Jul 222014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

HORIZONS WEST. Universal International, 1952. Robert Ryan, Julie Adams, Rock Hudson, Judith Braun, John McIntire, Raymond Burr, James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Frances Bavier, Tom Powers. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   Horizons West is a very good, albeit uneven, 1952 Universal Studios production directed by Budd Boetticher. Set in and around Austin, Texas, after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, this Western tragedy stars Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson as the brothers, Dan and Neil Hammond.

   As the film progresses, Dan (Ryan) and Neil (Hudson) find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with the latter tasked with bringing in his criminal older brother back to town for trial, culminating in a final interfamilial showdown in a small Mexican town. Dan starts off as a seemingly good guy, but by the end, the man’s done gone bad, irredeemably so.

   The movie benefits from its strong coterie of extremely talented actors. Aside from Ryan and Hudson, the film also stars Raymond Burr, who brilliantly portrays Cole Hardin, a sleazily villainous gambler. There’s something about Burr’s character that’s so devious that one wishes that he weren’t killed off so abruptly.

   And then there’s the lovely Julia Adams (Creature of the Black Lagoon), who portrays Hardin’s wife. She inevitably falls in love with the increasingly arrogant and power-mad Dan Hammond, causing friction between Dan and Cole. Veteran character actor John McIntire portrays the stoic Ira Hammond, owner of the family ranch who watches with alarm as his son, Dan (Ryan) returns home from the war a defeated, but proud Confederate officer, only to morph into to a ruthless and corrupt Texas power player.

   Aside from the skillful acting, Horizons West makes excellent use of vivid and symbolic use of colors (Technicolor works extraordinarily well here) and numerous well-constructed lush interiors. Look for the scene in front of an Austin hotel when Dan Hammond is wearing a red tie and Mrs. Hardin is wearing also wearing red in her attire. It just works perfectly.

   In many ways, the plot is standard, almost cliché Western fare, replete with a soldiers returning home from the Civil War, a good guy gone bad, brothers in conflict, a corrupt and flamboyant Mexican general, cattle rustling, and a lynch mob.

   One can, however, view Horizons West less as a standard Western, and more as a quasi-Greek tragedy set in the American West, similar to Saddle The Wind, which I reviewed here.

   Similarly, one can interpret it as contemporaneous social criticism about how big money can corrupt otherwise good men. Indeed, by the time that the movie ends, the two overtly greedy lead characters, Dan Hammond (Ryan) and Cole Hardin (Burr), have both been killed by gunfire.

   In contrast, in the final moments, the film’s most humble and hardworking characters are prospering in the bounty of the westward movement of people and cattle, hence the seemingly optimistic title of the film. But to the extent that Horizons West is about the rise and tragic fall of Dan Hammond, the film’s French title, Le Traitre du Texas (The Texas Traitor), is more accurate in conveying the film’s classically tragic overtones.

   The film’s greatest flaw is in the fact that we never really get a full sense of what drives Dan Hammond to self-destruction, why he goes power mad. There’s almost no indication that something terrible happened during the war that explains his descent into villainy.

   There are, however, a couple of brief moments that may shed at least some light on the matter. Soon after Dan returns home from the war with his adopted brother, Neil (Hudson) and their family’s ranch hand, Tiny McGilligan (James Arness), he tells his parents that he finds Texas to be too quiet and refers to all the noise he heard during the Civil War.

   But that’s about the last he mentions of this. We never see Dan struggle with his wartime experiences, nor do we ever hear him explain to another character what drives him to cheat and to steal. The other instance is when Dan discusses finances with Ira, his father who still hasn’t paid off the debt on the ranch, something that Dan Hammond seems to find embarrassing. But again, it’s a brief exchange and one that isn’t much referred to later on.

   Still, Horizons West remains a better than average Western. Ryan, Hudson, and Burr are all great actors and it shows. The film’s strongest point is its extraordinary use of color. There are many scenes in which color, rather than dialogue, is the focal point. It’s a movie that explores one man’s descent into greed and violence, but nonetheless remains truly beautiful to behold.

 Posted by at 12:40 am
Jul 112014

HELL’S HEROES. Universal Pictures, 1929. Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, Fred Kohler, Fritzi Ridgeway. Based on the story “The Three Godfathers” by Peter B. Kyne. Director: William Wyler.

   I recently saw William Wyler’s Hell’s Heroes, the first sound version of Three Godfathers, the one with Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler.

   Interesting how this film changed over the years. John Ford’s 1948 version is a gentle, sentimental film about three likable cowboys who happen to rob a bank, rescue a kid and become heroes. Richard Boleslawski’s 1936 version is a melancholy, cynical affair, with Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Waiter Brennan. All three are out & out bad guys and killers, but the older two soften quickly, and the trek to New Jerusalem becomes a process of redemption for Morris.

   Wyler’s take is more earthy (Bickford spends his time with the local whore, and when they come on the dying woman, the three argue over who will enjoy her first) and he makes a very forceful point about the physical changes wrought by prolonged extreme heat; by the time Bickford carries the baby into New Jerusalem, he’s barely human.

   The ’36 version is still my favorite, and I’ll always love the Ford film, but this one’s interesting. Someday I’ll have to catch the Silent.

 Posted by at 8:20 pm
Jul 062014

  THREE VIOLENT PEOPLE. Paramount Pictures, 1956. Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Elaine Stritch, Barton MacLane, Peter Hansen, John Harmon, Ross Bagdasarian, Robert Blake, Jamie Farr. Screenplay: James Edward Grant. Director: Rudolph Maté.

   When Captain Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) comes home to Texas after the Civil War (he was on the losing side), he finds that carpetbaggers have infested the state and they have eyes on his old family ranch, all he has left in the world. But before he makes his way home, he somehow manages to find himself a wife, Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter).

   It turns out, although he does not know it, that Ms Hunter has something a bit more than a shady past, but she is willing to take the gamble that no one will recognize her on the Bar-S Ranch and miles away from the rest of the world.

   It also turns out that Captain Saunders, a most righteous man, has a brother (Tom Tryon), who has only one arm, his left, and who is bitter about it. The local tax commissioner and his deputy, Northerners both (Bruce Bennett and Forrest Tucker) have their eyes on the ranch, and are far from scrupulous in their attempt to follow through on their ambitions.

   Running the ranch in the captain’s absence has been Innocencio Ortega (a most elegant Gilbert Roland, even in working clothes) and his five sons, three of whom are played by young actors who went on to even more fame later in their careers (see the tail end of the credits above).

   These are all the important threads of the story, and of course one of the tactics the crooked land-grabbers have at their disposal is using the fact that they know of Lorna’s past, and they are not at all reticent in revealing the secret to the tough but stubbornly aristocratic Captain Saunders.

   He does not take the news well. Nor does he take kindly to his brother turning against him. Charlton Heston is a good actor, but he can turn hammy at times, and here is one of those times. He also plays Captain Saunders as rather slow when it comes to the thinking department — a man whose mind is rather dim, to put it bluntly — and it does seem to fit the character.

   I think that Heston and Tryon do resemble each other enough to be brothers, as was not the case in Saddle the Wind, which Jon reviewed here a while ago, in which Robert Taylor and John Cassevetes were also supposed to be brothers, and not succeeding very well at it.

   The color photography in Three Violent People is wonderful — I leave to you to decide who the three people are; I still haven’t figured that out — but while all of the ingredients are there, with several very tense scenes leading up to the finale, the ending simply isn’t up to the job. It’s forced and it’s overly moralistic, and it didn’t have to be either one.

   It’s a case of being almost a great western, but it ends up barely holding onto its status as a very good one.

 Posted by at 5:05 am
Jun 292014

THE UTAH KID. Tiffany Productions, 1930. Rex Lease, Dorothy Sebastian, Tom Santschi, Mary Carr, Walter Miller, Lafe McKee, Boris Karloff. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   The movie begins with a sheriff’s posse hard on the trail of a single man on horseback. He’s young and clean-cut, a good looking fellow with a smart horse, so how could he be an outlaw? The young fellow is Cal Reynolds (Rex Lease), and looks to the contrary, he’s definitely on the wrong side of the law, since as it turns out, the safe haven he’s heading for is a place called Robbers’ Roost.

   Thanks to the overall dull minds of the posse after him, he makes it safely. Now Robbers’ Roost is exactly the kind of place you’d expect it to be, given the name, and the fellow in charge is called Butch (Tom Santschi) and the one who appears to be the second-in-command is Baxter (Boris Karloff, and the only reason this old western movie is in any kind of demand today; rumor has it that there may be only one surviving print).

   Also on hand is Parson Joe (Lafe McKee), an elderly gentleman who is not allowed to leave, else he may reveal the outlaws’ hideout to the authorities, so he has decided to stay on willingly. Where else could he find so many sinners whose souls he might save? Found by Baxter wandering around the vicinity (no other explanation given) is a young girl named Jennie Lee (Dorothy Sebastian). To save her from being killed, or worse, young Cal claims that she is his fiancée, and (gulp) is forced to marry her on the spot, thanks to the presence of Pastor Joe.

   What young Cal does not know is that Jennie is engaged to the local sheriff (Walter Miller), which puts him in quite a predicament – and she as well, as it is clear that she is falling for young Cal, and hence the rationale for quite an entertaining western, believe it or not. There are no singing cowboys, no stupid sidekicks, only a small but incisive love story that probably needn’t have taken place in the West, only this one did.

   As for Boris Karloff, although his role is brief, he is a joy to watch and listen to. His voice is as mellifluous as you’d expect it to be, even in this very early talkie, and his body language is certainly more expressive than it needed to be, in this otherwise undemanding role of the second in command of a fourth rate gang of robbers and thieves.

   He was an actor with a future (second sight is wonderful), while Rex Lease, as it turned out, as young and handsome as he was, ended up with far less of a career than Mr. Karloff’s.

 Posted by at 7:52 am
Jun 282014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN. United Artists, 1956. Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega, Julio Villarreal, Lupe Carriles. Directors: Edward Nassour & Ismael Rodríguez.

   Imagine you’re watching an average B-Western about a goodhearted rancher from Texas in both a business and romantic rivalry with a mean-spirited rancher from Mexico. The movie is in color; the acting by Guy Madison and Patricia Medina isn’t all that bad; and the foreboding Mexican landscape is well integrated into the storyline.

   So you keep watching. Somewhat entertained, somewhat bored, and now and again remembering the film was billed as a creature feature. Then nearly an hour into the film, a giant, deeply angry stop-motion T-Rex (a fairly impressive special effects achievement considering the film is from 1956) makes its way out of the local swamp and wreaks all sorts of havoc on cows and humans alike.

   That’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain for you. Based on a story idea by King Kong special effects innovator, Willis O’Brien, it’s all good fun. While not a particularly great film, the mid-fifties movie is actually quite entertaining provided you go into it with the right mindset.

   The last twenty minutes or so, when the T. Rex finally emerges from its mountain hideaway, make up for the fact that you had to wait an entire hour to see the creature. This too long a delay really does make the film significantly less compelling than it could have been.

   But getting back to the dinosaur. What a creature! The giant feet making an impression in the mud, the giant teeth and red tongue, and eyes that convey anger. It’s a far more impressive movie dinosaur than the one that appeared in The Giant Behemoth, which I reviewed here. That said, at least in that particular film, we actually got an impressive political backstory as to why the dinosaur decided to stomp all over London. In The Beast of Hollow Mountain, all we really know is that local legend held that there is a – you guessed it, a monster – in the mountain.

   There are some fairly harrowing moments, such as when the dinosaur claws at — and peers into — the roof of a shack where two would-be victims are cowering, and when protagonist Jimmy Ryan (Madison) swings back and forth on a rope hanging from a limb of a tree, luring the dim-witted dinosaur to its swampy doom. And listen for the birdsongs. Whether they were deliberately recorded or whether they were merely picked up during filming doesn’t much matter. They really help establish an atmospheric setting for the world’s first, and dare I say, preeminent, dinosaur western film.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Jun 222014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ALBUQUERQUE. Paramount Pictures, 1948. Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton, George “Gabby” Hayes, Lon Chaney, Russell Hayden, Catherine Craig, George Cleveland. Based on the novel Dead Freight for Piute, by Luke Short. Director: Ray Enright.

   Albuquerque is an eminently watchable Western film starring Randolph Scott. Adapted to the big screen from a novel by Luke Short, Dead Freight for Piute, the film is compelling, albeit not particularly sophisticated, story about a family feud, mining, and freighting in pre-statehood New Mexico.

   There’s just enough of everything one would expect from a late 1940s Western: a hero in Scott, a goofy sidekick in George “Gabby” Hayes, and a villainess-turned-heroine in the beautiful Barbara Britton. Add in a semi-realistic setting, a budding romance or two, and a memorable, well-choreographed and surprisingly brutal fist fight between Scott and Lon Chaney Jr.’s character and you’ve got yourself a significantly better than average Western.

   The plot revolves around Scott in his portrayal of Cole Armin, who relocates to Albuquerque from Texas to work for his uncle, John Armin (a rather unforgettable villain as portrayed by George Cleveland), in the family freighting business. Turns out Cole’s uncle is crooked and is working to put the local competition, run by brother and sister, Ted and Celia Wallace, out of business. Did I mention the local lawman is on the take as well?

   Cole’s a good guy and he’s got a good sidekick in Juke (Hayes), so naturally he tells his uncle off and goes to work for the Wallaces in their fledgling freighting business.

   As one might suspect, this turn of events doesn’t please John Armin all that much, so he has his henchman, Steve Murkil, portrayed by an exceptionally well cast, black-hatted, Lon Chaney Jr., cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth, and a recent hire, Letty Tyler (Britton) to plot and to scheme against Cole and the Wallaces.

   All of this culminates in the aforementioned fight between Cole Armin and Steve Murkil, a harrowing horse and wagon ride down a mountaintop, and an abbreviated final showdown on the streets of Albuquerque. The good guys win, of course. This was a 1948 Western, not a 1968 one, so there’s really no surprises here.

   It is clear from watching Albuquerque is that Scott was beginning to outgrow films like these. No surprise, then, then within a decade, he’d be working with directors such as André de Toth and Budd Boetticher in more, shall we say, serious and engaging Western films.

   Still, Albuquerque is not without its charms. Cleveland and Chaney make a good pair of villains that you’re happy to both watch to see what they’ll do next and to root against. Still, when it’s all said and done, sometimes it’s still nice to see the good guy win the fight and save the day. That’s Albuquerque for you.

Editorial Comment:   For my own take on this film, check out this post from about three years ago.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Jun 162014
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

KEOMA. 1976. Also released as Django Rides Again and The Violent Breed. Franco Nero, Woody Strode, Olga Karlatos, Donald O’Brien, William Berger, Gabriella Giacobbe. Directed by Enzo G. Castallari.

   An arty and allegorical Spaghetti Western with half a brain and good direction and cinematography, Keoma turns out to ultimately be more entertaining than annoying, and better acted than it has any right to be with an existentialist message at the end right out of Sartre.

   Keoma: “He won’t die, he’s free. And a free man can never die.”

   Okay, if he says so, but for all that, this proves to be a really good western of its type, with first class performances by Franco Nero and Woody Strode, and one stunningly beautiful pregnant woman (Olga Karlatos) named Lisa who bears the burden of most of the allegory about life, death, birth, existence, sacrifice, suffering, freedom, and hope (well, she is very pregnant).

   Admittedly that’s a lot for a western– even an Italian-made western shot in Spain — to bear, but this one manages better than most. It makes for some pretentious fun. It’s no where near as good as High Plains Drifter, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Pale Rider, as pretentious westerns go.

   Nero is the gray eyed long-haired (how those braids survive holding the mess back got a bit distracting I have to grant) half-breed Keoma, who returns home after the Civil War.

   “Which side were you on?”

   “It just happened I was on the winning side.”

   There he finds a spooky old Indian witch (Gabriella Giacobbe) who wanders in and out of the film like a silent Greek chorus as Keoma’s conscience and a sort of early warning signal of impending trouble. She warns him he should not have returned, but like any western hero in any western ever made anywhere, common sense isn’t his long suit, so he rides right into a group of ex-Confederate cackling coyote-mean escapees from Deliverance (are there any other kind?), taking prisoners with the plague to the mines to isolation and death.

   Among them is one pregnant woman, Lisa, the stunningly beautiful Karlatos, with eyes every bit as spooky as the wolf eyed Nero. Pregnant, with straggly hair, and in extremely unflattering clothes, she is still one of the most beautiful women you will ever see in any film.

   Typically he makes enemies fast, kills one of the ex-Rebs, and takes the woman to town, where no one wants her, and he promptly has to kill again and further annoy an ex-Confederate rancher and power mad criminal named Caldwell (Donald O’Brien, the film’s weakest link) who caused the plague with poisoned wells, and now holds the town hostage refusing to allow anyone to bring in medicine or help. No one ever explains just how this helps him since he has already grabbed all the land. I guess he’s just mean.

   In addition Keoma finds his childhood friend and mentor George (Woody Strode) a broken old drunk waiting to die in the streets.

   Keoma: “But you’re free now.”

   George: “I found out what freedom means.”

   Like heavy, man (well, it was the seventies).

   Keoma it turns out was a half-breed child rescued by a fast gun, William Shannon (William Berger), with three sons of his own. Of course they are no damn good — they tortured and beat Keoma — and as ex-Confederates themselves, they ride with Caldwell and their once proud and deadly father is old, afraid to die, and fears having to kill his own sons. But he’s glad to have Keoma back.

   Shannon: “We stopped slaughtering and butchering the Indians long enough to free the black man and now we are back to finish with the Indians.”

   That comes a bit out of left field, since other than the knowledge that Keoma’s village was slaughtered by white men and Keoma the only survivor, and all the bad guys, brothers included, go on about him being half-Indian, Indians have almost nothing to do with the plot except as shorthand for oppressed and exploited people, and that old Indian woman (great face) who keeps wandering in and out at key points often back lit by lightning and sunlight.

   This is a beautifully shot film. Visually it is great to look at and the print I saw was off an original 35mm letterboxed master in one of those collections of twelve films, this one including One Eyed Jacks, another pretentious western, but not as good as this one despite the cast and stunning cinematography.

   Keoma is about as much Tarzan or Conan here as a western hero, a sort of force of nature, the ultimate existentialist hero who worships only one thing, freedom at any price — no matter who he gets killed in winning it for them.

   It’s a very physical role for Nero, mindful of the kind of action film Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas often made full of running, leaping, fighting, and defying gravity, and in the stunts that are obviously Nero, he looks and performs the physical side more than adequately. Of course he was an old hand at this and even makes a sly cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s paean to the form, Django Unleashed (for anyone who didn’t get the joke Nero — among others — this was also released as Django Rides).

   You have to give the director and multiple screenwriters credit too, because this could easily have devolved into maudlin flashbacks of Keoma’s troubled childhood, but instead they chose a form of virtual Latin American Magic Realism where the characters in the here and now are physically in the flashback scenes with their younger selves. Once you get past the initial shock it is very effective and in some ways presages the famous ending of Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart.

   You can guess how the plot works out: there’s the good doctor who regains his nerve; George regains his manhood; Shannon stands by his good adopted son, Keoma; Shannon and George take on the entire Caldwell army in a well shot orgy of gunfighting and violence; and Keoma ends up crucified in the rain on a wagon wheel in the middle of town only to be rescued by Lisa, the dying pregnant woman.

   The final shootout in an old abandoned fort where the film opened, with Keoma battling his three adopted brothers is well staged with the screams of the woman in labor and the cries of her newborn muffling the gun fire (I warned you it was arty) and the old witch looking on.

   But don’t shoot me, it isn’t my fault that Keoma, having done everything but backflips to see the child is born, then deserts him with the old Indian woman with than nonsense about a free man can’t die. See how much milk and how many diapers existentialist philosophy will buy you; carrying existentialism a shade too far as far as I’m concerned.

   The major problem for me was the damn musical soundtrack, really lame senseless ballads I could barely understand that sounded like the mewling of the cattle from Red River done to music or the male part like a coyote with a sore throat trying to spit phlegm up (and that is being kind — “Do not forsake me oh my darlin’” it’s not), the woman singing alone had a vibrato on high notes that must be how Madame Castafiore sounds to Captain Haddock in Tintin. You will be amazed how many vowels she manages to squeeze into the name Keoma. She sounds like the love child of Joan Baez and Slim Whitman.

   That said, the dubbing was first class with Nero and Strode at least doing their own voices.

   But messy as it is at times, I more than recommend this one. It mostly succeeds at what it is obviously trying to do, there is some strong and effective imagery, plus stunts, good use of lighting and staging, and more often than not, it rises to what it seems to want to be. Granted the main villain is a bit lame, but he’s only an afterthought to the conflict between the brothers and Keoma.

   And if any of you have seen it and remember, maybe you can clear up whether Keoma was just rescued by Shannon, or Shannon’s son by his Indian mother. At one point that seems to be the implication, and then later I wasn’t so sure. I guess that happens when a small army writes the screenplay. They never clear up if the people at the mine dying of plague are saved either. Guess it wasn’t worth the bother.

   I enjoyed this one much more than I expected. If there is another half this good on the set then I won’t feel I wasted $5. This is one of the better thought of and appreciated later Spaghetti westerns, and it isn’t hard to see why.

   Still, I can’t help but wonder if Tonto — Keoma — would have fared better here with the help of the Lone Ranger.

   Just asking.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Jun 092014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WILL PENNY. Paramount Pictures, 1968. Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence, Lee Majors, Bruce Dern, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Anthony Zerbe, Jon Gries. Screenwriter-director: Tom Gries.

   Will Penny is a Western drama starring Charlton Heston as an aging cowhand caught between the only life he knows, that of a rugged, itinerant cowboy, and the love of a beautiful woman who wants to settle down with him. While the movie is neither a work of cinematic excellence, nor one of the best Westerns ever made, it is perhaps one of Heston’s finest, and least “epic,” big screen performances. Even if you’re not particularly a Heston fan, it’s worth watching.

   The film may not resemble a traditional Western in terms of narrative or structure but contra Roger Ebert, Will Penny is very much part of the Western genre. That said, the film is best understood as a character study set in the Old West and as a filmmaker’s attempt to portray the life and psychology of a cowhand as realistically as possible.

   While there are several notable flaws that do detract from the overall project, the film does succeed in providing the viewer with a glimpse of a West that was far less glamorous, and far more lonesome, than in the vast majority of shoot-them-up B-Westerns.

   The plot really isn’t all that complicated. (If you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs to avoid spoilers.) In fact, the plot’s simplicity is what makes what otherwise has the feel of made-for-television movie work as a film.

   Will Penny (Heston) is an aging, illiterate cowhand working jobs when and where he can find them. After finishing one job, Will Penny and his two friends, Blue (Lee Majors in a rather undistinguished early film role) and Dutchie (a vastly under-utilized Anthony Zerbe) look for future work.

   Along the way, they get into a confrontation with Preacher Quint, a bearded, wild-eyed, Bible quoting, madman (a somewhat miscast, overacting Donald Pleasence) and his family of misfits, over an elk. Penny shoots and kills one of Quinn’s sons with a rifle. The grieving and crazed father retreats, announcing to the world that he’ll seek to avenge his son’s killing.

   During the gun battle, Dutchie ends up shooting himself in the chest. The three men then travel in search of a doctor, encountering Catherine Allen (a lovely, classy Joan Hackett) and her son, Horace, (portrayed by Jon Gries, son of writer/director, Tom Gries) in a tavern along the way.

   After a series of not particularly compelling events, Quint and his remaining sons catch up with Will Penny, gravely injuring him. Allen nurses Will Penny back to health and, as might be expected, she begins to fall in love with him.

   Will Penny, for his part, is both attracted to and confused by, the domestic lifestyle she and Horace take for granted. He develops a particular fondness for the young Horace, becoming a father figure to him.

   Preacher Quint eventually returns – yet again – and wreaks havoc on the Allen household. In a final showdown, Will Penny, along with Blue and Dutchie who appear oddly out of nowhere at the most opportune time imaginable, take on the Quint family, eventually killing the lunatic patriarch.

   Allen’s feelings toward Will Penny are now perfectly clear. Despite the fact that she has a husband out in Oregon, she wants him to marry her. Her plan is for them to settle down together as homesteaders. Will Penny is mighty tempted by the idea, but he just doesn’t see it as a viable option. After all, he’s nearly 50, an old man for that time and place. The only life he’s ever known is that of an itinerant cowhand; he simply couldn’t imagine giving it all up for a life of domesticity.

   There is no happily ever after. Despite Allen’s entreaties, Will Penny decides to ride off with Blue and Dutchie, leaving Allen and Horace behind him.

   When discussing Will Penny, “authenticity,” seems to be the key word. Will Penny is a character study of a lonesome, somewhat taciturn cowhand. He is not only illiterate, but he’s embarrassed by it. He prefers not to fight with his hands, as those are, in his estimation, hands are designed for working, not fighting. Instead, he makes use of a skillet in one fight and of his legs in others. The whiskey he drinks burns his throat. Most of all, Will Penny is extraordinarily, painfully, awkward around women.

   But is the film, as writer/director Tom Gries intended, a realistic portrayal of a cowboy? I guess that depends. The Old West was a large place geographically and hosted a wide array of characters, good and bad, normal and strange, ebullient and bashful. Will Penny does, however, succeed in avoiding the obviously embellished features that mar other portrayals of cowboys, turning them into larger than life figures.

   Heston’s Will Penny isn’t perfectly clean, well-spoken or comfortable in society. He also doesn’t like killing men much, either. He’s no romantic hero. He’s just a regular guy who comes to realize that the true villain in his life wasn’t Preacher Quint, but rather time and circumstance.

   Will Penny may not be a great Western, but it’s a good one, a film that you’ll probably want to think about for a while before you form your own opinion on whether it works or not.

 Posted by at 3:46 pm
Jun 082014

BORDER DEVILS. Supreme Pictures / Weiss Brothers Artclass Pictures, 1932. Harry Carey Sr., Kathleen Collins, George (later “Gabby”) Hayes, Olive Carey and Tetsu Komai. Script and continuity by Harry P. Crist, based on a story by Murray Leinster. Directed by by William Nigh.

   One of the first things you notice about Border Devils is that it’s based on a story by Murray Leinster, who gets a credit just under the title. And it would be interesting to know which one, because as the film unfolds we see some of the signature trademarks of Leinster‘s style all over it.

   The story starts with Harry Carey Sr. and his partner (don’t worry about who played him; he’s only in one scene anyway) following up a lead on a mysterious oriental criminal mastermind of the west, known only as The General. They’re drugged, the partner murdered (see?) and Carey framed for it.

   In due course, Carey becomes first a fugitive, then an investigator under a couple of assumed names, and finally he uncovers a plot to steal the heroine’s ranch. (How do they keep coming up with these new ideas?) He also picks up a more durable partner in the person of (who’da thunkit?) George “Gabby” Hayes.

   Harry and Gabby spend the rest of the film running down The General, riding up the plains, and just generally playing cowboy as they try to sort out just who’s working for the Yellow Peril and who ain’t. In the course of things, the story keeps wavering between some grandiose plot of the General (seen only in shadows at first by his frightened minions) and the more mundane matter of the heroine’s ranch, until our doughty heroes manage to penetrate the sinister cabal and unmask the baddies once and for finally.

   It’s easy to see the elements of Leinster’s style here: the massive conspiracy that figures in his sci-fi, the shifting identity of the hero, and the generally peripatetic nature of the tale as our cowboy commandos shuttle hither and yon like horsing lot attendants.

   Unfortunately, it’s all a rather shoddy affair, one of a series of less-than-inspired films by producer Louis Weiss — who would later be responsible for The White Gorilla. His westerns with Harry Carey, done at a time when the once-great Western star obviously needed cash, are uniformly slow-paced, cheap and cheerless affairs, and this one is right at the bottom of the barrel.

   Word has it that Carey actually had to sue Weiss for his salary, but it doesn’t show in his performance; the aging western star is as leathery-tough as ever, and a pleasure to watch, even in this seamy milieu.

   So like I say, it’s just a shame to see him in this dreadful mess. Director William Nigh seems to have been not so much directing as sleep-walking, and as for the “script and continuity” — well, they’re perfunctory and non-existent, respectively. Characters come on the screen without introduction, say a few words in reference to some aspect of the plot, then get interrupted by some other characters who enter the scene for no apparent reason and everyone talks until the scene shifts to something else that seems to have little if any relation to whatever preceded it.

   I remember thinking as I watched that whoever took credit for “script and continuity” ought to be ashamed of himself, and sure enough, he was: it turns out that the credited “Harry P. Crist” was actually a pseudonym for a sometimes-director named Harry Fraser.

   If you’re not familiar with Fraser, let me just say that he worked in films from the Silent days to the late 1950s without ever once showing the fainted glimmer of interest in whatever he turned his hand to. Those who celebrate the late Ed Wood should bow their heads and positively worship Fraser, who, come to think of it actually worked on the Wood-scripted Bride and the Beast. Which should give you some indication of his talent. For the record, his last official credit as a feature film director was Chained for Life, a film so tasteless I must get around to reviewing it someday.

   But getting back to Border Devils, I guess I should marvel at the talent of Leinster’s vision and Harry Carey’s charismatic presence. If they don’t exactly triumph over their surroundings, at least they shine through enough to be discernible.

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Jun 032014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SADDLE THE WIND. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Julie London, John Cassavetes, Donald Crisp, Charles McGraw, Royal Dano. Screenplay: Rod Serling, based on a story by Thomas Thompson. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Directors: Robert Parrish & John Sturges, the latter uncredited, according to IMDb.

   Saddle The Wind is a Western set on the frontier in the post-Civil War era. Veteran actor Robert Taylor and a youthful John Cassevetes, the latter in one of his earliest film roles, portray brothers Steve and Tony Sinclair, respectively. The two men are irreparably divided over the necessity and propriety of violence. Joining them on their journey into fatal conflict is singer/actress Julie London who portrays Tony Sinclair’s mysterious love interest, Joan Blake.

   The film is as much a Greek tragedy set in the American West as it is a traditional Western. The themes of personal fate, hubris, and historical inevitability all feature strongly in both the film’s text and subtext.

   The philosophical question of whether a man is born bad or goes bad because of his environment — the age-old question of nature versus nurture — is both explicitly and implicitly touched upon throughout the film. Saddle The Wind also explores the effects and ramifications of violence on men and women, and societies more generally.

   The film begins with a depiction of frontier aggression and violence. Larry Venables (a mean-looking Charles McGraw) enters a tavern, demands service, and aggressively queries for the whereabouts of Confederate veteran Steve Sinclair (Taylor). But it’s not Steve with whom Venables ends up doing battle. Rather, it is younger brother Tony, whom Steve always believed had something wrong with him when it came to violence, who engages in a standoff with Venables.

   Tony shoots and kills Venable, setting off a chain of events that spin out of his control. The sick thrill of murdering a man, even if it were justified, goes to Tony’s head. With liquor, his wildness only increases. Soon Tony and a friend are out making trouble for what they perceive to be gathering of local squatters. Leading the group is Clay Ellison (Royal Dano), a Union veteran from Pennsylvania who has a deed to the land.

   It’s not long until Tony Sinclair is angry at — and violent toward — almost anyone who crosses his path, including the local patriarch and landowner, Dennis Dineen (Donald Crisp). This turns out to be a big mistake, and it ends up with older brother Steve having to put an end to his younger brother’s reign of terror. The film culminates in a final, violent showdown between the Brothers Sinclair. The camera work, particularly the angles at which the actors are captured on film, and the music leading up to this crucial event are memorable.

   Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that you may slightly caught off guard. (I watched it a second time just to make sure I understood it correctly.) I wasn’t expecting the film’s main conflict to resolve itself in the manner that it did, but if one does consider it to be a Greek tragedy set in the West, rather than a Western, it all makes perfect sense.

   The film’s biggest flaw, ironically, may have been in casting Julie London for the role of Joan Blake. While London is certainly captivating and her singing of the movie’s eponymous title song has its saccharine charm, her character just comes across as somewhat inauthentic.

   It’s hinted that she’s running from a violent past. Nevertheless, would a woman of her looks and her presumed social status really have joined up so quickly with an obvious immature hothead like Tony Sinclair after knowing him for less than a week? It strains credulity.

   In many ways, Joan Blake is extraneous to the overall taut plot; the conflict between the sober, elder brother Steve and the reckless, younger brother Tony would have likely come to a head even without her presence in their midst. By not further developing the sole significant female character in the film, Serling weakened his overall solid script and made London’s contributions to Saddle The Wind less impressive than they could have been.

   Although Saddle The Wind is unquestionably a Western, there is something very noir about the film, with Cassavetes’s character increasingly spiraling into a hellish realm of senseless violence, all of which culminates in his inevitable doom. None of the characters are remotely happy, at least not for very long.

   The closest we see to true happiness is at the beginning of the film, when Tony Sinclair returns home and is reunited with his brother. From then on, no one really is remotely cheerful, at least not in any normal sense.

   All the characters seem more resigned to their places in the world than particularly happy with them. Violence, death, loneliness, and struggle rule the land. It’s a bleak land, and one does one’s best to make the most of a less than optimal situation. Perhaps this was Rod Serling’s view of the American West?

   In conclusion, Saddle The Wind is a unique film, somewhat distinct from the typical Western narratives of the era. In many ways, it’s a film about a loser rather than one about a hero. But it’s very much worth watching. With solid acting, great scenery, and a beautiful soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein, it’s a film that you won’t soon forget, particularly if you really consider what’s really going on with all the characters under their tough Western exteriors.

 Posted by at 12:52 am