Sunday, December 14, 2008
The Cimarron Kid
The Cimarron Kid is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable Western with a gang of surprisingly sympathetic outlaws at its core. It tweaks the usual good-man-gone-bad trope by having the young Bill Doolin (Audie Murphy), after being driven to a life as an outlaw by bullying railroad cop Sam Swanson (David Wolfe), fully embrace his new outlaw status despite some lingering reservations. Dubbing himself "the Cimarron Kid," Bill falls in with the gang of train and bank robbers who he had previously been falsely accused of riding with. Bill is basically a decent guy, and would love nothing better than to settle into a life as a cattle rancher — particularly once he meets the lovely farmer's daughter and tough ranch gal Carrie (Beverly Tyler) and realizes that he might have something to live for. Nevertheless, he feels he has no choice but an outlaw's life, and he surrounds himself with a gang of men who are equally sympathetic. They're all robbers, and killers when they need to be, but there's something familial about their setup; they're bonded together by real affection and tenderness for one another.
Originally a gang of brothers who are mostly killed during a botched bank job, the leftovers of the gang, now led by Bill, retain a close-knit clannish mentality. They live more like a family than a gang of robbers. There's the lanky, taciturn Bitter Creek (James Best) and his Spanish girlfriend Rose (Yvette Duguay), who loves him and is loyal to him even though she wishes they could have a better life. There's also their black stable hand Stacey (Frank Silvera), a family man who is treated as their equal even though he doesn't actually participate in the heists. The only problem of the bunch is Red Buck (Hugh O'Brian), a hothead who's the only one of them who seems content as an outlaw, whose only ambition really is to be the biggest, baddest outlaw of all. All the rest of them want only to be free, to have enough money to be rid of this life on the run. They exist as a family, taking care of each other, everybody chipping in, even the feisty, playful Rose, who gathers information for the jobs.
Director Budd Boetticher, who always seems to inject a morally engaged perspective into his Westerns, is concerned not only with the action of this story — though there are plenty of beautifully executed gunfights — but with the internal battles of his characters, particularly Bill. He stages the scenes between Bill and Carrie in order to emphasize the way she tugs on his conscience, as though her very presence is a gravitational force pulling him away from his outlaw life. In one of the best of these shots, Carrie stands in the foreground, looking at an oblique angle past the camera, while in the background Bill lies injured and out of focus, listening to her. Tyler forcefully overacts these scenes, and she's more appealing to look at than she is as an actress, but Boetticher's blocking and framing conveys the essential point anyway. She represents earnest decency for Bill, so distinct from his outlaw world that even when they're in the same shot together they seem to be in completely different spaces.
The film is undeniably at its best though in its action showcases, which are always inventively staged. Boetticher likes to shoot at slightly slanted angles down long corridor-like spaces, using objects caught in the foreground to emphasize the sense of distance. When the law, led by Swanson and the noble marshal John Sutton (Leif Erickson), ambushes Bill's gang, Boetticher shoots the gang's ride into town by setting up at the end of the street, the signs and front porch for a local inn partially obscuring the view down the street. The scene as a whole pivots around the use of the long street, with lawmen blocking off both ends and the outlaws trapped in the middle. The battle soon moves into a nearby train yard instead, where the central bar of a train turntable becomes the focal point of the action. Boetticher's camera frequently looks over the shoulders of the gunmen, peering through smoke and over the edges of the train as it spins around. The scene is all angles and obstructions, emphasizing the act of aiming a gun and the trajectories of bullets; there is a precise geometry to Boetticher's action here, depending as it does on the tight arc of the train as it spins on the turntable, and the paths of the outlaws and posse as they attempt to outflank one another.
Trains of course play a crucial role in the film in general, and at several points Boetticher's setups are reminiscent of the world's most famous (and most fundamental) train film, the Lumière brothers' L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat; again, those slanted angles emphasizing the linearity of the action. Boetticher's geometrical precision also shows through in his use of two virtually identical scenes that take place in a barn, involving gun barrels peeking through the slats of the horse stalls. The first time, Bill and his gang have their guns trained on Marshal Sutton, and the second time it's Bill himself who is in the crosshairs. But there's more than just an ironic reversal to this doubling, and the scene's recurrence at pivotal points in the story serves to make a moral point. This mirroring proves that Bill has been correct in his better instincts, that his refusal to kill without necessity is not only not his undoing, but is in fact the one thing that ultimately saves and redeems him. This is a profoundly moral Western, but also a profoundly entertaining and exciting one, a shoot-em-up with a brain as well as a lot of bullets.