Streets of Laredo

Late 40s westerns are always of interest, existing as they do on the cusp of the genre’s golden age. Some are very clearly products of their era, combining elements that look back feel more light-hearted, while also displaying some of the complexity that would dominate and define the coming decade. Streets of Laredo (1949) fits comfortably into this category by virtue of being a remake of a 30s film (you can read Paul’s take on the original, The Texas Rangers, here), and also the fact that the overall tone of the movie shifts quite dramatically at or around the mid-point. It’s almost as though we’re seeing two different films playing out, though the contrast works quite well and helps focus the spotlight on the journey the characters undertake over the course of its running time.

Streets of Laredo tells the story of three outlaw partners – Jim Dawkins (William Holden), Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and Wahoo Jones (William Bendix). These three have established a profitable line in holding up stagecoaches, and whatever other opportunity comes their way. Theirs is an easy-going partnership, one where friendship reigns supreme and binds them together. The film concentrates on how that friendship is put under pressure by circumstances and is finally broken. The impetus arrives early, but its full import is not realized until later. The fate of these three men is dictated by their stumbling upon a raid on an isolated holding. A man and girl are holed up in a shack while a group of rustlers lay siege. Our three heroes, sensing an opportunity to make a killing at the expense of one party or the other, ride in and drive off the attackers. It turns out the girl, Rannie Carter (Mona Freeman), is the sole survivor in the shack. The gunmen who have been sent packing are led by Charley Calico (Alfonso Bedoya) and are running a protection racket. in the territory. Reluctantly taking the girl along, the trio set off in search of a place where they can leave her safely and satisfy the consciences. However, that encounter with Calico sets in motion a train of events, beginning with an ambush that sees Reming separated from his two friends. In the years that follow, their fortunes are just as divergent as their paths – Reming gains increasing notoriety as a successful bandit while Dawkins and Jones come close to starving. While chance forced the men apart, it reappears and unites them again, albeit briefly. The years alone have cemented Reming’s determination to live outside the law. Dawkins and Jones, while not reformed characters by any means, have yet to become so hardened. The latter two join the Texas rangers, with far from noble aims at the beginning, while Reming plans to use these inside contacts to facilitate his life of crime. Sooner or later, a reckoning must come with the old enemy, Calico, and it’s this which forces all of them to reassess their motives. In brief, Dawkins and Jones have learned that doing the right thing is sometimes reward enough in itself, while Reming has become so used to the outlaw life that he cannot or will not abandon it. And so an uneasy truce is agreed between these men, but can it last? Dawkins and Reming find their approaches pulling them in radically different directions, and the fact that both are attracted to the grown-up Rannie adds even more strain. What remains to be seen is whether the bonds of friendship are strong enough to withstand the pressure of very different sets of priorities.

Along with Whispering Smith, director Leslie Fenton arguably did his best work in Streets of Laredo. These two films saw him collaborating with cameraman Ray Rennahan, and while Streets of Laredo is perhaps not quite as sumptuous, it’s still a handsome looking production. The exteriors, mainly shot on the Paramount ranch as far as I can tell, always look attractive and lend an air of authenticity to the story. And it’s that story (with a screenplay by Charles Marquis Warren), or rather its shape and development, that makes the film worthwhile. The first half of the movie concentrates on the friendship of the three main characters, and does so in a very light and humorous fashion. The comedic aspects of their relationship are played up and take center stage. It’s this section that harks back to earlier films, but the switch takes place at almost exactly the halfway mark. A this point the trio see their easy amiability gradually tested as they begin to drift further apart. Everything takes a much darker turn as Reming starts to reveal the ruthlessness that his eloquence masks. Simultaneously, Dawkins takes his first steps towards eventual redemption, spurred on both by his growing love for Rannie and also his awareness that honesty and ethics have some meaning for him.

William Holden was just about to turn his career around and enter his most successful period at this time. His performance, particularly in the latter half of the movie, looks ahead to that success and also foreshadows the kind of morally challenged heroes that would pop up all through 50s westerns. Holden still had that youthful air about him, but he was also starting to exhibit more of the weariness and self-doubt that he would soon put to good use. It’s easy to see him visibly questioning himself and his previous philosophy as the situation changes around him. As the story progresses, Holden very naturally grows into the part and the Jim Dawkins we see at the end is a very different man to the one who was first introduced. I think that, while the other performances are not without merit, it’s Holden who makes the film what it is. Macdonald Carey was never an actor I could say I was overly impressed by. I don’t mean to say he was poor, but he had a certain blandness that always put me off somewhat. The role of Lorn Reming was a much showier one than Holden was handed, but it was also considerably less complex. Right from the beginning, there’s a glib shallowness about the character, and it therefore requires no great leap to see him stick firmly to the villainous path. However, within the confines of the part, I think it’s fair to say that Carey does pretty much all that’s asked of him.

Frankly, I love watching William Bendix on screen. The man had a wonderful ability to move effortlessly from comedic lug to something altogether more sinister with ease. Bendix was blessed with an extraordinarily expressive face and the camera was able to capture a wide range of emotion there. Streets of Laredo was one of his very few western parts, and I guess my own familiarity with seeing him in totally different settings meant he seemed a little out of place on the frontier. Having said that, he played his part fine; most of the time he’s there for comic relief but he also achieves a measure of soulful pathos that makes his ultimate fate all the more affecting. I was less impressed by Mona Freeman, an actress I haven’t seen an awful lot of to be honest, but that’s maybe down to the way her character was written. She starts out very naive and immature and, despite growing up as the film goes on, never quite loses some of the more irritating traits. The strong supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Ray Teal, Stanley Ridges, Alfonso Bedoya and Clem Bevans.

Streets of Laredo is one of those Paramount productions whose rights now reside with Universal. I don’t think it has seen a DVD release in the US to date. However, there are editions available in various European countries and Australia. I have the German release from Koch Media, which is quite reasonable. Colors appear quite strong and true but the image can be a little soft in places. The print used for the transfer doesn’t seem to be restored as there are various instances of damage visible, although none are especially serious or distracting. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles at all. Extra features are a couple of galleries and a booklet (in German) that reproduces the original poster art on the back cover. Generally, I d have to rate this as a satisfying little picture that acts as a bridge between 40s and 50 westerns. The story unfolds nicely and adds layers to the characters as it does so. Factor in a well-drawn performance by William Holden and the result is a better than average example of the late 40s western.

Party Girl

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Last time, I had a look at a gangster/noir crossover movie, an early example of the emergence of a darker sensibility in crime movies in Hollywood. Let’s jump ahead almost two decades, to the point at which film noir was nearing the end of the classic cycle. Again, the film in question is something of a hybrid, a fusion of styles and influences, but the principal elements remain the gangster story and shadowy world of the dark cinema. A lot of film noir throughout the 1950s featured the involvement of organized crime so Party Girl (1958), despite abandoning the more usual contemporary setting, can be viewed as a continuation of that trend. Having said that, the movie could be classed as a marginal entry – it’s shot in lurid technicolor and at times resembles a hard-boiled variation of the classic studio musical. However, in spite of what sound like stylistic contradictions, Party Girl is categorized by many writers as a genuine film noir, and I guess its themes do have the requisite darkness and ambiguity to qualify it for inclusion.

Chicago in the early 30s – Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) is a mob lawyer, and a successful one. He’s respected and feared by judges and prosecutors not simply due to his connections but because he’s the top man in his line. Farrell is first glimpsed at a party thrown by crime kingpin Rico Angelo (Lee J Cobb) – actually it’s as much a wake as a party since Rico is laying to rest a broken heart on hearing the news that Jean Harlow, whom he’s adored from afar, is to be wed – and he’s surrounded by a group of city dignitaries hanging onto his every word. One might assume that Farrell has it made, but this is only the silver lining obscuring the cloud. Farrell is almost a cripple, his hip and leg twisted as a result of a youthful escapade gone wrong. It is often the case in movies that physical imperfections are mirrored by deeper psychological scars, and so it is with Tommy Farrell. This man who glides effortlessly through the powerful social milieu in spite of his pronounced limp is emotionally wounded. His beautiful but callous wife left him since she couldn’t overcome her disgust at his physical deformity, and Farrell has been unable to heal that emotional wound. However, his rehabilitation begins at Rico’s party when he agrees to escort home Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), a dancer and one of the “party girls” hired for the evening. Although the evening ends with a rather gruesome discovery, Farrell and Vicki do make a connection that will blossom despite a few bumpy stretches along the way. The whole movie is principally concerned with Farrell’s rediscovery of his self-respect after years of loathing himself. Running parallel to the developing relationship with Vicki is the thread that follows Farrell’s attempts to distance himself from Rico and the corrupt and violent world he inhabits. Just when it looks like the hero may have achieved the spiritual peace he’s long been seeking, Rico’s machinations and threats haul him back to defend one of his paymaster’s psychotic associates. However, having had a taste of life beyond the cheap neon glamour of the underworld, Farrell is determined to get out for good. The trick is to find a way to protect Vicki, bring down Rico, and save his own skin at the same time.

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Nostalgia for certain periods tends to come in waves, and the late 50s saw a resurgence of interest in the old gangster movies. Party Girl tapped into that vibe and director Nicholas ray added his own personal touch to it. Ray only made a handful of noir pictures altogether – all are interesting in their own way, and two (In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground) are pure bred classics. All of Ray’s best movies dealt with those who were in some way removed from the mainstream of society, and Party Girl follows that template. Farrell is superficially a man at the heart of city life. Yet, he’s an outsider in every sense; a lawyer who essentially makes a mockery of the law, an apparent mob insider who is revolted by the crassness and brutality around him, and a man bedeviled by his own sense of inadequacy. Aside from the fact that the mobsters and hoodlums who populate the film are themselves social pariahs, Vicki is another character existing at the periphery of decency. The struggle which Farrell and Vicki undertake to break free of the dark influences that threaten to drag them down is classic Ray material. Another feature common to Ray’s work, and seen in abundance here, is the unrestrained use of color. Party Girl is a riot of technicolor hues that seem to allude to the heightened emotional state of the characters.

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Even though I’m a great admirer of his work in general, I think it’s fair to say Robert Taylor gave an excellent performance as Farrell. As he aged, and his looks took on more character, he did some first-rate work in westerns, and the same can be said about his noir pictures. He brought a dour toughness to his role as the tortured lawyer, and worked well with Charisse. For her own part, Charisse adopted the right kind of world-weary air that befits a woman who has spent her time dodging unwanted passes and living off dubious handouts in seedy nightclubs. She was of course an immensely talented dancer, one of the greats, and the movie features a couple of set piece numbers designed to show off her moves. With the club setting, and her character’s profession, these sequences are blended seamlessly into the narrative. They may capture the look and feel of a musical yet they never have that jarring, artificial sense that such movies frequently evoke. The other big hitter in the cast was Lee J Cobb. This was an actor who could explode out of the screen at times, his inherent power always in danger of turning into bombast. In Party Girl, Ray managed to get the right kind of balance from Cobb for the most part. Sure there are instances where he drifts awfully close to scenery chewing, but there are some quietly effective moments too – his chat with Taylor where he blackmails the lawyer into cooperating under the threat of disfiguring his girlfriend is all the more chilling due to Cobb’s restraint. The supporting cast was headed up by the ever reliable John Ireland as Cobb’s slimy and dangerous right hand man. Also featured were Kent Smith – despite his long and varied career, I’ll always associate him with one of his earliest roles in Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People – as the straight arrow prosecutor, and a manic Corey Allen as the unbalanced hood Cookie La Motte.

For a long time, Party Girl wasn’t the easiest movie to see. However, it has been released on DVD in France and Spain and as a MOD disc via the Warner Archive in the US. I have the old French Warner Brothers DVD which is pretty good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print used for the transfer seems in good shape. There’s plenty of clarity, the colors are strong and quite vibrant, and damage (if there is any) is so slight I can’t say I noticed. There are no extra features on the disc – subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. The blending of styles and genres just about works in the movie, drawing in elements of melodrama, the musical and a crime tale to create a fairly unique film noir. Aside from a trio of good performances, what holds the whole thing together is the direction of Nicholas Ray. In the hands of a lesser director, the disparate elements could well have pulled the movie apart. As it stands, Party Girl remains one of Ray’s interesting experiments which I feel more or less succeeds. Of course much of this depends on how one reacts to Ray as a filmmaker; as such, it’s another of those films that I’d cautiously recommend.

Johnny Apollo

It seems that I’m drawn back, time and again, to what we can term transitional works, be they westerns or any other genre. I suppose that reflects my own interest in observing the general shape of cinematic development, and the progress of popular culture overall. The more hyperbolic aspects of marketing might like to encourage the perception that new styles or movements suddenly explode onto the scene without warning and forever change the face of entertainment. However, that’s not the case at all, and I doubt it ever will be. No, all things grow out of and build upon what came before, some in a more radical fashion than others. Film noir was the great game changer in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it’s evolution fits the trend I’ve mentioned here. The French critics of the post-war period may have noticed what looked to them like a dramatic new direction in cinema after years of being starved of new US movies. Still, that was just an altered perception resulting from a unique set of circumstances; film noir took form just as gradually as any other cinematic movement. Johnny Apollo (1940) is one of those movies that shows the transition happening, borrowing heavily from the socially aware gangster films of the 30s and blending in the makings of a darker, more fatalistic tone.

The film follows the ups and downs of Bob Cain Jr (Tyrone Power), a carefree member of the wealthy elite who sees his life take a dramatic downward turn. The opening is pure 30s, as a frenetic Stock Exchange suspends trading amid accusations that Cain Sr (Edward Arnold) is an embezzler. This fact, along with his father’s indictment and subsequent imprisonment, leaves the younger Cain in a spot. His privileged upbringing has left him unprepared for such a rapid downfall. His initial reaction is a combination of naivety and a kind of spoiled petulance – how could his father disgrace him and damage his social standing in such a way? At this point, we’re looking at a deeply unsympathetic character, and I think one issue with the film as a whole is the fact that this initial selfishness is never quite overcome. However, Cain Jr soon feels the chill wind of reality as his attempts to make his way in the world get scuppered again and again by his father’s new notoriety. It would appear that all those friends and contacts were all of the fair weather variety. In one curiously satisfying twist, Cain finds himself shown the door by a boss who finds his concealment of his identity particularly distasteful – his own old man having died a drunk in prison. So, with his options running out fast, Cain finds himself drawn into the shady underworld of Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), a big-time gangster. It’s here that Cain undergoes a major transformation, adopting the pseudonym Johnny Apollo and using every illicit means at his disposal to rise through the ranks of the underworld, all in the hope of securing his father’s release from prison. Personally, my biggest problem with all this is the matter of plausibility. Gangster movies of the classic 30s period did see honest men drawn into a life of crime by a mixture of social pressure and a desire to strike it rich. The crucial difference though is that those 30s movies generally featured lower class guys whose choices were dictated by their poor backgrounds. Johnny Apollo asks the viewer to accept that such circumstances could lead the wealthy down a similar path. Frankly, I have a hard time buying into that idea, and although the incongruity does recede somewhat as the story moves along it’s difficult to shake it off completely.

Was Henry Hathaway one of the most versatile directors ever? Even a brief scan of his credits would suggest that he may well have been. Hathaway’s career was long, varied and successful, with examples of top class work in just about every genre. It seems that to be considered among the great director’s one needs to have either a recognizable motif, or to have concentrated in one particular genre. Hathaway was one of those thoroughgoing professionals whose dedication to his craft seemed to preclude any of the personal touches we associate with the more highly regarded figures in cinema. From a critical perspective, it was also his misfortune to be such an adaptable filmmaker – it’s much more difficult to put any kind of personal stamp on movies when the style varies so greatly. However, Hathaway remains one of my favourite directors, and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely disappointed by one of his movies. Johnny Apollo is well shot throughout, but the jailbreak finale is probably the real highlight and really ramps up the excitement. Unfortunately, from my point of view anyway, we get a coda tagged on which looks like it’s just there to provide a weak happy ending.

While I’ve admitted that I’m not altogether happy with the plausibility of the central character’s development, I can’t lay the blame for that at Tyrone Power’s feet. I feel he managed to nail the shift quite effectively – from fresh-faced enthusiasm to dismay, and finally a kind of ruthless single-mindedness. His interaction with Edward Arnold was well handled too, and this is crucial since the father son dynamic, and expectations of each, forms the basis of the story. Arnold had the more sympathetic part though; he may be an actor we don’t normally think of in such a light, but he brought a great deal of quiet dignity to his role as the fallen tycoon. However, as is often the case, Lloyd Nolan nearly steals the picture from under everyone’s noses. Nolan was a terrific actor, whose distinctive delivery and likeable demeanor, even when he was being vile, always adds something special to a film. In Johnny Apollo, Nolan was vicious, mean and hypocritical, but you can’t help rooting for him just a bit. I find it difficult to think of Dorothy Lamour without recalling her films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She’s good enough as Nolan’s put upon moll, and Power’s object of desire, but the Hope and Crosby connection makes her seem a little out of place in a straight drama like this. I’ll add a word of praise too for fine supporting turns from Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence and, most particularly, Charley Grapewin.

I’m pretty sure Johnny Apollo was only ever released on DVD in the US as part of a Tyrone Power box set from Fox. I never picked up that set since the other movies contained didn’t especially appeal to me. Instead I bought the movie when Bounty in Australia put it out as part of their noir line. The film is licensed from Fox and boasts a very strong transfer – it’s sharp, clean and has good contrast levels. The disc is a bare bones effort though with no extra features at all offered. Even though Bounty have marketed the film as noir, as I said in the introduction, this is very much a transitional picture. Frankly, the whole thing has more in common with 30s movies, but the seeds of noir are there too, with the last third delving deeper into the ambiguities of dark cinema. If the film is approached purely as a film noir then it’s likely to prove disappointing. Viewed as a kind of bridge in the evolution of the thriller, it’s altogether more satisfying.

Powder River

Seeing as I’ve reviewed the majority of the movies which directly featured the character of Wyatt Earp, I thought I might as well have a look at Powder River (1953). Even though this film does not have any character by the name of Earp in it,  that’s where the inspiration comes from. Stuart N Lake’s book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal is probably the most influential source helping to shape the legend which grew up around the famous lawman. Powder River is yet another adaptation of that book, and Lake is credited on screen as the author. However, for whatever reason, none of the real names of characters are used – perhaps Fox just didn’t want another Earp movie at that particular time. Anyway, the film represents another retelling of the Earp/Holliday story though it puts a slightly different spin on the central relationship, one that I’m not sure is altogether successful.

In this version of the story the Earp character becomes the colorfully named Chino Bull (Rory Calhoun). Chino – I’m sorry, but I’m not going to write a piece continually referring to a man as Bull – is a former lawman who has grown weary of the violence that goes along with that profession and has decided to try his hand at prospecting. A quick visit to town to pick up supplies leads to two events that combine to alter Chino’s chosen path. Firstly, some unplanned heroics connected to a can of peaches and a gun-happy drunk see him offered the job of town marshal. While he’s initially uninterested in putting on a badge again, a return to camp and the discovery of the fact his partner has been murdered and robbed brings Chino back to town, and back to his old life. As the newly appointed marshal, one of his first official acts is to crack down on crooked gambling and rigged tables. This means the temporary imprisonment of Frenchie Dumont (Corinne Calvet), the proprietor of one of the town’s saloons and gambling houses. This in turn sees the introduction of the Doc Holliday figure, here renamed Mitch Hardin (Cameron Mitchell). Hardin has a fearsome reputation as a drinker and a gunman, and also happens to be Frenchie’s man. Although Chino and Hardin butt heads to begin with, the former’s cool self-assurance wins over the gunman. As such, the central relationship, based on mutual admiration and respect, is established in a fairly familiar way. Now most Earp/Holliday films have concentrated on the friendship of the two men and how it is tested and then cemented by the feud with the Clantons. Powder River diverges from that formula somewhat by bringing in an insipid romantic triangle, the rivalry and distrust of a professional gambler (John Dehner), and a damaging secret which Hardin is harboring. I’d say that the extent to which the film works for the viewer is heavily dependent on how far one is able to buy into these aspects.

Anyone familiar with the Earp/Holliday movies will immediately recognize the characters of Chino and Hardin are only the thinnest of disguises. In addition there are sequences that directly mirror some of those in Dwan’s Frontier Marshal and Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Director Louis King had a long career, but he was no match for either Dwan or Ford. Having said that, King’s work on Powder River is by no means poor – it simply lacks the flair that Dwan or, more especially Ford, were able to achieve. Much of the action is confined to the town and interiors, but there are occasional scenes shot on outdoor locations. These exteriors are generally attractive, and one in particular, an attempted hi-jacking of a ferry carrying a stagecoach, is very well shot. The movie is largely a character driven piece, but King handled the action quite effectively whenever it does come along.

I like Rory Calhoun in westerns, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, he just seemed comfortable in the genre and frontier parts were a good fit for him. I feel the right word to describe his performance in Powder River is confident. Calhoun spends much of the running time unarmed, his character’s preference, and is never less than convincing as a man with enough self-belief and force of personality to keep the peace without resort to weapons. On the other hand, Cameron Mitchell is rarely seen without his custom rig. Again, this is entirely appropriate for a character living mainly on his nerves, and who has built a reputation for himself as a killer of men. Mitchell was a good enough actor, and gave some fine performances over the years, however, he didn’t have a huge amount of charisma. The Doc Holliday figure is one of the most interesting and, from an actor’s point of view, one of the more rewarding roles offered up by westerns. Almost all the performers who have played this part at various times have created something memorable. Of all those I’ve seen, Mitchell’s take on the role was among the least satisfactory, for me anyway. I can’t say he did poorly; he certainly got across the self-loathing aspects of someone who has witnessed his life take a route he had never intended. To some extent, the problem stems from the character arc Hardin goes through, but that’s not it all either. Ultimately, Mitchell’s performance never quite measures up to the other screen depictions of Doc Holliday – it may be a little unfair to compare performances in this way, but it’s hard not to. John Dehner was a man who always brought a touch of class to his parts and his name among the credits is something that I look forward to. He has a medium size role in Powder River, and I think the film would have benefited had he been given a bit more to do. There are two female parts in this production, those of Corinne Calvet and Penny Edwards. Of the two, Calvet did by far the most interesting work, coming across as tough, sexy and sassy from her very first appearance. In contrast, Penny Edwards just feels very colorless, and her romantic involvement with Calhoun and Mitchell never catches fire or is the least bit convincing.

Rory Calhoun hasn’t been all that well served on DVD, with the dearth of titles being especially noticeable in the US. Generally, he’s fared a bit better in Europe, and Powder River has been released on disc in Spain by Fox/Impulso. For the most part, the transfer is quite good. This is an extremely colorful movie and the Spanish release reproduces that aspect pretty well. It can appear a little dark at times, notably during interior scenes, and there is some mild flickering on occasion although none of that is particularly distracting. The disc allows the Spanish subtitles to be disabled via the setup menu, and extras are the usual gallery and a few cast and crew text pages. Powder River is a modest western, never straining to overreach itself and delivering reasonably satisfying entertainment. Personally, I’m always up for another version of the Earp/Holliday saga, and I do appreciate the fact that the filmmakers tried to bring something slightly different to the table with this movie. However, while the attempts to alter the dynamic of the relationship between the two leads is interesting, I don’t honestly think it works that well in practice. There are a handful of good performances and the film is worth checking out, but it never seriously challenges the better Earp movies.

Cattle Empire

The trail drive, like the wagon train, is a regular feature of westerns. Long treks across hard, unforgiving territory where adversity must be challenged and overcome play a significant role in the romance of the old west. Such stories provide ample scope for a wide range of dramatic situations, typically involving hostile elements and/or natives. However, I’d argue that tensions resulting from the group dynamic in these kinds of stories is more compelling than any threat arising from without. The forced interdependence of those on the journey, paradoxically limited in their ability to act alone despite the apparent freedom afforded by the vast space around them, is what generates the drama. This dramatic potential is further heightened if the travelers already have some history of conflict prior to setting off. That’s the basic concept behind Cattle Empire (1958), a taut and edgy tale of a group of people asked, out of economic necessity, to put their mistrust and hatred of each other behind them in order to achieve something that will ultimately benefit them all. The layers of the plot are cleverly revealed in stages, drawing the viewer into the story in the process, and contain enough twists to keep one guessing.

When a film has a relatively short running time, it’s vital to grab the attention as early and as effectively as possible. Cattle Empire hits that target right from the opening shot. The residents of the town of Hamilton, hard-faced and embittered, are ranged in a circle on the main street. Lying in the centre of this circle of resentment is the figure of a man, hands bound by a rope that’s attached to the saddle of a horse. At a signal, the rider spurs his mount and the hapless victim is dragged over the rough ground. The punishment continues, the friction shredding the man’s clothes and slicing his flesh mercilessly. However, intervention arrives in the shape of a buckboard carrying three passengers. Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty), the man who gave the town its name, demands that the torture end before the victim is killed outright. It’s only with the greatest reluctance that the townspeople abandon their sport and the bloodied figure gains some respite. This half-dead man is John Cord (Joel McCrea), a former trail boss returning to town after spending five years in prison. But for the good citizens of Hamilton, five years of incarceration isn’t enough to repay Cord’s debt. When Cord was last in town the cowboys working under him went on a drunken rampage that left the both the place and its people deeply scarred. That damage is still visible: a business burned to the ground, a man who lost his child, another who lost an arm, and Ralph Hamilton who was robbed of his sight. Given all that had happened, why would John Cord come back to a town with plenty of reason to hate him. Well the reason is he was invited back, by Ralph Hamilton no less. Hamilton, and many of the townspeople, has everything tied up in a herd of cattle and faces financial ruin unless he can get his stock to sale ahead of a rival. And that’s his proposition for Cord, a trail boss of some considerable renown – get the herd to market first and, in so doing, wipe the slate clean. In this, we already have an interesting premise, but it grows ever more complex as the drive gets underway. In addition to the fact that Hamilton’s wife (Phyllis Coates) was once Cord’s girl, there’s the question of what the real motivations of these men are. And perhaps most important of all – whose side is Cord actually on?

Cattle Empire is very much concerned with the mystery of Cord and Hamilton’s past; right from the outset it’s clear that whatever happened in the town five years previously has effected these two deeply, to the point of leading both to objectively odd behaviour. The townspeople are forthright in their desire for vengeance, while Cord keeps us unsure as to how he plans to act and Hamilton initially seems positively sainted. That oddness suggests that there’s something lurking beneath the surface, and the script wisely keeps the viewer guessing for as long as possible. Ultimately, everything boils down to that staple of the western, and particularly those made in the 50s – the quest for a form of spiritual salvation. Virtually everyone in the movie is seeking atonement for their sins of the past, the shadows of a half-concealed guilt looming large in the hearts of all.

Charles Marquis Warren may not be a familiar name to many these days. However, his contribution to the western on both the big and small screen is significant. While his directing credits are modest in number, his work as a writer and producer does stand out, especially Gunsmoke and Rawhide on television. As the director of Cattle Empire, he did a fine job in my opinion. The film is well paced and packs plenty of incident into its tight running time. The action scenes have a strong sense of urgency about them, and Warren controls the camera carefully to ensure they have as much impact as possible. Generally, he handled the wide, scope lens effectively throughout. The early sequence in the town features some fine composition and placement, and the exteriors and location work that follow make the most of the wide open spaces. The climactic shootout among the boulders of Lone Pine is excellently staged and exciting.

In terms of performances, Cattle Empire is well and truly dominated by Joel McCrea. One of the film’s great strengths is the way the character of John Cord is introduced as a villainous figure, the subject of scorn and hatred. The ill-treatment he endures stoically and his subsequent actions indicate that he’s not an entirely bad man, perhaps even one that the viewer can sympathize with. Yet he remains somewhat ambiguous until the climax, and it’s hard to be sure of his real intentions. At every point though, McCrea exudes a kind of wounded nobility, a belief in himself which has you rooting for him even if you can’t completely dismiss the doubts. He also handles the romance angle well; it would be unseemly to lust too openly for the wife of a man you have blinded, even if that woman was once your own. McCrea conveyed the internal struggle that such a situation would be bound to provoke quite deftly, all the while coping with the growing affections of the young girl (Gloria Talbott) who has hero worshiped him all her life. Of the two women, Talbott has the smaller role but manages to create the more endearing and lovable character. In contrast, Phyllis Coates comes across as slightly cold and calculating in her dealings with both Cord and her husband. Of course, for Coates and Talbott, the script pretty much dictates how their respective roles had to be played. The other notable part is that of the blind cattleman played by Don Haggerty, and it’s an important one. If McCrea was to hold onto that air of suspicion that surrounded him, it was necessary to have him faced off against a man whose situation immediately drew sympathy. Without wishing to present any spoilers, I’ll just say that Haggerty’s performance was as considered and subtle as McCrea’s, and thus ensured that the suspense was maintained for as long as possible.

To date, Cattle Empire has not received a DVD release in either the US or the UK. However, there is a particularly fine edition available in Spain from Fox/Impulso. The film has been given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer which boasts fine colour. The print used was evidently in especially good condition, there’s no damage of any consequence to be seen and it’s consistently sharp. The disc allows subtitles to be disabled on the original English soundtrack, and extras are a short gallery and some text screens on the cast and crew. I don’t expect this is a particularly well-known film, but it is a very satisfying and entertaining one. It takes a fairly standard western situation, the trail drive, and puts an interesting spin on it. Contrived romances can drag a movie down, but Cattle Empire avoids that by artfully weaving its variation into the story in a convincing manner. However, the main attraction is the theme of a suppressed desire for revenge coming up against the search for redemption, and the presence of dark secrets bubbling just below the surface. Overall, this is a most interesting movie.