Friday, November 8, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Trappers and accidental gold prospectors Jim Rainbolt (Clint “The Chest” Walker) and Shaun Garrett (Roger “Master of the Irish accent” Moore) have hit the jackpot in form of quite a lot of gold. Unfortunately, Shaun is forced to pay off a charming gentleman with some of their new-found riches when he attempts to acquire a freebie horse in the closest town because one of theirs died, something that awakens the interest of crazy – and quite dangerous - bandit McCracken (Gene Evans) and his men.

Soon, Rainbolt (whom nobody ever seems to want to call by his forename despite the absurdity of this surname; it’s less surprising nobody ever cracks a joke about it, for he is played by Clint Walker) – and Shaun find themselves chased through the desert by McCracken’s gang, trying to outmanoeuvre their enemies with only degrees of success. At least, they meet a helpful alcoholic doctor (Chill Wills) with a nice sharpshooting hand, and later find possible refuge with Rainbolt’s old bandit/rancher friend, the Mexican Gondorra (Robert Middleton). Given the whole “bandit” part of his occupation it is rather the question if Gondorra even is to be trusted at all, but then the kind of men Rainbolt and Shaun are need to take chances.

Until the Internet taught me better, I only knew Gold of the Seven Saints’ director Gordon Douglas as the guy who directed one of my favourite – and possibly the best – US giant monster movies, Them! and who directed the very decent Randolph Scott vehicle The Nevadan. Turns out Douglas was quite the prolific man, working pretty incessantly on genre and B-movies (in the more precise meaning of that term) from 1935 to 1973, working in every genre from Frank Sinatra vehicles to comedies. As I’m told, and Gold suggests to be perfectly true, the director had a particularly fine hand with film noirs and westerns, two genres close to my heart I’m never watching enough films in. [As future me can now add, Douglas was in fact great in an unassuming way in most genres he worked in, only lacking an easily identifiable favourite seem to win auteur bingo].

I have seen the film at hand called a lite version of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. However, even though the two films may contain gold, betrayal and the desert among their shared plot elements, they are philosophically quite different from one another. Gold is quite a bit more optimistic about human nature, clearly coming down on the belief that certain – manly – friendships are perfectly able to withstand the lure of gold, even though it doesn’t pretend all friendships are of that kind; and where Treasure’s reaction towards a universe with a very bad sense of humour is a rather depressed one, Gold prefers a laconic shrug followed by a little song.

This doesn’t mean that Gold’s view of humanity or the universe at large is naive or too optimistic – this is after all a film that shows one of its heroes trying to steal a horse (something generally frowned on by all upright western heroes) right at the start, and shows the other one as having no compunctions at all against shooting naked unarmed men when they’ve gotten on his bad side. Gold is just lacking a certain nihilist zeal to pretend only the darkness it very well knows about exists. It replaces that zeal with a sense of humour and adventure. Consequently, despite the philosophical abyss it walks next to, Gold – as co-written by the great Leigh Brackett – generally feels rather companionable and good-natured even when quite a bit of what is going on in it very much isn’t. It is probably a question of personal taste if one likes that approach to the darker sides of adventure; I found myself rather delighted by it.

A part of this delight of course also comes from the pleasant chemistry between Walker and Moore, who sell the old chestnut of the perpetually bickering friends quite well without it getting annoying or too much. It’s quite interesting to see Walker in his natural habitat here, where he is somehow losing the woodenness I dislike about his performances in non-westerns I’ve seen, and replacing it with a persona well able to do violence, yet also soft-spoken and friendly, and really preferring the people he encounters to be that way towards him too. Moore, despite his horrible Irish accent (that appears to start out as horrible Scottish accent for some reason I’m afraid to learn), is also a pleasant surprise, actually hitting the mark of “charming rogue” for once instead of just seeming like a smug bastard as became his wont in nearly all of his films after he started his stint as James Bond. The rest of the cast is doing broad, fun work, with Chill Willis’s semi-comic relief even, against all movie traditions, ending up rather funny and likeable.

The generally sharp and often clever and funny dialogue does of course help with the film’s comedy, too, as does Douglas’s ability to shift the film’s tone from tension to comedy and back again without any visible effort.

Douglas’s direction, supported by the beautiful and atmospheric photography of Joseph F. Biroc, is very fine indeed in other regards too, making excellent use of the threat of large open spaces, and generally tending to unobtrusively meaningful blocking of scenes. Douglas seems particularly enamoured of treating the locations and sets as actual physical spaces with a three dimensionality you don’t always find on the cheaper side of the movie tracks, and certainly not used with as much unflashy excellence as the director does here.

Add all this up, and you’ll end up with Gold of the Seven Saints being as fine and entertaining a western as you will likely find.

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