VCI Home Video // 1950 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // September 30th, 2005
"The unknown and the unseen haunted his footsteps and periled his life." -- Movie tagline
He glares, glowers, grimaces, and becomes goggle-eyed at every turn. That about sums up John Barrymore, Jr.'s acting chops in High Lonesome. Rumor has it that the ghost of John Barrymore saw his son's performance in this movie and his first screen appearance in The Sundowners. The Hollywood legend is said to have manifested himself and told the boy, "There's no way you can fill my classic profile. Your aunt, Ethel, isn't too pleased, either. You are besmirching the family's good name, so change it!"
The terrified John Barrymore, Jr. heeded the ghostly warning by determining a compromise. He became John Drew Barrymore and continued his sporadic career in films like High School Confidential!, a teen exploitation classic, and Never Love a Stranger, a total bomb that sent him scampering overseas for roles in Italian sword-and-sandal epics. But frequent arrests for drug possession and drunk driving, among other felonies and misdemeanors, totally derailed an already faltering career. According to his biography, included as one of the Extras on this recently released DVD, "[Barrymore] became more and more reclusive, eventually disappearing into the wilderness to live a mystical existence that has also been described as derelict."
"Derelict" could also be used to describe High Lonesome, along with shabby, slipshod, and downright sloppy moviemaking.
High Lonesome opens with Cooncat (Barrymore) on the run, stumbling through sagebrush and colliding with cacti. Ouch! He's witnessed a murder in a local mercantile shop and is being pursued by two men on horseback, Roper the Cajun (Dave Kashner, The Sundowners) and The Smilin' Man (Jack Elam, Once Upon a Time in the West). Cooncat manages to make his way to the ranch of Horse Davis (Basil Ruysdael The Blackboard Jungle) and tell his story. Davis and family find Cooncat's tale unbelievable because the two men he describes were killed 15 years ago in a range war. "The Smilin' Man" was the nickname of Davis's archenemy, Bob Jessup, and Horse himself saw the man die, "bleedin' from a bullet hole in his throat."
Cooncat must be lyin' and tryin' to cover up some foul deeds of his own. But Horse's daughter, Meagan (Lois Butler), takes a liking to Cooncat's greasy hair and bug-eyed expression and, for some inexplicable reason, the ranch foreman, Boatwhistle (Chill Wills, Giant), suspects there may be some truth to the boy's story. The problem is that Cooncat would have been only two years old when The Smilin' Man was killed, so how could he describe him so accurately?
While Cooncat tries to prove there was a murder at the general store, the parents of Pat Farrell (John Archer) are shot to death on their ranch. More fingers point toward Cooncat, but Boatwhistle still thinks it may be more ghostly revenge being dealt out by the dead man, Bob Jessup. Frank, you see, is fixin' to marry Horse's daughter, Abbey (Kristine Miller Too Late for Tears). It looks like somebody is still trying to wipe out the entire Davis brood.
Cool cowboy names like Horse, Roper, Cooncat, and, um, Boatwhistle (?) do not a western make. Neither does peppering the script with bad, clichéd dialogue.
Abbey: "Honestly, what a deadfall. I just gave Cooncat both barrels for bein' here."
Meagan: "What ding dang thing did you say to him?"
Frank: "I ain't about to sit here and watch the man get dry-gulched."
I have to admit that one monologue by Boatwhistle is worthy of the best western writers. He describes an incident that took place during the range war between the Davis and Jessup clans. During blizzards, the Davis livestock headed over to a canyon on the Jessup's land seeking shelter from the storm. The Jessups decided to build a fence at the property line, and, sure enough, "a blizzard came the next year. The cattle tried for the canyon but ended up piled up on top of each other a hundred feet deep for as far as the eye could see. Them that didn't die by the fence had their hooves froze off." Sadly, Meagan doesn't share the same sense of poetic melancholy as Boatwhistle, and hasn't a clue as to how to relate the conclusion of this tragedy. "They walked around on stumps until they fell over." That downright stupid comment totally undermines Boatwhistle's evocative retelling of the event and becomes a cruel comic punchline.
When the plot slows to a crawl and drags itself along like a wounded rattlesnake that got confused and bit its own tail, it's time to throw in a hoedown to wake everybody up. In 1950, when High Lonesome was released, I'll bet most people "grabbed their partners" and hightailed it out of the theater.
There's basically an intriguing story here, but the viewer is constantly flimflammed by bad acting, mawkish dialogue, and careless, ineffectual direction. Alan Le May wrote several novels that were adapted into such successful films as John Ford's The Searchers and John Huston's The Unforgiven. He also wrote the story and screenplay for the outstanding noirish western, The Walking Hills directed by John Sturges. High Lonesome, however, was Le May's first and last directorial effort. It's easy to see why. The film moves in jumps and starts, and dead-on stops with no satisfying resolution. Le May can share the blame with Jack Ogilvie's clumsy editing.
The cinematography by Oscar winner W. Howard Greene (The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex) is serviceable, so maybe he worked with one eye closed in order to fulfill a contractual obligation. The score by Rudy Schrager tries to capture all of the elements of a classic western. Unfortunately, every music cue sounds like it was ripped off from stock, uncredited, or incidental soundtracks of better films. It works nicely, but I kept getting that nagging feeling that I'd heard it all before.
VCI Home Video claims the transfer of High Lonesome was "digitally remastered from a 35mm negative." I found the Technicolor image to be too washed out, and the nighttime sequences look like they were shot in black-and-white, so don't expect to be bowled over by what turns out to be an overall blanched appearance. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack, on the other hand, is excellent. The film was originally shot in 1.37:1 aspect ratio so you aren't missing much with this 1.33:1 full frame presentation.
The Extras include biographies of the lead actors, a photo gallery and promos for other VCI westerns available on DVD. The best is a bonus episode from Stories of the Century, an early 1950s TV series purportedly "based on official newspaper files and records." This one is titled "The Wild Bunch of Wyoming" and stars western regular Jim Davis (Dallas) as Matt Clark, Railroad Detective, who is tracking down Butch Cassidy and The Hole in the Wall Gang. His assistant is Frankie Adams (Mary Castle). Frankie looks and dresses like a school marm, but going undercover she dons the costumes of a dancehall babe, showing a lot of leg and cleavage in order to infiltrate Butch's latest barroom enterprise. A young Slim Pickens plays Smiley, Butch's dumb-ass sidekick.
There is more realistic western atmosphere and action in any 30 seconds of this old TV relic than all of High Lonesone's 81 minutes, so I'm adding 20 points as a return bonus to boost the rating of this otherwise dismal and disappointing DVD.
Some films is bad, and somes is badderer. But, Oh, Sweet Lord of Fury, High Lonesome is one of the badderest I've ever seen.
Guilty as all get-out!
Review content copyright © 2005 George Hatch; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Bonus Episode from Stories of the Century TV Series
* Western Promos