Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Four Guns to the Border (1954)

Given how much I enjoy Universal Westerns of the '50s and actor Richard Carlson, I was immediately intrigued when film historian extraordinaire Blake Lucas told me about one of his favorite Westerns, FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER. FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER was one of a handful of projects directed by Carlson, the follow-up to his first directing effort, RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954).

When I stumbled across the hard-to-find FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER on the internet this weekend, I made sure to watch it immediately, lest it quickly disappear.

Ray Cully (Rory Calhoun) leads a group of rather goofy bank robbers (John McIntire, George Nader, and Jay Silverheels) in the Pacific Southwest. In their wanderings they meet up with Simon Bhumer (Walter Brennan) who's escorting his daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller) back to their home.

Lolly shares a mutual attraction with Cully, so her wary father puts space between them just as fast as he can. Cully and company have a bank to rob, anyway...but with the Apaches on the warpath, Cully will soon face a life-changing decision about his priorities.

This is, by and large, a good-natured film with a rather unusual theme for a Western: what it means to grow up and act like a mature adult. Cully and his gang aren't so much bad men, it's more that they've never grown up -- as evidenced by the constant childlike roughhousing of two of the men -- and lacking responsible jobs, robbery happens to be the way they support themselves. They're not killers, they're just looking for some easy money.

While Cully's been wandering aimlessly with his merry band of bank robbers, his old friend and rival, Jim (Charles Drake), became a responsible citizen -- the sheriff! -- and married a lovely woman (Nina Foch). One senses some of Cully's growing inner turmoil during a creatively staged bank robbery, where Cully brawls with the sheriff to distract an entire town, but it takes the Indians attacking Lolly and her father to finally trigger the chain of events which will push Cully into assuming the role of a responsible man.

The theme of growing into an adult also applies to Lolly, who is emerging from tomboyish adolescence into womanhood. I was initially somewhat bemused by the ultra-obvious approach to Lolly's burgeoning sexuality, what with her rolling around on the ground, water poured all over her torn shirt, and some additional blatant symbolism which I'll leave it to viewers to recognize. One might be forgiven for thinking her ripe character overdone up to this point, or for wondering why on earth Lolly decides to wander out into a rainstorm clad only in a short, thin nightgown. (The answer to that, incidentally, is soon apparent: "Because she wanted to.")

But it's at this point, as Cully follows Lolly into a horse shed, that the movie turns into something really interesting and special, in an extended scene tracing the romantic awakening of a young girl. Curiosity, fear, tenderness, and passion play out one after the other. The sequence is simultaneously beautiful, touching, and rather amazingly hot for 1954.

As Blake Lucas describes this sequence in THE WESTERN READER, it's a "lyrical love scene in an obscure programmer...with matchless intensity and insight, a fine cinematic suppleness, and a rare command of mood." It's a beautifully choreographed scene worthy of a second look to take it all in.

From here on the movie is really outstanding, as Cully faces his past and then makes decisions about his future. The final confrontation between Cully and the sheriff, with the now more adult-looking Lolly sobbing and yelling at the wounded Cully to give up, is simply marvelous, particularly as the scene evolves in such an uncliched way.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Calhoun makes a handsome, conflicted Western hero, while Miller is an unusual screen presence. She's not classically beautiful, but as her character matures into a young woman she becomes increasingly appealing and ultimately is quite memorable.

It sometimes seems that John McIntire must have been in every Universal Western of the '50s, but the man never wears out his welcome. He's truly one of the great ones, who seems to bring a little something different to every character.

Nina Foch is also superb in the middle section of the film, as a woman who fears that she may suddenly and unexpectedly lose her man. Mary Field is also deserving of mention, in a terrific little role as a nervy gun-toting dressmaker who tells off Cully.

As noted above, director Carlson brings some fresh perspectives to the Western, and one really wishes he'd had a more extensive directing career.

The screenplay of this 83-minute film is based on a story by Louis L'Amour. It was filmed by Russell Metty at Southern California locations which included Bell Ranch.

I note that, per IMDb, one of the stuntmen on the film was Bobby Hoy, who I recently wrote about as one of the cast members of the late '60s TV Western THE HIGH CHAPARRAL.

Let's hope that FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER will be a future release in the Universal Vault DVD series, as it's deserving of a wider audience.

9 Comments:

Blogger silverscreenings said...

This sounds like a really interesting film. Thanks for recommending.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

This sounds really great. I don't typically watch movies on line, but this looks like one I would enjoy. Thanks

11:40 AM  
Blogger CavedogRob said...

I'm not familiar with this movie at all! I'm gonna check it out! Thanks!

1:00 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

That was just great, Laura. And thanks for bringing the movie to everyone's attention with this.

I also must say it's heartening to find my own point of view--admittedly male--complemented by that of a female.

I finally met Colleen Miller at a screening at the Egyptian a few years ago so was able to share what I'd written and ask her about
that love scene. She said it was almost entirely Richard Carlson's doing, no more than glancingly indicated in the script, really his creation. I wish he'd directed more based on this movie.

I've seen it a number of times now and it's only gotten better--as a whole movie and not only that one sequence. But you said it when you said "HOT"--maybe it was the effect of seeing it first at a very impressionable age but I probably have never seen any scene that affected me quite the same way. And maybe that's when I learned never to be too certain what to expect in any movie, especially one made in those great years.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much, Blake. I was very glad you'd led me to see it, and I especially wanted to try to do this film justice given how much you admire it. It's definitely a film that will bear repeat viewings. One of the marks of a good movie for me is that I spend time thinking about it after it's over, and I've certainly done that today.

I love hearing that information from Colleen Miller, it's wonderful you were able to speak with her about the film. Given my admiration for Richard Carlson, that background on his direction is especially interesting; I'd be curious to know even more about the creative process on that sequence, it was quite unique. Like you, I wish he'd done more. He was a real talent. (My liking for him goes way back to watching him in Capra's HEMO THE MAGNIFICENT in elementary school!)

I think you make a fantastic point about never knowing for sure what to expect when approaching a film. Something I especially appreciate is that you have unique perspectives on movies many others have ignored and also find the "good stuff" worth noting in imperfect films. There is so much interesting stuff in the "ordinary" films of the classic era! Some of the films I've enjoyed most in recent weeks are movies which, like FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER, many people haven't heard of -- MAN OR GUN, COW COUNTRY, and THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS, to name a few.

I really appreciate everyone else letting me know they enjoyed the review and hope you'll each enjoy checking the movie out!

Best wishes,
Laura

8:35 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I know I'll have to fit this in - and soon. Thanks for leading me where I want to go!

7:08 AM  
Blogger Yvette said...

A terrific movie with some unexpected and rather memorable scenes. Netflix has it for streaming - or at least, they did a few months ago.

I too saw this in the theater when I was a young impressionable girl. And yes that love scene lives vividly on in memory. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.

For 1954, it was definitely HOT. Actually, it's mighty singe inducing for 2012.

Thanks, Laura, for featuring it this week.

P.S. I think this is the film in which my crush for Rory Calhoun fully blossomed. :)

9:16 AM  
Blogger Ron Scheer said...

Nicely reviewed. Thanks for the heads up on this one. I'll look for it at netflix.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hope you'll enjoy it, Caftan Woman -- had to make sure a fellow member of the Richard Carlson Fan Club knew about it. :)

Yvette, I was very interested to read your impressions of the film, especially as it's something you saw upon release. I'm fascinated this relatively obscure film obviously made a big impression on viewers such as yourself and Blake.

Ron, I just double-checked Netflix and the movie isn't listed there at the moment, but perhaps it will turn up again in the future. There are a few other Rory Calhoun films listed there which are in my Instant queue. :) In the meantime, you might want to try it out on YouTube while it's still available there.

Thanks to you all for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts!

Best wishes,
Laura

11:43 AM  

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