THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

MAN WITH THE GUN (Formosa/UA, 1955)





DIRECTOR: Richard Wilson; PRODUCER: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.; WRITERS: story and screenplay by N.B. Stone, Jr. and Richard Wilson; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lee Garmes

CAST: Robert Mitchum, Jan Sterling, Karen Sharpe, Henry Hull, Emile Meyer, John Lupton, Barbara Lawrence, Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon, James Westerfield, Florenz Ames, Joe Barry, Claude Akins, Angie Dickinson





The film opens with Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) riding into the town of Sheridan.  







A boy's dog breaks away from him and begins to bark at the feet of Pinchot's horse.  Irritated, Pinchot pulls a pistol from his shoulder holster and shoots the dog.






While the boy kneels in the street, distraught over his dog, the gunman receives a warm welcome from Frenchy Lescoe (Ted de Corsia), the manager of the Palace saloon, who, like Pinchot, is employed by a land baron named Dade Holman (Joe Barry).  




Although there were a number of eyewitnesses, including the town marshal, nobody raises a hand, not even the marshal. This is a town that has a lot of problems.  What it needs is a town tamer.







And as luck would have it, one is about to ride into town.









THE PLOT.
Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) has come to Sheridan because he has learned that his estranged wife, Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), lives there.  Since leaving Tollinger she has made her living by managing a group of "dance hall girls" who are currently employed at the Palace saloon.

Sally refuses to talk to Tollinger or to tell him where their daughter is -- or anything else about her.  Despite her love for him, she had left with their daughter because she could no longer tolerate his dangerous occupation.



Town Tamer's estranged wife
Word gets around that Tollinger is a notorious town tamer who hires out his gun in order to establish law and order. After discussing the issue in a meeting, the town council persuaded by its president, blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), reluctantly hires Tollinger.

Lee Sims (Henry Hull), a man who lacks any semblance of courage or initiative is the town marshal.  One has to wonder how it is that a frontier town ever hired him in the first place. Furthermore, why did he take a job that was clearly beyond his means to execute? And why didn't he resign when the going got tough?  And why didn't the town council fire him after it hired Tollinger? I don't know why, but he remained in the office to the very end. 


At any rate, Sims deputizes Tollinger and tells him that he is on his own. Tollinger makes it clear that he wouldn't have it any other way.


There is a subplot involving young Jeff Castle (John Lupton) who attempts to homestead on a plot of land that the greedy rancher Holman claims but does not have title to, but nevertheless attempts to control through intimidation and other illegal means.  Jeff is engaged to Saul Atkins daughter Stella (Karen Sharpe; not to be confused with Karen Steele).  Although Stella is opposed to the whole notion of violence, even for a good cause, she eventually finds herself drawn against her will to the gunfighter, even though she dislikes his methods.



Tollinger holds a slice of green tomato pie as he talks with (L-R) Jeff Castle, Stella Atkins, and Saul Atkins

And of course as in all of the town tamer westerns the business element begins to complain that Tollinger's methods are too harsh and are having the effect of driving business away. We knew that was going to happen -- and so did Tollinger.


Dade Holman, whose ominous shadow hovers over the town, is not seen until the closing scenes.  He is described to Tollinger as being a reclusive fat man who stays close to his ranch home, and has not been seen in town for several years.  He nevertheless controls the town and the surrounding area by employing gunfighters such as Pinchot to carry out his wishes.  He also owns the Palace saloon, which is managed by Lescoe.




Well, push comes to shove, as one would imagine -- especially after Tollinger nails up notices forbidding guns within the city limits, including the extremely harsh warning that violators will be shot.

It isn't long before he makes his point by shooting the Harkness brothers, two henchmen in the employ of Dade Holman, who refused to obey the rule. 


In response to the killing of the brothers and the weapons ban, four more of Holman's men ride into town looking for a showdown with Tollinger.






They are led by Jim Reedy, the hombre in the big hat, portrayed by a young Claude Akins in an uncredited role. Uncredited, because he isn't going to be in this picture for very long.








Tollinger gets the drop on the four and kills the gent on the left who draws his gun on him.






Reedy has a trick up his sleeve -- er in his big hat.  But he doesn't fool Tollinger and when the smoke clears Holman has lost another man.


That's four.



There are several gimmicks involving guns in the film: Pinchot carries his gun in a shoulder holster; Reedy has one hidden in his hat; and Tollinger carries an extra gun in his belt.



Tollinger, a two-gun man with one holster.  Why?  Beats me.

Along the way Tollinger learns a terrible secret and we learn why he became a town tamer, a man who always uses his gun on the side of law and order -- at least as he saw it.  And, of course, there must be a final shootout involving Tollinger and Pinchot and Holman.  




Dade Holman comes to town

When the smoke clears and the dust settles Tollinger has killed six men. That's pretty good work for just a few days when one considers that Wild Bill Hickok killed a grand total of six during his lifetime and Wyatt Earp accounted for three. Of course the cinematic Hickok and Earp killed many, many more than that. 

As you can tell, there isn't much originality in the plot.  It was done before and would be done again.  In fact, in many ways it combines elements of THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox, 1950) and WARLOCK (Fox, 1959) as well as a number of other films.  And it is true, that given everything that had transpired, the conclusion does fall a tad flat. However, a strong cast and excellent black-and-white-photography make it well worth watching.


Practically the entire film takes place in the town. But I like the town.  It has an authentic look and feel -- at least much more so than the typical western movie town.  According to sources, the film was shot on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, but I don't recall ever seeing the location in any other film. 



THE STARS.



BLOOD ON THE MOON (RKO, 1948)

Robert Mitchum (1917-1997) began his movie career in 1942-43 by playing bit parts in the Hopalong Cassidy B-western series.  A gang henchman at the beginning he eventually landed a few sympathetic roles in the series.  At the same time he was cast in extra and bit parts in other films.


As luck would have it, RKO had lost its two reigning B-western stars -- first George O'Brien and then Tim Holt -- to military service during World War II.  In 1944, the studio signed Mitchum to a seven year contract to take their place and planned to star him in a series of B-Westerns loosely based on Zane Grey stories.


He starred in two -- NEVADA (1944) and WEST OF THE PECOS (1945) -- and was very good in them.  The two earlier series with O'Brien and Holt had been superior and it appeared that the studio had another winner.  But it was not to be.  These two films were the actor's only starring roles in B-westerns.  


Fate intervened again when, on loan-out, Mitchum was cast in an important role in William Wellman's WWII film, STORY OF G.I. JOE (UA, 1945).  It was a success, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including Mitchum as Best Supporting Actor. Ironically, it was his only nomination, but it meant that he would not become a famous B-western star.  No, instead he would become a famous movie star. And by the way, at the time of his nomination Mitchum was also in the military, having been drafted near the end of the war.


After the war, Tim Holt would return and resume his role as RKO's B-western star and Mitchum would go on to bigger and better things.  His deep voice, physical appearance, and sleepy-eyed demeanor made him perfect in the noir dramas that became his specialty. During that period he also starred in one classic western, BLOOD ON THE MOON  (RKO, 1948), which possessed many of the noirish qualities that characterized his other films. 


In 1954, Mitchum and the studio parted ways.  MAN WITH THE GUN was his first post-RKO film.





Jan Sterling and Paul Kelly in a scene from THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY



Prior to her role in MAN WITH THE GUN, Jan Sterling had appeared in two westerns. The first was an uncredited role as Flo, a saloon girl, in GUNFIRE (Lippert, 1950), a B-western starring Don "Red" Barry. In 1953, she was cast as a tomboy in love with Buffalo Bill (Charlton Heston) in PONY EXPRESS (Paramount, 1953). The first film did nothing to advance her career and the second, a weak film about the beginning of -- you guessed it -- the pony express -- didn't do much for her cause either.


However, the next year after PONY EXPRESS she received great critical notices for her performance in the John Wayne airplane disaster film, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (Warner Brothers). It was for that film that she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. It would be her only nomination.


THE SUPPORTING CAST.


Henry Hull (1890-1977), as Sheridan's incompetent marshal, gives a surprisingly restrained performance in MAN WITH THE GUN. Surprising, because he could chew scenery with the best of them.

His long and successful acting career began on the stage in 1911 and in the movies in 1917.

Although he did not appear in a lot of western films, he did have an important role in one classic. In JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939) he portrayed Major Rufus Cobb, a frontier newspaperman and friend of the James brothers, a role he repeated the following year in the film's sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (Fox).



Two years before MAN WITH THE GUN, Emile Meyer (1910-1987) gave his most memorable performance.  It was as cattleman Rufus Ryker in SHANE  (Paramount), a man not unlike Dade Holman, that most western movie fans remember him.  Perhaps not as evil as Holman, Ryker nevertheless also opposed homesteaders settling on land that he claimed but had no legal title to. And he hired a gunfighter, too, one even more lowdown and mean than the character portrayed by Leo Gordon in this film.  Jack Palance was terrific in the role of the gunfighter.

John Lupton (1928-1993) is best remembered for co-starring with Michael Ansara in the TV series Broken Arrow.  The series was based on the movie of the same name which in turn was based on Gilbert Arnold's novel, Blood Brothers.







However, Lupton would not want to remembered, I am sure, for his starring role in the western-horror film, JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (Embassy, 1966).  And neither would the late Jim Davis, who was also in the film.  Those must have been lean times for the two actors. 


Karen Sharpe (B. 1934) appeared in three films with her mentor and friend Jan Sterling. One of them was THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, for which Sterling received her only Academy Award nomination and Sharpe received a Golden Globe Award for "New Star of the Year."

As a result, Sharpe was signed to a contract by Batjac, John Wayne's new production company.  It was on loan-out that she appeared in MAN WITH THE GUN, her only western feature.  During the decade she gravitated to TV where she appeared in many western episodes and in 1959-60 she co-starred with Don Durant in the western series Johnny Ringo, which was cancelled after one season.


In 1966, she married producer Stanley Kramer and subsequently retired from acting and moved into the production end of the business.



It is a well-documented fact that part of Robert Mitchum's appeal was his bad-boy reputation, partly based on the fact that early in his career he spent a few months behind bars due to a marijuana possession charge.

However, his reputation pales in comparison to that of Leo Gordon (1922-2000).


After receiving an undesirable discharge from the military, Gordon was shot by the police during an attempted hold-up of a bar and its patrons.  His conviction earned him five years in San Quentin.


Nevertheless, he eventually broke into acting and in a forty-year career appeared in more than 170 movie and TV productions.  Despite dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Gordon became a screenwriter and provided scripts for a few movies and many TV shows and even wrote a novel.  He attributed his ability to write to the years he spent behind bars reading every book in the prison's library.


Don Siegel, who directed him in RIOT IN CELLBLOCK 11 (ironically, partly filmed in San Quentin), once said that Gordon "was the scariest man I have ever met."  Gordon used that impression and an imposing physical presence to become one of the best brutal heavies to appear on film.  After all, he did shoot a boy's dog in the opening scene of MAN WITH THE GUN.  No villain could top that -- not even Jack Palance.


But neither Gordon nor Mitchum could have been all bad.  Both actors were married only once.  Mitchum's marriage lasted fifty-seven years until his death in 1987 and Gordon and his wife had been married fifty years when he died in 2000.  


Claude Akins (1926-1994) made his screen debut in an uncredited role as Sgt. Baldy Dhom in the WWII classic, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (Columbia, 1953). In 1959 he had an important part in RIO BRAVO (WB, 1959) and a year later he gave what was perhaps his finest performance when he portrayed Ben Lane, Randolph Scott's nemesis in COMANCHE STATION (Columbia). 





And finally, you might recognize the actress who had a small part as Kitty, one of the "dance hall girls, a role for which she received no billing.  Angie Dickinson (B. 1931) would have to wait until the end of the decade for her breakthrough role in RIO BRAVO, in which she portrayed a female gambler named "Feathers."  




THE CREW.

MAN WITH THE GUN was Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.'s (1926-2015) first film as a producer.  Like his father, he preferred to independently produce his films.  In fact, this project was filmed by his Formosa Productions company and distributed by United Artists.  Although he never ascended to the status of his legendary father, he did enjoy a long, successful career as a producer who specialized in offbeat films.  

He is especially remembered for giving Julia Roberts her big break in MYSTIC PIZZA (Samuel Goldwyn Co./1988).  It was also in that film that Mark Damon made his debut.  

Goldwyn wasn't the only rookie involved in MAN WITH THE GUN.  It also marked the directorial debut of Richard Wilson (1915-1991).  In addition to directing, Wilson, who was also a screenwriter (and actor and later producer), co-wrote the story and screenplay for the film.

His co-writer was N.B. Stone Jr. (1911-1967).  Stone wrote mostly for television and in fact provided only one other movie story and screenplay, but it was a beauty.  The film was RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1952).  There is much speculation, however, that director Sam Peckinpah, a former screenwriter himself, was responsible for some major script rewrites.

Lee Garmes (1898-1978) was one of Hollywood's legendary cinematographers, one who was particularly adept at shooting films in black-and-white.  It is that and some interesting camera angles that make up two of the strongest features of MAN WITH THE GUN.   



Saturday, August 13, 2016

COME WINTER by Douglas C. Jones




"It was late April and there had been a hard little rain in the afternoon, then clearing, the clouds running off toward White River in the east and the sun coming through ebullient blue sky from the Indian Territory.  It was that magic time in the Ozarks when everyone leaned forward, expecting the next instant to hear larks or see north-migrating yellow warblers."


Ozark scene in N.W. Arkansas near setting of Come Winter
Reconstruction has ended and Roman Hasford is returning home to take charge of the family farm in northwestern Arkansas.  His father has entered the early stages of dementia, brought on by his horrifying experiences during the Civil War, and his mother is no longer able to cope with the burdens of caring for him and the farm.

Roman had left the farm after his father had returned from the war.  He made his way to Leavenworth, Kansas where through skill, hard work, a little luck, and good connections he amassed a sizeable fortune, even though he was still only in his twenties.

This was his second trip back home, but the first had been for only a short spell. He had not returned alone that time, but brought with him a little black-eyed girl named Catrina Peel, who had endured an abused existence at the hands of a no-account father.  Leaving her under the care of his mother, Roman returned to Leavenworth to tie up the loose ends that would allow him to settle permanently near Gourdville, the town closest to the Hasford farm.

Now he is returning, and not alone this time either.  With him are two people: Orvile Tucker, an ex-slave who is a blacksmith and the "best horse man" Roman has ever known; and Elmer Scaggs, an illiterate, unintelligent, but extremely loyal friend and employee, who "protected Roman Hasford from hurt, from bullies, as if Roman was a little boy on a school ground...."

"But Roman didn't just settle down.  He bought that old limestone building on the north side of the town square, and men went to work there with lumber and brick and mortar and glass to make a bank out of it, some said the second bank in the whole state of Arkansas, the first being down in Fayetteville, established only the year before.  And the word went out that a man could borrow money in that new bank in this money-starved country.  With appropriate interest."

The bank allowed Roman to become a power broker in his community and the surrounding area, not just because he possessed the means to influence events through his control of his neighbor's financial prospects, but because he was also able to dictate what individuals occupied what political offices.

"Then came the day that Roman married the little black-eyed girl....

"Almost everybody who counted in the county came.  It was springtime and the black locusts along Wire Road were in bloom.  Everything smelled like honeysuckle, and there were already larks calling from the fields across the road....

"As soon as the 'I now pronounce you man and wife' part was said, Catrina Peel Hasford went into the house and up to her loft room and stayed there the rest of the day."

Roman had returned home.  He had wealth, power, and a wife.  But what did it all mean?  And how would it all end?

"But in winter the colors died and the smells dried up.  The only place such things were sustained was inside snug walls.  The orange flame of the fireplace, the aroma of roasting chicken or frying ham creating a sense of well-being, sheltered from the great world beyond the frozen windows.  Outside, it was bleak, making the inside all the more safe and comfortable.

"So things that happened in the outside world, beyond those sheltering walls, were always remembered as harsher and more bitter than they would have if they'd happened in the spring, summer, or fall.

"And the trouble came back in winter."




REVIEWS:


"The story has all the elements of classic tragedy leavened with a bittersweet humor and wit that is quintessentially American....A master storyteller is at work here, offering a singular and knowledgeable vision of the nation's final frontier days." -- Publisher's Weekly

"Fine Adventure -- the history is rich, the story is intriguing, the characters are real.  Jones' corner of Arkansas is becoming one of the most skillfully and attractively documented places in America." Kirkus Review


"Come Winter includes a townful of characters, with women as tough as the men, building fortunes in new businesses where the railroads reach. Mr. Jones has created real people in a sympathetic story...." Herbert Mitgang, New York Times










Friday, August 12, 2016

WINDING STAIR by Douglas C. Jones


"Jones has taken believable crimes of a real gang of desperadoes from the 1890s, has surrounded the real criminals with fictitious lawmen, and given them a fictitious trial before the real 'hanging judge,' Isaac Parker....None of the moral forces of The Ox-Bow Incident perhaps -- but a gritty, lovingly etched Western-crime re-creation." -- Kirkus Review

Winding Stair takes place in Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) during the 1890s when the U.S. Federal Court for Western Arkansas, with Judge Isaac "The Hanging Judge" Parker at the helm, also had federal jurisdiction over much of the Indian Territory.


Federal courthouse in Fort Smith as it appeared in 1890 and today


Reconstructed gallows at Fort Smith

Young Eben Pay is reading for the law in the U.S. Attorney's office in Fort Smith when a gang of five murderous thieves, rapists, and killers (loosely based on the Rufus Buck gang) go on a killing and raping rampage in the Territory.  Deputy Marshal Oscar Schiller invites Pay to go along in an effort to capture the gang.

As events unfold Pay becomes much more personally involved than he had planned.

The reader is also introduced to Marshal Schiller's Osage tracker, Joe Mountain. The marshal, Joe, and Eben made subsequent appearances in other Jones' novels.



"Jones relies on none of the usual Western trappings; he eschews stereotypes....The historical research is seamless -- the story never slows down to admit dull exposition.  Winding Stair convinces, utterly, that this is how life must have been in that place at that time...a significant and highly entertaining contribution to the popular literature of the American West." -- New York Times