Monday, March 10, 2014


This is the one where Randolph Scott dies at the end. Since his character dies in at least one other movie, Fritz Lang's Western Union, I should clarify that this Gordon Douglas picture is the one where Scott's character is killed by the law. Scott co-produced it with his regular colleague Harry Joe Brown under the Producers-Actors Corporation rubric, for release by Columbia Pictures. It brings us back to the question: did Scott know what he wanted from westerns? Most people accept that his earlier productions weren't as good as the films that Budd Boetticher directed for him between 1957 and 1960, and the story of the real-life outlaw Bill Doolin may be as objective a test as we can have of what Scott and Brown brought creatively to the Boetticher films. That's because Doolins was remade, or the Doolin story simply retold, as the Audie Murphy film The Cimarron Kid, directed by Boetticher. I haven't seen this quasi-remake, but the synopsis indicates a heavily bowdlerized version that leaves the protagonist alive at the end. Boetticher can't be blamed for that, of course, but by default that leaves Doolins of Oklahoma as the darker, better film.

Scott was in a noirish mood at the time. His previous film was a modern-day western, The Walking Hills, that's highly regarded by many reviewers and reads in descriptions much like a noir. The Doolins of Oklahoma is a kind of folk noir, definitely a folksier noir than most, leavened with comedy yet inexorably bound for tragedy. The subject of Kenneth Gamet's screenplay is the gradual destruction of one of the West's last outlaw gangs. It starts discouragingly with portentous narration by George Macready, who soon appears on screen as a character in the story. It should be our first hint of where Doolins is going that the scarfaced Macready, usually a heel in movies, is one of the good guys, a lawman dedicated to bringing the Doolins to justice. Bill Doolin was an associate of the legendary Daltons who formed one of a number of gangs to call themselves the Wild Bunch. After the members are introduced, they're shown making a major score, tipped off by a soft-spoken, well-educated waiter (Noah Beery Jr.) known as "Little Bill" to Doolin's "Big Bill." Beery's historical counterpart was called "Little Dick," but Code Enforcement wasn't going to let that stand. In any event, after the robbery the gang disperses with plans to rendezvous several months later. During that hiatus, fugitive Doolin meets and falls in love with Rose (Louise Albritton), marries her and decides to settle down. But just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. Wanting him back, members of the Wild Bunch circulate a wanted poster exposing Doolin's true identity and he has no choice but to leave with them.

That betrayal turns out really to be the most villainous thing anyone does in the picture. The remarkable thing about Doolins is that it's really a film without a villain. Bill sometimes gets into scrapes with his men -- Douglas, who has an admirable number of tough westerns to his credit, including The Charge at Feather River and Rio Conchos, stages a brutal fistfight after Doolin refuses to let his men backshoot the Macready character -- but no one in the gang emerges as the Bad Guy on whom Doolin can dump his sins. It's not going to be that easy, but at least it won't be complicated in the usual melodramatic way. Instead, there's a resilient bond of forgiving friendship uniting the Wild Bunch, at least until they start dying. Little Bill uses Ben Franklin's famous saying to sum it up: they have to hang together or hang separately. Doolins is arguably ahead of its time in its episodic if not quite elegiac account of the doomed gang's adventures. It can take time for outright comedy when outlaw groupie/wannabe Cattle Annie (Dona Drake) charges into the picture. This miniature berserker was a real-life member of the gang, and Annie herself, living into the 1970s and her own nineties, is pretty definitely the last of the Old West outlaws, expiring shortly before her own moment in the cinematic sun. Drake steals the picture whenever she's in it, whether pursuing Little Bill romantically or begging with ardent bloodlust to help the gang shoot their way out of a trap -- Doolin locks her in a shed instead. The entire siege is a piece of amiable mayhem, though not without real danger. The almost rollicking tone only makes the gradual shift in tone more profound.

The Wild Bunch is whittled down by death and capture until only Big Bill and Little Bill are left. Doolin gets the idea that they might lose their pursuers by doubling back to old haunts. He returns to the town he had settled in, thinking to hide out in the home he presumes abandoned, only to find Rose living there still and still carrying a torch for him. Doolin's ready to move on at once, but Rose wants to stay with him -- to join him as a fugitive if necessary. The time to decide is short, as Doolin has once again underestimated the law. While Little Bill provokes a horse stampede to cover their getaway, but falls under the hooves himself, Big Bill and Rose prepare to flee, but Doolin has a Pathos of Renunciation moment, realizing that the hard life of a fugitive isn't right for his love. Instead, he will cover her escape back to the safety of normal life by forcing a one-sided showdown with his pursuers -- and I told you how that turns out.

Scott's films with Boetticher sometimes hint that there's little more than a hair's breadth of difference between Scott's heroes and his foes. They are alike men who want the same things from life, but the doomed villains are the ones who never figured out a way to get it other than violence. They could just as easily be victims of circumstance; the thought seems more compelling once you've seen Scott himself walk a last mile in those doomed shoes. I'm not sure that Boetticher could have done Doolins better. He most likely would have done without the narration, and doing so would improve the picture, but Douglas pretty much nails the mood Scott and Brown were after: a slowly mounting sadness, but not at the expense of the spirit of action and adventure, the thing that would be missed, except in the imagination, when the Doolins of history were all gone. The Doolins of Oklahoma took me quite by surprise in the best possible way. Perhaps a unique item in the Randolph Scott filmography, in a way it's a little gem of a western.

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