Frontier Gal (1945)

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I don’t want to be a bride – I want to be a widow! Johnny Hart(Rod Cameron)  heads for Red Gulch, looking for the mystery man who murdered his partner. He quickly meets Lorena Dumont (Yvonne De Carlo), a beautiful saloon keeper who is loved by Blackie (Sheldon Leonard), a jealous crook who doesn’t like her interest in Johnny. After he resists her seduction by saying he has another girl back home but she misunderstands his intentions, he is forced to marry her at gunpoint – an actual shotgun wedding! She turns him over to the sheriff when she learns he’s a fugitive with a price on his head. He escapes, spends a night of passion with Lorena, then is recaptured. Six years later, Johnny returns from a long spell in prison to Red Gulch seeking revenge. He now knows it was Blackie who killed his partner. Johnny’s former girlfriend is summoned to meet him, but it turns out he fathered a child with Lorena who’s now a whipsmart five year old called Mary Ann (Beverly Sue Simmons) …… Squaw easy to get. Hard to lose. This little-known western musical comedy is a lively, flavourful hoot from start to action-packed finish, with a zesty performance by De Carlo in a role intended for Maria Montez. Cameron isn’t great as her opposite number in this Taming of the Shrew knockoff, but Andy Devine is the business as Big Ben and little Simmons is just laugh out loud great as the sharp kid Johnny suddenly loves despite not knowing about her existence for five years. An underrated gem, written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano and directed by Charles Lamont, this zips along to a cracking score by Frank Skinner and some entertaining songs performed by the cast although De Carlo is voiced by Doreen Tryden in one of hers. A gun so big can make a big man like me look so small

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The Wild and the Innocent (1959)

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Aka The Buckskin Kid and the Calico Gal/The Wild Innocents. The Lord sure made a mistake letting people like you have children. Naive young fur trapper Yancy Hawks (Audie Murphy) heads to Casper, Wyoming for the first time when his injured uncle asks him to trade some pelts for essential provisions. He encounters the Stockers, a family of vagabonds headed by lazy sneak thief Ben (Strother Martin) who try to cheat him into parting with his furs in exchange for their daughter Rosalie (Sandra Dee). Rosalie escapes her cruel family and she heads to Casper with Yancy who reluctantly agrees to take her with him but they go through many hardships in the corrupt and lawless big town especially when they fall foul of a crooked sheriff Paul Bartell (Gilbert Roland) who proposes that Rosalie work in a dance hall run by Marcy Howard (Joanne Dru).  When Yancy finds out it’s actually a brothel the scene is set for a showdown … Why don’t you go back to the hills and grow up. An offbeat comedy western written by producer Sy Gomberg and director Jack Sher, the chance to see Dee in a frightwig while Murphy attempts to play it straight is too much to pass up. Roland and Dru excel in their baddie roles, Jim Backus gets to play a decent father figure/shopkeeper and the Cinemascope Eastmancolor Universal experience of Big Bear and Snow Valley is enlivened by Hans Salter’s score and the song Touch of Pink because I Shot the Sheriff hadn’t been written yet. There’s just a chance that you might be what I need

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

The Left-Handed Gun (1958)

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You’re not like the books! You don’t wear silver studs! You don’t stand up to glory! You’re not him! Volatile young drifter and gunfighter William Bonney (Paul Newman) works for kindly Lincoln County rancher John Tunstall aka ‘The Englishman’ (Colin Keith-Johnston) and they develop an unbreakable bond. When Tunstall is murdered by a corrupt sheriff and his cronies because he was about to supply beef to the local military company, a distraught Billy swears revenge and goes on a rampage through the New Mexico Territory, endangering the General Amnesty established by Governor Lew Wallace. Billy finally guns down all the men who killed Tunstall – but in the process he endangers the life of his old friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who is about to be married and doesn’t take kindly to the Kid’s erratic behaviour and vows to hunt him down as newly appointed sheriff ... One shot – one ten cent bullet, and that’s it! Gore Vidal’s 1955 Philco Playhouse TV feature gets the big screen treatment by screenwriter Leslie Stevens with Arthur Penn making his directing debut and Newman inheriting a(nother) role that James Dean was expected to play (and which Newman had played in the TV episode). Occupying that space between the psychological western and authentic approach to biography it’s a revisionist exercise that’s not 100% successful but remains a fascinating picture of Fifties acting styles as well as being a rather beautiful historical narrative. You been called. Newman plays Billy as a juvenile delinquent, a typically doomed misunderstood teen of the era who loses it when his substitute father is killed but it’s the underwritten edges he can’t quite fill out, ironically making his character all the more credible because this is all about perceptions of the heroic.  There’s nice support from Lita Milan as Celsa, Dehner as the conflicted Garrett, James Best as Tom Follard and especially Hurd Hatfield as Moultrie the travelling companion who transforms Billy’s life into a series of dime store novels that Billy can’t read and who ultimately betrays him. Got myself all killed. A dramatically arresting and visually striking, much imitated taste of things to come from all concerned, not least of which would be Penn’s own Bonnie and ClydeI don’t run. I don’t hide. I go where I want. I DO what I want!

Decision at Sundown (1957)

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You’d better leave town if you want to stay in one piece. After three years of searching and hell-bent on revenge, flinty gunslinger Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) rides into a sleepy Western town with sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) and only one goal in mind: to kill local roughneck Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who kidnapped his wife years ago. Both men have blood on their hands over the woman’s eventual suicide. Allison and Kimbrough, wracked with guilt but boiling over with bloodlust, are set to face off for one final confrontation. Tensions mount as sunset approaches, and the townspeople must choose sides before sundown just as Kimbrough prepares to wed local girl Lucy (Karen Steele) and sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) assists in surrounding the men in a stables… Doc, when you have been tending bars as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race. With a screenplay by Charles Lang, director Budd Boetticher reunites with Scott for their second collaboration and the usually taciturn star plays a man unravelling at the seams rather with a residual question over his psychological well-being not to mention his partial responsibility for his wife’s death, tearing at the reason for his quest and turning the tables on the town itself as the lines blur between notions of the hero and the villain. There are ugly digs at women and their predilections with Kimbrough’s mistress Ruby (Valerie French) the third point of this bad women triangle but this is compensated for by the precision of the action sequences, cut closely and distinctively, echoing the irony that underscores this unusual revenge western, offering no light relief to the brutal sense of justice at its core. What we remember is the detail of Randolph Scott’s face, etched with pointless obsession. I’ll tell you one thing, none of us will ever forget the day that Bart Allison spent in Sundown

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

Arizona (1940)

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Did you ever see a man’s stomach tore open by a shotgun? Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the only woman in 1861 Tucson, Arizona and after falling for Peter Muncie (William Holden) who’s passing through, offers him a job in the freight company she’s just set up with Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) the local storekeeper but he wants to see California and promises to return. Then charming southern dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) shows up as the Civil War breaks out and coerces Phoebe’s main competitor Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) into joining in with undermining her business while pretending to be her friend. He bribes local Indians to attack her wagon supply and meantime the Confederate troops secure local allegiance but are called away and Tucson is in trouble when Peter shows up with Union soldiers …  Gets on my dander how a doggone war interferes with the plans of people who want to mind their own business. Adapted by Claude Binyon (better known for romcoms and musicals) from the 1939 Clarence Budington Kelland novel, this was shot around the Sonoran Desert and takes a male genre and turns it into a battle of the sexes story with a distinct feminist twist. That makes sense when you have Arthur as the protagonist – with that can-do attitude and the gurgle of a voice, she’s perfectly cast and knew the territory after playing Calamity Jane in DeMille’s The Plainsman. Plus Binyon and director Wesley Ruggles had previously collaborated on a number of films presenting women in a great light, including the great screwball comedy True Confession (starring Carole Lombard) as well as the previous year’s collaboration with Arthur, Too Many Husbands, a version of the Enoch Arden story (by Somerset Maugham) trumped by My Favorite Wife at the box office. The personal touch abounds in this epic, the central asymmetrical romance with Holden (years younger than Arthur, who never looked her real age) matched by the villainy of William.  While we bide our time waiting for the sublime twist ending, played beautifully by Arthur, there’s lots of shoot ’em ups, murders, wartime action and a fantastically shot cattle rush. The film was made in blistering heat which added horribly to the discomfort and budget. Nonetheless it’s a great showcase for Arthur who revels in the situation and the witty lines gifted this pioneering frontier woman. She’s one tough cookie! The music by Victor Young is a series of  inventive orchestrations of and variations on Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.  If this is what it’s like to be in love I’m glad I’m only going to love once

Canadian Pacific (1949)

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I’m sorry about your father. I’ve learned, though, that in this country if I draw faster, I keep living. Engineer Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) is carrying out a survey for the Canadian Pacific Railway and finds a pass through the Rockies that will prove vital for its construction. He tells boss Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat) he is resigning his post to marry Cecile Gautier (Nancy Olson) and it is she who informs him about the problems with fur trader Dirk Rorke (Victor Jory) who wants the railroad stopped because he controls the Indians and trappers and believes their livelihood is now under threat. Tom and demolitions expert Dynamite Dawson (J. Carrol Naish) are almost killed when Rorke uses explosives to sabotage their plans and Tom’s life is saved by construction camp doctor and pacifist Quaker Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt). Then Rorke incites the local Indians to get involved… I thought you’d changed. But it takes courage not to kill and shed blood. Colourful account of the settling of the North West which doesn’t remotely relate to the truth, but, hey, who’s counting. The Indian attack is quite spectacular. Scott is typically robust and Olson is fine in her film debut while Wyatt has an unusual role, pleading for peaceful resolution amid the chaos. Written by Jack DeWitt and Kenneth Garnet and directed by Edwin Marin with beautiful location photography by Fred Jackman Jr shot in Alberta and British Columbia, at Banff, Lake Louise, Kicking Horse Pass, Morley Indian Reserve and Yoho Valley. There’s a rousing score by Dmitri Tiomkin. Do you want to die?! Then you’re either a fool or a saint!

Billy Two Hats (1974)

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I don’t like no kind of law breaker, breed. But the kind I hate worse is a cheap one. And cheaper than you and your friend, they just don’t come!  After a bank robbery goes wrong, half-breed outlaw Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz Jr.) is captured by Sheriff Gifford (Jack Warden). Billy’s ageing partner, Arch Deans (Gregory Peck), rescues him, but during the escape Deans gets shot in the leg. The wound leaves Deans unable to ride a horse, but Billy refuses to leave him behind. Instead, he builds a horse-drawn cot for him, and they continue together. The apparatus slows them down, making them more vulnerable to capture from Sheriff Gifford. They take shelter at a ranch owned by Spencer (John Pearce) married to much younger mail-order bride Esther (Sian Barbara Allen) who falls for Billy … You’re old enough to be half as stupid. Coincidentally released on this very day 45 years ago, this is a striking if flawed work from Scottish novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp (Luke Perry’s father-in-law). Shot in Israel by director Ted Kotcheff, it brings together what might be called a mis-cast and gives them all terrific vignettes. Arnaz shines as the half-white, half-Indian protagonist with Peck’s grumpy older sidekick a fascinating foil. And who doesn’t love Jack Warden?! Perhaps the political point about race gets muddied by the usual chase/revenge tropes but it might best be appreciated as an operatic work, focussing on feeling. Look out for renowned stuntman Vic Armstrong as Harry Sweets Bradley.  He’s fancy all right. Thinks this old man of his is comin’ to cut him loose

Navajo Joe (1966)

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Aka Un dollaro a testa. A man who knows what he wants is worth a lot. After carrying out a massacre on a peaceful Indian village, scalping the inhabitants for a dollar apiece, outlaw (and half-breed) Vee Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) finds his band of cutthroat brothers falling victim to a solitary rider, the warrior Navajo Joe (Burt Reynolds). Joe saves three prostitutes who have overheard Duncan plot with Lynne (Peter Cross aka Pierre Cressoy) the town doctor, to steal a Government train full of half a million dollars cash. Joe steals the train back from Duncan’s gang. He asks the townspeople of Esperanza to pay him to protect them from Duncan, making an offer: I want a dollar a head from every man in this town for every bandit I kill. The townspeople reject him, as they don’t make bargains with Indians. Lynne’s wife Hannah (Valeria Sabel) persuades them otherwise. Joe sets a trap for Duncan, but is caught and tortured; Lynne and Hannah are killed. Rescued by an old man from the saloon, Joe again steals the train and kills Duncan’s gang. There is then a showdown in an Indian cemetery, where Joe reclaims the pendant that Duncan stole from his wife when he murdered her. As Joe turns, Duncan shoots Joe with a hidden gun. Injured, Joe grabs a tomahawk and throws it, hitting Duncan square in the forehead. With Duncan dead, Joe sends his horse back to town, carrying the bank’s money… Burt Reynolds used to say that when Clint Eastwood came back from Europe on the heels of his Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone, he too jumped at the opportunity of a good payday with a terrific director called Sergio when he came knocking. Then he arrived in Spain to find he was working with Sergio Corbucci! The wrong Sergio. And decked out in a wig that made him look like Natalie Wood he made a very violent film that netted him a cool $350,000:  not too dusty. He said of the experience, Of course when you play a half-breed you have to be stoic – and you can’t get funky – and you have to have a deep voice. Apparently there are no Indians with high voices. And you have to shave your arms all the time. It’s easy to get the left but just try and reach the right. In fact producer Dino DeLaurentiis had told Corbucci that Marlon Brando would be the lead – and cast Reynolds because he resembled him.  Brando couldn’t stand Reynolds – he had played a parody of him in a 1963 Twilight Zone episode (The Bard) and called him a narcissist!! This is in fact an iconic work with an extraordinary score by Ennio Morricone (credited as Leo Nichols):  its bones rattle throughout the culture and were hugely influential on one Quentin Tarantino (named of course for Quint Asper, Reynolds’ character on Gunsmoke) who would use some of the music in Kill Bill Vol 2. We are presented with a world of violence, cynicism and amorality with a deal of surrealism thrown in for good narrative measure and the action sequences are fantastically effective with the landscape being used superbly:  canyon, wilderness, cliff face, they are all part of the unfolding story. The Big Silence might be his masterpiece and Django (which he also made in 1966) his most renowned protagonist (and wasn’t he a gift that would go on giving and giving) but this is a loud war cry from the land of spaghetti. Reynolds is just dandy as the anti-heroic brave pushed to his limits (like Billy Jack?) in a film that was setting new sadistic boundaries for the genre:  the composition of the violent scenes manages to astonish. This sits right on the divide between art house and exploitation and the opening scene announces a text of brutality. It also has a sociopolitical basis with commentary about race that is rare in the genre – apparently it was DeLaurentiis’ idea to have an avenging Indian as protagonist. There is also care and attention to the women, which you don’t find in Leone’s work. For every sadist there must be a masochist and Joe really suffers here so you don’t wince at the prospect of violent revenge, you relish it.  Reynolds is brilliantly physical in a way that Eastwood never was – and as for Brando … His role may have filled him with regret but he’s a convincing man on a mission and there would be many imitators (pace Rambo) in the years to come. There’s a nice supporting performance by Nicoletta Machiavelli as Estella, Mrs Lynne’s half-Indian maid and Fernando Rey is typically good as the town’s priest, Reverend Rattigan but it’s Sambrell you’ll recall – and you’ll shudder at the memory of this horrific villain. Written by Piero Regnoli and Fernando di Leo from a story by Ugo Pirro.