The old flame flickers again
With him, though, was a veritable A-list of Western character actors from the good old days. Second billing went to Linda Darnell, though she has a fairly incidental part as Sadie, the saloon madam. This was her first film since 1957 and her first Western since Dakota Incident in 1956. She had pretty well retired. But in ‘65 many viewers would have remembered her (faintly ridiculous) Chihuahua in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946 or the (unconvincing) Indian maiden who loves Joel McCrea’s Buffalo Bill two years before that. Black Spurs was Darnell’s last film: she died April 10, 1965, one month before the movie was released, after being severely burned in a house fire.
Terry Moore was listed third, as Anna, Rory’s beloved who ups and marries another (James Best). She received an Academy Award nomination in 1953 for her performance in Paramount’s Come Back, Little Sheba (but that was not a Western so we scorn it). In the 1970s she was in the news more than she was in the movies, as she asserted that she was the secret wife of the late billionaire Howard Hughes. Westernwise, she only did five, Cast a Long Shadow with Audie (and Best again), this one, two other geezer Westerns (Town Tamer and Waco), and a bit part in the 2000 cowboy-horror Stageghost. She’s OK, I guess, though her hairdo is very 1960s.
Next came Scott Brady, Lon Chaney Jr and Richard Arlen, all of whom will certainly be well known to any passing Westernista. Brady was one of the tearaway Tierney brothers and in our noble genre was probably most famous as the Dancin’ Kid in Johnny Guitar and as Shotgun Slade on TV, but of course he’d done many other big-screen oaters, from 1949 on, topping the bill from 1954. He did four of these 60s geezer pictures for AC Lyles. Chaney was another the audiences would have readily recognized, having if not graced Westerns then at least appeared in them for years. Though most famous for horror flicks, like his dad, he had been memorable as the arthritic ex-marshal in High Noon, High Noon, and you’ll probably remember him too in many more (he had 42 cinematic notches on his gun). Arlen, you know I’m sure, got his big break when William A Wellman cast him as a pilot in the silent movie Wings in 1927 but from our point of view, the one that counts, a key contribution was his part as Steve in the Gary Cooper version of The Virginian (the best ever version). He appeared in 34 Western features, from the silent Under the Tonto Rim in 1928 to Warlock in 1959, and he was in nearly all Lyles’s 60s pictures.
That was a long paragraph. Sorry. Here’s a short one to make up for it.
So the cast was shaping up pretty well. But it didn’t end there. With Bruce Cabot as saloon heavy, James Best as the marshal and DeForest Kelley as a corrupt sheriff, there are many other names and faces you will recognize.
In a way, though, that’s all these pictures had going for them. Webster’s defines facsimile
as “an exact copy”, and I think these geezer oaters were facsimiles of 50s Westerns. Unlike
the trashy spaghettis of the same decade, at least Lyles’s films were exact copies, and I suppose that’s good, but they somehow just don’t gel as the real thing. The low budgets, the aging stars, the rather lurid writing (this one, like many of them, was written by Steve Fisher), all combined to undermine them. EVERY TIME HE COMES TO TOWN – SOMEONE’S GONNA DIE! screamed the posters, though it’s not true at all in the story.
It was directed by old stalwart RG Springsteen, who helmed six of these for Lyles. RG went right back too, having worked on Westerns from 1936 onwards and directed them since the alliterative Wagon Wheels Westward, a Bill Elliott oater, in 1945. He churned out second-feature one-hour Westerns at quite a rate (in 1946, for example, four Bill Elliott pictures, three with Allan Lane and three with Monte Hale). You may remember him from some later mid-budget oaters such as King of the Wild Stallions with George Montgomery or Showdown and Bullet for a Badman with Audie Murphy. He does the job on Black Spurs.
It’s the well-worn gunfighter-finds-redemption plot with Rory as Santee (as Glenn Ford would be eight years later), a man who wants to get on in the world and is tired of working for someone else on a ranch. When the black-spurred bandit El Pescadore (Robert Carricart) robs the local bank and kills a teller, Santee tracks him down, beats him to the draw, shooting him dead and appropriating the spurs, and earns the $3000 reward. The trouble is, it took ten months to do this and his girl Anna (Moore), who anyway doesn’t approve of chasing down criminals for rewards, wouldn’t wait. She went off and married Elkins (Best), the marshal of the Kansas town of Lark. Heartbroken, Santee becomes a famed and feared full-time bounty hunter with trademark black spurs, all cynical and hard.
He fetches up at Kile, KS, owned and run by rich man Gus Kile (Chaney). He proposes a scheme to Kile. The railroad is scheduled to go through Lark, but railroads tend to avoid “hell towns” and if Lark becomes rowdy enough, the company will re-route it through Kile. For $25,000 and ten thousand acres of land, Santee has a plan for busting Lark wide open. Now this all seems highly improbable. Railroads had no qualms whatever about running their track through anywhere, as long as there was money in it. I’m not sure where the writer got the idea that liquor, girls and gambling in Lark would deter the railway. But anyway, that’s the plot, so Santee contacts his friend, saloon madam Sadie (Darnell) and gets her to come to Lark, along with her girls, the bouncer Henderson (Cabot) and slicker-dude Swifty (Joseph Hooker) to manage the gambling. Meanwhile, Santee himself persuades saloon owner Pete Muchin (Arlen) that he needs a partner.
Naturally, all this does not appeal to the good citizens of Lark, used to more sobriety in their burg and desiring the railroad, and the marshal and his wife lead the disapproving townsfolk. They are ably assisted by their burly preacher, the Reverend Mr Tanner (Brady) who greets Santee by fighting him in the street in a brutal brawl. Santee wins, but only just, and the two come to a gruging mutual respect.
In town, various people fear Santee. They think he has come to bounty-hunt them. One, the blacksmith (Read Morgan) even goes so far as to pay an assassin to eliminate Santee. Naturally Santee is too good for the killer. Here we have a 1959 No Name on the Bullet vibe going, as the townsmen quail before the lightning-fast gunman. Maybe that’s where Steve Fisher got the idea. Director Jack Arnold and Audie did it better, though.
Henderson bribes a trail boss to let his cowhands hurrah the town of Lark and a high time is had by all in the Palace Hotel. When the poor marshal, outgunned, rides for help to Wichita, Henderson’s men waylay him and tar and feather him. He only just survives.
This is the moment when the worm (or the gunfighter anyway) turns because it’s too much for Santee. Anna, Mrs Elkins, has told him that her young son is in fact Santee’s (they daringly had sex before marriage, you see – well, it was the 60s). The gunman begins to see the light. He tries to pay his louche partners off. But they won’t have any of it. The racket they have going is too profitable. The preacher endlessly tolls the church bell to summon the good people of Lark to action, and the thugs break his arm so he has to stop (I was on the thigs’ side, actually; it was getting on our nerves). Now Santee sees red. He borrows the ailing marshal’s badge and says, “I gotta town to clean up.” The showdown looms.
Well, well, all pretty unremarkable stuff. I will say that it’s done with gusto by the cast. They were clearly enjoying themselves and pleased that happy times were here again. It’s a bit creaky, yes, but definitely worth a watch for old times’ sake. Reviews at the time were modest. Variety called it “a well-made oater,” but The New York Times disparaged it as “a standard little western”.
It’s in Technicolor and Techniscope, shot by Ralph Woolsey, but the modern print is very muddy (on my DVD anyway).