Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Western Noir: Law and Order Tombstone-Fred Blosser

Reviewed by Fred Blosser

An early example of Western Noir deserves to be better known than it is.  At the very least, there should be a legitimate, remastered DVD edition.  Absent one, I'm grateful for the gray market copy I recently found on the web.  William K. Everson, the venerable movie historian, called Ed Cahn’s LAW AND ORDER (1932) one “of the sound era’s most overlooked Westerns (and one its finest).”  The source novel was W.R. Burnett’s SAINT JOHNSON, one of the first fictionalizations of the Wyatt Earp story.  John Huston was credited for “adaptation and dialogue.”

In Cahn’s stark, black-and-white production, Walter Huston plays Frame Johnson, the Wyatt Earp character -- “the killin’est marshal in the West.”  Harry Carey Sr. plays the Doc Holliday counterpart, shotgun-toting gambler Ed Brandt.  Johnson, his brother Lute, Brandt, and their pal Deadwood drift into lawless Tombstone, where the rustling Northrup brothers (the surrogates of the notorious Clantons of Arizona history) ride roughshod.  

The town fathers offer Johnson the job of peace officer.  “Nope, I’m done with that,” the flinty Johnson says at first.  “All it’s gotten me is a trail of dead men and a heap of enemies.”  The locals cagily change his mind by playing on his pride: “Pin Northrup’s bet a thousand dollars that you won’t go up agin’ em.”  But once Frame pins on the star and begins to enforce the law with an iron hand, the mayor and town council begin to regret their choice.

The dialogue is hardboiled, almost the only women-folk in sight are the saloon floozies, and the script establishes a bleak, fatalistic tone early on.  Drifting, Johnson and his companions match cards on the trail to determine whether to go to Alkali or Tombstone; Brandt offhandedly votes for Tombstone and draws the winning hand -- aces over eights, the set that Wild Bill Hickok held when he was shot to death in Deadwood.

In real life, the grudge shootings and shotgun ambushes of the Earp-Clanton feud followed after the O.K. Corral showdown.  In the movie, they lead up to Frame Johnson’s climactic gunfight with the Northrups inside the “OK Barn,” staged by Cahn as a brutal, running gunbattle around hay bales and horse stalls.  A gangster film from the same year, THE BEAST OF THE CITY, also starring Huston and co-scripted by W.R. Burnett, ended with the same sort of last-ditch, straight-up shootout between cops led by Huston and mobsters led by Jean Hersholt as a thinly disguised Al Capone.

Universal-International remade LAW AND ORDER in 1953, smoothing out the rough edges of the original.  In Nathan Juran’s technicolor version, Frame Johnson, his brothers Lute and Jimmy, and their undertaker pal Denver settle in the town of Cottonwood, where Frame intends to take up ranching and marry his girlfriend  Jeannie.  In Cottonwood, the stand-ins for the Clantons are Durling brothers.  No Doc Holliday character in sight.

Where the 1932 film had one scene where Frame stands up to a lynch mob, this one has two.  Where Huston’s character signed on as marshal before any shots were fired with the bad guys, the 1953 hero has a personal motivation for doing so, after one of his brothers is killed by the Durlings.  

Hostilities are settled with fists instead of guns, and in place of the somber ending from the original, things come to a happy resolution as they usually did in Universal-International’s 1950s westerns.  Well-produced, efficiently directed, and nicely played by Ronald Reagan as Frame, Alex Nicol and Russell Johnson (yes, the Professor) as his brothers, Preston Foster as the chief bad guy, Dennis Weaver as Foster’s brother, Jack Kelly as their henchman, and Dorothy Malone as Jeannie, it’s a good western.  It just isn’t the rough-cut gem that the 1932 film was.  And wouldn't you know it: you have to scratch to find a copy of Cahn's movie, while the remake had a commercial DVD release a couple of years back. 


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