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Reviews

Montana Incident
(1952)

The Meanest, Grabbyist Woman in Shoe Leather
This movie has long been thought lost. Recently WB Archives released a pristine print on their DVD-R series. Lost films which turn up years later are often disappointments. This little B oater is a welcome exception.

Whip Wilson was one of the last of the series B stars, and, frankly, one of the more forgettable. He was wooden, and seems limited to one facial expression. He was also unathletic, pudgy, with a prominent overhanging belly. He is awkward in his fight scenes, has trouble running, and doesn't seem all that comfortable on a horse. His bull-whip affectation was an obvious copy of the more charismatic Lash LaRue. His lone acting asset was a strong voice and the ability to deliver a simple line here or there with conviction.

Despite Whip's limitations, his six movies on the WB Monogram Cowboy Collection, volume 2, are a good bunch, thanks to solid writing and supporting casts. MONTANA INCIDENT is the best of them.

Whip has a co-hero in this one, former Hoppy sidekick Rand Brooks. Brooks was not an imposing western hero type himself, but he was likable and a good actor. He props up Whip in several dialogue scenes, and handles the romantic subplot with Noel Neill easily, as one would expect from an actor who once had on-screen romantic entanglements with Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe.

The unusual plot has Wilson and Brooks railroad surveyors mapping a spur line which would tie an isolated town to big city markets. Most of the citizens are ecstatic at the news a railroad will be built. In a plot twist with echoes of King Lear, the town and valley are owned and controlled by one very rich rancher. The old rancher has retired to his ranch and allows his older daughter to run his many businesses. This older daughter is described by another female character as "the meanest, grabbyist woman in shoe leather," and more than lives up to her billing. In cahoots with a crooked banker, she is bleeding the poor folks of the valley dry, siphoning off her father's money into her own account, and she will stop at nothing, including mass murder, to keep the gravy coming in for another couple of years. Her honest younger sister warns the old man about her, but he obtusely trusts his first born.

The writing shows good research. It is revealed that most of the land in the valley is owned by the government and the rancher only leases it. The railroad is coming through as a government policy and nothing or no one can stop it in the long run. The "meanest, grabbyist woman in shoe leather" can only delay it, first by bribing Wilson and Brooks to recommend the spur be built a hundred miles away, and when that fails, by plotting an ambush to slaughter the surveyors and their entire crew.

The supporting cast is excellent for a low-budget effort. The characters are well-drawn, some beyond the usual all-good or all-bad stereotypes. Hugh Prosser as the old rancher seems at times a nice fellow, if totally under the thumb of his oldest daughter, but at other times he seems willing to go along with killings, as long as they are done fairly, face to face, in the old west manner. It is not altogether clear until the end if banker Bruce Edwards is in it for the money or has genuine feelings for the older sister.

Best of all are the two sisters. Noel Neill is charming as the good Frances, frustrated by her father's obtuseness. Peggy Stewart plays the ruthless Clara to the hilt, relishing such lines as "there will be no one left alive to talk" when warned by Edwards that the government will investigate. And both women look great in their tight riding pants.

All in all, if you are a B western fan, check this one out.

The Gentleman from Texas
(1946)

Johnny Mack CLeans Up the Town
Roy and Gene and Tex could sing. Buck and Ken seemed the real thing. Tim had the look of an eagle. Wild Bill and little Bob Steele were dynamic actors. William Boyd as Hoppy was Dad in a Stetson. But the best of all the B cowboy heroes might well have been Johnny Mack Brown. Handsome enough to have wooed and won Garbo and Crawford as a silent film matinée idol, he was a forceful and yet sensitive actor who projected an engaging personality. Best of all, this former All-American football star at Alabama was a superb horseman and all-around athlete. No one was better in the action scenes.

Brown's career stuttered with the coming of sound, his warm Southern accent for some reason viewed as a drawback, until eventually he found his niche in the mid-thirties in B westerns. He would remain one of the most popular cowboy stars until well into the fifties.

The Gentleman From Texas might well be the best of the 130 or so westerns which Johnny Mack filmed during his career. Produced by Monogram bigwig Scott Dunlap, the little studio obviously put their best into it. Old-time William S Hart director Lambert Hillyer handled the action scenes with panache. Brown was in his early forties, but as with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, maturity sat well on him. His weight problems were still in the future.

The plot is an old sagebrush standby with Brown an ex-lawman brought in by Wells Fargo to put the lid on a wide open town, and who is swiftly appointed town marshal. Raymond Hatton is the publisher of the local newspaper who takes on the job of Brown's deputy. Reno Blair is Hatton's daughter and the courageous editor who rallies the good folks of the town to back Brown.

The bad guys are a formidable bunch, led by the urbane Tristram Coffin, the slickest of the "boss" heavies of the forties. Marshall Reed, Terry Frost, and Pierce Lyden lead the pack of henchmen and hired guns doing Coffin's bidding. There are plenty of hard riding chases, shootout after shootout, and two bone-jarring to the finish fistfights, before Brown can scrub the town clean and restore law and order.

While the basic plot is familiar, there is one twist which separates this film from the usual B western offering. Coffin has not one but two saloon girl mistresses, played by the talented Claudia Drake and blonde Three Stooges comic foil Christine McIntyre, who are willing to become involved in murder plots, leading to several unusual complications.

Everything from the acting to the action is well done. Even the musical interludes, often a drawback, are top notch and entertaining.

All in all, a must for Johnny Mack or B western fans, and a good one for others who might want to dip into this once most popular genre.

Lawman
(1958)

Warners' Takeoff on GUNSMOKE Holds Up Well
I am in the process of watching all 156 episodes of LAWMAN, the Warner Bros western which ran from 1958 to 1962. I remember it from its original run, but haven't seen an episode in nigh to fifty years. I was a trifle worried it wouldn't be as good as I remembered. Back in the day critics slammed this show as being a ripoff of GUNSMOKE with the same granite-butt marshal and his saloon owner love interest, only set in Laramie rather than Dodge.

The bad news? The critics had a point. Marshal Dan Troop is pretty much a clone of Marshal Matt Dillon. Miss Lily is pretty much a clone of Miss Kitty. The good news? John Russell is fabulous as the granite-butt law officer, even better in my judgment than James Arness. The gorgeous Peggy Castle is even sexier at the Birdcage than Amanda Blake was at the Long Branch. These two certainly gave the show a solid foundation.

The third cast regular is the young and handsome deputy Peter Brown. Here LAWMAN departed significantly from GUNSMOKE, in which the eccentric Chester and Festus were often comic relief characters. Brown was a top-of-the-line young Warners heartthrob. His relationship with Russell's veteran marshal had a father to son quality. He was nothing like the old B western comic sidekicks who seemed the inspiration on GUNSMOKE.

The production values on the show were good, better on the whole than the early GUNSMOKE's in which the indoor for outdoor sets and painted backdrops were often obvious. Not here. The guest casts were an interesting combination of young talent like Robert Fuller, Richard Long, James Drury, and Louise Fletcher with established fifties western regulars like Lee Van Cleef, Coleen Gray, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, and Slim Pickins, and a smattering of real old-timers such as Glenn Strange and Lane Chandler.

All in all, this show lacked the penetrating writing which made GUNSMOKE unique, but fine performances by the three regulars, good guest casts and production values, and solid, if perhaps rarely out of the ordinary scripts, make this series one well worth rewatching.

The Vanishing Shadow
(1934)

Gizmos, gadgets, and a giant robot
THE VANISHING SHADOW is a 1934 Universal serial which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in vintage science fiction. Its scientist hero, with dubious help from a mad scientist associate, battles an evil business tycoon. The serial has weaknesses. Onslow Stevens makes a strong hero, but heroine Ada Ince, villain Walter Miller, and mad scientist James Durkin give performances which range from so-so to not quite mediocre. The flat acting and some trite writing weakens the unexpectedly dramatic climax. There are also several tedious "who's got the McGuffin and let's get the McGuffin" chapters which slow the pace. The cliffhangers are varied but one near the end in which Stevens, Ince, and Durkin survive without damage a dreadful off the cliff and down the embankment car crash strains credibility past the breaking point.

These flaws, though, are easy to forgive. The serial bristles with science fiction gizmos supplied by the mad scientist. There is a remote control device for opening a gate or garage door from the inside of your car, and a closed-circuit television hookup allowing you to see who is entering your property. There is also a death ray, a Frankenstein lab pulsating with Kenneth Strickfadden electrical gadgets, a whole series of scientific booby traps, and a belt which makes the wearer invisible, with the hitch that his shadow can still be seen. The invisibility gimmick is well handled, the best bit a scene in which a car is driving down the road without a driver. Topping it all off is a giant, tin-can, kick-ass robot which puts in an appearance in chapter eleven. The robot is worth waiting for, marching through streams of bullets, brushing aside cowering henchmen, crashing right through doors and even a stone wall.

An interesting subplot has the heroine the daughter of the villain, who abandoned her mother and her years earlier. While I didn't think this subplot was particularly well-handled, it gave dimension to the characters and a depth to the serial beyond the action and then more action approach of the Republic serials of later years.

All in all, a real treat for science fiction fans.

Stories of the Century: Milt Sharp
(1955)
Episode 11, Season 2

Don Barry on fire
This series ran out of name outlaws by the second season. This episode was about one Milt Sharp, whom I have never even heard of. Ace director William Witney had left. Franklin Adreon seemed a weak replacement. There was little reason to expect anything of "Milt Sharpe", but thanks to old Republic cowboy star Don Barry, it turned out to be terrific.

Barry's days as a kiddie hero were past and such a role may never have suited him anyway. He was simply not the knight of the sagebrush type. Rather than laid back and charming, he came across as coiled and ready to strike. Barry was, however, one of the best, and certainly the most forceful, of all the actors who reigned as B western stars. He could be very intense.

The role of the small-time outlaw Sharpe tapped into his talent. He was by turns frightening when threatening with a gun, repulsive when coming on to a captive Kristine Miller, pathetic when wounded and dripping blood, and yet somehow oddly likable.

Barry fans will find this one fascinating, and it should entertain others. His ultimate comeuppance is most amusing. A final voice-over by Jim Davis reveals what a small-timer Milt Sharpe actually was.

Stories of the Century: Belle Starr
(1954)
Episode 1, Season 1

Marie Windsor in the saddle
One of the best of the series. Marie Windsor is remembered for playing tough urban broads in gritty crime films such as THE NARROW MARGIN or THE KILLING. Her first career break, though, came in a William Elliott western, HELLFIRE, in which she played to the hilt the role of a tough female outlaw in the old west, even outdrawing and gunning down veteran western bad guy Harry Woods. A champion horsewoman in her youth, she could ride like the wind. She was born to play Belle Starr, and one wishes she had done so in a feature.

Belle is the leader of a band of horse thieves in this episode. She easily dominates her drunken husband and shoots up a saloon in an early scene, sending the supposedly tough cowboys scurrying. She also wins a rough fight with Mary Castle as an undercover railroad detective.

Belle has gotten away with her crimes for so long because her horse is too fast to be caught. Except by Matt Clark and his mount. William Witney directed this episode and the final chase in which Jim Davis as Clark rides down Belle is a highlight. Both actors display fine horsemanship.

A coda has Davis explaining to Castle years later how Belle came to a bad end. That is accurate history.

Stories of the Century
(1954)

Action western with adult slant
This rather poorly named western series won an Emmy for best syndicated program and is certainly an interesting series. It was produced by Republic, the studio which did action better than anyone, and they put their best into it. Each episode was built around a real historical figure of the old west. A railroad detective named Matt Clark, similar to the later Elliot Ness with the gangsters of the 1920's and 30's, managed to become involved with almost every notorious western outlaw between the middle of the 1800's and WWI. The series' best asset was Jim Davis. Tall, rugged, ruggedly good looking, in prime shape, with an authentic western accent, and great riding skills which made him utterly convincing in the action scenes, Davis was every inch the western hero. He was teamed with two lovely and active co-stars, Mary Castle as "Frankie" during the first season, and Kristine Miller as "Jonesy" during the second. Each worked well with Davis.

What separated this show from its contemporaries and much of what came later was the professionalism invested in the action scenes. Ace action directer William Witney directed 30 episodes. Franklin Adreon the rest. Both filmed the action with polish. Republic's vast store of stock footage from serials and B's was utilized to give scope. The level of individual episodes rose or fell with the quality of the guest stars brought in to the play the outlaws. Among the really good ones were Marie Windsor as Belle Starr, Lee Van Cleef as Jesse James, Fess Parker as Grat Dalton, Jean Parker as Cattle Kate, and Joe Sawyer and Slim Pickins as Butch Cassady and "The Smilin' Kid". The cream of the western up and comers, Pickins, Parker, Denver Pyle, James Best, and Richard Jaeckel, honed their craft. B veterans with decades of experience under their belts, Harry Woods, Glenn Strange, Kenneth MacDonald, Earle Hodgkins, Steve Darrell, and Chief Yowlachie, provided the old leather feel of vintage westerns.

The weakness of the concept was that there are only so many famous western outlaws. By the second season the famous figures were becoming a mite obscure for all but the most dedicated history buff. Nevertheless, a few of the later shows were a match for any, due to the guest stars. Henry Brandon portrayed rustler Nate Champion, and former Republic star Don Barry was outstanding as small-time outlaw Milt Sharp.

Western fans or history buffs will want to see this.

Hopalong Cassidy: The Feud
(1952)
Episode 17, Season 1

Don't let the Beaver see this one
One of the better Hopalong Cassidy episodes. Two ranchers have engaged in a decades long feud. The son of one is shot from ambush. Suspicion naturally falls on the other, B western stalwart Steve Darrell. The killer is actually foreman Hugh Beaumont, who is having an affair with Darrell's young wife and hopes to gain her and the ranch when Darrell is lynched for the murder. There are bitter scenes between the jealous Darrell and his unfaithful wife, and even a hot and heavy one between Beaumont and the woman. Hoppy eventually exposes Beaumont.

This plot has a surprisingly adult slant far beyond the other "kiddie" shows, Roy, Gene, or The Lone Ranger, of that era.

Hopalong Cassidy: Grubstake
(1954)
Episode 18, Season 2

A terrific little mystery
This episode is a terrific little mystery. Percy Helton is an old prospector who has discovered gold. He has been grubstaked by five backers. Two have been murdered. A third is Red. Who is the murderer? There is a Perry Mason level raft of suspects who take turns looking guilty. Is it slippery saloonkeeper Michael Fox? Or Kelton's nephew and heir, Christopher Dark, the new physician in town, whose medicine seems to be making the old man sicker and sicker? Or is it one of the two remaining partners, volatile rancher Robert Paquin or ominous blacksmith Timothy Carey? Gladys George steals the show as a fluttery landlady engaged in a humorous romance with old codger Kelton. William Boyd is serious and effective in the role of a detective. Edgar Buchanan plays it straight as Red Connors, leaving the comic relief in the capable hands of George. The solution to the mystery is first rate.

Most should enjoy this one.

Hopalong Cassidy
(1952)

Hoppy goes out on a high note
Most early fifties TV shows that I have recently viewed have proved to be much less than I remembered--THE LONE RANGER, SUPERMAN, THE CISCO KID, MR AND MRS NORTH, RAMAR OF THE JUNGLE--the list is pretty long. They were for the most part cheaply produced and not very well acted, except for the leads. Therefore I did not come to the HOPALONG CASSIDY series expecting anything more than just another kiddie show. Some episodes may indeed be ordinary, and realism is not aided by Hoppy's all black but still gaudy outfit. But watching several episodes, I have been pleasantly surprised. This show was certainly a couple of notches above most of its contemporaries in quality. Outdoor scenes were filmed outdoors. The acting is often high grade. Boyd as Hoppy was both charismatic and a good actor. Edgar Buchanan, an A list character actor, was capable of providing both comic relief and dramatic support. Other early television pairings, even Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, or Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carillo, were not this accomplished. Their skill, plus good writing, lifted several episodes.

A few top episodes I have viewed:

1. "Grubstake"--A terrific half-hour mystery. Prospector Percy Helton has struck gold. He was grubstaked by five partners. Two have been murdered. A third is Red. Who is the murderer? There is a slew of suspects in a movie level cast--Christopher Dark, Michael Fox, Robert Paquin, and Timothy Carey(!). Gladys George steals the show as a flighty landlady engaged in a humorous romance with old codger Helton. The solution to the mystery is first rate.

2. "The Feud"--Two ranchers are bitter enemies. The son of one is murdered from ambush. Suspician naturally falls on his old enemy, B stalwart Steve Darrell, but foreman Hugh Beaumont, soon to become Beaver's dad, is the culprit. He is having an affair with Darrell's wife and hopes to get both her and the ranch when Darrell is lynched for the murder. There are some bitter scenes between the jealous Darrell and his unfaithful wife, and even a hot and heavy one between the woman and Beaumont. Perhaps not original, but certainly an adult slant compared to a typical Lone Ranger or Gene or Roy plot.

3. "Lawless Legacy"--An ordinary plot, but given a big lift by Lone Ranger on vacation Clayton Moore as a vicious murderer.

While Boyd certainly plays the knight on a white steed to the hilt, and occasionally shoots guns out of the bad guys' hands, he also shoots to kill more often than not, and is surprisingly callous a couple of times when pumping info from a dying heavy.

All in all, well worth a look.

Hopalong Cassidy: Lawless Legacy
(1952)
Episode 26, Season 1

Battle of the Titans
The two biggest heroes on the small screen in the dawning days of television in the late forties and early fifties were Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger. William Boyd had bought the rights to his old Hopalong Cassidy movies and made a mint while launching a fabulous comeback when he sold them to TV. The Lone Ranger came to television in 1949 with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels iconic in the roles of The Ranger and Tonto. Boyd exploited the popularity of his old movies by filming a series of half-hour shows directly for television. Both THE LONE RANGER and HOPALONG CASSIDY were among the ten top rated shows.

The Hoppy shows were fairly well produced for that era. Outdoor scenes were filmed outdoors. Top character actor Edgar Buchanan was brought in as sidekick Red Connors. Casts were filled with B movie stalwarts, the plots lifted from the Hopalong Cassidy radio series.

This was the most interesting episode. Clayton Moore had left THE LONE RANGER series over a salary dispute, being replaced by John Hart for one season. He found a gig as a cement-thick heavy on the Hoppy show. Moore plays a vicious outlaw who is guilty of counterfeiting, kidnapping, and murder. In the end Hoppy ferrets him out at his hideout in a remote barn and the two slug it out. Although Hoppy appears elderly and even a bit unsteady on his feet at times, he has no trouble handling the younger Moore, knocking him down several times. In the time-honored tradition of B western bad guys, Moore cheats. He grabs a pitchfork and tries to gut Hoppy before a right cross puts him out for good.

As Moore's voice was unmistakable, I wonder what the other little shavers thought while watching their two great heroes going toe to toe. I know what this one thought. I was disconsolate. My mother noticed I wasn't eating my Cheerios the next morning and inquired why. I told her that The Lone Ranger had turned into a bad guy. She was wise. She told me that it was obviously not The Lone Ranger, but his evil twin brother. That made me feel much better.

The Lightning Warrior
(1931)

Action, mystery, and Rin-Tin-Tin
Rin-Tin-Tin and Tom Mix were two of the biggest box-office draws of the twenties while working for major studios. Both faded with age and the coming of sound. Both ended their careers with comeback performances in Mascot serials, and both serials are very good.

THE LIGHTNING WARRIOR is as creaky as they come with no musical score and one of those hissing, early thirties soundtracks. It is nevertheless entertaining. A mystery villain known as the Wolfman is inciting an Indian uprising to drive the settlers out of the valley. It is up to the heroic Rinty and his human allies to bring this fiend to justice.

This is the first time I have seen the original Rin-Tin-Tin and he and his stuntdog doubles do not disappoint, with wild leaps and chases, vicious fights, and narrow escapes. Rinty also thinks his way out of several jams. One forgets while watching the show that no dog could be quite this smart. The human cast also does well. Young Frankie Darro was a talented child actor. A slim George Brent is far more winning here as an action hero than he would later be as a lounge lizard. Former Chaplin co-star Georgia Hale is animated and appealing though she has little to do. Ugly Bob Kortman as an evil henchman and old codger Lafe McKee as a crusty rancher stand out in the supporting cast.

Yakima Canutt's name appears in the credits, so it is not surprising that the action is well handled and the stunt work often striking. The serial also gets a lift from a strong air of mystery. The Wolfman is dressed in full phantom regalia with a slouched hat and cape pulled over his face. He communicates with his underlings via weird howls while tom-toms beat ominously on the soundtrack and lurking henchman silently pick off their victims with arrows.

It is all nonsense and all fun. The mystery of who is the Wolfman is sustained well with plenty of red herrings. Several twists in the last chapter are satisfying and clear up a lot of apparent inconsistencies.

All in all, if you are a fan of vintage serials, this is one to seek out.

Stage to Mesa City
(1948)

Riding, shooting, and Lash LaRue
Lash LaRue was the most interesting B western hero to come along after WWII. Bearing a striking physical resemblance to Humphrey Bogart, he cut quite a figure in his all-black outfit while expertly wielding a bullwhip against the bad guys.

STAGE TO MESA CITY is an entertaining vehicle for LaRue with almost non-stop action and an interesting mystery element. Silent era comic Fuzzy St John backs LaRue with some expert pratfalls as his actually helpful sidekick. Jennifer Holt is the attractive heroine. Marshall Reed and Terry Frost head up the bad guys, but take orders from a shadowy boss. Between wild shootouts and chase after chase, Lash tries to figure out the identity of this top villain.

This film is action packed with several full gallop chases. It might actually be too action packed. The mystery is predictable as the casting leaves no doubt who the brainy boss will turn out to be. It might have been wise to sacrifice a chase here or there in order to build up the red herrings. It also would have helped to cast veteran villains in the red herring roles to keep the viewer guessing.

All in all, though, a fast-paced treat for LaRue fans.

The Hawk of Powder River
(1948)

A Bullet for the Hawk
Eddie Dean was the oddest duck in the B western pond. He had a prominent nose and a very weak chin, making him resemble a younger version of his goofy sidekick, Roscoe Ates. His looks seemed more appropriate for a clown. This was unfortunate as he had much to offer. He was well built, convincing in the riding and fighting scenes, and a decent actor. And he had the biggest voice of any of the singing cowboys.

THE HAWK OF POWDER RIVER was made late in Dean's career and is a solid B western thanks to good songs, including the lively 'Punchinello' and the haunting 'Wild Country', plenty of well-staged action scenes, and a striking performance by pretty Jennifer Holt as the villain. There had been female villains in B westerns before, but those I have seen generally fall into the good-bad girl class, redeemed by a streak of decency or a budding love for the hero. The Hawk, though, as played by Holt, is bad to the bone, leading her henchmen on murderous raids, personally gunning down a crusading newspaperman, sneering indifferently at the news one of her gang blew away her gentle uncle, all the while coldly plotting the murder of her sweet cousin. The scenes in which she snarls her orders at her cowed henchmen are unique and a lot of fun.

Besides this unusual villain, there is also an unusual hero. Dean seems to owe as much to Mickey Spillane as to the traditional knight of the sagebrush. He slaps a confession, Mike Hammer style, out of one of the bad guys, shoots several of the bad guys in the back when he rides up behind them during the climatic gunfight, and tops it all by personally shooting the evil Hawk dead.

All in all, a real treat for B western fans.

Gold
(1932)

Vintage Jack Hoxie western is okay
Jack Hoxie was one of the biggest silent western stars. He was born and grew up in the west, working as a real cowboy, before becoming a rodeo champion and wild west show performer. He had the physical skills needed to impress in the action sequences and enough pantomime talent to get by in silent movies, but sound exposed his limitations. Hoxie had a good speaking voice but was untrained as an actor, and could not read, which made learning lines all but impossible. Still, off the evidence of this film, he had much to offer.

I bought the DVD of GOLD to see Hoxie and I understand why he was a star in his day. A big, bluff man, moon-faced but handsome, he reminded me of a slimmer, handsome version of Babe Ruth. He had an engaging smile and manner. He was 47 when he made this movie, but could have passed in the black and white photography for 20 years younger. He seems a good match for the youthful heroine. His riding skills were still impressive in some well-photographed scenes.

GOLD is a low budget B western, made by the small Majestic Pictures, but they managed to back Hoxie with a professional cast. Alice Day is attractive as the somewhat trigger-happy heroine who takes three separate shots at the innocent Hoxie after she jumps to the conclusion that he shot her father. Lafe McKee enacts his usual old codger, father role, but with more depth than usual, including an excellent drunk scene. Old pro Tom London is on hand as the sheriff. Hooper Atchley is the urbane boss of the bad guys, with Matthew Betz, Robert Kortman, and Jack Byron his henchmen. Jack Clifford is Hoxie's pal, fishing for laughs with a now politically incorrect stutter. The plot has the bad guy claim-jumpers murdering McKee and framing Hoxie, but there is an ironic twist at the end for the evil Atchley. All ends well for a final fadeout with Hoxie and Day together and his horse apparently confused.

All in all, nothing exceptional, but for film buffs who might want to see a Hoxie movie, this is a good choice.

Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn
(1935)

Creaky but fascinating old-time melodrama
Tod Slaughter made his name starring as the villains in revivals of hoary Victorian melodramas. In 1935 he enacted one of his most popular roles, that of the actual historical murderer, Squire William Corder, for the screen in MURDER IN THE RED BARN.

This is a compelling film. It has the feel and resonance of a folk tale. Despite, or perhaps because of, the all out melodramatic presentation, it is more viscerally involving than many a smoother and more elegantly acted story. The plot has the bite of veracity. Supposedly wealthy Squire William Corder seduces the young and foolish Maria Martin. Heavily in debt due to gambling losses, Corder arranges a marriage to an ugly but rich woman. When Maria informs him she is pregnant and begs him to do the right thing, he promises marriage to trick her into meeting him at the remote red barn, where he murders her and buries her body under the barn's dirt floor.

Of course Corder gets his just deserts due to the intervention of Maria's loutish but honest young gypsy lover, her judgmental but regretful father, and a nosy dog. The old fashioned, creaky style of the movie works to its advantage. The murder during a violent thunderstorm and the nighttime discovery of the body are wonderfully atmospheric. Tod Slaughter, of course, dominates the action. He is beyond hammy but try to take your eyes off him while he's on the screen, taking villainy into a whole different dimension. MURDER IN THE RED BARN is a good introduction to Slaughter and I plan to seek out more of his work.

Act of Violence
(1948)

Get rid of this guy and be sorry later.
ACT OF VIOLENCE is a disturbing and provocative film which raises moral issues which probe deeper than the sometimes contrived melodramatics of the plot would seem to allow. The story centers around two WWII veterans who both survived internment in a German POW camp. Joe, played by a grim Robert Ryan with gun always at hand, is an implacable, limping angel of retribution, relentlessly tracking down the man who betrayed him and his comrades. That man is Frank, played by Van Heflin, who, in contrast to Joe, has made a new and good life for himself in the postwar world. He has a pretty young wife, Janet Leigh, and a young son. He is a respected and successful businessman. All seems right with his world until Joe arrives like a cloud on a sunny day. The moral confusion begins right away. Joe has come to murder for righteous retribution, not to confront Frank or bring him to legal justice. Frank is frightened, but honest enough to confess his guilt to his wife. Joe had organized a plan to tunnel out of the camp and when he refused Frank's order to stop, Frank informed the Nazi Commandant. We see that Frank is not really a bad man, only a weak one. His crime was under extreme duress and starvation. He admits he did it to eat.

There are issues here, though, that the movie does not deal with. Frank was the superior officer. He was responsible for all of the men. He ordered Joe not to try to escape. Joe disobeyed the order. Is Joe perhaps somewhat more culpable than he is willing to admit to himself? The war was nearly over. All they had to do was hang on a few weeks. Frank's way may have been the wisest way. If there had been no escape attempt, all of the men might have survived. Frank's voice-over flashback has Joe giving his reason as "We are not gonna starve any longer." It echoes Frank's confession to his wife.

The movie does not really probe this issue of the respective guilts of the two. Joe keeps coming on his mission of vengeance. Frank cracks and the movie skids into familiar noir territory, with a sleazy lawyer hooking Frank up with a hit-man. The ending is stock old-time melodrama, not up to the premise of the film. As a movie, though, this is a winner. Fred Zinneman's shadowy direction builds smoothly and the melodramatic climax is tense and well-done, if contrived. The acting from the entire cast is solid, with Mary Astor the standout as a down-and-out bar girl. All and all, a very good melodrama which has within it the seeds of a very great film indeed if more attention had been paid to character and less to standard noir complications.

This Gun for Hire
(1942)

taut thriller with Ladd electric as killer
"This Gun for Hire" is a terrific crime thriller which has stood the test of time and stands as a true classic of the genre. Frank Tuttle directed with a sure sense of pace and the script by Albert Maltz and W R Burnett, based on a story by Graham Greene, probes deeper into the psyche of the killer "hero" than any film of the era. I found this the most involving thriller of the forties, keeping me on the edge of the seat from beginning to end, and with surprising emotional undercurrents.

If the movie has flaws, they are in the overly contrived plot. The double-cross of Raven might have been foolish, but powerful and arrogant men sometimes behave foolishly. Veronica Lake being recruited by the government to get the goods on the traitorous Laird Cregar and then getting involved with the dangerous Raven was a stretch but plausible. Her cop boyfriend also being on the case was unnecessary and one coincidence too many. Movie mores of the time demanded a conventional happy ending, so the sappy romance between Lake and Robert Preston was dragged in. There is also some heavy-handed patriotic moralizing reflecting the climate of 1942, but Raven's motivations seem to have more to do with his emotional response to Lake than any abstract love of country or sense of duty.

The cast ranges from solid to wonderful. Lake is interesting, as frozen-faced as Alan Ladd, but empathetic and sweet, the good angel to Ladd's devil. Preston does as well as anyone could as the ineffectual cop who is constantly outwitted by Raven. Laird Cregar milks the role of a sadistic sissy who professes to abhor violence, but can't resist asking Raven how he feels when he kills, and who keeps a hit-man on hand as his chauffeur. Marc Lawrence plays the chauffeur, who understands his boss well enough to know that, despite his protestations, Cregar wants to hear the details of his planned murder of Lake. Tully Marshall is the spitting image of the aged John D Rockefeller as the traitorous industrialist selling a poison gas formula to the Japanese.

Towering over all, of course, is Ladd, as Raven, the stone killer who dominates the plot. His swings between glacial indifference while in the act of killing, to kindness to kittens, guilt over tearing a maid's dress, and compassion for a crippled child, reveal a complex man, and the brilliantly written speech in which he recounts his awful and abused childhood allows us a glimpse at the wounds beneath the growling exterior. Young and handsome, and perhaps importantly, a Wasp fallen angel type in contrast to earlier ethnic gangsters such as Cagney and Robinson, Ladd nails the nuances of this twisted character with an electric performance he would never again approach.

A final irony of the movie is that the monstrous Raven is the true hero of the story, outfoxing the bumbling police at every turn, slipping out of trap after trap, saving Lake at Cregar's house after Preston is easily deflected away, finally overcoming all odds to track down and destroy the powerful traitors in their cavernous skyscraper. One can not imagine the "authorities" doing as much.

All in all, a great movie. Don't miss this one.

The Blue Dahlia
(1946)

Okay, but not quite as good as reputation
"The Blue Dahlia" is one of the more high profile film noirs of the mid-forties, with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, direction by George Marshall, and starring performances by one of the more famous romantic teams of the era, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. It sounds like a classic but plays out as just somewhat above average. Chandler put Ladd down as not in Bogart's class, a small boy's idea of a tough guy, but Ladd is strong in his role of the returning veteran. The real weakness is Lake, catatonic in a bland role with little dimension or mystery. We know from the get go that she didn't do it, which may have been a mistake and no reason is given for this sweet girl-next-door being married to a gangster. Their meeting, with Lake picking up Ladd in the rain followed by an instant romance, is beyond contrived.

The plot is a sort of sour take-off on "The Best Years of Our Lives" with three returning servicemen heading back into civilian life. While Fredric March came back to perfect wife Myrna Loy, Ladd finds an unfaithful Doris Dowling drunkenly laughing in his face over being responsible for the death of their son. Ladd threatens her with his gun but, in another contrivance, leaves it and her behind as he walks out into the rain. The next morning wifey is found shot dead with Ladd the obvious suspect. With help from Lake, he eludes the police and tries to ferret out his wife's killer, another contrivance as she meant nothing to him and his motivation is a pale copy of Bogart's logic from "The Maltese Falcon."

The solution to the mystery is no great shakes, but the movie plays well because of some crisp dialogue by Chandler, plus interesting and well-acted supporting characters. William Bendix shines as a wounded serviceman with mental problems, Howard Da Silva as a smooth gangster with a hidden past, Will Wright as an extremely sleazy bungalow peeper and blackmailer, and Tom Powers as a sarcastic cop.

All in all, I expected it to be better, but certainly worth a look for fans of old crime movies.

Take Me Back to Oklahoma
(1940)

Great music lifts oater
"Take Me Back to Oklahoma" has all the makings of a below average "B" oater. The plot is the old wheeze about the villain trying to run the heroine out of her stagecoach business so he can grab the franchise for himself. The script is thin with only one minor character, an ex-con who throws in with the hero, rising above the all-good or all-bad stereotypes. The acting by the supporting cast is mediocre, with the heroine vapid, and the bad guys a faceless bunch, having none of the evil charisma a Harry Woods or a Roy Barcroft or a Charles King brought to such roles. So the movie sucks and don't watch it? Not at all. "Take Me Back to Oklahoma" is more entertaining than about 90% of the flicks out there. It was filmed outdoors for the most part and the camera catches several lovely vistas. Sidekick Slim Andrews, with deadpan help from star Tex Ritter, has some amusing moments. A wild stagecoach chase at the beginning and an exciting stagecoach race at the climax are superbly handled. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys are on hand to join with Ritter and the resulting music is wonderful. I think there were seven numbers and all are good with "You Are My Sunshine" and "Take Me Back to Tulsa" classics which bridge the years. I have listened to CD's of Bob Wills with pleasure and it is a treat to see him perform in his prime. This movie is a must for fans of old-timey western swing like myself.

All in all, great music and strong action make this a fun "B" western.

Blueberry
(2004)

They don't come no worse than this!
I've been watching movies since the forties and saw this movie on TV last night. It is the absolute worst slop I have ever seen, beyond stupid and beyond boring, a confused manure pile of a script gussied up with the latest in slick cinematography. I can't quite explain what watching this sludge was like, but I grew a trifle concerned that I had in fact died and gone to hell and this was what hell is. I recall my last root canal with more fondness than sitting through this puke.

I read some of the positive posts, just to try and understand how anyone rates this above a "1" and noticed one review in which the writer maintained this is a movie for sophisticated viewers. Well, I guess I'm not sophisticated, and if sophisticated means appreciating crap like this, I'm glad I never will be.

All in all, they don't come no worse than this.

Them!
(1954)

Antie Maim
"Them" is one of the best science fiction and big bug movies of the fifties. It has a taut script, an able cast, decent but certainly not outstanding special effects, and direction by Gordon Douglas which wisely played to the movies' strengths and minimized the weaknesses.

Strong points:

1. The early mystery scenes are among the most tense of the era and certainly create an ominous mood, as does the secretiveness of the scientists and their obvious concern about panic.

2. The Dragnet style police procedure scenes work well. As in Dragnet, the investigators underplay to the point of woodenness while character actors ham it up as actual or potential witnesses.

3. The cast is well above average. Edmund Gwenn lends authority as the scientist. Joan Weldon is brisk as his daughter and fellow scientist, bringing a conviction she did not match in her other roles. James Whitmore infuses humanity into the role of the highway patrolman who discovers the lost girl in the desert. James Arness fits in as a Rambo style hero. Among the various eccentric witnesses, Fess Parker and Dub Taylor stand out.

4. The scene in the anthill in the desert is extremely creepy.

5. The mobilization of mankind, including the Federal government, especially the scene in which Los Angeles is put under martial law, was carried off well.

6. The use of the traumatized little girl in the opening scenes and the lost boys at the end does tend to draw the viewer emotionally into the story in a way that the prediction of the extinction of human life inside of one year does not.

Weak points:

1. The ants are at least a relative weak point, not up to the standard of the rest of the movie. They were clearly marionettes with few natural movements. The movie was structured to keep them off screen as much as possible. I thought they were a letdown whenever they did appear.

2. Olin Howlin was over-the-top in his key drunk portrayal near the end.

3. I found it wildly implausible that ants the size of cars could be creeping around a major city without all kinds of people noticing. What did they eat? Wouldn't scouts be out and spotted?

4. The survival of the two boys inside the sewer seemed more than contrived to me. I guess they might hide in a pipe too small for the ants to enter, but they were found in an open room not far from the egg chamber, with the ants moving in for the kill. Where had they been hiding earlier?

All in all, one of the best of the big bug movies, but flawed, and lacking the convincing monsters of "Tarantula" and the Ray Harryhausen flicks of the era.

Tarantula
(1955)

top of the line old "creeper"
I am in in the process of rewatching vintage movies. I find some less than I remembered, such as "The Thing From Another World", which now seems talky and slow. I find others to be better than I remembered. "Tarantula" is one of these. "Tarantula" is a superbly crafted "B" shocker from Universal-International back in its science fiction heyday during the fifties. Director Jack Arnold did not have a flashy style, but was excellent at building suspense and brings off the terror scenes with panache. The script is intelligent and logical, with any holes minor. The special effects are convincing, with a real spider blown up to gargantuan proportions. The tarantula scuttles about like the real tarantula it is and this certainly aids in the illusion. The scenes with the skeletal remains of cattle and sheep are still extremely creepy.

And the cast does very well. John Agar is the stolid, stalwart, hero, both likable and intelligent. Mara Corday matches him as a graduate student and is strikingly beautiful. Their romance is plausible and less of a drawback than is usual in films of this era. The smaller parts are all convincingly portrayed, with Nestor Paiva and Hank Patterson standouts as the sheriff and the town character respectively. A very young Clint Eastwood pops up at the climax as a pilot destroying the monster. Best of all is Leo G Carroll as the scientist whose well-meaning experiments go sour and lead to all the destruction. One of the top character actors from the thirties through the sixties, his low-key delivery always projecting utter conviction, Carroll here firmly grounds all the scientific extrapolations. The concept of creating a nutrient to grow more food or to feed humans directly without food makes sense.

The movie is slowly paced during the first half, but the speculative script, with its touches of poetry about the desert, and the subplot of the sudden deaths from acromegalia, as well as a couple of subtle, creepy appearances by the rapidly growing spider, holds the interest until the giant tarantula goes on the rampage during the second half. The scenes of terrified horses and cowering humans filmed from above from a "spider's eye view" are, I think, the first use of subjective camera during a monster's attack and presage the use of this technique in later slasher movies. I found the scene in which the two old prospectors are attacked and flee in panic, with one, obviously near seventy, falling again and again, with his old friend refusing to leave him behind and returning three times to help him, to die with him in the end, especially well done and affecting.

All in all, with "Them" the best of the big bug movies, and a giant tarantula is a hell of a lot scarier than giant ants.

Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi
(1961)

Sand and sandal stinker has two magnificent assets
"Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops" has two magnificent assets and her name is Chelo Alonso. She also has gorgeous eyes. Born in Cuba, Miss Alonso was a hit at the Paris Folies Bergeres before plunging into Italian peplum movies in the late fifties. Here she plays the evil, evil, Queen Capys, who starts the movie by sending out her army to slaughter a peaceful village, and then ruthlessly searches for a cute, gurgling, tyke so she can feed him to her pet cyclops. The purpose, we are told, is to remove an ancient curse. In a stab at depth, the movie reveals that Queen Capys frets about being so evil and when not understandably admiring herself in the mirror which she carries with her at all times, muses about how much better things will be after the cyclops devours the toddler and she can relax into being just another bloodthirsty tyrant.

Enter our muscular hero, Maciste, the staunch enemy of injustice and evil queens everywhere. Once Capys lays her doe eyes on his pecs, its lust at first drool, always dangerous for a wicked queen. Even an oversexed queen can not shuck her evil ways easily, and there is tension galore as she gets the hots for our hero and hits on him with a distinct lack of subtlety, all the while assuring her worried underlings that she is in fact planning to make him into a cyclopsburger.

Now for the fly in the ointment. Maciste is so pure, innocent, and naive, he makes Roy Rogers look decadent. He seems oblivious to Capys' abundant charms. Oh, my, is this frustrating.

In the meantime, an underling captures the toddler and heads to the island abode of the hungry cyclops. Finding a very, very, very deeply buried streak of decency, and also perhaps hoping that turning good might arouse the big fellow's slumbering libido, Capys leads Maciste to the island.

As veteran viewers of these type of movies can probably predict, nothing works out for her. Capys follows Maciste into the Cyclops' cave, only to see her newly found goodness go for naught when she has to jump in front of the big lug to block a dagger thrust by her own henchman. Life can be cruel for a cruel queen.

The movie dies when Capys dies in the indifferent Maciste's strong arms, although Maciste does finish off the cyclops and saves the toddler and his mother. The ending has the tyke on the throne and everyone happy a child will be governing the land. Why not?

All in all, worth it if you don't expect too much, have a sense of humour, and can get off on an absurdly beautiful, evil, evil, queen.

The Legend of Boggy Creek
(1972)

Cheap as can be, but spooky as all get out.
I wonder how many movies on IMDb have the type of profile "The Legend of Boggy Creek" has, with the highest number of votes at the extremes of 1 and 10. Most either love it or hate it. I think it is quite good myself.

It is a part documentary, part dramatic recreations, part speculation and ominous narration, part musical, and an all entertaining look at the alleged sightings of a hairy, humanoid monster around Fouke, Arkansas, back in the fifties and sixties.

Director Charles B Pierce filmed on the actual locations using real witnesses, who are endearingly clumsy on camera, to create a no-budget, no frills campfire movie that is spooky fun. The monster is presented with restraint, shambling in the brush and in the darkness, never fully seen. Witnesses tell of dead pigs and dogs, but offer no proof the monster killed any of them, with the pumas known to be in the area more likely culprits. An unmarked dead cat is blamed on the monster as the cat is said to have been "scared to death." Sightings are low-key and plausible, with the shaggy creature glimpsed in the woods or lumbering about in the night, scaring already hysterical high school girls or women alone in isolated farmhouses. The viewer is left wondering if the monster might have been a bear. The director hints at one point that the monster may in fact be human. The movie stops for a goofy song to follow one Travis Crabtree deep into the swamp. He visits an old recluse who seems to be a moonshiner and who might have reason to frighten visitors away. It is mentioned that the old man shot off part of his foot with a shotgun. Later, tracks, no larger than that of a man, indicate the monster has only three toes. Interesting.

All in all, a good, old-fashioned spooker, well worth your time.

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