"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Lawless Breed (Universal, 1952)

Rock Hudson as the Texas killer...


This is a whitewash biopic of John Wesley Hardin with slightly unlikely casting: Rock Hudson as the Texas killer. Raoul Walsh discovered Hudson in ’48 and kept him under contract all through the 1950s. He saw star quality. This was one of Hudson’s first lead roles. He topped the billing in another (so-so) Western the following year, Seminole, directed by Budd Boetticher, then again for Walsh in ’54 in the rather good Gun Fury. He was actually quite competent in Western roles. He rode well, looked the part, was famously handsome.

We expect from the buccaneering Raoul Walsh a rip-roaring picaresque tale and we in fact get a sober, small picture about a man trying to disengage from a life of violence. It pre-figures Walsh’s last picture A Distant Trumpet, when the cavalry and Indians make peace. We are left in no doubt whatsoever that Hardin is a goody because in the first five minutes he smiles at a foal and pats a dog. Hollywood code.

It’s in bright, jolly Technicolor. (Don't be fooled by the b&w publicity still on the left). Julia Adams is both decorative and convincing as the lady of dubious virtue, Rosie, who comes to love Wes and settle down. We see her grow as a person as the film progresses. It’s well done. The writing is sound. It’s a Bernard Gordon screenplay reputedly based on Hardin’s autobiography (but I’ve read the autobiography and I can assure you that Gordon must have got hold of a different edition). There are some corny lines, like “He’s the fastest draw in Texas!” When the posse lose him, one member says, “He must’ve taken to the hills!” But we can forgive. The writing and acting are good enough for the characters to develop a little.

The support acting is not bad either. John McIntire, always enjoyable, played both Hardin’s preacher father (in false gray beard) and his uncle (in neater trimmed one), two very different characters. Dennis Weaver is cousin Jim. Lee Van Cleef does his 'third heavy' act and is gunned down in Abilene. Race Gentry in his first (and almost only) film is Hardin’s son and looks mighty like Hudson. Francis Ford is uncredited as an old timer. Forrest Lewis is quite amusing as Zeke, the sort of part that would have gone to Fuzzy Knight at another time or another studio. Tom Fadden is also droll as the undertaker. Robert Anderson is briefly Wild Bill Hickok.

The little Western town has to do duty as Abilene, Kansas City, Austin, etc. so isn’t too convincing. California makes a very green Texas. Never mind.

Hardin kills one or two men but only when attacked (usually sneakily shot in the back). There is no mention of the Negro he murdered, the fight with the Mexicans on the trail to Abilene or any of the countless other men Hardin killed for one reason or another, certainly not the one he was said to have shot for snoring too loudly. Prison reforms him and he goes back to the farm. The ending is too happy. He is not widowed or shot to death in a seedy El Paso saloon. That’s OK. Westerns aren’t supposed to be accurate historical documents. That’s not what they are for.

The true life of JW Hardin would in fact make a great and rather dark film, maybe suitable material for the team that made The Assassination of Jesse James… but as an early 50s attempt, this movie is quite classy and is definitely worth a look.


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