Ever watch a movie and find yourself struggling to quite get a handle on it? I don’t mean in terms of following the plot, rather the direction in which the plot wants to lead your thoughts. Frankly, I’ve seen lots of films where the storyline has meandered all over the place and the focus seemed to shift continually. But it’s a whole different matter when we start talking about a small, tightly structured production, one where there’s an essentially simple story being told, yet where the theme and tone appear to vary almost from scene to scene. As I watched Riding Shotgun (1954) the other day I was struck by tonal shifts throughout, a kind of capriciousness in the scripting that meant a potentially interesting little movie fell short of what it might have been.
As soon as the credits roll there’s a sense that we’re going to get one of those noir-tinged westerns that can prove so satisfying, Firstly, we get a voice-over narration by the hero, Larry Delong (Randolph Scott), which lets us know that he took the job riding shotgun for the stagecoach line, and traveling all over the west as a result, for a very special reason – to find one particular man, and to kill him. The man in question is Dan Marady (James Millican), a notorious road agent or outlaw, and he’s well aware of the fact his nemesis is dogging his tracks. I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, as the following all occurs in the first 10 minutes or so of the film, by saying that Marady has a plan in place to lure Delong away from the stagecoach and then fake a raid on it to draw a posse out from the neighboring town. With the law off chasing the apparent attackers of the stage, the town will be left wide open so Marady and his men can enter at their leisure and pick off all they want in safety. That’s the plan, but a little carelessness means Delong remains alive and free, and in a position to warn the defenseless settlement of the impending raid. It’s at this point that the movie takes a turn off into more unusual territory – instead of being greeted as a savior, Delong first becomes the object of suspicion and distrust, and later an outright threat who has to be eliminated.
Coincidence, misfortune and misunderstanding provide the impetus for the plot of Riding Shotgun, the kind of circumstances that make for good drama,and can add to that sense of noir fatalism I alluded to earlier. With the revenge motif, the narration and the sight of Randolph Scott grimly determined to kill a man as opposed to, let’s say, bring him back for trial, everything appears to be in place for a solid B western suspenser. And yet it doesn’t really come off, and the reason is the uneven or uncertain tone I spoke about. For a story like this to work as it should, to be truly effective, it needs to be tackled as a straightforward and straight-faced yarn. The setting and build-up are suitably minimalist and claustrophobic, and director André de Toth frames some excellent compositions. As Scott’s character finds himself increasingly isolated and literally backed into a corner, there’s tension in abundance. However, we also get humorous undercurrents – the over-cautious and ever-hungry deputy (Wayne Morris), the grotty saloon keeper fretting about his costly mirror and addressing his son in Spanish while getting answered in German, and the (seemingly) deliberately obtuse townsfolk. The net result of it all is that the film is neither fish nor fowl, shying away from full-on suspense and flirting with the comedic elements, we end up with a film which feels slightly arch.
I wonder how this movie was received on release since, even now, I find it a little odd to see Randolph Scott so hell bent on killing off his enemy. I know he went to similarly dark places in a couple of the Budd Boetticher films a few years later but it still gives me pause. While I have reservations about the script I can’t fault Scott’s performance, but he rarely gave an unsatisfying performance by this stage in his career anyway. It’s nice to see James Millican, who often got cast in smaller but always memorable roles, handed a more substantial part as the chief villain; it doesn’t call for any great subtlety but there’s plenty of opportunity for some solid snarling and meanness. Millican’s principal sidekick is played by a young Charles Bronson (still being billed as Buchinsky) and his presence and potential can be clearly seen at this point. OK, I’m harping on the (not all that successful and also unnecessary) comic aspects again but I feel Wayne Morris is ill-served as a result. His conflicted deputy is an important character in the film, providing a lot of balance and accessibility. But the way the part is written undermines him at every turn and diminishes the role considerably, a great shame. There’s a good supporting cast featuring the likes of Joan Weldon, James Bell, Joe Sawyer, Frank Ferguson, Vic Perrin and John Baer, although many of them are given very little to do.
Warner Brothers put Riding Shotgun out on DVD years ago as part of a triple feature set with Man Behind the Gun and Thunder over the Plains. Scott’s westerns were harder to find back then and only few were available to buy compared to now, and I remember being very pleased to see these films come on the market. The presentation is as basic as it gets with no bonus features included. Still, the film looks reasonably good with nice colors and no major print damage. I’ve spent a fair bit of time highlighting what I see as the deficiencies of this film but I feel I should also point out that even a relatively weak Randolph Scott western benefits greatly and is elevated by his presence alone. I don’t think I’ve seen a Scott western I didn’t enjoy on some level at least, which is a testament to the man’s talents. If I seem unduly critical of this one, then it’s mainly because I can see how a few minor tweaks to the script could have left us with a far stronger picture. Nevertheless, and despite its faults, it’s still worth a look.