I’ve been watching a few 1950s Westerns lately, and enjoyed this gorgeously-filmed Technicolor offering from the start of the decade, starring Gary Cooper. It’s one of his lesser films, and rather uneven, with some unbelievable plot twists, but still a good role for him. Cooper plays a haunted man – a former Confederate officer, Blayde “Reb” Hollister, who has lost everything in the war. For Reb, the conflict is still going on, as he turns outlaw and has a price on his head. Ruth Roman stars opposite Cooper, with Leif Erickson, Raymond Massey and Steve Cochran also featuring in a fine cast.
Cooper was pushing 50 when he made this, and his leading-man looks are noticeably fading. But his weary, melancholy features make his role as a lonely outsider all the more poignant. His character is someone who has been left behind, and is trying to make his way in a world which has moved on without him. This reminded me of Bogart’s character in a film director Stuart Heisler made the previous year, Tokyo Joe, who is also emotionally stranded after a war, though in his case it is the Second World War. (Both films also have a strong focus on love triangles, as does Blue Skies, the only other Heisler film I’ve seen, which, as a Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical, is otherwise worlds away from this one, )
The opening of the film is one of the most exciting sequences, indeed seeming like the ending of many other Westerns. Outlaw Reb meets up with marshal Wild Bill Hickock in a town square, with the assembled locals looking on, for a shoot-out in the best Western style, as Max Steiner’s music builds up the tension. Shockingly, it appears that Hickock has killed Reb – and to see him fall dead on the ground is even more startling because it’s Gary Cooper, since somehow you never expect him to be killed. (I’ve actually seen two films where he does die, but it doesn’t often happen.)
However, I don’t think it is a major spoiler for me to reveal that Cooper isn’t really dead. What were the chances of him being killed in the first five minutes? It’s soon revealed that the whole shoot-out has been staged by Reb and Hickock to give Reb the chance to head to Dallas, in his determination to take revenge on the brothers who burnt down his home and killed his family. It strikes me as odd here, though, that the townspeople are so ready to accept he has been shot dead, especially as there is no blood in sight. (And wouldn’t they see him breathing?) In a later scene, Cooper’s character really is shot and injured, but all that’s shown here too is a few drops of blood falling from under his clothes. I’m wondering when shooting was first portrayed more realistically on screen.
On his way to Dallas, Reb hooks up with a very green young marshal from Boston, Martin Weatherby (Leif Erickson). The two men agree that crack shot Reb should take on Martin’s identity and assume the role of marshal, with the other man as his deputy. The contrasts between the two men are amusingly portrayed, and the unlikely friendship between them grows through the film, but this never really turns into a buddy movie, because Cooper’s character is such a lonely figure and there is a distance between him and everybody else. Inevitably, he moves in on Martin’s fiancee, Mexican rancher’s daughter Tonia (Ruth Roman), but there is always a feeling of distance there too. Roman is good as Tonia, a determined woman who is genuinely torn between the two men in her life and struggling to be fair, as well as worrying about her father and the future for the whole community.
Reb doesn’t have much time to think about friendship and romance, since he has to do battle with three brothers, including hardened criminal Bryant Marlow (Steve Cochran) and supposed pillar of the community Will Marlow (Raymond Massey). Barbara Payton also has a fiery minor role, as Bryant’s angry girlfriend. There are various action sequences and chases, but the strangest scene in the film has to be an extended gunfight towards the end, where, as Reb darts round corners and exchanges shots, he is accompanied by an adoring stray cat, and keeps pausing to stroke and fondle it in between bursts of gunfire. I wasn’t sure what to make of this – realistically, of course, it is ridiculous, as the cat would run away as soon as the shooting started. But presumably it is supposed to tell us something about the vulnerability underlying Reb’s apparent toughness, and his longing for the home he has lost. The cat is nowhere in sight in the footage chosen for the trailer, which I’ve added at the bottom of this posting.