THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (June, 2017 Edition)

As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.

June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)

Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.

June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.

June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)

Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.

June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)

Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?

June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)

Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.

June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)

For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.

June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)

For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.

June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.

June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.

June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.

…Til next time!

THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

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Happy to be taking part in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea Blogathon. Toby blogs at 50 Westerns from the 50’s, which is on my blog-roll and highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of a bottomless subject. His comment section alone is more informative than a lot of books. Anyway, I picked McCrea’s turn as a pre-legend Wyatt Earp in Wichita, one of many superficially unassuming westerns that have grown with time and repeated viewings. Please take the time to click on the link provided and peruse the other entries….There’s always much to learn, even on an average day.

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By the time (1955) Joel McCrea played Wyatt Earp, in Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, both men were at the height of their fame and iconography. McCrea had been a major Hollywood star for a generation. Earp had been a legend, both in his own mind and elsewhere, for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Nonetheless, on paper it  wasn’t the most natural pairing.

McCrea was sufficiently laconic to give Gary Cooper a run for his money, while Earp’s legend had grown, in part, because of his flamboyance–both as a lawman and a story-teller. Still, in the age just after the closing of the Frontier and just before our present Return to the Primitive, Civilization was thought best managed by the sort of man McCrea was best at portraying. It was what made him a star then and what now leaves him vulnerable to memory’s fast-fade. You don’t quite have to be an aficionado–of Hollywood or the Western–to recognize the value of McCrea’s name in a credit. But, each year more than than the last, it helps.

The Laconic Hero certainly wasn’t all he could play, even in westerns. He wasn’t Preston Sturges’s main boy for nothing, and, in a stone-cold classic like Colorado Territory, he was able to give his rock-solid persona the sort of tiny, invisible nudge (common to the great leading men of his day, virtually unheard of now that everyone’s been to “acting school”), that made him more than credible as the lone competent man in a brutal hole-in-the-wall hold-up gang…and, oh-by-the-way improve on Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn in High Sierra (of which Colorado Territory was a superior western re-make).

Still, by the fifties, he had grown comfortable in his more basic man-of-the-west persona, and that’s certainly at the core of his presence throughout Wichita.

It’s also part of what makes the movie deceptively quiet. Despite a surfeit of plot and action, plenty of Tourneur’s always deft and subtly impressive visuals, and a strong cast even by fifties’ western standards (Edgar Buchanan, Vera Miles, Walter Coy, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke…like that, plus an especially fine turn from Wallace Ford as a newspaper editor who’s seen it all before), it can fool you into thinking not much is going on.

Wyatt Earp–not then a name carrying the particular weight that attaches to any version of the Dodge City or Tombstone tales upon which Earp’s legend was built–comes to Wichita to start a business. Then the usual stuff happens.

He averts a holdup at the bank where he is about to deposit his money….

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He turns down a marshal’s badge because he’s not interested….

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He then takes the badge when it becomes evident he’ll never get a business off the ground in any place as wild and lawless as Wichita (the woman is cradling her dead child, just shot through an open window by the cowpokes who have taken over the town…and whose business the town desperately needs)…

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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To the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor…

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In part by wooing the town’s prettiest girl. (Miles, just before she altered the worlds of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And, while she’s fine here–when was she not?–and you can already learn things by watching her, it’s clear Tourneur, one of the period’s finest directors, didn’t see the qualities they saw. One of the distinctions between even great talent and genius I suppose).

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More than all that, he begins to accept his destiny as a “natural born lawman….”

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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And make it stick until he and the girl can ride off into the sunset, where–having both his history and his myth handy–we know he will clean up other, even more raucous towns, and, unlike most legendary western characters, live to make sure at least some of the tales get told the way he wants them told.

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Simple enough. But that basic story rests inside a larger, subtler one, one which involves a hard-headed look at small town politics, the responsibilities of leadership and power, the testing of character and, yes, the fragility of Civilization. How close the run is between here…

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and here…

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and here…where even those who rejected Civilization a moment before are suddenly reminded of its virtues.

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By movie’s end, McCrea (and his legend) and Earp (and his legend) have merged in a way that hardly seemed possible at the beginning, when the “pilgrim, probably looking for something to eat” approached a cattle drive that would soon shape his destiny.

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In that beginning, McCrea’s at his most lock-jawed and generic. He really could be almost anybody and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how perfectly that suits the Wyatt Earp who, as a later Prophet might have had it, is busy being born. In the world of 1955, or 2016, we expect anyone playing Earp to have a star quality that’s evident from the moment we set eyes on him. But McCrea, who was perfectly capable of exuding that quality, holds it in check as he rides into the movie. It’s preparatory to his playing Earp as a character we don’t know, and who perhaps does not yet know himself. Once you realize that–and I confess it took me several viewings, though of course that’s an acknowledgement there was always plenty to draw me back–the movie itself gets a whole lot more interesting.

It’s credible that McCrea’s Earp is the kind of man a couple of cowpokes would take for an easy mark. And just as credible that they lose first their sense of superiority, and, consequently, their lives, for their mistake.

That’s the sort of duality McCrea’s rare breed of actor specialized in. He had company in this regard, but you wouldn’t need much more than a card table to seat them. Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott. Just then coming on the scene, James Garner. Maybe Jimmy Stewart at a stretch. But you could be as great as John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas and never convince an audience that the dumbest cowpoke ever born could mistake you for a mark.

McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do, even in a film where the adversaries aren’t limited to the obvious bad guys. That he’ll tangle with Bridges, Elam, Buchanan, is clear enough. Here, as elsewhere, they were hired to be the sort of men Joel McCrea would have to dispense with. They, too, could do other things, but it’s not asked of them here at the birth of Wyatt Earp, where they do what they do as superbly as ever.

This Wyatt Earp’s biggest run-in, though, is with Walter Coy’s character, Sam McCoy, and not just because he’s Laurie McCoy’s (Miles) father.

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Coy was a fine actor who was often hired to play basically decent but feckless men. This might be his best turn. He shifts from glad-hander to big shot to concerned father to vengeful widower to the film’s chastened conscience as easily and naturally as McCrea shifts from wanderer to lawman and it’s these performances, along with Ford’s beautifully underplayed curmudgeon and (underutilized though she is) the early peek at Miles, already shouldering the permanently thankless burden of representing Civilization, a heartbeat before The Wrong Man and The Searchers, that give the film enduring interest.

I don’t know if the interest is bottomless…But I feel like I’m a long way from being done with it yet.

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VILLAINS BLOGATHON…JACK ELAM IN RAWHIDE (I Watch Westerns…Take Four)

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(This is part of Speakeasy’s Blogathon on movie villains of all shapes and sizes. Beginning Sunday, May 15, I urge everyone to click over and read through their fabulous collection of posts. Please be aware that this essay on Jack Elam in Rawhide contains its share of possible SPOILERS! NOTE TO NEW READERS: This is a pop culture blog where the greatest emphasis lies on classic rock and soul music, but If you are visiting for the first time and have any interest in my further take on westerns, you may want to visit the “John Ford” and “I Watch Westerns” categories at the right. All comments, on subjects old and new, are welcomed!)

Rawhide (1951)
Henry Hathaway, Director.

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Jack Elam is billed sixth in Henry Hathaway’s taut-as-a-hangman’s-rope, 1951 western, Rawhide. He, and the movie, are lucky he was in it at all. So are we.

On one of the first days of shooting, star Susan Hayward had a long-shot scene where she was running away from Elam’s one-name character, Tevis, carrying a doll which was a stand-in for a baby. Only she wasn’t running away from Jack Elam. He hadn’t been cast. Instead the scene was being played by someone out from New York, who was enamored of the Method.

Sometime after he lit out for Ms. Hayward and her doll, he evidently began to think about what his character would really do. What he decided, rather impulsively, was that his character would tackle Ms. Hayward, already a major star, and take her and her doll to the ground.

He then proceeded to act upon his impulse.

Ms. Hayward picked herself up and dusted herself off and went about the day’s shooting.

The next morning, the impulsive young Method actor was off the set. Elam was hired in his place.

I doubt that a single person who has seen Jack Elam’s Tevis over the sixty-five years of the film’s existence has ever imagined that anyone else could have played him, not least because Elam would reprise the type so often and so convincingly over the next two decades that there was finally nothing left for him to do but spoof it, which he also did brilliantly.

But Rawhide was his breakout. And if no one can quite imagine anyone else in the role, it’s because he accomplished a hard task. It’s never easy to be the meanest snake in a snake-pit. Especially when you aren’t the head snake and the meanness has to leak out of you, as opposed to being merely “acted.”

More especially when the other snakes might yet retain human qualities, qualities that can be appealed to by helpless victims in fear of their lives.

In Rawhide, Elam has no such qualities. He’s an outlaw in a gang sure.

But the head outlaw, Hugh Marlowe’s Rafe Zimmerman, pretending to be a Deputy Sheriff,  looks like this:

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And Elam’s Tevis, standing in front of the rest of the gang (Dean Jagger’s “one horse horse thief,” Yancy, and George Tobias’s “big dumb coot,” Gratz),looks like this:

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He looks like a man who would shoot a two-year-old for fun and never lose a minute’s sleep over it. Good thing he’s convincing, right there in that first instant. Because, by the end of Rawhide, that just exactly what you’ll have to believe for the movie to grab you by the throat. And for that ending to be what it is, as harrowing a child-in-danger scene as those in Battleship Potempkin or Small Change, and more organic than either, you have to believe, without quite realizing it, that he’s been that kind of man from the moment you laid eyes on him.

Getting back to those who have seen it. I doubt one single person has ever had trouble believing just that.

Rawhide is tight by any standard. A jewel of a movie on every level. But the something extra is in Elam’s performance. He’s a walking embodiment of the Western’s great theme: What has to be done away with before civilization can flourish?

Or, put another way, who will kill the bad man, once the bad man has left you no choice?

 *    *    *   *

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By the time Zimmerman and Tevis show up, we have a clear idea of who they will be terrorizing. Edgar Buchanan (who would show his own ready capacity for spoofing himself soon thereafter), is Sam Todd, the station master at a lone outpost on a line that transports gold shipments along with the passengers.

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Tyrone Power’s Tom Owens is a greenhorn, reluctantly “learning the business” at his “supervisor” father’s request. The first thing Susan Hayward’s Vinnie Holt calls him is “Mule Boy.” Sam Todd doesn’t even think he’s that.

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That’s before Miss Holt (there’s confusion about the “Miss” because she’s traveling with a baby, who turns out to be her niece, her sister and her sister’s husband having been killed in a California mining town), knows she’s going to be stuck at the station for a day because Zimmerman, scheduled to be hung for murder, has broken out of prison with his motley crew “who just happened to be there,” and has already killed a stage driver. With the gang on the loose, the stage line can’t take responsibility for protecting the child she’s responsible for, so she’s forcibly removed from the coach. She’s a hard-bitten type and she’s played by Susan Hayward. You can guess how happy she is.

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That’s all of the set-up. Instead of holding up another stage, the outlaws show up at the station, planning to rob the next day’s gold shipment, which they’ve learned about from the driver they shot.

Everyone and everything is human scale, which means Elam’s villain, a part that begs for a corrosive “camp” approach, has to work on a human scale too. This calls for him to be unusually deft at conveying quick shifts. One, two, three, he’s a card (discovering Miss Holt’s clothes, leading to the natural assumption that she’s Owens’ wife)…

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One, two, three, he’s a killer (gunning Sam Todd in the back as he makes a break for a hidden rifle…and enjoying it)…

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One, two, three and he’s asking Zimmerman if he should “take care” of Owens, too…

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It’s a truly difficult performance: A subtle portrayal of an unsubtle man–constantly showing the audience what the people in the story know and leaving both the audience and the story wondering just how far he’ll go.

Along with everything else it is–western, noir, psychological study of men and women under pressure, meditation on good and evil–Rawhide is a horror film, one in which Tevis’s cankerous soul, rather than his comical body (made up of Elam’s then-unknown, now-iconic elements: slew-footed walk, rubbery lips, wall eye), represents the unseen monster. His almost childish delight in his own villainy reinforces his lack of moral judgment. But that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of a child’s ready cunning, even tact. There’s a particularly tense scene (Rawhide has a lot of scenes that seem particularly tense until the next one comes along…it’s also a thriller) the stolen kitchen knife Tom Owens has been using the hack through the adobe wall in an attempt to reach a pistol Vinnie Holt has hidden under the water trough during the takeover has slipped through the hole. Vinnie takes the baby for a walk in order to retrieve it, only to be stalked by Tevis, who has already tried to force himself on her once. By now, the long night that consumes most of the plot….

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Has turned into day…

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And,naturally, the kid does what kids do…Picks the knife right up….and hands it right over.

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“Busted,” Tevis says, as he takes the knife from her, noticing its broken tip. “Busted kid!…I love kids.”

And, one, two, three, he proves it…

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He proves it to the extent that you think he might possess at least one streak of hidden decency. If he doesn’t convince Miss Holt (watch Hayward’s eyes stay the same, no matter what he does), he might at least convince you. It’s left open to the imagination whether this genial, false front might have just enough truth in it to serve as a some kind of final civilizational check against the man we’ve already seen as card, killer, lech, and…one, two, three…coward…

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Elam keeps all of this in play and, as the movie goes on, he increasingly keeps all of it in play at once. You can understand how Zimmerman keeps confidently turning his back on Tevis the coward, even as you keeping saying only a crazy man would turn his back on a man who can be all those other things….at once.

Sixth billed or not, it’s Elam’s Tevis who provides the thread of terror that ties the film together. He’s not in the scene, not visible on screen, here…

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or here….

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or here….

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or here…

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or here…

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or even here…

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But, from his first close-up, he’s present. He’s the reason the people who have seen him know they won’t get out of this alive unless they kill him and he’s the reason we know the people who haven’t seen him won’t be allowed to leave if he suddenly becomes something worse than a figment of their imagination.

This man is only looking to get out of this with his own skin…

NVE00129This man is only following orders…

NVE00181and even this man, fully worthy of his own post, only wants to have his orders obeyed so he can grab the gold that will let him disappear back into the world…

NVE00153Even he might, at a far stretch, be reasoned with. In order for Rawhide to run on maximum fuel, though, there needs to be one man for whom reason doesn’t enter into the equation. Tevis is the card, the killer, the coward, the lover of children. And he’s that man beyond reason, beyond anything and everything civilization is built to resist and contain. In one sense, Rawhide is really the story of whether he will be able to manipulate his ever-changing masks fast and furiously enough to keep his fellow outlaws from killing him before his absence of reason dooms them all. The film’s final success depends entirely on his being able to convince us that he’s capable of it. That the man seen here…

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and here…

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and here….

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and here…

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and here…

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will finally…one….

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two….

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three…NVE00310

last long enough to give himself the chance to say, “I’m boss now!”

And, when he does, it has to be credible that, having become “boss” not through strength but weakness, he will, within mere seconds and to his own genuine surprise, be boss of nothing. That, in finally seizing control, he’s unleashed a chaos he couldn’t predict and can’t control.

Gratz will need to be killed…One, two, three…

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Yancy will skedaddle…one, two, three…

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The greenhorn, Tom Owens, will be forced to find out what he’s made of…one, two, three…

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a child will crawl through a hole too big for the adults who have lost track of her in the panic and confusion and wander among the unhobbled horses…one, two, three…

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Vinnie Holt will wake up…and go searching…one, two, three….

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and Tevis, caught like a rat in a trap, literally pinned down behind a woodpile as the stage approaches…one, two, three….

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three…

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before civilization reaches its last line of defense…a woman defending her family, even if she’s just a tough saloon girl and that “family” consists of a child who isn’t hers, and a man she met the day before.

One…

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three…

NVE00391I’ve seen Rawhide at least twenty times and I’ll never get tired of watching it. It offers a fine director (Hathaway), a great screenwriter (Dudley Nichols), two magnetic stars (Power and Hayward), and a fantastic ensemble cast, all at their very best in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s (or just the world’s) deepest and finest example of that silly word “genre.”

But the reason I’ve watched it so often–and will never tire of it–is for the chance to see this man die…One…

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two…

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three…

NVE00390So that these three people might live…

NVE00393In the hopes that the one world we have will carry on just a little while longer….

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and be worth living in.