“South Of Death Valley”

June 1, 2008

Today’s guest review is by David Carpenter. David and I ran amok in the studio system for 15 years, alternating playing Smiley to the other’s Steve, Steve to the other’s Smiley. The fella is a damn fine writer and knows his way around a campfire cup of coffee. Here is his review of “South Of Death Valley”.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Steve Downey arrives on the outskirts of Nugget City to reopen his dead brother-in-law’s gold mine. You can tell the mine is closed because there are a couple boards roughly nailed across the entrance. You can tell his brother-in-law is dead because there’s a headstone right next to the mine. And you know the dead guy was his brother-in-law because that’s what Steve tells pretty (but tense) Molly Tavish, who gets the drop on him with a rifle before two minutes are gone.

Deft exposition, narrative density…hey, someone wrote a script!

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In South of Death Valley, a voice-over prologue tells us it’s ranchers versus miners in a all-out war, but don’t be fooled! What’s really going on is, slick businessman Mr. Ashton has been poisoning cattle and grubstaking miners only to kill them and steal their riches if they find gold. The range war mise-en-scene has transpired as an unintended-but-convenient consequence of Ashton’s dastardly scheme. Kind of cool that the narrator starts things off by getting things wrong.

The title itself provides another post-postmodern piece of misdirection, as the movie contains no reference to Death Valley in particular, the desert in general, or the setting being south of anywhere. (The movie was shot in Chatsworth – how about “South of Palmdale”?)

Rather than spelling out the plotline, here’s a snapshot of how juicy things get. Steve has escaped from jail and is pretending to be dead. Smiley, his jailer, in fear for his own life, is helping Steve by pretending to bury him in a coffin, which is actually filled with books, which is okay because you get the feeling Smiley isn’t much of reader. And then Steve returns as a ghost (what a ruse!) in order to terrify a confession out of the town’s crooked government assayer, who’s susceptible since he’s a DT’ing drunk. Reflect on that, and you got the whole story.

Oh, and then there’s this:

Smiley: Say, Steve, you shouldn’t go gallivanting out here in the hot sun without no hat on. You’ll go loco as a pooty bug.

Steve: Ha! I don’t know what a pooty bug is, Smiley. But I’ll see what I can do about getting a new hat.

Smiley: Well, Pooty bugs is the loco-est critters in the world.

(Smiley’s business in this one: trying to lasso things like door knobs and Steve’s gun. And guess what? It never works! Also: being fat.)

A few observations about Steve this time ‘round. He’s clearly a man’s man, a guy who can beat up or disarm anyone he needs to without giving it much thought. And yet two people get the drop on him: Annie and Smiley. That’s right — a woman and a feeb. There seems to be a peculiar kind of stilted machismo going on here. Punch out the bad guys only when they force you. Corral the conniving bad guy only when it becomes convenient. Become powerless around everyone else.

If he’s so above it all, why doesn’t he just reopen the goddamn mine and shoot anyone who protests?

Here’s the movie’s real treat: it is star-freaking-studded. Sure, we’re saddled with Smiley, and there’s not much Durango apart from a few horse chases, but hold onto your hat. Clayton Moore, who 6 years later would be riding into our hearts as the Lone Ranger, plays Bead, Mr. Ashton’s homicidal henchman. No mask, and a blackly vengeful heart. The aforementioned Molly Tavish? She’s played by Gail Davis, who went on to become TV’s Annie Oakley. And the drunken assayer? None other than Jason Robards Senior, who with his gray hair, scruffy stubble, and washed-out rummy’s mug looks a lot like…well…a lot like his more famous son would 40 years down the road. All this, and Tommy Duncan and his Allstars wandering the town singing about “San Antone.”

One last thing. Steve likes to hide up on top of stuff a lot in this movie. Here he is on a roof top, listening in to the bad guys as they plot and connive. Very spidey.

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