WESTERN NIGHT AT THE MOVIES
THE SILVER WHIP
Last night our Western film group watched two B pictures from the 1950s. First up was THE SILVER WHIP (1953), based on the Jack Schaefer novella, FIRST BLOOD. (Not to be confused with David Morrell’s superb novel that introduced Rambo, Schaefer’s original title was “Solstice” but his editors nixed it because it didn’t suggest the gunplay or violence that they said Western readers wanted.)
Produced and released by 20thCentry-Fox, it tells the story of Jess Harker (played by Robert Wagner) a young man eager to prove his worth. Impatient with his job driving a mail coach, he wants to move up to better pay and more excitement as a stagecoach driver. Race Crim (Dale Robertson), a stagecoach guard, convinces the stage line’s superintendent to give Jess a chance. Jess’s boss relents and he’s driving the next stage out and it’s carrying gold. Six outlaws ambush it. Race orders Jess to get the stage and its passengers to safety but Jess stands and fights, getting wounded in the shoot out. Three robbers are killed and three escape with the gold. Also killed are the two passengers, including Race’s girlfriend.
Sheriff Tom Davisson (Rory Calhoun) leads a posse in pursuit; one bandit is killed and the other two are captured and taken back to town for trial. But many in the town want to hang the outlaws, including Race.
Meanwhile, Jess’s boss has fired him, and Jess asks Davisson for a job as deputy. It’s Jess that must stand up to the lynch mob.
This sounds like a pretty solid Saturday afternoon matinee. At a tight 73 minute running time, director Harmon Jones handles the action sequences well. (He started out as a film editor, and received and Oscar nomination for GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. This was his fourth film for Fox, but he would soon find himself relegated to episodic television work.) And while Jesse Lasky Jr.’s screenplay moves fairly quickly, the problem lies in the performances. Robertson and Calhoun possess stalwart enough faces and do creditable jobs, but it’s Wagner who fails to convince. When he goes to see the sheriff to take him on as a deputy, the sheriff tells him he made a mistake not following orders and that mistake cost the two passengers their lives. Wagner recites the lines telling us how remorseful he feels, but what’s missing is the angst to convince us that he understands the complexity of his actions and their consequences.
And speaking of angst, there was enough in the second feature for a Tennessee Williams play. BLACK PATCH (1957), written by Leo Gordon, who also plays one of the antagonists in the film, tells the story of brooding Sheriff Clay Morgan (a very wooden George Montgomery), who lost his eye in the Civil War and wears the patch of the title. His friend, Hank Danner (Gordon), is suspected of robbing a bank. Danner’s wife (Helen Brewster) used to be in love with Morgan. Morgan arrests Danner for the robbery, but Danner refuses to say where he hid the money. There’s also Frenchy De’vere, (Sebastian Cabot) a crooked saloon owner who plays the harpsichord incessantly, except when he takes time out to help arrange Danner’s escape in the hopes of sharing in the stolen loot. But Frenchy has Danner killed, shot in the back, no less. A young boy nicknamed Flytrap (Tom Pittman), who was befriended by Danner early on, believes the sheriff murdered Danner, as does Danner’s wife. She gives Flytrap her husband’s gun and he starts practicing and is soon quick on the draw. You can see where this is going, but while it feels like some bizarre fever dream, it comes off slow and sleep inducing.
The director, Allen H. Miner, who, like Harmon Jones would soon do nothing but television, seems to be trying to present a psychological Western. And while that’s commendable, it’s sad when the result is so bland and boring.
In fairness there is one unexpected touch: the jail has its cells at the top of the stairs.
In attendance at our get-together were award-winning and New York Times best selling author David Morrell, Johnny D. Boggs, recent winner of his record-setting seventh Spur Award, and Robert Nott, journalist and author of biographies about Western film icons Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, as well as co-authoring a memoir about Sam Peckinpah with Max Evans. Kirk Ellis is in Palm Springs.