Germany’s Explosive Media company has a serious itch for American westerns, and they have a trio of new releases. One is a minor Hollywood classic with major graces, from the late 1950s. A second sees an American producer based in England filming in Italy with a rising international star, and for the third an established American star goes European to stay in the game. The best thing for Yankee buyers? The discs are Region-free.
Gunman’s Walk, Land Raiders, A Man Called Sledge
Three Westerns from Explosive Media
1958-1970 / Color
Starring Van Heflin, Tab Hunter; George Maharis, Telly Savalas; James Garner
The majority of American studios now choose not to market their libraries for digital disc, and license them out instead. Collectors unwilling to settle for whatever’s on Netflix or concerned about the permanence of Cloud Cinema, find themselves increasingly tempted by discs from Europe, where disc companies routinely offer Blu-ray product not available in Region A. I’ve been told to be wary of some discs from Spain, which at the moment has a serious piracy problem. But viewers with All-Region players will find importing discs to be easy.
“Duell im Morgengrauen”
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / available at Amazon.de / Street Date November 9, 2015 / EUR 15,99
Starring Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Kathryn Grant, James Darren, Bert Convy, Mickey Shaughnessy, Robert F. Simon, Edward Platt, Ray Teal, Paul Birch, Will Wright, Dorothy Adams, Brett Halsey.
Cinematography Charles Lawton, Jr.
Original Music George Duning
Written by Frank Nugent story by Ric Hardman
Produced by Fred Kohlmar
Directed by Phil Karlson
Be prepared… for an excellent Tab Hunter performance. Gunman’s Walk is a welcome discovery. 1958 was the overload year for westerns both on screens and on TV, and the good films can get lost in the deluge. By this time the influence of ‘psychological’ TV dramas saw westerns trying to accommodate every sort of social and familial problem. With the help of some good actors and the no-nonsense direction of Phil Karlson, veteran western scribe Frank Nugent goes the delinquency route, with a side order of civil rights awareness. Looking big and bright in CinemaScope and Technicolor, Gunman’s Walk distinguishes itself from the crowd. It’s a small-scale western made with integrity.
The story is ‘rebel without a cause’ but with no lame excuses for rotten behavior. The ranching Hackett family dominates an entire territory, and aging pioneer Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is still acting as if he’s the only law. He’s a good pal with everybody, but he wildcats through town scoffing at the ban on wearing guns and other civilized ordinances laid down by Sheriff Brill (Robert F. Simon). In fact, Lee chides his son Davy (James Darren) for not wearing a gun. The problem is the other son, Ed (Tab Hunter). The apple of Lee’s eye, Ed is a crack shot but a reckless troublemaker indulged by his father. He respects nobody’s rights and is looking for ways to push people around. Lee harasses the half-Indian Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant), to Davy’s dismay. Her brother Paul (Bert Convy) is the best horse wrangler around, a fact that Lee can’t abide. When they both go after a coveted wild white mustang, violence results. Lee uses his leverage to cover for his son, but Ed refuses to accept any limit on his actions and goes out of control. Even Lee’s best friend Bob Selkirk (Paul Birch) tries to make him see reason, but the old westerner doesn’t realize his folly until there’s blood in the street.
The big surprise of Gunman’s Walk is Tab Hunter, an actor not normally praised for his acting. Here he plays a privileged, entitled cowboy jerk. Lee all but encourages Ed’s rotten behavior, making excuses to everybody; he doesn’t realize what a twisted sociopath he’s raised. Ed thinks he can cheat or shoot anybody, and demands unearned respect from his own father, too. Hunter’s performance is on the money — he’s more effective as a selfish psycho than he ever was as a mama’s boy (Track of the Cat) or misunderstood lover (The Burning Hills).
The versatile Van Heflin once again makes a stock character seem like a new dramatic concept. Lee Hackett would rather be a pal than a father. As soon as he places his son higher than the law, all hell breaks loose.
Mickey Shaughnessy and Paul Birch have well-judged parts to play, and Ray Teal is excellent as an opportunist who testifies for Ed at trial, to extort a string of Hackett horses, including the white mare that Ed killed for and isn’t about to give up. The logic in the story builds naturally — it’s uncomplicated, and satisfying.
Seen again, Phil Karlson’s ’50s noirs are all superior dramas, with powerful twists and surprises: Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, Tight Spot, The Phenix City Story. James Darren and Kathryn Grant played opposite one another in the previous Karlson film The Brothers Rico, one of his best. Karlson was respected in the industry but wasn’t credited as a heavy hitting director until way late in his career, with the smash success Walking Tall.
“Fahr zur Hölle, Gringo”
1969/ Color / 1:77 widescreen / 101 min. / available at Amazon.de / Street Date November 6, 2015 / EUR 15,99
Starring Telly Savalas, George Maharis, Arlene Dahl, Janet Landgard, Guy Rolfe, Paul Picerni, Phil Brown, George Coulouris, Jocelyn Lane, Fernando Rey, Gustavo Rojo, Juan Olaguivel.
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Film Editor A. Ludski
Original Music Bruno Nicolai
Written by Ken Pettus, Jesse Lasky Jr., Pat Silver
Produced by Charles H. Schneer
Directed by Nathan Juran
Producer Charles H. Schneer made his name and fortune by teaming with Ray Harryhausen, giving us a long string of special effects favorites. The fan consensus out there is that Schneer was capable and creative, but I have to say that away from Harryhausen his work was pretty dire. I Aim at the Stars is laughably hawkish propaganda, Half a Sixpence an expensive, almost unwatchable musical, and You Must Be Joking! is a comedy without laughs. Schneer made a number of other pictures seemingly based on principles learned from his old boss Sam Katzman, one of the cheapest producers in Hollywood history.
Land Raiders is an ersatz Spaghetti western filmed in Spain sometime around the time of The Valley of Gwangi. The star Telly Savalas is in fine form and recurring Schneer director Nathan Juran moves the camera well. But everything else reveals Schneer’s utter lack of taste and judgment, from the bizarre casting choices to the tacky costumes. George Maharis is so vapid as the hero, a wronged brother, that it’s like he’s not there at all. He makes little or no impression.
The story has evil land-grabbing brother Vincente (Telly Savalas) forcing landowners to sell out by drumming up trouble with the Apaches. When an Indian agent comes out to make peace, Vincente has his thugs, led by Paul Picerni, dress up as Indians and murder him. Vincente’s brother Pablo (George Maharis) returns from jail, having been falsely accused of killing his sweetheart, Luisa (Jocelyn Lane). We all know who really committed the murder. Arlene Dahl is Vicente’s pampered wife Martha. She has as a secret yen for Pablo, as does the Sheriff’s daughter Kate (Janet Landgard). It all ends in a savage battle between the Army, led by Major Tanner (Guy Rolfe of Mr. Sardonicus). The main Apache warrior is Gustavo Rojo, from Schneer’s Gwangi.
The movie seems to have been cast from a discount bin. Everybody is a capable actor, but none of them belong together in a western picture. The very English Guy Rolfe is here a Yankee cavalryman without explanation. Arlene Dahl seems to belong to the 1940s, except she has a brief nude scene that seems completely out of place. Janet Landgard had some exceptionally good scenes in the previous year’s The Swimmer, but this show must have put a practical end to her screen career. If you thought the costuming was weak in Schneer’s Gwangi, you still won’t be prepared for the awful dresses Ms. Landgard is made to wear. Dahl seems overdressed, as if she brought her own clothes in self-defense.
Capable director Juran runs up against two brick walls. First, the script is loaded with soft-focus romance/mystery flashbacks that don’t work, especially when the present-tense story isn’t keeping our interest. Second, Schneer pulls a major Sam Katzman by building ALL but the final action scene with stock shots from older westerns. The quality drops about 30% in all of this film material, making it stick out like a sore thumb. The use of pre-existing action footage also might explain some of the stranger costume decisions. No matter what Juran does, the movie is a mess.
The movie is so cheap that one interior set is redressed and used three times, with identical lighting. It’s an office, and then one of Martha’s rooms. The third use is as the reverse angle of the same room in Martha’s house. A pattern of plaster on the wall next to the door never changes. It’s like the room stayed the same, but all the contents shifted!
With Maharis such a wet rag, Telly Savalas’ clearly drawn villain is the anchor that keeps Land Raiders from floating away like a feather. Whenever Savalas is on screen, in control and acting villainous, the show works quite well despite its drawbacks. What a curiosity.
A Man Called Sledge
“Der Einsame aus dem Westen”
1970 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 92 min. / available at Amazon.de /Street Date November 20, 2015 / EUR 15,99
Starring James Garner, Dennis Weaver, Claude Akins, John Marley, Laura Antonelli, Wayde Preston, Ken Clark, Tony Young, Allan Jones, Didi Perego, Laura Betti.
Cinematography Luigi Kuveiller
Original Music Gianni Ferro
Written by Vic Morrow, Frank Kowalski
Produced by Dino de Laurentiis
Directed by Vic Morrow, Giorgio Gentili
Back in 2001 I had a great assignment editing an Oscar montage to honor Jack Cardiff. Someone else had the unenviable task of making a similar montage for producer Dino de Laurentiis, who was receiving a special Oscar as well. They had a hell of a time putting something together that wasn’t a joke. The only ‘great’ films on de Laurentiis’ dance card were Fellini pictures he produced in name only, early in his career. De Laurentiis was certainly prolific, but beyond admirable highlights like Barabbas, Serpico and Three Days of the Condor most of what he’d done was not considered Academy material: Barbarella, the remake of The Hurricane, The White Buffalo.
Dino’s A Man Called Sledge also has the look of an Italian western, although the Carlo Simi street set may be located in Italy, not Spain. The film is cast largely with American actors. Despite all appearances, star James Garner’s career wasn’t in the best of shape. His memorable ’60s pictures weren’t huge hits — The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix, The Hour of the Gun. Before his profitable return to television, only his spoof comedies starting with Support Your Local Gunfighter may have done big business. He’d been working in Universal pictures that were halfway TV movies, like The Pink Jungle. That may be why he signed up to give a rugged Leone-style western a try. Just about the only Italo actor to get a major part in A Man Called Sledge is Laura Antonelli. Everybody else seems to be Americans in need of a steady gig. The co-director is none other than actor Vic Morrow, who was in a post- Combat rut and looking to branch out.
Morrow wrote the script with Frank Kowalski, a dialogue director who would later work closely with Sam Peckinpah. The story feels a bit like a combination of For a Few Dollars More and El Condor – a Spaghetti crossed with a heist caper. Garner is Luther Sledge, a very un- Maverick– like westerner. His partner Mallory (Tony Young) is shot in a crooked card game, and Sledge hooks up with ihs old associates Erwin, Hooker and ‘The Old Man’ (Dennis Weaver, Claude Akins & John Marley) to waylay a weekly shipment of mined gold. An entire army troop accompanies the gold wagon to a prison, which has a safe suitable to hold the gold, and the obvious security to keep away thieves. Sledge’s solution to the problem is to get himself tossed in jail. He and Erwin precipitate a prison riot and bloodbath that liberates the gold — but his band of crooks is too greedy to settle for an honest split.
The excellent cast is somewhat underused — ace actors like Dennis Weaver and John Marley have awfully perfunctory parts to play. James Garner is less interesting as a determined, one-note antihero; he plays almost every moment tough and grim. I don’t remember a single smile to associate him with his lighter roles. We don’t mind realism with Garner, but the cynical tone doesn’t bring out anything particularly special in him either. Laura Antonelli’s part is underwritten, while Laura Betti’s role is an even smaller blip.
Morrow’s direction of the actors is just fine. None of the motley crew looks undirectred, acts as if auditioning or hangs around in stage waits. They wear their costumes as if they’ve been living in them for a time, a quality that Land Raiders sorely lacks. The camera and action direction are satisfactory as well. The show has the Techniscope look — slightly grainy and a tiny bit soft — of the average Italo Western of the time, and cameraman Luigi Kuiveiller’s work can’t be faulted. The show begins with Sledge and his partner riding out of the snowbound woods to a mountain lodge, which this particular week reminds us a bit of The Hateful Eight. The shootouts, mass jailbreak and final gun-downs advance the story capably enough, but the proceedings don’t carry a great deal of excitement or suspense.
Explosive Media’s Blu-ray separate purchases of Gunman’s Walk, Land Raiders, and A Man Called Sledge are all excellent Sony-Columbia sourced transfers, with excellent color and very strong mono audio. Gunman’s Walk and A Man Called Sledge are at the anamorphic 2:35 ratio, while at 1:85 flat cropped Land Raiders probably never looked better.
I definitely recommend Gunman’s Walk, and I know that Telly Savalas and James Garner fans won’t need encouragement to go for their respective shows based simply on the stars’ presence. Each title has a trailer and montage of stills and ad art, both American and German.
As I said above, the final product discs I was sent are Region Free and will play on U.S.-bought players. You’ll need to manually choose the English audio as the discs default to Deutsch. Subs are provided in both languages, as well. Ah, there is one thing I should mention — the main title sequences of all three films are normal except for the title cards, which present the films’ German titles.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Three Westerns from Explosive Media Blu-ray
Movie: Walk Excellent; Raiders Fair; Sledge Good –
Video: all three Excellent
Sound: all three Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, still and ad art galleries
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, German
Packaging: (individual purchases) Keep case
Reviewed: December 26, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson