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

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Halliday Brand (UA, 1957)


It has its points




 
 
The Halliday Brand, director Joseph H Lewis’s penultimate feature film (it came between 7th Cavalry and Terror in a Texas Town), was a self-consciously arty attempt at a psychowestern which, however, is overwrought and descends into melodrama.

Though only fourth-billed, Ward Bond was the real star, as the tyrannical patriarch Daniel Halliday, and he brought the movie some weight. Wagon Train had yet to start (it first aired in September ’57 while this movie was released in January) but Bond had made a big impact in The Searchers the previous year, and after a long career of Western roles, including with John Ford, was a much bigger presence in the genre than the top-billed Joseph Cotten, who was generally poor in Westerns.

Ward very good

In this one Cotten overacts again and is extremely unconvincing as Bond’s son – he was born in 1905, only two years after Bond, and often, despite Bond’s make-up, looks even older than his father. This was Cotten’s third big-screen Western, after his poor performance in Duel in the Sun (1946) and his much better one in Two Flags West (1950), the latter being the only Western Cotten was good in. He overdid it in his short part in Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset, he was very weak as Major Reno in The Great Sioux Massacre and he would do some trashy spaghettis to end with. It was a less than glorious Western career, I’m afraid. He should have stuck to tracking down Harry Lime.

Not his genre

We also have Swede Viveca Lindfors, second-billed, doing her Garbo act, unconvincing as a half-breed Indian Aleta and New Jersey-born Betsy Blair third-billed and not terribly realistic as Bond’s daughter Martha (apparently she was cast with right-wing Bond to try to help her career through the choppy 50s waters of McCarthy-inspired witch hunts). She goes for the semi-sinister spinster-in-black approach while Lindfors attempts the passionate Latin beauty, not always successfully.

Sinister spinster, half-breed Swede and rebellious elder son

Luckily, Halliday’s other son, Clay, Daniel and Martha’s brother, is played by Bill Williams, who was usually pretty good. We also have Jay C Flippen, John Dierkes (as a clergyman) and Glenn Strange the Great as a leading townsman, so that helps mitigate the miscasting higher up the list.

The film was written by George W George and George F Slavin, which is a lot of Georges. The two had collaborated on the rather good The Nevadan, a Randolph Scott oater, in 1950, and would work together again on Red Mountain with Alan Ladd, City of Bad Men with Dale Robertson and Smoke Signal with Dana Andrews, so they knew what they were about, but they rather over-egged the pudding on The Halliday Brand, going for ultra-intense relationships and Freudian/Oedipal complexes we could probably have done without.

Director Lewis had a ‘visual’ talent greater than his narrative one. The director has his admirers and he managed to turn out low-budget pictures with a certain flair. Martin Scorsese has called one of his films (the noir Gun Crazy) “a tone poem of camera movement” but that seems arty talk to me, I’m afraid. There definitely is some noticeably good photography in The Halliday Brand – it was admirably shot in black & white by Ray Rennahan, who worked with Lewis several times - but that doesn’t make it a tone poem. Lewis and Rennahan went for some atmospheric noirish shots and Lewis’s trademark shooting action past foreground objects.

Joseph Lewis

The producer was Collier Young, whose only Western feature this was. He was at the time Mr. Joan Fontaine. She didn't do Westerns either (unlike her sister Olivia de Havilland who did those oaters with Errol Flynn).

It’s a flashback Western. Clay (Williams), who has remained loyal to his father, finds the errant Daniel (Cotten) and persuades him to come home because Pa is dying. Daniel reluctantly agrees. Just before entering his pa’s bedroom, though, the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and he remembers how the estrangement happened, six months before. Just before the climax the screen will go all blurry again, in case we’re too dumb to know he’s back in the present.

The old man is one of those ranchers who back in the day defeated the Indians and carved an empire out of their land. Then he buried the hatchet (literally: there is a tomahawk sunk into a stump as a marker) and became sheriff. But he was always one of those sheriffs who did not suffer fools, or anyone else, really, gladly. He believes it is acceptable to hang or shoot the odd innocent man for the greater good of stability and order. He is, in fact, a fascist thug and local tyrant.

We learn how both brothers loved the same woman, the half-breed Aleta (Lindfors) - though they don’t seem to fall out over it – and how their sister Martha fell for Aleta’s brother, Jivaro (Christopher Dark). But Halliday Sr. allows Jivaro to be lynched by a mob for the murder of a local rancher. His eldest son assures him the man is innocent but he won’t listen, and you can tell he is just glad to be rid of a half-breed who might otherwise ‘pollute’ his daughter. Then the sheriff unnecessarily guns down Jivaro and Aleta’s father Chad (Flippen), compounding his wickedness. He is not a pleasant sort.

Her fiancé ends badly

Daniel Jr. has left in a high dudgeon, disgusted at his father’s ways, and he vows to bring the old man down. This he does by stampeding cattle, burning barns and robbing the bank, so that the townspeople demand the sheriff hand in his badge. Plausibility is not really this movie’s strong suit.

The elder son leaves his daddy a message while the younger son looks on

The sheriff refuses to resign but in the end his son tears the star off his vest after a brutal fistfight.

Atmospheric studio scene

The irony is, as Aleta tells the son, in bringing the old man down he has become the father he despises.

The ending is rather pat.

The Halliday Brand is a worthy attempt at an intelligent Western and it’s good in parts, but it’s fatally miscast and all rather overdone.

Climactic dénouement rather theatrical


 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Warlock by Oakley Hall


A fine Western novel


I have just read Warlock, the 1958 Pulitzer-shortlisted source novel for Fox’s 1959 movie Warlock, as recommended by readers Boppa and Walter S. It’s a superb book.

Fine novel

It is by Oakley Hall, “considered the dean of West Coast writers” according to Wikipedia, whose name sounds like that of a Victorian stage actor but who only died in 2008. He wrote six Western novels as well as a series of five featuring Ambrose Bierce.
 
Oakley Hall (1920 - 2008)

Warlock definitely belongs to the tradition of literary, rather than pulp Westerns. It is stylishly written and thoughtful. It makes a particularly interesting read to those who know the Western movie well. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, used Robert Alan Aurthur (1922–1978) to adapt the novel for the screen. I must say, though Aurthur eliminated whole strands of the plot – necessarily – and wrote no other Westerns, he did respect the integrity of the novel and managed to transfer Hall’s characters of Blaisedell and Morgan (Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn) marvelously well. In both book and movie the spirit of the classic (i.e. mythological) West shines through.
 
What I said about the movie in my review is also true of the book:

We get a lot of gunplay and some traditional showdowns in the street and saloon. A stage hold-up too. The marshal stands down a lynch mob, Earpishly. It’s a classic Western in that regard with many of the tropes and in fact it seems to have been an attempt to comment on the Western archetype and the hollowness of the myth. It also has a whiff of end-of-the-West about it as Blaisedell is already a dinosaur. Civilization is coming to the frontier and there are only a few wide-open towns still to clean up. Warlock is a psychological Western which is also full of action.

In his introduction to the novel, Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer-nominated novelist and short-story writer, says:

I remember thinking how wonderfully clear the book was. Not only clear, as I remember, but full of light.

He refers to Richard Slotkin’s book Gunfighter Nation (part of a work that seems longer to me than ten bibles but which I might review one day, if I ever finish it before dying of old age). Are works like Hall’s “the country in its cowboy suit”? Are they “infantile self-deception enhanced by cheap theatrics”? Ouch! I suppose he has a point. Certainly Hall’s town of Warlock is close to the fictional Tombstone of Hollywood legend. But then Stone suggests that Hall’s work is closer to the famous remark by New Mexico resident DH Lawrence:

But you have there the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust are a sort of by play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.

Can that be true, do you think? Stone says that “no one realizes this better than Oakley Hall.”
 
 
Slotkin's magnum opus
 
Stone remarks, “As Slotkin writes and Oakley Hall subtly demonstrates,  

In American mythogenesis the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather, they were those who (to paraphrase Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness – the rogues, adventurers, and land-boomers; the Indian fighters, traders, missionaries, explorers, and hunters who killed and were killed until they had mastered the wilderness.”

Yes, that’s the Wild West, real or no, that fascinates us, and that’s the West we get in Warlock.

It’s worth quoting Hall’s own short ‘prefatory note’ in full:

This book is a novel. The town of Warlock and the territory it is located are fabrications. But any relation of the characters to real persons, living or dead, is not always coincidental, for many are composites of figures who live still on a frontier between history and legend.

The fabric of the story, too, is made up of actual events interwoven with invented ones; by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened. Devotees of Western legend may consequently complain that I have used familiar events to construct a fanciful design, and that I have re-arranged or ignored the accepted facts. So I will reiterate that this work is a novel. The pursuit of truth, not of facts, is the business of fiction.

Well, e-pards, I reckon we are “devotees of Western legend” and we inhabit that “frontier between history and legend”. So it’s not surprising that we find Oakley Hall’s work a cracking read.

We start in 1880 with the journal of a Warlock storekeeper, Henry Holmes Goodpasture (a key commentator and narrator who, however, does not appear in the movie). We learn how the local lawman, Deputy Canning, “a good man, a decent man”, is having difficulty controlling the wild element in nearby San Pablo, the Cowboys. This of course immediately puts us in mind of the rustlers who infested the area outside Tombstone, Arizona, and their leader, Abe McQuown, has something of Ike Clanton about him, and his aged, bitter and violent father, Old Man Clanton. Red-bearded Abe does at least have “a certain charm” but Dad McQuown is “a mean and ugly old brute.” Cowboys hurrahing the town, and thus the population needing a tough lawman, well, that is a classic Western trope.

McQuown is a Clantonish figure

It’s a silver-mining town and the miners and mine-owners will play a key part in the story, a whole strand of the narrative that will be excised in the movie version. Fair enough: the movie script is necessarily much shorter, and something had to go. The book is nearly 500 pages long.

Goodpasture says that the Cowboys may be disreputable, unruly and not law-abiding but several are decent types deep down, especially Curley Burne, and “only Cade is truly bad”. Cade does indeed show himself the most evil of them all, a backshooter who will eventually… But no, you must read it!

Canning has buffaloed a young cowboy, who subsequently was thrown from his horse and died. The San Pabloites blame the deputy. They run the lawman out of town (a scene done better in the film, I think). One of the Cowboys, Pony Benner, shoots the barber for nicking his cheek with a razor (another scene very powerfully staged by Dmytryk). It is this which finally prompts some of the townsfolk, including Goodpasture, to form a Citizens Committee and send for a tough gunman to clean up the town.

Clay Blaidesell, from Fort James, is the one - “a tall, broad man with long arms and a way of carrying himself that was halfway between proud and arrogant.” We are told that he has “intensely blue eyes”, so of course we think immediately of Henry Fonda, and indeed, it is hard not to ‘see’ Fonda and Quinn throughout in the novel when Blaisedell and Morgan appear. I suppose that’s what happens when you know a film so well before reading the book. Blaisedell shot Texas badman Big Ben Nicholson in Fort James and the writer Caleb Bane presented him with a brace of gold-handled Colt’s Frontier models. This Bane is clearly a reference to dime novelist Ned Buntline and his supposed gift of long-barreled Colt’s Buntline Specials to Wyatt Earp and other Dodge City peace officers.

The Blaisedell and Morgan of the movie

Blaisedell’s arrival in Warlock is preceded by that of his friend, the saloon owner and professional gambler Tom Morgan, “a handsome, prematurely gray fellow of a sardonic aspect and reserved nature.” I don’t know why the film makers gave him a gammy leg and had people call him a cripple; there’s no mention of this in the book. Morgan, a very Doc Holliday-ish figure, is much less respectable than Blaisedell (as Hollywood Hollidays were by comparison with the Wyatt Earps). He sets up shop in The Glass Slipper and speedily wins a reputation as a dangerous foe and unreliable friend. He cheerfully murders several people. He will earn the dime-novelish soubriquet of the Black Rattlesnake of Warlock.

Footnotes give the novel a quasi-historical feel and we learn much about the backstory of various characters from them, and indeed the origin of the name Warlock, which I was wondering about when reviewing the movie. It concerns the Warlock mine which was named for a half-crazed prospector named Richelin who miraculously escaped the marauding Apaches of the region so that some said that he must have flown away, riding the handle of his shovel like a witch. Here of course we have a version of the naming of Tombstone, with Richelin taking the part of Ed Schieffelin.

The character of Bud Gannon, one of McQuown’s men who is revolted by the dishonorable conduct of the San Pabloites, especially in the matter of the massacre of Mexicans they carried out (a deed attributed in Western mythology to the Clantons and their crew), has a higher profile than the part (played by Richard Widmark) in the film. In fact he is in many ways key. He stays in town, deserting San Pablo, and will eventually wear the official deputy’s star.

I would say that the characters of the women - Jessie, “the Angel of Warlock” who falls for Blaisedell, and Kate Dollar, Morgan’s ex, a “tall woman, black hair, a fair-sized nose”, who dallies with Bud Gannon – play a more important part in the story than they do in the movie. Blaisedell consorts with Jessie but does not love her, it seems, and he will eventually depart without giving her a second glance, while Kate (modeled on the Big Nose Kate of myth, Doc Holliday’s woman) only dallies with Gannon and she will leave him (she half-heartedly invites him to leave with her but he will not, for a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, etc.) So the relationships are far from deep.

Jessie’s great ally, especially in support of the shamefully exploited miners, is the doc, Dr. Wagner, a character given much less to do in the movie (played by Don Beddoe).

Judge Holloway (the excellent Wallace Ford in the film) is a great character in the book, an alcoholic depressive who is irascible as he is noble, in his way. He is “a sagging mixture of pride and shame, dread and grief”. He is only a judge “on acceptance”, as he often says, and everyone knows he pockets the fines he imposes, but he is still a force to be reckoned with in Warlock.

The county seat of Bright’s City (Tucson?), which is riddled with corruption, is presided over by the gigantic and practically senile General Peach (after whom Jessie’s boarding house, where Blaisedell lodges and which becomes the headquarters of the miners’ strike, is named). Peach is a huge figure metaphorically too. The ‘hero’ of the defeat of the Apaches (Goodpasture says that he had “the capacity throughout his career for giving miserable and inexcusable fiasco the semblance of thrilling victory”), he is not persuaded that the struggle is over, and he single-mindedly seeks to hunt down and capture old Espirato, the Apache leader, who is probably dead long ago. This inexorable pursuit will eventually save the miners, in fact, and be the death of Peach.

When we come to the “Fight in the Acme Corral” (no prizes for guessing the reference here) we get an almost verbatim quotation from the Earp/Holliday exchange of legend:

   “I am always one for a shooting match,” says Morgan.
   “It is none of your fight, Morg,” says Blaisedell.
   “That is a hell of a thing to say to me, Clay!”

There are other Tombstone similarities. Curley Burne does a border roll on Deputy Carl Schroeder just as Curly Bill did on Marshal Fred White in Tombstone in October 1880. Blaisedell stands down a lynch mob as the Earps did in defense of Johnny-behind-the-deuce.

Another good thing about the book is the high derringer quotient. The judge always puts a derringer and a bible on the table in front of him when presiding. Morgan’s saloon lookout Murch uses one to kill a miner who is about to beat his boss in a brutal fight. Kate Dollar has one (unsurprisingly; they were classic weapons for saloon women) and Jessie is pretty handy with one too: she even backs Blaisedell standing off the US Cavalry with one. So that’s good. Morgan himself, however, whom you might expect to have one, being a silk-vested saloon owner and all, eschews the derringer in favor of the Banker’s Special. This is a bit odd as Colt’s Banker’s Special didn’t appear until 1926. Still, perhaps Hall used it as a generic term for any very short-barreled handgun. Gamblers liked them – Luke Short had a special snub-nosed Colt .45 with a very short barrel.

High DQ

The early death of Abe McQuown out at San Pablo, probably murdered by Morgan to protect Blaisedell, is perhaps a dramatic weakness. The film, which reserves McQuown’s demise for a showdown in Warlock, is a more classic Western trope. While Abe’s henchman Cade survives and presents the necessary threat, it is not quite the same thing.

While the homoerotic subtext of the Blaisedell/Morgan relationship is less pronounced in the book than in the film, it is still very clear that they are more than close friends. Hall says of Morgan that “His friendship for Clay had become all that there was.” To the point where the ending, when Morgan does everything possible to be “posted” by Blaisedell, i.e. run out of town, and he eventually lays down his life to this end, seems bizarre at best. It’s a curious bond the men have, far stronger than the male friendship we are used to in Westerns, and is not easy to understand.

I wonder too if Oakley Hall had not seen The Tin Star, Paramount’s Western of the year before Warlock was published, because there are a couple of passages where Blaisedell seems to mentor Deputy Gannon, teaching him how to draw and how to shoot just as Morg Hickman had to the young Sheriff Ben Owens in that movie. Of course, the fact that The Tin Star’s Hickman was played by Henry Fonda may have contributed to that impression, whereas Hall was not to know that Fonda would be Blaisedell in the film version of his book.

Similarities

The language of the book is saltier than in the movie, but then what you could get away with in a book for adults in 1958 was more than you could on the screen, 50s Hollywood bourgeois values and self-censorship being what they were.

The whole Army/miners clash, which dominates the last part of the novel and which simply doesn’t appear in the film, is very well done. I think Warlock the book would make an excellent Deadwood-style TV series these days, which would give scope for a full treatment of the themes of the book, as well as some very strong characters. And by the way, Ian McShane would make a great Morgan. But having canceled Deadwood so peremptorily, HBO probably won’t want to do that. Come on, Netflix, get busy!

An afterword, a letter from Goodpasture to his grandson dated 1924, ties up some loose ends for us and tells us what happened to certain key characters. Dr. Wagner and Jessie go to Nome (as Wyatt and Sadie Earp did). Other happenings I shall not reveal!

It’s a fine book, a, excellent Western novel and an excellent American novel (no wonder it was Pulitzer-shortlisted) because it deals with the myth of the American frontier in a classic way.

At one point Goodpasture reads a pulp dime-novel account of the events he has been writing about in his journal and is disappointed, even angry:

"Will not this cheap and fabulous account in this poor excuse for a magazine become, on its terms, a version much more acceptable than ours, the true one? It is a curious thought; how much do these legends, as they outstrip and supersede the originals, rest upon Truth, and how much upon some dark and impenetrable design within Man himself?"

There Goodpasture, and Hall, of course, encapsulate the myth of the Wild West, a world where the fiction has almost become the fact. What people ‘know’ about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is far more deeply-rooted and widespread than what actually happened. Luckily.

 

 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Billy the Kid in Santa Fe (PRC, 1941)


Bob is Billy for the last time




 
 
Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, released in July 1941, was the last of the six B-Westerns in which Bob Steele played the outlaw usually called William Bonney. Buster Crabbe would take over afterwards. They were Producers Releasing Corporation pictures. PRC, which lasted from 1939-47, churned out low-budget second features for cheaper theaters. Like Monogram, though, PRC was not at the very bottom of the food chain on Poverty Row; it not only created and released its own products, it even had its own studio facilities (other Poverty Row outfits rented space).

Sigmund Neufeld was the producer. He was responsible for over a hundred B-movies, often Westerns, many, like Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, directed by his brother Sam Newfield. Newfield was a real journeyman director, kicking out Westerns at a rate of knots from Undercover Men in 1934 to Wolf Dog (with Jim Davis) in 1958.

Sam Newfield with Bernadette O'Farrell (Maid Marian in the TV Robin Hood)

Bob Steele was the son of actor/director/writer RN Bradbury, a stalwart of Monogram. Pa Bradbury had used Bob and his twin brother Bill as juvenile leads right back in 1920 in the silent movie The Adventures of Bob and Bill.

Bob with his dad

In 1927 Bob was hired by production company Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) to star in a series of Westerns (they gave him the name Bob Steele). Right through into the 1940s he made Westerns for pretty well every minor studio there was, including some Three Mesquiteers pictures at Republic. Try other Billy pictures such as Billy the Kid in Texas or Billy the Kid's Gun Justice. He’d been at high school with John Wayne and they remained pals and you can see Bob in the likes of Rio Bravo or The Comancheros. His short stature and craggy face are immediately recognizable in 300 Westerns, over a 50-year career (his last appearance was 1971).

Bob was slightly anno domini to be playing the Kid but never mind

Second-billed, and mentioned on the title screen, is Al ‘Fuzzy’ St John, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s nephew, who provided the comic relief. He’d actually been in Arbuckle’s 1918 Western Out West. In the sound era he specialized in the scruffy old-timer sidekick part. Oddly, he was the main box-office draw of these pictures in Europe.

An interesting photo of Al St John (right) with his uncle Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Buster Keaton on the other side

The third member of the party (there were often three, the hero, an old-timer and a handsome one to romance the dames) was Rex Lease. Like Steele, Lease got work at FBO in the 20s but his first Westerns were for MGM at the end of the decade, on the cusp of the talkie era. In 1936 he was Hoot Gibson's brother in Cavalcade of the West; he played the Pecos Kid in Tim McCoy's Lightnin' Bill Carson; and he worked in a couple of Tom Tyler oaters, Ridin' On and Fast Bullets. You can watch him in Custer's Last Stand (1936 again, a busy year for Rex) or The Ghost Rider the year before. Rex's finale as a star had him teaming up with Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. in The Silver Trail in 1937. By the early 40s he was taking support roles, often being either the pardner or the nemesis of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.

Rex was a bit of a smoothie

In the opening scene Billy, in Carlton City, is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Now, no surprise here, you may think. Bonney was indeed sentenced to death for murder. But of course in these early Billy the Kid films, Billy was an out-and-out goody, solving crimes, protecting the weak and bringing justice to all. He couldn’t possibly have done that murder. He was obviously framed.

Yes, and we see the dark villains who did it, perjuring themselves while giving testimony under oath. The blackguards. They are Karl Hackett, Charles King, Frank Ellis and Kenne Duncan, regulars all of B-Westerns of the time.

The crooked sheriff (Hal Price, I always thought he deserved the middle initial F) cooks up a scheme whereby he saws his own jail bars to allow the Billy to escape. “I know you’re innocent,” he says. Actually, he has his deputies hidden outside with Winchesters, ready to shoot Bonney down the moment he steps out the door. Luckily, Fuzzy and Rex are there and they make short work of the would-be assassins.

The poster was the nearest they got to color

The trio set off for Santa Fe because one of the perjurers, gambler Texas Joe (Dave O’Brien) has gone there and he could give them a clue. They drive off some rustlers but are themselves taken for rustlers by local ranchers and taken to the boss rancher, Pat Walker. Wouldn’t you just know it? Pat Walker knew Billy as a boy. She releases the friends. Yes, she. Pat is a rootin’ tootin’ lady rancher (Marin Sais, Calamity Jane in Deadwood Dick the year before).

She hires Billy and his pals to clean up Santa Fe. There follows an amazing amount of action and plot (the whole thing is only 61 minutes) as Texas Joe is hanged by a posse and they discover that Silent Don (Dennis Moore) is actually Joe’s brother, and… Oh well, never mind.

Fuzzy constitutes himself a judge and his pals a jury and they acquit the goodies of all charges, ha ha.

The whole thing is full of gusto and does not take itself seriously for one moment. The print quality is pretty poor on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime where I watched it but it’s three quarters of a century old after all. You have to be quite into these old B-Westerns to enjoy this one but if you are, you’ll have fun.