Showdown (1963)

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Aka The Iron Collar. Maybe together you might make one good man. Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) has to get $12,000  in stolen bonds from the ex-girlfriend Estelle (Kathleen Crowley) of his partner Bert Pickett (Charles Drake), or the gang holding him hostage led by wanted outlaw Lavalle (Harold Stone) will kill him. When Chris tracks Estelle down singing her last song in a saloon before catching the stage out of town it seems she has other plans for the money … Seems to me you’re more cat than kitten. An efficient tale dressed up with some unusual levels of violence and occasionally ripe dialogue – Stone gets to expound on his love of oysters which might put you in mind of a certain monologue authored by Gore Vidal in a rather different setting. Strother Martin has a good role as the town drunk while Crowley looks great and gives some odd line readings in a story that is piquant and threatening, with some nice black and white shooting done around Lone Pine, CA.  Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka TV western scribe Ric Hardman) and directed by R.G. Springsteen.  Most of his friends grow well in the dark

Kansas Raiders (1950)

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He’s a real man is all I know. In Missouri after their parents are killed by Union soldiers, Jesse James (Audie Murphy) and his brother Frank (Richard Long) with the rest of their gang Cole Younger (James Best), James Younger (Dewey Martin) and Kit Dalton (Tony Curtis) ride into Kansas looking for William Clarke Quantrill (Brian Donlevy). Seeking revenge against the Union, Jesse wants to join Quantrill’s Raiders, who are plotting to claim Kansas for the Confederacy. The more time Jesse spends with Quantrill, however, the more he realises Quantrill isn’t a hero fighting for the South, but a murderous madman and the boys earn their stripes the hard way during a raid on Lawrence … In border country you’re either a Union man or a spy. Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability to America’s greatest WWII hero playing its greatest anti-hero but as well as being a Civil War story this is also a kind of rites of passage tale. The emphasis is on colourful fast-moving ride and revenge action and it’s hardly history even though it’s inspired by the Kansas-Missouri Border War:  the raid on Lawrence wasn’t so much a gun battle as a straight up massacre.  Donlevy is too old but is certainly vicious enough in his role as the notoriously maniacal Quantrill. However the sentiments are true and Audie’s neophyte acting fits the part neatly in his fifth film. This is all about youthfulness and finding your place in the world, albeit with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. An early highlight is a ‘handkerchief fight’ between him and Quantrill’s third in command Tate (David Wolfe); and Marguerite Chapman has an apposite role as a woman in a man’s world. And as for Curtis’ accent! Written by Robert L. Richards and directed by Ray Enright in locations that do not suggest their setting. More recruits for the butcher brigade

Seven Ways From Sundown (1960)

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You know, you’d make a fair to middling bad man if you ever gave yourself half a chance. Assigned to capture the charming but deadly outlaw Jim Flood (Barry Sullivan) following a murder in a saloon, inexperienced Texas Ranger Seven (Ways From Sundown) Jones (Audie Murphy) and his veteran partner, Sgt. Henessey (John McIntire), set out to bring down the wanted man. After finding his trail, Jones and Henessey are caught in an ambush set by Flood. Henessey is killed in the action, but Jones continues the mission. When he finally apprehends Flood, Jones doesn’t expect to become friends with the outrageous outlaw but then he doesn’t know who he really is ... A man just can’t do the things you do. Adapted by Clair Huffaker from his novel, this is a bright outing for Audie and one of seven films he made with producer Gordon Kay. It’s great to see Sullivan as the flamboyant villain and there are nice scenes with love interest Venetia Stevenson (Audie’s offscreen love interest at the time) as well as some interesting work for Teddy Rooney (offspring of Mickey and Martha Vickers) in the supporting cast in the role of Jody. Kenneth Tobey has an outrageous ginger dye job as Lt. Herly. Audie gets his name here from being the seventh son in his family;  in real life he was also the seventh child, in a family of 12. There’s a lively score by William Lava and Irving Gertz and it all moves like the clappers in nicely shot Utah landscapes by cinematographer Ellis W. Carter. Directed by Harry Keller but only after Audie threatened to kill original director George Sherman following a disagreement over a line reading. I didn’t expect you to miss like that

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Run for Cover (1955)

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Do you think putting a gun in his hand will cure what is in his heart? After being mistaken for train robbers and shot and injured by a wrongheaded posse an ex-convict drifter Matt Dow (James Cagney) and his flawed young partner whom he’s just met Davey Bishop (John Derek) are made sheriff and deputy of a Western town. Bishop is deeply resentful of the people who’ve crippled him while Matt befriends and then romances the daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) of the recent Swedish emigrant Swenson (Jean Hersholt) who takes in the pair while Davey is getting medical treatment. Then the crime rate surges with the re-appearance of an outlaw who Matt knows from his time in prison where he did six years in a case of mistaken identity …  Winston Miller’s screenplay is from the story by Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch. It lacks the baroque weirdness of Nicholas Ray’s previous western, Johnny Guitar and the soaring emotionality of his forthcoming Rebel Without a Cause, but it is notable that in a script featuring a mentoring relationship of the father-son type that the focus is on the older man’s experiences with Derek becoming a substitute for Cagney’s son whose death ten years earlier is not explained. Derek plays a prototype of the aspiring juvenile delinquent character that would be front and centre of Rebel but here he’s the antagonist whose bitterness is supposedly because of being crippled courtesy of the town’s lynch mob but whom Cagney finally realises is rotten no matter what the cause. Not a classic but interesting to look at for Ray’s compositions in an evolving cinematic signature and for the contrasting performances. There are some nice lines too, such as when Matt asks Swenson for his daughter’s hand in marriage:  Ever since you leave she go round like lost heifer. Derek’s role is a pointer to many of the tropes in the JD cycle to come with Cagney very far from giving him soft soap treatment:  Why don’t you stop going round feeling sorry for yourself! Other people have it far worse!

 

Seven Men From Now (1956)

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Isn’t that one of the best titles ever?! Burt Kennedy’s first film script was intended for John Wayne – and his company made it – but he did The Searchers instead and it wound up being Randolph Scott’s story:  that of Ben Stride, a sheriff who blames himself for his wife’s death during a Wells Fargo robbery who sets out to avenge her death, tracking down each of the men responsible. He hitches a ride with a married couple whose wagon is stuck in the mud and becomes intrigued by the husband’s story (Greer, played by Walter Reed) while falling for the wife Annie (Gail Russell). They encounter Stride’s former nemesis Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his sidekick Clete (Don Barry) who decide to make off with the gold haul from the robbery when Stride has accomplished his mission. There is an encounter with hungry Indians, an ambush and an admission that the haul transported by Greer is the takings from the robbery. Shot in the beautiful landscape of Lone Pine, this is an elemental revenge western. Marvin is a choice, charismatic villain and the tragic Russell is wonderfully vulnerable as Scott’s romantic foil. Scott would perfect this laconic, grimly righteous hero who always finds himself in a shootout in an empty arena at the film’s conclusion. He insisted on Budd Boetticher as director and this became the template for a further six films they would do under Scott’s own production slate with producer Harry Joe Brown. For more on this film you can read my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/final-showdown.

The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

The Tall T (1957)

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I was just thinking – first time I ever been on a honeymoon! This starts almost like a western satire and then it heads into more sinister territory – in every sense. Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) is the independent former ranch foreman who hitches a ride with a stagecoach which is taking a honeymoon couple to their destination. Willard (John Hubbard) doesn’t want a guest but new wife Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan) insists. Then they arrive at a waypost where everyone has been killed with an outlaw gang ruling the roost. Led by child killer Frank Usher (Richard Boone), Willard bargains with them and suggests that his heiress wife could be held for ransom seeing as this isn’t the regular stage they were expecting to rob … When Usher has Willard shot in the back once the deal is secured a dance of hero/villain controls the drama as Pat appears to be Usher’s opposite but is really the flip side of the same coin.  Their morals are more or less the same – they just express them differently. Pat falls in love with Doretta, saves her from rape and plots their escape from their ruthless captors including Henry Silva and Skip Homeier. Burt Kennedy’s elegant adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Argosy story The Captives has a grindingly compelling rhythm as these men square off in an empty proscenium, that stark setting so beloved of director Budd Boetticher in the Alabama Hills. There’s always a standoff – it’s the brilliance of how it gets there that makes this a defining psychological western. Awesome.

Hell or High Water (2016)

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Call it white man’s intuition.  Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan writes a great screenplay so this was bound to be thrilling one way or another. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers carrying out bank heists in west Texas to retrieve the family land, in foreclosure by the local bank two weeks after their Mom’s death. Tanner’s not long out of prison, Toby is divorced and wanting to do right by his sons:  he’s found oil on the property so he knows it’s crucial to get the ownership in order and there’s no way out now he’s lost his job and is behind in child support. Tanner carries out a third robbery after Toby is befriended by a waitress in a nearby diner and it’s the first bank to have CCTV that works. Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who’s mere weeks from retirement gets the bit between his teeth and decides to take them down if he can figure out who they are by a simple method of deduction as the brothers rob the remaining banks in the chain – to repay the same bank  … Crafty, wise, mordantly funny and unbearably tense, this has two parallel male friendships – Marcus’s partner Indian-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the target of his ongoing race jokes –  winding around each other like DNA. This contemporary western has a great socio-political background (mass repossessions after the 2008 crash) and a wonderful setting:  look at those empty roads and desert and big skies. All four are convincing in their acutely interesting roles, everyone with something to lose and clearly defined by both action and dialogue. It reminds me of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another outing with Bridges but with him on the other side of the law four decades later. It asks questions about right and wrong and family and friendship and being a western it must have a logical conclusion – with a shootout. And then some. Brilliantly balanced storytelling that’s really well directed by David (Starred Up) Mackenzie, a Brit who clearly relished being let loose in all that big scenery.

Bend of the River (1952)

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Anthony Mann directed a big cycle of wonderful westerns in the 1950s. This adaptation by Borden Chase of a book by Bill Gulick stars the redoubtable James Stewart, who was busy remaking the notion of the hero in that decade. He is taking a wagon train to Oregon so that 100 people can build a country from scratch. But his background hoves into view when he teams up with another man (Arthur Kennedy) whom he rescues from a hanging tree and whose outlaw life is altogether more recent and the film is structured as they both reconcile in their different ways to a new kind of life – or not. Rock Hudson shows up as a gambler and Lori Nelson offers the female support. There is some good comic banter with the captain of a steamer. Beautifully shot with the usual familial trouble and secondary villain tropes detectable in Mann’s work. This reminds us that a complex interesting, characterful piece of work could be done in 91 minutes. With Julie (Julia) Adams.