Rawhide (1951)

Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Dudley Nichols

The Western genre, while specific in its own way, allows for a great array of possible stories, which is one of the many attributes which attracts me to it. You have have huge, sweeping epics, but I think a lot of the charm of the western is in its smallness, not its vastness. The ability to tell the story of a small outpost town, or the contained, tense narrative of an outlaw is really a strength. Take films like The Gunfighter, or Yellow Sky for instance. They’re small stories told extremely well, which makes for exciting narratives which pull the viewer into the film. But just like anything, it’s possible for any story to fall flat, whether its big or small. The building blocks which make a film or story work are the same, so its less a matter of making a story big or small, and more a matter of making it the right way, in order to craft a truly entertaining and enriching narrative.

In this western, we find a pleasant stagecoach station named Rawhide, inhabited only by the station master and his assistant Tom (Tyrone Power). When a stagecoach carrying a single woman named Vinnie (Susan Hayward) and a child comes through, they must force her to stay at Rawhide, as there is an outlaw on the loose. As fate would have it, however, that outlaw, Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) soon shows up at Rawhide, detaining Tom and Vinnie in hopes of robbing the next stage through which is scheduled to carry a load of gold from San Francisco. Tom and Vinnie must work together to fight off Zimmerman and his band of outlaws in time to save the gold and save themselves.

The concept of this western is chock full of solid western tropes. Outlaw on the run, confined space, budding, unexpected romance, crazy sidekicks. The formula is tried and true and from a screenplay standpoint, Rawhide is the type of movie that should work, especially for my tastes, and yet it doesn’t. There are lots of factors that go into making a movie, especially a good one, and while the screenplay/story is a major aspect of that formula, it plays but one part. I found the performances here as well as the pacing to be truly lacking, which ultimately doom what is an otherwise entertaining and intriguing premise for a western. I wonder what this film would look like if directed by a bigger name, if it starred bigger names. This is not to say Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward are not capable actors, I just found them ill-suited for this film.

They’re both more supporting characters in my mind, but in reality they’re fine here. There is nothing much wrong with what they bring to the table. My biggest problem is with the main villain, the outlaw Rafe Zimmerman played by Hugh Marlowe. His presence is just completely flat and not menacing in any way. His performance is monotone and unthreatening. I never believed for a second that he was a hardened criminal capable of killing. For a story such as this, this is a major problem, as it sloggs the rest of the proceedings as a masquerade. They’re play acting. And while that is what they’re really doing (they are actors), it’s not what I should be seeing. I should be believing their story, along for the ride. The one acting performance that I genuinely enjoyed was that of Jack Elam as Tevis. His crazy eyes are perfectly suited for his characters menace, and he really brings an interesting dynamic to the story.

I wouldn’t mind seeing more of either Tyrone Power or Susan Hayward. I wouldn’t even mind seeing more from director Henry Hathaway. It just works out that this was not their best effort (one hopes). The elements are there, but the lack of energy, conviction, and memorable moments/performances sinks it to the level of completely and instantly forgettable B-movie fare. The kind during which the youngsters were likely loitering about the concessions and making out in their cars at the drive-in, waiting for the real picture show to start up after. Some of these B-movie types can be diamonds in the rough, but not this one. It is a throwaway movie if ever there was one, with bits and pieces which show promise, but not enough connective tissue to bring them all together into a worthwhile film.

★★ – Didn’t Like It

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