THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)


This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)


Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)


Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)


A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)


Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)


This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)


Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)


Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)


This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.

22 thoughts on “THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

  1. NDJ

    I have the same issues with LAST OF THE MOHICANS that you do: Day-Lewis misinterpreted his role and almost sinks the movie (!), and while I can look at Madeline Stowe all day long, this is another performance where I wonder if she can actually act. But there will never be a better Magua and I like the movie anyway.

    I probably saw several of these as a kid: westerns were staples of old-fashioned teevee in the ’50s and ’60s, but I don’t remember any of them! ALONG CAME JONES would seem worthwhile if only for Cooper’s presence and remembering how beautiful Loretta Young was.

    I had to google Gloria Grahame only to say, “Ahhh, of course! Gloria Grahame.” Someone should make a movie about her and her obsession with her upper lip.


    PS: After I post this, I will be checking to see if our library has any of these in stock. Thanks again!!!

    • I enjoyed Along Came Jones, I just thought it should have been better (which I recall thinking the first time I saw it ages ago). Young looks great but I’m not sure westerns were her thing.

      And somebody should definitely make a movie about GG. That was one, er, “interesting” life!

    • Both solid. Like I said, I’ve liked G of Evil better as I’ve become more acquainted. Might have the same response to The Last Hunt over time. Very interested to know what you think. And I still envy you that library!

  2. That’s a super selection of westerns and gives a good sense of what the genre is about. You get serious drama mixed with high entertainment, a forthright confrontation of the unpleasant and a celebration of the finer side of human nature – all of this painted on a canvas broad enough to accommodate just about any kind of story.
    Your post here also neatly sums up what is often wrong with the more modern iteration of the western – the inability to find some sort of middle ground between po-faced seriousness and blithe indifference. It doesn’t have to be a toss up between grey worthiness and cartoons.

  3. Thanks Colin. I have to say you and Toby have really opened my eyes over the last few years as to just how deep and wide the genre runs, especially in the fifties. i was always a fan but until I ran across sites like yours I really had no idea. I have to say I’m always torn about supporting “modern” westerns. On the one hand I want them to succeed so more will be made. On the other hand, the kind of westerns that tend to get made are not, as you say, exactly worthy. One of these days I’m going to pick some relatively-minor-but-excellent little Golden Age western and point out all the cultural assumptions that underpin the narrative which are no longer true. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep picking up as many as I can. You’ve given me a long-g-g-g list to work on!

  4. I remember Garden of Evil well. It introduced me to Richard Widmark, and I’d watch anything with Susan Hayword and/or Gary Cooper, anyway!
    I’ll look up Gloria Grahame as soon as I get off from this reply.
    Thanks for really digging into this, it’s so easy to look only at the obvious icons. So, like Neal, I’ll be doing some searching for titles, myself.
    Your enthusiasm is appreciated!

  5. Glad to be of assistance! Grahame was best known for being the queen of noir and she had a knack of stealing pretty much any move she was in where she wasn’t asked to be too nice. Hope this leads you to some good ones!

  6. NDJ

    You aren’t the only one recommending westerns: we just finished Tommy Lee Jones’ THE HOMESMAN at a friend’s suggestion. So now I’m asking you to see it and review it so I can have someone to palaver over it with …


    PS: What is the name of/link to Colin and Toby’s site? (Like I need another diversion, right?)

  7. Colin’s is Riding the High Country, Toby’s is 50 Westerns from the 50s…I’ve heard good things about TLJ’s move so I’ll move it on to the list…can’t promise a time frame but I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

  8. Hey! Just got GARDEN OF EVIL and THE LAST HUNT outta the library! To make things even more westerny, I also borrowed SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER and, get this, PAINT YOUR WAGON. Now all I gotta do is get Berni to agree to sit through them with me …

  9. I don’t remember much about Paint Your Wagon, but the rest sound like happy times….Might want to watch Support Your Local Gunfighter last. It’ll be hard to keep a straight face on the others if it’s too fresh in your memory!

  10. That’s two side of the coin for sure. I saw Cat Ballou recently, but I really need to get hold of the Professionals. It’s probably been twenty years or more since I watched it. Far too long. One I definitely need to write about some day is 7 Men From Now. He was made for westerns.

    • Seven Men from Now is indeed sublime and Marvin clears enjoys himself as the cocky and provocative villain, a great foil for Scott’s quiet stoicism.
      If I might add another recommendation for anyone interested in Marvin’s work, watch Monte Walsh. You will not regret it.

  11. NDJ

    Well, we watched GARDEN OF EVIL and thought it so-so. Cooper seemed disinterested in the project. I grew up with a huge crush on Susan hayward and I haven’t watched a movie with her in years. Here she seemed stiff, satisfied with posturing rather than reacting.

    The joy was Widmark, who I have always liked. About midway through the movie, I turned to Berni and remarked, “He reminds me of the Sinatra of the ’50s in this movie.” (That’s a compliment.) She agreed.

    Next time you watch it, see if you see Widmark as a cross between Frank and James Dead …

    As for THE LAST HUNT: we simply couldn’t watch the slaughtering of the bison. A shame, as my appreciation for Stewart Granger leapt back to memory when we watched SCARAMOUCHE a few months ago at your instigation. My youthful memories have him as a much bigger star than he ever was. Just ordered SALOME with Rita Hayworth) and Hitchcock’s ROPE, both with Granger.


    PS: And Rita Moreno was a beauty . . .

    • I actually had a similar reaction to Garden of Evil the first time I watched it. It’s grown on me for some reason (though I still wish it had more Moreno). I’ll buy Widmark as what you say, but it might be fairer to say Sinatra and Dean each took a piece of him (he was doing that sort of thing before Frank made the break from musicals and before Dean was in movies at all). Sorry about The Last Hunt. I thought the realism was bold for its time without going over the top (the way a modern movie on the topic certainly would.) We all have our own level for that sort of thing.

      Just a warning on Rope…I think that’s Farley not Stewart….(like to hear your take, though. That’s an odd one!)

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