Western Director Andrew McLaglen produced and directed this film with his star from Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart. McLaglen was also the director of McLintock! from our post two weeks ago.
This is a hard to find gem, as far as I can tell there is no legitimate DVD or Blu Ray available for the movie. You can stream it with commercials on a couple of sites. When I first was looking for it, streaming was not nearly as accessible as it is now. I bought a TCM bootlegged copy on ebay.
The story involves three released convicts who are in possession of a check for $25,452.32, a sum that would be more than a half million dollars in today’s world. In 1935, the idea that a convict could accumulate that much in prison from the pittance they earned is a stretch, but that is the set up. A corrupt prison guard and the bank manager plot to keep Jimmy Stewart’s character Matty Appleyard from collecting.
Strother is Lee Cottrill, Matty’s friend and partner in a general store they plan on opening. Their young associate is played by Kurt Russell.
George Kennedy and Strother have basically changed roles here from their previous collaboration in “Cool Hand Luke”. Now Kennedy is the evil Captain Doc’ Council, and Jay is the prisoner under his thumb. Lee is a cooperative ex-con who dreams of nothing more than stocking his store with the products he discovers everyday, looking for quality items that the public will want. He and Johnny, Russell’s character, follow Mattie’s lead and no one wants trouble, but the corrupt banker is determined that they will be stopped, at the point of murder if needed.
They meet a mining supply salesman who turns out to be a drunk, and they end up with his stash of dynamite while fleeing from Council and his two hired thugs. Lee is a failed bank robber and Strother plays him as a naïf, focused only on the items he adds to his list constantly, and only slowly aware of the dangers they face. As it becomes more apparent that they are in deep trouble, Strother dons his anxious and feckless persona and becomes a creature one could pity out of his simplicity.
Of course Lee can easily be distracted and when Anne Baxter shows up as a madam with a floating bordello/gin joint, Lee can’t really resist and gets the three men tangled up in another plot complication while trying to escape.
We all know that if dynamite is introduced in a story, it is going to be used in the film somewhere. The explosion that takes place on the river is pretty spectacular and Strother’s character gets a couple of comic lines that are maybe a little light given the destruction involved.
At one point, the three have separated from one another and Lee and Johnny have several scenes together. I’m pretty happy about this because I am a big fan of Kurt Russell and he is basically playing straight man to Strother.
This is a very substantial part in one of the last films that Jimmy Stewart was the featured star. The story works pretty well and the outcome is satisfying. The bad guy gets what is coming to him but we see it in a pretty indirect way.
This was a great role for Jay with Jimmy Stewart having worked with him in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” and two years later they co-starred in a TV show called “Hawkins”, which only ran for one season but was highly rated critically [Jay was nominated for a Golden Globe for the series.]