No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)

I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s still alive, and he saddles up to search for his missing fiancé. Jess, who disapproves of Frank’s lecherous lust for Jennifer, is tied up to a fencepost by the gang and left for the buzzards. Along comes Ben, who frees Jess from his bondage, and the pair form an alliance to find Frank and his gang, Ben to rescue his true love, and Jess to settle the score with Frank…

Yup, it’s a chase Western, with the novelty of being a 3D release, which must’ve looked cool at the time, but falls flat when watching on the TV screen. The saving grace here is the impressive cast, with young Rock Hudson starring as the intense, earnest Ben, on a quest to save his ladylove. She’s played by Donna Reed , who makes for a pretty woman-in-peril (and would win the Oscar that same year for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY). Phil Carey gives a good performance as bad hombre Frank, and Leo Gordon does a fine job as Jess. Lee Marvin and Neville Brand play members of Frank’s gang, and Roberta Haynes tries hard as Frank’s Mexican squeeze Estella.

Director Walsh was responsible for some macho screen classics (WHAT PRICE GLORY, THE ROARING TWENTIES , HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT ), but unfortunately GUN FURY isn’t one of them. Like I said, it’s okay for what it is, it’s just not up to Walsh’s usual high standards. The screenplay was co-written by novelist Irving Wallace, whose books THE CHAPMAN REPORT, THE MAN, and THE SEVEN MINUTES were made into films, and Roy Huggins, who later created such TV hits as MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE FUGITIVE, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. The Sedonia scenery is gorgeous to look at in Technicolor, and Mischa Bakalieinikoff’s music is appropriately rousing.

I recorded GUN FURY off The Sony Channel a while back because under the “Cast and Crew” listing on my DVR was a name towards the bottom that made me want to see the film. It simply stated “James Cagney as The Villain”! Though I couldn’t find any other information, I figured the great Cagney might have done a cameo as a favor to his friend Walsh. So I sat and waited… and waited… and waited, right up until the very end. Cagney was nowhere to be found!! At least, I couldn’t find him! Why he was listed in the first place, I have no idea. So if you choose to watch GUN FURY, don’t expect any “surprise” appearance from Jimmy. Just make yourself some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy an average Western with an above-average cast.

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.