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

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Wyoming Mail (Universal, 1950)

An 1860s gangster/heist yarn



Universal player Stephen McNally (left) was probably better as a heavy, and his most famous role in our noble genre was as James Stewart ’s dastardly brother in Anthony Mann’s splendid Winchester ’73, released in June 1950. But four months later he topped the billing as the goody in Wyoming Mail, a lively B-Western we shall now examine, and the following year he would star in the Hugo Fregonese-directed oater Apache Drums. In 1953 he would lead again in The Stand at Apache River, reviewed by us the other day and very similar to Apache Drums. So Universal did give him a crack at Western leads. After those three Western starring roles, though, it was back down to third and fourth billing as character actor - though he would later take the lead again in a Republic B-Western, Hell’s Crossroads (review in the not too distant future). He’s actually not bad in Wyoming Mail, quite convincing as the tough guy working for the railroad who infiltrates the gang. It’s a well-worn plot, of course, especially in the gangster/noir genre.

A voiceover tells us about how the Pony Express - shot of a rider being pierced by an Indian Arrow - gave way to the stagecoach - camera car driving alongside a six-up - but that in 1869, the year of our tale (though of course they all wear 1870s Stetsons and have Colt Peacemaker 1873 models) the railroad brought in the “Post Office on wheels”. But the trains were as prone to robberies, if you are to believe this picture, as the stages were. Hardly a train got through. We are treated to a perfectly splendid sequence of Lee Marvin’s 20-second Western movie debut: he is an engineer, happily driving his train and whistling until a knife, thrown by a galloping robber, thuds into his back. Well, we all have to start somewhere. Actually, Lee got two debuts because Universal used exactly the same footage in Cave of Outlaws the following year! I tell you this on a need-to-know basis, obviously.

Lee makes his Western debut (twice)

Well, the bandits blow the express car with dynamite (unlikely in 1869 but just about possible) and escape with the loot. The rogues are led by Howard da Silva and among their number we discern James Arness, Richard Jaeckel and Gene Evans, so it was a very good gang. They also have an excellent lair, a sort of Hole in the Wall affair, though it looks remarkably like Arizona.

The outlaws' lair

Now we move back East, where Post Office man George Armstrong (Dan Riss, a future Western TV show regular, here in his first feature) is warned by some high-ups, senators and the like, that all these robberies must stop, and he has three months to do it or the Post Office on wheels will be deemed a failure and abandoned. Armstrong says he has an operative working undercover but the fellow has been rumbled and a top-notch replacement is needed. And he knows just the man…

Now we see a prize fight in progress which Steve Davis (McNally) wins after eleven rounds. He used to be Secret Service and he’s the fellow Armstrong wants. Examining the scars of his current profession in the mirror, McNally decides to give up the prizefight lark and take the job as detective. He arrives at Bitter Springs just in time to find the corpse of his predecessor, the telegraph operative (David Sharpe). He has been shot and we, the viewers, see by whom (an old pal, in fact), though Steve has to detect who it was. He finds a horseshoe print and in the dust the letters TP are clearly identifiable on the shoe. TP?

Now he goes into Cheyenne to ask a blacksmith what the TP might signify and there he comes across a glam singer, stage name Denise Verne, real name the more prosaic Mary Williams and even realer name Alexis Smith, actually even realer name still Gladys, green-eyed, husky-voiced leading lady who would co-star with Errol Flynn in two Westerns but who only did five in all, Wyoming Mail and Cave of Outlaws being her last.

La belle Alexis

She and her troupe have a song-and-dance routine: the gals sing a jaunty Take Me to Town while Denise has more of an operetta number. This was right up director Reginald LeBorg (or Le Borg)’s street because he was a specialist in staging operettas and musicals. He had an interesting life, actually. Vienna born, he majored in political economy and afterwards studied musical composition for a year with Arnold Schoenberg. He then entered his dad’s finance business and traveled the world doing deals. He lived for two years in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne. He was no mug, this chap. In the mid-1920s he traveled to New York to dispose of a collection of paintings on his father's behalf. But the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out the family fortune, and he turned to show business, directing musical comedies all over Europe. He arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s and staged musical sequences in movies for Fox, Paramount and United Artists. After a number of second-unit assignments at MGM, Goldwyn and Selznick, Le Borg joined Universal. Wyoming Mail was his first Western for the studio as director. He would do mostly TV shows though he did later helm a few Western features such as The Great Jesse James Raid for Lippert and War Drums for United Artists.

Reginald checks a script
(photo kindly found for me by reader Walter S)

It turns out that TP stands for Territorial Prison and that’s where the horseshoes are made, by convicts under the supervision of corrupt governor Ed Begley (I do like Ed). He it was who shot the telegraph clerk through the window with his Winchester. And by the way the clerk, when shot by a Winchester rifle from only a few feet away, clutched his breast lightly, sighed regretfully and slumped onto his desk, in a very old-fashioned way. In reality he would have been blasted out of his seat. But we'll let that pass. Anyway, in this same jug languishes a certain Sam Wallace (good old Whit Bissell – I told you the cast was top notch) who has the inside info on the gang, so Steve needs to talk to him and get the lowdown.

Nice painted backdrop of the prison

Steve therefore rigs up a scheme whereby he is a wanted robber and gets thrown into clink, where in no time he finds himself, because he won’t cough up his hidden loot to the greedy governor, in ‘the pit’, a dank hole in the ground, with Sam. There Sam spills the beans and also teaches him morse code, which will come in handy.

Corrupt Governor Begley sees the world only through the stereoscope on his desk

Now US Deputy Marshal Indian Joe (Armando Silvestre) breaks Steve and Sam out of the pen, though poor old Sam is killed in the escape. So it’s off to Crystal City, then Omaha, to follow up the leads the late Sam gave him, where, would you believe it, singer Denise is performing too in both places. She gets about. Is there something fishy about her, we wonder?

Well, Steve succeeds in getting elected to the gang and is appointed telegraph operator, thanks to the skills old Sam taught him. So he’s in on the next heist, to rob the Laramie train. Singer Denise is also in on the plot. Aha, I thought so! But who is Mr. Big? She knows but she won’t tell Steve.

We viewers are pretty sure we know who Mr. Big is because heavy hints have been dropped and we have seen movies like this before. But here, dear e-readers, my lips are sealed. You will have to watch the show to find out. But I’ll give you a clue: the Mayor of Tombstone for John Ford. Dyed-in-the-wool Westernistas will now know who it is.

Of course it will be lerve

It’s all a bit complex and contrived, to be honest, and writers Harry Essex, Leonard Lee and Robert Andrews should probably have simplified it a bit, but it’s an entertaining fandango. There’s loads of action in the last reel before a sudden happy ending.

There’s some nice cinematography by Russell Metty of The Misfits fame, though much is shot on cheapo interior sets.

Russ Metty

It was produced by our old pal Aubrey Schenck, a Fox employee who shifted to the newly-formed Eagle-Lion Pictures, teaming up with Howard Koch in Bel-Air Productions. They later went their separate ways but Aubrey remained true to his action B-picture roots, making the likes of Daughters of Satan and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Wyoming Mail was only his second Western but he would go on to do sixteen more oaters, among them such enjoyable pictures as War Paint, The Yellow Tomahawk, Fort Yuma, Revolt at Fort Laramie, Quincannon, Frontier Scout, Rebel in Town, War Drums, Fort Bowie, More Dead than Alive and Barquero. It’s a pretty damn good CV.

Nice poster (I like the creases where it was folded)


Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Last of the Fast Guns (Universal, 1958)

Jocko at the top of his game


George Sherman (1908 - 1991), left with Gilbert Roland while on the set of The Treasure of Pancho Villa, 5' 0” in his socks, began his career in the movie business in the mail room at Warner Brothers before working his way up to assistant director. By the late 1930s, he had graduated to directing in his own right under contract to Republic Pictures, his first oater at the helm being the Three Mesquiteers epic Wild Horse Rodeo in 1937. He followed that up with a long list of other Mesquiteers pictures, including those with John Wayne. Wayne became a lifelong friend and Duke would make him, at least nominally, director on Big Jake in 1971, Sherman's last Western - though by then Sherman was pretty well out of it and Wayne himself did most of the directing. It was typically generous of Duke. 

Early on, Sherman specialized in B-Westerns, especially Gene Autry and Don ‘Red’ Barry oaters. After the war, he turned out similar reliable low-budget fare for Columbia, between 1945 and ‘48, but they were slightly more up-market pictures – the likes of Relentless. Then he moved on to do the same at Universal for another eight years. Universal made glossier films – not huge-budget affairs but ones with decent location shooting in color, with reasonable stars. River Lady, a 1948 Rod Cameron/Yvonne de Carlo picture, was his first Western there and later there came the likes of Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949), Comanche Territory (1950) and some of his best work, Tomahawk (1951) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952). For me, his very best Western at Universal was the outstanding Dawn at Socorro, a superb Rory Calhoun picture, in 1954. Actually, Sherman was a much better director than many have given him credit for.

From 1955 Sherman went freelance and in in that year he directed Calhoun again, with Gilbert Roland, in a Mexican fandango, The Treasure of Pancho Villa for RKO. And it wasn’t long before he was back south of the border to make The Last of the Fast Guns, this time with Jock Mahoney – and Roland again.

The Last of the Fast Guns is an enjoyable picture for two main reasons. One, it has one of the best titles Hollywood ever came up with for a B-Western. The Last of the Fast Guns: leaving aside the musical assonance of it, the whole notion of a fast gun was pure Hollywood. The quick-on-the-draw myth has permeated the genre since its inception, and the idea of a wandering gunslinger (a dime novel/movie word, never used at the time), traveling the West like some sagebrush samurai, is integral to the legend of the West.

And then there’s another element in the title, the word last. The end-of-the-West idea, the notion that the open frontier was dying, stifled by law ‘n’ order and civilization, was also built into the Western from the outset. The first great Western novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) was redolent with it. Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the closing of the frontier, first outlined in 1893, became the orthodoxy. Cowboys ride off into the sunset, not the sunrise. Think of how many Westerns have the word last in their titles: Last of the Comanches, Last of the Dogmen, The Last Outlaw, The Last Hard Men, The Last Frontier, and so on and so on. And think of all those Westerns like The Magnificent Seven or The Wild Bunch or The Shootist (and very many more) which were built around this notion that ‘the Wild West’ was going or gone and gunfighters were now just dinosaurs. The title of Sherman’s Mahoney/Roland picture encapsulated all of that. The picture was to have been called The Western Story and the project was known as that during filming. Thank goodness they changed it!

But enough of these titular ruminations. The second reason why it is an enjoyable flick is that Jock Mahoney (left) was at the top of his game. Jocko had started as a stuntman (and a very good one) and had been promoted to character actor, then lead in Westerns, but at first he was pretty wooden with speaking lines, honestly. The Range Rider on TV (which I followed avidly as a small boy) hardly rewarded great acting. The big screen didn’t seem to help much, either. Watch him in Showdown at Abilene (another great title) or A Day of Fury in 1956, for example. He kinda just stands to attention and recites his lines dutifully. But he really worked on his thespian skills and by the time of Joe Dakota in ’57 he was showing us a much more relaxed and confident Jocko, really quite good. And by ’58 he was a proper Western lead, carrying it off with aplomb – and I’m sure you will agree that there’s nothing like the odd spot of aplomb.

The reviews at the time of Mahoney's part in Fast Guns were not at all bad. Variety wrote that "Mahoney makes a sympathetic and interesting character of his role" and The Hollywood Reporter said it was "a grade A western that goes a long way toward establishing Jock Mahoney as a full-fledged star." And in fact Jocko was beginning to reap the rewards of this modest stardom. While he was in Mexico he bought a 24-foot cabin cruiser. He also bought his wife Maggie a wedding ring. They'd been married for seven years already but he hadn't gotten round to it.

As for good old Gilbert Roland (right), second in the billing, he was rather Hollywood’s tame Mexican. Need a bandit south of the border? Call Gilbert. And of course he was perfect as The Cisco Kid in a series of six movies. He himself said, “I don't have any delusions about myself as an actor. I'm grateful for being able to find enough work all these years.” He was, though, a character actor of some talent, as John Ford understood when he used him in Cheyenne Autumn, and as Anthony Mann had in The Furies. That dashing Latin lover’s mustache is unmistakable and he duly sports it here, neatly clipped as ever. Not that he does any Latin loving. He’s action man in this one.

And interestingly, his costume is all white, in stark contrast to Mahoney’s somber duds. Is Sherman playing with the goody/baddy cliché? The white hats and the black hats? Who is the goody and who the baddy? Ah, time will tell.

The picture was shot in Mexico, in Morelos and Guerrero, and very attractive the locations are too, nicely shot by Alex Phillips, a Canadian cinematographer married to a Mexican and living in Mexico. He also photographed Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country and the Chuck Connors Geronimo, both filmed down Mexico way. In fact much of the crew and many of the extras are Mexican. It’s odd, though: you can often tell when it’s a Mexican movie. Maybe it was the film stock or something but this picture doesn’t look like the usual bright-colored Universal Westerns. Or maybe it's the transfer to DVD.

Nice scenery

There’s a good Spanish DVD (but you can have it in English and without subtitles). The disc did stick annoyingly now and then, freezing the action for a second or two. There’s also a Sidonis DVD but that would mean subtitles you can’t switch off.

Take your choice

It was written by David P Harmon, who had penned Reprisal! for Sherman. Some of the screenplay is a bit wordy and Harmon seems to have aimed for an existential angst not quite suited to a B-Western. Still, most of it rattles along.

The producer was Howard Christie, who began in films as a bit-part actor, becoming assistant director and director at Universal. He produced Abbott & Costello comedies from the late 1940s and was eventually appointed vice-president of Universal's TV division, producing Wagon Train and The Virginian in the late 1950s and through the '60s.

What else can I tell you? Oh yes, the plot. A brief outline anyway. Jock is slick gunslinger Bret Ellison, all in black, who, to establish his Main Street cred, shoots some other two-Colt gunfighter in a quick-draw contest in the first reel. It’s actually quite well done by Sherman because at the crucial moment, just before the lightning draws, the camera cuts to a fresh empty grave, presumably just dug by Ellison, and we just hear the shots off. Budd Boetticher did something similar in the opening scene of Seven Men from Now two years earlier, if you remember, with Randolph Scott doing the shootin'. 

An elderly rich man in a Victorian wheelchair, John Forbes (Carl Benton Reid, often a senior Army officer, as in Escape from Fort Bravo or The Command, also the Mayor of Wichita) now hires Ellison to find his brother Edward, who went to Mexico thirty years ago and hasn’t been seen since. John (who rather incongruously has a picture of The Hay Wain on his wall) wants Edward, not a treacherous partner in San Antone, to inherit his fortune, because he’s on the way out (there’s a good line when Ellison asks how long he’s got and Forbes points to his waist, then to his heart, saying “From here to here.” You get the idea that maybe Ellison takes the job as much out of pity for the sick man as for the money, so the hardened gun-for-hire shows some humanity.

It isn't the first time a man in a wheelchair has hired a 'tec to find a relative

So Jocko trots off southwards (you can tell when he’s in Mexico because he crosses a river and the music changes). First he goes to a ruined palace of some kind where unscrupulous innkeeper Samuel Grypton (pre-Get Smart Edward Platt, parts in Westerns from The Proud Ones in 1956 to Santee in 1973) gives refuge to outlaws and gunmen on the run, and there he meets some good ones, Johnny Ringo (Lee Morgan), Jim Younger - Cole, John and Bob’s brother (Milton Bernstein), and Ben Thompson (Stillman Segar). They are all dinosaur-gunfighters with no future. But they give him some clues about the missing Forbes.

John Ringo, James Younger, Ben Thompson

We must be in 1882 because Ellison tells these outlaws the gloomy news that Jesse James and Billy the Kid have just been killed. Actually, news must have traveled slowly because Billy died nine months before Jesse. But who’s counting? This saddens Ringo, Jim and Ben further, and we get the idea that the title of the movie applies not just to Ellison but to all the fast-gun men of the old West. The mood is what the French call crépusculaire.

Then Ellison turns up at Lorne Greene’s hacienda, where Gilbert Roland is the foreman. On the way he spotted Lorne’s daughter, third-billed Linda Cristal, bathing in a pool (a standard way of getting some mild titillation into staid 1950s Westerns) and he saucily pinches one of her undergarments. We sense a romance looming. Actually, this is one of the weaknesses of the picture: the relationship between the hacendado’s daughter and the gunfighter is never developed and is at best cursory, yet they are supposed to be deeply in lerve and go off together at the end of the movie. They’ve hardly talked to each other by then. This was of course well before The High Chaparral and Linda was not well known to American Westernistas. She’d just had a small part in Comanche a couple of years before.

The pre-Chaparral Cristal

Lorne Greene, the year before Bonanza started, was still quite new to the Western. He’d been good as the bad guy in a Guy Madison picture, The Hard Man, in ’57 but this was only his second. He’s OK, I guess. Ottawa-born Green(e) was a radio broadcaster known as the Voice of Canada and didn’t come to Hollywood till the 1950s. He tries for Irish roots in Fast Guns though has no discernible Irish accent and of course he was about as Irish as I am (i.e. not at all).

His hacienda is the Ponderosa ante diem

Jocko cheats a bit because in the dialogue he is asked his age and he says that in 17 months he’ll be 30. In fact, the following year he would be 40, so he was flattering himself a bit. A further discussion of age ensues when Jocko asks how old Gilbert is, and the only reply is that he is younger than Lorne. Well, Gilbert was born in 1905 and Lorne in 1915 so that wasn’t strictly true either. But anyway, movie stars are notoriously vague about their age and we don’t want to probe too much, do we?

At one point in the dialogue Gilbert says he has traveled the world but Madrid is his home and he longs to go back there. Was that true? In real life Roland once said, "I am a Spaniard, but Mexico is my second fatherland."

As usual, it’s a joy to watch Jocko move. The fluidity with which he mounts a horse is full of grace. The man was a born athlete. No wonder he became Tarzan. A dumpy couch-potato like your Jeff can only watch in wonder.

Goody? Baddy?

Two double-headed silver dollars play a part in the plot. They are supposed to be (but aren’t) 1794 ones. Another good gimmick is that Jocko has, in addition to his slinky two-gun rig, a bolas, which he says a gaucho friend taught him to use, and he saves Gilbert’s life by throwing this device at the legs of a wild bronc which was about to do Gil in. So Gil is eternally grateful, etc., and agrees to go with Jocko to find Forbes’s brother Edward, even though he is against the idea, as everyone else seems to be, too, for the pair get shot at a lot.

Unusual weapon for a gunslinger

Like all proper gunslingers, Ellison is troubled, melancholy, almost bitter, and wants to hang up his guns. The idea is that this will be one last job and then he’ll buy a ranch in Oregon. California, Oregon, in the case of James Garner even Australia, it’s usually somewhere further west, that nirvana where the West is still Wild. It wasn’t, of course. It’s a kind of nostalgia. And you know what they say about nostalgia: it’s not what it was.

The (slightly pretentious) idea is that our (anti)hero is searching as much for inner peace as he is for the brother.

Well, Gil and Jocko can’t find Edward Forbes and no one wants them to. In fact there’s even an assassin who comes in the night to stop them. In the darkness Gil asks, quoting Billy the Kid, “¿Quien es?” He shoots the would-be killer but we can see he hesitates. Is there something fishy about him? Could he even be Edward Forbes? Could Lorne Greene be Edward Forbes? The plot thickens.

Gil took a bullet, though, in the exchange of fire. Luckily a kindly old Mexican priest comes and digs out the slug. There’s a neat moment when the old man is just about to probe the wound with his knife when instead of an “Ow!” of pain from Gil we get a “Caw!” from a crow. Once again, Sherman shifts our gaze from the violent act to an unrelated image that stands in for it.

Franz not an Indian for once

The simple priest is also very helpful to the pair in their search. The padre is played by Eduard Franz. The craggy-faced Mr. Franz was one of Hollywood’s tame Indians, Two Moons in Broken Lance, Red Cloud in The Indian Fighter, Broken Hand in White Feather, and so on. He became quite typecast. This old Padre Jose comes to play an increasingly important part in the plot.

It’s an adventure/noir as much as a Western but it passes muster whichever genre you judge it as.

The climax approaches. Will Ellison get his happy ending on that ranch? Or will he, like Gregory Peck’s Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter in 1950, die stretched out on some dusty ground shot by someone faster than he? Well, the gunman goes back to Grypton’s, where…

But nay, my lips are, as ever (well, sometimes) sealed. You must watch the movie yourself for the dénouement. One thing I can tell you: that bolas comes in handy again.