Carson City

Sometimes I have vague memories of when I first saw certain movies. On occasion, these memories relate to cinema visits, which tend to stand out more of course, but more frequently they are of movies I caught on TV. Saturday afternoon broadcasts introduced me to many films and stars, cementing them in my consciousness largely due to the fact that I came upon them at the right age to allow lasting impressions to form, and also because of the random way I encountered them. As I said, there is a vagueness to all this, and yet I can say that on the afternoon of Saturday January 29th 1977 I was watching Randolph Scott in Carson City (1952). And I am able to state this with confidence due to the wonder of the BBC Genome service, which makes it  possible to discover exactly when any movie was broadcast on its channels. That had been my only viewing of the film till I finally managed to pick it up on DVD over thirty years later. Of course I didn’t recall details but those Randolph Scott westerns that I adored as a youngster worked their way into my memory and played a defining role in shaping my love of cinema. Looked at now, over 45 years on from that weekend spent in front of the family TV, it may not represent the finest work Scott did, but it is a good movie. Perhaps even more importantly, it evokes for me a little of that magic I first experienced all those years ago.

If some movies are capable of transporting viewers like myself back to particular points in time, it is probably fair to say that the western, arguably more than any other genre, succeeded in doing something similar to society itself, encouraging the audience to cast its collective mind back to the that pivotal point where progress butted heads with freewheeling lawlessness and ushered in the modern age. Carson City, as is the case with countless other genre entries, kicks off with a hold-up of a stagecoach. It is such a familiar and well worn trope, but it serves its purpose for all that by drawing viewers into the action immediately. It plays out in a quirky fashion, the bandits laying out a feast before the passengers, a spread attractively presented and accompanied by bottles of champagne. The tone is light for the moment, larceny served with courtesy and style with only the bankers left feeling sore. Yet just as the genre itself was firmly focused on those final years of the open frontier, the fences were popping up in the west and the gate would soon be closed on such Robin Hood romanticism. The juggernaut driving this relentless march toward modernity was the railroad, the unstoppable iron horse that would punch its way through from coast to coast. The townsfolk of Carson City are fearful of what may follow in the wake of the railroad, hoping to cling for as long as possible to the familiarity of the stagecoach lines despite their vulnerability in the face of determined raiders. Jeff Kincaid (Randolph Scott) is the engineer hired by the rail bosses to build the line through the rugged mountainous terrain and add another link in the chain of civilization gradually snaking its way across a continent.

Where does Carson City rank in relation to the other films André de Toth made in collaboration with Randolph Scott? Well, it is neither the best nor the worst of those half dozen pictures so I would have to place it comfortably in the middle. It isn’t an especially complex story, it doesn’t ask its star to dig too deep within and the villains are simply villainous and no more. Still, it is what could be termed an easy watch, with a plot which develops in a straightforward manner that is satisfying even if it’s never especially surprising. De Toth has the scenes in town looking good and the Bronson Canyon and Iverson Ranch locations feel like the well recognized landmarks one passes on the way to a visit with an old friend. It’s colorful, pacy and full of incident – stagecoach and train robberies, a couple of brawls, several shootouts and an atmospheric mine rescue – and the shift in tone from the light, airy beginning to something darker and more dangerous later on is effected seamlessly.

Randolph Scott’s more memorable parts saw him exploring layers of his own private morality, but Carson City is a much more straightforward assignment. The character of Kincaid is one of his clear-eyed and uncomplicated adventurers. Scott could play that kind of noble westerner practically blindfolded and he sails through the movie with a graceful assurance. I am unsure how many on screen railroads he built or how many miles of telegraph wire he strung down the years but it must have been a lot. The only hint of personal conflict comes via his increasingly strained relationship with his young half-brother played by Richard Webb. Even here the envy and resentment grows out of Webb’s own sense of inferiority rather than anything in Scott’s character. The villains are a perpetually scowling and dangerous James Millican and an extremely buttery Raymond Massey, the latter suckering everyone into believing his soft geniality is genuine and not just a smokescreen to conceal his icy ruthlessness. In one of her few dramatic parts, singer Lucille Norman is the newspaperwoman driving a wedge between Scott and Webb. She does fine and, on this showing anyway, I reckon it’s a pity she didn’t make more movies.

Carson City can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive and there are Spanish and Italian editions available as well. Even if it doesn’t labor the point or dwell on the implications to any extent, the story is part of that fairly large body of westerns dealing with the drive towards civilization, modernity and the rule of law. All of that may underpin the story but this is a piece of entertainment first and foremost and it certainly delivers on that. So, while Carson City is not the weightiest of Randolph Scott’s westerns, it does highlight the appeal of the star and consequently offers plenty of enjoyment.

The Man from Bitter Ridge

Treading well worn paths is a practice that tends to be looked on with a certain disdain with regard to any artistic endeavor, and with good reason. If familiarity does not necessarily have breed contempt, it can surely sap the enthusiasm and interest of the viewer. While that may be broadly true, it should also be acknowledged that watching movies is not an activity we indulge in for only one reason. As a rule, the better the film, the greater the challenge or stimulation offered, but that is not to say that  work providing the comfort and reassurance of the familiar has no worth. The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955) breaks no new ground, the situations and characters are all recognizable “types” that even casual western watchers will have seen on countless occasions. For all that though, it is the kind of movie that is hard to actively dislike.

The story begins with something of a bang, namely the explosion that brings down a tree and blocks the trail of a stagecoach. The purpose is to facilitate a robbery, one carried out with precision and ruthlessness. A man ends up dead for noticing more than he ought to and the thieves make their escape. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say all but one of the thieves. A passing stranger suffers the misfortune of being held up by one of the fugitives who finds himself in need of a mount as his own horse has gone lame. This stranger is Jeff Carr (Lex Barker) and his ill-starred encounter means he almost winds up being lynched in error.  All of this happens in the first five minutes or so and a lot of plot detail is packed in here,  not least the fact the stage has been robbed by those working for Rance Jackman (John Dehner), local bigwig and candidate for sheriff in the upcoming election. To further complicate matters, the posse members who were so keen on stringing up Carr in a hurry are headed up by Jackman’s younger brother Linc (Warren Stevens). There’s probably enough story right there but the script is arguably overloaded as the idea of a corrupt man seeking ever greater power and influence is mixed in with a simmering feud between cattlemen and sheep herders, the latter group represented by Alec Black (Stephen McNally). Of course no yarn can be truly complete without some love interest, ideally involving conflict. That comes courtesy of a romantic triangle, the points of which are Carr, Black and Holly Kenton (Mara Corday), another of the sheep herders. As such, we have a decidedly tangled skein on our hands, although it is all unraveled (via brawls, gunfights, fire and fury) in a largely satisfactory manner by the time the credits roll about an hour and a quarter later.

Mention the name of Jack Arnold to movie fans and the chances are you’ll hear comments about such Sci-Fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nevertheless, as was the case with most directors of the time, he worked in a range of genres and turned out some fine pictures in all of them. Among his movies are a handful of westerns; Red Sundown and No Name on the Bullet are right out of the top drawer and are highly recommended. The Man from Bitter Ridge is, without question, a lesser effort. I prefer to look at a movie in terms of what it is and what it aims for as opposed to what it isn’t or doesn’t aspire to be. Still, there’s no denying that there’s not much depth to this one. I may be using the wrong label here, but I tend to think of films like this as matinee movies – straightforward, no-frills, unpretentious pictures that tell their stories in a pacy and entertaining way, no more and no less. Taken on those terms, it’s fine and does what it says on the tin. Another bonus is that “look” which is to be found in most Universal-International westerns, the visual aesthetic is appealing and (again) familiar, the very least one might expect from a cinematographer as talented as Russell Metty.

As for the performances, Lex Barker followed up his stint as Tarzan with a number of western roles and he would do further work in the genre when he later moved to Europe, especially in Germany. His role here is of a type – an undercover operative for the stagecoach company – that Randolph Scott played on more than one occasion. Of course Barker had previously been cast opposite Scott a couple of years before in the more interesting Thunder Over the Plains for André De Toth. He cuts a heroic figure and acquits himself just fine in the action scenes, of which there is no shortage, but he’s probably a bit too sunny and upbeat. Stephen McNally is his typically sharp self, assured and polished and enjoying his time as one of the good guys.

Mara Corday is an actress I am always happy to see and she is very appealing as the pistol-packing sheep farmer who finds her affections trapped betwixt and between McNally and Barker . She was in the middle of a run of generally good movies at this point, although I have to say she had a far more absorbing part in Joseph Pevney’s Foxfire that same year. With regard to villainy, it’s difficult to go far wrong when there is a solid lineup composed of John Dehner, Ray Teal, Myron Healey and Warren Stevens available. Their characters are all entirely one-dimensional, but most entertainingly so.

The Man from Bitter Ridge was released on a handsome DVD some time ago by Koch Media in Germany, but I think that may have drifted out of print now and it appears to have been replaced by a Blu-ray from the same company. The older disc looks pretty good, offering a colorful widescreen presentation of this brisk and undemanding western. I know Jack Arnold made better and more original movies and The Man From Bitter Ridge shouldn’t be seen as representative of his work in general, but it is a relaxing and mostly fun watch, and sometimes that’s good enough.

The Jayhawkers

Let’s start by looking at a list. Ride Lonesome, Rio Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill, Day of the Outlaw, Face of a Fugitive, The Wonderful Country, The Hanging Tree, Warlock, No Name on the Bullet, These Thousand Hills. What do all these movies have in common? Well two things actually – they are all great westerns and they are all from 1959. The quality of those ten films is beyond doubt and while it’s arguably unfair and perhaps even pointless to make comparisons, it’s difficult not to do so when one realizes that The Jayhawkers also came out in 1959. Now it is not a bad film but it is a distinctly mediocre one, and that mediocrity is all the more apparent when one pauses and looks at that list above. Considering the heights the genre had scaled at that stage this feels like a minor effort indeed.

The Jayhawkers is set in Kansas in the period leading up to the Civil War. It concerns itself with machinations, manipulation and low-level empire building, these being the elements which frame in it in a wider context. On a more intimate level, and from my perspective a more engaging one, the film looks at issues of trust, betrayal and responsibility. Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) has just broken out of jail, and is first seen wounded and exhausted, dragging his broken and bloody body back to the homestead he once shared with his wife. He has escaped because he’s heard his wife has died and, logically, wants to learn the truth. What he finds though is Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), a widowed Frenchwoman, and her two children living on what was his land. For a time, as he recovers from his wounds, it looks as though this is going to develop into a tale of a man reconnecting with the world and discovering something worthwhile via a surrogate family. That’s not to be, however, not for Bleeker and not for the audience either. In short, he is recaptured and offered a deal by the Governor to infiltrate the Jayhawkers, a gang of raiders led by one Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler). What is the motivation? Well, it appears that Darcy was responsible for the debasement and death of Bleeker’s wife after his imprisonment, so we’re talking a classic revenge scenario. Yet it doesn’t quite develop in the way one might imagine; the revenge aspect is brushed aside in a perfunctory manner and the story evolves instead into an examination of the perils of rampant demagoguery as well as raising questions about the extent of personal loyalty.

With writing credits for director Melvin Frank as well as Frank Fenton, A I Bezzerides and Joseph Petracca, the political chicanery which underpins the story is frankly glossed over, the whole business of false flag tactics and the risks arising out of the cult of personality influence the development of the story but never overtake it. The focus throughout remains on the relationship which grows up between Bleeker and Darcy, and how that affects not only the fortunes of the two men but also those of Jeanne Dubois and her children. This is the area where I feel the movie falters, especially the writing of the character of Bleeker. Right from the beginning there is a feeling that he failed his wife, his imprisonment and consequent lack of support being a factor that led to her becoming involved with Darcy and all that followed on from that. Be that as it may, his determination then to make up for this would suggest a redemptive path, but it turns out to be one he treads for only a brief time. Instead, he finds himself first shamed by Darcy’s direct admission of his own culpability before being won over by the drive and ambition of his supposed enemy. Basically, the man set up as the hero at the center of the tale comes across as incredibly fickle and easily swayed. This is problematic enough, but what is worse is his inability to provide protection for those he professes to care about. He leaves Jeanne Dubois to fend for herself for much of the running time and, crucially, is absent when she is assaulted and abused by Darcy’s principal enforcer (Henry Silva). On top of that, he is indirectly responsible for serious injuries sustained by Jeanne’s little girl in the course of a botched raid.

If the writing of the character of Bleeker is less than satisfactory, the performance of Fess Parker is what I’d term adequate. He’s fairly one-note throughout, giving little sense of the conflict and complexity the role requires. What saves the picture is Jeff Chandler as the man who would be king of Kansas. It is a typically intense and authoritative piece of work from Chandler, blending messianic zeal, ruthlessness and flashes of down-to-earth humanity to create a far more interesting figure than the nominal hero. He is supposed to be a character one is never quite sure of and I think that aspect is communicated quite successfully. Nicole Maurey is fine too as the woman trying to build a new life and offer some kind of security to her children. In supporting roles, Henry Silva is as sly and menacing as one could hope for while Leo Gordon’s sidekick is jittery, anxious, and ultimately doomed.

Olive Films released The Jayhawkers on both Blu-ray and DVD some years ago and it looks pretty good for the most part although there are scratches and some print damage. It is an odd film though, the themes it contains are weighty yet the handling of them isn’t all that successful nor is it as assured as it ought to be, and I’m not altogether convinced Melvin Frank and Norman Panama were the right team to have behind a story like this. The entire movie creates an impression of wanting to be big and grand, partially fueled by a terrific Jerome Moross score that recalls his work on The Big Country, but it contrives to look and feel much more restricted. All told, it entertains and passes the time, benefiting from a strong and energetic turn from Jeff Chandler. Still, bearing in mind the other genre offerings produced that year it is somewhat disappointing.

Southwest Passage

Southwest Passage (1954) is very much a product of its time. The end of the studio system and the growing competition from television saw Hollywood scrambling around to find some means of countering these threats. Promising greater spectacle and shooting movies in impressively wide ratios would eventually prove to be the most effective means of luring audiences back into the cinemas, but other approaches were tried out too. The 3-D process has always felt like a gimmick at heart to this viewer, and far too often saw filmmakers succumbing to the temptation to throw items at the camera to enhance the effect and elicit jumps from the bespectacled watchers. Southwest Passage has some of that self-consciousness on display, but goes a step further and presents a story with an unusual premise, namely the use of camels to forge a  new trail across the desert on the way to California and the west coast. This too gives the impression of writers casting round for as many hooks as possible to hang a fairly straightforward story on.

One thing this movie does not lack is pace and it gets off to a genuine flyer with a fired up and well armed posse hot on the heels of a trio of fugitive bank robbers. As horses and riders pound their away across the screen and across the wilderness, one of the pursuers pauses to take aim and loose off a speculative long-range shot. He finds the mark and one of the distant figures tumbles from the saddle. This unexpected casualty means a doctor is going to have to be located and, in brief, it provides the means by which the leader Clint McDonald (John Ireland) happens to bribe an alcoholic vet to hand over his identity and thus allow him to hide out as a member of an expedition heading west. It means he has to temporarily split up with his lover Lilly (Joanne Dru), but must needs and all that. The expedition this outlaw couple chance upon is no ordinary one; it’s being led by Edward Beale (Rod Cameron), a visionary type who has a theory that the hard desert crossing can be expedited by using camels rather than relying solely on mules and horses. As the party makes its way across the parched landscape the ever-present danger posed by the heat and lack of water is compounded by the tensions that bubble up within the group. This is partly down the need for McDonald to keep his true identity secret for as long as possible and also the fact Lilly is increasingly drawn to the selflessness and decency of Beale. To further complicate matters, a mean-spirited muleskinner (John Dehner) seems hell bent on stirring up trouble, while the Apache bands roaming the hills and rocks are just waiting for an opportunity to strike decisively.

The script by Harry Essex and Geoffrey Homes seems to be doggedly determined to dress up an essentially simple yarn of people rediscovering the path back to the straight and narrow via the hardships they endure in the course of a challenging trek. There’s a worthwhile parable in here about the way adversity can bring out the best in people, how even apparently lost souls can redeem themselves. In itself, that is enough to carry a picture and the cast is strong enough to make an audience care how or if this can be achieved. The added distraction of the camel expedition – and I’m firmly of the opinion that it is a distraction and nothing more – is wholly redundant and I have a hunch the writers realized this too as its impact on the development of the movie is slight in reality. Director Ray Nazarro was a journeyman, a competent professional who made (from what I have seen of his work anyway) entertaining but largely unremarkable pictures. Everything looks fine and he keeps it all humming along smoothly with a frequent smattering of action set pieces. These scenes are staged and shot well but, perhaps due to the faceless anonymity of the Apache warriors and their undefined motives, they do not deliver the level of tension I would have hoped for.

While he may not have had top billing, John Ireland’s character is by far the most interesting one on show. It is hinted early on that he isn’t merely a one-dimensional villain and the arc followed by this resourceful fugitive bears that out. By the end of the movie, you are rooting for him and want him to earn his salvation. Joanne Dru, his real life spouse at the time, not only looks good but she also makes for a feisty leading lady. She shoots at least as well as any of the men and doesn’t appear to have shied away from the more physically challenging aspects of the role. The way she plays that part and the gradual softening that occurs as the story progresses is key in coaxing Ireland back from the temptation of lawlessness and easy money.

If Dru was instrumental in facilitating or encouraging Ireland’s redemption, then Rod Cameron’s role could be said to have provided the motivation for rescuing her to begin with. Still, his is something of a thankless part, noble and steadfast and honest, but maybe he is too upright. Where Ireland’s conflicted robber and Dru’s disenchanted moll have nuance and shading, there’s none of that available to Cameron. He may be the lead and he may be the hero, and he plays both well and as written, but he winds up sidelined for all that. The real villain of the piece is played by the ever reliable John Dehner; sly, sleazy and spiteful, he wields a mean bullwhip and I only wish his role had been bigger still.

Southwest Passage is the type of movie which the producer seemed to throw everything bar the kitchen sink at, as though it was felt the core idea wasn’t strong enough. Personally, I take the opposite view and reckon that all the unnecessary embellishments detract from rather than enhance the finished product. All told, it is an entertaining way to pass an hour and a quarter but I do regret what I suspect was the lack of faith in the basic ingredients.

Red Canyon

Redemption – have I mentioned that concept before? Well, it would be practically impossible to maintain a site which has devoted so much space to the consideration of the classic Hollywood western for so many years and not do so. After all, that was one of the main drivers of the genre, the cornerstone on which everything else rests, and we cannot even approach the western in an intelligent way, let alone attempt to pin down its essence, until we acknowledge the primacy of this core ingredient. One of the more compelling attractions of the western is its multifarious nature, those layers and variations which are woven into the fabric of the genre. George Sherman’s Red Canyon (1949) offers yet another of those spins on the theme of redemption.

Many a movie has been built around the notion of the outlaw seeking to outrun his past deeds, the gunman grown weary of the endless challenges and the fame or notoriety which has come to be a curse. Yet what about a reputation foisted upon a man not through his own actions but second hand? What about the idea of guilt by association, or in this case as a result of one’s bloodline? This is the central theme of Red Canyon, the tale of a man looking to break loose from the shadows cast by his disreputable family. Such a task requires not only grit and resolve but money too for new beginnings come with a hefty price tag. To that end, Lin Sloan (Howard Duff) has determined to catch, break and race a famed wild stallion known as Black Velvet. This is the secondary thread running through the picture, the hunting and taming of this magnificent force of nature. And it is that quest which brings Sloan into contact with Lucy Bostel (Ann Blyth), the romantic angle which then develops forming the third plot strand and acting as a bridging device of sorts. That relationship starts out out in a lighthearted manner – Sloan’s arrogance results in Lucy temporarily losing face and losing her prized thoroughbred, while she seizes an unexpected opportunity to pass on some indignity by way of repayment – but folds into the main narrative when it deepens. It is complicated by the fact that Sloan’s family is responsible for the death of Lucy’s mother in a raid and her father (George Brent) has consequently sworn vengeance against the entire clan. A situation is thus set up whereby all the main players have no alternative but to defy their past histories, and one of them might perhaps earn that coveted redemption for his family name if nothing else.

Red Canyon ranges widely in tone, the lightness of the early scenes should by rights contrast sharply with the action of the finale and the deep-rooted schism which provokes it. It is a credit to George Sherman’s assured direction that all the tonal shifts which occur feel so smooth. Working from a Maurice Geraghty script which is an adaptation of a Zane Grey novel, Sherman seamlessly blends all the ingredients in this tale about breaking a horse and breaking with the past. Ultimately, Lin Sloan does redeem his family name by decisively cutting the bonds that have tethered him all his life. The movie celebrates the restoration of harmony and balance, in nature, relationships and in life itself. By reclaiming his identity, Sloan also ensures that the Bostels, both father and daughter, are freed from the shackles imposed by long held grudges. Of course the stallion is set free too, this symbol of unfettered nature has been instrumental in restoring the emotional equilibrium but it is patently clear that such a potent and primal force could only ever be tamed temporarily.

Howard Duff made a number of films with George Sherman and had a pretty good run in general up until the mid-1950s without ever breaking through to the very top rank of stars. He had that tough persona which made him a good fit for crime movies and westerns and Sherman gets good value from him in Red Canyon. An exuberant and vigorous Ann Blyth (who turned 93 earlier this year) plays off Duff’s ruggedness and deals credibly with both the romantic and more tomboyish aspects of her role. I guess she will be best remembered as Joan Crawford’s ungrateful daughter in Mildred Pierce but she did plenty of varied and interesting work well into the following decade.

As is the case with so many studio productions of the era, the supporting cast is positively crammed with talent and familiar faces. John McIntire gives one of his memorably mean performances as Duff’s no-good father while Denver Pyle and a rather vicious Lloyd Bridges are his siblings. George Brent, who is not an actor usually associated with westerns, is suitably stern and implacable as the head of the Bostel household. Among all the drama there is welcome comic relief provided by Jane Darwell, Chill Wills and the wonderful Edgar Buchanan as a delightfully self-aggrandizing windbag.

Red Canyon has had a Blu-ray release in Germany via Koch as part of a George Sherman collection also containing The Last of the Fast Guns and a DVD of River Lady. I still have to pick up a copy of that set but I should imagine it is a strong transfer as even standard definition copies of Red Canyon are hugely impressive with Irving Glassberg’s  stunning Technicolor cinematography looking terrific. Comparatively speaking, this movie will be regarded as a minor western. Sure there are bigger, bolder and unquestionably better films to be found in the genre, but it does have a great deal of charm and that attractive sensibility typically found in Sherman’s work.

While this might not be my final post of 2021, it will definitely be the last one to be published before Christmas is upon us. With that in mind, I want to take the opportunity to wish all the visitors here, both the regulars and those who have just come across the site, a merry and peaceful Christmas.

Utah Blaine

It has been some time since any guest posts have appeared on the site. Well, seeing as I find myself in need of a bit of a breather just now I’m pleased to have Gordon Gates step up to highlight a briskly entertaining 1950s western.

I thought it was time to offer you good folks a western with RTHC favorite Rory Calhoun, Utah Blaine (1957). This lower budget western film was produced by Sam Katzman’s Clover Productions and released through Columbia Pictures. The film stars Rory Calhoun as gunslinger Mike “Utah” Blaine. The supporting cast includes, Paul Langton, Max Baer, Ray Teal, George Keymas, Ken Christy and pretty as a picture, Susan Cummings.In this one, Calhoun gets himself mixed up with a range war between some long time ranchers, and a gang of vigilantes. The vigilantes, led by Ray Teal, want the big ranches broken up into smaller holdings. Teal has hired himself a slew of fast guns and various other assorted trash types to help him. He promises the men all ranches of their own.Calhoun just happens on a man, Ken Christy, who these said vigilantes have left hanging from a tree. Calhoun cuts the man down after the gang left. Christy is still alive and thankful for Calhoun saving his life. Once he finds out that Calhoun is a known fast gun, he offers to pay him for help. Christy also offers a nice slice of range and a 1,000 head of cattle. Calhoun has always wanted a place of his own and agrees.Calhoun is soon knee deep in fist fights, shoot-outs and horse chases, both as the pursuer. and the pursued’  Most of the local townsfolk are too afraid to stand up to Teal and his mob of hired guns. Calhoun does manage to get some help from a pal he knew from years before, Paul Langton. Langton is also handy in the big iron area with his six-gun, as well as a huge double-barreled shotgun he hauls around. Max Baer, a local, also joins in with Calhoun.
In the mix here is the gorgeous Susan Cummings. Miss Cummings is the owner of another of the bigger spreads around the area. She has just buried her father who was murdered by Teal and his bunch. She is soon helping Calhoun and company with food and a place to hide. Of course Miss Cummings and our man Calhoun take a shine to each other.For Calhoun, the fight becomes very personal when he finds that gunman, George Keymas, is among Teal’s men. It seems that Keymas had sold Calhoun out to the Mexican Federales, when the two had been on a job south of the border. Calhoun had spent a long stretch in a Mexican prison before finally escaping. He wants a spot of revenge.The local folks finally join up with Calhoun’s mob when Teal tries to murder another local ranch owner, Angela Stevens. They arm up and are waiting in ambush for Teal and his men when they hit town. It looks like a fairly liberal spraying of heavy metal is going to be needed to settle the issue for one side or the other. The viewer knows the boot hill express is going to be busy.
This is a nifty little low renter that zips along in a quick 75 minutes. B-expert, Fred F. Sears, handles the direction here. Sears cranked out about 50 films in his 1949 till 1958 Hollywood career. Sears’ films include, Earth vs the Flying SaucersRumble on the Docks, The 49th Man, Cell 2455 Death Row, and Chicago Syndicate. Sears also helmed Fury at Gunsight Pass which Colin reviewed here a month and a bit back. (Editor’s Note: the Sears title I looked at recently was actually Ambush at Tomahawk Gap)Another B-film veteran, Benjamin H. Kline handles the cinematography. Kline worked on several excellent low-rent film noir such as, Roses Are Red, The Invisible Wall, Jewels of Brandenburg, Treasure of Monte Cristo and Detour.The film is taken from the Louis L’Amour novel of the same name.
Gordon Gates

Duel in the Sun

Deep among the lonely sun-baked hills of Texas the great and weatherbeaten stone still stands; the Comanches called it Squaw’s Head Rock. Time cannot change its impassive face nor dim the legend of the wild young lovers who found heaven and hell in the shadows of the rock. For when the sun is low and the cold wind blows across the desert there are those of Indian blood who still speak of Pearl Chavez, the half-breed girl from down along the border, and of the laughing outlaw with whom she here kept a final rendevous, never to be seen again. And this is what the legend says: a flower, known nowhere else, grows from out of the desperate crags where Pearl vanished. Pearl who was herself a wild flower sprung from the hard clay, quick to blossom and early to die…

It’s not uncommon to come across critics and writers referring to the operatic qualities of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it applied to other spaghetti westerns, but of course Leone’s films were not really like other spaghettis anyway. Nevertheless, I don’t believe his films were the first westerns this label could legitimately be applied to. To my mind, opera is essentially melodrama set to music; roaring, all-consuming passions explored and exploited with grandeur. Yet excepting a handful of cases, cinematic melodrama tends to get brushed aside somewhat disdainfuly, as though the cranked up passions on display are paradoxically of diminished value. Duel in the Sun (1946) is full-throttle, unapologetic western melodrama, a heady Technicolor cocktail of love and hate, of guilt and desire. It is operatic in scale, mood and ambition, and I feel it must have been an influence on Leone.

The credits roll and segue into an impression of the desert bathed in a twilight glow, Dimitri Tiomkin’s otherworldly score whispers across the sand and rocks, and Orson Welles softly intones those words at the top of this piece. The allusion is towards the epic and the movie, bursting in upon a nighttime street scene, is forever striving to become an epic. There is sweep and scale and spectacle, the frequently breathtaking visuals manfully going toe to toe with a tale which crackles with the power of the emotional currents contained within. This is the story of Pearl Chavez, daughter of a dissipated Creole (Herbert Marshall) and an Indian mother (Tilly Losch). She witnesses her father’s shooting of her faithless mother, and then his subsequent execution for the crime. Before his death though, he sends her on her way to seek out the protection of Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish), his first and perhaps only real love. Laura Belle is married to the wealthy and influential Senator Mc Canles (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound bigot whose own family is hardly less dysfunctional than the setup Pearl has just left behind. The idea is to turn Pearl into a lady, a task destined to be thwarted by the girl’s own wilful and untamed nature, the Senator’s undisguised prejudice, and the competing attentions of his two sons.

Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the elder brother, educated and with a broader and more progressive outlook, the latter aspect highlighted especially by his willingness to embrace the arrival of the railroad and the consequent restrictions which will inevitably be placed on the concept of the open range. It’s a common feature in westerns to see the railroad driving back the frontier and pressing ahead with the process of civilization with every sleeper and rail laid. If Jesse can be said to be progressive in this wider, visionary sense, there’s no denying that he also suffers from what might be termed a form of moral idealism, an unfortunate tendency which, at a crucial moment, allows his judgement to be fogged by some latent prudery or sanctimony. Lewt (Gregory Peck), on the other hand, is something of a primal throwback, a reckless man of the moment, impetuous and ruled largely by his instincts and desires. He is his father’s favorite for his full-on machismo and that earthy nature which suggests a greater affinity for the vast and sprawling Spanish Bit ranch. Yet Lewt is as faithless as he is feckless, a self-obsessed man who takes his pleasures where he finds them, spoiled, entitled and lacking any kind of moral compass. He treats his brother with disdain, the world as his private playground, and Pearl as just another glittering toy within it. Pearl herself is every bit as complicated as the men who covet her; she yearns for that illusory respectability her father failed to provide but is too impassioned to ever make the necessary compromises that might attain it. Transplanted into an alien environment, she finds herself assailed on all sides – weighed down by the proprietorial expectations of Laura Belle, shamed and demeaned by the contempt of the Senator, wooed by the decency of Jesse but simultaneously overpowered by her hunger for the no-good Lewt.

Those three points of the dramatic and romantic triangle are brought to life by three well chosen performers. Cotten’s reserve and diffidence is used effectively to show a man capable of professional determination but a more faltering approach to matters of the heart. Peck’s natural confidence is concentrated and twisted into a cocksure egotism. And Jennifer Jones was afforded the opportunity to explore an extraordinarily broad range from barefoot ingenue to abused victim and finally avenging femme fatale.  Generally, it is hard to find fault with the casting of Duel in the Sun. From the decaying patrician weariness of Herbert Marshall to the unvarnished meanness of Lionel Barrymore, the characters who populate the tale neatly capture the flavor of their roles. Lillian Gish had the ability to tap into that fading delicacy that was entirely apposite for a woman whose essential gentility has been broiled by relentless exposure to a husband whose temperament is as caustic and pitiless as the Texas sun. Smaller but by no means insignificant roles are filled by Charles Bickford as the aging and tragic suitor smitten by Pearl, Walter Huston as the larger than life Sinkiller, and Harry Carey as the Senator’s old associate.

Films produced by David O Selznick tend to have a lot of the producer himself in them, his hands on approach practically guaranteeing that. Duel in the Sun saw him producing this adaptation of Niven Busch’s novel and also taking a hand in the writing alongside Oliver H P Garrett and an uncredited Ben Hecht. Somehow the man seemed to be imprisoned by his own success after Gone with the Wind and his struggles to escape and surpass the long shadows cast by that epic production dominate much of his subsequent career. Duel in the Sun has ambition stamped all over it, although it doesn’t always hit the mark. That blend of writers has Lewt appearing too one-dimensional for starters: he’s an out and out villain, self-serving, cold, abusive and murderous. Yet we have to buy into Pearl’s inability to resist him. Sure he ultimately goes too far and pays the price as a consequence, but the fact it takes so long for this to occur is something I find problematic. That said, I guess the overriding theme of the entire piece is that of being trapped by one’s nature. Pearl is in the spotlight more than anyone else, but none of the leading characters seem able to break the bonds built by their own natures either. This is perhaps the real tragedy of it all, a collection of people all fated to live out their lives damaging themselves or those around them.

The director’s reins were taken up by King Vidor, who would work with Jennifer Jones again a few years later on Ruby Gentry, and the frustration of working under Selznick apparently drove him off the set. This is one of those movies where a whole raft of people seem to have had a hand, albeit uncredited, in getting it to the screen. Aside from Vidor, Josef von Sternberg, William Dieterle, and Selznick himself, to name just a few, worked on the film. Even the cinematography was shared out by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes and Ray Rennahan. One might be forgiven for expecting a bit of a disjointed affair as a result of all this but the finished film remains remarkably cohesive. The scenes of the advancing railroad had me thinking of Leone and his similar setups as Sweetwater gradually takes shape in Once Upon a Time in the West. The panache of the various duels that develop as the story progresses leads me to wonder about their influence too – from the barroom confrontation between Bickford and Peck, and that poignant shot of the engagement ring, to the stylized face off between Cotten and a mounted Peck, and of course the final showdown which builds to a truly operatic finale. In among this there are numerous memorable visual flourishes too, the marshaling of the Spanish Bit riders being a good example. However, one of the standout scenes for me is the dawn meeting between Lewt and the Senator as the younger man heads off into hiding. It is shot in silhouette atop a hill with the rising sun in the centre, an almost demonic image as though the flames of the abyss itself were reaching out to reclaim these two scoundrels.

Duel in the Sun has had a number of releases in various territories over the years, with Kino in the US putting it out on Blu-ray. For the present, I’m still relying on my old UK DVD, which generally looks fine and shows off the stunning cinematography well, although there are instances of softness and a few registration problems at times. I am aware this may not be a movie that is to everybody’s taste – it is necessary to tune into those heightened and heated emotions that underpin this type of melodrama in order to appreciate it all – but it strikes me as a title that would be an excellent Blu-ray candidate for one of the boutique labels in the UK. Here’s hoping…

Red Mountain

One of the reasons I started this site many years ago was the opportunity it afforded me to write on and maybe draw some attention to movies (many of which happened to be westerns) that appeared to  have slipped between the cracks and drifted into relative obscurity. That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was certainly a signficant one. Over time I’ve tried to broaden my base and mix up my content in a way that pleases me and, I hope, engages and attracts a wide range of visitors. Red Mountain (1951) could be seen as a return to my blogging roots in a sense as it is the type of movie I had in mind at the outset, a western with a big name star and directed by a well regarded filmmaker, with some equally impressive names among the crew, but one which rarely gets mentioned.

This is a fanciful tale, one likely to drive the history buffs crazy as it plays fast and loose with historical facts. However, we’re talking about movies here, where artistic license should be granted and where minor matters such as accuracy and fidelity to the known facts are of no more than incidental interest. It opens well, with a faceless killer shooting down an assayer in the town of Broken Bow, the assailant recognizable only by the spurs on his boots. It would seem likely at this stage that we would see a tale focusing on the hunt for this anonymous gunman, and that does appear to be the direction we’re headed in, not least when an innocent man is accused and a vengeful posse summoned. That innocent man is Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), one on whom suspicion is heaped not only because he had been seen in the vicinity but largely because he was once a soldier of the Confederacy and these are the dying days of the Civil War. The townsmen all regard him as a potential traitor and are only too willing to set out with the aim of lynching this interloper. Indeed he comes within a hair’s breadth of this fate but is spared when Brett Sherwood (Alan Ladd) breaks up the party and rescues the happless Waldron. Sherwood is the real killer of the assayer – this is only confirmed right at the end of the movie but it’s acknowledged quite early on in proceedings – and his feelings of guilt and responsibility for Waldron, and later some stronger feelings for the latter’s woman Chris (Lizabeth Scott), drive the plot. All of this is intensified when the infamous Quantrill (John Ireland) comes on the scene. The notorious guerilla leader is in the process of stirring up unrest among the Indian tribes, starting with the Utes, with the aim of opening a new front in the west, one with the potential to derail the Union march towards victory.

One doesn’t think of German director William Dieterle as a natural for  westerns. That said, there’s no earthly reason why we should exclude someone like this – the beauty of the western as a genre is its malleability and the kind of inclusiveness it bred among filmmakers where so many diverse types were able to make strong and successful contributions. That Old West setting was the ideal backdrop for so many tales, a largely untouched landscape invested with enough opportunity and presenting so many physial and ethical challenges that almost any human drama was enhanced when it played out there. Dieterle (who apparently was replaced for a time by an uncredited John Farrow due to ill health) uses the New Mexico locations well, presenting a similar view to that pioneered by John Ford with the vast and imposing natural features framing the conflicts dramatically and simultaneously suggesting their relative lack of consequence in the grand scheme – those towering hills and cliffs and endless horizons prevail and gaze impassively on the petty squabbles acted out in the their shadows and dwarfed by their permanence. Charles Lang’s cinematography makes the most of the natural beauty and is equally effective in the numerous night time shots. The driving and powerful (perhaps occasionally overpowering) score by Franz Waxman adds urgency and also complements some of the grimmer moments in the film.

Red Mountain was the third western for Alan Ladd, following on successfully from Whispering Smith and Branded and paving the way for his signature role in the timeless Shane. While I’m not entirely convinced by some of the writing and characterization in this film, I can’t say that any of that affects the quality of the performances. Ladd’s star was still in the ascendency at this point and he was tremendously good at tapping into the growing uncertainty of his character; there’s a touch of ambiguity there too but it’s the burgeoning sense of unease at the path chosen, the war raging within his own soul, which impresses most.

In contrast, Lizabeth Scott’s career had already peaked and  a few years later any chance of reviving it would be torpedoed by the disgraceful actions of Confidential magazine. She handles her part as the embittered victim of Quantrill’s razing of Lawrence, Kansas with assurance. She is sometimes regarded as a film noir actress first and foremost, and she has some stellar credits in that genre to back that view up, but her work in this film and Silver Lode is just fine as far as I am concerned. Arthur Kennedy fades a little as the story develops, a strong start sees him squaring off against Ladd but his character’s injury sees him sidelined to some extent and the writing I mentioned above does him no favors. John Ireland’s Quantrill offers an interesting study in fanaticism. I particularly appreciated the actors physicality here, using a kind of stiff discomfort to great effect, suggesting a man aware of his own unhinged nature and struggling with some moral straitjacket of his own design. There are also welcome if limited supporting roles for Whit Bissell, Neville Brand and Jeff Corey.

I’m not sure if Red Mountain has received an official release anywhere, which is a pity as the movie has a good deal to recommend it. It represents a strong entry in the filmography of Alan Ladd as he was building his credentials as a western hero and it also adds another layer to the Hollywood work of William Dieterle. Frankly, it’s the kind of film that would look just dandy on Blu-ray if it were given a bit of a clean up. I’d like to think that might happen one day.

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

A quick perusal of the active ingredients of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) – a ghost town, a small group of criminals bound together by greed yet riven by hatred and petty squabbles, a solitary woman, and the ever present threat posed by marauding Apache bands in the surrounding hills – might bring to mind Quantez, which I looked at here earlier in the year. While these shared features are plain to see the two movies are quite distinct; even if I feel Quantez is the better film all round, that is not to say Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a poor effort. On the contrary, this is a tight, suspenseful and entertaining piece of work.

The quest for revenge is a common cinematic motif, one which can be found across a broad range of genres. Westerns have made use of it extensively, something about the rugged backdrop and the sense that justice is not yet fully forged and must be seized hot from the flames of a still uncivilized land seems to make for a good fit. The opening of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap looks as though the story will lead us once more down this well trodden path, and then it doesn’t. Four men have just been released after serving a sentence in Yuma prison: Egan (David Brian), Kid (John Derek), Doc (Ray Teal), and McCord (John Hodiak). They represent a selection of types from the cold-hearted tough, the green hothead, the weary old-timer, through to the brooding outsider. McCord is the latter, an innocent man who was convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed and who has done another man’s time, the other man being Egan’s brother. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the plot is going to focus on the vengeance aspect. However, it’s soon established that McCord is on to a loser on that score, the guilty man having been gunned down for cheating at cards soon after his fall guy took up residence behind bars. No, the quest in this case is for the spoils of the robbery these men did hard time for, cash which has never been recovered and is probably secreted somewhere in the abandoned town of Tomahawk Gap, deep in Apache territory. During the course of the trek to this potential treasure trove, and following a skirmish with a band of hostiles, the four travelers pick up a Navajo woman (Maria Elena Marques) who has been held captive. Her wounding of the Kid leads to a subsequent fit of remorse and a bond, and ultimately a romance, will develop between them. On the other hand, there is no love lost between Egan and McCord, each warily circling the other, with one eye on the possibility of obtaining great riches and the other on an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Predictably perhaps, the tensions and rivalries which have been simmering all along come to the boil in the dust swept saloon and echoing streets of a dead town, one which is soon to claim a few more souls for its ramshackle cemetery.

Quantez owes much to the nuanced performances of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, and of course to the artistry of Carl E Guthrie’s cinematography. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap doesn’t have those to fall back on but Henry Freulich still produces some remarkable images using filters and gets a lot of value out of the ghost town set. Where Quantez trades heavily on its themes of regret and redemption and the slow burn atmosphere this movie folds in more incident and complications to jazz up the pace, yet there is a redemptive aspect at the back of it all too.  Although Fred F Sears was a fairly prolific director I have to confess that I’m not familiar with much of his work – Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is the only other of his pictures I can recall watching off hand. Anyway, his handling of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is sound and indeed stylish in places, using interesting setups and getting the most out of his small cast.

John Hodiak took the lead as the wronged man and turns in some good work. I’m not sure the writing did him any favors by having his character switch from being motivated by a desire for justice to a more straightforward and altogether less noble demand for compensation. Still, Hodiak carries it off fine. His chief competitor is David Brian, all brashness and bullying, a one-dimensional demonstration of self-absorption, but, again, that’s how the character is written. John Derek’s Kid is rebellious and quick-tempered as well as being suitably callow and credulous. The only other role I have seen Maria Elena Marques play was opposite Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri. That movie saw her taking on a part light on dialogue and she is in a similar position here, on both occasions she gave an accomplished performance. However, some of the best work is done by veteran character actor Ray Teal. Often cast as villains, he always added to the entertainment value of any movie he appeared in. The role of Doc is a sympathetic one, a man who has  learned something from life, who has has become philosophical about his own shortcomings and solicitous when it comes to the welfare of the Kid. Teal brings a touching warmth to his part and it may well be the best of his long career.

It should not be too difficult to locate a copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. It was released as a good looking manufactured on demand DVD in the US and versions have shown up in a number of European countries too. It’s an attractive movie, colorful and offering a welcome balance of interior and exterior work. Personally, I am a fan of such tightly made and self-contained films, the restricted focus often brings out the best in many of those involved and the typically pared down stories mean the pace is necessarily brisk. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap may not be all that well known but I think western fans will find it rewarding.

Valerie

Perspectives and perceptions, views and understanding, the way we see events and how we process what’s seen. This is the basis of Gerd Oswald’s Valerie (1957), a western which serves up a set of circumstances and then challenges us to interpret them correctly. The art of the filmmaker is frequently dependent on the successful placement of the camera, the mise-en-scène that draws the eye this way and that and coaxes a reaction or nudges us towards a conclusion. In short, there is a degree of manipulation involved, or to put it less provocatively an encouragement of certain approaches. Ultimately though, if the filmmaker is to retain any integrity, it is incumbent on them to seek the truth. Valerie takes a handful of typical western themes – the nature of heroism and the concepts of opportunity and equality – and proceeds to filter them through the prism of a number of perspectives, bending and splitting them according to the perceptions of the individual narrator before finally arriving at the irrefutable truth.

The film begins with a killing, although the act itself is not seen (not at this point at any rate) and only the bloody consequences are presented to us. John Garth (Sterling Hayden), a wealthy rancher, approaches and enters the home later revealed to be that of his in-laws, a volley of gunshots is heard and then he exits allowing the audience to peek through the doorway at the carnage left behind. Among the torn bodies strewn across the parlor floor is the figure of Valerie (Anita Ekberg), Garth’s estranged wife. The story then shifts to the court where Garth finds himself on trial, his lawyer claiming self-defense while the prosecution alleges murder. The truth lies in the past, a past revealed over the course of the next hour or so via flashbacks resulting from the testimony of the witnesses and the defendant. What follows is a tale of love and jealousy, of mistrust and suspicion, culminating in abuse, violence and death. The telling and retelling of what led up to the tragedy and bloodshed could easily become tedious but the altered perspectives which uncover additional pieces of information as well as allowing different interpretations to form ensure it remains absorbing right up to the end, to that point where the full truth is laid bare and everything is made clear.

Director Gerd Oswald was an immigrant himself and perhaps that adds an extra layer to the aspect of the story which focuses on the outsider attempting to fit into new surroundings. Ekberg’s Valerie is shown as the exotic object of desire as well as the potentially untrustworthy interloper, a figure simultaneously representing attraction and repulsion to Garth’s native son. This highlights the essential weakness and vulnerability of her position, and by extension that of the immigrant in general, where her word is always likely to be regarded as suspect when set against that of the stolid familiarity which her husband embodies. There is too if not exactly an enthusiasm then at least a willingness to believe in some latent wantonness and loose morality in such an outsider, something reinforced by her apparent closeness to the local preacher (Anthony Steel) who also happens to be an immigrant. This subversion of the notion of the old west as a land of boundless freedom and opportunity is neatly done.

If the movie can be seen to be scratching at the mythology of the old west, it’s also following the path of many a 1950s melodrama by casting an unflinching glance at some of society’s most unassailable pillars. The idea of the hero, particularly that of the war hero, is a powerful one. It brings to mind images of selflessness and honor, something fine and upstanding. And so we come back to perception – Garth is celebrated and lauded as a war hero, a man who has served with distinction. Yet it’s slowly revealed that his role was a murkier one, he was by his own admission a de facto torturer whose job was to extract information from prisoners by whatever means were available.  Are we to perceive the violence Garth is capable of as an inherent character flaw or as an indictment of the brutalizing effect of war? Garth’s cruelty is not in question, only the underlying reasons are left to the discretion of the viewer.

Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain sequence in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita are inextricably linked in my mind and I suspect that will be the case with many others, it’s one of those cinematic images that is universally recognizable. From what I’ve seen of her Hollywood career it could best be described as variable but there are still a few gaps I need to fill in and I really need to catch up with John Farrow’s Back from Eternity some time soon. For the most part she was fine as Valerie, although the moments where she was called upon to emphasize the “bad girl” side of the character are less successful than those where she is being victimized. Hayden’s physical presence is used to excellent effect and he generally turns in a strong performance, communicating the threatening and intimidating nature of his character most convincingly. The bluntness, the abruptness and the raw implacability of the man are unmistakable every time he pads menacingly into the frame. Those two dominate the movie throughout, although Anthony Steel (Ekberg’s husband at the time) has a sympathetic albeit frequently ineffectual role as the preacher who is drawn to the troubled Valerie. While he appears slight next to Hayden’s brooding massiveness he also brings a sense of calm and culture, providing something of a counterweight to the simmering passions all around him.

Valerie was released on DVD  in the US by MGM years ago and I think it turns up online regularly too. It looks like an open matte transfer as there is generally some empty space at the top of the screen visible, but that’s not a major issue and the image is satisfyingly sharp and clean. This is not a film that gets mentioned very often, even among film fans, and I feel it is worthy of a bit more attention. It offers a different spin on the traditional western, blending in melodrama, courtroom suspense and some frank yet unobtrusive social commentary. All in all, it offers a satisfying hour and twenty minutes of viewing and there’s the added benefit that it throws in a little food for thought. My advice is to keep an eye out for it.