Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Spenser Hoyt ""

Friday, April 11, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Spenser Hoyt

Hello everyone, I’m Spenser Hoyt. I used to work a lot at world famous Scarecrow Video. I don’t work there as much as I used to but I still take piles of movies home all the time. Right now I’m going through a mountain of video tapes all on the Private Screenings label for use in an upcoming VHS compilation night at the infamous Grand Illusion Cinema. A lot of what I watched in 2013 were the direct result of a couple of swell books that I recommend highly: Bleeding Skull and The Best Film You’ve Never Seen. You can follow me on twitter, my handle is @hoytoid.

Colorado Territory (1949) Raoul Walsh
This one already showed up on Colin McGuigan’s excellent list but I must second the nomination. Like Mr. McGuigan I prefer Walsh’s western remake of High Sierra. I just sort of stumbled onto Colorado Territory with no expectations and was quickly blown away by Virginia Mayo’s heartbreaking performance and Joel McRae’s deceptively upbeat but ultimately melancholy outlaw. Walsh is one of my favorite directors and while his films are consistently lean but he still shows a lot of sympathy and understanding for his complicated and often contradictory characters.  

Copper Canyon (1950) John Farrow
If Rupert Pupkin ever does an underrated director list, John Farrow should be on it as he has directed a slew of highly entertaining films that are just shy of greatness. Likewise Ray Milland should be on my underrated actors list. While Milland has a vast and impressive filmography it wasn’t until Copper Canyon that I realized I’d been underestimating the veteran actor’s versatility. Mostly it comes down to how confident and spry he looks on a horse in this fun western. He’s a suave traveling sharpshooter who may secretly be a legendary Civil War colonel. He romances Hedy Lamarr (clad in some stunning, Technicolor enhanced gowns) and avoids doing any good deeds until there are no other options.  

Dark Command (1940) Raoul Walsh
Made one year after John Ford’s landmark StagecoachDark Command reunites Claire Trevor and John Wayne in another outstanding western. Recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Pictures I hope people rediscover this cracking picture inspired by the real-life exploits of Quantrill’s Raiders. Wayne plays a Texan who arrives in Lawrence, Kansas, charms many of its citizens (including Ms. Trevor) and finds himself elected town marshal. The election doesn’t sit well with ambitious (and duplicitous) local schoolteacher William Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon) who eventually leads a violent guerilla attack on the town and its citizens. Like the best Walsh pictures the director offers insight into all of the film’s characters and their complicated motivations.

The Gunfighter (1950) Henry King
Gregory Peck’s moustache got the blame for the perceived failure of The Gunfighter. He portrays Johnny Ringo, a famous gunslinger who has returned home with the hope of reuniting with his old girlfriend and estranged son. Unfortunately Ringo’s reputation overtakes his desire for a happy homecoming as he has become a target for other outlaws wishing to prove their bad-ass-ness by putting a bullet in the notorious Ringo. It’s a solid character study that inspired a really good Bob Dylan song.
The Law and Jake Wade (1958) John Sturges
Overshadowed by Sturges’ other, better-known westerns TL&JWis a highly entertaining picture elevated by another superb scoundrel performance by Richard Widmark. Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) is a reformed outlaw turned marshal who helps free one of his old criminal pals from the noose. Wade soon finds himself forced into rejoining his old gang (which includes Widmark, DeForest Kelley, Robert Middleton and Henry Silva) on a questinto the heart of Indian country in the pursuit of buried treasure. The interplay between Widmark and Taylor is priceless, the scenery is stunning and the plot cruises along with ruthless efficiency. Even though this wasn’t a 3D film several scenes feature arrows and other projectiles hurled directly at the camera.

Law and Order (1932) Edward L. Cahn
Cahn is another guy I’d nominate for an underrated director’s award and this picture is one of his best. It’s a gritty and violent telling of the Tombstone/OK Corral story that stars Walter Huston and Harry Carey (and guys like Andy Devine and Walter Brennan in supporting roles). This film is pretty hard to come by but is well-worth the effort and makes a perfect companion piece to Beast of the City which was also made in 1932 with Huston in the lead. You know what? Both are based on books by the great W.R. Burnett, whose influence on American cinemaand this very list cannot be overstated.

Randy Rides Alone (1934) Harry L. Fraser
John Wayne made a boatload of poverty row westerns for Lone Star Pictures before he became an icon. Most of them are fairly interchangeable and somewhat forgettable but this one really sticks out for me. It grabs you right from the start when Wayne (as Randy) stops at a saloon for a snort of whisky and finds a bar full of dead patrons, he’s blamed for the murders and becomes an undercover scoundrel in order to find the real culprits. It all flies by in a quick 53 minutes.

Warlock (1959) Edward Dmytryk
Warlock has all the elements I dig about the genre plus it can also be looked at as a deconstructive western as the film messes around with many familiar myths and scenarios. The cast is all really good, Richard Widmark gets to show a wide range of emotions and it isn’t really until the halfway point that he steps forward into the lead. Henry Fonda seems to be a typical gunslinger until his dark side is revealed. Fonda’s character is, in many ways, a prototype for Once Upon A Time in The West’sFrank. They even wear the same clothes! Anthony Quinn is an Iago type manipulator and DeForest Kelly shows up in a weirdly nuanced supporting role.

Runner Up:
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) William Wellman
Though it’s hardly and underrated western (The Ox-Bow Incident was nominated for an Oscar), this picture is one that a lot of my genre loving pals haven’t seen. I wouldn’t even exactly call it a western as it is more of an examination of crime and punishment clad in a pair of cowboy boots.


Jason said...

Man, that opening scene in Randy Rides Alone sure is great. The rest of the movie's fun too.

Laura said...

Fun list!

Another really good thing in COPPER CANYON is Macdonald Carey's charismatic performance as the villain. It was the first time he really jumped onto my radar screen.

Best wishes,