Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Lawless Street (1955)

Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) is the marshal of Medicine Bend, a frontier town just a few steps away from becoming part of actual civilization. As it is now, with the Oregon still a territory instead of a state, and justice still decided by the drawing of a gun, Calem is the only one who truly stands between the town and barbarism.

The aging gunman knows this very well, as he knows that one day one of the outlaws who regularly come to town to better the living legend he has become will kill him. Perhaps it will be someone who is just faster with his gun than the marshal, or it will be Calem's own guilt for all the people he had to kill in the course of his life that will defeat him.

Calem would have to be less tense - and certainly less lonely - if more of the people he is trying to protect would be of help to him, but those who don't hide behind him when trouble arises, are passing the time making bets on his death.

Things come to a climax when Calem learns that some of the good people in town seem to be paying the gunmen who are trying to kill him, for a town without law would be a lot more profitable for them.

At the same time when his estranged wife, the dreadfully untalented showgirl Tally Dickensen (Angela Lansbury) who is still in love with her husband yet can't cope with Calem's dangerous lifestyle or the things that lifestyle does to him, comes to town, the marshal's enemies acquire the services of his old enemy Harley Baskem (Michael Pate). For once, there is someone in town who is just as dangerous as Calem Ware.

When one thinks of great American Western directors, one usually does not think of Joseph H. Lewis. Lewis wasn't a bad director at all, but most of his films are a small yet decisive bit shy of excellence. A Lawless Street is probably as close as Lewis ever came to making a true classic.

Lewis, whose direction style is often a bit pedestrian, here finds a nice and dynamic way to present the film, with some very tensely filmed scenes early on and a lot of intelligently framed shots. Mostly, Lewis is doing his best to emphasize the work of his actors and the strong script.

Seeing how strong most of the actors acquit themselves, this is a excellent decision. Scott gives one of the best performances in a career full of great ones, as always a performance defined at once by humor, a sparseness (not lack, mind you) and nuance of emotion and knowledge of the importance of small gestures that is so typical for him. The bad guys of the film, Michael Pate as Calem's nemesis and Warner Anderson and John Emery as the not so morally upright pillars of community who want the Marshal gone are given a little less to do by the script than Scott, but are doing some impressive acting anyway. The only sore spot in the ensemble is Angela Lansbury, terribly miscast and prone to a shrill melodramatic tone completely at odds with everyone else in the film.

Kenneth Gamet's script is quite successful at talking about the old theme of barbarism versus civilization, while keeping everything character-based and a lot more honest about its characters' inner life than many American western manage to be. Really, how many films of the era or the country do you know in which a marshal and his estranged showgirl wife are discussing divorce? Or in which adultery (by the wife, no less) is something a marriage can survive without anyone committing suicide?

Despite the script's copious strengths, it is the same script that lets the film down in the end. A Lawless Street's conclusion is incredibly hastily handled, quite anticlimactic, of course cursed with a less than believable total Happy End, and very much at odds with the thoughtful consideration it gave its themes until then. It's as if someone had suddenly decided that the careful riffing on (the hateful) High Noon, the nuanced characterization and the comparative subtlety with which the film considered its themes just wasn't good enough anymore and instead opted for his old friend, the sledgehammer.

Which is of course an excellent way to demonstrate the difference between a classic and a near classic. Poor Joseph H. Lewis (unless it was his fault).


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