Tuesday, July 16, 2019

GIDDY-UP! Western movie reviews.

HOMBRE (1967) A "message" western with a message more relevant today than when it was made. Paul Newman is a hard man raised by Apaches and the pragmatic view of life instilled in him by the tribe is at war with the expectations of the white man's world he's re-entered. The conflict, and all the subsequent troubles in the film, come from a pair of elitist, educated do-gooders who have been grifting the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Richard Boone is in hand playing his signature badguy. I like that Boone's rotters always seems to enjoy what their doing. Not enough villains actually laugh at their victims' predicament. It's based on an Elmore Leonard novel so expect great dialogue, unexpected story turns and sudden violence.

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THE BRAVADOS (1958) Gregory Peck is on the trail of the four men who raped and murdered his wife. He catches up to them the day before they're to be hung. But, of course, they escape and Peck leads a posse into the desert after them. Solid story based on a Frank O'Rourke novel. And a good cast of bad guys including Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva. The ending has some real twists in its tail. My only complaints are that much of it is curiously under-dramatized. There's a lot of action that happens off screen. And Joan Collins is mis-cast and just plain awful in a role as a ranch-owner. Surprising, from screenwriter Phil Yordan that he didn't make her more of a "no man is going to tell me what to do" type that Joan specialized in.

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SHALAKO (1968) Sean Connery and Bridgette Bardot in a Euro-produced western based on a Louis L'amour novel with all the problems I usually have with his novels. Connery is the all-knowing, all-wise iconic western hero set on rescuing a European hunting party that's stumbled into Apache country. Bardot is a gun-totin' countess but, beyond being BB, that's as interesting as she gets. Shot in Spain it's bloody but bloodless, if you know what I mean. The gun fights are staged in the usual "show a guy shooting then cut to another guy falling off a horse" perfunctory manner. The rest of the cast are either corrupted Euro trash or venal American opportunists. Only Sean and BB and the Apaches seem true to themselves. Woody Strode plays Apache war chief Chato and is good, as always. Don "Red" Barry is here as well essentially playing sidekick to Connery.
The main problem I have with the story is that Connery plays a know-it-all character who's always lording it over everyone with his frontier expertise. Randolph Scott played this guy in nearly every western he ever made but, wisely, always tempered the role with either humor or a tortured past. I wanted to like Shalako but often found myself saying. "What a prick this guy is."

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FROM HELL TO TEXAS (1958) I have no idea why I've missed this western up till now. Maybe it was because of the title. I've found that the more hyperbolic the title the lamer the western. "Irving, this new cowboy pitcher is a real snoozer!" "Re-title it using a mild profanity! That'll put a few butts in the seats!"
Imagine my surprise when this well-produced western lived up to its braggadocio. It's a good story plainly told and, in the hands of director Henry Hathaway, a minor classic. Every frame is a joy.
Don Murray is a saddle bum who runs into trouble with the family of rancher R.G. Armstrong. In an expertly structured tale we learn much of what we need to know without any exposition. The first third of the movie is catching up with events that occurred before the opening credits. Hell, even the credit sequence provides exposition as well as resonance to a scene later in the movie. The rest of the story plays out with rising suspense and some spectacular action set-pieces. It all comes to a terrific conclusion both from the action and dramatic standpoints. Even the love interest angle has real heat and longing while remaining innocent. Also on hand is Dennis Hopper as Armstrong's neurotic son and Chill Wills in one of his best roles. I recommend this one strongly for you western fans. It deserves to be better known.

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JOE DAKOTA (1957) The flipside to the western I reviewed previously. A Universal-International programmer the can't decide what it wants to be. It begins as a light comedy in the Destry Rides Again variety and then turns into a "town with the secret" story introducing dark aspects like an attempted rape and a lynching. But it's all under-dramatized and feathery. Someone must have realized there was a long stretch with no action so they simply wedge in a totally non-sequitur scene involving Charles McGraw and a rattlesnake. There is an an attempt to be "different" and so no one in the movie packs a gun. Why not get rid of the horses too? The always reliable Jock Mahoney is wasted here as are Lee Van Cleef and Claude Akins as a pair of frontier morons. On the plus side? It's mercifully short.

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CATLOW (1971) A British produced western shot in Spain on loads of sets familiar from other, Italian-produced, westerns. Like Shalako, this one is based on a Louis L'Amour novel but with significant changes to the characters if the not the typical L'Amour plotline. Yul Brynner stars and is having the time of his life playing against type as a rascally cad set on stealing a fortune in Confederate gold from the Mexican army. Richard Crenna acquits himself well as a US marshal who just can't bring himself to take Brynner down. The movie's notable for Leonard Nimoy as a dour bounty hunter who acts VERY un-Spock. The action's lively thanks to some expertly blocked scenes by second unit director John Glen. Violent but not bloody as the tone remains relatively light despite some desperate goings on. Falls into the "pretty darn good western" category.

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RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (1958) Been watching a lot of westerns while I gear up to start writing one. This is a fine Audie Murphy vehicle scripted by Borden Chase. Audie's an outlaw mistaken for a marshal by trigger-happy judge Walter Matthau. But things get complicated when gang leader Henry Silva's gal pal (played by Gia Scala) shows up in town. What side the street will Audie walk down then? Well-crafted programmer in Cinemascope.

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LUCKY LUKE (2009) The very popular Belgian graphic novel series gets an Italian Western makeover in this fun, and often delirious, live action film. Somehow the filmmakers made the material much darker than the comic but kept the silliness, recherche puns, running gags, and over-the-top action from the comics in place. Jean Dujardan deserves a lot of credit for his total immersion into the role. he's cool when he needs to be and very funny when it's called for. The movie is super-stylized but that lends itself to the material. My sombrero is off to the frequent nods to the way the Luke comics are colored and the way the series' gentle sense of fun is kept in place even among the violent goings-on. The major break with the comics is that Luke can actually understand what Jolly Jumper, his horse, is saying. I'll excuse that because those are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. All I can say is that I really miss the absence of the Daltons. Perhaps they were saving them for a potential sequel. Though they were crying out to be in a post credits sequence, perhaps tunneling out of Yuma Prison for the umpteenth time.

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BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) The second western collaboration of Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann is another fine step in a cycle of excellent outdoor adventures that help set the genre's standard for the decade. In each of their five westerns together, Jimmy plays essentially the same character but, as the movies progress, his character becomes more and more edgy, more driven, capable of psychotic rage. This had to be a conscious decision. "Can you push it just a little more in this one, Jimmy?"
Their collaboration ended when Stewart insisted in making NIGHT PASSAGE, a fine western on its own but a return to the kind of amiable character Jimmy played before the war. Too bad they didn't finish out with Stewart in Mann's MAN OF THE WEST where his character, burnt out from too much loss and bloodshed, is reluctant to act when called upon. Gary Cooper is just terrific in that role but it should have gone to Stewart.
That said, BAND OF THE RIVER is a truly great western. A seamless script by Borden Chase with constant betrayals, complications, changes in fortune and rising stakes. The model of a well-paced action story with real consequences for the characters involved. A big production with a large cast and what looked like some challenging shoots. Arthur Kennedy is on hand as Stewart's fair weather friend and this is one of the rare instances where I found Rock Hudson believable in an action role. Of course, look who was setting the bar for him. Julie Adams, Jay C, Flippen, Harry Morgan and Royal Dano round out a great cast.

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GOIN' SOUTH (1978) Jack Nicholson stars in and directs this sly western comedy that would be the movie debut of both Mary Steenburgen and John Belushi. Jack is a ne'er do well outlaw who has to choose between marriage and the gallows and both choices stand an even chance of killing him. Deals with themes and situations you just can't work into a movie these days. A great cast has a lot of fun in their roles including Christopher Lloyd, Veronica Cartwright and Tracy Walters. Nicholson first showed his real acting chops in low budget westerns in the 60s and here he shows that he still knows how to work the genre and has a real affection for it.

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PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973) Still on a western jag, I watched Peckinpah's self-indulgent, repetitive and near-plotless epic. And I still love it just as such as when I first saw it. For hardcore western fans only. Features a who's who of character actors all looking as hard and used up as the characters they're playing. Tonight was the inferior 1988 restoration (NOW WITH MORE WHORES!). I'll watch the far tighter 2005 version tomorrow night.

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THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965) Every time I watch this movie my wife tries to work out the math of how these four could be brothers and then leaves the room never to return. A fine action western that's as basic as basic can be but shot with real verve and streak of meanness by Henry Hathaway. Most of the first half is set-up and slow burn sprinkled with action and a few suspense moments. But once it gets moving it's action for much the rest of the run. James Gregory is on hand as a slimy weasel who sets everything in motion. Dennis Hopper is once again the son who can never please his pappy. George Kennedy has the time of his life as a amoral hired gunman and gets the film's best line. "You know that fella that didn't get off the train, the one we both ain't scared of? Well, he's here."
Iconic score by Elmer Bernstein.
The Duke was two months from having a lung and two ribs removed when he started filming this. There's a scene or two where he looks to have slowed down a mite but, for the most part, he acquits himself well. One tough hombre in real life.

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