Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Stranger on Horseback (1955)

STRANGER ON HORSEBACK is a dandy little 66-minute Western starring Joel McCrea as a gutsy circuit-riding judge who goes up against a town in order to see a murderer brought to trial.

Judge Richard Thorne (McCrea) arrives in town and discovers the son (Kevin McCarthy) of the local land baron (John McIntire) has recently killed a man. The only person in town who will back the judge is the sheriff (Emile Meyer), who is initially skeptical that the judge will follow through on making the arrest. The sheriff quickly grows to respect the judge, who has intelligence, determination, and a quick way with his fists. The fast-moving plot comes to a climax when the judge decides to relocate the accused to another town for a fair trial.

The film is based on a story by Louis L'Amour. It has some nice original touches; I enjoyed the contrast of a cliched stock Western character like the town drunk with the unpredictable character of the judge, who keeps the townspeople on their toes. There's an excellent final action sequence which is creatively staged and comes to an interesting conclusion.

It's good to see longtime character actor Emile Meyer in such a substantial role; the cat who is his faithful companion was another nice touch.

A sad footnote, the film's leading lady, Miroslava, died days before the film was released. The cast also includes John Carradine, Nancy Gates, Robert Cornthwaite, and Walter Baldwin.

The movie's beautiful location setting in Sedona, Arizona, was shot by one of the great color cinematographers, Ray Rennahan. Unfortunately, Rennahan had to use Ansco Color, which lacks the richness of Technicolor.

STRANGER ON HORSEBACK is one of a trio of McCrea Westerns directed by Jacques Tourneur; the other titles are STARS IN MY CROWN (1950) and WICHITA (1955). Tourneur's other credits included several Val Lewton films, including CAT PEOPLE (1942), and the Dana Andrews Western CANYON PASSAGE (1946).

This film is available on DVD from VCI Entertainment. Cards at the start of the film explain that the original negative was lost; the DVD print comes from the British Film Institute. It has some flaws -- mainly variable color levels -- but is in fairly good shape. Kudos to VCI for making this movie available in the best print possible. Extras include audio essays on Joel McCrea and the making of the film, along with a radio show.

STRANGER ON HORSEBACK is enjoyable, fast-paced Western Americana.


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