Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Raton Pass (1951) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

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.

RATON PASS is a fairly tough, gritty Western for its day, with characters dropping like flies during a brutal extended battle which takes up nearly half the film. It's also quite entertaining, with colorful characters and the action accompanied by Steiner's really fine score.

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.

The New Mexico locations are beautifully shot by 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.


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Sounds just great. It always sounded interesting to me and your review only makes it sound more so.

At 50 Westerns from the 50s, several of us including me who have been diligently seeking out 50s Westerns all our lives observed that it appears there are always going to be ones we haven't seen yet. It's kind of wonderful if you think about it.

James Millican and Louis Jean Heydt are both in the movie AL JENNINGS OF OKLAHOMA, apparently as Dan Duryea's brothers!--sounds like good casting.(This is another one that I still haven't seen and I don't know why because it has been around). In my early moviegoing days, I also used to confuse Millican and Heydt but now have seen them both enough that I can see they are both really quite individual, especially their voices. Both excellent actors who are always solid and sometimes more when the role allows.

Especially memorable for me are Heydt as a not so smooth blackmailer in THE BIG SLEEP and Millican's weary gunfighter in RED SUNDOWN, his last film.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, hope you can see RATON PASS soon, be glad to lend you mine. :)

It truly is wonderful that there seems to be a bottomless treasure box of movies out there to discover!

How completely fantastic that Millican and Heydt played brothers, perfect casting! I happen to have recorded AL JENNINGS OF OKLAHOMA from Encore Westerns so I'm going to fish that out and hope to watch it sooner rather than later.

I also especially liked Heydt in a small but poignant role in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. Both he and Millican were always so good, I'm really happy when they turn up in a movie.

Best wishes,

1:40 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

This sounds really good, especially your notice of the great Steiner score. I'm always on the lookout for unknown Steiner.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Kevin if you like Steiner I think you will enjoy this film. I really enjoyed how his themes were used and especially his main Latin-flavored theme music. It's a score I haven't previously come across on recordings.

Best wishes,

7:32 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Glad to read your positive review of this film as I was looking at picking it up. I always enjoy Dennis Morgan, but was especially curious to see Pat Neal. Sounds like it's worth checking out.

9:10 PM  

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