After watching Larceny (1948) the other day I wanted some more Dan Duryea movies, and ended up watching this double feature of westerns he made with Audie Murphy. In Ride Clear of Diablo (1954) Murphy plays Clay O’Mara, who’s working for the railway when he learns that his father and brother have been murdered by cattle rustlers. In his search for revenge, Clay is deputized by corrupt Sheriff Kenyon (Paul Birch), crooked lawyer Tom Meredith (William Pullen) and their lackey Jed Ringer (Russell Johnson). Since they’re all involved in the O’Mara murders, they send Clay on several dangerous missions and goose chases, confident that he’ll get killed before he discovers their crimes.
First they send him after gunman Whitey Kincade (Duryea), and are shocked to see how quickly Clay apprehends Whitey and brings him back for trial. If they only knew about the burgeoning friendship between Whitey and Clay. Though Whitey says he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot Clay in the back, he’s amused by Clay’s naïveté, impressed by his fast draw, puzzled by his principles and perseverance. He also wants to clear his own name and relishes the excitement of seeing fellow outlaws get outplayed by this constantly underestimated deputy. Duryea characteristically makes Whitey a delightful black hat with a devilish snicker, who’s unpredictable but can increasingly be counted on to pop up right when Clay needs support and protection. Whitey surprises everyone, most of all himself, when he helps Clay solve the O’Mara killings, and then goes all soft and sentimental, sacrificing himself to help his new buddy get justice.
Laurie (Susan Cabot), the sheriff’s niece and Meredith’s girlfriend, falls for Clay and they both get a rude awakening about people they respect. Jack Elam is one member of an outlaw family on Kenyon’s side and Abbe Lane plays a saloon singer who tells all about the crimes when her beloved Ringer is used one too many times. Murphy is perfectly placid and steady, soft-spoken with a steely resolve as he steps through this mess of double-crosses and lies toward a very exciting shootout, fistfight and happy ending. Ride Clear of Diablo was directed by Jesse Hibbs.
Eight years later Murphy and Duryea were a similar odd couple in Six Black Horses (1962). Here, Ben (Murphy) is mistaken for a horse thief and saved from hanging by Frank Jesse (Duryea, just as conflicted as the James brothers he’s apparently named after). The two drifters gain a cute dog companion and discuss how to profit from their shooting talents, then get caught up in a shootout that brings them to the attention of Kelly (Joan O’Brien). She offers them tons of cash if they’ll escort her through dangerous territory toward a reunion with her husband, but the truth is Kelly’s true intention is revenge against Frank for killing her husband years before.
The trio’s journey is slow going but interesting, as they figure out each other’s motives and loyalties, face hostile Indians and a gang of Frank’s enemies. There’s real surprise when Kelly almost shoots Frank in the back, and some baffling moments where she seems to be causing trouble and delay, even inviting attack, by throwing brush on a fire or possibly loosening a horseshoe. Still, she’s a mysterious character and believable source of extra tension as both men become smitten with her. Ben is all business and aims to protect Kelly, while Frank is a leering drooling lech who disgusts Ben with comments about her beauty and body and what he wouldn’t do, etc. Even so, Duryea is so good at giving his losers and bad guys a likable, decent streak. Most of the way through he remains unpredictable, and he’s not a totally ruthless killer either, explaining to Kelly that shooting her husband was never personal, but part of his job as hired gun, which makes them similar since it’s suggested that her past profession was the world’s oldest. Six Black Horses (the title refers to Frank’s dream funeral) was directed by Harry Keller and written by Burt Kennedy.