Carriages and crinolines
There’s a whole little sub-genre of Westerns set in the Deep South, often with an antebellum setting and with not gunfights but swordfights (not a Western staple, unless you count Zorro pictures as oaters). We think of Alan Ladd as an unlikely Jim Bowie in New Orleans in The Iron Mistress in 1952, Tyrone Power amid the carriages and crinolines in The Mississippi Gambler in 1953 or Dale Robertson doing his Monte Cristo act in The Gambler from Natchez in 1954. We might call these pictures Southerns.
In 1955 the dynamic duo of Sam Katzman and William Castle, never ones to turn down a business opportunity, decided to have a go at a Southern.
Katzman was a producer for over 40 years, first with Poverty Row studios, then from 1944 at Columbia. He specialized in low-budget genre films which made high returns for the studio and financial backers. Fellow producer Charles Schneer said of him that he “Knew everything there was to know about making a movie. He was a very enterprising fellow, and was enormously intuitive. But he was a very tough taskmaster and a real skinflint.”
Castle was one of Katzman’s favored directors. He started working for Harry Cohn at Columbia in 1937 and quickly earned a rep for bringing in movies on time and on budget or under – just what Cohn liked. Later he struck out on his own, producing and directing, and was famous for his love of gimmicks such as The Tingler, filmed in ‘Percepto’, in some screenings of which seats vibrated when star Vincent Price ordered the audience to scream.
Katzman/Castle films, some of them, such as Duel on the Mississippi and The Gun that Won the West, made by Clover Productions, a company founded by Katzman in 1954, rarely lost money. The two worked together on seventeen pictures, eight of them Westerns. The most profitable of them were Conquest of Cochise with John Hodiak and Fort Ti with George Montgomery, both in 1953. But Duel on the Mississippi didn’t do badly either.
It was no zero-budget affair. It was filmed in nice Technicolor in Louisiana locations and shot by their favorite DP, experienced Henry Freulich. The print is very good still today. The story and screenplay were by equally experienced Gerald Drayson Adams, who wrote 21 feature Westerns with stars such as Audie Murphy, Dale Robertson, Van Heflin and Sterling Hayden. He wrote The Gambler from Natchez so was used to ‘Southerns’.
They cast Lex Barker in the lead. We probably think of Lex mostly as Tarzan but he did a fair number of Westerns, most notably twelve Eurowesterns 1957 – 68 based on the Karl May stories in which he was Old Shatterhand. Before then, though, he’d had smallish roles in a few 1940s oaters, then led in Battles of Chief Pontiac in 1952, co-starred with Randolph Scott in Thunder over the Plains in ’53 and led again in The Yellow Mountain in ’54. So he was a fairly good catch for Katzman and Castle. Of course he couldn’t go on to great Western greatness because he was blond.
Lex plays André Tulane, the son of a sugar planter who is in debt up to his ears and suffers from bandits stealing his sugar. The good news: Lex’s dad, Jules Tulane, is played by John Dehner, really well, too, with a convincing French accent and a most dashing goatee and imperial.
The robbers are led by slimy Hugo Marat (they’re all frenchies; really the movie would be best watched in French) played by third-billed Warren Stevens, a Broadway actor who got a contract at Fox with the help of his friend Gregory Peck. He appeared in dozens of Western TV shows and seven features, and earlier the same year as Duel he had appeared with Lex in The Man from Bitter Ridge. Marat is a demon with a blade and has left nine opponents dead on the dueling field, so we know Lex and he will cross swords. In fact they do so twice.
Marat is in cahoots with two disreputable types, bayou bandits Jacques Scarlet (an entertaining Ian Keith) and his daughter Lili (leading lady Patricia Medina).
Ms Medina was of English-Spanish parentage and often took roles as dusky (and sultry) maiden in period dramas and pirate films. First married to Robin Hood (Richard Greene) in England, she then wed Joseph Cotten, with whom she appeared in two films. Lili is feisty and Lex first meets her as she is slow to get away from a sugar robbery, when she outsmarts him, and we sense right away that it will be lerve, and it is.
Poor old Dehner gets hauled into court for unpaid debts and comes to an arrangement with magistrate Morris Ankrum: he will not go to prison for ten years if his son (Lex) agrees to act as a bonded servant for three years to the holder of the promissory note. Who is the holder of that note? Why, Lili, of course. She acquired it just so she do the high-and-mighty Tulanes down.
Well, there is a great deal of skullduggery, a large fight in the casino in which the men look on amused as the women slug it out, incarceration in the parish prison, foul murder and of course more swordfights. Every so often a sternwheeler riverboat appears but they evidently couldn’t afford one on their budget so it is clearly intercut stock footage from elsewhere and they confined themselves mostly to interiors.
It’s one of those films in which they have single-shot pistols (it’s the 1820s) but still seem to manage to fire them remarkably often without reloading them.
Of course there’s no mention of slavery or anything as embarrassing as that. In fact there’s hardly a black face to be seen. The sugar cane workers are white and the overseers are avuncular.
Oh well, it all rattles along to its pretty predictable dénouement (wedded bliss for Lex ‘n’ Lili) and is fairly harmless. Western fans will probably just about accept it, and fans of colorful costume dramas may like it more. I whiled away a pleasant enough 72 minutes.