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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Far Horizons (Paramount, 1955)

All a bit perfunctory

Some would say The Far Horizons is more of a historical drama than a Western and they’d probably be right but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt today and review it on this Western blog. After all, it is set in the nineteenth-century far West and does have attacks by Indians.

Paramount splurged a bit on this picture with big stars, VistaVision and Technicolor (though it was later re-released in black-and-white) and handsome Wyoming locations. That’s about where the spending stopped. Still, the movie did create a stir as a ‘big’ picture.

It is, as you are doubtless aware, the Lewis and Clark story – surprisingly perhaps the only big Lewis & Clark feature film to date. But it’s 1950s Hollywood, so don’t expect historical accuracy. Not at all. In fact it’s a lot of hooey, though factually an improvement on Charlton Heston’s take on the Pony Express of two years before, one of the most egregious travesties of historical truth ever committed to celluloid.

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark Hollywood style

Heston, sour as ever, is William Clark. For such a macho gun-loving type I wonder that Heston didn’t do more Westerns, really. He appeared in ten, which was not a great number for the 50s and 60s he worked in. Many of them were poor or very poor (The Savage, Arrowhead, Pony Express). Major Dundee and The Big Country were potentially good but flawed films, and not helped by his performance in them. Far and away Heston’s best, in fact for me the only Western I think he was really good in, was Will Penny in 1967. He always came across as a bitter or downright unpleasant character, except for his Will Penny. Anyway, in The Far Horizons he is portrayed as the friend of Lewis who unwittingly steals away Lewis’s girl (Barbara Hale) and then falls out with Lewis, partly because of this, on the expedition.

Not the most cheerful or charming chap on screen. I am sure he was very nice really.

Fred MacMurray is the more optimistic and commanding Meriwether Lewis (it is said that he was third choice for the role after Gary Cooper and John Wayne, who both turned it down). Unlike Heston, Fred has a fan in me. I always thought he was good – I’d even say surprisingly good – in Westerns. He made, depending on your definition of a Western, about fourteen, from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (more of an adventure/romance really) in 1936 to The Oregon Trail (his worst Western) in 1959. Fred was often excellent in the genre, though.

Fred being frightfully fair

Despite Fred's getting top billing and being in command of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, it’s really Heston who gets most screen time.

Rudolph Maté (left) directed. A cinematographer, he had been an uncredited cameraman on The Westerner in 1940, presumably learning from William Wyler, and had started directing Westerns in 1950 with Branded, an Alan Ladd picture for Paramount, following that with The Mississippi Gambler with Tyrone Power in 1953 and probably his best Western (though it’s only relative), The Violent Men with Glenn Ford, Edward G Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck the year after. The year before Far Horizons he had done the stodgy Siege at Red River with a miscast Van Johnson. It was not a very distinguished Western record. The following year Maté would work with Heston again on Three Violent People, also not very good. He only does a fair job on Far Horizons, trying to keep the pace going (not always succeeding) and endeavoring to make the hokum romance vaguely interesting (an effort destined to fail).

At least the Hans Salter score is occasionally vigorous and stirring. You sometimes think it’s only the music that is.

Maté used Daniel L Fapp (right) as cinematographer. Fapp spent most of his career at Paramount though would win an Oscar for best cinematography on United Artists’ West Side Story in 1961. He also did the visually superb stark black & white noir The Big Clock in 1948. He didn’t do many Westerns (though he was apparently one of the cameramen on the lost 1930 version of The Spoilers, the Gary Cooper one). He made the most of the Jackson Hole and Grand Teton locations on The Far Horizons, though of course a fair bit of the movie was shot on studio sound stages too.

The farrago (for it is a farrago, e-pards) was written by Winston Miller with Edmund North from the 1943 novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould. North is most famous for The Day the Earth Stood Still but did contribute to Westerns, some goodish ones: Destry, Cowboy, Only the Valiant and Colorado Territory for example. Miller, however, was a bigger figure in our noble genre: he had been a child actor in The Iron Horse, had penned B-oaters for the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, had written and/or produced some excellent little Westerns such as Station West and Fury at Furnace Creek but earned undying Western fame for his screenplay for John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946. It was a great Western career.



Fred has to appear in his first scene in very silly silk britches, like grandma’s bloomers, but he soon gets over that. He is the secretary of President Jefferson (Herbert Heyes) at a posh party at the Hancocks and he wants to propose to Julia Hancock (Hale) but Lt. Bill Clark (Heston) arrives and beats him to it. Still, Fred is frightfully decent about it, the best man won and all that. Commissioned by the president to explore the new Louisiana Purchase (it’s 1803), Lewis asks for Clark to accompany him and requests equal rank and joint command of the expedition, I’m not quite sure why. A recipe for disaster, I’d say. But the prez agrees.

That's Sgt. Demarest in the middle, trying to keep the peace

They have Sergeant William Demarest for a bit of color and semi comic-relief. He is a relief too, now and then, for the principals are a bit on the earnest side. The expedition sets off up the Missouri on their riverboat and they all change into buckskins. It’s getting a bit more Western now. They come upon the village of the Minnetaree Indians whose chief is Ralph Moody.

Lewis gives the chief a medal as compensation for taking over all his lands

The chief is rather ambiguous about these American arrivals, fearing they are the precursors of many white-eye invaders to come (and he is not wrong). He listens to the counsel of evil, sweaty and unshaven French-Canadian Charbonneau (Alan Reed, no relation to Donna, described by one reviewer as “Fred Flintstone in buckskins”), who also fears Yankee traders and convinces the chief to attack the expedition. The chief contemptuously throws the medal Lewis had given him from the president in the dirt. He’d probably seen High Noon.

A splendid picture of the real Charbonneau

It’s at this village that they meet Sacajawea (as she is called here), blue-eyed Donna Reed in unconvincing heavy make-up, doing her Debra Paget act. She is a Shoshone, captured and working as a slave. She offers to guide the expedition as a way to get back to her people. She falls for Lt. Clark (he’s still a lieutenant, the War Department having lost his promotion) and Clark, despite the glam Julia back home who has accepted him, finds himself reciprocating. Such shocking miscegenation! Once he spots this, Lewis disapproves highly (but then he still holds a candle for the fair Julia). Of course Hollywood taboos on interracial romances doomed the love affair at the outset; we know it will not end well. And given that Maté and the producers (William H Pine and William C Thomas, who together produced 81 pictures for Paramount) decided to make this romance the very heart of the film, it rather doomed the movie too.

Reed a token Indian maid

Now all this is baloney. Sacajawea was not a guide; in reality she was little more than an interpreter and reassuring presence. And there is no evidence whatsoever that she had an affair with Clark. Later, the movie Lewis conveniently tears the relevant five pages out of his journal to keep the affair all decently under wraps, so that’s why there’s no record of it, you see. But Hollywood had to have a bit of romance, n’est-ce pas?

It's lerve

Toussaint Charbonneau was in fact a member of the expedition, not its enemy, and Sacajawea was his woman. Shortly after joining Lewis and Clark she gave birth to a baby, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Clark referred to Charbonneau and Sacajawea in his journal dismissively as “Interpreter & Squar”. In the movie, after the expedition Sacajawea accompanies Clark to Washington DC (which she did not), is presented there to President Jefferson in what they call "the White House" (it wasn't known as that then) and it is the president who arranges her discreet departure back to her people, provoking much boo-hooing from (now) Capt. Clark. The future of sad Julia, disillusioned by her former beau, is not mentioned (in fact Clark married her and they had five children).

In 2011, Time Magazine rated The Far Horizons as one of the top ten most historically misleading films, and they had a point. Still, we don’t watch such movies for historical accuracy. You want history? Read a history book.

Believe it if you will

There’s some movie action, with various Indians attacking, a desperate fight in canoes, natural hazards, fever and so on. Various expedition members are killed (in fact only one died, and that from a ruptured appendix three months after the departure). Lewis is especially brave and resourceful. But there are definitely tedious bits. And some pretty clunky dialogue:
"Look at all the elk!"
"Sure are a lot of 'em!"
(Shot of about five distant elk).

There’s no sense of wonder or of the new. They just seem to take everything as normal. It is instead a perfunctory manifest destiny statement, with Lewis blandly assuming sovereignty for the United States of the whole continent. “This is a picture of my chief,” he says at one point to an Indian. “He’s your chief too, now.”

In no time they get to the Pacific. Peezy. Right, back to Washington, they seem to say, as if Maté can’t wait to return to drawing rooms and tailcoats. Lewis and Clark are back in DC in a trice, looking as if they have just been out for an afternoon stroll, with no signs of fatigue at all.

If you’re not too fussy you might enjoy it.

The New York Times was uncomplimentary: “A surprisingly dull account of the Lewis and Clark wilderness trek, Paramount's ‘The Far Horizons’ landed at the Criterion yesterday with a hollow thud.” French critic Erick Maurel said it was “un film non seulement paresseux et ennuyeux, platement filmé et mal rythmé, mais également plutôt réactionnaire (a film that is not only lazy and boring, flat in its filming and with bad rhythm, but also rather reactionary.”)

Given the astonishing achievement of the expedition one feels that a film of it ought to have been grandly epic. The Far Horizons is, however, all rather turgid.

All in all you might prefer Ken Burns's 1997 documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. It’s actually more dramatic. Or, if you want something more Western, The Big Sky, which was (vaguely) inspired by the expedition, Elizabeth Threatt’s Teal Eye character being more than a little Sacajawea-ish.



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.