Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - David Kelly ""

Friday, April 4, 2014

Underrated Westerns - David Kelly

David Kelly is a cinephile who lives in Pasadena, CA. Last year he watched 380 films, credits to credits.
On Twitter @Hawksian
I have a few rules of thumb when recommending westerns to people who are not that familiar with the genre. One, all John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns are absolute must-sees and are the pinnacles of the genre. Two, the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott and Anthony Mann/James Stewart western series are well worth seeking out and are finally all available on DVD. And three, ALL Randolph Scott westerns are worth watching.

THE BIG TRAIL (1930: Raoul Walsh)
Truly an epic western, Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL represents a couple of false starts, however.  Filmed simultaneously in 35mm as well as the costly 70mm Fox Grandeur widescreen process, the film should definitely be seen in the widescreen version as the cinematography is in many ways still unsurpassed. Unfortunately the 70mm print was only available in two theaters in the U.S in 1930 and the onset of the depression stopped the process from being adopted.  Moviegoers would have to wait another 25 years for widescreen to come back.  John Wayne's career also got off to a false start in this film.  Plucked from obscurity to star in the film by Walsh on the advice of John Ford, Wayne would be relegated to "B" westerns for nine long years after the failure of THE BIG TRAIL before reaching stardom with 1939's STAGECOACH.

LAW AND ORDER (1932; Edward L. Cahn)
If the director's name had been Ford instead of Cahn this film would rightly go down as one of the masterpieces of the genre.  The character names are different but this is an early sound take on the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral with the all-time great pairing of Walter Huston in the Wyatt Earp role and Harry Carey as a Doc Holiday type. Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett (HIGH SIERRA, THE ASHPHALT JUNGLE) and scripted by a 26-year-old John Huston, the film also has early performances by Walter Brennan and Andy Devine. Cahn never directed anything remotely as good again.

CANYON PASSAGE (1946; Jacques Tourneur)
This one is not just underrated, but like LAW AND ORDER I consider CANYON PASSAGE to be one of the best westerns ever made.  Shot in beautiful, deep saturated Technicolor on location in Oregon with Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward and a host of familiar western faces like Ward Bond, Lloyd Bridges and Andy Devine, this is a complex story about the building of a community in the west and the people, both good and bad, who may not be fit to live in this new society.  Like he would do in a couple of other classics (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) Hoagy Carmichael, shows up to comment on the scene with songs.

STATION WEST (1948: Sidney Lanfield)
Dick Powell's mid-career about face from singing juvenile to hard boiled tough guy in 1944's MURDER, MY SWEET is one of the great transformations in film history. In STATION WEST, Powell brings his Philip Marlowe persona to the west. The film has Powell (in his only western) being sent undercover to Rock Pass by the Army to investigate the murder of two soldiers guarding a shipment of gold. While there he finds that the gang that robbed the gold is led by femme fatale extraordinaire Jane Greer, proprietress of the "Station West" casino. A complex noirish plot, snappy dialogue and beautiful Sedona scenery combine to make this a unique western. Along with Greer the film includes such film noir staples as Agnes Moorehead, Raymond Burr, Regis Toomey and Tom Powers.

LITTLE BIG HORN (1951; Charles Marquis Warren)
A small cavalry troop has to run through a gauntlet of Indians in order to warn Custer of an impending ambush at Little Big Horn.  To complicate matters, the captain (Lloyd Bridges) has just found out that his lieutenant (John Ireland) has been having an affair with the captain’s wife (Marie Windsor), calling into question his motives for taking his men on an almost certain suicide mission.  This film was produced by Lippert Studios, the home of Samuel Fuller for a number of years, and was maybe the finest film they produced. A better director and a bigger budget could have made this a classic.

SOMETHING BIG (1971; Andrew V. McLaglen)
It's not really underrated or even very good.  The cast is either wildly overacting (Brian Keith, Carol White, Albert Salmi) or phoning it in (Dean Martin), the humor is pretty mean spirited, the story is not that involving and the ending is basically just Dino mowing down bad guys with a Gatling Gun.  What it does have, however, are familiar western faces (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., Paul Fix), beautiful women (White, Honor Blackman), great location filming in Durango, and an absolutely fantastic soundtrack by Burt Bacharach. And for me that's enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems that Mr. Kelly displays a crucial flaw in his thinking, re: the overview of the Western genre that he provides. And that crucial flaw is this:

He fucking neglects to mention the impact and influence of a guy by the name of Sam Fucking Peckinpah.

For example, in his blurb on Something Big, he states:

the ending is basically just Dino mowing down bad guys with a Gatling Gun

Well, gee, that couldn't at all be anything like the massively influential climax to The Wild Bunch, now could it...?