Jeff’s ideal Western
When I was writing about smoothie bad guy Lyle Bettger the other day, I concluded by saying that I sometimes cast a Western movie in my imagination with my favorite star actors, leading ladies and, especially, villains. In a comment, reader Gumpy remarked on doing that too. That prompted me to this post. Here is my imaginary Western.
Today I’m behind the scenes. Tomorrow I’ll be putting my casting director’s (cowboy) hat on.
My film comes from a novel by Luke Short. I did consider one of the oldie greats like Zane Grey or Max Brand, or more recently, popular Louis L’Amour, or indeed a more modern excellent Western novelist like Charles Portis, Thomas Berger & Co. Alan Le May would be a good choice. But Luke Short, Frederick Glidden, to give him his proper name, wrote a long series of short, taut Westerns from the mid-1930s to the mid-70s, very noir in tone, authentic in detail, well-written from a stylistic point of view, and the stories were gripping. They were the right length, concise, and with strong characters. Many were made into Western movies. Short wrote so many I’ll have plenty of choice.
Who shall I get to write the screenplay from the book? Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht, Frank Nugent, Philip Yordan, Kenneth Gamet, there are plenty of excellent candidates. I’m going for Niven Busch, though, because he was a great writer, understood and loved the Western, knew Short’s work well and specialized in noir. You see, my Western’s going to be quite noir.
So that’s the writing. Now, the director. Well, of course here we have an embarras de richesse. We could go for one of the greats, you know, Ford, Hawks, Hathaway, Wyler, someone like that. Or some of those more workaday but highly competent pros like Joe Kane, Lesley Selander or Ray Nazarro. Boetticher would be good, or Sturges. But given that we’re having a noir vibe, I think I’ll plump for André De Toth, hoping that’s he’ll bring a Ramrod/Day of the Outlaw tone to the picture.
Similarly, I’ll need a really good DP and, like John Ford on Liberty Valance, I’m going the shoot the film in black & white, regardless of what the producer or studio want, and among the very best noir b&w cinematographers we might number Nicholas Musuraca, James Wong Howe, Ted McCord, John Alton, oh, they are legion. I’m going for Jimmy Howe, asking him to use his photographic and lighting arts to create the lowering and sinister atmosphere he did on Pursued.
Talking of the studio, who shall release it? Not MGM, certainly. They’d ruin it by using in-studio ‘exteriors’ with back-projection. Paramount could be a bit guilty of that too, especially if Cecil B DeMille were around. He’d want to shoot the whole picture, including the mountain and desert scenes, on a giant purpose-built sound stage. Warners didn’t always ‘get’ Westerns, somehow. RKO would be good for a dark vibe. Universal, why not. But I think I’ll go for good old Columbia. We’ll have to do our best to steer clear of Harry Cohn (especially the female actors) but the studio knew the Western inside out, they had the best Western town lot and a half-decent budget could just possibly be squeezed out of a reluctant Cohn, for some pictures anyway. I mean, maybe not Metro or Paramount money but enough to do some nice location shooting.
And regarding locations, well, Lone Pine of course; some Kanab, Utah, too; maybe a bit of Old Tucson and the Saguaro National Park; but my preference is for the area around Sedona, AZ. We won’t pick up the lovely orange colors in our monochrome film but we’ll get the looming rocks and shadows that will suit the noir. If I’d been going for color I’d have hired John Bailey maybe and shot it in New Mexico. But as it is I’ll shoot in Arizona.
I mentioned the producer. Well, I suppose it will be me. But if I am to delegate, I could choose Harry Joe Brown, say, especially if I am opting for Randolph Scott in the lead, Walter Mirisch, especially if I am casting Joel McCrea, Harry Sherman, loads of other good ones. Probably not Hal Wallis or Nat Holt. If we’re at Columbia we’ll have to keep Sam Katzman at arm’s length. But I think Harry Joe, in the end, mainly because of those superb late-50s Budd Boetticher oaters.
I reckon I must have Elmer Bernstein to do the music, though given the old-time style of the picture maybe I’ll go for Max Steiner, or Victor Young if I’m going for one of those scores written afterwards synchronized with the action – clashing chords with each knife thrust, that kind of thing. I’m not going for Neil Young electric guitar or anything trendy, as on Dead Man, or bluesy T-Bone Burnett, say, though I could be tempted by a folksy traditional tunes medley and probably Ry Cooder with the baton. Quite low-key mournful ballads and such, with the odd more sprightly bits if there’s a dance. There’s got to be a dance.
A few other key crew members pretty well choose themselves, such as second-unit and stunts headed by Yak Canutt, art direction by Henry Bumstead, and so on.
Right, then. I think that’s the project under way. A million bucks should cover it. Tomorrow will come the fun part, when I start dishing out the parts to favorite actors.