Monday, March 13, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Angel and the Badman" (1947)

"Angel and the Badman" is regarded as one of the signature films in the John Wayne library, but it doesn't deserve to be.

It's a rather stiff and unoriginal Western, filled out with an insipid female lead and clich├ęd supporting cast, containing zero surprises in the plot. Wayne plays Quirt Evans, a legendary bandit who tries to go straight after he's taken in, healed and befriended by a family of Quakers. Of course, he falls in love with the daughter, Penelope (Gail Russell), setting off a whole lot of 'am-I-good-enough' perambulations.

The villains have generic cowboy names, Laredo (Bruce Cabot) and Hondo (Louis Faust), and they came straight off the Central Casting Express. We're never even really sure what their conflict with Quirt is about -- something to do with claiming a piece of land Laredo wanted. Later, Quirt and a pal rustle some cattle that Laredo & Co. had just rustled, setting up the final showdown where Quirt must choose between resorting to violence or the love of a good woman.

Penny is so pure, so devoted to Quirt and such a straightforward depiction of the 1940s feminine ideal that she's a total bore. To wit: I have no more words to spare for her.

It's your typical John Wayne flick: He's taller than everybody else, louder than everybody, all the women are crazy for him, all the men feel a combination of hate and envy, wanting to either kill him or befriend him. He takes guff from no man, though he'll knuckle under to an appropriately maternal figure if there's flapjacks and sausage in the offing.

Wayne is the epitome of the old saw about the difference between a movie star and an actor: He always plays himself. That's fine, but watching the movie for the first time, I felt like I'd already seen it a hundredfold.

John Halloran plays the Quaker dad, Mr. Worth, who sort of reminded me of a smaller, gentler version of Rory McCann, the actor who plays The Hound in the "Game of Thrones" series. Irene Rich is Mother Worth, Stephen Grant plays the scrappy younger brother whose name (of course!) is Johnny.

Olin Howland plays the nervous-nelly telegraph operator, who brags about being a close friend of Quirt's despite having just met him, which of course brings the black hats around for a visit. Tom Powers portrays Dr. Mangram, the atheist doctor who comes by to tend to Quirt and spare a little philosophy with Mrs. Worth. He advises her to give Quirt the boot, and of course she ignores him.

Paul Hurst plays Frederick Carson, the local meanie farmer who's damned up the river, depriving the Quakers of water to irrigate their crops. A quick visit from Quirt not only rectifies that situation, but the cantankerous oldster even befriends Penny's parents. Soon they're exchanging pleasantries and poultices.

These are all fine veteran performers, but the script by James Edward Grant, who also directed the film, just doesn't give them anything special or interesting to do. We know what each character's going to do as soon as they're introduced, and it's just a matter of waiting for them to get around to it.

Grant was a busy screenwriter who worked on a lot of John Wayne movies, including "The Alamo" and "McLintock!" "Angel" was his first stint as a director, and shows his lack of visual flair or ability to elicit strong performances from his cast. He only directed one other film, 1954's "Ring of Fear."

There's one thing worth a quick comment: much has been made of who wears the black hat and the white hat in Westerns. Quirt literally wears both, exchanging a big white 10-galloner from the first part of the movie for its black counterpart in the last act. This happens during a typical saloon brawl, and after being thrown out the door (several times), Quirt is tossed the black hat in lieu of his own, and he acquiesces to the change.

A better movie would have made more of this moment, as Quirt -- who has temporarily wavered on his commitment to a kinder, gentler life -- fumbles in confusion over what his true role is.

Really, the only thing I liked about this movie was Harry Carey as the aged local marshal with the humdinger of the name, Wistful McClintock.

(I wonder if Grant repurposed the moniker, slightly varied, 16 years later for "McLintock!", a script Wayne commissioned from him.)

Carey was as big a cowboy superstar in the silent era as John Wayne was a generation later, so it's nice to see the two play in a movie together. Almost 70, this was one of the last films he made, passing away a few months after production wrapped.

His Wistful is a cagey old coot, sharp with the tongue and still deadeye with the long gun. He knows Quirt's reputation, recognizes that he's trying to make a fresh start, and just doesn't place any faith that it'll stick. He refuses to grant Quirt the benefit of the doubt, but at least acknowledges its possibility.

He shows up every now and then to interrogate Quirt about his doings, and the pair develop as much mutual respect as hunter and hunted can. Wistful even promises to pay Quirt the honor of using a brand-new rope when he comes to hang him.

"Angel and the Badman" is worth a look-see, if only to witness the hand-off from one ersatz cowboy legend to another.

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