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

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Hanged Man (ABC TV, 1974)

A pilot that didn't make it

In 1964 Don Siegel directed a listless and frankly dull (non-Western) picture said to be only the second ever TV movie, titled The Hanged Man. It was a remake of a 1947 Robert Montgomery noir Ride the Pink Horse, which was considerably better. In 1975 Colin Blakely starred in a British TV mini-series also named The Hanged Man about a businessman who decides to stay dead. In 2007 a video The Hanged Man told a tale of six social misfits who meet on-line, and agree to gather in an abandoned barn to commit group suicide. In 2008 there was yet another The Hanged Man, apparently “A story of a passionate sentimental initiation out of the ordinary; with a crime story and suspects, and two young characters.” So says IMDb. You see, it was a popular title.
The 1974 one

The curious thing about the 1974 The Hanged Man, though, is that while it has a different plot than the Siegel one, and is transposed from the world of corrupt labor union politics to 1878 New Mexico, so is a Western, the name of the hanged man in question is the same – Devlin. The ’74 one was a TV pilot made by Andrew J Fenady Productions and Bing Crosby Productions, starring Steve Forrest. It was not, however, taken up as a series and Forrest went on to do S.W.A.T. on ABC instead.

Not a good day

It opens with the hanging. Devlin’s defense attorney (Dean Jagger) thinks he was innocent but Devlin’s rep as a notorious gunfighter did for him with the jury, who sentenced him to death. The lawyer also represents a widow, Mrs. Gault (Sharon Acker) whose husband died in a mysterious accident at their mine. She expresses quite liberal anti-death penalty opinions, suggesting that there is some good in the worst of men and that dies with them on the scaffold. But the townsfolk - especially one gloating fat drunk - don’t agree and turn out in force to enjoy the public execution.

Lawyer Jagger consoles the widow

The condemned man receives a visit from his girlfriend Soledad (Barbara Luna) and a sympathetic young priest Fr. Alvaro (Rafael Campos) but neither consoles him much. He has no formal religious faith and indeed prefers cartomancy, explaining the tarot cards to the priest, including the card of Le Pendu, the Hanged Man.

Judge Ray Teal presides over the ceremony the following morning. It was his final performance (he died the following year) and it was entirely fitting that this great Western character actor should go out with an oater. It was the last of an astonishing 278 Western appearances of every kind, big-screen and small, starting with Zorro Rides Again in 1937. He looks just the same.

Farewell, Ray, and thanks

Well, Devlin’s hanged alright, and pronounced dead by the doc (Bill Bryant), a death certificate is written, and the corpse is laid out in a room where Soledad and Fr. Alvaro pray for the soul of the departed. A bit premature, that, though, because he lives! How did he survive? Was it a miracle, as the priest believes, or the devil’s work as Soledad inclines to think, or plain incompetence by the hangman (Bill Catching) – that’s what the judge reckons - or was the doc so drunk that he didn’t spot the fellow was still alive? It’s left open, with just the hint of the supernatural to tease us.

Well, the plot now morphs into the good old one about the ruthless rancher who wants the whole valley – or in this variant the ruthless smelter who wants all the mines. The widow and her young son arrive back at their mine to find it under attack by six gunmen who burn, loot and apparently abuse the old-time factotum (Will Geer, no less, then aged 73), though exactly how they abused him is (luckily) not stated, just darkly hinted at. Later the ruthless smelter turns up, all charming and solicitous of the widow’s welfare, and it is none other than our old pal Cameron Mitchell. So, Jagger, Teal, Geer, Mitchell – it’s a pretty good line up. You get the feeling that had the series seen the light of day, Western character actor guest stars would have proliferated.

Will Geer, born 1902 and still going strong (until 1978)

However, when Cameron turns up, gunman Devlin is there. He seems to have gone back to his old trade. He saves the young son from a rattler bite so the kid’s mom is on his side. She doesn’t know yet that this is a hanged man. Devlin wears one of Soledad’s scarves around his neck to hide the scar. But then he shows her the mark and declares that he is going after the ruthless smelter.

Said ruthless smelter has henchmen, obviously – they were de rigueur. One of them is known as Billy Irons (Brendon Boone) and he used to ride with King Fisher in Texas. He’s rather a dandy, all decked out in dude duds. He’s especially vicious. He will of course (no spoiler here) meet his doom from Devlin’s Colt come the showdown.

There’s a good bit where Devlin threatens Cameron while the latter is bathing (and smoking and drinking). Devlin scares the living daylights out of the thuggish businessman with his ice-cold skin and equally icy demeanor. Is he alive? Is he dead? Cameron shudders and calls off the attack he had ordered on the mine. But it’s too late! Billy Irons and the gunmen are already at it, and this time Will Geer is fatally hurt. Now Devlin will exact revenge…

The sinister hanged man threatens the ruthless businessman

The final shoot-out is rather spectacular actually, with Devlin driving a wagon like a tank, with wooden defenses in front, straw bales at the side and loads of dynamite within. Cameron comes to a sticky end, appropriately smelted.

His work done, Devlin rides off for a new adventure, setting up the series with a lawman following him, but the lawman need not have bothered for after the ABC screening of the pilot, the series was not to be.

Yes, it’s all pretty lightweight, I guess, but you know I found it rather enjoyable. And it’s worth a view for Jagger, Teal, Geer and (especially) Mitchell.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Broken Star (UA, 1956)

Another Bel-Air B-Western. Not bad, though.

The other day we were looking at a Western from Bel-Air Productions, Quincannon, Frontier Scout, which was released through United Artists in May 1956. Well, here’s another one, from the same year. The Broken Star was released the month before. It was another oater produced by Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch, and, like Quincannon, directed by Lesley Selander, but this one was in black & white.
Schenck, Koch, Selander: the team

No one would pretend that these pictures were major A-Westerns, and they were done with minimal budgets and slightly B-list casts. But they weren’t bad. Selander saw to that. A B-Western artist he may have been but he certainly got pace into his pictures.

Like Quincannon, The Broken Star does rather suffer from its top star. This time it’s Howard Duff. Duff did in fact lead or co-star in a few Westerns but he wasn’t my cup of tea. He had been Sam Spade on the radio and when he moved to TV and features he was never really in any danger of winning an Oscar. He was tepid at best opposite Ann Blyth in Red Canyon, Yvonne de Carlo in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass and Mona Freeman in The Lady from Texas. Blyth and De Carlo got top billing, above Duff. The Broken Star was, though, quite unusual in that the top-billed star played an out-and-out bad guy. It did happen (see, for example, The Black Dakotas) but it was rare.

A Duff leading man

But the film does have some quality. It was written by John C Higgins, who had produced the screenplays for quite a few of those gritty Anthony Mann noirs in the 1940s, and indeed, The Broken Star was a Western version of Higgins’s Shield for Murder, a picture directed by Howard Koch. In the hands of an Anthony Mann, with someone like Robert Mitchum in the lead and with cinematography by, say, James Wong Howe The Broken Star could have been a fine picture, to rank with the likes of Blood on the Moon or Pursued. As it was, with Howard Duff and in the hands of Lesley Selander, low-budget movie helmsman nonpareil, it just became another B-Western.

Duff is crooked deputy Frank Smeed in Arizona, who in the first reel cold-bloodedly murders a certain Alvorado (Felipe Turich, uncredited) and steals the $8000 in gold pieces that Alvorado was keeping for rich landowner Thornton Wills, a faux-charmant Sydney Greenstreet-type figure (portly Henry Calvin, Sergeant Garcia in Disney’s Zorro). Wills doesn’t care for this at all and there’s quite a good scene where he alternately threatens Smeed coldly and cheerfully calls the line dance at his barbecue.

Ruthless rancher warns crooked deputy

Unfortunately for Deputy Smeed, his crime was witnessed by an Apache ranch hand, Natchez (Joe Dominguez), and this will be his undoing.

There are some nice southern Arizona locations shot by cinematographer William Margulies, who also did Quincannon, Frontier Scout for Bel-Air the same year (in color, in Utah) and had also shot Fort Yuma and Revolt at Fort Laramie, both visually good Westerns.

The ruthless rancher Wills has two gunmen in his pay, obviously (you couldn’t be a ruthless rancher without henchmen). They are Messendyke and Van Horn (Joel Ashley and John Pickard) but Messrs. Messendyke and Van Horn are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. In fact they are as dumb as they are brutal.

They hench away but not very successfully

There’s a glam señorita, Conchita (Almeria-born Lita Baron, talent-spotted by her future husband Rory Calhoun, and a gunslingerette in the dire Jesse James’ Women), who sings a rather peppy song in the cantina, I Hate You, and wields a whip the while. She’s Alvorado’s cousin so has a vested interest in bringing the murderer to book. This Conchita is the amour of the other deputy, the good one, Bill Gentry (Bill Williams), and vice-versa, let it be said; they are like two turtle doves. Bill is conflicted because he believes his friend Smeed, who once saved his life, yet also believes Conchita, who discovers what a bad egg Smeed is.

Every Western town had one

Luckily there’s also a sheriff (good old Addison Richards) with professional integrity who is more than a little skeptical of Smeed’s concocted story of self-defense. And Smeed feels himself obliged to murder his way out of the jam he is in, slaying the Apache witness to his first killing.

I must say, though, that the sheriff and good deputy are incredibly dumb because before Smeed gets him, Natchez writes a brief note affirming Smeed’s guilt yet the lawmen are entirely unable to understand a word of it because it is in Spanish. Doh.

There’s a fair bit of action, a fistfight in the saloon, a sheriff’s posse, gunpowder in a mine and so forth, all in good Lesley Selander style.

Once rumbled, Smeed persuades crooked Indian agent Carleton (our old pal Douglas Fowley) to help him get across the border into Mexico, which Carleton agrees to do for half the loot, but each double-crosses the other and it all ends in tears.

Our old pal Fowley

Well, well, it’s a perfectly acceptable mid-50s B-Western as long as you are not too demanding. As I said, though, you just get the feeling that it could have been superb given the right personnel and budget.



Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quincannon, Frontier Scout (UA, 1956)

Lesley Selander does his thing - again

A Bel-Air production sometimes billed as just Frontier Scout, put together by Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch and released by United Artists in the mid-1950s (i.e. the high water-mark of the Western movie), Quincannon, Frontier Scout is very much in the B-Western category despite some (for Bel-Air) quite ritzy location shooting and Color De Luxe photography.
Schenck and Koch
Its main weakness is the lead, Tony Martin in his only Western. The pop singer was unsuited to the role and does not convince, either as gunslinger dressed all in black in the first reel or as Army scout later in the picture – and still less dressed up as an Indian, when he looks frankly ridiculous. Martin, then known as Al Morris, had left big bands (he played sax in Tom Gerun’s orchestra, alongside Woody Herman) for Hollywood in the mid-1930s, where he became Tony Martin, and Mr. Cyd Charisse in 1948. He became quite popular in musicals and in the 50s also hosted a weekly 15 minute TV variety series on NBC. But he was wrong in our noble genre.
He often looks like Ray Milland - and is equally unsuited to Westerns

Still, there are some old-favorite character actors in support, John Doucette as the long-suffering Army sergeant being especially enjoyable. Morris Ankrum is the colonel, sadly written out after the first reel, and John Smith, Slim Sherman from Laramie, is the bad guy Army lieutenant. His bad-guy status is blindingly obvious from the outset. Being blond and advocating the extermination of the Indians, he is clearly a Nazi. He reminds us of Tab Hunter's Ed in Gunman's Walk, George Macready's Younger Miles in Coroner Creek or, even more, of Alex Nicol's Army lieutenant in Tomahawk. He duly proves to be a swine, and is duly thwarted by Quincannon.

The excellent John Doucette is the sergeant

The director was good old Lesley Selander, who helmed so many Westerns reviewed on this site, and no wonder given that he had been directing oaters since Empty Saddles with Buck Jones in 1936 and concentrated on oaters for the rest of his career. He was the go-to director for Hopalong Cassidy programmers. The IMDb bio says he “had a professionalism and a verve that many of those made by his fellow B directors lacked” and that is true. His pacing especially was good, his movies rattling along at an excellent rate. As the market for B-Westerns declined, Selander turned to TV – including Laramie episodes with Smith. The last few feature films he made, in the mid- and late 1960s, were a number of "geezer westerns" using aging cowboy stars, churned out by producer AC Lyles. But I like his 1948 Panhandle, Dakota Lil, War Paint, Fort Yuma and Tall Man Riding, among others, and I am a bit of a Selander fan.

Lesley Selander (1900 - 79)

A Bozeman Trail story, it's based on the novel Frontier Feud by Will Cook, and is written by Don Martin and John C. Higgins.

Source novel

Two dubious characters ride into town looking for Quincannon. It looks like they are gunning for him. But it turns out that they are an Army lieutenant (John Bromfield, the Sheriff of Cochise) and a sergeant (Doucette), both in plain clothes, bearing a message from Col. Ankrum. The colonel wants Quincannon back as a scout. More of a detective, really, because the Army has lost 800 repeater Henrys, which was careless, and the Arapahoes have got ‘em. As you know, allowing rifles to fall into the hands of Indians is one of the worst disasters that can befall any Western.

Arapaho chief Iron Wolf has the rifles

At first Quincannon declines the offer, rather forcefully it must be said, but then a glam gal (Peggie Castle, Marshal Dan Troop’s love interest in Lawman) arrives on the stage and wants to go to Fort Smith to ransom her captured brother, so, surprise, surprise, Quincannon changes his mind and accepts the mission.

Scout woos lady

Quincannon is a classic “man who knows Indians”. He speaks their lingo and knows Chief Iron Wolf (Edmund Hashim) personally, calling him “an Indian skunk.” Quincannon stands up for the Indians, though, when the colonel calls them savages.

Well, the four of them, Quincannon (whom everyone annoyingly calls Quinny), Lt. Bromfield, Sgt. Doucette and Ms. Castle, set off to cross Indian territory to reach the fort, which they are able to do thanks to Quincannon’s savvy, courage, daring and what-have-you. The fort is of course one of those wooden toy forts Hollywood loved, equally inevitably filmed at Kanab, Utah.

Romance on the palisade

There they find Capt. Bell (Aussie Ron Randell, slightly Ronald Reaganish in appearance but not a Western specialist – he only did four and this was probably his biggest part) in command, and we smell a rat with him too. We are soon proved right; he is in cahoots (that fine Western word) with Lt. Smith in the gun-running racket.

Lt. Hostedder obviously  a Nazi

There’s Selander action aplenty from there on, and you may guess how it all turns out (nuptials, my dears).

It opens and closes with a ballad of great direness.

No worse than many mid-50s Westerns and a good deal better than many, Quincannon, Frontier Scout is definitely worth a look, even if rather let down by the star. At least he didn’t sing.



Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Wolf Dog (Fox, 1958)

Jim in Canada

It’s a contemporary Western (set in the 1950s) but it’s a Western alright. Reader John Knight mentioned it in comments on the Jim Davis picture Frontier Uprising, so I thought I’d give it a go. You can get it (in poor quality) on YouTube.

It’s a low-budget black & white B-picture, made by Regal Films (Canada) and shot in Ontario. They used their widescreen process Regalscope so today we view it in rectangular format, wide but not deep.

Jim plays an ex-marine sergeant who killed a man (unintentionally) in a fight and did a stretch for manslaughter. His kindly colonel, though, played by Sydney Brown, lets him have a ranch he doesn’t want, and so Jim, with his wife Ellen (Alison Hayes) and his young son Paul (Tony Brown) decide to run cattle. The trouble is, there’s loathsome landowner neighbor Clem Krivak (Austin Willis) who will stop at naught to get his greedy hands on the ranch. Yep, it’s one of those ruthless-rancher-wants-the-whole valley plots.

And of course the ruthless rancher has henchmen with guns (I think they were obligatory) and a tame sheriff (Edward Holmes).

Jim deals with one of the henchmen

OK, it’s set in the 1950s but it could just have easily been 1870.

Dogs play an important part in the plot, as you may guess from the title. First the villain cruelly sets his fierce brute on poor little Spot, Paul’s mutt, with fatal results – for Spot. Then the boy finds a replacement, half wolf (though it looked just like a German Shepherd to me), which he imaginatively names Dog (maybe that was where Longmire got the idea). Finally there is a showdown on Main Street – between Dog and the bad guy’s (anonymous) canine. You may guess who wins.

The first dogfight causes the worm sheriff to turn, finally finding the guts to stand up to the arrogant town boss.

The picture was produced and directed by Sam Newfield (left), brother of Sigmund Neufeld, head of PRC Pictures (often known as Poverty Row Corp). Sam was one of the most prolific directors in the history of American cinema. He churned out B-Westerns for various studios, including Tim McCoy oaters for Sam Katzman. The IMDb bio says that “Sam shot films in two styles: fast and faster.” A week was considered long for filming and he didn’t believe in retakes. Tragically, this was his last Western.

Wolf Dog was written by Louis Stevens, who worked on some really enjoyable Westerns such as the 1936 The Texas Rangers (the Fred MacMurray one), Massacre River (Rory Calhoun and Guy Madison’s first Western), Sante Fe with Randolph Scott, Horizons West with Robert Ryan (a Budd Boetticher picture), The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy and Border River, a Joel McCrea movie. It’s not a bad CV. Wolf Dog was also Louis’s last oater.

It’s all a bit family-friendly, and the scenes with the boy and his dog and pony verge on the cloying. But there is a final shoot-out to even things up and make it a bit more Western. Reviews were “mixed” (viz. they slammed it) and the picture seems to have sunk without trace (except in John Knight’s heart) but it does have its naïve charm. It might have been better, though, if they had cast Jim Davis as the ruthless rancher, as in Republic’s excellent The Outcast four years before.

It's not mentioned in the credits but maybe it's the source novel?


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Apache Kid’s Escape (Cosmos, 1930)

Jack Perrin rides again


In a comment on Apache Warrior, a Jim Davis Western about the Apache Kid, reader Walter S. told me about a Jack Perrin oater entitled The Apache Kid’s Escape, so I thought I’d better watch it.

Walter said it was hokum and boy, he wasn’t joking.

The first thing is that this is not ‘our’ Apache Kid, the proper Apache one. Jack plays a cowboy brought up near the reservation but a pal reassures us all, “He ain’t no Indian.” Phew.

Born in 1896, Perrin (left) entered movies in the very early days – in 1916. And he was to make an astonishing 340 Western appearances in a career that lasted decades. After serving in the US Navy in World War I, Perrin got a contract with Universal, then the largest studio in the world. This was his heyday and he starred in huge numbers of silent one- and two-reel oaters, many directed by Edward Laemmle, nephew of studio boss Carl. But Universal did not renew his contract in 1921 and Perrin descended rapidly into the world of Poverty Row Westerns, riding for ever-smaller studios in ever-more minor parts, using his own name or occasionally the pseudonyms Jack Gable or Richard (Dick) Terry. In the 1930s he was working for companies at the very bottom of the Hollywood food chain.

Robert J Horner (right) resided about as far down Poverty Row as you could get. He wrote, produced and directed literally dozens of ultra-low-budget Westerns between 1922 and ’35, before expiring of cirrhosis of the liver. The IMDb bio calls him "a prolific, if spectacularly untalented producer/director". I’m surprised Horner didn’t photograph and act in his movies as well. It would have saved another few bucks. Quite frankly, many of them were awful, almost unwatchable today. They were theater fodder for undemanding 1930s kids who would be satisfied with any cowboy as long as he had a white horse that would do tricks (Perrin had Starlight). But at least Perrin was still the lead.

He would have further to sink and he ended up with bit parts such as ‘Barfly – uncredited’ in Westerns right through to 1962. Well, I guess he was still working.

The Apache Kid’s Escape was in fact one of the very first Poverty Row talkies. These cut-price studios went on making silent movies long after sound had come in, to ever-diminishing audiences. But somehow Horner got some sound equipment together and made a talkie. The picture still has intertitle cards, though, so looks very like a silent despite the dialogue. Said dialogue is delivered with the utmost ponderousness by all the cast.

In fact to save even more money, The Apache Kid’s Escape was a straight remake of a 1929 silent, The White Outlaw, an Art Acord oater also directed and produced by Horner.

The Apache Kid (Perrin) is an outlaw determined to go straight but his erstwhile accomplice Buck (Bud Osborne) does the dirty on him, wearing the Kid’s checkered kerchief to impersonate the Kid while robbing the stage. So a sheriff’s posse is after the Kid.

Using the name Jim, he takes refuge on a ranch where he falls into further skullduggery.  Honestly, it’s not really worth recounting further the intricacies of the plot.

There’s an unpleasant stunt as the Kid rides his horse off a bluff into a lake to escape pursuit. There’s also a bit shot at the famous Beale’s Cut (jumped by Tom Mix, driven through in Stagecoach, etc.)

But it’s all distinctly missable, I fear. In fact I would go so far as to advise you not to see it. But if you really insist, it’s available on YouTube, here.

A photograph said to be that of the real Apache Kid