It's no secret I love Universal Studios Westerns of the '50s, and DAWN AT SOCORRO is one of the best.
It's a moody, atmospheric film depicting two long, anxious nights -- and eventful mornings -- in the life of gambler Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun).
Wade, by any other name, is Doc Holliday, and as the film begins, he and his friends Marshal Harry McNair (James Millican), aka Wyatt Earp, and Deputy Vince McNair (Scott Lee) sit up all night in a saloon before facing down the Ferris (Clanton) clan at the stockyards.
The gun battle finished, the tubercular Wade gets on a stagecoach headed for Colorado Springs, where he hopes to recover his health. He's joined on the stage by Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie), whose father has thrown her out in the mistaken belief she's a "Jezebel," and by gunfighter Jimmy Rapp (Alex Nicol), who'd love the chance to face down Wade himself.
It's an eventful trip, especially as Earl Ferris (Lee Van Cleef), who had fled after that morning's gunfight, is determined to follow Wade and shoot him down.
Wade believes Rannah is headed to meet the man she's going to marry and is shocked when he delays getting on the train to Colorado and discovers she's the latest saloon girl in the Socorro establishment owned by Dick Braden (David Brian). Wade stays up a second long night trying to ensure that Rannah has a future that isn't headed inevitably "downhill." And just when it seems Wade will finally be leaving town, gunfire breaks out once more.
This is simply a terrific movie, starting with the excellent lead performances by Calhoun and Laurie. Both actors convey worlds of regret and longing, at times with little dialogue. This is a particularly fine role for Calhoun, who's as good in this as anything I've seen him in.
Any movie which has James Millican in a Wyatt Earp type role is going to be one I enjoy, and that made the first third of the film particularly special for me. It seems fairly unique to begin a film with the equivalent of the OK Corral, using that as the springboard for what follows, rather than having that be the climax of the film. The excellent screenplay was by George Zuckerman; it runs a perfectly paced 80 minutes.
This film has the deep cast one expects from a Universal Western. In addition to the previously named actors, there's Edgar Buchanan as a town sheriff, Mara Corday and Kathleen Hughes as saloon girls, Roy Roberts as the doctor who advises Wade on his health, and Skip Homeier as one of the Ferris gang.
DAWN AT SOCORRO was directed by George Sherman and shot in Technicolor by Carl Guthrie. Sherman and Guthrie combined their talents to give the film a compelling pace and atmosphere. The late-night scenes in the dimly lit saloon near the start of the film are particularly memorable and stylish.
This is one those who love Westerns in general and Universal Westerns in particular won't want to miss. I'd love more people to discover this fine film.
It's available on DVD in the TCM Vault Collection's Western Horizons: Universal Westerns of the 1950s.