Terror in a Texas Town
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For his 41st and final feature film, Joseph H. Lewis was able to combine the two genres in which he had excelled. The man in the director s chair for My Name is Julia Ross, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, Lewis was one of the all-time greats in film noir. But he was also a fine director of Westerns, having made A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry and The Halliday Brand, all of which especially the last remain underrated. Terror in a Texas Town would bring his noir sensibilities to the American West, resulting in one of his finest works.
McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, The Time Machine) is a greedy hotel owner who wants to take control of Prairie City, the Texas town of the title. Keen to drive the local farmers of their land, McNeil hires a gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young, who would pen the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Defiant Ones the same year), resulting in the death of a former whaler. The dead man s son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden, The Killing), arrives in town to inherit the farm and set the stage for revenge armed with only his father s old harpoon...
Terror in a Texas Town was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted by the film industry and forced to write under pseudonyms or to use fronts . Two years before he helped break the blacklist with on-screen credits for Otto Preminger s Exodus and Stanley Kubrick s Spartacus, his work was credited to Ben Perry, but it demonstrates a psychological depth and political dimension that is undoubtedly that of Trumbo.
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TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN was directed by a master of low budget - and minimalism - Joseph H. Lewis. This movie has a very basic, clean black-and-white look to it also (some cred for camera man Ray Rennahan).
Joseph Lewis has been credited with directing some of the best B-movies (again, notice small budgets) of the 1950's Guncrazy (1949), A Lady Without Passport (with Hedy Lamarr), and the very good The Big Combo (camera, John Alton) before helming the black and white western TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN starring Sterling Hayden -- who doesn't have a line until just about half-an-hour into movie!
But, I saw this on TCM some years ago. I never forget the impression it made on me with its simple, familiar (High Noon) story and, yet, an undeniably unique and unorthodox approach (notice pre-movie credits showing clips of movie -- in reverse) with music by Gerald Fried emphasizing that trumpet! as well as original, non-Hollywood, acoustic guitar.
I do not give TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN 5 stars because it IS a B-movie that does have an acting flaw or two -- that are always apparent in quickly made B-movies. Actress Carol Kelley suffers a hard not to laugh moment when she has to regale the "carrying nothing but a whale harpoon..." line as the hero walks down the street towards the big showdown. Yep, few movies are perfect.
I STILL believe the more experienced film-goer who appreciates or admires film noir, black-and-white movies, westerns in general, and good 'movement' camera work, will appreciate another well-made B-movie by Joseph H Lewis that IS well written by Dalton Trumbo. If it does lose some steam toward end (it does) it should not be hampered by 'all the talk' of the unusual showdown ending which has become somewhat famous.
But, don't forget to realize the psychology of BOTH of the characters - of the rather famed showdown - and how they have changed (to get to that point), especially, gunfighter Johnny Crale (played well by Ned Young -- the Bogart comparisons are undeniable).
Again, as mentioned in the beginning of the review, here is what the Preacher said as written by a black listed writer, Dalton Trumbo:
"Although we have opened with prayer
we are not here for religious services
there are many faiths of hope (and the)
church edifice (has been) thrown open
that we may freely discuss
a most unusual situation
on which our future and our children's future, depend"
Terror in a Texas Town (1958)
Trumbo wasn't the only victim of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) associated with this film. Actors Ned Young and Sterling Hayden were also called before the committee. Young was also a screenwriter. Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Defiant Ones(1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), and The Train (1964) are among his credits, most of which he wrote under pseudonyms. Young refused to cooperate with the HUAC and was blacklisted as well. Hayden caved into the committee and gave them what they wanted, which cost him much in the long run. All this has given Terror in a Texas Town a cult status as a quirky reaction to the HUAC. The reputation is well-deserved.
The film opens to George Fried's bizarre score as Swede George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) walks down a dirt road in the middle of Prairie City, Texas. George is mad as hell, he means business and he's carrying a big whaling harpoon over his shoulder to prove it. George is followed by bloodthirsty, local farmers who are mad as hell, too.
They meet up with the object of their anger; southpaw gunslinger Johnny Crale (Ned Young, uncannily resembling Bogart and dressed from head to toe in black). Johnny is ready to face and kill George. Johnny taunts George, "You're a little too far away. Come a little bit closer. You wouldn't want to disappoint your friends. They all came here to see blood. Come a little bit closer so they can see. I want to give you a fighting chance. Five steps. One step, Hansen." George hangs his head in shame. It seems this is something he cannot go through with.
Titles roll through a typical Lewis shot of wagon wheel spokes. The farming townspeople are being bullied and driven out by local oil baron Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, projecting slimy finesse in excellent form). McNeil likes the finer things in life and that includes women, food, champagne and land ownership; but the local farmers are uncooperative when it comes to their land, which McNeil wants to mine. McNeil utilizes the talents of gunslinger Johnny to get his dirty deeds done. Pa Hansen is one of those farmers, and he is murdered by Johnny. Pa's employee, Jose (Victor Millan, also in excellent form) witnesses the murder, but his wife wants him to remain silent. At this point, Terror in a Texas Town may seem like a formulaic movie, but underneath the surface this is a bleak film, dripping in cynical parody. That becomes apparent when Pa's son, George, arrives in Prairie City after being at sea for 19 years. George is returning to help his Pa, until he learns the awful truth that his Daddy has been shot and killed. With no help from the townspeople, George intends to find out who killed his Pa and why.
Both the Sheriff and McNeil attempt to coerce George into leaving, but his stubborn refusal brings Johnny in to handle the situation. George befriends Jose and his family, who also are being threatened to leave. After Crane and McNeil's thugs beat Hansen and put him on a train out of town, Hansen walks all the way back, bloodied and more persistent than ever. Jose is inspired by Hansen and makes his stand. Millan gives a powerhouse performance as Jose when he overcomes his fear and faces Crane, knowing full well that Crane will kill him. The ruthless Crane does just that, but he is shaken by Jose's courage. Young is equally superb in this scene and, little doubt, reacted to Millan's Jose by tapping into his own courage when he faced the Hollywood inquisitors. Young makes Crane one of the most interesting, classic western villains, who can stand alongside Lee Marvin's Liberty Valance and Jack Palance's Jack Wilson. Crane's girlfriend, Molly (Carol Kelly) tells him that she stays with him because she can look up to see someone lower than herself. Molly is very attuned to irony. She sees Johnny as an anachronism, forced for years to use his left hand after his right hand was rendered useless in a gunfight. "You're no good anymore," she says, hinting at something far more than a paralyzed gun hand. Johnny knows it too; he's a savage killer riddled with angst.
Aptly, George rallies support in a local church, grabs his Pa's whaling harpoon and heads to one of the strangest shoot-outs in screen history. It's an odd finale to an equally odd film and film career (it was Lewis' final film). Terror in a Texas Town arrived at the tail end of a politically troubled decade made for this American genre. It makes for a helluva showdown.
*My review was originally published at 366 weird movies.
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