Sunday 10 July 2011

Five Guns West (1955)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: John Lund and Dorothy Malone

How better to follow up a western by William Castle than with one by Roger Corman, but even earlier in his career. This was only Corman's second film as a director, after Swamp Women. Yet while Swamp Women and Five Guns West aren't movie classics, they're both intriguing pointers to the qualities that Corman would soon bring to the B movie world. For instance, this is poor as a western but fascinating as a prototype for the wartime caper movie. While I was impressed by The Secret Invasion, a 1968 wartime caper movie directed by Corman and written by R Wright Campbell, I assumed that it simply exploited the previous year's The Dirty Dozen, which set the stage for so many such films. Yet it would seem that its real source was another wartime caper movie, 1955's Five Guns West, directed by Corman and written by R Wright Campbell, who even appears in this one too to highlight how involved he was with the picture.

The only real difference is in the choice of war. The concept is just as you'd expect in all those World War II movies: a military officer gathers together a collection of surprising characters to send on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. You won't find any Nazis here though, as Five Guns West is set in the days when 'strange dark figures rode under the flag of the confederacy'. The military officer is a Confederate captain and the men he assembles are the sort of outlaws you'd expect in the old west, all of whom he pardons so as to send into battle because the South was desperate for capable men in a losing war. The mission is simple, to bring back Stephan Jethro, a traitor who has defected to the Union with $30,000; but tough, as it involves making a hard four day ride in three days, avoiding Indians, crossing Union lines and holding up a stage escorted by the Union army. In another day, it's just what you'd expect Kelly's Heroes to do.

As Corman's films tended to be, it's ambitious for a low budget picture. I'm talking here about pictures he directed, because there was often a recognisable touch of philosophy, literacy and sense of history in the films he directed personally that you won't find in pictures like Dinocroc vs Supergator that he only touched as an executive producer. So with writer Campbell, he bands together five very different men with very different goals, fleshes out their characters and provides them with story arcs. Unfortunately the characters end up more interesting than the action they're placed into. It's very much a three act play and the first act is successful far beyond the other two, setting the stage and introducing the players. Once they have something to do, our level of interest wanes as the second and third acts prove unsatisfying for different reasons: guts and budget respectively.
The five outlaws pressed into service are played by Corman regulars for the most part, only John Lund making his sole appearance for Corman here. He had been an established B movie leading man for well over a decade, making him a logical choice for Govern Sturges, the professional highwayman and murderer who quickly dominates the group. He's strong and quiet, reminiscent of a less iconic Charles Bronson. Strangely, Lund's most remembered role today is probably the supporting one he had in High Society a year after this film. With Sturges quiet, it falls to Touch Connors to be colourful and he plays gambler Hale Clinton as a cut rate Maverick, even though Maverick wouldn't appear on screens for another couple of years. He's a troublemaker, who shot and killed an unarmed man after an argument over cards. Connors was the male lead in Swamp Women, his first of four Corman movies in two years. He wouldn't play Mannix until 1967.

The Candy brothers bring the team up to four. Young Billy Candy is played by Jonathan Haze, a long term Corman collaborator who appeared in Monster from the Ocean Floor and The Fast and the Furious, pictures Corman produced before he even started directing, and most of his credits would end up being for Corman. He's restless, crazy and a little dumb, giving Haze opportunity to chew up the scenery on occasion. He'd shot two law officers in a failed attempt to spring his brother Johnny from prison, where he'd been locked up for murder. Johnny is a sharpshooter, as quiet as Sturges but not as strong, probably mostly because the Bob Campbell who plays him is also the R Wright Campbell who wrote the picture. He's a better writer than actor and he knew it. He wrote the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces as well as a number of Corman films, including The Masque of the Red Death, The Secret Invasion and well, Teenage Cave Man.

That leaves Paul Birch as J C Haggard, handed twenty years of hard labour for illegally driving cattle to New Orleans, a run that ended with the deaths of seven men. Unlike the others, he's obviously a decent man, who only wants to get on with his life without all the craziness that war brought. He's a grizzled oldtimer with a requisite deep voice, though he's not as cantankerous as many actors who specialised in such characters tended to be. Birch may be best known as the original Marlboro Man, but he was a film veteran before he joined Corman's stock company and began to get roles of more substance than he got as an uncredited musician singing with the Plainsmen. He would make plenty of Corman films over the next couple of years, from The Beast with a Million Eyes to Day the World Ended via Apache Woman, but he'd quit after a physical confrontation with Corman during Not of This Earth in 1957, his part completed by a double.
If this all sounds a little testosterone fuelled, you'd be right, as there's plenty of opportunity for an exploration of group dynamics. Who will team up with who? Who's going to fight who? Who's going to end up with the gold? This keeps us interested for a while but hardly for 78 minutes and the fights are poorly choreographed to boot. Fortunately there is a woman in the picture, though only one and it takes a full half hour for her to arrive. She's Shalee, in the lovely form of Dorothy Malone, who mans a stage post with her drunken uncle Mike, stranded when the surrounding town died. She's tough and quick with a gun, the same year she made The Fast and the Furious and five other pictures. How's that for a B movie pin up girl? Well, a year later she'd win an Oscar for playing a nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind. That was a Douglas Sirk soap, pointing to the most famous role she would have: a long run on Peyton Place beginning in 1964.

Unfortunately, while Dorothy Malone does a fine job as Shalee, it mostly isn't the one we need. Sure, she gets to snoop around a little and get into trouble, but she's really there to stir up the men. After all, just as we don't see a woman in the picture until she shows up, neither do these characters and they're not working to screen time. These men were all serving time in prison before being acquired by the army and sent on their mission. Who knows how long it had been since any of them had even seen a woman, let alone been allowed to do anything with one. Yet along comes Shalee, one woman to their five men. This second act should be blistering with sexual tension but it isn't and I'm not sure where the blame lies. Malone had all it took to do that and Campbell sets up a couple of scenes to take advantage of it, but it's half hearted and shied away from. It feels like Campbell and Corman simply didn't want to go there, which is a shame.

After the second act, a waiting game centered around Shalee's staging post, disappoints in its lack of sexual tension, the third act disappoints in its lack of action. Eventually the stage arrives, accompanied by Union soldiers led by James B Sikking in his screen debut. He gets a couple of lines before they kill him, but strangely he wouldn't return to film until 1964's The Strangler, and he wouldn't appear on TV until an episode of Assignment: Underwater in 1961. Hill Street Blues wouldn't show up until 1981, but he's recognisable here 26 years earlier. There's violence and gunplay and revelation, but it's unsatisfying, stilted and slow. Everything gets resolved, but we really don't care too much, partly because the revelations are unsurprising but partly because there's no real imagination at play with the guns. There is one scene of genuine tension, where Johnny gets under the stage post and shoots up through the floor, but that's it.

It all made me wonder just what Corman and Campbell aimed at. They set up the component parts of a fascinating western but completely failed to deliver on those fronts. It became routine, without anything to make it stand out among a substantial crowd until we put it into perspective in movie history, something that Corman's name invites. Could it have been that Campbell was really the originator of the wartime caper flick, merely too early and too independently to spark anything? Only when someone else caught on, could he then build on it in The Secret Invasion. That reminds of the complex Jurassic Park/Carnosaur situation, where Carnosaur the movie was a ripoff of Jurassic Park the movie, but both scripts were sourced from books, where Jurassic Park the book was a ripoff of Carnosaur the book. Maybe when Campbell wrote The Secret Invasion, his ripoff was merely credit returning to where credit was due.

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