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.

 

3:10 TO YUMA…BLOGATHON AT CRITERION BLUES (I Watch Westerns: Take Two)

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NOTE: This was scheduled to be part of the blogathon devoted to Criterion Collection releases that is being run by Criterion Blues this week and, though the blogathon is still running, I’m a day or two late. My deep apologies to Aaron and his cohorts for the late posting as computer problems compounded by a health issue kept me from filing on time (and much thanks for their patience and understanding of the situation). I’m also using this post to inaugurate a new category “I Watch Westerns” which will give me an excuse to review some of the many westerns that have cycled to the top of my frequent watch list in recent years. FYI: John Ford will continue to be handled under the John Ford categories. Meanwhile, Please visit Criterion Blues early and often to check out the many other entries! They’ve got a whale of a list over there and any film fan should find plenty to interest them.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Delmer Daves

NVE00182NVE00184Two men in a hotel room. On a first visit, it’s tempting to think that’s what 3:10 to Yuma is principally, or even all, about.

After eighteen viewings (three for this post), I’ve found that it yields quite a bit more, though never a false note.

William Wellman once noted that, in Hollywood’s Golden Age at least, American film was genre film. Being a master of so many himself, his opinion deserves respect, but I’m not sure it goes far enough. One of the benefits of having well-defined genres produced “on assignment” by so many of the same directors, producers, studios and stars was that their mature work tended to flow across those boundaries with a natural, practiced ease. By the late fifties, when the middle-aged pros who were responsible for 3:10 to Yuma were hitting their stride, the border between noir and westerns was especially fluid. But the lessons accumulated across the board, in musicals, horror, comedies or melodramas, were hardly lost on the men who made this film and they brought every bit of their generational experience to bear.

That might be one reason eighteen viewings doesn’t seem like a lot.

There was an arc to the development of the western itself, of course, and that arc was at its very highest peak in the last half of the fifties. One advantage the genre had, and still has, is that John “I Make Westerns” Ford defined it. That meant the purely narrative possibilities were consistently expanded and redefined over the course of the western’s own “golden age,” which stretched from the late forties to 1962, when the Ford of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all but literally handed the reigns over to the Sam Peckinpah of Ride the High Country, who proceeded, for better and worse, to get lost in the sixties.

All of which may help explain why so many fifties’ westerns bear up under relentless viewing even if they weren’t made by geniuses.

I’ve never heard anyone call Delmer Daves a genius or an auteur so “damn good director” may have to do, as it did for so many others who followed the noir-to-western path in the post-war era when westerns (again thanks largely to Ford) were often prestige items and noirs were almost always solid little money makers, made primarily on the cheap, just waiting for French critics to elevate them to a place where the term acquired its present day  status as an all-purpose euphemism for “cool.”

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

 *   *   *   *

Back to that hotel room. It’s in Contention City, in the Arizona Territory, circa 1880, as imagined by Elmore Leonard and re-imagined by Daves and company and it’s certainly rife with tension, not to mention subtext.

A family man (Van Heflin’s Dan Evans) is holding a shotgun on a notorious outlaw (Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade) while they wait–and wait–for the train that will take Wade to the prison at Yuma.

And, while they wait, Dan Evans sweats and worries…

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And Ben Wade? Well, he watches…

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and smiles…

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and talks…

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and stays quiet…

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and tries to escape…

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or doesn’t…

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…all while remaining supremely confident that, if by some rare chance he can’t find his own way past Dan Evans’ defenses, his men are coming to the rescue.

It does not take a lot of psychoanalyzing to compare it to a flirtation and plenty have done so. Homoeroticism is always catnip for theme-oriented critics. And when all this is playing out in the Bridal Suite (or as Wade puts it, ever so casually, “the Bridal Suite huh?…I wonder how many brides…Hmmm?”), while Wade’s faithful second (Richard Jaeckel in a performance that’s part peacock, part rattlesnake, part lit-fuse on a stick of dynamite, and would have stolen ninety-nine percent of the movies ever made), searches desperately for the key in the lock to that room filled with all those noir-ish shadows, moving about like a dancer who has lost the only perfect partner he ever had? Well…

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…You can see why those two men in that hotel room get a lot of whatever ink happens to be spilled over this movie.

You might even give it that kind of attention yourself, the first few times around.

And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

But you would be limiting yourself.

3:10 to Yuma is a noir and a psychodrama and it’s got music in its bones and Val Lewton-style horror in the marrow of those bones.

It might be a few other things as well. I’ve only seen it eighteen times so I wouldn’t presume to have found its limits.

Mostly, though, it’s a western, a western as fine as any made by anyone not named John Ford and not far off even his highest standard. All of  which means it’s bigger than its considerable parts. It’s at the far limit of what genre film can do and that turns out to be just about anything.

*  *  *  *

I find myself drawn to westerns for a pretty simple reason. Even the modest ones tend to be about first things in general and first American things in particular.

How will we live? What is civilization worth? What does it take to build one?

What does it take to maintain one?

These are not exactly settled questions. Check any given day’s headlines.

No narrative, film or otherwise, western or otherwise, puts those questions in starker terms than 3:10 to Yuma. That starkness is realized–and fully integrated–on every level.

Starkness. In the tone poem visuals…

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Starkness. In the purely philosophical skeleton of the story’s underpinning value system…(“Safe? Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from looking at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years then choked to death on lemon pie…Do I have two volunteers?” You’ll look a long time before you find the American frontier’s peevish brand of can-do Calvinism put more succinctly than that.)

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Starkness. In the off-handed terseness of even the throwaway dialogue…(“Quiet here?” “Like a tomb.” Hell, Sergio Leone wasted more words than that.)

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Starkness. Especially in the rhythm of the romance, the real flirtation that pulls Ben Wade in…

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then catches him out…

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then obliterates itself…

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Starkness or anyway spareness. In the indelible grace notes, of which there are dozens, my favorites being the neat inversions (not revisions, those were left for later, cheaper, filmmakers, valuing  mechanical flash over every human quality) of Fordian style…Felicia Farr’s barmaid, who has inadvertently trapped Wade, helping him into the sort of stagecoach so many of her predecessors (including Claire Trevor in Stagecoach) have been ushered out of town on, often to find the very kind of civilization-building redemption that eventually, and not inevitably, awaits Wade himself…

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And then watching him ride away with the stoic pride and sorrow of a Cavalry wife in the set of her shoulders, the depth of her own virtues, dignity not least among them, unmistakable and far past irony…

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Deep starkness. In the way every element is woven together by a lonely, purely thematic score that is sung, hummed, strummed, whistled and orchestrated with an endless, minimalist insistence and variety (bracketed by one of Frankie Laine’s very greatest vocals) that would be called avant garde if it came from any place but Hollywood, supporting the subtlest mood shifts and not only melding the austere visuals that link the desert to the edge of civilization…

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but the outposts to the towns…

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and the sun-baked exteriors…

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to the shadow-striped interiors…

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and those interiors, in turn, to the faces of the men at the story’s center…

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and, finally, to what’s going on behind those faces…

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And, stark raving starkness, no matter how many times or how many ways “There is a lonely train, called the 3:10 to Yuma,” plays, the stark raving loneliness is most of all plain in the storytelling itself. In the way each scene–each situation within each scene–builds its own tension before insinuating itself straight into the next. How death enters early….

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and keeps an ever firmer grip on the proceedings…

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…How the reality of Ben Wade’s iron-hard character, capable of shooting down his own man in cold blood for the crime of making a mistake, is carried with him every step of the way. How when he’s caught red-handed, he can wear the inevitable iron bracelets as if they were cuff links…

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….serene in the confidence this is only temporary.

The serenity holds. It holds Wade’s character together and it hold the spare, terse, nerve-grating mood together and it holds the deceptively far-reaching narrative together as well.

For all the power represented by what I’ve mentioned above, 3:10 to Yuma reaches the next level, the level where it can sit beside John Ford and Anthony Mann and High Noon and Shane at the top of American film’s strongest and deepest genre, when civilization comes to call.

It makes its presence felt at the deepest level–the level beyond plot represented by the town marshal, the posse, the owner of the stage line Wade’s gang has robbed, the brother of the driver who has been killed–in two unlikely sources.

First there’s Henry Jones’ Alex Potter, the “town drunk,” whose presence as a bulwark of civilization would be unlikely anywhere except maybe Hollywood and is not less integral or intense for all that.

“Come on,” he says. “Give me a chance.”

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“You can tell Dan he can count on Alex Potter right to the end,” he says, even before the solid citizens of Contention City have joined the solid citizens of Bisbee in demonstrating how little they can be counted on.NVE00365

And he gets his chance….To be shot down by Jaeckel’s not-yet-jilted lover for the crime of being a man Dan Evans could count on to the extent of shouting a warning with a gun in his back…

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And paying the exact price that kept all the solid citizens at bay…and which Dan Evans will now have to measure himself against.

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The movie goes past that, however. It makes it clear that all that might not be enough.

For civilization to finally be left standing, it helps to have a second bulwark, one whose presence was once only unlikely in Hollywood, where she was (again outside Ford and the western) so often neglected, if not forgotten: the Frontier Wife.

Van Heflin and Glenn Ford gave perhaps the finest performances of their stalwart careers here, the kind of performances that never get mentioned for awards and never yield a false second under the most intense scrutiny. But 3:10 to Yuma wouldn’t work at the highest level if it weren’t for Lenora Dana’s presence as Alice Evans.

You don’t have to believe me. You just need to watch the hard man, Ben Wade, killer of his own men, leader of a nest of rattlers bound to respect only the kind of man who can ride herd on their sort, seducer of barmaids who needn’t worry about his careless mistake in getting caught because, wherever they take him to wait for the train, his men will be waiting between there and the station.

Oh, there’s nothing different at first, nothing remotely spiritual.

He’s caught. He’s spirited to the Evans’ house and sneaked off the stage. That hotel room is waiting, its particular tension held in abeyance.

For the time being, the hard man sees what we see. The tired face, the slumped shoulders….

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The accumulated burdens of marriage, childbirth, hardship, life in the unyielding, drought-stricken wilderness you can always see from her porch, at her back or over her shoulder, depending on which way she’s facing.

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Dana’s performance and her character’s relationship with her husband are of a rare kind, one completely without glamour or pretense (which is what “without glamour” almost always means in movies, even in good movies). There’s a strong hint that she’s from money, a hint Wade picks up on immediately and begins using as a wedge. He seems to know what kind of ammunition he’ll need when he’s trapped in that hotel room and the train is drawing near and those handcuffs stop feeling like cuff links.

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He’ll need to be able to say “I’ll tell you one thing Dan, if she was my wife I’d treat her a whole lot better,” and have it get under Dan Evans’ sweat-soaked skin. He’ll need to have been the man who brought a small light to Alice Evans’ eye, the light even the best husband is likely to have a hard time drawing forth after a thousand petty squabbles, a generation of backbreaking labor, a life that’s put tired lines around eyes that might have very reasonably expected better.

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When they are finally alone in that room, Ben Wade means to ensure that they are not really alone. He has played the charmer, taken a risk that, here in the home of Dan and Alice Evans, at their dinner table, with their kids watching, he can find a wedge to plant between them, or at least between himself and that train ride.

Yes, he’s taken a risk. Only it’s not the risk he imagined. For most of his time in that hotel room, though, a hotel he’s entered as sure of himself as Cary Grant on a Hitchcock set, eyeing decor that might have graced a cabin on one of the ships owned by Alice Evans’ father, while everybody else does the worrying…

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…it will be a risk that looks to be paying off.

He tries Dan Evans and comes up short. But Evans doesn’t shoot him, so he has time.

And time works for him because it’s ticking, ticking.

His boy Charlie will find him…

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He’ll be dealt the best possible hand…

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For the longest time he’ll be able to work both ends against the middle. Wait for his men. Work on Evans.

Start offering him money.

Way more than the two hundred he’s being paid to deliver Wade to the station.

By the time the thunder rolls and the storm breaks–not inside Dan Evans, but in the Arizona skies and within the conscience Ben Wade didn’t know he had left–the offer’s up to ten thousand and Evans looks to be baited.

Probably he would be, too, if civilization hadn’t been doing it’s work, if the ship captain’s daughter hadn’t been chasing her own conscience, wondering what her marriage was really worth.

First she rides to Bisbee, where civilization is not yet a full step from the wilderness…

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Then she confers with the other women who are holding down the fort, waiting. They include the wife of Alex Potter (foregrounded, face half in shadow), who doesn’t yet know her man’s fate…

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Alice Evans will know soon enough. She’ll arrive in Contention City in record time, having made the journey that apparently took her husband, Alex Potter and Ben Wade all night in just an hour or two.

It could be simple cheat, of course. But in the context of visiting and re-visiting 3:10 to Yuma, it acquires the effect of an earned miracle…

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a miracle which she cannot yet see…

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Because she isn’t looking up at the window…

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,,,where Ben Wade has just discovered that what he’s really risked is being forced to look inside himself and decide whether he still likes what he sees and Dan Evans has just found the strength he’ll need to break free of that hotel room in ways that go far beyond putting an outlaw on a train and collecting a reward.

He’ll need every bit of that strength, too, because just here, 3:10 to Yuma begins to acquire the shadings of a Lewton level horror, with the miracle wife pushing on, finding herself under the town drunk’s shadow as he hangs from the hotel’s chandelier…

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A sight that joins her with the stage owner, the man who had, not so long ago, promised to walk with her husband “every step.”

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…and is now prepared to pay Dan Evans not to take that walk.

Though, if Mr. Butterfield, having felt the shadow of that corpse, can’t talk her husband out of it, surely she can…

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And if she can’t do that, then she must at least be able to keep him from telling the only sort of lie either would ever tell the other. The kind meant to spare her from an uglier truth…Like the real odds that he’ll live to see the miracle rain the thunder she refuses to hear portends…

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She can’t accomplish even that.

Even finally knowing what his life and hers are really worth, he can’t walk away from that body stretched on the chandelier and live with himself.

It’s not a fake sacrifice. There are seven killers between him and the station and he doesn’t yet know that the man he’s been holed up with is changing. In a room where each of them has spent every second he’s not watching the other knowing he’s being watched, where we’ve begun by knowing what each man is saying by the other man’s face and ended by knowing what each man is thinking by the other’s face, he has still missed at least one thing we’ve seen….

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The sight of the outlaw realizing the homesteader has the one thing he can’t have and of us realizing the choices he’ll make from now on, including the choice that saves Dan Evans’ life, are those of a man who knows something about such choices and their costs.

So, in the end, Dan Evans walks Ben Wade to the station in a tense, drawn out sequence that’s as hard and spare as the rest of the film, all angles…

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and shadows…

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and menace…

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and constant evocation of those impossible odds…

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In the end, it will be plain that Ben Wade’s final choice, his emergence from the fog…

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into the light…

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won’t result from all that time spent together drawing them closer and closer…

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but from the recognition that what stood between them all along wasn’t a barmaid…

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or an honor code…

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or a gang of men…

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or even a spurned Iago…

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determined to have his man back…

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Or end in the boneyard…

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No, what was standing between them all along was the same thing that would, in another earned miracle, join them in the end.

Something far more prosaic.

That frontier wife, the sort of woman civilization always tends to neglect and always at its own peril…

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and who both Dan Evans…

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and Ben Wade…

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were lucky to have met.

You might even call it a miracle.

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You might even say that train to Yuma wasn’t so lonely after all…

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FINAL NOTE: If you want some evidence of just how forgotten the Frontier Wife is, you can watch the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which changed the setting to modern day but, mysteriously, kept the period costumes. That’s the only reason I can think of for ever recommending it.

LONERS (Monthly Book Report: May, 2015)

[NOTE: There was actually a good bit more May reading. I’ve already posted my review of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues. I also read the sixth book in the Travis McGee series thinking it was the fifth so I’ll review both next month. Also working my way through the Library of America’s Ross MacDonald volume which I hope to review for BWW later in the month. With all that, the regular book report is a little slim but a couple of worthwhile entries nonetheless.]

Shane (Jack Schaefer, 1949)

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“His past was fenced as tightly as our pasture.”

I read this as a teenager, long before I first saw the classic film it inspired and was duly impressed. As someone who went away for a while and “came back” to the western years later (I always watched some films, but not nearly enough to understand the genre properly, and stopped reading them almost entirely), I’m more impressed now.

Even more than that very great movie (which, remarkably, improved it in some ways) Shaefer’s finely wrought novel is an elegant blend of cowboy, homesteader and gunfighter history and mythology, told sparingly and without fuss by one of those adult-narrators-recalling-childhood who, like Scout Finch or Mattie Ross, is entirely, even disarmingly, honest, but, at such a distance, perhaps not entirely reliable.

These days it’s also striking in part for how much was taken for granted in 1948 that now seems sufficiently ancient as to be biblical:

 “They had the stump way up at a high angle. They were down in the hole, one on each side of it, pushing up and forward with hands flat on the under part reared before them higher than their heads. You would have thought the stump was ready to topple over clear of its ancient foundation. But there it stuck. They could not quite push it the final inches.

“Mother watched them battling with it. ‘Joe,’ she called, ‘why don’t you use some sense? Hitch up the team. Horses will have it out in no time at all.’

“Father braced himself to hold the stump still. He turned his head to look at her. ‘Horses!’ he shouted. All the pent silence of the two of them that long afternoon through was being shattered in the one wonderful shout. ‘Horses! Great jumping Jehosephat! No! We stared this with manpower, and by Godfrey, we’ll finish it with manpower.'”

Not to mention the simple description of the quintessential American…

“Nobody’ll push him around or scare him away.”

Now vanished of course. Good riddance to some, and maybe he never really existed. It’s a fable after all. But it may be worth remembering that the idea of him once existed. And that it’s only very lately we’ve convinced ourselves he’s no longer necessary….

Shaefer’s narrator, speaking from a point somewhere between the novel’s publication date and the age of its setting, seems already well aware of the distinction between myth and memory and the ways in which each anticipates the other:

“A haze of thinning smoke was by the ceiling over them all, floating in involved streamers around the hanging lamps. This was Grafton’s saloon in the flush of a banner evening’s business. But something was wrong, was missing. The hum of activity, the whirr of voices, that should have risen from the scene, been part of it, was stilled in a hush more impressive than any noise could be. The attention of everyone in the room, like a single sense, was centered on that dark figure just inside the swinging doors, back to them and touching them.

“This was the Shane of the adventures I had dreamed for him…”

That last is a nice corrective for those who think those old guys who translated western myth and, yes, western history, for the new and improved twentieth century didn’t know what they were about.

The Quick Red Fox (John D. MacDonald–1964)

QUICKREDFOX

Fourth in the Travis McGee series, which I’m planning to reread in its entirety in the coming months.

Remarkably, this was MacDonald’s fourth McGee book in the space of a year and, knowing him, he probably had a couple of others out as well. The pace tells a bit here. There are certain things you have to leave by the wayside if you type that fast.

That said, so far, these books have all been rewarding well beyond the already considerable pleasures of top level pulp aesthetics that make them hum right along.

This one puts McGee among the Hollywood elite, searching for a blackmailer who has photos of a famous actress (Liz Taylor famous apparently, though the character doesn’t seem based on anyone in particular) taking part in an orgy.

No big deal now, of course, when the only problem would be managing the roll-out and the publicity leaks. But, 1964 being almost as long ago as 1864 in psychic time, that sort of thing was, in those days, still a scandal that could have wrecked a career.

McGee, though, is certainly done with all that “Shane” stuff. Having a series to maintain, more books to sell, a new mythology to peddle, he scoffs at the notion that a man who can’t or won’t fit into ordinary life may be missing out on something:

“I am not a nine to five animal. I cannot swallow the myths which say nine to five is a Good Thing because that’s the way nearly everybody else gets stuck.”

Four books in and I already know that when McGee starts talking like that–like he’s left the “myths” behind–he’s a few chapters away from being in love with “the one.”

In this case it’s the actress’s secretary and this time he swears (repeatedly, to himself and to us) it’s not just sex therapy.

Of course, I also know it’s not going to work out somehow or other and the way it doesn’t work out in this one isn’t quite as effective as the way it didn’t work out in The Deep Blue Good-by. It works well enough but not so well I didn’t start wishing he (or his creator) would leave well enough alone.

Too bad, because the plot is otherwise lean and tough, the social insights sharp as usual. There’s an especially nice paean to San Francisco, in 1964, already “lost” as it has continued to be for somebody or other every few years since.

And there’s this, an ode to the future we now inhabit:

“Our dear Uncle owns over 23,000 polygraphs. Lie detectors. God alone knows how many industry owns. Not satisfied anymore with giving you the whole series of Multiphasic Personality Inventory tests, they want to make damn well certain you are not merely giving them the answers you think they want.”

And, okay, I have to admit, even the romance isn’t without its familiar charms:

“I liked Dana’s delight….I knew I had to watch it, or I would be trapped into the hopeless project of trying to find ways to delight her.”

So even the least of these so far (replete I should add, with the contempt for the bourgeoisie shared by every thriller writer I know except Ross MacDonald and, I suspect, the true reason “crime” fiction is held in so much higher regard than its “western” equivalent), is satisfying on multiple levels.

All that, plus a theory of “the one percent” that beats anything Occupy Wall Street came up with.

Can’t wait for 1965 to get here!