"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Buckskin Lady (UA, 1957)


It can be safely missed




 
 
It isn’t entirely clear why this B picture is called The Buckskin Lady as the dame concerned, Angela Medley (Patricia Medina) doesn’t wear buckskins or ride one. And to be perfectly frank, if a tad ungallant, she isn’t much of a lady either, being reduced to dealing poker in a saloon to support her drunken father.

Top-billed Ms. Medina was born in Liverpool, England to a Spanish father and English mother. She specialized in sword-and-cloak farragos and had looks that were usually termed sultry but she did appear in a couple of B Westerns and some TV shows, including a few episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel.
 

Medina, being sultry
 

The Buckskin Lady is a torrid town drama about two men vying for the hand of the sultry lady in question, buckskins or no. They are a lowdown gunslinger named Mr. Slinger and a decent physician named Dr. Merritt (get it?) You may guess which of the two finally wins out. Richard Denning plays the doc; Mr. Denning once said, “I am very grateful for a career which wasn’t spectacular” and apart from being the Governor in Hawaii 5-0 I can’t in fact think of anything he was in, though he did have small parts in Westerns now and then, starting with Wells Fargo in 1937, and The Buckskin Lady was his last. He is, I fear, verging on the bland.

 
Richard Denning (left) being unspectacular

 
His rival, the gunman, is played by Gerald Mohr who looked vaguely like Humphrey Bogart and suited noirs, though he did a lot of B Westerns, starting with a Roy Rogers epic in 1943 and appearing in any number of TV shows.
 

Sort of like Humph
 

So you see the acting isn’t exactly stellar. I only watched it because Henry Hull and Hank Worden were in it.

Hull was a disgraceful ham but was rather amusing in Westerns. One thinks of him chiefly as a cranky opinionated newspaper editor (Jesse James and The Return of Frank James, obviously, but don’t forget also Rimfire in 1947). He was out of character but actually rather good as the sheriff in Robert Mitchum’s Man With the Gun in 1955. I like Henry.

 
Henry Hull not a newspaper editor this time

 
And as for Hank, well, he was one of the great stalwarts of the John Ford/John Wayne stock company, and he was in no fewer than 169 Westerns of all kinds from Barbary Coast in 1935 to Once Upon a Texas Train, a 1988 TV movie. Like Gary Cooper he was raised on a Montana ranch and like Slim Pickens started as a rodeo star. Most people think of him chiefly for his part in The Searchers. In The Buckskin Lady Hull is the drunken father of the heroine and Worden is the decent factotum Lon. Together they are the best thing about the movie.


The great Hank Worden

 
Director and co-writer was Karl K Hittleman who was more of a producer but did direct a couple of oaters such as Kentucky Rifle and Gun Battle at Monterey, neither, I fear, very good.

The Buckskin Lady can be safely missed.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (Ind, 1956)


Wild Bill is shot down, but not by Jack McCall




 
 
Back in July 2013 I wrote the first part of a two-part post on Wild Bill Hickok in fact and fiction and dealt with the fact. I promised that it would soon be followed by part 2, the fiction. I have not maintained on my promise, dear e-pards, and I am sorry. Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chaw. Hickok has been in so many novels and films. William S Hart was the first to play him (as far as I know) in 1923 and he appeared in The Iron Horse (Jack Padjan), The Plainsman (a magisterial Gary Cooper), Pony Express (Forrest Tucker), Guy Madison on TV of course, and many, many more. Jeff Bridges in Walter Hill's Wild Bill. Charles Bronson did him in The White Buffalo and Roy Rogers had a go in 1940. Sam Shepard, Sam Elliott. LQ Jones. Keith Carradine did a fine job in HBO’s Deadwood. The list is very long. Well, I will try to write part 2. One day.

John Carpenter (not the same John Carpenter of Halloween but the B-movie producer who died in 2003) specialized in oaters and Western TV shows. He wrote and produced as well as starred in (often under assumed names) five Western movies: Badman’s Gold (1951), Son of the Renegade (1953), The Lawless Rider (1954), Outlaw Treasure (1955) and I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956). They were all bad but I Killed Wild Bill Hickok was the worst of them.
 

Be warned...
 

The first thing is to put entirely out of your mind any notion of history. This has nothing whatever to do with Wild Bill Hickok. There is no Deadwood, no gambling, no Jack McCall. He is a crooked sheriff in buckskins shot down in the street by Mr. Carpenter, in a kneeling position, with a Winchester.

Carpenter (billed as John Forbes) is a horse trader known as Johnny Rebel, whose girl (Helen Westcott) refers to him stupidly as “Mr. Rebel.” We start with a shot of a Denver & Rio Grande locomotive taken from somewhere and shown in reverse so the writing looks odd. Soon we are introduced to the villain, Bailey. He must be a villain because of his very fancy vest. It is Denver Pyle. Now, we all love Denver. One of the great character actors of the Western movie. But I don’t think Denver ever held his breath just before the announcement of the Oscar for best actor was announced. In this he is totally awful. A plank would have been less wooden. Mind, he is not helped by the dreadful, stilted, corny dialogue he is obliged to deliver. Laurence Olivier would have struggled with that. But he really is shockingly bad. In keeping with the movie.
 

Must be a baddy - works for the railroad
 

His evil partner-in-crime is Hickok, played by Tom Brown. He wears a very ill-fitting overlong frock coat at the start but soon abandons that in favor of buckskins. New Yorker Brown was in several B and TV Westerns including quite a few episodes of Gunsmoke but I fear he was another who might have decided to give the Oscar ceremony a miss this year. Every year. Though he did get a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960.
 

The worst Hickok ever?
 

There’s a sympathetic Indian played by Roy Canada, who had bit parts in five Westerns 1951-56. He starts off as a Hickok Henchman but realizes the error of his ways. The nearest to a good moment in the film is when he opens a corral gate and sets a herd of wild horses free.
 

You will rarely see worse
 

Some of the writing is shockingly bad. One character tells another at the corral to “step on it”, a slightly anachronistic metaphor for the period but no one seems to have noticed.
 

The hero shoots about fifty badmen, all from a kneeling position
 

It is all amazingly third-rate, especially for 1956. It reminds you of the cheapest of horror pictures shot in black & white, so bad that maybe they have now become cult movies. In some ways it is a prototype of the spaghetti western: bad writing and acting, and very low production values.  

See it if you have a morbid fascination with the grim.


Looks like a 1920s short

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lumberjack (United Artists, 1944)


Hopalong Cassidy rides (yet) again
 





Starting in 1904, Clarence E Mulford wrote a series of magazine short stories and 28 popular novels with the central character of Bill ‘Hop-Along’ Cassidy.
 
Clarence

His hero was a coarse-tongued, dangerous rough but once Hop-Along was transferred to the silver screen, starting in 1935 with Hop-Along Cassidy, starring the then forty-year-old William Boyd, the character was toned down into the clean-living sarsaparilla-quaffing do-gooder we all know today.



Hopalong Takes Command, illustration by Frank Schoonover for the 1905 story
The Fight at Buckskin.

It was to become a hugely successful franchise. After 41 films, the Harry Sherman Productions (amusing logo of pioneer wagon on a plinth)
 

Excellent logo
 

shifted from Paramount to United Artists in 1942. 13 wartime movies followed, of which Lumberjack in 1944 was one, before Sherman gave up (he wanted to break into A pictures) and Boyd himself bought the franchise, continuing to distribute through UA. Twelve more episodes were made before, with B Westerns’ decline, they finished in 1948.

It was far from the end of the story, though, because Boyd was far-sighted, selling the project to NBC TV as the first major regular Western show. At first, they were simply cut-down Hoppy films but then Boyd began making new half-hour episodes especially for TV, with the great Edgar Buchanan as his sidekick. Parallel with this, a very popular radio series, again featuring Boyd, began in 1950.
 

Merchandising
 

Early merchandising boosted profits. For example, in 1950 Hoppy appeared on the first lunchbox to carry an image; manufacturer Aladdin Industries moved from selling 50,000 units to 600,000 units in just one year. There was a syndicated comic strip.
 

Comics
 

In the films, Hopalong (the hyphen got dropped along the trail) usually traveled with an amusing old-timer (Gabby Hayes, then Andy Clyde, who is California in Lumberjack) and a juvenile lead to romance any dames that came their way (James Ellison was the first but there were several; by the time of Lumberjack, Jimmy Rogers was doing duty).

The movies were not junk, by any means. Many, including Lumberjack, were photographed by Russell Harlan (Ramrod, Four Faces West, Red River) and the credits proudly tell us that the movie was “photographed in the HIGH SIERRAS”.  The music was sometimes by Paul Sawtell, as in this one, though here it is a bit old-fashioned and overblown. Direction was by Lesley Selander, who did many Hoppy movies. He was a prolific Western expert who did 124 ‘B’ and TV oaters, 1925 – 68. He knew what he was doing and the movies crack along at a lively pace. A lot of the pictures were written by Michael Wilson (later of Lawrence of Arabia fame) and the screenplays were professional, tight and economical (they usually had less than an hour to fill). Lumberjack’s wasn’t quite as good as some of the others, the work of Norman Houston and Barry Shipman.

The first five minutes contain little but galloping as various ranch hands, including Hoppy, rush here and there looking for an eloping couple. Miss Julie (Ellen Hall) has run off to tie the knot with a certain timber-owning Ben Jordan (John Witney) but she moves from spinsterhood to married bliss to the estate of widow all in three minutes as Mr. Jordan is shot down on the parson’s steps by the bad guys who want his timber land.
 
Gold-digger
 
Actually, she is only a scheming gold-digger anyway and while it was quite normal to have cross, bossy dames in Westerns, who would be redeemed in the last reel thanks to the hero and come round to being sweet, I must say that this one is particularly nasty and we all would have been quite happy if she had been blown up by the dynamite in the end.

There is plenty of logging stock footage and Hoppy in a plaid shirt gets to shout “Timber!” There are several logging songs too as the lumberjacks sing while they saw. The trouble these days is that one is inevitably reminded of Monty Python.
 
I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK...
 
Boyd was pushing 50 by this time and is looking a bit stocky and silver-haired. He has that annoying way of throwing shots, as if by darting the revolver forwards when firing, the bullet would go faster. Authentic it isn’t.

The bad guys are shyster lawyers in suits (Francis McDonald and Hal Taliaferro). Comic relief is provided by Clyde as old-timer California and his badinage with Aunt Abbey Peters (Ethel Wales).
 
California and Aunt Abbey
 
There’s a gripping last-reel action scene involving dynamite and you will not be amazed to hear that Hoppy saves the day.

Not one of the greatest epics in the series, this one will do to get a flavor of them. You could also try Border Patrol of the previous year, a rather better attempt, which in addition stars a young Robert Mitchum.

Happy trails.

 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Another Man’s Moccasins by Craig Johnson


Boy howdy

The fourth of Craig Johnson’s Wyoming police procedural novels with a Western tinge, after The Cold Dish (2004), Death Without Company (2006) and Kindness Goes Unpunished (2007), is Another Man’s Moccasins (Viking Penguin, 2008). Although in some ways Kindness Goes Unpunished was the least Western of them to date, being set in Philadelphia and essentially an urban crime drama, in other ways Another Man’s Moccasins, despite being set back in Wyoming, is less Western because it is the Vietnam book.
 

Vol 4
 

We knew that Sheriff Walter Longmire and his Cheyenne friend Henry Standing Bear had served in Vietnam. This novel is one of those two-in-one plots with parallel (typographically distinguished) mysteries going on, one in present-day Wyoming and the other in the lead-up to the Tet Offensive in 1967/8. The two plots are thematically linked (the Wyoming one concerns the murder of a Vietnamese girl) but essentially distinct.
 

Tet
 

The title, which reminds us of the John Simon song, comes from an old Indian prayer, “Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” The moccasins concerned are those of a giant Indian found living in a culvert under the highway and at first prime suspect for the murder. But when Walt learns of his life and what he has suffered and has walked a while in his shoes, he builds a rapport with the guy and lets him go.

On one level this is just a straight whodunit, or in this case two whodunits, and on that level I must avow that I guessed quite early, both in Wyoming and Vietnam, who did indeed dun it. But it’s the Western-ness which gives these books their charm. Walt is no Raylan Givens and the TV Longmire is certainly no Justified but in a much more down-home, country-sheriff way Longmire is an attractive hero. There’s also the soap-opera tinge to the extended tale as we follow other characters like daughter Cady (rehabilitating back in Wyoming after her Philadelphia assault and getting it on with Vic’s brother – we’ll see how that pans out) and renew acquaintance with stalwarts like dispatcher Ruby and places like the Busy Bee diner.

Where is the mythical Absaroka County? Well, it has to be Johnson County, doesn’t it? Talking about body dumps, Walt says,

To the north, Sheridan County has two unsolved, and Natrona County to the south has five.

We know that Sheridan is the nearest ‘big’ town and the foothills of the Bighorns lie to the west, where Butch Cassidy and his gang had their Hole in the Wall hideout, which features a lot in this episode. Still, who cares, really where it is. 'Somewhere in Wyoming' will do fine.

There are several other Western references, such as (naturally) to The Virginian. When a Vietnamese bouncer in the red light district invites young Walt to make love to himself and calls him the issue of a female dog, he “slowly smiles his best Powder River grin” and replies, “Smile when you call me that.”
 

Smile when you call me that
 

Once you are ‘into’ this series you’ll have to read Another Man’s Moccasins but anyway it will repay a purchase in terms of enjoyment, especially for Westernistas who also happen to like hard-boiled detectives. Enjoy.

 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cheyenne Warrior (TV, 1994)


Mr. Hawk falls for Mrs. Travolta




 
 
Cheyenne Warrior was a made-for-TV movie of 1994 which aired on Starz! Network and then moved to DVD. It stars Kelly Preston (Mrs. John Travolta) as a pioneer settler woman but she is sadly miscast with her Beverly Hills tan, with modern coiffure and vowels. She is also very “me, me”, and such a self-centered woman was unlikely to have made it on the frontier. Despite the title, the eponymous Cheyenne brave, Hawk (Pato Hoffmann, a Bolivian of Andes Indian blood, who has been in Geronimo: an American Legend, Wild Bill and five episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) is only billed ninth. She refers to him as “Mr. Hawk”.
 

Mr. Hawk canoodles with Mrs. Carver
 

The plot is a bit like Winchester ’73 in a way in the sense that a rifle passes from hand to hand, given or stolen, and plays an important part in the story. It’s not a Winchester, though, but a handsome Henry.
 

The real hero, the Henry
 

The second-billed Bo Hopkins only appears 70 minutes into the ninety-minute movie and has little more than a cameo. He was hardly a top star but he had been in Westerns, starting in episodes of Gunsmoke, The Virginian and Bonanza and then coming to notice as Crazy Lee in The Wild Bunch – you may remember him in the bank. He was Jumpin’ Joe Joslin in the 1970 Monte Walsh, Clay in Cat Ballou and Billy Doolin in The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang. So he did his Western time and had the CV. However, as I say, he barely appears in this one.
 

Crazy Lee lives on
 

There’s a high body count yet much of the movie is strangely static. Most of it takes place at the trading post. A couple of lowlifes, one with a fake Oirish accent, want the rifle and get killed (Clint Howard and Rick Dean) and the trading post manager Barkley (Dan Haggerty, Grizzly Adams) no sooner establishes himself as a sympathetic character than he is murdered too. Rebecca’s husband is also an early victim (and thus loser of the Henry). Mind, he is so plain dumb that it is a wonder that he got that far West in the first place. In fact, the stupidity quotient of so many whites on the frontier was amazingly high and one wonders how many of them remembered to breathe.
 

Hawk
 

There are some good Pawnee bad guys and I especially liked their leader with a handprint on his face but sadly Rebecca both stabs and shoots him, which seems a little like overkill but there we are.
 

Rebecca
 

I don’t know where it was filmed but the Cheyenne lands are rather nice.
 

Cheyenne lands
 

Like many of these TV movies, everything is too clean, the actors all have perfect teeth, modern cosmetics and they all are evidently wearing costumes. The plot is pretty predictable and well, it’s all a bit ho-hum.

Still, it’s a Western and you could watch it, I suppose.

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Cherokee Kid (HBO, 1996)


Quite fun




 
 
In 1996 HBO ventured into the dangerous territory of the comedy Western. The Cherokee Kid starred a person called Sinbad, who, I am told, is really a comedian named David Adkins, of Benton Harbor, Michigan, known for such epics as Jingle All The Way and Good Burger, which, tragically, I have not seen.

It’s a sort of black Western because alongside Mr. Sinbad we have Gregory Hines as his twin brother, fellow-gunslinger The Undertaker,

 
The Undertaker

 
and Ernie Hudson as the great Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick.  There is also feisty Vanessa Bell again (she was in The Return of Desperado, another TV Western). I am still hoping when I see her name on the titles that it’ll be Virginia Woolf’s sister, the Bloomsbury artist, but sadly it never is. I'd have liked to see Virginia Woolf's sis in a Western.
 

Woulda been good in Westerns
 

The saving grace, though, is James Coburn enjoying himself and hamming it up as the villain. He is killing people and stealing their land for the railroad, then he gets to own the railroad. Not only that, we also get Burt Reynolds as Texas mountain man (they have mountain men in Texas?) Otter Bob. Coburn and Reynolds do have a lot of fun and to be fair, do kind of save the picture.

 
Coburn having fun
 
Reynolds too
 
 
Actually there's another saving grace: Sinbad goes for Coburn with a very nifty four-shot pepperbox derringer and you know how I love derringers.
 

Nice one
 

Nat Love (c 1854 – 1921) was an interesting character, in fact. You probably know the story but just in case you don’t: he was born a slave in Tennessee and learned to read and write in defiance of the laws forbidding black literacy. Nat went to Dodge City to find work as a cowboy and was taken on by the Duval ranch in the Texas Panhandle, where he became known as Red River Dick. In the centennial year he won the July 4th rodeo in Deadwood and earned the soubriquet Deadwood Dick.
 
 
Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick (left) and Ernie Hudson doing him

 
In 1877 he was captured by a band of Pima Indians but escaped. In 1907 he wrote his autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, which is in the public domain and available free here. I always thought that Love spent his last years working as a Pullman porter on the Denver & Rio Grande and died in LA in 1921 but apparently I was wrong; he was actually killed in a gunfight in Texas. It happens in this TV movie so it must be true.
 

 

In the movie Mr. Hudson does quote Nat: he says, "If a man can't go out in the blaze of glory, he can at least go with dignity" and also "Every time you shoot at someone, plan on dying."
 
Most of the humor is rather slapstick and not terribly hilarious but there are occasional funny flashes. Such as Otter Bob’s last words.

 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Raylan Givens, Western hero


Quick on the draw




We first meet Raylan Givens of the US Marshals Service in the 1993 Elmore Leonard novel Pronto.

Pronto

The novel starts with 66-year-old Harry Arno, who runs a sports book in Miami Beach, and his troubles with the mob. But very soon Raylan appears to take over as central character and hero of the book. The beginning and ending are set in Miami, home of fat Mafioso Jimmy Capotorto and his heavies, the right hand man Tommy Bucks, known as the Zip, and young muscleman Nicky Testa. They decide that Harry has been skimming on them and Jimmy puts out a contract on him. Harry is (just about) ahead of them and skips out (also skipping out on Marshal Raylan’s protective custody) to Italy where he was in World War II.
 

 

The middle part of the novel is set in Rapallo, down the Mediterranean coast from Genoa. There, the mobsters catch up with Harry, recruit local thugs and set about eliminating him. But that’s when Raylan arrives too, on a mission to bring Harry back to face his bail bond, and it’s a question of who can shoot quickest and straightest.

For this is essentially a Western. I have written elsewhere about the crossover between hard-boiled crime fiction and the Western genres and the qualities they share. As Robert B Parker, who wrote both, said, quoting Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, “We deal in in lead, friend.” And Raylan Givens is more than a touch a Western hero. With his Kentucky roots, cowboy boots, Harry Truman Stetson and silver plated revolver, and his laconic, tough manner, Raylan Givens steps straight out of a Western novel.

Luckily, on page 227 Harry’s squeeze Joyce, who is fast becoming Raylan’s, asks about his background and Raylan gives a potted history. Very useful for Raylanists to get a bit of background.

I grew up in coal camps, chewed tobacco when I was twelve. Went to Evarts High and played football, our archrival being Harlan Green Dragons. What else you want to know? I’ve worked deep mines, wildcat mines – abandoned ones where you go back in and scratch for any coal left – and I’ve stripped... Stripping we’d cut the top off a hill and dig out the coal, mess up the countryside … My mom put her foot down, wouldn’t let me work for those people. Let’s see, I walked a picket line for over a year when we struck Duke Power. Learned about company gun thugs. During that same time my dad died of black lung and high blood pressure. My mom said, ‘That’s enough.’ Her brother was shot and killed during the strike. We picked up and moved to Detroit, Michigan. I went to Wayne State University, graduated, and joined the Marshals Service. What else do you want to know?

See? That’s a lot of Raylan info in one paragraph.

The final showdown between Raylan and Tommy Bucks is pure Western. Raylan has given Tommy 24 hours to get out of town or he’ll shoot him…

Riding the Rap

We next meet Raylan Givens in a 1995 novel, Riding the Rap, which takes the action on from a year after Rapallo. This time Harry is kidnaped by a Miami lowlife in league with a Puerto Rican killer and a Bahamian fixer. The kidnapers are incompetent fools but still dangerous for all that. Harry is lured to his doom by a pretty psychic, the Reverend Dawn Navarro, and there is a fair bit of mumbo-jumbo as Dawn predicts this and that. Actually, Raylan is a tiny bit on the psychic side. He ‘knows’ things on a hunch basis.
 

 

Everything isn’t sweetness and light between Raylan and Joyce now. They’re talking like a married couple with the seven year itch already. Will Joyce go back to Harry? She could.

The Western aspect is played up a bit in this book. There’s a specific reference to Hang ‘em High on page 277 as Raylan considers himself in the tradition of US Marshals bringing in fugitives for Judge Parker. He thinks of growing a mustache, “a big one that would droop properly and go well with his hat.” The showdown gunfight is gently mocked twice as Raylan stands waiting to draw against the bad guys. Another time the mocking is less gentle as two of the lowlifes face off in a quick draw that ends with one of them in the deep end of a scummy swimming pool.

Fire in the Hole

In 2001 Raylan returned in a short story, Fire in the Hole, first published as an e-book then collected in 2003 in the volume Fire in the Hole and Other Stories. It’s quite a long short story, if you see what I mean, so you almost think it’s another Raylan novel. This time Harry doesn’t appear and Joyce only gets a passing mention. Time has clearly moved on and Raylan must be 50 by now. He’s still working for the Marshals Service but up in Kentucky. Miami is a thing of the past.
 

 

The bad guys, Miami and Italian mobsters in the first story, Florida lowlifes and a clairvoyant in the second, are now dumbass skinhead nazis in the backwoods with a collective IQ lower than the shoe size of any one of them. They are led by Boyd Crowder, a particularly poisonous bit of work, who enjoys blowing up a ‘church’, the Temple of the Cool and Beautiful JC, with a RPG. He also has a short way with those he suspects might be informers (even if they aren’t) which involves an AK47.

This is another very Western story – actually even more so because its lack of urban setting – and Raylan duly faces down various scumbags with the threat of drawing on them, just standing there in his boots with fancy wingtips with his Stetson pulled down just a little over one eye.

Raylan hits it off with Ava Crowder, the widow of badman Boyd’s brother. There’s a reason she’s a widow. She shot her husband with a deer rifle while he was eating his dinner and when you read about the brothers you do rather feel, who can blame her? There’s a good shoot-out at the end, Raylan/Boyd this time, and I guess you can guess who wins in the final showdown.

Raylan

We next meet Raylan in print in the 2012 novel Raylan. Well, I say novel: really it’s three novellas tacked together with three separate plots and some of the characters overlapping but some new. The first hundred pages or so is devoted to a gruesome story of how a horrible transplant nurse hires two dumb hicks to help her remove kidneys from people and sell them back to them. This woman is seriously nasty and indeed Leonard does a rather good line in memorably evil dames. The final scene of this part, when Raylan himself comes within a whisker of having his own kidneys removed but survives to participate in a final bloody shoot-out, is especially grisly.
 

 

Raylan must be getting near retirement by now. We know from Pronto (1993) that he was born sometime in the mid-1950s, so he must be close to 60 now. Still, we don’t want to be too literal about it.

He admits on page 90 to having shot seven people. Counting his victims in Pronto (which tells of the first person he shot, an Italian gangster), Riding the Rap and Fire in the Hole we don’t get to seven so some shootings have been omitted in the telling.

Suddenly, on page 106, we are puzzled to find Boyd Crowder appear. Boyd had been shot plumb in the middle by Raylan in Fire in the Hole. Yet here he is brought back to life. We are told that Raylan’s shot missed his vital organs by a millimeter and Boyd recovered. He is now living with Ava and  working for another poisonous woman, this time the coal company fixer Carol Conlan, about as scummy a piece of work as you would ever want to meet. You kinda feel like cheering when she finally comes to the end of her road. The new theme is the exploitative practices of the coal companies, raping the land and screwing the people in every way they can. We also meet various marijuana growers and dealers as well as Mr. Burgoyne, another Harry, millionaire Kentucky racehorse owner. Weed seems to have replaced coal (and complements moonshine) as the staple earner in the hills.

On page 172 a new plot begins (presumably because this is not exactly a novelization of the by now successful Justified TV series but let’s say is inspired by it and provides grist for the mill of future series) and this one concerns a family called Nevada, bookmaker father Reno and his stepdaughter, whom he wanted to call Sierra but who finally got named more prosaically Rachel and generally called Jackie. Jackie is a poker player, still in college but already good enough to play the pros. She drops twenty grand at a no-limit game and proceeds to make it up (and more) with the help of Harry Burgoyne. The principal lowlife here is Delroy Lewis, whom we had met in Pronto, up from Florida. He takes against Raylan and wants to set up a quick-draw showdown in a saloon.

For all through these three linked stories the Wild West is ever-present. There’s an amusing reference to Leonard’s own Western work on page 59 when the heavy is named Bob Valdez and he sends a message to Raylan that ‘Valdez is coming’. There is a character (a middle-aged one) called Billy the Kid in part 2. Raylan gets a free room over a bar in return for bouncer duties and says that he “lives over a saloon”. Western references abound.

So that’s Raylan Givens in print. Read the stories in this order: Pronto, Riding the Rap, Fire in the Hole, Raylan. You’ll enjoy them all.

Then you can watch Justified.

Justified

Sony Pictures’ Justified premiered in March 2010. It was developed and written by Canadian Graham Yost who had written the action movies Speed, Broken Arrow and Hard Rain, as well as the TV series Boomtown, an LA police procedural. Four more series followed and a sixth, the last, is scheduled.
 

Graham Yost
 

Justified is very good. Its acting is excellent, especially Timothy Olyphant in the lead role as Raylan, and the direction (no fewer than 18 different directors) and writing also noticeably top quality. Yost and his team have understood very well the Western tone of the character and books and that crossover I talked about. Ostensibly a contemporary crime series, it has more than a little Western about it. They both deal in lead, friend. Elmore Leonard is billed as executive producer.

Right from the get-go the opening titles and credits are just great, with the theme song Long Hard Times to Come, performed by the NYC-based Gangstagrass and produced by Rench, featuring rapper T.O.N.E-z, Matt Check on banjo, Gerald Menke on resonator guitar, and Jason Cade on fiddle. The song was nominated for a 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. Along with the 70s grainy color opening shots it gives a Sopranos-ish/The Wire-style vibe, but with added moonshine. And the way the F of JUSTIFIED dips on the final opening title shot is just magic.
 

 

Series 1 concentrates on the Crowder clan. Pronto and Riding the Rap seem to have been discarded; instead of Miami it’s all set in Harlan County, Kentucky, an impoverished backwoods land of out-of-work former coal miners, weed-growers, nazi skinheads and moonshiners. Some episodes from the early books are taken and transposed to Kentucky, such as the Riding the Rap story of Miami Harry (now a Kentucky bookmaker Arnold Pinter) being kidnaped in Series 1/Episode 3, or Raylan facing down the two gun thugs as they get out of their car and separate, from Pronto, in 1/4.
 

Boyd
 

Raylan says he has no kids so I don’t know what happened to Ricky and Randy, maybe they got sent to an orphanage, and he kinda gets back with ex-wife court reporter Winona (Natalie Zea), having saved her loser realtor husband Gary (William Ragsdale) from the bad guys. But first he dallies with Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter). There’s no shortage of goings-on.

Raylan’s daddy is introduced, especially in 1/5, the less than proper Arlo (Raymond J Barry) and his long-suffering, gun-totin’ wife Helen (Linda Gehringer), who is later to come to a sticky end. The triangular relationship between them is in fact very well handled.

The acting is excellent. Ray McKinnon from Deadwood is a first-class though short-lived hitman in 1/7. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss Art Mullen is very convincing (with a framed poster of the movie Tombstone on his wall), and the Crowders are very good. Walton Goggins is Boyd, David Meunier is Johnny and MC Gainey is the patriarch. Goggins and Gainey get the excellent mix of hillbilly dumbness and arch cunning.

Now the Bennett clan rule the Harlan roost. They are a bunch of backwoods lowlifes presided over by the seriously horrible Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who reminds me a bit of Rusty Schwimmer’s Big Rump Kate in Broken Trail). Mags, a TV creation but worthy of Leonard, is a hillbilly mafia boss dispensing death, hooch and weed at her whim. She has a dumb-ox son, Coover (Brad William Henke), a runty one, Dickie (Jeremy Davies) and a corrupt police chief one, Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor).
 

Mags
 

There are various plot twists and turns. The religion that Boyd got in jail doesn’t last. Raylan gets back together unofficially with his ex, Winona, and his dad Arlo gets deeper into crime. Bodies disappear into mineshafts, there are shotgun murders and everything tells you that Harlan County is most definitely where you don’t want to be. With the exception of Raylan’s Marshal boss Art, most of the characters come across as pretty loathsome.

There is a series of villains as the seasons progress. Blond gay Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) is particularly gruesome (and has a kind of derringer) and Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) too. They are Detroit mob, or offshoots from it. I thought Mr. Limehouse the butcher an especially successful creation and the actor first class (Mykelti Williamson). None of these characters are in any Elmore Leonard book but they are all still very good on TV.

In series 3, episode 2, Art talks about Bass Reeves and says, “Good luck finding a movie about him!” Who was Bass Reeves? Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. He fled to Indian Territory during the Civil War and lived with Cherokee, Seminole and Creek Indians, whose languages he learned. In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker appointed James F Fagan as US Marshal and told him to hire 200 deputy marshals. In fiction, among these were Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘em High and John Wayne/Jeff Bridges in True Grit. In fact, one of the 200 was Bass Reeves, who worked Indian Territory as Deputy US Marshal for thirty-two years. When he retired in 1907, he claimed to have brought in 3000 felons, among them some of the worst criminals of the time. Once he had to arrest his own son. He was never wounded in all that time, though he had his hat and belt shot off on different occasions. He died of Bright’s disease in 1910. Actually, as if in response to Art’s comment, in 2010 the film Bass Reeves came out, made by Ponderosa Productions of San Antonio. Art says that “Somebody needs to tell Denzel that story” and Morgan Freeman also expressed an interest but in fact Bass was played by James A House.


Bass Reeves


Raylan’s maverick approach is played up. He seems to be half the time under suspension or inquiry. He gets wonderful support from Art, far more than he deserves, really, though as Raylan is so good at closing cases (quite often permanently), I guess Art sees the value.

 
Raylan

 
Raylan uses the Lincoln town car throughout. He even has it repaired between series when he wrecks it. I rather liked the way that, in the books, he used a succession of vehicles the Marshals Service had acquired, usually good ones.

Some of the episode titles are Western, too, such as The Gunfighter (3/1), The Hole in the Wall (4/1) or Outlaw (4/8).

So far I have only seen series 1 – 4 (I bought the boxed set) but am looking forward to the last two.

In any case, through Pronto, Riding the Rap, Fire in the Hole, Rayland and Justified, Raylan Givens is one of the great cowboys.