Author Topic: Westerns  (Read 37197 times)

1SO

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #340 on: July 25, 2018, 01:34:16 PM »
When I saw Rawhide I liked the Hitchcock tone of some of the suspense moments, but was let down by the performances. And I love some of this cast. I would argue there's no greater fan of Susan Hayward, Edgar Buchanan, or Jack Elam around here than me and this is some of their worst work. Elam in particular has a sleaziness that's tough to take, so we disagree there, but I'm with you on Hugh Marlowe. I'm seeing from IMDB that I've seen a lot of his work and I remember some of it, but I often find his acting flat.

Jared and PA liked the film a lot, but I'm with you. In big picture terms, I'm going to be interested in your overall opinion of Henry Hathaway. He's regarded as a master of Westerns, but I think there's a big difference between directing a lot of Westerns and making a few really good ones.

Corndog

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #341 on: July 25, 2018, 01:38:14 PM »
Yea, I definitely enjoyed Elam's creepiness, and Hitchcock suspense is a good notation. I can think immediately of the knife scene with the child. But Marlowe really sinks this one. Such a flat performance and monotone line reading throughout. For the main villain, and noted outlaw, I would hope he would be cool, way cooler than this.
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #342 on: July 26, 2018, 08:19:43 AM »
Only the Valiant (Gordon Douglas, 1951)

Coming off the success of The Gunfighter, at least in my eyes as I have no idea about box office numbers, Gregory Peck has become a serious player on the western scene for me, especially also considering Yellow Sky, another stellar outing by the leading man. So Only the Valiant brought some expectations with it considering the relative Western hot streak Peck found himself on, even if I knew very little about the film otherwise. It features Ward Bond as well, a name we've seen many times during this marathon, but is an actor I can either take or leave. He pops up a bunch, but I can't really say I'm ever excited or disappointed when he appears. He's simply a familiar face. Not a familiar face is Barbara Payton, however, who gets a starring role here. I can't say I've heard of her before, but after reading a little about her, I can see why. Her's is a relatively sad Hollywood story. It'll be awhile before we see Peck again, so what a bummer that it's not at the standard of his previous two western films.

Captain Lance (Gregory Peck) is an overbearing leader at a western outpost whom very few of his soldiers respect. They sit in an interesting setting, just at a mountain pass where the Apache nation rules on the other side. After capturing the Apache leader, Lance volunteers to escort him, but his commanding officer orders him to assign his close friend, Holloway (Gig Young), instead. As their shared love interest (Barbara Payton) has just decided to love Lance and not Holloway, Lance catches them kissing (a longing goodbye from Holloway), which starts a rumor that Lance assigned Holloway for revenge. The escort goes awry, Holloway ends up dead, and the prisoner missing. Lance then must assemble a ragtag team of soldiers who dislike him for a patrol at the pass were he intends to hold the battered fort in time for reinforcements.

I think one of the main reasons I disliked my time with Only the Valiant was simply how small the whole thing felt. It was a cheap production with very little in the way of ambition or vision. I'm not familiar with director Gordon Douglas and his work, but I would have expected a better selection from Peck, a story with some real teeth or at least a story where something happens. We slowly dribble our way through this narrative where it continually feels as though nothing is happening. Character-driven is one thing, but this is not even that. We get a rag tag bunch of soldiers paired with their hated captain in a confined space, and yet, there is not nearly the drama you would expect, not nearly the backstory you deserve.

The curtain is never truly pulled back on these men. Why are they there, why'd they join the army? What is the history with Lance, why do they hate him? I also found it surprising how much the film seemed to credit Barbara Payton, who in her moments made a good impression on me, just to leave her behind and end up to hardly be in the film at all. Such a shame, such a waste, like much of this film. They're battling indians, a classic western trope, and even that dynamic seems flat, with very little in the way of exciting battles or heightened tension. Recently, it seems, the depiction of indians in these westerns has taken a turn for the worse. There were a few films already which felt progressive, but recently they are nothing but savages, including here, save calling them "smart" in passing at one point early on in the film.

There is no energy here, there is nothing to hold on to, to take from this film. Gregory Peck is, of course, fine in the role of Captain Lance, but I wish there were more for him to do. I wish there were better performers to play off of. The closest thing he has is Ward Bond, who is bizarrely doing his best Victor McLaglen impression (a silly Irish drunk). I really don't understand this line at all. Bond is forgettable, but he's certainly capable, and yet they have him imitating John Ford's comic relief man. Such a shame, such a waste. The fleeting action is alright. The setting actually provides a decide setup for a solid story, but in the end, Only the Valiant is not very entertaining or interesting. This is an easy one to throw into the pile of disappointments from this marathon. Here's hoping things start looking up again soon.

★★ - Didn't Like It
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1SO

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #343 on: July 26, 2018, 09:04:15 AM »
I disagree. (See, it does happen.) Only the Valiant is my favorite Western of 1951 and the difference between us may be Ward Bond. I'm a big fan of the actor, (and glad I wasn't working in the business when the S.O.B. was alive or else my opinion would probably be different.) His Victor McLaglen impression is better than McLaglen, much like how George Raft became the 2nd choice once Bogart arrived.

I'm curious to see how much the downscaling of Westerns continues to bother you. By the 50s, Westerns were cheap and easy entertainment, much like Horror films. Studios were able to grind out dozens of them with simple premises and minimal sets. There's the occasional film with a more cinema-worthy budget or a director like Anthony Mann who can hide the smallness. The Naked Spur has 5 actors total and runs 90 minutes. Liberty Valance has about as much production value as Only the Valiant, but John Ford doesn't know how to make an un-cinematic movie. Most filmmakers don't have the skill to transcend these limitations, so you get Valiant and Rawhide.

And if you compare every Gregory Peck performance to The Gunfighter you will always be disappointed. It's his pinnacle Western achievement.

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #344 on: July 26, 2018, 09:54:55 AM »
I disagree. (See, it does happen.)

Hmm. I guess I can respect your opinion. I mean, I always respect your opinion. But yes, we are in disagreement. I believe we have had a few small production successes already, so I know it's possible, but I do not view this as one of them. Hopefully with the 1950s ramping up the number of films on my list, I don't hit too many road bumps like this one. Spoiler Alert: Across the Wide Missouri is another bump.
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #345 on: July 26, 2018, 12:07:25 PM »
Across the Wide Missouri (William A. Wellman, 1951)

It seems the vast majority of the westerns I have selected to be a part of this marathon have been star driven, which is to say that they are notable not for their director, although there have been and will be a few of those (Ford, Leone, etc.), but rather are notable for their leading men. And yes, I mean men, as there are so very few which feature women prominently, although there are a couple. With that in mind, Clark Gable is an old Hollywood actor whose name has not come up very much at all, but with Across the Wide Missouri, we not only get Gable, but we also get director William A. Wellman, a man who is two-for-two in his westerns thus far (The Ox-Bow Incident and Yellow Sky). Such a crossover should provide dividends, especially as we get a third western treat with this film: it's a frontier western, a style we have not had much of. What could possibly go wrong?

Gable plays Flint Mitchell, a mountain man trapper who meets at Rendezvous every summer with his fellow trappers to trade, dance, get drunk and prepare for another season of trapping in the remote mountains. But this year, he hopes to make his way into Blackfoot territory, where he has heard of majestic scenery and endless trapping. But in order to infiltrate this hostile indian territory, he must make a treaty. In order to do so, he decides to take a Blackfoot wife named Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques). The two don't much like each other at first, and obviously cannot communicate, but they soon begin to fall for each other, even while Flint makes enemies with a Blackfoot named Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban).

Much like my thoughts on Only the Valiant before it, I found Across the Wide Missouri's gravest mistake was in its inability to tell any sort of compelling story. It's a lot of nothing. The title and certainly the premise seem to suggest a fun adventure, but there is nothing all that fun about Across the Wide Missouri. At a svelte 78 minutes, it even feels as though this is merely the first act in the story. That's how slim this film felt. We're introduced to the trappers at Rendezvous, but I don't get a sense of who they are, where they come from, why they're there. The romance is completely manufactured and I don't believe for a second in the chemistry between Gable and Marques. Even the stunning vistas seem muted and underutilized.

The film has some things going for it, but it seems Wellman is content on wasting them. The technicolor photography is one of them. I mentioned the vistas, and what a great opportunity to use stunning color to capture the frontier beauty of Montana and Idaho, where this film is set. We get fleeting glimpses, but I feel there was room for even more use of setting as part of the story being told. Maria Elena Marques, principly a Mexican actress, also seems wasted. She gives a good performance, I really liked her, and yet her character is so disappointing given the scenario. Mitchell makes her become his wife for financial gain, and she somehow comes to love this man. In many ways it reminded me of James Stewart and Debra Paget in Broken Arrow. The age difference is noticeable, and more than a little disturbing. This is a problematic relationship, not a romantic one.

Perhaps my recent string of bad luck with Westerns makes me dislike Across the Wide Missouri than I really ought to, but I was severely frustrated watching this film, hoping for so much more, hoping for any glimpse of worth, something to take away from the film, especially given my affinity for Wellman's past two films in this marathon. But I had no such luck, and I fully recognize that my rating of this film may be influenced by the rather lackluster stretch I am currently experiencing, with film after film being a disappointment. Maybe this is the boiling point. Maybe it gets better after this. Perhaps there are beautiful vistas and bountiful land just over this mountain range. Perhaps.

- Hated It

EDIT: I also forgot to mention how I hated and completely didnít understand the purpose of the plot device of having the story narrated by the son.
« Last Edit: July 26, 2018, 04:22:12 PM by Corndog »
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Corndog

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #346 on: July 26, 2018, 02:10:49 PM »
It will be interesting to track when that seems to switch, to where color becomes more prominent than black and white.

Did some quick research with my list and it looks as though the end of 1951, beginning of 1952 is roughly when the switch is made. There are some black and white after, of course, but starting with Across the Wide Missouri (#70) in my list and running though the rest of the first 100 films on my list, only 5 of those 30 films are presented in black and white according to IMDb, including NONE of the last 15.

In contrast, of the previous 30 films before Across the Wide Missouri, only 6 are presented in color.

I've reached a turning point in the marathon it would appear. Definitely looking forward to more color (and maybe more blu-rays?)
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1SO

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #347 on: July 26, 2018, 08:13:05 PM »
I don't like William A. Wellman's later work and you still have one more coming up I think is worse than Wide Missouri. I agree with you about Wide Missouri to the point where I had very little to say about it.

You have a run of 8 big name directors coming up, and I like 6 of the films. So maybe your luck is about to change. Only not right away. Distant Drums has some of your same problems as the last three films. Hang in there.

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #348 on: August 03, 2018, 01:40:08 PM »
Distant Drums (Raoul Walsh, 1951)

I've often said one of the things I like most about the Western genre is that it has a vast array of possible stories to tell. It often contains the same tropes, themes, etc., but there are many ways to tell these stories. One such method which we've yet to see here is the Florida western. The Florida western is somewhat a cross between a frontier western and a traditional one so far as I can tell. Florida doesn't exactly invoke thoughts of outlaws and deserts that we might be used to within the genre, but in the 1800s the virgin frontier of Florida provided plenty of rough adventure for frontiersmen to conquer, not to mention the threat of Native American tribes such as the Seminole which can easily stand in for the more traditional Apache. With Distant Drums, we get to see a Florida western. I believe it's the only such film on my list, but I'm certainly glad to have gotten the chance to behold this unique subgenre.

Lt. Tufts (Richard Webb) travels to the wetlands of Florida to meetup with the legendary Capt. Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper), an older officer known for his swampland expertise and hermit lifestyle. Living on a remote island, Wyatt helps Tufts lead his platoon to a remote fort which has been overtaken by the hostile Seminole indians. After retaking the fort, they discover prisoners there, including the lovely Judy Beckett (Mari Aldon) from Savannah. But when the Seminole threaten their return, they're forced deeper into the swamp, where they must not only fight off the Seminoles, but also the threat of alligators and other nefarious creatures.

Distant Drums, what a strange, somehow rewarding film this one is. For starters, I do really like the premise of it being a Florida western. That's so very intriguing to me, and they seamlessly incorporate the same familiar tropes, just in a new setting. It works, it doesn't feel out of place. What does feel slightly out of place is Gary Cooper. His acting style has always been back and forth for me. He's very laid back and laconic in many ways. In some roles it works wonders, while in others it seems lazy. It would seem to fit Capt. Wyatt perfectly here, an enigmatic hermit who is an expert in the swamps, lives alone on his private island with his son from a Native American mother, and yet, he's really hammy in a very lazy way here. He feels so disconnected from the goings on that I really didn't enjoy him very much in this role.

Getting a chance to see this on Blu-ray in HD was a treat. The technicolor really pops, but it also highlights some of the filmmaking gaffes this film makes. I was both disappointed and entertained by seeing some of the background stand in actors lazily act out their parts during battle scenes, etc. Like, put some effort into it guys! That's what a lot of this movie feels like, which also contributes to the overall cheap production values. And yet, some of it is so strange that its fun! Take for instance the now famous Wilhelm Scream, something I didn't know about until researching this film a little bit. It's a bit of sound effect which is now famous for its use in Star Wars, but it was developed for this film for a man being eaten by an alligator. It's just a silly scene and a silly sound effect, but really all the sound effects are kind of effective in this creative, zany way. It's a highlight of the film.

So for these reasons, I have mixed feelings about this film. It's really not that good I don't think, and we of course again have the unfortunate scenario of the older man (Cooper) romancing the younger woman (Aldon), and the age difference is palpable and really doesn't feel natural. But it's just B-movie silly enough to have a good time with it, to find some solid entertainment value in it. I can't say I recommend it, but it has it's value. I did rather enjoy Arthur Hunnicutt as Monk, Wyatt's sidekick. It felt like a role inspired by some of Walter Brennan's sidekicks of westerns past, and adds a certain verve and laughter to the film. It's an odd bird, and that's really all I can think of to describe Distant Drums as a cinematic experience.

★★  - Didn't Like It
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Corndog

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #349 on: August 03, 2018, 02:45:45 PM »
Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan, 1952)

The western genre has its fair share of notable directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Mann, etc. But I don't think it's all that often that a traditionally non-Western master crosses over, but that's exactly what we have here with Elia Kazan and Viva Zapata!. Now, I should make it clear that this film is tangentially a western. I think it certainly qualifies, as it covers fighting in the Mexican countryside during the Mexican Revolution, but it's also not quite a traditional western in many senses. That said, Kazan and his star Marlon Brando are both welcome sights in this marathon, as they not only bring something completely new and different to the table, to break the malaise of western after western after wester, but they also bring sturdy resumes, with Brando being arguably the greatest actor of all time, and Kazan making some stunners in his career.

In this collaboration, Brando play Emiliano Zapata, a common country farmer who goes to the capital with his fellow farmers to complain of a boundary dispute causing his people strife. In this meeting, he shows both moxie and courage, which gets his name circled as a potential troublemaker. His intentions are pure, and soon he teams with other revolutionaries like his brother Eufemio (Anthony Quinn) and Fernando (Joseph Wiseman) to overthrow the President and establish a new government. The struggle is continuous, with all parties seeming to have a personal motive, most of which involves a thirst and hunger for power. But Zapata remains steadfast, hoping to help his people and return to the countryside with his love Josefa (Jean Peters).

Viva Zapata! feels like it's on a different level of filmmaking from other films in recent past in this marathon. The filmmaking is light years ahead of anything else I've seen recently. Kazan just has a knack, a touch, a vision which is unrivaled. He makes the most compelling and beautifully constructed narratives. You can feel his confidence behind the camera in every shot, which results in a finished product which feels far more polished and thought out than just about anything else I've seen to this point in the marathon. I've not seen a film I didn't like from Kazan, and seeing Viva Zapata! just makes me want to seek out the rest of his work. This film is beautifully directed and shows what a difference a sure-handed helmsman can make on a film.

It probably also helps that the screenplay was written by author John Steinbeck, as the narrative flows very fluidly, and features great dialogue and dramatic exchanges. It's a match made in heaven along with the previously mentioned Brando. Released shortly after his breakout performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (also directed by Kazan), Viva Zapata! showcases Brando command of the screen. His presence is felt throughout. Such a phenomenal performer, and while this may not be his most notable performance, it still stands out as a tremendous achievement. He sinks everything he has into these roles and proves time and again to exhibit not only great sympathy and connection to these characters, but also the bravado needed to walk in someone like Emiliano Zapata's shoes.

The combination of talent (which also includes good performances from Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn and Dr. No himself Joseph Wiseman), is just overwhelming in this film. It's a true achievement in filmmaking and stands as one of the better experiences I've yet had in this marathon. And because it is likely more historical than western, it would be one of the easier films to recommend, especially for non-western fans who enjoy Brando and Kazan's other works. I would love to see more westerns along these lines, where the filmmaking and acting take prescedence over the tropes. I understand I've entered the historical era where so many westerns were made, many for cheap, but I look forward to seeing a few bigger budget, more polished works like this one sprinkled in with the small budget, star driven gems that I am sure are in there too.

★★★★ - Loved It
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