Still no good Western from Chuck
Welcome to the next installment of our Chuck-o-rama. I haven’t been able to be very complimentary about Charlton Heston’s Westerns yet. Although he was clearly a good actor, he didn’t show that in his early oaters. That he could be good in a Stetson would become obvious later, when he was outstanding in Will Penny (1968) – click the link for our review – but the 1950s pictures were ho-hum at best or even downright bad. Perhaps it was the directors and/or writers.
It is never quite clear who the trio of the title are. Everyone seems violent, or most of the men are anyway. It was to have been called The Maverick or The Mavericks, but those would have been just as inappropriate.
It’s a Reconstruction story. In Westerns Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster with no saving graces. Such Westerns always either ignore African-Americans entirely (like this one) or have them as cheerful ‘darkies’. They concentrate on evil carpetbaggers crookedly doing honest, decent Confederate ranchers out of their livelihoods. Doubtless that went on but some mention of the positive aspects of the period might have added a little verisimilitude. But then verisimilitude isn’t really what Westerns do, or what they are for.
Anyway, we open with Captain Colt Saunders as played by Charlton, in a Texas town, being suckered into marriage by the comely saloon gal Anne Baxter (who had just finished co-starring with Charlton’s Moses on The Ten Commandments) as Lorna Hunter, posing as a Southern lady.
Elaine Stritch is very good as the saucy madam Ruby La Salle who is Lorna’s friend and who warns her against the marriage idea. The New York Times reviewer wrote “But in about ten minutes, it is Miss Stritch, the hoydenish blonde warbler who immortalized the “Zip” number in “Pal Joey,” who provides what little zip this picture has. Welcome to the prairie, lady. And watch out.”
I must say though that for me Ms Baxter was the best thing about this rather clunky picture. She was always good in Westerns and was the personification of the word feisty, if that isn’t sexist (I hope not, a man can be feisty too, n’est-ce pas?) She does the saloon gal on the make transforming into loving wife and mother with aplomb, in fact much better than the script deserves. The Times again: “Miss Baxter looks lovely, intelligent and uneasy throughout the whole business.” OK. Anne had first been leading lady in a Western in Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck in 1948, and top class she was too, then a deputy marshal in the fun A Ticket to Tomahawk. She was Cal in the 1952 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Cherry Malotte in the 1955 The Spoilers, and she was good in all of them. After that it was just TV shows, more’s the pity, though she did appear in the 1960 version of Cimarron (another soap masquerading as a Western).
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Colt has just wed Lorna. He hauls her off in a buckboard back to his rancho. There we discover his one-armed younger brother, Beauregard ‘Cinch’ Saunders (Tom Tryon, Texas John Slaughter for Disney). It is said that Heston didn’t want Tryon cast as his brother but, The Ten Commandments not having come out yet, he didn’t have the clout to say nay; the AFI catalog does however say that Heston “was pleased with the young actor’s performance by the end of filming”. Onscreen, a bitter sibling rivalry is revealed, rather like MGM’s Saddle the Wind. In fact Colt is so stiff, priggish and unpleasant and Cinch is so warm and human (if rascally) that inevitably, the new Mrs Saunders warms to the younger bro and a love triangle looms.
Colt’s conscience is his ranch foreman Innocencio, played by Gilbert Roland, never less than excellent in Westerns.
The trouble is, Colt’s humorless, cold and unsympathetic nature means that it’s a tough job talking him round. I don’t know if Heston unwittingly landed these roles as highly unsympathetic ‘hero’ or if he turned them that way deliberately, but the fact remains that in all his Westerns so far he was a sour and bitter character.
Of course the wicked carpetbaggers have designs on the Saunders spread. They are Commissioner Bruce Bennett, a former Tarzan who is far too bland to be the truly evil character the plot demanded, and his deputy commissioner (aka henchman) our old friend Forrest Tucker, Wild Bill Hickok to Heston’s Buffalo Bill Cody in Pony Express three years before. Forrest doesn’t have the lines to show his true worth, the James Edward Grant screenplay and Rudolph Maté direction being so stodgy. Still, it’s good to see him. Good old Barton MacLane is there too.
The script really is pretty clichéd. Charlton even says, “A man must do what a man must do.” Twice.
Maté was a talented cinematographer who turned his hand to directing and helmed seven Westerns (this was the last) but I fear that none of them was very distinguished. According to the AFI catalog the picture was first slated for Michael Curtiz but somehow got to Maté. Grant was of course one of John Wayne’s preferred writers, and he also turned his hand to directing now and then. But if Three Violent People was typical of their output I regret to say it wasn’t saying much.
Visually, it’s all quite fine. Shot in VistaVision and Technicolor again (as The Far Horizons had been), this time by the great Loyal Griggs, Osacred for Shane, in pleasant Old Tucson locations (a New York Herald Tribune article stated that Paramount chose to shoot in Arizona in order to take advantage of a $75,000 permanent set built there six months earlier). Anyway, the picture is a good looker. Pity the direction and writing weren’t better.
It was the first film produced by Hugh Brown, a former Paramount studio accountant.
The Walter Scharf music seems more suited to a gangster noir.
Like all one-armed characters in these pictures, Tryon so obviously has his arm tucked into his shirt that it’s laughable. The least he could have done was get it amputated for the role.
There’s quite a good ending with an upturned decanter (if you watch it you’ll understand) and a snappy shoot-out.
But all in all I fear this one is a bit of a dud. And reels of it were plain boring.
It grossed $1.2m so that wasn’t too bad, but of course it couldn’t compete with The Ten Commandments, released three months before, and it didn’t even do that well against Western competition (Elvis in Love Me Tender and Duke in The Searchers putting it rather in the box office shade).
Variety liked it. The review said that “The story opens trite” but went on to praise the acting: “Anne Baxter has the requisite sauciness combined with essential sincerity to make the woman’s part stand up. Her inter-relatedness to and with Charlton Heston, a rugged and believable characterization, gives the production its underpinning.” They also liked Gilbert Roland: “Westerns have many a beguiling and lovable and sturdy-souled Mexican. This one comes equipped with Gilbert Roland, whose loyalties and warmth build the human side which redeems Three Violent People from being just another giddyap.”
But The New York Times was not so flattering and opined that the picture “hoards most of its violence for a rootin’-shootin’ finale. But not the talk, assuredly. Even more tiring is the leaden baton-wielding of director Rudolph Maté.”
Later critics have been on the dismissive side. Brian Garfield in his Western Films called it “pretty dreadful” and thought the plot “ludicrous”. He said “the whole thing is on a pulp-magazine level of silliness.”
Erick Maurel on DVD Classik said it was “un résultat certes pas déshonorant mais dans l’ensemble bâclé et assez insipide” (a result certainly not dishonorable but overall sloppy and rather insipid).
Dennis Schwartz thought it “unappealing” and also criticized the “poor performances” and said that the “hammy acting made this Western soap far too soapy.”
Jeff Arnold said, “This one is a bit of a dud. And reels of it were plain boring.”
Chuck’s next Western would finally be a good ‘un – or at least way better than the preceding five. But for that, come back soon!