Dirs. Sidney Franklin Jr. and Carl K. Hittleton
You will have noticed that alongside continental curiosities, anime and abstract cinema, I have a taste for covering certain well trodden genres like martial arts films and westerns. Above other genres that have more mainstream currency, above most if not all other genre types, I am more willing to watch all of the films in these two genres because I am becoming enamoured by the mythologies and legends interconnected into their cores above any other pulp cinema. Other genre cinema is only interesting when it’s good, spectacularly ridiculous or is inherently cultural. The western and the martial arts genre are entirely based on social, mythological and cultural content by their natures. Others could become more interesting for me – I will watch almost anything from Japan and Italy – but especially with the western I’m seeing the real and fictional stories of an untamed country, America’s or set in another land, being repeated over and over again like the repeating ghosts of the past. Gun Battle At Monterey is unfortunately not a good film, but I’m still grateful for watching it and I will be willing to watch more westerns like it in promise of good qualities and with the devotion I share with anything from anime to avant-garde cinema.
Also anything with Sterling Hayden in it has now grabbed my attention. The one-two of Terror In A Texas Town (1958) and revisiting Johnny Guitar (1954) has made the man a badass who I admire for his screen presence, charm and how he clearly looks like a real life tough guy onscreen. Carrying a fuck-off huge whaling harpoon nearly twice his size in the former Joseph H. Lewis film helps just as much solidify his image. He is a robber who is shot in the back by his partner Max Reno (Ted de Corsia). Going to return the favour and get his promised share of their stolen wealth back, he finds that Reno has taken over a small town like the corrupt man he is. Things pick up from here. The unexpected sight of Lee Van Cleef, as Reno’s right hand man Kirby, in the opening credits was an additional enticement, already promising with Hayden but just as it starts topping the cake with a giant cherry while you’re in front of the TV watching it. He is young, angry and playing the stereotypical evil hothead with aplomb. Hayden even if he’s coasting is still Sterling Hayden. The addition of Cleo the card dealer at Reno’s gambling joint (Mary Beth Hughes) improves things further. Charismatic and likable – far more so than Hayden’s good girlfriend and moral compass (Pamela Salvador) problematically for the plot; Duncan feels like a loose end when, despite being the girlfriend of Van Cleef’s character, Hughes’ Cleo and Hayden work well with what they had, so far that she manages to rip off his shirt in their first encounter in his rented room in a way incredibly gratuitous and pornographic for a family friendly, fifties western. Like film noir, it’s the femme fatales who are more charismatic, beautiful and thoughtful when depicted onscreen, although here I think that’s a botched failing than an intentional thing done, sad since both actresses could have been equals in these qualities in their characterisations.
The film around them is the problem that doesn’t make it good. Shabby, rushed, even when the plot in this very short western starts to get interesting in the ending, killing its potential. The actors are shot in mid-to-torso distance images that look like they’re trapped in that camera space, and the black-and-white cinematography does not show the scope of the land or the bustle of the gambling den and confined sheriff’s jail cell. As some of the westerns I’ve seen, not a lot but enough to prove this point, have shown, low budgets don’t stop a film looking exceptional and being resourceful. The actors in this film, going for their best, make the film rewarding to view once, but the cinema around them lets the side down. But this is the reality of being enamoured with watching a certain type of cinema on mass. It means wading through bad ones, or imperfect ones like this, in the desire to still see them and that there’s always the hope of uncovering one that you’ve never heard of and love, even if you’re its only defender. And it proves Hayden and Van Cleef, even in something like Gun Battle At Monterey, are able to shrug off cinematic limitations around them and stride on the screen. It’s like two kaiju standing in a model western town, the cardboard buildings completely unable to hinder them as they squabble onscreen and show, regardless of who wins, that neither is truly a loser.