Rough Night in Jericho (1967) ****

Woefully under-rated western with three A-list stars at the top of their game in a taut drama with an explosive ending. Not surprising it was overlooked at the time with John Wayne duo El Dorado and The War Wagon, Paul Newman as Hombre and an onslaught of spaghetti westerns garnering more attention at the box office. Though a rewarding watch, be warned this is more of a slow-burn drama than a traditional western and both male leads play against type.

Former lawmen Dolen (George Peppard) and Ben Hickman (John McIntiyre) have invested in a stagecoach business owned by twice-widowed Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), just about the only business in Jericho in which Alex Flood (Dean Martin) does not have a controlling interest. Dolen’s first reaction on surmising Flood’s power is to quit, “stepping in’s a habit I outgrew.” And it’s not a bad approach given that Flood is judge, jury and executioner and apt to leave victims strung up to dissuade dissent.

Dolen and Flood have a great deal in common, moving from ill-paid law enforcement into business, Flood, having cleaned up the town, staying on the reap the profit. While Dolen avoids confrontation, Molly aims to stir up opposition, invoking ruthless reaction.

What’s unusual about this picture is it’s mostly a duel of minds, Dolen and Flood testing each other out, neither backing down even while Dolen intends quitting and when he happens to win a bundle in a poker game with Flood you have the notion that was somehow an inducement to help him on his way.  It’s a power game of sorts, too, between Dolen and Molly, she determined to give no quarter to the point of drinking him under the table.

But when violence occurs it is absolutely brutal, Flood’s knuckles bloodied raw as he batters a man foolish enough to challenge his rule of law, Dolen taking an almighty whipping from Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Molly viciously slapped around by Flood for daring to look at Dolen. When Dolen does move into action it is with strategic skill, gradually reducing the odds before the inevitable shoot-out between respectable citizens and gangsters.

A good half century before the notion took hold, this is a movie as much about entitlement, about those doing the hard work receiving just reward, Flood, having risked his life to tame the town, deciding he should be paid more than a sheriff’s monthly salary. And the western at this point in Hollywood development had precious few female businesswomen in the vein of Molly.

Cover of the Pressbook

Both Dean Martin and George Peppard play against type. An unexpected box office big hitter through the light-hearted Matt Helm series, Martin explodes his screen persona as this vicious thug, town in his thrall, contemptuous of his victims, turning politics to his advantage, but still happy to hand out a beating when charm and chicanery fail. This is one superb, and brave, performance.

For Peppard, this picture is the bridge between the brash persona of The Blue Max (1966) and Tobruk (1967) and the thoughtful introspective characters he brought to life in P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) and Pendulum (1969). Perhaps the most telling difference is a little acting trick. His blue eyes are unseen most of the time, hidden under the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. He is not laid-back in the modern sense but definitely unwilling to plunge into action, movement both confined and defined, a man who knows his limits and, no longer paid to risk his life, unwilling to do so.

Jean Simmons (Divorce American Style) is in excellent form, neither the feisty nor submissive woman of so many westerns, but clever and determined, perhaps setting the tone for later female figures like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles (1969).

And this is aw-shucks Slim Pickens (Major Dundee, 1965) as you’ve never seen him before. John McIntire had spent most of the decade in Wagon Train but he punches above his weight as a mentoring lawman. If you are trying to spot any other unusual figures keep an eye out for legendary Variety columnist Army Archerd  who was a walk-on part as a waitperson.

More at home in television, director Arnold Laven took to the big screen on rare occasions, only twice previously during the decade for Geronimo (1962) and The Glory Guys (1965), but here he handles story and character with immense confidence and considerable aplomb. The direction is often bold – major incidents occur off screen so he can concentrate on the reactions of the main characters. There is a fabulous drunk scene, one of the best ever – plus an equally good hangover sequence –  the violence is coruscating, all the more so because it is not delivered by gun.

The screenplay by Sidney Boehm (Shock Treatment, 1964) and Marvin H. Albert (Duel at Diablo, 1966) swings between confrontation and subliminal menace.

A Twist of Sand (1968) ***

Initially promising, ultimately disappointing thriller that proves you should not go to sea  without a big budget. Because he is the only skipper to have successfully negotiated the Skeleton Coast off Namibia in South Africa, smuggler Geoffrey Peace (Richard Johnson) gets roped into a scheme by Harry Riker (Jeremy Kemp) and Julie Chambois (Honor Blackman) to collect stolen diamonds.

Peace knows his way around this area thanks to World War Two submarine exploits and that particular expedition is recalled in flashback while its repercussions form part of a plot. Also on board the boat are the goggle-eyed knife-wielding Johann (Peter Vaughn) and Peace’s shipmate David (Roy Dotrice).

Peace has to navigate the treacherous waters of the Skeleton Coast before the team embark on a trek through the desert to find the diamonds, hidden in the unlikely location of a shipwreck, itself in imminent danger of being buried in an avalanche of sand that could be triggered by (shades of Dune) sudden movement or sound.

On paper – and it has been adapted from the bestseller by Geoffrey Jenkins – it has all the ingredients of a top-class thriller but it doesn’t quite gel. For a start, the flashback, where Peace has to hunt down a new class of German submarine and not only sink it but make sure there are no survivors, gets in the way of the action.

The sexual tension you might expect to simmer between Peace and Julie does not appear to exist, the bulk of the threat coming from the villainous-looking pair, Riker and Johann, the former already known to be untrustworthy, the latter too fond of producing a knife at odd occasions. The trek into the desert takes way too long and rather than increase tensions slackens it off and there is no real explanation as to why the ship was lost so far into the desert without entering Clive Cussler archaeological territory.

Extracting the diamonds is certainly a taut scene, with the sand dunes threatening to collapse any moment but the climax you saw coming a long way off and although there is an ironic twist it is not enough to save the picture.

On the plus side, Richard Johnson (Deadlier Than The Male, 1967) shucks off the suave gentleman-spy persona of Bulldog Drummond to emerge as a snarly, believable smuggler. But Honor Blackman (Moment to Moment, 1966) is wasted and this is one of the least effective bad guy portraits from the Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) catalogue. Roy Dotrice (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) is better value while Peter Vaughn (Hammerhead, 1968), menacing enough just standing still, overplays the villain.

Set up as a thriller very much in the Alistair MacLean vein, this shows just how good MacLean’s material was, how great a command he had of structure and not just of action but twists along the way. A Twist of Sand wobbles once too often in its structure and never quite manages to build up the necessary tension between characters. Although the Skeleton Coast sea-scene falls apart due to defective special effects, the other two sequences at sea are well done, the opening section where Peace is being chased by Royal Navy vessels, and the underwater attack on the German submarine where murky water manages to obscure the effects sufficiently they appear effective enough.

Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) does his best with material that’s not quite up to standard. Marvin H. Albert (Tony Rome, 1967) doesn’t do as good a job of adapting other people’s work as he does his own.  

Catch-Up: Richard Johnson films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Khartoum (1966), Deadlier than the Male (1967), and Danger Route (1967).

Duel at Diablo (1966) ****

Action-packed and plot-jammed revisionist western with fresh performances from James Garner and Sidney Poitier caught up in an Apache uprising. Tough-as-teak ex-cavalry scout Garner has dispensed with his glib smart-aleck persona in favor of world-weariness and Poitier is a revelation as a cocky cigar-smoking ex-cavalry sergeant horse-dealer. Racism here concerns hostility towards Indian squaw Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966), Garner, who had married a Commanche (now dead) the only one to treat her with any decency.

Returned to “civilization,” Andersson wants nothing more than to escape, back to her baby it transpires. Her crime is staying alive after Apache capture when she should have done the “decent thing” and killed herself rather than living as a squaw. But prejudice is leavened by husband Dennis Weaver (minus trademark moustache) who retains tender feelings towards her and, eventually, her baby. Apache chief John Hoyt is equally redeemed by his care towards the baby.  

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, 1963) handles the action with aplomb but it is the Apaches who prove the masters of battlefield strategy, deftly maneuvering the cavalry into an ambush and cutting them to shreds. His biggest problem is delivering logical reasons for all the principals – Weaver is an arms dealer, Garner and Poitier no longer in the army – to join up with Bill Travers’ (Born Free, 1966) cavalry troop. However, rather than slowing the story down, the various complications add further tension.  

Nelson never reins in reality. The cavalry are raw recruits, hardly able to control their mounts. Garner and Poitier don’t buddy-up, there is no camaraderie, and Andersson is an outcast in both worlds. And the good guys are constantly out-smarted by the Apaches, Poitier’s mistake leading to initial ambush, the Apaches targeting water supplies to derail the enemy and resorting to bow-and-arrow in case a stray bullet ignites the ammunition wagons. But it is still a duel, Poitier, Garner and Travers each in turn coming up with brilliant ideas to retrieve what looks like a desperate position trapped in a box canyon.     

We might be more sympathetic towards the plight of the Apaches, shoved into a “hell-hole of a reservation,” had Nelson concentrated less on their brutality, the picture opening with the corpse of a mutilated man, the cavalry under siege at Diablo tortured by the screams in the night of a man being tortured, Andersson told that she will be buried alive. But when any Commanche woman can be killed and scalped just because she married a white man and Andersson viewed as fair game for rapists because she lived with Apaches, you can see how little regard the Native Americans have for their oppressors.

Garner and Poitier are superb and top marks for a rounded performance from John Hoyt, savage one minute, gentle the next. Scotsman Travers and Swede Andersson should have added to the authenticity since immigrants such as these provided the mass of settlers, but Travers seems quite out of place and Andersson never quite delivers the angst required of her situation.  William Redfield (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) can be spotted. Nelson has a cameo and if you look closely you will see a fleeting glimpse of Richard Farnsworth. Western specialist Marvin H. Albert (The Law and Jake Wade, 1958) co-wrote the screenplay from his novel.

You might be able to catch this for free on Sony Action Movies, but otherwise here’s a DVD link. You might get it on Amazon Prime but last time I posted a link for that, it didn’t work.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.