Drums Across the River

Revisiting Universal-International westerns is never a chore. While some are undoubtedly more challenging and engaging than others, there is a strong and distinctive visual aesthetic to them all. Add in the polish and pace of a well-oiled production system and there is usually much to savor. Drums Across the River (1954) was the last of three movies Audie Murphy made for director Nathan Juran and it is an enjoyable picture that blends a number of worthwhile themes into the action, although one could argue that there are too many of those themes for a sub-80 minute movie, too many to do full justice to at any rate.

Gary Brannon (Audie Murphy) and his father Sam (Walter Brennan) run a freight business in Colorado, one which is beginning to feel the pinch economically as the mines that had previously been the life blood of Crown City are yielding less and less. Desperate men naturally snatch at whatever straws of hope appear before them and in this case it is the neighboring land occupied by the Ute tribe, land which is known to be rich in gold reserves. This presents the main source of potential conflict in the movie and it is here that we dive into the action as Gary Brannon is about to defy his father and take part in an excursion onto Ute territory organized by Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger). Walker fully expects to encounter trouble, in fact he welcomes and pushes for it as his ultimate goal is to provoke a war with the Utes that will force the army to intervene and deliver the gold into his hands. Well, a skirmish does occur, despite the best efforts of Brannon Sr to broker peace, and the taking of captives by both sides means an exchange is going to have to take place.

It is at this point that another source of conflict arises, one that is crammed with potential. Sadly, this is only partially fulfilled though, as the fact that Gary’s mother was killed by a Ute warrior in the past comes to light. This explains his hatred for the Indians and introduces a needling note between father and son since the older man has come to terms with his loss and grown to respect the tribe and the Chief (Morris Ankrum) who atoned for the killing at great personal expense. The exchange, negotiated by Gary as his father is nursing a wound, sees him alter his perspective and thus the ethical and philosophical sea-change he experiences is effected a little too quickly and too soon. That is not to say it is unconvincing, merely that it robs the picture of the opportunity to delve deeper into a strong and involving theme. What follows is more standard albeit entertaining fare as the focus shifts to a more direct confrontation between Walker and Brannon Jr, where the former is increasingly determined to remove the stone in his shoe that the latter now represents. As such, we get kidnapping, blackmail and a frame-up all interspersed with copious action sequences as we wind our way towards a satisfying if not altogether unexpected conclusion.

Westerns that lean heavily on subterfuge as plot devices need the right people in the villainous roles. Under the circumstances, it is hard to think of anyone better suited to the part of arch puppeteer than the unctuous and Machiavellian Lyle Bettger. His shifty, slippery persona is ideal for the role of Walker and contrasts well with Murphy’s clear countenance and upright demeanor. Murphy himself is never overtaxed but does well, as one would expect, in the action scenes and brings that edgy intensity of his to some of the tougher moments. Walter Brennan is sympathetic as the older man who has made peace with himself and his environment. If anything, he is absent, or held captive by Bettger and his henchmen, for too long and his character’s measured wisdom and innate decency is therefore only sporadically highlighted. And speaking of characters who are not on screen as much as I would like, there is Hugh O’Brian’s sardonic and sadistic black-clad gunslinger. He brings a real sense of stylish menace to his scenes and it is a genuine pity he wasn’t given more to do. Jay Silverheels fares well as the Ute warrior who grows into responsible leadership and his stoic sense of right and justice contrasts markedly with the venality of the villains.

It has been suggested before that women in westerns do not always get as many opportunities to shine or make their mark. Now I’m not convinced that is really true, or least not true enough to be presented as a blanket statement. There are many examples of interesting and pivotal roles for women in the films of Ford, Hawks, Daves, Mann and Boetticher, and this is frequently true of second tier productions as well. Sadly though, this cannot be said for Drums Across the River, where neither Mara Corday as a saloon girl nor Lisa Gaye as the insipid and unnecessary love interest for Murphy are given any chance by the script.

Nathan Juran’s direction of the movie is fine in that he keeps it tight and it’s what I’d term a solid and professional piece of work. Still, it feels a little impersonal. He makes ample use of the studio backlot, which typically looked attractive in most of the movies where it was employed and this is certainly true of the sequence featuring the gallows in the rain, but does get to head out to Red Rock Canyon and San Bernardino for a bit of welcome location work too.

Drums Across the River has had multiple releases on DVD over the years so it ought to be easy enough to track down a copy. I watched the UK release by Simply Media, which has the film looking handsome and colorful in its correct widescreen ratio. Overall, this is a good Audie Murphy western that offers food for thought on Indian-settler relations and presents the Ute as more than just convenient bogeymen. I guess my only complaint would be the fact that the script moves so fast and tries to pack in so much that some the more interesting and worthwhile themes do not have much chance to breathe. Nevertheless, this is a movie that works hard to please and hits the target most of the time.

The Tall Stranger

Thematically, what is the western all about? That’s a big question, bearing in mind the breadth and endurance of the genre. So many themes have been encompassed over the decades and plots have woven all types of ideas into the fabric of the genre. I frequently return to the notion of redemption and it naturally crops up time and again, but I’m inclined to think the western is all about searching. Sure John Ford made one of the greatest movies of all time with that word and idea helping to form its title, but the concept of groups and individuals forever ranging towards a mythical west in search of something is at the root of so many stories. Even that is a nebulous comment and open to all kinds of interpretations so I’ll try to nail it down a bit. I reckon the western is primarily about seeking out a place of one’s own, either a spiritual or physical promised land, somewhere for characters to fulfill themselves, to add that last elusive piece to the puzzle of their own existence. For one reason or another, I found myself mulling this over the other day as I watched The Tall Stranger (1957), a decidedly modest western and one which I doubt the filmmakers actively thought of in those terms. Still, just because a theme may not have been foremost in the minds of those making a movie does not mean it is not there, or that is any less relevant as a consequence.

From feuds and fights to romance and reputations, The Tall Stranger has no shortage of ideas to bulk out its 80 minute running time. The opening image is a staple of the genre, with a lone rider making his way across the wilderness, his eyes probing the horizon and beyond, searching for something. Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea)  chances upon a group of men riding herd on some cattle and, out of curiosity, pauses to take a better look. That proves to be a mistake, costing him his horse and almost his own life at the hands of an unseen sniper. As he lies on the ground seriously wounded and at the edge of consciousness, he glimpses the gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs sported by his assailant. However, Bannon is a lucky man and is rescued and nursed back to health by a wagon train of former Confederates heading west and hoping for a fresh start in California. In among those is Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a woman bringing up a little boy on her own. These two people find themselves drawn to each other, perhaps as a result of their shared status as outsiders, Bannon’s having been a Union officer adding to his otherness next to the Southerners. A few of those plot elements are therefore seeded quite early, but the depths of the feuding and conflict are mined later. We first learn that Bannon is headed back to the ranch run by his half-brother, a man who has sworn revenge on him for the death of his only son during the war, then there is another layer of conflict to come as the settlers, under the influence of a manipulative opportunist, make their minds up to stake out a piece of the sprawling ranch for themselves. As such, everything is set up for a showdown between these competing forces and personalities, all of them looking to carve out and lay claim to a little corner of the world to call their own.

While The Tall Stranger is not a particularly ambitious movie, or certainly not one which sets out its stall to deal head on with big themes, it manages to incorporate some of those core ingredients of the genre into its compact form and structure. The concept of competing factions in conflict over the land itself is timeless, one that underpins not just the western but so much human drama. That the events on screen take place in the immediate aftermath of a war over control of the country emphasizes the never ending nature of this struggle among men for mastery of the land, of the hunger to make it theirs. Yet it is the more personal need to achieve a sense of belonging and permanence that is of greater interest. Bannon is a man made rootless by his personal feuds and the scars of battle. He is, however, an optimist in the best western tradition, forever looking ahead to greener pastures and better times. In Ellen he discovers someone else cast adrift in the world, a self-confessed fugitive from tutting puritanism. The need of these two lonely people for something as simple as a home, a place to lay down their own roots and tend to them quietly, provides the heart of the story, and in its own way is an unpretentious reflection of the perennial appeal of the western.

Joel McCrea was one of the linchpin actors of the western, as essential to its development as John Wayne, James Stewart, Randolph Scott or Gary Cooper. All the great western actors brought something unique and special to the table, and in McCrea’s case it was that sense of dignified and courtly decency. He shares some fine moments with Virginia Mayo, not least an early scene where he rides off, perhaps never to return as far as the two of them are concerned at that stage, and the unspoken regret and hurt of both is palpable. Later, there is the scene outside the ranch house, where Mayo tells of her past with raw frankness and McCrea perfectly encapsulates the innocent bewilderment of his character. Both Mayo and McCrea had starred in Raoul Walsh’s marvelous Colorado Territory almost  a decade earlier and The Tall Stranger reunited them. While the relationship in this movie may not have the hot and tragic passion of that in Walsh’s work, their quiet, understated yearning is every bit as powerful and compelling.

The supporting cast is deep and strong, with Leo Gordon and Michael Pate in rare sympathetic roles and Barry Kelley providing plenty of meaty bluster as McCrea’s hardheaded half-brother. The villains of the piece are a flashily dangerous Michael Ansara and George Neise as the chief pot stirrer. Ray Teal and Whit Bissell have small parts and their presence is as welcome as ever.

With a script by Christopher Knopf (Hell Bent for Leather) from a Louis L’Amour novel, The Tall Stranger packs a lot into its relatively brief running time. Director Thomas Carr has it looking reasonably good and uses the ‘Scope frame well, but there is, in my opinion anyway, an over-reliance on day-for-night filters. I don’t believe the movie has had a release on disc anywhere which respects the aspect ratio. However, it can usually be viewed in the correct ‘Scope format online, and in very good quality too.

Sometimes the least likely places harbor the clearest truths, pared down modesty serving to draw attention to the essentials where intricacy and ambition can perhaps end up obscuring them – Sir Isaac Newton once made a similar point in much more elegant terms when he said: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” So, to finish up, The Tall Stranger will never make anyone’s list of top westerns yet it contains within it, and maybe even in spite of itself, a lot of what makes the genre work.

They Rode West

A movie is a journey, one undertaken by characters and observed by viewers, and the degree to which it can be considered a success depends on how much those characters have learnt about themselves and the world they occupy by the time they reach their destination. I think this holds true for most films, whatever the genre, but it plays an even more significant role in the western. The western, despite its frequent reliance on action, is very much a character driven genre. The great westerns achieve that quality through the development of their characters, emphasizing growth, renewal and redemption along the way. When I view a film like Phil Karlson’s They Rode West (1954) I am left thinking it is only partially successful, which of course is not to say that it fails to entertain or that it has no points of interest in plotting or approach. Ultimately though, the film feels more like an exercise in vindication as opposed to redemption, which is never as rewarding a payoff.

As is the case in any good drama, They Rode West presents multiple layers of conflict. From the beginning it is clear that Captain Blake (Phil Carey) has a strong dislike and distrust of the medical profession. The outpost has had the misfortune to be lumbered with a succession of incompetents, the last of whom has just killed Blake’s friend through drunken negligence. So, when the new replacement, Lieutenant Seward (Robert Francis), turns out to be a green recruit with neither military nor frontier experience, Blake is perhaps understandably antagonistic. This is the main source of conflict that runs through the movie and it is supplemented by a kind of stuttering rivalry over the affections of the Colonel’s niece Laurie (Donna Reed). Alongside that, there is further friction generated by Seward’s compassion and empathy for the plight of the Kiowa of the nearby reservation, feelings which are complicated by his obvious attraction to a white captive (May Wynn). Caught between the hawkish and inflexible Blake and the increasingly frustrated Kiowa, Seward soon finds the call of his conscience has led to him being labeled a traitor (a wood hawk) by the troopers.

They Rode West is a handsome production with Charles Lawton’s cinematography making the best of the Iverson Ranch locations. I can’t find anything to confirm my suspicions, but the shooting style employed by Karlson gives the impression that the movie was shot for 3D presentation. He indulges in a fair few heavily canted angles, which may simply be a stylistic choice, but there are a number of scenes (predominantly action/battle sequences) where those telltale shots of people and objects leaning and falling onto the lens are on display.

Frank Nugent’s screenplay, from a story by Leo Katcher (The Hard Man, Party Girl, Between Midnight and Dawn) has Seward and Blake forever at daggers drawn, principally though not exclusively over their contrasting attitudes towards the Kiowa. This is well enough done and feeds into the more nuanced view of the Indian that an be found throughout westerns of the era, particularly those of Delmer Daves and George Sherman, and elements of this crop up in Karlson’s own later (and superior) Gunman’s Walk. Still, the handling, or maybe I should say the way the characterizations unfold, is not all that satisfactory. As I alluded to at the top of the piece, there is little of the redemptive spirit that enriches so many 1950s westerns. One could, I suppose, argue that Seward’s actions eventually lead to the restoration of trust between the warring sides and that the faith he manages to draw from the both sets of combatants has a redemptive effect on them. However, I feel that is reaching somewhat, that the truth is the tale winds its way to a vindication of the approach championed by Seward from the get go. While that is fine in itself, it means his character has undergone little change; he sees his ideals comes to be accepted and the criticism leveled at him firmly rebutted yet he remains essentially the man we first saw, albeit a little more worldly-wise.

Phil Carey seems like he should have had a bigger career. I guess his credits show he did fine in general, but the fact is, in spite of working for directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh, he never rose above second lead in anything other than programmers. Roles like that of Captain Blake can’t have helped, he starts out as abrasive and short-tempered (justifiably so under the circumstances) and basically stays that way till the end credits roll. As I said, there is no renewal or rebirth to be seen here and it’s an ambivalent part too, neither fish nor fowl. Robert Francis gets the noble part and he plays it well, with freshness and decency and he also conveys the doubts and guilt which assail him quite effectively. However, his was a short and tragic life and he would die in a plane crash just a year later at the age of 25 having made only four films. May Wynn (who worked opposite Robert Francis in The Caine Mutiny) has what I feel is the most interesting part in the movie. The role is not an especially taxing one but it is pivotal and, crucially, it offers an unexpected perspective on the life of a captive. She is not portrayed as someone who is seeking escape, but instead as a woman who has reconciled herself to life with the Kiowa and who has no intention of leaving. Donna Reed had just won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity but this film wasn’t going to capitalize on that. Although she has some fun showing a bit of coquetry from time to time, it’s all standard love interest stuff and never particularly memorable.

They Rode West has appeared on DVD in France and Spain and it can generally be tracked down for online viewing too. All in all, it is an enjoyable western, a solid cavalry yarn whose heart is in the right place. It’s attractively put together, has pace and includes some exciting action scenes. Had the scripting allowed some real growth in the characters to take place, I wouldn’t feel the need to offer caveats. So, whilst it won’t make anyone’s list of great westerns, it is still a good one.

From Hell to Texas

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Revenge is a motif that is popular in the western, driving and challenging heroes, anti-heroes and villains. The better, or perhaps it would be closer to the mark to say the more thoughtful, westerns of the 1950s mined this theme extensively. The conclusion reached by these films is a virtually universal rejection of the concept of vengeance, an acknowledgment that nothing positive can ever be achieved by sitting down to dine with the Furies. Henry Hathaway’s From Hell to Texas (1958) makes this point very clearly by highlighting not only the corrosive effects of such a self-defeating quest on those who seek revenge, but also by presenting a hunted man who is both innocent of what is alleged and morally appalled by the violent situation in which he becomes mired.

It is all about pursuit and discovery. Tod Lohman (Don Murray) is a hunted man, first glimpsed leading his lame pony to water and some brief respite. He’s running from the sons and riders of Hunter Boyd (R G Armstrong), a local bigwig who has decided that Lohman must pay for the death of one of his sons. That the death was an accident and no fault of Lohman’s is irrelevant for Boyd is of that implacable and inflexible frontier breed, hard men who conquered lands and thrived by having no dealings with frivolities such as self-doubt. So Lohman’s only hope is to run and keep running. When his attempts to avert a deliberately engineered stampede leads to the fatal injury of the second of Boyd’s three sons, it looks as though Lohman has merely driven another nail into that coffin others seem hell bent on fashioning for him. So he’s off again, soon reduced to making his way on foot and feeling his energy sapping all the time. A short stop to rest up sees him making the acquaintance of Amos Bradley (Chill Wills) and his tomboyish daughter Nita (Diane Varsi). This represents a turning point for Lohman. Up to this point, he has been a man alone, one half step ahead of danger and dependent only on his wits. His meeting with Nita offers an ally and a sense of hope too, serving to open the character up in the eyes of the audience as well. Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to tell where the story is going but that’s not what matters. While the ultimate destination proves to be a satisfying one, the real reward is to be found on the road we follow in the company of these characters.

The pursuit I mentioned is present right from the beginning, stark and relentless and powering the narrative. However, there is the matter of discovery which develops in tandem, and which brings another layer of interest, a very welcome one. Lohman is portrayed as something of an innocent in the ways of the world, or at least in the machinations of those inhabiting it. Even as he’s running from Boyd and his would-be revengers, he too is searching for someone. His mother has passed and he sustains himself on a memory, a photo and an old Bible, all of which comprise her sole legacy to her son. His father had left to seek something  – perhaps fortune, maybe freedom, who can say? – while Lohman was still a boy. Now the boy has become a man and is casting around to find this absent father in order to make sense of his past. It is somehow fitting that his flight from the present towards the mysteries of the past actually brings him face to face with his future. Hence the discovery, that the closure attained with regard to what is over and done helps to open a young man’s eyes to how he can deal with the challenges of the here and now, and so move on to a better place.

All told, From Hell to Texas is an extraordinarily positive movie, as a result of the writing of Wendell Mayes and Robert Bruckner, and of course the performance of Don Murray too. The actor brings what I can only term a credible credulity to the role, that hard to define quality of a man grown big in a vast and unforgiving land yet remaining possessed of a simple faith in people. This is a tricky balance to achieve if it is not to ring false. To Murray’s great credit, the open-heartedness of his character is never in doubt, nor are his capabilities as a frontiersman. That he has skill with a gun is clear and it is demonstrated on a number of occasions, but his abhorrence of violence and its consequences is every bit as apparent. The first time that we see him placed in a position where he has been left with no option but to kill a man makes for a powerful if understated scene. The shock and disgust at how he was forced to act, and ultimately at himself for doing so, is conveyed perfectly by Murray. Then in the immediate aftermath among the familiar rocks of Lone Pine as he finds himself unable to take another life, that of the victim’s horse, the effect is crystallized. In fact, running all through this movie is an innate respect for the sanctity of life. It’s there in the heart of Lohman, it’s there in the selflessness of the Bradley family, it’s there in the way a priest tends to the memory of a man who was essentially a stranger to him, and it reaches its zenith in the fiery cathartic climax.

Diane Varsi worked well with Murray and their scenes together have a frankness and simplicity that is touching. Her star soared quickly after she made her debut in Peyton Place but the pressures of stardom saw her step back from the movies quite soon. She would return later but, sadly, her career wouldn’t be the same again. On screen, R G Armstrong often had an air about him of a man who would not be turned, and he brings that ruthless determination to bear on the part of Hunter Boyd. Sure he is a man in the wrong but his idiosyncratic concept of justice and the fact he also embarks on a journey leading to personal revelation (a journey that while different is just as important as that undertaken by Murray) makes him much more than a one-dimensional cutout villain. Chill Wills is, well, Chill Wills, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Jay C Flippen pops up for a time, looking crafty and faintly untrustworthy. Dennis Hopper, fresh off Giant and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a bit mannered as the last of Boyd’s sons and plays a pivotal role in how matters are eventually resolved. It has been said he had a less than harmonious relationship on set with Hathaway, which seems very possible given their markedly different approaches to filmmaking, although they would work together again on The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit. John Larch, Rodolfo Acosta and Harry Carey Jr all make appearances as henchmen, however, their screen time is limited.

From Hell to Texas ought to be relatively easy to access these days. The old German Koch Media DVD I purchased over a decade ago appears to be long out of print but there are a range of other options available in other European markets as well as in the US. The image, on my copy at least, is softer than I’d like but I have to say Hathaway used the ‘Scope lens very effectively, and Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score sounds wonderful. To my mind, this is a fine western all round, albeit not one that is talked about much. Do check it out if you are not familiar with it.

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