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

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rebel in Town (United Artists, 1955)


Surprisingly good B Western noir




 
 
Rebel in Town was the last of the Western movies John Payne starred in before devoting his time to The Restless Gun TV series. It was perhaps his best.

It’s a good noir psychowestern which is well directed and well acted, notably by Payne himself, with excellent support, especially from Ruth Roman who is outstanding.
 
 
It was directed by Alfred L Werker for Bel-Air Productions, released by United Artists. I didn’t know Werker much but I found that he did the 1939 Sherlock Holmes, which was very well received, as well as the police thriller He Walked by Night. As far as Westerns are concerned, he directed ten silents including the 1927 Jesse James and the 1928 Kit Carson. He then did a lot of B talkies, and Rebel in Town was his last oater. It was well done: tense, visually interesting and quite powerful.

The screenplay was by Danny Arnold, who only wrote two Westerns but they were both good (this one and another Bel-Air production, Fort Yuma) and it’s a pity he didn’t do more. He made of the Rebel script an interesting study in character development containing an accessible (but not dumbed-down) discussion of important themes.

It was unique among Payne Westerns in that it was shot - by Gordon Avil, who did the 1930 Billy the Kid - in black & white. Payne normally insisted that all his movies be in color, and by 1955 that was the norm, but in fact the black & white suits the intense, claustrophobic noirish style of the film. There is little location shooting; it’s mostly done in town and at the Willoughby farm.
 
 
For the Willoughby family, John and Nora (Payne and Roman) with a feisty young son, Petey (Bobby Clark, Casey Jones Jr. in Casey Jones), are at the center of this tale. John is an ex-Union captain and his son is also obsessed with the Union army but the boy’s mother just wants to forget the war and settle down to farming. The little boy consoles his father amusingly, saying, “You know how women are.” Then one day, the kid's birthday, five ex-Confederate soldiers, a father and four sons, now renegade robbers, send two of their number into town and the lad sneaks up on the Rebels and fires his cap gun at them. One of the Rebs instinctively turns and fires, killing the child. The boy’s body catapults brutally across the street in the way that George Stevens had pioneered for the death of Stonewall Torrey in Shane.
 
 
The death of the boy and his parents’ difficulty in coping with the tragedy (it even strains their formerly loving relationship) are compassionately and sensitively handled. The shot of John cheerfully bringing in a small saddle he has bought for the boy’s birthday party and letting it gradually drop from his hand as he hears the news, for example, is movingly done. The funeral of the child, the wife’s hearing the boy’s ghostly yahoos when they return home in black and the father’s gazing at the boy’s toy sword also. Top class writing and direction - and acting.

The renegade Rebs are no mere two-dimensional bad guys either. They are not like Donald Pleasance’s over-the-top crazed father and homicidal sons in Will Penny or their forebears, Charles Kemper as Uncle Shiloh and his sadist white-trash sons Hank Worden and James Arness in Wagonmaster. Instead, they are almost sympathetically drawn.
 
 
J Carrol Naish is the stolid, sage paterfamilias Bedloe Mason, and his sons are interestingly named Gray, Wesley, Frank and Cain. Gray, the good one, for the Confederate origin, I suppose; Wesley the bad one for JW Hardin perhaps; Frank maybe for Frank James; and Cain, in a twist, the one whom his brother tries to kill. The most interesting of them is Frank because he is played by Ben Johnson although sadly he has almost nothing to say and is wasted by writer and director. He is nevertheless quietly powerful in the background. Amusingly, Cain Mason is played by Cain Mason.
 
 
The decent feet-on-the-ground town marshal Adam Russell is played by the solid James Griffith, whom you will certainly recognize as he was, in various B-Westerns, William Quantrill, Bob Dalton, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday – what a Western CV! His thin face and beaky nose were distinctive.
 
 
There’s a fistfight under horse’s hooves that reminds you of High Noon and Night Passage.

Rebel in Town is actually a surprisingly good B-Western which, had it had, say, Anthony Mann behind the camera and James Stewart in front of it would have been a classic. It talks of loss, the futility of revenge and sacrifice.

Give it a go, e-pards.

 

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