Jocko at the top of his game
From 1955 Sherman went freelance and in in that year he directed Calhoun again, with Gilbert Roland, in a Mexican fandango, The Treasure of Pancho Villa for RKO. And it wasn’t long before he was back south of the border to make The Last of the Fast Guns, this time with Jock Mahoney – and Roland again.
The reviews at the time of Mahoney’s part in Fast Guns were not at all bad. Variety wrote that “Mahoney makes a sympathetic and interesting character of his role” and The Hollywood Reporter said it was “a grade A western that goes a long way toward establishing Jock Mahoney as a full-fledged star.” And in fact Jocko was beginning to reap the rewards of this modest stardom. While he was in Mexico he bought a 24-foot cabin cruiser. He also bought his wife Maggie a wedding ring. They’d been married for seven years already but he hadn’t gotten round to it.
And interestingly, his costume is all white, in stark contrast to Mahoney’s somber duds. Is Sherman playing with the goody/baddy cliché? The white hats and the black hats? Who is the goody and who the baddy? Ah, time will tell.
The picture was shot in Mexico, in Morelos and Guerrero, and very attractive the locations are too, nicely shot by Alex Phillips, a Canadian cinematographer married to a Mexican and living in Mexico. He also photographed Robert Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country and Chuck Connors’s Geronimo, both filmed down Mexico way. In fact much of the crew and many of the extras are Mexican. It’s odd, though: you can often tell when it’s a Mexican movie. Maybe it was the film stock or something but this picture doesn’t look like the usual bright-colored Universal Westerns. Or maybe it’s the transfer to DVD.
There’s a good Spanish DVD (but you can have it in English and without subtitles). The disc did stick annoyingly now and then, freezing the action for a second or two. There’s also a Sidonis DVD, which would mean good picture quality, but that would mean subtitles you can’t switch off.
It was written by David P Harmon, who had penned Reprisal! for Sherman. Some of the screenplay is a bit wordy and Harmon seems to have aimed for an existential angst not quite suited to a Western. Still, most of it rattles along.
The producer was Howard Christie, who began in films as a bit-part actor, becoming assistant director and director at Universal. He produced Abbott & Costello comedies from the late 1940s and was eventually appointed vice-president of Universal’s TV division, producing Wagon Train and The Virginian in the late 1950s and through the ’60s.
What else can I tell you? Oh yes, the plot. A brief outline anyway. Jock is slick gunslinger Bret Ellison, all in black, who, to establish his Main Street cred, shoots some other two-Colt gunfighter in a quick-draw contest in the first reel. It’s actually quite well done by Sherman because at the crucial moment, just before the lightning draws, the camera cuts to a fresh empty grave, presumably just dug by Ellison, and we just hear the shots off. Budd Boetticher did something similar in the opening scene of Seven Men from Now two years earlier, if you remember, with Randolph Scott doing the shootin’.
An elderly rich man in a Victorian wheelchair, John Forbes (Carl Benton Reid, often a senior Army officer in Westerns) now hires Ellison to find his brother Edward, who went to Mexico thirty years ago and hasn’t been seen since. John (who rather incongruously has a picture of The Hay Wain on his wall) wants Edward, not a treacherous partner in San Antone, to inherit his fortune, because he’s on the way out (there’s a good line when Ellison asks how long he’s got and Forbes points to his waist, then to his heart, saying “From here to here.” You get the idea that maybe Ellison takes the job as much out of pity for the sick man as for the money, so the hardened gun-for-hire shows some humanity.
So Jocko trots off southwards (you can tell when he’s in Mexico because he crosses a river and the music changes). First he goes to a ruined palace of some kind where unscrupulous innkeeper Samuel Grypton (pre-Get Smart Edward Platt, parts in Westerns from The Proud Ones in 1956 to Santee in 1973) gives refuge to outlaws and gunmen on the run, and there he meets some good ones, Johnny Ringo (Lee Morgan), Jim Younger – Cole, John and Bob’s brother (Milton Bernstein), and Ben Thompson (Stillman Segar). They are all dinosaur gunfighters with no future. But they give him some clues about the missing Forbes.
We must be in 1882 because Ellison tells these outlaws the gloomy news that Jesse James and Billy the Kid have just been killed. Actually, news must have traveled slowly because Billy died nine months before Jesse. But who’s counting? This saddens Ringo, Jim and Ben further, and we get the idea that the title of the movie applies not just to Ellison but to all the fast-gun men of the old West. The mood is what the French call crépusculaire.
Then Ellison turns up at Lorne Greene’s hacienda, where Gilbert Roland is the foreman. On the way he spotted Lorne’s daughter, third-billed Linda Cristal, bathing in a pool (a standard way of getting some mild titillation into staid 1950s Westerns) and he saucily pinches one of her undergarments. We sense a romance looming. Actually, this is one of the weaknesses of the picture: the relationship between the hacendado’s daughter and the gunfighter is never developed and is at best cursory, yet they are supposed to be deeply in lerve and go off together at the end of the movie. They’ve hardly talked to each other by then. This was of course well before The High Chaparral and Linda was not well known to American Westernistas. She’d just had a small part in Comanche a couple of years before.
Lorne Greene, the year before Bonanza started, was still quite new to the Western. He’d been good as the bad guy in a Guy Madison picture, The Hard Man, in ’57 but this was only his second. He’s OK, I guess. Ottawa-born Green(e) was a radio broadcaster known as the Voice of Canada and didn’t come to Hollywood till the 1950s. He tries for Irish roots in Fast Guns though has no discernible Irish accent and of course he was about as Irish as I am (i.e. not at all).
Jocko cheats a bit because in the dialogue he is asked his age and he says that in 17 months he’ll be 30. In fact, the following year he would be 40, so he was flattering himself a bit. A further discussion of age ensues when Jocko asks how old Gilbert is, and the only reply is that he is younger than Lorne. Well, Gilbert was born in 1905 and Lorne in 1915 so that wasn’t strictly true either. But anyway, movie stars are notoriously vague about their age and we don’t want to probe too much, do we?
At one point in the dialogue Gilbert says he has traveled the world but Madrid is his home and he longs to go back there. Was that true? In real life Roland once said, “I am a Spaniard, but Mexico is my second fatherland.”
As usual, it’s a joy to watch Jocko move. The fluidity with which he mounts a horse is full of grace. The man was a born athlete. No wonder he became Tarzan. A dumpy couch-potato like your Jeff can only watch in wonder.
Two double-headed silver dollars play a part in the plot. They are supposed to be (but aren’t) 1794 ones. Another good gimmick is that Jocko has, in addition to his slinky two-gun rig, a bolas, which he says a gaucho friend taught him to use, and he saves Gilbert’s life by throwing this device at the legs of a wild bronc which was about to do Gil in. So Gil is eternally grateful, etc, and agrees to go with Jocko to find Forbes’s brother Edward, even though he is against the idea, as everyone else seems to be, too, for the pair get shot at a lot.
Like all proper gunslingers, Ellison is troubled, melancholy, almost bitter, and wants to hang up his guns. The idea is that this will be one last job and then he’ll buy a ranch in Oregon. California, Oregon, in the case of James Garner even Australia, it’s usually somewhere further west, that nirvana where the West is still Wild. It wasn’t, of course. It’s a kind of nostalgia. And you know what they say about nostalgia: it’s not what it was.
The (slightly pretentious) idea is that our (anti)hero is searching as much for inner peace as he is for the brother.
Well, Gil and Jocko can’t find Edward Forbes and no one wants them to. In fact there’s even an assassin who comes in the night to stop them. In the darkness Gil asks, quoting Billy the Kid, “¿Quien es?” He shoots the would-be killer but we can see he hesitates. Is there something fishy about him? Could he even be Edward Forbes? Could Lorne Greene be Edward Forbes? The plot thickens.
Gil took a bullet, though, in the exchange of fire. Luckily a kindly old Mexican priest comes and digs out the slug. There’s a neat moment when the old man is just about to probe the wound with his knife when instead of an “Ow!” of pain from Gil we get a “Caw!” from a crow. Once again, Sherman shifts our gaze from the violent act to an unrelated image that stands in for it.
The simple priest is also very helpful to the pair in their search. The padre is played by Eduard Franz. The craggy-faced Mr Franz was one of Hollywood’s tame Indians, Two Moons in Broken Lance, Red Cloud in The Indian Fighter, Broken Hand in White Feather, and so on. He became quite typecast. This old Padre Jose comes to play an increasingly important part in the plot.
It’s an adventure/noir as much as a Western but it passes muster whichever genre you judge it as.
The climax approaches. Will Ellison get his happy ending on that ranch? Or will he, like Gregory Peck’s Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter in 1950, die stretched out on some dusty ground shot by someone faster than he? Well, the gunman goes back to Grypton’s, where…
But nay, my lips are, as ever (well, sometimes) sealed. You must watch the movie yourself for the dénouement. One thing I can tell you: that bolas comes in handy again.