TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (director: Joseph H. Lewis; screenwriter: Ben L. Perry; cinematographer: Ray Rennahan; editors: Frank Sullivan/Stefan Arnsten; cast: Sterling Hayden (George Hanson), Sebastian Cabot (McNeil), Carol Kelly (Molly), Ned Young (Johnny Crale), Eugene Martin (Pepe Mirada), Victor Millan (Jose Mirada), Sheb Wooley (Baxter), Fred Kohler, Jr. (Weed), Steve Mitchell (Keeno), Ted Stanhope (Sven Hanson), Frank Ferguson (Holmes), Tyler McVey (Sheriff Stoner), Marilee Earle (Monsy); Runtime: 80; United Artists; 1958)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A triumph of quirkiness over a hackneyed western story. This makes for a very appealing film, one that’s unique and would acquire a cult status. It ends with the bizarre fight on Main Street between a seafaring Swede with a whaling harpoon killing a vicious hired gunman firing a six-shooter while dressed in all black and fitted with a steel fist under one of his gloved hands. It was one of the best low-budget westerns that the noted director Joseph H. Lewis made in his long and distinguished career, as he chose to retire from the film industry with this film.
There was some controversy surrounding this film, as it was probably not good for anyone’s career to appear in it. Many in the production were either blacklisted or were subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Sterling Hayden wasn’t blacklisted, but appeared in front of that committee and admitted his communist affiliations in the past–much to his later regret, he named names. Lewis was not involved with all that but was a close friend of one of the film’s stars, Ned Young, who was blacklisted. It was Young who asked Lewis to direct the film.
After being at sea for the last 19 years and not seeing his dad (Stanhope), the Swedish whaler, George Hanson (Hayden), returns to Prairie City, Texas, to find that his seafaring-turned-farmer dad was killed and that the sheriff (McVey) is corrupt and has no intention of making an arrest. He soon discovers that a grubby land baron, McNeil (Cabot), is buying up all the farm land by force and at a cheap price. When the Swede’s dad refused to sell he was killed by the hired gunslinger, Johnny Crale (Ned Young).
McNeil can’t scare Hanson out of town or get him to give up his farm and when he learns that there’s oil on it, he’s able to rally the cowardly farmers together to stop any further land sales to McNeil.
Some of the characterizations are really done well: Victor Millan is a poor Mexican farmer who witnessed his friend Hanson get shot, but because his pregnant wife asked him not to say anything he remains uncomfortably mute. Carol Kelly is the forlorn girlfriend of the gunslinger, who tells him that she stays with him only because she can look up and see someone lower than herself. Ned Young takes his code of conduct as a hired gunman seriously, even though he lost his shooting hand and his skills have greatly diminished. Sebastian Cabot exhibits a certain lively panache for corpulence, sleaze, and craftiness, as he plays the town’s evil villain. Sterling Hayden avenges his father’s death with a harpoon, a weapon that doesn’t figure in a western. “Terror in a Texas Town” was skillfully made, and had style to make it stand out from other westerns.
REVIEWED ON 9/25/2001 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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