Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #2
Even as we speak we are in the midst of Day #1 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.
The day launches with over 12 hours of Randolph Scott westerns. Scott made scores of these nearly identical, mostly forgettable westerns through the 1940s and ’50s. I thought I’d seen mostly all of them, but today’s roster contains a few that will be new to me. DVR set!
6:15am: Virginia City (1940)
Randolph Scott, Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins and Humphrey Bogart—all in the same movie! And Bogart as a Mexican! Beautifully directed by Michael Curtiz, with a terrific cast of familiars—a great Hollywood entertainment. Starts out with Flynn and pal Alan Hale (and another guy) trying to break out of Confederate prison—thwarted by Commandant Randolph Scott. He vows to get even. Shortly thereafter the tables turn. The South is losing, and Scott is sent to smuggle gold out of Virginia City to save the Confederacy with help from lady spy Miriam Hopkins. Then Flynn & Co. escape…and it coincidentally turns out to be their job to thwart Confederate gold smugglers. And Flynn rides the same coach with Hopkins. AND they fall in love. AND Mexicano bandito Bogart is on the coach. Much angling about for information when they get to Virginia City. Scott has an elaborate operation to disguise the gold, but is discovered by Flynn. His men flee early, with Flynn as their prisoner. Then Flynn escapes and telegraphs for help from the army. The Union men pursue Scott. The main column goes the wrong way, leaving a small band led by Flynn to pursue Scott. Scott is the attacked by Bogart’s bandits. Flynn comes to his rescue. Scott is killed but Flynn hides the gold and saves it for Confederate relief after the war before the cavalry rescues the survivors. He is courtmartialed for this action after the war, but is pardoned by Lincoln before he can be executed! Other great touch in the film—one of my favorite character actors Charles Middleton plays Jefferson Davis, which is perfect casting.
8:30am: BadMan’s Territory (1946)
Randolph Scott is a Texas sheriff with a posse chasing the James Gang. From the outset we percieve a tension between him and the federal marshall who is leading the posse. Scott’s brother is shot by one of the marshall’s men and the James gang actually takes care of him, taking him with them into the titular territory of badmen, a lawless square of unclaimed Oklahoma. Scott follows them up there. We learn that the James Gang aren’t so bad (really?) and that the marshall and his men are crooks. Meanwhile the plot stops dead for quite a while while Scott rides against Belle Starr in a horse race. There is some flirting with her, but the real love interest is a rather preposterous English lady newspaper editor who editorializes for law and order. Gabby Hayes is the comic relief, who actually gets shot and killed by the villain, which is the last straw. Scott kills the villain, then gets marched away for a fair trial
10:30am: The Return of the Badman (1948)
A loose sequel to the previous film. Scott, now retired as a law man, is made federal marshal. More run-ins with the James and Younger gangs. Robert Ryan plays the Sundance Kid. Jason Robards Sr plays a judge.
12:15pm: Canadian Pacific (1949)
A boring but beautiful western about the building of a railway through the Canadian Rockies. Scott plays an agent for the railroad company who must counter all sorts of the usual obstacles (crooks, saboteurs and Native Americans) to accomplish his goals. Jane Wyatt is the love interest; J. Carrol Naish is one “Dynamite” Dawson.
2:00pm: Forth Worth (1951)
Oh, Fort Worth, you hotbed of intrigue! Scott plays a former gunslinger who now runs a newspaper in Fort Worth. His aim is to thwart a crooked cattle baron who is using violent tactics to prevent the establishment f a railroad. Bob Steele, a western star himself a decade earlier, portrays “Chubby”.
3:30pm: The Cariboo Trail (1950)
Randolph Scott and Bill Williams. A story about gold fever in British Columbia. Two partners and their Chinese cook are traveling north to BC gold fields, driving a small herd along the way. Its Scott’s herd. Hispartner resents having the cows along. They meet up with Gabby Hayes (“Grizzly”) who also strings along. Then they meet some bad guys who try to charge them a toll to get over a bridge. Scott drives the herd past them without paying. Then they are attacked in the night, the herd driven off, and the friend injured. He loses his arm. The friend vows revenge. Meanwhile, the town is owned by a scheming villain, played by the excellent Victor Jory. The three take turns angling for the affections of the lady who owns the dance hall (Karin Booth). Meanwhile Scott continues to work (prospecting, making a cattle drive) in order to make his fortune so he can put everything right : win the girl, break up the villain’s monopoly and crooked activities, and mend his relationship with his friend. For awhile the friend makes common cause with the villain but he finally wises up and fights for Scott. He inevitably dies, making up to his friend with his dying words. And Scott finishes out the big cattle drive.
5:00pm: The Bounty Hunter (1954)
Scott is the titular bounty hunter, who arrives at a western town in disguise to apprehend three wanted robbers.
6:30pm: Ride Lonesome (1959)
One of Scott’s last pictures. Gorgeously shot. Budd Boeticher directed, Burt Kennedy wrote it. It’s James Coburn’s very first picture; the cast also has Lee Van Cleef and Pernell Roberts. Scott is a bounty hunter who has ridden into the desert to catch an outlaw. He nabs him and then passes by a stage stop, where two friends (Coburn and Van Cleef ) are hanging out. The woman who works there (Karen Steele) is waiting for her husband. They learn that the Indians are on the warpath (and her husband is dead). They have to ride together for safety. There are faceoffs between Scott, Indians, crooks and a rival bounty hunter before he finally wins the hand of the girl.
EVENING AND INTO THE WEE HOURS: SAM PECKINPAH
8:00pm: Ride the High Country (1962)
This film is a passing of the torch between generations. It represents the end of the careers of two Hollywood stars much associated with the western, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, and the beginning of the career of a director who would soon be synonymous with a new style of western, Sam Peckinpah. It’s often inaccurately said that this was the last film for either Scott or McCrea. In reality, while this was Scott’s last film, McCrea went on to do a handful of low budget westerns through 1976, although Ride the High Country was definitely his last last MAJOR picture. As for Peckinpah, his The Wild Bunch (1969) virtually redefined the genre, and he also went on to make the westerns Major Dundee (1965), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), and the modern-setting westerns Junior Bonner (1972), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
Ride the High Country is also pivotal in being a sort of bend in the road in western aesthetics. Peckinpah had made one previous film and done lots of television work at this stage. He still has one foot back in the aesthetics of classic Hollywood. While violent, Ride the Country is nowhere near the level of slow motion gore ballet of The Wild Bunch.
This is one of the first films to take on the subject of the “late west”, an acknowledgement of the genre’s aging stars and the fact that the country itself was now changing, getting very far indeed from anything like a frontier nation. Instead it was the age of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and even space exploration: “the Final Frontier”.
So we have the aging former lawman Joel McCrea ride into town, looking much the worse for wear. The time seems to be the early 1900s. The town is full of dudes, automobiles, a modern police department. Nonetheless there is still lawlessness to be found; it’s just a little further away, up in the mountains. (The Sierra Nevadas, in California). McCrea is hired to transport gold from a mining settlement at the top of the mountain. As a helper, he hires his old deputy Randolph Scott, who is now a two bit carny, a sort of fifth rate Buffalo Bill. He also hires a young man (Ron Starr) who works in the carnival with Scott.
On the way they stop at the farm of a religious man (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter (Mariette Hartley). The daughter wants very much to get away and sort of half romances the young man but also mentions a previous beau who is up at the mining camp who had asked her to marry him. The girl follows the guys, and they end up having to take her to the mining camp. The camp is rough enough to be intrinsically terrifying. Here the Peckinpah we will come to know and love comes out. The girl’s fiancé (James Drury) has four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler). They are like the guys from Deliverance–absolute animals. Somehow, we know from the very first to expect the worst from them. (Perhaps because one of the brothers, Warren Oates, has a pet raven.)
The only women in the camp are hookers with a cynicism straight out of Weimar. The only person with a heart seems to be the judge (Edgar Buchanan) who marries them and gives a terrific sermon (though later the man proves morally worthless). A terrifying scene at the wedding party. Her husband passes out and the brothers are all set to gang bang the girl.
The heroes rescue her, but she is legally married. They steal the judge’s license, and take the girl and the gold back down the mountain. But they are pursued by the evil brothers. To further complicate matters, Scott and his henchman try to steal the gold (it has been their aim all along) but McCrea catches them. (A major theme of the film is that McCrea remains law-abiding and decent, despite the fact that he has always been poorly rewarded for his efforts). It’s a rare film in which Randolph Scott — or gets a chance to really show his acting chops. He went out on a very strong note.
McCrea keeps Scott and Starr prisoner at first, but is forced to release them to help him fight the five monstrous peckerwoods who are chasing them. It ends with a shootout back at the girl’s farm, where McCrea is fatally wounded. But true to Peckinpah form all five brothers are also gloriously dispatched. And McCrea himself dies in a pose most religious, allowing his Christ-like nature to sink in for the thicker audience members. A gorgeous film, wonderful in every respect.
9:45pm: The Deadly Companions (1961)
Peckinpah’s directorial debut. Ex-army man Brian Keith accidentally kills Maureen O’Hara’s son, then escorts her through Apache territory so he can be buried with his father. With Steve Cochran and Chill Wills.
1:30am: The Wild Bunch (1969)
This film, considered Peckinpah’s masterpiece, takes you on an interesting journey. You go from disliking these rather reprehensible characters to respecting and even loving them—redemption. They are a gang of ruthless, murderous bank robbers: William Holden as the leader, Ernest Borgnine as the second, Edmund O’Brien as the old timer, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as a pair of oafish brothers, and Jaime Sanchez as a token Mexican.
The film opens with an appalling set piece. South Texas, in the 1910s. When we first meet the bunch, we think they are soldiers: they are dressed that way, they seem polite etc. Then they rob a bank. A posse of men, led by Holden’s old partner Robert Ryan and including Strother Martin, is across the way. There follows an appalling shoot out, staged as a “ballet of carnage”. Lengthy, ridiculously violent and stylish. A famous scene. (It seems a commentary on Vietnam somehow: the bloodbath in our living rooms. Meantime kids are around this violence. They watch it. The engage in cruel games with insects).
The bunch escapee into Mexico, followed by the posse. One of the bunch is blinded. Holden coldly shoots him dead. But in time we learn that Holden has a certain code of honor. The main thrust of it is “when you side with a man you stay with him or else you’re like some animal”. But he also believes in honoring his word. Thus, when the gold they have stolen from the Texas bank turns out to be bags full of washers and they need to pull another job, stealing a load of American weapons to deliver to a Mexican general, they follow through, even though the general is an evil, reprehensible moron, and they are more inclined to sympathize with the revolutionaries who fight against him. (Whether Peckinpah intends it or not it seems like eloquent commentary on US foreign policy at the time, e.g., supporting worthless characters like Diem in South Vietnam. Borgnine exposes the folly of this code: “It’s who you give your word TO!”)
The men redeem themselves at the end. When their Mexican buddy is captured and tortured by the general (after he kills the girlfriend the general had stolen from him) the men resolve to rescue him, even though it’ll be five against two hundred. Thus proving that friendship and loyalty are more important to them than gold. They all die, and they die the death of the Greeks: meaningful death, sacrifice in the act of war. Holden is killed by a child with a gun, thus explaining plentiful foreshadowing we have seen with images of children. The Wild Bunch, it turns out, are worthy men, as opposed to the “worthless gutter trash” Ryan has to work with. These scum pack up the bodies of the dead bunch to bring back to Texas for the rewards. Ryan wants no part of it. He joins O’Brien and the revolutionaries. The movie seems to build on certain themes of The Magnificent Seven: a group of buddies helping some Mexicans against some other Mexicans. But here (because Peckinpah knew and loved Mexico) the premise is much better realized. The many Mexican characters are all individuals, we learn about the culture, and there is much authentic folk music on the soundtrack, another way in which this film was groundbreaking.
2:00am: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
Peckinpah’s follow-up to The Wild Bunch—a terrific and totally unique film, the reputation of which will only grow I think. I had never heard of it; I’m sure no one else has. Apparently because of his bad behavior Peckinpah was dropped by his studio at the time, and this movie wasn’t properly released. Jason Robards plays the title character. At the beginning of the film his two cohorts (one of whom is Strother Martin) take his water and leave him in the desert to die without his horse. He walks four days and collapses into moist earth. He digs: water. It turns out to be right next to a wagon trail. He spends his last $2.50 on buying a deed to the land, then deals with a bank and stage company for a franchise on the spot as a stage stop. He makes a ton of money, while waiting on revenge on the men who left him to die. But it’s mostly a love story. Stella Stevens (doing the best acting of her career) is a prostitute who gets kicked out of town and falls for him. They spend about a month living the domestic life. She wants him to come to San Francisco with her (if he doesn’t she’s going to marry a rich guy for his money). He chooses to stay for his revenge.
Eventually the two dudes show up. Cable tricks them into digging a hole looking for his money. Then, when they are down in the hole he throws in rattle snakes. The men jump out. He shoots one to death. Then, having gotten revenge out of his system, he gets the other to work for him. He is going to look for the girl now. But she shows up at this moment, in a big fancy motor car. Unfortunately, just as they are about to leave together, Cable gets run over by the car (ironically saving Strother Martin) and dies. David Warner plays a preacher who is obsessed with sex, making a nice counterpoint to Cable’s obsession with revenge, and also has a relationship with a prostitute.
The film contains many amazing and surprising experiment sequences. Use of split screen. Use of fast motion for comical chases. A musical number — not the typical logical saloon musical number in a western, although there’s one of those too, but a bona fide love song that the two characters deliver as though the film were a musical. And Cable’s death-bed scene is very strange. He acts as though nothing is wrong with him. It plays like a weird dream, and we wonder if he is okay. But the black weeds at the end let us know that he is not.
4:15 pm: Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)
Peckinpah’s version of this time honored tale is partially interesting yet ultimately boring and less than the sum of its parts. Great cinematography, editing, music, acting, art direction, cool lines in the script, but full of inertia. This is the trouble in a lot of Peckinpah films. They seem to be about pursuits, but a big part of the pursuit seems to be the stopovers and conversations along the way, which bore the hell out of this commentator! And for the most part, I am bored by shoot-outs, too, which is Peckinpah’s other major gear, so there’s not a whole lot for me to sink my teeth into here.
Set in Lincoln, New Mexico, 1881. Pat Garret (James Coburn) is now a sheriff and so must catch his old friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Pat gets it from both sides. To his old friends, he seems to have become corrupt, fat, less principled than a frank criminal because he is a hypocrite and now answering to a lot of fat-cats and the government. Yet to those authorities he is suspect because he seems to be taking his time about catching Billy. Other characters include Jason Robards as the governor (with Jack Dodson, i.e. Howard from the Andy Griffith Show as a moneyed constituent!) Harry Dean Stanton plays one of Billy’s gang. Slim Pickens as a deputy. Most interesting of all, no less than Bob Dylan plays a roaming, flitting figure named “Alias”. While Dylan has a very interesting screen presence and actually gives a good performance (at least good line readings), the part is an embarrassing add-on, plainly just scribbled in. Alias plays no central role in the plot or anything, he is just kind of there. Dylan’s soundtrack is very cool in some spots. Doesn’t work in others. The song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” comes from this film.