‘Cowboy’: A Western Where Different Worlds Collide

This western has all of the trappings of a great coming-of-age tale.
‘Cowboy’: A Western Where Different Worlds Collide
Tom Reese (Glenn Ford), in “Cowboy.” (Columbia Pictures)
Ian Kane

NR | 1h 1m | Drama, Western | 1958

Glenn Ford’s career spanned five decades, and he starred in both gritty crime dramas and westerns. One of his more engaging westerns was 1958’s “Cowboy,” directed by Delver Daves.

Having recently watched and reviewed 1948’s “Mr. Soft Touch,” a crime caper about a World War II veteran (Ford) navigating the gritty underworld of 1940s’ San Francisco, I wondered how he would pair with Jack Lemmon. While Ford’s acting style is usually very understated, Lemmon brings a nervous energy to each of his roles.

“Cowboy” is based on the semi-autobiographical novel “My Reminiscences as a Cowboy,” by Frank Harris. In the film, Lemmon plays Harris, a somewhat naïve hotel clerk in Chicago who dreams of owning a cattle ranching business.

Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) secures some hotel whiskey after coming in from the dusty trail, in “Cowboy.” (Columbia Pictures)
Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) secures some hotel whiskey after coming in from the dusty trail, in “Cowboy.” (Columbia Pictures)

Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) enters the picture as a seasoned trail boss who suddenly arrives at the hotel with all of his cowboys in tow. Since the hotel manager Mr. Fowler (Vaughn Taylor) is fond of Reese, he orders Frank to vacate some rooms for the rowdy cowboys.

However, one of the rooms in question happens to be where Frank’s love interest Maria Vidal (Anna Kashfi) is staying, along with her Mexican cattle baron father, Señor Vidal (Donald Randolph). Maria and Frank have fallen in love, but Vidal doesn’t approve and plans to return with his family to their ranch in Guadalupe, Mexico.

Frank learns of Reese’s plans to travel to Vidal’s ranch and do some business with him; he approaches the cowboy with a proposal: If Reese takes him along on the trail with him down to Mexico, he’ll pay his way with money that his rancher father left posthumously to him. Since Reese is drunk and lost  a bunch of money during a heated gambling session, he reluctantly agrees.
Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon, L) and Tom Reese (Glenn Ford), in “Cowboy” (Columbia Pictures)
Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon, L) and Tom Reese (Glenn Ford), in “Cowboy” (Columbia Pictures)
Unfortunately, when Frank shows up the next morning eager to ride with the cowboys, Reese can barely remember the agreement he made with the aspiring cattleman. He tries to give Frank his money back, but the latter reminds Reese that a deal’s a deal, drunk or not, so Reese begrudgingly relents.

Unusual Setup

This film has to have one of the most unusual setups I’ve seen in a Western. Instead of beginning with a sunbaked desert or dust-strewn small town on the Western Frontier, it begins at a civilized locale. Reese is something of a unique character. Although he’s a cowboy who lives and breathes the rough-and-tumble life of a cowpoke, he also enjoys the amenities of high society, such as opulent hotels and the opera.

Although Lemmon was already in his 30s when he put on some spurs for the role of Frank Harris, the film has all of the trappings of a great coming-of-age tale. The trail that the men ride on together functions as a vehicle for Frank and Reese to learn more about each other through various tests and trials.

The turbulent journey is an eye-opener for Frank, who initially has a much more idealistic inkling of what cowboy life is like and gains a more realistic perspective along the way.

Conversely, although Reese starts off with a pretty gruff attitude toward Frank, their experiences together make Reese more understanding (and even sympathetic). Lemmon and Ford contrast well and set up some interesting situations that each of their characters has to deal with.

Anna Kashfi, who was Marlon Brando’s first wife, is fire on the screen as Lemmon’s love interest. The chemistry between them is almost palpable—their eyes flutter and their lips quiver as they stare at each other longingly. It never feels overwrought or too syrupy, but instead seems like more of a sincere infatuation, which most people will recognize.

Supporting actor Brian Donlevy does an excellent job of portraying an ex-lawman from Witchita, Kansas, named Doc Bender. Bender is an interesting character who is looking to reinvent, and perhaps redeem, himself after being in one too many gunfights that resulted in harming some innocents.

The lovely Anna Kashfi as Maria Vidal, in “Cowboy.” (Columbia Pictures)
The lovely Anna Kashfi as Maria Vidal, in “Cowboy.” (Columbia Pictures)

Overall, “Cowboy” is an engrossing western that is cut from a different cloth. It’s more of a fascinating character study than a rowdy shoot-em-up as most of the conflict unfolds through sharp-tongued dialogue between its characters. If you’re looking for a unique western, you can’t go wrong with this fine film.

“Cowboy,” is available on Amazon, Vudi, and Tubi.
‘Cowboy’ Director: Delmer Daves Starring: Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Anna Kashfi Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes Release Date: Jan. 7, 1958 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
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