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.

Advertisements

Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)

John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as we see him shoot out the eyes of a Comanche corpse so his soul “must wander the spirit world between the winds”. He taunts Martin when the young man unwittingly marries the squaw Look, derisively referring to her as “Mrs. Pawley”.

Ethan is a hard man to get along with, yet for all his macho bravado (“That’ll be the day”, he intones whenever someone challenges him), he shows signs of compassion throughout the film. He’s tender with his nieces and nephews (and sister-in-law Martha; there’s a suggestion that they were once more than friends). He spares Martin the agony of looking into the burned out homestead to gaze upon the bodies of his loved ones. His love for family is delineated as he tries to shield niece Lucy’s grim fate from Martin and young Brad Jorgensen, and his response when Brad asks what happened is tortured: “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me”.

Ethan’s search for surviving niece Debbie, captured by the renegade Comanche Scar, has a murderous purpose; he intends to kill the despoiled girl to save her from what he considers a fate worse than death – miscegenation. Yet when he finally tracks her down, blood in his eyes, he has a change of heart, and the softly spoken, haunting words, “Let’s go home, Debbie” never fail to mist me up. Ethan Edwards is a complex character, Kris Kristofferson’s “walking contradiction” come to life, as imperfect and flawed as the rest of us. It is indisputably John Wayne’s finest screen performance; the fact he wasn’t even nominated for the Academy Award is another in the long list of Oscar crimes.

Wayne’s dark Ethan Edwards is counterbalanced by Jeffrey Hunter’s sweet-natured Martin Pawley. A somewhat naïve young man, Martin longs for acceptance by ‘Uncle’ Ethan (Edwards disdains the term when Martin uses it), and is as dogged in his determination to find Debbie as the older man, though his intentions are more altruistic. Martin’s letters home to his sweetheart Laurie (played by Vera Miles) serve as narration to the story, and the scenes they share together as comic interludes to the film’s heavy tone. A 20th Century-Fox contract player, Hunter got his big break with THE SEARCHERS, and plays well off Wayne’s Edwards (Ford used the actor again in both THE LAST HURRAH and SERGEANT RUTLEDGE). Two of his most famous roles were in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 Biblical drama KING OF KINGS (which Hunter referred to as ” I Was a Teenage Jesus”) and the pilot episode of STAR TREK as Enterprise Commander Christopher Pike, later reworked into a two-part episode titled “The Menagerie”. Jeffrey Hunter continued his career in Europe, including a pair of Spaghetti Westerns (THE CHRISTMAS KID, FIND A PLACE TO DIE) before succumbing to a brain hemorrhage in 1969 at age 42.

By far my favorite character in THE SEARCHERS is the slightly crazy Ol’ Mose Harper, played by sagebrush vet Hank Worden. Long a Ford favorite, this was Worden’s biggest role, and he surely takes the tommyhawk and runs with it! The simplistic Mose greets every insult to his intelligence with a hearty, “Thank ya kindly!”, and holds the key to finding Debbie, wanting only in return “Just a roof over Ol’ Mose’s head, and a rockin’ chair by the fire – my own rockin’ chair”. Worden, best known to modern-day viewers as the waiter on the original TWIN PEAKS, was a member in good standing of the Ford Stock Company, and was used by Wayne in many of his later films (you can read my piece on Hank Worden’s career by clicking this link ).

Henry Brandon as Comanche war chief Scar is Ethan’s opposite number; he’s as filled with hatred for the white race as Edwards is for the Indians. Unlike the noble opponents found in many Wayne Westerns (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,  MCLINTOCK!), Scar is as ruthless and uncompromising in his hostility as Edwards, and his reaction to the white man’s hatred and oppression is hatred and oppression of his own, which only serves to fan the flames of discord between the races. It’s a lesson neither Scar nor Ethan ever learn, and continues today on the extremes of the political spectrum (Left and Right).

The rest of the cast is equally superb, including Natalie Wood as Debbie, Ward Bond as Reverend/Texas Ranger Samuel Clayton Johnson, Ken Curtis as Martin’s love rival Charlie (they engage in a comic brawl over Vera Miles’ affections), John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen, and Harry Carey Jr as Brad. Harry’s mother Olive Carey is cast as Mrs. Jorgensen, and in that famous final shot in the doorway Duke pays homage to her late husband Harry Carey Sr. by grasping his right arm at the elbow, a pose Carey struck in many a Western. Wayne’s son Patrick appears toward the end as callow Lt. Greenhill, and it’s fun to watch The Duke watching Pat act opposite Bond; that bemused look on his face is priceless! There are other Familiar Faces dotting the landscape as well, Danny Borzage, Dorothy Jordan, Mae Marsh, Antonio Moreno, Chief Thundercloud, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood (playing Debbie as a child) among them.

 Speaking of landscapes, DP Winton Hoch beautifully brings Ford’s favorite shooting canvas Monument Valley to life in breathtaking VistaVision and Technicolor. Additional location footage was shot in California, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, as well as Hollywood’s soundstages, all blended brilliantly by editor Jack Murray. And no one other than the great Max Steiner could do justice to a film of this magnitude; his score ranks among his all-time best.

As for the Old Master himself, John Ford was at the peak of his creative talent, his keen eye for detail making every shot a work of art. But THE SEARCHERS would be his last great masterpiece (though a case could be made for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). Ford was 66 years old, his eyesight failing, and his years of alcohol abuse were beginning to take their deadly toll. His pictures after this seemed to be losing their vibrancy, that distinctive John Ford touch. Thus it is that THE SEARCHERS is the note the director should’ve ended on artistically, but unfortunately life never truly imitates art, does it? It’s a film that consistently ranks high in critic’s and filmmaker’s top tens, and one worth repeated viewings to soak in all the nuances of characterization and mise en scene. THE SEARCHERS is a film I don’t just recommend, I implore you to watch. It is truly that damn good.

 

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

Rocky Mountain High: THE NAKED SPUR (MGM 1953)

 

 

(By sheer coincidence, this post coincides with the birthday of character actor Millard Mitchell (1903-1953), who plays Tate in the film. Happy birthday, Millard! This one’s for you!)  

James Stewart and Anthony Mann  moved from Universal-International to MGM, and from black & white to Technicolor, for THE NAKED SPUR, the third of their quintet of Westerns together. The ensemble cast of five superb actors all get a chance to shine, collectively and individually, creating fully fleshed out characters against the natural beauty of the Colorado backdrop.

Bitter Howard Kemp, whose wife sold their ranch and ran off while he was serving in the war, is hunting down killer Ben Vandergroat for the $5,000 bounty in hopes of rebuilding his life. Along the trail he meets old prospector Jesse Tate and recently discharged (dishonorably) Lt. Roy Anderson. The trio manages to capture Vandergroat, but he’s not alone… he’s accompanied by pretty wildcat Lina Patton. Now they must cross the dangerous Colorado territory to bring the outlaw back to Kansas, encountering danger and treachery at every turn, as Ben tries to drive a wedge of greed between them.

Lanky Jimmy Stewart plays Kemp as a conflicted man, at turns downright mean yet developing feelings for the untamed Lina. She’s played by Janet Leigh , the daughter of Ben’s dead outlaw buddy torn between loyalty to him and her growing fondness for Kemp. Though Lina’s a wild, feisty  young woman, she shows tenderness towards him when he’s wounded during an Indian attack. She cries as Kemp callously shoots her sick horse, not wanting to be slowed down in bringing his prisoner to justice, yet isn’t willing to let Ben kill him. Stewart and Leigh bring great depth to these two contradictory, all too human characters.

Robert Ryan  has a field day as the snickering, scheming Vandergroat,  using Lina to seduce Kemp, tricking gold-fevered Tate into freeing him, and working on everybody’s baser emotions to his advantage. Ryan gets all the good lines (“Money splits better two ways ‘stead of three”), and makes a charming sociopath. Ralph Meeker’s   Lt. Anderson thinks he’s a charmer too, putting the make on Leigh’s character from the get-go, and that Indian attack I mentioned earlier is a direct result of Anderson taking liberties (to put it nicely) with the daughter of the tribe’s chief. Meeker’s character is driven by lust, for both money and women, and the actor does well in the part.

Character actor Millard Mitchell plays the grizzled old Tate, who’s been searching for a gold strike for decades without success. His obsession with striking it rich is his weakness and ultimately his downfall when he finally breaks his word and attempts to aid Vandergroat. Mitchell played opposite Stewart in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and enhanced many a classic film with his talent: KISS OF DEATH, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE GUNFIGHTER. He was the marshal in THE GUNFIGHTER and studio boss R. F. Simpson in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and an actor who deserves more recognition for his contributions to cinema.

There are no true heroes in the script by Harold Jack Bloom and Sam Rolfe, only five disparate characters thrown together by fate, a theme closer to Mann’s early work in film noir than the wild west. Both writers would go on to create popular TV shows; Rolfe was the man behind THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and Bloom co-created the hit EMERGENCY!. William C. Mellor’s stunning outdoor photography provides the perfect picture of man vs. nature, both the terrain and his own baser instincts. Bronislaw Kaper’s score adds immensely to the film’s overall mood. Anthony Mann is in top form here, guiding his ensemble through their paces with a strong hand. THE NAKED SPUR is grand entertainment, and has gotten even better over time. This is a film that bares repeated viewings to absorb all that’s going on, and not to be missed!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 13: ALL-STAR WESTERN ROUNDUP!

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game is tomorrow night, and in honor of that All-American pastime I’ve corralled an All-Star lineup of (mostly) All-American Westerns filled of blazing six-guns, galloping horses, barroom brawls, sexy saloon gals, and wide-open spaces. Hot damn, that DVR sure enough gets filled up mighty fast! Saddle up and enjoy these capsule looks at one of my favorite genres, the Western:

THE CARIBOO TRAIL (20th Century-Fox, 1950; D: Edwin L. Marin) – Randolph Scott   rides tall in the saddle driving his cattle to Vancouver gold rush country in this exciting oater filled with stampedes, Indian attacks, bad hombres, shoot outs, and fisticuffs. There’s a pretty saloon keeper (Karin Booth), a mean town boss (Victor Jory), and Scott’s bitter ex-pardner (Bill Williams), who had to have his arm amputated along the trail. Scenic Colorado stands in for Canada’s Great Northwest, shot in gorgeous Cinecolor by DP Fred Jackman Jr. Look for young Jim Davis and Dale Robertson in supporting parts. The movie doesn’t break any new ground, but for genre fans it’s a real treat! Fun Fact: The always delightful Gabby Hayes plays loveable old windbag Grizzly in his final feature film appearance.

FACE OF A FUGITIVE (Columbia 1959; D: Paul Wendkos) – Escaped outlaw on the run Fred MacMurray settles in the town of Tangle Blue, where he gets tangled up with pretty shopkeeper Dorothy Green, her sheriff brother Lin McCarthy, and evil landowner Alan Baxter. Routine ‘B’ Western elevated somewhat by MacMurray’s low-key performance, Wendkos’ taut direction, and Wilfred M. Cline’s moody cinematography. Fred is always watchable. Fun Fact: Young James Coburn   makes his second film appearance as one of Baxter’s hired hands.

ARIZONA RAIDERS (Columbia 1965; D: William Whitney) – Above-average Audie Murphy   ‘B’ outing, with the star and his pal Ben Cooper a pair of ex-Quantrill Raiders sprung from prison by the newly appointed head of the Arizona Rangers to hunt down some remaining guerillas terrorizing the territory. Some well-staged action by director Whitney, a veteran of Republic Pictures serials and sagebrush sagas. It’s fun to see another serial & sagebrush vet, the great Buster Crabbe as Ranger Captain Andrews, and the supporting cast features slimy baddies Michael Dante and George Keymas, Gloria Talbott as an Indian maiden, and Ray Stricklyn as Audie’s kid bro. I could’ve done without the opening exposition by Booth Colman as a newspaper editor talking directly to the camera; otherwise this is highly recommended! Fun Fact #1: Unintentionally funny line – Stricklyn (while lying mortally wounded): “Clint, it’s… it’s getting kinda dark” Murphy: “Well, it’s a little cloudy, Danny”! Fun Fact #2: Miss Talbott is well-known to horror genre buffs for her roles in DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, THE CYCLOPS, and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE!

RIDE BEYOND VENGEANCE (Columbia 1966; D; Bernard McEveety) – An interesting if flawed attempt at a psychological Western, aided by a solid supporting cast. A modern-day bartender in Cold Iron, Texas (Arthur O’Connell) relates to a census taker (James MacArthur) the legend of “The Day of the Reprisals”, a fateful night in town history. Flashbacks take us to 1884, when buffalo hunter Jonas Trapp (Chuck Connors), returning home to his wife (Kathryn Hays) after 11 years, gets bushwhackers by a trio of nasties (Michael Rennie, Claude Akins, Bill Bixby), who brand him with a red-hot iron and steal his $17,000 savings. Now Jonas goes out for revenge to reclaim both his money and his wife. The mainly backlot sets and a sometimes weak script keep this strictly ‘B’ level, but a game attempt nonetheless. The impressive cast features Buddy Baer, Joan Blondell , Jamie Farr, Paul Fix (Chuck’s RIFLEMAN costar), Frank Gorshin, Gloria Grahame , Robert Q. Lewis, Gary Merrill, and Ruth Warrick. Folk singer Glenn Yarbrough (“Baby, the Rain Must Fall”) sings the title tune. Not a classic, but definitely worth a look. Fun Fact: Production company Goodson/Todman were better known for their myriad TV game shows – BEAT THE CLOCK, FAMILY FEUD, MATCH GAME, PRICE IS RIGHT, WHAT’S MY LINE, et al.

CHISUM (Warner Bros 1970; D: Andrew V. McLaglen) – Cattle baron John Wayne takes on rival town boss Forrest Tucker during the famous Lincoln County Cattle War, with William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid (Geoffey Deuel) thrown in for good measure. This will seem like a rehash to fans of Duke’s older, better movies, with so many Familiar Faces from previous vehicles ( John Agar , Christopher George, Richard Jaeckel Hank Worden , etc etc) the set must’ve seemed like old home week. Ben Johnson adds some spice as Wayne’s mumbling, grumbling sidekick Pepper, William Clothier’s shots of scenic Durango, Mexico are breathtaking, and the finale (featuring a cattle stampede through town and a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Wayne and Tucker) is fairly exciting. Not one of his best outings, but hey… it’s a John Wayne Movie! That alone makes it worth watching! Fun Fact: Country star Merle Haggard   sings the tune “Turn Me Around”, and actor William Conrad does a hip-hop rap over the title credits. Just kidding about that last tidbit, I wanted to make sure you were still paying attention!

       

ADIOS, SABATA (United Artists 1971; D: Gianfranco Parolini) –  Lesser but highly enjoyable entry in the Spaghetti Western canon. This is the second of Parolini’s Sabata Trilogy, with black-clad Yul Brynner taking over for Lee Van Cleef in the title role (Van Cleef returned for the final film). “Soldier of Fortune” Sabata teams with frenemy Ballantine and a colorful band of Mexican revolutionaries to steal Emperor Maximilian’s gold and defeat the sadistic Colonel Skimmel. The bare-bones plot is just an excuse for Parolini (billed in the U.S. print as “Frank Kramer”) to assault our senses with an almost non-stop barrage of violent set pieces, well shot by DP Sandro Mancori. Yul gets off some snappy one-liners, and his sawed-off repeating rifle is way cool, as is Bruno Nicolai’s ersatz Ennio Morricone score. Kick back, pop open an adult beverage, and enjoy the action! Fun Fact: Minor late 50s/early 60s teen idol Dean Reed, who embraced leftist politics and became more successful as an ex-pat entertainer, plays the part of Ballantine.      

Ride along with other “Cleaning Out the DVR” posts:

Familiar Faces #1: Hank Worden, Everyone’s Favorite Supporting Cowboy

(You know how, when watching a classic movie or TV episode, you’ll spot someone in a small part and say, “Hey, I know that guy (or gal)? This new series will shine the spotlight on those unsung heroes of the Golden Age, the supporting actors we all know and love!)

There’s no mistaking Hank Worden for anyone else in films. The tall, bald, lanky, soft spoken old codger with a face like a buzzard graced the screen with his presence in 170 features and numerous TV episodes, sometimes uncredited but always recognizable. He was a member in good standing of the John Ford/John Wayne Stock Company, worked with everyone from Howard Hawks and Clint Eastwood to Ma & Pa Kettle and Sonny & Cher, and even starred in a documentary about his life and career. Not bad for an old buzzard!

Hank (right) ties up Tex Ritter in 1938’s “Rollin’ Plains”

Hank didn’t just play cowboys onscreen; he was the real deal. Born in Iowa in 1901 and raised on a ranch in Montana, young Hank Worden learned to ride and rope with the best of them. He put his skills to good use on the rodeo circuit, and before long was playing New York’s famed Madison Square Garden, where he was spotted and signed to appear on Broadway in a new play titled GREEN GROW THE LILACS, along with another newcomer, a young singer named Tex Ritter.

Hank as a Southern soldier in John Ford’s “Fort Apache”

Hollywood soon beckoned, and Hank began appearing in his old costar Tex’s low-budget Westerns, sometimes as a sidekick, sometimes the villain’s henchman. He became a favorite of director Howard Hawks, acting in five of his films, but it’s his collaborations with John Ford and John Wayne for which he’s best remembered. Hank first joined the two in Wayne’s 1939 breakout film STAGECOACH as an extra, but came to the forefront in 1948’s FORT APACHE, showing off his riding skills to good advantage.

Hank’s most famous role – Old Mose in 1956’s “The Searchers”

His biggest and best loved role is undoubtably as Old Mose Harper in Ford’s 1956 classic THE SEARCHERS. Mose is an old tracker who’s a bit touched in the head, and serves as an annoyance to Wayne’s mean, prejudiced Ethan Edwards. Old Mose may be a fool, but he still knows his stuff, for he’s the one who finally locates the renegade Indian Scar (Henry Brandon). All the slightly crazy Mose wants in return is a rocking chair, “just like you promised, Ethan”. The old man gets his wish, sitting happy and content in front of the Jorgensen family’s fireplace. It’s a warm, lighthearted performance in a dark, brutal film, and Worden makes the most of the part.

Hank as The Old Waiter, his last role, on TV’s “Twin Peaks”

Hank Worden continued to work with Wayne in MCLINTOCK!, TRUE GRIT, CHISUM, BIG JAKE, and other movies. He was in demand on television too, making appearances on THE LONE RANGER (six times), BONANZA, WAGON TRAIN (with fellow Ford alumni Ward Bond), RAWHIDE, GUNSMOKE, and most of the Westerns of the day. Sometimes he pops up in the strangest places, like 1978’s SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, as one of the original band members! He’s probably best known to modern audiences for his turn as the Old Waiter in David Lynch’s bizarre TV series TWIN PEAKS, his last acting job before passing away in 1992 at the grand old age of 91. But no matter where you find him, Hank Worden is always a welcome presence whenever he shows up, one of my truly favorite Familiar Faces.

(Do you Dear Readers have any suggestions for future Familiar Faces posts? As always, you’re comments and feedback is most welcome here at Cracked Rear Viewer! Let me know, and I’ll get Cracking!)  

Hell Bent for Vengeance: Randolph Scott in DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Columbia 1957)

I seem to have gained some new channels along with my new DirecTV receiver. I’m not sure why, but I won’t argue…  at least until I see the bill! One of them is Sony Movie Channel, featuring the Columbia Pictures catalog, and I recently viewed DECISION AT SUNDOWN, the third of seven Western collaborations between star Randolph Scott  and director Budd Boetticher. The plot and setting are simple, yet within that framework we get a tense psychological drama about a man consumed by vengeance and hatred.

Scott, still cutting a dashing figure at age 59, plays Bart Allison, who along with his pal Sam, ride into the town of Sundown on the day of Tate Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy Summerton. Bart’s not there to offer his congratulations though; he announces his intention to kill town boss Tate. The reason: Bart holds Tate responsible for his wife’s suicide three years ago. Bart and Sam then hole up in the livery stable while Tate’s hand-picked sheriff and his men force a stand-off.

To reveal any more of the narrative would be doing a disservice to those who haven’t seen this little gem. Suffice it to say, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The film is expertly put together by Boetticher, DP Burnett Guffey (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE), and editor Al Clark (ALL THE KING’S MEN, 3:10 TO YUMA ), keeping the suspense tight as possible. Boetticher was a talented director who marched to the beat of his own drum. A trained bullfighter, his breakthrough film was 1951’s THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY. He directed the frequently overlooked noir THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956) before embarking on his seven Scott Westerns, then spent over a decade filming and finding financing for his documentary on Mexican matador Carlos Arruza, finally getting a 1972 release. An most interesting man, Boetticher died in 2001.

Scott gives an outstanding performance as Allison, driven by his lust for vengeance. Bart Allison is both a man of principal and tragic figure, and Scott maintains his balance between the two using few words, showing not telling. It’s a difficult role, but Randolph Scott pulls it off in his own inimitable style. His chemistry with Noah Beery Jr, playing loyal friend Sam, is palpable; one can only wish they’d made more films together. Tate Kimbrough is played by John Carroll, who looked and sounded so much like Clark Gable that MGM once tried to promote him as The Next Big Thing. He never quite caught on, probably because the resemblance was too close, and one Gable in Hollywood was enough. Carroll could hold his own in the acting department though, his best known films are probably GO WEST (with the Marx Bros), FLYING TIGERS (with John Wayne), and the Republic serial ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

Rounding out the cast are Karen Steel (MARTY) as Lucy, Valerie French (JUBAL) as Tate’s former lover Ruby, John Archer ( ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK ) as the sympathetic town doctor, and Andrew Duggan ( THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET ) as the sheriff. Familiar Faces around town include veteran John Litel as Lucy’s father, Richard Deacon, Abel Fernandez, Bob Steele, Vaughn Taylor, Ray Teal, James Westerfield, and H.M. Wynant. If you haven’t watched any of the seven Scott/Boetticher Westerns, you’re missing out on some great filmmaking, and DECISION AT SUNDOWN makes a good  place to start.