Ramrod

Posted on January 17th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, Andre de Toth by Colin

Poster

Range wars have always been a favourite backdrop for westerns, men struggling over a piece of land upon which they have built their dreams being an ideal source of conflict. It’s not so common though to see a woman as one of the aggressors, and certainly not one as petite and vulnerable looking as Veronica Lake. However, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Ramrod (1947) it’s surely that one should never be taken in by appearances.

This is a lean, brisk movie where things happen fast and no time is wasted. Within minutes of the opening the main protagonists of the story are introduced and their motivations laid out. Everything revolves around Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake), a headstrong young woman hell bent on establishing herself in her own right and independent of her rancher father. We’re pitched immediately into the middle of a potentially explosive situation where Connie’s betrothed, a sheepman, is about to confront her father and his enforcer, Frank Ivey (Preston Foster). Ivey is the man Connie’s father would like to see her paired off with and he’s not averse to the idea himself. When the the sheepman decides that he values his hide more and thus backs down Connie turns her attention to a drifting cowboy and former drunk, Dave Nash (Joel McCrea). Nash has no interest in involving himself in the Dickason’s affairs at first, but a run-in with the bullying Ivey leads to a change of heart. He decides to sign on with her as her foreman, or ramrod, and face down her father and Ivey. Nash wants to use the law to secure Connie’s rights but she has other ideas on how to go about things. At the heart of the picture are Connie’s machinations, seductively playing the men off against each other to achieve her own ends. All of this deceit inevitably leads to tragedy and the loss of many innocent lives, although Connie blithely dismisses the bloodshed as a necessary if distasteful step on the road to fulfilling her ambitions. It’s only at the end, when her dreams are almost within her grasp, that this scheming puppeteer realises that her self-absorbed ruthlessness has driven away the very thing she desired most.

Joel McCrea in Ramrod.

Joel McCrea’s portrayal of Nash is spot on, his calm and inner strength fitting for a man who has come face to face with personal tragedy and dragged himself back from despair. His honest, straight shooting persona is also ideal for a man who finds himself duped and manipulated by Connie. In fact, every man in the film falls prey to her deceptions at one point or another. Lake was clearly trading on her film noir credentials as she plays what is essentially a femme fatale out west. Her diminutive stature obviously rules out the possibility of her involving herself directly in any of the violence but her awareness of and confidence in her own femininity, and its attendant power, ensures that she calls the shots at almost every point. Director Andre de Toth was married to Lake at this time and he handles not only her scenes but the whole film very well. While he couldn’t be classed as one of the great directors, de Toth was certainly competent and made enough good films to be worthy of more attention. Aside from a number of very enjoyable collaborations with Randolph Scott, he also made the superior Day of the Outlaw and a handful of quality noirs. He was especially good at shooting action and the stalking by night of McCrea’s friend is particularly well done. It’s also worth noting the tough edge he brought to proceedings with a cigar ground into a man’s hand to provoke a gunfight and a savagely brutal beating being some of the highlights. 

While there are plenty of good things to say about Ramrod the film, unfortunately, that not the case with the DVD. The only edition that I’m aware of is the Suevia release from Spain, and it’s pretty poor stuff. The master looks to be taken from an old VHS cassette and all the expected faults are present in the transfer. The image is scratchy, dirty and lacking in definition, and the audio is weak too. Despite that, it remains quite watchable, although there is an especially bad section beginning on the hour mark and continuing for about two minutes. In terms of quality it’s reminiscent of a mid-range PD title. However, as things stand, it’s the only version available - I’m not sure where the rights for this reside but I have a hunch it could be with MGM. On the plus side it can be had for very little money and there are no forced subs on the English track. I think this is a neglected little western with noir undertones that is well worth a look; anything starring McCrea and directed by de Toth deserves that at least. I’d imagine a decent release would go some way towards elevating its status.

Colorado Territory

Posted on March 26th, 2010 in 1940s, Westerns, Raoul Walsh, Joel McCrea by Colin

Poster

The sun travels west…and so does opportunity.

Are remakes ever better than the originals? The common consensus usually says no and there are countless ill-judged and frankly cack-handed examples that would seem to back that up. However, once in a while, it is possible to come across those rare exceptions to the rule. John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon is a notable case in point, although that movie had the luxury of building on two predecessors that were markedly inferior. What’s altogether more difficult is to improve upon something that was pretty good in the first place, and it’s inevitable that opinion is going to be divided over the alleged improvement - Hitchcock’s two shots at The Man Who Knew Too Much being a good example. Colorado Territory (1949) is in a similar position since it’s a reworking by Raoul Walsh of his earlier hit High Sierra, and in my opinion the remake comes out on top this time.

Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is a notorious outlaw, languishing in jail and awaiting a date with the hangman. However, a visit from an old dear professing to be his aunt leaves McQueen in possession of the articles he needs to effect his escape. It turns out that this was all arranged by an old associate who has need of McQueen’s services one more time. Making his way west by stagecoach he finds himself sharing the ride with a new settler and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). A deadly encounter with a gang of thieves en route highlights McQueen’s particular skills, and earns him the gratitude and (perhaps) the friendship of his fellow passengers. This sequence also draws attention to the fact that here we have a man grown weary of his profession, who dreams instead of starting a new life and sees in Julie Ann a reflection of the woman he once loved and lost. If he’s ever to have a crack at that longed for new beginning though he must first get this final job out of the way. It soon becomes apparent to McQueen that he’s going to have his hands full just keeping his shifty cohorts in line, and it’s not made any easier by the presence of a sultry half-breed called Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). The bulk of the movie’s mid section takes place in an old ruined town populated solely by the would-be robbers and the ghosts of the past. This bleak and desolate setting contributes enormously to the sense of doom and despair that hangs over the whole film, and it’s also a perfect backdrop for the escalating tension and jealousy among the characters. When the robbery does take place nothing goes according to plan (or at least not the way McQueen planned it) but it does give Colorado the chance to show her worth and her loyalty. Just when it looks like these two might have a chance to break out of the world they’ve spent so long locked into fate comes along and deals another blow, leading McQueen to comment: It means we’re a couple of fools in a dead village dreaming about something that’ll probably never happen. This leads to a powerful climax, atop a sun baked mountain and among the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement, that packs a real emotional punch and is sure to stick in the mind of anyone who’s seen it.

The calm before  the storm - Virginia Mayo & Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory.

Raoul Walsh’s direction is highly assured and tight as a drum right from the beginning. A good portion of the movie takes place outdoors and with a liberal sprinkling of action, both elements playing to the director’s strengths. His handling of the attempted stagecoach hold-up near the start and the later train robbery is exemplary with editing, camera placement and pacing all judged to perfection. With Walsh you kind of expect him to get those things right, but he doesn’t disappoint in the more intimate scenes either. It helps a lot that his principal stars were all on form, and I couldn’t fault any of the performances of McCrea, Mayo or Malone. Joel McCrea was great in stolid parts and he put his talents to good use in this anti-heroic role. He had that low key quality that usually shines in westerns and the part of Wes McQueen seemed to fit him like a glove. The scene where he finally tumbles to the true nature and motives of Julie Ann is a fine example of his underplaying, and it’s all the better for that. Which brings me to Dorothy Malone; her role is that of a grasping and shallow woman and if it’s compared to Joan Leslie’s in High Sierra it would be fair to say that Malone invested it with considerably more depth. However, Virginia Mayo is the one that acts everyone else off the screen with her blend of toughness, vulnerability and sensuality. She truly owns the climax of the picture but she has other memorable moments too, not least the aftermath of the robbery when she has to operate on the wounded McCrea. Comparing the performances of the three leads in Colorado Territory to those in High Sierra, I’d say that McCrea just about holds his own against Bogart’s more famous and more intense playing (both men brought very different viewpoints and styles to their work) whereas both Mayo and Malone outshine Lupino and Leslie respectively.

As far as I can tell, there are currently only two ways to obtain Colorado Territory on DVD. I viewed the Warner R2 release from Spain, and the transfer to disc is no more than adequate. There aren’t any major issues like tears or splices and the image is generally quite detailed with good enough contrast. Nevertheless, the print is clearly in need of a good digital scrub as there are speckles, scratches and cue blips all the way through. From the few comments I’ve seen the Warner Archive disc from the US sounds like it suffers from the same sort of problems, so it may be they both used the same master. The R2 disc is completely barebones, with English and Spanish audio. The subs on the English version can be switched off via the remote - the main menu seems to suggest that the subs aren’t optional but that’s thankfully not the case. Colorado Territory is another first class western from Raoul Walsh, and I feel it generally trumps High Sierra. I’m very familiar with the Bogart picture and I like it an awful lot, but I have to give credit to Walsh for revisiting his earlier work and tweaking it successfully. This is an even darker and bleaker film with performances that are at least equal or, particularly those of the two actresses, superior to the original version. I recommend this one highly.

Ride the High Country

Posted on January 29th, 2008 in 1960s, Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea by Colin

Titles

Generally, when I’ve knocked out my thoughts on a film, I’ve tried to avoid those productions which have already been analysed to death. Such is the case with the work of Sam Peckinpah, which has had more than its fair share of examination and re-examination. However, I have decided that I’m not going to ignore the movie that both provides the title of my own blog and also happens to be my favorite among Sam’s films. Made in 1962, Ride the High Country was the director’s second feature - although this piece by John Hodson helps to explain why the previous year’s The Deadly Companions isn’t a real Peckinpah picture. This film contains the elements that have come to be typically associated with Sam, namely the passing of the Old West, the nature of friendship and loyalty, and a reflection on one’s past deeds.

The whole thing revolves around the two leads, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. These two men are old friends and former partners who have come together one last time,  for one last job. McCrea is the very epitome of honour and personal integrity, whose only wish in life is to enter his house justified. His idealism hasn’t brought him any material rewards, his shabby suit in the early scenes being proof enough of that. Scott, on the other hand, has come to question the value of holding on to principles that lead only to poverty and a poorly attended funeral. And so it’s a question of whether McCrea’s quiet nobility or Scott’s cynical pragmatism will ultimately triumph. The guarding of a gold shipment will test the strength of their friendship to the full, but it is the climactic showdown with a family of degenerate rednecks that brings closure to all the moral issues that precede it.

Scott & McCrea

Both Scott and McCrea play off each other beautifully and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch these two old hands clearly relishing what they must surely have recognised as the roles of a lifetime. Both men had spent the previous decade acting almost exclusively in westerns and that experience adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the film. For Scott and McCrea, Ride the High Country was to be the last hurrah; McCrea would make a few more movies and Scott, wisely I think, called it a day and bowed out with what is arguably his best role. Maybe it’s just my sentimentality, but I always get goosebumps when Scott speaks his final lines in cinema and tells McCrea “I’ll see you later..” - it’s a lovely understated way to bid farewell to a long and distinguished career. Randolph Scott is one of the reasons why I enjoy the western genre so much (I suspect I’m not alone, if that gag in Blazing Saddles is anything to go by) - when I was a child it seemed as though no Saturday afternoon was complete without a television showing of one of his films, so he was and is the personification of the western hero for me.

Ride the High Country is a marvellous looking picture due to Peckinpah’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s wonderful cinematography. The movie is full of memorable scenes, not the least of which being the climax, as Scott and McCrea stand shoulder to shoulder and walk out to confront the murderous Hammond clan and fate itself. Peckinpah would offer up a more elaborately staged and celebrated ‘walk’ in The Wild Bunch, but this one packs just as much punch for its simplicity.

The Walk

Ride the High Country may have become overshadowed by the films that would follow from Peckinpah, but I don’t feel that that should be the case. Is it his best movie? Many would argue that it’s not and point instead to The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but it is the one that I have a special affection for, and the one that I find myself returning to most often.