This is my second – last-minute! – contribution to the Robert Wise blog-athon, being hosted at the Octopus Cinema website. I’ve just re-watched this Western starring my favourite actor, James Cagney, which is the tale of a tough, driven owner of a horse ranch in Wyoming, and wanted to write down a few thoughts about it.
This is a lavishly-produced film, in Cinemascope and Technicolor, with beautifully colourful, wide shots of the rolling grass prairies that almost take your breath away. The dazzling scenery does become disconcerting at times in the movie, as sometimes violent and disturbing events unfold against a backdrop almost as lovely as the Alps in Wise’s The Sound of Music (of course, bad things are happening inside the houses there too.) I suppose the contrast between the scenery and the events must be part of the point, but I’m not sure it always works all that well – sometimes I found myself wishing the lighting would be just a little less bright.
In the opening scene, young stranger Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) wanders into Jeremy Rodock’s valley, and almost immediately meets ranch owner Rodock (Cagney) himself, who is shot in a gunfight with horse thieves. Despite his wound, Rodock is determined to avenge himself on the thieves and insists on continuing to ride his horse until he faints in the saddle. He then insists that Steve must cut the bullet out of his back to save his life. There’s a moment of dark comedy afterwards when Rodock – the one who has just undergone the operation without anaesthetic! – asks a half-fainting Steve: “How do you feel?”
I find all this opening sequence compelling to watch and think Cagney is very charismatic here. However, the film becomes slightly more bitty after this, as Steve is taken on the payroll and starts to see the two sides of his new master.
On the one hand, Rodock is a kindly boss to Steve, and he also has an apparently loving relationship with his girlfriend, Greek ex-saloon singer Jocasta (Irene Papas). On the other, he is fiercely jealous, suspicious and vengeful – and obsessed with tracking down horse thieves. When he finds his suspects, he doesn’t bother with things like laws and courts, but just gets his men to hang them from the nearest tree.
Steve is soon becoming increasingly disillusioned with Rodock, as he is warned by Jocasta that he should get away from here now, before he becomes as hard-bitten and violent as all the other ranch-hands. However, he has fallen in love with Jocasta – who is unhappy with Rodock because of his jealousy and his determination to wreak his own brand of justice. Papas gives a fine performance in what I think was her first American role, and there is a lot of chemistry between her and Cagney and, to a lesser extent, between her and Dubbins, though he is an actor I find slightly colourless. She plays Jocasta as a spirited character, who makes it clear that she won’t just submit to whatever Rodock wants – at one key moment telling him: “Nobody can steal me. I am a person, not a horse. I can make up my own mind.”
The climax of the film comes in a powerful, nightmare-like sequence where Rodock catches up with old friends, now his enemies, who have stolen some of his mares and lamed them to stop them getting away. He decides to punish the men not by hanging them, for once, but by sadistically forcing them to march many miles barefoot, until they collapse with the pain. I noticed in the other Wise film I reviewed this week, Somebody Up There Likes Me, that the fight scenes somehow seem to happen at a different pace from the rest of the film, with time passing more slowly – and the same is true here of the painful march, even though it probably doesn’t fill all that many minutes of the film.
Unfortunately, what comes afterwards is something of an anti-climax, as Rodock belatedly sees the error of his ways and sets about trying to make things up to people, leading up to an unlikely happy ending where he and Jocasta ride back home together. I can’t quite believe that someone so obsessed and angry could change his ways just like that – suddenly giving away the horses he would have died to save a few minutes earlier. But Cagney plays the part so beautifully that he makes me believe it while I’m watching.
Although I enjoyed watching it, I don’t think Tribute to a Bad Man is nearly as successful a film as Somebody Up There Likes Me, which I believe was made directly afterwards. All the same, there are a few interesting similarities between them. One is that both movies mix bits of various genres, with Somebody combining boxing, gangster and prison drama, and Tribute imbuing a Western with the sort of psychoanalytic drama that was gaining ground in the 1950s. Both films also have strong romantic plots to add to the mix.
Another similarity is that both films were originally intended for one major star, but ended up with another in the lead. Somebody Up There Likes Me was supposed to star James Dean, with Paul Newman stepping in after his death. Tribute to a Bad Man was intended for Spencer Tracy, but, after he either became ill or fell out with the studio – accounts differ – Cagney took on the role instead.
I find it interesting to wonder how Tracy, another of my favourite actors, would have played the part, because, on the face of it, the lead role of Rodock, the tough owner of a horse ranch whose word is law, seems far more his sort of character than Cagney’s. Tracy plays someone very similar to this in Sea of Grass. However, Cagney makes the character his own, pouring in aspects of his screen personality and giving Rodock the sort of nervous intensity that is so much his own key quality. Little moments like the way he sings to himself on horseback are so characteristic of Cagney that they surely must have been things he added in himself. Wise talks in the commentary to Somebody Up There Likes Me about how part of directing is standing back and giving the actors room to develop roles – and I think he must have done that in this movie, too.