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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Thunder Over Arizona (Republic, 1956)

Good old Joseph Kane rides again

There’s no thunder and it was shot in California. Never mind, I thought it was a lot of fun.

It’s a straight-down-the-trail old-school Western with some great character actors and directed by Joseph Kane, credited as “Joe Kane”, unusually. Kane got a producer credit too, as he usually did. No one would pretend that Joseph Kane was a great director of Westerns, I mean John Ford he ain’t, but he did solid work for many a year. He had started writing silent Westerns in the 1920s, directed his first – a Gene Autry picture, Tumbling Tumbleweeds – in 1935 and churned them out at Republic at a rate of seven or eight a year for the next couple of decades. There really wasn’t an A-picture among them. In fact Scott Eyman has written that he was “a man who made more than one hundred movies without an interesting shot to be found in any of them.” I think that's a bit harsh, though. Old Joe (below) was a reliable workhorse as far as Westerns went.

As a Republic Western of the period you might have expected, I don't know, Rod Cameron, say, or maybe Jim Davis to star. But this one had Skip Homeier topping the bill. Now Skip was, as any Westernista will tell you, a specialist in punk kid roles. He had started by shooting Jimmy Ringo in the back to get a rep in The Gunfighter in 1950 and had punked his way through any number of Westerns since. Want a punk kid? Call Skip. Later he graduated from punk kid roles to just punk. But he was always a minor character. Now for the first (and only) time he was the hero. Unfortunately, Skip as a good guy? It just doesn’t work. They had to make him semi-bad: he kills hired assassin Shotgun Kelly (George Keymas in an all-too short part) and assumes his identity. But once in Tombstone he starts being decent, righting wrongs and so forth, being heroic and all, so it didn’t work at all.

Even his smile for the camera came across as a punkish sneer

Instead, the baddies in this one are corrupt and incompetent lawmen, notably John Doucette and Jack Elam, so that sent the movie shooting up in my estimation. Their boss is the crooked mayor, George Macready. I always like George. He had specialized back in the 40s in upper-crust, authoritarian and ambitious villains for Columbia. The excellent Coroner Creek was his first Western but he went on to do several more with Randolph Scott (The Doolins of Oklahoma, The Nevadan, The Stranger Wore a Gun) and then became a stalwart of TV Westerns. He’s really excellently nasty in Thunder Over Arizona, though sadly didn’t ever pull a derringer – you feel that a derringer would be ideal for such a frock-coated crook.

Jack Elam far left, Sheriff Doucette in the chair, Skip standing next to him

His sidekick is the dubious lawyer Wallace Ford, another who was always entertaining. He occasionally shows a spark of decency, or at least regret for his foolish teaming up with the slimy Macready, so he is allowed to live at the end.

Crooked Mayor Macready, far right, and his sidekick lawyer Wallace are held up by the glam Kristine Miller

Hank Worden has a tiny part and I am sure I spotted Glenn Strange the Great towards the end.

There’s a token dame, played by second-billed Kristine Miller, the pretty (if you’re allowed to say that these days) daughter of a millionaire oil magnate who grew up in Argentina and Denmark, was multilingual and was spotted by Hal B Wallis who was then just joining Paramount. She was in four B-Westerns before becoming Margaret Jones on Stories of the Century in 1954. This was her first Western since.

Skip falls for Kristine

The story is set in Tombstone but could have been anywhere: it’s just a generic plot about a crooked town boss who wants the whole valley, you know how they do, and the brave hero joins up with the good guys to thwart him. There are no Earps or anything.

It’s in color and in Naturama, no less!

Utterly un-great, this Western is nevertheless entirely enjoyable.

Skip as goody? It didn't work.


Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Misfits (UA, 1961)

Angst - on screen and off

The other day we reviewed two black & white pictures released by United Artists in 1961, Gun Fight and Gun Street. They were definitely B-movies but that year the same studio released what was very much an A-picture, though still in monochrome, a John Huston-produced and -directed film written by Arthur Miller and starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Is The Misfits a Western? Ah, there’s the rub. When is a Western not a Western? When it is ajar, I hear you respond. But don’t be silly. One thing we can say: even if it is set in the (then) present day and contains trucks and planes, it is very much a treatment of the classic theme of ‘the end of the West’.

This notion, that the Old West was dead or dying, that the freedoms and man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do qualities of the frontier were no more, that they had been submerged by the modern world, fences and ‘civilization’, was especially popular in the 1960s, when it was paralleled by the decline of the Western movie as genre. After all, the decade opened with The Magnificent Seven, about gunfighters as dinosaurs, out of place in a modern world with nothing to expect but a dusty death, and ended with The Wild Bunch, about gunfighters as dinosaurs, out of place in a modern world with nothing to expect but a dusty death. Sam Peckinpah was especially fond of this theme – watch Ride the High Country or The Ballad of Cable Hogue and you’ll see.

In fact of course this theme had been an essential element of the Western myth from its very inception. The first great Western novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, was about nothing else. Frederic Remington’s paintings were often nostalgic and elegiac about a time that had passed - look at The Fall of the Cowboy as an example.

The last cowboys

William S Hart stressed this aspect, especially in Tumbleweeds. Zane Grey often waxed romantically lyrical about the passing of the great days of the West. Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the closing of the frontier, universally accepted in its day, reinforced the notion. And the idea continued throughout. Read Glendon Swarthout’s The Shootist (1975). In a way, the ‘end of the West’ has always been an integral part of the myth.

But nowhere will you find a bitterer and sourer treatment of that theme than in The Misfits.

Central to the character of Gay Langland (Gable) is the view he often expresses that “they’ve changed everything around”. There are no more ‘Western’ certainties. He’s a shiftless cowboy with nowhere to go. He has lost his wife. His children hardly ever visit him anymore. Anything is “better than wages” so he loafs about doing this and that, occasionally “mustanging”, that is rounding up some of the few wild horses that are left and selling them to a dealer for dog meat. He renounces even that at the end.

Gable never better

I must say that though I am not a fan of Clark Gable, a rather mechanical actor, and I think he was especially weak in Westerns, he is absolutely superb here as the aging Westerner with roguish charm. His performance is by turns sympathetic, moving and sad. This was his last film: he died shortly after it was wrapped. Robert Mitchum was first choice but he didn’t like the script and turned it down. Or maybe he had unhappy memories of River of No Return with Monroe a few years before, another picture beset by problems with cast and crew.

Great directors can coax good performances out of mediocre actors and great performances out of good ones. Huston did exactly that. But it wasn’t easy.

It was of course also Marilyn Monroe’s last feature. During filming in 1960 her marriage to Miller was on the rocks. They divorced in January 1961, the month the movie was released. This script, which on one level portrayed a woman recently divorced finding a new man and a future, seemed to be almost a farewell gift to her. But she was already in thrall to barbiturates, unstable, and in a decline. She would die the following August.

Monroe tragic

The shooting was beset with Monroe’s absences in detox and her disastrous condition when she was present. She often didn’t know her lines (and the scene where she fails to remember what she was supposed to say at the divorce hearing is telling). Gable was feeling his age and slowing down, and was exhausted and exasperated by his co-star.

And Montgomery Clift, too, as the punch-drunk rodeo star Perce Howland, really a younger version of Langland and ineluctably destined to the same later life, definitely shows signs of the depression, drug abuse and alcoholism that was afflicting him, as well as the results of the terrible car crash he had had in 1956. It was hardly more than a decade since his youthful Matt in Red River (the only other Western he did) and he was only just 40 yet here he looks like a half-crazed middle-aged man.

Clift in a bad way

Gable told friends he was working with a bunch of loonies. Huston sometimes arrived drunk on the set – and little wonder, you may say.

Eli Wallach, as the pilot Guido, looking much younger than when he was Calvera in The Magnificent Seven the year before, is one of the best actors on the set. But his character too is a dislocated person, an unhappy widower, mentally scarred by his wartime experiences, pretending to feel what he does not and secretly lusting after the Monroe character.

Wallach always good

The nearest to a happy and ‘normal’ person in the story is Isabelle (Thelma Ritter, a great actress) but even she is a divorcée who helps others with their divorces, and a person almost camping out in Reno rather than truly living there.

Ritter very fine

They are not a well-adjusted bunch…

Justin Kwedi on the site DVD Classik suggests that “Le western crépusculaire et post-moderne naît en partie ici” (the crepuscular post-modern Western really starts here) and he has a point. The following year we would get the splendid Lonely Are the Brave which had some similarities – though was perhaps more obviously ‘Western’. It was a superior picture in my view. Monsieur Kwedi adds, of The Misfits: “L’Ouest est un cimetière, un mirage dont les héros doivent s’échapper s’ils veulent renaître ; et après l’ouverture idéalisée, Huston capture cet espace d’une façon funèbre à travers les nuances noires ténébreuses de la photo de Russel Metty.” (The West is a cemetery, a mirage which the heroes must escape from if they want to be reborn; and after the idealized opening scenes Huston captures this space in a funereal way with the dark shadows of Russell Metty’s photography).

Marilyn's charater is actually right: it is insufferably cruel

Actually, Metty’s cinematography is very fine, and the visual is one of the film’s great strengths. Metty had been filming Westerns since 1931 but many of them were B-pictures and it could be that The Misfists was the best Western he ever did – if Western it be. The black & white was perhaps a curious choice for an A-picture like this in the early 60s but it is certainly very beautiful.

Russ Metty

The Alex North music is good, too, haunting and atmospheric.

I’m not sure about the Arthur Miller screenplay, though. Writing for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann said that Miller “has done some representative worrying for all of us about certain defects and defeats in contemporary life” but the writing was always theatrical. Here, the characters are supposed to be ‘ordinary’ people, not especially educated, yet Miller makes them super-articulate and even philosophical in their dialectical speeches. What Kauffmann calls “these uncommonly loquacious Westerners” express their neuroses at some length, as if they were Sartre readers on Broadway. At one point Guido says "We're all blind bombardiers . . . Droppin' a bomb is like tellin' a lie - makes everything so quiet afterwards." It just doesn’t ring true. And the suddenly upbeat ending after all this angst does not ring true either.

Miller and Huston on the set

The picture premièred in New York (not Nevada) and received a lukewarm reception from the critics. Still, The Misfits is in many ways a fine film, and Huston was a master at using wide open spaces to highlight the vulnerability and loneliness of Western characters – though of course he was not the first to do this. The movie was not even nominated for the Osars. I've given it three revolvers as a Western rather than as a piece of American cinema.



Friday, February 23, 2018

Gun Street (UA, 1961)


Gun Street is a low-budget black & white B-Western with an unstellar cast and all the appearance of a TV show. It’s disappointing.

The taglines, All The Terror Of A 'Killer Hunt'... All The Fury Of The Old West... All The Cold-Steel Courage Of One-Man Law!, were frankly misleading.

It was a Robert E Kent production. As I said the other day when reviewing this movie's companion piece, Gun Fight, released earlier the same year, Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Street will be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

It stars James Brown (no, not that one) as a sheriff trying to be Matt Dillon. Brown was an athlete who made his name in war movies and then in 1954 became Lt. Rip Masters in the very popular TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. After that his career didn’t exactly skyrocket. Apart from these two two Kent Westerns in 1961, it was largely occasional appearances in TV shows.

Trying to be Marshal of Dodge

He has a deputy, played by John Clarke, a forgettable TV actor; this was one of only two big-screen Westerns he appeared in.

Upholdin' the law with deputy Sam Freed

They learn that a townsman who had been jailed for life (Warren Kemmerling) has broken out of the state pen, killing a guard, and is heading for town. There, his ex-wife (Peggy Stewart) is now married to the local doc (John Pickard), who has adopted the killer’s son. There is supposed to be a sense of threat but it’s all rather bland.

Tension is supposed to build in the final reel as a posse pursues the killer into the Californian rocks but viewers hoping for a Winchester ’73-style shoot-out will be sorely disappointed. The ending might be described as bathos, if you were being polite. Weak and trite would be other words.

The sheriff has to deal with a complaining and critical mayor (Nesdon Booth)

It was written by Sam Freedle, who had been a ‘script clerk’ on High Noon but that really was the height of his Western fame. The screenplay of Gun Street is ponderous, not helped by the actors stodgily delivering the lines. Sam Freedle allowed himself the joke of having the deputy named Sam Freed.

Edward L Cahn (right) directed. Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the very fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. he never did anything as good again. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director. He looks rather serious in the photo, doesn't he? As if pondering the philosophical weight of his B-Westerns. Sadly, there wasn't any.

You could watch Gun Street, if you absolutely had to. But with the best will in the world (and anyone will tell you I have that, hem hem) I couldn't bump it up to two revolvers.



Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gun Fight (UA, 1961)


In 1961 producer Robert E Kent put together two B-Westerns released by United Artists and starring James Brown: Gun Fight, released in May, and Gun Street, which came out in November. Gun Street will be our next review. Bet you can’t wait.

I’m sorry to tell you right away that neither is very good. They are low-budget black & white affairs, cheaply staged with interior sets that a local amateur dramatics troupe might have been satisfied with and unconvincing studio ‘exteriors’ that remind us of those old 1940s programmers. There are plastic logs and fake snow. The writing and acting is also plodding and ponderous.

Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Fight and Gun Street will both be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

Both were directed by Edward L Cahn (left). Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started very well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. He never did a Western as good as that again and we certainly don't count Cahn among the élite of Western directors. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director.

Brown had started as an athlete, got picked for war movies and then made his name as Lt. Rip Masters in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The show ran on ABC on Friday evenings from October 1954 to May 1959, for no fewer than 164 episodes, and was enormously popular, so Brown, though rather a wooden actor, was a well-known character in uniform.

The best actor is in the middle. Actually, that's not quite fair: Lee Aaker was very good too.
However, Brown seems to have been demoted because in Gun Fight he is a sergeant, mustering out (and changing into buckskins) after serving with Benteen on the Little Big Horn and going to Wyoming to join up with his brother Brad (Gregg Palmer) who has a cattle ranch. Or so he thinks. Actually Brad is a low-down rustler and stage robber with a mean gang which includes vicious half-breed known as Pawnee (Ron Soble).

In fact the gang hold up the very stage Sgt. Brown is on, riding with his girlfriend Nora (Joan Staley) and an oily gambler, Cole Fender (Charles Cooper). The skunk Fender bonks the sergeant on the head with a pistol, to stop him shooting at the outlaws. Naturally, because Fender is a slick gambler in a frock coat, this gun is a derringer, so that sent the movie up in my estimation (you know who besotted I am with derringers). The interior of the stagecoach, by the way, is one of the most laughably bad studio sets I have ever seen in a Western.

Palmer, you will certainly know, did dozens and dozens of B- and TV-Westerns, becoming a regular member of John Wayne’s stock company of actors. He started as Grat Dalton in the Audie Murphy picture The Cimarron Kid, and among many other appearances was an Army captain in both Taza, Son of Cochise and Revolt at Fort Laramie. He was Jack Slade in the Stories of the Century episode, and the same year as Gun Fight he was one of the duelists in Wayne’s The Comancheros. He was always reliable, and quite good as heavy. This time he’s a heavy with a heart of gold, though.

Bad guy Gregg (obviously bad because unshaven) with goody bro
Soble takes the acting honors (such as they are) as the nasty and treacherous Pawnee who hates our hero. He was a regular as bad guy on any number of Western TV shows but only did a handful of big-screen oaters. He had small parts in True Grit and Chisum, so that’s something.
Soble is the really bad guy though
Gun Fight was written by Gerald Drayson Adams, so really the screenplay should have been better. But much of it is lurid melodrama. There’s a very vague attempt at a Cain-and-Abel theme but as Cain doesn’t kill Abel it doesn’t really come off.
Both pictures were photographed by Walter Stenge, later to become President of the ASC. Unfortunately, there is so little location shooting and the studio sets are so basic that Stenge hardly got a chance to shine. You get the impression that such shots of Wyoming as there are were intercut from footage of other movies.
If I had to choose, I’d go for Gun Fight over Gun Street, but to be brutally frank (and when, dear e-pards, am I anything else?), they both pretty well suck. Oh, that's unkind. Let's say they aren't terribly good.