Charlita, Arthur Kennedy, and Betta St. John in The Naked Dawn (1955)


(director: Edgar G. Ulmer; screenwriters: Herman Schneider/Nina Schneider; cinematographer: Frederick Gately; editor: Dan Milner; music: Herschel Burke Gilbert; cast: Arthur Kennedy (Santiago), Betta St. John (Maria), Eugene Iglesias (Manuel), Roy Engel (Guntz), Charlita (Tina), Tony Martinez (Vicente); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: James Q. Radford; Universal-International; 1955)

“Arthur Kennedy was never livelier in carrying a film on his shoulders.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Arthur Kennedy was never livelier in carrying a film on his shoulders; Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer was never more adept at making hay out of a low-budget film (one of the few he made in Technicolor, and only his second western; the other being Thunder Over Texas – 1934). This superior western’s romantic triangle influenced Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, or so he says. It was hard to tell what influenced him because the situations are so so different. It was shot in Mexico, but has the look of a studio-bound film.

While robbing a train of some goods Vicente (Tony Martinez), a long-time crime partner of Santiago (Arthur Kennedy), is fatally shot. Before he dies, the frightened Mexican bandito has his amigo act like a priest to comfort him for the next world. Santiago next stumbles upon poor homesteader Manuel (Eugene Iglesias), an unsophisticated and proud 20-year-old, who recently married the pretty but unhappy Maria (Betta St. John). Santiago flirts with her and she tell him her sad tale that she married Manuel to escape living as a virtual slave to the evil patrón of the hacienda, who sold the land to Manuel when he earned the money working for three years in the States as a migrant farmer. Santiago overpays to get Manuel to take him by his rundown truck to town, where he sells the stolen goods to a crooked shipping agent for the railroad, Guntz (Roy Engel), who set up the robbery. When Guntz tries to cheat him out of his full-share for the job, Santiago robs his safe and convinces the reluctant but greedy Manuel to go along with the robbery. Before returning home, the happy-go-lucky Santiago blows a lot of the money at a bar getting drunk and giving hot dancer Tina (Charlita) a generous tip to dance for him. The farmer and the drifter bond further after they get into a brawl with a trio of patrons trying to take the money they were flashing around. Arriving back at Manuel’s farm late at night, Manuel acts like a crud to Maria and gets Santiago angry because he belittles the thief’s wasted life and hypocritically craves for all of the money to buy livestock for the farm.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

In the morning Maria wants to run away with Santiago, and he is unsuccessful in trying to dissuade her by telling her what a miserable life he really lives. The tension builds when Guntz and two others come to the farm and plan to kill Manuel, the only one still at the farm, only to be prevented by Santiago returning by horse with Maria out of a guilt he has for corrupting Manuel. This fatalistic tale is about greed, corruption, and the three flawed characters trapped in situations that are beyond their understanding. Ulmer’s moralistic story goes way beyond most westerns in exploring character depth. It ends with the critically wounded Santiago trying to make his last act in this life an uncharacteristically religious one, as the dying bandito gives Manuel all the money and his blessing to go far away and start life over again with Maria.