Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rare Westerns on Netflix Instant Watch Capsule Reviews, vol.19

Untamed Frontier (1952)

A powerful cattle baron is doing everything he can to fend off incoming settlers that want to live on land that he would otherwise use to raise cattle, so he can therefore become even richer and more powerful, sort of like a king holding sway over local resources for his own gain. Meanwhile, we become privy to the personal drama of the rest of the family, chiefly son Scott Brady who is quickly wooing the lonely Shelley Winters, but only as a ploy to get out of an impending murder charge. You see, apparently in Texas at the time, it was illegal for a spouse to testify against the other spouse, and she was the star witness, so just he’ll just marry her and get off scot free. Joseph Cotton is Brady’s cousin and family advisor, a detached protector of the family who is eventually caught in-between when Shelley falls for him instead after she becomes wise to Brady’s scheme.

While the character drama may seem unlikely and forced (including the way in which Brady ends up killing a man), the relationships between the characters are played much more for psychological motivation (in the direction and the photography) than cheap soapy drama. Things unfold unpredictably and unrealistically, but they do so springing forth from the characters, rather than the characters being forced to execute an unlikely plot. Overall, very well photographed and directed, and a subtley layered and interesting variation on what could have been a soapy B-movie plot. This one is mostly completely unheralded, so I guess it qualifies as a bit of a hidden gem.

Never released on home video, despite starring Joseph Cotton and Shelly Winters, and featuring Lee Van Cleef in a supporting role. Unfortunately, it is no longer on Netflix, but maybe it'll pop up again or get released on DVD.

Flaming Feather (1952)

A mysterious masked bandit dubbed “The Sidewinder” is employing a group of Indians to rob and destroy towns and wagons. The U.S. cavalry can’t even identify him, let alone capture him, so they enlist the services of rebel cowboy Tex McCloud (that’s a god damn name right there), played by the unstoppable Sterling Hayden. The gorgeous Barbara Rush plays both the love interest of Sterling and the damsel in distress. While the main plot is not especially compelling or original, the movie is filled with some nice touches (check out the wicked montage at the beginning showing The Sidewinder’s various misdeeds), the Technicolor photography is gorgeous, the fights are exciting and well executed, and Sterling Hayden owns the screen (and the supporting cast is very good also). A pretty bad ass and beautifully photographed (in Technicolor) version of a typical B-movie plot.

The image is a little soft and there are some speckles, but otherwise it is very good. The sound is a bit scratchy, but not distractingly so. Never released on home video.

California Firebrand (1948)

Singing cowboy Monte Hale, in order to investigate the death of his uncle, adopts the identity of the chief suspect Gunsmoke Lowery, whose body he happens upon. He heads out to the mining town where his uncle was killed, and teams up with dress shop owner Lorna Gray to take care of the local thugs and investigate. I’m not much for singing cowboys, but this was somewhat enjoyable despite the standard plot, considering the songs aren’t half bad, and there is some goofy humor that actually works. The two-strip trucolor process also give the photography an otherworldly teal pastel look; Lorna’s blue vests really pop. It’s like a singing cowboy B-western from another planet.

Occasional ghosting issues, but the transfer looks very good considering the source (which seems a little smudgey). Other Monte Hale films also co-starring Lorna Gray that are on Netflix instant:

Under Colorado Skies (1947, previously only available on VHS)
Ranger of Cherokee Strip (1949, and never released on home video)

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