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Archive for the ‘DVD/Blu-Ray Reviews’ Category

Directed by Delmer Daves
Produced by Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles
From the novel by Dorothy M. Johnson
Director of photography: Ted McCord, ASC
Music by Max Steiner
Song: “The Hanging Tree” — Lyrics by Mack David, Music by Jerry Livingston,
Vocal by Marty Robbins
Film Editor: Owen Marks

CAST: Gary Cooper (Dr. Joseph Frail), Maria Schell (Elizabeth Mahler), Karl Malden (Frenchy), Ben Piazza (Rune), George C. Scott (Grubb), Karl Swenson (Mr. Flaunce), Virginia Gregg (Mrs. Flaunce), John Dierkes (Society Red)

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It was a big deal back in 2012 when Warner Archive brought Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree (1959) to DVD. (Hard to believe it’s been that long.) Their new Blu-Ray ought to be just as big an event, since hi-def can really add to your appreciation of the film.

Not a frame from the Blu-Ray, just a sample long shot from the film.

Cooper’s character, Doc Frail, lives in a cabin on a ridge about the mining town of Skull Creek. Throughout the picture, we’re look down on the village from Frail’s perspective. These deep-focus shots now have an almost stunning amount of detail, giving you an opportunity to really study what Daves had his cast of extras doing in the recesses of those long shots.

Gary Cooper and Maria Schell in a goofy publicity shot.

Another benefit of the new Blu-Ray is the color. Ted McCord shot The Hanging Tree in Technicolor, and Warner Archive has it looking like a million bucks. It has a slight brownish tone to it that suits all the wood we see throughout — from the trees to the makeshift buildings of Skull Creek. You also get a real feel of lamplight in the interiors, while most Technicolor films from the period seem extremely bright. The low lighting is necessary here, as Maria Schell is kept in darkness as she regains her sight.

Warner Archive frames the picture at 1.78:1, a slight variation on its theatrical 1.85. That’s becoming a bit of a norm with a lot of hi-def transfers, and it doesn’t bother me. The grain here is near perfect — it’s there, as it should be, but it’s never distracting.

The Hanging Tree is a great movie. And this is the way to see it. Highly, highly recommended.

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Directed by Ray Nazarro
Written by Barry Shipman
Cinematography: Fayte Browne

Cast: Charles Starrett (Steve Woods/The Durango Kid), Smiley Burnette (Himself), Mary Ellen Kay (Doris Donner), George Chesebro (Bill Donner), Frank Fenton (Bart Selby)

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Mill Creek has done us a big favor by scooping up 10 of the 60-plus Durango Kid movies and putting them in one extremely budget-friendly two-disc set, The Durango Kid Collection. One of the 10 is Ray Nazarro’s Streets Of Ghost Town (1950).

In this outing, Steve and Smiley help ​the ​sheriff of Dusty Creek ​(Stanley Andrews) look for a fortune in stolen money supposedly hidden in a​n old​ ghost town — boarded up, littered wth tumbleweeds and creeking and moaning just enough to keep Smiley scared. A good chunk of the picture uses flashbacks to fill us in on how the treasure was stolen by Bart Selby (Frank Fenton, wearing a hat that seems too small for his head) and his gang, then ​taken by ​the double-crossing Bill Donner (George Chesebro). Back in the “present,” Selby and his gaggle of crooks are looking for the loot, and it’s believed Bill Donner is dead. Then Donner’s niece (Mary Ellen Kay) and nephew turn up to complicate matters.

This is no Riders Of The Whistling Skull (1937), but it handles its mystery elements pretty well. The Devil’s Cave, where the money’s hidden, is pretty cool, especially when Donner locks a couple of his cohorts in there with the treasure to die a slow death. And Smiley working a Ouija board is a pretty odd sight. The cinematography by Fayte Browne looks terrific, with lots of deep shadows to crank up the spookiness.

Ray Nazarro directed over half the Durango Kids (he did half of this set), and he keeps Streets Of Ghost Town running like a well-oiled machine. Charles Starrett is as likable as always and looks cool, and Smiley Burnette is, well, Smiley Burnette, which certainly works for me. George Chesebro is wonderful as the crazed, double-crossing crook.

What bothers me about The Durango Kid pictures is the Kid himself — he often seems nailed to the action like an obligation. But he sure looks terrific tearing through the ghost town on Raider.

The same Durango Kid titles that make up have been available from Columbia on DVD in the past, sometimes at up to 20 bucks a piece. So the economics if this set are pretty solid — and it’ll sure save you some shelf space. You can count on Columbia for terrific transfers of these older titles, and these don’t disappoint. (I love the fact that there’s some dust and dirt to remind us what film used to look like.) Recommended.

So with 10 of the series pulled together for this nifty set, when can we count on volumes two through seven?

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Between now and New Year’s Eve, send me your favorite DVD and Blu-ray releases for the year — I’ll do all the accounting and put together our Best Of 2017 list. The only requirements: they have to have been released during the 2017 calendar year, somewhere on Planet Earth, and have some relation to 50s Westerns. This will be the fifth year we’ve done this, and it’s always been a lot of fun.

One of the real joys of this blog is the sharing and recommending that goes on. So while you’re at it, let me know what your biggest Discoveries were for 2017. Doesn’t matter if it’s been on DVD for years, you saw it on GetTV last week or borrowed a bootleg from a friend — what 50s Westerns did you get acquainted with this year?

For both lists, drop your picks in the comments to this post or email fiftieswesterns AT gmail DOT com. And don’t collude with the Russians on your list. What do they know about 50s Westerns anyway?

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Directed by Ray Nazarro
Screen Play by Don Martin and Richard Schayer
Story by L.L. Foreman
Director Of Photography: Lester White
Film Editor: Buddy Small

Cast: George Montgomery (Cruze), Dorothy Malone (Charlotte Downing), Frank Faylen (Fairweather), Neville Brand (Tray Moran), Skip Homeier (Cass Downing), Douglas Kennedy (Gad Moran), Fay Roope (Mayor Booth), Douglas Fowley (Bartender), Robert J. Wilke (Hort Moran)

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I covered Lone Gun (1954) shortly after it appeared on Shout Factory’s four-movies-on-one-DVD package, Movies 4 You Western Classics. A solid George Montgomery picture, it’s worth a second look.

It’s easy to dismiss a movie like The Lone Gun as just a programmer. From its original reviews to DVD reviews, that’s the way a lot of folks have seen it. The plot’s nothing new. They were obviously working on a tight budget and short schedule. They ride past the same Iverson rocks you’ve seen in dozens of pictures like this.

But in some ways, these things that seem like liabilities are some of the key strengths of The Lone Gun. Because, interestingly, they let us see what a huge difference good writing, direction and acting can make to something familiar.

Mayor Booth (Fay Roope): “Robert Booth’s the name. I own the Malpine Hotel.”
Cruze (George Montgomery): “Mine’s Cruze. I own this shirt and those two horses out there.”

The story’s so simple. Montgomery ends up the marshal of Malpine, and he’s soon on the trail of the Moran brothers (Neville Brand, Douglas Kennedy and Robert J. Wilke), brothers/rustlers/killers/trash who are hiding their rustled cattle among the small herd of Charlotte and Cass Downing (Dorothy Malone, Skip Homeier), siblings trying to keep their small ranch afloat. Also on hand is Fairweather (Frank Faylen), a gambler who’s cleaned out the pockets of just about everybody in town — and one of Cruze’s only friends.

Glance back at that previous paragraph (above the Moran brothers), and consider those names. That’s one helluva cast, and it’s a joy to spend 74 minutes with them. Ray Nazarro is an old hand at stuff like this, and his direction is as brisk and efficient as you’d expect. Everyone else involved, from editor Buddy Small to director of photography Lester White, is up to the same high standard.

The Lone Gun is in color “by the Color Corporation Of America.” That translates to SuperCinecolor. It was shot to be projected at 1.66. The Shout Factory DVD offers pretty decent color — remember, this is SuperCineColor. It’s full frame, with plenty of that annoying dead space at the top and bottom. My TV lets me zoom it a bit to approximate the original 1.66, which looks a whole lot better.

The reason folks dismiss movies like this is often because there are so many of them. Which for those of us who can’t get enough of these things, is good news indeed. The Lone Gun, thanks largely to its cast, is one I like a lot.

Oh, and another thing. It’s original title was Adios, My Texas. If you ask me, they were wise to change it.

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Directed by Lewis Collins
Written by Joseph Poland
Director Of Photography: Ernest Miller
Music by Raoul Kraushaar

Cast: Johnny Mack Brown (Himself), Lee Roberts (Sheriff Bob Conway), Phyllis Coates (Marian Gaylord), Hugh Prosser (George Millarde), Dennis Moore (Henry Lockwood), Marshall Reed (Macklin)

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The last of Johnny Mack Brown’s B Westerns for Monogram, Canyon Ambush (1952) is pretty much exactly what you’re picturing in your head — a pretty solid little picture shot at Iverson Ranch. In it, Brown’s a government agent who rides into Border City to help bring a masked rider to justice. There’s plenty of ridin’ and shootin’ all over the hallowed grounds of the Iverson Ranch, and Phyllis Coates is on hand to give the picture an extra boost — and plenty of curb appeal.

The screenplay’s by Joseph Poland, who wrote a ton of B Westerns (Autry, Wayne, Elliott) and serials (Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc.Batman And Robin and Atom Man Vs. Superman).

At the time Canyon Ambush was in production, Monogram was in the process of becoming Allied Artists. William Elliott stayed and made a few more pictures with the typical Monogram team (Lewis Collins, Thomas Carr, Ernest Miller, etc.); Johnny Mack Brown retired.

Canyon Ambush is available on DVD from Warner Archive’s Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 5. The three-disc set also includes Brown and Raymond Hatton in The Texas Kid (1943), Partners Of The Trail (1944), Law Men(1944), Ghost Guns (1944), Gun Smoke (1945), Frontier Feud (1945), Border Bandits (1946) and Raiders Of The South (1947). Canyon Ambush looks terrific, stunning at times. The contrast levels are beautiful, giving us a chance to really take in the wonders of the Iverson Ranch. (One more thing: Johnny Mack Brown has a really cool hat in this one.)

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Directed by John Sturges
Screen Play by William Bowers
Based on the novel by Marvin H. Albert
Director Of Photography: Robert Surtees
Film Editor: Ferris Webster

Cast: Robert Taylor (Jake Wade), Richard Widmark (Clint Hollister), Patricia Owens (Peggy), Robert Middleton (Ortero), Henry Silva (Rennie), DeForest Kelley (Wexler)

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The Law And Jake Wade (1958) seems to be one of those Westerns everybody likes. The few times I’ve read or heard something negative about it, I always come way wondering if the dissenter had seen the same movie I saw.

John Sturges was a master at building suspense over the span of about 90 minutes. And with Escape From Fort Bravo (1953), Jake Wade and Last Train From Gun Hill (1959), he did it within the 50s Westerns bracket.

Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) wants to go straight and start a new life with his fiancé Peggy (Patricia Owens), but his old partner Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) turns up — accompanied by psychopaths Henry Silva and DeForest Kelley — and wants to know where Wade buried the loot from an old bank job.

Before long (probably still in the first reel; this thing moves fast), Widmark’s abducted Patricia Owens and they’re all headed into Comanche territory to dig up the money — with the Comanches on the warpath.

This has the same “small group in a helluva fix as they go from Point A to Point B” setup you find in pictures like Roughshod (1949), Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957) and some of the Scott-Kennedy-Boetticher films. It’s perfect for Sturges, and he sets up the story and characters, then slowly turns up the heat as the movie progresses. While the ending may not be as satisfying as it could be, getting there is quite a ride.

Robert Taylor stands as tall as you expect him to. He has to tow the line to keep his bride-to-be safe, and Sturges wrings a lot of tension from that. Widmark is terrific as Hollister — another one of his likable psychos. He creates a real sense of menace here. You know he has no qualms about killing his hostages, and figures that’s exactly what he’ll do once he’s got the money. DeForest Kelley and Henry Silva make quite an impression with their limited screen time. These are dangerous freaks, and we’re well aware of that just seconds after their first appearance. Robert Middleton also scores as the one somewhat human member of Wade’s old gang.

There’s no composer credit for The Law And Jake Wade. It uses a lot of pre-existing stuff, much of it lifted from Elmer Bernstein’s score for Saddle The Wind. There was a musicians’ strike in ’58, and it affected quite a few films (Delmer Daves’ The Badlanders, for instance). Occasionally, something seems a bit out of place, but the music’s fine for the most part.

Ferris Webster’s editing is top notch throughout. The Indian attack sequence is very well done.

In a rather odd way, the casting of The Law And Jake Wade was predicted by I Love Lucy. In the 1955 episode “The Tour,” Lucy seeks to snag some fruit from our co-stars’ back yards. “I’d just love a Richard Widmark grapefruit to go with my Robert Taylor orange.” (Thanks to my daughter for this piece of trivia.)

Warner Archive’s Blu-Ray is stunning. High-definition really brings out the detail and depth of Surtees’ Scope camerawork, making sure Lone Pine and Death Valley are a huge part of the picture’s overall effect. (Temperatures were right at zero when they shot the scenes in the High Sierras.) Sturges was always very good at emphasizing the isolation in his Westerns, and this Blu-Ray brings that front and center. The color’s good for Metrocolor and the sound is nice and clean. The only extra is an original trailer.

The Law And Jake Wade is one of the essential 50s Westerns, and this hi-def edition of it was obviously given the care it deserves.

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Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Richard E. Lyons
Screenplay by N.B. Stone, Jr.
Director Of Photography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editor: Frank Santillo
Music by George Bassman

Cast: Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), James Drury (Billy Hammond), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver), R.G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen), Jenie Jackson (Kate), John Anderson (Elder Hammond), L.Q. Jones (Sylvus Hammond), Warren Oates (Henry Hammond)

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Around this blog, it’s pretty much a given that Ride The High Country (1962) is one of the finest Westerns ever made. There are regulars here who say this is their all-time favorite movie — and it’s easy to see why.

There are so many reasons why this thing’s essential. First and foremost, it’s Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea on their way out and Sam Peckinpah on his way in — and all of them turning in some of their best work. Like John Wayne’s The Shootist (1976), this is a perfect Last Movie for Scott and McCrea (and for Scott it was indeed Last). With Peckinpah, one of the things that make his work so endlessly fascinating is that his major themes and stylistic stuff are evident from Day One. Watching that new set of his The Westerner TV series really drove that home.

High Country and The Wild Bunch go so well together, coming at the same themes (outliving your time, sticking to a personal code, etc.) from different angles, but with the same love of the outmoded and the outsider. If you don’t get a little choked up at the end of Ride The High Country, there must be something wrong with you. This one gets me every time.

ride-high-countruy-lc

I’m not here to convince you this is a great movie. You probably figured that out a long time ago — without any help from me. But I do think you need the Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. From every wrinkle in our heroes’ faces to Ron Starr’s red shirt to the gorgeous locations (Horseshoe Lake, etc.), high-definition does Lucien Ballard’s CinemaScope photography proud. It looks like film, which is exactly what it should look like. The increased clarity gives the whole thing a real sense of depth — which has become something I look for in HD transfers these days.

Lucky for us all, the extras from the old DVD release have been retained. They’re terrific and well worth your time. And this disc is well worth your investment (or re-investment, in many of our cases). As I said earlier, this one’s essential.

Always wanted to watch this and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) together. It’d be fun to contrast Ford and Peckinpah’s takes on the end of the West.

The images up top are the cover and spread from a handbill or something from Spain. Pretty cool, huh?

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