These Thousand Hills

Innocent? Well, that depends on who the jury is. I’ll tell you a couple of things I ain’t guilty of. I ain’t prayed on Sunday. Bought cows cheap on Monday. I ain’t broke my word. I ain’t climbed up high on somebody else’s back or thought of myself better than another man. I ain’t double-crossed a friend or made a little tin god out of money. Sure, I’m innocent. I’m as innocent as you. Or ain’t you boys innocent?

Dreams, and loss, and discovery, these ideas amount to a fine framework around which to construct a drama. If they are not constants, then they are at least experiences common to all of us, situations which therefore resonate because of their universality. One could trace the course of many a life by following the line or arc punctuated and described by them, which is precisely what occurs over the hour and a half running time of These Thousand Hills (1959).

This is the story of Lat Evans (Don Murray), whom we first encounter signing on with  a cattle outfit and chafing at the bit to get ahead in the world. His is a poor background, and an unhappy one too, shaped by a father whose lack of professional success saw him turn to unbending religion and ruthless discipline. This has worked its way into the heart and soul of Lat, forging an inner steel that produces the kind of resilience necessary to rise in the world, but also encourages another colder hardness, the type that is capable of shattering the most intimate relationships. While Lat is without question the principle figure in the affair, those dreams and losses and discoveries I opened by speaking about also relate to others in the picture. Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) is direct in his pursuit of a simple philosophy that life is for living, exuberant and reckless where Lat is driven and calculating, a man whose heart will always overrule his judgement. And finally, we have Callie (Lee Remick), a saloon girl possessed of a natural compassion and charity. Her love is of the simple and uncomplicated variety, and it founders on the rocks of sanctimony and abuse.

All that may sound like a rather grim business, and there’s certainly grief and tragedy on display. Nevertheless, those elements serves a purpose, without them the film’s central message about the triumph of the human spirit would be diminished. By the end of the 1950s the western had attained artistic synergy, a place where theme, story, and visuals all came together to form something splendid. Salvation and redemption are basic ingredients of all human endeavor, they are the prize sought by all and the way these movies integrated the concepts into their fabric with such subtlety remains one of their most enduring strengths. I haven’t read the A B Guthrie novel which this movie is  based on but the film Richard Fleischer directed and Alfred Hayes scripted is a fine piece of work. The Colorado locations are stunning at times and those magnificent vistas form a suitably epic backdrop for this tale of towering ambition and high ideals. Fleischer made some very good and visually striking movies in the 50’s, exploring all the possibilities afforded by the CinemaScope image and his use of rich, vibrant colors is immensely attractive.

The character of Lat Evans isn’t an easy one to portray on screen, requiring a maturing process to take place not only over a relatively short running time but in a fairly complex way too. It’s to Don Murray’s great credit that he manages to pull it off successfully, the shifting of his priorities and the corresponding drift of loyalties and allegiances never appears jarring or affected. What’s more, the nature of the man he plays is layered at all times – enthused yet reserved, ambitious and loyal while also prone to hypocrisy. When his moment of truth finally arrives and he heeds the voice of his own conscience, although arguably it’s a two stage affair, it’s never less than convincing. Stuart Whitman is also on good form as the flighty friend and turns in a performance of great charm. His best scene is the one where he shyly asks Lat to be best man at his wedding to saloon hostess Jen (Jean Willes), and he finds himself rebuffed by his friend’s puritanical propriety. His journey from confusion and hurt through to explicit anger is so well realized, and extremely effective.

There are two significant female roles, those played by Lee Remick and Patricia Owens. Remick got the plum part, that of the woman who loves Lat unconditionally and suffers the greatest indignities for her trouble. It’s her actions that set Lat on the initial path to success and, despite all she must bear, she is not only the one who triggers his ultimate redemption but proves herself to be his physical savior as well. Patricia Owens has a less sympathetic part; she comes over as somewhat spoiled and priggish, but there’s more to her character than that, which is made clear by the end. Richard Egan is at his callous and brutal best as the villainous Jehu. Cheating, conniving, provocative and sadistic, he uses his confidence and physical presence well and the build up to the final confrontation (shot amid the garish crimson decor of the saloon) has him sneering and positively dripping malignancy.  Among the supporting cast Albert Dekker and Royal Dano offer reassuringly recognizable faces.

These Thousand Hills was put out on DVD many years ago by Fox and it still looks strong and attractive – the studio was generally releasing a lot of exceptionally fine transfers back then – in crisp and colorful CinemaScope. I’m not aware of the movie ever having been released on Blu-ray anywhere and, given the ownership of the rights now, that does not seem likely to happen in the near future. As for the movie itself, I don’t believe those dreams mentioned above are fully realized by anyone while all of the main characters experience loss, and innocence is probably the chief casualty in this regard. Still, all of this is eclipsed by discovery and it applies to practically everyone involved, though most tellingly in the case of Lat. The epiphany he undergoes is what adds meaning, bears out the words of his old boss about nobody finishing up the same as they started out, and leaves the viewer with a sense of closure. The final year of the western’s greatest decade saw a number of superior movies produced (and this is true too across a range of genres if we’re being honest) and These Thousand Hills slots neatly in among them. I never cease to be impressed by the sheer richness of the western in these years and the apparently effortless artistry of those working within the genre. A superb film and highly recommended.

57 thoughts on “These Thousand Hills

    • Yes, it is. I had this on the shelf for years and only got round to it recently. However, it was worth the wait and I had a very good time with it.
      Fleischer was doing some superb work with the wide lens in the 50s, visually rich movies that had some depth.

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  1. Colin
    I have the dvd of this one. Watched it 5-6 years ago and liked it. While not a big Don Murray fan, he fits quite well into this film. Egan, as you point out is quite good as the black hat. Time to dig this one out for a re-watch. I recall that cinematographer Charles G Clarke also worked with director Richard Fleischer on VIOLENT SATURDAY. Thanks for the reminder. And of course, well done on your part for rolling this one out.
    Gord

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  2. Strange how some things develop in one’s film-watching over time. I first saw “THESE THOUSAND HILLS” years ago on the box and it didn’t especially work for me. I was probably looking for a more straight-forward ‘shoot ’em up’.

    After a discussion of the film a couple of years ago by some folks whose opinions on westerns I respect I sent for a copy. Maybe because this time I knew what I was expecting I viewed it very differently.

    I agree completely with Colin’s ‘nailed it’ write-up. It is a beautifully conceived, presented and filmed piece of work. A very fine western actually.
    I agree too of your view of Egan’s work, Colin. He is another of those good actors capable of playing heroic or nasty, but always with shading.

    It never ceases to amaze me how mature and splendid the western had become by the end of the ’50s and yet from that point it went into speedy decline (though with some very definite exceptions). The effect of TV on the industry and the way the industry was run from there on were probably chief culprits (he sighed)!!

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    • It’s our old friend expectations again, isn’t it?
      I like your choice of the word splendid to describe the state of the western by the late 1950s, it’s most appropriate. Decline is the inevitable companion of ascent and I’m not sure it bothers me now all that much. When you realize that an artistic pinnacle was achieved and that it remains accessible and meaningful, well it seems almost churlish to dwell too long on the subsequent falling off.
      Yes, that maturation is both rewarding and delightful to trace, watching art grow and the artists involved gain confidence to the point where so much of what they did appears so effortless and where the expression of truths becomes a routine and a rule, as opposed to an exception. To me, art is the ultimate expression of culture, and culture itself is both the reflection and product of civilization; I’ve often thought it telling that in Greek πολιτισμός means both culture and civilization. The fact that the genre closest to my heart attained a kind of artistic purity at this stage is something I find deeply satisfying.

      Regarding Egan, when I watched Seven Cities of Gold again last year I was struck by what a canny performer he was. That’s a movie I still want to write something about – I’m of the opinion it’s far better than many would have you believe.

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      • Colin, that fairly speedy decline of the western at the turn of the decade may not have been immediately apparent to the casual observer at the time. I had been buying (or rather had bought for me) F. Maurice Speed’s ‘Western Film Annual’ and from 1957 ‘Western Film and TV Annual’ each Christmas and by 1960 and even more in 1961 the drop in number of new Western films was massively obvious. I remember my confusion at the time. It was like a cliff edge. In fact Speed dropped out after 1962 and the annual was taken up briefly by others. Speed had started it in 1950 in a time of great abundance.
        Anyway it’s history now and the disappointed lad I was at the time could never have known that that great abundance would one day be available to us all at the drop of a disc.

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        • That’s very interesting, Jerry. Shifts in our cultural landscape do have a tendency to creep up unawares unless we are more deeply invested in a particular aspect. What we would now refer to as fandom is probably where changes first become apparent.

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      • I am really so glad to read that you’ve seen THESE THOUSAND HILLS and that you responded so favorably to it–and of course, wrote insightfully and eloquently about it as I would expect.

        This is a movie that I have proselytized about a lot, I know. I guess the last time here was when Stuart Whitman died early last year. Possibly, that may have been part of Jerry’s motivation to go back to it and I remember he had a great response and I enjoyed his glowing words about it then.

        I wrote a long piece on THESE THOUSAND HILLS published in an online magazine called The Film Journal about fifteen years ago–then sadly, it was their last issue and they didn’t archive anything. But I have the piece for my Westerns book so hopefully will resurface then. Since I wrote so much about it then, I won’t add anything now, especially as what you said about it is essentially along the same lines. But just to add, I first saw it on first release in 1959 and even then I know it registered to me as an ideal Western, both aesthetically and dramatically, even if the elements, while all there, play a little differently in that narrative. But that’s the grace and maturity of the genre at that point, that it is all so familiar in iconography–in settings, character types, conflicts, and yet so flexible and given to individual inflection, and often by those who were not specialists in the genre, like Richard Fleischer, who made only a few Westerns and is better known for his superb work in other genres though I don’t believe he ever made a greater movie than this one

        Why it is still relatively uncelebrated is something I don’t think about that much or even care about that much. So many first-rate Westerns of the time waited to be rediscovered or fully discovered and many others are still most known to aficionados. I just know that for so many reasons, and I’m sure not all of them fully conscious, this is a movie that feels very close to me and always will.

        I tried to find the place for a reply here and hopefully it is beneath your comment with the Greek word meaning culture and civilization, because I like that and anything Greek suggests classicism which is where we are here.

        I also very much support your observation that if genres decline, we should not be so sad about it but appreciate the treasure trove that is there with something like what the Western became by the end of the 50s. Personally, though I have responded well to some later Westerns, I’m not too upset about what it became overall after those wonderful years, because that is inevitable. Artistic forms rise and fall and that’s always true. I really believe they blossom most deeply in classical periods. I say that as one who does embrace my share of modernist works, but I don’t think modernism goes too well with genres. It’s better with other kinds of works.

        Jerry is right about the relatively fast decline of the Western after the 50s, and partly for the reason he says, that very quickly there are fewer Westerns. This is even intimated in 1959, arguably the peak–there is a first falling off in the number then but it’s as if the whole glows more brightly in this moment as this begins to happen. I will say again that with markedly fewer Westerns each year from 1960-1962, these are still very good years for the genre, though not just in the same way in most cases. 1962 is like an epiphany–even with only a handful of films in the genre, the two best American movies were both Westerns and both magisterial works, each in its way hitting an appropriately elegiac note. The appropriate time for Speed to drop out of that Annual, and yes, I do remember it too.

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        • Those two 1962 movies you refer to must be from Peckinpah and Ford.

          As for These Thousand Hills, I’m just pleased that so many of you here mentioned this film on a few occasions and thus encouraged me to get round to finally viewing it.

          I have another Fleischer movie to hand that I’d like to feature on here but this continues to be a very odd year and it’s difficult to make many definite plans.

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          • “Those two 1962 movies you refer to must be from Peckinpah and Ford.”

            I guess I always assume that’s obvious, but maybe that’s wrong and I should cite those titles when I say that. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY just in case anyone is wondering, but no one who saddles up here I am guessing.

            Without getting into it too much, one thing that interests and really greatly pleases me along with that moment-in-time harmonious resonance of Ford and Peckinpah is that my four favorite male leads for Westerns (and I will say the greatest)–Wayne, Stewart, Scott and McCrea–are separately paired in the two movies.

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  3. I agree with your very high estimation of this film, Colin, though I could not have expressed my view with anything like the insight or elegance you have shown. There are several breathtakingly good scenes and the whole narrative is deeply engaging and memorable. This is one of the best Westerns.

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  4. Weekend Film
    Tonight I took in a Fritz Lang effort that I had never seen before. Our man Colin gave it a thumbs up a while back, so I finally decided to dive right in. “You Only Live Once” (1937) Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney headline. A three time loser, Fonda, is just out of prison and wants to go straight. Get a job and just live with his girl, Sidney. Needless to say things go sideways and he ends up back in the slammer. Then there is a botched prison break. There are a few more twists and turns thrown into the mix to keep the pot well stirred. The film features a rather severe ending for a 1937 production. Well worth a look in my humble opinion. Thanks you Colin for the recommend.
    Gord

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      • Colin
        My next turn with something Lang is CLOAK AND DAGGER. Recorded it off TCM a month or two ago. Seen it many, many moons ago but do not recall much of it. So a re-watch is needed..
        Gord

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        • I bought it on Blu-ray a while ago but still haven’t viewed that edition. It’s a good few years since I last saw it but I think it’s a weaker effort – not bad, but overshadowed by the other work he was producing around that time.

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    • A tragic love story with tragic circumstances along the way. Will Fonda and Sidney ever catch a break? Well…..you won’t know until the very end. Fonda is good, but Sidney is better by giving one of her best performances……and she had many. An unforgettable film of this particular genre.

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        • She certainly did. Fast forward to the mid 40’s, I really liked her opposite James Cagney in the American war film BLOOD ON THE SUN (1945) and then the following year opposite George Raft in the American film noir MR ACE(1946).
          Do you remember THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE (1936)? I haven’t seen that movie since I was a youngster. I sure have some colorful memories. There was Sylvia, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda and the stand out performance by Fred Stone. Stone was born for roles like this.

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  5. By a coincidence, I have a copy of “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE” on its way to me now. It is a film I saw several times years ago and is very ripe for a re-view.

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  6. I noticed that “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE” was shot by Cinematographer Leon Shamroy. He and Charles Lang share the record for most number of Academy Award nominations for Cinematography. During his five-decade career, Shamroy gained eighteen nominations with four wins, sharing that record with Joseph Ruttenberg. Wow, 18 nominations. Winners CLEOPATRA, THE BLACK SWAN, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, WILSON

    Gord

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  7. Anyone here recall the UK series Quiller? Ran down all 13 episodes wandering about You=Tube. Based on the The Quiller Memorandum film I guess, or at least the book series.

    Gord

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  8. Several decades ago I read Wild Pitch, set in the West but contemporary. Involved a Sheriff and his teenage baseball playing son. Amazon also lists a Cotswolds mystery series. He had a long, prolific career.

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  9. Took in my second Fritz Lang film of the week. 1946s CLOAK AND DAGGER with Gary Copper and Lilli Palmer. The OSS wants to know how far the Germans are in developing a nuclear bomb. Cooper, a nuclear scientist, is sent to Europe to find out. There are some good parts with nicely handled action bits here, but it needed to be trimmed by about 15 minutes. It is far too heavy on the romance angle between Cooper and Lilli Palmer, which just slows the films pace. Still, it makes for an entertaining spy thriller.

    My 2 cents worth on the film.
    Gord

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  10. My nights spent wandering around You-Tube flushed out a pair of films I have never seen. The two were, THE NEBRASKAN 1953 and MASSACRE RIVER from 1949. The former stars Phil Carey and Roberta Haynes while the latter stars, Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun. Any thoughts on the two by you bunch of cow punchers? Keepers?

    Gord

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    • Hi Gord
      Philip Carey made a handful of westerns for Columbia in the mid 50s which varied in quality. I particularly like “OUTLAW STALLION” but found “THE NEBRASKAN” to be the least of them.
      “MASSACRE RIVER” seems to divide opinion. Personally I like it, and having Guy and Rory starring gives it additional interest.

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      • Jerry, I haven’t seen it for a few years but I’d broadly agree on Massacre River, not a bad movie.
        I can’t comment on the other as I’ve never seen it. Speaking of Phil Carey westerns, what do we think of They Rode West? I’ve been eyeing it for a while now.

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        • I thought I had “THEY RODE WEST” but checked and I haven’t. Must have been thinking of “FIVE GUNS WEST”!
          I also should think about getting it. From memory it was OK.

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  11. Weekend Viewing
    Watched an episode of the popular series, SKY KING, called, “Formula for Fear”. SKY KING was a early adventure type program that ran 72 episodes. Kirby Grant, Gloria Winters and Ron Hagerthy starred. Each episode the trio got mixed up with various crooks etc. and had to dash the plans of said nasty types.
    The name comes from the aircraft the trio flew around in during most episodes.

    In this one, Hayden Rorke and Lee Van Cleef play the villains of the piece. They have kidnapped a government science type and want the formula for a new poison gas. I recall watching episodes on reruns in the early 60s.This was Van Cleef’s third role and was made just after HIGH NOON.

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  12. Wonderful news regarding LARCENY and from a 4K scan.
    Kino with this release and THE WEB seem to be concentrating on “unreleased” Universal Noir and goodness knows there are enough of them in the vaults. I wonder if Colin’s excellent post was the “arm twister” on this one. When they have done with Columbia Indicator will probably also be unlocking the Universal vaults-as I’ve mentioned many times before Noir addicts have never had it so good.
    BTW Colin I’ve no doubt you have noticed Criterion’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY on Blu Ray with a raft of great extras.

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    • I don’t think my voice has quite the carry you’re claiming, John. Nevertheless, I’m pleased by this, whatever the impetus was.
      Yes, I’ve seen that announcement about Nightmare Alley and I do hope it is somehow released in Region B at some point.

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  13. Interesting that both LARCENY and THE WEB were shot by Irving Glassberg who was no slouch when it came to Westerns either.
    Even if Kino hone in on Glassberg shot Noirs there are some great titles there alone. STORY OF MOLLY X, OUTSIDE THE WALL, SHAKEDOWN and UNDERTOW. Only UNDERTOW has had a DVD release and I’d jump at a Blu Ray. His street location work on OUTSIDE THE WALL is stunning, there’s just so much Noir gold in Universal’s vaults and I’m encouraged that there seems to me a market for these films.

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  14. Minus 40 C last week, plus 8 C today. About time!!!!
    Watched a couple of SANDBAGGERS episodes from 1978 tonight. I had forgotten just how good this series was. I love these Cold War spy dramas. Roy Marsden is great.

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      • We bought the box set a couple of years ago in search of some good understated, intelligent drama. My wife and I had watched the whole series in 1978-80 so this was a re-watch after a very long break. Very fine series.
        Incidentally, traditional ‘live’ theatre is something we love (i.e. plays- dramas etc) and for many years have regularly visited Theatre Royal, Windsor. Roy Marsden is resident director of some of their most prestigious productions and it is not uncommon to have dinner at a little local eatery and find Roy having dinner alone at the next table.

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    • Edit: I just realized that I replied thinking I was talking about another movie. It’s been a long day!

      Anyway, yes. I quite agree. Watching ‘Scope movies chopped down, especially when perfectly fine masters in the correct aspect ratio exist, is something I won’t do either.

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