Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Jim Healy ""

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Programming at the Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as Director of Programming of the Wisconsin Film Festival. From 2001-2010, he was Assistant Curator, Exhibitions in the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Prior to that, he was a Film Programmer for the Chicago International Film Festival. Jim is also currently the American Programming Correspondent for the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy. 
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Gordon Douglas (1907-1993) was a journeyman director par excellence. He began his career as at Hal Roach’s Studios, and one of his many Our Gang short films, Bored of Education (1936), won an Oscar. Douglas worked his way up through a series of RKO and Columbia low-budget movies in the 1940s, and by the early 1950s he was well established as a director of top-flight material.

Douglas could handle just about any genre. He made Elvis and Frank Sinatra musicals and one of the very best 50s sci-fi movies (Them!). He was most at home with action movies, especially when they were westerns, and he had a very permissive attitude towards blood and violence.Depravity and sadism are recurring themes in Douglas’workfrom the 1950 James Cagney vehicle Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (which somehow manages to top the violence ofWhite Heat) to his underrated In the Heat of the Nightsequel They Call Me MISTER TIBBS! (1970). Douglasgenerates real tension and shocks because his heroes are just as likely to be violent and sadistic as his villains. Along with Anthony Mann and Robert Aldrich, I think Douglas’ work paved the way for 60s and 70s trendsetters in screen violence like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

Douglas has an expansive filmography and I have only seen about half of his output. To be sure, he made some realdogs, (like the 1965 Hollywood biopic, Harlow), but I have now seen enough of his movies to not be surprised when a forgotten Douglas movie like the noir thriller Between Midnight and Dawn (1950) turns out to be a taut little gem with excellent acting, and, of course, nerve-jangling violence.

Here, I consider five of his finest and underrated westerns. There are several more I’m looking forward to catching up with, like his Randolph Scott vehicle, The Nevadan (1950) and The Fiend Who Walked the West, Douglas’ western remake of Kiss of Death with Robert Evans in the Richard Widmark psycho role!

James Cagney and his brother William produced this Cavalry western for Warner Bros, but the star was Gregory Peck. In The New York Times, Dave Kehr mentioned that Peck thought it was one of the worst films he ever made. It’s a serious misjudgment because it’s not only tense and atmospheric, it also offers Peck a great showcase! He plays a typical hard-ass martinet who, faced with an impossible mission, selects a group of undesirable, Dirty Dozen type troops to accompany him. These guys (including Lon Chaney, Jr., Ward Bond, and Neville Brand) hate Peck and things only get worse when they find themselves cornered by some vicious Apaches in an abandoned fort. Kehr wrote beautifully on this one and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in the same Times column last summer, where he mentioned that Douglas at his best was the equal of Phil Karlson and Don Siegel. He’s right.

This is one of three westerns featuring the brawny Clint Walker that Douglas directed. Of the other two, I’ve only seen Yellowstone Kelly (1959), which is a fine programmer, but Gold of the Seven Saints is a terrific adventure shot in black and white WarnerScope. The economical story begins when Roger Moore, who plays Walker’s prospecting partner, wanders alone into a seedy southern border town looking to buy a horse with a juicy gold nugget. Moore returns to Walker, who is watching over their fortune in gold dust, but with the vicious and greedy Gene Evans and his gang on their tail. The rest of the film has Moore and Walker trying to elude Evans with the help of Chill Wills, who plays a drunken doctor and expert shot, and Robert Middleton, who plays a Mexican landowner and Walker’s old pal. The great Leigh Brackett was one of the screenwriters, and her script was a commission from Howard Hawks who wanted it to be his follow-up to Rio Bravo. Hawks got caught up in making Hatari instead and this wound up with Douglas. It feels less like the Brackett-scripted Rio Bravo or El Dorado and more like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, especially in the ending and in the Chill Wills character, who is like an amalgam of Walter Huston and Bruce Bennett’s characters in Sierra Madre. Evans delivers the requisite amount of sadism for a Douglas villain, but what resonates more is the comradeship and loyalty between Walker and Moore.

Rio Conchos is Douglas’ western masterpiece. Like Only the Valiant, it has a prototypical “men-on-a-mission” plot that precedes action stuff like The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch and even lesser known titles like Tom Gries’ 100 Rifles, which, like this one, has a script by Clair Huffaker. Richard Boone gives, for my money, his greatest of many great performances as a deeply troubled and racist ex-Confederate officer whose family was massacred by Apache Indians. He is recruited by the U.S. Army to lead a tiny unit into Mexico and hunt down his insane former commander (Edmond O’Brien in a Col. Kurtz-like performance) who is building an empire selling rifles to the Apaches. His crew is Army Captain Stuart Whitman, Tony Franciosa (as a duplicitous knife-throwing Mexican), and, in his first movie, Jim Brown as a Buffalo Soldier. Wende Wagner, who plays an Apache, joins them later on. Boone’s anti-hero, who is a mixture of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and Burt Lancaster’s Indian scout in Ulzana’s Raid, is really what keeps this film on the razor’s edge; you are never quite sure what to make of him. There’s also a terrific long sequence at a cantina/brothel (run by Timothy Carey!) where Franciosa checks in, and then Boone shows up later looking for him. It has this sense of digression to it that reminds me of Leone and, later, Quentin Tarantino. Boone and Franciosa are each bluffing and hiding something from the other, which reminds me of the sadistic games played out between the farmer and Lee Van Cleef near the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Great stuff!

I would never blaspheme and openly declare that I like thisDouglas remake more than John Ford’s original 1939 canonized classic…but I do like it quite a bit! Alex Cord, as the Ringo Kid, is, of course, no John Wayne, but his performance is tough when he needs to be and gentle when it’s called for. Where Douglas does improve on Ford is in the shadowy and tense action climax, where Ringo settles business with Keenan Wynn as head of the vicious Plummer clan. Plus, it’s got one of the best scores by Jerry Goldsmith, who also wrote the fine music for Rio Conchos. Dave Kehr, again in his former New York Times column, has written a fine defense of Douglas’ never-to-be-loved version. In fact, Kehr has probably done more than any other writer in upholding Douglas’ reputation. Thanks Dave!

CHUKA (1967)
It’s pronounced “Chuck-uh” and it’s the name of Rod Taylor’s Indian scout character, another forerunner of Lancaster’s McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid. Taylor co-produce and apparently did some uncredited re-writing of the script. The plot of this one is only a slight re-working ofOnly the Valiant’s story, with Taylor protecting the last few holdouts at a frontier fort besieged by Apaches. Chukafinds himself at odds with the Fort’s strict Colonel in command  (John Mills), but wins over the Colonel’s loyal Sergeant (Ernest Borgnine) after a spectacular brawl. Their fight is one of two unforgettable scenes. The other is the absolutely shocking scene where Borgnine reveals why Mills is such a cold bastard. I suppose making Taylor’s character a shaggy, unkempt loner was a gesture towards the anti-conformist spirit of the 60s as opposed GregoryPeck’s authoritarian leader/hero in Only the Valiant.Otherwise, Douglas re-uses many of the plot points ofValiant, including a memorable sequence where Apaches steal the uniforms of the Cavalry soldiers they’ve tortured to death and infiltrate the fort.

Other non-Gordon Douglas westerns you must see:

HELL’S HEROES (1930, William Wyler)
DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959, Andre de Toth)
THE LAST SUNSET (1961, Robert Aldrich)
WILD ROVERS (1971, Blake Edwards)
BAD COMPANY (1972, Robert Benton)


SteveQ said...

Interesting! I've seen many of Douglas' films, but never connected them and would not have thought they were directed by the same man.

I considered doing a tribute to Lesley Selander, Lambert Hillyer and William Beaudine, who, between them, directed more than 300 westerns.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see someone give Gordon Douglas some attention. He certainly deserves it.

I'm real fond of Fort Dobbs. His direction, especially in the early dialogue-less scenes, is so tight and assured -- and says so much with so little.

And though it's a misfire, his use of Scope in The Fiend Who Walked The West is terrific.

Hal said...

I have a Gordon Douglas film on my upcoming list as well, and it isn't one of the 5 listed here. Just proof of how many Douglas films there are to seek out. Great list and idea.

Ned Merrill said...

Love GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS. I NEED to see most of these, particularly CHUKA. Neddy Merrill is, of course, from THE SWIMMER. Was that supposed to be McIntosh in ULZANA'S RAID?