The other December series on Criterion Channel that interested me (besides Screwball Comedies) was Snow Westerns, which predictably features westerns set at wintertime and/or high in the mountains with lots of snow. It’s a neat and unexpected feature to structure programming around, and I am here for it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) was my first thought when seeing the topic, and sure enough, that one’s here and a must-see. Another personal favorite in this series is Ride the High Country (1962), which deals with one of my favorite sub-genres of westerns (not snow, though there’s that as well) – the aging cowboy and the passing of the old West as civilization takes over. The Far Country (1955) is one of the best of the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations, and they’re all good. Beyond those, there are a lot of new-to-me films to catch up with here, though I may stop short of watching Ravenous (1999), described as a “cannibal comedy”.
I started with the earliest film on the list, which is a typical move for me as I go through these series – I will read all the plot descriptions to choose based on interest, but frequently they all sound interesting and I just default to chronological order. That put 1951’s The Secret of Convict Lake first up. I had never heard of this, but a western with Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney interested me immediately. Ford is an escaped convict who managed to get across the Sierra Nevadas from Carson City along with five other convicts – he leads them to a small settlement on Lake Monte Diablo; they think he’s leading them there because he has stashed $40,000 from a robbery there. In fact, he was framed for the robbery and he’s going to kill the man who framed him. But when they get there, the men have all gone silver prospecting and the settlement is 100% women, another plot detail that interested me greatly (women alone in the west fascinates me as a plot point; see Westward the Women).
Additional plot twist: lovely Gene Tierney is the fiancee of the man who framed Ford. Now, you may ask, as I did, how are the top-billed big star actor and actress going to become each other’s love interests, as you assume they will, if she’s in love with the man he’s sworn to kill? The writers work it out, trust me. The film is intense in a lot of different ways, as there are lots of dangers here. Also, there’s a great late role for the iconic Ethel Barrymore as the matriarch of the settlement. She may be bedridden for most of the film, but she has a force of character that towers over everything. She’s frail-bodied, but she is definitely iron-willed.
The voiceover at the end of the film claims it’s a true story, and that Lake Monte Diablo was renamed Convict Lake due to this incident. Of course I had to look that up immediately. There is a grain of truth in it – there is a Convict Lake in California (near Mammoth) and it was named that due to a posse catching up with a bunch (like 30) escaped Carson City convicts near that lake, in a creek named Monte Diablo. The female-only settlement, the robbery frame-up, the love story – no sign of any of that in history. I’ll go on the record saying I’m glad the film added those elements. Historical verisimilitude is overrated in many cases.