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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

William Holden




 











The Westerns of William Holden
 

William Holden (1918 – 1981) was a very big star. He won an Oscar and was nominated twice more. He was named one of the "Top 10 Stars of the Year" six times (1954–1958, 1961).
 

But this was really for non-Western movies. Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and Network would probably be the first films that came to mind if you asked most people about Holden. Maybe The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Yet for me he remains one of the best Western actors of them all. Not that he made many. He only did two in the 1950s, the golden age of the genre, and only eleven in all. But he was always absolutely excellent in them. A good Western hero needs to be tough, a bit of a loner, self-reliant, knowing, brave, decent. Holden came across as all these. Maybe also a love of danger helps. Holden said, “I don't really know why, but danger has always been an important thing in my life - to see how far I could lean without falling, how fast I could go without cracking up.”
 

William Holden started as a young half-contract player with Columbia doing two cheerful black & white Westerns named for states, Arizona (1940) and Texas  (1941). He was very good in them. He said, however, that he did not want to be typed in “Smiling Jack” roles and he wasn’t, at least as far as Westerns were concerned. He starred in three in the post-War period, the excellent, noirish The Man from Colorado with his pal Glenn Ford in 1948; Rachel and the Stranger, an interesting 1948 love-triangle picture with Robert Mitchum; and a picture which grows on you, Paramount’s Streets of Laredo in 1949, a remake of the 1936 Texas Rangers.

After a pause, in the 1950s came the superb John Sturges-directed Escape from Fort Bravo, then in 1959 John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne.

Four later Westerns completed his Western career: Alvarez Kelly, a Civil War drama, in 1966; his greatest ever performance in The Wild Bunch in 1969; and two in the early 70s, the cult Wild Rovers and the more routine but still good The Revengers.

Of course these eleven pictures varied in quality; how could it be otherwise? But his own superb performances did not. They were uniformly excellent.
 


By clicking the links below you can read reviews of the eleven Westerns.


Early Westerns:

1.        Arizona (Columbia, 1940)
2.        Texas (Columbia, 1941)

Post-War Westerns:

3.        The Man from Colorado (Columbia, 1948)
4.        Rachel and the Stranger (RKO, 1948)
5.        Streets of Laredo (Paramount, 1949)

Only 2 in the 50s:

6.        Escape from Fort Bravo(MGM, 1953)
7.        The Horse Soldiers (UA, 1959)

Later/revisionist Westerns:

8.        Alvarez Kelly (Columbia, 1966)
9.        The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969)
10.      Wild Rovers (MGM, 1971)
11.       The Revengers (NGP, 1972)

 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Revengers (NGP, 1972)

 










The Dirty Half-Dozen

 
 
 
 

 
 
Ernest Borgnine (replacing Van Heflin on his death) and William Holden were reunited in a Western three years after The Wild Bunch but The Revengers is a pot-boiler by comparison. Not that it’s bad. Directed by Daniel Mann (was he related? There are so many Manns it’s hard to know), fast-paced (chase stories often move at the rate of the slowest horse) and action-packed, it benefits also from some good acting – Holden, of course, in his last ever Western, but also Woody Strode and some of the lesser parts.
 

The plot is a revenge-pursuit drama mixed with the good old Magnificent Seven  yarn combined with with a Western version of The Dirty Dozen of five years before (which Borgnine was also in, to reinforce the similarity), only in this slightly cut-price version Holden recruits six criminals so we better call it The Dirty Half-Dozen.

Foul Comancheros slaughter Holden’s whole rather-too-idyllic family (and ranch hand Arthur Hunnicutt, so they were really nasty) in Colorado, and Holden chases them to Mexico where he recruits the six heavies in a Mex prison. The six are pretty stereotypic. Borgnine is the comical low-life; Strode the tough, dignified black guy, long-suffering so named Job; there’s an amorous Frenchman (Roger Hanin); a bovine German called Zweig (Reinhard Killdehof); the obligatory gunslinging kid (Jorge Luke, in his first Western); and Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, the Mexican villager Hilario from The Magnificent Seven, is philosopher Cholo, this time one of the seven.
 
The less-than-magnificent seven

For you’ve guessed it, Holden and his six men make up the Mystical Western Number of seven, ideal for all gangs, posses and bands of riders.

Holden holds it all together. He is, as usual, splendid. Tough, driven, single-minded, he devotes his life - and toys with death - to find the wicked white-eye leader of the Comanchero band.

There are various nods to John Ford in this picture: the idea of the son of a Congressional Medal of Honor holder having the right to attend West Point, for example; the hero’s implacable seeking, even through desert and snow, Searchers-style; the cavalry defense against the Indians at the end; and the noble young lieutenant (played by Holden’s son Scott); even the use of William Holden himself, and Woody Strode, Ford veterans.
 
Hope they don't fire than cannon, Bill

Susan Hayward, in her last film, is the nurse who saves Holden when he is nearly shot to death and who falls in love with him, but he is too obsessed with grief for his dead wife and lust for revenge to dally. It is a pity, though, that the Brooklyn-born Ms. Hayward, normally an excellent actress, had to essay an Irish brogue. Mistake. Still, she was a great actor and had graced some excellent Westerns (Canyon Passage, Rawhide and Garden of Evil, to name but a few. She was best of all, in my view, in the underrated Fox Western Rawhide in 1951).

There’s a semi-interesting attempt to make the decent Holden become more like the criminals, and they at the same time to assume some of his nobility. Kind of.
 
Bill and Woody in classic gunplay

Holden’s Colorado ranch is to die for and there is a lot of fine Mexican scenery, moderately well photographed by Gabriel Torres. Many of the credits are Spanish-sounding so they evidently used a lot of Mexican crew. The score (Pino Calvi) tries for a Magnificent Seven-style orchestral romp but ends up sounding inappropriately jazzy. Still, the music is relentlessly up-tempo and it carries the action along at a cracking pace.

All in all this is a pretty formulaic Western, fairly predictable, and certainly no top ten contender. Never mind. It is a solid actioner and well worth a DVD purchase, for Holden alone.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Alvarez Kelly (Columbia, 1966)

 










A Civil War movie combines with a cattle drive one







This double-billing William Holden-Richard Widmark Civil War Western was directed by Edward Dmytryk. Ukrainian/Canadian/Californian Dmytryk was a mathematics wizard who dropped out to make movies and by the 1940s was considered one of Hollywood’s rising stars but he suffered terribly from the HUAC persecution. As far as Westerns are concerned, he only did five but they are all quite interesting and a bit different.
 
 
After the 1930s The Hawk, he directed Fox’s big-budget blockbuster Broken Lance with Spencer Tracy in 1954, then made one of Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn’s best Westerns, Warlock in ’59. After Alvarez Kelly came the British Western Shalako, an underrated and rather good oater with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot.
 

Alvarez Kelly (Holden) is a Mexican national who is neutral in the Civil War and his only loyalties appear to be “money, whiskey and women”. Holden was making rather a specialty of cynical, hard-bitten types and this role suited him perfectly. “I don’t care who wins,” he says of the Civil War. He drives cattle to the Union Army, bought at $2 a head and sold at $20.

But while Kelly and the Union Major are dining at the mansion of a Southern belle (Victoria Shaw, very like Constance Towers in The Horse Soldiers), the herd is hi-jacked by Reb Colonel Rossiter - Widmark, whom Dmytryk had directed in Warlock, this time with an eyepatch and a slightly dodgy Southern accent (he was Minnesota born and Illinois raised so not terribly Dixie). Now Kelly is obliged (Rossiter shoots a finger off and says he will shoot another each day till Kelly agrees; that's obliged) to drive the cattle to Richmond.
 

There is a complicated plot involving Widmark’s Southern woman (she rules out the definition of Southern belle) played by Janice Rule, and Kelly helping her to run the blockade and get out, out of compassion for her but mainly to get his own back on Widmark for the finger.

The writing isn’t that good. Once, Holden, who was hung-over and whose horse was playing up, became angry and tried shoving the script up the horse's rear end, shouting, "That's where it belongs!" But there’s a lot of action as a Civil War movie combines with a cattle drive one.
 

Like The Horse Soldiers, the story was loosely based on a true action, this time the so-called "Beefsteak Raid" of September 14-16, 1864.

The two lead performances are good, Holden’s especially. For the rest, I didn’t know most of the actors, although Harry Carey Jr. has a small part, luckily. The Union Major is Patrick O’Neal, whom I only remember from King Rat. Don ‘Red’ Barry is a Lieutenant.
 

There’s nice widescreen photography of the Louisiana locations by Joe MacDonald. The music (Johnny Green) is OK. The whole movie is quite large-scale.

But it’s a second-rank piece really. It’s not a (Widmark’s) patch on Broken Lance or Warlock, and from Holden’s point of view it was one of his least Westerns. Still he was very good in it (he always was) and it does carry you along quite well.

 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Escape from Fort Bravo (MGM, 1953)

 







 

 



A Fordian cavalry Western
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
At first sight this is just a Civil War cavalry Western with William Holden directed by John Sturges and therefore solid, workmanlike and worth seeing. What elevates it to something more, indeed into a work of art, is the quite stunning photography of Robert Surtees. I have commented elsewhere on the cinematographic talent of the Surteeses, father and son. This was Surtees père’s finest Western work.

 
The location scenes are shot in ‘Anso Color’ in New Mexico (you can tell because it’s so beautiful) and in Death Valley, and what could be more suitable - for this pitiless, arid landscape is entirely appropriate to the brutal struggle for survival that takes place there.
 
 
Death Valley, in more ways than one
 
The story, credited to Phillip Rock and Michael Pate, borrows a little from Fox’s Two Flags West of three years before, and tells of Confederate prisoners breaking out of a Union fort in Arizona and pursued by Holden. The two sides are united in the face of an implacable common enemy, Mescalero Apaches. The Apaches are brave and skilled tacticians.
 
 
Real quality

Michael Pate was a most interesting person. He was Australian, only relocating to the US in the 1950s. For some odd reason, as an actor he cornered the market in Indian chiefs. He was Vittorio in Hondo in 1953 and went on to be Chief Four Horns, Watanka, Puma, Thin Elk, Sierra Charriba and heaven knows who all else. But he also wrote, and the story of Escape from Fort Bravo is both gripping and authentic.

 
The music, by Jeff Alexander, is very good, orchestral variations on a theme of cavalry tunes.
 
 
Skilled tacticians

Holden is, as per usual, excellent as a martinet with a human face. Eleanor Parker, the southern spy who falls for him, and he for her, is very beautiful. There is a daringly hinted at gay relationship between the Southern officer, John Forsythe, and a lieutenant, John Lupton (he had to be gay as his hair is floppy and he writes poetry). William Demarest is fine as the crusty old Southern trooper who shows outstanding courage.
 
 
Fordian

The ending is gripping, violent and moving. This is a very good Western, well directed and acted and above all shot by a master photographer. The movie has a Fordian air to it – the cavalry environment, the dance, the deadly Indians, the songs, the arid terrain, the Stout/Hoch/Glennon/Clothier look of the picture. You need to see this one.
 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Streets of Laredo (Paramount, 1949)

 











A fast, fun Western that turns serious
 
 
 

This time the artist managed good likenesses of them all - except Holden

Paramount had made a successful black & white Western in 1936 about The Texas Rangers with Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie and Lloyd Nolan. It’s quite enjoyable. In the late 40s they decided to remake it in color. Remakes aren’t always as good as the originals and rarely better, but this one is.

The main difference is in the acting. William Holden (this was his fifth Western of eleven) was always fine in cowboy films. Here, he is not too noticeable at the start but during the picture he grows into a true Western hero. The scene in the saloon towards the end is superb. Gary Cooper was considered for the ’36 picture, and would have been splendid, obviously, even if MacMurray did a good job, but in this version there could be no higher praise than to say that Holden plays the part as well as Coop would have done. He is decent, taciturn and steely.

Although released in 1949, this film was shot in ’48, so Holden was in the saddle a lot that year – he had also done The Man from Colorado and Rachel and the Stranger.

Another improvement of this remake over the ’36 version is in the writing. The Texas Rangers had been written by director King Vidor and his wife Elizabeth Hill (with other contributions) but this one was penned by Charles Marquis Warren. Godson of Scott Fitzgerald, he was a Western screenwriter, a novelist (‘Only the Valiant’, ‘Valley of the Shadow’) and a producer too and he really knew his stuff. He’d be nominated by the Writers Guild in 1951 for Little Big Horn. Later he was director and producer of the first series of Gunsmoke. The script of Streets of Laredo is tight, taut and sometimes witty (at one point William Bendix, thinking Holden’s plan crazy, asks him, “Are we out of your mind?”)
 
Bendix as Wahoo not too good

Actually, Bendix, in the Oakie (and Okie) role as Wahoo, isn’t very good and is one of the weaknesses of the film. He was not a convincing Westerner and should have stuck to gangster and war films. However, Macdonald Carey is pretty strong as Lorn Reming, the replacement of 1930s ‘Polka Dot’ (Lloyd Nolan), the smiling bandit. Carey was probably best known as Dr. Tom Horton of NBC’s Days of our Lives but he was in fourteen B and TV Westerns, this being his first.  Here he is a dashing desperado with caddish mustache. I can’t help thinking, though, that the part needed Anthony Quinn.
 
Quinnish charming villain

Let me put in a good word too for Alfonso Bedoya (the toothily smiling villain Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) who in this film plays, well, a toothily smiling villain.

In the first version, the Three Amigos (and as they ride down the trail three abreast, I can’t help thinking of that movie) save an orphan boy from an attacked farm and the lad accompanies them and pluckily saves the day. There is, later in that film, a girl (Jean Parker) for Fred MacMurray to fall for. In this picture, however, these two parts have been economically combined into Mona Freeman (later to do Branded and Dragoon Wells Massacre), who starts as a tomboy rescued from the farm and then matures into a glamorous looker in 40s hairdo and bright lipstick. Plot-wise, most of the rest of the film is a straight remake. The shoot-out comes in the streets of Laredo, though, not somewhere up in the rocks as before, perhaps so that we can listen to the melancholic strains of that beautiful tune and justify the title.
 
The Three Amigos

The movie is interesting because it changes and develops. It starts jokey and light, with the emphasis on the humor. We might almost be in comedy Western territory. But it becomes increasingly serious with each reel, and darker. Holden joins the Rangers as a light-hearted scheme to break his outlaw pal out of jail but comes to love the work and turn to the side of Right. The important theme of friendship versus duty takes the foreground. Parallel with this process, Holden becomes stronger and stronger as the movie goes on. He was far better at the Westerner with grit in a hard situation than in what he called “Smiling Jack” parts.

The Victor Young music is very pleasant and reflects this change. Fortunately, in the first part Young avoids the irritatingly ‘comic’ music that disfigures some Westerns – almost like canned laughter, it was designed to signal to the audience that this part is funny, as if they were too dumb to know. Young’s score in the early part of the film is light and playful yet not silly or trivial. As the story becomes more serious (and violent), so the music becomes more somber. It’s well done.

It should perhaps be said that we are in the 1870s, not perhaps the most glorious period of Texas Rangers history, but there is no Leander McNelly and there are no summary executions or the like. The Rangers are an unmitigated Good Thing and stalwart bringers of law ‘n’ order.

Ray Rennahan did some nice photography of the Gallup NM and California locations. The movie looks better than the original, not only because of the color.

The director who replaced King Vidor was not so stellar: Leslie Fenton was a workmanlike actor in many low-budget pictures who turned to directing B movies for MGM. He’d directed Alan Ladd in Whispering Smith the previous year. That and this movie were probably his best work. He only did four Westerns.

Anyway, Streets of Laredo (not, of course, to be confused with the Larry McMurtry story filmed in 1995 with James Garner) is a fast, fun Western with some quality and you could do worse than buy it on DVD. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the bit where Holden jumps from the ground to a water trough to a fence rail to his pony and gallops off. That’s style.

Oh, I nearly forgot, Ray Teal is in it as the toothy guy’s henchman. So that justifies the purchase. He comes to a typical Teal end. Great stuff.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Rachel and the Stranger (RKO, 1948)

 






A classic 1940s film if only just a Western

 
 

 
 
Rachel and the Stranger is not a Western in the sense of sixguns or stage hold-ups or anything. It’s a pre-Civil War pioneer story and reminds me more of Angel and the Badman or Four Faces West, fairly unviolent semi-Westerns about families or relationships.  It was directed by Norman Foster, who married Sally Blane, an older sister of Rachel’s star, Loretta Young. Foster directed some Charlie Chan pictures, The Green Hornet, and some Davy Crockett and Zorro movies for Disney. Rachel was only his second Western.
 
Norman Foster, director

The film was photographed by Maury Gertsman who did 26 ‘B’ Westerns with titles like Five Guns to Tombstone, Gunfighters of Abilene, Gun Duel in Durango, that kind of thing. Rachel and the Stranger was shot in Eugene, Oregon, reasonably well. There are some striking night-time scenes, for example, and the countryside is sweetly American, almost bucolic.
 
Bucolic pioneer story

The movie was written by blacklisted Waldo Salt. It was his only Western, though the script was nominated by the Writers Guild of America as ‘Best written Western’ (they probably meant best-written Western) in 1949. The story was by Howard Fast, whose novel The Last Frontier later became Cheyenne Autumn.

So director, cinematographer and writers were solid but not quite first rank ones. Well, it was RKO.

Still, it had a big name in the lead (Young, in her last Western, who had been Cherry de Longpre opposite Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones three years before) and two youngish but up-and-coming stars next-billed in William Holden and Robert Mitchum. And it did healthy business, earning $395,000, quite good box-office for the 1940s and the studio’s biggest hit of ‘48.
 
Loretta

It is the story of David Harvey (Holden), stolid widowed Ohio farmer, who marries Rachel, a bondservant (Young) because it wasn’t quite decent to live with a woman who is not a wife, but he still treats her as hired help and he really only wants her to bring up his son Davey (Gary Gray, rather brattish in his coonskin cap) in the decent way that his late wife would have wanted. Father and son cannot get over their loss and both treat Rachel with some disdain but things settle into a routine.
 
The equilibrium is disturbed, however, when David’s dashing, glib (if rather obviously named) friend Jim Fairways (Mitchum) arrives and, given that Rachel only appears to be a wife in name, charms and woos her. This awakens David and he comes to see Rachel as more than just a drudge. The stage is set for a classic love triangle.
 
Mitch as the flirting Indian fighter Jim Fairways

The script is quite interesting on the role of the woman in the West and even proto-feminist in the way that it highlights Rachel’s strength and independence, and undermines Western machismo.

The acting is very good, from the superb opening scene where we learn of the death of the first wife. Holden had done two light-hearted early 40s Westerns for Columbia (Arizona, Texas) and then this movie and The Man from Colorado in 1948, which are quite different, darker. In Rachel he is at first a conventional, principled, almost ox-like farmer, then he develops the character in a most interesting way, as he clumsily begins to express interest in, then affection for Rachel. Loretta Young is strong without being strident. She is beautiful, intelligent and can even shoot. She is very good in the role. As for Mitchum, he could often sleep-walk through parts but here has a sparkle in his eye. He sings for the first time on screen, no fewer than six short songs (Foolish Pride being best, I thought). He was proud of his voice and made records but, well, as a singer I would say he made a good actor. Maybe Mitch even prefigures The Night of the Hunter as he arrives on horseback, singing.

Frank Ferguson is in it, which always helps.
 
Holden as farmer

As a Western fan (natch) I was quite glad to see the attack of the Shawnees in the final reel but I must admit that from a filmic point of view, it does appear to be tacked on to give a bit of action and is out of place in the essentially personal and triangular (or quadrilateral if we include the child) relationship that has been, interestingly, developing. The heroics of David and Rachel do, however, strengthen their marriage and at least they give an excuse for Jim to go off, back to Indian fighting.
 
Father and son learn to live with their loss

Loretta Young always had a "swear box" on the set of her films, charging anyone who used bad language 25 cents for doing so, then giving the contents of the box to her favorite charity. Bob Mitchum, on the final day of shooting, apparently dropped a $20 bill in, and said, "This should just about cover everything I've been wanting to say to Loretta."  He was busted at this time on a marijuana charge and RKO rushed the release of the movie to cash in on the publicity.

Rachel and the Stranger is a different Western, almost not a Western at all, but it’s an interesting 40s film that is worth a watch.
 
Marriage without love - at first