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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #10 - October 2004 (continued)


Hangman's Knot (1952)
(released on DVD by Columbia on June 15th, 2004)

When Randolph Scott appeared in 1941's Western Union produced by Harry Joe Brown at Fox studios, he probably didn't realize the working relationship that was going to develop between the two men later that decade at Columbia. Beginning with The Desperadoes (1943) and accelerating with the 1947 release of The Gunfighters, Scott and Brown would collaborate on a total of 18 westerns at Columbia - a relationship that would only end with Scott's second-last film, Comanche Station in 1960. In 1949, the two officially formed Scott-Brown Productions and this gave Scott - long an independent actor - the firm footing he wanted. He would still make westerns elsewhere as well (notably at Warner Bros.), but it would be the work with Brown and particularly some of the later entries directed by Budd Boetticher that would be most memorable on the whole.

Hangman's Knot

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Hangman's Knot is one of the best of the Scott-Brown productions. The story concerns a band of Confederate soldiers led by Scott who waylay a Union gold shipment, killing most of the soldiers guarding it, only to learn that the Civil War has been over for a month. On the run from criminal prosecution for this act, the band takes refuge at a stagecoach way station and holds several stagecoach passengers hostage. There, differences arise amongst the group members over what to do with the gold, with Scott wanting to return it in exchange for amnesty. Bounty hunters are after them, however, and when they surround the station, a bloody gun battle that will determine the band's fate seems inevitable. The film was well received by both critics and the general public, for its simple story was told straightforwardly with some effort made to develop the various band characters beyond their usual stereotypes. Lee Marvin is particularly effective as the darkest of them, but various shades of gray are well handled by Frank Faylen and Claude Jarman Jr. Randolph Scott's lean features had aged well and he looks and acts believably as the band leader increasingly torn over what to do. Donna Reed, then a rising star, and Richard Denning are both good as the hostages. The story is briskly directed by Roy Huggins, who shows a deft tough for exciting action scenes. This film has a high entertainment value.

Columbia's DVD presents the film corrected transferred full frame. The Technicolor image looks excellent with bright vibrant colour and good shadow detail. Edge effects are minimal. There is some speckling and minor grain in evidence, but the overall effect is very pleasing. The disc's mono sound is in good shape - generally free of discernible hiss and crackle. English and Japanese sub-titles are provided. The only supplement is a collection of trailers that can only be accessed as a group rather than individually. Included is one for Cowboy starring Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon. Recommended. Hopefully this release will flourish in the market place and will inspire Columbia to make more of the Scott westerns available. A box set would be wonderful, but probably beyond Columbia's level of inspiration when it comes to classic releases.


Have Gun - Will Travel: The Complete First Season (1957-1958)
(released on DVD by Paramount on May 11th, 2004)

One of the more justly praised of the numerous western series that graced network television in the late 1950s and early 1960s was Have Gun - Will Travel. Immediately memorable for its opening Bernard Herrman music, it detailed the adventures of the mysterious loner called Paladin - a righter-of-wrongs who offered his services as a hired gun to potential clients. Paladin, who used the symbol of a chess knight on his holster and his calling cards, lived at a hotel in San Francisco where he presented himself as a man-about-town well used to all the finer things in life. His ability to finance that life-style arose from the clients he found by perusing the daily newspaper for news of situations which might offer an opportunity for his services to be employed, whether as gunfighter, bodyguard, detective, or courier. Paladin usually extracted a handsome price of $1000 for his help, but occasionally unjust situations gained his help for free.

Have Gun - Will Travel: The Complete First Season

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The program's first season (there would be six in total) was in 1957-58 when 39 half-hour episodes were aired. Viewed all together now, there is a degree of similarity to the shows due to the basic framework of each episode which remained unchanged. As simple little morality plays, however, most of them remain interesting. That's partly due to Richard Boone who managed to maintain an air of mystery around Paladin while demonstrating both the character's strength and humanity in solving the many situations with which he was faced. The other factor that kept things interesting was the impressive list of co-stars who would go on to fame on both the big and little screen. Included in this first season were the likes of Jack Lord, Janice Rule, Charles Bronson, Angie Dickinson, Strother Martin, Mike Connors, Jack Albertson, Denver Pyle, June Lockhart, Stuart Whitman, Richard Long, Victor McLaglen, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts, and John Carradine. Most of the stories were well-written and directed with good use of location shooting (some was done around Lone Pine, California).

Paramount has released this first season on DVD on behalf of CBS, the originating network. The material is contained in a box set of six slim-case discs. For the most part the full frame images (as originally broadcast) look to be in very fine condition. They look crisp with nicely-detailed gray scales. Some minor grain does intrude and there is the odd speckle, but I can't imagine anyone being other than impressed by Paramount's efforts. The mono sound is in good shape and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The episodes on each disc are accessible in a play-all format and individually. Playing them individually provides access to separate menus that point to production notes on each episode and cast member details which have been put together with some thought. Don't pass these efforts up. The set is highly recommended. Anyone for Season Two?


They Came to Cordura (1959)
(released on DVD by Columbia on July 27th, 2004)

Gary Cooper's third-last film and his final western found him playing a disgraced army officer, Major Thomas Thorn, assigned the task of identifying potential winners of awards for valour during the army's Mexican offensive against Pancho Villa in 1916. During an attack on a ranch house, he selects five such candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor and finds himself guiding them back to the safety of a base at Cordura. Forced to accompany them is Adelaide Geary, a woman accused of treason for aiding the enemy at the ranch house.

They Came to Cordura

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The story purports to be a study on courage - why some men in battle exhibit it and others don't, but the subject is so ponderously handled and predictably presented that any possibility of insight is lost. If you guess that the disgraced Cooper will redeem himself in the end while the other apparent heroes will prove to be paper tigers, then you can save yourself the investment of two hours of time needed to watch this film. You'll also avoid seeing a rather tired and somewhat disinterested Cooper and an interminable trek to Cordura (surprise - it means "sanity" in Spanish) in which little happens other than scuffles between the medal candidates caused by the presence of Geary (generally well acted by Rita Hayworth) or the intransigence of Major Thorn. The five candidates are played by Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Richard Conte, Michael Callan, and Dick York, with Heflin standing out. Shooting was done on location in St. George in southwest Utah, with the cinematography overshadowing much of the rest of the film.

Columbia presents the film on DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that appears to suffer from a source element that is less than pristine. Colours are a little muted at times and speckles and minor scratches are noticeably in evidence, as is substantial grain. Otherwise, the image is reasonably sharp and detailed. Night-time sequences are somewhat murky, however. The mono sound is adequate, but undistinguished. English and Japanese sub-titles are provided. The only extras are three trailers for Cowboy, Gilda, and Silverado which cannot be accessed individually. A useless pan and scan transfer can be found on the flipside of the disc.


Shalako (1968)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 25th, 2004)

This is a western that has tended to get little respect either upon original release or in subsequent years. The premise is realistic enough, based on historic occurrences - a group of European aristocrats come to the American west to shoot game, but find themselves trapped by Apaches - but the execution is a bit over-the-top, what with scenes of servants waiting hand-and-foot upon their masters, the sight of silver tea services in the midst of the wild west, and everyone trotting around in their finest clothes as though at some formal ball. Aside from these indulgences, however, the film tells a straight-forward tale of a band of people trapped by Indians, betrayed by their guides, but eventually led to safety by an experienced scout (Shalako). The tale is well-staged and executed by veteran director Edward Dmytryk, who manages some excellent action sequences well-distributed during the film's almost two-hour running time.

Shalako

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The casting is certainly unique in this international western production, with the hunting party made up of the likes of Peter Van Eyck, Jack Hawkins, Honor Blackman, Alexander Knox, and Brigitte Bardot. Stephen Boyd makes for a good villain as the betraying guide while the presence of veteran western player Donald Barry provides some comfort to traditional western fans. Shalako is played by Sean Connery. He looks the part and overall handles the role quite well. There's only one instance where he appears to slip into his James Bond persona when he offhandedly jests about some wine being properly chilled. The script calls for a love-interest between Connery and Bardot, but there are no sparks there and the whole thing is handled quite chastely with but an innocuous Bardot topless scene to mark the situation. It was the insipid nature of this relationship that appeared to disappoint critics upon the film's original release, apparently blinding them to other possible merits that the film might have.

The British-made film was an ABC Pictures production now controlled by Disney. The film was originally released on DVD by Anchor Bay and now by MGM under a new agreement with Disney. Unfortunately, that has not meant new source material so we are stuck with what appears to be the same old 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen effort once again. The image is a little washed-out and tired looking with a fair amount of grain in evidence and some occasional though not really distracting edge effects. Shadow detail is fine. The mono sound is adequate in presence, and is free of age-related hiss. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. There are no extras.


Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969)
The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 25th, 2004)

The stylish and action-filled appearance of The Magnificent Seven in 1960 spawned three follow-up films, most with generally diminishing returns. The original of course starred the likes of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn, with Brynner reprising his role of Chris in 1967's Return of the Seven. Unfortunately there was no one of Eli Wallach's caliber for Brynner to go up against in this first sequel, and the results were rather anemic. Not anemic enough, however, to preclude another kick at the can in 1969 entitled Guns of the Magnificent Seven.

Guns of the Magnificent SevenThe Magnificent Seven Ride!

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This time, George Kennedy essayed the Chris role. The task confronting him was to free Mexican revolutionary leader Quintero from a well-protected federal prison. Kennedy gathers together the usual gang of seven portrayed by the likes of James Whitmore, Monte Markham, Joe Don Baker, and Reni Santoni - a rather pale imitation of the original seven. Playing the imprisoned revolutionary was Fernando Rey, with Michael Ansara in the role of the prison warden and chief antagonist. Despite the decidedly second-tier cast, the film might have succeeded with superior execution, but alas that doesn't happen. Too much of the film is taken up with the seven riding around the countryside looking grim, accompanied by the swell of Elmer Bernstein's familiar theme. The action sequences, when they do occur, are short and boring, and the slow build-up to the climactic siege of the prison goes unrewarded as that set-piece is staged with little imagination. One would have thought that this flaccid specimen would have spelled the end of the series, but the idea was trotted out one final time in 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride!.

One of the darlings of the spaghetti western, Lee Van Cleef, plays Chris this time and does a good job of it. His gang of six associates this time is indeed a motley crew, with some of them convicts bound for the territorial prison until Chris fees them in return for their help in saving the Mexican town of De Magdelene from the usual Mexican marauders. Actually, The Magnificent Seven Ride! turns out to be a step up from its predecessor. The opening sequence in which Chris is introduced is shot with some style, immediately signaling that director George McCowan has some affinity for the material. He follows up with some well-staged action sequences, culminating in an exciting final confrontation. The film is well-paced and thus avoids the lengthy empty spaces in Guns of the Magnificent Seven as well. Of course, Elmer Bernstein's familiar music gets a good workout once again. There's certainly nothing new here, but the familiar paces are handled with respect.

MGM has released the two films on DVD in anamorphic widescreen versions. Guns of the Magnificent Seven is shown at 2.35:1. It looks very crisp, has good colour fidelity, and is free of edge effects. There are a few scratches but otherwise this is a superior presentation. The mono sound is adequate for the task. A Spanish mono track and English, French and Spanish sub-titles are provided. There are no extras. The Magnificent Seven Ride! is shown at 1.85:1 and looks almost as good as Guns. Sharpness is perhaps slightly reduced. The sound characteristics parallel those of Guns. A theatrical trailer is the only extra.


Junior Bonner (1972)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 25th, 2004)

After the violence that characterized The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner was a real change of pace. Using the rodeo as a metaphor for America itself, the film details a few days in the life of veteran rodeo star J.R. (Junior) Bonner who comes to his home town of Scottsdale for the annual western days festival. Bonner must deal with the dynamics of his family which includes his hard-drinking dreamer of a father, his long-suffering mother, and his money-hungry brother, while trying to concentrate on the various rodeo events, particularly bullriding. He is set on finally riding successfully a bull who had thrown him on his last attempt and one who has been unridable during the rodeo season.

Junior Bonner

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This film is a beautiful portrait of a man who is no longer at the peak of his game, yet still is capable of small victories. His is a day-to-day existence entirely dependent on his rodeo ability to survive. He is now only successful enough to be able to continue on to the same event at the next venue - a future of diminishing returns. Steve McQueen plays Bonner in a quietly understated manner; it is a part that fits the McQueen persona to a "t", much as Le Mans (which came out at much the same time) had as well. His work conveys a wealth of emotion with subtle facial expressions and body language. Gone are the annoyingly self-conscious facial expressions that detracted from McQueen's earlier efforts. McQueen, however, is only the headliner of a tremendous cast. Robert Preston (The Music Man) and Ida Lupino are marvelous as Bonner's parents as is Joe Don Baker as Junior's brother Curly. Veterans such as Ben Johnson, Don Barry, and Dub Taylor add substantially to the film's colourful evocation of time and place. The film is shot beautifully by Peckinpah with effective use of split screen to establish the story's background and slow motion to accentuate the visceral nature of rodeo events.

Junior Bonner is another of the ABC Pictures films that Disney recently licensed to MGM for DVD release. Previously, Anchor Bay had a similar relationship with Disney and released the title with both widescreen and pan and scan versions on one disc. This time, MGM provides only the 2.35:1 widescreen version, again non-anamorphic. Despite this, the transfer looks quite good. The image is sharp and clear with negligible edge effects. Colour fidelity is very good. I don't have the Anchor Bay version available for a direct comparison. The mono sound provides clear dialogue and conveys the sounds of the rodeo with some presence. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are included. The disc's only supplement is a very good audio commentary that brings together three Sam Peckinpah biographers (Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle [his book "If They Move... Kill 'Em" is a winner]). They were recorded together with Nick Redman moderating, leading to some lively discussion amongst the wealth of information and interesting viewpoints provided. Recommended.


The Gunsmoke Movie Collection
(Return to Dodge [1987], The Last Apache [1990], To the Last Man [1992])
(released on DVD by Paramount on May 11th, 2004)

The Gunsmoke television series ran for 20 seasons on CBS, beginning in 1955 and ending in 1975. The series began as a half-hour program before lengthening to an hourly format in 1961. James Arness appeared as Dodge City marshal Matt Dillon and remained for the entire run of the show. Other mainstays were Amanda Blake as Kitty and Milburn Stone as Doc Adams. The likes of Dennis Weaver as Chester, Ken Curtis as Festus, and Buck Taylor as Newly are fondly remembered for their continuing portrayals during portions of the series lengthy run. Twelve years after the series ended, Matt was revived in the first of what would eventually be five made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies.

The Gunsmoke Movie Collection

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The first of these, Return to Dodge, offers a story that brings back an old Dillon nemesis from one of the shows in the TV series. Matt has been badly wounded when attacked by thieves and is brought into Dodge City to recover. Miss Kitty returns from New Orleans to look after him. Meanwhile, killer Will Mannon is released from prison and vows revenge on those that saw him convicted, with Matt at the top of his list. The movie offers a nice transition from the TV series with Amanda Blake and Buck Taylor reprising their Miss Kitty and Newly roles respectively. Several flashbacks to the TV series show about Mannon are included, allowing Milburn Stone to also be part of the new program. At age 64, James Arness is clearly too old for the part, but his presence is such that he brings it off well. Good support is offered by Steve Forrest (as Mannon), Tantoo Cardinal, and Earl Holliman (although the latter's role is rather loosely written). The film offers a good blend of action and the sort of drama that the TV series was respected for and should appeal to old fans as well as new.

Three years later, in 1990, The Last Apache, finds Matt in receipt of a letter from a long-lost love. It asks him to return to her ranch where he finds that he has a 20-year old daughter he had never known about. His daughter, however, has been kidnapped by renegade Apaches and Matt, with the help of her mother and a veteran cavalry scout, must try to bring her back. Once again, a TV episode from the past (one from 1973) serves as inspiration and Michael Learned reprises her role as Mike Yardner, the mother of Matt's daughter, Beth (played by Amy Stock-Poynton). None of the rest of the old Gunsmoke gang appear in any form. An intelligent script makes this entry perhaps the best of the five Gunsmoke movies. The film is well cast throughout and offers plenty of action. Arness remains the strong anchor of the film, but Learned and Richard Kiley as scout Chalk Brighton are both excellent in support. Look for Hugh O'Brian (TV's Wyatt Earp) in a small role as a cavalry general.

In 1992, To the Last Man picks up a short time after the ending of the previous film. Matt's wife has died and he sees his daughter, Beth, onto the train east to take her to school. A herd of their cattle is stolen and Matt heads out to find it, eventually finding himself in the middle of a range war. Meanwhile, his daughter Beth decides her place is beside her father and she leaves the train to head out after him. This is a more violent western than either of its predecessors, with a substantial body count. The script is less inventive and sticks very closely to conventional western plot situations. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining time-passer if expectations are not too high. Arness still strikes a forceful figure as Matt. Familiar faces such as Morgan Woodward as a sheriff and Pat Hingle as a vigilante leader are welcome links to earlier westerns.

Paramount has released these three titles on DVD on behalf of CBS. The last two Gunsmoke movies (The Long Ride [1993] and One Man's Justice [1994]) are not yet available, although one suspects that if the first three sell well, the others may soon follow. The films are presented full frame in accord with their original television presentations. All look quite good with fairly sharp images, minor edge effects at most, and realistic-looking colour. To the Last Man is if anything slightly softer looking at times than the others. Return to Dodge is in mono while the later two are in stereo. Nonetheless, there's little significant difference in the final effect. Each has strong, clear sound but no real directionality, as one might expect. Spanish mono tracks are also provided. There are no extras. Return to Dodge and The Last Apache are recommended for western, and particularly Gunsmoke, fans.



John Wayne, American Legend (1988)
(released on DVD by Image on May 4th, 2004)


John Wayne, American Legend

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I'm not going to say too much about this one. It's a typical biography presentation made in 1998 for A&E's extended biography time slot and consequently clocks in at 90 minutes. John Wayne's career is covered in reasonable detail with clips and trailers, personal photographs, and interviews with the likes of Charlton Heston, Red Buttons, Ron Howard, Pilar Wayne, and Anna Lee. Narration is by Richard Kiley. If you've seen the typical A&E Biography program, you pretty well know what you're getting here.

Image's full frame transfer (as originally broadcast) is quite satisfactory. The new material is crisp and clear, though slightly muted in colour. The quality of historic clips is variable as is typical for such material. The stereo sound is unremarkable. There are bonus making-of featurettes for each of four Wayne films: The Big Trail, North to Alaska, The Comancheros, and The Undefeated - understandably all Fox films as the biography was made in conjunction with Fox. Each is 9 to 10 minutes long and begins with the same generic introduction about Wayne's career.


Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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