Broken Lance (1954)

Broken LanceWhen it comes to pure acting chops, Spencer Tracy had few equals. In a career that spanned four decades, Tracy won two Best Actor Academy Awards and was nominated 9 times, a record he shares with Laurence Olivier. Let’s take a look at one of his only western performances, 1954’s Broken Lance.

For 25 years, Matt Devereaux (Tracy) worked to carve out a ranch and a life for his family in the American southwest. He accomplished his goal, creating one of the most well-respected ranches in Texas…but at the expense of his sons, elder Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian), Denny (Earl Holliman) and his youngest, Joe (Robert Wagner). The three older boys have long resented how they’re treated as workers and cowboys and not family. As he ages and as the west continues to develop, Matt has to face what to do next, both with his family and the cattle and mining empire he has created.

I’ve made no bones about my thoughts on 1950s westerns. (Spoilers Alert: They’re typically not my favorite). While ‘Broken’ has plenty of positives, my typical complaints are there. The family story plays out like a soap opera, heavy and brooding from the word ‘go.’ It feels like a Shakespearean play or a Greek tragedy as the Devereaux family tears itself apart. Director Edward Dmytryk has plenty of talent on hand, and the story is interesting but in the end I came away with a ‘meh’ review of a 96-minute flick.

In telling this story, Dmytryk uses a cool storytelling technique, Wagner’s Joe released from prison after a 3-year sentence. We don’t know why or what he did. Minutes later, we see him meet the governor and his three brothers, ominously, forebodingly offering him $10,000 to move along and never come back. It’s a great little intro…that never quite clicks once the story flashes back to what drove the story to this point. When the two stories click, it lacks that great energy, that connection that I was hoping for. Still, cool points for trying.

Playing the Devereaux family patriarch, Tracy does not disappoint in the starring role. He’s far from a heroic lead, his Matt a harsh, driving man who – usually – means well but has had to make some tough decisions along the way. He’s tried to build a life for his family and has succeeded, but it’s come at a price. His dynamic with his youngest son, Wagner’s Joe, provides the best moments in the movie. Wagner too delivers an understated, effective performance as Joe, a half-white, half-Comanche young man.

The coolest performance goes to Katy Jurado who plays Senora, a Comanche woman who married Matt after his first wife died. She’s not Mexican but people call her “Senora” because it’s easier than addressing the elephant in the room that a white man married an Indian. It’s a quiet, moving, scene-stealing performance as she tries to hold the family together as everyone starts grabbing for pieces to control. Jurado deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part, ultimately losing to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.

While the rest of the cast has some name recognition, they’re not given much to do. One of the best heavies ever, Widmark is the leader of the three older Devereaux boys, but unfortunately his character is off-screen for far too long. O’Brian may say 8 words the whole movie, and Holliman is the brother kinda sorta caught in between. Eduard Franz plays ranch foreman Two Moons, E.G. Marshall is the weakling governor, and Jean Peters plays his daughter, Barbara, a love interest for Joe that feels bleh and forced.

I wanted to like this one more, especially as I read reviews of folks who loved it. The cast is worth it alone, even if the storyline doesn’t give much of them to do. Some cool locations in Arizona spice things up with a true sense of the desert wilderness as well. Flawed but good, worthwhile for Tracy, Wagner and Jurado in solid performances.

Broken Lance (1954): ** 1/2 /****

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 /****