Posts tagged ‘paperback westerns’

May 16, 2010

West World; or, BP versus Spencer Tracy

by cowboylands

The world around us is getting Westy, a crazy combo of tantalizing Gold Rush-type possibilities with a shadow side of hubris-based epic fails. Got BP, anyone?

In films and literature of the Wild West, there are small number of basic plot structures–whether you’d call them stereotypical or archetypal depends on how you swing. One structure, based on pulp writer Frank Gruber’s seven essential western plots, is the “empire story,” or what happens when you do a mashup of small cowboy/ranchers with–no, NOT zombies, sheesh–with greedy-guts ranchers or railroad magnates or bankers (or the poster child of the month for greed and incompetence). The conflict is of the David versus Goliath variety, with the everyman winning.

Enter my deepest desire, when the world gets all Westy on me, to retire from the daunting and depressing accounts of empire-building, biosphere-stomping corporate malfeasance to see good versus evil at a safe remove on the silver screen, with excellent western gear, and stories that turn out all right in the end.

Usually when I need a western movie fix, I turn to Netflix, my local video store, or trusty YouTube. But the cavalry is coming just in time: Some big-screen western action is coming to NYC this summer.

This week and next, May 21-27,  the Film Forum is providing jaded New Yorkers with John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock, a dark, politically savvy western from 1955 that lifts the rock on scuttling bugs of racism in a small town. Yes, it’s a real western with guns and cowboy hats and languid, laconic men draping themselves in front of CinemaScope vistas. It has Spencer Tracy, the dogged pursuer of justice. It has Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan as sneaky, nasty specimens. It has a slow but inevitable trail to truth, justice, and the American way. You know, the American Way that honors all people, regardless of economic situation, ethnicity, or gender? Yeah, that one. It’s a story of what happens to a society lost in complicity and conformity. It would be totally depressing, but, well, the everyman does win. But thanks to this stellar example of a nuanced approach to the western film genre, the victory comes with a bite: Unless you have taken a stand, you are complicit.

Dang. Maybe I better go back to some simple black-and-white Roy Rogers…

Bad Day at Black Rock, directed by John Sturges, 1955

Liz Wirth: What do you care? What do you care about Black Rock?
John J. Macreedy: I don’t care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America.     But… one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can’t quite seem to find a handle to.
Liz Wirth: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
John J. Macreedy: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over.

N.B. I actually could not find a single reference from Frank Gruber’s mouth or pen about the seven essential Western plots, but everyone says they exist. Do they really? I dunno–I got distracted by a really excellent author site for David Whitehead with delicious pics of western covers, a very fine overview on the genre, some history, and real-life western pseudonyms for a British author of westerns. Check it out. Another Wild Western Web find! And I still don’t know if Frank Gruber really, truly wrote the following list:

  1. The Union Pacific Story
  2. The Ranch Story
  3. The Empire Story
  4. The Revenge Story
  5. The Cavalry and Indian Story
  6. The Outlaw Story
  7. The Marshal Story
April 12, 2010

Lonely Are the Brave; or, Hearting/Hating That Brave Cowboy Thing

by cowboylands

Another movie for the Iranian president to see, or any other person who yearns to be a movie-type cowboy instead of a real one.

Lonely Are the Brave, filmed in 1962 with Kirk Douglas as the drifter rejecting the modern West, and the great Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau as his costars.

It was based on The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, written over twelve years before Desert Solitaire. In its pages his unsentimentality about the West and humanity’s cherished dreams crashes into pretty-sunset-cowboy-romance pictures with forty tons of steel and the shriek of air brakes, literally two short pages before the last line.

The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, cover illustration by Roy Gifford, Pocket Books, 1957. from the collection of E. Smith

The book begins like most other mid-fifties western novels, with a cowboy drifter in the mountains, at peace with himself and his surroundings. “He was sitting his heels in the cold light of dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass,” Abbey writes, letting the drifter then enjoy a smoke under a juniper, scour his pan with sand, and then cajole and outsmart his horse, Whiskey, “the bitch”–a pastoral of the human as one with the wilderness. But the book ends with this elemental being struck from the face of the earth, as “…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands–the fury of men and women immured in engines.” Damn that Abbey. If it weren’t such a good book, I would’ve sank into depression the size of Hells Canyon, Idaho.

Blowing through the text is a deep ambivalence about humans’ place in the wilderness and the movie kept that uneasy love/hate relationship with the mythic cowboy.

Although Jack Burns (Douglas) boldly proclaims his manifesto…

A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them…. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?

…he’s fully aware (okay, okay, the scriptwriter is aware) that that drifty thing comes with a steep price:

Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you. Because he couldn’t love you, not the way you are loved.

(Note that “you” was Gena Rowlands–honestly, I would hang up my spurs for her. That Burns guy was nuts.)

So there’s a movie for the Human Beings Versus the West and the West Wins Category.

BTW, it’s not a movie from the fifties though; if you want one of those, check out *Wild Western Web newflash50 Westerns from the Fifties, which promises to reveal plenty of undervalued gems.

September 13, 2008

Gunlock; or, From Cowboy to Taxi Driver

by cowboylands

In times of moral confusion, I turn to my collection of a gajillion western paperbacks from the 1940s and 1950s*. Their bold colors and bolder titles (such as Action by Night, Gunsmoke Justice, Dig the Spurs Deep) bring me back to my center. Good/bad. Right/wrong. Yes/no. 

The one-two punch of pulp writers, who must have banged these out on typewriters by the fistful, combined with the powerfully graphic work of the artists, always tell me that I can be as tough as their cowboy heroes. At least in my imagination.**


 Gunlock, by Wayne D. Overholser

cover illustration by Robert Stanley

Dell Paperbacks, 1956

from the collection of es

Gunlock, by Wayne D. Overholser, has a remarkably prosaic voice, given the usual purple prose of these western romances-for-men.

When  I got my eyes on Dillingham, he was bending over, reaching for his .45 with his left hand. I shot him. He fell, and I fired again. 

Not exactly blood-stirring, yet somehow this author got ‘er done and won two Silver Spur awards from the Western Writers of America. And the New York Times review for this book was “Grade A.” Oh, and Hoofs and Horns (???) called it “right out of the top drawer.”

Using the “I” of first person was also unusual; most westerns rely on the reader seeing the hero as god–the “he” of third person setting the hero apart from common mortals. A reader could be like writer Ernest Haycox’s moody protagonist, but not be him. In Gunlock, the reader is the vengeance-driven hero-next-door, who is about as matter-of-fact as a cab driver.*** Which pulls me right away to the incomparable Taxi Driver, about a young man-next-door who, driven by vengeance (and driving a cab), gives a rather nihilistic view of the self-aware and moral individual and his/her place in the world. 

In 1956 the protagonist of Gunlock instinctively does what’s right (shooting from the hip!), cleaving his way through good and bad, straightforward and twisted, until he gets vengeance on the bad guys, gets a spread, and gets the girl. Travis Bickle of Martin Scorsese’s film, twenty years later, also does what he does instinctively, getting vengeance but not the girl–and he becomes the hero he sees himself to be. The viewer who does not identify with him, or who is plain confused about whether this is a good guy or a bad guy, is then treated to the slickest and most chilling foreshadowing of more bloody vengeance on the horizon–ever

The blurb on the front of the novel could be for the film (or good for the campaign trail of 2008):

He was a peaceful man but there were some things which only a gun can settle. 


 The back cover adds a cautionary note, if one cares to read a yellow flag in it: LEGACY OF VIOLENCE, with a jarring color contrast. But then, who ever pays attention to the back cover? 

Dammit! My comfort routine has become disrupted and charged with meaning–what I exactly do not want. I who had desired a simple world may have to find it within myself…

You…you talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. You talking to me?



*302 to be exact. 

**Case in point. Across-the-street car service drivers on the whoop-up trail until 5 in the morning. Just thinking about the men, women, and children trying to enjoy their Friday night sleep (like me) gets me ticked. A cowboy of any gender would shout out the window, call the establishment, whatever. I tried to go back to sleep. But I guess I’m not the only non-cowboy on my city block, as no one else drilled them in any fashion. 

*** Although there are a number of poetic drivers out there. I know two as friends, and prosaic wouldn’t be in their vocabularies…

**** I wonder if the Taxi Driver analogy has come from a sleepless night due to livery drivers? One can say that the taxi drivers are the mavericks, while the livery cab drivers are more like the cowboy organizations. Well, whoever they are, they are doing the equivalent of shooting up the town. 

June 29, 2008

A Cowboy's Life; 51…32…

by cowboylands

32. Life is more interesting as a Cowboy. 

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, you’ve got to be careful with this Cowboy thing, but with judicious application, the most mundane duties become charged with Mythic meaning. 

from Gunman’s Gold, by Max Brand

Pocket Books, 1960

illustrator unknown

Last Stand! Trapped! Brush Fire! or Die! When this is truly the case, you have a problem. Until then, when you find yourself in a pinch, try running those words through your mind to get the adrenalin going. But be careful, you might end up kicking out a window or something. 

Western popular novels are true romances and were practically eaten like sage-flavored candy by both buckos and buckettes. The story lines satisfied, momentarily but intensely, the yearning to be a real Man/Woman and kick a bully’s ass/take the love interest into your arms/own a big spread/look good in cowboy boots.

Pre-1960, these stories have heroes who are stone-rugged; their heroines are pliable yet composed. Problems in these pages were solved with a one-two punch and if that didn’t work, with a gimlet-eyed stare and threat of deadly aim. 

It seems that many problems arise when one realizes that making decisions and getting respect are not easy–rarely are decisions or people simply good or bad, for example, and our western culture is rabidly anti-hero and anti-respect.

So when the going gets tough, and I get mired down in my own wishy-washiness or faced with less old-fashioned kowtowing than I think I deserve, I like to appropriate pulp western moments. What would the Cowboy hero do? Drink a whiskey/kill; kiss/kill; shoot/kiss; ride/don’t ride; drift/stay… It makes things so much more interesting. And simple. 

Along with the prized back cover copy of the 1960 version of Gunman’s Gold by Max Brand (called the “Shakespeare of the Western range”) here are a few more epithets you might find appropriate. Use cautiously. 

[Why this is just a] TRAIL DRIVE TO HELL!

[insert name of town here] is BAD…devilish bad, dirty, evil, stinking.


DRIFT OR DIE [makes any decision easy]

[I’m just a] LONE MAN against RANGE RATS!

And I’ll leave you as I: RIDE LIKE HELL!

P.S. Hand and gun illustration from Lazy H Feud by Ed La Vanway, published by Dell in 1955, with cover illustration by the great Robert Stanley.

May 7, 2008

Outlaws 'R' Us

by cowboylands

Badlands, by Bennett Foster
cover illus. Norman Saunders
Bantam Books, late 40s, early 50s
from the collection of ES

“They Branded Him an Outlaw!” says it all. This dynamic man is the “little guy,” the proverbial clever tailor who can knock down an armed giant/gunman with a flip of his lariat. Go ahead and try it, any of you. Unless you’re a rodeo star, you’ll put your eye out.

The hero’s red shirt blazes with righteous indignation; his straight teeth are gritted with determination; his aim is sure. He will prevail against this gunman, although he himself has no gun. What bully would fire on an unarmed man? Easy! “Man branded outlaw” must mean western plot #3, in which the innocent hero is bullied by (take your pick) big business ranchers or greedy bankers.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, when faced with foreclosure and no recourse, the plucky hero in all of us could channel frustrated impotence and fight? And win? And let the big guy take the fall for once? But that’s not the only reason these tales were so alluring to the “little guys” of the forties and fifties: the hero not only won, but also got the girl and a ranch. His own spread! Meaning he could someday be a big business rancher or banker himself. So that’s how it goes:

If you can beat them, then join them.

Badlands is clean, crisp western penned by Bennett Foster, and this Bantam edition is crowned with a swirl of action from one of the great pulp and paperback illustrators, Norman Saunders. His compositions are always dynamic; this one’s Day-Glo vibrancy highlights a climactic moment in the book, when the hero of the story, in Laocoön-style composition (but without the grisly death), frees himself of his tormentor. Squint, and you’ll see the resemblance.
photo: Jean-Christophe Benoist, 2007
Saunders illustrated a wide range of paperback covers, specializing in vamps and virile men of noir and western genre. Like Stanley, Saunders often used himself as a model. He studied under Harvey Dunn in Minneaopolis (as did Norman Rockwell) and in the thirties and forties worked on pulps like True Confessions, then turned freelance. This fine illustration is one of ten western covers he did for Bantam.