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Archive for the ‘Harry Keller’ Category

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Harry Keller directing Audie Murphy and Joan O’Brien in Six Black Horses (1962).

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Ray Enright and Dorothy Malone on the set of South Of St. Louis (1949).

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Jesse Hibbs directing Gia Scala (left) and Joanna Moore (right) in the Audie Murphy picture Ride A Crooked Trail (1958).

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With Phantom Stallion (1954), Republic Pictures got out of the series Western business, an industry they’d come to dominate with a stable of cowboy stars second to none. Lucky for us, they go out on a positive note.

This time around, Rex Allen and Slim Pickens uncover a group of horse thieves who use a wild stallion and his herd to cover their crimes. Before the Republic eagle pops up at the end, there’s a pretty good fistfight, a young Mexican boy with a philly, a murder and a lot of riding. (Rex and Slim on horseback are a great thing to see.) This picture seems a bit heavier than your typical series Western, with the violence turned up a notch, no love interest (it’s established right up front that Carla Balenda is one of the bad guys) and no songs.

Writer Gerald Geraghty’s long Hollywood career took him from writing titles for silent pictures to scripts for Rex Allen’s Frontier Doctor TV show. He received a story credit for the delirious Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire (1936) and wrote Trail Of Robin Hood (1950). Phantom Stallion was directed by Harry Keller, who started out as an editor with dozens of Republic cowboy pictures on his resumé. By 1950, he was directing for Republic, and continued at the studio till this picture closed out their Western series in 1954. Keller was soon under contract at Universal-International, which put him in place to direct one of their best 50s Westerns, Quantez (1957).

The signs of cost-cutting, a common complaint with later series Westerns, aren’t too obvious in Phantom Stallion — though some of the wild horse scenes look like they’re lifted from other pictures, and there are a lot of riding scenes in this 54 minutes. The fight scenes don’t quite have the snap of the Republics William Witney directed, such as Colorado Sundown (1952), another Rex Allen picture (and a very good one). And it seems like it’s missing an extra fight in there somewhere — the ending feels a bit too abrupt.

You can’t help but think that if Rex Allen had signed on at Republic a few years earlier, the Arizona Cowboy would’ve been an even bigger star. By the time he and Koko rode onscreen, the sun was setting on the series Western. But his Republics are certainly worthwhile, a respectable way for Republic to bring an era to its end.

Below: Rex and crew on location for Phantom Stallion.

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Directed by Harry Keller
Produced by Gordon Kay
Screenplay by R. Wright Campbell
Story by Anne Edwards and R. Wright Campbell
Director of Photography: Carl E. Guthrie, ASC
Music: Herman Stein
Music Supervision by Joseph Gershenson
“The Lonely One” words and music by Frederick Herbert and Arnold Hughes
Film Editor: Fred MacDowell

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Whatever your misgivings (namely price) may be about the DVD-R programs in place at a number of studios, you have to admit they’ve put some pretty significant titles in the hands of the geeks who’ve been waiting for ‘em. I’m a card-carrying member of that group of geeks, and I’m stoked to have Quantez (1957) in my hot little hands. Judging by comments I’ve received, I’m not alone.

It’d been years since I’d seen it on TV, and I remembered it as a good Universal-International 50s Western, which is plenty good indeed. (That’s about like saying a “good Hammer horror film.”) Seeing it again, in a top-notch widescreen transfer, it’s a much better picture than I remember — and, to me, one of the better Universal Westerns of the 50s.

Fred MacMurray is Gentry, a tired gunman in a gang of bank robbers with a posse in hot pursuit. Riding into the desert, they take refuge in Quantez, a small town they find deserted. Their horses tired and near death, they’re forced to stay the night — with the plan to cross the border into Mexico the next day. The picture is the story of that night.

I won’t spoil things by giving you much more than that. Just know there’s the usual tension and violence that erupt when you place a group of desperate men in such close quarters. And since there’s a bundle of money, a band of Indians and a woman with a past (Dorothy Malone) on hand, things don’t take long to heat up.

MacMurray is excellent. John Larch comes close to being a bit over the top as Heller, the leader of the gang — but he always pulls back just in time. He’s a very bad man. Dorothy Malone is terrific as Chaney, a used-up saloon girl who feels she’s lost her chance to have a decent life. Westerns have never been known for their women’s roles, but this is a really good one, and she makes the most of it. John Gavin, as the kid of the gang (every gang has one), and James Barton as a minstrel who passes through the ghost town in the middle of the night, provide strong support. This is a well-acted film.

Well written, too. The plot isn’t much more than formula (not a criticism), but R. Wright Campbell’s dialogue is crisp and he avoids the expected often enough to keep things fresh. You never think of this as one of those pictures where the small cast is bottled in someplace more for reasons of budget than plot. The story just works. Campbell later wrote plenty of pictures for AIP, including the marvelous The Masque Of The Red Death (1964). He also did Gun For A Coward (1957), another good MacMurray Universal Western (available as part of the Vault Series).

Thanks to Universal’s careful transfer, one of the real stars of the picture is Carl E. Guthrie, whose CinemaScope camerawork does the film a tremendous favor. (Go look at Guthrie’s list of credits sometime. Wow!) Given the mood and the many nights scenes, you might think this’d play better in black and white. But some ingenious lighting — rich blues at night and reds as the sun comes up — gives the picture a very effective look. This is one of the richest-looking Eastman Color films I can remember.

Of course, we have to give director Harry Keller plenty of credit. Starting out as an editor at Republic, by the time he reached Quantez, he certainly knew his way around a cowboy picture. There’s lots of dialogue here, but Keller keeps things moving at a brisk pace. A year later, he’d be one of the contract directors U-I would draft to “fix” Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil (1958).

Universal should be commended for giving Quantez such a beautiful transfer. And while in a perfect world, this would’ve hit video on Blu-ray, the DVD-R (the Universal Vault Series is an Amazon exclusive) looked terrific and played fine. There are no extras, not even a trailer. But who’s to complain when it looks like this?

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