I sure wish director Joseph H. Lewis got more a lot more respect these days. Granted, his career spanned 41 mostly B-movies spread across different genres that it was hard to shoehorn him into a box (but that’s a good thing for those who love variety and surprises). You could say he was a journeyman with quite a vision, as some of his films were memorable and considered classics by those some film lovers who’ve seen his work and appreciate it. He took some chances in his time in the director’s chair, but also made the some pretty generic titles between the brilliant ones. While some of the results might have gone over the heads of some viewers at the time, it’s worth tracking down some of his work to see a quiet master in action when the results were really good.
In 1958, Lewis planned to retire from movies and go to TV, but opted out to make one final film, the B-quality, but memorable for a few reasons western, Terror in a Texas Town. While it’s no epic (hell, it opens right off the bat with part of the ending sequence and also uses some ancient stock footage a few times, clearly as a means to kill time and save money during its tidy 81 minutes) and the story is a bit weathered (until you know certain things about its genesis), it’s worth a watch because it’s an intriguing B-grade flick on a few fronts. Is it a “good” movie? Well, one could say where it counts it is despite its budgetary limitations.
Sterling Hayden plays George Hansen, a Swedish immigrant, who after almost 20 years at sea, comes to America to live and farm alongside his dad, Sven, who’s been waiting for him to arrive. Unfortunately, Sven is murdered in cold blood while trying to defend his land from Crale (Nedrick Young) the steel-fisted and black-clad killer hired by McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) who it turns out, would probably rather have paid Sven off or burned him out instead of having him killed. But, gone is gone, McNeil gets his ill-gotten land and Crale quite enjoys what he does. Protests from his weary wife, Molly (Carol Kelly) who warns Crale the law could close in any moment, go ignored by Crale and it seems he’s due for a fall at some point. He’s not exactly in his prime and his former gun hand was shot off and replaced with a steel one (it’s too bad more isn’t made of this, though). McNeil’s plan is to grab all the land in the area for its newly found oil and the film opens (after the titles) with a literal barn burning as a elderly couple gets one of McNeil’s less violent choices of treatment.
(Thanks, HD Retro Trailers!)
Crale initially dupes the younger Hansen about who killed his dad, even being somewhat friendly to him because he wants to keep him around until he can take him out (and no, not in a Brokeback Mountain way). McNeil simply wants him to get out of Dodge before he finds out who’s behind things and starts making trouble. Crale eventually tires of his ruse, has George beaten by his thugs and unceremoniously tossed on a train headed out of town. Hansen eventually wakes up, gets off the train and starts the long walk back to town. On the way, he runs into Jose Mirada (Victor Milan), who finally tells him he saw Crale kill his dad and was hiding the truth from him because of his wife’s pregnancy and him wanting to stay quiet out of fear of Crale coming for him.
Crale drops in later, of course, discovers Jose is the witness who saw him kill the elder Hansen, and yes indeed, cruelly shoots him dead as well (quite a moving and unsettling death that actually affects Crale’s mental state). Of course, McNeil sees the results of this change first. Hansen, not knowing of Jose’s death until he arrives at the Mirada home and sees the family in mourning, grabs his dad’s old harpoon and off he goes with vengeance on his mind to the showdown that ends the film. Gun and steel arm versus an old, heavy oversized crochet hook? Who wins? Oh, you’ll see. That Gerald Fried score is pretty crazy throughout, I’ll have to say. Definitely attention grabbing stuff as soon as you hear it. But that’s a good thing for a film like this.
Yes, the budget ($80,000) brings forth a few problems, but it’s a great-looking film nonetheless. The visual repetition and stock footage noted above, Lewis seeming to one-take certain shots or use artfully placed props to block some otherwise dull shots because a scene needed some visual punch (he’s not called “Wagon Wheel Joe” for nothing) work in that way where you’re surprised this otherwise simple oater has a few cool tricks up its sleeve. There’s also the Dalton Trumbo script (credited to “Ben Perry”, due to the horrific blacklisting at the time) that references a few timely topics of the era (some of which fit today’s climate) and the film has a few digs at what was going on in the modern world via a few scenes and thinly veiled moments (I’m guessing any censors on the time were asleep, what with with some of the dialog and veils used working away here like busy woodchucks).
In a “well, that must have been an interesting shoot, to say the least” way, the choice of Sterling Hayden as the lead (he’d testified against some people) and the blacklisted Ned Young (who also helped with the with the script) as the villain, Crale, adds an extra layer to things if you want to go down that rabbit hole in any speculative investigations into the era. That said, it could have been just a boring professionally mundane shoot here for all I know, with tensions kept to a minimum (although, I’m betting on a bit of tension under things because as humans, that’s how we roll). Arrow’s restoration is quite crisp, but there aren’t many bonuses here, The intro and Lewis appreciation (both by writer Peter Stanfield) and a trailer are all that you get, but they’re well done, adding interesting bits about Lewis and some of his work. While it has a few budget bumps here and there, it’s definitely a film that makes its point and leaves its mark when a little context is seen.
Score: B+ (85%)
-Review copy courtesy Arrow Academy