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

Friday, December 31, 2010

Sunset (Tristar, 1988)


The Sunset of Wyatt Earp



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In this tale of Wyatt's later years, before riding off into the sunset (well, actually, he rides off on a train), Wyatt Earp and his friend Tom Mix have solved a murder in Hollywood and proved themselves true Western heroes. In this fun film, directed by Pink Panther supremo, the late Blake Edwards, Bruce Willis (Mix) and James Garner (Earp) do a great job.




















Earp died in January 1929, aged 80, and had acted as advisor on early Hollywood movies. He knew William S Hart and Tom Mix (and even met a very young Marion Morrison, later to be John Wayne) and Mix was one of the pallbearers at Earp's funeral. Garner was 60, not 80, when Sunset was made and is a shade more active than Earp would have been. Tom Mix is portrayed in his prime whereas in 1929 he was a fading star and pushing 50. But this film, like most Westerns, isn’t about the history; it’s about the legend.

It’s a Hollywood parody, a Western, a murder mystery and great fun. Garner had of course played Earp in Hour of the GunAt one point he smells honeysuckle and reminds us of the scene in My Darling Clementine. The film within the film is called ‘Lawman’ (hope it was better than the rubbish 1971 movie of that title). There’s a slight reference to the death of Thomas H Ince, the ‘Father of the Western’, who may (or may not) have been murdered on a yacht. There are various other references – you’ll spot them.

Willis captures well the 20s Hollywood megastar and does a good Tom Mix (on a good Tony Jr). Malcolm McDowell is an ex-Chaplinesque star become sinister movie mogul. Mariel Hemingway is decorative as a brothel madam in male attire and Patricia Hodge classy as the mogul’s wife. I liked Richard Bradford as the corrupt LA police captain and M Emmet Walsh as the overweight, sweaty studio police chief.

Lightweight stuff, really, but none the worse for that. And there are some great cars in it.

There was quite a little flurry of movies about movies, pictures which rendered affectionate homage to the Western, such as Callaway Went Thataway, Slim Carter and Hearts of the West. They aren't Westerns as such but they are about Westerns, and very enjoyable.



 

Doc (UA, 1971)


This post has been revised and updated.
Please be kind enough to click here for the new one.
Thanks.
Jeff



 

Wichita (Allied Artists, 1955)



This post has been revised and updated.
Please click here for the new one.
Thanks.
Jeff


 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hour of the Gun (UA, 1967)


Everyone likes James Garner





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Another in the long series of pictures about Wyatt Earp came out in 1967. It contained one of the better Wyatt/Doc duos in the shape of James Garner and Jason Robards. Garner, once the audience had put aside his Maverick persona, turned out to be a tough, gritty, hard-boiled Earp in the classic tradition. Robards is splendidly misanthropic and also technically superb as a man with TB.


Lucien Ballard’s Panavision photography is excellent (though it looks wonky on the small screen) and the Durango, Mexico locations are appropriately dusty and sunny. The music is good too and creates an atmosphere of menace and danger.

Any Western with Robert Ryan in it is likely to be worth watching and here he is Ike Clanton, a rich rancher, political wheeler-dealer Ike, not the usual Arizona low-life. Ryan always did well as the hard boss, the superior tough.

John Sturges directed and he could be relied on to produce a suspenseful, well-told tale. He had of course told it ten years before in his very popular Gunfight at the OK Corral.

So this telling has a lot going for it. However, the supporting actors (apart from Ryan) are unmemorable and the picture lays itself open to attack by needlessly showing a block-capital introduction reading THIS PICTURE IS BASED ON FACT. THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED. The movie may have been slightly more accurate than previous versions in a few respects but as it has some preposterous hokum about Wyatt and Doc going down to Nogales and having a showdown with Clanton, leaving him dead in the dust, it shouldn’t really have claimed so much. Nobody blames Western movies for a lack of veracity. Except when they claim veracity.

Still, we mustn’t be too picky. The Edward Anhalt screenplay is tight, and unusual in the sense that the story begins, rather than ends, with the OK Corral. There’s action and the characters are well-drawn. This is a decent Western and a perfectly respectable version of the Tombstone legend.
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Plus, everyone likes James Garner.
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My Darling Clementine (Fox, 1946)

 
This review has been revised and updated. Please be kind enough to click here for the new one.
Thanks.
Jeff


 
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gunfight at the OK Corral (Paramount, 1957)

 

This post has been revised and updated.
Please be kind enough to click here for the new one.
Thanks.
Jeff

 

Wyatt Earp, in fact and fiction



This 2010 post has been revised and updated in April 2013.
To read the revised version, click here.
Thanks.
Jeff


 






Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fury at Furnace Creek (Fox, 1948)


It might have gone badly wrong


 
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Kanab Movie Fort in Utah stood in at one time or another as Fort Laramie, Fort Bowie, Fort Yuma and the army post in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. It was pretty versatile and got attacked by Indians quite a few times. It was also ‘Fort Furnace Creek’ in Fox’s fairly conventional but lively late 40s Fury at Furnace Creek.

Directed by H Bruce Humberstone, famous for his Charlie Chan movies and not really known for Westerns, and written by Charles G Booth, also far from a Western specialist, starring actors not known for their cowboy roles, such as matinée idol Victor Mature and war-film expert Glenn Langan, it might have gone badly wrong. Yet it works. It’s a tightly-plotted, fast-paced actioner with a lot to recommend it.

Coleen Gray is pretty and spirited as the waitress that Mature falls for. Englishman Reginald Gardiner is out of place as the plummy-voiced ex-US Cavalry captain who has taken to the bottle but after all, the US Army was full of men from all nationalities, some of them renegades, so it’s not implausible. Fox talkie stalwart Charles Kemper is fun as Peaceful Jones, the town drunk (a sort of Fuzzy Knight role) with his portable prison. And there’s splendidly nasty Albert Dekker who could play the principal baddy with aplomb in anything – Western, war film, gangster movie, you name it. New York accent, well-cut suit and caddish mustache – perfect.

Jay Silverheels is the Apache chief Little Dog, looking very unTontoish. We are told that he is very fierce, almost as fearsome as his line manager Geronimo. We have to be told this because his character isn’t developed at all.


I spotted good old Ray Teal in there as an Army sergeant.

Despite the fact that Mature had been quite masterly as Doc Holliday to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in John Ford's wonderful My Darling Clementine two years earlier, he wasn’t really a Western actor. He was more at home in sword-and-sandal epics (or on the golf course). Still, in the end he did a fair few Westerns and was actually surprisingly good in them. In this movie he is rather, ahem, wide and while great in our first sight of him, in jail in his gambler’s frock coat, flicking playing cards expertly across the cell into his hat, as soon as he changes into Western duds he is less convincing. Never mind. We forgive him anything for his wonderful Doc.

There’s some good black & white location photography by Harry Jackson and a very decent Western town. The original music by David Raksin is charming, with variations on the themes of traditional songs.

All in all, this is a minor but very watchable late 1940s Western which you probably wouldn’t purchase on DVD and see often (The Searchers it ain’t) but you could do a lot worse if it came on TV. In my case this evening it was Furnace Creek or Pirates of the Caribbean. No contest.


 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Grit (Paramount, 1969)

 
This post has been revised. Please click here to read the updated version. Thanks. Jeff.

 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vengeance Valley, novel by Luke Short, 1949, MGM movie, 1951

 
Next time you point a gun at me, shoot







Frederick D Glidden (1908 - 1975), pictured left, was a fine writer of Western stories and one of my favorite authors. His books are tightly-plotted, full of authentic detail and have strong, memorable characters. He wrote under the nom de plume Luke Short, a moniker he presumably borrowed from the dandy and gambler-gunfighter of that name (1854 - 1893), another interesting character.
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But the writer Short is definitely worth reading. He wrote dozens of novels, from The Feud at Single Shot (1935) to Trouble Country (1976).
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A remarkable number were turned into films. This is because the books were shortish and lent themselves to cinematic treatment, especially because, as I have said above, their plots and characters were so strong, they were full of action and they reeked of authenticity.
 
The 1949 novel Vengeance Valley is a good example.
 
The 1951 Western movie that MGM made of it has an almost documentary feel to it at times as we get a cattle drive with voiceover commentary by one of the drovers (Carleton Carpenter, very well played). The cowboy scenes are true-to-life and there is skillful cutting out of steers to admire. There are impressive numbers of cattle – no ultra-low-budget cowboy film this.

But it’s also a family drama and tale of how the misdeeds of a wastrel, ne’er-do-well son, Lee (Robert Walker, rebuilding his career after time in the sanitorium), are foiled by the sturdy, decent adopted son and foreman, Owen (Burt Lancaster). You can tell Lee is a bad one when he says to his wife, after beating a horse, “A good whipping never hurt any filly” (a line not in the book).

The old rancher, Arch (Ray Collins) knows, deep down, that his son is no good. The film makers have put Arch on crutches, like Edward G Robinson in The Violent Men, which he wasn't in the book; it isn't quite clear why. Perhaps to make him more vulnerable.

It’s quite a daring theme for 1949/1951. A town girl has an illegitimate baby and will not reveal the identity of the father. It is clear from the first chapter (and first reel) that it's Lee. Lily's brothers, the Faskens, arrive, played by John Ireland and Hugh O'Brian, both very good (and the latter very unEarpish). They will have the name of the father and force a marriage or there will be hell to pay.

There’s good Colorado scenery (round Cañon City, where many of the early silent Westerns were filmed) photographed by George J Folsey.

The Short story (as it were) is adapted for the screen by Irving Ravetch, later writer of Hud and The Cowboys. Several important changes are made apart from the detail of the crutches. Chiefly, the characters of Jen, a neighboring rancher, and Edith, Lee's wife, have been combined. Owen loves rancher Jen in the book and rather despises the gold-digger and unWestern Edith but in the movie, he and the Jen/Edith figure (Joanne Dru, Mrs. Ireland, in fact) are in love. While changes of this kind are often worse than the original book, in this case it adds well to the rivalry between Lee and Owen and is probably better.

Another change is made in the ending but I will not discuss that here to avoid spoiling it for you if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie.

Richard Thorpe directed tidily. He had been making two-reelers and low-budget Westerns since the early 1920s and went on to do Jailhouse Rock.
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Vengeance Valley is no epic with sweeping, nation-building themes (Short's books weren't like that; he was more interested in the interplay of a small number of characters) but it is a good story and Lancaster does an excellent job.

Burt stands for no nonsense when one of the Fasken boys points a gun at him. He says, “You’ve scared me twice tonight. Next time you point a gun at me, shoot.” The bad man later takes him at his word but should have known better.
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shane revisited


The Big Trail (Fox, 1930)

 
 See it, for the curiosity value



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It is extraordinary, really, how far movies came in only a decade. In 1939 John Ford was to produce a Western of the interactional sophistication of Stagecoach yet only nine years earlier the standard was little more than a silent with occasional shouted dialogue. The Big Trail is a most interesting film to see from an historical point of view but it really is very crude.
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Of course, we can only judge it by its present form. It was shot simultaneously in 35 mm, by Lucien Andriot, and in widescreen 70 mm, by Arthur Edeson.  This was a very early widescreen format known as Fox Grandeur. The best camera angles were reserved for the widescreen version. The huge cost of this helped push Fox over the brink as the 1929 crash impacted. In fact only two theaters were equipped to show the widescreen version, the Roxy in New York and Grauman's Chinese in LA. Most people in later years have seen the Edeson version cropped on both sides - the worst of both worlds. Eventually, in the 1990s, the Museum of Modern Art restored the film, converting Fox Grandeur to CinemaScope, and the splendid Edeson version to be seen there is apparently brilliant. Those who have seen it say that The Big Trail is a masterpiece. Most of us, of course, see the 35 mm or 70mm chopped version on tiny DVD and we think it isn't a masterpiece at all, just an interesting part of cinematic history.
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Even on your TV at home, it’s still impressive in many ways. It was made on a truly grand scale and the sheer number of wagons and people and animals is very impressive (it was an Oregon Trail movie made as a kind of reply to Paramount's The Covered Wagon, the famous silent of 1923). Director Raoul Walsh had an enormous $2m budget. There are remarkable scenes, notably of the buffalo hunt, the lowering of wagons down cliffs and the crossing of a river. They seem to have been made with a blatant disregard for the welfare of all the horses, mules, cattle and oxen involved but the standards were different then. You can’t help admiring the grandeur and scale of this picture. .

The acting is a different story. The movie is famous, of course, for having chosen a Fox prop boy as the lead, a fellow named Marion Morrison to whom Walsh gave the name of John Wayne (the myth that John Ford discovered John Wayne came later). Wayne (above) looks the part alright and is very tall and handsome and also has a winning naïf charm but as an actor he had everything to learn. He really couldn’t handle lines. He wasn’t much helped by the dreadful, wooden script of the kind that has characters say, “I’ll just go over there.” (Goes over there). It was sad that Walsh's first choice, Gary Cooper, was not available.

Like all directors then, Walsh was more used to telling a story in pictures than in words and Wayne moved in such a catlike way that he was ideal from the visual point of view, such a contrast to the lumbering heavy Tyrone Power Sr.
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His supporting actors, including Power, billed fifth, all yell their lines. They had to, because the sound quality and microphones were so bad and the open air location shooting made it necessary. The plot is awful corny, too.

Power is the wicked wagon boss (he looks like a buffalo in his robe and sounds like one too) in league with the sly Louisiana gambler Ian Keith to thwart honest scout Wayne’s designs on the winsome Marguerite Churchill. You may guess who wins out and claims the fair maiden. Actually Wayne, with his Indian skills, in his buckskins and with no gun, looks more like Hawkeye than the hero of a 19th century wagon train.
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There’s the inevitable comic Swede, El Brendel, who was actually billed in the cast as ‘Gus, Comical Swede’. Corny it may be by today’s standards but it was a lot more sophisticated than the silent The Covered Wagon (1923) - though less so than The Iron Horse (1924).
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One thing you can say, even in the small-screen black & white version, some of the photography is very good: Indians on hilltops, moving buffalo, California redwoods at the end. Impressive. It was shot in the Grand Teton pass, Yellowstone, The Sequoia National Park, in Montana, Oregon, Yuma – the cost must have been huge.

A two-disc DVD was released in the US in 2008, containing both 35mm and 70 mm versions, and would be a good investment.
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See The Big Trail anyway, for the curiosity value. The poster said it was "The most important picture ever produced." That's hooey but nevertheless it's a milestone on the trail of the development of the Western.
 
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Angel and the Badman (Republic, 1947)

 
It’s a nice little film.






Since we're on a John Wayne thing, let's look at his first film as a producer, Angel and the Badman, a love story really, with occasional action sequences, rather than the other way round.
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The great thing about it is the writing. The movie was written and directed by Wayne’s friend James Edward Grant and he did a fine job with the screenplay. The script is intelligent, occasionally dryly witty and interesting too. The characters, even the minor ones, are very well delineated. World-weary (and physically weary) Dr. Mangram, for example (Tom Powers) or Frederick Carson, the neighbor (Paul Hurst). Most especially strong is Harry Carey as Marshal Wistful McClintock. Wayne was a huge admirer of Carey, star of so many silent Westerns and part of the John Ford clan. Certainly here he is masterly, bringing power to a relatively minor role and remaining in the memory. It was one of his last films and he died in September that year (though he appeared in Red River, his last Western, because although that did not come out till August 1948 it was filmed eighteen months before).
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Wayne is Quirt Evans, a badman whom a Quaker family helps to recover from his wounds. In that way it’s a kind of Friendly Persuasion ante diem, although it is a far better film than that and also more of a proper Western. As in Friendly Persuasion, however, the Quakers can’t manage their thees and thous. “How does thee know?” or “Thee are shocked.” That kind of thing. In fact thou never gets a look in. Is it that nineteenth century Quakers didn't know the difference between thee and thou, or that Hollywood scriptwriters didn't? I have a shrewd idea.

Gail Russell (this, Seven Men from Now and El Paso her only Westerns) is delightful as the Quaker daughter Penelope who leads Quirt away from the ways of iniquity on the gentlest of leashes.
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The black & white photography is by Archie Stout, so competent it verges on arty. There are some lovely shots of riders on a ridge, a favorite image of his. The Richard Hageman music, however, is pretty dire – straight low-budget Western overdramatic fare.
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Laredo Stevens is the heavy, played by Wayne pal Bruce Cabot, and his sidekick is Hondo (Louis Faust) so what with Hondo and McClintock (McLintock, anyway) Wayne got two names to conjure with later. Cabot was a great pal of Wayne's despite the fact that they had competed for the part of Ringo in Stagecoach.
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There’s an excellent bit where Quirt tells his rather wet rival to marry Gail, even though of course we all know he’s going to do that himself. There’s a good car chase - well, wagon chase - culminating in a remarkable stunt as the wagon plunges into a river and Quirt and Penelope hide under a waterfall. Very oddly, Quirt’s hat changes from white to black after the stunt, though it retains the same handsome silver hatband.
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The funny thing is that all the characters, even the saloon doves and the heavies, are sympathetic.
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The final showdown is clever and dramatic
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It’s a nice little film, no great Western perhaps but Wayne does a solid job and is occasionally powerful. It’s worth seeing, however, even by non-Waynists, for the performance of Harry Carey.
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It was remade, as Angel and the Bad Man (subtly different) in 2009, but the original is a lot better.


 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Howdy, blog-pardners

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I started this weblog in March this year. I didn't think anyone would follow it, really. I mean the blogosphere is teeming with blogs on every subject under the sun and there must be dozens on Westerns, written by and for fans of cowboy films and books.
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Writing is curious in that way: one commits one’s thoughts, brilliantly formulated, of course, and in deathless prose, to - well, it used to be paper but now to the ether. Who reads ‘em? Does anyone care? How many trillions of words are spewed out into webspace and never read or never understood or never thought important enough to bother with?
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And, of course, as Proust told us, reading too is a curious activity in many ways. Reading is, or should be, an interactive process. When we read, we stimulate our own thoughts. We don’t, or certainly shouldn’t, simply take in what we read and accept it as gospel. We reflect, we go “Hmmm,” or “Well, I’m not sure about that, pal” or, if the text seems good to us, we might say, “Yes, that’s right,” or “I agree with that, alright.” We might repeat what we have read in our own speech or writings (with or without credits). We might digest what is said and slowly come round to that point of view. Of course, on the rare occasions when what we read is really good, even art, we find ourselves understanding that the idea that has just been expressed was what we believed deep down all along but had never managed to express ourselves.
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Anyway, I recently looked at the stats for this blog for the first time. I was astonished: people are reading it. Or anyway, they are clicking on it. The stats are really clever. You can see (doubtless you knew this) how many ‘hits’ there have been to the site by day by week, by month, even right now, as I type. And we have a fascinating world map with the countries of origin of most hits in different shades of green.

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Typically, there seem to be between 15 and 30 on any given day. Now, I know that’s puny by comparison with popular blogs. But to me, it’s an amazing number! Who are you persons out there? Of course it could be one person reading it 30 times. More likely, I guess, is 30 people. Of those 30, maybe some clicked by accident or only stayed a few seconds, just long enough to see that wasn’t what they were searching for or just long enough to think, ‘What a load of old baloney’ and move on to their favorite porn page.
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And guess where you live? Most, the darkest green on the map, come from France. That’s not too surprising as that’s where I live and post from. French people love Westerns. Second is the US and Canada. Well, OK. We can easily imagine that there are more Western fans in North America than in the Ivory Coast or Baluchistan. But Germany and Russia come next. That surprised me a bit. But for those of you reading this post, danke schön and spasibo, друзья, meine Freunde, and I hope you enjoy it. Oh, and pozdravljen (or pozdravljena) to my sole Slovenian reader!
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The most read posts recently are:

.We deal in lead, friend Nov 9, 2010, The Mountie doesn't always get his man Sep 10, 2010, Too drunk to hit the ground with his hat Dec 15, 2010, The community of the Western Jun 2, 2010 and Terminal treacle Nov 18, 2010.
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Why the second most popular post is about a 1970s Canadian Western of ho-hum quality, I’ve no idea.
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I’m trying to suss out how you can leave comments. I’d like to hear from you. Especially if you agree with me. Oh, alright then, even if you don’t. As you will have realized, I’m not exactly a hotshot IT guy. Although I think I’m pretty damn good considering. (Considering what? Well, considering my age, IQ, laziness, that kind of thing).
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If you do leave a comment (or send an e-mail to westblogger@gmail.com) tell me what you’d like to read about. More books, fewer films? More about traveling in the West? Whatever.
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Farewell for today, you great tribe of followers. Both of you..


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cahill, US Marshal (Warner Bros, 1973)

 
A hard-bitten marshal of the Rooster Cogburn kind







John Wayne’s antepenultimate Western, Cahill is a conventional McLaglen flick enlivened by some excellent performances by a host of character actors from Marie Windsor (ex-leading lady of many an RKO picture), Hank Worden reprising his ‘Stationmaster Elwood’ role from Chisum, Denver Pyle as ‘Denver’, Royal Dano as a hostile Scot, Harry Carey Jr. as the sheriff’s factotum, ex-child actor Jackie Coogan (who worked with Chaplin on The Kid) brilliant as the town drunk and James Nusser, the town drunk from Gunsmoke, as the doctor. They all have small parts but are terrifically good. Above all we have the excellent Neville Brand as Chief Lightfoot the tracker and George Kennedy as a splendid villain.

The two boys, the sons whom Marshal Cahill has neglected and who try to get their father’s attention by robbing a bank (that would get his attention), perform really well. Gary Grimes, star of Summer of ’42, is the elder, who gets them into all the trouble, and Clay O’Brien, the pint-sized kid from The Cowboys, is outstanding as the little one. He had such a malleable face and the look of sheer horror whenever Kennedy threatened him is hilarious. O’Brien went on to be a six-foot rodeo star.
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Set in Texas but filmed, like so many of these later Wayne Westerns, in Durango, there is some excellent photography by Joe Biroc (Clothier was unavailable), especially the night shots showing the bad guys terrorizing the boys and some lovely outdoor scenery. Unfortunately, too much of the movie was shot inside on a sound stage in a huge barn or warehouse.
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They say that John Wayne lost interest in the movie half way through when he heard John Ford was dying of cancer but it doesn’t show, professional that he was. Of course, Wayne was to die of the same only a few years later.
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Here he is a hard-bitten marshal of the Rooster Cogburn kind, again.
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There’s very good music from Bernstein despite a horrible soppy song in the middle.
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It’s really a nice film. Nothing as fine as The Shootist, to come ,and much more in the tradition of Wayne’s standard 70s Batjac fare, but McLaglen loved directing these pictures and it shows.
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You could do a lot worse.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rio Lobo (NGP, 1970)

 
"An even bigger piece of crap than El Dorado." (Robert Mitchum)







Oh dear. This was the last of the Howard Hawks/John Wayne Westerns and the worst. They started in 1948 with the splendid Red River and went downhill from there, via the lively Rio Bravo to the corny El Dorado and finally to the downright turgid Rio Lobo.

The last three had a lot of plot in common. Rio Lobo starts in the Civil War with Union Colonel John Wayne having gold robbed from a train by Confederate Captain Jorge Rivero. Wayne thinks this is just the fortunes of war and he doesn’t hold it against the Rebs but he sure wants the spies who sold the information about the gold to them.
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After the war he goes home and finds them and shoots people and so forth. I can’t remember the ins and outs of the plot. They’re too silly and contrived. Anyway the bad guys get their just deserts.
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Wayne, 63, looks overweight and tired. The script is wooden and the delivery by the actors woodener. Sorry, but Sherry Lansing is dire.
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No one pretended that Rio Bravo was a great movie (well, hold on, some people did) but at least it is fun. This one is, well, tired. Robert Mitchum turned it down. After reading the script, he said it was "an even bigger piece of crap than El Dorado."

There are saving graces: there’s a sub-Rio Bravo shoot-out at the end (I woke up for that). There’s some nice William Clothier photography (Mexico and Old Tucson), and quite a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score (and lovely guitar music over the titles), and there’s a good performance by cranky old Jack Elam with his shotgun, doing his Walter Brennan bit (actually, he was a decade younger than Wayne).
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There’s an amusing documentary by reporter George Plimpton about how he became a heavy and was shot in the saloon (he is billed as “4th Gunman”).

The rather tragic Western actor Don 'Red' Barry was in it but by this time he was down to "Barman, uncredited". Oh dear.

.“I didn’t think it was any good.” (Howard Hawks). A perceptive man, Hawks.
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chisum (Warner Bros, 1970)

 
 

Wayne! John Wayne! He’ll still keep goin’ on..




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Last Sunday, I was talking about those late-1960s and early 70s Batjac Westerns that John Wayne made, and we discussed The Train Robbers. Today, Chisum.
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It’s pointless criticizing Western movies for not being accurate portrayals of history. That’s not what they are there for. But rarely has a cowboy film played such havoc with historical fact as the McLaglen/Wayne offering of 1970, Chisum.
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The names of some of the characters belong to people who actually existed: Chisum, Bonney, Tunstall, McSween, Garrett. All resemblance to truth ends there.
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Never mind. This is a big, colorful, conventional Hollywood Western with loads of gunfights and stampeding cattle and horseback chases and all. It is very well photographed by William H Clothier (one of Wayne's preferred cinematographers) with lots of big Durango panoramas.

Michael Wayne, Batjac president, thought the story would fit in well with his father's political views. Wikipedia tells us (so it must be true) that "during filming, Robert Mitchum's brother John introduced John Wayne to his patriotic poetry. Seeing that Wayne was greatly moved by the word, Forrest Tucker suggested that the two collaborate to record some of the poetry, which resulted in a Grammy-nominated spoken-word album, America: Why I Love Her."

Batjac first made the picture for Fox but they sold it to Warners.
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Wayne is his usual tough-guy self and the movie has some very good supporting acting. Wayne's drinking Buddy Forrest Tucker is excellent as the principal baddie Murphy and I thought Christopher George (the hired gun in El Dorado) as Nodeen, the bounty-hunter become sheriff, perfectly beastly (actually, he and ‘Mrs. McSween’ fell in love on the set and married so he can’t have been that beastly).

Ben Johnson as Chisum’s sidekick is splendid (of course) and he has a bit of acting ‘business’ running through the picture as he mumbles to himself.


Hank Worden is still there after all these years in an amusing bit part as Stationmaster Elwood. Mind, he always looked old, even when he was young. Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) has gone for the Tom Selleck look:


Geoffrey Deuel is a satisfactory Billy by cinematic standards despite the blow-dried hair, and there are some chicks in 70s hairdos and dresses.

 
The worst thing about it is the Dominic Frontiere title song (sung by Merle Haggard, who deserved better), “Chisum! John Chisum! He’ll still keep goin’ on.” It also has some awful spoken doggerel between the choruses recited by William Conrad. Many Westerns have grim title songs but the trouble with this one is that the tune is taken for the orchestral score throughout the movie and boy, do you get tired of it by the end. It was junk in the first place.
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If you want Chisum as heroic capitalist of the Old West standing up for the little guy, this is the ideal picture for you. If you don’t buy that, watch it anyway. It’s a good example of the big, commercial 70s Wayne Westerns. Formulaic, straight-down-the-line yet full of vim and pzazz, and Wayne is pretty damn indomitable.
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The New York Times review said, “Forget substance. Settle for color and commotion and you won't feel cheated.” That’s about right.
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Of course, the song really should have gone, “Wayne! John Wayne! He’ll still keep goin’ on.”

 
President Nixon, appalled by the Manson murders, thought that America could be straightened out by using John Wayne’s Chisum as a model. The mind boggles. But he did say, "I wondered why it is that the western survives year after year after year. A good western will outdraw [unconscious humor, I think] some of the other subjects. Perhaps one of the reasons, in addition to the excitement, the gun play, and the rest, which perhaps is part of it, but they can get that in other kinds of movies, but one of the reasons is, perhaps - and this may be a square observation - is that the good guys come out ahead in the westerns; the bad guys lose." Well, he had a point. In John Wayne Westerns anyway.


 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wild Rovers (MGM, 1971)

 
I never will play the wild rover no more






I try not to talk about, for example, “Henry Hathaway’s True Grit” or “David Miller’s Lonely Are The Brave” because I do not hold with this auteuriste tendency to define movies as the work of one person. But when one man produces, directs and writes a film, well, that’s the one to praise – or blame. Blake Edwards, who died on December 16th, was the main man as far as Wild Rovers is concerned.
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The movie has its points. In three areas, in particular, it is a very good film.

First, the cinematography of Philip Lathrop (who also did Lonely Are The Brave) is very fine. The story takes the main characters from Montana through Wyoming into Utah. The film’s Moab, Monument Valley and AZ locations are pretty stunning and some of the night-time and early morning/late evening photography of winter desert scenes is very beautiful.

Secondly, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, with its variations on a theme of Goodbye, Old Paint, is lyrical, elegiac and triste.

Last, but very far from least, we have the acting of William Holden.


Some people think Holden was too urbane and cynical to be good in Westerns. This is quite wrong. He was a superb Western actor and he got better as he got older. Craggy, tough, but able to convey subtle emotions in an underplayed, very moving way, he was ideal in the role of the aging Westerner. In fact he is so good, he sometimes reminds me of Gary Cooper.
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But once that is said, the film has its weaknesses too. It is too long and too slow, for one thing. A slow pace can work if there is tension but over-indulgence in slo-mo sequences of broncs bucking or long (in both sense) shots of riders moving picturesquely across a landscape do not help. Sloth is death to a Western. Westerns need to move.
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The support acting is also ho-hum. The first actor we zoom in on is Karl Malden. Uh-oh, we say. Luckily, in this film Malden was less awful than usual. He overacts, of course (he always did) but not as much as in other Westerns. Ryan O’Neal is OK as the young pard of Holden but somehow didn’t fit in a Western. Joe Don Baker and Tom Skerritt (the latter obsessed) are satisfactory as the sons of Malden who track Holden & O'Neal down. But no more than satisfactory.

The plot is a pretty basic chase/revenge scenario. The trouble with these stories is that they risk moving at the speed of a walking horse. Excitement is hard to maintain for 109 minutes.
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The costumes (Jack Bear) are good and have an authentic air about them. I liked the ratty saloon in Benson, and the violence that breaks out so suddenly there is well handled. The prairie surgery is properly grisly. The freeze-frame ending reminds us of True Grit.
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But all in all, this is an average offering, saved by a great post-Wild Bunch performance by Holden.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Train Robbers (Warner Bros, 1973)

 
The (not so great) train robbers






The series of big commercial Westerns John Wayne made in the 70s were  successful at the box-office and have remained very popular. When they talk about Wayne, many people think of him in this way. Chisum, Rio Lobo, Big Jake, Cahill, US Marshal were all big earners. And they weren’t bad either. No one would pretend they were of the quality of, say, The Shootist or True Grit, great movies of Wayne’s later life, but they were solid, actionful Westerns with high production values.
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The Train Robbers, though, was the least of them.


In many ways it had some great cards in its hand: for one thing, it was written and directed by Burt Kennedy. That should have assured a tightly-plotted, snappy-action story with some good one-liners. It didn’t. Then there was Technicolor Panavision photography by William Clothier, and indeed the Durango locations are finely shot. But looking good doesn’t alone make it a top-drawer Western.
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 Burt directed, though with Duke on the set it needed kid gloves

It starts very well: we are in a ratty train halt that looks like a run-down Hadleyville. One Upon A Time-like, we have no music, only Ben Johnson waitin’ on a train to the accompaniment of squeaks from the wind pump and wind-blown dust. It must be said that while Leone overdid it by miles, this take is pale in comparison. Amusing, however, how Leone quotes old Westerns in an Italian way and then commercial Waynery quotes it right back. Still, an encouraging opening. Johnson is there and that augurs well. But it’s all downhill from there, fans.
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Kennedy quotes Leone right back at him
 
Ben seems tired (he was only 55). His partner Rod Taylor tells him in the script not to get old but he doesn’t appear to have listened. Taylor (who even looked Australian!) is unconvincing and Ann-Margret, who should have stuck to Elvis Presley pictures, acts drunk dreadfully badly and doesn’t do much better when sober. Wayne is OK in his tough-guy ex-soldier part, bossing everyone about in his toupée. Really, the acting isn’t up to much.
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Much of the movie is taken up with the party (which numbers the mystical Western total of 7) going from Texas to Mexico and therefore moving from right to left on the screen (all Westerns with cowboys going to Mexico did this: see The Professionals or The Magnificent Seven, as examples). And then in the second half they go back to Texas and so ride from left to right.
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There was a novelization

One curious feature is that the bad guy (Ricardo Montalban) remains anonymous and entirely silent until the last two minutes of the movie and his twenty gunmen are faceless horsemen, extras with no characters at all. The action is limited to a gunfight in Mexico and a bit of dynamite throwing, and a rather good blaze at the end. No one actually robs a train (though the gang ride off to do that at the end). There’s a trick ending. A bit of a yawn, really.
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Western buffs will maybe smile slightly at one thing, though. Wayne is named Mr. Lane and Ann-Margret is called Mrs. Lowe. Batjac, founded in 1953, made much of Wayne’s 1953 Hondo (rightly, it was a fine film) and later adapted it for TV. Hondo’s surname in Hondo is, of course, Lane and he rides off into the sunset with Mrs. Lowe (although Ms. Ann-Margret is no Geraldine Page).
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Watch it. Well, you gotta. But don’t expect too much.