Station West (DVD Review)1 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Raymond Burr, Burl Ives.
More than one interested party has called this Luke Short adaptation “Western film nor,” and, let’s face it, there aren’t a whole lot of those around. Station West does, after all, star one of the kings of noir — Dick Powell, after his almost unbelievable image switcheroo from a Warner Bros. tenor — while the film’s not quite love interest Jane Greer had recently immortalized herself with 1947’s Out of the Past, though it took a long time for that noir masterpiece to attain the sky-high standing it enjoys today. The two make an interesting pair here, though Greer’s character here is merely tough and not the duplicitous schemer she is opposite Past’s Robert Mitchum.
Powell was on the short side in real life, and there’s actually a line in West’s crisp dialogue that alludes to this, which is something moviegoers rarely heard in terms of male actors with clout (and he had some). This said, there’s an unusually brutal street fight here between Powell and (as the town’s shady lawman) Guinn “Big Boy” Williams — who, like Powell, had previously been a Warner fixture. This is the rare Western where a brawl participant is still wincing from tender knuckles the next day — something that, for instance, we never saw Roy Rogers do, even when his Westerns became some of Hollywood’s most brutal after the war (say, buckaroos, always remember to crumble the bad guy’s nose cartilage and leave a divot or two in his cheekbones).
Set in the early 1880s but with Civil War memories looming even more than they apparently still do in 2016, West casts Powell as a stranger who rides into town on a covert mission that’ll involve the nearby army post, gold-shipment thefts and a lot of shady characters who may or may not include Greer — whose character’s name (Charlie) leads to some initial confusion. She works out of her saloon, and her money controls a lot of the town, which attracts a lot of local leeches who’d like to benefit from any financial spillage. One of these (and it seems all but inevitable at late ’40s RKO) is played by Raymond Burr — many pounds before he regularly left his own divots in the backside of district attorney William Talman (as Hamilton Burger) on TV’s “Perry Mason.” (Today’s question: What kind of parents with the last name “Burger” would name their kid “Ham”?) I can remember my mother saying, when casting was announced in early 1957, that she just couldn’t “see” Burr as Perry Mason before he proved her wrong — mostly because of the characters he played in his formative screen years. He was usually an oily villain (Adventures of Don Juan), outright sadist (see him flambé a bimbo in Raw Deal) or a sniveling coward like the lawyer he plays here.
Rounding out some robust casting demographics are Agnes Moorehead for some of that patented Agnes Moorehead Western (she’s actually rather appealing here as a mine owner) and, of all people, Burl Ives. I always wondered if Hoagy Carmichael’s success at singing and selling "Ole Buttermilk Sky" in Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage eased Ives’s success at branching out, but any event, ’48 was a fairly big year for Ives on screen when you put West together with his success in Disney’s So Dear to My Heart, where he introduced "Lavender Blue" (a standard so unexpectedly pliable that it got revived as an R&B hit in the summer of ’58). Here, he plays the town troubadour who just sits around strumming ditties as Powell nurses his knuckle contusions. It’s a living (though it’s kind of hard to see how).
Put this all together with dialogue that really does sound noir-ish at times, and the result really is off-kilter in the good way — though I have a feeling the print utilized here may be the shortened one for its re-issue Powell’s wisecracks are so good that they wouldn’t shame his own Philip Marlowe had that sleuth time-machined himself to the Old West (and there are times here when you almost feel that he has). Adding to this Dore Schary production’s oddness is its choice of director: Sidney Lanfield. He was a comedy specialist who did two or three of the better Bob Hope’s and much later ended up turning Ernie Borgnine into a farceur on episodes of "McHale’s Navy." But Lanfield also launched the beloved series of Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce “Sherlock Holmes” movies with The Hound of the Baskervilles, back before anyone realized it would enjoy an eight-year run at two different studios.