Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Showdown at Abilene (1956)

SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE (1956) is a "darn good Western," a great exemplar of the '50s films put out by Universal. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

With the Civil War ended, Confederate veteran Jim Trask (Jock Mahoney) heads back to his hometown of Abilene. Jim discovers his sweetheart Peggy (Martha Hyer), thinking he was dead, is engaged to his old friend Dave (Lyle Bettger).

Although he has trouble firing a gun due to a friendly fire incident during the war, Jim accepts his old job as sheriff when he's pressured into taking it by Dave. Jim feels responsible to Dave because Dave lost his right hand in a childhood accident with Jim...and there are other reasons as well.

This is a well-written Western (screenplay by Berne Giler) with strong characterizations. Longtime stuntman Mahoney handles his role as the mentally tortured yet honorable Jim with confident ease. His background in stunt work shows as on two different occasions he takes a flying leap off a veranda or elevated sidewalk; the lack of edits, with Mahoney clearly handling both scenes himself, greatly increases the excitement of these action sequences. Very well done!

Bettger is always such a slimy villain, but he brings quite a bit of nuance to his role. Dave's on the verge of having it all -- money, nice house, pretty wife -- but he also could lose it all very quickly. The scene where his world crumbles is rather moving, even though he clearly has done some very bad things and doesn't deserve audience sympathy. It's the mark of good acting that Bettger makes the viewer feel for him.

Rounding out the cast in a nice, understated performance as Jim's deputy is David Janssen. Given that the previous sheriff (Ted de Corsia) was a no-good guy, it's unclear at first if the deputy will be friend or foe to Jim, and it's enjoyable to watch their respectful relationship gradually develop.

Martha Hyer, a leading lady in so many Westerns, does a fine job here as well; her first two scenes with Jim, as they are reunited after the war, are filled with regret and longing. I feel compelled to add she has quite a nice hairstyle in this; she's like a chameleon in her films, often looking quite different from movie to movie, and in Columbia's WYOMING RENEGADES (1954) she had a peculiar platinum blonde hairstyle which might have been a wig. She looks lovely here.

SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE runs a perfectly paced 80 minutes. It was directed by Charles Haas and shot by Irving Glassberg.

A bit player of note: Pauline Moore, who was Ann Rutledge in John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), is a townswoman. She was off the screen after 1941, then returned to movies and TV for a few projects in the mid to late '50s.

Western fans will like this one. Unfortunately it's not on VHS or DVD. Thanks for John Knight for making it possible for me to watch it.

12 Comments:

Blogger Jerry E said...

I should have saved my Mahoney comments for this, Laura, as the clue was there that you were going to do a review LOL.

I really enjoyed your terrific review of a film we both obviously really like. Mahoney had been good in a co-starring role earlier that year in "A DAY OF FURY" but really came into his own as a leading man in this film. It was followed by several more nice westerns, especially the fine "JOE DAKOTA" and "LAST OF THE FAST GUNS". I finally managed to acquire a copy of "SLIM CARTER" but have not got around to it yet. Mahoney was a pleasant actor and an attractive leading man but it is his athleticism that made him stand out. Generally considered, then and now, one of the greatest stuntmen of all time.

By the time his films for Universal came along I was already a huge fan due to the successful and very popular showing on British TV of his series "THE RANGE RIDER". That can be viewed and enjoyed enormously today even for its warmth and humour, fabulous casts of supporting actors and most of all the incredible horsemanship and stunting of Mahoney and co-star Dick Jones. When I met Jones a few years ago he was clearly still proud of the series and equally clearly had loved Mahoney. They were a terrific duo.

Thanks for your excellent review. Can only hope it is made more widely available by a DVD release for others to share in the enjoyment.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jerry!

After seeing this I'm looking forward all the more to watching Mahoney's other starring films. My dad is also a big fan of JOE DAKOTA. I believe I have all the Mahoney film titles you mentioned, just need time to watch them! Lovely anecdote about THE RANGE RIDER and Dick Jones.

Sure wish Universal would put out one of their 8 or 10-film collections with a bunch of these lesser-known Westerns in widescreen!

Best wishes,
Laura

10:36 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I also like this one very much--good characters and relationships motivating the whole thing and visually elegant. It's my favorite movie of gifted director Charles Haas (also a writer who produced and wrote the screenplay for MOONRISE), and I've liked his others, especially his other Westerns (STAR IN THE DUST and WILD HERITAGE) over his few Universal years.

I will disagree with Jerry just a little in not being satisfied that Jock Mahoney was simply "pleasant" as an actor. No doubt, he may be best remembered as a stunt man and there's a lot of justice in that, but he'd been in front of the camera a lot by the time of his own U-I contract and I believe he had become a very strong actor and could do roles of depth, as this one is, and had some real range. His more charming, easygoing side was best explored by another unjustly neglected director, Richard Bartlett, in the excellent Westerns JOE DAKOTA and MONEY, WOMEN AND GUNS but Bartlett directed him four times and in SLIM CARTER, Mahoney convincingly plays a guy who is initially a self-absorbed jerk (a manufactured cowboy star who doesn't do his own stunts!) before he is humanized in his relationships with Julie Adams and Tim Hovey, wile I'VE LIVED BEFORE, in keeping with its title, is a more sombre, reflective movie.

Jerry, have you seen Douglas Sirk's A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE? In a supporting role (the opening reels and then reappearing briefly near the end), he so dominates the first part of the film as experience-hardened soldier Immerman that it seems uncertain lead John Gavin will be able to effectively hold his leading role for most of the film once it is handed to him, although, not surprisingly under's Sirk's direction, he does..

And I haven't even mentioned Mahoney's lead as George Sherman's THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS, which gets my vote for the most underrated great Western. He is extremely forceful and moving in that role and it is for me best of all his roles. I would say as the 50s wound up he was one of my favorite actors, but that time ended so quickly for him. The middle range genre programmers, so often excellent and especially with this studio, seemed to just fall by the wayside, and many of the directors as well as the actors went to TV. Of the male stars in Westerns at that level, only Audie Murphy hung on through most of the 60s and could still be effective. But Mahoney had found his place there, maybe the last to do so

11:56 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Actually, Blake, please allow me to disagree with myself a little there too LOL. The adjective I used does not do justice to Mahoney as an actor and right from his earliest roles as an actor, co-starring in the final Durango Kid films like "PECOS RIVER", he was a very strong screen 'presence'.
I was not yet 7 years of age when "THE RANGE RIDER" made its first appearance on British TV, in August 1954. He immediately became my first 'go-to' hero and has remained a favourite with me 60 years on.

You interestingly mentioned the rather sudden drop-off around 1959 of that wonderful run of mid-range westerns from U.I. This point is discussed in the wonderful Jock Mahoney biography by Gene Freese that I am currently engrossed in. According to him, and his book seems very well researched so I have no reason to doubt, U.I. ran into some financial difficulty around late 1958, cut their movie output and concentrated more on their rising Revue product for TV. Mahoney was offered the lead in their proposed new western series "CIMARRON CITY" but turned it down because he didn't like the script. He proposed a better deal in order to take it on, they rejected that and asked if he wanted out of his Universal contract. He rather hastily said OK then and that is why his time with the studio ended. One wonders what might have been if he had accepted the series.
As it was, as we know, George Montgomery took it instead, didn't like the scripts either, sued Revue over the agreement and was then effectively blacklisted by the major studios. End of an era in so many ways!

2:47 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Sorry, Blake, I omitted to reply to your direct question. No, I never have seen "A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE" (or "I'VE LIVED BEFORE") but have been very interested in reading about the making of both films in the new bio.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Jerry, re your first reply, I especially appreciate you mentioning that Mahoney biography. I'd forgotten about it and know that I'd like to read it so will look for it. Your enthusiasm makes me even more keen about this, so thanks.

What you've noted about the studio is definitely correct, as I did a little research on this myself once. The financial reversals in that time were severe enough that they actually closed down production for several months (but it was early 1958--March and April as I recall) and were making no movies then. When they resumed, they essentially made 10 movies for 1959 release (though a few others had been held back and a few of the ten were released either late '58 or pushed into '60). In most years in the 50s it was closer to 30, give or take a few. Most of the contract directors and actors we know from their 50s movies were gone, apparently let go when production closed down. Of course, many did go to television and that includes Revue, which was using the studio space and now linked to them. But as far as theatrical movies, it all began to look a little different even before MCA took over a few years later. The end of an era as you say.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I think you would enjoy it very much, Blake. It can be ordered from Amazon.com for around $30.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry and Blake, thanks so much for sharing all your detailed thoughts on this film and Jock Mahoney.

Very interesting Mahoney turned down CIMARRON CITY. I picked the series DVD set up a while back when the price dropped pretty low -- it's too bad it's apparently not that good, as TV Westerns go, but I figure any Western with George Montgomery has to be worth checking out. :)

Thanks again!

Best wishes,
Laura

12:22 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I've actually only managed to see the remake of this one, "Gunfight in Abilene (1967))," which wasn't bad at all, but the first version really sounds like the one to see ... or maybe I just have a hard time buying Bobby Darin as a western lead? (the song he sang for it sounded very nice though.)

Mahoney and Dickie Jones were a delight together in Range Rider! I haven't seen any of his Yancy Derringer episodes, does anyone have any memories of them?

6:25 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Maricatrin,
You can buy the whole 34 episodes of 'YANCY DERRINGER' for not very much at Amazon, courtesy of Timeless. An unusual series because of its New Orleans setting, Jocko was very good in it and still got to do stunts from time to time.

I quite enjoyed 'Gunfight In Abilene' but it was a pale copy of the original. Certainly be worth your seeking out this most enjoyable film.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm delighted to have seen such response to this lesser-known but deserving Western.

Maricatrin and Jerry, thanks for sharing the feedback on the Bobby Darin remake!

You're each making me curious to dig more deeply into Mahoney's career. His TV series sound quite interesting. I hope to read the Mahoney bio before too long and perhaps review it here.

Best wishes,
Laura

9:27 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Thanks for the information, Jerry! Timeless has a lot of great releases (I don't care about extras, and while "pristine" prints are nice to have, I'm just glad that someone is making these old tv shows available.)

Laura, although admittedly somewhat repetitive if you watch too many at once, I think "Range Rider" is one of the most enjoyable b-western tv shows. The energy, likeability and athleticism Mahoney and Jones brought to the series made it a lot of fun.

3:00 PM  

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