July 1, 2010
Charlie takes his time showing up for this one. A lot happens before Steve Lawler rides into town. Matt Taylor (Dick Curtis) and his men burn out some defenseless ranchers, stampede their cattle, attack the Conway place and even kill old man Conway. Madge Conway (Iris Meredith) gets framed for murder and ends up with a price on her head.
Enter Charlie, nearly halfway through the film, wearing stubble and dirt. He’s a bad guy looking to kill Madge and get that reward money. Of course it’s a ruse, but a well-played one — there’s a wanted poster with his face on it and he’s even got a real-life US Marshall on his tail.
I always like the films when Starrett gets to play the bad guy for a while. The growling tenor of his voice in these roles reminds me of Edgar G. Robinson (as I’ve mentioned before.) He gets to fight dirty with Curtis and, in this one, appears to throw many of his own punches.
Plot-wise: there’s a jail break, some riding, a shoot-out, Steve is winged. He plays the wounded desperado on the run and Madge’s crew welcomes him into their desert hideout. Now that he’s around a woman, there’s that sudden and weird (and, by now, familiar) transformation of tough Steve into easy Charley with the clean shave, the big grin and the relaxed cocktail party manner.
Steve turns out to be a US Marshall investigating Taylor’s gang. The ending features one of the lamer plot devices of a Starrett film (or any film). Steve’s partner catches a glimpse of something important at the Taylor Ranch — a stack of torches just like the ones used to burn down the rancher’s homes.
The big finale? All the good guys join forces for a big raid on the ranch to FIND THOSE TORCHES!
This leads me to my bigger thought about this, and many of Starrett’s films.
As prelude to this bigger thought, let me state this: when I started this project two years ago, I didn’t know much of anything about B-westerns (as my critics were quick to point out.) Many things about Starrett’s westerns mystified and confused me. Since then, I’ve watched 120 of his films, plus another fifty B-westerns starring Charles’ contemporaries and his predecessors. I’ve visited western museums. I’ve visited filming locations. I’ve poured through archives. I’ve read books. I am far better educated in the ways of the B-western than when I started this thing.
I now recognize that some of the stuff that troubled me about Starrett’s films are conventions of the B-western. However, some stuff continues to confound.
One thing I’ve noticed is that Charles Starrett’s films don’t really resemble these other films too much. Sure, the props are all the same: horses, guns, black hats, white hats. But the focus of the storytelling in Starrett’s films is askew.
Allow me a moment to work through this. Most of the major studios had at least a toe dipped into the production of B-westerns. But cheapo studios like Republic, Monarch and PRS defined the genre: they churned out cut-rate, low budget titles, and they made sure they were filled with plenty of galloping horses and singing cowboys and as much punching and shooting as their meager budgets would allow.
Enter Columbia head honcho Harry Cohn. He burned to compete with Universal for B-movie dominance. Since Universal had the B-horror genre wrapped up, Cohn decided that, in response, Columbia would put its stamp on the B-western. Though these films were B-scheduled and B-budgeted, The Lady With The Torch would stand before them. Starrett’s films were, by Cohn’s decree, to be considered Columbia products. This didn’t translate into substantially bigger budgets, especially on the later Durango films, but it did lead to studio overseers.
Starrett’s films for Columbia play like the confused product that they are; exactly what happens when an A-Studio makes B-westerns. The filmmakers clearly have a mandate. They must elevate these pictures from the B-level. And a problem, because they cannot raise the budget.
This leads to narrative trouble, to a tendency to concentrate the story’s energy on the most boring elements of these films. Not the riding or the punching or the cool shoot outs. Instead, we get a whole lot of double agents and hidden motives and hard to follow complications. No stagecoach stickup or bank robbery or cattle thievery is enough — it must be in service of some larger and far less dynamic plan, like undermining the Cattleman’s Association (“Heading West”), funding a local official’s campaign for higher office (“Desert Vigilante”), or influencing a vote in Congress (“Down Rio Grande Way”). They feature confusing frame-ups like in “Cattle Raiders” or multiple reveals such as the ones in “Bullets For Rustlers” where we finally meet the big boss…but no!…this is the big boss, no wait, there’s an even bigger boss.
Or a search for a pile of distinctive torches which will prove identical to some found discarded near a burnt out ranch house. Which will, somehow, resolve the problems in “West of the Santa Fe.”
These things don’t deepen the audience’s involvement in the story. They only annoy. Or, at least they annoy me.
And poor Charles must continue to be Steve over and over again, fighting the good fight and working so hard to sell less than satisfactory endings based on values like Compromise and Level Thinking.
Fight on, Charles. Fight on.