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Down Dakota Way (1949)
Above-average Roy Rogers Trucolor western
I've seen most of Roy Rogers' Trucolor westerns (made for Republic Pictures from 1947 to 1951) and I tend to like them, although the plots can be pretty far-fetched at times, e.g. the atomic spies operating out of a gentle western town in BELLS OF CORONADO. I'm happy to say that DOWN DAKOTA WAY (1949) has a more believable plot than most, with a distinct cowboy theme, making it more of a traditional western than most of Roy's Trucolor films, despite the odd modern touch here and there. It's bigger-budgeted than usual, with lots of scenes involving herds of cattle and cowboys and lawmen riding furiously through them and around them, all photographed on location in beautiful Trucolor, a two-color process unique to Republic. It's also got lots of action, with plenty of shootouts with the bad guys, a cattle gang seeking to get a quick pay-off for a diseased herd before word gets out that the cattle are afflicted with hoof-and-mouth disease. This plot would later turn up in the prestigious modern western, HUD (1963), which starred Paul Newman, Brandon De Wilde and Melvyn Douglas. As I recall, diseased cattle also play a part in a later modern western starring Newman, POCKET MONEY (1972). I like how DOWN DAKOTA WAY and POCKET MONEY handled this plot element, but I never cared much for the ponderous HUD.
Byron Barr and Roy Barcroft make excellent villains here as the hired gun and the corrupt rancher who employs him, while the heroes are saddled with the irksome Pat Brady who provides way too much unnecessary comic relief. Roy and Dale sing, along with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, but the sappy songs slow down the action more than usual. Still, there is much to reward a patient viewer and the film is highly recommended to fans of Rogers and the director, action specialist William Witney.
Yu mei ren (1965)
Delightful Musical-Fantasy-Romance from Shaw Bros.
In the early-to-mid 1960s, Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio made a number of Huangmei Opera films, where characters sang much of the dialogue, set in Old China and focusing on Imperial court intrigue and variations on the star-crossed lovers theme. THE MERMAID (1965) stands out among these films for its fantasy and comic elements and its expert special effects depicting Li Ching as a spoiled maiden and her supernatural twin sharing the screen together in double exposure. Ivy Ling Po stars as Zhang Zhen, an orphaned male scholar who shows up to claim the bride, the daughter of the Prime Minister, to whom he was betrothed at birth. The Prime Minister (Yang Chih-Ching) shunts him off to an abandoned study, ostensibly to study for the Imperial Exam and attain an official position before he can marry the daughter, Peony Jin (Li Ching), although neither father nor daughter have any intention of honoring the betrothal. Poor Zhang sings about his troubles to the carp in the pond outside his room and the carp spirit, responding to Zhang's emotional despair, appears to Zhang in the exact form of Peony Jin and the two begin an idyllic love affair under the noses of the Prime Minister's household. At one point, Zhang runs into the real Peony and behaves as if she's his lover, getting himself into real trouble. In trying to save the dispirited Zhang, the carp spirit is confronted by the real Peony, causing a great deal of confusion and requiring the services of an "anti-evil" judge. When the carp's undersea friends intervene by duplicating the judge and his staff, even greater and more comical confusion results. It all culminates in a battle between the spirits of the pond and an array of powerful gods before the Goddess of Mercy intervenes.
The film has a lighter, more playful touch than the other Huangmei opera films I've seen while not stinting on the emotional depth of Zhang Zhen's existential dilemma. It helps that Ivy Ling Po is a great actress and a great singer as well, pouring the character's heart out in some expressive songs as the four seasons pass during the scholar's first year of semi-exile, enmeshed in seemingly fruitless study. Li Ching plays the carp spirit version of Peony with a great deal of concern and affection for Zhang while her portrayal of the real Peony is marked with haughtiness and entitlement. The actress moves in slightly different ways for each character. There's a great scene midway through the film after Zhang has been banished from the Prime Minister's residence and he and the carp spirit, having decided to elope together, stop in town to enjoy an elaborate festival. The festival is recreated in the studio in great detail and Zhang and the carp spirit sing a duet explaining everything in the festival parade to the viewer and we are treated to a number of performances within the festival. Later, when the two versions of Peony are forced to make their cases in court before the stern Judge Bao (Ching Miao), the actress has subtle ways of conveying to the viewer which version is the real, self-centered Peony and which is the loving carp spirit, whose efforts to persuade the parents that she's the real Peony are not at all unconvincing. It gets quite funny at times.
The whole production is staged in a highly stylized, theatrical manner and exquisitely shot on Shaw Bros. soundstages with beautiful set design, lighting, costumes, and music, making for one of the loveliest Shaw Bros. films I've ever seen. There is some fantasy undersea action (that pond is awfully deep!) involving water creatures who take on human form as well. The cast of Shaw Bros. regulars is uniformly superb. Li Ching is making her eighth film appearance here and I believe it's her first starring role. (She won Best Actress at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for this performance.) Peony's parents are played by Yang Chih Ching, who does his own singing, and Ouyang Sha-Fei, a beautiful veteran star who played matriarchs in many of the studio's historical dramas. Ching Miao does an excellent dual portrayal of the outraged judge and his mystical double, who takes great joy in his disruption of the court. The two judges are also seen in flawless double exposure. One of Peony's maids is played by teenaged Lily Li, who would go on to excel in several of the studio's martial arts films in the 1970s, including EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and SHAOLIN MANTIS. The screenplay is by Chang Cheh, who would, of course, go on to become Shaw Bros.' most prolific director of "heroic bloodshed" martial arts spectacles, all completely unlike this film. Director Kao Li made many other Huangmei Operas for the studio, none of which I've yet seen. I must correct that as soon as possible. The only other film I've seen by him is THE SILENT SWORDSMAN (1967), also reviewed on this site, a swordplay adventure with some singing and musical performance in it.
Ninkyo Nakasendo (1960)
Period yakuza tale from Toei is quite a revelation
NINKYO NAKASENDO (aka ROAD OF CHIVALRY, 1960) is the third in a trilogy of films directed for Toei Pictures by Sadatsugu Matsuda about the real-life Boss Jirocho of Shimizu, an honorable yakuza leader from the Edo era who ran afoul of corrupt rivals and officials, at least according to this trilogy. I've reviewed the first one, NINKYO SHIMISU-MINATO (PORT OF HONOR, 1957), on this site, but have yet to see the second, NINKYO TOKAIDO (A CHIVALROUS SPIRIT, 1958). This one is superb, packed with incident, boasting a large cast of the studio's top actors, and beautifully shot--in color and widescreen--on various locations and at the studio's sprawling backlot. It introduces well over a dozen major characters and juggles a number of subplots before settling into a moving account of two bosses, Jirocho (Chiezo Kataoka) and Chuji (Utaemon Ichikawa), with a longstanding respectful relationship, suddenly thrust into conflict after manipulation by various rivals and a corrupt governor. The backdrop for this state of affairs is a crop failure in the town of Jinshu, which compels the farmers to sell their daughters to a broker working for the governor in order to pay the land taxes. The broker will either marry the girls off to affluent buyers or divert them to brothels. Boss Chuji, who comes from Jinshu, resorts to desperate measures to try to aid his hometown, causing problems with rival bosses and the local constabulary, leading to a plot to frame Chuji for the murder of one of Jirocho's allies, setting the stage for a major confrontation. A subplot involves Chuji's top swordsman, Takei (Hashizo Okawa), and his girlfriend Okin (Satomi Oka), a Jinshu maiden sold to a brothel and his efforts to free her.
There is enough material here to fuel a half dozen Zatoichi movies. In fact, when I watched this film, after first watching PORT OF HONOR, and VANQUISHED FOES (1964, not on IMDb), all directed by Madatsugu and featuring many of the same actors, my immediate response to each was, "This is like a Zatoichi movie without Zatoichi, which is not a bad thing at all." In the movies with Zatoichi, the blind swordsman/masseur whose other senses are so highly developed that it compensates for his lack of sight when confronted by multiple opponents, the rival bosses and their henchmen are stock characters whom Zatoichi confronts and frequently disposes of in climactic, highly implausible one-against-many swordfights. In other, more notable samurai movies, there's usually a lone ronin, or unemployed samurai, who wanders into a conflict and either plays both sides against the middle, as in Kurosawa's classic, YOJIMBO (1961), or takes the side of the underdog and makes things right for them (THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI). Heroes like Zatoichi and Yojimbo wander into a conflict, resolve it with their swords, and then move on.
In these Toei movies, there is no lone hero or wandering ronin. Boss Jirocho is the protagonist and he has to weigh a history of interlocking relationships and knowledge of current conditions (such as the failure of the rice crop and the wholesale trafficking of the farmers' daughters) before making his decisions. He's not imperfect by any means. His kindness leaves him open to a humiliating theft of his men's belongings in one scene and, later, manipulation by rivals into challenging Chuji to a showdown. If Jirocho and Chuji can eliminate each other, it removes all obstacles to the Governor's complete plunder and exploitation of the farmers. Outside of works by the great Japanese directors, I can't think of any other movies of this type that plunge the viewer so completely into their world and offer us a crash course in the yakuza way of life in pre-Meiji Japan and its intersection with different classes of villagers in a region far from Edo and nestled in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which is seen in a spectacular opening shot. We're not asked to identify with a lone, hyper-skilled swordsman with no ties to the community, but with an array of human beings forced to negotiate a web of conflicting loyalties, economic woes, struggling relationships and natural disasters, like villagers everywhere.
One of the unexpected pleasures of this film is the chance to see both actors who later played Ogami Itto (Lone Wolf) sharing the screen together. Tomisaburo Wakayama played the role in a series of six "Lone Wolf and Cub" films released by Toho Pictures in 1972-74, while Kinnosuke Nakamura played the role in the "Lone Wolf and Cub" TV series from 1973-76. In this film, Wakayama plays the top lieutenant to Boss Jirocho while Nakamura plays a wayward inn owner addicted to gambling who, after committing an act that would have gotten him killed by any other boss, is forgiven by Jirocho and assisted in making restitution and later comes to Jirocho's aid at a crucial point.
I only learned of this film through a gray market dealer offering dozens of Toei films for sale. As happens with a number of Japanese films I've discovered late in life, I must ask the question of why this film and so many like it were never shown at the Japanese film festivals I attended so frequently in New York back in the 1970s or why they've never been released on home video through a legit source in the U.S. If I missed this one, there must be dozens more like it that I've also missed. As a longtime American fan of Japanese cinema, I'm happy to continue making new discoveries and excited by the sheer volume of unseen gems waiting to be brought to my attention, but frustrated by the question of how, when and if they ever will.
Ninkyo shimisu-minato (1957)
Convoluted period yakuza tale has its pleasures
My copy of this film gives the English title as PORT OF HONOR and the film is in color not black-and-white, as IMDb has it. It's a swordplay adventure about warring gangs in Edo-era Japan and is based on a real historical figure. A website offering the film for sale indicates it's the first in a trilogy of three films about Boss Jirocho of Shimizu, but with completely self-contained stories and different sets of supporting characters. In this one, there are quite a number of rival bosses and it's hard to keep track of them all, yet the story remains fascinating as it charts the interlocking relationships and codes of behavior that drive one set of bosses to do one thing and the other set to do another until they're locked in battles to the death. A lot of attention is devoted to how these men lived and what daily life was like in the towns and villages situated far from Edo, where the Shogun lived. Even if I got confused by the wealth of characters and how they were related to each other, I enjoyed the pacing of it and the lifestyle details of pre-Meiji Japan.
Long story short, Boss Jirocho (Chiezo Kataoka) emerges as the protagonist, a wise and just man who tries to do the right thing at every step. He has a small group of loyal followers and we get to know some of them and witness their camaraderie and emotional ties. At one point, Jirocho withdraws from a challenge just as a massive battle against great odds looms before him, acceding to the wish of a friendly colleague acting as mediator. He leaves the region and takes his men to the countryside to practice farming and a life of peace and he even demands they get spiritual instruction and meditation at a nearby temple. He apparently tries to go straight and give up the gambling or "yakuza" way of life. When one of his most loyal men, Ishimatsu (Kinnosuke Nakamura), who is, I believe, an adopted son, is sent on a long mission, the young man's innocent encounter with an enemy boss still seeking revenge for an earlier battle reignites the conflict and propels Boss Jirocho back into the fray. There's quite a spectacular action finale.
This was a production of Toei Pictures, a studio that specialized in contemporary yakuza movies in the 1960s and '70s, but also did a number of period adventures like this one. I haven't seen many of them because few of them ever got shown in the U.S. or released on home video. The few I've seen have come from gray market dealers. One of them, VANQUISHED FOES (1964), isn't even listed on IMDb. I tend to see more films of this genre from Toho Pictures, Shochiku and Daiei, studios which have made more of their samurai films available through legit sources such as Criterion and AnimEigo. I'm more familiar with the actors from those studios and less familiar with the actors under contract to Toei during this time. This film features only three cast members I had seen before: Kinnosuke Nakamura, Isao Yamagata and Eijiro Tono. Nakamura played tough swordsman characters in many classic samurai films and even starred as Itto Ogami (Lone Wolf) in the TV series, "Lone Wolf and Cub" (1973-76), playing the role that Tomisaburo Wakayama made famous in a series of films in the early 1970s. In this film, Nakamura plays a somewhat off-kilter character, socially awkward and unfiltered, a figure of fun to some of his compatriots, but clearly not meant to be funny. He may have some kind of personality disorder, but his mentor, Jirocho, loves him like a son and values his loyalty. It's a side of Nakamura I've never seen before and I was quite impressed with the actor's versatility.
Toei has made some effort in recent years to release its backlog of anime series in the U.S., something I'm quite happy about, but I wish the company would be more aggressive with its extensive catalog of live-action samurai and yakuza movies as well. Director Kinji Fukasaku worked often for Toei and a number of his contemporary yakuza movies from the late 1960s and '70s have gotten released here, but that's a tiny percentage of the company's output.
Charles Bronson and James Coburn team up for the first time
In "Butch Cassidy," a Season Three episode of "Tales of Wells Fargo," Charles Bronson guest stars as famed outlaw Butch Cassidy (minus the Sundance Kid), who is newly released from prison and on his way to a welcome party via train, when an old outlaw buddy spots him and offers him a cut if he'll help with the robbery of the train. The outlaw, named Idaho, is portrayed by none other than James Coburn, two years before he and Bronson would team up for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, five years before they would team up for THE GREAT ESCAPE and 17 years before they would team up for HARD TIMES. I had not bothered to look this episode up on IMDb before sitting down to watch it on the Encore Western Channel today, so I was surprised first by Bronson's casting as the outlaw made famous eleven years later by Paul Newman in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and then doubly surprised by Coburn's sudden appearance next to Bronson on the train. Who knew? In their encounter on the train, Cassidy turns down Idaho's offer and, later, at his welcome party in a town saloon, he is approached by Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson), who thinks Cassidy, if he's truly reformed, would be the right man to hire to map a trail through outlaw territory for a new Wells Fargo stage route, despite having been sent to prison by Hardie a couple of years earlier. Cassidy holds no hard feelings, but still turns him down. He may also feel a tad guilty for lying to Hardie about whether he knew who robbed the train. When Hardie leaves the saloon after talking to Cassidy, Idaho and a henchman try to bushwhack him, compelling Cassidy to ride along with Hardie in case he needs help. Little do they know of another danger lurking on the trail.
This is one of several "Wells Fargo" episodes to focus on famous outlaws whose paths cross that of Agent Hardie. As such, it resembles the Republic Pictures TV series, "Stories of the Century" (1954-56 and also reviewed here), in which railroad detective Matt Clark (Jim Davis) encountered a famous outlaw every week. The outlaws were generally unrepentant bad guys in that series, while in "Wells Fargo" they were generally portrayed sympathetically. Interestingly, two of these "Wells Fargo" episodes also featured future cast members of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN in the roles of the outlaws: Robert Vaughn played Billy the Kid and Steve McQueen played Texas outlaw Bill Longley, both in Season Two and both reviewed by me on this site. In 1961, a year after THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, another member of the seven, Brad Dexter, would appear in a Season Five "Wells Fargo" episode, entitled "Stage from Yuma." Robert Vaughn and James Coburn would both make return appearances in the series after the movie. Quite a few of the supporting actors in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN also appeared on "Tales of Wells Fargo."
Laramie: .45 Calibre (1960)
Action-packed episode with Robert Fuller vs. Lee Van Cleef
".45 Calibre" is a Season Two episode of "Laramie" that finds Jess Harper (Robert Fuller) holding the fort while his partner Slim has gone off to Denver. Things heat up when the town marshal is killed by the outlaw Torrey brothers and his newly appointed deputy, Vern Clark (George Nader), a greenhorn from the east, arrives on the stage with his new bride and is suddenly thrust into the marshal's job. After an initial contentious encounter between Jess and Clark, Jess is compelled to demand a posse be formed to pursue the Torrey brothers and their gang after a neighboring rancher is killed. Fear of the Torrey brothers among the townsmen results in a smaller-than-necessary posse of five and when they reach the outlaws, an ambush kills two of the five and the new marshal flees for his life, a show of cowardice that leaves him filled with self-loathing. Even his Norwegian bride, Louisa (Anna-Lisa), shows contempt for him.
Under the circumstances, Jess finds himself covering up for the marshal and insisting to him that his actions in the next encounter will determine whether he's a coward or not. Louisa even makes a play for Jess, realizing he's the man she wants her husband to be. Jess tries to rally the townsfolk to build up defensive barricades and be ready to take a stand when the outlaws descend on the town, but he only finds two volunteers, one of them a drunkard who was the only other survivor of the ambush. The ensuing attack and its aftermath provide a grueling test for the new marshal.
The leader of the Torrey gang, Wes Torrey, is played by perennial western villain and future Italian western star Lee Van Cleef, who makes quite a formidable antagonist here, as he does in every western that he made in the 1950s, whether for movies or television. Even when the townsmen get the upper hand, he still gives them a run for their money right up until the end. Every time I spot Van Cleef in one of these shows, I perk up. He always delivers the goods, making this episode, directed by Lesley Selander, an experienced hand at this kind of action, well above average for this series, one of the better hour-long westerns of its era.
Unusual tale of white-Indian conflict in the Badlands
"The Other White Man" is a Season 13 episode of "Death Valley Days" and tells an incident-packed story of conflict between Indians and whites in the pre-Custer Dakota Territory around 1875, when a treaty barred whites from entering Dakota land. In the opening, we see a Dakota Indian warrior, Running Wolf, kill a white gold prospector as he's threatening Tacilia, an Indian woman also known as Healing Woman, who has ordered the prospector off the land since he's violating the treaty. The Indian chief, Tall Rock, fears retaliation by the army and wants to try to make amends. Meanwhile, at the nearest fort, the commander bars a wagon train from traveling through Indian country, while Dr. Ransome, an Indian agent from Washington, D.C., heads out to visit Tall Rock to attempt to renegotiate the treaty to allow settlers to pass through. Dr. Ransome's guide is killed by Running Wolf and Ransome is wounded, but nursed back to health in the Dakota camp by Healing Woman.
At this point, fairly late in the narrative, the title character, "the Other White Man," is called in by Tall Rock to help get Ransome back to the fort and mediate with the whites. This man turns out to be Scipio Gaines, a black man and runaway slave who hates it when the Indians call him "white man," seeing him as no different from the white men he's fled. Gaines has been living among the Indians for many years and has had very little news from the outside world. He is fearful of any contact with whites because he believes they will return him to slavery, so he meets Ransome with great apprehension. I don't know why they opted to introduce Gaines so late in the story. I understand that they chose to focus on his peacemaking role in the conflict, and needed to show the buildup to that moment in some detail, but I would like to have known much more about his backstory other than what little we get in a conversation in the tepee between him and Ransome. It's certainly a worthwhile episode of this long-running series, and one of a small percentage of episodes focusing on nonwhites, but I think the writer gave Gaines' character short shrift.
Lisa Gaye is a white actress playing an Indian, Healing Woman. Valentin de Vargas and Rodolfo Acosta are Mexican-American actors who play Running Wolf and Tall Rock, respectively. Both had long careers in Hollywood. Don Haggerty, who plays Ransome, was a veteran character actor active from the 1940s to the '70s. James Edwards, who plays Gaines, was a prominent black actor active from 1949 to 1970 and best known for his roles in such films as HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE STEEL HELMET, THE JOE LOUIS STORY, THE KILLING, MEN IN WAR, BATTLE HYMN, PORK CHOP HILL and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. He is billed in the end credits here as a Special Guest Star, a distinction I haven't seen yet in any other episode of "Death Valley Days," perhaps intended as compensation for the relative shortness of his role in an episode titled after his character.
Wagon Train: A Man Called Horse (1958)
TV western offers in-depth treatment of life among the Crow Indians
"A Man Called Horse" is an episode of "Wagon Train" that veers from the show's usual formula and tells a story in flashback that doesn't involve any of the series principals. It's based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson that was later turned into a feature film of the same title in 1970. I've read the story and this TV episode is much closer to it than the later film. Thanks to the favorable comments given in the previous review (by bkoganbing), I was prompted to watch this when it aired on the Encore Western Channel on January 27, 2017 and I'm glad I did.
It tells the story of a nameless man from Boston, played by Ralph Meeker, who travels out west to find himself after being jilted by his fiancée when her father refuses to allow the marriage. He is the lone survivor of a party of men attacked by Crow Indians and is taken as a slave by the chief, Yellow Robe (Michael Pate), and turned over to Yellow Robe's mother (Celia Lovsky) to work for her. He soon adopts the name Horse and the reason is explained in the narration. He becomes friends with an adolescent warrior-in-training named Little Hunter (Anthony Numkena) and learns the bow-and-arrow and other skills from him. Horse is resigned to his fate as a slave of the Crow until a victorious encounter with an attacking Sioux warrior leads to a rise in status in the tribe, freeing him from slavery and allowing him to marry Yellow Robe's sister, Bright Star (Joan Taylor) and being accepted by Yellow Robe as a brother. At one point, eager to reunite with his own people, Horse leaves the camp with Bright Star to settle in a nearby trading post. Rough treatment by bigots who deride him as a "squaw man" sends the couple back to the Crow camp. Eventually tragedy strikes in various forms and Horse is left to seek help from the wagon train, forming the episode's opening, where he tells his story to series regulars Adams (Ward Bond) and McCullough (Robert Horton).
The depiction of life in the Indian camp is done with a rare sensitivity for a show of this type. We see the details of everyday life in the camp and follow the growing affection that Horse and Bright Star feel for each other. Their scenes together are quite tender. It's a side of Ralph Meeker, a tough guy actor in such films as THE NAKED SPUR and KISS ME DEADLY, that I've never seen before. In fact, Meeker had played the bad guy in the similarly-themed RUN OF THE ARROW just a year earlier, in which Rod Steiger played an Irish Confederate soldier who becomes a member of the Sioux after fleeing from the east. Meeker gives a modulated, low-key performance here and I believe he was deliberately directed that way to preserve the elegiac tone of the short story and keep the show from veering into melodrama. If I have any complaint about the episode, it's the decision to have Ward Bond narrate the flashback sequences rather than Meeker. I understand that Bond was the star of the show and may have felt a bit prickly at ceding the stage to Meeker, but I think the overall effect would have been even more profound with Meeker narrating.
Also, only one of the Indian speaking parts is played by an actual Native American, Anthony Numkena as Little Hunter. Michael Pate and Joan Taylor, who play Yellow Robe and Bright Star, had each played numerous Indian roles before this, so their casting evidently made sense at the time. They're both very good in their roles. Celia Lovsky, an Austrian-born actress who'd played many different ethnic roles during her long career in Hollywood, is also very good as the Old Mother who comes to accept Horse as her son during his stay with the Crow. Her character is the most memorable of the Indians in the original short story, as I recall. The Indians in this episode are all strongly-etched individuals and human beings and not just character types. Horse's growing relationships with them are charted with care and feeling. Surely, that counts for something.
Steve McQueen pours on the charm as outlaw Bill Longley
"Tales of Wells Fargo" had a number of episodes centered around famous outlaws and often got future stars to play the roles. Chuck Connors played Sam Bass, Robert Vaughn played Billy the Kid and in this episode, Steve McQueen plays Texas outlaw Bill Longley, just a few months before the premiere of his own western series, "Wanted: Dead or Alive." McQueen's star power is clearly in evidence and the director of this episode responds by giving him lots of closeups and allowing McQueen to engage in the smiles, smirks, shrugs and assorted facial and body gestures making up the charm that would help him achieve stardom in such movies as THE BLOB (premiering later that year), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, HELL IS FOR HEROES, THE GREAT ESCAPE, LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER, and THE CINCINNATI KID in just a few short years.
When the episode opens, Longley is a wanted outlaw and Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson) is visiting an office in Texas when a strange young man named Jess (Steve Rowland) comes in and offers to deliver Longley to Hardie that evening if he can have the $5000 reward ready. It's all a ruse by Longley and Jess to steal the $5000, fetch Longley's girl, Marge (Jacqueline Holt), and high-tail it over the Mexican border. Jess winds up getting the drop on Longley, taking all the money and heading to pick up Marge himself, leaving the outlaw alone without horse or gun. Hardie picks up their trail and reaches Longley, who offers to guide him to the hideaway where Jess and the gang are holed up, going so far as to agree to give up the money and give himself up in return for a lenient sentence. Hardie can't promise the latter, but he'll put in a good word for Bill if everything goes according to plan. So it all depends on whether Hardie is right to place his trust in Bill or not.
When they catch up to Jess & co., there's a great barroom shootout where Hardie does some fast-draw work that looks forward to Clint Eastwood's gun prowess in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. At some point, however, disaster strikes and Hardie's fate is in Bill's hands. Is Bill a man of his word or not? It's quite an enjoyable and suspenseful episode and gives us a chance to admire the early work and blossoming charisma of an actor who became one of the most popular movie stars of the 1960s.
I watched this episode on the Encore Western Channel, which airs two episodes of "Tales of Wells Fargo" back-to-back every weekday afternoon.
Billy the Kid meets his mentor
"The Kid from Hell's Kitchen," a 1966 episode of "Death Valley Days," tells the story of 18-year-old William Bonney and how he met and gradually earned the trust of his mentor and father figure, the English rancher John Tunstall, in Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1877-78. Bonney tries to steal from Tunstall on two occasions, but each time the kindly Tunstall gives him a chance, recognizing that all Bonney needs is respect and decent treatment. Bonney rewards him by becoming a top hand at his ranch. At the time, Tunstall and his colleagues, Alexander McSween and John Chisum (spelled Chisholm in the show's credits), are in a business dispute with rival merchant Lawrence Murphy over government cattle contracts, which soon escalates into a lethal confrontation, the result of which so incenses Bonney that he takes matters into his own hands and responds with violence, thus beginning his career as an outlaw, soon to be known as Billy the Kid.
The show offers a rather simplified sum-up of the conflict between the two factions and leaves out a lot of other important figures from what would be known as the Lincoln County War, which left 30 men dead and had to be resolved by intervention from the territorial governor. Still, it's a well-acted, concisely told version of the central relationship in Billy's life, that between him and Tunstall. What I especially liked here was the abundance of screen time given to the other key figures in the conflict, McSween, Chisum, and Murphy, all played by strong character actors. English actor John Alderson plays Tunstall, who is clearly the most affecting character in the episode and the one who proves the bravest, not only in standing up to his enemies, but also for the potential good in Billy. Alderson played mountain man Hugh Glass in the "Death Valley Days" episode, "Hugh Glass Meets the Bear," a character later portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2015 movie, THE REVENANT. James Seay, a regular supporting player in movies and TV shows from the 1940s to the 1960s, plays McSween. Roy Engel, another venerable character actor, best known for playing President Ulysses S. Grant on "The Wild, Wild West," plays Chisum (a role played by John Wayne in a 1970 movie of that title), and veteran western heavy Lane Bradford plays Murphy, who is generally portrayed as a villain in filmed accounts of these events.
Billy is played by former child star Robert Blake as an angry, embittered young drifter leading a hard-scrabble existence until Tunstall takes him under his wing. Blake was 33 at the time, but he looked and acted young enough to convince us that he's Billy. Coincidentally, Robert Taylor, the Hollywood star who hosted the season of "Death Valley Days" in which this episode ran, once played Billy the Kid himself in the Technicolor MGM production, BILLY THE KID, back in 1941 when he was 29 and looked too old for the part, in my opinion at least.
I saw this episode on the Encore Western Channel, which runs two episodes of "Death Valley Days" back-to-back every weekday afternoon.