(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
I enjoy a good Western on the screen. Tombstone is my favorite, with Rio Bravo not too far behind. And I usually watch at least a little if it’s got Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea in it. So you know that Ride the High Country, with its breathtaking cinematography, is in the mix. And be it Maverick or Support Your Local Sheriff, I love seeing James Garner in a cowboy hat. I wrote about one of my favorite TV shows, Hell on Wheels.
But I’ve not read too many Westerns. Looking over the two-thousandish books on my shelves, I only see Steven Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range series – which is in the Sherlock Holmes section, of course. And a fine collection of short stories by my second-favorite author, Robert E. Howard. And neither would be there solely based on their genre. I do have a few more Westerns in ebook format, which I’ve transitioned to over the past decade.
I’ve meant to write about T. T. Flynn’s Westerns. Flynn authored the Bail Bond Dodd stories, about a fairly tough, but not really hardboiled, bail bondsman, for Dime Detective. But I was smart enough to get Duane Spurlock to contribute a piece to A (Black) Gat in the Hand, which you can read here. Regular readers of that series (assuming there are any) know that Norbert Davis is on my Hardboiled Mt. Rushmore, second only to ‘Dash.’ So it’s not surprising I wrote an essay on his story “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain.” Another Davis Western post is likely somewhere down the dusty trail.
This past weekend, I decided to revisit a Western movie from 2008 which I had seen once before; but the plot details were fuzzy. So, kinda familiar, kinda new. What I did remember was that I thought it was pretty good. And a second view drove that home like a sod buster splitting a fence rail (okay, okay, no more of that. Too much, anyways).
A friend of mine with a long list of IMDB credits has said several times that Hollywood just doesn’t like big budget Westerns. And it’s true that we do get one of them occasionally, but they’re never billed as summer blockbusters. And heaven for-fend a franchise develop! Of course, television is more friendly to the genre.
2007 saw a bit of a Western renaissance, with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe remaking a film that originally starred Van Heflin and Glenn Ford. Based on short story by modern pulp master Elmore Leonard, both versions of 3:10 to Yuma are excellent movies. That same year, my vote for the best filmmakers of my lifetime, Joel and Ethan Coen, put out a modern Neo-noir Western, No Country for Old Men. Unconventional, the film lost me partway through, but Javier Bardem goes down in the annals of bad guys. A couple years later, the brothers went full-bore into the genre with a strong remake of the John Wayne classic, True Grit.\
Not done yet, 2007 saw Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, a dark tale that brought back the sweeping visas of the classic Western. I haven’t seen it, but The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford also came out. Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck were making the Oceans movies at the time, and seemed a natural pairing. And that introduction, as straight as a switchback up a a mountain, brings us to 2008 and Appaloosa.
Robert B. Parker is best-known for his Spenser novels, and the popular eighties TV series, Spenser For Hire. I’m not a big fan of that show, which starred Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. I AM a big fan of the Jesse Stone TV movies made from his series of the same name, put together and starring Tom Selleck. Magnum is great in the role of an alcoholic, former LA-cop who is now sheriff of a small east coast town. The series deserved more support than it got, as Selleck kept it going almost through sheer force of will.
Back in 2005, with 34 Spensers, 5 Stones, and even 4 Sunny Randall (with all the ‘stuff’ filling up TV and streaming services, how has no one made a Randall project yet???) novels under his belt, Parker’s first Western came out. Appaloosa uses a variation of the ‘buddy cop’ trope, and features Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.
Two more books followed, and a fourth came out around the time of Parker’s death in 2010. Actor Robert Knott has written six additional books in the series. I’m assuming Knott was chosen as continuator because he had co-written (with Ed Harris) the screenplay to Appaloosa.
Everett Hitch is the series’ narrator. Viggo Mortenson, who will forever be best known as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, is well-cast. Hitch went to West Point and served as in the cavalry, and did some Indian fighting. He uses a very large shotgun that does a lot of damage. He also has a pistol, but is far less likely to use that weapon. He’s a soft-spoken man, though the more socially affable of the pair.
Hitch qualifies as a sidekick in book one, and the movie. Virgil Cole is played by Ed Harris, and he runs things. Cole does ask for Hitch’s opinion, but Cole makes the decisions. With no formal education, or military training, Harris is a gunman. And he’s the fastest one Hitch has ever seen. The fact that Cole is still alive indicates he hasn’t run across anyone faster just yet.
Jeremy Irons is a familiar name, but one doesn’t usually think of him as a big star. He’s cast as the evil rancher, Randall Bragg, who lives outside of town and doesn’t have much use for the law. Which is evident at movie’s start when he and his thugs gun down the sheriff and two deputies, who came to arrest two of Bragg’s men for murder.
Renee Zelweger rounds out the top-billed cast as Allie French, a new arrival in town without sufficient funds, a plan, or really, much of clue. I’m not particularly a big Zelweger fan, as I think she frequently looks constipated when she smiles. She is refined, and Cole immediately cottons to her. Before you know it, they’re setting up house together. Well, they’re having one built in town for themselves. We quickly learn she’s a bit of a tramp.
I’m usually writing about movies older than I am; often in black in white. My general take is that if you haven’t seen it by now, any spoilers are on you, not me. This one’s only thirteen years old, and – being a Western – probably not seen by more than a few readers. Assuming I have multiple readers. I’m not going to drop a ton of spoilers in, but the ebook was available through Overdrive (the free library book system), and I re-watched the movie through FRNDLY (the streaming service I catch all my Hallmark Mysteries with). You can check out Appaloosa if you want to. You’re on your own.
The town fathers/alderman, hire Cole to be the sheriff, and Hitch takes on the deputy job. One of the alderman is played by James Gammon. Gammon, who died of cancer in 2010, was manager Lou Brown in Major League. He’s an actor I always like to see, and recently saw him in a bit part in The Electric Mist, which I wrote about here at Black Gate. Aside from Major League, his highest visibility parts was as Don Johnson’s father on Nash Bridges.
Cole and Hitch write up a contract that says the law is what they say it is, and they can do things however they want. And so the stage is set. The ink isn’t even dry on the contract before the boys kill two of Bragg’s men, who are raising ruckus downstairs at the bar. Cole is as fast as we’ve been led to believe, and Hitch’s gun makes a big mess.
We’ve seen elements of the plot in many Westerns before, including some Rio Bravo and 3:10 To Yuma. Cole needs to deliver Bragg to justice, which will be a hangman’s noose. Bragg and his gang don’t aim to see that happen.
I’ll let you discover the rest of the plot on your own, except for a few bits relevant to the rest of this essay.
This movie is as much about the relationship between Cole and Hitch, as it is about the mission. Hitch is Cole’s only friend. And Cole hasn’t had many, if any, before. Nor has Cole ever had an actual relationship before Allie. Which is probably why he’s so quickly smitten. After making an unpleasant discovery about her later in the film, there’s a terrific exchange between Cole and Hitch as they prepare for a showdown with two rival gunmen. I think Hitch shines in the talk, and Mortenson’s low-key, measured delivery is perfect. It shows well the relationship between the two men.
Cole likes to read to learn. Bragg comments on his choice in poetry, and In the next book, Cole discusses ‘Russo’s’ The Social Contract with Hitch. He wants to learn things. He often tries to us a word he knows of, but hasn’t quite learned yet. Hitch supplies it for him. It’s a nice story element. Hitch writes that Cole never admitted a mistake, but if corrected, he never made it again.
It’s a good-looking movie, but it doesn’t have the breathtaking vistas of Ride the High Country, or that John Ford impact of scenery. Not criticizing, just pointing it out. The town itself is suitably dusty, and the area feels like a barren western town, not a thriving, growing community. Which is appropriate.
Irons is the quintessential powerful bad guy who ignores the law, and then uses every tool available to outwit it when he can’t ignore it any longer. His scenes with Cole, and with Hitch, are strong. If a cat has nine lives, Bragg has got a couple of his own in this movie.
The movie follows the novel closely, and the second book picks up directly where the first one leaves off. Harris and Mortenson were perfectly cast, and it’s a real shame that there wasn’t another movie, or two, continuing the saga. Harris starred, co-wrote the script, directed, and was one of the producers. He deserves kudos for getting this movie made.
Hollywood grudgingly makes Westerns, and unfortunately, they never break the box office. The movie came in at 121st for the year in domestic box office, with a gross of $22.2 million on a $20 million budget. It made another $7.5 million world-wide. Fifty-two films grossed at least $50 million that year. The aforementioned No Country for Old Men (90), and There Will Be Blood (74) fared a little better.
Harris starred in another Western a few years later, 2013’s Sweetwater. The domestic (and worldwide) box office gross was $6,147. A far cry from his headliner days. I wrote that while I admire Tommy Lee Jones’ dedication in getting In The Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead turned into a movie (even though it didn’t get a US release), he was completely wrong for Dave Robicheaux. Here, Harris is just right to play Virgil Cole.
Appaloosa isn’t in my Top Five Westerns, though it’s probably in my Top Ten. It’s a nicely-shot film, with three excellent leads, and based on a novel by a quality writer. That’s a pretty good combo.
After re-watching this movie, I immediately read the second novel, Resolution. And I did it in almost one sitting. It was a good read. Hitch takes a job as a peacekeeper at a saloon in a nearby town. There are couple competing power factions, and the saloon owner aims to be Resolution’s kingpin. The local mine owner (who are never nice guys in Westerns) brings in a pair of top flight gunmen, and not long after, Cole wanders in.
Something has happened between he and Allie, and it’s caused Cole to doubt who and what he is. The story moves along as the competing factions butt heads, I liked it, and I’ll be reading book three, Brimstone, shortly. It directly continues the story line.
Appaloosa is absolutely a modern Western worth watching. And I’m going to continue on with reading the books. Cole and Hitch are an interesting duo and this is a good Western series. The movie got me to go to the source material, which is always a good sign. I recommend both.
Last year, I read The Legend of Caleb York. It’s a novel by Max Alan Collins (A favorite of mine), adapting a never-produced screenplay written by Mickey Spillane for John Wayne’s production company. It is very much a hardboiled Western. But I very much didn’t like something that happened to one of the main characters at the end, and it put me off continuing on with the series. But otherwise, I liked the book, and I’ve started on the second, The Big Showdown. We’ll see if there’s something so brutally violent I give up on the series, or not. I’m not a Mike Hammer fan, so I’m not exactly the target audience.
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2021 Series (1)
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (19)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled May on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Some Hardboiled streaming options
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled June on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Cool and Lam
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: All Through the Night (Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled July on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled August on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Talking About Philip Marlowe
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steven H Silver Asks you to Name This Movie
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Will Murray on Doc Savage
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hard Boiled Holmes
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Murray on The Spider
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
A (Black Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (31)
With a (Black) Gat: George Harmon Coxe
With a (Black) Gat: Raoul Whitfield
With a (Black) Gat: Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
With a (Black) Gat: Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Walsh
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – January, 1935
A (Black) Gat in the hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1939
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #1
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Day Keene
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – October, 1933
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #2
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – Spring, 2017
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #3
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #4
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #5
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
A (Black) Gat in Hand: Back Deck Pulp #6
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Black Mask Dinner
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and returned in the following years.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.