Burt Kennedy wrote and directed this good-looking western, set among the saguaros of Arizona. And with Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickinson in the cast, it should have been a corker. But the best scenes in the film have to work hard to keep the whole film afloat.
Plot. Mitchum takes a job as sheriff in Lordsburg to introduce some law and order, where it may be needed but not wanted. Jack Kelly plays a local saloon owner (named John Behan, maybe a double of the sheriff over in Tombstone) who wants Mitchum out of town. Angie Dickinson entertains at the saloon and competes with the scenery in a black spangly one-piece and feather boa. We like her.
Talented but miscast Robert Walker, Jr., plays the title character, Billy Young, a handsome young drifter. He has just returned from Mexico where he and David Carradine were hired to kill some nasty federales. Mitchum offers Walker a job as deputy, but he declines, given the odds against a lawman’s staying alive in this lawless town.
Carradine, it turns out, is the son of Frank Boone (John Anderson), an outlaw who once killed Mitchum’s son during a jailbreak in Dodge City. When Mitchum puts Carradine in jail, he hopes the move will flush Anderson out of the sagebrush, where he can settle an old score with the man.
Dickinson, meanwhile, is getting beaten up regularly by Behan. With the encouragement she gets from Mitchum’s tender attentions, she packs her bags. Conscience-stricken from years as a saloon dancer, she hopes to start a new life somewhere else.
There’s a shootout finally as Anderson and his gang arrive in town. Released from jail, Carradine shoots Behan, and Mitchum shoots Anderson, who gets run over by a stagecoach for good measure. In the final scene, Walker has agreed to wear a deputy’s star, Carradine is in jail again waiting the circuit judge, and Mitchum leaves town with a surprised Dickinson, who learns that she’s to become his wife.
Pluses. There’s nothing really wrong with the plot of the film, but its story must struggle with several handicaps. Mitchum is not one of them, unless you have the temerity to fault his girth. His old cool manner is still there, rarely cracking a smile, but equally persuasive whether being stern or tenderly attentive, as he is in scenes with Dickinson.
Their scenes together, in fact, do much to buoy up the film. They show Kennedy’s particular strength as a writer, and you can point to other films written by him where the scenes between men and women come alive onscreen. The dialogue reveals their loneliness, their wish to be simply cared for, and their basic decency.
Minuses. Other scenes and sequences carry less conviction. The first fifteen minutes are given to Walker and Carradine’s boarding of a troop train in Mexico, their killing of a car full of officers, and their escape on horseback. The sequence could bristle with suspense and excitement, but it is ponderously slow and improbable. The playful, jazzy music track by Shelly Manne establishes the tone of the film as more comic than serious, which doesn’t help either. For a contemporary western that pulls this off far more successfully, turn to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
The focus of the film is also split between Walker and Mitchum. Walker is the title character and gets a lot of screen time, but it’s really Mitchum’s story that we care about. Casting Walker may well have been a play for a young audience (even using the word twice in the title), but the film doesn’t give his part of the story enough weight.
Wrapping up. The film was shot in Arizona, and the desert cinematography is handsome and definitely western worthy. The western town set looks realistic, though strangely vacant, as if there wasn’t money in the budget for extras.
Excellent character actor Paul Fix plays a crusty stagecoach driver, and Willis Bouchey is the town doctor. Other highlights include fistfights, a lengthy shootout, a stagecoach pursued by thieves being shot from their horses, and Angie Dickinson in a bubble bath. Of debatable merit is the ballad of Young Billy Young which is sung over the credits by Robert Mitchum.
The script was very loosely based on a Will Henry novel about Wyatt Earp called Who Rides With Wyatt (1955). There’s only passing interest in authenticity; Mitchum wears a thoroughly dusty black hat, but like most of the other men in the film, it has a modern-day potato-chip brim. Angie Dickinson’s stage outfit looks more Vegas showgirl than frontier saloon queen. It’s a western for fans who like their stories a little tongue in cheek.
Young Billy Young is currently available at netflix and at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog.
Coming up: Women writers of the West