Kirk Douglas and Jeanne Crain in Man Without a Star (1955)


(director: King Vidor; screenwriter: from the novel by Dee Linford/Borden Chase/D.D. Beauchamp; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editor: Virgil Vogel; music: Joseph Gershenson; cast: Kirk Douglas (Dempsey Rae), Jeanne Crain (Reed Bowman), Claire Trevor (Idonee), Richard Boone (Steve Miles), Jay C Flippen (Strap Davis), William Campbell (Jeff Jimson), Mara Corday (Moccasin Mary), Myrna Hansen (Tess Cassidy), George Wallace (Tom Carter), Roy Barcroft (Sheriff Olson), Eddy C. Waller (Tom Cassidy); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Aaron Rosenberg; Universal; 1955)
“A conventional range war cowboy story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A conventional range war cowboy story, open fences versus fenced land, is made gritty by Russell Metty’s tumbleweed photography, the finely paced direction of King Vidor (“The Big Parade”/”The Crowd”/”Duel in the Sun”), Kirk Douglas’s fiery performance and its healthy appetite to be an adult Western that shows sex is good. It’s based on the novel by Dee Linford and is written by Borden Chase and D.D. Beauchamp.

In the 1880s, Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter riding the freight train hobo-style with a saddle when he befriends the callow 17-year-old Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who is beaten by the brakeman for hitching a ride on another car. The two get off in Wyoming because of a roadblock, where Dempsey convinces a sheriff (Roy Barcroft) that Jeff didn’t kill the brakeman. Dempsey points out the killer who promptly tries to kill him with a knife, and he has to wait in town to receive half the reward. In town, Dempsey runs into an old friend, the proverbial heart-of-gold saloon owner Idonee (Claire Trevor), and later is offered a cowboy job by Strap Davis (Jay C Flippen), a cattle ranch foreman whose Eastern boss, Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), happens to be gobbling up all the local open range. The hero-worshiping Jeff tags along and learns to use a gun and be a cowboy under his mentor Dempsey’s training. The heart of the film is the love-hate relationship the brooding Dempsey has with the scheming Reed, but he has such a pathological hatred for barbed wire fences (he carries on his back the scars to show why), put up by the local small ranchers to block Reed’s expansion plans, that he quits and wants no part in the range war. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is the villainous sadistic gunslinger Reed hires to replace him. In the climax, Dempsey, after being abused by Miles’s ruthless gang before he can catch the next train out of town, sides with those small ranchers putting up the barbed wire to protect their grazing land and who are opposed to Reed’s open range plans to squeeze them off their land, as they get into a Texas-style shoot-out involving a stampeding herd.

It’s a familiar B-Western theme, a cowboy who realizes his lifestyle is coming to an end with barbed wire fences that signal a closing of the West, but still never fails to be entertaining. It was remade for TV as A Man Called Gannon.