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.

 

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