Stagecoach (1966) ****

It’s probably sacrilege to admit that I quite enjoyed this. Also it’s been so long since I’ve seen the John Ford original that I could remember very little of the specifics and I haven’t seen the remake before so this was just like watching a new movie.

Basically, it’s the story of a group of passengers taking the stagecoach to Cheyenne for different reasons who are joined by an escaped murderer and shepherded along by the driver and a town marshal. There is some excellent action but mostly it’s a relationship picture, how the characters react to one another and their response to crisis.

Good-time girl Dallas (Ann-Margret) is on the run, banker Gatewood (Bob Cummings) is hiding a stash of stolen money, alcoholic doctor Boone (Bing Crosby) is penniless, liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) is a coward, gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors) has Civil War secrets, pregnant Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) is meeting her cavalry husband in Cheyenne. Ornery Buck (Slim Pickens) is the driver. Curley (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun and when he comes upon stranded escaped murderer the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) promptly arrests him.

The drama unfolds as the characters confront each other or their own weaknesses. Dallas, who had a high old time as a saloon girl, is way out of her depth in respectable company,  concealing the secret of her affair with the married Gatewood. Ringo coaxes her along, bringing her out of her shell, giving her back self-respect, and of course falling in love. Curley, with his eyes on the $500 reward for bringing Ringo in, has no intention of letting the gunslinger take his revenge in Cheyenne on Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn) who killed his family. Boone and Peacock provide the fun, the doctor spending most of his time separating the salesman from his cargo of booze.

There are endless permutations with a story like this, the kind of material favoured in  disaster movies like Airport (1970) and The Towering Inferno (1974) where disparate characters battle for survival. The action is only part of the deal. The picture only truly works if the characters are believable. For that, you need a heap of good acting. The audience could certainly rely on old dependables like Bing Crosby (The Road to Hong Kong, 1962) in his big screen swansong, Van Heflin (Shane, 1953), Red Buttons (Oscar-winner for Sayonara, 1957), Robert Cummings (Saboteur, 1942) and cowboy picture veteran Slim Pickens to put on a good show. But the main dramatic load was to be carried by relative newcomers Ann-Margret and Alex Cord.

Ann-Margret has made her name with sassy light-hearted numbers like The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and had only just stepped up to the dramatic plate with Once a Thief (1965). This was Alex Cord’s sophomore outing after Synanon (1965), the odds stacked against him making any impact in the role which turned John Wayne into a star. 

Amazingly, the casting works. Ann-Margret moves from feisty to restrained, meek to the point of being cowed, and for most of the film, far removed from the false gaiety of the saloon, seeks redemption. The cocky trouble-making minx emerges only once, to knock the wind out of Mrs Mallory, but, after taking a tumble down the humility route, gradually steers her way towards a better self, preventing Gatewood from causing chaos, nursing Mallory and inching her way towards true feelings for Ringo. As in the best movies, it’s not for her to open up about her woeful life but for another character, in this case Ringo, to identify her predicament: “What you doin’ about your scars, you got ‘em even if they don’t show…when you goin’ to stand up and stop crawlin’?” When they finally kiss it is one of the most tender kisses you will ever see.  

My reservations about Alex Cord’s acting skills were based on his moustachioed performance in Stiletto (1969) but I reversed my opinion after seeing him in The Scorpio Letters (1967) and this is another revelation. As much as he can deliver on the action front, and sports on occasion a mean-eyed look,  it’s in the dramatic scenes that he really scores, gentle, vulnerable, caring. He certainly matches the Duke’s trademark diffidence in terms of romance. That the camera can mine depths of expression from both faces proves the calibre of their acting.

If director Gordon Douglas (Rio Conchos, 1964) had more critical standing, his bold long opening aerial tracking shot over rugged forest, mountain and plain before reaching the stagecoach would have received the acclaim accorded Stanley Kubrick for a similar shot in The Shining (1980). The opening also makes it clear how far removed this is from the original, not just in colour obviously, but (although filmed in Colorado) in a different locale, Wyoming, rather than the arid Arizona of Monument Valley. After a brief glimpse of the stagecoach, Douglas switches to a cavalry troop making camp. A soldier going into a wagon is met by a hatchet in the head. The camera tracks the corpse’s blood as it flows down a stream where it alerts another soldier washing clothes. Before he can raise the alarm, he gets a lance in the back.

Where the passengers have heard rumors, quickly dismissed (“nobody got scalped by an old rumor”) of the Sioux (Apaches in the original) on the warpath, the audience has seen the cavalry troop slaughtered, so (in effectively a Hitchcockian device) provides the movie with the tension the on-screen characters initially lack The passengers soon grasp reality when they come across another patrol dead at a staging post, and eventually are battling for their lives when ambushed. But prior to that there is a tense sequence of leading the stagecoach across a narrow mountain ridge during a storm.

There’s a clever reversal before the Sioux onslaught. The passengers think they have seen soldiers approaching, but it is the Sioux wearing cavalry uniforms. There is no river to cross as in the original, but the chase along a mountainous path is breathtaking, aerial and tracking shots given full rein, ending in a shoot-out without (as in the original) the cavalry riding to the rescue.

Douglas has his work cut out with the drama, as various characters confront their issues, and his staging is superb, characters always given reason to move. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (Rio Conchos) borrowed material from the Dudley Nichols original but added and subtracted quite a bit.

At the time critical deification of John Ford had not begun and Hollywood was in a cyclical remake mood – new versions of Beau Geste and Madame X appearing the same year – so Gordon Douglas didn’t quite face a critical backlash, although praise was generally sparse. Judging by the box office it received an audience thumbs-up – as it does from yours truly.

You can rent this on Amazon Prime.

Once a Thief (1965) ****

Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline  different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out. 

MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn. 

Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.

While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.

But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.

Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.

Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.

Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.  

Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.

This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His  use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.

The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.

Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.

Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

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