Sunday, September 27, 2009

Under Western Skies

A. Mann and Budd B., Randy Scott and Jimmy Stewart... four names to conjure with if you love Western movies.

Actually, folks do still, everywhere in the world. Westerns seem to represent a still-welcome manifestation of the rugged-individualist, last-frontier attitude that once drew immigrants and much admiration to America's shores, but which in the later 20th century sadly deteriorated into sneers at the "cowboy" mentality of certain Presidents. But the recent success of films like Appaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma suggests that those rode-hard horses can be rid some miles fu'ther--there's life in the old nags yet.

Lately I've been on a Westerns binge, working my way through the great "A" and "B" pictures of ex-bullfighter Budd Boetticher (no bum steer there) and master of cine noir Anthony Mann--in particular the core five or six by each director, which means lots of square-jawed, rock-of-Gibralter-straight Scott and lean, tough, and angry-intense Stewart, the films richly focussed (so to speak) as each actor works hard to expand and/or solidify his image.

The best ones by Budd and Scott creating in tandem--later-Fifties "Ranown" productions The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station, plus the earlier, separate BatJac production Seven Men from Now--have the slim and simple directives of the old second-on-the-bill B's: make the plot straightforward, minimize the number of locations and actors, and then shoot fast (in both senses). Except these are all in gorgeous color and two even in CinemaScope, filmed by genius cinematographers like Lucien Ballard, William Clothier, and Burnett Guffey, so they look like several million dollars on the hoof, with the ruggedly picturesque Old West lensed beautifully. And with tight and terse scripts by the likes of Borden Chase and Burt Kennedy (soon a director himself), the only things obviously cheap were the shots taken by snobbish critics back East. These bouyant, we-can-do-anything flicks were not to be denied.

The scenery is mostly rocky and expansive, and Randolph Scott moves confidently through it as a true "man of the West" (to borrow a title from Mann) whom you can count on to rally the troops, rescue the woman (Gail Russell, Maureen O'Sullivan, Karen Steele, or Nancy Gates), sort out the bad guys, and save the day, usually in less than 80 minutes. The fast guns and nasty schemes of amazin' Lee Marvin, mouthy Richard Boone and Claude Akins, plus Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef, and James Coburn, just can't compete with Scott's reticent decency and steely resolve. (Craig Stevens and Pernell Roberts, before their television stardom, appear separately as other good-bad guys.)

With enthusiastic on-screen commentary from Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Taylor Hackford as an added treat, the five-DVD Boetticher set is a real bargain, and a revelation for any Westerns aficionado who's forgotten or never known the glory days of Scott and Budd. And the stand-alone reissue of Seven Men completes this fascinating flurry of under-the-radar independent filmmaking.

More famous and more troubled in comparison are the earlier-Fifties "A" Westerns shaped by Mann and Jimmy Stewart. At 40-plus, the actor decided he needed to expand his horizons and his longstanding good-guy image. The right Mann for the task seemed to be Anthony, solid action director of several tough noir flicks plus the recent Indian rights' feature, Devil's Doorway. And the five Westerns they made together proved him right, as Stewart became a haunted, sometimes hunted character, a man driven by anger or vengeance or his own guilty past.

Winchester 73, a brilliantly scripted "round" and the sole black and white film among the five, puts Jimmy hard on the trail of his own murdering brother. Bend of the River next presents him as a post-Civil War, Missouri-Kansas border raider trying to escape the residual scars (made real by noose marks around his neck). A charming, laughing villain (Robert Ryan) then works to elude bounty hunter Stewart, but triggers mounting nastiness, including the unexpected weapon of the title, The Naked Spur. In yet another, Jimmy as The Man from Laramie searches for whoever sold rifles to the Apache and thus contributed to the death of his brother; nothing can deter him, including the brutal maiming of his gun hand. And even in the rather more light-hearted film The Far Country, Jimmy is driven as much by gold-rush greed as friendship, involving himself in Yukon Territory problems only reluctantly.

You can easily conclude that a nice guy he isn't. Yet Stewart is less anti-social than the villainous characters who fill the frames of all these films--although the fierceness, even madness, gleaming occasionally in Stewart's eyes warns the viewer that there's more to this stranger, these multiple secretive Jimmy's, than first meets the audience's eyes. (Recall too that Alfred Hitchcock soon appropriated the grim-fellow Stewart of Mann's films for his own mid-Fifties trio of classics, with Jimmy becoming the wheelchair-bound voyeur peering out his Rear Window; a panicky driven father in The Man Who Knew Too Much; and the dizzy, manic detective--psychologically even a bit sordid--shadowed by dual Kim Novaks and a perfect case of Vertigo.)

Though production values and cast size for the Mann five reflect the bigger sums of money available to "A" pictures, they don't negate the budget-challenged heroics of Boetticher's cheaper films. Still, Mann's are ultimately meaner and more interesting, something new under the Western sun, their plots demonstrating that so-called "adult" Westerns in all their callousness and complexity were well-launched at last...

Sadly, Scott and Boetticher had run out their string. The tall actor chose to exit his career with a last gasp of glory titled Ride the High Country, but Budd lost out as director to crazy Sam Peckinpah. And Mann and Stewart quarreled so heatedly early in their next film (Night Passage) that the director bowed out--wisely, if one judges by what resulted without him. (The movie does answer the trivia question, "What became of young Brandon de Wilde after Alan Ladd/Shane rode away?")

By 1959-1960, the glorious decade of emotionally convoluted--but carefully budgeted--Hollywood Westerns was over, and the gunslingers and gamblers of television had become the replacement rage, no matter how diminished the grandeur of the West appeared on that electronic small-screen.

Like gunman Shane, the Four Horsemen of the adult flicks just rode away.

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