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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Terror in a Texas Town (United Artists, 1958)

Quirky and visually fine B-Western

Dalton Trumbo (1905 – 1976), possessor of the one of the best names in world history (for anyone would give their eye-teeth to be named Dalton Trumbo) was a screenwriter and novelist, most famous for being one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify to HUAC. His subsequent blacklisting was a great blow to his career but it didn’t stop him. He won two Academy awards (for Exodus and Spartacus) under pseudonyms.
From a Western point of view he worked (uncredited) on Fox's 1957 Lex Barker Mohicans picture Deerslayer, the 1958 Glenn Ford/Jack Lemmon oater Cowboy, the Robert Aldrich-directed Kirk Douglas/Rock Hudson picture The Last Sunset, and his last Western was the stupendously good Lonely Are the Brave, which Douglas, an admirer, got him for. Now, having the best name ever doesn’t necessarily mean you are the best screenwriter ever, because one or two of the above were so-so. But right in the middle of the five pictures was the curious black & white B-Western with the lurid title Terror in a Texas Town.

The title might suggest a similarity to The Fiend who Walked the West and hint at some supernatural or even outer-space creature haunting the place. But nay.

Trumbo (with Ben Perry fronting for him) did not score high in this one on originality of dialogue, or, sadly, in characterization, but he did have an unusual plot. We open with the situation where crooked town boss Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), with the aid of his henchmen and a tame sheriff (Tyler McVey), is forcing farmers off their land because they haven’t got proper registered claims. This story already had whiskers on it when the Triassic Age gave way to the Jurassic. But Trumbo has a Swedish seaman come back to visit his daddy on the farm, only to find that his daddy has been murdered by Johnny Crale, a two-gun hitman in black (Nedrick Young) paid by the evil McNeil.

The Swede is Sterling Hayden, who hated these “wretched” Westerns but did them for the money. Hayden was actually a seaman, with a master’s license, and therefore brought some realism to the part, though he was not from quite as far north as Sweden: New Jersey. Still, he makes a brave stab at the Swedish accent with its rising intonation. The seaman is in a town suit and derby, with what I thought at first was a casket on his shoulder but it turned out to be his sea-chest.
Swede with seachest
He stays in this garb; in most Westerns he would have changed into range duds on arrival. But his concession to the West is to remove his coat and collar. He never straps on a gun. He uses a whaling harpoon. Yup, that’s right. We get a main-street showdown between gunslinger in black with Colts and a Swede with a harpoon. You have to admit, that is unusual.
The oddest Main Street showdown
There’s a girl, of course, Molly (Carol Kelly, three B-Westerns and a few TV shows). She is gunman Johnny Crale’s schmooze but she falls more and more out of love with him, the more innocent farmers he murders.
Falling out of love
One good thing, Frank Ferguson is the leading townsman and you know how I much of a FF fan I am. He’s like a walking, talking walrus.

Townsman Ferguson tries to convince farmers to unite

Glenn Strange (disgracefully uncredited) is on the train, so that’s good too. I always like to see Glenn.
Glenn Strange the Great a passenger on the train
Cabot was a fat fellow in a lot of TV western shows but only three movies, all B. He’s appropriately scheming and greedy.

I could have sworn one of his henchpersons was Brian Donlevy but it wasn’t; it was Fred Kohler Jr., playing a character with the unflattering name of Weed. Kohler was in numerous B and TV Westerns from 1931 to 1967, especially Cisco Kid episodes.

Well, I liked it anyway. The script has a left-wing tinge to it as the brave working class farmers unite to fight the exploitative capitalist. And win. There’s also a sympathetic Mexican-American farmer (Victor Millan) who suffers at the hands of the greedy land-grabber and the picture has a good civil rights agenda for 1958. Hayden never forgave himself for not buttoning his lip before the HUAC and so probably felt he was expiating a bit on the set of Terror with Dalton.
Standing up for workers' and immigrants' rights
It was actually shot (in black & white) by Ray Rennahan and is therefore visually very classy despite the minimal budget. There are some good angles, for example a dollying pan, I think it’s called, in which the camera moves from inside to the street discovering the advancing gunfighter. There's a fine close-up of an old farmer's face bathed in the flickering light of his burning barn as he sees his livelihood go up in flames.

Hank Patterson - fine acting and a wonderful photograph

I liked the opening shots and the ones under the titles, which are highlights of the movie to come. Rennahan shot a lot past foreground objects, as if we, the watchers, were there, almost spying, or like townsfolk, afraid, watching, but our view was sometimes obstructed.
Gunmen gallop by but our view is obscured
It was directed by Joseph L Lewis, his last movie before he devoted himself exclusively to TV. Lewis has his admirers and he managed to turn out ultra-low-budget pictures with a certain flair. Martin Scorsese has called one of his films (the noir Gun Crazy) “a tone poem of camera movement” but that seems arty talk to me, I’m afraid. There definitely is some noticeably good photography in the film but that doesn’t make it a tone poem. Lewis’s first Western work was as editor of the Tom Mix serial The Miracle Rider in 1935, so respect.

Trying to be Bogart
The picture has gained a little cult status and is certainly worth a watch for Hayden, Ferguson, a glimpse of Strange and to see the harpoon, though in the last resort it’s a rather ordinary low-budget B.

Stolid Swede


  1. My mistake you HAVE done it. Definitely one for Sigmund Freud. Is Johnny Crale knocked for six by meeting a man who wasn't afraid to die - but who obviously was - or by Sterling Haydon's harpoon? I saw this picture the first time about the same time as The Fastest Gun Alive and both made a huge impression on me. Weird.

    1. The other film that made a huge impression on me at the same time was Pimpernel Smith (or Mister V if you're American). I found it again about 20 years ago and watched over and over again since. It gives me a lot of pleasure. You might be relieved to know that as far as I can see there is no weird subtext.

    2. As a boy I too was impressed by The Fastest Gun Alive. Less so now! Terror IATT I don't remember from those far off days but I like it now!

    3. I vaguely remember Pimpernel Smith saving people from the Nazis but haven't seen it for about a hundred years.
      But then it's not a Western...