Directed by William Castle
Produced by Sam Katzman
Story and Screen Play by Douglas Heyes
Director of Photography: Henry Freulich, ASC
Music Conducted by Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editor: Henry Batista, ACE
CAST: George Montgomery (Bat Masterson), Nancy Gates (Amy Merrick), James Griffith (Doc Holliday), Jean Willes (Dallas Corey), William A. Henry (Charlie Fry), Bruce Cowling (Wyatt Earp), Donald Murphy (Virgil Earp), Sandy Sanders (Joe Tyler), Benny Rubin (coroner), David Bruce (Clay Bennett), Gregg Barton (Sutton), Greg Martell (Mitch Connors), Jay Silverheels (Yellow Hawk), John Maxwell (Amos Merrick), Frank Wilcox (prosecutor, uncredited).
If heaven works the way I hope it does, as soon as I say hello to my mom and grandparents, I’m gonna ask for an introduction to William Castle. (Knowing my mom, she will have already set something up.) From there, I’ll spend large chunks of Eternity asking about stuff like how the kids with slingshots took out the Emergo skeletons.
You see, I love William Castle. Even though I’m a full generation too young to have seen his movies in all their hyped-up, gimmack-y, first-run, theatrical glory, they’re some of my all-time favorite films and real mile markers across my youth. My best friend James and I read about them endlessly in Famous Monsters, caught them on TV and eventually saw a passel of them at New York’s Film Forum. Taking my daughter to see a revival showing of 13 Ghosts (1960) was a father-daughter evening I’ll always remember.
Like a lot of people, both film fans and filmmakers, my love of the movies can be traced back to William Castle. He was a brilliant showman — and when he was focused on making a film, a good director. His Whistler films, for instance, show us just what he was capable of. They’re terrific.
Castle spent much of his career at Columbia. In the early Fifties, he directed a handful of films for Sam Katzman’s unit at the studio.
Castle: “Sam Katzman was a smallish man with a round cherubic face and twinkling eyes. Few people in the motion-picture industry took him seriously as a producer of quality films, but to me, Sam was a great showman.”
Cinematographer Richard Kline: “Sam had his own unit at Columbia Sunset on Lyman Place. It had been the Tiffany-Stahl studio. Columbia bought that place and made it Sam’s unit… It was a very small studio, it was not luxury. For instance, there was no commissary, and I don’t think they even had a hot dog stand! So you’d have to go off the lot and eat somewhere in the area.”
In Katzman, Castle had evidently found his mentor, and he soon realized there’s a lot more to the movie business than just making movies. Jungle Sam’s influence can be found all over Castle’s horror films of the late Fifties and early Sixties — or at least all over the way they were hyped and sold.
One of Castle’s pictures for Katzman (in my opinion, the best), Masterson Of Kansas (1954) is fast and tough. Its tight schedule and lean budget don’t hold it back. George Montgomery is Bat Masterson, sheriff of Dodge City. James Griffith is the notorious gambler and gunfighter Doc Holliday, in an excellent performance. They join forces with Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) to save an innocent man from the gallows and keep the Indians off the warpath. (The real Masterson served as a deputy under Earp for a spell, and Earp and Holliday took on the Clantons at the O.K. Corral, so this gun-toting dream team isn’t as farfetched as it sounds.)
Nancy Gates as the daughter of the framed man and Jean Willes as a saloon girl do well with the underwritten parts they’re given. Jay Silverheels is his usual dignified self as Chief Yellow Hawk. George Montgomery never became the big cowboy star he should’ve been, leaving a solid list of very good, and very overlooked, medium-budgeted Westerns. He’s quite good here, and Columbia’s costume people gave him a beautiful hat.
But the film belongs to character actor James Griffith. Doc Holliday is a flashy part in any Western, and everyone from Victor Mature to Kirk Douglas to Val Kilmer has put their own spin on the character. Griffith’s approach is my favorite. He’s a doctor (he was really a dentist), he’s dying, he has nothing to lose, and Griffith makes sure you believe it. At times, you can see the death wish in his face. In some scenes, the compassion of a physician and chivalry of a gentleman return. And he wrestles with killing Masterson versus helping him out. Somehow, Griffith makes all the character’s contradictions come together, and even make sense. And remember, he does all this over the course of just 73 minutes.
Masterson Of Kansas has been brought to Columbia’s MOD program in a transfer than does everyone proud. Henry Freulich’s camerawork is splendid, with compositions that really take advantage of the then-new 1.85 aspect ratio. The Technicolor adds plenty of production value, and it’s rare to see the Iverson Ranch or Corriganville look this good. And the sound makes sure we take note of Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s score, along with the ching-ching-ching of Montgomery’s spurs. Columbia’s A-level treatment of their B Movies is certainly appreciated (even if it can be argued that some of the films don’t deserve it). There are no features on this disc, not even a menu. You put it in, it starts. I like that.
This is a film, and now a DVD, I highly recommend — something special seems to have been going on here. I hope this one inspires you to seek out more Castle and Montgomery films. You won’t be disappointed.
SOURCES: A Sci-fi Swarm And Horror Horde: Interviews With 62 Filmmakers by Tom Weaver; Step Right Up! by William Castle.