Friday, September 8, 2017

Invitation to a Gunfighter

A flawed but interesting western set in the aftermath of the Civil War. It has been labeled as 'a strong contender for the dullest Hollywood western ever' (*1), but others think it's a minor classic (*2). It's far from perfect, but tells a story about racism and  hypocrisy that is probably even more relevant today than it was back in the Sixties.

Yul Brynner is a professional gunfighter who's commisioned to a small border town in New Mexico. Matt Weaver, a war veteran, has returned to his hometown to reclaim his homestead and his fiancée, but Weaver was one of the few inhabitants of the border town sympathizing with the Confederacy and therefore wasn't welcomed by the others. Moreover the town boss, a banker named Sam Brewster has sold his farm in his absence and his fiancée (Janice Rule) has married another man, a Unionist who lost an arm in the war ...

Both men of course want Weaver out of town and pay the professional to to the job, but this is definitely a western with a twist. The gunfighter is a Creole (by the name of Jules Gaspard d'Estaing) who despises white supremacists and therefore has a natural disliking for Confederate soldier Matt Weaver. But Weaver has barricaded himself in his family home and while biding his time, Jules discovers that the situation is far from crystal clear. Brewster is a corrupt businessman who uses the painful memories of the Civil War to swindle people out of their houses, and the townspeople are hypocrites, who allegedly sympathized with those who fought against slavery but look down on Mexicans and hire them for the jobs that were done by black slaves before the war. Soon the Creole gunman becomes a bigger threat to the townspeople than Matt Weaver ...

The film was directed and co-written by Richard Wilson, an Orson Welles disciple; it is talkative and slow-moving and has a static, almost theatrical look. It was nearly entirely filmed on the backlots of the Universal Studios (the house from Psycho, the 'Bates Motel', was used as Sam Brewster's home). There are only a couple of isolated action scenes, but those sparse action moments are intense and the finale is both well-prepared and well-handled; all characters, including Jules, seem cornered, which makes you wonder what will happen and who will survive the final confrontation. Pat Hingle overdoes things a little as the local tyrant and Janice Rule has three men courting her, but as an actress she very little to do, other than looking very worried out of her window (but she's good-looking when she does). Yul Brynner and George Segal on the other hand, are two great leads with contrasting looks and acting styles. I've never been a great fan of Brynner's acting style, but he's near perfect as the dandy-esque professional. 


* (1) Stuart Galbraith IV on DVD Talk -
* (2) Phil Hardy, Western movies, p. 287

Director: Richard Wilson - Cast: Yul Brynner, George Segal, Pat Hingle, Janice Rule, Brad Dexter, Strother Martin, Alfred Ryder, Clifton James, Bert Freed, John Alonzo - Screenplay: Richard & Elizabeth Wilson, Alvin Sapinsley, based on a story by Hal Goodman & Larry Klein

Janice Rule: Looking good, when looking worried ...

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958)

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw

In this British-American comedy western Kenneth More stars as Jonathan Tibbs, the last surviving member of a family of British gunsmiths. He has no desire to step into his father’s boots - he’d rather spend his time on his inventions (that often don’t work at all) - but when he discovers that the family business is not doing well, he decides to travel West. To the American West that is, because in the 1880s the Far West has become the best outlet for guns. Jonathan has never rode a horse or fired a gun, but thanks to a side-effect of one of his gadgets he is taken for a gunslinger and named sheriff in the western town of Fractured Jaw.

The idea for the movie is usually traced back to Leo McCarey’s classic comedy Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) in which an English manservant (played by Charles Laughton) ends up in the American West, but also seems to have taken inspiration from Nicolai Gogol’s famous 19th Century play The Inspector General (in Russian Revizor), in which a civil servant is held for an important dignitary and starts acting like one. Gogol’s biting satire on human greed, stupidity and political corruption has been turned into a rather mild oddball comedy telling the story of the tenderfoot taming the western town, including the stern and buxom saloon lady, played by no other than Jayne Mansfield.

The Sheriff of Fractured jaw is occasionally funny and overall it's a pleasant movie to watch, but it's never as hilarious as the now classic trailer will try to make you believe. Some of the jokes work, others don't. The best jokes come from the fact that Jonathan thinks the American West is still ruled by British manners ('once a colony, always a colony') and therefore tries to solve every problem with a stiff upper-lip and a wink of the eye. It’s quite funny to hear him say, leaning out of the window of a stagecoach under Indian attack: "Dear God, somebody should talk to these savages!" (political correctness wasn’t on the program yet in 1958!), but turning a brave into a butler is not funny, just plain stupid.
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20th Century Fox had bought the rights to the original stoy as a possible vehicle for American actor Clifton Webb, but director Raoul Walsh insisted on hiring More. Blonde bombshell Mansfield - at the two peaks of her career - was his personal choice as well; her singing voice was dubbed by Connie Francis. The interiors were filmed in the British Pinewood Studios but with the new cinemascope process in mind, Walsh decided to shoot some of the outdoor scenes in Spain. It was the first major western to be shot in Spain and some have suggested that its look might have told other - notably Italian - directors that the Spanish countryside was an ideal substitute for the desolate American West. The film doesn’t really feel like a spaghetti western but the gag with the small derringer, that snaps out of More’s sleeve when he extends his arm, was copied by Lee van Cleef in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More and gadgets would become part of Lee's collection of guns throughout his career in Italian westerns.

Director: Raoul Walsh - Cast: Kenneth More, Jayne Mansfield, Henry Hull, Bruce Cabot, Ronald Squire, William Campbell, Sid James, Robert Morley, David Horne - Script: Howard Dimsdale, based on a short story by Jacob Hay

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing

Burt Reynolds is Jay Grobart, a former army captain who has spent some time in jail for shooting the man who raped and murdered his wife, an Indian woman named Cat Dancing (hence the odd title). After his release, he takes to robbing trains with three of his friends, Dawes, Billy and Charlie. Sarah Miles is Catherine Crocker, a highborn Lady who accidently witnesses their latest robbery. Jay wants to take her horse, but Dawes and Billy are also interested in the lady. When they flee into the mountains, they're persecuted by Lapchance, a railway detective, and lady Catherine's husband William ...

I had always avoided this movie, because of the negative reviews, so I was surprised to see a genuinely enjoyable western. Okay, it runs for nearly two hours, at least half an hour too long, and there are a few issues with the script, but Reynolds and Miles are a nice, unlikely couple and Jack Warden and Bo Hopkins are an interesting pair of sex-crazed baddies, both trying to get their filthy hands on Mrs. Crocker. There's no too much action, but those sparse action moments are remarkably cruel and violent, notably a protracted fistfight between Reynolds and Warden.

Reynolds' performance in Deliverance (1972) had brought him critical acclaim and a semi-nude Cosmopolitan centerfold had turned him into a sex symbol. Expectations were high but the film was not born under a lucky star. Screenwriter Eleanor Perry, a well-known feminist, claimed that others (among them Robert Bolt, Mrs. Miles' husband) had rewritten her script and ruined the character of Catherine Crocker. The movie also got some negative publicity because of a scandal: Miles' business manager (and possible lover) had been found dead in his hotel room and both she and Reynolds had to testify in the ensuing investigation (*1). "Talking about Cat Dancing brings me pain," Reynolds later said. "So I'd rather not talk about it."

The movie was praised for its breathtaking location photography and some critics liked the romantic spin, but others thought the script too easily turned Catherine Crocker from an independent woman who runs away from her abusive husband, into a docile woman who falls for her kidnapper. The about face may be a bit too sudden and smooth, but note that Catherine remains the dominant character: she picks Groper to become the father of her child, he does not take her by force. Reynolds bemused reticence in front of the rather talkative and resolute lady is sympathetic. The storytelling is a bit sluggish at times, but the script keeps you guessing how things will end. We only learn in the course of the movie where Reynolds needs the money from the robberies for and there's at least one - quite shocking - revelation in relation to his character that will surprise most viewers.

Director: Richard C. Sarafian - Cast: Burt Reynolds (Jay Grobart), Sarah Miles (Catherine Crocker), Jack Warden (Dawes), Lee J. Cobb (Lapchance), Bo Hopkins (Billy), George Hamilton (William Crocker), Jay Varela (Charlie), James Hampton, Jay Silverheels - Music: John Williams - Screenplay: Eleanor Perry, based on a novel by Marilyn Durham


* Jay Silverheels, who appears in the film's finale, is best known for his role as Tonto, the faithful companion of The Lone Ranger
* The action scenes were coordinated by Hal Needham, a personal friend of Burt Reynolds and his regular stunt double. The two struck a rich vein a couple of years later when Reynolds offered Needham to direct his own screenplay called Smokey and the Bandit. The rest is history


Monday, July 24, 2017

Cattle Annie & Little Britches

Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

A little western, loosely based on the real-life adventures of two girls - AnnieMcDoulet and Jennie Stevens - who traveled West to learn more about outlaw life. They had read Ned Buntline's dime novels about frontier brigandage and desired to meet their idols in the flesh. The film is set in the late 19th Century, in a West that is no longer as Wild as it used to be, and when the girls finally meet the infamous Doolin-Dalton gang, they're confronted with a demoralized bunch of has-beens ... a wild bunch grown tired ... Their leader, Bill Doolin, feels inspired by the presence of the young girls, but his efforts to live up to their expectations put himself and his gang in danger of being dismantled by their arch enemy, the patient but determined sheriff Tighman ...

If you think - like Sergio Leone did - that women basically hold-up the action of a western movie, this is not a movie for you. It's a western and there's some western action, but it's secondary to the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the two girls played by Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane. The film is a bit similar to Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa, released around the same time. Both movies are light-hearted at the surface, but tragic at the core, painting an unromantic image of the West. Both movies are also coming-of-age tales set against the background of outlaw life: in Barbarosa a young man eventually adopts the identity of his mentor, a man who told him everything about the art of survival while being on the run; in Cattle Annie and Little Britches the overzealous girls learn from the worn-out but world-wise outlaws that it's a good thing to be brave, but a bad thing to be reckless.

Until recently it was rather difficult to find a decent copy of this largely forgotten movie, but I finally got hold of widescreen copy that does proud to Larry Pizer's breathtaking cinematography. Burt Lancaster (67 when the film was made) is too old for the part of Bill Doolin (who was shot at the age of 38), but he seems perfectly in touch with the dry humor of the script. There's also some fine acting by Rod Steiger and John Savage (as Bittercreek Newcomb, the good-looking gang member Annie plans her 'first time' with), but the movie definitely belongs to the girls. Amanda Plummer (Christopher Plummer's daughter) makes a sublime screen debut as the loud, foul-mouthed but nevertheless vulnerable Annie; 16-year old Diane Lane has a more laid-back acting style but she's the prettier of the two girls and has a couple of endearing scenes with Lancaster. 

This is a nice little movie, not a classic, but worthy of reappraisal. 

Director: Lamont Johnson - Cast: Amanda Plummer (Annie), Diane Lane (Little Britches) Burt Lancaster (Bill Doolin), Scott Glenn (Bill Dalton), John Savage (Bittercreek Newcomb), Rod Steiger (Bill Tilghman), Buck Taylor, Redmond Gleeson, William Russ, John Quade 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Showdown (1963)

Showdown (1963)
Aka: The Iron Collar

The  border town of Adone is one of a kind: it has no jail, therefore perpetrators are chained to a post in the middle of the town street. This is what happens to two friends, Chris (Audie Murphy) and Bert (Charles Drake), after spending a night in town. Chris was already a bit skeptic about their visit, because his friend has a habit of drinking and making trouble at the card table. Of course his worries come true: a drunken Chris provokes a brawl in the saloon and the two end up in the middle of the street, with an iron collar around their necks.

It's an unpleasant situation, but under normal circumstances they will be released the next day, so Chris tries to get some sleep while Bert is sobering up. Unfortunately, they're not alone: also tied to the pole, is a dangerous outlaw called Lavalle, who forces the others to dig out the pole.  After a brief shootout, the 'prisoners' manage to escape and fly into the hills. Chris and Bert decide to go their own way, but they're caught by Lavalle and his men. In town Bert has stolen a few bonds belonging to an old  flame, and now Lavalle wants him to go back to convert them into cash. Bert travels to town, but comes back empty handed, infuriating the maniacal criminal ...

Showdown is a stark, grim movie, with a short running time (under 80 minutes), made on a tight budget. The outdoor scenes were shot around Lone Pine, but to save money, the movie was shot in black-and-white, a decision that made Murphy furious. Lone Pine was also a favorite shooting location of Bud Boetticher and there's no doubt that the famous Scott-Boetticher westerns from the Ranown Cycle were a major source of inspiration. There a hostage situation, a strong-willed yet vulnerable lady, and an undaunted hero, who refuses to give an inch. Murphy's Chris is a man who acts on instinct rather than reason: he risks his own neck when trying to save his friend's life, even though Bert has told him he wouldn't ever do the same thing for him ...

The film was almost completely overlooked and panned by those who had noticed it, but recent comments have been more positive. Some have criticized the script (by Ric Hartman, working under the pseudonymous Bronson Howitzer) for being contrived and over-elaborate, and yes it's a bit mechanical, and not all twists and turns are believable, but basically this is a B-movie and scripts for these movies were never meant to be scrutinized methodically. Audie Murphy is his usual steadfast self and there are nice cameos by Strother Martin (as the town drunk) and L.Q. Jones (as a silent member of the gang), six years before they became a notorious couple of scavengers in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. The one thing that doesn't work, is Kathleen Crowley's part of the saloon girl who once was Bert's sweetheart but is now developing feelings for Chris. Crowley isn't bad - or ugly for that matter - but watching her, it's hard not to think of Sergio Leone's statement that women basically slow a western down. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cahill U.S. Marshal

CAHILL: U.S. MARSHALL (1973, Andrew V. McLaglen)

An odd western with Duke as an aging Marshal whose sons go astray because daddy isn't home enough. They absolutely want his attention and therefore make some 'bad friends' and get involved in a bank robbery. As you might have expected, things go terribly wrong: nobody was supposed to get hurt, but one of daddy's friends even gets killed, and instead of bad friends, the bank robbers turn out to be real mean bastards. 

It has been suggested that Cahill, U.S. Marshal was intended as a movie about a cop and a widower, more busy with his job than with his two growing up kids (*1). Cop thrillers were in the air - thanks to Clint Eastwood's portrayal of Dirty Harry - but apparently it was decided in the last minute to put Big John back in the saddle, where he belonged. Cahill is definitely a 'post-True Grit' movie: like the more successful Big Jake (1971), it plays with the new persona Wayne had adopted in his Oscar winning role: a living anachronism, a man who had outlived his time, but had not yet lost his touch. But, like John Wills has stated in his study, in True Grit and Big Jake Wayne's persona was presented as a remnant of some older order, brought back for a limited mission in 'modern times' (*2): the sly fox was asked to do some dirty work younger generations were unable to handle. The role fitted the aging Duke like a glove.

In Cahill things are a little different. Wayne plays an aging widower who has two young boys back home but prefers to spend his days out there, tracking down bad guys. The subject must have been very dear to his heart: like J.D. Cahill, the actor John Wayne had often been an absent father to his children, always moving on to the next movie. His autobiographers Randy Roberts and J.S. Olsen go as far as to describe the movie 'close to biographical'. This might also have been the reason why John Wayne wasn't happy with the finished movie: in an interview he declared that the movie had "a good theme" but "wasn't a well-done picture, because it needed better writing and a little more care in the making." (*3) Cahill U.S. Marshal is not a bad film, it's rather slow-moving and the action scenes are sparse, but they're well-crafted and the finale - daddy saving his kids by blowing the baddies to hell - is surprisingly violent. Cahill is entertaining enough; the problem is that there seems to be a better movie lurking underneath.

John Wayne was sixty-five when Cahill, U.S. Marshal was filmed and had already a cancerous lung removed. He was suffering from shortness of breath and had difficulty mounting his horse. Filming must have been quite an ordeal but he saves himself with his usually bravura and looks remarkably comfortable in the role of the sly fox. George Kennedy (as the leader of the boys' 'bad friends') and Neville Brand (as a half-breed tracker who assists Cahill on his quest), are also quite good, but this 'good theme' of the unsound family relations is treated too superficially. 

Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen - Cast: John Wayne, Neville Brand, George Kennedy, Gary Grimes, Clay O'Brien, Dan Vadis, Denver Pyle, Jackie Coogan, Harry Carey Jr. Walter Barnes, Marie Windsor, Morgan Paull - Music: Elmer Bernstein


* (1) Ivan Scheldeman, De Films van John Wayne, Antwerp 1979, p. 33
* (2) Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, p. 289
* (3) See:

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Guns of Fort Petticoat

The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)

The first movie production by Murphy-Brown Pictures, a partnership Audie Murphy had formed with Harry Joe Brown. It remained their only movie because of personal differences between the two partners. The Guns of Fort Petticoat was panned by contemporary critics who thought this outlandish story about a petticoat army fighting off an Indian attack didn't combine well with the historic background of the plight of the red man, but the movie seems to have withstood the test of time pretty well and today many think it's one of Murphy's more enjoyable efforts

The story is set in full Civil War time. Audie Murphy is Lt. Frank Hewitt, a guy from Dixie in Yankee service. When some Cheyenne braves leave their territory, Hewitt's commander, the racist Colonel John Chivington decides to punish them by attacking their virtually unprotected village. The result is an infamy known to history as the Sand Creek Massacre. Hewitt knows the Indians will seek revenge by attacking innocent homesteaders and with most men departed to fight in the Civil War, only women and children are left to defend the homesteads. He deserts to warn the women but is first treated by them as a 'blue belly traitor'. Things change when he shows them the dead body of a woman tortured and murdered by marauding Indians. Hewitt and the women entrench themselves in an abandoned mission post to fight of the imminent Indian attack ...

AudieMurphy's real-life experiences (he was one of the most decorated combat soldiers of WWII) always seemed to lend credibility to his screen persona. He is quite convincing as the experienced soldier training the women in combat techniques, slowly turning the colorful troupe into an efficient fighting unit, the Guns of Fort Petticoat. Some clichés are tackled (several women and one child are killed during the attack), others remain intact; there's room for romance and comedy and yes, some of the comedy feels a little out of place, notably a scene of Murphy spanking the hot-headed Kathryn Grant. But let's not forget that many contemporary westerns (including those by the likes of Ford or Hawks) offered vaudeville-like interruptions of a serious narrative.

Director Marshall was no Ford or Hawks but he had a long career in both the western and comedy genre and overall the serio-comic mix works quite well. Only the coda, in which a court-martialed Hewitt is discharged thanks to the intervention of the women (and his commanding officer is charged instead), rings untrue. There's nothing wrong with using historic events as a background of a fictional story, but John Chivington was forced to resign after a thorough investigation by the Congress, and to suggest that his fate was sealed during an improvised military court by a group of women who stood up for the man who had taught them how to fight, is sheer nonsense. 

Director: George Marshall - Cast: Audie Murphy (Lt. Frank Hewitt), Kathryn Grant (Anne Martin), Hope Emerson (Hannah Lacey), Jeanette Nolan (Cora Melavan), Sean McClory (Emmett Kettle), Ainslie Pryor (Col. Chivington), Patricia Livingston (Stella Leatham) 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jane Got a Gun

Jane Got A Gun 

Ever since I saw her in Luc Besson’s Leon: The professional (1994) I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman. In 1994 she was thirteen, but looking like a child, today she’s 35, but still looking ever so young. In Jane got a Gun she is a young woman who has lost her innocence, but not her vulnerability. She’s the mother of a six or seven year old girl and the wife of a man with a questionable reputation, Bill Hammond (played by Noah Emmerich).

One day Bill comes home with eight bullets in his back. The men who shot him, the Bishop brothers, are on their way to the farm and their arrival will mean even more trouble. The only one who can help Jane and her wounded husband, is their neighbor Dan Evans (Joel Edgerton). Main problem: Dan is not only their neighbor, but also Jane's former fiancé, the man she left to become Mrs. Hammond ...

Jane Got a Gun was a troubled production. At some point, the names of Michael Fassbender, Sam Worthington, Bradley Cooper and Jude Law were all mentioned in relation to the production. The original director, Lynne Ramsey, left a few days into shooting and Edgerton was first cast as the villain but then became the hero after Worthington had left the production. For a movie with this history, Jane got a Gun isn’t bad.
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The film has an interesting setting - the days immediately before and after the Civil War. It also has interesting characters: the three leads, Jane, Bill and Dan, all have their shady sides, and none of them is 'innocent': It soon transpires that Jane did not leave Dan but that, quite on the contrary, he left her, to fight in a war he believed in. Jane then headed West, in search of a new life, joining a wagon train led by two brothers, John and Vic Bishop, and realized far too late that the brothers had special plans with her. She only accepted to become the wife of a man with a questionable reputation because he was the only one who cared when she was in a humiliating, dishonoring situation.

The film was criticized for its complex, flashback-driven narrative and I do agree that this back-and-forth, back-and-forth structure occasionally works a little confusing, but the twists, turns and revelations will surely hold your attention (and the final twist, concerning a second daughter, is particularly surprising). The action moments are often unexpected (and very brutal), but the movie seems to lack a real western ending: the attack on the farm is set at night and if it brings a Peckinpah movie to mind, it's not one of his westerns, but his siege drama Straw Dogs.

Dir: Gavin O'Connor - Cast: Natalie Portman (Jane), Joel Edgerton (Dan), Noah Emmerich (Bill), Ewan McGregor (John Bishop), Boyd Holbrook (Vic Bishop), Rodrigo Santoro (Fitchum)

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...