Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

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.

James Cagney with the horses

James Cagney with the horses

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.

James  Cagney and Irene Papas

James Cagney and Irene Papas

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.

tributetoabadman3Unfortunately, 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.

Cagney and Papas

Cagney and Papas

tributetoabadman2

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9 thoughts on “Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Morning Diary (August 8) « Wonders in the Dark

  2. Judy – a good comprehensive review. I have not seen this but it sounds like it is worth watching, if for no other reason than to see Cagney and Irene Pappas. The ending seems like it was somewhat unsatisfactory to you, that there was too much of a quick change in Cagney’s character. I know Cagney has done a few westerns (Run for Cover, The Oklahoma Kid) but I must admit I never felt comfortable watching him as a cowboy (same way about Bogart who he co-starred with in The Oklahoma Kid). Too much of a urban city guy to be riding around in a chuck wagon. Still I will have to keep an eye out for it, after all, Cagney is Cagney.

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    • Thanks John, I actually enjoyed the ending, but just felt it was somewhat unbelievable and inconsistent with the character in the rest of the film – though not quite as bad as the way Edward G Robinson suddenly changes at the end of Barbary Coast! I definitely think this one is worth seeing if you come across it, not one of Cagney’s best, but, as you say, he is always worth watching.

      I have no problems with watching him in a Western and love seeing him and Bogie together in The Oklahoma Kid, though I know what you mean about them both seeming urban. Cagney did actually buy a ranch and farm horses in real life, though…

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  3. Pingback: Monday Morning Diary (September 14) « Wonders in the Dark

  4. Judy–

    I’m so sorry for getting over here so late, but after reading this is was well worth the time investment. Sad to say I have never managed to see this film, though I am like you and John a huge Cagney fan, and have seen most of Robert Wise’s directorial efforts. (Yes, John, Irene Pappas is another wonderful thespian) Seems like Wise has that Alps thing down, (ha!) and based on what you relate here I would have to say that Tracy would have negotiated this character better, as this role does not play to Cagney’s strength, which are best illustrated in crime films and musicals. Still, I’m happy to hear that you felt Cagney managed to pull it off anyway.
    What is always an intrigue of course is that element which you rightly ascrive to 50’s westerns, the ‘psychoanalytical’ strain. At bare minium, though, it surely must be a breathtaking film to watch. I am most assuredly a fan of SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, however.

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    • Thank you very much for taking the time to come over and comment, Sam – much appreciated. I must admit that this film is nowhere near the standard of ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, although I do still find it interesting.

      I must say I think Cagney could do a lot more than crime films and musicals – at the risk of revealing my level of obsession here, I’ve now seen almost all of his films, and I feel he was more versatile than is often thought, especially in some of his later movies, like ‘The Gallant Hours’ and ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, two very different biopics. Anyway, I do hope to write about more of his work in the future, and many thanks again for your encouragement, Sam.

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  5. Nice to see your take on the film, Judy – even if I’m coming to it very, very late! I guess I enjoyed it overall more than you though we both have a similarly high opinion of the acting of Cagney and Papas.

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    • Thanks, Colin! As I said in my comment on your review, I am pretty sure that I watched it again later and liked it more second time around.

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    • Yes, you did say that. I can see how it’s the kind of movie which grows on you and maybe is even more effective second time round.

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