The Last Posse
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Though clearly filmed as a B-Western second feature, Columbia Pictures' 1953 release The Last Posse is actually a complex, action-packed and well-acted movie deserving of closer attention. Even the movie's structure is unusual for a Western; told primarily in flashback, it relates the tale of the fate of a group of men who are on the track of a gang who robbed a wealthy cattle baron. Far from the standard cardboard stereotypes, the characters in The Last Posse are variously troubled, driven, hypocritical, alcoholic, and greedy, surely a combination of vices worthy of the most convoluted big budget psychological melodrama.
The Last Posse was written by husband and wife team Seymour and Connie Lee Bennett, working with veteran screenwriter Kenneth Gamet, who cut his movie-writing teeth on Nancy Drew mysteries as well as action films such as Flying Tigers (1942), Flying Leathernecks (1951) and Wake of the Red Witch (1948). Producer Harry Joe Brown started in silent movie Hollywood as a writer and cinematographer, and continued his career as a director and producer until the late 1960s. He worked in every possible genre and for an assortment of studios with such notable classics as Captain Blood (1952), Johnny Apollo (1940), Down Argentine Way (1940), and many others on his resume. Starting in the late 1950s he began to concentrate on Westerns including several highly acclaimed titles from Columbia - Ride Lonesome (1959), The Tall T (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), and others directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The Last Posse director Alfred L. Werker was also a long-time Hollywood veteran, working his way up from assistant direction of silent films to directing more than fifty films during his career, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), He Walks by Night (1948) and even a late Laurel and Hardy comedy A'Haunting We Will Go (1942).
The most impressive aspect of The Last Posse is its impeccable cast. Star Broderick Crawford won the Academy Award for Best Actor just a few years previously in 1949 for his role in All the King's Men and had a smash hit with the 1950 comedy Born Yesterday, but had slipped back into character roles and even some television work in the early fifties. Reportedly his real-life personality mirrored some of the rougher, tougher aspects of many of his parts, and it was this reputation for being difficult that evidently kept him from landing more lead roles. However, Crawford achieved true pop culture fame with his foray into television as Chief Dan Mathews on Highway Patrol, which ran from 1955 to 1959 and continued in heavy syndication during the 1960s. His gruff presence in that no-nonsense police actioner--call it Dragnet on wheels--gave him tremendous cachet with the TV generation and he appeared frequently on the tube until his death in 1986.
Handsome co-star John Derek began his career in the late 1940s; later he became somewhat of an auteur, writing, directing, and photographing several of his own films in the eighties. He also earned a reputation as the husband of beautiful women, Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek among them. Charles Bickford, playing the role of the greedy cattle baron in The Last Posse, was a distinguished actor who had been in Hollywood since the 1930s and who had garnered three Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nominations. His intelligent presence was a highlight of many films throughout the years, including The Song of Bernadette (1943), the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born (1954), The Big Country (1958), Johnny Belinda (1948) and many others. Lovely leading lady Wanda Hendrix never became a top name, but was a lovely addition to many films, possibly achieving her greatest fame thanks to her brief marriage to World War II military mega-hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy in 1949. The rest of the cast was made up of skilled character actors including Henry Hull, former child actor Skip Homeier, Warner Anderson, and the prolific Will Wright, whose screen and TV appearances numbered close to two hundred over his relatively brief twenty-year acting career.
One of the most striking elements of The Last Posse is its crisp, evocative black and white photography, thanks to veteran cinematographer Burnett Guffey who started his career during the silent era and made distinguished contributions to over a hundred films during his career. Only a year after The Last Posse, Guffey received an Oscar® for his work on From Here to Eternity (1953), and he would go on to earn three more Academy Award nominations--The Harder They Fall (1956), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and King Rat (1965)--and another win for his stunning work on Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.
Nowhere was Burnett Guffey's talent more in evidence than in The Last Posse sequences filmed at and around Lone Pine, a California mountain and desert location that had long been a favorite of movie companies looking for a suitably atmospheric backdrop for their productions. Originally a small town catering to the needs of local miners, Lone Pine--situated close to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 States, and the scenic Mammoth Lakes area--is a High Sierra jewel with 360 degree vistas. Better yet for film producers, it's within easy driving distance of Hollywood. The most memorable natural features, perhaps, are the unusual rock formations of the nearby Alabama Hills, huge dramatic outcroppings of oxidized stone, worn by millennia of erosion, whose sometimes jagged, sometimes strangely rounded peaks have been immortalized in hundreds of features films and television shows. The vast expanses of stark desert landscape were perfect for Westerns, too, and when photographed by a master cinematographer like Burnett Guffey for The Last Posse, add much to the movie's grim melodrama. At one time there was also a nearby ranch with several appropriate movie sets including a mission, a Western street and all the horses and wagons any visiting Hollywood filmmaker could desire. The Lone Pine area is still an ideal tourist attraction for movie buffs, and the town also hosts the annual Lone Pine Film Festival every fall, honoring Westerns and Western stars who helped put the tiny town on the map.
The Last Posse is also noted for being set in a real place of some notoriety. Just six years after the outer space aliens possibly came calling in 1947, the writers of The Last Posse used Roswell, New Mexico, as the town in the movie. Now, we can't promise little green men or flying saucers buzzing the Lone Pine skyline, but if you'll settle for frontier mendacity, lots of gunplay, and an intelligent screenplay, The Last Posse is out of this world.
Producer: Harry Joe Brown
Director: Alfred L. Werker
Screenplay: Seymour Bennett, Connie Lee Bennett, Kenneth Gamet
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: Broderick Crawford (Sheriff John Frazier), John Derek (Jed Clayton), Charles Bickford (Sampson Drune), Wanda Hendrix (Deborah), Warner Anderson (Robert Emerson), Henry Hull (Stokely).
by Lisa Mateas