Watch your step, Judge Mike Rubino is droppin' g's all over this place.
"Killin' don't mix well with a man's supper."—Tell Sackett
Louis L'Amour wrote a lot of books, most of which took place on the rugged frontier and featured cowboys, bounty hunters, and lawmen willing to shoot each other at a moment's notice. L'Amour's 100+ novels and short story collections were a considerable contribution to the landscape of Western literature. You don't write that many stories without at least a couple being turned into movies. Warner Bros. has reissued three films based on L'Amour's writings in The Louis L'Amour Western Collection.
Facts of the Case
Catlow (1971): The notorious bandit, Catlow (Yul Brynner, The Magnificent Seven), is trying to steal $2 million dollars in gold bars. Unfortunately, his plan is beset with problems, including an amicably determined sheriff (Richard Crenna, The Real McCoys), a vengeful killer (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek: The Original Series), an angry ex (Daliah Lavi, Casino Royale), etc.
The Sacketts (1979): This two-part TV-miniseries chronicles the adventures of the Sackett brothers: Tell (Sam Elliott, Road House), Orrin (Tom Selleck, Magnum P.I.), and Tyrel (Jeff Osterhage, Dragnet). The film follows Orrin and Tyrel as they travel westward, trying to forge a new life for themselves after the murder of Orrin's bride. Eventually the two reconnect with Tell, their estranged older brother, and lay down the hammer of justice at every turn.
Conagher (1991): Evie Teale's (Katharine Ross, The Graduate) husband is gone, dead on a trail somewhere. Now it's up to the widowed mother of two to fend for her family against Indians and bandits. In the process, she meets the lonely cowboy, Conn Conagher (Sam Elliott), who falls for Evie after finding her sorrowful love notes amidst the tumbleweeds.
If you have ever spent time watching TV with your dad on a Saturday afternoon, odds are you've seen one of these movies—or at least some other L'Amour adaptation. He's a staple of the Western genre and it's easy to see why. These films, each interesting in its own right, are filled with the kinds of generic shoot-outs and cowboy characterizations that made the genre stagnate. To put it frankly, there's nothing in this set that comes close to the High Noon's and A Fistful of Dollars's of the world. If these movies were classics you would have heard of them before now. They are, however, a good set of pulpy distractions, ideal for die-hard Western fans to visit on a Saturday afternoon.
Catlow, the only movie in the set to actually be released in theaters, was surprising only in its affability. From the film's opening, in which we see Sheriff Cowan rescued by the man he's pursuing (Catlow), director Sam Wanamaker makes it clear that this movie is going to be fun—whether you want to have fun or not! The light-hearted music cues, the surprisingly loose acting by Yul Brynner, and the action's occasional foray into slapstick keep the film from ever being taken too seriously. It's a unique move for an otherwise stoic Brynner. Then again, any true cinematic legitimacy gets tossed out the window the second a naked Leonard Nemoy leaps from a bathtub and wrestles Brynner in a hotel room. I wish I could un-watch that.
In retrospect, I'm not even sure it's fair to characterize Catlow as the film's protagonist. His screentime is less than or equal to Sheriff Cowan, and most of the film is seen from Cowan's perspective. Crenna is predictably solid, and his character is similar to Lt. Gerard, the obsessive lawman who chased Richard Kimble for four seasons in The Fugitive. Cowan and Catlow have a similar dynamic, although because it's the wild west, Cowan's options for apprehending the thief go about as far as tying him up and asking him not to run off. Later in the film, Cowan's attempts at apprehension only add to the chaos, as Catlow's plan to steal the gold becomes more and more complicated.
The light characterization and plot of Catlow make The Sacketts feel like War & Peace. The film, technically a two-part miniseries, is an amalgamation of two L'Amour books from his Sackett series: Sackett and The Daybreakers. This intimidatingly long movie is actually an engrossing, suspense-filled adaptation that tends to breeze by thanks to some strong performances and lots of shootin'. The film grabs you with the first scene: Orrin's brand new wife is gunned down by a vengeance-filled wedding crasher. From that point on, it's clear this movie isn't pulling any punches.
The Sacketts benefits greatly from its spectacular leading trio. Selleck, sporting a fine-tuned mustache, and Osterhage have great chemistry together. The two travel Westward working as cow-hands and guns-for-hire before eventually running in to their estranged brother Tell (short for William Tell). Tell's been a little messed up ever since he fought in the Civil War, and Elliott plays him with a gruffness that could make a Girl Scout weep instantly. Their stories run parallel for much of the film, but they eventually come together with great results.
Like so many effective mini-series that came after it, The Sacketts survives by its judicious use of pacing and tension. Each installment has its own central storyline, dotted with stand-offs and shoot-outs. Characters are constantly firing off quips about killin' and eatin' and other things that involve dropping g's. It's intense stuff, and if there's any complaint it's that the film's ending doesn't live up to the three-hour build up. Here you have characters that go on all sorts of adventures involving mountain men, card sharks, feral women, and racist industrialists; Orrin becomes a sheriff, then a mayor, and Tyler takes his place; Tell finds some gold and gets a gang of brothers after him—all this, and the film still boils down to a shoot-out. An exciting shoot-out, sure, but a plain, old shoot-out nonetheless.
For as lengthy and engaging as The Sacketts was, the third film, Conagher, manages to feel even longer. That's a remarkable feat considering its runtime is about 76 minutes shorter. Made for TNT in the early '90s, Conagher is a slow burning, romance tale about a wandering cowboy, Conn Conagher, and a widowed mother of two, Evie Teale, whose paths intertwine throughout the film. This feels more like a Lifetime movie.
Conagher isn't necessarily trying to be like these other two L'Amour films. It's a deliberately paced drama with melancholy characters, dark cinematography, and sparse action sequences. There are a few shootouts, but nothing particularly exciting. In fact, the climax of the film ends with an awkwardly choreographed brawl in a half-lit saloon. Instead of focusing on action, the film looks for character development and emotion, specifically from the widow Evie. Katherine Ross plays the part with quiet reserve, but occasionally her line readings feel a little flat. Elliott is good as always, playing the same stoic cowboy that he's known for. Everything about Conagher feels safe and low budget, surely satisfying for a cable TV-movie but not even comparable to the larger scope of the other films in the set.
For die-hard Louis L'Amour or Western fans, this set may seem like a great deal for three movies. Take note that all three have been released previously on DVD, and from what I gather these discs are similar if not identical. The four discs (The Sacketts is split across two of those) come in a single Amaray case with flippers and not a single special feature in the bunch. The A/V presentation also varies pretty wildly. Strange enough, the newest film, Conagher, looks the worst. The film is scratchy, grainy, and dark. Catlow and The Sacketts fair better, with brighter colors but still plenty of grain. Everything comes in unremarkable Dolby Digital Mono. It's a quick repackage, and that's about it.
These three Louis L'Amour movies come from a tired world in which a funny glance could get you killed. No one is understanding. No one apologizes. They just fight and kill and try and be honorable while doing it. These films are simple in their execution, but entertaining as genre pulp. I'd definitely recommend The Sacketts. The other two you may want to store in your pocket for a rainy day, or the next time you want to spend some quality time with dad.
Half of y'all are guilty and will surely hang. The other half better git, and git good.
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Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Rubino; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.