Writers: Ben L Perry, a front for Dalton Trumbo
Star: Sterling Hayden
The script was credited to Ben L Perry, who was acting as a front for the real writer, Dalton Trumbo, who few were aware had already won two Academy Awards. His first was for Roman Holiday in 1953, but he'd been fronted for there too, by Ian McLellan Hunter; his second was for The Brave One in 1956, which was credited to a pseudonym, Robert Rich, which he'd borrowed from the nephew of Frank King, the picture's producer. Of course, all of these shenanigans were to keep Trumbo, one of the very best in the business, working after he'd been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was named as a Communist sympathiser in The Hollywood Reporter in 1947, refused with nine others to testify in front of Congress and served eleven months in a federal penitentiary for being in contempt. These were known as the Hollywood Ten and they were promptly blacklisted from being able to work in the industry. Trumbo moved to Mexico with his similarly blacklisted wife and churned out scripts under fake names.
We don't watch it immediately, of course, because it's our finalé. Trumbo just sets up where we're going and then backtracks through highlights of a number of other scenes which we haven't seen yet until the opening credits end and we watch the burning of Brady's farm, barn and livestock. As you'll be stunned to realise, this was a deliberate act of arson aimed at clearing Brady off his land and the rest of the folk in town have been threatened too. Apparently Ed McNeil breezed into Prairie City and claimed to own it all, with land grants to back up his story, he says but we don't quite believe. The townsfolk, most of whom have lived there for years, are resisting his claims so he's been trying a variety of tactics to make these 'squatters' leave. He's paid a few off with money and now plans on scaring the rest into hitting the road. And, if the Brady fire doesn't do the job, he has a new card to play: Johnny Crale, an old school gunfighter doing an old school job, even in changing times. His era is ending but his bullets kill all the same.
For a blacklisted screenwriter about to win a Oscar, Young is a rather interesting actor and Lewis knows exactly how to capture him. We meet him in McNeil's plush suite above the local saloon, where the boss hires him over lobster, even if his right arm has been mangled and he's learned to shoot with his left. An acerbic conversation between the two includes McNeil's 'secretary', who often remains silently in shot as the camera moves around the room and between the speakers. McNeil is a cheerfully controlling swine who doesn't trust anybody, even with Sheriff Stoner in his pocket. As Johnny Crale, Young roils overtly, even if his physical movements are kept to a minimum; he's like Humphrey Bogart in a back brace. And Marilee Earle as that secretary, Mona Stacey, seethes silently at her invisible leash. The camera knows exactly where to go and it elevates the scene magnificently. The banter is summed up by a telling line: 'As long as there are people like you,' Crale tells McNeil, 'there'll be work for people like me.'
And so George discovers the lay of the land, which is that he’s very likely to get screwed out of the farm he’s been sending money over for after every voyage because, well, justice. Sheriff Stoner is a dead end; ‘How can I get in trouble claiming what is mine?’ asks the whaler, finding that if he sets foot on his land, he’ll be promptly arrested for trespassing. McNeil tries to buy him out and, getting nowhere, tries threats but Hansen’s honesty, stubbornness and ability to crunch any new scenario down to a simple question is an experience he can’t handle. He has a line on everything except honesty and that flusters him. There’s no real suspense to how the film progresses. We know he’s going to go to the farm anyway. We know he’s going to meet José Mirada, his father’s friend who witnessed his killing but kept quiet in order to keep his pregnant wife out of harm’s way. We know he’s going to get beaten up and thrown out of town. We know he’ll return because we saw it in the opening scene, with him bringing a harpoon to a gunfight.
Sterling Hayden plays a good old fashioned hero with old fashioned guts. While we know what McNeil is after, he doesn’t for quite a while so his fight is entirely on moral grounds. ‘The truth,’ Hansen tells Polly, Crale’s long suffering girlfriend, in a blistering scene. ‘That is not so difficult to understand.’ If the writer and his compatriots believe that they’re George Hansen but were treated like Deacon Matt, Ed McNeil is the corrupt US government and the old fashioned bully, Johnny Crale, is HUAC personified, then it’s not difficult to read Polly as the American people at the time. ‘Why do you stay with a man like this?’ Hansen asks her, because she’s clearly not happy with her boyfriend who won’t listen to her, won’t do anything she asks and will continue to work his wicked ways until someone else takes him down. There’s a lot of pent-up frustration in her reply. She needs him, pure and simple, because she knows that she’s low and Crale is the only person who’s lower than her. How’s that for a bitter take on the Communist witchhunts?
I have to come back to the camerawork of Ray Rennahan, the director of photography. He was massively experienced, having pioneered colour in Hollywood as far back as sequences in the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. He had two Oscars under his belt, for Gone with the Wind and Blood and Sand, but it could easily be argued that he should have won more. There are a string of amazing shots in this film that are worthy of being highlighted but, to avoid spoilers, I’ll only mention a couple. One is that opening shot where we’re positioned behind Johnny Crale’s holster to watch Hansen approach from the bad guy’s perspective. Another accompanies the murder of Sven Hansen. Mirada was there with his son, Pepe, but, with Crale riding towards the farm, Hansen has them stay in the barn to keep them safe and Rennahan’s camera follows them right in to watch the whole thing unfold through the window. Terror in a Texas Town is a forgotten gem, made by a bevy of Oscar winners, and Rennahan is prominent among them.
His life really didn’t help his career, beyond not actually wanting to act unless it paid for his sailing. What he cared about most was the sea, having discovered it at sixteen, dropping out of school and working on a schooner. He fished the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and worked as a mate or fireman on a variety of vessels in a similar variety of places, sailing around the world more than once. At only 22, he captained a square rigger from Gloucester, MA to Tahiti. No wonder his autobiography in 1962 was entitled Wanderer rather than some reference to one of his many memorable characters. His co-operation with HUAC meant that he was never blacklisted, but problematic custody battles with a wife he married three times and an awkward tax situation meant that he lived outside the US because he’d have been arrested on his return; he missed out on roles like Quint in Jaws because of that. Whether he liked it or not, most know his name as an actor, though, and this underrated film is worthy of mention alongside his many classics.