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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Katy Jurado


The Westerns of Katy Jurado

This replaces and synthesizes a four-part article posted in March 2013, which I have now deleted.

The Western career of
María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García, known as Katy Jurado (1924 – 2002), spanned approximately two decades, from High Noon in 1952, her first Hollywood role and perhaps her most famous, to the small but astonishingly powerful part she had in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973. Altogether, she appeared in ten Western movies and six TV Western shows.
 
Katy Jurado
 
She was a woman of outstanding beauty, with a voluptuousness about her and a grace that make her instantly recognizable. In addition, she was a wonderful actress, capable of communicating complex and nuanced emotions.

In 1951, having been ‘discovered’ by John Wayne and Budd Boetticher, she appeared in The Bullfighter and the Lady playing opposite Gilbert Roland. In reality, of course, she was already an established star in Mexico and Bullfighter was in fact her twentieth appearance. She had also worked as a movie columnist, radio reporter and bullfight critic.
 
With Gilbert Roland in The Bullfighter and the Lady
 
But Bullfighter brought her to the attention of Hollywood for the first time and she accepted an invitation to go there to talk to screenwriter Carl Foreman, director Fred Zinnemann and actor Gary Cooper about taking the role of Helen Ramírez in High Noon (click the link for a full review of this movie).

High Noon

It was a great part and wonderfully well done. At a time when women were stereotypes in Westerns - saintly homesteaders, prim schoolma’ams or saloon prostitutes - Jurado suddenly provided a different kind of woman, a person who had made her own way in the world and achieved if not total ‘respectability’ (she was a saloon owner, after all) then at least a status in the community and an independence. Despite the fact that she has been the mistress of the badman Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), the marshal (Cooper) and now the deputy (Lloyd Bridges), she exudes a decency and pride that allow of no sneers or innuendo. The way she silences an incipient inappropriate question from the choir-singing storekeeper with a jut of her chin is magnificent. She carries herself like a lady, she is her own woman and she is the one with the courage and fortitude to tell Kane’s prissy, rather wet Quaker bride, “If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this.” On the set, as Katy Jurado deployed her usual way of looking directly, penetratingly into a person’s eyes as she spoke, Grace Kelly wilted under the ‘glare’ and fluffed her lines several times.
 
Helen Ramirez in High Noon
 
Apparently Jurado had a cool relationship with Kelly, a woman who, according to Katy, appeared weak as a way of manipulating men (quite the opposite of Jurado’s approach!) and this  was in fact ideal because it introduced an iciness between the two women into the movie. Jurado, the passionate, sultry Latin mistress in a dark dress confronted the very pale, overly demure prim-and-proper wife in white. As they ride in the buckboard to the railroad station together, each for her own reasons having decided to leave town on the same noon train that Frank Miller is coming in on, they could not be more different. No prizes for which of them comes across as the more impressive!

High Noon was (justly) nominated for best picture, best director and best screenplay of 1952. Katy Jurado’s magnificent supporting role was ignored by the Academy, though she would win a Golden Globe for the performance. She returned to Mexico and starred in Luis Buñuel’s El Bruto with Pedro Armendáriz. She was at the height of her fame.

 
San Antone

Jurado’s success in High Noon led her to be invited back to do another Western, San Antone, released by Republic the following year (1953).
On one level, San Antone (not to be confused with the 1945 Errol Flynn vehicle San Antonio) was just another black & white Rod Cameron B-Western from Republic, but actually it was more than that.
 
In San Antone

The cast, for one thing: Forrest Tucker, Rodolfo Acosta, Harry Carey Jr. and Bob Steele; with Jurado, it’s a great line-up. And the picture has plenty of action and even a grand historical sweep to it. It may not be John Ford but it’s no zero-budget knock-off either. And Katy Jurado’s performance was a highlight of it.

Arrowhead

San Antone was quickly followed, the same year, by Paramount’s Arrowhead. Although a Technicolor picture with higher production values than San Antone, it was basically an unpleasant film. San Antone may have been a Republic B-movie but it did make an attempt to comment on ethnic discrimination; in Arrowhead, racial discrimination is almost the whole point. It’s the sort of motion picture that made Native Americans hate Hollywood.


The trailer begins, “In the great Western tradition of the immortal Shane, Paramount NOW presents Arrowhead” (as if the two movies were even in the same league).
 
With Charlton Heston in the unpleasant Arrowhead
 
“The least known of the Indian scouts was Ed Bannon, portrayed by rugged Charlton Heston,” announces the trailer, sonorously. Well, there’s a reason that Ed Bannon was the least known: he didn’t exist. In some vague way Charles Marquis Warren, who directed the picture and wrote the screenplay, adapting WR Burnett’s novel Adobe Walls, based the character of this ‘Bannon’ on Al Sieber (1843/44 – 1907). Sieber was a most interesting man but he was nothing like Heston’s ‘Ed Bannon’. Heston plays him as a bloodthirsty racialist. “Now the secret history of the Apache war is revealed for the first time!” shouts the trailer. “The most amazing story to come out of the West! All the more THRILLING because it’s TRUE!” This isn’t really just commercial hyperbole. It’s what's commonly known as a lie.

As for Heston and Katy Jurado, “violence was to be his destiny,” apparently, “even from the women who loved him. Katy Jurado, the sensation of High Noon, as Nita, whose blood mingled the PASSION of Spain and the DEATH LUST of the Apache.” She tries to kill Bannon (quite understandably, really; I would too). He holds her down viciously, sneering at her through those clenched teeth, “The Apache in you finally came out.”

An odious movie, unwatchable if it were not for Jurado.

Broken Lance

Fox’s Broken Lance in 1954 was a big Western. It was big-budget and released amid big bally-hoo. It had a towering performance by Spencer Tracy in the lead. It had huge, sweeping Arizona vistas photographed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald. It was one of those passionate family dramas so beloved of Americans, written by Philip Yordan and Oscar-winning. It had big stars. It was about as far from a Republic B-picture like San Antone as you could possibly get.


Tender to Tracy in Broken Lance

And there is, as in San Antone, a treatment of racial (in)tolerance. Matt Devereaux’s wife is an Indian woman presenting herself as Mexican (Jurado, replacing Dolores del Rio – Ms. del Rio was to get to play a similar part, though, in 1960 in Flaming Star). The first three sons are by a previous marriage of Devereaux and therefore ‘white’, while Joe, the baby of the family (Robert Wagner), is by Señora Devereaux and thus a ‘half-breed’.

Katy Jurado’s Señora Devereaux is wonderful. She is quietly loyal and loving to Tracy’s Matt Devereaux yet once again shows independence, spirit and courage. It is a subtle, sensitive, nuanced performance and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it (though the Award went to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront). Her performance ranks with High Noon as her greatest Western work.

In a 1955 interview with Louella Parsons, Ms. Jurado commented on the Indian roles she was given, "I don't mind dramatic roles. I love to act, any character at all. But just once I would like to be my Mexican self in an American motion picture".

Man from Del Rio

Two years after the big production of Broken Lance, in 1956, Katy Jurado was back, in a small, black & white B-Western with her friend and compatriot Anthony Quinn. Man from del Rio is in fact not at all bad, and it repays a watch - what you might call a 'sleeper'.
 
With friend and compatriot Anthony Quinn in Man from Del Rio
 
It was hardly a Fox megastar big box-office smash but Quinn’s complex characterization and Jurado’s sensitive strength make it a cut above the average.

 
TV Westerns

In 1957 Katy Jurado appeared on television in an episode of Playhouse 90, entitled Four Women in Black. This was a series of one-and-a-half hour live drama shows which CBS put out from 1956 to 1960 for a total of 133 episodes. Many of the episodes were directed by big names like Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill or John Frankenheimer and attracted big stars (Charles Laughton, Claude Rains, Maximilian Schell, an early Robert Redford). They were critically acclaimed and won several Emmys.

Jurado’s episode was written, produced and directed by Bernard Girard who directed some Bat Masterson, Wagon Train and The Virginian episodes and wrote a couple of minor Western feature films. I’m afraid I haven’t seen it so can’t tell you much. It seems to be about nuns - Jurado is Sister Monica - and Jim Davis plays a sheriff.
 
Dragoon Wells Massacre

Later the same year Katy was Mara Fay in a Harold D Schuster-directed Allied Artists/RKO B-picture, Dragoon Wells Massacre. The premise of this story is fairly improbable, as three conveyances turn up in isolated dangerous Indian territory all at the same time - an Army train, a prison wagon and a stagecoach (Katy Jurado is one of the coach passengers). So we get a mixed bag of people: a cavalry man, the lone survivor of his troop; some marshals with a couple of prisoners; and an Indian trader who has been trading guns and whiskey with the Indians, a most heinous crime in 1950s Westerns, of course.  
In Dragoon Wells Massacre
 
But what is interesting about the so-far predictable story is the relationships between these people. Stage passenger Katy fancies the cavalryman Capt. Riordan (Dennis O’Keefe – appearances in six 1930s Westerns and a few B-movies and TV shows since) but, what a coincidence, on the stage is also Captain Riordan’s girlfriend Ann (Mona Freeman – Ruth, the ‘sister’/love-interest of Alan Ladd in Branded) so there’s a certain, ahem, tension between the two ladies. There’s even a faint reprise (a distant echo anyway) of the fire-and-ice relationship between Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly in High Noon. The two women descend to fighting, as in San Antone.

Still, by now Katy Jurado was establishing herself as a well-known actress in Westerns. Then in 1958 came Ernest Borgnine.

The Badlanders

The Badlanders was an Alan Ladd Western, and like all of those, with the exception of Shane, it was distinctly average despite being directed by Delmer Daves. In fact neither Borgnine nor Ladd was ever really convincing in Westerns (I make an exception for Borgnine in The Wild Bunch).


Katy plays Anita, who is helped by Ernest Borgnine’s character, Mac, when she is assaulted in town. Mac treats her respectfully, ignoring her past as a prostitute, and love blossoms. The relationship between the bullish Borgnine and the proud but graceful Jurado is almost tender and of course was mirrored in real life because they married on the last day of 1959. (It was a tempestuous relationship and they divorced acrimoniously in 1963).
 
The Badlanders: with soon-to-be husband Ernest Borgnine
 
An indifferent picture maybe, but Katy Jurado’s part rests in the memory. And that is true of many of her films. They weren’t all great works of art and some were decidedly B-pictures. What’s more, some of her parts in them were small. But her performances elevate them and remain one of the first things we think about when remembering the movie.

More TV

The episode of The Rifleman that is graced (there is no other term) by Katy Jurado, The Boarding House (1959), is an example of how very good these TV Westerns could actually be. I’m not really talking about Chuck Connors here, though he is perfectly adequate. If there were a contest in thespian skills between Mr. Connors and a block of wood, Chuck would win easily. But I am talking about the superb writing and directing by Sam Peckinpah and the absolutely magnificent performance of Ms. Jurado.


In only 25 minutes, we get a brilliantly constructed and tautly directed story to rank with any good Western movie. Jurado is Julia, a Basque woman who runs a boarding house in North Fork, but the Rifleman recognizes her: she has ‘a past’. She used to run a ‘gambling house’ (a 1950s TV euphemism) in another town and was known as Big Anna. At first Chuck tries to drive her out – he doesn’t want his kid growing up round ‘her kind’. Then she convinces him that she had no choice in those days but has succeeded in getting out of that life, and she deserves a chance. The Rifleman sees her point of view and becomes her supporter. However, her past catches up with her when a ragged bunch of ‘women gamblers’ led by the sleazy Sid (Alan Baxter, very good) turn up. They want to make the boarding house their new center of operations…
 
In an excellent episode of The Rifleman
 
Do watch this show if you get the chance. It is a model of a TV Western. And Katy Jurado is absolutely superb. She is decent, honorable, proud, courageous - and beautiful, of course - and manages to communicate all of these qualities to the viewer in a matter of a few lines and a few minutes. And the show even has something important to say on the role of the woman in the West. Real quality.

In 1960 Katy was in Ghost of a Chance, an episode of The Westerner. This one was written by Sam Peckinpah but not, as The Rifleman episode was, directed by him but by Bruce Geller, who also worked on The Rifleman, and did Have Gun - Will Travel and Rawhide episodes, among others.

In this story, Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith) crosses the border over into Mexico to deliver an important message but finds the village deserted, though food is still on the plates. It’s the Mary Celeste… The ghostly element is played up with almost surreal dialogue, such as this exchange with Carlotta (Jurado):

Dave: Now this town was empty twenty minutes ago. Why?
Carlotta: Empty? I have been here waiting for you.
Dave: How long you been here?
Carlotta: All my life. You know, señor, the Jornada del Muerto - the desert - it has a way of making a man see things that are not there.
Dave: Well, I never heard it could make a man not see things that are there.

Peckinpah trying to be Samuel Beckett. Well, it’s only a 30-minute TV Western and was hardly Jurado’s finest hour but she’s still good even in the tiny bit of camera time allowed her.

One-Eyed Jacks

Marlon Brando was not good in Westerns and One-Eyed Jacks, which Paramount brought out in 1961 (“The motion picture that starts its own tradition of greatness” – I mean, really, what balderdash) and which he both directed and starred in, is a curious mixture of the violent and the soppy. We have whippings and hand-crushing and shooting in the back all against a backdrop of lurid color, tropical lushness and slushy music. It’s not a usual Western setting: Monterey, California, with many beach scenes and much crashing Freudian surf.


Loving mother in One-Eyed Jacks

Katy plays the wife of Karl Malden, the sheriff who double-crossed Brando back in Mexico when they were bandits together. They have a beautiful daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Brando tells Malden that all is forgiven but it isn’t. He cynically seduces Louisa and plans to kill Malden.

Jurado's part does not allow her much scope but she still comes across as tender, wise and decent - far too good for the odious Malden's character.


There is the inevitable shoot-out at the end and love blooms. It’s all rather turgid, really. But it’s worth watching for Katy Jurado. Once again, she shines with nobility, grace and beauty.

The 1960s

Between One-Eyed Jacks in 1961 and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973, Katy Jurado had no Western role worthy of her ability and talent. In this decade of dearth of good roles, she did work on some Westerns, however.

In 1962 she appeared in La Tules, an episode of the TV series Death Valley Days. She stars as la Tules, with Rodolfo Acosta, her Mexican bandit brother in San Antone nine years before. Again, it’s a thirty-minute TV program of modest quality.

Then in 1966 she was in a film version of the ever-popular story Smoky about the famous horse. The well-loved Will James novel had naturally been filmed before, starring Victor Jory in 1933 and Fred MacMurray in 1946. This one had Fess Parker, then of Davy Crockett fame, in the lead. Katy Jurado is Maria. It also has Robert J Wilke as Jeff and Chuck Roberson as, well, Chuck.


You know how it goes: a cowboy, Clint, finds and comes to love an ‘unbreakable’ horse. His brother, in debt, wants to sell the animal but is killed by the horse while trying to steal it. The cowboy has to go to the Army and his horse is sold to the rodeo circuit, and when he comes out, he sets out in search of the nag.

In 1966, Katy reprised her role of Helen Ramírez from High Noon in a TV pilot called The Clock Strikes Noon Again, which co-starred Peter Fonda as the son of Will Kane. The planned series didn’t happen.

In 1968 Katy Jurado was in Stay Away, Joe, a ghastly Elvis Presley ‘comedy’ which we will not dignify with the name Western. It’s embarrassing.
She plays Elvis’s half-Apache mother (a nod to Broken Lance perhaps). Days before filming, she broke her foot and removed the cast prematurely, which explains her limp throughout the movie.

They had fun on the set. With Elvis in Stay Away Joe.

In 1970, Katy Jurado was in The Best Man, an episode of The Virginian. Trampas (Doug McClure) is invited to be best man at the wedding of Pick (James Farentino) to Teresa (Susana Miranda) only it turns out Pick hasn’t asked her yet. Or something. Katy is ‘Mama Fe’.


But by far the best performance of these later drought years came in 1972. In that year, Katy Jurado starred in an episode of another popular TV Western series, Alias Smith and Jones. Now, this is not a series I much enjoyed. It was too MOT (Middle of the Trail) and too similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the movie, in its ‘amusing’ banter between the buddies, yet the protagonists didn’t have the charisma to carry it off at all. It was anodyne and bland. “In all the trains and banks they ever robbed, they never shot anyone,” the voiceover intro reassures the family viewers. And Kid Curry has a 1970s girl’s hat and Hannibal Heyes has 70s hair.


But The McCreedy Feud episode had three huge advantages that lifted it out of the swamp of mediocrity: Burl Ives, Cesar Romero and Katy Jurado. And if you only watch one episode of AS&J, make it this one.

From Katy’s first appearance, statuesque, all in black, she shows up the two boy TV actors for what they are. She was a real lady in every respect, a star, and had such presence.

It’s a tale of how Smith & Jones act as intermediaries for bad-guy McCreedy (Ives). “They breed cattle in Texas. They also breed swine,” says Katy of McCreedy. But gradually she is won round to the idea of marrying the rogue, who has a terrible, disgraceful secret which comes to light: he is a Roman Catholic. Katy’s brother, hacienda owner Cesar, doesn’t like the idea at all.

Romero, Jurado and Ives are outstanding and they overcome the trite writing and loose direction with aplomb. They are heavyweights in a lightweight show.

And Katy Jurado is the best of them all, subtle, beautiful and noble.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid


Katy Jurado’s short part in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973, her final true Western appearance, ranks with that in High Noon, her first.


She plays the wife and equal partner of Slim Pickens. We’ve talked about Slim before, so click the link for more, but here let’s concentrate on Katy. When the bandit rabble start shooting and LQ Jones and James Coburn are firing at each other, there she is, letting one of them have it with both barrels, dressed in her man’s vest and hat, then she methodically reloads. The white trash Black says to Garrett, “Us old boys oughtn’t to be doing this to each other. There ain’t that many of us left.”
 
Extraordinarily moving in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
 
Just at that moment we spy Slim Pickens rise and stagger from a mortal wound. Katy sees, drops the shotgun (it doesn’t matter any more) and runs after him. She skirts round him, not approaching at first. Then she kneels as he sits on the river bank, puzzled and bleeding, and the strains of Knocking on Heaven’s Door rise and swell. She smiles sadly at him and tears stream down her face. It is almost unbearably moving.

The Hi-Lo Country

The Hi-Lo Country (Polygram, 1998) is a very good movie, even if it’s not really a Western and Katy Jurado is only a fleeting presence in it. You can click if you want to read more but we’ll just say here that Katy Jurado has a tragically small (yet stunningly good) part. She is a fortune-teller. The two central characters visit her and want to know if "all of us who are here will be alive and prosperous next year." She gives them a brutally abrupt answer.


Still acting in her seventies
 
So yes, a very good motion picture, to be seen, and to be seen, if possible, in a movie theater rather than on a small TV screen. But it’s not a Western. Not as I understand it. Many people think of it as a Western and the actors wear cowboy hats and ride horses and have guns, so it’s in these notes. But it’s not a Western because it’s too much a love story and too modern and not enough of a frontier tale. The voiceover narrative makes it an introspective piece and Westerns were never that. Even if one of the characters does ride, er, drive off into the sunset at the end.

 
Adios, Katy

Katy Jurado had that wonderful oval face and extraordinary eyes, beautiful and expressive (Brando called them "enigmatic eyes, black as hell, pointing at you like fiery arrows"), and her grace and beauty shone from the screen. But in addition she was an outstandingly good actress.

She was always convincing in Westerns. In 1992, she was honored with the Golden Boot Award for her notable contribution to Western movies.

She said, “No one steps on me and the one who tries had better be a brave man.”
 
Katy Jurado
 
Her true love was said to be the Western novelist Louis L’Amour. She said, "I have love letters that he wrote me until the last day of his life. For our work, we could never match, but he was the man of my life and I, the woman of his life. I should have married that man". Wow.

Of course she would have said that about me if only she’d only known me. Ah, what might have been, eh?

Jeff.

 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Hi-Lo Country (Polygram, 1998)


Fine film. A Western? Probably not.




 
 
The Hi-Lo Country is a very good movie, even if it’s not really a Western. Walon Green (of The Wild Bunch fame) adapted Max Evans's 1961 novel ‘The Hi-Lo Country’ for the screen and Stephen Frears, English director of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters, did a great job on it. It tells of two young men just back from World War II who try to make a go of running cattle but find that the old ways have gone. You can’t drive steers to market any more (that’s for the movies); you have to ship them in trucks, which only the big ranchers can afford. Sam Elliott is the smiling, ruthless rancher (he even smiles when someone pisses on him) who stayed home while the boys were fighting. He snatched up all the small spreads.
 
Sam Elliott, ruthless rancher
 
The two men are more than friends. They are bonded together. It’s like Brokeback Mountain for straights. And talking of straight, trouble comes when both fall for the same dame, a sultry married redhead (Patricia Arquette) who, however, while suitably available, somehow lacks the real sex appeal. There is no electricity. Why one of the boys, who has Penelope Cruz in the wings, favors Arquette instead is a total mystery to me: Cruz is not only drop-dead gorgeous, she also acts subtly and perceptively. Still, no accounting for taste, I guess.
 
 
No contest
 
Billy Crudup is Pete Calder, the quiet, brooding fellow who narrates the story, sometimes a bit portentously, and his friend is Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson), who is larger than life, charismatic, edgy, unpredictable, dominant, the real alpha male, a man on fire. It’s an electric performance.
 
The friends
 
The wonderful Katy Jurado, in her seventies, has a tragically small (yet stunningly good) part. She is a fortune-teller. The boys visit her and want to know if "all of us who are here will be alive and prosperous next year." She gives them a brutally abrupt answer.
 
Katy Jurado
 
James Gammon has more to do as the old rancher who befriends the boys and he is the archetype of the old, doomed ways. A great performance. Another star is the landscape, arid northern New Mexico photographed by Oliver Stapleton. This is a beautiful picture to look at. You feel the almost impossibility of winning a living from this land and how extraordinarily tough farming and ranching must have been on it. New Mexico seems open, huge, empty, dusty. Well, it often is.

So yes, a very good motion picture, to be seen, and to be seen, if possible, in a movie theater rather than on a small TV screen.

But it’s not a Western. Not as I understand it. Many people think of it as a Western and the actors wear cowboy hats and ride horses and have guns, so it’s on this blog. But it’s not a Western because it’s too much a love story and too modern and not enough of a frontier tale. The voiceover narrative makes it an introspective piece and Westerns were never that. Even if one of the characters does ride, er, drive off into the sunset at the end.

 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Broken Lance (Fox, 1954)


They went for the big picture




 
 
Fox’s Broken Lance in 1954 was a big Western. It was big-budget and released amid much bally-hoo. It had a towering performance by Spencer Tracy in the lead. It had huge, sweeping Arizona vistas photographed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald. It was one of those passionate family dramas so beloved by Americans, written by Philip Yordan and Oscar-winning. It had big stars.

Hot-tempered self-made cattle baron Matt Devereaux (Tracy) feuds with his sons (Richard Widmark, Earl Holliman, Hugh O’Brian, Robert Wagner) over direction of the ranch, over whether to act within or outside the law, over money, power, love; over pretty much everything really. There’s action a-plenty as Matt decides to take the law into his own hands by attacking a powerful copper mining company that is polluting the water and killing his cattle. He is arraigned and faces trial. The excellent Russell Simpson is the judge, so he should be alright.
 
The brothers
 
It rather depends on your definition of Western as to how many Tracy was in. He started in 1940 with the frankly dire Northwest Passage, an 18th century musket-and-coonskin-cap tale. Some may consider as a Western Boom Town of the same year, a story of two men (Tracy and Clark Gable) who move from being wildcatters to oil tycoons. The Elia Kazan-directed Sea of Grass came out in 1947, another sweeping if rather elephantine family saga-style ‘Western’. Later, there was Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a superb psychological study but again hardly a Western in the estimation of many. Really, only Broken Lance and the interminable and plodding How the West Was Won (1962) were Westerns in the true sense. We can’t really think of Tracy as a Western actor.
 
Tracy and Jurado. Jurado's best Western performance since High Noon.
 
Broken Lance has quality, though. On one level just another treatment of the clichéd cattle baron story, it does in fact have more. There is a theme of racial (in)tolerance, for one thing. Matt Devereaux’s wife is an Indian woman presenting herself as Mexican (Katy Jurado, replacing Dolores del Rio – Ms. del Rio was to get to play a similar part, though, in 1960 in Flaming Star). The first three sons are by a previous marriage of Devereaux and therefore ‘white’, while Joe, the baby of the family (Wagner), is by Señora Devereaux and thus a ‘half-breed’. The family is riven. There are political repercussions too when the Governor (EG Marshall), an erstwhile ally of Matt, is upset because half-breed Joe is romancing his posh Eastern-educated daughter Barbara (Jean Peters).

In a Lear-like division, ownership of the ranch is broken up between the sons (naturally his wife can’t own it) and then Joe, who really loves his father, takes the rap for him and goes to prison for three years. When he comes out he learns that dad has died of a heart attack. Should Joe now revenge himself upon his faithless brothers? You sort of want him to. The title may give you a clue as to what he decides.
 
Cinemascope photography by Joe MacDonald of Arizona locations
 
So it’s a pretty complex plot (I’ve only given you the bare bones). There are shades of The Brothers Karamazov in it and Edward G Robinson had played a Matt Devereaux-esque role in Fox’s House of Strangers in 1949 about Italo-American bankers in New York. In 1961 the same story was put in a circus setting, again by Fox, in The Big Show. So it was a plot that could be recycled handily.

Katy Jurado’s Señora Devereaux is wonderful. She is quietly loyal and loving to Tracy’s Matt Devereaux yet once again shows independence, spirit and courage. It is a subtle, sensitive, nuanced performance and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it (though the Award went to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront). Her performance ranks with High Noon as her greatest Western work.

In a 1955 interview with Louella Parsons, Ms. Jurado commented on the Indian roles she was given, "I don't mind dramatic roles. I love to act, any character at all. But just once I would like to be my Mexican self in an American motion picture".

Widmark was probably the best of the sons. In one scene in particular he vents his hatred of his father with venom and spleen. I’m not the greatest Widmark fan as far as Westerns are concerned but on a good day he could really act well.
 
Widmark: angry
 
Director Edward Dmytryk did The Caine Mutiny the same year and was a hot property. He did six Westerns altogether, The Hawk in 1935, Broken Lance, Raintree County (if you consider that a Western) in 1957, Warlock (1959), Alvarez Kelly (1966), and Shalako in 1968.

You probably need to see this movie as a famous example of the genre, and for Jurado, though don’t expect greatness otherwise.

 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Arrowhead (Paramount, 1953)


Toxic





 
 

Charlton Heston’s three first Westerns, The Savage (1952), Pony Express (1953) and Arrowhead (1953), were less than glorious affairs. They were all second-rate and in addition Arrowhead was toxic.

Charles Marquis Warren directed the picture and wrote the screenplay, adapting WR Burnett’s novel Adobe Walls. It purports to be a screen version of the life of Al Sieber (1843 or 44 – 1907) and on-screen text announces:

The character of Ed Bannon [the part played by Heston] was drawn in part from the actual Chief of Scouts of the United States Army of the Southwest – Al SIEBER. Born – 1855; killed – 1907.

I don’t know which part. This Bannon bears no resemblance whatever to Sieber either in the facts of his life or the kind of man he was. In fact Heston’s Bannon is a sociopath (or even a psychopath, Robert Hare describing psychopaths as having no sense of empathy or morality, but sociopathy as only differing in sense of right and wrong from the average person). This Bannon is a racist murderer and a sadistic and bitter man, and Al Sieber was none of these things.
 
Best avoided in any language
 
We are also told that the movie was shot in the “actual locale” of the events it describes, Fort Clark. Fort Clark is in Bracketville, Texas, and as far as I know Al Sieber never went there (and Dan L Thrapp, in his definitive biography of Sieber, does not even mention it).

They can’t even get Sieber’s dates right. He was born in Germany in 1843 or 1844, depending on whom you read, but certainly not in 1855. And saying “killed” implies that he perished at the hands of the Apaches, whereas he died in an accident.
 
Al Sieber
 
As I have said before, I have no objection to unhistorical Western movies. They are not supposed to be documentaries. But when they claim to be historical and are clearly preposterous twaddle (Heston’s Pony Express was another) then they lay themselves open to criticism.

Anyway. It’s supposed to be May 1886. The (fictional) Apache Toriano has been East to school but is now back to lead his people in rebellion against the white eyes. Toriano is played by Jack Palance, rather well. Ed Bannon, sour and churlish Army scout (the Confederate gray pants he wears showing his general bolshiness), creeps up behind two Apaches waiting for Toriano, says, “Turn around, dirt” and when they do he shoots them both dead with his rifle. Another Apache tries to get Bannon but unfortunately Bannon’s sidekick, Sandy (Milburn Stone, Doc from Gunsmoke) shoots him too so Bannon is saved. Rats.
 
Jack Palance is Apache chief
 
That sets the tone of the film. A colonel (Lewis Martin) has been ordered to try to make peace with the Chiricahua but Bannon sneers at the very idea. The colonel soon meets his maker. There’s a sensible captain, though, played very well by Brian Keith (one of his best performances, I think). Capt. Keith has an on-off relationship with Bannon, despising him as a renegade who won’t obey orders, yet finally supporting him in his murderous intent. The sergeant is the excellent Robert J Wilke (only 1953 and already his 118th Western appearance; Arrowhead was one of eight in this year alone!), who is also a bit on the rough side but also comes round. Keith and Wilke make a convincing Army pair and, with Katy Jurado, are the best thing about the movie.
 
Brian Keith excellent as Army captain. Heston closer to a can of tuna than to Al Sieber.
 
Yes, there’s a half-Apache woman, the fort laundress Nita, played by the wonderful Katy Jurado (the year after High Noon). Bannon uses her but mistrusts her, rightly as it turns out. She tries to kill him. Heston holds her down viciously, sneering at her through those clenched teeth, “The Apache in you finally came out.” When she stabs herself, Bannon looks down at her body and says to some soldiers, “There’s a dead Apache in here. Get it out.” Charming fellow, isn’t he. Ms. Jurado was voluptuous and sensual and utterly marvelous in the Westerns she did, which were rather B-movie affairs after High Noon (except Broken Lance). 
 
Katy Jurado splendid as always
 
Toriano is no saint either, mind. He shoots down in cold blood his white blood brother (John Pickard), which is not very sporting. There’s an Apache Army scout, Jim Eagle (Pat Hogan, a Kickapoo who often played Indians in Hollywood and TV Westerns) though it isn’t clear for most of the movie which side he is on. He does not die peacefully in his bed. Sidekick Sandy comes to a 'sticky' end too and is made to look remarkably like medieval paintings of St Sebastian.
 
Heston has as crusty sidekick Milburn Stone
 
Toriano urges his people to do the Ghost Dance (a predominantly Lakota phenomenon of the 1890s so I don’t know why the Chiricahua are doing it in 1886).

There’s a dramatically inevitable but absurd one-on-one mortal combat between Bannon and Toriano as the climax of the movie. You may guess who wins out. I was rooting for Toriano but it was not to be.

The trailer is almost worse than the movie. It begins, “In the great Western tradition of the immortal Shane, Paramount NOW presents” (as if the two movies were even in the same league) “Arrowhead.”
 
“The least known of the Indian scouts was Ed Bannon, portrayed by rugged Charlton Heston,” announces the trailer, sonorously. Well, there’s a reason that Ed Bannon was the least known: he didn’t exist.  “Now the secret history of the Apache war is revealed for the first time!” shouts the trailer. “The most amazing story to come out of the West! All the more THRILLING because it’s TRUE!” This isn’t really just commercial hyperbole. It’s what's called a lie.
 
As for Heston and Katy Jurado, “violence was to be his destiny, even from the women who loved him. Katy Jurado, the sensation of High Noon, as Nita, whose blood mingled the PASSION of Spain and the DEATH LUST of the Apache.”

All in all this is a nasty little movie that is best avoided. I've given it two revolvers for Wilke, Keith and Jurado but as a movie it really only deserves one.