City of Bad Men

A lot of you all rode into this town, but you are the only one who saw anything. You noticed the change. The others don’t look past the end of their guns. You saw the handwriting on the wall. They don’t even see the wall because their backs are against it. Their days are over. They don’t know it.

Sometimes I like to open with a quote that in some way sums up the tone, mood or message of a given movie. In this case, those lines above represent more of what I feel the film could have been as opposed to what we actually end up with. City of Bad Men (1953) is a title which left me feeling not entirely satisfied when I first saw it and so I thought I’d give it another go to see if my reaction would be any different this time. The answer is a kind of yes and no: yes in that I enjoyed it all a little more, but I still came away with that nagging sense of having seen an opportunity missed, or at least not fully grasped.

On St Patrick’s Day 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, a fight for the world heavyweight championship (actual footage of the bout can be viewed on YouTube) took place between Bob Fitzsimmons and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. This event forms the backdrop to and also constitutes a major plot element of the film. Returning from an unsuccessful trip south of the border as soldiers of fortune is a group of weary men led by Brett Stanton (Dale Robertson). With little of worth to show for their time and effort, they are heading for Carson City with the hope of knocking over the bank in what they believe to be a perennially sleepy town. However, the town they ride into has undergone a transformation, partly due to the changing nature of the times but also as a result of the upcoming prize-fight. Yes, civilization and the trappings of the modern age – the motor car and luxuries like the shower – are slowly creeping westward. While his men gaze upon these alien sights with a kind of detached bemusement, Stanton’s calm features mask the fact that the seeds of an opportunistic plan have been sown in his mind. Crowds like this mean money – money which can be made or stolen. Yet Stanton isn’t the only one to entertain such thoughts; other gangs of unscrupulous men, most notably those led by Johnny Ringo (Richard Boone), have been drawn by the prospect of easy pickings. The local lawmen realize the volatility of such a situation and hit on the novel idea of appealing to the mutual suspicion of these various desperadoes and convincing them that the best way to keep the peace (and thus protect their own mercenary interests) is by keeping an eye on each other. Stanton is smart enough to see the advantages of such an arrangement, but he’s also aware of the complications and obstacles ahead of him: the need to come up with a viable plan to pull off a spectacular heist, the latent jealousy of his brother Gar (Lloyd Bridges), and the feelings he still nurses for the girl (Jeanne Crain) left all those years ago.

As I see it, there are four major themes at play in the movie – the noir-tinged heist plot, the classic idea of changing times, the sibling rivalry, and the notion of redemption earned through love. Lots of material to chew over yet only one, the heist aspect, is realized fully and successfully. The fact the script allows this to develop naturally and then the way Harmon Jones directs its execution, cutting between the fight, the collection of the takings and the way the money is subsequently lifted, is a fluid and assured piece of filmmaking. It makes for a fitting climax to the picture, but also highlights the deficiencies in the handling of the other facets. The early scenes give the impression that the “men out of time” part will be of greater importance, but it’s something the film only pays lip service to in reality. Similarly, the tension between Brett and Gar is never fully explored and its resolution feels rushed in the end. As for redemption, which ought to form the centerpiece of a western of this era, I was left feeling that it’s achieved a touch too easily, and the means by which it’s linked to Brett’s reconciliation with his old flame is weakened by its abruptness. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the film has a strong foundation with a number of rich veins running through it, only few of which are mined and even then not to their full extent.

When called upon to do so, Dale Robertson was good at conveying cold intensity but that wasn’t really a requirement in this role. He displays the necessary toughness to hold the whip hand over his own bunch of ne’er do wells and to keep his rivals in check. Essentially though, the part of Brett Stanton is all about calmness, a kind of melancholy thoughtfulness. His air of regret and his flexible morality tie in with, and feel like an extension of sorts of, the type of disillusioned veterans so common in film noir, bewildered by and isolated from the new world they find themselves confronted with. For me, Robertson’s quietness and restraint is one of the major strengths of the picture. Ranged against that is the restlessness and impatience of Lloyd Bridges and, more significantly, the rattlesnake charm of Richard Boone. If anything, Boone is underused in the movie, lighting up the screen every time he appears while leaving you disappointed he’s not there more. Which brings us to Jeanne Crain – her character is a vital one through the effect she has on Robertson, but the script doesn’t treat her well. She’s placed in a conflicted position that’s loaded with dramatic possibilities yet her character arc isn’t wholly convincing and the resolution, which forms the core the film’s resolution in itself, is just a little too convenient for my liking. In support, we have Carole Mathews, Rodolfo Acosta, James Best, Leo Gordon, John Doucette and, in blink and you’ll miss them parts, Frank Ferguson and Percy Helton.

City of Bad Men is a 20th Century Fox production and was released on DVD in Spain some years ago by Impulso, licensing the title from Fox. That disc offers a passable transfer which is clearly unrestored. There are a number of instances of print damage and the colors tend to look faded throughout. Having said that, it’s perfectly watchable – there was subsequently a US release by Fox itself, but I have no idea how that transfer compares. The Spanish DVD offers the original English soundtrack along with a Spanish dub and optional Spanish subtitles. Of the Harmon Jones westerns I’ve seen, I’d say this is probably the least of them. I’d certainly rank it below his other two with Robertson, The Silver Whip and A Day of Fury. All told, there are some positive points and the film remains briskly enjoyable. Nevertheless, I can’t shake that feeling that it had more to offer than it ultimately delivered. In the final analysis, a medium effort.

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26 thoughts on “City of Bad Men

  1. I have always had very mixed feelings about Crain – ravishing looking of course, but she always seems a bit hard to fathom to me, even in very decent films like DANGEROUS CROSSING and PEOPLE WILL TALK though I seem to remember finding MARGIE rather charming. Never seen this one at all and fascinating to hear about, brand new film for me.

    • Yes, I know what you mean about Crain. She could seem quite enigmatic on screen.
      This isn’t the best known of films but it’s got some interesting stuff going on, maybe a little too much for its short running time.

        • Crain could be a strong enough presence when the role was written that way, and she does have a few moments where that comes through in this movie. The problem is mainly that the writing of her character is inconsistent.

          • I haven’t seen Crain in many films but I will stick up for her in The Fastest Gun Alive where she was a vital presence in a movie that had perhaps an even stronger male-centric cast. It’s tops on my personal “Best Performance Given in a Western by any Former Beauty Queen not Named Vera Miles” list!

            • Agreed, she’s very good in The Fastest Gun Alive, which of course is a fine movie all round. I didn’t have any particular issue with the actress in this movie either to be honest, her playing is good but the script does her few favors.
              Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • Thanks, Chris. This is indeed a film worth watching. Harmon Jones keeps things moving along and there are some good performances – not a perfect movie by any means but solid enough all the same.

  2. This time around,Colin I pretty much agree with everything you have said in a very fair minded
    review I thought.
    Totally agree about Boone being under-used and that the film should have been better
    considering the cast.
    I enjoyed Jeanne Crain in other Westerns especially THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE and
    thought she was a standout in MAN WITHOUT A STAR.
    I too have the Spanish Impulso version and it’s OK-I cannot see that the Fox MOD would
    be an improvement considering the generally mediocre quality of their DVDr things.

    CITY OF BAD MEN was sort of a transitional film for producer Leonard Goldstein.
    He had had a very successful run at Universal and now was entering into a deal with Fox.
    After CITY OF BAD MEN he formed a company called Panoramic Productions that made
    medium budget films mostly filmed on the RKO lot.All Panoramic Productions were released
    by Fox and provided lots of work for young Fox contract players-while Fox concentrated on
    their big budget prestige CinemaScope films.
    A whole host of promising young players got early breaks in these Panoramic films including
    Richard Boone,Anne Bancroft,Debra Paget,Jeffrey Hunter,Peter Graves,Lee Marvin,James
    Best and Lee Van Cleef.
    Panoramic actually made some pretty good films like THE RAID and MAN IN THE ATTIC.
    Harmon Jones’ GORILLA AT LARGE was a 3D hit for Panoramic.
    Jones also directed PRINCESS OF THE NILE an engaging bit of campy nonsense with a
    very fine cast. This was Panoramic’s venture into Sam Katzman territory-showing Sam how it
    should be done,certainly in terms of production values.
    I might add that the Fox MOD of PRINCESS OF THE NILE is the best in terms of quality
    that I have seen on that highly variable series.

    Leonard Goldstein later formed his own production imprint Leonard Goldstein Productions,
    released through United Artists. Sadly they only made three films before Goldstein’s passing
    at a very young age. The three Leonard Goldstein Productions are all good ones
    STRANGER ON HORSEBACK,ROBBERS ROOST and BLACK TUESDAY the latter directed
    by Hugo Fregonse who worked for Goldstein several times at Universal and Panoramic.
    Robert L Jacks an associate of Goldstein’s carried on making good films like THE KILLER
    IS LOOSE,MAN FROM DEL RIO,THE PROUD ONES and A KISS BEFORE DYING.
    It’s pretty well a safe bet to reckon that several of these would have been “works in progress”
    for Goldstein Productions.

    • Thanks for the details on Goldstein and Panoramic. I’ve seen a fair bit of the work he produced and I’ve enjoyed most of it – there’s some quality pictures in there.

  3. I am. entralled by john k informative also on Goldstein and Panoramic.The Gambler From Natchez starring Robertson is also one of them, which I am very fond of. Thank you john. Best regards.

    • Many thanks for the kind words Chris….
      I too enjoyed GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ.
      The biggest budget Panoramic Production was the Robert L Jacks produced
      WHITE FEATHER;interestingly it’s the only Panoramic title filmed in CinemaScope.
      I may have got this wrong but I do recall Colin saying he might consider WHITE FEATHER
      as a possible future review.

  4. I watched “WHITE FEATHER” in ‘scope for the first time only recently so I will be really looking out for your review of it, Colin.
    My records tell me I have seen ‘CITY OF BAD MEN” but darned if I remember it. A film with a similar backdrop (the Corbett/Fitzsimmons fight) that I do remember is the Republic ‘VIGILANTES OF BOOM TOWN’ with Allan Lane as Red Ryder.

    • That’s a new one on me, Jerry, although I can see how a major sporting event, and all the hype and money surrounding it, would draw filmmakers, particularly since the setting allowed it to be woven into a western tale.

      • I think I’m correct in saying that the series westerns aren’t particularly your focus, Colin? The referred film was one of 8 Allan Lane made as Red Ryder before becoming (indelibly) ‘Rocky’ Lane. He went on to make a further 38 westerns as Rocky Lane for Republic and many (or even most) of ’em were darn good IMHO. So much still to see, Colin……LOL

        • You’re right. Those series westerns represent a big gap in my knowledge/viewing. I may get round to sampling some at some point but I’m also loathe to add even more to my (frighteningly large) list of movies to watch. 🙂

  5. Ha! Colin’s “to be viewed heap” is mentioned again.

    Yep! i can fully understand why you have veered away from B Series Westerns,but one day
    when (if ever) the “heap” gets smaller…who knows.
    I enjoy some,but certainly not all of them.
    The problem is the majors that own the lion’s share of them are loathe to release them.
    Paramount who own Republic now, could treat us to Rocky Lane and Monte Hale collections
    but it ain’t gonna happen.
    I would like to see some of those myself.
    Sony have released several Buck Jones,Bill Elliott and Charles Starrett Westerns but only
    as single features-this seems pretty mean at $15 a hit!
    They ought to release these things in sets of four at least.
    Warner Archive have released plenty of Monogram B Westerns featuring the likes of
    Johnny Mack Brown,Jimmy Wakely and Whip Wilson but I personally would not recommend
    any of those to a novice…they really are for “hardcore” buffs.
    Jerry has mentioned Warner Archive’s forthcoming Wayne Morris Western Collection…
    this may be a good place to start,. The Morris vehicle TWO GUNS AND A BADGE is generally
    reckoned to be the last of the B “Series” Westerns. TWO GUNS AND A BADGE has the added
    attraction of featuring “cult” actress Beverly Garland.
    I’m hoping Mill Creek (who are issuing lots of previously released Columbia titles at ultra cheap
    prices) will give us sets of the B Series Westerns that Sony have released a single features.
    The remastering Sony have done on these films is outstanding-especially the Buck Jones films
    some of which are from 85 years ago.

    It’s interesting because most of the B Western crowd that I know loathe Spaghetti Westerns
    and loathe Tarantino even more. I for one would rather watch a halfway decent Spaghetti than
    some creaky old Monogram or PRC B Western.Oddly enough Mike,a mutual friend of Jerry
    and myself is the only older (OK well crowding seventy!) person that I know who likes both
    Spaghetti’s and Tarantino.
    I must admit that THE HATEFUL EIGHT is the only current movie that I am really looking
    forward to. It clocks in at over three hours and is already generating very positive reviews.
    Still Jerry’s supreme knowledge of B Series Westerns is formidable,and his continued
    championing of the genre has to be admired.

    Esoteric note to Colin….I totally forgot that you had already reviewed RAILS INTO LARAMIE
    this was a total oversight on my part…hold tight, this will make sense in a week or so!

    • Thanks for that, John. I’ll bear the Wayne Morris recommendation in mind.
      Personally, I’m not sure what to make of The Hateful Eight at this point, the trailer has left me in two minds and I haven’t been particularly taken by Tarantino’s recent output. We’ll see…
      And that’s an intriguing way to end your comment!

  6. Be careful what you wish for…..

    Our friends at Koch Media in Germany seem to have a new high-def-Blu Ray imprint
    “Classic Westerns In HD”

    First out of the gate are three Fox titles

    THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES
    WHITE FEATHER
    THE LAST WAGON.

    This is very exciting news and it’s strongly rumored that RIDE LONESOME is also
    on the cards later in 2016.

  7. About 10 yrs ago in Canada we had a western channel that aired all these Fox movies, and many more that have been tough to find since, glad I recorded a lot of them. I remember Boone impressing me in this one too.

    • Depending on where one is, TV can be a great source for relatively rare films. Foolishly, I ditched lots of recordings I’d made back in the day in the belief they’d pop up again or get commercial releases – sadly, some never did.

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