Friday, 17 February 2012

From the archive: "Al Jennings of Oklahoma"

Al Jennings of Oklahoma is a very decent Western programmer, offering a rare lead role for Dan Duryea - the William H. Macy of his day - and based on the memoirs of the real-life figure of the title: a firebrand lawyer, equally adept with his wits and fists, who was forced to go on the lam after shooting down the bigshot who killed his brother. The casting of Duryea, an actor who generally played hoods and heels, as a hero goes some way to indicating the film's essential (and unusual) moral flexibility, a quality it shares with its protagonist. This fugitive man-of-law has to negotiate a series of new identities for himself, first with a gang of outlaws, later to move back into respectable society and win the hand of the gal that he loves.

It's almost revisionist in its insistence that everyone in the Old West was on the make in some way, but its eye for characterisation can be surmised from one attentive tracking shot along a line of passengers hauled off a train the Jennings gang are holding up, and - as you'd maybe expect from a storyteller with some legal experience - it's sharp indeed on the technicalities of this particular case. That deadening 1950s insistence on justice being seen to be done is evident in the finale, but up until then, this remains a genuinely unpredictable little yarn: the only outcome we can be sure of is that Jennings, in whatever guise, survived long enough to get this story down on paper. A knowing, conspiratorial air emerges in the scene where the law arrives to unmask our hero as a trainrobber at a dinner party on the eve of Al's wedding, causing one Southern belle to exclaim "Trainrobbers! Oh my goodness, I don't know whether to be chilled or thrilled."

(June 2011)

Al Jennings of Oklahoma screens on five tomorrow at (high) noon.

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