Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Sean Wicks ""

Friday, March 14, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Sean Wicks


Sean is head hombre at the Cinema-Scope blog (http://cinemascope-blog.blogspot.com/). An all-around social media rambler, he's very active on twitter (https://twitter.com/wixpix), tumblr (http://seanwicks.tumblr.com/) facebook (https://www.facebook.com/WicksFlicks), and letterboxd (http://letterboxd.com/wixpix/). Follow the dude!
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This is a genre that I feel doesn’t get enough credit.  Yes it goes through waves of popularity, and the big names that always spring to mind are John Ford, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  The Western has such an incredible cinematic history of ups and downs, and the catalog of titles is vast.  There are a lot of low-budget titles thanks to the fact that some of the more economically minded studios could turn them over quickly for a minimal financial output.  The genre was so popular in its day that the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in Hollywood gained the nickname “Gower Gulch” thanks to the fact that working cowboys would congregate there in the hopes of getting work in the picture business.

I was very fortunate to grow up watching a lot of westerns.  My parents loved them, especially my Father who collected western books. His Louis L’Amour collection is vast and they both wake up early everySaturday morning to watch a western picture.

In a genre that is so packed with titles, it is easy for some of the gems to get lost especially when fighting for shelf space against titles like StagecoachThe Searchers,Unforgiven and Rio Bravo.  

Here are some titles I feel do not get the amount of attention that they deserve but are outstanding pictures in their own right.

PURSUED (1947; Directed by: Raoul Walsh)
Known as one of the first Noir Western, anyone I have spoken to who knows Pursued immediately starts singing its praises.  Not only are the names in front of the camera stellar (Robert Mitchem, Teresa Wright, Dean Jagger, Alan Hale, Judith Anderson) but so is the talent behind the camera as well with Raoul Walsh (Director), James Wong Howe (Cinematography), Christian Nyby (Editing) and Max Steiner (Score).  I can’t rave about this picture enough, and feel that anything I say still isn’t doing it justice.

Robert Mitchum plays Jeb, an orphan adopted when his own family is murdered.  He is haunted by nightmares of when he was trapped in a confined area, listening while is family was slaughtered on the other side of the trap door.  

His adopted family tries to make him feel like one of their own, but his restless nature and stubborn independence sets him apart – although he does maintain a close relationship with his “sister” Thor (Teresa Wright).  Jeb heads off to war and comes back a hero but is still haunted by his demons, as well as Grant (Dean Jagger) who seems to have a mysterious vendetta against Jeb that he refuses to let go of.

Olive Films released this on Blu-ray and DVD a year or so ago, and it is a picture that is a must see for anyone who is a fan of westerns, noir and good movies in general!

THE PROFESSIONALS (1966; Directed by: Richard Brooks)
When I first saw The Professionalsback in the late 80s/early 90s while working at a Video Store (I first saw it on VHS) I instantly fell in love with it. You see as a kid I was OBSESSED with The A-Team and rank it as my all-time favorite television program (yes, even over Star Trek).  I won’t go so far as to say it’s the strongest show on TV as it doesn’t even come close to what Breaking Bad, Deadwood or The Wire have achieved, but it’s a show I enjoy immensely and has sentimental value to me – and as a kid I thought it was AMAZING!

So you may be asking yourself why I am bringing up The A-Team.  Well to me The Professionals is like a western precursor of that show and I can’t get enough of it.  Just try reading my description of the plot and characters below and not get hints of Hannibal, Face, B.A. and Murdoch. It’s a film I watch regularly, owning it on both Laserdisc and Blu-ray Disc. 

First off, there is the cast which includes heavyweights like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance, Claudia Cardinale (hubba, hubba) and Ralph Bellamy.  It’s directed by Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry), Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) was the DP, and it has a fantastic, colorful score by Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia).

The deal is this.  Ralph Bellamy is a wealthy oilman that employs 4 gunslingers-for-hire (Marvin, Lancaster, Strode and Ryan) to venture into Mexico and save his wife (Cardinale) who has been kidnapped by a Mexican Revolutionary (Palance).  Marvin is the leader of the group, Lancaster a half-crazy demolitions expert and womanizer.  Strode is the muscle - silent yet deadly - and Ryan is handy with a gun.  Combing their individual skills, they concoct an elaborate plan to rescue Cardinale, but discover there is more going on here than they were led to believe.

Lots of action, great character interplay and in my honest opinion, this is one of Lancaster’s best movies as the role just seems to suit him perfectly.
Watch this movie at all costs.  The chances that I am going to watch it again after now writing about it are at around 104% right now.  Oops no, just went up to 106%.

THE LEFT-HANDED GUN (1958; Directed by: Arthur Penn)
Before Young GunsI there was The Left-Handed Gun with Paul Newman as Billy The Kid going on a vengeful killing spree – a common plot device in westerns that never seems to get old.

Newman is great in this movie which I randomly caught during a lazySaturday afternoon of television programming and was unable to track a copy down for ages.
 Thankfully now it’s available on DVD and for rent digitally.

THE BIG SKY (1952; Directed by: Howard Hawks)
When I was in college living in Los Angeles, I was flat broke and being Canadian was unable to work I spent a lot of my time at the library taking out movies (on VHS) which is how I came across this gem.

Directed by Howard Hawks, the picture stars Kirk Douglas as a frontiersman and trader making his way with a group through hostile Indian territory on the way to collecting some furs.  They start out strong with solid numbers, but being out of their element, they are taken out one by one by the hostiles.
It’s an exciting western shot in gorgeous black-and-white at the hands of a master director.

GARDEN OF EVIL (1954; Directed by: Henry Hathaway)
Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe and Cameron Mitchell in CinemaScope!

This is another title that isn’t all that easy to find.  I was fortunate enough to be invited over to a 35mm print collector’s house in Los Angeles when I work at Dave’s Video the Laser Place, who screened the first reel of this for me and some of my colleagues.  I instantly went on a hunt for it but luckily it air on FXM (Movies From Fox) shortly after.  I haven’t seen it anywhere since then, although I do believe it is on DVD.

Cooper, Widmark and Mitchell play adventurers stranded in a Mexican town where they are hired by Hayward to save her husband (Marlowe) trapped in a gold-mine cave-in deep in Apache territory.  The dangers of the Apaches, the lust for gold and of course the lust for Hayward by the three men all make for a treacherous journey.

There is a wooden quality to this picture that somehow works in its favor.  It’s not the most dynamic acting by the three leads, and the use of CinemaScope although gorgeous seems to get in the way of the mechanics of the plot.  These are the reasons I also love this movie as it is incredibly flawed in an intriguing way. Not for all tastes though.

QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (1990; Directed by: Simon Wincer)
The early 90s seemed to bring on the resurrection of the Western genre, especially when Dances With Wolves(1990) and Unforgiven (1992) won best picture Oscars.  Quigley Down Under snuck out a couple of months before Dances, and I don’t think did very well upon its release even though it’s incredibly entertaining.

Tom Selleck is the gunslinger Quigley from the title who travels to Australia to help rancher Alan Rickman (!!) kill Aborigines for no real reason except for the fact they exist.  Selleck, who is especially good with long distance shooting thanks to a souped up rifle, doesn’t look kindly on killing in cold blood and turns away the job which of course gets Rickman all hot and bothered and they become enemies. Selleck of course by refusing to kill the aborigines gets some help from them as well as a lady (Laura San Giacomo) who is also on Rickman’s bad list.

This picture has aged very well – especially given not many people saw it upon its initial release - and sports an outstanding score by the late Basil Poledouris.  Funny how in the resurgence of the western genre, this one seemed to get completely overlooked thanks to all the accolades Dances With Wolves was garnering.

EL DORADO (1966; Directed by Howard Hawks)
I am pretty sure that El Dorado is fairly well know given the cast (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Cann and Ed Asner) and the Director (Howard Hawks), but I also think it gets discredited because it is so close in tone and story to Hawks’ much more famous Rio Bravo.

John Wayne is Cole Thornton, a gunfighter for hire that turns down a job from a wealthy rancher (Ed Asner) that would pit him against his old friend, the super law-abiding sheriff played by Robert Mitchum.  Wayne returns to town some time later to discover that Mitchum has taken to the bottle thanks to a failed romance and has become the town drunk (much like Dean Martin in Rio Bravo). Asner has called in another gunslinger to help his cause so Wayne teams up with Mitchum to sober him up and enlists the help of a young James Caan (taking the Ricky Nelson spot just without the singing) to help keep Asner and his hired guns at bay.

Even though the movie has several plot elements similar to Rio Bravo, Hawks tweaks the story just enough to keep it fresh and how can you go wrong when you team up John Wayne with Robert Mitchum? (The answer is, you can’t!)

This list comes just in time as El Dorado is being released on Blu-ray Disc, March 11.  How is that for timing!

RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952; Directed by: Fritz Lang)
I know that Rupert is going to appreciate the inclusion of this movie, as it made his Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 list.

Marlene Dietrich in a western directed by Fritz Lang, ‘nuff said, right!  Well it just so happens that the plot is great as well.

Dietrich owns the “Chuck-a-luck” ranch, a haven for Criminals to lay low for cut of their loot.  Arthur Kennedy plays Vern who out to avenge the death of his fiancĂ© finds himself at Dietrich’s hideaway and in the middle of a whole heap of trouble.

I discovered this movie randomly one Christmas break thanks to TCM, and it is another title I recommend to as many people as possible.

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995; Directed by: Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi is best known for the Evil Dead and Spider-Man films, but he has a pretty diverse filmography and I feel like this western gets overlooked thanks to those bigger titles.

This picture also sports a pretty impressive cast that includes Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lance Henriksen, Gary Sinise, David Keith and Woody Strode.

Raimi’s western is more contemporary than it is steeped in the classic mold with clever camera tricks, larger than life characters and then the ultimate game changer by making Sharon Stone the lead gunslinger(although Bad Girls (1994) beat him to it by a year).

With shades of High Plains Drifter, Stone shows up in town with a vendetta just in time to take part in a shooting competition where the rules are basically what Gene Hackman deems them to be – and he of course is the guy with all the money who “owns” the town and calls all the shots (no pun intended).  She is the “woman with no name”, fast on the draw and tough-as-nails.  DiCaprio as “the Kid” is wildly entertaining and Russell Crowe is at this point just beginning his meteoric rise to movie stardom.  

See here’s the thing though – Gene Hackman is in it, and that really puts this movie over-the-top as awesome. 

 I remember seeing this at the Mann Criterion on the Santa Monica 3rdStreet Promenade (which I believe is closed now – or at least it was last time I was down there) one of my favorite theaters in Los Angeles that also was one of the city's best kept secrets.  

THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973; Directed by: Burt Kennedy)
While in a Sam Goody in the Beverly Center right when DVDs were starting to become popular, I found this in the start of many soon-to-come Laserdisc bargain bins for at the time a steal at $4.99 (now it would probably be like $1).

John Wayne is hired by Ann-Margret to find a stash of gold stolen by her husband so she can turn it in and start her life fresh with the reward and clear her dearly departed husband’s name.   “I have a saddle older than you” he tells her.  Wayne takes Rod Taylor and western icon Ben Johnson along for the ride and of course, they aren’t the only ones looking for the gold.  In addition to Banditos, etc., there is the mysterious figure of Ricardo Montalban who is following them at a distance for some reason and unnerving them.

It’s just a solid western with all the fixins including gun battles, stunning vistas, a solid cast and a great score by Dominic Frontiere.

ULZANA’S RAID (1972; Directed by: Robert Aldrich)
Ulzana’s Raid made my own Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 list, and is worthy enough to make this list as well.

It covers another plot that is well tread in westerns and again never seems to get old.  Here a legion of army troops is pursuing the fierce Indian Chief Ulzana who has left the reservation and has embarked on a killing spree.  Led by fresh-faced Bruce Davison and employing the skills of world-weary tracker Burt Lancaster, the differing attitudes of the men toward the Indians clash 

Again Lancaster bring his A-game and plenty of gravitas to a western that feels more authentic than most thanks to the dark lighting, the worn-in costumes and roughness of well…everything.  It is definitely a western of its time given the amount of screen-time spent on issues of race and intolerance.  The contrast between Lancaster’s experienced tracker and Davison’s green army lieutenant makes for a more complex approach to the genre than most.

2 comments:

Blankend said...

Another good Noir-ish Western starring Mitchum is Blood on the Moon. Check it out if you haven't seen it yet.

I actually like El Dorado better than Rio Bravo. It has some light-hearted comedic moments mixed in with the action, and like you said, you can't beat the chemistry between Wayne and Mitchum. One of the tweaks Hawks makes is with Caan, who can't handle a gun, but is an expert with a knife as opposed to Rickey Nelson, who was a gunslinger. Although I love Walter Brennan and he was a very good Western actor, I thought Arthur Hunnicutt had funnier lines.

Actually, Hawks went to the well a third time with Rio Lobo in the early 70's. This was a much looser adaptation of some of the same themes explored in the first 2 films. They are holed up in the jail with a prisoner fighting the outside forces and the climax again involves a prisoner exchange. This movie was not on the same level as Rio Bravo or El Dorado, but it is worth watching just to try and catch the similarities. In this one they seem to have combined the crazy old-timer and the drunk into one character played by Jack Elam, who was very funny and probably the best thing in the film. Of course, he was just a drinker and not the town drunks as played by Mitchum and Martin. There are 2 young men who help out and one of them is played by Robert Mitchum's son, so they changed that role a little, and of course John Wayne again is playing John Wayne.

When Wayne heard Hawks was going to make El Dorado, he asked if he could play the drunk this time, but that role was given to Robert Mitchum instead.

Blankend said...

Your comparison of The Professionals to the A Team is interesting. I had never considered it before. I am assuming the comparison goes as follows:

Lee Marvin - Hannibal
Burt Lancaster - Murdock
Robert Ryan - Face
Woody Strode - BA