RATON PASS (1951), one of several Westerns released this month by the Warner Archive, is the kind of movie that's so interesting, you wonder why you'd never heard of it before. It's an engrossing film with a deep cast and a marvelous score by Max Steiner.
This saga of a New Mexico range war has distant echoes of Rod Cameron's SHORT GRASS (1950), blended with the feel of a "Western noir" like BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948) or PURSUED (1947).
The movie starts in fine style with Steiner's Latin-flavored theme music. A stagecoach pulls into a small New Mexico town with adventuress Ann (Patricia Neal) and gunslinger Cy (Steve Cochran). Initially intrigued by the handsome but dangerous Cy, Ann sees wealthy rancher Marc Challon (Dennis Morgan) on the street and marries him in short order, to the dismay of Lena (Dorothy Hart), who has long loved Marc from afar.
The phrase "marry in haste, repent at leisure" is experienced by both Marc and Ann. The ambitious Ann is frustrated that her attempts to work on ranch improvements aren't desired by her husband or his feisty father, Pierre (Basil Ruysdael). She quickly turns her sights on banker Prentice (Scott Forbes) and launches a plot to leave Marc for Prentice and have Prentice buy her the ranch outright.
Ann's scheming, when all is said and done, has the effect of unleashing a full-scale range war; she calls in Cy to act as her enforcer, while Marc forms a tentative alliance with his family's longtime enemy Jim (Louis Jean Heydt), who also happens to be Lena's uncle.
Neal and Cochran play characters about as vile as can be. Neal's Ann made me think a bit of Jane Seymour in the much later EAST OF EDEN (1981), initially butter couldn't melt in her mouth sweetness, but after she hooks a rich land owner and shows her true colors, look out. She also learns the hard way that in relying on Cy to do her dirty work, she may also become his victim.
Having enjoyed Dennis Morgan in the Warner Bros. Western CHEYENNE (1947), I liked him in this also. Morgan was a versatile leading man who is effective as a tough Western hero; the film also worked in a plausible chance for him to sing, at his wedding reception.
I think this might have been the largest role I've ever seen Basil Ruysdael play, and he makes the most of it as the big, tough rancher who hasn't slowed much with advancing age; a scene early on where he casually takes down Cochran is a thing of beauty. I was also happy to find Louis Jean Heydt in such a large role as I like him a great deal. (I still wonder if he and James Millican were ever seen in the same room at the same time...) Roland Winters and James Burke fill out the cast.
Wilfred Cline. The movie was directed by Edwin L. Marin. The screenplay of this 84-minute film by James Webb and Thomas Blackburn was based on Blackburn's novel.
RATON PASS is the kind of lesser-known but worthy film I'm so glad has become available thanks to the Warner Archive. The DVD is a fine print. There are no extras.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.