Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Denver and Rio Grande (1951)

Another day, another Western! I followed up last night's viewing of NIGHT PASSAGE (1957) with DENVER AND RIO GRANDE (1951), a Paramount film available on DVD in a nice print from Olive Films.

DENVER AND RIO GRANDE is one of three Westerns collaborated on by star Edmond O'Brien and director Byron Haskin which were released in 1951, the others being WARPATH and SILVER CITY. SILVER CITY, like DENVER AND RIO GRANDE, is available from Olive Films, while WARPATH can be purchased for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

DENVER AND RIO GRANDE isn't a top-of-the-line Western, but fans of the genre should find it a pleasant time-passer, worthwhile for a good lead actor, beautiful scenery, and well-staged action sequences.

In DENVER AND RIO GRANDE O'Brien plays Jim Vesser, who acts as the righthand man for General William Palmer (Dean Jagger) in the construction of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line. Sterling Hayden plays McCabe, who constantly tries to sabotage the Denver and Rio Grande in favor of another railroad.

Laura Elliot (later known as Kasey Rogers) plays the General's secretary, who erroneously believes that Vesser killed her brother; she funnels information to McCabe, believing he'll mete out justice to her brother's killer, but is slow to realize she's actually being used to endanger others and take out the entire railroad line.

This 89-minute movie is somewhat slow to get going, but it builds to an exciting conclusion which includes station-by-station gun battles, railroad blockades, and an absolutely spectacular head-on collision of two train engines. In these days of CGI, one really appreciates watching such a stunning action sequence, which was obviously done with real trains in only one take. As the saying goes, it's worth the price of admission.

The movie's Colorado scenery is gorgeous, with only a couple "exterior" soundstage sequences inserted into the midst of all the excellent location work. The movie was filmed in Technicolor by the great Ray Rennahan, an Oscar winner for GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and BLOOD AND SAND (1941). The film's beautiful look, with the majority of the scenes taking place in the great outdoors, is a strong factor in its favor.

It's doubtless no secret that I've become quite a fan of Edmond O'Brien in the last year or so, as I've gradually worked my way through a significant number of his films. I really like O'Brien as a Western star and wish he'd made more films in this genre. The unassuming but very entertaining black and white Western COW COUNTRY (1953) was a favorite discovery last year.

Although there's not much depth or backstory to his character, O'Brien has a better part and more screen time than Sterling Hayden, who I've usually liked quite well in Westerns such as ARROW IN THE DUST (1954), TOP GUN (1955), and SHOTGUN (1955). Unfortunately Hayden is pretty much wasted here, with virtually no character motivation, other than greed, and little interesting to do. He simply serves the function of leading his men in attack after attack, only to be beaten back by O'Brien, Jagger, J. Carrol Naish and crew. The scene where karma catches up with Hayden is almost as spectacular as the engines colliding!

Lyle Bettger (NO MAN OF HER OWN) is predictably slimy as Hayden's righthand man. Paul Fix and Zasu Pitts are mildly amusing as a train engineer and camp cook enjoying a tentative courtship. The cast also includes Tom Powers, Robert Barrat, Don Haggerty, and James Burke.

The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix. The movie was also released on VHS.

The film can be streamed from Netflix or purchased for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

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