The Ride Back

I’ve never been a success at anything I tried to do. Anything I ever tried to do ever, failed. I’ve been a failure and that’s all, a plain old failure. But I’m not going to be this time. I’m going to make this one. I’m going to do this right!

That quotation comes late on in proceedings, uttered reluctantly and somewhat desperately by a man goaded into justifying his actions, the result of baiting of one form or another he’s probably struggled with all his life. Most visitors here will know my fondness for small productions and the reasons for that, not the least of which is the opportunity for experiencing the good old heartfelt reactions and observations one can often find in such modest films. The pared down quality leaves little room for the extraneous; when every word and shot has to count, then the odds are we’re going to see something which presents moral conundrums and human truths in a frank and candid way. The Ride Back (1957) is such a film.

Restrictions tend to stimulate creativity, knowing what you can’t do being a powerful way of forcing one to focus on what can be done. The Ride Back opens with men walking into a barber shop, armed men who mean business. Rather than prosaically show what they say and do and how their presence is greeted, the filmmakers cleverly cut to two little boys playing in the street at the same time. As the adults enter the shop the boys emerge from an alley, one escorting the other with a “gun” fashioned from a branch. As the prisoner bolts his captor raises his weapon, and then the deafening crash of real and deadly gunfire drags the attention back to the world of grown-up violence. A man launches himself out into the street, discarding soap and towels as he flees. This person making a bid for freedom is Roberto “Bob” Kallen (Anthony Quinn), and his flight will carry him  across the border into Mexico where half of his bloodline hails from. Where there is a fugitive from the law there  must necessarily be a pursuer. In this case it’s a lone figure; Sheriff Chris Hamish (William Conrad) is a restless combination of truculence and trepidation, driven on by a set of personal demons which will only become apparent gradually.

The small scale of the production here points clearly to the limited budget involved. There are many of the characteristics of a television piece visible in the tiny cast and the overall feeling of spareness. Writer Antony Ellis and director Allen H Miner (although I’ve seen claims he didn’t actually have the reins all the time) did almost all of their work for the small screen. Now this isn’t meant as any criticism, I’m merely noting that you do get the sense that the whole thing was made by people who were familiar with working to a tight schedule and all the discipline that was required in such circumstances. The story is pacy and the focus never wavers, building the relationship between Kallen and Hamish in a believable way. The enmity and mutual distrust is well handled and grows into a mature understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses as the titular ride back throws up a number of challenges that will force both men to confront their own motivations. The movie benefits hugely from the skill and artistry of cinematographer Joseph F Biroc, his shooting of both the interiors and exteriors shows his mastery of lighting, and some clever use of angles emphasizes either space or confinement according to the needs of any given scene. And of course, for fans of western movie theme songs, there is one of those memorable narrative efforts delivered by Eddie Albert to open and close the film.

Anthony Quinn’s part as a half-Mexican gunman must have been a breeze for him, which is not a suggestion that he put any less into his role. No, I mean that there was a “big” quality to the man, a grandness that he seemed to turn on effortlessly and which was ideally suited to this kind of flamboyant and romantic character, something he seemed able to dial up or dial down at will. He’s very good as the sympathetic fugitive, interacting naturally and effectively with both his passionate peasant lover Lita Milan (The Violent Men) and also with Ellen Hope Monroe, the tiny and silent survivor of an Apache massacre.

William Conrad served as both producer and actor on The Ride Back, which I think indicates his level of interest in the project. Quinn played the showier and more eye-catching part, but Conrad’s sheriff is the more interesting character. Both men are headed for a form of personal redemption and both achieve this by the end, conquering distrust of others and distrust of oneself respectively. Conrad nailed the insecurity of his underachieving lawman perfectly, exercising caution at every turn and testing the ground suspiciously before every step. Such was the honesty of his wariness and self-doubt that I found the climactic scenes, where he essentially attains what he’s longed for so deeply by a circuitous and oblique route, genuinely moving. A fine performance.

The Ride Back was released on DVD in the US many years ago by MGM. The 1.33:1 ratio (once again) sounds unusual for a 1957 movie but it looks good overall and, in a way, fits the television vibe surrounding the production. Biroc’s black and white cinematography is nicely reproduced and I wasn’t aware of any major print damage at any stage during my most recent watch. This is by no means a major western and never aspires to be. What it is, on the other hand, is a spare, character-driven piece of storytelling, a virtual two-hander where two very good actors play off each other in an expert fashion and draw in the viewer with the candor of their work. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should try to catch up with it as soon as possible.

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16 thoughts on “The Ride Back

    • The movie is built around those two and, in my opinion, they carry it off successfully. The story is good offers both men opportunities to shine, but there’s pressure on them too as it largely depends on their playing.

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  1. Sounds like rather an unusual combination of talents – and this was made a year after Quinn won his best supporting Oscar at MGM in LUST FOR LIFE. Some sources say that this was originally conceived as an episode of the radio version of GUNSMOKE, which starred Conrad (before it moved to TV). And produced by Aldrich’s company. Fascinating!

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    • Yes, the small scale of the production could have had its origins in such a script but it opens up nicely and the solid drama at its heart makes it suitable for pretty much any format.

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  2. Oh, what a great choice for review, Colin! I am not at all surprised at how much you like this little western – I share that opinion.
    Allen H. Miner is better known to me for his work on the (now almost forgotten) TV series, “FRONTIER”, which was shown by the BBC at length in the late 50s. As a kid, it probably didn’t have enough of the expected western action for me but how I would love to have the chance to re-view that series now!

    William Conrad was always a ‘force’, involved in more than one aspect of the industry, including narration on a number of high-profile films. But of course he didn’t have the looks to be the lead (usually) but he was very successful on radio as Marshal Matt Dillon in “GUNSMOKE” (which again I used to enjoy, courtesy of the Beeb). He was excellent in “THE RIDE BACK”.
    I haven’t watched this film in some years. I think you have just reminded me that it is high time for a welcome re-view!

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    • I’ve maybe seen the odd TV episode by the director but that’s about it. I like what he did here and do have Black Patch lined up for viewing at some future point of course.

      Conrad was a regular feature with his starring role in Cannon on TV when I was a kid. I was always fond of him and enjoy any of his on and off screen contributions.

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  3. There are so many of these films that I have never heard of, nevermind ever seen. Its quite a sobering thing really. I watch so much stuff but its like scratching the surface, and of course, actually getting the opportunity to see it (on network/cable airings, streaming or disc) is another thing altogether. If it’s not in colour and got some caped superhero in it, its an order of magnitude harder than it ought to be.

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    • Realistically, none of us can keep up with everything. We mostly end up finding our personal comfort zones and sticking largely to them, with the odd foray outside.
      Sure the more obscure older movies seem harder to stumble upon nowadays as mainstream broadcasters shift their focus away, but there is always disc and online sources like YT to check out – this movie can be found on the latter, by the way.

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  4. Hi, Colin – another review which means I have to track down and get a copy of this movie asap. By the way, your review of Four Guns to the Border set me on the same path and I am so glad about that: it’s an exceptional film.

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    • I’m delighted, though not really surprised, to hear you had a good time with Four Guns to the Border, it is indeed an exceptionally good movie.
      While I wouldn’t want to sell The Ride Back as being in the same category I still have no hesitation recommending it.

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  5. “Sheriff Chris Hamish (William Conrad) is a restless combination of truculence and trepidation, driven on by a set of personal demons which will only become apparent gradually.” Until……the stand-out moment occurs when Sheriff Hamish breaks completely down and openly sobs for what he believes has been a miserable existence.

    I can’t think of any other movie where a lawman exhibited such an emotional breakdown by exposing his weaknesses. This was a good role for a guy like William Conrad.

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    • Yes, Scott, that admission of human vulnerability is dramatically powerful and I admire the way westerns of the era had the courage to address such themes directly and honestly, it adds much to the entire viewing experience for me. I agree too that it’s an excellent role for Conrad, and handled it very well.

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      • and………in comparison, when needing to stand tall he did without hesitation. Although, he may have been emotionally frail……he was no coward.

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        • Yes indeed. That any vulnerability, or in fact any humanity, is not equated with weakness and is actually shown to coexist with and stand alongside courage and stoicism is further evidence of the maturity of these classic era westerns.

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