I've seen a lot of good movies this year, and more specifically, a lot of good Westerns. Of all those films, I'd rank WICHITA near the top of my list of films most enjoyed this year, and I'd line it up alongside RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954) as my favorite Western of 2013. It was simply terrific, everything I love about Westerns, beautifully executed by a top cast and an excellent director, Jacques Tourneur. For me, WICHITA was pure movie joy.
I loved the movie from the first shot of Joel McCrea on the distant horizon, riding slowly toward a group of cowboys on a cattle drive. McCrea plays Wyatt Earp, who arrives in Wichita planning to use his savings to start up a business. Trouble seems to go looking for Wyatt, however, and he feels honor bound to put a stop to it, especially when bad guys like Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, and Robert J. Wilke shoot up the town.
Wyatt copes with political conflict on the one hand and keeping law and order on the other, ending in a climactic shootout on the streets of Wichita.
MASTERSON OF KANSAS (1954) -- shot in familiar territory, in Santa Clarita and on Southern California movie ranches, with a cast of Western regulars. Director Tourneur manages to take all these elements and orchestrate them into something more special than the norm, starting with a solid, well-paced script and Joel McCrea's firm, gallant performance as the dedicated Western lawman.
The film has a tight running time of 81 minutes and maintains the viewer's close attention throughout, thanks to scenes such as the arrival of Morgan and James Earp in Wichita. It's a truly delightful sequence about which I shall say no more. The action scenes are also very well done. The story and screenplay were by Daniel B. Ullman, who also wrote last week's good George Montgomery Western, CANYON RIVER (1956).
Harold Lipstein. The movie makes fine use of the widescreen canvas, including that opening shot I mentioned, which begins with Earp as a small speck on a huge horizon.
The film is also well scored by Hans J. Salter, with Tex Ritter singing over the opening and closing credits.
The excellent supporting cast includes Peter Graves (who's kind of awesome), Edgar Buchanan, Wallace Ford, Mae Clarke, Carl Benton Reid, John Smith, and Walter Sande. The bank teller is none other than future director Sam Peckinpah. Jody McCrea is listed as one of the gunmen on IMDb, but I didn't spot him.
Jacques Tourneur also directed McCrea in STARS IN MY CROWN (1950) and STRANGER ON HORSEBACK (1955). Years earlier Tourneur also directed McCrea's wife, Frances Dee, in one of her most highly regarded films, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943).
Tourneur, incidentally, also directed the excellent '40s Western CANYON PASSAGE (1946), reviewed here last spring.
WICHITA is an Allied Artists film which is available in a lovely widescreen print from the Warner Archive. It was reviewed by Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant, who notes that "McCrea holds the screen with authority" and comments on Tourneur's excellent direction, adding layers of interest to what otherwise might be stock characters. He's correct on all counts.
Colin reviewed WICHITA last year at his excellent blog Riding the High Country.
WICHITA will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on December 19, 2013. Make a note to set your DVR!
WICHITA is very highly recommended.