Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Riding Shotgun

Riding Shotgun is a low-key, static Randolph Scott Western, obviously inspired by High Noon, casting Scott as stoic stagecoach guard Larry Delong, facing down an entire town who are not only unwilling to help him in his fight against a vicious gang of outlaws, but who actually believe that Delong is part of the gang. Delong is lured away from a stagecoach by the promise of finally catching up to his most hated enemy, Dan Marady (James Millican), who killed Delong's sister and nephew many years before. Marady's men separate Delong from the stagecoach and ambush him, tying him up to deal with him later — why don't movie villains ever do things the obvious way and just shoot a guy when they have the chance? — and then heading off to rob and shoot up the coach. Their plan is to use the stagecoach robbery as a way of stirring up a nearby town into sending out a huge posse, thus leaving the town (and its bank) relatively undefended for an even bigger heist. Of course, they don't reckon on Delong getting free and heading into town, with full knowledge of their evil plan — which they tell him before tying him up, like James Bond villains spilling their guts before concocting some delayed method of killing off the hero, leaving him plenty of time to escape.

The film's premise is quite simple, but its script keeps making loops like this, taking ridiculous twists and turns, endlessly delaying to stretch out the film's running time. If there's an obvious action for someone to take, be sure the script will dedicate a long and torturous speech to why it can't be done that way. If there's a smart and reasonable way for a character to act, be sure he'll do the exact opposite as soon as possible. This isn't a script; it's a long and convoluted explanation for why all these people are behaving so stupidly and unrealistically.

Once Delong arrives in town, he finds that everyone there suspects him, for no good reason, of being involved with the Marady gang, and they don't believe his story about the impending bank robbery. Instead, he has to hole up in an empty cantina, surrounded on all sides by the dithering townspeople, who can't decide whether they want to storm the place and string him up or simply keep him contained until the sheriff returns. What they wind up doing, mostly, is waiting... and waiting... and waiting... and waiting. This film copies the High Noon formula of a delayed climax, an hour of slow build-up heading towards a fast, violent denouement. But director André De Toth is saddled with a horrible script, and in any event he doesn't have Fred Zinnemann's precise, mathematical feel for slow-burning suspense. The film's lengthy middle section is slow, static and stagey, a long dull stretch that alternates between Delong sitting quietly in the bar and the townspeople gathering outside and debating in circles.

The film is also dragged down by Scott's voiceover, which is basically a textbook example of the horrible misuse of narration, the kind of voiceover that gives the technique in general its bad name. At the start of the film, Delong's resigned mood and simple, laconic phrases create the impression of an oater noir, the kind of film where the down-on-his-luck hero recounts the tragedies that befell him, speaking directly to the audience in a conversational tone. Later, however, Scott's voiceover is superfluous, simply describing or explaining actions that are readily apparent onscreen and narrating his inner state when his performance should have communicated what he was feeling. It's distracting, and recurs throughout the film. De Toth leans on it as a crutch, a way of inserting some drama into his static setups: there's nothing much happening onscreen for much of the film, so Scott's voiceover at least provides something to pay attention to besides the endless bickering of the townspeople.

The film is mostly a dud, though despite the limping script and the general dullness of the action, De Toth does craft some interesting images. He favors long shots, like the striking bird's eye view that shows Delong chasing one of Marady's men through rocky hills towards the beginning of the film, or the rooftop shot of the portly deputy Tub Murphy (Wayne Morris) walking through the center of the town towards Delong's hiding spot. Tub provides some of the film's comic relief, as a lawman who's continually sneaking away from the action to eat at the local restaurant. The film also gets some comic mileage out of the cantina owner Fritz (Fritz Feld), whose stock sniveling, treacherous coward routine is tiresome, but who inexplicably keeps switching back and forth between speaking Spanish, English and German, a nearly surrealist touch that's a welcome diversion from the film's long dead stretches.

And there are plenty of them. Even the final shootout is ineptly staged, shot from odd angles around the interior of the town bank, and mostly consists of people scurrying back and forth aimlessly, shooting at and punching each other, while Delong hides in a corner. It's like a precursor to today's Bourne-style rapidly cut fight scenes, except De Toth manages to capture a similar messy obscurity not by cutting but by placing his camera at the worst possible angles to capture the action in any real way. It's a good thing that Delong's plan for foiling the bank robbers involves cutting the straps on their saddles so they fall comically off their horses while trying to get away — this humorous conclusion at least seems to acknowledge just how silly and slight the film is as a whole.

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