Rage at Dawn (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (2.35 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

In the hinterland of British Freeview television, that mid-afternoon space the schedulers have always struggled to fill, the classic Western still reigns supreme. It was like this when I was young, quite some time ago, and it remains so today. Clearly there are viewers who want to watch these movies, and the sheer wealth of titles on offer proves there’s a rich vein from which to mine, certainly where films made in the 1950s are concerned. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Western threw out some unimpeachable gems, efforts that are well worth watching now both on their own merits and as mirrors to the contemporary American society, values and concerns. But they weren’t all greats. For every High Noon, there were numerous offerings like Rage at Dawn, this minor entry from late period RKO that trod well known paths, served as a vehicle for its star name – Randolph Scott – and disappeared as quickly as it hit theatres.

The film makes an attempt to tell the story of the Reno Brothers Gang, an infamous real-life group of outlaws that was renowned for its train robberies. It’s entirely possible that the Renos’ adventures formed the basis for The Great Train Robbery, America’s first action film from 1903 that would have been made less than forty years after the actual events it was depicting and by which stage the protagonists were long since dead, all hanged by lynch mobs in grisly examples of frontier justice. Rage at Dawn does a fair job of recreating their capers, and the efforts by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (renamed Peterson in the film) to bring them to heel.

Scott plays James Barlow, who’s hired by the agency to work undercover and infiltrate the gang. He doesn’t appear until after twenty minutes have elapsed. That time is taken up with our introduction to the felons, the double cross that leads them to exact some pretty brutal revenge, and the suggestion that not all is right in the web of corruption of which they are the centre. The gang lead a torrid home life, holed up in the house of Laura Reno (Mala Powers) and arguing among themselves, treating the Reno sister like a servant. The good brother, Clint (Denver Pyle), wants little to do with any of it, leaving Frank (Forrest Tucker) to effectively run things, to the happiness of nobody.

Once Barlow enters the picture, he takes it over, faking a train heist in order to come into the gang’s orbit while he learns about the crooked town officials they’re keeping sweet, and speaking of which of course becoming sweet on poor, downtrodden Laura. Scott is an old hand at this stuff and plays his part well enough, seeming to realise it isn’t a prestige project and won’t have any lasting effect on the public’s imagination and so putting in a fairly routine performance. The kind of broiling, beneath the surface resentment that Budd Botticher found in his retinue is barely there and Scott plays it straight, easily in command of the proceedings. Charisma and a natural charm come to the surface. Things only ramp up towards the end, when the gang has been caught and townspeople take it upon themselves to do an old-fashioned lynching, which prompts him into action and offers a spark of the bitter anger he was more than capable of showing. The chemistry with Powers is just about present, though it comes with an air of both players being the only attractive performers and so something romantic’s bound to happen eventually. 

It’s all down to a by the numbers script from Horace McCoy, best known for writing the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Tim Whelan’s somewhat leaden direction. Whelan was credited as one of the three (named) directors on The Thief of Bagdad, and many years before had written the story that led to Harold Lloyd’s seminal Safety Last!, but made this one as a strictly box ticking exercise, covering the bases but failing to pronounce any of the story’s more interesting elements, such as the corruption angle. The result is a harmless enough matinee flick that could have been much more, indeed I was pulled in by what sounded like a densely layered plot that didn’t amount to very much.

It does look good however, Whelan able to take advantage of Technicolor to produce an Oater that’s altogether easy on the eyes. Scholars of the period have noted that while the action is supposed to take place in Indiana (where the crimes happened) it’s very clearly California. A state flag appears at one point to unfortunate effect, and that’s when the boom mic isn’t dropping into the shot, all of which suggests a briskly made film without much attention to detail being paid. One for the Randolph Scott completists.

Rage at Dawn: **

Decision at Sundown (1957)

When it’s on: Friday, 15 May (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Film4 are screening two Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations today – Decision at Sundown, and later Ride Lonesome, which was covered on these pages here. The films have gained in reputation over the years, thanks to Boetticher’s economical approach and an attempt to subvert conventions within the genre. The latter element is, I think important. It’s easy for someone like me to dip into Westerns of the 1950s, its ‘golden age’, and enjoy some classic cinema, but experiencing it at the time must have been quite a different story – Westerns in theatres, Westerns on television, in paperback, on the radio. People ask why the Western movie faded and I wonder if perhaps it simply suffered from saturation. How often was the same story told? How many times was it a case of black hats fighting white hats? For every enduring classic, there must have been a hundred Oaters, so I suggest that by the end of the decade it was more or less exhausted.

The closest current parallel that I can think of is the superhero movie, which makes sense given the advances in photo-realistic special effects allowing those comic book panels to come to gaudy life. I like a decent Marvel flick as much as the next viewer, but I admit I’m getting bored with it all and find something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier to be a breath of fresh air just because it tries to tell a more complicated story than the hackneyed Good versus Evil caper. And even here, with the genre threading its tentacles through television schedules as well as on the big screen, it doesn’t come close to hitting the vast number of Westerns that were being churned out in the fifties.

In a long winded way, that’s my explanation why the Boetticher-Scott films are always worth watching. There are layers of psychological depth here, people you assume to be good who turn out to carry serious shades of grey, villains who emerge as sympathetic, even if they’re still essentially flawed human beings. It’s particularly powerful in Decision at Sundown because the protagonist is played by Randolph Scott, which almost has the viewer instantly thinking ‘right, there’s my hero’ as that’s the character he played. Sure enough Scott’s character, Bart Allison, cuts the archetype – stoical, rangy, weathered, austere use of speech. He refuses to accept a free drink at Sundown’s saloon because he doesn’t like the man who’s paying the tab. All wounded nobility, the impression being that some terrible wrong has been committed, he’s here to right it and he’s justified in doing so.

Or so it seems. Allison has been pursuing Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) for some years and finally tracks him down to the town of Sundown, where he’s set himself up as the boss. Sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) is firmly in his pocket, and he’s about to marry heiress Lucy Steele (Karen Steele) in order to cement his status as the main man. Together with his sidekick Sam (Noah Beery Jr), Allison doesn’t let the fact it’s Kimbrough’s wedding day stop him from attempting to kill him. Soon enough, he and Sam are under siege in the town’s stable, the Sheriff is trying to figure a way to smoke him out, and Sundown’s citizens, oppressed for years by Kimbrough’s regime, are too weak to intervene.

Allison’s motivation is of course revenge; years before, Kimbrough had an affair with his wife and this led to her committing suicide. It’s clear also that Kimbrough hasn’t learned his lesson, carrying on with blousey Ruby (Valerie French) on the very morning he’s getting married. All straightforward enough, but here the picture begins to blur. Sam knows that Allison’s late wife was far from a saint, a point hammered home as the plot develops, leaving his reasons for retribution muddy and confused. Indeed, Scott’s character starts to look increasingly pathetic, building to a booze-addled conclusion when he’s ‘won’ but celebrating a very Pyrrhic victory and appearing to have aged dramatically. At the same time, Kimbrough redeems himself when he resolves to face Allison, knowing it likely means his own death yet standing up to his fate all the same. Perhaps the only real winners are the people of Sundown, who, led by the altruistic doctor (John Archer) come to assert their own authority. By the end, there’s a sense of everyone getting what’s coming to them.

The criticism of Decision at Sundown rests in its script, by Charles Lang, who eschews the more favoured Boetticher Lone Pine locations (as covered by his more celebrated collaborator, Burt Kennedy) for a film set mainly indoors. Boetticher himself wasn’t a fan, believing the story to revolve less around Scott than it should and only taking the job to help the actor complete a commitment with Warner Brothers. Certainly, it looks like what it is – a B Picture with little money behind it – without the director’s talent at papering over the cracks by filming expansive landscape shots. But I think the closed-in feel, the claustrophobia of Allison holed up and alone, works rather well, reflecting his narrow vision and the compressing reality of the truth.

Certainly, I quite enjoy seeing Scott play someone other than the straight guy, not to mention the twists and turns of the plot throwing out a slew of moral ambiguities. Perhaps Decision at Sundown is a film ahead of its time. Like all ‘Ranown’ (RANdolph Scott + producer Harry Joe BrOWN) films, it runs for fewer than eighty minutes, packs in welters of plot, hardly wastes a single shot and doesn’t come close to outstaying its welcome.

Decision at Sundown: ***

Ride Lonesome (1959)

When it’s on: Sunday, 9 September (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

A Sunday matinee treat comes in the economical shape of Ride Lonesome, one of the best films to emerge from the collaboration of Budd Boetticher (director), Harry Joe Brown (producer), Burt Kennedy (writer) and Randolph Scott (star). The partnership turned out a short series of Westerns in the late 1950s, defined chiefly by their cheapness, sub-80 minute running times and character driven dramas. This clocks in at around the 73 minute mark, little over an hour of your life, and what you get for your investment is no mere quickie, rather a beautifully weighted piece that packs in action, dialogue, humour, chase scenes and welters of suspense. So taut does Ride Lonesome become by the denouement that you realise not a minute has been wasted.

The plot is little more than a curtain raiser for the human drama that unfolds. Scott plays Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who’s been tracking Billy John (James Best) for several days so that he can turn him in at Santa Cruz and claim the reward. In the opening minutes, he indeed catches up with and accosts his prey, only to find Billy John has sent word to his far more dangerous brother, Frank (Lee Van Cleef) for help. As the pair make their way across a suitably desolate landscape, they pick up a pair of outlaws (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) who’ve also been trying to catch Billy John in order to have their slates wiped clean, and widow Mrs Lane (Karen Steele). Soon enough, they’re riding towards Santa Cruz, knowing Frank’s gang is in pursuit, and then it emerges that’s exactly what Ben wants to happen…

The main source of tension should be the looming clash between Ben and Frank, but it’s clear this will be a straightforward gunfight and both protagonists know it. Not just that but they know why too, as a previous crime committed by Frank becomes the primary focus of Ben’s pain. In fact, the pair take their time heading for the inevitable showdown, both fully aware of the fact at least one of them won’t survive it and therefore not rushing towards that point. Instead, the conflict that drives Ben and Roberts’s character, Sam Boone, develops into the more interesting business. Boone is looking for rehabilitation. His every fibre is bent on achieving it and he knows it lies in being the one to hand Billy John over. At some stage, he needs to get between Ben and his captive, leading to some marvellous, edgy scenes when the pair are in discussion, all surface pleasantness masking the reality that, at some stage, he’s going to betray the hunter. The obvious friendship between the pair just makes that moment more difficult to contemplate, yet loads scenes like Billy John acquiring a Winchester and holding Ben at gunpoint with irresistible suspense.

Even better is that none of these characters are really good or bad. Ben, the closest Ride Lonesome has to a hero, is driven by retribution. His friends and allies are all shaped by questionable past lives. Frank is no one’s idea of a cardboard villain either, coming across as complex and even a little regretful. If there is an underwritten character, it’s Steele’s token female, who looks as part of the Old West as a botched shot of aeroplane tracks (which don’t occur here), but she’s amply sexy enough to add to the tension. Best of all is the sense that Boetticher pointed the camera at his actors and told them to do what they thought their characters would. This obviously didn’t happen. Ride Lonesome clearly follows a tight script, but I have real affection for films that are so led by their characters over the plot that it feels, at certain points, as though they’ve walked away from the screenplay and taken on lives of their own, which happens here.

Ride Lonesome was filmed in the Alabama Hills of California, not exactly new scenery for Western viewers yet I don’t remember a time the region has looked quite so harsh or lonely. The emptiness, the lack of a human touch, all of this matters, of course, in a tale of desperate, morally flushed out people who face stark choices and have been shaped by bitter circumstance. It’s highly recommended.

Ride Lonesome: ****

Ride the High Country (1962)

When it’s on: Saturday, 14 April 2012 (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Ride the High Country was an early film directing job for Sam Peckinpah, but elsewhere it’s all about the endings. It was released toward the end of the Western’s ‘Golden Age’, as the genre was losing popularity and becoming  more introspective in tone. It marked the last film role for classic Western actor, Randolph Scott, who seemed determined to go out on a high. The action is set during the final days of the ‘wild west’. Cars are replacing horses. Cowboys perform for the public and Joel McCrea’s ageing former lawman rides into town to take on a last job. He’s hired by a bank to protect the traffic of gold from a nearby mine and it’s work he intends to take seriously. His character knows the gold will be moving through some dangerous territory, so he enlists an old, trusted friend (Scott), along with his protege (Ron Starr) to help, only he doesn’t realise they’ve both signed up in order to steal the gold. Neither does Scott appreciate just how ‘straight’ McCrea has become. ‘All I want is to enter my house justified,’ he tells Scott, which defines everything his character does, whether protecting the virtue of a young girl or telling Starr not to drop litter.

The rift between these old men of a vanishing frontier emerges over the course of the piece, yet earlier it focuses on their mutual affection, the shared stories and nostalgic feelings about what their world used to be. It also becomes clear that the west is going to be a worse place without them. The younger characters are all, to varying degrees, unscrupulous chancers, especially the psychotic Hammond brothers, who emerge as the film’s main villains.

At a shade under 90 minutes in length, Ride the High Country packs a lot into its running time. The plot passes economically, allowing for insights into all the chief characters’ motivations whilst never sagging (I can’t say the same for The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah’s later and generally higher regarded Western, but perhaps that’s just me). Long-time Peckinpah collaborator and Director of Photography, Lucien Ballard, provides some gorgeous shots of the disappearing frontier, ever catching McCrea’s longing glances at the horizon as though both he and the camera realise it’s all about to change.

It’s a real treat of a film and Randolph Scott belongs on the kind of Saturday matinee screening provided here by Film4.

Ride the High Country: ****