Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 147: Hellgate
After watching Denver & Rio Grande last week, my study of Sterling Hayden Westerns moves to Hellgate. Unlike the former film, Hayden is front and center here and also in contrast to that movie, this Western is built on the back of a strong screenplay, co-written by the film’s director Charles Marquis Warren.
Warren is one of those I’ll be focused on for my upcoming book about Western movie directors. Though I did not care for his Charlton Heston-starring film Arrowhead, he directs the hell out of this one. The movie has a sharp opening, setting up its characters and conflict, before quickly moving into the prison scenes. It’s a testament to the film’s production that I had trouble determining what was and what was not a constructed set in this striking location. In Westerns of this era, there is usually a distinct difference, sometimes in coverage of the same scene, between location photography and set backdrops. Here, the difference is minimal at most and the whole world of the prison is impressively created. The same could be said for the stunts, during which I was not distracted by the interchange of actor and stunt performer.
All of this adds up to create a hard-hitting, gritty Western that feels fresh because of that unusual setting and also the way its actors are used. Hayden is relatively straight-forward but effective with his moral hero. Ward Bond, on the other hand, gives us a different kind of character than we’re used to seen from the veteran Western actor. Though he is not evil, Bond is ultimately the film’s antagonist. I love Westerns who do not make devils of their “bad guys” but instead create complex characters for their protagonists to contend with. James Arness is also a great supporting part, providing the film with a nice counterbalance of macho ego for Hayden to work with.
Overall, it’s a well-made picture that may only falter in its last twenty minutes when a narrative decision takes the film in a completely different direction. However, I can’t argue that the final destination is touching. This movie has definitely put Charles Marquis Warren, truly one of the “Men Who Made Westerns” as I’m calling my book, on my cinema map.
Watched on Tubi.