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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fighting Caravans (Paramount, 1931)

Coop scouts for the wagon train

Gary Cooper starred in only three Westerns in the 1930s, The Texan (1930), Fighting Caravans (1931) and The Plainsman (1936). This is quite surprising. He had started in Westerns, was an obvious Westerner and had, er, shot to fame in a Western (The Virginian in 1929). One would have thought that out of 40-odd films he made in the decade, Westerns would have figured more.

Fighting Caravans was a much bigger affair than the modest The Texan of the year before. Coop was beginning to be recognized now as the fine young actor he was, and with star quality. He had been a foreign legionnaire in Morocco between The Texan and Fighting Caravans and that had been a big hit.
Coop's becoming a big star
Fighting Caravans was another big wagon-train movie, like Paramount’s 1923 silent Covered Wagon or Fox’s Raoul Walsh-directed talkie The Big Trail (1930). Only a year after The Big Trail, it is technically far superior (or at least existing prints are). The sound is good and the acting is less heavy-handed and obvious, though hardly subtle by later standards; it still seems a silent movie with sound tacked on.

It’s not such an ambitious film as The Big Trail and there is a cast of hundreds rather than thousands. Still, it’s impressive enough and there are the river crossings and Indian attacks.

There’s a bad guy who sells wagon trains out to the Indians. There are two cranky old-timers who have raised Gary Cooper from a boy, Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall – Tully as the great Jim Bridger. They provide broad humor, doubtless hilarious in the early 30s though a little less so to us now. Clint Belmet (Coop, boyish in buckskins), is the young scout who falls for and pretends to be married to a French girl (just like young John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill in The Big Trail) bravely heading out West alone. She is Lili Damita, who is pretty and acts better than most cast members. Gary Cooper got $8000 for this movie but she got four times as much. (She later married Errol Flynn).
The two comic old timers (Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall) have raised Clint (Cooper) and now look fondly on his romance with French Felice (Lili Dalmita)

The Indians are treated as simpletons. They want a fire engine in order to make firewater.

There’s some nice photography, long shots of wagons trailing back into the distance and, as in The Big Trail, some fine California redwoods at the end of the movie, with the light filtering down between them. Lee Garmes and Henry Gerrard were the cameramen. We get dust in the desert and snow in the Rockies.
"Will you marry me, yes or no?"
"Oh, oui, monsieur!"
Directed by Otto Brower and David Burton, neither particularly noted for other great Westerns and neither of Raoul Walsh quality, the Zane Grey story rattles along at a good enough pace (not always the case with such movies; the plot sometimes moves at the plodding pace of the oxen).

It’s a fairly standard tale of freedom of the wilderness set against the bondage of matrimony. Coop finally proposes and agrees to eat with a napkin around his neck for the rest of his life. Of course it won’t last.
Brave scout Clint
One interesting aspect is that the movie was made just before the Hays Code came into force and so the hero can pretend to be married to Lili but not be, and the film makers can get away with Coop saying lines like, “Seein’ we’re ‘married’, we ought to get better acquainted”.

Fighting Caravans, aka Blazing Arrows, is an entertaining Western that stands up surprisingly well.

All in all, though, it was a bit run-of-the-range, and more fun was Coop’s gangster picture which he made the following year, City Streets written by Dashiell Hammett. But that’s another story and for another blog…


Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Texan (Paramount, 1930)

Coop's third talkie Western as leading man

Gary Cooper starred in three Westerns (true Westerns) in the 1930s, The Texan (1930), Fighting Caravans (1931) and The Plainsman (1936). This is quite surprising. He had started in Westerns, was an obvious Westerner and had been, er, shot to fame in a Western in 1929. One would have thought that out of 40-odd films he made in the decade, Westerns would have figured more.

I have already reviewed Fighting Caravans and The Plainsman but today I’ll do something unusual for me, write about a movie I haven’t seen (which is why it has no revolver-rating). I would love to watch it but can’t find it - and how sad it is that many movies, even important ones, are still not available on DVD or to download. Yet Coop was so vital to the history of the Western - indeed, in my view the greatest ever Western star - that I think it’s worth jotting down what I’ve gleaned about the film. If I do get to see it I’ll update this post.
Have you seen it? If so, leave a comment!
Coop was on contract to Paramount by this time (on $175 a week). In the studio’s The Texan, based on the O. Henry story The Double-Dyed Deceiver, he appeared with Fay Wray, also on contract. Three years later Wray was to find fame in the arms of King Kong but in 1930 she was still considered a ‘starlet’.
With Fay Wray
This picture seems to have made few ripples. Cooper’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers doesn’t even mention it and Brian Garfield in his great guide dismisses it in five lines: “The Llano Kid (Cooper) poses as a rich widow’s son but then reforms on account of love. Wheezy plot was worn-out even then but the young Cooper is dashing and sincere.”

Walter Albert in a longer review says:

Another film from the vaults that has probably not been seen since its initial release. Gary Cooper plays the Llano Kid, an outlaw with a price on his head, who falls in with a crooked lawyer who persuades him to join him in a scam to rob a South American widow by persuading her that the Kid is her long-lost son, returning to his mother after years of wandering.

[Sounds a bit like Alan Ladd in Branded, doesn't it].
Coop is the Texan

Albert continues:

The plan goes well until the Kid develops a conscience and wants to back out of the agreement. Emma Dunn plays the mother, Senora Ibarra, with Fay Wray her niece, with whom the Kid, predictably, falls in love. There’s a nice O. Henry twist to resolve the story (no, the Kid does not turn out to be the son) and it’s a good-looking production that lets the characters and their relationships build slowly before the action-packed climax.

One reason for the movie being of some note, however, is that it was while being made up for it that Coop was painted by Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell's view
Yakima Canutt is an uncredited cowboy and presumably did some of the stunts, though Coop did most of his own in those days.
The movie was directed by John Cromwell (James Cromwell's father) noted former actor and director on Broadway. He would later direct big pictures like The Prisoner of Zenda and Anna and the King of Siam. The Texan was, however, the only Western he did. Poor soul.
Three people are credited with working the O Henry novel up into a screenplay: Oliver HP Garrett (later Oscared), Victor Milner (pioneering cinematographer who worked on William S Hart Westerns and also did some writing) and Daniel Nathan Rubin (?).
Well, if you have seen The Texan, or know where I can download it or buy a DVD, let me know!

Meanwhile, happy trails, e-pards.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Katy Jurado

The Westerns of Katy Jurado

This replaces and synthesizes a four-part article posted in March 2013, which I have now deleted.

The Western career of
María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García, known as Katy Jurado (1924 – 2002), spanned approximately two decades, from High Noon in 1952, her first Hollywood role and perhaps her most famous, to the small but astonishingly powerful part she had in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973. Altogether, she appeared in ten Western movies and six TV Western shows.
Katy Jurado
She was a woman of outstanding beauty, with a voluptuousness about her and a grace that make her instantly recognizable. In addition, she was a wonderful actress, capable of communicating complex and nuanced emotions.

In 1951, having been ‘discovered’ by John Wayne and Budd Boetticher, she appeared in The Bullfighter and the Lady playing opposite Gilbert Roland. In reality, of course, she was already an established star in Mexico and Bullfighter was in fact her twentieth appearance. She had also worked as a movie columnist, radio reporter and bullfight critic.
With Gilbert Roland in The Bullfighter and the Lady
But Bullfighter brought her to the attention of Hollywood for the first time and she accepted an invitation to go there to talk to screenwriter Carl Foreman, director Fred Zinnemann and actor Gary Cooper about taking the role of Helen Ramírez in High Noon (click the link for a full review of this movie).

High Noon

It was a great part and wonderfully well done. At a time when women were stereotypes in Westerns - saintly homesteaders, prim schoolma’ams or saloon prostitutes - Jurado suddenly provided a different kind of woman, a person who had made her own way in the world and achieved if not total ‘respectability’ (she was a saloon owner, after all) then at least a status in the community and an independence. Despite the fact that she has been the mistress of the badman Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), the Marshal (Gary Cooper) and now the deputy (Lloyd Bridges), she exudes a decency and pride that allow of no sneers or innuendo. The way she silences an incipient inappropriate question from the choir-singing storekeeper with a jut of her chin is magnificent. She carries herself like a lady, she is her own woman and she is the one with the courage and fortitude to tell Kane’s prissy, rather wet Quaker bride, “If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this.” On the set, as Katy Jurado deployed her usual way of looking directly, penetratingly into a person’s eyes as she spoke, Grace Kelly wilted under the ‘glare’ and fluffed her lines several times.
Helen Ramirez in High Noon
Apparently Jurado had a cool relationship with Kelly, a woman who, according to Katy, appeared weak as a way of manipulating men (quite the opposite of Jurado’s approach!) and this  was in fact ideal because it introduced an iciness between the two women into the movie. Jurado, the passionate, sultry Latin mistress in a dark dress confronted the very pale, overly demure prim-and-proper wife in white. As they ride in the buckboard to the railroad station together, each for her own reasons having decided to leave town on the same noon train that Frank Miller is coming in on, they could not be more different. No prizes for which of them comes across as the more impressive!

High Noon was (justly) nominated for best picture, best director and best screenplay of 1952. Katy Jurado’s magnificent supporting role was ignored by the Academy, though she would win a Golden Globe for the performance. She returned to Mexico and starred in Luis Buñuel’s El Bruto with Pedro Armendáriz. She was at the height of her fame.

San Antone

Jurado’s success in High Noon led her to be invited back to do another Western, San Antone, released by Republic the following year (1953).
On one level, San Antone (not to be confused with the 1945 Errol Flynn vehicle San Antonio) was just another black & white Rod Cameron B Western from Republic, but actually it was more than that.
In San Antone

The cast, for one thing: Forrest Tucker, Rodolfo Acosta, Harry Carey Jr. and Bob Steele; with Jurado, it’s a great line-up. And the picture has plenty of action and even a grand historical sweep to it. It may not be John Ford but it’s no zero-budget knock-off either. And Katy Jurado’s performance was a highlight of it.


San Antone was quickly followed, the same year, by Paramount’s Arrowhead. Although a Technicolor picture with higher production values than San Antone, it was basically an unpleasant film. San Antone may have been a Republic B movie but it did make an attempt to comment on ethnic discrimination; in Arrowhead, racial discrimination is almost the whole point. It’s the sort of motion picture that made Native Americans hate Hollywood.

The trailer begins, “In the great Western tradition of the immortal Shane, Paramount NOW presents Arrowhead” (as if the two movies were even in the same league).
With Charlton Heston in the unpleasant Arrowhead
“The least known of the Indian scouts was Ed Bannon, portrayed by rugged Charlton Heston,” announces the trailer, sonorously. Well, there’s a reason that Ed Bannon was the least known: he didn’t exist. In some vague way Charles Marquis Warren, who directed the picture and wrote the screenplay, adapting WR Burnett’s novel Adobe Walls, based the character of this ‘Bannon’ on Al Sieber (1843/44 – 1907). Sieber was a most interesting man but he was nothing like Heston’s ‘Ed Bannon’. Heston plays him as a bloodthirsty racialist. “Now the secret history of the Apache war is revealed for the first time!” shouts the trailer. “The most amazing story to come out of the West! All the more THRILLING because it’s TRUE!” This isn’t really just commercial hyperbole. It’s what's commonly known as a lie.

As for Heston and Katy Jurado, “violence was to be his destiny,” apparently, “even from the women who loved him. Katy Jurado, the sensation of High Noon, as Nita, whose blood mingled the PASSION of Spain and the DEATH LUST of the Apache.” She tries to kill Bannon (quite understandably, really; I would too). He holds her down viciously, sneering at her through those clenched teeth, “The Apache in you finally came out.”

An odious movie, unwatchable if it were not for Jurado.

Broken Lance

Fox’s Broken Lance in 1954 was a big Western. It was big-budget and released amid big bally-hoo. It had a towering performance by Spencer Tracy in the lead. It had huge, sweeping Arizona vistas photographed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald. It was one of those passionate family dramas so beloved of Americans, written by Philip Yordan and Oscar-winning. It had big stars. It was about as far from a Republic B picture like San Antone as you could possibly get.

Tender to Tracy in Broken Lance

And there is, as in San Antone, a treatment of racial (in)tolerance. Matt Devereaux’s wife is an Indian woman presenting herself as Mexican (Jurado, replacing Dolores del Rio – Ms. del Rio was to get to play a similar part, though, in 1960 in Flaming Star). The first three sons are by a previous marriage of Devereaux and therefore ‘white’, while Joe, the baby of the family (Wagner), is by Señora Devereaux and thus a ‘half-breed’.

Katy Jurado’s Señora Devereaux is wonderful. She is quietly loyal and loving to Tracy’s Matt Devereaux yet once again shows independence, spirit and courage. It is a subtle, sensitive, nuanced performance and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it (though the Award went to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront). Her performance ranks with High Noon as her greatest Western work.

In a 1955 interview with Louella Parsons, Ms. Jurado commented on the Indian roles she was given, "I don't mind dramatic roles. I love to act, any character at all. But just once I would like to be my Mexican self in an American motion picture".

Man from Del Rio

Two years after the big production of Broken Lance, in 1956, Katy Jurado was back, in a small, black & white B Western with her friend and compatriot Anthony Quinn. Man from del Rio is in fact not at all bad, and it repays a watch - what you might call a 'sleeper'.
With friend and compatriot Anthony Quinn in Man from Del Rio
It was hardly a Fox megastar big box-office smash but Quinn’s complex characterization and Jurado’s sensitive strength make it a cut above the average.

TV Westerns

In 1957 Katy Jurado appeared on television in an episode of Playhouse 90, entitled Four Women in Black. This was a series of one-and-a-half hour live drama shows which CBS put out from 1956 to 1960 for a total of 133 episodes. Many of the episodes were directed by big names like Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill or John Frankenheimer and attracted big stars (Charles Laughton, Claude Rains, Maximilian Schell, an early Robert Redford). They were critically acclaimed and won several Emmys.

Jurado’s episode was written, produced and directed by Bernard Girard who directed some Bat Masterson, Wagon Train and The Virginian episodes and wrote a couple of minor Western feature films. I’m afraid I haven’t seen it so can’t tell you much. It seems to be about nuns - Jurado is Sister Monica - and Jim Davis plays a Sheriff.
Dragoon Wells Massacre

Later the same year Katy was Mara Fay in a Harold D Schuster-directed Allied Artists/RKO B picture, Dragoon Wells Massacre. The premise of this story is fairly improbable, as three conveyances turn up in isolated dangerous Indian territory all at the same time - an Army train, a prison wagon and a stagecoach (Katy Jurado is one of the coach passengers). So we get a mixed bag of people: a cavalry man, the lone survivor of his troop; some Marshals with a couple of prisoners; and an Indian trader who has been trading guns and whiskey with the Indians, a most heinous crime in 1950s Westerns, of course.  
In Dragoon Wells Massacre
But what is interesting about the so-far predictable story is the relationships between these people. Stage passenger Katy fancies the cavalryman Capt. Riordan (Dennis O’Keefe – appearances in six 1930s Westerns and a few B movies and TV shows since) but, what a coincidence, on the stage is also Captain Riordan’s girlfriend Ann (Mona Freeman – Ruth, the ‘sister’/love-interest of Alan Ladd in Branded) so there’s a certain, ahem, tension between the two ladies. There’s even a faint reprise (a distant echo anyway) of the fire-and-ice relationship between Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly in High Noon. The two women descend to fighting, as in San Antone.

Still, by now Katy Jurado was establishing herself as a well-known actress in Westerns. Then in 1958 came Ernest Borgnine.

The Badlanders

The Badlanders was an Alan Ladd Western, and like all of those, with the exception of Shane, it was distinctly average despite being directed by Delmer Daves. In fact neither Borgnine nor Ladd was ever really convincing in Westerns.

Katy plays Anita, who is helped by Ernest Borgnine’s character, Mac, when she is assaulted in town. Mac treats her respectfully, ignoring her past as a prostitute, and love blossoms. The relationship between the bullish Borgnine and the proud but graceful Jurado is almost tender and of course was mirrored in real life because they married on the last day of 1959. (It was a tempestuous relationship and they divorced acrimoniously in 1963).
The Badlanders: with soon-to-be husband Ernest Borgnine
An indifferent picture maybe, but Katy Jurado’s part rests in the memory. And that is true of many of her films. They weren’t all great works of art and some were decidedly B pictures. What’s more, some of her parts in them were small. But her performances elevate them and remain one of the first things we think about when remembering the movie.

More TV

The episode of The Rifleman that is graced (there is no other term) by Katy Jurado, The Boarding House (1959), is an example of how very good these TV Westerns could actually be. I’m not really talking about Chuck Connors here, though he is perfectly adequate. If there were a contest in thespian skills between Mr. Connors and a block of wood, Chuck would win easily. But I am talking about the superb writing and directing by Sam Peckinpah and the absolutely magnificent performance of Ms. Jurado.

In only 25 minutes, we get a brilliantly constructed and tautly directed story to rank with any good Western movie. Jurado is Julia, a Basque woman who runs a boarding house in North Fork, but the Rifleman recognizes her: she has ‘a past’. She used to run a ‘gambling house’ (a 1950s TV euphemism) in another town and was known as Big Anna. At first Chuck tries to drive her out – he doesn’t want his kid growing up round ‘her kind’. Then she convinces him that she had no choice in those days but has succeeded in getting out of that life, and she deserves a chance. The Rifleman sees her point of view and becomes her supporter. However, her past catches up with her when a ragged bunch of ‘women gamblers’ led by the sleazy Sid (Alan Baxter, very good) turn up. They want to make the boarding house their new center of operations…
In an excellent episode of The Rifleman
Do watch this show if you get the chance. It is a model of a TV Western. And Katy Jurado is absolutely superb. She is decent, honorable, proud, courageous - and beautiful, of course - and manages to communicate all of these qualities to the viewer in a matter of a few lines and a few minutes. And the show even has something important to say on the role of the woman in the West. Real quality.

In 1960 Katy was in Ghost of a Chance, an episode of The Westerner. This one was written by Sam Peckinpah but not, as The Rifleman episode was, directed by him but by Bruce Geller, who also worked on The Rifleman, and did Have Gun, Will Travel and Rawhide episodes, among others.

In this story, Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith) crosses the border over into Mexico to deliver an important message but finds the village deserted, though food is still on the plates. It’s the Mary Celeste… The ghostly element is played up with almost surreal dialogue, such as this exchange with Carlotta (Jurado):

Dave: Now this town was empty twenty minutes ago. Why?
Carlotta: Empty? I have been here waiting for you.
Dave: How long you been here?
Carlotta: All my life. You know, señor, the Jornada del Muerto - the desert - it has a way of making a man see things that are not there.
Dave: Well, I never heard it could make a man not see things that are there.

Peckinpah trying to be Samuel Beckett. Well, it’s only a 30-minute TV Western and was hardly Jurado’s finest hour but she’s still good even in the tiny bit of camera time allowed her.

One-Eyed Jacks

Marlon Brando was not good in Westerns and One-Eyed Jacks, which Paramount brought out in 1961 (“The motion picture that starts its own tradition of greatness” – I mean, really) and which he both directed and starred in, is a curious mixture of the violent and the soppy. We have whippings and hand-crushing and shooting in the back all against a backdrop of lurid color, tropical lushness and slushy music. It’s not a usual Western setting: Monterey, California, with many beach scenes and much crashing Freudian surf.

Loving mother in One-Eyed Jacks

Katy plays the wife of Karl Malden, the sheriff who double-crossed Brando back in Mexico when they were bandits together. They have a beautiful daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Brando tells Malden that all is forgiven but it isn’t. He cynically seduces Louisa and plans to kill Malden.

Jurado's part does not allow her much scope but she still comes across as tender, wise and decent - far too good for the odious Malden's character.

There is the inevitable shoot-out at the end and love blooms. It’s all rather turgid, really. But it’s worth watching for Katy Jurado. Once again, she shines with nobility, grace and beauty.

The 1960s

Between One-Eyed Jacks in 1961 and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973, Katy Jurado had no Western role worthy of her ability and talent. In this decade of dearth of good roles, she did work on some Westerns, however.

In 1962 she appeared in La Tules, an episode of the TV series Death Valley Days. She stars as la Tules, with Rodolfo Acosta, her Mexican bandit brother in San Antone nine years before. Again, it’s a thirty-minute TV program of modest quality.

Then in 1966 she was in a film version of the ever-popular story Smoky about the famous horse. The well-loved Will James novel had naturally been filmed before, starring Victor Jory in 1933 and Fred MacMurray in 1946. This one had Fess Parker, then of Davy Crockett fame, in the lead. Katy Jurado is Maria. It also has Robert J Wilke as Jeff and Chuck Roberson as, well, Chuck.

You know how it goes: a cowboy, Clint, finds and comes to love an ‘unbreakable’ horse. His brother, in debt, wants to sell the animal but is killed by the horse while trying to steal it. The cowboy has to go to the Army and his horse is sold to the rodeo circuit, and when he comes out, he sets out in search of the nag.

In 1966, Katy reprised her role of Helen Ramírez from High Noon in a TV pilot called The Clock Strikes Noon Again, which co-starred Peter Fonda as the son of Will Kane. The planned series didn’t happen.

In 1968 Katy Jurado was in Stay Away, Joe, a ghastly Elvis Presley ‘comedy’ which we will not dignify with the name Western. It’s embarrassing.
She plays Elvis’s half-Apache mother (a nod to Broken Lance perhaps). Days before filming, she broke her foot and removed the cast prematurely, which explains her limp throughout the movie.

They had fun on the set. With Elvis in Stay Away Joe.

In 1970, Katy Jurado was in The Best Man, an episode of The Virginian. Trampas (Doug McClure) is invited to be best man at the wedding of Pick (James Farentino) to Teresa (Susana Miranda) only it turns out Pick hasn’t asked her yet. Or something. Katy is ‘Mama Fe’.

But by far the best performance of these later drought years came in 1972. In that year, Katy Jurado starred in an episode of another popular TV Western series, Alias Smith and Jones. Now, this is not a series I enjoyed. It was too MOT (Middle of the Trail) and too similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the movie, in its ‘amusing’ banter between the buddies, yet the protagonists didn’t have the charisma to carry it off at all. It was anodyne and bland. “In all the trains and banks they ever robbed, they never shot anyone,” the voiceover intro reassures the family viewers. And Kid Curry has a 1970s girl’s hat and Hannibal Heyes has 70s hair.

But The McCreedy Feud episode had three huge advantages that lifted it out of the swamp of mediocrity: Burl Ives, Cesar Romero and Katy Jurado. And if you only watch one episode of AS&J, make it this one.

From Katy’s first appearance, statuesque, all in black, she shows up the two boy TV actors for what they are. She was a real lady in every respect, a star, and had such presence.

It’s a tale of how Smith & Jones act as intermediaries for bad-guy McCreedy (Ives). “They breed cattle in Texas. They also breed swine,” says Katy of McCreedy. But gradually she is won round to the idea of marrying the rogue, who has a terrible, disgraceful secret which comes to light: he is a Roman Catholic. Katy’s brother, hacienda owner Cesar, doesn’t like the idea at all.

Romero, Jurado and Ives are outstanding and they overcome the trite writing and loose direction with aplomb. They are heavyweights in a lightweight show.

And Katy Jurado is the best of them all, subtle, beautiful and noble.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

Katy Jurado’s short part in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973, her final true Western appearance, ranks with that in High Noon, her first.

She plays the wife and equal partner of Slim Pickens. We’ve talked about Slim before, so click the link for more, but here let’s concentrate on Katy. When the bandit rabble start shooting and LQ Jones and James Coburn are firing at each other, there she is, letting one of them have it with both barrels, dressed in her man’s vest and hat, then she methodically reloads. The white trash Black says to Garrett, “Us old boys oughtn’t to be doing this to each other. There ain’t that many of us left.”
Extraordinarily moving in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
Just at that moment we spy Slim Pickens rise and stagger from a mortal wound. Katy sees, drops the shotgun (it doesn’t matter any more) and runs after him. She skirts round him, not approaching at first. Then she kneels as he sits on the river bank, puzzled and bleeding, and the strains of Knocking on Heaven’s Door rise and swell. She smiles sadly at him and tears stream down her face. It is almost unbearably moving.

The Hi-Lo Country

The Hi-Lo Country (Polygram, 1998) is a very good movie, even if it’s not really a Western and Katy Jurado is only a fleeting presence in it. You can click if you want to read more but we’ll just say here that Katy Jurado has a tragically small (yet stunningly good) part. She is a fortune-teller. The two central characters visit her and want to know if "all of us who are here will be alive and prosperous next year." She gives them a brutally abrupt answer.

Still acting in her seventies
So yes, a very good motion picture, to be seen, and to be seen, if possible, in a movie theater rather than on a small TV screen. But it’s not a Western. Not as I understand it. Many people think of it as a Western and the actors wear cowboy hats and ride horses and have guns, so it’s in these notes. But it’s not a Western because it’s too much a love story and too modern and not enough of a frontier tale. The voiceover narrative makes it an introspective piece and Westerns were never that. Even if one of the characters does ride, er, drive off into the sunset at the end.

Adios, Katy

Katy Jurado had that wonderful oval face and extraordinary eyes, beautiful and expressive (Brando called them "enigmatic eyes, black as hell, pointing at you like fiery arrows"), and her grace and beauty shone from the screen. But in addition she was an outstandingly good actress.

She was always convincing in Westerns. In 1992, she was honored with the Golden Boot Award for her notable contribution to Western movies.

She said, “No one steps on me and the one who tries had better be a brave man.”
Katy Jurado
Her true love was said to be the Western novelist Louis L’Amour. She said, "I have love letters that he wrote me until the last day of his life. For our work, we could never match, but he was the man of my life and I, the woman of his life. I should have married that man". Wow.

Of course she would have said that about me if only she’d only known me. Ah, what might have been, eh?



Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Hi-Lo Country (Polygram, 1998)

Fine film. A Western? Probably not.

The Hi-Lo Country is a very good movie, even if it’s not really a Western. Walon Green (of The Wild Bunch fame) adapted Max Evans's 1961 novel ‘The Hi-Lo Country’ for the screen and Stephen Frears, English director of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters, did a great job on it. It tells of two young men just back from World War II who try to make a go of running cattle but find that the old ways have gone. You can’t drive steers to market any more (that’s for the movies); you have to ship them in trucks, which only the big ranchers can afford. Sam Elliott is the smiling, ruthless rancher (he even smiles when someone pisses on him) who stayed home while the boys were fighting. He snatched up all the small spreads.
Sam Elliott, ruthless rancher
The two men are more than friends. They are bonded together. It’s like Brokeback Mountain for straights. And talking of straight, trouble comes when both fall for the same dame, a sultry married redhead (Patricia Arquette) who, however, while suitably available, somehow lacks the real sex appeal. There is no electricity. Why one of the boys, who has Penelope Cruz in the wings, favors Arquette instead is a total mystery to me: Cruz is not only drop-dead gorgeous, she also acts subtly and perceptively. Still, no accounting for taste, I guess.
No contest
Billy Crudup is Pete Calder, the quiet, brooding fellow who narrates the story, sometimes a bit portentously, and his friend is Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson), who is larger than life, charismatic, edgy, unpredictable, dominant, the real alpha male, a man on fire. It’s an electric performance.
The friends
The wonderful Katy Jurado, in her seventies, has a tragically small (yet stunningly good) part. She is a fortune-teller. The boys visit her and want to know if "all of us who are here will be alive and prosperous next year." She gives them a brutally abrupt answer.
Katy Jurado
James Gammon has more to do as the old rancher who befriends the boys and he is the archetype of the old, doomed ways. A great performance. Another star is the landscape, arid northern New Mexico photographed by Oliver Stapleton. This is a beautiful picture to look at. You feel the almost impossibility of winning a living from this land and how extraordinarily tough farming and ranching must have been on it. New Mexico seems open, huge, empty, dusty. Well, it often is.

So yes, a very good motion picture, to be seen, and to be seen, if possible, in a movie theater rather than on a small TV screen.

But it’s not a Western. Not as I understand it. Many people think of it as a Western and the actors wear cowboy hats and ride horses and have guns, so it’s on this blog. But it’s not a Western because it’s too much a love story and too modern and not enough of a frontier tale. The voiceover narrative makes it an introspective piece and Westerns were never that. Even if one of the characters does ride, er, drive off into the sunset at the end.