Having visited the Joel McCrea Ranch this weekend, it's no surprise that put me in the mood to watch a McCrea Western!
That film was THE TALL STRANGER (1957), a movie from the later part of McCrea's career which was brand-new viewing for me. THE TALL STRANGER was based on a book by Louis L'Amour.
McCrea plays Ned Bannon, returning home to the West after the Civil War. He has the misfortunate to stumble across some cattle rustlers during his journey; they shoot him and leave him for dead, but he's found and nursed back to health by the members of a passing wagon train. The wagon train includes the too-slick, calculating Harper (George Neise), a leader who may not have everyone's best interests at heart, and a pretty widow, Ellen (Virginia Mayo), who has a young son (Philip Phillips).
As the wagon caravan nears Bannon's home there is conflict with his angry half-brother (Barry Kelley), a rancher who nurses an old hurt. Bannon must find a way to make peace with his brother, track down the people who shot him, and figure out what's motivating Harper to stir up problems with the settlers. Bannon ultimately finds the answers to all his problems are connected.
This is an absorbing film with a good, well-plotted story. It's also of note that it's a relatively tough Western, with a couple of brutal beatings and the ruthless shooting of a horse.
The film is also surprisingly frank about the widow's true past and reasons for moving west. There's an almost unspoken love story between McCrea and Mayo's characters; I suspect McCrea was becoming reticent about playing love scenes at this point in his career. At a fast 81 minutes, I would have liked a bit more shared screen time for McCrea and Mayo, but that's my only complaint about this enjoyable film.
One of the movie's pleasures is nice supporting roles as "good guys" for perennial Western villains Leo Gordon and Michael Pate. They're both good parts, with Gordon an especially strong screen presence as the patient foreman and counselor for Ned's ornery brother.
Gordon and Pate had in common that they were also Western screenwriters. Pate cowrote the story for William Holden's ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953), and Gordon, who had a longer writing career, cowrote the screenplay for a very likeable Victor Mature Western produced by John Wayne, ESCORT WEST (1958).
The cast also includes Michael Ansara as a truly evil bad guy. Ray Teal, always a welcome presence in Westerns, plays a wagon train leader. The cast also includes Whit Bissell, James Dobson, Adam Kennedy, and Robert Foulk.
THE TALL STRANGER was directed by Thomas Carr and written by Christopher Knopf. It was filmed in CinemaScope by Wilfrid Cline. The location work was all done in Southern California.
THE TALL STRANGER is an Allied Artists film which is not yet available on DVD in the United States. It was released on a Region 2 DVD in Spain.
THE TALL STRANGER has been shown in a surprsingly rough pan and scan version on Turner Classic Movies. I'd love to see it in a better print one day; perhaps, like other Allied Artists films of the '50s, it will be released in the future by the Warner Archive.