Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Bankers and bank robberies


Bank gets robbed: serves the crooked banker right


Bank robberies are an essential ingredient of the Western movie genre. They might be large set-pieces such as the raid on the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, in many a Jesse James flick – see, for example, the opening of The True Story of Jesse James (1957) – or Peckinpah’s spectacular and bloody first scenes of The Wild Bunch (1969). They might be elaborately planned and daring robberies, borrowing much from the heist movie. Or they might be smaller affairs with cowboys walking into a bank almost casually and ordering the teller to reach for the sky. There are in fact so many bank robberies in Westerns that I cannot hope to mention them all here, nor would you want me to, I am sure, because it would just become a boring and very long list.


Frank robs the bank


And yet the curious thing is that bank robberies hardly ever happened west of the Mississippi in the second half of the nineteenth century, the setting of most Westerns. In 1991 Larry Schweikart and Lynne Doti published a detailed study which included every state west of the Missouri/Minnesota/Texas line, specifically, Arizona, California, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, between 1859 and 1900. There were a few famous bank robberies in these places and at this time, such as those of the James-Younger gang or Butch Cassidy & Co, but you could almost number them on the fingers of one hand – two at the most. “The record is shockingly clear: there are more bank robberies in modern-day Dayton, Ohio, in a year than there were in the entire Old West in a decade, perhaps in the entire frontier period!”



Sadly, it didn’t happen. Or not often.



Schweikart goes on: “Several gunslingers marching headlong into a bank may have seemed like a good idea to some, and certainly Butch Cassidy’s gang pulled off the successful Telluride robbery in such a mode. His gang had the advantage of Cassidy’s brilliant planning: a shrewd evaluator of horse flesh, Cassidy had stationed (Pony Express-style) horses at exactly the points where he knew his own horses would be wearing out, ensuring that his gang had fresh mounts all the way to their hideout. Even so, one has to search extensively to find bank robberies of even this type. There was one in Nogales, one in California, and perhaps a couple in other locations. But like the rear-wall blasting, the front-door robbery is notoriously absent in western records.”




Never mind, Western movies made up for this disappointing


Right back in the early days Westerns decided to make the most of those few bank robberies that actually happened. The success of Edison’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903 spawned many imitations, such as The Great Bank Robbery and The Bold Bank Robbery, and there was even Edison’s The Little Bank Robbery (1906) in which children took the parts and the bandits steal toys and candy. In 1908 Oklahoma outlaw Al Jennings made The Bank Robbery, supposedly re-enacting an actual robbery he carried out. It shows how early bank robberies became fixed in the ‘psyche’ of the American Western.



Bang, bang (silently). Al Jennings robs the bank.



Some of my favorite bank robberies are, just for example, the ones in The Moonlighter (1953), The Last Outlaw (1993) and The Bushwhackers (1951). Why? Simple. Although most of The Moonlighter is a rather torrid (though turgid) romance between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (yawn), there’s a good bit where Fred and Ward Bond plan a heist on the bank where Fred’s brother Tom (William Ching) works, and it doesn’t go well Tom is killed with the bank president’s derringer.



Fred sees his bro laid out with the banker’s derringer


In The Last Outlaw the ruthless gang leader Graff (Mickey Rourke) discovers the derringer of the bank manager (Richard Fancy) and asks scornfully, “What the hell is this?” The thing is, this derringer is destined to play a key part in the last reel (if TV movies have reels). And the crooked banker in The Bushwhackers shoots the even eviler rancher woman with one of the pocket guns. This is the perfect user of a derringer, a slimeball using one against the perfect victim, because she really deserved it. Bankers were classic derringer users because they wore suits and were crooks. The 2005 Eurowestern Bandidas was pretty dire but the best thing about it was Dwight Yoakam as the insanely evil banker who uses, yes, a derringer. I think all bankers were probably issued with them as standard equipment when they took up the job.



Crazed banker Dwight (usually bankers were better dressed)


And you can see how those (rather ho-hum) Westerns went up in my estimation. Bank robbery and derringer: they were in danger of over-egging the pudding.


Oo, wait, I have just remembered another bank/derringer Western. Remember in Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963) when Audie Murphy robbed the bank with one? What? I hear you cry. Audie rob a bank? Never! He did, though. Mind, he was forced to, and they only gave him a puny derringer to do it with. Not only that, it wasn’t even loaded!


But soft, is this a blogpost on bankers or derringers? Come on, Jeff. Get a grip.


Although I do not care much for One-Eyed Jacks (1961) as a Western (and still less for Marlon Brando as a Western actor) I do quite enjoy the way Brando robs the bank in that movie, sitting on the counter with a gun in one hand and a banana in the other (it’s a coin-toss as to which is the more Freudian). As Karl Malden (another bad Western actor but we’ll let that pass for today) urges him to hurry up, before the Federales arrive, he casually strolls over to a lady and roguishly scolds her for hiding her ring.



Brando robs the bank with a banana



You see, bank robberies are so commonplace in Westerns (you’d think they happened every day) that they need something to mark them out, such as a bit of humor.


Or maybe a darker vibe. In The Fiend who Walked the West (1958), a much better Western than the rather lurid title might suggest, but which borrows from the horror genre, after the fabulous introductory titles there’s a good night-time bank raid, with one of the robbers, Dan Hardy (Hugh O’Brian) being locked suffocatingly in the vault and thus later captured. It sticks in the memory, where those other hold-ups, the ones that happened every day, don’t.


A rather nice bank robbery, a very polite one, comes in that charming 1948 Western Four Faces West, when Joel McCrea needs a bank loan and makes a withdrawal with his .45 – though he is far too gentlemanly actually to fire it (in fact no gun is fired in the whole film, a rarity for a Western). And he eventually pays the money back. So maybe that doesn’t count as a bank robbery, I’m not sure.



Joel holds up the banker – courteously



The thing is, banks were, in Westerns, ruthless capitalist institutions which had only profit, not the welfare of the Westerner, as their overriding motive. Bankers were smoothies who wore suits and, even worse, were often Easterners. If the Western as a whole may be said to have a coherent political ideology at all (a rather dubious proposition, I grant you) then it would be Populism. The resentment of Westerners to what many of them saw as the unjust and exploitative control of largely Eastern big business, railroads and banks was widespread in Western states and territories. That is why so many Western movies have as their villains rich ranchers, railroad bosses – and bankers.


One of the most emblematic of screen bankers is Gatewood (Berton Churchill) in Stagecoach (1939). He is aboard the coach because he is absconding with his bank’s profits (and deserting his wife), leaving his clients desperately in the lurch, no doubt. And he is cowardly and pompous as well. It’s actually a great performance by Churchill (he could be good as smarmy lawyer also, another loathsome Western stereotype) and we cheer when he gets his come-uppance.



Banker Gatewood with prostitute Dallas. The disreputable one is on the right.


But other no-good varmints who are bankers abound. I especially like The Desperadoes (1943) with Glenn Ford, Claire Trevor and Randolph Scott. You see, there’s a scam going on. Smoothy banker Clanton (good old Porter Hall) – and we know that the name Clanton is alone enough to mark him out as a baddy – is in cahoots with rascally Uncle Willie McLeod (Edgar Buchanan, splendid as ever), resplendent in multi-colored vest (it was Columbia’s first color picture), who appears a harmless, cheery sort of chap but is actually, as I say, in a conspiracy with slimy banker Clanton. Their scheme is to pay some bank robbers led by Bernard Nedell (who is very good) to raid the bank, but they remove the cash first. They then pay out the poor account holders at 50¢ on the dollar, gaining their gratitude, and pocket the rest. Darned clever.


A Man Alone (1955) features Raymond Burr as crooked banker Stanley, with Lee Van Cleef as his henchman, an excellent combo, you will agree (Lee is also named Clanton). Stanley is a real slimeball. Pre-Perry Mason Burr had quite a good line in crooked Western men in suits, such as his lowdown lawyer Bristow in Station West in 1948 (and the female saloon owner slips him a derringer, classic derringer usage, but we better not go there again) and as the fancily dressed crook in Horizons West (1952). They weren’t all bankers, those parts, but they could have been.



Banker Ray Burr with henchman Lee in the rather somber A Man Alone


Many second-feature and series Westerns of the 1930s and 40s had the ‘hero helping to save honest homesteaders from crooked banker’ plot. It was a tried and trusted story.


Other crooked bankers include Calvin Drake (Harry Worth) in Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Rufus Bynum (Steve Brodie) in Sierra Baron (1958) and you will doubtless have your own favorite. They were legion. I could go on ad pretty well infinitum. But you wouldn’t still be reading if I did.


In fact it’s hard to think of a good banker in a Western. I vaguely remember one but can’t recall which movie it was in. Perhaps you, dear e-reader, can remind me. He helps out decent farmers by extending them loans. But good bankers are mighty rare. Most of them take pleasure in demanding payment of promissory notes and foreclosing.


Bankers join judges, lawyers, saloon owners and railroad men as classic Western villains. So if their banks got robbed on a daily basis, good.



9 Responses

  1. It was easier to rob trains and stagecoaches than banks, the first ones transporting gold and coins easier to spend than bank-notes. It is interesting to note that the local people were very alert and suspicious when seeing strangers arriving in town and ready to take up arms to protect their interests – as it exactly happened in Northfield Mn.- as there was no insurance covering the robberies. Everything changed after WWI with the Great Depression and the emergence of the gangsters lead by the most famous public enemies using cars and machine guns making bank robbery fashionable. In a way they were the last heirs of the James-Younger-Cassidy and soon they were going to have to give way to organized crime.
    In The Fastest Gun Alive, recently watched, there is a good bank robbery by Crawford, Dehner and Berry Jr.
    Which was the film where Lee Marvin teaches how to rob a bank to Gary Grimes and his friends or brothers? There is also a Gregory Peck film where he is a bank robber seeking for revenge after a missed bank hold-up where he is arrested.
    I remember vaguely a very stupid film with Kim Novak but forgot its title as well… I am sure that Gene Autry, William Boyd, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Johnny Mac Brown or Tom Mix have chased tons of bank robbers as well.
    Thank you for these approach of the genre by themes, broadening your blog expertise.

    1. Yes, the automobile changed everything. A getaway wagon just wasn't the same.
      Lee Marvin taught the boys to bank rob in THE SPIKES GANG.
      I can't recall for the moment the Peck movie you are referring to. He and his gang were robbers in YELLOW SKY but it wasn't a revenge drama. I'll have to think.

    2. I think it's shootout a not so good seventies western… a bit like true grit… peck is a former bankrobber who has to take care of a child.

  2. You did not intend to include William Holder as part of The Desperadoes cast, did you? He is not.

  3. Jeff probably got confused with Texas starring both Ford and Holden along with Trevor…? JM

  4. I'm just chiming in because you mentioned One-Eyed Jacks. I had seen it in about 1962, when I was in college, and thought it was pretty good at the time. I was a little surprised a few months ago, after I had discovered your fine blog, at your degree of dislike for the movie, Brando, Mauldin, and all but the horses they rode in on. I happened to see the movie again a week or so ago, so watched to see if I could tell what you were talking about. Actually, I still rather enjoyed it. I'm not always fond of Brando, and particularly never got used to his voice, but thought I might mention a couple of aspects that you might look at again if you ever have occasion. One is that there is something about the scenes where Brando changes from almost sleepy to violent. I grew up when fights between boys into high school were not uncommon and were not as dangerous as they are in some places today, and not treated as though they were. At any rate, I witnessed and was involved in a few growing up and Brando portrays one circumstance which rings very true to me. It is the occasion when someone who is actually not too acquainted with routine confrontations and "fair fights" is faced with a situation where they feel threatened. While looking almost terrified, they can quickly "lose it" and launch into what they appear to consider a fight for their lives, in which they are very quick and apt to use whatever means is possible to save themselves, regardless of any normal "rules" of fighting. In that movie, Brando appears a little slow, pudgy, and un-athletic. But when he changes he moves very fast, has a look like he might cry, but is frightening in the seriousness with which he shows a willingness to use whatever it takes to win. One scene where he displays this, without actually fighting, is where Ben Johnson thinks Brando is still harmless from his wounded hand and says something derogatory about Brando's love interest. Brando's reaction and threats are very convincing and Ben Johnson's sudden fear is equally excellent. But, that is course just one man's reaction.

    1. You make a convincing case, and of course many people rate Brando's acting very highly. I might watch OEJ again, to give it another chance, though don't hold your breath for a five-revolver rating!
      Ben Johnson was always superb. I think he acts the socks off Brando.

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