Firecreek (1968) ****

Unfairly overlooked intelligent western with terrific performances from the two male stars and thematically prefiguring both Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Granted it appears slow but it’s the slow-burn kind of slow that works exceptionally well. Too often under-stated means under-rated while subtlety rarely attracts critical plaudits. And if you see the role of the screenwriter as probing personality and uncovering self-delusion rather than merely devising pithy lines then this is one for you.

Johnny (James Stewart) is a two-bit (“honorary”) sheriff  in a two-bit town stuffed full of losers. Into his patch comes a gang of hired killers fresh from range wars led by the wounded Bob (Henry Fonda) and including cocksure trigger-happy Earl (Gary Lockwood), mean Norman (Jack Elam) and dumb Drew (James Best). With Bob side-lined with his injury, it’s not long before the gang kicks off, Earl half-drowning a man, smashing up the saloon and nearly killing a pompous preacher (Ed Begley) while Norman attempts to rape Native American squaw Meli (Barbara Luna). They think a few dollars will repair the damage and nullify hurt feelings.

But for the most part tensions just simmer, it looking like the outlaws are temporary visitors, Johnny using diplomacy to settle matters, and none of the townspeople inclined to get into a shooting match. And there’s a rich seam of characters who even when they skirt cliché seem to offer if not necessarily something new but not shop-worn either and with emotional depth.

Headstrong teenager Leah (Brooke Bundy) is attracted to dangerous Earl even though he would as soon rape as romance her, level-headed Evelyn (Inger Stevens) finds solace in a man she knows is a killer and midwife Dulcie (Louise Latham) is so dry her language could cut you with a knife. Johnny’s too trusting wife Henrietta (Jacqueline Scott)  bewails “why did we settle for less than we wanted,” storekeeper Whittier (Dean Jagger) would be a knife-whittling charming elder statesmen except for his habit of going for the jugular,  and hero-worshipping stable boy Arthur (Robert Porter), too old to be just cute and verging on a calamity, “couldn’t tell you what day it was.” And there’s a hint that the upstanding Johnny ain’t quite so perfect, the question of Meli’s white child left dangling in the air.

It’s the kind of “cemetery” town people end up when they’ve nowhere else to go, the inhabitants discomfited “because today didn’t turn out like yesterday.” Johnny’s the worst offender, stopping here on his way to a better life further west because all he “saw here was land nobody wanted and ground that nobody would be challenging me for.” The only person who will stand up for law and order is the witless Arthur who unwittingly triggers trouble. The townspeople mirror the villagers in The Magnificent Seven (1960) who require the assistance of mercenaries before they can stand on their own two feet except in this case nobody is rushing to the rescue.

The initial stand-offs between Johnny and Bob are under-stated, serving to stoke up tension, and the twist is that it’s Bob who tries to avert a showdown, feeling sorry for the sheriff, knowing he will be no match for a proven gunslinger, while the climax provides a surprising saviour. In fact, Bob is the most self-aware of all the characters. He tells Evelyn “you are living even more in the past than I am” and that “I don’t have your temperament to accept another empty day.” And even though he doubts the quality of his gang, he can’t give them up, or the power of being in charge. “I’ve been alone, didn’t like it…I can’t gamble with being a nobody, I’ve been that, doesn’t work for me.”

Among the ton of great touches are Johnny’s badge, made by his kids, title misspelled, the climax in a dust whirlwind, the pompous preacher whose bluster can’t save him, and the most terrible wake you will ever witness.

It’s quite astonishing that a film with such a high quotient of characters – except Johnny at the end – lacking redeeming features could work so well. Director Vincent McEveety was the epitome of a journeyman, best known for television and Disney (Herbie Goes Bananas, 1977) go-to guy. This was his debut feature – if you exclude Blade Rider, Revenge of the Indian Nations (1966) stitched together from episodes of television’s Branded – and it sank at the box office despite the presence of Stewart and Fonda, admittedly at the tail end of their marquee power.

Outside of the wake and the climax, the best scenes are under-played. McEveety lets the words do the talking, a good choice given the exemplary writing (as indicated above) and three principal actors who can be relied upon to ignore the temptations of over-acting. He handles the action well and there’s a growing sense of terror as the townspeople realize what their cowardice has let them in for.

There’s a nod here and there to High Noon (1952) with the town full of cowards but from today’s perspective it’s as a precursor that the movie is perhaps more interesting. Henry Fonda’s (The Best Man, 1964) performance, complete with pitiless stare and thick stubble, seems a rehearsal for Once Upon Time in the West (1969) while his gang, like The Wild Bunch (1969), complete with squabbling outlaws and leadership challenge, are “running out of borders.”  You might notice how Fonda’s death here – the movement to the side when shot, the shock in his eyes – while markedly less operatic closely resembles a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. And if you want further reference to Sergio Leone’s epic, how about a nearby town called Sweetwater.

You might think you’ve seen this James Stewart (The Rare Breed, 1966) performance  before but it’s a subtle variation on the hapless character of Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and far removed from the take-charge characters of this decade. This is man who has fooled himself into thinking he is something he is not, a man of the west in name only.

Inger Stevens (House of Cards) again delivers, like the other townspeople acting tough to hide the weak interior. There’s a terrific supporting cast. Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) is given more rein than anybody else outside of Ed Begley (Warning Shot, 1967). Look out also for Dean Jagger (Elmer Gantry, 1960), Richard Porter (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969), Jay C. Flippen (Hellfighters, 1968), Louise Latham (Marnie, 1964), James Best (Shenandoah, 1965), Brooke Bundy (The Gay Deceivers, 1969) making her movie debut, Barbara Luna (Che!, 1969) and Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West).

Credit for the intelligent screenplay goes to Calvin Clements (Kansas City Bomber, 1972), also making his first picture.

Five Card Stud (1968) ****

Another western in sore need of re-evaluation. Largely dismissed as a routine oater trading on the gimmick of a whodunit and packed with old stagers, this is in fact about a serial killer, a treatise on law and order, and almost acts as a conduit between the decade’s previous westerns when the good guys and the bad guys are easily defined to the end of the decade when such distinctions were muddied after The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) invited audiences to root for the bad guys. In this rather well-structured picture, full of action and romance, we don’t know who the bad guy is.

The whodunit, however, is really a MacGuffin. The movie is more concerned with investigating the changing mores and hypocrisies of the West and predicting the inherent dangers in the proliferation of weaponry. It’s worth remembering that the movie came out at time when mass murderers such as Charles Whitman (the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, 1968) who went on a killing spree in 1966 were becoming the norm.

A card sharp is lynched for cheating at poker in the quiet town of Rinchon where late-night gambling is the height of entertainment. One of the players, professional gambler Van (Dean Martin), attempts to stop the hanging but is beaten up for his troubles. No surprise then, that he ambles off to Denver. Sometime later the hangmen begin dying off and Van returns not just to solve the mystery but to ensure that his name isn’t on the list. “If someone is out to kill you, you don’t sit around and let him pick the time,” he concludes. With the number of killings, not to mention brawls and shoot-outs, it’s almost continuous action.

On his return, Van discovers, with a gold strike nearby, the incipient boom town has attracted unsavory elements, not just the high murder quotient but a whorehouse and loud music in the saloon. Acting as counterbalance is gun-toting preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) who announces his presence by spraying bullets in the saloon floor, emerging as the self-proclaimed “conscience” of the town.

For a sometime protector of law and order, Van is rather lax in the morals department, unwilling to commit to main squeeze rancher’s daughter Nora (Katharine Justice) when the likes of Lily (Inger Stevens), the unlikely proprietor of a barbershop-cum-whorehouse, are on hand. Van is an interesting study. Once he becomes aware that the only people likely to end up in an early grave are the six men who played poker with the lynched individual, it doesn’t occur to him to fess up to Marshal Dana (John Anderson) which would ease the fears of the ordinary public. Awareness the only corpses belonged to the guilty would have prevented further outbursts of violence among a disaffected population. Interestingly, too, Dana makes no attempt to investigate the lynching.

At the core of this picture are a couple of amazing scenes as paranoia takes hold. One miner, without the slightest sense of irony, complains that in the old days a gunfight took place face to face, not by a murderer slinking round in the dark. Rudd adds some prophetic advice: “wear a gun and use it fast, wear a gun and use it slow – I say don’t wear a gun and you won’t use it at all.”

Van likes to think he has the measure of women, when in fact they have the measure of him. The story avoids the obvious lure of a love triangle, of jealous women competing for Van’s affections. Both the young Nora and the more mature Lily are pretty well grounded. “One wore-out no-account kiss” is Nora’s dismissive description of Van’s attempts at romance while Lily lets Van know she has taken a shine to him as a matter of convenience, he’s just a man and she hasn’t had one in three years. Expecting to be treated as a pariah, Lily, expressing the notion that “women don’t usually like women who like men,” strikes up a friendship with Nora.

Marshal Dana finds it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of peace since as the death count mounts, paranoia grows rife, exacerbated by the kind of greed gold fever brings, resulting in citizens determined to challenge authority and take matters into their own hands.

The most antsy character is Nick (Roddy McDowall), Nora’s brother and the leader of the lynch mob. Nick seems to stir up bad feelings, provoking the ire of both his father and Van. The guilty are despatched in original ways, one man “drowns” in a barrel of flour, another strangled by barbed wire, a third wakes the town at night when the church bell to which his neck is attached starts ringing out. It’s not too hard in the end to work out who the killer is, but as I said, that is not the point of the picture, although the ending is satisfactory.

There a mass of small detail of the kind that director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969) tends to work into his pictures. Van is a cut above. He travels to Denver and back by stagecoach not on horseback. Citizens can purchase Pocahontas Remedies and beer from the Denver Brewery. Shaves and haircuts at the Tonsorial Parlor are reasonably priced but “miscellaneous” comes in at $20. After the preacher shoots up her floor, saloon owner Mama (Ruth Springford) smooths out the holes.

And there is some distinctive direction. Rudd’s sermon that lasts nearly 90 seconds is delivered in virtually one take, a fistfight is conducted in silence except for a soundtrack punctuated by grunts and punches hitting their target, a dying man tries to leave a physical clue about the identity of the mysterious killer. And there is a superb main street gunfight with Van trying to rescue the marshal and Rudd striding down the street in old-fashioned gunslinger mode.  

Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) and Robert Mitchum (The Way West, 1969), both with apparently easy-going but magisterial screen personas, come off well together. Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968)  always a great screen presence, an ethereal beauty, is vulnerable and strong at the same time. Katherine Justice (The Way West, 1967) is sassy and independent-minded and has a terrific facial response to coming across the first murder.  John Anderson (The Satan Bug, 1965) leads a fine supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die, 1973), Denver Pyle (Shenandoah, 1965) and Whit Bissell (Seven Days in May, 1964).

Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, adapting the novel by Ray Gaulden, contributes some classic lines. “If that is a Bible, read it,” Van instructs Rudd, assuming the preacher has a gun planted in the Holy Book, “If it ain’t a Bible, drop it.” There’s a nod to a James Coburn scene in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Congratulated on his marksmanship in hitting the spinning wheels of a windmill six times out of six, Rudd protests his shooting was a failure since he was aiming for the spaces in between. It was ironic that her next assignment concerned a lawman who took much the same no-holds-approach to the criminal fraternity (True Grit, 1969) as the killer in this picture.

I was so intrigued by this picture, realizing it had much more to offer than a whodunit, that I watched it again within a few days and was pleasantly surprised by its depths.

House of Cards (1968) ***

American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.

The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.

After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.

In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.

Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.

George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.

Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.

John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.

Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.

Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

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