“Warlock” (1959) starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, & Dolores Michaels

In the frontier mining community of Warlock, rancher Abe McQuown’s (Tom Drake) San Pablo gang terrorizes the inhabitants, humiliating the town’s Deputy Sheriff and running him out of town. One of the cowboys in the gang is Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley); the actor would find fame as Dr. McCoy on the original Star Trek TV series. In desperate need of protection, the town’s leaders hire an (unofficial) Marshall, Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), to bring law and order. Clay arrives w/ his close friend, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who is a businessman. These two men stand up to the gang and the town gets quieter (for a time). Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a former member of the gang, reforms and decides to become the (official) Deputy Sheriff. Frank Gorshin (uncredited) plays Billy, Johnny’s brother; he later appeared in the famous TOS ep- Let that Be Your Last Battlefield. IMDb notes that this was the 1st movie for Gary Lockwood (the main guest star on the TOS ep- Where No Man Has Gone Before). I didn’t notice him as one of the gang; look for the tall man w/ a black hat, blue bandana, and dark mustache. Lockwood started his Hollywood career as a stuntman; he’d go on to star in 20001: A Space Odyssey.

Jessie: The men you posted are coming into town.

Clay: I thank you for warning me, but I’ve already heard.

Jessie: Why does it have to happen? Why do these things always have to end in bloodshed?

Clay: Ah, that’s how things are, Miss Jessie. That’s why I was hired… why you hired me.

Jessie: And so they’ll come into town, and you’ll shoot them all down dog-dead in the street, is that it?

Clay: Or them me.

Jessie: Or them you…

Someone once said, there are ONLY 2 types of movies: the hero goes looking for adventure or a stranger comes to town. In this case, we find 2 strangers (w/ money, shiny guns, and fancy clothes) primarily concerned w/ making more money, then moving on to another town. This is a complex/mature Western, as it subverts some of the tropes of the genre. Some viewers thought Clay and Tom are a BIT too close (more than pals), though director Edward Dmytryk (known for his work in film noir) said the homoerotic undercurrents were unintentional. There are 2 supporting roles for women; BOTH are blonde, pretty (of course), yet also independent-minded. Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone- tall/curvy/glam) tracks Clay and Tom down, looking to get revenge. Lily invites Johnny over for a home-cooked meal at her house. Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels) is one of Warlock’s leaders; her father left her a successful mine. Jessie does NOT approve of violence, though she feels drawn to Clay.

The acting is strong here, as we’d expect from the main cast. Widmark can play the angst and action well; he still looks youthful. Fonda (in a rare “shady” role) conveys depth to a gunslinger. Quinn (using a slight limp) is playing against type; he was often cast as a “macho” man. The running time is a BIT long (and feels like it); there is much going on w/ backstories of several characters. The action takes place mostly in the town (20th C. Studios in Culver City, CA); I wanted to see more of the (Moab, Utah) locations. There is the use of matte paintings for some backdrops (commonplace long into the 1990s).

[1] Complex psychological western. I like another reviewer’s point about the conflict between law and order in the film. Only Widmark’s Gannon appears concerned with enforcing law in addition to order, while the rest of the town is more concerned with simply order. Fonda’s Clay Blaisdell stands as the pivotal character, a morally ambiguous gunslinger with a dubious past. The mutual attachment between him and sidekick Morgan (Quinn) is highly unusual for a macho western. As hired gunslingers, they’re a formidable team.

[2] Here all central characters are multi-layered, there is a plenty going on that begs the utmost attention, where tragedy hangs heavy with its looming presence, and Dmytryk threads all the story strands together with thoughtfully potent results.

Adapted by Robert Alan Aurthur from Oakley Hall’s novel, Warlock boasts three excellent male lead performances and a firing on all cylinders supporting cast.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“The Naked Spur” (1953) starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, & Ralph Meeker

Packed with Technicolor Thrills! -A tagline for the movie

A former rancher/Civil War vet, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), has been searching for a murderer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), for a long time. Circumstances compel Kemp to take on 2 partners- an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), and a dishonorably discharged Union soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they learn that Ben has a $5,000 bounty on his head, greed starts to get the better of Jesse and Roy. Howie and Ben have a (troubled) history, and Ben takes every chance he can to sow doubt btwn the other 2 men. To add to the drama, there is a beautiful/young woman riding w/ Ben- Lina Patch (Janet Leigh in one of her early leading lady roles).

You can take any of the great dramas- it doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or if it’s any of the Greek plays- you can always lay them in the Western and somehow, they come alive. There is this kind of passion and drama. You can have patricide, any kind of -cide- but if you’re in a Western, you can get away w/ it… b/c it’s where… all action took place. -Anthony Mann, director

The Naked Spur (directed by Anthony Mann- who started in B-movies of the noir genre) is the MOST successful Western movie of 1953. It’s a “psychological Western” filmed on location (mainly in the Colorado Rockies) and doesn’t shy away from (gritty) violence. There are several scenes of exciting action, plenty of character development, and terrific dialogue. This is the 1st screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, who shared an Oscar nom; they went on to have long/successful careers as writers/producers. Mann and Stewart would collaborate on a total of 11 films, incl. 5 Westerns!

Ben [to Howie]: Choosin’ a way to die? What’s the difference? Choosin’ a way to live – that’s the hard part.

As the bitter/troubled Howie, Stewart (44 y.o.) reveals darkness, intensity, and vulnerability; the actor was working to let go of his bumbling/youthful/Everyman image (after returning from WWII). A strong protagonist needs a strong antagonist; Ryan (43 y.o.) wears his black hat (villain role) perfectly. As Ben, Ryan (unshaven/floppy-haired) effortlessly switches btwn grinning nonchalance and deep-thinking (in what is considered one of his best roles). Meeker (a leading man on Broadway) looks at ease as the volatile/sleazy womanizer; the Method-trained actor (32 y.o.) sports a bushy blonde mustache. Paul Newman was Meeker’s understudy in a Broadway play. Leigh (at just 25 y.o.) does a fine job alongside her (older/more experienced) co-stars; she gets a few moments to shine (rare for women in Westerns). Even if this is NOT your fave genre, you may enjoy it a LOT! You can rent the movie on Amazon Prime.

[1] Spectacular location photography in the Rocky Mountains lend a ring of authenticity to the story.

[2] …Ryan’s charming, snake-like villain who dominates this rugged western despite strong performances from the entire cast. He obviously relishes his role and is a joy to watch.

[3] …an outstanding western and has lost none of its glow over the years and like all classic westerns it just gets better and better with the passing of time.

[4] …Mann directs very assuredly, James Stewart is wonderfully ferocious and Robert Ryan is very charismatic in a more convoluted role. The film looks great, with wonderful sets, scenery, costumes and photography, the music adds to the mood of each scene without feeling too intrusive, the dialogue is excellent and the story- even with the well-worn themes and such- is very compelling.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Yellow Sky” (1948) starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, & Richard Widmark

In 1867 in the West, a band of bank robbers flee from the U.S. Cavalry into the desert on horseback. These men are: James Dawson AKA Stretch (Gregory Peck- one of Hollywood’s top leading men), Dude (Richard Widmark- a film noir darling/respected character actor), Lengthy (John Russell- a tall/darkly handsome actor who later became a lead on TV), Bull Run (Robert Arthur), Half Pint (Harry Morgan- long before fame on M*A*S*H), and Walrus (Charles Kemper). Near death from lack of water, all (except Walrus), stumble into what appears to be a ghost town (Yellow Sky). However, they soon discover a prospector, Grandpa (James Burton), and his “tomboy” granddaughter, Constance Mae AKA Mike (Anne Baxter- already an Oscar winner for her supporting role in All About Eve). After Dude discovers that this old man has been mining gold, the gang plan to steal from his claim.

James (Stretch) Dawson: Quite a punch you got there, ma’am. Come in mighty handy when you get married.

I learned that Widmark acted in a few Westerns, thanks to another classic movie fan (via Twitter). Yellow Sky is categorized as a noir Western. The director’s name may be familiar; William Wellman directed the original version of A Star is Born (1937). The story was by W.R. Burnett (one of the most influential writers in film history); the screenplay was by Lamar Trotti. The music was composed by one of the best in the field, Alfred Newman; he created the 20th Century Fox logo theme (which is still used today). In 1940, Newman was nominated for 4 Oscars for 4 different films- wow!

Shakespeare’s The Tempest influenced the plot/characters; I learned this from the review that indie director John Sayles did. However, Wellman said in the book, The Men Who Made the Movies, that he had no idea of the connection. In the fight between Lengthy and Mike at the spring, Baxter’s stunt double- Martha Crawford- was used. Peck broke his ankle in 3 places after falling from his horse in one scene, so the man wrestling w/ Baxter in the hay was his stunt double, Jock Mahoney. Wellman noted that Baxter hated working w/ Peck, BUT never gave a reason why. Hmmm… I found this surprising, b/c I’ve never heard of Peck’s co-stars having serious issues w/ him!

I’m NOT yet V familar w/ the Western genre, though I mostly grew up in the desert (Tucson, AZ). This movie is visually stunning w/ stark black and white photography of the natural landscapes. The filmmakers received permission to shoot in Death Valley, which had the dangers of extreme heat, scorpions, and tarantulas- yikes! Peck and Widmark make believable frenemies; they’re NOT only opposites physically, BUT also have different personalities. Each of the 6 men has his own style of speech, unique costume, and scene in which to reveal his character. The romance develops over a few scenes, as Mike learns that Stretch is NOT a bad man (deep down). The last scene looks tacked on (by Hollywood studio execs), as Sayles commented. This movie was re-made in South Africa as The Jackals (1967) starring Vincent Price.

[1] Gregory Peck plays the leader Stretch, an actor normally associated with a straight-laced gait, here he is is weather worn and tired, his portrayal of Stretch as convincing as a role I have seen him tackle. Richard Widmark, in what I believe to be his first Western entry, is truly magnetic, a smirking, snarling Dude that you just know you couldn’t trust if your life depended on it. Anne Baxter plays the sole female character of the piece (Mike), and she is pivotal to the whole film’s strength, tough and full of spunk, her grasping of the situation in amongst these ragged men gives the piece it’s time bomb ethic, and boy does Baxter do well with it.

[2] Performances are superb from all concerned. Peck gives one of his usual stalwart portrayals. Richard Widmark, in his first western is superb as the slimy, crafty double crosser. Also excellent is John Russell as the womanizing gang member (“Now ma’am, you wouldn’t shoot a fine young handsome fella like me, would ye?”)

[3] The main thing you might not catch is that this is an adaptation of “The Tempest,” by Shakespeare. Here, the band of travelers crosses a metaphoric sea (the desert) and reaches a “New World” where they sort out what matters between them. The set was built (and deliberately destroyed) from an old silent film set that was left over.

William Wellman was one of those consistently excellent directors who never really made a bad film, but didn’t always make exceptional ones, and this one is right in his usual mix of strong visuals, tight editing, fairly simple dramatic plots, and a key actor or two to identify with.

-Excerpts from IMDb movies

“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Proto-Feminist Western/Melodrama: “Johnny Guitar” (1954) starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, & Mercedes McCambridge

Sam: [to the two men in the kitchen] Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.

Vienna (Joan Crawford- 50 y.o.) has spent nearly 5 years to built a saloon outside of Southwestern town. She hopes to build her own town once the railroad comes through, but most of the locals want her gone. When four men hold up a stagecoach and kill a man, the sheriff and community leaders, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge- 38 y.o.) come to the saloon to grab four of Vienna’s friends, incl. their leader- Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady- just 30 y.o.) This was the time when when Ernest Borgnine (aged 37) was playing tough/villainous guys; he’s the hot-headed Bart Lonergan. Royal Dano is Corey, the ailing man true to the Dancin’ Kid, who will get a lot of empathy w/ his performance. Veteran character actor John Carradine (aged 48) plays the loyal caretaker of the saloon- Old Tom. Vienna stands strong against the posse of haters; she is aided by a newcomer- Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden- 38 y.o.)- who is NOT what he seems.

Vienna: Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?

A proto-feminist hero is a female who usually fights against society’s expectations of her; this is a term from the 20th c. As some viewers have noted, Vienna stands for progress and new ideas; the wealthy ranchers- Emma and Mr. McIvers (Ward Bond)- are trying to stop that progress which threatens their way of life. While Vienna and her friends are dressed in bright colors (a rarity for Western movies), the posse is dressed in black. The posse is led by the (repressed/petite) Emma; her voice is full of with fire and brimstone. We learn that Johnny met Vienna when she was working in an Oklahoma City saloon years ago; also from other lines, there is no doubt to her being a former prostitute. Jealousy and rejection compel Emma to destroy both her rival Vienna and her unrequited love- the Dancin’ Kid. Hayden does a fine job here; he and and Crawford have good chemistry in their scenes together. Crawford seems to be in control at all times; she tells Johnny when to play and the Dancin’ Kid when to dance. Even when there is a noose around her neck, she stays strong and the men refuse to hang her (until Emma steps in). As one astute viewer commented: “Emma is also a woman in control, but of external forces; on the inside, emotions, fears, and frustrations dominate.”

Vienna: [to Johnny Guitar bitterly] A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a “tramp!” Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.

According to director Nicholas Ray, he began shooting the younger actress’ scenes in the early morning before Crawford got on set, as Crawford was very jealous of McCambridge. Ray was quite unhappy during the filming and later admitted: “Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning.” Crawford, who had bought the rights to the novel and sold it Republic Pictures, initially wanted Claire Trevor or Barbara Stanwyck (her friend) to play Emma. The actresses fought both on and off camera; one night (in a drunken rage) Crawford threw the costumes worn by McCambridge along an Arizona highway! McCambridge (who also played a strong woman in Giant) later claimed that Crawford attempted to blacklist her. Hayden said: “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” Crawford referred to Hayden as “the biggest pill in Hollywood.” Francois Truffaut said it reminded him of The Beauty and the Beast w/ Hayden being the beauty- LOL! Check out this film if you want to see a unique Western and don’t mind a big dose of melodrama.

[1] …I think Nick Ray and Phil Yordan decided the story was so ridiculous that they would just concentrate on the emotional elements, also bringing out the pure fantasy (going behind the waterfall to find a hidden fortress, the heroine running from the fire in her white satin dress, etc.) that is the best element of all great film.

[2] Weird and hysterical Western with Freudian touches, dreamlike emotionalism and magnificent dialogue in which is blended domination, humiliation and a deadly confrontation- resulting to be a fascinating and melodramatic film.

Love and hate are woven into two protagonists, the fallen angel Joan Crawford and the spinster landowner Mercedes McCambridge; both of them share a mythical confrontation.

[3] The film starts as a western, but it simply doesn’t conform to that genre, instead it is a weirdly matriarchal piece where the traditional roles are almost roundly reversed and the whole film has an otherworldly feel to it. […] The western clichés become secondary to these relationships and the director seems to prefer these to any lynching or shoot out.

The full colour of the film gives it a gaudy, otherworldly appeal that is very enjoyable. Fires range in terrible, hellish reds, while shadows divide scenes of emotional complexity.

[4] A western without savages, cavalry, rodeos, and the usual John Ford stuff. A different western, ahead of its time, and very misunderstood by the public then, but, fortunately, reborn from the limbo and forgiveness, rediscovered by new generations, and still alive, fresh as in its first day, and always inmortal.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews