"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Jack Slade (AA, 1953)

He's a bad man

While big color A-Westerns were coming out in 1953, the likes of Paramount’s Shane, MGM’s The Naked Spur and Warner Bros’ Hondo, the humble black & white B-Western was also in full spate. In fact the early 50s were the heyday of such pictures. Allied Artists churned out one Western a month that year and Jack Slade was released in November. It was not the usual fare, though. It is dark, brooding, grim, violent, almost a tragedy.
Nice 50s posters. I like the French one best because it highlights Dorothy's derringer.
It is supposedly based on fact but of course that was a doomed enterprise for a Western movie. The real Joseph A Slade (1831 – 64) was a stagecoach superintendent who gained a reputation as a killer. Born in Carlyle, Illinois, he grew up there and then served in the Mexican War. In the 1850s he was a freighting teamster along the Overland Trail, and in the late 1850s became a stagecoach driver in Texas. He then became a stagecoach division superintendent along the Central Overland route. He helped launch and operate the Pony Express in 1860 - 61. As superintendent, he enforced order and assured a regular supply of horses, thus ensuring a reliable mail and passenger service.
Jack Slade
In March 1860, Slade was ambushed, shot several times and left for dead by Jules Beni, the dishonest and drunken station keeper at Julesburg, Colorado, whom Slade had fired. Slade remarkably survived, and eighteen months later Beni was killed by Slade's men after ignoring Slade's warning to stay out of his territory. This affair grew and grew until it was a cause célèbre all over the country. Slade himself, the legend went, had shot Beni to pieces, body part by body part, while he was tied to a corral post. He then cut off Beni’s ears and used one for a watch fob. Before long Slade was a bloodthirsty professional gunfighter with 22 notches on his gun.

In fact only one killing by Slade is undisputed, that of a certain Andrew Ferrin, a corrupt employee, in May 1859. But his ferocious reputation, combined with a drinking problem, caused his downfall. He was fired by the Central Overland for drunkenness in November 1862. He moved to Virginia City, Montana, where after an alcohol-fueled spree he was lynched by local vigilantes on March 10, 1864, for disturbing the peace. His wife, Maria Virginia (maiden name unknown) had his body immersed in alcohol to preserve it so that she could take it back to Illinois for burial but it did not work, the corpse rotted and Slade had to be buried in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 20, 1864. Such are the facts.
Highly entertaining
In 1871 Mark Twain wrote an account of his travels in the West in the early 1860s, Roughing It. This highly entertaining book was enormously popular and it greatly contributed to the Slade legend. Twain met Slade and got a real frisson from the encounter. “I found him so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history.” You get the feeling that Twain loved to tell of Slade’s victims and their grisly fates. It’s an interesting illustration of how even at the time exaggeration was an integral part of Western tale-telling. To read Twain, you’d think Slade was a bloodthirsty serial killer on an unprecedented scale, and we are told with hushed delight about his 26 shootings (Twain added a few more for luck).
Sam Clemens meets Jack Slade
You’d think therefore that Jack Slade would be the ideal subject for the Hollywood Western. In fact, though, there were remarkably few portrayals. That I know of, there are only four. Apart from this AA movie, an entirely fictional Slade is in the 1941 Randolph Scott picture Western Union and there was a 1955 Stories of the Century TV episode about him, almost as fictional, which you can watch on YouTube here if you wish. It’s pretty bad. A certain John Dennis Johnston played Slade in the 1999 made-for-cable fantasy Western movie Purgatory. In 1955 AA came out with a sequel, The Return of Jack Slade, with the same director as the ’53 picture, but this was a story of an imagined son of our Jack Slade and so can’t really count.

In Jack Slade, the story opens with a quote from Mark Twain:

There was such magic in that name. SLADE! A high and efficient servant of the Overland, an outlaw among outlaws and yet their relentless scourge, Slade was at once the most bloody, the most dangerous, and the most valuable citizen that inhabited the savage fastnesses of the mountains.

Then we see a young boy, Joey (Sammy Ogg) in ‘Carlysle’, Illinois who throws a stone at a bully and accidentally kills him. Joey’s loving daddy (Nelson Leigh) takes him away to Texas to avoid the consequences and on the way they meet up with the kindly Tom Carter (Harry Shannon) who takes a shine to the lad. When the stage is held up and a wicked bandit knocks the boy down and shoots his dad dead, Joey swears he will kill all bad men. Tom gives him a Navy Colt to do it with (the boy fires it into the camera) and adopts the youth, who chooses the name Jack now, and he grows up with Tom in San Antone. Well, I suppose it could have happened…

Seven years pass. We now see Mark Stevens as a grown Slade, back from the war (we assume the Mexican War) as an officer, dark of mien and telling Tom how he has killed many a man. Immediately he gets into a fight with Lee Van Cleef in a saloon. “I’m gettin’ mad, soldier boy,” Lee tells Slade. “And when I’m mad, I’m bad.” Of course Jack dispatches Lee pronto but he does seem to draw trouble to him alright, “like a dead horse draws flies.”

Now a Lassiter-ish man in black, Slade joins a wagon train to Colorado, killing some attempted robbers on the way, and goes looking for station manager Jules Beni in Julesberg to get a job, only to find out that the drunken Beni (Barton MacLane) has just been fired by the boss, Dan Traver (Paul Langton), who then gives the job to Jack. So now he’s a superintendent.
Barton is Jules Beni
Not only that, he meets Virginia Maria Dale (Dorothy Malone) and they hit it off right away (as indeed who would not?) He warns her that he is no good but she won’t listen and they are married.
It's lerve at first sight
There are some Clantonite rustlers, the Dantons, stealing company stock. Jack goes to their ranch and casually shoots them all down but finds a frightened boy (David May) cowering in the corner, just the same age he was when his daddy was shot, and Jack wants to adopt him, but one of the rustlers isn’t quite dead and shoots the boy dead. Jack is distraught, and drinks.

It’s all downhill from there on, what with the demon drink and all. Here, though, is where it starts to get a bit more interesting. There is an attempt to find out what makes a killer tick. His wife says, “He kills, he drinks, he hates himself.” But why? Childhood trauma, a violent nature, wartime experience? Or all of them? Mark Stevens does this part quite well. Stevens was an artist and singer who had grown up in England and Canada and got into amateur dramatics in his Ohio home. Darryl Zanuck took him up and a contract at Fox was the result. They darkened his red hair and gave him roles in B noirs. He never won major star status, though he led in quite a few B-Westerns. In the 50s moved into TV, directing Wagon Train episodes. He ended his Western career with a Spanish spaghetti (he was living in Spain, running a restaurant and writing novels). In Jack Slade he is somber, grim, sweat-stained and unsmiling, very far from a hero. “Funny,” he says, “the one thing I hate most in the whole world is a killer. I guess that’s why I don’t like myself too much.”
Beni gets the drop on Slade. Not for long.
Disgruntled and vengeful Reni teams up with some more outlaws, the Prentice boys, and they are gunning for Slade. Slade goes straight to their cabin to kill them. Beni escapes but Slade shoots the Prentices efficiently, though one surrenders. This one plays the guitar and in the saloon had sung (Slade says, rightly, that he has a nice voice) mocking songs about Slade, who clenched his teeth. This fellow, though, comes to a memorable, if gruesome end. Slade hangs him. The director, with a deft touch, has the corpse’s feet strum the fallen guitar as the body swings from the tree branch.

In an unlikely plot twist, Slade’s old guardian has fallen in with the Prentice/Beni gang and Slade shot him when he came out of the cabin. Oops. Back in the saloon, drinking, Slade tells the barman, “I’m a bad man.” It’s undeniable really. Especially because he then maims a little girl in a hit-and-run as he gallops down the street. Though Judge John Litel tries to calm them, the townsfolk rise against him. “I say hang him!” a couple of townsmen cry. They did love their lynching. The mother of the injured girl tells Slade, “This country will be a lot better off when all you gunmen are dead and buried.” That has the ring of truth too. Her speech reminds me of Amy Kane in High Noon, Marian Starrett in Shane or Edith Cabot in Canadian Pacific. They all rail against the destruction wreaked (or is it wrought?) by gun men.
The showdown
Well, the inevitable showdown, which takes place in the ratty old saloon (one of those in which the bar is just a plank over some barrels), is splendid. The main reason is that Virginia Maria participates – with a derringer! You know how I like derringer Westerns.
Slade must fall. It was Hollywood morality. He was too bad to survive. But he doesn’t fall to Beni. An earlier character is re-introduced to do that job. This character sententiously announces, “So died Jack Slade, a builder of empire in the West.” Well, as we know, that was not how he died, and he didn’t build an empire. In other respects, though, it was an accurate summary.
Dead 'n' buried
As B-Westerns go, I think this one is rather good. It has something. Historical hokum, of course, but when have we let that stop us?

It was directed by Harold Schuster, who started as an actor (he had an uncredited part in The Iron Horse) but become a respected editor. As a director he did Fox’s successful My Friend Flicka in 1943, and Dragoon Wells Massacre in 1957 would be really rather good. Otherwise, though, he only did Western TV shows.

The writer on Jack Slade was Warren Douglas, who also wrote Dragoon Wells Massacre, as well as The Night of the Grizzly and a lot of Cheyenne and Sugarfoot episodes. There are some thoughtful parts to the Jack Slade script.

The picture was produced by Lindsley Parsons, who wrote so many of those 30s Monogram programmers, including the John Wayne ones. He sure knew B-Westerns.

Stevens is good (it was perhaps his best Western), Malone beautiful, some of the support acting – though unstellar – solid. The direction and writing are more than competent. It all adds up to a decent little Western.



Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Fiend who Walked the West (Fox, 1958)

Creepy killer

This is a Western classic. It’s a must-see for any self-respecting amateur of the genre.

Gordon Douglas (left) was famous for turning out bread-and-butter oaters when required but every now and then he did something a bit more special. In the second category I would put The Nevadan, Only the Valiant, Rio Conchos, Fort Dobbs and this one. OK, yes, there was also The Great Missouri Raid, The Big Land and the 1966 remake of Stagecoach. There were some plodders. But overall he was an interesting director.

Fox gave it budget and did it in CinemaScope. But the name of the picture, the black & white, the lurid titles and publicity and the X-certificate combined to present it as a schlock-horror B-movie. It was, of course, nothing of the kind. Viewers expecting a vampire or werewolf prowling the West (and there might be more of those viewers these days) or maybe even an alien from outer space were to be sorely disappointed. It’s a straight crime/thriller, a remake of Fox’s 1949 Henry Hathaway-directed Kiss of Death.
Love the face under the title
There was quite a trend of remaking noirs as Westerns. One thinks of Raoul Walsh remaking his High Sierra as Colorado Territory in 1949, House of Strangers becoming Broken Lance in 1954, or Delmer Daves transposing John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle to the West in The Badlanders, released the month after Fiend in '58.

But this one is brilliantly done. Douglas went for low-key cheap interior sets to enhance the horror vibe. He played it straight – there isn’t a hint of self-parody or send up. And while he had a solid, even stolid lead in Hugh O’Brian (a big-name draw in ’58 because of Wyatt Earp on TV) he had a stunningly good villain in Robert Evans. In fact Evans stole the whole picture. He is best known to us now as a big-shot producer (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, The Cotton Club, etc.) but he started as an actor. He said he gave up the acting game. "I was sure of one thing: I was a half-assed actor." What? He must be crazy. He was a stunningly good actor. He reminds me a bit of Grant Williams’s smiling blond sadist in Red Sundown two years before. Come to think about it, Jack Arnold would also have directed The Fiend very well.
O'Brian solid but Evans seriously creepy
It starts with fabulous titles and then a good night-time bank raid, with one of the robbers, Dan Hardy (O’Brian) being locked suffocatingly in the vault and thus later captured. We then get scenes in the pen as Hardy begins a ten-year stretch handed down to him by Judge Isaac Parker (Edward Andrews) at Fort Smith (Parker was a favorite judge in Westerns). His cellmate is Felix Griffin (Evans) to whom Hardy recounts the details of his crime. Griffin soon shows himself to be a psychopath: after getting into a fight with another prisoner (Mickey Finn) he feeds the man ground glass to kill him.
The cellmates bond. But Hugh will soon regret that...
(Great lighting, by the way)
Soon released, Griffin heads for Hardy’s town, murders the elderly infirm mother (Georgia Simmons) of one of Hardy’s accomplices with a bow and arrow (the Western equivalent of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death pushing the little old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs) and then takes the bank-raid booty and shoots the accomplice (Ken Scott) in the back with a shotgun. Then he burns down the house with the bodies in it. Furthermore, he visits Hardy’s wife and with sheer fear provokes a miscarriage of the baby she is carrying. We have now seen more than enough to know this one is a real wrong ‘un.
Little old lady may have a shotgun but it won't save her
Well, the authorities decide to release Hardy to track the maniac down, and they arrange an escape by providing Hardy with a derringer with which he can get the drop on Warder Meyer. Excellent. I love derringer Westerns.

The plot pans out fast thenceforth and we come to the showdown in a saloon. All good stuff.
The bank raid is well handled
The writers were top hands. Novelist, poet and screenwriter Harry Brown had done the dark Gregory Peck picture Only the Valiant for Douglas. Philip Yordan had worked on Johnny Guitar, Broken Lance and The Man from Laramie. They had Ben Hecht’s screenplay for Kiss of Death as a starting point. Clearly they understood the vibe Douglas was going for and they managed creepy-crime with aplomb.

Casting was very well done because the plot depends on the ‘hero’ being ever so slightly slow to comprehend. He has to be a rather ‘straight’ fellow to contrast with the intense and perverted villain. In fact the French title of the movie was Le tueur au visage d’ange, the killer with the face of an angel, and that correctly puts the emphasis on the Robert Evans part. (But the American title was of course far more cool). Among the cast you’ve got Stephen McNally as the tough but clever marshal (looking rather John Dehnerish, I thought)and Emile Meyer as the prison warder. There are two women, Hardy’s wife Ellen (whom he calls Elena), Linda Cristal, and the poor abused May (Dolores Michaels) whom the villain dominates brutally with both physical and mental cruelty.

Visually the film is fine, with Joseph MacDonald at the camera working the black & white masterfully, especially good on shadows.
He looks forlorn as well he might. Good Joe MacDonald photography, though.
At the time, movie musicians were on strike and Fox re-used the Robert Wise/Bernard Herrmann score from The Day the Earth Stood Still. It works really well.

Now, I should tell you that not everyone likes The Fiend who Walked the West. Brian Garfield, in his fine guide Western Films, calls it “nauseating flapdoodle”. Others have been equally dismissive. But I think it is absolutely splendid.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Vanquished (Paramount, 1953)

Crooked town boss Lyle

I don’t mind John Payne Westerns. He was not maybe in the very top rank of Western actors, nor was he an especially charismatic actor; many will remember him most as The Restless Gun on TV. But he was solid and some of his big-screen efforts were perfectly creditable. Such a one is his 1953 outing, for Paramount, no less, The Vanquished.
Payne saves the town - and has a choice
I also like this picture because Lyle Bettger is the villain, and I am a bit of a Lyle fan on the quiet. This was in fact only his second feature-film Western (he had been Sterling Hayden’s smiling sidekick in Denver & Rio Grande the year before). Blond men make good villains, for some odd reason, and none better that Mr. Bettger, who villained his way from Western to Western all through the 1950s and 60s. The only trouble with The Vanquished, though, is that he doesn’t smile enough. He’s just a dead-straight out-and-out bad guy. Lyle was at his best when being charming. Like a snake.
Great villain
The Vanquished is no great classic. The studio brought out Shane that year and The Vanquished is certainly not in that class, nor can it really compete with Warner Bros’ Hondo or MGM’s The Naked Spur. But it can hold its head up among the likes of, say, Thunder over the Plains (a movie with which it has certain things in common), The Nebraskan or The Moonlighter, and it was a lot better than the clunky Pony Express or noxious Arrowhead (both the last two also Paramount).

It’s a Reconstruction story. Usually in Westerns (such as, indeed, Thunder over the Plains) this is an unmitigated Bad Thing. Reconstruction stories are always about evil and dishonest carpet-baggers, backed up by Union troops, oppressing the decent Southern folk with taxes and appropriations. No mention of the benefits of Reconstruction is ever made and if African-Americans appear at all they are referred to as darkies and are the object of derision. There is usually a courageous ex-soldier (Union or Confederate) who takes up the cause of the (white) locals and bests the crooked Northerners.

But The Vanquished is slightly more subtle than that. Yes, it does have an ex-soldier hero (Payne) thwarting the oppressor (Bettger) and true, there are no African-Americans to be seen except as silent servants. But the military authorities, in the shape first of General Hildebrandt (Charles Evans) and, when Bettger murders him, General Morris (John Dierkes, splendidly bearded) are full of integrity, and they are decently determined to stamp out corruption, which they do. And Bettger, and his mistress Rose (Jan Sterling), a former seamstress for the rich folk, are local people getting their own back, not Northerners.

Three people worked on the screenplay, including Winston Miller, who had collaborated with Selznick on the script of Gone with the Wind, but he said, “Westerns happened to be what I could do best. There are a lot of pictures I couldn't do, like a highly dramatic Bette Davis picture. I can only speak for myself, but you find your niche, you find that other people like it. I never took an assignment I didn't think I could make a good picture out of.” He did My Darling Clementine for John Ford, and wrote smaller but classy Westerns such as Fury at Furnace Creek and Station West. So that’s probably why the screenplay of The Vanquished is as interesting as it is.
A bit grainy but the only photo I could find of Winston Miller
The director was Edward Ludwig, who had been an actor in silent movies, then screenwriter, and had started directing in the 1930s. He made the successful war film The Fighting Seabees with John Wayne at Republic, and later directed a lot of Western TV shows, notably those Restless Gun ones with Payne. He didn’t do many big-screen Westerns, though. This was his fourth of only five.
It may have been Paramount but it was still a B-Western. You can tell it’s low-budget. There are few exteriors and most is done in the studio. Still, it is in Technicolor.

It’s 1866. In the first reel Payne rages to the military at the injustice of the corrupt administration of Roger Hale (Bettger) in his (unnamed) Southern home town, but as soon as he gets there he declares to the town notables in the saloon that he has no interest in opposing Hale, and indeed he goes to work for him, foreclosing and such. Of course we know that he is undercover, working to get the dirt on Hale, but the townsfolk don’t know that and they ostracize him. Well, Hale has personally hanged a citizen in the main street in the first reel so no wonder he and his henchpersons aren’t very popular. Willard Parker is one of those. He is the corrupt Army captain in on Hale’s nefarious schemes.

Lyle lords it over the town with his lady - I mean, woman, Jan Sterling
Apart from Rose, who, Hale says, will be a rich woman, but never a lady, there is the doctor’s glam daughter Jane (Coleen Gray) who used to love Payne before the war and now re-falls for him. She is demure and proper but plucky and determined. Ms. Gray was a former Fox starlet who had had the honor of being fifth-billed in Red River and then appeared in three B-Westerns. Jan Sterling, Rose, was an actress who specialized in the sulky pout and the year after The Vanquished would be Oscar-nominated for her part in The High and the Mighty with Wayne. Earlier in ’53 she had been ‘the other woman’ to Rhonda Fleming in the rather dire Pony Express.
Oh dear, these studio publicity stills...
There’s a good bit with some scissors which has a Hitchcockian tinge and also reminds you of The Furies.
Worth a look.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Track of the Cat (Warner Bros, 1954)

Wellman gets arty

Track of the Cat was a Robert Fellows/John Wayne production under the Batjac label. They got William A Wellman to direct, thus guaranteeing an arty, intense, interesting picture. Wellman went right back to the silent days (he directed three pictures with Buck Jones) and had later done such fine pictures as The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky and Westward the Women. He was admired by both Howard Hawks and John Ford. Track of the Cat was his most stylized film.
William A Wellman
But to counteract the artiness they got Robert Mitchum, whom Wayne admired, to star. Mitchum was hardly the producer’s friend but even when on auto-pilot (i.e. usually) he was superb, and this time he seemed to spark and was even better. He provided the Western grit to what might otherwise have been an overly talky theatrical piece. Track of the Cat was derived from the novel by Walter van Tilburg Clark, who had written the source novel of Ox-Bow, a picture Mitchum admired (he said he watched it every year).
Walter van Tilburg Clark
Talented novelist and screenwriter AI Bezzerides was engaged to adapt the Clark novel into a screenplay. “I finished the first draft of the script. And John Wayne called me in … and said how wonderful it was … I said it was just a first draft. It needs cutting … But Wellman didn’t want it changed. I said, ‘Bill, it needs cutting.’ … Wellman said, ‘No, it’s perfect.’ … And oh my God, that’s going too far. I’m not untouchable. But he wouldn’t listen.”

And indeed the finished film is rather overwrought. It is curiously cloven: on the one hand it is an action Western as men with rifles hunt a ‘painter’, as they call the cat, in the snowy wastes (these parts were shot in the Rainier National Park in Washington and the White Mountains in Arizona). This cat is a symbol of evil or hatred or an ancient curse. Or something. But on the other hand at least half the scenes are staged as interiors or on a sound-stage ‘exterior’ around the ranch, and here we have a family psychodrama, what seems for all the world like a Broadway play by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams: bitter and hateful people verbally claw at each other.
Gwen wears what little color is allowed
We are somewhere in northern California at the turn of the twentieth century (no date is given but a book figures which was inscribed in 1896). A family lives on a remote ranch that risks being snowbound. The parents are a dominant matriarch, a poisonous and manipulative Bible-reading old woman brilliantly played by Beulah Bondi, and a drunken and almost gaga father (Philip Tonge) who has given up all responsibility for anything.

Bondi brillaint as the poisonous old woman
They have three sons and a daughter. Mitchum is the eldest son Curt, supported in everything by his mother and a real swine. Mitchum handles this superbly. Art is more sensitive, a poetry reader and the only one in the family who is kind to the sinister centenarian Indian factotum Joe Sam (played by Carl ‘Alafalfa’ Switzer, the kid from Our Gang, who, amazingly, was only 26) who is abused, even hated by the others.

Tab Hunter plays Harold, much younger, perhaps an afterthought, who has a girlfriend who is staying in the house, Gwen (Diana Lynn, excellent) but who hasn’t the gumption even to kiss her, still less ask for her hand. He is completely cowed. Hunter was never the most charismatic of actors but that was exactly what was needed for this part.

And Teresa Wright, with whom Mitchum had acted in another dark Warners Western, Pursued, in 1947, is also very good as the disappointed spinster sister who loves Art but hates her mother. That’s it. It’s a small ensemble cast (which gets smaller when early on Art is killed by the cat) and as they are all (except Harold) articulate and passionate you can see it would have been ideal as a stage play in the theater.
Curt and Art
The Roy Webb music is cleverly symphonic, matching the different scenes, so by turns, dark, cold, raging.

The picture is fascinating visually. Wellman and Batjac had to extort widescreen color and expensive locations from Warners. Jack Warner was, however, furious when he found it had been used to produce a black & white picture: Wellman had all the characters wear black and white.

The scenery and props are monochrome too. Only Gwen, as an outsider, is allowed a flash of yellow under the black, and Mitchum has a blood-red mackinaw that stands out incredibly in the snow scenes. This jacket, however, figures in the plot and Mitchum’s character early trades it for Art’s black & white cowskin one, which he wears for the rest of the movie.

Even when they are laying out Art’s body, the mother says, “Wrap him in that black and white spread. He always loved it.” The coffin is painted black, as is the cross. DP William Clothier managed to attenuate the tints generally and saturate the rare flashes of color. Art director Al Ybarra also did a wonderful job and Clothier, Ybarra and Wellman were delighted with the result. The color-coding is as noticeable as it is in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, photographed by Harry Stradling Sr, which Republic had brought out six months before. Jack Warner said, “I’m spending five hundred thousand dollars more for color and there’s no color in the damn thing!” Wellman replied tersely, “If he doesn’t like it he can go shit in his hat.”
Splash of color
Andrew McLaglen, the assistant director, had to manage the snow scenes. On July 4th up on Mt Rainier they had a blizzard. After the storm it was perfect. Many of the long shots of ‘Mitchum’ are his stunt double, easily disguised in that hooded mackinaw, Mitch himself doing the close-up sound stage ones. But Mitchum did enough outside himself for him to say it was the toughest shoot he ever did.
Equally cold is Mitchum’s character Curt, “a cheap, dirtymouth bully”, the most unsympathetic role the actor had yet attempted. Bezzerides, on the set, later said, “Bob Mitchum was fantastic. He carried scenes that need to be polished [Bezzerides was still vainly hoping for rewrites] and his performance made some of it work. I got to know him very well and I thought he was a wonderful guy. But cynical, God is he cynical.”
Holed up in a cave
One problem is that Mitchum is alone, mostly, so the only way he can communicate his thoughts (easily done in the book) is to talk to his horse, or, once he has sent the nag home with his brother’s body, himself. The sight of Robert Mitchum wading through think snow or holed up in a cave muttering to himself is odd.
The ranch
The panther attacks are well handled. We never see the cat (it’s supposed to be an abstraction of evil, I suppose) and this works, just as those Westerns with threatening Indians that are never seen work. But the audience didn’t warm to the picture. Perhaps they wanted to see Mitchum torn to pieces by the cat at the end. ”The audience’s imagination failed to imagine,” said Wellman. It was a box-office flop and also panned by the critics, some of whom were more savage than the black panther.

Arty camera in the grave
It’s a very fine film, though, in my opinion anyway.