The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Stranger Wore a Gun

While many movies in the 1950s tried to offer something that television simply couldn't match, many westerns dug their heels in and refused to change/adjust. The result? A lot of straightforward, traditional efforts that were like most westerns released over the previous 20-plus years. If you haven't figured it out, none of this is particularly positive, like 1953's The Stranger Wore a Gun, a B-western in every regard.

After the bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas by William Quantrill, Confederate rider Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) leaves Quantrill's raiders and heads west. But even after the end of the Civil War, the memory persists in his head, and more importantly, so does the stigma of being one of Quantrill's guerrilla riders. Wanted for a murder he didn't commit, Travis heads to Prescott, Arizona on the advice of long-time friend, Josie (Claire Trevor). He finds a job with a former Confederate soldier who wants the Confederacy to live on, Jules Mourret (George Macready), but finds out quickly that Jules is willing to go to some dark places to accomplish his goal. For Travis though, it could be too late to make a change.

With so many 1950s westerns, I feel like my reviews lean toward cookie-cutter. They're the same thing over and over again, just changing the names and places. Like so many 1950s westerns, 'Stranger' has its good and bad, but the biggest thing is that nothing at all is particularly memorable. Director Andre De Toth goes about his job with workmanlike precision, telling a familiar story that doesn't throw anything new at the viewer. The stories are forgettable, the characters interchangeable, and if you've got more than two or three functioning brain cells, you know how it's going to end before it started. Some of the California locations look very nice here, but it does absolutely nothing to distinguish it from the thousands of other westerns you could watch. Not bad, not good, and not memorable in the least.

Starring in many of these westerns was Randolph Scott, a stout, resolute western hero in that second rung of western stars. His biggest problem? Unless he was working with directors like Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah, his typically solid lead parts were lost in a sea of bad B-movies. Playing Jeff Travis, he's one of the better things going for 'Stranger.' His motivations aren't always explained -- he's running from his Confederate past by working for a Confederate trying to revive the Confederacy?....right -- but in a sea of mediocrity, his performance stands out. Trevor does what she does best, playing the damaged society woman, Macready is an average at best villain, and Joan Weldon plays a wooden requisite pretty girl (another trademark of a low budget 1950s western) that Scott's Travis must decide if he really loves, with Pierre Watkin playing her father.

Enough beating around the bush, let's get to some negatives! Anyone who's seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre is familiar with the infamous 'We don't need no stinking badges!' line delivered by bandit chief Rodolfo Bedoya. Instead of one well-handled scene, he gets a much bigger role here with a similar character, the stereotypes amped up....a lot. His "portrayal" of Degas, a Mexican bandit and gang leader, is laughable and painful to watch. He laughs hysterically for no apparent reason at least three different times, and speaks in an odd variation of Spanglish. His sidekick, Shorty (Joseph Vitale), is just as bad, speaking in halted, quasi-threatening tones. Way, way too much of a good thing here. Also worth mentioning -- I suppose -- is the 3-D filming technique. We get guns "fired at" the camera, not to mention torches, punches, vases, you name it, thrown at us. Oooohhhh, startling! There's also a bizarre technique where rocks/brush are placed in front of stock footage, apparently to make it look more realistic? I guess. I can't come up with anything else. It's bad. That's what I'm going for.

One positive -- however small -- with many of these 1950s westerns is that future stars who shot to fame in the 1960s got their start with supporting roles. Here in 'Stranger' there's Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as Kurth and Slager, two of Jules' henchmen. Hindsight is 20-20, but it's clear the talent they're working with even in supporting roles. Not a ton to recommend overall, and maybe I'm reaching for straws, but something's got to get you through these B-movies.

The Stranger Wore a Gun <---TCM trailer (1958): **/****

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