In 1955, Roger Corman was a young independent producer with a couple cheap pictures under his belt: Highway Dragnet (1954) and The Fast And The Furious (1955). The latter, a low-budget crime picture starring John Ireland (who also directed) and Dorothy Malone, wound up being the first film released by American Releasing, run by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson — a company that would evolve into American International Pictures.
American popular culture would never be the same.
Roger Corman: “The early days at American Releasing were pretty hectic. You always found yourself with no time and no money and a movie to shoot.”
Part of Corman’s arrangement with American Releasing was that The Fast And The Furious would become the first release of a three-picture deal. This deal made sure Corman had money to put into his next film, which turned out to be Five Guns West (1955).
Corman: “Although I had some advance money from AIP, the picture was financed primarily with my money.”
Going into this next one, the young producer wanted to try his hand at something else.
Corman: “After The Fast And The Furious, I felt I was ready to direct… I had been on the lot at Fox and seen how it was done in the big time. I had seen my two little pictures being made. And I did set up a few shot that one day on the beach… I had shot a one-day short subject… I felt, I can do this. If a young man came to me today with similar credentials there’s no way I’d hire him.”
Samuel Z. Arkoff: “He almost had to direct and produce to be able to get on the screen in a short period of time with the amount of money available. If he hadn’t been his own director, he couldn’t possibly have made them so fast. If he hadn’t been his own producer, he wouldn’t have known what he as the director wanted.”
Corman: “The story for Five Guns West was mine, but the structure and screenplay were Bob Campbell’s… Our collaboration became a model for countless future films: We discussed my idea and built a story structure. He wrote, we honed it together, and then I directed from the screenplay. I gave myself a nine-day shooting schedule and a $60,000 budget.”
The picture plays like a Civil War variation on The Dirty Dozen (1967). A group of Confederate prisoners are offered pardons for carrying out a dangerous mission, to journey across Indian Territory to find a Union gold shipment — and a Confederate traitor. Much of the action takes place at a way station, as the prisoners turn on their commander (John Lund) and try to have their way with Dorothy Malone.
Corman: “I only had the five men plus a few minor speaking parts… I offered John Lund and Dorothy Malone as much as I could and hired a young, rugged newcomer named Touch Connors. He later changed his name to Mike and became a TV star on Mannix.”
Mike Connors: “Roger was one of the few people around who gave inexperienced actors a chance. I got, I think, $400. But just working was a great thrill.”
The cast also included two actors who’d go on to memorable parts in other Corman films: Paul Lund, so effective as the alien in Not Of This Earth (1957), and Jonathan Haze (whose name is misspelled in the titles), Seymour in the three-day masterpiece Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Writer R. Wright Campbell also wrote a part for himself.
Corman: “I was nervous, but I never doubted that I could pull it off. The film was almost all exteriors and I decided to shoot in the parched, rocky terrain at Iverson’s Ranch, on the far side of the San Fernando Valley near Chatsworth… I was also planning to shoot at Ingram’s Ranch, owned by cowboy actor Jack Ingram, because he had built a Western town there.”
Along with his ranch, Jack Ingram himself appears in the film.
Corman: “I had planned everything. Then I awoke on the first day of shooting and drove to the location through an incredible torrent of rain. This wasn’t possible. My first day! I hadn’t even started and I was already behind schedule! I got so worked up and tense that I pulled off the road and threw up. Then I just leaned against my car in the rain and pulled myself together. I made it to Iverson’s and after about an hour’s wait the rain stopped.”
Puddles of water and muddy boots can be clearly seen in the Iverson scenes. Part of the crew trudging around in the rain that day was Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd D. Crosby, who’d won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon (1951).
Floyd Crosby: “He needed a lot less coaching than a lot of other young directors. He knew what he wanted, he worked fast, and it was fun. Suddenly we were a team.”
This collaboration would result in excellent, and excellent-looking, pictures like Pit And The Pendulum (1961) and Tales Of Terror (1964). Eventually, Crosby worked on other films, for other directors, at AIP.
Corman: “He was a rarity. He worked fast, which is important to me, and yet his stuff was always good. No matter how fast I moved, Floyd kept right up, and he could light a setup in 10–15 minutes flat, or even faster if need be, and we’d go. That’s unusual—lots of people are fast, but you don’t want to see the results. With Floyd, you didn’t have that problem. Plus, he knew how to set up these really complicated dolly shots quickly. He was the best, and working with him was always a pleasure, professionally and personally.”
Making this first one, however, doesn’t sound like a pleasure at all. For starters, they worked 10-hour days.
Corman: “I’d shoot in the morning and then sit by myself with my eyes closed during our lunch break. I’d just sit there and envision the possible difficulties of the afternoon’s shooting. Throughout the film, I tried to do things like not collapse in front of the cast and crew.”
“After the first week went by and nothing awful happened, I felt a little less petrified. From that experience, I learned that all first-time directors are nervous. If they’re not, then they don’t have the artistry, creativity or sensitivity to be in this business.”
It’s hard to pull off a ride through Indian Territory when you’re got a cast of less than a dozen people. Here’s how Roger tackled it.
“I went to a stock footage library and bought what I needed for the Indians scenes. An audience sees a shot of Indians riding on horseback through the dust — who knows what film that actually came from? A soldier looks through binoculars from a hilltop — then I cut to the stock shot of 500 Indians racing by on horseback. “Okay, fellas,” he says, “the Indians are over there. Let’s head over there!” That was by far the cheapest way for them to travel through Indian Territory.”
Five Guns West stands as a pretty typical ultracheap 50s Western. Actually, it rises above its minimal budget fairly well. Some clumsy camera moves and under-choreographed fights show just how fast they were working. The performances from Lund and Malone are fine, while Connors, Haze and the others try a bit too hard. It was billed as being in “Wide Screen Color” — nothing more than Pathécolor and a 1.85 cropping.
But when you put Five Guns West up against later Corman films, it’s interesting that depending on the budget, cast and schedule—his direction is sometimes worse. Once you’ve seen Ski Troop Attack and Atlas (both 1960), his directorial debut plays like The Magnificent Ambersons.
Corman: “The pace never let up. Before Five Guns West came out, for example, I was already involved with Apache Woman, a Western they created and asked me to produce and direct from a completed script. It cost a little under $80,000.”
Corman: “I did four Westerns, all distributed by AIP. Two of them were my ideas and two were AIP’s ideas — the titles alone will tell you which were which. The two that were my ideas were Five Guns West and Gunslinger (1956). The two that were AIP’s ideas were Apache Woman and The Oklahoma Woman (both 1955).”
And while the budgets and schedules certainly got better, that’s pretty much the way Roger Corman’s directorial career continued.
Corman: “I think if I had been unemployed longer between films, I could have sat and thought a little bit about what I was doing.”
SOURCES: Roger Corman (with Jim Jerome): How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime; Wheeler Winston Dixon: Collected Interviews: Voices From Twentieth-Century Cinema; Ed Naha: The Films Of Roger Corman; and J. Philip di Franco: The Movie World Of Roger Corman.
NOTE: A previous Corman post appeared on this blog: Gunslinger. More on the Roger Corman Blogathon here.
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