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(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: short story by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch /Winston Miller; cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp; editor: Howard A. Smith; music: Howard Jackson; cast: James Cagney (Matt Dow), Viveca Lindfors (Helga Swenson), John Derek (Davey Bishop), Jean Hersholt (Mr. Swenson), Grant Withers (Gentry), Jack Lambert (Larsen), Ernest Borgnine (Morgan), Ray Teal (Sheriff), Irving Bacon (Scotty), Trevor Bardette (Paulsen), John Miljan (Mayor Walsh), Gus Schilling (Doc Ridgeway); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Pine/William C. Thomas; Paramount; 1955)
“Ray endows it with his usual themes of generational conflict and societal injustice, and does a powerful job getting these themes across.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Nicholas Ray (“Johnny Guitar”/”Rebel without a Cause”) directs this outstanding allegorical themed oater based on the story by the writing team of Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch and scripted by Winston Miller. This is both Ray’s and Cagney’s (“The Oklahoma Kid”1939) second Western. It has a conventional plot but Ray endows it with his usual themes of generational conflict and societal injustice, and does a powerful job getting these themes across.
Middle-aged drifter Matt Dow (James Cagney) and local youngster Davey Bishop (John Derek) meet at a watering hole outside of town and ride into town together. They stop to shoot at hawks and the men guarding the money bags on a passing train mistake this as a signal from outlaws to rob the train and toss out the money. The two are gunshy from a recent train robbery where one train man got conked on the head. The sheriff (Ray Teal) forms a posse and unprofessionally guns down the two innocents without questioning them as they are returning the money to town, leaving Matt with a crease on his forehead but Davey severally injured. The sheriff wants to hang Matt but when they recognize Davey they bring Matt to town to confront the baggage men, which clears up the incident. Davey, an orphan, is treated at the Swenson (Jean Hersholt) farm, where the old-fashioned elderly immigrant Swede resides with his daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors). She nurses Davey back to health, while Matt stays on to care for Davey, court Helga and help out on the impoverished farm. The town is impressed with Matt, and without knowing his background offer him the sheriff’s job. He takes the job and appoints Davey his deputy but the youngster, who he becomes a surrogate father to, is filled with bitter resentment to the town and feels sorry for himself that he’s crippled from the bullet wound. Matt turns away from recognizing the kid’s many faults and when the deputy job doesn’t work out Davey secures a charity job in a hardware store. Helga accepts Matt’s marriage proposal, with her father’s permission, and he tells her he’s divorced and had a son who died ten years ago. While attending church, the Gentry gang rob the bank while Gentry (Grant Withers) holds everyone in the church hostage. It’s revealed by Gentry that he was cell mates in prison with Matt, as Matt reveals that he served a six-year prison sentence in a case of mistaken identity. Before fleeing the gang shoots down Mr. Swenson who was riding to church in his buggy. The town questions Matt about his undisclosed prison record, but agree to let him him lead the posse since he knows how Gentry thinks. The gang escapes over dangerous Comanche territory, and the posse turns back fearing for their safety except for Matt and Davey. They are willing to risk going after the gang for different reasons, as the exciting climax offers a surprise ending whereby both men are forced to find a deeper understanding of themselves.
Not in the masterpiece category as Ray’s “Johnny Guitar,” but still an excellent character study about violent men who are differently affected by being served with injustice. Ray also offers a poignant presentation of the difficulties in a father and son relationship. Despite the film’s violence and concerns with raging inner turmoil, this is a very temperate treatment of such matters due to Ray’s skilled and sensitive direction.
REVIEWED ON 11/1/2005 GRADE: A