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

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Lawless Street (Columbia, 1955)

Oh yes, that one

Gangster-noir B-movie director Joseph H Lewis did a couple of Randolph Scott Westerns for Columbia in the mid-1950s. 7th Cavalry (1956) was rather good, but A Lawless Street, also marketed under the title Marshal of Medicine Bend, which preceded 7th Cavalry, was a pretty predictable oater. He’d done a series of Bill Elliott and Johnny Mack Brown programmers before it, and it kinda showed.

It’s the one about the town marshal with a rep that every gun hand wants to beat. He has to draw on them day after day (though he rather sneakily gets one with a derringer from under the barber’s sheet; Clint must have seen that before doing High Plains Drifter) and he knows that sooner or later, someone faster than he is will ride into town.

For a time anyway, till Marshal Randy prevails
We are in the town of Medicine Bend, not in Oregon but in Colorado some time before 1876. Randolph Scott is the marshal and corrupt town bosses (Warner Anderson and John Emery, distinctly average) have plans to get rid of him and do away with law ‘n’ order (except their own, of course).

The film gives the impression that it has been padded out, that there isn’t really enough plot to warrant 78 minutes, so things don’t move fast, though the last reel is quite pacy.
He's cleaned up town after town
This is not the first Western to fill in with a song or two by a saloon girl, far from it. Sadly, however, the songstress in this case is Angela Lansbury, who is just awful. She always looks like your Fifth-Grade Math teacher, whatever movie she appears in. And you know if you saw your Math teacher sing a song on stage with her legs on display, you’d probably rather die.
La Lansbury
One good thing about the movie, though, is that the hired gun the town bosses bring in to do their dirty work is Michael Pate. For once Pate isn’t an Indian chief, he’s a lightning-fast gunslinger with a grudge against Randy. He tells his employers that he will wait till sundown before facing off against the marshal. That corniness in the script should really have fallen to the editor’s scissors. Still.
Gunslinger Pate and his employers
Robert Nott, in his excellent book The Films of Randolph Scott (which I do recommend), quotes Michael Pate from Boyd Magers's Western Clippings #20 as follows:

I was called in to see the always friendly, very modest director Joseph H Lewis at Columbia. Sitting in his office, I ws amazed when he told me he'd seen me in Hondo and had decided right there and then I'd be a good bet for Harley Bascom. Oh boy - was I nervous about getting that part! I borrowed a gunbelt and a Colt .45 from the Columbia property department and practiced and practiced in front of a full-length mirror until I got so fast on the draw I could almost out-draw myself! [Shades of Lucky Luke] We came to the scene in the bar where Randy dives under the batwing doors to gun down Bascom. In the first rehearsal, I was so fast on the draw I got off three shots before Randy had hardly hit the floorboards as he slid under the batwings and into the bar. His six-gun never got to blaze! Randy got slowly to his feet, very thoughtfully holstered his six-shooter, carefully brushed a speck or two of dust from his trousers and drawled, as only he could, 'Son, that was a mighty fast draw you did there - but keep in mind I'm supposed to win this one!"

Scott is his usual excellent self in a role that was perfect for him, tough good guy with a bit of a past, who reflects and has depth.

The Columbia Western town is great, a classic one.

The cheerful, friendly doc (Wallace Ford, such a good actor) plays a mean trick on Randy at the end, though. Just when the marshal has handed in his star and is setting off for his “ranch” (standard peaceful destination in the West, it's either "a ranch", California or sometimes Mexico - another fresh start anyway) in his buckboard, in the last minute of the film, Doc thrusts Angela Lansbury on him and Randy is presumably stuck with her for life.
Joseph H Lewis
Lewis can’t resist, even in a color Western, some noirish tints, such as Marshal Scott sitting in his own cell with the shadow of the bars behind him. There are some snazzy camera angles and crane shots here and there, and attempts at sub-High Noonish themes. For example, the marshal’s wife cannot espouse the way of the gun and prefers to leave him, but finally does the right thing. Paul Sawtell’s score is quite good, too, bringing an edginess to the proceedings. But really, it’s a predictable B-Western which fades rapidly from the memory until you see it again, when you say, “Oh yes, that one.”

Oddly, Joseph H Lewis-buff Mike Grost http://mikegrost.com/lewis.htm gives A Lawless Street four stars out of four but 7th Cavalry only half a star. I’d award exactly reverse ratings, myself.

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