At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

WILD BILL ELLIOT WESTERN COLLECTION (Warner Bros Archive Collection)

By • Nov 11th, 2015 •

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I like the description on the back cover: each of the films are indeed about some issue tied to the old West, and the subjects feel sincerely, if lightly, explored, which was possibly unusual to this extent in the ‘B’ Westerns of the time.

‘Wild Bill’ seems a misnomer, though this is my first exposure to Elliot’s westerns, and they come late in his career. Not that I ever for a moment felt cheated, but I would have more correctly described him as ‘Mild Bill’ Elliot. He rides, he fights, he shoots, but his personality is decidedly low-key, his delivery an effective monotone. Maybe they were referring to the wrap parties? Such was certainly the case with Buster Crabbe, a ‘B’ star (westerns, Tarzans, Flash Gordons) who was a perfect gentleman during shooting, but on the final day, look out – all hell would break loose (and I got to see it with my own eyes).

The Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann films were ‘A’ westerns. The Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films were ‘B’ westerns. Which makes the Bill Elliot/Thomas Carr/Lewis Collins films what? ‘B-’ westerns? In their own offbeat way, they’re as good as the Mann’s and the Boetticher’s. They’re sincere, their screenplays are rewardingly nuanced and realistic, performances are fleshed out, and the actors seem to be part of a Bill Elliot stock company, almost always giving solid performances. I. Stanford Jolley, for instance, is in almost every installment in this collection. Having a group of regulars is a smart idea, considering the budgets and shooting schedules they must have been laboring under.

WACO is a thoroughly enjoyable, honest Western with more twists than you can imagine in a 68 minute film. Two actors falter in minor roles but the rest are convincingly direct.

43 mins. and 50 secs. into TOPEKA there is a long, reflective walk featuring Elliot and a friend, both of them outlaws, rethinking their moral priorities. Neither of them speaks, and it’s a long take. I haven’t seen it done better by anyone, and I’m talking about Pacino, Finney, de Niro… keep thinking of great actors who can communicate real depth of thought just with a look, and Elliot’s up there with the best of them in this inspired shot. (It’s much better than, let’s say, Pam Grier’s extended driving shot at the end of JACKIE BROWN.) The film is more linear than WACO, and less fun, though Wild Bill is always an upstanding pleasure. The fight scenes tend to be stagey, which is too bad, since I love fight scenes and have an extensive collection of them.

KANSAS TERRITORY: A good, twisty Western-mystery. Interesting how Elliot‘s character, different from film to film, nonetheless often is, or was at some point, an outlaw. It introduces a moral ambiguity, tested by his personal, righteous code of honor. Peggy Stewart is one of his nicest and most voluptuous leading ladies, particularly in long shots, though he (or his character) isn’t at all comfortable broaching the subject of romance. In fact it’s the only time his character feels false. In KT, Elliot plays a loner who thinks his brother was murdered and marches headlong into a town full of assorted citizens, some suspicious and some trustworthy, but all of who paint his brother in a bad light. His refusal to even consider their opinions, and his instant, bullheaded dislike of anyone who voices a negative view, is fascinating for a ‘hero.’

THE LONGHORN – Wild Bill does The Duke. It’s RED RIVER two years later, with Elliot essaying the Tom Dunson role, growing more and more irritable as the cattle drive goes on. I guess he figured if Wayne could let a little poison show, so could he. It’s a good solid no-budget odyssey, with (finally) a good fight scene. And it introduces the theme of betrayal, which the Hawks film did not (though the Wayne character thinks he’s been betrayed by his foster son). Also, according to IMDB, it was remade yet again in 1956 as CANYON RIVER starring George Montgomery.

REBEL CITY – This one is real strange. Elliot takes more punishment than I’d seen him endure in all the other films combined. I don’t know what I would have thought had I chosen this one to watch first. More than ¾ of the film goes by and nothing has gone right for this guy. Plus he gets the shit kicked out of him not once, but twice. It’s like Chris Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES meets LORENZO’S OIL. By the time things turn in the protagonist’s favor, it’s too late. We’re so bummed that there’s no triumph in their victory. I should have realized something was amiss when he showed up wearing a suit… Even the ‘love’ interest (Marjorie Lord) appears to display bi-polar behavior towards him. If you’ve gotten used to his more in-control personna, this is liable to be a head-scratcher. It’s good, but most strange…

THE FORTY-NINERS (1954) is Elliot’s last Western, and the only one shot in something akin to CinemaScope. It seems as if a mediocre anamorphic lens was used (or a cinematographer unfamiliar with how to properly use one), resulting in images being blown out, or grainy, etc. There’s a voice over a la Jack Webb, and the device suits Elliot’s flat delivery. In fact it’s surprising they never worked together. The story is solid, the characters well shaded. Co-star Harry Morgan falls off his horse at one point – a mildly risky stunt, leading me to feel that he must have believed in the quality of his role, which is substantial.

In the mid-to-late 50s, Elliot made five modern day law enforcement films for Allied Artists, playing Det. Lt. Andy Doyle in four of them. They have the same low-key style, emanating from Elliot’s guiding performance, which characterized his westerns. They’re almost Noirs, but not quite. Well, maybe one of them is. They have good supporting casts (Beverly Garland, for example), are nicely reproduced in widescreen, and are also available from the Warner Archives. I liked them much as I liked these late westerns.

Wild Bill retired in 1957. For a time he was a spokesman for Viceroy cigarettes. He also bred appaloosa horses for show. He died of lung cancer in 1965, aged 61.

Truthfully it was hard to watch only one of Wild Bill’s films per night. I had to resist putting on another right after one was finished. It’s a really fun collection.

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