The Pistolero of Red River / The Last Challenge (1967) ****

A little gem. Mature, thoughtful, cleverly structured. Plays with expectations. Another assured performance from Glenn Ford (Rage, 1966) with Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) permitted a character of considerably more complexity than normal.

Quite an unusual set-up. Marshal Blaine (Glenn Ford) is an ex-convict, his paramour Lisa (Angie Dickinson) is the local madam. Both are pretty much accepted in this small western town. Some hypocrisy comes Lisa’s way – her money acceptable to a storekeeper who out of earshot refers to her as white trash – but generally the townspeople are happy with an ex-gunslinger as lawman.

But he’s not your standard lawman. He’s very easy-going, not spending all is time upholding the law or out hunting varmints, and she’s not your typical madam either, mothers her employees, keeps unwanted men at a distance, and has made enough money for a fine rig and fancy clothes.

Blaine is sensible but ruthless, taking tough action to prevent a young kid getting into trouble with a dangerous gunman, but having no compunction about shooting the gunslinger. He’s not out for an easy life, but my he does enjoy it, though on a slack day finds fishing more fun than rolling in the hay with Lisa. She knows she has made a good catch, her friend still getting knocked about by her husband, and although Blaine doesn’t seem the marrying kind she has notions of having a baby.

But out fishing Blaine frees a villain Ernest (Jack Elam) who has upset the local Indians. Since they shared a cell way back, Ernest sees Blaine as an easy touch and when told where to go on that score fingers to blackmail Lisa. Meanwhile, this turns out to be an eventful fishing trip. Blaine buddies up with a stranger, Lot (Chad Everett), they fish, cook and drink whisky together until the newcomer reveals he’s on a mission to kill the lawman and take his title of fastest gunman in the southwest.

So you can see where this is headed. Except it doesn’t take that route. Because Lisa, worried that the youngster might well be faster on the draw, hires Ernest to kill him. And when that backfires, it’s only a matter of time before Blaine finds out and you wonder what that’s going to do to their relationship.

There’s some standard stuff, a poker cheat for example, but there’s a lot more going on. Blaine’s young deputy, mostly left to do the chores, tries to throw his weight around with the gunman only to end up with egg on his face. There’s an Native American in jail who we never see and a subplot involving his colleagues that looks like it’s headed in the direction of standard western confrontation until that notion is cleverly nipped away from under the audience’s feet.

Given credence by the worried Lisa is the idea that Blaine is coming to the end of the trail and it’s a testament to the direction that the tension lasts as long as it does. The promotional material gives out that the youngster is a tearaway threatening to shoot up the town, but that’s far from the truth, Blaine trying to talk him out of such rashness while at the same time seeing the boy as a reflection of his younger self.

There’s some brilliant dialog. “Of all the people ain’t worth saving,” Blaine tells Ernest, “you’re the first that comes to mind.” At their first meeting, Lot asks Blaine, “Where’s your tin star?” Retorts Blaine, “You better never see it on me.” As they part, Lot says, “We’ll be meeting again.” Replies Blaine, without aggression, “If that’s the way you want it.”

But there’s quite a lot that’s missed out. There’s no scene of Lisa hiring Ernest, just that he ambushes Lot. The jailed Native American is, as I mentioned, off-camera. There’s none of the usual massive build-up towards a showdown. And even as the shootout approaches, Lisa still doesn’t trust in Blaine’s skill and plans to shoot Lot herself.

That betrayal comes as a helluva shock. When has any lawman’s moll lacked such faith? As for Lot, gunslinging is all that he lives for, the measure of himself, and there’s a purity about him as he rejects countless offers of whisky and women even as he knows he’s making a terrible bed to lie in.

This was very much ahead of its time, especially in thwarting audience expectation not just in the representation of character but in the narrative. It proved a fine last hurrah for veteran Hollywood director Richard Thorpe (The Truth about Spring, 1965). Robert Emmett Gina (Before Winter Comes, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the John Sherry novel.

As it happened, I watched this back-to-back with Rage so ended with an even better appreciation of Glenn Ford’s talent but was also very taken with Angie Dickinson for the way her character twisted and turned as she attempted to create the outcome she desired. Definitely worth a watch.

A House Is Not a Home (1964) ***

Best remembered these days as the debut film for Raquel Welch (One Million Years BC, 1966), the rest of the film is well worth a look.

Hypocrisy had its heyday in The Roaring 20s when prohibition made bootleggers millionaires, helped bankroll other criminal activities like prostitution and encouraged cops and politicians to seek their share of the loot. No surprise then that the biopic of real-life madam Polly Adler (Shelley Winters) is knee-deep in corruption.  

Thrown out of her own home after being raped, Adler finds a knight in shining armor in the shape of bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) and is soon, at first apparently innocently, pimping out her friends. The reality of what becomes her profession is not ignored, the word “whore” bandied around, one girl, Madge (Lisa Seagram), turning junkie as a result while Lorraine (Meri Welles) commits suicide. As in Go Naked in the World (1961) Polly realizes that true love has no place in her world, a relationship with musician Casey (Ralph Taeger) unsustainable.

Adler, in her many voice-overs, explains why vulnerable women become sex workers – poverty, lack of family and lack of hope is her take on it – and she professes to view it as a business and preferable to working in a factory for pitiful wages, but the movie is at its best in linking the nether worlds of infamy and showing that the woman is always the loser.  Morality got in the way of portraying Adler as a winner, a successful businesswoman who brought a certain amount of style to the oldest profession. Women profiting from illegal activity would not be deemed heroic (to use the word loosely) until Molly’s Game (2017) and like Jessica Chastain in that film Adler’s love life is in tatters because, like her male counterparts, she devotes so much time to her business.

While any attempt to properly portray the period is hampered by lack of budget, it does provide an array of interesting and occasionally real-life characters, Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) for example. A brothel proves an ideal meeting place for crooks and politicians, the latter easily bought by contributions to their campaign funds. Cops are not shy about asking for donations to their Xmas funds or using the facility.

The Adler operation puts a glossy shine on the shady business since all her girls are glamorous. But still the movie pulls no punches except in the case of the madam herself, presented too often as an innocent and who saw nothing wrong in taking as much advantage of the vulnerable girls in her employ as the  clients who paid for them. Nonetheless, while Adler attempts to justify her life the film’s moralistic tone undercuts this.

 

Oscar-winner Shelley Winters (The Chapman Report, 1962), more often a supporting player at this point in the 1960s than the star, grabs the role with both hands and although unconvincing as the younger girl delivers a rounded performance minus the blowsy affectations that marred much of later work. One-time MGM golden boy Robert Taylor, pretty much in the 1960s reduced to television (The Detectives, 1959-1962) and low-budget pictures, shows a glimpse of old form as the smooth bootlegger.

Cesar Romero (Oceans 11, 1960) and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford (All the Kings Men, 1949) head up a checklist of old-timers filling out the supporting cast. Future director Lisa Seagram (Paradise Pictures, 1997) as the junkie hooker makes the biggest impact among the girls.

From the flotilla of wannabes playing Polly’s girls, apart from Raquel Welch the only one to break into the big time was Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970). In the main they comprised beauty queens – Amede Chabot (Miss America), Danica d’Hondt (Miss Canada) and Leona Gage (Miss Universe) who had a small part in Tales of Terror (1962). Otherwise Sandra Grant became the most famous – for marrying singer Tony Bennett. Patricia Manning had the most screen experience, second-billed in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), bit parts in television shows, and fourth-billed in The Grass Eater (1961). Inga Nielsen would later turn up as bikini fodder in The Silencers (1966), In Like Flint (1967) and The Ambushers (1967).

Director Russell Rouse (The Fastest Gun Alive, 1956) was better known for the screenplay of D.O.A. (1949) and had a story credit for Pillow Talk (1959). In fairness, although the film has no great depth, Rouse keeps it ticking along via multiple story strands, although occasional lapses into comedy fail to work. Lovers of curiosities might like to note that Rouse was the producer on an abortive American attempt to remake the classic British television comedy Steptoe and Son for U.S. audiences with Lee Tracy in the role of Albert and Aldo Ray as his son Harold.

This is hard to get hold of. Ebay will be your best bet. Youtube has a print but it’s not in great condition.

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