Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Terror in a Texas Town (1958) - An Arrow Films Blu-ray Review

TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958) is a unique, memorable Western which has just been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films.

The always-interesting Sterling Hayden plays George Hansen, a Swedish seaman who arrives in Prairie City, Texas, only to discover that his father (Ted Stanhope) has just been murdered.

Most of the townspeople are tight-lipped about what happened, although George gleans some details from his father's neighbor (Victor Millan). It seems that wealthy McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) is claiming he has the rights to land surrounding the town, and if the farmers won't be bought out, McNeil's hired gun Crale (Ned Young) will see they end up dead.

George tries to rally the fearful townspeople against McNeil and Crale, but in the end it comes down to him and Crale on a dusty street, where George's only weapon against Crale's gun is his father's whaling harpoon.

This was a very interesting film where, like so many Westerns, there is great pleasure in discovering a fresh spin on a familiar Western theme. We've all seen the lone man who can't rally frightened townspeople (HIGH NOON, anyone?), and we've also seen settlers being forced off their land. But a Swedish sailor with a harpoon? That's different!

The sailing theme is also noteworthy inasmuch as Sterling Hayden was known offscreen for his love of the sea. Continuing with that theme, he looks like the proverbial fish out of water here, always dressed in "city" clothes, but like Gregory Peck's equally out of place sea captain in THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) the same year, George is a man whose "un-Western" appearance is deceptive. He won't back down from doing what's right, even if he has to go it alone.

The thoughtful hired gun with the steel hand is intriguing as well, particularly when he's emotionally undone late in the film after facing a man who wasn't afraid to die. He's completely unnerved by the loss of power over his victim.

The story is presented in a compact 80 minutes, well scripted by Dalton Trumbo, writing under the name Ben Perry. It's a curious piece of history that the film was not only written by a blacklisted screenwriter, but supporting actor Ned Young (Crale) was a blacklisted screenwriter himself, winning the Oscar under a pseudonym that year for THE DEFIANT ONES (1958). TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN is Young's penultimate acting role, with his last performance coming in 1966. He's very good with a unique spin on a Western villain.

The film was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who sustains interest throughout. Lewis was a man who knew how to get the most of a script, as seen in films like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945).

The somewhat off-kilter, noir-tinged aspects of this fairly dark and gloomy film also aren't surprising considering the director's earlier work included GUN CRAZY (1950) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

The black and white cinematography was by Ray Rennahan. Incidentally, something else unusual about the film is that the opening credits are a preview of the scenes to come later in the film.

My only complaint was that the oddball musical score, by Gerald Fried, mostly consists of shrill trumpet playing which becomes annoying after a while.

The supporting cast includes Frank Ferguson, Byron Foulger, Carol Kelly, Marilee Earle, and Eugene Martin. Glenn Strange, who was in countless Westerns, is seen briefly talking to Hayden on a train.

Extras include a 13-minute introduction by Peter Stanfield, which focuses largely on director Lewis and the context of the film being made during the Hollywood blacklist era. There is also a separate visual analysis by Stanfield, plus a trailer which has sound but no text.

The first pressing from Arrow Films will also include a booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny; the booklet was not included in the advance copy I reviewed.

Thanks to Arrow Films for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I seem to remember Hayden was pretty dismissive of the films he had made in the 50s in retrospect but I think, also in retrospect, that most of them look pretty good today. He was good in his westerns, small-budgeted though they generally were. He was rugged and realistic. "TERROR......" was the last of them and probably not the best of them (that darn trumpet shrieked 'low budget') but Joseph H. Lewis always managed to make a lot more than his budgets suggested.

11:40 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Great review of this unusual western. I haven't seen it for ages. Must check it out again. Hayden with an accent too!

11:51 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

They sure do hold up, Jerry! "Rugged and realistic" is a good description of Hayden. And you're so right about that trumpet, your comment made me laugh.

Hope you can check the movie out again soon, Vienna. Hayden did pretty well with his accent. I haven't seen the whole movie but he did a similar accent in SO BIG...Dutch, I think?

Best wishes,

11:39 AM  

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