(director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriter: Niven Busch; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Christian I. Nyby; cast: Robert Mitchum (Jeb Rand), Teresa Wright (Thorley Callum), Judith Anderson (“Ma” Callum), Dean Jagger (Grant Callum), John Rodney (Adam Callum), Harry Carey Jr. (Prentice), Alan Hale (Jake Dingle); Runtime: 101; Republic/Warner Brothers; 1947)
“A splendid turn of the century classic western.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A splendid turn of the century classic western that is shot in the bleak black and white style of an urban film noir. It’s an intelligent and intriguing psychological study of Jeb Rand (Mitchum), an orphan adopted by Mrs. Callum (Anderson), who found him hiding in a darkened house located in a remote butte in the New Mexico Territory. He doesn’t remember much about that incident, except seeing a man walking by him with cowboy boots and flashing spurs. But he’s haunted with bad dreams about that night all his life and feels he must know what happened to understand who he is.
The film is told in flashback and structured around those revealing flashbacks, as the troubled Jeb tries to recall that event. Jeb is trapped into thinking he’s jinxed by his unknown past and reacts blindly to the strange things that happen to him instead of attacking the root of his problem. That he tries to recall that event and the dreams he has about it, is a nod in favor of the public’s growing interest in psychoanalysis at the time. When he finally seeks to learn the truth no matter what, he regains his power and grip on life and becomes a whole person.
The widow Mrs. Callum kindly raises him as her own son, along with his step-sister Thorley Callum (Teresa Wright-whose husband Niven Busch wrote the screenplay) and step-brother Adam Callum (Rodney). But she insists he doesn’t look back at the past, but look forward to the future. After seven years of living far away from the mysterious ranch house of the noted event, the Callums become a family and are told by mom that the children will split everything in equal shares. Jeb, nevertheless, decides to keep his family name of Rand. The family relations are strained because he and Adam do not get along. This enmity is exacerbated further when a colt Jeb was riding is killed and Jeb fights with Adam thinking he fired the shot. But mom suspects it was someone else, and when she goes into town she learns that it was her brother-in-law, the vengeful Grant Callum (Jagger). Grant vows to kill every Rand, but decides to let Jeb live to see what he turns out to be as an adult and then kill him.
When Jeb’s a young adult, the Spanish-American war occurs and he loses a coin toss with his brother and is made to volunteer for the Army. One person in every household of eligible men was requested to join. Jeb comes back a wounded war hero prepared to marry Thorley with her mother’s blessing, but Adam has completely soured on him because Grant poisoned his mind about the Rand family. They decide to flip a coin for their share of the ranch with winner take all, as they realize they can’t live together under one roof. Jeb loses again and is kicked off the ranch immediately by the bitter Adam. But Jeb vows to come back tomorrow and marry Thorley, and kill Adam if he tries to stop him.
While in town Jeb uses the same coin to play the wheel in a gambling casino, and this time he gets lucky. The bar owner, Honest Jake Dingle (Hale), senses something lucky about Jeb and decides to offer him a partnership. When Jeb heads back in the morning to elope with Thorley, he gets ambushed by Adam and kills him in self-defense. But Adam’s death angers both Thorley and Mrs. Callum, as they blame him for being a killer and kick him off the ranch even though the town authorities declare him innocent.
Jeb gets lucky with his partnership with Jake, and becomes very wealthy. He still loves Thorley and decides to go to a dance where she is escorted by a young storekeeper (Carey, Jr.). When he dances with her, Grant who is the county prosecutor stirs the storekeeper up to defend the honor of his date and he is shamed into challenging Jeb to a shootout. When he does he’s killed by Jeb in self-defense, as Jake prevents Grant from killing him from behind.
Thorley decides to marry Jeb when he comes to court her again, but she decides to marry him only because she hates him so much and plans to kill him on their wedding night. Jeb could read her mind, as they are so much alike. He thereby gives her the chance to kill him, but she can’t because she realizes she really loves him.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
The film reaches its climax in Jeb’s new house he bought as a wedding gift for Thorley, as Grant comes after Jeb along with members of the Callum family. But Jeb manages to flee from his pursuer and retreats to his childhood home in the butte and confronts the memories he has of that night and all the Oedipal implications that have pursued him in his thoughts. He waits there to settle things with Grant. After rescued from Grant hanging him, he learns that Grant killed everyone in Jeb’s family that eventful night–including Jeb’s father and brother and sister. He did it because his brother’s wife, Mrs. Callum, was the lover of Jeb’s father.
Some critics said Raoul Walsh could only shoot an action film, and couldn’t make a thinking man’s film. But they were wrong, as this film is proof of that.
REVIEWED ON 9/1/2001 GRADE: B