. Who can blame him? Howdy reads out possible adverts, a bit like the scene between the crooked cops in Payback.

But that’s enough references.

In the Italian version of this film the unridable horse is made to talk, which is a bit naff, but in the original the roan has quite enough ‘personality’ without that.

Denver Pyle has a stagger-on part as a drunken friend of the boys. Warren Oates and Peter Fonda have uncredited bit parts.

It’s an amusing little movie well worth the occasional watch. Ford and Fonda were both supreme Westerners and here they are frankly great as cowboys going nowhere. There’s rather a poignant part where Glenn tells his girl that he might settle down one day. As he is 50 and looking it we realize that that’s never going to happen.

MGM mishandled it badly and released it on a double bill with some trashy college comedy. It was only later that it became the favorite of aficionados that it is today.



 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Warlock (Fox, 1959)



Satin sheets







On one level Warlock is a standard late-50s Western in which a tough marshal is hired to clean up the eponymous town, which has been treed by an evil rancher. Benn there, done that, you might say.

But actually it goes a good deal deeper than that. Edward Dmytryk’s experienced direction of three top stars (Richard Widmark got top billing, followed by Henry Fonda and then Anthony Quinn) and a subtle, interesting screenplay (Robert Alan Aurthur from an Oakley Hall novel) make this a quality Western with something to say.

The Fonda/Quinn relationship has a definite whiff of Earp/Holliday about it but it also has a (daring for the time) implicit yet clear homoerotic side. Both men dally with females (Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels) because that was expected, in 1959 movie theaters as much as in 1870s cow towns, but both fail and both really love each other. Quinn’s jealousy when Fonda announces his engagement is palpable and furious.

We get a lot of gunplay and some traditional showdowns in the street and saloon. It’s a classic Western in that regard and in fact it seems to have been an attempt to comment on the Western archetype and the hollowness of the myth. It also has a whiff of end-of-the-West about it as Fonda’s Clay Blaisedell is already a dinosaur.


Disillusioned and unsatisfied

All three principals are extremely good - Fonda, of course (he was never anything else) but also Quinn in his leg brace and fancy vest and Widmark in his trademark jeans jacket. Richard switches sides and changes from one of the baddy cowboys to marshal of the town, pinning the famous star to that jacket. Quinn forsakes his usual macho roles for this effete saloon keeper who imports fancy drapes and satin sheets (satin sheets were 1950s code of course). Fonda is melancholy, disillusioned and unsatisfied. He has that far-away look in his eyes. He knows that his way of life is doomed now that peace is coming to the West and he wants, intellectually, to retire from marshaling and settle down with Dorothy (well, who wouldn't?), but he can’t. He doesn’t really love her. The love of his life is Tom Morgan.


The jilted lover

The three principals are supported by Tom Drake, classic sensitive goody, usually, but here playing an especially nasty boss of the heavies. Stalwarts such as Wallace Ford, Richard Arlen and Vaughn Taylor make up the townsfolk. DeForest Kelly (Bones of Star Trek) is another baddy who changes sides and backs up Widmark.

Everything leads up to the Fonda/Widmark clash we know must come. There will be the quick-draw showdown in the main street at sun-up. There has to be. The gunmen approach each other, grim-faced. The camera goes to their hands and their holsters. And then…

Well, you’ll have to watch it.



 

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957)



Fonda redux



 



 

Fort Apache (1948) was the last of Henry Fonda's Westerns for almost a decade. Had he decided that they weren't for him?It wasn't until 1957 that he leaped (or climbed, anyway; he was never one to leap) back into the saddle with another horse opera. But it was a very good one: The Tin Star.

Paramount’s Western offering for that year was directed by Anthony Mann, no less, and starred Fonda, rather than James Stewart (who had fallen out with Mann at the time of Night Passage), as a hard-bitten ex-lawman, now bounty-hunter, teaching a thing or two to green young sheriff Anthony Perkins in a town that wanted law and order but wasn’t prepared to stand up for it. Close to ten Western years may have passed for Fonda and he was 52 but he hadn’t lost a bit of the magic.

It’s a good story, Oscar-nominated and tightly written by Dudley Nichols, as the young lawman is determined not to allow bad guy Lee Van Cleef and his brother to be taken out of his jail and lynched but the townsfolk won’t back him up. The Tin Star comes between High Noon and Rio Bravo, not only chronologically but also in theme. Occasionally 1950s America sickly-sweet (the mother-and-son bits), it is for the most part taut and gripping.

It's classic Mann because the hero is an outsider, a man with a past, even an unsavory past. Bounty hunters are not nice people in Westerns (except Steve McQueen on TV).

It’s classic Fonda, too, as, embittered, he looks down on the mean-spirited townspeople and goes his lonely way. He is only doing this job because he is good at it. He is a classic loner. Henry Fonda could make a bounty hunter seem noble. He meets attractive young widow Betsy Palmer and takes a shine to her young son by an Indian father. The mother and son are ostracized as he is, and soon the three form a family.

Perkins is boyish and worried. His movements are coltish and awkward and contrast with Fonda's grace and fluidity. (Later, as the apprentice learns from the master, Perkins becomes confident and supple in his movements too).

Neville Brand is sufficiently nasty as the man who would be sheriff. But he is far from the greatest Mann villain. He is not charismatic or charming, or a reflection of the hero. He's really only a small-town bully. John McIntire is a crusty old Doc with a heart of gold - perfect for him. Good old Russell Simpson is in the town too. All great stuff. Mann's two Westerns for Columbia (The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier) had suffered a bit from the weakish support acting but in this Paramount one he was back to top-class Western character actors. 

There is some nice black & white photography from Shane-Oscared Loyal Griggs in the California location shots, although a lot of the movie is filmed ‘in town’, on the effective Paramount set in LA, so it's not like other Mann Westerns in that respect (except maybe The Far Country). There’s a good Elmer Bernstein score. Mann’s direction is seriously classy and he gets a fine performance from Fonda. The role would have suited James Stewart “just fine” but Fonda is grittier, more credible as bounty hunter. It became the sort of basis for Fonda’s TV series, The Deputy, and made his name, his reputation as a Western lead and probably a fistful of dollars to boot.

In a sort of anti-High Noon moment Fonda picks up the tin star and this is a symbol of his re-integration into society. You can't run away from responsibility. With the badge he has gained a new family, though in the end they leave the town to Perkins and set off for Calfornia - a traditional destination in Westerns which represents a new frontier, another pioneering beginning. In the opening image of the film he rode in, alone, from a high point. In the last and symmetrical image he rides out in a buckboard with dependents and chattels. It's a classic Mann journey, in which the character travels in space but also develops and changes as a person.

Maybe not quite up to the best of Mann’s work with Stewart for Universal, this is still a first-class Western. It's a morality tale, of course. It’s all about a man doing what a man’s gotta do. But there’s also the idea that the teacher learns as much as the pupil, which is an interesting element.

It’s an intelligent, taut Western well worth the watch. And Fonda is great.


 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shane (Paramount, 1953)

 
More Shanery



This post has been revised and updated. Please click here to go to the new article.
Thanks.
Jeff

 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shane by Jack Schaefer (1949)



The mysterious stanger






 

Although far from my favorite Western and flawed in many ways, Shane still stands as an iconic example of the genre. Every Western blog will contain a fair bit of Shanery. Today, though, we'll look at the source novel.

Jack Schaefer (1907 – 1991) wrote Shane twice. So I thought it only fair to read it twice.

Well, in reality he revised the first edition (which appeared in 1949) in 1954, taking out all the damns and hells and making it suitable as a book to be read in school. In fact the first time I read Shane was in a lovely boys’ edition illustrated by Wendell Minor in the Illustrated American Classics series. And it makes a good book for children because it is short, it is written in a direct, straightforward style, it has a noble hero to be admired and the story is told from the point of view of a boy on a farm with whom juvenile readers can identify.

The 1984 “critical edition”, however, edited by James C Work, University of Nebraska Press, makes excellent adult reading because as well as the unexpurgated text of the novel you get a series of interesting essays about the book and about the author, as well as reviews of the famous film.

For of course this novel is more than a children’s book. It has become, along with the 1953 movie Paramount made from it, an iconic statement of the Western myth. The novel has appeared in more than seventy editions and thirty languages. As Marc Simmons says of the characters in the story in the Foreword to the critical edition:

[They were] cut from noble cloth. They were strong, hardworking, brave, self-disciplined, responsible, honest; ungalled by self-doubt or any sense of inferiority. In short, they possessed those virtues that, by the mid-twentieth century, were increasingly being dismissed as outdated or unattainable.

Perhaps this describes the appeal of all Westerns, books, movies or in other guise. They described a simpler time, when justice was administered directly and when if might was right, it was tempered by qualities of decency and fairness in the dispensers of the frontier justice. Of course, this time never existed but it makes a satisfactory myth.

The tone of the quotation above is perhaps nostalgic, even reactionary, and that is one major weakness of the novel (and, by extension, the film). It has a certain naïvety about it, an overly bucolic sentimentality that the “boy’s eye view” cannot wholly excuse or disguise. Another way to say it would be that it now seems terribly dated.

But at the same time it is literate and literary. There are powerful passages whose impact is heightened, rather than weakened, by the directness of the prose. Metaphoric language is used sparingly and to greater effect because of that.

And naïve or not, it is a great yarn! The lone stranger rides in from the West and arrives at a farm whose owners, the Starrett family, are being harassed by a powerful open-range rancher, Fletcher. The stranger wants to hang up his guns and live the simple life of a homesteader among his new-found folks but eventually decides that he must bring his lethal skills to bear in the struggle, on the side of the underdogs. For a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

That tale became a cliché. But it wasn’t then. Shane was the archetype.

Just occasionally Schaefer’s style verges on Western pulp. In the saloon at the showdown with the sinister gunfighter Stark Wilson, Shane spits at him, “I’m waiting, Wilson. Do I have to crowd you into slapping leather?” And the writing is sometimes mannered, a self-conscious telling of the Western myth. Although Schaefer later moved to New Mexico and became a Westerner, he has said that at the time he wrote Shane, his first novel, he had “never been west of Toledo, Ohio.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Schaefer created one of the great Western heroes, to rank with Lassiter or The Virginian. Shane is a marvelous figure who sums up all the western virtues. He is brave, knowing, good with a gun, loyal and firmly on the side of right in a country where there is no marshal for a hundred miles and if justice is to be done, it has to be home-made.

His appearance is always shadowy. We know he is not tall but he is lithe, cat-like. “For all his slim build, he was plenty rugged.” Darkness, of costume and mien, is suggested. (This notion was of course lost in the movie where Alan Ladd, in coiffed blond hairdo, Hollywood tan, light buckskins and a white hat, verges on the dude). Schaefer’s Shane is, naturally, taciturn. He does not need to justify himself. His actions speak for him. All the family fall under his spell: Joe Starrett, leader of the farmers and giant of a man, defers to Shane. His wife Marian is captivated by the stranger. The boy Bob hero-worships him.

Schaefer himself has denied consciously inserting symbols. Some writers have suggested that Shane is a Christ-like figure, or a gun-toting Western Christ anyway, and say that it isn’t an accident that the humble couple visited by this savior are called Joe and Marian. That seems far-fetched to me. But there is something “Olympian” or super-human about Shane (in the film he descends from the mountains) and other commentators have compared him to a messiah, a saint or an angel. Others still have thought of him as an Arthurian knight or a Japanese samurai, which is probably a better image. For Shane is a wandering warrior from another time.

Historically speaking, the book does capture something of the spirit of the time and place. We are in Wyoming in 1889, when the big ranchers were on the point of being “fenced out” by the farmers and some were resorting to violence to protect their open grazing land. It was the time of the Johnson County War (1892) and so it does ring quite true. In 1891 two homesteaders were murdered, shot to death near Buffalo WY, and although it has never been proved, it is likely that a “stock detective”, Frank Canton, hired by the big cattlemen, did it. Stark Wilson in the novel, when he shot down the farmer in town, was not so far removed from the reality.

The sexual tension in Shane lies beneath the surface - to the point where young readers (1950s ones anyway) would not have noticed it, as Bob appears not to notice. But the “triangle” is subtly done (and also very well handled in the film). It is all the more electric for the restraint with which it is treated. (This was lost in Clint Eastwood’s remake, or homage to Shane, Pale Rider in 1985, in which the preacher sleeps with the woman).

A fundamental theme of the book is “growing up.” Bob tells the story as a man, in retrospect, and there are many references to growing into manhood. The frontier is also growing into a stable society, with laws and churches and schools. The United States, indeed, is growing up as a nation. It was in fact a key theme of Schaefer’s, in many of his books. As John Ford so often underlined, this very act of maturation as “civilization” marched West, eroded exactly the noble and worthy qualities of independence, courage and self-sufficiency which had made the West what it was. Mr. & Mrs. Ransom Stoddard express this eloquently in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Shane is a dinosaur. As is Fletcher, the cattleman, of course. The difference is, Shane says, that he knows it while Fletcher is trying vainly to turn back the tide.

Shane does have a wider appeal than merely “a Western”. Like all good writers (and Jack Schaefer was one), the author uses his setting, in this case the frontier, to illustrate people’s true natures and describe universal truths and qualities. Shane is certainly a key milestone for anyone interested in the Western myth, but it is also a damned good book. Edited version for schools: a very good book.


 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Duel in the Sun (Selznick, 1946)



A BIG duel
 

 



 

To be brutally frank, Duel in the Sun is a bit of a Western soap opera. Like The Big Sky, it's another of those BIG productions, classic King Vidor stuff, with big-name stars and Selznick production. Dimitri Tiomkin wrote an imposing score. Orson Welles narrated it in a voiceover. There is grandiose Technicolor photography of the Arizona locations with no fewer than three "directors of photography".

It has a sultry half-breed in the shapely shape of Jennifer Jones (Mrs. Selznick) who seduces both Joseph Cotten, the dependable son of the rancher, and the wild, bad boy, Gregory Peck. The film was panned as "lust in the dust" but it's lavish and rousing and huge, and I must say that while Cotten is poor (he always was in Westerns) Peck is great. He clearly relished the part.

It's a standard range-war plot but with many different threads or sub-plots. Some of the minor parts are very well done, Harry Carey as a tough legal officer, for example, or Charles Bickford as the rival (but poorer) cattleman, who also falls for Mrs. Selznick. I always thought Bickford a great talent.

Lionel Barrymore is the almost megalomaniac Senator McCanles, big rancher in a wheelchair who owns half of the West and wants the rest. Big ranchers in wheelchairs or on crutches were quite the thing in Westerns. One thinks of  Arch Strobie in Vengeance Valley, Bull Herrick in Robbers Roost or Lew Wilkison in The Violent Men. I'm sure there are more but I can't think of them right now. They often have ne'er-do-well spoilt sons - Robert Walker in Vengeance Valley, Peck in The Big Duel. These sons, Peck especially, remind me of Spike Kenedy, spoilt-rotten scion of a cattle baron of the Texas Panhandle, who shot and killed the singer Dora Hand in Dodge, was caught by a posse led by Bat Masterson but who got off with his rich daddy's lawyers on the case. Dr. Hoyt quite liked him but he seems to have been a real sleazebag.

Even the title was a bit corny, of course, and there were "Duels" in Western film titles all over the place: Duel at Apache Wells, Duel at Diablo, Duel at Silver Creek, Duel on the Mississippi, and so on.

It cost six million 1940s dollars and was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. Selznick probably hoped it would be Gone With The Wind II but it wasn't that in box-office terms, though it had certain similarities in luridness and bad writing. What it was, though, was "one of those thoroughly entertaining bad movies that prove by comparison how turgid De Mille was." (Brian Garfield). You can at least watch The Big Duel, unlike Gone With the Wind (an expensive filming of a cheap novel).

Lust in the Dust was based on a novel by Niven Busch, ex-editor of Time magazine turned novelist and screenwriter who the following year would write the excellent Pursued and the year after that The Furies.

The worst aspect is the quite dreadful acting by Mrs. Selznick (it's so bad it's hilarious) but Peck is great and a few of the minor characters are good too.

 

 
 

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Gunfighter (Fox, 1950)


This post has been revised. Please click here for the new version.
Thanks.
Jeff

 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Only The Valiant (Fort Invincible), Warner Bros, 1951


Peck Invincible




 

You’d think a Warners 1951 Western with Gregory Peck and Ward Bond would be a big movie with a large cast and no expense spared. Instead, Only The Valiant, sometimes known as Fort Invincible, seems just like a little, black & white 1940s Lippert production. Mostly shot on studio sets, low-budget, with some attempt at building tension (at times it’s almost a whodunnit), it is in fact a typical Gordon Douglas effort. Douglas wasn’t bad and he occasionally produced something a bit better than average (Fort Dobbs, for example) but all in all most of his stuff has a ‘B’ look to it. And early 50s Warners Westerns were often second rate.
 
Of course Peck was towering, an excellent Western hero to rank with John Wayne, Henry Fonda or even Gary Cooper. Here, as US Army Captain Richard Lance, Dick to his (precious few) friends, he is fine, very fine, and he makes a pretty low-key film with an ordinary script into something much bigger.

Ward Bond does his stereotype Fordian drunken Irish corporal act and hams it up for all he was worth (which was quite a lot). Every so often he produces a malign, snide glance that shows real menace. But most of the time he sings drinking songs in a brogue. Jeff Corey is good as the tough old Army scout, Joe Harmony. Lon Chaney is a curious Trooper Kebussyan in a big black beard whom they call A-rab and who refers to Peck as “effendi”. You can see him building up for self-sacrifice a mile off. Neville Brand is excellent as a bullying Sergeant Murdock.

At one point Peck tells his suicide-mission group why he ‘volunteered’ them: he lists their faults in a devastating way – cowardice, drunkenness, desertion and so on. He took them out of the fort, he says, because they were the troops that could best be spared and who would be least missed if they were killed. Nothing like encouraging your men.

Barbara Payton (with whom Peck is said to have had an affair on the set) as Cathy jumps to an enormous conclusion and assumes Peck guilty of a base act, spurning him. Like all good Western heroes, Peck does not lower himself to self-justification. If she wants to think that, let her. Of course, later she realizes she was wrong and wants him back. I would have told her where to get off but Peck ends up in her arms with Bond drunkenly serenading them both. It won’t last.

The few location shots were filmed around Gallup, NM. Pity we didn’t get more. The fort has a Beau Gestey look about it.

Michael Ansara is quite imposing as Apache chief Tucsos and there is an improbable 1:1 duel at the end in which he cashes in his Apache chips. OK, so I’ve spoiled it for you but I haven’t really: you knew that.

Peck said that this was his least favorite of all his movies. Not hard to see why, really. But because of Peck's contribution the film is by no means a clunker.


 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Bravados (Fox, 1958)


Very, very fine






 
With The Bravados, now, we come to Gregory Peck's second-best Western. It is very, very good.

Henry King directed Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter in 1950 and The Bravados reprises some of the themes and the dark inevitability of death. It’s a fine, fine film, even if it is marred by two major weaknesses: firstly Peck is obliged to act with Joan Collins who, as we all know, as an actress would have made a great shop-window mannequin. She is perfectly awful and you can see Gentleman Gregory politely avoiding squirming when acting with her. Secondly, I don’t know if Henry King was a pious Catholic but the religion in this movie is so unbearably maudlin, sentimental and kitsch it makes you want to throw up. The final scene of Collins sending Peck’s pink-dressed baby daughter running to his arms in the church combines all these elements and almost ruins the whole film.

Those problems aside, The Bravados is a relentless revenge/pursuit drama with a twist. Peck is utterly superb, I would say even better than he was in The Gunfighter. What a fine Western actor he was.

There is the false hangman ploy that James Stewart copied ten years later in Bandolero! The baddies escape and Peck hunts them down, one by pitiless one.

He has a splendid dudish dark blue John Wayne-type shirt, very handsome, even if he wears it through the entire picture so it must have been pretty manky at the end. There is nice scenery (it was filmed in Guadalajara and the San Jose Perua mountains in Mexico, photography by Leon Shamroy) but an indifferent score by Lionel Newman (though many people like it).

Really, the movie is a hymn to the futility of revenge. Peck also said that it was an anti-McCarthy statement but it’s not so easy to see that. At any rate, it’s a fine Western, a must-see.