THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY. United Artists, 1959. Joel McCrea (Bat Masterson), Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty.
I really wanted to like The Gunfight at Dodge City much more than I did. I’m generally an admirer of Joel McCrea and I find it difficult not to like the lovely Julie Adams. I also quite enjoyed the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita starring McCrea as Wyatt Earp, which I reviewed here and believe to be a Western deserving of more critical attention.
Yet despite McCrea’s adequate portrayal of Bat Masterson, Joseph M. Newman’s solid direction, and some beautifully decorated interiors, The Gunfight at Dodge City ended up feeling like a disappointment, a case of what could have been rather than what it is.
McCrea, in a stoic role, portrays legendary lawman Bat Masterson as he transforms himself from a buffalo hunter to the lawman of Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, however, Masterson makes two mortal enemies, Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) who seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of Masterson, and Dodge City’s corrupt sheriff, Jim Regan (Don Haggerty). Both are villains without any depth.
Masterson also finds himself torn between two beautiful women, Lily (Nancy Gates), a saloon owner and Pauline Howard (Julia Adams), a preacher’s daughter engaged to Bat’s brother, Ed (Harry Lauter) who ends up being killed by the aforementioned Dave (Anderson).
Masterson also plays mentor to a mentally challenged kid, Billy, who has, to Bat’s mind, an unhealthy fascination with guns and violence. What does help make Masterson’s character a bit more interesting are his friendships with Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire) and Reverend Howard (James Westerfield).
As you might suspect, Billy gets himself into a pickle by shooting a lawman and is sentenced to death by hanging. This forces Masterson’s hand. Will he uphold the law or will he revert to his semi- outlaw ways and free the lad from state custody?
If all of this happens to sound like fairly standard Western fare, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what The Gunfight at Dodge City is. There’s a couple of fights, some drunken cowboys shooting in the twilight, a couple of love affairs, brothers with different personalities, a saloon, and a protagonist who kills his rivals and gets the girl. But it’s just not much more than that.
True, there are a couple of great moments, but there’s really not too much in the way of memorable dialogue or excellent acting. McCrea is a very capable actor, but in this one, he just seems at times like he was phoning it in. Bat Masterson looks more bored than tormented. And everyone else was playing their roles better than many actors could have, but it still leaves one with a nagging question: aside from making a movie with Bat Masterson at the center of the action, what was it all for?
JAMES MITCHELL – Dying Day. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1989. First published in the UK by H. Hamilton, hardcover, 1988.
James Mitchell has done a number of crime novels, as himself and as James Munro, and now turns up with a London private eye named Ron Hogget. Hogget finds things for people, though the finding usually involves some fearful activities.
Ron is often fearful — he’s that sort of person — but he usually gets the job done. And he has Dave, a friend who drives a cab, reads Literature, knows everything about guns and self-defense and nothing about fear.
Hogget’s second adventure is Dying Day. [But see below.] Here Tony Palliser, filthy rich now from business that began with airplanes — Dakotas — participating in the Berlin airlift in 1948, calls on Hogget’s services. It’s one of those planes, lost at that time, that Palliser now wants Ron to find.
Why, after all these years? Palliser’s reason is thin, but his money is good so Ron starts. And finds he’s not alone on the search, that the real reason must be quite impressive for all the dying being arranged on its behalf. Including, very likely, his…
A solidly constructed, high-tension story with a well-crafted array of characters.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.
The Ron Hogget series —
Sometimes You Could Die. H. Hamilton, 1985. No US edition.
Dead Ernest. H. Hamilton, 1986. Holt, 1987.
Dying Day. H. Hamilton, 1988. Holt, 1989.
In the wake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish mysteries are all the rage. Not that they aren’t good, but they may be getting more attention than thrillers set in, say, Honduras. Anything with a Swedish connection seems to have a little extra oomph right now. Cecilia Ekbäck is, in fact, from Sweden, but she now lives in Canada and wrote this book in English, which probably makes it easier to present to a U.S. audience. Historical novels are also hot, and Wolf Winter wins on this front too.
Set on the frontier of Swedish Lapland in 1717, Wolf Winter includes a murder, but it goes beyond to study human behavior under extremes. In 18th century Scandinavia, the struggle with winter and just finding food to make it through until spring was brutal. Maija has moved from a coastal town to a rugged mountain with her husband and daughters. This sparsely-settled area holds just a few families, and the closest town is miles away. Almost as soon as they get there, one of the daughters finds a dead body; the story of how and why this man was killed unfolds throughout the novel. Against a backdrop of the politics and culture of the time, Ekbäck explores of how people act under pressure, whether political, social, or religious. The culturally distinct Lapps play a role in the story, as does the state-sanctioned church and even the King of Sweden. In the end, Maija and most of the other settlers survive the harsh winter, but not without much suffering, both physical and psychological.
At times I was reminded of Halldor Laxness’s Independent People and other novels that bring home the fundamental toughness of rural life in Scandinavia. I can’t evaluate the authenticity of Ekbäck’s recreation of Sweden in 1717, but I found it all eminently believable. I enjoyed both the historical detail and the characters. The author’s spare style fits well with the reserved people and harsh landscape she describes. This title is due out in January 2015.
Gwen Gregory is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.
This is a pulp I owned and read many years ago. I don't remember anything about it except the cover and the fact that I enjoyed it. Not surprising since the authors included Jack Williamson and Ray Cummings. The Polton Cross story in this one is probably the only thing I've ever read by John Russell Fearn. I have no memory of it. Fearn is one of those authors I've seen mentioned many times,
Now that the summer rush is about to end, it’s time to think seriously again about ordering books for the shop in a less frenetic fashion. In the spring, thoughts are about what will be popular for vacation reading. Laying hands on copies of the summer reading lists of the local schools is another chore; the schools’ websites are becoming inaccessible to outsiders, and curriculum planners may or may not take the time to respond to a request for a list. Customers with kids turn out to be the best resource. Once the season begins, it seems more time is spent restocking (“We’re out of Maze Runner again!”) or ordering items you didn’t think would be big, but turned out to be.
Only a few years ago, I could peruse the biannual New York Times Sunday section listing films to be released in the next several months, and feel comfortable that stocking books on which forthcoming films were based would satisfy demand for those who want both the written and visual versions. I just had to be careful to get the right book cover; most of my customers hate (as I do) the “media tie-in” covers. The physical book looks dated in a very short time, whether it’s still on my shelf or in the customer’s library. When I have tried having both versions on display, the non-media copies are the ones that sell. I have had customers say it cheapens written work , and I agree. A while back, the standard cover for As I Lay Dying was temporarily out of stock, and so I went with the movie tie-in cover. I overheard a customer saying that he wanted the book, but couldn’t stand looking at James Franco. He was willing to wait for a “real” copy.
More recently, I find that being aware of upcoming film releases is only half the job when it comes to ordering for media-related books. The burgeoning number of series television shows on HBO, Netflix, STARZ, and who knows how many other outlets has created a huge market for the books on which they are based. The Game of Thrones series was always popular with fantasy fans and a steady seller. It has now become mainstream, has moved from my Fantasy section to a more central display area, and requires a quick inventory check whenever I am placing an order, especially if a new season is beginning. Outlander is beginning to follow the same pattern.
I am not a big TV or film fan. What leisure time I have is usually spent reading. I am tempted by some of the ongoing (and completed) TV series, but will probably wind up “binge-watching” if we have another bad winter. Thus I have to rely on written sources to find out what’s happening. With the advent of the mini-and maxi-series trend, I find myself making notes while reading the newspaper or magazines so that I can anticipate which books will be in demand.
My totally unscientific observation (and from one who is not a filmgoer) is that there has been a steady increase over the last few years in the number of movies based on bestselling (or classic) books, and more recently, based on young adult fiction. I feared for a while that this trend would decrease the interest in books. I have heard the comment, particularly from young visitors to my shop who are being encouraged by a parent to choose a particular book, “I saw the movie. I don’t need to read the book!” Fortunately, this sentiment appears to be the minority view and is usually expressed by reluctant readers. Film and TV versions of books are increasing sales. Some want to read the book before seeing the film. Others love the film and realize that the written version probably contains character development, subplots, and details missing from the visual version. (I wonder how the upcoming film of Gone Girl can possibly contain all the plot reversals of the book, even if it is 2 ½ hours long.)
Certainly the Game of Thrones and Outlander television shows have introduced book series that have been ongoing for years, but limited to audiences of Fantasy or Time-Travel Romance fans, to mainstream readers. Both are deserving of this wider audience and offer much more than their previous “genre” classifications implied. Readers who never read fantasy and have completed the Game ofThrones volumes are looking for more books in a similar vein: Thus the increase in sales of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. More important, readers are expanding their horizons and discovering that this “genre” stuff might be every bit as good as the “literary” works they have limited themselves to in the past.
Keeping up with what’s happening in the film, television, and on-line entertainment worlds means a little more work for the bookseller who wants to offer the consumer the print versions of their favorite shows or movies. But if these other media are leading readers back to books, showing them the advantages of the written word, and causing them to seek out more books, even if they haven’t been filmed (yet), it’s well worth it.
THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.
This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…
Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.
I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.
The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.
The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).
Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.
Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.
You can see where this is going.
Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).
The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.
Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.
If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.
Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.
Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.
The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)
Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.
It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.
Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.
Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.
It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…
Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.
The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.
Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.
McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.
But one actor stands out.
Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.
He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.
Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.
This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.
If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.
I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.
It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.
For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.
To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.
BILL CRIDER – Too Late to Die. Walker, hardcover, 1986. Ivy, paperback, 1989.
Mystery novels with a rural policeman as the leading character are a rare breed. One of the best of them is Too Late to Die by 8111 Crider.
Crider’s hero is Dan Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, and most of the action takes place in and around one of that small county’s smaller spots, Thurston (population 408). The book is true its country locale (with characters like Billy Joe Bryan, the retarded local “Peeping Tom”), but there is an intelligence at work here which gives this work a sophistication not often found in backwoods mysteries.
The local settings ring with such truth that they completely convinced this city slicker who was brought up in The Bronx. I especially liked the scenes at the general store and the debate at the school during Rhodes’ reelection campaign. They all work to strengthen a good detective story.
Anyone familiar with Bill Crider’s work in reference books and fan magazines should not be too surprised that this is one of the best first mysteries of 1986.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986 (slightly revised).