POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

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

Print

(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.

RAWHIDE1

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:

NVE00078

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:

NVE00082

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?

 *    *    *   *

NVE00086

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.

NVE00408

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.

NVE00401

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.

NVE00415

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)…

NVE00088 NVE00089 NVE00090

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)…

NVE00091

NVE00092

NVE00093

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

NVE00094 NVE00096

NVE00099

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….

NVE00145

Has turned into day…

NVE00194

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

NVE00199

“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…

NVE00201 NVE00203 NVE00205

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…

NVE00146 NVE00147

NVE00149

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…

NVE00176

or here….

NVE00141

or here….

NVE00238

or here…

NVE00236

or here…

NVE00254

or even here…

NVE00269

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…

NVE00134

and here…

NVE00230

and here….

NVE00261

and here…

NVE00287

and here…

NVE00302

will finally…one….

NVE00304

two….

NVE00307

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…

NVE00314 NVE00315 NVE00316

Yancy will skedaddle…one, two, three…

NVE00416 NVE00417 NVE00418

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

NVE00317 NVE00318 NVE00324

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…

NVE00268

NVE00273

NVE00275

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

NVE00341 NVE00344 NVE00345

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

NVE00329 NVE00351 NVE00356will find a way to turn his weakness, his rejection of civilization, into a horrifying, barbarous strength…one….

NVE00370 two…

NVE00371

three…

NVE00376

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…

NVE00380two…

NVE00419

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…

NVE00389

two…

NVE00392

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….

NVE00398

and be worth living in.

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)

littlebighorn1

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)

rawhide1

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)

lastofmohicans2

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)

lasthunt1

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)

drumbeat2

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)

furyatshowdown1

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)

alongcamejones1

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)

ROUGHSHOD1

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)

GARDENOFEVIL1

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.

THOSE WOMEN OUT WEST….ALWAYS GETTIN’ IN THE WAY! (I Watch Westerns: Special Edition)

“In fact we always throw a woman into the story, because without a woman, a western wouldn’t work. Even though she isn’t necessary, everyone appears to be convinced that you cannot do without a woman. But as soon as you get to fighting against the Indians, or to the chase scenes, or when the heroes discover the traitor, then the woman gets in your way. So then you have to come up with a clever trick and send her somewhere so she won’t be in your way, and you won’t need to film her. It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns…On the other hand, maybe someone will make a western some day with a woman as the main character.”

(Source: “Interview With Anthony Mann,” conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol for Cahiers du Cinema, March 1957 and reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of The Furies)

Well, with all due respect to one of my favorite directors (and one of the greatest western directors) it was hardly as bad as all that!

It’s true women weren’t usually leads in westerns, but Mann himself had, for instance, seven years prior to this interview, made The Furies, in which Barbara Stanwyck–being, you know, Barbara Stanwyck–had not exactly shrunk into the background just because she had top billing and the most screen time and was the script’s central character and all.

And as for them “getting in the way,” when the going got heavy? Well, I guess that was sort of a rule, but I could point to a lot of exceptions.(My favorite being Susan Hayward’s sharpshooting at the end of Rawhide–beautiful because it comes straight out of her character even though we’ve never seen her with a rifle in her hand before that moment–Jack Elam might have looked surprised at having that twitch in his eyelid permanently stilled but there’s no reason we should be!)

Still, while Mann’s expressed view may have amounted to a kind of selective amnesia, it was and is–all evidence to the contrary–a common one.

Too bad, because, outside of what used to be called “women’s pictures,” actual women (as opposed to the admittedly marvelous fantasy creatures favored by the makers of screwball comedy, musicals , biblical epics, film noir and Li’l Abner movies) played a more significant role in westerns than in any other major Hollywood genre.

If we’ve mostly forgotten their vital presence, it’s probably because we don’t think we need their kind any more.

Since I beg to differ–and since I need to update my file of self-defining things–I’m listing a countdown of my five favorite examples out of a potential hundred or so (with accompanying introductory and valedictory shots):

5) Gail Russell as Annie Greer in 7 Men From Now (1956: Budd Boetticher, director)–Quite probably the most affectless and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film. Russell’s own inherent shyness and troubled life–which had very much left its mark on that beautiful face by then–probably worked in her favor here, even as it had almost certainly kept her from major stardom elsewhere. One wonders if the brief time she had left might have been lengthened if more people had noticed.

All in a day's work...

All in a day’s work!

After the bodies have stopped falling.

After the bodies have stopped falling.

4) Angie Dickinson as “Feathers,” (aka “The Girl,” aka “The Lady,” aka “The Lady She Did Not Go!”) in Rio Bravo (1959: Howard Hawks, director)–The Hawksian woman–greatest of all Hollywood’s femme fantasies–improbably and indelibly humanized.

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie...

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie…

Yes...yes we are.

Yes…yes we are!

3) Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939: John Ford, director)–The epitome of turning a shop-worn cliche (in this case “the hooker with a heart of gold”) into flesh and blood, maybe because she did the best job of showing that the heart wasn’t made of gold but of pain and fear. The Oscar waited down the line, for some year when Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel weren’t performing miracles in Gone With the Wind. But Ford’s single-handed resuscitation of the western as an art form could never have worked all the way through without her.

Shamed in sunlight...

Shamed in sunlight…

Redeemed in darkness.

…Redeemed in darkness.

2) Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969: Henry Hathaway, director)–Darby played Mattie Ross, one of the great prickly pears in American fiction, as though Charles Portis rather than Hollywood convention should be the prevailing authority on the subject. (Pick to click: “If I smelled as bad as you, I wouldn’t live near people.” But there are oh, so many.) Boy has she been slagged for it, especially in light of Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine, if rather comfortingly modern, take in the 2010 remake. Boy are people wrong. Among the dozens of reviews I read when the newer version hit theaters, only one–by the conservative critic James Bowman–bothered to point out that Darby was much more convincing than Steinfeld when taken as the frontier woman Mattie Ross is supposed to be. (Granted Steinfeld wasn’t always helped by the newer script, which, among other things, has Mattie professing ignorance of what horses eat!) Out of Darby’s many adroit touches, my own favorite is the arm-swinging walk she used to hold up against John Wayne in long shots. Yeah, it was Mattie Ross to a “T,” but I’ve also often wondered how many of the great thespians Wayne routinely dominated in such shots over the years wished they had thought of that.

Old maidhood awaits...

Old maidhood awaits…

...Not without its memories.

…Not without its memories.

1) Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962: John Ford, director)–Not just one of the great gender/genre performances but one of the great performances period and, as almost goes without saying, she’s received scant thanks for it. All she had to do, for starters, was hold her own–playing twenty-something and fifty-something–in a western that had John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin all at the very top of their considerable games. She made that look easy (and made it look easy in that particular way that allows many people to assume that it could only look so easy if it really was easy). Then she had to make it her character’s movie without resorting to any obvious scene-stealing (not so much because anyone would have cared–though they might have–as because such obviousness would have fatally unbalanced the story). After all that, at the very end, she had to deliver the “Aren’t you proud?” speech in such a way that the answer would remain naggingly ambiguous, forever reminding us that the value of the past will always be determined by what we make of the future–while leaving room for those who insist on “knowing” to make up their own minds. And yes, she made that look easy, too. Ever gallant, Hollywood rewarded her by providing that all her best future roles be TV show murderesses and Disney wives.

Age...

Age…

...to youth

…into youth

And youth...

And youth…

...to age.

…into age.

Please feel free to add your own…Like I say there are many to choose from!