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​Beyond formula: three ambitious B-westerns on Blu-ray

Cinema | June 10th, 2015

Movies that fall into easily categorized genre labels, such as western, horror, science-fiction, war, etc., are often critically dismissed as simple entertainment aimed at specific fan bases rather than as serious filmmaking. Yet a substantial number of “genre” films are, to various degrees, actually thinly-disguised sociopolitical statements, psychological character explorations, and/or philosophical meditations no less powerful than a more critically-esteemed social issue drama or Oscar-bait “prestige” picture.

Moreover, such genre films may ironically reach a much larger audience due to their built-in fan base who would never think of attending some dreary dramatic diatribe dealing with current events, but can’t wait for another variation on their favorite story formulas. On the other hand, the very fact that they are genre films can make them quickly fade from public consciousness as new examples of the genre take their places, whereas straight dramas tackling touchy issues may become better-remembered for their ideological ambitions, even if they were never huge popular successes.

Here are a few largely-forgotten westerns from the last half of the 1950s (and now on Blu-ray) that may seem relatively routine in their genre formulas but deserve a second look for their deeper thematic content. At under 90 minutes each, they also lend themselves nicely to comparing as double and triple-features.

“Stranger at my Door” (1956) is a western parable that might easily have become a heavy-handed religious sermon, but in the hands of skilled veteran Republic serial director William Witney and scriptwriter Barry Shipman, its underlying faith-based themes emerge as effective by-products of some well-acted stock characters and several excellently-crafted key action sequences.

Splitting up after a bank holdup, the robbers’ leader takes uneasy refuge at a farm when his horse goes lame. The farmer happens to be a preacher with a son and a new young wife. Not knowing his true identity, the boy hits it off immediately with the outlaw. The preacher considers their meeting a challenge to provide a positive influence if not outright reform and save what he sees as a lost soul.

The wife meanwhile is torn between her dissatisfaction with her life and an ambivalent love/hate reaction to the outlaw’s romantic advances. Various arguments and a couple of surprise events gradually build to a somewhat predictable climax yet a slightly unexpected resolution. “Stranger at my Door” works as a polished character-based action drama intensified by careful camera work and editing, without overwhelming viewers with its pervasive moral-philosophical content or attitude on fate/predestination vs. free will.

Olive’s HD transfer looks outstanding, with only minor film wear. Sound also is very good. As is typical of Olive releases, the only special features are a main menu and chapter stops.

STRANGER AT MY DOOR on Blu-ray – Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: F

Late 1950s Civil Rights issues had an obvious influence on the still-timely plot of “The Quiet Gun” (1957), a modestly-produced western twisting a standard story of small-town corruption into a probing tale about racial and religious intolerance. 20th Century Fox’s low-budget black-and-white “Regalscope” picture has the look of a glorified teleplay expanded to feature length, especially with its focus on character and theme more than action. The settings have a lean, sparse, recently-built look reminiscent of a TV show’s back lot, rather than the gritty, detailed ambience that pervades, say, “Stranger at my Door,” made by Republic Pictures, a studio that specialized for decades in westerns.

The plot takes a familiar formula of supposedly respectable landowners using any method possible to seize assets of small ranchers for themselves, and grafts it into an emotionally-charged story of morally hypocritical and racially bigoted townspeople manipulated by the villain to help achieve his goals through lynch-mob tactics.

A tough but fair sheriff (Forrest Tucker) must deal with the town’s increasingly nasty attitude towards an old friend who now has a young Indian woman helping him since his wife left him, and whose land and cattle are coveted by the local civic leader. Tucker gives a fine, understated performance trying to maintain law and order, and the rest of the cast is also effective.

Olive’s Blu-ray has a decent HD transfer, but there’s some obvious wear on the print and the center is often slightly soft-focus (likely a by-product of the early anamorphic lenses). Audio is fine. There are no extras beyond a menu and chapter stops.

THE QUIET GUN on Blu-ray – Movie: B / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: F

Most notable about “The Hangman” (1957), a solid B-western from Paramount, is its cast packed with then-current and future television icons, including Tina Louise, Jack Lord, Fess Parker, Lorne Greene, and one-time Hollywood leading man Robert Taylor. The direction by legendary Michael Curtiz and a script by the noted Dudley Nichols help hold viewer attention with a minimum of action scenes, again focusing on characters with a touch of fashionable cynicism about America’s legal justice system contrasting with the attitude of “The Quiet Gun.”

Taylor does a good job as a weary marshal tracking down the last at-large gang member involved in a robbery-murder, convincing the man’s destitute but reluctant ex-girlfriend (Louise) to identify him so she can start a new life with the reward money. The suspect, however, is well-liked by all who know him and his pregnant wife, even the town’s sheriff (Parker), challenging the marshal’s philosophy that all people are only concerned for themselves in the long run. The film takes a complex and ambiguous look at whether legal channels are always best.

The Blu-ray’s picture is often quite crisp and sharp, but Olive’s transfer displays frequent horizontal streaks and flicker. Audio is adequate, but generally seems over-compressed into a narrow frequency/dynamic range, especially the music and sound effects. Again a menu and chapter stops are the only “extras.”

THE HANGMAN on Blu-ray – Movie: B / Video: B+ / Audio: B / Extras: F

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