The B-Western in its death throes
By the early 1960s, the second-feature just-over-an-hour black & white Western movie was a rider on a dead horse: it wasn’t going far. This kind of film had been a mainstay of theater programming since the days of the Depression but it hadn’t got much further to run.
Producer Kenneth Altose had done a few pictures of this kind, perhaps most notably Four Fast Guns in 1960 (click the link for our scintillating review), which was a minor Western of some interest, and that’s what Rider on a Dead Horse was too, a low-budget soon-forgotten oater which, however, did have some merits.
It was directed by Herbert L Strock, not really a name that will spark a huge fire in the hearts of Western fans but even though he was best known for drive-in fare such as Blood of Dracula, and this was his only big-screen Western, he did helm twenty or so episodes of Western TV shows, so he knew something about the genre, and actually he did a tidy job on this B feature.
The writers were Stephen Longstreet, who had worked on Silver River for Raoul Walsh, and James Edmiston (Four Fast Guns and A Day of Fury) and they managed a script of some originality – some originality, I said, let’s not get carried away.
The cast wasn’t exactly stellar. John Vivyan led. He was a regular on Western TV shows but this was his only feature in the saddle.
He is Hayden, partner with two others in a gold mine, and as the movie opens, they are divvying up the bags of dust when one of the partners, Senn (Bruce Gordon), murders Taylor, the other (Charles Lampkin) because, he says, he finds arithmetic hard and it’s easier to divide by two than by three. Ooh, cold, man. This sets the tone of the film, because all the characters are tough and hard-bitten, not to say ruthless and cynical, and the ‘goody’, Hayden, is just a bit less loathsome, that’s all. He upbraids Senn for killing their partner but not very much, and is perfectly content to take his share of the dead man’s third of the dust. He’s just kind of nervous that he might be next, so that no mental arithmetic would be required at all, and he’s right to be concerned. For the moment he’s safe, though, because he’s an experienced scout and he’s the only one who can get them both through dangerous Apache country to safety, so Senn isn’t going to shoot him.
Mr Gordon was a “veteran character heavy whose leathery, sinister looks typecast him as a mobster on film and TV, best remembered as Frank Nitti on The Untouchables (1959)”, as the IMDb bio puts it. And he’s pretty hoodlumish in this picture too. Senn is not a nice man.
There are effectively only four characters, with a sprinkling of extras where required, and this was probably all the budget could stretch to.
The pair give the Apaches the slip by stealing away in the dark because, Hayden tells Senn, “Apaches don’t attack at night.” This notion was amazingly popular in Western movies and in fact our riveting article on the subject, Indians don’t attack at night, click for those pearls of wisdom, remains one of the most widely read articles on this blog. No idea why. The two bury the gold because it’s too heavy to carry. But of course once out of danger from hostile Native Americans, Senn feels free to shoot Hayden, which he duly does. Senn departs for town on their dead partner’s horse, which has conveniently turned up, while badly wounded Hayden staggers through desert terrain on foot.
They now meet the film’s other characters: in town, Senn goes to a bounty-hunter, former slave-catcher Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen, another regular small-screen Western bad guy, later nice Dr Hiram Baker in Little House on the Prairie) and lies that it was Hayden who killed their partner at the mine and if Fry will catch him, they can share the $1,000 bounty.
Meanwhile, Hayden has just made it to a railroad camp (with a few perfunctory extras as coolies unconvincingly pecking at already-laid track with picks) and he is helped by the even more cynical Ming Kwai (Lisa Lu, who romanced James Stewart in The Mountain Road). But she will only tend his wound and give him water if he will take her to San Francisco and use his money to provide her with the high life, to which he grudgingly agrees, preferring that than death, as one would.
The rest of the plot concerns the relationships between these four, with Apaches ex machina, as it were, and mucho double-crossing and shifting of alliances.
There’s rather modern jangly electric guitar music and this together with the cynical, ruthless characters and close-ups of the men as they fight, Fry lighting dynamite sticks with his cigarillo and so on, definitely give the film a spaghetti flavor, spaghetti ante diem, to use another inappropriate Latin mixed metaphor. You do wonder if the likes of Corbucci and Leone saw this picture – doubtless they admired it, if they did.
One good thing, however: although the interiors are very TV-like, there are some very nice exterior locations, a lot in the Superstition Wilderness, AZ, with saguaros, and DP Frank V Phillips (who’d learned his trade on Giant) did a good job with the monochrome. What with the black & white, the oppressive atmosphere and the femme fatale, there is quite a bit of noir about the picture. Phillips and director Strock also shot the choreographed fights dynamically, with characters biffing at the camera. Furthermore, the picture quality on YouTube was really good, and there weren’t any ads to spoil it.
The ending was a bit cheesy, but still.
All in all, it’s still a forgettable B, but here and there it has its moments and so do not scorn it, e-pards, especially given the visuals. You might give it a try – although your quality of life will not truly be impoverished if you do not.