Sunday, October 5, 2008


"Ride Beyond Vengeance" (**1/2 out of ****)is a gritty, violent, but far from unsavory frontier western revenge saga starring Chuck Connors that could almost be mistaken for a Spaghetti western, except for its polished production values, its humane characters, and its offbeat ending. Hollywood wasn't making westerns like this until a few years later after the Spaghettis had taken violence to more intense, savage levels. In fact, in 1968, Chuck Connors followed a stream of American leading men who migrated to Europe to cash in on the Spaghetti western craze and played in a forgotten but rip-snorting little shoot'em up called "Kill Them All and Come Back Alive."

Derived from Al Dewlen's novel "Night of the Tiger," "Ride Beyond Vengeance" begins in the contemporary Texas town of Cold Iron when an exhausted census taker (James MacArthur of CBS-TV's "Hawaii 5-0") visits a cafe and points out to the man behind the counter (Arthur O'Connell of "The Poseidon Adventure") that three names are popular with the town's folk. The narrator explains the relevance of those names and links them to a legend about a vengeful man who went on a rampage in Cold Iron when it was a frontier berg. Veteran TV director Bernard McEveety, who helmed episodes on virtually every major TV western series, including "Gunsmoke," "Branded," "Laredo," "Bonanza," and "Rawhide," takes us back to the past as O'Connell begins his narration about the turbulent events that rocked Cold Iron to its roots.

The first set of flashbacks open with rugged Chuck Connors sporting a shaggy beard and riding a horse through the wilderness. We learn that he had left his hometown eleven years and also had deserted his pretty wife. During that decade he lived as a buffalo hunter and earned $17-thousand dollars shooting and killing the beasts for their hides. On his way back to Cold Iron, Jonas (Chuck Connors of "The Big Country") spots a campfire. Although he finds nobody at the camp, he helps himself to the coffee and then notices a roped calf nearby. At that point, things take a turn for the worst. Three men emerge from the brush and get the drop on him. Crazy, pistol-toting Elwood Coates (Claude Atkins of "Return of the Seven"), handsome, well-dressed Johnsy Boy Hood (Bill Bixby of CBS-TV's "My Favorite Martian"), and local banker Brooks Durham (Michael Rennie of "The Day The Earth Stood Still") accuse Jonas of rustling cattle. Naturally, our innocent protagonist denies their allegation. Coates wants to string up Jonas. Brooks persuades them not to hang Jonas, but Johnsy Boy devises something rather sadistic instead of hanging. He wields a branding iron and sears a T-shape mark into Jonas' chest and our hero passes out. McEveety shows us the branding iron from Jonas's point of view so that the glowing end is hovering in our faces.

We learn from another flashback in writer/producer Andrew J. Fenady's screenplay that Jonas came from the wrong side of the tracks and married a town girl, Jessie (TV actress Kathryn Hays), despite the protests of her wealthy mother. Jessie lied to her Aunt Gussie (Ruth Warrick of "Citizen Kane") and told her that she was pregnant in order to wed Jonas. Eventually, Jonas gets fed up with living with his aunt. He hates the fact that he cannot find a decent job and must do the work of a boy for the pay of a boy. Jonas tries to convince Jessie to leave her aunt and start life anew, but she refuses to abandon her ailing aunt. Jonas rides off and Jessie discovers that her wealthy mother was up to her ears in debt and Jessie has to rely on Durham to help her survive.

Eventually, Jonas recovers from the branding and discovers that his $17-thousand dollars is missing. He rides into Cold Iron and finds Johnsy Boy, follows him into the brush, and threatens to brand him as Johnsy had branded him. At the last minute, as Jonas is about to relent, Johnsy Boy seizes the branding iron, brands himself and disappears howling mad insane into the wilderness. Later, Elwood learns about the missing money and he tries to kill Brooks. Elwood gets into a knuckle-busting fight with Jonas and they destroy the local saloon before Jonas shoots him. Brooks confesses to the townspeople that he stole Jonas' money. When everything is said and done, Jonas lets Brooks live and leaves the town and his wife again.

Director Bernard McEveety must have relished this opportunity to make a grim, unrelenting western as opposed to the family friendly western fare that he had done for prime-time television. Everybody uses some profanity, primarily "Hell" and "bastard," and Fenady's flavorful dialogue is rift with interesting slang. "Ride Beyond Vengeance" isn't exactly memorable, but it is gripping throughout its 101 minutes and boils over with melodrama. Bill Bixby and Claude Atkins shine as venomous villains. Atkins' ruffian character carries on a conversation with an imaginary character called 'Whiskey Man.' McEveety stages a standard knock down, drag-out brawl in a saloon between Atkins and Connors that was a little rougher than usual. The supporting cast is almost too good for this minor western. In the process seasoned Hollywood celebrities like Joan Blondell and Gloria Grahame are squandered in peripheral roles as is Frank Gorshin who has one big scene where he describes the grisly death of Bill Bixby's character, particularly how Johnsy Boy's guts resembled blue snakes. The atmospheric title song by Glenn Yarbrough has some catchy lyrics. Writer/producer Fenady went on to produce the John Wayne epic "Chism," but "Ride Beyond Vengeance" surpasses "Chism" in terms of its violence and its villains. Most but not all of the action takes place in a Hollywood western set that looks too polished for it to be a Spaghetti western. Nevertheless, Connors makes a convincing, sympathetic hero who loves cats. Not bad for its kind.

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