The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Station West

A singer, actor, producer, director and studio head over a cancer-shortened career, Dick Powell did it all in his short time in Hollywood.  He made a name for himself in the 1930s in musicals but made the jump to more and more genres over the 1940s and 1950s. Of all his roles though -- film, television, radio, stage -- Powell only did one western as an actor, an interesting gem from 1948 called Station West.

Interesting is a nice way of saying here that I was very skeptical going into this movie because of all the different (even weird) elements that needed to work together for it to be successful.  As is so often the case with my overthinking anything and everything, the joke was on me because my worries were unfounded. I still maintain it is a very different western -- atypical to just about any other western I can think of -- but somehow it works.  Actors not associated with the genre, a story full of twists and turns, and the feel of a film noir as opposed to a western oater.  Sounds like the makings of an interesting western now, don't it?

An undercover government investigator assigned to investigate the murder of two cavalry troopers guarding a gold shipment, Lt. Haven (Powell) arrives a remote western outpost trying to piece everything together. The nearby fort is brimming with gold shipments that need to be moved, but bandits keep hitting the shipments. Haven works his magic and gets a job with a woman who rules over everything in the area, Charlie (Jane Greer), working to rebuild her stagecoach line. He is sure she is somehow involved with the gold robberies with her right hand man, Prince (Gordon Oliver), and henchman, Mick (Guinn Williams), but he can't prove it just yet. As he investigate the case though, Haven starts to fall for Charlie so can he find the culprits before he gets too involved?

A day after watching this movie, I keep coming back to a thought that popped up time and time again as I watched it. While it has all the fixings of a western, I feel more comfortable calling it an anti-western...if that makes any sense. 'Station' more has the feel of a murder mystery that happens to be based in a western setting as opposed to a western with a murder mystery. Director Sidney Lanfield shoots his movie like a film noir, full of shadows and darkness as Powell's Haven investigates who is stealing gold and killing U.S. cavalry troopers. This is not a down and dirty western that you might expect. Everyone is immaculately dressed -- nice, pressed suits for the guys and Greer always wearing ball gowns with perfect hair -- and the saloons look like some pretty classy establishments. None of this counts against the movie. It isn't trying to be a gritty, hard-edged realistic western. It's a murder mystery film noir western, a first in my mind.

Working against the typical conventions of the western hero and the lead female character, enter Dick Powell and Jane Greer. None of this is intended as a complaint, instead it ends up being a ringing positive endorsement for the movie. Nothing about Powell screams WESTERN HERO! His Haven character drinks champagne and wine, smokes a pipe, and generally has an easygoing way about him. He's especially smooth with Greer's Charlie and puts his own spin on the typical western hero. When I think of Greer, I think film noir, the femme fatale like in 1947's Out of the Past. She would seem to be out of place in a western, but as the kingpin in the area who pulls all the strings, she's perfect in the part. Her Charlie is beautiful, intelligent and another new one in the western genre; a bad, lady. Well, sort of, she wants to go straight, but she might be too far gone. Two strong leads -- with some great chemistry -- that set the tone for the whole movie.

As for the murder mystery aspect of the story, Lanfield keeps the viewer guessing and up on their toes if they want to keep up. It's pretty clear from the start that Greer's Charlie is heavily involved with the continuing gold robberies, but as for how, that's kept in the dark for awhile. Throwing you for a loop, we get a list of possible suspects, some more inclined to shenanigans than others. Working with Greer are Oliver and Williams, two solid henchmen that immediately incriminate her just because they're clearly henchmen. There's also Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Caslon, a rich woman working with Haven, who you immediately think is up to no good because Moorehead always played shady characters. Tom Powers plays Captain Iles, the shady commander of the post with Raymond Burr making a good impression in a smaller part as Bristow, a weasel of a lawyer trying to play all sides. Christmas crooner Burl Ives is also good as a hotel owner who sings and knows everyone in town, quite a help to Haven.

I went along for the ride on this one, enjoying it for all the little different things that make it an atypical western. Some parts drag as Powell's Haven investigates -- long scenes of a man walking around, looking through things tend to that -- and other scenes have stagecoaches or Powell on horseback riding across the rocky desert. Beautiful to look at in smaller doses, they get a little tedious at times. No movie is perfect though, right? Casting and story, this one just works because it does try to be different. Not particularly well known, but a hidden gem in the film noir western category (if there is that category).

Station West <---Youtube clip (1948): ***/****

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