Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Everett Jones ""

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Everett Jones

Follow Everett on Letterboxd: I've gotten many good film recs this way. Here's his great Underrated Dramas list from 2012: 

And here's his equally cool Underrated Horror list from 2012:

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (1959; Robert Parrish)
A lyrical Robert Mitchum vehicle in which the big lug plays an American-born, Mexican-raised pistolero for a powerful ranching family south of the border, a deadly innocent not a millions miles removed from Jean Reno's character inLeon. Hollywood has never been shy about casting white, Northern European leading men as the adopted sons of other “exotic” cultures, even before Dances with Wolves and Avatar, but this might be one of the most deeply-felt films about heroes who straddle two cultures. Director Robert Parrish isn’t talked about much as an auteur, in the Sam Fuller or Nicholas Ray mold, but I’ve seen several films from him that are very fine indeed (in addition to this, the Dick Powell noir Cry Danger and Gregory Peck WWII drama The Purple Plain).

THE HANGING TREE (1959; Delmer Daves)
Neither was Delmer Daves until recently, but that’s changing with the Criterion DVD/Blu releases of his classic 3:10 to Yuma and lesser-known Jubal. This might be my favorite of the (not many) films I’ve seen from him. A late-career Gary Cooper plays the rather shady physician/gambler (as shady as Gary Cooper can be, anyway) “Doc” Frail, who moves into a ramshackle excuse for a town left in the wake of the Gold Rush and takes two younger people, thief Rune (Ben Piazza) and European immigrant Elizabeth (Maria Schell) under his wing, while fending off feral neighbors like horny red-capped miner Frenchy (Karl Malden) and crazy preacher Grubb (a debuting George C. Scott).Not a taut action western like Yuma, this is more a deliberately-paced character drama along the lines of Jubal, but to my mind, more successful-the ending is one of the most moving I’ve yet seen from a genre where, frankly, endings often don’t amount to much more than ritualized curtain-closers.

CANYON PASSAGE (1946; Jacques Tourneur)
Given how much the shadow of Monument Valley, looms over the history of the genre, it’s always counterintuitively refreshing when directors set their Westerns in places that look like they’re actually, you know, habitable. With its verdant and (occasionally) rainy Pacific Northwestern setting, Canyon Passage feels a bit like a precursor to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, reminding audiences that westward progress occurred in places other than near-lunar southwestern deserts. Two stars who might be a bit underrated now in their own right-melancholy noir mainstay Dana Andrews and powerhouse diva Susan Hayward-appear here for a director who is,despite an uneven filmography, a recognized auteur, Jacques Tourneur. And as with the acknowledged masterpiecesCat PeopleOut of the Past, and Curse of the Demon, Tourneur brings an unusually sensitive touch to the standard genre material of Indian uprisings, town bullies, and best friend’s girls.

APACHE DRUMS (1951; Hugo Fregonese)
Speaking of Cat People, and of auteurs (for the last time, I promise) this is the last project from one of the most acclaimed filmmakers to never shout out “action” or “cut” on a film set, producer and minimalist horror movie legend Val Lewton. It’s a modest movie, more visibly constrained in its production than Lewton’s horror classics, but does carry that distinct touch which The Seventh Victim, or I Walked With a Zombie, or The Body Snatcher had, into the unfamiliar territory of the West. The not-that-special storyline-a no-good gambler must prove himself to his girl in the face of, you guessed it, an Apache attack-is more underplayed and complex than you’d have any right to expect from a B-Western. As before, Lewton has a talented director working for him-in this case, Hugo Fregonese (responsible for the Civil War guerilla movie The Raid, which I’d also recommend), and the use of Technicolor lives up to the foggy B&W of the earlier movies-some unforgettable images occur near the end, when the settlers’ Native adversaries attack covered in bright, multicolored body paint.

THE WESTERNER (1940; William Wyler)
I first became interested in seeing this movie after Quentin Tarantino made it one of his picks for a list of movies being recommended to Edgar Wright to include in a New Beverly film festival. As it happened, I only got around to seeing it soon after catching Tarantino’s very own Western,Django Unchained, in theaters. All this boring personal history is to hopefully justify why The Westerner is the only film from William Wyler, responsible for the likes of The Best Years of Our LivesMrs. Miniver, and Friendly Persuasion, to remind me of the maker of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. It’s all to do with Walter Brennan’s performance as the legendary Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos,” here reimagined, or slandered, as a lovably folksy, terrifyingly capricious self-appointed lawman who presides over a little prairie town like an over-aged child tyrant. Newcomers, like Gary Cooper’s protagonist, are either inducted into service as Bean’s drinking buddies at the local saloon, or summarily executed for some perceived crime or misdemeanor. The classic John Ford model tends toward a strict segregation of the “real” story and the comic relief, but here Wyler places the eccentric character humor alongside the ever-present threat of violence, and presents a villain who’s, simultaneously, irresistibly entertaining and irredeemably despicable-not unlike Tarantino antagonists from Ordell Robbie to Hans Landa.

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