Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: Firecreek

FIRECREEK is another of those James Stewart Westerns I somehow never saw. That's even more surprising when you consider that Henry Fonda, another favorite, is also in it.

Stewart plays a farmer who is also the part-time sheriff of the little town of Firecreek. Fonda is the leader of a group of hired guns who stop over in the town on their way from one range war to another. Their horses need rest, and Fonda has a bullet hole in him that needs tending to. We never really find out how he got shot, but it doesn't matter. The implication is that it happened in one of those range wars. Fonda and his men aren't outlaws, and that distinction is important in his mind. They are, however, brutal, ruthless, and accustomed to taking whatever they want. Slowly but surely, they begin to terrorize the town. Stewart tries to keep a lid on things in hopes that the hired guns will just move on before any real trouble breaks out, but you just know that's not going to happen.

There's not really a lot of action in FIRECREEK until the latter part of the movie. There's plenty of slow-burn tension, though, and that leisurely build-up just makes the final eruption of violence that much more effective. The cast is great. Fonda's fellow gunmen are played by Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam, Morgan Woodward, and James Best. The townspeople include Dean Jagger, Jay C. Flippen, and John Qualen. Inger Stevens plays the hotelkeeper's granddaughter who develops a tentative romance with Fonda when she tends to his bullet wound.

Stewart is good, but it's a role he could have played in his sleep. Fonda's character is more intriguing. He's not completely evil, like his character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but he's certainly not the flawed but still stalwart hero he is in so many of his movies. Watching these two iconic actors work together is a real joy, as you'd probably expect.

Not surprisingly, in many ways FIRECREEK plays like a big-budget episode of GUNSMOKE. It was written by Calvin Clements and directed by Vincent McEveety, who worked on many episodes of that TV series. You've also got Morgan Woodward and Louise Latham in the cast, and sometimes it seemed like they were in GUNSMOKE almost as much as James Arness. I can easily see Matt Dillon riding into Firecreek on his way back to Dodge City from somewhere and helping the local lawman put a stop to the hired guns' reign of terror. But then it wouldn't have been a movie, would it?

FIRECREEK's a good one. I enjoyed it a lot.

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