Saturday, February 29, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Massacre River (1949) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

MASSACRE RIVER (1949) is an Allied Artists Western available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Guy Madison plays Larry Knight, a Calvary trooper stationed at a frontier fort. Larry has a bright future ahead; Kitty (Cathy Downs), the daughter of Larry's commanding officer (Art Baker), has turned down a proposal from Larry's best friend Phil (Rory Calhoun) in order to marry Larry; what's more, Larry is soon recommended for promotion.

Everything falls apart when Larry meets tough saloon girl Laura (Carole Mathews) and begins two-timing Kitty, who is out of town. After Larry is forced to shoot Burke Kimber (Steve Brodie) to save Laura's life, he resigns from the military and sends Kitty a "Dear Jane" letter.

Things go from bad to worse when Kitty's brother Randy (Johnny Sands), another close friend of Larry's, goes gunning for Larry over how he's treated Kitty, and Laura must shoot Randy...and that's not the end of the consequences for all involved.

Despite the title, which implies an exciting action film, this Western is more soap opera than anything else, and it's not especially enjoyable at that. Madison's Larry is increasingly unlikeable as he makes a series of poor decisions, and it's almost impossible to see why he loves Laura, played with a hard edge by Mathews. The lack of much emotion from Madison and especially Mathews makes it difficult to work up sympathy for either character.

Interest in the film rises somewhat in the last third of the film, as the handsome and personable Calhoun moves forward to deal with fallout from Larry's choices, but it's the kind of film which leaves you shaking your head at the end, wondering what the point was. The movie has a good cast and locations, including Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, but the script and direction are surprisingly flat and uninvolving despite the film being a brisk 78 minutes long.

The lead trio of actors were all involved in better Western projects, especially favorite Rory Calhoun, to whom I paid tribute on his birthdate in 2017. Please visit that post for suggestions of some excellent Calhoun Westerns.

Guy Madison was Calhoun's closest friend offscreen. While Madison appeared in other Western films, his best-known Western work was as TV's Wild Bill Hickok, a role so closely associated with the actor that it's noted on the plaque where he's interred at Forest Lawn Cathedral City.

Leading lady Cathy Downs had played the title character in John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), and she was in two lesser-known but excellent Westerns, PANHANDLE (1948) and SHORT GRASS (1950); she also appeared in THE SUNDOWNERS (1950) with Robert Preston. Last year we paid our respects at her gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery.

The movie was directed by John Rawlins. It was filmed by Jack MacKenzie; according to IMDb it was originally released in Sepiatone, but this print was in black and white.

The Warner Archive DVD is a nice, crisp print. I did feel that the soundtrack was on the mushy side; I had to turn up my TV to a higher level than normal in order to clearly make out all of the dialogue.

For additional thoughts on this film, please visit a 2017 review at Jeff Arnold's West.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

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