Western RoundUp: Hidden Gems, Vol. 1
One of the things I especially enjoy about Westerns is discovering lesser-known yet very entertaining movies. There are a great many such films out there for the finding, ranging from “darn good Westerns” — straightforward, solidly made entertainment — to unsung treasures which should be much better known. There’s a real thrill in watching a previously unknown Western which surprises and satisfies the viewer, and I hope to highlight some of those films in this column.
Below is a trio of three excellent, relatively unsung Westerns which I highly recommend.
Panhandle (Lesley Selander, 1948)
Rod Cameron stars as John Sands, a former gunfighter who leaves behind his peaceful life as a merchant to hunt for the killer of his younger brother. When Sands arrives in the town where the murder took place, he suspects the powerful Garson (Reed Hadley), and he also tangles with a hired gun (Edwards). Sands is aided by his late brother’s fiancee (Cathy Downs of My Darling Clementine) and Garson’s secretary (Anne Gwynne, the real-life grandmother of actor Chris Pine).
As one might expect from a film co-written by Edwards, it has some excellent dialogue, and it’s also quite unpredictable; just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie’s going, it heads in another direction. The script also features two strong women’s roles without relying on the Western cliche of the “good girl” and the “bad (saloon) gal”; each woman is smart and plays a key role in assisting the hero. The movie is quite refreshing in this regard.
In fact, none of the characters are the usual “stock” characters, including the gunfighter; Edwards, who would soon give up the acting part of his film career, plays his hotheaded role with flare. Cameron’s appealing lead character, who is both courtly and confident, provides the perfect contrast with Edwards.
The film is also distinguished by some excellent set pieces, including a brutal fistfight and an extremely memorable shootout in the rain. On top of it all, the movie was shot in sepia by Harry Neumann, giving the movie a unique visual look.
Just describing this film makes me want to watch it all over again! I hope anyone unfamiliar with this title will seek it out, as it’s rewarding viewing.
Panhandle is available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.
The Desperado (Thomas Carr, 1954)
Wayne Morris was a successful young leading man at Warner Bros. for several years in the late ’30s and early ’40s, then left the screen for half a dozen years due to wartime service. During World War II Morris was a highly decorated Navy flying ace. His movie career resumed in 1947, and within a couple of years, he made the first of what would be many Westerns filmed over the next decade, until his untimely death in 1959, at just 45 years old.
The Desperado is a “B” film from Allied Artists; it may have been a relatively minor film in its day but I feel it provided Morris with a role which was a high point in his career, showing off his evolution from a solid if somewhat bland young leading man to an excellent character actor capable of giving a scene-stealing performance.
Morris plays Sam Garrett, a gunman who unexpectedly finds himself teaching green young Tom Cameron (James Lydon) how to stay alive; Cameron is on the run from murderous Union “Blue Bellies” who killed his father. Cameron has also been betrayed by a former friend (Rayford Barnes) who wants Tom’s fiancee (Beverly Garland) for himself.
There are some simply wonderful aspects to this film, including not one but two (!) villains played by Lee Van Cleef. I find it quite delightful that a good guy gunning down Van Cleef once in this movie is not enough!
Another great surprise is a terrific little performance by Dabbs Greer, who will be familiar to many viewers as Reverend Alden from TV’s Little House on the Prairie. Greer plays a smart marshal who respects Sam and works to help Tom.
The good script is by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote under the name Geoffrey Homes; his work included the seminal film noir Out of the Past (1947). Add in a good cast giving strong performances and it’s a very enjoyable hour and 20 minutes.
The Desperado is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Man or Gun (Albert C. Gannaway, 1958)
I stumbled across this Republic Pictures film when looking for something to stream during a road trip several years ago, and it proved to be something quite special.
It’s another film about a gunslinger, this time played by Macdonald Carey. Horseless Scott Yancey (Carey) walks into a New Mexico town with nothing of value other than his shiny gun, and almost immediately he’s forced to gun down two men in self-defense.
After the gunfight, Yancey unexpectedly receives some reward money and decides he’ll buy a nearby spread and settle down…yet somehow people keep challenging him and his gun. The old sheriff (James Gleason) is surprisingly complacent about it, glad that Yancey is, in essence, doing the hard work of cleaning up the town.
Warren Stevens plays Ferris, who wants to take charge of the town and hires Pinch (James Craig) to take Yancey out once and for all, and Audrey Totter rounds out the cast as a woman who runs a saloon and gives Yancey the nickname “Maybe” (as in, “maybe” he’s a famous gunfighter…or maybe not!).
There are admittedly a couple of creaky lines and moments here and there, but for the most part, this is a very original film with quite a bit of humor, a pair of well-staged gunfights, and an unusual touch of mysticism. (Regarding the latter aspect, is the secret to Yancey’s success man…or gun?) Some of the lines in the script by James J. Cassity and Vance Skarstedt are “laugh out loud” funny, and there are some quite unexpected moments to delight the viewer. The unpredictability extends to Craig’s ostensible villain, a loving husband whose role turns out to be quite different than we first expect.
It all builds to a surprising ending. Watch this one for something quite different and very enjoyable.
Man or Gun is not available on DVD but has turned up in the past on multiple streaming services.
I hope to highlight some additional lesser-known Westerns in future columns!
— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.