For a Few Dollars Less

The 1950s hybrid of Poverty Row and the exploitation pic spawned Regal Films, a sidebar company that ruled many a drive-in and hardtop bottom-of-the-bill during its short 1956-59 reign.

Regal, in actuality, was the po’ boy arm of 20th Century-Fox – its movies considered too lowly for the House of Zanuck.  But because it functioned under the auspices of a major studio, Regal had some perks, mainly decent leftover production values from wrapped Fox titles, plus top-level staff members manning the cameras, music batons and editing scissors.

Regal’s rules were simple:  all pictures would be in black-and-white and CinemaScope (redubbed RegalScope); for me, that’s personally a big perk right there.  Regal’s library would be comprised of low/no-budget horror/sci-fi extravaganzas, noirish crime dramas, and backlot adventure epics; mostly, however, Regal became associated with westerns.  Occasionally, one or two titles would ascend to box-office and/or critical heights (the sci-fi pic Kronos and the heist thriller Plunder Road), but generally they were designed as filler for Fox A-product.  The one mistake Fox made was relegating the 1957 UK Hammer pickup The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas to Regal:  it remains the most respectable movie ever connected to the outfit.

That said, a trio of oaters, lensed during the 1957-58 season, have attained special status (and 1960s and ‘70s grindhouse re-release/big TV ratings chops), due to their stars and/or featured players.  The three entries, The Quiet Gun, Ambush at Cimarron Pass and Showdown at Boot Hill all had impressive post-Regal life due to the formidable presence of actors who became key figures in the spaghetti western:  Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.  All are now available in excellent 2.35:1 High Definition Blu-Ray evocations from the pardners at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

 

In 1957’s THE QUIET GUN, extremely bad man Lee Van Cleef has only a supporting role, but it’s so showy and already chock full of his trademark steely-eyed evil that, aside from terrorizing the townsfolk, he easily absconds with the picture.  It’s Angel Eyes nearly a decade before The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and, as Doug Sadler, Van Cleef opens the movie with a bang (literally).

Sadler rides into a prejudiced-filled town where he was hired/lured to kill his way to rancher-baron status.  Even before the Paul Dunlap opening credit music ends, Van Cleef is already torturing lovable town simp Hank Worden, chiding him for his biblical-sounding name (Sampson) and sadistically taking pleasure in inflicting pain.

The movie itself carries quite a narrative load for a little “B.”  The main protagonists (Forrest Tucker, Jim Davis) were once great friends, but now are at odds – due to their rivalry for a beauteous but vacuous woman (Kathleen Crowley).  Sheriff Tucker idolized the lady, but Davis won her, realized his mistake and tossed her out in favor of a stunning Native American common-law spouse (the fetching bullet-bra era temptress Mara Corday).  This promotes racism and murder that in the hands of a Sam Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson, Robert Aldrich or Anthony Mann could have elevated the pic to cult level.  Instead, director William Claxton sticks to what he knows best, sidesteps the controversy, and concentrates on black hat vs. white hat politics.  Still the script by Eric Norden (based on the novel Law Man by Lauran Paine) simmers with enough uncomfortable moments involving bigotry, vigilantism and misogyny rarely seen in 1950s drive-in cinema.  It likely remains Claxton’s finest work. The great John Mescall (The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, Bride of Frankenstein, the 1936 Show Boat) shot the no-budgeter, and did so magnificently in the monochrome RegalScope dimensions.  And, to reiterate, Van Cleef shines like the glint on a six-shooter in the high noon sun.

 

On various occasions, Clint Eastwood has proclaimed 1958’s AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS either the worst western he ever made or simply the worst movie he ever made.  He’s wrong on both counts.  Not that this 72-minute time-filler is any classic, but for the sheer fact that it costars some excellent character folk like Frank Gerstle, Irving Bacon (way against type as an evil, murdering scumbag), plus lead Scott Brady, and, that it’s nicely lensed in black-and-white scope (a cinematic mating for which, as you know, I’m a sucker for) by John M. Nickolaus, Jr..  Of course, the plot (which unbelievably took four writers: Robert A. Reeds, Robert W. Woods, Richard G. Taylor and John K. Butler) is thin even for a B-movie:  a beleaguered cavalry command rounds up Rebels (including hothead Clint) who refuse to accept the end of the war (I wager they’re either en route to some Andersonville-type prison or, worse, a seven-year contract at Universal-International).  They’re also transporting a mercenary judge who has illegally been involved in arming war-mongering Apaches (who, in turn, have decided to test their ill-gotten weaponry by attacking and killing all palefaces, with and without Southern drawls).  Badly matched Iverson Ranch locations with sparse studio interior/exteriors don’t help this essentially standard TV episode shot in RegalScope.

More confusing is the late plot addition of a rancher’s daughter/Apache hostage, thrown to the “white wolves” as bait whilst the wily Native Americans abscond with the troopers’ equines.  It’s Margery Dean, proof that she costarred in another movie besides The Quatermass X-Periment.  Dean is a real (or reel) head-scratcher, as her character instantly segues from victimized innocent with a bad Spanish accent (“they keeled my sister”) to frontier skank on the whorepath, seducing every man, blue and gray, to mere exhausted black and blue.  It’s as if the writing department sent up script changes from the wrong movie.  Her ragged, conveniently torn clothes and sweaty looks were no doubt tossed into the mix to add a sex tease on the poster and trailer promotion.  The violent ending is actually pretty lively, with Eastwood’s participation a guarantee that the picture would continually play drive-ins and grindhouses for almost another thirty years.  The direction by Jodie Copeland and score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter concurrently defines “professional” and “routine.”  Nevertheless, this is a must for Eastwood completests.

 

Arguably the best title in the bunch, 1958’s SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL, starring Charles Bronson in his first leading role, is a tidy saga that underlines the public’s then fascination with the “adult” western.  SHOWDOWN, a sincere attempt to make something out of nothing, was written by Louis Vittes and directed by the always interesting Gene Fowler, Jr., adept in any genre from sci-fi/horror like the sprightly I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space to more socially responsible fare, such as Gang War, another 1958 RegalScope pic that also starred Bronson in what was basically a B-pulp run-through for Death Wish.

Luke Welsh (Bronson) is a social outcast (and also sociopath) with the perfect Wild West gig: deputy marshal/bounty hunter.    A human encyclopedic collection of complexes, speared by his diminutive stature, Welsh makes up for his height by his prowess as a top gun killer.  Greeted with disdain by all, Welsh rides into yet another sleepy town in search of his latest meal ticket.  Unfortunately, while legally enabled, the dude on the bounty hunter’s Wanted Poster is revered by the townsfolk, although they know he’s a ruthless killer outside the burg’s vicinity.  Insult to injury, homeboy felon is likewise reciprocally fond of the one-horse tank and the people in it, lavishing his ill-gotten gains upon their businesses and hypocritical charities.  When Bronson kills him, he effectively derails the local gravy train, and the populace turns against him en masse.  Welsh eventually bonds with the town misfit, an intelligent, scholarly thirty-ish spinster (the wonderful Fintan Meyler in her big-screen debut), repressed by the knowledge that she’s the spurned illegitimate daughter of the town whore (now a phenomenally successful Madame).  How these two survive the walls-closing-in claustrophobia of the sinister parish (in itself a figurative outcast in the realms of justice) makes for one engrossing gem of co-feature.  Before you B-movie fans run for the hills, fearing the plot is a bit TOO deep-dish, let me emphatically state that there’s plenty of action within its 72-minute confines.  Plus, there’s a terrific supporting cast, including John Carradine, Robert Hutton, Carole Matthews, George Pembroke and Argentina Brunetti.  The stark black-and-white/scope photography (once again, by John M. Nickolaus, Jr.) provides another excellent reason to check this curio out (FYI, a great 1958 draw for outdoor fans, as SHOWDOWN generally supported the A-Fox Stewart Granger action adventure Harry Black and the Tiger, directed by Henry Hathaway).

All three black-and-white Blu-Rays are in 2.35:1 1080p High Definition with DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

SRP: $29.95@

THE QUIET GUN.  CAT # OF958.

AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS. CAT # OF728.

SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL. CAT # OF672.

 

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