March 19, 2013
I am a man of few principles, but when a Raoul Walsh film comes out on home video I am duty-bound to write about it. The Warner Archive has been a blessing for Walsh enthusiasts, and their latest gift is a handsomely restored DVD of his Western Cheyenne (1947). It is somewhat of a neglected film in his career, having been released in the same year as the highly regarded The Man I Love and Pursued. Then its TV syndication title was changed to The Wyoming Kid, to stop people from confusing it with the long running series Cheyenne, and it’s road to oblivion was almost complete. It’s appropriate the film had its own case of mistaken identity, since that’s what the whole plot hinges on – a twisting thicket of shifting identities, doublings and double entendres. Walsh had vocal problems with the screenplay, which veers from bawdy sex farce to a violent adventure, and only seems fully engaged with the brutally efficient open air action sequences shot in Arizona. This friction gives the film an appropriately schizophrenic feel, from frothy banter to frothingly mad violence.
Walsh had been interested in the story since January 1945, having written to Jack Warner in a memo that: “I told Bogart the Cheyenne story the other night and he wants to do it. The girl’s part is a natural for [Ann] Sheridan and we might get [Errol] Flynn go play the bandit.” As biographer Marilyn Ann Moss reported, John Huston had agreed to write the script, but the project never coalesced, and Walsh went on vacation for a few months before embarking on The Man I Love with Ida Lupino in the fall. While that was shooting he pitched the idea again, and this time it got the green light. It was based on a story by Paul Wellman (Apache, The Comancheros) which had been brought to WB’s attention by novelist and screenwriter Alan Le May, who would later write the source novel for The Searchers.
The story circles around card sharp Wylie, who under threat of arrest is forced into tracking down the enigmatic heist artist The Poet, who had been knocking over Wells Fargo carriages across the Wyoming Territory. With The Poet’s identity a secret, even among outlaws, Wylie impersonates the robber in the hopes of finding his whereabouts. The Poet’s estranged wife Ann Kincaid agrees to help him in the ruse, although her ultimate loyalties remain unclear.
By the time the project got off the ground, none of Walsh’s original cast choices were available. So he went to work with the relatively low wattage Dennis Morgan (Wylie), Jane Wyman (Ann Kincaid) and Bruce Bennett (The Poet) instead of the charismatic triumverate he had envisioned. He also wasn’t happy with the script, sending Jack Warner a memo with suggestions for a new plot outline. Producer Robert Buckner reacted as if Walsh were hijacking his movie, responding that, “it should be remembered that I have done a great many more Westerns than Walsh and that I should certainly be consulted before Walsh’s changes are forced into the script. …I do not look forward to going into production on it with him.” Walsh raised no more objections, so with reservations on both ends, the film went ahead with a final script attributed to Le May and Thames Williamson.
Wylie is not a traditional self-destructively heroic Walsh hero, but a self-interested triangulator trying to please all sides while keeping himself alive. The plot is therefore busier than Walsh’s usual material, a cataract of double and triple crosses that muddies the clarity of his preferred “map movie” mode, as Dave Kehr has termed his penchant for “get from A to B” stories. Walsh doesn’t battle the script as much as resign himself to it, but while it is not one of his more personal works, it the theme of doubling and identity shifting is elegantly laid out by Le May and Williamson, while Walsh wrings every bit of tension out of the little traveling his characters embark upon.
The script is an endless series of reversals. It opens with a secondary gang led by Sundance (a snarling Arthur Kennedy) running down a carriage only to find one of The Poet’s singsong rhymes instead of the booty. Then before Wylie leaves Laramie for Cheyenne he mistakenly flirts with showgirl Emily Carson (a suggestively salacious Janis Paige), thinking she’s Ann. The trio then share a carriage ride, each putting on facades they shuffle among themselves as the movie goes on. Ann, presenting herself as prim and proper, turns out to be the morally compromised wife of a wanted criminal. Emily starts as a party girl and ends monogamous, while Wylie begins cheating at cards and concludes by helping the law.
Even when disengaged Walsh knew who to wring the most tension out of the material. Assistant Director Reggie Callow told Rudy Behlmer that, “he had a way, an absolute knack of placing his camera in the right position to get the greatest effect out of the stunt.” In one emblematic POV shot The Poet has Wylie in his gun sight, only before he can pull the trigger the cowardly Sherriff (the always welcome Alan Hale) jabs his own gun at Wylie, thinking he’s The Poet. Wylie is doomed and then saved by his own duplicity, stuck in a violent circle of his own design. Each character is stuck in a similar loop until they return to the carriage where they started their journey, where they reluctantly reveal their true selves, and the circle straightens into a line out of town.