Sunday, November 23, 2008

Coroner Creek (1948)

A stagecoach is robbed by a group of renegade Apaches led by a mysterious white man (George Macready) who does not like witnesses a single bit. So he not only kills all the passengers, but later his gang as well.

Chris Denning (Randolph Scott), a man whose past we know nothing of and whose motives we'll learn just at the end of the movie, tries hard to track down the killer. His only clues are a spotty description and some assumptions about the habits of his prey which turn out to be exactly on the mark.

That's more than enough to keep someone with enough hatred going. After months, Denning finally finds his man. He now goes under the name of Younger Miles and has bought himself quite a position in the fine community of Coroner Creek as the owner of the biggest ranch in the area. Miles has also bought himself a trophy wife in Abbie (Barbara Reed) who is so unlucky in their marriage she has become an alcoholic and his own sheriff (Edgar Buchanan) - incidentally also Abbie's father.

Denning's not the man to just walk up to Miles and shoot him. The hatred has opened a rich vein of cruelty in a basically decent, even nice, man and he decides to first make Miles lose control before he seeks a direct confrontation. He finds a fine way to go about this without even looking for it - Della Harms (Sally Eilers), the owner of the other big ranch in Coroner Creek, and Miles are fighting a low-level war for control which Della is losing. Not surprising, since the female farm owner isn't a schemer without a conscience but a group of gunfighters like Miles.

She desperately needs a new foreman for her farm and Denning is just the man to do the job.

The path to Denning's vengeance is of course paved with the corpses of a lot of other people. Not even the love of hotel owner Kate Hardison (Margeruite Chapman, a competent, intelligent woman in a Western!) can convince Denning to just let the past and whatever Miles has done to him rest.


Coroner Creek is an excellent B-Western whose only real weakness lies in the direction of Ray Enright. It's not that Enright was a bad or sloppy director, he just was more of a craftsman than an artist and has to live with the comparison with someone like Budd Boetticher whose string of darkened films with Randolph Scott are some of the best the genre has to offer.

But I am a little unfair here - Enright might not have been visually inventive, yet it's obvious that he knew a good script and a good actor when he saw them and more or less kept out of their ways to let them do their thing.

And that they did. I shouldn't have to say much about Randolph Scott, seeing that the man was one of the most perfect Western actors on the face of the planet. His portrayal of Chris Denning is note perfect - he is at once a man capable of great compassion yet also capable of despicable cruelty. Scott is rather frightening in some scenes - the scene in which he breaks the trigger finger of one of Miles' goons who earlier did the same to him and the one in which he uses another one of them as a human shield against his boss (who of course shoots anyway) are moments you won't forget soon, if only for the intensity in Scott's gaze.

The rest of the actors does their job equally well putting to rest the bizarre notion of "Western equals bad acting" some people are still supposed to have. Macready's sociopath now gunning for social approval and Marguerite Chapman's woman who can take care of business (the film does not disapprove of this!) do especially fine work.

As the plot description already made clear, this is a rather less naive Western than some might be used to and quite progressive in its notion that vengeance and violence are not necessarily a good answer to violence, a film clearsighted enough to be interested in the effect justified hatred has on the person doing the hating. On the other hand, Kenneth Gamet's script isn't so cynical as to deny the existence of positive human traits as some Spaghetti Westerns would later do.

There is just the last fifteen seconds of the movie for the modern viewer to cope with, a so obvious "make the world all right again for the censor" ending that I can't help but imagine everybody behind the camera smirking cynically, rather like Clint Eastwood in Leone's Dollar trilogy.

If you are at all interested in the American Western in its (often more interesting) B-movie version, this is nearly as good a movie to start with as the films of Andre de Toth or Budd Boetticher.


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