Tarzan rides the range
Universal made so many Westerns in the 1950s, they couldn’t all be good. By mid-decade quantity was definitely impinging on quality. Second-rank directors were used and not-so-stellar stars, and productions values faltered a little (though they were generally in nice color with appropriate ‘Western’ locations and good cinematography).
You got the impression that they couldn’t even manage to think up decent names for the movies. There were so many The Man from… titles that it was already a cliché. We have already reviewed on this blog The Man from Colorado, Del Rio, God’s Country, Laramie, Texas, The Alamo, and Utah, and there were plenty more besides.
Lex Barker was the eponymous man from. He had been enormously popular as Tarzan in a series of five movies from 1949 to ’53, but switched to other adventure yarns (including Westerns). Actually, he’d had small parts in three oaters before Tarzan, including as Emmett Dalton in Return of the Bad Men in 1948, and he’d co-starred with Randolph Scott in a Warners Western in ’53, Thunder over the Plains. In ’54 Universal tried him out as Western lead in Yellow Mountain. Bitter Ridge was his second for the studio. He wasn’t bad. But he wasn’t that convincing either. In Bitter Ridge he is, well, rather insipid as the hero.
The director of Bitter Ridge was Jack Arnold (no relation) - his first Western. Arnold was far better known as a schlock sci-fi man, especially It Came from Outer Space in 1953 and The Creature from the Black Lagoon in ’54. He didn’t really understand Westerns, though he later did a good number of Western TV shows. Probably his best Western was No Name on the Bullet, with Audie Murphy, where he was able to use his talent for the sinister/eerie. He doesn’t quite get it right in Bitter Ridge, which is slightly ‘flat’.
Not that it’s bad. For one thing it was shot in bright Eastman Color in nice Conejo Valley, Cal. locations by class act Russell Metty, and the modern print is very good. A couple of scenes - I am thinking in particular of the fistfight behind the saloon and the descent of the baddies on the sheepmen's camp - are actually quite beautiful. For another, John Dehner is the chief baddy and Ray Teal is a henchman (in a key part). Two of my favorite Western character actors.
The writing is a bit plodding, though. The adaptation of a William MacLeod Raine novel was by Teddi Sherman and the screenplay was by Lawrence Roman. Ms. Sherman had worked on the excellent Four Faces West, it is true, but mostly did TV shows, and Mr. Roman had co-written Drums Across the River for Audie but otherwise worked little in the genre.
Rather a ratty stage, no posh Concord
It’s a been-there-done-that story of a town treed by a crooked and ruthless saloon owner who wants to supplant the honest sheriff and then run for governor. The good news is that John Dehner is Ranse Jackman, the bad guy, and Trevor Bardette is also excellent as the handlebar-mustached lawman, situated somewhere between Jeff Corey and Sam Elliott. Jackman has two equally villainous brothers, Clem (Myron Healey) and Linc (Warren Stevens), as well as an evil henchman, Wolf Landers (John Cliff). Mr. Bardette was better known as the heavy in Westerns (he was Old Man Clanton in the TV Wyatt Earp) but did a solid job as the decent, tough lawman unlikely to be returned to office in the face of the crooked electioneering of the Jackman faction. Mr. Healey’s name often appears in the credits of Westerns, also as a villainous character. He is credited with an astonishing 353 Western appearances (the vast majority B movies and TV shows), from 1948 to 1960. He was The Wyoming Bandit in 1949, perhaps his biggest role. If you look out for him you’ll spot him again and again.
Ruthless Ranse Jackman with his equally villainous brothers
We first see Lex as a lone rider (in a rather dashing red shirt) and he is one of those mysterious strangers we all know about. No one knows him or where he comes from, but he looks tough – no man to cross. You know the type. It transpires after a reel or two that he is special investigator for the stage line that has suffered from a series of murderous hold-ups. It’s pretty obvious who is behind said robberies, though some local sheepmen get the blame. Unusually in this oater, the sheepmen are the good guys.
The leader of the shepherds is Alec Black, played by Stephen McNally. I’m not a great McNally fan, I fear. He was nicely despicable in Winchester ’73, to be fair, but he never really convinced in the genre, being more suited to hard-boiled crime movies and the like. When we first see him, of course we expect him to be a baddy. But soon he smiles at a little black lamb, so is obviously on the side of the angels (Hollywood code always has a good guy being nice to children or animals in their first appearance). Black has set his Stetson at gorgeous Holly Kenton (Mara Corday, probably Charlotte’s sister) in sleek pants with low-slung gunbelt (she’s a crack shot) but Lex fancies Holly too, so a triangle is set up with loads of potential for fisticuffs. Ms. Corday was a Universal contract player and appeared in all kinds of the studio’s B movies. This was her first Western female lead, and she wasn’t bad.
Stephen McNally. Ho-hum.
Ray Teal is the best, though. He dynamites a tree in the opening scene, to stop the stage, which is being pursued by his accomplices. Why do bandits in Westerns always wait till the stage has gone past before chasing it at the gallop and firing sixguns at 200 yards? Even more amazing, why do they sometimes hit the driver or shotgun messenger? Anyway, Ray is excellently thuggish but is later trapped by the good guys into having to squeal on his boss, Jackman. Sadly, before he can testify he is dispatched by one of the Jackman brothers with a rifle in the final reel (sorry for the spoiler, but hey).
The baddies are very, even absurdly evil. They dynamite the sheep. Hell, they even kill the little black lamb. Yup, there’s dynamitin’, horse stealin’, attempted lynchin’, bushwhackin’ and all manner of Western action, culminating in rather a good major shoot-out in the streets of the town of Tomahawk. So you won’t be bored. You won’t be terribly impressed either, but you won’t be bored. It all ends happily with the villains dead, the honest sheriff re-elected, McNally making light of his failure in love and the sheepmen welcome in town. 1950s male audiences probably nodded approvingly when Lex takes the gal’s gun away and whisks her off to buy a dress (women knew their place in them days, the male spectators probably muttered).