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In 1956's The Brass Legend we have a modest western that did little for its director when new but ten years later provided fodder for the then-emerging Auteur theorists. Director Gerd Oswald's second feature film was something of a step backwards after his color & 'Scope noir thriller A Kiss Before Dying. Made as a six-day cheapie and released as program filler by United Artists, the show hasn't got much going for it on a production level or as marquee bait. Yet, as Andrew Sarris intoned in 1968, "Oswald's success in imposing a personal style on such otherwise routine westerns ... should serve as an object lesson to young directors who complain that they lack the time to get their films just right." We can get enthusiastic over statements like that, and understand Sarris stomping on Sam Peckinpah as "too intellectual to tell a story", yet we don't see a wealth of personal style in The Brass Legend. It's always more than competent, especially given the Roger Corman-like shooting schedule. But in the long run I'd call it style-challenged but efficient and saved by some interesting writing and one good performance -- that of the villain.
Don Martin's script, from a story by Jess Arnold and George Zuckerman, pulls a slight twist on standard "oater" fare. Rugged sure shot Sheriff Wade Addams (Hugh O'Brien of TV's Wyatt Earp) wants to marry Linda Gipson (Nancy Gates of Comanche Station) but won't quit his job until his term is up. That doesn't sit well with Linda, and her father Tom (Robert Burton of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein)) is disgusted that Wade resists settling on the Gipson farm. The only Gipson who accepts Wade unconditionally is Linda's little brother Clay (Donald McDonald of The Kentuckian and Great Day in the Morning). Wade has taught the boy to ride and shoot; Clay idolizes him in return. While playing Indians on his new pony, Clay spots Tris Hatten (Raymond Burr), an outlaw, presumed dead, who has a high price on his head. Tris captures Hatten but is pressured by newspaperman John Tatum (Willard Sage) to help make the story into an item for sale back East. Unhappy at Wade for declining to turn farmer, Tom forces Clay to admit that his tip helped capture Hatten. Although Wade wanted to keep that news quiet for Clay's own safety, Tom and John spread the news around town -- where plenty of Tris Hatten's depraved pals, including his girlfriend Millie Street (Reba Tassell aka Rebecca Welles) are willing to shoot down a 12 year-old boy just to get back at the straight-laced sheriff.
I now know what "The Brass Legend" refers to -- it's the dubious reputation of the scurvy Tris Hatten. The story generates interest when barfly Shorty (Eddie Firestone) draws a rifle bead on young Clay for his part in capturing the outlaw. Otherwise, very little distinguishes The Brass Legend. The fifities saw enormous numbers of westerns turned out at every level of studio production, a trend that slowed down two years later when a big percentage of prime time network programming was dedicated to westerns. In 1956 a modest western like this one could presumably win plenty of paydates, even Roger Corman's ultra-cheapies. This was a probably a learning experience for producer Herman Cohen, who the next year would double back to the horror racket with his A.I.P. teenage monster series (and take actor Robert Burton with him).
Hugh O'Brien was already famous for playing TV's Wyatt Earp (I can still sing the theme song) and this must have been a hiatus assignment. O'Brien's Wade Addams doesn't do much more than stay rigid and committed even when relations with the Gipsons go bad. You'd think that a feature opportunity would allow the actor to stretch beyond his TV role, where his main job was to shoot down a baddie or two a week, like every other TV western. But O'Brien is not as charming here as he was on the tube. Almost everyone else including Nancy Gates plays in a likewise competent but uninspired manner -- that schedule must have been a killer. This non-endorsement of Gerd Oswald's work with actors on this outing extends to young Donald MacDonald's one-not portrayal of the kid. MacDonald is far more effective in Jacques Tourneur's Great Day in the Morning from the same year. It needs to be added that Morning has a much longer shooting schedule, and that director Tourneur was known for obtaining exemplary performances from all of his actors, despite any shortcomings of talent.
Distinguishing himself from the mediocrity is Raymond Burr, with yet another individualized bad guy performance. Tris Hatten is a rotten thief and murderer and knows it, but he's earned the love of his main squeeze girlfriend and is popular among the gunslinger demographic (this territory seems overrun with unemployed gunslingers). Smart enough to know when to stop bullying people and grateful for the help he receives from another crook, cool customer Tris just wants to escape to Mexico , after leaving the Sheriff behind in a pool of blood, of course. What's so unreasonable about that?
I call The Brass Legend a modest production. What does that mean? The show is filmed on a TV schedule, where crews would turn out half-hours in 3 days or less by 'amortizing' similar generic scenes for the whole season all at once. 1 We see a ranch set (never with more than three or four horses) and an insubstantial "Mex Town" that looks like a 3/4 scale standing set for TV use. The familiar TV main street might have been booked by the half-day, with assorted extras coming as part of a package deal. The riding action all takes place on a couple of acres of movie ranch. Even with the carefully controlled camera angles, some telephone lines intrude in the corner of one shot.
The Brass Legend is just interesting enough to hold our attention. Will the bad guys really knock off the kid? The upstanding Wade Addams learns that people are no damn good and don't deserve a lawman who will put his life on the line to protect them. But that message is somewhat soft-pedaled. What we do get, and what contemporary reviews were quick to comment on, is a couple of impressive gun-down scenes, a little rougher than what was acceptable on TV. You know, those shows where Matt Dillon shot somebody in the hand with a .45 slug, and there's no blood (and no hand blown off). When Addams squares off against a trio of trigger boys in the barroom, Oswald suddenly throws a couple of fast, well-chosen angles at us. The shooting happens in a blur, bodies tumble left and right and we believe that Wade has out-drawn his opponents. Some of this impact is probably a matter of contrast. There's so much rootin' tootin' shootin' in John Milius' 1973 Dillinger that we become inured -- a cannon going off wouldn't impress us. In The Brass Legend, we're primed and waiting for some showdown action after half an hour of that talk-talk drama stuff. When it suddenly jumps out at us it seems twice as exciting. Admittedly, this amounts to about thirty seconds of action in eighty minutes of movie.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD -R of The Brass Legend is a clean but not sensational presentation of this hard-to-see '50s gunslinging picture. 2 The transfer is flat full frame for a show that should be matted off to 1:85. Widescreen TVs can accomplish this but the quality drops a bit with the enlargement of the frame. Otherwise the rather plain-wrap picture is in fine shape. MGM offers no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Brass Legend Blu-ray rates:
1. The TV cop show Dragnet didn't look outrageously stilted and static because the filmmakers were stupid -- producer-star Jack Webb simply threw out everything that would get in the way of absolute efficiency. Note that in this western and Dragnet, each character (except maybe the leading lady) has one lousy costume, and few loose items that might gum up shot-to-shot continuity. Jack Webb would stand in front of a blank wall and rattle off dialogue, with exactly the same delivery, for a half-dozen episodes at the same time. No wonder each installment of Dragnet looked the same.
2. I'll probably have to start qualifying my "hard to see" opinions as more downloading and streaming options come on line --- I constantly hear about "rare" pix that can be viewed instantaneously on one of the new web platforms.
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Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.