Experience Matters: THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia 1966)

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A quartet of macho mercenaries – Lee Marvin Burt Lancaster Robert Ryan , and Woody Strode  – cross the dangerous Mexican desert and attempt to rescue a rich man’s wife kidnapped by a violent revolutionary in writer/director Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS, an action-packed Western set in 1917.  The film’s tone is closer to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns than the usual Hollywood oater, though Leone’s trilogy wouldn’t hit American shores until a year later.

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Rich rancher J.W.Grant (screen vet Ralph Bellamy ) hires the quartet to retrieve wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from Jesus Raza (Jack Palance ), formerly a captain in Pancho Villa’s army, now a wanted bandito. Marvin is the stoic leader, a weapons expert who once rode with Raza for Villa, as did Lancaster’s explosives whiz. Ryan plays a sympathetic part (for a change) as the horse wrangling expert, while Strode is a former scout and bounty hunter adept with the bow and arrow. The four men face huge odds but successfully pull off the job and rescue Maria, only to discover she hadn’t been kidnapped at all – she’s Raza’s long-time love, and it’s Grant who stole her from Raza! But Marvin, ever the professional, gave his word to Grant the job would be completed, and they trek back to Texas with Maria in tow, pursued by Raza and his minions. There’s a twist ending and a classic final line delivered by Marvin with style.

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Richard Brooks doesn’t get a lot of attention these days, but he’s a seminal figure in classic films. He wrote the screenplays for the noir gems BRUTE FORCE and KEY LARGO before becoming writer/director on films like the juvenile delinquent drama THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, the psychological Western THE LAST HUNT, the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, the Oscar-winning ELMER GANTRY, the groundbreaking true-crime IN COLD BLOOD, and the dark 70’s masterpiece LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, among many others. Brooks is one of the few filmmakers who bridged the gap from studio contractee to independent auteur, and has earned his place in the conversation on great directors.

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This was Brooks’ first film with cinematographer Conrad Hall, who perfectly captures the action in Nevada’s oppressively hot Death Valley and Valley of Fire State Park. They would team again for the black and white IN COLD BLOOD, and Hall quickly became one of the era’s top DP’s, with films like COOL HAND LUKE , BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, John Huston’s FAT CITY, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, and MARATHON MAN to his credit. Hall took a decade-plus break to work with Haskell Wexler in a television commercial production company, but returned to Hollywood in the 80’s with TEQUILA SUNRISE, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and ROAD TO PERDITION. In all, Hall was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three.

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THE PROFESSIONALS is a fun adventure with plenty of action, humor, and star power, made by professionals who knew their stuff when it came to putting together an entertaining film that audiences would enjoy. If you’re not familiar with Richard Brooks’ or Conrad Hall’s work, go seek out some of the films I’ve cited. You won’t be disappointed.

Hittin’ the Dusty Trail with THE DESPERADOES (Columbia 1943)

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There’s a lot to like about THE DESPERADOES. Not that it’s anything groundbreaking; it’s your standard Western outing with all the standard clichés. you’ve got your two pals, one the sheriff (Randolph Scott ), the other an outlaw (Glenn Ford ). You’ve got your gambling hall dame (Claire Trevor ) and sweet young thing (Evelyn Keyes) vying for the good/bad guy’s attention. You’ve got your goofy comical sidekick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams). You’ve got your  supposedly respectable heavy (Porter Hall ), a mean heavy (Bernard Nedell), and a heavy who has a change of heart (Edgar Buchanan). What makes this one different is the movie seems to know it’s clichéd, giving a nod and a wink to its audience as it merrily makes its way down that familiar dusty trail.

Based on a novel by pulp writer Max Brand (who also created the Dr. Kildare series), this was one of Columbia’s big releases of the year, and their first in Technicolor. Charles Vidor, not usually associated with the sagebrush genre, directs with a light touch, even having some of his characters break the Fourth Wall on a couple of occasions. Robert Carson’s screenplay has a sense of humor and a definite touch of playfulness to . But don’t misunderstand, THE DESPERADOES is not a parody, the story’s taken seriously, and there’s plenty of action including a barroom brawl and a wild horse stampede. It just doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s the key to its success.

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Randolph Scott is stalwart as always as the hero sheriff. By this time, he was already well-established as a Western star. This was his first film for producer Harry Joe Brown, and the pair would collaborate on a series of oaters in the late 1950’s that are among the genre’s best (THE TALL T, RIDE LONESOME, COMANCHE STATION). Most of those were directed by Budd Boetticher, who worked as an assistant director on this film.

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A still-wet-behind-the-ears Glenn Ford plays the good/bad guy Cheyenne, alias ‘Bill Smith’. Ford was definitely on his way up in movies and, after serving in World War II, hit the jackpot with his role in another Vidor directed film, GILDA. Claire Trevor as The Countess does her patented bad-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold routine as Ford’s ex-gal, while Evelyn Keyes is her rival for his affections. Keyes would also win her man in real life, marrying director Vidor later that year. Edgar Buchanan had his loveable scoundrel part down pat by this time, a role he later perfected on TV’s PETTICOAT JUNCTION. Williams is goofy as ever, Hall as weaselly as ever, and there are fine bits by Raymond Walburn as a ‘hanging judge’ who loves his work so much he builds his own gallows, and Irving Bacon as the local bartender whose saloon gets wrecked more than his patrons.

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The movie features some gorgeous Technicolor shots of Kanab, Utah’s beautiful landscapes by DP George Meehan, though most of it was filmed at the famed Corriganville Western Ranch. Familiar Faces like Joan Woodbury, Glenn Strange , Chester Clute, Francis Ford , Charles King, and a host of others dot the landscape as well. The cast of pros in gorgeous Technicolor and good-natured humor make THE DESPERADOES a must for classic movie lovers, even those non-Western fans among you. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, pardners.

 

Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)

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VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

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We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops are ready to shoot to kill wherever they pop up, then leaves them to their fate, as he has a visitor, former flame Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins ). Miss Julia knows the South is losing the war and virtually bankrupt to boot, but has some exciting news: rich Southern sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, have put up five million in gold for the cause. Vance goes to see President Jefferson Davis himself with a plan to transport the loot to Texas and help save the Confederacy.

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Kerry and his crew keep digging, right below the munitions dump, which they blow up and escape (a little foreshadowing here). They make it to General Meade’s camp and tell him they suspect a plot in Virginia City, so he sends them west by stage, which coincidentally also carries Julia. Riding along is bandit John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart , sporting a pencil-thin moustache and terrible Mexican accent!), who tries to hold them up but is foiled by I’m-smarter-than-you Kerry. They all make it to Virginia City (except Bogie, who’ll pop up again later), and Kerry and Vance run into each other at the Sazerac Saloon, where Julia works as a dance-hall singer, and seems to be smitten with both of them.

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The players are all in place, and the stage is set for action, romance, and intrigue, as Vance tries to move the gold out of Nevada, Kerry tries to stop him, Julia is torn between two lovers, and Murrell has plans of his own. There’s danger and excitement at every turn, with Vance forming a wagon train full of gold across the desert, Kerry and company in hot pursuit. Director Michael Curtiz uses some interesting lighting and shot selection to tell the tale, and there’s some fine stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, including one that echoes the previous year’s STAGECOACH . Curtiz was a master film storyteller, not only visually but utilizing strong characterizations to get his story across to the viewer. I know I’ve said it before, but Michael Curtiz is one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

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The ever-gallant Errol Flynn is always the good guy no matter what side he’s on, whether as a Yankee captain here, or portraying Jeb Stuart in SANTA FE TRAIL. His gallantry is equally matched by Randolph Scott, my second-favorite Western star (you regular readers know my first by now!). This is the only film the two appeared in together, and their chemistry made me wish there were more. Most reviewers pan Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Julia, but I thought she was more than adequate, with just the right amounts of proper Southern belle and sexy dance-hall floozie, though her emoting can become a bit too much. It’s Bogart’s last Western, unless you count TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and stardom was lurking just around the corner, so the less said about his role here, the better!

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Flynn, Hale, and Williams always seem to be having a grand old time onscreen together, probably because they were all buddies offscreen, or maybe they were passing a bottle of hootch around between takes! The two sidekicks add solid comic relief to the proceedings, as does Frank McHugh as a fellow stagecoach passenger. There’s more Familiar Faces than you can shake a stick at, including Ward Bond Douglass Dumbrille , Paul Fix, Thurston Hall, Charles Halton, Russell Hicks, William Hopper, Dickie Jones (later of TV’s THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR), John Litel, Charles Middleton (as Jeff Davis), Moroni Olsen, George Reeves, Russell Simpson, and Frank Wilcox.

Victor Kilian appears at the end as Abe Lincoln and gives an impassioned speech that seems appropriate in these tumultuous political times: “We’re not enemies but friends… there is no spirit of revenge in our victory, there must be no harboring of hatred in their defeat… We’re now one people, united by blood and fire, and at that from this day forward our destiny is indivisible, with malice toward none, with charity for all… let us now strive to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Lincoln. Now let’s all dust ourselves off, go forward together, and watch an exciting classic movie like VIRGINIA CITY!

Tall (Tales) in the Saddle: THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE (RKO 1938)

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Cowboy star Harry Carey had been around since motion pictures were knee-high to a cactus. He made his first film in 1908, working with pioneer director D.W. Griffith. He was already one of silent film’s biggest sagebrush stars by the time he made 1918’s STRAIGHT SHOOTER, the directorial debut of John Ford. When the  talkies rolled around, Carey was over fifty and his leading man days were behind him. He transitioned into a fine character actor, and his talents are given a good showcase in the low-budget Western THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE.

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Carey is champion liar Bill Barker, a charming rascal who spins tall tales of his bravery fighting bloodthirsty Indians. The old windbag gets himself thrown out of New York circa 1881 when he tries to run a con on Wall Street tycoon Sam Kent. Not even his ex, a former saloon girl now passing herself off as continental singing sensation Clary Martinez, can save him. Bill travels to El Paso and manages to get tossed out there too, but the judge, who’s been raising Bill and Clary’s daughter Nitta, will wipe the slate clean if Bill can bring in the daring highwayman known as The Tonto Kid.

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The Kid is played by Tim Holt, son of action star Jack Holt. Young Tim was just getting his career started, and THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE gives him a chance to shine as well. Holt was noticed in this film by John Ford, who cast him in his classic STAGECOACH  . This led to an RKO contract, and a popular series of budget Westerns that made Tim one of the biggest box-office cowboys of the late 40’s/early 50’s. The actor displays a boyish charm here that served him well throughout the years, and he has great chemistry with the veteran Carey.

Bill, after bushwhacking Tonto and rescuing daughter Nitta (who believes her father was killed “carrying the Stars & Stripes at Gettysburgh”), gets elected mayor of Martinez, Arizona, where the railroad has gone through. The eloquent old scoundrel appoints himself judge, and opens The Texas Rose Café, where he dispenses whiskey and justice ala Judge Roy Bean. There’s a dispute over water rights with the low-down McQuinn brothers, who are old enemies of Bill. The events culminate in a shootout, with Bill and Tonto victorious. But some of the town elders have grown tired of Bill’s tall tales and frontier justice, and an election is held. Is this the end of the line for the boastful Bill? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Carey has a field day as the blowhard Bill, with his yarns about Indian fighting and being a personal friend of President Garfield. A particularly tense scene has Bill and Tonto at odds, with the older man taking a pistol with one bullet and goading the Kid into shooting at each other. With one last shot, The Tonto Kid backs out of the challenge, but we soon discover there was NO ammo after all. It’s a cool scene and works thanks to Carey and Holt.

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Jean Rouveral  is Nitta, and she’s a good match for Holt. Esther Muir plays Madame Moustache, leader of Bill’s dance hall girls. Silent siren Evelyn Brent gets a plum role as Clary Martinez. Clarence Kolb does his usual fine work as rich Sam Kent. The rest of the cast is a cowboy movie lover’s dream, with Allan “Rocky” Lane, Ward Bond, Bob Kortman, Bradley Page, Monte Montague, Martin Garralaga, Kermit Maynard, Charles Middleton, Bud Osbourne, and Chief Thundercloud all taking part in the action.

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Former actor Glenn Tryon keeps the comedy and the action equally balanced as director. THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE attempts something different from the usual sagebrush saga, and succeeds largely due to Harry Carey’s charisma. I can see where John Wayne learned a lot of his screen tricks, including the way Carey pronounces “cat-ridges” for cartridges, and some of his small bits of business. The movie is a testament to the acting chops of one of Hollywood’s first cowboy stars, and an unpretentious, fun little ‘B’ that Western fans will certainly enjoy.

 

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)

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If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

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The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills a man in cold blood. Chance ends up arresting Joe for murder, realizing Joe’s cattle baron brother Nathan Burdette will try to spring the neer-do-well before the U.S. Marshal arrives in town. Chance has Joe locked up under the watchful eye of the crippled old geezer Stumpy, whose land was taken by the evil Burdette clan.

Chance’s old pal, wagon master Pat Wheeler, rolls into town and offers to help, but Chance turns him down, not wanting to put his friend in danger. One of Wheeler’s men, the fast-gun kid Colorado, could be of service but doesn’t want to get involved. The stagecoach pulls in, carrying flirtatious card sharp Feathers, and is sabotaged by Burdette’s men, hoping to delay the Marshal’s arrival. When Wheeler is killed by Burdette’s hired guns, Colorado changes his mind and joins the fight to hold Joe as Burdette’s hired killers lay siege on the jail.

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This sets the stage for action and some fine character studies from the cast. Predominant among them is John Wayne as the stalwart Sheriff Chance, determined to uphold the law no matter what the price. It’s really the beginning of the “John Wayne Movie” formula the actor followed in his 60’s and 70’s movies. That caused many critics to complain that The Duke was basically playing the same role in all his films. There’s some truth to that in his latter-day films (notable exceptions being TRUE GRIT and THE SHOOTIST). But at this juncture of his career, Wayne was more Movie Star than Actor, his films being box office smashes no matter what he was playing. John Wayne had more than proved himself as an actor for years (check him out in STAGECOACH, RED RIVER, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, THE QUIET MAN, or THE SEARCHERS for proof of that). He may have been coasting along for the last twenty years of his career, but any notions that he couldn’t act had been dispelled long ago, and indeed, he won the Oscar for his Rooster Cogburn turn in 1969’s TRUE GRIT. If he wanted to just make “John Wayne Movies” by that point, he’d earned the right, and filmgoers didn’t seem to mind. They were always entertaining star vehicles and became a kind of genre of their own.

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Duke was surrounded in RIO BRAVO by a top-notch supporting cast. Dean Martin (Dude) was still trying to shed the “Jerry Lewis’s partner” tag in the late 50’s, and his portrayal of the alcoholic deputy went a long way towards that goal. Martin was another actor who was accused of trading in on his persona rather than giving a good performance, but he was more than up to the challenge when given solid material. Teen idol Ricky Nelson (Colorado), who shot to fame on his parents TV show THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, truthfully wasn’t much in the acting department, being cast here mainly to draw in the younger crowd. He was a better singer than actor, as Nelson proves in the middle of the film by dueting with Martin on “My Rifle, My Pony, & Me”, then a rousing “Get Along, Cindy” with Dino and (of all people) Walter Brennan ! The triple Oscar winner channels his inner Gabby Hayes here as the crotchety old-timer Stumpy, always complaining about Chance but remaining forever loyal

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Angie Dickinson (Feathers) was just beginning her career in Hollywood, and RIO BRAVO was her breakthrough role. Wayne’s old pal and frequent costar Ward Bond (Wheeler) was known by this time as another wagon master, Major Seth Adams of the TV hit WAGON TRAIN. The rest of the cast is rounded out by sagebrush vets Claude Akins, John Russell , Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Bob Steele, Bing Russell, and Myron Healey .

Behind the scenes, screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett  crafted a great script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell. The dialogue sparkles with wit, especially the scenes between straight-laced Chance and the seductive Feathers. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score includes the use of the haunting theme “Deguello”, played while Santa Anna’s troops laid siege to The Alamo, setting just the right mood. DP Russell Harlan worked with director Hawks on several films. He was a six-time Oscar nominee who never got his due.

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The same could be said about Howard Hawks, who only received one nomination (for 1941’s SERGEANT YORK) during his illustrious career. That may be due to the fact Hawks was so adept at any genre he worked in, whether it be western, screwball comedy, noir, even musicals and science fiction. Just a short list from his filmography highlights some of Hollywood’s greatest movies: SCARFACE (1932), BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RED RIVER (1948), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). Hawks was finally recognized by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award in 1975, two years before his death. He remains one of America’s most influential directors of the Golden Age.

After Colorado warns that Walter Brennan (Stumpy) is standing next to a wagon full of dynamite, the older man retrieves a box of explosives and joins Chance.

RIO BRAVO is one of nine Hawks films declared culturally significant by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Film Registry. Besides that lofty designation, it’s a fun film that moves briskly along despite its two-hour, twenty-minute running time. Obviously, I love this movie, otherwise I wouldn’t be so long-winded here. The word “classic” gets bandied about pretty regularly when people discuss older films, but RIO BRAVO is one that’s well deserving of the sobriquet. Those who’ve never watched it owe it to themselves to go out and do so. And for those who have, rewatch and be amazed at Hollywood filmmaking at its finest!

 

Victim of Love: Clint Eastwood in THE BEGUILED (Universal 1971)

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THE BEGUILED was the third of five collaborations between star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel. It’s definitely the most offbeat, a Gothic Western set during the Civil War. Clint plays John McBurney, a wounded, half-dead Yankee found in the woods by one of the girls from Miss Martha’s Seminary for Young Ladies. What unfolds from there is unlike anything the duo ever did before or after, a tale of sexual desire and vengeance that’s one of the most unusual entries in the Western canon.

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Clint Eastwood has one of his most unsympathetic roles as McBurney. Although we feel bad about the condition he’s in, we soon realize what an amoral, manipulative scoundrel he is. Flashbacks reveal his lies about his role in the Union Army. Even as he suffers some major “misery” (hint, hint) at the hands of Miss Martha, Clint’s McBurney isn’t a likeable figure. This offbeat casting probably contributed to the film’s box office failure, as audiences were used to seeing Clint being a mythic hero rather than a flawed human being.

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The ladies of THE BEGUILED all have their secrets. Miss Martha (Gerladine Page) was romantically involved with the school’s co-founder, who happened to be her brother. Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) is a sexually repressed virgin, while Carol (JoAnn Harris) is completely uninhibited. Hallie (blues singer Mae Mercer), a slave working for the school, has been abused by white men. Doris (Darleen Carr) is a staunch supporter of the Confederacy who finds Miss Martha’s harboring of McBurney an act of treason. Then there’s young Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), the 12-year-old woman-child who falls hard for the handsome “Mr. McB”, only to have her love turn to hate when he drunkenly kills her pet turtle, and she becomes the instrument of the women’s revenge.

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 Geraldine Page had a wonderful career on stage, screen ,and television, and is regarded as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. I especially enjoyed her work in HONDO, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, and the NIGHT GALLERY episode “The Sins of the Fathers”. Nominated for eight Oscars, Page finally won for THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Elizabeth Hartman is best remembered for A PATCH OF BLUE and WALKING TALL. Darlene Carr and JoAnn Harris were prolific TV actresses during the 70’s. Melody Thomas (Abigail) went on to a 37 year run on the soap THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

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Young Pamelyn Ferdin plays Amy, the little girl who finds McBurney. The scene where 41-year-old Clint kisses 12-year-old Pamelyn to keep her quiet while the Confederate patrol passes borders on pedophilia, and made me kind of queasy. Ferdin was a child star of the 60’s-70’s who made the TV rounds (she was Felix’s daughter on THE ODD COUPLE), and voiced Lucy in three “Peanuts” specials and movies. She also known for her performance in another creepy 70’s tale, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS.

THE BEGUILED isn’t your typical Eastwood/Siegel outing, but it will hold your interest. The acting and direction are top-notch, and the atmospheric material will please fans of Westerns and horror, and is well worth viewing today. Clint and Don failed only at the box office, as fans didn’t want to watch Clint Eastwood in such an unsavory role.  They did better with their next collaboration, a little cop movie called DIRTY HARRY.  But that’s another story for another day…

PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS

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Cracked Rear Viewer rounds up a trio of wild, wild Westerns, as we hit the dusty trail once again with these sagebrush sagas:

BANDOLERO! (1968)

THE BEGUILED (1971)

DUCK YOU SUCKER (1972)