I have to say: I'm really enjoying these bargain-priced collections of B-westerns put out by Kit Parker Films and VCI Entertainment - let's hope they keep 'em coming. Darn Good Westerns: Volume 2, a two-disc collection, features six oaters - 1956's Massacre, 1951's Three Desperate Men, 1951's Outlaw Women, 1955's Shotgun, 1949's Deputy Marshal, and 1959's Four Fast Guns - you may not have heard of (I know I hadn't), but which offer solid Western action, without a lot of frills. Even better, the three widescreen efforts here are presented in anamorphic transfers - not bad for these obscure titles. Let's look very briefly at each film.
In 19th century Mexico, someone is selling smuggled guns to the Yaqui natives - guns that will be used to massacre farmers and other settlers in the rural outposts of the country. Federales officers Ramon (Dane Clark) and Ezparza (James Craig) suspect trading post owner Miguel Chavez (Miguel Torruco) and his wife, Angelica (Martha Roth), of the crime, but before they can arrest Miguel, he lams it out into the hills. Taking Angelica as a prisoner, Ramon and Ezparza hope she will lead them to Miguel before he can trade his guns to the Yaqui. But Angelica is a resourceful little minx, seducing Ezparza to go against Ramon in their mission.
A quick-moving cheapie from producer Robert L. Lippert, Jr., Massacre, written by Western pro D. D. Beauchamp (about every Western ever made), and directed by Louis King (Thunderhead - Son of Flicka), is a grim little actioner that is altogether familiar in its plot (two buddies separated by the feminine wiles of a scheming woman), but quite satisfying in its final no-win ending. Shot on the fly on location in Mexico, you really get the look and taste of the dust and grime in this sweaty Western, with the unfamiliar set-ups adding to the film's feeling of authenticity. One can't say the same thing for the thesping of Clark (wooden), Craig (bored), or Roth (overdrawn and frankly not attractive enough with her anachronistic Italian bob to inspire Craig's betrayal) as Mexican nationals, but director King keeps the film moving (there's a good knife fight between Craig and a Yaqui), and once he gets to the showdown between the Federales and the Yaquis, he and Beauchamp don't cop out: the Yaquis wipe them all out. No resolution. No happy ending. Just bleak and refreshingly dour.
THREE DESPERATE MEN
In an exceedingly simple set-up, brothers Tom Denton (Preston Foster) and Fred Denton (Jim Davis) help their friend sheriff Pete Coleman (Monte Blue) run down two outlaws. Returning back to town, the brothers soon learn that their youngest brother, Matt (Ross Latimer), has been arrested in California on the charge of bank robbery. Tom's fiancÚ, Laura Brock (Virginia Grey), pawns her engagement ring to fund the brothers' trip to California, to save their brother. Possessing proof that their brother didn't commit the crime, Tom and Fred are almost too late to stop Matt's hanging when crooked railroad agent Ed Larkin (Rory Mallinson) lies and tries to throw them off the trail. Rescuing their brother, and hightailing it back to Texas, the trio begin to collect false allegations of assorted unsolved bank robberies and murders - enough so that they eventually decided to turn rogue and become a bona fide gang.
About as square as you can get, but at least the simple story moves along at an agreeable pace. Directed by veteran Western director Sam Newfield (this was one of seven films he directed in 1951!) and written by old pro Orville Hampton (The Alligator People, Friday Foster), Three Desperate Men offers absolutely no surprises in terms of plot or performances, but it's exactly this kind of predictable, consistent Western that Hollywood was able to churn out like hamburger, keeping the genre profitable for decades. Preston Foster is a little past his prime here, while silent matinee idol Monte Blue is effective as the seen-it-all sheriff. The final shoot-out in the town streets is expertly staged by director Newfield.
Dr. Bob Ridgeway (Allan Nixon) is leaving the town of Silver Creek. Feeling that the town is played out, and with nothing for him to do but pull slugs out of gunfighters as the town spirals down into chaos, he's leaving on the next stage...with gambler Woody Callaway's (Richard Rober) blessing. Callaway knows Silver Creek is going bust, too, and he's got an idea how to replenish his coffers. In wealthy Las Mujeres, the entire town is run by women, headed up by Paradise Saloon keeper, "Iron" Mae McLeod (Marie Windsor). Callaway and McLeod go way back, but man-hating McLeod isn't about to cut in Callaway on Las Mujeres' gambling riches. Dr. Bob finds himself in Las Mujeres, as well, when he's kidnapped from the stage and brought to the town by Beth Larabee (Carla Balenda), an associate of Iron Mae's. Soon, the men of the West smell opportunity in Las Mujeres, and they're not adverse to killing a few women to get what they want.
Certainly not Johnny Guitar, but interesting, nonetheless. An early feminist Western - until the ending, of course, when paternalism is restored to its rightful place - Outlaw Women could have been a minor little gem if more time could have been taken to create the feminine-controlled world of Las Mujeres (as it is, we're stuck largely in the Paradise Saloon; we don't see how the rest of the female-controlled town works). Flashes of that subversion of the typical male-dominated Western plot show through with characters like Dora the Bouncer (Maria Hart), the butch enforcer for Iron Mae who likes to push around men while snapping a matchstick off her teeth. Had the same team from Three Desperate Men - director Sam Newfield and scripter Orville Hampton - been given enough time (or perhaps, if they had even been so inclined to do something more than just tell a story), those elements might have elevated this colorful, strange little "B" to a loftier position in the genre. As it is, those potentially interesting themes are presented with little flair or depth, while the framework of the film remains conventional. Still, it's an entertaining story, with a few good performances (film noir queen Windsor is always interesting to watch, and Rober works well with her), and as always with these "Bs" a fast run time.
Ben Thompson (Guy Prescott) is looking to kill deputy marshal Hardin (Sterling Hayden) and his mentor, Fletcher, for arresting him and putting him in prison for six years. Ambushing Fletcher with a shotgun, cutting him almost in two, Thompson misses Hardin...and that's a mistake, because Hardin vows revenge, keeping that shotgun with the intention of killing Thompson with the very same gun. On the trail after Thompson, Hardin comes across one of his henchman, who's traveling with Abbey (Yvonne DeCarlo). After killing him, Hardin rides with the hellcat Abbey, and later hooks up with old friend/rival Reb Carlton (Zachary Scott), a bounty hunter who isn't shy about wanting Abbey for himself.
A tough, mean, nasty widescreen color western from Allied Artists that wouldn't look out of place coming from Fuller or Aldrich or Boetticher, Shotgun, directed by veteran action director Lesley Selander (constantly employed, in addition to Shotgun, he directed three other films in 1955), and scripted by Clarke Reynolds (Genghis Khan, Shalako) and actor Rory Calhoun, sticks to its simple story of revenge and keeps the tension mounting. Selander picks out some spectacular scenery for his widescreen compositions, but he keeps the action front and center in the frame, and his crude but effective staging makes for an entertaining Western. The rivalry between adversaries Hardin and Carlton isn't developed with much insight (Scott, an excellent actor, is pretty much wasted here in a small role), but there are some interesting side moments between Hayden and DeCarlo (DeCarlo laments how "filthy hands" pawed at her her whole life...which naturally prompts Hayden to forcibly kiss her). Selander stays focused on the action, and he gets in several nice set pieces, including a vicious fight between Scott and Hayden, a sweet little torture scene where a henchman is tethered with wet rawhide, the sun drying it up as the bonds draw him closer to a rattlesnake, and the cool ending: a duel with shotguns, which the Indian bystanders approve of with great good humor. Not meaningful on a level Fuller or Aldrich may have attained, but satisfying on its own terms.
Undercover deputy marshal Ed Garry (Jon Hall) is looking for two fugitives who have eluded him for several months now...a task made easier since Garry has never actually seen the men he is chasing. Befriending Harley Masters (Wheaton Chambers), who is shot on the way into town, Garry is entrusted with a secret map by Masters when his assassin finally finishes him off in town. His daughter, Janet Masters (Frances Langford), is suspicious of Garry (the town thinks he may have shot Harley in the confusion of the attack), while town cutie Julie Bishop likes what she sees in the big, hunky Garry. Unfortunately, Julie's brother, Joel (Dick Foran), isn't quite as enamored with the deputy marshal as is his sister...and with good reason.
Fairly sloppy in comparison to the other trim little Westerns included in this set, Deputy Marshal doesn't have a lot to work with in terms of script (it was written and directed by William Berke). It's a thoroughly familiar story, and who the hell didn't know Dick Foran was the fugitive Jon Hall was searching for, from minute one? In case the kiddies out there didn't get it right off the bat, Berke has Foran wear a dark hat. Script problems aside (and please: no more songs from Langford), director Berke can't seem to keep any consistent rhythm going, choppily cutting back and forth between scenes without much design. Of a small side note: the credits list that Deputy Marshal was shot using the "Garutso Balanced Lens," which was supposed to simulate a three-dimensional effect. No such effect could be discerned from this transfer...although I doubt it would have helped even if you could see it. An undistinguished Western "B."
FOUR FAST GUNS
Blasting the "town tamer" that was meant to travel to the city of Purgatory, gunfighter Tom Sabin (James Craig) takes his place and enters the wide-open town. Immediately setting himself up as the opposition to Hoag (Paul Richards), the wheelchair-bound owner of the local saloon and the town's string-puller, Sabin connects with Hoag's frustrated wife, Mary (Martha Vickers), but that only nudges Hoag on to do something about the "town tamer." Sending letters off to three hired killers, Hoag intends on one of them gunning down Sabin, thereby sealing the town's fate, under his control.
Not altogether successful, but with an odd-enough tone to make it interesting. Directed by William J. Hole, and written by James Edmiston and Dallas Gaultois, Four Fast Guns immediately catches your eye as a widescreen Western shot in black and white - unusual because once widescreen hit the Westerns, color was thought to be a necessity along with the expanded screen. Cinematographer John M. Nickolaus, Jr. works up some interesting frames with the limited gray palette, and the sparse, bare backgrounds (indicative of a cheap budget) actually work to the film's advantage, further giving the movie a strange look. As for the story, it's certainly intriguing, with some nice touches that wouldn't be out of place in the spaghetti Westerns that further evolve the genre (I love the bizarre town sign, arched over Main Street, that proclaims: "When You Ride Into Purgatory, Say Goodbye to God"). However, Berke can't maintain a good head of steam with the suspense, elongating the final act beyond the point of interest while the audience has already worked out the moral dilemma of Craig having to face off with his gunslinger brother, Brett Halsey. Edgar Buchanan, an actor I've always enjoyed, isn't particularly funny here as "Dipper" (he keeps a dipper around his neck for drinking), nor does he fit in well with the story. A strange film that doesn't add up...but still intriguing, nonetheless.
Overall, I was quite impressed with the transfers for these six obscure films. Certainly presenting the three widescreen efforts - Massacre, Shotgun (both in 1.85:1 ratios), and Four Fast Guns (in 2.35:1 ratio) - anamorphically is a big plus. The prints used for these transfers may not be pristine (after all, I doubt anyone archived these forgotten films), but they get the job done, for the most part. Massacre looks the most washed-out of the color efforts here, while Shotgun has a yellowed, jaundice color shift from time to time. Outlaw Women is out of register at times with its 2-strip CineColor, but overall, it's not objectionable. As for the remaining black and white efforts, they look quite good, with solid blacks and acceptable print damage (for such obscure titles). The transfers themselves could have been more solid (I did notice compression issues from time to time), but again, these were better than I expected.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio tracks are adequate, but by no means impressive. Most dialogue is heard correctly, but hiss is noticeable with all of the titles. No subtitles or close-captions are available.
On disc one, there's an audio interview with Robert L. Lippert, Jr.. the producer of Massacre, conducted by Joel Blumberg, that's quite interesting. It runs about 10 minutes, and you get quite a bit of production info on the film (it sounds like it was a pretty wild shoot, complete with political assassinations and absconded funds). On disc two, original trailers for Massacre, Shotgun, and Four Fast Guns are included.
Another solid collection of obscure Western oaters from Kit Parker Films and VCI Entertainment. If you watch a lot of Westerns, you tend to keep going back to the same classics after awhile...and that's fine. But eventually, you want to see some "new" titles, and these Darn Good Westerns collections are an excellent way to catch some well-crafted meat-and-potato horse operas you may never heard of before. Anamorphic widescreen transfers are welcome for three of these forgotten actioners, while all but one of the films here offer solid entertainment and plenty of gun play. Keep these collections coming. I highly recommend Darn Good Westerns: Volume 2.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.