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.

Folsom Prison Blahs: INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON (Warner Brothers 1951)

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Filmed on location inside the infamous prison, and with a testosterone-loaded cast led by Steve Cochran  , David Brian, Ted de Corsia, and Philip Carey  , I expected INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON to be slam-bang entertainment along the lines of BRUTE FORCE . Well, not so much. The trouble’s not with the cast, nor the atmospheric direction of Crane Wilbur. It’s Wilbur’s script that commits the cardinal sin of any action film: too much talk!

Even the prison itself talks, narrating the opening credits: “I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom. And I earned it…”, intones the prison, voiced by Charles Lung (an appropriate name for someone who talks to much!). The movie begins with an attempted jailbreak, put down by sadistic Warden Rickey (de Corsia) and his thugs. He then ratchets up the punishment, making life even more miserable for the cons, until new Captain of the Guards Mark Benson (Brian) is assigned by the institution’s board of directors. Benson’s a reformer who witnesses the deplorable conditions and implements policy changes designed to rehabilitate the men. The warden goes along at first, but instructs one of his trusted sergeants (Edward Norris of THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER  ) to keep his eyes and ears open.

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When con Red Pardue (Carey), up for parole soon, rats out an escape attempt by Ferretti (young William Campbell  in one of his first roles),  the warden puts him back out in the yard, to Benson’s chagrin. Red is an explosives expert and needed to finish a job. Ferretti offers Tinker (Dick Wesson) $300 to make sure Red never leaves Folsom, and in a tense scene, Tinker sabotages Red with his own dynamite, blowing him to kingdom come!

Benson blames Warden Rickey for Red’s murder, and resigns in disgust. Rickey now has full control of the prison once again, and reinstates his brutal reign of terror. The cons, led by lifer Chuck (Cochran), make a daring takeover of their cellblock, and this is where the action begins to quickly pick up. Unfortunately, it just as quickly fizzles out, and the damn prison starts talking again to wrap things up!

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Crane Wilbur had been around since the dawn of cinema, having been the hero of 1914’s sensational serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Returning to the stage, he wrote and toured with an updated version of THE BAT, later filming it with Vincent Price in 1959. He’s probably best known for his screenplay on another Price shocker, HOUSE OF WAX. Wilbur wrote and/or directed movies in every genre, from prison dramas (ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CRIME SCHOOL) to film noir (HE WALKED BY NIGHT, THE PHENIX CITY STORY  ) , exploitation (HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS), juvenile delinquents (THE DEVIL ON WHEELS), science fiction (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND). He penned two of Boris Karloff’s Warner vehicles (WEST OF SHANGHAI, THE INVISIBLE MENACE) and Price’s HOUSE OF WAX follow-up THE MAD MAGICIAN. Crane Wilbur’s last film HOUSE OF WOMEN was a distaff version of his many prison flicks. He died in 1973.

Besides the tough guy actors I’ve already mentioned, Paul Picerni, Danny Arnold, Tom Dugan, Anthony George, Damian O’Flynn, George Wallace, and Sheb Wooley all add their machismo as various cons and guards. Anyone who’s seen the biopic WALK THE LINE knows this is the film Johnny Cash was watching which inspired him to write his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues”. The Man in Black like the movie a lot. As for me, I thought it was okay, but could have been so much better. I prefer Cash’s country classic, so here it is:

 

Philip Marlowe, TV Detective

Philip Marlowe’s Hollywood history saw the shamus portrayed on the big screen by some very big names. Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum (twice) all played Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye at one point in their careers, with varying degrees of success. Los Angeles’ favorite detective also appeared on the small screen, and I decided to do some sleuthing and investigate the TV life of Philip Marlowe.

MARLOWE LIVE!

It was Robert Montgomery who first brought Marlowe into America’s living rooms on his anthology series ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS. But this time around, Zachary Scott played the gumshoe in a 1950 adaptation of THE BIG SLEEP. Marlowe fans would have a four year wait until he came back in another anthology, CLIMAX! hosted by William Lundigan. This time around, Dick Powell returned to the role in a 1954 telecast of THE LONG GOODBYE. There’s not a lot of info on these, and I couldn’t dig up any footage. The two programs, like many live 50’s TV shows, seem to have been lost to the sands of time.

PHILIP CAREY TAKES OVER!

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Rugged Philip Carey starred in the 1959-60 primetime series PHILIP MARLOWE on ABC. These compact half hours feature tough dialogue and action, and while they’re not vintage Marlowe, they’re not bad. William Schallert costarred as Marlowe’s police frenemy, Lt. Manny Harris. The show only lasted one season, smoked in the ratings by the popular Red Skelton variety show. It’s available on YouTube, and here’s an episode titled “The Ugly Duckling”, with future MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE star Barbara Bain as the sexy femme fatale:

MY FAVORITE MARLOWE

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HBO brought back Chandler’s hero for two seasons in the early 80’s. PHILIP MARLOWE, PRIVATE EYE was a stylish noir series starring Powers Boothe (SOUTHERN COMFORT, RED DAWN) in mysteries based on Chandler’s original short stories. It was shown erratically, first airing in 1983, then in 1986 with a new batch of programs. It’s the best TV Marlowe I’ve seen, and Boothe is excellent as the hard luck Marlowe. It’s not in public domain, so I can’t reproduce an episode, but PHILIP MARLOWE, PRIVATE EYE is available on DVD (and many of them are on YouTube!) Definitely worth seeking out for all you Marlowe maniacs.

 A PAIR OF WILD DEUCES

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There were two interesting if not completely successful Marlowe productions on Showtime. The 1995 series FALLEN ANGELS featured Danny Glover as a black Marlowe in Chandler’s RED WIND. Despite the moody atmosphere and solid support from Kelly Lynch and Dan Hedaya, this attempt at a different Marlowe falls short of the mark. tvm4

Marlowe returned older but not wiser in 1998’s POODLE SPRINGS, based on an unfinished Chandler manuscript that was finished by Robert B. Parker of Spenser fame.  Parker’s PI was in the Marlowe mold, and he was the logical successor to the crown. The film starred James Caan as Marlowe, set in 1963, as he’s about to marry a rich younger woman. But Philip Marlowe can’t seem to stay out of trouble’s way. Though this one has it’s moments, it’s lesser Marlowe, despite a Tom Stoppard script and good support from Joe Don Baker, David Keith, and Nia Peeples. It’s worth a look for fans and completists.

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, PHILIP MARLOWE?

It’s been eighteen years since we’ve seen any Marlowe action on TV. The iconic detective deserves to be resurrected by some enterprising producer, whether on broadcast, cable, or the newer subscription services. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Philip Marlowe on television. Somewhere in Hollywood, there’s a hard-boiled scribe with a headful of noir dreams hunched over his-or-her keyboard, banging out a script that’ll bring the Knight Errant of LA back to his days of glory. Until then, there’s a whole lot of film and television Marlowe’s out there waiting to be rediscovered. Philip Marlowe will rise again!