A Lawless Street

The snarling beast… can’t you hear it growling out there? Listen! This town is like a wild animal in chains, Molly. It doesn’t fight back right away, it just lies there and snarls, waiting for a chance to pounce on you.

The hero stalked by his past, living with the legacy of a reputation earned the hard way but not actively sought out, is a common enough theme in westerns. Generally, the inevitable confrontation with the past is undertaken only with the utmost reluctance, with the full knowledge that destruction rather than salvation may await. What’s less common though is a scenario where it’s the cumulative effects of times gone by that are addressed, and where aspects of those times are actually yearned for. A Lawless Street (1955) has such a concept at its heart – a man haunted not by misdeeds but by missed opportunities, and slowly being worn down by conscience, regret and just a hint of fear.

Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) is the marshal of Medicine Bend, and was initially brought in to ensure this frontier town abides by the civilized values one of its leading citizens, Asaph Dean (James Bell), wants to see upheld. Ware is one of those itinerant lawmen sometimes referred to as town tamers, having worked some tough western settlements and built up a name for himself as a gunman of note in the process. One of the things I particularly like about the 50s western is the way such aspects of a man’s character or background are rarely glossed over or glamorized. The memorable opening scene has a lone horseman slowly ride along the empty main street, his body language and general demeanor suggesting he has something serious on his mind, and when the camera zooms in and focuses on his sidearm, then we know pretty well the exact nature of his business. This man is in town to settle a score with the marshal and word of what’s probably in store doesn’t take long to get around. Ware is the type who knows only too well the importance of maintaining a facade, he makes a big play of his apparent nonchalance, projecting an image of supreme confidence regardless of the danger that lie in his path, Yet the viewer knows this for what it is; the brief quote I added at the beginning is a line he lets slip to his landlady as she prepares breakfast for him before he sets off to do his duty. If we have any doubts though, it’s made clear when he returns to his office after the inevitable shooting – the stress of forever living in the shadow of violent threats and the debilitating effects of knowing he’s had to cut short another life are plain to see once he has closed the door against the prying eyes of the townsfolk. The local doctor (Wallace Ford) is aware  of this, and says as much when he later helps to tend to Ware’s injuries after a bruising encounter with the dead man’s brother. The point here is that there’s a marked contrast between the private and the public face of Calem Ware, something that’s further explored when a musical star, Tally Dickenson (Angela Lansbury), arrives to put on a show at the theater. Ware and Tally have a shared past, a framed photo of her stashed in his room alludes to that early on, but its true nature is only revealed gradually. While much of the plot revolves around the machinations of a couple of businessmen (Warner Anderson & John Emery) who want Ware out of the way, and hire gunfighter Harley Baskam (Michael Pate) to that end, the heart of the picture is driven by the relationship between Tally and the marshal, and indeed the marshal’s own intrapersonal relationship.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a film by Joseph H Lewis that wasn’t interesting, either in terms of theme or the visual language he employed in the telling. Although the plot of A Lawless Street isn’t especially original, the way Lewis goes about presenting it elevates it all considerably. Apart from one brief sequence, the entire movie plays out within the confines of Medicine Bend, with all the significant events taking place indoors. The director, and cameraman Ray Rennahan, creates a look and mood which approach film noir at some points and contain a fair amount of symbolism. The image above is, of course, a notable example — the wounded Ware hiding out in his own jail, the shadows of his past and his sense of duty pinning him in place just as surely as the shadows cast by the bars. Note too how the real man seems small and tense next to the solid and imposing image of himself. In fact, a great deal of this film is concerned with the concepts of illusion and reality; one of the main sets is the theater where Tally performs, and what is the theater if not a palace of illusion. As Tally plays her role on the stage, and the marshal assumes his watching from the box seat, the reality is only shown when they move backstage. In the same way, Ware’s office represents his “backstage”, the sanctuary which allows him to strip away the greasepaint of invincibility. Also, let’s not forget the notion of rebirth, the allusion to spirituality, which is frequently found in 50s westerns. The climax toys with the idea of resurrection, of a man back from the dead to reclaim his position in society, and by doing so attaining the spiritual and emotional equilibrium for which he’s been yearning.

Randolph Scott has been featured on this site more than any other actor and I guess most of the reasons for his enduring appeal as a western lead have been covered in depth. For me, A Lawless Street is yet another step along the path Scott was treading in the post-war years, a path that would culminate in the iconic roles he played for both Boetticher and Peckinpah. The part of Calem Ware has enough depth to make it interesting, and Scott had acquired sufficient gravitas by this stage in his career to render his portrayal credible. Angela Lansbury has had a long and distinguished career but the western isn’t a genre that she’s had much association with. A Lawless Street is the only genuine example as far as I’m concerned, as The Harvey Girls is a musical first and foremost. I understand Ms Lansbury has been dismissive of the film and her participation in it, which is a bit of a shame. Aside from the fact the whole production has much to recommend it, her own role is a pretty good one with enough drama and internal conflict to give her something to get her teeth into, and of course there’s the opportunity to show off her singing skills in the theater number.

Michael Pate, John Emery and Warner Anderson are a fine trio of villains: Pate gets across the cunning and menace of his character very successfully, and even outdraws Scott quite spectacularly, while Anderson and Emery are as slimy a pair of puppet masters as you could wish for. Wallace Ford is one of those character actors whose presence is always welcome, and he had a strong pedigree in westerns. As the town doctor, and Scott’s only true friend, he has a good share of screen time and is solid and reassuring throughout. Of the remaining support players, both Jeanette Nolan and Jean Parker deserve a mention for the sense of poignancy and pathos they bring to their small but pivotal roles.

A Lawless Street has been available on DVD for many years via Columbia/Sony, and looks reasonably good. The 16:9 transfer could use a bit more sharpness and some minor work but it’s quite acceptable as it stands. In my opinion, this film is as near the top tier of Scott westerns as makes no difference. The theme, built around a standard genre plot, is rich and has the kind of depth which makes it a pleasure to revisit. The direction by Joseph H Lewis has the pace, the eye for composition and the stylistic flourishes that make his work a rewarding experience. When you factor in the mature and assured performance of Scott, who was very close to hitting his peak, then the result is a deeply satisfying film. All things considered, I give this movie my strong recommendation.

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46 thoughts on “A Lawless Street

  1. I was certain that I caught this on Channel 5 ages ago as I thought I remembered Angela Lansbury especially – but now I am seriously wondering about that, or it’s just been too long. As a fan of Scott and Lewis appals me! Great write-up (though i skimmed a bit – I’ll be getting back to you as this is easy to find in an Italian friendly edition!

    • The director/star combo works very well on this one, in my opinion.
      I hope you get the chance to check it out as I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy it.

              • They usually do Colin! My Dad was sure Scott it was all going to end tragically actually and it got me thinking how, had say James Stewart been cast in it at the time, the approach might have been even more psychoanalytical with the leads much more neurotic.

                • You get a bit more of that in some of the Boetticher films I think. Decision at Sundown is actually quite bleak.
                  The psychological element is explored here, up to a point anyway, but not with the same level of angst on show as you see in the Mann/Stewart movies.

  2. This is fast and so soon after the polls. This is one western from Scott I avoided as I am not a fan of Lansbury (only liked her in Blue Hawaii).. Now that you have reviewed it, I will look for it. Best regards.

    • Fast on the draw, that’s me! 🙂
      Seriously though, I could see the way the vote was going so I went ahead and wrote this up early.
      Hope you like it if/when you get to see it, Chris.

  3. The thing I have always liked about Scott’s westerns, and most 50’s westerns, is the economy of the stories. They may not be original but they don’t waste anytime getting into them. What you need to know about characters you find out along the way. I have this one waiting to be seen again.

    It worries me that sometimes the Scott pictures kind of run together for me but there is seldom a really bad one in the bunch. For 80 minutes of western entertainment you can’t hardly go wrong with a Scott picture.

    Michael Pate is often underrated at least to the extent of the characters he plays. From “Hondo” to “The Oklahoman” to this and a wide range of TV work I always enjoyed watching him.

    • Good point, Chris, about the economy and sparseness of many 50s westerns. It’s something I’m very appreciative of too, not least for the fact it often brings about a more cinematic form of storytelling.
      Pate’s one of those guys who tended to be cast in small roles in terms of screen time, but whose importance to the plot was usually more substantial. He rarely disappoints.

      • My problem (and it’s a great problem to have) is that I went through my Scott western phase long enough ago that they’re starting to fade in my memory so I should watch more than this one once I get started. 🙂

        • That sounds like a very good plan indeed. If you dig the Scott persona, and the westerns really are where he’s at his most interesting, then there’s just so much pleasure to be had working your way through his stuff. I sometimes think if I were to do nothing else but watch and write about Scott’s westerns, I’d be a happy man.

  4. Oh, very good writing here, Colin. I re-watched this film only recently and was reminded what a rewarding western it is. I fully endorse (as if you need my endorsement) your view that this is at or near Scott’s best. It is adult and nuanced with a central character whose flaws are not far below the surface but must be hidden from his enemies at all cost.

    I think Angela Lansbury was very good in this and I especially enjoyed the fact that the heroine here is more mature (ie older) than is often the case and closer to Scott’s age. Works very well for me.

    I would also like to make special mention of Wallace Ford, a fine character actor generally and particularly affecting here. He also scores heavily for me as the ageing Marshal Herk Lamson in Season One of “THE DEPUTY” TV series (sorely missed in Season Two) where his mixture of irascibility and physical vulnerabilty (through age) gives real heart to the stories.

    Thanks for your fine review of a Scott western I also rate highly.

    • Very kind of you, Jerry, thanks for that.
      Actually, Lansbury was only 30 when she made this film, but she looked more mature I think. Anyway, she was a good match for Scott in the movie and their relationship on screen works well and feels authentic.

      • Gosh, was she really? ( I really should have checked on IMDB). It would be ungallant of me to say she seemed older than that, but………

        Do you watch “THE DEPUTY”, Colin? I mentioned how good Wallace Ford was in it – but of course should not forget to mention Henry Fonda too. That’s a pretty sterling cast.

        • Well, I thought the same too, Jerry, and was a little surprised when I checked.

          Shamefully, I still haven’t watched The Deputy, despite the fact I have a nice shiny 12-disc box set winking at me from the (heaving) shelves. I really need to get organized!

          • Well I have trouble too, Colin – and I don’t have to work for a living any more so I fully appreciate the dilemma. I try to set aside some time for TV episodes (and that is quite apart from films of course) but it really isn’t easy. What a great headache to have though!
            Please do let me know your view of that series when you do manage to sneak an episode into your schedule…..

  5. Just to say I enjoyed it. All your comments are so apt that after just reading it, I can’t think of anything to add. I too heard Angela Lansbury was dismissive of it, but one needn’t care about that, and it doesn’t mean she didn’t put in the work–I consider it one of her best roles and find the central relationship between Ware and Tally very moving.

    My estimation of the film seems to be about the same as yours. For Randolph Scott, given six Ranown cycle movies and Ride the High Country at the very top, there is a small handful of movies just below those which I consider also among my favorites of his and that’s where this is–as I think you intimate, in these films, made in the early to mid 50s, Scott seems consciously to use his maturity of age and presence as a dramatic aspect of the roles, and to great effect here. So I enjoy getting back to this and saw it again about a year ago.

    As you say Joseph H. Lewis is generally interesting. Probably his stylistic inventiveness jumps out most in movies like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, but just a little more quietly, those four Westerns that closed out his theatrical work are often striking and imaginatively made too. I prefer this one and The Halliday Brand over the other two, Seventh Cavalry and Terror in a Texas Town, though those have grown on me somewhat when I took another look at them more recently.

    • Thanks, Blake, and it’s nice to see our views on this one coincide, but they do so on a fair few occasions anyway.

      On Lewis, I think that, yes, his noirs and thrillers probably show off his particular style more obviously but all his films are strong visually. I haven’t seen The Halliday Brand myself but I just happened to put in an order for it today. I remember in a previous discussion that someone, maybe John Knight – although that might not be who it was, saying they hadn’t been all that taken with it so I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to check it out for myself.

      • Can’t say for sure of course but I believe you’ll find THE HALLIDAY BRAND absorbing and probably something you’ll want to write on sometime. You’ll be glad to get to it anyway.

        • It’s been on my radar for a while now and writing this piece reminded me I still hadn’t gotten round to it. I’m quite looking forward to seeing it.

  6. I agree with Blake. It’s a film I really rather like and would look forward to your writing on it.

    • Good to hear another recommendation. I’ve covered Lewis’ other three westerns now, and I’d consider myself a fan of his work in general, so it’s highly likely I will write something on it when I get it.

  7. Great review,Colin. I love some of the colourful character names – Calem Ware, Harley Baskam,Dingo Brion.
    The complex relationships in the film make it so interesting.
    And a mention for the wonderful Ruth Donnelly as Calem’s landlady.

    • Thanks.
      Yes indeed, Ruth Donnelly is very good as Scott’s landlady – those little interludes as she serves him breakfast add quite a lot to the characterization.

  8. One of your most insightful write-ups, Colin.

    Watching Angela Lansbury sing and pantomime “Mother says I mustn’t / not just yet” is a highlight of the film for me. It’s so cute. The number must be unique to her career, insofar as I know. Would you say that the gentle kidding in the film and its overall cheerful tone conceal the darker themes and motivations? It’s all in Randolph Scott’s craggy countenance.

    By the way, regarding the film that lost the poll, NARROW MARGIN (1952) — aside from being a first-rate and classic film noir, I find that many people sit through the film without realizing it has no score. No music score at all. Just the organic sound effects and rhythm of the rails. The film is so successful in engaging us that a music score isn’t missed.

    • The film plays pretty straight and, yes, any kidding present is of the gentle variety. Scott’s aging and largely isolated marshal projects that sunny demeanor in public yet suffers in private, and I think Lewis did a great job getting the contrast across. Scott of course excelled at portraying proud but wounded men, and this movie offered him a great chance to show that pride just about concealing all the inner turmoil.

  9. Terrific writing Colin. What’s always excited me also is the resurrection motif in LAWLESS STREET.
    The moments when the town becomes hushed as the reborn Scott walks slowly down the dark main
    street to confront Michael Pates’ leering gunman is, for me, one of the great scenes in the Western.
    Personally, I would say that LAWLESS STREET is a better picture than some of the lesser Ranowns.

    • Thanks very much, Nick. I thought the sequence in question was quite a bold move, the kind of thing that could easily sink into parody if handled poorly, but Lewis and Scott judged it so well that it’s both effective and memorable.
      And yes, if it’s not quite up there with the Ranown cycle, then it’s certainly not far off, and it’s definitely a stronger movie than, say, Westbound.

  10. Excellent write up on this film, like several of Scott’s movies this was based on a published Novel – in this case “The Marshall of Medicine Bend” by Brad Ward (pen name of Samuel Anthony Peeples) and it is very faithful to the book. I note that “Man In The Saddle” based on Ernest Haycox’s novel is on TV this week.

    • Thanks, Bruce. It’s interesting to hear how it compares to the novel which inspired it, and you’ve reminded me that I really should make a greater effort to track down some of these books.

    • Personally, I would put “MAN IN THE SADDLE”, since you mention it, Bruce, up in the same high bracket as “A LAWLESS STREET”. One of Scott’s very best IMHO.

      • Good call, Jerry, and I’d agree with you on that without hesitation. Man in the Saddle is the best of the Scott & de Toth collaborations – good plot and characterization, and well shot by Lawton.

  11. Another very fine review, Colin! You know I share your appreciation fro Randolph Scott, so this one seems like a no-brainer…but I must admit, the presence of Angela Lansbury gives me considerable pause. Like Chris K., I’m no great fan of the actress, and she certainly seems an odd choice for a western. Still, Michael Pate as one of the bad guys might balance things out. 😉 I haven’t seen many Joseph H. Lewis films but he seems to have been a dab hand at knocking out fast-moving Bs. GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO are probably his most famous titles, but anyone who directed movies with such glorious titles as TWO-FISTED RANGERS, BLAZING SIX SHOOTERS and RETREAT, HELL! is my kind of guy.

    Glad to know the long-in-print DVD version looks reasonably good…will add it to the queue of Scott westerns still to pick up.

    • Hi, Jeff. I know what you mean as regards the presence of Lansbury as she’s not someone you think of starring in a western. However, she’s actually very good in her role and plays off Scott quite naturally. Anyway, I think you’ll like it if or when you see it, and I have no hesitation recommending the films of Lewis in general.

  12. I found this to be a decent Randy film that moves along nicely. This was the last film I watched with my dad before he passed. This was back when it was released of VHS. One forgets just how long Lansbury has had her hand in the acting game. Good review!

    • The direction of Lewis adds a lot too. It’s a well made film with plenty of positive features going for it, a nice one to have as the last viewing with your father.

  13. Colin
    You are of correct in pointing out Lewis’ work on making the entire film run smoothly. I find it hard to believe that he is not better known today. Nice catch on my oversight.

    Gord

    • There are nearly always little individual touches to be found in a Lewis film, maybe a quirky shot or an unusual angle, something that gives you pause.

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