Friday, June 10, 2011

Tonight's Movie: El Paso (1949)

Last Christmas a very kind blogging friend assisted me in my quest to eventually see all of Gail Russell's movies by sending me several of her films. I very much enjoy this beautiful, though tragic, actress who made just under two dozen films. I've been spreading her movies out so I can look forward to watching them gradually -- links to reviews of several Russell films conclude this post -- and tonight I caught up with EL PASO, a Cinecolor Western costarring John Payne.

The film is set just after the Civil War, when Clay Fletcher (Payne), a lawyer from Charleston, arrives in El Paso on business. Clay also hopes to reunite with his long-lost love Susan (Russell), who moved to El Paso while he was away fighting for the South.

El Paso is a lawless city run by Bert Donner (Sterling Hayden) and his crony Sheriff La Farge (Dick Foran). They keep Susan's father, an alcoholic judge (Henry Hull), plied with liquor and under their thumb as they scheme to use taxes to take control of local farms. Clay successfully defends a former comrade (Arthur Space) on a murder charge after he kills one of Donner's men in self-defense, but eventually Clay is pushed to deal with the town's criminals with guns rather than law books. The climactic action sequence is a gun battle during a dust storm.

The film has an excellent cast, including a small but colorful appearance by Mary Beth Hughes (SLEEPERS WEST) as a clever thief, "Stagecoach Nellie." Payne and Russell do well in their roles, and their strong performances are the chief reasons for their fans to see the film; I did wish there had been a little more of Russell and that the romance were better developed. There's also an appealing turn by Eduardo Noriega as the friendly Don Nacho Vazquez.

The movie starts out well and has an entertaining first half, which includes Vazquez training Clay in the art of being a quick draw. However, the prolonged second half of the film turns extremely grim, with the murders of multiple cast members. The romantic angle mostly peters out, and the unrelenting darkness of the storyline makes for a rather long hour and 43 minutes. Hayden and Foran, who are both capable of much better, have underwritten roles and are fairly colorless villains.

An interesting aspect of the film is its use of Cinecolor, a relatively inexpensive process which is heavy in reds, browns, and blues. In certain films Cinecolor looks rather nifty -- it works quite well in Randolph Scott's THE NEVADAN (1950) -- but it gives EL PASO a somewhat muddy and bland look. Russell's dresses provide welcome splashes of color against the many brown vistas. The color emphasis on browns and reds is probably most effective in the dust storm sequence. The cinematography was by Ellis W. Carter.

Wonderful old character actor H.B. Warner plays Payne's grandfather. Catherine Craig (Mrs. Robert Preston) does nicely in a small role as Arthur Space's wife. The cast also includes George "Gabby" Hayes, Bobby Ellis, Argentina Brunetti, Irving Bacon, Denver Pyle, Lane Chandler, and Peggy McIntyre.

This movie was written and directed by Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater.

EL PASO is a Paramount film which is not available on DVD or VHS. (2019 Update: This film has now been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. My review of the Blu-ray is here.)

Gail Russell has starred in some favorite films, including the spooky THE UNINVITED (1944), the lovely romantic John Wayne Western ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), and the great Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956). Other Gail Russell films reviewed here, which are all worth seeing, are THE UNSEEN (1945), CALCUTTA (1947), and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948).


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