Thursday, June 27, 2013


What if one of the great western writers of the 20th century got to be the auteur of a western film? Alan Le May rose from the ranks of the pulps to become a mainstay in the "slick" weeklies in the 1930s. By the end of the decade he had gone to Hollywood, where he worked on three Cecil B. de Mille, though the nearest one to a western was Northwest Mounted Police. Le May's best work as a writer came toward the end of his career, most notably his racially-charged novels The Unforgiven, filmed by John Huston in 1960, and The Searchers, which needs no more introduction. Before writing The Searchers (published in 1954), Le May became an independent film producer in partnership with George Templeton. They made two films in Texas: Templeton directed Le May's screenplay for The Sundowners (not to be confused with Fred Zinnemann's 1960 Australian saga) while Le May himself took up the metaphorical megaphone for High Lonesome. These films were meant to make a movie star of John Barrymore Jr., whose greatest contribution to cinema proved to be his daughter. At the start of the Fifties Junior looks the part of youthful rebellion in his jeans and overall earnest dishevelment, and a shirtless scene reveals that his character has paid for rebelling against his father with permanent scars, but he's still very green as a movie actor and Le May was too green as a director to keep the young ham in check. The lead performance is an anthology of grimaces, as if it was torture for Barrymore to play what really was a thankless role.

He plays a drifter on the run, caught raiding a barn on the Davis ranch in the Big Bend country. Nicknamed "Coon-Cat," he has a scalp wound and a wild tale of having killed a shopkeeper, two menacing strangers having put him up to it down to giving him a gun. The Davises investigate his story, only to find the store empty and, from the lack of evidence, long unoccupied. Something else seems fishy about his story: his descriptions of the two strangers -- the "smiling man" and the "foreign talking man" -- are recognized as matching two infamous figures in a long-ago fence war...but those two men are dead. That makes Coon-Cat's story sound even more like a fabrication, heightening the suspicion that he's covering up some worse deed.

The audience knows objectively that the two strangers are out there -- in one of his early prominent roles, Jack Elam plays the Smiling Man, but Le May forces his story into the "they won't believe me" paradigm as Coon-Cat repeatedly sees the duo lurking about but can't get others to see them. Instead, as evidence builds of a crime spree in the region, suspicion falls repeatedly on Coon-Cat. The duo's mischief threatens to provoke a new fence war when the Davises defend Coon-Cat against a neighbor rancher (engaged to marry one of the Davis women) whose parents have been murdered and who wants to lynch Coon-Cat for it. Civilization has barely arrived in Big Bend -- a Davis teenager is impatient to attend her first party ever -- but the two strangers, with Coon-Cat as their unwilling or unwitting pawn, seem out to bring it all down. The only way Coon-Cat can defeat them is to get someone finally to trust his stories and trust him as a person....

As a writer, Le May does a good job of quickly establishing a fairly large group of characters and making their interactions feel familiar and plausible. As a writer and director he manages to get a tolerable performance out of often-overblown Chill Wills, who gets some eloquent scenes describing the violence of the past. As a director, Le May has a good eye for striking locations, and Wills's account of the mass death of cattle at a contested fence, standing amid their whitened bones, has a whiff of epic chill. But Le May's heavyhanded plotting, the creaking contrivance of the real villains' ability not to be seen by anyone but Coon-Cat, ultimately undercuts whatever else he brings to the direction. An early expectation that High Lonesome might prove a rare western horror film -- the eerie possibility that Coon-Cat might indeed have seen ghosts is quickly dissipated, and instead you grow frustrated with all the stupid people who never manage to see Jack Elam sauntering about, without really gaining any more sympathy for the often-scowling and ever-hapless Coon-Cat. As one might expect from a writer of his talent, Le May had promising material to work with, but he learned that directing a movie isn't as easy as writers may think. His film appeared in the same year when Winchester 73, The Gunfighter and Broken Arrow set the tone for the western's greatest decade, and real directors would continue to set the tone. It was eventually up to John Ford to make Alan Le May's most lasting contribution to western cinema for him.

No comments: