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Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy marked the fifth consecutive western in a row to be directed by Delmer Daves, three of which cast western favorite Glenn Ford in the lead role. The previous two being the superior oaters Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma. All five of them would be considered worthy additions to any list of good if not great westerns of the decade. Joining Glenn this time out is the very odd casting of likable leading man and Oscar winner Jack Lemmon. Up to this point in time, Jack was mainly known for his comedic roles in films like Mister Roberts and It Should Happen to You. Surrounding Ford and Lemmon are the familiar faces of many western stalwarts including Brian Donlevy as the third billed leading man.

Like the previous Ford-Daves pairings, this isn’t the typical Sunday afternoon matinee western where the good guys hunt down the bad guys who robbed the local bank. It’s a hardened tale of life on a cattle drive and the men who run them. Ford as the weary trail boss is all business on the job but lives life to it’s fullest when he and his men arrive in Chicago to deliver the beef to market. It’s at a swank hotel that Ford will cross paths with tenderfoot Lemmon. Jack isn’t much more than a bellboy and has just been spurned by a Mexican heiress, Anna Kashi, due to her Father’s refusal to accept Lemmon as a prospective son-in-law. When Ford boozes it up and loses too much money in a high stakes poker game, he foolishly sells an interest in his outfit to Lemmon to get back into the card game. And so this tale of two vastly different men begins. Men who in the end may not be so different after all.

Lemmon will find himself riding with a select group of leathery cowboys that include Donlevy, Richard Jaeckel, Dick York and Strother Martin among them. He’ll soon learn how easy it is to lose one’s life on the trail where dangers lurk around every rock and bend during the trek. Snake bites, falls from horses and troubles that lay in wait inside cantinas can shorten one’s life span immensely. Jack will experience the traditional hazing one would expect, hear stories of fences ruining the territory, loose women and surprisingly cannibalism which for my recollection might make Cowboy the earliest film to talk about the subject in a western until the genre had aged a few more years.

“Any man starts a fight’s gonna have to finish it with me.”

Ford expects each man to stick to the job at hand and earn an honest wage. Cross him and he’ll leave you for dead which doesn’t sit well with his new partner, Lemmon. Jack values human lives more than the cattle while Ford looks at things a bit differently. Circumstances and violent encounters are going to change each man’s outlook and opinion of the other.

I’ve never actually disliked this western but will admit to saying I’d much rather watch a more traditional outing like 3:10 to Yuma or any number of 50’s genre oaters. I guess that’s because this one is more the character study, the day in the life of a cowboy routine that found a home in the rodeo films of the early 70’s with Junior Bonner, J.W. Coop and a couple other titles. Looking at it as a performance piece, Lemmon impresses here as the young man with big dreams who soon sees the other side of men and finds he doesn’t like it. More so when he finds himself adopting everything in Ford’s character that he hates. It’s very easy to see that the light comedic leading man would have a lengthy future in dramatic films that ultimately culminated in another Oscar for Save the Tiger in 1973.

Ford is a bit harder here than he is in some of his more heroic western roles but he still injects his performance with that likability that he carried within him throughout his long run as a leading man into his senior years in movies like Superman as Pa Kent. Best piece of advice Glenn gives to the broken hearted Lemmon when Jack makes an ill fated attempt to win back his Senorita?

“Getting killed trying to make some money, that’s one thing. Getting killed trying to impress a female? That’s just plain stupid

Special mention goes to Brian Donlevy as a former town tamer who knows his gunfighting days are behind him and just wants to live out his days earning a quiet living. Brian gets a couple key scenes and his character plays into the plot late in the movie. Still I wish he’d been given a bit more screen time as he does a fine job with what he has to work with here at a time when good roles were drying up for the one time Oscar nominee.

With titles by Saul Bass, Cowboy is relatively easy to locate and it’s even available under the Twilight Time banner on blu ray but with only 3000 copies pressed, it might be a tad more expensive compared to the Columbia DVD edition.

3 Comments »

  1. Nice summation of what the film offers and further proof, if we need it, that Daves was one of the superlative (yet still not as widely acknowledged as others) directors of westerns.

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