Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles. Some of his writing on cinema may be found in the anthologies The Western Reader, The Film Comedy Reader and The Science Fiction Film Reader, in Defining Moments in Movies (The Little Black Book: Movies in U.K. and Australia), and in The Film Journal and Undercurrent online, as well as in over 100 individual essays on films, filmmakers, film history and film theory in Magill's Survey of Cinema (English-Language, Silent and Foreign Language) and Magill's Cinema Annuals, and in a monograph on John Ford translated into French (“Vers le nouveau monde”) for a 1995 retrospective at the Cannes Film Festival. Formerly a regular film critic for the LA Reader before that weekly closed.
I will cut to the chase. Though I am one whose embrace of world cinema is wide, the Western at its peak is a genre without equal—as an artistic form, as entertainment that any audience can warm up to, as sophisticated reflection of history reimagined as myth. This being the case, all but a very few great Westerns may be said to be underrated. Very few were ever prestige seeking, but that is one of their strengths. They could just do whatever they wanted and needed to do—and unselfconsciously, though I’d have to qualify that with more recent Westerns. The height of classicism and fullest flowering of the Western was surely the postwar years 1946-1962, and especially the 1950s, so all my choices are from that decade of so many outstanding Westerns. I’ve gone to movies no one else here has chosen (I will qualify that with one that was mentioned in passing), and as many underrated movies I might have gone with have already been chosen by other contributors, that made it easier. But that said, I could not have come up with a group that would have satisfied me more than this one in any event.
THE LAST POSSE (1953; directed by Alfred Werker)
In this 73-minute black-and-white gem, the unexpected hero is a legendary lawman who has aged into a weary and seemingly ineffectual alcoholic (Broderick Crawford) and the posse after the outlaws don’t even want him with them, but he goes anyway. Beginning as the posse returns to town after their eventful mission, most of the story is unusually told in flashbacks revolving around a young man (John Derek) and his relationships with both Crawford’s character and the powerful rancher (Charles Bickford) who raised him, with the story going in dramatic, unexpected directions out on the trail before it resolves. Crawford is not the first actor I would think of as the center of a Western, but he is superb, while the rest of a fine cast includes Skip Homeier and Wanda Hendrix; and as in so many memorable Westerns, expressive Lone Pine locations serve for exteriors. The 50s is a treasure trove of movies like this one, but one reason it’s close to my heart is that I’m certain it was the first time I went to a first-run double feature and the unheralded Western serving as co-feature was by far the more memorable of the two movies (for the record, the main feature was the good enough SOUTH SEA WOMAN).
FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER (1954: directed by Richard Carlson)
Sometimes one sees a movie at what is in one way or another an impressionable age, and returning to it as an adult, it is no longer as striking or provocative, but that has not been the case for me with this still too little known Technicolor work from Universal-International, film for film the studio I would give an edge for Westerns of this period, always so resourcefully but beautifully produced. Derived from a story by Louis L’Amour, the film concerns four outlaws (Rory Calhoun, John McIntire, George Nader, Jay Silverheels) who encounter an old gunfighter (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter (Colleen Miller) at a way station in the desert en route to a robbery in a town that has bitter memories for Calhoun’s character. What happens at the 26-minute mark is extraordinary—arainswept nocturnal encounter between Calhoun and Miller that remains, through its six-minute length, one of the most beautiful and erotic love scenes you will ever see in a movie. Creatively and lovingly realized by actor-turned-director Carlson and with cinematography by the great Russell Metty worthy of his films with Douglas Sirk, the sequence is also part of a rich redemption narrative that is exciting and absorbing throughout.
THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS (1958; directed by George Sherman)
David P. Harmon’s wonderful original screenplay for this fortunately fell into the hands of Sherman, my choice for most underrated of the greatest Western directors (and the only one in my top tier represented in these choices), who, in his full artistic maturity and in a period of relative independence, returned to U-I for this project which he filmed (in ‘Scope and color) in awesome Mexican locations I have not seen in any other movie. The premise of the story—the eponymous gunfighter (Jock Mahoney) is hired to search for a missing man south of the border—is only the beginning of a rich parable which does have all the resonance of that great title, as the hero, dressed in black, journeys into the mountains with a new, sympathetic friend (Gilbert Roland), dressed in white, and meets a priest (Eduard Franz) who is attuned to the gunman’s soul and sees his deep yearning for inner peace. Along the way, the movie quietly and movingly evokes a present Western twilight, and once more, redemption and renewal, the leading themes of 50s Westerns, are treated with artful simplicity, and even more satisfyingly than usual. For me, there is no Western at once so unknown and so worthy of discovery as this one.
THESE THOUSAND HILLS (1959; directed by Richard Fleischer)
Adapted from a novel by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. that was the last part of an ambitious trilogy of the West (THE BIG SKY and THE WAY WEST were the others), this handsome Foxproduction in ‘Scope and Color with great Colorado locations appears to have been an “A” film but in what may be the Western’s best year, it was still released as a co-feature to a weak adaptation of THE SOUND AND THE FURY when that came out in wide release in L.A. . And it’s been mostly neglected ever since for reasons I cannot fathom. Fleischer finds just the right blend of action and reflection in telling the story of an ambitious cowhand and his rise, the emphasis on the absorbing relationships that mark his eventful passage, with a terrific cast led by Don Murray, Lee Remick, Stuart Whitman, Patricia Owens and Richard Egan making their archetypal characters fresh—near the start of her great career, Lee Remick is especially memorable as the sometime prostitute who loves him not wisely but too well. All the usual elements of Western narratives are here, but not playing out in the usual way, a mark of the genre’s maturity, and while director Fleischer was not a specialist, he fashions a Western just as knowing of the genre as those who were.
My lengthy essay on this film may be found here:
DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959; Andre De Toth)
Of my five choices, this one is nearest to not being underrated, as it has become much known to genre aficionados and admirers of De Toth over the years. Still, that reputation is relative and this is a movie that deserves more than appreciation by the happy few. To begin with, its stark black-and-white cinematography by the great Russell Harlan (who had made a similarly strongcontribution to De Toth’s first Western, RAMROD) makes as much of bleak winter as any movie ever has; one can almost feel the chilling cold that pervades it. And that’s appropriate, because the protagonist, Robert Ryan, an angry rancher ready to turn on his neighbors, is a spiritually frozen man—and Ryan invests this character with the deep reserves of bitterness and alienation that he could commandbetter than any other American actor. The ultimate salvation of such a character, in the expressive snows of the movie’s last reels after Burl Ives and his renegades take over the town, is one of the things that most moves me in Westerns. The deep cast here includes not only Ives, powerful as usual, but also the underrated Tina Louise as Ryan’s troubled love interest, and one of the most iconic of heavies, Jack Lambert, in one of his best roles.
[Note: After the five movies directed by Gordon Douglas that he chose, Jim Healy named this among five other Westerns that he cited without commentary.]