Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Eric J. Lawrence ""

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for more than 10 years now. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out! 

Eric is also an adventurous cinephile whose tastes I respect very much. In fact, it was he who first turned me onto THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS which has slowly become one of my very favorite films. 
For more cool film recommendations, check out his 'Film Discoveries' lists for 2011, 2012 & 2013 below:

Find him on Twitter at @ericjlawrence:

Beaten to the punch by earlier commentators on the films I would include as my definitive “Underrated Westerns” (i.e. Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950), Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1959), The Bravados (Henry King, 1958) and Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959)), I fill out my list with some Western films that don’t necessarily hold up as absolute gems, but which have some interesting points of merit nonetheless:

Rawhide (Ray Taylor, 1938)
This program-filling oater features Smith Ballew (one of the second-tier of cinematic “singing cowboys”), but the real star of the show is baseball legend Lou Gehrig, playing himself!  Retiring from baseball in order to help his sister on her Montana ranch, Lou, with the help of cowboy lawyer Ballew, confronts the corrupt “Ranchers Protective League,” who have been extorting the local ranchers.  Gehrig doesn’t do much shootin’, but he does do some rough ridin’, and he even pitches some billiard balls as the villains during the de rigueur ballroom brawl.  Also notable for being a Western set in contemporary times, this one works as a goofy precursor to Space Jam!
The Kentuckian (Burt Lancaster, 1955)
Burt’s first (and only solo) directing gig, this CinemaScope flick is also set in an infrequent place & era: 1820s Kentucky, which certainly qualifies as the Wild West for the time.  Burt plays a frontiersman and single parent who aims to head to Texas to stake his claim.  But circumstances force him to consider settling down to be a local merchant like his older brother.  In between there are bullwhip fights, scamming riverboat gamblers, Hatfield & McCoy-like family fueds, an attractive indentured servant to be bought out, a comely schoolmarm and a ridiculously oversized hunting horn. The climatic shoot-out is cool in part because they’re dealing with single-shot muskets where lots can happen while you reload!  Lots of familiar Western actors named John are present (John McIntire, John Carradine, John Litel), but the Cracker Jack prize is Walter Matthau making his film debut as a whip-crackin’ baddie!
Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960)
I wrote about this Randolph Scott-starring picture as part of my favorite discoveries of 2011, but it worth repeating.  The final film in Boetticher’s beloved Ranown Cycle, it remains a favorite for the strength of Scott’s unyielding character, the barren but starkly beautiful Lone Pine locations, and for the appearance of Claude Akins as the snide villain of the piece.
The Deadly Companions (Sam Peckinpah, 1961)
Although he had disowned it later, this was Sam Peckinpah’s film debut, and while it shows his greenness as times (and is also certainly hurt by his lack of control of the script, etc.), it also serves as an indicator of what Peckinpah was to become as a director.  Brian Keith (often overlooked as a Western star) plays an ex-army officer who accidentally shoots and kills the young son of a saloon dancer (played by the strong-willed Maureen O’Hara) and out of guilt insists on helping bury him in nearby Apache territory.  Fairly grim, but minus the overt brutality of Peckinpah’s later films, this one also features Chill Wills & Steve Cochran as hired (and borderline psychotic) crooks and Strother Martin as a frontier parson just trying to get on with his sermon.  Minor Peckinpah, but that’s still better than most directors’ A-game!

A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (Damiano Damiani & Sergio Leone, 1975)
One of the last true Spaghetti Westerns, this Terence Hill-starring vehicle serves as an unofficial sequel to My Name Is Nobody and the prior Trinity films, and while nowhere near as solid as those films, it has some interesting twists.  Such as an opening sequence directed by Sergio Leone, the last he would do in a Western (the bulk of the film was directed by Damiano Damiani); some oddball casting (Klaus Kinski as a Doc Holiday-like character, Miou-Miou as the love interest & Patrick McGoohan as a racist calvary major); and a truly weird Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

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