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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Best of the Badmen (RKO, 1951)

Ignore MS Word spellcheck, enjoy the badmen

My Microsoft Word spellchecker allows bad men but underlines as faulty badmen. Fool. Every Western fan knows that badmen are a separate breed, a key element of all true Westerns. For what is an oater without a badman or two?

To judge by the cast list that comes up over the introductory titles, the picture does indeed deal with the best of the badmen, for prominently featured are Robert Ryan, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, John Archer, Lawrence Tierney and Robert J Wilke. Wow. That’s a veritable Gotha of Western badmen. Ryan could play a goody but was always better as a villain. Bob Wilke, now, he couldn’t do ‘goody’ to save his life.
De Stormloop van de Wetlozen, eh? Who knew?
It’s a James-Younger gang picture. It’s the end of the Civil War. Tough but decent Major Jeff Clanton (Ryan) decides to turn his Reb prisoners over to Matthew Fowler (Preston), boss of the notorious Fowler Detective Agency – obviously a reference to the Pinkertons. Evil Fowler wants to execute them without the formality of a trial and claim the reward. I wonder if the makers of The Outlaw Josey Wales had seen this picture.

When a Fowler crony tries to kill the prisoners, Major Jeff justifiably guns him down (as one does) but is arrested on a charge of murder and sentenced to death in a kangaroo court. Luckily for Jeff, though, Mrs. Preston, Lily, is a blonde Claire Trevor and a sympathizer. She enables him to escape, which doesn’t please Fowler one bit. Jeff flees and so the Union man is driven into the Reb camp, becoming an outlaw. It’s all the fault of those carpetbagger Pinkertons, I mean Fowlers.
Trevor, Ryan. Pretty good combo.
The outlaws are ex-Quantrill men led by Cole Younger (Cabot) and Jesse James (Tierney), holed up in the Cherokee Strip. They are backed up by crusty old Doc Butcher in the shape of Brennan. There’s no Frank James (“Frank was just a homesick farmer,” we are told).
Great cast
Jesse is a rather sour and relatively minor character. Tierney, tearaway brother of the equally tearaway Scott Brady, was a legendary Hollywood tough guy, on screen and off. He was of course Dillinger (1945) and the brutal lover of Claire Trevor in Born to Kill (1947). Westernwise, he was only in five oaters (surprisingly perhaps) but had been Jesse James again in the 1946 Randolph Scott picture Badman’s Territory (MS Word take note). You can always watch a Tierney.

There’s a ‘Curley Ringo’ (John Archer), a gunslinger portmanteau name (Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo) in the gang but he turns out to be even more of a bad egg than the others. Bob Younger is there too, one-armed, played, hopelessly badly as always, by wooden Jack Buetel, who was third-billed, no less (still trading on his ‘success’ as Billy the Kid in the dreadful The Outlaw).
Good old Walter, always a plus in any Western
John Archer was a stalwart character actor in Westerns. Amusingly, he was born Ralph Bowman but won a competition with a contract in the name of John Archer and so went from being a Bowman to an Archer. He was in some pre-War B-Westerns, then in Colorado Territory, High Lonesome and Best of the Badmen before Santa Fe. Later on he was in The Big Trees and pretty well every TV Western you care to name from the mid-1950s to a 1968 episode of Bonanza, his last appearance in the saddle. He’s always good to see and his badman Curley Ringo is enjoyable.

Bruce Cabot went right back to Magua in the 1930s Randy Scott Last of the Mohicans and of course rescued Fay Wray from King Kong. He was screentested for the Ringo Kid part in Stagecoach before Ford had Wayne do it. Cabot was always absolutely excellent in Westerns and you will probably think of him as the sheriff in Cat Ballou or Chisum, Ben Sage in McLintock! or Sam Sharpnose in Big Jake (he worked a lot with his pal Duke). He was also good in Dodge City, in fact in a host of oaters. I’ll watch Cabot in anything and so his Cole Younger was a delight.
Preston as boss of the 'tec agency and arch villain is splendid as always. He was in 27 Westerns from Union Pacific in 1939 to September Gun, a 1983 TV movie, and is absolutely always enjoyable. He specialized in 'charming rogue' and maybe Whispering Smith was the best example of this. You will not regret ever watching a Western with Robert Preston in it.
Preston. Superb, as always.
Jim Younger is Bob Wilke the Great. 'Nuff said.

You all know by now how highly I rate Robert Ryan and I won’t go on at length again here. Just to say Ryan was a top drawer Western actor and anything at all with him in it, even a crap movie like Lawman, say, is worth a look if he appears.

There’s too much plot in Best of the Badmen and in the last resort it’s a slightly creaky RKO Western of the early 50s but it’s in nice color, has a superlative cast and is most definitely worth a watch. Recommended, dudes.



  1. I read an interview with Louis L'Amour in which he said that the word "badman" referred to "a bad man to mess with" and not necessarily a criminal. The only times I've come across that word, it always refer to an outlaw.


    1. Louis's etymology sounds a little dubious but certainly a 'badman' is a recognizable Western type. And a good badman is essential for every Western.