Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Duel at Silver Creek

Don Siegel's The Duel at Silver Creek is a sturdy Western actioner, a minor but enjoyable B-movie built around rugged location shooting and a good amount of fast-paced action and gunplay. A gang of claim-jumpers led by the slimy Rod Lacy (Gerald Mohr) is tearing through the West, forcing the owners of small mines to sign over their deeds before filling their victims with bullets so they can never be identified. They terrorize the small mines scattered around the area, until they run into some trouble at the mine belonging to Luke Cromwell (Audie Murphy) and his father; the gang kills Luke's dad, but the quick-drawing kid takes down three of them, causing the rest to flee. The film then shifts its focus away from Cromwell, turning instead to "Lightning" Tyrone (Stephen McNally), the Marshal of a nearby town, who goes out with a posse after the claim-jumpers, and while he's gone also loses his own father figure, an older lawman who's shot in the back while the marshal is out of town. When Tyrone returns from his unsuccessful jaunt after the outlaws, sporting an arm wound that has crippled his ordinarily formidable skills with a gun, he finds his friend dead and a new mining operation set up in town. He also has a new love interest, the sexy and deadly Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), whose "brother" Rod is the secret leader of the claim-jumpers. Opal's introduction is certainly memorable: she appears as a fine lady in an ornate outfit, volunteering to help nurse a man who could potentially be a witness against the claim-jumpers. But when everyone's out of the room, she strangles the man with his own handkerchief, while Siegel holds a tilted Dutch angle closeup looking up at her face, her pretty features expressionless, her placid beauty hiding an inner evil.

Opal is contrasted against small-town beauty Dusty (Susan Cabot), the good girl who's waiting for Tyrone at home — but who he thinks of as just a little sister. Enter Cromwell back into the picture, sporting a new nickname (the Silver Kid) and a hard new attitude. The scheming Opal tries to set the Kid and Tyrone up for a gun battle, hoping to get the marshal out of the way, but instead Tyrone makes the younger man his deputy. At this point, the static melodramatics of the small town threaten to bog the film down, as too much time is spent with Tyrone courting Opal while the Kid makes a play for Dusty — and in the background, Lacy and his gang scheme against them all, employing local hoods like the inventively monikered but kind of lame Johnny Sombrero (Eugene Iglesias) and Tinhorn Burgess (a cigar-chomping bit turn for Lee Marvin). In between the rousing action of the opening and the extended climactic shootout, the film meanders around aimlessly, stretching out its meager plot to fill time between action set pieces.

That said, it's fun to watch the two girls fleshing out their cardboard cutout roles, with Cabot projecting a feisty, frontier gal energy and Domergue opting for sleepy seductiveness. And it's equally fun to watch Marvin make the most of his small role, thrusting his thin face forward with his cigar jutting forward even more, as though trying to imprint his visage in the minds of anyone who watches. This scenery-chewing from the sidelines fortunately helps distract from the boring leads, especially McNally, whose soporific narration certainly doesn't help in dragging the film out of its roughest patches. Murphy, with his usual stoic manner and baby face, has a certain low-key appeal, but he's more of a negative presence than anything else: one feels the absence of emotion in him, the absence of acting, even when he witnesses his father being killed.

If the film falters throughout its mid-section, it picks up again for a viscerally satisfying and intelligently filmed climax, in which Tyrone, the Kid and their posse head out after the claim-jumpers to stop them for good and rescue the kidnapped Dusty in the process. There is much to admire in the economy and elegance of Siegel's action filmmaking, in the exciting chase and gunfight sequences at the beginning and end of the film. His set pieces make excellent use of distance, of the space between combatants. This is true not only of the traditional Western main street shootout — shot from behind the back of one of the fighters, the perspective emphasizing the empty space that simultaneously separates and connects them — but of the much more complex trajectories of the final battle scene. When the Marshal is chasing Lacey during the climactic fight, Siegel's wide shots accentuate the space between the pursuer and his quarry, as well as the line-of-sight threads connecting them, the paths along which bullets can travel back and forth. Their showdown takes place not at close range but across a large distance, the two men laying low and warily maintaining their cover and their separation.

The geography is what really drives the action: Siegel is unusually attentive to how the characters get from point A to point B, how the angles of the gunfire are distinct for a gang member hiding high up on a rocky outcropping or a deputy crouched beneath a wagon. This is what makes Siegel's action sequences so thrilling and potent, the impression that everything is in its right place and that complex trajectories are being plotted out in the air, which is thick with bullets. Siegel's maybe a bit like Budd Boetticher in this respect, though unlike Boetticher the precision of his staging is largely confined here to the fight scenes. The violence in this film is frantic and seemingly chaotic, and yet also carefully balanced, every motion carefully planned — like the way the marshal rides off in pursuit of Lacy, sending a bullet at a diagonal towards a henchman on the way. The impressive staging of the action sequences, along with some eye-catching supporting performances and the natural color beauty of the landscapes where these battles take place, redeem the film from being just another mediocre B-Western.


Sam Juliano said...

I agree that the middle section does 'falter' but I also believe this be a solid B western, and Siegel's best film after INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE SHOOTIST. Of course DIRTY HARRY fans would object. Yes, the parallel on that one tendency with Budd Boetticher is right, and the 'geography does drive teh action.' I saw this years ago, but I remembered it well. Very nice choice here, and fine piece.

Anonymous said...

I also agree the middle is a bit slow but you are wrong about Audie's performance. If anything the director holds him back. Mcnally is definitly a drag and action scenes are the only ones he is good at. Audie deserves much more recognition for his acting ability and it's a shame he wasn't offered better parts. He worked with a lot of tv actors who later had claims to fame but never gave him a chance in their prodictions.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam.

Anon: I do like Murphy. I think he's quite good in, for example, No Name on the Bullet and Boetticher's great Cimarron Kid. But here he's an almost-total blank slate; he barely even shows any emotion after his father's death, seemingly the pivotal event of the movie for him. Anyway, it's obviously not a particularly sophisticated movie so it hardly matters. The real focus is on the action showcases.

Anonymous said...

silver creek,i'm crazy from old westerns