“HIS WOMEN – SULTRY! HIS CREED – VIOLENCE! HIS CAUSE – VENGEANCE!”
Director: R. G. Springsteen
Cast: Howard Keel, Jane Russell, Brian Donlevy
Synopsis: An ex-convict gunfighter turns sheriff in a town where his old girlfriend is a preacher’s wife.
Waco was one of a series of low-budget B-Westerns featuring has-beens that producer A. C. Lyle made in the mid-sixties. This one features singing star Howard Keel (whose career took an even more demeaning turn in the 1980s when he got a gig standing behind Miss Ellie in Dallas) in the title role of a low-down villain paroled from prison on the condition that he cleans up the town of Emporia, Wyoming. Presumably, the reasoning behind this move on the part of the authorities is that Waco is a bigger bad-ass than the bad-asses currently shooting up the town. Joe Gore (John Smith – Bells of Rosarita), owner of the town’s saloon and crooked casino, is chief bad guy, but he doesn’t trust his own hired gun (DeForest Kelley, immediately before he typecast himself for life by appearing as ‘Bones’ McCoy in the original Star Trek series) and arranges for a couple of brothers with an axe to grind to form a welcoming committee. Waco’s too smart for these sad sacks, though, and they end up standing naked in the town’s main street watching their clothes burn. That’s the kind of tough guy Waco is.
Waco accepted the task because Emporia happens to be the home of his old flame Jill (a matronly Jane Russell – The Outlaw, Road to Bali), but what he doesn’t know is that since he was put away she’s married a preacher (Wendell Corey – Sorry, Wrong Number, Rear Window). Naturally, he’s a little disgruntled when he finds out, and sends a telegram to his old mate Ace Ross (Brian Donlevy – The Quatermass Xperiment, The Errand Boy) with the intention of uprooting Gore and his cronies so that he and Ross can run the town themselves.
Waco is a tired old movie. It doesn’t even seem to want to shake off the torpor that infects nearly every scene. Of course, it’s not helped by that ageing cast. Keel’s not too bad, and his character’s inner struggle between good or bad could have been intriguing in the hands of a more accomplished writer than Steve Fisher, but as it is his repeated shifts in attitude come across as nothing more than unconvincing devices to pad out the running time. Jane Russell was 45 when Waco was released. She wasn’t ageing well, and the flat lighting does nothing to hide the fact. Brian Donlevy, whose role is little more than a walk-on part that sees him ride into town, get cold feet, and ride out again, looks fat and tired, while Wendell Corey, who saw his career implode because of his alcohol addiction, mostly looks as if he’s working very hard at standing still.
In this town of villains and low-lifes, rapists and killers, not one has the nerve to sneak up on Waco and shoot him in the back. Kelley offers to do so, the way he did to the previous sheriff, but Gore wimps out, worried he might miss. That’s the trouble with the characters in Waco: they lack consistency. They respond to incidents in unrealistic ways. For example, a prudish young woman (Tracy Olsen) who is raped by one of the revellers who are permanently (and unconvincingly) carousing outside Joe Gore’s place, believes she is nothing more than filth as a consequence of her ordeal and decides to get a job as a hooker in Gore’s saloon. Waco himself hides a secret that is simply ridiculous – and forgotten the moment it’s revealed. Why bother? In fact, that’s something worth asking yourself if you’re tempted to watch this tired old mess. You’ll only be disappointed if you do…
(Reviewed 9th November 2014)