5 for the Day: Western Towns

How better to follow upon the heels of an all-Deadwood week than with an ode to the western towns that preceded the title locale?

5 for the Day: Western Towns
Photo: 20th Century Fox

How better to follow upon the heels of an all-Deadwood week than with an ode to the western towns that preceded the title locale? There are many, to be sure, starting in literature: Stephen Crane’s The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, for instance, about a town still in its adolescence, not used to the presence of a lady who represents the ever encroaching sense of civilization; or E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, set in a barren settlement on flat Dakota plains, destroyed once, but trying to sprout up again from a mere seedling. Western towns generally speak to the passing of the west or the ephemeral nature of the frontier. Like Deadwood, these places start out as rough camps and quickly attract development until fully settled. Those that don’t develop will die out.

1. A Standard

Bottleneck (Destry Rides Again) is essentially the same town as the one in Dripalong Daffy. The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing – feed stores, general stores, the jail, the Last Chance Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets – all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented here: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town.

2. Frozen in Time

San Miguel (A Fistful of Dollars) is not a dead town, but one in the deathlike grip of warlord-ism, sucked dry by twin evils: the gun and liquor trades. Killing got to be such a problem that the inn keeper had to shut down the roulette wheel; in other words, it became too violent to gamble. On one side of the town are the Rojos, with their large stucco ranch house, on the other, the Baxters, with their wood sided ranch house. About the only activity in town emanates from these two houses. The stuff in between is a no man’s land, literally. As the inn keeper points out, all the women are widows. The streets are desolate. Occasionally, you might see nervous eyes behind a window. Who knows how long this town has gone on this way, or how long it would last. It seems to have been removed from time – stuck in bad state – trapped in an artificial stability of two bosses. That crazy bell ringer was right. Leone’s immaculate detail makes this town seem as hot and sweaty as hell itself.

3. Rebirth

Crescent City (Winds of the Wasteland) was all but gone when John Blaire (Wayne) was tricked into buying a stage route. The pamphlet said: population 3,500; water, excellent; school and church. But that was a few years ago. Nowadays, with a population of 2, the mayor is just as likely to also be the village idiot. John Blair and his partner soon figure that out when they ride into the town shooting into the air to get the attention of the locals.

Partner: Quiet little place, isn’t it?

John: Yeah, 3,500 people don’t make much noise.

That doesn’t stop the townfolk—now four, according to the census chalkboard—from trying to make Crescent City a spot on the map once again. Winds of the Wasteland is little more than a mediocre b-movie, but it’s a pleasant depiction of the nation-building spirit of the west. Crescent City starts out looking like an abandoned movie town set, but as the film progresses, it turns into an fully inhabited movie town set.

4. A Town on the Move

Yellow Mountain (The Man from Colorado) is ready to prosper after the war. More than any of the other towns on the list, this one is most similar to Deadwood in that you see a wide cross-section of people. The town may be growing, but it isn’t necessarily healing after the war. Problems arise when Yankee soldiers return to the mining town to find their claims ceded to big business. The town fathers are looking to maintain security and a business friendly environment that will encourage further growth and eventually statehood. The worst that could happen is if they hired a sick violent prone ex-cavalry colonel to serve as judge. Of course that’s what they do.

There’s actually two towns in the film. The first is Yellow Mountain, a place that offers civilized things like social balls and a courtroom. Here, we see nice houses with all the trappings of high society – good furniture, waiting rooms, and ornate wallpaper. The other is an offshoot of Yellow Mountain, nestled in a small rocky valley with only one way in and one way out. This portion of Yellow Mountain houses, for lack of a better term, the lower classes – immigrants and ex-rebels and ex-Yanks. The housing here is closer to shanties, providing only the unpainted necessities of life. The rivalry between golden boy William-Holden and flaming haired Glenn Ford propels the story to its inferno climax, where the shanty camp is smited because it resists the ever increasing (tyrannical) law and order (if not justice) of Yellow Mountain.

5. Engines of Industry

Machine (Dead Man) is located at the end of the line. That’s a long locomotive ride way out west, past rolling hills, past the buffalo cleared plains, over and through the Great Rocky Mountains, through deserts of cactus and dried bones. Not many people go to the end of the line, hence the surprised looks when you tell them. Jarmusch knows you’ve seen western towns before, but he wants you to look at this one with fresh eyes and think, “Maybe this is the way it really was.” Step off the train and walk through town. The camera gazes at everything in slow tracking shots. Carcasses and dried antlers. A mule pissing. Ignore the man receiving fellatio, in fact it’d be best if you didn’t look at anybody cross ways. Avoid the mud. Find the Dickinson Metalworks, which is impossible to miss, seeing as how it looms at the end of town, clanking noisily and belching huge ominous plumes of black smoke. Talk to the man with a bear. Don’t get lost.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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