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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Secret of Convict Lake (Fox, 1951)


A classy little noir Western




 
 
When I first saw Fox’s 1951 Western The Secret of Convict Lake I was – I now think unfairly – dismissive of it. I thought it an undistinguished studio-bound black & white B movie. But I saw it again last night and have revised my opinion of it, upwards.
 
Give it a go
 
It was directed by Michael Gordon, who, before he worked on the likes of Pillow Talk, made some interesting films, such as An Act of Murder in 1948 on the subject of euthanasia and the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac. These were enough to get him on one of the first lists of Senator McCarthy and his career crashed. He only directed two Westerns, and the other was the pretty mediocre (at best) Dean Martin outing Texas Across the River in 1966 when his career was revived. His work on Convict Lake is not magnificent but it is not at all bad either. The movie is somewhere between a noir, a psychowestern and a suspense drama. And it’s worth seeing.
 
Michael Gordon
 
Although much of it is shot on a sound stage, it’s one of the best studio sets I can remember, to the point where you sometimes wonder if it’s not an exterior location shot. And such exteriors as there are impress by their quality. It’s a story of escaped convicts in the snowy winter of 1871 crossing the Sierra Nevada and arriving at a small village, which they pretty well take over. So we first get ferocious mountain blizzards and then an intense, noirish, claustrophobic setting. It was very well photographed by Leo Tover, of The Sun Also Rises fame, who also shot the Westerns The Tall Men and Love Me Tender.
 
They cross the mountains in a blizzard
 
Another reason for the quality of the picture is that the fugitive leader is Glenn Ford. Ford was a natural Western lead and one of those fine actors who make an indifferent film (The Violent Men, say) good and a good film great (The first 3:10 to Yuma, for example). Of course he isn’t an out-and-out badman; he was unjustly imprisoned and was innocent, and though he is tough as nails, he is polite to the ladies and kind to animals, ergo a classic Western good-badman. Actually, this kind of part had been standard Western fare since the days of William S Hart.
 
Glenn Ford, excellent
 
The movie resembles the later (and better) Day of the Outlaw, when director André De Toth and stars Robert Ryan and Burl Ives were all on top form. It also has something in common with the not quite so great Firecreek (1968) with Henry Fonda as the outlaw boss, and the first class Yellow Sky (1948) with Gregory Peck leading the badmen. In all of these, outlaws take over a remote place and bring threat and tension. In all of them the chief bad guy turns out to be not quite as evil as we (and the town’s residents) feared. Day of the Outlaw is the best of them but Convict Lake is by no means the weakest.

The five convicts (there were six but one shadowy figure perished in the storm) are Glenn Ford, a splendidly nasty Zachary Scott, Jack Lambert (who reprised the role in Day of the Outlaw), the ‘Limey’ Cyril Cusack (who though a Brit seemed to have studied at the Dick van Dyke School of Cockney Accents) and a psycho youth Richard Hylton. However, because in this film all the town's menfolk are off prospecting silver, the women of the village are alone and play an unusually prominent part (for a Western).
 
Zachary Scott preys on Ann Dvorak
 
They are bossed by bedridden Granny (Ethel Barrymore in full flight), and number among them the betrothed Marcia (Gene Tierney, much less posh than in The Return of Frank James), who falls for Glenn of course, and hard, bitter spinster Rachel (Ann Dvorak, a fine actress). There’s an impressionable young girl, Barbara (Barbara Bates), who flirts with the outlaw boy, so three of the women pair off with outlaws – but only one couple will make a go of it. Barbara’s mom Harriet (Jeanette Nolan), maternal but rifle-totin’ Mary (Ruth Donnelly) and the rather pathetic Susan (Helen Westcott) make up seven, so the dames kinda outnumber – and outgun – the bad guys.
 
You don't want to mess with these women - especially Granny
 
Another great feature of the picture is that when the posse of lawmen finally do arrive in the village they are led by Sheriff Ray Teal, always a delight to see even if he does have little more than a walk-on part. The ending is rather clever, in fact.

The music (Sol Kaplan) is sinister-noir rather than overtly ‘Western’ but suits the story.

There’s a voiceover intro and outro, which assures us it’s a true story (yeah, right).
 
Gene falls for Glenn - and vice versa it must be said
 
There were quite a few writers involved. Oscar Saul (Major Dundee) gets the big mention but we are told that it was based on a story by Anna Hunger and Jack Pollexfen, ‘adaptation’ by Victor Trivas. Ben Hecht (Stagecoach, Duel in the Sun, et al) also contributed (uncredited) to the script.

The Secret of Convict Lake is not the least of Glenn Ford’s oaters (it was his sixth) and I recommend it to you. Don’t expect greatness, but do expect quite a classy little noir Western.

 


Monday, May 23, 2016

The Desperate Trail (Turner, TV, 1994)


Marshal Sam Elliott, thug




 
 
Many made-for-TV Western movies are no better (but no worse either) than the run-of-the-mill B Westerns churned out for movie theaters in the decades before. TV movies can be Hallmark-bland or fall into that dreaded category of ‘family entertainment’ (read anodyne and/or saccharine). Every so often, though, one comes along that it is a bit better than that. Such a one was Turner’s 1994 offering of The Desperate Trail.
 
 
It starred Sam Elliott for one thing. Everyone likes Mr. Elliott in Westerns. It’s that growl of a voice and the handlebar mustache. He had started out in a bit part as Card Player #2 in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 but really made his Western way on TV, particularly in The Sacketts in 1979 and Wild Times in 1980, and, later, Conagher. He was Wild Bill Hickok in Buffalo Girls and Bucky O’Neil in Rough Riders, as well as, on the bigger screen, Virgil Earp in Tombstone. It’s a pretty good Western CV. No wonder the Coen brothers chose him to be the cowboy angel in The Big Lebowski.
 
Marshal Elliott recruits a posse member
 
In The Desperate Trail, though, he is anything but angelic. He is (incorrectly) billed as ‘Marshall’ Bill Speakes (a common spelling mistake but it doesn’t look good in credits) and he is a sadistic brute. He is chasing a criminal and is first seen on the stage with the captured fugitive (whom he is taking to be hanged) handcuffed to his wrist. Now in days of yore this outlaw would have been played by a well-known tough guy actor but we are in the mid-1990s so it had to be a tough gal instead. It’s Linda Fiorentino as Sarah O’Rourke, and she’s as sassy as all get out and looks all Bad Girls/The Quick and the Dead/Bandidas in her pants and slouch hat.
 
Another stage passenger, a smooth-talking young fellow from New York, tries to woo her but gets very short shrift. This Latin-quoting Easterner is Jack Cooper (Craig Sheffer) and he and the tough gal are soon to team up in a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like duo, or perhaps it’s more Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Gal. I’m probably not supposed to say these days that Ms. Fiorentino is decorative but I’m too old to be PC, so she is damn good-looking. And she doesn’t do at all badly in the part either: you feel she’s at least twice as tough as her accomplice. It was, sad to say, her only Western. Mr. Sheffer, the good brother from A River Runs Through It, has been in three other Westerns (or semi-Westerns) and also isn’t bad, though his costume and make up were poor.
 
Outlaw Linda Fiorentino
 
Well, you wonder why Marshal Speakes is so dead set on getting Linda to the scaffold, and so gloating about the effects of the rope, but then you discover that she killed his son, so it’s more than a lawman/outlaw quest – it’s personal. Speakes Jr. was her husband but tried to beat her, and so she killed him. There’s rather a wife-beating theme running through the movie, in fact, as another character on the stage also thumps his spouse. He gets his come-uppance, though. Elliott is splendidly vicious. He did well as the bad guy.
 
Splendidly vicious
 
There’s a lot of Western action and it’s well handled too: a stage hold-up, a couple of gunfights, a jailbreak. Marshal Sam pursues the escapees with a posse of six instead of the mandatory seven (it must have had a limited budget). In a blazing gun battle three posse members are slain but there still seem to be five when they continue the pursuit. Most odd.

The Easterner Jack has a brother, Walter (Frank Whaley) and there’s some sub-Freudian psychobabble about how Jack caused a disabling injury to Walter and can’t forgive himself. Actually, that was the least of his problems because really Jack now causes the death of his bro at the hands of Marshal Elliott.

It’s all quite violent and grown-up, which is good. The direction (Scorsese alumnus RJ Pesce) is fussy with a lot of edits and jumping here and there but the movie was good enough for Mr. Pesce to be named Best Independent Director of the Year at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Pesce later did Sniper 3 and I feel he might be more at home in that genre. Still, he did a Western, so respect.

Don’t expect anything greatly original (except maybe the casting) when you watch this one, but it’s gritty and fast-paced (mostly), and Sam is pretty damn good as the sadistic sheriff. Worth a shot.

 

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Virginian by Owen Wister


Back in November 2013 I posted a review of Owen Wister's The Virginian, that seminal Western novel. However, in the light of a recent re-read and also reading Richard Slotkin's chapter on Wister (in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) I have revised that post and present you with this version.


When you call me that, smile!

 
It is said that Owen Wister (1860 – 1938) heard a deputy sheriff in Wyoming address that remark to a man who had called him a SOB, and Wister was so struck by it that he used it to define his hero, the Virginian.

There is something essentially Western, and essentially true, about the fact that you can use a term of abuse to a man you like and respect, if you do it with a laugh, that you should never employ to another man. A slap-on-the-back kind of friendly insult at the bar could become a shootin’ matter.

The Virginian had a name. He confided it to his fiancée Molly and to the narrator, his good friend Ogden. Presumably Judge Henry, his employer, knew it and Molly’s mother must have had it too, for he wrote to her declaring his love for the girl and he would hardly have signed the letter Yours, The Virginian. But the rest of us will have to be content with just calling him the Virginian. It’s maybe just as well. He’s perhaps more mysterious – and slightly dangerous – like that.
 
Seminal
 
Hero is the word, of course. No mere ‘central character’ he, still less an antihero. Countless early twentieth century female readers fell in love with him and male ones secretly wished they could be him. He is tall, handsome, reserved, brave, decent, strong, knowledgeable and funny. There ain’t a damn thing wrong with him – by the standards of Wister’s day.

There is something wrong with Molly, though. Miss Molly Stark Wood comes out from Bennington, Vermont to be the schoolmarm at Medicine Bow, Wyoming Territory, some time in the 1880s. She is a little conceited and a little coquettish but that’s OK. We don’t mind that. But she is also a snob. Wister makes her resist the Virginian’s advances for no other reason than her assumed superiority. The judge’s wife has no patience with her and tells her husband, “She is not good enough for him”. Molly’s landlady Mrs. Taylor delivers herself to Molly of the withering "I can't wait, deary. Since the roughness looks bigger to you than the diamond, you had better go back to Vermont. I expect you'll find better grammar there, deary." But of course Molly comes round and the story finishes in connubial bliss. I think Wister only made her waver to make the Virginian seem even nobler.
 
Nice edition
 
The Virginian is essentially a love story, the tale of true and finally happily consummated love between the hero and the heroine. At least we assume it is consummated: they bathe on separate sides of the island in the stream on their honeymoon and have separate rooms at Aunt Stark’s. Oh yes, I remember now; they had a large family. Sure, it was consummated. It’s just that writing in 1902, authors didn’t discuss such things.

It is also a comic novel. Whole chapters are devoted to humorous episodes, almost interludes, such as Chapter VI about Em’ly the hen and later the way the Virginian bests Trampas by telling an even taller story to him and his men, about frog farming, and having it believed. The narrator, who plays a not insignificant part in the plot also, so is not just an observer, is a self-confessed tenderfoot, a New Yorker, though he is no snob. Like Wister, he is fascinated by the frontier life, greatly admiring of frontier people and their ways, and he visits often, gradually becoming wise in the ways of the West. Still, the amusing experiences of a green Easterner out West were excellent comic fodder and became, as with much in The Virginian, a standard trope of the Western genre.

For the book was in so many ways a pioneer and a standard-setter. Wister’s daughter, herself to become a noted author, wrote:

  . . . For the first time, a cowboy was a gentleman and a hero, but nobody realized then that the book was the master design on which thousands of Westerns would be modeled.  Its hero was the first cowboy to capture the public's imagination, and hundreds of young girls fell in love with him . . . besides being handsome, he was humorous and human . . . The Virginian himself is the progenitor of the cowboy as folk figure.  Because of him, little boys wear ten-gallon hats and carry toy pistols.  This one novel set the tradition of the West permanently.   We still have Western stories, Western movies, and Western radio and television drama in which the cowboy hero defends justice and his girl's honor and shoots it out with the villain . . . It was written as fiction but has become history . . .

“It was written as fiction but has become history”: yes, it is part of the curious process of the Western that fact became myth which then became the fact.

Owen Wister was born in Philadelphia, son of a well-to-do doctor. He had a cosmopolitan education in Switzerland and England before going to Harvard where he was a classmate (and admirer) of Theodore Roosevelt. He wanted to be a musician and studied for two years at the Paris Conservatory but then entered the Harvard Law School before practicing as a lawyer in Philadelphia.
 
Owen Wister (1860 - 1938)
 
Wister made many trips to the American West. On an 1893 trip to Yellowstone he met Frederic Remington, who remained a lifelong friend. Wister started writing in the 1890s, short pieces mostly, and several of these were later incorporated into The Virginian. It is significant that Wister, Roosevelt and Remington, as well as the narrator, Judge Henry and Molly Stark Wood in The Virginian, were all upper-class Easterners who went West to seek the ‘strenuous life’ and ‘find themselves’, or anyway have their prejudices confirmed.

Roosevelt, Remington and Wister were of course racialists who believed in a ‘natural aristocracy’ of virile men (and very rarely women) who would rise to the top and become the ruling class. They would then have the right to use violence to remain there. Roosevelt moderated these beliefs a little, at least during his political career, because you need votes. Remington was the nastiest racist of them; he clearly loathed and despised Indians, Blacks, Jews, anyone in fact he deemed to be ‘beneath’ him – the ‘lesser breeds’. Wister in his writings posed as the reasonable ‘philosopher’ of the racialist school of thought, justifying it (he thought) and even contradicting the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” He has his hero say, “Equality is a great big bluff and it’s easily called.” Wister thought that the great cattle ranches of Wyoming might prove the context for the emergence (or anyway revival) of a new, and superior, American racial type.

The Virginian, Wister’s only Western novel, was published in 1902 and was an immediate hit, being reprinted fourteen times in eight months. It became the archetypal literary Western. Wister adapted it for the stage soon afterwards and the first movie version appeared in 1914, directed by Cecil B DeMille and starring Dustin Farnum, who had appeared in the title role in the play. There was another silent version in 1923 (with Russell Simpson as Trampas!) By the time the famous 1929 talkie was made, with Gary Cooper as the Virginian, the book had already sold 1.6m copies and had become, with Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), the premier Western novel.

I really like the book, for its leisurely pace and slow action, its wry humor verging on the cynical but never being that, and its breezy approach. It is much less 1900s-‘literary’ than, say, Zane Grey’s work, and contains a good deal less purple (sage) prose. True, the speech of the Westerners is rendered on the page in (for these days) far too hokey a way, but you do get used to that. I don’t know what was gained by writing Yu or pillo for you or pillow. The pronunciation is the same. It just becomes irritating – and risks being patronizing. But stylistically speaking most of The Virginian is pretty modern.
 

Medicine Bow, WY in 1910. Not a great metropolis. Still isn't! I went there. Well, you gotta. You can leave the 80 from Laramie to Rawlins and take the high road to Medicine Bow. Nice town, I'm sure, but well, New York it ain't...

The characterization is strong and you get to know the principal characters well, the Virginian and Molly, of course, but also the villain Trampas, Shorty, the judge and his wife, the Taylors, Steve, Honey, Lin and the other drovers. Monte the horse. Trampas, Spanish for cheating, or snares, and containing an element of tramp (considered the most worthless social type) is a good name for the villain, the very kind of man Wister and his fellow-travelers believed must not triumph, for they are low and unmanly types. And ever since James Fenimore Cooper, Virginians had been identified as the Americans closest in type to the old British nobility – the novel’s Virginian is a new kind of American aristocrat.

From a Western point of view, much of the action is fairly inconsequential but certain chapters stand out, XXVI for example, when the odious rancher Balaam brutalizes the sweet horse Pedro and he and the Virginian are attacked by Indians (interestingly, there’s a captivity-narrative reversal when the hero is wounded by Indians and it’s the heroine who rescues him). Or Chapter 30, the somber account of the lynching.

Murder by a mob is such a heinous crime that it is almost impossible to make any character in a novel or movie even remotely sympathetic when he carries it out. It is a major problem that all movie versions of The Virginian have. Wister does his best by making the victim (one of the victims anyway) forgive the leader of the lynchers, and by laying out the usual excuse that where there was no enforcement of law, people may take it into their hands. Even the judge attempts to justify the practice, to Molly, and draws a rather sophistical distinction between the peremptory hanging on suspicion of cattle thieves in Wyoming (acceptable) with the strangulation by a white mob of Negroes in the South (unacceptable).
 
According to Judge Henry in the story, 'acceptable'.
Accused horse thief lynched, Oregon, c 1900.

Wister, in his arguments justifying lynching, essentially takes vigilantism (vigilantes claimed a natural and democratic right to violence to redress wrongs in the absence of law and order) into an assertion of race and class privilege. The big ranchers were superior to the small ones and entitled to use force to stay that way. It is a view that is hard to justify today – if it ever was justifiable. In many ways, though, Wister’s version of the Johnson County War is an apologia for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s actions, and Wister was definitely a WSGA partisan.

The actual hanging takes place ‘off stage’, as it were: the narrator remains in the stable and hears about it later. This, probably, was to soften the blow and make the grisly event slightly more palatable to Eastern readers. At least Wister had the courage to deal with the matter; he could easily have simply not mentioned it, or not have his hero lead the unappointed executioners, but lynching was widespread enough in the West, and in Wyoming cattle lands in particular, for the issue to be a difficult one to skip over. The fact remains that it was a disgusting and appalling act, and the ‘cheerful’ banter on the eve of the murder is unintentionally chilling. Lynching appeared all too often in later Western movies, often done casually and/or with laughing murderers. However ‘B’ or formulaic the picture, I am never less than revolted.

The other truly Western chapter is, of course, the penultimate one (the last chapter is devoted to a honeymoon, a bucolic idyll described, unfortunately, in terms so saccharine that your stomach will be upset), concerning the final confrontation with Trampas. Here we have the classic Western showdown. How many pulp novels have we read that contain such a fight, and how many Western movies have we seen! But this was the original, the archetype. Trampas really does say, “I’ll give you till sundown to leave town!” The actual shooting is done rapidly, almost again ‘off stage’ in a way. It is described from the Virginian’s point of view, in a blur; he does not really shoot consciously. Hollywood made up for that, of course, with far more dramatic versions! But what is most interesting, to me, is the conversation between the Virginian and Molly before the gunfight occurs.
 
Showdown
 
From one standpoint, you have a wet, Eastern dame with no understanding of the ways of the West who emotionally blackmails her lover in order to deflect him from the decent and noble action that he must undertake. Molly is appalled by the coming confrontation and gives the Virginian an ultimatum: renounce or she will not marry him. But the thing is, she’s right. She’s not right by the standards of the Virginian, or Owen Wister or 90% of the readers of the book, but she’s right. Such a duel is an outrageous, brutal, premeditated affair that in civilized countries or parts of countries would be illegal, it is cold-blooded and it is even essentially childish. We must use firearms against each other because he called me a coward or told me to get out of town or whatever. These are boys talking. Why would a sensitive, intelligent girl want to marry a man like that, a killer?
 
Molly (Mary Brian) pleads with the Virginian in the 1929 talkie,
the best ever film version of The Virginian

Of course, she relents. And she is made weaker by that, and her opposition comes to seem willful and girlish. She has to give way to the virility and domination of the hero. But she was right!

That’s what I think, anyway. And I speak as a lifelong lover of Westerns. I hugely enjoy those Main Street showdowns, and cheer for the hero and say good riddance as the villain falls to the dust. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Lucky it’s only a film. Or a book.

Many people have watched Marshal Kane’s Quaker wife deploy very similar arguments in High Noon, and may have thought that scene original. But Gary Cooper as Kane had used very similar words when arguing with Molly in the 1929 The Virginian.
 
The fence symbolizes the closing of the West.
The Fall of the Cowboy by Wister's friend Frederic Remington, 1895.

Another interesting aspect of the novel The Virginian, interesting to Western lovers anyway, is the fact that in what was essentially the very first ‘proper’ Western novel, before even the first narrative Western movie had been made (The Great Train Robbery of 1903), the notion of ‘the end of the West’ was already there. We are used to Western movies of the 1960s and 70s describing the decline of the old West as ‘civilization’ encroached on the freedom and wildness of the frontier. Think of Ride the High Country or The Shootist or even The Magnificent Seven. In all of them and many more it is sunset, the old ways are disappearing, there’s no place for a cow puncher any more – and still less for a gunfighter. Railroads, telephones, automobiles, churches and temperance societies have done for all that. But, we think, earlier Westerns had no such melancholy thoughts: they were all about manifest destiny, fighting the Indians, creating an exciting new world, pushing back the frontier. Those silent movies, the 1930s talkies, the 40s and 50s big-budget Westerns were far more sure of themselves and unquestioning about what was right. They were positive and self-confident. They looked to the future with hope.

Well, maybe, but on page 77 of The Virginian we already have this:

…they came upon the schoolhouse, roofed and ready for the first native Wyoming crop. It symbolized the dawn of a neighborhood, and it brought a change into the wilderness air. The feel of it struck cold upon the free spirits of the cow-punchers, and they told each other that, what with women and children and wire fences, this country would not long be a country for men.

Wister was writing at the turn of the century, when ‘the West’ was already gone and Eastern nostalgia about it was in full swing. Frederick Jackson Turner had delivered his famous paper on the closing of the Frontier in 1893. That ‘end of the West’ notion was embedded in the Western myth right from its inception.

Well, you have to read it, dear old e-pard. It’s one of those essential rites of passage for any Western fan. But my guess is that you will actually rather enjoy it.

 

 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Domino Kid (Columbia, 1957)


Vin ordinaire




 
 
I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t mind Rory Calhoun Westerns. I know that may seem to be damning with faint praise but I don’t mean it like that: I would say that 1950s black & white Rory Calhoun Westerns were the vin ordinaire of the genre. Now I am a great defender (and consumer) of vin ordinaire. A Château Lafitte 1955 is all very well if you can get it, but you wouldn’t want it every day. I wouldn’t anyway, even if I were a millionaire. The wine I imbibe every day is labeled mis en bouteille en France, a pretty clear indication that it is a mixture of rough reds from, perhaps, Romania and Morocco, but it is cheap, cheerful and light, and what’s wrong with that? A Rory Western is in the same league. The Searchers would be your premier cru but  I wouldn't want to watch it every day. Most days a Calhoun Western will do you.
 
Rory being Rory
 
Mind, this one is hardly high art. It has the look of a TV show (though it was made for theatrical release) and is a quite interesting example of reverse-engineering, as TV oaters, influenced by big-screen B Westerns, gained ground and in turn started to influence big-screen films, which began to look like lengthened episodes of Gunsmoke. There are painted Monument Vallyesque backdrops for the sequential studio scenes.
 
Well, I've seen worse
 
It starts well. Gunslinger Domino (Rory, a tad aged perhaps, at 35, to be playing ‘kid’ roles, but hey, who’s counting?) enters a cantina, and tells the saloon keeper that he is there for a high-8 o’clock showdown gunfight. He duly dispatches his enemy and rides out. Yup, he’s a tough hombre alright.

You see, Domino has been away fighting for the South in the War and when he comes back, his ranch has been raided, his daddy murdered and the whole place gone to rack and ruin. He is cross. So he sets out hunting down the five villains who did it. The one we saw in the opening reel was one of the five, and he proceeds to gun down a couple more (though they draw first, of course). These are a portly frock-coated Roy Barcroft (you expect him to pull a derringer but he doesn’t) and a splendidly malevolent James Griffith, one of my fave Western character actors. The thing is, though, as the avuncular pipe-smoking sheriff (Robert Burton) explains in order to aid plot development, no one, inc. Rory, knows who the fifth man was.

Well, I thought it was Andrew Duggan. He is smoothie Wade Harrington, who wants to buy up the whole valley, and I pegged him for the villain right off. For one reason, it was Andrew Duggan. But it’s one of those implausible Westerns in which the prima facie villain suddenly turns goody and switches to the hero’s side. No, the real 5th man turns out to be someone else, a character introduced late in the action, a nasty cowardly bully. There is quite an interesting final scene in which hero Rory finds himself in the middle of Main Street with a gunman opponent both behind and in front of him. Awkward.
 
Andrew has to be the villain, surely?
 
There is quite a complex lerve interest, as Rory’s sidekick Juan (Eugene Iglesias) loves saloon gal Rosita (Yvette Duguay) who loves Rory who loves Barbara (Kristine Miller) who is loved by Andrew Duggan. So that adds spice to the conflict. Of course Barbara wants Rory to give up his vengeance quest, and indeed gunslinging generally, as women in Westerns tend to do, while he tells her that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, etc.
 
Kristine Miller lerves Rory
 
Actually, I quite liked Barbara: she is an independent woman with her own freighting business and no pushover for Mr. Duggan. I liked her spirit. Ms. Miller, daughter of a vice-president of Standard Oil and probably not short of a buck or two, was quite well known in the world of B movies. Westernwise, she was Margaret Jones in Stories of the Century on TV and did a lot of Western TV shows but occasionally appeared also in mighty big-screen epics of this kind.

Rosita does a pretty good dance in the cantina (it might be worth watching this movie for that).
 

Wow
 
Denver Pyle makes a brief appearance as a henchman but is soon written out. Sigh.

Well, as you may guess, Rory, though wounded, wins through and gets the girl. We kinda knew he would.
 
Avuncular sheriff
 
All in all, no great shakes, and if you missed this Western you would not repine for evermore, but still, you could watch it if you were a dyed-in-the-wool Western fan.

Oh, you too?

 

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Gun and the Pulpit (ABC TV, 1974)


Slim in a Roosterish eyepatch




 
 
Some time ago on this blog we looked at the history of the TV Western, the rise and decline of the weekly small-screen show from early hits like Kit Carson or Hopalong Cassidy, through the most famous successes such as Have Gun – Will Travel and Gunsmoke, down to later examples like Cimarron Strip or, more recently, The Magnificent Seven. Again and again commentators talked of the death of the Western as genre: first the big studios had given up on cowboy films for the movie theaters, then TV oaters had also fallen from grace. It was the end.

It wasn’t, of course, and while the Western today does not enjoy the fame and popularity it did in the glory days of the 1950s, it is still alive and more or less kicking. And the most common way to see Westerns these days is still on the small screen. We now have HBO and Netflix to give us our daily fix, we have straight-to-video productions and while we still enjoy the occasional big-screen outing, maybe from Mr. Tarantino, what really keeps the whole thing going is the TV movie.

The TV film, television movie, TV movie, telefilm, telemovie, made-for-television film, direct-to-TV film, movie of the week (MOTW or MOW), feature-length drama, single drama or original movie, call it what you will, has become an entertainment staple. The genre went right back to the immediate post World War II period but it really captured audiences in the 1960s. I am informed that in 1996, 264 made-for-TV movies were made by the five largest American television networks at the time (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and Warners), averaging a 7.5 rating. By 2000, only 146 TV movies were made by those five networks, averaging a 5.4 rating, but the number of made-for-cable movies made annually in the US doubled between 1990 and 2000.

Made-for-TV Westerns can be bland and safe, and watched at a sitting, with their fades-to-black and modest budgets, they can be uninspiring. But at least they are out there, and occasionally you find one that isn’t too bad at all. Some of them can be dire, though.

Today we’ll go back to the early 1970s and have a look at one, The Gun and the Pulpit, a 74-minute ABC offering. I fear it was closer to the dire category than the not too bad one. Still, a Western’s a Western, n’est-ce pas?
 
Eminently missable
 
It opens reasonably well, in nice Old Tucson saguaro-ish locations, with Jeff Corey leading a lynch mob, and soon we see Slim Pickens in a Roosterish eyepatch. Mmm, we think, the omens are good. Sadly, though, it’s downhill from there on in. The makers went for a semi-comic approach and it falls flat. Irritating ‘comic’ music (George Aliceson Tipton) indicates which parts are supposed to be funny (we wouldn’t have known otherwise). It was directed by Daniel Petrie, who evidently was a serious professional but he didn’t know Westerns; apart from an episode of Hec Ramsey and a Playhouse 90, this was his only oater.
 
Jeff leads the lynch mob
 
And it stars Marjoe Gortner, who had been ‘ordained’ a minister at the age of four (his name is apparently a combo of Mary and Joseph), sang in a rock band and then went into acting, doing a series of dismally bad films that caused his career to sink into obscurity. I suppose he was an appropriate choice for a gunman who takes on the identity of a preacher to escape Jeff Corey’s pursuing posse and then ministers to the town of Castle Walk in a rather unorthodox way. Preachers with a gun were of course quite popular in Westerns – one thinks especially of Glenn Ford in Heaven With a Gun and Robert Mitchum in Five Card Stud – but I fear Mr. Gortner was not of this august company. In fact as a Western lead, he was, frankly, hopeless. He was also having a bad hair day every day of the shoot.
 
Marjoe Gortner is the preacher with a gun
 
Jeff is sadly soon written out but Slim takes over as saving grace and we get to enjoy a typical Pickens performance, happily.
 
Slim in great form
 
He is the unimaginatively named Billy One-Eye and he sidekicks the gunman-preacher in the struggle against the bad guys, for, yes, a villain has treed the town. Was there ever a town in the West which didn’t have an evil rancher/saloon keeper wanting to take over? Not if we are to believe Westerns. This one is Mr. Moss (though the preacher ostentatiously refuses to use the Mr. part of his name) played by David Huddleston, the ‘other’ Big Lebowski, Dr. Jones in Rio Lobo, the saloon keeper in Billy Two Hats (the same years as this) and Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles (also the same year).
 
Huddleston has treed the town
 
Ross hires a feared gunslinger, Jason McCoy, called Jake (Clint accomplice Geoffrey Lewis, High Plains Drifter, Bronco Billy, etc.) and we know there’s gonna be a showdown. Actually, though, the Main Street quick-draw at high noon is a bit of an anti-climax.

A girl falls for the preacher, of course, Sally (Pamela Sue Martin) but once the town is saved from the villain, the preacher prefers to go back to lone gunslinging and so she doesn’t get to ride off into the sunset with him. She’ll get over it.

Well, it was good to see Corey (briefly) and Pickens, but really the rest of this very spaghetti-ish TV movie is, honestly, grim.