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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Universal, 1969)

60s California liberal rides the trail

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was Robert Redford’s first Western film and he made Willie Boy later the same year. He didn’t make a great thing of the genre, only doing three real Westerns in all, though there was quality there: Jeremiah Johnson in 1972 was followed by The Electric Horseman in 1979 and The Horse Whisperer in 1998, all good movies in their way, if not always exactly Westerns.
Willie Boy wasn’t really a good movie, however. It’s a fashionable 60s twentieth-century Western directed by then unblacklisted Abraham Polonsky in which clean-cut Robert Redford (rather presumptuously playing a ‘Sheriff Cooper’, known as Coop) pursues tough Paiute Robert Blake from 1909 California into Nevada. It’s “based on” a true story.

It’s not that bad. It’s alright. The California scenery is shot in good color.
Did Willie Boy kidnap Katharine Ross (half a ton of make-up on her and a jet-black wig) and did he kill her, or did she go willingly and did she commit suicide so as not to slow him down and cause his capture? We are never told. And actually, to be honest, we don’t care that much because to care you have to be engaged with the characters and we aren’t. The screenplay (also Polonsky) and acting are too weak.
Make-up by the kilo
Blake is clearly an honors graduate of the Charles Bronson School of Acting. None of the others is very good either and even Redford seems to be going through the motions. Sundance fans hoping for a lively performance were to be sorely disappointed.
Sundance without the spark
Dean Jagger is in it, as the sheriff, and B-Western player Barry Sullivan, The Tall Man and lead with Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns, appears too, as a horrible Indian fighter. Also from Forty Guns is Robert Dix, son of Richard.

It’s really a straight chase Western as liberal Deputy Redford with a posse of dyed-in-the-wool rednecks pursues Blake through rugged terrain (Joshua Tree, Whitewater) and you know the deputy’s going to catch up with Willie - and though I won’t spoil the ending for you, I have to say I saw it coming.

There are political machinations. There’s also a sub-feminist sub-plot in which Redford dallies daringly with a feisty missionary doctor who seems disgusted with herself that she should like being in bed with a conservative authority-figure, even though most women would be pleased to be in bed with Robert Redford, I suppose.
Sub-feminist sub-plot
The movie is basically a Redfordesque liberal pro-Indian anti-redneck treatise but that’s OK. After all, he was right. California had a particularly shameful record of treatment of Indians, even by Western standards.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is mediocre but worth a watch if you like pursuit Westerns, which I do. I’ve seen worse.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

No Name on the Bullet (Universal, 1959)

Audie as killer

Jack Arnold (no relation to Jeff, sadly) was a director known for work of the caliber of It Came From Outer Space or The Incredible Shrinking Man and only did six Westerns. The IMDb bio says "Jack Arnold reigns supreme as one of the great directors of 1950s science-fiction features. His films are distinguished by moody black and white cinematography, solid acting, smart, thoughtful scripts, snappy pacing, a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm for the genre and plenty of eerie atmosphere." He brought some of those skills to this, his best Western. It was written by Gene Coon (4 Western movies, a lot of TV shows), a script full of terse one-liners. It turned out to be one of Audie Murphy's very best Westerns. It verges on a four-revolver rating.
Its great quality is tension. A famous hired killer, John Gant (Murphy) comes to Lordsburg, NM. Menacing and sinister, a gunslinging angel of death, Gant throws the population into panic. For whom has he come? They all have guilty consciences; they all have enemies.
They are suspicious. Who is the victim?
Audie does ‘sinister’ really well. He is quiet, cultured and polite but, you sense, he is ruthless too. It’s quite an interesting part because he simply has to do nothing, sitting quietly in the center of the town, and of the film, while hell breaks loose around him. Audie may have heeded Glenn Ford's advice when he said, "My idea of good acting is doing nothing well."
He sits. Drinks coffee. Waits.
Gant befriends the town doctor (Charles Drake), whom he always calls Physician (his name is Luke). As the town falls apart and the sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is powerless to stop it, the doc and his dad, the blacksmith (RG Armstrong, excellent as always) stand up for decency and normality. One by one, the townsmen crack: the banker (Whit Bissell), the saloon owner (Simon Scott), the freighter (Karl Swenson), the judge (Edgar Stehli).
Chess with Doc. They discuss the morality of killing.
In 1959 McCarthy and paranoia were fresh in people’s minds and No Name is quite a thoughtful study in crowd hysteria.

It’s a ‘town’ Western, with few location shots (so budget saving), though CinemaScope was used. The nicely photographed opening widescreen arrival of the gunman raises expectations. These town Westerns can be really good, though, if well-constructed, like this one. The small, claustrophobic town can heighten the tension. High Noon is the classic example, of course. This is no High Noon, it's not that good but still... 
Widescreen vista doesn't last
I won’t tell you the ending, although I will say I saw it coming somewhat and so will you.

Audie’s last words are, “Everything comes to a finish.” Yup.

No Name on the Bullet is definitely near the top of the list of Audie Murphy Westerns. It even rivals some of those psychological Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Westerns of the same period. Recommended.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (Universal, 1949)

Another Robin Hoodish Western outlaw

Did Sam Bass (1851 – 1878) ever know Calamity Jane (1852 – 1903)? Probably not, although they were both in Deadwood at one point, so they could have met. Did he and she have a torrid love affair – almost certainly not. Still, never mind, Hollywood must be allowed its latitude and since when was it a Western’s job to recount factual history?
This colorful farrago tells how Bass was forced into becoming a decent bandit (only taking the amount of money honest folk had been cheated out of from the stage strongbox and leaving the rest). It was not his fault. Corrupt townsmen and vicious horse-poisoners absolutely obliged him to hold up trains, stages and banks.

In the 1940s you couldn’t really have out-and-out robbers as heroes. They had to be justified. Usually it was the railroads' fault.

And they ideally had to have two girlfriends, who both love him but he manages to opt for the really true one in the last reel. In this case they are played by Yvonne De Carlo (Calamity) and lovely Dorothy Hart from Gunfighters (Kathy). De Carlo plays her part manfully and was quite glamorous (we never had an ugly Calamity, not till the HBO series Deadwood came along) but la Hart is really rather beautiful.

The interpretation of Calamity Jane is more restrained that it usually was. De Carlo plays it straighter than Jean Parker or Doris Day. De Carlo wasn’t much of an actress, I think, and didn’t suit Westerns (see, for example, Frontier Gal, or indeed any other of the B-Western stuff she was in) but this and maybe Tomahawk are two of her better performances.
 Calamity Jane in fact and fiction
The original title was The Story of Sam Bass and indeed Calamity only appears for about half the movie but I guess De Carlo had more Hollywood pulling power than Howard Duff, who was really a radio, then TV actor (he’d only been in one other Western, Red Canyon, another George Sherman effort, earlier the same year), so the actual title headlined her. And indeed, Howard Duff was mediocre as the hero, although his lack of charisma did, I suppose, at least make him seem more of an ordinary guy overtaken by events. He wears a rather girly shirt for the first reel but happily soon abandons it for more macho wear when he becomes an outlaw.
 Sam Bass in fiction and fact
Young Lloyd Bridges, pre-Little Big Horn and High Noon but already in his eighteenth Western, so quite an old hand, is Sam’s pard. He gets tempted into wickedness and lives by the sword, or the pistol anyway. So you can guess what fate awaits him.
Lloyd on the downward slope
Willard Parker is good as the sheriff. Milburn Stone (Doc from Gunsmoke) is in it and I spotted a few recognizable faces among the uncredited bit-parts/extras such as Harry Harvey and Russ Conway.

The movie was filmed in Utah and there are some nice location shots photographed by Irving Glassberg. They drive cattle from Texas to Abilene in the story and Kansas does look a trifle on the mountainous side. I mean have you ever been to Kansas?

There’s quite a lot of horse racing. In fact that’s what gets Sam into trouble in the first place and there’s a moralistic tone to the movie: gamble and you will fall into sin.

The writing (Maurice Geraghty and Melvin Levy, aided by the director George Sherman) is quite restrained and economical, though there are weaknesses: when Calamity breaks Sam out of jail she tells him to “Head for the hills. I’ll find you there.” Sigh.
Kathy knows she's got him. So does Calamity.
Sam Bass appeared in Westerns, though not perhaps as much as other outlaws did. He was the central character in the silent The First Degree in 1923, played by Frank Mayo, and in the Henry Hathaway/Randolph Scott Zane Grey talkie Wild Horse Mesa in 1932, he was played by Charley Grapewin. He featured in Badman’s Territory (RKO, 1946), played by Nestor Paiva, but then pretty well every Western outlaw under the sun was in that one. Jim Davis had a small part as Bass in Republic's The Fabulous Texan in 1947 and William Bishop was Sam in the 1951 version of Columbia's The Texas Rangers. He appeared in various Western TV shows including, obviously, Stories of the Century where this time Jim Davis wasn't Bass (Don Haggerty was) but instead the railroad detective who tracks hims down.

It is a Universal 1940s A-Western; we have to give it that. But in a year where I can think of at least a dozen excellent oaters (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Colorado Territory, The Walking Hills, Streets of Laredo, etc.) this one doesn’t even come near.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

White Feather (Fox, 1955)

It moves at a stately pace

This movie is best viewed as the last part of a Delmer Daves trilogy. In 1950 Daves directed, for Twentieth Century-Fox, a very good, and seminal film, Broken Arrow, starring James Stewart. In 1954 he both directed and wrote another 'Indian' picture, Drum Beat, this time with Alan Ladd, over at Warners. In 1955, back at Fox, he wrote and was scheduled to direct a third, White Feather. In fact, he left Fox just at that time and direction fell into the hands of replacement Robert D Webb. Still, White Feather is recognizably a Daves project and it plays further variations on a Daves theme. In some ways, Delmer Daves made Broken Arrow three times.

Delmer Daves (1904 - 1977)

The titles say something, in fact, because a broken arrow, Cochise's, was a sign of peace after war, while drum beats, those of the Modocs, are a sign of looming conflict. A white feather is more ambiguous symbol: it was not supposed to be the kind of plume sent by base people to presumed cowards in early twentieth-century British melodramas. The white feather concerned here, attached to a dagger and thrown at the feet of an enemy, is a gauntlet-like challenge to fight from a Cheyenne brave. Will it be taken up or not?
Widescreen color by Lucien Ballard - impressive
The main attraction of this picture is the budget. Fox did not stint. It is big in every way. There are huge widescreen vistas of ‘Wyoming’ (Durango) beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard, no less. And there are vast numbers of extras, both Indians and US Cavalry. It’s really quite impressive.

Sadly, though, it’s rather ponderous and lumbering as a film. At 102 minutes it is far from fast-paced and you feel that it needed snappier editing. We have to put this down to the director.

Robert D Webb was not in the front rank of Western movie directors. He had served as assistant director on Fox’s Jesse James in 1939, and White Feather was his first Western in the director’s chair. The following year, 1956, he directed The Proud Ones with Robert Ryan and Virginia Mayo (in which Ryan was splendid), and Love Me Tender, the rather poor Elvis Presley film purportedly about the Reno brothers but not really. In 1960 he helmed the so-so Alan Ladd vehicle Guns of the Timberland. He also directed a Rawhide episode and a Daniel Boone one on TV. It isn’t that impressive as a Western CV. It's a pity that Daves wasn't in the chair, although having said that, Drum Beat was pretty ropey.
Robert D Webb: was not Raoul Walsh, I fear
Broken Arrow had a brave hero acting as a go-between for noble Apaches and racist whites, and marrying a fair Indian maid. Drum Beat, on the other hand, had as its hero an Indian fighter and the story was really a regression to the old style of Hollywood Western, with Indians (Modocs this time) as the baddies, and in that picture the hero went for a safe white bride. Still, Daves did try to moderate the anti-Indian sentiment in the latter movie and in both statesmanlike reason is seen to prevail over hot-headedness (on both sides) and violence.

White Feather immediately reminds us of those earlier pictures. For one thing, Sonseeahray is in it: she’s called Appearing Day this time, which is rather poetic (and easier to say and spell). Debra Paget was extraordinarily graceful. She was only 16 when Broken Arrow was filmed and she went on to corner the market in beautiful Indian girls (see The Last Hunt, for example, in which she pipped Anne Bancroft for the part of fair Indian maiden). And not only was the dreaded 'miscegenation' allowed in 1955, Appearing Day didn't have to die. It is noticeable, though, that she has much less make-up than she did in Arrow: she's whiter. So that's OK. 
Debra Paget does her beautiful Indian princess bit again
Daves had spent some time in his youth with the Hopi and Navajo Indians and had a particular affinity for their side of the story, which before the 1950s was rarely told. He also did a lot of research - he said. Broken Arrow is reasonably 'historical', yes, but Drum Beat is, factually, unmitigated tosh, almost offensively so. This one, White Feather, is betwixt and between.
This time it’s not James Stewart or Alan Ladd liaising with the Indians and doing a one-man diplomatic mission, but young and skinny Robert Wagner, as Josh Tanner. Wagner was fresh from his second billing as Spencer Tracy’s son Joe in Broken Lance and a couple of years after White Feather was to be Jesse James in Fox’s remake of that yarn, The True Story of Jesse James (also with Jeffrey Hunter).But he only did four Westerns in total and didn’t seem to be very enamored of the genre. In White Feather he is satisfactory, I guess, no complaints really, though he hardly sets the prairie on fire. You can’t help thinking it would be a different matter with a major Western star leading, Peck, say, or even Widmark.
Jeffrey Hunter good as Little Dog
As far as the Indians go, apart from Debra we first have a rather good Jeffrey Hunter. The following year he was to be the only half-Indian Martin Pawley in The Searchers but here he is Little Dog, the full-blooded son of the Cheyenne chief. His friend is the bellicose American Horse, played by Hugh O’Brian. O’Brian was already a Western vet – this was his eighteenth oater – and that very year he was to start his extraordinarily long run as Wyatt Earp on TV (226 episodes, 1955 – 61). The big chief, Broken Hand, Jeff’s dad, is Eduard Franz. I like Mr. Franz. Though born in Milwaukee, he always retained enough of an accent to play the foreigner or Indian (or maybe he put the accent on). He’d started as Two Moons in Broken Lance and was excellent as Red Cloud in The Indian Fighter. He went on to do a heap of Western TV shows. Iron Eyes Cody is also among the Indians, though uncredited.
Wise old Chief Eduard Franz
Why all these Hollywood white men as Indians? These days we don't do that. Post-Dances With Wolves, especially. Now we take care to have Native Americans playing Native Americans, even if they are rarely if ever members of the actual tribe portrayed. But before we criticize 50s (or present-day) Hollywood too much for this, we should perhaps remember that acting and plays were alien to the Indian tradition. There was no corps of Indian actors waiting in the wings. And, worse, the financers of movies were very unlikely to use unknown 'ethnic' actors in Hollywood films when bankable white actors with known names were available. You can hardly blame Daves.

As for the white parts, well, it’s always nice to see Noah Beery Jr. (just Noah Beery now). He is Lieutenant Ferguson, US Cavalry, and has a small but strong part as the canny and experienced soldier who is often seen quietly and knowingly observing the action. Emile Meyer from Shane is excellently malevolent as the drunken, Indian-hating brute of a store owner/barman. Meyer was another one who always brought color to a minor role. In this movie Meyer completes a trilogy of racist and corrupt storekeeper/sutlers (Will Geer in Arrow, Elisha Cook Jr. in Drum). I don't know what Daves had against storekeepers. Of course, many sutlers were actually corrupt, having purchased their franchises from crooked politicians in Washington and charging high prices to recoup their outlay. And Milburn Stone, Doc from Gunsmoke, is the unpleasant politician commissioner.

Only John Lund as the colonel was a bit bland. Though a popular Fox star, he was only in seven Westerns, where he was often a major or colonel. In White Feather it’s a biggish part and it really needed someone with a bit more weight or Western knowhow, I don’t know, Lloyd Bridges maybe or John Ireland.
Peace conference: left to right, Stone, Franz, Wagner, Lund, Beery
The opening words, spoken by Tanner/Wagner in voiceover, are “What you are about to see actually happened”, a sure sign that we are in for unhistorical melodrama, which is what we get. The voiceover echoes that of James Stewart's Jeffords in Broken Arrow.

The plot, rather curiously, was based on a story by John Prebble, born in Middlesex, England, died in London, the author of a successful book on the Battle of Culloden (where Butcher Cumberland defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie, as doubtless you know). Hardly the author one would expect for a story about the Laramie Treaty and the Indian wars. There we are. He also wrote the screenplay of Zulu. You learn a lot on this blog. It’s all useless knowledge but never mind.

You could say that this film is a kind of prequel to Cheyenne Autumn in the sense that it tells how the Cheyenne agreed to move south and John Ford takes up the story from there.
Bob 'n' Deb
Fort Laramie, far from being the tranquil, open place in a bend of the river, as it is now, is presented as an absolutely enormous adobe structure. Much of the budget must have gone on that. Or maybe it was already there in Durango, left over from a Beau Geste film.

A key scene happens when Broken Hand asks Tanner to talk to Little Dog and bring him round. This talk is set in the lodge of the medicine man and it reprises scenes in Broken Arrow and Drum Beat: in each case the decent white man tries to find words that will show the desirability of peace. Cochise responds with wisdom and reason. Captain Jack answers with hostility. In White Feather, Little Dog is conflicted. On the one hand he respects his father and wants to obey him; on the other, he just cannot meekly accept the annihilation of the Cheyenne way of life. That's where the movie is positioned too, somewhere between Broken Arrow and Drum Beat, and it can't quite make up its mind.

The ending is a bit over the top and finally, saccharine. Tanner tends Little Dog's body for a full three minutes before going off to marry his sister. He lovingly puts the comb he earlier gave Little Dog tenderly in his lifeless hand. These days you'd wonder if there wasn't something homoerotic going on. But of course no one was gay in the 1950s.

A final statement is cruelly ironic on one level: Tanner tells us that old Broken Hand lived to see his grandson enter West Point. So the boy will enter the ranks of those who oppressed his mother's people. Great. I suppose the idea was, though, that he would continue the warrior tradition.

What else have I got to tell you about White Feather? Not much. It’s a worthy effort, quite dignified, a little elegiac but it’s rather too slow and it lumbers across the plains. It's essential viewing, though, as part of the Daves canon.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Last Wagon (Fox, 1956)

One of Widmark's best
After three Westerns in which Richard Widmark had strong though non-lead roles (Yellow Sky, Garden of Evil and Broken Lance), in 1956 he began to headline in such films, first with Backlash and then with The Last Wagon. While Backlash was distinctly underwhelming, The Last Wagon was rather good, and Widmark was at his best in it.
Lovely AZ in widescreen
The film had good credentials. It was directed by Delmer Daves, for one thing. Daves was, it is true, capable of weakish as well as strong Westerns, ranging from the seminal Broken Arrow with James Stewart in 1950, the absolutely outstanding 3:10 to Yuma (1957) with Glenn Ford and the excellent The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper in '58 - all top notch - to the ho-hum Alan Ladd pictures Drum Beat (1954) and The Badlanders (1958). But he never made a really bad one. In The Last Wagon he elicited strong performances from the cast (of which more below), good pacing and tension, some thought-provoking and, for the time, quite daring content, and in particular (the most positive aspect of the movie) the great look of it. Shot by Wilfred M Cline in CinemaScope, its Sedona AZ locations glow with widescreen beauty. It’s really impressive, and tragic that most of us only see it on TV in mailbox slot format or on a modest DVD on a small screen. In fact all Daves Westerns were visually fine, even the dud ones like Drum Beat.

Then again the writing was strong. Based on a fairly standard plot by Gwen Bagni, who had done the undistinguished (not to say corny) Ronald Reagan Law and Order in ’53, the script was worked up by Daves himself and James Edward Grant. Grant, you probably know, was a close friend of John Wayne, a passionate lover of the bullfight and wrote (or contributed to the writing of) twenty Westerns. These comprised Wayne vehicles, some commercial successes but artistic lightweights like The Comancheros and McLintock! but also some excellently done Wayne movies like Angel and the Badman and Hondo. He’d also worked on The Sheepman, an outstandingly well-written Western. Together, he and Daves produced an interesting and really quite challenging script.

So with these encouraging signs, stirring Lionel Newman music, a decent Fox budget and a pretty good cast, the movie was set fair to be a good Western, and it was.

Western heroes have to be independent and brave and above all they must know the hard reality of the West. They must, briefly, have excellent survival skills in dangerous terrain. If they can be thrown in with tenderfeet, Easterners, youths, wagon trainers or others who would surely perish without such skills, so much the better. They are made to look even more heroic.

Think of Hondo or Hombre or Fort Dobbs or Shalako or any of the very many Western plots which rely on this. The danger usually comes from Indians (bandits in Hombre). You will immediately think of many more. In all of them, a tough, savvy hombre, wise in the ways of the West, gets naïve people out of danger with his courage and knowledge. The Last Wagon is a classic example of this.

The opening scene, a masterly eight-minute prologue without dialogue and at the start without music, establishes Comanche Todd (Widmark) as a tough survivor. It also sets the tone of his ruthlessness and toughness, and again in such films the hero often starts as unsympathetic, a badman, isolated, out on a limb, then gradually, as the story unfolds, softens as we understand why he is as he is, until he gets the girl and rides off into the sunset. On a fabulous Sedona riverbank (and how Daves loved rivers), Widmark shoots a man off his horse in cold blood.
Great opening scene
We see him in buckskins, with a rifle but no pistol, looking almost Hawkeye-ish, like the young Wayne in The Big Trail or Coop in Fighting Caravans. He is more than half Indian, and indeed we are later told that he has been brought up by the Comanche (cf Hondo, Hombre, etc.) He is captured by a brutal sheriff and they come up with a wagon train of Easterners crossing dangerous Apache territory.

Just as was the case with the rawhiders' wagon train in Daves's equally good Jubal, beautiful Felicia Farr (Mrs. Jack Lemmon, excellent also in 3:10) is on the wagon train, with her young brother Billy (Tommy Rettig from Lassie), and they take pity on the maltreated captive. Right away, of course, we can see the future nuclear family: Widmark will get them to safety, fall for Felicia, take a shine to the boy and they will ride off at the end together to start a new life together, probably on a ranch in California. This isn’t a spoiler, pards, because you know it’s coming. The original story is that predictable and you’ve seen HondoShoot Out, Yuma, The Tin Star and a host of others where this happens.
Nuclear family
Probably the most memorable scene is when they hoist Widmark, who is shackled, crucified, to a wagon wheel, up from the base of a gorge to safety – and redemption (symbolic, man).
The wheel of fortune turns
There are some other OK actors. George Mathews is horribly brutal as the sheriff. His part in the film is soon, er, axed. Puns aside, he is killed by a hatchet conveniently dropped near Widmark by a wagon trainer: it's an Indian weapon, thrown with Indian skill. In fact, if you think about it, Daves never had decent upright lawmen in his Westerns, when there were lawmen at all. They were always crooks or sadists. His heroes are never peace officers but always outsiders and men of the wild frontier.

Carl Benton Reid (Escape from Fort Bravo, Broken Lance, Wichita) has a juicy part at the end as the one-armed General O.O. ‘Bible’ Howard, who crops up now and then in Westerns, and who of course played a key role (this time impersonated by Basil Ruysdael) in Daves's Broken Arrow. In this film he presides over the trial for murder of Comanche Todd, bible at hand, and is bested. It's quite a pagan movie. The very Christian wagon-trainers are shown as weak and they are killed off. Their prayers to be protected through Indian territory are answered with a massacre; it's quite unusual for Hollywood to link a prayer with a negation. Comanche Todd tells how he abandoned his Christian faith when it failed him and so he adopted Indian ways.

James Drury appears as a cavalry lieutenant in his very first Western role, six years before The Virginian. B-Western vet Douglas Kennedy is the boss of the wagon train (until the Apaches attack). The great Timothy Carey has an uncredited bit part.

As for Widmark, he is very good. He kept his histrionics in check and, tough and hard but basically decent, managed here to be a convincing Western hero. He was often the bad guy or semi-bad guy (Yellow Sky, Garden of Evil, The Law and Jake Wade). When he was the good guy he was perhaps slightly unlucky with his parts – the clunky Wayne Alamo, for example, or the two late John Ford Westerns he did which were among Ford’s weakest (Two Rode Together, Cheyenne Autumn). He was also sometimes overshadowed by co-stars (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, The Way West) and some of his choices of later Western roles were less than happy. But he was never bad in a Western and The Last Wagon must be accounted one of his best.

It was the era of rebellious teenager movies and audiences were getting used to understanding, shrewd authority figures taming unruly delinquents (think Blackboard Jungle the previous year, or, especially, Rebel Without a Cause, also in '55). And it is no accident that Nick Adams was a bolshy adolescent in both. In The Last Wagon Widmark, with his unconventional approach finally makes the children (because that is really what they are) respect and even love him. You have to be cruel to be kind, he seems to say, and I can be very kind.

The actual Indians (Apaches again this time, as in Broken Arrow) are not statesmanlike Cochise types but more the fearsome Hollywood Indians of yore but Daves gets his pro-Indian message across by making the hero Indian (Comanche) and making him, finally, against all the odds when you think of the opening, sympathetic, wise and in tune with nature.

Tough, violent, beautifully composed, with the cast on a journey, both physical and spiritual, this Western could almost have been made by Anthony Mann. Daves's and Mann's careers ran parallel in many ways. But more of that another day. 
Worth a watch

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Backlash (Universal, 1956)

By the mid-1950s John Sturges had already directed some interesting Westerns or near-Westerns such as The Walking Hills (1949) and two very fine pictures, Escape From Fort Bravo (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). In 1956 he got Richard Widmark and John McIntire cast in Universal’s Backlash, and we could therefore have hoped for an excellent film.
Nice AZ scenery in color anyway
Instead, this is a disappointment. It has all the air of a B-movie. From the opening lurid titles over a saguaro-studded Arizona set, this 84-minute story about rather disagreeable people could almost have been a second feature.

Widmark is good. He looked tough and that craggy face was right for the hard loner, although he was sometimes prone to histrionics, I think, and also can come across as, well, sour. Overall, he was probably better suited to bad-guy roles. This was the first Western he had led in, previously having played second or even third fiddle in Yellow Sky, Garden of Evil and Broken Lance. He had abandoned Fox for the moment to go freelance.
Widmark: sour
McIntire was superb, always, and could be relied on for a good performance; here, as the main badman, he does a good job. He did the ‘villain with panache’ role very well and here reminds us of his roguish Gannon in The Far Country two years before.
Roguish John McIntire always elevated a Western
But the rest of the acting isn’t too hot. Harry Morgan, fine in comic or semi-comic roles, was seriously miscast as a heavy, and although he has stalwart badman Robert J Wilke as his brother, Wilke is too soon dispatched by Widmark in a saloon gunfight.
Reed: beautiful but unsuited
Donna Reed, though beautiful, is ho-hum as the female lead. This was the last of her eight Westerns and I'm not sure she was entirely suited to them. She had been OK, I guess, in some (Hangman's Knot, Gun Fury, Three Hours to Kill) but had been very unconvincing as Sacajawea in The Far Horizons.

Good old Barton MacLane is a sergeant, one of the better players. William Campbell just sneers and looks ridiculous as the absurdly-named gunslinger Johnny Cool.
Miscast minor roles
The problem really is with the screenplay (Borden Chase from a Frank Gruber novel). The dialogue is stiff. The plot is convoluted and too many minor characters are introduced, then leave, for no apparent reason. There's an attempt at sub-Freudian symbolism and there's an improbable plot twist involving key characters (though my lips are sealed on this, dudes).

At the heart of it there’s a fairly basic revenge/hidden gold plot: Widmark is seeking the traitor who was responsible for the death of his father, who buried some gold. There is some Sturges action as the ’good guys’ fight off Apaches.

It’s not bad visually, with Irving Glassberg photography of locations around Old Tucson, and the Herman Stein music is rather good, all intensity and drama. Universal Westerns of this period had high production values.

All in all, though, it’s a run-of-the-mill oater that fails to spark, and with a Rosenberg/Sturges/Chase/Widmark/McIntire line-up as producer/director/writer/star/villain, we had a right, I think, to expect better. Widmark did better later the same year with his The Last Wagon. Sturges made up for Backlash the following year with the excellent and hugely popular Gunfight at the OK Corral and went on to direct some very good Westerns indeed, notably, of course, The Magnificent Seven in 1960. But we have to put Backlash down as one of his weaker efforts.
He knew her lips, you see