Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

EPSON MFP imageAbout 8 years ago, I started reviewing movies. A Blockbuster was still open near my house — oh, how I miss them — and I remember browsing through the aisles at one point thinking ‘Man, there are so many movies out there I haven’t seen.’ And so it began! I remember clearly coming home with today’s flick, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I loved it then and loved it now. A somewhat forgotten classic.

Posing as a preacher in an isolated Montana town, a former thief (Clint Eastwood) finds himself on the run. He’s picked up by an amiable young drifter, Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), who is a few minutes off of stealing a stylish Trans Am. The duo sticks together, both just drifting along looking for a chance to earn some cash, easy cash if possible. The thief, dubbed Thunderbolt by the papers, slowly lets out his story of how he got to be in this spot. “Aiding” the cause? Two of his former gang members are on his trail, all of them looking for clues to a supposedly lost take from a previous job. How to solve it all? That’s Lightfoot’s idea. What if they pulled off the same job in the exact same fashion? There have been crazier ideas…

Talk about a movie where a plot synopsis is unnecessary. This is the one. From director/writer Michael Cimino, ‘Thunderbolt’ is one of the most entertaining movies ever. It can’t be pegged into any one genre. At different points, you can call it a buddy flick, a road trip movie, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a heist flick, an Americana story, a modern western, and several more I could probably list. What makes it so special is that it doesn’t need a linear story. It can bounce among those genres at will and with ease. In terms of pure entertainment, I’m hard-pressed to come with many better.

An established star in Eastwood and a rising star in Bridges are immaculately perfect together. Their chemistry is impeccable. You don’t need a episodic, even linear story when you’ve got two characters like this who keep things moving and generally keep things fairly grounded. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt gets to play the straight man but still gets plenty of laughs. Bridges’ Lightfoot is the motor-mouthed, quick-witted and likable drifter, always ready with an observation, a thought, an opinion and a quick smile. The duo brings Cimino’s script to life. We learn about their background and history in snippets that are never overdone or forced. Like the on-screen chemistry itself, it all feels natural.

One of the best buddy dynamics ever really. You can’t help but like both men. Thunderbolt starts to look after Lightfoot like a little brother while Lightfoot idolizes Thunderbolt and his criminal exploits, not to mention his service during the Korean War. There is an easy-going charm to it all. It’s not Butch and Sundance — my all-timer for comparison of the buddy variety — but it’s really, reallllllly close.

This is a quintessential 1970’s movie too. In the vein of Charley Varrick, The Lineup and countless others, there’s a look and a feel to the story. I was born in 1985 so I don’t know this for sure obviously, but the painting of what 1970’s America is in Montana ends up being an additional character. Small towns, communities that keep to themselves, a picture of a decade that serves as a perfect snapshot. Cimino filmed on-location in Montana, and the visual look is stunningly gorgeous. You could freeze-frame individual shots, print them up and frame them. Was this an accurate vision of small-town America at the time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s what it should have been.

Two other always welcome character actors round out the thieving crew, starting with George Kennedy as Red Leary, a possibly unhinged killer who Thunderbolt always manages to keep under control. Kennedy shows off his range, brimming on psychotic episodes here and there, especially with a hatred for Lightfoot. Geoffrey Lewis plays Goody, the naive, not-so-smart but well-meaning thief who always tags along. An interesting quartet with a history, a backstory revealed slowly but surely as the 115-minute story develops. If it’s confusing early, stick with it. The payoff is worth it. Kennedy is the mystery man here — when will he lose it? — but he delivers some of the movie’s funniest, most memorable lines. His buzz-off to a snarky kid is an all-timer. No spoilers. Watch the movie.

That quartet is in just about every scene in some variety. There are also small, supporting parts for Catherine Bach, Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague in The Andy Griffith Show), Dub Taylor, Roy Jenson, Bill McKinney and Gregory Walcott.

The momentum picks up in the second half as the heist Part 2 comes into play. Still some lighter touches but it goes down a darker path. I’m all for a downer ending, but this has always been a tough one. The heist is pretty cool though, packing some serious punch and some intricate timing. This is a movie that has it all in one capacity or another. One of my favorites, and hopefully one of yours too.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): ****/****

Midway

midway_movie_posterWorld War II had countless key engagements and battles that helped turn the tide of the war, and in a bigger sense, changed the tide of history. D-Day is obviously at the top of the list, but many others have been given a film treatment, like Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, and with today’s review, 1976’s Midway. What if the Japanese had won the battle? Would WWII have a vastly different path and end result? Things you can’t help but wonder while watching this underrated gem.

It’s late spring in 1942 and the U.S. Navy is still incredibly vulnerable following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A Naval Intelligence officer and pilot, Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), talks to a fellow intelligence officer who thinks clues point to a Japanese attack coming at the key Pacific island of Midway. Washington seems to think it could all be a trick, an ambush for what’s remaining in the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda) thinks otherwise though, committing his fleet, including two essential aircraft carriers and one carrier fresh off a battle that almost crippled the ship. An immense Japanese fleet is sailing for Midway, the outnumbered, undermanned Americans racing to meet them. The young war potentially hangs in the balance in the Pacific…

In the vein of The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora! (among many others) comes this 1976 wartime battle drama from director Jack Smight. It isn’t a classic, but it’s really solid. Flaws? Sure, one major one I’ll discuss later, but when the story sticks to the war-turning battle, ‘Midway’ is at its best. It definitely gets points for portraying the battle from both perspectives, both the American and Japanese forces. It isn’t the horrific, evil Japs vs. the saintly, heroic Americans. This is a battle between professional soldiers, sailors and pilots with the battle hanging in the balance. It isn’t the most personal story — more of a BIG picture story — but the history itself is fascinating and doesn’t need much else added.

One of the best parts of these big battle epics is typically the all-star casts assembled. Some are bigger, meatier parts, others are cameos, but the star power is always impressive. ‘Midway’ doesn’t disappoint. Heston gets the biggest part — and the personal subplot — as tough, stubborn, knowledgeable Capt. Garth. Heston specialized in these big movies, whether it be war movies, disaster flicks or historical epics, throughout his career, and he’s solid as usual. Fonda makes the most of an extended cameo, if a bigger cameo than the others in the cast. He brings some charm and personality to Adm. Nimitz. Other high-ranking Naval officers include Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Robert Webber and Hal Holbrook as the intelligence officer who sniffs out the Japanese plan.

Who else to look for? James Coburn and Cliff Robertson make lightning-quick appearances (like Mitchum’s). So does Robert Wagner. On the Japanese side, Toshiro Mifune cameos as Adm. Yamamoto while James Shigeta plays Vice Adm. Nagumo, the commander of the task force. As for the pilots, Christopher George, Glenn Corbett and Monte Markam represent the Americans with varying amounts of screentime. Also look for young Tom Selleck as an officer on Midway, Erik Estrada as a pilot and Dabney Coleman as a ranking naval officer. Pretty decent cast, huh?

If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s Garth’s subplot with his son, a young Naval pilot who has fallen in love with a Japanese woman. It feels forced to say the least, to add a human element to a story that didn’t really need it. The pacing drags a bit in the first 60 minutes as the story bounces among the American and Japanese forces and then the Garth family trials. The interment camps are one of the most horrific things to come out of WWII but in a story about the Battle of Midway, the story is out of place.

Giving the story a sense of realism is real footage filmed during the actual Battle of Midway in 1942, footage used in John Ford’s award-winning documentary about the battle. Once the two fleets begin to fight, that’s where the story takes off. The naval battle begins a chess match as the two sides put plans into effect, then re-plan and adjust. The history is pretty spot-on. You see how the battle turns with some good and bad luck, some chance, some poor decisions and some calculated decisions that pay off with war-changing events. Fascinating to watch it all develop.

It’s an impressive movie. It genuinely makes you appreciate the sacrifices made on both sides. Several American squadrons attacked the Japanese fleet with little hope of success, but they flew into battle anyways. Their actions and their subsequent deaths ended up altering the battle and in a far bigger picture, the war itself. A switch here, a change there, and maybe history is dramatically altered. A film well worth checking out.

Midway (1976): ***/****

The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

where_eagles_dare_posterReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a fan favorite and was a key war movie in terms of its influence. It opened up all sorts of doors for one of my favorite sub-genres, the men-on-a-mission movie. Based off a novel by author Alistair MacLean, it was a gem. MacLean tweaked the idea when he was approached by a producer several years later for a similar but BIGGER and BETTER version. The result? From 1968, Where Eagles Dare.

It’s winter 1943-44 and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) has been summoned for an impossible mission. An agent with years of experience and countless missions under his belt, Smith and a small team of commandos, including an American Ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), will parachute into the snow-capped mountains of Bavaria on a rescue mission. An American general with detailed knowledge of the second front — D-Day — has been captured by German forces and sent to the Schloss Adler, a remote, well-guarded fortress on a mountaintop where he will be interrogated by German intelligence. The clock is ticking with the general’s knowledge potentially altering the course of the war. Smith, Not is all as it seems though as Smith and the team parachute into Germany. What exactly is going on?

The backstory here is fascinating. Burton’s stepson wanted him to do a good, old-fashioned, action-packed flick that audiences would love. Burton approached a producer, the producer approached MacLean who 6 weeks later came to him with the script (and later the novel) for Where Eagles Dare. It became a huge hit and is now considered a classic while still remaining a fan favorite. How can you not love a perfectly random story like that when a movie really hits it big?

Watching ‘Eagles’ and ‘Guns,’ you can’t help but notice the similarities. That’s a good thing though! The impossible mission, the crew of expertly trained specialists, the exotic location, the twists and turns, the betrayals, and as ‘Eagles’ seems to take it as a challenge, the obscene amount of ACTION. I have issues with the story — more later — but as pure entertainment, ‘Eagles’ is a gem, much like Guns of Navarone is/was. This 1968 war flick requires more viewer interaction (better pay attention, you’ll get lost qqquick once the twists start flying), but it’s worth it to keep up throughout the 154-minute run-time.

It’s just cool to watch Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play off each other. That’s all. It just is. Classically trained Burton and tough guy Eastwood have this underplayed charm to their relationship. Burton’s Smith knows what’s going on while Eastwood’s Schaffer is just trying to get through the mission alive. MacLean’s script provides so many great little moments between the duo with both actors not missing a chance to deliver a snappy one-liner. Also, the call sign ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy,’ there’s nothing fancy about it, but Burton’s delivery makes it seem like a Shakespearean sonnet. Sounds almost musical when you hear Burton speak. Moral of the story, both actors are having a ball with the old-fashioned, spy shoot ’em up.

Not much star power here otherwise. Mary Ure is a welcome addition to the cast as Mary, a fellow agent working with Smith. No damsel in distress either. She’s a Badass with a capital B, a part of the team quite capable of using a machine gun to save herself. In small but parts, Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark play high-ranking officers back at HQ waiting for updates. Donald Houston is the most visible of the rest of the team, but they’re there for the purpose of a twist or cannon fodder. Ingrid Pitt plays a barmaid with some secrets while familiar faces Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and Derren Nesbitt play German officers.

What I’ve always found fascinating with ‘Eagles’ is the pacing. The first hour is set-up, all foreboding and mysterious. Clues are dropped here and there — pay attention, it’s worth it — as we’re introduced to the team and the mission. We see Smith and Schaffer put plans into work that won’t pay off — maybe at all — until days later. It seems unnecessary or wasted, but the payoffs are worth it. Now, the middle, the gigantic twist and turn that come at you a mile a minute. It’s a great scene running about 15 minutes where Burton just takes over, oozing charm and mystery in an almost monologue-like scene. Then, there’s the hour-long finale, a bullet-riddled chase and running gunfight where Eastwood dispatches half the German army without a single wound. Ridiculous? Yes, 100 percent, but it’s so damn fun.

A couple other things. Composer Ron Goodwin’s score is a gem, driving the action forward at all times with big, booming music. Listen to an extended part of the soundtrack HERE. Austrian filming locations don’t disappoint either, giving a true sense of authenticity to the impossible mission scenario in the snow-capped mountains. As for the story itself, the twist is awesome and the payoff is very memorable. But let’s face it, it’s ridiculous. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING, works out for Smith almost down to the second. As was the case before though, it’s ridiculous and if you think about it too much, you might just give yourself a headache. The point is….it’s damn entertaining and a hell of a lot of fun.

Just go for the twisting, turning ride with this WWII men-on-a-mission classic. Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton would team up again a little over a year later with another WWII gem, 1970’s Where Eagles Dare. Also a must-see!

Where Eagles Dare (1968): *** 1/2 /****

Stagecoach (1966)

poster_of_the_movie_stagecoachOh, no. Here we are again. The unnecessary….remake!!! Considered by most to be one of the best westerns ever made, 1939’s Stagecoach is a key film that helped lay out a foundation for a whole type of western, not to mention helping skyrocket John Wayne to stardom. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t really need to be remade, retouched, reboot and re-anything. There just isn’t much to improve on. That said, Hollywood seems to take that as a challenge. A TV remake was released in 1986, but that’s looking ahead too much. Today’s flick is 1966’s Stagecoach.

In the town of Dry Rock, several undesirables are being booted out of town for different reasons, including Dallas (Ann-Margret), a dance hall girl, and Doc Boone (Bing Crosby), an alcoholic doctor with some debts. Sioux warriors have been reported on the warpath — including a massacre of a small company of cavalry fixing the telegraph line — so travel isn’t encouraged, but Dallas, Doc Boone and several other passengers desperately need to get up the trail to Cheyenne. Hoping to thread the needle, eight desperate people board a stagecoach. They’re in for a surprise on the trail, meeting the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord), an escaped convict looking for revenge. Ringo has his reasons though, and another gun on-board couldn’t hurt. Can the coach make it through unscathed?

So let’s get this out of the way. There’s no need to remake the original Stagecoach. Can you tweak some things? Update story devices to be more current, more modern? Throw an interesting ensemble together? Sure to all three questions. But do you need to? No, not really. From director Gordon Douglas, this 1966 version is a pretty decent movie. The cast is solid, the filming locations gorgeous, and the story itself works. There’s a reason the basic premise worked so well in the original. We’re talking life and death in the wild west. It’s hard to mess that up. This remake is good because the script/story is good, and little else. It will feel familiar and comfortable but not necessary in the least.

The biggest changes? The story breathes a little bit more, clocking in at 115 minutes to the original’s 99 minutes. The additional 16 minutes doesn’t add much unfortunately. More talking, more repetitive scenes, but not much more character development. Dallas’ personal life is explored more and more obviously — she’s a GASP prostitute! — and we actually meet the evil Plummers here which is a positive. Filmed on location in Colorado, the visual appeal is evident with snow and tree-capped mountains filling in for the dusty desert and massive rock formations. As well, composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score is good, a precursor to his score two years later with 1968’s Bandolero! Some positives, some negatives, a mixed bag of changes.

An ensemble cast with a story full of misfits and flawed characters is a gimme. The cast is what pulled me in here more than the story. Like I said, how much can you change? Some good star power though here for sure. Ann-Margret is a more mean-spirited, angry Dallas. Cord is okay but not flashy as Ringo. John Wayne’s original entrance is an all-timer, but here, it’s an afterthought. The chemistry feels a tad forced between Margret and Cord even though the love between two outsiders should have been a gimme. The high point is Crosby as the hard-drinking, fun-loving, accepting life as it is Doc Boone. Steals the show with a fun performance.

Who else to look for on our stagecoach? The always reliable Van Heflin plays Curly, the marshal riding shotgun on the coach while keeping an eye on Ringo. It’s not a flashy part but Heflin is a pro and fits in nicely. Slim Pickens plays Slim Pickens, um, Buck, the worrisome coach driver and has some good chemistry with Heflin. Also look for Stefanie Powers as Lucy Mallory, a young pregnant wife on the way to meeting her husband, Red Buttons as Peacock, a whiskey drummer, Mike Connors as Hatfield, a gentleman gambler looking out for Lucy, and Robert Cummings as Gatewood, a robbing banker. Also look for Keenan Wynn as Luke Plummer, a killer and an outlaw who crossed Ringo and his family in the past.

Things are pretty slow for the first hour as everyone is introduced and things are laid out. The highlight of the film though is the Sioux attack on the stagecoach in the last 45 minutes. It’s an underrated action gem. Some great stunt work, even cooler camera angles and shots (thinking some helicopters were used of some sort) and a whole lot of carnage. I think Ringo, Curly and Co. may have wiped out half the Sioux nation in the process. A final showdown between Ringo and the Plummers is also expanded where in the original, the entire gunfight happened off-screen. A little slow early, but the action late is worth it.

Flawed but entertaining in the end. Still stick with the John Ford original from 1939, but western fans will get a kick out of this 1966 remake. Also worth sticking around in the credits as famous American painter Norman Rockwell painted portraits of the 10 main cast members. They look great and are a cool, unique addition to the credit sequence.

Stagecoach (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Fort Dobbs

fost_dobbs_poster_smallStarring in TV’s Cheyenne for seven seasons, Clint Walker shot to stardom as the burly hero of the long-running western. He never transitioned into a huge star in movies, but with a few exceptions (his supporting part in The Dirty Dozen among others) he was always quite at home in the western. Natural jump, right, TV to film? An underrated, exciting, well-made western, 1958’s Fort Dobbs, was one he made during his Cheyenne run.

Having killed a man in the small town of Largo, Gar Davis (Walker) heads off into the desert ahead of a posse. Comanches are on the warpath and killing anyone in their path though, Gar stumbling across a dead man with an arrow in his back. He switches jackets with the corpse and manages to trick the posse into thinking the Comanches killed him. Gar is still on his own though amidst raiding Comanches until he walks onto a small ranch run by a wife, Celia Gray (Virginia Mayo), and her son, Chad (Richard Eyer), who are waiting for her husband to return. He agrees to help the Grays get to the relative safety of nearby Fort Dobbs, but Mrs. Gray begins to think that Gar has a secret, maybe even about her possibly missing husband.

This is an example of what a western can and should be. The story doesn’t have to be on the level of The Searchers, Shane or High Noon where it delivers a message. It doesn’t have to be mindlessly stupid either full of action and gunplay. From director Gordon Douglas, ‘Dobbs’ isn’t a great, classic western. It is just a really good western, and that’s fine with me. It is shot on a relatively small budget with Max Steiner‘s score sampling his score from They Died With Their Boots On and even borrows some action footage from 1953’s The Charge at Feather River. But even on a small scale, it knows what it wants to do and how to get there. Unspectacular, solid entertainment that any western fan should be able to appreciate.

In the vein of the traditional, white-hat wearing hero from the 1940s westerns, Clint Walker is a great lead as Gar Davis. For starters, he looks like a western hero. Walker stood an imposing 6-foot-6 and weighed 235 pounds so he towers over basically everyone around him. When he starts talking, that deep, baritone voice sounds like it’s going to bounce off of people and echo back. His backstory is explained late in the movie, giving Gar a slightly darker side albeit a righteous darker side. Don’t go in thinking he’s the flawless hero, but he is a good hero who will ultimately make the right choice. It’s too bad Walker didn’t become more of a star in films because as is the case here and yesterday’s Gold of the Seven Saints, he’s perfect for the western genre.

He is capably helped in three main supporting parts, all three of which could have gone obviously very wrong. We’ve got the damsel in distress, her possibly shrill, annoying son, and a smooth, conniving gunrunner. Credit to Mayo, Eyer and Brian Keith for making the most out of their parts. I’ve long been a fan of Virginia Mayo, an actress who was always able to hold her own against some of Hollywood’s best tough guys. She’s tough, smart and gorgeous, able to stand toe to toe with Walker. Eyer as her son, Chad, is also very good. So often in the 1950s (maybe more than any other decade), child actors could single-handedly ruin the movies they’re in. In other films like Friendly Persuasion, The Desperate Hours, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Eyer shows he can act, genuinely act. He has a great scene with Walker too late in the movie, a natural, emotional scene for a 13-year old actor.

As for Mr. Keith, he’s a scene stealer as Clett, a gunrunner who keeps crossing paths with Gar and Celia as they make a run for Fort Dobbs. He obviously has had some past run-ins with Gar, and that tension comes out in these scenes, especially when Keith’s Clett goes after Mayo’s Mrs. Gray. I’m used to seeing him as more of a straight-laced good guy (like in Nevada Smith) so it’s great seeing him as a bad guy. It’s more of a smooth, quick-talking bad guy, but you get the idea. The final confrontation between Gar and Clett is appropriately epic featuring some great dialogue that feels right at home in the western. It’s not a huge part, but one that Keith knocks out of the park nonetheless.

The fairly straightforward story does just enough to keep you interested and/or guessing until the end. The Utah locations serve as a gorgeous backdrop to the trip to Fort Dobbs which upon arrival delivers quite a twist. The last 25-30 minutes are the more traditional cowboys and settlers vs. Indians story, but it’s handled perfectly. The action is exciting, even surprisingly graphic, and in the end everything wraps up nicely. Russ Conway has a good part as the Largo Sheriff in this final portion. Good, underrated western. Definitely worth checking out.

Fort Dobbs <—Youtube montage (1958): ***/****

Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****