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

Saturday, March 31, 2018

American Bandits: Frank and Jesse James (ARO Entertainment, 2010)


Pretty amateurish




 
 
Every generation has to have its Jesse James movie, just as every few years there has to be a new Robin Hood, Zorro or Three Musketeers. The list of pictures in which the Missouri thug appeared is very long, going right back to the silent days when he was played by his son in a hagiographical way in Jesse James Under the Black Flag. The big studios had their day – one thinks especially of Fox’s Jesse James in 1939 with Tyrone Power as Jesse and the studio’s remake in 1957 which bore the mendacious title The True Story of Jesse James, with Robert Wagner being Jesse. There were Jesse James B-movies as well, of course – Don ‘Red’ Barry’s junk 1954 picture Jesse James’ Women and the like. More recently we had the perfectly splendid The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on Ron Hansen’s fine novel, with Brad Pitt in the role. But this list is far from exclusive. There were wagonloads of Jesse movies.

In nearly all of them Jesse was a good guy, a sort of Robin Hood of the West, or at the very worst a little bad but understandably so – his poor family had suffered so. The villains were usually corporate (the railroads were a favored target) or political. And it was Jesse who was the central character. Elder brother Frank was usually little more than a sidekick, or sometimes didn’t even appear at all.

The real thing

In this one, though, Frank James (Tim Abell) is billed above Jesse and is definitely the boss. Jesse (George Stults) is wild and headstrong but defers to Frank. I didn’t know Mr. Abell (he was listed under ‘other crew’ as ‘voice’ in The Magnificent Seven remake and The Ridiculous Six but I suppose we all have to start somewhere) or Mr. Stults (this is his only Western to date).

Jesse and Frank, 2010

Top billing went to Peter Fonda, as ‘Marshal Kane’ – though no Gary Cooper he – but it was almost one of those vanity cameos, to get his name and photo on the DVD box, because he only appears briefly three times, to say his lines dutifully.

It got his photo on the box

It starts just after the Civil War. The James boys already have a rep as bandits, and the law, in the shape of Marshal Fonda and his deputy Burdette (Anthony Tyler Quinn, looking ever so slightly like Jack Palance), are after them. The James gang attack a wagon carrying an Army payroll and murder the escort of troopers, but Jesse is wounded and Frank says they will meet up in a few days in a ghost town to divvy up the loot. It’s not all that plausible, I fear.

Frank and Jesse stop in at a church where the pastor (not sure of the actor) and his granddaughter Mary (Lauren Eckstrom, very 21st century in appearance and diction), both Southern sympathizers, give them shelter. Mary digs the bullet out of Jesse’s shoulder.

Next they go to a nearby town, also full of Reb sympathizers, where the doc (Ron Harper) tends Jesse’s wound while Frank sets off for the ghost town, now, however, inhabited by four odd types. There are base coward Jed (Randy Mulkey) who will do anything to get hold of Frank’s horse to escape the town, including pass over to him his wife/mistress Carrie (Siri Baruc), who does in fact take a shine to Frank. There’s also slick gambler Tyler (slick gamblers were obligatory in ghost towns), played by Ted Monte, and a crusty ex-Confederate soldier, Otis (Michael Gaglio). There’s a curious jump in the editing when these people appear.

Frank's the boss

Well, Mary falls for Jesse right away, going from never having seen his before to proposing to him in five minutes, so both Frank and Jesse now have amours. It’s highly improbable and not well written.

The rest of the James gang arrive, to share out the loot. One of them, Ed Bass (Jeffrey Combs) wants to kill Frank and Jesse and appropriate the contents of the strongbox all to himself. So a showdown looms in the town, made extra showdowny when Deputy Marshal Burdette shows up. There’s an extremely unlikely ending.

The picture appears to have been shot on videotape and along with the occasional fades-to-black the whole thing has a very TV feel to it. The acting is not, I fear, very professional. The actors are all very evidently wearing costumes. There are Colt Peacemakers in the 1860s. I’m afraid amateurish is the word that springs to mind to describe the whole show.

It was filmed in California but there are, weirdly, scenes of Monument Valley intercut, presumably from some other source.

It was produced, directed and written by Fred Olen Ray (below), a former Z-movie horror king who has done five of these Westerns. I haven’t seen the others. The budget was probably about 40 cents.


I suppose you have to watch it, once, as part of the Jesse James canon. It's better than those Don 'Red' Barry ones anyway.


I'm off now on a family holiday to Normandy, dear e-pards, so I won't be posting for ten days or so. Have a happy Easter and don't eat too much chocolate.

 

 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Quick and the Dead (HBO, 1987)


Sam Elliott does his thing




 
 
The Quick and the Dead is a gem of a title for a Western, what with its double meaning of quick, grasped immediately by every self-respecting fan of the genre. Louis L’Amour understood that (as he understood most things Western) when he wrote his 1973 novel with this title. Sam Raimi did too, though the Western movie he made in 1995, The Quick and the Dead, was not connected to the book and was, indeed, very bad. Much more enjoyable is the late-80s HBO offering, with Sam Elliott on perfect form.
 

It’s a Wyoming pioneer story, though filmed in Arizona. It's 1876. Brit Tom Conti plays Duncan McKaskel, a Pennsylvanian hardened by the Civil War and vowing never to fire a gun at a man ever again, going out by wagon to join his brother who is with the 7th Cavalry under Custer (we of course know what will happen to the brother but he doesn’t, yet). With him are his wife Susannah (Kate Capshaw, with rather 1980s hair and cosmetics) and their plucky young son Tom (Kenny Morrison). They happen across a one-horse town and meet some very dubious and unsavory characters led by the villainous Doc Shabitt (Matt Clark). Doc and his crew of ne’er-do-wells steal Duncan’s two horses.

Three of the bad guys. Matt Clark in the middle is their boss.

Little do the outlaws know, though, that half-breed Con Vallian is in the environs. Con’s pa was a mountain man and his ma was a Blackfoot, and he has inherited all the skills of both. He’s a classic L’Amour hero. Vallian is of course played by Sam Elliott, perfect in the part, strong, silent, canny, wise in the ways of the West and with a twinkle in his eye.

Sam perfect in the part

Con helps Duncan get his horses back. A couple of the outlaws are killed in the fray, including Doc’s only son. Now the gang leader wants vengeance.

That’s about the plot. There’s a sub-plot of a renegade Ute (Patrick Kilpatrick) who, it turns out, slaughtered the inhabitants of a Blackfoot village, including Con’s ma, so as you may imagine Con is implacably on his trail – and he joins up with Doc Shabitt.

Con falls for Susannah and rather naughtily kisses her and watches her showering in her undies in a waterfall. Naughtily considering she loves her husband and tells him so.

Naughty

There’s an entertaining and slightly surreal scene of the prairie furnished with Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac when they dump their overheavy load. It is in this open-air parlor that Con will have his showdown with the Ute.

Well, one by one the bandits are eliminated, you will not be surprised to hear. Both Mr. and Mrs. McKaskel show a good deal of Western grit for Easterners, and they earn the respect of the tough guy in buckskins.

True grit

It’s all rather enjoyable. I especially liked it when Sam Elliott announced, “The weak ain’t gonna inherit nothin’ west of Chicago.”

 


 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Zandy’s Bride (Warner Bros, 1974)


Dreary




 
 
I’m glad to review Zandy’s Bride because it begins with Z and I can say I have reviewed Westerns from A to Z, from A Bullet for the General to Zandy’s Bride. In other respects, though, it was a bit of a task. Although at one point Zandy says he was in a gunfight, and in the cast James Gammon, no less, is listed as ‘Man in gunfight’, I saw no gunfight, or Gammon. Perhaps my version was cut. In the version I saw the most exciting thing that happened was when Zandy’s bride got a clothes line she wanted.

It stars Gene Hackman. Hackman did seven Westerns, and a rather assorted bunch they were. He started in The Hunting Party in 1971, a Western I have not yet reviewed but I can tell you right away it isn’t very good. Dennis Schwarz has called it “a vile revenge Western with a tired plot, too much gore and a miscalculated pretentiousness," which just about sums it up. The turgid, in fact terminally slow Zandy’s Bride came next. The flawed but good-in-parts horse-race Western Bite the Bullet, directed by Richard Brooks, followed in 1975, and then there was a long pause. It is more than possible that Mr. Hackman felt the genre was not for him. Yet then in 1991 he popped up again as Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s magnificent Unforgiven, and Hackman was stunningly good in the part – in fact he won an Oscar for it. It was most definitely the highlight of his Western career. He was also impressive as General Crook in Geronimo: An AmericanLegend in 1993; he was Wyatt Earp’s dad in Wyatt Earp in ’94; but he ended his Western career with the seriously bad – in fact quite dreadful - The Quick and the Dead in 1995, presumably just for $$$. As I said, a mixed bag. In Zandy’s Bride he is solid as the boorish Zandy but the somnolent script and direction gave him little to do.


It’s quite unusual in that it is a Pacific coast Western. There was a sub-genre of San Francisco foggy-waterfront type pictures, Barbary Coast and the like, but they were only semi-Westerns really. Crashing waves seem somehow out of place in a real Western. One-Eyed Jacks had Freudian surf rolling onto the beach and I remember Sterling Hayden was shot in the back by Ted de Corsia in a cave on the California coast in Gun Battle at Monterey but in the grand scheme of things such pictures are rare.

The picture was directed by Swede Jan Troell and you get the feeling he had been to too many Ibsen plays and watched too many Bergman films. It’s all psychological and angst-filled. Liv Ullmann is the appropriately Scandinavian eponymous newly-wed. She comes across as strong, even steely, putting up with the frankly repellent behavior of her husband, including marital rape. Though when you meet Zandy’s parents (Frank Cady and Eileen Eckhart) you kinda understand why he is such a slob.


Sam Bottoms plays Hackman’s young brother but has virtually nothing to say. Harry Dean Stanton is there as a friend but pretty well ditto.

There’s no music, which adds to the intense Nordic atmosphere.

I suppose we do get a commentary on the hardships of frontier life for women. That’s something.

There’s a very bad horse fall when Zandy forces his mount up an almost vertical slope and when it crashes down, as it inevitably must, it was clearly limping. I thought that by 1974 the wranglers on movies were subject to American Humane Society controls. Zandy regrets the move and apologizes to the nag but it was a bit late for that.


Zandy is attacked by a bear and come to think about it, that probably was more exciting than the clothes line. However, I was rooting for the bear.

There’s a rather unlikely happy ending.

On TV it was renamed For Better, For Worse. But I don’t think that improved it any. The movie is more of a frontier romantic melodrama than a Western, and I reckon, dear e-pards, that if you skip this one you will have missed little.

 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Santee (Crown International Pictures, 1973)


Late Glenn Ford




 
 
Santee was a late Glenn Ford Western, when he was, if truth be told, showing his age a little. Born in 1916, he wasn’t far off 60. But he still looked fit, and he still had it. As in all his pictures, you can see him riding superbly well. And he brought a convincing toughness to the role of ex-lawman bounty hunter. Ford was certainly a superb Western actor and he lifted even mediocre pictures.

The movie was entirely shot on videotape with TV cameras, unusual then, and transferred to 35 mm for theatrical release in September 1973. In 1975 it was aired by CBS.

It was directed by Gary Nelson, who had been second assistant director on The Searchers and Gunfight at the OK Corral (so he knew what a proper Western was), but who then did TV work. Nelson handled Santee competently, though it does rather have the look and feel of a TV Western.

Actually, for once the French title was better, The Three Arrows (Les Trois Flèches). This is because Ford’s character’s ranch is called the Three Arrows and this has a significance to the plot. On the other hand, Santee, whether the eastern branch of the Sioux, comprising the Mdewakanton, Sisseton-Wahpeton, and Wahpekute peoples, or the part of San Diego or the river in South Carolina, and in this case the name of the bounty hunter, doesn’t really tell us much.

A youth, Jody Deaks (Michael Burns, a former child actor – he was orphan Barnaby West in Wagon Train - who went on to a distinguished career as a historian, writer, and college professor, and is now retired and raising thoroughbred horses in Kentucky) waits in a poor village, observing and being observed, until his pa and three other outlaws ride in and pick him up. Burns was, at 26, probably a shade old for the part. Good news: the dad is Robert J Wilke, one of my all-time favorite Western character actors. I must say, though, if Glenn Ford was looking a bit, well, middle-aged, Bob Wilke (right) looked positively aged. Still, who am I to talk? It wasn’t Wilke’s last outing in the saddle, either: he would still be going in 1979.

The bad news for the outlaws is that Santee is after them. And, in that 1970s way, he doesn’t pull any punches. He shoots two at long range with his rifle then strings the corpses up in a tree to be collected later, then he hunts down the other two, Wilke and Robert Donner, a Clint Eastwood discovery who was a regular on TV Western shows and who later featured in Take a Hard Ride, which we recently reviewed, and dispatches them too. There’s trendy blood in a (very) sub-Peckinpah sort of way.

At first the boy is very cross that his pa has been gunned down and vows to get his revenge on the ruthless bounty hunter (or bounny hunner, as he is called). But Santee takes a shine to the lad and takes him back to his ranch, the Three Arrows, to meet his wife Valerie (Dana Wynter, once apparently called Hollywood's "oasis of elegance," in her only big-screen Western – if a big-screen Western it be) and his foreman John Crow, good old Jay Silverheels, with suspiciously black hair for someone born in 1912. Ms. Wynter is actually rather good as the loving wife and Jay was always reliably enjoyable. However, the scenes at the ranch are over-bucolic and rather cloying, almost with the Hallmark of Disney.

Male bonding in progress

The character development is handled a bit clumsily and implausibly, and that’s probably down to writers Brand Bell and Thomas W Blackburn.

Glenn wears his trademark jeans jacket once back on the ranch, so that’s good. His Jaxonbilt, though, is on the ten-gallon side. You almost feel we are going back to the days of Buck Jones.

Glenn still had it

Jay explains to Jody the backstory of Santee, and the reason for the Three Arrows brand only having two arrows in it. Jody comes to respect and admire Santee, and in fact becomes a surrogate son.

This is all fine until the vicious outlaw gang who caused all the trouble in the first place (not Bob Wilke’s gang, another one, led by the excellent John Larch) comes back to town, murders Santee’s friend, the sheriff (Harry Townes, a former priest who was another regular of TV Westerns) and robs the bank. Santee has sworn off bounny hunning but when Jody straps on his gun he relents, and the showdown looms in a border brothel. In the ensuing gunfight someone shoots the pianist, a definite no-no in Westerns.

She must have been a child bride, I reckon

There’s a sort of trick ending when at the height of the gunplay, just as Larch is taking aim at our heroes, we get a freeze frame, then see a wagon mournfully bearing a pine box back to the ranch, a tear in Jay Silverheels’s watching eye. But who was driving the wagon and who comprised the contents of the box, you will have to watch the movie to see.

There are pleasant New Mexico locations, nicely shot by Donald Morgan, who would do TNT's 1993 Geronimo.

One thing that disfigures the movie significantly is the dreadful music, especially a ghastly song, Jody, what will you do? The score veers between the inappropriate, the trite and the really annoying.

Still, all in all, you could watch it. In fact if you are a Glenn Ford admirer at all (and any serious Westernista is) you must see it. But don’t expect 3:10 or Jubal or anything like that.

Probably if truth be told a two-revolver Western, I bumped it up to three for Glenn, Jay and the shoot-out in the whorehouse.

 
 
 

 

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Legend of Hell’s Gate: An American Conspiracy (Lionsgate, 2012)


Difficult to follow




 
 
You might expect a movie entitled The Legend of Hell’s Gate to tell the story of the legend of Hell’s Gate, but if you do expect that, you will be disappointed. Indeed, if you are like me you will struggle to understand what is happening at all. At the start it consists of a series of apparently unrelated episodes: some thieves on foot escape from mounted followers, Mr. Ellsworth from Deadwood shoots a white buffalo, a church on the Chisholm Trail is burned down and a clergyman throws his collar down, and an Irish youth in a Dallas saloon has toothache. We later return to the fleeing thieves (indeed we are treated to a repeat) but Mr. Ellsworth and the self-unfrocked clergyman are never see again. It’s all very odd.
 
Jim Beaver shoots a buffalo

Perhaps this disjointed narrative is supposed to be all post-modern or something, I wouldn’t know. It was written and directed by one Tanner Beard, born in 1984. I don’t mind it when I hear that so-and-so is 34 years old, but mentioning a birth year makes me suddenly feel terribly old. 1984! That was just yesterday. Oh well.

Really?

I’m probably sounding like some old fogey here but there we are. Various famous figures of nineteenth century American history appear, in the credits at least. One is John Wilkes Booth (Henry Thomas), and his pistol, the one that killed Abe, plays a key part in the story. Another is a sick-looking Doc Holliday (Jamie Thomas King), practicing dentistry in Dallas and getting into drunken shooting matches with bar owner Champagne Charlie (Drew Waters). Holliday introduces himself and has a shingle to prove it. But Jesse James (Lukas Behnken) and Qanah Parker (Zahn McLarnon) also appear in the cast list. I suppose Parker is one of the Indians the thieves come across, but I don’t know. And I missed Jesse James completely. Did he appear at all?

I suppose one of these is Qanah Parker

One thing I will say, the Western looks good. So often in these recent pictures the characters all have gleaming teeth and clean hair and are very obviously wearing costumes. In this one, there is an authentic look to the characters, and the sets are gloomy sepia interiors that remind you of Henry Bumstead’s work for Clint Eastwood. Furthermore, the gunfights are well staged, chaotic and with most shots missing by miles.

Mr. Beard

Most of the movie concentrates on the three thieves, played by Eric Balfour (two episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman to his credit), director Beard and Lou Taylor Pucci (his only Western to that date). And they are pursued by a silent but implacable mountain man (I don’t know who the actor was and can’t work it out from the cast list), who wishes to recover his stolen whiskey. One of these characters appears to survive and enter the rocky Hell’s Gate, now a lake, we are told.

The three thieves
 
As I said, all very odd.

 

 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tribute to a Bad Man (MGM, 1956)


Cagney's last ride




 
 
In 1956, the year after Bad Day at Black Rock, MGM wanted to put its big star Spencer Tracy in an A-Western – a proper one, not a contemporary story like Black Rock. He would be a big ruthless rancher, obviously, Sea of Grass/Broken Lance-style. Tracy actually did four days of filming. But he whined so much about the location shooting (set in Wyoming, the picture was shot in Colorado; Tracy complained about the altitude, the heat and the script) that the studio dumped him and, Clark Gable turning it down, cast James Cagney instead.

Cagney was far from a Western specialist, and indeed wasn’t very good in them. He had only done two, the pretty ropey The Oklahoma Kid back in 1939 (when, at 40 he was already a bit anno domini for Kid parts) and, the year before Tribute, Paramount's Run for Cover, which was uninspired at best despite direction by Nicholas Ray. In Tribute Cagney did his best to be Tracy, all domineering and all, but his diminutive stature and machine-gun Eastern diction didn’t help. Still, it was the best Western Cagney did. And he was good when beating up Stephen McNally. “I fight dirty,” he says, and he proceeds to use mostly his elbows, to great effect.

Cagney does his tough rancher act

There were other casting changes. Irene Papas, in her Hollywood debut, replaced Grace Kelly – which was a good thing. Kelly would have been all glacial and blonde, whereas Papas managed to bring to the part of the sultry Jocasta a feisty Katy Jurado vibe. And second billed Don Dubbins, 28 but playing a boy, replaced Robert Francis (tragically killed in a plane crash days after the start of shooting) in the juvenile lead and first-person voiceover. Dubbins was a Cagney protégé who would appear in two big pictures with Jimmy that year, this one, which came out in March, and These Wilder Years, released in August. New Yorker Dubbins is OK (he plays an Eastern greenhorn) and his narration provides a slight Vengeance Valley feel to the movie.

Youth is captivated by glam ex-saloon gal

The good news is that some excellent Western character actors were recruited to be ranch hands: Chubby Johnson as Baldy, Royal Dano as Abe and a rail-thin Lee Van Cleef as Fats. Always a pleasure to see them. McNally plays another ranch hand, McNulty, who woos the fair Jocasta and is fired for his pains, then joining forces with the rustlers. McNally, you will know, was James Stewart’s ne’er-do-well brother in Winchester ’73 in 1950 and also the marshal in The Duel at Silver Creek, so he had some Western pedigree.

McNally

It was done in bright EastmanColor and CinemaScope, and DP Robert Surtees, one of the greats, did a wonderful job on the Colorado locations. The vast majority was shot outside, in stunning scenery, and there were only two short MGM back-projection close-up shots (which disfigured so many of their Westerns). It was very well done, and there was clearly plenty of budget available. I love the work of the Surteeses, père et fils, and visually Tribute to a Bad Man is the equal of both Escape from Fort Bravo (Robert) or Pale Rider (Bruce). It is said that Surtees delayed the grim hanging scene four days, waiting to get just the ominous lighting he wanted. And it worked.

Surtees père

The story opens in 1875 with young Steve Miller, a naïve grocer’s clerk from Pennsylvania, riding west from Laramie, coming across rancher Jeremy Rodock defending himself from rustlers, and the young man digs a bullet out of Rodock’s back, earning his gratitude and a job. Rodock is one of those ranchers who rules the whole valley – in fact the only name the place bears is ‘Mr. Jeremy Rodock’s Valley’. Steve soon discovers that his new employer is as hard as nails and has a very short way with horse rustlers. The sensitive youth is affrighted but gradually hardens.

Colorado standing in (beautifully) for Wyoming

There is a definite The Virginian tone to the whole picture – the Wyoming setting and even the young character’s name, Steve, attest to that. The hanging of the rustler they catch is suitably grim, and the same arguments are put forward – that there is no formal law enforcement anywhere around and the law of the rope is the only effective way to maintain order. We're livin' in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started - and this you don't know - I've been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men's been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him. I gotta' keep my own reckoning, Jo. It's the way I built my life and half the transportation of the West.” Of course in The Virginian it is Steve who is hanged. Here, it is the young Steve who is offended by the lynching rather than the sweetheart, but back at the ranch Jocasta too is revolted by the deed. Indeed, she plans to leave.

Virginian-style lynching

Questions are also raised of the difference between punishment, revenge and even torture.

One of the rustlers, Barjac, is James Griffith, so that’s good. I always thought he was excellent in Westerns.

There’s a good attempt to describe the realities of the cowboy’s life. Never a chance for a family, or a home. In ten years, you're gonna' be like them - a nobody on a horse. That's what a wrangler is, a nobody on a horse. With bad teeth, broken bones, double hernia, and lice.” This is source writer Jack Schaefer coming through, and the theme prefigures Monte Walsh (published 1963). The screenplay was written up from Schaefer’s short story by Michael Blankfort, who had contributed to Broken Arrow.

Jack Schaefer wrote the short story upon which the movie was based

There’s a slight Jubal feel to the picture, especially concerning the jealousy of the rancher towards possible lovers of his beautiful companion (Columbia’s Jubal came out the month after), though director Robert Wise, famous for the likes of West Side Story and The Sound of Music, did not have the Western ability of Jubal’s director Delmer Daves.

Jubal-style jealousy

Wise did, to his great credit, direct the very fine Blood on the Moon, a superb 1948 Western noir based on a Luke Short story and starring Robert Mitchum, but otherwise he only did another couple of oaters,  neither very good.

Robert Wise

Rodock’s conversion to decency and gentleness is not entirely plausible and the ending is slightly cloying. Still, all in all, Tribute to a Bad Man is a perfectly acceptable Western, Cagney’s best by quite a long way and an honest contributor to the psychological/family/coming-of-age/ranch genre.
 

Rides off into the sunset