(director: William D. Russell; screenwriters: John Twist/Robert Hardy Andrews/story by Robert Hardy Andrews; cinematographer: Edward Cronjager; editor: Desmond Marquette; music: Paul Sawtell; cast: Robert Ryan (Jeff Clanton), Claire Trevor (Lily Fowler), Jack Buetel (Bob Younger), Robert Preston (Matthew Fowler), Walter Brennan (Doc Butcher), Bruce Cabot (Cole Younger), John Archer (Curly Ringo), Lawrence Tierney (Jesse James), Barton MacLane (Joad), Tom Tyler (Frank James); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Herman Schlom; RKO; 1951)

“The only thing this routine Western has going for it is a good cast.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The only thing this routine Western has going for it is a good cast. It’s an “A” Western from RKO that’s directed by William D. Russell, scripted by John Twist and Robert Hardy Andrews and adapted from a story by Mr. Andrews.It’s set at the end of the Civil War; honest Union Major Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan) refuses to turn over his notorious historical Reb criminal prisoners to the glory-hunter carpetbagger owner of a booming detective agency (something like the Pinkerton National Detective Agency), Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), who wants to execute them without a fair trial and collect the big rewards on their heads. When a civilian tries to kill the Reb prisoners, the Major instead kills the civilian. The next day when Jeff is leaving for his farm having finished his army duty, he’s arrested on phony charges for murder and quickly sentenced to hang the next day as Fowler rigged the trial. But saloon singer Lily Fowler (Claire Trevor), the disgruntled wife of Matthew, helps Jeff escape. Jeff is rescued on the trail from further trouble by freed prisoner Doc Butcher (Walter Brennan), who takes him to the Quinto Hotel hangout where the fictionalized version of Quantrill’s Raiders are led by Cole Younger (Bruce Cabot) and Jesse James (Lawrence Tierney). Jeff schemes to get even with Fowler by going on raids with the vicious gang to all the banking and railroad sites protected by Fowler, which causes Fowler a considerable loss in business as his clients lose confidence in him. The only thing Jeff insists on is that there should be no violence unless directed at Fowler, but regrettably an innocent bank teller is slain. Lily also turns up singing in the joint, owned by the shifty Curly Ringo (John Archer). Curly learns Lily’s true identity, which only Jeff knew, and at a convenient time when he sees he’s losing her to either the one-armed Bob Younger (Jack Buetel) or to Jeff, he rats her out to the gang. Jeff kicks him out of town, but Curly works a deal with Fowler and informs him of the location of the gang’s next railroad hold-up. The gang gets sliced up as Fowler’s men are waiting there for them, and Lily gets the blame by Cole. But Doc, Bob, and Jeff know it wasn’t her who squealed and leave the gang with her in tow to escape over the border. Lily who was wounded during the hold-up, slows the men down and when they leave her by a mountain side to get help–her husband’s men bring her back to town. That leads to the personal showdown expected, as Jeff comes to get her and Matthew lays a trap for him in town.

The story has too much plot for its own good, as everything seems muddled. It ends on a happy note, as Ryan gets Trevor and retires as an outlaw–willing to give himself up and test the fairness of the court. While his two pals head in different directions. Bob Younger: “We’re going to California. We hear there’s gold out there.” Doc Butcher: “There’s gold in the mint at Denver, too, and it’s a lot closer.

Walter Brennan, John Archer, Jack Buetel, Bruce Cabot, John Cliff, Robert Ryan, Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Tom Tyler, and Robert J. Wilke in Best of the Badmen (1951)