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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Best of the West

Twenty great films featuring cowboys, outlaws and legends of an earlier America

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High Noon (1952)
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Westerns are the most cherished American film genre, providing rip-roaring action and powerful drama. Some of the most provocative, often in black-and-white, probed the psychology beneath the gunplay. In my favorite, One-Eyed Jacks (1961), avenging bank robber Marlon Brando hunts ex-pal-turned-sheriff Karl Malden. Directed by Brando, it’s visually striking, full of great lines and features a haunting musical score. 

As a long-time westerns devotee, here’s my best of the rest in alphabetical order:

Duel in the Sun (1946): Sexy Jennifer Jones tempts brothers Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten as their cattle baron father (Lionel Barrymore) disapproves. It’s big, brawling and brash—a lavish spectacle with a bizarre ending.

The Gunfighter (1950): In this riveting psychological tale, fast-gun outlaw Gregory Peck tries to live down his past. Home to see his wife and son, he’s dogged and killed by smart aleck Skip Homeier. The final scene is memorable.

High Noon (1952): Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his role as a small town sheriff on his wedding day with Grace Kelly, facing a revenge-seeking outlaw. Filmed in real time with crackling tension, westerns get no better than this.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Horst Buchholz, Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter are perfect in the title roles in this towering American version of Seven Samurai.

My Darling Clementine (1946): John Ford’s take on the historical Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is an understated triumph with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday and Walter Brennan as Ike Clanton.

Nevada Smith (1966): Steve McQueen seeks revenge for his parents’ killers in this stunning, violent prequel to The Carpetbaggers. The supporting cast includes Suzanne Pleshette, Karl Malden, Brian Keith and Martin Landau.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Director Sergio Leone cast Henry Fonda—stalked by harmonica-playing Charles Bronson—as an icy villain in a classic spaghetti western that reaches operatic levels of drama.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): A cattle-buyer (Dana Andrews), a Mexican dandy (Anthony Quinn) and an old man (Alva Hardwicke) are unjustly accused of rustling and are lynched in this powerful, unforgettable story.

The Professionals (1966): In this picturesque south-of-the-border action picture, soldiers of fortune under Lee Marvin are hired to rescue the kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) of a wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy). Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode are at their macho best.

Red River (1949): In Howard Hawks’ sprawling epic, Montgomery Clift defies tyrannical guardian (John Wayne) and takes over a big cattle drive. Wayne angrily vows to kill him. It’s considered by many to be the greatest western.

Ride the High Country (1962): Sam Peckinpah’s finest is a beautifully mounted tribute to the dying West, with old gunfighters Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott (in his final film) rescuing reluctant bride Mariette Hartley.

The Searchers (1956): In John Ford’s majestic saga, John Wayne embarks on a multi-year odyssey to find his niece (Natalie Wood) kidnapped by Indians.

Shane (1953): The very essence of the genre, with splendid cinematography and realistic action. Ex-gunfighter Alan Ladd (in title role) helps beleaguered ranchers and faces down fast-gun Jack Palance.

Stagecoach (1939): This dark vision of adult emotions by John Ford provided John Wayne’s first big role. Features a superb chase scene and awesome Monument Valley locales.

3:10 to Yuma (1957): The epitome of the psychological western pits rancher Van Heflin against the notorious outlaw Glenn Ford.

Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are rival gunfighters in Mexico looking for gold and competing for red-hot Denise Darcel. It ends with an epic fast-gun shootout as Lancaster bites the dust in style.

Wagon Master (1950): TV’s “Wagon Train” was inspired by John Ford’s gritty story. Ward Bond heads up a wagon train that is set upon by outlaw Charles Kemper and his oddball sons. It’s full of great character actors, including a pre-“Gunsmoke” James Arness.

Warlock (1959): Gambler Henry Fonda is the hired-gun town marshal, aided by his lame gunslinger sidekick, Anthony Quinn. Sporting gold-handled Colt revolvers, Fonda dispatches unruly cowboys led by Tom Drake and DeForest Kelley.

The Wild Bunch (1969): William Holden’s aging outlaw gang pulls off a violent bank robbery in 1913 Mexico, and blood flows throughout this Sam Peckinpah classic. The final shootout is mind-boggling.

Yellow Sky (1948): One of Gregory Peck’s few villain roles lifts this gritty tale of greed. After robbing a bank, Peck and his gang hide out with feisty girl (Anne Baxter) and her grandfather (James Barton)—and look for their gold.

Richard G. Carter was a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, Milwaukee Journal columnist, local radio commentator, New York Daily News columnist, and has appeared on “Larry King Live” and “Donahue.”