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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Reincarnation of Virginia McMath…)

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…Well, in the movies, anyway, where she was known as Ginger Rogers.

There were credits after the two from the mid-fifties that I re-watched this week (1954’s hit-and-miss Black Widow and 1955’s riveting Tight Spot) but she seems to have stayed on safe ground afterwards. In any case, her days as a star who could put Van Heflin or Edward G. Robinson in second place on a lobby card were numbered.

Hollywood didn’t start throwing forty-something leading ladies over the side yesterday.

I don’t necessarily buy the notion that she was “playing against type” in this last major phase. It’s a common assessment of these two roles (which are more different from each other than either is from the hard-boiled dames she had made the first of many strong impressions with in the early thirties)and that judgment isn’t entirely wrong, just a tad simplistic.

By the time the mid-fifties rolled around, Ginger had been a sufficient number of “types”–most famously the proto-type of the wisecracking girl next door (related to–but finally very distinct from–the Screwball Dame, the Streetwalker, the Good Wife, the Girl Friday, the Victim of Cruel Fate, or the Modern Housewife, all of which she had a hand in shaping as well**) which has, in fact, turned out to be Golden Age Hollywood’s most durable and flexible archetype (if the latest exemplar, Jennifer Aniston, turns out to be the last, it will be our loss)–that finding a new one by simply playing “against” the old ones would have been next to impossible.

They were brave choices all the same.

The script lets her down pretty badly at the end of Black Widow (surprising since it was by the great Nunnally Johnson, though the fact that he was also directing may be suggestive of why directors get so much credit when movies work), and, to tell the truth, she didn’t get as much out of it as she might have. Stuck with the job of selling the bleeding obvious as a Big Surprise (always a bad thing in a plot that depends almost entirely upon its twists), she tried to make up for it by over-emoting, the mistake she had, up to that moment, been better at avoiding than all but a handful of her most astringent contemporaries.

The movie is promising, then, but finally a bit of a disappointment.

Tight Spot, released the following year, more than made up for it.

The movie’s a good one–not perfect by any means, but it grew on a second viewing, not a usual occurrence with me and noir.

And, while I noticed, and appreciated, other things, it was mostly her performance that filled the new spaces.

It occurred to me that she might have seen Sherry Conley–in prison on a bad rap like everybody else (except in her case it really might have been), a little past her prime, a little broad in the beam, and with a few snappy lines at her disposal but no more than a few and nowhere near enough to meet every occasion–as a chance to put dramatic flesh on her own archetypal Busby Berkeley-style streetwalker Anytime Annie’s comic bones.

It’s true there’s no line as good as 42nd Street’s “Who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ one time and then she didn’t understand the question,” in Tight Spot’s solid script. But there is a lot of sharp self-analysis and a complex character arc that Rogers handles beautifully at every turn.

Sherry Conley is a woman who sweats, never more than when she’s working overtime at pretending to be on top of things. She’s constantly backing and filling, looking for angles, forever assuming that any step which doesn’t send her through a trap-door only increases the likelihood that the next one will, while not forgetting the spot she’s standing on isn’t exactly safe either.

That’s not an uncommon position for a female character in noir-land.

What’s unusual about Rogers in Tight Spot–trying to make up her mind about whether to testify against a gangster who has a habit of murdering witnesses (Lorne Greene in a very sharp turn) all while falling in love with a conflicted cop (Brian Keith, good as always) in a “safe” hotel room–is that, like a lot of actual human beings and almost no Streetwalkers who show up in Movie-land, she can’t seem to get out of her own way.

She’s used to being goosed and not at all used to being liked.

Not even by us, the people in the cheap seats. Not that we’ve had much practice, this being the character who usually gets killed off in the second act, now suddenly asked to carry the thing through to the final credits.

One way to judge whether a performing artist–especially an iconic one–has taken a genuine risk is whether the result divides the artist’s devotees. I know that, to at least some extent, this result does.

I can see where it might. The risk Ginger took in this last moment of her real stardom, was the one Hollywood actresses tend to avoid like the Plague at any age.

Namely, she was willing to grate. Even in a movie that–good as it is–turns slick here and there, she never does.

Or, put another way, she was willing to play a character who tends to grate and to play her in three dimensions.

The variety of opinions as to how worthwhile this really was tend to wander all over the map and to break down more along the lines of responses to the character being worthy of any attention at all than to the actress’s choice of how to play her.

I’d say that’s the best proof that Ms. McMath–who has a pretty good claim on being the toughest nut in the history of Hollywoodland (a land and a history where I can’t conceive of any other sort of nut surviving at all)–succeeded very nicely.

(**NOTE:There’s also a rumor that she could dance a little.)