Tuesday, January 13, 2015

No Dinero Pistolero: BLACK NOON (1971)

In the mid-to-late 60's the Italians re-invented the American western, eliminating the chest-thumping bravado and faux patriotism and turning the genre into a place where dirty, violent men schemed and killed for gold and retribution.

You could argue that THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) marked a turning point in the traditional western, but, as everyone knows A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) is the true milestone. While other films, many of which were great in their own right, followed in a similar mold, in the early '70s the mass popularization of psychedelia seeped into the mainstream and the western became even further removed from the wholesome days of Tom Mix and Gene Autry. While DJANGO KILL! (1967) pushed the envelope of a nightmare world in a western setting, EL TOPO (1970), after being championed by John Lennon, set a precedent in mainstream culture, allowing westerns to break away from lingering stereotypes and use the western setting for a multitude of ideas. This extended to the small screen where TV movies had to rely on writing rather than a budget. The CBS Movie of the Week, BLACK NOON, is a perfect example of this.

The movie opens at night with a church engulfed in flames and a woman (Yvette Mimieux) watching in a nightgown, holding a cat.

Reverend Keyes (Roy Thinnes) and his wife Lorna (Lynn Loring) have found themselves stranded in the desert of the old west with a broken wheel and a dead horse. Both are on the edge of death, when a some kindly folks, Mayor Caleb Hobbs (Ray Milland), his daughter Deliverance (Yvette Mimieux) and their hired hand Joseph (Hank Worden), stop their buckboard to help them out.

After getting the reverend up on his feet, Lorna is still bed ridden. Hobbs tells Keyes that their last minister died tragically shortly after the town church burned to the ground and asks if he would stay on to preach for the people. While Keyes is supposed to be travelling to another community to help out, he is persuaded to stay long enough to give a sermon in the new church that the town is building for him. Caleb talks about the town's misfortunes, including a gold mine that has played out and a black-clad gunslinger named Moon (Henry Silva) who rides into town for his share of the gold from the local mine. The town has no sheriff, so the gunslinger runs roughshod over the populace virtually holding the town hostage.

Meanwhile Keyes is suffering from horrible nightmares about being chased by a man covered in burns and falling into the arms of Deliverance, who is mute and is secretly sculpting a candle that looks exactly like Lorna. Lorna too is plagued by nightmares, but seems unable to recover enough to get out of bed. On the one night that she does, she is horrified to see a group of children wearing animal masks, holding candles in the cemetery and while chanting something unintelligible.

As the strange forebodings begin to pile up, the reverend starts to realize that the town isn't what he thought it was and they need to get the hell out of Dodge.

While Thinnes may not be a riveting leading man, and Milland may not have much to work with, it is a great cast that also includes Gloria Grahame and Leif Garrett. I should point out that I have left out quite a bit of the plot, because if you do see it, you should do it cold. I don't want to over-sell the movie, but veteran TV director Bernard L. Kowalski (fresh off of the brilliant 1970 anti-western MACHO CALLAHAN) manages to make the "Twilight Zone-ish" screenplay work with what is clearly a budget comprised of spare change scraped out of couches in the CBS offices.

Today's jaded audiences might find this a bit too slow, as evidenced by the spoilerific IMDb reviews, but the goal here is to set up a brooding atmosphere of impending horror on a minimal budget.

Much like INN OF THE DAMNED (1975), the western setting is almost incidental and it only becomes apparent as to the reason for the setting at the end of the film. The dream/nightmare sequences are particularly well done, as is the rampant symbolism, such as a snake that slithers under the reverend's broken wagon in the beginning of the film. These are great little touches that are sadly lost in modern mainstream cinema. Still unreleased on VHS or DVD, it's a shame that the only way to see this is through bootleg copies of old TV broadcasts.

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