Friday 26 March 2010

Masterson of Kansas (1954)

Director: William Castle
Star: George Montgomery

I'm watching because this was directed by William Castle, but really it's a George Montgomery movie, one of a string of westerns he made from the thirties to the fifties. I didn't know much about him at all, though I've seen him on occasion, but he seems to have played many of the iconic characters of the old west. In 1950 he was Davy Crockett, Indian Scout as well as Hawkeye in The Iroquois Trail. In 1953 he was one of the Ringo gang trying to go straight under the watchful eyes of Wyatt Earp, Billy Ringo in Gun Belt. In 1958 he was Pat Garrett in Badman's Country. He was even in The Lone Ranger, but that's not the landmark TV series, it's the serial made back in 1938. He also played Harry Quatermain in Watusi and Philip Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon, following his namesake Robert Montgomery (no relation) who had made Lady in the Lake the same year of 1947.

Here he's Bat Masterson, Masterson of Kansas, because that's where he made his greatest impact. In case you didn't know who Masterson was, you'll see his badge even before the title of the movie. He was the Sheriff of Dodge City at a time when outlaws were trying to take the rip roaring place of the wild Injuns. Yep, this is a pulp western, as is patently obvious from the speed that the narrator races through the opening background to set us up for the story. This is the country of the Comanches, the Kiowas and the Cheyenne, but they've found peace through a treaty. Now Dodge City is the centre of the buffalo trade, the end of the cattle trails and the home to many of those iconic characters I was talking about. They're needed because the place is full of bad men with guns.

'The law was written in bullets from a six gun in the hand of a man named Masterson,' proclaims that narrator, and one hot July afternoon he's wandering down Front Street to tangle with Doc Holliday, even though Virgil Earp tries to talk him into waiting for Wyatt, now a federal marshal and out of town. The rest of the townsfolk leave the streets empty for them, given that they believe only one will come back alive, though given that the film's called Masterson of Kansas it shouldn't be difficult to work out which. Well you'd be wrong, because they both make it. Wyatt Earp turns back up like a ninja during the facedown and breaks it all up because he doesn't want to see one of his friends kill another. You'll have to wait till the finale to see how this all plays out.

Earp wants to pick up a man named Merrick, known as the Peacemaker for his part in negotiating the peace treaty with the Indians and who is camping out with Chief Yellow Hawk on Indian land that the treaty deeded to them. That loss of land didn't make the cattlemen happy and they're powerful folks, enough that they can persuade the soldiers at Fort Dodge that Merrick murdered Col Matthew Dailey, an officer who caused trouble with the tribes to make his own record look good. And sure enough, Merrick stands trial and ends up convicted of murder, sentenced to hang the next day in Hays City (or Hayes City, they spell it both ways). Masterson has 36 hours to prove him innocent and keep him from being lynched, ambushed or hanged in the process. If Merrick dies, the tribes will rise and more than one man's life will be lost.
This is a decent enough drama, though it betrays its budget and expectations. It's certainly a B grade movie but it's in Technicolor and it's capably shot, however much many of the backgrounds are obviously rear projection and how many of the sets are obviously cardboard. In fact sometimes these characters walk down the same streets more than once and zing bullets off the same trees during gunfights. The soldiers taking Merrick to Hays City are really bad escorts, riding their prisoner into a trap without any thought of precautions or any idea of getting out of the mess they find themselves in, and they're far from the only idiots in this picture. The story is pretty complex for a 70 minute B feature but that doesn't mean that there are any real surprises here. It's a fun pulp ride, that's all.

Well, actually that's not quite all. For a start, the punster in me can never resist a film where a character literally instead of merely figuratively has to get the hell out of Dodge. Clay Bennett is that man here, given that he's just lied on oath to provide the fake eye witness testimony that leads Merrick to the noose. There's also Jay Silverheels, Tonto from The Lone Ranger, as Chief Yellow Hawk, but while there's much promised there's not much delivered. The Indians don't get much to do here at all. There's a third gem in here but it's not who you think. It isn't Bruce Cowling as Wyatt Earp because in this film it doesn't matter how fast he is with a gun, he can get taken down by some moron throwing a rock at him. Give me a break! It isn't George Montgomery either as Bat Masterson, even though it's supposed to be. At one point he misses his holster with his gun, hardly reassuring for the Sheriff of Dodge City.

The real gem here, and my real discovery, is an actor by the name of James Griffith. I've seen him in a lot of tiny, even uncredited, roles in a wide variety of movies but he was best known as a western actor, making films like this one. I've seen one of his other William Castle westerns, The Law vs Billy the Kid, in which he played Pat Garrett and he was by far the best thing about that film. He's even better here as Doc Holliday, not just a deep character but the only deep character in the piece, constantly appearing to switch between being the good guy and the bad guy, while really just staying consistent to his own motivations. Whenever there's something complex happening, he's at the heart of it, dying of tuberculosis, gambling everything he has, seeking but losing the girl, taking on the heroes and villains both.

Nobody else seems to be able to work him out, except perhaps Wyatt Earp. From their perspectives he's a tangle of motivations who just confuses them. He's all set to kill Masterson himself, in a fair fight because he's nothing if not a gambler, until Charlie Fry, a rich cattleman, tries to pressure him into doing it. He offers him money, but Doc won't kill for that. He tries to play up to the gambler by phrasing it as a bet but that only raises his eyebrows. Holliday doesn't have much time left to live, so he can play whatever games he likes and he has conspicuous fun doing so because he's delightfully gauche. 'Who could understand the scent of lilac in the stench of Dodge City?' he asks, utterly like John Waters in every way except the one in which he watches the leading lady of the piece wander across the street. Waters was eight when this film was released. I wonder if it, and James Griffith in particular, made a lasting impression on him. It would seem so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good to see someone else appreciate this film, which I think is very underrated.

Your appraisal of James Griffith's performance was perfect — he does an excellent job with a complex part.