June 30, 2011

Angel and the Badman (1947)
Grade: 75/100

Director: James Edward Grant
Stars: John Wayne, Gail Russell, Harry Carey

What it's about. This Old West yarn has notorious gunman John Wayne critically injured from a mine claim dispute with rival bad man Bruce Cabot. Wayne has the good luck to encounter a Quaker family led by John Halloran, Irene Rich, and their delicious doe-eyed daughter Gail Russell.

Russell nurses Wayne back to health, and falls in love with him despite (or perhaps because of?) his infamous reputation. Wayne confounds the prediction of pessimistic doctor Tom Powers by showing promise as a peacemaker, compelling unfriendly neighbor rancher Paul Hurst to help irrigate the Quaker farms.

Alas, the temptations of Wayne's prior wild life prove too great, and he runs off with old buddy Lee Dixon for further misadventures certain to provoke deadly confrontations with Cabot and his hired gun.

How others will see it. John Wayne films from this era were often directed by John Ford, or in the case of Red River, Howard Hawks. Director Grant is much more obscure, and the studio, Republic, was known for 'B' westerns. The film made money, and drew general critical praise, but as usual for Westerns, it was ignored by Oscar.

Today, at imdb.com, the user reviews are surprisingly low. Women and older audiences like it moderately more than do men under 45. Perhaps the plot is too familiar, and they say that familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps they believe that Gail Russell is too good to be true. Then again, if the title is to believed, she is an angel.

How I felt about it. James Edward Grant spent most of his career writing movie scripts for John Wayne. Angel and the Badman is one of just two movies that he directed (the other film is the presumably forgettable Ring of Fire). Arguably, the present movie nearly directs itself: a veteran cast led by John Wayne, who is familiar territory.

It is clear that the first half of the movie is best. This is because it concentrates on the relationship between smoldering virginal brunette Gail Russell, and the clearly older but undeniably charismatic Duke. The question posed here is, can a leopard change his spots after all? Can Wayne transform from gunslinger, rustler, gambler, brawler, and carouser into a pacifist farmer, even with devoted Russell in tow as his surrogate conscience?

The answer is yes. We know this because we have seen permutations of this movie plot on many occasions, e.g. Witness. The other question the film poses also has a cinematically obvious answer. Pacifism is a successful response to violence, unless you are Sgt. York, especially if Marshal Harry Carey is on the job.

The ending is a bit hokey, but what really confuses me about this movie is the scene where Bruce Cabot kills cattlemen and runs off their herd. He in turn is thwarted by Wayne and sidekick Lee Dixon, who disarm and dismount Cabot, then take charge of the stampede.

Presumably, Wayne and Dixon sell the cattle to an unethical slaughterhouse, and spend that ill-gotten money on a night on the town. This makes Wayne a bad man, after all. It seems unlikely that Dixon would learn about Cabot's plan, but Wayne should then contact the Marshal, since Cabot ends up killing several cowboys. Since Wayne allowed Cabot to do this, their deaths are also on his hands.

I can't forgive Wayne for that crime. Russell can, apparently, though she does seem concerned about whether Wayne looked up his old cornsilk-haired showgirl. (He did.)