I grew up on westerns. From "Clint Eastwood nights" on Sea-Tac's KCPQ Channel 13, to countless John Wayne films airing Saturday afternoons, to Bonanza, The Big Valley and The Rifleman reruns in syndication, to Gene Autry movies on cable, I devoured whatever hoss operas were served up on television. But the older I get, and the more westerns I see, the more I realize that I've only just barely scraped the tip of the iceberg of this, my favorite genre. Especially when it comes to that most prolific decade for the western, the 1950s, which not only saw a proliferation of big-budget "A" westerns, but a veritable mother lode of smaller-scale, bottom half of the bill "B" flicks that - thanks to the likes of Warner Archives, Shout Factory and others - are only now starting to appear on home video. These fun little cowboy yarns featured actors who might never have made it to the big time, but were definitely stars in their own right in this specialized field.
Of the two, Gun Belt can claim the more interesting plot, with double-crosses piled upon double-crosses, though for some reason writer Jack DeWitt culls his character names from real-life historical figures, but with just enough changes to make you wonder why he bothered in the first place. Notorious outlaw Matt Ringo (John Dehner) breaks out of prison and reunites with his old gang. Learning that a scheme to rob a million dollar gold bullion shipment won't go forward without the help of his brother, reformed badman Billy (not Johnny) Ringo (Montgomery), Matt decides to pay him a visit on the hardscrabble ranch Billy's been working since Matt's been in prison. Helping Billy make a go of the rundown ranch is Matt's son, Chip (Tab Hunter), who's overjoyed to see his black sheep pop show up. Things quickly go sour, though, when the upright Billy refuses to return to his gunslinger ways, leading Matt to stage a robbery at the local bank to put his brother in the frame and force him to join up. Now a wanted man, just a few days away from marriage to his long-suffering sweetheart, Arlene (Helen Westcott), Billy has to play a dangerous game, staying one step ahead of the law (personified by Wyatt Earp, played here by James Millican), assuming command of Matt's old gang in the hopes of rounding up the bad guys, led by Ike Clinton and clearing his good name - not to mention keeping his naïve, wayward nephew from following in his father's footsteps.
Despite treading familiar shoot-'em-up territory, Gun Belt has a lively plot and a lightning pace, packing lots of incident into its 77 minute running time. It gets a big boost from its expert cast of familiar cowpoke faces, from lean, mean-looking cusses like Jack Elam and Douglas Kennedy, to "I know that guy" supporting stalwarts like Willis Bouchey (here playing a sympathetic banker) and Hugh Sanders. The one weak link is callow Tab Hunter, saddled with an irritatingly thick, ungrateful character (while no Brando, Hunter would go on to deliver better performances in later westerns such as Track of the Cat and Gunman's Walk). Big, broad-shouldered, square-jawed Montgomery makes for a staunch, upright hero, and main heavy William Bishop is a fine, smiling rattlesnake of a head bad guy.
Clocking in at a brisk 76 minutes, The Lone Gun is considered by many aficionados to be one of Montgomery's best, though the man himself is more surly and edgier this time out; not hardbitten enough, however, to keep the movie from being stolen right out from under him by co-star Frank Faylen. Montgomery plays Cruze, a tough ex-lawman at loose ends who meets up on the trail with loquacious gambler Fairweather (Faylen). When the two ride into the next town, a trio of no good, cattle rustling skunks, the Moran brothers (Neville Brand, Douglas Kennedy and Robert J. Wilke *, and a better pack of leathery heavies you could scarcely ask for), make the mistake of trying to bully Fairweather. Big bruiser Cruze lays the smackdown on them and soon finds himself installed as town marshal once again. The stern Cruze takes his new, $100 a month job seriously, warning card sharp Fairweather to stay on the straight and narrow. (Cruze: "You know, I've heard a lot of complaints about the way you've been operating, Fairweather." "Oh, losers always complain...it's a cross the man of talent must bear.")
Meanwhile, the Moran brothers steal nearly a thousand head of cattle from local ranchers and force young Cass Downing (Skip Homeier), who's in hock to them to the tune of $3,000, to let them hide the rustled cows at his ranch, much to the chagrin of his pretty sister, Charlotte (a brunette Dorothy Malone). When Cass tries to back out of the deal, threatening to spill the beans to the new marshal, the Morans backshoot him and set up Fairweather to take the fall for the murder. Things end up in an inevitable showdown up in the boulder-strewn hills, as Cruze and wily pacifist Fairweather take the brutish Moran brothers down.
Faylen (perhaps best known for playing taxi driver Ernie in It's a Wonderful Life) is great as the genial, philosophical gambler, and the rest of the cast (including Douglas Fowley as weaselly bartender Charlie) are right on the money. The plot is more simplistic here compared to Gun Belt, but the sceenplay (by Don Martin and Richard Schayer) is tight, and Faylen's presence gives The Lone Gun the edge in the colorful character department. He gets all the best lines (such as this exchange with snarling captor, Hort (Kennedy):
Yessir...I used to be as handy with a frying pan as I am with a deck of cards. Why, my crepe suzettes were the talk of San Antone.
You got a lot of happy lip for a guy who isn't gonna live much longer.
If I live until you personally get the marshal, I'll die of old age, nitwit.
No-nonsense and a bit po-faced here, the 6' 3" former boxer Montgomery nonetheless comes across as a fairly commanding screen presence in both these films. Over the course of a 50-year acting career, Montgomery found himself in a few "A" list pictures, like Orchestra Wives and Battle of the Bulge, plus a few "A minus" ones, like Watusi (built around leftover, unused stock footage from King Solomon's Mines), but in the end couldn't quite make the transition out of the realm of low-budget quickies. Besides his many big screen westerns, he also headlined the short-lived series Cimarron City on television in the late 50s. A man of many talents, Montgomery eventually retired from acting and became a successful artist and sculptor. For an excellent overview of all Montgomery's westerns, readers are directed to Boyd Mager's wonderful Western Clippings website.
Both films have come to DVD with decent transfers from Shout Factory (on their Movies 4 You: Western Classics release) the color cinematography on both a little washed out - and featuring what appears to be some registration problems on the Technicolor Gun Belt - but overall, both films look pretty nice, especially The Lone Gun. Gun Belt is in the appropriate 4:3 ratio, but The Lone Gun, composed for 1:66 widescreen, is here presented full frame. The image looks just fine and not overly cropped in 4:3, however, and purists shouldn't balk at picking up this set, especially for the low price. (Thanks to Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s for bringing this set to my attention, as well as for giving me some welcome details about the aspect ratio situation on these two titles). The other two movies in the set (both from 1957) are Gunsight Ridge (with Rory Calhoun) and Ride Out For Revenge (with Joel McCrea); they look equally interesting and I eagerly anticipate digging into those sometime in the future. Despite the lack of proper widescreen enhancement on this set, it's a most welcome release and hopefully will sell well enough for Shout Factory or similar small companies to release a good deal more just like it.
Anyone looking for a pair of no-frills, quick-moving cowboy flicks that deliver a gun-blazing good time could do a heck of sight worse than these two George Montgomery programmers. While generally only the big guns, such as Shane, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven, as well as the usual John Wayne and Clint Eastwood titles, seem likely to receive the deluxe Blu-Ray treatment, I for one am very glad that small DVD companies like Shout Factory, Olive Films and others continue to raid the budget western cupboard for affordable standard DVD sets such as this. I'll be on the lookout for more westerns by Montgomery, as well as contemporaries like Rod Cameron, Bill Elliott, Tim Holt and many more who rode the dusty, B-western movie trail.
* Note: Oddly enough, there's a big gaffe in the end credits to The Lone Gun: Douglas Kennedy, clearly referred to as "Hort" throughout the film, is mistakenly credited as "Gad," switched with Robert J. Wilke, who actually played "Gad." I'm sure there have been other similar mistakes throughout the years, but this is the first instance I can remember off the top of my head.