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Sunday, October 5, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE WALKING HILLS'' (1949)

"Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" director John Sturges made his first foray into the western movie genre with this modern day western hybrid about a back room poker game that evolves into a feverish search for lost treasure in the desert. Lean, mean Randolph Scott heads up a sturdy, first-class cast in this atmospheric outdoors yarn that features John Ireland, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Ella Raines, Arthur Kennedy, Russell Collins, and Jerome Courtland. Comparisons between "The Walking Hills" (*** out of ****) and John Huston's timeless classic "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" are inevitable, but the two movies differ drastically. Drawing comparisons between "The Walking Hills" and S. Sylvan Simon's "Lust for Gold" (1949) with Glenn Ford and Ida Lupino is more appropriate. Both films went into release in 1949, but "The Walking Hills" came out in March while "Lust for Gold" premiered in June. Interestingly, Edgar Buchanan appeared in both releases. Western novelist Alan Le May, who wrote both "The Searchers" and "The Unforgiven," penned the screenplay with one-time only scenarist Virginia Roddick providing additional dialogue.

"The Walking Hills" opens with a foreword: "A border town—like so many in the Southwest it's split in two by the international line and has two names. Calexico in America and Mexicali on the Mexican side." In the first ten minutes of this concise little epic, Sturges and Le May introduce us to the chief characters and the premise. Dave Wilson (William Bishop of "Coroner Creek") appears on the streets of Mexicali dressed handsomely in a coat, trousers, and a Stetson. He is minding his own business as he steps beneath the awning of a fa├žade of businesses facing the street. He lingers in front of a hamburger joint where he spots Chris Jackson (Ella Raines of "Cry 'Havoc'") flipping burgers. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Dave and Chris, two men watch them from across the street. The first one is a detective, Frazee (John Ireland of "Red River"), and the second one is King (Houseley Stevenson of "Four Faces West"). Later, we learn that Dave is on the run as the result of a card game in a hotel room where a man died in a fight with Dave. Dave thought the man was drawing a pistol from his jacket. He struck the man. The man toppled out of his chair and fell on a beer bottle and the bottle punctured his heart. Gee, they must have had some pretty stout beer bottles back in 1949. Anyway, Dave has been on the lam and Frazee and King has been shadowing him since he left Denver. King fears that Dave will slip across the border before Frazee can buttonhole him, but Frazee isn't so sure that Dave is their prey. King argues that the look on Chris' face when she saw him convinced him that Dave was the guilty party.

Anyway, Dave wanders over to the Tequila Bar & Grill and spots a horse in a trailer and learns from the driver of the truck, Cleve (Charles Stevens of "Last Train from Gun Hill"), that the animal belongs to Jim Carey. Cleve explains that Jim is ". . . waiting for his mare to be cleared through quarantine." The barkeep tells Dave about a penny ante poker game in the back room. Dave enters the game as Willy (Edgar Buchanan of "Texas"), an unshaven prospector, observes that Jim Carey (Randolph Scott of "Comanche Station") dreams of breeding a winning race horse. Willy resumes telling a story about lost treasure when Dave sits down. "Like I was saying there was five wagon in that train and they headed right into them walking hills." We learn that the walking hills are sand dunes that provided a short cut through the desert. According to Willy, this happened about a 100 years ago and the wagon train disappeared forever and nobody with it was ever seen or heard from again. Willy elaborates that the wagon train made up a gold shipment coming out of Mexico loaded with upwards of $5-million dollars. Jim remarks that everybody knows about the lost wagon train.

A young, footloose cowboy, Johnny (Jerome Courtland of "Cripple Creek"), agrees with Willy that the walking hills pose a menace to anybody that dares to travel through them. Recently, he rode through them and his horse stumbled on a wagon wheel and threw him. Johnny observes that the wheel was a skinny, narrow wheel, not like the big-wheeled borax wagons or the wide-tired kind that are ideal for desert wayfaring. Silence hangs over the room and everybody exchanges glances. Frazee has joined them, and he asks Johnny if he could find his way back to where he fell. Initially, Johnny is puzzled, "Hey, what's the matter with you guys? Did I pull something?" Jim refuses to let anybody leave the room and Frazee makes the attendant Bibb (Russell Collins of "Bad Day at Black Rock") lock the door to the room. They decide to embark as a group to scour the desert where Johnny fell off his horse. They are paranoid that somebody will leak their discovery so they leave later that evening so as not to attract attention and ride into the desert. Temporarily, Frazee loses interest in his quarry, Dave, because a million dollars appeals more to his sense of greed.

The rest of "The Walking Hills" takes place in the desert amid the shifting sand dunes as the group of men struggle to locate the gold while weathering a vicious sandstorm and their own greed. Le May characterizes each individual so that they stand apart from each other. Scott plays his usual, tight-lipped hero. In the end, three of them die and Dave and Chris ride off. Although they don't find the $5 million in gold, our heroes locate a saddle bag with $10-thousand to split amongst themselves. There are a couple of surprises and Sturges maintains a modicum of tension throughout this suspenseful, 78-minute, black & white saga.

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