First, 1967’s The Last Challenge features the late Chad Everett (TV’s Medical Center) as Lot McGuire, a cocky quick draw who rolls into town, and Marshal Blaine (Glenn Ford, hangdog as ever) not only takes offense to that, but tries to run the jerk right back out. Coming between them is a saloon girl — wink wink — played by Angie Dickinson (TV’s Police Woman), making the dusty, dirty Old West look a lot more inviting to this viewer.
The final film for the prolific director Richard Thorpe (Knights of the Round Table, Follow the Boys, The Honeymoon Machine and nearly 200 others), Challenge slightly becomes just that, when the story shifts from manly pursuits over rattlesnakes, poker chips and six-shooters to from-the-heart pursuits of Dickinson. The action does pick up at the end, predictably, for the all-or-nothing showdown of the title.
From 1959, The Hanging Tree is an even more conventional oater, casting High Noon star Gary Cooper as gunslinging Doc Frail (that symbolism does not go unnoticed; how could it?), the kindly physician and ersatz leader of a Deadwood-type town named Skull Creek. Both Karl Malden (Cat o’ Nine Tales) and George C. Scott (Patton) bug out their eyes and dig in face-first to their roles to see who can play drunken fool better.
A story kicks in when a traveling stagecoach tumbles down a mountain, killing all but a foreign woman (Maria Schell, Superman), who’s left barely alive, badly burnt and blind. Doc Frail nurses her back to health amid Skull Creek residents’ greedy gold rush. Viewers may chuckle at now-awkward dialogue from Malden when someone strikes it rich: “It’s a glory hole? It’s a glory hole!”
And The Hanging Tree is OK, but Delmer Daves (The Red House) made a much better Western in the original 3:10 to Yuma. Once again, rattlesnakes and poker come into play, as if the filmmakers were ticking items off a checklist. —Rod Lott
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