DEVIL’S DOORWAY (director: Anthony Mann; screenwriter: Guy Trosper; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Conrad A. Nervig; music: Daniele Amfitheatrof; cast: Robert Taylor (Lance Poole), Louis Calhern (Verne Coolan), Paula Raymond (Orrie Masters), Marshall Thompson (Rod MacDougall, homesteader), James Mitchell (Red Rock), Edgar Buchanan (Zeke Carmody), Spring Byington (Mrs. Masters), Fritz Leiber (Mr. Poole), James Millican (Ike Stapleton), Harry Antrim (Dr. C. O. MacQuillan); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Nicholas Nayfack; MGM; 1950)
“The film marked an important turning point in the growth of the Hollywood Western, as one that offers not only action but ideas.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Anthony Mann’s (“The Heroes of Telemark”/The Naked Spur”/”El Cid”) first Western is a hard-hitting, bleak and cynical pro-Indian one made before the similar themed Broken Arrow but released later (studio heads were worried it was too hard-hitting for their audience) and therefore didn’t receive the same high praise that film did for its sympathetic stand. It has Robert Taylor cast against type as a Shoshone Indian. If you can buy into that, the film is great. I thought Taylor did fine, never considered a great actor here he seems to give his character the conviction, nobility and emotion needed. It’s intelligently scripted by Guy Trosper and the top notch cinematographer John Alton (used during the forties when Mann was making film noirs, but not used by him after this film) does wonders with the barren shots of the dusty town and wide-open spaces. The b/w film retains the look and feel of a film noir. It remains modern, as it presents the identity crisis the Taylor character is going through of whether to dress like a white man or an Indian. It also offers an honest portrayal of the hardships of the Indian, clearly showing how badly they were treated–something films prior to that weren’t tuned into.
An optimistic Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) returns to his homeland in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor fighting for the North during the Civil War, but is warned by his dying rancher father (Fritz Leiber) that the war against racism is not over. Lance quickly sees that’s true when a mean-spirited crooked lawyer named Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) makes racial slurs against him while he’s drinking with his friend Zeke (Edgar Buchanan) in the local saloon and later when a bigoted doctor (Harry Antrim) won’t treat his dying father in time. Before his father dies, he warns his son that the Indians are doomed and the only way to get respect from the white man was to become rich. It takes Lance five years, but he becomes the most successful local rancher. His success makes the bigots in town envious of why he owns such good property. When a new homesteading law goes into effect, the white men threaten to take his ranch. Lance hires the new female attorney in town Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond) to take his case; she informs him that the law doesn’t apply to Indians because they’re not citizens but considered wards of the state–therefore he’s not entitled to file a claim to keep his land. Coolan brings in sheepherders from outside the territory to file claims on Lance’s land and spurs a shooting between Lance and one of the newcomers (Marshall Thompson) that starts a range war. The Shoshones band together and are willing to lay their life on the line rather than surrender and go back to the reservation. It leads to a bloody battle, with Coolan killed along with most of the sheepherders and the only male Shoshone left standing is the critically wounded Lance. Before he succumbs, he arranges a truce with the soldiers which allows the remaining women and children to return to the reservation.
The film marked an important turning point in the growth of the Hollywood Western, as one that offers not only action but ideas. It marks a sad note in American history when the government used the law to take away the valuable land the Indians owned, and even those who were well-intentioned in helping them like Taylor’s lawyer were helpless fighting a law that was racist. It makes the whites the heavies and the Indians the good guys, which wasn’t the way Westerns were made back then. The film also has some great action sequences that include Taylor’s fight with a bigoted crazed gunslinger (James Millican) and the final shootout between the white sheepherder posse and the Indians, whose land was being legally stolen.
REVIEWED ON 11/9/2006 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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