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?

Springfield Rifle

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Having looked at a hybrid movie last time out (a western/swashbuckler mash-up), I thought I’d continue in a similar vein and feature another western which has borrowed and blended in elements of another genre. Here it’s the espionage or spy movie and the result of this cinematic marriage is Springfield Rifle (1952).  It takes place during the Civil War, which has traditionally been a setting with decidedly mixed returns in both critical and commercial terms. And I think that’s what could be said of this production too: the film is interesting in places, muddled and short on momentum in others, and ultimately not wholly satisfying, a classic mixed bag.

As far as plot is concerned, this is the type of film where one has to be careful not to give too much information away, the mystery aspect is significant and it would be churlish to spoil that for anyone who hasn’t seen this before. Right from the beginning we’re made aware that this is a tale of counterespionage, and I doubt if it’s revealing too much to say that it’s essentially a case of setting a spy to catch a spy. Anonymous raiders are rustling horses in Colorado which are bound for the Union army. The regularity and success of this rustling operation strongly indicates that a spy or traitor is playing a part. Given the nature of conflict at the time, horses are vital to the war effort. So, the top brass is pressing for something to be done, and that pressure is being felt by local commander Lt Colonel Hudson (Paul Kelly). It’s Hudson’s hope that Major Lex Kearney (Gary Cooper) can deal with the problem. When Kearney’s command is relieved of its herd of horses with a shot being fired in anger, the Major finds himself facing a court-martial for cowardice. While this brings disgrace it also opens up an opportunity to learn much more than anyone in a uniform could hope to do. A bitter and disgruntled man, despised and shunned by family and former comrades alike, is in an ideal, unique position to infiltrate the ranks of the raiders.

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When you take a look at the cast and crew of Springfield Rifle you’d think there were strong grounds for expecting a first-rate piece of cinema. Even there are good points to consider, and I’m going to do just that presently, the end product does not measure up to what the constituent parts appear to promise. A film directed by Andre de Toth, especially around this time, is going to have some strengths, and it can’t be denied that the movie looks quite spectacular in places – the location work is a joy in visual terms giving the film a real boost, and the action set pieces are memorably staged and coordinated. There’s also a powerful and distinctive Max Steiner score to add some punch and drive. The beginning, and the somewhat misleading title, raise the prospect of the film being one of those odes to the military that can all too easily run to dreary and sanctimonious. Luckily though, the espionage theme takes precedence and the story goes in some unexpected directions – questions of trust and integrity are not only raised but are explored in some depth as well.

Movies with a script by Charles Marquis Warren normally get my attention, not because I like them all or even rate them all that highly – his TV work is undoubtedly more significant – but his name does encourage a certain amount of anticipation. Frankly, I feel the plot of Springfield Rifle is excessively and unnecessarily complicated. Aside from the twisting and turning, which is par for the course for any spy movie, the structure becomes muddled in my view by the tendency to reach too many (anti) climaxes, thus watering down their effect and drawing the energy out of the picture. The film runs for an hour and a half bit it feels longer than that.

Think of Gary Cooper and 1952 and, supposing you’re a movie fan, the words High Noon must surely come to mind. Springfield Rifle is from that same year but it’s a world away when it comes to quality. Again, it’s not a bad film but it is a rather mediocre one. I try to look at material on its own terms, to avoid unfair or loaded comparisons where possible, but there are occasions when I can’t get round them. In the same year as High Noon the sheer ordinariness of this movie leaps out at one but the fact is that it fares the same when placed against a lot of Cooper’s other genre work. I don’t say Cooper delivers a poor performance – there’s the deceptive simplicity which was his trademark, and also a meanness (verging on sadism I’d say) touched on in the aftermath of a fight with Lon Chaney Jr that would be drawn on further by the actor in Anthony Mann’s later Man of the West. Nevertheless, it’s minor Cooper and I can think of at least a half dozen other westerns which used his persona and talents better.

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The rest of the cast of Springfield Rifle is extremely impressive: Lon Chaney Jr, Phil Carey, Paul Kelly, James Millican, David Brian, Phyllis Thaxter, Alan Hale Jr & Fess Parker. By anybody’s standards, that’s quite a list. However, with the exception of Kelly and, to a lesser extent Brian, these people are wasted and their abilities are never exploited as fully as they ought to have been. Many of them are written into the movie and then written out abruptly or, in a few cases, simply dropped with next to no explanation. In some ways, this failure to get the best out of such a bank of talent is the most disappointing thing about the movie.

Springfield Rifle was released years ago on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of a Cooper box set. The film looks OK but there are some marks here and there and there’s the potential, with a bit of restoration, to have the film looking really splendid. I doubt that will happen though, and maybe it’s not something worth getting upset about. While the movie could be spruced up visually that won’t address the weaknesses inherent in the script. My final verdict? A picture which is very attractive to look at, a cast to stoke up your enthusiasm, but a complex stop-start script that eventually trips you up in the overabundance of peaks and troughs.

Riding Shotgun

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Ever watch a movie and find yourself struggling to quite get a handle on it? I don’t mean in terms of following the plot, rather the direction in which the plot wants to lead your thoughts. Frankly, I’ve seen lots of films where the storyline has meandered all over the place and the focus seemed to shift continually. But it’s a whole different matter when we start talking about a small, tightly structured production, one where there’s an essentially simple story being told, yet where the theme and tone appear to vary almost from scene to scene. As I watched Riding Shotgun (1954) the other day I was struck by tonal shifts throughout, a kind of capriciousness in the scripting that meant a potentially interesting little movie fell short of what it might have been.

As soon as the credits roll there’s a sense that we’re going to get one of those noir-tinged westerns that can prove so satisfying, Firstly, we get a voice-over narration by the hero, Larry Delong (Randolph Scott), which lets us know that he took the job riding shotgun for the stagecoach line, and traveling all over the west as a result, for a very special reason – to find one particular man, and to kill him. The man in question is Dan Marady (James Millican), a notorious road agent or outlaw, and he’s well aware of the fact his nemesis is dogging his tracks. I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, as the following all occurs in the first 10 minutes or so of the film, by saying that Marady has a plan in place to lure Delong away from the stagecoach and then fake a raid on it to draw a posse out from the neighboring town. With the law off chasing the apparent attackers of the stage, the town will be left wide open so Marady and his men can enter at their leisure and pick off all they want in safety. That’s the plan, but a little carelessness means Delong remains alive and free, and in a position to warn the defenseless settlement of the impending raid. It’s at this point that the movie takes a turn off into more unusual territory – instead of being greeted as a savior, Delong first becomes the object of suspicion and distrust, and later an outright threat who has to be eliminated.

Coincidence, misfortune and misunderstanding provide the impetus for the plot of Riding Shotgun, the kind of circumstances that make for good drama,and can add to that sense of noir fatalism I alluded to earlier. With the revenge motif, the narration and the sight of Randolph Scott grimly determined to kill a man as opposed to, let’s say, bring him back for trial, everything appears to be in place for a solid B western suspenser. And yet it doesn’t really come off, and the reason is the uneven or uncertain tone I spoke about. For a story like this to work as it should, to be truly effective, it needs to be tackled as a straightforward and straight-faced yarn. The setting and build-up are suitably minimalist and claustrophobic, and director André de Toth frames some excellent compositions. As Scott’s character finds himself increasingly isolated and literally backed into a corner, there’s tension in abundance. However, we also get humorous undercurrents – the over-cautious and ever-hungry deputy (Wayne Morris), the grotty saloon keeper fretting about his costly mirror and addressing his son in Spanish while getting answered in German, and the (seemingly) deliberately obtuse townsfolk. The net result of it all is that the film is neither fish nor fowl, shying away from full-on suspense and flirting with the comedic elements, we end up with a film which feels slightly arch.

I wonder how this movie was received on release since, even now, I find it a little odd to see Randolph Scott so hell bent on killing off his enemy. I know he went to similarly dark places in a couple of the Budd Boetticher films a few years later but it still gives me pause. While I have reservations about the script I can’t fault Scott’s performance, but he rarely gave an unsatisfying performance by this stage in his career anyway. It’s nice to see James Millican, who often got cast in smaller but always memorable roles, handed a more substantial part as the chief villain; it doesn’t call for any great subtlety but there’s plenty of opportunity for some solid snarling and meanness. Millican’s principal sidekick is played by a young Charles Bronson (still being billed as Buchinsky) and his presence and potential can be clearly seen at this point. OK, I’m harping on the (not all that successful and also unnecessary) comic aspects again but I feel Wayne Morris is ill-served as a result. His conflicted deputy is an important character in the film, providing a lot of balance and accessibility. But the way the part is written undermines him at every turn and diminishes the role considerably, a great shame. There’s a good supporting cast featuring the likes of Joan Weldon, James Bell, Joe Sawyer, Frank Ferguson, Vic Perrin and John Baer, although many of them are given very little to do.

Warner Brothers put Riding Shotgun out on DVD years ago as part of a triple feature set with Man Behind the Gun and Thunder Over the Plains. Scott’s westerns were harder to find back then and only few were available to buy compared to now, and I remember being very pleased to see these films come on the market. The presentation is as basic as it gets with no bonus features included. Still, the film looks reasonably good with nice colors and no major print damage. I’ve spent a fair bit of time highlighting what I see as the deficiencies of this film but I feel I should also point out that even a relatively weak Randolph Scott western benefits greatly and is elevated by his presence alone. I don’t think I’ve seen a Scott western I didn’t enjoy on some level at least, which is a testament to the man’s talents. If I seem unduly critical of this one, then it’s mainly because I can see how a few minor tweaks to the script could have left us with a far stronger picture. Nevertheless, and despite its faults, it’s still worth a look.

 

 

Day of the Outlaw

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I like westerns, I like movies which could be described as chamber pieces, and I like snowy backdrops. Day of the Outlaw (1959), directed by Andre de Toth, checks all these boxes. It’s one of those films genre fans will enthuse about yet remains criminally underrated by others. It’s also a film where there’s not a huge amount of action; there is, however, a kind of relentless tension and a whole lot going on just below the surface. In short, the film is a sleeper, a tight and atmospheric classic just waiting to be discovered.

I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of watching movies is to be found in the deceptively simple story, those tales which initially appear to be straightforward or predictable yet gradually develop into something much more complex and satisfying. Day of the Outlaw is a fine example of a work where layers of depth emerge bit by bit and draw you in before you’ve realized it. It opens in a wintry Wyoming town as two men, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff), ride in and bemoan the stringing of barbed wire and the consequent threat to the open range. Starrett’s blood is up and he vows a showdown with the homesteader responsible. The scene therefore is set for the kind of range war drama that’s been seen countless times. But this is a mere introduction, an opportunity to draw attention to the implacable and tough character of the lead. When it then becomes apparent that Starrett is in love with and covets the beautiful wife (Tine Louise) of his chief rival, the plot moves to another level. And still we’re only dancing around the periphery, for what really matters here is the journey – both literal and figurative – which Starrett (among others) will be forced to embark upon. In a deft piece of filmmaking sleight of hand the entire emphasis is moved away from that which the build-up has led us to expect. Just as we’re about to witness the duel between Starrett and his foe a bunch of newcomers arrive and take us off in a completely different direction. Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a Quantrill-like figure, a soldier with a tarnished reputation now reduced to leading a band of amoral cutthroats. Bruhn and his men are loaded down with stolen gold, but he’s got a bullet lodged inside him and the army hot on his heels. The enforced stopover in the snowbound town represents a trial of sorts for the bewildered and helpless residents, but it also holds out a kind of hope for two lost souls – Starrett and Bruhn. Both men find themselves in opposition and through that also find a way to regain a little of the humanity that years of hard living have almost stripped away.

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Redemption once again; Starrett and Bruhn have lost something along the way, their hearts have been hardened by the brutality of frontier life, and their salvation will be a by-product of their enmity. As far as I’m concerned, this is what drives the film along and gives it its power. I feel all the other plot devices are simply that, accoutrements put in place to facilitate the drama that forms the heart of the story. It’s the chance meeting of Bruhn and Starrett, at a key moment for both, which gives them pause and either forces or allows them (take your pick here) to alter the course of their respective destinies. The two characters wield a significant degree of influence over those around them and this is what first draws them into an uneasy mutual alliance. However, I believe that the real, if initially unacknowledged, motive comes from the fact that each recognizes something of himself in the other. The effect appears more profound in the case of Starrett, but it’s surely present in Bruhn too, and throws out a spiritual lifeline of sorts.

Day of the Outlaw is surely Andre de Toth’s best film, a well-paced exercise in mounting and sustained tension, aided by Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Lee E Wells’ novel. By having so much of the action confined to the saloon the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and suspense is multiplied. The impromptu dance, hastily organized to placate Bruhn’s increasingly restless men, perfectly conveys the threat and menace posed by the gang. Even when events later take us out into the wilderness of the snow-choked mountain pass that feeling of being locked into an inescapable situation is actually heightened rather than dissipated. A good deal of credit also has to go to cinematographer Russell Harlan here; his shooting of the frozen and forbidding landscape is chilling in every way. When you add in Alexander Courage’s spare, doom-laden score all the ingredients are in place for a memorable interlude in the icy wastes.

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The cast is both deep and distinguished (Persoff, Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Lambert, Lance Fuller, Frank DeKova, Dabbs Greer, Alan Marshal et al) but Ryan and Ives easily dominate proceedings. Ives in particular holds the attention whenever he’s on screen, which is entirely fitting as he’s playing a man who’s holding a gang of dangerous roughnecks in check principally through sheer force of personality. The dance segment which I referred to above is a good illustration of this, the frayed dignity of the man shining through and setting him apart from a shabby command which is beneath him in every respect. Ives also gets right into the physical and psychological guts of his character, from the harrowing operation he endures without anesthetic to the slow dawning of his impending and inevitable demise. Overall, it’s a first-rate portrayal of a complex man, and one which is wholly believable. Just as the characters feed off one another, I think the same can be said the performances of the leads. Ryan was never a slouch as an actor anyway and his playing opposite Ives ensured he stayed on top of his game. He starts out as bitter, cold and unforgiving as the country around him, delivering a blistering and scathing verbal attack on his homesteader rival. He holds onto that steely determination throughout, but slowly lets the sharp edges soften a little as he becomes aware of the path he’s been taking and where it must surely lead.

Day of the Outlaw is fairly widely available on DVD now. I have the US release from MGM which presents the film quite nicely in its correct widescreen ratio. However, the film comes with absolutely no extra features, and I reckon it’s more than deserving of some. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have the chance to chat about the movies I love with those who share my passion. Over time though, I’ve also come to realize that I was partly motivated by a wish to see a bit more critical respect afforded to certain films and genres. The western in particular has tended to be passed over as nothing more than time-passing entertainment. Now there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, a movie which doesn’t do so is failing straight out of the gate after all. Still, the underestimation of the western as an art form and as a vehicle for the intelligent examination of adult themes has persisted. A film like Day of the Outlaw highlights this critical neglect. I’d like to think that appreciation of the film has grown somewhat over time though, and I’d encourage anyone keen on polished and smart filmmaking to seek it out.