Wednesday 20 June 2012
Rio Conchos USA 1964
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Shout Factory Region 1
Warning: Some slight spoilers in this one...
mosey along if you want to avoid them.
A long crane shot of a desert, in cinemascope, which tracks down as a bunch of Apache Indians dismount their horses in foreground to bury one of their dead. After we’ve tracked down to watch them for a bit, we zoom slightly past them to catch the lone cowboy who is watching them from the distance. When we get to his point of view, he takes a rifle and massacres every last indian in the burial ceremnony and, as the camera tracks down to the spent cartridges ejected from his weapon in the wake of the slaughter, the rousing, “whip-crack punctuated” Jerry Goldsmith score propels us into the credit sequence as a small cavalry unit travel the desert looking for clues to the perpetrator of the slaughter...
Wow. So that’s a pretty good opener to a Western movie right there... I saw this about 15-20 years ago and didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was a TV broadcast in a clunky pan and scan aspect ratio and, thinking about some of the content in this one... I suspect it would have had censorship cuts too. This sparkly clean DVD print from Shout Factory (which is double billed with a blaxpolitation, kung fu Western called Take A Hard Ride) makes viewing this movie a much different experience. Straight away I could see director Gordon (Them, In LIke Flint) Douglas’ beautiful control of the 20th Century Fox scope canvass which he uses to achieve some really complex (but deceptively simple looking) and dynamic compositions. Here’s a man who’s not afraid to keep that camera moving on such a widescreen area and I really hope I get an opportunity to watch this film at a cinema someday... if only to prove to myself that I still wouldn’t get sea sick.
The cavalry catch up with Lassiter, the man who slaughtred the Indians at the start. He’s played by a guy called Richard Boone... who seems to be a pretty level headed guy and a nice actor, even when he’s portraying a man on the verge of madness and on an insane mision to kill all Indians after Apaches tortured his wife and child in a fate worse than death (which presumably ended in death anyway I reckon). Stuart Whitman, who seems to be a kind of watered down version of Glen Ford from what I see of him here, plays the main cavalry officer who is more interested in where Lassiter got his gun than actually arresting Lassiter for his, perhaps somewhat justified in his mind, crimes against the indians. He arrests him anyway and dumps him in a prison cell with Mexican Rodriguez, a lovable rogue played uncannily well and very differently to his usual on-screen persona by Anthony Franciosa (Tenebrae, Fathom). Add to the mix another cavalry officer played by Jim Brown and you soon have a crack (or maybe just cracked) team of people who don’t all get along trying to track the guns which were lost by Whitman’s character Captain Haven before they can be sold to the Indians.
This is quite an impressive little Western and, being as it was released in 1964, an unusual mix of both 1950s Americana Western charm thrown together with some quite ruthless moments, mostly personified by Boone’s Lassiter who is definitely this movie’s equivalent of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers (although the shirts aren’t as colourful here). This is perhaps epitomised by a scene where a woman is found groaning on her bed (you never see her, only the reactions of our colourful heroes to her) as she has been left to die after torture and gosh knows what else at the hands of the Indians. When Lassiter’s companions slip outside, Lassiter takes it upon himself to put a bullet in her to put her out of her misery. Then comes the sucker punch as the noise of the gun awakens a half mutilated baby (again, courtsy of the Indians, who are portrayed pretty badly in this particular western) which has a pretty bad effect on Boone. Luckily (or not) for Lassiter, the mother and child in the ransacked house have been left there for bait to attract people to the house for the Indians to have their evil ways with, which allows Boone to freak out and go all... err... go all Lassiter on their collective asses... leaving behind a young female squaw who is enlisted by our heros to look after the baby until it dies from its wounds a little later on in the picture.
The sequence I just described is all done quite matter-of-factly and its these kinds of scenes which give the film its strange attraction as the juxtaposition of death, torture, betrayal and violence with the banter and colour of something more closer to a 1950s, rather than a 1960s movie, is held together quite assuredly by a director who seems quite confident with his presentation of the onscreen events.
And of course, all this is accompanied by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s wicked-cool, propulsive and jazzy action scoring which acts for the film in much the same way that Elmer Bernstein’s score to The Magnificent Seven does. That is to say, on the slacker paced scenes, Goldsmith reigns in that slack with fast paced, jolting, melodic cues which artificially speed up the action on screen by association. Really good stuff and the main reason why I was here in the first place... I love the soundtrack to this one. Goldsmiths always good for a dependable piece of musical action shennanigans and Rio Conchos is certainly no exception to the rule...
And then you have that ending. I can’t tell you what it is because that would be a major spoiler but the style of filmmaking on display here is very different than it would be today... and for a few seconds I even failed to really register what had just happened. Then the film just quietly ends, without any added ballyhoo. These days I think it’s rare Hollywood would risk an ending like this one but, if they did, you can be sure there’d be lots of “post ending” epilogue to somehow justify it to the audience. Not here... here it’s all “said and done” and the score cranks up again for the final cast list.
So there you have it... a really great little western with some off-beat characters, some nice acting, some excellent shot design and gorgeous music... this one definitely gets a recommendation from me and I have to say that I’m surprised that this particular oater is not a little better known. It certainly deserves to be.