"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Four Rode Out (California Pictures, 1970)


Dreary




 
 
Pernell Roberts (left) had a promising Western career and one thinks principally of his excellent performance as semi-sympathetic bad guy Sam Boone in the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott picture Ride Lonesome in 1959. He had been Chocktaw Neal in The Sheepman the year before that but mostly he did Western TV shows of one kind or another. He became Adam Cartwright on the Ponderosa in 1959 and certainly typecast. Frustrated and unhappy at the lack of development of his character, he quit the show after 202 episodes at the end of the 1964–65 season but if he was hoping to spread his Western wings and land starring roles, he would be disappointed. A handful of TV movies and appearances on other Western TV shows led only to Four Rode Out, a spaghetti western in 1970 – or rather a paella western – which was really very weak.

Four Rode Out, 4 for Texas, Four Faces West, Four Fast Guns, Four Guns to the Border, Four of the Apocalypse, it was a popular digit. Of course it had the advantage of being a low-budget number of actors. This picture was, the title screen announces, “A Payser/Landau Ada Films/Tibor Reves American-Spanish co-production” shot in Almeria in 1969. It was directed by John Peyser, a director of TV oaters (including an episode of Bonanza) who, however, had no experience of big-screen Westerns. Four Rode Out was not a lavish affair.

Artwork of poster like a pulp paperback

Pernell’s co-star was Leslie Nielsen, who did in fact do a fair number of Westerns. He too was in The Sheepman, he too was a regular on TV Western shows (including Bonanza) and he was entertaining as the baddy in the (otherwise pretty bad) Gunfight in Abilene in 1969. In this one he plays a Pinkerton man on the track of a bank robber, or so we are led to believe in the first reel. Pinkertons in Westerns were often bad guys. If you wanted a goody detective you usually called him a Wells Fargo agent.

Nielsen is a Pinkerton. Or is he?

Roberts and Nielsen were competent actors. However, the other two in the equestrian quartet of the title weren’t so good, and in the case of the leading lady, Sue Lyon, forever memorable as Lolita eight years before, very weak.

Lyon very weak

Briefly, lover boy Fernando (Julián Mateos, who had parts in other Hispanic Westerns such as Catlow and Shalako) visits a tossing-and-turning blonde Myra (Lyon) in her bedroom to the tune of inappropriate late-60s guitar/song by Janis Ian. But fat and abusive daddy (Charles Drace, no idea who he is) discovers them, Fernando flees and Myra’s pop is so distraught he shoots himself - plausibility isn’t this film’s strong suit.

Marshal finds bank robber Fernando

Now we meet bearded US Marshal Ross (Roberts) who is after Fernando for bank robbery, and he seems a decent sort of fellow, unlike another detective also on Fernando’s trail, the evil Pinkerton Mr. Brown (Nielsen). They set off together in reluctant partnership in pursuit of the villain and are soon joined, inevitably, by Myra, you know how girls do.

The dialogue on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime version is clumsily censored, with the word whore replaced by silences, presumably for the tender sensibilities of TV audiences. The color print is also of bad quality.

Director Peyser

The evil Pinkerton proposes a deal with Myra: he won’t kill Fernando if she has sex with him. We don’t quite see if she goes along with it. Later she will claim it was rape. At any rate the evil Pinkerton is so evil that when they finally come up on Fernando, he breaks his word and shoots Fernando anyway. And, as if further proof were needed of his evil, he does it (at long range) with a derringer. It’s one of those Yancy-type Sharps derringers.

Well, Marshal Ross digs the bullet out and Fernando survives. He claims that Mr. Brown isn’t a Pink at all but really is Kruger, accomplice in the bank job and the one who killed the bank guard. So, whom to believe? We all go for the Kruger theory.

Good as tough lawman

The four ride out for Almeria, on three horses. But Brown/Kruger stupidly punctures the water bag while attacking the marshal with a knife, and the horses die off one by one. So the four rode out, OK, but then they walked out, then staggered.

The girl goes crazy (badly acted) but is married to Fernando anyway by Marshal Ross in a bizarre ceremony in the desert. The guitar sound track becomes bluesy for some odd reason. They stagger endlessly on. The movie is 97 minutes long, though mercifully only 90 minutes in the Spanish version, which I’d go for. Three quarters of the quartet die off one by one (my lips are sealed as to which, and in which order) and there’s a badge-in-the-dust cliché at the end.

A really big yawn. And unworthy of either Roberts of Nielsen.

 

 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Terror at Black Falls (Beckman Film Corp, 1962)


Terror in an Arkansas Town

 


 
 
In hopeless pursuit of the impossible dream of seeing every B-Western ever made, no matter how obscure, your own Jeff just watched the first ever film of Richard C Sarafian, of Vanishing Point fame. Should you also be so inclined, you will find it on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime, if you have that. If you don’t, in all honesty I wouldn’t bother to seek the movie out.
 
Richard Sarafian

It’s a very minor black & white second-feature Western ‘starring’ Peter Mamakos as a Mexican wanting revenge on a town and its sheriff responsible for the lynching of his son, and House Peters Jr. as said lawman.

Written, produced and directed by Sarafian, it suffers from one of the most improbable plots ever offered up to a Western audience. More of that anon.

Boredom at Black Falls

It was shot in the tiny community of Scotland, Arkansas in 1959 but not released until 1962, when it already looked old-fashioned. Perhaps this was because of difficulties in finding a distributor, who knows? I don’t know much about Meridian Productions and have never heard of the Beckman Film Corporation. A Google search doesn’t help much. At any rate, the theatrical film sank without trace very rapidly.

Part of the reason for that was certainly that it has an agonizingly slow pace (it’s only 70 minutes but seems like two hours) and the plot is verging on the theater of the absurd.

Mamakos was of Greek origin but you know movies: ethnic is ethnic, he’ll do for a Mexican. He was Frenchman Jean Laffite on ABC’s The Adventures of Jim Bowie and Italian Nick Paolo and Scandinavian Olaf Deering in a couple of Perry Mason episodes but those were about the dizzy heights of his career. He was big and burly and quite convincing as a Mexican bandit in appearance, if not in accent.

Great photo of Mamakos

Mamakos as Avila

House Jr., the son of House Sr., was probably best known as the face and body of Mr. Clean in the Procter and Gamble cleaning product commercials. His Western career spanned small parts in Wells Fargo in 1937 to The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965 but mostly contained appearances on TV show oaters of all descriptions in between.

Mr. Clean

Townsmen want to lynch a son of Avila, a Mexican, it isn’t quite clear why. The sheriff rushes to stop it but with a singular lack of aplomb on the part of the onlookers the man is hanged anyway due to a combination of the lynchee’s horse being startled by his daddy’s gunshot and the lawman’s clumsy inability to lift the young man up. It was clearly not the sheriff’s fault but that doesn’t stop Avila swearing undying revenge. His anger is exacerbated by the fact that the sheriff shoots him in the hand and that appendage has later to be amputated.

Well, time passes (we assume) and then Avila comes back into town with his other two sons (John A Alonzo and Armand Alzamora) and takes over the saloon where, conveniently, all the town worthies, and the town drunk, have assembled. He says he will kill one person every ten minutes until the sheriff comes.

Why does the sheriff not come? It is never satisfactorily explained. Peters has a voiceover in which he gives some extraordinarily weak excuses. Even though he knows that his son Johnny (Gary Gray) is one of the hostages and he will have to go down to the saloon and face Avila at some point, he delays endlessly, with the result that hostages are killed one by one, starting with the bar keep (George Cisar). Not that we mind too much because they all seem to be very unpleasant people.

The sheriff's son would be a better sheriff than the sheriff

I think it’s supposed to be ‘psychological’ and intense. Actually, it’s rather boring and silly.

The final showdown is even sillier when Avila, who still wears a right-handed gun even though he is dextrally challenged, tries to draw on the sheriff and his son with his stump. The story then fizzles out.

Distinctly missable, this one, e-pards.


 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Flesh and the Spur (AIP, 1956)


Seriously bad




 
 
Poor John Agar. Most actors start with bit parts and walk-ons, gradually working up to starring roles. Agar did the reverse. He started at the top and worked his way inexorably down.
 
John Agar

His marriage to Shirley Temple in 1945 led to a contract with David O Selznick and acting lessons. He made his debut under John Ford as Temple’s admirer in Fort Apache in 1948, and returned, this time with Joanne Dru, in the sequel She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949.Though Ford, who could be a horrible bully, made Agar’s life hell on the sets of these movies (sneeringly referring to him always as Mr. Temple) the pictures were big hits, financially and critically. John Wayne stuck up for him during filming, trying to protect him from Ford’s worst excesses. Agar also co-starred with Wayne on Sands of Iwo Jima in ’49.

Happier days

However, it was all downhill from there on. Adventure in Baltimore for RKO in ’49, also with Temple, was a major flop, as was Howard Hughes’s anti-communist drama The Woman on Pier 13 (1950). He was OK in the rather uninspiring minor Western Along the Great Divide, directed by Raoul Walsh and released in May 1951, in which he was third-billed after Kirk Douglas and Virginia Mayo, but Temple and Agar divorced in December, citing pressures and his drinking, and then there were repeated prosecutions and imprisonments for drunk driving. (He later said, “Heck, I drank no more than John Wayne or Ward Bond … but it got me into a lot more trouble.”)

After that it was cheapie pictures for Sam Katzman, B-Westerns for Republic, appearances in TV shows and so on. At the very end of his career Wayne, ever generous and kind, gave him small parts in The Undefeated, Chisum and Big Jake but honestly, some of the late 50s Westerns he did, like Flesh and the Spur, were absolutely dreadful.

Sam Arkoff
 
It was an AIP film. You probably know American International Pictures, formed in 1954 by James H. Nicholson, former Sales Manager of Realart Pictures, and Samuel Z Arkoff, an entertainment lawyer. Arkoff developed his own formula for AIP’s ultra-cheaply-made second features:

Action (inasmuch as the budget allowed)
Revolution (supposedly novel or controversial themes)
Killing (a modicum of violence)
Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches, though as his writers were not top class and were paid peanuts, this was hard)
Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
Fornication (aka mild but titillating sex and semi-nudity).

AIP pictures did not really aim for the moral or cultural high ground.

Probably the company’s biggest hit was the crime B The Fast and the Furious with John Ireland, but AIP did quite a few Westerns, often directed by Roger Corman, such as Five Guns West, Apache Woman and Gunslinger. These were so bad they were good, and still make entertaining viewing today, but I’m afraid Flesh and the Spur does not fall into that category. It’s just bad.

Edward L Cahn, the director of Flesh, went right back to the silent days and had been one of Universal’s top editors. As director in the talkie days he churned out cheap and cheerful crime melodramas and comedies. Later on he turned to fashionable teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). Whatever earned a buck. He didn’t really do that many Westerns, only twelve (small beer compared with other genres) but he did helm the first and best Law and Order in 1932, even if later oaters were not quite in that class. In fact they were very far from it.

Edward L Cahn

In the opening credits we read that it was made in Pathecolor. The print I saw (it’s on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime) was in black and white, and it’s a pretty bad print too. The opening is incredibly old fashioned and looks exactly like a silent movie, as we see the torso (but not the face) of a striped-pajama-clad prisoner escaping, then killing a farmer, Matt Random, to grab his horse and steal his fancy pistol. The farmer is played by Agar, as is the twin brother, Luke Random, who discovers the body and vows revenge. He has the matching handgun. Their daddy gave them each one. Agar overacts and at any moment we expect to see a dialogue card.

Dire

There are many close-ups of boots and legs. You wonder if spaghetti westerns, which were obsessed with such images, were influenced by this movie, though it’s unlikely. How many people would have seen it at all, let alone in Italy?

On his travels hunting down the murderer (he learns that the assassin is a member of the Checker gang) he comes across a girl bathing in a pool, as was standard in Westerns. Just enough flesh is shown to suggest that she is naked but not enough to scare the horses, i.e. the Arkoff formula.

Funny how in the desert there alwys pools to bathe in

She turns out to be Wild Willow, a Havasupai maiden (second-billed Marla English, in her only Western). She is being assaulted by a lout. Our hero naturally intervenes but just before he can use his fancy .38 on the man, a passing gunslinger, Stacy Doggett (Touch Connors, later to be detective Joe Mannix on TV), shoots the fellow, sparing Luke the trouble. They all have a grudge against the Checkers, so they join up. The acting of all three is noticeably wooden and false. The so-called badinage between Luke and Stacy is especially weak.

It was fashionable to wear your hat like that

Next they come across a traveling medicine show run by Windy Wagonwheels (Raymond Hatton). Mr. Wagonwheels has a glam daughter, obviously, Lola (Joyce Meadow). They join up too. Luckily, Wagonwheels is a crack shot. He delivers the only good line in the whole script: “I warn you, I can shoot the eyes off of a cockroach at two miles. Three, if I happen to be sober.”

Trick shooter Ray

They go to Oklahoma, where they learn the Checkers gang are. There, in a saloon where the patrons have to check their guns, they see Luke’s twin brother’s pistol, on the rack. It belongs to Kale Tanner (Kenne Duncan), leader of the Checkers. There’s a fight with spurs (we’ve had the flesh, now it’s the spur’s turn). This is really the only thing that makes this Western memorable in any way.

There are other fights too, but watching it all I was rather losing the will to live.

In the actual film she was wearing even less, but you only see her legs

Willow is recaptured by the Havasupai and is stripped (obviously) before being tied to an anthill. Apparently, the movie had been pre-sold on the basis of Albert Kallis's poster (above) of leading lady English tied to the anthill though there was no such scene in the initial script - the scene had to be added. There are remarkably few ants. Producer Alex Gordon dropped them on the bound heroine. The little critters, however, would promptly run away from her. After numerous failed attempts, Marla English asked, "Look, you've got six ants there, isn't that enough?"

There’s a final shoot-out in the rocks, which was kinda de rigueur, and the i/d of Luke’s brother’s assassin is finally revealed.

Publicity still signed by Agar and Hatton. You'd think they would have kept it quiet.

Really, this Western was so bad that it was a struggle to get to the end.

 

 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The First Texan (Allied Artists, 1956)


Joel frees Texas




 
 
Joel McCrea was a major figure in the Western movie. He had the honor of playing some of the greatest characters in the whole myth: he was Wyatt Earp in Wichita, Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, he was The Virginian in 1946 and he was Buffalo Bill in 1944. And he was Sam Houston in The First Texan. Of these, The Virginian was fiction, of course, and his Earp and his Masterson were as close to fiction as you could get with people who had actually existed. The nearest to ‘biopics’ therefore were Buffalo Bill and The First Texan. But as with all Hollywood biopics, of the period anyway, it was mostly hooey. In the case of the Sam Houston picture, it only anyway deals with the period between Houston’s arrival in Texas in 1832 to the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, and while this was perhaps the most famous part of Houston’s career, it was only a four-year period in a packed and eventful life.
 
Sam Houston and Joel as Sam

Even in those four years, the film’s 82 minutes manage to pack in a good number of historical inaccuracies and inventions, but that was also a feature of Hollywood films, and we shouldn’t be too critical on that account. Western movies are not supposed to be documentaries but entertainment, and if they take a few liberties with history, so be it. We judge it as a film, not as history.

It was a big effort for Allied Artists, in Technicolor and CinemaScope. The studio was trying to make major color A-pictures rather than the programmer Bs of yore. Don’t expect a huge-budget Alamo-type picture though. There are no massive armies, just a few rather Zorro-esque soldiers. Byron Haskin directed. Haskin was an ex-cameraman and assistant director for Selznick. He made the sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds for Paramount in 1953 and helmed three Westerns with Edmond O’Brien in the early 50s, including one of my all-time favorites, Denver and Rio Grande. The First Texan was his only other big-screen Western. He would direct The Californians on TV afterwards.

Haskin (left) looks over a script

Walter Mirisch produced. Walter (below) and his brothers Marvin and Harold were together one of the most successful producing teams in Hollywood history. They would later produce such 60s hits as Some Like it Hot, West Side Story, The Great Escape and The Pink Panther but as far as proper films go (i.e. Westerns) the Mirisch name deserves endless credit for The Magnificent Seven. Walter started as a producer for Monogram back in 1949 on very low-budget stuff. Once Monogram merged into Allied Artists (Mirisch was one of the prime movers of that deal) he would move upmarket, producing Wichita with McCrea in 1955, the first of six oaters he did with Joel (The Gunfight at Dodge City in 1959 would be the last) and he would also work with Gary Cooper. So he’s a major figure in our beloved genre.

Walter Mirisch

Daniel B Ullman was the writer. Ullman was, we could say, a Western specialist, though I’m not quite so sure that he was a specialist in 1830s Texas history. He also once tried his hand at directing (that picture I mentioned the other day, Badlands of Montana) but he was mainly a writer of Western TV shows. He’d started on feature Westerns, though, in the late 40s (Return of the Bad Men, The Arizona Ranger) and did a lot of other Tim Holt and Whip Wilson oaters. He wrote Rod Cameron pictures too, such as Fort Osage and Wagons West, and he did the story and screenplay of Wichita, probably his best Western.

It was nicely shot by Wilfrid M Cline (many Westerns with all the greats, including The Tall Stranger with McCrea) in admittedly rather unTexan locations. There’s quite good big, swirling music by Roy Webb (The Kentuckian, Blood on the Moon, Track of the Cat, etc.)

The cast is big and contains some old-favorite names, such as Wallace Ford, James Griffith (as Davy Crockett), Chubby Johnson, Myron Healey, Charles Horvath, Nestor Paiva (as a priest), and Carl Benton Reid - as President Andrew Jackson. Joel’s son Jody is there too.

James Griffith is Davy Crockett

Joel McCrea is good – he was never anything less – though he is too sober, polite and mild-mannered to be convincing as Houston. It opens with him riding alone into Texas. We are told he is fleeing a marriage that has failed after two days (in fact it was three months). There is no mention of his drinking or of his assaulting Congressman William Stanbery with a hickory cane or the subsequent trials, or his fleeing to Mexico without paying the $500 fine imposed. He seems just to want to start anew. Actually, President Jackson, who wanted the American colonists in Texas to rebel and join the United States, seems to have asked Houston to go and investigate the possibilities.

President Jackson tells him a free Texas is his destiny

Sam sets up as “the first American lawyer in Texas” (although William Travis already had a thriving practice). He says he is done with politics and he is “not interested in any crusades”. This was either highly disingenuous or a filmic fabrication. Houston actually threw himself into Texas affairs on the Jacksonian ticket right from the start. In the movie it is Crockett who delivers the pro-Jackson message, although in reality by this time Crockett was a fierce opponent of Jackson and had joined the Whigs.

The film gives us a secret conspiracy to secede from Mexico led by Jim Bowie (Jeff Morrow), William Travis (William Hopper), James Fannin (good old Lane Chandler) and Stephen Austin (Dayton Lummis). More dramatic than the boring historical facts, I guess. Houston is gradually, even reluctantly, drawn into this. He defends the conspirators when they are prosecuted and niftily gets them off.

Actually not a bad likeness

Obviously there had to be love interest. The good news: the object of Sam’s affections is Felicia Farr, as Wallace Ford’s niece. Now I’m a big fan of Ms. Farr, and especially like her in those Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford Westerns Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, in which she plays a character of considerable subtlety and charm. She was also excellent in another Daves Western, The Last Wagon, with Richard Widmark, released in September 1956, three months after The First Texan, and Reprisal! with Guy Madison in October that year (’56 was a busy Western year for her). Catch her, too, in Hell Bent for Leather (1960) with Audie Murphy. A first class actress and very beautiful (if you’re still allowed to say that these days).

La belle Farr is Sam's amour

The movie version provides an apologia for Houston’s delay in engaging with Santa Anna, as in fact most Alamo movies do. It’s all a cunning plan by Houston to lure the Mexicans into a catastrophic defeat. We don’t see the Alamo or Goliad – in fact they are almost glossed over. But at least Santa Anna makes an appearance (David Silva).
 
Of course there's no mention of the secessionists being pro-slavery, and indeed no black people appear at all. This is a sanitized 1950s Hollywood story. The whole question is airbrushed out.

It all climaxes with San Jacinto. Santa Anna is captured (“I want him alive”, Sam has said) and the general announces to Houston, “You have conquered the Napoleon of the West.” Texas is an independent republic. Hoorah! Who’s gonna be president? “Sam Houston!” they all holler.


Oh well, it’s all stirring stuff. Republic's Alamo picture The Last Command had come out the year before and maybe they wanted a more upbeat Texas story. It’s entertaining in its way, though McCrea’s Houston is rather too respectable. All through it I just thought of him as Joel McCrea, rather than Sam Houston, and as such he is very good to watch. Just don’t watch this picture to get the facts. But then why would you?

I did consider giving a three-revolver rating - it is a Joel McCrea Western after all, and it also has Felicia Farr. But common sense prevailed.

There's a good Archive Collection DVD.