The Man from Hell’s Edges

“Hell’s edges” is a term meaning penitentiary, like the one in Walla Walla (Bradbury’s birthplace) Bob Steele breaks out of, pursued at night by bloodhounds and men with torches, a brilliant opening.

Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much has the same gag of a hand reaching out from two curtains and aiming a pistol. Bradbury places it in a saloon, the sheriff at the bar is the intended target, Steele sitting happily at a side table draws and fires a bullet through the assassin’s wrist.

Now he’s a deputy, in love with the sheriff’s daughter, still in pursuit of the man who killed his father in a train holdup ten years before, and whose identity he was unable to discover in prison amongst the gang.

Their leader is a former Mexican bandit now a respected citizen in the town. Three months later, the gang is released, a payroll holdup is in the works, and the deputy has to play both sides. An undercover man from the Secret Service is there to elicit an explanation from Steele.

Some great stuntwork provides astounding diversion, and Steele boxes and wrestles a villain in top form. Very funny material is given to the cast, including George Hayes as an Irishman.

 

Riders of Destiny

One reel of bare-armed prestidigitation, making ready the supreme magic trick in the last.

Between them, three reels of postal thefts, ranchers water-starved near out of their land, price-gouging, murder, and a Secret Service man promised by Washington.

Singin’ Sandy (John Wayne) rides into Antelope Valley, the burden of his tune is death for the outlaw.

Joshua trees, scrub, mountains.

 

West of the Divide

The unusual opening has John Wayne and George Hayes tell the story leading up to this moment beside the campfire. A man stumbles in from the scrub and collapses, his last words are of poisoned water.

Bradbury employs an unusual technique throughout, stretching the limits of sheer Western storytelling to the maximum of plainness, and exaggeratedly so, because he wants to spring an abstraction out of all this. The expounded prologue appears on film in Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, with another intent. Here, in the course of an hour, Bradbury succeeds at floating an offscreen tale about a man significantly named Gentry who murdered Ted’s father and left the boy for dead, while the younger son was raised by an absconded hired hand, and cruelly.

Gentry now threatens a rancher and his daughter, again for the land. These are themes directly worked out in The War Wagon and Chisum, but nothing beats the mysterious and daring way in which Bradbury achieves a full and complete stylistic expression of his theme by deliberately baring his film to the utmost.

 

Blue Steel

“This is your man from Sacramento.” R.N. Bradbury is in his element with the artifice and comedy of the opening scene, and he gives plenty of scope to George Hayes as the sheriff especially in a fine comical performance with a good deal of nuance. The story is an incomparable cloak-and-dagger Western about a State agent in pursuit of The Polka Dot Bandit.

 

The Man from Utah

Bradbury is a true magician of the cinema. It’s more than deadeye continuity and a feel for local weather, it’s reaching into your ten-gallon hat and pulling up a film out of nowhere. As soon as Wayne finishes his song and gets off his horse, Bradbury’s there in town with him, looking for work, dispatching some bad hombres, and getting his assignment to a crooked rodeo.

And then he tears into complicated symbolism and furious set-ups, all the while pulling coins out of your ear while you thought you were slumming on Poverty Row. Watch his dry preparations (like patter) and payoffs, his build-ups and punchlines, his dazzling way of action filming, his use of lighting, and above all his construction.

 

The Star Packer

A double-daring exploit, the desperateness of the situation made light of as “more trouble, more fun” but revealed in Bradbury’s terse elliptical style with the first gambit, whereby cash is taken from a stagecoach about to be robbed, leaving the drivers to be shot by frustrated bandits so that the mysterious leader known as “Shadow” can be found.

His gang clears the countryside of prey, and shoots down three sheriffs right in the open street with no-one the wiser.

The film opens beside a river, where a cowboy is breaking camp. A canoe is seen upstream, the cowboy helps its Indian rower ashore, and receives intelligence about the stage holdup impending in Coyote Canyon. The two men lift the canoe over their heads to carry it from the water.

This scene of natural beauty and deceptive appearances is thematic and functional, laying out several points and the scenic grandeur of the final mle, in which the townsmen led by a government agent attack the gang on its way to maraud the town with a machine gun hidden in a covered wagon, hell-for-leather through the desert scrub.

George Hayes takes the role of rancher Matlock, whose cattle are long gone. He’s thinking of selling out now, or of buying his niece’s share since she’s out West to claim her father’s legacy and nowadays it’s “no place for a woman.”

She comes through the stage holdup unscathed. The cowboy gives her a pistol, and she uses it to wing a desperado trying to spook her at night but forced to flee with a very satisfying yowl, while she goes back to sleep with a smile.

The back room at the saloon holds the secret. The cowboy and Indian inspect it with a flashlight in total darkness, and find a tunnel leading to a vantage point for assassinations, a hollow tree stump at the top of the street. The leader addresses his henchmen from the back of a wall safe in the room, like an oracle of Pluto. The townsmen set a trap, and an assassin is caught.

The assault on the town is met, the wagon goes over a cliff and into the river. Shadow swims out and finds that canoe. The cowboy and Indian ride into the shallows and rope him right out of it, pulling him along through the water.

Bradbury’s direction is full of feints befitting his theme (the identity of Shadow is confirmed by an old hand like a Greek messenger), principally the quiet opening and sustained underplaying that gives the finale the character of a well-calculated surprise in view of the depredations and mystery that keep the surface seething. His whip-pan transitions are characteristic and influential. A high long shot of a horseman tilts down to track on him as he rides in the camera’s direction, against a background of scrub desert filling the screen. He is seen to be the Indian, by way of anticipating Anthony Harvey’s Eagle’s Wing.

The cowboy scans the hideout with a pair of binoculars, naming the outlaws he sees to the Indian beside him, including “Flash Burton, a lifer from Walla Walla,” the director and screenwriter’s jest.

 

Rainbow Valley

John Wayne steps into the scene wearing nice new duds, says he thinks he’ll buy them, goes to the counter and selects a six-shooter, pays for the items and a horse ($210), and asks the way to Rainbow Valley. The shopkeeper points beyond the camera, says “take the north fork, you can’t miss it.” And that’s it, the Bradbury prestidigitation.

“There’s no road, only a trail,” the shopkeeper adds, and therein lies a tale. “A cloudburst washed the road away,” the visitor is told, “and a landslide covered it up.” A gang prevents every attempt at repairing the road, hoping to force the miners to sell out cheap.

The cowboy studied engineering in college, leads a road crew. George Hayes fends off the gang by flinging sticks of dynamite from his Model T, Nugget Nell. The boss pro tem of the gang is the town’s leading citizen. He pockets a petition to the governor for help against the gang and mails instead one asking for the big boss’s release from prison.

A superb Western, full of action down to the last minute, with material reflected in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Pale Rider.

 

Lawless Range

This is the singing John Wayne (his voice is dubbed by an excellent baritone) in a tale of multiple deceptions and heroisms. The complications of the plot are characteristic of R.N. Bradbury, who likes a good joke, as well as numerous details like the moths around the evening singalong, and the prodigious ease with which his hero plucks the villain (a hornswoggling banker) off his saddle.

 

Alias John Law

His name is something else, he goes by a nickname, outlaws think he’s a marshal, he does one a favor.

The Kootney Kid robs the mail, killing a man, and discovers a fortune in oil. All he has to do is be the heir.

Lip-reading has a sight to do with it, “old whiskers” is a handy man across a room.