No, we’re not talking about the TV series featuring Clint Eastwood and Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song. This is Henry Hathaway’s claustrophobic western from 1951 with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. It’s one of those pictures that seems to have fallen through the cracks and is rarely talked about. I think the reason Rawhide doesn’t enjoy a better reputation can be traced to one essential weakness in the script, or more accurately the characterization, which I’ll look at later.
Tom Owens (Power) is a man with a lot to learn; he’s the son of the stagecoach owner and has been sent west to learn the business. With his apprenticeship nearing its end he’s eager to escape the confines of the isolated swing station which he’s been sharing with stationmaster and ‘tutor’ Edgar Buchanan. The first whiff of danger comes with the news that a notorious outlaw called Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and has already committed a murder. The first consequence is that Owens now finds himself saddled with task of putting up a disgruntled female passenger (Susan Hayward) and her child, since company policy dictates that the stage can’t carry them in these circumstances. It should come as no surprise that Zimmerman and his men duly arrive and take control of the station. So far this is all fairly standard fare, but the second half of the film really cranks up the tension as Owens has to play a cat and mouse game with Zimmerman to ensure not only his own survival but that of the woman and child also. The real surprise is who comes to dominate proceedings and gains the upper hand in the end.
Susan Hayward was one of those strong women who seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. From her first appearance in Rawhide, she grabs hold of the viewer’s attention and never lets go until the credits roll. People often use, and indeed overuse, the term powerhouse performance but it’s no exaggeration to say that Hayward delivers one here. She proves herself tough and resourceful enough to be a match for any of the male characters. However, if this is one of the great strengths of the film it’s also the factor that damages it. While it’s no criticism of Hayward, both Power and Marlowe pale in comparison. Power’s character is a weak one from the outset and remains so for the duration. In certain films that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but westerns tend to suffer when the male lead appears ineffectual. There is a similar problem with Hugh Marlowe’s villain, who is a bit colorless and just doesn’t appear to have the steel required to control a band of desperadoes. In fact, Marlowe looks completely out of place in this setting, although he is given a backstory to help explain the cultured nature of Zimmerman. Now, this kind of thing could hamstring a film, but it’s saved by the performances of Zimmerman’s sidekicks, particularly Jack Elam and Dean Jagger. Elam was an actor who was prone to hamming it up and devouring the scenery, and his turn as the depraved Tevis does just that. However, given Marlowe’s shortcomings, this adds some much needed meat to the outlaws’ threats.
Fox put Rawhide out on DVD in R1 last spring in a box which bundled it together with Garden of Evil and The Gunfighter. Typical of much of Fox’s output, the transfer is excellent and the disc has some nice extras, including a short featurette on Susan Hayward and another on the Lone Pine locations. All told, Rawhide is a fine western with some very tense and genuinely dramatic moments. It’s not quite in the top tier, largely for the reasons I mentioned above, but is well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. It’s been suggested to me that there are some similarities to Boetticher’s The Tall T, and I can see where that may be the case. However, the similarities are really only plot points and both the characterization and direction mark them out as quite different films. Having said that, I do think that those who enjoyed Boetticher’s spare tales of tight knit groups in a tense situation would definitely take something positive from Rawhide.