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What’s New in Old Movies: February 2024

by Don Stradley


One would think that February would be bristling with new Blu-ray releases to coincide with Valentine’s Day or Black History Month. Instead, distributors of physical media are focusing on the usual collector’s fare, with a surprising amount of Westerns coming to us. So lets take a look at some Westerns!


Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) isn’t considered a classic of the genre, yet it was an important film in its day. At the time, Westerns were not earning as much as they once had at the box office.  The genre was considered tired, and most Western titles were being relegated to B-movies and television. Yet Gunfight made so much money for Paramount that it proved the style wasn’t dead.


It’s the basic tale of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas) putting aside their differences to take on some bad guys on the dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona. It is not especially accurate as far as history, but when has that stopped a movie from being made? The film’s two leads, for instance, were considerably older than the characters they played – Douglas and Lancaster were 41 and 43, while Holliday and Earp were 30 and 33. Moreover, the gunfight of the title purportedly lasted only 30 seconds according to Wild West historians, but is stretched out to five minutes in the movie. Regardless, the film garnered a Golden Laurel award for the year’s best action drama, while Lancaster earned a Laurel as Top Male Action Star. Meanwhile, director John Sturges was nominated for an award from the Directors Guild of America.


At the time of its original release, Hollywood insiders were baffled at how Gunfight was drawing such large audiences. After all, it was just a collection of Western movie clichés that could be seen on television every night. Its success may have been due to Sturges getting the best from a strong cast, including the two main stars along with Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam. Or maybe it was the theme song by Frankie Layne. Whatever the reason, it was a blockbuster. Within a few years there was a wave of big budget westerns with A-list stars. 


You can enjoy Gunfight at the OK Corral on the new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. (122 min, available Feb 27)


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  (1962) features fine performances by John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, but Lee Marvin nearly blows them off the screen as the toothy villain of the film’s title.


Stewart is Rance Stoddard, a city lawyer from the east who comes to a western outpost to practice, only to be beaten up and robbed by Liberty Valance. Wayne is Tom Doniphon, essentially another bully, but he’s the kind of brute you want on your side when a creep like Valance is around. This is one of John Ford’s best films, and certainly the best of his late period. The excellent supporting cast includes Vera Miles, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Andy Devine, Strother Martin, and Edmund O’Brien. Look for Denver Pyle, too.


From Paramount Home Media comes a snazzy 4K Blu-ray/Blu-ray combo release of this classic, featuring a brand new restoration and HDR presentation. There is also a truckload of extra features, including commentary by the late Peter Bogdanovich (plus his archival recordings of Ford, Marvin, and Stewart). Leonard Maltin presents a segment called “Filmmaker Focus,” and there’s also a lengthy feature called “The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth.” Add to this the original trailer, plus some other goodies, and you have a healthy package.


Unlike most of Ford’s epic westerns of this period, this one was shot in black and white and filmed on the Paramount lot. It feels smaller and more claustrophobic than his sprawling westerns, and at times the setting looks like a painted stage set. Legend has it that Ford didn’t want Wayne for this one, and that the studio forced Ford to use him. Wayne, having lost his shirt on The Alamo, was facing financial ruin and had signed a lucrative deal with the studio. Wayne saw the film as important for his future, and he gives an edgy performance. “Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit,” wrote film critic Manny Farber.


It is one of Wayne’s great roles. He’s as weary and weather-beaten as we’ve ever seen him, giving Ford’s stagy set a dose of gritty realism. Still,  you may come away from the movie thinking only of Lee Marvin as the treacherous and terrifying Valance.  (123 min. available March 5.)


In The Shootist (1976), Wayne plays J.B. Books, a sick old gunfighter who has come to a rooming house to live out his final days. He finds himself getting involved with the landlady and her teen son (Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard), and is soon embroiled in one more gun battle. The aging gunman was a staple of the genre, and Wayne brings a surprising gravitas to the role. His own health was failing at the time. This turned out to be his final performance.


The National Board of Review selected The Shootist as one of the top 10 films of the year, while Variety went a step further and called it “One of the great films of our time.”


Don Siegel directed this one during his 1970s heyday when it seemed he could do no wrong. The supporting cast is exceptional: James Stewart is Books’ doctor, while the locals include Hugh O’Brian, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Sheree North, and Scatman Crothers.  (Arrow Video, 100 min, single disc Blu-ray, with extra features, available March 12.) 



The Long Riders (1980) seemed like a gimmick, with four sets of brothers portraying four sets of brothers. James and Stacy Keach play notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James, while David, Keith and Robert Carradine play the equally notorious Younger brothers, and Dennis and Randy Quaid play the somewhat less notorious Ed and Clell Miller. Finally, Christopher and Nicholas Guest play the conniving Charlie and Bob Ford. Still, the gimmick of brothers playing brothers only adds to this rather astonishing Western from director Walter Hill.


It came at the end of the “revisionist Western” period, with Hill creating a film that is both dreamlike and violent. Gene Siskal, one of the film’s champions, wrote in the Chicago Tribune that a scene of the robbers getting away by riding down a ravine was “one of the most beautiful shots in any Western.”


“To see this film is to understand how Western legends were built,” he continued. “If this isn’t the way it was, this is the way it should have been.”


Now you have a chance to see the “spectacular shot-‘em-up” sequences that so enchanted Siskal back in 1980. The new two-disc set from Kino Lorber comes with a ton of extra features, including new interviews with Hill and most of the cast, plus composer Ry Cooder and producer Tim Zinnemann. You’ll also get a 61-minute documentary called Outlaw Brothers: The Making of The Long Riders, plus more. This movie has deserved a good reissue. (99 min, 4K restoration, available March 5)



From the reading room:  I’m sad to mention the passing of author David J. Skal. He was struck by a car and killed last month at age 71. Skal was the author of several outstanding books on old Hollywood, including The Monster Show, and Hollywood Gothic, plus biographies of Claude Rains and Bram Stoker. He often appeared in documentaries about the horror genre. His writing was always smart and entertaining.  


One of his books, Dark Carnival, a biography of director Todd Browning co-written with Elias Savada, was revised recently for a rerelease. It is scheduled for a new print edition later this year. It was also reissued in 2022 as an audiobook from Oasis Audio. Skal narrates.


David Skal, RIP.





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