The Outcasts of Poker Flat

If there’s one thing that turns my stomach, it’s respectability.

By the 1950s the western itself could be said to have attained something very close to respectability. Mind you, the relative dearth of awards bestowed on the genre, even in these peak golden years, possibly contradicts that. If respectability hadn’t entirely been conferred or, as the above quote from Miriam Hopkins’ character asserts, wasn’t even something worth angling for, it would be hard to deny the popularity the genre was experiencing. There are all sorts of theories propounded to account for that popularity, and I guess we’ve all become familiar with a fair few of them. In filmmaking terms, it’s the ultimate American genre, and for many that makes it part of the bedrock of cinema. I think the myth of the Old West as portrayed on screen is one of the strongest representations of the myth of America, and I’m referring to America here as an idea as much as a nation. One of the central tenets of that idea, to  my mind anyway, relates to rebirth, renewal and, that word which is hard to avoid under the circumstances, redemption. All the best examples of the western hinge on this, and The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952) is no exception in that regard.

The story begins in the town of Poker Flat, in deep and forbidding darkness. The foul and muddy streets glisten in the night, and few people are to be seen, most are whooping it up in the saloons as they drink and gamble the evening away. Yet, there are a few figures abroad, detaching themselves from  the shadows momentarily to move from one brightly lit establishment to another, although a handful are heading in another direction. These are the men led by Ryker (Cameron Mitchell), and they are on their way to the assay office, planning to raid the safe within. That robbery, where Ryker cynically betrays and sacrifices his confederates, sees some new graves filled and a residue of bitterness left among the miners.

If justice can’t be fully meted out, then outraged morals can at least be assuaged, and so it is that certain undesirable elements are to be run out of town. The can in this case is to be carried by the gambler Oakhurst (Dale Robertson), the drunken Jake (Billy Lynn), ageing saloon girl the Duchess (Miriam Hopkins) and a young woman called Cal (Anne Baxter). The latter is the wife of Ryker, and is in possession  of the proceeds of the robbery, but this is not known to her ill-assorted traveling companions. However, this fact is to play a crucial role as the outcasts along with a young man and his pregnant fiancée are forced to lay up in an abandoned cabin to shelter from and wait out a blizzard.

Remakes are nothing new, it’s a practice stretching right back to the early days of moviemaking. The Outcasts of Poker Flat, freely adapted from Brett Harte’s story,  had already been filmed in 1919 by John Ford, and again in 1937. I’ve not seen either of the earlier versions so I can’t comment on how Joseph M Newman’s 1952 movie compares. It does develop the plot in a different way to Harte’s original text though, reducing the tragic elements and instead building up the positives. This is where I see the western movie, especially in the key post-war years and on into the 50s, bringing those redemptive concepts to full fruition, using contemporary sources and situations, retaining the core shape and then molding them all to slot into the mythic framework we now recognize. In The Outcasts of Poker Flat it’s those title characters who redeem themselves and are spiritually reborn via their confrontation not only with evil but also through society’s rejection of them and, as a consequence of this, their own revitalized self-reliance and self-confidence.

In visual terms, the progress of the characters along the road towards renewal is plain to see. The film starts out in deep and grimy darkness, rooted firmly in an uncommunicative, isolated and threatening environment. By the end though, light has come to dominate, a literal birth is soon to take place and the two leads opt not to return to Poker Flat but to take an alternative turn and strike off towards a new destination. Newman’s direction throughout has been very solid, emphasizing the narrowness and lack of space of the cabin, clearly drawing attention to the parallels in the characters’ lives. And then there’s the gradual widening  of perspective, leading up to the bright, airy and liberated feel of the final scene – a literal journey into the light, towards open horizons. While Newman’s direction is assured and controlled, the real star of the show is the wonderful and expertly lit cinematography of Joseph LaShelle.

The cast is small and ample time is available to allow most to make a mark. The principal female lead is Anne Baxter, a versatile actress who was in her prime at this stage and she offers good value as the conflicted wife who doesn’t quite know how best to extricate herself from the tangled mess her life has become.  Dale Robertson is generally a good western lead, a dependable presence who tends to anchor movies securely. That’s exactly what happens in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, where his unflappable stoicism keeps the tension manageable and the melodrama in check.

That tension comes from a combination of the elements, the isolation and then the return of Cameron Mitchell’s menacing villain. He does a neat line in shiftiness in this movie, coming across as genuinely mean and dangerous and with just enough insecurity to go along with it to add a layer of unpredictability. Billy Lynn is fine as the befuddled drunk and Barbara Bates (who had appeared with Baxter in All About Eve) is appealing and vulnerable but has little to do. On the other hand, Miriam Hopkins is on top form as the jaded and weary Duchess, a woman who knows her best years are behind her, and delivers some of the best lines with an acid relish.

For some reason The Outcasts of Poker Flat doesn’t seem to be widely available. I don’t think it’s out on disc in the US but there are European releases. There’s a French disc which I imagine will suffer from non-removable subtitles and there’s also an Italian DVD. I have a copy of the latter and I have to say the film looks terrific, it has been given a very clean and sharp transfer and the print used is clearly in great shape.

This piece represents the 200th western movie which I have written about on this site and I hope others will think it’s an appropriate choice. Sure I could have picked a big, better known title, but as I said some time ago when I marked the 100th western, it somehow seems more fitting to choose the kind of less celebrated movie I’ve spent a lot of time (although by no means exclusively) flagging up over the years.

Other Joseph M Newman westerns:

The Gunfight at Dodge City

Fort Massacre

A Thunder of Drums

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52 thoughts on “The Outcasts of Poker Flat

  1. It is a very obscure western. Very little has been known or written about it. I have always have a soft spot for a western starring Dale Robertson and unfortunately do not have any opportunity to see it. Anne Baxter is also very watchable in most of her movies. Best regards.

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    • Yes, it’s not one that is often spoken of, which is part of the reason I decided to feature it here, Chris.
      It can be viewed online at YT, but I can’t say how good or bad the quality is.

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      • I just viewed the movie online at YT. The quality is very crisp without any compromise of the stark cinematography. IMO, the cinematography of opening scene was a standout of the film. The main players…..the stoic Robertson and hard shell but soft hearted Baxter are able to project a believable mutual chemistry. Next the 1937 version.

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        • Glad you got to see it. Yes, that opening is photographed and directed very stylishly. And portions of movie later on the cabin are right up there as well.
          I feel it’s well cast, with good solid work by all the actors, which is vital when you have one of these closed circle chamber pieces.

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  2. The Westerns defined those growing up in the 1950s. The provided a ethos of hope and goodness that seems missing in today’s world. The were, also, the bête noire of the cynical and who can only find fault with the U.S. I think that continues today.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think there is a timeless quality to the golden age westerns, tackling themes and ideas that never really pass. The best of them, and there are many, have at their root a humanitarian quality and kind of broad humility that I feel was tied inextricably to a world which had just experienced years of horror and was determined to be better and more compassionate. I don’t believe these aims ever go out of fashion really; they can of course get sidelined at times by more venal elements, but never for all that long.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never even heard about this movie. Thanks for the youtube link, I just watched it. I really liked it, it’s a good choice for your 200th review. A little-known movie that made an impact. I just disagree that the print on youtube is good. Actually the print is pretty fuzzy if you watch it full screen.

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    • I don’t think too many people will be familiar with it, Margot. Over the years, I’ve always tried to mix things up a little and give some time to the lesser known titles as I go along. Therefore, it seemed to be an apt choice.
      With that in mind, I’m pleased to see others are finding out about and being introduced to the movie. And again, there are very good copies on the market, although I reckon it ought to be even more widely available.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations on your 200th Western review, Colin. With the thought and care you put into your reviews, that is a noteworthy achievement. Your site is one of life’s real pleasures for me. Long may you write!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Steve, that’s extraordinarily kind of you. I seem to have taken a bit longer to put up the second hundred compared to the first, but there are all kinds of reasons for that. However, it’s the engagement with people that comes with this process and the continued expansion of my own horizons that makes it all worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Colin, congratulations for your 200th Western Movie Review. This is quite an exemplary feat. I think that your choice of THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT(1952) is a really good one. Your write-up was a joy to read.

    I first discovered the writer Bret Harte when I was a youngster attending a three-room schoolhouse. I read a biography of Bret Harte, which was written for junior readers. For the life of me, I can’t remember the author’s name. Maybe someone out there in internet space knows. It was illustrated and was probably published in the 1950’s. Later on, when I reached the 7th grade, I attended a larger school. In an English class I listened to a tape recording of THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP by Bret Harte. Wow! What a story and as I look back, it was stories like this that helped shape our culture. Although, this story didn’t have a happy ending, it was a masterfully written story of a rough and rugged mining camp and the redemption of the miners all because of a baby boy born to the mining camp prostitute.

    Along about this time(the early 1970’s) I watched THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT on the WREC-TV Channel 3 LATE MOVIE. I saw it, at the time, as a good realistic Western story of outcasts, who were seen as immoral by the residents of Poker Flat and cast out into the Winter wilderness. I still think that the movie is a good edgy realistic story of societies’ misfits showing their best side, when the chips are most down. Yes, Edmund H. North’s screenplay is quite different from Bret Harte’s 1869 story, which is much more downbeat and Noirish. That said, I recommend both Harte’s story and THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT.

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    • Thanks, Walter. I came to both the original story and the movie a good bit later in life – I think I saw it first online some years ago in one of the various uploads that seem to come and go and then decided I needed to find a good quality hard copy, which I’m pleased to have done.
      As for the story, I read that later still, when I picked up an eBook version of Harte’s stories. It’s interesting, though not essential, to compare them and see the changes made for this film version. Personally, I think I prefer the movie as I find it makes similar points but I just warm to the way it does so more easily.

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    • The 1937 version of THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT the script is flipped with most of the tale being told prior to the exit of Poker Flat. The theme of what happened in Poker Flat involves heavily on a newborn female child birthed by a prostitute that died during birth. The miners and the proprietor of the gambling house named the newborn child Luck. What followed was the impact she had on the miners and the local gambling house as she was growing up. The subplot involving Luck was loosely derived from the Harte novel THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP, whereas the child is a male named Thomas LUCK. Therefore, the 1937 OUTCAST seems to be based on these two Harte tales.

      I enjoyed the 1937 version. Although, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t first seen the 1952 remake.

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    • I didn’t know he’d been unwell, Sergio, and I’m sorry to hear that. However, since you’re talking about him getting out, I guess he must be on the mend at least.
      I think you’ll be pleased with how the DVD looks, and it’s got the usual language options – both a dub and the original soundtrack with or without subs.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I remember being quite stressed when my father had to have surgery a few years ago. Everything went smoothly but the feeling is natural. Sending along my very best wishes for a speedy recovery.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve seen this several times, though has been awhile now, and it’s very good, its qualities well-captured in Colin’s piece.

    Going back from the film for a moment, I read Bret Harte’s story (and other of his stories) years before I ever saw any film version. His writing is beautiful and I was captivated. As I’ve said before though, I don’t believe adaptations owe fidelity but should be judged on how well they realize what they are trying to do with the story. So the differences don’t bother me here. I’ve also seen the 1937 version more recently–it was a decent effort, but for me without as much artistry and resonance as this 1952 version has. And that stands to reason because the Western was now in its best years, not only resonant with those renewal and redemption themes but so graceful in expressing them.

    Still, though it goes back to the silents, I wish John Ford’s 1919 version was not lost. There now exist precious few of those Harry Carey movies with which Ford began (only three) and they are plainly a special group of films, as, for all their apparent modesty, they clearly initiate the body of work of one of the greatest of all artists. And OUTCASTS is a good story for Ford–as well as for Carey.

    But–back to the present–I am a great fan of director Joseph M. Newman. Directors who work at this level–genre movies generally in the programmer and B movie class, usually taken on assignment–generally have checkered careers and Newman is no exception. But as well as a pretty good feeling for cinema aesthetically (LaShelle is indeed a great cinematographer, but he and Newman are plainly encouraging each other in how this looks and is staged and filmed), I recognize in him an innate humanist. It’s conspicuously evident in his sci-fi movie THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955), which I’d cite as a deserved classic, an idealistic parable about our own earth that remains cogent, but he has one film that I admire even more than that–JUNGLE PATROL (1948), an obscure, cut-rate WWII war movie that turns out to be a profound and moving metaphysical statement, without any pretension of course. Give Newman a chance in any circumstance and he will look for what is most affecting, and often most positive, in human interaction, as for example ABANDONED (1949), where a long sustained scene as the relationship of Dennis O’Keefe and Gale Storm begins to find its way is effectively privileged over the whole baby stealing crime story that animates the film. The relationship between Baxter and Robertson in OUTCASTS, an even better opportunity as it is at the center of the movie, is another example.

    Newman’s five Westerns are, as one might expect, kind of mixed, much as his whole filmography, but I’d rate OUTCASTS second only to FORT MASSACRE (1958), the best of them, a powerful anti-racist Indian movie with Joel McCrea cast against type and always effectively composed for ‘Scope by Newman. Newman went on to direct McCrea in GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY
    (1959), intended to be the actor’s last film before he thankfully came out of retirement for RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY–that one falls in the middle, being more conventional, but when I finally saw it properly formatted in ‘Scope, I must say that it gained As I know at least a few others here might agree, Newman was the best director McCrea had in the late 50s, after those two 1955 ones by Jacques Tourneur, plainly his ideal director and I’m not even putting Newman on his level, but just noted he made some satisfying McCrea films to end the decade. Otherwise PONY SOLDIER (1952) was a solid enough movie to me but nothing that special, and the only one I just don’t warm to at all is the last A THUNDER OF DRUMS (1961), which had potential but also problems Newman, for me, did not find a way to alleviate.

    Though I don’t wait for a lot of stylistic flash with Newman, he is certainly capable of it and my memory of the first reel of OUTCASTS in town, around the robbery and introduction of characters, is that while it effectively uses sound, it is virtually dialogue free up to a point and the staging and camerawork wonderfully fluid. At the same time, when things settle in the cabin, Newman is comfortable with that and it never gets stiff or dull.

    Really, this is a good Western, and given the themes as well as the becoming humility of the production, a good choice for Colin’s 200th Western here.
    I always wish any good 50s Western would be available in an optimal release and have kind of accepted it’s just not going to be. I’m trying to learn to be grateful for all that we do have. It’s just a case that those who care may care a lot but there simply are not enough of us now.

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    • Thanks, Blake.
      I somehow managed to neglect that lack of dialogue in the opening sequence of the film and I’ve no idea how I could have let that slip as it was certainly my intention to refer to it. So I’m grateful you brought it up – it adds much to that beginning and is the kind of purely cinematic yet unaffected choice I greatly admire.

      I’ve become quite fond of Newman’s work, even if all of it isn’t quite there. You spoke of two films that I’m keen to see. Abandoned has been on my radar for a while now but I’d not heard of Jungle Patrol, or have forgotten about it if I had, and what you say here has got me very curious.

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  7. I always enjoy Blake Lucas’ perceptive commentary. Along with Blake, I wish John Ford’s 1919 movie with Harry Carey could be found. At one time, during the late 1940’s, the movie property rights to THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT were at John Ford and Merian C. Cooper’s Argosy Productions, but nothing ever came of it. One of the many, what if’s.

    Another Joseph M. Newman directed movie that I think is worth watching is 711 OCEAN DRIVE(1950) with Edmond O’Brien, Joanna Dru, Otto Kruger, Barry Kelley, Dorothy Patrick and Don Porter. This Columbia Pictures release was a top notch up-to-date gangster movie. The movie was so realistic that producer Frank Seltzer was threatened by mobsters. On June 14, 1950 Seltzer testified before the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Believe you me, Producer Frank Seltzer used all this publicity for all it was worth.

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    • 711 Ocean Drive is a good crime/noir movie. I only caught up with it a few years ago but it slipped my mind that Newman had directed it. I see it’s recently been released on Blu-ray in one (the first?) of those Kit Parker sets in the US. That background is news to me though and very interesting, so thanks for sharing, Walter.

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    • 711 OCEAN DRIVE………shades of Martin Scorsese all through this film. Seems to me, the film must have had an influence on Scorsese.

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  8. Yes, interesting background information (as always) from both Walter and Blake. I have that first Kit Parker set in the mail to me as I write, having established it is region-free and therefore playable on my BluRay player(!). I do already have a copy of “711 OCEAN DRIVE” but am quite excited by the prospect of having it in high-def. Volume 2 is released in July and Volume 3 in September and I have every intention of getting all 3. There are some very nice examples of 2nd features from Columbia to make the mouth water!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Jerry – checked out the Kit Parker set on Amazon and it is described as region 1 encoding, which defeats my BR player here in the Antipodes. Just wondering what was your source of info on the set being region free. Kind regards Steve

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      • Hi Steve
        My initial info that the set was Region 1 also came via Amazon but my ‘New BluRay Detectives’, Mr. Knight and Mr. Roan, both assure me the set is region-free and who am I to argue with that?!
        When it arrives though, Steve, I will report back.
        Jerry

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  9. Thanks for that further info, Mike and Colin. It would be great if all distributors who have a choice make their releases zone free. There’s only a small range of classic movies released in Australia, so I almost always have to order them online from the US or UK.

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    • I’ve been region free for DVD since as long as I can remember but no Blu-ray, sadly. There is a fair bit of material which isn’t coded, but not all and quite a few US releases I would normally be interested in. As I say though, with licensing deals so common now, it’s not always a matter for distributors alone.

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  10. With the drop in sales of DVD and Blu ray, especially in USA, l think it would by good business policy to make all vintage titles region free. I do realise it’s done as an anti piracy thing on brand new titles, but surely not needed on 40s and 50s crime and western films.

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    • I quite agree, Mike. Ideally, I’d like to see all such movies available without region coding but some studios seem to insist on it and some distribution labels (Kino, I think and maybe Olive too) appear to apply it to all releases regardless.

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    • It’s a study in dignity and stoicism, isn’t it? Coming from right near the end of his career, it neatly encapsulates what his screen characters had worked towards and grown into by that time.

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  11. Indeed, on one level, dignity and stoicism may not seem to be much as the hero rides away alone in that wonderful, sustained long shot at the end of “Comanche Station”–and yet they are really so much, and much more than most of us will ever attain at the level that he does.

    Just a thought. Truthfully, I have thought a lot about this over the years and continue to do so, in common with my fellow Ranown aficionados .

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    • I think, in the context of the narrative of Comanche Station and indeed of Scott’s career up to and including that point, that there are few finer or more admirable qualities to have been portrayed on screen. Nor to have been portrayed with such subtle effectiveness for that matter.

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  12. I remembered seeing Comanche Station/Westbound at the tail end of Randolph Scott’s career. Both movies did not fare that well at the box office. The appeal for westerns only came to be revived by Clint Eastwood/Lee Van Cleef/Sergio Leone therefter. Best regards.

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    • Of course that’s moving into the territory of changing fashions, shifting commercial considerations, overfamiliarity/saturation, television, and so on…
      And of course, none of that detracts from the quality or artistry of films like Comanche Station.

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