Rawhide (1951) Henry Hathaway

Rawhide3 Though written by Dudley Nichols, Rawhide is no Stagecoach. Still, the film is interesting despite the fact it never manages to rise above the norm. The setting is a stagecoach relay station in the middle of nowhere. Tyrone Power is Tom Owens, the son of the station’s owner, who has come west to take over the family business with old timer Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan) teaching him the ropes. When the stage pulls in one day, among the passengers on board are Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and her very young niece. Soon after, a Calvary patrol stops by warning everyone that four men have recently broken out of the state prison and are in the area. Due to the potential danger, and company regulations, the stage driver refuses to take Vinnie and the child any further. They are forced to remain at the relay station which turns out to be more of a danger than had she been allowed to continue on her journey with the stage. Continue reading

My Darling Clementine (1946) John Ford

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In John Ford’s 1962 late career masterpiece, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” there’s a line quoted by the town’s newspaper editor, Maxwell Scott, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And that’s just what John Ford was best at, recording the west not as it was, but as more of a mystical fable of how we want the west to be best remembered. Ford and his screenwriters play loose with the facts, still it is one of the most visually stunning of westerns, a black and white canvas of the west as it never existed, but we all wish it had.

Earp’s career has been idolized, revised and sanitized many times over. He was only a lawman for about eight years, and in Tombstone, it was Wyatt’s brother Virgil who was the Marshal with Wyatt and Virgil his deputies.(1) Not to bore you dear reader with the facts, but neither Doc Holliday nor Pop Clanton died during the short thirty second battle. Wyatt actually met Doc Holliday in Dodge City back in 1876 five years before the O.K. Corral shootings.  When they left for Tombstone, John “Doc” Holliday followed. If you want a somewhat more realistic, though still not totally accurate, version of what happened back in 1881 at the O.K. Corral and its aftermath, check out John Sturges “Hour of the Gun.” Oh yeah, a couple of other things, when Wyatt visits the grave of the youngest Earp, James who was killed by the Clanton’s early in the film, his tombstone reads he died in 1882 instead of ’81 when the shootout occurred. And as for Clementine Carter, well she is a purely fictional character. Continue reading

The Ox Bow Incident (1943) William Wellman

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At this point in his career, Henry Fonda was not happy with most of the films he had made. Steinbeck’s classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was certainly one he was proud of, and thanks to John Ford, he got the role of a lifetime. Like Brando as Stanley Kowalski, or Cagney as George M. Cohan, it’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting the role of Tom Joad other than Henry Fonda. But there was a price to be paid for getting that part. 20th Century Fox honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck would only give him the role if he signed a contract with the studio. One of the films he made for Fox during this period was “The Ox-Bow Incident,” based on Walter Van Tilbert Clark’s extraordinary novel. Directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, the film is an oddity in westerns of the period. In 1943, the war was on and most films focused on lightweight escapist entertainment, a two hour break from worrying about husbands, fathers, sons and the horrors of what was happening in the world. “The Ox-Bow Incident” was not lightweight entertainment, it was a downbeat, ugly look at humanity with little gun play, focusing on vigilantism, group mentality, reducing men to the lowest primal level of thoughts and deeds.  It is also possibly the first psychological western ever made. Continue reading

The Far Country (1954) Anthony Mann

James Stewart’s dark side is on full display in this upper north western. As usual with an Anthony Mann western the landscape plays an important part, the Canadian Rockies are majestic, though here the landscape is a combination of the natural beauty and artificial backlots whereas Mann’s other westerns were filmed entirely on location. This gives “The Far Country” a more ethereal tone that fits in with Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, a man who isolates himself from all others in the film except for Ben Tatum, Walter Brennan’s old timer, whose death will trigger him into action.

Stewart’s Jeff Webster is a loner by choice, anti-social, he lives by his own code and depends on no one. “I don’t need help, I take care of me,” he tells Ben, the only person in the film he lets in anyway get close to him. They have been good friends for many years and Ben is very fond of Jeff. Yet, like the Canadian landscape, where much of the film takes place, Stewart remains cold and isolated from everyone else. Continue reading

The Man From Laramie (1955) Anthony Mann

This review contains spoilers

The 1950’s is arguably the finest decade for western films with not only the work of Anthony Mann, but fine work from John Ford (The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande) , Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) , Fred  Zinnemann (High Noon)  and Delmar Daves  (3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Cowboy) among some lesser known works. “The Man from Laramie” was the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart and the first in Cinemascope culminating a brilliant artistic partnership with one the finest westerns of all time.

James Stewart gives another mesmeric performance as Will Lockhart, one more in the line of Mann obsessed cowboys on a revenge seeking mission. Here Stewart’s character is looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death, a soldier in the Calvary whose unit was wiped out by repeating rifle toting Apaches purchased from white men. Three men become Lockhart’s prime suspects, land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), his hot headed insecure son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the head ranch foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy).

Like past Mann/Stewart characters Will Lockhart is not your typical machismo cowboy, he’s unsure and remains vulnerable at times, similar to lead characters in “Winchester ’73” and “The Naked Spur.” Mann’s other male characters in this film display signs of stunted masculinity. Papa Alec overly protective of his uncontrollable son Dave (who reminds me of the John Cassavetes role in the 1958 film “Saddle the Wind”) struggling to meet the stature of his father, acting more like a spoiled child who cannot get his way than an adult, and then there is Vic the foreman who has been like the son Alec never had. Vic will come to realize that no matter what Alec has promised him he will get when he dies; Dave is his blood and will get everything. A sense of tragedy hangs over Alec who was once the most ruthless and powerful man is now forced to face his own vulnerability, he is going blind and with it goes his strength.

Unlike other Mann westerns I have written about so far this film has two female characters instead of one. First there is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece who runs the General Store. Barbara has no love for her callous Uncle Alec as she watched him cheat his brother, and her now dead father, out of his share of land. Like other Mann heroines she is in love, at least in the beginning, with the “bad” guy in the story, in this case Vic. The other main female, and the more important role, is Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), the only rancher not afraid to stand up to the Waggoman’s greed, though she does shares a secret with Lockhart, that she has been in love with old Alec for years. With his oncoming blindness and sense of helplessness she will finally get her man.

“The Man from Laramie” struck me as one of the more sadistic westerns I have come across, two scenes in particular stand out, first during Lockhart’s first altercation with the Waggoman empire when he and his men are surrounded by Dave and some ranch hands for “stealing” salt from the Waggonman’s flats. Lockhart was told by Barbara Waggoman he could take the salt claiming nobody cared. Lockhart discovers otherwise when he quickly finds a rope around his waist and is dragged across the flats. Dave then orders Lockhart’s wagons burned and his mules shot. The second scene is even more unsettling. After being wounded with a gunshot in his hand in an earlier shootout with Lockhart, Dave gets his revenge when his boys capture Will. They hold Lockhart down and with Mann’s camera up close in Lockhart’s face Dave puts a bullet in Lockhart’s shooting hand. While you do not see the gun shot on screen, the scene is so powerful you wince more than once feeling the pain.

Another interesting aspect of this film are the dreams land Baron Alec Waggoman suffers. He wants Lockhart out of town and is even willing to pay to get him out. We find out the this is due to a fear from  a continuous dream Alec has experienced two or three times a week for a long time where a tall, lean stranger is going to come to town and kill his boy. The old man wants Lockhart out. In the end the old man’s dream is deadly to his son as anticipated but only partially correct.

The film is based on a short story by Thomas T. Flynn that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. One problem I had with the film is the lack of motive given to the son Dave for selling rifles to the Indians. It does not do him or his family any good, in fact it is probably was a dangerous move since the Apaches it is assumed would use the weapons against them. One other minor thing is that the film’s title is a misnomer. While he came from Laramie with goods that he initially was delivering in the wagons, Lockhart states later in a conversation with Barbara Waggoman that he has no home and is basically a drifter.  

*****

Short Takes: Elvis on Tour (1972) & No Name on the Bullet (1959)

Elvis on Tour (Malcolm Leo and Andrew Salt)*** By the time this film came out the fat Elvis was still in its incubation stage, here he is not fat but there is a puffiness in his face and a bit of a double chin that reveals to us a sign of what’s soon to come. In the concert footage what has disappeared is any sign of the youthful rockin’ rebel who changed the music world. By this time his shows were fully staged with the King dressed in his Liberace sequined outfits and on his way to becoming a Las Vegas icon. Any signs of youthful rebellion have been drained from his body as surely as Dracula sucked the blood out of his victims. Yet the fans and audience remain faithful, screaming, fighting for a tossed scarf or the thrill of wiping some sweat from his brow. As for the music he sings most sincere when he does anything but the rock and roll tunes that made him famous. They are rushed through like unimportant throwaways, even his latest single at the time “Burning Love” he has to read the lyrics from a piece of paper.  Yet there are glimpse  of what once was, a montage sequence of old clips from the Ed Sullivan shows among others show the young Elvis and his impact.

It is not a bad film, in fact it won a Golden Globe for Best Documentary (tied with another film). What I found sad is the direction that he took in his career becoming almost a joke of what he once was and what he could have been. FYI – Martin Scorsese  was the montage supervisor on the film.

No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold)***1/2 By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Audie Murphy’s film career mainly consisted of low budget westerns destined to be the bottom half of a double feature. Most of them were ordinary films that served their purpose without standing out from the crowd. “No Name on the Bullet” was made and released in the same pattern as all the others. Reviewers at the time noticed nothing special and the film came and went without a ripple.

Examining this film a little more closely one finds an intelligent story of good and evil. Here we have a town full of “good” folks many who  seem to have something to hide. When John Gant (Murphy) a well known gunfighter comes to town everyone knows someone is going to die. Half the town seems to fear they are his intended victim.

Audie Murphy is the most decorated soldier from World War 2 and yet to look at him you would think that is impossible. Small in stature with delicate features he does not appear to be the gunfighter type. I personally kept seeing Clint Eastwood in this role (shades of High Plains Drifter). That said, Murphy does bring a quiet intensity to the part. Directed by Jack Arnold best known for some of the 1950’s best science fiction films (Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man) Arnold directs the impressive script with an unobtrusive style letting the characters  tell the story. Unlike most of Murphy’s westerns, this film is a psychological study of a outwardly peaceful town  filled with decent people but as the film moves along we discover many have dark secrets that they fear will be revealed. Arguably this is Murphy’s most impressive film.