Archive for May, 2012

“Ride Lonesome”

“Ride Lonesome” is among the finest of the seven Westerns made by veteran star Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher. By the time the duo got around to this, the sixth in what some refer to as the “Ranown cycle”, they had fine-tuned the formula behind these movies – a protagonist driven by revenge, charming bad guys (sometimes more charming than the hero) and richly drawn characters that overcame all the shortcomings of the miniscule budgets they were working with. 

Ageing bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) is on his way to Santa Cruz with murderous outlaw Billy John (James Best), wanted for shooting several men in the back. Despite knowing that Billy’s elder brother Frank John (Lee Van Cleef) and his gang are pursuing him, Brigade stops at a deserted stagecoach way station to rescue the recently widowed Carrie Lane (Karen Steele). 

Brigade’s group is also joined by amiable outlaws Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Wid (James Coburn in his feature film debut), who want to turn Billy John in themselves so that they can benefit from an amnesty announced by the authorities.

As the group evade a group of Red Indians that has already killed Carrie’s husband and make their way through the desert towards Santa Cruz, it becomes evident that Brigade actually wants Frank John to catch up with them. The two men have a history – it turns out that Brigade is the former sheriff of Santa Cruz whose wife was hanged by Frank John.

Randolph Scott and his campanions repulse an attack by Red Indians in “Ride Lonesome”

Unlike the other Westerns he made with Boetticher, Randolph Scott’s character is up against two villains in “Ride Lonsome” – Lee Van Cleef as the traditional bad guy and Pernell Roberts (probably best known for his turn on TV as “Trapper John MD”) as the charming outlaw who needs Billy John to secure an amnesty so that he can turn his life around.

At times, Sam Boone is more charismatic than Randolph Scott’s “hero”, a taciturn man who seems driven only by the desire to avenge the murder of his wife and even spurns the advances of Carrie. The sparring between Brigade and Boone keeps the audience on tenterhooks, as we don’t know right till the end whether Brigade will deliver on his promise to prevent Boone from taking in Billy John into Santa Cruz to claim the amnesty.

James Coburn in “Ride Lonesome”

Like other movies in the Ranown cycle, “Ride Lonesome” is a small film but the story it tells has the sweep of an epic, thanks largely to a great script from Boetticher’s frequent collaborator Burt Kennedy and the gorgeous cinematography of Charles Lawton Jr.

This was the first of the Ranown Westerns filmed in Cinemascope, which opens up the scale of the movie. The wider screen both captures the grandeur of Boetticher’s favourite locations at Lone Pine in California and emphasises the loneliness of the characters of “Ride Lonesome”.

“Ride Lonesome” is available in a fine transfer in a DVD box set of five of the Westerns made by Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott. 

(For more on the backstory of “Ride Lonesome”, go here. Budd Boetticher provided some insights on the making of the film in this interview.)


“Joe Kidd”

At the time Clint Eastwood made “Joe Kidd”, he was one of the hottest movie stars around the world and had already begun putting in place arrangements that would make him a major player in Hollywood for several decades. This was one of a string of Westerns made by Eastwood in the early 1970s but was probably the weakest of the bunch. 

Though based on a screenplay written by the legendary Elmore Leonard, Eastwood has often said that the story didn’t even have an ending when he began filming with director John Sturges (of “The Magnificent Seven” fame). This isn’t A-list Eastwood or Sturges but there could be many worse ways to spend 88 minutes.

Robert Duvall in “Joe Kidd”

We first come across former bounty hunter Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) in prison in Sinola, sleeping off a drunken binge before being brought up before a judge. Kidd’s hearing is disrupted by a group of Mexican-Americans led by the revolutionary Luis Chama (John Saxon with a truly horrid Mexican accent), who are protesting the grabbing of their lands by white settlers.

Kidd helps the judge escape while Chama and his group burn the land records and leave town. Soon after, ruthless land owner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) rides into Sinola with his gang and asks Kidd, known for his tracking skills, to help him find Chama.

Kidd turns down Harlan and returns to his ranch, only to find his horses have been stolen and one of his Mexican workers tortured by Chama’s men. Kidd rides back into Sinola and throws in his lot with Harlan. 

As Harlan’s posse makes its way through Chama’s territory, Kidd is sickened by the brutality of Harlan’s men, especially Olin Mingo (James Wainwright) and Lamarr Simms (Don Stroud), who kill several Mexicans in cold blood.

Harlan besieges Chama’s town and threatens to shoot five residents every few hours till the revolutionary turns himself in. He also fires Kidd and locks him up with the townspeople in a church.

By this stage, we know that Kidd will team up with Chama and take on Harlan and it’s all strictly by the numbers.

The plot has huge holes in it and the climax, which features a train ploughing through a saloon, was described by Eastwood himself as a “crazy thing”. John Saxon is never really convincing as the revolutionary and Sturges clearly wasn’t at the top of his game while making this film.

However, the film features solid contributions from several artists who would go on to become regular collaborators with Eastwood. There is a fine jazz-inflected score by Lalo Schifrin and the cinematography by Bruce Surtees soaks up the beauty of locations in Old Tucson and Inyo National Forest. 

“Joe Kidd” is available in a fine anamorphic transfer in the Clint Eastwood Western Icon two-DVD collection that includes “High Plains Drifter” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. Though the film shares a disc with “High Plains Drifter”, the quality of the video is more than adequate.

“Man With The Gun”

“Town-tamer” films were a popular sub-genre of the Westerns in the 1950s, with numerous directors and scriptwriters exploring the dilemma of law-abiding citizens forced to resort to the questionable arrangement of hiring a gunman to clean up their town of outlaws.

“Man With The Gun” (1955) marked the directorial debut of scriptwriter Richard Wilson, who had a long association with Orson Welles in the two previous decades. The film is a fairly by-the-numbers account of gunman Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) cleaning up a town that has for long been under the thumb of powerful land owner Dade Holman (Joe Barry). 

Holman surrounds himself with a bunch of brutal thugs who enforce his law in Sheridan City – we know this because Holman’s henchman Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) cruelly shoots down a boy’s dog merely for barking at him minutes before Tollinger rides into town.

The townspeople are tired of the violence of Holman’s men but aged Marshal Lee Sims (Henry Hull) has no desire to intervene. Blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), who is head of the town council, learns of Tollinger’s reputation and convinces the citizens to hire him to clean up Sheridan City.

As the film progresses, we learn Tollinger has another reason for being in Sheridan City – he came to the town seeking his estranged wife Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), who manages a group of dancing girls, to find out about their daughter.

“Man With The Gun” is burdened with a talky script and stately score by Alex North that is all wrong. One can’t help but get the feeling that there’s just too much dialogue and too much music in some sequences.

Claude Akins thinks he has the drop on Robert Mitchum in “Man With The Gun”

Mitchum, in his first movie as an independent player after ending a stint with RKO Pictures, is not stretched by his role – he exudes an aura of menace even when he’s smiling, and is totally believable as a man who thinks he’s unfit to be anything other than a town-tamer.

There are bit parts for an uncredited Claude Akins and Angie Dickinson and a nice turn by Ted de Corsia as “Frenchy” Lescaux, the Bowie knife-wielding thug who runs Holman’s saloon. Another flaw is that the character of Holman is given only a few minutes on screen without any dialogue though most of the movie is spent priming the audience for the showdown between him and Tollinger.

“Man With The Gun” is available in a great transfer that showcases its black-and-white photography.

“High Plains Drifter” was the first Western directed by Clint Eastwood but he was already showing signs of the revisionism that would shape his finest effort in the genre, “Unforgiven”. What could have been a simple tale of revenge is elevated to a whole other level by Ernest Tidyman’s quirky script and Eastwood’s assured direction.

Eastwood essentially retains his “stranger with no name” persona from the Spaghetti Westerns he made with Sergio Leone but a supernatural element is what sets “High Plains Drifter” apart from those films.

Clint Eastwood’s stranger rides into the town of Lago

A stranger rides into the mining town of Lago, with Dee Barton’s eerie music and the heightened sound effects – the whistling wind and the wheezing of the stranger’s horse – creating a sense of foreboding. In the space of 15 minutes, the stranger shoots dead three gunfighters and has his way with the town floozy Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) in a barn.

The town is located in idyllic surroundings (Eastwood had an entire town built on the beautiful shore of Mono Lake in California) but its residents appear rotten to the core. They all harbour dark secrets and the stranger has a mysterious connection to Lago which becomes apparent through his fevered nightmares of the town’s marshal being brutally whipped to death. 

The killing of the three gunfighters puts the people of Lago in an unusual predicament – they had been hired to protect the town from a trio of outlaws (Geoffrey Lewis, Don Vadis and Anthony James) who harbour a grudge against the town and are due to be freed from prison.

In desperation, the townspeople decide to ask the stranger to protect Lago. He accepts, on the condition that he can have anything he wants.

The stranger appoints the midget Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the new sheriff and mayor of Lago, raises a rag-tag militia comprising the barber, storekeeper and others to defend the town and takes over the hotel after throwing out all the guests. To the consternation of everyone, the stranger then forces the people to paint the whole of Lago red, renames it Hell and forces them to prepare for a picnic on the day the outlaws are due to arrive.

When the outlaws do ride in, the stranger leaves Lago at their mercy. But since this is a Clint Eastwood movie, we know he’ll be back. 

Though “High Plains Drifter” was only Eastwood’s second film as a director, he tackles things like a pro, which isn’t surprising given his long association with Westerns. Eastwood toys with all the conventions of Westerns and it is only the intelligent script by Tidyman (who won an Oscar for writing “The French Connection”) that keeps this from turning into a parody of Eastwood’s “man with no name” persona.

One question most people ask after watching “High Plains Drifter” is who exactly is the character played by Eastwood. The actor-director has said the stranger was originally written as the brother of the dead marshal of Lago. Eastwood even described the film as an extension of “High Noon”, where too the townspeople didn’t back the sheriff, and stranger and makes sure that they live with their guilt. Eastwood also said he played the stranger “more as an apparition” because that would leave some uncertainty for the audience.

“High Plains Drifter” is available in a decent anamorphic transfer on a Region 1 DVD box set that includes the Westerns “Joe Kidd” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. The image can appear a little soft at times as “High Plains Drifter” shares space with another movie on one disc of the two DVD set.

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