TRAIL STREET. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Randolph Scott (Marshal William Bartley ‘Bat’ Masterson), Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Madge Meredith. Director: Ray Enright
Like The Gunfight at Dodge City, which I recently reviewed here, Trail Street is a Western starring a major Hollywood leading man in a highly fictionalized biopic of Bat Masterson. It’s an above average horse drama, with some good cinematography and a decent enough plot.
What makes it worth watching is the fact that all of the actors, especially Randolph Scott, who portrays Masterson as the semi-reluctant marshal in the town of Liberal, Kansas, seem to be having what can best be described as jolly good fun with the project.
Masterson, who really just wants to be a journalist, is tasked with interceding on behalf of farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by an unscrupulous cattle baron, Logan Maury (Steve Brodie). Joining the legendary lawman in his mission is his deputy, Billy Burns, portrayed by perennial goofy sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes and an upright citizen by the name of Allen Harper, portrayed by Robert Ryan.
In a way, it’s a shame that Ryan’s character doesn’t go bad in this one, given how skilled Ryan was as an actor in portraying villains, be they in films noir or in Westerns. Allen Harper’s on-again, off-again love interest Susan (Madge Meredith) and the saloon girl with a kind heart, Ruby Stone (Anne Jeffreys) add some flair and romance to what would otherwise be just another Western action story.
In many ways, Trail Street a much better film, both visually and plot wise, than The Gunfight at Dodge City. That isn’t to say that it’s a great or even accurate biopic of Bat Masterson. It isn’t.
But it’s a decent enough Western that, in many ways, marks a transition point between Randolph Scott’s more wholesome characters in the Zane Grey films and the darker, more brooding characters portrayed by Scott in the Ranown cycle films of auteur Budd Boetticher. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you should go out of your way to see this one, but I’ll just say that it’s a difficult film to actively dislike.
CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.
What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.
Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.
From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.
Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)
(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)
Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.
The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.
Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.
THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY. United Artists, 1959. Joel McCrea (Bat Masterson), Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty.
I really wanted to like The Gunfight at Dodge City much more than I did. I’m generally an admirer of Joel McCrea and I find it difficult not to like the lovely Julie Adams. I also quite enjoyed the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita starring McCrea as Wyatt Earp, which I reviewed here and believe to be a Western deserving of more critical attention.
Yet despite McCrea’s adequate portrayal of Bat Masterson, Joseph M. Newman’s solid direction, and some beautifully decorated interiors, The Gunfight at Dodge City ended up feeling like a disappointment, a case of what could have been rather than what it is.
McCrea, in a stoic role, portrays legendary lawman Bat Masterson as he transforms himself from a buffalo hunter to the lawman of Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, however, Masterson makes two mortal enemies, Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) who seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of Masterson, and Dodge City’s corrupt sheriff, Jim Regan (Don Haggerty). Both are villains without any depth.
Masterson also finds himself torn between two beautiful women, Lily (Nancy Gates), a saloon owner and Pauline Howard (Julia Adams), a preacher’s daughter engaged to Bat’s brother, Ed (Harry Lauter) who ends up being killed by the aforementioned Dave (Anderson).
Masterson also plays mentor to a mentally challenged kid, Billy, who has, to Bat’s mind, an unhealthy fascination with guns and violence. What does help make Masterson’s character a bit more interesting are his friendships with Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire) and Reverend Howard (James Westerfield).
As you might suspect, Billy gets himself into a pickle by shooting a lawman and is sentenced to death by hanging. This forces Masterson’s hand. Will he uphold the law or will he revert to his semi- outlaw ways and free the lad from state custody?
If all of this happens to sound like fairly standard Western fare, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what The Gunfight at Dodge City is. There’s a couple of fights, some drunken cowboys shooting in the twilight, a couple of love affairs, brothers with different personalities, a saloon, and a protagonist who kills his rivals and gets the girl. But it’s just not much more than that.
True, there are a couple of great moments, but there’s really not too much in the way of memorable dialogue or excellent acting. McCrea is a very capable actor, but in this one, he just seems at times like he was phoning it in. Bat Masterson looks more bored than tormented. And everyone else was playing their roles better than many actors could have, but it still leaves one with a nagging question: aside from making a movie with Bat Masterson at the center of the action, what was it all for?
SANTA FE TRAIL. Warner Brothers, 1940. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, William Lundigan, Van Heflin, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Director: Michael Curtiz.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but there is no scene in this movie that takes place any closer to Santa Fe than Kansas. If I had gone to see this movie back in 1940, I’d have wanted my money back. But with dashing Errol Flynn in it, plus the beautiful Olivia de Haviland, I doubt that too many at the time actually did.
And for the most part, audiences in 1940 got their money’s worth. The aforementioned Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart, the boyishly handsome “aw, shucks” kind of guy Ronald Reagan as George Custer, good buddies who graduated together from West Point, and sent on their first assignment in tandem to protect the construction of a yet-to-be-built railroad line from Kansas to Santa Fe. (OK, yes, so there you go.)
Problem: pre-Civil War Kansas was a powder keg of violence, mostly instigated by John Brown, the religious anti-slavery abolitionist played to perfection by jut-bearded and wild-eyed Raymond Massey, abetted by equally obsessed Van Heflin. For my money, it is Massey who walks away with star honors for this film.
The movie ends with John Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, about as far away from New Mexico as you can imagine, with some romantic moments in between all of the spying, marauding and fighting, with both Custer and Stewart vying for the hand of “Kit Carson” Holliday, played by Olivia de Haviland.
Funny thing is, though, that Jeb Stewart and George Custer, although they both attended West Point, they did so seven years apart, and in real life they never met at all, nor did Stewart marry anyone by the name of Kit Carson Holliday. I could go on with a long list of similar flaws, and if you check out the IMDb page for the movie, I’m sure you’ll find that several other viewers already have.
Santa Fe Trail is a fun movie to watch, but if I were a history professor back in 1940, I’d not only want my money back, but I’d sue. How you do get kids to learn what really happened, when movies like this one subvert all of the hard work you’re trying to do?
THE TEXAS RANGERS. Paramount Pictures, 1936. Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker, Lloyd Nolan, Edward Ellis, George “Gabby” Hayes. Director: King Vidor.
The Texas Rangers is a quite fun, if sometimes predictable, 1930s Western. Directed by King Vidor and starring Fred MacMurray, the movie benefits from an overall solid cast, some great scenery, a devious villain, and enough personal conflicts between the characters to keep you engaged with the story throughout the film’s running time of a little over ninety minutes.
While The Texas Rangers is not the type of film you watch for the cinematography or to explore frontier psychology, it is worth viewing for its good direction, plot twists, and some rugged, well choreographed, frontier action. There’s an especially harrowing sequence involved Indians rolling boulders down a hill in order to maim and murder some Rangers that is really something to behold.
The movie begins, like many a Western, with bandits holding up a stagecoach driven by a semi-comical character by the name of Wahoo Jones (Jack Oakie). Soon enough, it turns out that Wahoo is in cahoots with the bandits, his friends Jim Hawkins (MacMurray) and Sam McGee (Lloyd Nolan). After the robbery, the men decide to part ways. McGree heads off to seek his Mexican girlfriend. Wahoo and Jim decide to stick together, eventually joining the Texas Rangers.
But the three men will be reunited soon enough. Out on patrol for cattle rustlers, Jim and Wahoo, now both Texas Rangers, find out that their old friend Sam is now living in their small part of the world. A plan is hatched, with the men deciding that they’ll work together on a criminal scheme, utilizing inside information that Jim can obtain now that he’s a lawman.
And as might be expected from a movie such as this, Jim eventually has a change of heart about his criminal ways, setting the stage for a confrontation with Sam (Nolan). Unlike some other Westerns I’ve watched recently, in this one at least, the protagonist’s change in mindset is gradual, haphazard, and believable. Up to the very end at least, he really doesn’t want to harm his former partner in crime.
Although MacMurray is quite good in this, it’s Nolan’s character that is more dynamic and interesting. There’s something universal about his being that’s just plain villainous. Sam McGee wouldn’t seem all that out of place in 1930s New York. He just seems a bit more gangster than outlaw. He’s truly ruthless, someone who isn’t above murdering an old friend for the sake of maintaining his criminal ways.
In conclusion, The Texas Rangers isn’t a particularly deep or introspective film, as much as a well paced, gripping action movie set on the Texas frontier. Its depiction of Native Americans isn’t especially enlightened, but that’s to be expected. And with the exception of Sam McGee, the movie’s main characters can at times come across as somewhat one-dimensional. But that doesn’t stop the film from being an above average Western, one that tells a story about men in a certain time and place, and which tells it very well.
THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, De Forest Kelley. Based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert (Gold Medal, 1956). Director: John Sturges.
The Law and Jake Wade has many of the requisite elements of an above average 1950s Western. Directed by John Sturges, whose Last Train From Gun Hill I reviewed here, the film boasts an impressive cast and an even more impressive natural scenery of the Alabama Hills and the High Sierras. There are some incredibly well shot action sequences to boot.
Overall, the film has a quite stark and gritty feel to it. This dovetails nicely with the film’s plot about a man seeking a domestic, morally upright life far removed from both his wartime experiences and his criminal past.
Yet, despite all this, the film nevertheless ends up feeling as something of a letdown. It’s not so much that the plot doesn’t work, as it is that outlaw-turned-lawman Jake Wade, as portrayed by a taciturn Robert Taylor, just isn’t all that a compelling Western protagonist.
Instead, the film’s evilly grinning villain, played by Robert Widmark, ends up being the movie’s center of gravity. Without him as an antagonist, the viewer might find it very difficult to care about Jake Wade.
The film begins with Jake Wade (Taylor) breaking Clint Hollister (Widmark) out of jail. He does it out of a perhaps misplaced sense of loyalty to the man, because as it turns out, the two men used to be partners in crime. That is, until Wade accidentally shot and killed a young boy in a bank holdup (or so he believes). Wade’s left the criminal life behind him and has set up shop in a new town with a lovely girl and a job enforcing the law as opposed to breaking it.
But Hollister and his men aren’t about to let Wade walk out of their lives so readily. There’s the pesky matter of stolen cash that Wade, now a Marshal, allegedly buried, and Hollister wants his share of the loot.
So he kidnaps Wade and his fiancée, Peggy Carter (Patricia Owens), with the goal of forcing them to take him to where the money is buried. Assisting him in his endeavor is his gang, including the lanky sociopath Rennie (Henry Silva) and the violent but loyal Wexler (Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley in a great role). It’s Widmark’s character that makes the movie increasingly suspenseful.
The rest of the movie follows this ragtag expedition as they traverse mountain paths, hole up in a ghost town, and do battle with Comanches.
And, naturally, there’s a final shootout between Jake Wade and Clint Hollister. Wade ends up killing his former partner, allowing him to at least have an opportunity to put his dark past behind him once and for all.
It’s only too bad that the character of Jake Wade was never developed beyond what is essentially a stereotypical Western anti-hero, a former Confederate soldier and outlaw who wants a fresh start.
WICHITA. Allied Artists, 1955. Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Keith Larsen, Walter Coy, Jack Elam. Director: Jacques Tourneur.
The first time the viewer sees now legendary figure Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) in Wichita, he’s an absolutely miniscule figure on horseback perched on a hill off in the distance.
A solitary man overwhelmed by nature, Earp is initially portrayed as extraordinarily reluctant to be the arbiter of law and order in the rapidly growing city of Wichita, Kansas. Earp’s also got a strong fatalistic streak, going so far as to tell a potential love interest after a bank robbery that “things like that are always happening” to him. As if he were just an object swept to and fro by the winds of History.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past), Wichita is not only quite good Western, it’s also a superbly well-crafted character study of how frontier violence fundamentally alters the course of one man’s life. With a supporting case that includes a youthful Lloyd Bridges as a villain and Peter Graves as Earp’s brother, Morgan, the film is definitely worth a look.
The story follows Earp (McCrea) as he journeys, both literally and metaphorically, from a lonesome figure on horseback to a married man tasked with establishing law and order in Kansas. Soon after the film begins, Earp encounters a cowboy encampment. After some initial pleasantries, his relationship with the men begins to sour – and how! – after two of the men attempt to steal from him as he sleeps. Although this initial encounter is brief, it sets the stage for what is to come.
Earp journeys onward alone, stopping briefing in front of a signpost indicating Wichita is ahead. The sign also notably states, in all capital letters, that “Everything Goes in Wichita.” Soon two fast moving stagecoaches barrel down on him, pushing him off to the side. The first stagecoach has a banner on the back with the very same words, while the second has one that reads, “Wine, Women, Wichita.” From that moment onward, the viewer knows that the rapidly expanding city is going to be both a somewhat lawless town, but also a frontier town where a man can reinvent himself.
Earp’s plan is to be a businessman in town. That plan goes by the wayside once he witnesses the aforementioned cowboys arrive in town and, in a drunken frenzy, shoot up Wichita, killing an innocent young boy in the process.
That’s when Earp decides he will take the mayor up on his offer and become a U.S. Marshal. Supporting him in his endeavor is Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen). The rest of the movie revolves around not only the conflict between Earp and the cowboys, but also a growing rift between Earp and Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) over Earp’s strong-arm tactics. Earp also falls for McCoy’s daughter, Laurie (Vera Miles) in a somewhat clichéd subplot that doesn’t really do much for the film, but may have been intended as a box office draw.
There are several scenes in Wichitathat merit particular consideration. The first is Earp’s initial encounter with the cowboys. When he first meets them, he’s elevated on horseback. They are sitting. We quickly learn he’s a stoic figure, with his first words to them (and in the movie) as follows: “Howdy! My name’s Earp, Wyatt Earp.” While all of the cowboys are dressed in a dark colors, Earp is wearing a clean, bright red shirt. This marks the beginning of a personal journey that will culminate in his fight against the darkness and disorder symbolized by these ragged men.
The sequence in which the cowboys shoot up the town, injure a woman, and kill a young boy through carelessness also is likewise worth watching closely. These events prompt Earp to accept the position as U.S. Marshal. Look for the notable, stark contrast between the bright saloon and the dark, foreboding street.
Inside the saloon, there are many women, resplendent in a multitude of colors. Outside, on the dusty street, there are loud men in dark clothes engaging in recklessness and violence. By stepping out into the grey netherworld of the Wichita streets, Earp becomes the de facto protector of the town’s innocent women and children and a protector of Wichita’s desire for domesticity.
Finally, there’s a harrowing scene in which the cowboys shoot Sam McCoy’s wife. Again, the killing wasn’t so much intentional, as the result of lawlessness. The gunmen ride in front of McCoy’s house, shooting into it. We see McCoy’s wife fall to the ground and bullet holes lodged in the family house’s front door. This senseless act of violence again prompts Earp into action, making the final break between Earp the businessman and Earp the lawman.
Wichita has a lot to recommend it. With a running time of a little less than ninety minutes, the film has decent pacing and enough action to keep a viewer engaged. McCrea is generally very good in this, as is Peter Graves.
The film’s biggest downside is the fact that the plot is just a bit too predictable. Much like in Law and Order, which I reviewed here, the hero is a U.S. Marshal who defeats the bad guys and gets the girl. What sets Wichita apart, however, is its significantly better cinematography and use of symbolism to tell the story of Wyatt Earp before he arrived in Dodge City.
THE SPOILERS. Universal Pictures, 1942. Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Margaret Lindsay, Harry Carey, Richard Barthelmess, George Cleveland, Samuel S. Hinds. Based on a novel by Rex Beach. Director: Ray Enright.
The Spoilers stars John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Marlene Dietrich in a tale about claims jumping and legal corruption during the Alaskan gold rush. Based on a Rex Beach novel and directed by Ray Enright, the film is a slightly above average period Western. There’s some great onscreen chemistry between Wayne and Dietrich, a beautifully filmed scene of a locomotive at night, and one of the most extensive saloon fight scenes that I’ve come across in recent memory.
Set in Nome, Alaska, the story follows the conflict between miner, Roy Glennister (Wayne) and a corrupt gold commissioner by the name of Alex McNamara (Scott). The two men also each have their eyes on saloon owner beauty, Cherry Malotte (Dietrich), who has yet another suitor in the lovesick Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess).
McNamara’s underhanded attempts to achieve title to Glennister’s gold mine sets the story in motion. Aiding him in his task are corrupt Circuit Court Judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) and his lovely niece, Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), who grows increasingly ambivalent about her role in the whole sordid scheme.
Both Wayne and Dietrich are quite good in their roles. More importantly, each of them appears to be having a good time working on the project, making their screen time together a fun experience for the viewer. It’s Scott, however, who steals the show in his portrayal of the villainous McNamara. There’s just something so incredibly devious about his character. He’s sort of what you’d imagine a frontier claims jumper would have been like — a bit genteel, at least on the surface, but also ruthless and more than willing to get his hands dirty should the need arise.
Maybe that’s why in the film’s final sequence, when he and Wayne’s character get into a lengthy, brutal bar fight, you both want to see him get his butt kicked and to see him get in a few good punches himself. He’s a bad guy all right, but not one without his charms.
Given that The Spoilers benefits from great cast, a decent plot, and a good amount of rugged frontier action, you’d think that it would have more of a critical reputation than it does. Part of this likely stems from the fact that the two male leads, John Wayne and Randolph Scott, each went on to much bigger and better projects, leaving affairs like this in their dust.
The fact that The Spoilers can feel considerably dated at times doesn’t help matters, either. Case in point: the film’s blatantly transparent attempt to utilize racial humor. This is exemplified in a scene in which Wayne’s character is effectively wearing blackface and fools Cherry’s maid into thinking he is Black. It was surely intended to induce guffaws from the audience, but now it just falls flat. While I do recognize that there was likely no conscious decision to be derogatory toward Blacks in the film, I don’t believe most audiences today would find value in the movie’s usage of blackface for comedic relief or think Wayne in blackface was particularly humorous.
In conclusion, The Spoilers is a solid frontier Western with some very good scenes and a notably strong performance by Randolph Scott. It’s by no means a bad film. It just doesn’t stand the test of time that well.
LAW AND ORDER. Universal International, 1953. Ronald Reagan, Dorothy Malone, Preston Foster, Alex Nicol, Ruth Hampton, Russell Johnson, Barry Kelley, Chubby Johnson, Jack Kelly, Dennis Weaver. Based on the novel Saint Johnson, by W. R. Burnett. Director: Nathan Juran.
If the film Law and Order tells us anything, it’s that Ronald Reagan was a natural both in the saddle and in his ability to portray a lawman of the Old West. Based on a novel by W. R. Burnett and directed by Nathan Juran, Law and Order is an above average Western worth watching.
The film benefits from good acting, fairly believable characters, a solid (if admittedly somewhat clichéd) plot in which two brothers are pitted against one another, notable use of color, well decorated interiors, and some breathtaking western scenery.
Law and Order has the texture of an early 1950s Western, as if it were straddling a middle ground between an era of simple, Saturday morning fare and those darker, gritty Westerns in which the lines between good and evil were deliberately blurred.
More than anything else, however, the film is a character study of a U.S. Marshal by the name of Frame Johnson (Reagan). Frame wants to clean up the Old West, but despises vigilantism. When it comes to giving suspects and outlaws a fair trial and their day in court, Frame is a true believer.
As the film unfolds, we see Frame willing to confront both the townsfolk of Tombstone, Arizona, including his own younger brother, just to ensure that an outlaw does not become the victim of a lynch mob. But he’s stubborn too, as if blinded by his devotion to an ideal that may not really be applicable to the time and place in which he finds himself.
The story follows Frame Johnson, his two brothers, Lute and Jimmy, and their friend/sidekick, Denver, as Frame attempts to make a new life for himself on a ranch outside Cottonwood. He’s had enough of enforcing the peace in Tombstone and is ready to begin a life as a man, not a Marshal. Even better, he’s got himself a girl, a beautiful Tombstone saloon owner named Jeannie (Dorothy Malone), who’s ebullient that Frame’s gotten out of the justice business.
Things ought to be good for Frame. Alas, there’s trouble brewing. Soon after arriving in Cottonwood, he encounters the villainous Kurt Durling (Preston Foster) and his son, Frank (Dennis Weaver). Turns out that Durling and his son all but run the town. They’ve even got the pathetic excuse for a sheriff under their thumb.
The senior Durling loathes Frame, blaming the strong willed lawman for his crippled hand. You just know that these the two men are eventually going to go at it at some point. And sure enough, they do in what is a harrowing fight sequence on a dusty street.
There’s another conflict at play in Law and Order, one that pits Frame against his younger brother, Jimmy, who skips town after shooting Frank Durling (Weaver). This conflict between two brothers, both hotheads each in their own way, is pretty standard Western fare. But here it works.
Despite being a solid, if somewhat overlooked Western, Law and Order certainly has its weaknesses. These include its depiction of an unbelievably quick-to-develop love interest between Jimmy Johnson and Maria Durling as well as an ending that’s just a bit too pat and sentimental. Similarly, the film’s attempts comic relief end up feeling a bit forced.
Law and Order may never achieve any achieve any sort of status as a classic or as a “must see” Western. It’s not a brooding or overly introspective sort of film. But that doesn’t stop it from being a quite enjoyable movie to watch. Reagan and Malone have great on screen chemistry, Foster and Weaver make great villains, and the scenes with Reagan riding alone on horseback through the desert landscape are nearly iconic.
In this movie at least, the good guy sticks to his principles, defeats the bad guy, and still gets the girl.
BEST OF THE BAD MEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951. Robert Ryan, Claire Trevor, Jack Buetel, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, John Archer, Lawrence Tierney, Barton MacLane, Tom Tyler. Director: William D. Russell.
Set primarily in Missouri and the Cimarron Strip (the Oklahoma Panhandle) in the period following the Civil War, Best of the Bad Men benefits from a notably strong cast, a solid story with excellent pacing, and more than enough suspense to keep a viewer watching until the very end.
The plot follows the conflict between Union officer Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan) and Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), a corrupt carpetbagger who has set up a detective agency to guard banks and gold shipments.
In the film’s opening sequence, Clanton proposes a deal with some men affiliated with Quantrill’s Raiders. Among them are Cole and Bob Younger (Bruce Cabot and Jack Buetel), a fictionalized Jesse James (Lawrence Tierney), and a horse thief by the name of Doc Butcher (Walter Brennan). These tired but determined remnants of Quantrill’s Raiders are given the option of foregoing their illegal activities and swearing an allegiance to the Union. In exchange, charges against them will be dropped. The outlaws, seeing no other realistic option available to them, accept the terms of the deal.
But as it turns out, Clanton’s commission in the Army had already expired at the time of the deal, rendering it invalid. Also complicating matters is Fowler, who sees a lucrative financial opportunity for his detective agency should he return the outlaws to face justice. Clanton, who has no truck for this carpetbagger scheming, ends up shooting and killing one of Fowler’s men, leading Fowler and his henchman Joad (Barton MacLane) to use their influence to have Clanton arrested.
This leads to Clanton’s conviction by a kangaroo court. With the assistance of Fowler’s estranged wife, Lily (Claire Trevor), Clanton escapes to Badman’s Territory, the relatively lawless and ungoverned area consisting of what is today the Oklahoman Panhandle. From there, he joins up with the James Gang and the Youngers to wage guerrilla warfare against Fowler and his detective agency. Quantrill’s Raiders ride again!
When an innocent bank teller is shot, however, Clanton begins to show signs of doubt as to the nature of his actions. He’s not really a criminal, as much as he is an unjustly wronged man who wants retribution.
Although Best of the Badmen doesn’t concern itself with particularly deep social or philosophical issues, it does have enough of a subversive and an anti-authoritarian subtext that makes it significantly better than similarly plotted films from the same era. The legal authorities depicted in the film are deeply corrupt, bought and paid for by the highest bidder.
Clanton’s a noble man living in a lawless, unjust and chaotic world. And in contrast to Ryan’s character in Horizons West, which I reviewed here, Clanton (Ryan) has every reason in the world to feel aggrieved. Whether that justifies his teaming up with the James Gang and the Youngers is another story, altogether.
Best of the Badmen, while no classic, is nevertheless a very good Western. Ryan, in particular, is a very strong lead. Walter Brennan fans might also appreciate this film, with the veteran actor’s character, Doc, playing sidekick to Clanton. Theirs is a more mature friendship than the one between wronged lawman Mark Rowley (Randolph Scott) and sidekick Coyote (George “Gabby” Hayes) in the earlier Badman’s Territory (1946). It makes the film worth a look.