Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Wichita (1955)

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 becomes marshal of Wichita, aided by young reporter Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen), who becomes his deputy. Wyatt also courts pretty Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles), whose father (Walter Coy) initially supports Wyatt becoming marshal, but who later fears Wyatt's assertive tactics will harm the town businesses.

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.

WICHITA is a fairly typical Western story -- see, for example, 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).

The movie is very attractively shot by CinemaScope and Technicolor by 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 is also shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

WICHITA is very highly recommended.

2018 Update: I wrote more about this movie for Classic Movie Hub.


Blogger LĂȘ said...

I thought I have watched this one, but actually I haven't. Now I remembered I cited this film in a post I wrote about depictions of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp on film. Thanks for reminding me to put this one in my too-see list!

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for throwing that link in there.

I'm glad you got to see this and more importantly enjoyed it.

It's really a superior movie, with an interesting and complex theme, a commanding performance by McCrea, and classy direction by Tourneur. In fact, the director's visual assurance, his eye for composition, is a major highlight.


1:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Le, I hope you get to see this, it's really a good one. It's interesting to see a story about Earp in his earliest days as a lawman.

You're welcome, Colin, I remembered enjoying your post and was surprised how long it had taken me to catch up with the movie -- I enjoyed rereading your thoughts after writing my own post. The more I see of Tourneur, the more I like. I really need to get the book that's out there on him. His NIGHTFALL was another favorite discovery this year, and I loved revisiting CANYON PASSAGE.

Thanks for stopping by!

Best wishes,

12:11 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

This is belated I know. Excellent piece on what is indeed a wonderful Western, as I think most fans of the genre agree.

I'm kind of envious in a way because you saw this properly the first time out. I've known it for years but always from pan and scan versions on TV, having missed it theatrically, sad to say. I had a warm impression of it even so, but when I finally saw it properly letterboxed in the Warner Archive release a couple of years ago, it was almost like a new film, with all of the beauties of Tourneur's staging and composition now fully evident and lifting the whole movie to another level for me.

Laura, I have noted here and in another recent review you did of another Tourneur movie that STARS IN MY CROWN is not in blue and so you seem not to have seen it yet. I must ask--what are you waiting for? It's not just that you always love McCrea and seem to consistently respond well to Tourneur, but I think I know your taste enough to know that the subject alone, let alone the beauty of the realization, would be tremendously appealing to you and it would be a movie you'd love. Tourneur was always on record that this was his personal favorite of all his movies, and in a Bob Osborne introduction one night, he revealed that it was also apparently McCrea's favorite of his movies as well, the rare movie that he would take out and run at the ranch for the family.

Don't now if you knew that Tourneur and McCrea were longtime personal friends, since school days apparently. More importantly, McCrea is an ideal actor for Tourneur, obviously, because he's quiet and unmannered, and Tourneur is a quiet director who goes for nuance and subtlety over showiness.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake,

So nice to hear from you!

Love hearing about the difference seeing this film in widescreen versus pan and scan. Thinking just of that opening shot it's hard to imagine it in a pan and scan! It really must have been like a whole new movie when you saw it widescreen. It's a beautiful movie visually.

I have a feeling I'm going to love STARS IN MY CROWN; the elements you point out all make it sound very appealing! I actually own the Warner Archive DVD, I just haven't put it in the player yet! I guess I've been waiting for the perfect quiet afternoon when I know I won't be interrupted, as it seems like an extra-special movie. I'll try to make that happen soon. Thanksgiving might be a nice time to see it! :)

Incidentally, I've seen the STARS IN MY CROWN trailer and understand that the introduction by Joel was filmed on his ranch. It looks like it to me.

I seem to recall that Tourneur was also a good friend of Dana Andrews. Interesting that Tourneur had close ties to two of my favorite actors! I don't think I've come across a Tourneur film yet that I didn't enjoy. My husband received BERLIN EXPRESS from the nice Warner Archive reps at Comic Con last summer, and I'm looking forward to checking that out as well.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this wonderful film, Blake!

Best wishes,

11:59 PM  

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