Destry Rides Again (B). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this 1939 Western starring Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) and Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution)—I had never heard anything about it and saw it pretty much on a whim. But I must say that I rather enjoyed it—much more than the Dietrich movies in “The Glamour Collection” that I watched so long ago. It’s rather tongue-in-cheek, as Westerns go. It’s set in a typical rough-and-tumble Western town, with a typical villain, his typical gang of ruffians, and an atypical saloon songbird named Frenchie (Dietrich) who helps the villain fleece people in crooked card games. When the town’s sheriff disappears under not-very-mysterious circumstances, the new sheriff sends for assistance in the person of Tom Destry (Stewart), son of a well-known lawman now deceased. But Destry quickly becomes a town laughingstock when he refuses even to carry a gun. Can he defeat the bad guys with nothing more than his wits? And maybe woo Frenchie on the side? It’s sort of goofy, but enjoyable. Worth a look, especially since it’s only 95 minutes long!
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (B). Well, I’m trying to get back into the swing of regular moviegoing, so I decided to see if the Magnolia Theater is still running its classic-movie series on Tuesday nights. Lo, it is, and I caught this 1969 Western this past Tuesday. I had never seen it before and still don’t quite know what to make of it. It stars Paul Newman (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as the outlaws of the film’s title, and as best I can tell from extensive Wikipedia research the movie is actually fairly true to history. It’s the late 1890s, and Butch, the Kid, and their Hole in the Wall gang are making a living robbing banks and trains—until they irritate some big plutocrat and he hires a very dangerous posse to bring them to justice. So, in the interest of self-preservation, they make some unusual career choices after that. Although IMDB.com categorizes the film as “Biography, Crime, Drama,” it has a strong comedic element, with Newman providing lots of amusing dialogue, Redford being amusingly laconic, and an oddly jaunty soundtrack playing in the background. (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won an Oscar.) And yet, there is quite a bit of shooting and killing, albeit with very little blood visible. Katharine Ross of The Graduate fame drops in for a while as the Kid’s love interest, but Butch shows more interest in her than the Kid ever does, and really this movie is a bromance between Butch and the Kid from start to finish.
Anyway, the film held my interest, but I still think it’s kind of an odd bird. It’s #73 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest American movies, so I guess it’s a classic.
Forsaken (B). Well, I’ll be gob-smacked! It’s only February, and this is the second brand-new Western I have seen this year! Anyhoo, this movie seems very reminiscent of Shane. John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland, Pompeii) comes riding back into his old home town some years after the end of the Civil War. His dear old maw has passed away, and his pacifist preacher dad (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games) is none too proud of the famous gunslinger his son has become since the War. Their reunion is rocky, to say the least. Meanwhile, a mean old rattlesnake named McCurdy (Brian Cox, Troy) is buying up local farms in advance of the railroad’s arrival, and farmers who won’t sell out to McCurdy often come down with a bad case of lead poisoning, if you get my meaning. John Henry could be just the man to even out the playing field, but unfortunately for the farmers, he’s trying to put his old ways aside in order to please his paw. Michael Wincott (The Doors) almost steals the show as McCurdy’s top gunslinger, Gentleman Dave. Oh, and Demi Moore (Mortal Thoughts) has a couple of scenes as John Henry’s old sweetie from before the War. It’s not the most original story line, but I still enjoyed it.
Jane Got a Gun (B-). No, this isn’t a movie based on the 1989 Aerosmith tune. It’s an even more unlikely concoction—a Western starring Natalie Portman (Closer) as the heroine and Ewan McGregor (Down With Love) as the bad guy. Truly, I expected it to be terrible, like the recent Western Sweetwater. But instead it turned out to be not half bad, like the recent Western The Homesman. The set-up is nicely formulaic: Natalie’s husband comes riding up to their dusty New Mexico homestead all shot up, and he barely has the strength to warn her that the Bishop Boys are coming. So Natalie has to convince a surly neighbor with whom she has a past to help her fight off the evil varmints that are riding her way and will probably arrive around High Noon. The numerous flashbacks that fill us in on the backstory kind of bog the movie down, but eventually the movie picks up steam and gives us the shoot-em-up we’ve been waiting for. Worth a look, if you like oaters.
Shane (C). I guess this is considered a classic Western—and it got six Academy Award nominations—but I didn’t think it was anything special. Shane (Alan Ladd, The Great Gatsby (1949)) is a wandering gunfighter who accidentally wanders into a Wyoming range war between a big rancher named Ryker and a bunch of homesteaders who want to fence and farm the valley. Shane throws his lot in with the sodbusters, led by stalwart Joe Starrett (Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma (1957)), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur, You Can’t Take It With You), and his annoying son Joey (Brandon De Wilde, Hud). A very young Jack Palance (City Slickers) got a supporting-actor nomination for his performance as an evil gunslinger the rancher brings to town to deal with the farmers. Roger Ebert calls it a great movie, but I thought it was only passable.
The Homesman (B). Westerns are such exotic creatures, I like to try to see them whenever a new one is released. Of course, they are frequently terrible, like the January Jones vehicle Sweetwater, but I admire directors who try to breathe life into this wheezy old genre. I assumed this one would be laughably bad from the capsule reviews I read: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough-as-nails farmer in the Nebraska Territory who agrees to transport three pioneer women back East because the three have gone stark raving mad from the tragedies and hardships of life on the frontier. It turned out to be not half bad. Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black 3) directs and co-stars as a crusty old ne’er-do-well who agrees to help Cuddy attempt the six-week trek through dangerous and desolate Indian country. Swank gives a brave performance as a lonely 31-year-old spinster who gets told to her face, more than once, that she is a very plain-looking woman, and bossy to boot. It’s a pretty grim tale, with some moments of dark humor to lighten (?) the mood. I’d give it a higher grade but for a serious twist that seemed pretty unlikely to me. You’ll be impressed at how many famous actors Jones persuaded to be in his pic, including Meryl Streep (Hope Springs), John Lithgow (Interstellar), James Spader (Lincoln), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (Frances Ha) plays one of the crazy women.
The Big Trees (D). Another day, another dollar DVD. Alas, it was still a waste of money. This is a 1952 release starring Kirk Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives) as Jim Fallon, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century con man whose racket is lumber, of all things. The ins and outs of his scam were lost on me, but basically he goes to northern California with an eye to making a killing by logging the mighty redwoods through some shady but barely legal shenanigans. There he discovers that a large community of peaceful Quaker-types is already living in the woods, including the lovely Widow Chadwick (Eve Miller, April in Paris). He gets set to kick them out and take the lumber, but then a second gang of lumber thieves wants a piece of the action, and they’re really mean. Kirk Douglas exudes charisma, but he can’t save this pedestrian quasi-Western. Alan “Skipper” Hale of Gilligan’s Island fame has a bit part as one of Fallon’s cronies. You’ll probably never have a chance to see this movie, but if you do, be sure to skip it.