Monday, May 9, 2016

10 Great Westerns of the 1950s

The 1950s produced a bumper crop of A-level Westerns with some of Hollywood's biggest stars in the leading roles, including some we don't necessarily associate with the genre. Over the course of the decade, darker and more complex psychological Westerns appealed to adult viewers, even as the matinee cowboys continue to ride high with the Saturday morning crowd. Westerns and film noir provided fertile territory for directors and actors, with many jumping between the two genres and even blurring the line at times about which was which. Of course, John Wayne and John Ford were still on the scene, but a new generation of Western icons was also developing, with Lee Marvin making his presence known and director Delmer Daves venturing into the genre with Broken Arrow in 1950. You could spend a long time watching Westerns from the 1950s (check out 50 Westerns from the 50s for proof), but here are just ten great Westerns - one from each year of the decade - to get you started.

1) WINCHESTER '73 (1950) - Anthony Mann and James Stewart begin a fruitful collaboration in the genre with this picture, which focuses on the hands through which the coveted title rifle must travel. The cast also includes Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally, but viewers will also find early appearances by Rock Hudson (as a Native American) and Tony Curtis. Mann and Stewart would go on to make four more Westerns together: Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955), all of which are well worth watching.

Westward the Women

2) WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) - Probably the least familiar picture on this list, this women's Western is truly unique in its focus on the suffering and determination of a group of women headed West by wagon train to marry settlers on the frontier. William A. Wellman directs an ensemble cast headed up by Robert Taylor as the women's guide, with Denise Darcel and Hope Emerson getting top billing among the many fine actresses. Renata Vanni gives an especially moving performance as one of the group's older members.

3) HIGH NOON (1952) - A four-time Oscar winner, this dramatic Western appears on almost any top ten list for the genre, and for good reason. Its real-time unfolding adds urgency to the story as we watch the clock tick down to Frank Miller's fateful arrival, while Gary Cooper's Oscar-winning performance is noble and moving, even if he is much too old to be marrying Grace Kelly. A terrific supporting cast helps seal the deal, including Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., Henry Morgan, Lloyd Bridges, and Katy Jurado. Tex Ritter, a singing cowboy from the matinee herd, provides the film's mournful title song, which inspired many later Westerns to have their own, similar themes.

4) SHANE (1953) - George Stevens directs this chivalric romance recast as frontier drama with Alan Ladd in the lead as the Wild West's version of a knight errant. Building their own rustic Camelot on the range are Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as the Starretts, with young Brandon De Wilde giving an Oscar-nominated performance as their son. Jack Palance, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, is Shane's rival gunslinger. Other familiar faces in the cast include Ben Johnson, Elisa Cook Jr., and Ellen Corby.

5) JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) - Joan Crawford makes a rare genre appearance in this very unusual Western from Nicholas Ray, with Sterling Hayden as the title character. There's a lot of noir atmosphere seeping through, no surprise with Ray in the director's chair and Crawford and Hayden in the leads. The supporting cast is full of Western favorites, though, including Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, and Paul Fix. Look out for a truly vicious performance by Mercedes McCambridge as Crawford's rival.

6) BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) - Spencer Tracy stars in John Sturges' modern take on Western themes, once again with noir atmosphere turning everything a shade darker and dirtier. Tracy's one-armed WWII veteran comes to Black Rock on a mission of peace, but he finds out that Black Rock has a secret its residents will kill to hide. The landscape and the town speak to the lingering traces of the Old West, and the rest of the cast is packed with genre stalwarts, including Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin. Tracy earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance, while Sturges picked up a nod for Best Director, but every aspect of this film exudes excellence. It's just as hard-hitting today as it was in 1955.

7) THE SEARCHERS (1956) - John Ford and John Wayne deliver their most iconic collaboration with this epic tale of loss and obsession, with Wayne in the lead as ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who embarks on a years-long quest to find his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is kidnapped by the Comanche. This is a darker, more morally complicated character for Wayne, but he suits the role perfectly. Widely considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, this picture is the go-to example of Ford and Wayne's work together, with a rich subtext and emotional supporting performances that reward multiple viewings.

8) 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) - Delmer Daves directs Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in this tense character study of two very different men brought together by fate. Ford plays the smooth-talking, opportunistic outlaw, while Heflin plays the upright rancher with the dangerous job of getting the captured bandit to the train that will take him to prison. From there the lines between good man and bad begin to blur, with the outlaw and the rancher each coming to understand the nature of the other. Frankie Laine sings the theme song, which harks back to the melancholy theme of High Noon.

9) THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) - At 165 minutes, this is an epic Western, indeed, with Gregory Peck leading an impressive cast under the direction of William Wyler. Peck plays a former sea captain who heads West to take up ranching with his fiancee but, predictably, finds drama and strife as he becomes embroiled in a bitter feud. Burl Ives won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but other notable cast members include Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, Carroll Baker, and Alfonso Bedoya.

10) RIO BRAVO (1959) - Howard Hawks and John Wayne strike back against the serious (and often left-leaning) tone of many 1950s Westerns with the rollicking Rio Bravo, which is more interested in action than psychological analysis. Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, who gets a very motley crew of assistants when the bad guys turn up to reclaim one of their own from Chance's jail. Dean Martin is the alcoholic Dude, trying to sober up enough to hold a gun, and Walter Brennan plays crusty old Stumpy. Dreamy Ricky Nelson sings and shoots as Colorado, while Angie Dickinson gives Wayne some romantic trouble as Feathers. The picture is usually seen as a rebuttal to High Noon, and it presages the kind of movie Wayne would continue to make from here until the end of his career. However, for the A Western as pure entertainment, this one is hard to beat.

For even more great Westerns from the 1950s, try The Gunfighter (1950), The Baron of Arizona (1950), The Furies (1950), Vera Cruz (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). You'll find full-length reviews for many of the Westerns listed here in my books, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and Beyond Casablanca II. Both are available on Amazon Kindle.