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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Cast a Long Shadow (UA, 1959)

A lesser Audie oater

In 1959 Audie Murphy signed up for a Walter Mirisch production released by United Artists, Cast a Long Shadow. It wasn’t a patch on the relatively glossy and (again, relatively) big-budget Westerns he was doing for Universal, of which he had now appeared in 14. Cast a Long Shadow came between Ride a Crooked Trail and No Name on the Bullet, among Audie’s best, and of course the following year he would be outstanding in The Unforgiven. So Cast a Long Shadow paled by comparison. It was in black & white, for one thing, which by 1959 wasn’t really on. Amazing that Mirisch produced this and then only the next year a big, brash, colorful picture like The Magnificent Seven.
Seen worse

Cast a Long Shadow had structural weaknesses too: it can’t make up its mind whether to be a story about a prodigal son taking over dead daddy’s ranch or a cattle-drive picture, and it tries to do both.

Still, it had James Best as the bad guy, the Reverend Denver Pyle preachin’, and, above all, John Dehner, who was never less than excellent, as the eminence grise.

Audie is cast as Matt Brown, which is odd because he keeps on, as do other characters, about his having no name. Was he a foundling? I think we should be told. He is first seen in a cantina, wearing a sweaty hat, unshaven, drunk, playing cards (badly), and then getting into a fight. This is not the Audie we know and love. But Chip Donohue (Dehner) rescues him with ease (and his gun) and takes him from the saloon back to Lobo, New Mexico where he is to inherit the ranch, 87,000 acres.
James Best and Audie slug it out
It’s actually shot in California but they do a good job trying to get a Mexican-American feel to the sets. The DP was Wilfred Cline, so that’s good. The scenes of the cattle drive are particularly effective, almost Red Riveresque, a sort of red rivulet, but I wish there had been more location shooting.

Well, bum Audie arrives back, meets up again with saloon gal Hortensia (Rita Lynn) - sounds like they had a fling - and his ex-girlfriend Janet (Terry Moore), who still loves him even though her loutish brothers (Mason Alan Dinehart, Joe Patridge) disapprove. Audie hates the place, and indeed the inhabitants do seem a poor lot, and he decides to sell out to a large collective of townsfolk. But then he changes his mind. The why of this is not satisfactorily explained.
Cantina girl, old flame?
Fiancée Janet with loutish brothers (they disapprove of Audie)
Dehner discovers that the ranch is heavily indebted and unless a large loan is repaid by next Saturday, the bank will foreclose and everyone will lose everything. The only way to save the place is to get the cattle herd to Santa Fe and sell it, and repay the loan. For some odd reason, also not explained, all the townsmen agree to work as trail hands for a newly grim and determined cattle-baron Audie.
Dehner: outstanding, as always
You see, the writing isn’t very good. The screenplay was by Martin Goldsmith (who the same year worked on The Gunfight at Dodge City for Joel McCrea, a much better script) and TV Western writer John McGreevey, from a book by popular Western novelist Wayne D Overholser.

There’s a bit at the end that Darth Vader probably studied to get his announcement to Luke portentous enough.

You can tell James Best is a baddy because he tries playing footsie with Janet in church.

Audie has a last-reel – last minute, actually – conversion to nice guy, also unexplained. The whole thing verged, I fear, on the preposterous.

Still, we all like an Audie Western, and Dehner is grand, and it’s always fun to see Denver (he was a preacher in another Audie oater, Ride Clear of Diablo, remember? He must have liked the collar). There’s some shootin’ as the bad guys try to stampede the herd. You know, it could have been worse.

It was directed by Thomas Carr, who specialized in B-Westerns for Poverty Row studios and whom Mirisch probably got cheap. Carr had been an uncredited rail worker on The Iron Horse in 1924, but then who hadn’t? He’d first directed a Western in 1945, a Sunset Carson Z-movie, and went on in a similar vein for years. He was still directing TV Western shows in the late 60s.

Two revolvers, pards, and no need for a DVD purchase, but watch it if it comes on TV.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Westerns of Budd Boetticher

Thanks, Budd

Oscar Boetticher Jr. (/ˈbɛtɪkə/), known as Budd (1916 – 2001), did not direct great sweeping panoramic Westerns like John Ford or Howard Hawks, and he did not make complex psychological ones like Delmer Daves or Anthony Mann. Nor did he create fastest-gun-in-the-West action pictures like John Sturges or elegiac bloodbaths like Sam Peckinpah. But he made real Westerns nonetheless, and he was one of the greats.
Budd Boetticher, Western maestro


Boetticher was born in Chicago, raised in Indiana and was a star athlete at Ohio State University. After college he traveled to Mexico where he became fascinated with bullfighting. In 1951 he got his first big break when he was asked by John Wayne’s Batjac company to direct The Bullfighter and the Lady. He first rode the range, though, earlier than that, as assistant director (uncredited), on the set of the 1943 Randolph Scott/Glenn Ford picture The Desperadoes, directed by Charles Vidor for Columbia. How much input Boetticher had is difficult to say, but it’s a fun film. His first Westerns in the director’s chair were two forgettable black & white B-movies for Monogram, Black Midnight and The Wolf Hunters, in 1949. One thing, though: Black Midnight was Boetticher’s first use of Lone Pine locations. These were to become central to him.
Young Budd
Universal, 1952

But then came a ‘proper’ Western, Universal’s Horizons West in 1952, the first of three he did for them that year. This was not a great film, it’s fair to say. It’s a pretty standard oater about three Confederate soldiers returning to Texas after the war, brothers Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson, and ranch foreman James Arness. Hudson and Arness get right back into ranch life but Major Ryan can’t settle down and goes on to build an empire by rustling, corrupting judges and so forth. But it had good stars (especially Ryan) and definitely had its moments.

Later in the year he directed Audie Murphy in The Cimarron Kid, a Bill Doolin story. Yes, it’s a bit on the corny side; some of these Audie Westerns were. But some excellent character actors were used for the lesser parts: James Best, Noah Beery Jr. and Hugh O’Brian, among others. These were to become regulars. And like all Audie Westerns it’s nicely photographed, by Charles P Boyle this time, who had worked on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with Winton Hoch, so must have learned a thing or two. These two 1952 Westerns were not great art but they were perfectly satisfactory oaters.

The same year Boetticher directed a semi-Western rodeo picture, Bronco Buster, in which tyro John Lund is trained up by old hand Chill Wills. It’s essentially the plot of The Lusty Men, directed for RKO by Nicholas Ray earlier that year, which is a superior picture - indeed, close to a masterpiece. Boetticher’s suffers by the comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

Universal, 1953

In ’53 Universal had him direct Rock Hudson again (Hugh O’Brian and James Best were once more in the cast) in the ‘Indian’ film Seminole. It was also Boetticher’s first use of Lee Marvin, as the sergeant. Something similar had been attempted in ’51 with Distant Drums. That picture had Gary Cooper starring and was directed by Raoul Walsh. Wow. Nevertheless, it wasn’t very good (typical early-50s Warners stodge) and this time Boetticher’s film gained by the comparison. There are weaknesses: Barbara Hale is pretty hopeless as Miss Muldoon, the trader in a low-cut blouse (a rather typical Boetticher female lead, it must be said). She paddles her own canoe across a sound stage interior, and documentary footage of exotic alligators and colorful birds is unconvincingly intercut with these scenes. The mad major (Richard Carlson) leads his men deeper into the swamp and this part goes on too long: the picture bogs down as much as he does. It’s the 1830s although of course they have 1870s pistols. But still, it’s watchable, certainly no worse than many early-50s Westerns and in some ways better. Rock was pretty good at Westerns, in fact.

Two more oaters followed for Universal and now Boetticher was beginning to get into his stride. The first was the very good The Man from the Alamo, again starring Glenn Ford (with Chill and O’Brian, natch). It was written by DD Beauchamp the Great from a Niven Busch story, so that helped. Victor Jory is the bad guy and that certainly helped. Neville Brand henched. It wasn’t specifically an Alamo story, more the tale of a defender who was sent out of the Alamo to carry word to the defenders’ families but is then branded a coward. I like this movie.
Perhaps Budd's best early Western
Hard on its hoofprints came Wings of the Hawk, a Mexican revolution picture with Van Heflin as the obligatory gringo south of the border. Budd didn’t get to go to his beloved Mexico to shoot it, though. It was done on the Universal backlot and up in the Simi Hills, Cal.  I quite like this one too, and it has Noah Beery Jr. again, very good as the revolutionary Pascual Orozco (it’s not a Pancho Villa picture for once).

Budd Boetticher was beginning to establish himself as, if not a leading director of Westerns, certainly a more than competent one. It was the end of his Universal contract, though, and Westernwise we’d have to wait for the start of the great cycle for which he is mostly known among us Westernistas, the wonderful Randolph Scott Westerns 1956 – 60.


Parallel to his big-screen Westerns Boetticher also worked on TV shows. Most notably he directed the first three episodes of the great Maverick series, War of the Silver Kings, (based on CB Glasscock's The War of the Copper Kings, which relates the real-life adventures of copper mine speculator F. Augustus Heinze), Point Blank, in which a waitress gets Bret out of jail to work as a spotter in a casino, and According to Hoyle, in which a southern belle cleans Bret out at poker. Boetticher mastered the dry humor of the shows with aplomb.
The first Maverick episode. That's the great Leo Gordon in the center.
Later, he did five episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, 1960 – 61, directing James Coburn, Lloyd Bridges, Claude Akins, Michael Pate, and Jack Elam, and one episode of The Rifleman in 1961, Stopover.

Boetticher was very good at the small-screen Western.

Boetticher and Scott

The Ranown pictures were the best thing Boetticher ever did. There were six directed by Budd:  Seven Men from Now (1956) The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959) and Comanche Station (1960). They all starred Randolph Scott, and he had never been better either (only in Ride the High Country would he be as fine). They weren’t all uniformly superb. The very best ones, the core of Boetticher’s work, were those for Columbia that brought together the team of Boetticher, Scott, writer Burt Kennedy, cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. and producer Harry Joe Brown. They were The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. These three are, I suppose, ‘B-Westerns’, but they are absolutely superb and real landmarks in the history of the genre.
He rode lonesome
They were, of course, a coherent body of work. They had the same star (though a different bad guy every time, each one a splendid role), the same director with a deep understanding of the genre, and in the case of the three at the heart of the oeuvre, the same pithy writer with a witty sense of irony, the same magnificent photographer (3:10 to Yuma alone would have marked Lawton out as a master), and, key, the same Lone Pine locations. They had similar plots – hero Randy on a revenge mission, basically – and they even shared certain lines of dialogue. They were all terse, laconic and spare.
Lone Pine. It would have to be lone.
If you are in California it is definitely worth a trip to the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, just to the east of the Inyo National Forest, about four hours’ drive from LA. The town has, these days, a population of around 2000. It’s no metropolis. But the surrounding area is (and has been since the early silent days) the ideal location for shooting Westerns. So many have been filmed there. There are no roads across; you can only go through on horseback. And Boetticher and his cinematographers, especially Lawton, were in their element there. You could set up a camera, turn it a full 360° and get a different view from each quarter. Rivers, meadows, and above all rocks, rugged enough to match even Randolph Scott’s face, everything you need to set a Western there.
Randy the Great
Ride Lonesome is such a key title because cowboys are generally lonesome and Randolph Scott in particular, and because the horse is key to these oaters, as to all Westerns. Boetticher loved horses. Watch the way in Comanche Station that Scott enters on horseback right to left, with Mt. Whitney in the background, and at the end of the movie symmetrically rides away in the same setting, left to right. Boetticher at his best. In his essay A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western, Mike Dibb makes the point that though the term ‘horse opera’ is often used pejoratively, it is in fact apt, for it puts the horse at the center of the genre and emphasizes the pleasantly familiar stylized forms of action, character, speech, violence and, not least, music, which Westerns share with opera.

The bad guys are superb. Randolph Scott was a supremely generous actor who was ready to stand back and let other actors shine. A sort of opposite of Steve McQueen, if you like. No camera-hogging or scene stealing: he let his co-stars have center stage. And the bad guys were written as sort of anti-Scotts, with some of the hero’s qualities – and faults. They are often charming and roguish. Randy always seems to have known the characters from the past. Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, Richard Boone (my favorite) in The Tall T, Pernell Roberts in Ride Lonesome, and the others, they were villains, yes, but with saving graces. Excellent casting, direction and acting.
Budd's baddies: Marvin, Boone, Carroll
Roberts, Duggan, Akins
Boetticher had little interest in the true history of the West, nor, really, in Western communities. He wanted lone riders righting wrongs. Everyone is a loner, in fact. Scott’s character is just the loneliest. He said, “The characters are more important to me than the ideas, because it's through the mind and the sayings and the actions of the characters that the ideas are born. I'm not concerned with what people stand for, I'm concerned with what they do about it.”

The pinnacle of Boetticher's career
His women were classic 50s stereotypes and usually buxom blondes, with cleavage. That’s the way Boetticher was. Karen Steele was a favorite. They were really very male films. The hero usually gets the gal once the villain has killed off her previous (and dubious) suitor.

The end of the affair

Boetticher entered the wilderness as far as film-making is concerned and he recounts this difficult time in his autobiography. He never again made anything remotely as good as the six Randolph Scott pictures. In 1969 he wrote and directed A Time for Dying, notable as Audie Murphy’s last Western (Audie has a cameo as Jesse James, again; of course he was Jesse his first Western too, in 1950). It’s an unsatisfactory film and not at all a Budd Boetticher Western in the proper sense.

In 1970 he co-wrote with the excellent Albert Maltz of Broken Arrow fame Two Mules for Sister Sara, a Clint Eastwood project directed by Don Siegel. Personally, I think it’s one of my least favorite Clintisms, but there we go. It’s a Mexican revolution tale again, and at least this time it was shot in Mexico, so Budd would have liked that. Boetticher devoted his last years to raising thoroughbred horses. He died in California in 2001.

A Time for Dying and Two Mules were Boetticher’s last essays in the holy genre of Western. But don’t think of him like that. Nor, really, for his earlier Universal pictures or the TV shows he did. Concentrate on those six Westerns he did with Randolph Scott, especially the Columbia ones. They are magnificent, and they establish Budd Boetticher as one of the greats of our beloved horse operas.

Duke, Randy and Budd


Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Westerns of Delmer Daves

A great Western director

If I described to you a noted film director who was born in the first decade of the twentieth century in California, made his first (pro-Indian) Western in 1950, used James Stewart as his star, made his last Western in 1958 with Gary Cooper in the lead, and in between made some first class pictures, though never Oscared, a director who composed his pictures beautifully and was noted for the cinematography, whose Westerns were uncompromising and tough, well, you’d probably guess I was talking about Anthony Mann.

I’m describing Delmer Daves.
Delmer Daves
Like Mann, Daves made ten or so Westerns in the 1950s (depending on how you define a Western). They were of more mixed quality than Mann’s (i.e. some weren’t that good) but overall they were top class and some were supreme examples of the genre.

Delmer Daves was born in San Francisco in 1904 (so was probably three years older than Mann) and studied law at Stanford. He became fascinated with motion pictures. He said, “My first career was the law - I did graduate law work at Stanford, had my office picked out and everything. I'd acted in twenty plays and directed some, too. Lloyd Nolan and I were classmates and he dearly loved the theatrical profession. He said, ‘You don't want to be a lawyer, Del, let's go down to the Pasadena Playhouse and do what we really love’. My father let me give up eighteen years of schooling with hardly a murmur.” Aged 19, he worked as a prop boy on The Covered Wagon, so we might (just) consider this his first Western. He sought work in Hollywood.
You might be able to spot young Del running around on the set somewhere
His first credit was for writing the talkie comedy So This is College (sounds like an epic) in 1928 but all through the 1930s he made a living writing screenplays and taking bit parts as an actor. In the mid-30s he made a name writing popular Dick Powell musicals and in ’36 wrote the Bette Davis/Humphrey Bogart hit The Petrified Forest. He made his directorial debut in the Cary Grant wartime adventure Destination Tokyo in 1943.

1.   This was all very well but they weren’t Westerns, so what was the point? That was put right in 1950 when he directed Broken Arrow. For this movie and all Daves’s Westerns mentioned below, you can click on the live links for a full review of picture. I’ll just say a few lines about each here.
Stewart superb in Daves's first Western
Daves’s first Western was one of his best. It was a seminal work in that it made mainstream films pro-Indian. Not that there had never been pro-Indian Westerns: right back in the silent era early works like DW Griffith’s Ramona (1910, then oft remade) and The Vanishing American of 1925 had put the Indian side of the case and described their plight at the hands of white settlers and the Army. But after Broken Arrow Hollywood Westerns usually showed Indians in a much more positive light. Usually, not always, and B-Westerns continued shooting down nameless ‘savages’ as if they were tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

2.   In fact Daves’s own second Western, Drum Beat in 1954, was rather a return to the bad old days. It was made for Warners (which may be one reason; many of their early 50s Westerns were very old-fashioned) and had an unconvincing Alan Ladd in the lead, and a not-terribly-good Charles Bronson as the Indian chief. It was written by Daves as well as directed by him, so there’s no one else really to blame. It was in fact the least of his Westerns, in my view (he himself thought that The Badlanders - see below -was the worst).
Drum Beat. Indian fighter meets Modoc chief: unconvincing
[By the way, I say Drum Beat was his second Western. I am discounting Return of the Texan which he made in 1952. This did have quite Western tinges (Dale Robertson returning to a Texas ranch, Walter Brennan as crusty old grandpa, Richard Boone as the baddy, horses, guns) but it was (a) a modern story (it opens with a jeep bowling along) and (b) is really just a love story, with Joanne Dru.]

Both Broken Arrow and Drum Beat were, though, beautifully photographed and composed, and this was true of all Daves's Westerns, good or less good. He used lovely Arizona locations for both the first ones (slightly odd for the second one as it was about the Modocs in Oregon, but never mind). And he had excellent directors of photography, Ernest Palmer (Belle Starr) for Arrow and J Peverell Marley (The Left-Handed Gun) for Drum Beat.

3.   You could regard White Feather (1955) as Daves’s third Western, and indeed the third volume of a trilogy of ‘Indian’ films. Daves wrote it again, and was scheduled to direct it but left Fox just at that moment and less distinguished Western director Robert D Webb took over. It showed, because the film was rather slow-paced and plodding, something Daves’s never were. The good news is that it is back to a solid pro-Indian stance, this time up on the Plains. He moved in his Indian films from the Apache to the Modocs to the Cheyenne. In fact as a young man Daves had spent six months living with the Hopi and Navajo peoples and saw things very much from their standpoint.
 Love triangle: White Feather
Visually, White Feather, filmed with a big budget down in Durango with a very large cast of extras, and shot by the great Lucien Ballard, is very impressive indeed. Once again white actors were used to portray the leading Native American figures but that was the way back on the 50s. Studios were unlikely to cast unknowns and, there being no tradition of Indian acting and plays, there was no line of Indian actors waiting for parts. Debra Paget was in fact the beautiful Indian maid in both Broken Arrow and White Feather (and other non-Daves Westerns later). Jeff Chandler was Cochise, Charles Bronson was Captain Jack and Jeffrey Hunter was Little Dog.

These first three Delmer Daves Westerns, even though they varied in quality and even (in the case of Drum Beat) adopted a different stance on the Indians, were a coherent body of work. They are Daves Westerns. After those, though, the situation altered. True, Indians appeared in The Last Wagon and Cowboy, but only as a shadowy threat to the wagon train or cattle drive. In Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma, The Badlanders and The Hanging Tree there are no Indians at all, and these films dealt with a variety of subjects. Unlike other great Western film directors, there doesn’t seem to be a recognizable Daves look or subject matter and the movies all seem different. Perhaps it was because he was continually experimenting.

4.   Daves’s fourth Western, in 1956, was Jubal, this time for Columbia, based on the first part of the long novel Jubal Troop by Paul Wellman. The book was adapted into a screenplay by Daves himself and Russell S Hughes (who had worked on The Last Frontier for Anthony Mann the year before). It starred a superb Glenn Ford, one of the best Western actors, who in fact was to do three Westerns for Daves (Jubal, 3:10 and Cowboy). Unfortunately it also featured Rod Steiger, who only had two styles of performance, (a) overacting and (b) overacting wildly, and endearing but plodding Ernest Borgnine. Ford, who underacted to an almost Gary Cooperish level, was polite, as ever, but his view was still pretty clear: "Rod...well, in kindness I think I should say he did a great job with his role. However, the 'method' got a little too much for some of us, especially the wranglers … Look, Rod won an Academy Award, didn't he? And so did Ernie, so whatever Rod was doing in his role for Jubal probably worked for him. He was intense, I'll tell you that."
A noir Glenn Ford, outstanding in Jubal
Still, it’s a fine film. It gets quite Freudian, with Oedipus complexes everywhere, and in fact this was a feature of Daves Westerns (as well as being quite 50s-fashionable). The Hanging Tree is probably the most ‘psychological’ of his works but The Last Wagon doesn’t stint either on childhood trauma and behavioral issues rooted in dark events of the past.

Jubal is different, and good, because it keeps women in a central place. It has been described as a sort of Othello of the plains, and certainly Steiger’s character Pinky is rather Iago-like as he poisons Borgnine/Othello’s thoughts with subtle hints of the infidelity of his wife with Ford/Cassio. (Though Mae, the wife, is rather a racier and more wanton Desdemona than the Bard’s). Still, you can’t help feeling sorry for Mae (Valerie French), who is a beautiful woman married to a generally benign but oafish and coarse rancher, stuck on thousands of acres of Wyoming miles from civilization. The ‘other woman’ is Naomi (Felicia Farr), daughter of a wagon train leader (Daves liked his wagon trains), and is gentle, sweet and loving, a very different character from the rather brazen but much stronger Mae.

Most of Daves’s Westerns were, it must be said, pretty male affairs. Women tended to be sidelined as appendices of the heroes, creatures to be rescued perhaps. But then there was nothing unusual about that in 50s Hollywood. They were Indian maidens, token white love-interest, impressionable young girls, saloon girls, and so on. Only really in Jubal (Valerie French), The Badlanders (Katy Jurado) and The Hanging Tree (Maria Schell) are they strong, independent people, characters in their own right as it were.

Daves was very good at the subtly erotic. Of course subtly erotic was the only kind of erotic you could be in the 1950s but he does it very well. Glenn Ford’s tender scenes with Felicia Farr in Jubal, Alan Ladd on the river bank with Audrey Dalton in Drum Beat (though he hated love scenes and always looked uncomfortable in them), Ford again as bandit Ben Wade softly wooing Felicia Farr again as the saloon girl in 3:10. These are brilliantly well done scenes.
Glenn romances Felicia
Daves had a penchant also for the daring double entendre. One thinks of Nancy telling Johnny in Drum Beat how she wants a farm, and saucily adding that she needs a man who can plow and plant seed. Alan Ladd looks shocked and runs a mile. Even more surprisingly Daves managed to get the exchange between Jubal and Reb in Jubal under the Production Code radar: here, he is rolling a cigarette while watching sexy Mae in her lighted bedroom window and there is a conversation about how difficult it is, when rolling cigarettes, to keep one’s finger out.

But, as I say, Daves Westerns are essentially male affairs. The whole genre is, really, when you come to think of it, though modern examples are trying to redress that balance a bit. If anything, there is a strand of (very sublimated) homoeroticism running through Daves’s Westerns. Certainly anyway a lot of male bonding goes on, often between the protagonists, Jeffords/Cochise in Arrow, Johnny/Captain Jack in Drum, Van Heflin/Ford in 3:10, Ford/Lemmon in Cowboy (they even end up bathing together), and most especially the characters of Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter in Feather, which seems almost a male love story. There is even a hint of something corrupt in the relationship between Dr. Frail and his ‘bondservant’, the almost feminine young man Rune, though a man less gay than Gary Cooper would be hard to imagine, so it certainly isn’t more than a hint. Of course it was all understated and probably not even understood by audiences. It probably needs a modern audience with finely-tuned gaydar to spot it.

5.   After Jubal came The Last Wagon, which Daves directed and co-wrote. This too contains many Davesian themes. Given the character of the odious Sheriff Bull Harper (George Matthews) this is probably the place to mention that lawmen rarely appeared in Daves Westerns at all but when they did they were corrupt and brutal. 3:10 to Yuma is essentially a lawman tale, and indeed the hero of the original Elmore Leonard short story it was based on was a deputy sheriff, but in Daves’s telling it’s an account of a brave farmer who acts for justice in the absence of law. In The Last Wagon Harper is a rapist and murderer, and a sadist. Both lawmen are rotten in The Badlanders, in the pockets of the chief town crook. But mostly there are no lawmen at all. They are representative of an oppressive and corrupt white society, and the hero is much better off riding off into the sunset in the last reel, as indeed Richard Widmark does in The Last Wagon, to eschew ‘civilization’ and be at one with the wild frontier.
Sadistic lawman
There is also in Daves’s work a tint of anti-clericalism. In The Last Wagon Comanche Tod (Widmark) tells how he gave up his Christian faith when it could not provide any help to him. In Drum Beat the pacifist clergyman Thomas is shown as a naïve simpleton. As with lawmen, ministers almost never appear but when they do they are negatively shown. The most loathsome religious figure is the splendidly named George Grubb, in The Hanging Tree, the evil ‘faith healer’, superbly played by George C Scott.
Preacher Grubb
Rivers are the settings for key scenes in almost all Daves Westerns, from Broken Arrow, when Geronimo attacks the stage there and Sonseeahray dies there, to the attack on the stage in Drum Beat, where the very same location was used, and in the same film the climactic hand-to-hand fight between the protagonists is at the river. In The Last Wagon the youngsters go swimming in the river and thus escape their parents’ gory death (and suffer pangs of guilt ever after). In Western after Western the river was the symbol of a crossing-over in life, a traumatic moment of change.

6.   3:10 to Yuma (the original 1957 one of course, not the 50th anniversary remake) is, in my opinion, Delmer Daves’s masterpiece. It is superb and, good as some of his other Westerns were, or even near great in the case of the last one, 3:10 pips them all.
There he goes, romancing Felicia again. 3:10.
I won’t go on at length about it here because this post is getting a bit long and anyway you can just click the link to find out why it is so fine.  I’ll just say that it is above all the tension and drama, the visual composition and symmetry, and the stunning black & white cinematography that make it. It ought to rank in anyone’s top twenty of best Westerns ever.

7.   The Badlanders in early 1958 really wasn’t very good, partly because it starred Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine again. It was a remake in the key of Western of The Asphalt Jungle of eight years before, and I suppose remakes often suffer from lack of originality. It did have its plus points, notably a social justice agenda (here it is the Mexican Americans who are the downtrodden and exploited rather than the Indians) and the wondrous Katy Jurado in a key part. So it wasn’t all bad by any means. But in the last resort it’s a rather conventional heist movie.
The Badlanders: Daves said he only made it as a favor to Alan Ladd
8.   The penultimate Western of Delmer Daves was a film version of part of Frank Harris’s unreliable memoirs, Cowboy. It starred the excellent Glenn Ford again and also (very good casting) New Englander Jack Lemmon as Harris. Like The Badlanders it was a bit on the weak side, mainly because there really wasn’t enough plot for a 92-minute movie. But once again it is visually beautiful (New Mexico locations shot once more by Charles Lawton Jr.) and noticeably well ‘composed’ by the director. It’s enjoyable, if not at exactly the pinnacle of the Western as art.

9.   Delmer Daves’s last Western, The Hanging Tree, was, however, a splendid example of the genre, mainly because it starred Gary Cooper. It had a couple of weaknesses, notably the dreadful hamming of Karl Malden, always a lousy Western actor. But it was intense, slightly creepy even, fraught, psychological, interesting, complex, moving, thought-provoking and – need I say? – beautifully shot. Above it all towers Coop, the greatest ever Western actor, absolutely magnificent in every way. The names are great in this movie and Coop is Dr. Frail, a man with ‘a past’, as the heroes in Daves’s Westerns often were (but then so they were in many Westerns; it was a pretty standard theme).
Coop rarely better: The Hanging Tree
A recurring theme of Daves, almost a recurring nightmare, is death by hanging. Pinky’s monstrous end in Jubal (suggested, not shown, but no less awful for that) is a good example but in all his Westerns except Badlanders and White Feather actual or near-lynchings take place. In his last movie the eponymous gibbet looms over the town and the story, gruesome and sinister in its import and impact.

Poor Daves didn’t get to finish it. He became seriously ill on the set and Coop’s production company Baroda replaced him for the last part with Malden, who seems to have been able to direct anyway, even if he couldn’t act. Daves did recover enough to direct and write other movies but he never did a Western again.

For what it’s worth, here is my order of preference

1.       3:10 to Yuma
2.       The Hanging Tree
3.       Broken Arrow
4.       Jubal
5.       The Last Wagon
6.       White Feather
7.       Cowboy
8.       The Badlanders
9.       Drum Beat

but I leave you to make up your own mind. In any case it is undeniable that Delmer Daves was in the top rank of Western directors and some of his films are absolutely superb. Thanks, Del.