Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Audie Murphy, The Gun Runners – Blu-ray

This 1958 black and white noir crime thriller starring Audie Murphy looks great in Blu-ray which is loosely – and I mean loosely – based upon Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel, To Have and Have Not. This is the third film version, the first being the classic 1944 version with Bogart and Bacall. The second was The Breaking Point (1950) starring John Garfield. This version was directed by Don Siegel who previously directed Murphy in Duel at Silver Creek in 1952. Siegel would go on to direct such great films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Flaming Star (1960), Dirty Harry (1971) and The Shootist (1976), to name a few. Murphy is solid in his role as a reluctant gun runner during the Cuban revolution. The supporting cast includes Eddie Albert and Jack Elam who are at their sinister best. The female enticements were played by Patricia Owens and Gita Hall. I think Murphy only made about nine non-Westerns, and about 39 or 40 feature length Westerns, many of which have yet to be released on either DVD or Blu-ray. In other posts I’ve mentioned my desire to see his acclaimed Westerns for Universal Studios restored and re-released. The Gun Runners is but a modest yet still entertaining entry in Murphy’s filmography, and it proved yet again that he could act in a modern feature, not that any proof was needed. I recommend picking this up if you’re a Murphy DVD/Blu-ray collector like I am. The Gun Runnersmakes for a good Saturday morning matinee, and be sure to include some Irish coffee. Easy on the coffee, heavy on the Irish.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Alias Jesse James Blu-ray Review

Alias Jesse James is neither a great film, nor an exciting Western. This movie is a cultural oddity, and I can’t imagine what young viewers today would think if they bothered watching it. Bob Hope is far removed from today’s entertainment hot spots, and I can’t imagine a cultural revival such as we’ve seen with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and others from the same period. Yet he was internationally known, was revered by millions, was the best host ever on the Academy Awards and produced dazzling and fun-to-watch television specials. He’s a figure of nostalgia who hasn’t really had a retro-discovery…yet. Alias Jesse James was released in 1959, the same year as Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Ride Lonesome with Randolph Scott, The Last Train from Gun Hill with Kirk Douglas, The Gunfight at Dodge City with Joel McCrea, King of the Wild Stallions with George Montgomery and Yellowstone Kelly with Clint Walker. Those are all good or great films. I think my fascination with Alias Jesse James lies in its nostalgia factor. Bob Hope had long ago mastered the nebbish character which works well enough here, although the film has some serious shortcomings. The casting of Wendell Corey as Jesse James is unfortunate. The script is pedestrian and relies on Hope’s mugging and wide-eyed ineptness to carry the film, and it almost does. Hope was good at what he did, and his “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby are often delightful to watch. The plot here has Hope being mistaken for Jesse James which sets up the obligatory gags and showdowns. My favorite one-liner here happens when an Indian maiden is admiring Hope’s eyes and says, “Your eyes belong on a woman,” and Hope quips, “They usually are.” The stunning Rhonda Fleming is perfect and plays off Hope well. They must have had a grand time filming this one. Fleming never looked bad in a film and the Blu ray clarity highlights her figure and her beauty. This was, of course, from an era when women enjoyed looking beautiful and men openly admired their beauty. The pay-off in Alias Jesse James are the cameo appearances in the concluding showdown. The way to approach this now is from the standpoint of cultural anthropology. Play this film for a room full of twenty-year-olds today and how many will be able to name these stars? Several popular actors show up to partake in the gunfight, all dressed as the character for which they are best known. I think it’s incredible, and watching it again was still thrilling after so many years. Fess Parker, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Hugh O’Brian, Gail Davis, James Arness, Jay Silverheels, Ward Bond, and Bing Crosby all have a few lines or quips at the end. These cameos alone surely helped pack the movie houses. Alias Jesse James works as a parody of Westerns, but who remembers Gail Davis today? It has a certain charm, but I think Hope’s better solo films were The Ghost Breakers (1940), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), My Favorite Spy (1951) and Son of Paleface (1952, with Roy Rogers). I saw Bob Hope in a stand-up live comedy performance at the Poplar Creek Music Theater in 1978. Barbara Eden was the opening act and she took the stage in a skin tight sequined gown that showed off her ample charms, and she sang her heart out. Hope was great, telling blue but not dirty stories about Dean Martin and Jackie Gleason. Somewhere in my files I have notes on the jokes he told that night. Barbara Eden joined him at the conclusion and they sang and bantered about. It was great fun.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Roy Rogers, “Mackintosh and T. J.” Blu-ray Restoration


In his final film, Roy Rogers played a down-on-his luck ranch hand looking for work who gives a wayward teen (Clay O’Brien) a ride which begins their odd friendship. Originally released in November 1975, the film wasn’t a blockbuster hit and Rogers was on record saying “There's no leading lady, no shooting, some fights, but no blood spurting, and that's the way I wanted it.” Moving at a leisurely pace, the story’s centerpiece is the relationship between Mackintosh and T. J. while also providing an unblemished look at 1970’s era ranch life. Filmed on location in Texas, the landscape is brightly lit but rugged and unrelenting. The film’s realism adds texture to the story. This is a fine film that I hope will find a wider audience with this stunning 4k restoration from the original 35mm camera negative which restores the color composition and puts viewers right into the scene. Young Clay O’Brien had previously starred with John Wayne (The Cowboys and Cahill, U.S. Marshal) and retired from acting after this film to become a professional rodeo performer. He was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1997. The supporting cast includes Joan Hackett, Billy Green Bush, Andrew Robison, Luke Askew, James Hampton, Dennis Fimple and Walter Barnes. All well-known and capable character actors. Mackintosh and T. J. works as an Ode to the Old West while serving as an affectionate and heartwarming coda for Rogers, the King of the Cowboys. Critics were hard on the film, but I have always enjoyed it. It’s not complicated. It’s down-to-earth, tells a simple story cleanly, and it’s Roy Rogers’ swan song. The Bonus material is worth watching, too. I recall watching this film upon its release, all by my lonesome self in the near-empty theatre, and loving it. I was acutely aware at the mark Time leaves on us all, just as I am now watching this splendid Blu-ray presentation. Adios, Roy. It’s always good seeing you again.

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Shadow by James Patterson and Brian Sitts

I was less than enchanted when I learned that Conde Nast, the copyright owners of such iconic characters as The Shadow and Doc Savage, had rescinded the copyright permissions with various groups that were both creating new and acclaimed novels featuring these characters or producing affordable reprints of the original stories. This move was orchestrated in order to grant best-selling book-factory maestro James Patterson exclusive rights to The Shadow in order to make fistfuls of money for all involved. Their legal right has been exercised and the resulting book is exactly the disappointment longtime Shadow fans had expected. And, yes, they are still making fistfuls of money.


James Patterson wrote the outline from which author Brian Sitts created this mundane mass-market paperback that never rises above the eighth-grade reading level. Now, I’m all in favor of young readers involving themselves with books, but this isn’t even close to being a responsible narrative. The first Shadow novel, The Living Shadow, published in 1931 and written by Walter B. Gibson under the pen name Maxwell Grant is far superior in every way. Gibson would go on to write 282 Shadow novels of the original 325 novels. 


By comparison, James Patterson is equally prolific, at least in number of books published annually. I believe he’s averaging about 15 titles yearly, mostly with co-authors. Patterson writes the outlines and seems to have ceased full-length novel writing some years back. Patterson is a capable writer. Brian Sitts is a capable writer. What they are both lacking is an understanding and appreciation of the source material. Walter B. Gibson could write circles around these two guys on a bad day and make it seem like the work of a genius. An understanding of The Shadow’s rich history coupled with a higher measure of literary talent might have elevated this tasteless porridge into a cause célèbre that might have inspired young and old readers alike. Instead, the event has been reduced to another click-bait headline that provides the world yet another in a long line of “name recognition” doorstops from Grand Central Publishing, a division of the Hachette Book Group (he said sarcastically.) More trees have fallen in the forest.


I won’t bother summarizing the plot. The Amazon reviews will provide you everything you need to comprehend about the level of mangled characterizations, lack of mood, juvenile dialogue and kiddie pacing for today’s breathless and eager audience. I mourn for those of you who ignore the reviews and allow this travesty to become your introduction to one of literature’s exciting and fascinating characters. I bought this book hoping my instincts were wrong. Sadly, they weren’t wrong. I enjoyed some of James Patterson’s thrillers when he was actually writing them, but I’m not enjoying his factory inspired assembly line output. The fat lady has finished singing. Show over.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Now Available - Masked Rider, Vol. Three


From Airship 27 Publishers:


SADDLE UP FOR ADVENTURE! The Wild West has always had its share of larger-than-life heroes; both fictional such as pulpdom’s own Masked Rider and the historical Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. In this new collection, we offer up a trio of tales showcasing each: Western writer Thomas McNulty delivers a south of the border yarn with Earp and Doc Holliday on the hunt for a dangerous desperado in a story called “Kings of the Sage.” This is followed by Kevin Findley’s story of the fabled Masked Rider and his Yaqui partner Blue Hawk on the trail of murderous cattle rustlers in a tale called “Green Valley-Red Death.” Finally, in a full-length novella, Gordon Dymowski has the mysterious Masked Rider attempting to solve the murder of an Army Cavalry officer in “A Town Called Malice.” Here then is action and adventure set against a frontier stage true to a time and place that forever left its legacy on a nation; the American Wild West!



Monday, April 26, 2021

Kirk Douglas, The Indian Fighter – Blu-ray


I had the pleasure of meeting Kirk Douglas twice at book signings and he was generous, intelligent and down-to-earth. I rate him high on my list of celebrities I’ve met. Of his Westerns, my all-time favorite is Last Train from Gun Hill (1959). Not all of his Westerns are available on Blu-ray, so I was quite happy to pick-up The Indian Fighter (1955). Filmed on location in Bend, Oregon, the color cinematography is something I never get tired of watching. The visuals alone make the film worth screening, and the story works perfectly. For those that claim that Hollywood films always denigrated the Native American experience, this film proves otherwise with its sympathetic and dignified portrayal of the Sioux. Yes, there are some elements that are considered inappropriate by today’s ultra-sensitive standards (such as the character of Johnny Hawks being lauded as ‘The Indian Fighter’) but the overall depiction is respectful. Supporting players Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney embody their sleazy roles, and the script by Frank Davis and Ben Hecht gives everyone nice, terse syllables to chew on. The action often seemed perfunctory to me, but Kirk Douglas is at his masculine best here, and few actors in Hollywood, then or now, can convincingly play such a vigorous Westerner. In fact, Douglas has the best lines in the film when he describes to a photographer played by Elisha Cook, Jr., on why he doesn’t want to see the frontier crowded with people: “To me, the West is like a beautiful woman – my woman. I like her the way she is. I don’t want to see her changed. I don’t want to share her with anybody…”  Italian actress Elsa Martinelli is effective as the Indian maiden that Johnny Hawks falls in love with. She has little to do, but her nude scene early in the film caused quite a stir when the film was released. It’s tame but still alluring by comparison to modern nude scenes. It’s cliché to say “They don’t make them like this anymore” but I sure wish they did. I think most of the Westerns Kirk Douglas made are pretty good, not to mention The Big Sky (1951), Man Without A Star (1955), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) The Last Sunset (1961) Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and The War Wagon (1967). There are others, but these are my favorites.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Riders of Death Valley – Blu-ray – Restoration


The VCI Entertainment restoration of the 1941 15-chapter “super serial” is an absolute delight to view. This is one of several restorations that caught my eye recently and shouldn’t be missed by fans or historians of classic Western cinema. The stellar cast is incredible – Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, Noah Beery, Jr., and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are the headliners supported by Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney, Jr., Jean Brooks, James Blaine, Monte Blue, Glenn Strange and others. At over 4 hours, all that’s missing is Technicolor. Still, the black and white photography looks great restored to its former glory. Only chapter 6 was lacking a full restoration, although the restoration crew did locate a 16 mm print of chapter 6 which is slightly less pristine than the 35 mm source material used for everything else. The blue-ray package includes two discs for all 15 chapters. Budgeted by Universal at a million dollars, an incredible amount for a long-running serial, and with some location footage completed at Mohave Valley, Arizona, and California locations including the famous Iverson Ranch, Red Rock Canyon State Park, and Death Valley itself, Riders of Death Valley is a solid Western and packed with galloping horses, gunplay, nefarious villains and lots of personality. 


The script is better than one might expect from a serial, and the cast are all clearly having fun. The amiable Dick Foran leads the way, sings the title song and generally conducts himself well as he did in every film I’ve seen him in. But it’s the great Buck Jones who held my attention. Riders of Death Valley was released on July 1, 1941and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was only months away. Buck Jones would make nine films after this, all in the span of a year, the last, Dawn on the Great Divide being released on December 18, 1942, just days after his death on November 30th.  Jones was a victim of the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, and his premature death left a void in Western films that has never been filled. Interestingly enough, Buck Jones has never gone out of style. Several of his films have been restored and released on Blu-ray, and he remains a favorite of Western film fans, including myself. 


The banter between Dick Foran and Buck Jones is rather enjoyable, and Leo Carrillo checks in with some great one-liners. Charles Bickford and Lon Chaney, Jr. handle the menacing bad guy roles with their practiced professionalism. Noah Beery, Jr., and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams have less to do than the others, but their mere presence adds yet another layer of useful characterization. 


Dick Foran and Buck Jones are the charming headliners here and I was left wishing they had done more together. The plot is meaningless in light of the constant action scenes. No Western film fan will ever get tired of Dick Foran and Buck Jones galloping across the dusty western landscape with a blazing six-shooter in hand. 


I’m an advocate for the ongoing restoration of our Western film heritage, and Riders of Death Valley is a welcome addition to my home library.


For more esoteric and hard-to-find classic films and cliffhangers, Click Here!