Time Well Spent: THREE HOURS TO KILL (Columbia 1954)

I don’t think you’ll find THREE HOURS TO KILL among anyone’s Top Ten Films list, or Top Ten Westerns, or even Top Ten Dana Andrews Movies. What you will find, if you give this movie a chance, is a solid, adult themed Technicolor Western with just a hint of film noir, made by Hollywood pros in front and behind the cameras. And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Jim Guthrie returns after a three year absence to the town that once tried to hang him. Jim relates the tale via flashback to old friend and current sheriff Ben East: a big night in town had everybody drinking and partying it up. Sexy hotel owner Chris Palmer comes on to Jim, but he only has eyes for pretty Laurie Mastin, bringing out the jealous side of banker Niles Hendricks. Laurie’s brother Carter disapproves of Jim, and a fight breaks out. The camera moves indoors as the partygoers hear two shots, then rush outside to see Jim standing over Carter, gun in hand. The alcohol-fueled crowd erupts into a lynch mob, and Jim barely escapes with his life, his rope-scarred neck a constant reminder of that fateful night.

Ben gives Jim til sundown, just three short hours away, to prove his innocence before either leaving town for good or being arrested. He soon learns many things have changed since he left. Laurie is now married to Niles and has a young son – and as it turns out, the kid is Jim’s! His probing makes him a marked man, and there are suspects galore, all with their own reasons for wanting Carter dead and Jim held responsible…

Dana Andrews  takes the role of Jim Guthrie and plays it like one of his many noir protagonists. He’s a hard man, and justice isn’t the only thing on his mind. Andrews is as obsessed and determined as his Mark McPherson in LAURA , and though his star had fallen somewhat (due to his alcoholism; Andrews eventually conquered his demons through AA), he delivers a sturdy performance. Donna Reed was a year removed from her Oscar win for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and the part of Laurie is a nice, juicy dramatic role for her. As always, Reed gives it her all, and the two work well together.

Character actor James Westerfield in “Three Hours to Kill”

The supporting cast is filled with Familiar Faces. Stephen Elliott is Sheriff Ben, who’s not what he seems. Richard Coogan (TV’s original CAPTAIN VIDEO) plays Niles, who’s also not what he seems. Dianne Foster (Chris) has an impressive sagebrush resume that includes THE KENTUCKIAN, THE VIOLENT MEN, and NIGHT PASSAGE. James Westerfield is bartender Sam, Whit Bissell barber Deke, Richard Webb (another TV captain, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) the unfortunate Carter, and Laurence Hugo (the soap opera EDGE OF NIGHT) the gambler Marty. Carolyn Jones has an early role as a bar girl, and you’ll find vets Stanley Blystone, Franklyn Farnum, Frank Hagney, Hank Mann, Frances McDonald, Snub Pollard, and Buddy Roosevelt among the townsfolk.

Producer Harry Joe Brown treats the film like one of his Randolph Scott Westerns – in fact, it probably would’ve made a good Scott vehicle! The screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons (SHIELD FOR MURDER) and Roy Huggins (future creator of TV’s THE FUGITIVE and THE ROCKFORD FILES) is tense and original. Veteran DP Charles Lawton (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) makes the Columbia backlot look sufficiently Western. And director Alfred Werker had been around since the silent era; working mainly in B’s, his better known films include HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, KIDNAPPED, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and HE WALKED BY NIGHT.

The name Paul Sawtell rarely shows up in discussions on great film composers, but if you’ve ever watched a classic-era movie, you’ve heard his work. Sawtell’s credits are legion: he worked on many Universal Horror and Sherlock Holmes films in the 40’s, moved on to RKO for some Tarzans, scored films noir like THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, BORN TO KILL , T-MEN, RAW DEAL , and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , low budget horror and sci-fi (SON OF DR. JEKYLL, THE BLACK SCORPION , IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE ), Irwin Allen’s THE LOST WORLD , VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, and even a couple of Russ Meyer sexploitationers (FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, MOTORPSYCHO). Sawtell also composed tons of stock music cues that pop up in almost 500 films and TV shows. He’s one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and though he’s no Max Steiner, he deserves a shout-out – so here it is!!

THREE HOURS TO KILL is not a “classic” Western (we’re not talking John Ford here!), but the talent on both sides of the camera make it just a cut above average. It’s well worth watching, not only for Western buffs, but for fans of good, solid Hollywood filmmaking.

Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal-International 1952)

BEND OF THE RIVER, the second of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns, isn’t quite as good as the first, WINCHESTER ’73 . That’s not to say it isn’t a good film; it’s just hard to top that bona fide sagebrush classic. Stewart continues his post-war, harder edged characterizations as a man determined to change his ways, and is supported by a strong cast that includes a villainous turn by the underrated Arthur Kennedy .

Jimmy plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw now riding as trail boss for a group of farmers heading to Oregon to begin a new life. He encounters Kennedy as Emerson Cole, a horse thief about to be hanged, and enlists his help on the trail west. Both men know each other’s reputations; they were both once raiders along the Missouri/Kansas border. The wagons are attacked at night by Shoshone, an arrow piercing young Laura Baile, daughter of farmer Jeremy. The pilgrims arrive in Portland, where Laura must stay behind to mend, buying supplies and meeting up with “gambling man” Trey Wilson. Jeremy’s other daughter Marji is sweet on him, but the gambler prefers to stay put; the farming life is not for him.

A local recognizes Cole from his outlaw days (though no one, including Jeremy and the farmers, is aware of Glyn’s past), and a shootout ends with Trey assisting Cole. The settlers take the steamboat River Queen upriver to get to their new home, but after months of waiting their supplies start dwindling. Glyn and Jeremy ride back to Portland to find what the holdup is, only to discover gold fever has turned Portland into a boom town, and boss Hendricks has raised the prices of all supplies. Cole and Trey and now working in Hendricks’s gambling emporium, as is Laura. When Glyn confronts him, a fracas ensues, with Cole and Trey choosing to side with Glyn. They escape on the River Queen, with Hendricks’s men in hot pursuit. Glyn has a plan to get to the settlement by finding a mountain crossing, a plan with peril and treachery behind every bend…

Mann’s taut direction and Borden Chase’s screenplay turn BEND OF THE RIVER into Western noir in theme if not in style. The characters of Stewart, a man with a past and something to prove, and Kennedy, whose greed drives him to desperate measures, could fit into any shadowy crime drama of the era. Though it’s Stewart’s film all the way, Kennedy’s role is the showier of the two, and his performance made the movie for me. Jay C. Flippen as Jeremy Baile is always a welcome presence, and a trio of Universal contract players round out the main cast: Julie Adams (Laura), Lori Nelson (Marji), and Rock Hudson (Trey), a young actor on his way up. Familiar Faces dotting the Oregon landscape include Frances Bavier , Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Chubby Johnson (as the River Queen’s Cap’n Mello), Donald Kerr , Jack Lambert , Dallas McKinnon, Harry Morgan (still being billed as Henry), Howard Petrie, and Lillian Randolph.

Also in the cast is Stepin Fetchit, the black actor whose lazy and shiftless characters causes modern-day audiences to cringe. Yet here Fetchit is Cap’n Jack’s right hand man as Adam, the two sharing an obvious friendship. Fetchit (1902-1985), Jamaican by birth, was a vaudevillian who parlayed his comic persona as “The Laziest Man On Earth” into a film career that three decades later was denounced by civil rights activists as derogatory to African-Americans. Fetchit’s slow-drawling, slow-moving parts in movies found him playing opposite Will Rogers (a personal friend from their vaudeville days) in four films, two with Shirley Temple (THE LITTLEST REBEL, DIMPLES), the 1929 SHOW BOAT, ON THE AVENUE, and many others. Fetchit was the first black actor in Hollywood to make over a million dollars, though he later declared bankruptcy in 1947. Yes, his stereotyped roles are indeed cringeworthy today, but he is an important figure in Hollywood history, and should not be shuffled off to its dustbins.

BEND OF THE RIVER is important as Stewart and Mann’s first Technicolor Western, its noirish elements, and the continued maturing of the team as forces to be reckoned with in the genre. Next up was THE NAKED SPUR , which further honed Stewart’s darker screen persona. More than just another oater, BEND OF THE RIVER is a film that gets better with repeated viewings.

 

Ulmer Out West: THE NAKED DAWN (Universal-International 1955)

A Technicolor modern-day Western noir directed by legendary low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer ? Count me in! THE NAKED DAWN probably wouldn’t be remembered today if it weren’t for Ulmer, who had a knack for making silk purses out of sow’s ears. Ulmer uses the outdoor locations and his trademark tight shots to disguise the budgetary restrictions, and creates a small gem of a movie. It’s not THE SEARCHERS  or anything, just a compact little drama with a rare starring role for actor Arthur Kennedy .

Kennedy plays Santiago, an ex-revolutionary turned bandito. He’s a drifter, unfettered by societal norms, whose lust for life and freedom are constantly threatened by the powers that be. A metaphor for Ulmer himself, perhaps? Santiago robs a train of some merchandise, and his friend Vicente is killed in the process. Stumbling upon God-fearing Maria and her husband Manuel on their modest farm, Santiago’s roguish charm enchants both. Manuel is struggling to make a go of things; he’s sunk his life savings into the farm. The purchase price included Maria, unhappy with her lot in life and longing to experience the outside world.

Santiago persuades Manuel to drive him to Matamoros to sell his ill-gotten gains, and the crooked customs agent tries to rip him off. But sly Santiago is no easy mark, and he quickly turns the tables, grabbing all the cash and leaving the agent standing on a chair with a noose around his neck! The two men celebrate at a local cantina (where we’re treated to some singing and dancing by the lovely Charlita of BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA fame!), getting drunk on tequila and involved in a barroom brawl. Manuel, tired of working like a dog, plots to kill Santiago and take the money for himself. Meanwhile, Maria has grown tired of being slapped around and treated like a servant, and throws herself into the arms of the carefree bandito…

Kennedy was usually relegated to second leads, and takes this opportunity to shine as the lusty Santiago. His Mexican accent may be a bit on the hokey side, but his performance is well nuanced enough to make up for it. There’s no denying Kennedy was a great actor – after all, the man has five Oscar nominations on his resume (though he never won)! Betta St. John (Maria) was a good actress who never quite got that one role that would put her over the top; the closest she came was probably in DREAM WIFE, opposite Cary Grant. She’s better known for her parts in a pair of horror flicks, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee , and HORROR HOTEL, again with Lee. Eugene Iglesias’ Manuel is written as a coward, and elicits no sympathy whatsoever – at least not from me!

THE NAKED DAWN won’t show up on any “Ten Best” lists, but it did have one very influential fan – French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who claimed he based his characters in JULES AND JIM on Santiago, Maria, and Manuel. Edgar G. Ulmer may not have had large budgets to work with, but his films were admired by those who know good filmmaking when they see it. Include me among them!