Monte Hellman’s‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.
Both were produced by Roger Corman(uncredited), Jack Nicholson, and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded amongfilms for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).
Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.
Writer Dalton Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood 10, that list of 10 Hollywood screenwriters whose political leanings got them blacklisted, jailed and kicked out of a guild they helped create. Hollywood did to them what the Germans did the “degenerate artists” twenty years before. Trumbo was probably the best of these writers and wrote a mind boggling number of excellent scripts, from his bathtub, as he smoked through 6 packs of cigarettes with his parrot on his shoulder, cheering him on. Only such an eccentric original could have fashioned Terror in a Texas Town (1958). Team Trumbo with B-movie maestro Joseph “Wagon Wheel” H. Lewis and a cast of idiosyncratic character actors and you get a peach of movie such as this.
Trumbo wasn’t the only victim of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) associated with this film. Actors Ned Young and Sterling Hayden were also called before the committee. Young was also a screenwriter. Jailhouse Rock(1957), The Defiant Ones(1958), Inherit the Wind(1960), and The Train (1964) are among his credits, most of which he wrote under pseudonyms. Young refused to cooperate with the HUAC and was blacklisted as well. Hayden caved into the committee and gave them what they wanted, which cost him much in the long run. All this has given Terror in a Texas Town a cult status as a quirky reaction to the HUAC. The reputation is well-deserved.
Between Men is a strongly composed “B” directed by Robert North Bradbury (Courageous Avenger and several of John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns). Bradbury was also the father of B-Western star Bob Steele, and his expertise in the genre is delightfully natural. Between Men has a strong cast in Johnny Mack Brown as the stalwart hero, and this may well be his best role. Beth Marion excels as the love interest, as does William Farnum in his scene-stealing role as Brown’s tormented father and Earl Dwire as the standard slimy villain.
Between Men has a richly melodramatic plot. Farnum (great wide- eyed acting) believes he has killed his young son (Brown) and flees west. Actually, the boy was only injured and is adopted by Lloyd Ingram. Twenty years pass and the visuals shift from the upper-scale Virginia countryside to the stark New Mexico desert as Brown embarks on a journey to find his adopted father’s long lost granddaughter (Marion). Farnum has assumed a new name and is now Marion’s guardian after his hired hand (Dwire) rustles her cattle, kills her father, and attempts to raper her. Marion is saved by a “drifter” whom Farnum hires for protection, not realizing that Brown is his son, whom he believes to be dead.
Robert North Bradbury often seemed to add a pinch of the offbeat into his westerns, but when it came to directing his son, star Bob Steele, there was a downright oedipal underpinning because, quite often, Bob was thrust into an onscreen situation in which he lost his father.
Big Calibre utilizes this plot situation yet again, but regardless what Sigmund would have to say about it, it is of little consequence to this enjoyably odd oater. Bob’s father is killed and robbed of his cattle cash by a local chemist, played by screenwriter and Steele friend Perry Murdock. Bob pursues him, but the chemist escapes. Some time later, Bob, still in pursuit of his father’s murderer, is accused of holding up a stagecoach and murdering Peggy Campbell’s father, who also was robbed and killed with corrosive gas while en route to save his ranch from foreclosure.
This odd hybrid could only have been produced in an era which gave no credence to genre labels. Riders of the Whistling Skull is the kind of movie which is so delightfully in love with its period that one could easily imagine a true genre geek like Tarantino falling in love with it today. Director Mack V. Wright is completely comfortable throwing horror, western, jungle, mystery and comic relief into a seamless mix.
The Three Mesquiteers (Bob Livingston, Ray Corrigan, and Max Terhune), for those not in the know, were the starring trio of a number of “B” westerns. The well-photographed, well-paced Riders of the Whistling Skull is, by far, the best of these. Pretty girl Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) is searching for her lost father, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), who, along with Professor Flaxton (C. Montague Shaw), has been kidnapped by a diabolical Indian cult.
Time to dust off this collection of B-Westerns from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun Collection. The packaging is ultra-cool, starting off with those priceless trailers:
Trailer # 1: “Ride at Full Gallop into a Thundering Texas Romance to the rescue of a girl haunted by killers! Johnny Mack Brown as the fist-flashing GENTLEMAN FROM TEXAS” blazes across the screen as Johnny shoots and punches his way across bar tables. Add in beer bottles over the head, a pretty dame named Claudia Drake and the TrailsMen singing “Texas Jubilee” on banjos. It’s a “Violent Drama of Valorous Love and Texan Vengeance” from Monogram Pictures.
Trailer # 2 screams “It’s the Real McCoy” (as in Tim McCoy) “heading this way to tame the town that defied the law!” More fisticuffs, six-guns blazing, horses, good guys in white hats, and fallen bad guys in black hats (who never bleed) are all promised. “The Outlaw Deputy Tim McCoy made bad men check their guns while he checked up on romance! Cow-Town became a mad-house of Thundering Action when the nerviest outlaw East of the Rockies turns OUTLAW DEPUTY!” A Puritan Picture.
Trailer #3: ” Come Along Boys and Girls on a Thrilling Trip to MYSTERY MOUNTAIN where KEN MAYNARD the screen’s most popular Cowboy Actor and his famous horse TARZAN will ENTHRALL you! will THRILL you! will STARTLE you! in their 1st SUPER SERIAL! ACTION! ROMANCE! All the THRILLS of THE OLD WEST! Don’t miss seeing Ken Maynard and his horse Tarzan in MASCOT’S MIGHTY EPIC SERIAL MYSTERY MOUNTAIN! WATCH FOR IT!” This one has all the elements of the previous two, but throws in locomotives and a star horse.
The Miracle Rider was the last film of Tom Mix and his horse Tony, Jr. (Tony Sr. had departed this earthly realm). It is a sound serial from Mascot with twice the normal Mascot budget. Mix was 55 when he made this and showing it. Although his voice was deep and suitable for sound, and he was still in good shape, Mix looked his age and was now using a stunt double for complicated stunts. Mix had made several sound films for Universal, but they fared only moderately well. Mix had officially retired and was promoting his Tom Mix circus when he was talked back to the silver screen for one last go round. It is fortunate he did. The Miracle Rider was an astounding success, making both Mix and Mascot over ten times its investment. The serial is one of the better serials of the period, too, and so Mix went out on top, dying five years later in an automobile accident. Even though Mix had been out of the public eye for five years following Miracle Rider, his death caused a large outpouring of grief. Mix’s enigmatic life, career and tragic demise are the stuff of legend.
Before Hollywood beckoned, Indiana native Ken Maynard had been a champion rodeo rider in the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Maynard was, possibly, the most popular of the “B” Western stars from the late twenties through the mid thirties. Audiences loved him, but virtually everyone who worked or dealt with Maynard thoroughly hated him. Excessive drinking, foul-mouthed, ego-driven tirades, supreme arrogance, and prima donna ways eventually burned every single bridge Maynard ever crossed, despite being given numerous chances to straighten out his act. Eventually his excesses, reckless spending, womanizing, and difficult personality all caught up with him. His last few films, from the mid-forties, show a dissipated, grotesquely overweight star well past his prime.
Since Maynard’s popularity had severely waned, his antics were no longer tolerated, and he was forced into retirement. After his film career ended, Maynard did a few rodeo circuit shows, a radio show, started a circus, lost it, went through several more marriages, and filed bankruptcy. His last few years were spent living in drunken solitude at a run-down trailer park, being cared for by his brother and fellow “B” Westerner Kermit Maynard, hawking off memorabilia (fake and real) and (secretly) receiving financial assistance from Gene Autry (Maynard gave Autry his start In Old Santa Fe, below). Ken Maynard died destitute and suffering from severe malnutrition in the early 1970s.
Several years ago European avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez dismissed the cranky, experimental music of American composer Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives as “having come from an insurance salesman.” By contrast, Boulez’ own music is tinkly Euro-avant, a musical tradition that was given freedom towards academic experimentation by old money. Not a single Boulez work can get under the skin like Ives’ “Gong on the hook and ladder” or “Symphony 4.”
American horror has long had a fitful relationship with the American avant-garde; it has also been more genuinely disturbing than anything Europe has produced. Kentucky born Tod Browning produced jagged, feverish dreams while Brit James Whale produced well-crafted, sophisticated, and witty fairy tales. There is something far more unsettling in Lon Chaney painfully looping fishing wire around his eyeballs, or Lon Jr. “accidentally” strangling an extra, than there is in Boris Karloff’s passion for cricket. An avant-garde filmmaker even approached the infamous naive surrealist Ed Wood, hoping for a collaboration, but by then Wood was too drained and too ravaged by rejection to respond.
E5NHJ0 MYSTERY RANCH, George O’Brien, 1932
Two B westerns, two years apart with the same title. Both are off the beaten path and good in their own way.
First is the 1932 Mystery Ranch, atmospherically directed by David Howard and starring George O’ Brien. This Ranch might be aptly described as a Gothic western, often looking more like an early thirties horror film than a western. Charles Middleton is a tyrannical land baron and a piano playing, manipulative sadist who is holding his dead partner’s daughter, Cecilia Parker, hostage in order to force her into marriage and seize control of the Arizona valley. Middleton is so chilling, so slimy that he leaves a trail and, in the process, steals every scene he is in. Joseph August’s expressionistic camerawork certainly helps when the villain is so moodily lit. You know from that outset that any villain who would stoop to bullwhipping a deaf-mute native American henchman is going to mean trouble for O’Brien, and our hero has his hands full trying to save the fair maiden from her evil guardian.