To get the backstory out of the way first: I've been miserably sick the last two days, spending most of my time asleep, or zoned out in front of the TV. Last night I nodded off in my recliner, TV still on, which is how I happened to catch the Encore Western Channel's middle-of-the-night broadcast of the 1957 Randolph Scott Western Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend.
This was a minor programmer cranked out by Warner Bros.' "B" unit, one of approximately ten thousand Westerns made in the fifties. Scott made quite a few at Warners, some of them directed by esteemed second-tier auteur Andre De Toth, even as his own production company made a series of highly-regarded, even lower-budgeted oaters under the masterful direction of Budd Boetticher.
Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend, on the other hand, is not written up much by cineastes. Most of the production staff came from the numerous TV Westerns of the era, and it was directed by Richard L. Bare, who had made a series of successful comedy shorts for Warners and would spend most of his career in TV. He's best known as the guy who directed virtually every episode of Green Acres, and one of his few subsequent theatrical films was the deathless masterwork I Sailed To Tahiti With An All-Girl Crew. (I mention this mostly because I love typing the words I Sailed To Tahiti With An All-Girl Crew.)
So not a movie with any pretensions, and not exactly an undiscovered gem. I only started watching because I was awake (and heavily medicated) and it was on, and I figured with a cast including Angie Dickinson, James Garner and Z-movie stalwart Myron Healey, how bad could it be?
Not bad at all, as it happens. It has just enough story to get you hooked, and while that story may not have any real surprises, it at least has a few novel twists, and the whole thing is told with ruthless efficiency. It opens with Scott, accompanied by two army buddies (Garner, in an early, surprisingly bland appearance, and mercilessly unfunny comedy relief Gordon Jones), coming home to his brother's homestead. Quick cut to said homestead, under attack by Indians (a nicely staged sequence), as the brother, his wife and kids attempt to fight back. But the ammo in their guns misfires, the brother is killed, and Scott determines to ride into the nearby town of Medicine Bend, to determine who is selling such shoddy goods. You'd think there'd be some time taken to mourn the brother/husband/father, but his memory is dismissed with a shrug. With a running time of less than ninety minutes, the plot has to keep moving forward.
The whole movie is like that. No inessential characters are introduced, nothing happens unless it advances the story. And Bare sure as hell doesn't waste time with such fency-schmency notions as subtext or moral ambiguity or even simple pictorial value. This is an exercise in competence, nothing more. Yet it works like a charm, because it remembers it has a story to tell, and by God it sucks you in.
What a pleasure it is to see something like that now, when American popcorn movies have forgotten such simple virtues. These days even the dumbest genre movies are bloated beyond all reason, determined to show off their production values and overpaid casts, and unfailingly stretch the thinnest premises to the snapping point. Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend (which, oddly enough, climaxes with a fistfight, not a shoot-out) may lack frills but it is also blessedly aware of just what it means to do. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to call it a good movie, but it is certainly watchable, and coming off a particularly dire season of Big Studio Christmas releases, it reminds us that used to be the bare minimum we'd expect from our entertainment, and how much less we've learned to accept.