Mister Roberts (1955)

mister_roberts_281955_movie_poster29By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.

A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).

You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.

Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.

Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.

The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.

In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.

Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****

 

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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****

There Was a Crooked Man (1970)

crooked_man

Kirk Douglas just turned 101 this past December. Douglas hasn’t worked in film in years, but pick a film of his and sit back and enjoy. He could play a noble, heroic character and then turn around and play a roguish villain, or often times somewhere in between. In a movie that bizarrely works in spite of some odd style choices, Douglas steals the show as a charming criminal in 1970’s There Was a Crooked Man.

After a successful robbery nets him more than $500,000, outlaw Paris Pitman Jr. (Douglas) is caught not too long after the robbery in a whorehouse. He’s only caught after hiding his massive haul though, but he refuses to give it up. Paris receives a 10-year sentence and is sent off to the territorial prison isolated in the middle of the desert. Figuring out the lay of the land (along with meeting his fellow inmates), Paris begins to plot his escape. The catch? Just about everyone knows he’s trying to bust out to get his money. A new warden, Lopeman (Henry Fonda), sees Paris in a different way. Looking to rehab prisoners rather than punish them, Lopeman thinks Paris can help the cause. Who blinks first?

What a weird western. As westerns tried to figure out what they were as a genre, ‘Crooked’ came along and chose just to go for it. First off, it is director Joseph Mankiewicz‘s only career western. Quite a departure from his usual films. Next, it tries to be equal parts folksy, comedic, dark and slapstick. There are sex jokes, plenty of nudity (male and female, including Douglas), odd slapstick scenes during a prison riot, poorly timed jokes, and a pretty awful theme song from Trini Lopez (listen HERE) that tries to play like a dark western fairy tale. Seems like a gimme, right? Aaaaaaaaand…..twist! It’s really odd and weird and very good!

The weirdness is held together by a cast that is clearly having a lot of fun, embracing all that weirdness! It starts at the top with Kirk Douglas, perfecting that roguish bad guy who can’t help but disarm everyone around him with that too perfect smile. Favoring some bright red hair and a pair of spectacles, Douglas’ Paris is able to manipulate anyone and everyone around him to get what he needs. As bad as he is, you can’t help but like him (at least a little bit). His scenes with Fonda are excellent, Fonda a new-age warden who wants the best for his prisoners. It sure takes him a while though to see through Paris’ scheming facade. Put 2 Hollywood legends together, and let them do their thing. They co-starred in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, but it’s cool to see them share some more screentime here.

‘Crooked’ boasts a pretty impressive supporting cast from top-to-bottom. Paris’ cellmates include Dudley (Hume Cronyn) and Cyrus (John Randolph), two older gay con men, Floyd Moon (Warren Oates), an antisocial outlaw, the Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith), an aging bank robber who’s become used to prison life, Coy (Michael Blodgett), a naive youngster sentenced to hang for murder, and Ah-Ping (Olympic decathlete C.K. Yang), a Chinaman who murdered his boss on the rail gang. Cronyn and Randolph are a scream together, the duo stealing scenes right and left. Meredith does the same, a smaller part but a worthwhile one. And Oates is excellent, underplaying his part as gunfighter Floyd Moon who believes he’s found a friend in Paris. An eclectic, quirky group to back up Paris.

Also look for Alan Hale Jr., Victor French, Arthur O’Connell, Lee Grant, Bert Freed and Gene Evans in smaller supporting parts. Throw in a goofy, similarly quirky musical score for some extra oddness. The filming location of the isolated, high-walled rocky prison is a gem. Most of the movie takes place within the walls, the territorial prison becoming an additional character in this oddball western.

What sets ‘Crooked’ apart through the odd tonal shifts and general goofiness is where it ends up. The last half hour of the 123-minute movie has some major surprises in store. Then, when you think the twists are all finished, the final scenes hold a huge twist. It’s not often you watch a western with some worthwhile twists, so take advantage of this one. For all its faults, it’s worth it. ‘Crooked’ is a generally forgotten western, but it is definitely worth a watch, especially with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda leading the way. No trailer below (for a change) because there’s some really stupid revelations about where the movie ends up, and you don’t need that in your life.

There Was a Crooked Man (1970): ***/****

 

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 /****

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

drumsalongthemohawkDirector John Ford is synonymous with the western genre, especially his films with John Wayne over a legendary career. One of Ford’s more underrated flicks covers a time in American history that hasn’t received much in the way of attention in films, the American Revolution. Oh, and it was released the same year as Ford’s iconic Stagecoach. Overshadowed much? Here’s 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk.

It’s 1776 in colonial New York and newlyweds Gil (Henry Fonda) and Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert) are heading to their new home in the wilderness in the Mohawk Valley. The American Revolution is in its early stages, and though the main fighting between the American and British armies seems far away, the conflict still reaches the isolated community of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. As they start their lives together, starting a family and building a farm from the ground up, Gil and Lana and their neighbors must protect themselves against Torries and their Indian allies.

‘Mohawk’ was a family favorite growing up, so it’s always fun to go back and revisit a movie I watched countless times as a kid. It holds up, an entertaining, well-told story that manages to do a lot in its 103-minute run-time. An absolute stunner visually — with filming locations in Utah standing in for colonial New York — with colors popping in each scene (Gil’s green shirt, Lana’s blue dress), and a score from Alfred Newman moving the action along with each passing scene. The key though is rather obvious…the two leads.

With a story that covers a ton of ground (maybe too much in a relatively short film), you’ve got to be invested with the characters. Fonda and Colbert are perfectly cast together, Gil an able frontiersman and farmer, Lana, his beautiful wife and a city girl unaccustomed to life in the settlements but who loves her husband so much she goes along with the movie. There is a straightforward, very believable chemistry between the duo, both Colbert and Fonda breathing some life into familiar characters that could have been stereotypes, cardboard cutouts in the hands of lesser actors. You genuinely like this young couple trying to carve their lives out of the wilderness. Two excellent lead performances.

In an Oscar-nominated part, Edna May Oliver is a scene-stealer as Mrs. McKlennar, a wealthy, sassy widow who takes the Martins in for help around her farm. Feisty, hard-headed, intelligent and not putting up with any BS, Mrs. McKlennar breathes life into each and every scene she’s in, both dramatic and those scenes with a lighter touch. Also look for villainous John Carradine, Arthur Shields, Francis Ford (John’s brother), Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Chief Big John Tree, Jack Pennick, Jessie Ralph, Eddie Collins and Roger Imhof in key supporting parts. Bond is a fun, boisterous presence (as always) and Imhof is excellent as General Herkimer, an aging officer who’s gained the respect of the militia.

A lot to recommend here. There’s a big, wide-open quality to ‘Mohawk,’ the Utah locations proving to be a key character. You truly get the sense of being alone, of being removed from the rest of the world. It’s what these first settlers truly faced, a dangerous life with constant threats in all directions. A scene with an Indian war party raiding the community is intense and uncomfortable, Seneca warriors running through the woods after fleeing settlers. Ford also does some of his best work not in action scenes, but moving monologues of characters talking about an off-screen battle. Cheaper, and just as effective!

There are some slower moments here and there in the first 50 minutes. ‘Mohawk’ is at its strongest when dealing with Gil and Lana, Mrs. McKlennar and of course, the Revolution. It is at its absolute strongest in the final 30 minutes when the Deerfield settlers fort up and are attacked by a large Indian/Tory force. An extended chase scene with Gil racing ahead of three pursuing warriors is exhilarating, a beautifully-cut sequence. There are plenty of those moments sprinkled throughout. A gem for many audiences. Highly recommended.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): *** 1/2 /****

Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

welcomehardtimesSome westerns just defy genre conventions, whether intentionally or not. In America’s wild west in the late 1800’s, did everyone carry a gun? Was everyone a hard-boiled killer? It wasn’t all cowboys and Indians, gunfighters, sheriffs and bandits. It’s the rare western that tries to tell a story from the perspective of the normal people, like 1967’s Welcome to Hard Times.

In the isolated, one-street town of Hard Times, the population lives a quietly, lonely life, and then a murderous gunslinger (Aldo Ray) rides into town. Unchecked by anyone willing to stand up to him, he rapes and kills a saloon girl, kills a handful of people, burns several buildings and rides out. In the wreckage of the town, the mayor, Blue (Henry Fonda), decides to rebuild and put the incident in the past. Several survivors agree to stay on and help the rebuild, along with a variety of eclectic strangers who find their way to Hard Times. As they build the town back up though, Blue knows the potential the gunslinger comes back and ravages Hard Times again. Will someone be able to stand up to him this time?

Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (a good read), ‘Welcome’ asks an interesting question. Are guns the answer? Basically every western ever says….YES. Sure, characters question themselves, sometimes giving up their guns in the end as they settle down, but to stop bad, you need violence. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Welcome’ doesn’t seek to give you an answer about the question, but it certainly throws it out there? Sticking relatively close to the Doctorow novel, it is a very literary film, stock characters — the peaceful mayor, the murdering gunslinger, the drifter, the broken woman, and so on — that tries to take a different look at a very familiar genre.

Unfortunately…it’s mishandled. It tackles too much and doesn’t know what it wants to say or how in a 103-minute movie. The first 20 minutes as Ray’s Man from Bodie attacks Hard Times is amazingly uncomfortable, playing out almost like a horror movie. The middle section is like a family western, eclectic, eccentric strangers moving into town, a far lighter tone with some foreboding undertones. The finale? Well, it ain’t pleasant with some surprising twists. But then after all that, the movie ends on an odd note. The story itself is too broad, the tone going up and down like a rollercoaster. It’s not a bad movie, just a potentially good movie that never quite rises to the occasion.

It’s hard to ignore the movie though because of the strong cast. Even in bad-to-okay flicks, Fonda was worth watching, and here’s no exception. His Blue is a former gambler and cowboy, now living peacefully who questions what picking up a gun would accomplish. It’s a fascinating character, far from your typical western hero. Janice Rule is one of the most shrill characters ever as Molly, the saloon girl attacked by the Man from Bodie and holds Blue responsible for the attack and his lack of action. It’s just an awful character with no shred of likability. Ray is an incredible presence as the Man from Bodie, a remorseless killer with no qualms about raping, ravaging and killing.

Also look for the always welcome Keenan Wynn as Zar, a traveling saloon owner who with partner/wife, Adah (Janis Paige), travels with their 3 prostitutes wherever the money takes them. Warren Oates is Leo Jenks, an amiable drifter who’s good with a gun, John Anderson plays dual roles as shopkeeping brothers. Some impressive character actors show up, including Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Lon Chaney Jr. and Alan Baxter.

As much of a mixed bag at this western is and the mediocre rating I’m giving it, I’m still recommending it for western fans. The cast is pretty cool, and even if it doesn’t deliver, there is potential galore on-hand. Go for the ride and brace for some of the twists and turns you’ll get as opposed to a more traditional western.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967): **/****

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): ***/****