Tribute to a Bad Man

We’re living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started – and this you don’t know – I’ve been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men’s been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him.

Sometimes little gems pass us by, having escaped our attention for one reason or another. Discovering such films is a genuine pleasure, a reminder that there are always cinematic nuggets to chance upon. Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) is a case in point, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. I’ll readily admit here that this may have been at least partially due to a certain prejudice on my part; neither the stars nor the director are people one automatically associates with the western. I guess my enjoyment of Robert Wise’s two earlier genre efforts, coupled with the recommendations of others, drew me to the film. The presence of James Cagney (who made only three westerns himself) and Irene Papas had me feeling less confident. However, I was delighted to find that any reservations were entirely misplaced – if anything, Tribute to a Bad Man proves how the genre has a tendency to bring the best out of talented performers and filmmakers.

The plot recounts a short episode in the life of a young man, a parable of renewal in the best tradition. Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) is a green easterner, a store clerk from Pennsylvania heading west to carve out a new life. Riding into a lush valley, he stumbles into an ambush in progress. A wounded man is pinned down with only the carcass of his slain horse for cover. Miller’s unexpected appearance on the scene drives off the bushwhackers and earns him the gratitude of the man he’s saved. This is Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a prosperous horse rancher and owner of the valley. Miller’s reward is to be taken on as a wrangler, but it also draws him into the harsh and complex world of Rodock. And it is completely his world; Rodock’s wealth and hard-bitten personality have made him the total master of his domain. In a land as yet untouched by the civilizing influence of the law, his authority is absolute and he quite literally holds the power of life and death when any crime takes place. The west at this time was very much a man’s country, with women thin on the ground. Rodock is one of those classic western types who has lived much of his life alone, but there is a woman in his home now. Jocasta Constantine (Irene Papas) is a Greek immigrant he has taken from the Cheyenne saloon where he found her and brought back to his ranch. It’s at this point that the film comes into its own, raising all kinds of questions about trust, suspicion and the way it’s all too easy to hide from and deny one’s true feelings. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he’s slow to trust. He’s become a hard man, masking a deep insecurity with an uncompromising exterior. There’s a kind of messianic zeal about the way he metes out his brand of justice, hanging any horse thieves who dare raid his stock. But his suspicion of potential criminals extends into his personal life too – he’s consumed with doubt when it comes to Jocasta, fearing the attractions of his head wrangler McNulty (Stephen McNally) and later Miller will be more than she can resist.

Tribute to a Bad Man was adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer, and I’ve yet to see a film derived from his work that’s left me dissatisfied. There’s a timeless quality which I feel comes from the focus on interesting characters and deeply affecting relationships. This isn’t a shoot-em-up western, rather it’s a character study which draws you in gradually. That’s not to say there are no action scenes – there are, but they certainly take second place. Mostly the movie concerns itself with Rodock and his relationship with Jocasta. Even the name Jocasta is highly suggestive, with its allusions to Greek mythology – Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus, who of course unwittingly killed his father and proceeded to marry his mother. I think it’s therefore intended that we see Rodock as a kind of Laius figure, simultaneously in love with Jocasta, deeply suspicious of what it may lead to, and also forever aware of the threat to him posed by younger men. Nevertheless, while an awareness of this aspect can add another layer of appreciation, it’s not an essential reading of the plot. What really matters here is the way an essentially decent man has allowed himself to succumb to cruelty, and how he rediscovers and regains his humanity. In this version Jocasta isn’t the tragic figure but instead represents salvation for Rodock.

I think it’s a pity Robert Wise didn’t make more westerns. All three of his genre efforts are fine movies, although I probably enjoyed Tribute to a Bad Man most. Aside from the rich, classical theme, the movie simply looks great throughout. Filming in CinemaScope, Wise and cameraman Robert Surtees use the wide frame to full effect, and the Colorado locations appear quite spectacular. Furthermore, the interiors are well used too. Wise and Surtees achieve good depth and contrast in those scenes – the grimy, smoky bunkhouse looking particularly authentic. The director’s judgment of the pacing was spot on too, letting scenes play out naturally but never allowing them to overstay their welcome. A polished and professional piece of work all round.

As I said at the beginning, James Cagney simply isn’t someone typically associated with the western – his fast-talking persona seemed to belong to a different period and location. And yet I never once found myself thinking there was anything anachronistic or out of place about his presence in Tribute to a Bad Man – which is a tribute itself to the talent and versatility of the man. Cagney of course wasn’t the first choice for the role of Rodock; Spencer Tracy was initially cast but his reluctance to spend so much time on location led to his leaving MGM and being replaced by Cagney. The character of Rodock wasn’t an easy one to play – he’s not really the bad man the title suggests, at least not  in the formal sense of the word. On their own, the prickliness, uprightness and bursts of cruelty could probably be handled fine by a number of actors. Cagney’s skill though lay in his ability to ensure Rodock never became wholly unlikable at any point; the fundamental honor and decency of the man were never far from the surface and that Irish twinkle would flash in his eyes at just the right moment. Irene Papas is another performer you don’t expect to see in a western – she hasn’t even made that many English language films all told. Once again though we can see this genre encouraging fine performances from people who, on paper anyway, sound like odd choices. Papas was one of only two women in the cast, and her striking Greek features make her stand out even more. This was her Hollywood debut and she carried off the role of Jocasta with style. Her character was at the heart of the story, the one who brings Rodock back to full life, and any weakness would have derailed the whole thing. She got across the right combination of sassiness, allure and soulfulness to make it all entirely believable, and even the significant age difference with Cagney is used to the film’s advantage.

Stephen McNally could play heroes, villains and everything in between with ease. Here he was the villain, a slick opportunist willing to gamble on anything and lacking any real moral sense. Probably his finest moment in the movie comes when he has to endure the sadistic punishment Rodock devises to pay him back for crippling his horses – grueling stuff and well handled by McNally. Don Dubbins was fine as the everyman narrator, ultimately it’s something of a thankless part but he did all that was asked of him. The supporting cast all have smaller roles but Vic Morrow got handed a reasonably meaty part as the embittered son of Cagney’s former partner. The other parts are filled by such familiar faces as Lee Van Cleef. Royal Dano, Jeanette Nolan, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith.

Tribute to a Bad Man is available  from a number of sources on DVD now. There’s a Warner Archive MOD disc out in the US, a Spanish release – which I think is non-anamorphic letterbox – and this Italian edition from A & R Productions which I own. I have a few titles by this company now and I’ve been very satisfied with them so far. The movie is presented in its correct scope ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The print used is crisp, clear and colorful with no significant damage. The film can be viewed either with its original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, and there are no subtitles at all offered. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries. All in all, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a first-rate western in my opinion, and ought to have more fans. I can certainly see myself revisiting it and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.

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The Far Country

And so I come to the last western made by James Stewart and Anthony Mann, not the last they did together but rather the last one to be featured on this site. For a long time I tended to look upon The Far Country (1954) as the least of the Mann/Stewart westerns but, having been challenged on that view in the past, I asked myself to reassess it. On reflection, I feel my initial stance was both unfair and even lacked a certain logic – after all, there really is no such thing as a lesser Mann/Stewart western. I also think I know why I once undervalued the film, and it’s essentially for the same reason I was sightly ambivalent at one time about the collaboration between actor and director that never was: Night Passage. In short, the film doesn’t have what I can only term the sustained intensity of the other westerns these two men made. Yet to latch onto that aspect is to do the film a huge disservice; where the other films have that sustained intensity The Far Country has more isolated instances of it, and this actually fits the development of the plot and theme perfectly.

Perhaps the most noticeable motif in the films of Anthony Mann is the way his characters are forever driving themselves upwards, striving to attain a higher place and sometimes overreaching themselves in the process. In The Far Country Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is pushing himself further up the globe from the off, from Wyoming to Seattle and on to the north – the Yukon. Webster is a trail boss, a man with a herd of cattle to bring to market. That he’s a hard and uncompromising man is evident from the first scenes where it’s plainly stated that he shot and killed two cowboys who tried to desert him on the way – although it’s later revealed that the deceased had also planned to take his herd with them when they left. Webster’s partner is Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), a man of milder temperament whose ambitions stretch only as far as a ranch in Utah and a plentiful supply of coffee. One would have thought that having got this far, the worst of their trials lay behind these two men. However, that’s not to be. Gannon (John McIntire) is one of those conniving opportunists one often finds in border areas – he’s a man who uses the law, his version of the law that is, to ensure all profits accrue back to him. He seizes on the chance to confiscate Webster’s herd on a legal technicality that’s little more than a whim. However, Webster is no fool and when he’s offered the job of leading saloon owner Ronda Castle’s (Ruth Roman) outfit into Canada he turns it to his advantage. While Gannon is under the illusion that Webster is content to try his luck in the Canadian gold fields the latter snatches his herd from under his nose and jumps the border. So all’s well that ends well? Not exactly – Webster is a hard-nosed individualist, one of those men who look after themselves and leave the others to their own devices. However, the move north sees that isolationist position challenged. New friendships are forged – Rube (Jay C Flippen) and more especially the freckle-faced tomboy Renee (Corinne Calvet) – and with those come obligations, something Webster has assiduously avoided thus far. As first Ronda and then later the malignant Gannon set their sights on a piece of the action in the lucrative gold fields, Webster is forced to take stock of his previous philosophy of exclusively looking out for number one.

The other Mann/Stewart westerns were mainly concerned with individuals haunted by their past, tales of revenge and redemption earned the hard way. The Far Country differs in the sense that the Stewart character isn’t a man directly dogged by a painful history. There is an allusion to a woman who wounded him emotionally, perhaps partially explaining his remoteness from those around him. However, there isn’t that sense of someone running from himself. Instead what we get is a representation of total detachment, a man who places self-interest above all else. For most of the movie Jeff Webster really isn’t all that nice a guy, he cares not a jot who gets hurt so long as his own interests are best served. And so the theme here is more one of renewal and rediscovery, setting it a little apart from the other revenge focused films. The Stewart character isn’t at war with himself, as so often seemed to be the case, although he is eventually forced to question his previous attitude. This is what, for me anyway, makes the film a bit different – the moments of intensity occur in brief flashes, at least until Webster’s hand is forced by Gannon’s cruelty. Of course the threat of brutality and abrupt violence that characterizes the Mann/Stewart westerns lurks just below the surface – it’s this (and also the warmth that springs from the feeling of community) which finally provokes Webster, and consequently allows him to get back in touch with his own humanity.

The Far Country gave Stewart the chance to display more of his trademark affability than his other westerns with Mann, though it remains of the slightly hard-edged variety. Those other films concerned themselves more with a reconciliation with the circumstances and situations arising out of a damaged past whereas here Stewart has to gradually come to terms with his own failings as a human being. As such, the characterization is quite different yet no less interesting. In place of a deep psychological trauma which colors his actions, Stewart has to confront an ingrained emotional detachment instead. The catalyst, as usual, is violence and humiliation, and the transformation – the path towards renewal – is no less dramatic.

Naturally, everything revolves around Stewart’s character, but there’s plenty of good support from a fine cast. Walter Brennan had the lovable old coot thing nailed down by this stage in his career, and his turn as the coffee-obsessed partner provides a nice counterpoint to Stewart’s coolness. Brennan is the human face of the pair, the one audiences can most easily relate to and feel sympathy for. Corinne Calvet fulfills a similar function; there’s an amusing sweetness to this ingenue of the wilderness, although it lessens her impact as one half of the romantic interest. Ruth Roman, on the other hand, is a knowing, worldly figure – she’s arguably a better match for Stewart’s profit-minded cynic, but loses some of her allure as Stewart later finds himself examining his motives and allegiances. She’s actually one of the most interesting figures in the movie, retaining a degree of ambiguity throughout. However, there’s nothing at all ambiguous about John McIntire’s Gannon – he’s the real villain of the piece and positively glories in his iniquity and callousness. McIntire, along with Brennan, was one of the finest character actors of the golden age and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him sink his teeth into a role like this. Anthony Mann clearly liked working with Jay C Flippen – he used him often in his movies – and gave him another good role in The Far Country as the kind-hearted Rube with a fondness for the whiskey bottle. Already were looking at a pretty impressive battery of seasoned performers but when you bear in mind that the film also found parts for Robert J Wilke, Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, Chubby Johnson and Steve Brodie it ought to give an idea of the depth of talent involved.

The Far Country has long been available on DVD and really is due an upgrade to Blu-ray by now. Early editions in the US presented the film open-matte, but later pressings were in the correct widescreen ratio. I have the UK DVD, which was always the widescreen version, and it looks pretty good. William Daniels’ photography of the beautiful Canadian locations looks terrific while colors and sharpness are quite satisfactory. As I said at the beginning, there was a time when I tried to rate the Mann/Stewart westerns against each other but that’s a pointless exercise really. Over time I’ve come to understand that all of these films are great in their own ways – to try to compare them or view them as competing productions is to pick away at their greatness, and I honestly don’t want to do that. I held off writing about this film for ages, and for reasons which may appear foolish to others. Although I’ve seen all the Mann/Stewart westerns countless times I kind of liked the idea that there was still another one I had yet to feature. I didn’t like the feeling that I wouldn’t have the chance to write about another one – I got that same sense when I finished writing up the Boetticher/Scott pictures too – so I kept putting it off. Anyway, there it is. These films are among the finest the western genre has to offer – maybe I won’t be writing about them again but I’ll surely enjoy watching them, and I wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone who has yet to experience them.

Winchester ’73

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