Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)

Support Your Local SheriffI’m a fan of the western genre who likes his westerns played straight. Sure, there are comedic westerns that work, flicks like Blazing Saddles and the Three Amigos to name a couple, but for the most part….meh. While not a classic, 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff! has plenty of positives, especially for a western comedy.

Following a gold strike, the town of Calendar, Colorado sprouts up almost overnight. The town founders can barely keep up with the ever-growing town as prospectors, gamblers, drifters, troublemakers, bandits and cowboys rule the town. Then, one day an amiable drifter named Jason McCullough (James Garner) rides into town and takes the unwelcomed job as sheriff. He’s on his way to Australia but figures he could use the work in the meantime. His first job? Arrest Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) for murder, a shooting Jason saw happen in the saloon. Joe’s father, Pa Danby (Walter Brennan), rules over the territory though and rounds up all his family to go rescue his son. Jason has to start figuring what to do; keep up with the job or bail and head for Australia.

By 1969, the western genre had changed courtesy of the spaghetti western and released the same year, The Wild Bunch. Things were darker, bloodier, more violent. ‘Sheriff’ avoids those changes, going for a lighter tone in a story that loosely resembles the 1959 classic Rio Bravo (and also has touches of High Noon). A veteran of the genre, director Burt Kennedy handles things well, adding some excellent humorous touches along the way without being too heavy-handed. It’s got the look of a TV western, but it’s fun throughout, clocking in at 92-minutes with an episodic storyline. It was followed up two years later with a like-minded, sorta unofficial sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter!

In the late 1960s, Garner was a frequent star in westerns, including Hour of the Gun and Duel at Diablo and even ventured into spaghetti westerns with 1971’s A Man Called Sledge. He’s perfect casting to play Jason, an amiable drifter with a somewhat cloudy past who is nonetheless lightning-fast with a gun but doesn’t like to use the gun if necessary. He stands by what’s right and has plenty of good ideas to keep folks on their toes. Garner plays the material straight, his charming on-screen presence underplaying scenes that could have been easily overplayed. He delivers lines with such ease, stealing his scenes with an impressive supporting cast. Garner manages to put a new, different and funny spin on that archetypal western character, the drifter riding along from town to town. Credit to Garner for an excellent leading role.

In the romantic lead department, Joan Hackett plays Prudy, the daughter of the town mayor (an excellent Harry Morgan). They’ve got some chemistry — Garner and Hackett — but the scenes feel a little forced, slowing down an otherwise fast-moving story. So often cast as a shifty-eyed, murdering back-stabber, Jack Elam steals the movie as Jake, Jason’s unlikely deputy. Quick with a gun and quick with a solid one-liner, Elam and Garner are perfect together, the duo returning two years later in ‘Gunfighter.’ Henry Jones, Willis Bouchey and Walter Burke round out the town board, the pleasantly corrupt folks running the town with Morgan’s Mayor Olly Perkins. Brennan looks to be having a ball as Old Man Danby, DernGene Evans and Dick Peabody as his dim-witted sons.

The problem too often with comedic westerns is that they’re simply trying too hard for the laughs. ‘Sheriff’ has those moments, a slapstick fist-fight in a muddy street notably early on. Its strongest moments are those instead that underplay the moment. Jason’s jail doesn’t have bars installed yet, but he convinces Dern’s Joe Danby to stay in the cell just the same. Sick of showdown after showdown with hired guns, Jason starts to throw rocks at a rival gunfighter. In the midst of a gunfight, Jason spectacularly finds a way to get across a street unscathed in a scene that always, always makes me laugh. The movie is full of those little moments that bring a smile to my face with ease.

A lot to like here, from the cast that looks to be having a ton of fun, notably Garner, Elam and Brennan with Dern stealing his scenes as well. The humor and comedy is perfectly played in this lighter-hearted western that manages to push a lot of the right buttons. I’m not a comedy western fan, but this one is a winner.

Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969): ***/****

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The Mountain Road (1960)

mountain_road_posterWhen it comes to war movies, the 1960s were a decade often dedicated to huge, big-budget, blockbuster flicks with all-star casts. It was only later in the decade that anti-war films gained popularity as the United States’ involvement in Vietnam increased with each passing year. So an anti-war film from 1960? It would seem to be a little bit ahead of its time, no? Here’s 1960’s The Mountain Road.

It’s 1944 in China and a U.S. Army engineer, Major Baldwin (James Stewart), has been given a command after a year in country. With Chinese and Allied forces in retreat and the Japanese army in close pursuit, Baldwin and a small squad of engineers have been tasked with slowing up that advance. With several trucks full of explosives, Baldwin and his squad destroy bridges and the road itself, as well as blowing up ammunition dumps and other keep locations, anything that the Japanese can use against them. Along for the ride is the widowed wife (Lisa Lu) of a Chinese officer who must stay ahead of the Japanese advance. With no law and order and chaos reigning supreme, can Baldwin and his men accomplish the mission and still meet up with Allied forces?

From director Daniel Mann and based off  a novel from a WWII veteran, ‘Mountain’ is an almost entirely forgotten WWII movie that doesn’t get the due it deserves. It’s a gem. Above all else, it is ahead of its time, asking questions that most war movies wouldn’t go anywhere near for years. What’s the cost? Is a mission worth it? Who is the real enemy? Shouldn’t a human life be worth more than just a number or an objective? Filmed in black and white, ‘Mountain’ was shot on-location with Arizona replacing 1944 China. It’s a bleak, isolated movie. You feel alone with Baldwin’s squad and the seemingly endless line of refugees on the road. Musical score is not memorable, the focus instead on the characters and story.

A World War II veteran himself, Stewart made the decision to not make any war films, mostly because they simply weren’t realistic enough. This script obviously pulled him in. A touch old for the part — there’s several mentions of “young” Maj. Baldwin even though Stewart was 52 at the time — he still makes the part his own. He’s an engineer, not an experienced commander. He’s not a fighter or a killer. His adjustments he must make to accomplish the mission and comparing the value of the mission to the lives of his men, it’s all thrown at Stewart’s Maj. Baldwin. The love subplot with Wu’s Sue-Mei falls short, but Stewart and Wu’s conversations about China and war provide some memorable, intelligent moments.

Not a big cast, but the supporting ensemble is excellent. Glenn Corbett is a quiet scene-stealer as Collins, the young soldier who has fallen hard for China and its culture. Likable and smart, he clicks with Baldwin immediately. Harry Morgan is excellent too as Sgt. Mike, the veteran who’s experienced everything a soldier can, working as a bit of a sounding board for Baldwin through the mission. The rest of the squad includes Mike Kellin, James Best, Frank Maxwell, Rudy Bond and Eddie Firestone and Frank Silvera as a Chinese officer accompanying Wu’s Sue-Mei. Stewart, Corbett and Best would reunite 5 years later in Shenandoah, although they didn’t share any screen-time together.

Things take a dark turn near the hour mark with a surprise death. It’s in that moment that ‘Mountain’ truly embraces its anti-war statuts. Baldwin begins to question everything his mission entails. Are the Japanese his enemy or are his supposed Chinese allies the true enemy? Also check out 1959’s Never So Few for a similar story concerning Chinese involvement during WWII. There’s some good action — small-scale firefights — and some genuine twists, and to Mann’s credit, no easy endings.

Well worth seeking out. Turner Classic Movies has aired it in the past if curious. Keep an eye on their schedule.

The Mountain Road (1960): ***/****

Bend of the River (1952)

bend_of_the_river_-_1952-_posterWhen you think of all the great western directors that worked at the height of the genre’s success — the 1950s through the 1960s — plenty of names comes up, directors like John Ford, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher to name just a few.  And then there’s Anthony Mann, who rarely gets the credit he deserves for an impressive filmography. He’s often known for his films with star James Stewart, (8 pairings, 5 of them westerns)like 1952’s Bend of the River.

It’s 1866 and a wagon train is heading west to Oregon. Scouting for the wagon train is Glyn McClintock (Stewart), a former border raider who’s looking to go clean and put his checkered past behind him. The families traveling aren’t aware of Glyn’s past though. To them, he’s just a more than capable scout and gunman. Along the trail, Glyn rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynching, Glyn not sure if he saved a guilty or an innocent man. Cole decides to tag along, help Glyn and the wagon train make it to Oregon. More and more challenges await though, from Indians and bandits to problems from within. Can Cole go straight? Can Glyn escape his past?

Like any of the western director/star pairings listed above, the Mann-Stewart westerns have a rhythm, a formula they stick with through thick and thin. I’ll get into that formula more in-depth later, but the gist of it is simple. Released in the 1950s, these movies still have that traditional western feel of the 1940s/1930s while starting to tackle more adult/realistic issues that became prevalent throughout the 1950s. Throw in some beautiful filming locations, solid score and deep casts, and you’ve got a winning formula.

A staple of the Mann westerns was Stewart’s flawed, often tragic anti-heroes. His Glyn McClintock certainly qualifies. Stewart played tortured like few others. These aren’t super-heroic gunslingers who can do no wrong. He’s genuinely trying to go straight, to prove he’s a good man. Oh, and he may have to prove that with the lovely Laura (Julie Adams), the daughter of one of the farmers (Jay C. Flippen) on the wagon train. So if Glyn is trying to go straight, what about Cole? Kennedy is a scene-stealer as the ruthless gunfighter who you’re not always sure of his intentions….but you really are. There is little doubt where this is going, but in the meantime, Stewart and Kennedy are excellent in starring roles.

Another frequent Mann collaborator and a rising star in his own right, Rock Hudson has a fun supporting part as Trey Wilson, a young gambler who finds himself working on the trail with Glyn and Cole. In the wasted villain department, Howard Petrie plays Hendricks, the owner of an Oregon town with his hand in everything that will make him some money. Chubby Johnson and Stepin Fetchit are misused in a politically incorrect subplot about a river boat captain and his assistant. Also look for Harry Morgan, Jack Lambert and Royal Dano as troublesome drifters, and Francis Bavier (later Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show) in a small part.

‘Bend’ was filmed on-location in Oregon — including Sandy River, Mount Hood and Timberline — and looks stunningly beautiful. The mountainous backgrounds are provide quite the different look for the story as Glyn, Cole and the wagon train navigate through all the snow-capped mountains. It isn’t the quickest moving story, but it’s never slow. Some good action along the way, and a more than capable cast to lead the way. Not the best Mann-Stewart pairing, but an above average western that’s definitely worth a watch.

Bend of the River (1952): ***/****

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

the_ox-bow_incident_posterThe western isn’t often thought of as a genre that delivers a lot of message films. There are exceptions of course, like The Searchers (in a way) or Dances With Wolves (good but heavy-handed). One of the best was released in 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident.

It’s 1885 in Nevada as small-time cattle ranchers Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into a quiet, small town in the hills looking to get a drink and a good meal. Rustlers have been working in the area, putting the ranchers and townspeople on high alert, especially when news reaches town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. An angry, murderous posse forms, led by a former Confederate officer, Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), that heads out on the trail, following reports of three men herding cattle into the mountains. Are they the rustlers? If they catch up, will they be brought to justice or promptly lynched?

Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel of the same name, ‘Ox-Bow’ is a western ahead of its time. A box office flop, there’s no action, no romance (except for one odd exception), and a story that is bleak and depressing to say the least. What’s not to love?!? From director William Wellman, it’s a gem, an honest look at the wild west. There’s no romance, no perception of the glory or honor of America’s history in the west in the late 1800s. Just an indictment of mob mentality who thinks they know what is right and wrong.

Wellman filmed ‘Ox-Bow’ on basically two sets, one a western town in the Hollywood backlots and the other an indoor set standing in for the spot where the posse catches up to the believed rustlers. It’s equal parts uncomfortable, quiet and claustrophobic, all wrapped up in a 75-minute movie. There’s one odd scene where Fonda’s Carter meets a former love on the trail, but other than that, it’s a tight, well-executed final product.

Throughout his career, Fonda had a knack for playing the Everyman, the average Joe thrust into not so average situations. He can underplay a part (in a good way) and then come to life in a flash. That’s his Gil Carter, a cowboy and rancher who wants to know the truth before acting, to think things through as much as possible. Morgan is solid as his sidekick, equally quiet and worried they might be thought of as rustlers if they start acting funny.

The rest of the cast is broken down into 2 groups, the posse and the believed rustlers. The trio of potential rustlers includes Dana Andrews in a scene-stealing part, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother). Three very different parts, but the best kind of variety as the trio tries to convince the posse that they’re innocent. Andrews delivers a memorable turn especially, desperately trying to convince the posse they’ve got the wrong guys. The posse is frightening, a group of men who get angrier and angrier, their fury and rage blinding their decision-making. Along with Conroy, look for Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport (a voice of reason), Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, William Eythe (Tetley’s son) and Dick Rich.

When I think of dark movies like this, I describe them having a “sense of doom.” You just know watching ‘Ox-Bow’ that things aren’t going to end well. You just don’t know how it’ll go down. No spoilers here, so go in fresh without any knowledge of where the story goes. It’s a movie and a story that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. A western classic for a reason.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): *** ½ /****

High Noon (1952)

high-noonAs a diehard fan of the western genre, I have one glaring omission that I not so proudly reveal today. Though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I have never sat down and watched 1952’s High Noon from beginning to end. I know…crazy, right? Well, here we are. I can officially check it off the list. Put your pitchforks and torches away.

In the town of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) and is retiring as the town marshal. He’s minutes away from leaving town on his honeymoon when three gunfighters ride through town. The telegraph office begins clicking away with a message too, notorious killer Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), has been paroled after receiving a life sentence, members of his gang waiting at the train station. The marshal who put him away who he swore revenge against? Will Kane. Now, Kane must decide what to do. With everyone telling him to hightail it out town before Miller arrives on the noon train, Kane decides to make his stand. Will Hadleyville support him though or will he be on his own?

From director Fred Zinnemann, ‘Noon’ is consistently ranked as one of the all-time great westerns. I never actively avoided it, just never actively sought it out either! I liked the idea of the movie more than the final product to cut to the chase. It’s good — really good — but not great for me. The story unfolds basically in real-time (clocking in at 85 minutes) from the moment Kane finds out Miller is coming to the time the killer and his gang descend on the town. Filmed in black and white, the stark western town feels very isolated to the world, removed from any civilization.

So that Gary Cooper, man, he’s always good. When I review his movies, I often find myself typing ‘one of his best roles.’ Playing Marshal Will Kane, Cooper earns the description again. Along with Sergeant York, this is probably his most famous, iconic role. Bigger picture? It’s one of the most iconic roles ever in the western genre. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than a man — a lone man — deciding to make a decision that he believes is right, potentially dangerous consequences be damned. Everything screams ‘RUN’ and everyone around him echoes the sentiment. He’s married, he’s retiring and he has a whole new (hopefully peaceful) life ahead of him. He should run for the hills. He doesn’t though. Cooper’s Kane makes his stand because he believes he’s right, even when the entire town abandons him.

Cooper was perfect at that Everyman role. He’s not a super marshal, not a gun-slinging gunfighter. He’s just a man. Few characters in a western resonate as much as him. Alan Ladd’s Shane, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, William Holden’s Pike Bishop, maybe a few others I’m missing, but Kane is right in that western hierarchy.

This is Cooper’s movie, but the supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at. Kelly is the newlywed bride, a Quaker who sees a future with Kane. Katy Jurado is a scene-stealer as Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman with power, albeit hidden power, who has a past with Cooper’s Kane. I would love to see what a movie not limited by 1950s standards would do with this character. Just the same, an excellent part. Also look for Lloyd Bridges as Harvey, the angry deputy, Thomas Mitchell as the Mayor, and Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., and Otto Kruger as some of the key townspeople. Miller’s gang includes Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef and Sheb Wooley. Also look for small parts for western regulars Jack Elam and John Doucette.

One of many claims to fame this western has is the famous criticism it received from….the Duke himself, John Wayne. Wayne objected to the townspeople’s response to Kane’s desperate plea for help. He even made Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawkes as a direct counter to ‘Noon.’ I tend to agree. Human nature kicks in, but it is a tad heavy-handed at times. Naturally no one wants to die going up against four hardened gunfighters, so Kane finds himself fighting a battle on his own. The negative is that it goes a little slow in getting to the showdown, a little repetitive. Minor complaint, but I did lose some interest along the way.

The tension is palpable though as the showdown looms. As noon approaches, the tension and anxiety kick in in crazy doses. ‘Noon’ has one of my favorite single shots in film history, a pan on a dolly that shows a nervous Kane, completely alone on a vacant street waiting to do what he believes is right. Cooper nails this scene, some nervous twitches, touching his hat, his gun as the train whistle blows in the background. No nonsense finale, just what we’ve been waiting for. Glad I finally caught up with this and officially checked it off my list.

High Noon (1952): *** 1/2 /****