Monday, June 30, 2014

Rio Conchos (1964)

(1965, Gordon Douglas)

Cast:‭ ‬Stuart Whitman,‭ ‬Richard Boone,‭ ‬Tony Franciosa, ‭ ‬Jim Brown,‭ ‬Wende Wagner,‭ ‬Warner Anderson,‭ ‬Rodolfo Acosta,‭ ‬Edmond O’Brien

Rio Conchos opens with a rather shocking scene of a white man shooting a couple of Indians from a distance in cold blood.‭ ‬What makes the scene even more uncomfortable,‭ ‬is the fact that the victims were burying one of their own.‭

The shooter is Jim Lassiter‭ (‬Richard Boone‭) ‬an ex-Confederate officer who has turned into an Apache killer after ‬the tribe has tortured his wife and children to death.‭ ‬He’s arrested by the U.S.‭ ‬Army because he’s in possession of a rifle that is part of a cache of U.S.‭ ‬Army rifles,‭ ‬stolen by a group of southern renegades,‭ ‬led by a man called Pardee.‭ ‬The renegades are now living south of the border and Pardee has planned to continue his war against the Union by arming the Apaches.‭ ‬Lassiter is offered a chance to regain his freedom if he’s willing to lead an illegal search party into Mexico along with the officer, Captain Haven, who was responsible for the shipment of weapons.‭ Haven is accompanied by his own (‬black) sergeant  and to ‘balance’ the group,‭ ‬Lassiter appoints his own‭ ‘‬sergeant‭’‬,‭ ‬a knife-wielding and womanizing Mexican adventurer called Rodriguez,‭ ‬who was about to be hanged by the Army.

Although Whitman is top-billed (1),‭ ‬the film belongs to Richard Boone.‭ He’s the central character and the other characters take shape in contrast to his obsessed Apache killer.‭ ‬Captain Haven is as persistent as he is, but he’s a more calculating type of person, often a bit hesitant.‭ ‬Rodriguez‭ (‬Tony Franciosa‭) ‬is as vigorous as Lassiter,‭ ‬but while Lassiter is loyal to a friend,‭ ‬Rodriguez is unreliable.‭ ‬The film also marks former football star Jim Brown’s acting debut.‭ ‬He has only a few lines,‭ ‬but his laid-back acting style and monolithic presence are very effective.‭ ‬There’s also a small but pivotal role for Wende Wagner as a woman warrior who understands that the very weapons administered to her people by Pardee,‭ ‬will eventually lead to their downfall.

Rio Conchos was released in 1964 and for a Hollywood western of the mid-sixties, it is surprisingly violent and cynical. It bears some resemblance to a type of war-adventure movies that flourished in this period (2), usually offering a group of morally ambiguous anti-heroes sent on a mission behind enemy lines. The philosophy of these movies often is that no-goods in daily life, make dirty heroes in wartime. But Rio Conchos is set after the war and remains firmly rooted in the western tradition.

There are also some similarities to the‭ ‬1961‭ ‬John Wayne vehicle The Comancheros.‭ ‬Two common factors are Stuart Whitman (‬who appears in both movies)‭ ‬and screenwriter Clair Huffaker (‬who contributed to both scripts).‭ For Rio Conchos Huffaker adapted his own novel (‬called Guns of Rio Conchos‭) to the screen, but only a few minor story elements of the novel made it to the script (3)‬.‭ ‬Another John Wayne western that must have influenced Rio Conchos,‭ ‬is John Ford’s The Searchers.‭ ‬There’s a crucial scene echoing the famous scene in The Searchers,‭ ‬in which Ethan Edwards kills as many buffaloes as possible,‭ ‬so that‭ ‘‬no Indian will have them‭’‬.‭ ‬The corresponding scene in Rio Conchos is far more brutal.‭ ‬When Boone and Brown‭ (‬the black army sergeant‭) ‬are watching an Apache warrior burn to death,‭ ‬a laughing Boone yells:

“‬Let‭ ‘‬m burn‭! ‬Let‭ ‘‬m burn‭!

But Brown releases the man from his sufferings,‭ ‬noticing laconically:

“‬Doin‭’ ‬like they do,‭ ‬don’t make it right‭”

With his sturdy physique and rugged face,‭ ‬Boone was the ideal actor to play a man full of hatred,‭ ‬who may explode any minute.‭ ‬He actually explodes when he’s confronted with the Apache chief Bloodshirt‭ (‬Rodolpho Acosta in a small but essential role‭)‬,‭ ‬who recognizes him as the famous‭ ‘‬murderer of his people‭’‬.‭ ‬In other words:‭ ‬the men are each others counterparts,‭ ‬direct opponents,‭ ‬but not that different.‭ ‬Bloodshirt is the murderer of Boone’s family,‭ ‬Lassiter is the murderer of Bloodshirt’s people.

Apart from Lassiter the most important character in the movie is Pardee,‭ ‬the renegade Confederate officer,‭ ‬an obsessed man,‭ ‬living in an improvised southern mansion,‭ an almost surrealist location, ‬no more than a façade and a couple of supporting walls (4).‭ It seems likely that Pardee was based on the character Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness‭ (‬turned into a Vietnam movie by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now‭)‬.‭ ‬Like Kurtz,‭ ‬Pardee only appears in the final stages of the narrative,‭ and when Lassiter is confronted with him,‭ ‬it becomes clear that the journey has been a sort of purification rite:‭ ‬the man who was slowly turning mad,‭ ‬now looks in the face of utter madness.

Rio Conchos isn’t perfect; some of the ethnic stereotypes (notably those of Mexicans) are mere caricatures and the racial and social issues that are raised, are hinted at, but not really analyzed or studied in depth. But it’s a great transitional movie, gritty and exciting, a forerunner of revisionist movies like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man or Ulzana’s Raid, that would treat the historic conflict in terms of racial hatred and genocide.


This is a slightly altered and extended version of an article previously published on Furious Cinema


* (1) On posters Whitman’s name was listed first, but Boone’s name was placed a bit higher. Warner Bros. had introduced the idea on the posters for Key Largo which had Humphrey Bogart’s name more to the left and Edward G. Robinson’s name elevated a little. The idea most probably was that both actors were equally important and therefore ‘shared’ top-billing.
* (2) Most of these war/adventure movies of the dirty kind were made in the second half of the decade, but there were earlier examples, notably The Guns of Navarone
* (3) See: (see also note 2)
* (4) I’m not the only one who saw some surrealist qualities in Pardee’s improvised headquarters; Philip French (one of the first major film critics to notice the special qualities of the movie) writes: (...) through the windows of the Palladian facade one can see the sky - and [the mansion] has the same disturbing qualities as a Margritte. Philip French, Landscape, Violence, Poker, in: Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, p. 62

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Tall T

Dir: Budd Boetticher - Cast: Randolph Scott (Brennan), Richard Bonne (Usher), Maureen O'Sullivan (Doretta), Skip Homeier (Billy Jack), Henry Silva (Chink), John Hubbard (Willard), Arthur Hunnicut (Rintoon)

The opening of The Tall T, the second of the Bud Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations, is  surprisingly benevolent. Scott is a former ramrod called Pat Brennan, who's on his way to his old boss to bargain over a bull. During a stop at an isolated stagecoach station, he promises the young son of the station holder to buy some striped candy for him in town. The boy's father says Mr. Brennan has no time for such a thing, but Brennan counters the argument: Sure he has time for this.

Boetticher never got closer to create a warm feeling of security in the tradition of the John Ford cavalry westerns, in which the cavalry fort was treated as a hearth and home in the midst of a wilderness. This station may be small, but it's a warm place, a home for travelers in the middle of nowhere. We seem to have arrived in a more gentle world than the bleak universe described in most other Boetticher westerns, but the opening is delusive: the journey will lead Brennan back to this station, and things will look radically different upon his return.

After his visit to town, Brennan loses his horse in a bet so he must continue his journey on foot. He is picked up by a stagecoach driver, his old time friend Ed Rintoon; also on board are a newly married couple, Willard and Doretta. The stagecoach makes a stop at the station, so Brennan can deliver the candy to the boy, but at this point the kind movie takes a very dark turn: the place has been overtaken by a ruthless bandit, Usher, and his pair of henchmen, Chink and Billy Jack. Rintoon is shot when he reaches for his gun and Brennan soon discovers that the father and the boy have been murdered in cold blood by the bandits. When Willard informs Usher that his father-in-law would pay for Doretta's save return, the gang leader sends him with a ransom note note of $50,000 ...

Instead of being one of the most warm-hearted movies of the Ranown Cycle, The Tall T is the bleakest and grittiest of them all. The violence is rather brutal and graphic for a film of '57 and it expresses a very dark, pessimistic vision on the human condition: all characters seem to be lost in life. Usher saves Brennan's life because he prefers to talk to him rather than to the two youngsters he's traveling with, Chink a psycho who made his first kill at the age of eleven (his own father) and Billy Jack, a stray cat who doesn't even know how old he is ("Mainly young"). Willard is a coward who only married Doretta for her money; Doretta is frustrated about her plain looks and married Willard because she feared to become an old maid ...

I have always enjoyed the movie, but it has never been a special favorite. Boeticher's best movies describe a journey through open country, with the travelers pausing somewhere, but not for long. The Tall T is set in the open, but instead of a journey, a horse trek through hostile country, it's a hostage drama, the action is largely confined to the lair the villains have chosen, and the camera remains with the hostages and their guard(s) while others ride off. It was shot on those magnificent Lone Pine locations - forever Boetticher territory - but the beauty created is more static, less filmic. 

That said, the film has a lot to speak for it: some great tension is created in the second half and the tight script also offers a series of wonderful one-liners, conjuring up entire worlds, giving depth to the characters. Most of these lines were taken directly from the Elmore Leonard original story The Captives, that served as the base for Burt Kennedy's script (1). The casting is brilliant. Henry Silva and Skip Homeier are perfectly believable as Chink and Billy Jack, two rebels without a cause, but full of suppressed anger and sexual desire, and former Mrs. Tarzan Maureen O'Sullivan convincingly embodies the suppressed sexuality of a middle-aged woman, homely looking, but attractive enough to put some notions into a young man's head. But at the core of the story, and the drama, is of course this confrontation of Scott's character with the bandit leader Usher, played to perfection by Richard Boone. 

At first glance Usher lacks the charm of some of the other gang bosses from the cycle, played by, for instance, Lee Marvin or Pernell Roberts: he's a ruthless opportunist, but we learn that he's not pure evil: he's still a man with a sense of fair play, upholding a certain moral standard: he shoots Willard because he despises his cowardice and vile behavior of selling out his bride. Like most other Boetticher villains, he's Scott's mirrored image, not the incarnation of evil, but the incarnation of Scott's fears, an inner demon that can only be exorcized in the classic genre ritual of the duel to the death. If he doesn't stand up against Usher, he'll be exactly like him. He cannot let it happen:

Brennan: I'm going to finish this once and for all.
Doretta: Oh, but why?
Brennan: Some things a man can't ride around. 


Friday, June 6, 2014

John Sturges (1) - The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

John Sturges was a combat-documentarist during WWII and the experience served him well in a post-war Hollywood, where he became known as a very solid director of taut, suspenseful action movies, many of them westerns. Two of these westerns belong to the most popular in history, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and the Kurosawa adaptation The Magnificent Seven (1960). They're fine movies, but many western fans (and I'm one of them) prefer some of his 'smaller' efforts, such as the Freudian noir-western Backlash (1956), the taut cavalry versus Indians drama Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) or the movie discussed here, The Law and Jake Wade.

It's often said that Sturges was only as good as the scripts he had to work with, but The Law and Jake Wade shows that he could make a (very) good western out of decent, but otherwise unexceptional story material.  Robert Taylor is Jake Wade, a reformed outlaw, now a town Marshall. His personal code of honor tells him to save the life of his former partner in crime, Hollister (Richard Widmark), who's about to be hanged in another town. Hollister had saved his life in the bad old days and Wade now considers the score settled, but Hollister has his mind on the loot from their final heist, that was buried by Wade before going straight. 

Hollister re-unites with his gang and forces Wade to take them to the place where the money is buried. To make sure Jake cooperates, Hollister also captures the Marshall's bride-to-be (Patricia Owens). The journey leads through Comanche territory to a ghost town in the desert, where Wade has buried the money in the cemetery. Upon their arrival in town, they discover that they were trailed by three Comanche scouts. Hollister kills two of them, but a third one escapes ... and at night, the Indians attack. 

The Law and Jake Wade tells a rather familiar western story about former partners now operating on different sides of the law, but Taylor and Widmark are almost ideal opponents and Sturges' direction is both economical and assured, a master class in effective film making. Taylor is a perfect illustration of Sturges' ideas about the western hero as a silent person, a God in his own universe who resolves his issues with his gun (1). No wonder most of the talking is done by the villain, wonderfully played by Widmark, in the style of his landmark performance in Kiss of Death (1947). The supporting actors are very good too, notably Henry Silva, as a sexually frustrated young man with a Freudian father complex and Robert Middleton as the good-natured gang member with a loyalty problem.  

We learn that Wade decided to go straight because he (erroneously) thought he had shot a child during their last robbery, but otherwise the script, by William Bowers (based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert) isn't over-explicative; but snippets of dialogue - such as the two men discussing if the other one would do the same thing if the odds were different - inform us about their relationship: they were both part of a Confederate guerilla band during the Civil War and just turned to robbery after the war was over. It transpires that Wade never really liked Hollister but still felt responsible for him, because he realized Hollister was a psychopath. Like some have noticed (2), Holister knows Wade is the better man: "I guess you're talking about something called honor, which is supposed to deep for me to understand." It only seems to make him meaner.

John Sturges
Robert Surtees' widescreen photography of the landscape is impressive, creating an almost oppressive feeling of space, reminiscent of the Boetticher westerns from the Ranown Cycle, making those men more aware of each others' presence because there's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide in this vast emptiness. The film seems to have influenced Sam Peckinpah's The Deadly Companions which has a similar structure of a horse trek through hostile Indian country leading to a ghost town in the desert, and Sergio Leone might have studied the cemetery scenes before developing the finale of The Good, the Bad & The Ugly

The film is not without flaws; there are a few jarring studio scenes, mainly of the group gathered around the camp fire, and some have criticized the Indian attack for being unrealistic and needlessly clichéd; the Comanche are awfully far away from their homeland and they mainly climb on rooftops or ride through the town street to be picked up by the people inside the ramshackle buildings. But the arrows go "zing" and the spears and tomahawks fly around, plunging into walls right beside people's heads, evoking that old feeling of excitement we experienced when we were watching these cowboy & injuns movies as kids (and reenacted the attack later in the backyard).  

The Law and Jake wade wasn't received well when released theatrically, but things started to change when famed western critic Philip French included it in his list of favorite post-war westerns and today it's considered by many to be Sturges' best western. It's also one of my favorites, but I still prefer the equally flawed, but even more suspenseful Escape from Fort Bravo. It will be discussed on the pages very soon. 


* (1) In the book Peter Bogdanovich on the Movies, Sturges expressed his views on the genre: "Western characters must not be glamorized. (...) You can't make a Western if it's pretty. (...) Always use a lot of back lighting, and don't let the star talk too much. John Ford, you know, made John Wayne a star by not letting him talk. But the absolute must for a Western is isolation. The man must be God. And you've gotta take issues that can only be resolved by guns."
* (2) Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, p. 104

More Dead than Alive

More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr)  The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spag...