Luke Short rides again
Then there’s the cast. We have real stalwarts here. Rod Cameron is the hero, tall, brawny, gritty Will Ballard, doing what a man’s gotta do. He’s foreman of the Hatchet Ranch, somewhere in New Mexico (though the movie was shot in very nice Kanab, UT locations), whose owner perishes in the great blizzard of ’92, and the spread is now in trouble, with free-grazers and rawhiders coming in right, left and center.
Chief among the greedy land-grabbers is nasty Bide Marriner, played by top-billed Brian Donlevy, whom we first see wearing a suit and winning at poker in a saloon – the perfect ambience for Donlevy. He was not suited to Westerns where he wears range duds and a six-gun and rides a lot; he was best as a heavy in a saloon, preferably with a derringer. That is why he was good in Barbary Coast and Destry Rides Again Union Pacific too, but hopeless as Trampas in the 1946 remake of The Virginian or as Grat in When the Daltons Rode. Actually, I think he was the worst ever Trampas, of all the versions.
Also ranged against Ballard is Forrest Tucker, as Sam Danfelser. Sam is engaged to the new owner of the Hatchet, Celia (Ella Raines) and he wants to run Hatchet as his own. But he doesn’t get on at all well with foreman Ballard, and vice versa, may it be said. We sense a last-reel showdown. Tucker was reliably excellent in Westerns, of which he did a great number, big screen and small. Whenever you see his name in the credits, you think, Oh good.
Ms Raines only did four Westerns. She’s good, though, as the feisty rancher rolling her own cigareets and ready to fight back when molested (which she is, a couple of times).
Quite an interesting feature of the story is that both men, Will and Sam, are clearly engaged to the wrong woman. Celia has a gradually worsening opinion of her fiancé Sam and increasingly thinks that Will is her kinda man, while Will is engaged to Lottie, the storekeeper’s daughter (Barbara Britton, who was Molly in the Donlevy’s Virginian and appeared twice with Randolph Scott), who is too prim and safety-conscious for him and can’t back him when the going gets tough there at Hatchet. We know that by the end of the movie Will and Celia will be in each other’s arms, Lottie will be lonely and Sam probably dead.
And we won’t be wrong. Sorry about the spoiler. But you can see it coming a mile off.
Who else? Well, up at Hatchet one of the hands is Chill Wills, doing his crusty act, and the cook is Chris-Pin Martin. I told you it was a good line-up. They are joined by two young brothers who at first arrive as interlopers, after some of that open range, but join forces with Hatchet and become invaluable, Jim and Mel Young (Roydon Clark and Al Courdebec, both rather good).
In the nearby small town of Ten Mile we have another heavy, Red Courteen (Jim Davis). In fact, if the truth be known there are too many of these characters for a 90-minute movie. If you know the story it’s OK but if you don’t, you risk being a bit confused on first viewing. Screenplay writer Mary McCall (this and Slim Carter were her only Westerns) should probably have streamlined the novel a bit more. She did say, though: “From the outset this was as happy a spell of work as occurs but rarely in a screenwriter’s life. Kane is an admirer of Luke Short’s work. I loved the novel. In transferring the story to the visual medium we didn’t have any problems.” And given that she wanted to respect the integrity of the novel, I think she did a good job.
Will wrecks Red’s saloon when Red’s men steal his horse and Red wants his revenge. Good to see Jim Davis again, being brutish, even if his wig is a bit silly.
Nearby ranchers who want some of the Hatchet land include Paul Fix and Douglas Kennedy, the former more scurrilous than the latter. Then in town we have Lottie’s dad Mr Priest (Taylor Holmes, rather entertaining and rascally) and a very good performance from J Carrol Naish as the sheriff in Donlevy’s pay and under his thrall who gradually stands up for himself and does the decent thing in the end.
There are nice orchestral variations by Ned Freeman on Shenandoah throughout. The picture is in Republic’s Trucolor, which emphasizes the blues and is rather pleasant, though Kane said he would have preferred it in black & white, and I do get that. Jack Marta was the DP.
Brian Garfield, ever astute, said, “Movies like this manage to transcend the formula without departing from it.”
It’s not arty, it’s not profound, but it’s a cracking good Western.