Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

50s/60s westerns

The ‘50s really was the heyday of the western – not only several classics [starting with HIGH NOON] but also all those routine oaters and programmers, 1954 being a particularly good year. JOHNNY GUITAR the first film I ever saw aged 8 was an incredibly vivid experience: the woman in the white dress going to be hanged, and the other woman in black shooting down the lamps setting the casino on fire… My father was taking me to see other westerns: SHANE which I did not care for, but certainly liked DRUM BEAT (Alan Ladd), THE COMMAND (Guy Madison) and SITTING BULL with Dale Robertson, who was also THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ. Tyrone Power was THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER, Rock Hudson was in lots of westerns like SEMINOLE and as Taza in Sirk’s TAZA SON OF COCHISE. Jeff Chandler was COCHISE in ’54 and again in THE BATTLE AT APACHE PASS in ’52. Charles Bronson the apache leader in Delmar Daves’ DRUM BEAT. Generally any western with Indians and covered wagons was a must see. Hathaway’s GARDEN OF EVIL from '54 was a nice discovery recently, great Scope compositions and a rousing Herrmann score with Cooper, Hayward and Widmark top-lining. Maybe not really westerns as such but Wyler’s two, FRIENDLY PERSUASION in 1956 and THE BIG COUNTRY in 1958 are dramas with western backgrounds – both have been firm favourites over the years. A rather droll late 50s western was THUNDER IN THE SUN with French Basques taking their vines to California and being attacked by Indians. Susan Hayward as the widow and Jeff Chandler as the scout were in their element here. Daves wrote WHITE FEATHER with Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner, who were also leads in Nick Ray’s THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES in ’57. Two excellent Gary Cooper westerns are Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST in ’58 with great widescreen vistas, where he opposes Lee J Cobb and his gang, with Julie London in nice support; and Delmar Daves THE HANGING TREE in ’59 where Karl Malden runs riot and Maria Schell is the woman doctor Cooper is nursing back to health. Then they strike gold….
Mann of course also had that series of westerns with James Stewart, starting with WINCHESTER 73 in '50 and including titles likes THE NAKED SPUR and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE.

Later in the 50s came those taut westerns like THE LAW AND JAKE WADE [Robert Taylor –v- Widmark], 3.10 TO YUMA [Glenn Ford –v- Van Heflin], LAST TRAIN FROM GUNHILL [Kirk Douglas –v- Anthony Quinn] and the Budd Boetticher ones with Randolph Scott – SEVEN MEN FROM NOW being particularly right, with Lee Marvin in his element. NIGHT PASSAGE remains a favourite, with James Stewart, Audie Murphy and young Brandon de Wilde. DAKOTA STATION was memorable too in ’56 with that stagecoach of survivors including Linda Darnell and Dale Robertson fighting off the redskins. Audie Murphy turned out all those programmers, and was in Huston’s excellent THE UNFORGIVEN in 1960, where Lillian Gish exemplified the old west, Jack Lemmon was out west in COWBOY and Glenn Ford was THE SHEEPMAN (both '58). Then of course Ford’s now immortal THE SEARCHERS, which one never tires of. That moment when John Wayne picks up Natalie Wood remains a screen epiphany which can still reduce grown men to tears. Hawks’ RIO BRAVO in 1959 is another milestone (I liked Angie Dickinson as Feathers and Ricky Nelson as Colorado) and I particularly liked those other Wayne horse operas like THE COMMANCHEROS and NORTH TO ALASKA. Dmytryk’s WARLOCK was good too, as was THESE THOUSAND HILLS (with Lee Remick excellent as ever, as the ‘saloon girl’ not good enough for ambitious Don Murray, who marries that nice Patricia Owens instead), and Aldrich’s THE LAST SUNSET (Hudson –v- Kirk Douglas). Westerns didn’t look right in the ’60s – they were too jokey or modern like CAT BALLOU – Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS was ace though and of course the Cinerama HOW THE WEST WAS WON re-uniting all the western greats one more time in '62, and Ford came back with THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, with James Stewart and Vera Miles out west again and Lee Marvin coming into his own; then Peckinpah finished the decade with THE WILD BUNCH, and then there was Butch and Sundance…

JOHNNY GUITAR in 1954 is still astounding to see and re-see how. Nick Ray makes it all so vivid, Sterling Hayden is, well, sterling and Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are both iconic here. The showdown at the end is electric and Mercedes and her crew whipping up the mob to lynch Vienna and torch her establishment still engrossing. The sexual politics are weird, perhaps Mercedes’ Emma cannot admit it is Vienna she wants and not the Dancin’ Kid … Vienna sitting at her own piano in her own place waiting for the railroad to come and facing down the mob, and her dialogues with the laconic Johnny are timelessly classic for me. Nice to see Scorsese enthusing about it on the dvd.

Barbara Stanwyck was out west several times too: Mann’s THE FURIES, Sam Fuller’s 40 GUNS, Dwan’s CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, are all terrific – I just watched her as Kit Bannion helping another Butch and Sundance in THE MAVERICK QUEEN (’56) where Barry Sullivan and Scott Brady are sterling support. Best though is a very forgotten 1957 one TROOPER HOOK, a small black and white western, following on from THE SEARCHERS, where Barbara is the white woman rescued from the Indians and has a young child by the Apache chief, Rodolpho Acosta. Joel McCrea is the cavalry officer Trooper Hook assigned to take her home, but her husband will accept her but not the child, whose father is also in pursuit to claim his son. Its totally gripping and Stanwyck plays it very quiet and still as the woman getting used to being back among white people. Others on the stagecoach are Susan Kohner and regulars Royal Dano as the driver, John Dehner and Edward Andrews. Stanwyck of course went on to THE BIG VALLEY, and even Bette Davis went west in WAGON TRAIN, THE VIRGINIAN and GUNSMOKE.

HOUND DOG MAN in ’59 may not be a western at all but is an amiable, pleasing backwoods comedy drama by Don Siegel set in rural Americana showcasing Fox’s new talent: singer Fabian as the confused teen, Stuart Whitman as his ne’er-do-well pal who takes the kids on a weekend of hunting, Carol Lynley and Dodie Stevens are the girls, Arthur O’Connell and Betty Field the parents, and its all perfectly delightful. Siegel also scored next year putting Elvis out west in the stirring FLAMING STAR.

NORTH TO ALASKA is Hathaway’s rousing 1960 sprawling comedy western with Wayne and Stewart Granger having lots of fun guying their images as the prospectors who strike gold, Fabian as the kid brother and Capucine as the woman drafted in to replace the girlfriend of Granger who could not wait any longer. Its handsomely mounted with nice detail, like the (superfluous) early scenes at the logging camp. Capucine shows her flair for haughty comedy, Ernie Kovaks is the schemer trying to get his hands on the mine. Set in Alaska it captures the frontier town just as well as Altman does with his McCABE & MRS MILLER, and is a pleasure to see any time.

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