36 Hours (1964)

36_hours_movieposterOne of the greatest secrets in the history of the world is remarkable to fathom even now, some 70 years later. That secret? The Allies ability to keep the location of the D-Day landings under wraps despite the extreme efforts in the German intelligence field to deduce the location. It was a moment(s) in time that literally changed history. One of the more underrated World War II movies ever made covers the topic from the intelligence perspective, 1964’s 36 Hours.

It’s late May 1944 and the impending Allied invasion of the European mainland is on everyone’s mind. Where will the Allies land? Will it be at Pas-de-Calais? At Normandy? And when? Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner), an American intelligence officer, is one of the few who knows the truth, who knows all the details of the coming invasion. Unfortunately, German intelligence knows his status too and kidnaps him while he’s meeting a contact in Lisbon. Their plan? A German doctor, Major Gerber (Rod Taylor), has developed an incredibly in-depth plot to get Pike to reveal where the coming invasion will take place. Gerber intends to convince Pike that it’s 1950 and the war is long since over. There’s no way he could pull it off, is there?

The history behind the story in this 1964 WWII espionage thriller is fascinating in itself. An invasion featuring hundreds of thousands of troops and materiel, planes, tanks, guns, food and ships that would start the road to the beginning of the war was kept under wraps for months despite Herculean efforts of the German intelligence staff to procure the truth. What better basic premise to spin off of for a criminally underrated World War II movie?

I’ve seen this movie three, maybe four times and come away more impressed each time. I don’t want to give too much away featuring Gerber’s plans to confuse and manipulate Pike into giving away the site of the D-Day landings, but let it be said…I would have fallen for the plan. Hair dye, newspapers, records and radio stations, hundreds of actors at a U.S. hospital in post-war Germany, the effort is staggering. The key though is the details, with Taylor and Eva Marie Saint representing the point people on the dupe. Posing as an American doctor and a nurse with a tortured past from the war, the success of the mission depends on the duo’s ability to pull off the ruse. Just sit back and watch their plan develop. It is amazingly entertaining — and uncomfortable — to watch.

The 1960’s were a heck of a time for Garner (in between hit TV shows), and he delivers an excellent performance here. He is the viewer, holding a valuable piece of information, but not quite sure what’s going on. His Pike is highly-trained and highly-intelligent so there’s no way this German effort to trick him works, right? Right?!? Half the fun here is going for the ride and seeing him start to piece things together. Taylor similarly gives a fascinating part as Gerber. He’s not an evil doctor, not a bloodthirsty Nazi, but an intelligent, well-meaning doctor who clearly thinks so outside the box. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Garner is what holds the movie together, Taylor beautifully underselling his part as he tries to deduce a secret that potentially turns the tide of the war. Excellent lead performances from 2 of my favorite actors.

The third lead performance is a gem too, Eva Marie Saint as Anna, a concentration camp survivor enlisted as part of the plan because of her ability to speak English. In bits and pieces, we discover her tortured past, that past tearing her up inside as to what to do concerning Pike and Gerber. She’s got excellent chemistry with both Garner and Taylor, the trio dominating the 115-minute run-time. Also look for Werner Peters as the SS officer tasked with “overseeing” Gerber and his plan, an expertly creepy part, and John Banner as a German home guard soldier, an interesting part a year away from his debut as dimwitted Sergeant Schultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes.

If there’s a weakness in ‘Hours,’ it’s in the last 40 minutes. The tension and mystery early is classic, an easy 4-star review. But once some twists and turns are revealed, the story limps along to the finish. It just can’t sustain the momentum built up over the first 75 minutes. Still, this George Seaton-directed thriller is worth it for that first half alone, especially with a Dmitri Tiomkin score and beautiful black-and-white filming in Yosemite National Park (standing in for Germany!). Give it a watch for sure.

36 Hours (1964): ***/****

 

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Against the Wind

againstthewindposterWhen is it too early to release a war film? Do you let wounds heal? Do you tell a story regardless of the timing? In the late 1940s, studios around the world had to answer those questions. The war films that were made didn’t often shy from the truth, films like The Best Years of Our Lives, Twelve O’Clock High, Battleground and The Sands of Iwo Jima among others. Here’s one that’s been almost entirely forgotten, short on star power but a good story, 1948’s Against the Wind.

It’s relatively early in World War II. A Catholic priest, Philip (Robert Beatty) walks into a British museum requesting to see a specific office. Everything is not as it seems though. Philip has been recruited to join the Special Operations Execute (S.O.E), a unit placing undercover agents behind enemy lines as well as working with the Resistance in France, Belgium and across Europe. Philip finds himself working with men and women from countless backgrounds and cultures, all with their personal reasons for joining the cause. That cause has low percentages for survival though as these brave men and women will put their lives on the line to get the job done, day after day.

That plot synopsis came across as more positive propaganda than I intended. Touches are there though for sure in this 1948 British war film from director Charles Crichton. Only 3 years removed from the end of WWII, ‘Wind’ goes behind the lines in a story that while dark and atmospheric, it isn’t necessarily hard-hitting. It’s not heavy-handed – thankfully – and is content to tell the story of the brave men and women who risked their lives to aid the war effort. They didn’t fight on the front lines and would never get any headlines for their efforts.

So why is ‘Wind’ so generally forgotten? Well, for one, there are many more British war films that would be released in the 1950s and 1960s with far more star power. Recognizable faces are on display here, but only one big name I would say. Instead, we get an excellent ensemble that more than rises to the occasion. It’s somewhat disjointed early as we get to know our undercover/espionage agents, but it all clicks together once these individuals end up being sent out to their missions.

Who to look for? The biggest name is Simone Signoret in her first English-speaking role. She plays Michele, a Belgian refugee who has to prove herself to her fellow agents because of her past and…well, cuz she’s a woman. Beatty’s Philip is an interesting character who I would have liked to learn more about, a Catholic priest taking advantage of the relative freedoms offered to him as a member of the clergy. Jack Warner is the smooth-talking Max, Gordon Jackson as Jack, the quiet explosives expert, Paul Dupuis as Picquart, the Frenchman working with the Gestapo, Gisele Preville as Julie, precocious and curious, John Slater as Emile, a Frenchman torn between his duty and his family, Peter Illing as Andrew, the veteran agent with plenty of experience, and the always welcome James Robertson Justice as Ackerman, the station chief and commander.

If there’s an issue here, there are too many characters. Most of those mentioned above are more than capable of carrying movies on their own. My biggest criticism is that I would have liked to get to know more about them. Signoret is excellent as Michele, Jackson (later of The Great Escape fame as McDonald) is a quiet scene-stealer as the explosives expert, and Slater as Emile especially stand out. Justice too almost feels like he’s auditioning for his similarly scene-stealing part 14 years later in The Guns of Navarone. Too many interesting characters isn’t a bad thing, just a relative criticism.

The movie really hits its groove in its second half – 96-minute running time – as our agents parachute into Belgium with a variety of missions. Parts of the missions early on almost feel rushed (studio cuts?) until 2 aspects of the mission are revealed. One, there’s a traitor in the group. But who? Two, one agent is captured before he could swallow his suicide capsule and needs to be rescued. Naturally, he’s in a heavily guarded Gestapo prison. The rescue is underplayed and subtle but highly dramatic, incredibly atmospheric and the Belgian locations – filmed in black and white – are stunning to see. Never overdone, the action sequences are quick and harsh, realistic and straightforward. An excellent ending, and an especially strong last 45 minutes.

Also worth mentioning, intended or not. The influences movies like ‘Wind’ had our obvious, in characters, storytelling techniques, twists and turns and plenty of genre conventions. Films like The Train, Army of Shadows, Operation Crossbow and many more all have touches of this underrated British war film released in 1948. As well, Beatty would later play a key role in the espionage-fueled Where Eagles Dare as General Carnaby in 1967. Well worth seeking out.

Against the Wind (1948): ***/****

The Wrath of God (1972)

wogposSimply put, but…Robert Mitchum was cooler than you. He’s cooler than everybody. A Hollywood legend, Mitchum was one of the first true bad boys. He didn’t care. He did things his way, and his laid-back but memorable acting style produced plenty of classic movies and performances. One of my favorites? A brutally underrated, truly odd western that’s all but forgotten, 1972’s The Wrath of God.

It’s the 1920s in an unidentified Central American country and three unique individuals have been brought together — blackmailed — to perform a suicide mission. The unholy trinity includes Van Horne (Mitchum), a machine-gun toting, bank-robbing priest, Keogh (Ken Hutchison), an IRA gunman on the run, and Jennings (Victor Buono), a cashiered British army officer now with his hand in anything and everything illegal, including gun-running. Their mission? Kill a rogue army officer, Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella), who causes constant trouble for the army and government. Their work is cut out for them as de la Plata lives up in the mountains surrounded by a small army of gunmen and a heavily fortified hacienda. Can the trio pull off the job, clear their names and get out alive?

I first caught this on TCM back in the early 2000s, then couldn’t find it, then finally tracked it down a few years later. It’s been a favorite ever since. Based off a novel by Jack Higgins (as James Graham), ‘Wrath’ is an oddity, a unique western that is unlike just about any other western I can think of. It’s so odd at times that a fair share of reviewers think it’s actually a spoof. My thought? It ain’t. Simple as that. From director Ralph Nelson, ‘Wrath’ is a western that while influenced by spaghetti westerns and the changing times for the American western, stands alone. It’s a funny, cynical, violent and for me, highly memorable flick. A gem, one I can go back and re-watch time and time again.

My best description is that ‘Wrath’ has style. Filmed on-location in Mexico, it feels authentic, like we’re watching the story take place where it did happen. Gorgeous looking flick with familiar locations you’ll have seen in other westerns, like Vera Cruz and The War Wagon. The final shootout at the de la Plata hacienda was shot in the same location as the finale to Vera Cruz, a ridiculously cool extended sequence. Composer Lalo Schifrin turns in a great score too — listen HERE and HERE — that’s jazzy and flamboyant at times, but also reminiscent of a spaghetti western score in other instances. An underrated score, especially driving the action scenes.

But back to that Mitchum guy. Underplaying his part but clearly having a ball, he adds a third “priest” part to his filmography, joining The Night of the Hunter and 5 Card Stud. His Father Van Horne has some secrets — explained late — but it’s such a fun part from the word go. When he makes his big reveal, taking out a Thompson sub-machine gun and mowing down a saloon full of bandits, it’s a genuine laugh out loud moment. It never lets up as Mitchum delivers a surprisingly layered part as Van Horne. What drives this quasi-priest? Is it greed or something else? Well worth finding out.

Rounding out the unholy trinity, Hutchison and Buono aren’t big stars, but they’re perfectly cast. The chemistry among the three actors is impeccable. Any big reason? A script that crackles with great dialogue and one memorable line after another. Jennings’ oft-repeated “We’ll get along famously!” is a favorite, as is Van Horne’s “All is not what it seems.” Check out IMDB’s Memorable Quotes (I added those quotes years ago. You’re welcome!) for a good sample of the quality of dialogue. One of my favorite — if unlikely — men-on-a-mission teams. Hard to beat a machine-gun toting priest, an IRA gunman and an overweight, hard-drinking gun-runner. Hutchisons’ Emmet also gets the love interest, a beautiful Indian girl, Chela (Paula Pritchett), who’s mute.

Mitchum, Hutchison and Buono dominate the screen, which is odd considering how low Emmet and Jennings are in the cast listing. The reasoning? The bigger names playing smaller parts, almost cameos. Langella hams it up as the unhinged Tomas, always seemingly on the brink of losing it. Oh, and he loathes priests (ALL priests) with a passion. In her last film, Rita Hayworth plays Tomas’ tortured mother, trying to hold it all together. Struggling with Alzheimer’s during filming, she apparently had trouble reciting/remembering lines. Also, John Colicos makes the most of a one-scene appearance as Colonel Santilla, the messenger of death and commander of the region who sends the trio on their suicide mission.

Also, look for familiar western faces in Gregory Sierra, Frank Ramirez, Enrique Lucero, Aurora Clavel, Chano Urueta and Jorge Russek in supporting parts. Sierra is especially good as Jurado, Tomas’ brutal, bullish enforcer.

Not a huge action movie, ‘Wrath’ saves its firepower for the last 30 minutes when Van Horne and Co. make their play against de la Plata. A bullet-riddled shootout in a village square packs a whallop, but the finale at the de la Plata hacienda is the best, most memorable part. Some twists, some awesome moments — Buono driving a Mercedes as a battering ram with one hand, blasting away with a machine gun with the other stands out — and plenty of action. Mitchum saves the best for last in a classic final line. A classic movie overall? No, not by a long shot, but one of my favorites and a hilariously entertaining western. A must for western fans, and well worth tracking down.

The Wrath of God (1972): *** 1/2 /****

Firecreek (1968)

1968-firecreekIn a career spanning 6 decades, Henry Fonda became synonymous with heroic lead characters who always fought for what was right, fighting for the underdog, and often doing it at his own expense. And then he wasn’t! In 1968, he took 2 villain roles in westerns, one that’s a classic and pretty well-known, Once Upon a Time in the West, and the other a far lesser-known but still quality western, 1968’s Firecreek.

In the tiny, isolated town of Firecreek, farmer Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) lives with his wife and their 2 boys. His wife is also expecting their third child. Johnny doubles as the town sheriff, but the town doesn’t necessarily need him to do much as he quietly earns (sometimes) his $2 a month. The peaceful, even boring town is about to get some excitement though. A gunfighter, Bob Larkin (Fonda), and his gang of four fellow gunslingers have ridden into town. They don’t start off causing any trouble at first, but that quickly changes. Basically on his own, Cobb must decide what to do. Where’s his line? How far should he let these men push before he pushes back? Whatever his decision, the townspeople are scared to death of any possible repercussions, leaving Johnny seemingly on his own.

The obvious comparison for this 1968 western from director Vincent McEveety is the classic 1952 western High Noon. The basic connection is obvious, a small-town sheriff forced to defend his town on his own against a gang of bandits. The basic premise is there, but 16 years later, things had changed in the western genre. Stories were nastier, more adult, more violent and for lack of a better description…more uncomfortable. This is an excellent western, but it isn’t necessarily an enjoyable western. It’s not fun, it’s not exciting. Instead, it’s nerve-wracking, the tension building all the time to a tough but ultimately highly memorable finale.

It’s hard to beat a pairing of two Hollywood legends like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. They co-starred in 1962’s How the West Was Won but didn’t have any scenes together, so this was the first pairing for the iconic pair. They would co-star 2 years later in another solid western, The Cheyenne Social Club. Here in Firecreek, they don’t share a ton of screentime, but what’s there is prime.

Where ‘Firecreek’ succeeds so well is as a character study of Johnny Cobb and Bob Larkin. Neither man is truly content with his life. Cobb begins to realize as much as he loves his family, he made an unconscious decision years before to simply…settle and not challenge himself. He’s capable, strong-willed and patient, well-respected by the small population of the town. Fonda’s Larkin is a gunfighter, pure and simple, but not necessarily a bad one. He’s a self-proclaimed leader of men, always riding out front into the dirtiest, hairiest jobs. When things take a turn for the worse, Larkin wants to see how far he can push, even though he might not agree with his men’s actions. Rock and a hard place, but something has to give. Memorable performances from two Hollywood legends.

In creepy supporting parts look for Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam, James Best and Morgan Woodward as Larkin’s gang. Lockwood is especially memorable as a possibly unhinged gunslinger, Earl, with Elam and Best also making the most of supporting parts. Inger Stevens plays Evelyn, a widow who’s basically hiding in Firecreek, wasting her life away. Robert Porter plays Arthur, a simple-minded stable boy who idolizes Johnny, with Dean Jagger, Jay C. Flippen and John Qualen as some of the townspeople. Ed Begley is a fire-and-brimstone traveling preacher. Barbara Luna plays Meli, an Indian woman with a half-breed son (oh, scandalous backstory) with Brooke Bundy playing Leah, a teenage girl oblivious to the gang’s intentions and Jacqueline Scott as Cobb’s wife. Good supporting cast all-around.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Firecreek’ takes place in a little over a 24-hour period. The story is set almost entirely in the small town with a couple ventures out into the country, giving it an almost theatrical feel. The town – small, dusty and depressing – becomes a key character in itself. Even as the gang rides in, there’s a sense of doom hanging in the air. What’s gonna happen? Who’s gonna light the match of this powder keg? That’s where the uncomfortable qualities take off from. ‘High Noon’ was a nerve-wracking final product, but there’s an added, harsher edge here because we’ve gotten to see the depths the gang has gone to.

There’s little in the way of action for the first 90 minutes, but then with one shocking reveal in the third act, things take off like crazy. It’s not a huge gunfight, but instead a cat-and-mouse hunt through the town with some surprising touches of violence. An incredibly tense ending to a lesser-known but high quality western. Definitely should check this one out.

Firecreek (1968): ***/****

Quigley Down Under (1990)

quigley_down_underWorking regularly since the 1970’s, Tom Selleck has had plenty of success on TV, including Magnum PI, Blue Bloods and the Jesse Stone movies, not to mention recurring roles on several other series. He’s been a staple in the western genre too, especially a handful of memorable TV movies. One of his best though was released theatrically in 1990 and has been a fan favorite ever since, Quigley Down Under.

An American marksman who’s gained a reputation with his modified Sharps rifle, Matthew Quigley (Selleck) is traveling to Australia in search of a job. An Australian rancher, Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman), has searched around the world for the best long-range marksmen for a job, and he thinks he’s found his man in Quigley. The job? It’s not as advertised. Marston is having a problem with the natives with the Aborigines in the area killing his cattle. They’ve learned to avoid his men and their rifles though. In steps Quigley hopefully, picking them off from long-range. Quigley isn’t having it though and is double-crossed by Marston and his men. Along with a crazy woman, Cora (Laura San Giacomo), Quigley is left for dead in the Australian outback. Can they survive? Can they exact revenge on Marston in the process?

I learned something while researching this movie. This 1990 flick from director Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) is known as a “neo-western.” It’s far from your typical western, obviously doesn’t take place in America, and is made with almost an entirely Australian cast. Whatever you wanna call it or classify it as, know this. It’s very good. It was filmed on-location in Australia and looks amazing. Wincer pairs again with composer Basil Poledouris again after their success with Lonesome Dove, and the result is a great, memorable score. It sounds part Lonesome Dove, part The Son of Katie Elder. Give it an extended listen HERE.

‘Quigley’ was in the works since the late 1970’s with Steve McQueen (can you imagine that?!?), Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford all considered for the part. It ultimately went to Selleck, and that’s just fine! Selleck looks like a cowboy. He acts like one. He sounds like one. I love his Quigley character because it is so fish out of water, and you don’t often see that with the archetypal western hero. Usually those stories take place in…well, the American west. He’s got an imposing presence and brings a calming energy to the proceedings. No matter what gets thrown at him — a lot gets thrown at him — Quigley rolls with the punches. He’s a man of his word and expects others to do so too. A great character to lead the way.

Fresh off the immense success of Die Hard, Rickman is a scene-stealer as Marston. If anything, he’s underused. Marston is fascinated by the American west, making himself into a fast draw artist and is like an adoring fan when he meets Quigley. And let’s get right to it. That voice….that voice. I’d listen to the man read the phone book. San Giacomo is good as Crazy Cora, but the character is a little overdone at times. Her backstory is fascinating and her chemistry with Selleck is excellent, but it gets laid on a little thick at times. Some of Marston’s men include Tony Bonner, Jerome Ehlers and a very young Ben Mendelsohn. Chris Haywood plays Ashley-Pitt, a British officer hunting deserters who has a history with Marston.

At 119 minutes, ‘Quigley’ drags a little in the middle portions. It drifts at times, all with an eye of where it needs to get. More of a character study than an action movie, there is more action in the last hour as Quigley and his Sharps rifle go to work on Marston’s empire. With Poledouris’ music, the outback backdrop and Selleck’s star power, there are some moments of pure perfection. The final showdown? A perfect twist that’s delivered in a great fast draw shootout.

Just a good western. Unique but nothing crazy, it’s a must-watch for Selleck and western fans.

Quigley Down Under (1990): ***/****

The Train (1964)

the_train_posterIn the 1960’s, the war movie was king. More appropriately, the huge, epic, big-budget blockbuster with all-star casts. One of the best though? A film that’s equal parts art house and action-adventure with an immaculate style, impressive action sequences and two great lead performances. One of the best war films ever made, it’s 1964’s The Train.

It’s August 1944 and Allied forces are quickly advancing across France. With the liberation of Paris imminent, a German colonel, Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield), makes a drastic call, commandeering hundreds and thousands of historic paintings from countless famous artists/painters. He intends to transport the priceless art into Germany via a guarded train, potentially saving it from its destruction. The French Resistance is aware of Von Waldheim’s plan and intends to save the priceless art. The resistance leader, a railway supervisor named Labiche (Burt Lancaster), questions the value of saving the art, especially with so many lives on the line. He goes along with it though as the resistance all along the train line readies itself to help the cause. Should they though? Are lives worth art?

Despite growing up on a wave of western and war movies, I didn’t see this movie until I was probably 20 or so. Well, I loved it and I still do. It’s an all-timer. What I’ve found so impressive about this World War II film from director John Frankenheimer is that it balances in impeccable fashion an almost art-house style with an action-heavy story featuring some ridiculously cool stunt sequences that were far ahead of their time. As well, it deftly handles its anti-war message without being overbearing, questioning the value of art and culture compared to a person’s life, or sadly, many people’s lives. A classic that while is universally respected and well-reviewed, still doesn’t get its due. One of the best war movies ever.

The question that drives this WWII story is as simple as that…is it worth it to die for a universally renowned painting? Is it worth for many people, many of them innocent? Lancaster’s Labiche is the conscience of that movie in that sense. He’s seen his resistance group dwindle from 18 to just 3 (including himself) over the years. The seemingly never-ending death has worn him down. He sees no value in risking his life — or those around him — to save a painting(s), no matter how famous. Labiche simply wants to survive, to see his friends survive. It’s only when he’s fully pushed into the situation that he commits to helping the cause, to fully stopping the art-loaded train from reaching Germany.

Even though some of his most respected performances are a tad overdone, Burt Lancaster will always be a personal favorite. I like my Lancaster a little more subdued, like here, his Labiche one of his finest performances. It’s fascinating watching the transformation he makes from unwilling participant to ringleader putting his life on the line. It is a quieter performance, a weary man at wits’ end. Beyond the acting though, this is an incredible physical performance. Lancaster runs across the screen, climbing, leaping, sprinting and dominates the screen, handling most of his own stunts. In one scene, he slides down a ladder, lands, sprints, stops on a dime, reverses course and jumps onto a moving train. Oh, it’s all in one unedited, uncut shot. It’s incredible.

Schofield’s Von Waldheim is the counter, an educated, highly intelligent officer who becomes more and more obsessed with accomplishing his mission. Obsessed is the key word, Labiche his constant thorn in his side. He matches Lancaster scene for scene, constantly countering with every roadblock thrown in his way. Also look for Jeanne Moreau as Christine, a hotel owner wavering over whether to help Labiche, Suzanne Flon as the museum curator trying to get help from the resistance, Michel Simon as Papa Boule, a veteran train conductor who sees what’s on the line on the art train, Wolfgang Preiss as Von Waldheim’s very capable second-in-command, Albert Remy and Charles Millot as Labiche’s fellow resistance fighters, Jacques Marin as a station master along the rail line, and Donald O’Brien as a persistent German sergeant.

Filmed on-location in France, ‘Train’ is a joy to watch. Frankenheimer chose to film in black and white, giving his WWII story a stark look, a visual that gets right to the point. He was clearly impacted by the French New Wave movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, filming ‘Train’ in an incredibly unique visual style. Scenes featuring quick cuts and off-center camera angles are balanced with long, uninterrupted shots from far-off angles. Case in point? A long shot as a train makes its way through a train yard being bombed by Allied bombers. A truly incredible sequence. That’s the whole movie, one impressive scene after another, building to an incredible ending, equal parts moving and uncomfortable. Add a memorable, underplayed score from composer Maurice Jarre, and you’ve got some great pieces for a puzzle.

War message aside (if you choose to ignore it…but DON’T), ‘Train’ is at its heart a cat-and-mouse action movie. Schofield’s Von Waldheim makes a move and Lancaster’s Labiche counters. Lather, rinse and repeat. Who will win in the end? I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but how Labiche and the resistance actually slow down the German effort is executed in a memorable sequence that features some great twists, all of it pointing to how huge the resistance effort is to stop the train. The last 30 minutes especially deliver, Labiche single-handedly trying to stop the train. In an extended sequence on a French hillside with a looping rail line below them, Labiche does anything he can to get the job done. Nerve-wracking is an understatement as these scenes develop. Just go for the ride and try not to get too nervous.

A classic movie, one of the best war films ever made, starting with Lancaster at the top and Frankeheimer delivering an amazing final product. The Train was ahead of its time upon its release and it more than holds up now over 50 years later.

The Train (1964): ****/****

Four Guns to the Border

fourgunsposWhen a B-movie is bad, it can be really bad as its smallish budget and production value takes a toll. When it’s good though? You feel like you’ve stumbled into a hidden gem. That’s the case with 1954’s Four Guns to the Border, a snappy, fun little western based off a Louis L’Amour novel.

After a botched robbery results in nothing more than an empty safe that was supposed to be packed to the seams, a bandit named Cully (Rory Calhoun) and his gang ride out into the desert to plan their next move. Cully has an idea, but it is a desperate one. He’ll ride into the town of Cholla, a town he used to live in before he was run out of town by his friend-turned-marshal, Jim Flannery (Charles Drake). While he causes a distraction, his men will take advantage and rob the bank. That’s the plan at least. Cully and his gang come across an aging gunslinger (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter, Lolly (Colleen Miller), who has eyes for Cully. With an Apache war party in the area, everything is up for grabs.

There are hundreds and thousands of westerns out there in Movie Land just waiting to be found. Long story short? I’ll give any western a try. Flicks like this from actor-turned-director Richard Carlson are a welcome find. It’s the perfect example of a quality B-western. Small scale and small budget with a manageable cast, a straightforward story, some lovey-dovey for the ladies, and enough action to keep things moving. At just 83 minutes, ‘Guns’ drifts a little bit in the third act, but it’s fun from beginning to end. It never overstays its welcome and is a western I can highly recommend. Definitely track this one down.

I grew up reading Louis L’Amour westerns, and I still circle back every so often and give one a read. They’re like comfort food; familiar, always good and you always come back for more. There’s a formula too, one which ‘Guns’ follows along with. L’Amour’s anti-heroes — bandits, cowboys, drifters — were never that bad. When push comes to shove, they almost always made the right decisions — their bad guy-ness be damned. Throw in a gang of an old guy, a young firebrand and typically a minority, a pretty girl who has no business being on her own, some nameless, easily dispatched villains, and you’ve got a good mix!

Calhoun is an underrated gem in a variety of tough guy genres, especially the western. He was never a huge star, but he was always a welcome presence when I see his name pop up in a cast. I like his Cully, a tough, quiet, no-nonsense outlaw trying to outrun his past (and eventually get even). His gang is pure L’Amour, including Dutch (John McIntire), the old-timer looking for some $ to start a ranch, Bronco (George Nader), the young, fun-loving fast draw, and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels), the Indian tracker. These aren’t the dark, blood-lust bandits of so many later westerns. This is a likable bunch who I found myself rooting for. And let’s be honest…it’s cool to see Lone Ranger sidekick Tonto in a quasi-bad guy part!

Now for the interesting almost pornographic portion of our review! I’d never seen the very lovely Colleen Miller before in a movie, but….well, let’s say this is a pretty memorable turn. She’s a pretty decent actress, miles ahead of many pretty faces cast in B-movies! Carlson and the script call for some…I’ll say “Interesting” situations. Knocked out with a hit to the head, she gets a bucket of water poured on her, but Brennan misses her head and gets her shirt (a lot). She also flashes some leg getting into a dress, has a candy cane while the men ogle her, and runs out to the barn in a rainstorm while wearing a white nightgown. Not a complaint — she’s gorgeous — but the studio was clearly appealing to its male audience.

Also look for Nina Foch as Flannery’s wife, a woman who clearly has some history with Cully (uh-oh, unspoken love triangle!), and Nestor Paiva as Greasy, the owner of a saloon/store in the desert with some ties to our almost heroic outlaws.

I give ‘Guns’ credit. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but it is also pretty unique. There’s some good twists and turns along the way in a story that doesn’t seem too familiar. I especially liked the twist about an hour into the movie as the gang makes a heroic decision. The ending itself could have been a whopper of a downer if Carlson wanted…but it’s 1954 America, not 1968 Italy in a spaghetti western. Still, it’s an excellent, generally little-known western. Well worth tracking down.

Four Guns to the Border (1954): ***/****