Saturday, 12 September 2015

Movie Review: Sierra (1950)


A basic B-grade western, Sierra looks good but is an otherwise stiff and by-the-numbers adventure about family redemption.

Ring Hassard (Audie Murphy) lives with his father Jeff (Dean Jagger) in seclusion, deep in the Sierra mountains. They break wild horses for a living, and their only contact with the nearest town is through local drifter Lonesome (Burl Ives). Trouble starts when independent-minded tough girl Riley Martin (Wanda Hendrix) stumbles onto the Hassards, and uncovers the family secret: Jeff is a fugitive from justice, and Ring has been raised in isolation and never seen a woman up close. Nevertheless, Riley and Ring start to fall in love.

When Jeff hurts himself trying to tame a wild horse, Ring, Lonesome and Riley try to help by getting a doctor to his side, but their efforts only reveal the Hassard hideout to the local sheriff. Riley wants to be a lawyer and believes that she can help prove Jeff's innocence. But convincing a town full of angry folks that the long-wanted fugitive was wrongly convicted will be no easy task, especially when Riley's suitor Duke (Elliott Reid) decides that Ring is an inconvenient threat.

Directed by Alfred E. Green, Sierra has a few decent ideas scattered over its shortish 83 minutes of running time, but the movie is otherwise barely above the level of a television western episode. The characters are wooden, the action routine, the dialogue stilted and the set-pieces contrived. The film does look good thanks to rich colours, and the locations around the Hassard household evoke a sense of solitude and provide plenty of ambush opportunities.

Green occupies quite a few minutes with scenes of galloping wide horses, and appears particularly taken with the dominant black mare that leads the rest of the herd. The horses are supposed to represent the Hassards' embrace of freedom and their tenuous remaining connections to civilization, but the thundering hooves eventually just get boring.

The cast is interesting, but underperforms. Audie Murphy's idea of acting here is to stand rigidly and stare into the distance, oblivious that he is unable to convey neither intensity nor thoughtfulness. Burl Ives is saddled with an old guitar and a mule, and is forced to sing a few godawful songs. Dean Jagger is the only character with a backstory, but while Jeff Hassard spends most of the film on his back, his old tale of being wrongly accused of murder is underdeveloped.

And Wanda Hendrix (Mrs. Audie Murphy at the time) never gains traction as a credible person, and cannot be taken seriously whether she is pretending to be a woman lost in the wilderness, a lawyer, or the love interest. James Arness and Tony Curtis appear in small early roles as members of the Coulter family, also hiding out from the law.

The mountains are high and the colours vivid, but Sierra is just too meager to matter.






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