Saturday, September 28, 2013

DVR Diary: THE OKLAHOMAN (1957)

Joel McCrea is linked in movie history with Randolph Scott, his co-star in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. By the time they made that film together, swapping roles early in the production, McCrea's star had fallen to Scott's level. Both had been starring in B westerns for years, McCrea in part from the belief that he was no longer plausible as a romantic leading man. While the B westerns Scott made with Budd Boetticher have been canonized as masterworks of the genre, McCrea's westerns were arguably more prestigious at the time, however forgotten they are now. McCrea simply didn't age as well as Scott, who was nearly a decade his senior. Scott acquired a leathery gravitas, took more creative control over his films, and made his great alliance with Boetticher. McCrea acquired a paunch, and his major partnership was with the producer Walter Mirisch. Few of their directors were auteurs; the closest you get is Jacques Tourneur on Wichita (1955). Most of the films were written by Daniel B. Ullman. His screenplay for The Oklahoman was directed by Francis D. Lyon, who directed McCrea in Gunsight Ridge that same year. He spent most of the next decade working in TV. His direction of The Oklahoman is at least competent, but Ullman's script probably does more to make the film watchable.

McCrea plays Dr. John Brighton, a widower who settles in an Oklahoma town near where his wife died in a covered wagon giving birth to their daughter. He becomes the town physician, befriending both the tomboyish Anne (Barbara "Della Street" Hale) and the blooming Maria (Gloria Talbott), the daughter of a Charlie (Michael Pate), a homesteading Indian. Charlie worries that some swampland on his property is toxic, but local cattle baron Cass Dobie (Brad Dexter, best known, relatively speaking, as that other guy in The Maginificent Seven) suspects that Charlie has oil on his land. He hopes to buy Charlie out cheap, but isn't above more underhanded tactics. After Charlie kills Dobie's brother in self-defense and turns himself in, Dr. John takes a stand for him and puts himself on the road to the archetypal showdown in the street.

It's a simple story but Ullman knows how to use limited screen time economically to develop characters and relationships so that The Oklahoman seems paced more like a novel than an action movie. There's some intelligent commentary on the ambivalent feelings whites had toward Indians in the late 19th century. A group of older men discuss Charlie's surrender, one stating that the killing proves that you can't trust an Indian. That provokes a discussion of the ways whites have mistreated the red men, the group conceding that someone like Charlie, otherwise utterly benign and trustworthy, would have good reason to hate whites -- which is why you can't trust him. The script is the film's strength, though Lyon stages the drama effectively in Cinemascope. He gives the film a slightly surprising climax, the final gunfight proving something more than the usual exchange of single shots with one of them lethal. Instead, Dobie and Dr. John empty their weapons into each other until neither can fire anymore. McCrea wins simply by surviving. The showdown is a touch that helps render The Oklahoman not quite a generic western. It's more expansive in its modest way. If not a neglected treasure, it will still hold and reward your attention. As for McCrea, his dispassionate moralism is nothing more than the film needs. As for his self-consciousness about playing a middle-aged lover, here he is loved by women who are 17 years (Hale) and 26 years (Talbott) his junior, though we should note that he courts neither woman aggressively. McCrea isn't an iconic figure like Randolph Scott, but while his Fifties westerns aren't in Scott's league, The Oklahoman reminds us that they're not without their virtues.

1 comment:

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