On paper it’s a western with everything — a major star, decent supporting players, a cult director and sideways references to the blacklisting years. But even with its ya-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it high noon showdown scene, Joseph H. Lewis’s last feature film is still a lower-tier United Artists effort. Sterling Hayden goes up against Sebastian Cabot and Nedrick Young, armed with a, with a . . . aw, you probably know already.
Terror in a Texas Town
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 80 min. / Street Date July 11, 2017 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Nedrick Young, Victor Millan, Frank Ferguson, Marilee Earle, Byron Foulger, Glenn Strange.
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Written by Dalton Trumbo, fronted by Ben Perry
Produced by Frank N. Seltzer
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Auteurists in the early 1970s championed directors like Phil Karlson, Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. These stylists made commercial movies sufficiently consistent in tone and subject matter to enable critics to apply the auteur theory: real directors really make one big film in their careers, and through them express their personality and artistic evolution. Plenty of directors fully able to make entertaining pictures were blackballed as cinematic hacks, that took whatever studio assignments that were handed out, or simply didn’t make personal expression a main force in their work.
Of course, to even begin to behave like this definition, a director would need full power over his film work, starting with a choice of subject and creative decisions. At a minimum that qualification leaves 3/4 of golden-age directors out in the rain. In a way it’s the same with industry awards. The people who win are talented, but they also work at level of production where awards gravitate.
Somewhere in the middle of this conundrum is the interesting director Joseph H. Lewis, who made several genuinely inspiring pictures. They led auteur critics to seek out all of his work in hopes of uncovering a treasure of auteurist inspiration. Lewis’s great movies My Name is Julia Ross, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are impressive achievements that reward repeat viewing, and his So Dark the Night, The Undercover Man, A Lady Without Passport, Cry of the Hunted and 7th Cavalry have their champions among critics. My Name is Julia Ross was a sleeper hit and the masterpiece Gun Crazy gilded Lewis’s industry image as a much-liked, highly creative colleague. But he made a lot of humble westerns low-budget program pictures unlikely to please critics. ‘Wagon Wheel Joe’ even did a Universal horror entry, the muddled wartime effort The Mad Doctor of Market Street. By the late ’50s, directors that hadn’t established themselves as box office winners found themselves retreating to the trenches of television, and Lewis’s theatrical options dried up.
Joe Lewis’s last two feature films were westerns released by United Artists. The Halliday Brand is a bizarre, grossly overacted drama with an impressive cast but too complicated to discuss here. 1958’s final theatrical effort Terror in a Texas Town can boast a commercial title, one solid star name and a gimmick guaranteed to keep it on the ‘must see’ list for dedicated western fans. Auteurists found evidence of the director’s style but little else. The movie is also a haven for blacklisted talent in need of work. Unfortunately, TIATT is barely more interesting than the scores of impoverished late-’50s B&W United Artists westerns that were cranked out for the bottom halves of double bills.
Venal fat-cat crook McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) has taken over a small town with the help of Crale (Ned Young), a psychotic, black-clad gunslinger with a metal right forearm and hand. With the Sheriff (Tyler McVey) in his pocket, McNeil is using a false land grant scam to dispossess farmers of their property. Those that don’t sell cheap are burned out or killed. Crale is fascinated by the way his victims cower, and the landholders that see through McNeil’s scheme can’t convince the apathetic citizens to resist. Seafaring Swedish whaler George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) arrives with his sea chest only to find that his father has been shot, and that McNeil now owns the family farm. Hansen befriends his neighbors Matt Holmes (Frank Ferguson) and Mirada (Victor Milian of Touch of Evil) but can’t protect them. He appeals to Crale’s girl Molly (Carol Kelly) only to come up against more indifference. When Hansen protests to the Sheriff, Crale’s henchmen beat him up and toss him onto a passing train. McNeil is perpetrating all this injustice because he knows that the land has oil. Hansen Has no knowledge of guns. Only after Crale kills again does the Swede take up a categorically unorthodox weapon, for a showdown on main street.
Terror in a Texas Town begins with a flash-forward to its conclusion that gives away the show’s prime gimmick, that’s already been given away in the advertising: this is the film where a man faces off with a gunslinger, Matt Dillon-style, with a whaler’s harpoon.
I’m guessing that Sterling Hayden made this picture quick and tidy, to make payments on the boat he sailed around the world. He plays Hansen as a patient man with a perfectly workable faux-Swedish accent. Hansen almost cries when he hears that his father has been killed. Crale, McNeil and the various thugs completely underestimate him, which sets up the concluding comeuppance. But meanwhile there’s a lot of talk. The corpulent McNeil brags about his scheme to Crale, and tries to show off his sexy ‘personal secretary’ Mona (Marilee Earle) as his after-hours personal property. The odd character of Crale isn’t as successful. Ned Young tries to make him slow and mean like a snake, but he isn’t particularly lean or mean- looking, and the black pants, shirt, hat and gloves he wears just look uncomfortable. When Crale speaks, it’s too slow and too forced. I imagine that nobody could think of a way to make him more menacing, than to slow him down. The fun with a killer like Jack Palance in Shane is that we look forward to his scattered appearances. Crale is on screen too much, basically doing nothing.
A big deal is made of Crale’s partly losing his nerve over his infirmity, and then going nuts when one of his victims refuses to die frightened and cowering. Crale verbally states his unease, and then undoes McNair’s crooked work for the town, sending his cohorts away and committing a murder McNeil hasn’t ordered. But he plays his role out to the end. To some degree Crale is already a broken gunslinger, as his right arm is gone and his skill with his left hand isn’t as good. But I have to say that the final shootout isn’t all that interesting. There’s just too much ‘tell’ when Hansen throws his harpoon — he’s no faster than a pitcher winding up for a fast ball.
Terror in a Texas Town is one depopulated movie. The streets are usually empty. So are all the interiors, cheap sets that have no ceiling. Mirada’s family is present in the background, but only his son Pepe (Eugene Martin) breaks the tone of seriousness. When he can, Lewis stages dialogue scenes without cuts, so when Sebastian Cabot is talking in a monotone, or Carol Kelly is reciting her dialogue without conviction, scenes lose momentum. Lewis accelerates the pace during the finale, moving the camera more as the showdown approaches.
But that’s not to say that the film is really working. Gerald Fried’s music is pretty bad, either overstating things or monkeying around with little trumpet ditties that contradict the grim mood. None of the acting shows much spirit. The sub-theme of the town not standing up for itself plays a bit like High Noon on downers. Glum townspeople sit in church, a glum Molly comes in and tells them to go help George Hansen, and everybody walks out as a group. Dramatically it’s not all that compelling.
The blacklist angle is interesting. Dalton Trumbo is said to have written the script using a front, Ben L. Perry. It’s pretty weak. The conflicts aren’t expressed through blatant liberal speeches, although I’ve read papers calling the show ‘brave’ for showing a persecuted Mexican-American and a greedy capitalist rigging the system. Trumbo had a great comeback a couple of years later, something that Ned(rick) Young, another blacklist victim, didn’t live long enough to enjoy. Young was building a resumé as an actor (Crime Wave) when the HUAC axe fell; when he returned to writing, much of his best work had to be submitted under aliases or through fronts. As Nathan E. Douglas, Young turned in top work for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind; Defiant won an Oscar but Young couldn’t claim it. He died later in the 1960s at far too young an age. I first heard of Ned Young at MGM when John Frankenheimer’s audio commentary for The Train had to be recalled — when writer Franklin Coen’s name came up in the opening titles, Frankenheimer said “That guy didn’t do anything — Nedrick Young wrote The Train.” The WGA didn’t take kindly to being shown up like that, and the offending words had to be blooped. Listen to it now — there’s a brief gap right in the middle of the opening titles.
I had to watch most of MGM’s United Artists late- ’50s B&W westerns while doing promos, and I can vouch for André De Toth’s terrific Day of the Outlaw being a fine picture. Another well directed show more in TIATT’s budget range is Gerd Oswald’s Fury at Showdown. It doesn’t have high production values, but it’s got a better script and maintains a high level of visual interest.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of Terror in a Texas Town is a fine encoding of this fairly humdrum-looking picture, which has an occasional interesting composition but otherwise looks strictly like TV fare. Arrow remastered, not MGM. Shots of trains, a house being burned, some cowboy action and hooligans shooting up the town all appear to be stock shots purchased from other movies. In the middle of this plain-wrap show is a single effective but rather obvious matte of George Hansen walking down a railroad track. I’m surprised there was room for it in the budget.
A textless, narration-challenged trailer is present. Critic and author Peter Stanfield provides a ‘scene-select’ commentary. Two new featurettes with Stanfeld have been assembled as well. In one he appears on camera to discuss Terror, and ends up pretty much dismissing it! He also discounts Joseph H. Lewis because his work in the trenches didn’t allow him to make every picture a brilliant breakthrough like Gun Crazy. Lewis possibly found his happy medium in TV, through dozens of competent episodes of shows like The Rifleman.
Stanfield only narrates a second featurette showing examples of Lewis’s visual style. Wagon Wheel Joe indeed shoots a scene through a wagon wheel, and it’s only one shot of many that enlivens the screen with foreground objects. I wouldn’t call this ‘staging in depth’ however, as most of the dialogue scenes are flat. Lewis does some nice camera moves into compositions through windows, etc, which are really only decorative. Stanfield notes that Lewis frequently stages conversations in which the characters don’t look at each other. But before we jump to thematic explanations, know that Lewis sometimes blocks his actors so they’re all facing the camera, reducing the need for a reverse angle or other coverage.
Much is made of a camera move at gun-belt level, following Crale as he lines up his showdown stance against Killer Diller Hansen’s mean motor scooter of a harpoon. Yep, it’s just like Sergio Leone, but that angle had shown up in a great many other movies and countless TV shows. And we’re not thinking about Sergio Leone, but the fact that all those silly townspeople are standing right in Crale’s line of fire. It’s rather odd for the first featurette to say that Joseph H. Lewis isn’t interesting, and for the second to then give us several minutes of examples of interesting shots.
An illustrated insert booklet has an essay by Glenn Kenney.
An alternate disc sleeve uses original cover art with a fun tagline: “Harpoon Against Six-Gun… For the Black Gold that Flowed under the Blood-Drenched Land!” Additional big words say, “Seltzer Films, Inc. presents…” This suggests a perfect unused tagline: “From Frank N. Seltzer: You Loved the Water, Now See the Movie!”
Terror in a Texas Town
Movie: Good / Fair
Supplements: Selected commentary, two featurettes with critic Peter Stanfield, author of Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail and Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson