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

Monday, July 28, 2014

El Paso (Paramount, 1949)

Down in the west Texas town of El Paso

On the one hand, El Paso is a cheesy B-Western with predictable plot and only so-so acting. On the other, though, it has certain interesting features that make it worth a watch.

It was the first Western to star John Payne. Well, he had been in a musical ‘Western’ of 1939, The Royal Rodeo, and a 1940 logging picture King of the Lumberjacks but this was the first proper Western. He had started in musicals (he had a fine tenor voice) and then graduated to films noirs in a sort of Dick Powellesque progression.
Payne's first (proper) Western
The story starts in Charleston in 1865, the war just finished, and smooth lawyer Clay Fletcher (Payne) is sent out to the frontier in west Texas by his English grandfather (HB Warner) to settle some legal affair with a judge there. On the stage he meets Gabby Hayes, a pots-and-pans salesman, and also a drummer (Irving Bacon) and a woman con artist (Mary Beth Hughes) who gets hold of the men’s wallets. Arrived in El Paso, Clay discovers that the judge he has to see, Judge Jeffers (not Judge Jeffreys) is Henry Hull and a drunk. Worse, Judge Hull does the bidding of the crooked town boss Bert Donner (Sterling Hayden) and his henchman, Sheriff La Farge (Dick Foran).

Of course the judge has a pretty daughter, Susan (Gail Russell) for Payne to romance and he decides to stay in El Paso and right a few wrongs, for the principal victims of Donner and Lafarge’s nefarious schemes are ex-Confederate soldiers who are being cheated out of their land. Clay will stand up for them.
Gail Russell, John Payne, Gabby Hayes
So far, so predictable.

But the depredations of the ring running the town and their tame judge are so disgraceful and there is no legal redress, even with a Charleston lawyer there, that Clay turns into a vigilante leader and starts lynching bad guys left, right and center, thus becoming as bad as they are. It’s quite an interesting idea.

When his mob kills an innocent man – the new minister! – he is shown up and shamed by Susan and his granddad, who has come out from South Carolina to turn him back to due legal process and away from gunlaw and the ‘law’ of the rope. He agrees to a truce and grandfather goes off to negotiate a meeting with Sterling.

But the stupid, sadistic sheriff Lafarge murders the old boy and now John Payne straps his guns back on…

There’s a climactic gunfight in El Paso in a dust storm, which makes for photographic interest but unfortunately also means we can’t see who’s shooting whom. I think town boss Donner is accidentally killed by his tame sheriff but I’m not sure.
Deserted El Paso
Sterling Hayden was always a great tough guy. He was so big, for one thing, 6’5” (1.96m) and he towers above most other actors. In El Paso he wears a gray townsman’s suit and crossed gunbelts and is entirely credible as the fellow no one at all would want to antagonize. Hayden disliked most of the Westerns he did. It’s a pity because he was rather good in them.
Drunk judge Henry Hull, brutal town boss Sterling Hayden, corrupt sheriff Dick Foran, lawyer/gunmen hero John Payne
Gail Russell wasn’t a Western specialist but she was good in the lead of both Angel and the Badman and Seven Men From Now. She’s competent in El Paso rather than spectacular.

Henry Hull kept his usual overacting antics in check, perhaps because Gabby Hayes was there for that.

Crooked sheriff Dick Foran started as a singing cowboy in the 1930s and Warners wanted him to be their answer to Gene Autry. That didn’t work out too well and he moved on to more serious roles with Universal. He was Sgt. Quincannon in Fort Apache in 1948. He’s actually quite good in a villainous way as the arrogant bully with a taste for killing.

Lewis R Foster was a B-Western and TV western director. He did several of John Payne’s oaters, The Eagle and the Hawk, Passage West and The Vanquished after this one. He got pace into his films anyway, though little in the way of subtlety, I fear.

Some of the writing is classically B-Western-dire. Director Foster also wrote the screenplay, from a J Robert Bren/Gladys Atwater story. It contains lines like Susan telling Payne after he has shot and hanged dozens of people, “Stop before it’s too late!” and Payne saying to Gabby, “Tell all the people in El Paso to be out of town by noon tomorrow!” And some of the story is frankly absurd. For example, why doesn’t the vigilante gang just hang Donner and Lafarge and be done with it?

But I found myself quite enjoying the movie despite all. There’s a lot of action and there are one or two quite good moments photographically. I liked the galloping horses in the dust
Nice shot
and the montage of Payne’s shooting lesson is very well done as the Easterner becomes a proficient quick-draw pistoleer. Ellis W Carter was behind the lens and some of the locations were indeed down around El Paso. It was Ellis’s first Western. He did a lot of B-Westerns afterwards in the early 50s before switching to TV. The color on my print is pretty bad. In fact I wondered if it wasn’t by Van Gogh as the sky was often green.

It was put together by low-budget producers William C Thomas and William H Pine. The New York Times called it "a third or fourth rehash of a standard Western plot" (which was a bit harsh) and added, "it doesn't pack a wallop."

But the idea of the lawyer taking the law into his own gunhands is quite original and Payne manages the change from educated Easterner to dynamic outlaw leader rather well, in his restrained way.


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