Rails Into Laramie

There are so many Universal-International westerns that you could pretty much run a blog devoted entirely to the studio’s output alone. With such an abundance of titles, it’s only natural that there should be a wide range in terms of type, budget and overall quality. Some had more spent on them, some featured significant amounts of location filming and some were shot largely on sets. Personally, I like them all, and can generally find something positive to take away from all varieties. Rails Into Laramie (1954) is one of the lower budget efforts, using stock footage and filmed on studio interiors for the most part. It’s a movie that eluded me for a long time and I want to express my gratitude to Jerry E for his help in ensuring I finally got around to seeing it.

The railway, that powerful symbol of westward expansion and the unstoppable advance of civilization, has been at the heart of many westerns. To chart the progress of the railroad is to chart the course of the American west itself so it’s obviously going to feature heavily in pictures set on the ever shifting frontier. When the iron horse appears to have stalled at the Wyoming town of Laramie questions arise as to why this should be so. Someone in Laramie has a vested interest in seeing the work come to a halt, some who’s making plenty of money out of the hard-drinking and hard living construction gangs. And so the army decide to send someone, just one man and not the detail of soldiers the local bigwigs have requested, to investigate and try to get the operation up and running again. The choice is Jefferson Harder (John Payne), a sergeant nearing the end of his stint in uniform but a man familiar with and comfortable among the kind of saloon detritus likely to be responsible for the delays. Harder isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Laramie’s dignitaries, partly due to their disappointment at not getting a full detachment and also because of his friendship with Jim Shanessy (Dan Duryea). Shanessy and Harder are old army buddies and former rivals for the affections of the former’s wife, Helen (Joyce Mackenzie). It’s clear enough from early on that Harder is going to have to go up against his friend as he’s the one behind the stoppages. What remains to be seen though is how he’s going to achieve much with virtually a whole town against him, the machinations of the slippery Shanessy to contend with, and the uncertain allegiance of saloon owner Lou Carter (Mari Blanchard).

One thing which immediately struck me when watching Rails Into Laramie was that there were a few passing similarities to the classic Destry Rides Again. There’s the basic set up of a corrupt town, the ignominious arrival of an improbable savior, the tough female saloon owner, and the leading role undertaken by women in the implementation of justice – and I’ll return to that last aspect presently. At least some of this can probably be attributed to the fact screenwriter D D Beauchamp also worked on Destry, George Marshall’s remake of his own 1939 original. All these elements are very welcome of course and add a lot to the entertainment of the piece, but there are problems, or weaknesses anyway, present in the script too. There are a few plot strands which are introduced and promise to be interesting yet are dropped almost immediately and lead nowhere in particular. There would appear to be potential for an added layer of conflict stemming from the triangle created by Payne, Duryea and Mackenzie, not to mention the allure of Blanchard drifting in the background. We learn that both men wanted Mackenzie in the past but that’s it, no more mileage is gained from that, or the possibility of Blanchard causing Duryea to consider straying. And then there’s the selection of an all female jury to try Duryea, an example of women’s rights which was ahead of its time compared to the rest of the country. Aside from the opportunity for further social comment, there was a suggestion that the women’s actions in participating in jury service would endanger their men. Again though, this is not followed up on and simply peters out.

I tend to think of Audie Murphy when Jesse Hibbs’ name comes up due to his having taken charge of a number of the star’s best films. Hibbs was one of those stable hands who could be relied upon to turn in a solid piece of work and that’s more or less what we get with Rails Into Laramie. There’s nothing flashy on show but it’s a competently directed film. With the so-so script, the responsibility on the performers is increased, though the likes of Payne and Duryea were quite capable in this respect. I’ve seen more of Payne’s noir work but he makes for a personable and convincing enough western lead too. There’s not so much of that bruised quality on display that he used to such good effect in film noir, still the toughness remains and you don’t doubt his ability when it comes to mixing it with the villains. Duryea could play charming, dissembling bad guys in his sleep and his role here honestly is a walk in the park for him. There’s not much physical threat posed by him, it’s more a behind the scenes schemer and fixer this time, and that aspect is left in the capable hands of a sneering and dangerous Lee Van Cleef. Of the two female performers Joyce Mackenzie had a largely thankless part, offering sympathy and support but seeing little development in her character. Mari Blanchard got dealt a far stronger hand and played it to the hilt too. She brings an edgy ambiguity to the part – leaving both Payne and Duryea (and the viewer too) unsure exactly what way she’s going to leap. Then there’s the marvelous James Griffith who adds such value to every film he appears in – I just saw him in a delightful little cameo in Kubrick’s The Killing the other day as it happens – and turns in one of the most memorable bits of work in the movie as the nervous but loyal marshal.

The last few years have seen more and more Universal-International westerns becoming available in various countries. However, Rails Into Laramie remains unreleased anywhere to the best of my knowledge. It’s a modest picture and it wouldn’t rank as one of the top tier efforts by the studio. Even so, it is solidly entertaining and I’d certainly appreciate a release. Again, my thanks to Jerry for making this piece possible.

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39 thoughts on “Rails Into Laramie

  1. Another fair review from you. I have always enjoyed a John Payne western. Another entertaining western involving a railroad was Kansas Pacific starring Sterling Hayden. Best regards.

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  2. Thanks for the review Colin. Yes, it’s a shame that R.I.L. has never seen a release. I have it only as an off-air VHS, recorded almost 20 years ago and haven’t watched it for some time. I will need to revisit it I think. I’ve always felt that John Payne was a totally dependable western actor and a solid presence in everything he did. “Silver Lode” and “Tennessee’s Partner” are two of his other westerns that are particularly noteworthy. Some very memorable noirs to his credit too. “Slightly Scarlet” as well as the excellent and, in my view, sadly neglected “The Crooked Way” (which I’m very pleased to see is forthcoming on blu at long last). Having said that though, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that poor Payne’s name on western film posters prompted people to feel enthusiastic for a second ..”Oh, look! A John Wayne western…!!” and then to feel deflated and disappointed a second later when they realised they’d misread the name! 🙂

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  3. I’m astounded,to say the least that you have reviewed a Western that is not commercially
    available…………anywhere!
    Is this a RTHC first?

    I agree this is not a top-drawer Universal Fifties Western but any film with the bad guy dream
    team of Duryea,Lee Van Cleef and Myron Healey cannot be ignored.
    I note on imdb the film is noted as 2.0 widescreen so any forthcoming DVD release will
    hopefully be in some sort of widescreen format.

    Most Universal Fifties Westerns are out there on DVD or Blu;mostly in Europe,especially
    Germany so I am sure RAILS INTO LARAMIE will surface eventually.
    Also on the missing list are three excellent Joel McCrea Universal Westerns SADDLE TRAMP,
    THE LONE HAND and BLACK HORSE CANYON.
    I feel all these films will surface,possibly from Koch in Germany.

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    • Not the first commercially unavailable film, John, but there haven’t been too many featured here – I do recall writing about Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun before it became available though.

      I’ve no doubt this one will turn up somewhere sooner or later. The number of Universal-International titles MIA is shrinking all the time. The images taken from the copy I viewed do have a fair bit of dead space so some kind of widescreen ratio would seem to be the primary one, whether or not IMDb is correct in its assertion of 2.00:1 remains to be seen.

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  4. The lack of titles from the Universal Vault MOD series has been noted elsewhere,in fact
    they have released nothing for about 8 or 9 months.
    When they do appear it is in large batches,and at the rate Universal product is burning up the
    box office at the moment,they certainly are not short of cash.
    Like you,I would rather see the un-issued Westerns turn up on Koch.

    I know we have been down this trail before,but like others I am very concerned about the
    “missing” CinemaScope Universal Westerns like WILD AND THE INNOCENT,DAY OF THE
    BADMAN and SAGA OF HEMP BROWN.
    I do hope masters of these films can be eventually sourced as well as the non-Westerns
    NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL,THE PURPLE MASK,and ISTANBUL.

    Off topic but I can without reservation endorse the new Carlotta Blu-Ray of Demer Daves’
    COWBOY a lovely transfer with nice extras too (in English BTW)
    I mentioned this on the recent Bill Elliott thread over at Toby’s and I also mentioned that this
    film,for some reason that evades me,is not universally loved.
    One of Toby’s regulars bears this out,but I was pleased to see Blake contribute to support the
    film. Never understood why this very fine picture generates such negative feedback among
    many Western fans. I am sure Jack Lemmon’s involvement is a prime reason for this,although
    I thought he was wonderful in the film.

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    • That’s good news on Cowboy, John. It’s a film I’ve grown to appreciate much more over time, although it was one of Daves’ works that I didn’t fully appreciate for ages, and I think Lemmon was part of the reason for me. He’s an actor I like very much in general, but I think I just had difficulty accepting him in a western at first. My view has altered though and I agree he’s very good in the movie.

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    • Recommend you check Amazon for DAY OF THE OUTLAW. It’s available as a single and also is one feature with two other different westerns on two offerings. Robert Ryan and Burl Ives make
      for memorable adversaries in a bleak, cold and snowy frontier setting. Black and white photography make for psychological doings. A very good western with a strong flare for the dramatics.

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  5. Mr. Payne looking a little older here then those two B films we discussed from his apprentice years. I’ve seen this but it’s been many years. Looking back it was the Dan Duryea factor that got me tuning in on late show growing up. Van Cleef was a bonus. This was all back in the days when Payne wasn’t quite on my radar yet. Nicely done.

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    • Thanks, Mike. He certainly aged a bit judging from the images you posted on those earlier films. Still, it was in a good way and helped make him a better fit for tougher and more rugged roles as his career developed.
      Any film with Dan Duryea in the cast always got my attention too, and continues to do so. And I guess I could say the same for Lee Van Cleef.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Belatedly (been away), Colin, thanks for the kind mention. Real pleasure being able to share RIL with you.
    Took me a while too to warm to ‘COWBOY’ and I think it was the ‘Lemmon Factor’ for me too. I really like him in his natural area (and that is both comedy and drama) yet he didn’t feel a natural fit for a western. However….time has made me see sense! The contrast between Lemmon and Ford is stark and actually works really well. I also think this was Donlevy’s finest performance.

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    • Jack Lemmon was playing an Eastern tenderfoot (who becomes hard-bitten and rugged on the trail), so he was ideally cast in COWBOY–you wouldn’t have wanted someone expected in a Western in that role. By contrast, Glenn Ford was cast for his iconography in the genre, so there is the effective that contrast Jerry mentions. I’m interested when people say they were slow to warm up to it, because I always liked it from first release in 1958 and have seen it so many times since with no less enjoyment and appreciation. I guess there are more dramatic Daves Westerns but it’s my no means light–it’s a beautiful take on innocence and experience, an ageless theme, and made by a master of the genre with contributions by so many others who also knew it so well.

      As for RAILS INTO LARAMIE, I’ve only seen it (a couple of times) on TV and would like a nice color transfer to see it again. John K., don’t put your trust in IMDb re aspect ratios–2.00 is only in the studio books as I’ve said before, but plainly wide screen would serve this better, 1.66 or 1.85.

      As for the movie, like Colin I can’t seem to dislike a Universal-International Western even though of course they are not all equally good. More important, they are not all the same–this one seems to work mostly along familiar lines. I think everyone here agrees that in RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO, released the same year before this, Jesse Hibbs directed Dan Duryea in one of his most memorable performances, a more interesting character though Duryea is certainly fine here. Much as I always like to take up for the studio, Colin, John Payne’s best Western roles are for RK0–Bogeaus in his Allan Dwan movies already mentioned. SILVER LODE was made this same year too, and with Payne at his best and Duryea again and memorable as the villain “McCarty”–that’s a major Western and not only for the anti-McCarthyism but for Dwan’s direction which is especially strong. I would say the same for TENNESSEE’S PARTNER the next year, and wonder if you have seen these two–if not, something for you to look forward to.

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      • Good point about the nature of Lemmon’s role in Cowboy, Blake. The part does call for someone who is not a natural westerner – I think it’s just our familiarity with Lemmon playing other types of characters that makes him seem a little unusual at first.

        On those other Payne westerns you mention, the two Dwan pictures, I certainly have seen them and quite agree they are stronger examples of his western work. I may well feature them on this site at some point in the future.

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    • Couldn’t not mention you, Jerry! If it weren’t for your help, this chat wouldn’t be taking place after all.
      Perhaps Cowboy is one of those movies which tend to grow on you as opposed to hitting the spot straight off?

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  7. Hey Colin…..on the note of Westerns and railroads….have you watched any of the AMC series Hell on Wheels yet? As I may have mentioned, they have a fair bit of Irish content/characters. 😉 The fifth season of the show is about to “leave the station” on July 18th (did a few previews this past week on my site).

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this film.

    Cheers,
    Chad
    http://westernsreboot.com/
    P.S.
    Busy times in Greece of late, eh?!?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Chad, nice to hear from you. I might have known a film relating to the railroad would get your attention. 🙂
      Actually, to my shame, I still haven’t gotten round to seeing the show. Actually, my TV watching in general has been lacking but I keep meaning to catch up with this one – I promise I’ll try harder to do so.

      The situation in Greece? Let’s say it’s a bit of a roller-coaster at the moment, you never know what each day will bring.

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    • As for AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS… I haven’t missed a episode yet and continue to have my western cravings more than satisfied with each chapter.

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  8. Just to add to mainly what Blake mentioned above regarding John Payne Westerns,I would
    like to point out several that he made for the Pine-Thomas outfit released by Paramount.
    For me at least several that he made with Lewis R Foster are flawed despite decent budgets
    and production values.
    EL PASO (1949) has a great cast,Gail Russell,Sterling Hayden and Dick Foran but it’s still
    pretty overblown stuff. For me the vigilante violence does not blend with Gabby Hayes’ comic
    antics,especially when the “good guys” start killing innocent people.
    Lewis R Foster always seemed to allow stuff in his Westerns that better directors would have
    thrown out. Having said all that the film is crammed with action and impressive gunplay.
    THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1950) Lewis R Foster again and another rambling overblown
    big budget Western. Plus factors include lovely James Wong Howe,Sedona Arizona photography,
    and some great set pieces.A much better director,say Ray Enright would have made a much
    tighter better paced film.
    PASSAGE WEST (1951) Foster lamentably,yet again.Lovely Arleen Whelan just looks far too
    glamorous to be on a wagon train,even by silly 1950’s standards.
    This is a pretty tough Western and there is a doozy of a punch up between Payne and
    Dennis O Keefe.For all Foster’s faults as a Western director he sure knew how to frame a great
    fight scene. The Payne-O Keefe bout is nearly as good as Payne’s epic punch up with Lon
    Chaney in Foster’s CAPTAIN CHINA.
    PASSAGE WEST is the final role for Dooley (Play It Again Sam) Wilson.
    For all my mis-givings about Foster’s Westerns his Noirs are very good indeed,especially
    CAPTAIN CHINA,MANHANDLED and CRASHOUT.

    A couple of “borderline” Pine-Thomas Payne Westerns directed by the always interesting Edward
    Ludwig.
    THE BLAZING FOREST (1952) is a “logging” action drama with excellent special effects and
    set pieces.
    THE VANQUISHED (1953) is a very strange Southern Gothic Western with enough quirky
    moments to engage me at least.

    SANTA FE PASSAGE (1955) is the first of two Westerns Payne made for Republic,
    and directed with William Witney’s customary flair.
    THE ROAD TO DENVER (1956) is Payne’s next best Western to SILVER LODE.
    Republic veteran Joe Kane,like Witney knew what elements made a good Western,and the two
    “Republics” are in another league to the Pine-Thomas Foster titles.

    Finally there is REBEL IN TOWN (1956) which if I’m not wrong is in Colin’s legendary “to be
    viewed” heap. In black & white and much lower budget than the Pine-Thomas and Republic
    titles this stark Western shows director Alfred Werker’s flair for Noir.It’s a dark, grim,sometimes
    brutal affair,not for all tastes. A good effort but no-where near as good as Werker’s masterpiece
    THE LAST POSSE.

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    • Good thorough stuff there, John. One thing that stands out for me though is how few of these movies are readily available for viewing.
      I’m quite keen to see The Last Posse now.

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  9. I know we have discussed this before,but the problem is that the Pine-Thomas titles and the
    Republic library are owned by Paramount,who are the only major studio without an MOD imprint.
    Paramount have zero interest in their back catalog even recent titles like THE CORE are being
    handled by Warners as a Blu-Ray release.
    Warners,as far as I can gather are only handling previously released titles for Paramount not
    un-issued titles.
    Olive Films seem to have now stopped releasing vintage Paramount/Republic titles.
    I find it odd that Kino-Lorber have a deal with MGM/UA and are releasing whole stacks of the
    United Artists catalog,mainly on Blu-Ray.Most of these films have already appeared on DVD.
    I would have thought with the wealth of un-released titles in Paramount’s vaults it would make
    more sense to delve into some of these much sought after titles.
    Furthermore Paramount also hold quiet a few Allied Artists and RegalScope pictures which
    were sold off to Republic decades ago.
    It has been noted on several websites/blogs that Sci-Fi collectors would rather see high-def
    releases of Paramount’s classic Fifties titles like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE,WAR OF THE WORLDS and CONQUEST OF SPACE rather than THE CORE.

    Toby is preparing a Republic Pictures Blogathon which hopefully might get these vintage films
    more attention and hopefully someone,somewhere might consider releasing some of them.

    Colin,I don’t know if a Republic Blogathon is within your comfort zone 🙂
    but in the words of the legendary Mrs Doyle all I can say is..”go on…oh go on………..!
    To any of our American Friends confused by the above statement;don’t know if FATHER TED
    made it across the pond.

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  10. Worth mentioning also is a very nice performance from James Griffiths as the nervous deputy, Griffiths was a terrific character actor and could play a wide range with ease

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    • I really enjoy seeing Griffith pop up in anything, Bruce, and I quite agree that his performance in this movie is a delight, one of the highlights in fact.

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  11. RAILS INTO LARAMIE was one I really enjoyed. Thought some of the dialogue was terrific, and glad to see the praise for James Griffith as he was a standout. Delighted to see you cover this, Colin!

    Anytime I hear about Greece on the news I think of you — hope all is well for you.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    • Good to hear you’re another fan of the film, Laura. Griffith had a knack for doing great things with small roles and he’s highly memorable in the supporting role he has here.

      And thanks for the thoughts too – I’m in Northern Ireland right now so watching from afar myself.

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  12. I have an increasing respect for John Payne. He could sing and he could fight, among other things. In addition to his westerns, and if you are a Payne fan it wouldn’t hurt to check out the TV show, “The Restless Gun,” his noir films are pretty good too. If people only know him from “Miracle on 34th Street” they are in for a surprise.

    As an added bonus I discovered what “detritus” meant.

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    • Ha! This place is an education in itself, isn’t it!
      I completely agree on Payne’s versatility, Chris – a real all-rounder.
      And The Restless Gun has popped up in discussions here before, and I keep meaning to invest in a copy of the series.

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