Ride the High Country


Generally, when I’ve knocked out my thoughts on a film, I’ve tried to avoid those productions which have already been analyzed to death. Such is the case with the work of Sam Peckinpah, which has had more than its fair share of examination and re-examination. However, I have decided that I’m not going to ignore the movie that both provides the title of my own blog and also happens to be my favorite among Sam’s films. Made in 1962, Ride the High Country was the director’s second feature – although this piece by John Hodson helps to explain why the previous year’s The Deadly Companions isn’t a real Peckinpah picture. This film contains the elements that have come to be typically associated with Sam, namely the passing of the Old West, the nature of friendship and loyalty, and a reflection on one’s past deeds.

The whole thing revolves around the two leads, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. These two men are old friends and former partners who have come together one last time,  for one last job. McCrea is the very epitome of honour and personal integrity, whose only wish in life is to enter his house justified. His idealism hasn’t brought him any material rewards, his shabby suit in the early scenes being proof enough of that. Scott, on the other hand, has come to question the value of holding on to principles that lead only to poverty and a poorly attended funeral. And so it’s a question of whether McCrea’s quiet nobility or Scott’s cynical pragmatism will ultimately triumph. The guarding of a gold shipment will test the strength of their friendship to the full, but it is the climactic showdown with a family of degenerate rednecks that brings closure to all the moral issues that precede it.

Both Scott and McCrea play off each other beautifully and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch these two old hands clearly relishing what they must surely have recognised as the roles of a lifetime. Both men had spent the previous decade acting almost exclusively in westerns and that experience adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the film. For Scott and McCrea, Ride the High Country was to be the last hurrah; McCrea would make a few more movies and Scott, wisely I think, called it a day and bowed out with what is arguably his best role. Maybe it’s just my sentimentality, but I always get goosebumps when Scott speaks his final lines in cinema and tells McCrea “I’ll see you later..” – it’s a lovely understated way to bid farewell to a long and distinguished career. Randolph Scott is one of the reasons why I enjoy the western genre so much (I suspect I’m not alone, if that gag in Blazing Saddles is anything to go by) – when I was a child it seemed as though no Saturday afternoon was complete without a television showing of one of his films, so he was and is the personification of the western hero for me.

Ride the High Country is a marvelous looking picture due to Peckinpah’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s wonderful cinematography. The movie is full of memorable scenes, not the least of which being the climax, as Scott and McCrea stand shoulder to shoulder and walk out to confront the murderous Hammond clan and fate itself. Peckinpah would offer up a more elaborately staged and celebrated ‘walk’ in The Wild Bunch, but this one packs just as much punch for its simplicity.

Ride the High Country may have become overshadowed by the films that would follow from Peckinpah, but I don’t feel that that should be the case. Is it his best movie? Many would argue that it’s not and point instead to The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but it is the one that I have a special affection for, and the one that I find myself returning to most often.

100 Rifles


1969 saw the release of two westerns that featured Americans dabbling in the Mexican revolution. Both pictures involved hijacked arms shipments, trains, advancing technology, European military advisers and elaborately staged shootouts with the Federales. One, of course, was Sam Peckinpah’s seminal, genre-defining masterpiece  The Wild Bunch – the other was Tom Gries’ popcorn entertainment 100 Rifles. Since copious amounts of scholarly writing has already been devoted to the former, I’m going to look at the latter.

A year before, Tom Gries had directed the thoughtful and elegiac Will Penny – his next project was a distinct departure. 100 Rifles tells of Lyedecker, an American lawman (Jim Brown), who ventures south of the border in pursuit of Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds) who has stolen a consignment of weapons – the hundred rifles of the title. The guns are to be presented to the Yaqui Indians to assist them in their struggle against the Mexican authorities. Naturally, the Federales – led by a thoroughly sadistic Fernando Lamas – are keen to acquire these rifles for themselves. And there you have it. Will Lyedecker carry out his sworn duty and bring Joe back for trial? Will he be seduced by the plight of the Yaqui? Will the Federales beat them all to the chase? By the time the movie hurtles along to its grandstand climax all those questions have been resolved.

All the main players give amiable performances here with likable heroes and hissable villains. Burt Reynolds may not be the greatest actor in the world, but it’s hard not to like him on screen. Jim Brown is merely passable and Fernando Lamas is suitably vile. Dan O’Herlihy is always watchable as the railroad boss with shifting allegiances. But the real standout here is Raquel Welch as the revolutionary, Sarita. The scene where she stops a whole trainload of Federales as she takes a shower under a water tower is reason enough to see this film on its own!

OK, so this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but its heart is in the right place, there’s more than enough action to satisfy, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score suits the mood of the piece perfectly. Available in a great looking anamorphic transfer from Fox in R1.


The Steel Helmet


If you look at that small subgenre that is the Korean War movie, the efforts of Sam Fuller stand head and shoulders above the others. That’s not intended to disparage those other films which deal with that largely forgotten conflict such as Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill or Anthony Mann’s Men in War. However, Fuller’s Korean movies have that gritty believability that really set them apart. Both The Steel Helmet and the later Fixed Bayonets! deal with small groups of grunts caught up in desperate battles against overwhelming odds. Fuller’s presentation of war is a bleak one where there are no false heroics; just a bunch of regular guys doing what they have to in order to stay alive.

The Steel Helmet opens with Gene Evans’ Sgt. Zack, bound hand and foot, dragging himself along the ground amid the bodies of his massacred comrades. He’s just had the luckiest of lucky escapes – an execution squad bullet having entered his helmet and rattling round inside before exiting harmlessly. From here on the story follows Zack and the rag-tag bunch of stragglers he picks up as they make their way to an abandoned Buddhist temple to set up a forward observation post. Fuller never relents and the intensity of the story builds satisfyingly to the climactic assault on the temple by the communist forces.

Along the way the members of the group are revealed to us, and through this we get a glimpse of post-WWII American society. Among this odd group there’s a black medic and a Japanese-American veteran who serve to point up the racial prejudice prevalent at the time. There are also the quirky characters of the young soldier who lost all his hair through scarlet fever, and the silent G.I. whose only dialogue comes, poignantly, at the point of death. The locals are presented through the contrasting figures of “Short Round”, the South Korean boy who befriends Zack, and the malevolent, rat-like North Korean major. It is the sneering and callous reference to the boy’s fate by the red major that provokes Zack into an uncharacteristic, yet very understandable, reaction.

Which brings me to Gene Evans. His portrayal of Zack is the lynch-pin that holds the whole thing together. He is the consummate professional soldier – weary and cynical but dedicated to getting the job done and undeniably human. Evans would give a similar performance in Fuller’s next Korean drama Fixed Bayonets! and you have to wonder why his career never really took off from here. He plays the kind of three dimensional man’s man that is sadly absent in today’s cinema – well, that’s progress for you.

I’m not sure if anyone has seen any parallels between Fuller’s work and that of Howard Hawks. To me, both directors were attracted to the concept of the small group under siege and the emphasis on professionalism. However, while Hawks would use a lightness of touch, Fuller’s direction is like a pile-driver battering your senses.

Released by Criterion last year as part of their Eclipse series, The Steel Helmet comes in a set with I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona. While the film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration, it looks just fine and is worth the price of the set on it’s own.


The Big Clock


The Big Clock is a 1948 thriller about a race against time; a manhunt where the protagonist is essentially hunting himself. Does that sound complicated? Well, the plot is complex but it never becomes incomprehensible.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is the overworked editor of a crime magazine who yearns for a holiday with his family. Just when this seems in sight his boss, time-obsessed media tycoon Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), insists that he postpone his vacation and follow up on a breaking news story. In a fit of pique, he tenders his resignation and ends up spending a drunken evening with Janoth’s mistress. While exiting the girl’s apartment Stroud sees his boss arriving, while the boss sees only a silhouette. Goaded into a rage by the mistress, Janoth clubs her to death. On the advice of his reptilian chief executive (George Macready) he now plans to pin the deed on the shadowy stranger he glimpsed in the corridor. To this end, Stroud is recalled to co-ordinate the manhunt.

This is a great suspenseful picture, and you really sense Milland’s mounting horror as he is forced to use his own investigative team and techniques to gradually build up a profile of the mystery man; a man who he knows better than anyone. The two principal female roles are taken by Maureen O’Sullivan (who was married to director John Farrow) as Stroud’s wife, and Rita Johnson as the ill-fated mistress. I always enjoy anything with that inveterate scene stealer Charles Laughton, and he gives one of his more restrained performances here. There are lots of familiar faces in the support cast, not least Laughton’s real life spouse Elsa Lanchester as an eccentric artist and her turn damn near steals the whole show. Harry Morgan also shows up as a darkly menacing gunman on Janoth’s payroll, made all the more sinister by the fact that his character utters not a word on screen. Seasoned noir watchers may also recognise Harold Vermilyea who remains forever memorable, for me at least, as the doomed Waldo Evans from Sorry, Wrong Number.

If the plot to this movie seems slightly familiar that may be due to the fact that it was remade in the 80’s as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in the Milland and Laughton roles respectively. That film was not bad but, to my mind at least, not a patch on the original – isn’t that usually the case?

The Big Clock is available in R1 as part of the now, apparently, defunct Universal Noir line. If any fans of classic noir/suspense don’t already own this, I can only ask – Why?


Night Passage


Two brothers, one an outlaw and the other a former railroad troubleshooter in disgrace, square off. That’s the basic premise of  Night Passage.

Jimmy Stewart is the honest man who is now reduced to scratching out a living as an accordion player after letting his no-good sibling Audie Murphy escape five years previously. He gets a last chance to redeem himself when his ex-boss hires him again. The railroad payroll has been repeatedly robbed by a gang of outlaws led by The Utica Kid (Murphy) and Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) – Stewart is assigned to see that the next one gets through. So the stage is set for a showdown.

Night Passage is the Anthony Mann western that never was. Mann was slated to direct Jimmy Stewart once again but pulled out at the last minute. His replacement was James Neilson (a debut director) and he managed to produce a serviceable movie, but fails to properly use the edgy quality that Mann always seemed to extract from his lead.

There are a number of weaknesses present, not least the overuse of Stewart’s accordian playing! The plot tries to pack in too many ideas and never really develops any of them sufficiently; Murphy and Stewart’s battle for the soul of Brandon De Wilde could have been expanded upon. It is shown early on that Stewart’s old flame is now married to his boss, but again nothing much is made of this.

Nevertheless, there are lots of good things here. The cinematography of William H. Daniels shows off the Colorado scenery to breathtaking effect in some beautiful shots and Dimitri Tiomkin provides one of his great trademark scores. I’ve heard it said that his music is sometimes too overpowering and in-your-face but I can’t think of any examples of his work that I didn’t like. Murphy is good in the role of the black sheep; he always seemed to give better performances when playing anti-heroic characters (No Name on the Bullet and John Huston’s The Unforgiven come to mind). There’s also a fine array of familiar support players in Jay C. Flippen, Jack Elam, Olive Carey, Hugh Beaumont and Paul Fix.

The film is available on DVD from Universal and looks very nice indeed in anamorphic scope – I have the R2 but I imagine the R1 uses the same transfer. Recommended.