All I want is to enter my house justified.

Ride the High Country (1962)

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Elsa Knudsen:  My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.

Director Sam Peckinpah’s elegy to the Old West, Ride the High Country, is a movie that transcends genre. Even if you think you don’t like Westerns, this movie is worth watching because it’s quite simply a well-told story, beautifully filmed in stunning locations, and featuring great performances by two legendary actors.  It’s the story of the end of an era, a changing world, and the true, timeless things that remain behind.

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Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are old friends and former lawmen who take on the dangerous job of escorting gold from a mining camp in the mountains to a bank in town.   Steve is a good man who is satisfied to do his job and earn his pay.  Gil, having grown disillusioned by how little living an honest life has gotten him, secretly plans to steal the gold – with or without Steve’s cooperation.

Gil brings a brash, disrespectful young co-conspirator named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) along for the journey.  Whether Heck will continue in Gil’s footsteps or be influenced by Steve’s example is one of the more interesting questions of the movie.

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Along the way the three encounter a religious zealot, Mr. Knudsen, and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is bullied and oppressed by her father, so when Judd, Westrum and Longtree leave the Knudsen home for the mining camp, Elsa runs away and follows them.  She plans to meet up with her fiancé, gold miner Billy Hammond (James Drury).  She has only met Billy a few times, but she’s anxious to get married in order to escape from her father.

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It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for the naive and sheltered Elsa, however, when her fiancé and his brothers turn out to be violent, drunken brutes who think that everything should be shared among them – even one brother’s wife.  Judd, Westrum and Longtree are forced to rescue  Elsa from her new husband and his brothers, who pursue them with vengeance in mind.

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Steve Judd is a pillar of quiet, manly virtue.  Joel McCrea, with his clear blue eyes and calm, laconic manner, touchingly portrays Judd’s inherent decency and attempt to live a life of honor.  In a world where Judd is told he’s in the way and that he’s too old to do his job, he’s determined to keep his self-respect and do what’s right.  “All I want,” he says, “is to enter my house justified.”  Not only does he succeed in that for himself, but in the end he points his old friend Gil in that direction as well.

Gary Cooper was initially considered for the part, but he died before the movie was made.  As great as Cooper no doubt would have been, it’s hard for me to picture anyone else as Steve Judd after watching McCrea in the role.  He makes this character so strong, warm and real.  It’s one of the best things he ever did.

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Randolph Scott gives Gil Westrum roguish humor, a good bit of cynicism and, in the end, a second chance at integrity and honor.  It’s a wonderful performance.  This was Scott’s last movie before he retired, and talk about going out in style.

McCrea and Scott have a great rapport as their characters.  As you watch them interact and reminisce there truly seems to be a history of shared experience and friendship between them.  Steve and Gil worked together for years and lived through the same times, but they’ve ended up in very different places morally and ethically.  The conflict that causes between them is quite moving.

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You also see how the years have taken a toll on these once celebrated lawmen, in ways both humorous (Steve needing his spectacles to read a contract) and touching (Gil asking Steve to untie his hands after Steve captures him for trying to steal the gold, because “I don’t sleep so good anymore.”).

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Ride the High Country was filmed in the Inyo National Forest, and it’s absolutely gorgeous too look at.  The score by George Bassman is terrific, especially the beautiful and evocative main theme which you can hear in the trailer below.

The film manages to be both an exciting story and also an excellent character study full of quiet,  human moments.  There are top-notch performances by everyone involved, from the two stars to the supporting actors.

Even if you’re not much of a Western fan, Ride the High Country is a movie that deserves to be put on your to-watch list.

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Lovely to Look At

Roberta (1935)

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 “Lovely to Look At,” the title of one of the songs featured in Roberta, would have made a perfect title for the film itself. It is lovely to look at, featuring glamorous mid-thirties movie fashion, delightful dances by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, songs sung by Irene Dunne, and requisite hunkiness from the handsome Randolph Scott. I imagine it must have been a wonderful escapist treat for people struggling through the Depression.

The story itself is a fluffy trifle, as these things tend to be. Randolph Scott is a big, strapping country boy football player from America who inherits his aunt’s chic Parisian fashion house when she dies. Irene Dunne is a fashion-savvy exiled princess who worked there as his aunt’s assistant. The two become partners in the business, fall in love, have misunderstandings and get back together.

Fred Astaire is Randolph Scott’s friend, who has brought his band to Paris. Astaire runs into Ginger Rogers, a girl from his hometown in Indiana, who is now a singer pretending to be a countess. She helps him get a job at her nightclub and they dance, sing and fall in love.

It’s really not about the plot at all. It’s about the songs, dances and fashion.

The songs in the movie are great, and some of them are still standards we know and love today, particularly “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “I Won’t Dance.” Irene Dunne had the kind of trilling, operetta-ish voice that was so popular at the time. It’s not my cup of tea, exactly, which is one of the reasons I’ve never made it through a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie.  Dunne’s voice is lovely, actually, but I guess that old-fashioned style of singing is an acquired taste.

 

Dunne doesn’t do a lot in this movie other than sing sweetly and look pretty, which is a shame. She was the big star and received billing above Astaire and Rogers (all of whom were billed above the title, unlike Scott, who was still in the below the title “with Randolph Scott” phase), but she wasn’t the funny, sassy Irene of The Awful Truth yet. Her wonderful comedic self was just around the corner, in 1936’s Theodora Goes Wild.

The real scene stealers in the movie are Astaire and Rogers. Where Irene Dunne’s long ballads, shot in close up, are very much of their time, the Astaire and Rogers numbers are still as fresh and full of fun as they were 74 years ago. This was their third picture together. Fred Astaire choreographed the dances in Roberta, and they’re some of the best I’ve seen from him. I read somewhere that he always counted his dance with Rogers to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” among his favorites ever.

Ginger is sweet, spunky and adorable as Liz/the countess. That silly fake accent! Fred’s character, Huck, is completely charming and very funny! He has the best lines of all the characters and delivers them with so much zing that I laughed out loud a lot. Astaire and Rogers are what really make this movie worth watching.

Take a look at this scene, in which they dance to “Hard to Handle”. This, to me, is what pure joy looks like. They make it seem so spontaneous – the way they just sort of fall into the dance together, with Ginger laughing in such a natural, happy way. This number is right up there with their “Pick Yourself Up” dance from Swing Time as one I can watch over and over and still find completely entrancing.

 

Isn’t Ginger’s outfit great? She looks so good in those high-waisted, wide-legged trousers.

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A bit of trivia — a very blond Lucille Ball appears ever so briefly in Roberta during the final fashion show. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but it’s fun to catch her if you can.

Lucy in Roberta