People, especially critics, are funny about movie clichés and formulas. While we all complain when a film seems predictable, formulaic or clichéd, the most popular films often adhere to a pretty strict formula. Hollywood musicals. The Bond films. Slasher flicks. Romantic comedies. The thousands of series Westerns. The list goes on and on.
So if the clichés and formulas themselves aren’t the problem, maybe it’s laziness we have issues with. Bring a fresh approach to the same old thing, however slight, and we’ll lap it up. But crank out that same old thing, the same old way, and you run the risk of being nailed to the wall.
Carson City (1952), the second of six Randolph Scott Westerns directed by Andre De Toth, helps illustrate this. It’s certainly got its share of clichés. A saloon brawl. A shootout or two. A mineshaft accident. A stagecoach holdup. A train robbery. It’s all there, along with a pretty typical lost-love subplot. But thanks to Scott’s presence and De Toth’s always-tight direction, you’re pretty satisfied when “The End” pops up.
There are attempts to break away from convention, however. Sloan Nibley, who’d written a slew of the later Roy Rogers pictures, helped cook up an urbane bad guy, the Champagne Bandit. (In fact, Carson City started out with that title.) But the finished film — from a screenplay by Nibley, Eric Jonsson and Winston Miller — doesn’t do enough with him, so an interesting idea ends up little more than a gimmick. De Toth later wrote, “I didn’t like the script, I needed the money, the pastures started to look much greener on the other side of the fence I was straddling.”
The Champagne Bandit (Raymond Massey)and his gang are robbing stagecoaches to get the gold dust being hauled out of Carson City to nearby Virginia City. Thinking that a railroad line would result in fewer holdups, a banker hires engineer Jeff Kinkaid (Scott) to lay the track and get the gold flowing again. This proves unpopular with the townspeople — and the Champagne Bandit.
In Andre De Toth’s capable hands, all this predictability flies by before you have enough time to notice how familiar it all is. His stuff is lean, fast and cynical — and his Scott pictures hint at the films Scott would later make with Budd Boetticher.
There seems to be renewed interest in De Toth these days, which isn’t surprising. He’s certainly worth seeking out. I’d recommend Pitfall, Man In The Saddle (another Scott), Crime Wave, Day Of The Outlaw and Play Dirty.
In the middle of this rediscovery, Warner Archive has released Carson City as part of its on-demand DVD-R program. While it’s a bare-bones release — the film and that’s it — it’s a nice one. Carson City was the first film in WarnerColor (more on that), and the transfer is crisp and sharp. The interior scenes look good, lush even, while the contrast in the exteriors is a little harsh — giving you a good idea of how WarnerColor looked on film. It’s presented full-frame, which is correct for 1952. There’s a little dust from time to time, which I kind of like. Having grown up with films around the house, usually 16mm, I have a soft spot for a little wear and tear.
It’s hard for me to be objective with a Randolph Scott movie. Carson City’s a good one. The DVD’s fine. And you can get it here.