The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

sons_of_katie_elder_1965John Wayne is my all-time favorite. He is, was and always will be the coolest. By the mid 1960’s, he was still one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and around the world. His lifestyle — and smoking packs a day — took its toll though, with production on one of his movies being delayed for several months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One lung and two removed ribs later, Wayne came back with a vengeance, turning in one of his most underrated performances in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder.

It’s been 10 years since gunfighter John Elder (Wayne) has returned home. When he gets word that his mother, Katie, has died, John heads home to Clearwater, Texas. There he finds his three brothers, Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler/cardplayer, Matt (Earl Holliman), a hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest brother and a college student. John and his brothers find out how much things have changed, not only the circumstances that led to Katie’s death, but their father’s death some 6 months earlier. The family ranch is now owned by an aspiring businessman/rancher, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). John intends to find out what happens, righting any wrongs that may have been done on the family, but mostly, he wants to honor Katie and leave the Elder name in a positive way.

This was an interesting turning point in Wayne’s career. The health scare woke the Hollywood legend up in a way. From this point on, Wayne finished his career with more fan-friendly roles. He knew what his fans wanted and delivered. They weren’t always the deepest or most hard-hitting roles — there were exceptions, The Shootist, True Grit, The Cowboys — as Wayne surrounded himself with family, friends and plenty of familiar faces. As for ‘Sons,’ I maintain that it belongs in the list with the trio of movies listed above. It is one of my favorite westerns, not just a John Wayne western.

A lot to recommend here. It’s an old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys western, but there’s more to it (in a big way). From director Henry Hathaway, ‘Sons’ blends familiar western elements and mixes in family drama and a bit of a murder mystery. Now that’s a unique premise! The filming locations in Durango, Mexico are a gem, a beautiful backdrop with cinematographer Lucien Ballard turning in one gorgeous scene after another. Oh, and music composer Elmer Bernstein delivers one of his best, most unheralded scores, including a highly memorable main theme. Give it a listen HERE.

I liked this movie as a kid, but I’ve loved it as an adult. Why’s that? I love the idea of family here, brought to life by Wayne, Martin, Holliman and Anderson. Their chemistry is impeccable. It’s simply perfect, brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and must get back together, reminiscing, bonding, arguing and fighting. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quartet of brothers sitting at their Mom’s house talking…and arguing and even starting a fist fight. Katie ends up being an off-screen character too, a woman you feel like you’ve met by the end of the movie. Family is a key element in countless westerns, but it’s rare it felt this authentic from beginning to end.

It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Oh, that’s Wayne just playing the Duke.’ It’s fair depending on the role you look at. When he did it right though, it was just so perfect. He’s the iconic western hero — flawed but upright, fighting for what’s right, loyal and honest. His John Elder makes it look easy. Martin was always an underrated dramatic actor — just look at his other pairing with Wayne, 1959’s Rio Bravo — and he doesn’t disappoint here as Tom, always ready with a quip or a line or a gimmick. Holliman isn’t flashy, just solid as Matt, the brother who went straight. And Anderson holds his own as young Bud, no easy task with the talent around him.

A pretty cool cast backs up our brothers. James Gregory does what he does best, playing a smarmy, backstabbing villain with George Kennedy as his hired gun, Curley, Dennis Hopper as his bookish son, and Rodolfo Acosta as another enforcer. Martha Hyer plays Mary, a young woman who knew Katie well and tries to tell her boys what an impressive woman their Mom really was. Paul Fix and Jeremy Slate are excellent as Sheriff Billy, a calming, longtime peace officer and Deputy Ben, a hot-headed youngster trying to make his way. Plenty more familiar faces including Strother Martin, John Doucette, John Qualen, Rhys Williams, Sheldon Allman and even Karl Swenson playing dual roles.

At 121 minutes, ‘Sons’ is far from action-packed. There’s actually only one major set-piece, one major gunfight, set at the famously beautiful El Saltito waterfalls in Mexico. The beauty of it all? You don’t need the action. The story builds and builds, the tension growing as we learn the truth of what’s happened. It’s just a gem of a western that doesn’t always get its due. It should though. ‘Sons’ is an underrated classic.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ****/****

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Rio Bravo (1959)

riobravoposterMore often than not, the movies you watched and loved as a kid stick with you. Case in point, my love of John Wayne movies. I started with The Alamo and never looked back. One of my favorites and hopefully always will be, 1959’s Rio Bravo is one of the best Duke westerns ever, and on a bigger scale, one of the best westerns ever. Simple as that.

In the border town of Rio Bravo, a man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) has brutally gunned a man down and walked away from the scene. The town sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne) and his drunken deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), track him down and throw him in a jail cell. Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), is a powerful rancher though with his hand in everything. With a small army of gunmen, Nathan bottles up the town. Chance can’t get Joe out of town, and he can’t bring help into town. Left with no alternative, Chance and his deputies sit back and wait. They think the Burdettes will make a move at some point, but in what capacity? The odds are definitely against them.

I can’t think of too many westerns that are more enjoyable, more fun, more charming. From director Howard Hawks, ‘Rio’ is a gem of the genre. It avoids most of the trappings that plagued so many “adult” westerns in the 1950’s, finding a balance among story, characters, drama, laughs and gunplay. Maybe a touch long at 141 minutes, but I’m still never bored. There aren’t any dark undertones or heavy-handed attempts at drama. Just all the separate pieces working together to create an even better final product, a true classic.

Since delivering maybe his career-best performance four years earlier in 1955’s The Searchers, Wayne had gone away from the western genre only to see his next 4 films struggle at the box office. His western return was a triumph! My opinion obviously, but I think this is Wayne’s coolest performance — for lack of a more well-spoken description. He looks the part, sounds the part and looks to be having a ball with a great cast that’s loaded with chemistry. This film began the second half of his career — as he became the Duke more than John Wayne — but his Sheriff John T. Chance becomes an iconic western character; the stout, stubborn, capable small-town sheriff. Odds be damned, he intends to do what’s right.

The cast in ‘Rio’ wouldn’t seem like a gimme if you just look at the cast listing. Odd choices, interesting choices, but you know what? They ALL work. Chance’s crew of deputies include Dean Martin as Dude, a gunslinger who’s fallen on hard times courtesy of a drinking problem, Walter Brennan as Stumpy, a motor-mouthed old man with a significant limp, and singer/teen idol Ricky Nelson as Colorado, a young gunslinger who’s quick on the draw but inexperienced. John Russell makes the most of a small part as intimidating gentleman Nathan Burdette while Claude Akins sneers and jeers as his punk brother, Joe.

According to Wayne and Hawks, Rio Bravo was at least partially a response to 1952’s High Noon. I’ve read Wayne even thought the Gary Cooper western was un-American as countless townspeople refused to help Cooper’s Will Kane. Not the case here. Chance has a drunk, a cripple and a youngster, but he’s got help. Many other people offer to pitch in and lend a hand, but Wayne’s Chance refuses almost all of it. The catch is that the chemistry of the oddball crew in Rio Bravo is amazing. This is a great dialogue-driven script. Check out the memorable quotes from IMDB HERE. It’s a gem from beginning to end, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in bringing it all to life.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rio Bravo is the casting of 28-year old Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a saloon girl that Chance tries to chase out of town but ends up butting heads with and eventually falling for. The age difference is noticeable with a 50-year old Wayne, but my goodness, every scene they have crackles together. Dickinson keeps Wayne on his heels at all times, talking and questioning and generally driving him nuts. Westerns so often waste their female leads with non-essential…well, everything, but Dickinson is such a scene-stealer, you can’t help but sit back and watch the on-screen chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Ward Bond plays Pat Wheeler, a wagon train leader who has a friendly history with Chance and wants to help. Also look for Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner who is close friends with Chance as well. He has some great lines as he hams it up in certain scenes and underplays other scenes. Estelita Rodriguez plays Carlos’ wife, Consuela.

I caught something interesting on my most recent viewing. ‘Bravo’ has elements of a stage-based play with only two key locations, the jail and the hotel. Sure, the main strip in the town of Rio Bravo is key but almost the entire story is told in either those 2 locales (with some departures here and there for drinking at saloons and shoot-outs). Just an observation.

One of the qualifiers with classic westerns is memorable lines, memorable shootouts and set pieces that help it stand above the rest. The wordless opener is a gem, almost 7 minutes without a word spoken, no explanations given. I’ve always loved the scene too where Chance and Dude walk into a saloon looking for a murder suspect…except he disappeared. But how? A classic. With talents like Martin and Nelson too, there’s even a chance for some singing. Forced, even jammed, into the story? Sure, but it’s so good you don’t even care. Give the 2-song set a listen HERE. It’s all aided by a classic score from composer Dimitri Tiomkin, including a great main theme and a test run on his Deguello sample he’d use a year later in The Alamo.

A movie I love a little more with each viewing. A true classic. So much to recommend. You’d better just go watch it to be safe.

Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****

Showdown (1973)

showdown_281973_film29Sometimes all you need is two stars. That’s it. That’s all. Unfortunately for 1973’s Showdown, that is all the western has in its entirety! It’s got two A-list stars — a little past their prime — but little else going on. Is star power enough to at least make the proceedings interesting? Better read on and find out.

Chuck Jarvis (Rock Hudson) and Billy Massey (Dean Martin) have been friends for years going back to their childhood. They stood by each other through thick and thin — with Billy making that especially tough at times — as they grew up, eventually buying and working a small cattle ranch together. They finally go their separate ways when a woman, Kate (Susan Clark), chooses Chuck over Billy. Not wanting to stick around, Billy rides out while Chuck marries Kate and becomes a town sheriff. Years later, their paths meet again when Billy joins a small gang and robs a train in Chuck’s territory. Now, the old friends find each other on opposite sides of the law. Will their friendship last or will it be done in for good?

I figured Rock Hudson and Dean Martin working together would be enough to make a pretty decent little western. I was wrong. From director George Seaton, ‘Showdown’ simply isn’t very good. Released in 1973, it feels about 10 years too late. While so many westerns were going for the unconventional, the revisionist look at the wild west, Seaton’s film has an incredibly uneven tone with bits of humor, a love triangle, some jokes, some unnecessary flashbacks, and only then goes for a downer ending. In the meantime, it’s far too slow-going for its own good and never quite recovers.

Western fans will still appreciate the pairing of Hudson and Martin, working together for the first time by my digging. Their chemistry is solid, two pros trying to liven up some familiar characters in an all-too familiar story. Hudson’s Chuck is the worrier, the hard-worker, the cowboy while Martin’s Billy is the fun-loving, hard-drinking ladies man who’s a skilled hand with a gun. In other words, a western Odd Couple of sorts. I liked the idea here, but it never clicks. The flashbacks become repetitive immediately and don’t do much to advance the story. Through it all, the duo keeps at it and makes things mildly entertaining, but never enough to lift up a pretty bad script.

My theory is that a love triangle can ruin just about any movie, and that plot device does nothing to help here (even if its far from the biggest issue). Clark’s Kate feels like an add-on for the sake of adding on. Donald Moffat is good if underused as Art Miller, Billy’s vengeful partner in the bank robbery. John McLiam does what he does best and plays a condescending a-hole who you just want to see get smacked in the face (or worse). No one else really jumps out from the supporting cast. Too bad because there’s some stock characters here and there that could have been better with even a little more development, or at least some more familiar faces.

‘Showdown’ has its positives. Hollywood legend and one of the best cinematographers ever Ernest Laszlo doesn’t disappoint, delivering a beautiful, sunny western that was filmed on location in New Mexico. It is a good-looking western. The musical score from composer David Shire is limited but manages to shine in some late scenes. Coincidentally? The movie is much better — if still too slow — in the last third as the tone shifts to a darker path. Unfortunately, it’s too uneven getting to that point. Things get dark, they get bloody and there will be casualties. The tonal shift comes too late to save things though.

Probably for diehard western fans, or maybe diehard Hudson and Dean-O fans. Not especially good but not awful.

Showdown (1973): **/****