Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeff Chandler, Fess Parker, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Herbert Rudley, Frank DeKova, Don Megowan, Leo Gordon, Shari Lee Bernath, Jimmy Carter, Harry Dean Stanton
Written by: A.I. Bezzerides, Frank Fenton, Melvin Frank, Joseph Petracca
Directed by: Melvin Frank
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100
Date: 10/15/1959

The Jayhawkers (1959)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Undercover Cowboy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Co-written by the great A.I. Bezzerides, The Jayhawkers is basically an undercover cop story disguised as a Western. These stories always involve a hero that pretends to be a bad guy, becomes the best buddy of the ring leader, and then finds himself conflicted when comes to believe in some of the things the ring leader says and does. The Jayhawkers isn't a particularly subtle example of this, but it's an entertaining one nonetheless, with its own shades of gray.

Fess Parker stars as Cam Bleeker, who begins the movie having escaped prison, making his way, half-dead, across the desert. He finds his old homestead and collapses, delirious. When he awakes, he discovers that his beloved wife is no longer living there. Instead, a lovely French widow, Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), has purchased it and lives there with her two kids. Cam slowly becomes one of the family, until he is discovered. But the governor of Kansas makes him a deal: if Cam can infiltrate the notorious gang led by Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler), he can buy his freedom.

Oh, and Darcy is also the man that corrupted and caused the death of Cam's wife.

The most interesting aspect of this is that Cam is a fugitive, and that Darcy is actually a canny businessman and a charismatic leader, disguising his men as "Redlegs" and destroying towns before swooping in a day later to "save" them again. Unfortunately, neither Chandler nor Parker are the greatest of actors. They both seem to rely a bit too heavily on deep, baritone voices for their screen presence, and neither has much of an idea of how to stand or move.

Thankfully Henry Silva is on hand as a menacing thug, and the great Harry Dean Stanton has one scene, with a line or two.

Director Melvin Frank was better known as a writer (he earned several Oscar nominations), but he makes a nice-looking VistaVision film, adequately building suspense and alternating outdoor action with the many indoor talking scenes. Happily, some of the talking scenes, such as one in which Cam tries to teach the little French kids some Western-style English ("he's fixin' to"), are hilarious.

All in all, this cast and crew have pieced together a highly entertaining, old-fashioned Western, very much worth checking out. Olive Films has released this old Paramount gem on a new Blu-Ray. The colors are vibrant, and there are some nicks and scratches from the source material that have not been digitally repaired. But curiously, some of the flaws look more like lines of video dropout -- like from an old VHS tape -- rather than anything film related. There are no extras.

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