1959. 92 min. Rated “Approved”. Very, very weird dancing scene with an edge of brutality, implying more than just dancin’.IMDB says... Cowboys and ranchers have to put their differences aside when a gang of outlaws, led by army captain Jack Bruhn, decide to spend the night in a little Western town.
The 73rd Virgin says... This comes recommended as Essential Viewing from the prolific Cinemascope blog. I don’t know if I would go that far, but it’s one of the stranger westerns I’ve seen this side of Johnny Guitar.
There is much clumsy soap opera-ish dialogue that makes you acutely aware you are watching acting. People don’t talk like this – not in NYC parlors – not in Oregon bunk houses. But there are beautiful snowy and windy exteriors, a solid story with noir-ish fatalism, and editing good enough that even I noticed it. Director Andre De Toth made many other westerns. Cinemascope says this was his last.
The production looks inexpensive; from the opening credits which lists the bland as dishwater production company, “Security Pictures Inc.”, to the costuming which is either far more realistic than I imagined or whatever the hell the costume department could put together. Shot in black and white in real snow and ice way up in the mountains of Oregon, the exteriors look genuinely challenging. Especially Burl Ives’ poor horse trying to cut through four feet of snow.
Most Robert Ryan movies are worth a look. He projected up-front squinty-eyed menace whether he was playing good guys or bad, and he was often cast somewhere in between. Although he started acting in the 30s, he was a Marine drill sergeant and boxer in the 40s, but reportedly a pacifist and reliably liberal in his politics. His early 50’s noirs are great and his supporting role in The Wild Bunch is for the ages. He was a so-so John the Baptist. Avoid The Battle of the Bulge.
Ryan is Blaise Starrett, a rancher and cattleman who is prepared to go to war with the local farmers who have begun to show up in droves now that he and his roughhewn friends have cleared the wilderness of Indians and outlaws. He’s also been involved with the wife of a newly arrived farmer. She is played by a very understated Tina Louise, later of Gilligan’s Island fame. Believe me when I say she does not appear in this pose or in this outfit. And the phallic pistol font is probably not accidental either.
This long scene is pretty good, until the lovey-dovey talk starts. The pinstripe is interesting. Ryan’s entire direction appears to be sit, look down, and listen. It seems weird now, in these days of overt nut-flexing, flaring nostrils, or beta male geekery, but believe it or not there was a time when men were supposed to act like this, especially if a lady was speaking of things that made them uncomfortable. It is very period-appropriate.
Here we see Ryan and all of his menace and power blowing out years of rage about these intruders. I don’t know if the emphysema was catching up with him or if the soundman decided to hang the microphone a little too close, or if it was all intentional, but you can hear him wheezing and panting as he tears into this. Lee Marvin (another Marine) could project menace but mostly just through his voice and laconic physicality, but Ryan was more actively scary.
So far it’s just another war between ranchers and sod busters until Burl Ives shows up with his gang of miscreants. Ives is supposed to be cavalry captain Jack Bruhn on the run for some unknown offense, but it’s apparent that not all of his men are former cavalryman. They come to town intent on rape and pillage. In that regard this is an unusual Western. There is a blatant sexual menace throughout.
Ives is basically playing the same character he did in The Big Country, right down to his eyebrows, but he is still very good - if 30 years too old and 100 pounds too heavy to be a cavalry captain. There are dark intimations of a slaughter of innocent Mormons. He is also rather King Lear-like in that he actually believes his men will follow his orders once he looks away, while the entire town can see that his men are going to do whatever they want and that he doesn’t have nearly the control he thinks he does.
One of the strangest scenes is Bruhn sitting on a veterinarian’s operating table waiting to get a bullet pulled out of his chest and fingering his shirt as if he doesn’t want to remove it in front of everyone. One wonders.
And he plays this character in a way that implies some need for redemption. I could go way out on a limb here and observe that Ives was among those who testified and named names during the House Unamerican Activities Committee testimony and Ryan was among those who defended the so-called Hollywood 10. That may have made for some interesting times on the set.
To the extent possible the farmers and Starrett pull together in dire circumstances and begin trying to get rid of the gang even after they’ve been disarmed. Fans of the Second Amendment such as me find something to tsk-tsk over in how easily the town is disarmed.
With Shakespearean vibes, Bruhn will allow himself and his gang to be led off onto a “secret” trail through the mountains to get away from the pursuing cavalry. It appears only Starret has knowledge of the trail and Bruhn knows it’s a ploy, but he will go anyway due to what? Guilt? Nihilism? Maybe weariness?
There is a side story of a pretty young shop girl determined to get married to almost anyone, who develops an eye for the youngest and perhaps the only salvageable outlaw. Most movie symbols tend to slide right by this reviewer; I’m afraid I’m just not a visual enough creature to spot them in time. But here we watch the outlaw on the threshold, literally, of civility and redemption going in and out of the door. Director De Toth likes to frame faces within structures. The girl's motivations in telling the secret are ambivalent at best.
There are long scenes of Ryan and the gang pushing their horses through real snow in real bad conditions before the rather brutal climax. I think modern Humane Society film observers might have noticed some of these scenes, although no horse gets killed.
and so it goes.
Now about that weird dancing; after the gang gets to town two of the characters are obsessed with gettin’ a hold of some women. In this scene that goes on and off for roughly 7 minutes, Louise gets tossed around like a rag doll by different men. I suppose that’s as close as the script and director de Toth could come to a creepy kind of sexual menace. Or maybe I’m just creepy for observing it. Either way it makes for uncomfortable viewing.
and so it goes.
De Toth lived 90 years, married 7 times, and had 19 children. I guess he knew a thing or two.