Saturday 26 March 2016

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Director: Joseph H Lewis
Writers: Ben L Perry, a front for Dalton Trumbo
Star: Sterling Hayden
This archetypal story is so familiar that what it reminds you of will vary depending on how old you are or which fresh take you happened to see first. For me, this is an early version of Nowhere to Run, with Jean-Claude van Damme and Rosanna Arquette. For others, it might be Road House or every other episode of The A-Team. Each generation has a dozen versions because it's a timeless story that cuts things down to the basics: good vs bad, right vs wrong, one man vs the establishment. Terror in a Texas Town is just one more take on that old chestnut about a town, the powerful man who owns it and the stubborn man who stands up to fight for what's right. Usually, only the names are different and here the town is Prairie City, TX, the affluent landowner is Ed McNeil and the Swedish whaler who takes him on is George Hansen, but there's an additional level to this take because what we see on screen also tells a story that resonates off screen too because the people making the film were fighting the system as much as any character in it.

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.
The reasons why filmmakers worked with blacklisted writers in such a roundabout way varied, but in this instance, director Joseph H Lewis didn't care because this was to be his last film. He'd shot forty features before this one in a variety of B movie genres: westerns, adventures and horror flicks, but perhaps most notably, films noir like My Name is Julia Ross and Deadly is the Female aka Gun Crazy. He'd continue on for another seven years shooting western shows on television, but he was done with theatrical features and so really didn't care where his script came from, just as long as it was good, and Trumbo had written Lewis's most noted film: Gun Crazy. This one is hardly original but it does everything it needs to do and Lewis was able to build well upon it. I was impressed with his work from the very outset, as it uses great camera movement and placement to have us watch Sterling Hayden walk down a dusty road towards a gunfighter, shot from behind that gunfighter's holster.

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.
And here's where we leap back to the Hollywood blacklist, because Dalton Trumbo wasn't the only man involved in this movie who was on it. Nedrick Young was an actor who had been branching out by writing scripts, such as Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock in 1957. His screenplay the following year for The Defiant Ones won him an Academy Award, though his original story, which was adapted by Harold Jacob Smith, was credited to Nathan E Douglas (note the initials), because Young had been blacklisted too. He plays Johnny Crale in this film like the industry he and Trumbo, as well as so many others, were suffering from. He's a bully, an intimidator and, if that doesn't work, an assassin. His ways are old ones that are out of place in the modern world but he can't retire even with a broken shooting hand. His girlfriend Polly tells him that he can't walk into a town and walk out again the way he used to, with state police and rangers and the like now at work, but he is what he is and he can't be anyone else.

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.'
This isn't a Nedrick Young film, though, even if he's the villain’s villain. It isn’t a Sebastian Cabot picture either, even though he's the Boss Hogg of the piece. It's a Sterling Hayden movie and I’m watching for him, as he would have been a hundred years old on 26th March, my birthday. He’s George Hansen, the son of the example that McNeil has Crale set to the town after Brady’s fire doesn’t dissuade them from opposition to his landgrabbing schemes. Sven Hansen used to be a Swedish whaler and so did George, who arrives to help his dad run their farm, only to receive the news of his murder on the way into town, from no less a person than Johnny Crale. ‘Did you know him?’ Hansen asks the hired gun in his Swedish lilt. ‘Not very well,’ replies Crale. ‘Not for long.’ This is brutal stuff but it underlines who Crale is because this is what he does and it’s the one and only thing he truly understands. ‘How did he die?’ Hansen asks. ‘Somebody shot him,’ calmly replies the very man who did the deed.

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 JosĂ© 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.
We know all of this because the story is ruthlessly predictable, but it’s elevated by some neat character development in scenes that echo the struggle of the Hollywood Ten and the other filmmakers who were blacklisted by the industry. Hansen tries to find others to stand with him and finds none, albeit for a few different reasons. Some are scared, more feel powerless, while others, like their leader, a deacon called Matt Holmes, want to fight legally. Trumbo and the others in the Hollywood Ten did the latter, believing, as Americans, that they had the right to freedom of speech and could belong to any political party they wanted, even if it was the Communist Party. They appealed to the Supreme Court but lost their fight, an unexpected loss that’s clearly echoed in how the script deals with Deacon Matt. He’s probably right, the one man doing things according to the book, but he’s ignored and his belief in the law derided. Instead, the film calls on an old fashioned hero with old fashioned guts whom the Hollywood Ten surely needed.

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?
It’s those parallels to real life American politics that render this a blistering western morality tale, but it’s done really well even outside that. No, I don’t buy Hayden’s inconsistent Swedish accent, though he is a lot better at it than I would have expected, had I realised he was going to attempt such a thing. He’s the tall, strong, principled hero that the story calls for right down to a tee, just as Ned Young is superbly cast as the hired gun. ‘They all came here to see blood,’ he sneers and we can’t help but hate him with every fibre of our being, even if we don’t know what he represents. Sebastian Cabot is spot on as McNeil and I thoroughly enjoyed Carol Kelly’s deep self-hatred as Molly. The rest of the cast provide capable support, even if actors like Victor Millan perhaps overdo the simplicity, but it’s the combination of script, direction and camerawork that really sells this picture which, because of its undertones, transforms the new lands of possibility into a trap of corruption and deceit. It sits well with The Ox-Bow Incident and High Noon.

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.
Of course, I’m watching this to celebrate the centennial of Sterling Hayden’s birth and he does fine work here too, even if he never won an Academy Award of his own; the closest he got was a nomination for a BAFTA as Best Foreign Actor for Dr Strangelove. He was well cast here, with the exception of that accent, as he had been promoted by Paramount as ‘the beautiful blond Viking god’. At 6’5” he certainly towered over most of his co-stars and that helped him here. He was well established at this point, with films like The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar and The Killing behind him, though he hated acting, accepting roles to finance his sailing habit, and he despised the industry. As Lt John Hamilton, he served in the OSS in World War II, supplying Yugoslavian Communist partisans with what they needed to fight Nazis. His admiration for them led to a brief membership in the Communist Party; unlike Trumbo, though, he co-operated with HUAC and named names. He regretted that deeply and perhaps it prompted him to accept this role.

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.

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