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.