The Walking Hills (1949)
Long associated with tough, male dominated pictures like The Magnificent Seven, Bad Day At Black Rock and The Great Escape, director John Sturges got an early go around with a likewise production here under the Columbia banner featuring an almost exclusively male cast. One led by western icon Randolph Scott that while not exactly a western keeps Mr. Scott in a familiar setting and cowboy hat.
Scott along with producer Harry Joe Brown team with Sturges and a solid cast heading out to Death Valley in search of lost gold for this fast paced 78 minute black and white feature. The setting is current to the year of the film’s release along the Mexico border where men who have a warrant issued on them for crimes committed in the U.S. seek refuge just over the borderline. Crossing the line and looking nervous as the film opens is William Bishop closely followed by detective John Ireland. John appears to be closing in on his man. In little screen time at all, Bishop takes refuge in a cantina where a poker game is going on in the back room. He sets in and shortly thereafter Ireland does the same.
The key players in the plot are all seated in the game or around the table. Along with Bishop and Ireland we have headliner Scott, Arthur Kennedy, Edgar Buchanan, Russell Collins, Jerome Courtland and Josh White who will be supplying some first rate blues and guitar playing along the journey. It’s not only the cards that some players are keeping close to their vest in this game. When old time prospector Buchanan relates the story of a wagon train loaded with gold lost to the desert area known as The Walking Hills nearly a hundred years ago, young Courtland innocently mentions how he happened across a wagon wheel just recently in the same area. And with that these treasure hunters are born and married to each other as greed quickly becomes a dominating force among some of the members of this expedition.
Once the gang cross the border back into the U.S. and head for the Sierra Madre’s …… sorry about that but this film coming out just one year after Huston’s magnificent movie has to be more than just a coincidence. Anyway, the gang are in Death Valley when along comes Ella Raines who knows both Scott and Bishop and seems to have been a former lover of each. Miss Raines made her film debut opposite Scott in the 1943 Corvette K-225. Her past helps to unveil Bishop’s via a flashback in a plot full of twists and men looking over their shoulder wondering if Ireland’s self confessed cop is there to bring them in. As for Ireland, he’s content to let guilty men walk if they can dig up the long lost wagon train of Buchanan’s dreams.
Scott rides tall here as one might expect in a gang of unsavory characters. We know going in that he’s gonna do right by the fade out. Ireland is going to get a might greedy and as for Arthur Kennedy’s gold digger, he’s rather underused in the proceedings. The decade that followed would see him rise to the ranks of the number one villain in numerous films including some of the Anthony Mann westerns. Buchanan plays a role both he and movie goers were accustomed to seeing him in. That of a jovial lay about looking for an easy payday and one that the hero takes a liking to. Just as Scott does here.
Crisply directed by Sturges, this proved a great training ground for the eventual box office hits he’d helm in the not too distant future. Among them Gunfight at the O.K. Corral which also teamed him once again with Canadian actor John Ireland.
Randolph Scott is the star player here but this is more of an ensemble piece in a claustrophobic setting where the sand and heat are bound to prey on one’s nerves. That and the knowledge that Ireland’s cop might be after you. Sitting down to watch this Scott film, I had no idea what or where the plot was going to take me. I just assumed it was another Scott oater when in fact it’s far from it. It’s a modern day treasure hunt in need of horses which keeps Randy right at home. I came across this title as part of a TCM Vault Collection dedicated to Scott and can easily recommend this to those who haven’t seen it. And of course if you have, why not give it another look. Great cast and a rising director make the whole venture worth while.