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Stranger on the Run

by Glenn Erickson Jun 26, 2021

Favorite director Don Siegel is in fine form in this 1967 TV movie, a keeper with qualities not seen in Hollywood’s mega-westerns of the day. Henry Fonda’s ragged drifter is hunted by a gang of railroad deputies, and chief deputy Michael Parks doesn’t intercede because he can’t control his own men. A great screenplay, Siegel’s direction, plus committed performances make it stand out: Anne Baxter, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Bernie Hamilton and Madlyn Rhue.


Stranger on the Run
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1967 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 97 min. / Street Date July 27, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Henry Fonda, Anne Baxter, Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese, Walter Burke, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Burns, Bernie Hamilton, Zalman King, Madlyn Rhue, Rodolfo Acosta, Rex Holman.
Cinematography: Bud Thackery
Art Director: William D. DeCinces
Stunts: Buddy Van Horn
Film Editor: Richard G. Wray
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Written by Dean Reisner based on a story by Reginald Rose
Produced by Richard D. Lyons
Directed by
Don Siegel

The great Don Siegel didn’t have it easy in Hollywood, and had to keep changing gears to maintain his directing career. His better 1950s pictures are now cult items — Private Hell 36, Crime in the Streets, The Lineup, Edge of Eternity — but weren’t big box office winners. His hits Riot in Cell Block 11 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn’t propel him into ‘A’ level directing. Neither did his excellent Elvis feature Flaming Star nor his fine combat picture Hell is for Heroes. Today it’s obvious that Siegel was at the top of his game, but for a few years he retreated into television, doing both series and TV movies.

Only exceptional older TV movies escaped being forgotten altogether. All three of Siegel’s TV features are notable. His remake of The Killers is a special case in that it was bumped up to theatrical feature status. The Hanged Man with Robert Culp is a remake of Ride the Pink Horse, with the locale shifted to the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Revived just as seldom is Siegel’s excellent 1967 TV movie western Stranger on the Run. It’s large and interesting cast is topped by Henry Fonda, who was still known as a major star, if not a box office draw. Producer Richard E. Lyons helped launch Sam Peckinpah’s film career and had done good work with Burt Kennedy as well. Screenwriter Dean Reisner would begin a solid collaboration with Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. Reginald Rose, author of the film’s original story, had penned Henry Fonda’s 12 Angry Men but also Siegel’s Crime in the Streets — and Anthony Mann’s great Gary Cooper movie Man of the West. Stranger on the Run organizes a sound & satisfying drama with themes that predate The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven.

 

The railroad town of Banner is not a happy place. The railroad deputies led by Vince McKay (Michael Parks) are the only law, and McKay must follow the orders of Gorman (Lloyd Bochner) a cold-hearted railroad executive. The deputies have been forcing local ranchers to use the railroad to move their stock and some deaths have already occurred. Townspeople like storekeeper Abraham Berk (Walter Burke) live in fear of Gorman, who can fire anybody he doesn’t like. McKay is treated terribly as well. Gorman insists that he stay on at Banner to maintain the company’s ‘influence.’ McKay says that his deputies — all criminal gunslingers wanted by the law — are unmanageable, but Gorman doesn’t care. It’s well-known that one or more of the deputies have been abusing prostitute Alma Britten (Madlyn Rhue), and McKay finds her bruised and bloody in her shack.

Riding in hobo-style is Ben Chamberlain (Henry Fonda), an alcoholic who was Alma’s husband’s prison cellmate. He’s come to fulfill a promise, to see if Alma’s okay. The deputies beat Ben up for fun, an event witnessed by Berk and the local rancher Valverda Johnson (Anne Baxter), a widow. Valverda can’t keep her teenaged son Matt (Michael Burns) from idolizing Vince McKay; Matt wants to join the deputies and is encouraged in doing do by McKay’s older sidekick Orem Hotchkiss (Dan Duryea).

 

When Ben finds Alma Britten, she’s been strangled in a way that guarantees that he will be blamed and hanged, probably without a trial. He sets off across the landscape by foot. McKay senses that Ben may not be guilty, yet gathers the deputies to run him down. As Hotchkiss advises, the only way to maintain authority over his gunslingers is to keep them busy. Rather than hang Ben Chamberlain, McKay gives him a horse and a running start.

Matt Dillion would never approve.

Stranger on the Run is very impressive for a TV movie. By 1967 Hollywood’s theatrical westerns seldom made money unless they were big productions, preferably with a star like John Wayne. It’s a shame that Don Siegel couldn’t have filmed this show for the big screen. Producer Lyons gives it fine production values — we learn that tracks were laid for the train, which was hauled to the location by truck!  The large cast is well chosen — all are given good bits if not dedicated scenes. The screenplay upholds TV standards in the sense that most of the violence happens off screen. But ten years before the story premise would have been called subversive. Stranger is definitely not bullish on American business — the ‘legal’ railroad deputies are criminal scum that provoke violence, and the railroad won’t take responsibility for them. Just as with Robert Ryan’s railroad deputy in The Wild Bunch, McKay all but begs to make a change, but Gorman won’t listen.

 

Don Siegel does well with his actors. It’s likely that the opportunity to work with Henry Fonda provided an extra motivation for the cast. Fonda spends most of the picture looking like a wreck. His Ben Chamberlain gets plenty of help from citizens he meets on the run, and none seem shocked at the lawlessness in Banner. The cynical viewpoint gives Stranger a nice edge, and rescues it from TV-movie moralizing. Career-wise, Henry Fonda comes full circle with the theme of vigilante violence. Years before he was a witness instead of the victim, in the William Wellman classic The Ox-Bow Incident.

Anne Baxter’s frontier mom is likewise presented in an unsentimental way. The actress telegraphs Valverda’s attraction to Ben at every opportunity, but the relationship never turns to mush; she’s also worried that her son will be come a cheap gunman. The writing and acting skillfully suspend the characters between hopelessness and the possibility of a happy outcome.

Michael Parks reportedly gave Siegel some grief, insisting on interpreting his character his way. Vince McKay works well enough depending on how one reacts to Parks’ acting style. It comes off as a low-key Marlon Brando imitation, but keeping all the outsized histrionics bottled up. The actor’s beady eyes stare out from over a sloppy mustache and he does a lot of mumbling. Vince McKay forever looks guilty for letting his job deteriorate to ‘hired thug’ status. His biggest fear is being shot by his own men.

 

Frankly, watching Michael Parks’ mannered but effective playing, I kept thinking that this is the perfect role for ‘Rick Dalton’ of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Since Parks ended up acting for Tarantino more than once, I wonder if Leonardo DeCaprio wasn’t shown this film when deciding how to play Rick Dalton’s TV villain. Heck, Dalton’s TV villain even has Michael Parks’ ratty mustache.

Dan Duryea’s Orem Hotchkiss is an aging lawman who watches Vince McKay’s back. Orem needs glasses to really see, so must flaunt his long-ago ‘killer’ reputation to keep the troublemaking deputies in line. He’s only partly successful at steering McKay in the right direction, and he definitely does young Matt Johnson no favors when he encourages him to join the deputy squad.

Producer Richard D. Lyons also produced the earlier ‘moral’ westerns Ride the High Country and Mail Order Bride. Orem Hotchkiss has failing vision like Joel McCrea’s Steve Judd and Buddy Ebsen’s Will Lane, but he can’t match them in integrity — they were paragons of virtue, and Orem no longer believes in such things.

The neutral characters are great. This is one of the better roles for Walter Burke (The President’s Analyst) who often had to play leprechauns. Bernie Hamilton makes a good impression as one of the local cowboys smarting from the deputies’ enforcement of railroad policy. Un-billed Rex Holman (Panic in Year Zero!) is another vengeful cowboy, given one dialogue line and no close-shots. Poor Madlyn Rhue is in the show just long enough to surprise us with her murder. The actress did fine work, but mostly on TV. Her most remembered role is a bit part in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

 

The deputies come off as a pretty nasty bunch, especially considering that Don Siegel is unable to show them in action — we don’t see anybody beat Alma Britten. One nice touch, and a real first for a Hollywood western, is the target practice scene. When the deputies line up and aim their six-guns at some cans and bottles … they mostly miss. Realism like that is downright refreshing.

Siegel’s shootouts avoid Spaghetti western-style sadism — network TV of the time would have insisted on a lot of cuts for airings of anything as violent as Sergio Leone’s Italian westerns. That means that the deputies have to be nasty through style. Fifth-billed Sal Mineo (from Siegel’s Crime in the Streets) does little but pose with a nasty facial scar, but makes his mark. Future producer Zalman King (9½ Weeks) has a good psycho act going. Mexican pistolero Rodolfo Acosta (Bullfighter and the Lady) just likes killing. Tom Reese began his acting career with John Cassavetes, which perhaps accounts for the Don Siegel connection; his deputy is the most brutal thug and the most vocal about killing Ben Chamberlain without trial. His solution to the lack of a hanging tree is to ‘drag-hang’ the unlucky Ben.

The show juggles several criss-crossing conflicts, some more successfully than others. Vince McKay wants to do the right thing but loses any claim to decency by turning his men loose on Ben Chamberlain, even if he prevents an immediate vigilante killing. Among the gunslingers, Tom Reese’s deputy is unexpectedly sensitive to Sal Mineo’s deputy; a post-ratings system western would likely be more explicit about their relationship. As it is, Dean Reisner’s screenplay deftly plays Reese’s devotion against Zalman King’s viciousness, creating a surprisingly satisfying violent moment.

 

Stranger on the Run is so well directed it’s a shame that it has the trappings of a TV movie. The flat framing never looks quite right. It played theatrically overseas, probably no wider than 1:66, yet many of the compositions seem crowded even in full frame. Don Siegel must have been told to use a lot of close-ups, with the result that even his good blocking sometimes resembles standard TV coverage. And there’s no question about the format — at regular intervals hard fade outs/ins are enforced, with big music stings, indicating where the TV commercials go. I suppose the best way to approach the show is as a ‘really really good’ TV movie, and just appreciate that it doesn’t look cheap.

The IMDB tells us that Universal Television’s Stranger on the Run first aired on NBC on Dec 16, 1967, which is when it played in the UK. I don’t know if the date on the flyer (  below) it really made its debut on Halloween night?   If it helps, October 31 was a Tuesday, and December 16 was a Saturday.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Stranger on the Run is an excellent encoding of this unusual production, filmed when Universal was just about to convert much of its in-house production to Techniscope. The picture is flawless, indicating that film elements were kept in fine condition. Cameraman Bud Thackeray was a veteran of countless Republic features. Either Don Siegel had no choice in the matter or he liked his work, for Thackeray also shot Siegel’s The Hanged Man and Coogan’s Bluff. We also can’t complain about the clear audio track. Leonard Rosenman’s score is serviceable, meaning that it neither grates nor does anything exceptional — all I really remember are the ‘stings’ used to lead in to TV commercial breaks. A song was promoted for the show; it returns at times as a vocal, Tex Ritter Style. It’s not particularly effective.

The trailer included looks like an original promo for network TV use. The show isn’t sold as a TV original but instead for its stellar casting of Fonda and Baxter. Gary Gerani’s audio commentary covers the bases for Stranger on the Run in a relaxed, self-assured speaking style, sometimes describing scenes as they play out.

I presume that domestic one-sheet posters for Stranger on the Run don’t exist?   Kino utilizes artwork by Vince Evans, which poses Henry Fonda a little like ‘Frank’ from Once Upon a Time in the West.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Stranger on the Run
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: new audio commentary by Gary Gerani; vintage broadcast trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 22, 2021
(6524run)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.