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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Cave of Outlaws (1951)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Macdonald Carey and Alexis Smith

I couldn't resist Cave of Outlaws for a host of different reasons, not least that it isn't available on DVD but Netflix are streaming it anyway. It's a real genre hybrid for a start, taking elements of mystery, romance, comedy and suspense and mixing them all up within the framework of a western. It's a Technicolor picture from 1951, so it looks a little otherworldly, especially given that the many underground sequences are shot on location inside the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It's directed by William Castle and is the earliest of his films I've seen thus far within his obscure middle period, after entries in crime series such as the Whistler and the Crime Doctor but before his famous horror titles. It's also set in the Arizona territory in 1880, in the equivalent of which I currently live, and prominently features the famous frontier company of Wells Fargo, for whom I currently work. These are only the most obvious reasons why it's an interesting film today.

It wasn't that important in 1951 though and it obviously wasn't an expensive production. While the sets and Alexis Smith's costumes are worth looking at, this was made for Universal who were known for such things on a much grander scale than this. The acting is decent, but a few scenes needed a second take that never came. The stars are recognisable but not major: Macdonald Carey in the lead, Alexis Smith as the leading lady and Edgar Buchanan and Victor Jory backing them up. You may know these folks from television, but not at this point as the roles they would become best known for were still in the future. Carey began Days of Our Lives in 1965, literally as he provided the famous opening words. Buchanan had started Petticoat Junction two years earlier and would remain with it for its entire run. Smith's TV work was notable much later. She played a recurring character on Dallas and was nominated for a primetime Emmy for Cheers.

Carey is hardly a standard hero, as he begins the film freshly released from prison. He was guilty too, as we saw during the prologue when his eighteen year old self took part in a violent train robbery that left many men dead. The heist itself is successful and they make off with the Wells Fargo payroll of gold, but a posse is close on their heels. Pete Carver leads the gang into a colossal cave system, but he's the only one who gets to walk out. The posse follows them in and shoots the rest dead. The payroll followed the corpse of Pete's dad down a vast and inaccessible drop, so when he's released from Kansas State Prison fifteen years later, we can expect him to be a lot of things, from bitter to driven, but we don't expect him to be the hero of the film. 'He's grown up to be a tough one,' the governor tells a Wells Fargo detective, 'smart and tough'. Carey plays it quiet though, like a low budget Gary Cooper, so we keep our minds open anyway.
Having set itself up as a gold hunting western, Cave of Outlaws proves that it has a funny bone as Carver arrives back in what is now a booming copper town called Copper Bend. Everyone is interested in him. 'How do you know it's Pete Carver?' asks one local. 'I seen him with my own eyes,' replies another. 'Ever seen him before?' 'No...' You see, though fifteen years have passed and everyone knows the gold is in the cave, nobody has found it yet and they all expect Carver to quickly become a rich man. Some beat him up for his dough. Many aim to become his friend sharpish. Others want to exploit his fame or extend him credit because they expect him to be able to pay those bills soon enough. Even the doc who cleans him up after he's mugged drops hints that the town needs a hospital bad. The main characters all have their own interests in him and the gold too: Dobbs, Elizabeth Trent and Ben Cross.

Dobbs is the Wells Fargo detective, the only man in town who seems to have any patience. He sits back with his eyes open, waiting to see what unfolds. Edgar Buchanan is a great choice for the role, suitably old enough to be the voice of patient experience yet young and bright eyed enough to be up to the task at hand. He's been looking for this gold for twelve years. Ben Cross is the local bad guy, as you'd expect in the form of perennial screen villain Victor Jory. He owns the town, having acquired all the copper rights in the area through fair means or foul. He wants Carver to help him find the gold, without Dobbs noticing, pay his debts which all end up owed to him, and then get the hell out of town. Elizabeth Trent wants him, as her husband ran the local paper, the Copper Bend Clarion, but disappeared a year earlier and she's out of business until someone can bankroll its reopening, which Carver promptly does on credit.
You can almost write the story from there, because while the mix of genres ensures that it's an interesting ride, each of those genres unfolds exactly as you expect. You can be sure that Carver is after the gold, but not for the reasons we're led to expect. You can be sure he's interested in Liz Trent, a presumed widow in some ostentatious 1880 dresses, and you can be just as sure that Ben Cross is interested in her too. You can also be sure that Liz's husband is going to show up at some point in the story, alive or dead, just so he won't end up as a loose end. You can be sure that the gold is going to be a consistent MacGuffin that drives most of the characters, all the way until the end of the film. You can be sure that there's going to be brawling, a couple of gunfights and a showdown in the caves. You can even be sure that the plate glass windows at the Clarion are going to get people thrown through them. None of these things will surprise.

What does surprise is how sparkly the dialogue gets, as there are some blistering lines. At one point Liz ends Carver's fierce kiss and he asks, 'What's the matter? My credit's good everywhere else.' The romance is surprising too, not only because this is a Production Code era film and the lady is technically married at the time, but because Pete and Liz share far more arguments than they do kisses. The attention to detail is surprising too, as the writing is more consistent than I would have expected for a 75 minute B movie. I liked the cute scene that has Carver and Dobbs watch a couple of kids play acting as the Bandit of the Cave and the Wells Fargo agent. The cat and mouse game Carver and Dobbs play is intriguing, as they're ostensibly on opposite sides but frequently work together. I was surprised that the name of Dobbs didn't carry more reference though: this western about gold came only three years after The Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

The acting is capable without ever being stunning. Edgar Buchanan is the best of the bunch as Dobbs, the only character who doesn't jump to conclusions. Liz Trent spends most of the picture doing that, so Alexis Smith ends up mostly as the means by which her costumes move. Victor Jory played villains so often that he could do so in his sleep, which he does here. Few others get much of a look in, though Houseley Stevenson makes the most of his brief role as Cooley, Liz's printer, who rejoins the paper as it reopens for love and loyalty rather than pay. Russ Tamblyn is the young Carver but grows up too soon and I didn't even recognise Lee Marvin as the conductor who gets a couple of throwing knives to the back during the train heist. So the Carlsbad Caverns steal the film, eerily shot by Irving Glassberg. It's the caves that stand out most here, with the unusual mix of genres notable too in the best mid-period William Castle that I've seen yet.

1 comment:

william castle said...

What a nice review. Love it! Thanks so much.

Best,
William Castle