Friday, July 14, 2017

A Whaler, A Gunslinger and The Blacklist Walk Into a Saloon :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Joseph H. Lewis' Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

OK. Stop me if you’ve heard of this kinda well-worn oater before: Somewhere in east Texas sometime around the late 1800s lies the town of Prairie City, currently under the thumb of a swindling robber baron by the name of McNeil (Cabot). Well, it’s almost under his thumb as the few homesteaders he hasn’t managed to bribe or burn out refuse to leave. About six in total. And so, the corpulent McNeil, with the law tucked safely in his pocket, hires notorious gunslinger, Johnny Crale (Young), to make a post-mortem example of one of these holdouts to scare the others off for good.

Now, the homesteader who draws the short straw is a Swedish immigrant named Sven Hansen (Stanhope), who, along with his Hispanic neighbor, Jose Mirada (Millan), discover why McNeil is so hot and bothered to gobble up their land titles through dubious means when Mirada’s efforts to dig a new well uncovers an oil deposit. This discovery comes too late for Sven, though, as Crale guns him down rather brutally when he refuses to sign over his land. Mirada and his son, Pepe (Mazolla), witness this execution. And while he wants to seek out the Texas Rangers to get justice for his friend his fearful and terminally pregnant wife (Varela), fearing he will get himself killed next, makes him swear to dummy-up and insists he and the boy saw nothing. He reluctantly agrees.

Meanwhile, Sven’s son has picked this inopportune time to return home after some 20 years. Ready to give up his life as a whaler to take up farming with his father, George Hansen (Hayden, with his on again off again on again accent) makes his way to the saloon, looking for transport to his family home. Here, strangely enough, Crale and his been there, done that, girl, Molly (Kelly), cryptically inform Hansen his father is dead; murdered, and someone is responsible. A visit with the Sheriff (McVey) gives the younger Hansen no answers or suspects, and also introduces him to the current land dispute when he is informed the farm is no longer his -- even though he insists there a papers filed at the State Capitol in Austin that say different.

Regardless, Hansen claims he is here to stay. And when word of this gets back to McNeil, fearing another killing will bring the Rangers sniffing around, he won’t let Crale do it his way and insists they just get Hansen on the next train by any means necessary with a permanent ticket out of town. And when that doesn’t work, like in all good westerns, this sets up the climatic final, and fatal, showdown -- a showdown like no other you have ever seen before. Trust me...

And how do I know all of this already, you ask? Because director Joseph Lewis kinda gives this oddball quirk of a pistolero vs. a harpooner away from the get-go as Terror in a Texas Town (1958) begins at the end, with a determined Hansen marching down the street, cradling his father’s harpoon on his shoulder; the other townsfolk following a fair distance behind. Approaching the saloon he is met in the street by Crale. And as these two stand-off for the climactic showdown, Crale goads Hansen to move in a little closer. Here, Hansen hesitates, the wheels spinning in his head, triggering the story proper, which is told as one long flashback. Now, despite the non-linear plot and odd weapon of choice this film is still a fairly standard good vs. evil western; well, at least it is on the surface. But this film becomes far less run of the mill and far more fascinating when you start digging into the production of it, which tends to give a massive new spin on what you just witnessed, kicking it up several notches in my book.

See, by 1958, the Hollywood Blacklist was starting to fray but was still the law of the land. And Terror in a Texas Town marked the return of actor / screenwriter Nedrick Young, who was on the Blacklist at the time -- explaining why his name is noticeably absent from all promotional materials, which is odd since he is the second lead in this thing -- and the film actually works better when you consider Crale as the main character. (I mean, he does kinda make the plot go.) Also on the Blacklist was uncredited screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood 10, who was fronted by Ben Perry here. Sterling Hayden wasn’t officially on the Blacklist but his career took a definite hit for admitting to his past Communist affiliations and naming names during the HUAC hearings.

Director Joseph H. Lewis, meantime, was set to retire when his friend Young approached him with Trumbo’s script for this offbeat oater and took the job as favor, figuring Hollywood couldn’t punish him because it would be his last film anyway. And while mostly known for his no-budget film noir like the seminal Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955), Lewis was no stranger to the western genre with films like A Lawless Street (1955) and The Halliday Brand (1957) notched on his director’s chair. And like his contemporaries, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, Lewis brought a hard-boiled, noirish flavor to his B-westerns, elevating the mundane scripts and couch-cushion budgets with his usual flare for action and visuals, earning himself the nickname, “Wagon Wheel Joe.” As the man explained, “I carried a box filled with different wagon wheels. Whenever I’d come to a scene which was just disgraceful in dialogue and all, I’d place a wagon wheel in one portion of the frame, and make an artistic shot out of it, so by the time the scene was over you only saw the artistic value and couldn’t analyze what the scene was about."

As you watch it, you may notice there are a lot of shots like this in Terror in a Texas Town, whether it be a wagon wheel, a strategic post, a window, or Crale’s pistol and rear-end blocking half the screen, making one wonder what Lewis really thought of Trumbo’s script -- which wears the noted Lefty’s leanings on its sleeve; from the film’s overall anti-capitalistic slant; to the backbone of the immigrants, who are constantly harassed by those who would pervert the law to their own end; to bringing the few women in the story to the forefront and treating them as equals and with respect no matter the occupation. Trumbo had already won two uncredited Academy Awards while on the Blacklist for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) and would officially destroy the Blacklist two years later with an onscreen credit for Spartacus (1960). Young would pen The Defiant Ones (1958) for Stanley Kramer the very same year this film was released and would earn his own Academy Award nomination two years later for Inherit the Wind (1960). And this whole film could be read as a thinly disguised, last dying gasp of those who bullied their way to power in the 1950s, and how it was less the hero rallying the others to unite and take them down and more about the bad guys destroying themselves from the inside out.

Almost lost in all of that politicking, Trumbo does bring some other, out of the box tweaks to the characters. As I said before this film is really more about Crale than Hansen -- to its betterment, I think. Here, Crale is a man out of time both literally and metaphorically. There’s no place in this world for a gunslinger like him anymore as Law and Order settle the west for good and his bloody past is destined to catch up with him eventually. (Crale, I think, would welcome this.) But this life is all Crale knows, and so it continues, even going so far as to retrain himself to shoot left-handed after his right is blown off in some earlier confrontation, replaced with a steel effigy that he uses like a club. This schism bleeds over to Molly as well; a woman trapped in this no-possible-good-end relationship, but she lacks the self-esteem to do anything about it as she sees herself as only one notch above Crale on the lowest end of the human spectrum, which provides her only salve, knowing there is at least one person worse than she is. Still, there is some remnants of love there (-- I don’t think these two are actually married and felt their malignant relationship was more akin to Doc Holiday and Big Nose Kate Horony), or at least some sentimentality, as she begs Crale to give up the life of a hired assassin, to forget McNeil’s money and move on before it's too late.

But while Crale doesn’t necessarily disagree with her, he’s starting to get his own ideas for bringing an end to their nomadic lifestyle. Seems this gunsel is ready to settle down and intends to strong-arm his way into a partnership with McNeil whether he likes it or not. Molly, meanwhile, is at the bar being fed drinks by Hansen, who is trying to coax some information out of her. Seems he’s sussed out through a suddenly forthcoming Jose that Crale most likely killed his father at McNeil’s bidding. But this interrogation is cut short when Crale’s goon squad (-- one of them an uncredited Sheb Wooley), interrupt and beat the hell out of Hansen and then dump his unconscious body on the departing train.

But when he wakes up, Hansen jumps off and makes a beeline back for Prairie City on foot. Passing the Miranda farm along the way, he finds out Jose has also been murdered by Crale as part of his efforts to shoehorn into McNeil’s oil boom. This blatant disregard for orders brings Crale and McNeil into direct conflict; and so Crale, extremely rattled over Mirada’s courage in the face of his impending death, loses it and shoots McNeil dead. And then, seeing he’s cracked up for good, Molly finally summons the courage to leave him, seeks out the other townspeople and bares witness to Crale’s two counts of murder at McNeil’s bidding. This gets everyone’s blood up and the mob forms just in time to see Hansen marching down the street with that harpoon, which is where we all came in.

Despite Lewis’ best efforts Terror in a Texas Town cannot quite shake it’s low-budget origins. (It really brought to mind those cheap-o westerns Roger Corman kicked off his career with.) It also cannot shake one of thee most obnoxious, horn-heavy soundtracks ever to disgrace a film. I swear, Gerald Fried’s trumpet section’s constant blaring and bleating brought to mind the cacophony of the advancing Chinese army in Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets (1951). *yeesh* And frankly, despite Trumbo's ambitious script scratching at a few different notions it didn't quite fix the itch -- if that makes any sense at all.

Still, it’s an oddly endearing and eccentric film that definitely deserves a closer look and a more thorough investigation. And luckily for all that is now possible thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Video, who’ve just released the film on Bluray this week, which includes a couple of featurettes hosted by western film aficionado, Peter Stanfield, who digs into the history of the production in the first, then focuses on Lewis’ visual style in the second. Also included is an illustrated collector's booklet featuring new insights by Glenn Kenny on the film. Nice package as always, throwing a clear spotlight on what would indeed be Lewis’ last feature film. 

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) Seltzer Films :: United Artists / P: Frank N. Seltzer / AP: Carrol Sax / D: Joseph H. Lewis / W: Dalton Trumbo, Ben Perry (Front) / C: Ray Rennahan / E: Stefan Arnsten, Frank Sullivan / M: Gerald Fried / S: Sterling Hayden, Nedrick Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Victor Millan, Eugene Mazzola, Ann Varela, Tyler McVey, Ted Stanhope

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