Also rewatched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence over the past two days. One issue with the plot really bothered me this time though. The town is being bullied by one mean bandit (Liberty Valence) and his two toadies. The sheriff is incompetent, and it ends up coming down to a shootout between the bandit and Jimmy Stewart's lawyer character. All the townsfolk seem to be against the bandit, they know he's murdered, robbed, and beat up people, yet none of them (except the tough guy John Wayne character) do anything about it. If the whole town just came out with their shotguns or rifles or what-have-you to back up the lawyer, it would have been no problem at all. In one of the other westerns I really like that is basically what happens, though I can't right now remember which. Of course if that happened, it would ruin the whole rest of the plot.
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I watched Edward Dmytryk's Warlock (1959) yesterday, which sounds like it'd be a horror or sword & sorcery movie, but it actually a really excellent western. The other day the Criterion blog linked to list at Slant of a top 100 westerns list. I went through it looking for recommendations (I'm picky about westerns but like a bunch of the classics and unusual ones, less so the violent 70s ones). I was surprised that Warlock was not on the list and decided I should rewatch it to see if it held up to a second viewing. It's free on the Roku channel (we use a Roku for our tv streaming device).
I'm happy to say it does hold up. I really enjoyed it again. Dmytryk (who I don't recall noticing in the credits last time) is a director I know from one of the best noirs Murder My Sweet. Henry Fonda is his usually self, playing a hired marshall who's getting a little tired of the gun for hire life. Richard Widmark (the real star), is great as a member of a gang of cowboy troublemakers who leaves the group and takes up residency in the town as the official deputy. Dorothy Malone, who in looking up I realized had one of her first credited roles as the sexy bookstore owner in The Big Sleep, is woman who's man was killed by Fonda's character and comes to town for revenge. Anthony Quinn is Fonda's friend and backup man who was the actual cause of the murder of Malone's man.
The plot is involved and shifting, not easily summarized, with lots of characters. It's primary focus is, like many westerns, about the conflict between law and chaos, about the organization of society, and about violence as a tool for problem solving. It also throws in a good bit of the hero/myth vs reality story, a love story (or two), and a really strong homoerotic subtext (between Quinn's and Fonda's characters). All in wide compositions and 50s color.
It's definitely worth seeking out. I've also read the novel it's based on by Oakley Hall, which I really enjoyed. New York Review of Books puts out a nice edition.
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My second viewing of the day was Canyon Passage, a 40's western (in Technicolor) directed by Jacques Tourneur (and now I'm realizing it was a Jacques double feature). Tourneur is a favorite of mine almost solely from Out of the Past one of my favorite noirs. I saw this western of his many years ago on TCM (or maybe even AMC when they used to be the classic movie channel), and remembered it fondly as one of the westerns on my short lists of "Westerns I like". I finally picked this up in a very cheap DVD edition that includes 3 other westerns, as it was not available for streaming anywhere. It does not disappoint I think, and, while cleanly fitting into the genre, is nicely different in many ways. For starters, unlike the often open plains and deserts of so many westerns this one takes place in the pacific northwest often amongst forests, providing a much more enclosed space to even the outdoor scenes. The primary town even varies from that classic western town that has a bunch of buildings on a flat straight street, as the town is much less geometrically organized and even is situated on a hill to add some topography to the setting.
There's also nary a cowboy or sherrif in site, though we do get some natives (on which more later), a sick gambler, a rough tough bad guy, a chorus of miners, and various homesteaders. The protagonist (played by Dana Andrews) is the owner of a shipping business, and the primary conflict with the bad guy revolves around something we don't even see happen narratively before the movie starts. But of course, like most westerns, there are themes of the individual versus society (in particular how the town deals with bad elements, there is no lawman in this movie or apparently anywhere in the area) and society vs the wild (in the form of the bad guy, who people describe as animal-like and who also happenes to live outside of town in the woods, as well as the natives).
The treatment of the natives is perhaps even a bit above average for one of these old westerns, as their motivations are not obscured and written off as some kind of inevitability. They don't resent the settlers using the land, but do resent them making buildings and claiming the land as their own. And the big fight that inevitable occurs between the settlers and the natives is set off by the bad guy murdering two native girls (though the clear inference is there is sexual assault too). Though of course the natives as such are never individualized and appear and act with all the stereotypes one can expect.
The movie also has an odd ending that is both depressing and... positive. The progatonist finds some... happiness in the surrounding events of loss and death (and his own financial ruin).
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