Monday, December 19, 2016

Western Union (1941)

Western Union, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1941, was Fritz Lang’s second western. Lang, rather surprisingly, actually liked westerns a good deal. While his movies in this genre don’t attract the same critical plaudits as his exercises in film noir like Scarlet Street and The Big Heat they do tend to be interesting. Western Union is not as eccentric as Rancho Notorious but it’s a little unusual.

In 1861 Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line. It was an epic tale of adventure and danger. Well actually it wasn’t apparently, it was fairly uneventful, but  screenwriter Robert Carson took care of that little problem.

The movie opens with a chance meeting between Western Union’s chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) and Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott). Shaw is a bank robber on the run and he steals Creighton’s horse but just as he’s about to make his getaway successfully he realises that Creighton is badly injured. So he takes Creighton with him to seek medical help. 

Creighton owes Shaw his life and he soon gets a chance to repay his debt. Although he knows Shaw is an outlaw he gives him a job with the company as scout. It’s a vital job since the telegraph is going to be laid through some mighty hostile country. Trusting Shaw is a gamble, but will it pay off?

The third of the movie’s stars is Robert Young who plays a dapper tenderfoot from the East named Richard Blake who’s not quite such a helpless fool as he first appears.

The film’s love interest is provided by Virginia Gilmore as Creighton’s sister Sue who soon finds herself with two ardent suitors in the persons of Blake and Shaw.

John Carradine plays a supporting role as the company’s genial but cynical doctor and he steals every scene he’s in.

The screenplay throws in a few unexpected twists. Attacks by hostile Indians provide the biggest hazard faced by the crew building the telegraph line, although that’s what appears to be going on but in fact things are not at all what they seem.

The movie was supposedly based on a novel by Zane Grey but in fact it has little in common with the novel beyond the title.

The movie was shot in Technicolor and it really does have an epic feel. There are two action climaxes coming one on top of another at the end and both are impressive. Opinions seem to vary quite a bit on the final action sequence with some people believing that Lang made a hash of it whilst others believe he handled it perfectly. I fall into the second camp. It works for me.

Opinions on the film as a whole also diverge sharply. It’s a movie that changes gears dramatically in the last half-hour. The first hour is quite light-hearted but then the mood darkens significantly, and becomes quite overtly Langian. I think that makes the latter part of the film more effective - it comes as a shock when we realise just how completely trapped the hero is.

While I mentioned the three main stars earlier in actual fact the movie belongs totally to Randolph Scott. By 1941 he had already perfected his minimalist approach to acting and it serves him very well. Robert Young is, surprisingly, quite good. Dean Jagger drew the short straw and got the least interesting of the three main roles but he’s solid enough. Virginia Gilmore is charming.

This is the story of a great feat of engineering, and it’s a love triangle, but the only real plot strand that matters is the one involving Vance Shaw and it’s handled well enough to qualify this as one of the first great classic westerns.

Western Union is a fine movie, visually very impressive, and is highly recommended.

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