Thursday, January 5, 2023

“On the Divide” by Willa Cather


So instead of becoming a friend and a neighbor to the men who settled about him, Canute become a mystery and a terror.

This tale penned in 1896 was selected as one of the 100 Best Western Short Stories by the fine editor, Jon E. Lewis.

I must say I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Lewis on this one.

Truthful, heartfelt, and written with a feel for the loneliness of settlement that the author herself had firsthand experience with.

On the money as few mere plot driven tales can ever be.

Topnotch humanity.

Monday, January 2, 2023

The Night McLennan Died by Marshall Grover


“I never saw a shooter so accurate with a handgun as Big Jim Rand.” He heaved another sigh, sadly shook his head. “The outfit is surely gonna miss you, Jim. The old Eleventh won’t seem the same.”

“This,” said Jim, “is the way it has to be.”

This conversation took place in the N.C.O.s’ barracks of Camp Allison, headquarters of the 11th Cavalry, in the mid-spring of 1877. This conversation—and this necessary routine of checking and repossessing all the equipment of a veteran cavalry sergeant. Less than an hour before, Sergeant James Carey Rand had tendered his resignation. In accepting it, his commanding officer had expressed deep regret that such a move should be necessary, and had assured him, “I’d rather grant extended leave of absence, but you know that’s impossible.” He had then offered Jim his hand. “The records of this regiment will show that you were honorably discharged. Good luck to you, Rand. I hope you find your man, and that you’ll re-enlist for another hitch with your old outfit.”

The first of a series featuring Big Jim Rand. One can easily envision the jovial version of Big John Wayne playing the character of Big Jim.

As a matter of fact, the entire novel has the feel of an old B-programmer of the 50’s.

It is entertaining, serviceable, albeit devoid of surprise and depth.

The writing, while feeling a bit shorthand, seems to serve as a sort of step-up from reading a screenplay.

With that in mind, it does its job.

Meaty fare it is not. But for an afternoon whilin’, well, t’ain’t bad in that regard.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Drop Edge of Yonder by by Rudolph Wurlitzer


Annie May and Zebulon smelled Broken Elbow before they saw it. What had been a trading post and a few shacks only a year ago was now a long, rutted street dominated by pandemonium and open sewage. Drunken miners shouted back and forth in a dozen languages, a naked Chinaman crawled past them into an alleyway pursued by a screaming whore, halfdead oxen pulled overloaded supply wagons through mud and melting snow, past signs advertising wares at outrageous prices: Boots $30, Flour $35, Blankets $30, Washing $20. Every square foot of ground that was not lived on was cluttered with mining equipment, dead dogs, pigs rooting in piles of stinking garbage, wagon beds, spare wheels, barrels, and stacks of lumber, as well as makeshift corrals where mules and horses stood knee-deep in muck. Farther away, on the banks of a swiftly moving river, hundreds of high-booted men—most of them Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese—squatted beside cradle-like gold washers and sluice boxes while others worked up a canyon in steep pits, hacking at the soil with picks and shovels.

Written with a gorgeous eye for detail, be that detail grit, grime, or a wildflower straining a head through the snow, but…

This novel falls into the Acid-Western genre where the rules of reality are a bit bent. It is not as “out there” as works by Coover or Brautigan but it does exist in this realm of metaphysical shenanigans.

I’ll admit this is not a genre that appeals to me but, I’d be a liar if I did not say that some grounded episodes within are as good as any in many a straight literary western.

Likely an A Western for fans of the acid variety.

The fault is mine for wanting the book to be something the obviously talented author did not intend.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Stagecoach by Ernest Haycox


World’s full of small people who ain’t bound anywhere. They’re tied to one spot, they eat and work and die; and that’s the end of it. It don’t happen often that the game changes and a whole chunk of the world opens up and there’s a fresh chance for the small, if they’ve got the nerve to take it. That’s why we’re here—to get land I’d never had in Iowa. Back there you’d have been a poor man’s son and nothing to start with. Now when I die you’ll have a thousand acres, and if you’re smart you’ll leave more than that to your sons. That’s why people will come, but some of them will be the same kind of fools here they were there, thinking free land means they’re free to sit still and do no work, and they’ll waste their days and die as poor as they started.” –Violent Interlude

Here we have nine stories, that were formerly packaged in a volume titled By Rope and Lead.

I have made no secret of my esteem for Mr. Haycox and found these stories to rank in the B to A+ level with only two C’s in the bunch. And we must keep in mind that these “C’s” are comparing a gifted author against himself, not the pack of many that don’t always measure up to his uniform rock-solid excellence.

Haycox, as per usual, limns landscape with an Old Master’s eye, he esteems “can do” like no one, and he exudes a inner moral fiber that is always bracing to spend time with.

His four page “A Question of Blood” deserves reading and re-reading to marvel at the punch in such a slim page count.


Friday, September 9, 2022

The Big Screen: The Professionals


“Maybe there’s only been one revolution—the good guys against the bad guys.

The question is, who are the good guys?”

Now, we’re talking!

A seriously entertaining film that holds up to repeated viewings, while not as A-level as The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, or The Magnificent Seven this is of a feather, a “Gather together, Crew, we have a job to do” tale that more than holds its own.

Written and directed by Richard Brooks from the novel A Mule for the Marquesa by the mighty talented Frank O’Rourke, this is a cynical testosterone dripping saga of the sweaty southwest.

The cast features Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance but…

To my eye, what lifts this film, elevates it, is Lee Marvin.

Marvin practically carries this film on his back with an easy lived-in nonchalance.

Don’t get me wrong, the cast is quite good—Lancaster is at his charming “I’m Burt Lancaster” best but, it is Marvin’s almost invisible believability that drives this engine.

Each stance, each step seems to result in a position of “Can do, will do” without ever being a pose, without ever being a performance.

It is easy to point to action scenes to illustrate what works well in this film but, allow me to direct you to a simple scene. At one point, Marvin and Lancaster are made privy to a plot shift that alters their perception of what their mission is all about—Lancaster reacts like, well, an actor whereas Marvin, he takes like a man who is honestly surprised.

A tremendously entertaining film with one of the great closing lines of all time, which I shall not spoil here.

Dial it up—you’ll be pleased.

Small Screen Icons: Robert Culp in Trackdown


Two recent dips into Robert Culp prove the actor is always capable even if the material he is offered is not up to snuff.

This first season episode, “Like Father” penned by John Robinson and directed by John English is in the form of a small moral lesson regarding an outlaw and his loyal son.

It is the sort of thing that the similarly produced Rifleman did often and did well.

Here, it is not done badly but there is simply nothing special to distinguish it even with Culp’s efforts.

My vote, watch Hannie Caulder again.

Small Screen Icons: Robert Culp on Bonanza


Robert Culp, was no stranger to the genre having been the star of Trackdown, portraying Texas Ranger, Hoby Gilman.

To my mind, and to Quentin Tarantino’s mind, his portrayal of gunfighter Thomas Luther Price in 1971’s Hannie Caulder is the epitome of cool.

Culp always has heft as an easy calm cool presence and on occasion offers some remarkably able gun handling skills.

With that said, I looked forward to seeing his visit to the Bonanza series.

That visit came in “Broken Ballad” a season three offering, written by John T. Kelly and directed by Robert Butler.

Unfortunately, this is a rather formulaic “Gunfighter returns to home town to hang up his guns” trope. The difference here is that Culp carries a guitar rather than a gun.

The guitar allows both Culp and Pernell Roberts show off a bit of musical skills.

The performers are fine, the episode is fine, it is simply hampered by story beats that can be predicted on a minute by minute basis.

All involved have done better work.

“On the Divide” by Willa Cather

  So instead of becoming a friend and a neighbor to the men who settled about him, Canute become a mystery and a terror. This tale penned ...