Monday, May 14, 2012


“Brand of the Devil” qualifies as a second-rate horse opera about three heroic Texas Rangers working undercover. They are trying to flush a gang of rustlers out that have been preying on a defenseless female rancher.  “Randy Rides Alone” director Harry L. Fraser helmed this thoroughly ordinary nag from a screenplay by Elmer Clifton. If you’re counting, “Brand of the Devil” is the fourteenth entry in the long-running PRC Texas Rangers franchise.  PRC produced 22 of these epics.  Incidentally, not only was "Brand of the Devil" (** out of ****) the last Texas Rangers movie starring Jim Newill but also it was his final film.  This saddle-sore sagebrusher unfolds with this noble foreword: "Dedicated to the law officers of the Old West, who led the fight for law and order in the pioneer days of the country in 1880."  Actually, our heroes have a rather easy time turning the tables on these owlhoots. Essentially, the good guys know their quarry because they have been investigating him. Nevertheless, the chief adversary is wily enough to last 57 minutes.  Texas Rangers Jim Steele, Tex Wyatt, and Panhandle Perkins appear separately in the town of Willow Springs so they don't look like friends.  Fraser establishes the identity of the villain early on while our heroes align themselves with the rustlers-plagued, damsel-in-distress.   Nothing spectacular occurs in “Brand of the Devil.” The most unusual thing occurs when the villains frame the frontier gal for rustling. One of her own treacherous ranch hands dresses up in drag like Molly. The owner of the cattle being rustled spots him and jumps to a hasty conclusion.  Earlier, Tex and Jim encountered him, and he asked them to serve as witnesses that Molly was rustling.

“Brand of the Devil” opens as one of our heroes, Jim Steele (Jim Newill of “Spook Town”), attempts to infiltrate the gang of rustlers. The tight-lipped  chieftain, duded-up Jack Varno (I. Stanford Jolley of "Backlash"), refuses to hire him, even after Jim triumphed over an opponent in a bar room brawl.  Meanwhile, Panhandle Perkins (Guy Wilkerson of “To Kill a Mockingbird”) masquerades as "Branding Iron" McGee.  He claims he can forge branding irons that no rustlers can duplicate. Later, angry rancher Molly Dawson (Ellen Hall of "Voodoo Man") storms into the Gold Ace Saloon in Willow Springs.  She claims Duke Cutter (Reed Howes of "The Walking Hills") has purloined her white stallion. Molly starts throwing liquor bottles at the bar. Varno urges his henchmen to restrain Molly before she destroys his entire stock. Our gallant protagonists, Tex Wyatt (Dave O'Brien of “Reefer Madness”) and Steele, intervene for Molly.  Varno's gunmen tangle with Tex and Jim.  Adroitly, Jim blows the gun out of Panhandle's fist and then blasts out the saloon lights out. Jim is incredibly adept with his revolver. Molly, Tex, and Jim skedaddle into the night.  After Molly, Jim, and Tex have cleared out, Varno discovers a card with the mark of the devil's brand on it. Varno supervises a band of gunmen rustling beef in the territory.  The sight of the card unnerves Varno since the devil's brand serves as the emblem of his gang.  Moreover, only Varno and his three partners know about the symbol. The actual symbol is a white devil’s pitchfork against a black background. Mind you, the Texas Rangers aren’t advertising their official presence until they feel that it is necessary. Eventually, the villains to learn about their true identity, but not before Panhandle manages to infiltrate their ranks.  

The next morning our heroine rides back into Willow Springs. She locates her stolen white stallion along with its saddle in the stable where Duke had stashed him the night before for Varno to inspect. Panhandle watches with concern as Molly saddles her horse.  He suggests she contact the authorities.  "A lot of good the law does," Molly retorts defiantly, "Why in two months rustlers have taken most of my cattle.  I've complained and even written to the Rangers asking for help, and do they show up, they do not. From now on I'm taking the law into my own hands," Molly informs Panhandle as she appropriates her stolen horse.  "And if they want to stop me, just let them try."  No sooner has Molly ridden off on her horse than Varno and his henchmen pursue her.  Tex and Jim gallop up just as Varno and company have halted Molly.  "You two seem mighty interested in other people's business," Varno observes.  Varno's men invite Tex to look at the brand on the stallion. Tex admits the animal could belong to anybody because it has two brands. Molly pleads with our heroes. "There's not much anybody can do unless you can prove he is yours," Jim concedes.   "I'd like to give you two a friendly tip," Varno warns them.  "Keep out of my business, and you'll live longer." At this point, Tex and Jim have become Varno's mortal enemies. "You know," Tex states, "I didn't like you when I first saw you and right now I like you less because I think that horse belongs to Miss Dawson." Tex knocks Varno to the ground with a single blow when he tries to draw on him. Varno is pretty fed up with our heroes now and threatens them. "After that warning, we'll be sure to keep our backs away from you." Reluctantly, Tex allows Varno to ride away on Molly's steed.  Of course, Molly isn't happy with the outcome.  "You'll get your horse back," Jim assures her.  "You bet I will," she  vows,"but after what's just happened, I can see it won't be through you two."

 After our heroes have a rendezvous with Panhandle, they ride up onto a valley where they meet another fellow, Jeff Palin, who explains that his cattle are being rustled.  He gives Tex a set of field glasses to view the rustling.  From a distance, it appears that a woman is supervising the rustling when in fact it is Molly's ranch hand Henry Wilburn (Budd Buster) doing it.  Our heroes run down Wilburn and they give him to Panhandle. Meanwhile, the sheriff arrests Molly and puts her in jail.  Varno has a conference with his cronies and they pick cards to see who will "silence" Molly.  Bucko gets the task but cannot do it so Varno takes it.  Later that evening, Varno shoots into the jail cell that Molly occupies.  Afterward, Varno learns from the sheriff that Tex and Jim are Texas Rangers and they have taken Molly into custody.  Varno decides to set a trap for the Rangers and uses Panhandle to set it.  When our heroes show up at a cabin in the old cottonwoods, Bucko is waiting for them.  Tex and Jim go after the cattle while Panhandle rides off to protect Molly.  Bucko catches our heroes at the cabin while Varno and his henchmen chase Panhandle after he exits Molly's ranch. Varno leaves the chore of disposing of the Rangers to Bucko.  Up till now Bucko has been portrayed as a straightforward villain but he reveals his buffoonish nature when he is left alone with the Rangers to kill them. 

 Ostensibly, this low-budget, lightweight western is about defending the weak from the wolves.  Just as the heroes have standards, so do the villains.  When Varno asks his hired gunman Bucko Lynn (perennial western heavy Charles King) to "silence" Molly, Bucko balks.  He has no qualms about killing guys, but he draws the line at the opposite sex. Elmer Clifton's screenplay is satisfactory up until Bucko is left with Tex, Jim, and Panhandle tied up and ready to die.  The cretinous Bucko decides to strum a guitar while Jim warbles a lackluster version of "Old Paint."  So engrosses is Bucko in the melody that he keeps his eyes shut while Panhandle and Tex work their way out of their bonds and jump him.  Sadly, "Brand of the Devil" is available only as a scratchy public domain print.  This lame sagebrusher is strictly a potboiler, though Wilkerson is pretty funny. 


 Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro has made a name for himself playing psychos in memorable Martin Scorsese pictures, such as “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” and “Cape Fear.”  In “Top Gun” director Tony Scott’s thriller “The Fan,” De Niro creates another psycho but one with greater credibility.  As Gil Renard, De Niro plays a Willie Loman-like knife salesman whose obsession with baseball in general and the San Francisco Giants in particular takes him over the edge.  When the Giants play $40-million to obtain the services of Atlanta superstar slugger Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes of “White Men Can’t Jump”), Gil gives new meaning to fan worship.  He thinks that Bobby can solve all of the Giants’ problems.  During a radio call-in show, Gil defends Bobby from the barbs of catty talk show host Jewel Stern (Ellen Barkin).

The plot of “The Fan” (** OUT OF ****) cross-cuts between the lives of Gil and Bobby.  Gil’s sales sink to the point that he finds himself out of work with the knife company that his father formed.  Nevertheless, Gil’s descent into self-destruction isn’t the only one.  Bobby shows up in the Giants’ locker room and learns to his chagrin that he will suit up a number 33 instead of his lucky number 11.  As it turns out, rival Giants’ outfielder Primo (Benicio Del Toro of “License to Kill”) wears number 11 and refuses to give it up for less than a half-a-million bucks.  Their first day in the outfield, Primo and Bobby collide in persuit of a fly ball. During the collision, Bobby loses his good luck necklace with the number eleven on it.  Afterward, Bobby falls into a batting slump.  He starts striking out on a regular basis.  Before long the fans are booing him every time that he steps up to home plate.  Gil decides to give Bobby a little help, but this is the last thing that Bobby needs.

Veteran action director Tony Scott pulls out every cinematic trick to propel “The Fan” along to a thrilling conclusion.  Unfortunately, the film loses momentum in the last half hour because predictability paralyzes it. By that time, Gil has turned against Bobby.   The gratuitous, blood-squib squirting finale comes as less of a thrill and more of a thud in a film that is ultimately downbeat.  In other words, you won’t feel chipper after to watch it.  RoberDe Niro’s psycho character earns a little sympathy because his son in the film loves him. 

It is difficult for audiences to hate a villain who can elicit sympathy from another character.  Their troubled father-son relationship shows a human side of De Niro’s Gil Renard so he never degenerates completely into a toxically overblown monster.  Instead, he is a man who paranoia and poor luck undermines him and takes him into the danger zone.  Wesley Snipes brings a virile athletic presence to the role of Bobby Rayburn.  Ellen Barkin hovers on the sidelines as a tabloid-minded sports announcer, but her role appears to have gotten lost on the editing room floor.  Sorry, guys, no nudity here either. “The Fan” is a must see for De Niro fans, but if you’re not up for foul language and the grim side of the human psyche, this R-rated effort may be out of your league.