Westerns go noir
Continuing with our theme of the Westerns of 1948, one of those ‘vintages’ that remain in the memory, let’s look next at a couple of examples which had more than a little noir about them. In the late 1940s the success of psychological crime stories had spilled over into our noble genre. The year before, for instance, 1947, had seen a superb picture from Warners, directed by Raoul Walsh and written by Niven Busch, Pursued, starring Robert Mitchum. It got glowing reviews and made $3.7m on a $1.6m budget, so they were doing something right, and indeed it was a fine film. It was dark, sinister, with Freudian touches. It was natural that in ’48 they’d want to make more.
Next time on JAW we’ll look at a magnificent one, also starring Mitchum, directed by the talented Robert Wise, RKO’s Blood on the Moon, which came out in December. But today, a picture released in the US by Columbia in July, produced by Harry Joe Brown and directed by Ray Enright – his greatest ever Western, in my view. Coroner Creek and Blood on the Moon had something important in common: they were both based on novels by that fine Western writer Luke Short. I’ve waxed lyrical before on this blog about Short stories (as it were); Frederick Glidden, to give the author his real name, was a master at the concise, taut, tense Western story with an authentic background, often with relatively few characters, and ideal material for a Western movie.
The first chapter of Luke Short’s 1945 novel Coroner Creek sets up a classic revenge plot admirably. Chris Danning, eighteen months on from the death of his fiancée in a brutal massacre by Indians, has learned that a white man planned and carried it out. Through an old Apache-speaking scout, he interrogates one of Tana’s braves who took part in the killings to get information about the ruthless white man, for he seeks nothing but revenge.
Not unnaturally, the film version starts with the massacre. Nothing like an all-action opening with Indians attacking a stage, is there? The film makes bigger changes to the book than that, though, as we shall see.
In the movie, of course, you visualize the story more directly and get to enjoy performances by the likes of Randolph Scott, Edgar Buchanan and Forrest Tucker, as well as attractive Western scenery in lovely soft colors. They were Sedona, AZ locations photographed in Cinecolor – a process giving pleasant washed-out pastel shades and highlighting the reds and oranges (ideal for Sedona) – by Fred Jackman Jr, whose first Western was the 1926 silent The Devil Horse and who was still behind the lens with the Here Come The Brides TV series in 1970; he shot several Randolph Scott Westerns, such as Albuquerque (also ’48) and Gunfighters (1947). Many of the characters in Coroner Creek wear brown, but with a flame-orange kerchief at the neck. Brilliant.
Yet your imagination works more in the novel, you get to create your own pictures of characters and you absorb more atmosphere. The opening words of the book put you immediately in the Arizona of the US Cavalry and Apaches, 1870s or 80s:
Some of the post lamps were out even before taps ended. As the last note of the bugle died, the dogs took it up, and their bedlam spread from the post to the agency dogs and was echoed far off by the curs around the clusters of wickiups on the reservation to the South.
You can see, hear, even smell that southwestern night on the army post, can’t you? Especially if you’ve ever been to such a place, Fort Apache, say, and sensed its atmosphere.
What do we need in a classic Western? Well, we have to have a brave and resourceful hero, preferably a loner. Novel: Chris Danning, school of hard knocks, hard of heart and bent on revenge, check. Film: Randy Scott in a classic performance, one of his finest, stern of countenance, ideal for the part, check.
We also need a really bad bad-guy. Novel: Younger Miles, dark of complexion and heart, seeking respectability yet deep down greedy and cruel, check. Movie: George Macready, blond and unblinking, scar on right cheek, first introduced in shadow and then nazi features finally revealed, well done. So far, so very good.
We’ll need a dame, of course, preferably two, for the hero to dally with and then choose one to fall for and go off with at the end of the story. Apart from Abbie, the alcoholic wife of the villain (driven to take solace in drink by the cruelty and scorn of her husband; she is out of the 1940s romance running) we have feisty Kate Hardison, the hotelier’s daughter, running the business because dad is bedridden, who is at first scathing about the drifter in town. And there’s Della Harms, who with her mother runs the Box H ranch, known as the Henhouse (which its ‘H in a box’ brand resembles), a ranch coveted by the villain. Both Kate and Della are beautiful, resourceful and gutsy – typical Luke Short women in fact. Which shall end in the arms of Chris/Randy?
In the movie, Marguerite Chapman plays Kate (with Russell Simpson, hooray!, as her bible-reading dad in a wheelchair).
Ms Chapman, 30, was very beautiful and hovered on the brink of leading-lady status in Hollywood before slipping to supporting roles. But she was in four Western movies (and a few Western TV shows) between 1941 and 50. As for Della, the film makers evidently wanted to play down the romantic possibilities with the other female part because they cast Sally Eilers (producer Brown’s wife), 40, and coming across as the slightly older woman, a widow, though with some sexual electricity, it is true. In the book she is a “girl” whose mother is the ranch boss. Mrs Harms Sr does not appear in the film at all. So the movie has a straight Chris/Kate romance developing, starting, as was often the case, with hostility and blooming into lerve.
Drunken Abbie’s father is the local sheriff, O’Shea. An old man with shaking hands (Parkinsons, maybe, or the effects of alcoholism) serving at the whim of the villain, he is shamed into subservience and does the bidding of Younger Miles. The movie cast Edgar Buchanan, excellent as always, as the sheriff and Buchanan brought yes, a comic tinge to the role but also subtlety and even pathos. He was such a good actor. And finally the bought-and-paid-for sheriff, old as he is, gets up off his knees and regains his manhood. It’s an excellent part.
Given that he has finally identified Younger Miles, the guilty party and object of his future revenge, and Miles is in conflict with the Box H, Chris accepts Ella’s offer to become foreman of her spread. There he finds that the ranch hands are pretty well useless to him, used as they are to the soft life. He fires one, Yordy (Joe Sawyer in the film; you’ll recognize Joe right away – he was in loads of Westerns, in the early talkie days in quite big parts, later mostly Bs) and another, Leach (William Bishop, probably best known to Westernistas as second-billed to Fred MacMurray in The Oregon Trail), lets him down badly. But the portrait Luke Short draws of the third, Andy, is really quite subtle. One of Short’s strong points was that his characters were often not one-dimensional good guys or bad guys. They were strong people capable of weakness or feeble ones capable of occasional courage. Andy is of the latter kind and it’s interesting to read how he develops and finally steps up to the plate.
Wallace Ford played Andy in the movie and did it very well indeed. You probably know Wallace if you are a Western fan. His was an interesting life. He was actually English, Samuel Jones, born in 1898, raised in a tough orphanage, then sent to a branch of the home in Toronto. At 11 he ran away and joined a vaudeville troupe, then hoboed his way through the States with a pal, Wallace Ford, who was crushed to death by a railroad car. Jones took Ford’s name in his memory, got work as an actor in minor roles and finally landed the lead in MGM’s Freaks in 1932. He died of a heart attack aged 68 in 1966. Westernwise, Coroner Creek was his first. He was later in Anthony Mann’s The Furies, the 1954 Destry remake, The Man from Laramie, A Lawless Street, Wichita, The Spoilers and many more – not a bad Western CV! A great character actor, and you’ll often spot him.
Younger Miles’s foreman and chief heavy is Ernie Coombs (Combs in the film). In the book he is, again, quite a subtle character. He is intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic, as well as completely loyal to Miles. But he is a real tough nut and pretty ruthless. The movie Ernie is played by Forrest Tucker. Tucker was always good, especially as the heavy, but his Ernie is more one-dimensional, a simple thug. That’s as much to do with the script (Kenneth Gamet, only his second Western; he later wrote seven more for Randolph Scott) as it is with Tucker. Good old Forrest was in 161 film and TV Westerns, usually as a tough guy, from The Westerner in 1940 to Timestalkers, a 1987 TV movie. Chisum, Barquero, loads of B-Westerns and even more TV ones – at one time or another he was in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name.
Probably the most famous scene in Coroner Creek is the one of the fight between Ernie and Chris in which Ernie deliberately crushes the unconscious Chris’s gunhand by stomping on it. This is the ghoulish highlight of the book, really, and I think in this regard anyway the film did it even better. This is because director Ray Enright had the watching cowpokes wince and look away, disgusted by what their foreman was doing yet too obedient (or cowardly) to object. This isn’t in the book and it adds power, impact and subtlety to the scene. I always hate it, don’t you, when two men hold a fellow so that a third can hurt him. Such cowards.
Good old Douglas Fowley (233 Westerns, 1934 – 1982!) is one of the bad guys. Doug comes to an ugly end.
I’ve talked about Enright (1896 – 1965) before. He started in Hollywood as a cutter in the very early silent days and worked after service in World War I for Thomas Ince. In 1926 he moved to Warners and his first directing job was a Rin Tin Tin movie in 1927. Over a very long career he only directed 17 Westerns but notable among them were the successful and fun 1942 version of The Spoilers, an Audie Murphy oater, an Errol Flynn one and a Joel McCrea one as well as six with Randolph Scott, so yes, he was I suppose a workaday Western director but he always got pace and action into his movies. Coroner Creek, is, for me, the very best one he did.
Randolph Scott is perfectly splendid. He did that kind of role, in that kind of film, to perfection, especially later for Budd Boetticher. Tall, rangy, grim-faced, he is the personification of Luke Short’s single-minded, almost deranged avenger. He is verging on the autistic in his lack of empathy and inability to relate to other people, but he softens at the end and becomes more human. The closest he comes to friendship or understanding (until he gets the girl, that is) is the relationship he has with old Andy, whom he first discounts as worthless but gradually comes to like, respecting his courage and loyalty. There’s a great (movie) exchange in the saloon in which Scott doesn’t smile exactly, but comes close:
Andy (raising glass): May your boots never get dusty, an’ yer guns never get rusty.
Andy: I reckon.
At his best, and he is at his best here, Scott had an almost Gary Cooperish ability to underact, to go for economy and merely hint at emotions and inner turmoil.
George Macready specialized in upper-crust, authoritarian and ambitious villains for Columbia. He was very popular in the 1940s (especially for his villain in the 1946 Glenn Ford/Rita Hayworth picture Gilda). Coroner Creek was his first Western but he went on to do several more with Scott and then became a stalwart of TV Westerns.
Scott, Tucker and Macready would be reunited in an excellent little Western of 1950, The Nevadan.
While the dénouement comes with six-guns in the book, the movie invents a rather good back-story and ends with a knife.
I love nineteenth century gadgets in Westerns and in this one (but not in the book) Andy has a Criterion music box.
It was the great stuntman Jock Mahoney’s first time doubling for Randy. He also stood in for Tucker and Macready, including a 28 foot fall from a tower for MacReady.
But the biggest change, by far, that the movie made to the plot of the book was the complete excision of a key character, Miles’s commercial partner Macready, who, it turns out (and I hope I am not giving away too much to readers here), is undermining and ruining Miles financially, for a reason that becomes apparent. The ending is changed completely because of the removal of this personage. It is possible that director Enright and his screenplay writer Gamet found that with Macready the plot became too complex and there were too many characters. I don’t think that was right and I am quite sure a good film could have been made with Macready (I fancy Anthony Quinn in the part). Still, the fact remains that the book was changed quite radically.
Book and film are both, though, essentially stories of redemption. Characters appear lost – in cowardice, shame or the bottle, or indeed eaten up by lust for revenge – but most of them regain their self-respect and equilibrium, looking forward to a brighter future at the end of the story. In some ways the movie’s ending for Sheriff O’Shea is dramatically appropriate but it goes against the theme and tone of the book. The novel is one of Short’s finest. Only 150 pages of slim paperback, with a tight, fast-moving plot, it is nevertheless a coherent whole, with complex, believable characters, and it is very well written.
Coroner Creek the film, though, is, I admit it, a ‘modest’ mid-budget Western. At one point in the dialogue Randolph Scott’s character, referring to his goal of revenge, says, “There can only be one ending.” I like to think that comment was ironic and self-referential about the movie. It probably wasn’t. But it was an outstandingly good modest Western, perhaps the best Randolph Scott did before the Boetticher series. The film, the second to be produced by the Randolph Scott/Harry Joe Brown partnership, was a little, bright jewel in the Western crown of 1948. In his excellent book The Films of Randolph Scott (which you can get on Kindle) author Robert Knott says, “In terms of packing an emotional wallop, [Coroner Creek] may be just as good as the movies Scott made with Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy a decade later.” I must say, I have to agree with that.
I fear I have gone on at too great a length about book and film. But I love both and make no excuses. No one’s making you read what I write, after all, or buy the novel or watch the film. If you prefer, go off and spend time with some trivia like War and Peace or Hamlet. See if I care.