Friday 19 December 2008

The Law vs Billy the Kid (1954)

William Bonney is good at getting into trouble. On the way back from the fields to Parson's Farm to get paid, he antagonises a co-worker by drinking his bottle down. When he finds that he gets paid half what everyone else gets he steals the other half, killing a man who comes after him. Naturally he's as quick on the draw as anyone around him. After crossing the line into Lincoln County, he lassos and kills a steer to eat, only to find that the ranch owner, John Tunstall, is getting plagued by rustlers and thinks the worst. Then when that's sorted out and Bonney and his friend Garrett are sat down to dinner with their host, he falls for Tunstall's niece and makes an enemy of his foreman, Bob Ollinger.

Of course William Bonney is better known as Billy the Kid. Scott Brady is a wooden chiselled serial hero version of Billy and he certainly isn't a kid, being 29 years old when he made this film and looking a few years older (the real Billy died at 21). Of course his friend Garrett is Pat Garrett, here played by James Griffith and just as calm and firm as he should be. The tension between them builds when the crooked sheriff and his posse kill Tunstall in cold blood. Billy takes it personally and goes gunning for the whole posse. Garrett, on the other hand, is appointed sheriff by the governor, and so his first job is to bring in his friend.

Brady reminds me of a cross between Chester Morris and Laurence Tierney, though Brady pales in comparison. He stands and moves like Morris but can't match his character and humour and he looks and sounds like Tierney but he can't reach his menace and machismo. I'm not too surprised to find that I've seen him in but not remembered him from a number of other films, from Undertow in 1949 to Gremlins in 1984, by way of Johnny Guitar and Wicked, Wicked. However I was far more surprised than I should have been to find that the similarity to Tierney is completely understandable: he's Tierney's younger brother, the middle one of three acting brothers and the one who didn't continually get into trouble.

Griffith is much better as Pat Garrett, and while there are too many plot holes and leaps for him to act around, he comes off solidly as the sort of capable and trustworthy character who would be respected quickly and strongly by everyone around him. Griffith is by far the best thing about this film. Once a musician in the band of Spike Jones, he became an actor who specialised in westerns, though I've mostly seen him in low budget horror movies and in supporting roles in major star vehicles. It's easy to see why he played in so many westerns as he was a great fit for that sort of role.

Backing them up are a solid Paul Cavanagh as Tunstall, an Englishman in the old west; a wasted Betta St John as Nita, Tunstall's niece and Billy the Kid's love interest; and Alan Hale Jr as the villainous Bob Ollinger. However the name I recorded this film for is the director, William Castle. I'm trying to catch all the Castles I can to see how his career evolved. This comes towards the end of his mid period, after the the crime series but before the gimmick horror films. It's certainly a capable film, from a directorial standpoint: the problems come from the quality of the acting, the equipment or the script. However there's nothing to really make it stand out. It's not a patch on Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but it's much better than the Howard Hughes version, The Outlaw. Perhaps I'd rank it just a little lower than Young Guns.

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