Siegel and Fonda, not bad!
In the mid-1960s Don Siegel was ‘reduced’ to working in TV. He produced the series The Legend of Jesse James (1965/66), and directed episodes of this and that. He also made two TV movies. The talented director of the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was better than any of the later remakes despite the minimal budget, and the man who also directed Elvis in the really excellent Flaming Star in 1960, Siegel’s successful movies with Clint Eastwood were still a thing of the future. He was making TV programs.
However, lest we be dismissive, Universal was the leading maker of TV movies at that time, and its pictures were no cheap knock-offs, far from it. They had good production values and some top casts, and they were often very well written. As for Siegel, after all, though it got a theatrical release eventually and was a hit, The Killers in 1964 was originally made for TV. Stranger on the Run’s producer was Richard E Lyons, who had made Ride the High Country.
Stranger on the Run must have had a half-decent budget. It starred Henry Fonda, Anne Baxter, Dan Duryea and Sal Mineo, and it was written by Dean Riesner, who would later work on Eastwood pictures like Coogan’s Bluff, Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry and High Plains Drifter, from a story by Reginald Rose (Siegel’s Crime in the Streets, Twelve Angry Men with Fonda and the fine Anthony Mann/Gary Cooper Western Man of the West). It was shot in Technicolor by Bud Thackery, cinematographer on 71 feature Westerns, who worked a lot at Republic, including big and memorable pictures like Dark Command.
Yes, there are evident traits of the TV movie, avoidance of violence on screen, mini-climaxes in the action signaled by music ‘pings’ and leading to fades-to-black, for example, but much of it could easily have passed muster as a feature, and a good one.
Siegel was described by the New York Times as “a director of tough, cynical and forthright action-adventure films whose taut plots centered on individualistic loners” and you certainly get that in Stranger on the Run. Fonda is the titular stranger, Ben Chamberlain, and we first see him bundled out of a railroad car by a company employee, a hobo in worn-out clothes, and with a drink problem. Down and out, dirty and unshaven, with nowhere to go, individualistic loner Chamberlain will step up when required, clean up and shape up, and do the right thing.
Fonda had a less than glorious end to his Western career – in the 1970s he’d do the bad There Was a Crooked Man and the even worse My Name is Nobody – but in the 60s he still had it, and how. One of the great Western actors, he also did lot of TV work later on, The Deputy, for example, a kind of spin-off of The Tin Star, though still appearing in features. I liked Burt Kennedy’s comedy The Rounders in 1965, the poker movie A Big Hand for the Little Lady in 1966 was also well done, and the same year as Stranger he was back with Kennedy in Welcome to Hard Times, which not everyone likes but I do. He brings to the part of Ben Chamberlain that classic Fonda dignity and grit.
Second-billed Baxter was also a great presence in the Western, and she is excellent in this one. She only did nine feature oaters, not a great number I suppose, but who can forget her as the feisty miner’s daughter in Yellow Sky, as Kit Dodge Jr in the fun A Ticket to Tomahawk, or topping the cast as Cherry Malotte in the color version of The Spoilers? She was always one of those actors with real power, and she shows it in this picture too.
Michael Parks is the chief bad guy, McKay. The late Bertrand Tavernier thought it was Parks’s best ever role. Parks was a versatile and skilled actor, no doubt about it (just look at those Tarantino films) but he himself admitted he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with on a set, and indeed apparently Parks and Siegel had various run-ins during Stranger. Parks’s McKay is an interesting character: almost sympathetic at times, yet dead set on hunting down and hanging a man who is patently innocent, forced into intransigence and viciousness by his lowlife men. He’s the chief railroad detective in the town of Banner, a railroad town with railroad ‘law’, where Chamberlain has come, and indeed, it’s one of those many Westerns in which the railroad company is a greedy and ruthless corporation stamping on the rights of decent folk and even killing them if they get in the way.
McKay’s men include aging OE Hotchkiss (an aging Dan Duryea, keeping it in check for once and doing a good job as a half-decent thug); the facially-scarred Blaylock (Sal Mineo, in one of the few Westerns he did – we think of him most as Red Shirt in Cheyenne Autumn – scars still being useful for denoting bad-guy); Tom Reese, excellently loathsome as the horrible Weed, who in the absence of a tree to hang Chamberlain from wonders why they don’t ‘drag-hang’ him – he will turn out to be the actual murderer so no wonder he wants to dispose of someone fast; Rodolfo Acosta, as Mercurio, a Mexican gunman who just likes killing people, especially gringos; and Zalman King, probably better known as a director and producer, also called by one reviewer a “future softcore porn purveyor”, as Larkin. They are a pretty repulsive lot.
They are joined by a young boy of 17, Matt, Anne Baxter’s son. His mother wants him to sell candy on the trains but he isn’t having any of that. He wants to be a gunman for the railroad, and Hotchkiss takes him under his wing. Matt is played by Michael Burns, Barnaby West on Wagon Train, who went on to a distinguished career as a historian, writer, and college professor and is now retired and raising thoroughbred horses in Kentucky.
So it’s a good cast.
And there are quite enough bad guys to be dealt with, even if Chamberlain does get help from local cattlemen who hate the railroad.
Fonda knew something about a gang of jumped up vigilantes trying to hang someone innocent, as viewers of The Ox-Bow Incident will know.
There’s the usual intro ballad, Stranger on the Run, sung by Bill Anderson. They were compulsory then.
The ending verged on the lame, but we forgive it.
I would urge you to give this Western a try. It’s certainly not Fonda’s or Siegel’s best, but it’s not that bad either – certainly worth a look. Siegel was really good at atmosphere, and the atmosphere in this one is palpable. There’s a Sidonis DVD of it, not bad, with Patrick Brion and Bertrand Tavernier on the commentary, making some interesting points as usual, even if they could have done it with 10% of the waffle. Tavernier said the TV made it “overlit” (suréclairé) but it didn’t bother me. Tavernier also said that Siegel regarded this as his best TV movie. I get that.