Young Frontier: John Wayne in THE COWBOYS (Warner Brothers 1972)

THE COWBOYS is not just another ‘John Wayne Movie’ from the latter part of his career. Not by a long shot. Duke had read the script and coveted the part of Wil Andersen, who’s forced to hire a bunch of wet behind the ears adolescents for a 400 mile cattle drive across the rugged Montana territory. Director Mark Rydell wanted George C. Scott for the role, but when John Wayne set his sights on something, he usually got what he wanted. The two men were at polar opposites of the political spectrum, and the Sanford Meisner-trained Rydell and Old Hollywood Wayne were expected to clash. They didn’t; putting their differences aside, they collaborated and cooperated  to make one of the best Westerns of the 70’s.

Andersen’s regular hands have all deserted him when gold is discovered nearby, leaving the aging rancher in the lurch. He heads for Boseman to look for recruits and, finding none, takes the advice of his old friend Anse (western vet Slim Pickens) and puts out the call at the local schoolhouse. Ten boys show up, green as grass but willing and eager to learn the ropes. An eleventh, the “mistake of nature” Cimarron, rides in, but after getting into a fight with another boy and pulling a weapon, Andersen refuses to take him along. Some older men, led by “Long Hair” Asa Watts, ask to join the drive, but when Andersen catches him in a lie he sends them packing.

Andersen’s in for another surprise when the cook he hired turns out to be a black man, Jebediah Nightlinger. The boys soon learn life on a cattle drive is no Sunday school picnic, and hardships are plentiful. Slim almost drowns crossing the river, until who rides up to save him but Cimarron. The wild child is then given a spot on the drive by Andersen, but there’s more hardship to come: Long Hair and his rustlers are following the herd, waiting for the right moment to strike…

Wayne’s Wil Andersen is an ornery cuss, tough as leather from his years as a cattleman, yet he shows a surprising tenderness toward the boys. The aging Duke gives yet another fine performance, and does marvelous work with his neophyte costars. Can you imagine being one of them, working with the legendary John Wayne! I would have killed for an opportunity like that! Wayne also works well with Roscoe Lee Browne (Nightlinger); the two have a grudging respect for each other that turns into something resembling friendship. Offscreen, the two actors discovered a mutual love for poetry – bet you didn’t know that about big, macho John Wayne!

Bruce Dern  was an actor on the rise when he made THE COWBOYS, and he’s one scary hombre. His character is mean as hell, bullying one of the kids he catches alone, threatening to slit his throat if the boy dares tells Andersen he’s being followed. When he rides into camp and menaces the youngster, Andersen loses his cool, and the two men engage in a brutal brawl.  Andersen, trouncing the younger man,  turns his back on Watts, who in a rage shoots the older man in the back five times… AND BECOMES THE MOST HATED MAN IN CINEMA HISTORY! Believe me, it was a shock to see Duke get killed on the screen back in 1972, and to this day, there are fans who’ve never forgiven Bruce Dern for murdering John Wayne – after watching that scene, I hated him for years! (But enough time has passed, Bruce – all is forgiven!)

The cowboys themselves are played by Alfred Barker Jr (Fats), Nicholas Beauvy (Dan), Steve Benedict (Steve), Robert Carradine (making his film debut as Slim), Norman Howell (Weedy), Stephen Hudis (Charlie Schwartz), Sean Kelly (Stuttering Bob), A Martinez (Cimarron), Clay O’Brien (Hardy), Sean O’Brien (Jimmy), and Mike Pyeatt (Homer). They’re all good, especially when they stumble upon an encampment of whores led by Colleen Dewhurst, a scene that’s both funny and poignant. After the death of Wil Andersen, the boys decide “we’re gonna finish the job”, and THE COWBOYS becomes a revenge tale, picking off their adversaries one by one until the violent climax where Bruce Dern gets his just desserts!

Director Rydell learned his craft in the world of episodic TV (BEN CASEY, I SPY, GUNSMOKE), and had previously made THE REIVERS with Steve McQueen . Rydell had his own personal vision of what the film should be and Wayne, whose clout was enormous and easily could’ve taken control of the production over, stepped back and just acted as part of the ensemble. For his part, Rydell and cinematographer Robert Surtees paid homage to Wayne’s films with John Ford in the composition of many shots; there’s even the familiar door motif from THE SEARCHERS, and a scene of Andersen at his own children’s gravesite that echoes SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON . John Williams , as he did for Rydell’s previous film, contributes a memorably majestic score.

Big John Wayne was nearing the end of the trail when he made THE COWBOYS. Of his six remaining films, only THE SHOOTIST stands out as a quality piece of filmmaking. THE COWBOYS is yet another testament to his acting ability, and a damn good movie. Surrounded by an unfamiliar cast and crew, ailing from the cancer that eventually killed him, Wayne is out of his comfort zone, and gives his all in the role of Wil Andersen. It’s not a “John Wayne Movie”, it’s a movie featuring John Wayne, actor. As it turns out, THE COWBOYS is one of his best 70’s cinematic outings, and a movie I can still watch and enjoy over and over.

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Pre Code Confidential #15: James Cagney in THE MAYOR OF HELL (Warner Brothers 1933)

The Brothers Warner never shied away from social issues of the Depression Era in their films, from bootlegging gangsters (LITTLE CAESAR, THE PUBLIC ENEMY) to “yellow” journalism (FIVE STAR FINAL, PICTURE SNATCHER) to  rampant illicit sex (BABY FACE, CONVENTION CITY)… even the musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured an ode to the unemployed and destitute, “Remember My Forgotten Man”. THE MAYOR OF HELL tackles the juvenile justice system, as a gang of slum kids get tossed in a reform school run by a crooked superintendent and suffer extremely harsh conditions, until a political hack takes over and implements change. The hack… why, it’s none other than Jimmy Cagney !

Cagney bursts on the scene in typical Cagney fashion about a third of the way  into the movie, pulling up to the prison gate as the guard demands to know who goes there: “Gargan, the new deputy commissioner, ya screw!”. Patsy Gargan may be a ward heeler and got his job through political patronage, but he was a slum kid himself once, and when he witnesses the brutality going on, he tells Superintendent Thompson, “I’m gonna run this racket my way from now on!”. Of course, Patsy’s not totally altruistic; he’s hot for prison nurse Dorothy Griffin, whose ideas to make the school a better place (like the kids self-governing, better food, no more whippings) he helps implement.

Patsy’s got other problems on the outside, and when he goes to deal with a crook trying to muscle in on his voting racket, he winds up accidentally shooting the thug and has to take it on the lam, leaving the school back in Thompson’s hands. The old way of doing things return, but when one sickly youngster ends up dying in the ‘cooler’, the kids take matters into their own hands, starting a riot and putting Thompson on trial, finding him guilty of murder. Thompson jumps out the window and is chased to the top of a barn, which the kids set afire, causing Thompson’s death! Patsy returns just in the nick of time, before the kids raze the school to the ground.

 

Though Cagney’s the nominal star here, the spotlight falls on the street punks, a wild bunch of boys if there ever was one. Frankie Darro , soon to star a few months later in William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, is ringleader Jimmy, a cocky kid with a bad attitude that no one can reach… until Cagney comes along. The early scenes of the kids depict their hardscrabble lives, raising hell on the streets, and being sentenced in court.  Though they come from differing (and, admittedly, stereotyped) ethnicities, they share a common bond of poverty and lack of education, learning crime as a way to make a fast buck. Among them are Our Gang’s Allen “Farina” Hoskins, outstanding in a dramatic role for once; Raymond Borzage (son of director Frank) as the sickly, doomed ‘Skinny’, former silent child star Mickey Bennett as Jimmy’s tough rival Butch, and future TV director Sidney Miller as Izzy, the comic relief Jewish kid.

The adults in the cast include Madge Evans as nurse Dorothy, sympathetic to the boys’ plight and working for change, Allen Jenkins as Patsy’s sidekick Mike (who cringes whenever the kids call him ‘Uncle Mike’ at Cagney’s request!), and Dudley Diggs as the rotten, corrupt Thompson. Harold Huber plays the hood who tries to take over Patsy’s turf, and after getting punched goes after Patsy with a hearty “Dirty son of a…”. Robert Barrat, Arthur Byron, Edwin Maxwell, Sheila Terry, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones are among the other Familiar Faces in the cast. THE MAYOR OF HELL was retooled and remade twice by Warners as vehicles for The Dead End Kids : 1938’s CRIME SCHOOL (with Humphrey Bogart in the Cagney role) and 1939’s HELL’S KITCHEN (this time with Ronald Reagan!), but neither can hold a candle to this underrated  little film. Frankie Darro and his wild boys make The Dead Enders look like a bunch of cream puffs, and I’m pretty sure they’d mop up the floor with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and company in a street fight!

Well-Structured Destruction: Clint Eastwood in THE GAUNTLET (Warner Brothers 1977)

(First off, feast your eyes on the incredibly cool Frank Frazetta poster! Then read on… )

Clint Eastwood’s  directorial credits include some impressive films: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, PALE RIDER, UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. While 1977’s THE GAUNTLET may not belong on that list, I feel it’s a very underrated movie deserving a second look. Clint and his lady love at the time Sondra Locke star in this character study of two damaged people disguised as an action comedy, essentially a chase film loaded with dark humor.

Clint plays Ben Shockley, an alcoholic Phoenix cop sent to Las Vegas to extradite Gus Mally, “a nothing witness in a nothing trial”. Gus turns out to be a woman, a hooker in fact, set to testify against a Phoenix mobster. Ben’s suspicions are roused when he learns Vegas oddsmakers are giving 50-1 they don’t make it to Phoenix alive, confirmed when the car they’re to drive to the airport is blown to smithereens! From there, it’s Ben and Gus trying to beat those odds as not only the mob but the cops are out to kill them – the corrupt Phoenix police commissioner is a perv who abused Gus, and pulls out all the stops to prevent her testimony.

When we first meet Ben, he’s looking pretty ragged. Drunk and disheveled, going nowhere on the job, and somewhat of a meathead, Ben’s the perfect patsy for Commissioner Blakelock’s fools errand. Face it, the guy’s expendable. But Ben has a reputation for getting the job done, and his dogged determination drives him to reach his goal. He may be in love with Jack Daniels, but when he learns he’s been set up by Blakelock, he draws on some inner strength to not only prove he’s still a competent cop, but to stick it to Blakelock.

Locke’s Gus Mally is a free-spirited, feminist hooker who may not have the proverbial heart of gold, but has a steely reserve of her own. She knows the fix is in, and is reluctant at first to return to Phoenix and certain death. Along the way, she lets down her hard-core veneer and begins to trust Ben, eventually falling in love with the big ape. She also gets the best lines, calling Ben at one point a “.45 caliber fruit”, and engaging in banter like this: Ben: “I just do what I’m told”  Gus: “Yeah, well so does an imbecile”.

The violence quotient in THE GAUNTLET is ratcheted up to 11. There’s a scene where the Vegas cops blast the fuck out of Gus’s home, turning it into a smoldering block of Swiss cheese. The duo hop a freight train and are attacked by bikers, with Gus almost getting raped before Ben’s act of self-sacrifice. There’s blazing machine guns and explosions a-plenty, and the final gauntlet run through Phoenix in an armored bus is a masterpiece of mass destruction. Yes, the ending is totally improbable, but it will definitely make you smile.

Clint and Sondra’s offscreen life was filled with controversy, but they made a dynamic duo onscreen. Locke and Eastwood costarred in the aforementioned JOSEY WALES, as well as EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, BRONCO BILLY, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and SUDDEN IMPACT. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her film debut THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and appeared in the horror flick WILLARD. Like THE GAUNTLET itself, Miss Locke is an underrated actress whose ‘palimony’ litigation against Eastwood after their break-up practically ruined her career (the more things change… ). She also directed the films RATBOY, IMPULSE, and DO ME A FAVOR, and is a breast cancer survivor.

Pat Hingle plays Ben’s former partner, now an administrator who discretely helps his friend from the inside. William Prince makes a slimy bad guy as Blakelock, and Clint’s old Universal Studios stablemate Mara Corday shows up early on as a prison matron. Bill McKinney , Roy Jenson, and Dan Vadis are Familiar 70’s Faces in the cast. Composer Jerry Fielding contributes a cool jazz score, featuring musician Art Pepper on sax. It aids tremendously in putting the picture over, as does Clint’s keen cinematic eye. THE GAUNTLET may not rank high in the Eastwood directorial canon, but it’s an exciting, explosive genre classic crackling with excitement that can be viewed as both an action thriller and character study, and is well worth another look.

 

I’ll Be Superamalgamated!: DOC SAVAGE, THE MAN OF BRONZE (Warner Brothers 1975)

I used to devour those Doc Savage pulp novels reissued as paperbacks by Bantam Books. You know, the ones with those cool James Bama covers? They were filled with action, adventure, intelligence, and good humor, as written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym ‘Kenneth Robeson’. Doc himself was a paragon of goodness, trained from birth in the arts and sciences, a perfect physical specimen adept at all the fighting disciplines with near super-human strength. In fact, one could make a case for Doc Savage as the world’s first mass-market superhero, the Man of Bronze predating DC’s Superman (The Man of Steel) by a good five years.

Doc’s amazing adventures screamed for a screen treatment, but it wasn’t until 1975 that producer George Pal bought the character’s rights from Dent’s widow Norma and made DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE. Pal, whose credits include sci-fi classics like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and THE TIME MACHINE, seemed like the right man for the job. He hired handsome, muscular former TV Tarzan Ron Ely to portray Doc, and director Michael Anderson, who’d helmed the WWII action flick THE DAM BUSTERS and the Oscar-winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. All the right elements were in place: Doc’s Fabulous Five band of brothers (Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny, Long Tom), his Fortress of Solitude, a 1930’s setting, a script based on Doc’s origin story (with parts of two other novels incorporated), and plenty of gadgets. But Pal, his co-screenwriter Joe Morhaim, and Anderson chose to go the camp route, spoiling the film. Frank DeVol adapted John Philip Sousa marches as his score, and it’s horrible, ruining the action scenes. While Dent’s books always carried a hefty amount of humor, here it’s played to the Nth degree, and not always intentional. Doc’s eyes literally twinkle thanks to animation, every mode of transport has the stylized Bantam ‘Doc Savage’ logo on it. The film has the look and feel of a bad TV movie, as Pal was aiming for a series akin to the 1960’s BATMAN, but the camp craze was long out of fashion. The whole thing fails to capture the spirit of the Savage novels, treating the material as a joke.

Ely deserved better. The actor, who later hosted the game show FACE THE MUSIC and the Miss America pageant, makes a good-looking, solid Doc, and plays things fairly straight. The Fab 5 (Michael Miller, Darrell Zwerling, William Luckling, Paul Gleason, Eldon Quick) don’t, and though they resemble the team, they’re just cardboard characters. Paul Wexler as archvillain Captain Seas is way over the top, and Pamela Hensley (BUCK ROGERS, MATT HOUSTON) just flat-out couldn’t act. Michael Berryman, Carlos Rivas, and Robert Tessier are also in the cast, and Paul Frees does the narration. The little old lady crossing the street near the end is Grace Stafford, longtime voice of Woody Woodpecker (Pal was pals with Grace and her husband, animator Walter Lantz).

At the very end, DOC SAVAGE: THE ARCHENEMY OF EVIL is advertised as coming soon. Since the first film tanked miserably, it never got made. I’m glad it didn’t, because I want to see a more straightforward version of Doc put on the Silver Screen. In May of 2016 it was announced a new version would be filmed, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Shane Black. We’re still waiting for that to materialize. Meanwhile, fans of the Man of Bronze can stick to rereading those Bantam paperbacks, and skip this waste of time.

 

Hoods vs Huns: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers 1942)

A gang of Runyonesque gamblers led by Humphrey Bogart take on Nazi spies in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, Bogie’s follow-up to his breakthrough role as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. Here he plays ‘Gloves’ Donahue, surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors in a grand mixture of suspense and laughs, with both the action and the wisecracks coming fast and furious in that old familiar Warner Brother style. Studio workhorse Vincent Sherman, whose directorial debut THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X also featured Bogart, keeps things moving briskly along and even adds some innovative flourishes that lift the film above its meager budget.

Bogie’s gangster image from all those 1930’s flicks come to a humorous head in the part of ‘Gloves’. He’s a tough guy for sure, but here the toughness is humanized by giving him a warm, loving mother (Jane Darwell ) and a fondness for cheesecake (the eating kind, though he loves the ladies, too!). ‘Gloves’ and his cronies (William Demarest,   Frank McHugh , and a young Jackie Gleason!) get embroiled in the murder of local baker Miller (Ludwig Stossell), with the notorious ‘Gloves’ as prime suspect. A mystery woman (Kaaren Verne) leads the gang to rival Marty Callahan’s (Barton MacLaine) nightclub, and intrigue involving a nest of Fifth Columnists led by Conrad Veidt , Peter Lorre , and Mrs. Danvers herself, Judith Anderson !

There’s a truckload of hilarious one-liners (some a bit dated) and some clever Code-bending double entendres, most of which center on newlywed McHugh’s plight. Sherman and DP Sid Hickox stage a novel and well shot fight in a freight elevator between Bogie and an Axis spy that’s very noir-ish in its execution. A scene Sherman dreamt up features Bogart and Demerest infiltrating a Nazi sympathizer rally and giving the Krauts the “doubletalk”. This scene, mostly improvised by the two stars, was ordered cut by studio boss Jack Warner, but when test audiences reacted positively to a snippet Sherman purposely left in the mogul relented. I’m glad he did, because it’s a very funny bit, allowing Bogie to show off his comedy chops!

Veidt, Lorre, and Anderson all excel as the bad guys, and the two male ex-pats would later join star Bogart in my favorite film, CASABLANCA . Kaaren Verne is quite good as the mystery woman, who of course is not what she seems. Miss Verne was in Sherman’s previous anti-Nazi film that year, UNDERGROUND, and acted in KING’S ROW, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , and THE SEVENTH CROSS before marrying costar Lorre and retiring from the screen. After their divorce in 1950, she made a brief comeback in movies and TV, including a memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Death’s-Head Revisited”. It’s too bad she wasn’t given a higher profile during her Hollywood career; she’s both skilled and beautiful, and with the right part could’ve probably been a big success in films.

The supporting cast features a pair of comics who later gained success in the world of television. Gleason, billed as Jackie C. Gleason, shows glimpses of his comedic talent; he wouldn’t make it in films until after he was firmly established as a top TV comic. Louie the waiter is played by Phil Silvers , who fared slightly better in movies, but did much better after bringing SGT. BILKO to life on the small screen. Familiar Face spotters will have a field day with this one, as Jean Ames, Egon Brecher, Ed Brophy , Walter Brooke, Wally Brown , Chester Clute, Wallace Ford, William Hopper, Martin Kosleck , Sam McDaniel, Emory Parnell, Frank Sully, Philip Van Zandt, Henry Victor, and Ben Welden all appear in small roles (some of them of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety).

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT is one of those enjoyable 40’s films made in an innocent time, where even gangsters rallied ’round the flag for freedom against the Nazi menace. It’s colorful dialog and cast of pros make this a fun vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, on the cusp of superstardom after years of toiling in secondary parts for the Brothers Warner. Soon Bogie would be travelling to CASABLANCA and achieve even greater success, thanks in large part to his work in films like ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Movie lovers like yours truly are forever grateful!

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THEM! (Warner Brothers 1954)

The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).

The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP  , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering the desert highway near Alamogordo, a eyes locked in a blank, faraway stare. Further investigation takes the pair to a trailer that’s been trashed, sugar cubes scattered around, and some mysterious paw prints like those of a wild animal. Peterson finds a piece of her doll’s head and a tear from her robe, indicating this is where she was before becoming catatonic. While being loaded in an ambulance, an eerie, high-pitched noise wakes her, her eyes widening with fright, unnoticed by the cop and the medic.

Ben and Ed stop at Gramps’ General Store to find a similar scene – the place has been violently ransacked, sugar cubes strewn about. This time they find a body, the old man with a look of sheer horror on his face. Peterson leaves the scene, Blackburn staying behind to secure it, when he hears that eerie, high-pitched noise. He goes outside, gun drawn, as the noise grows louder. Offscreen we hear gunshots, followed by the cop’s death throes.

Cut to police headquarters, as Peterson is being consoled for the loss of his partner. The cops believe a homicidal maniac may be on the loose, and FBI agent Robert Graham has called in. It seems the little girl’s dad was an agent on vacation. The coroner’s report states Gramps’ mutilated body contained “enough formic acid to kill twenty men”. The Department of Agriculture sends eminent myrmecologists (ant experts) Dr. Medord and his daughter Pat, and when the elder scientist gives the girl a whiff of formic acid, she wakens in terror, screaming, “THEM! THEM! THEM!”.

Back in the desert, Medford finds a footprint despite the raging sandstorm, estimating it’s owner must be “over eight feet”, yet not ready to tell Ben or Bob what exactly his theory is. They soon find out as Pat is menaced by a giant ant, and both lawmen shoot in vain until Medford instructs them to aim for the creature’s antennae, stopping the big bug in its tracks. Medford’s suspicions have now been confirmed, the ant was “probably created by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb”, tested right there in the Alamogordo desert!

Ben, Bob, and the Medfords take to the skies to look for more, and find a huge anthill the size of a mesa! There’s an entire colony of the mutated bugs down there, and a plan is devised to blast the opening with bazooka fire at high noon, then drop cyanide down the hole to destroy the beasts. When the smoke and gas clear, Ben, Bob, and Pat explore the strange underground chambers, littered with the carcasses of giant dead ants. A few survivors are blasted with flame throwers, and the trio continue to the queen’s chamber. They torch all the eggs, yet discover two have hatched already, two winged queens who’ve left the colony and taken flight…

Unlike subsequent “Big Bug” epics, THEM! boasts a talented cast of actors that make the audience buy into the outlandish premise. James Whitmore lends his blue-collar believability to the part of cop Ben Peterson, risking both life and limb in the name of service. Big James Arness , former alien in THE THING and future Marshal Dillon of TV’s GUNSMOKE, is the brawny FBI agent. Joan Weldon plays Pat, Arness’s love interest (oh, those 50’s lady scientists!).  Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn is perfectly cast as the somewhat scatterbrained but knowledgable scientist Medford. Rounding out the cast are a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles: John Beradino, Willis Bouchey, Richard Deacon, Ann Doran, Olin Howlin, Sean McClory, Jan Merlin, Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker, William Schallert, Onslow Stevens, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Harry Wilson, and Dick York.

I’ve deliberately left out any ending spoilers for those among you who haven’t seen this sci-fi/horror classic. Suffice it to say, there’s lots more to the story, and if I’ve gained you’re interest I urge you to add THEM! to your Halloween watch list. The rest of you have, like me, probably enjoyed the film more than once, and you already know it’s worth watching again!