Valerie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quantez

Men ride longer over blood than money.

The western as a chamber piece almost seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? The entire genre is built around the concept of the frontier, of space and expansion, of looking out rather than looking in. In purely physical terms, the western is at heart an outdoor creature. For all that, it’s not so difficult to find examples of the genre retreating indoors, tales withdrawing into a confined space to better facilitate their telling. Off the  top  of my head, Day of the Outlaw, Hangman’s Knot, The Secret of Convict Lake  and The Outcasts of Poker Flat are just a handful of titles adopting this approach that I’ve featured on this site. Quantez (1957) slots comfortably into this category and offers an object lesson in how to maximize the potential of a superficially narrow setup.

Quantez is a movie full of contrast and even the shape of the narrative is a reflection of this, alternating between urgency and torpor, light and dark, a flight from fear and a race towards renewal. The opening is all pace, urgency and desperation, figures in the primal landscape of the west running for their lives. That they are outlaws is soon apparent and those in pursuit are seeking justice for robbery and murder. Heller (John Larch) is the leader, a bully and sadist who is keen to build his notoriety, yet he still defers to some extent to the terse and enigmatic Gentry (Fred MacMurray), sensing perhaps that he’s in the presence of someone who can be neither bested nor intimidated. The remainder of the party is made up of Chaney (Dorothy Malone), who has the dubious honor of being Heller’s woman, a brooding young man by the name of Teach (John Gavin), and a bitterly resentful half-Apache called Gato (Sydney Chaplin).  These five are making for the town of Quantez in the hope of evading the posse on their heels. However, their arrival reveals the town as an abandoned shell of a settlement, a place whose residents have hastily vacated and which is being observed by a threatening Apache band. So, amid the dust and debris, the five fugitives in search of salvation have landed in what is in effect an anteroom, the last stop before redemption or retribution. Which is it to be? An evening of enforced confinement will eventually lead to a decisive confrontation, and for one of them at least, a form of spiritual rapprochement.

Quantez is very much the chamber piece I spoke of at the top of this piece and acts as a useful illustration of how this form can be applied successfully to a western setting. It’s the juxtaposition of perspectives which works to its overall advantage. The classic western protagonist is one who is forever in pursuit of freedom, sometimes from the constraints of the old world, and sometimes from the encroachment of civilization and its deceptive allure in the new. Who better to demonstrate this than fugitives from the law? Essentially damned by their previous actions, they are forced by circumstances into confinement, where the physical restrictions imposed give rise to heightened emotional pressure. The effects of this pressure and the increasingly powerful draw of those open vistas that are left behind, but remain tantalizingly near in the future, have the potential to produce a purer distillation of drama.

Director Harry Keller did a lot of TV work as well a string of B westerns, none of which I can claim to be familiar with. He also had a run of interesting looking features in the mid to late 1950 and only a few of those are readily available. I have seen and enjoyed Six Black Horses but Quantez is even stronger. Of course it has to be acknowledged that a good deal of what makes this movie so attractive is the visuals, and cinematographer Carl E Guthrie worked some genuine magic with his lighting and his shooting of the interiors.

I know there are those who feel Face of a Fugitive sees Fred MacMurray at his best in a western role, and it is unquestionably a fine movie with a strong central performance from the lead. Nevertheless, I’m of the opinion that Quantez tops it, and I’m especially fond of the shading MacMurray brings to his characterization of Gentry, the ultimate fugitive on the run from the law, the past and the whispers of his own conscience. He brings confidence to his movements, conveying the experience and assuredness of the character perfectly. His delivery of the dialogue is spot on too, that clipped abruptness making it seem as though the words were rushing to catch up with their meaning.

Dorothy Malone could do little wrong around this time. She had just come off an Oscar winning role for Douglas Sirk in Written on the Wind and would go on to do equally good work for the same director in The Tarnished Angels. The part of Chaney gave her an opportunity to portray a woman who has almost given up on self-respect, but not entirely – there’s still a fragile thread to cling on to. In some ways I was reminded of Claire Trevor’s fading moll in Key Largo, not least when she was enduring humiliation for her singing at the hands of John Larch. The latter manages to nail the brutal worthlessness of his character, a man who has yet to meet a moral he hasn’t spat on. While John Gavin and Sydney Chaplin essay varying degrees of good and bad with moderate success they end up somewhat overshadowed by those around them. On the other hand, James Barton is excellent as the nameless minstrel, a figure who drifts in as though from some classical tragedy and whose song and art serve to dispel some of the shadows of the past and also inspire a rebirth of sorts.

Quantez is quite widely available on DVD and there has also been a satisfactory Blu-ray release in Germany  from Koch Media. That said, it’s worth pointing out that there is a US Blu-ray in the pipeline which will feature a commentary track recorded by Toby Roan. This is a little gem of a western which remains criminally underrated. I’ve been a fan of it for ages now and I’d urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out.

Hell Canyon Outlaws

After contributing a number of write-ups encompassing film noir and a couple of visits to the small screen, guest poster Gordon Gates has turned his attention to a late ’50s western with Dale Robertson in the lead and Paul Landres behind the camera.

One of the more popular western stars of the 1950’s was, Dale Robertson.  He starred in a string of well made dusters like, The Silver Whip, City of Bad Men, Dakota Incident, A Day of Fury and Sitting Bull. He was also the star of the popular western television series, Tales of Wells Fargo which ran for 201 episodes between 1957 and 1962. Here is a lesser known Robertson film, Hell Canyon Outlaws (1957)

This one is an interesting low budget film from Jarod Zukor Productions and released by Republic Pictures. The leads are played by Dale Robertson and Brian Keith.

This one is set in the small western burg of Gold Ridge. Dale Robertson is the town Sheriff, who along with his Deputy, Charles Fredericks, has cleaned up the former rough and tumble town. It has been a few years since there was any real trouble and the town council now decides to let Robertson and company go.

Of course this idea soon backfires as four hard and ready types ride into town. The group is led by Brian Keith, and include three of the biggest thugs to grace the screen. The 6’7″ Buddy Baer, the 6’5′ Mike Lane and the 6’6″ Don Megowan, who make for a most imposing gang.

The outlaws soon make themselves at home, tossing hotel residents out of their rooms, helping themselves to the saloon’s beverages and so on. The whole thing rubs former Lawman, Robertson, the wrong way, but he can do nothing about the swine since he is no longer in power. And, as it so happens, the new Sheriff, Alexander Lockwood, is out of town.

In the mix here is Robertson’s soon to be bride, Rossana Rory. Miss Rory of course wants her man to stay out of the mess. One of the town’s young men, Dick Kallman, who considers himself handy with a gun, goes after the four. This does not go well for Kallman as he is quickly disarmed and tossed into a mud hole face first. He is lucky not to be killed as the outlaw types laugh at him.

The gang plan on having fun before hitting the local bank for a hefty withdrawal. Robertson can see where this is going, and sends his former Deputy, Fredericks, off to retrieve the new Sheriff from out of town.

When the new Lawman, Lockwood returns, he goes to have a talk with Keith and his men. As this is happening, the young Kallman has reamed himself and pops into the saloon to continue his “discussion” with gang leader, Keith. Kallman of course is soon ready for a plot at boot hill. Keith and the boys now slap around Sheriff Lockwood. They decide it is now time to do their “banking business”.

Robertson by now has had enough of this nonsense. Robertson and Fredericks arm up and go a calling on Keith and crew. Outlaw Baer is the first to go down with a bright shiny hole drilled through his forehead. More rounds fly with Megowan and Lane on the wrong end of the exchange.

Soon it is just Keith and Robertson standing across from each other. Keith pulls a 20 dollar gold piece from his pocket. He tells Robertson he will flip the coin into the air, when it hits the floor, they draw. The coin hits and iron flashes with both getting off a round. Who is the winner?

This one is a decent low budget quickie that runs just 72 minutes. The story is a bit shop worn and plays out like a poor man’s High Noon. Having said that, the cast and crew do quite well with what was an obvious shoestring budget. The acting is acceptable and the look of the film, quite sharp.

Paul Landres handles the direction here. Landres was a long time film editor who took up the directing reins in the early 50’s. While mainly known for television, he did work on a few b-films. The director of photography was the Oscar winning cinematographer, Floyd Crosby. Crosby was the man who shot High Noon. Also helping with the look of the film is another Oscar winner, editor, Elmo Williams. Williams also worked on HIGH NOON and won his Oscar for his efforts on that production.

Rossana Rory some might recall from the Italian films, The Big Boodle and Big Deal on Madonna Street.

Well worth hunting up in my opinion if you are a Robertson fan. Our man Colin has reviews here on RTHC on 6 Robertson films.
Gordon Gates

These Thousand Hills

Innocent? Well, that depends on who the jury is. I’ll tell you a couple of things I ain’t guilty of. I ain’t prayed on Sunday. Bought cows cheap on Monday. I ain’t broke my word. I ain’t climbed up high on somebody else’s back or thought of myself better than another man. I ain’t double-crossed a friend or made a little tin god out of money. Sure, I’m innocent. I’m as innocent as you. Or ain’t you boys innocent?

Dreams, and loss, and discovery, these ideas amount to a fine framework around which to construct a drama. If they are not constants, then they are at least experiences common to all of us, situations which therefore resonate because of their universality. One could trace the course of many a life by following the line or arc punctuated and described by them, which is precisely what occurs over the hour and a half running time of These Thousand Hills (1959).

This is the story of Lat Evans (Don Murray), whom we first encounter signing on with  a cattle outfit and chafing at the bit to get ahead in the world. His is a poor background, and an unhappy one too, shaped by a father whose lack of professional success saw him turn to unbending religion and ruthless discipline. This has worked its way into the heart and soul of Lat, forging an inner steel that produces the kind of resilience necessary to rise in the world, but also encourages another colder hardness, the type that is capable of shattering the most intimate relationships. While Lat is without question the principle figure in the affair, those dreams and losses and discoveries I opened by speaking about also relate to others in the picture. Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) is direct in his pursuit of a simple philosophy that life is for living, exuberant and reckless where Lat is driven and calculating, a man whose heart will always overrule his judgement. And finally, we have Callie (Lee Remick), a saloon girl possessed of a natural compassion and charity. Her love is of the simple and uncomplicated variety, and it founders on the rocks of sanctimony and abuse.

All that may sound like a rather grim business, and there’s certainly grief and tragedy on display. Nevertheless, those elements serves a purpose, without them the film’s central message about the triumph of the human spirit would be diminished. By the end of the 1950s the western had attained artistic synergy, a place where theme, story, and visuals all came together to form something splendid. Salvation and redemption are basic ingredients of all human endeavor, they are the prize sought by all and the way these movies integrated the concepts into their fabric with such subtlety remains one of their most enduring strengths. I haven’t read the A B Guthrie novel which this movie is  based on but the film Richard Fleischer directed and Alfred Hayes scripted is a fine piece of work. The Colorado locations are stunning at times and those magnificent vistas form a suitably epic backdrop for this tale of towering ambition and high ideals. Fleischer made some very good and visually striking movies in the 50’s, exploring all the possibilities afforded by the CinemaScope image and his use of rich, vibrant colors is immensely attractive.

The character of Lat Evans isn’t an easy one to portray on screen, requiring a maturing process to take place not only over a relatively short running time but in a fairly complex way too. It’s to Don Murray’s great credit that he manages to pull it off successfully, the shifting of his priorities and the corresponding drift of loyalties and allegiances never appears jarring or affected. What’s more, the nature of the man he plays is layered at all times – enthused yet reserved, ambitious and loyal while also prone to hypocrisy. When his moment of truth finally arrives and he heeds the voice of his own conscience, although arguably it’s a two stage affair, it’s never less than convincing. Stuart Whitman is also on good form as the flighty friend and turns in a performance of great charm. His best scene is the one where he shyly asks Lat to be best man at his wedding to saloon hostess Jen (Jean Willes), and he finds himself rebuffed by his friend’s puritanical propriety. His journey from confusion and hurt through to explicit anger is so well realized, and extremely effective.

There are two significant female roles, those played by Lee Remick and Patricia Owens. Remick got the plum part, that of the woman who loves Lat unconditionally and suffers the greatest indignities for her trouble. It’s her actions that set Lat on the initial path to success and, despite all she must bear, she is not only the one who triggers his ultimate redemption but proves herself to be his physical savior as well. Patricia Owens has a less sympathetic part; she comes over as somewhat spoiled and priggish, but there’s more to her character than that, which is made clear by the end. Richard Egan is at his callous and brutal best as the villainous Jehu. Cheating, conniving, provocative and sadistic, he uses his confidence and physical presence well and the build up to the final confrontation (shot amid the garish crimson decor of the saloon) has him sneering and positively dripping malignancy.  Among the supporting cast Albert Dekker and Royal Dano offer reassuringly recognizable faces.

These Thousand Hills was put out on DVD many years ago by Fox and it still looks strong and attractive – the studio was generally releasing a lot of exceptionally fine transfers back then – in crisp and colorful CinemaScope. I’m not aware of the movie ever having been released on Blu-ray anywhere and, given the ownership of the rights now, that does not seem likely to happen in the near future. As for the movie itself, I don’t believe those dreams mentioned above are fully realized by anyone while all of the main characters experience loss, and innocence is probably the chief casualty in this regard. Still, all of this is eclipsed by discovery and it applies to practically everyone involved, though most tellingly in the case of Lat. The epiphany he undergoes is what adds meaning, bears out the words of his old boss about nobody finishing up the same as they started out, and leaves the viewer with a sense of closure. The final year of the western’s greatest decade saw a number of superior movies produced (and this is true too across a range of genres if we’re being honest) and These Thousand Hills slots neatly in among them. I never cease to be impressed by the sheer richness of the western in these years and the apparently effortless artistry of those working within the genre. A superb film and highly recommended.

Canyon River

Back in the saddle. It’s been a while now since I’ve featured a western on this site, not that I’ve been consciously avoiding them, it’s just that other material has been occupying my thoughts as far as posting is concerned. Added to that is the fact I like to vary the content, to try to keep staleness at bay if nothing else. Anyway, I’ve found myself watching, and indeed writing up, a number of CinemaScope movies lately – others will follow in the weeks ahead. The first of those to make an appearance is probably the least of them, which is not to say it’s a bad movie. Canyon River (1956) is perhaps unremarkable yet it’s also entertaining and, what’s even more important, quietly satisfying in the way so many 1950s westerns manage to be.

There can be few things more satisfying than seeing a bullying loudmouth such as Robert J Wilke’s character have his pistol spectacularly kicked out of his hand and then get laid out by two well aimed haymakers. The man meting out this punishment in the opening scene is Steve Patrick (George Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher who may be facing financial difficulties but isn’t taking anything lying down. No, this is a man with a plan, albeit a plan which plenty of people will tell him he’s crazy to attempt. In brief, he wants to introduce a new cross breed of cattle, something which will involve a big gamble on his part and necessitate driving a herd along the Oregon Trail in the opposite direction and out of season. Aside from the hardships to be faced, there’s also the challenge of finding a crew willing to go along with this, not to mention the fact that the man he considers his closest friend (Peter Graves) is secretly plotting to take both his life and his herd. If all that didn’t represent sufficient difficulty, there’s also the matter of a young widow (Marcia Henderson) and her son (Richard Eyer) to consider.

What Canyon River presents is a fairly standard trail drive western, blending in that familiar yet always welcome 1950s focus on redemption and the potential for a fresh start. The redemptive aspect is related mainly (though not exclusively) to the greed and betrayal of Peter Graves’ character. I’m not entering spoiler territory here as the treachery is revealed to the viewer very early on and the knowledge of that adds a layer of suspense to the plot. How, or indeed whether, Graves will redeem himself is not resolved until late in proceedings and in the meantime another thread of redemption – more straightforward this time – is explored. This concerns the crew hired by Montgomery to undertake his unconventional drive. Well, they are an unconventional group, headed up by Alan Hale Jr and consisting of a ragtag bunch of criminals and ex-convicts. For them, this represents an opportunity to find a path back into society, a means of escaping destructive get-rich-quick schemes and winning back some degree of self-respect. Last but by no means least, the whole affair offers a chance of a fresh start for Montgomery himself along with Henderson and Eyer.

Canyon River, from Daniel B Ullman’s script, is a remake of the 1951 Bill Elliott western The Longhorn. Not having seen the earlier version, I can’t comment on that or make any comparisons but I do like this iteration. A number of films directed by Harmon Jones have been featured here in the past and I’ve found them all quite enjoyable. While this is a modest picture overall there is plenty to admire, from the attractive widescreen imagery, shot by director of photography Ellsworth Fredericks, to the feelgood positivity of it all, and that latter aspect is something I think we can all do with sampling in these stubbornly trying times.

A big part of what makes Canyon River work so well is the presence of George Montgomery. He imbues the part of Steve Patrick with an enthusiasm and verve that is infectious. However, what is even more important is the generosity and openness of the character; this is the key to the success of the central theme. It’s his simple faith in himself and human nature in general that draws in, inspires, and indeed shames some of the other characters. The sheer likeability of the man makes Graves’ betrayal of him appear even less appealing. I liked Marcia Henderson’s work in Back to God’s Country and she brings great warmth to her role in Canyon River, making the romance which blossoms between her and Montgomery especially sweet. This also applies to Richard Eyer, who is wonderful as the hero worshiping youngster. At one point, after a hard day on the trail, the boy quietly falls asleep by the fireside and Alan Hale’s reformed outlaw spots this.  Demonstrating unexpected tenderness, he carefully picks him up and gently deposits him in the wagon; it’s a fleeting moment but a telling one and a delightful little grace note.

Hale is extremely engaging all the way through and his gratitude is in stark contrast to the jealousy and duplicity of Peter Graves. Graves does fine work portraying this, and he also succeeds in getting across the inner turmoil of the character as the doubts and guilt slowly grow within him. Other villainous parts are taken by perennial louse Robert J Wilke, whom I spoke of above, as well as a somewhat underused Jack Lambert and Walter Sande. I sometimes feel no western would be complete were Ray Teal not to appear at some point, and he obligingly pops up as the cattleman who sells his herd to Montgomery.

Canyon River was an Allied Artists production and therefore it can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive. It’s a reasonably good looking transfer, in the correct aspect ratio and boasting strong, attractive colors. As far as I know, there are other copies available on assorted European labels. I remember coming across this movie on TV years ago and thinking at the time that it was passable but nothing special. Revisiting the movie recently, I came away with a far more favorable impression. Nevertheless, I don’t want to oversell it and have people thinking it’s some unmined gem that has just been unearthed. It is no world beater yet the mood, the message, and some good performances make for a very pleasurable 80 minutes of entertainment.

Distant Drums

How does one get the measure of a filmmaker? I guess received wisdom has it that a viewing of their best works is the ideal way to go about it; this assertion appears to be self-evident and it’s not one I’m not going to dispute. However, I can’t help wondering if there’s not something be gained from an examination of what might be thought of as their mediocre efforts as well. It just occurred to me as I was watching Distant Drums (1951) that Raoul Walsh’s strengths as a director were still on display despite the fact the movie in question was very much a routine affair. In fact, a great deal of what makes this film worthwhile derives from the skill of the man ultimately calling the shots.

Distant Drums is one of only a handful of movies that use the conflict with the Seminole in Florida as a backdrop. I use the word backdrop because that is very much the case here, with no examination whatsoever of that conflict taking place. In narrative terms it merely serves as a frame on which to hang a straightforward story of pursuit and danger. In brief, the Seminole are being armed by gunrunners operating out of an old Spanish fort and this supply needs to be cut off if the army is to be successful in subduing them. To this end, a young naval officer (Richard Webb) is sent to the island retreat of the reclusive Captain Wyatt (Gary Cooper) to accompany him and his small force and assist them during the essential lake crossing en route to their target. While the initial assault on the fort is a success the return to the prearranged rendezvous proves problematic. Wyatt and his party,  now supplemented by a rescued hostage (Mari Aldon) and her maid, are forced to abandon their original plan and instead plunge into the steamy, crocodile infested Everglades.

If one takes the movie as an uncomplicated adventure,  Distant Drums works just fine. There is no shortage of incident, the action scenes are frequent and absorbing, and there is enough suspense generated at key moments to quicken the pulse. The assault on the fort is a grand bit of work, shot and cut together with a fine eye for the geography of the building and never drifting into the type of muddle a complex set piece such as this always flirts dangerously with. And this leads me to Raoul Walsh. He was one of the great directors, in my opinion, a man of boundless skill and possessed of the kind of practical artistry that allowed him to tackle even the most unpromising and prosaic projects with the same dedicated flair as one would expect were he making a prestige picture. It’s sometimes said that Walsh was the consummate action director, but it’s maybe more accurate to think of him as a master of drive and motion. His movies always appear to move effortlessly forward, smoothly shifting gears and bringing the audience along for the ride even when the journey itself hasn’t all that much to offer. This is what I was alluding to at the beginning, how the capabilities of a director like Walsh remain apparent despite the limitations of the material he was handling.

I can’t fault Walsh’s direction, and neither the gorgeous location cinematography of Sidney Hickox nor the score by Max Steiner disappoint. So where is the film lacking? Surprisingly, I think the responsibility has to be laid at the door of of the writers. I say it’s surprising because the name of Niven Busch on the credits generally has me expecting a bit more depth; perhaps some  probing into character, some heightened emotion, or even a hint of twisted psychology. Yet none of that is present, and in the end we know little more about any of the characters than we did at the outset. I certainly haven’t seen all of the movies Busch provided a screenplay for but of those I have (mainly his later pictures) I think it’s fair to say that Distant Drums is easily the least interesting. For what it’s worth, I have another of this writer’s scripted movies in mind for a future write up – and no, it’s not Duel in the Sun before anyone asks.

The thing about great movie stars is how even unremarkable films gain by their presence. There are those who dislike or are unconvinced by Gary Cooper’s style, and that’s of course fine, but I’d have thought his place among cinema’s pantheon is undisputed. Sure he’s laconic and his work is understated but he commands the screen whenever he’s present and dares anyone to look away. Still, I feel the script let him down somewhat. Next to nothing is made of the potential suggested by his character’s late wife or their mixed race son. The danger the latter is exposed to at the end and the effect on Cooper is worth noting but it never feels like it’s center stage. Mari Aldon makes for an attractive co-star and the romance which develops is gentle and light. This may well have been her most substantial role, certainly of what I’ve seen. However, I’ll remember her more for her small part as the world weary companion of Warren Steven’s abusive and uptight producer in the superior The Barefoot Contessa. Richard Webb has probably the most thankless role of all, the point of view figure who introduces the whole thing and then ends up relegated to merely tagging along. Had there been some more serious rivalry with Cooper’s character injected then it might have added another layer of interest. The support is provided by Arthur Hunnicutt playing one of his patented frontier types and the seemingly ubiquitous Ray Teal as a discontented soldier.

Distant Drums is one of those productions that depends heavily on its visuals as a result of the lush cinematography in Florida. This is one of the movie’s principal attractions and needs to be shown off to its best advantage. The Blu-ray and DVD released by Olive Films some years ago does highlight this aspect most satisfactorily, even if it offers no supplementary material. I may sound as though I dislike the movie, but that’s not true. It remains serviceable, attractive and entertaining. That said, it feels like an opportunity was missed, that the talent involved wasn’t exploited as it might have been. Nevertheless, it helps cement, in my mind anyway, an appreciation of the apparently effortless skills of Raoul Walsh.

Coroner Creek

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so the saying goes. Perhaps the truth is that it’s no dish at all, just an unappetizing craving arising out of wounded emotions. If anything, the coldness, or let’s at least say coolness, that inevitably arrives with the passage of time leads to a more satisfactory reckoning. Coroner Creek (1948) is what is commonly termed a revenge western, that is a story driven by the desire to settle a score and, as with the better examples of this variation on a genre, questions the desirability of this outcome and the effect on the protagonist.

A stagecoach being pursued by a band of whooping Apaches across the sun-baked badlands. That’s something of a cliché in the genre and it’s how Coroner Creek opens. While it may be a familiar and well-worn situation it’s still a dramatic one and does offer the twist of having the Apache raiders seen to be in the employ of a white man, one who remains unidentified as he methodically goes about shooting those within the stage, shooting all but one woman. Here we have the motivation for our protagonist Chris Danning (Randolph Scott) – although this isn’t explicitly stated till later in proceedings it is obvious enough from the start and I doubt if it constitutes a major spoiler. Nor does the identity of the man who Danning has determined to track down and kill. He pieces together enough information from a wounded Apache to allow him to set out across the arid southwest with an idea of who his quarry is. His path eventually leads to the town of Coroner Creek and the local strongman Younger Miles (George Macready). Danning’s game plan is to needle, snipe and provoke Miles into a reaction, to pick away relentlessly at his armor and tease threads from the cloak of respectability he has surrounded himself with. The brutalizing effect this is having on all concerned is made shocking clear on a number of occasions yet there is also a small flicker of hope amid all this darkness, one borne by the calm and steadfast hotel owner Kate Hardison (Marguerite Chapman).

Coroner Creek, adapted from a Luke Short novel, has a strong spiritual element running through it. This is natural enough for a story dealing with a moral issue such as the quest for revenge. It’s Marguerite Chapman’s character who represents this spirituality most obviously, her religious faith (though never piety or sanctimony) is clear to see and her concern for Danning runs deeper than a simple attraction. The movie never shies away from portraying the dehumanizing power of vengeance and it’s the willingness to confront this that raises it above average. Director Ray Enright (Flaming Feather) does some of his best work in this picture and, alongside cinematographer Fred Jackman Jr, shoots from a range of angles and uses the light and shadow to great effect.

Did you ever get hit with a bullet? It’s like a hunk of iron ripping and tearing into you. It sets you on fire inside. Sometimes you don’t die right away. You just bleed and hurt for a long time.

Those lines are spoken by one of the characters late on, just before he gets to experience the truth of his own words in a scene that is memorable for its unflinching cruelty. In fact for a movie made in the late 1940s Coroner Creek is remarkably graphic. There is a sequence around the middle which involves the mutilation of two of the characters’ gun hands. This is mean enough in itself but the fact they act as bookends for a truly bruising encounter between Scott and Forrest Tucker (rehearsing for a similarly tough brawl a couple of years later in The Nevadan) adds to the shock value. However, it’s important to understand that none of this is gratuitous, it’s not put on screen simply to provide some cheap thrill. The picture is nothing if not frank, and it openly acknowledges the effects of violence on the characters, both physically and psychologically.

Scott naturally dominates the movie and continues on that path he’d chosen in the post-WWII years (although arguably it was a journey begun even earlier in the likes of Lang’s Western Union), a path which would trace the development and gradual maturing of his western persona. There are moments of gentleness and humor where his patrician charm shines through but these are overshadowed by the darker, driven side of his character, looking ahead to the obsessive quality he would then hone to perfection in collaboration with Boetticher. Marguerite Chapman, as noted above, helps to temper this somewhat and her benign influence is not to be underestimated. The other significant female part belongs to Sally Eilers, in one of her last roles here and working for ex-husband and producer Harry Joe Brown.  Her contribution is big enough yet it feels slightly truncated at the same time, as though it ought to have had a bit more depth than is ultimately the case. I’m left wondering if certain plot strands weren’t trimmed or curtailed, and there are a few instances of clumsy editing too.

Scott tended to do well when it came to villains to face off against and actors such as Richard Boone and Lee Marvin helped him raise his own game. George Macready (did he ever play a good guy?) is the bad man on this occasion and he is as cold and manipulative as one would expect. That carefully modulated voice, disconcertingly prim and menacing, is well used. He is strongly supported by Forrest Tucker; simultaneously amiable and rotten, he uses his physical presence to excellent effect. Alongside these two Douglas Fowley is shifty up until his spectacular demise while Joe Sawyer is wonderfully contemptible as the blowhard whom Scott threatens in a most chilling way – another of those hard-edged little scenes in a hard little movie. Of the others in the cast, Edgar Buchanan and Wallace Ford turn in the kind of carefully judged performances that make them a pleasure to watch.

Coroner Creek made its appearance on DVD  in the US some years ago in a Sony/TCM collection of Randolph Scott westerns . The movie was shot in Cinecolor, with the limitations of that process, and is variable in appearance. At times the image looks very strong and then weakens noticeably. All told though, I’d say it looks quite acceptable. The film shares disc space with John Sturges’ The Walking Hills and has a handful of supplements such as galleries and a short filmed intro by Ben Mankiewicz. I would place the movie among Scott’s more enjoyable and interesting efforts, and it should easily satisfy any fan of the star’s work.

Wyoming Mail

I reckon titles matter. I’ve commented before on how certain titles have grabbed my attention and were directly responsible for my watching those movies. I know, it’s somewhat similar to the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage and, momentarily at least, it does make me wonder whether I’m being shallow. If there are titles which can draw me in, the opposite is true to some extent as well and there are those which have actively discouraged me; I’m thinking here of long, cumbersome examples or the generally unappealing variety. This brings me to Wyoming Mail (1950), which is not so much an unattractive title as a terminally prosaic one. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, perhaps it’s just some personal prejudice of my own, but I cannot imagine that one getting too many people excited and keen to see the film. Frankly, I have to wonder what the marketing department at Universal-International were thinking of when this picture was being produced. That aside, let’s see how the movie itself plays out.

Yes, it’s a story about the mail. To be more specific, this is one of these westerns which adds undercover/spy trappings to a tale of the gradual expansion of civilization in the Old West. The train was pivotal in conquering the frontier, that iron road was the connection from ocean to ocean and allowed for the transport of people and goods almost everywhere at speed. And part of its function was to carry the mail. That’s where the story kicks in, pointing out how the railroad was following on from the early Pony Express and stage lines in this regard, and how it was simultaneously becoming the target of criminal gangs. So what we’re looking at is an exercise in infiltration, where government operative and former soldier turned prize-fighter Steve Davis (Stephen McNally) is tasked with heading west with the aim of tracking down the head of a gang of highly successful raiders. This quest will require his incarceration in the territorial prison, a stint in “the hole” and a subsequent breakout. All the time he’s burrowing ever deeper into the criminal network and picking up new threads to investigate, he’s continually switching identities and the prospect of betrayal is never far off.

While that title is as forgettable as they come and the script, by Harry Essex and Leonard Lee, has no pretensions about offering anything of depth, the movie remains a hugely entertaining. This, I think, is largely down to the pacing and the amount of incident packed into a brisk 80 minute running time. From the opening minutes the story never lets up, barely pausing for breath as robberies, shootings, fights, double-dealing and a touch of romance sprint across the screen in a Technicolor delight shot through the lens of Russell Metty’s camera.

Director Reginald Le Borg is not someone I automatically think  of when westerns are being discussed. Although I do have a copy of War Drums somewhere, he’s most familiar to me for taking charge of a number of Lon Chaney Jr horrors, particularly a clutch of Inner Sanctum titles. I think the last movie of his that I watched was around the turn of the year when I enjoyed Vincent Price in an attractive looking piece of nonsense called Diary of a Madman. This is a handsome production as well and while I certainly wouldn’t like to refer to it as nonsense it is breezy and quite insubstantial. I’m not sure I can say much about Le Borg as a director beyond the fact he brought a welcome sense of urgency to the picture.

Having Russell Metty behind the camera is a big plus for any movie, but the other big selling point for Wyoming Mail is the cast. I like Stephen McNally a lot, he was one of those guys who was equally effective as hero or villain, in the lead or in support. He’s a good choice in this as the Easterner sent to smash the train robbers’ gang and his snappy, quick-talking assurance works a treat. The romance with Alexis Smith is mostly effective and enjoyable to watch, although I imagine it can’t have been much of a chore being asked to play a love scene opposite Ms Smith. One look at the cast ought to tell you you’re going to be in for a pretty entertaining experience. Just take a moment to read: Howard Da Silva, Ed Begley, Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Richard Egan, Gene Evans, Frank Fenton, Whit Bissell. Granted some of the parts are small and the appearances fleeting but simply seeing these people on the screen is a pleasure in itself. Incidentally, McNally, Smith and Egan would appear together a few years later in Dick Powell’s enjoyable Split Second.

To the best of my knowledge, Wyoming Mail has only had one official DVD release anywhere. That was in France via Sidonis, and it’s one I haven’t bothered to pick up due to the tendency for that company to force subtitles. There aren’t too many Universal-International westerns that remain hard to access these days – unlike their crime and noir pictures – excepting those which seem to have problems with elements or prints in the incorrect aspect ratio. Anything I’ve seen of Wyoming Mail, which pops up online from time to time, suggests that the film is in good shape overall so it’s odd that it’s not been made more widely available. Mind you, I have a hunch the title can’t be helping in that respect…

Black Patch

Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how appropriate it is to talk of boundaries in relation to movies, especially if we’re  going to acknowledge that they are a form of artistic expression. Nevertheless, when it comes to assessing a movie, to applying some critical thought to what’s presented there on the screen,  it’s difficult to get away from the concept of boundaries. Watching Black Patch (1957) had me wondering about where, or indeed how, one goes about fixing the boundary between a work which is merely interesting and one which can be seen as successful. Black Patch fell into that  grey area for me, not failing but not quite working as well as one might hope either.

Low budget movies have to employ a little more creativity, or trickery if you want to take the cynical view, to work around the limited resources. This can operate in a movie’s favor if it’s handled effectively. Here the opening uses a simple technique to hook the viewer, having a dramatic event occur off screen. This narrative, and financial, economy arouses one’s curiosity over what just happened, instigating an itch that needs to be scratched. The event is later revealed to be a robbery, or its aftermath anyway, carried out by Hank Danner (Leo Gordon). Danner’s journey will take him to a small western settlement, typical in its closed character. There we see one of those cinematic coincidences appear – the town marshal Clay Morgan (George Montgomery) is an old acquaintance of Danner’s, with the additional complication that he was also once in love with the current Mrs Danner (Diane Brewster). At this point I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, but to give the writer (that man Leo Gordon again) his due it veers off in a very different direction. To some extent the two old friends are pitted against one another but a further violent incident and a rather shocking death in the middle of the movie alters everything. Perhaps I’m being annoyingly vague or oblique here but I’d prefer people who haven’t seen the movie to come to this fresh. What I will say, however, is that this represents the point where I feel the movie becomes problematic.

Now, when I say problematic I’m thinking of the script first and foremost. Gordon had set up a fascinating situation, a classic emotional triangle with a number of original touches to add freshness. However, for me anyway, the subsequent actions of the marshal and the young man (Tom Pittman) who plays an increasingly prominent role in the tale lack a certain logic. The marshal’s behavior regarding the stolen money feels entirely out of character and does not seem credible, neither in relation to what came before nor what follows. I can see how Gordon was casting around for a reason to bolster the growing hostility in town but it didn’t convince me at all. Then there’s the matter of the sudden transformation of Pittman’s callow youngster into  a dangerous gunslinger. Again, this is too abrupt and gave me the impression of a contrivance as opposed to a natural progression within the narrative framework. Others may well disagree but these shifts weakened the whole picture in my view.

So there’s there’s the boundary I spoke of at the beginning; a gear change in the writing that lacked smoothness and instead had that grinding and jarring effect that’s hard to ignore. That said, the movie is never less than interesting and I felt great satisfaction not only at the uplifting way the plot resolves itself but also at the filmmaker’s bold decision to show restraint and end it all at the natural climax rather than allow it to run on for no better reason than showing some frankly redundant gun play. I was impressed by how much value Allen H Miner was able to draw from limited resources when I viewed The Ride Back last year and his work here is every bit as stylish. It’s shot almost exclusively on the backlot and sets, and Edward Colman’s cinematography takes full advantage of that controlled environment to paint the kind of images that we tend to associate with film noir. What’s more, the movie has the distinction of featuring the debut score by Jerry Goldsmith.

This was the second George Montgomery western I’d watched in close proximity and I had a better time overall with this one – the other, for the curious out there, was Robbers’ Roost but that’s a story for a different day. What I’ve seen of Montgomery’s work so far tends to bring out his easy charm, his solidity in a leading role. But Black Patch is different; he’s not playing a man at ease in any sense of the word, the self-conscious way he massages his eye-patch when alone or stressed is indicative of a man  made suddenly aware of his own frailty, and his shifty behavior when confronted with evidence of his friend’s wrongdoing is very nicely realized too. For all that, it’s clear throughout that his inner core is strong, his essential integrity uncompromised – the image of him sitting alone in the living room of his home as the rocks and taunts come through the window is a powerful one. Mind you, that brings me back to that inconsistency in the writing I mentioned above and which does not jibe with what we see of the man elsewhere.

Of the others, Leo Gordon gives a typically muscular performance. Tom Pittman comes into the movie much more in the second half and is fine at conveying the confusion and turmoil of a youth who suddenly finds himself fulfilling a role he had dreamed of yet is not at all prepared for. Diane Brewster is good enough as the woman at the center of the conflict but the part actually offers less than one might imagine. The striking Lynn Cartwright (Mrs Leo Gordon in real life) has a juicy little role as the mistress of the principal villain and suffers some appalling treatment at his hands. That villain is portrayed with bombastic, bullying relish by a harpsichord-playing Sebastian Cabot. Some other familiar faces making appearances are House Peters Jr, Strother Martin and Ned Glass.

Black Patch has been released on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive and there’s also a German version available. I think it was out in the UK years ago, but that may have been presented in the incorrect aspect ratio. So, as I stated at the top of this piece, I’m not sure this movie works as well as it might. I’m not convinced by aspects of the script yet the performances, cinematography, and a fine conclusion all give it a boost. It might not be a great movie but it’s never less than interesting.

Hannah Lee

Today, we have another guest post from the pen of regular contributor Gordon Gates. This occasion sees him casting an eye over a rare and little seen western from the 1950s.
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Hannah Lee : An American Primitive (color) AKA Outlaw Territory (b/w) 1953
   Most actors at one time or another decide they should take a shot at producing. This could be because they wanted more creative control or a bigger piece of the pie, or both.
In 1953, actor John Ireland, his wife Joanne Dru and cinematographer Lee Garmes  combined to give production a shot. The one time Oscar nominated Ireland and the four time nominated, one time Oscar winner, Garmes, decided on a western.
A screenplay by Mackinlay Kantor was chosen. Kantor is known to film fans for The Best Years of Our Lives and Gun Crazy. The screenplay here is based on Kantor’s own novel, “Wicked Water”. This is based on the real life story of “regulator” Tom Horn. The team also decided to give the new gimmick of the time, 3-D a go in hopes of increasing box office.
Veteran cinematographer Garmes would handle the direction duties with Ireland shooting the odd scene.
The film stars, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, MacDonald Carey, Tom Powers, Frank Ferguson, Don Haggerty and Peter Ireland.
The story starts out in the town of Pearl City, Colorado at the end of the 1890’s. Gun for hire MacDonald Carey hits town looking for work. As it so happens, a group of local big ranch owners are in need of someone like him. They are having problems with squatters and rustlers taking their land and cattle.

Carey is offered a job as a “regulator” with 600 dollars a body pay. He is supplied with a list of names to be “regulated”. He is told that he must give the people named a chance to leave on their own. Carey leaves notes with the men telling them to clear out of the area. None do, and all soon end up with large alterations to their breathing arrangements.

Carey, a slightly nuts in the head type, uses a sniping rifle he used during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Carey also takes a fancy to the local saloon keeper, Joanne Dru. Dru finds herself drawn to the hard man.

As the body count rises, some of the local people put out a call for a Federal Marshall. The town Sheriff, Tom Powers, does not seem all that interested in investigating.

Marshall John Ireland arrives in Pearl City to have a look into the killings. He digs around and figures that Carey is the main suspect. The killings started just after he arrived, and he is now flashing a large roll of cash. The cattlemen however want Carey to keep up his thinning of squatters etc. The cattlemen send another gunman, Don Haggerty to dispose of Ireland. Ireland though ends up filling Haggerty with lead instead.Now we find out that Ireland and Miss Dru know each other from years before. Ireland had sent Dru’s brother to prison for a long spell. Dru was sure that her brother was innocent. Ireland asks Dru to tell him all she might know about the latest shootings. Dru refuses to name Carey.

Of course the viewer knows there is going to be some more violence, with exchanges of lead, fists  and a steady supply of bodies ready for Boot Hill.

This is a stark, brutal western that is quite well done considering the obvious limited budget.
Cinematographer Garmes was known for lensing films like, The Jungle Book, Scarface, Detective Story, Angels Over Broadway, Nightmare Alley, Man With the Gun and The Desperate Hours.
Guns, fists, bottles, burning furniture and Miss Dru’s upper works are just a few of the items thrust at the viewer because of the original 3-D format. Ireland and Dru were marries at the time. Peter Ireland was John’s son from a previous marriage.
There are less than perfect prints up on YouTube. There is, I think, a better one on OK.RU
Gordon Gates