Saturday, January 8, 2011

Big Calibre (Supreme Pictures, filmed 1934, released 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Big Calibre, a 1935 “B” Western from Supreme Pictures that was mentioned in the George Turner-Michael Price book Forgotten Horrors as an especially weird one with horror elements that merited inclusion in their survey. Despite its generic title, Turner and Price rank this as “a close second for uncompromising freakishness” among 1930’s Westerns to Ken Maynard’s Smoking Guns (a real weirdie from Universal in 1934 which I’ve never seen, but whose American Film Institute Catalog synopsis indicates it deals with disease, D.I.Y. amputation and other elements one doesn’t expect to find in a film of its genre and time). Its star is Bob Steele, whose real name was Robert Adrian Bradbury and whose father, Robert N. Bradbury (like the Bushes, the Bradburys used the same first name for father and son but gave them different middle names to distinguish them), directed this film and probably also wrote its screenplay, though the story was by Perry Murdock, who was mostly a set decorator (he has 44 credits on in that craft and only four as a writer) and who, at least according to some sources, also appeared — unbilled — as the principal villain. (Turner and Price credit him with the performance, the American Film Institute Catalog doesn’t credit anyone with it but says “modern sources” attribute the performance to Murdock, and credits Bill Quinn with playing the villain and Murdock playing a small role as a drunk — the part Turner and Price credit to Quinn!)

Big Calibre is clearly set in the 1934-35 present — the film includes prospecting for uranium and a so-called “stage” that isn’t a horse-drawn stagecoach but a flatbed truck with rails — and it starts, as many of Bradbury’s films do, with the hero’s father being murdered, which sends him on a revenge quest that takes up most of the running time of the film. At the outset, Bob Neal (Bob Steele) has raised $60,000 to save his father’s Triple-N Ranch from his creditors, only he’s concerned about getting the money deposited to the bank as soon as possible because he’s worried that dad will be waylaid and the money stolen. As things turn out, the bad guys don’t wait until the morning: Bob’s dad (credited to Frank Ball in the American Film Institute Catalog and Frank Brownlee in Forgotten Horrors and is killed that evening by a pellet filled with poison gas, thrown in his face by a masked, hooded figure who got in the house through a conveniently open window. (An awful lot of 1920’s and 1930’s movies feature people being put in mortal peril by enemies who sneak into their houses through open windows, and even as late as the 1940’s a regular feature of the Charlie Chan movies was his houseguests being shot by gunmen shooting through open windows. The moral of these stories: keep your damned windows closed!)

The gas seems to work in mysterious ways, since it’s supposed to be instantly lethal but only if you get a faceful of it immediately, since a number of others (including Bob and the sheriff’s deputy who responds to his call) are exposed to more diffuse fumes of it at longer distances (but still in the same room) and survive unscathed. The deputy suggests that Bob get the gas analyzed (the killer conveniently left an undetonated vial of it outside the window) at the assayer’s office run by Otto Zenz (the bad guy who’s played by either Perry Murdock or Bill Quinn), but Bob spots a telltale footprint on the dirt floor of Zenz’ shop and recognizes it as the same footprint left behind outside the window by the man who killed Bob’s father. Bob realizes Zenz is the killer but Zenz escapes. Bob and his sidekick Rusty Hicks (the part the American Film Institute Catalog attributes to Bill Quinn and both Forgotten Horrors and credit to John Elliott), having lost their ranch, turn to prospecting and discover not gold but uranium, which seems to be a good thing except that in order to have it tested they have to turn to local assayer Gadski, who wears a fang-like set of false upper teeth and a mask which gives his face a pasty-white appearance, and speaks in a whispery voice he’s clearly trying to disguise.

The film saves the big revelation that Gadski and Zenz are the same person until the end, but it’s really not much of a surprise — and it turns out that Gadski and the local banker, Jack Bently (Forrest Taylor), are in cahoots to seize the ranch belonging to Bob’s friend Jim Bowers (credited to John Elliott in the American Film Institute Catalog and Frank Ball in Forgotten Horrors and and his daughter June (Peggy Campbell). Needless to say, Bowers père is waylaid in the desert and is missing and presumed dead, and the money with which he was going to pay his debt to Gadski and resume free and clear ownership of the ranch disappears — while Bob finds a bone that presumably belongs to Bowers and is accused of murdering him.

Bob and Rusty are arrested but use a vial of Zenz’ gas to corrode the lock of their cell and escape, and they disguise themselves and go to a square dance where Gadski is also present. Bob slips Gadski a note that says he knows Gadski was involved in Bowers’ death, and a fight breaks out at the dance in which Gadski loses his disguise and is revealed as Zenz. Then Jim Bowers shows up, not dead after all; he was found on the desert, wounded but still alive, and nursed back to health by an Indian named Blackhawk. (The bone Bob found was actually from a steer.) All seems headed for a happy ending until Zenz escapes again and Bob gives chase on horseback; he shoots Zenz’ horse but Zenz continues his escape attempt by car-jacking the motor stage and Bob has to shoot out Zenz’ tire to slow him down enough to catch up. The car ends up perched on the edge of a cliff, and Zenz accidentally releases one of his gas bombs and kills himself, while Bob manages to escape the twin dangers of Zenz’ gas and the precipice and ends up with Peggy at the fadeout.

Big Calibre is one of those movies that was considerably more imaginative in conception than in execution — the script delves into the Western cliché bank but mashes up the usual tropes of a “B” Western to such an extent that they’re almost unrecognizable. With a visually imaginative director this could have been a real gem, but Bradbury and cinematographers John Alton (who obviously was still learning the game) and William Hyer shoot it the way most “B” Westerns were shot, with lighting provided mostly by the sun — though at least this one does have interiors, they’re not especially creatively lit, and a wildly imaginative plot that cries out for proto-noir treatment doesn’t get it. The poverty-stricken budget also means that there is no background music at all except for the opening and closing credits, which gives an oddly Spartan feel to the action scenes — though given the cheesiness of the music we hear under the credits, it’s probably just as well that Bradbury and his producers. A. W. Hackel and Sam Katzman, decided not to use the schlocky rent-a-scores that would have been available to them. Still, there’s a lot to like about Big Calibre: Bradbury stages the action excitingly and Steele is a boyishly charming actor, not quite butch enough for the John Wayne roles (Charles compared him to Farley Granger!) but certainly credible as the character, and Peggy Campbell is a personable leading lady several cuts above what you usually got in the perfunctory women’s roles in these movies. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly worth watching and far more creative than a by-the-numbers “B” Western like Range Defenders!