Rio Conchos (1964) ***

Starts and ends as a rootin’-tootin’ western but sags badly in between. The chance of turning it into The Magnificent Four or even The Dirty Pair go a-begging and it’s both revenge- and redemption-driven without either taking enough precedent. And there’s a curious dynamic in that the murderers are clearly smarter than the soldiers. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s engaging enough but too episodic and far short of a classic.

Lassiter (Richard Boone) kills Apaches with brutal efficiency in revenge for losing wife and child to them. But there’s no law against murdering Native Americans, not even when they form a harmless burial party, and when arrested by Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) it’s for buying a stolen rifle, part of a consignment of 2,000 feared to be heading into the hands of the Apaches and a rogue Confederate Col Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), under whom Lassiter once served.

Charged with going undercover to get the weapons back is Haven, who lost the cargo in the first place, and another soldier Franklyn (Jim Brown), posing as gunpowder salesmen. Lassiter is freed from jail along with exceptionally vain murderer Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosca). From captured Apache Sally (Wende Wagner) they discover the Apaches are hooking up three days hence with Pardee in Rio Conchos in Mexico.

Mostly, it’s tension between the soldiers and their captives-turned-colleagues. There’s an incident with a dead baby at a house attacked by Apaches, Lassiter shooting the tortured mother. Lassiter attacks a saloon keeper for refusing to serve Franklyn. Pardee is building an army to re-start the war. There’s a brutal scene of the men being dragged behind horses. While Haven plans to use the gunpowder to blow up the Apaches and/or the rifles, Lassiter and Rodriguez nurture plans to steal the cargo.

Lassiter is pretty smart, twice outwitting the Apaches by using fire as a distracting device, easily getting the better of Haven and more than a match for the duplicitous Rodriguez. But there’s a powder keg waiting to explode in more ways than one, the chances of Lassiter toadying along to Apaches seeming remote.

Richard Boone (Night of the Following Day, 1969) coming off Have Gun –Will Travel (1957-9163) and The Richard Boone Show (1963-1964) is impressive as the wily renegade. Here’s one of those actors you never quite know what he’s going to do and that unpredictability adds continuous tension, but it would probably have helped if the audience was fully filled in on his intentions, rather than being surprised all the time. Given he was the star here, he was allotted time to be seen making up his mind in various situations, something he would be denied as a later supporting actor. So when there’s not really much going, he creates tension.

Stuart Whitman (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) doesn’t really have enough to do what with Boone’s character always being one step ahead and clearly more attuned to danger. Anthony Franciosca (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) has a gem of role, adding to his characterization withlittle bits of scene-stealing business, sharpening a knife on a wagon wheel, recovering a knife from the stomach of a victim being dragged away by a horse, snaffling a packet of cigarettes, and never ceasing to admire his attraction to women.

Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) makes a solid movie debut, offering more by his presence than in action terms since for the most part he is just the sidekick. Wende Wagner (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969) has more screen time but mostly just smolders or looks sullen apart from a nice scene mourning the baby and another defying her tribe. Look out for Edmond O’Brien (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) and silent child actor Warner Anderson.

The action sequences are well done and director Gordon Douglas (Robin and the Seven Hoods, 1964) also deserves credit for allowing Boone such scope while the opening scene and the death of the unseen woman are exceptional. He has a great gift for the widescreen, but the movie could have done with more clarity. It’s not his fault the poster was misleading and led me into the picture with different expectations. The screenplay by Joseph Landon (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Clair Huffaker (The War Wagon, 1967).was based on the latter’s book.

Sands of the Kalahari (1965) ****

You know the score: plane crashes in inhospitable territory (in this case a desert), personalities clash as food/water is rationed, tempers run high and/or depression sets in as attempts to attract attention fail, someone goes for help, someone else has an ingenious idea and eventually everyone rallies round in common cause. That template worked fine in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).

It doesn’t here. This is not quite as inhospitable. There is water. Caves offer shelter from the blazing sun. There is food – lizards trapped, game hunted with telescopic rifle. But the food is lean, not fattened through farming for human consumption.  And you have to watch out for marauding baboons not to mention scorpions. And this group is split, two alpha males intent on exerting dominance with little interest in common cause.

Producer Joseph E. Levine came up with the poster
without close examination of the picture’s content.

Of the six survivors of this crash, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) decides his leadership status entitles him to sole claim over the only woman, Grace (Susannah York). But when he accepts the genuine responsibilities of leadership, he sets off across the desert to get help. That leaves Grace to fall into the hands of O’Brien (Stuart Whitman), so alpha he could be auditioning for Tarzan, shirt off all the time.

It soon transpires O’Brien has a rather unusual idea of survival – getting rid of his companions so that he will have no shortage of food until rescue arrives. It takes a while for the others to catch on to his plan. And then rather than common cause and camaraderie, it becomes every man/woman for himself, a battle for individual survival, a return to the primeval.

The most likely challenger to O’Brien’s authority is Bain (Stanley Baker), but he has been badly injured in the crash and no match for the other man’s brawn or his weapon. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Except it’s in the desert, it’s the law of the jungle and the rule of autocracy brought home with sudden force to people accustomed to the comforts of civilization and democracy.  

The movie’s structure initially takes us down the obvious route of common purpose – Grimmelman (Harry Andrews) knows enough survival lore to devise a method of water transportation that would permit the group to escape the desert, Dr Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) formulates  a method of trapping lizards, and O’Brien, at least at first, appears willing to take on the role of protector, warding off baboons with his gun.

The change into something different is subtle. While the others are desperate to escape, it becomes apparent that O’Brien has found his metier. We discover little about the lives of each individual prior to being stranded. Whatever O’Brien’s standing in society, it would not have been as high as here, where his superior skills stand out. Reveling in his supremacy, he doesn’t particularly want to go home.

Like any psychopath Bain knows how to manipulate so at first it seems his decisions are for the greater good. And only gradually does it emerge that he blames others for his own mistakes and intends to eliminate his rivals for the food supply one by one. Because he is so handsome, it is impossible to believe he could be so devious or so evil.

The three principals all play against type. Stanley Baker (Zulu, 1963) and Stuart Whitman (Murder Inc., 1960) made their names playing heroic types. Here Baker is too ill for most of the picture to do any good and Whitman plays a ruthless killer. But Susannah York (Sebastian, 1968) is the big revelation. Audiences accustomed to her playing glamorous, perhaps occasionally feisty, gals will hardly recognize this portrayal of a coward, not just abjectly surrendering to the alpha male but seeking him out for protection and guilty of betrayal.

Even though this picture is set in the days before gender equality and the independent woman was a rarity, Grace’s acquiescence to the powerful male is disturbing, in part because it takes us back to the days when a woman was impotent in the face of male dominance. Such is York’s acting skill that rather than despise this woman, she earns our sympathy.

While for the most part Harry Andrews (Danger Route, 1967) and Nigel Davenport  (Sebastian, 1968) appear in their usual screen personas of strong males, here their characters both are changed by the circumstances. Theodore Bikel (A Dog of Flanders, 1960) has the most interesting supporting role, the only one who takes delight in the adventure.

Director Cy Endfield (Zulu) – who also wrote the screenplay based on the William Mulvehill novel – delivers a spare picture. There is virtually no music, just image. Aerial shots show tiny figures in a landscape. The absence of character background frames the story in the present. As a reflection on the animal instinct, how close to the primordial a human being still operates, no matter how enlightened, this works exceptionally well, and melds allegory with thriller.

Murder, Inc. (1960) ***

A gangster trend hit the mean streets of Hollywood at the start of the 1960s. But in the absence of big box office hitters like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, these were all B films with unknowns or low-ranked stars in the leading roles. Whereas Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949) were fictionalized accounts of hoodlums, the gun-toting movie spree kicked off by Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and Al Capone (1959) was based on the real-life gangsters who had terrorized America’s big cities in the 1920s and 1930s.

By the end of 1960, moviegoers had been served up an informal history of the country’s best-known mobsters from Ma Barker’s Killer Band (1960) and Pretty Boy Floyd (1960) to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and Murder Inc (1960). The infamy of the criminals was so comparatively recent that moviemakers assumed audiences had a wider knowledge of their exploits and the context of their crimes.

Murder Inc tells how underworld kingpin Lepke Buchalter – Tony Curtis played him in the more straightforward biopic Lepke (1975) – set up a system of killing dissenters in the ranks for the entire American Cosa Nostra (aka The Syndicate) in a way that prevented those ordering the murders being connected to those committing them, the same kind of protective cell operation used by terrorists. He created a separate organisation of hitmen.

This quasi-documentary, with occasional voice-over narrative, focuses on three characters – the quiet-spoken Lepke (David J. Stewart), hitman Abe Reles (Peter Falk) and singer Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman) who becomes involved to pay off a gambling debt. Later on, the focus switches to Brooklyn assistant district attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan), against a backdrop of massive police corruption, investigating the murder epidemic this deadly enterprise has created. The films jumps around too much to be totally engrossing but it is certainly an interesting watch.

The two main villains could not be more different, Lepke representing the new school, a businessman, ordering killings but never participating, and for such a tough character tormented by a delicate stomach. Reles is old school, relishing opportunities to murder, and raping Collins’ honest wife Eadie (May Britt) in part because she treats him as scum. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Joey especially as his wife takes the brunt of the violence.

In an Oscar-nominated performance Peter Falk (Castle Keep, 1969) steals the show as the chilling, venomous killer, the kind of nonentity who rises to prominence only through his penchant for homicide. Swedish star May Britt (The Blue Angel, 1959) isn’t far behind with a portrayal of a strong woman saddled with a weak husband. As the milk-drinking hood, David J. Stewart (The Young Savages, 1961) was as scary in his pitilessness as his more overtly violent underling.

Stuart Whitman (The Commancheros, 1961) is almost acting against type for he was later known for rugged roles. Henry Morgan (It Happened to Jane, 1959) gave his portrayal of Turkus similar characteristics to Lepke, appearing as a quiet individual, concerned with details,  except that he was incorruptible.

You might spot some interesting names in the cast. Simon Oakland (Bullitt, 1968) is an honest cop, Vincent Gardenia (Mad Dog Coll, 1961) is a lawyer, comedian Morey Amsterdam (The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1961-1964) plays a hotel manager, Sylvia Miles (Oscar-nominated for Midnight Cowboy, 1969) has a bit part and singer Sarah Vaughan is a singer.

For some reason, this movie starred a number of actors in leading roles who made few screen appearances. This was the only movie of the decade for May Britt, David J. Stewart made only three movies during the same period, and Henry Morgan only made three pictures in his entire career, this being the last.

The movie boasted two directors. Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) was replaced  by Burt Balaban (Mad Dog Coll, 1961) when the threat of strike action by actors and writers in 1960 forced the 18-day shoot to be cut by 10 days so it’s hard to say who was responsible for which scenes, although the film does boast some unusual aerial shots.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

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