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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Comanche Station (Columbia, 1960)

 
Indians as well as bad guys
 




 

The last of the Columbia ‘Ranown’ Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott was, like the others, very good indeed: adult, dark, tough. They were called Ranown for the production company set up by RANdolph Scott and Harry Joe BrOWN. On this one, Boetticher was also a co-producer.
 
 


The very bright, even lurid titles over a shot of Scott riding (lonesome) through the rocks give us the by now standard opening. And indeed, by the end of the series there was a certain formulaic tinge to them. Burt Kennedy (who wrote this one too) even recycled some lines and scenes (for example, Claude Akins recites a ‘parable’ just as Lee Marvin did in the wagon in the first of the series). Once again we have a party of five in a dangerous situation, Scott, the heavies and a beautiful woman (this time Nancy Gates).

And once again we have a sympathetic badman who lusts after the dame and is talkative and charming. This time it’s Claude Akins (later to be imprisoned by John Wayne in Rio Bravo). The moral distance between Scott and Akins is small and closes, though in the end, as always, there is finally an unbridgeable gap.

Akins is supported by two basically good youngsters who, Kennedy tells us, have had no chance in life and drifted into the bad side, Richard Rust and Skip Homeier (the ‘badder’ badman Billy Jack in The Tall T).
 
 


One criticism of Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy (and they were not alone among directors and writers of Westerns in this) is that women in their pictures were usually just sex-objects to be drooled over by men and often not truly individuals. So it's a relief to have a fine actress like Ms. Gates, who plays a resourceful and intelligent woman who can hold her own on the frontier.

The whys and wherefores of the plot are once again revealed piece by piece and towards the end we learn why Scott is following the trail he is. He always has a Western name and this time he is ‘Jefferson Cody’. The character Randolph Scott plays in these seven Boetticher-directed movies are:
 
Seven Men: Ben Stride (monosyllabic, shows purpose as he determinedly reaches his goal)
The Tall T: Pat Brennan (cheerily Irish to match his character)
Decision at Sundown: Bart Allison (the most gunfightery of the names)
Buchanan Rides Alone: Tom Buchanan (he had no choice here because of the book)
Westbound: Capt. John Hayes (pretty staid, for the staidest of the movies and not a Ranown one)
Ride Lonesome: Ben Brigade (very similar to Ben Stride but with a military tinge)
Comanche Station: Jefferson Cody (how Western can you get?)
 
But in some ways, they are all the same guy.

Like its predecessor it was shot in CinemaScope and is visually, with Ride Lonesome, the most attractive of the series. This one was again photographed by Charles Lawton Jr. in good color (and the prints available now on DVD are excellent) up at Lone Pine in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Boetticher certainly had an eye for landscape and framed shots.

The ending (which I shall not reveal) is strong and memorable and explains a lot.
 
 
Winchester '73, anyone?


Shot in eighteen days and brought in on the usual tight budget, this movie, like the others, was workmanlike and sound but Boetticher was an over-achiever. The films were far better quality than the shooting schedules and budgets warranted.

Maybe not the very best of the series, Comanche Station is nevertheless high quality and a fitting conclusion to an excellent cycle. Apart from Ride the High Country in 1962, when he was persuaded by Sam Peckinpah to make what became his last film, it was Randolph Scott’s last Western. He was 62 when it was released so probably felt entitled to hang up his .45. Scott always came over as a tough but decent Westerner, tall (and straight) in the saddle and following that Western code of honor. He was in some pretty average Westerns and the very rare clunker but he was usually superb, and never better than in this fine series of small second-features produced by his company and directed by action man Budd Boetticher.
 
Columbia after the demise of Harry Cohn was less and less interested in the Western. Other studios were also having their doubts. Comanche Station was the last of the 50s Western movies really, and the 60s produced far fewer. The sixgun became a TV specialty, not one for theaters. 1960 was also the year of The Magnificent Seven and when the 60s did produce Westerns, they were very different, brasher, more violent, more commercial. And then, dread day, in the mid- to late-60s we entered the era of the junk spaghetti western, to which I will not even give a capital W. There were notable exceptions, of course, in particular the pictures directed by Sam Peckinpah, and some more recent Westerns have been extremely good, but really with the departure of the 1950s, the real glory days of the Western had pretty well reached the end of the trail once Budd Boetticher had stopped directing Randolph Scott.

There’s quite an interesting ten-minute documentary by Matt Zoller Seitz on this series of Boetticher/Scott Westerns you can watch on YouTube (external link). It contains some rather pretentious commentary about the movies being like Samuel Beckett and such but is interesting and worth a watch.

 
So long!

 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ride Lonesome (Ranown/Columbia, 1959)

 
All good cowboys ride lonesome


 

 

With Ride Lonesome, the excellent quartet of Budd Boetticher behind the camera, Randolph Scott in front of it, Harry Joe Brown wielding the checkbook/groaning and Burt Kennedy at the typewriter was back at work in the next of the series of modest-budget Westerns they made in the 1950s. Indeed, you could regard all seven of the movies as simply episodes of the same long film. Actually, more than a quartet it was a quintet because the best of the series had Charles Lawton Jr at the camera, and this was one of them. Visually the picture is superb.

 


In this film, Scott is once again a scarred, hard man out for revenge for a murdered wife. Randy seems to have got through the wives at a rate of knots. This time the innocent woman has been kidnapped by Lee Van Cleef and brutally hanged from a cross-like hanging tree. But we only discover this towards the end and maybe I shouldn’t have told you that yet (and translated film titles such as L’Albero della Vendetta did the movie no service).

Scott is once more splendid. All the smiley happy-go-lucky side to his character evident in the previous two (non-Kennedy) pictures has gone. He is no Buchanan, but a hard-as-nails bounty hunter out for vengeance. "There are some things a man can't ride around."

There has to be a charming and witty villain who grows closer to Scott as the picture develops, that’s de rigueur in these Westerns, and this time Pernell Roberts, who took the role of Adam in Bonanza the same year, does the job, very well. He oozes sex-appeal (these movies contained some quite daring sexual innuendo for the time) and is, like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, John Carroll and Craig Stevens in previous episodes, a complex character, talkative to Scott’s stoic silence and moving from the bad towards the good. Roberts’s sidekick is James Coburn, excellent in his first big role, as a country bumpkin. The (added) scene where Roberts makes him a partner is great.

 


James Best (Tom Folliard in the previous year’s The Left-Handed Gun), is terrific as Van Cleef’s nasty little brother who is taken back to Santa Cruz for his second hanging. He did sneery punks better even than Skip Homeier.

Karen Steele, still Boetticher's companion at this time, is, however, totally out of place in her 1950s blonde hair and, it looks like, Jane Russell bra. She doesn’t act well and, as was often the case with women in 50s Westerns, is just there as a sex object to be weak, to need protecting and to be lusted after. Boetticher made the most of her curves outlined against the landscape.

 


This movie is in CinemaScope for the first time and Boetticher uses the wide screen and more panoramic possibilities to create a lot of ‘dead space’ in order to make the characters even more ‘lonesome’. Martin Scorsese points out that the ‘loner’ has been a theme running through all great American fiction, from Moby Dick to Taxi Driver, and is an essential element of the Western myth. It's a great title because archetypal cowboys 'ride lonesome'.

Filmed up at Lone Pine, this is one of the more visually attractive of the series.

For real Westernistas, I mean the hard-core sad cases like me, and maybe, dear reader, you, Robert Nott, in his excellent book The Films of Randolph Scott, writes:

Boetticher and Scott were ... poking gentle barbs at John Wayne. There's a reference to the town of Rio Bravo, ... the Indians trailing Scott and company along the desert ridge ride in a similar formation to the warriors who pursued Wayne and his posse across the river in The Searchers, and Scott takes an arm-across-the-torso pose similar to the one Wayne took as he stood outside the doorway in the climactic shot in The Searchers. Scott even gets a Wayne line from that film: "That tears it" and delivers it in Wayne fashion!

I think that Mr. Nott may have watched too many Westerns but (a) so have I and (b) that's impossible.
 
The suspense builds. The plot unravels piece by piece. The characters learn from each other. Then there is a stunning, climactic ending which makes Ride Lonesome, in the view of this writer, the best in what is anyway an absolutely excellent series of Western movies.

Next and last in the series of Ranown Westerns was Comanche Station

Monday, January 28, 2013

Buchanan Rides Alone (Columbia, 1958)

 

Randy rides alone







 
The fifth of the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott movies produced by Scott together with Harry Joe Brown (after Seven Men From Now, Ride Lonesome, The Tall T and Decision at Sundown) was, like its predecessor, written by Charles Lang (who was not quite up to Burt Kennedy ’s level) and shares many of the same qualities.

Having said that, it seems that Boetticher rewrote extensively, aided by Kennedy. Boetticher said:

Charlie Lang was the screenwriter, and one of my best friends. He was known as Froggy Lang. He was getting a divorce at the time, and he was drinking ... I read [the script] and it was awful. We couldn't shoot a god-damned thing. I called Burt and said, 'Come to Tucson. We're gonna make a piece of shit if you don't get over here'.

Much of the writing was apparently improvised day-to-day on the set.

Scott rides in, this time to a border town 'owned' by corrupt brothers, and he rights wrongs before riding out again. (Sergio Leone must have seen these movies). This time he is not a deeply scarred man out for revenge, as he usually was in these Brown/Boetticher/Scott Westerns, but a happy-go-lucky drifter returning from mercenary work in Mexico.

The Buchanan series of novels by ‘Jonas Ward’ (William Ard and later writers licensed by his estate) featured a very tongue-in-cheek character and Scott therefore goes for a rather lighter interpretation than in previous episodes – although he still gets tough when the going does.
 

Once again there is a sympathetic bad man, intelligent, charming, good with women, that you feel Boetticher himself identified with - this time especially so because Craig Stevens is all decked out in black and looks like a cross between a gunfighter and a matador. He and Scott develop a mutual respect, even if they are on opposite sides of the good/bad divide.

Film maker and critic Taylor Hackford has said that these are “Not just action movies; they are thinking Westerns.” Buchanan is, like all of them, short, economical, fast-paced and tightly directed. The pictures are exciting actioners but the actors are strong and the characters develop.
 
Sheriffs are usually corrupt or sadistic. This one (Barry Kelley) is both. A young LQ Jones plays Pecos, a sympathetic heavy. This time the woman, Jennifer Holden, has a much lower-key part and is by no means central to the action (there is usually a fancy leading lady and a counter-balancing whore-with-a-heart-of-gold or at least a racier dame).
 
Budd

Bizarrely, the only one of the films to be set in California was the only one not filmed in California. This one was done at Old Tucson and has a much more adobe and saguaro look to it than the others. It’s nicely shot in good color by Lucien Ballard, no less, but there are few outdoor scenes. Most of the action happens in town. Or even in jail. Boetticher was at his best with the great outdoors, especially up at Lone Pine. Boetticher himself described Buchanan as "one of the lesser films" of the series. It didn't make serious money in the US, despite its minimal budget of under $350,000, though it did quite well in Europe.

But it's good, another crafted short Western, definitely worth a watch.

The next in the series was Westbound.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seven Men from Now (Warner Bros, 1956)

 
The first of a great series
 


 


Seven Men From Now was the first of the seven Westerns (two for Warners, the others for Columbia) that the colorful Hemingwayesque figure of Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott as tough hero, and it was one of the four Burt Kennedy wrote. Kennedy himself considered it the best and perhaps it is, though I find all four of the Kennedy ones excellent and my own personal favorite is Ride Lonesome. Seven Men is certainly as good, especially in the restored color print.
 

Many of these films were made as second features, which simply don’t exist any more, and they had to be short. At their worst, short minute-budget Westerns were churned out commercially and had little merit, and less originality, but at their best - and this one is among the very best - they were little gems. Tight, concise, carefully constructed and simply shot, they were quality actioners with convincing scripts and impressive acting.

Kennedy is interesting about the script in his 1997 memoir Hollywood Trail Boss. He was working for the John Wayne/Robert Fellows partnership and penned it with Duke in mind. They paid him $250 a week for six weeks to write it (it took eight weeks, the last two unpaid). "Wayne didn't read it," says Burt, but Nate Edwards, the production manager, did and said, "It's all right. There's a typical shoot-out in the rocks." That was kind of damning it with faint praise! "So nobody paid any attention to it," Burt continues, "and it was there in a storage closet in the coffee room for about a year." Later Kennedy was offered $15,000 for the script by a producer - "I forget his name" - as a project for Robert Mitchum. Suddenly Wayne got interested again. Jack Warner liked it and wanted Wayne to do it but Duke was taken up by The Searchers. It was offered to Joel McCrea (that would have been interesting) but he turned it down. "They gave it to Robert Preston and I don't think Bob ever read it." So the screenplay had had quite a checkered history before it landed on Randolph Scott's desk. Randy loved it, and hired Boetticher to direct.

It starts badly with an awful song (which Boetticher and Kennedy hated) over lurid titles as Scott walks over a sound stage in the ‘rain’. But immediately the first scene, in which Scott, whose wife has been killed in a hold-up, catches up with the first two men of the title, is tense and gripping.
 

The picture is ‘small’ in the sense that there are no huge themes of conquering the West or building transcontinental railroads. Instead, it is a personal drama with a small number of interesting characters subtly portrayed by fine actors.

Scott is absolutely excellent as Ben Stride, the ramrod-stiff implacable ex-sheriff out for revenge. He has lost his wife, job and status and has to live it all down. As a perfect foil, Lee Marvin as Masters is brilliant as a charming, nasty, clever villain, in his flamboyance the antithesis of Stride. Walter Reed (a favorite character actor of John Ford's) as the weak Easterner who learns Western grit and Gail Russell as his beautiful wife who is drawn to Stride are also first class.
 

Marvin's henchman is Don 'Red' Barry. Red Ryder in the Republic serial in 1940, he went on to do several Westerns for the studio but his combative, angry nature made many dislike him. By the 50s he was doing very low-grade pictures for Lippert and other minor studios. He got some work on Western TV shows. He descended to bit parts, even uncredited. The role in Seven Men was a step back up for him. But Boetticher didn't like him at all. "He was very lucky to get the part," Boetticher said. Barry committed suicide in 1980.

Visually the film is attractive. William Clothier photographed it in California locations representing Arizona. Amusingly, when it came to Buchanan Rides Alone, filming was done in Arizona while the story was set in California... There is no fancy camerawork; it’s all pretty simple. But it’s classy.

The music by Henry Vars is melancholy and haunting. 

Like the whole film: an unpretentious, high quality little Western that has been much underrated.

 
 
 

Decision at Sundown (Scott-Brown/Columbia, 1957)

 
A tightly-plotted gripper
 








The third of the late-1950s Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Westerns wasn’t perhaps quite as good as Seven Men From Now or The Tall T but it’s still a tight little Western that gallops right along.
 
Nice shirt, Randy

It was not written by Burt Kennedy and perhaps that’s the reason it’s not absolutely top-notch. This one (along with the later Buchanan Rides Alone) had a screenplay by actor/TV writer Charles 'Froggy' Lang.

The plot is not dissimilar to that of Seven Men in that Scott is pursuing the man he holds responsible for the death of his wife, but the difference is that in this case he is wrong: his wife was not a virtuous woman unjustly killed but was a tramp who committed suicide.

It’s nearly all set in town called Sundown (a rather ‘Gunsmokey’ TV looking town) which has a slightly Hadleyville (High Noon) feel to it, though this time it's the bad man who marries that day. Boetticher wasn't at his best on the set of claustrophobic towns; he needed the great outdoors. Another reason why The Tall T was so much better. The town has been treed by John Carroll who must be a baddy because he has a pencil moustache and frilly shirt. The townsfolk are supine and lose their self-respect - until Randy and his sidekick Noah Beery Jr. get there, that is. He attends Carroll’s wedding to Karen Steele (rumored to be a companion of Boetticher) and when the preacher gets to the bit about just cause or impediment, he speaks up. He tells Karen that if she goes ahead with the wedding she’ll be a widow by sundown. Sundown is therefore both a time and a place.
 
Bart Allison

Randy is as usual very fine. In this one his character is less sympathetic than other heroes. He comes across as blinded by hatred, rather as he was in '48 in Coroner Creek. There's nothing to soften his character. He doesn't help anyone really. In later scenes he is maudlin drunk. There's a hint that he's suicidal.

The siege in the barn slows down the action and doesn't seem too logical, plotwise.

Support acting is good: Vaughn Taylor (so often the townsman) as the bald barber who gets increasingly intoxicated as the day wears on, James Westerfield as Otis, the world-weary bar tender, and especially Valerie French as Ruby, the good-bad woman who really loves Carroll. Andrew Duggan (the lead villain in a later movie in this series, Westbound) plays the rascally sheriff.

As with all the Boetticher Westerns, the badman is quite a complex character and the moral distance between him and Scott is not so great. He has saving graces and we get the feeling that he changes as the day goes on.

Decision at Sundown was a second feature, like the others, and at 77 minutes it’s a tightly-plotted, economical picture (they were all shot in under three weeks) but it’s none the worse for that.
 
Budd Boetticher

It has corny Lone Ranger closing dialogue that I am sure Kennedy would never have permitted. Boetticher himself said that he didn't care for the picture. "It was already written, it was an old Randolph Scott picture." Boetticher was, though, often dismissive of these pictures, which were for the most part better than he thought (or said anyway).

Next in the series was Buchanan Rides Alone.



 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Tall T (Columbia, 1956)

 
Superb




 

I was saying when talking about Gary Cooper the other day that Warner Bros Westerns in the early 1950s were often billed as major films but were actually little more than minor Westerns with stars. The process could also work the other way: sometimes what was costed, shot and marketed as a short low-budget movie or supporting feature could actually turn out to better quality than the so-called big-budget studio efforts.

Such is the case with the series of Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Westerns that some dismiss as B-pictures but in reality are excellent examples of the genre.
 


The second of the series of Westerns directed by Boetticher and written by Burt Kennedy was as good as the first - Seven Men From Now (Warner Bros, 1956) - and in some respects even better.

This is partly because Kennedy wrote the screenplay from one of the master Elmore Leonard’s best tales, The Captives, and the story is taut and gripping. See? It’s that man Leonard again. The story was first published in Argosy magazine in February 1955. The movie follows it closely, though the film adds occasional scenes.

Then again, like the excellent Hombre I was talking about the other day, the film has Richard Boone as the bad guy. He is superb (as he always was) and gives us a complex character, like Lee Marvin in Seven Men, appealing in some ways and morally close to Scott. These Boetticher bad guys were well drawn and there is a certain ambivalence about them: we are almost on their side.

 


Boone is supported in The Tall T by two truly nasty heavies, very well played by Skip Homeier as young Billy Jack and the excellent Henry Silva as Chink. The bad men are truly frightening. Homeier had been the punk kid who gunned Gregory Peck down in The Gunfighter, you will remember, and he got slightly typecast in punk-kid roles. He mostly did low-budget Westerns and TV it must be said but occasionally he was really good, as here. Need a sneering gunman? Call Skip. Silva was new to Westerns. He'd had a small part in Viva Zapata! as a peasant and had also been in a Wagon Train episode but that was it. Budd Boetticher, reported by Robert Nott in his very good book The Films of Randolph Scott, said, "Henry Silva I just loved. He came down to play the part, and he had never seen a horse up close before, and he put the wrong foot in the stirrup! But he rode fairly well, I thought." Silva got the taste for Westerns because in 1958 he came up against Gregory Peck, this time in The Bravados, and the same year was a heavy in The Law and Jake Wade.

 


Maureen O’Sullivan (from the Tarzan pictures) is excellent as the plain woman who rather than become an old maid agrees to be married for her money to a scoundrel (John Hubbard) – not all actresses would have accepted such a role. As a scenario, 'cowardly husband with wife who deserves better (and look, here comes Randy!)' had worked well in Seven Men. She 'grows' during the picture and becomes a real woman. It’s a good performance. Arthur Hunnicutt does his classic old-timer stage driver act. The cast is small because these films were not huge epics. Rather, they were high-quality, low-budget, short actioners (this one was shot in twelve days and is 78 minutes long) with interesting development of well-written and well-played characters.

Randolph Scott is outstanding. He starts as a cheery, decent rancher, ever ready with a smile, prepared to go out of his way to buy candy for a kid (actually the movie is a bit too light at the start, but that does at least give impact to the brutality to come). But when the outlaws come and, horribly, throw the little boy’s body down the well, Scott changes. He becomes the hard man of Seven Men from Now. Even when he escapes the bandits’ clutches, he does not flee. He has to settle accounts. He does this with guile and grit.

 

Being an Elmore Leonard story, it's is set around Contention, AZ and there is some lovely photography of fine scenery (Alabama Hills, California, in fact) by Charles Lawton Jr. There were no interiors, according to Burt Kennedy for budgetary reasons, but it really improves the picture. Visually, the film is attractive and the color fine. Really, everyone in the story is lonely, and the empty vistas and wide shots of riders in open landscapes accentuate that. There are some masterly directorial/photographic touches: for example when Scott learns that the outlaws have killed the stationmaster and his young son, the camera just pans, following Scott's gaze towards the well and then back to the outlaws. Nothing is said, and Scott's stony face betrays little. It’s a very powerful moment.

‘The Tall T’ is presumably the name of the ranch Scott is trying to make a go of, or the ranch he visits in the early part of the film, though the name is never mentioned, either in the movie or in the short story. Some anonymous Columbia exec gave it the name.

The Heinz Roemheld score is understated and builds tension nicely.

The Tall T is a tough, gritty little Western which, like all the Boetticher/Kennedy pictures, deserves more fame and credit that it has received.
 


 
Next in the series was Decision at Sundown.



Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hombre (Fox, 1967)


One of the best Westerns of the 1960s





 

Many people would think that Stagecoach (UA, 1939) is the best film about a stagecoach. They’d be wrong. Stagecoach is a very famous Western and was hugely influential, being the first serious adult example of the genre in modern cinema. It also had a message, that society’s outcasts were the ones who did the real work, the brave ones. But it has considerable flaws. It has too many static studio settings, too much low comedy and the characters are too stereotypical. The 1966 remake was certainly no improvement.

The best stagecoach movie is in fact Hombre, a lesser-known picture of the late 1960s directed by no great Western master but by Martin Ritt, known for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but for only one other Western, the theatrical The Outrage. Unless you count the excellent Hud as a Western that is, in which case he was more than qualified. Whatever his track record, though, he gave us in Hombre one of the best Westerns of the 60s.
 

Of course he was helped by a stupendously good Elmore Leonard story, Hombre. This is Stagecoach with subtlety. This is Stage to Lordsburg but better. It is Maupassant’s  Boule de Suif in true Western key. Eight entirely different people are thrown together by circumstance and forced to confront harsh reality.

We have a green young boy (Peter Lazer) and his tarty new wife (Margaret Blye); there is crooked Indian agent Fredric March, magisterial and more convincing than the banker Berton Churchill in Stagecoach, and his rather sleazy wife (Barbara Rush). The stage driver is the sympathetic Mexican Martin Balsam (no hammed-up Andy Devine he). And the steely, stoic, alienated John Russell is superbly played by Paul Newman, white boy brought up by the Apaches and far more than half on their side. But the greatest of them all is Jessie, the woman Newman has in effect dispossessed, Diane Cilento, a Dallas with depth. She runs a boarding house inherited and then sold by Newman. She's a working woman in the West; what's she going to do now? It's tough. She's grittier and less ladylike than her boarding-house colleagues in True Grit or The Shootist, but she turns out to be the one with the most courage and decency of all the stage passengers.
 

The sinister, charming, evil bad guy is the excellently named Cicero Grimes, played by Richard Boone in, I think, his finest ever role. In a sense he reprises his role from The Tall T a decade earlier, only better. Boone’s entrance is stunning – chilling and fear-inspiring. He is a true bully. As a result we fear him as the tension builds and his gang approaches.
 

Hombre is a proper Western because it describes tough people in a lawless frontier situation and how they deal with adversity with varying degrees of courage and decency. The characters develop and play off each other. The Elmore Leonard story is outstandingly good (even if quite a lot is altered in this cinematic version).

When we see Newman in the opening shots we might be tempted to think, ‘Oh no, not another blue-eyed Indian like Burt in Apache’, but of course this is different because Newman plays a white boy captured by Indians and brought up in their ways. The character was modeled on one Jimmy (Santiago) McKinn, who is pictured in the final credits.

This is a fascinating story. In May 1885 on a farm in the Mimbres Valley of south-west New Mexico eleven-year-old Jimmy McKinn was kidnapped and his brother killed by Geronimo and a band of Apaches. The boy’s father, who had been away in Las Cruces at the time, gave chase upon his return and was relentless in his efforts. We think of films such as The Searchers or The Missing. But after finding his son’s coat with a bullet hole in the back, the poor man gave up and gradually descended into insanity.
 

In fact, however, the boy had been taken by Geronimo into Mexico where the band was pursued and eventually trapped by General Crook, and Santiago was among them. The party escaped but was later caught again, by forces under General Nelson A Miles. A reporter, Lummis, wrote   "When told that he was to be taken back to his father and mother, Santiago began boo-hooing with great vigor. He said in Apache—for the little rascal has already become quite fluent in that language—that he didn't want to go back—he wanted to always stay with the Indians. All sorts of rosy pictures of the delights of home were drawn, but he would have none of them, and acted like a young wild animal in a trap. When they lifted him into the wagon which was to take him to the [railroad] station, he renewed his wails, and was still at them as he disappeared from our view."

Later the reporter wrote, "Santiago McKinn, the 11-year old white boy, the Apaches' prisoner taken with Geronimo’s band, will be sent home tomorrow. It is learned that his parents were not killed, but reside at Hot Springs, at Hunter's, N.M., near the railroad from Deming to Silver City. During his half-year of captivity the lad had grown fully Indianized. He joins their sports, and will have nothing to do with the whites. He understands English and Spanish, but can hardly be induced to speak in either. He has learned the Apache language and talks it exclusively."

In reality, McKinn re-integrated and remained with the whites in Grant County, New Mexico where he later married, had children, and worked as a blacksmith. Later, he moved to Phoenix where he died in 1941.
 

This is not what happens in the movie, however!
 
Boone and his excellent heavies hold up the stage and there is gunfire (I won’t say more). Russell/McKinn/Newman/Hombre leads the party across wild terrain, with the money, to escape the bandidos. He suddenly becomes the group's leader, no longer the despised outcast but the one who can save them if anyone can. He doesn’t appear to care much whether they are saved or not, and this gives his role great strength. This is by far Newman’s best Western and knocks spots of his hammy Billy the Kid in The Left-Handed Gun or his Judge Roy Bean or Buffalo Bill, all of which parts he overdid. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he was a little more restrained and that was a pretty poor Western. No, Hombre was his peak.
 

It becomes now not a stagecoach movie but a slow, inexorable chase story as the scary bandits close in on the motley group. I love Frank Silvera as heavy. He was actually from Jamaica but did sterling duty as a stock Mexican bandido in countless TV westerns and was later to be good as Diego in Valdez Is Coming, another fine Elmore Leonard-based Western.

Like Valdez, Hombre is a sensitive study of racial discrimination. To its credit, the Western genre did not always treat minorities badly (though it often did). There is a thread of movies that think about racism and have something important to say about it.  From Devil's Doorway and Broken Arrow in 1950 especially, films began to show the other side of the story. Think of Flaming Star (Fox, 1960), on the one hand a commercial Western with Elvis but on the other a challenging treatment of racial hatred.

Hombre is also finely photographed by James Wong Howe in sweeping Arizona locations. The panoramic high country is very beautiful and accentuates the isolation of the characters.

The gripping Irving Ravetch/Harriet Frank Jr. screenplay keeps the tension high right to the end: we really don't know what Russell is going to do.

Mr. Ritt was a master of intimate, exciting films with tension, ensemble pieces with a small cast, dark undertones and important messages. He was no John Ford or Howard Hawks but he was clearly influenced by Anthony Mann and for a taut little quality Western you won’t do much better. And when you think that this mini-masterpiece was released during the full junk spaghetti spate, you realize what proper American Westerns were all about.