Jeff Chandler does his Gary Cooper act
Some of the Hollywood greats steered clear of the Western, the poor deluded fools. Perhaps they thought that this most American of genres was beneath them. Such a one was Orson Welles, “considered to be,” says Wikipedia, “among the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time.” Orson (a curiously cuddly teddy-bear name, that) hardly even dabbled in the West. He did a bit of narration for Selznick on Duel in the Sun in 1946. He was the police chief in the 1967 spaghetti Mexican revolution picture Tepepa, which only by a big stretch could be called a Western, and in 1972 he was back to narrating, when he did a documentary on TV, The Last of the Mustangs, ditto re not being a Western. The nearest he got to a ‘proper’ oater was in 1957 when he was second-billed in Universal’s picture Man in the Shadow. This was a film on the outer reaches of the genre, a contemporary Western, really more of a noir. But the DVD is in The Great Western Collection and the plot, setting and cast of the movie give it a strong Western tinge, so we’ll count it. Hedda Hopper wrote that “Orson Welles Is a Cowboy in His First Western”. Well, kinda, Hedda, but cowboy? No.
Actually, the ruthless rancher role in the pic, Virgil Renchler, was originally supposed to be played by Robert Middleton, who would have been good. I always liked Bob in Westerns. But the William Morris Agency suggested Welles instead because he badly needed cash to pay income taxes he owed to the IRS. So the great thespian and film maker did a Western after all. Or sort of.
For yes, it’s an over-mighty land baron tale with a gutsy sheriff who stands up to him even though the plutocrat owns the whole town. Naturally the land baron (he’s not a cattle baron; the budget didn’t stretch to a herd) has thuggish henchmen like the repellent gatekeeper Mort Mills, and, oh joy, the thuggiest and henchiest of these are John Larch and Leo Gordon. So you see it really is quite Western really.
The lawman who does what a man’s gotta do is our old pal Jeff Chandler. This picture, first called Pay the Devil, was the actor’s last under his Universal contract.
Now Mr Chandler, probably because of his excellent first name, was pretty darn good in Westerns. We Westernistas think of him mostly as Cochise, for he did rather monopolize that role, but he had a good track – or trail – record besides that. The same year that he was first the Apache leader, 1950, he appeared in the very good Two Flags West, directed by talented Robert Wise (with a Joseph Cotten who didn’t overact for once) and Jeff was an army major. Then he did two sagebrush sagas in 1953, George Sherman’s War Arrow, in which he was a major again, and Lloyd Bacon’s The Great Sioux Uprising, in which he was ex-army but still pretty well an officer. Neither was a great oater but Jeff was sturdy in them both. Then in ’55 he did the color remake of The Spoilers, with Anne Baxter, and in ’56 Pillars of the Sky, for George Marshall, in which he was, yup, in the army, though busted down to sergeant this time. So that was a pretty good Western CV, and he would do more later too, Drango, Thunder in the Sun (review soon), The Jayhawkers! and The Plunderers, before tragically dying too young, at 42, from blood poisoning after an operation for a slipped disc. It’s probably time for a Chandlerography. I must get weaving on that.
Now, as you know, gutsy sheriffs standing up to prepotent ranchers always have pusillanimous and cowed townsmen who won’t back them up. It was de rigueur. And Sheriff Ben Sadler (Jeff) is no exception. Apart from the feisty Italian barber (Mario Siletti), who reckons Renchler is like Mussolini, the townsfolk don’t want to do or say anything to offend the local tyrant, even if he has committed murder. The bigwig in town is Paul Fix, who threatens to fire the sheriff if he doesn’t drop the case, and even the coroner (Forrest Lewis) won’t certify that it was murder. “There isn’t a yard of guts in this whole town,” the sheriff spits. “This isn’t a town – it’s a trained dog act.”
You see, a young Mexican hand (we are in Texas) Juan Martín (Joe Schneider) has, as it turns out, been guilty of consorting with the arrogant rancher’s daughter Skippy (Colleen Miller, a Universal contract player who did quite a few Westerns, rather unmemorably, it must be said) and the brutish foreman Ed Yates (Larch) is not only brutish, and racist, he also lusts after the said Skippy and sees the “wetback,” as he calls him, as a rival. So he and Leo take the bracero into a tool shed with the aim of beating him up, but Juan resists, and Larch goes crazy and kills him. A decent old hand, Jesus (good old Martin Garralaga), who liked Juan, was a witness to the crime and, decently, goes to the sheriff. The sheriff, being Jeff Chandler, is determined to find out the truth.
And you just know he’s going to.
Even when the decent old Jesus is murdered to shut him up. The sheriff’s alcoholic and racist deputy (Ben Alexander) tells Renchler’s crew where Jesus is hiding. It’s the small ranch of the equally decent Royal Dano, one of the few willing to help the sheriff out. The story gets even more violent when the bad guys sabotage the sheriff‘s car and nearly kill him, then drag him behind a truck on a rope. VIOLENCE and FEAR GRIPPED THIS LAND OF THE LAWLESS! it says on the poster. Well, indeed. Luckily, the sheriff had seen High Noon. He won’t be intimidated. Earlier he was nice to the town drunk. Later, he even tosses his badge to the ground.
The picture was produced for Universal by the colorful Albert Zugsmith. Although Zugsmith specialized in low-budget exploitation films and is known for the likes of Sex Kittens Go to College, in fact in the late 1950s at Universal he produced some classy pictures, notably Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and Welles’s Touch of Evil. Once he was on board with Man in the Shadow, Welles offered Zugsmith script re-writes if he wanted them (Gene Coon, the Star Trek guy, had written the picture). Zugsmith and Welles would retire to Zugsmith’s bungalow at the end of each day’s shooting to make the necessary script changes for the next day’s scenes. It seems to have worked because the dialogue is intelligent and sharp.
Another reason the film has evident quality is the fact that it was directed by Jack Arnold. If Chandler had a good first name, Arnold had an excellent second one – though sadly, Jack Arnold and the writer of this blog are no blood relation. Pity, that, because Jack was a fine director, and as the IMDb bio of him says, “His films are distinguished by moody black and white cinematography, solid acting, smart, thoughtful scripts, snappy pacing … and plenty of eerie atmosphere.” That’s right. He was best known for sci-fi epics such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man but he also did quite a few Westerns, five of them features, such as Red Sundown with Rory Calhoun and No Name on the Bullet, with Audie Murphy, to which he brought more than a touch of that eerie atmosphere.
In an interview with Lawrence French, Arnold said, “I actually had a big fight with Orson on the first day of shooting. You know how films are shot out of order, as sets become available? Well on the first day we shot the last scene of the picture, where all the townspeople go out to Orson’s ranch and start chasing him. I wanted a shot where Orson would be running away from them and Royal Dano trips him. So after there was a shoot-out with the townspeople, Orson was going to start to run away, trip and fall down. I had a mattress that was out of camera range to catch him, and as I was setting up the shot Orson came over to me and looked at me with piercing eyes and said with that deep sonorous voice of his, Mr. Arnold, exactly what are you doing? I told him: In this scene you’re going to trip and fall onto a mattress that’s off-camera. He said, Oh no, I can’t do that. That’s not going to work. I said, Mr. Welles, you are a genius and a wonderful director, but I’m making this picture and it’s my name that will be on it, so if it’s the last shot I make, it’s going to be in this movie. You see Orson was testing me. He was trying to see how far he could go. But once I stood up to him, he respected me for it, and after that, we became close friends.”
The picture is in black & white, as befits a noir, and there’s some nice CinemaScope photography, by Arthur E Arling – not really a Westernist – of Conejo Valley, Thousand Oaks locations, and of course Universal’s Western town lot, which it’s odd to see police cars on.
The film made $1.53m on a modest $600,000 budget, so that was satisfactory.
I think it’s rather good, and quite Western enough, thank you very much. Give it a go. There’s a Blu-ray.