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

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Last of the Fast Guns (Universal, 1958)


Jocko at the top of his game




 
 

George Sherman (1908 - 1991), left with Gilbert Roland while on the set of The Treasure of Pancho Villa, 5' 0” in his socks, began his career in the movie business in the mail room at Warner Brothers before working his way up to assistant director. By the late 1930s, he had graduated to directing in his own right under contract to Republic Pictures, his first oater at the helm being the Three Mesquiteers epic Wild Horse Rodeo in 1937. He followed that up with a long list of other Mesquiteers pictures, including those with John Wayne. Wayne became a lifelong friend and Duke would make him, at least nominally, director on Big Jake in 1971, Sherman's last Western - though by then Sherman was pretty well out of it and Wayne himself did most of the directing. It was typically generous of Duke. 

Early on, Sherman specialized in B-Westerns, especially Gene Autry and Don ‘Red’ Barry oaters. After the war, he turned out similar reliable low-budget fare for Columbia, between 1945 and ‘48, but they were slightly more up-market pictures – the likes of Relentless. Then he moved on to do the same at Universal for another eight years. Universal made glossier films – not huge-budget affairs but ones with decent location shooting in color, with reasonable stars. River Lady, a 1948 Rod Cameron/Yvonne de Carlo picture, was his first Western there and later there came the likes of Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949), Comanche Territory (1950) and some of his best work, Tomahawk (1951) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952). For me, his very best Western at Universal was the outstanding Dawn at Socorro, a superb Rory Calhoun picture, in 1954. Actually, Sherman was a much better director than many have given him credit for.

From 1955 Sherman went freelance and in in that year he directed Calhoun again, with Gilbert Roland, in a Mexican fandango, The Treasure of Pancho Villa for RKO. And it wasn’t long before he was back south of the border to make The Last of the Fast Guns, this time with Jock Mahoney – and Roland again.

The Last of the Fast Guns is an enjoyable picture for two main reasons. One, it has one of the best titles Hollywood ever came up with for a B-Western. The Last of the Fast Guns: leaving aside the musical assonance of it, the whole notion of a fast gun was pure Hollywood. The quick-on-the-draw myth has permeated the genre since its inception, and the idea of a wandering gunslinger (a dime novel/movie word, never used at the time), traveling the West like some sagebrush samurai, is integral to the legend of the West.

And then there’s another element in the title, the word last. The end-of-the-West idea, the notion that the open frontier was dying, stifled by law ‘n’ order and civilization, was also built into the Western from the outset. The first great Western novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) was redolent with it. Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the closing of the frontier, first outlined in 1893, became the orthodoxy. Cowboys ride off into the sunset, not the sunrise. Think of how many Westerns have the word last in their titles: Last of the Comanches, Last of the Dogmen, The Last Outlaw, The Last Hard Men, The Last Frontier, and so on and so on. And think of all those Westerns like The Magnificent Seven or The Wild Bunch or The Shootist (and very many more) which were built around this notion that ‘the Wild West’ was going or gone and gunfighters were now just dinosaurs. The title of Sherman’s Mahoney/Roland picture encapsulated all of that. The picture was to have been called The Western Story and the project was known as that during filming. Thank goodness they changed it!

But enough of these titular ruminations. The second reason why it is an enjoyable flick is that Jock Mahoney (left) was at the top of his game. Jocko had started as a stuntman (and a very good one) and had been promoted to character actor, then lead in Westerns, but at first he was pretty wooden with speaking lines, honestly. The Range Rider on TV (which I followed avidly as a small boy) hardly rewarded great acting. The big screen didn’t seem to help much, either. Watch him in Showdown at Abilene (another great title) or A Day of Fury in 1956, for example. He kinda just stands to attention and recites his lines dutifully. But he really worked on his thespian skills and by the time of Joe Dakota in ’57 he was showing us a much more relaxed and confident Jocko, really quite good. And by ’58 he was a proper Western lead, carrying it off with aplomb – and I’m sure you will agree that there’s nothing like the odd spot of aplomb.

The reviews at the time of Mahoney's part in Fast Guns were not at all bad. Variety wrote that "Mahoney makes a sympathetic and interesting character of his role" and The Hollywood Reporter said it was "a grade A western that goes a long way toward establishing Jock Mahoney as a full-fledged star." And in fact Jocko was beginning to reap the rewards of this modest stardom. While he was in Mexico he bought a 24-foot cabin cruiser. He also bought his wife Maggie a wedding ring. They'd been married for seven years already but he hadn't gotten round to it.

As for good old Gilbert Roland (right), second in the billing, he was rather Hollywood’s tame Mexican. Need a bandit south of the border? Call Gilbert. And of course he was perfect as The Cisco Kid in a series of six movies. He himself said, “I don't have any delusions about myself as an actor. I'm grateful for being able to find enough work all these years.” He was, though, a character actor of some talent, as John Ford understood when he used him in Cheyenne Autumn, and as Anthony Mann had in The Furies. That dashing Latin lover’s mustache is unmistakable and he duly sports it here, neatly clipped as ever. Not that he does any Latin loving. He’s action man in this one.

And interestingly, his costume is all white, in stark contrast to Mahoney’s somber duds. Is Sherman playing with the goody/baddy cliché? The white hats and the black hats? Who is the goody and who the baddy? Ah, time will tell.

The picture was shot in Mexico, in Morelos and Guerrero, and very attractive the locations are too, nicely shot by Alex Phillips, a Canadian cinematographer married to a Mexican and living in Mexico. He also photographed Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country and the Chuck Connors Geronimo, both filmed down Mexico way. In fact much of the crew and many of the extras are Mexican. It’s odd, though: you can often tell when it’s a Mexican movie. Maybe it was the film stock or something but this picture doesn’t look like the usual bright-colored Universal Westerns. Or maybe it's the transfer to DVD.

Nice scenery

There’s a good Spanish DVD (but you can have it in English and without subtitles). The disc did stick annoyingly now and then, freezing the action for a second or two. There’s also a Sidonis DVD but that would mean subtitles you can’t switch off.


Take your choice

It was written by David P Harmon, who had penned Reprisal! for Sherman. Some of the screenplay is a bit wordy and Harmon seems to have aimed for an existential angst not quite suited to a B-Western. Still, most of it rattles along.

The producer was Howard Christie, who began in films as a bit-part actor, becoming assistant director and director at Universal. He produced Abbott & Costello comedies from the late 1940s and was eventually appointed vice-president of Universal's TV division, producing Wagon Train and The Virginian in the late 1950s and through the '60s.


What else can I tell you? Oh yes, the plot. A brief outline anyway. Jock is slick gunslinger Bret Ellison, all in black, who, to establish his Main Street cred, shoots some other two-Colt gunfighter in a quick-draw contest in the first reel. It’s actually quite well done by Sherman because at the crucial moment, just before the lightning draws, the camera cuts to a fresh empty grave, presumably just dug by Ellison, and we just hear the shots off. Budd Boetticher did something similar in the opening scene of Seven Men from Now two years earlier, if you remember, with Randolph Scott doing the shootin'. 

An elderly rich man in a Victorian wheelchair, John Forbes (Carl Benton Reid, often a senior Army officer, as in Escape from Fort Bravo or The Command, also the Mayor of Wichita) now hires Ellison to find his brother Edward, who went to Mexico thirty years ago and hasn’t been seen since. John (who rather incongruously has a picture of The Hay Wain on his wall) wants Edward, not a treacherous partner in San Antone, to inherit his fortune, because he’s on the way out (there’s a good line when Ellison asks how long he’s got and Forbes points to his waist, then to his heart, saying “From here to here.” You get the idea that maybe Ellison takes the job as much out of pity for the sick man as for the money, so the hardened gun-for-hire shows some humanity.


It isn't the first time a man in a wheelchair has hired a 'tec to find a relative

So Jocko trots off southwards (you can tell when he’s in Mexico because he crosses a river and the music changes). First he goes to a ruined palace of some kind where unscrupulous innkeeper Samuel Grypton (pre-Get Smart Edward Platt, parts in Westerns from The Proud Ones in 1956 to Santee in 1973) gives refuge to outlaws and gunmen on the run, and there he meets some good ones, Johnny Ringo (Lee Morgan), Jim Younger - Cole, John and Bob’s brother (Milton Bernstein), and Ben Thompson (Stillman Segar). They are all dinosaur-gunfighters with no future. But they give him some clues about the missing Forbes.

John Ringo, James Younger, Ben Thompson

We must be in 1882 because Ellison tells these outlaws the gloomy news that Jesse James and Billy the Kid have just been killed. Actually, news must have traveled slowly because Billy died nine months before Jesse. But who’s counting? This saddens Ringo, Jim and Ben further, and we get the idea that the title of the movie applies not just to Ellison but to all the fast-gun men of the old West. The mood is what the French call crépusculaire.

Then Ellison turns up at Lorne Greene’s hacienda, where Gilbert Roland is the foreman. On the way he spotted Lorne’s daughter, third-billed Linda Cristal, bathing in a pool (a standard way of getting some mild titillation into staid 1950s Westerns) and he saucily pinches one of her undergarments. We sense a romance looming. Actually, this is one of the weaknesses of the picture: the relationship between the hacendado’s daughter and the gunfighter is never developed and is at best cursory, yet they are supposed to be deeply in lerve and go off together at the end of the movie. They’ve hardly talked to each other by then. This was of course well before The High Chaparral and Linda was not well known to American Westernistas. She’d just had a small part in Comanche a couple of years before.

The pre-Chaparral Cristal

Lorne Greene, the year before Bonanza started, was still quite new to the Western. He’d been good as the bad guy in a Guy Madison picture, The Hard Man, in ’57 but this was only his second. He’s OK, I guess. Ottawa-born Green(e) was a radio broadcaster known as the Voice of Canada and didn’t come to Hollywood till the 1950s. He tries for Irish roots in Fast Guns though has no discernible Irish accent and of course he was about as Irish as I am (i.e. not at all).

His hacienda is the Ponderosa ante diem

Jocko cheats a bit because in the dialogue he is asked his age and he says that in 17 months he’ll be 30. In fact, the following year he would be 40, so he was flattering himself a bit. A further discussion of age ensues when Jocko asks how old Gilbert is, and the only reply is that he is younger than Lorne. Well, Gilbert was born in 1905 and Lorne in 1915 so that wasn’t strictly true either. But anyway, movie stars are notoriously vague about their age and we don’t want to probe too much, do we?

At one point in the dialogue Gilbert says he has traveled the world but Madrid is his home and he longs to go back there. Was that true? In real life Roland once said, "I am a Spaniard, but Mexico is my second fatherland."

As usual, it’s a joy to watch Jocko move. The fluidity with which he mounts a horse is full of grace. The man was a born athlete. No wonder he became Tarzan. A dumpy couch-potato like your Jeff can only watch in wonder.

Goody? Baddy?

Two double-headed silver dollars play a part in the plot. They are supposed to be (but aren’t) 1794 ones. Another good gimmick is that Jocko has, in addition to his slinky two-gun rig, a bolas, which he says a gaucho friend taught him to use, and he saves Gilbert’s life by throwing this device at the legs of a wild bronc which was about to do Gil in. So Gil is eternally grateful, etc., and agrees to go with Jocko to find Forbes’s brother Edward, even though he is against the idea, as everyone else seems to be, too, for the pair get shot at a lot.

Unusual weapon for a gunslinger

Like all proper gunslingers, Ellison is troubled, melancholy, almost bitter, and wants to hang up his guns. The idea is that this will be one last job and then he’ll buy a ranch in Oregon. California, Oregon, in the case of James Garner even Australia, it’s usually somewhere further west, that nirvana where the West is still Wild. It wasn’t, of course. It’s a kind of nostalgia. And you know what they say about nostalgia: it’s not what it was.

The (slightly pretentious) idea is that our (anti)hero is searching as much for inner peace as he is for the brother.

Well, Gil and Jocko can’t find Edward Forbes and no one wants them to. In fact there’s even an assassin who comes in the night to stop them. In the darkness Gil asks, quoting Billy the Kid, “¿Quien es?” He shoots the would-be killer but we can see he hesitates. Is there something fishy about him? Could he even be Edward Forbes? Could Lorne Greene be Edward Forbes? The plot thickens.

Gil took a bullet, though, in the exchange of fire. Luckily a kindly old Mexican priest comes and digs out the slug. There’s a neat moment when the old man is just about to probe the wound with his knife when instead of an “Ow!” of pain from Gil we get a “Caw!” from a crow. Once again, Sherman shifts our gaze from the violent act to an unrelated image that stands in for it.

Franz not an Indian for once

The simple priest is also very helpful to the pair in their search. The padre is played by Eduard Franz. The craggy-faced Mr. Franz was one of Hollywood’s tame Indians, Two Moons in Broken Lance, Red Cloud in The Indian Fighter, Broken Hand in White Feather, and so on. He became quite typecast. This old Padre Jose comes to play an increasingly important part in the plot.

It’s an adventure/noir as much as a Western but it passes muster whichever genre you judge it as.

The climax approaches. Will Ellison get his happy ending on that ranch? Or will he, like Gregory Peck’s Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter in 1950, die stretched out on some dusty ground shot by someone faster than he? Well, the gunman goes back to Grypton’s, where…

But nay, my lips are, as ever (well, sometimes) sealed. You must watch the movie yourself for the dénouement. One thing I can tell you: that bolas comes in handy again.
 


 
 

5 comments:

  1. We kinda knew this review was on the way, didn't we, Jeff? A few of us had rather name-dropped the title a short while back.

    My friends and fellow westernistas, John Knight and Blake Lucas, and I all have a strong admiration for "LAST OF THE FAST GUNS". Redemption is at the backbone of the story, as in some of the very best westerns.

    George Sherman is a director I much admire, along with Lesley Selander. His early work in those Three Mesquiteers and Don Barry westerns really stood out from the crowd. This guy had talent and really made westerns that moved but also often just had that extra quality.

    No need to repeat my strong liking for the work of Jock Mahoney. But also, I would say it was a rare occasion if Gilbert Roland was ever boring in a picture.

    One of my favourite westerns and you did a humdinger job on it, Jeff. Thanks.

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    1. Yes, this movie has been alluded to by commentators. I saw it fairly recently (it must have been on TV) but didn't have the DVD, so I had to wait on amazon before I could do the review.
      I do agree that Sherman and Selander have often been regarded as simple providers of B-Western theater fodder but in fact man of their oaters were damn good.
      Jeff

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  2. Jeff, you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, "Jocko at the top of his game." I think that THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS is Jock Mahoney's best Western movie, hands down. He gave us a good performance, and yes, with aplomb.

    This movie has been mostly underrated in the past, but I think it is a cut above many of the 1950's Westerns. Screenwriter David P. Harmon wrote some really memorable dialogue. The plot wasn't a usual one and had some twists and turns, which makes for a better story. The Mexican locations used were amazingly scenic. Alex Phillips' photography was shot to look like paintings.

    Jeff, I'm in agreement with Jerry, in that you did a humdinger of a write-up. I think THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS is a well paced engaging movie that is a joy to watch and think about.

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    1. Ia agree, Walter, by 1957/59 Mahoney was doing really well, and this Sherman picture had real quality.
      Jeff

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  3. This is a really entertaining western with a good plot and some really stunning scenery,beautifully shot.Jock Mahoney does a first rate job in his role,and the rest of the cast perform admirably.A must see for fans of 50s and 60s westerns as I am.

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