Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy (1958), directed by Delmer Daves.

Hotel clerk Jack Lemmon invests in a cattle drive, becoming partner to desperate trail boss Glenn Ford, who immediately regrets it. The boys work him hard, but dude though he is, he works and takes it seriously. After his Mexican girlfriend breaks his heart he becomes as tough as any of them.

The studio promoted this as "the West as it really was", as if no one had made a realistic western before. Still, it illustrates truths sometimes forgotten: that the cowboys did the work because it was a job, not because they loved it. That the West was where they worked, but they would rather be back in Chicago with plenty of hot water, fine dining and yes, even opera.

Jack Lemmon is an "indoor" sort of guy, but that makes him good as an outsider. You don't know what sort of grit a man will show until he is stressed. Same with Dick York and King Donovan: believably grubby on the trail, unusual roles for them.

We're more used to seeing Brian Donlevy, Richard Jaeckel and uncredited Strother Martin in the saddle and they fit right in.

What I remembered of this one from years ago: everyone kidding Donovan about having eaten an Indian once. "I only ate a haunch" he protests. And the tragic incident where Jaeckel throws a rattlesnake as a joke and kills Martin with it. And then wants his boots.

Delmer Daves is hard to pin down as a director. He presents a sort of relaxed realism. Others would heighten dramatic tension with imagery, but he tends to let it go.

Available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time with a commentary track by Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Paul Seydor. They say My Reminiscences as a Cowboy by Frank Harris, adapted for the film, is not exactly reliable history.