Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Sam Wolfe and Harold Jack Bloom
Returning to the trail to an Anthony Mann directed, James Stewart starring film would seem to be the perfect way to jump back in the saddle with my Westerns marathon for Once Upon a March in the West, a month dedicated to Westerns. But unfortunately what I found was a bit of stale bread and a weathered picture which fell flat for me despite its star power and promising premise. I’m no expert, which is why I’m watching all these westerns to begin with, so I can’t comment on the career trajectory of either James Stewart or Anthony Mann, but having enjoyed their previous collaborations quite a bit, color me disappointed by this one.
The premise is beautiful in its simplicity, and complex in its duplicity. Kemp (Stewart) is on the trail of outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), who fetches $5000 as a reward in Abilene, when he comes across the affable Tate (Millard Mitchell), whom Kemp offers $20 to help him track Vandergroat. Upon finding the outlaw, another man inserts himself: a discharged cavalryman named Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who helps capture Vandergroat. The twist? Vandergroat is accompanied by his late partner’s daughter Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). When Tate and Anderson discover the price on Vanergroat’s head, they bargain with Kemp for their share, but Kemp will not so easily part with the promised money he was after all along.
The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, and it’s actually quite easy to see why, even if I disliked the film overall. The scenario is quite sharp and ripe for a great western about revenge and the dynamics of a group of people who don’t know each other having to be constantly on their guard for their own well being. It was the west for a reason and I’m sure there were many circumstances where people had to rely on people they hardly knew, with great skepticism at the heart of their manufactured relationship. For that reason, the script excels, but the actual execution is lacking something to make it stick.
The performances are universally…alright. They’re not bad, but nothing sticks out. And I think that’s the best way to describe the film altogether, which makes it a disappointment all things considered. I’ve grown accustomed enough to Stewart playing an “edgier” type of character. He’s not really the villain here, so I stop short of calling him that, but he certainly has nefarious intentions, even if his motivations are mostly pure. That dichotomy is actually difficult to reckon with, and maybe the film and performance are deeper than I give them credit for with that in mind, but it doesn’t come across the screen that way. And I didn’t buy the romance angle either, though that seems to be the case with all these older movies. One is required, believable or not, and what a shame that is.
I was struck by just how ugly this film managed to be visually too. Shot in technicolor in the Rocky Mountains, none of the stunning vistas and great color come through, at least not in the print I saw on TCM, which I assumed would have the best existing print of the film. It felt very much like a film quickly put together without much time to think creatively about locations, composition, or even story to make it a more engrossing experience. It’s very much a surface film which comes and goes without much to remember it by. Mann and Stewart and still both great in my book, but here’s to hoping their next installment is much improved.