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

Friday, June 29, 2018

Traded (Cinedigm Entertainment Group, 2016)

Kris's last ride

The country-singer Western, which had quite a history, was still going strong in 2016. Well, going anyway. Kris Kristofferson was 80 but still being a tough guy in Kansas, though he had a smaller part these days (you wonder if they just put him in it just to get his name on the DVD box). He’s a barman in Wichita. In this one it’s Trace Adkins, a mere stripling at 54, who takes a more important role, as the villainous silk-vested saloon keeper in Dodge who runs a prostitution racket.

Kris and Trace did another Western for the same outfit and with the same director (Timothy Woodward Jr.) the following year, Hickok, but that was no better. As of now, Traded and Hickok are the last Westerns of both singer-actors.

There’s no sign of Willie and of course Waylon and Johnny had passed on.

Kris is the tough-but-decent barman

Trace is the lowdown brothel keeper

The picture tries to deal with the serious theme of the brutal exploitation of young women in the West but it has none of the quality of, say, Broken Trail, the 2006 mini-series with Robert Duvall, and still less of Clint Eastwood’s splendid Unforgiven in 1992.

The real hero is neither Kris nor Trace but Michael Paré as Clay, a Kansas farmer, father of the seventeen-year-old Lily (Brittany Elizabeth Williams) who runs away from home to become a Harvey Girl and finds herself working in a low brothel in Dodge. Dad sets off from the farm determined to recover his daughter whatever the cost, and the cost does turn out to be quite high.

She wants to be a Harvey Girl.
It doesn't go well.

The story of the Harvey Girls is an interesting one. The Wikipedia entry tells us that in 1883,

[Fred] Harvey [who owned a chain of restaurants and hotels which accompanied the burgeoning railroad business all over the US] implemented a policy of employing a female, white-only serving staff. He sought single, well-mannered, and educated American ladies, and placed ads in newspapers throughout the East Coast and Midwest for "white, young women, 18-30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent". The girls were paid $18.50 a month, plus room and board, a generous income by the standards of the time.

The women were subjected to a strict 10 p.m. curfew, administered by a senior Harvey Girl who assumed the role and responsibilities of house mother. The official starched black and white uniform (which was designed to diminish the female physique) consisted of a skirt that hung no more than eight inches off the floor, "Elsie" collars, opaque black stockings, and black shoes. The hair was restrained in a net and tied with a regulation white ribbon. Makeup of any sort was absolutely prohibited, as was chewing gum while on duty. Harvey Girls (as they soon came to be known) were required to enter into a one-year employment contract, and forfeited half their base pay should they fail to complete the term of service. Marriage was the most common reason for a girl to terminate her employment.

The restrictions maintained the clean-cut reputation of the Harvey Girls, and made them even more marriageable. However, the opportunity to leave their homes, to enjoy travel, have new experiences, and work outside the home was very liberating for thousands of young women. After the Harvey Houses closed in most cities, many former Girls (and today their daughters and granddaughters) joined in appreciation to carry on their legacy.

In a mythology that has grown around the Harvey Houses and Harvey Girls, these female employees are said to have helped to "civilize the American Southwest". This legend found expression in The Harvey Girls, a 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams and in the 1946 MGM musical film of the same name which was inspired by it.

Anyway, Lily never does get to be a Harvey Girl.

I once stayed at La Posada, a former Fred Harvey hotel
decorated (very beautifully) by Mary Colter
Judy Garland in the musical
[Sorry but Blogspot just WILL not revert to proper spacing, or font size, so we are condemned to continue with this narrow format. Grrr.]
It’s the early 1880s because Chester A Arthur is president.

It was a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release but I’m not sure that people were waiting in lines round the block to get into theaters to see it or that the masses downloading the movie caused a crash in the system. It got really bad reviews. But it isn’t that bad.

The poor naive girl is cruelly abused, then traded

Clay is suitably tough and a remarkably good gun hand for a farmer (but we are told he used to be a gunfighter). He battles the bad guys and wins out, despite being subjected to torture by rat-gnawing. He’s quite ruthless with them after that, blinding one villain before strangling him and even hanging Trace.

Tough dad saves the day, rescuing fair daughter from a fate worse than death

There’s a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch bit where the wife, who has gone all depressed after the loss of the daughter and their young son, who was bitten by a rattler (she blames herself), takes a rope and goes into the barn. So that when finally Clay and Lily get back home (barman Kris has generously given them his horse) the girl rushes into the barn to look for her mother and… But nay, I shall not reveal the ending – though as I guessed it pretty early, I reckon you will too.

There’s the odd f- word and so on but nothing these days to give you palpitations.



Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (NBC TV, 1986)

Frank and Jesse in the 1980s

Every generation has to have its Jesse James movie and each new one gave us the fabled hero rather than the factual psychopath. This tendency started right back with the very first silent movie Jesses. The 1980s opened with The Long Riders, perhaps the best Jesse James movie though still highly inaccurate. And in 1986 we got another of those country-singer Westerns, with Johnny Cash as Frank and Kris Kristofferson as Jesse.

It was really no worse than many, and certainly a lot better than those dreadful 50s B-movie Jesses like The Great Missouri Raid (Paramount, 1951) with Macdonald Carey as Jesse, The Great Jesse James Raid (Lippert, 1953) with Willard Parker in the part, or Jesse James’ Women (United Artists, 1954) with Don ‘Red’ Barry both directing and starring as Jesse.

Many of the Jesse James movies either ignored Frank completely or put him very much in the shade of his brother, with Frank getting a much smaller part. But some did try to give equal weight to the pair. This one, if anything, gives Frank a little more of the limelight.

Jesse and Frank

In fact both Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson could act (unlike their comrades Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the like who, as actors, made great singers). Kris was, notably, Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah and Johnny was especially good, I thought, in A Gunfight with Kirk Douglas. And there was a vague physical resemblance of one to the other. Furthermore, there was the same age difference between Johnny, born 1932, and Kris, born 1936, as there was between Frank, born 1843, and Jesse, born 1847.

However, the constraints of the TV movie industry and the rather clunky writing – by Bill Stratton, only this and a Gunsmoke TV movie to his Western credit - didn’t exactly help and in this film neither actor was in much danger of winning glittering prizes.

The picture opens, as it had to, with Johnny singing The Ballad of Jesse James, and this remains one of the highlights of the overlong and rather slow movie that follows. We get the 1882 assassination, then flashbacks. Despite the title, the story deals with the last years of Jesse and Frank, 1877 to 1892 to be precise. Once Bob Ford (Darrell Wilks) is dead we just get a brief voiceover to tell us that Frank lived peacefully and died in 1915. This makes the coverage very similar to that of the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it’s done with nowhere near the quality of that fine movie.

Johnny’s Frank is a reformed character, or almost. He wants to settle down and farm. He is a devoted family man and very learned, quoting literature and the Bible all the time. Writers tried to do the same with Doc Holliday, making him a Shakespeare lover, but there is in fact no evidence whatsoever that either was well read or even much more than barely literate. He learns from his wife (Gail Youngs) the song The Old Rugged Cross (not actually written till 1912 but never mind, maybe he had an advance copy).

Johnny as Frank

Kris’s Jesse is rather more of a rogue. He chases women and he it is who convinces Frank to do “one last bank.” He also has regrettable friends and acquaintances who, in the end, bring about his downfall as at one point Frank warns him they will.

Kris as Jesse

We get June Carter Cash as a feisty “Mother James”, made aged by heavy make-up (actually she was Johnny’s wife, not his mother), single-handedly bashing out a song on the harmonium so that Johnny and Kris can join in. Jesse’s wife Zee (Meg Gibson) has a rather small part and Jesse spends much of the runtime wooing Sarah Hite (Marcia Cross). Jeffrey Buckner Ford is William (not Allan) Pinkerton.

The director was William A Graham (below), not the most accomplished of Western helmsmen though he has the Val Kilmer TV Billy the Kid to his name as well as Waterhole Three, if that’s your cup of tea, a few other TV movie Westerns and some episodes of Western TV shows. In this one, though, he definitely lacked pace. Bring back Lesley Selander.

William Graham

It’s in color and shot in some nice Tennessee locations, the Chattanooga choo-choo being used for the hold-up. It’s billed at 120 minutes runtime but it is (mercifully) cut these days for TV viewing and comes in at two hours including commercial breaks.

Once Jesse is dead, Frank surrenders publicly to Governor Crittendon (Ed Evans) and is acquitted after a noisy show trial in which the most fêted celebrity is General Joe Shelby, come to testify on behalf of his old comrade Frank James. The star witness is applauded as he enters the courtroom and no wonder, because it’s Willie Nelson.

Naturally the film can’t resist having Frank go after the Fords for vengeance. This was what Henry Fonda’s Frank did in the Fritz Lang-directed sequel to Fox’s Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James. He attends one of the performances of the lamentable (but profitable) show the Fords put on, which re-enacted the assassination of Jesse, and is restrained by his friend Major Edwards (Ed Bruce) from drawing on the villain in the theater. And he follows Bob to Creede, Colorado (called Creed in the movie) where he is a prime mover in the shotgun slaying of Ford by Ed Kelly (Slick Lawson). He gets to bend over the dying Ford and say grimly, “Goodbye, Bob.”

Actually, Frank James did not hunt down his brother’s killers. Five months after the 1882 assassination he met the Governor in the state capitol and surrendered on the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield. He was tried for only two of the robberies/murders the James gang had committed, both in 1881, the attack on the Rock Island Line train in which the engineer and a passenger were killed, and the robbery of an Army payroll in Alabama. He was acquitted of both. He went to Oklahoma to live with his mother. In later years Frank James worked a variety of jobs, including as a shoe salesman and then as a burlesque theater ticket clerk in St. Louis. In 1903 he was in a short-lived and unsuccessful Wild West show with Cole Younger, who had been released after serving his sentence for the Northfield, Minnesota bank raid.

Cole joined the show

In his final years, Frank returned to the James farm, giving 25¢ tours. He died there in 1915, aged 72.

Frank James aged 55

Still, you can’t blame the movies for jazzing it up a bit.

The whole thing is unexceptional but also unexceptionable.



Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Proud Ones (Fox, 1956)

Ryan at his best (and that's saying a lot)

One of the best of the mid-1950s Westerns, The Proud Ones benefits from a superb performance from its star Robert Ryan. Thank you, reader John Knight, for reminding me that it was still to be reviewed!
The superb Robert Ryan

It was a big production, in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe, photographed by Lucien Ballard, no less, and shot on Fox’s attractive Western town lot and in some fine Arizona locations. And the FoxHome DVD is excellent on my widescreen smart TV.

Cinematographer Ballard (True Grit, The Wild Bunch, et al)

It is in many ways a classic tough-marshal-cleans-up-the-town Western, with Ryan as Marshal Cass Silver of Flat Rock, determined, this time, to stand up to crooked saloon boss Honest John Barrett, played, brilliantly, as ever with such roles, by Robert Middleton. I say “this time” because you see Silver used to be marshal of Keystone (read Tombstone) where Barrett also held sway but the lawman's woman Sally (Virginia Mayo, solid as ever, in the fifth of her eleven Westerns) persuaded him to cut and run because the odds were too stacked against him. He has regretted this ever since, so when Barrett comes to Flat Rock he sees it as being given a second chance, and he ain’t going to run again.

Silver has a couple of deputies, the nervous Jim (Arthur O’Connell) and old-timer Jake (Walter Brennan, practicing for his part in Rio Bravo four years later). And the lawman also hires on a young two-gun hotshot, Thad Anderson (maybe the model for Ricky Nelson’s character in Rio Bravo), who also, it transpires, has ‘a past’. Thad has come up as a cowpoke with a Texas cattle drive (as Ricky would) but he has a grudge against Silver: back in Keystone, Marshal Silver had shot his dad. Uh-oh.

Marshal Ryan with old-timer deputy Brennan

This is actually one of the few weaknesses of the picture: The Proud Ones stands or falls on the interplay between the characters of marshal and young man. At first the youth is surly in the face of the lawman’s kindness. He's a proud one, you see. Will he come round? Will he challenge the older man? Ryan is superb, so no problem there (he always was superb) but Jeffrey Hunter plays the conflicted deputy and he isn’t quite up to the task. You can see him thinking ‘I must act conflicted’, but that’s just it: he’s obviously acting, while Ryan just looks and sounds completely right in his part. You never really believe that Thad will draw on the marshal.

Hunter OK but...

Hunter did a good number of Westerns, starting with Lure of the Wilderness (more of an adventure really) in 1952, also with Walter Brennan, then in '54 he was one of the Three Young Texans. In 1955 he was the Indian Little Dog in White Feather and one of John Brown’s sons in Seven Angry Men. But he really came to Western fame with his part in The Searchers, and John Ford would later make him the star of Sergeant Rutledge (shamefully, Hunter outranked Woody Strode in the credits, but then of course Hunter was white). The Proud Ones was Hunter’s seventh big-screen Western and he isn’t bad in it. He was never bad. He was just not all that good.

Needless to say, there is something Earpish about Ryan’s marshal. We were discussing in comments about Warlock the other day how Henry Fonda’s clean-up-the-town lawman resembled Wyatt Earp (I mean the Wyatt Earp of myth, naturally, not the real one) and there are many Westerns of this type. Robert Ryan was one of the very best in the role.

Marshal and deputy take on the bad guys

Ryan was one of the best ever Western actors. He had started with small parts in Texas Rangers Ride Again and North West Mounted Police (both in 1940) and had been Bat Masterson’s decent supporter in Trail Street with Randolph Scott, in 1947. The same year he was the Sundance Kid in the splendid Return of the Bad Men in 1947 and in fact I always think he was better as the heavy. In 1952 he was the ruthless megalomaniac in Horizons West and the year after he was marvelous as the vicious opponent of James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur. He was outstanding in Bad Day at Black Rock in ’55, maintaining his badman credentials, and the same year he was about the only good thing (though he was wasted in the part) about the turgid The Tall Men. So by the time of The Proud Ones he had a magnificent Western CV, and even as the hero you feel he has semi-badman apsects – as all Earpish marshals should. If there’s a Robert Ryan Fan Club I should be a life member. I must do a Ryanorama career retrospective/Western bio soon.

Ryan magnificent in Westerns

The director was Robert D Webb. Webb had worked as assistant to Henry King, for example on Jesse James, so presumably learned a thing or two. He directed Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender, a title which may have omitted a comma or confused an adjective for an adverb; but hey. His first Western as director was that one with Hunter, White Feather, and The Proud Ones was his third. Afterwards he would only do the late and rather ho-hum Alan Ladd oater Guns of the Timberland in 1960 and the slightly curious South African Western The Jackals with Vincent Price in 1967 so I’m not sure we can think of him as an expert in the genre. Still, The Proud Ones was his best Western and we can’t be too snooty. I mean, snooty, moi?

Robert Webb

Usually in these Westerns you get a respectable dame for the hero to fall for and a racier saloon gal for him to dally with, but he will eventually choose the good woman. This time, though, there’s no sexy moll in the bar, which is a disappointment, and the marshal is clearly in thrall to the restaurant owner Sally (Mayo) who, let it be said, is rather a nag. She doesn’t understand that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and keeps on trying to persuade her beloved to make a run for it again. Not gonna happen. He's a proud one.

Mind, Robert Middleton would have no truck with saloon women. The hefty Middleton nearly always played contemptible villains despite being the mildest and pleasantest of men but he was great in Westerns. Apart from being a regular on TV shows he did a goodly number of big-screen oaters and I think of him especially as the portly detective Siringo (not Charlie, presumably) in Love Me Tender, and he was an excellent dress heavy in Red Sundown three months before The Proud Ones. He was brilliant as the Ike Clanton-ish paterfamilias in Day of the Badman but any Western heavy part suited him (heavy in both senses). He was utterly superb as Big Clay Mathews in Cattle King. One of the great Western character actors.

Middleton and Mayo have a past. Most of the characters do.

Before he takes the job as deputy, Thad tries to hire on as gunslinger to Middleton but the saloon owner turns him down, saying he doesn’t employ henchmen (the liar). In fact no sooner has Thad been turned away than two of the crook’s paid killers turn up in town to dispose of the pesky marshal, namely Chico and Pike, played by our good friend Rodolfo Acosta and the rather sinister Ken Clark, complete with facial scar. Clark, vaguely Chuck Connorish in mien, was a regular on Fox B-Westerns and sci-fi flicks and was actually quite good. He too had started in Love Me Tender and made appearances in The Last Wagon and The True Story of Jesse James (in which Jeffrey Hunter was Frank), making a final appearance in the saddle in A Man Called Sledge. As for Rodolfo, his Western roles are too numerous to mention - this was his tenth feature Western of very many - but he was always good.

Pocket pistols play a key part in the plot (though sadly not proper derringers).

There are some old friends lower down the cast list, such as Whit Bissell as a townsman - the townsmen are properly pusillanimous, leaving the marshal pretty well alone to maintain law ‘n’ order: "If I were a member of this council," the marshal tells them, "I couldn't look in a mirror without vomiting." And Paul E Burns is especially good as a sort of silent (if rather inebriated) Greek chorus. He plays the town drunk who observes what is going on with some sadness. He is treated kindly by the marshal, being sent home from jail, a bit like Jack Elam by Marshal Gary Cooper in High Noon, you know how they do.

Marshal is kind to town drunk

The movie opens and closes to some ghastly whistling but a lot of the music, by Lionel Newman, is rather good, and goes particularly sinister, like a Hitchcock movie, when the hero gets blurry version (he is suffering from concussion) and can’t see to shoot the bad guys.

I like The Proud Ones. It has a classy look and reminds me of, say, Gunfight at the OK Corral or Wichita or The Tin Star, quality mid-50s Westerns with tough lawmen doing what a man’s gotta do and which are still definitely worth a look.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sweet Country (Bunya Productions, 2017)

Aussie Western

There is a long and laudable tradition of the Australian Western that goes back well before Quigley Down Under (1990). The colonial history and then settlement of that vast country has much in common with the American story, with its lack of organized law and order in huge swathes of the land, the often inhospitable terrain and the conflict with aboriginal peoples, as well as the sense the largely European incomers had of entitlement and manifest destiny. Lovers of the American Western in all its forms will readily recognize all this. And in Ned Kelly the Aussies even had their own Jesse James. Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger were only the last in a long line of screen Ned Kellys. In fact one scene in Sweet Country, now showing on Netflix (at least here in France), shows spectators watching an early silent flicker of the outlaw’s exploits.

Of course some might say that ‘Australian Westerns’ are a contradiction in terms. A true Western, purists argue, must be set west of the Mississippi in the period between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century. I don’t agree with that narrow definition. If you look at some Australian motion pictures – take the very fine The Proposition (2005), for example – you will find much that is indubitably Western. And hell, how much further west of the Mississippi can you get than the Outback?

Sweet Country (a gently ironic title) opens with a torrent of racist abuse and that sets the tone for the whole story. The film is really a treatise on the deep-seated, institutional and widespread contempt that the ‘white’ settlers had for the ‘black’ indigenous peoples. It is not the first to do this (we think of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in 1978) but it is certainly one of the most powerful. A newly-arrived farmer, Harry March (Ewen Leslie) asks his neighbor where he gets his “blackstock”. The man, Fred Smith (Sam Neill, such a versatile actor) who does not drink, smoke or swear - or at least he swears but asks forgiveness of heaven when he does so - replies piously that everyone is equal on his station (farm), which March scoffs at. In a way March is right because though Smith’s demeanor is decent he still as a favor lends out his farm hand Sam and his wife Lizzie (Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey Ferber) as free labor to the newcomer, as if they were draught animals.

They go on the run

This March is alcoholic and clearly damaged by his time on the Western front (the story is set in the 1920s). He is in fact close to mad. But he is also a brute who has designs on Sam and Lizzie’s young niece. He says, “I wanted the other one but you’ll do,” and rapes Lizzie instead, in a suggestive and chillingly brutal scene in complete darkness. He then sends the Aborigines away back to Smith’s station with no thanks, pay or food.

Fascinated by the white fella's watch

There is also a boy, Philomac (Tremayne or Trevon Doolan) who may or may not be the son of another neighboring farmer, Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), whom March chains like a dog because he fears the lad will steal from him. But the boy escapes in the night and goes to Smith’s station. March follows him and, crazed with fury, starts shooting into the cabin with his service rifle. To protect himself and his wife, Sam grabs Smith’s shotgun (Smith being away in town) and shoots the psychopathic farmer dead. The boy witnesses the deed but later lies about that.

So now Sam and Lizzie go on the run. He has killed a white man. He knows that any question of the rights and wrongs of that will receive little consideration.

Enter the lawman. Sergeant Fletcher (a superb Bryan Brown, pictured left), also a veteran, is almost as deranged as March. He has the job of raising a posse and tracking down the killer, and he seems obsessed beyond any normal sense of duty with bringing Sam in. It’s almost The Searchers. The pursuers consist of the policeman, a man named Minty (uncredited actor), Smith, Kennedy and an Aboriginal tracker, Kennedy’s man, Arch (Gibson John). Sam leads them into “Aborigine land” (read Indian territory) where the party comes into conflict with a warlike group and Minty is killed. First Smith, then Kennedy and his man give up and return, leaving Fletcher to continue the pursuit alone. He is no match for the wily Sam, who even manages to introduce a scorpion into the policeman’s boot.

Director/cinematographer Warwick Thornton

On the set at Alice Springs

It’s a pursuit/hunt Western, therefore, the kind we have often seen before, with rapid flashbacks and flash-forwards in the modern way. It is done with real atmosphere, with no background music and in “silence” (the loudness of soughing wind and croaking crickets). And the picture is starkly beautiful from a visual point of view too, with cinematography by Dylan River and director Warwick Thornton (who won a Caméra d’Or at Cannes for another movie) highlighting the pitiless nature of the terrain and its huge, empty beauty. The scene in the white sands or salt desert especially has a cruel beauty. The light has a yellow tinge to it, as I have noticed Australian Westerns tend to do. Sometimes the dirt is Arizona-orange but there is still a yellow wash over it.


Though Sam has eluded the pursuing law, his wife now having fallen pregnant by March, he decides to give up and the sergeant, who has narrowly survived (only thanks to having been given water by Sam). The policeman finds the couple one morning sitting cross-legged on the ground outside the jail, waiting for him.

They turn themselves in

We are so used to trials in Westerns being farcical versions of the judicial process with corrupt, biased and incompetent judges, that we fear the worst when Judge Taylor (Matt Day) arrives to hear the case. We are also used to the sound of carpenters hammering and sawing outside the cell, showing that the legal system is hardly bothering to wait for the official verdict. The sergeant gloats over the prisoner, asking him if he can hear the noises. The coarse mob outside the saloon, or pub as they call it, can’t wait either and its members cry, “Hang the black!”

We see a few flickers of humanity from the bigots, and I always think it’s better when the bad guys show some goodness and the good ones some failings. The sergeant loves the saloon woman Nell (Anni Finisterer) and smiles affectionately at her daughter. He dreams of leaving the violent country and setting up a station somewhere (it’ll never happen). And finally he shows decency and a sense of duty which belie is earlier threat to Sam, “I am the law”.

The director/cinematographer had certainly seen some Westerns

But the ending (which I shall not reveal, dear e-readers) is as brutal and racist as the beginning, and there is a clever if ironic twist on the gallows building. We go out to the Johnny Cash song Peace in the Valley for Me, which seems curiously appropriate.

I think it’s a fine movie, and you should catch it if you can. Like The Proposition, it has a four-revolver rating, dudes!

A saloon by any other name would smell as rank