Sunday, March 5, 2017

Headin' 'em up and movin' 'em out, or Rip Van Winkle wakes up

Laura Devon and Dino

(It's much a surprise to me to be doing this again as it is to anybody else but I saw something on TV yesterday that I couldn't get out of my head until I wrote about it, hence the following.)

In the rush to anoint whatever bright, shiny new television series comes along as "The Best Thing Ever" one loses sight of the fact that somewhere, somehow high quality television has always existed.

TV westerns are a long-dormant genre that few remember with any affection today but you go back and watch some of those old programs and you're astonished at how good they could be. In the late 50's and early 60's CBS had a Murderer's Row lineup of stunningly good westerns with Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel and Rawhide. Rawhide is remembered today, if at all, as where Clint Eastwood got his start but this show about the travails of cowboys on a cattle drive is worth watching in its own right.  I just saw an episode from Season 7 called "Canlis" that is stunningly good.

The regular cast of trail hands is just along the periphery of this story.  The real focus is on a man named Gird Canlis, a hired killer, who comes to a Southwestern village with his wife to gun down the town's leading rancher. His wife, Augusta, knows her husband's business and wants him to quit and come with her to settle in her old homeland in Louisiana.  Augusta pleads with the rancher to stay out of Canlis' way but one of his hotheaded friends forces a showdown which escalates the tension of the situation before it all resolves in a very unexpected way.

The show was written by Stirling Silliphant, who's best known for another excellent show of this period, Route 66. His literate script paints a portrait of a gunman who is very meticulous and careful about his jobs but has a deep and trusting love of his wife who's equally devoted to him. Dean Martin, who always did some of his best acting in westerns, plays Canlis and Laura Devon plays Augusta and they're both completely involving in their parts.  For the length of this show you almost forget that this man agonizing over a life of killing is the same one who clowned around with Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra in other settings.

I won't spoil the ending but it is a real surprise and goes against the macho code of honor that's usually considered the template for western shows.  There are also a number of familiar actors in supporting roles like Michael Ansara, Theodore Bikel, Ramon Navarro and Scott Marlowe making this episode, from the viewpoint of fifty years later, seem even more impressive.

The best of the old TV westerns told stories about people with depth and insight that rivals anything out today.  I've seen other good episodes of Rawhide like "Incident Of The Shambling Man" with Victor McLaglen and Anne Francis but this one is above and beyond. And guess what? Clint Eastwood isn't even in it.