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.

Colt .45

In  almost a dozen years of writing about a wide range of movies in general, and westerns more than any other genre, I’ve tried to point out the type of film I happen to be talking about mainly in relation to theme, and digging down to cast an eye over subtext where appropriate. From time to time though, that approach is unsuitable for the simple reason that the movie in question was conceived and shot as an almost pure exercise in entertainment. Now this is just an observation, a statement of fact as I see it, and not a criticism of the work. I see Colt .45 (1950) very much in that light, a movie primarily concerned with delivering an hour and a quarter of polished and fast-moving diversion, with no more than the occasional flick of a hat brim in the direction of meatier matters.

There have been a handful of westerns borrowing their titles from firearms – Winchester ’73 and Springfield Rifle, for example – and thus building the plot around the importance of those weapons to the characters. Colt .45 is all about the famous revolvers and how their use or misuse affects the lives of those who come into contact with them. One could, I guess, argue that there is a point to be made, and one which is indeed alluded to, concerning the ethics and responsibilities of guns and their users. However, it’s not expanded on in any great detail in the movie and therefore not an aspect I’m going to delve deeply into either – I’m sure there are a variety of opinions on the issue and I want to head off any potential friction by pointing out that there are many other fora to be found around the internet better suited to the expression of any such views so I’d be pleased if we could refrain from setting off down that particular path here.

Leaving that aspect aside, what we have is a pretty straightforward quest for justice yarn as pistol salesman Steve Farrell (Randolph Scott) finds himself not only robbed of the guns he’s been promoting, but also accused and imprisoned as an accomplice of the man who stole them. That man is Jason Brett (Zachary Scott), an ambitious sociopath who sees his new acquisitions as a handy means of obtaining the money and power he covets. The plot is essentially the story of Farrell’s determination to get the guns back and restore his own reputation. Along the way, he will encounter a weak-willed miner (Lloyd Bridges), his tough and resourceful wife (Ruth Roman), and a corrupt and dissembling sheriff (Alan Hale).

As I said above, the film doesn’t have a great deal of depth, but nor has it any  pretensions. It’s aim is to tell a familiar story in a brisk and  breezy manner, and it fulfills that ambition admirably. The main highlight in director Edwin L Marin’s filmography is possibly the very enjoyable John Wayne/Ella Raines western Tall in the Saddle. He’d made a lot of programmers including a couple of Philo Vance mysteries before moving on to a number of noir thrillers with George Raft, and had then seemingly settled into a run of solid westerns with Randolph Scott before his untimely death at the age of 52. Colt .45 is a pacy affair, packing a lot of story and incident into its brief running time and even manages to paint its Indian characters in a positive and sympathetic, albeit a very superficial, light. A major plus is the Technicolor cinematography of Wilfrid M Cline which has both the interiors and the location work on the Iverson Ranch looking especially fine.

I can’t help thinking of Colt .45 as a Saturday afternoon movie, partly because of its no nonsense approach but also because that would have been how I first experienced it on TV at some time back in the mid or late 1970s. Randolph Scott was a great hero to me as a small boy and those screenings of his westerns were a big influence on my view of cinema during my formative years. Somehow, that has never left me and I still get a buzz when I sit down and revisit one of these fast-moving efforts. Scott is a typical straight arrow in this, with all the pride and nobility that was innate to him but lacking the complexity and inner hurt he would perfect in the coming years – sure there is a touch of emotional bruising there but it’s not explored to any extent.

Zachary Scott is a sound villain, probably too loud and overbearing at the beginning but dialing it back and settling down as the plot unfolds and his character nears his goal. In many ways, the strongest presence in the movie is that of Ruth Roman. She always had an air of a tough broad on screen and gets plenty of opportunities to play a dominant part in this movie – doing some hard riding, getting shot, blasting her way out of captivity and even knocking the leading man out cold at one point. In contrast, Lloyd Bridges is all hand-wringing  angst and self-doubt as her ineffectual husband, a neat study in weakness and venality in fact. And a word too for Alan Hale in one of his last roles. For me, he’ll forever be the sidekick of a laughing and swaggering Errol Flynn, a slightly bumbling but true companion. There’s still a suggestion of that twinkle in his eye as his sheriff attempts to play the two ends against the middle, and it’s a pleasure to see him grace another movie for the studio with which he did such great work over the preceding two decades.

I’m not sure how easy it is to locate Colt .45 for viewing these days. It was released on DVD a good few years ago by Warner Brothers as a triple feature, with Fort Worth and Tall Man Riding, but that might be out of print now. Anyway, it’s a most enjoyable western, of that type which seeks to occupy and engage you for a little over an hour and does exactly that with considerable ease.

Arrow in the Dust

Unfulfilled promise, is there anything more disappointing? I’m talking about movies here, of course, and not life in general. This may not be the most enticing opening to a post but it’s honest and it does reflect my feelings after I’d watched Arrow in the Dust (1954) for the first time. On paper this ought to have been right up my street – it’s a mid-50s western starring Sterling Hayden, directed by Lesley Selander and is built around the kind of redemption scenario that typically draws a positive response from me. For all that though, it didn’t work for me, it fell flat and even the relatively short running time seemed excessive.

That promise I spoke of is right there in the credits and the personnel involved, and the tense, nervy opening scene feeds into this. We’re introduced to Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) and no time is wasted in establishing the fact he’s a deserter from the army, and a cautious and jumpy one at that. When his escape leads him unexpectedly upon the scene of an ambush, one where the sole survivor is an old friend, he’s presented with a moral dilemma which will occupy his conscience for the remainder of the tale. That friend is Major Pepperis (Carleton Young), a newly assigned commander who is at death’s door and appeals to Laish’s sense of decency to carry a warning to an endangered wagon train. In brief, Laish puts his instinct for self-preservation to one side for a time and assumes the identity of the dead officer. The question is whether he can pull off this imposture, and how it will affect him.

Sounds reasonably attractive, right? What should have been a winning formula left me cold, worse than that it left me bored too. I lay the responsibility for that with the writing and the technical limitations imposed by a cheap production. For a redemption tale to succeed it’s necessary to take the protagonist on a journey, a spiritual one as much as a physical one. Well, Hayden embarks on the  physical part but there’s never a sense of his evolving as a character, as a person. He uses his presence and that trademark brusqueness but the script offers no opportunity for growth or development. None of this is helped by the nebulous and vague nature of the antagonists – the faceless, rampaging Indians. They are shown almost exclusively via stock footage and I get the impression the script was tinkered with to account for the ever changing groups of raiders – there’s  some flummery mentioned about Pawnee and Apache bands allying themselves against the common enemy.

And that stock footage really is problematic. Sure there may be other movies where the technique has been applied morel liberally, but it jarred every time I saw it (which is a lot!) and took me out of the story. Lesley Selander is a guy whose films generally appeal to me and I tend to actively seek them out for the  hard-bitten sparseness. Here though, I found the constant insertion of recycled footage broke the rhythm of the direction and distracted me badly.

So, that’s about all I have to say on this film, and I know it’s quite a bit less than is customary on this site. Hayden does what he can with the material, Coleen Gray gets short-changed in an underwritten role, and Tom Tully maybe fares best as a crusty and wily scout.

Now I’m fully aware that this stuff is all entirely subjective – one man’s meat is another man’s poison and so forth – and there will be those who feel I’ve been too harsh in my criticisms. That’s as may be but I can only call it as I see it. I realize too that a future viewing might elicit a different reaction – to be honest though, I can’t see myself returning to this for some considerable time. Not wishing to finish on a wholly negative note, readers may wish to check out some more enthusiastic takes from both Laura and Toby.

Reprisal!

I get a kick out of looking at the way trends and perspectives develop and evolve. Anyone who has followed along on my journey through cinema over the last decade and more may have noted that I come back to this, and other matters besides, on a fairly regular basis. As I do so I can’t avoid also observing changes that have taken place in my own perspective over the years. Films and filmmakers have alternately risen and fallen in my estimation, and what I find especially interesting is how certain individuals who only came to my attention relatively late in the game have become not only firm favorites but people whose artistic merits I now rate very highly and examples of whose work I I seek out with genuine enthusiasm. That’s how it is with George Sherman and that’s the frame of mind in which I approached Reprisal! (1956), and I can’t say I was disappointed.

Drama thrives on conflict, in fact it’s said to be one of the integral components. A good deal of conflict in art, and indeed in life itself, derives from the land. And land of course derives its own importance as much from what it represents as what it is.  So what does it represent? Permanence, stability, belonging and, crucially, identity. The western as a cinematic art from draws heavily upon the myths nurtured on the American frontier, myths which had their roots in the notion of the land and all its associated ideals. There is something primal at work here, it is after all what we all spring from and, ultimately, what we return to. Allied to this is the feeling that ownership of land, although perhaps possession or stewardship would be more apt terms given our ephemeral or transitory nature in comparison, affords a strong sense of belonging.

This is all a slightly circuitous way of leading in to Sherman’s Reprisal!, a film which confronts this eternal ambition existing at the very heart of the human condition. The theme crops up again and again in classic westerns and it plays a critical role in ensuring that the genre never really loses its relevance. Here, we follow Frank Madden (Guy Madison) as he struggles to establish himself as a new landowner. His desire (one of the characters speaks of a hunger for land) to literally put down roots is all-consuming for this man. It is his shot at permanence, his chance to attain a sense of identity that will define him. I don’t want to go into too much detail concerning plot here as, in a movie like this, saying a little is so close to saying a lot and I’d like people to be able to come to the film fresh and without too much information that might color their perceptions. Let’s just say that it’s a pretty thorough examination of a man’s gradual coming to terms with his real self, reaching an understanding with that self and perhaps finding a love worthy of him. The film’s strength lies in both its frank appraisal of the core themes and its courage in refraining from providing pat or easy answers to the questions raised.

Sherman takes what I feel is a characteristically thoughtful approach to his story and there is a large measure of the type of optimism and positivism I’ve come to associate with a director like Delmer Daves on view. I’m always on the lookout for redemptive themes but that’s not really the focus here; but it could, I suppose, be argued that a shade of that is to be seen in the arc followed by Felicia Farr’s character. Instead, we’re presented more with some near relatives, namely sacrifice, renewal and rebirth. Madden’s quest to find his own spiritual equilibrium necessitates his sacrificing some of his most cherished dreams, part of himself in truth, in order to achieve some kind of internal rebirth. Sherman switches between some handsome Arizona locations and interiors and uses the landscape quite effectively. There is the image of the hanging tree casting its shadow over the movie at key moments and this – trees being typically symbolic of cycles of renewal as well as the concepts of nature and permanence – mirrors the use of similar imagery in such powerful films as Ride Lonesome and The Hanging Tree.

Felicia Farr made a number of film with Delmer Daves throughout the 1950s – Jubal, The Last Wagon and best of all 3:10 to  Yuma – and would appear in Hell Bent for Leather, another strong movie for Sherman a few years later. If one stops a moment and considers this little group, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Farr deserves to be rated as one of the most important actresses in westerns, her contribution to what are all quite major genre works cannot be overstated. As I mentioned above, Reprisal! doesn’t attempt to present easy answers or to gloss over human weakness and ambiguous attitudes. Farr plays a woman who is superficially a standard western heroine but her character has layers and these are only slowly revealed as the story unfolds – it’s a characteristically subtle and alluring performance.

In terms of actors featured on this site, there have been some notable absences and I’ve been trying to plug a few gaps in recent months. The focus of this place suggests that someone like Guy Madison ought to have made an appearance by now but, for no particular reason, he ended up being overlooked – no doubt his name will appear again in future though. Reprisal! offered him a very strong role and came along in the middle of his long run on TV playing Wild Bill Hickok. I think what stands out most about Madison’s work on this movie is the restraint he displays. There are some very powerful emotional currents in this film and the fact he underplays lends them even greater potency. The way the lead, the director and the writers consistently sidestep the predictable options is another big plus for this production.

Felicia Farr got the top female billing but there is a worthwhile role for Kathryn Grant (Gunman’s Walk) as a potential rival for Madison’s attention and affections. As the heavies, the ever reliable and versatile Michael Pate is cast as the impassioned yet confused one of a trio of brothers gunning for Madison. Edward Platt is a more straightforward proposition as the older and more clearly hate-fueled sibling while Madison’s real-life younger brother Wayne Mallory appears as a slightly cliched hothead.

As far as I know, Reprisal! hasn’t had any official release on disc in the US. However, there are DVDs available from France and Italy. As a 1956 production this movie would have been shot for widescreen projection (probably 1.85:1) but the current  DVDs appear to be open-matte 1.33:1 presentations. Leaving aside the aspect ratio, the movie looks to have been well preserved and is colorful and sharp. Over time I have grown into a big fan of George Sherman and I think this is a very strong effort from the director. I’d like to think his reputation is being reassessed and upgraded, it most certainly ought to be. I still have a good number of his movies to catch up with and every time I come across a pleasure like Reprisal! I find myself looking forward to the next one all the more keenly.

Pillars of the Sky

Over the years there has been a good deal of ill-informed, and one might even say uninformed, material written and spoken about the classic western, and the depiction and treatment of the Native American Indian has arguably attracted the lion’s share of this negative commentary. That’s perhaps a slightly blunt way to open a post but it does rankle some to see unjustified assessments go unchallenged, not least because it contributes to critical neglect of the genre and a subsequent lack of appreciation and/or interest among potential viewers. Today, it feels as though we are increasingly living in a world of absolutes, one of stark blacks and whites where the very idea of nuance or shading is either dismissed outright or mercilessly lampooned. I suppose that one of the aspects that regularly draws me back to the classic 1950s version of the western is both the ease and the courage with which so many productions navigated moral, and historical complexities. Pillars of the Sky (1956) is an interesting entry in the decade’s Indian cycle,  one which adds religion and its influence on the conflict on the frontier into the blend.

It’s Oregon a few years after the end of the Civil War, and First Sergeant Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler) is responsible for patrolling the reservation in tandem with his Nez Perce scouts. The general direction of the tale is a familiar one for anyone who has seen more than a few westerns from this era. Treaties will be compromised in the name of progress, trust betrayed in the name of expediency, and conflict stoked up off the back of misunderstandings. Still, before the storm comes the calm, represented by the peace efforts of missionary Dr Joseph Holden (Ward Bond). Holden is one of life’s true believers, a man who seeks to bring civilization and all the benefits he associates with his religion to the varied tribes sharing the reservation. Bell presents a more pragmatic face but one which is no less sincere or well-meaning for that. The arrival of the new commanding officer with with orders to supervise the construction and policing of a road through the territory spells trouble. For the army these are orders that have to be executed, for the Indian they are evidence of further hollow promises – whatever the perspective, the end result will be a fight nobody really wants yet one nobody really knows how to avoid either.

Adapted from a Will Henry story, Pillars of the Sky is a typically mature piece of work, eschewing any temptation to paint in broad brush strokes and present the viewer with a simplistic heroes and villains stand-off. As is the case in so many conflicts, there are no clearly delineated good or bad guys, just people manipulated by circumstances and personal loyalties into a situation that can all too easily slide out of control. What sets this production apart from other thoughtful appraisals of the frontier wars is the prominence afforded to the religious aspect. Now some may find this overdone, and I can imagine that accusations of excessive piety might be leveled. Personally, I’m not sure that it has to be approached in that way – the theme here relates to co-existence as far as I can see. Digging a little deeper, it deals with the idea of reaching an accommodation, and on a number of levels. There is of course the wider accommodation being sought between two competing civilizations and cultures, while a range of smaller and more personal examples are to be determined among the characters.

Let’s look at some of those characters then. Firstly, Jeff Chandler’s hard-bitten Sergeant Bell is man having to come to terms with a number of changes and challenges in his life. He has gone from being a Civil War officer to a peacetime non-commissioned man, leading to some amusing confusion for a young lieutenant who served under him in the past and still finds himself saying “Sir” to the man he’s now giving orders to. Bell’s struggle is dual one: he must reconcile his humanitarian instincts with the prickly toughness his years of hard experience have brought about while at the same time assessing his feelings towards a woman he loved and then apparently lost. That woman is Calla Gaxton (Dorothy Malone) and her own path is far from certain, having come west to make a final choice between her old flame Bell and her husband Captain Gaxton (Keith Andes). While this triangle is supposed to add another layer of drama to the story, it ends up as one of the weaknesses for me, with Malone underused and the competition between Chandler and Andes proving something of a damp squib alongside the genuine explosiveness of the main plot strand.

Ward Bond’s missionary offers  him a good role, allowing him to indulge in some larger than life bluster while displaying an equal measure of compassion. And there you have the conflict faced by his character – how best to apply his Christian principles to circumstances and an environment inherently hostile to such ideals. When it comes to portrayals of army brass, it’s common to see inflexible martinets blindly provoking violence yet Pillars of the Sky offers a welcome way around that tired cliché by having Willis Bouchey play an officer who is aware of his own fallibility. Lee Marvin adds another colorful supporting role to his CV as a characteristically hard drinking Irish sergeant. There’s a good deal of broad comedy in his part but plenty of pathos too in his later scenes in the aftermath of the big Indian attack. On the other side of the battle lines, Michael Ansara gives good value as the warrior Kamiakin who has firmly rejected the missionary teachings and contrasts nicely with Sydney Chaplin’s devout and devoted scout.

George Marshall might be best known for making the classic Destry Rides Again – mind you, I’d argue that his own remake of that film Destry in 1954 runs it very close. His long career covered most genres and he made a handful of other notable westerns in the 1950s in The Sheepman and The Guns of Fort Petticoat. I’d rate this among his better movies, for the rich and less common theme and the superb visuals too. CinemaScope westerns are attractive as a rule and the the shooting of the Oregon locations, with the help of cinematographer Harold Lipstein, is quite breathtaking at times, managing to recall Frederic Remington paintings in some shots.

Pillars of the Sky has been released on DVD in a variety of territories over the years and I suspect the same master will have been used for all of those. Universal International productions have a distinctive look and as viewers we’re fortunate to be able to enjoy so many of these via excellent prints and transfers. I have the German release of this movie from Koch and it looks very fine with a sharp, detailed and colorful image. In brief, this is a strong western, and another that has not received its full due, perhaps in part because of the reasons I alluded to in the introduction above. So, if anyone who is keen on westerns has yet to see this one, I recommend they look into it – it has action, drama, visual splendor and intelligence. Check it out.