Elmore Leonard: The Westerns

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The passing of Elmore Leonard yesterday naturally foregrounded the writer’s most famous movies, which ended up being some of his more crimey-urban-mystery stuff like Get Shorty (1995) and Jackie Brown (1997). But having spent many long man-hours on a book about westerns, I’m here to tell ya that many if not most of his screen credits are in the sagebrush genre, and so here’s a few notes I’ve scribbled (more than you’ll probably ever want to know) on some of the successful westerns with which Leonard’s been associated. Are there some running themes? He seems to like to write about people holding each other prisoner…it’s a device he returns to again and again. And a predicament all writers are familiar with.

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 The Tall T (1957)

An unspeakably good Budd Boetticher film for which Leonard wrote the story, which was adapted into a screenplay by Burt Kennedy. It’s practically a horror movie. Randolph Scott is a lone rancher who happens to be riding a special stagecoach hired by a weasly moneygrubber and his wealthy new bride (Maureen O’Sullivan). Arthur Hunicutt is the stage driver. At one of the transfer stations they are held up by a ruthless gang, who’ve killed the kindly widower and his young son who operated it and dumped their bodies down a well. We know already from Scott’s eyes he’s going to take care of these guys. The gang is led by the best western movie villain ever Richard Boone.  As always, Boone is compelling – his malice seems as inevitable and implacable as death…but at the same time there seems something TO him. He dislikes his gang and the weasly bridegroom, but he DOES like Scott. He knows character when he sees it. When they are first robbed the sniveling husband volunteers the information that his wife’s father is a millionaire and volunteers to go back for the ransom. When he returns with the money, Boone tells him he can go and he does so, even though that means leaving his wife behind. The weasel gets the shooting from Boone that he deserves. But Boone hasn’t counted on Scott. One by one he dispatches the three villains (shoots one of their heads off, very graphically), and manages to romance the widow at the same time. When they are out of danger, it looks like the formerly lonesome Scott will now have a partner.

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3:10 to Yuma (1957)

Elmore Leonard wrote the story it was based on. Directed by Delmer Daves. Bears certain similarities to High Noon, released five years earlier. It asks the question, what do you do when you’re torn between duty to your community, duty to your family, and duty to yourself? Van Heflin is a failing rancher. He and his two boys come upon Glenn Ford and his gang robbing a stagecoach and see him murder the coachman. Heflin feels impotent, ashamed that he can’t do anything about it. Later, when the townspeople catch Ford, Heflin takes a job transporting the prisoner to jail in Yuma on the titular 3:10…but he has to get there first. Tense waiting for the gang to to come and spring Ford, without anyone to back Heflin up. Very good casting. Ford, known as a straight arrow, often has a James Dean like quality in a lot of his 50s pictures; he’s so cool he rattles Heflin—who, in turn is very good at sweating and snapping. Like Heflin, we don’t know how to read Ford. At moments he seems to have a heart. More often it seems more like diabolical charm, which he can use to manipulate anyone he pleases. In the end the gang shows up…Heflin almost makes it on the train with Ford, but then the whole gang is there and he’s sure to be killed. But then Ford volunteers to go on train, saving Heflin’s life. (Heflin had earlier saved ford’s life, making it tit for tat). Far superior to the 2007 remake.

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Hombre (1967)

Directed by Martin Ritt; Leonard wrote the novel on which it is based. It’s a progressive western with Paul Newman as an Apache halfbreed who has chosen the Native American lifestyle despite a white father of some power and importance. When we first meet him he has long hair and is rounding up wild horses. But then he learns his father has died and he has inherited a boarding house from him. He cleans up and dresses “white”, then takes an ill-fated stagecoach ride that has certain echoes of Stagecoach: a motley collection of folks, including  Martin Balsam as the stage driver (he makes a much more convincing Mexican than Eli Wallach), Frederick March as a snooty Federal Indian agent, his wife, a couple of young newlyweds, the landlady from the boarding house, and Richard Boone as a very suspicious individual. Unlike Stagecoach, however, here the enemy is not the Apache, but the whites. It turns out March has embezzled thousands from the tribe and he is running off with his booty. And it also turns out that Richard Boone is the leader of a gang of thieves. It ends up with all of the characters trapped in the desert, a bunch of shooting, and a boring standoff. In the end, Newman, whom the entire cast has pretty much dissed for being a lowly Indian, dies a heroic death rescuing the Indian agent’s wife. Somehow we don’t much care. The most compelling and entertaining character in the film is Boone, at his villainous best. He takes an almost sensuous pleasure in his villainy. But the film suffers from a rambling, talky, claustrophobic feeling , which is not surprising since Ritt came of of tv dramas.

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Valdez is Coming (1971)

Based on a Leonard novel. Burt Lancaster in the sort of film we associate with Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. We’re in some border town. Lancaster is Bob Valdez, a Mexican-American former Apache fighter who is now a local constable. Some semi-crooked landowner and his lackeys are shooting at a black man for a murder he allegedly committed. Through a snafu, Valdez has to kill the black man, who turns out to have been innocent. When Lancaster tries to collect $100 for the widow (a pregnant Apache), the villain and his minion humiliate and torture him (they even force him to walk around with a crucifix tied to his back, directly after they have shot up a church.)  Valdez, a ridiculously mild man in the beginning, who prefers talking to violence has now been pushed too far. He sends the titular warning (“Tell them, ‘valdez is coming’.”), comes in for the guy, kills one of his lackeys and kidnaps his woman, then rides into the desert, forcing several successive patrols of henchmen to come after him. He kills them all. In the end they do trap him, but the men are too in awe to shoot him. It ends with a stand off between Valdez and the villain. Lancaster is second to no one in machismo, but the brown face paint he wears is ridiculous, as his accent. About ten of the characters seem to be non Mexicans in brown make up. All the men (of all colors) are wearing eye-liner. In short, this is a movie with a lot of men wearing a lot of make-up!

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Joe Kidd (1972) 

Well made, finely focused story with a screenplay by Leonard, directed by John Sturges. Clint Eastwood plays the title character, the town ne’er-do-well who is nevertheless a man of exceptional abilities. It’s Southern New Mexico, 1902. A group of Mexicans led by John Saxon, are having an insurrection, wanting to take their land back, and wreaking violence through the countryside. The land baron who is holding most of that land (Robert  Duvall) comes into town to hire Kidd, who turns out to be an expert tracker who used to work for the army in Apache country. Kidd refuses at first; he instinctively dislikes Duvall and his men. But he changes his mind when he discovers the Mexicans have killed one of his ranch hands. (He’s a ne’er-do-well who happens to have a ranch, albeit a small one). Kidd rides with the bad guys and quickly learns that they are TOO bad. They have a habit of exterminating everyone. When they get to a small village they threaten to kill five people every day until the insurrectionists give themselves up. They lock Kidd up as well; he’s obviously not with them. Kidd dispatches several of the bad men in quiet, clever ways: an open trapped door, a swinging jug on a rope. He shoots a bunch of them when they try to kill some citizens. Then he goes into the hills and persuades the Mexican leader he needs to give himself up to the law. When they ride back to their town though, Duvall and his men are waiting for him. Kidd actually drives a locomotive into the saloon to take care of a bunch of them. And he shoots Duvall from the judge’s chair in the courthouse!

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High Noon, Part Two: The Return of Will Kane (1980)

You and I both can be grateful that I have not seen this made-for-tv sequel to a well-known classic. The title alone makes me guffaw. Leonard wrote the screenplay, and Lee Majors (the Six Million Dollar Man) plays the Gary Cooper part.

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Desperado (1987)

Leonard wrote the screenplay for this tv movie and its four sequels through 1989 starring Alex McArthur as one “Duel McCall”. They have not been reshown since and they are not available on DVD.

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Border Shootout (1990)

I’ve not seen it, but I have deduced from IMDB that this is looks to be one of those low-budget movies where the star who has name above the title (Glenn Ford) has the smallest role (his name is at the absolute bottom of the credits. He probably showed up for an hour. Leonard adapted the screenplay from his novel.

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Last Stand at Saber River (1997)

Interesting tv movie based on Leonard novel. Tom Selleck is a Confederate soldier who returns late in the war to his family which is staying with his wife’s father (Harry Carey Jr) in Texas. The wife is played by Suzy Amis (The Ballad of Little Jo), his son is Haley Joel Ozment-–this is before his breakout movie role in The Sixth Sense but he is already identifiably excellent. Selleck takes his family back to his Arizona property to find an outfit run by some union veterans (Keith and David Carradine) living on it. He chases them off (after the wife shoots two of them). A showdown is brewing between the two sides. Here is the interesting twist in the story. Selleck’s natural ally is a local storekeeper who is also a Confederate vet, with a bunch of rifles he wants to smuggle to the Confederacy. Selleck knows the war is lost—it is very late in the game. The guy is a rogue—when news of the surrender comes he doesn’t tell Selleck, and ends up killing the David Carradine character and kidnapping Selleck’s little daughter. He is now the bad guy. Selelck and Keith Carradine team up and go after him. They rescue the daughter but then there is a shootout with some inconvenient Mexicans who are after the rifles, which ends happily for Selleck and Carradine, but for the Mexicans…not so much.

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3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Remake of  the earlier film, this time with Russell Crow and Christian Bale.  I found it to be rather negligible and workmanlike at best, and the performances of the stars far weaker than those turned in by Ford and Heflin. To quote Steve McQueen in the movie Tom Horn, “New things are no good.”

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