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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » El Paso (Blu-ray)
El Paso (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // January 2, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $18.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 30, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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An unusual production, El Paso (1949) straddles the mostly segregated worlds of A- and B-Westerns. Pine-Thomas Productions had been producers of B-movie fodder for Paramount Pictures, churning out sometimes quite good little Bs meant to fill out of a fiscal year of block-booking and blind-bidding. William H. Pine and William C. Thomas were nicknamed the "Dollar Bills" because their cheap movies reliably made money, prompting their oft-quoted remark, "We don't want to make million-dollar pictures. We just want to make a million dollars."

But by 1949 the market for B-pictures was dwindling, and with El Paso Pine-Thomas decided maybe it was a good idea to make a million-dollar movie after all. It has the running time (103 minutes) of an A-picture and is in color, albeit the bi-pack Cinecolor process, which rendered great-looking blues, oranges, browns, and reds, but was lousy with greens, which always came out dark green-to-black. Westerns like El Paso were generally well-suited for the process. A jungle adventure not so much.

Likewise, El Paso's cast is populated with actors who straddled A and B-movies. John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) had been a big star at Fox but his career went into decline after the war, just as Gail Russell's had at Paramount (due to alcoholism). Dick Foran had been appearing in both A and B-movies at Universal. George "Gabby" Hayes mostly appeared in B-Westerns but was occasionally tapped for similar parts in A-films.

The movie itself, about an attorney's efforts to bring law and order to a frontier town, is mostly just okay, a kind of crude antecedent to Ford's late masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The film gets almost shockingly violent during its third act, but pulls its punches by the conclusion.

A veteran of the Confederacy, attorney Clay Fletcher (John Payne) is asked by grandfather Judge Fletcher (H.B. Warner) to deliver legal documents to Judge Henry Jeffers (Henry Hull) in El Paso, Texas, a wide-open town. Aboard the stage heading that way he encounters Pesky Tees (Gabby Hayes), a naïve peddler of pots and pans, and Stagecoach Nellie (Mary Beth Hughes), a grifter who relieves both men of their wallets.

Arriving in El Paso, Fletcher is shocked to discover that Jeffers has become a pathetic drunk, used by land officer Bert Donner (Sterling Hayden) and corrupt Sheriff La Farge (Dick Foran) to subvert the law to swindle settlers out of their valuable land. When Fletcher expresses outrage at a sham trial held in a saloon, Donner humiliates Fletcher, stripping him of his eastern garb, though he's rescued by rancher-sharpshooter Nacho Vazquez (Eduardo Noriega).

Fletcher has taken on his grandfather's assignment partly to reunite with Jeffers's daughter, hat shop owner Susan (Gail Russell), she at first unaware of how badly Donner, who also covets Susan's hand, has been taking advantage of her father's drinking problem. Fletcher resolves to bring justice to El Paso after La Farge nearly beats to death another settler, John Elkins (Arthur Space), threatens his wife and son, and trumps up a murder charge against him. Fletcher rushes to his defense, though in court Payne does not argue that Elkins is the one and only Santa Claus.

El Paso is colorful and generally well-made but otherwise ordinary until about two-thirds of the way through, when it unexpectedly heats up several notches. (Spoilers) After securing a fair trial and a Not Guilty verdict for Elkins from a sobered-up Jeffers, Donner and La Farge have the hapless judge beaten to death, his body dragged through town behind a galloping horse. Simultaneously, Elkins and his wife are brutally murdered, their young son, Jack (Bobby Ellis), a witness to the horrible crime.

This prompts Fletcher to form a vigilante gang that strings up Donner's henchmen left and right. At first the band relies on Jack's eyewitness testimony but soon they're murdering with impunity, based on hearsay alone.

Director Lewis R. Foster's screenplay walks this back before the movie ends, possibly due to Production Code mandates, but that it goes as far as it does is rather remarkable in this mostly unremarkable movie.

Foster had a long Hollywood career, from the late silent era until 1961, by which time he had transitioned to television. He worked on some major films, though probably was not the primary contributor to their success. He's the credited director on a number of early Laurel & Hardy shorts, but Stan Laurel really directed those in all but name. Foster was nominated for two Academy Awards in writing categories, for the classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The More the Merrier (1944), but three other writers contributed to the latter's screenplay, and Sidney Buchman wrote the screenplay for Mr. Smith, based on Foster's story outlines.

The cast is interesting. After leaving Fox, John Payne alternated between film noir, swashbucklers, and action-adventure, but also made enough Westerns that he became a minor star in that genre, beginning with this film. Sterling Hayden was relatively unknown but, partly because he was tainted by his past ties to the Communist Party, spent most of the 1950s in similar parts, in higher-end Bs and nervous A-pictures, often Westerns. This is one of the very few films in which he plays the villain. Dick Foran's bad guy must also have come as a surprise to contemporary audiences. Known for his leading parts as singing cowboys, Foran projected a Pat O'Brien-type gregariousness, and thus cast way against type here.

At the box office El Paso did fairly well, earning $2 million, but more significantly it helped establish Payne as Pine-Thomas's go-to leading man, and the three made about a dozen films together. Payne (or his agent) negotiated a contract whereby the rights would eventually revert to Payne rather than the producers, a shrewd move as Payne later made a small fortune selling them to television.

Video & Audio

Remastered in 4K, El Paso looks very good throughout, the Cinecolor photography carefully avoiding the color green while emphasizing the process's strengths. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio is also fine. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Feature

Supplements are limited to a fact-filled audio commentary by genre authority Toby Roan. It's a good track, packed with information

Parting Thoughts

Not great but well-made, enjoyable, interesting, and for about 15 in there, quite surprising. For Western genre fans, this is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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