Sunday, August 16, 2009

Terror In A Texas Town (1958)

While the name of the little town Prairie in Texas shows a distinct lack of imagination, what is going on in it is has certain aspects of a fever dream.

Once a peaceful place, Prairie is now on the brink of the special brand of lawlessness the laws of capitalism bring. A certain McNeill (Sebastian Cabot) has somehow finagled himself into possession of the land grants for most of the outlying farms around town, never mind that the so-called squatters have been living there for decades. Now, McNeill wouldn't like to be called unnecessarily cruel, so he pays off the farmers to make them leave and lets his men burn down a farm or two if their owners aren't compliant.

That's not enough to get rid of the core of the local farmers, especially the Swedish immigrant Hansen (Ted Stanhope) and his friend and neighbor Pepe Mirada (Eugene Martin), so McNeill decides that it's necessary to make an example out of someone.

He hires an old acquaintance, the run-down gunman Johnny Crale (Ned Young) to do the deed. Crale himself is at the end of his own line. Psychotic, bitter and nearly made obsolete by the the changing times, he obviously sees McNeill's job as a last chance, but as a last chance to what is never really clear. It could be dying, or it could be getting rich, and I don't think Crale himself knows. The gunman is traveling with his girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly), who loves him as much as she hates him and herself and would like nothing more than see her man give up on the outlaw business once and for all, but he is never going to listen to her.

Crale kills Hansen without much trouble. The old man tries to defend himself with the harpoon he used in his earlier life as a whaler, but to no avail. Without Crale's knowledge, there were witnesses to the murder. Mirada and his little son have seen everything. They have also found out why it is that McNeill is willing to pay people off instead of just driving them away - there's oil on the land!

Mirada's pregnant wife convinces him to keep his mouth shut about everything he has seen. She prefers to have a living father for her baby.

A week or so later, Hansen's son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town. He's just coming to visit his father, but when he hears of the old man's death, and sees how little the sheriff - who is of course owned by McNeill - or the other locals do about the murder, he decides to stay. At first, the inquiries of the somewhat slow seeming stranger don't lead to much, yet his stubbornness and honesty do finally lead him on the right track. McNeill tries to pay him off, but he could as well try to stop a train with his little finger.

In the end, there will be another duel between harpoon and gun.

In an earlier review, I called Joseph H. Lewis a director who had obvious talent, but didn't manage to use that talent well enough to actually make completely satisfying movies with it. After seeing Terror In A Texas Town, his last film, I have to take that back.

Based on a pseudonymous screenplay by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo, Terror is as good as a film in the B-Western sub-genre of the High-Noon-alike gets. As someone who is less than enthusiastic about the original, I'd even say it surpasses High Noon effortlessly. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Terror removes the whininess and the loud moralizing inherent in the High Noon formula and replaces them with characterization of surprising depth. It's not just that the characters are psychologically sound, which is certainly nice and all, but also potentially boring, it's that they all are highly interesting, dragging some of the more beloved cardboard character types of the Western into the third dimension. The lack of moralizing here is just exceptional, giving a sympathetic view not only of the film's hero, but also of the sadistic monster that is Crale and the Western's favorite victim, "the fallen woman".

Additionally there's the human and decidedly non-racist portrayal of non-Anglo Americans, usually characters at best degraded to comic relief or ignored. You could start to believe America was built by a bunch of immigrants.

All of this is made even better by the fact how just plain peculiar the film dares to be, in small plot details like Crale's non-metaphorical iron fist as well as in bigger ways like its deconstruction of the High Noon formula that is less trying to be cynical than to put the emphasis on the character types who usually don't have a voice.

On the visual side, Lewis applies every camera trick he can afford, using everything from close-up shots of sweating people that prefigure the Spaghetti Western to unusual camera positions to make his film a slightly disorienting experience - at least seen in context of a more typical American B-Western style.

For once, everyone in the cast seems to be in on the sort of film they are doing, and acts as if his or her life depended on it. You could probably criticize Sterling Hayden's Swedish accent, but I don't think that's of too much importance for the big picture.

"The big picture" being this: Terror In A Texas Town is a brilliant, one of a kind film.



Todd said...

Does your assessment of Joseph H. Lewis include The Big Combo and Gun Crazy, or have you just not seen those yet? If not, you should check them out. It would be difficult for me to call either of them unsatisfying.

houseinrlyeh said...

Gun Crazy I've seen; alas, it does nothing for me.

Todd said...

Okay, I can almost understand that. I would still highly recommend The Big Combo, though.

houseinrlyeh said...

I'll have a go at it.

CRwM said...

I've never heard of this one. What a find.

Gracias, amigo.

houseinrlyeh said...

You're welcome. Yes, this one seems to be more or less forgotten for some reason.