Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Colt .45 (1950): "Law & Order in Six Finger Doses"

This brightly colored Edwin L. Marin directed movie, which might easily have been called Gun Crazy (Western Style), has recently been broadcast several times on Encore Western Channel and is available on dvd. Colt .45 begins with the legend scrolling across the screen explaining that 'A gun, like any other source of power, is a force for either good or evil, being neither in itself, but dependent upon those who possess it.' In other words, it's the NRA's kind of movie!

This highly colored oater, which I tend to think of as lensed in "Luridcolor", not Technicolor, by veteran Warner Brothers Western cameraman Wilfred Cline, is a lightning fast paced movie, clocking in at just over an hour. It was great, illogical fun from the git-go, with our Randy as a salesman for the Colt Firearms Company in 1851, who begins the movie in the office of the local sheriff extolling the virtues of the "finest guns ever made. Here's law and order in six-finger doses. Yes, sir, easy to load and as durable as your mother-in-law."

Before you can scratch your head and say "mother-in-law jokes in the Old West?", and wonder how he can be hawking these shootin' irons 20 years before their initial manufacture in what is laughingly known as the real world, our favorite salesman is implicated in the jailbreak of an ornery sidewinder named "Jason Brett" (delightfully overplayed to a faretheewell by that über-bad apple, Monty Beragon himself, aka Zachary Scott--no relation to Randolph, unfortunately). Hmmm, with both guys with the same last name on the set, it must have been a tad confusing. Zach plays his role with such zest and abandon, that one wonders if it was despair over his near total typecasting as a well dressed snake--usually in the moral weakling division--in American directed movies, (though Renoir and Buñuel knew better).

Or perhaps, as becomes clear in one section of my recently completed reading of Christopher Plummer's autobiography, "In Spite of Myself", Zachary Scott was quite the party animal--as well as a skilled actor at a loss to find a channel for his theatrical energy in the receding world of filmdom and the theater of the late '40s & early '50s. It might be a safe bet that some of his rapscallion behavior may have leaked out onto the set of this movie, since there are scenes in which the baddie Scott rolls his eyes, never meets the eye of his confederates or his antagonists, and looks as though the hooch he is sucking down at the local saloon might have been the real thing.

One outstanding aspect of Zachary Scott's characterization is his near mystical, almost fetishistic fascination with those shiny guns he stole from Randy's sales kit, which he practically sleeps with, though he does find time to also make untoward advances on the person of Ruth Roman, who plays an honest pioneer prospector gal unhappily married to moral weakling Lloyd Bridges. Though at first he is a hostage of Zach and his gang, Lloyd B. soon becomes a confederate of Jason Brett (Zachary Scott).
Zachary Scott and Lloyd Bridges bond over their mutual fixation with guns in Colt .45 (1950)

Bridges, as a man who has sunk a great deal of his life savings in a godforsaken mine, is not satisfied with the simple rustic charms of a log cabin, a kerosene lamp,a meager living and the bodacious Ruth. No, Lloyd longs "to sleep between clean sheets", to control the saloon in the nearby mining town, "where the real money is", and, as the screenplay makes increasingly clear, to follow Zachary Scott around like a lovesick puppy.

Brett, (Zachary Scott) whose sadism has become increasingly out of control as he learns to use his guns for target practice on unarmed Indians, blast anyone who gets in his way, and to pistol whip his spineless minions, urging them "to have a drink and grow a spine", is not averse to listening to the unbalanced Bridges' wilder schemes, appropriating the more useful and coherent ideas. However, it soon becomes clear that conscience-ridden Ruth Roman won't be going along for this ride with her hubby on his fast trip to h-e-double hockey sticks. As the power that Zachary Scott acquires becomes more grandiose, it is also obvious that this Dracula-Renfrew relationship between the bandit and his follower has no where to go. Once again, Lloyd Bridges' slavish pretensions, first to his wife, and now to Brett, have led him to ruin. Shoulda stuck to prospectin', Lloyd.
Zachary Scott and flunky, threatening spunky Ruth Roman in Colt .45 (1950)

One of the aspects of this movie that seemed so different from most earlier Randolph Scott westerns and Warner Brothers westerns in general was the new level of violence that accompanied this movie.
In some ways, it seems as though the baroque violence of late '40s gangster movies such as White Heat seeped into the western as well. So, we see bullets entering bodies and arrows piercing flesh in new and, frankly, often unwelcome ways. While violence certainly can have a point in some movies, this facetious exercise in rip roarin' adventure isn't really one of them. We not only have obviously painful gunshot wounds, closeups of Zachary Scott digging his nails into a wound on Randolph Scott, but there is a film noir twist to almost every act of violence.

One of the more hilariously inappropriate moments of mayhem comes when Alan Hale, as a corrupt sheriff in cahoots with Zachary Scott, is shot with an arrow by the Indians trying to help Randy. Since we're talking about one of the more beloved character actors of the 20th Century, Hale is slowed but not downed by this arrow, which is in the chest. Near his heart. And clearly can't keep a good ham down.
A snowy haired Alan Hale (left) with Randolph Scott in Colt .45 (1950).

Sheriff Hale, who, in reality looks sadly bloated and unhealthy in this movie, staggers and crawls all the way from some rocky arroyo where he was hit back to town--a distance of at least 20 miles, I'd say. Now, he's on foot, but he makes it in the nick of time to warn Zach and company that Randolph Scott is on his way, with Ruth Roman.
Randolph Scott, Victor Daniels and Ruth Roman plan their strategic revenge in Colt .45 (1950). [Note Ruth's stylish white leather buckskin jacket. She must have been the most fashionable girl in the west]
Ruth, btw, has a shoulder wound that allows the audience to get a nice glimpse of her upper back, though she's still able to clunk Randy cold after he tells her she can't come with him to take back the town, hop on a horse, and--oh, yes--don a white buckskin leather bolero jacket from the helpful Indians, which should make her an easy target as she dashes back to town.

Ruth (at left) displays considerable feistiness throughout this flick, and probably should have done more westerns, though her dark sultriness seemed to doom her to being a minor league Linda Darnell for much of her career, when she wasn't being miscast in Alfred Hitchcock movies.

In case you wondered what the heck happened to Randolph Scott while all this was going on, he was around the periphery of this movie, making friends with Indian Chief Walking Bear (played by the dignified Chief Thundercloud, who had played Tonto in a couple of Lone Ranger serials in the late '30s), having heart-to-heart talks with the law and Ruth Roman while trying to clear his name, and eventually rousing a passive populace into forming some sort of opposition to Zachary Scott's Mr. Big Shot. Randolph Scott doesn't really get into the heart of the action until the final scenes, when Randy, his Indian pals and a few citizens help to stop the Other Scott. Oddly, there is a clinch at the end of the movie between Randolph Scott and Ruth Roman, though I saw no indication of a romantic spark between the two of them earlier in the movie.
Randolph Scott, Victor Daniels (aka Chief Thundercloud) strangling the corrupt Charles Evan in Colt .45 (1950).

I should mention my fondness for much of the work of the director of this movie, Edwin Marin, (seen below) a journeyman at MGM's B movie unit, who directed some of the bouncier Philo Vance and Maisie movie series entries, as well as the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, had a career that went back to the early talkie era. He also directed a movie that was new to me recently, a charmer with Jean Parker called Sequoia (1934), about a cougar and a deer growing up together in a forest with some exceptionally good nature photography in the studio and the great outdoors.

Marin even worked well with George Raft several times, getting good performances out of the king of the underplayers in the nifty Johnny Angel and Nocturne. Mr. Marin is apparently at his best in Westerns, and made one of John Wayne and Ella Raines' more enjoyable movies, Tall in the Saddle (1944), (too bad Wayne and Raines didn't work together more often). Prior to his death in 1951, Marin made nine movies--seven of them Westerns--with Randolph Scott from 1941-1951. Colt .45 was the next to the last movie of Marin's career, to be followed by Fort Worth.

Please note that Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has published a fine review of this film on Monday, October 11, 2010. Laura's review can be found on her site here. Her insights into Zachary Scott's performance were particularly interesting to read.


Davis, Ronald L., Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Nott, Robert, Last Of The Cowboy Heroes: The Westerns Of Randolph Scott, Joel Mccrea, And Audie Murphy, McFarland, 2005.

The Rapid Rise of Ruth Roman, Life Magazine, May 1, 1950.


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