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

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Badlanders (MGM, 1958)

A (rather ordinary) Western heist movie

The Badlanders is a remake of the 1950 The Asphalt Jungle, transposed to the West. Sadly, Delmer Daves on an off day was no John Huston on a good one and much of the subtlety is gone, although it is at least less right wing than Huston's and more interested in social justice.  It is, though, honestly, just a routine caper flick. It’s odd about Daves: he was capable of such great work (the seminal Broken Arrow, the magnificent The Hanging Tree, his masterpiece 3:10 to Yuma) yet could also turn in some pretty trite stuff, like Drum Beat. He himself considered The Badlanders the least of his Westerns and said he only did it as a favor to Alan Ladd. He was probably right.
The chief problem with it is not the direction, however. It's the plodding writing (HUAC victim Richard Collins, from a WR Burnett novel). The different strands of the narrative remain unintegrated, as it were. It is bitty and messy. Nothing surprising happens and the few attempts at laughs are flops. “Unless you want to see your own gravestone on your way to hell, you'll be on the next stage. Now that leaves here tomorrow at sundown.” That’s about as near to “There’s a stage leaving at noon. Be on it” as you can get without being laughed out of town.

Still, Daves was a noted Western director and the movie had big stars, Alan Ladd (in his last major Western) and Ernest Borgnine. A pity that both were weak when it came to Westerns, Ladd too Beverly Hills, too coiffed, and Borgnine too Eastern, too unWestern (though I make an honorable exception for The Wild Bunch of course).

It’s a mining story. Peter van Hoek (Ladd, in the Sam Jaffe part) is a mining engineer who wants to rob his former employers who have jumped his claim. Tough Borgnine (in the Sterling Hayden part) is the Yuma cellmate he recruits to help him. The American penal system is scathingly depicted in the opening scenes.

There’s some nice color photography (John F Seitz again) of Yuma and Old Tucson locations in Arizona - Daves was always good at that side of it - but much is done somewhere behind the studios in California and visually too, this is the least of Daves's Westerns. The (uncredited) music is also forgettable.
Even if Ladd could cut it as a tough Western action-man (and he couldn't) he wouldn't be much good in this story, because he has no opportunity to develop relationships or do well at the human side. He is given a token love interest (Claire Kelly, no other Westerns) but he was never good at physical romance scenes either and his relationships remain shallow. It's Borgnine who gets to have the passionate rapport. Daves was only really interested in the interracial romance (Broken Arrow, White Feather). Ernest's amour is the truly wonderful Katy Jurado, shortly to become his wife in real life too (though it did not last). She is, as she always was, splendid.

In Daves's Westerns peace officers were either entirely absent, leaving frontiersmen to make their own law, or, when they do appear, they are brutal or corrupt, sometimes both on the same day. Think of Sheriff Harper in The Last Wagon: he was perfectly foul. Daves didn't care for sheriffs and marshals. In The Badlanders, both the marshal (Karl Swenson, bit parts in every TV Western you care to name) and the hired-gun deputy (standard TV Western heavy Adam Williams) are venal and slimy. They are like Barry Kelley and Brad Dexter in the original, nasty bits of work.

One good thing: the great Anthony Caruso is the horrid leader of the town's thugs, Comanche. He's a half-breed (ergo in Westerns a bad egg and a traitor to his kind, for anyone with even a drop of Indian blood is obviously a dirty Indian). Caruso was of course also a gang member in The Asphalt Jungle.

The best bits are set in the Mexican community of the town (Prescott, AZ) where the suggestion is that the population are brought illegally over the border to slave away in the mines (gold mines and gold towns are usually the setting for greed and corruption in Westerns) just as the chief badman Lounsberry (Kent Smith, TV Western stalwart, the Secretary at War in A Distant Trumpet) in the Louis Calhern part brings over rustled Mexican cattle. The implication is that the Mexican laborers are mere cattle. In this ghetto young mothers are forced to give birth without doctors. The final scene where Katy rouses her fellow Mexicans to resist the corrupt and brutal white men is splendid, and in fact saves the film from oblivion. And the poor people are in the process of celebrating their fiesta so are conveniently in very Mexican costumes and, better still, in this fiesta there is a recreation of the siege of the Alamo, so they get their version of those events after all these years!

And it's really refreshing to see the bad guys (well, semi-bad guys) get away with it. Fourteen years before The Getaway (bless you, o sainted Peckinpah), the robbers, leaving a dead deputy in the villain's library, escape over the border to Mexico with the loot. Hooray!

(Hope that wasn't a spoiler. I guess it was, really).

Still, all in all, I’m afraid The Badlanders is not all that good. Worse Westerns have certainly been made and this one is worth at least two revolvers out of five. It is Delmer Daves after all. But watch it on TV, don’t bother with the DVD is my recommendation.


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