The Far Country (1954)

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I don’t need other people. I don’t need help. I can take care of myself. Cowboy Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is bringing cattle from Wyoming to the Yukon but the corrupt sheriff in Skagway (John McIntire) steals the herd. Jeff joins forces with the saloon keeper (Ruth Roman) from a neighbouring town but they’re up against someone so tough he kills Jeff’s sidekick (Walter Brennan) and Jeff finally swears revenge for reasons other than his own. Great 50s western that has a political undertow – the journey from individual to collective responsibility. Somehow, director Anthony Mann’s construction and use of painted backdrops combine to undermine the film’s radical message while Stewart (in their fourth collaboration) adds another hue of psychopathy to his character palette. With Corinne Calvet as the young woman who must compete with Roman for Stewart’s affections, this is pretty fantastic entertainment and it looks wonderful (they knew colour then). Written by Borden Chase.

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Valerie (1957)

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The opportunity to see La Ekberg act opposite then husband Anthony Steel is irresistible. This post-Civil War western noir, directed by Gerd Oswald, is an interesting proposition, maritally speaking:  she’s a real femme fatale, a settler who’s interested in money and sex, keen to pursue an affair, first with her brother in law (Peter Walker) and then a local priest (Steel) who intervenes to save her marriage, above and beyond any concern for her Union soldier husband turned cattle farmer Sterling Hayden. When she becomes pregnant it’s obvious it isn’t her husband’s and she initially refuses to give evidence in the case against him for the tragic death of her parents. Mostly taking place in flashbacks and then bringing the story up to date in the courtroom (and hospital bed) with their conflicting accounts of a marriage gone very badly wrong. There are three accounts of the murders:  whose is right?  Written by Emmet Murphy and Laurence Heath aka Leonard Heiderman, this is a dramatically fascinating if not totally satisfying piece of work (like a lot of Oswald’s films) with a chance to see two quite antithetical performers – Hayden and Ekberg – demonstrating their very different acting styles in this morally involving story a la Rashomon. Ekberg would reunite with Oswald for Screaming Mimi a couple of years later.

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

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Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

Cattle Empire (1958)

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My principal interest in this oater isn’t in seeing Joel McCrea acting for Charles Marquis Warren, for whom this would serve more or less as the basis for Rawhide on TV, also written by Endre Boehm and with some of the same cast.  It’s really the opportunity to see cult star Gloria Talbott. She’s Sandy Jeffrey, daughter of Tom Jefferson Jeffrey (Paul Brinegar) and she adores John Cord. Joel is Cord, the trail boss hired by the same people who had him put behind bars (after his men went on a drunken spree) to drive their cattle to Fort Clemson.  Hamilton, the man who hires him, is now married to Cord’s ex (Phyllis Coates). But he’s also hired by a rival cattle baron. The beginning really grabs you, seeing this man dragged around the streets until you think there’s going to be nothing left. Then it settles into a fairly standard trail story with participants who’ve got mixed motives and prickly personalities. The scenery at the Sierras and Lone Pine is very attractive and mostly well used and Talbott really enlivens what could be a rather stereotypical character. There’s an interesting part played by Don Haggerty – as blind cattleman Hamilton – and an opportunity to catch Kurt Russell’s dad, Bing. And the suspense, for as long as it lasts, is trying to figure out whose side Cord will take.

Comes a Horseman (1978)

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We’re a long way from Klute, Alan J. Pakula and Jane Fonda’s legendary 1971 collaboration and some distance from the paranoid conspiracy urban thriller with which he really cemented his name. However he’s working again with Gordon Willis, who supplied the terrifying light and shadow to that phase of his career. When her father dies rancher Ella Connors (Fonda) struggles to save the place, coveted by rival JW Ewing (Jason Robards) even with the assistance of former GI Buck Athearn (James Caan) who has survived a murder attempt that killed his partner Mark Harmon in the film’s early scenes. Dennis Lynton Clark’s screenplay deftly explores many of the tropes of the western in this modern (1940s) setting, with a lush location a great juxtaposition to tough emotions:  and just watch Fonda’s performance, particularly disclosing her past with old Ewing to a disbelieving Caan. (It was shot mainly in Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Prescott and San Francisco Peaks in Arizona.) There’s a nifty visual reference to her role in A Doll’s House and some lovely work by Richard Farnsworth who earned a Best Supporting Academy Award nomination. The next-to-last scene is tough to watch because a stuntman died but it’s cut right before the fatal incident. Pakula and Fonda would work together again a couple of years later in Rollover but here she’s still recognisably herself, Henry Fonda’s daughter, in Joad country. Beautiful in so many ways.

Man Without a Star (1955)

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Kirk Douglas is the drifter Dempsey Rae, a man with a pathological hatred of barbed-wire fencing. He teams up with Jeff ‘Texas’ Jimpson (William Campbell) when they get thrown off a train and fetch up working for absentee cattle baroness Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).  She arrives having purchased a massive number of animals and they start to crowd out the neighbours. The fencing proves a hurdle too far for Dempsey and he has to pick a side when a range war commences. Dee Linford’s novel was adapted by Borden Chase and DD Beauchamp to capitalise both on Douglas’ genial potential (I suspect a rather different real-life persona…)  and the colourful spread of the land, beautifully shot by Russell Metty under the direction of King Vidor. There’s a lovely, lilting score by (the mysteriously uncredited) Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein. The playing by all the major actors is exemplary:  Crain is good as the unsympathetic proprietress and Claire Trevor is terrific as a decent saloon girl and Richard Boone does his usual villainous best as a nasty gunman. Campbell, whom I know better from his Corman outings a few years later, makes a fine impression as the hothead Jeff.  At the time, he was married to a lady called Judith Immoor, whom you might know better under the moniker Judith Campbell Exner. That would be the self-proclaimed mistress of JFK, Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli. That, as they say, is another story.