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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (First Artists/National General, 1972)

What a nasty man Bean was


"Maybe this wasn't the way it was...it's the way it should have been," says an opening title of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Uh-oh.
Despite starring Paul Newman and being directed by John Huston, this picture was only average. After playing Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy (he would later do Buffalo Bill), Newman went for another mythic Western role, this time that of the criminal ‘judge’ who described himself as the only law west of the Pecos, Phantly Roy Bean Jr (c 1825 – 1903).
Actually, Bean looked more like John Huston that he did Paul Newman. Never mind. Huston in fact appears in a bit part, as a wild mountain man, overacts in the dark for three minutes and then disappears. He was always good for a laugh.
Bean and his equally disreputable brother Sam fled from Chihuahua after killing a Mexican. He escaped from a prison in California and set up a saloon. He was nearly hanged by some Mexican friends of a man he had killed and was left with a crooked neck and rope burn (in the movie he gets this in Vinegaroon and it wears off after the first reel – well, you couldn’t expect Newman to act skew-necked all the way through). He smuggled cotton to British ships for the South in the war and ended up in a tent city he named Vinegaroon (welcoming name) on the Pecos river. He was in fact a properly-authorized justice of the peace, not self-appointed as many think.
He moved his saloon/courthouse a couple of times, finally squatting in a new place he named Langtry, after Lily, who didn’t resemble Ava Gardner much, but again, never mind.

Still, enough of the real-life Bean and his cinematic portrayals. We don’t watch Westerns for historical accuracy.

Dramatically, it’s quite hard to make a man who casually hangs people when drunk all that sympathetic. This version is played for laughs although some of these laughs are in bad taste and some fall flat. The ‘humor’ when Anthony Perkins narrates, for example, and says he then died of dysentery, is singularly unfunny.
There’s an appalling song crooned by Andy Williams which was clearly modeled on the ‘Raindrops’ sequence which almost single-handedly sank Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s awful.
Jacqueline Bisset is Bean’s daughter Rose but her accent slips and is often more Weybridge, Surrey than Tex/Mex border. Stacey Keach as albino Bad Bob is totally over the top but fun. He gets a hole in him copied by The Quick and the Dead team.
Some of the Richard Moore photography is quite nice, although a lot is too dark to make out what's going on. Some of the Maurice Jarre music is irritatingly ‘comic’. At 121 minutes, the movie is too long.
I felt sorry for the poor tame bear.

The film's alright, you know. It has its moments. If you like burlesque. It has a kind of Götterdämmerung ending in fire and flames. See it, yes. But The Westerner in 1940 was better and Brennan’s Bean masterly. Newman’s OK, I guess, but…

Western TV shows

Jude Harvey has contacted me from the UK and asked what boxed set of TV Western shows on DVD she should buy. She was hovering between The High Chaparral and Bonanza.
Now, Ms. Harvey is female and doubtless she and her sisters fought bitterly over who was the most handsome of the Ponderosa brothers. One of them may have even gone for Hoss, who knows. Hell, maybe they went for Lorne Greene. But we boys, well, we didn’t really go for Bonanza. Too much of a Western soap.
Of course, the classiest and most seminal of the TV Westerns was undoubtedly Gunsmoke. That is clear. Excellent scripts, fine acting, quality directing. They were very good, certainly the best of the many, many series. They are definitely worth reviewing today and worth a purchase, Jude.
Jude is English and so probably didn’t get all the series on the jolly old BBC. But a good number did get over there. I am far too gallant to reveal to the millions of readers of this blog how old Jude is but let me just say that she, ahem, is not in the first flower of youth. I know this because she goes right back to the first screening of Kit Carson  (that’s too far back even for Jeff) and she used (I hope I am not giving away her innermost secrets here) to play with her brother and sister in the yard with their school 'macs' tied over their shoulders as Mystery Rider capes. Maybe she could relive happy times and buy a set of Kit Carson.
Tales of Wells Fargo might be a good bet. Watch Dale giving that trademark flip of a wave. Cheyenne was good - Clint was so brave and silent - and Have Gun - Will Travel exciting as people wired to Paladin in San Francisco so that he could come and right wrongs. Wagon Train, ho hum. It moved along at the pace of a wagon with Ward Bond or John McIntire bossing everyone about. But there were some good episodes. Rawhide (again, better for sisters) but that damn cattle drive never ended. Boots & Saddles was the opposite; maybe too boy-friendly.
Which would you choose?
The greatest of them all, of course, was The Lone Ranger. But I fear that it was a bit juvenile for Jude and not quite in the Bonanza class.

Wanted Dead or Alive was pretty cool. And Jude would like Steve McQueen, I guess. I used to like his cut-down Winchester.

Maybe Laramie – see earlier posts and earnest discussion.

Even if we did have to put up with Hoagy sitting on the corral fence every episode and singing a damn song. Still, he only lasted one series.

Modern stuff like Alias Smith & Jones or The Magnificent Seven are, I think, not in the running. Certainly not Deadwood. You need HBO for that. (It would make a great DVD purchase).

All I can say, Jude, is go with your heart. Where were the happiest hours of your Western watching spent? On the couch in front of an old pre-color TV (telly, the Brits say) showing Bonanza? Swooning over Little Joe?
Or yes, go back to Arizona in those far 1870s. Rejoin the Cannon family building a cattle empire in the teeth of resistance from Mexicans and Apaches. Thrilling stuff. Have a look, Jude, at http://www.thehighchaparral.com/ Whichever you choose, amazon shareholders will be happy and so will you.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Apache Blood (Key International Pictures, 1975) aka A Man Called She, Pursuit

The Worst Western Ever Made?

I said yesterday that there was one Western which really was total trash, indeed an offense to the genre.

I have reviewed well over 1000 Westerns in this blog, the good, the bad and the downright lousy. And there are hundreds still to come. I have reviewed junk spaghettis, Eurocrap 'westerns', serials, ultra-low-budget movies, one-reeler silents and made-for-TV dross designed to fill up the schedules. They all have something. There's a saving grace. The spaghettis had shocking color, lousy plots, Z-grade dialogue, appalling music and so on but maybe they had Lee Van Cleef in the lead or one good shot of a horseman on a skyline. Something.

When I review Westerns, I give them a rating, from 1 to 5 revolvers. Mighty epics and towering leaders of the genre get 5. The Searchers, High Noon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that kind of thing.

Outstandingly good films get 4: The Bravados, Winchester '73, Pale Rider.

Worthy efforts, well worth a watch or a DVD purchase, get 3. Joel McCrea pictures like The Lone Hand, a good Randolph Scott Western like Abilene Town or a thoughtful oater such as Gunman's Walk.

As for 2-revolver pictures, they are maybe worth seeing by Western fans or have good features - maybe a fine actor or photographer, maybe a well-written screenplay that kind of thing, but they aren't top-drawer stuff that you need to have with you on a desert island. Some of them have fatal weaknesses. Or maybe I just don't really like them! El Dorado, Drum Beat, Vera Cruz.

But everything gets at least one. After all, they have made a Western. That deserves a reward on its own. They have added to the genre. Maybe they tried hard or maybe they were just exploiting. It doesn't matter. A Western gets 1 revolver. All those spaghettis, Johnny Mack Brown series Westerns, total turkeys like How The West Was Won or The Rare Breed. Anything.

Well, almost anything. Apache Blood, aka A Man Called She and Pursuit, is an extra-low-budget, very badly directed, boring film with rotten actors. It is almost a silent movie because there is little or no dialogue. Perhaps it was shot in VHS or perhaps the very low quality of the print I saw was a result of VHS being transferred to DVD. Anyway, it’s lousy.

The music is annoying.

A fat scout (Dewitt Lee) is pursued by a thin Apache (Ray Danton) and hobbles across Arizona for 89 interminable minutes. Danton is called Yellow Shirt because he wears a yellow shirt (but no trousers). There is a really stupid ending, then we are obliged to watch ‘highlights’ all over again in flashback.

It’s an ultra-low-quality exploitation flick with art pretensions that it dismally fails to live up to. It is the only film I have ever reviewed to receive no ‘revolvers' at all. You might think, well, if it’s that bad, I might watch it, for fun. Take my advice. Don’t. Just trust me. That way you won’t be mentally scarred.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Day of the Evil Gun (MGM, 1968)

Day of the Weak Film


This is the last Western to be reviewed of the ones I saw on my vacation. Only The Spikes Gang was any good of the selection I had. I was unlucky. Still, there's no such thing as a really bad Western. There's no Western that it is totally unwatchable, that has no saving graces.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one. I'll write about it (if I can bring myself to) another time.

Anyway, to Day of the Evil Gun (lordy, what a title).

What is it about made-for-TV movies? How is it that you can tell, right away? But you can. Maybe it’s something to do with the cameras and lenses. It’s not to do with budget or stars. You can have a low-budget studio oater with unknown stars which is clearly a cinematic motion picture, and bloated productions with big names that are obviously TV ones. Odd.

Many of them are not very good. This one, for example. It is pretty tedious. Thank goodness it had Glenn Ford in it; otherwise it would have been a total clunker. But Glenn was fine, always, in everything. He lifted a mediocre picture and saved a bad one.

There have been lots of ‘Day’ Westerns. Day of Anger, Day of the Bad Man, Day of the Outlaw, A Day of Fury, and so on. Studios seem to like Days.

This one is about two guys who team up to rescue women taken by Apaches (it’s called Le Jour des Apaches in French). It's a plot that goes right back to Fennimore Cooper. But The Searchers it ain’t. And you can’t really tell which of the guys is the goodie and which the baddie, except that Glenn’s one of them so it’s a bit obvious. But you can’t tell from their actions. Arthur Kennedy is the other. My, how he could overact.

It was filmed in Mexico by an undistinguished photographer, W Wallace Kelley. Jeff Alexander did the music so it ought to have been alright. But it wasn’t. The dialogue was by Charles Marquis Warren so ought to have been at least passable. But it is wooden and ponderous. The acting, with the exception of Ford (even he looks overweight and tired) and John Anderson as a corrupt army officer, is universally dull. Dean Jagger, Harry Dean Stanton, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, great Western character actors but this time all poor. Perhaps with the script they had and the director, they couldn’t overcome those handicaps.

The director was Jerry Thorpe. Who? I hear you cry. Well, quite. He was the director of a number of TV episodes of We Love Lucy. A real qualification for directing an exciting Western, huh?

There are scenes when they ‘ride’ fake horses. I do hate that. Kennedy’s teeth are equally and equally obviously false. Perhaps it’s the teeth that lead him to call them aparches.

The women are just ciphers.

The hats are bad.

You’ll be getting the idea by now. This movie is NBG.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Johnny Guitar (Republic, 1954)

This review has been revised and updated.
Please click here for the new one.


The Virginian (Paramount, 1946)

If you want to call me that, smile!


The Virginian’ by Owen Wister is such a mighty novel, so seminal to the whole Western myth, and, by the way, so much fun, that it was inevitable that the studios would turn their hand to it, as they did to versions of other fine Western novels, such as Riders of the Purple Sage, True Grit, Shane, and so on. The very first film version, in 1914, was the making of Jesse Lasky and Cecil B DeMille - i.e. Paramount. There was another, bigger and longer silent version in 1923 too.

But once such a fine film as The Virginian had come out as an early talkie in 1929 starring Gary Cooper, almost any remake Paramount decided on after the war was pretty well bound to be a pale imitation. The 1929 picture was funny and Moving, and young Coop was ideal as the Virginian, and the result was superb. All the 1946 version added, really, was color. And a pretty garish color at that.

The ’46 one lacked all the pzazz of the book and the Cooper version. It became just any old cowboy film. It's disappointing.

I very much like Joel McCrea as a Western lead. He was quietly authoritative and was able to transmit courage and decency with minimal actions and words. He was even outstanding in certain roles. Watch him for example in Buffalo Bill, Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Wichita, The Gunfight at Dodge City or - especially - Four Faces West. Very fine. But he wasn’t Coop. And he wasn’t the Virginian, the man able to hang his pard Steve, say with wry humor and menace, “If you want to call me that, smile!” and woo and win Molly as well. There’s steel in the Virginian but a twinkle in his eye. Coop caught it. McCrea didn’t.

Not Coop

Part of the problem, of course, was the rather wooden script of the post-war version. Howard Estabrook and a team of thousands worked up the Wister novel and play in 1929 but this one wasn’t half as good. Then again Victor Fleming directed Cooper, while in ’46 Stuart Gilmore wore the jodhpurs. Gilmore had the huge advantage of having been born in Tombstone (forget silver spoons, that’s like being born with a silver Colt in your holster) but he didn’t direct much - he was an editor really - apart from a couple of TV episodes of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. What a waste.

Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, "the film is as formal and perfunctory as the performance of a rite" and added that "the pace is pedestrian and the actors are limited largely to talking, which is far from Western style. Except for the use of Technicolor, which adds very little, after all, since most of the film was plainly photographed on artificial sets, this might be an unboasted effort of a low-budget studio troupe." Ouch. True, though.

Brian Donlevy was hopeless as Trampas. He looked ridiculous in his black gunfighter rig. He was slightly overweight. He made large numbers of Westerns, many no good, and was better in cops & robbers stuff. He was fine as Kent in Destry Rides Again, I must admit, in fact alright whenever he was a saloon heavy, but he was an unconvincing Grat Dalton and a lousy Trampas. He had, though, supported McCrea in Barbary Coast, Union Pacific and The Great Man's Lady, so they were certainly used to working together.

The worst ever Trampas

The other actors (with the possible exception of Tom Tully as Nebraska) just say the lines.

Barbara Britton is Molly

There’s lots of back-projection and studio work. It’s quite squeamish about the lynching. Of course, you have to be, and the one major weakness of the book is that try as you might, you can’t have your hero lynch someone and remain sympathetic (although Jones and Duvall came close in Lonesome Dove).
They all wear mid-1940s pants.

He smiles

I'm afraid this one comes quite low down the list of JoelMcCrea Westerns.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Spikes Gang (UA, 1974)

This post has been revised and updated.
Please click here for the new one.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cimarron (MGM, 1960)

Western soap

I couldn’t give this remake only a one-revolver rating out of five. Every pulp Western gets one, even those trash spaghettis and Eurocrap like Bandidas. After all, this one was directed by Anthony Mann, photographed by Robert Surtees and starred Glenn Ford. Now that’s a pretty damn good line-up.

But it only gets two Colts. That’s because it isn’t a Western at all, really, but fast degenerates into one of those dreary ‘family sagas’ Americans are so fond of. It shares with the original 1931 talkie Cimarron (and with William S Hart’s fine 1925 Tumbleweeds) the Oklahoma land rush theme, and MGM’s 1960 version was based theoretically on the same (cheesy) Edna Ferber novel. But it’s a very different treatment indeed.

The 1931 Cimarron was the first Western to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. That was never going to happen this time.

The Arnold Schulman screenplay is turgid and the film slow-paced and too long at 140 minutes. The Franz Waxman score is ponderous and sloppy by turns. Although this was a Surtees picture, the photography, except for the land rush scene, is not up to his usual high standard (compare wonderful work like Escape from Fort Bravo) and there are too many scenes in the studio forced on Mann, death for an epic Western.

On the other side of the coin, Glenn is in it and even in poor films he was splendid. In fact he lifted them and gave them quality. He is partnered by the distinctly average Austrian Maria Schell (The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper), and better Anne Baxter (Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck) as bordello owner Dixie Lee, who completes the love triangle. Edgar Buchanan, as the judge, is wonderful, obviously, not so broadly comic this time, but rather touching. We have the excellent Harry Morgan as Jesse the printer and a more portly Mercedes McCambridge (so splendidly malevolent in Johnny Guitar) as the doughty midwife Mrs. Wyatt. Later on we have Robert Keith, Royal Dano and LQ Jones in various parts. So the support acting is there. If only the script had been better and direction tighter. Brian Garfield, on the button as (nearly) always, says, “Those who believe in an Anthony Mann oeuvre will have a difficult time finding a place in it for this dispirited elephantine sprawl.”

Probably in a last-ditch effort to combat TV, studios were throwing budgetary cares to the wind, drafting casts of thousands and trying to give the public what TV couldn't - big-screen spectacle. Anthony Mann had moved from noirs to Westerns in 1950 and now in 1960 moved from Westerns to epics (El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire were to come). Perhaps MGM thought that a color remake of a box-office and critical hit like Cimarron was a sure-fire hit, and Mann a banker's bet.

But Mann, who longed to do it all on location, quarreled with producer Edmund Grainger, who wanted as much as possible shot on sound stages, and Mann flounced off. More obedient Charles Walters, famous for Easter Parade,  finished the film, uncredited.

There are some fine Surtees-shot scenes here and there and the land rush is pretty spectacular, in widescreen. The film is definitely worth seeing. It has occasional 'a-man’s-gotta-do' grit and the Glenn Ford character is wild and footloose to the end. The book was by a woman about a woman but Mann predictably tried to shift the emphasis. 

There’s a worthy dig at anti-semitism and a lynched Indian to add darkness; racism is quite a strong current running through it - it harks back to Mann's Devil's Doorway in that respect.

The actors ‘age’ courtesy of the make-up department. In 1960 they hadn’t reached the pinnacle of perfection as far as this was concerned and so we just get Maria in a white wig.

The movie has its moments and the early part especially is OK, but it goes downhill after the land rush. Occasional Mannish touches like Yancey capturing the bank robbers give us a glimpse of what might have been. It’s just a pity that it slowly subsides into a soap opera.

The least of Anthony Mann's Westerns, it was in fact hardly a Western at all.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Bandidas (Europacorp, 2005)



Howdy, pards.

I've been off on holiday in an internet-free zone (they still exist) and so have not posted anything of late.

But I used my vacation profitably, viewing several Westerns. Unfortunately, most were pretty poor, but that's life. I'll post reviews of them over the next few days.

Today I am dismissive about a Euro-Western of 2005, Bandidas.

Following on from United Artists’ Viva Maria! of 1965, forty years on we get Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek as the new Bardot/Moreau Mex bandidas in a trashy buddy-movie supposedly set in 1880s Mexico. The only connection it has with Mexico or Mexican history is that it was filmed – and rather indifferently photographed – there. The protagonists wear utterly absurdly sexy costumes designed to show every curve and bulge, which, yes, OK, appeals to male audiences (inc yrs truly) but is of course laughable for the period. The dialogue is also maddeningly modern and their behavior equally ridiculous. Still, the film makes no pretense of being an authentic Western. It’s a 2000s sub-feminist sub-Western which allows young women to strut about in pants and gunbelts out-macho-ing the men. They seem to have used 90s junk movies such as The Quick and the Dead or Bad Girls as examples and Sharon Stone as role model.

Like Viva Maria! it is played for laughs, though there aren’t any. One reason is the dire writing (by Parisian Luc Besson, triumphant scenarist of the trash Taxi movies, and Robert Mark Kamen, no idea where he comes from, who had worked on epics such as the Karate Kid series and Lethal Weapon 3). Another reason is that the direction is leaden. There were two directors, both Norwegian: Joachim Rønnning, whose second film this was, and fellow auteur Espen Sandberg, ditto. That must have been a real recipe for authenticity and thrilling action. Norwegian Westerns aren’t really my thing.

The acting is caricature and cartoonish. Nobody could say the lines Cruz and Hayek have to recite and sound convincing but they don’t even try. The only fun part was Dwight Yoakam, excellent as the totally evil American banker-gunman Jackson, with a derringer.

Also, the gauche detective Steve Kahn is a dead ringer for Michael Palin.

The movie was set for a big US-wide release but then pulled and came out late as an exclusive Cinema Latino Theatres chain release. No wonder. Probably no one went to see it, and they didn’t miss anything. Any Mexicans seeing it must have boggled at the portrayal of Mexico in the 1880s. Europeans produced many of these ‘Westerns’ over the years, many an attempt at comedy and many shockingly bad. It’s a wonder they get budget to make them. This one must have lost euros hand over fist.

It is to the Western what the Eurovision Song Contest is to popular song.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Laramie (TV)

Your gray eyes shift warily

And before leaving the subject of Laramie in this blog, I feel we need an earnest discussion of the merits of NBC’s late 50s/early 60s TV series, Laramie. The world needs another discussion of 50s/60s Western TV shows.

Your blogger Jeff was a mere stripling when the series was first aired. To be brutally blunt, though he was an ardent fan of all TV Westerns (and as you know, there were many) he didn’t enthuse that much over Laramie. It was too talky. They talked too much. And while I might have appreciated it now, at that time, callow youth that I was, I did not care one bit for the part in every episode (in the first series anyway; luckily, his contract was not renewed) when Hoagy Carmichael sat on the corral fence and sang another damned song.

Talk about slowing down the action.

You will remember the story: when their father is brutally slain, the Sherman brothers, Slim (John Smith, real name Robert Van Orden, died in 1995 of cirrhosis of the liver) and younger brother Andy (Robert Crawford Jr., born 1944, brother of The Rifleman's son Johnny Crawford), are left to run the ranch. One day a drifter arrives, Jess Harper (Robert Fuller, real name Buddy Lee, born in NY, 1933, later to star in Wagon Train) and he becomes a sort of honorary brother. They make the ranch a stagecoach station.

Various adventures, more or less plausible, ensued. The series ran for four seasons, first in black & white, then color (tho’ Jeff only ever saw it in b&w as we didn’t have a color TV then) from 1959 to 1963 when it was finally axed for low ratings.

Every episode began with the lyrical (hem hem) Laramie theme by Cyril J. Mockridge, deathless lyrics by Bill Olafson:

Stranger ride carefully
Stay 'way from your gun.
There's danger in Laramie
For men on the run.

Your gray eyes shift warily,
There's no room here for you.
Just stay wise, this is Laramie
Keep traveling on through.

Faster guns than yours have made the foolish play
The next time that you draw may be the last.
We're a peaceful town; we aim to stay that way.
Our justice isn't fancy but it's fast.

Schubert would have been proud.

(Actually, did you know that Schubert was a Wild West fan and asked for The Last of the Mohicans to be read to him on his death bed? Not a lot of people know that. Mind, if I had that book read to me on my death bed, it would finish me off. Boy, is it long and boring).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Laramie.

Well, in later series, people just kind of disappeared. Hoagy went off to St Louis to take Andy to boarding school. A sheriff and an orphan appeared (Stuart Randall and Mike Williams, respectively) and also a sensible housekeeper, Daisy (Spring Byington), to bring a feminine touch to an otherwise rather testosterone-ridden farm (and what's wrong with that, I might ask).

Slim and Jess remained, however, along with their mounts Alamo and Hoot. One’s sisters divided up tribally into Slim fans and Jess groupies. It did till Bonanza came along and they could really take sides.

The series was big news, though, and attracted many famous guest stars, including Lee van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Claude Akins, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, Dan Duryea, Ben Johnson, LQ Jones, John McIntire, Jock Mahoney and Robert J Wilke, a veritable Gotha of Western character actors.

The German title of the series was Am Fuß der blauen Berge. Thought you needed to know that.
All in all, though, it wasn’t a patch on Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel, Cheyenne or Tales of Wells Fargo. Still, it didn’t stop me following it. And I’d watch it again today, all 124 episodes, if it came on TV again in France, where I live. Pigs might fly. Maybe it’s all available on DVD.