Chisum

Posted on February 22nd, 2011 in 1970s, Westerns, Andrew V McLaglen, John Wayne by Colin

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Of the movies I’ve been looking at so far, and those I’ll feature next, Chisum (1970) is the only one where the Kid is not one of the main characters. That’s not to say he doesn’t play a significant role in the story, just that he’s not the one viewers are asked to focus on. First and foremost, this is a John Wayne film - he plays the title character, one of the prime movers in the Lincoln County War, and the plot revolves around him. I’ve always enjoyed this picture even though I’m aware it’s no classic - it’s solid, entertaining and, for the most part, well made.

The film tells its version of the Lincoln County War and, in particular, the role played by John S Chisum (John Wayne). The title character is presented here as a heroic pioneer whose patriarchal position sees him drawn into conflict with Murphy (Forrest Tucker) over not only the latter’s expansionist plans but also his casual disregard for the livelihoods of Lincoln’s less influential citizens. As the stirring opening credits fade there’s the image of Chisum sitting magisterially astride his mount and surveying all the vast territory he has conquered. All would seem well with the world, despite the dark mutterings of his old friend Pepper (Ben Johnson), as long as this weathered cattle baron holds sway over the territory. However, Murphy’s men are already stoking the fires by masterminding raids on Chisum’s herd. An early confrontation with a group of hired rustlers leads to a shootout and the first contact between Chisum and the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel). Billy’s reputation precedes him and Chisum regards him with wariness in spite of the hearty recommendation of fellow rancher Tunstall (Patric Knowles). Whatever reservations he may have are driven to the sidelines by the continued sniping attacks of Murphy and the corrupt lawmen and hired guns he’s got working for him. More men and guns are drifting into Lincoln and the scene seems set for all out war between the two factions. As the situation deteriorates the Tunstall/Chisum ranks are bolstered by the arrival of an ex-buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). The movie doesn’t really lay out any specific rivalry between Garrett and the Kid - save for an insipid and wholly unnecessary romantic triangle involving Chisum’s neice - except to show that Garrett’s older and more experienced man has chosen a path that’s governed by caution as opposed to the Kid’s impulsiveness. When Tunstall is murdered by Murphy’s hirelings the fat is very definitely in the fire; Billy embarks on a killing spree to avenge his boss, and Chisum (who’s still shielding the Kid discreetly) sees himself pushed to the limit too. The climax comes with a potted and compressed version of the Battle of Lincoln that’s only brought to an end by the intervention of Chisum and a spectacular cattle stampede that he orchestrates.

Nearing the end of friendship - Garrett (Glenn Corbett) & the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel)

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Chisum can be seen in the casting. Both Wayne and Forrest Tucker butt heads impressively as the two hard men at the centre of the storm. I remember hearing or reading a comment once that Tucker was one of the most graceful riders ever to mount a horse, but he does none of that here. He’s the manipulative businessman quietly pulling the strings and calling in favours, but he does so with a craftiness and cunning that’s a lot of fun to watch. Wayne, in contrast, is the typical outdoors individualist with a simple philosophy and a straightforward approach to dealing with problems. It’s one of Wayne’s most enjoyable late career roles; it may not be his best but his massive screen presence is used to great effect and he does bring real warmth to his character. On the other hand, the younger stars - Glenn Corbett and Geoffrey Deuel - are just about adequate as Garrett and the Kid. Corbett probably comes off better by being on the “right” side and getting the more sympathetic handling whereas Deuel’s Kid is little more than a cypher who flits in and out of the action to knock off whoever’s next in line. Once again the support cast, consisting of a virtual who’s who of western players, comes to the rescue. Ben Johnson’s part is not a huge one but his long acquaintance with the Duke means that the scenes they share have a kind of easy going charm and are full of good-natured humour. For the others, just reading through the list of names - Patric Knowles, Bruce Cabot, Richard Jaeckel, Ray Teal, Hank Worden et al - should give an indication of the depth of talent involved. Like many of Andrew V McLaglen’s pictures, Chisum is a mix of the good and the not so good. The action scenes are generally well handled but the tacked on romance is both poorly conceived and badly executed. There’s also an unwelcome tendency to indulge in cheap looking, TV movie style zooms at inappropriate moments. Having said that, William Clothier’s photography and Dominic Frontiere’s score help offset some of the other technical shortcomings.

The UK DVD of Chisum from Warners offers a nice, sharp anamorphic scope transfer that boasts strong colour and a clean image. The disc has a short feature on the making of the film and a commentary track with the director. The movie itself isn’t one of the great westerns and it has plenty of historical goofs - for example, Chisum’s fictitious stampede to halt the Battle of Lincoln, and the violent deaths of Murphy and Jesse Evans - yet it’s one with a high rewatch value. In fact, it’s one of those pictures that I used to test drive movie guides in the past. Reviews are, by necessity, subjective and it’s hard to lay your hands on those volumes that are likely to suit one’s own tastes. I once hit upon the method of browsing guides to see what they had to say about a selection of films that I knew were no classics but still pleased me. Chisum was almost always among the choices. If the reviewer trashed the movie then it wasn’t for me; if, on the other hand, it got a generally positive but guarded write up then it was probably one I could depend on. As such, that’s still more or less the way I view this picture - an enjoyable and competent mid-range western that’s worth seeing.

The Left Handed Gun

Posted on February 15th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Paul Newman by Colin

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Now we come to The Left Handed Gun (1958) - a far superior movie to The Outlaw yet it’s not without its faults. This film sticks closer to the known facts about the Kid but it also portrays him as one of those mixed-up youngsters that became fashionable during the 50s. Whatever one’s feelings are on that particular slant, the performance given by Paul Newman in the lead role is problematic to say the least. I’ll talk about that more later but I honestly feel it constitutes the weakest part of the whole picture.

The first view of Billy (Paul Newman) shows an exhausted figure on the point of collapse stumbling across a western landscape. His meandering path leads him to a group of horsemen tending herd. These men are in the employ of Tunstall, and the old man obviously feels some kind of pity for the barely articulate figure he’s chanced upon as he gives him a job there and then. There are some mutterings from Tunstall’s more experienced men who’ve heard of the Kid’s murky past, but the boss keeps faith in his new man and even makes a start on teaching the illiterate youngster to read. The point here is to show the ever strengthening bond between the Kid and Tunstall, but this section of the movie moves so fast that by the time the latter is gunned down it’s hard to believe that any real or lasting affection could have had time to develop. As such, it’s a little difficult to swallow the idea of the Kid being so consumed with grief for his new mentor that he will set out on a murderous quest for vengeance. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what happens as the Kid, along with two equally unsophisticated cowboys (James Best and James Congdon), resolves to track down and kill the men responsible for Tunstall’s death. As he begins this task, the Kid has a fateful meeting with a man whose path he will cross many times, Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At the same time, we also get our first glimpse of another recurring character in the drama - Moultrie (Hurd Hatfield), a kind of wandering fool who seems to turn up wherever the Kid goes and who’s destined to play a significant role in sealing his eventual fate. While he and his two sidekicks are living as fugitives in Mexico, the Kid discovers that the new governor, Lew Wallace, has declared an amnesty for those involved in the Lincoln County War. Initially, it looks like there may be some kind of future that doesn’t involve killing and running, but the Kid’s impulsive and obsessive nature draws him back to the old blood feud, and a date with a friend that can only be postponed but never avoided.  

Paul Newman as the Kid.

Ok, let me start by getting something off my chest - I’ve never been a fan of method acting. There. I’ve always felt that the method has been responsible for some incredibly phony performances from otherwise talented actors. Of all the movies I’ve seen Paul Newman in (and there have been a few stinkers along the way) I’d rank his Billy the Kid as maybe his worst turn. I don’t believe I’ve seen another role where his performance was so affected and unnatural. I quite understand that he was trying to convey the fact that the Kid was essentially an ignorant and directionless young man who got dragged into events that were beyond his control and maybe even beyond his full comprehension. However, the constant “look at me, I’m acting” moments really become irritating the longer the film goes on. John Dehner helps overcome this shortcoming though as he gives a quieter and more thoughtful performance as Billy’s nemesis. I’m not sure there are any real heroes in ths story, but Dehner’s Garrett comes closest and he’s certainly easier to sympathise with than anyone else. As for the supporting players, James Congdon and James Best are good enough as the Kid’s loud and slightly dumb pals - Congdon’s maybe the less likeable one but he does get a memorable death scene. Hurd Hatfield’s Moultrie is a puzzling piece of work; he’s not really a character at all  (unless you view him as a Judas figure) but a kind of allegory for a press and public grown disenchanted by the unreality of the myth they have created themselves. A word now about director Arthur Penn. In truth, he wasn’t one of my personal favourites as a western filmmaker and he only made a handful of films within the genre anyway. Of those, I’d say The Left Handed Gun was the best of them. I couldn’t fault his work on this movie and the Mexican scenes in particular have a real lyrical quality that’s very attractive. My only complaint would be that he didn’t do more to rein in Newman’s excesses - had he done so the film would work better as a whole.

The DVD of The Left Handed Gun issued in the US by Warners, as part of their Paul Newman set, shows off the movie very nicely. The anamorphic transfer is mostly crisp and clean and contrast levels looked good to me. The disc also contains a commentary by director Arthur Penn and the trailer. All in all, a very satisfactory package. For the film itself, I have mixed feelings; there are moments of real quality and intensity but I have a problem getting past that overdone performance by Newman. As a movie about Billy the Kid, I’d rate it medium to good. The potential was there for this to have been a much better picture though and I can’t help feeling a little disappointed by that.

The Outlaw

Posted on February 9th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns by Colin

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It’s hard to know where to begin with a film like The Outlaw (1943), or indeed what to make of it at all. It takes the characters of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and dumps them into a story that bears no relation to reality and frequently defies logic too. Ultimately, it’s a showcase for the fantasies and obsessions of Howard Hughes (two very prominent ones in particular) and its failure as a motion picture can be traced back to that. There are some astonishingly bad aspects to this film but, almost perversely, there are also times when it looks like it might just turn the corner and become something worthwhile. However, it never manages to tear itself free of Hughes’ grip, and every time an opportunity to go somewhere interesting arises it misses its step and simply lapses back into parody. 

Within minutes of the opening the viewer is shown the meeting of Billy (Jack Buetel), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) and…Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). Yes, that’s right - Doc Holliday. So right from the off all semblance of reality is swept away and it’s clear that what follows is going to strain credibility to the absolute limit. Anyway, it transpires that Billy stands accused of stealing Doc’s horse - whether or not he did is never really resolved and the saga of the disputed ownership recurs time after tiresome time throughout the movie. Just when it looks like these two noted gunslingers are going to shoot it out the party is broken up by the intervention of Doc’s long time buddy Garrett. The result is that Doc finds himself ruefully admiring the Kid’s pluck and subsequently taking his side, much to the disappointment of Garrett. This switch of allegiances is regarded not only as a breach of friendship but also as a kind of humiliation by Garrett. When a saloon killing forces him to place Billy under arrest, Garrett is once again wrong-footed by Doc and their enmity is sealed. With Billy wounded and the law in hot pursuit, Doc leaves the Kid in the care of his girl Rio (Jane Russell) while he heads for the hills and safety. Now Rio and the Kid had met before, in a dark stable where they wrestled around some. However, the Kid is now laid low by his wound and the resulting fever, so he’s in no condition to continue where he left off. This lengthy sequence in Doc’s cabin, as Rio nurses the Kid back to health and falls for him in the process, is supposed to define the central relationships of the film. The fact is though it kills the narrative stone dead and contains not only some truly awful shots but also has the misfortune of being dominated by two performers making very obvious debuts. The only good thing to be said is that it contains an imaginative method employed by Rio to break a dangerous fever - I’ll have to see if it works the next time I’m running a temperature. After this tedious interlude the story attempts to regain some momentum with Garrett finally catching up with his quarry, only to be blindsided again. There is some dramatic tension to be had from seeing Garrett’s disillusionment spiralling off into murderous frustration, but as soon as this happens Hughes manages to drain all the pathos away and negate what should have been a powerful moment. And that sort of sums up the whole production.

Playing with a stacked deck - Jane Russell in The Outlaw.

The Outlaw is of course remembered for the furore it caused with the censors and the Hays Office. Were it not for Howard Hughes’ fascination with Jane Russell’s ample form, and the battle he undertook to have his picture exhibited, this movie would likely have faded into obscurity. Hughes’ shooting style, seen at its worst and most self-indulgent in the interminable cabin sequence mentioned above, is an object lesson in bad filmmaking. The zooms, cuts and fades employed are jarring and meaningless exercises, like a schoolboy playing with a new toy. The action scenes that punctuate the story do have some merit though and are worthy of attention. I also think it’s fair to say that the shots in the movie that retain some style and character are likely the result of having the great Gregg Toland behind the camera. As for the acting, Buetel and Russell are clearly making their first picture - Russell fares better, and her subsequent career can be seen as proof that she did have ability. Buetel, on the other hand, is very weak and it’s almost cruel to see his lack of range exposed by the presence of two classy old veterans like Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell. If one wanted to be generous it could be argued that Buetel managed to convey the sense of awkwardness and innocence of a young man forced to grow up too soon. Both Huston and Mitchell really anchor the film and prevent it spinning off course completely; when one or other is on screen there’s always a feeling of reassurance, and the only real criticism is that they’re far too old to play the characters they’re supposed to be. The big dramatic scene that forms the climax, where Doc shoots pieces from the Kid’s ears to provoke him into drawing, gives Huston a chance to impose himself as Mitchell sits slyly in the wings. Mitchell, of course, gets his big moment too when he follows up by pouring out his pent up frustration and shredded pride. This should have seen things end on a high note but Hughes’ botches it again with an ending that’s ridiculous and insulting in equal measure. Thus far I’ve pointed out many of the shortcomings of this movie, but there’s one more that needs to be mentioned. The score. Music plays an integral part in film; it can enhance a mood and complement a scene, it can even lend a whole new dimension to a sequence. But, used poorly, it can also draw the life from a picture and sap the tension. What I can only describe as “comedy cues” pepper the action in The Outlaw at the most inappropriate moments and actively damage a number of key scenes.

The Outlaw has long been a staple of the PD market and there are countless editions of it floating around on DVD. For the purposes of this piece I viewed the Legend Films version that came out about two years ago. Legend, of course, are known for their penchant for colouring in old B&W movies; however, they also do a clean up of the print beforehand and offer both versions. The B&W print is probably as good as I’ve seen the film looking, although it’s certainly not perfect either. There’s a softness about the image at times, especially evident in the longer shots, and some instances of minor damage. This release was a two disc set: the first disc offering both the restored B&W and the colourised versions, and the second comprising only the colourised one with a commentary by Jane Russell and Terry Moore. Frankly, I have no intention of ever watching the crayoned in version so I’ve yet to hear the commentary - I’ll probably give it a listen some time in the background when I don’t have to endure the garish visuals. Anyway, I think it ought to be clear that I’m not a fan of this particular movie. In its defence I will admit that Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell give good performances and there are a few well staged action scenes. But the acting of the young leads, Buetel especially, leaves a lot to be desired. That and Hughes’ mediocre direction combined with some ill-conceived scoring really drag the film down. It’s the kind of picture that perhaps deserves to be seen for its poorness alone. Basically, though, it’s a half baked turkey that’s not worth going out of one’s way to catch.

Billy the Kid

Posted on February 2nd, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Robert Taylor by Colin

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It’s been a long time since I committed myself to doing a themed series. Having done a few of them in the past I kept putting this particular one off. Why? Well firstly, this kind of thing requires watching a number of predetermined films more or less back to back, and I normally baulk at that kind of discipline as I prefer to go with whatever strikes my fancy at a given time. Moreover, I knew that running a series on Billy the Kid means sitting through a few poor movies. Anyway, I finally got myself into the right mood and I’ve decided to delve into it. As with other series I’ve done I’m not claiming that this will be an exhaustive analysis of each and every cinematic representation of this figure - there are just too many movies that feature Mr Bonney. In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering what I think are all the major portrayals. I’ll obviously touch on the historical accuracy of the various films, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that side of things as I’m no expert and, besides, good history and good cinema don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So, let’s kick things off with Billy the Kid (1941), a film that dances around the facts, changes the names of just about every major character, but remains an entertaining piece all the same.

The opening sees Billy (Robert Taylor) breaking an old pal Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail, and subsequently finding himself drawn unwittingly into what would become this movie’s version of the Lincoln County War. In short, there’s a conflict brewing between two rival ranchers, Hickey (Gene Lockhart) and Keating (Ian Hunter) - read Murphy and Tunstall respectively - and Billy is hired as a troubleshooter by the former. One of his first tasks for his new master is to participate in a stampede of Keating’s herd. This excitingly shot sequence leads to a fateful reunion between Billy and an old friend from his childhood, Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy playing what’s really the Pat Garrett role), who’s now foreman for Keating. As the two men sit around the campfire it’s clear that a bond still exists, but circumstances have placed them at loggerheads. Gradually though, Billy comes to see that Hickey’s methods are unjustifiable and, after being impressed by the dignity of Keating, it’s not long before a switch in allegiances takes place. So, the two friends become allies under the moderating influence of Keating. Even after Pedro is callously murdered and Billy is itching for revenge, Keating counsels restraint. His way is to work within the law to topple Hickey. Such noble sentiments are cast aside though when Keating himself falls victim to the Hickey faction. The result is the outbreak of open warfare, and Billy and Sherwood, while united in their goal, stand divided over the methods to be used. Inevitably, these two will have to confront each other in combat. It’s surely no secret how the showdown ends, although this film depicts events in a much more heroic way. Leaving historical airbrushing aside, the face-off between Sherwood and Billy is effectively done, as is the earlier retribution that’s meted out to Keating’s murderers.

Robert Taylor as Billy the Kid.

Robert Taylor was 30 years old when he made this picture and looked far too mature to play the callow youth of the title. Still, he turns in a good performance as a man who cannot escape the mistakes of his past. The script explains his descent into lawlessness as a consequence of his father’s being murdered and his resulting thirst for revenge. The upshot is that Taylor gives the audience an early take on the “angry young man” persona that cinema would explore in later decades. He starts out scowling and clad in black leather, easing into more relaxed and typical cowboy garb for the mid section when Keating’s got him cooled down a little, and finishes the same as the plot turns full circle to bring him back into confrontation with the law. Brian Donlevy frequently played the villain in westerns so it’s kind of refreshing to see him on the right side of the law for a change. The scenes where he and Taylor get to act as pals have a certain charm and affability that form a nice contrast to the later ones when they must lock horns and face each other down. The other characters are all painted with broad strokes though, Lockhart’s conniving runt and Hunter’s fair-minded crusader leaving us in no doubt who the heroes and villains are. Having said that, both men handle their material well and if complaints of black and white characterisation are to be made then the fault lies with the writing and not the acting. One of the really positive points of the movie is the wonderful location shooting in Monument Valley; director David Miller may not have been in John Ford’s league but he created some memorable images of tiny human figures dwarfed by those familiar rock formations. The climactic ride to marshal forces and take on Hickey is a great sequence that’s only marred by the puzzling decision to intercut sumptuous long shots with close-ups and poor back projection.

To my knowledge, there are currently two options for acquiring this film - one is from Warner/Impulso in Spain and the other is a DVD-R through the Warner Archive in the US. The Spanish disc is a weak effort that has a kind of hazy softness throughout - I thought it improved marginally as it went on but that may have just been me getting used to it. The print has had no work whatsoever done to it and there are numerous instances of scratches, damage, cue blips and the like. On the plus side, the colours seem to have held up well enough and make the location work look very attractive. As with all the Spanish Warner discs I’ve seen the subs on the English track are fully removable regardless of what the main menu seems to suggest. I’ve seen some screen captures from the US disc and they certainly appeared to be of better quality - crisper, sharper and better defined. The film itself is a fairly typical early 40s effort that combines solid drama with lighter moments. If close adherence to the facts is a prerequisite then this is not the film for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a reasonably entertaining western with professional performances and good location work it should check most of the boxes. Robert Taylor westerns are always good value and I’d rate this as one of his medium efforts.