Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Some of my Favorite Underrated Westerns ""

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some of my Favorite Underrated Westerns

I've already been able to kick off this series with style via some wonderful lists from other folks, but I wanted to throw my hat into the ring as well of course. The western genre, maybe be something of a slight acquired taste to movie-goers today, but once the genre hooks you it never lets go. When I started inquiring with folks about doing guest lists for this series, the common sentiment I found was that a lot of people feel the western genre in general is kind of underrated. I think I agree. Since we're not in the habit of seeing tons and tons of westerns in the cinemas these days, I think we might forget how wonderful a great western can be. See if any of these give you that feeling:

RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954; Jesse Hibbs)
Great, lean little western. One of the best I've seen in a while. I only saw it for the first time this year and it is probably my favorite discovery of 2014 so far. I haven't seen many Audie Murphy films (NO NAME ON THE BULLET is one, as rec'd by Joe Dante), but this one got my attention and I'll be seeing more soon enough. In this film Audie reminds me a bit of Ricky Nelson's character in RIO BRAVO, which is very cool. Like a more naive but determined version of 'Colorado'. I've never been a huge Dan Duryea fan, but this is my favorite role of his for sure. Was turned onto this movie by this guest list (part of my Film Discoveries series):

WAGON MASTER (1950; John Ford)
I was first made aware of this one when I saw it on a list of Glenn Erickson's Favorite DVD releases for 2009. Though I'm no John Ford completist by any means (I prefer Hawks films by a good margin), I had somehow never heard of it and it intrigued me. A young Ben Johnson and Harry Carry Jr. play drifter cowboys who guide a Mormon wagon train through some very dangerous territory. Lots of good suspense and a great story overall. Ward Bond is great here too (and I love that guy). Might be my favorite John Ford film at the moment.

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939; George Marshall)
Sure, I guess it's tricky to call a Jimmy Stewart western underrated, but I honestly feel like not enough folks are talking about this one if they have seen it. There's plenty of love for his Anthony Mann collaborations and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, but this film gets left out in the cold a bit. I know I avoided it for a long time merely because of its title. I stupidly thought it was part of a Jimmy Stewart series of westerns that I needed to catch up on before I could see it. It is a completely self-contained film and a fantastic one at that. I also find it interesting that the above poster shows Stewart holding a gun and that specifically doesn't play a part in the movie.

PONY EXPRESS (1953; Jerry Hooper)
Charlton Heston is right at home in his macho/charming mode (which is a lot of fun to watch in this period) as he plays Buffalo Bill Cody here along with Forrest Tucker and Wild Bill Hickok. The two men feud against Indians and California Separatists as they work to establish the titular Pony Express. Fun flick. Heston did not do enough westerns as far as I'm concerned.

THE LUSTY MEN (1952; Nicholas Ray)
Mitchum being at the center of this one and Nicholas Ray directing perhaps puts it on the less obscure end of "underrated", but its lack of release on DVD does nothing to help its notoriety. Mitchum plays a formerly glorious rodeo star who limps his way back to his old home town after a serious injury. Once there he comes to be hired as a rodeo coach by a ranch hand (Arthur Kennedy) and Mitchum ends up falling for his wife (Susan Hayward). As I've mentioned before, I'm really coming around to Arthur Kennedy after seeing RANCHO NOTORIOUS (which almost made this list as well), but I may not have been fully on board with this film when I first saw it in part because of him. I love that Mitchum's character's name is Jeff McCloud. 
According to his website, THE LUSTY MEN is one of Benicio del Toro's favorite films:

MAN WITHOUT A STAR (1955; King Vidor)
In the book Quentin Tarantino Interviews - Revised and Updated (Gerald Peary) QT said, "One of the tropes of Westerns is you have an experienced gunfighter who meets the young cowpoke who as some mission he has to accomplish, and it's the old, experienced gunfighter who teaches him the tricks of the trade: teaches him how to draw his gun, teaches him how to kill. Whether it be Kirk Douglas teaching young William Cambell in MAN WITHOUT A STAR or Brian Keith teaching Steve McQueen in NEVADA SMITH, or actually most of Lee Van Cleef's spaghetti Westerns that with Sergio Leone-that's kind of Van Cleef's role."
It was this quote in regards to DJANGO UNCHAINED that made me seek out MAN WITHOUT A STAR and I was glad I did. 

THE TIN STAR (1957; Anthony Mann)
Very much in the vein of MAN WITHOUT A STAR is this story of a young, inexperienced sheriff (Anthony Perkins) taking lessons from an older, wiser bounty hunter (Henry Fonda). A really excellent film that has somehow slipped a bit into obscurity. A certainly lesser known Mann western for some odd reason, and one of his best in my opinion.
DODGE CITY (1939; Michael Curtiz)
Yet another film that shows Curtiz command of craft. Errol Flyn stars as Wade Hatton, who turns out to be very much the Wyatt Earp type lawman. He doesn't start as a man with a badge though as he enters a small town at the end of the railroad line as a wagon master and ends up becoming their sheriff. I love movies like this where the hero stands up to the bad guy and really calls him out as if to say "what are you gonna do about it?". Lots of nice action set pieces and tense confrontational moments. Also, it's a technicolor film that reunites him with Olivia de Havviland and there's nothing wrong with that. Great stuff.

JUBAL (1956; Delmer Daves)
This is easily one of Delmer Daves' best films. It has an outstanding cast and a perfect use of Rod Steiger as a heavy. This one had a remarkable cumulative effect on me as I was not as interested when it began, but by then end I was on the edge of my seat and nearly shouting at my TV. Great emotional tension and build-up.
THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970; Sam Peckinpah)
It's a tight race between this film and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA for my favorite Peckinpah, but this is one of the best westerns ever in my opinion. If for some reason you're not already a fan of Jason Robards, this movie is sure to convert you. A Joe Dante favorite (see his list and his Trailers From Hell commentary).

BAD COMPANY(1972; Robert Benton) / RANCHO DELUXE (1975; Frank Perry) / HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975; Howard Zieff)
This trifecta of Jeff Bridges westerns is a marvelous group of 1970s films indeed. I think RANCHO was the first of them that I encountered and I recall seeing it because of Danny Peary's books and a mention there. I think I was in a heavy Clifton James phase (after obsessing over THE LAST DETAIL) so I was interested to see him fill out this jam-packed cast. Bridges and Sam Waterston play drifters who play Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo to Clifton James' cattle (they steal and sell them). They are very freewheelin' and so is this movie (not surprising coming from cult writer Thomas McGuane). The movie nice opening sequence with a title song by Jimmy Buffet. It also has a great scene of Harry Dean Stanton and Bridges playing pong. HEARTS OF THE WEST features Bridges as a naive fella from Iowa who makes his way west to try to be a western novelist. In doing so he stumbles into acting in low low-budget western films. Cast includes Alan Arkin, Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith, Alex Rocco, Richard B. Schull, and Donald Pleasance. BAD COMPANY is the only film of the three that is a proper period western. Directed and written by the great Robert Benton, it is the story of a religious young Civil War draft-dodger (Barry Brown) who finds himself caught up with a young con-man (Bridges) and a group of drifters making their way through west of the mid 1800s.

RUSTLER'S RHAPSODY (1985; Hugh Wilson)
POLICE ACADEMY director Hugh Wilson helms this affectionate tribute/satire of the B westerns of the 30s & 40s.In this case, our hero Rex O'Herlihan, finds himself ripped from the black & white pleasantness of his former glory and dropped into a more contemporary western film. The film's voice over and good natured genre reflexivity would suggest that it may have been a potential influence on THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Seems like a film the Coens would be fans of. Tonally, it seems to exist in a universe between BLAZING SADDLES & LEBOWSKI, whilst leaning towards the Mel Brooks side. It's also part of an enjoyable little group of other parody-type westersn like THE VILLAIN(aka CACTUS JACK) and EVIL ROY SLADE (both of which are worth tracking down). Fans of BLAZING SADDLES may enjoy the film though it's a bit more subtle at times with its comedy. Regardless, it should be part of the great lexicon of spoof films and it isn't. Like HEARTS OF THE WEST, this film also features Andy Griffith.

THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY (1939; David Howard)
This was my introduction to George O'Brien and I couldn't have had a better one. He's a no-guff-takin' ex-lawman here who happens upon Mesa City when he saves a departing school teacher during a stage coach attack. As the coach is being repaired, he hangs around town and starts poking into the business of the local bad guys. As I said, he takes no guff, so there's squarin' off to be had and it's good tough guy stuff.

PANHANDLE (1948; Leslie Selander)
I saw Blake Edwards' outstanding western WILD ROVERS for the first time last year and It immediately became my favorite of his film. This year I've come to discover him as an actor more as I wasn't aware of his early work in writing and starring in westerns like this one. Edwards not only plays a great henchman heavy in it but he also gets a 'story by' credit. Rod Cameron is the star of this one and he's another guy I've gotten to know a bit more in the past year as well (via several Warner Archive DVD releases). He plays a solid, stoic hero here - an Texas Marshal trying to be a rancher when he's pulled back into his gun-totin' ways by the murder of his brother.


SANTA FE PASSAGE (1955; William Witney)
Tarantino favorite William Witney directs this  pacey little Republic western starring noir standout John Payne who is joined by Rod Cameron and Slim Pickens. Payne plays a scout who has a chip on his shoulder and a hatred for Indians after he is double crossed by the evil Kiowa Chiefe Satank and there is a massacre. Payne's character is pretty down and out when he and his sidekick (Pickens) are given a second chance to scout again for a shipment of ammunition going to some Mexican soldiers. However, he hasn't seen the last of Satank.


Anonymous said...

I love me some DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, but I've always had something of a soft spot for DESTRY. I saw it a few years before the original and could never understand why people make fun of Audie Murphy. NIGHT PASSAGE is another of his I really like.

Hal said...

SANTA FE PASSAGE and PONY EXPRESS are both a lot of fun. The latter almost made my list; gotta also love the female cast (Rhonda Fleming and Jan Sterling).

Laura said...

I'm so thrilled you've enjoyed some of my favorite Westerns from last year, including RIDE CLEAR FROM DIABLO (thanks for the link!), PANHANDLE and THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY. I'm really hoping that the Warner Archive will put out another three-film set with the rest of the half-dozen films George O'Brien made with Virginia Vale.

WAGON MASTER is one of my all-time favorite films! It gets better every single time I see it. It's very dear to me.

Loving this whole series!

Best wishes,