Randy foils the Reno gang
Rage at Dawn was one of four Westerns Randolph Scott made in 1955 (the others were Ten Wanted Men, Tall Man Riding and A Lawless Street). Rage at Dawn was interesting in that it told the story of the Reno brothers, the first outlaws to hold up trains in the West (click the link to read our article about them).
Though of course when a Western movie starts with the words on screen “This is the true story of…” you pretty well know it’s going to be complete bunk historically.
In this version of the facts, James Barlow (Scott) is working under cover for the “Peterson” detective agency (Westerns often thinly disguised the name, perhaps because the Pinkertons were still active and they feared legal suits). He says he’s 35 in the script, which is a bit rich (he was 56).
He inveigles his way into the gang, cunningly trapping them. He has enough time, however, to romance the Renos’ sister Laura (Mala Powers).
Randy bravely tries to stop the lynching but is too late.
This was director Tim Whelan’s second oater with Scott (the other being Badman’s Territory in 1946) but he only did three Westerns altogether and was no specialist. The direction of Rage at Dawn is rather pedestrian although there are some good action scenes.
The screenplay was by Horace McCoy who had done the excellent Western Union with Scott in 1941 and went on to script RKO’s fine rodeo picture The Lusty Men. The story was by prolific pulp writer Frank Gruber. Despite these credentials, however, the writing of Rage at Dawn is pretty routine.
As far as the acting goes, we have Forrest Tucker as gang leader Frank, who was always a dependable heavy. He did four oaters with Scott. I always think he looks like a young Gene Hackman. Actually, he was born in Indiana, the Renos’ stamping ground, so that was appropriate.
J Carrol Naish is Sim, seen in the opening title shots hunched and darting his eyes like some Victorian melodrama villain but then he turns out to be about the best actor among the Reno family. He was, however, 60 and looked it, whereas the real Simeon Reno was 25 when he was hanged. Never mind. Myron Healey is a slightly colorless John, I thought, and Bill (Richard Garland) is sidelined and doesn’t do much.
As for Mala, as the sister, Laura, why is it that in films disreputable and common lowlife outlaws always have such posh sisters? Howard Hughes had taken an interest in Ms Powers and put her under contract at RKO. She was in quite a lot of lower-budget Westerns.
Denver Pyle is ‘Honest Clint’, the brother who kept to the straight and narrow. Good old Denver. Actually he acts quite well in this. For him. Denver Pyle was in fact succeeded by Elvis Presley as Clint Reno the following year, when Elvis did Love Me Tender, the other Reno gang Western. People might easily have mixed them up. Denver, Elvis. Elvis, Denver. Who could tell the difference?
But the best acting came from the rascally trio of judge, prosecuting attorney and sheriff in the ample shape of Edgar Buchanan, Howard Petrie and Ray Teal, respectively. What an excellent combination!
Buchanan was the scoundrel judge; you wouldn’t get better. He was Judge Roy Bean, after all. Petrie (Tom Hendricks in Bend of the River) is splendidly slimy and crooked. Good old Ray Teal (117 Westerns!) was perfect as the corrupt sheriff. Their parts are the best thing about Rage at Dawn.
Pinkerton (I mean Peterson) hero Scott is backed up by red-haired Kenneth Tobey, a stalwart of TV Westerns all through the 1960s, until he is killed, that is.
The actors supporting Scott were thus strong, which was a good thing because as in To the Last Man, he doesn’t appear at all till half an hour of the movie has elapsed. You’re beginning to wonder if he is in it after all.
The look of the picture is high class. It was shot in Technicolor by Ray Rennahan on location in Columbia State Historic Park, and some of the scenery is really beautiful and very Western. They used the Sierra Railway #3 out of Jamestown, CA for the train robbery scenes.
The Paul Sawtell music is quite nice, too.
Rage at Dawn (which presumably refers to the anger of the lynch mob and the time of day it acted) is perhaps a standard Randolph Scott oater for a fading RKO and no great shakes. But he never did a bad one (well, except Belle of the Yukon) and while this may not be of the quality of, say, Ride Lonesome or The Tall T, it’s still well worth a watch.
We could say that Boetticher has been Randolph Scott’s Anthony Mann or that Randy was Boetticher’s Jimmy Stewart… If each has done many other good or even excellent westerns without their Pygmalion, they did their best together.
Yes, we can think of other pairings. Some directors brought out the best in actors.