Canyon River

Back in the saddle. It’s been a while now since I’ve featured a western on this site, not that I’ve been consciously avoiding them, it’s just that other material has been occupying my thoughts as far as posting is concerned. Added to that is the fact I like to vary the content, to try to keep staleness at bay if nothing else. Anyway, I’ve found myself watching, and indeed writing up, a number of CinemaScope movies lately – others will follow in the weeks ahead. The first of those to make an appearance is probably the least of them, which is not to say it’s a bad movie. Canyon River (1956) is perhaps unremarkable yet it’s also entertaining and, what’s even more important, quietly satisfying in the way so many 1950s westerns manage to be.

There can be few things more satisfying than seeing a bullying loudmouth such as Robert J Wilke’s character have his pistol spectacularly kicked out of his hand and then get laid out by two well aimed haymakers. The man meting out this punishment in the opening scene is Steve Patrick (George Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher who may be facing financial difficulties but isn’t taking anything lying down. No, this is a man with a plan, albeit a plan which plenty of people will tell him he’s crazy to attempt. In brief, he wants to introduce a new cross breed of cattle, something which will involve a big gamble on his part and necessitate driving a herd along the Oregon Trail in the opposite direction and out of season. Aside from the hardships to be faced, there’s also the challenge of finding a crew willing to go along with this, not to mention the fact that the man he considers his closest friend (Peter Graves) is secretly plotting to take both his life and his herd. If all that didn’t represent sufficient difficulty, there’s also the matter of a young widow (Marcia Henderson) and her son (Richard Eyer) to consider.

What Canyon River presents is a fairly standard trail drive western, blending in that familiar yet always welcome 1950s focus on redemption and the potential for a fresh start. The redemptive aspect is related mainly (though not exclusively) to the greed and betrayal of Peter Graves’ character. I’m not entering spoiler territory here as the treachery is revealed to the viewer very early on and the knowledge of that adds a layer of suspense to the plot. How, or indeed whether, Graves will redeem himself is not resolved until late in proceedings and in the meantime another thread of redemption – more straightforward this time – is explored. This concerns the crew hired by Montgomery to undertake his unconventional drive. Well, they are an unconventional group, headed up by Alan Hale Jr and consisting of a ragtag bunch of criminals and ex-convicts. For them, this represents an opportunity to find a path back into society, a means of escaping destructive get-rich-quick schemes and winning back some degree of self-respect. Last but by no means least, the whole affair offers a chance of a fresh start for Montgomery himself along with Henderson and Eyer.

Canyon River, from Daniel B Ullman’s script, is a remake of the 1951 Bill Elliott western The Longhorn. Not having seen the earlier version, I can’t comment on that or make any comparisons but I do like this iteration. A number of films directed by Harmon Jones have been featured here in the past and I’ve found them all quite enjoyable. While this is a modest picture overall there is plenty to admire, from the attractive widescreen imagery, shot by director of photography Ellsworth Fredericks, to the feelgood positivity of it all, and that latter aspect is something I think we can all do with sampling in these stubbornly trying times.

A big part of what makes Canyon River work so well is the presence of George Montgomery. He imbues the part of Steve Patrick with an enthusiasm and verve that is infectious. However, what is even more important is the generosity and openness of the character; this is the key to the success of the central theme. It’s his simple faith in himself and human nature in general that draws in, inspires, and indeed shames some of the other characters. The sheer likeability of the man makes Graves’ betrayal of him appear even less appealing. I liked Marcia Henderson’s work in Back to God’s Country and she brings great warmth to her role in Canyon River, making the romance which blossoms between her and Montgomery especially sweet. This also applies to Richard Eyer, who is wonderful as the hero worshiping youngster. At one point, after a hard day on the trail, the boy quietly falls asleep by the fireside and Alan Hale’s reformed outlaw spots this.  Demonstrating unexpected tenderness, he carefully picks him up and gently deposits him in the wagon; it’s a fleeting moment but a telling one and a delightful little grace note.

Hale is extremely engaging all the way through and his gratitude is in stark contrast to the jealousy and duplicity of Peter Graves. Graves does fine work portraying this, and he also succeeds in getting across the inner turmoil of the character as the doubts and guilt slowly grow within him. Other villainous parts are taken by perennial louse Robert J Wilke, whom I spoke of above, as well as a somewhat underused Jack Lambert and Walter Sande. I sometimes feel no western would be complete were Ray Teal not to appear at some point, and he obligingly pops up as the cattleman who sells his herd to Montgomery.

Canyon River was an Allied Artists production and therefore it can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive. It’s a reasonably good looking transfer, in the correct aspect ratio and boasting strong, attractive colors. As far as I know, there are other copies available on assorted European labels. I remember coming across this movie on TV years ago and thinking at the time that it was passable but nothing special. Revisiting the movie recently, I came away with a far more favorable impression. Nevertheless, I don’t want to oversell it and have people thinking it’s some unmined gem that has just been unearthed. It is no world beater yet the mood, the message, and some good performances make for a very pleasurable 80 minutes of entertainment.

Distant Drums

How does one get the measure of a filmmaker? I guess received wisdom has it that a viewing of their best works is the ideal way to go about it; this assertion appears to be self-evident and it’s not one I’m not going to dispute. However, I can’t help wondering if there’s not something be gained from an examination of what might be thought of as their mediocre efforts as well. It just occurred to me as I was watching Distant Drums (1951) that Raoul Walsh’s strengths as a director were still on display despite the fact the movie in question was very much a routine affair. In fact, a great deal of what makes this film worthwhile derives from the skill of the man ultimately calling the shots.

Distant Drums is one of only a handful of movies that use the conflict with the Seminole in Florida as a backdrop. I use the word backdrop because that is very much the case here, with no examination whatsoever of that conflict taking place. In narrative terms it merely serves as a frame on which to hang a straightforward story of pursuit and danger. In brief, the Seminole are being armed by gunrunners operating out of an old Spanish fort and this supply needs to be cut off if the army is to be successful in subduing them. To this end, a young naval officer (Richard Webb) is sent to the island retreat of the reclusive Captain Wyatt (Gary Cooper) to accompany him and his small force and assist them during the essential lake crossing en route to their target. While the initial assault on the fort is a success the return to the prearranged rendezvous proves problematic. Wyatt and his party,  now supplemented by a rescued hostage (Mari Aldon) and her maid, are forced to abandon their original plan and instead plunge into the steamy, crocodile infested Everglades.

If one takes the movie as an uncomplicated adventure,  Distant Drums works just fine. There is no shortage of incident, the action scenes are frequent and absorbing, and there is enough suspense generated at key moments to quicken the pulse. The assault on the fort is a grand bit of work, shot and cut together with a fine eye for the geography of the building and never drifting into the type of muddle a complex set piece such as this always flirts dangerously with. And this leads me to Raoul Walsh. He was one of the great directors, in my opinion, a man of boundless skill and possessed of the kind of practical artistry that allowed him to tackle even the most unpromising and prosaic projects with the same dedicated flair as one would expect were he making a prestige picture. It’s sometimes said that Walsh was the consummate action director, but it’s maybe more accurate to think of him as a master of drive and motion. His movies always appear to move effortlessly forward, smoothly shifting gears and bringing the audience along for the ride even when the journey itself hasn’t all that much to offer. This is what I was alluding to at the beginning, how the capabilities of a director like Walsh remain apparent despite the limitations of the material he was handling.

I can’t fault Walsh’s direction, and neither the gorgeous location cinematography of Sidney Hickox nor the score by Max Steiner disappoint. So where is the film lacking? Surprisingly, I think the responsibility has to be laid at the door of of the writers. I say it’s surprising because the name of Niven Busch on the credits generally has me expecting a bit more depth; perhaps some  probing into character, some heightened emotion, or even a hint of twisted psychology. Yet none of that is present, and in the end we know little more about any of the characters than we did at the outset. I certainly haven’t seen all of the movies Busch provided a screenplay for but of those I have (mainly his later pictures) I think it’s fair to say that Distant Drums is easily the least interesting. For what it’s worth, I have another of this writer’s scripted movies in mind for a future write up – and no, it’s not Duel in the Sun before anyone asks.

The thing about great movie stars is how even unremarkable films gain by their presence. There are those who dislike or are unconvinced by Gary Cooper’s style, and that’s of course fine, but I’d have thought his place among cinema’s pantheon is undisputed. Sure he’s laconic and his work is understated but he commands the screen whenever he’s present and dares anyone to look away. Still, I feel the script let him down somewhat. Next to nothing is made of the potential suggested by his character’s late wife or their mixed race son. The danger the latter is exposed to at the end and the effect on Cooper is worth noting but it never feels like it’s center stage. Mari Aldon makes for an attractive co-star and the romance which develops is gentle and light. This may well have been her most substantial role, certainly of what I’ve seen. However, I’ll remember her more for her small part as the world weary companion of Warren Steven’s abusive and uptight producer in the superior The Barefoot Contessa. Richard Webb has probably the most thankless role of all, the point of view figure who introduces the whole thing and then ends up relegated to merely tagging along. Had there been some more serious rivalry with Cooper’s character injected then it might have added another layer of interest. The support is provided by Arthur Hunnicutt playing one of his patented frontier types and the seemingly ubiquitous Ray Teal as a discontented soldier.

Distant Drums is one of those productions that depends heavily on its visuals as a result of the lush cinematography in Florida. This is one of the movie’s principal attractions and needs to be shown off to its best advantage. The Blu-ray and DVD released by Olive Films some years ago does highlight this aspect most satisfactorily, even if it offers no supplementary material. I may sound as though I dislike the movie, but that’s not true. It remains serviceable, attractive and entertaining. That said, it feels like an opportunity was missed, that the talent involved wasn’t exploited as it might have been. Nevertheless, it helps cement, in my mind anyway, an appreciation of the apparently effortless skills of Raoul Walsh.

Coroner Creek

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so the saying goes. Perhaps the truth is that it’s no dish at all, just an unappetizing craving arising out of wounded emotions. If anything, the coldness, or let’s at least say coolness, that inevitably arrives with the passage of time leads to a more satisfactory reckoning. Coroner Creek (1948) is what is commonly termed a revenge western, that is a story driven by the desire to settle a score and, as with the better examples of this variation on a genre, questions the desirability of this outcome and the effect on the protagonist.

A stagecoach being pursued by a band of whooping Apaches across the sun-baked badlands. That’s something of a cliché in the genre and it’s how Coroner Creek opens. While it may be a familiar and well-worn situation it’s still a dramatic one and does offer the twist of having the Apache raiders seen to be in the employ of a white man, one who remains unidentified as he methodically goes about shooting those within the stage, shooting all but one woman. Here we have the motivation for our protagonist Chris Danning (Randolph Scott) – although this isn’t explicitly stated till later in proceedings it is obvious enough from the start and I doubt if it constitutes a major spoiler. Nor does the identity of the man who Danning has determined to track down and kill. He pieces together enough information from a wounded Apache to allow him to set out across the arid southwest with an idea of who his quarry is. His path eventually leads to the town of Coroner Creek and the local strongman Younger Miles (George Macready). Danning’s game plan is to needle, snipe and provoke Miles into a reaction, to pick away relentlessly at his armor and tease threads from the cloak of respectability he has surrounded himself with. The brutalizing effect this is having on all concerned is made shocking clear on a number of occasions yet there is also a small flicker of hope amid all this darkness, one borne by the calm and steadfast hotel owner Kate Hardison (Marguerite Chapman).

Coroner Creek, adapted from a Luke Short novel, has a strong spiritual element running through it. This is natural enough for a story dealing with a moral issue such as the quest for revenge. It’s Marguerite Chapman’s character who represents this spirituality most obviously, her religious faith (though never piety or sanctimony) is clear to see and her concern for Danning runs deeper than a simple attraction. The movie never shies away from portraying the dehumanizing power of vengeance and it’s the willingness to confront this that raises it above average. Director Ray Enright (Flaming Feather) does some of his best work in this picture and, alongside cinematographer Fred Jackman Jr, shoots from a range of angles and uses the light and shadow to great effect.

Did you ever get hit with a bullet? It’s like a hunk of iron ripping and tearing into you. It sets you on fire inside. Sometimes you don’t die right away. You just bleed and hurt for a long time.

Those lines are spoken by one of the characters late on, just before he gets to experience the truth of his own words in a scene that is memorable for its unflinching cruelty. In fact for a movie made in the late 1940s Coroner Creek is remarkably graphic. There is a sequence around the middle which involves the mutilation of two of the characters’ gun hands. This is mean enough in itself but the fact they act as bookends for a truly bruising encounter between Scott and Forrest Tucker (rehearsing for a similarly tough brawl a couple of years later in The Nevadan) adds to the shock value. However, it’s important to understand that none of this is gratuitous, it’s not put on screen simply to provide some cheap thrill. The picture is nothing if not frank, and it openly acknowledges the effects of violence on the characters, both physically and psychologically.

Scott naturally dominates the movie and continues on that path he’d chosen in the post-WWII years (although arguably it was a journey begun even earlier in the likes of Lang’s Western Union), a path which would trace the development and gradual maturing of his western persona. There are moments of gentleness and humor where his patrician charm shines through but these are overshadowed by the darker, driven side of his character, looking ahead to the obsessive quality he would then hone to perfection in collaboration with Boetticher. Marguerite Chapman, as noted above, helps to temper this somewhat and her benign influence is not to be underestimated. The other significant female part belongs to Sally Eilers, in one of her last roles here and working for ex-husband and producer Harry Joe Brown.  Her contribution is big enough yet it feels slightly truncated at the same time, as though it ought to have had a bit more depth than is ultimately the case. I’m left wondering if certain plot strands weren’t trimmed or curtailed, and there are a few instances of clumsy editing too.

Scott tended to do well when it came to villains to face off against and actors such as Richard Boone and Lee Marvin helped him raise his own game. George Macready (did he ever play a good guy?) is the bad man on this occasion and he is as cold and manipulative as one would expect. That carefully modulated voice, disconcertingly prim and menacing, is well used. He is strongly supported by Forrest Tucker; simultaneously amiable and rotten, he uses his physical presence to excellent effect. Alongside these two Douglas Fowley is shifty up until his spectacular demise while Joe Sawyer is wonderfully contemptible as the blowhard whom Scott threatens in a most chilling way – another of those hard-edged little scenes in a hard little movie. Of the others in the cast, Edgar Buchanan and Wallace Ford turn in the kind of carefully judged performances that make them a pleasure to watch.

Coroner Creek made its appearance on DVD  in the US some years ago in a Sony/TCM collection of Randolph Scott westerns . The movie was shot in Cinecolor, with the limitations of that process, and is variable in appearance. At times the image looks very strong and then weakens noticeably. All told though, I’d say it looks quite acceptable. The film shares disc space with John Sturges’ The Walking Hills and has a handful of supplements such as galleries and a short filmed intro by Ben Mankiewicz. I would place the movie among Scott’s more enjoyable and interesting efforts, and it should easily satisfy any fan of the star’s work.

Wyoming Mail

I reckon titles matter. I’ve commented before on how certain titles have grabbed my attention and were directly responsible for my watching those movies. I know, it’s somewhat similar to the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage and, momentarily at least, it does make me wonder whether I’m being shallow. If there are titles which can draw me in, the opposite is true to some extent as well and there are those which have actively discouraged me; I’m thinking here of long, cumbersome examples or the generally unappealing variety. This brings me to Wyoming Mail (1950), which is not so much an unattractive title as a terminally prosaic one. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, perhaps it’s just some personal prejudice of my own, but I cannot imagine that one getting too many people excited and keen to see the film. Frankly, I have to wonder what the marketing department at Universal-International were thinking of when this picture was being produced. That aside, let’s see how the movie itself plays out.

Yes, it’s a story about the mail. To be more specific, this is one of these westerns which adds undercover/spy trappings to a tale of the gradual expansion of civilization in the Old West. The train was pivotal in conquering the frontier, that iron road was the connection from ocean to ocean and allowed for the transport of people and goods almost everywhere at speed. And part of its function was to carry the mail. That’s where the story kicks in, pointing out how the railroad was following on from the early Pony Express and stage lines in this regard, and how it was simultaneously becoming the target of criminal gangs. So what we’re looking at is an exercise in infiltration, where government operative and former soldier turned prize-fighter Steve Davis (Stephen McNally) is tasked with heading west with the aim of tracking down the head of a gang of highly successful raiders. This quest will require his incarceration in the territorial prison, a stint in “the hole” and a subsequent breakout. All the time he’s burrowing ever deeper into the criminal network and picking up new threads to investigate, he’s continually switching identities and the prospect of betrayal is never far off.

While that title is as forgettable as they come and the script, by Harry Essex and Leonard Lee, has no pretensions about offering anything of depth, the movie remains a hugely entertaining. This, I think, is largely down to the pacing and the amount of incident packed into a brisk 80 minute running time. From the opening minutes the story never lets up, barely pausing for breath as robberies, shootings, fights, double-dealing and a touch of romance sprint across the screen in a Technicolor delight shot through the lens of Russell Metty’s camera.

Director Reginald Le Borg is not someone I automatically think  of when westerns are being discussed. Although I do have a copy of War Drums somewhere, he’s most familiar to me for taking charge of a number of Lon Chaney Jr horrors, particularly a clutch of Inner Sanctum titles. I think the last movie of his that I watched was around the turn of the year when I enjoyed Vincent Price in an attractive looking piece of nonsense called Diary of a Madman. This is a handsome production as well and while I certainly wouldn’t like to refer to it as nonsense it is breezy and quite insubstantial. I’m not sure I can say much about Le Borg as a director beyond the fact he brought a welcome sense of urgency to the picture.

Having Russell Metty behind the camera is a big plus for any movie, but the other big selling point for Wyoming Mail is the cast. I like Stephen McNally a lot, he was one of those guys who was equally effective as hero or villain, in the lead or in support. He’s a good choice in this as the Easterner sent to smash the train robbers’ gang and his snappy, quick-talking assurance works a treat. The romance with Alexis Smith is mostly effective and enjoyable to watch, although I imagine it can’t have been much of a chore being asked to play a love scene opposite Ms Smith. One look at the cast ought to tell you you’re going to be in for a pretty entertaining experience. Just take a moment to read: Howard Da Silva, Ed Begley, Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Richard Egan, Gene Evans, Frank Fenton, Whit Bissell. Granted some of the parts are small and the appearances fleeting but simply seeing these people on the screen is a pleasure in itself. Incidentally, McNally, Smith and Egan would appear together a few years later in Dick Powell’s enjoyable Split Second.

To the best of my knowledge, Wyoming Mail has only had one official DVD release anywhere. That was in France via Sidonis, and it’s one I haven’t bothered to pick up due to the tendency for that company to force subtitles. There aren’t too many Universal-International westerns that remain hard to access these days – unlike their crime and noir pictures – excepting those which seem to have problems with elements or prints in the incorrect aspect ratio. Anything I’ve seen of Wyoming Mail, which pops up online from time to time, suggests that the film is in good shape overall so it’s odd that it’s not been made more widely available. Mind you, I have a hunch the title can’t be helping in that respect…

Black Patch

Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how appropriate it is to talk of boundaries in relation to movies, especially if we’re  going to acknowledge that they are a form of artistic expression. Nevertheless, when it comes to assessing a movie, to applying some critical thought to what’s presented there on the screen,  it’s difficult to get away from the concept of boundaries. Watching Black Patch (1957) had me wondering about where, or indeed how, one goes about fixing the boundary between a work which is merely interesting and one which can be seen as successful. Black Patch fell into that  grey area for me, not failing but not quite working as well as one might hope either.

Low budget movies have to employ a little more creativity, or trickery if you want to take the cynical view, to work around the limited resources. This can operate in a movie’s favor if it’s handled effectively. Here the opening uses a simple technique to hook the viewer, having a dramatic event occur off screen. This narrative, and financial, economy arouses one’s curiosity over what just happened, instigating an itch that needs to be scratched. The event is later revealed to be a robbery, or its aftermath anyway, carried out by Hank Danner (Leo Gordon). Danner’s journey will take him to a small western settlement, typical in its closed character. There we see one of those cinematic coincidences appear – the town marshal Clay Morgan (George Montgomery) is an old acquaintance of Danner’s, with the additional complication that he was also once in love with the current Mrs Danner (Diane Brewster). At this point I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, but to give the writer (that man Leo Gordon again) his due it veers off in a very different direction. To some extent the two old friends are pitted against one another but a further violent incident and a rather shocking death in the middle of the movie alters everything. Perhaps I’m being annoyingly vague or oblique here but I’d prefer people who haven’t seen the movie to come to this fresh. What I will say, however, is that this represents the point where I feel the movie becomes problematic.

Now, when I say problematic I’m thinking of the script first and foremost. Gordon had set up a fascinating situation, a classic emotional triangle with a number of original touches to add freshness. However, for me anyway, the subsequent actions of the marshal and the young man (Tom Pittman) who plays an increasingly prominent role in the tale lack a certain logic. The marshal’s behavior regarding the stolen money feels entirely out of character and does not seem credible, neither in relation to what came before nor what follows. I can see how Gordon was casting around for a reason to bolster the growing hostility in town but it didn’t convince me at all. Then there’s the matter of the sudden transformation of Pittman’s callow youngster into  a dangerous gunslinger. Again, this is too abrupt and gave me the impression of a contrivance as opposed to a natural progression within the narrative framework. Others may well disagree but these shifts weakened the whole picture in my view.

So there’s there’s the boundary I spoke of at the beginning; a gear change in the writing that lacked smoothness and instead had that grinding and jarring effect that’s hard to ignore. That said, the movie is never less than interesting and I felt great satisfaction not only at the uplifting way the plot resolves itself but also at the filmmaker’s bold decision to show restraint and end it all at the natural climax rather than allow it to run on for no better reason than showing some frankly redundant gun play. I was impressed by how much value Allen H Miner was able to draw from limited resources when I viewed The Ride Back last year and his work here is every bit as stylish. It’s shot almost exclusively on the backlot and sets, and Edward Colman’s cinematography takes full advantage of that controlled environment to paint the kind of images that we tend to associate with film noir. What’s more, the movie has the distinction of featuring the debut score by Jerry Goldsmith.

This was the second George Montgomery western I’d watched in close proximity and I had a better time overall with this one – the other, for the curious out there, was Robbers’ Roost but that’s a story for a different day. What I’ve seen of Montgomery’s work so far tends to bring out his easy charm, his solidity in a leading role. But Black Patch is different; he’s not playing a man at ease in any sense of the word, the self-conscious way he massages his eye-patch when alone or stressed is indicative of a man  made suddenly aware of his own frailty, and his shifty behavior when confronted with evidence of his friend’s wrongdoing is very nicely realized too. For all that, it’s clear throughout that his inner core is strong, his essential integrity uncompromised – the image of him sitting alone in the living room of his home as the rocks and taunts come through the window is a powerful one. Mind you, that brings me back to that inconsistency in the writing I mentioned above and which does not jibe with what we see of the man elsewhere.

Of the others, Leo Gordon gives a typically muscular performance. Tom Pittman comes into the movie much more in the second half and is fine at conveying the confusion and turmoil of a youth who suddenly finds himself fulfilling a role he had dreamed of yet is not at all prepared for. Diane Brewster is good enough as the woman at the center of the conflict but the part actually offers less than one might imagine. The striking Lynn Cartwright (Mrs Leo Gordon in real life) has a juicy little role as the mistress of the principal villain and suffers some appalling treatment at his hands. That villain is portrayed with bombastic, bullying relish by a harpsichord-playing Sebastian Cabot. Some other familiar faces making appearances are House Peters Jr, Strother Martin and Ned Glass.

Black Patch has been released on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive and there’s also a German version available. I think it was out in the UK years ago, but that may have been presented in the incorrect aspect ratio. So, as I stated at the top of this piece, I’m not sure this movie works as well as it might. I’m not convinced by aspects of the script yet the performances, cinematography, and a fine conclusion all give it a boost. It might not be a great movie but it’s never less than interesting.

Hannah Lee

Today, we have another guest post from the pen of regular contributor Gordon Gates. This occasion sees him casting an eye over a rare and little seen western from the 1950s.
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Hannah Lee : An American Primitive (color) AKA Outlaw Territory (b/w) 1953
   Most actors at one time or another decide they should take a shot at producing. This could be because they wanted more creative control or a bigger piece of the pie, or both.
In 1953, actor John Ireland, his wife Joanne Dru and cinematographer Lee Garmes  combined to give production a shot. The one time Oscar nominated Ireland and the four time nominated, one time Oscar winner, Garmes, decided on a western.
A screenplay by Mackinlay Kantor was chosen. Kantor is known to film fans for The Best Years of Our Lives and Gun Crazy. The screenplay here is based on Kantor’s own novel, “Wicked Water”. This is based on the real life story of “regulator” Tom Horn. The team also decided to give the new gimmick of the time, 3-D a go in hopes of increasing box office.
Veteran cinematographer Garmes would handle the direction duties with Ireland shooting the odd scene.
The film stars, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, MacDonald Carey, Tom Powers, Frank Ferguson, Don Haggerty and Peter Ireland.
The story starts out in the town of Pearl City, Colorado at the end of the 1890’s. Gun for hire MacDonald Carey hits town looking for work. As it so happens, a group of local big ranch owners are in need of someone like him. They are having problems with squatters and rustlers taking their land and cattle.

Carey is offered a job as a “regulator” with 600 dollars a body pay. He is supplied with a list of names to be “regulated”. He is told that he must give the people named a chance to leave on their own. Carey leaves notes with the men telling them to clear out of the area. None do, and all soon end up with large alterations to their breathing arrangements.

Carey, a slightly nuts in the head type, uses a sniping rifle he used during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Carey also takes a fancy to the local saloon keeper, Joanne Dru. Dru finds herself drawn to the hard man.

As the body count rises, some of the local people put out a call for a Federal Marshall. The town Sheriff, Tom Powers, does not seem all that interested in investigating.

Marshall John Ireland arrives in Pearl City to have a look into the killings. He digs around and figures that Carey is the main suspect. The killings started just after he arrived, and he is now flashing a large roll of cash. The cattlemen however want Carey to keep up his thinning of squatters etc. The cattlemen send another gunman, Don Haggerty to dispose of Ireland. Ireland though ends up filling Haggerty with lead instead.Now we find out that Ireland and Miss Dru know each other from years before. Ireland had sent Dru’s brother to prison for a long spell. Dru was sure that her brother was innocent. Ireland asks Dru to tell him all she might know about the latest shootings. Dru refuses to name Carey.

Of course the viewer knows there is going to be some more violence, with exchanges of lead, fists  and a steady supply of bodies ready for Boot Hill.

This is a stark, brutal western that is quite well done considering the obvious limited budget.
Cinematographer Garmes was known for lensing films like, The Jungle Book, Scarface, Detective Story, Angels Over Broadway, Nightmare Alley, Man With the Gun and The Desperate Hours.
Guns, fists, bottles, burning furniture and Miss Dru’s upper works are just a few of the items thrust at the viewer because of the original 3-D format. Ireland and Dru were marries at the time. Peter Ireland was John’s son from a previous marriage.
There are less than perfect prints up on YouTube. There is, I think, a better one on OK.RU
Gordon Gates

Flaming Feather

Having taken a break from writing about the genre for a bit, I think it’s time to return to the movies that have formed the bedrock of this site since its earliest days – westerns. Instead of getting into a thematically rich example, I’m going to look at a brisk, no-nonsense entertainment. Flaming Feather (1952) is exactly that; pacy, plot-driven and directed by perennial journeyman Ray Enright, the movie tells an enjoyable and undemanding story in an hour and a quarter, makes the most of its attractive locations and allows its accomplished cast to smoothly occupy the types of roles they were ideally suited to.

Arizona in the post-Civil War era and, as ever, there is a threat to the creeping influence of civilization. Sometimes the movies will focus on the menace of outlaw gangs, ruthless gunslingers, business rivals, or indigenous resistance. On this occasion, it’s something of a hybrid: a band of murderous and relentless Ute renegades who appear to be organized and led by a faceless white man, a man who is known only by the alias of the Sidewinder. Of course any villain, not least one who assumes the identity of a serpent, should sooner or later come face to face with his or her personal nemesis. The core concept that has been at the heart of all drama, from classical tragedy right down to popcorn fare such as Flaming Feather, is that one can only spend so long poking a finger in the eye of fate before some form of retribution descends. And so it is here that the Sidewinder pushes his luck once too often. By raiding and plundering the ranch of Tex McCloud (Sterling Hayden), he sets in motion a chain of events that will lead inexorably to his downfall. The hero in this case has the kind of implacable resolve that it’s best not to gamble against, and backing up his natural thirst for a reckoning is the small matter of a wager he has laid with a cavalry lieutenant (Forrest Tucker) regarding who is going to track down the perpetrator first. So we have a fairly straightforward setup, one which will be further complicated (though never unduly so) by the intervention of two women, Arleen Whelan & Barbara Rush, as it heads towards a memorable conclusion amid the ruins of Montezuma Castle.

Ray Enright was nearing the end of a long career by the time he took charge of Flaming Feather. He only had one more feature ahead of him (a routine George Raft effort) and came to this off the back of a run of solid and enjoyable movies with Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy, as well as the extremely disappointing Montana with Errol Flynn. Enright is never going to make anyone’s list of great directors, but he was a competent studio professional and, given the right script, cast and crew, was more than capable of producing a good quality piece of work. This movie saw him shooting a tight and trim script penned by Gerald Drayson Adams, taking advantage of the dramatic Arizona locations, and enjoying the contribution of top cinematographer Ray Rennahan. The tone throughout is consistent – straight drama with a light sprinkling of well-judged humor – and the big action set pieces in the third act are nicely handled.

One day I may well devote a post to distinctive voices and styles of delivery in the movies. I could turn out copy on Dan Duryea’s wheedling, Orson Welles’ cajoling, Burt Lancaster’s pitter-patter, and perhaps Sterling Hayden’s confrontational abruptness. The latter carries an air of authority, it doesn’t leave a great deal of room for maneuver or subtlety but it certainly evokes the straight-shooting hero who favors the direct approach. And this is exactly the type of performance Hayden delivers; there’s no shading or nuance here, just a portrait of a wronged man on a quest for justice, which is perfectly fine under the circumstances. Any consideration of instantly recognizable voices would have to include Victor Jory, a man whose characteristic tones typically put me in mind of someone trying to sell a used bottle of snake oil, and possessed of a face which seems always to have been a stranger to sincerity. He was born to play villains and I don’t imagine it’s going to constitute a spoiler of any consequence to say that this is the role he fulfills once again.

There are some actors who, when their names appear among the credits, give viewers a reassuring feeling, a comforting knowledge that, whatever else may be lacking, they can be depended on to turn in a strong performance. Forrest Tucker was such a figure; he was entirely at home in westerns and he brought an authenticity to the screen. If I have any complaint here, it’s that he’s missing from the action for far too long in the mid-section. Of the two female roles, Arleen Whelan gets the showier part as the duplicitous saloon girl and runs with it. Barbara Rush is given a simpler and more one-dimensional character, but bigger and better things were just around the corner for her, starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and then a a number of fine movies for Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. In support, we get Edgar Buchanan, Richard Arlen and a small but welcome part for Ray Teal.

Flaming Feather was made for Nat Holt Productions via Paramount. There are a few DVD releases of the film in European countries – Italy and Germany for sure, although there may be others. I have the German disc and it’s what I might term OK. The image is clear enough but it’s obviously using an older master and there is that softness and lack of “zip” associated with such sources. I’d like to see it scrubbed up and looking fresher but I imagine I might be in a for a long wait. As movies go, this isn’t going to change anyone’s world, alter one’s perceptions of the genre or stimulate any intellectual debate. What it will do, however, is provide a pleasant evening’s entertainment. I liked it.

Thunder Over the Plains

I can never quite make my mind up on voiceover narration in the movies; after all, it does create what might be termed an authoritative mood that feels somehow fitting for certain pictures such as documentary-style films noir. On the other hand, it can give the impression of lazy writing, an info dump of sorts that resorts to telling rather than showing, or what’s worse is that it can signal the arrival of historical/political lecturing or finger-wagging. Thunder Over the Plains (1953) opens like this, offering up a potted post-Civil War synopsis that had me fearing the worst. Fortunately though, it panned out differently, the narration serving to contextualize the story before letting the drama at its heart grab the reins and move center stage.

The background is Texas in the years following the Civil War – Reconstruction and carpetbaggers loom large, and with them come all the frustration, resentment and anarchy one might expect in the aftermath of conflict. The main thrust of the story concerns the attacks on the despised carpetbaggers and the role of the army in trying to establish and maintain an uneasy semblance of order. That thankless task has fallen to native Texan Captain Porter (Randolph Scott), and while the burden of duty weighs heavily on him, there’s no doubting his professional ethics. Porter’s main antagonist is Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), a Robin Hood figure among the local population, an especially troublesome thorn in the side of the grasping tax agents, and something as elusive as a shadow in the early morning mist for the hard-pressed military. Porter, and indeed his whole command, is trapped in the middle, regarded with a sneering contempt by the locals while having his hands effectively tied by remote figures in Washington. And so the tit for tat sniping continues, with the warring factions fencing more or less  harmlessly until a would-be informer turns up dead. It’s at this point that the situation creeps relentlessly towards another level of volatility, and Porter also faces the added hassle of a dealing with a newly arrived officer (Lex Barker) who not only lacks professional judgement but has set his sights on wooing his superior’s wife.

It’s never less than a pleasure to come back to the films of Andre de Toth, and although the movies he made with Randolph Scott aren’t held in the same regard as those the star worked on with Budd Boetticher I still feel there’s much to admire and enjoy. With a deep and talented cast, a highly accomplished cinematographer (and frequent John Ford collaborator) in Bert Glennon, and a story overflowing with internal conflict, the director would have found it difficult to go wrong. De Toth  handles the action scenes with gusto, and there’s a lovely little bit of business with McGraw and Scott stalking each other in the aftermath o a well staged ambush. And throughout it all there are some clever close-ups and interesting angles calculated to heighten the tension.

I’ve just spoken of internal conflict, and Randolph Scott (especially as he aged) seemed to grow increasingly confident exploring the dramatic potential of this. Stoicism was one of his greatest on screen traits and this was always employed most effectively when the challenge he faced had its roots within himself. He’s very successful at getting across the sense of a man who is well aware of what his responsibilities are and to whom he owes his professional allegiance, but at the same time is none too fond of the guy looking back at him from the mirror. For all that, the viewer never has any serious doubts concerning his doing the right thing when the chips are down. While Scott is working on the self-appraisal, Charles McGraw is enjoying himself tantalizing the audience with the kind of ambiguity his gruff roguishness was ideal for. Scott generally did some of his more interesting work when facing off against a charismatic and appealing foe – think Lee Marvin, Richard Boone or Claude Akins – and McGraw has something of that quality about him.

If I have a criticism of this movie it lies with the part played by Lex Barker. It’s  not that I have any issue with Barker’s handling of his role – if anything, I’d say he does a pretty good job with a largely unsympathetic part – but my beef is with the way it’s written. With a plot that sees Scott at war with himself as his home state descends into chaos, I feel there was no need to add in an extra layer of conflict in a movie running a shade under an hour and a half. Barker had just come off the Tarzan movies and I get the feeling (this is just a hunch, mind, without any hard evidence to back it up) his part was expanded artificially here. Using his character as a spanner in the military works makes some sense, but the supposed rivalry for the affections of Phyllis Kirk adds nothing of substance to the story and ends up feeling like a lame and half-hearted afterthought. Still, even if that’s a weakness in the picture, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from watching the likes of Henry Hull and Elisha Cook Jr, alongside familiar faces such as Lane Chandler and Hugh Sanders, doing their stuff.

Nowadays, there aren’t too many Randolph Scott westerns that can’t be tracked down and enjoyed. Thunder Over the Plains popped up on DVD in the US some years ago via Warner Brothers on a triple feature set, sharing disc space with Riding Shotgun. Bearing in mind the fact it’s squeezed on alongside another movie, it doesn’t look too bad at all. Naturally, the presentation is basic and there’s nothing in the way of supplements, which I think is a pity. Sure these films that Scott and de Toth made together don’t have the kind of reputation that the Ranown movies enjoy, and I’ll freely admit they are a notch below them in quality, but I can’t help feeling they deserve a little more critical attention. Recent years have seen a number of reappraisals and fresh evaluations of the artistic and cultural legacies of a range of filmmakers. Perhaps it’s now time for a new look at these movies?

The Plunderers

A new decade heralds change, or at least that would appear to be the received wisdom. It’s tempting to see it like Janus, as a point of transition gazing both ahead and back simultaneously. And no, this isn’t going to turn into some reflection on where we find ourselves today; it’s merely a coincidence that I happened to look at a movie which also appeared at the beginning of a new decade. The Plunderers (1960) came out just as the the western was about to enter a period of significant change. Could it be termed a transitional work? Well, for my money, it has much more in common with the works which preceded it, although perhaps there is a case to be made for it taking some tentative steps towards the post-classical era.

So, what’s it about? Conflict is naturally the key element of all drama and this movie presents it on a number of levels – interpersonal, intrapersonal and generational. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of four youthful drifters arriving in a tired and washed-up town, a place where all vigor has been abandoned and where the ageing population is unprepared for any challenge to the torpid complacency. These four are restless and dissatisfied, wearied from a cattle drive and emotionally raw at the realization that they just blew all their earnings in a week of indulgence in Dodge City. Right on the cusp of manhood, these youngsters need to reassert themselves, to make people sit up and take notice of their importance, but are singularly lacking in the maturity necessary to acquire that which they most desire, the respect of others. Thus, when an initial bit of minor roguery and mischief leads to the mildest of rebukes, their bravado is further stoked. It all leads up to threats, murder and, finally, a confrontation with a one-armed veteran, provoking a spiritual awakening of sorts.

There’s a lot going on here. We have the four interlopers trying to find their place in the world, but without the structure and guidance to point them in the right direction. This appears to be a throwback to the tales of rebellious youth that abounded in the previous decade, but the crucial difference here is that those earlier examples tended to push an essentially optimistic message whereas The Plunderers has an altogether sourer vision – the generational conflict depicted promises no positive outcome. Maybe this can be seen as a reflection of the stagnation that would begin to creep into the genre and give rise to a new and more nihilistic approach.  Or from a wider sociopolitical perspective it might be seen as holding up a mirror to the waning of the somewhat detached Eisenhower era which was about to give way to the more radical and energetic Kennedy years. Then again, I may well be trying to read too much into it all.

What is certain is that the movie charts the gradual reawakening of the conscience and sense of responsibility of its leading character. Jeff Chandler puts in a fine, understated performance as the  veteran who has been scarred both physically and psychologically by his wartime experiences. The fighting robbed him of the use of an arm and left him an emotional cripple as well. His withdrawal from his community is partnered by his distancing himself from his former lover (Marsha Hunt, happily still going strong at 102), and her needling of him for his lack of guts almost constitutes an assault on his masculinity. It feels as though his passivity and apparent impotence is being weaponized in both a literal as well as a figurative sense. What finally rouses him to action is the belief of the storekeeper’s young daughter (Dolores Hart). There is the suggestion that he has lost confidence in himself as a result of his injuries yet I think it’s clear enough that his fear is not based on an absence of self-belief as much as a reluctance to revert to the violence that he earned a fearsome reputation for indulging in during the war. While the classic 50s western built towards a spiritual rebirth, I think it’s telling that The Plunderers ends on a grimmer note with its emphasis on guilt and an inner monologue that’s actually a prayer for forgiveness.

Bit by bit, I’m getting round to featuring works by a variety of filmmakers who really ought to have been represented on this site earlier. Today it’s the turn of Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director who made a number of impressive genre movies throughout the 1950s before moving on to a long a successful career on television. The Plunderers was one of his last feature efforts and I think it’s a strong one. Almost the entire picture is shot within the confines of the town, keeping our attention focused and the dramatic tension ratcheted up. It’s very obviously a low budget affair, but Pevney’s interesting camera placements, along with the layered writing, help make a virtue of this. I feel it’s also refreshing to see the climactic duel making use of knives as opposed to the more traditional quickly-drawn pistols. All told, there is little on screen violence until quite late in the story – with  the exception of two tough and rather brutal beatings – and when it does take place it’s appropriately shocking in its abruptness and tragedy.

As far as options for anyone wishing to view this movie are concerned, there’s a manufactured on demand DVD available from the US via the Warner Archive and there had until recently been a release in Germany, but the latter seems to have gone out of print now. I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out. Sometimes they work out fine and at other times they don’t; happily on this occasion, I felt The Plunderers was a success and I recommend checking it out. In fact, I enjoyed Pevney’s work so much here that I’m of a mind to feature a few more of his movies back to back. We’ll see…

The Duel at Silver Creek

Pulp, a word that usually ends up being employed in a derogatory way. It suggests the cheap, the disposable, and that sense of something a bit crude and tawdry is never far from the surface. It carries around the sour taste  of intellectual snobbery, a self-aware superiority that drains the  joy from entertainment. But, let’s not forget that entertainment and art are under no obligation to remain stand-offish strangers. Frankly, I like pulp material and always have, long before I became aware of the negative connotations assigned to the term by some, or was even aware of the term itself for that matter. As with so many other forms of artistic expression, it worked its way into my consciousness from an early age, entrancing and enchanting an eager mind. In short, this is where the seeds of my lifelong affection for cinema, literature and countless other art forms was first sown. And so to the The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), a film that is unashamedly and satisfyingly pulpy.

The story is a simple one, telling a tale of claim jumpers, manipulation and revenge. The bulk of the action takes place in and around the titular town of Silver Creek, where the villains have set up an outwardly respectable front. The town is served by a lawman going by the colorful name of “Lightning” Tyrone (Stephen McNally), renowned for his speed with a gun but hampered by an injury following a run-in with the aforementioned criminals. The murder of a friend adds a personal element to the marshal’s motivations, and this hunger for a reckoning is shared by his newly acquired ally, a youthful gambler and gunman known as The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy). The efforts of these two to chase down the claim jumpers forms the basis of the plot but it all gets a little more complicated when a layer of romance and intrigue appears in the shape of Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), a particularly devious addition to the limited but frequently impressive roster of western femme fatales.

There are a number of things which jump out at you while watching this movie. Firstly, it’s a Universal-International production so it has the distinctive and unmistakable look that can be found in all of the studio’s output of that era. The Technicolor cinematography of Irving Glassberg is quite beautiful at times, and the shadowy nighttime interiors are rendered in an especially attractive and evocative way. It’s in these moments that a film noir flavor is most noticeable, and that aspect is highlighted both by the intermittent voiceover provided by McNally and the calculated and ruthless machinations of Domergue. Then there are the character names – Lightning Tyrone, The Silver Kid, Johnny Sombrero, Dusty Fargo, Tinhorn Burgess, Rat Face Blake, etc – carrying that unreal yet alluring quality of something ripped from a comic strip. Presiding over all this is Don Siegel, a man still learning his trade at this stage – the pacing is a little off in the second act – but already  showing the visual economy that can be found in his best work.

With a plot-driven, action-oriented piece of filmmaking the characterization is always going to come in a very distant second place. Audie Murphy and Stephen McNally were highly capable actors, the former still on the learning curve but growing in confidence all the time while the latter was an experienced and solid second lead/support man. Seeing the names of Murphy or McNally in the credits generally means a movie is worth watching, in my opinion. Neither one is asked to stretch himself particularly here in pretty one-dimensional roles, but they never offer less than good value. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a  great fan of Faith Domergue, I’ll freely admit she did fit the femme fatale mold quite snugly and she vamps very successfully in this part. Susan Cabot is cast in a tomboyish part which, while attractive enough in its own way, feels like a bit of a waste. I think the main weakness though comes from the rather insipid bad guys. While Domergue’s flashiness was always going to overshadow them Gerald Mohr and Eugene Iglesias don’t provide much of a threat to compensate. On the other hand, Lee Marvin does make a definite impression as a loudmouthed townsman in one of his earliest roles.

Looking around at what is available for viewing nowadays, it has to be said that fans of classic westerns have much to grateful for. The vast majority of Audie Murphy’s movies are now accessible in good to excellent quality – a handful are still only viewable via sub-par editions – although it doesn’t seem all that long ago that The Duel at Silver Creek was one of the few that could be picked up easily. I don’t believe it’s been upgraded to Hi-Def but it still looks good to my eyes. If the film isn’t going to offer any new insights, it has to be said it still provides a powerfully enjoyable way to pass an hour and a quarter, which is never a bad thing. That, I feel, is as good a way as any to round off 2019 and to wish everyone a happy, fulfilling and successful 2020.