Horizons West

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There are movies which look like they have everything going for them: a director with a substantial and significant reputation, a strong cast, and a promising script that is a blend of a couple of classic themes. All of this applies to Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West (1952) – add in the fact that the film was one of those handsomely shot Universal-International productions and one might reasonably expect it to be a cast iron winner.  However, the fact is it doesn’t quite live up to the build-up. It’s not a poor movie at all, just one which delivers a bit less than it could have – too much melodrama when more honest drama would have been preferable, and a series of conflicts which might have been more fully exploited.

The end of a war ought to signal a more peaceful era and maybe even a more hopeful one too. For the Hammond brothers, returning to their native Texas after taking part in the war between the states, the hopes are present although while Neil (Rock Hudson) wants nothing more than a return to the idyll he left behind when he signed on older brother Dan (Robert Ryan) is disgruntled enough to be in the mood for a different kind of struggle. By his own admission, Dan Hammond doesn’t like losing and almost immediately sets about changing the course of his fortune. This period of reconstruction in the vanquished South is one which can make men rich fast and, as always, draw the consequent attention of beautiful women. It just so happens that the allure of wealth and a woman crosses his path as soon as he enters Austin, and it also happens that both in this case belong to one man, Cord Hardin (Raymond Burr). It shouldn’t be any surprise that Dan will fall foul of this brash Yankee, nor that the clash is to set him on a path that tantalizes him with the promise of fulfilling his dreams but also creates a rift that threatens to irrevocably sour relations with his father (John McIntire) and Neil.

The title of the film – Horizons West – is both romantic and simple. Those two words pretty much encapsulate the spirit of the genre and I guess it’s no wonder that Jim Kitses used this as the title of his examination of the most influential figures in the western, a book I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet read it. Yes, those two words conjure up all kinds of iconic imagery and it’s therefore difficult not to have heightened expectations. As I said above, this isn’t a bad little movie but everything from the title on down holds out the prospect of something greater and grander. Perhaps that’s a tad unfair as I have a hunch that were one to come to it after the credits had rolled, and unburdened by any great familiarity with director or stars, then it would prove a satisfactory and satisfying way to pass 80 minutes or so. I sometimes feel that approaching movies as “film buffs” means that all that associated baggage we bring along is simply adding an unnecessary degree of pressure to how we perceive films and assess their relative worth.

Director Budd Boetticher’s fame and reputation come principally from the films he made in the late fifties with Randolph Scott, what we refer to as the Ranown cycle. The greatness of those half-dozen westerns, a little interrelated cluster of bona fide masterpieces – cannot be disputed; they mark the director and his star out as giants of the genre. However, the flip side is the  way the towering reputation of those films tends to cast a deep shadow over the rest of Boetticher’s body of work. That his other, earlier movies do not attain those artistic levels shouldn’t be regarded as any particularly damning criticism. Generally, Boetticher had far less creative control over the films he was making as a contract director within the studio system, a fact which applied to almost all filmmakers. Boetticher, like any contract director, was employed to turn in a competently made product as efficiently as possible. This is what he did on titles such as Horizons West, the script of which lays the melodrama on thicker than it needed to and only scratches the surface of the theme of sibling rivalry and the differing perceptions of ambition within a family. The film always looks sumptuous (as Universal-International productions typically did) even if the on screen action is a little lacking at times. As usual, Boetticher shines brightest in the outdoor scenes and the action sequences, the final act being especially well-handled.

I’ve spent plenty of time singing the praises of Robert Ryan on this site before, and I’ll try to confine myself to pointing out the fact he rarely gave a disappointing performance and certainly didn’t do so in this instance. His edgy magnetism once again anchors the movie and he uses the duality of his character to great effect – I often think it was impossible for Ryan to play anything other than an interesting role. In terms of the development of the story, I would have liked to have seen more of the growing chasm between the two brothers. However, Rock Hudson was still in the early stages of his career and thus his part was limited somewhat – although each successive film would see his screen time expanded. Julie Adams was handed a good vampish role as the wayward wife of the northern carpetbagger and she makes for a very attractive presence. Raymond Burr was well on his way towards becoming virtually typecast as unsympathetic villains in these pre Perry Mason years – he played such parts very convincingly but he must surely have been bored by the dearth of variety at the same time. One of the delights of these studio vehicles was the richness of the supporting casts, and Horizons West certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score – John McIntire, Dennis Weaver, James Arness, Douglas Fowley, Tom Powers, Rodolfo Acosta and Walter Reed all add value to the viewing experience.

Some years ago, the only available copy of Horizons West was the German DVD by Koch Media, which I have. Since then, however, the movie has been released in the UK and the US, and probably in other territories as well. I can only comment on the Koch disc, which displays some genuinely eye-popping colors and is extremely sharp on occasion. There are some instances of softness though, and also some minor registration issues where the color can appear to bleed slightly. Overall though, I have to say the film looks very  fine. So, to sum up, we’re talking here about a solid movie featuring the talents of Boetticher and Ryan. Even if it has imperfections and isn’t up there with the very best work such people were capable of, it remains entertaining and worthwhile.

 

 

Lawman

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It’s always the same. If you post a man, he has to come into town to prove he’s a man. Or you kill a man, he’s got a friend or kin – he just has to come against you… and for no reason… no reason that makes any sense. And it don’t mean a damn to the man already in the ground. Nobody wins.

Nobody wins – that quote taken from Lawman (1971) is a bit downbeat, but it does sum up the mood surrounding the film and maybe also feeds into the sentiments which would become increasingly common in the western in the 1970s. Last time out I was looking at a western, and at the same time musing about the genre itself, from the late 60s, a restless and hard to define era. The decade of the 70s followed on from that and gradually developed its own character – when we speak of the westerns of the 50s we often find ourselves referring to redemption, by the time we reach the 70s we’re more likely to encounter resignation.

The figure of the lawman is integral to the western, the constant expansion of the frontier and the subsequent attempts to bring and maintain civilization via the rule of law is a constant factor, if not the underlying theme in itself. A bunch of weary cowboys let loose and whooping it up is another common sight, and the result of such celebrations was frequently violence. Such was the case in the town of Bannock, where the hands employed by Vincent Bronson (Lee J Cobb) had a little too much to drink, let their good sense abandon them and left a dead man lying on the street. And so the marshal of Bannock, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), comes to Bronson’s patch with the goal of returning the guilty men to stand trial for the killing. Bronson is one of the old style pioneers, that tough breed who tamed a land and bent it to their will through the force of their personality, backed up by a loaded gun. Men like this are accustomed to getting their own way or, where that’s more difficult, to buying individuals who can smooth things out for them. Bronson has already bought and paid for his own marshal, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), and believes that Maddox or those he represents have their price. In a way, he’s right as Maddox admits that he’s really only going through the motions – acquittals can be purchased in all likelihood. Yet Maddox’s own price isn’t quite the same; he might draw his wages from a corrupt source but he owes personal loyalty to another more idealistic paymaster – justice. So the drama and conflict therefore grow out of two situations: the reluctance of Bronson, or at least that of his men, to comply with Maddox’s wishes, and also the lawman’s own battles with  himself and the code he’s stuck by all his life.

The 60s was a decade when many questions were asked, the 70s kept at it and got some answers, but those answers weren’t always the ones people wanted to hear. Disillusionment was creeping in and many ideals seemed to be tarnished when dragged out into the cold light of day. Lawman dealt with that now familiar theme of changing times – clearly articulated by Lee J Cobb’s character – and the need to adapt, bend or be broken.The message seems to be that when all around you has been corrupted and debased by greed and self-interest, then the only sure or true thing one can hold onto is your personal code of honor. Maddox is the lawman, the one who has lived by that code refused to compromise. It raises him above the other characters, friends and enemies, colleagues and lovers, but isolates him too. Maddox questions the value of this, understands the fact it has sustained him through the years, but ultimately betrays it (and by extension himself) when confronted by the rank and venal behavior of the man who, in some respects, replaced him. It’s as though the knowledge of what he could become, if he were to submit to his desires, is too much for him and so must be banished.

Lawman was directed by Michael Winner, a man not noted for his subtlety either as a filmmaker or in any other area of life. It became fashionable to dismiss his work as crass and lacking in substance, but blanket judgements are rarely worthwhile and best avoided, in my opinion. Winner will never be regarded as a great filmmaker, which is fair enough, but it’s unjust to simply brush him aside as a hack. Some of his early work is very good – for example, West 11 is a neat little movie – and it wasn’t until  mid-70s that a significant decline in quality could be discerned. Lawman does have too many needless zooms and close-ups yet it also has pace and a kind of raw, brutal honesty that’s quite attractive.

Once again, we have a film whose stars hark back to the golden era of the genre – Lancaster, Ryan and Cobb were all involved in some of the finest westerns made and worked with the most talented directors, writers and cameramen. To browse their filmographies is to contemplate the heights cinema was capable of attaining, and their class is readily apparent in even the smallest gestures. There’s real pleasure and delight to be had from seeing these seasoned pros playing off each other and enjoying the nuances they could bring to parts effortlessly. Although that trio of heavy hitters would be enough to hold our interest by themselves there’s a terrific supporting cast to savor too – Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, John McGiver, Richard Jordan, Robert Duvall, Robert Emhardt, J D Cannon, John Beck, Ralph Waite and more. It should be noted that the film is light on female representation; Sheree North is the only woman to play a part of any importance, but it’s a good role and one that impacts on the ultimate resolution.

Lawman is one of those United Artists titles released on DVD by MGM ages ago now. It’s typical of many such releases in that it’s just about passable but should look an awful lot better. On the plus side, the film is presented in the correct widescreen ratio and enhanced for 16:9 screens. On the other hand, there’s a softness about it and the usual artifacts and instances of print damage that need to be tidied up. The UK version I have has no extra features and I think the same can be said for the US edition too. Generally, I find I get on better with many (though not all) 70s westerns than the late 60s variety – it seems the genre settled down somewhat and made up its mind where it wanted to go by that stage – and I feel Lawman is deserving of a bit of attention. While it has suffered a bit due to the lackluster reputation its director earned over the years, it’s a good film and one that’s worth checking out.

 

 

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.

 

 

Act of Violence

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You’re the same man you were in Germany. You did it once, and you’ll do it again. What do you care about one more man? You sent ten along already. Sure, you’re sorry they’re dead. That’s the respectable way to feel. Get rid of this guy and feel sorry later. He dies… or you die. It’s him… or you.

Revenge and redemption, guilt and remorse. Having written about so many classic westerns, especially those from the 1950s, these are words and themes that I find myself returning to time and again. Sure the western explored and exploited these ideas extensively, but it’s not a phenomenon confined to that genre. Film noir, that shadowy world of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, also turned the spotlight on these matters. Act of Violence (1948) tackled such thorny yet compelling issues head-on, using the war and its aftermath as the backdrop, challenging the viewer as much through its clever casting as its examination of the complex ethical questions.

Act of Violence is a film where the demarcation lines between what we traditionally think of as the hero and villain are both blurred and continually shifting. As viewers, we’re constantly thrown off-guard and never entirely sure where our sympathies should lie – the images may be shot in stark black and white but the figures playing out the drama on the screen never are. The dramatic opening, panning from a New York skyline down to a long shot of a limping figure furiously driving himself across a deserted nighttime street, plunges us headlong into the action. As the trench-coat clad figure hauls his crippled form up the narrow, rickety staircase of a seedy boarding house and proceeds to load an automatic, the title flashes briefly before us. This is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a veteran who has been broken both physically and psychologically. Boarding a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles, he disembarks in the small California town of Santa Lisa. This little settlement seems to embody all the optimism and hope for renewal of the immediate post-war years. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is the epitome of the solid model citizen – the American Dream in motion – with his hearty demeanor, beautiful young wife and thriving business. Yet, despite this wholesome and eminently respectable exterior, Enley is carrying round a dark and shameful secret. And Parkson has come to town to kill him. As the action switches to Los Angeles and back again to Santa Lisa, the relationship between these two very different men and the traumatic past events that have scarred both their souls is gradually revealed. While neither one is a saint, the two of them, in their own ways, have been or have become sinners. Both are seeking to lay the demons of the past to rest in their own way and thus attain personal redemption. I think it’s fair to say that in the end both men fulfill their aims, just not in the way we or they initially expected.

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Although the film is primarily concerned with redemption, it’s first necessary to take a look at the corrosive effects of its malignant cousins, guilt and revenge. At the heart of the story lies the way those two great emotional imposters eat away at the central characters before ultimately consuming themselves to allow a spiritual renewal to take place. It’s the way Enley and Parkson react to and are shaped by guilt and the thirst for revenge that leads to that ambiguity I already mentioned. The beginning of the movie, before all the circumstances have become apparent, suggests a fairly conventional plot – an innocent victim being pursued by a relentless and implacable enemy. However, as the details emerge, we’re forced to reassess that assumption. It’s no longer as clear-cut as we’d been led to believe and there is no readily identifiable hero or villain, at least not outside the subsidiary characters. What we’re left with instead is something of a classical tragedy, where two pretty regular guys have had their character flaws magnified and honed by the extremity of their wartime experiences. The horrors and violence of their shared past have affected both men profoundly and it takes an, ironically unconscious, act of self-sacrifice to allow them to break the shackles and redeem themselves.

Fred Zinnemann isn’t a name that immediately springs to mind when thinking about film noir directors, and Act of Violence is his one and only stab at dark cinema. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkably strong effort where the visuals are every bit as striking as the script. There’s a very noticeable contrast between the bright and airy world we see Enley occupying at first and the shadow drenched urban wasteland he moves towards in his attempts to evade Parkson. Zinnemann and his cameraman, Robert Surtees, project some marvelous images, often featuring a panicked Enley stumbling blindly through the underbelly of LA by night – an anonymous, pitiful figure dwarfed and made insignificant by the city’s architecture. They also manage to transform Enley’s home, which initially comes across as a kind of post-war idyll, into a murky and threatening place, reminiscent in its dark confinement of the prison camp where all his troubles began.

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I mentioned the clever casting at the beginning and I feel that plays a major role in making the film a success. The two leads dominate the whole thing and their deceptively typical roles add greatly to the unexpected and unpredictable feel of the film. Van Heflin always had that stolid, comforting quality about him, possessing the look, manner and speech of a guy you could depend on. That aspect is certainly played up in the early stages, and the realization that this man isn’t quite as wholesome as we thought comes as a bit of a shock. With Heflin you tend  to expect strength and inner resolve to be to the fore. He has that of course but, as the story progresses, the focus shifts to his weakness and frailty. Somehow, the desperation of Enley is made more credible by the fact it’s Heflin we’re watching. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe Robert Ryan was one of the greatest actors of his generation. This man was capable of convincingly playing a wide range of characters in just about every conceivable genre. Film noir was good to him though and the complex roles he was handed brought out his strengths. Parkson, the limping and obsessive veteran, offered plenty of scope for the intensity and suppressed rage he had a knack for. In the hands of someone less capable or lacking in subtlety the character simply would not work. Once again, first impressions should not be trusted as the menacing bogeyman figure at the start is fleshed out and transformed by the end.

The supporting roles are filled most notably by three fine actresses: Janet Leigh, Mary Astor and Phyllis Thaxter. In her one of her earliest roles, Janet Leigh impresses as the young bride who sees her illusions about the war hero she thought she’d married shattered. Phyllis Thaxter plays Ryan’s neglected girl, a loyal rock-like figure intent on saving her man from his own self-destructiveness. And finally, there’s Mary Astor. Once the arch siren of The Maltese Falcon, Astor gives a memorable turn as the jaded and weary prostitute who offers comfort to the disoriented and confused Enley in LA. These three women provide a stable core to the movie, their constancy contrasting nicely with the fluidity of their male counterparts.

Act of Violence is available on DVD as part of the Warner Film Noir Vol 4 set. The film is paired on one of the discs with John Sturges’ Mystery Street. It’s been transferred well with no noticeable damage and good contrast levels to show off Surtees’ photography. The extras consist of a commentary track by Drew Casper and a short featurette on the movie. As far as I’m concerned, Act of Violence has a lot going for it. The central themes are ones I’m always drawn to and I feel they’re intelligently presented here. What’s more the cast is exceptionally fine with good performances delivered by everyone involved. All told, we’re looking at a strong film noir that develops in an unexpected fashion, but one which is also very satisfying.

BTW, I just noticed that this is my 300th post, another little milestone passed.

 

 

The Proud Ones

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The minute you people smelled money, this town got an attack of larceny. I don’t blame it on Barrett; I blame it you. You’re supposed to be respectable. You talk about law and order; you’d sell out for a copper penny – any one of you. You’re robbin’ and stealin’ the same as he is, with your fifty dollar boots and your twelve dollar hotel rooms. If I was on this council, I couldn’t look in the mirror without vomiting!

Occasionally, there are films which I fully intend to feature but somehow they seem to slip through the net at the last moment. I’m not entirely sure why that happens as they’re rarely poor or unmemorable. For one reason or another they don’t get written up and I find my attention has moved on to something else. A good example of this is The Proud Ones (1956), although the fact this movie has cropped up in discussions and comments here a few times lately means it’s never been too far from my mind. As 50s westerns go The Proud Ones remains a pretty solid effort, using a fairly common town tamer storyline to look at a handful of people bound together by events from their pasts that can’t be shaken off, and also slipping in a few sly digs at the way progress and prosperity have a way of shepherding in the beginnings of moral decay.

Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) is one of those lawmen who moved from one hot spot to another, his latest port of call being the peaceful town of Flat Rock. However, Flat Rock is about to undergo something of a transformation as the arrival of the first cattle drive promises an upturn in economic fortunes, as well as the potential for increased lawlessness. Westerns tend to focus on the trouble stirred up by visiting cowboys eager to blow off some steam and cut loose after a long period in the saddle. In this case though the source of the problem isn’t the cowboys champing at the bit for whiskey and women; all the trouble that arises stems from the town itself, or its newest arrival anyway. “Honest” John Barrett (Robert Middleton) has just moved in and taken over the running of the saloon and the gambling tables. The thing is Barrett is a sharp operator, not averse to using hired guns and crooked dealers, and he has a bit of history with Silver. Both men locked horns in the past and the result was that Silver apparently ended up being run out of town. A further layer of pressure comes in the form of Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter), another new arrival whose father was gunned down by Silver years before. While the marshal has to deal with the needling of Barrett and the alternating hostility and confusion of Thad, he’s faced with an altogether more serious danger. A man in such a position needs the full use of all his faculties at the best of times, but Silver comes to the sobering realization that he may be in danger of losing his sight just as matters are coming to a head.

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I’ll have to admit that I’m not very familiar with a lot of director Robert D Webb’s work – apart from the neglected White Feather and the less satisfactory Seven Cities of Gold – but what I have seen indicates that he had a good eye for wide scope compositions. The wide screen tends to work best with films that are heavily dependent on the use of landscape – movies featuring a significant amount of location shooting. Arguably, films which contain a lot of interior shots, as is the case with this production, require greater care if they’re photographed in scope. An overeager or lesser director might  succumb to the temptation to pack out the frame with too many characters and movement, throwing the composition out of kilter and muddling the focus. It’s to Webb’s credit, no doubt aided by having Lucien Ballard as cameraman, that he resisted those temptations and went for clarity instead. Many scenes take place in Silver’s office/jail, and the wide frame is expertly used to highlight the character interaction of the principals whilst also drawing attention to the little gestures and reactions of the peripheral figures. Lionel Newman is the credited composer and the melancholy whistling theme is an understated and ideal accompaniment for the action on the screen.

I’m a big fan of Robert Ryan, a subtle actor of great depth and range who seemed equally at home in both westerns and film noir. A quick look through his credits for the 40s and 50s makes for impressive reading, with hardly a bad performance on view despite the variable quality of some of the projects he was involved in. The Proud Ones offered Ryan the opportunity to play a man whose outward toughness masks the uncertainties and regrets he really feels. His character’s back story is filled in gradually as we go along and, together with the failing eyesight angle, helps to build audience sympathy. Ryan also managed a good rapport, in contrasting ways, with both Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Middleton. While I’m not sure the relationship between Ryan and Hunter quite works, I wouldn’t lay the blame at the door of the actors. I reckon Hunter was and is criminally underrated and tends to get dismissed as a pretty boy who brought little of substance to his roles. Frankly, I don’t go along with that and find him more than satisfactory in most films – I’d go so far as to say he was excellent in Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James for example –  succeeding in getting across the sense of confusion of his character here. Middleton was a versatile character actor, but always made an especially effective heavy. He brings a nice sense of smugness to his role that provides the necessary counterweight to Ryan’s edginess. There’s also a hint, never fully explored, that both Middleton and Ryan were former rivals for the affections of Virginia Mayo. Whilst Mayo gets a more fully developed character to work with here than was often the case, she seems to put a little too much into her performance. This is understandable for an actress who was frequently handed thankless parts, but it does jar a bit. The supporting cast is long and noteworthy with Walter Brennan (slightly wasted as Ryan’s laconic sidekick) and Arthur O’Connell as the distracted deputy heading it up. I mentioned the swipe the script takes at the greed and moral decline accompanying the financial boom, and the opening quote refers to that. Edward Platt and Whit Bissell catch the eye as representatives of the respectable citizenry easily corrupted by the promise of riches.

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Fox released The Proud Ones on DVD in the US some years ago but it remains a very strong transfer. The disc offers the film in its correct anamorphic scope ratio on one side while the reverse has a (redundant) pan and scan version. Color and detail are well rendered and the print used is very clean and practically undamaged. Extra features are limited to a handful of trailers. I don’t think Robert Ryan ever made a poor western and The Proud Ones, even though it may not be among his best known pictures, is a fairly strong effort. One could say it’s a generic 50s western and while it’s hard to argue with that assessment it shouldn’t be taken as a criticism either. I feel Mayo overcooks it a little and the central dynamic between Ryan and Hunter could have been improved by the writers. Still, despite these few quibbles, the movie does work when taken as a whole. I’d call it a solid, above average example of the genre.

P.S. – This is just one of those infrequent updates I’ll be adding to the site over the summer – full, normal service shall be resumed some time in September.