Nice little oater
Last time, at the end of our Rock Hudson season, we looked at Rock’s last Western, a 1973 Universal picture, Showdown (click the link for that). Well, today I thought we’d go back a decade and look at Universal’s earlier Showdown, the one starring Audie Murphy.
A rather tenuous link, what they these days call a segue, I grant you, but hey.
In some ways, Showdown was just another in the long series of Westerns Audie Murphy made with Universal in the 1950s and 60s. Competent directing (by RG Springsteen this time, 143 Westerns, 1936 – 67), nice locations, good music (Hans Salter), adequate if fairly predictable writing (Ric Hardman, bizarrely billed as Bronson Howitzer, who co-wrote Gunman’s Walk and did a lot of TV shows, especially Lawman) and some good Western character actors – in this one Charles Drake, LQ Jones, Strother Martin, Harry Lauter and Skip Homeier, all of whose names will ring bells if you are a Western fan, and if you aren’t why are you reading this?
There were a couple of differences, though. To Audie’s annoyance, it was in black & white, which for a 60s Universal Western was maybe a bit penny-pinching. Producer Gordon Kay thought he could save a buck or two. Actually, though, Ellis W Carter’s cinematography is rather fine and personally I have always had a penchant for well-shot b&w Westerns. Mr Carter first worked on the 1949 John Payne oater El Paso and he did many Westerns (mostly in monochrome) through the 50s, including Republic’s Alamo story The Last Command. He did a lot of TV work too, especially on The Gray Ghost. And Showdown didn’t make any less money than the color Audie oaters.
And then there’s the interesting idea of the jail-less town using a post in the main street to chain lawbreakers to. This idea – a post or a log – appears in quite a few Westerns, in fact (see, for example, Fury at Furnace Creek). It appears barbaric, perhaps because it’s more public than a jail cell, and there’s a resemblance to the medieval stocks or pillory.
Decent bronc-stomper Chris (Audie) and his unreliable pard Bert (Drake) get into a fight after Bert gets drunk and into a poker game (Bob Steele is a player), and the result is that they are chained to the post overnight. Also chained there, though, is town drunk Charlie (Strother) and notorious outlaw Captain Lavalle (Harold J Stone) with some of his men. Of course the brigands escape. Drunk Charlie is killed in the shoot-out but Chris and Bert are obliged to go with the outlaws.
In the chaos of the escape, Bert has managed to shove some bearer bonds in his pocket. He uses them to try to buy his life, and Chris’s, from the murderous gang. There follows a curious hostage situation as first Bert is sent into Sonora alone to cash the bonds and come back, or Chris will be killed. But unreliable Bert gives the money raised to his girl, saloon singer (a bad one) Estelle (former Miss America contestant Kathleen Crowley, a less than stunning actress who despite being born in New Jersey has a very odd accent – I said despite, not because of). Bert is brought back to the gang by the worst of the outlaws, LQ and Skip, and now Audie is sent into town to recover the money or Bert will be killed. All rather unlikely, I know, but it does build up some tension.
Springsteen, Hardman and the cast managed to create quite a dark, atmospheric piece, and the black & white actually quite suits it. Stone as the outlaw chief is frightening (he was a very good actor) and LQ Jones’s and Skip Homeier’s characters are really quite sinister, as is the Indian scout Chaca (Henry Wills). Audie can’t convince Estelle to hand over the cash to save Bert. She is pretty horrible and has no intention of letting go of that $12,000, whatever the cost to Bert. It looks like curtains.
Another unusual aspect of this Western is that for almost its entirety Audie has no gun. There’s a good bit where he does the old Tom Mix trick of roping a piece of brush and towing it behind his horse while being chased by Chaca so that his pursuer can’t see him in the cloud of dust.
Well, there’s a climactic shoot-out, and you may imagine how that goes. The weakest part of the film is in the last reel as we sense that Audie and Estelle are going to get together. This is so implausible as to be ridiculous because, first, she has been so vile throughout that any romance with clean-cut Audie would be unthinkable; second, la Crowley was an entirely unconvincing actress and her sob-story speech (she only kept the money to save her sick kid sister or something) is totally unbelievable – you are sure she is lying; and lastly because this part of the script is lousy. The whole thing doesn’t work at all.
Still, Audie has to get to go off with the girl, I guess, so we’ll just have to put up with it.
Of course the whole notion of the one-on-one showdown, usually in the final reel, went right back, and was in a way a key ingredient of the whole Western movie genre. Apart from the Rock Hudson Showdown ten years later, there was a 1950 Republic Western The Showdown, and there were Showdowns at Abilene (Jock Mahoney), Boot Hill (Charles Bronson) and various other places, so if you want Audie, make sure you get the right showdown.
Nice photography, Lone Pine, good supporting cast, slightly unusual plot, the 1963 Showdown is a good little Western. Recommended.