Terror in a Texas Town (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced by Frank N. Seltzer; directed by Joseph H. Lewis; written by Dalton Trumbo, credited to Ben L. Perry; photographed by Ray Rennahan; art direction by William Ferrari; edited by Frank Sullivan and Stefan Arnsten; music by Gerald Fried; starring Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Ned Young, Victor Millan. Blu-ray, B&W, 80 min., 1950. An Arrow Films release.
Iron-Hooked Fury! Those words blare from the poster for Terror in a Texas Town, a 1958 Western directed by Joseph H. Lewis in a grand total of ten shooting days. And the publicity department got it right.
Of course the slogan is hyperbolic, but it references at least three of the picture’s selling points. The good guy fights the climactic battle with a barbed whaling harpoon; the bad guy has an iron hand replacing a real one blown off in a gunfight; and there’s plenty of fury in the story, reflecting the expanded emotional range of Hollywood Westerns in the postwar era. Among important Westerns of the Fifties, only those of Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller contain moods more potent or feelings more extreme than the ones Lewis directed after returning to the genre in 1956 with 7th Cavalry, a stunning advance over the horse operas and singing-cowboy yarns he cranked out in the Thirties and early Forties.
Terror in a Texas Town commences with a foretaste of the story’s climax. Two adversaries approach each other for what promises to be a showdown. The hero, whom we’ll get to know as George Hansen, strides down the sparsely populated street as purposefully as only Sterling Hayden can stride, armed not with a firearm but with the aforementioned harpoon. Ominous-looking villain John Crale, grimly portrayed by Ned Young, steps from a doorway, clad entirely in black except for his neatly tied neckerchief and the pearl-handled pistols poking out of his holsters. Crale stands alone, and while Hansen has a crowd of townspersons behind him, they’re keeping safely to the rear, present only for moral support, if that.
Deep focus creates an archetypal effect: Crale’s torso and shooting arm dominate the frame in menacing close-up on the right while Hansen and his ineffectual supporters stand several yards away (where Sergio Leone might have placed them a few years later) on the left. Crale taunts his harpoon-toting enemy, saying he’s too far away for a fair throw with his odd weapon. Hansen listens intently, lets out a breath suggesting deep despair, slumps his arms and shoulders to the side…and…the opening titles roll, leaving us in suspense until the scene rolls around again at the movie’s conclusion.
Most of the film is therefore an extended flashback. Ignorant of the oil lying beneath their land, homesteaders are being terrorized and driven out by the avaricious schemer McNeil, played by portly Sebastian Cabot as a Gordon Gekko of the Old West, a capitalist so corrupt and narcissistic that he could have stepped out of a Sergei Eisenstein movie, as film scholar Peter Stanfield wittily observes in an extra on Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition of the picture. Crale is McNeil’s murderous paid enforcer.
When the hard-working Swedish immigrant Sven Hansen refuses McNeil’s order to vacate his land, Crale kills him in cold blood, and when Sven’s son George leaves off his seafaring career and arrives to work at the farm, the shocking news of his father’s death makes him vow to stay in Prairie City and get to the bottom of what happened. There he meets Crale’s lady friend, Molly, a terminally depressed woman who stays with the ice-cold gunfighter because no matter how low she feels herself to be, she can always look at him “and remember there’s somebody lower.” He also meets his father’s friend and neighbor Jose Morada, who witnessed Sven’s murder but has kept this a secret to protect his pregnant wife and little boy.
Much of this—the aggrieved hero seeking justice, the hired gun without a conscience, the fortune hunter devoid of principles, the settlers too timid to look out for themselves—is standard material for a Hollywood Western. And some of it is mighty reminiscent of Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon, which had opened to great acclaim six years earlier. It clearly influenced Lewis’s effort, especially when George discovers that not a single fellow citizen has the fortitude to participate in the final showdown as more than a gawking bystander. There’s also a sheriff who tosses away his tin star, although his motive is more cynical than Gary Cooper’s in the earlier film. Terror in a Texas Town also echoes John Ford’s great subject of order versus disorder on the frontier, using various simple items (a carefully stored blouse, a tray of gourmet shellfish) as metaphors for the precarious nature of a civilization still being born.
This notwithstanding, Terror in a Texas Town has distinctive twists. One is the hero’s willingness to fight with the weapon he knows best, even though this means bringing a harpoon to a gunfight, a marvelously offbeat trope. An earlier, more striking twist comes when Crale delivers an order for Morada to vacate his land, learning in the process that Morada saw him kill Sven Hansen and can give damning testimony against him. Crale commands Morada to swear a vow of silence on his knees, and Morada responds with surpassing dignity, saying that Crale will shoot him whatever he does, and he prefers to meet his death standing tall. Crale can’t back away, so Morada indeed meets his death standing tall. But even though Crale has killed untold numbers of people, this victim’s courage astounds him so much that he has an epiphany on the spot. Right after shooting Morada, he heads for McNeil’s hotel room, expresses his profound wonderment at discovering a man who wasn’t afraid to die, and puts a bullet into the boss who’s been paying him to kill. It’s the biggest surprise in this surprising Western.
Never a full-fledged member of the auteurist pantheon, Lewis has been called a stylist without a theme, and even his style has its weaknesses; there’s little sign of it in his Bowery Boys comedies of the Forties, for instance, and the wagon wheels and hitching posts in his Western decors are either an idiosyncratic trademark or a run-of-the-mill habit, depending on your chosen perspective. In a leaflet essay for the Arrow release, critic Glenn Kenny ascribes these conspicuously placed objects to the exigencies of low-budget production, citing the director’s comment about distracting audience attention from bad acting and the like: “I put a wagon wheel in front of the camera: you looked at it—it was an artistic shot—and before you analyzed a scene it was over.”
Fair enough, and Terror in a Texas Town puts the technique to good use even though there’s little to complain about in the acting, scripting, or pacing of the tale. More to the point, Lewis’s talent for long-take cinema surfaces impressively in the barroom scene when Molly tells George about her miseries in a shot almost five minutes long. It’s a subtler, less bravura scene than the off-camera bank heist in Gun Crazy, the towering 1950 masterpiece on which Lewis’s reputation chiefly rests. But it’s similarly impressive in its own low-key way.
Stylistics aside, Terror in a Texas Town most definitely has a theme, and while Carl Foreman’s screenplay for High Noon evidently helped shape it, the political convictions of the film’s own screenwriter are front and center. The movie was penned by Dalton Trumbo, with screen credit going to Ben L. Perry, one of several fronts Trumbo used during his years on Hollywood’s anticommunist blacklist in the McCarthy era. He injects Terror in a Texas Town with ample doses of skepticism about traditional town-hall democracy, as when the sheriff fills the newly arrived George with drivel about the inalienable rights allegedly shared by all Americans, and when the local citizens show less concern for helping George than for getting their hands on the newly discovered oil. And he balances this with ample doses of American idealism, as when the rapacious McNeil dies from his own deadly medicine and George’s morality triumphs over capital and violence in the end.
Lewis took a risk in hiring Trumbo, since the blacklist retained its power and Trumbo remained on it until Stanley Kubrick and Otto Preminger openly named him as the writer of Spartacus (1959) and Exodus (1960), respectively. More broadly, Terror in a Texas Town was a sort of blacklist family reunion. Nedrick Young, who plays Crale under the name Ned Young and contributed to the script, was also blackballed—he co-wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) under a pseudonym—and although Hayden had caved in and named names for Congressional commie hunters, he was publicly ashamed of his cowardice afterward. Lewis himself was friendly to left-wing causes and took on this project with these collaborators as a specifically political act. That may partly explain why Terror in a Texas Town proved to be the last feature film of his career, although he went on to direct many television episodes (mostly Westerns) before retiring in 1966.
Like its merits, the blemishes of Terror in a Texas Town are hard to miss. Hayden looks the part of sturdy George Hansen, but his faux-Swedish accent falls back on one of Hollywood’s least convincing conventions, laboriously avoiding the contractions (“it’s” for “it is,” “don’t” for “do not”) that English speakers use all the time. And there’s a big logical blunder built into the intriguing scene where Crale’s first-ever encounter with a man unafraid to die brings on a life-changing crisis of conscience. This is a riveting development in dramatic and moral terms, but it’s incoherent in narrative terms, since Morada is positively not the first such man Crale has encountered; as we saw with our own eyes in an earlier scene, old Sven Hansen faced the barrel of Crale’s gun with exactly the same unflinching bravery. Such are the hazards of rushed production schedules, even when consummate talents like Lewis and Trumbo are on hand.
The smaller extras in the Arrow edition are Kenny’s essay (available only with the package’s first pressing) and a theatrical trailer. The more substantial ones are an introduction and a visual essay by Stanfield, each running about fifteen minutes and each presenting an excellent blend of appreciation for the film’s artistry and acknowledgment of its limitations. Among other perceptive points, Stanfield calls welcome attention to Lewis’s imaginative handling of depopulated spaces; whether it was dictated by creativity or lack of funds, the general emptiness of Prairie City much enhances the sense of loneliness and isolation running through the film.
I think Stanfield exaggerates when he likens George’s traveling trunk to a child’s coffin and asserts that George, not Crale, is the film’s living embodiment of death. But there is great value in his insightful remark that the oil deposits under Prairie City have richly symbolic implications, conveying the idea that ordinary people who seemingly have nothing may inherit the earth when selfish exploitation by the few gives way to shared prosperity for the many. This aptly captures the sociopolitical vision underlying Terror in a Texas Town and all the best work that Lewis and Trumbo have given us.
David Sterritt served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and chaired the National Society of Film Critics from 2005 to 2015. He is the author of numerous books, including Simply Hitchcock and Rock ’n’ Roll Movies, both published this year.
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Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1