Thursday, February 11, 2016

Femme Fatales in Westerns, Part 1

When we think of Femme Fatales, we probably automatically think of Film Noir or perhaps spy stories. That's where those conniving females seem to congregate in vast numbers.

But the character template is too useful to be confined to one genre. It's not that uncommon to find a beautiful woman in the Old West who is twisting some poor sap around her finger as she plans to double-cross him and run off with a stolen fortune. That's not really too surprising--Westerns are the father of the Hard-Boiled Detective story, with Film Noir being the Hard-Boiled story's Evil Twin.

Duel at Silver Creek, a 1952 Western directed by Don Siegel, gives us one example of this. The story involves an organized gang of claim jumpers. They force small mine owners to sign over their claims. The owners are then murdered, so no one can question the sale later on. But killing the father of Luke Cromwell (better known as the Silver Kid) is not part of a wise long-term plan. The Silver Kid (like the actor playing him--Audie Murphy), knows a thing or two about gun play.

The interesting thing about this movie, though, is that Murphy, despite having top billing, is not the primary protagonist. This honor goes to Stephen McNally, who plays Sheriff Lightning Tyrone, the guy tasked with bringing in the claim jumpers. The Silver Kid ends up working as his deputy, though circumstances later causes Lightning to distrust and fire the Kid. (The movie, by the way, does overdo it a little in giving nearly every character a "Western" nickname.)

That distrust is a result of the machinations of Opal Lacey, a beautiful woman with whom Lightning is falling in love. She seems to return the feelings. Or at least, she seems to do so when she's not busy strangling a wounded outlaw to keep him from talking.

Opal is really the gal of Ron Lacey, a local businessman who is secretly running the outlaw gang. She claims to be Ron's sister, but that's just part of her cover as she manipulates Lightning and tries to subtly foil his efforts to catch the gang. And if Opal finds out that a recent wound prevents Lightning from pulling the trigger after drawing his gun, then the sheriff might be in real trouble.

Duel at Silver Creek is worth watching. The story is economically told and well-directed, with the short but exciting gun battle between the outlaws and a posse at the film's climax really standing out. Both McNally and Murphy give strong performances and Faith Domergue gives real strength to Opal. The other female lead is Susan Cabot, who plays the tomboyish "Dusty" and, at one point, manages to put some buckshot in the buttocks of a fleeing outlaw. Lee Marvin is fun to watch in a small role, while Gerald Mohr takes time off from his busy schedule as a radio actor to do an effective turn as the gang leader.

Eugene Iglesias deserves special mention as Johnny Sombrero, one of the outlaws. Johnny is an arrogant killer--the type of villain you are supposed to immediately dislike. Iglesias pulls off this vibe perfectly. Pretty much from the moment you first see Johnny Sombrero, you hate him. The actor carries himself in just the right way to highlight all of the character's negative traits in both expression and body language. The instant he walks on screen, you find yourself screaming "Shoot him in the face! Shoot him in the face!"

I THINK remember reading somewhere that Don Siegel disliked the script for this movie and treated it as a parody. I haven't been able to track that down anywhere, so it's very possible my memory is simply wrong. If I really did once read this, it might explain the over-reliance the movie has on using stereotypical nicknames for so many characters. But other than that, I don't see any real parody. It is, in many ways, a pretty standard Western, made worthwhile by a good script, good direction and a good cast. It doesn't seem to be making fun of itself at all and it can be enjoyed at face value.

Within the next few weeks, we'll be returning to the Old West one more time to watch the Lone Ranger also tangle with a beautiful Femme Fatale. Those women are everywhere!

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