Saturday, February 27, 2021

Movie Reviews: Destry

Destry
directed by George Marshall
This 1954 Western remake movie starred the famous WW2 hero and single most decorated soldier of all time Audie Murphy in the title role. Destry gives us a protagonist who just wants to be left alone and to do right. Unfortunately life intervenes with the man's plans.
Given that Murphy had put two hundred or more enemy soldiers in the ground there is some minor irony here seeing him as a man who eschews firearms and violence in favor of peaceful discussion and adherence to the law above all else. 
However, the 5-5 Murphy was in real life, like his character here, soft spoken, calm and quiet. That is until you tried to mess with him or his. Murphy was once tried for attempted murder after getting into a fistfight (and apparently winning) with a 6-3 dog trainer who had made the mistake of groping one of Murphy's female friends and abusing her German Shepherd. Murphy didn't deny attacking the man but basically said that if he had wanted to kill the man he would have. The jury agreed and acquitted him. So, Murphy was not a man to mess with.
Destry was, like Shane, a didactic movie. It feeds into and defines the American image of a real man as someone who doesn't go looking for trouble but doesn't run from it either. 
In Destry the sheriff of a small Western town dies unexpectedly. Very unexpectedly. The official word is heart attack though some people have their doubts. But unless those people want to have a heart attack as well they are well advised to keep their thoughts to themselves. After all, nobody asked them did they? 

The corrupt town mayor Sellers (Edgar Buchanan) and crime boss Decker (Lyle Bettger) carefully consider which man would be their best choice for top lawman. Such a man must be beyond reproach of course. He must be energetic and unafraid. He's got to be smart. Just kidding. Sellers and Decker don't want anyone like that.
After thinking about it, the duo settle on the town drunk Rags (Thomas Mitchell) as the new sheriff. They wake him up to tell him this to great laughter by the bar inhabitants and Decker's thugs. They expect that Rags will hire Decker as his deputy. But Rags is tired of being the town joke. He's tired of Decker's pimping, gambling, and land speculation. Rags is also one of those who thinks the previous sheriff didn't die from a heart attack. Rags remembers when he used to run with the noted sheriff Destry.
Now Destry was shot in the back but Rags has heard that Destry's son Tom is also a lawman like his father. Tom Destry has supposedly had great success cleaning up other towns. Rags swears off drinking, refuses to hire Decker, and sends for Tom Destry. If Tom Destry is anything like his old man, Rags thinks he'll have the town clean in no time.
But when Destry (Murphy) arrives in town he's no one's idea of a rough and tumble lawman. He's too short, too small, and too young looking. He doesn't drink. He's first seen carrying an umbrella and bird cage. He's very meticulous in his speech and smiles too much. He's polite and friendly. He doesn't seem to realize that people are laughing at him and not with him.

Worst of all Destry refuses, absolutely refuses, to carry a gun. Destry says that a gun didn't help his father when he was shot in the back. 
Destry prefers to appeal to people's better nature and self-interest when enforcing the law. All this sends Rags into despair while amusing Decker and company to no end.
Two very different women take an interest in Destry. Brandy (Mary Blanchard),  is a saloon dancer, Decker's primary girlfriend, and although the film dances around it, a prostitute. When someone tells her that they saw Decker come out of her room, she smartly responds "A lot of men come out of my room!". Brandy doesn't take any stuff off anyone for any reason. She's prone to throwing things at people when she gets upset. She's the classic bad girl with a heart of gold. This is the role that Marlene Dietrich played in a previous version and which Madeline Kahn later parodied in Blazing Saddles.
Martha (Lori Nelson) is the good girl spitfire who thinks she can take care of herself when Decker tries to steal her family's lands. She likes Destry but isn't sure he's got what it takes to protect himself let alone anyone else. Over time, everyone in town will come to realize that although Destry doesn't like to raise his voice or put hands on people, if you're breaking the law you will eventually have a problem with him. And just because he doesn't like to use a gun doesn't mean he can't. 
This was a fun if predictable film. There is a catfight which was probably a little risque by fifties standards. I liked the film's invocation of law as a concept which can hinder as well as protect.
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