But now to the pièce de résistance. It is always risky to designate as a personal favorite a movie not seen in decades. The very designation is inherently slippery. Such a movie is asked to hold the hill against the challenges of dozens, hundreds, a thousand. And any one movie can do only so much. No one movie can civilize a desert island. So let me first remove the burdensome designation and then say simply that I was amazed at how well I remembered every foot of From Hell to Texas, that I have now watched the DVD of it three times, and that the movie comes as close to perfection, in a certain bygone Hollywood tradition, as a movie can come. Admittedly it falls short of perfection when the hero, to appease the attacking Comanches, cuts loose two horses tied to the back of the rumbling covered wagon, and then in the next scene rides into Socorro astride one of the horses he had cut loose. (Is there a missing scene that might account for this? The running time of the DVD comes up a few minutes shy of the official 100.)
A manhunt Western, plainly titled Manhunt in Great Britain, it begins in medias res, with six riders, behind a shielding herd of horses, descending upon a lone cowpoke and his lame mount. The cowpoke, pumping his Winchester into the ground, turns the herd against the riders, one of whom is trampled to the sill of death’s door and not long afterward crosses the threshold. It all gets sorted out in short order. The cowpoke has been blamed for the knifing death of a man at a schoolhouse dance. The casualty of the stampede was the dead man’s brother. A third brother remains standing, a punkish Dennis Hopper. Their father, R.G. Armstrong in the performance of his life, is a self-made land baron, first name of Hunter, who now heads up the avenging posse: “That saddle tramp has come close to washing my mark out.” We also find out firsthand that this saddle tramp, while he wears no six-gun, is a crack shot with a rifle.
Of the initial killing we have only his account — that the victim fell on his own knife — and we have no cause to disbelieve him. He’s as decent a man as ever rode the West, a soft-speaking, Bible-reading pacifist who has been searching since his mother’s death for his long-lost father, striving always to be guided by the Ten Commandments. If a nubile tomboy impudently strips off in front of him to bathe in the river, he’ll demurely turn his back. Don Murray, a conscientious objector during the Korean War, is excruciatingly touching in the part (seldom more so than when he is introduced to a California orange: “What do I do with it?”), and the enigmatic convent-bred Diane Varsi, already twice divorced as a teenager in real life and soon to be a contract-breaking Hollywood dropout, is hardly less touching as the tomboy on the brink of womanhood. Their mutual longing in their reunion scene has a nakedness that practically cries out for an “R” rating.
As events unfold, infused with the American love of the underdog and hatred of the tyrant (“Wherever this man goes,” puzzles our Hunter, “somebody turns a hand to help him. They don’t even know him. Why?”), we can see the sowing of the seeds of a local legend, and yet nothing is overblown or overdrawn as it’s happening, nothing outgrows its moment. It just keeps moving steadily ahead, the right shot in the right place for the right duration, with nice rhythmical variation in angle and distance, nothing fancy, nothing stressed too heavily, never even one true closeup in the entire movie, and any extra shots noticeably retarding the tempo and concentrating the attention: as when, in an ingeniously strategic gunfight indelibly punctuated with the sound of cocking rifles, an ambusher forces the hero in self-defense to violate the Sixth Commandment (“That don’t pleasure me none,” he deflects congratulations), or when, immediately thereafter, he can’t bring himself to kill the ambusher’s tag-along horse. The questing fatherless hero gets a taste of different types of father figure — the merciless punisher; the benevolent protector, a folksy Chill Wills, who looms as a potential father-in-law; and lastly the padre, earthly delegate of the Heavenly Father, who can show him to his natural father’s grave — but the psychology is stressed no more heavily than anything else. It’s present, if only in passing. This is a self-effacing, straight-shooting, ammo-conserving style of filmmaking I treasure and mourn: picking the shots, making them count. Conciseness refined into classicism, craft elevated into art.
I can recollect — I don’t expect you will — that I wrote some years ago about the melodramatic boiling point when the fugitive, horrified that the prospective father-in-law has taken three bullets for him, suddenly stops running and reverses course to confront his final three pursuers in the streets of Socorro. The remarkable upshot is a shootout that lasts over five minutes, fully satisfying as a piece of action filmmaking, a working of angles, a covering of space, a shifting of positions, a teetering of advantage, and yet — you would never imagine in an adult Western — no one gets killed! What the shootout finally settles is the superior humanity of the hero, to the diminishment and mortification of the black hat. The latter’s beseeching effort to save face in the denouement (a beautiful speech beautifully delivered, almost poetically: “Long after we’re dead, you and me both, they’ll be telling this story. And they’ll tell it in a dozen different ways. None of them will favor me...”) is the icing on top. I would not want to have bitten the dust without getting to see this movie again. And again and again.
No outward clue, by the way, as to the provenance of the print: the website of the Fox Movie Channel, as I discovered, doesn’t have this title in their database. The crisp, clean image, it ought to be noted, was properly letterboxed for the opening credits only, then switched to a modified letterbox with a tall enough slot to fit a Christmas package through. Reason enough, perhaps, to downgrade it to a “B.”
But I would invite you to go to yammeringmagpie.com in search of your own long-lost favorites. If they send you Secret of the Incas instead, don’t hesitate to tell them you’re a personal friend of the film critic on the nation’s largest alternative free weekly.