Saturday, 13 October 2018

Go West, Old Man! Red River, The Westerner, 3 Godfathers, The Professionals, The Man from Laramie, Duel in the Sun and The Left-Handed Gun

Some of the greatest films I've watched in my ongoing vintage movie-fest have been Westerns. I fell out of love with the "oater" genre many moons ago, but my boyhood passion has been well and truly rekindled by finally catching up with a whole slew of truly magnificent classics. Howard Hawks's Red River (1948) is probably the best of the lot:
Unconvinced? Try this breathtaking stampede sequence:

Red River proves that Montgomery Clift didn't always play whiny-voiced neurotic bedwetters; that John Ford's The Searchers  wasn't the first film in which John Wayne played a brooding, demon-haunted, obsessive anti-hero who comes within a whisker of killing someone he truly loves; that John Ford wasn't the only director capable of stunning us with the vast, agoraphobia-inducing beauty of the Great Untamed American Hinterland. Despite the fact that, in addition to Red River, Hawks directed The Big Sky and Rio Bravo, two other classics of the genre, I'd happily concede that John Ford is the greatest director of Westerns of all time. But comparing their work in other genres, one realises that, in terms of versatility, Hawks just about trumps Ford (who was no slouch in the versatility department himself). Hawks's screwball comedies? Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, I Was a Male War Bride, and Monkey Business - that little lot rivals the output of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Musical comedy? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Crime? Scarface and The Big Sleep. Action/adventure/romance/whatever? Only Angles Have Wings, To Have and Have Not and Barbary Coast. War movies? Sergeant York and Air Force. Hawks only made one science fiction film - but it was the eerie "intellectual carrot" masterpiece, The Thing from Another World. And those are just the Hawks films I've seen and enjoyed.

The Westerner is a 1940 film directed by William Wyler, starring Gary Cooper as a wandering cowpoke (each to his own, I say) and Walter Brennan as that legendary admirer of the Jersey Lily and the self-styled "only law west of the Pecos", Judge Roy Bean (who, despite his reputation as a hanging judge, only sentenced two men to death, and one of them escaped). It's one of the great Bromance movies (Cooper and Brennan proved such an effective onscreen team that they appeared in a total of eight films together) but while it's a charming portrayal of an unlikely friendship, the sinister, sadistic, treacherous side of Bean's nature is constantly underlined, so that we aren't all that sorry when Coop guns him down in a superb climax set in a theatre where Bean's heroine Lily Langtry is supposed to perform. Cooper gives a lovely performance, but it's undoubtedly Walter Brennan's film - and what a film! There are surprisingly few decent clips from it on YouTube, but here's a nice little appreciation:

John Ford's 3 Godfathers (1948) is a ridiculously entertaining and heart-warming joy. Three outlaws rob a bank in Arizona and ride off into the desert, pursued by a posse (led by Ward Bond, obviously). Believe it or not, the lead villain is John Wayne - but don't worry, despite being a hardened cattle-rustler, he's really a lovable old softie. The robbers, already out of water, manage to reach a water-hole, only to discover that it's been inadvertently destroyed by an incompetent tenderfoot, who's dead. The idiot's wife, however, is alive, and giving birth inside their covered wagon. The baby is successfully delivered, thanks to the three desperadoes. Mom lives long enough to name the boy after his three benefactors, makes them promise to protect her son, and then dies. Do they abandon it? Hell, no. Watching large, rough men trying to look after a tiny baby is guaranteed celluloid gold! Instead, they head across the seemingly endless salt flats for the town of New Jerusalem, at which point it all gets distinctly religious. The last part of the trek across the desert contains some of the most animated, most convincing acting of John Wayne's career. Does it have a happy ending? Is the bear a Catholic? 

I have always deliberately avoided Richard Brooks's The Professionals (1966) because - on paper at least - it looked like one of those ghastly cash-in numbers where a bunch of ageing big-name actors are assembled to wring the last drops of blood out of a dying genre, and the result is a travesty. Only the result here is a triumph - one of the best Westerns of the '60s, I reckon. Wealthy rancher Ralph Bellamy hires four men - Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode (we're talking industrial levels of testosterone here) - to get back his wife, Claudia Cardinale, who's been kidnapped by the Mexican bandit/revolutionary, Jack Palance. Bellamy's mercenary quartet manage to extricate Claudia from Palance's camp - but learn that she wasn't kidnapped: she's Jack's very willing lover. It's a tremendously gripping movie:

In recent months, I've tried only to write about films I haven't seen before - but I'm going to make an exception of Anthony Mann's The Man from Laramie (1955), the director's fifth and final collaboration with Jimmy Stewart before they had a permanent falling-out. It's worth watching just for the way Stewart pronounces the word "Laramie". I remember seeing it on TV when I was about ten and being shocked by the scene where the psychopathic son of a local rancher deliberately shoots a hole through Jimmy Stewart's hand at point-blank range: spaghetti westerns would soon make this sort of ultraviolence commonplace, but it must have stunned audiences in 1955. I'm delighted to have watched it again, with the added benefit of colour and cinemascope. Magnificent. 

I also finally steeled myself to watch 1946's Duel in the Sun (aka Lust in the Dust), directed by King Vidor and produced by David O. Selznick, which wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Gregory Peck is surprisingly good as the wild brother who rapes half-breed (sorry - mixed-race) Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten is perfectly acceptable as the decent brother who loves her, and Herbert Marshall is fine as Jen's dad. Lionel Barrymore (confined to a wheelchair by arthritis by this stage) chews every bit of scenery he can reach,  and Jennifer Jones leaves one asking yet again just what the hell it was that Selznick saw in her - she just didn't have it. And that's a problem (for me at least) - if one can't believe in Jennifer Jones as an exotic, dusky sex-bomb able to drive men mad, suspending disbelief becomes impossible, and the ridiculously melodramatic plot and the rather sickly colour tones leave one feeling visually and emotionally exhausted by the whole vast, baggy, messy thing. Apart from Jennifer Jones's lack of sexual allure, the main problem for me was that it's actually a girlie fantasy picture, whereas Westerns should be all about boys' fantasies. It was a huge box-office success. Life isn't fair. Here's the last ten minutes - it would take a heart of stone, etc.

I wouldn't recommend not watching Duel in the Sun - there's good things in it - but I would very strongly suggest never making the mistake of tuning in to Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun (1958), with a script based on a teleplay by that ghastly old fraud, Gore Vidal, and starring Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.  Newman is completely at sea, channeling every method actor he can think of - Brando, Dean, Clift etc. - but only managing to come up with an annoying, resentful, adolescent pout. Within ten minutes, I was begging every other character - out loud - to put a bullet right between the horrible little bastard's eyes just so I wouldn't have to suffer any more of his truly dismal performance. It's a confused, pretentious, uneven, emotionally incoherent mess. American audiences shunned it, but (inevitably) French critics loved it, and it was awarded the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association in 1961: Brexit can't come quickly enough, I reckon. Here's the trailer: consider it a warning!:


  1. I think it's alright to say "cowpoke " these days as long as you don't mention the religion of the cow.

  2. Blimey! An embarrassment of riches. Where to start? Best sit this one out. A great post, though. You are spot on about the Paul Newman film [try the 1967 "Hombre" instead]. Also, did you know Jennifer Jones used to sunbathe by the pool in full make-up and jewellery in case Selznick came home early from the studio and she did not want to be at a disadvantage?

    1. Maybe that's how she got the err, "part".

  3. The Professionals is a bit of an understated classic. I think Burt Lancaster is always good value and an under-rated actor. Being something of a firearms aficionado I enjoy watching an actor who actually knows what he is doing when it comes to the shooty bits and there are few finer than Lee Marvin on that front.

    Years since I've seen 3 Godfather's I hope it comes round again on TCM.

    Don't mind admitting I am a big John Wayne fan and I have The Searchers on DVD which I watch about once a year. I caught Red River again a couple of years back. And I have to agree I haven't seen Clift do anything better.

    SDG mentions Hombre above which I watched a couple of weeks ago. It's a great western somewhat terse and if memory serves me right was written by Elmore Leonard.

    Have always loved western's and me and the Mrs watch them regularly on TCM - she is watching the Alamo as i write this. I enjoyed doing a film studies A level a long time ago but I do think that the Cahiers du Cinema crowd got a little overheated with westerns, Hawks and the whole Auteur Theory thing. I do seem to remember that Destry Rides Again was considered something of a work of genius - couldn't stand that film (as much as I appreciate Jimmy Stewart and his subsequent contributions to the genre).

    Lastly I have a confession to make. My favourite western is Peckinpah's Pat Garret and Billy the Kid I have two cuts of the film which I watch every few months. I just love the way it's written, directed and acted...better stop now before I start blathering about "mise en scene"...

  4. ...and I have remembered another reason (or two) why I like The Professionals - Marie Gomez.