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

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Duel at Silver Creek (Universal, 1952)

Fast-paced, almost lurid

Unless you count the 1945 short Star in the Night, The Duel at Silver Creek was Don Siegel’s first Western (and his first film in color) and it paired Stephen McNally with Audie Murphy, starring also Faith Domergue and Susan Cabot as female leads.
Director Don

Siegel, who had already won two Academy awards for shorts he had made at the end of World War II, and was also an editor of talent (he did the montage on They Died With Their Boots On) still spent most of the 1950s making intelligent, crafted but, honestly, B-movies like Riot in Cell Block 11 and Crime in the Streets. Later he would make A-pictures and in the Western genre he directed Elvis Presley’s best movie, a good Western, Flaming Star. He had a long professional relationship and personal friendship with Clint Eastwood, who has often said that everything he knows about film-making he learned from Siegel. Siegel produced The Legend of Jesse James on TV, and also for TV directed Stranger on the Run with Henry Fonda. Death of a Gunfighter with Richard Widmark wasn’t a great success, and Two Mules for Sister Sara, with Eastwood, was pretty bad. Apart from Flaming Star, it wasn’t, in fact, a very distinguished Western record as director. But all could be forgiven, of course, for his splendid The Shootist with John Wayne in 1976, his, and Duke’s, last Western. Siegel’s first full-length feature oater, The Duel at Silver Creek, was flawed, flashy and essentially rather trashy, in a Samuel Fuller kind of way.

McNally is the marshal

McNally, billed third after Murphy and Domergue, had first appeared in a Western as James Stewart’s evil brother Dutch Henry Brown in Winchester ’73 in 1950, and Universal had then tried him out as a lead. He topped the billing in Wyoming Mail, Apache Drums and The Stand at Apache River. But though he wasn’t too bad, he was basically found wanting, and he was relegated to support roles, often as bad guy (for example with Audie again in Hell Bent for Leather), then TV. In this one he plays the lawman trying to track down a gang of claim jumpers who hires on slick gunman the Silver Kid (Murphy) as deputy. Unfortunately his character is rather a dolt, falling hook, line and sinker for the wicked dame (Domergue), not listening to reason and generally almost ruining everything. He has a voiceover commentary role, which adds to the slight gangster-noir vibe.

Nice titles

Audie was still in the early stages of his Western career. He had signed for Universal in 1950 and made several ‘kid’ pictures: he was the young Jesse James in Kansas Raiders; a surly young son in Sierra (with his new wife Wanda Hendrix); he was Billy the Kid in The Kid from Texas; and then he was a young Bill Doolin in the Budd Boetticher-directed The Cimarron Kid a few months before Silver Creek. In Silver Creek he still looked incredibly baby-faced but he hadn’t really found his acting feet yet. It is hardly a magisterial performance, though he does come across as earnest and doing his best. He does look a bit silly in his 50s flappy pants and two-gun rig.

Audie's fifth Universal oater

Domergue had started as a, how shall we say, protégée of Howard Hughes, who signed her to his studio RKO, as Faith Dorn, but once their affair was over, in 1943, she reclaimed her real name, which for some reason she always insisted be pronounced demure, and became a star with Vendetta, then made the noir Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum in which she played a homicidal femme fatale (perhaps that was why she was hired as ruthless schemer in Silver Creek). She made quite a thing of Westerns in the 50s. Silver Creek was her first but she also did The Great Sioux Uprising with Jeff Chandler, Santa Fe Passage with John Payne, and Escort West with Victor Mature, also making appearances in Western TV shows. In Silver Creek, dressed up to the nines, she establishes her femme fatale credentials right away by garroting a wounded man to death on her first appearance. Ooo, that’s bad.

She isn't very demure in this one

Cabot, future Wasp Woman for Roger Corman, plays the jeans-wearing tomboyish ingénue in Silver Creek. She had appeared, as an Indian, in Universal’s Tomahawk in 1951 with Van Heflin and would do a trio of Audie Westerns in the early 50s (Gunsmoke and Ride Clear of Diablo were the others) as well as oaters with Joel McCrea (Fort Massacre) and, as an Indian again, with John Lund & Jeff Chandler (The Battle at Apache Pass). In Silver Creek she is the girl Dusty, who sighs over Marshal McNally but he hardly even sees her (he tousles her hair every time they meet, as if she were a dog). It’s the young deputy who falls for her but she in her turn can hardly see Audie, besotted as she is with the marshal. Still, it all comes right in the end.

Susan wears the pants

It will (eventually) be lerve

Lower down the cast list we have Gerald Mohr as the chief baddy, consort of Domergue (I mean Demure). You know Mohr, a specialist villain who looked vaguely like Humphrey Bogart. Though he did mostly TV shows as far as Westerns go, he did appear (usually as villain) in some feature oaters, of the B-ish persuasion, such as Bad Men of Tombstone, Wyoming Mail, Montana Territory, Raiders of Old California and a few others. He’s quite good as the nasty leader of the gang who smilingly pretends to support the marshal.

Lee marvelous. When was he anything less?

Eugene Iglesias is the Mexican gunman Johnny Sombrero, Lee Marvin is the saloon thug Tinhorn - his poker game with Audie is superb, James Anderson is Ratface, the gunslinger from Tombstone. You can see by the character names that we are in pretty lurid gangster-western territory. McNally is Lightning Tyrone, so-called for the speed of his draw, and Audie of course is the Silver Kid. In fact you do wonder if the whole thing was done a bit tongue-in-cheek. Was Siegel making a deliberately sensational B-Western? Much of the action, and also the script, would indicate that he was almost sending the genre up. Even the title is rather B-Westernish: there were Duels all over the place, Gun Duel in Durango, Duel in the Sun, Duel at Diablo, and so on.

Iglesias's figure verging on the ridiculous

We open with the gang of claim-jumpers, whose game is to get prospectors to sign over their claims at gunpoint, then murder them in cold blood so they can tell no tales. One of their victims is the Silver Kid’s dad (our old pal Harry Harvey), so of course the Kid seeks revenge. He gets one of the bad guys and finds he is wearing a turquoise medallion. This will prove a clue.

He gets into a poker game in the saloon with Tinhorn (Marvin), who accuses him of cheatin’ and it leads to gunplay. But Marshal Tyrone is impressed with the speed of the boy’s draw and instead of arresting him, hires him on as a deputy. You see, the marshal has a problem. He was shot while leading a posse against the gang and though his wound has healed and his eponymous quick-draw is unimpaired, his trigger finger is paralyzed and he cain’t shoot. So, keeping this secret, he needs someone handy with a six-gun.

Audie wins at poker

While Lightning was away at Fort Lowell getting treatment for his wound, the old-timer deputy he left in charge, Pops (Griff Barnett) was brutally slain, shot in the back and left in the rainy street. Who did this dastardly deed? When he gets back, the marshal likes Johnny Sombrero for it. Or was it Ratface?

It’s one of those Westerns where everyone gallops at full speed all over the place. No posse can simply gather and ride out of town; they have to gallop out. Ditto the gang. Also Audie. In fact everyone. Usually they do this while shooting, much of it in the air, as they so often did in bad Westerns. It serves no purpose whatsoever but may have been fun for the extras. When dismounted, in the (frequent) gun battles, they ‘throw’ their shots, as if that might make the bullets go faster. Honestly, it’s all a bit cheesy. But maybe that was the point.

Well, there’s much plotting and skullduggery, double-crossing galore, a very Samuel Fullerish Main Street showdown between Lightning and Johnny Sombrero, and it all climaxes in a big shoot-out at the gang’s lair (in which McNally finds himself once again in a gunfight in the rocks but this time on the side of the goodies). The baddies are all killed or surrender and Audie gets the girl (Cabot, of course; it’s RIP for Faith). It’s routine and predictable, but it’s vigorous, fast-paced and done with gusto. Siegel was good at moving-camera shots and unusual angles, and this gives interest.

Good aerial shot of the showdown

Johnny bites the dust

Much of the blame (or credit if you like the picture) must go to Gerald Drayson Adams, who, with some additions from Joseph Hoffman (Tall Man Riding, Rails into Laramie, The Lone Hand), wrote the story and screenplay. Adams was a former business executive and literary agent who was educated at Oxford University in England (and Siegel went to Cambridge so it was quite an educated outfit), and began writing for the screen in the mid-1940s. He started on The Plunderers (the Rod Cameron one) in 1948 and would later do the likes of Flaming Feather, Wings of the Hawk, Taza, Son of Cochise and The Gambler from Natchez, as well as many TV shows. The dialogue of Silver Creek heightens the lurid tone.

Mohr leads the murderous claim-jumpers, skunks, the lot of them. Actually, this frame has an almost old-master look about it. That prospector could be an Old Testament prophet by some Renaissance artist. If they had Colt .45s in the Renaissance.
Which they didn't.

It’s all in bright Technicolor, shot in the usual Iverson Ranch and Vasquez Rocks locations by Irving Glassberg, of Bend of the River fame. Universal did not stint on this aspect and their 50s Westerns were often very good-looking. There’s also chirpy, even stirring music by Hans J Salter and Paul Sawtell, among others. Brian Garfield called the picture “implausible, predictable and dull”. I probably agree with the first two adjectives, but it isn’t dull. The DVD Talk review said it was a "film too silly to be any good and too unpretentious to dislike", which is quite astute. I'm not sure if I should have given it three revolvers. Maybe I was too generous. In the last resort, if Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was schlock horror, this is a schlock Western.



Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Hired Gun (MGM, 1957)

Rory becomes a producer

In 1956 Rory Calhoun and agent/producer Victor Orsatti set up a company, Rorvic Productions, to make Westerns. It didn’t last too long but there were a trio of Western features, a couple of TV films and the series The Texan on CBS. The Hired Gun was the first fruit of this collaboration. Like most of Rory’s oaters, it’s quite good.
The Producers

Visually, it’s very attractive. Though in black & white, it benefited greatly from cinematographer Harold J Marzorati’s excellent use of CinemaScope and also of the splendid Lone Pine locations. Though the story is set at different times in Texas, Mexico and New Mexico, it’s all really California, but it doesn’t matter. It’s so ‘Western’ and the terrain is perfect. Marzorati wasn’t a Western specialist (he only shot three) but he did a fine job on this one.

Lone Pine in CinemaScope monochrome

It was directed by good old Ray Nazarro, who also helmed the other Rorvic Calhoun Western of that year, Domino Kid. Nazarro had been a Columbia stalwart, churning out B-Westerns, especially Durango Kid ones, for years before moving to TV and working especially on Fury, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Jr. He was, if not a great artist, a pro who knew the business inside out.

Ray Nazarro with Adele Roberts

The two writers were also experienced hands, Buckley Angell and David Lang, who did mostly TV work but also the occasional feature B-Western. On The Hired Gun they did a competent job, managing to bring in a little tension and even some character development.

The leading lady was Anne Francis. We Westernistas probably think of her principally as Liz Wirth in Bad Day at Black Rock two years before this. She was also featured with Clint Walker in More Dead than Alive in 1969 and in the (dreadful) 1972 Pancho Villa, the one with Telly Savalas (and Clint Walker again). But she was no specialist in the genre, by any means. In The Hired Gun she opens proceedings when we see a noose and as a voiceover she tells us that she is about to be hanged, the first woman ever to suffer that fate in Texas – and she is innocent.

La Francis

However, she escapes that gruesome destiny thanks to a preacher (Chuck Connors) with a derringer secreted in a bible. Now, dear e-readers, come on. Where have you seen that before? Yup, that’s right, the plot device would be used at least twice again, by Revd. Dwayne Hickman in Cat Ballou and Revd. Robert Mitchum in 5 Card Stud. Fair enough. An excellent plot device it is.

Revd. Chuck has a derringer in a bible

So Revd. Chuck spirits Ellen (Francis) away to New Mexico, and a judge declines extradition on the grounds that the ‘proof’ of her guilt is circumstantial at best. This does not please big (and ruthless, obviously) rancher Mace Beldon (our old pal John Litel) because you see it was his son whom Ellen was accused of killing, though the two were married. He wants Ellen’s blood. And equally bloodthirsty towards the escapee murderess is Mace’s other son, Kell Beldon, played by Dr. Ben Casey. Vince Edwards actually did four Western features. He was Hiawatha in 1952, and the same year as The Hired Gun he would appear in another Calhoun Western (though not a Rorvic one), Ride Out for Revenge. In The Hired Gun he is evidently a bad egg, you can tell that from the get-go. In fact, you say, as you watch, 'I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the one who killed his brother' (half-brother, it turns out) and, if I may be allowed a spoiler (because it isn’t one really) if you say this you will be proved in the last reel to be not that wide of the mark.

Gun for hire

It’s only now that Rory comes in. Rancher Mace decides to cut to the chase and hire a gunman to get Ellen back rather than bothering with annoying details like law. He recruits feared gunslinger Gil McCord for $5000 down in Santa Bella, Mexico. Now, with a title like The Hired Gun and Rory being a gun for hire and all you may think that’s a bit rum for a hero but it’s alright, Gil’s a goody really. Plus, they deputize him so he has a badge. That way, if he shoots Chuck or something, he’s within his rights. Anyway, he nips off to New Mexico and hires on as a cowpoke at round-up time on the ranch where Ellen is living, though he doesn’t seem to do much cow-punching.

Chuck (who’s a foreman, not a clergyman) loves Ellen but she isn’t interested. This will lead to tension, especially when a handsome man in black turns up (Gil). Chuck is jealous as well as suspicious. We see right away that Ellen will fall for Gil and, we wouldn’t be surprised, vice probably versa. And so, dear reader, it pans out.

Initial antagonism turns to lerve

On the journey back to Texas Gil and Ellen will have to face many dangers, Indians, for example, as well as the pursuing Chuck. Gil is able to deal with all the threats, with a little help from Ellen.

When they get back, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams will have a much-delayed role as a drunken scoundrel and false witness but Rory will punch him out OK.

On the trip, though, MGM indulged in that annoying habit they had of ruining perfectly good location shooting by having their stars in close-up shot in a studio against a back-projection of the location scenery. Why did they do that so much? Was it cheaper? I wouldn't have thought so. Oh well.

Studio stills

They also used speeded-up film, a particularly crude technique from B-Westerns meant to increase drama, action and excitement but in reality only looking silly.

Will Gil believe Ellen when she says she is innocent? Will be deliver her into the hands of the ruthless rancher who is paying him? Will the real killer be unmasked? Will Gil and Ellen live happily ever after?

Yes, no, yes, probably.

Brian Garfield called this Western “dutiful and ordinary” and I suppose he had a point but I like it rather better than that. It’s a bit predictable but it’s brisk, visually fine, has a strong cast and the DVD is good. It might not quite have deserved its three-revolver rating but I'm a bit of a Rory fan. And there was the derringer.

According to Dennis Schwartz, “Shortly before the film was released, Confidential magazine, the scandal tabloid, had run a story about Rory's record as a juvenile delinquent. Its source of information was rumored to be Universal, which gave up lesser star Rory as a trade-off to protect a juicy story about superstar Rock Hudson that the magazine was planning to run. Rory admitted it was true and his career resumed uninterrupted.” I tell you this on a need-to-know basis.



Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Guns of Fort Petticoat (Columbia, 1957)

Not so funny these days

Not one of Audie’s best, this Western (the first Murphy made put out by Columbia – in fact his first non-Universal oater) suffers from an implausible plot and clunky writing. It does have its points: visually it’s attractive, with bright Technicolor footage shot by the great Ray Rennahan around Old Tucson, in saguaro country. It’s supposed to be Texas, and I never saw a saguaro in Texas, but never mind, it’s pretty, and it’s ‘Western’.
Texas, Arizona

The screenplay was by Walter Doniger, who specialized in military subjects and also directed a good number of Western TV shows, his second of only two big-screen oaters after Along the Great Divide. It was based on a potentially interesting story by C William Harrison, who wrote up to 1200 novels, non-fiction books and pulp and slick magazine stories, often under the name of Will Hickok. This was the only one made into a movie as far as I know.

Doniger (Getty photo)

It is, at least peripherally, a Col. Chivington/Sand Creek Massacre story. This horrendous episode, which took place in Colorado in 1864, is one of the most shameful in American history but it is dealt with here in a manner that is frankly perfunctory. In unbelievable dialogue in the opening scenes, Chivington (Ainslie Pryor, bizarrely uncredited), who is for some reason a regular Army officer, announces “We’re marchin’ on Sand Creek!” and Lt. Frank Hewitt (Audie Murphy) replies, “You can’t do that!” It’s a twenty-second dialogue written by a ten-year-old. We are shown short, cursory and low-budget scenes of Chivington’s men massacring Indians, who fall when shot in old-fashioned B-Western style. It is all essentially a cheap trivialization of the Sand Creek Massacre in rather poor taste. Lt. Hewitt isn’t there; he has been confined to quarters for insubordination. But he ignores that, becoming effectively a deserter, and rides to Texas (don’t ask me why) to warn them there against the Comanches on the warpath. Yes, I know, they were Cheyenne at Sand Creek but Comanches are more Texan, I guess.

Col. John Chivington and his 1950s alter ego

Anyway, the whole Sand Creek business goes away for most of the movie, resurfacing, again in an off-hand way, in the last reel. The film now becomes a siege Western with brave whites fighting off generic and nameless savages, as in countless old-style Westerns of yore.

It transpires that Lt. Hewitt is a Texan (well, it is Audie) and yet his uniform is blue, so he is regarded with scorn by the inhabitants of Jonesville when he gets there. They are nearly all women, the menfolk having left to fight on the Confederate side. One is Stella (Patricia Livingston), Hewitt's ex, who up and married another fellow in pique when he left. Another is sassy youngster Anne Martin (second-billed Kathryn Grant) who secretly fancies him. And there’s a formidable three-times widow, Hannah (Hope Emerson, the most entertaining member of the cast, 6' 2" and 230 pounds, also excellent in Westward the Women). The hostility of these women turns to grudging respect, then outright loyalty and admiration, as they and the lieutenant face danger together. That’s the plot.

Fine photograph of Hope

The lieutenant trains the women up, much as the gunmen were to do to the Mexican villagers in The Magnificent Seven three years later, teaching them how to shoot and preparing the ground for the coming attack. As in The Mag Seven there is an inexhaustible supply of enemies for the defenders to shoot down. The training scenes doubtless gave rise to much hilarity for the 1950s audience as Audie yells to the women, “Come on, men!” and the ladies hitch up their skirts ready to charge. In that innocent, pre-feminist day, audiences (male and female) could chuckle at the incongruity of ladies doing drill and shouldering arms. All this aspect is rather less funny these days.

Come on, men!

Don't pull the trigger, squeeze

Many of the women have late-model Winchesters, which was clever for 1864. Perhaps they were advance prototypes.

There’s a louche blonde saloon woman who plays the piano, Lucy (Peggy Maley) and a posh Virginian lady (Isobel Elsom) with a Negro maid (Ernestine Wade). There’s also a very tiresome religious nut who nearly gets them all killed and gets a young boy shot (not sure who she was). The boy (Kim Charney) is also tiresome, a bit of a brat. He probably deserved to get shot. The writers were trying to differentiate the women a bit, I guess, so that characters stood out. They partially succeeded.

McClory is the Irish scoundrel

There is one man left in Jonesville, the slimy Emmet Kettle (Irishman Sean McClory). He has got one of the women pregnant and she is desperate, but he is just using her. Locked up by the lieutenant in the mission for trying to escape and stealing the officer’s horse, he blarneys the girl into releasing him and makes a run for it. In an abandoned farmhouse he comes across three outlaws. Good news: they are James Griffith, Ray Teal and Nestor Paiva. Excellent! Cruel, laughing villain Ray, wonderfully good as always; portly, cowardly, smiling Mexican, Nestor, always entertaining; both led by runty, unshaven, frock-coated ruthless murderer James, cadaverously excellent. All three are quite ready to sell the women out to the Indians (would probably cheerfully sell their grandmothers) to save their worthless hides, which they do not. They are very villainous indeed and better news still: Griffith does Kettle in with a derringer. He does it smilingly, while the victim is tied up. Ooh, that's bad. Mind, these outlaws are soon killed off by the Indians and they are a bit extraneous to the plot.

The three bad guys, Teal, Griffith, Paiva. Splendid.

James Griffith not only uses a derringer: the man he shoots is tied up

Lower down the cast list I spotted Charles Horvath as an Indian chief (he often did that), John Dierkes as a storekeeper (how tall he was!), Francis McDonald as Col. Chivington’s aide and Al Wyatt as a sergeant. They had almost nothing to say but it’s good to see them. Charles and Al also did the stunts, of course.

The picture was directed by George Marshall, certainly a big name as far as Hollywood helmsmen go, though probably more comfortable in the world of the comedy Western. He made Destry twice after all – Destry Rides Again in 1939 and Destry in 1954, the latter also with Audie - and had been making funny Westerns since Love’s Lariat in 1916 with Harry Carey (that’s going back a bit). Fancy Pants with Bob Hope, The Sheepman and Advance to the Rear with Glenn Ford, he really did comedy Westerns. The serious ones he made were less good – The Savage, Pillars of the Sky, his segment of How the West was Won, these weren’t too hot. Fort Petticoat does have its comedy moments but is basically played straight and you sense that Marshall wasn’t really in his element.

In 1958

It was produced by Murphy with Harry Joe Brown, and was no cheapskate affair. It had Marshall at the helm, Rennahan as DP, music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff, and a goodish cast. It’s just a pity they didn’t get a better script. It was supposed to be the first movie of a three-picture collaboration between Murphy and Brown but they seem to have fallen out and the other two never got made.

Audie is rather bossy. Almost a nag. He bravely captures the Indians’ medicine man and they rather gruesomely hoist up his corpse on the ramparts. This makes the Indians lose heart and they gallop away.

Source novel

Audie has to go back to Colorado to face the music. He has deserted and, as you well know, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. But the ending is too pat, Audie is saved by a deus ex machina (a nameless general) and the gals come in to free their commander, Chivington is arrested for the massacre and all’s well that ends too well, I’m afraid.

No, it’s not one of Audie’s best. At times it verges on the bad. But it does have its points. World War II was a fresh memory in most of the spectators’ minds; women had played a vital role in the American war effort and people were beginning to think differently. Perhaps there was a proto-feminist message in the film after all. Women unite and beat men at their own game.

And I’ll watch Audie in anything.

Nice German poster

Happily, though, Audie rode back to Universal the following year and made the rather good Ride a Crooked Trail.