The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ride Beyond Vengeance

Though he starred in over 40 films and countless TV shows as a star and guest star, I'll always think of Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, Lucas McCain, the single father who raised his son Mark on their small New Mexico ranch. I'm a huge fan of the show and not surprisingly, Connors. He parlayed his success into other shows and movies, but he always seemed quite at home in the western, like 1966's B-western Ride Beyond Vengeance.

After 11 years away from his wife trying to earn as much cash as possible, buffalo hunter Jonas Trapp (Connors) returns home to Coldiron, Texas with $17,000 in his saddlebags. As he nears the town, he's ambushed by three townspeople, Brooks Durham (Michael Rennie), the rich banker, Elwood Coates (Claude Akins), the drunken, deranged cowboy, and Johnsy Boy Hood (Bill Bixby), who scar him with a brand on his chest and steal his money, leaving him for dead. Jonas continues on, dead set on getting his money back and finding his wife, Jessie (Kathryn Hays), at the same time. Jonas finds Jessie is in love with Durham (thinking him long since dead), and the town doesn't appreciate his revenge-fueled return. Everything seems stacked against him.

An oddity among westerns, 'Vengeance' is hard to compare to any other western I've seen. I was pleasantly surprised by the opening, a modern day setting as a census taker (James MacArthur) prepares to leave Coldiron, stopping at a bar and talking to the bartender (Arthur O'Connell) about the town's history. He discovers the story of Jonas' return is the stuff of legend, living on for years to come. For a B-western shot on the cheap on a lightning-quick schedule, it seemed like a genuinely unique story opener. It sets the stage for some sort of surprise and epicness (yes, I make up words) to come. What could have happened almost 100 years before in a tiny, quiet Texas town that still resonates with its citizens? Oh, and what would a B-western be without a ballad theme? Give it a listen HERE.

And that's where the problem is. What follows is not epic, doesn't feature much in the way of surprises, and ends up being disappointingly flat in the end. I'll give credit where it's due. 'Vengeance' doesn't take the easy way out, focusing on character development instead of relying solely on shoot outs and gunfights. It is different in a way that I can't quite put my finger on, and that's not necessarily a good thing. The acting tends to be a little on the exaggerated side, the tone is incredibly dark, and there's a general feel of Gothic -- maybe Shakespearean -- undertones. On a more straightforward note, it's stupid at times. Not writing to his wife for 11 years, what did Jonas think was going to happen? She'd be waiting at the doorstep for him? It comes across as partially lazy in the storytelling department, a plot device necessary to move things along without making much sense. Aren't those the best?

Typecast to a certain point as Lucas McCain, Connors spent much of the rest of his career trying to play different roles, and this definitely qualifies. Probably a little too old for the part, this isn't his best acting job. He's rocking an unrecognizable accent, and generally is required to look pissed off at everyone around him. As for the rest of the cast, while there is some impressive name recognition, the performances don't amount to much. Rennie looks bored as Durham, Akins could have been legitimately drunk playing his part, and Bixby looks confused, but more on that later. Hays as the "love interest" just doesn't have much in the way of chemistry with Connors although to be fair, their parts consist of a handful of scenes of screaming at each other. Former Rifleman co-star Paul Fix has a small part too as Hanley, an old saddle tramp who helps Jonah in a cool connection to their successful run on TV.

Mostly with a whole lot of name recognition, the cast is wasted. Along with all those previously mentioned, there are parts for Joan Blondell as a drunken owner of a whorehouse, Gloria Grahame as a married woman cheating on her husband with Bixby, Frank Gorshin (Batman's The Riddler) as a lovelorn, drunken cowboy, and Gary Merrill as Dub Stokes, Jonah's tough-love stepfather. None of these parts are essential to the story, but even in their out of left field qualities, they disappear as quickly as they appear with no rhyme or reason. Cameos are one thing, pointlessly wasted cameos are another. As for the acting, it's laughable at times. A drunken Akins always talks to Whiskey Man, his imaginary friend he drinks with, and Bixby loses his mind when confronted by Jonas. Literally the guys goes nuts with no hints, foreshadowing or warning. He brands himself and runs into the woods laughing hysterically. It's Gothic on steroids, like nothing I've seen in a western.

It all comes to a head with that final resolution....sort of. It's a weak ending in general although a knock-down, brutal fight between Connors and Akins is surprisingly realistic with a minimum use of stunt doubles (watch it HERE). The resolution is built up as this event that made a lasting impression on this town, an event that's still talked about 75-plus years later. Really? That's what made such an impression? I was disappointed with the ending in this off-the-wall B-western that basically wastes a good cast and at least some potential.

Ride Beyond Vengeance (1966): * 1/2 /****

No comments:

Post a Comment