There were certain years - by chance, I suppose - in which the Westerns were exceptionally good. Think of 1953, for example, vastly better than either the preceding or following year’s offering. Shane, The Naked Spur, Hondo, Escape From Fort Bravo, these were world-class Westerns. 1948 was another bumper year. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Red River, Fort Apache were all five-revolver Westerns on the Arnold Scale, and that year we also got Yellow Sky, Blood on the Moon, The Man from Colorado, Whispering Smith, Four Faces West, and so on. But there were 138 Westerns that year (oh, blessed epoch) and with Red River and Fort Apache around, it’s easy to overlook other little gems. There was also a large number of really good B pictures that definitely repay viewing today.
Such a one is Return of the Bad Men, a whoop-de-do Randolph Scott oater from RKO.
I love Westerns of that time. They were proper cowboy movies. None of your post-modernist revisionism, thank you very much, just classic gallopin’ and shootin’ and a showdown between the hero and the bad guy in the last reel. This time in a ghost town.
It was directed by good old Ray Enright who started in movies as an assistant cutter for Thomas Ince before the First World War, joined Warner Brothers in the 1920s and directed early talkies at the end of the decade. Probably his biggest picture was the 1942 version of The Spoilers with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich but also classy oaters were Coroner Creek and Albuquerque with Randolph Scott. His movies were unpretentious, professionally turned out, energetic fun.
Randolph Scott and Gabby Hayes had been a success in Badman’s Territory in 1946 (James gang, Daltons, Sam Bass, Belle Starr) and this was an attempt (a successful one) at a re-run.
Marshal Randy and banker Gabby
The plot is really very silly but great fun because they assemble the baddest gang of badmen you could ever wish for. Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong) is the boss and in the ranks there are three Dalton brothers (Walter Reed, Michael Harvey and Lex Barker), three Younger brothers (Robert Bray, Tom Keene, Steve Brodie), Billy the Kid (Dean White) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Ryan, splendid), among others. Wow. And against all those, one lawman, Marshal Vance (Scott).
Billy the Kid
Bob, Grat and Emmett Dalton
We are in Oklahoma, 1889 (so Billy must have survived Fort Sumner) and it’s a land-rush picture. The townsfolk of Braxton are abandoning it to set up a new burg, Guthrie. Gabby Hayes is the cranky old banker and his posh daughter Madge (Jacqueline White) has fallen for Vance, though Doolin niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) wants to muscle in. Get the picture?
John, Jim and Cole Younger
Stand-out is Robert Ryan, always one of the best bad guys available, as The Sundance Kid. Robert Redford he ain’t. His Sundance manages to murder an old unarmed Indian, strangle a blonde heroine and shoot a stranded accomplice in the back, among other assassinations, all in half an hour. Boy, is he evil. And when you look at the cast, Ryan is in fact the only really good actor on the set. He outshines the B screenplay to the point where you wonder what he is doing there. Brilliant.
Ryan, splendid as The Sundance Kid
Murder most foul
The action whips along and there are trains and stages and all manner of rootin’-tootin’-shootin’. La Jeffreys and la White provide the glamor, Gabby gives us the comic relief, Ryan (all in black) is someone to boo and hiss. Great stuff. I heartily recommend Return of the Bad Men to your attention. It will be 90 minutes that will enrich your life, deepen your soul and make you a better person.
Well, I may be getting a bit carried away there but you won’t regret it anyway. I was almost tempted to give it four revolvers. Good sense prevailed but it’s definitely worth its three.