It seems like everybody around here is stealing from everybody else.
A good heist movie is hard to beat in my opinion, there’s considerable potential for suspense and tension in the execution of a complicated robbery, and the aftermath or outcome is generally rife with possibilities too. The heist is typically used as a plot element in contemporary crime movies, both the serious and more lighthearted varieties, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to other genres as well. There’s arguably no more flexible type of film than the western, the setting being able to absorb and adapt aspects almost at will. The Badlanders (1958) is a remake of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, adapted from the W R Burnett novel, moving the action back half a century and shifting from the urban milieu to the dusty Arizona landscape.
In the dying days of the 19th century two men are released from the prison at Yuma, one because his time has been served in full and the other earning early parole because he prevented the former from assaulting a guard. In fact, these two men, Peter Van Hoek (Alan Ladd) & John McBain (Ernest Borgnine) have quite a lot in common: both ended up behind bars either directly or indirectly due to the treachery of others, and both hail from a similar part of Arizona. While they set off on apparently different paths they’re fated to meet again as their desire to right some of the wrongs of the past lead them to the small town of Bascom. The settlement is the center of a gold mining operation, beneath the land once owned by McBain before he was cheated out of it, and places have a way of calling men back even if they have no logical reason for returning. Van Hoek was a mining engineer and geologist, cheated in a different way, framed for a robbery and keen to get something back for the time he lost when he was wrongly incarcerated. Everything boils down to a plan to blast a rich vein of ore from an abandoned shaft and sell it back to the current owner, Cyril Lounsberry (Kent Smith). You might wonder why a man would buy what rightfully belongs to him – well Lounsberry is only nominally in charge as the mine is actually in his wife’s name, and he’s a man with a wandering and faithless eye. Such a man is obviously going to be drawn to the idea of an independent source of wealth. On the surface, the key to the whole operation is timing and disciplined organization, but there’s also the intangible element to be factored in, as tends to be the case in the affairs of man, and in this instance it’s the question of trust.
Anyone familiar with The Asphalt Jungle will know how things play out on screen, but there are significant enough differences to set the two films apart. Aside from the altered location, there’s the variation in tone and overall mood of the film. Huston’s film was a classic piece of fatalistic noir, where bad luck and the character flaws of the principals led to the ultimate unraveling of the best laid plans. In The Badlanders, however, the weaknesses of the leads in the earlier version are actually transformed into their strengths, and the resolution is upbeat and positive. I think a good deal of that is down to the director; Delmer Daves made films that mainly emphasized the positive characteristics and leanings of people, and you generally come away from his work with an enhanced appreciation of the inherent decency of humanity. If I were to draw direct comparisons between Daves’ and Huston’s take on the source material, something I’m reluctant to do as it seems s bit of a pointless exercise, then I’d have to say The Asphalt Jungle is clearly the superior film. Still, The Badlanders does have certain points in its favor, and those are mainly the touches which bear the characteristic fingerprints of Daves. There’s some strong cinematography from John Seitz too, especially the interiors but also the outdoors location work in Arizona and Old Tucson.
Alan Ladd underwent a noticeable physical decline in his last years, but that hadn’t really set in when he made The Badlanders. He was still vital and looked in reasonably good shape at that point. His role isn’t an especially complex one, there’s the back story of his being fitted up to provide motivation of course but it’s never expanded upon to any extent. While Ladd is the headline star the most memorable performances come from those billed below him, notably Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado. Borgnine was typically a powerful physical presence in movies and got to show off that aspect in a number of scenes, yet it’s another side of the man which has the greatest impact. He had a certain innocence below the surface, although this wasn’t always exploited. The character of McBain is remarkable for the way this vague social naiveté is woven into the plot. And the ever soulful charms of Katy Jurado are ideal for drawing out and playing off that. Despite the fact the heist, which it has to be said is filmed with some style, is the main focus of the plot, the tender and sensitive relationship which develops between Borgnine and Jurado is the living heart of it all. In support Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Emhardt and Anthony Caruso do all that could be expected of them in their limited roles.
The Badlanders has been released on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and there are European editions available in France (non-anamorphic, I think), Spain and Italy. The Spanish copy I viewed presents the movie in the correct 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the transfer is perfectly satisfactory – colors look accurate and the print is quite clean. There are no extra features included and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. Speaking as a fan of Delmer Daves’ work, I would say this is a weaker film when stacked up alongside his other westerns. However, just to qualify that evaluation, it’s worth bearing in mind that his westerns rank among the finest produced in the 50s. As such, I think this film deserves to be seen, and is of interest as a rare western heist movie, a remake of The Asphalt Jungle, and finally as a worthwhile frontier drama in its own right.