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Review of THE NAKED SPUR (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+/B
Western
Not rated (would be PG)

Some people consider classic Westerns to be paint-by-numbers, but the numbers are pretty darned good for Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann. Of the 18 Westerns that Stewart appeared in, five were made with Mann, and four of those rank among Stewart’s top eight. Not bad, considering that Stewart also made four Westerns with the legendary John Ford and one with genre wizard Delmer Daves. The Naked Spur (1953) was the third film that Stewart and Mann made together, following Winchester ’73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952) and preceding The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Winchester ’73 is the best of the bunch, but The Naked Spur isn’t far behind. Mann got some great performances out of Stewart because he encouraged him to play characters that went against type. Sure, they’re basically nice guys, but they’re not meek, they’re not befuddled, and they’re not so darned goody-goody sure of themselves all the time. Under Mann’s direction, Stewart played characters with a tormented past that is kept tightly lidded, with occasional breakthroughs—rougher, rawer, darker characters than people were used to seeing, yet still one that’s likable, whom you root for and want to see win.   

Mitchell and Stewart

In terms of storytelling, Mann manages to have it both ways. He showcases the raging rivers and formations of the Rocky Mountains and San Juan Mountains, while also zeroing in on five characters who, because they are together the whole time, feel as if they could be on a stage, the drama is so contained and psychological. The assist for making the scenery feel like a sixth character goes to cinematographer William C. Mellor, who won Oscars for his black-and-white work in A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Ann Frank and captures both the stage-like intimacy on the trail and also the grand location scenery in glorious Technicolor.

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Review of WINCHESTER ’73 (1950) (Blu-ray Import)

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Grade:  B+
Western
Not rated (would be PG)

One of Anthony Mann’s most highly regarded Westerns, Winchester ’73 feels like the perfect film for this year’s Fourth of July celebration. Not only does it take place around the Fourth and show a 100-year celebration in that most fabled of American towns, Dodge City, but it also helps to explain the paradox of America’s gun-crazy culture.

The 1950 film stars James Stewart in one of his best Westerns . . . and that’s saying something, because he’s made quite a few good ones. Winchester ’73 was the first that Stewart made since 1939’s Destry Rides Again, and it started a string of Westerns he would star in over the next half-decade:  Broken Arrow, Bend of the River, Carbine Williams, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie. Five of those films were with director Anthony Mann, whom The Guardian called a “master of the genre.”

Winchester ’73 is set just after the battle that was popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. Indians now have repeating rifles, thanks to gunrunners who have no qualms about selling weapons that will be used on settlers and U.S. Cavalry . . . as long as they can make a tidy profit. The Indians that wiped out Custer and his command had better rifles than the cavalry, and America was just learning about Little Bighorn shortly before the nation’s big Centennial celebration. It threw a damper on celebrations in the East, but not in Dodge City, where a genial Wyatt Earp confiscates the guns of newcomers Lin McAdam (Stewart) and Frankie “High-Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell, who would play the big studio boss in Singin’ in the Rain). Lin is tracking down Dutch Henry Brown, with whom he has a personal beef—one that will result in gunplay. As they reluctantly hand over their weapons, the audience is shown the inside of the lawmen’s office that’s completely packed with rifles and handguns and gun belts full of ammunition. Earp explains, it’s impossible to keep law and order in a wild town like Dodge if they allow people to keep their guns. “You’ll get them back when you leave town,” he says.

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Review of TEXAS ACROSS THE RIVER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Western comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

In his 1966 review of Texas Across the River, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Trying to make fun of Westerns is an aberrant Hollywood stunt that’s as fraught with folly and possible disaster as challenging John Wayne to draw. Either you score a clean hit on that first shot or it’s goodnight you. Well, they do not score a clean hit with Texas Across the River. . . .”

Not that it can’t be done, mind you. Wayne himself starred in two successful Western comedies—North to Alaska (1960) and McLintock! (1963)—but both of those were comic Westerns that still leaned heavily on Western conventions. Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway had a runaway hit with Little Big Man (1970), a comic epic of the Old West that fell into the revisionist category because of its more favorable treatment of Indians. Then Jerry Paris and Mel Brooks scored bulls-eyes with Evil Roy Slade (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974), but those were true parodies that poked fun of the genre while also clearly admiring it. And likable TV everyman James Garner charmed audiences with his Maverick-style antics in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).

But when members of the Rat Pack tried their hand at the comic Western, the screenplays they were given leaned more toward farce than fans of the genre seemed to prefer. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin teamed up in 4 for Texas (1963), while Martin paired with Joey Bishop in Texas Across the River (1966). Neither film was successful, though the latter is the stronger one—the kind of gentle farce that appeals to children and people in the mood for something silly because of the level of humor—even though some of the material is very slightly risqué. It’s the plot that’s fun because it’s a little different from the standard Western fare. More

Review of THE GREY FOX (1982) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Western-drama
Rated PG

The Grey Fox is the kind of Western that holds some appeal for people who aren’t fans of the genre, because this independent Canadian film is about as far as you can get from the formula Western. Sure, there’s a little gunplay and a few robberies, but this 1982 film is a quiet Western, a character-based film—one that feels like a full-movie version of the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a feature that feels every bit the indie film. There’s only the slightest bit of violence, sex, and language, with the focus on a grandfatherly figure that’s instantly sympathetic.

A number of revisionist Westerns—including Butch and Sundance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, and The Wild Bunch—have embraced an elegiac tone and offered an aging hero who also stands as a symbol for the passing of a romantic Old West that’s now consigned to history. But The Grey Fox stands alone as a story that offers a character that’s stronger than the symbol he was meant to be. And it’s based on a true story, too.

Former stuntman Richard Farnsworth is compelling as the low-key, soft-spoken Bill Miner, who in Canada became as famous and oddly beloved by average people as Jesse James was south of the border. James robbed banks and Miner robbed the railroad—two institutions that were squeezing common people and were therefore resented. Miner was credited for first instructing people to put their “hands up,” and he became known as the Gentleman Bandit because of his politeness, gentility, and strict instructions that his men should never shoot or otherwise harm anyone. The Billy Miner Alehouse in Maple Ridge, British Columbiasd still celebrates this folk hero, not because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but because he only took from the hated Canadian Pacific Railway.

Writer John Hunter and director Phillip Borsos (who studied under Francis Ford Coppola) stay pretty close to the truthful parts of the Bill Miner story, choosing only to add their own bit of legend by giving Miner a low-key love interest (Jackie Burroughs) to match his personality—a strong, older woman who never married because she had other ambitions in life. More

Review of THE RARE BREED (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG)
Western

Every now and then a different kind of western rides into town, and in 1966 it was The Rare Breed. The title was meant to refer not only to the Hereford steer a recently widowed English woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter (Juliet Mills) brought to St. Louis to cross-breed with Texas longhorns, but also the tough old cowboy (James Stewart) they enlist to help them.

There are no Indians in this film, no cattlemen feuding with farmers, no gunslingers out to prove themselves, no saloons full of card sharps, no cavalry riding to the rescue, and no aging sheriff trying to keep it together while keeping order. There’s also very little violence, so The Rare Breed is rare for a western as well. After working with Stewart in the poignant Civil War western Shenandoah, director Andrew McLaglen dipped his bucket into the comedy well again, though it’s not as brimming as an earlier raucous film he made with O’Hara and John Wayne (McLintock!). This one isn’t a slam-bang action movie, though there are strategically placed moments of action and tension. With a minimalist plot, The Rare Breed is more of a character study, a slow-simmering romance, and a light-hearted western that’s offbeat enough to make it seem refreshingly different.

“Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) is a complicated man. He’s a man of principles, you can instantly tell, but what principles? The epitome of the never-fazed stoic cowboy, he knows when to mind his own business and, in the spirit of American exceptionalism, tends to look out for Number 1. When a Hereford breeding bull named Vindicator (that only responds to a whistled version of “God Save the Queen”) is bought by a man representing a Scottish rancher (Brian Keith), the widow hires Burnett to deliver the bull. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that Burnett also accepts money from another rancher to allow his men to steal the bull at an opportune time. Call it the cowboy version of the Black Sox throwing the series. More

Review of THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 97 min., Color
Western
Not rated (would be PG for some violence, drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
Arrow Video
Aspect ratio: 2.00:1, 1.85:1
Featured audio: LCPM Mono
Bonus features: B-
Includes: two Blu-ray discs, booklet
Trailer
Amazon link

When people think of James Stewart they think of the pictures he made with Frank Capra, or, in later years, Alfred Hitchcock. But in the early 1950s Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on eight films that made his screen persona edgier and more ambiguous. Five of those films were Westerns—Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955)—and all five were both critical and commercial successes.

Sixty years later those Westerns remain so similar in quality that it’s a matter of preference. The slight edge may go to The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, then Bend of the River and The Far Country—the latter an enjoyable “Northern” along the lines of John Wayne’s North to Alaska.

In The Far Country, Stewart plays a cowboy who had driven a herd of cattle from Montana to Seattle, then boards a steamship to take them to the gold fields in Skagway, where the price of beef is sky high. But as the ship is leaving, a sheriff shouts to the captain to take the cowboy into custody because he’s said to have killed two people. In short order, Jeff Webster goes from wrangler to fugitive, dodging the crew thanks to the help of a woman (Ruth Roman as Ronda Castle) who invites him to get under the covers with her as the crew unlocks and checks every stateroom. And that’s just the start of the action. More

Review of TIME TO DIE (1965) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
1965, 89 min., Black and White
Western
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Spanish LPCM 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Trailer (in Spanish)
Amazon link

The cover of Time to Die (Tiempo de morir) makes it look like a telenovela—the kind satirized in the popular TV series Jane the Virgin. But this film by legendary Mexican director Arturo Ripstein has more in common with classic, tense psychological Westerns like High Noon and the original 3:10 to Yuma. It’s an intelligently written drama that holds your attention from start to finish—no surprise, really, if you consider that the screenplay is by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with additional dialogue courtesy of another Nobel laureate, Carlos Fuentes.

If Time to Die wasn’t a Spanish language film with English subtitles, it would probably appear on lists of Best Westerns (top movies, that is—not the hotel chain).

Like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, this Western moves at a slower pace than is typical of the genre, with tension, not nonstop shoot-‘em-up action, the single most reason for the film’s success. That pacing also makes it an ideal film for families with junior high or high school age children who are studying Spanish in school.

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Review of HICKOK (4K Ultra HD combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 88 min., Color
Western
Not Rated: Would be PG-13 for brief nudity, sexual situations and strong language
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 matted widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B- (nice making-of feature)
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray
Trailer
Amazon link

Timothy Woodward Jr. grew up loving Hollywood Westerns, and now he’s living the dream—he’s directing them. And he’s getting better.

Woodward’s first effort, Traded (2016), starred music legends Kris Kristofferson and Trace Adkins, both of whom look rugged enough to play a convincing cowboy in the American Wild West of the 1870s and ‘80s. Traded was basically a Western version of Taken, and though Westerns have more clichés than cacti have needles, this one was hemorrhaging hokey dialogue, wooden characters, and silly situations. It was hard going, which is why I’m not surprised it earned only a 5.1 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database from over 2000 audience members. At Family Home Theater we warned it was a C- at best.

But then along comes Hickok (2017), which 600 IMDB audience members rated a 5.3. Seeing that, you’d think that the two films are comparable—but you’d be wrong. Hickok is a superior film, despite a script that fictionalizes ol’ Wild Bill so much you barely recognize him and his story. Then again, this is a Western, not a documentary, and for a Western it’s better than average.

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STAGECOACH: THE TEXAS JACK STORY (Blu-ray)

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stagecoachcoverGrade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2016, 91 min., Color
Cinedigm
Not rated (would be PG for violence)
Aspect ratio: Widescreen (letterboxed)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Before we board this stagecoach let’s get one thing out of the way: country singer Trace Adkins looks like a character you’d see in the Old West, but he’s not much of an actor. Neither are some of the others who mouth poorly written lines or chew scenery in Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story.

Sometimes I’m hard on writers for dragging a movie down, but with this low-budget ($2.2 million) 2016 Western it’s the acting that mostly pulls you out of the experience and reminds you you’re watching a movie . . . and a slightly below average one at best.

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JOHNNY GUITAR (Blu-ray)

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johnnyguitarcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 110 min., Color
Olive Films
Unrated (would be PG for adult themes and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (full widescreen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: A-
Trailer
Amazon link

In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated members of Hollywood about alleged Communists in the film industry, and the “Hollywood Ten” refused to cooperate—which resulted in their being blacklisted and unable to work again in their profession. Even into the early 1950s, those “Red Menace” flames were fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose unsubstantiated claims that there were huge numbers of Soviet spies and sympathizers living among us sparked additional modern-day witchhunts.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible—his dramatization of the Salem witch trials—as an allegory criticizing McCarthyism, and anyone who knows history and watches the 1954 Western Johnny Guitar will recognize it as another allegory, one that references not only the idea of the McCarthy-style witch hunt but also Miller’s play. It’s hard not see in the “funeral attire” of a posse and the firebrand reformer of a woman who leads them a pretty exact match with the stark black-and-white dress of the Puritans who tried women as witches simply because another woman—jealous, perhaps—“accused” her of witchcraft. Accusation was enough to justify burning at the stake, and that same lack of tolerance and lack of due process drives this intelligent Western, which also features a “burning.”

johnnyguitarscreen2So what does that mean for family TV night? Well, Johnny Guitar isn’t a guilty pleasure, that’s for sure. It’s not the kind of movie you pop in for mindless entertainment. It’s not a typical formulaic Western with a strong male hero rescuing a damsel in distress. This revisionist Western features a strong female protagonist and big fight at the end that pits one strong woman against another. There’s gunplay, certainly, but as in High Noon—another intellectual Western—it’s measured, and a direct result of character. Compared to other Westerns, Johnny Guitar is high art—richly atmospheric and with noir elements that will remind viewers of such dramatic films as Key Largo. It’s directed by is directed by Nicholas Ray, who also gave us Rebel without a Cause, and fans of James Dean will see similarities here as well. All of which make this Western—which French critics collectively pronounced one of the best of all time—family viewing only if you have teenagers who can appreciate thoughtful and well-constructed films that aren’t made for the masses.

johnnyguitarscreen1Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a former saloon “girl”—a woman who survived by giving pleasure to men, though nothing so blunt is ever specifically stated. Through a series of events that also are left to our imaginations, Vienna has raised herself up. She once worked in a saloon, but now she owns a saloon isolated in the foothills apart from a small cattle town. She’s at odds with the townspeople, not only because of morality—Emma Small (as in small-minded?) wants to drive her away—but because she’s working with the railroad to run tracks through her property and build a depot right there by her saloon.

In a nod to TV Westerns and B movies, a stagecoach is held up by a gang, and the town accuses Vienna of being in cahoots with The Dancin’ Kid and his boys, which memorably include young Turkey (Ben Cooper) and crusty Bart (Ernest Borgnine). But this is an “iceberg” Western, with most of it lurking beneath the surface. Every character has a back story that viewers are invited to figure out, and to speculate about the relationship between Vienna and Emma, between The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and both women, among the “gang” members, and between Vienna and the unarmed stranger (Sterling Hayden) who rides into town with a guitar slung on his back. For that matter, Johnny Guitar invites you to speculate on the notion of power and who has it in this town—the head of the cattlemen (Ward Bond), the marshal (Frank Ferguson), or Emma as the voice of all things “proper.” And why does Vienna really want that railroad to go right past her saloon?

Johnny Guitar was added to the National Film Registry in 2008, and it truly is “culturally, historically” and “aesthetically” significant. Aside from the allegorical elements there’s much to appreciate and discuss about the film’s structure and the ways in which it plays with Western clichés, or the way it offers a feminist, revisionist take on the West. It’s the kind of movie that you discuss with your kids, rather than crack jokes during the film—though it might be hard not to joke briefly about Mercedes McCambridge’s performance as Emma, a fanatic who acts wild-eyed crazy, or even the harsh-featured Crawford, who plays her character like a strong-and-silent male Western hero. Yet, while the style of acting borders on the melodramatic, as was common at the time, the heady elements keep it from being unintentionally funny. Director Ray uses atmosphere and sparse dialogue to create and sustain a tension that holds you until the end credits. And for a 1954 film aimed at making a statement about politics run amuck, that’s a pretty good feat.

Olive Films has been quietly building a catalog of old films, but with this release they launch Olive Signature—“the next generation of fan-centered entertainment.” It’s their version of the Criterion Collection, with a handsome slipcase and a barrel of bonus features that draws upon the knowledge of film historians and admirers like Martin Scorsese. A full-color booklet includes a terrific essay on “Johnny Guitar: The First Existentialist Western,” and the print itself looks and sounds great in HD. It’s a wonderful release that’s aimed at intelligent people who can appreciate intelligent films. Especially if your teens are reading The Crucible in high school they might appreciate watching this one.

Language: Nothing much; “tramp” is as bad as it gets
Sex: None, though everything simmers below the surface and is so subtle that children won’t get it
Violence: Several people are shot and killed, but old-school style, no blood; there’s also one lynching with the camera turning away during the crucial moment
Adult situations: Pretty much the entire film; it takes place in a saloon, so there you go
Takeaway: The more you watch this Western, the more you see, and its allegoric message is still sadly appropriate today

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