Monday, October 20, 2014


This early John Wayne film is not only a fine example of the B-western but also of the mystery/horror western, a small but interesting subgenre. One night, a bunch of guys are sitting around in a ghost town saloon waiting for Ed to come back from an abandoned mine which is rumored to have a treasure in gold hidden somewhere. What comes back instead is his horse, riderless, with a note warning others to stay away, signed by The Phantom. One of the men, Joe Ryan, has a half-claim on the land, and arriving that night is the man with the other half-claim, John Mason (Wayne), with his African-American buddy Clarence (Blue Washington). Another person involved is Janet Carter, daughter of one of the co-owners; her father, a former owner of the mine, is in jail, supposedly framed by the Ryans, but she has been summoned mysteriously and is staying with Benedict, once the mine foreman. Also in the house is Benedict's deaf assistant, a creepy housekeeper, and some spooky figure whose eyes we frequently see peering into rooms from behind clocks and paintings. Ryan plots to get Mason's claim away from him, Mason plots to catch Ryan and his men in criminal activity, and someone seems to be trying to keep everyone away from the mine.

The word "horror" is misleading—this is more like an "old dark house" thriller in a western setting—but it does contain a handful of nicely atmospheric moments as it also gets in some hats-and-horses action. The young Wayne makes a nice light-on-his-feet hero, a little different from the slower and more stolid characters he became known for later. Much critical commentary has been made about Washington and his stereotyped comic relief role—at one point, a villain refers to his "watermelon accent"—but despite being eighth billed (far behind Wayne's famous horse Duke), Washington (pictured with Wayne) has almost as much screen time as Wayne, and most of his shenanigans are actually amusing rather than cringe-inducing. It helps that he has a deep, gruff voice, unlike the lazy, high-pitched voices that many black actors were forced to use in their subservient roles. He's also effective in getting Wayne out of some tight spots. Duke the horse gets to pull a couple of good stunts, kicking a man off a cliff and saving Wayne from a long drop into a canyon. Some of the lengthy final action scene is presented speeded-up and I'm not sure why. Interesting tidbit: the prop that became the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 movie can be seen on the heroine's organ. [TCM]

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