The Uncanny West: Terror in a Texas Town and the Joseph H. Lewis Western by Ruairí McCann
Joseph H. Lewis’s career is the corpus of an ecstatic workhouse. Assembled in the backlot and byways of commercial filmmaking, where he found ingenuity under adversity and granted the classical era of Hollywood that additional layer of depth, grit and innovation. Lewis’s technique and demeanour were not only that of a constant and consummate professional but a full-throated, self-conscious artist, giving his level best to express, experiment with and milk for all their worth projects which, not always but often, were in-built with hitches like low budgets, short shooting schedules and rushed scenarios.
Out of the richly varied results, it is generally a certain strand which won critical praise—some contemporaneously but mostly later—whose prints have gotten the most airing, the most carefully arranged home video releases and which the director himself, who in general was pleased with what he had accomplished, would look back on with the most pride. They all could be labelled crime pictures. Thrillers, mystery tales and noirs that go by the titles My Name is Julia Ross (1945), So Dark the Night (1946), Gun Crazy (1949), The Undercover Man (1949) and The Big Combo (1955), among others. And yet the genre with which he had the longest relationship was the western. The literal beginning and end of his career as a director, for he started in the late ‘30s, making quickie oaters for Universal. It is with these films that the technical proficiency and will to abstraction which he learned and honed while making title sequences for Republic Pictures was adapted to the pressure to turn out a presentable film with a readable narrative in under ten days with little money.
His career would then draw to a close in the ‘60s, with episodes of mainly western shows. This included over 50 episodes for The Rifleman (1958 – 61), and just one for Bonanza (1959-73), with other directing jobs on A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-66) and The Big Valley (1965-69), just to name a few, before a reckoning with the heavy toll that decades of working around and off the clock had paid on his health led to his early retirement and a long life after that, for he passed away in 2000 at the age of 93.
A lot of his most notable frontier work came in the 1950s and specifically within his final years as a director for cinemas. The films build on each other, becoming increasingly formally and tonally experimental until he hits a fever pitch. Both A Lawless Street (1955) and 7th Cavalry (1956) star Randolph Scott. Their partnership was ultimately not as fruitful as the one between Scott and director Budd Boetticher, with their sublimely spartan variations on a theme. Nevertheless, both Lewis/Scott films are sturdy, little examples of shooting and slugging action movie craftmanship and the animus between two conceptions of justice: the frontier and the civilized kinds. This was a moral dichotomy and quandary that had stirred in the heart of many a western, across all its eras, but was especially under the knife during the golden years of its classical form.
The Halliday Brand (1957) stars Ward Bond, who is particularly good, and Joseph Cotton as despotic father and prodigal son at loggerheads over that same deep-rooted concern. The western milieu here is rendered more abstractly than in the previous films, less with the expressionist visual effects rife in Lewis’s noir and horror work than with a doleful minimalism. The film, in its sparseness, dyspepsia and peculiarly distanced approach to staging, holds a whisper of the film to come: Lewis’s final work for cinema, the dizzyingly weird and enclosed Terror in a Texas Town (1958).
The town is Prairie City, and in it a turmoil wreathed by the power-hungry tycoon McNeil (Sebastian Cabot). He is introduced in full corpulence and sleaziness, sardonically taunting and scheming while aflutter over a lobster dish, whose excess Lewis presents as totally uncanny. He is determined to own it all, the entire town and its environs, because there is oil underneath. This is a powerful fact unbeknownst to the small ranchers, who are regularly being terrorized and hounded off by McNeil’s goons and right-hand man, the black-clad and silver-handed pale lucifer Crale (Nedrick Young). These two bad men’s designs though are threatened by the combination of a step too-far and a coincidence. The murder of the rebellious old Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope), just as his son George (Sterling Hayden) returns after 19 years spent toiling on the high seas as a whaler. George is a formidably righteous man, played by Hayden with a stentorian, Swedish brogue, a heightened upright posture, and movements whose lumbering quality are mistaken by his adversaries for physical, therefore mental, slowness, but which are actually laden with purpose.
The young Hansen sets out to claim justice for his father, and his land for himself, as he is rightfully owed, all the while rallying the beleaguered townspeople to do the same. Though in Crale he finds an obstacle in his path, a shadow to his light, and a gun against his harpoon.
Many times, there are mentions made of this locale’s precarious place in time that, historically speaking, has fallen between two stools. Between a dying, innately lawless old frontier land and a modern west that is lawless in everything but name. This teetering between two epochs is expressed only a little through any specific historical or geographical detail, partly due to budget and scheduling—the production was a mere 80,000 in 10 days—but more significantly because Lewis had other aims. This west barely has a toe on the spectrum between glamourized and realistic. Instead, it presents the ravages of and the struggles against power as a series of skirmishes across a stylized, hollowed-out purgatory. The town and its primary locations, the street or the saloon, rarely seem like places where people actually go about their lives, but rather like minimally furnished and staged boards on which archetypes strategize and play. This is expressed through some strange staging choices. Actors often communicate while facing away from each other, avoiding eye contact, and the cinematography, when it is not static, deftly hustles and scrums about the place, flitting between two-shots and group compositions which are all very deliberately, disparately arranged.
Take this shot sequence, in an early scene where the townspeople clandestinely meet to discuss their troubles. The design sense is organized disorganization. Lewis starts with a scattered but readable group composition but then increasingly stifles the frame, crowding it with mini-mosaics of faces, a disrupted depth and spatial awareness.
Examples of the dearth of eye contact. What is the point the looking at someone, straight ahead, person to person, when there’s no trust or kinship in this world?
The saloon, its main hall and rented rooms, is an exemplar site for Lewis’s distanced direction. It finds its opposite in a location like the home of Hansen’s ally, the rancher Jose Mirada (Eugene Mazzola) and his family, where the staging is more natural and the images more centred.
Here’s a glimpse at such a scene, it is more harmonious yet Jose fiddling with his cup there towards the right is a manifestation of his inner wrestling with a burdensome secret, and a nice bit of tension precisely placed to fester and keep an audience on their toes.
It is not just solidarity and charity that finds cleaner lines of expression. The grease and consequence of power-grabbing; intimidation and violence is not only depicted through formalism of alienation but through direct presentations of brute force.
In addition to functioning as a case of artistic brinkmanship at the limits of classicism, this film required a not inconsiderable amount of political courage. The script was drafted by Dalton Trumbo, who had just recently been blackballed as a victim of the McCarthy trials. Nedrick Young, who in addition to playing Crale worked on the script with Lewis, was also on the blacklist. Therefore, the project was hot enough that it was liable to burn anyone willing to take it on as director. That person was Lewis, who came on board not only as a friend of Young’s and an opponent to McCarthyism, but because he felt he had his fill of the movie business. In a state of recovery following a recent heart attack, he felt he could tie it all up with an interesting project.
There is an anti-McCarthyism reading to be found, drilled into the script. Not only is this found in the general plot, the Manicheanism of the communal salt of the earth led by a Swede and a Mexican versus the rank and corrupt powers that be, as well as the lack of trust in institutional power and hope for individual but rallying dissent. It is also in specific moments, like when, soon after learning of his father’s murder, Hansen goes to the sheriff (Tyler McVey) to see what is being done about it and his land. This transparently crooked lawman does little more than sneer and condescend. Dismissing Hansen as, “A foreigner” who knows nothing, claiming that he is lucky enough to be in America where the judicial process is more fair-minded than in the kinds of countries from which Hansen and other immigrants hail.
However, the film finds a more disturbing outlet for its indictment of power in the curdled yet steely shape of Crale, over and above its bouts of didacticism. Young gives a fantastic performance, not only in turning in a perfect embodiment of ‘black hat’ villainy at its most on-the-nose, but also in the character’s slightly contradictory, out-of-place quality. Crale’s hard-boiled manner of speaking and the bile biting back between him and his droll yet dispirited girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly) injects the film with a noir element. He’s bolstered by his theme, a carnivalesque roundelay of woozy, jazz woodwinds which are countered by the triumphant trumpets that score Hansen on the crusade. The music was penned by Gerald Fried, who overall delivers a very expressive score with a lot of tensile, classical guitar work that adds to the film’s tight and queasy atmosphere.
Crale is a psychopath gone to seed. His humanity all but corroded, all that is left to keep him motoring is his greed and an adherence to a one-track philosophy: that the world is simply an exchange of capital and violence, a take and take between the oppressors and oppressed. This thinking has turned him into an archetype who can only see in archetypal terms. This is why he can handle the idea of Hansen, who is unwaveringly benevolent, and therefore understandable but foolish. But when a character who has previously, consistently, grovelled in his presence suddenly decides to stand up instead of just laying down and dying, he can’t comprehend it. This about-face jars against his world view and shatters his nerve. The final, meat hook versus six shooter, standoff is fun, but it is this near-to-finish image of the tin man rattled which sticks for longer, and which is more representative of this compellingly bitter pill of a western.