Monday, February 17, 2014


Randolph Scott first worked with producer Harry Joe Brown in 1941's Fritz Lang film Western Union. Charles Vidor's The Desperadoes was the next film in a long association that culminated in their partnership in the production of the 1950s Budd Boetticher westerns that are now Scott's signature work. They didn't work together again until 1948's Coroner Creek, and from that point Brown was primarily Scott's producer. Now that the Boetticher movies set the standard for their work, their earlier films inevitably look like rough drafts for the finished classics to come. They're the sort of rough drafts that need a strong if not ruthless editorial hand, since there often seems to too much going on compared to the austere ensembles of Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy. But it's fair to question whether Scott and Brown were always aspiring to an ideal finally if not only realized by Boetticher. Desperadoes, for instance, is better understood not as a precursor of, say, The Tall T, but as a reflection of the new respectability of westerns after 1939. The legend of 1939, of course, is that John Ford's Stagecoach gave a low-grade genre a respectability it hadn't enjoyed since silent days. People still print that legend, but the western had begun its comeback before Stagecoach and Ford's film arguably wasn't even the most influential western, at least in the short term, from 1939. There's less of Stagecoach in Desperadoes, for instance, then there is Destry Rides Again, if only because Columbia Pictures commissioned an original screen story from Destry's author, the pseudonymously prolific Max Brand. The Destry influence ensures that there'd be more comedy here than in later Scott-Brown westerns. There's also a strong dose of another 1939 western, the Errol Flynn oater Dodge City. That film's influence is threefold. First and most obvious is the glorious Technicolor. Second is the presence of Flynn stooge Guinn (Big Boy) Williams as comedy relief. Third is the prominence of a barroom brawl, the scale of which was a major selling point for Dodge City -- in that respect arguably the most influential western of the famous year. This adds up to a much bigger, busier, often goofier movie than those Scott and Brown ended up making late in their careers.

For all that, Scott fans can see glimmerings of the sort of story he and Brown told much better later with Boetticher and Kennedy's help. The Desperadoes is about a young man at a crossroads, a gunman who gets a chance to choose between outlawry and civilization, with Randolph Scott as a benign adviser. It's like a crossover of western movie universes when Scott meets a very young Glenn Ford as the gunman. Ford was hired to rob a bank in Red Valley, UT, by a livery stable owner (Edgar Buchanan) acting on behalf of the bank president himself, who hopes to profit by keeping his ill-gotten personal gain secret after compensating depositors for half their losses. Ford runs late, however, so the banker hires local thugs who mess things up by killing three men. Ford's belated arrival -- he horsejacks the sheriff (Scott) in the desert on the way to town -- gives the conspirators an opportunity to clean things up by framing and killing Ford. But Buchanan's interests are compromised when his daughter (Evelyn Keyes) falls for Ford, who already seems intimate with the local saloon queen, "The Countess" (Claire Trevor), who'd been harboring Ford's dynamite-happy partner (Williams) in anticipation of Ford's arrival. Apart from the most blatant bad guys -- the banker and his preferred goons -- there's an admirable complexity to most of the characters. Scott's sheriff, for instance, is unusually forgiving of Ford for stealing his horse and beating him up in the stable -- the gunman only fails to get away because Keyes trips him twice and brains him with a wooden bucket. He knows the kid and wants him to have a chance to change his life. The problem is, the kid sees Keyes (whose violence against him in the stable proves the exception) as his key to reform while Scott, seeing the malevolent forces swirling around Ford provocatively, thinks the kid's only chance is to leave the town and the girl.

The Technicolor cinematography of George Meehan and Allen M. Davey really is glorious when they go on location. Desperadoes is always a good-looking A western for its time. Its big handicap, or so it must seem in retrospect, is its inconsitency of tone. There's a moral seriousness to Ford's dilemma that Kennedy and Boetticher certainly would have developed more strongly. In 1943, however, Vidor and screenwriter Robert Carson feel compelled to make their film an all-around entertainment by loading it with comedy relief, from the inanity of 'Big Boy' Williams (Trevor calls him a "big zombie [!]" after he nearly blows up a hotel room) to a slapstick barroom brawl in which Williams features all too prominently. Carson's script, if not Brand's story, is also overelaborate, throwing in a few too many aribitrary plot twists to push the film closer to the 90 minute mark. At one point Williams robs a bank for no apparent reason other than to force Ford out of town with him so they can get captured and condemned to hang -- and that happens only so Scott can let them escape and put himself in legal jeopardy, so Ford and Williams can go back to town to free him. Too much? I thought so, yet the actors all acquit themselves well -- even Williams's stupidity is appropriate for his role -- and the film remains likable, at least if you're a western fan. But it testifies to the legacy of Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown that you can't help imagining how much better Desperadoes might be if it was a reel shorter, the way Scott and Brown might have done it when they had more creative control and more creative collaborators. You can imagine them making this film and thinking they could do better -- and you know they will.

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