Monday, February 4, 2013

Raw Edge (1956) Gun for a Coward (1957)

Director: John Sherwood/Abner Biberman           Writer: Harry Essex/R. Wright Campbell
Film Score: Hans Salter/Frank Skinner               Cinematography: Maury Gertzman/George Robinson
Starring: Rory Calhoun, Yvonne DeCarlo, Fred MacMurray and Jeffrey Hunter

I keep reading about “offbeat” Westerns, but the more I watch the more I’m convinced that they’re all offbeat. This pair of Universal Westerns from the mid-fifties are a case in point. Raw Edge is a strange tale of the lawless West out in the Oregon Territory. Herbert Rudley plays a ranch owner who has declared his own laws, one of which is that a woman without a man is fair game for any man who can claim her. When his wife, Yvonne DeCarlo is attacked in the barn, he’s convinced that John Gavin is the culprit and has him hung. The next day the dead man's brother shows up in the form of gunslinger Rory Calhoun, and pretty soon the men on the ranch start eyeing DeCarlo in anticipation of Rudley’s death.

The direction by John Sherwood is pedestrian, like a good episode of Bonanza, and the same kind of color saturation by Technicolor. The music, typical Western themes woven into a generic film score, punctuated by the odd Indian theme is pulled from the Universal archives from music composed by Hans Salter and William Lava. There is some good character work by Neville Brand and Rex Reason. Mara Corday is along as the wife of Gavin, abandoned to Rudley’s gang when her husband dies. There’s nothing spectacular about the film, but it’s definitely not a bad film. There are some nice moments of tension and a descent story that holds interest, even if it gets corny at times. Raw Edge is just a solid, B-movie Western from the fifties, if not memorable, definitely watchable.

Gun for a Coward from the following year is out of the same mold, but this time it’s a family drama anchored by Fred MacMurray. Three different threads run through the story, the first being that MacMurray, the oldest of three sons, finds himself in the position of raising his two brothers and taking care of his mother while running the family ranch. One of the brothers, Jeffrey Hunter, is the coward of the title, having been implicit in his father's death because he couldn't shoot a snake. His mother babies him and is determined to take him back east to St. Louis. Janice Rule, from a neighboring ranch, is gently fending off the advances of MacMurray who doesn’t realize her affections have shifted, and in the meantime, the family is trying to fight off squatters who are trying to encroach on the family’s land.

Abner Biberman was tabbed to direct, with similar results as Sherwood. Stock music this time is provided by Frank Skinner and Irving Gertz and, if unimaginative, is certainly unobtrusive. Another good character cast livens up the proceedings, with Dean Stockwell as the wild younger brother and the great Chill Wills as the happy-go-lucky ranch hand, John Larch as the bitter Stringer who’s losing his land and Iron Eyes Cody as the Indian extortionist. The ending of Gun for a Coward is a bit of surprise, reminiscent of Red River. Sometimes I think the Western is less a genre than a setting, and as such open for infinite variations. In the end, however, there’s something comforting about the setting that enables the story to take prominence in a way that gets lost in other settings. Again, these Westerns are nothing great, but they are solid entertainment.

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