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

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Ballad of Lefty Brown (A24, 2017)

The sidekick leads

The Ballad of Lefty Brown was released at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March last year. It had an estimated budget of $8 million. By the end of the year it had, according to IMDb, grossed $5,559. Oh dear. Because it’s actually rather good.

For one thing, it’s visually fine, with lovely photography by David McFarland of quite stunning Montana locations. The ghost town of Bannack was used for a lot of it, and very atmospheric it is too. Bannack is famous as the place where Sheriff Plummer and two of his deputies were hanged, without trial, in 1864, and that is appropriate given the subject matter of this picture.

DP McFarland

For another thing, Bill Pullman is superb as the titular Lefty. Mr. Pullman has not specialized in our noble genre but he was Ed Masterson in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp, and, more importantly, he directed and starred in the second-best of the many screen versions of The Virginian, in 2000. He gives us a splendid performance as limping, aging Lefty, a bit of a shambling ne’er-do-well on the whole but with, it becomes evident, the heart of a lion. Interviewed, Pullman said, “It was more the perception of characters around him, that he was a fool.” Pullman plays Lefty close to the edge of comedy but remains on the grimly serious side. It might have been tempting to go for the Walter Brennan or even Gabby Hayes ‘cranky old-timer’ approach but this Lefty is much less comic than those. Lefty Brown was, according to the IMDb trivia page, based on the gunslinger Lefty BJ Wheeler, but I don’t know who that is and can’t find anything about him. Can you tell us more, dear reader?

Pullman is a right-handed Lefty

Peter Fonda’s in it too, as rancher Edward Johnson, but Mr. Fonda seems to make it his business these days to appear in Westerns briefly, maybe so they can put his name on the DVD box, and then get written out in the first reel. Cameos, they used to call them. He plays what we think will be the leading figure in the story, an ex-lawman who has a rough way with malefactors (in the opening scenes he hangs a man without trial who shot another over a $2 poker game) but he has become Senator Johnson now and is off to DC. Just before leaving, though, he departs with Lefty after some rustlers of his horses and is (spoiler alert – stop reading here) surprisingly shot in the head, with unsurprisingly fatal results, by said rustlers, and lies dead on the prairie.

Fonda appears, briefly

The senator’s widow blames Lefty, though unfairly: the shot came out of the blue from a Sharps at long range. Mrs. Johnson is played by Kathy Baker (whom I think of as Joanne in The Ranch) and she is a tough lady. She casually kills a rattler with her parasol on the ranch and she often sets her jaw in a way that resembles granite.
Kathy Baker is the senator's widow

But the senator didn’t leave a will and the law says that the ranch must now go to his nearest male relative. The widow is miffed. Enter (fictional) Governor Jimmy Bierce to help by forging a will, the great friend of the family, played by Jim Caviezel, one of those actors who believes fashionably that if you deliver your lines in a loud whisper it will be more meaningful and earnest, whereas in fact it’s just silly and annoying.

Governor Caviezel

The governor is accompanied by another bosom pal, famous US Marshal Tom Harrah, the subject of sensational dime novels, played by Glaswegian Tommy Flanagan, who is, for me, Chibs Telford in Sons of Anarchy. He’s rather good as the ex-alcoholic (he is of course not the first lawman who took to the bottle in a Western) who has cleaned up but will backslide under the strain of the forthcoming events. These people, the senator, the governor, the marshal, the senator’s wife and his partner Lefty, were intimate friends and have come up together in the world. Nothing can separate them. Or can it?

Marshal Tom

Just before dying, the senator had given Lefty his rather fine rifle but Lefty doesn’t feel worthy of it and inters it. In doing so, he makes a vow, saying, “I’m gonna get that sonofabitch [the man who shot the senator] or die tryin’. My word ain’t worth much but on this it is.” So it becomes a pursuit/revenge drama – and rather a good one.

On his hunt, Lefty comes across a boy, Jeremiah (Diego Josef) and this lad, who reminds me a little of the Schofield Kid in Unforgiven, is sort of adopted by Lefty and joins in the chase. The youngster has a fancy two-gun rig and is mockingly called Wild Bill by Lefty.

Lefty gets an apprentice

Now Marshal Tom arrives, the kid’s great hero from those novels. The governor has sent him to get Lefty back: the Army will find the killers. But Lefty will have none of it. He made a vow. And he persuades Tom to join them, so now they are a posse.

Well, thanks to Lefty they do finally come up on the base assassin, one Frank Baines (Joe Anderson) and his loathsome gang. Lefty will come into their cabin from the back, Tom from the front, while the boy is ordered to hold the horses. Naturally, he won’t.

Just then a fellow in a suit appears, Mr. Crobley (Adam O’Byrne) and it seems he is the governor’s man, and he has money for the villains. Was it blood money? Had the governor paid the outlaws to kill the senator? Ah, there’s the rub.

Anyway, there’s a shoot-out, the boy Jeremiah is shot, the marshal slides back into the bottle and leaves, and Lefty is left in the soup.

Joe Anderson as very villainous killer Frank Baines, photo by Ezra Olsen

How it pans out, whether the governor was a false friend, if the boy survives, all of this I shall not tell you, dear reader. Wouldn’t want to spoil your fun. I can reveal, however, that there’s a good last-reel showdown in Bannack (the Meade Hotel features strongly) and there are deaths.

The film was, dare I say it, a tad long and could probably have done with sharper editing. But the actors were all good, the plot solid, and there were enough references to older Westerns to keep us entertained.

I think the amount the movie grossed must be a mistake. Anyway, they’ll recoup more with DVD sales and TV rights. I bought a DVD, so that’s another $9.99 to the good.

More than watchable, I'd say.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Gunfight at Dodge City (United Artists, 1959)

Bat cleans up Dodge

Every so often I like to revisit a Western. I reviewed The Gunfight at Dodge City, a Joel McCrea picture, back in April 2010 but I watched it again yesterday and I’ve revised my opinion somewhat, or anyway had a few new thoughts. So it’s The Gunfight at Dodge City Redux.

As far as McCrea (left) went – and he was a superb Western actor, excelling at the quietly-tough-but-decent part – the picture came after the high-water mark of his career in the saddle. He had started in the mid-30s and starred in major pictures for Paramount, Warners and Fox like Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill and Colorado Territory through to the late 40s – directed by the likes of Cecil B DeMille, William A Wellman and Raoul Walsh. He was a very big star in our noble genre. Then he had done a series of slightly ‘smaller’ oaters such as Ramrod and Four Faces West, released by United Artists. They may have had a lower budget and been less ballyhooed but they were absolutely superb movies, and McCrea was outstanding in them. He continued in the genre through the 50s, making four B-ish Westerns in 1950 alone. The Gunfight at Dodge City could have been his last ever big-screen Western because in September ’59 he started Wichita Town with his son Jody on NBC, and announced he would make no more features. In fact The Gunfight at Dodge City was shot contemporaneously with Comanche Station with Randolph Scott and the two stars then immediately retired. But they were brought back in 1962 by Sam Peckinpah for the wonderful Ride the High Country, in which it is difficult to say who is more impressive, McCrea or Scott, and the answer is both.

The Gunfight at Dodge City (great title, by the way) was directed by safe-pair-of-hands Joseph M Newman. Newman’s first full-length motion picture as director had been a Western (or a Canadian Mountie movie anyway), Northwest Rangers in 1942, and he returned to the theme when Tyrone Power donned the red jacket in Pony Soldier a decade later.  He directed the Dale Robertson version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat in 1952 too, and the year before Gunfight he directed McCrea in the gritty and tough Fort Massacre. He understood the Western.

Joseph M Newman

The movie was written by Martin Goldsmith and Daniel B Ullman (Wichita, Colt .45, later to do a lot of TV work including an episode of Bat Masterson) and there are some really good lines.

The production values are high. It’s in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe, photographed by Carl E Guthrie, who also shot the likes of Fort Massacre, Fort Bowie and Quantez. It was a Mirisch Productions picture. Walter Mirisch (right) and his brothers Marvin and Harold were together one of the most successful producing teams in Hollywood history. They produced such 60s hits as Some Like it Hot, West Side Story, The Great Escape and The Pink Panther but as far as proper films go (i.e. Westerns) the Mirisch name deserves endless credit for The Magnificent Seven. Walter started as a producer for Monogram back in 1949 on very low-budget stuff. Once Monogram merged into Allied Artists (Mirisch was one of the prime movers of that deal) he would move upmarket, producing Wichita in 1955, the first of six oaters he did with McCrea, and he would also work with Gary Cooper. So he’s a major figure in our beloved genre.

In The Gunfight at Dodge City, Joel plays Bat Masterson. As I said in my little essay on Bat (click the link) many actors have played him – Albert Dekker, Randolph Scott, Monte Hale, Frank Ferguson, George Montgomery, to name but a few, and of course Gene Barry on TV – but McCrea’s Bat stands out. The whole picture is historical hooey and you should not watch it if you are hoping for a factual depiction of Masterson the man, but if you want a fictional Bat Masterson cleaning up a wide-open town with true grit and a .45, this is the movie for you.

Bat in 1879

The story opens to bucolic Hans J Salter music with Bat buffalo-hunting in ‘Kansas’ (it looks suspiciously like Newhall) and he has with him young Billy Townsend (Wright King, TV Western show regular), who is, er, intellectually challenged and fascinated with guns. Bat tells the boy how awful it is to shoot a man and how you end up vomiting behind some saloon when you do it, but that doesn’t stop young Billy longing to have and use a six-gun of his own. Bat is warned that Sergeant Ernie King (Charles Horvath, stuntman/bit-part actor who was often an Indian) is waiting for him in Hays and wants to shoot him for dallying with his girlfriend Molly (Kasey Rogers) but Bat goes to Hays anyway, to sell his hides, and sho’ nuff, the angry sergeant appears and attempts to gun Bat down, only, however, succeeding in hitting Molly fatally by mistake before being shot himself by Bat and his pal Ben Townsend, Billy’s older brother.

The 1959 Hollywood Bat

Bat Masterson probably did shoot a certain soldier named King, though he declined to talk about it, but it was Corporal Melvin King, in Sweetwater, Texas in 1876. Still, we don’t want to be picky. As for these Townsends, they are obviously Ben and Billy Thompson.

Ben Thompson (1843 – 1884) was a fascinating character of the West, English-born but settled in Texas. A Confederate soldier, then fighter for the Emperor Maximilian, he served time in Huntsville for almost killing his brother-in-law, then became a professional gambler, frequenting Kansas cattle towns like Abilene (where he came into contact with Wild Bill Hickok and John Wesley Hardin) and Ellsworth. He seems to have met and befriended Bat Masterson in the Texas Panhandle in 1875 and helped Bat out at the shooting of Corporal King. In 1881 Ben was hired as marshal in Austin, Texas, when the crime rate reportedly dropped sharply. The marshal was murdered at the age of 40 in San Antonio, in the so-called Vaudeville Theater Ambush.

Ben Thompson

Ben’s brother Billy was unpredictable, troubled, alcoholic and homicidal. Often on the run from the law for various killings, he depended on his brother Ben for help (and money). In 1873 Billy and Ben were house gamblers in an Ellsworth saloon but got into a drunken altercation in which Billy shot the sheriff (some said accidentally) and once more Billy went on the run. He was said to be in Dodge City in May 1878 (so that would fit with the movie). In 1880 Billy shot some fingers off the hand of a saloon owner in Ogallala, Nebraska in an argument over a prostitute, and the saloon owner responded by riddling Billy with buckshot from a shotgun. Billy was arrested but allowed to remain under guard at the Ogallala House Hotel to heal. Hearing of this, Ben asked Bat (who was no longer County Sheriff) to help him and together the friends got Billy away. Twice tried for murder and twice acquitted, Billy survived his brother and died of a stomach ailment in Houston, on September 6, 1897. In the movie Billy is a simple-minded youth who is not responsible for his actions, treated with kindness by Bat and Ben, and not at all the 33-year-od drunken psychopath of history.

Ben's brother Billy

Another reason I like this picture is that it features Dave Rudabaugh. Rudabaugh appears rarely in Westerns, though he was one of Billy the Kid’s gang in Young Guns II, played by Christian Slater and for some odd reason billed as Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh. I have always liked Dirty Dave and made him a key figure in one of my novels. He was one of those who operated on both sides of the law but usually on the wrong side – in fact in February 1878 Sheriff Bat Masterson arrested him for train robbery. In Gunfight he is an out-and-out baddy, dressed all in black, and it is he who murders Bat’s brother Ed (Harry Lauter, Clay Morgan in Tales of the Texas Rangers), the city marshal, by shooting him in the back in the Lady Gay. Dave doesn’t like Bat either because he was Sgt. King’s cousin. It’s all preposterous bunkum but never mind. He is played by Richard Anderson, a regular on TV oaters but who only ever had small parts in big-screen Westerns.

Dirty Dave Rudabaugh (1854 - 1886)

Dirty Dave (Richard Anderson) presses unwanted attentions on saloon owner Lily (Nancy Gates)

Well, this murder of Ed Masterson dates the story precisely to April 1878. In this movie Marshal Ed is running for County Sheriff against the crook ‘Honest’ Jim Regan (granite-jawed Don Haggerty), and Regan pays Dirty Dave to kill Ed. Actually, Ed didn’t run for office. His brother Bat was already Ford County sheriff then. Bat had served as under-sheriff to Charlie Bassett in ’77 and in November that year he just beat Marshal Larry Deger (by three votes) to succeed Bassett. Still, we don’t want mere details like historical fact to get in the way of a good Western, do we?

Ed Masterson

Ed Masterson was indeed shot to death in Dodge when marshal, on April 9, 1878, not by Dave Rudabaugh and not shot in the back, but in the side by a drunken cowboy named Jack Wagner, whom Bat probably then killed (though there is some doubt about that).

You know how in Westerns the hero often gets to dally between two dames, one rather prim and proper and the other a racy saloon gal maybe. He usually chooses the former because it was the 1950s and family values ruled. In this picture beautiful Julie Adams is Pauline, the preacher’s daughter, while Nancy Gates is Lily, widowed owner-manager of the Lady Gay saloon. So Joel gets to choose between Julie and Nancy. There are worse fates. Pauline was Ed’s fiancée and Ed was a bit of a goody-goody. She is kinda attracted to Bat now that Ed is deceased but Bat becomes part owner of the Lady Gay and she feels it is not quite proper to consort with him. Lily, on the other hand, clearly wants Bat but senses that he is more drawn to Pauline. Ah me. Love triangles, dontja just hate them? Which belle will finally bring Bat to the altar? Or will it be neither? Dear reader, you will have to watch the movie to find out, for my lips are, as ever (well, nearly ever) sealed.

Julie or Nancy?

Lovely Lily?

Prim Pauline?

Luckily, Pauline’s dad, the preacher, is played by our old pal James Westerfield, always enjoyable in Westerns. He seems to be a leading townsman and it is he who invites Bat to stand as County Sheriff instead of the dead Ed.

Dr. McIntire and Rev. Westerfield

But the best news as far as character actors go is that the town doc is John McIntire. Now I am the greatest McIntire fan and think he was especially good in Westerns. Starting with a couple of rather cheesy Yvonne De Carlo/Dan Duryea oaters in the late 40s, he was unforgettably sinister as the gambler/arms dealer in Winchester ’73, brilliant as the Al Sieber-ish scout in Ambush, classic as the crusty irascible rancher in Saddle Tramp (also with McCrea), superb as the California rancher recruiting wives in Westward the Women, and the list goes on. And on. Horizons West, The Mississippi Gambler, The Lawless Breed (when he played both John Wesley Hardin’s father and his uncle). What a splendid villain he was as Judge Gannon in The Far Country! Not content with being Al Sieber-ish in Ambush, he actually was Al Sieber in Apache. I can’t think of a Western he was bad in. But for me he was best as a doc – one thinks principally of The Tin Star. All this before he started bossing the Wagon Train when Ward Bond died in 1960. In Gunfight he has some great lines and is an irreverent physician who likes to drink and gamble and tease the preacher. Splendid! It’s worth watching the movie just for him.

Doc McIntire becomes Bat's right hand man

There are some great scenes in the picture, such as when Regan threatens Bat in his new saloon and Bat threatens him right back, or Doc McIntire presiding over the roulette table, or Bat quietening a whole mob of rowdy cowboys by buffaloing two and winging a third with his Colt. This is a proper Western.

Sheriff Regan and some henchmen/deputies

At one point Sheriff Masterson tells the townsfolk who complain that their sheriff is a saloon owner that he knows of a lawman in Wichita named Wyatt Earp who owns three saloons. Of course this is a bit of an in-joke because four years before Joel himself had been Wyatt Earp in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita. But in this movie there’s no sign of Earp in Dodge, though in fact Wyatt had been assistant marshal under Marshal Deger in ’76 and rejoined the police force as deputy under Ed Masterson’s successor as marshal, Charlie Bassett.

Joel is a splendid Bat

They do the 1880 bit where Bat and Ben, with Doc McIntire as accomplice, ride out to rescue Billy, who finally shot someone and of course ended up vomiting behind some saloon. During this rescue Bat commits grand theft stagecoach while still County Sheriff, so that’s a bit naughty and the townsfolk duly dispossess him of his job and call a new election, and ex-Sheriff Regan comes back to stand again. So it all builds to a climax and…

Nay, I must not reveal the outcome.

A super Western, though, with Joel on top form.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Man Who Came Back (Gudegast Braeden Productions, 2008)

Vengeance is mine, saith the hero

The revenge drama is a staple of the Western movie. You show a really bad bad-guy in the first reel and establish his wickedness (and the bona fides of the good guy) so that the villain will deserve the come-uppance that will undoubtedly be meted out to him in the last reel. The excuse for allowing this personal act of revenge rather than involving the authorities is that there was limited official law ‘n’ order on the Western frontier, so it’s alright. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and all that. Countless Western movies used this plot and yet another arrived in 2008.

I’m not sure if The Man Who Came Back was a theatrical release, a TV movie or a straight-to-video affair. It does rather have the look of a TV movie, though I watched it on DVD, and, as we have remarked recently, like many modern Westerns it does look a bit like a re-enactment in an historical Western town, with actors wearing costumes. Still, it isn’t too bad.

Just quite bad.

The villain of the piece is Billy Duke (James Patrick Stuart, below, Col E Porter Alexander in Gettysburg), who, in post-Reconstruction 1880s Louisiana, when, we are told, Southern aristocrats were taking back power, behaves like an unreconstructed vicious slave owner. He discovers some Nigras, as he calls them, leaving the plantation and he whips one and shoots the mule of another. I’m surprised he didn’t beat a child as well because that was a standard way of establishing bad-guy credentials in the opening scenes, but shooting an innocent mule will do.

Bad guy
The good news is that George Kennedy is his dad, the plantation owner and local judge. Born 1925, Mr. Kennedy was well into his eighties and we Westernistas have fond memories of him, usually as the bad guy, from countless oaters of yore. The veteran of guest appearances in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name, for me he was Chris in the 1969 Guns of the Magnificent Seven - still to be reviewed, I notice - the bad guy McKay in The Good Guys and the Bad Guys the same year, and splendid as the villain Fraser in Cahill, US Marshal in ’73. The Westerns he was in weren’t always top-drawer but he was reliably good in them. In The Man Who Came Back he reminds me slightly of Bruce Dern in Django Unchained, four years later, an old-timer Western movie actor with bad-guy cred who plays a loathsome patriarch plantation owner.

George still had it
Daddy Duke seems to despair of his ne’er-do-well son (with good reason) but stands by him out of family and class loyalty. Together they will pervert the course of justice and be responsible for or complicit in lynching, murder, rape, false imprisonment and any number of other crimes which, to the Western watcher, deserve retribution, probably from a Colt.

The man who will deliver this rough justice? Well, I’ve rather delayed talking about him. You might expect some well-known Western good guy but in fact we get Eric Braeden, né Gudegast, a German-American actor known for daytime soap operas on TV (he won a ‘Daytime Emmy’ but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing) who was also, I am informed, John Jacob Astor in Titanic (I say I am informed of that because I am the only person on this planet who has never seen Titanic). Mr. Braeden is solid and steady, though is unlikely to set the prairie on fire. Just occasionally he looks vaguely Stalloney. He was the German officer adviser in 100 Rifles (like Mapache's in The Wild Bunch) and appeared in various Western TV shows here and there.

Not the most charismatic lead, I fear
He plays the decent overseer of the Dukes who is fired for being too nice to the workforce. He doesn’t like the way that the cotton-pickers are paid in “funny money” (scrip) which they can only spend at the Dukes’ store and Duke Jr. has tripled the prices there (“It’s just good business.”) The workers go on strike. The film, at the end, makes specific reference to the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887, one of the most violent labor disputes in US history, when white paramilitaries in Louisiana slaughtered up to 300 striking African-American sugar-cane workers.  But the movie is not about the massacre, which is only obliquely referred to, and the mention does seem a bit gratuitous.

Paxton’s angelic spouse is Angelique (Carol Alt) and they have an equally perfect young son (Brady Hender) but the wife and child end up in a way that reminds me of the grisly fate of the family in The Tall T. Now Paxton has even more justification for revenge. He escapes from the brutal prison - where the warden (Peter Jason) tells him that “Prisoners are not men; they are livestock” - and, as the movie’s title suggests, he returns to exact his vengeance.

The warden surveys his livestock
Billy Zane is Ezra, the New Yorker (first seen holding a carpetbag in case we didn’t guess he was a carpetbagger) who endears himself to Daddy Duke by saying that “Since justice is blind, the only color I recognize is green.” He becomes Duke’s tame lawman. Zane was memorable for me as the crazed colonel in the Van Peebles clan’s rather iffy Posse in 1993, which I also must get round to reveiwing, and he was too the crooked cattle-baron/town boss in the recently reviewed Hannah’s Law in 2012, another movie which had a revenge theme. Actually, though, he is wasted in the part of weak henchman.

Zane is rather gray
One of the best actors was Armand Assante as the peculiarly nasty Amos. Mr. Assante played Mike Hammer, Belizaire the Cajun and teamed up with Antonio Banderas in The Mambo Kings. Westernwise, he only did this and a TV movie in 1994 in which he was a blind gunfighter. Pity. He was rather good.

Armand Assante with lead Braeden at the wrap party
There’s a repulsive preacher (Al Hayter) who seems to have crawled out from under some rock. He commits perjury and his wife is equally mendacious. Billy has become mayor and is orchestrating “a return to our treasured traditions” (racism, death, destruction, etc.)

One by one those who were responsible for Paxton's imprisonment and the deaths of his family are eliminated (the preacher is appropriately crucified). As Paxton replies when the saloon madam asks if he’s going to pay for that drink, “Everybody pays.” (There’s a bizarre and totally out-of-place love scene between Paxton and the madam which can only have been inserted for a few R-rated shots of breast.)
At a certain moment Paxton asks the undertaker to make more coffins. He seems to think he’s Clint Eastwood.
Naturally it all leads to a Paxton/Billy showdown, as we knew it would. There’s good news: the lowdown skunk Billy has a derringer (we guessed he might). Actually he shoots our hero in the gut with it and you know, a derringer may be a sneaky little popgun but it can sure do damage at point-blank range. So we get a Shaney ending as the wounded if not dying goodie rides off into the sunset.
The Texas locations don’t suggest Louisiana but never mind. Much of the dialogue is clunky, crudely obvious or anachronistic. “Slavery’s over! We can leave if we want!” enthuse the black workers (who are, honestly, little more than extras). At one point Ezra says, “Whatever.”

The movie was co-written by Glen Pitre, who also directed it, his only Western – and it shows a bit. His fellow writer, who directed/wrote three other Westerns, was Chuck Walker.

One is left thinking, “Next!”