Thursday, July 7, 2011

In short: The Nevadan (1950)

The Old West. Tom Tanner (Forrest Tucker) has stolen a nice amount of gold - first from a bank, and afterwards from his partner (which will not be important later on). Though he is caught, the Law is unable to find out where Tanner hid the loot.

While a marshal is transporting the bandit through Nevada, Tanner manages to escape, clearly bound for his ill gotten gains. On the way, he meets the seeming greenhorn - as demonstrated by his wearing of city clothes - Andrew Barclay (Randolph Scott). At first, Tanner steals Barclay's clothes and takes him as a sort of hostage, but soon enough, the greenhorn turns out to be quite handy with guns and horses and helps Tanner escape the interest of the men of Edward Galt (George Macready) - rancher, entrepreneur, greedy bastard - who wants Tanner's gold, too.

Clearly, there will be various changes of allegiance between Tanner, Barclay and Galt during the course of the film, and Barclay will turn out to be exactly who you'd expect from a character played by Randolph Scott. There's also a sub-plot concerning Galt's daughter Karen (Dorothy Malone), who has somehow managed not to realize that her dad is the evilest man alive and promptly falls for his enemy Barclay. If you smell a three-directional shoot-out for the film's finale, have a cookie.

Gordon Douglas's The Nevadan is situated at an interesting point in the history of the US low and mid budget western, created just before the real start of the wave of darker, more psychologically oriented films that were soon to come. The Nevadan is still beholden to the easier structures and morals of the films of the 40s, yet also shows its genre's developing interest in more complex characterization and a deeper exploration of themes the American western in general (I know, there are exceptions) had been circling around yet avoiding to confront head on for decades.

On paper, The Nevadan's plot already features exactly the sort of elements directors like Budd Boetticher or Andre de Toth would use to turn the genre's interest inward: there's the relationship between Barclay and Tanner that would be an ideal set-up to explore the similarity between the lawman and the bandit; the family relationship of the Galts, where the daughter turns out not to know her father at all, and the father uses her as an excuse to indulge in his worst impulses; Galt's brother pair of henchmen as another example of skewed and unhealthy family dynamics. In practice, The Nevadan does unfortunately shy away from doing more with these elements than just pointing them out, shrugging, and showing us a scene of people riding through the pretty landscape instead.

Though that comes as a bit of a disappointment for someone like me who is always hoping for the kind of western that made him fall in love with the 50s variant of the genre, The Nevadan is a pretty worthwhile example of the straight American no-nonsense western. There is after all quite a bit to like about the film: the acting is fine, if a bit too beholden to embodying standard archetypes instead of human beings (and everybody's cast exactly to his or her usual type, which is always a double-edged sword), the plot is merrily paced, and Gordon Douglas's direction shows the director (who'd later make one of my very favourite giant monster movies with Them!) as a man who knows how to shoot straight without shooting bland, and has a real hand for staging action scenes - the film's finale is even a bit exciting.


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