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Terror in a Texas Town

20 Feb

So many westerns have hinged on the conflicts that arise over land: the need to expand settlements, the presence of gold or silver, grazing rights, the relentless progress of the railroad. However, not too many have dealt with oil. Terror in a Texas Town (1958) uses the issue of oil to explain the actions of its characters (especially the villains) yet it’s not this that interests us as viewers. At the heart of the story lies a good old-fashioned tale of justice and revenge. As such, we have a very traditional plot, even one that could become mundane in other hands. Nevertheless, director Joseph H Lewis and uncredited writer Dalton Trumbo between them manage to craft a highly unusual western that probes around the genre’s boundaries.

The entire film is told in flashback, the opening scene cut short at the crucial moment and its resolution only revealed right at the end. The grandly named Prairie City, Texas is one of those typical western towns, dusty, sleepy places where nothing much seems to happen. Be that as it may, the leading citizen, McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), is in the process of shaking things up. He’s engaged in a land grab; having learned that the surrounding area is literally swimming in oil, he has called in an old acquaintance to help him run the homesteaders off their property with a view to seizing it for himself. His henchman of choice is Johnny Crale (Ned Young), an old-school enforcer and gunman who’s had his right hand shot off in the course of his work and who’s fast becoming a relic of a previous era. Crale’s first assignment is to kill a man, a kind of coaxer to encourage the others. As it turns out, this is an unfortunate selection – an old Swede patiently tending the land until his son returns from the sea. The son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), cuts an incongruous figure when he arrives, awkwardly dressed in his ill-fitting city clothes and lugging a heavy sea chest on his shoulder. The scene in the saloon, where Crale tells Hansen of the murder of his father (leaving out the crucial detail of who did the deed) is so well filmed – just two guys and a girl sitting around a table in a deserted bar, yet absolutely riveting in its very simplicity. The viewer is a step ahead of the apparently slow-witted Swede in knowing the identity of the killer, and it’s fascinating to watch the movie’s two protagonists, with their contrasting characters, probing for an insight into each other. Of course, Hansen is nowhere near as dumb as his appearance suggests. Before long, he’s got the measure of both McNeil and Crale and finds himself drawn inevitably towards the almost surreal showdown that started the movie.

Joseph H Lewis is probably best known for two remarkable noir pictures, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, yet Terror in a Texas Town (his last movie before moving to TV) is both powerful and individualistic enough to be mentioned in the same breath. It’s an extremely low budget affair, shot on sets with a very limited cast, that turns its lean production into an asset. The dialogue is trimmed down to the bare necessities, thus lending it greater impact, and every shot is loaded with significance. One example is the scene where Hansen returns to find the Mexican settler he’s befriended has been gunned down by Crale. A simple cut to the tight grouping of the man’s grieving widow and children tells us all we need to know about the effect this killing has had, far more eloquent and touching than reams of sentimental dialogue or exposition. The unique set piece that frames the story, the duel between a six-shooter and a harpoon, is more than a mere artistic quirk, it sums up the idea at the heart of the story: a simple outsider with primitive tools taking on the might of the exploiters. Trumbo’s leftist take on events and characterization is one of the key factors that makes the film so compelling.

Sterling Hayden’s sheer physical bulk always ensured he maintained a powerful presence on screen, and he used that attribute to great effect as the stoic and immovable George Hansen. He’s very convincing as the foreigner who has to measure his words carefully and think before he expresses himself. The fact that it’s this Swede, and his Mexican friend, who stands up to the criminal excesses of unchecked capitalism highlights the way America (as Trumbo no doubt perceived it) had become ineffectual and complacent when it came to facing the threat of corporate greed. Ned Young, as the physically deformed and morally confused enforcer, is a marvellously ambiguous figure. He’s clearly a bad man, both his background and the murders he commits during the film attest to that. Still, he remains a multi-dimensional character; he’s a reluctant killer, motivated less by money than a kind of morbid curiosity about the psychology of fear and death. The true villain is Sebastian Cabot’s McNeil, the very embodiment of a corrupted and heartless American society. This bloated figure, exuding a fake bonhomie, is the archetypical avaricious businessman with the law in his pocket – the unattractive face of a new west. Personally, I’m struck by the parallels between McNeil (and his ultimate fate) and Gabriele Ferzetti’s Morton in Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West.

Terror in a Texas Town has been available on DVD for a long time now from MGM in the US. The movie has been given a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer that does justice to Lewis and cameraman Ray Rennahan’s compositions. I suppose the biggest complaint is the amount of grain visible, not something that generally bothers me but there is an awful lot of it. The disc offers no extras except the theatrical trailer. The film has also been released in the UK by Optimum. I don’t have that disc to compare but being a title licensed from MGM, it’s likely to be broadly similar in terms of quality. I have a lot of time for this movie; I love its low budget urgency and the offbeat style. The involvement of Sterling Hayden, Ned Young and Dalton Trumbo conjures up the ghost of HUAC and the blacklist, while the plotting and characterization are further reminders of a period of US history that remains both fascinating and tragic. This movie seems proud of its own B status and proves that lower budgets don’t have to mean lower quality. It gets a definite thumbs up from me.

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24 Comments

Posted by on February 20, 2012 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 

24 responses to “Terror in a Texas Town

  1. Tennessean-Historian-Blogger

    February 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Two of my favorite flashback westerns are “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Ride Beyond Vengeance”.

     
    • Colin

      February 20, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      Ride Beyond Vengeance is a movie I’ve heard of, meaning the title’s familiar but that’s all. Is it any good?

       
      • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger

        February 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm

        It’s a good concept but could have been better made. Has a “television show set” look to it. But, I think the same thing about “Hang ‘Em High”. It stars Chuck Conners who leaves town and returns years later to find his wife involved with the richest man in town (Michael Rennie). Bill Bixby plays the best character. It is a stock storyline with a few changes. I like the prologue and epilogue. A census taker is in town and stops by a diner. After asking about an old mansion on the hill, the man behind the counter tells him the story of “The Reprisal”. His story then becomes the flashback. Not a bad viewing for a slow afternoon.

         
        • Colin

          February 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

          Thanks for the reply. The “made for TV” look really only works for me when it serves some stylistic purpose, maybe creating a sense of artificiality for example. Hang ‘Em High has a flat appearance to my eye and feels like a pilot for a TV show – not a terrible movie, but not one of my favourites either. I guess I’ll get round to Ride Beyond Vengeance at some point; I always enjoy flashbacks in films.

           
  2. cavershamragu

    February 20, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Big fan of several movies by Joseph H. Lewis but, for shame, I have yet to catch up with two major titles – this one and MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, which has just come out in that Sony set that I wish was a bit less expensive! But the director of GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO was always worth watching.

    Cheers,

    Sergio

     
    • Colin

      February 20, 2012 at 8:51 pm

      Sergio, this one’s easy (and cheap) to track down. My Name is Julia Ross is a very strong noir in my opinion. I recently received the Columbia Noir III set, and the transfer of MNIJR, and all the films to be honest, is very good. The worst thing about its exclusive status is that the price is unlikely to drop.

      Some of Lewis’ movies seem pretty elusive, don’t they? I’ve yet to see Cry of the Hunted, So Dark the Night and The Swordsman. And I’d give a lot to see a really top-notch presentation of The Big Combo.

       
      • cavershamragu

        February 20, 2012 at 9:12 pm

        I managed to catch So Dark the Night on Sky about 20 years ago and quite liked it, though ti is a pretty minor little psychological suspenser. I really envy you that box set – were you able to get it through customs unscathed? I just got the Criterion Blu of Kubrick’s The Killing and because it was £17 (i.e. £2 over the new limit) I ended up paying nearly £12 in duty and charges – arghhhh!

         
        • Colin

          February 20, 2012 at 9:32 pm

          No problems; import fees are nearly impossible to incur here in Athens. I had the Man from UNCLE briefcase set (Deep Discount had had it on offer for a tad under $40) delivered by courier the other day with no unpleasant, extra charges.

           
          • cavershamragu

            February 20, 2012 at 10:30 pm

            I doff my hat to your superior post office set up! That suitcase sounds lovely by the way … sorry, just something in my eye – I’ll be alright in a minute …

             
            • Colin

              February 20, 2012 at 10:38 pm

              From the customer’s point of view, it seems to be a happy blend of ignorance and incompetence. The way things are going though, who knows how long it can last.

              The UNCLE set honestly is a wonderfully packaged product, and a real steal at that price. Ok, I’ll stop now before I cause a breakdown :)

               
              • cavershamragu

                February 20, 2012 at 10:44 pm

                I hope it goes on forever mate (without the incompetence perhaps), but I suspect you are right so keep making the most of it while you can!

                But back to Lewis – a really good presentation of BIG COMBO would be fabulous – I doubt I’d be as in to Film Noir as I am were it not for the stylings John Alton – and to think his other claims to fame (apart from shooting the pilot to the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series) is that he shot the climactic ballet for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS – hows about that for a change of pace?

                 
                • Colin

                  February 20, 2012 at 10:56 pm

                  Quite. Alton was a bona fide genius with the camera. It’s easy to forget that he was more than a noir lensman – his colour films are just as sumptuous to look at.

                  I had heard a rumour that a highly reputable European distributor was lookng to release The Big Combo, but I haven’t been made aware of any progress. I still keep my fingers crossed though.

                   
                  • cavershamragu

                    February 20, 2012 at 11:10 pm

                    It would be great if somebody good like Koch released it … we live in hope!

                     
                    • Colin

                      February 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm

                      Indeed ;)

                       
  3. le0pard13

    February 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Excellent review, Colin. Over the years, I know a number of fans of this film who’ve encouraged taking it in. As usual, you’ve gotten me to take the plunge. Plus, Netflix is currently streaming it to subscribers so I have no excuse not to do so. Thanks.

     
    • Colin

      February 20, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Michael; you should definitely go for it. I feel flattered that I managed to spur you on to see this movie.

       
  4. Patrick Murtha

    February 21, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Why does that screen grab remind me of Buster Keaton? It really does.

     
    • Colin

      February 21, 2012 at 9:09 am

      Never thought of that. But now that you mention it, it does seem to ooze a kind of Keaton-style pathos.

       
  5. Blake Lucas

    February 22, 2012 at 6:45 am

    I’ve only seen TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN once and I’m overdue to get back to it–your piece will likely motivate me to do so. But just want to point out that while it’s true he’ll always be most identified with GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO, Lewis finished his big screen career with four Westerns in a row, and at least two of the others–A LAWLESS STREET and THE HALLIDAY BRAND–are outstanding (I’m less sure about SEVENTH CAVALRY). I rewatched LAWLESS STREET just a few weeks ago, very mature Western and one of the last and best with Randolph Scott produced by his company with Harry Joe Brown before Budd Boetticher took over for the final round. It’s also interesting that Ray Rennahan, famed as a Technicolor specialist, did the two Scott films in color for Lewis but then stayed on and did HALLIDAY BRAND and TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN in black and white, and also to fine effect. In any event, Lewis is a significant figure, and his stylistic inventiveness remains, strongly at times, in some of his TV work.

     
    • Colin

      February 22, 2012 at 8:40 am

      Hi Blake. That little group of westerns right at the end of Lewis’ movie career makes for interesting viewing – 7th Cavalry is the weakest of them, an average picture but one that I’m still fond of. A Lawless Street is a fine film – another one that I haven’t watched for ages now.

       
  6. Toby

    February 22, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Colin, another excellent post — about a film I am completely fascinated by.

    The four Lewis Westerns Blake brought up are a fine batch indeed. The Halliday Brand is another take on the racism theme that was common in the mid-50s (The Searchers, The Last Hunt, Reprisal). There’s something about A Lawless Street that makes it play much better than it really is. And 7th Cavalry is just another Randolph Scott movie, which is certainly not meant as a complaint.

    When Lewis was good, he was incredible. There’s a style to his films that gives them a real boost — even the Johnny Mack Brown pictures and those cheap Monogram things. And a lot of the coolness of The Rifleman comes from his stylish direction.

     
    • Colin

      February 22, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      Thank you Toby. I think all of the Lewis films I’ve seen gave me pleasure on some level; some are better than others but none of them (from those I’ve gotten round to anyway) are what I would describe as poor. It does all come down to stlye with Lewis. The stories, like Terror in a Texas Town, could be fairly standard fare but Lewis’ direction seemed to raise them up a level.

       
  7. Jim Beaver

    November 30, 2012 at 12:40 am

    Interesting side note: villain Ned Young won an Oscar for writing THE DEFIANT ONES, and also wrote the screenplay for INHERIT THE WIND.

     
    • Colin

      November 30, 2012 at 8:52 am

      Indeed. Thanks for pointing that out Jim. Of course those scripting credits were under his alias, Nathan Douglas, after Young had fallen foul of the blacklist.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Jim.

       

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