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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Road to Denver (Republic, 1955)

Starting up a stage line

Not the best of the ten Western films John Payne made before devoting himself to The Restless Gun on TV, The Road to Denver is nevertheless a fun B-Western with certain qualities. It was in many ways a typical Republic offering of the period, with Joseph Kane directing, slightly unstellar leads and some good character actors in support.
John Payne, tough guy
Kane (whose fan I am because like me he was a cellist) was Republic’s top Western director. He handled a lot of those early John Wayne efforts as well as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers programmers. "I like the outdoors. The horses. The cowboys. I like that,” he said. Sensible fellow. He started on silent Westerns in 1926 and if you count episodes of TV shows (especially Laramie) he directed 161 oaters altogether, an impressive feat. But there wasn’t a single ‘A’ picture among them.
An entertaining color B
The picture was written by Horace McCoy and Allen Rivkin, from a Saturday Evening Post story by historian and novelist Bill Gulick, who also wrote the stories that became Bend of the River and The Hallelujah Trail. Rivkin only co-wrote three Westerns, all B, but McCoy worked on some very good oaters, such as Rage at Dawn, Western Union, and The Lusty Men, so he knew what he was about. The writing of The Road to Denver is conventional and fairly predictable but competent and professional, with plenty of action and some good lines, such as “This town better be big enough for both of us.”

The story concerns two Texan brothers, Bill and Sam Mayhew (Payne and Skip Homeier in unlikely casting) who quarrel. They seem to be based on Ben Thompson and his wild younger brother Billy. Sam is as stupid as he is belligerent and gets the pair into endless trouble until finally the more sober Bill can stand no more and goes his own way.
Brothers slimy Skip and judicious John
Homeier specialized in punk roles. He’d had a small part as Forrest Tucker’s son in The Big Cat in 1949 but his first big part was as the punk kid who shoots Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter in 1950 and from there on he did little else. He was good punking in Ten Wanted Men and The Tall T, two of those excellent late 50s Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Bs, and later he punked in a great many Western TV shows. In The Road to Denver he is suitably annoying and deserves to be shot but makes an unlikely reformation in the last reel. It would have been more dramatically appropriate if he had bled out in the dust of the main street.
Bill gets a job from liveryman John Sutton (Ray Middleton) in Central City and becomes a partner in a new stage line they set up. Town boss and saloon owner Jim Donovan (Lee J Cobb, unusually not overacting and quite menacing) and his henchmen, an excellent crew (Glenn Strange and Lee Van Cleef - you can't hench better than that) are determined to prevent the stage line being set up, and, when they fail in that thanks to Payne’s derring-do, take it over.
Lee J Cobb, crooked town boss
So a predictable, been-there-done-that type of plot but it’s well executed and actionful.

Naturally Payne’s partner has a glamorous daughter, Elizabeth (Mona Freeman, from Streets of Laredo and Branded) and when (annoyingly) the punk brother arrives in town, both brothers romance the girl, who hesitates between the two but obviously finally opts for the steady one.

Mona Freeman
Equally obviously there’s an amusing old-timer, this time Andy Clyde as Whipsaw. There’s a fat sheriff (Paul Maxey), a good saloon (with Streets of Laredo played on the piano) and a dance. The stage is a proper Concord. Hank Worden is a horse owner (uncredited). A bad guy gets punched and lands in the water trough. Yep, many of the classic ingredients are there.
Andy Clyde as old timer
Paul Maxey as fat sheriff
The picture was shot in very nice color (Trucolor) in red-earthed Utah locations by Reggie Lanning, B-Western expert (his first oater was John Wayne’s first Three Mesquiteers picture).

There’s a corny ending as the happy couple ride off in the stage with Just Married tacked to the back.
Excellent heavies, Glenn Strange and Lee van Cleef
The Road to Denver is a mainstream B-Western with few pretensions. Payne was capable of much better (such as the gritty little noir Rebel in Town). But it’s dynamic, fun and pacey. You could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rebel in Town (United Artists, 1955)

Surprisingly good B-Western noir

Rebel in Town was the last of the Western movies John Payne starred in before devoting his time to The Restless Gun TV series. It was perhaps his best.

It’s a good noir psychowestern which is well directed and well acted, notably by Payne himself, with excellent support, especially from Ruth Roman who is outstanding.
It was directed by Alfred L Werker for Bel-Air Productions, released by United Artists. I didn’t know Werker much but I found that he did the 1939 Sherlock Holmes, which was very well received, as well as the police thriller He Walked by Night. As far as Westerns are concerned, he directed ten silents including the 1927 Jesse James and the 1928 Kit Carson. He then did a lot of B talkies, and Rebel in Town was his last oater. It was well done: tense, visually interesting and quite powerful.

The screenplay was by Danny Arnold, who only wrote two Westerns but they were both good (this one and another Bel-Air production, Fort Yuma) and it’s a pity he didn’t do more. He made of the Rebel script an interesting study in character development containing an accessible (but not dumbed-down) discussion of important themes.

It was unique among Payne Westerns in that it was shot - by Gordon Avil, who did the 1930 Billy the Kid - in black & white. Payne normally insisted that all his movies be in color, and by 1955 that was the norm, but in fact the black & white suits the intense, claustrophobic noirish style of the film. There is little location shooting; it’s mostly done in town and at the Willoughby farm.
For the Willoughby family, John and Nora (Payne and Roman) with a feisty young son, Petey (Bobby Clark, Casey Jones Jr. in Casey Jones), are at the center of this tale. John is an ex-Union captain and his son is also obsessed with the Union army but the boy’s mother just wants to forget the war and settle down to farming. The little boy consoles his father amusingly, saying, “You know how women are.” Then one day, the kid's birthday, five ex-Confederate soldiers, a father and four sons, now renegade robbers, send two of their number into town and the lad sneaks up on the Rebels and fires his cap gun at them. One of the Rebs instinctively turns and fires, killing the child. The boy’s body catapults brutally across the street in the way that George Stevens had pioneered for the death of Stonewall Torrey in Shane.
The death of the boy and his parents’ difficulty in coping with the tragedy (it even strains their formerly loving relationship) are compassionately and sensitively handled. The shot of John cheerfully bringing in a small saddle he has bought for the boy’s birthday party and letting it gradually drop from his hand as he hears the news, for example, is movingly done. The funeral of the child, the wife’s hearing the boy’s ghostly yahoos when they return home in black and the father’s gazing at the boy’s toy sword also. Top class writing and direction - and acting.

The renegade Rebs are no mere two-dimensional bad guys either. They are not like Donald Pleasance’s over-the-top crazed father and homicidal sons in Will Penny or their forebears, Charles Kemper as Uncle Shiloh and his sadist white-trash sons Hank Worden and James Arness in Wagonmaster. Instead, they are almost sympathetically drawn.
J Carrol Naish is the stolid, sage paterfamilias Bedloe Mason, and his sons are interestingly named Gray, Wesley, Frank and Cain. Gray, the good one, for the Confederate origin, I suppose; Wesley the bad one for John Wesley Hardin perhaps; Frank maybe for Frank James; and Cain, in a twist, the one whom his brother tries to kill. The most interesting of them is Frank because he is played by Ben Johnson although sadly he has almost nothing to say and is wasted by writer and director. He is nevertheless quietly powerful in the background. Amusingly, Cain Mason is played by Cain Mason.
The decent feet-on-the-ground town marshal Adam Russell is played by the solid James Griffith, whom you will certainly recognize as he was, in various B-Westerns, William Quantrill, Bob Dalton, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday – what a Western CV! His thin face and beaky nose were distinctive.
There’s a fistfight under horse’s hooves that reminds you of High Noon and Night Passage.

Rebel in Town is actually a surprisingly good B-Western which, had it had, say, Anthony Mann behind the camera and James Stewart in front of it would have been a classic. It talks of loss, the futility of revenge and sacrifice.

Give it a go, e-pards.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tennessee’s Partner (Bret Harte short story 1869/RKO movie 1955)

Classic gold-mining story hits the silver screen

1     The story

The short story Tennessee’s Partner by Bret Harte first appeared in the October 1869 issue of The Overland Monthly, a San Francisco magazine which Harte was editing.

It is very short, 3600 words, and succinctly told. The action takes place at Sandy Bar, a gold camp in Calaveras County, California, sometime around 1850.

It tells of a gambler and thief, Tennessee, and his rustic, almost simpleton partner, who is never named. The partner marries a (nameless) waitress in Stockton and brings his new wife back to the cabin he shares with Tennessee. Soon, however, Tennessee and the girl go off together. When Tennessee returns, sans woman (she has run off with another man) to everyone’s surprise (including that of the reader, really), Tennessee’s partner is the first to shake his hand and welcome him home. The miners, cheated of their expected gunfight are annoyed, and when Tennessee robs a stranger and shoots his way out of a saloon they determine to try to hang him.
1869 short story
Tennessee is captured by “a small man on a gray horse” with two pistols and a knife who turns out to be the judge. At the ‘trial’ Tennessee’s partner arrives to speak for his friend but is so inarticulate that he is unable to say anything germane. He generously offers all his acquired gold to save Tennessee but the judge is affronted at what he takes to be an attempted bribe and Tennessee is sentenced to death and duly hanged from a tree by the miners.

Tennessee’s partner takes the body in his donkey cart back to the cabin where he buries his friend. He then declines in health and soon follows his pal to the grave. “And so they met”.
Francis Bret Harte (1836 - 1902)
It is almost a homosexual love affair, although of course such a relationship could only be hinted at.

Harte heard of a true story that took place in 1855. At the camp of Second Garrote, a newcomer had committed a capital crime. The miners organized a court and gave the miscreant a trial and decided to hang the culprit. But "Old Man Chaffee" stepped forward, drew a bag of gold-dust from his shirt, and said that he would give his "pile" rather than have a lynching occur in the camp. He begged the crowd to turn the prisoner over to the authorities and let the law take its course. His proposal was adopted with a cheer and the man was taken to the jail at Columbia.

Chaffee's partner, Chamberlain, seems to have had no part in the affair; but the two were clearly united by a love similar to that of his partner for Tennessee. Long after the trial the two old men lived in their cabin, Chaffee mining and Chamberlain farming. At last, in 1903, their 54-year partnership came to an end when Chaffee died. Within eight weeks Chamberlain had followed him.

Chamberlain and Chaffee

In Harte’s version, the tale is told by an outside observer whose own tone of amused irony contrasts with the homespun talk of the rough miners.

When the miners speak the language is pretty hokey:

And now, what's the case? Here's Tennessee wants money, wants it bad, and doesn't like to ask it of his old pardner. Well, what does Tennessee do? He lays for a stranger, and he fetches that stranger; and you lays for him, and you fetches him; and the honors is easy. And I put it to you, bein' a far-minded man, and to you, gentlemen all, as far-minded men, ef this is isn't so."

Mark Twain criticized Harte (who was somewhat of a rival) for his over-quaint dialogue but that was rather the pot calling the kettle black (Twain was capable of worse on occasions).
They made their own law
There is a certain historical basis in truth to this kind of rough-justice story. When the mining-camps, which were in a part of California that had not been settled by the Mexicans and were occupied by men who knew nothing of their system or laws, were set up, they had little or no system of law and made their own.  Each camp elected its own officers and punished lawbreakers. Theft was considered an especially heinous offense. As there were no jails, whipping and expulsion were common, but in some cases it was death. Even after the state government was organized, the law for a short while permitted a jury to prescribe the death penalty for grand larceny.

Tennessee's Partner, the story is in the public domain and available to read here free if you want.

2     The film

There were three silent films inspired by Harte’s story. In 1916 Paramount released the Jesse L. Lasky production Tennessee's Pardner, directed by George Melford and starring Fannie Ward as Tennessee. Producers Distributing Corp released The Flaming Forties in 1924, directed by Tom Forman and starring Harry Carey. And in 1925 Paramount released The Golden Princess, directed by Clarence Badger and starring Betty Bronson. 

In addition, Paddy Chayefsky's adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner’s story in the film version of Paint Your Wagon owes a lot to Tennessee's Partner: two close friends – one named "Pardner" – share the same woman.

In 1947, Vernon Clark was said to be producing a version of the story, starring Joel McCrea, for executive Harry Sherman. But that version was never made.

The best-known film version came in 1955 with RKO’s movie starring John Payne, Ronald Reagan and Rhonda Fleming, Tennessee’s Partner.
As it really was?
It must be said at the outset that the film version, although it boasts in the title screen that it is “Bret Harte’s Tennessee’s Partner”, is only nominally based on the story. Let’s say ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’. The great DD Beauchamp (among others) worked on the screenplay.
Bret Harte's... Well, yes and no.
In the movie version frock-coated smoothie Tennessee (Payne) is partner with Duchess, the madam of a thinly-disguised bordello (beautiful Rhonda Fleming). She manages the whores and he runs the gambling. Arrogant would-be town boss Turner (Anthony Caruso as Tony Caruso) loses a fortune to Tennessee and accuses him of cheating. Turner sends a hired killer to deal with Tennessee but a simple cowpoke, named Cowpoke (Ronald Reagan), gets the drop on the killer and saves the Doc Holliday-esque gambler. Tennessee and the cowpoke become friends.
Fleming and Payne: bordello madam and slick gambler
Cowpoke aims to marry gold-digger Goldie Slater (Western vet Coleen Gray). To save Cowpoke, Tennessee lures Goldie to go with him to San Francisco, then puts her on a ship. Tennessee returns and there is a brutal fistfight as Reagan beats the daylights out of Payne.
Reagan beats up Payne
Old-timer prospector Grubstake (good old Chubby Johnson), Tennessee’s (other) partner in a mine, is killed and the sheriff (excellent tough-guy Leo Gordon) arrests Tennessee for the murder.
Sheriff Leo
The real culprit was of course Turner. There is a climactic shoot-out in which Cowpoke is killed, Tennessee looks sad and says “I didn’t even know his name”, then weds Duchess, closes up the whorehouse and sets sail with his new bride. The end.
Prospector Chubby
That’s really quite different from Bret Harte, isn’t it.

The bordello is amazingly vulgar but is described by everyone as “classy”. Payne looks a little like Karl Malden in this one, though one difference is that Payne can act. There’s a good bit where he is accused of cheating and uses a derringer.

Morris Ankrum is the judge. A young Angie Dickinson in one of her first roles is one of the girls.
Payne defends himself with a derringer
The film was directed by old hand Allan Dwan, who lived to be 96 and had a 52-year career. Dwan understood the Western. He should – he directed 171! But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917. Then there was a long pause until the very average Tide of Empire in 1929, one of those movies on the cusp between silents and talkies. Frontier Marshal, Fox’s 1939 Wyatt Earp picture with Randolph Scott, was his first proper talkie Western and his first oater for a decade. Later he seemed to specialize in Westerns with powerful leading women such as Belle le Grand, Montana Belle, Woman They Almost Lynched and Cattle Queen of Montana. Dwan liked Payne and also directed Silver Lode.

Dwan also managed to extract one of the best performance ever from the normally rather wooden Ronald Reagan.
In the original Bret Harte story his character is described as very florid, "short and stout". Harte writes, "his aspect under any circumstances would have been quaint, and was now even ridiculous" but Ron didn't attempt that part. 
Doc Hollidayesque
The color film was in SuperScope, RKO's widescreen process. Payne always shrewdly insisted that his films be in color (and kept the TV rights). It was photographed by John Alton, who did eight Westerns, including Cattle Queen of Montana, Devil’s Doorway for Anthony Mann and Silver Lode.

Essential knowledge: the film inspired one of the hits of The Four Seasons. As the character based on Bob Gaudio explains in the musical Jersey Boys, "I'm watching the million dollar movie. Some cheesy John Payne western. He hauls off and smacks Rhonda Fleming across the mouth and says, 'What do you think of that?' She looks up at him defiant, proud, eyes glistening - and she says, 'Big girls don't cry.'”

Well, well. I think Tennessee’s Partner the movie is rather better than “some cheesy John Payne western”, although I would certainly not say it’s a Western classic. Have a go, dear e-readers. You may enjoy it.


Monday, July 28, 2014

El Paso (Paramount, 1949)

Down in the west Texas town of El Paso

On the one hand, El Paso is a cheesy B-Western with predictable plot and only so-so acting. On the other, though, it has certain interesting features that make it worth a watch.

It was the first Western to star John Payne. Well, he had been in a musical ‘Western’ of 1939, The Royal Rodeo, and a 1940 logging picture King of the Lumberjacks but this was the first proper Western. He had started in musicals (he had a fine tenor voice) and then graduated to films noirs in a sort of Dick Powellesque progression.
Payne's first (proper) Western
The story starts in Charleston in 1865, the war just finished, and smooth lawyer Clay Fletcher (Payne) is sent out to the frontier in west Texas by his English grandfather (HB Warner) to settle some legal affair with a judge there. On the stage he meets Gabby Hayes, a pots-and-pans salesman, and also a drummer (Irving Bacon) and a woman con artist (Mary Beth Hughes) who gets hold of the men’s wallets. Arrived in El Paso, Clay discovers that the judge he has to see, Judge Jeffers (not Judge Jeffreys) is Henry Hull and a drunk. Worse, Judge Hull does the bidding of the crooked town boss Bert Donner (Sterling Hayden) and his henchman, Sheriff La Farge (Dick Foran).

Of course the judge has a pretty daughter, Susan (Gail Russell) for Payne to romance and he decides to stay in El Paso and right a few wrongs, for the principal victims of Donner and Lafarge’s nefarious schemes are ex-Confederate soldiers who are being cheated out of their land. Clay will stand up for them.
Gail Russell, John Payne, Gabby Hayes
So far, so predictable.

But the depredations of the ring running the town and their tame judge are so disgraceful and there is no legal redress, even with a Charleston lawyer there, that Clay turns into a vigilante leader and starts lynching bad guys left, right and center, thus becoming as bad as they are. It’s quite an interesting idea.

When his mob kills an innocent man – the new minister! – he is shown up and shamed by Susan and his granddad, who has come out from South Carolina to turn him back to due legal process and away from gunlaw and the ‘law’ of the rope. He agrees to a truce and grandfather goes off to negotiate a meeting with Sterling.

But the stupid, sadistic sheriff Lafarge murders the old boy and now John Payne straps his guns back on…

There’s a climactic gunfight in El Paso in a dust storm, which makes for photographic interest but unfortunately also means we can’t see who’s shooting whom. I think town boss Donner is accidentally killed by his tame sheriff but I’m not sure.
Deserted El Paso
Sterling Hayden was always a great tough guy. He was so big, for one thing, 6’5” (1.96m) and he towers above most other actors. In El Paso he wears a gray townsman’s suit and crossed gunbelts and is entirely credible as the fellow no one at all would want to antagonize. Hayden disliked most of the Westerns he did. It’s a pity because he was rather good in them.
Drunk judge Henry Hull, brutal town boss Sterling Hayden, corrupt sheriff Dick Foran, lawyer/gunmen hero John Payne
Gail Russell wasn’t a Western specialist but she was good in the lead of both Angel and the Badman and Seven Men From Now. She’s competent in El Paso rather than spectacular.

Henry Hull kept his usual overacting antics in check, perhaps because Gabby Hayes was there for that.

Crooked sheriff Dick Foran started as a singing cowboy in the 1930s and Warners wanted him to be their answer to Gene Autry. That didn’t work out too well and he moved on to more serious roles with Universal. He was Sgt. Quincannon in Fort Apache in 1948. He’s actually quite good in a villainous way as the arrogant bully with a taste for killing.

Lewis R Foster was a B-Western and TV western director. He did several of John Payne’s oaters, The Eagle and the Hawk, Passage West and The Vanquished after this one. He got pace into his films anyway, though little in the way of subtlety, I fear.

Some of the writing is classically B-Western-dire. Director Foster also wrote the screenplay, from a J Robert Bren/Gladys Atwater story. It contains lines like Susan telling Payne after he has shot and hanged dozens of people, “Stop before it’s too late!” and Payne saying to Gabby, “Tell all the people in El Paso to be out of town by noon tomorrow!” And some of the story is frankly absurd. For example, why doesn’t the vigilante gang just hang Donner and Lafarge and be done with it?

But I found myself quite enjoying the movie despite all. There’s a lot of action and there are one or two quite good moments photographically. I liked the galloping horses in the dust
Nice shot
and the montage of Payne’s shooting lesson is very well done as the Easterner becomes a proficient quick-draw pistoleer. Ellis W Carter was behind the lens and some of the locations were indeed down around El Paso. It was Ellis’s first Western. He did a lot of B-Westerns afterwards in the early 50s before switching to TV. The color on my print is pretty bad. In fact I wondered if it wasn’t by Van Gogh as the sky was often green.

It was put together by low-budget producers William C Thomas and William H Pine. The New York Times called it "a third or fourth rehash of a standard Western plot" (which was a bit harsh) and added, "it doesn't pack a wallop."

But the idea of the lawyer taking the law into his own gunhands is quite original and Payne manages the change from educated Easterner to dynamic outlaw leader rather well, in his restrained way.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Big Jake (NGP, 1971)

Big John Wayne rides again

Big Jake was the fourth of seven big movies John Wayne made down in Durango between 1967 and 1973. It comes between Chisum and The Train Robbers. It’s not quite clear why Wayne made them, as Westerns were in decline and he didn’t need the money. He was 60 when the series began and not in the best of health. His third wife, Pilar, said, “Looking back, I can barely tell those Durango films from one another. They had a sameness of story, plot, and location which seemed like a disservice to Duke’s fans. Different casts are the only thing which make them stand apart.” Actually, she wasn’t even right about that: there is a great overlap with Batjac stock company players (many of them ex-John Ford) appearing again and again.

But Wayne had a horror of financial insecurity, especially after The Alamo nearly bankrupted him, he had a very strong work ethic and he did respond to his fans.
A 70s Batjac Durango Western
And commercial though they may be, one of two of them were quite fun in a Wayney kind of way. If you take it for what it is, Chisum, for example, is full of beans and I don’t mind Cahill, US Marshal either. Big Jake, too, has a lot going for it. It’s big, brash and colorful, and the suspense undeniably mounts. You remember the plot, doubtless: it’s the one where estranged wife Maureen O’Hara sends for him because their little grandson has been kidnaped for ransom by an evil band of badmen.

Its working title was The Million Dollar Kidnapping but luckily it got changed to the much more Wayneish Big Jake.

Wayne exhumed George Sherman to direct it (though Duke ended up doing much of the direction himself). Sherman had directed Wayne back in the 1930s in those Three Mesquiteers programmers. Duke was always intensely loyal to old friends and often pushed work their way, espcially if they were in need (as Ford had done too).

I suppose, though, that in some ways Big Jake isn’t a million miles away from those 30s B-movies. Take away the big-screen color and you really have a pretty old-fashioned Western in many ways.

But there are little additions. It’s set in 1907, really quite late for a Western, and the intro shows us modernity, with pictures and voiceover describing Albert Einstein, modern technology and fashions, before slipping back to a generic Wayne West that could be any time in the 1870s or 80s. Automobiles are there, but only to be shown up as useless by comparison with the horse (cf Monte Walsh et al) and, as in, say, The Last Hard Men, modern means of transport and communication are all well and good but when it comes to a revenge pursuit, they are feeble by comparison with a good ole cowboy with his six-shooter.
Our first sight of Big Jake
Wayne’s production company Batjac was undoubtedly a family business. Duke founded it, his son Michael ran it for 30 years and Michael’s widow Gretchen is the boss today. Rather like Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown, Duke formed Wayne/Fellows with Robert Fellows in 1952. When Fellows left, Wayne renamed the company Batjac (Batjak was the company name in Wake of the Red Witch and a secretary misspelled it). The company’s biggest project was of course The Alamo. Hondo and the Randolph Scott film Seven Men from Now were probably its finest Western achievements but all through the 1960s and early 70s Batjac produced some successful commercial Westerns which filled theaters and remain popular on DVD and download to this day.

We open with voiceover introductions of the members of the kidnaping gang. There are nine of them, which is wrong. Everyone knows the mystical Western number is 7. And although they are led by John Fain, played by the quite splendid Richard Boone in his poncho, one of the best villains ever (you only have to watch this movie and Hombre to see the truth of that) it must be said that the majority of the gang are also-rans.
Splendidly bad
There’s O’Brien, an Irish-Apache half-breed (Glen Corbett); ‘Trooper’ (Jim Burk) is a back-shooter; William Fain (Robert Warner) is Boone’s younger brother and is said to favor a Greener to do maximum damage; ‘Kid’ Duffy (Dean Smith) is a dead shot with a high-powered rifle; William Devries, Billy (Jeff Wingfield), in his first outlaw act, and his brother Walt (Everett Creach); and indiscriminate killer John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer) who favors the machete. So it’s not exactly a stellar line-up, apart from Boone, and indeed they are all a bit wishy-washy, I fear, though suitably homicidal. Luckily, the ninth gang member is Pop Dawson, who rode with the James boys. It’s Harry Carey Jr. in beard and bad teeth, looking amazingly like Edmond O’Brien in The Wild Bunch two years before.
The McCandles ranch house is prettied with flower beds. Maureen O’Hara presides over it. She was invited down to Durango to preen in green and order the black servants about. Luckily she is written out after 34 minutes and once Jake sets off on his quest is never heard from again. It was her last Western of eleven and that was eleven too many for my taste. The previous one had been The Rare Breed with James Stewart in 1966, one of the worst Westerns ever made.
Preening in green
The gang descends on the ranch and kills people (luckily only the servants so it could have been worse). But they wound a McCandles son, Jeff, played by pop singer Bobby Vinton. Wayne Westerns often felt obliged to have a pop singer, heaven knows why. But he too is soon left behind, in bed, and never seen again. The really bad thing is that the gang abduct the little grandson of Wayne and O’Hara, Little Jake (played by Wayne’s own young son from a third marriage, whom he named for his character in The Searchers, Ethan). And they leave a note demanding a million dollars ransom.
Good old Jim
Big Jake is off saving the life of an about-to-lynched sheep-farmer (Welsh comic actor Bernard Fox playing a Scot). Jim Davis is the would-be lyncher. Good old Jim. Jake is helped by his sidekick, Dog, who is a very good actor (trained to a nicety) and reminds us, deliberately, I am sure, of the mutt Sam in Hondo. But Jake receives the come-at-once note and duly returns to McCandles, Texas.
That's one mean Collie
Jake’s son Michael (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert) turns up on a motor-cycle to show the power of new technology.

Vroom, vroom

Michael has a Bergman 1911 automatic pistol which causes much hilarious mayhem

Bergman 1911
and a high-powered rifle with scope to rival that of badman Kid Duffy. Guns play a key part because O’Hara has brought along Jake’s brace of Greeners, which are lovingly described.

Amazingly, though, Duke also has a derringer, a sneaky pop gun usually only employed by gamblers and whores. He calls it Betsy and it comes in handy at the end of the movie. Good guys hardly ever had derringers. They were for gamblers and saloon gals. Never thought I'd see Duke of all people with one!
Just imagine, Duke with a derringer!
The Texas Rangers in Model Ts (one Ranger is Chuck Roberson) also turn up under John Doucette.

John Doucette, motorized Ranger

Everyone who sees Jake says “I thought you was dead” which enables Wayne to give back his old line, “That’ll be the day”.

The family factotum and chauffeur is Hank Worden, obviously.

The Indian scout Sam Sharpnose is Duke's drinking pal Bruce Cabot, in his last Western. Thirty-five years before he had been Magua in the Randolph Scott The Last of the Mohicans, so he came full circle. He had rescued Fay Wray from the clutches of King Kong and had auditioned for the Ringo part in Stagecoach which Ford gave to Wayne. Cabot and Wayne co-starred in Angel and the Badman. Cabot was in four of these late Batjac Wayne vehicles.
From Magua to Sam
The screenplay was written by the Finks (Harry Julian and Rita M) and isn't bad. James Edward Grant was not available, deceased.

I must say, there is some lovely photography of the Durango locations. Batjac got Ford alumnus William Clothier down. Clothier’s very first Western had been with Wayne, The Big Stampede in 1932, and he was to work on Wayne Westerns The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock! , The War Wagon, The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, Chisum and, his last picture, The Train Robbers. It was a remarkable association and it must be said that Clothier’s photography was one of the strong points of Wayne movies.
Very nice photography
The music, too, is big and beefy. Elmer Bernstein, no less. At the start of the picture, the little boy had been playing Frère Jacques on the piano, and whenever the child is mentioned thereafter Bernstein has nice little orchestral variations on the tune.

There’s a rather tiresome ‘comic’ saloon fight we could have done without.
The brothers James and Michael McCandles, Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum
Still, the tension does build as they get nearer to the place (a Mexican oil town) where the boy will be exchanged for the million bucks. OK, you know badman Boone will lose but you aren’t quite sure who will survive. Of the good guys, only the Indian and dog are killed, so that’s alright, and the now reunited father and sons can go back to the ranch with the rescued boy and live in peace and harmony. It won’t last.
Not quite as good as Tom Mix's leap over Newhall Pass in Three Jumps Ahead but it'll do
OK, Big Jake is probably too long and predictable and no prizes for originality or anything new or important to say but there’s Duke in that salmon-pink shirt and I notice he still has that old yellow-handled Colt .44/.40. There’s shootin’ and tootin’. It filled the movie theaters (in the Middle West anyway) and is still a whole lotta fun to watch today if you are an undemanding Western fan. Like me.

There's Duke's Colt .44 hanging up
Probably just as well